Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire - Volume 02

The second volume of The Marhawa Desire picks up right where Volume 1 ended - with Professor Doug Wright and his nephew, Ricky, joining forces with senior teacher Ray and security guard Kapoor to investigate possible virus-infected victims in the underground control area of the Marhawa Academy.  And, with all of the backstory and set-up taking place in Volume 1, it's pretty much a given that this second volume begins with action and keeps it going all the way through.

The pacing moves quickly, as the Professor and his team face off against the attacking zombies below the school - the only difference is, these zombies move fast, and shooting them in the brain doesn't stop them.  Professor Wright figures out it's a new strain of the T-virus, particularly since his nephew was bit in the first book and hasn't turned, and in this volume, Kapoor is bit and doesn't turn.  So as to avoid any spoilers, I will say that not everyone in the group makes it out of that underground center alive...

We are treated to another interlude with Chris Redfield and his team, as they begin tracking Professor Wright.  We also learn much more about Mother Gracia - why she's so intent on keeping a lid on the virus outbreak and what occurred to cause her to become so reserved and secluded.  It all seems to center around Nanan Yoshihara, a young student who died months prior.  A young student who has been seen recently on campus, wearing a dark cloak.  A young student who, quite potentially, is the one who released this new virus upon the school.

The art is once again stunning.  It is not your typical manga art (at least, not what I'm used to seeing in manga) - the action scenes literally seem to move, the expressions on the characters are realistic, and the violent scenes are vivid and bloody (despite the black and white art).  It's everything a Resident Evil fan could want.  And, surprisingly, I found this volume easier to read (since it reads as true manga, from right to left).  I guess the more I read them, the more used to it I become.  I do find myself, when I turn the page, wanting to read the left panel first, but I catch myself when I notice it doesn't quite connect with the last panel of the previous page.  I figure by the time I get to the last volume in this series, I just might have it down right.

Very cinematic, this series is - I'm taking my time reading it, as I know once I hit that last volume, I'm going to be so disappointed there aren't any more.

RATING:  10 sledgehammer-wielding security guards out of 10 for keeping a horror story clean (i.e., no nudity and no vulgarities that I can recall seeing while I read it)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Doctor Who Short Stories - Heroes and Monsters Collection

Right from the get-go, let me say that I bought this book because it has stories with Donna Noble in them.  Of all the companions the new incarnations of the Doctor have had, Donna is by far my favorites - so, I gobble up pretty much any and all books, comics, and audio dramas that have her in them.  That's not to say I don't like some of the other companions, but let's face it - Donna was the only companion who was not in love with the Doctor and who was strong enough and had the guts to call the Doctor out and tell him like it is!

Of the 26 short stories in this collection, only three of them had Donna - "Disappearing Act," "Once Upon a Time," and "Most Beautiful Music" - all of which were written by Justin Richards.  He clearly loves Donna as much as I do, as the stories capture the essence of her character and her dynamic with the Doctor (David Tennant).  Her questioning of the Doctor, her sometimes annoying the Doctor, and her demanding to be treated as an equal to the Doctor.  Yet, at the same time, he captures her desire to help others, to jump in without thinking to see that right succeeds, and to beg the Doctor to solve the injustice that exists throughout time and space.

The first story sees a magician who uses (and abuses) an Ood in his stage act, allowing him to steal valuables from the audience without them even realizing it.  The second story is about a writer who gets sucked into telling an ever-changing story to feed an alien that is somehow absorbed in his computer.  The third, and final, Donna tale is about a child musician who is hundreds of years old due to an alien being trapped within his lassimater that plays the most beautiful, soul-reaching music in all of the universe.  All three are touching tales, and all three make me miss Donna all the more.

The remaining 23 stories within the book feature the War Doctor (1 tale), David Tennant with Rose (3 tales) the Daleks (2 tales), the Sycorax - the villains from the first Christmas special with David Tennant (1 tale), Mickey (1 tale), David Tennant with Martha (3 tales), K-9 - bridging the gap between "K-9 and Company" and the episode that brought Sarah Jane Smith back, "School Reunion" (1 tale), Captain Jack (1 tale), the Sontarons (1 tale), Matt Smith with Amy (1 tale), Amy (1 tale), Rory (1 tale), Matt Smith (1 tale), Cybermen (1 tale), Matt Smith and Clara (1 tale), Clara (1 tale), Peter Capaldi and Clara (1 tale), and Peter Capaldi (1 tale).  All of them were certainly readable, and while I enjoyed some more than others - the Amy solo and Rory solo tales being the same story told from different points of view, which was rather fun / the K-9 tale, told completely from the point of view of K-9 was unique - none of them brought the smile to my face and excitement to my heart the way the Donna Noble stories did.

