Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 33 - The Phantom Bride

Here's the second Dark Shadows audio drama I listed to during my recent trip to Tampa.  The Phantom Bride brings back Tony Peterson and Cassandra Collins (a/k/a Angelique), who have quickly become my favorite pairing in this CD series.  Jerry Lacy and Lara Parker bring these characters back to life with such relish, it's hard not to picture the two of them together, solving mysteries as they do.  A modern (sort of) take on Nick and Nora, or maybe even a kind-of Scarecrow and Mrs. King of the Dark Shadows realm.  Either way, these two play so well off of each other, and it works so naturally, it's a shame that the television show never picked up on it.

This time around, our detective couple is boarding a cruise ship to help the Captain discover what is causing the haunting by a vengeful spirit intent on destroying any newlywed couple's happiness.  Posing as husband and wife, Tony and Cassandra board the ship, and one it sets sail, they each try to solve the mystery before anyone else turns up dead and the Captain's ship is shut down permanently.

While the story definitely takes place away from Collinsport, there is nevertheless a true Dark Shadows-feel to the story.  We have Tony Peterson fighting to remain professional and put a stop to the killing spirit while starting to realize he may have feelings for a centuries-old witch; we have Angelique continuing to pose as Cassandra (Peterson, this time), acting human and experiencing human emotions, all the while utilizing her witchcraft and supernatural powers to bring an end to the hauntings; and we have a mean-spirited ghost that is hell-bent on destroying the happiness of anyone who dares to enter her stomping grounds,

It's so easy to get caught up in these audio dramas and forget I'm listening instead of watching.  My mind goes on automatic, and before I realize it, I'm "watching" the story unfold in my head just as sure as if I were watching it on a television set before me.  I can see Tony's tall, lean frame, his slicked-back dark hair, and his brown trenchcoat.  I can see Cassandra's dark wig, her wide sparkling eyes, and that evil grin of hers.  And I can see all of the other elements that made Dark Shadows what it was.  The cardboard sets and cheesy special effects that gave the show its charm.  The writer of this audio, Mark Thomas Passmore, definitely needs to stay on board (no pun intended) and keep writing more audio dramas.  He definitely has the feel for Dark Shadows.

RATING:  9 life-stealing succubi out of 10 for confirming the Tony/Cassandra pairing as my new favorite characters from the show!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Haunted Mystery, Book One - The Crossroads

If the first book in this series is any indication of what I can expect in the future books of this series, author Chris Grabenstein definitely has a winner on his hands!  The Crossroads is, by far, the absolute best children's series book that I have read in a long, long time - - and I've read some good ones here and there, believe me.

The Crossroads tells the story of young Zack Jennings - a boy whose mother has died of cancer - - whose father has remarried - - whose step-mother seems to care for him - - and whose life is uprooted when his father decides to move his family to the small town in Connecticut where he grew up.  They move into a house at the corner of County Route 13 and State Highway 31.  A corner where, some fifty years ago, a horrible accident occurred involving a bus full of passengers, a hyped-up Thunderbird, and a police motorcycle.  All of the people involved in the crash died.  Except one...

Grabenstein brings all of the characters to life so vividly - from the main character of Zack to the supporting cast of his father, step-mother, new friend Davy, the cranky Greta Spratling, the not-so-bright Billy O'Claire, and readers even get a small taste of what Zack's real mother was like before she died of cancer.  While some of the characters are somewhat stereotyped, they are not so overly done that they become caricatures; instead, Grabenstein gives them just enough to cause readers to like, dislike, love, or hate the characters as you rightfully should.

The story itself is extremely well-paced, and while I don't usually like authors to alternate points-of-view throughout a book, Grabenstein manages to do it in such a way that it not only flows smoothly, but it actually enhances the reading of the story.  You get to know each of the characters in their own way, rather than from the perspective of just the protagonist.  You ever gain some understanding as to why characters such as Greta Spratling do the things they do, making them a little less villainous and a bit more human.

