Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dark Shadows Audio Book 28 - Speak No Evil

This audio book from Big Finish Productions thrilled me for two reasons - one, it was a continuation of Dark Shadows, and that is probably my favorite show of all time; and two, it stars one of my two favorite Doctor Who actors - Arthur Darvill! Since David Henesy won't come back for any more Dark Shadows stuff, BFP got Arthur Darvill to fill the role of Tad Collins, the son of Quentin Collins from the 1800s.

This story is set 15 years after the 1840s story that aired on television. Tad is grown up now, and his father is out of town with Daphne, leaving Tad by himself at Collinwood. The circus has come to town, and Tad pays a visit - however, he ends up making enemies of the tattooed woman and a clown who is very protective of her. The story really gets moving when the clown breaks into Collinwood and steals a book of the occult, along with six "wands," as Tad calls them. Of course, those wands turn out to actually be the I-Ching, which anyone who watched the show will recall were used to allow Barnabas, and later Julia, go back into the past.

I'll readily admit that I got excited as soon as the I-Ching were mentioned.  I've always been a big fan of time travel in stories, so I expected it to occur here.  It did not, though - yet, it didn't leave me disappointed. The writers took it in a different direction, and there was a rather unexpected result in the end - very much Dark Shadows-esque.

I just can't get enough of these audio books, and thankfully, Big Finish is continuing to put them out. My love for Dark Shadows stays alive with these books, and it's always so exciting to put each CD in and hear that opening voice over, then the opening credits, and the ending credits when the story finishes.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next one!

RATING:  10 crazy clowns out of 10 for Arthur Darvill (Rory!!!!) alone!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cemetery Girl, Book 2 - Inheritance

It's funny.  I used to never really like trade paperbacks or graphic novels.  I have always been a huge fan of buying and reading the individual comics in series.  But, as I'm sure pretty much everyone knows these days, graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and hardcover collections are the "in" thing.  The fact that Barnes and Noble has literally three or more rows of nothing but graphic novels testifies to that.

In recent years, however, my mind has slowly been changing.  A friend introduced me to The Walking Dead comic by giving me the first two graphic novels to read (which collected the first 12 issues of the ongoing comic series).  I found that I enjoyed reading the book this way.  Since then, I have purchased a lot more graphic novels, many of them original concepts and stories, some of them collections of ongoing series.  Definitely one of my favorites is a relatively new book, Cemetery Girl.

 Written by two very prolific authors, Christopher Golden and Charlaine Harris, the story centers around a young girl who wakes up in a cemetery with absolutely no memory of who she is or how she came to be there.  She doesn't know who left here there, nor why anyone would want her dead.  She adopts the name Calexa Rose Dunhill (Dunhill is the name of the cemetery), and she quickly discovers that she has the ability to communicate with and see the spirits of the dead!

In the first graphic novel, Calexa helps solve the murder of a young woman buried in the cemetery.  She also befriends the caretaker of the cemetery, Kelner, as well as an eldely woman who lives across the street from the cemetery.  This second book picks up pretty soon after the conclusion of the first story.  Calexa is staying the night with Lucinda Cameron, the elderly woman across the street, when a masked intruder breaks in and murders Lucinda.  The killer escapes, and Calexa is once again left alone.  Until Lucinda's spirit appears, asking Calexa to help her uncover the identity of her killer so she can rest in peace.

With only 112 pages of story and art, the story is fast-paced, but not so fast that we don't get character development or an amazingly well-plotted story.  Interspersed within the tale is a new flashback to Calexa's past, as well as a mysterious stranger that seems overly interested in finding Calexa.  The art is by Don Kramer, a very VERY talented comic book artist who also happened to draw one of my favorite comic series, the Justice Society of America, for a number of issues.

This is definitely a series that I would recommend not only to comic book fans, but to regular readers of both mysteries and general fiction stories.  The only bad thing about this series of graphic novels is that they only come out one book per year (although, let's face it, I would much rather have quality over quantity any day of the week!).

