Friday, November 27, 2015

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 10 - Tunnel of Secrets

It's no secret (no pun intended!) that I've never been a huge fan of the Hardy Boys.  I grew up reading Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Dana Girls, Trixie Belden, and various other mystery series that had female protagonists.  For me, the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift were more about adventure than mystery, so I left those for my brother (who read the Hardy Boys for a short period of time).  My mom tried to get me interested in them back in 1979, when the Stratemeyer Syndicate switched from Grosset & Dunlap to Simon & Schuster and the books went from hardback to paperback.  She bought me the first Nancy Drew paperback (57) as well as the first two Hardy Boys paperbacks (59 and 60). I read the two HB books, but was not impressed and didn't buy any more.

When Simon & Schuster decided to re-boot both the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew series back in the early 2000s with the Nancy Drew, Girl Detective series and the Hardy Boys, Undercover Brothers series, I decided to give them a try.  Still not impressed.  I bought the first 21 books of that series, then gave it up.

Fast forward to 2013, when Simon & Schuster did yet another reboot.  This time, the Hardy Boys series became the Hardy Boys Adventures (which pretty much vilified my belief that they were more about adventure than mystery).  So I thought, what the heck, I'd give it another try.

Surprisingly enough, while the series is not what I'd call top-notch reading, I've actually been enjoying these books better than the Nancy Drew books that S&S is currently publishing (seriously - "Nancy Drew Diaries"???  whose idea was that???).  This latest book, Tunnel of Secrets, pretty much shows why.

With only 136 pages of story (which is considerably less pages than the current Nancy Drew books, although the font here is smaller, so they probably contain the same amount of story), the action is fast-paced and the adventure is actually fairly interesting.  In this tale, the boys are trying to locate some kidnapped students, only to discover that the underground tunnels they found back in book 7 of this series actually lead to an entire underground city!  Throw in a secret society with a vague connection to the Freemasons, as well as a mute homeless man with a secret and a creepy cemetery, and you've definitely got some interesting reading material!

Sadly, with such a reduced page count, the characterization is not very strong (particularly with all of the supporting cast and guest characters).  If Simon & Schuster would simply allow these ghostwriters (both for this series and the Nancy Drew series) to tell the story to its fullest and not worry about a smaller page count, these stories could probably stand out and be comparable with the books of old.

One thing that is somewhat enjoyable in the new series is the fact that the police chief does not coddle the boys and "assist" them with their mysteries; rather, he resents the boys' involvement, constantly warns them to stay out of or face jail time, and basically acts as a nemesis to their tendency to step in and solve the crimes before the police.  Which, let's face facts, is a lot more realistic than the police chiefs from the original Hardy Boys  and Nancy Drew books, who were ever-so-grateful to the sleuths for their help and often gave them information and assisted them, rather than taking charge of the investigations.

As a kids' series, I would definitely say this was an enjoyable read, even though it could have been better with some fleshing out.

RATING:  7 underground tunnels out of 10 for giving letting the boys find a skeleton, where Joe has no choice but to reach inside to retrieve a key!  (That scene alone was worth the whole book!)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Kyle Callahan Mysteries, Book 3 - Death by Pride

While this is technically the third book in Mark McNease's "Pride Trilogy," which began with Murder at Pride Lodge and continued with Pride and Perilous, it's actually the fourth book with Kyle Callahan and Det. Linda Sikorsky solving murders (as there was that short novel, Death in the Headlights, that was more focused on Sikorsky than Callahan).  However, I won't hold that against the author, as I've enjoyed the series for the most part.

This time around, Kyle and Linda are searching for a serial killer who the media has dubbed 'the Pride Killer.' This person killed gay men four years straight (no pun intended) during Pride Weekend in New York City, then mysteriously disappeared for three years.  Now, the killer is back at the same time that Linda visits Kyle and Danny in New York to see her first Pride Parade.  Needless to say, Kyle and Linda can't keep their nose out of it and set about trying to find the identity of the killer so he (or she) can be put behind bars for good.

I do enjoy the fact that the author allows the characters to grow with each book - Danny is now posed to take over Margaret's Passion, now that its owner and namesake is moving to Florida to retire; Linda has retired and started her antique/odds-and-ends store; and Kyle, while still working for Imogene, he is beginning to realize that sooner or later she's going to move on and where will that leave him.  Plus, Kyle and Danny get a very big surprise from Margaret, as sort of a parting gift before she leaves NYC.