It's funny how much I've become a fan of Doctor Who - when my friend, Wayne, used to talk about Doctor Who and Sarah Jane (his favorite companion), I would just nod and say "uh-huh" without really listening.  Now, ever since Christopher Eccleston appeared in the 2005 revival of the series, I've been hooked.  And while the Doctors may change, and the companions may come and go, one thing will remain a constant - Donna Noble (and the actress who brought the role to life, the very talented Catherine Tate) will forever remain my favorite.

RATING:  8 missing donuts out of 10 for bringing back all of those companions and villains (and Doctors!) that have made this revival series what it is - fun and engaging!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Magnificent Lizzie Brown, Book 3 - The Fairy Child

I cannot believe it has been eight (8) months since I read the second Lizzie Brown book!  Boy, time sure flies when you're having fun (and reading lots of books!).

Now, I show this as the third Magnificent Lizzie Brown books, and I thought this was the case based upon publication dates and everything I could find on line. But upon reading The Fairy Child, I am left to wonder if either I'm misreading the information out there, or if the American versions of these books were perhaps printed out of order.  The only reason I say this is because page 13 references Lizzie and her friends having helped the Maharaja Gurinder Bhatti find his prized ruby, which was somehow connected to a "mysterious ghost ship" - which, coincidentally enough, is the title of the last Lizzie Brown book that I have yet to read (I do have it, just haven't read it yet).

Oh, well, I suppose there are much worse things in life than reading books in a series out of order...

Getting back to the book at hand, The Fairy Child, I'm not sure there is enough room and time for me to say all of the good things about this book.  The previous two books were so well written, so full of rich characters that literally came alive and engrossing mysteries that kept me captivated, that, well, quite frankly, I didn't want to put them down.  So, I came into this one with high hopes, and Vicki Lockwood did not let me know.

Lizzie Brown joined the circus when she ran away from a drunken, abusive father.  By joining the circus, not only did Lizzie find herself a new family (one that actually cared for her), but she also discovered she had a gift.  Lizzie discovered she had the ability to "see" things about people. Their past.  Their secrets.  Their future.  And so she became "The Magnificent Lizzie Brown," the resident psychic of Fitzy's Traveling Circus.  First, she revealed the identity of the mysterious phantom that had been stealing things in London.  Then she puts an end to a plot involving a couple of grave robbers behind the guise of a couple of hounds purportedly from the devil.  Now, Lizzie faces something completely new - - fairies!

Lizzie doesn't believe in fairies,but it seems most everyone else in her circus family does.  So when they arrive in the hills of Scotland, strange things begin to happen.  And when a young girl, the daughter of the rich mill owner, disappears, it would seem that Lizzie (the last person to see her) is to blame.  Although, there are some that say it was the fairies who took her.  The very same fairies that had enthralled the girl.  Saddened by her sudden inability to locate the lost girl and facing the possibility of losing business for the circus, Lizzie sets out to find young Amelia MacDonald.

Lockwood provides a very well plotted mystery that weaves a very intricate web of deceit and red herrings.  Lizzie finds herself in competition with the famed Douglas Grant, a self-proclaimed medium who puts on quite a show (but who Lizzie knows is nothing more than a fraud).  She also comes face to face with a young Arthur Conan Doyle (who, coincidentally enough, also appeared in the Penelope Tredwell mystery I just read - but was it really a coincidence, or simply fate that the books I read back-to-back, which are unrelated, by totally different authors, and are two completely different types of mysteries, both feature the creator and author of the famed detective, Sherlock Holmes?), although he does nothing to help solve the mystery.  Rather, it is Doyle's father, who is a painter that has provided the MacDonald household with numerous paintings of fairies, both good and bad, that he has allegedly seen.  Then there's the subplot involving the reformists, those people who want to put an end to the use of child labor in the mills and workhouses.  Lizzie, whose own brother died from complications related to the work he did in a mill, sympathizes with their plight.  And we definitely cannot leave out the fact that the MacDonald household sees more than one happy ending in this story (as to what that is, and how it affects one of the circus family, well, you'll have to read it for yourself!).

I couldn't read this book fast enough, it was really that good.  I haven't been able to find any more of these books listed anywhere, so (sadly), it appears that there are only four books in the series - meaning, after I read The Ghost Ship, there will be no returning to the world of Lizzie Brown.  Which is a real shame, as Lizzie Brown is a magnificent character (pun intended) with lots of rich back story, plenty of spunky character, and definitely many more stories that could be told.

