Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 43 - The Devil Cat

It's the return of that detective duo, Tony Peterson and Cassandra Collins (better known to those of us as the witch, Angelique)! I have really grown to love this pair, and their mysteries are so much fun to listen to.  Jerry Lacy and Lara Parker have a natural chemistry (honestly, they seem to have more chemistry in these audios than Parker and Frid ever did on the actual show), and their banter is always guaranteed to bring a smile to my face.

The story picks up immediately following their last drama, which was 10 stories ago in book 33 - The Phantom Bride (which took place aboard the cruise ship to England).  The Devil Cat finds our favorite couple driving down a winding road, trying to figure out where they are going, when Tony must swerve to avoid hitting a black cat.  Needless to say, this starts a perilous journey that begins with them being chased by a cult of hooded figures who seem to want to sacrifice them to the burning wicker cat - until Tony's cousin, Lord Trent Malkin, shows up to save the day. What they expect to then be a relaxing weekend visit turns into yet another murder mystery when the town's police inspector turns up dead, followed thereafter by the local priest, the  Malkins' maid and her boyfriend.  Tony and Cassandra are aided by Lord Malkin and his wife in their search for not only the killer, but also their search for a stolen artifact.  As with prior Tony/Cassandra tales, nothing and no one is quite what they seem.


I sincerely hope the end of this story does not signal the end of the Tony/Cassandra stories - that would be extremely disappointing.  These have become a quick favorite of mine, and I look forward to each one.  But the ending makes it very difficult to see how the writers will be able to bring this pair back together again (although, it is Dark Shadows, so one never knows what could happen).

The story makes references to the prior audio dramas starring Tony and Cassandra, all the way from their first encounter to their most recent one.  There are references to former Collinsport Sheriff, Jim Hardy, as well as reference to "Cyrus," which could be referring to Cyrus Longworth.  Further, Cassandra/Angelique makes a reference to Reverend Trask (which, of course, was a character played by Jerry Lacy), and there are references to Angelique's passion for Barnabas Collins.  Thus, the writer manages to keep the story grounded in the Dark Shadows continuity, while providing a great little stand-alone murder mystery.  (Although, "stand-alone" may not accurately work, considering the end of the story kind-of ties in all of their adventures into one thread....)

I guess all good things must come to an end, and for Tony Peterson and Cassandra Collins, this seems to be their farewell tale...goodbye, Tony and Cassandra - you will be missed!

RATING:  10 racing black panthers out of 10 for providing yet another superbly written and well-read tale of this fantastic detective team - may the DS writers find a way to bring them back together!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Thea Stilton, Book One - The Dragon's Code

A spin-off of Scholastic's highly successful Geronimo Stilton books, the Thea Stilton books tell the stories of Geronimo's sister, Thea (surprise!), who is a special correspondent for "The Rodent Gazette."  The Dragon's Code is the first in a series of mysteries wherein Thea is invited back to her former school, Mouseford Academy and finds help in solving cases in the form of five young mouselings - Nicky, Collette, Pauline, Violet, and Pam.  As with the Creepella von Crackelfur series, the books are aimed at early readers, with large font and plenty of internal color illustrations.  Readers also get the fun of solving the mysteries with Thea and her friends, as there are small magnifying glasses on pages that hold clues - whether those clues are in the illustrations or in the story itself, well, that's up to the reader to figure out!

This first mystery finds Thea and the five girls searching for a missing student and the source of the various thefts around the school (including six cooking pots, a rake, and a water hose).  The clues lead them on a mysterious search into underground rooms and a secret entrance to a secret room that holds an unexpected treasure (and the answer to all of their questions).  It's a fun little mystery, and it definitely teaches children not only how to pay attention to even the smallest details, but it shows the value of working together to solve your problems, regardless of your differences.

