Thursday, December 29, 2016

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 6 - The Mystery of the Suspicious Spices

Ethan and Ella Briar return in their sixth globe-trotting adventure, this time in the exotic land of India. In The Mystery of the Suspicious Spices, author Harper Paris takes her mystery-seeking siblings to the markets in Mumbai, where they stumble upon their latest mystery at the spice shop of their grandfather's friend, Deepak Singh.

This story has a bit more "mystery" to it than the previous two books, which makes for a nice change (since this is supposed to be a mystery series for young readers).  It seems that something strange is happening to Deepak's spices - - until just recently, his spices were known throughout the area as being the best there was. Lately, though, customers are returning with complaints that the spices they purchased are not just bad; they are ruining recipes and taste absolutely awful! On a fateful visit to the store, Ethan and Ella witness first hand the unhappy customers, who scare off future customers - - all of whom decide to take their spice-shopping to the new shop, Spice Palace, which just so happens to be owned by Deepak's brother (who was mighty upset when their father left Deepak the family business on his death).

Obviously, any reader over the age of 8 is going to see exactly where this is going (particularly readers of the recent Nancy Drew series, which seems to focus solely on sabotage as the premise for every mystery). I do have to give Paris credit, though - she manages to provide a rather creative mystery, and while older readers will find it somewhat simple, I think it hits the age mark of its intended readers rather nicely. Using color-dyed salt to change-up the spices in order to sabotage Deepak's business was pretty unique, I think, but not something so complicated that children Ethan and Ella's age would never be able to figure out.

Marcos Calo continues to provide his amazing illustrations on if not every page, then at least every other page (although I do admit that I noticed for the first time in this book - perhaps it was like this in previous books and I just didn't pay it any attention - but Ethan and Ella's heads are quite large, and their necks rather lengthy - no one else is drawn this way, so unsure why these two have these characteristics, unless it's simply to make them stand out).

RATING:  7 salty spices out of 10 for giving the young readers a taste of what fun mystery stories can be to read!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Jackaby, the First Novel

"R.F. Jackby Investigative Services.  Assistant Wanted. Must be literate and possess a keen intellect and open mind.  Strong stomach preferred.  Inquire at 926 Augur Lane.  Do not stare at the frog."

The tagline on the back of the book had me hooked. That, and the tagline on the front that compared the book with "Sherlock Holmes crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I love a good mystery, and I'm a sucker for the supernatural element, so combine the two, and you can pretty much guarantee I'll give it a try.  I'm certainly glad I did!

I've been extremely fortunate recently with the number of new series I've tried out.  The Lilly Long mysteries.  The Change of Fortune mysteries.  And now the Jackaby mysteries.  Interestingly enough, all three are set in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, leaving me to wonder if perhaps we have become so modern with our technology and ability to find things and learn information about people that a mystery is much better when it is set prior to any of that. Whatever the case, I thoroughly enjoyed Jackaby, and I'd have to add just one thing to the front cover tagline - "Sherlock Holmes crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a bit of Doctor Who thrown in for fun!"

While the title may be Jackaby, the main character is actually Abigail Rook, a young English woman from a well-to-do British family. Only, she is less than satisfied with her mother's desire for her to attend balls and seek out an upper class husband; she would much rather be off with her father on archaeological adventures. The only problem is, while he supports her desire for higher education, he refuses to allow her to join his expeditions. Determined to make her own adventure, Abigail absconds with the funds her parents left her for her higher education and spends a year with a paleontologist, only to find that months and months of digging is not all it's cracked up to be.  With little money left, she sets sail for America and ends up in New Fiddleton, New England.

And that's where her true desires for adventure come true - - only not in any way she could have ever expected.

Jackaby is a quirky, distracted private detective that "sees" things in the world that others don't.  Things that every day men and women would probably not want to see if they could.  At first, Abigail thinks he may be just a bit off his rocker - - but when she follows him to a crime scene and sees how quickly he is able to discern things the police do not...sees how he is able to calm a disturbed witness's complaints of cries that no one else hears...and sees how much he truly cares about helping others with little thought to himself - - well, she knows she has to work for him.

Then, of course, there's the ghost that lives in his house and the duck named Douglas that lives in the pond that is impossibly in the third floor of the house - - a duck who used to be human when he first began working for Jackaby, but who now prefers his life as a duck. And we can't forget Hatun, the seer (of sorts) who lives in the forest outside of town, just on the other side of the bridge, under which lives a troll.

Jackaby is a whirlwind tale that takes its reader on a roller coaster ride from the very first page until the very last.  The reader sometimes feels just as overwhelmed, in awe, and as excited as Abigail does as she learns something new every time she turns around.  Jackaby is an oddity, and like Doctor Who, he seems to do his best when he has a companion (or in this case, an assistant detective) who helps keep him grounded.  Also like Doctor Who, while he never comes right out and says it, he  values his companion (assistant detective) and will do anything to protect them from harm (although sometimes, harm finds them anyway).

The mystery itself in this first novel involves a murderer who kills his victims, rips open their chest and soaks up their blood.  Jackaby quickly discerns that this first murder is not truly the first, but rather the latest in a series of murders in surrounding towns and cities.  The victim was a reporter who happened to discover the link between the murders, so the murderer killed him.  And then kills his neighbor.  And then kills the old woman upstairs (who also happens to be a banshee, but we won't go into that here).  And while Jackaby and Abigail are at first considered suspects, they are soon released when the rather unbelieving, terse inspector of police realizes the only way he's going to catch this killer is by trusting in the most unconventional methods of all - those of R.F. Jackaby.

This is another definite must read for fans of the mystery genre, the supernatural genre, and the "just plain good ol' storytelling" genre!  I can't recommend this book highly enough!

RATING:  10 black leather notebooks out of 10 for a rip-roaring good mystery with a cross-genre tale of murder, supernatural, and suspense!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Star Power - TBP Vol 2 - Star Power and the Search for Black Hole Bill

Last year at DragonCon, I picked up the first volume in the Star Power graphic novel series.  This year at DragonCon, the creators were back and they had volume two of this series out.  Since I enjoyed the first volume so much, it didn't take much arm-twisting for me to pick up this second book.

The Search for Black Hole Bill picks up shortly after the end of the first volume.  Our heroine, Danica Maris (a/k/a Star Power) is unable to call upon the star power any more.  Her friends - Grex, Kaylo, and Shi Lalis - remain by her said, determined to help her figure out how to reboot her star power.  But all hell breaks loose when the space station's prisoner, Black Hole Bill, escapes during a transport to a prison, and the two escorts are gravely injured - one of them being Grex!  Danica finally makes contact with "Mitch" (her name for the star power) and finds the only way to reboot her power is to remain in close proximity to a star for a one-month period.  They find what they feel to be a relatively quiet, backwood star system where they won't be bothered for her recoup period - but unbeknownst to them, Black Hole Bill has teamed up with the vigilante Supernova Dragon Lords, and they are headed to the very same system.  Throw in a void angel bent on revenge and you've got the makings of another big battle brewing!

While the first book was pretty much action from the get-go and non-stop throughout the entire story, Terracciano (author) and Graham (artist) set a different pace in this book. We get to see a lot more character interaction and development as we learn not only more about Danica and her past, but also about the lives of Grex, Kaylo, and Shi Lalis.  Heck, when Grex is attacked and left for dead in the first chapter, I admit to feeling a bit shocked and angry, thinking, "How could they kill her off like that?"  And, as soon as I thought it, I realized how much Terracciano had made me feel for the character that I would even get angry at the thought of her being dead.  That is truly the mark of a great writer (and artist), when he or she can make you feel so passionate about a character that you are reading.

This is not to say there is no action in the book.  Sure, we get the contemplative moments when Danica is recharging near the star and during the times she is trying to communicate with Mitch to reactivate the star power; but, we also get the moments when she and her friends are facing off against Black Hole Bill and the Supernova Dragon Lords.  In fact, the final battle of this book is quite fast-past and action-packed, and it even has its humorous moments with Grex's attempts at revenge on Black Hole Bill for having killed her compatriot.  And Danica learns something surprising (and fortuitous) during the battle that will likely have an impact on future stories.

All-in-all, a very satisfying read, one that will definitely have me coming back for more. Here's hoping they have volume three ready by next DragonCon!

RATING:  10 renzalon junior telescopes out of 10 for breathing more life into these characters and driving them forward, even though the craziness of Black Hole Bill.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Haunted Mystery, Book Four - The Black Heart Crypt

Chris Grabenstein's last foray into the world of Zack Jennings and his haunted mysteries is definitely the best in the series.  The Black Heart Crypt is everything a young adult supernatural mystery should be.  It takes everything that has come before, builds on it story-wise and character-wise, and crafts a fast-moving, page-turning mystery that reveals more about Zack's family and leaves readers feeling utterly satisfied by the end of the tale.