I am a little annoyed with the constant shifting of POV.  I don't mind a chapter here or there from the killer's point of view (the book opens with the killer, so there is no surprise as to the identity - it's just waiting to see how he's going to be caught), but when there is shifting POV within each chapter, going from Kyle, to Linda, to Danny, then back to Kyle, all in the span of just a few paragraphs, it detracts from the even flow of reading.  For such good mysteries, though, it is something that can be overlooked.

What can't be overlooked in McNease's writing is the repetitiveness.  Over and over and over again throughout the story (pretty much every time Danny is mentioned), the reader has to read how Danny is saddened that Margaret is leaving, that he has worked for her for eleven years, that he promoted Chloe to day manager, blah, blah, blah.  Again and again and again and again.  Once or twice is okay, but hitting us over the head with the same sentences every time Danny is mentioned becomes redundant and just filler.  The same thing goes for Linda still being new to the "gay scene" and this being her first Pride.  By the end, you feel like the book could have been about two or three chapters shorter if the author had stopped repeating the same exposition over and over.

However, the murder mystery itself is well-plotted, and the last few chapters build up some great suspense as the killer sets his eyes on Danny, and Kyle and Linda race against time to rescue Kyle's husband from certain death.

McNease has said from the beginning this is a trilogy, but the epilogue to the book mentions a potential vacation in the future for our protagonists, and the Author's Notes at the end of the book hint at the possibility there may be another story in the future.  (Of course, the fact that Amazon lists a new book by McNease titled Kill Switch, described as the 5th installment in the Kyle Callahan mysteries, pretty much clinches it, eh?)

RATING:  7 rainbow flags out of 10 for giving readers an intriguing killer that makes you realize not everyone is always what they seem

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files - Down Town

And speaking of The Dresden Files...

Since Butcher seems to be taking a rather lengthy break from Dresden while he writes some other novels, I'm thrilled that Dynamite Comics is still putting out mini-series with new original stories, written by Jim Butcher, in conjunction with Mark Powers (and very beautifully drawn by Carlos Gomez).

As I've read the 15 books in the Dresden Files series, I've created my own images of the characters in my mind.  When Sci-Fi channel put out the Dresden Files television show a few years back (starring Paul Blackthorne, who now plays Detective Lance on the CW's Arrow), my mind sort of starting picturing the actors from that show in the roles.  Now, though, Carlos Gomez has captured these characters so perfectly, it's easy to see them now as the way he draws them.  Dresden, Molly.  Karen.  Tomas.  Even Mouse and Bob.

This latest adventure, Down Town, is set just after Proven Guilty and White Knight in the book series.  Dresden is training Molly in the user of her magical gifts, when a mysterious creature (who turns out to be a Golem) begins killing - first a pawn shop owner, then the owner of a laundromat.  There doesn't seem to be any apparent connection - until Marcone shows up at the end of the first issue.

Fans of the books will be very pleased with the comic stories, as not only are they a part of the official Dresden canon, but they flow seamlessly into the realm of the books.  The characterization is spot-on, and the stories have the same flavor and action.  Harry is once again on a mission to save innocent lives, Marcone is up to his usual tricks with his own agenda, and there's an evil villain on the loose, using magic to destroy and create chaos.

I love how involved Molly is in this story.  She hasn't been involved in the comics up to this point, so to now see her brought to life (so to speak) and watch as she practices with her new-found abilities is a lot of fun.  It's also great to see Mouse in action as well (as he plays a pretty good role in this story).

Where many comics today feel padded with long, drawn-out stories just to pad a story into six-issues or so to fill a trade paperback, this story does not.  Each page is packed with story, and every panel, every word balloon is imperative to the tale.  And there are not a lot of splash pages just to show off the flashy art (in hopes of distracting from the weak story).  No need for that here.  This is just good, old-fashioned Dresden.

Definitely looking forward to the next mini-series, whether it's a comic-adaptation of one of the books (so far, they've done Storm Front and Fool Moon) or a new original story, either way, I'll be there!