At 159 pages, the page-count is more than that of the Hardy Boys books these days - although with the font and illustrations, the actual word count is considerably less. However, that is not to say that the story isn't just as readable and enjoyable.  The reading level is 3rd grade, which, quite honestly, is when I was reading the regular Nancy Drew books back in the day (along with the Boxcar Children, Happy Hollisters, and any other mystery series I could get my hands on in the library at the time).  So, I have to admit that it is a little disappointing to see that the reading levels have dropped so much in the past ... eh-hem ... "few" years.  When I was in school, this book would likely have been 2nd grade reading level.

As with the other Stilton series, this was originally published in Italy, written by Piccolo Tao, and the English translation was first published in 2009.  The author, despite the reading level, does provide a pretty intricate mystery involving secret rooms, a clever code, and an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt that will no doubt enrapture children who read the book.  That being said, the author is careful to keep the clues at the forefront, reminding the readers now and again of what the clues are and how they are leading Thea and her new friends to the solution of the mystery.'

While clearly aimed at young female readers, I think the book would be enjoyed just as much by young male readers as well - there is little focus on the feminine nature of the characters (other than Collette, which is because she is a very high-maintenance girly-mouse) and more focus on the mysterious things going on at Mouseford Academy.

(One Side Note: while all of the other Stilton series, including Creepella von Cracklefur, are numbered, for some reason, Scholastic does not number the books in this series - so the only way to get them and read them in order is to look at publication dates to determine in what order the books were published...)

RATING:  8 booby traps out of 10 for providing an interactive children's mystery that lets the reader follow the clues to the solution right along with Thea Stilton!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Cainsville Novel, Book 3 - Deceptions

Kelly Armstrong has me hooked!  I picked up the first book in this series, Omens, because the description gave me the same feeling I get when I watch Dark Shadows.  A supernatural saga with a real world setting.  Deceptions is the third novel in this ongoing saga of Olivia Taylor-Jones (who discovered in the first book that she is actually Eden Larsen, the daughter of two convicted serial killers!), and just as the prior two books, we not only learn a bit more about Olivia/Eden's past, we also learn more about the fae heritage from which she was born.

The book picks up pretty much right after the ending of Visions - Gabriel and Olivia are recovering from the car crash and the attempt by Macy Shaw to kill them both.  From there, the story keeps up the pace, as Olivia finds that she can't stay away from Cainsville and still learn what she needs to know about her own past and about whether her real parents, the Larsens, are truly guilty of the killing spree they are accused of.  Her visions continue, leading her to understand that not only does she play a part in the grand scheme, but also biker-boyfriend Ricky and her lawyer-friend Gabriel.  Readers discover, right along with Olivia, just how connected the three of them are and what their decisions will mean to the various factions of the fae living here in the real world.  Are they really controlling their own destinies, or are they mere pawns that will be forced to replay the same scenario done so many times before?

Of course, this book also brings to the forefront the killings of which Todd and Pamela Larsen are accused.  Without spoiling anything, the entire truth behind the killings comes out by the end of this book, and Olivia must find a way to come to terms with the truth - the truth of who instigated it, the truth of who really committed the murders, the truth of how those murders and her parents' actions are tied into the fae, and the truth of how those murders play into her own life.  The book is aptly titled, as there are quite a number of deceptions that finally stand revealed by the end of this book.  And, to give you fair warning, there is an unexpected death in this book that not only is integral to the continuing story here, but it also has an impact on Olivia.

I will admit, there was a bit more "romance" in this book than I would have preferred ... and Armstrong gets a bit graphic at points.  While I get that this series is likely aimed at females, and perhaps these type of scenes are somehow titillating to women readers, for me, they seemed needless distractions to the story (gratuitous sex scenes, if you will).  That being said, I'm still rooting for Olivia to end up with Gabriel!  (Poor, Gabriel, he just is too uptight for his own good!)

Anyone that loves supernatural thrillers is bound to love this series.  And even though I known pretty much nothing about the "fae" and about Celtic history, Armstrong is very careful about not just throwing things out there without giving some sort of history or explanation to the reader, so it's easily accessible.  Of course, this is an ongoing series, so it absolutely has to be read in order - Omens, Visions, and now Deceptions (with Betrayals being the next book that will be coming out).  It's my hope this series will continue indefinitely, but we shall see...