If you want a really, really, REALLY good series to read - then, this is the one for you!

RATING:  10 cracked crystal balls out of 10 for providing another page-turning mystery that drew me in from the very first page and kept me there until the very last.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Flagler's Few, Volume 1 - The Reaper of St. George Street

At this year's MegaCon, I happened across writer/artist Andre Frattino while walking up and down the aisles of artist alley.  Frattino was touting his wares (as was every other creators in artist alley), and while I initially walked past, I had to go back and take a second look.  He had several graphic novels at his table - The Reaper of St. George Street. Lost Souls of Savannah. The Vampirate of Matanzas Inlet.  With titles like those, how could I not take a closer look.  Frattino was friendly and definitely excited about his work - a series of tales about a group if unlikely ghost hunters in Florida's very own haunted city, St. Augustine. I was hooked, so I picked up all three books (after all, I'm a huge supporter of independent comic creators - the fact that these told ghost stories set in my own back yard? well, that was simply an added bonus).

The Reaper of St. George Street is the first volume in this series, and it introduces readers to this eclectic cast of characters.  William Garrings, the doubting Thomas who carries a chip on his shoulder following the death of his father.  Franklin Dinklemyer, the uber-nerd with all the sci-fi / fantasy / comic knowledge you'll ever need.  Roger Blimes, the modern day pirate (better known as a pick-pocket).  Allison Stewart, the resident witch who calls herself "Raven."  These guys certainly aren't Ghost Hunters, that's for sure.

So, what exactly are they?

Well, they are real people.  Sort of.  I mean, obviously, they aren't real, since they are simply drawings on a page.  But they are well-rounded, well developed characters, and in just under 250 pages, Frattino gives you everything you need to know to not only like each and every one of them, but to root for them and turn each page, dying to see how they are going to defeat the ghost (or in this case, the Reaper).  While the art is not what might be termed "mainstream" comic art, it has flair and style all its own that lends the right mix of humor and haunting to the story.

The story centers around a fellow college student that William meets upon his arrival in St,. Augustine.  Claire Evans hasn't been sleeping well. She is plagued by nightmares of this shadowy creature following her.  Attacking her.  Killing her.  She wakes up screaming, unsure of what is happening.  William quickly falls for Claire - until Roger shows him a picture of Claire.  In an antique shop, he shows William an image of Claire from the 1800s!  Could she be a ghost?  But William doesn't believe is ghosts.  Doesn't he?  It gets even more confusing when he sees a ghost eaten by the shadowy creature that has been haunting Claire's dreams.  With the help of Franklin, Roger, and Raven, William sets out to uncover the truth and, quite possibly, save Claire's life.

With real St. Augustine settings and history thrown into the mix, this story has a very cinematic feel to it, and I could easily see this transferred into television or film.  Frattino paces the story nicely, knows when to cut scenes and jump, and with the obligatory ending that opens the door for further stories, he's got a winner on his hands.

And not only did I get a cool Raven bookmark when I bought all three books, but he was kind enough to sketch me into the book itself!  Now, how cool is that?

RATING:  9 copies of Demonslayers out of 10 for keeping it real, even in the midst of a fun-filled, ghost-haunted romp through a fictionalized St. Augustine.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Penelope Tredwell Mystery No. 3 - The Black Crow Conspiracy

Just finished the third (and sadly, what appears to be the final) book in the Penelope Tredwell mystery series, The Black Crow Conspiracy.  Once again, Christopher Edge weaves an intricate tale of glowing ghosts who walk through walls, international intrigue, and scientific advancement. And, once again, right at the center of it all is young Penelope Tredwell, who is now sixteen years old and still running the very successful Penny Dreadful magazine.  Only now, with writer's block, she is unable to come up with a new mystery for Montgomery Flinch to terrorize readers.  So, she does the only thing she can do - she creates a contest for story ideas, and that's where the mystery comes into play...

Edge starts the mystery with what appears to be supernatural elements - young men who have a ghastly green glow to them, who are able to somehow walk through walls, doors, or just about anything - and who steal the crown jewels just before King Edward VII's coronation!  And when Penelope finds among her contestant entries a mysteriously unsigned letter that reveals how the jewels were stolen (with an expertly drawn black crow on the page), she finds her latest Flinch thriller.  Only, it hits too close to reality this time, for the police come straight to the offices of the Penny Dreadful to arrest Montgomery Flinch, who they believe has confessed to the crime through the story!  Little do they know this man is nothing more than a facade, an actor by the name of Monty Maples, who couldn't write a story if his life depended on it.