This fourth and final Haunted Mystery finds Zack facing a whole new slew of ghosts, probably the deadliest and most vile villains to date.  It's Halloween, and as everyone knows, the veil between the living and the dead is at its weakest on All Hallow's Eve.  So to be safe, Zack and his friends, Malik and Azalea, plan to attend the festivities in downtown Main Street, figuring Zack will be safest among crowds of living people.

Of course, nothing ever goes quite as planned...

First, Zack's adventure into the local cemetery awakens some long-dead ghosts who are hungry for revenge...

Second, a local young woman who fancies herself a witch falls into an evil trap set by the ghosts to lure one of their descendants to the cemetery...

Third, Zack's three great aunts come to town to help him cope with his newfound "gift" of seeing and communicating with ghosts...

Fourth, Zack's friend, Malik, unwittingly solves a 3-D puzzle that actually breaks the curse that was holding those thirteen ghosts in their crypt in the cemetery...

And that's just the beginning!  This doesn't even include the appearances by his real mother's sister, his grandfather's ghost, a number of the ghosts from the previous three mysteries popping in to say hi, and of course, the very unexpected visit by Zack's deceased mother - you know, the one who hated him and basically blamed him for killing her?  Well, she's back, and Zack fears she may be coming back to seek her own revenge.  You'd think it was enough that the Ickleby clan of ghosts seeking revenge on the Jennings generations for what his three great aunts did to him years ago was enough - but now his mother, too?

All of this, plus Jack the Lantern is back from the dead to wreak havoc on the Connecticut community.  Just how in the world can Zack, his friends, his great aunts, and his step-mom (not to mention Zipper, his dog) put an end to all of these ghouls and save the day?  Well, Grabenstein manages to wrap everything up nicely in the end, although there it is certainly open-ended so if he ever gets the gumption to tell more stories about Zack and his haunting mysteries, the opportunity is there.

Personally, I think there are plenty more stories to's just a matter of getting Grabenstein to write them!

RATING:  10 big black ravens out of 10 for providing some much needed Jennings family history before ending this magnificent series.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Change of Fortune Mystery, Book One - Whispers Beyond the Veil

Lately, I've been taking a chance on some new, period mystery series (such as the first book in the Lilly Long series that I recently read).  Whispers Beyond the Veil, the first book in the new A Change of Fortune Mystery series, is one of those chances.  As with that first Lilly Long book, this book turned out to be a very good choice!

Whispers Beyond the Veil introduces readers to Ruby Proulx (yeah, I have no clue how to say that last name either!), the daughter of a con artist who has picked up a lot of her father's talents for not only conning others, but in reading them and discerning cues from their non-verbal movements.  Ruby is definitely not your typical protagonist.  She is far from innocent, and in fact, the opening chapter shows just how far she has fallen when she follows through with her father's plan for a new scheme, despite that voice inside of her telling her not to do it, and she ends up killing the one man in her father's company of people who actually treats her as a real person.  It is this horrific incident that leads Ruby to seek out her aunt, her deceased mother's sister, and puts her on the path to discovering that the little voice inside of her is more than just a conscience!

Author Jessica Estevao definitely creates a world that draws the reader in, with characters you immediately want to know more about.  When Ruby reaches Old Orchard, Maine, she and readers meet a cast of characters as different and unique as any I've ever seen.  Officer Warren Yancey is an honest police officer in a department that from all appearances has some corruption starting at the top of the chain.  Ruby's Aunt Honoria Belden (and no, she's not related to Trixie - at least, not that I'm aware of!) is a lovable, old woman who has a lot of inner strength and who cherishes family above all else.  The cook and housekeeper at her aunt's inn, Mrs. Doyle, is a stern woman who trusts little but is loyal to Honoria and will do anything for her.  Officer Yancey's sister, Lucille (Lucy), is a free-spirited and determined young woman who has learned to stand up for herself in the absence of both her father and her brother.  There's also the rather questionable police chief, the skittish young maid at the inn, Officer Yancey's widowed mother, and the numerous guests at the Hotel Belden.

Oh, yes, and in case I didn't mention - the Hotel Belden caters to a very specific clientele - those individuals who believe in and practice the various psychic crafts.

The psychic twist to this tale is what really sold me on this book (along with the title).  I love Kay Hooper's Bishop/Special Crimes Unit books, which deal with a whole federal department of psychic investigators.  So, I was looking forward to reading a new series about a psychic who solves crimes.  Unfortunately, Estevao spent more time on Ruby's other talents (namely, the con-artist aspect she learned from her father) than that inner voice that she inherited from her mother's side of the family.  I really would have liked to have seen more of that inner voice, but since this is only the first book, and Ruby is just coming to terms with the fact that the voice is real and she is not crazy, perhaps there will be more of that developing as the series continues.  I supposed that's one of those "we'll have to wait and see" kind of things.

There are definitely some ongoing threads that will be seen throughout this series.  What happened to Officer Yancey when he was away in the military?  How long will Ruby be able to keep the death of Johnny and her part in it a secret?  When will the chief of police be outed for his illegal dealings?  What really happened with Officer Yancey's father when he was in prison?  And just when will Ruby's father show up in Old Orchard (which is bound to happen sooner or later)?  So many questions give rise to so many potential stories, so I hope that this first book does well so that we'll see more in the future (no second book is listed on Amazon yet...)

Otherwise, the mystery is so well-plotted that I found myself going back and forth with my thoughts on who the murderer was, and Estevao was quite cunning herself in how she ultimately revealed it (and who got blamed, or took the blame, for the murders along the way).  A definite recommended book for mystery lovers!

RATING:  9 flickering candles out of 10 for melding a bit of reality into a whole lot of fiction to create a great little mystery with a wonderful new crime-solver!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files - Wild Card

Harry Dresden, Chicago's resident Wizard, is back in an all-new story, written by creator Jim Butcher, with the assistance of Mark Powers.  The characters and story are brought to life with the wonderful art of Carlos Gomez.  Wild Card is a new tale that takes place after the last comic mini-series, Down Town, and before the novel, Small Favor.

As with any Dresden story, poor Harry gets caught up in yet another battle - only this time, nothing is exactly what it seems.  Two girls end up dead, and it appears they were killed by Marcone's forces.  The girls were of the White Court, who wants revenge.  Meanwhile, Marcone thinks the cops have taken out some of his men, so he is looking for payback.  And the Chicago PD has seen one of their own killed and another injured, and they want someone to punish for it.  It's a three-way war that is brewing, ready to do God-only-knows how much damage to the city.  And, as usual, Harry is the only one that can see through all the nonsense to know that someone is setting everyone up.  Who benefits from a total chaos war like this?

While I love seeing Dresden brought to life (I still miss the old Sci-Fi television series), I will admit that I don't necessarily like having my own visuals of these characters taken from me.  Dresden and Murphy aren't really too much off from what I had imagined in my mind; other characters...well, they are nothing like I imagined.  Butters (the coroner), for example.  The glasses are spot on, but I for some reason imagined him as a short, geeky guy with red hair (for the life of me, I can't recall if they ever give his hair color in the books).  Perhaps I've always seen him that way, as I see a lot of myself in him.  And Molly.  Well, I expected Molly to be a lot more "goth" than how she is depicted in the comics.  Then there's Leanansidhe.  Harry's faerie godmother.  She was nothing like I envisioned.  A lot more sexier, a lot more faerie-like, and a lot meaner is what I had always imagined.

Now, Harry's brother Thomas - there's not too many ways you can mess up tall, dark-haired, and sexy.  Gomez got this Adonis pretty much dead-on!

With Butcher's involvement, the characters remain consistent with the books, and the stories build on the books, filling in gaps and providing some great life-threatening, world-endangering battles that further test Harry and his friends.  This time around, we get to see how Harry fares against a demon powerful enough to do damage to his faerie godmother, someone Harry had always thought to be all-powerful and unstoppable.  But this new threat (Puck) turns out to be something entirely new - everything he does, every life he destroys, every destruction he causes - it's all out of boredom.  He simply does it for fun, for something to do.

I have to say, the manner in which Dresden comes up with to put an end to Puck's shenanigans is pretty ingenious and most definitely pure Dresden-style.  It brought a smile to my face, and I cheered inside (just like I do with pretty much every Dresden story when he wins in the end).