RATING;  9 boar's tusks out of 10 for keeping the roller coaster ride going, for keeping me guessing, and for a startling payoff in the end!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Dark Shadows Audio Book 42 - Carriage of the Damned

So, I strolled back into the world of Dark Shadows today, picking up where I left off with audio book 42 - Carriage of the Damned.

The story picks up shortly after the end of The Happier Dead, where Amy lost her latest love, Simon, at the hospital where no one was dying, no matter how horrific the injury.  Residing at Collinwood, she is asked by Sabrina to undertake a mysterious task of digging up the unmarked grave of Gerard Stiles!

I'm glad they are back to the ongoing DS saga here, and even more thrilled to have a number of original cast members - Lisa Richard (Sabrina Jennings), Kathleen Cody (Hallie Stokes), and James Storm (Gerard Stiles), as well as Denise Nickerson (although she is not playing the role of Amy Jennings, which she created back on the original show - instead, Stephanie Ellyne continues as Amy, while Denise takes on the role of actress Elspeth Gardner, who was previously seen in The Darkest Shadow).  Then, we also see the return of some minor characters, such as nurse Pauline Brown (who was in The Happier Dead) and Matthew Samuels (who was seen twice before on the trail to Collinsport in The Enemy Within and The Lucifer Gambit).  Thus, the continuity of the DS audio world continues to grow.

The writing of this story is very Dark Shadows-esque - with not only the head of Gerard Stiles (a la the head of Judah Zachary), but also the use of a crystal to track Stiles, and a spell cast to connect the lone train car with the drawing room of Collinwood.  This author, thankfully, tones down the use of expletives that seemed to overpower the last audio.  Plus, we get reminded that Barnabas and Julia are off with Professor Stokes in Egypt (which will be told in an upcoming audio story), Carolyn is still at school in Salem, and Elizabeth Stoddard is away for a month.  No word on David and Maggie, although there is reference by one of the characters towards the end as to whether Maggie will be prepared for all these guests.

I did enjoy the "mystery" of this tale - who exactly is trying to resurrect Gerard Stiles and why?  Is it Sabrina, looking for a way to end her werewolf curse?  Is it Hallie, hoping to gain revenge for what she perceives Gerard did to her all those years ago?  Is it one of the other passengers who are stuck on the train car with them?  The eccentric actress, Elspeth Gardner?  The highstrung nurse, Pauline Brown?  The gruff military major Crawford Jacobs?  Or the mild mannered train conductor, Matthew Samuels?  It really is anyone's guess until more than 2/3 of the way through, at which time it becomes clear who is really behind it all and why.

I will admit, however, there are a few places where it becomes a bit difficult to tell who is talking - Kathleen Cody and Lisa Richards at times sound very similar, and when you add Stephanie Ellyne into the mix, well, let's just be grateful they do say each other's name on occasion to keep the cast clear!

The story ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with Amy saying goodbye to Collinwood and Collinsport, vowing to never return...(of course, having listened to the Bloodlust series, we know that she later returns as Amy Cunningham, having married and now with step-children).

RATING:  9 stranded rail cars out of 10 for keeping the "creep"factor alive and well in Dark Shadows, and for maintaining a roster of background characters that show up when you least expect it!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 4 - The Mystery in the Forbidden City

Those ever-curious twins, Ethan and Ella, now find themselves in China, as their parents continue taking them on a world tour to allow their mother to write her travelogue.  Author Harper Paris opens the world of China to the twins (as well as readers) by taking a look at Beijing, one of China's popular tourist destinations.

Despite how simplistic the writing and stories are, these books for young readers are actually quite enjoyable (even if it takes less than 15 minutes to read them).  Paris captures the innocence and curiosity of second-graders with Ethan and Ella, and the awe and wonder that any 8-year old would have when visiting such magnificent cities as Venice, Paris, or Beijing.  Of course, the kids do act a bit older than they probably should when they get separated from their parents and neither one of them seem very worried (as they are more interested in solving the latest mystery that their grandfather has sent them) - but, that can be overlooked for the sake of simply enjoying the book.  After all, this is fiction.