So where does that leave Penelope, particularly when, by proclamation of the King, the Penny Dreadful is to be shut down?

As the tag on the front cover says, crime can really be stranger than fiction.  The mystery of these green ghosts is revealed when Penelope and her cohort, Alfie, trace back all of the appearances of these ghostly men back to The Society for the Advancement of Science, where they discover the most gruesome of all experiments taking place ... experiments funded by the German empire, as Kaiser Wilhelm II is determined to undermine his uncle and take control of the British empire and use his "ghostly" soldiers to do it.

Edge expertly weaves the historical British royals into this story of impending war, and while it gets off to a bit of a slow start, the pace starts to quicken as the tale progresses, and I soon found myself turning page after page, not willing to wait to discover how Penelope, Monty and Alfie (funny how all their names end with the "ee" sound) put a stop to the Kaiser's plot to take control of the British empire.  Edge has Penelope use her quick wits and her keen observation skills (a la Nancy Drew) to deduce what is really going on, and when she is subjected to the physically-altering x-rays of the devious Professor Rontgen, she finds herself able to perform the same ghostly tasks that the Professor's other subjects have done - a power she expertly adapts to and uses to help rescue the British royal family and save the empire!  (Take that, Nancy Drew - when did you ever save an entire empire from being overthrown?)

Unlike the second book in the series, there is a bit of character development here.  Monty shows some gumption when he is faced with the do or die situation of standing up to the Kaiser and his men.  And while Alfie's love for Penelope remains unspoken, there are several incidents in the book that clearly show just how deep his affections run.  And then there's Penelope herself, who finally gets the recognition she so rightfully earns when Montgomery Flinch and his horrifying stories are finally laid to rest, and the Penny Dreadful (once re-opened by order of the King) begins presenting new tales of "The Lady Investigates," thrilling tales of mystery and detection written by none other than ... Penelope Tredwell!

I am definitely saddened to know that the series has ended with this third novel, but it definitely provides a satisfying conclusion (although, it would have been nice to see Penelope recognize the affection Alfie has for her).  There are far too few mystery series for young adults on the market today that have writing as rich and plots as intricate as this.  Who knows?  Maybe Penelope Tredwell will rise again one day...

RATING:  8 radiant boys out of 10 for closing out this series with a highly satisfying read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ex-Heroes, Book 5 - Ex-Isle

The easiest way to describe this series to someone is simply to say, it's "Avengers vs. Walking Dead."  Simply put, this series tells the story of a zombie-infested world that has superheroes. And there can be no doubt, Peter Clines tells a darned good apocalyptic-superhero-zombie tale.

Ex-Isle is the fifth book in this series, and while it starts off just a bit slow, once it gets going, it draws you in and doesn't let go (pretty much like the previous four books).  In this installment, St. George (formerly the Mighty Dragon), Zzzap, and Corpse Girl see the spotlight as they head out into the Pacific Ocean to follow-up on a possible group of survivors who have created a man-made island out of ships; meanwhile, Cerebus and the Driver, along with some of the Unbreakables, fill in a sub-plot in a facility outside of the Mount (which is an abandoned movie studio and back lot that the heroes have walled and created a safe-zone for survivors) known as "Eden," where they are trying to create a garden to grow food for the increasing number of survivors.  But, as with any drama, nothing and no one is safe, and nothing is ever as it appears.

Let's start with the main plot - Cline keeps things fresh by taking us out into the Pacific to a "isle" that is nothing more than a cluster of ships - a cruise ship, a tanker, some yachts, and a few other boats, all cobbled together to create a living space for these survivors.  (No, Kevin Costner was not there, and if you don't get the reference - look it up!)  Zzzap (who I would say is sort of an amalgam of Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt) happens upon it as he returns to Los Angeles from his scouting trips, searching for other survivors in the world.  It takes some convincing, but Stealth (the leader of this group of survivors) agrees to let Zzzap go back and offer assistance, along with St. George (the Superman prototype of this world) and Corpse Girl (who is not a zombie, or an "ex" as they are called in this series - what she really is...well, that would be telling).  The three are not met with welcome arms, and, in fact, after a very embarrassing inspection, they are locked in a cage (and Corpse Girl is literally ripped in half - but that doesn't mean that's the last we see of her).  All because the citizens of this isle believe their leader, Maleko (an underwater super) when he tells them this isn't really Might Dragon, because he died when the government nuked Los Angeles!  (Say what?  Could this be another mind-control/dream sequence like in one of the previous books?)  The isle has its secrets, as does Maleko, and it's a battle royale in the end, when Maleko finds out that not everyone under his thumb can be trusted!