Now, when exactly is Butcher going to sit down and write the next Dresden novel????  His website lists the 16th book, Peace Talks, but still no word on its release.  UGH!!!!!

RATING:  10 full houses out of 10 for giving Dresden a true "wild card" of a villain, one that could be a worthy nemesis for our favorite wizard!

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Curious Cat Spy Club, Book 4 - The Secret of the Shadow Bandit

Linda Joy Singleton knows how to tell a good mystery, there can be no doubt about that.  She also knows how to stay consistent with her characters and to have them grow naturally within the stories.  With her fourth Curious Cat Spy Club Nove, Singleton also shows once again that she knows how to maintain relevancy to a current generation of young readers, while at the same time, giving nod to all of us "older" collectors and readers of yester-year.

The Secret of the Shadow Bandit was a wonderful read for so many reasons.  First, the story provides a superb setting: a faux castle with turrets and grand rooms, with a "dungeon" in the basement.  The fact that Kelsey and her family live in the cottage on the grounds of the castle, and her father works as the chef for the man who owns the castle pretty much guarantees a whole host of possible stories in the future!  Second, there are several smaller mysteries that all connect in one way or another to the overall mystery of the missing chess piece - from the coded message in the tree house the kids discover, to the mysterious nature of the unfriendly butler, to the sudden disappearance of the prior inhabitants of the tree house.  Plus, why does the owner of the castle, one Mr. Bragg, the king of resorts, refuse to talk about his family and the former inhabitants of the cottage?  Third, and probably the biggest attraction for a children's series lover like me, are the fun little in-jokes, if you will, and nods to the mysteries of days gone by:

p. 31 - I sigh too, because I'd hoped to find something mysterious.  Unfortunately real life isn't as thrilling as the plots in my mystery books, where an old clock reveals a hidden will, a brassbound chest hides love letters, or a haunted attic holds dazzling jewels.  (Can you spot the Nancy Drew books in that list?)

p. 53 - We're all so different but we've become best friends, I think, smiling to myself.  (who else do we know that were always described as being "so different," yet you'd never know they were cousins?)

p. 126 - "Make a right turn on Melody Lane," Gran Nola says as she hurries to catch up.  (Lilian Garis would be so thrilled to know her books are still remembered today)

And the cover itself - anyone who remembers the early digest books from Simon & Schuster from the Nancy Drew series might see a similarity between the cover to this book and the first cover art for Nancy Drew - The Double Horror of Fenley Place.

The characterization of Kelsey, Leo, and Becca continues to strengthen in this book, and it seems Singleton is getting more and more of a feel for the three of them.  Kelsey, over the course of four books, has become less insecure and more determined.  Becca has learned that that is much more to people than their style and status.  Leo still resembles a younger version of Sheldon (c'mon, don't tell me you don't watch Big Bang Theory?!), but he does something that is very, VERY surprising in this book that has been building over the past book or so (if you noticed the signs).  And while Frankie only gets a brief mention in the book, it is nice to see the regular cast of supporting characters growing and staying in the picture.

And, last but not least, the "Bandit" from the title actually turns out to be a cute little ferret that was left behind by the previous owners of the tree house - a female ferret with a penchant for stealing items to build a nest (leading our spy club members to wonder if perhaps Bandit isn't the one who has been pilfering items from the area).  I'm amazed at how much information there is in this book about animals (such as the fact that ferrets do not survive in the wild, as they are more domesticated animals, and the fact that wild cats have their ears clipped when they are fixed, so that animal control will know they won't be reproducing), and it's great that a book written to entertain can also provide some useful knowledge.

(Just one side note - something I thought was a bit funny is on page 67, it reads "When we start back up the stars, King Bragg pauses..." Clearly, it was meant to say "stairs" and not "stars," but I guess the editor missed that one!)

All in all, another successful mystery for the Curious Cat Spy Club - Singleton can definitely count this as another win for her writing career.  Now, we just have to wait until book five comes out...

RATING:  10 global positioning finders out of 10 for expanding the CCSC's world and continuing to provide mysteries that are fun and engaging!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 4 - Secret of the Staircase

It turns out that this is NOT the final book in the series.  When I initially bought this series of books, there were only four of them, and I had thought that it was a complete set.  So, as I sat down to read the Secret of the Staircase, I was expecting it to give some kind of finale to the adventures of young Sam and his older brother, Derek.  Turns out, though, that author Steven K. Smith was not quite finished with his adventurous duo, as lists a fifth book that has come out, one I have yet to get but will eventually have to do, if for no other reason that to have a complete set (and those who know me, know that I am definitely anal-retentive about having complete sets!  once I start a series, I have to get them all).

As this series progresses, it seems the mystery aspect becomes less and less and the adventure part becomes more and more the focus of the story.  I'd almost have to compare these stories to the Hardy Boys, who always seemed to spend most of their time in their books stumbling through a mystery by having one grand adventure after another.  Sam and Derek seem to be following in their footsteps.

Secret of the Staircase finds the brothers heading to The Jefferson, a famous hotel in Richmond, Virginia.  Smith integrates a considerable amount of true history into the story with regards to the hotel, its founder, the fire that nearly destroyed it back at the turn of the 20th century, and the rather unusual pets that were kept on the premises for many years - alligators!  Even the famous guests that Smith mentions in the book as having stayed in the hotel actually did stay in the real hotel in Richmond.  And Smith's descriptions of the lobby and ballroom are spot-on with the actual image of the hotel today (as can be discerned by taking a quick look at the hotel's website online).

The only real mystery in this book is who is stealing things.  First, Nathan's Gameboy is stolen (and he blames Sam for it), and then the bride and groom's wedding rings are taken from their room.  Could it really be the mysterious alligators that used to reside on the hotel premises?  Or does the hotel have a thief on their hands?  While Derek and Sam, along with Caitlin, never really search for the stolen items, they do stumble upon the secret door under the grand staircase in the ballroom, which leads them on a rather frightening adventure under the city of Richmond, where they come face to face with a most dangerous and unexpected guest!

Ultimately, though, the boys do happen upon the true thief, and the stolen items are returned to their owners.  And while Derek and Sam do end up in trouble once again for their escapades, they (as well as the readers!) do end up soaking up a bit more of Virginia's rich history along the way.

RATING:  7 rusty oil lanterns out of 10 for keeping the history lessons fun, the characters real, and the boys always inquisitive.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 2 - Hits and Myths

Those rambunctious little superhero girls from DC Comics are back in their second graphic novel - Hits and Myths.  I am thoroughly enjoying this whole DC Super Hero Girls line of stuff - cartoons, action figures and dolls, and the comics.  I personally love the fact that DC is not only showcasing their female characters (in an effort to reach out to more of their female audience), but providing them fun, easily accessible stories that are not bogged down with decades of continuity and history and are not all dark and gritty.  The stories are light-hearted, there's always humor here and there, and somewhere along the way, there's a bit of a moral to be found as well.  In a lot of ways, these stories remind me a lot of the old Super Friends comics and cartoons.

Writer Shea Fontana and artist Yancey Labat are back, and this time, they are giving the super hero girls a bit of history in mythology, as well as demonology!  Everyone's favorite rhyming demon, Etrigan, is the school's poetry teacher, and Wonder Woman is having a difficult time finding an opportunity to read the assigned story, The Odyssey.  But when a surprise birthday party for Etrigan causes a rather surprising reaction, the girls have to put on hold their plans for a sleep-over on Paradise Island and find their missing teacher!

Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Katana, Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Bumblebee, Miss Martian, and Hawkgirl are all back, along with Flash and Beast Boy (and for me, the fun is always looking at the backgrounds in each and every panel to see what other little cameos Fontana and Labat throw in for good measure - from Blue Beetle to Killer Frost to Hawk and Dove to Elasti-Girl, and even a poster of my personal favorite, Captain Carrot!).  And there's a battle of the bands that brings together some rather odd, but honestly very fitting, combination of characters to see who can be the best band and win Batgirl's Batplane (which is another subplot within the tale).

Ultimately, the gang heads to the underworld and faces off against Trigon (and meets Raven, his daughter) in order to rescue their beloved teacher.  And along the way, Miss Martian has to face her fear of fire and shyness in order to save the day and free all of her friends who were captured by Trigon and his minions.

All in all, a very satisfying and enjoyable read - this is definitely one comic / graphic novel series that I would recommend to any and all comic fans, regardless of age.  Wonder when the third graphic novel will be solicited...

RATING:  10 keys to the invisible jet out of 10 for proving that comics can be fun and for everyone!  A definite, solid hit!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Mitch Mitchell Mystery, Book 4 - The Sun Goes Down

WARNING - this book and its review are definitely NOT meant for children!