The quest that the kids' grandfather sends them on is to find the three dragons, located somewhere within the mysterious Forbidden City, the former home of the great emperors.  The only clue provided is that the dragons could be found near the old pine tree.  Needless to say, Ethan and Ella are overjoyed at the chance to solve another "mystery" - but that mystery gets bigger when they stumble upon an old map they find on the floor.  They use the map as a means to try and locate the old pine tree, but somehow get separated from their parents and lost among the many trails and buildings within the Forbidden City.  They ultimately find the old pine tree, they find the three dragons, and they find that the old map they discovered is actually older than they thought and is a treasure that was to be placed on display in the Forbidden City.

Marcos Calo once again provides not only the cover art, but all of the interior illustrations. Since this is a young reader's book, the interior illustrations are numerous, pretty much every other page, and in some instances, spread across two pages.

I'm still disappointed that I never had this series when I was in first and second grade; however, it's great to know it's out there now for young readers as a stepping stone into the wonderful world of reading!

RATING:  9 fried scorpions out of 10 for providing kids with an easy to read mystery that is also educational and fun!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Teen Titans, Earth One - Volume Two

The "Earth One" stories continue with the second volume of the Teen Titans.  I've always been a huge fan of the Teen Titans - from the original run, definitely through the Wolfman/Perez run, and even that run with the Atom as the leader (although, honestly, the New 52 run has left a bitter taste).  So it's rather refreshing to see a brand new take on the characters and team, introducing them as science projects gone wrong rather than various sidekicks brought together by fate.

Volume Two picks up some time after the end of the first volume.  Raven and Starfire are in hiding to protect Starfire from those that are after her.  Changeling, Terra, Cyborg, and Tempest are secretly hiding in an abandoned urban subdivision, doing everything they can for Cyborg as the metal slowly takes over his body.  Meanwhile, Niles Caulder's men are searching far and wide to locate the teens and bring them back.  Enter: Jericho and Deathstroke.

Jeff Lemire writes a story of teens on the run and introduces a whole new group of "Teen Titans," in the form of super-powered agents working directly for Caulder - Kole, Impulse, and Wonder Girl.  But these are not the heroes at all that you might remember from the regular DC Universe.  As with any good super-hero team book, there is a fierce battle as Teen Titans versus the runaway Titans, and Raven and Stargirl do battle alongside Deathstroke against Caulder and his men.  Stuck in the middle of this is Cyborg, who is slowly becoming more and more metal, losing what last little bit of humanity he has left.

Andy MacDonald's art is a bit rough around the edges in places, but it's not so bad that it takes away from the story.  The first five pages (opening sequence) are probably some of the best in the book, with Terra breaking into a pharmacy to get pain pills for Cyborg, then getting caught by the police in the rain, forcing her to use her powers to escape.  Throughout the rest of the book, though, it seems he struggles with facial expressions on the characters, and more times than not, you'll find the characters scrunching their face with their eyes closed (honestly, it looks like they are trying to go to the bathroom, if you get my meaning here).  Thankfully, though, there are not many splash pages or two-page spreads.  MacDonald saves those for only the very important moments, giving them more impact and giving the reader more bang for the buck as far as story goes.

There are still several plot lines hanging, which leaves the saga open for another graphic novel, and since I love these characters, I do hope there will be a Volume Three.  Guess only time (and sales) will tell.

RATING:  8 ugly mes out of 10 for keeping the story and characters of the Teen Titans fresh and exciting and not rehashing old material again.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 3 - Ghosts of Belle Isle

Okay, while I was not entirely enthused with the previous book in this series, I can say that I found this third book to be a bit more enjoyable to read.  And while Ghosts of Belle Isle may not have had much of a mystery to it (nor did it have the treasure hunting adventures that the prior two books had), it does have something the first two books lacked - stronger characterization.