RATING:  10 gravestones out of 10 from the perfect mix of mystery, suspense, and just all-around great storytelling.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Tom Stetson, Book 1 - and the Giant Jungle Ants

This is the first in a three-book series written by John Henry Cutler.  I picked up this book, along with books 2 and 3 in the series, all in dust jacket, while I was in Atlanta last month, and to be honest, the only reason I picked them up was because it was the complete series, the dust jackets (while not perfect) were beautiful and strong in color, and the final title in the series ("Blue Devil") made me laugh, as it is also the name of a DC Comics character from the '80s that I really liked.

So, I finally got around to reading the first book - and while I'm not normally much of a fan of boys' series, as they are usually more about adventure than mystery, I have to admit, I found this book to be rather unique.  First, while I am not overly familiar with Whitman books from this era (Copyright 1948), I was surprised to see that the dust jacket cover art literally covered the front, spine, and back!  It is a beautiful rendition of a scene from the book when Tom is attempting to rescue his uncle, who was captured by the natives in the Brazilian jungle.  It also details a number of jungle animals and plant-life (yet, noticeably, fails to render any image of the named "Giant Jungle Ants" from the title of the book).

There are a number of internal illustrations by artist Ursula Koering.  Surprisingly, a number of these illustrations show the barely dressed natives (the men wearing nothing more than a loincloth), which is certainly something you don't normally see in children's series books.

Thanks to information provided by James Keeline, I discovered that John Henry Cutler, the author (who is not credited on the cover, but only on the title page inside) is not a pseudonym, but an actual person.  The Tom Stetson series could very well be based upon his own travels through the Brazilian jungles, which would explain the amazing detail with which the author describes the wildlife, the fauna, and the natives of the jungle. Like the early Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books from the '30s and '40s, this first Tom Stetson book provides ample description of the settings and characters, putting clear and easy pictures into the reader's mind as he or she reads the story.

Now, the story itself was certainly not a mystery (the closest thing that comes to a "mystery" is when Tom stumbles upon a strange tall, round bamboo building with no doors or windows), it reads easily and there is plenty of suspense as Tom and his uncle ultimately have to trick the natives in order to rescue his uncle's adopted son, Manolo.  Tom and his uncle face the dangers of the jungle's wildlife, the poisonous plant life, and the very dangerous natives, the Tapintins.

The book is definitely a product of its time, with its innocent language and its numerous reference to Uncle Leo's work as a missionary and his desire to change the ways of the Tapintins from "savages" to more acceptable "Christians."  There is also some stereotyping, of Manolo, as well as the natives that they meet.  Something that is worthy of note is the author's use of real history within the story - when Tom asks about English explorers who have disappeared in the Brazilian jungles, his Uncle Leo tells him of Colonel Fawcett, and from pages 31 - 33, he tells the true-life tell of the Colonel, who disappeared in the jungles back in 1925 while searching for an alleged lost city.

This is a book I would definitely suggest to fans of children's series books, whether you like mystery or adventure, or both.  While I do buy some series books with uncertainty as to whether I will actually like them or not, this is one I am definitely glad I picked up!

RATING: 8 giant jungle tocandeiras (ants) out of 10 for keeping my interest and actually letting me enjoy a boys' series book.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 10 - A Script for Danger

Anyone who knows me, knows that I've been reading and collecting Nancy Drew books for years - from the original books dating back to the 30s, to the current series of Nancy Drew Diaries.  While the recent re-boots - the Nancy Drew, Girl Detective series and the Nancy Drew Diaries series - have been less than stellar, I have been trying to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that each new book that comes out will show improvement in the writing and better mysteries.

For Nancy Drew Diaries, however, the series seems to be stuck on one topic - sabotage!  A Script for Danger is the 10th book in this series, and while I applaud S&S for finally giving readers some longer stories (these books, for the most part, have ranged from 150 - 180 pages, which is considerably more than the prior series, whose books averaged anywhere from 120 - 130 pages, if that - yet, with font that is rather large, the amount of story is probably about the same), they need some writers and ideas that go beyond the simplistic plot of "who's out to get me."  At least the Hardy Boys' re-boot has provided some various styles of mysteries - from kidnappings, to hidden treasurers, to theft.