That little disclaimer out of the way, I was surprised when I stumbled upon this fourth Mitch Mitchell mystery on Amazon a month or so ago.  I read James Lear's three previous novels in this series - The Back Passage, The Secret Tunnel, and A Sticky End (and yes, all three are definite innuendos) - and aside from the unnecessary graphic sex within the books, they are actually really well plotted murder mysteries.  Lear's protagonist, Edward "Mitch" Mitchell, an American doctor who is thriving (in so many ways) in England, finds that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to ask the right questions and solve some rather unspeakable murders (and by "unspeakable," I'm referring to the fact that in the early 1900s, any acts of love or otherwise between two men was unspeakable and in Mitchell's case, led to murders!).

After the third book a few years back, it seemed that was the last we would see of Mitch, as he was happily settled down, having said a final farewell to his off-again, on-again fling/best friend and made the decision to stay with his one true love, Vince.  Now, with The Sun Goes Down, set some time after the end of the last book, it seems Lear cannot allow his unwitting detective to be happy.  Vince is gone, and Mitch is taking a trip to the Mediterranean island of Gozo to help a fellow doctor with a patient in the military.  While there, Mitch hopes to put his past behind him and with any luck, find some men to take his mind off of Vince.

What he finds instead, much to his liking, is not only one man after another - but another murder to solve!

Lear provides a very interesting romp through the Continental hotel on the island of Gozo - a hotel that caters to a very unique clientele.  The new owners, a young couple from England, are doing their best to follow in the previous owners' steps, but they find it somewhat difficult when the regular guests become more and more demanding.  Mitch, though, finds the accommodations just to his liking, and it provides him just the right place to make contact with the right individuals who can help him solve the case of the young lieutenant's apparent suicide - or, as Mitch believes it to be - murder!  Plenty of suspects, plenty of motives, and lots of secrets to be uncovered - and when a second body turns up, mirroring the death of the lieutenant, Mitch knows he's on the right track to finding the killer.  An aging star of the stage ... an uptight religious couple ... a young priest ... a has-been artist with a liking for boys ... a thieving young man still in the closet ... and a hostile military and police force who will do anything to keep scandal away from their ranks.  Mitch definitely has to watch his step, while at the same time watching the bountiful and beautiful men of the Mediterranean.

The big reveal is definitely very Agatha Christie-esque and provides a fantastic pay-off for readers that will leave you very satisfied and hoping that Lear will give us more of these mysteries in the future.  If he would just tone down Mitch's sexual escapades, then these would definitely be books for any and all mystery fans to enjoy!

RATING:  6 rocky cliffside paths out of 10 due to the completely unnecessary explicit sex scenes that added nothing to the story and only served to take the reader away from the wonderfully written murder mystery itself!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Mysteries of Maisie Hitchins, Book 5 - The Case of the Secret Tunnel

Everyone's favorite little detective-wannabe is back in her fifth book - The Case of the Secret Tunnel.  And, as with the four prior books, it's another romp of fun and a devilish good mystery that only author Holly Webb can dish out.

Maisie's favorite boarder at her grandmother's boarding house on Albion Street is moving out - Madame Lorimer is getting married and moving away!  That means it's time to find a new boarder, and when Fred Grange, the rather boring employee of the local biscuit company, moves in, Maisie wonders if she will die of boredom.  There is absolutely nothing at all exciting about him - he simply works, eats, and sleeps.  Her best friend Alice gets a new governess, but even she turns out to be thoroughly nice and trustworthy.

What's a detective to do when there's no mystery to solve?  Well, Maisie takes what she can get, so when she finds a grayish-white woolen flannel on the clothes line, where some rather unmentionable women's undergarments should have been, Maisie figures she may as well figure out what's going on.  Particularly when she learns that their neighbor has suffered the same fate - articles of women's clothing taken from the lines, only to be replaced with woolen flannel (only in her case, the flannel was red instead of white).

Of course, anyone who is familiar with mysteries at all knows that even the smallest thing (such as switched laundry) can lead to a bigger mystery - and boy, does this one ever!  Rare art is being stolen throughout London, right under the noses of security guards and police, and no one can figure out how.  They know Charlie Sparrow and his Sparrow Gang are behind the thefts, but they have been unable to capture them.  Maisie wishes she could solve such a crime, but she has no way to involve herself in it, so she sticks with the case of the switched laundry.

Until her trip on the underground train leads her to witness a frail woman stop the train when she nearly faints...

Until she meets the brother of Charlie Sparrow, who works at the train station and who also happens to be a boarder at her neighbor's house...

Until she witnesses Fred Grange not at work during the day and discovers that he knows nothing at all about biscuits - which is very odd, considering he works at a biscuit company...

Maisie Hitchins suddenly finds herself right in the midst of the very criminal investigation she thought she'd never get to be a part of - and ultimately finds herself trapped in the middle of the night in a closed subway station.  Naturally, she doesn't take that sitting down and begins looking for a way out, only to find herself face-to-face with one of the Sparrow Gang who doesn't take to kindly to snoops!

Webb weaves another great mystery, and while those familiar with mystery storytelling will catch on pretty quick to what's going on, this is definitely another twisting tale that will enthrall the young readers.  No sign of the sixth book and beyond listed here in America yet, but the author's website shows there are eight books in the series, so that means there are three left yet to come out here!

RATING:  9 old stone drinking fountains out of 10 for making the mystery intricate, yet not overly difficult, and keeping the characters alive and fun to read.

Friday, November 25, 2016

the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl OGN - Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

Ever since I first read an issue of the Great Lakes Avengers (a group of very D-List superheroes who wanted to be Avengers but just couldn't make it), I fell in love with Squirrel Girl.  She was a quirkly little girl with the powers of a squirrel - not only could she communicate with squirrels, but she had increased strength and a super-strong sense of justice and simply doing right.

"Eating nuts and kicking butts" is what she does!

the Unbeatable Squirrel Girls Beats Up the Marvel Universe is Marvel Comics' first original graphic novel featuring the brazen young superhero.  In the story, Squirrel Girl helps Tony Stark (a/k/a Iron Man) fend off a bunch of goons from the High Evolutionary who are trying to recover some technology that Stark sole from their boss.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), Squirrel Girl gets trapped inside the tech during the fight and when she comes out, everyone is shocked to see she has been duplicated - there are now TWO Squirrel Girls!  Thus begins a fun-filled romp through the Marvel Universe as the twin Squirrel Girl takes it upon herself to take over the world to allow squirrels to become the dominant species.  In so doing, she faces off against one hero after another and manages through ingenuity and the help of her squirrel friends to defeat them all.

All except the real, one and only true, Squirrel Girl and her friends, Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk (yeah, don't ask - you have to read this ongoing series to understand about those two).  Oh, and the non-powered Nancy Whitehead and Tippy-Toe the Squirrel, as well.

The writing is just as enjoyable as Marvel's regular monthly series starring Squirrel Girl, but sadly, so is the art.  I am not really understanding Marvel's decision to use artists with a rather - unique, to say it politely - art style for their lighter titles.  Silver Surfer.  Patsy Walker, Hellcat.  And the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.  All three of these books remain on the lighter side of storytelling, with humor thrown into the mix, and they are just plain fun to read.  Yet, with all three, artists were chosen who are definitely off the mainstream path, with cartoony images that make the characters seem very two-dimensional and not realistic at all.  (And true, that may just be my taste that I like my comics drawn in a more realistic style so that the people actually look like people and not cartoon characters, but when Squirrel Girl is consistently drawn so that she appears to be a chunky boy rather than an actual girl, it detracts from my reading of the story and lessens my enjoyment of the comic.)

But, as I said, the writing is solid and the story has more laugh-out-loud moments that keep me reading the monthly title.  I always find it amusing that the other heroes in the Marvel Universe never take Squirrel Girl too seriously (almost as if they simply tolerate her presence with a nicety that says "go play superhero while the big boys handle the real threat), yet it is usually Squirrel Girl that ends up saving the day in the end (at least, in her own title she does).  As long as the writing stays as strong as this, then I'm all for the fun-loving Squirrel Girl (a great example is the opening sequence in this original graphic novel, where Squirrel Girl has to fix a train track before the high speed train hits it and derails - a true heroic save but in a way only Squirrel Girl could do it, with a bit of a nod to the first Christopher Reeve Superman film).

Wonder what Squirrel Girl would do if she faced the DC Universe....?  Hmm, graphic novel number two, perhaps?