Perhaps the author, Steven K. Smith, is getting a better hold on his three main characters by this book.  Derek, Sam, and Caitlin are no longer cookie-cutter kids - instead, in this mystery, they actually read and feel very natural, both in dialogue and in action.  Which, obviously makes for a better read.  And once again, Smith provides a number of history lessons scattered throughout the story, this time involving the Civil War and the surrendering of the South to the North.  As the kids learn about Jefferson Davis and General Lee and the number of lives lost in the war between brothers, so do the readers.  Thankfully, Smith manages to integrate the history lessons pretty well into the story so that the reader does not feel like he or she is being hit over the head with it.

Now, as far as the mystery goes - as you can expect with a title like Ghosts of Belle Isle, there are ghosts.  Only, they are not the "ghosts" in the typical sense.  Sure, the kids' crotchety neighbor, Mr. Haskins, tells the boys about the mysterious lights that appear on the river that separates Belle Isle from Richmond and how those could possibly be the spirits of the hundreds of men who gave their lives for the South right there on Belle Isle.  The only problem is, the kids never really see those ghosts at all (albeit one very brief moment near the end); rather, the "ghosts" more prominently on display throughout the story are a motorcycle gang who appear to not only be rough and tough, but are also involved in some very suspicious and mysterious activities in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

I'd have to say this story is more of a typical "day in the life" type story - the kids' parents go away on a vacation, leaving them in the hands of an older cousin who pays little attention to them, leaving them to fend for themselves; they have to face bullies who are intent on making their lives miserable (although Caitlin does have the right attitude when it comes to bullies, and there is a scene at the end where the bullies get what's coming to them in a very deserving way), and having to face the consequences of their actions.  There are no really overly dramatic scenes, no big cliffhangers or foibles standard to the children's mystery genre, and no scary moments.  So, for those looking for a mystery to solve, or hoping for another "National Treasure" type adventure, this is not the one for you.  However, if you want a quick, nice little read, then you'll probably enjoy this one.

RATING:  7 Eiffel Tower snow globes out of 10 for good, clean family fun - would have preferred an actual mystery for the kids to solve, but hey - you can't have everything.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy (Amanda Lester Mysteries No. 1)

This book was an absolute JOY to read!  I had never heard of the author, Paula Berinstein, nor the books themselves, before stumbling across them on Amazon one day.  The cover was colorful, it was toted as a new mystery series, and it combined elements of Harry Potter, Nancy Drew, and Sherlock Holmes.  So, let's face it - how could I pass it up?

While there are currently four books in the series published, I bought the first one to give it a try.  Wasn't really sure what to expect - I mean, with a title like The Pink Sugar Conspiracy, what is one to think?  The moment I started reading, though - WOW!  Literally, that's all I could think.  Wow!  Amanda Lester may only be twelve, and she may have the typical tween-ager woes (problems with friends, problems with parents, problems with school), but right off the bat I liked her.  I identified with her.  I cared about her and her problems.  And by the end of the first chapter, the reader is so invested in this character that you have to know what is going to happen next.

Amanda Lester and the Pink Sugar Conspiracy is by far one of the best first books of a series that I have ever read.  With 344 pages of story, Berinstein has plenty of room to build her story, flesh out her characters, misdirect her readers (after all, what would a good mystery be without some misdirection here and there), and provide an absolutely amazing mystery story.  Yes, there are some deaths in the book (the cook and the doctor at the school are both killed), and yes there is a bit of romance that occurs (Amanda pretty much falls head over heels for Nicholas Muffet, one of the first students she meets at her new school) - but they are all a part of the greater story - in fact, there's nothing that occurs or is said within the story that doesn't somehow play an important part.