Moving over to that subplot, Danielle, who used to be the one inside the Cerebus battle suit, has to face the world outside while repairs are being done to the suit (which was damaged nearly beyond repair in the last book).  Cesar, who keeps insisting everyone call him "Driver," is the only one now that can work Cerebus, since he is able to merge with any machine and basically become the machine.  Along with the military supersoldiers known as the Unbreakables, they head up to Eden, where farmers and workers are trying to create a garden to grow the necessary food to feed the population of the Mount.  But something is not right.  The military men are taking more than their fair share, and they are slowly taking control of the weapons and ammunition.  Are they planning a coup?  Or is it something worse?  And who will stand by who when the south fence falls and the place is swarmed by, make that ex-humans, ready to feast on flesh.  And what will happen when Danielle must face off against an ex without her Cerebus suit to protect her!?  Let's just say that before the wall is put back up and the place restored, one of our main characters will have a very suspicious injury on their arm...

As with the prior books, Cline includes some flashbacks periodically throughout the story - each one giving some back story to some of the characters at play (or, even a character who does not otherwise feature in the book, yet his story has an impact).  Cline continues to build a world of characters that are believable (even if some of them do have unbelievable superpowers) and likable, and his soap opera storytelling leaves you wanting for more when you reach the last page.

Honestly, I never expected this series to continue into five books (heck, I was surprised when a second book came out, as I figured Ex-Heroes was just a one-time gimmick).  But, I'm glad Cline has kept it going, and at this point, he better keep churning these out, as I want to see more - so many characters, superpowered and not, that all need attention and have stories to tell.  I just hope Cline tells them all!

RATING:  9 repeated references to Lost out of 10 for keeping the idea of superheroes as the good guys alive and well (even if it is in a book about people who are dead and not-so-well).

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 38 - Beyond the Grave

Okay, I'm gonna have to face it - I'm addicted to Dark Shadows. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it.  After having gone several weeks now without listening to one of my Dark Shadows audio cds, I just had to pull out the next one on the stack and plug it into the CD player as I was driving into work today. And wow, what a doozie this one was!

Beyond the Grave finally pays off all those hints that have been played in the prior audios about Tom Lacey and his show, "Beyond the Grave."  There were so many connections to other CDs in this story that I admit, I got all giddy inside just listening to it!

"Beyond the Grave" is a British television show that seeks out the ghost stories and supernatural occurrences and proves them real or fake (sort of a 1970s version of today's "Ghost Finders"). This time, Tom Lacey is the correspondent who heads to Collinsport, Maine to follow up on the legend of Mad Jack, who died in Eagle Hill Cemetery with his wife and daughters back at the turn of the century.  Since that time, strange sounds and smells have come from the cemetery, and at one point, a Collinsport man was said to be possessed by the spirit of Mad Jack.  Kate Ripperton, the host of the show, remains back in the studio in London, giving commentary and taking calls regarding the investigation.

Throughout the story, we get "interviews" with Carolyn Stoddard, Maggie Evans, Jonah Rooney, and even Emma Finney and Alfie Chapman (from Behind the Veil).  In addition, Eve gives Tom a warning to get out of Collinsport before the dead get him!

The story follows a sort of Blair Witch Project format - following a reporter and his cameraman through the lens of the camera and the microphone as they make their way into Eagle Hill Cemetery to uncover the truth.  But the truth is never quite what they expected, for they don't seem to know the real history of Collinsport.  Needless to say, a not-so-benevolent spirit is set loose, people are possessed, and death is everywhere - including the {SPOILER ALERT} unexpected and sad death of the new sheriff, Jim Hardy.  I had grown to really like this character, so it was extremely disappointing when he killed himself to save Maggie (and just after he finally admitted he had feelings for her).   Of course, I should have known that would be coming sooner or later, since his deputy, Haggerty, was the sheriff in the Kingdom of the Dead story (which I listened to some time ago and had forgotten).

Something creepy about the whole Blair Witch Project format of this story is that there was no real intro, no opening credit music, no end credit music, and no preview of the next story.  Instead, we get the opening of the show, we get the full length of the show, with all the questions, scares, interruptions, and even a quick commercial (such fun realism!) - and it ends with an abrupt loss of connection.  This definitely ups the creep factor to whole story!