RATING:  8 Deadpool's Guide to Super Villains cards out of 10 for giving this underrated comic character a bigger story in a format that can truly spotlight her greatness!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Dark Shadows by Lara Parker - Heiress of Collinwood

Lara Parker, the actress who played Angelique in the original Dark Shadows television series back in the late '60s and early '70s, has kept the series going in prose format with her series of Dark Shadows novels. Her first two novels focused on the character she played, telling the history of Angelique and her passion for Barnabas, and then continuing the tale in the present day with the ultimate fate of Dr. Julia Hoffman, who vied with Angelique for Barnabas' love.  Then came my favorite of her novels, telling the tale of David's journey into the past to discover his aunt's fascination and love for Quentin Collins.

Now comes Heiress of Collinwood, featuring the long-awaited return of my favorite character from the television show in all of its incarnations, Victoria Winters.  I have been anxiously awaiting this book ever since Parker first talked about it at a meet-n-greet at the Barnes & Noble in Orlando a couple of years ago.  So, needless to say, the moment I bought the book, I had to delve into it.

Sadly, my expectations far exceeded my actual enjoyment of the book.  That is not to say it was entirely bad, but honestly, I didn't like at all the manner in which Victoria returned to the present.  I don't want to give away spoilers to anyone who hasn't yet read the book, but in the television show, her return from 1795 to the present made sense, as she had inadvertently switched places with Phyllis Wick during the seance at Collinwood (and I do have to give Parker props for at least acknowledging that situation in this story with the appearance of Wick's brother).  But this time around, the manner in which Victoria returns to the 1970s is too strange, even by Dark Shadows standards.  It also ignores the references made in the television show that Victoria died at the hands of the Leviathans while still living in the past.

Nevertheless, Victoria is now a television reporter in Bangor when she gets an urgent summons from an attorney in Collinsport.  She returns to Collinsport (with a very nice nod to her first appearance in that first episode on pages 51-54), only to discover that the entire Collins family has disappeared.  Some say they simply left town, while others think something sinister has happened.  Maggie is brusque and refuses to talk to her, while Willie is half-crazed and warns her to leave town right away.  But Victoria is determined to stay - to learn exactly why Elizabeth named her as the sole beneficiary of the Collins' fortune, but even more important - to discover her true parentage so as to solidify her identity and become the heiress of Collinwood.

Parker introduces several new characters and brings back a few old ones (including the gypsy Magda).  Victoria faces a number of dangers, and with the ultimate aid of Barnabas, she finds the missing Collins family and even learns her true parentage (which, frankly, comes as no surprise to true fans of the show).

Now, for those wondering what I didn't like about the book, besides that skewed way in which Victoria is brought back to the present - well, to me, Parker lessened Victoria's character by constantly having Victoria swoon over her long-lost husband, her newfound suitor, and the eternal Barnabas Collins.  It seems her actions are always being dictated by or brought into question due to her love for one or all of these men.  The Victoria I remember from the show, while innocent and naive, was never one to fall into the standard soap opera trope of "oh, I'm so in love with him, but oh, this one really makes my heart swoon - whomever shall I choose?"  And while I suppose these novels are more romance novels than true horror novels, the show itself focused less on the love aspect (except for the ongoing triangle of Barnabas / Josette / Angelique) and more on the gothic, supernatural, and horror.  I suppose that's why Wolf Moon Rising remains my favorite of Parker's four books thus far - it's focus was on the time travel and supernatural elements, with the romance more in the background.

Still, this is Dark Shadows and it is Victoria Winters, so regardless of any disappointment in the story itself, the last quarter of the book made up for it as Victoria not only finds out her parentage, but faces the dangers of finding the Collins family, facing off against the villain, and unwittingly bringing Angelique back into the world.  Interestingly enough, while pretty much all of the regular cast of Dark Shadows is mentioned sometime throughout the story, there is absolutely no reference to Professor T. Elliot Stokes and Dr. Julia Hoffman.  With Julia having had such a large presence in the series, and particularly in the first two books, it's rather odd to not have them at least mentioned in passing at some point.

Now to patiently wait to see what Parker has in store for the next Dark Shadows novel (if there is one)...

RATING:  8 French birth certificates out of 10 for bringing Victoria Winters back into the world of Dark Shadows and back into the hearts of her fans!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thea Stilton, Book Two - The Mountain of Fire

I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to continue this series or not.  Debated for a long time on whether to even try reading this series, and after the first book (which was cute, by the way), I was still on the fence.  I finally told myself to just pick up the second book and read it and make a decision one way or another.

So I did.  And I have.

Thea Stilton and the Mountain of Fire gave me the reason I needed to continue reading the series (although, admittedly, it will never be on the top of my list).  First, although this may be for young readers, it is still a mystery series.  Yes, it may have some focus on the friendship of the five "Thea Sisters," but at its core, it's still a series of mysteries.  Second, they are fun.  There is nothing overly serious, no deep meanings, and nothing dark and brooding about the books.  In other words, they are a real escape from the darkness that exists in our real world today.

The story involves the five mouselings heading off to Australia to help Nicky's family, as all of their sheep are becoming ill for no apparent reason, and if they don't cure them soon, their entire ranch could crumble.  So Nicky and her friends head off to the land down under to see if they can help solve this mystery.  Nicky's grandmother gives her a special necklace with a pendant that she discovers holds a key to solving the mystery.  Along the way, they are thwarted time and again by Mortimer MacCardigan, who is the nasty neighbor of Nicky's family and who is determined to see her family's ranch go under.  The girls must  seek out the elders, who they are told might hold the answer to curing the sheep's sickness.  After a number of misadventures, they finally find the mountain within the mountain and learn the secret that will help save Nicky's family's ranch.

But, even more than that, The Mountain of Fire was actually educational in a engaging, fun way.  Throughout the story, there are fun facts scattered here and there about Australia and its region, it's animal life, and its people and their ways of life.  While the characters are definitely fictional (I mean, let's face it, in a world where everyone is a mouse, it's gotta be fictional, right?), not all of the locations are made up.  There are quite a number of accurate facts about Australia, and it's nice to see geography, history, and culture taught in such an easy to grasp and natural way.  I'd almost venture to say that this book might even be useful in the classroom for getting kids to learn about other countries in a way that they won't necessarily even realize they are learning!  (Of course, all reading involves learning in some form or fashion.)

What is a bit odd about this book is the fact that although the title is Thea Stilton and the Mountain of Fire, Thea herself is barely in it - she is more or less the bookends, starting the tale and finishing it, but not really involved in it at all.  Actually increases my curiosity as to whether she will be featured in any of the future books, or if she will merely be the opening narrator, allowing the series to mainly focus on the five Thea Sisters.  I suppose there's only one way to find that out...

RATING:  7 moldy brie balls out of 10 for piquing my interest just enough to make me want to read more books in the series.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Super Zero Graphic Novel - Volume 1 - The Beginning

There can be no doubt that Jimmy Palmiotti has become one of my favorite writers over the past few years - from his work on Jonah Hex to Power Girl to Stargirl - he knows how to bring the fun back into comics, while writing interesting stories that give the reader plenty of action as well as plenty of character development.  I've been fortunate enough to meet Palmiotti over the years at various conventions and talk to him and his now-wife (and definite better-half), Amanda Conner, and they are just as down-to-earth and fun to talk with as their books are great to read.  (And Amanda has definitely come into her own as a comic writer as well, what with Harley Quinn reaching the heights it is these days.)

So, it's no surprise that I wanted to read their indy title, Super Zero.

While I didn't buy the individual issues published by Aftershock Comics, I did pick up the trade while I was up in Atlanta a few months back for DragonCon.  I finally got around to reading it (yeah, spare time to read has been next to nil lately with the play I'm in), and man, what a read it was!

Just when you think you've seen about every take possible for superheroes, even the so-called "real world" superheroes - Amanda and Jimmy come along and put a whole new spin on things.  Super Zero tells the story of Dru Dragowski, a Tampa teenager (yay!  a story set in my own back yard!) who loves comics and believes that superheroes could be real under the right circumstances.  And she's bound and determined to prove it so!

Plan A:  pay a homeless man to rob her parents (not kill them, though) to create a set of circumstances that will spur her into a dark vengeance...

Plan B:  get bit by a radioactive spider (of course, her friend is afraid of spiders, so it ends up being fire ants who, even under an x-ray machine, only provide her with itchy bites all over her body)...

Plan C:  summon a demon to whom she can sell her soul in exchange for powers (although her dog has other plans for one of those candles)...

Plan D:  sneak aboard a space shuttle and get bombarded by gamma rays that will endow her with unbelievable power (yeah, like that's even possible)...

