Sunday, July 31, 2016

Bad Little Hannah - A Story for Girls

In a rather large antique mall in Georgia, just south of the Tennessee state line, I happened upon this humorously titled book, Bad Little Hannah.  At first I simply laughed and went on.  But, the more I thought about it, the more I began to make up these wondrous ideas that perhaps this book told the story of a young Hannah Gruen (everyone remembers Nancy Drew's housekeeper, right?).  Of course, I knew this wasn't the case, but seeing that the book was only $5.00 (with a sale of 20% off), I just couldn't resist.

At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about the book, nor the author, shown on the book as one "Mrs. L.T. Meade."  That name in and of itself was unique, as how many authors identify themselves by their marital status.  Turns out that Mrs. L.T. Meade is actually Elizabeth Thomasine Meade Smith, a rather prolific author, having written over 300 books during her lifetime.  Born in Ireland, she moved to London where she continued writing her numerous children's books.

Bad Little Hannah was published in 1897.  I am unsure the exact publishing date of my copy of the book, as the publication page has been removed from the book.  My copy was published by M.A. Donohue & Company and was apparently published prior to 1914, as there is an inscription on the front end-page indicating it was given to Nellie Mae Washburn for Christmas 1914.  I was not really sure what to expect when I sat down to read this, but nothing in the world could have prepared me for the story that I had in my hands!

As can be expected, the book tells the story of eight year old Hannah Cardigan.  She is the youngest of four siblings, and it is made quite clear early on that not only is she "decidedly plain" and as the author states, "It would have been difficult anywhere to see a more disreputable looking little girl."  Her older brother and two older sisters barely tolerate her, and her mother wants absolutely nothing to do with her.  She has an elderly nursemaid who adores her but is unable to handle her naughty nature.  It seems everything she does is troublesome and destructive (but, honestly, based on the way she is treated by her family in the first chapter alone, I can understand why she is so horrific).  However, things take an unexpected turn with the arrival of Margaret North, who was hired to be the tutor for Hannah's two older sisters.

Now, if you are wondering just how terrible things are in the house, let me share an example.  In the beginning, Hannah discovers that her little dog that she rescued and loves dearly is beginning to go mad (which I take to mean is in the early stages of rabies).  So disgusted with her mother is she that she takes the dog and lays him on her mother's bed, ties him to the bedpost, and leaves a note for her mother saying to be careful, as the dog is going mad.  When her mother finds the dog, she nearly loses all pretenses of being a lady, she is so angry with Hannah.  She tells Hannah that she is the most evil child she has ever known and that God does not love her.  She takes Hannah up to the highest room in a cold turret and locks her in there with no supper, no bed, no quilts to keep her warm, and no breakfast in the morning.  Miss North, however, finds her, and from the outside of the door, keeps the young girl company.  I immediately took to the character of Miss North, as she sees the truth of what is going on, and she confronts Hannah's mother, nearly at the cost of her own job, in order to save Hannah from that cold room.

The story follows Hannah's eighth year, as she is shipped off to a boarding school, where she is sure to hate everyone.  But having become so attached to Miss North, she promises to try and be good.  "Try" being the operative word.  She does manage to get into trouble again and again, but at the same time, she finds that the other children don't quite know how to take her.  While one teacher absolutely abhors her (Hannah ultimately slaps the teacher across the face!), the headmistress grows to see that Hannah has a very strong character that simply needs to be molded in the right direction.  There are plenty of misadventures (and there are a number of rather dragging moments in the storytelling that are somewhat tedious to read through), and the ending is not exactly a resolution or happy ending (although it's not completely bad either).

The author has a peculiar writing style - with Hannah's dialogue, there are times where she speaks normal and others where she speaks childish, using wrong verb tense and agreement.  And certainly a product of its time (remember, this was published back in 1897), it is comical almost to read these girls constantly kissing each other and telling each other how much they love each other, and want the love of other girls, and spurned feelings when they don't feel loved.  At 316 pages, I would be curious to know just what age market this was aimed at back when it was published, since it is a story about a very young girl, yet the age level at which it is written, when compared to today's books, seems to be a young adult novel.

And just in case you are wondering - there is absolutely no reference to this being the same Hannah from the Nancy Drew series (although, it should be noted that when Hannah is introduced to the headmistress at Cumnor West, the headmistress responds with, "Hannah!  I never heard of a lady being called Hannah; it is like the name of a cook or a servant of some sort." [p 137]).  Just saying...

One last note - I wasn't able to find a copy anywhere online that showed the same cover as the one that I bought.  I found numerous other cover variations, as well as a dust jacket, leaving me to guess that this book has been reprinted a number of times by various publishers throughout the years.

RATING:  5 postal orders out of 10 for peaking my interest just on the title alone!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery, Book 3 - Beauty, Beast, and Belladonna

Variety hall actress Ophelia Flax is back, and needless to say, wherever Ophelia Flax goes, Professor Penrose is sure to follow - as to dead bodies, fairy tale connections, and mysteries galore!  I have really grown to love this series - author Maia Chance has created some truly believable and fun to read characters, and while the stories are set in the second half of the 19th century Europe, Ophelia is a strong, independent woman - and instead of the woman chasing after the man, this series flips the standard trope around, with Professor Penrose chasing after her!

