Monday, May 30, 2016

Mystery Girl - a Mini-Series by Dark Horse Comics

Mystery Girl is one of those comic book mini-series that I picked up based solely on the title.  I love mysteries, I love comics, so combine the two, and it's pretty much a given for me.  I was aware from the brief description of the series that it would be about a young woman who has the uncanny ability to know anything about a person and solve any mystery they might have just by being in their proximity, and that she knew nothing about how she can do what she can do.  Other than that, the rest was ... well, for lack of a better work, a mystery.

Trine Hampstead has carved a name for herself by helping people on the streets of London solve any mystery they have.  As her little sign says:  "All Mysteries Revealed!!  Everything Solved (Already) No Questions Asked."  And by "no questions asked," she means that no one is allowed to ask her how she knows what she knows.  Whether it's finding misplaced objects, locating missing bodies, or finding the location of some preserved mammoths in Siberia, there's pretty much nothing Trine cannot do - except tell people how it is she can do what she does.  That is the one mystery that she is unable to solve.

The mini-series follows Trine as she agrees to help a scientist locate some alleged mammoths still preserved under the ice of Siberia.  Also there are some journals that reveal the identity of the true owners of the lands where the mammoths are found.  Journals that a very unscrupulous man would kill to obtain, and so he sends an agent of his by the name of Linford to ensure that Trine and the scientist do not recover them - or, if they do, to steal them from the women and leave them to die in the cold of Siberia. Could this spell the end of Trine?  Has she solved her final mystery?

Paul Tobin provides a very enjoyable story, perfectly paced in the four issues, with no superfluous fluff to pad the story, nor does it feel rushed in any way.  The supporting cast is fun and diverse, and the villains are sly and menacing.  Tobin has definitely created a character that should (and hopefully will!) have more stories to tell.  Trine Hampstead is tough as nails, a bit sarcastic, and yet, she is always willing to take the time to help the little guy solve even the smallest of mysteries.  She could possibly be the best new character in comics in 2016.

The art by Alberto J. Alburquerque and Marissa Louise is beautifully rendered and very fitting for the story.  The characters are drawn distinctly and with their own unique physical appearances (unlike some artists of today, whose faces and bodies seem to be interchangeable), and the settings are detailed and vivid.  I certainly hope any future stories of Mystery Girl and drawn by these two talents!

It is books like this that really remind me why I enjoy the independent publishers and their books so much more than those titles published by "the big two."

RATING:  9 flights to Siberia out of 10 for giving me a brand new detective with a unique twist that I can enjoy (would have been 10 out of 10 had this been an ongoing series, rather than a mini!)

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Curious Cat Spy Club, Book 3 - Kelsey the Spy

The CCSC is back with more mystery, more fun, and more drama than ever!  Linda Joy Singleton clearly takes great joy with children's mystery, and it is evident in her writing.  The characters and situations are believable, the dialogue (both internal and external) is natural, and the mysteries are definitely on par with the best of them.

Kesley the Spy, the third book in this series, takes its title and premise from Harriet the Spy, a children's book of days gone by (which, quite frankly, I don't see on the shelves at Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million any more).  As readers of this series know, Kelsey keeps a notebook of secrets, where she writes down and keeps hidden the secrets that she discovers about her various friends, family, and schoolmates.  Kelsey likes to compare herself with Harriet, as she spies on people and keeps a notebook of the secrets she learns about them.  She never shares those secrets, not even with her best friends and fellow Curious Cat Spy Club members.  But all that could very well come crashing down on her when she accidentally takes the notebook to school and someone steals it!

While the focus mystery in this book is on the stolen book of secrets, as with any good children's series mystery, there are several subplots - such as where is Kelsey's brother running off to every day with that mysterious white box?  And what exactly is inside that white box?  And to whom does that grandfather clock in the CCSC Clubhouse really belong?  And why would an actor leave a century old Aldabra tortoise with the kids?  Under normal circumstances, the Club would be more than up for the challenge. But this time around, there are obstacles getting in their way.  Leo is determined to get his friend Frankie into the Club and spends more time with the theater props boy than he does with the Club.  Becca is faced with choosing between her Sparklers and the Club, particularly when two of the Sparklers begin fighting, placing the success of their booth at the Humane Society fundraiser in jeopardy.  And every time Kelsey thinks she has figured out who stole her notebook of secrets, she finds herself facing more questions - - alone!

Weighing in at 281 pages of story, there is plenty of room not only for the mystery, but for the ongoing character growth of each of the three main CCSC-ers, plus more development for the supporting cast (such as Kelsey's mom, who starts her new career with animal control; Kelsey's dad, who is still dealing with his inability to find employment; Kelsey's brother, who is more determined than ever to get into college and away from the small apartment the family now lives in; and the Sparklers, who create some nice antithesis to Kelsey and her friends).  We learn more about the community and the school, and by the end of the story, Kelsey and her family are in for a nice surprise.