So, you ask yourself, which of the foregoing does she manage to accomplish?  Surprisingly enough, ALL of them!  But then, you ask, which of them actually gives her powers?  Well, this is a comic realm, and even though it is supposed to be a real-world setting, surely something has to give.  Surely, the superpowers can't only be in her imagination?  I mean, what if those people in the space shuttle heading up the space station were actually aliens who were planning to bring back an invasion of the planet?  Who would stop them?  Certainly not a teenage stowaway with a gazillion itching ant bites, right?

Well, Conner and Palmiotti take readers on a riotous romp through Dru's live, her family, her friends, and even her newfound mentor in the form of the homeless ex-military man who does provide her with a bit of training.  They slide in some inside jokes about the comic industry, as well as about comic books themselves, and they give readers a HUGE payoff at the end that not only makes the book so worth reading, but it also leaves you wanting for more - a lot more!

Super Zero is what comics are about - and what comics should be.  No agenda, no preaching, no dark-moody-brooding-self-doubting heroes that are never happy.  No two and three-panel pages with a splash page every few pages that keeps the story to a minimum and the art the focus (not that the art here is bad - in fact, it's beautifully rendered by Rafael De Latorre).  There is plenty of story for the buck here, and when you do get a splash page - it's because there is something important to tell at that moment!

This definitely needs to be an ongoing - I can see that there are plenty more stories of Dru and her friends, and I, for one, want to read them!  (And let's face it, you can't have a Volume 1 without a Volume 2!)

RATING:  10 affirmation hugs out of 10 for fantastically fun comic-reading enjoyment the way it's meant to be!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tom Stetson, Book 3 - And the Blue Devil

The third, and final, book in this vintage children's series was actually the real reason why I bought the series to begin with.  Unfortunately, of the three books, this was actually the hardest for me to get through.

Tom Stetson and the Blue Devil picks up the summer after Tom Stetson on the Trail of the Lost Tribe, as Tom returns to the Amazon jungles to visit with his uncle, Leo Jason.  While the prior two books were quick to swing into the action, incorporating the descriptions of the lavish jungles and its inhabitants, both plant and animal, this book spends the first 100 pages simply describing the men's journey down the Amazon to a place where they can search for an Indian known as the "Blue Devil."  The author, John Henry Cutler, provides such detailed descriptions of the plant life and wild animals that dwell in the forested land that it's obvious he has first-hand knowledge of the area.  However, it becomes a bit tedious when the descriptions begin to repeat, and there is no movement whatsoever in the story.

Once we get past that 100-page mark, though, the story picks up pace rather quickly.  Poor Manolo, Uncle Leo's adopted ward, once again gets kidnapped, and it's up to Tom and his uncle to rescue him.  In the process, though, Uncle Leo gets kidnapped, and Tom finds himself alone, having to not only save Manolo, but also find his own uncle!  In the process, Tom meets and must face off against the Blue Devil himself (who, interestingly enough, speaks perfect English and seems to live just as easily as an Englishman as he does an Indian).

Cutler builds upon Tom's previous experiences in the last two books to help him evade capture himself and to climb unbelievably tall trees and swing across vines.  I personally found it interesting that no matter what Tom was doing - whether it be climbing a tree, crossing between trees on a thick vine, swinging vines from tree to tree, or even swimming in piranha-infested waters, he always manages to have his backpack with him and it manages to stay dry at all times.  Only in series books, I suppose...

Ursula Koering once again provides illustrations throughout the story, and the beautifully-painted wrap-around cover (the artist of which is not defined) depicts the boys daring escape from the Motilon tribe of Indians.  I give the author credit - despite the lengthy and somewhat boring first half, the second half of the story more than makes up for it, with a lot of close-calls, dangerous escapades, and a rather sneaky plan to help them evade the clutches of the Blue Devil's tribe.

While the conclusion of the story hints at more adventures to come, alas, this is the last book in the series.  Whether Cutler never intended to write any more, or the books just didn't sell well enough for the publisher to ask for any more is a mystery, I suppose, that will remain unsolved.

RATING:  5 iron vests out of 10 for bringing the jungles of Brazil and the Amazon to life in such a vivid way and making an adventure story for boys interesting enough for me to read.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Nancy Drew Anthology - Writing & Art Featuring Everybody's Favorite Female Sleuth

First published in 1930, the enduring pop icon, Nancy Drew, has maintained pretty much continued publication for more than 85 years now. So, it should come as no surprise that fan fiction would sooner or later be collected into a published form.  The real surprise is only that it took this long to happen!

The Nancy Drew Anthology was published this year by Silver Birch Press, and as the tag line on the back cover says, it is filled with writing and art inspired by the forever-teenage sleuth, Nancy Drew.  With a rather appealing cover of Nancy Drew studying a book through a magnifying glass (with her iconic "mystery shadow" in the background) - an image I would love to get a print of! - the book holds out hope of being something special, something that long-time fans have probably dreamed of for many years.

I can honestly say I would be one of those fans.

My mom bought me Nancy Drew books when I was a kid, along with all the other mystery series back in the day, including Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, etc.  But, for whatever reason, Nancy Drew always struck a special chord with me.  Perhaps it was because each book was all about mystery and not about adventure or science or nursing or such.  Perhaps it was because Nancy had strawberry-blond (or titian) hair like me, so I didn't feel so much like the odd-man out.  Perhaps it was because she was independent, quick thinking, and determined - qualities that any kid, male or female, would want in their own life.  Whatever the reason, I always loved reading the mysteries, and when I got back into collecting as an adult, I found the original text stories even more engaging!

So, I thought this book might turn out to give some interesting stories inspired by Nancy Drew.  Sadly, I found very little to be interesting (to me, anyway) within its pages.  First, this is not to say that the contributors were poor writers, or that the submissions were not worthwhile.  But, quite frankly, the anthology is overflowing with poetry in its many forms, and well, honestly, I can't stand poetry.  I have never liked it, and when I took two semesters of it to complete my Creative Writing degree at USF, they were my two lowest grades of my entire college career.

That was disappointment number one.

The next disappointment came when I realized that there was very little fan fiction at all in this anthology.  Rather, a good chunk of it is filled with authors' memories of how they first "met" Nancy Drew.  There is one short story, "Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Gravedigger," which is actually rather cute and brings back Helen Corning in a unique way.  There is also "The Mystery of the Northern Lights," which is toted as the last, unpublished Nancy Drew story, of which only the first chapter was written - it is a bit strange, in that it deals with supposed trolls in Iceland.  The author of that story does, however, have fun playing with Nancy's relationships with her friends, her father, and the police chief.

Now, that's not to say the book was a complete loss for me.  There were a few good little ditties that took the various Nancy Drew titles (either just the first 56 books, or in a couple of cases, the first 64 books) and integrated them into a story or poem, and there were several artistic images scattered throughout.

Would I buy it had I known?  Probably, simply because it is yet another Nancy Drew collectible.  I just wish it had been advertised as being more about poetry than anything else, so that I would have been aptly prepared for what I found when I opened the cover.  I have no doubt there are a lot of fans out there who enjoy poetry (Lisa coming to mind right away!) and who will thrill over the lyrics and rhymes they find inside, and honestly, I'm glad that they have something that appeals to their taste.  For me, however, this will go on my collectible shelf, likely never to be opened again...

RATING:  5 magnifying glasses out of 10 simply for giving Nancy Drew fans an opportunity to express their own creativity inspired by their favorite sleuth.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Young & Yang Mysteries, Book 2 - The Tiara on the Terrace

Sophie Young and Grace Yang are back in this second mystery by Kristen Kittscher. Admittedly, this second entry in the series is not quite as entertaining as the first.  The mystery is good enough, but Kittscher seems a bit uncertain with the story as to whether she wants a dead-on mystery or whether she wants a cross between Sweet Valley High and the Dana Girls. The story wavers too much between the girls fighting about Sophie's desire to spy and Grace's desire to "fit in" and be a part of the Winter Sun Festival's royal court of princesses, and the actual mystery itself.  This, in turn, leads to a lot of pages that feel like too much padding to the story.  By the end of 388 pages, I was left wondering if perhaps the story could have actually been told in closer to 288 pages.

Nevertheless, the mystery itself was pretty good, and the ending had a great payoff.  The Tiara on the Terrace, finds Young and Yang still riding on their success of revealing the Tilmore Eight fugitive from the last mystery, Sophie is none-too-thrilled to be helping her friend Grace with the preparations for the upcoming Winter Sun Festival, but when the dead body of the Festival's president turns up inside one of the floats, Agents Young and Yang (along with their trusty sidekick, Trista Bottoms) are on the case!  The police suspect there may have been foul play involved and that the investigation could take weeks - - but the girls are shocked the next day when the new Festival president announces that the police have wrapped up their case and have ruled it an accidental death, and that, as such, the Festival will go on as scheduled!