Continuing the tradition of fairy tales, Beauty, Best, and Belladonna obviously deals with the story of Beauty and the Beast.  The story picks up not long after the conclusion of Cinderella, Six Feet Under, where Ophelia makes the mistake of accepting Count Griffe's marriage proposal as a means of snubbing Professor Penrose, who she had erroneously thought was pursuing someone else.  She is ready to break off the engagement and return to her life as an actress - but she is coerced by Henrietta, her friend Pru's mother, who is determined to latch onto a man of means while visiting the Count's estate with Ophelia.  When Ophelia discovers that her savings is missing (stolen by the staff?), she has no choice but to postpone the breaking of her engagement and allow Henrietta to join her at the Count's winter hunting party for two weeks.

Upon their arrival (with Forthwith Golden along as well - "he adores blasting at beasts with guns"), things quickly get out of hand and go from mildly annoying to outrageously crazy - - as things tend to do wherever Ophelia goes. First, she finds that Penrose is a guest at the Count's estate, along with his fiance (!!!!) and her father.  Then, a stagecoach gets stranded during a snowstorm just outside the chateau, and the rag-tag band of travelers are forced to stay the night (and much longer, as it turns out).  In less than 24 hours, a murder occurs, and Ophelia finds herself once more drawn into the drama and suspense of searching for a killer (and watching as Penrose searches for the connection to the "real" tale of the beast and the beauty who tamed him).

Chance certainly kept me guessing throughout the story - something she is very good at with her mysteries.  My ideas of whodunnit continually shifted the deeper I got into the story.  And I have to wonder if there is any merit whatsoever to the so-called "truths" behind these fairy tales that Professor Penrose is continually chasing.  Has Chance done some in-depth research to find some long-forgotten histories behind the stories, or is it all simply the whimsical imaginations of her mind?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Sadly, this is another series that has reached its end.  I hope that's not the case, as I have grown to thoroughly enjoy these books (and looking back at the books I've read over the past year, there aren't too many adult mystery series I read that I can say that about).  But a check on Amazon and on the author's website does not give any indication that there is a fourth book in the works - in fact, it appears the author is starting up an entirely new series of books.  Of course, that's the way it always seems to go with a really good series - just when I've grown to love it and want more, it ends.

But, I would highly recommend the books to anyone who loves the whole "cozy mystery" genre, and even to those who don't.  The books need to be read in order, as they follow a definite timeline, but they are just as enjoyable on their own.

RATING:  10 gopher claw bushes out of 10 for giving me a great mystery that I couldn't solve within the first few chapters!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Short Lived Comic Series #4 - The Close Shaves of Pauline Peril (Gold Key)

Comics used to be for kids. They used to be fun. They used to tell stories that made you laugh out loud when you read them. They used to also cost only 15 cents, but that's a whole 'nother story, and we're not going to go there.

Case in point - The Close Shaves of Pauline Peril.

The fun little series was published in 1970 by Gold Key comics and was more or less a lampoon of the early movie serials, The Perils of Pauline.  Written by Del Connell and art by Jack Manning, the comic follows the misadventures of poor Pauline Peril, a reporter-wannabe who works for her father's newspaper, The Daily Noose.  What she doesn't realize, however, is that her editor at the newspaper, Snodgrass McViper, is actually sending her out on stories that he hopes will be the end of her so that he can (hopefully) inherit the newspaper when Porterhouse P. Peril dies.  There's only one problem with that plan - no matter how dangerous and deadly the story appears to be, Pauline somehow manages to escape certain doom, either by pure luck or due to the last second rescue by her beau, Chester Chesty.  There are numerous "cliffhanger" style escapades throughout the four issues, and it was truly enjoyable to watch how Pauline manages to somehow survive each adventure and walk away with the all-important story (much to McViper's chagrin).

I had never heard of this series prior to last year's Florida Supercon in July 2015. Combing through various boxes of comics at one of the dealers at the convention, I stumbled across the first issue.  It looked rather cute, and in some aspects, I wondered if it wasn't a parody (of sorts) of Nancy Drew.  The dealer was kind enough to let me take it out of the bag and look through it, and I could easily see that it was a satire of the old cliffhanger serials of yesteryear Saturday matinees.  I mean, the description of Pauline herself on the cover of the first issue pretty much says it all:

- Natural Blond Hair, Naturally
- Beautiful Eyes for Finding Way into Perilous Places
- Reporter's Nose: Can Smell a Story a Mile Away
- Woman's Mouth: Will Repeat a Story for Miles Around
- 18" Waist for Squeezing Through Perilous Places
- Calf Muscles for Muscling Into Perilous Places
- Well Turned Ankle: For Turning Aside from Peril
- Elbow: Ideal for Jabbing Villain's Rib Cage

Each issue finds Pauline and her faithful companion,Weakheart (her old, shaggy, whining dog) going over land, sea, and even in the air to get her story, totally oblivious to the various dangers around her (from dropping safes, to falling out of planes without a parachute, to giant sea monsters, to abominable snowmen).  In issue three, Pauline is even tied to a railroad track (in classic Perils of Pauline style), as well as tied to a log that is heading for a huge saw. Yet, through the sheer luck, happenstance, and, of course, Chesty, she escapes each time unscathed and ready for more.