And Singleton does not forget about her older fans.  She manages to sneak into the story some very cool nods to the children's mysteries of days gone by - such as the missing dog named "Bobbsey" and the address for the dog's owner is "1933 Larkspur Lane."  These, of course, reference the old Bobbsey Twins series (with the two sets of twins - Bert and Nan, Freddie and Flossie) and the 10th book in the Nancy Drew series, Password to Larkspur Lane (which was first published in 1933).  Then, we are reminded that the middle school that Kelsey and her friends attend is "Helen Corning Middle School" (named after Nancy Drew's first friend and sleuthing partner).  It's these little references here and there that add to the enjoyment of these books.

I know that the fourth book is on its way, and a fifth book is in the works, so at least I'll have two more wonderful adventures of these kids - although I hope that we'll be seeing many more to come after that!

RATING:  10 chiptastic cookies out of 10 for raising the bar on what a children's mystery should be!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 37 - The Flip Side

A recent trip to Jacksonville gave me the opportunity to listen to the next Dark Shadows audio tale, The Flip Side.  Continuing the ongoing thread of stories that has been weaving its way through the last five or so CDs, this tale focuses more on Carolyn (although Maggie, Sabrina, Amy, and Jim all make appearances in the story).

These stories seem to take place fifteen or so years following the end of the televised show (this is just my estimated guess - I don't know that a specific time frame has ever been referenced).  Nancy Barrett, the actress who portrayed Carolyn Stoddard in the original TV show reprises her role in this audio drama.  While she should only be in her 30s or 40s in the story, it is clear from her voice that she is considerably older than that in real life (which is odd, as the voices of the actresses for Maggie and Angelique, as well as Quentin, don't seem to sound quite as aged).  However, despite the sound of age in her voice, Barrett is able to maintain the character of Carolyn, and listening to her deliver her lines, I can easily picture her carefree attitude, her sudden bursts of emotion, and that flip of her hair.

The story is about Carolyn facing the consequences of her uncle's actions.  I have to give extra kudos to the writers of these stories that manage to not only incorporate continuity within the audio dramas themselves, but also incorporate elements from the stories on the TV show.  In this tale, Jonah Rooney, the nephew of the Blue Whale's bartender, Bob Rooney, is revealed to be the son of the couple who were hit by Roger Collins' car way back when, the result of which was Burke Devlin taking the fall for the drunk driving incident.  Even more fun was the fact that this Jonah Rooney is actually a Parallel Time version of himself, having managed to reach this reality through a special coin that he has.  He has hopped through a number of realities, looking for just the "right" Carolyn to exact his revenge on Roger Collins - including one where Carolyn actually helped the Leviathans (another reference to a storyline from the TV show).

There are a number of references to characters and storylines that caught my attention in this one.  Tom Lacey is one of them, with a reference to him having interviewed Maggie Evans, but that Amy Jennings turned down his request.  His story has been referenced over several CDs now, and it will finally play out in the next audio book, Beyond the Grave.  There was a reference to Victoria Winters, which thrilled me, since she was always my favorite character.  Even though the reference was merely in the form of a question, "And whatever happened to Victoria Winters?" - it still gives me hope that one of these days, we'll have an audio tale about Victoria.  (I know Lara Parker has included her in her upcoming book, The Heiress of Collinwood.)   And there is a reference to Carolyn's old beau, Buzz Hackett, who is surprisingly an accountant now, who lives in another town with his boyfriend (say what?!).  Finally, there are references to Barnabas and Julia being off to visit Professor Stokes in Cairo, which will be revealed further down the road in another audio tale titled The Curse of Shurafa.  There are a lot of other bits here and there (including Carolyn's rather amusing reference to the fact that the juke box in the Blue Whale has played the same old music for years).

The writing is really good for this one, giving us more of a psychological thriller rather than a scary/horror tale.  We get an in-depth look at Carolyn's character, where she's been, what she's been through, and how she's grown and strengthened over the years.  The way in which she turns the tables on Jonah and her ultimate victory are definite fan-pleasers.

I am hoping this great run of stories continues, as they are truly a fantastic tribute to the original show, its creators, cast, and crew.

10 cursed coins out of 10 just for mentioning Victoria Winters - give me an actual appearance by the character, and we may see a rating higher than a 10!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Two - The Coven of Mystics

I was thrilled to get back into the strange and dark world of Courtney Crumrin.  While there was hesitation with the first volume - uncertainty as to the art and the unknown story - there was definitely no hesitation this time.

Having thoroughly enjoyed my first venture into the world of our sour little protagonist, I held out some pretty high hopes for this second volume, and Ted Naifeh did not let me down.  With nearly 130 pages of story and art, including a new introduction and epilogue, there was plenty to love about this book.  In The Coven of Mystics, Courtney is introduced to the council, a coven of mystics who have been desperately trying to recruit her uncle into their group for many years.  She also discovers that her teacher at school is a mystic, one who is fully aware of Courtney's own dabblings into the arcane world.