And speaking of the school - Berinstein has created a Harry Potter-type school, only instead of wizardry, this school teaches detecting.  It even has the various "houses" for the students named after famous detectives - the Holmes House, the Father Brown House, the Dupin House, and Van Helden House.  There are also nods to a number of famous authors, via statues on the school grounds - the Enid Blyton statue, the Agatha Christie statue, the Edgar Allan Poe statue, the Dorothy Sayers statue, the Conan Doyle statue, and so on.  This exclusive, secluded school (Legatum Continuatum) is not known to the outside world.  It is hidden away just outside of London and is extremely selective in the students it accepts.  In fact, each and every one of the students has a connection in some way to a famous detective!  For Amanda, unfortunately, that famous detective is none other than G. Lestrade, the inspector that was made famous by Sherlock Holmes.  She is ashamed of that fact, viewing Lestrade as nothing more than a bumbling idiot.  She has no desire to become a detective - she wants to create and direct films!  She resents being shipped off to the school, and she expects to hate every minute of it.  Very quickly though, her attitude changes, as she makes friends with Ivy, Amphora, and Simon (as well as Ivy's seeing-eye dog, Nigel, because, yes, Ivy is blind) and soon discovers that her knowledge of film and the movie industry very easily transitions into the world of solving crime.

Berinstein offers up an unusual mystery here - the students are told at the beginning of the school year that they will have a mystery to solve throughout the semester.  They will not be told what it is, but they will know it when they see it.  Further, it will be up to them to use everything they are learning in their classes to solve the mystery without any help from the teachers or staff.  Simple enough, right?  But what happens when first, the school garage explodes, taking with it a valuable car that is the prized possession of one of their teachers; and then they discover that the cook is acting oddly, stealing pink-colored sugar and hiding it in a secret underground room on the campus grounds?  What is the real mystery?  And what is causing the sounds behind the walls?  And why are all of the desserts so bland, when there is so much sugar on the school property?  And who was flashing that mirror from behind the trees?  And how does any of that connect to Amanda's father being kidnapped?

The story moves at a great pace, taking place over the span of the entire first semester.  While Amanda grows closer to her friends, and even more so to Nick, she still has a tendency to act on her own and not include her new-found friends in on the action.  When she stows away on a delivery truck in the hopes of getting to her father, she is thrust into an unexpected (and honestly, quite humorous) adventure that takes her entirely in the opposite direction where she gets to drive a truck, gets car-jacked, gets attacked by a monkey on a train, and has the opportunity to use all of her skills to not only stop a criminal mastermind from completing a nefarious plan to take control of the world's sugar industry, but also to save her father's life.

I cannot say enough good things about this book.  The writing is excellent, the characterization is engaging, and Berinstein keeps it real by acknowledging the differences in Amanda's American upbringing and lifestyle to those of the other students, who are British.  She even manages to throw in a good Nancy Drew reference:

What was really neat about the car wasn't all that flash though.  It had a way cool rumble seat.  Amanda had wanted to ride in a rumble seat ever since she'd read the early Nancy Drew books, in which the girl sleuth had driven a blue rumble-seated roadster. (p. 102)

Interesting that she points out that Amanda read the "early" Nancy Drew books, which says the author has more than a passing knowledge of the Nancy Drew history, since it was in the original text books that Nancy drove a roadster.  In the revised editions, she drove her blue convertible.

Now, I do have to admit, I did pick up one minor discrepancy, and the only reason I mention it is because if it stuck out so easily to me, I have no doubt others will notice when reading it.  On page 101, right after the explosion in the garage, Amanda is spying on the teachers and the firemen.  She wonders if one of the teachers is injured, but realizes, "She couldn't see how.  He looked perfectly fine.  There were no paramedics at the scene and no one was paying attention to him."  Then, just four pages later, when she is joined by Nick, She comments, "It looks like no one was hurt," to which is responds, "Because there's no paramedics?"  Here, the book indicates that Amanda realizes Nick is right, as "She hadn't noticed."  Now, how could she not notice there were no ambulances, when just four pages prior, she had determined her teacher was not injured because there were no paramedics on the scene?  Does this spoil the reading of the story?  Of course, not.  One minor continuity glitch in a 344 page book, I'd say that was pretty darned great!