I did a quick search online and discovered that while the art is very cartoony in style, our heroine never saw the small screen, unlike her "sister" in peril, "The Perils of Penelope Pitstop" (who was also a character in Hanna Barbera's Wacky Races).  Pauline Peril was only ever a star in the comic world, and at that, only for four issues.  Which is a shame, as it was such a fun read.  I would say I'd love to see someone revive the character today, but with the way comics are today, I'd be afraid they would try and turn her dark and gloomy (a la Wacky Raceland, DC Comics' post-apocalyptic verson of Wacky Races).

Toonopedia is a website that has some information about Pauline Peril ( and it is where I found some of the information to enlighten me about the character and the comic.

RATING:  9 invisible nylons out of 10 for taking me back to the joys of my childhood cartoons and reminding me what good, clean fun is really like!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape - Book 2: Rise of the Robot Army

I couldn't think of a better book to read in celebration of my 100th blog post than the second book of the series that I started off this blog with - Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape!  It's hard to believe that I've read 100 books/graphic novels/short-lived comic series/audio books within the span of just under a year (having started the blog back at the beginning of August 2015) - guess I didn't realize just how much reading I do in my life!  LOL - of course, I wouldn't change that for anything, as not only does reading take me away from the awful realities of this life sometimes, but it entertains me, relaxes me, inspires me, incites me, and more often than not, encourages me.  And while this blog was partially started as a way for me to keep track of what I read and have a place where I can go back and remind myself of what some of these books/comics were about (because at my age, after so long, I can remember reading a book but not necessarily what it was all about), but I hope the blog has grown into more than that, and that it also provides a place where people can get recommendations on new series to try or books to avoid altogether!

But enough of my pontificating - let's take a look at Miles Taylor's latest adventure...

When last we left this insecure seventh-grader, he was just coming to terms with the fact that he had been given a gift of unbelievable responsibility - the golden cape that allows him to become the world's one and only superhero - Gilded.  Now, as we begin this second great adventure, a year has passed.  Summer is over, and Miles has spent the summer saving lives and helping those in need.  He has spent the summer months learning what he can do with the cape and finding that with that power comes a great deal of adoration.  Something he has never received as plain, ol' Miles Taylor.  Something that becomes more than painfully clear the first day he steps into school for eighth grade and comes face-to-face with Craig "Jammer" Log - the school bully and Miles' greatest nemesis.

Miles wishes he could put on the cape and show everyone, particularly Jammer, just what he is capable of.  But he can't.  The cape can only be used for good, to help others.  It can never be used for self-interest.  Which Miles realizes is not fair.  As Gilded, he is adored, loved, and idolized.  As Miles, he is a nobody.  And this starts Miles' journey into self-discovery about what it truly means to be a hero - that it's not just the super-powers that makes the man.

Author Robert Venditti tackles an important issue that faces so many pre-teens - what it feels like to be a nobody.  To wonder if you will ever amount to anything. To wonder what it would be like to be popular, to have everyone like you, to have people want to be around you, to have others look up to you.  And what if you have that opportunity, but you can never tell anyone about it?  Venditti takes poor Miles through the wringer, but he definitely comes out a better person (and character) for it.

And, as with any good super hero story, there's a villain, this time in the form of General Breckenridge.  Nearly a Lex Luthor archetype, Breckenridge believes he is saving the world when he tracks down and captures Gilded, an alien that he sees as a threat to the world at large.  When he discovers that Gilded is actually just a child, who has an even smaller child as his co-hort, it doesn't stop him from kidnapping them both and holding them prisoner in an underground facility.  While he does his best to determine how the cape works, Miles and his best friend, Henry, discover they are not alone.  In an adjoining cell is Lenore, a fourteen year old girl with a secret of her own.  One that will definitely change all of their lives forever (and I'm not just saying that!).

As with the first book, there are graphic-novel-style pages within the story, where we switch from prose story to comic-book story, and the black and white art by Dusty Higgins is full of action and fun, and the panels tell the story just as well as the words do in the remainder of the book.  It's a great combination and adds to the enjoyment of reading the book.

Weighing in at 300 pages, Venditti proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that children's books do not need to be short and "dumbed down" in order for kids to read them.  The Miles Taylor books have great characterization, super superhero storytelling, and always leave you wanting for more.  No word on whether there will be a third book in the series, but I'll definitely be keeping my eye out and my fingers crossed!

RATING:  10 skipping stones out of 10 for telling a fantastic superhero story unlike any other!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Mysteries of Maisie Hitchins, Book 4 - The Case of the Feathered Mask

Maisie Hitchins is back, and this time, she's helping one of her grandmother's borders find a one-of-a-kind feathered mask that was stolen!

Author, Holly Webb, provides a fun little mystery here; but, more than that, Webb continues with her fantastic characterizations.  Maisie may only be twelve, trying so desperately to live in a grown-up world, but she's strong-willed and determined, and with the help of the butcher's boy, George, she works out the clues to find the professor's missing mask.  The interaction among the characters, the distinct and different "voices" of each of the characters, and the anything-but-stereotypical supporting cast make for easy, enjoyable reading - even if it is a children's book!