Broken into four chapters, in part one, Courtney comes face to face with the darkest of dark demons, Tommy Rawhead, who has been summoned by unknown forces and is killing innocent children in the area.  Courtney's uncle is called upon to take out the demon, and he does so - but not before Courtney meets the vile creature.  Courtney's uncle warns the council - someone called the demon forth for a purpose, and it would behoove them to find out who and why.

In chapter two, Courtney discovers that her cat is not the only talking cat in the area - and she is fortunate enough to be invited to a meeting of the clan.  Unexpectedly taking the form of the cat (since humans are not allowed to see the clan meetings), Courtney is witness to a "hunt," in which a new leader of the clan will emerge.  But during the course of the hunt, Courtney bears witness to a very different hunt - a human chasing one of the night creatures.  Sensing something is wrong, Courtney stops the human from killing the night thing and saves its life.  Which, turns out to be very fortuitous, as when Courtney returns home, she discovers that very creature is now a guest in her uncle's house!

Chapter three finds Courtney looking for a way to help the night thing after discovering the council, along with the whole town, blames the creature for placing a curse of the ever-so-popular Madame Hermia.  Courtney, with the help of some newfound friends, breaks into Radley Hall and steels the head of Tommy Rawhead, intent on using it and its knowledge to help the night thing.  Unbeknownst to her, her actions did not go unseen...

In the final chapter, the night thing faces his final fate, when the council hears the arguments of all involved and calls upon Uncle Aloysius to turn over the creature to them.  Courtney knows the creature is innocent - she knows that one of the council is behind the actions - but no one will believe her.  She helps the night thing escape, and just as it is about to return home, to the world down below, it is struck down by one of the council.  Courtney, though, gets her final revenge - for she gives Tommy Rawhead back his full form on one condition - he take out the villain who killed the night thing and take him back to the under-realm with him!

The final scenes of this book provide some insight into Courtney's growth as a character.  While each chapter is an individual story, there are continuing threads of various plots throughout - one of which is a young classmate of Courtney's who is being bullied by the same kids who previously bullied her.  At first, Courtney ignores them, leaving the girl to her fate.  In the final pages, Courtney comes across them bullying the girl again - and she warns them, "I don't ever want to hear about you bothering people anymore.  If I do ... you'll find out exactly what Courtney Crumrin can do."

Such a perfect way to end the tale.  Courtney, through her experiences, is becoming stronger, less likely to take gruff from others, and more determined than ever to take down those she deems to be "villains."  She's not a hero by any means, but she's definitely growing into someone who is not afraid to help those in need.

Can't wait to see what's in store for her in volume three!

9 arcane artifacts out of 10 for the reminder that evil does not always reside in dark demons, but can easily be found in human form.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 12 - The Sign in the Smoke

First, let me begin by saying - 249 PAGES OF STORY!!!!!!!

Okay, now that I've got that out of my system.  And if you're wondering why I am so excited over 249 pages of story in a Nancy Drew book, well let's see - when the original Nancy Drew books came out in the '30s, they were over 200 pages in length.  When they dropped from 25 chapters to 20 and began revising the earlier texts, they dropped down to an average of 180 pages of story, even when they changed to paperbacks and a new publisher in 1979.  Then, Simon & Schuster took over the books completely, and the format changed again, from 20 chapters down to 15 or so chapter, and the page count dropped even further (140 to 160 pages, depending on the book).  However, the font remained relatively small and the lines tight.

Enter the new millenia, when Simon & Schuster decided to revamp the series - out went the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and in came Nancy Drew, Girl Detective.  Suddenly, the font grew larger, the lines spread further apart, and the page count remained in the low hundreds.  Of course, with the larger font and more space between lines, this ultimately led to less story for the buck.  The NDGD series only lasted 47 books before it got replaced with the current Nancy Drew Diaries.  While it was nice to see a return to the painted covers, the large font and open space continued, as well as the 140 or less page count.

Until now...

Weighing in at 249 pages of story (which would probably equal about 160 - 180 pages in the old format), this is by far the longest Nancy Drew story we have seen in years.  Which gave me hope.  Plus, the story was about a ghost haunting an old camp.  Something else that gave me hope - a story that wasn't about sabotage!  So, I went into this book with high hopes...

First, let's look at the plot.  Nancy, Bess, and George head out to be counselors a camp that Bess used to attend as a child.  The camp was closed just two years after Bess' last visit due to some tragic circumstances (which turn out to be a child drowning in the lake).  New owners have bought the camp and hope to re-open it with success.  But, according to one of the counselors warns them that all is not right.  That child who drowned is still out there.  Haunting the camp.  Waiting for new campers.   Nancy, of course, doesn't believe in ghosts.  Until something pulls her under the water.  And then the campers' sleeping bags disappear, only to turn up in the lake.  And then one of the cabin's is flooded with water.  And then a warning sign is lighted with fire in front of the dining hall.  Suddenly, the case is all too real, and Nancy realizes she has to do something before someone really gets hurt.  And that's when three of the young campers disappear!