And lest you think the "Haunted Mystery" title of the series is a misnomer, there is definitely a supernatural element to the tale.  From the very beginning, Grabenstein introduces ghosts - good, bad, and indifferent - as well as a fifty-year old thirst for revenge and the idea that a hatred can burn so strong it can become embedded in and tied to inanimate objects, such as a tree.  Grabenstein plays a bit loose with the idea of ghosts, and in some cases, the reader is left to wonder who is a ghost and who isn't (although all is revealed by the end of the story).  While there is death and a couple of murders in the story, there is no profanity, no adult themes, and quite frankly, I would have gobbled this up back when I was a pre-teen.

This book definitely has it all - mystery, supernatural, page-turning cliffhangers, touching moments, and sorrow and joy, all within the 325 pages of story.  Without a shadow of a doubt, I would recommend this to older children and adults alike, as it is a thoroughly enjoyable read that leaves me anxious to read the next book in the series (and pray that is goes well beyond just the four books that are currently out).

RATING:  10 pails of white roses out of 10 for a thrilling, spine-tingling, page-turning mystery well-worth the read!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 32 - A Collinwood Christmas

Although the last DS audio tale wasn't one of the best, it did spark my interest in the audio books again, so on a recent trip to Tampa, I took along a couple of CDs to enjoy on my way down there and back.

The first story was "A Collinwood Christmas."  Starring Jamison Selby as (who else) Jamison Collins and Lizzie Hopley as the gypsy, Ivanka, the story is set during a time when Elizabeth and Roger Collins are but children, having lost their mother, and with her, any hope and joy within the great house of Collinwood.  And before you ask, yes, Jamison Selby is David Selby's son, and it's amazing to hear his voice, for he sounds so much like his father (who DS fans will remember as Quentin Collins, the werewolf).

Well-written and well-read, this story has the real feel of a Dark Shadows tale.  Jamison is haunted by the death of his wife at Christmas, so while the town of Collinsport celebrates the holiday, Jamison and his two children remain in the brooding house, no lights, no decorations, no presents - no Christmas.  Until the butler quits, passing by the Old House to let the gypsy who lives there know he is leaving and asking her to help the children in the great house.  Ivanka begrudgingly heads up to the darkened house and forces her way in.  Jamison doesn't want her there, but gradually they form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to rid the house of its ghosts (including that of his late wife).  The only problem is, a villainous ghost is released and is intent on coming back to the world - a villain who previously appeared in the audio CD, "Dress Me in Dark Dreams."

And I loved it!

Selby and Hopley did an amazing job bringing the characters to life and actually making the listener care about them, despite their eccentricities.  When it is revealed what really happened to Jamison's wife, his actions suddenly begin to make sense.  And when the villain is revealed to be Redmond Van Buren, well, to be honest, I got rather excited!  The continuity among the audio CDs really gives them a continued feel of the original series, tying them together and bringing them to life all the more.  And what's even more fun is the fact that, as Ivanka and Jamison explore the house, listeners are treated to scenes from previous audio tales, only here, they are ghosts of times past in Collinwood's dark history.

This audio drama more than makes up for the less-than-stellar previous tale and revives my love of Dark Shadows even more.

RATING:  9 shattered mirrors out of 10 for utilizing the rich history of not just the television show, but the continuing story in the audio dramas as well.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Short Lived Comic Series #3 - The Bionic Woman (Charlton)

I can remember back in the mid- to late- 1970s seeing at grocery and convenience stores various comics published by a little company known as Charlton Comics.  They had characters I did not recognize (Judo Master, Captain Atom, Vengeance Squad, etc.) and, well, to be honest, their books just didn't have the flashy pizzazz that Marvel and DC comics did at the time.  To me (at that time), they appeared to be nothing but cheap knock-offs.

Now, looking back, I realize how wrong I was!

Charlton put out some very unique and actually fairly decent titles at the time.  I have since read the E-man series by Joe Staton and thoroughly enjoyed the humor in the series.  I've read some of the Blue Beetle issues and found them to also be pretty good.  And just recently, I finished reading the short-lived 5-issue run of The Bionic Woman by Charlton.