One other thing that Webb manages to convey in her story is the subtext of not being so judgmental.  Maisie is quick to judge a man who she has caught outside the house, condemning him as a thief when he turns out to be anything but!  And the museum director, as well as the police, are quick to judge a foreign boy they see go into the house with Maisie, all based on the fact that he is dark-skinned.  Without beating readers over the head, Webb adeptly shows her readers that you simply can't judge a book by its cover (which could apply to this series as well!).

The cover and internal illustrations by Marion Lindsay is still a bit too "stick-figurish" for me, and perhaps that's simply because I'm older.  Perhaps the younger readers of today won't find the art as garish as I do; yet, it's not so bad as to distract me from the story.  I do, though, have to give Lindsay credit, for she stays so accurate and detailed with the story, that no matter which illustration you look at, you'll find that it details specifically what is happening in the story - from background items on the wall to the clothes and hairstyles of the characters.

And this little mystery provides a surprise for Maisie (and readers!), for she receives a letter from her father (remember, up until now, Maisie has been living with her grandmother, and there has been little to no mention of her parents at all).  He has been away at sea for so long, but he is coming home!  I'm guessing he will likely show up in the next book - although, judging from the author's website, it may be after that!  While Amazon only has one more book listed (book 5), the author's website shows a total of eight books: meaning that there may still be three more books to come after the next one!  That is good news indeed, as children should have well-written, engaging mysteries such as this to read - book that are not dumbed-down or simplified, as if children ages 7 to 10 are incapable of reading complex sentences and plots.

RATING: 8 bacon-eating giants out of 10 for showing us that even children's books can have believable characters that jump right off the page!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 1 - Finals Crisis

The women (girls) of the DC Comics universe are back in their first graphic novel (after the preview issue on Free Comic Book Day back in May).  As a huge fan of the female characters in the DC universe, this new venture by DC Comics to spotlight the female heroes, albeit in a younger format, is exciting to see.  Not only has DC put out an online cartoon, dolls and action figures, but they have a series of young adult books and now a series of comic book tales.  Needless to say, I'm gobbling them all up!

"Finals Crisis" is the story of the girls facing one of their greatest challenges to date - final exams at the end of their first semester at Super Hero High!  These young super heroes prepare themselves for the last exam of the semester, where they will have to prove to their teachers and the principal, Amanda Waller, that they have learned and gained more control over their powers during the course of the semester.  There's only one problem - someone in the shadows is taking down the super hero girls, one by one, on some unknown thirst for revenge.

Shea Fontana, who is the writer for this graphic novel, is new to me.  I've never heard her name before, but based on her bio in the back of the story, she has also written some of the episodes of the DC Super Hero Girls animated shorts.  I give her props for being able to capture each character's personality and then take it down to the age-appropriate level for these young high school heroes.  Harley is fun without being psychotic; Poison Ivy loves her plants, but is somewhat insecure; Batgirl is a genius without being too assertive; Wonder Woman is innocent and powerful, yet still naive about other people; Supergirl is still new to Earth and learning as she goes; Katana is skilled with a sword but not as reserved as her older self; and Bumblebee - well, she's as fun and energetic as always.  The artist, Yancey Labat, provides an animated style of art without making the characters appear too cartoony.

I give DC props for going out on a limb with this series.  Today's comics seem less geared for kids and certainly do not show a lighter side of the characters (God-forbid every comic isn't all dark and gloomy with death and violence and depression).  This series hearkens back to the days when DC was publishing Super Friends, and you could watch them on TV every Saturday morning.  No concern with continuity and how the stories and/or characters fit in with the other 50 comics DC is publishing at the time, and no concern about ensuring that one story takes up 12 or more issues.  This graphic novel is a shining example of what comics can be - fun, not too heavy, and open to all ages.

I certainly hope DC has more of these in the works, as they have a life-long fan out of me!  DC Super Hero Girls rule!!!!

RATING:  10 bags of radioactively enhanced super-grow fertilizer out of 10 for proving that comics do not have to be dark and gritty and realistic in order to be enjoyed!

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 1 - The Secret of Thunder Mountain

Can't really recall who turned me on to this series (James Keeline, perhaps?), but I remember reading a post about it, so decided to check it out.  Found that these reprints were available on Amazon for a relatively inexpensive price, so went ahead and bought the first five in the series (definitely have high hopes in the series to do so!).  Originally published from 1951 through 1967, this fifteen-book series features Ted Wilford, a young high school student whose older brother is a reporter for the local newspaper in their small town.  He, and his best friend, Nelson Morgan, go on adventures and end up solving mysteries along the way.

The Secret of Thunder Mountain introduces readers to Ted and his older brother, Ronald.  We also meet Ted's best friend, Nelson, as well as Ted's love interest, Margaret Lake.  We  see the Wilford brothers' mother once or twice, but the only thing we learn about her is that she is more then consenting to her two sons traipsing off into the mountains on their own to search for a fabled gold mine.  Otherwise, she has no prominence in the story whatsoever, and one wonder why she is even in the story (except to perhaps show that the boys have at least one living parent).  Another character we learn a bit about is Ken Kutler, who is not only Ronald's competition in the reporting world (working for a competing newspaper in a neighboring town), but he is also an old friend of Ronald's.  In fact, Ronald is featured so much in this story, it begs the question - who is the true protagonist - Ted or Ronald?