Now, I'll readily admit, the plot reads somewhat like a tamed-down version of Nancy Drew meets Friday the 13th.  Which, quite frankly, is alright with me.  I love both franchises, and it was actually rather fun to see how Nancy would do in the wild, with no technology and no easy-to-find answers on the internet.

Second, let's discuss the actual writing.  Whoever ghosted this book may not have known the character of Nancy Drew well, but he or she definitely knows how to write characters.  With 249 pages of story, there was opportunity to flesh out many of the supporting cast - such as Bella, the former camper turned counselor who is obsessed with the ghost story; such as Harper, the young camper in Nancy's cabin who keeps to herself and her books and has problems making friends; such as Maya, the "mini-Bess" counselor-in-training who is assigned to Nancy's cabin and helps keep Nancy focused.  Readers even get insight into many of the other counselors, CITs, and even some of the other campers.  You actually have an opportunity to learn about and care about (or, in Bella's case, greatly dislike!) the characters.  There is also time to develop the story at a slower pace, so there is greater build up for a much more anticipated payoff at the end when the "ghost" is finally revealed.

Unfortunately, we are provided a Nancy who, while admitting she doesn't believe in ghosts, actually questions the possibility of one's existence in this book.

'You would think after solving so many cases in which 'ghosts' ended up being, well, 'not ghosts,' I wouldn't believe in them.  But sometimes it's hard not to."  (p. 52)

Say what?  Nancy Drew has never and would never believe in ghosts.  She is far too logical for that.  And since when do we get such detailed descriptions of Nancy needing to use the bathroom?  Well, there was that instance in the first Nancy Drew Super Mystery (who remembers that infamous pickle jar?).  But aside from that, references to the use of facilities has never been a part of these mysteries.  Yet, here we are, with more than a half-page description of Nancy dreaming she has to go, but stuck high in a tree and can't get down...

"Meanwhile the pressure was building, and I was getting really worried I wasn't going to make it!  The dream seemed to go on forever until suddenly my eyes popped open and there I was staring at the ceiling of Pine cabin, desperately having to pee.  I scrambled down as quickly as I could without stepping on Taylor and ran to use the bathroom.  Hugely relieved, I finished up and was walking back to my bed when I heard it..."

Okay, this is wayyyyyy more than I ever wanted to know about Nancy's physical needs.  It adds absolutely nothing to the story and, quite honestly, felt like nothing more than giving kids some giggling time at reading about someone using the bathroom.  Definitely out of place in a Nancy Drew story.

And now, my friends, for a SPOILER ALERT.  If you don't want to know anything about how this tale ends, read no further.  But there are a couple of points to be made about the ending.

First and foremost, Nancy accuses the wrong person and has them kicked out of the camp.  What?!?!  Now, Nancy has been wrong before, there is no doubt, but never to the point where she has someone punished before she has true evidence.  This, of course, opens the door for the real culprit, who turns out to be related to the drowning victim and has come back to the camp to teach everyone a lesson (hmmm, another Friday the 13th moment here).  Nancy (a la Alice Hardy from the original Friday the 13th) faces off alone against the culprit - but, whereas Alice found the determination to take down Mrs. Voorhees, Nancy is not only fearful and scared, she is actually wishing someone would come save her...

"I closed my eyes.  Please, Bess, I prayed silently.  Please anyone..."

This is DEFINITELY NOT the Nancy Drew we all know and love.  She wouldn't be praying for someone to help her.  She would be looking around, trying to find a way to distract the culprit and overpower them.  But that isn't the worst aspect of this ending.  Not only is Nancy a timid scaredy-cat, but she is ultimately saved by...are you ready?...a 10-year old girl who smashes her glasses to take a piece of broken glass and slam it into the culprit's leg, distracting her long enough for Nancy to escape.

Seriously?  We are supposed to believe that fearless Nancy Drew has to be saved by a 10-year old child?  Ugh, talk about a tremendous let down after such a great build up.  (Although, admittedly, that child was Harper, so I did cheer a bit at the idea that Harper broke out of her shell and did something so dramatic to save Nancy.)

Overall, this book was a VAST IMPROVEMENT over the prior eleven books in this series, as well as all 47 books of the previous series.  If Simon & Schuster keeps on this path (higher page count, more character development, stronger story), then they might actually be able to revitalize Nancy Drew and get her books back on the shelves.

The next book, The Ghost of Grey Fox Inn, is listed on Amazon at 192 pages - which, taking out the front pages, a possible preview of the next book, etc., might leave us with 180 pages of story, which is still not bad.  Plus, it's another story about a ghost, so that's another sign that this series may have hope yet!

RATING:  8 roaring rounds of Kumbaya out of 10 for taking steps to lead Nancy Drew in the right direction for making her stories readable and enjoyable again.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Tom Stetson, Book 2 - On the Trial of the Lost Tribe

I stepped back into my Tom Stetson series to read the second book, On the Trail of the Lost Tribe (although, interestingly enough, the spine lists it only as The Lost Tribe).  As with the first book, I was surprised that I actually enjoyed reading the story, since I'm not really a huge fan of the children's series with male protagonists (and, come to think of it, that applies to comics as well, since more than 80% of the comic series I read have female leads).