And speaking of Hardy Boys, the plot of this book bears an uncanny resemblance to a recent Hardy Boys' title, Deception on the Set.  In that story, a film is being made in the boys' hometown of Bayport, but someone is sabotaging the stunts, trying to shut the film down.  In this mystery, a film is being made in Nancy's hometown of River Heights, but someone is sabotaging the shoots, trying to shut the film down.  (sigh)

And if it weren't bad enough that the story seems to be "borrowed" from another series, so does the cover art.  Erin McGuire, who has been providing cover art for this new series of Nancy Drew books, also provided covers for a series entitled Saranomal, which was about a young girl who developed the ability to see and speak with the dead.  One of those titles found Sara walking down the boardwalk, buildings on either side and lights in the background.  Just ... like ... the cover ... to ... this ... book ... (sigh)

If I'm sighing a lot, it's because my hopes are slowly dwindling that Simon & Schuster will ever realize that they have a very profitable property on their hands, if they would just treat it with some care instead of churning out regurgitated stories and art and sticking the Nancy Drew brand on it, figuring the name alone with sell it.

Now, that's not to say the story was entirely bad.  There were actually a number of characters within the tale, and the author provided several possibilities for the culprit (although, anyone who has read mysteries long enough will easily pick up on the clues in the first couple of chapters to know who is behind the sabotage).  There was definite potential with the story and the characters, and had the author been allowed to flesh out the tale more and perhaps provide a 200+ page story with smaller font, it might have been a more satisfying read.  Plus, I was surprised by the author's push to show George as the constant muncher, while Bess was more reserved with her eating habits.  Completely out of character, even for this new series of books.

(And the fact that I had to shell out $6.99 for a book with only 176 pages of large-font story, while I pay the same price for the Model: Undercover mystery books, which have 300+ pages of story in smaller font - thus, providing more bang for the buck!)

The next book is solicited as The Red Slippers.  The description on Amazon lists the synopsis as - - you guessed it - - sabotage!  (sigh)

RATING:  3 regurgitated diary pages out of 10 for simply keeping the Nancy Drew brand going...

Thursday, October 8, 2015

America vs. the Justice Society TPB

Have you ever read something in your younger days, thoroughly enjoyed it, thinking it was one of the best stories ever - - then, you re-read it again as an adult and think to yourself, "This isn't nearly as great as I thought it was..."

Those very thoughts occurred to me as I read the trade paperback collection of America vs. the Justice Society.  This trade collects the four-issue mini-series that was published by DC Comics back in 1985, just before the Justice Society was written out of comics via DC's big crisis that year.  I have always been a huge fan of the Justice Society, and seeing them in their very own mini-series at that time was a huge deal for me (they were already appearing in the on-going series All-Star Squadron, set in World War II, as well as showing up once in a while in Infinity, Inc. and their once-a-year team-up with the JLA in the Justice League title).  I could not get enough of the JSA.

Re-reading this four issue mini-series now, however, I discovered a number of things about the story.  First, and foremost, is the fact that the actual story of the Batman's supposed diary accusing the JSA of being Nazis is not in the forefront of the tale.  Neither is the main villain of the story, who isn't revealed fully until the end of issue three.  No, what seems to be the main focus of this story (and perhaps the real purpose behind writing and publishing the tale) is the full history of the JSA.

Don't get me wrong - I love the JSA, and for me, Roy Thomas is probably one of the greatest chroniclers of their stories.  But in re-reading this tale, I pretty much skimmed over a great deal of it, as it has the various members of the JSA - in defending themselves against the Congressional committee investigating the claims of Batman's diary - re-telling every single adventure and story the JSA has ever had - from their formation all the way through their recent fight with the stream of ruthlessness in the Infinity, Inc. title.  If you took out all of the pages re-telling their history, the story would probably be less pages than it would take to fill one standard-sized comic.