Why do I say this? Well, the author has a tendency to switch points of view throughout the entire story, at some moments, within the same paragraph.  While the book is told in third person, there are times where we are reading the story through Ted's point of view (which would make since, since this is toted as being his mystery series), but there are nearly just as many times where we find ourselves readying the story through Ronald's point of view (and Ted isn't even in the picture). An early example can be found on page eight:

Ronald sat back in the large swivel chair. "Now what's on your mind?"

"Ron, I want to get an interview with Old Goldie for our school newspaper." Ronald's reaction was the same as Nelson's; he, too, whistled. "That's going to be tough. I suppose if you do find him, you think he'l tell you all about his mine, and everything else you want to know."

At first glance, it appears Ronald is doing all the talking (grammatically, at least, that is what it is). But, when you read it, you see that the second paragraph begins with Ted talking - the only thing is, the author not only doesn't identify Ted as the speaker, but in the same paragraph immediately switches over to Ronald.  There are a number of instances throughout the book where speakers change without warning in the same paragraph, causing a bit of difficulty in following who is saying what.

Now that I'm done critiquing the grammatical aspects of the book, let's look at the story itself. I'm the first to admit I'm not a huge fan of boys' mystery series.  For the most part, I find them more about adventure and less about the mystery, and quite frankly, I buy mystery series for the mysteries.  Admittedly, this book gets off to a slow start, and by all rights would have bored me to death (considering it clearly started out as a treasure hunt for the fabled gold mine of Old Goldie); however, the further into the story I read, the more I began to actually like Ted and his friend, Nelson, and I began to root for them to find the gold mine.  Sure, the mystery itself was more than just where is the gold mine - there was also who exactly was Old Goldie; how does the young crippled boy Tim fit into all of it; how does the photograph of the cabin and the strange coded message lead one to the gold mine; is that Indian sidekick of Old Goldie really back in town; and what exactly does Mr. Gumber really want?  The further into the story you get, the more the mysteries start to come into play and the more I found myself wanting to see this through to the end right along with Ted and Nelson.  The conclusion is logical and satisfying, and overall, I'd have to admit it was worth the read.

Apparently the author, Norvin Pallas, was a huge fan of puzzles, and as the author of several puzzle and code books, it should come as no surprise that there is a unique code within the mystery that plays an important part of discovering where the hidden gold mine is.  Otherwise, there is not much information out there about the author.

One thing that I thought was rather interesting - this book is not the only children's series to use The Secret of Thunder Mountain as its title.  There is a Tom Quest book that shares the same title (having never read this series, I can't tell you what it's about), and, oddly enough, there is a Hardy Boys board game based on the 1970s' television show that is titled The Secret of Thunder Mountain. Apparently, Thunder Mountain was a popular place to be, and it certainly held its fair share of secrets to be used in not one, not two, but three separate series!

On a final note, there is a rather humorous thread running throughout part of the book that involves Ronald's car (which seems to be an old jalopy).  Ronald and Ted have affectionately named the car "Jeremiah," but yet when they refer to the car by pronoun, it becomes "she" and "her."  The scenes and dialogue surrounding Jeremiah are cute and brought a smile to my face as I read them.

Do I recommend the series?  Based on this first book alone, I'd give it a good maybe.  After I read a few more in the series, we'll see what my answer is then.

RATING:  6 wiggling ears out of 10 for making me think that quite possibly these mystery stories for boys may not be all bad.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 41 - The Happier Dead

As you may have noticed, I have been listening to a lot of Dark Shadows audio books lately.  Between the trip to Miami for SuperCon, and then the much longer trip to Kentucky to attend a funeral, I've had plenty of driving time, so lots of opportunity to plug in a CD and listen to the citizens of Collinsport come to life!

This next drama, The Happier Dead, had a great premise - what if there was suddenly a day where no one died, no matter how damaging the injury or disease?  (Torchwood fans may remember this as the theme to the "Miracle Day" mini-series by Starz)  Well, when Amy Jennings is rushed to the hospital for abdominal pain, she awakes to find that her appendix was removed, and she will recover.  What she doesn't expect is to find that no one else in the hospital has died that night either - from car crash victims to cancer patients - no one!  She begins to investigate with the help of her boyfriend, Simon Turner, who seems intent on joining her in her quest to put an end to supernatural terrors as they occur.

I like the idea of Amy becoming a sort of ghost-hunting Nancy Drew-esque character.  With her growing knowledge of the supernatural and arcane, and her spunkiness and determination, the writers have developed a very likable Amy Jennings.  And the continuing subplots within these audio dramas, as well as the use of more than just one or two actors in each story (as seemed to be the standard in the early audios), keeps my interest peaked and leaves me wanting for more at the end of each story.

I also liked the character of Dr. James Balthazar.  This is one character that I could have easily seen becoming a very worthy protagonist in the Dark Shadows mythos.  He is unfriendly, secretive, and definitely suspect.  His actions in this story came as a surprise, considering his personality and the initial build-up of his character.