This book picks up pretty much shortly after the end of the last one.  Tom's uncle's native ward, Manolo, was kidnapped by his tribesman in order to force a marriage between Manolo and the chief's daughter.  Tom and his uncle must once again brave the jungles of Brazil to locate Manolo, since the Tapintin tribe had moved their camp due to the giant ants that Tom and his uncle released on the old camp.  While searching for the Tapintin camp, however, the adventurers are captured by the rival tribe of Pomora Indians.  Tom's uncle sees an opportunity to try and "civilize" this tribe, but does not get very far before the war between the tribes begins to escalate, and Tom and his uncle are caught right smack in the middle.  As with Tom Stetson and the Giant Jungle Ants, there is plenty of action and narrow escapes, but the two do manage to find Manolo and rescue him.

The author, John Henry Cutler, again shows his knowledge of the Brazilian fauna and wildlife, with the first chapter literally filled with vivid descriptions of trees, flowers, and plant-life, as well as various animals and fish native to the jungles.  He bestows this same knowledge on Leo Jason (Tom's uncle), who points out a number of life-saving things that can be found in the forest - such as the bamboo stalks that collect rain water or the cow trees that produce a drinkable milky sap.  He also explains the various ways the various tribes have learned to communicate with one another without the use of modern technology, using vines and other natural items within the jungles.  There is a lot of rich, vivid descriptions throughout the story, which easily draw the reader in and put you right there with Tom and his uncle.

I would certainly be amiss if I did not mention Ursula Koering's art throughout the book.  There are sixteen full-page illustrations throughout the 22 chapters. Koering helps bring the jungle to life, whether it be the two-page endpapers spread, or the individual illustrations depicting the tribe fishing or Tom and his uncle crossing the jungle via vines from one tree to the next.  I'll readily admit, as a kid, I always enjoyed the illustrations in the children's mystery series I read, so when they did away with them, I was very disappointed.  It's a treat to go back now and read these older series and see the various illustrators and how they helped bring the stories to life for the readers.

As with the first book (and the next, as well), the dust jacket features a wrap around painted scene, this time with Tom slicing his way through the thick jungle vegetation, a fire burning fiercely behind him.  The book ends with Tom, his uncle, and Manolo safely aboard Mr. Jason's boat, heading for the famed city of Manoas.

RATING:  8 vine-swinging spider monkeys out of 10 for keeping the action going strong from beginning to end - never a dull moment in this book!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Jessica Farm - Volume 1

Each month, when we get our Previews book, I always go page by page through the independent comic section, looking for little known treasures that might offer some great reading.  I've learned in recent years that independent comics carry a lot higher quality of story-telling and are much less restricted in their ability to pack a lot of story into less pages than the Big Two (and yes, I'm referring to Marvel and DC, whose comics are more about the art and flashy splash pages these days than they are about actual story).  So, when I stumbled across a new book from Fantagraphic Books a couple of months ago, I thought the description sounded good, so I ordered it.

"Jessica Farm fuses adventure, fantasy and psychological horror, all stamped with Josh Simmons' macabre sensibility.  In Book 1, Jessica arrives at her Grandparents farm and the banality is subverted by a ratcheting sense of dread, as we discover that Jessica's increasingly nightmarish house is filled with creatures around every corner."

I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  I could have easily done an internet search, I suppose, and learned all I could about the book and the author, but why spoil the surprise?  Books 1 and 2 were both being offered, so I bought them both.  I recently got them in our comic shipment, so I sat down today and read the first volume.


Jessica Farm is far from anything at all what I was expecting.  There are so many horror movies and television shows that deal with a person who goes to a house/farm/school/etc. and discovers that nothing is what it seems.  Is it a dream, a la Nightmare on Elm Street?  Is it a possession, a la Amityville Horror?  Is it a link to pure evil, a la Hellraiser?  Or is it something else entirely?  With Jessica Farm, it is definitely something else.

First, let's talk about the concept (something which I either missed in the Previews description of the book, or it simply wasn't advertised that way).  This is apparently a labor of love in every sense of the word for the creator, Josh Simmons.  He is not only the author, but also the artist and the letterer, and this book (or rather, series of books) is what the back of the book describes as a "life-spanning work in which the cartoonist is drawing one page every month for 50 years (this volume was created between January 2000 and December 2007)."  Yes, you read that right.  This man creates just one page a month - so that the 96-page first volume took him 8 years to complete. Wow.  I mean, really - wow.  That is definitely some dedication right there!