RATING:  10 fiery fuego blasts out of 10 for staying true to The Dresden Files and keeping my thirst for more Dresden stories quenched for the time being.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ghost Finders Novel, Book 6 - Forces from Beyond


First, I did not want to see this series end.  This has been a fun series, and I've enjoyed each book so much more than the last.  What started out as just a good ghost hunting team in Ghost of a Chance turned, in the course of six books, into a family of sorts, with a purpose and a mission.  From Ghost of a Smile and Ghost of a Dream, to Spirits from Beyond and Voices from Beyond, each subsequent adventure not only put them in more and more dangerous situations, but also knitted the group tighter and revealed more and more of the underlying, continuing drama going on behind the scenes at the Carnacki Institute.  I thought this was going to be another great ongoing series, as well-written as Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series.

But then I finished Forces from Beyond.

To say I was thrown for a loop by the ending is putting it mildly.  The team not only finally gets some information and inside looks at the Carnacki Institute's evil nemesis, the Crowley Project, but they find out the true nature of the Flesh Undying and come face to face with the entity itself.  This truly was the fulfillment of every story that has been building since the very first book.  This was the opportunity to open the team up for a brand new mission, a brand new outlook, and maybe even some brand new characters.

Instead, we get a very definite end to the series (although the last two pages do leave a bit of an opening, but I'm not holding out hope).  Some of the characters make it out alive.  Some of them don't.  Some of the are changed forever.  There's JC Chance, the ever dashing, ever daring team leader who pushes his team to their limits, but at the same time is never afraid to take the first risk.  Happy Jack Palmer, the team telepath who is barely hanging on to life through the various combination of pills he is forced to take in order to function.  Melody Chambers, the team techie who is like a kid in the candy store when given the opportunity to see what the Crowley Project has in terms of illegal and even unfathomable technology.  Catherine Latimer, the Boss of the Carnacki Institute, whose heart is as cold as her exterior expressions, but who has her own secrets that are revealed in this book.  Then there's Kim Sterling, the only real "ghost" in the Ghost Finders team, whose connection with JC and love for him takes a whole new turn by the end of this one.

The characterization is so well done, the dialogue is fun and natural, and the storytelling keeps me turning page after page, not wanting to put it down.  The only other series that keeps me this excited about reading it is the Dresden Files.  Only, Butcher has put Dresden on hold for the time being, and now Green has more or less put an end to this series. what do I read?

I guess all good things must come to an end - and just like Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, I'd rather see a series end while it is still so good, than to see the author push out work that is sub-par or let someone else get a hold of it and change it in ways it should never be changed (recent incarnations of Wonder Woman, anyone?).  So while the conclusion is bittersweet, and while JC, Melody, Happy, and Kim will be sorely missed, I can honestly say it was an excellent run.  All six books were top-notch, enjoyable reading, and I definitely do not regret one word that I read.

RATING:  Ten dissolving bits of flesh undying out of ten for giving me a fantastic run of books, and for making me truly feel for the characters on the page.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Short Lived Comic Series #1 - The Liberty Project

While this blog was mainly meant to focus on the books and graphic novels that I read, occasionally I will post my thoughts on a short-lived comic series that I might read.  During the '80s and '90s, there were a number of independent comic book companies that put out titles that were actually very good and a lot of fun, but for various reasons, they just didn't last.

The Liberty Project is one of those series!

The Liberty Project was an 8-issue comic series published by Eclipse Comics, which ran from 1987-88.  It was the story of four super-powered criminals who were given a second chance by becoming a part of the "Liberty Project" - basically, they had the opportunity to do good, go on missions to rescue and/or save people, and this could lead to their possible freedom.  There's Cimarron who has super strength; Slick, who has the ability to cause the ground to become so slick no one can stand; Crackshot, a reluctant villain who truly wants to turn his life around - who also happens to be such a sure shot, he never misses; and then there's Burnout, a young girl with a severe attitude problem who can make things blow up.