Now, what I did NOT like about this particular story is the excessive use of cursing.  An occasional "damn" or "hell" I can overlook.  Even an emphatic "bitch" once in a great while can be passed over.  However, the writer of this drama (Adam Usden) seemed to rely quite a bit on expletives such as "Jesus" and "Christ" and "G**damn" and such.  Several of the characters used them, including Amy Jennings!  Now, I'm not a prude by any means - but one of the things I have always enjoyed about Dark Shadows is the fact that it was not your typical soap opera. Sure, they were some love triangles - but the storylines did not involve abortion, blackmail, rape, and your typical daytime stories; instead, they relied heavily on the tropes of horror tales of days gone by - werewolves, vampires, frankenstein monsters, time travel, parallel time, the phoenix, and so on.  Another thing easily noticeable about the show (and, of course, this could be more because of the era when it aired) was the fact that there was little to know swearing in the show.  Throwing words such as "Jesus Christ" and "G**damn" around unnecessarily does not add to the story at all; rather, for me anyway, it took me out of the story and, well, it annoyed me.

Aside from that, the story was well-plotted, and the ultimate villain behind the supernatural event actually surprised me - not at all who I thought it was.  And poor Amy, she just can't catch a break when it comes to meeting men (without giving too much away, I will say that Simon is NOT the villain of the tale).  Hopefully, one of these days, one of the writers will give her someone that won't betray her, try to kill her, or die on her.

RATING:  7 undying corpses out of 10 for keeping Amy on track with her supernatural investigations!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Creepella von Cacklefur, No. 1 - The Thirteen Ghosts

Okay, so I'm a sucker for some gimmicks - sue me!  I've had my eye on the Thea Stilton series for a long time - every time I go into a Barnes & Noble or a Books-A-Million, I see the series of books on the shelves, and I'll pull a couple out, glance through them, and wonder whether I should give them a try.  They look short and sweet, easy to read, and quite frankly, fun!  Yes, I realize the reading level for the series is ages 7 to 10, but when have I ever let that stop me from enjoying a good mystery series.

So imagine my surprise when a few weeks back, David and I are browsing through Books-A-Million, and I see they have a "Buy 2, Get 3rd Free" sale on all of their children's series books.  Seeing no new books in the current series I collect, I thought this might be the perfect chance to pick up the first three Thea Stilton books and give them a shot.  So, imagine my surprise when I saw another series right there next to Geronimo Stilton and Thea Stilton - a uniquely horror/mystery series starting "Creepella von Cacklefur" - who is described on the back of the book as "an enchanting and mysterious mouse with a pet bat named Bitewing.  By night Creepella is a special-effects designer and director of scary films, and by day she's studying to become a journalist."  As a lover of horror stories and mysteries, this was a combination that I couldn't resist.

The first book in the series, The Thirteen Ghosts, is not necessarily scary, and the mystery is anything but mysterious; but, it is good, clean fun, and had these books been around when I was in first and second grade, I have no doubt I would have been gobbling them up as soon as each new book came out.  The writing is simple, and the author utilizes repetitiveness as an obvious means to teach younger readers new words.  Each chapter is chock full of full color illustrations, and there are a number of two-page full illustrations (depicting the cast of characters, or the rooms of the mansion, etc.).

The plot is not overly intricate - Creepella is looking for her latest story for "The Shivery News," and she decides she wants to interview some ghosts.  With her pet bat and her niece, Shivereen, she heads to Squeakspeare Mansion, which is said to be filled with ghosts.  There, she meets the latest owner of the mansion, Billy Squeakspeare, who is a writer and is timid as (dare I say it?) a mouse.  They discover the mansion is haunted by not just one, nor even just two or three, but by thirteen ghosts!  And these ghosts are none too happy to have visitors - until they find out Billy is a writer!   They all have stories to tell and no way to tell them; so, it falls upon Billy to start telling their tales.  Not before Creepella, though, gets the interviews she needs to make her article a chilling success.

There is no information given in the book as to the identity of the author, but I found some very interesting facts about the book on the publication page.  The series is based on an original idea by Elisabetta Dami and apparently is an Italian publication.  Scholastic has translated the series and published it here in America for young readers.  The original title was Tredici fantasmi per Tenebrosa, and the cover art is by Guiseppe Farrario, with internal illustrations by Ivan Bigarella (pencils) and Giorgio Campioni (colors).  The original Italian text was translated by Emily Clement.  Clearly, there were a lot of people involved in the creation / publication of this book, and it leads me to wonder how successful it is over in Italy.  Something to look up one day, I suppose...

Along with the "Greetings from Somewhere" series, this is another early readers series I would recommend for children who are just getting into reading (first to third graders).  It's fun and easy to read, and the style is nearly Disney-esque in nature.  Now we'll have to wait and see if the further volumes in this series stand up to the test.

RATING:  7 convertible hearses out of 10 for giving kids a "horror" series of books that are squeaky clean, yet still fun to read.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 40 - The Harvest of Souls

We now return you to our regularly scheduled program...

It's back to Collinwood and the continuing story of terror and nightmares, as author James Goss picks up right where Beyond the Grave left off.  The Sheriff, Jim Hardy, is dead.  The recent episode of the show "Beyond the Grave" is being touted as merely a drama, downplaying the reality of the horrifying events that occurred live on the show.  And Maggie Evans finds herself alone in Collinsport ... literally!  There is no one in town, and Maggie, all hope lost, decides to take her own life.  She is stopped, however, by a most unexpected source - Gerald Conway (as played by the former "Doctor Who," Colin Baker), who was last seen in The House by the Sea.  But, as those who listened to that audio drama will remember, Gerald is not exactly himself these days...