Next, let's talk about the art.  Simmons' art is without a doubt a style all unto itself.  You would never see this kind of art in any mainstream book, that's for sure.  And while, at first, I was rather turned off by the simplistic, almost child-like drawings, the more pages I read, the more I began to realize just how detailed and pointed his art really is.  For example, Jessica's father is shown in the book only as a shadow - you never see his face, his body, his anything.  Except his hands.  You do see his hands, which are three-fingered, white-gloved hands that bear a striking resemblance to the hands of a certain mouse here in Central Florida.  Coincidence?  Or how about the grandeur of the attic on page 22, which is one of the very few full splash pages in the book - shadowed with only slivers of light coming through the large window about, he creates an amazing effect of roominess and enormity, while at the same time, a sense of stuffiness and almost-claustrophobia.  Then, of course, there's the nudity.  This book is certainly not intended for children.  There is full frontal female and (surprisingly!) male nudity within the book.  But, before you think it, there is no gratuitousness to it at all.  It falls meaningfully within the story, and it's done realistically (meaning no over-sized breasts or engorged male members that are beyond human reality).  None of it is there to titillate, and in some ways, it adds to the odd horror of this tale.

Which bring us to the tale itself.  The story opens with Jessica waking up on Christmas morning and talking to a monkey on her dresser, who reminds her it is Christmas day.  She is very excited until her father appears at the door to also remind her it is Christmas day.  Her reactions to each are very telling, setting the tone of the tale. With the monkey, she is excited and can't wait; with her father, however, Jessica hangs her head and the reader gets an immediate sense of dread.  It isn't until later - after Jessica showers to the sound of a big band playing from her soap dish; after she is dragged into a dark room by a filthy, vulgar-mouthed old man who shows her a pit of babies with their eyes and tongues removed; after she visits the big band again, this time in the attic where they are putting on a concert for a room full of tiny people; after she visits the unbelievable heights of the towers, which overlooks the countryside far and wide; and after she meets up with the Captain on her journey back to her room - it is only then that the reader begins to realize that Jessica is escaping.  She is being physically abused by her father, and while she repeatedly tells everyone she has to face him, at every turn she is doing anything but.  Which raises the ultimate question regarding the story - is everything but a dream in her mind, a way for her to escape the physical violence that is her father?  Or is all of it really happening, and Jessica resides in some outlandish realm of supernatural and horrific beings?  And what of her mother?  The story is completely silent, never mentioning or showing her once, leaving the reader to wonder.

Jessica Farm is in no way what I was expecting, but ultimately, I think that was a good thing.  It is surreal and psychological in a way no other comic I've ever read has achieved, and despite its not-so-typical art and off-beat story, it has definitely caught my attention and my interest - which, I believe, is what any creator really wants, yes?

RATING:  6 crangle-shitters out of 10 for keeping me completely off-kilter while I was reading this book and surprising the heck out of me with a unique and totally unexpected story!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 36 - The Lucifer Gambit

The final Dark Shadows audio drama that I listed to while traveling back from New Orleans a few weeks back was volume 36 - The Lucifer Gambit.  Featuring the first audio to focus on Amy Jennings, it features an all new cast, with only Nancy Barrett and Lisa Richards from the original television show providing voices for their created characters (Carolyn Stoddard and Sabrina Jennings, respectively) and a clip from a previous audio tale with David Selby (Quentin Collins).  Unfortunately, the actress who portrayed Amy Jennings in the original television show was either unavailable or unwilling to do the audio story, and thus, Stephanie Ellyne assumes the role.

This tale finds Amy answering a call at Collinwood from a desperate Dominic Randall.  He's looking for Professor Stokes, as he is being threatened by something from beyond.  At first, Amy lets it go, but the more she dwells on it (and her recent work with Professor Stokes across the ocean), the more she realizes she can help.  So she makes her way to the Randall home, only to find it shrouded completely in darkness - the windows are shut, secured, and blocked, and when she enters the great mansion, there are no lights.  A disembodied voice calls out, and before she knows it, Amy is drawn into a web of deceipt, dark magic, murder, and vengeance.

Once again, the writer, producers, and actors capture the true Dark Shadows feeling.  While it takes a bit getting used to, thinking of young Amy Jennings as an adult who now has an understanding of the occult and does not flinch at ghosts, demons, and black magic, it is good to see that there is now someone in the DS audio realm who can deal with these matters (since Grayson Hall and Thayer David are both gone).  Plus, the use of a protection amulet that Amy has received from Professor Stokes plays a very important part in the drama as it unfolds.  And Dominic Randall makes for a very interesting antagonist, as he presents himself first as the victim, with the ghost of his wife being the vengeful spirit - but, as with any well-written story, appearances can be deceiving, and the listener soon learns that Isobell Randall, while definitely dead and definitely seeking vengeance, has a valid reason for wanting revenge against her husband.

As with recent audio stories, this one incorporates elements to keep the ongoing saga of Dark Shadows moving forward - for when Amy is on the train returning to Collinsport at the end, not only does she hear about the television crew in Collinsport (foreshadowing a future story), but she also runs into Sabrina Jennings, her sister-in-law, who was last seen in The Enemy Within, where it was revealed that she inherited her husband's werewolf curse and killed him - something Amy does not yet know!