I am still amazed with each story I listen to how consistent the stories are, and how smoothly they transition one into another.  The fact that this story was hinted at and set up over the course of the last four or five CDs shows the amazing talent and planning on the part of Big Finish and their writers.  Oh, how I wish the show had continued, as I would love more than anything to see these stories that I listen to brought to life by the actors on the small screen.

RATING:  10 horrific nursery rhymes out of 10 for creeping the heck out of me with a great ghost story worthy of Dark Shadows history!

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Haunted Mystery, Book Two - The Hanging Hill

I always love it when I get so into a story I'm reading that I don't want to put the book down - in fact, if I'm so caught up in it that I pick it up at every stop light when I'm driving and read until the light turns green, then you know it has to be good! And there's no doubt that The Hanging Hill, the second book in the Haunted Mystery series, is good. It's better than good - it's great!  (Yeah, I'm channeling my Tony the Tiger there)

This second book picks up not too long after the end of The Crossroads, the first book in the series. Zack, his father, his step-mom, and his dog Zipper have been living out of a hotel due to the fire that destroyed their home. A fire that Zack sort-of caused when he was trying to defeat the ghost at the crossroads from coming back to the real world. Now, his step-mom has sold a script that is going to be produced in a theater on the east coast of Connecticut - a theater known as Hanging Hill Playhouse. A theater that is built right on the spot that used to see a lot of hangings back in the day. A spot that is ripe with spectral energy. So, needless to say, there are plenty of ghosts afoot.

As with the first book, Grabenstein tells the story through alternating points of view - each chapter is pretty much focused on a different character in the story, and it alternates throughout. From Zack and his step-mom, to the artistic director of the play, to a dying magician intent on coming back by whatever means necessary, to a young actress whose hopes are forever dashed by the cruel revenge of a spurned director. There is never any doubt who the villain is in the story - but, then again, that's not what this is about. It's not a whodunnit. It's more of a journey, as Zack not only comes to terms with his ability to see and communicate with the dead, but also his own fears and insecurities.

The author introduces some rather interesting characters in this story. There's Meghan McKenna, an award winning child actress who befriends Zack and reveals that she is able to see ghosts too. Then there's Derek Stone, the television child star who would rather be playing with his remote control truck than learn his lines. There's also Wilbur Kimble, the theater's custodian who has worked at the theater for many, many years and who harbors a few dark secrets of his own. And let's not forget Reginald Grimes, the villainous start of this drama, a man so set on gaining power and fame that he's willing to sacrifice the lives of two children to get it.

The story is fast-paced, and although there are 322 pages of mystery and mayhem, it reads easily. I was so drawn into the story that I managed to finish it in just a few hours of reading, over the course of two days. That's not to say that it is a simple story, nor that it skips over certain elements any book needs to be a good read. It simply means it really is that GREAT of a read! Plus, Grabenstein continues several plot elements introduced in the first book - including the death of Zack's birth mother and his unresolved feelings regarding her dislike of him. We learn more about his real mother, we see more of Zack's stepmom and her building relationship with Zack, and we see Zack's confidence in his "ghost-finder" ability grow more and more.

If I were to try and describe the book to someone, I could only offer that it has elements of a children's mystery series (such as Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys), with a bit of Dark Shadows thrown in for good measure. The ghosts are real, the danger is real, and this book closes with a truly explosive ending (no, literally - there are some pretty powerful explosions!). I cannot recommend this series, and this book in particular, enough to anyone who enjoys mysteries, anyone who enjoys ghost tales, and really, for anyone who loves to read!

RATING:  10 juggling girl ghosts out of 10 for taking two genres I love so much, combining them, and giving me several hours of enjoyment with this wonderful read!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Wonder Woman, Earth One - Volume One

Wonder Woman has always been one of my favorite all-time characters, ever since I first saw her in the Super Friends cartoon on Saturday mornings, and then in her own comic book adventures by DC Comics.  Certainly, through the years, there have been a lot of ups and downs with the character, particularly after 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths, which basically wiped away decades of history for the character and completely re-booted her.  But the extremely talented George Perez gave Wonder Woman a brand new origin (that followed the original, yet provided a more in-depth connection to the Greek gods) and set her off in a whole new direction of being an ambassador of peace into Man's World.  After he left the title, a series of writers came in, each one wanting to put their own mark onto the character, and thus changing and tweaking things on a pretty regular basis, until the most recent incarnation by Brian Azzarello, which, quite frankly, nearly turned me off of this character for good (the 30-odd issue run by Azzarello felt more like a story of the gods with Wonder Woman just thrown in so that they could call it a WW title - she was more of a side character in her own book!).