The series is written by Kurt Busiek, who, at the time, was not quite as famous as a comic creator as he is today.  But the stories are well-written, the characters are definitely developed nicely, and quite frankly the series contains a major element that is missing from most comics being published today - FUN!  That's right, these eight issues were a heck of a lot of fun to read.  Sure, the characters are technically criminals, and sure, their first impulse upon joining the Project is to figure out a way to cheat the system and escape.  But Busiek is an excellent writer, and he makes you, as the reader, actually care about the characters (despite Slick's cockiness and Burnout's constant anger).  With each issue, you learn a little bit more about the characters and come to realize there is more to them than their outside appearance may seem to tell.  Even their fifth member, Savage (who is a teenager who got injected with chemicals that turn him into a beastly ram-type savage) has human elements that keep him from becoming completely hateable.

The series had some great moments - from Slick realizing he might actually be able to do the "hero" thing, to Cimarron's team-up with Valkyrie (from the Airboy strip, not from Marvel Comics), and ultimately the story in their final issue, which I won't give it away, as it really does have a big impact on the characters.

Sadly, there were several unresolved stories that were left hanging when the series ended - from where the characters got their powers (which was never explained, but hinted at when some aliens made the comment that, "They don't even realize where their powers come from") to the return of the aliens that they fought and defeated, among others.

The series continued into Total Eclipse, which was a company-wide crossover that combined characters from a number of the company's titles.  Unfortunately, when I found these issues in a $1 bin and bought them, I didn't know they continued into Total Eclipse, so now I'll have to hunt down that series.

But, I do have another short-series that the LP team appeared in, and that is Topps Comics' series,
Jack Kirby's TeenAgents.  This was a four-issue series, also written by the talented Mr. Busiek (which may explain the Project's appearance in the book) about four super-powered teens who come from a secret society living inside the earth.  They show up top-side and immediately become embroiled in various battles.  It's another fun read, and in issue 3, Busiek brings back the Liberty Project, albeit with some different members this time around (I can only assume these characters made their appearance in Total Eclipse).  Crackshot is gone, Burnout is older with red hair now and a different costume, And we have two new members - Raider X, who is a huge hero with a Death's Head style helmet (we don't get to see who he or she is under the helmet in this series); and Heartbreak, a young blond man who seems to be a romantic (never could really figure out what his power is).  The Project only appears in issue 3 and the first few pages of issue 4.

I haven't been able to find any reference to any appearances by the team after their TeenAgents appearance.

Sadly, they don't make comics like this any more.  Marvel's Squirrel Girl and DC's Starfire are probably the only two mainstream comics on the market today that come anywhere close.  Yes, I know I'm getting old, when I start saying, "I remember when....."

RATING:  9 super powered punches out of 10 for reminding me how good comics could be!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Dark Shadows Audio Book 29 - The Last Stop

I won't normally be posting two Dark Shadows audio books right in a row, but my recent trip to Tampa gave me time on the drive there and drive back to listen to two of them, the second being this one - The Last Stop.

I have been enjoying the stories with Jerry Lacy as the lawyer, Tony Peterson, and Lara Parker as his sidekick of sorts, Cassandra Collins (a/k/a Angelique in disguise). They make a great pair of mystery-solvers, and while each story does delve into the supernatural (it wouldn't be Dark Shadows without it!), they are fun and quirkly, and Jerry and Lara play well off of each other.

This tale is a bit different, as it drops the listener in on the middle of the story, with Tony and Cassandra being held in a cell. With time to kill, Tony decides to pass the time by telling Cassandra a story that happened to him years ago when returning to Collinsport. The train on which he travels has a very unique passenger - one who takes Tony on a strange and unusual journey and makes him an offer that could very well change his life forever.

W. Morgan Sheppard, who is quite the famous actor in his own right, provides the voice of Lou, the mysterious passenger who is not what he seems to be.

The story is good and moody, very dark in some places, and the ultimate test of good and evil (along with that gray area in-between) certainly keeps it in the realm of Dark Shadows.  The only criticism I have for this one (and I don't know if it's just my particular CD, or if it was the production itself) is that there are places where the volume is rather low, and it's hard to hear what the actors are saying.

As with most of the prior audio books, listening to this tale made me feel like I was right there in the action with the actors. It's not the actors reading the book, as many audio books tend to be - rather, it's like I am sitting in the kitchen, listening to the television set in the other room; and I can hear everything that is going on, I simply can't see the action. The dialogue, the sound effects, the music - the directors and writers of these DS audio books do an amazing job in keeping Dark Shadows alive!