I remember watching The Bionic Woman as a child, and I absolutely loved the show.  Jaime Sommers rated right up there with Wonder Woman (another show of that era that I couldn't get enough of).  I tried watching that horrendous remake on NBC some years back, but it just didn't cut the mustard.  I did buy and read the entire series published by Dynamite Comics recently (both the Kevin Smith-related version, as well as the Season Four mini-series), and while they were enjoyable, they still didn't have the feel of the '70s television show.

This 5-issue run by Charlton, however - well, quite frankly, it felt closer to the original show tha any of the others.  Charlton doesn't seem to have been big on crediting their creators, and doing a search on the internet, I can't seem to find anywhere the identity of the author of these tales (although I did find that Jack Sparling provided the art for the series), so I'm not really sure who to thank for these entertaining tales.

The first couple of issues sported two illustrated tales, with a one or two page prose story at the end. The last few issues lengthened the illustrated story to just one tale per issue and a short prose story at the end.  The series maintains not only Jaime's involvement with the OSI, but also highlights her career as a teacher, as several of the tales center around her students.  One of the stories actually finds a student being kidnapped (along with Jaime), while another finds her as a substitute teacher in order to get close to a student's father who is holding government plans.

The author captures her personality pretty much dead-on, and the artist, while not exactly able to depict Lindsay Wagner, does manage to give us glimpses of the actress here and there (although he never does manager to depict Rudy Wells very well).  The stories are a close match to the television tales, with the exception of issue 4, which dealt with a man who created his own android female (perhaps this was a spin on the Fembots stories from the TV show - which, by the way, are still today my favorite episodes). The story was far more sci-fi than reality-based like the other issues of the series.

It's a shame the series only lasted five issues, but from what I can find online, it came to an end because Charlton pretty much ground to a halt at that point with publishing new material.  Truly a shame, as there was a lot of potential with this series and the character, even after the television show was cancelled.

RATING:  8 bionic sound effects out of 10 for giving me brand new tales of one of my favorite female television heroes.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Lindsey & Plum Detective Series, Book One - The Comic Book Killers

Recently, David took me to a little comic shop over in Daytona Beach, one I didn't even know existed, let alone had ever visited.  The store had tons of great and obscure back issues, a lot of toys, and a number of shelves filled with sci-fi and comic-related books.  One of those books was a paperback titled The Comic Book Killer by Richard A. Lupoff.  It was a first printing, and it was only $1, so I picked it up (as I have a small, but growing, collection of mystery books that center around comics in some way).

The book was published back in 1989 by Bantam Books, and it ran a good 260-plus pages of story with very small front, so I figured I was guaranteed a good, meaty story.  Comics - - Murder Mystery - - Crime Noir - - it had to be a gimme!  So, I put this on the top of my stack, and when I was ready to read my next book, down it came.

First, let me say that with most authors, it is pretty easy to distinguish the author's feelings and point-of-view and the characters' feelings and point-of-view.  In fact, it's not very often where I read a book and feel like I'm reading the author's own opinions.  Yet, for some reason, from the very first chapter, I got a distinct distaste in my mouth and had a very hard time shaking it.

The author, Richard A. Lupoff, clearly knows comics. Just reading the book, without doing any research on Lupoff, it is clear he is well-educated on the history of comics.  From his references to the early Timely Comics, prior to Marvel, as well as the fact that "DC" stands for Detective Comics, along with the fact that each comic has its own tell-tale signs that differentiates it from every other issue of that same comic, the book is filled with historical comic facts.  But, as his bio page at the end of the book reveals, he was involved with two pioneering studies of comics in American life - All in Color for a Dime (1971) and The Comic-Book Book (1973).  This would lead you to believe Lupoff would have a reverence for comics and the fans who read and love them.

Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Lupoff portrays every comic reading fanboy (and girl) in the book as skinny or fat, a slob or a hippy, not-so-intelligent or psychotic.  As if to stress the point of how belittled comic fans are, when his protagonist, Hobart Lindsey, visits a store that is 1/2 comic store and 1/2 mystery book store, he describes it as such:

The store was busy.  Two or three clerks were helping customers while a cash register kept up a steady electronic din.  The customers were easy to tell apart--the comic book buyers were young, mostly scruffy, dressed in tee-shirts and jeans or old army fatigues.  The mystery fans tended to be older, better dressed, more conservative. (p. 55)

It is this image that Lupoff portrays throughout the entirety of the book.  Now, I realize that the stereotype for "funny book" fans has not always been pretty, but let's be realistic.  By 1989 (when this book was published), comics were a more respected medium of entertainment, and it's readers and collectors were not just children, scruffy teenagers, and under/over-weight single nerds who lived in the basement of their mother's home.  I had a very difficult time not getting offended with every reference Lupoff makes in this style.

In addition, Lupoff, although to a lesser degree, makes a very clear prejudice against non-white races in this story.  Now, I realize that this was meant to come across as the main character's personal bias (which he eventually overcomes when he falls for the African-American police officer who is investigating the crime of the stolen comics and the murdered store owner), but with Lupoff's style of writing, it is sometime difficult (at least for me) to really discern if it is truly means just for the character, or if the author himself was not somewhat prejudiced.

Honestly, I was well over half-way through reading the book before I was able to truly overlook all of that and just enjoy the meat of the story.  Thirty-five comics, worth collectively a quarter of a million dollars, are stolen from a small shop outside of San Francisco.  Lindsey, who is an adjuster for the insurance company that insured the books, must investigate the claim to determine if it is valid.  At first, he writes it off as an over-inflated pricing of funny books.  As he delves more into the world of comics, something he never really got into (even though his own now-deceased father was a comic artist), he finds there is a lot more to these funny books than he realized.  These books are now being used for investments, as well as educational studies in schools of higher learning.  When the store owner is found murdered, Lindsey begins to think there is something more going on than a simple theft, particularly when the comics begin to re-appear, one by one.  Lindsey himself is attacked, and the race is on to uncover the truth about the stolen comics - and about his own father's death - a race that could cost him his own life!

The solution to the mystery is actually quite satisfying.  In some ways the plot reminded me of the old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries, where there were two separate stories going on within the mystery, but somehow they always managed to tie together before the end, and that is definitely what occurs here.

If one can overlook the belittling of comic fans and the racial prejudices within the story, it's actually a pretty good comic-book murder-mystery.

And what I most certainly did not realize when I bought the book is that this is actually the first in an ongoing series of Lindsey/Plum detective stories, where each book apparently focuses on a different type of collecting (such as classic cars, etc.).  Will I go out and search for any of the books in this series?  Probably not.  But, I did get some enjoyment from this mystery, so I guess it was a $1 well spent.

RATING:  6 golden age heroes out of 10 for making the mystery interesting and intriguing enough to get me past the other issues.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 31 - The Haunted Refrain

For the most part, I have been thoroughly enjoying these Dark Shadows audio books.  The use of the original actors returning to their original roles is a fan's dream come true, and the most of the stories continue the arcs from the television show - either filling in gaps between stories, or continuing the drama after the cancellation of the show.

But once in a while, an audio book comes along that really just doesn't quite cut it.  The Haunted Refrain, sadly, is one of those.

The story centers around Barbara, who, with her husband Grant, have just purchased a new house not far from Collinsport.  In the attic of the house, Barbara discovers an old gramophone.  At first, it's fun to play it, listen to the old record on it.  Then she hears the voices.  One, in particular, calling out for help.  The voice of Quentin Collins.

Interesting premise?  Indeed.  But, sadly, that's where the "interesting" part ends.  The story drags, with Barbara basically giving up everything to sit upstairs and talk to Quentin, who can't seem to remember how he got trapped in the gramophone, nor does he know who's after him.  Barbara is intent on helping him escape, even after learning all about the many loves of Quentin's life and how their lives ended.  Even after learning how many people Quentin has killed over the years, and how he killed them - - as a werewolf!  Her marriage is a shambles, her house a disaster. For her, all that matters is Quentin.