The horrors in Collinsport continue, and I, for one, couldn't be happpier.

RATING:  10 manipulating demons out of 10 for the reminder that the dark shadows over Collinsport have a very long reach indeed!

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Kyle Callahan Mysteries, Book 5 - Kill Switch

It's hard to call this book 5 of the series, since technically this follows the three-book "Pride" series starting Mark McNease's middle-aged gay detective; but, it seems McNease is now including the inserted novel, Death in the Headlights, as a Kyle Callahan Mystery (even though it is more a Detective Linda tale). However, I can roll with it, and if the author wants to consider Kill Switch the fifth Callahan mystery, who am I to argue?

Set some months after the end of Death by Pride, this book finds Kyle in therapy following his shooting of the pride killer.  Killing another person cannot be easy for any regular joe who's never fired a gun before, and McNease's treatment of his character dealing with this is something that keeps the book very real for me.  Yes, Kyle is passing middle aged.  Yes, Kyle and his partner have settled down to a normal, routine life after getting married.  Yes, Kyle faces many of the same uncertainties about the future and his job that many of us do.  All of those things make it "real" for the reader.  But having Kyle deal with the emotional trauma of having killed another person - having not only snuffed out that man's life, but to watch that life drain from the other person's eyes as they died - is a great way for the author to ground his character, to make him more human.  Regardless of the fact it was done in self-defense, I personally can't image how I would cope with the fact if I killed another human being.  A life taken is a life taken; it doesn't matter that the other person is a serial killer.

So begins the premise of this latest book from McNease, and it also prompts Kyle Callahan's foray into the world of private detecting.  Searching for a way to cope with what he has done, Kyle knows he needs something to re-engage with life - and what better way to do that than to do the one thing that really makes him feel alive - solving crime!  And Kyle gets his first case when he agrees to help the man at the neighborhood deli discover who shot and killed his teenage daughter three years ago. It's a cold case, and Kyle doesn't really know if he can find anything that the police missed or not, but he sees it as a way to keep himself busy and distracted and (hopefully) get him back into living again.

Detective Linda Sikorsky (retired detective, that is) joins Kyle on his quest, although she doesn't believe they will find anything new at this point.  Three years is a long time, and if the police couldn't find anything to locate the killer, what makes them think they can?  But someone in a hoodie killed Skate's daughter while she was walking to a restaurant.  Someone killed her simply for her cell phone (the title of the book comes from the "kill switch" that phones now have that can prevent someone else from using your phone if it is taken from you).  Someone killed her while Skate was talking to his daughter on that cell phone.  He heard the shot that ended her life.  He heard the last words she ever said to anyone.  And since then, Skate has lost his wife, his job, and his reason for living.  So Kyle, with Detective Linda at his side, begins to retrace the girl's steps that day when she skipped school, shared a lunch with one of her best friends at New York's top notch, most expensive restaurant, saw a movie on her own, then took a short cut down a side street to meet up with her other friends - a short cut that cut her life short.

McNease's writing, as with his prior books, can be a bit repetitive at times.  Kyle's previous mysteries are mentioned several times throughout the book.  Danny's relationship with his former boss and her retirement to Florida are mentioned more than once.  Kyle's relationship with his boss, Imogene, and his fear that she would move away when she made a splash reporting on Kyle's previous crime-solving adventures show up several times.  Not really sure the reason for these repeats throughout the story, but I have to admit it does give the reader a sense of re-hash, as if McNease either forgot he mentioned these things just a chapter or two before, or if McNease simply isn't sure what to have his characters thinking about in certain situations, so he falls back on the same thoughts over and over.  (Although, thinking about it now, I guess in real life, we do have a tendency to re-hash some of the same thoughts over and over again, don't we?)

Otherwise, McNease gives a well-plotted, intricate mystery.  There is no surprise as to the killer, since, as with his other books, the author shares chapters from the killer's point-of-view.  The real tension comes from the race against time that occurs in each book as the reader waits to see how (and if) Kyle will be able to figure out who is the murderer before the killer strikes again.  And, another thing I thoroughly enjoy about these books is that, although they are considered gay mysteries, they are not explicit or heavy in sexual situations as a number of gay mystery series tend to be (under the misguided idea that somehow gay men will not read a murder mystery unless you throw in some explicit sex scenes, or show a scantily clad man on the cover).  McNease provides a well-written mystery where the protagonist just happens to be gay.  It's not pornography, it's a mystery, and for that, I give McNease kudos!

Thankfully, this is not the last Kyle Callahan book.  After the last page, McNease provides a short hint of things to come - The Human Kind, the next Kyle Callahan mystery, as well as Triple Threat, a collection of three Detective Linda novellas.  I'll be keeping an eye out for both of these books.

RATING:  7 cheap plaster busts of Chopin out of 10 for keeping Kyle Callahan grounded in reality while providing a great mystery.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 35 - The Enemy Within

The Dark Shadows legend continues...