DC recently published a new title in their ongoing series of "Earth One" graphic novels, which provide creators an outlet to re-start the characters from scratch.  Superman has had three novels, Batman two, and the Teen Titans one (with a second one on its way).  Now, DC issued the first Wonder Woman Earth One graphic novel, and I will admit, I read it with a bit of trepidation.  This was because of the author, Grant Morrison.

Let's go back.  I had no concern about the art.  Yanick Paquette has drawn Wonder Woman before, back in the '90s, and he has a beautiful style, particularly when it comes to drawing women.  He is able to draw them strong, yet feminine, without making them overtly sexual (i.e., having their butts sticking up at the reader, or gratuitous crotch or breast shots).  And he definitely draws a magnificent Wonder Woman.  Looking at her, you know she's an Amazon - beautiful, yet strong.

The writing, on the other hand - well, I was very concerned.  Grant Morrison has done some very interesting things in the past.  He drastically changed Doom Patrol for DC Comics, and it became a cult classic, very memorable run.  He also brought Animal Man to the forefront, turning him into a viable character with a unique nature.  But when it comes to the mainstream superheroes in DC's world, let's just say I have been very underwhelmed by Morrison's work.  His run on Justice League was less than stellar.  His work on Final Crisis and Multiversity left a bad taste in my mouth.  So, when I heard that he would be writing Wonder Woman Earth One, I cringed.

After reading the graphic novel, however, I must say - either someone has reigned him in, or he has a bit more appreciation for the character.  Now, I have read the online rants about this book being demeaning to women and being filled with bondage - but looking back at the original Wonder Woman comics back in the '40s, let's face it - they were a constant barrage of bondage.  Plus, Morrison does not in any way use this comic to try and subvert women - rather, this story is more about women overcoming a world of men subverting them and taking control of their own destiny.  In fact, it's even more about Diana, the princess on Themyscria, trying to break free of the mold her mother has created for her and becoming independent herself.  Rather than tell a straightforward, sequential origin tale, readers are treated to a trial of sorts, as Diana must face the repercussions of rescuing Steve Trevor and taking off to Man's World.  Her origin and the events leading up to this trial are told in flashback sequences through not just her eyes, but also the eyes of those around her (including the riotous return of Etta Candy, called "Beth" Candy in this tale).  Quite frankly, this was a really good read, and I enjoyed a lot of the Easter Eggs in the story - such as Donna Troy, Cassie Sandmark, Artemis, and Nubia, all of whom have either been Wonder Woman or Wonder Girl over the years.

Now, that is not to say the book is perfect.  I was annoyed at the number of splash pages or two-page spreads throughout the story.  With only a little over 100 pages of story at $22.99, I would have preferred more story and less "let's showcase Paquette's art" pages.  There were 7 splash pages and 4 two-page spreads.  And how many pages had 3 panels or less?  No less than 24 pages of 3-panels each.  So when you take that into consideration, that is more than 1/3 of the book that pretty much focused on pretty art than story - and in my book, that is less story for the buck.  But, that seems to be the way of comics these days - why tell a story in 17 pages, when you can stretch it out with less panels per page and more splash pages and sell more comics and make more money off the fans that way!  (Okay, I'm stepping off my soap box now...)

Overall, I enjoyed this take on Wonder Woman, despite the writer and despite the padding.  I do hope they continue with the series of Earth One Wonder Woman stories in this same vein, but only time will tell.

RATING:  8 golden lassos out of 10 for keeping Diana rooted in her Greek mythology, yet providing a new take on a many-told tale.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 3 - The Mystery of the Stolen Painting

I returned to the world of those world-traveling twins, Ethan and Ella Briar, with the third book in the Greetings from Somewhere series, The Mystery of the Stolen Painting. In the last book, the twins were in Italy, where they helped find a stolen gondola.  Now, the author takes them to Paris, France, where the twins happen to be in the Louvre, when a famous painting is stolen.  And that isn't the only mystery they have to solve, since their grandfather sent them an e-mail with a cryptic message about finding a hidden creperie owned by friends of his.

In just 113 pages (or less, actually, considering there is art on every page, lessening the word count, and some pages are full page pictures with no words), Harper Paris provides another cute mystery that the younger generation is sure to enjoy.  By far, it is an easy read (honestly, it took me less than 10 minutes to read the entire book), with short sentences, simple vocabulary, and a not-so-complicated mystery to solve.  However, the twins are fun to read - each has their own distinct personality, and the author keeps them grounded, not taking their adventures too far outside the realm of possibility, so that even as an adult, I can have fun reading the books.