Sophie, Grace, and Trista know something is very amiss, and when the new president falls face down in his soup at a reception dinner, the girls suspect someone is out for revenge!  Is it the enraged mother, whose daughter was not named queen of the festival?  Or is it the former official who was demoted to "pooper-scooper" duty for the parade?  Or could it be the Festival's treasurer, who sent a very suspicious e-mail that could indicate he is mishandling the Festival's funds?  With too many suspects and not enough clues, Grace convinces Sophie and Trista to do something they would never dream of doing - going undercover as pages in the Royal Court of the Winter Sun Festival.  This means they will have to wait hand and foot on the Queen and her Princesses during the three days leading up to the big parade - but, it also provides them unlimited and unrestricted access to the huge mansion that serves as the Festival's headquarters.

The investigation serves up a lot of potential motives and opportunities - - and when the girls are locked inside of a refrigeration unit used for storing the Festival's flowers (and poor Trista is majorly allergic!), they realize that someone not only knows they are investigating, but also knows they may be getting close to uncovering the truth.  But when Trista stumbles onto a clue that could reveal the killer's identity, she finds herself locked on a runaway float, and Sophie and Grace must break away from the page duties in the middle of the parade and chase the runaway float before it goes careening off the side of the cliff, taking Trista with it!

Kittscher provides some interesting twists and turns with the big reveal at the end, leading readers to wholly suspect one person, and then turning everything on its head in the last few chapters.  I will admit there was one underlying clue throughout the entire book that seemed glaring, but even I had a difficult time connecting it to the murders until close to the end.   And perhaps the intended audience for this series might enjoy all of the girl-centric sub-plots (the fighting over spy-business vs. girl-business, the fight over Sophie revealing one of Grace's most embarrassing moments, etc), but for me, those elements felt unnecessary to the story and merely thrown in to pad the book and remind readers that these two young sleuths were girls with "typical" girl problems.

With only two books, it appears this series may be at an end already, as there is no third book listed on or on the publisher's website.  Perhaps, after all, I wasn't the only one who felt this second book did not hold up quite as well as the first...

RATING:  6 inspirational posters of seals out of 10 for reminding readers that  beauty goes far beyond skin deep and for providing a surprise twist with the identity of the killer!

Monday, October 31, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 44 - The Darkest Shadow

A trip to Tampa = a chance to listen to the next Dark Shadows audio story.  And this time, Quentin returns, along with Amanda Harris, in The Darkest Shadow.

This story is truly one of the better written ones.  Not only does it provide a well-plotted bridge between The Eternal Actress and The Haunted Refrain, but it delves into the history of the relationship between Quentin Collins and Amanda Harris.  The author also ensures that the events within the story are very Dark Shadows-esque, with just enough supernatural elements to remind listeners that we remain in the very Gothic world of the Collins family.

The story opens with Olivia Corey being offered a role in a new horror movie.  At first she turns it down, not liking horror films, but when she discovers the film is entitled "The Curse of Collinwood," and it tells the story of Amanda Harris and Quentin Collins, Olivia realizes she has no choice but to accept - for she is Amanda Harris.  When she arrives on set, she meets some very stereotypical Hollywood-type actors and crew, but she is unable to meet with and talk to the elusive director, D. Curtis.  She and her friend, Norman Cope (who has stood by her for many years and is secretly in love with her), realize something is very off, so they are determined to investigate and get to the bottom of the all-important question:  who knows so much about the Collins' family and particularly about Amanda Harris.

For long time fans of Dark Shadows, you may recall that Amanda Harris is a creation of Charles Delaware Tate - she is literally a painting come to life.  This aspect of her identity plays a huge part of the story, and the author takes a unique look at not just her creation, but also Tate's power to bring art to life and what would happen if life could also be forced back into art?  Elspeth Gardner makes another appearance (once again voiced by Denise Nickerson, who portrayed Amy Jennings on the TV show), as does Dorcas Hanley.  There are also brief appearances by "Andy Warhol" and "Dorian Gray," which are scenes that are sure to bring a smile to your face as you listen.

This is the first audio CD that I've seen that actually is a two-disc set.  While the original 4-part story in these audio CDs came out individually, and the second story, Kingdom of the Dead, had several CDs, since that time, each audio CD has been a single-issue CD.  This story, however, was lengthy enough to require two CDs.  That does not mean, however, that it fees long or stretched out at all.  The story progresses at a pretty good pace, and with the amount of characters involved (10 main characters, and 3 side characters), it's no wonder it took two CDS - but I can honestly say that it never dragged and it never lost my interest for one second.

It was nice learning more about Espeth Gardner, and I was a bit surprised to find out exactly where she came from.  It was also fun learning exactly how Quentin was cursed so as to end up in that gramophone needle in The Haunted Refrain.  Again, this shows the depth of planning and the expert writing at Big Finish to tie these stories together, even when they are not sequential.  These stories are keeping my appetite in check for more Dark Shadows until Lara Parker's new book comes out next month.

RATING;  10 haunted film projectors out of 10 for simply telling a really, really, REALLY good Dark Shadows story!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Touching Evil, Volume One: The Curse Escapes

One of my favorite things to do at any comic convention is walk up and down the aisles of artist alley.  Sure, it's fun to meet some of the so-called "big name" comic book creators like George Perez, Jimmy Palmiotti, Mike Perkins, Greg Rucka, Jose Delbo, and so on.  But I know their work, and I see it so many comics from DC and Marvel and some of the big indy companies, like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Dynamite.  But what I love is going over to artist alley and discovering some of the most amazing (and, admittedly, some not-so-amazing) books that are not just a job to bring home the bacon, but a labor of love, sweat, and hours and hours and hours of hard work.

The first volume of Touching Evil is definitely one of the amazing books!

I met the writer and artist of this book, Dan Dougherty, the way I do so many other indy creators - I was checking out his book at this table and wondering whether (a) his work was interesting enough to buy and (b) whether his art was something I would like to see in one of my sketch books.  Dougherty was very personable and was clearly excited to talk about his book (but was not one of those pushy creators who basically yells at every person who walks past his table).  Glancing through his book, it was immediately clear that his art was something I wanted to see in one of my sketch books - and listening to him talk about Ada Mansfield and the tale of how she has a power (curse) thrust upon her that enables her to kill people with a mere touch - but only if they are evil people.

Admittedly, I did not pick up that book right away - I came back by and bought it on my second go around - and ultimately had him do a sketch in my Nancy Drew faux-cover sketch book.  He did an utterly beautiful job with re-creating the cover to The Clue of the Leaning Chimney, and although it is now nearly two months since the convention, I have finally had the time to sit down and read his book.

Wow.  I mean, really.  WOW!  This book totally blew me away.  The story of Ada Mansfield and how she is given the power to literally kill people with the merest touch - how it not only affects her, but the people around her - her family, her boss, her friends, and her new-found enemies.  Ada is not a superhero, and this is not a story about superheroes.  This is a supernatural tale about a woman who gains a "gift" that some view as a curse, while others would do just about anything to get their hands upon it (pun intended).  It is realistic, it is dark, it is all-too-human, and it takes a look at the age-old question of just what defines good and evil - when is someone truly good, and when is someone truly bad?  And what happens when a good person gets led down the wrong path?  There is nothing simple about the story, and Dougherty moves the tale so fluidly, that when I finished this first volume, I felt as if I had just walked out of a really, REALLY good movie.

Which brings me to the art.  Dougherty draws people like people.  He draws the backgrounds and surroundings like actual places and things.  There is no fancy "style" to his art, and there is no attempt to try and create some signature look (which is major problem I have with a lot of comics today, where I may enjoy the story, but the art becomes so stylistic that it overpowers the actual writing - The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Patsy Walker, Hellcat come to mind).  Instead, Dougherty's art compliments and helps move the story along.  There are no wasted panels, no unnecessary splash pages, and no "sexy poses" that are so prominent in the DC and Marvel and Image titles these days.  Dougherty tells a story, not just with his words, but with his art - and that, my friends, is what comic books are supposed to be about!

Do we find out everything about Ada and her son?  Do we know everything about her private eye friend?  Do we get the entire backstory about her boss?  And the book?  And the curse?  No - but we get enough to give us just what we need for the story at hand.  Is there more to tell?  Undoubtedly.  But that's a mark of good storytelling - give the reader enough to keep them coming back again and again.  And with "The Curse Escapes," Dougherty definitely has me coming back.  Volume Two will not be coming out fast enough!