This time, we catch up with Cyrus Longworth and Sabrina Jennings, who are living in Bangor, Maine in the same small subdivision.  Sabrina has just moved in, and Cyrus, who is the local handyman, helps her carry boxes into her new home.  Cyrus and Sabrina are nice to one another, unaware that each harbors a dangerous secret.

Lisa Richards and Christopher Pennock reprise the roles they played in the television show, as does Nancy Barrett (who makes a brief appearance as Carolyn Stoddard).  The CD continues the story from the previous CD as Jim Hardy has now taken over as Sheriff in Collinsport following the death of Sheriff Patterson, and there are archived clips in the story from other CDs, such as The Carrion Queen, The Poisoned Soul, and The Fall of the House of Trask.

As fans of Dark Shadows will recall, Cyrus Longworth has a dark side - literally.  John is a voice inside of Cyrus, one that only he can hear.  A voice that longs to take over and live life through Cyrus.  But Cyrus has learned how to control him - how to keep him from coming out and doing damage.  Or so he thought...when murders start to occur right within his community, shortly after Sabrina arrives, he begins to grow more and more concerned for Sabrina's safety.  Sabrina, who has lost her husband and who saw her husband's sister take off following his death.  She is alone and looking for solitude, but Cyrus can't seem to stay away.

The question becomes - - who is in greater danger?  Cyrus?  Or Sabrina?

In true Dark Shadows fashion, the horror escalates, and the mystery deepens with each turn in the story, and while it started to become obvious who was the real "villain" in this tale, it was a whole lot of fun listening the story unfold.  And the story ends with one of the characters on a train bound back for Collinsport, it's certain that this story is far from over!

RATING:  10 howling werewolves out of 10 for building up the suspense and providing a true-to-Dark-Shadows payoff at the end!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Young & Yang Mysteries, Book 1 - The Wig in the Window

I suppose I have been very fortunate when picking out new series books to try.  It seems lately, most of the new series I've plucked off the shelves have been rather enjoyable (with only a few exceptions).  The Wig in the Window is definitely one I enjoyed.

This is Kristen Kittscher's first book, and it's clear that she knows children (I guess the fact that she was a middle-school teacher might have helped on that end).  The two main characters, Sophie Young and Grace Yang, are very typical middle-schoolers, with all the problems that children of that age face - homework, parents, bullies, tattle-tales, and adults that put little stock in the stories they tell.  So, it should come as no surprise that when Sophie and Grace are witness to a very unusual scene at the home of one of their school counselors, no one believes them.  It then falls on the two girls - Young and Yang - to uncover the truth behind Dr. Agford's strange behavior and reveal the secrets that she is hiding from the school and all those around her.

The story is told in first-person point-of-view, from the perspective of Sophie Young.  She is insecure, she has her own idiosyncrasies (such as her penchant for all things feng shui), and she has her ups and downs with her best friend, Grace.  While she enjoys their little spy missions, she gradually realizes that while Grace plans out all the missions, it seems Sophie is the one taking all the risks - particularly when they witness what appears to be a murder, and Dr. Agford is the killer!  However, when Sophie calls 9-1-1, she finds that everything is not always what it seems.

The police only find a kitchen covered in beet stains (where Dr. Agford makes her annual batch of beet juice to hand out to everyone).

Dr. Agford becomes overly concerned for Sophie's well-being and insists on having daily sessions in the counselor's office at school.

Her parents ground her and forbid her from hanging out with Grace.

Sophie finds herself a social outcast at school, forced to sit with the only other outcast, Trista Bottoms.

Even worse, Sophie finds herself the target of the girls of S.M.I.L.E., Dr. Agford's little groupies who will do anything and everything to please the counselor.

But none of that stops Sophie.  She and Grace know there is something strange going on, and Dr. Agford's growing nervousness and actions to silence the two girls only proves that they are on to something.  Sneaking out in the middle of the night, breaking into Dr. Agford's house to look for evidence, and even teaming up with Trista to find clues, lead the girls to not only working hand-in-hand with a rather unusual F.B.I. agent (or so she claims), but to discover some rather startling secrets about Dr. Agford that they never expected.

Truly, with this book, the reader beware - nothing is ever as it truly seems!

Kittscher provides a very satisfying conclusion to the mystery, taking the reader on a roller-coaster ride that is Sophie's life.  Believable characters, plenty of action and sneaking around, and twists-and-turns that will keep the reader guessing right along with Sophie.  And, once again, at 346 pages, Harper Collins (publisher) and Kittscher prove that a full-length, fleshed-out novel can make for good reading and be successful (at least, enough to warrant a second book - The Tiara on the Terrace), thus defeating Simon & Schuster's unsubstantiated belief that the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books cannot be more than 120 - 140 pages, since "children don't have the attention span to read books longer than that."  Pffft.  There are too many books, such as this, that would prove otherwise.

RATING:  10 flying wigs out of 10 for mystery, excitement, and danger, as well as homework, detention and counseling!