Leaving me to wonder - DC knew at this time that they would be sending the JSA off into the netherverse, supposedly to no longer be an active part of the DC Universe, so was this DC's way of giving the JSA a nice send-off, recapping their 40-year history?  Was Roy Thomas asked to write a story that could integrate a re-telling of their history as a way of honoring the first super-group?  I don't know.  What I do know is that it was definitely a thrill for me to see all of the members of the Justice Society in a big tale like this, even if it was their last hurrah.

And I suppose I should be happy this was published back in 1985.  Looking at how much story was packed into those four issues, in today's comic world, where there is a stronger emphasis on splash pages and big flashy art, and less emphasis on telling a compact story, this same tale would probably be spread out over a 12-issue series, if not longer.

The one thing this trade did make me feel was nostalgic - VERY nostalgic.  I totally miss this version of the Justice Society and Earth-2.  The Earth-2 that exists in DC comics today, and the heroes (if you can call them that) who exist on that world are a far cry from this vintage characters.  Long live the JSA!!!!!

RATING:  7 golden-age heroes out of 10 just because it's the Justice Society of America!

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown, Book 2 - The Devil's Hound

Here is a series that I thoroughly enjoy!  There seems to be an influx of children's mystery series from England that are making their way onto shelves here in America, and I, for one, couldn't be more pleased.  They are (so far) well-written and so much fun to read.

Lizzie Brown is a young girl in Victorian England who's mother died years ago and whose father was a drunk and thief.  She escapes his abuse by joining Fitzy's Traveling Circus.  In the first book, Lizzy discovers she has psychic ability, able to see into people's pasts, as well as their future, just by touching them.  She develops some friendships with other children in the circus, and with the help of Lizzy's newfound abilities, they unmask a phantom that has been terrorizing London.

This second book, The Devil's Hound, picks up shortly after the end of the first book.  The circus is headed for Kensal Green, a rural area of London, to pitch their tents.  As they pass by a large cemetery, the animals begin to react funny.  The circus performers believe there is a curse on the cemetery, and that it is haunted by a huge animal referred to as the Devil's Hound.  Lizzie scoffs, as she does not believe in ghosts and the supernatural.  However, she and her friends (who refer to themselves as "The Penny Gaff Gang") meet a young girl whose own father has recently died of small pox, they become embroiled in a rather interesting mystery involving grave robbers.  Lizzie and her friends come face to face with the Devil's Hound, and they ultimately learn that these grave robbers are searching for more than just buried treasures.

Lizzie also learns that she has other abilities beyond just seeing the past and future - in this book, she is able to catch and hear a glimpse of those who have died.  While she gives her new young friend some reassurance about her passing father's love for her, it doesn't dawn on her until later that she might be able to reach out to her own mother who died all those years ago.

While I will admit, I figured out pretty early on that something else was going on beyond the grave robbing, as well as who was behind it, the author, Vicki Lockwood, weaves the story so well, keeps the action going strong throughout, and develops the characters so thoroughly (which is an amazing feat, considering how many characters are in this circus - yet, Lockwood focuses her attention on a few in each book, while a pretty fare share may appear in the story), that I couldn't put it down until I was finished!

The books are hardbound with some beautifully painted covers by Stephanie Hans.  This one, showing Maggie staring out from behind a gravestone at the horrifying Devil's Hound in the fog, is spooky and mysterious.  I think anyone who picks up books based solely on the cover would have a hard time passing this one up!

My one annoyance (if you can call it that) about this series is that the books are not numbered, so I have to do a little detective work to figure out which book follows next.  The first two books were easy to tell (since the Phantom clearly describes itself as the first in the series).  However, while the back of this book gives a two page preview for The Ghost Ship, there are two books - The Fairy Child and The Ghost Ship - that both came out recently.  My OCD kicks in here, as I want to make sure they are read in order (and since they seem to follow a timeline, I don't want to skip one and have to go back and read it out of order).  Sadly, I wasn't able to find an author or series website that provides a listing.  Even the publisher's website was not overly helpful in that area.

However, that's a small detail, and one I can easily overlook due to the enjoyment I get from the books.  I have the third and fourth books already, and I definitely look forward to them!

RATING:  10 midnight howls out of 10 for great characterization, a great mystery, and great suspense!