Anyone interested can find out more about his book and his other work at his website,

RATING:  10 witches burned at the stake out of 10 for telling a story that is worth far more than the price paid for it and making me glad I picked it up!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 13 - Bound for Danger

Frank and Joe Hardy are back, and this time the mystery isn't stolen treasure or missing relatives or international smuggling - heck, it's not even about sabotage (pay attention, Nancy Drew writers - not every mystery needs to be sabotage!) - nope, this time around, the boys find themselves smack dab in the middle of ...


Yes, you read that right.  The Hardy Boys are now solving a crime involving the ritual that always seems to make the headlines with frat boys, sorority girls, and sometimes even sports teams.  For Frank and Joe, it's their basketball team at Bayport High.  Only, they don't know that when the Principal without warning informs them that they are both being put on the basketball team in order to earn more "extracurricular" credits for school.  It's not until they are grabbed from behind, have bags pulled over their heads, and taken to a dark basement do they realize that something very sinister is going on.  The robed, masked individuals who threaten and torture them to leave the team don't realize that their actions have just the opposite effect on the Hardy Boys - all that does is make the brothers more determined than ever to find out exactly what is going on.

With only 138 pages of story, the mystery moves rather quickly.  And while I admit that I wasn't overly thrilled with the idea for this mystery, by the time I finished the book, I found that I actually rather liked the plot.  I do wish, however, that the author had been a bit more creative with the villain behind the hazing.  It came somewhat out of the blue and was just a little too convenient for my taste.  However, I do like the fact that there are a number of red herrings throughout the story in an effort to throw off readers from figuring out who the culprit really is, so I guess I should give the author some credit for that.

I have to wonder what this story would have been like if it had been more fleshed out, and if the boys were out of high school and posing as college students to address hazing within the college setting?  It might have actually made for a much more intriguing story, one more worthy of the original Hardy Boys heritage.  I also have to wonder where Chet Morton and the Hardys' other friends are hiding these days.  For a story set in the boys' school, one would think their regular chums would be right there with them, but I guess they are another thing of the past...

And while the cover art is not really mysterious, it's definitely adventurous (albeit falsely so, as in the book, it is only Joe that is hanging from the helicopter, as Frank is being held captive inside the 'copter).  I guess since this is "Hardy Boys Adventures," the more adventurous the cover, the more in line with the series title it is.

With the next book titled Attack of the Bayport Beast, I can only assume that S&S is continuing its move away from the "Mystery" and "Secret" and "Clue" in the titles once again, which is a shame, as that is part of what always made Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys stand out among children's mystery series.

RATING:  6 servings of Aunt Trudy's turkey meat loaf out of 10 for at least providing some variety in the types of mystery-adventures being told.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Lilly Long Mysteries, Book 1 - An Untimely Frost

I've somewhat fallen behind in my reading due to the rehearsal schedule on the play I am in ("The Murder Room," which opens the first weekend of November) - but that doesn't mean I'm not reading. In fact, I just finished reading the first book in a new series!  A titian-haired young female detective out of the Midwest must find out what happened to a missing preacher and his family, who is accused of stealing funds from the local parishioners. Along the way, she must face men who belittle her ability as a female detective, she faces threats warning her to drop the case or else, she is nearly run down by someone who wants her off the case, she finds a secret room that holds the solution to the mystery, and she ultimately faces off against the most unlikely of culprits in a nice little twist.

A new Nancy Drew series, you ask?

If Nancy Drew were set in the late 1800s, and if she were an actress whose husband took advantage of her, stole her life savings, and left her destitute ... but instead, it's Lilly Long, the creation of author Penny Richards. It's very clear that Richards loved Nancy Drew in some fashion, as this first book so obviously pays homage in so many ways to the pop culture icon.  Only, in this world, Lilly is an accomplished actress (the book titles come from various stage plays) whose marriage turns out to be little more than a con, when she finds her husband threatening her adopted mother. He takes off with Lilly's life savings, setting Lilly on a brand new journey that puts her acting skills to use in a whole new way - as a detective!

While An Untimely Frost is definitely a mystery of a serious nature, Richards is not afraid to throw a bit of humor in here and there, where appropriate.  One of the best scenes in the entire book occurs when Lilly is first trying to gain employment with the Pinkerton detective agency.  Chapters 6 and 7 provide a rather intriguing scenario of interviews - first, Lilly interviews for the position, and while she impresses William Pinkerton and his father, Allan, she is told she is too young for the position.  Over the next several days, the Pinkertons interview several more women for the position, each of whom has peculiarities or eccentricities that keep them from being a good candidate.  One, however, manages to catch the Pinkertons' attention - and when they call her back, she reveals to them that she is actually Lilly - that, in fact, all of the interviewees over the past several days have been Lilly in disguise (remember, she is an actress!).  While Richard Pinkerton is put off, Allan Pinkerton approves and hires her on a trial basis.

Thus begins Lilly's first adventure, tracking down a missing preacher and his family for a client who wishes to buy their homestead that they left behind.  Lilly finds much more than she bargains for, though, from a town who refuses to provide her any information willingly and who are desperate to have her out of town.  A search of the actual property reveals that there is something more sinister afoot, and there are definitely darker secrets being hidden - from the bloody sheets to the unmarked grave in the backyard to the secret room in the attic.  And what of that rather dashing but brash boxer who seems to always popping up everywhere Lilly goes?

And beneath all of this mystery and secrets lies another mystery that will clearly be an ongoing subplot in this series - who killed Lilly's mother?

Richards provides a well-written mystery with some extremely interesting characters that I look forward to getting to know better in future books (the second book, Though This Be Madness, is set to come out next year).  She engages the reader from the get-go, and she definitely keeps your attention from page one to the very end.  Definitely a must read for mystery-lovers and Nancy Drew fans everywhere!

RATING:  10 mail-order brides out of 10 for providing a brand new mystery heroine with all the spunk and determination of Nancy Drew and the rich, vivid writing that brings the characters and story so easily to life!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown, Book 4 - The Ghost Ship

I had put off reading this book, as I knew it was the last book in the series and, well, quite frankly, I didn't want it to end.  I have grown to really like the characters and the writing - Vicki Lockwood has created a very engaging world of mystery and supernatural intrigue that makes me long for the days when authors actually wrote stories about characters they loved and nurtured (rather than simply churned out stories for a profit like some do today).  But, as they say, all good things must come to an end...

For this mystery, Lockwood takes Lizzie and her "family" of circus performers to the English seaside, where they set up a very special circus for the Maharaja Duleep Singh.  The Maharaja enjoys the circus and has paid Fitzy well to provide free entertainment to the seaside locals in hopes of endearing them to him.  The only problem is - the locals have a ghostly secret.  The townspeople are fearful of a ghost ship that appears in the harbor, for people have disappeared, never to be seen again whenever the ship appears.  Naturally, Lizzie and her friends are thrilled at the idea of another mystery to solve, but when Lizzie starts experiencing visions again, this time not just about the ghost ship, but also about her friends and about the Maharaja's lady friend, she begins to wonder whether she can trust her own sight.

The mystery itself centers around some stolen jewelry.  The groundskeeper for the estate where the circus has set up shop believes that Lizzie's friend, Hari, is responsible, as he does not trust foreigners.  Lizzie knows he is innocent, but Hari's actions begin to lead her to question her own certainty.  Then she has visions of Nora with the very necklace that was stolen from the Maharaja's lady friend!  Can she trust her own friends?  And what of that ghostly, green ship that she sees in the harbor?  Is that a harbinger of more bad things to come?

The Penny Gaff Gang (as Lizzie and her friends call themselves) set off to solve the crime.  Lockwood throws in a lot of suspense and some dangerous foibles (a rampaging elephant, a dark tunnel, a near drowning, and a climactic battle on the sea) that will definitely keep the reader's interest.  Like the other three books in this series, this is a hard one to put down - you'll want to finish it in one sitting!

SIDENOTE - this is most definitely the third book in the series - as the Maharaja and the missing ruby are the very things that Lizzie mentions in The Fairy Child,  It would be helpful if they actually numbered the books, or at the very least, provided the listing of books in the front or back, so that readers can know what order to read them in.  Nevertheless, reading them out of order did not lessen the enjoyment of the book one bit.

It's a shame Lockwood did not write any more Lizzie Brown mysteries, but I am glad she wrote the four she did - this is one series I would highly recommend to all lovers of mysteries!

RATING:  10 jet necklaces out of 10 for providing a twist ending as far as the culprit goes and strengthening the bond between Lizzie and her new "family."