And as I listened to the drama, I asked myself:  why?  Why would anyone so easily accept the supernatural, such as this?  And why would anyone want to help someone they don't know escape from the situation?  It makes little sense, particularly how quickly Barbara falls for Quentin.  But even worse, and perhaps this is what really killed it for me.  There is never any explanation given for how Quentin was trapped in the gramophone. Nor is there any reason given for him being trapped in there.  Nor do we ever learn the identity of the person(s) who trapped him in there.  Nothing.  Nada.  No explanation whatsover.  And, while I would agree that sometimes horror can be the scariest when it is unexplained, this is not the case.  This story simply left me with the feeling of, "okay, what was the purpose of this?"

Obviously, in any ongoing series, you're never going to have a hit every single time.  Even in the daily soap, there are episodes or storylines that may not necessarily strike everyone's fancy.  For me, this audio book was one of those.  But it's over and done with now, so I can move on to the next one, with hopes it will be far better than this one.  And who knows?  Perhaps the writers will re-visit this story in the future and give us a more satisfying explanation.

RATING:  4 scratch, scratch, scratches out of 10, simply because this is Dark Shadows, after all, and anything that keeps the spirit of the show alive is worth some credit.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Blood Feud - a Southern Horror Comic

What if the Hatfields were a supernatual-lovin' cult that engaged in ritual sacrifices and the McCoys were vermin who became blood-thirsty vampires?  And what if this family feud became a blood feast that spread beyond their feuding families and into the community and beyond?

Well, if you've ever asked yourself this question and thought you'd never have the answer - wonder no more!  Just go out and pick up the 5-issue mini-series from Oni Press comics, Blood Feud!

Now, I'll admit - I picked up this mini-series because I love a good horror story.  The premise of this one seemed fun, so I figured I'd give it a try.  Plus, the back cover tributes to various horror flicks through the years certainly added to the charm - from Friday the 13th, to Evil Dead, to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to Fright Night, to Phantasm - how could I pass it up?

While the story deals with the family feud between the Stubbs and the Whatleys, the main characters are actually two country boys, Cecil and R.F., and an out-of-place college girl by the name of Sue.  Cecil and R.F. have always lived in Spider Creek, but Sue came there to study -- what else? -- spiders.  Shortly after the two men run into Sue on a back road, things start to happen.

Like the legion of spiders trailing along the country road.

Like the dead frogs that were still wiggling and squirming.

Like the near-dead Seth Stubbs that they find in the woods.

Like the Stubbs children who have been transformed into hideous, blood-thirsty vampires...

And all of that is just in the first issue alone!  So that should give you a pretty good idea of how the rest of the series goes.  It moves at a pretty good pace, but not so fast that you don't get to know the characters. one of my favorites being Jack, the "muscles" of the group.  He's not your typical dumb jock, either.  He's smart, he can handle himself in a fight, and while I don't want to spoil anything, let's just say he proves himself in a number of ways throughout the series, making him a true hero.

As the story progresses, it at first appears that the Stubbs are just victims to the Whatleys' evil ways, since the feud has been going on so long that no one can really remember how it all began.  But as we learn more about what's really going on, it becomes clear that perhaps the Whatleys' are just as much victims as the Stubbs.  It all leads up to a thrilling, and very satisfying conclusion (although, I will admit, I would have preferred a happier ending than the one given (you'll have to read it to find out what I'm talking about), but the ending definitely makes sense and gives the story closure.

I've never heard of the creators before - Cullen Bunn, Drew Moss, and Nick Filardi - but after reading this, I have no doubt I'll be hearing more from them.  Excellent story telling, both narratively and artistically, and the art most certainly fits the story.  It's not all doom and gloom (although it is horror, so there is plenty of bloodshed), as, like any good horror movie, there are moments of humor, as well as touching moments of human emotion.  And each issue ends with the perfect cliffhanger that leaves the reader salivating for more and impatient for the next issue!

A great read, well worth the money spent, and I look forward to seeing what these guys have in store next!

RATING:  9 feuding vampire clans out of 10 for a good ol' boy horror tale that doesn't pull any punches.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 2 - The Mystery of the Mosiac

Those inquisitive twins, Ethan and Ella, are back to solve another mystery in the next Greetings from Somewhere book for early readers!