The Harvest of Souls is an interesting and very sad look at Maggie Evans and the toll her life in Collinsport has taken on her.  Over the years, she lost her mother, she lost her father, she has lost a number of friends (either by death or by them moving away), and at times, she has even lost her sanity.  Goss writes a well-crafted story about Maggie's inner-most despair and strength, and it's amazing the range that Kathryn Leigh Scott has - to take Maggie from the point of giving up completely to finding her strength once again and saving not only herself, but the whole town of Collinsport!

Bringing back Conway (albeit Nicholas Blair in his body) was a surprise, but definitely a welcome one.  It's been a while since I've seen the television series (and by "a while," I really mean well over 15 years now...), but I seem to recall that Nicholas had a fascination with Maggie and even fell in love for Maggie (as much as a warlock in the service of the devil can fall in love).  So having him rescue Maggie from her attempted suicide, and then attempt to persuade her to live in a dream world forever with him makes perfect sense (leaving me to wonder if this story was already planned, and The House by the Sea was a harbinger of things to come).

It is always fun to see (hear?) the continuity among these stories - Dr. Balthazar makes a brief appearance at the beginning of this tale, as he checks in on Sabrina Jennings (who, faithful listeners will recall was hit by a car in The Flip Side).  His character also plays a much bigger part in the next audio drama, The Happier Dead.  There is also a reference to Maggie's days as a blond, which, on the television show, changed to her natural long, brown hair without any explanation whatsoever.  And the true villains in this story turn out to be the Leviathans, whose story on the television show was probably one of the most reviled by fans.  So Goss gives them a final (?) closure, sending them off to their final resting place in the sea.

There is also that recurring nursery rhyme, "One, Two, Three, Four Five," which has been heard in three prior audios, making this its fourth appearance.  Leaves me wondering what future story it will play a role in...

This is definitely one of the darker Dark Shadows audios, but it ends on a high note, with Maggie regaining her inner strength and conquering, once again, the evil that threatens to overwhelm her hometown.  Her final words in the story hold more than just truth for the fictional world of Dark Shadows, but definitely speak loudly after all the recent events that have taken place here in the real world - Orlando, Dallas, Belgium, and elsewhere -

"Everyone's looking up at the sky, hoping that at any moment, the sun will finally come out.  And maybe it will. So, I guess life goes on; because, where there's life, there's always the hope that today is going to be a better day."

RATING:  10 dreams of a better day out of 10 for reminding us all that even in our darkest times, we can always find hope that the sun will shine again!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Time-Traveling Fashionista, Book 3 - And Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile

I finally took the plunge and took one last trip into the world of Louise Lambert, the time-traveling fashionista.  This book came out in 2013, and there is no news nor listing of any other book in this series, so I can only assume that this is the final book (which is a shame, since it is a rather unique series).

This final entry into the series picks up right where the previous book left off, with young Louise Lambert shocked to discover that her own mother could very well have been a time-traveling fashionista in her youth.  She is unable to get her mother to admit to anything, so when Marla and Glenda send her another invitation, Louise is determined to pull the truth from them.  Instead, she finds herself tossed back in time once again.  Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor.  She has taken on the role of an assistant to the costumer designer - but instead of living out a dream job, Louise picks up a pearl necklace that sends her further back in time, where she ultimately lands in a very real ancient Egypt as a servant and confidante to the very real Cleopatra!
Louise wakes up to find herself in ancient Egypt - or rather, what she thinks is ancient Egypt.  Instead, it tuns out to be a movie set, and Louise is thrilled to find she is on the set of

The double time-shift is a new twist in this book, as previously the author, Bianca Turetsky, had only sent her protagonist on a single trip back in time.  The author has a bit of freedom in her storytelling this time around, as she admits in the afterward at the end of the book, since there is so little known about the early years of Cleopatra's life.  Turetsky's fashionista finds herself not only struggling as a servant (truly, a slave!), but also a witness to two vicious murders that no one in Cleopatra's time even blinks an eye.  And while Turetsky actually creates some growth within Louise's character in this book through her experiences with Cleopatra, at the same time, she leaves unresolved the dilemma regarding her feelings for Todd and Peter.

The book closes with Louise finally making contact with her fellow fashionista, Stella (whom she met in the previous book) and, at the time time, realizing she has received no more invitations to Glenda and Marla's vintage clothing sales.  Perhaps this was the harbinger of things to come (or not to come, as the case may be) - Louise never received another invite, and readers never received another book in this series.

Once again, the book has some beautifully painted color internal illustrations that, for the most part, highlight the fashions in the book - although, there are two 2-page spreads that showcase the movie set for Cleopatra and, later, the great city of Alexandria.  This is something that I will admit I miss from so many of children's mystery series these days - the internal illustrations.  For me, these illustrations always added something special to the books.  That is one positive thing about this series that lends it a more favorable light.

RATING:  6 poisonous asps out of 10 for providing some character development, as well as that double time-travel twist to shake things up a bit.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 39 - Curtain Call

Nancy Barrett returns to the audio dramas in Curtain Call, the latest Dark Shadows CD that I recently listened to as I traveled to Miami.  This time, she is playing Leticia Faye, who is the cousin of Pansy Faye's mother.  Leticia Faye has the gift of sight, but she has been doing everything she can to avoid the visions, focusing instead on her life as the high society wife of Desmond Collins.