What's interesting about this book is the fact that what is supposed to be the main mystery (the stolen painting) sort of takes a back seat to the sub-plot of finding that secret creperie.  As with previous books, their grandfather gives them a couple of clues to start them off, and it's up to Ethan and Ella to figure out the rest.  I do get a kid-like sense of enjoyment following along as they put the clues together and solve the mysteries (and in this one, so very Nancy Drew-like, they stumble upon the solution to one mystery while following the clues to the other mystery!).

Harper Paris has a good grasp on writing for young readers, and the art by Marcos Calo fits so perfectly with the tone of the series.  (And what's funny is that, as I'm sitting here writing this, looking down at the cover of the book, I just noticed for the first time that down in the bottom right corner, far below the terrace where Ethan and Ella are standing, looking out at Paris, there is a man running with a painting under his arm!)

I've said it before, and I'll gladly say it again - I would highly recommend this series to any parent who has children that are just beginning to get into chapter books.  It is the perfect level for beginning readers, and it will definitely hold their interest and leave them wanting for more!

RATING:  9 lemon and powdered sugar crepes out of 10 for a good, clean, fun mystery that pretty much anyone can enjoy!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 2 - Mystery on Church Hill

Steven K. Smith brings Derek and Sam back in the second book of his Virginia Mysteries series, Mystery on Church Hill.  The books are aimed at a younger audience (the higher end of elementary school age children), but I did find the first book to be not so bad, so figured the second book would hold up as well and, perhaps, might even be better.  Unfortunately, after reading it, I came out with some mixed feelings.

The underlying mystery is actually the one really good thing about the book.  Along the lines of National Treasure, the boys find a letter that was written by Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe, which seems to indicate that Wythe was in possession of an early draft of the Declaration of Independence - one hidden in Wythe's house in Williamsburg, Virginia.  This sets the boys off on a scavenger hunt to find the draft, and they have to work hard to stay ahead of an unscrupulous actor who is determined to get his hands on it first and sell it off to the highest bidder.

This book also introduces Caitlin Murphy, a classmate of Sam's who begins as an antagonist, but ultimately helps the boys out and becomes integral to their solving the mystery.  An interesting new character, but not sure if she will remain part of the "team" for future mysteries.

Sadly, though, that is about where the interesting parts of the book end.  The banter between the brothers starts to get old real quick.  While I get that Smith is trying to make them playful and act like you would imagine brothers do - with the difference in their ages, I had a hard time believing they would be continually playful all the time as they are in the book.  I know my brother and I were never that close all the time.

Further, Smith's desire to integrate historical fact into his books, I feel like this one went too far pushing the history of Patrick Henry, the signing of the Declaration, Williamsburg, the reenactments, etc.  It felt forced in many places - really unnecessary to the story or the plot - more like a history lesson that you would read in an elementary school book.  I am sure that's not the way Smith intended it to be, and perhaps from an elementary school student perspective, it won't come across that way.  As an adult reading this, however, the interjections of history did not meld smoothly into the story, and it took the reader away from the mystery for those few moments.

Another factor that takes away from the enjoyment factor (for me, anyway) in this book is the nearly complete lack of identity for Derek and Sam's parents.  They are simply "Mom" and "Dad."  They have no names and, for the most part, have no identity, outside of Mom and Dad.  They only appear when it's necessary for Derek and Sam to get somewhere, or when the brothers need to be rescued (or reminded that they are children).  Obviously, in Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, the parental figures were much more stand-by characters - however, ND and HB were also in their later teens, able to drive, and much more able to be independent.  Derek and Sam are in middle school and definitely not at an age where they should have so much freedom from their parents.  Granted, this is fiction, so to ground it too much in reality would pretty much render the boys unable to solve a mystery - but taking the parents completely out of the picture creates a scenario that is not plausible enough to make it believable.

This second book was much more difficult to get through than the first book, so we'll see what lays ahead with the third and fourth books.  I hate to be so negative about a book, particularly with children's mysteries, since this is a genre I love and wish there were more of on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  There are only four books in this series (not sure if any more are intended or will be written), but if this is any indication of what books three and four are like, then I can see why there haven't been any more published.

RATING:  4 solar microscopes out of 10 for bringing a third 'sleuth' into the mix in an effort to vary the characters a bit.