The twins begin their journey around the world as their mother starts her new job, researching and writing about her travels to various countries.  While in the first book, Ethan and Ella had not been happy to be uprooted from their home, their friends, and their grandfather, their arrival in Venice, Italy opens their eyes to a brand new world to experience.  And they aren't in Venice very long before their grandfather, via e-mail, presents them with a brand new mystery to solve - find a 500-year old mosaic.  Their only clues are "Calle Farnese" and "look up."  So begins The Mystery of the Mosaic.

Now, keep in mind - this book (and this series) is aimed at readers, age 5 - 7.  This means that (a) there are pictures on pretty much every other page, if not every page; (b) the font is quite large; (c) the language and words are simple, with any new words clearly defined; and (d) the story is short and the mystery fairly easy.  What this does not mean is that the book is not good.  Quite frankly, I wish this series had been around back when I was in first grade. I have no doubt in my mind that I would have thoroughly enjoyed it (probably more so than I do now, as an adult reading it with a child's perspective in mind).

In some ways, this series of books would be a great precursor for Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries (the original series of books, not the ones currently being published).  For example, in this mystery, the twins begin their search for the mosaic that their grandfather sends them searching for, but along the way, they happen to see someone steal their new friend's gondola. They rush to their friend's aid and help him recover the stolen gondola, and it is Ethan's keen observations that prove the gondola belongs to their friend.  By helping their friend, they get to take their very first ride through the canals of Venice on the gondola, which, inadvertently, leads them to the discovery regarding the mosaic.  Throughout the story, readers are introduced to various facts about Venice and Italy, including some Italian words (with a two-page glossary in the back, listing the words from the story and their meanings).

For those of you with children who are just beginning to read - this is the series of books for you!

RATING:  9 pieces of colored glass out of 10 for introducing younger audiences to not only reading, but the joys that are mysteries.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 1 - The Case of the Missing Moonstone

"This is a made-up story about two very real girls: Ada Byron, who has been called the world's first computer programmer, and Mary Shelley, the world's first science-fiction author.  Ada and Mary didn't really know one another, nor did they have a detective agency together.  Mary and Ada were eighteen years apart in age, not three, as they are in the world of Wollstonecraft.  Setting that aside, the characters themselves are as true to history as we are able to tell. At the end of the book, there are notes that reveal more about what happened to each of them in real life, so that you can enjoy the history as much as I hope you'll enjoy the story.  Because the history bit is brilliant."  Stratford, p. 1.

The above preface from the first book in The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency gives a better description than I ever could about these two very unique and very enjoyable-to-read characters.  Jordan Stratford has taken the daughter of the famed poet and the sci-fi author of the 19th century and breathed new life into them, not only turning them into friends from different classes in society, but into detectives of the finest caliber.  Ada and Mary have very distinct, very different, personalities, but both of them are fun and lively and without a doubt, they capture the reader's attention immediately.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone provides readers with a sufficient background on both girls before delving into the mystery itself.  Mary is a typical fourteen year old girl in the 19th century who romanticizes everything.  Ada is an awkward eleven year old genius who lacks social skills but has a super-keen intelligence.  When Mary comes to Ada's home to be tutored by Percy Snagsby, it seems unlikely that the two girls could become friends.  Mary, who loves learning and can discern feelings and attitudes in those around her, attempts to reach out to Ada, who not only can't remember the names of the people in her own household, but can't seem to be bothered with speaking in complete sentences, and they ultimately find a common goal when Ada begins questioning the criminal element and the constabulary's ability to stop them.   Thus are the beginnings of the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency.

With the help of the young boy, Charles, who rides in the carriage with Mary every morning (but who really isn't there, since he has no money and gets free rides in exchange for helping the driver read and write), the girls place an ad in the newspaper as to their agency.  They receive stacks upon stacks of responses, to which Ada says "no" to them all.  Until Mary reads a letter from Rebecca Verdigris.  About a stolen necklace.  An inheritance from her father.  A false confession by the maid. To which, Ada responds, "Yes."