This story is a break from the recent continuing stories involving Maggie, Amy, and the citizens of Collinsport.  Now, listeners are transported back to 1857, where Leticia is trying to learn to speak and act as one of the affluent New Yorkers, so that she won't be a continued embarrassment to her husband.  But, as always, one's past always has a way of catching up, and for Leticia, it is her gift of seeing the future that comes back to haunt her.

Enter:  Joshua King.  He's a man of incredible persuasion, and he is inciting the poor, downtrodden, and unfortunate people of society to rise up and rebel against the rich, aristocratic, and selfish upper class.  It's a revolution King is wanting, and a chance meeting with Leticia Faye seems to be the answer to his prayers.  Here is someone who has real insight, who can really see into the future and can help change his act of charlatan tricks into truth and reality!  Leticia is resistant at first, but the more she gets up on the stage, the more she finds herself pulled back into the limelight.

The question is - is Joshua King everything he claims to be?

As Leticia has more and more visions of the future - of flying metal birds with people inside, of massive troops of soldiers, of many other futuristic events and things - she begins to doubt what she is being told.  And, in true Dark Shadows fashion, the supernatural suddenly comes into play, and Leticia finds herself a mere pawn in a much larger game being played.  And thus, from New York to Collinsport, Leticia finds herself back at Collinwood, as King forces her to take him to the stairway into time so he can finally gain control of time itself and ensure a future where he is lord of all!

While not exactly one of my favorite audio tales to date, the story is a nice breather from the ongoing terror that has beseiged Collinsport as of late, and I enjoyed Barrett's spunkiness with Leticia's character,  There is not a lot of references to other Dark Shadows storylines within this tale, although there is mention of Desmond having shot Gerard Stiles.  There are several historical references - such as James Buchanan being President and the sinking of the S.S. Central America.  A little infusion of truth into fiction can only further bring the story to life.

The brief snippet at the end promises a return to Collinsport, as we resume the ongoing drama of its citizens and our familiar case.

RATING:  7 nosy gossips out of 10 for taking a lesser known character in the Dark Shadows mythos and providing her an opportunity to take the spotlight.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 12 - The Madman of Black Bear Mountain

The latest Hardy Boys book weighs in at a whopping 122 pages of story.  Seriously?  What is Simon & Schuster thinking?  This is exactly the same page count as the last mystery, which was certainly not the most captivating story.  But, then again, how much excitement and entertainment can you really capture with so few pages?  And what's sad is the fact that the premise of these stories are actually pretty good - it's just the execution that is less than stellar due to the compact nature of the books.

The Madman of Black Bear Mountain finds the Hardy brothers heading off the the famous Black Bear Mountain with their school environmental group to assist Dr. Max Kroopnik with some environmental studies.  Thanks to the financial backing of the parents of one of the students, the group of five (Frank, Joe, Mandy, Melissa, and Randall) along with their science teacher, Jim Morgan, head up into the remote forest of the mountain over the objections of a local lodge owner.  And what starts out as an adventure with high hopes of meeting a famed biologist and helping with the scientist's research turns into a fight for survival.

With that kind of build up, one would think there would be a great mystery here.  Plenty of characters to create suspects, a camp-fire tale about a mad cannibal living on the mountainside, a thirty-year old mystery involving a plane crash and a Russian mobster, and, of course, the black bears for which the mountain was named.  When one of the campers disappears, the biologist goes off searching for him also disappears, and then Frank and Joe get separated from the group, it seems there could be plenty of room to build suspense and create tension that would keep the reader turning page after page.

Sadly, with all of this crammed into only 122 pages, the pacing of the story is too fast.  It literally jumps from once incident to the next - arriving at the lodge, Frank overhearing a conversation about someone getting hurt, flying up to the mountain, a terse meeting with Dr. Kroopnik, a fright involving a black bear, their teacher missing with a bloodstain left behind, then Dr. Kroopnik disappearing, then Frank and Joe getting chased by the "Mad Hermit" of Black Bear Mountain and so on, and so on.  There is very little time at all to really get to know the characters.  While we find out snippets of Randall and Jim Morgan's characters, we learn absolutely nothing about Mandy and Melissa (leaving them as pretty much the stock females in distress).

As for the mystery?  It is anything but.  Right from the get-go, it is pretty obvious who is doing what and who the hermit is.  And that is really disappointing, as the last 11 books in this series have not been half-bad.  Either I am simply too old to really enjoy these books any more, or the writing is becoming more sloppy as Simon & Schuster simply puts out anything under the Hardy Boys (and Nancy Drew) logos, figuring the name alone will sell it.  There's no more care put into these stories, and that old S&S excuse that "children today just don't have the attention span for longer stories" doesn't cut it - I see way too many young adult books on the shelves that are 3 and 4 times as long as this, and they sell quite nicely.

I guess the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew stories of years ago truly are gone.  And it's a shame, as they are such a part of literary history at this point, you'd think S&S would care enough to want to continue that history and make their own mark on it.

RATING:  5 cans of tuna fish in oil out of 10 for at least providing an interesting plot, regardless of how lackluster the writing itself was.