The journey from the girls' first meeting with Rebecca and her family and friends, to their visit to the prison to speak with the maid who confessed to the crime, to the ultimate showdown with the culprit behind the theft - it's a roller coaster ride of ups and downs, carriage chases and a hot air balloon chase, aliases and mistaken identities, and a secret revealed that nearly ends the girls' friendship before it begins.

At 203 pages of story and art, there is plenty of room for Stratford to flesh out his characters (even the minor ones such as Mr. Franklin, the butler who never speaks a word) and provide a well-rounded mystery that is clever and humorous.  The art, for both the cover and the interior illustrations, is by a very talented Kelly Murphy.  It varies between full page illustrations and drawings of simple objects surrounded by text, but all of the art is gorgeously rendered in pencil and very befitting of the story.

This book (and potentially the series) is a shining example of what children's books should be.  Lively, likable characters with an engaging story that is not dumbed-down or abbreviated for what some publishers deem to be the short attention spans of today's youth.  It's a shame there so few children's mystery series on the market today, and for those that are, only a few can compare to this one.  I can't wait to see what the next book holds in store!

RATING:  10 galloping horses out of 10 for taking two very real people and creating around them a fictional world of mystery for children to enjoy!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hocus Pocus Hotel - Book 2 - The Return of Abracadabra

And so we return to the Hocus Pocus Hotel (a/k/a The Abracadabra Hotel), where Tyler Yu lives and where his friend, Charlie Hitchcock visits more often than not to help solve a mystery involving magic - - and to help uncover the secrets behind the magic tricks being performed at the hotel!

One again, we get 209 pages, the first 8 pages of which are a two-page table of contents, a two-page spread of color art of the hotel itself, and four other pages for the title, credits, etc.  Thus, the tale itself doesn't begin until page 9, and upon turning the page, we find that page 10 is a full page color illustration.  So, as the first book seems to have more blank pages and pages of art than actual story, so does the second book follow suit.

Also the same as the first book, this second book, The Return of Abracadabra, actually features two stories, previously published as books 3 and 4, "The Assistant Vanishes!" and "The Trouble with Abracadabra."  Clearly, the original British versions of these books were considerably thinner, and I can only hazard a guess as to why Capstone, when printing the books here in America, decided to combine two stories into one for each published book.  Looking ahead on, it appears that the third book will follow this format.

As to the stories themselves, they are rather enjoyable.  Both Charlie and Ty are likable characters, and the easy reads of the short stories keeps the action moving fast.  In the first tale, one of Charlie and Ty's classmates disappears when a new magician performs on stage at the hotel.  The Great and Power Theopolis claims to be using real magic in his act, and while Ty and their other classmates fall for it, Charlie is more skeptical.  For instance, why would the magician need an entire floor of rooms to himself?  And why would his room have only one bedroom, when all the other rooms on the same floor have two bedrooms?  And why will Theopolis only speak to them when a reporter is present?  Plainly, not everything is what it seems, and Charlie is determined to expose the truth.

The second story actually sees the return of the once great Abracadabra (who has been hiding in plain sight at the hotel as the elevator operator).  He is set to start on stage once again, and all of the magicians in the area are competing to be on stage with him.  That is, until Theopolis shows up on the scene, giving Abracadabra the ultimate challenge - figure out how Theopolis will stage his next big magical performance or hand over the theater, the hotel, and his rooftop abode to him!  The older magician accepts the challenge, and he turns to Charlie and Ty for help.  Needless to say, the magical performance is a doozy - levitation, juggling, and a shocking disappearance leaves everyone stumped, including Abracadabra, Charlie, and Ty.  With the clock ticking before Abracadabra has to turn over his hotel, Charlie and Ty work overtime to figure out just how he did all of those things on his own ... or did he?

While certainly not high-brow literature, nor even the best children's books I've ever read, this series is light-hearted and fun - and believe me, in this day and age, everyone can use all the fun they can get!

RATING:  7 smoke and mirror magic tricks out of 10 for a quick, easy read that made me smile.