I so wish this author were writing the current Nancy Drew and/or Hardy Boys books - they would certainly be a far cry better and would probably be selling a lot more than what they are.  Berinstein is a superb author who knows how to tell a truly engaging story with lots of twists and turns.  And while there are two mysteries (the staged one by the school and the real one involving the sugar conspiracy and her father), both get played well.  Definitely a series I would recommend to anyone of any age - young or adult.  Can't wait to dig into the second one (The Orange Crystal Crisis - and yes, the series does focus on colors, as the old Connie Blair series of days gone by did), where, based on the last paragraph in this book, Amanda will be meeting an interesting new student at the school!

RATING:  10 gluppy things out of 10 for proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that a great young adult mystery does not have to be short or simple, but can be fully fleshed out with believable characters and intricate plots!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Jessica Farm - Volume 2

WTF?  Honestly, there is just no other way of putting it.  I've read some off-beat comics in my time, and the first volume of Jessica Farm was definitely unusual and not at all what I was expecting.  It was part fantasy, part thriller, part mystery.  Volume 2, however, while picking up right where Volume 1 left off, goes so far beyond the realm of absurd that I really don't know what to think or say about it.

Jessica Farm and her newfound companion, Mr. Sugar Cock (don't ask), have now met "the Smiths" - Papa Smith, Funny Uncle Smith, and Baby Smith. Only, the Smiths are not people.  They appear to be some type of fox/goat-types who happen to live within the barn on the Farm property.  And they are going to help Jessica and Sugar fight the Crangleshitters and Skrats that are tearing up the farm.  So, they leave the safety of the barn and confront the two Skrats that are outside.  Only, once defeated, they find out those aren't the only Skrats - there is a whole army of them - and on the other side, coming quickly, are the Crangleshitters!  Then, for the next thirty-five or so pages, there is nothing but fighting - and since none of these creatures are even human, it becomes a hodge-podge of a mess that is so difficult to figure out exactly what's going on, that I pretty much skimmed over the pages, saying to myself, "a page of fighting...another page of fighting...and another page of fighting," and so on, until I finally got back to Jessica and Sugar, who are searching for the secret door that will take them underground to safety of a cavern where they meet three humans - Frikk, Frank, and Fred (who, for no apparent reason, seems to be trapped inside of a dead human carcass nailed to the cave wall).  And they send Jessica on a journey to fulfill her destiny, the first place of which is a cave called The Rainbow Chamber that will allow you to hover through the air if you completely clear your mind and forget yourself.  Yeah, okay....

I won't even talk about what happens when Jessica and Sugar go into the Rainbow Room, as (a) it is not really necessary to be as graphic as it is and (b) it doesn't really serve any purpose in the story (unless Jessica is going to later become pregnant in the next book).

After reading this book, I can honestly say I have no intention of picking up Volume 3, which, by the way, is said at the end of this book to be coming out in 2024 - definitely NOT worth the wait or the read.

Don't know how long it has been since I have been completely and utterly disappointed in a comic that I've bought and read.  Sure, some may not be to my liking, and some may not measure up to my expectations.  But Volume 2 of Jessica Farm is just so completely jumbled by the art (when you try to draw that many creatures fighting each other all at once, it becomes hard to separate one from another in the melee - of course, though, now that I think about it, perhaps that was Simmons' idea in doing it), and the story has gotten so far off the beaten path that I can't say that I understand, or even want to understand, what is going on with it and in what direction it is really headed.  The oddity of it may have been intriguing in the first book, but it's just way too out there in this one to be understood.

Oh well, you never know until you try it, right?

RATING:  3 Grokk-flokkers out of 10 just for remaining faithful to his one page of story and art per month (this second volume having been created from January 2008 through December 2015).

Friday, August 12, 2016

Doctor Who (the 10th Doctor) - In the Blood

I was so excited about the news that Donna Noble was coming back to Doctor Who - yes, it was only in book form (both audio and written), but I didn't care.  Anything to fill my fix for more Donna Noble!  In the Blood, a new novel by Jenny T. Colgan, is the first book featuring the 10th Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna Noble.  It goes without saying that I couldn't postpone reading this book, no matter how many books are in line ahead!

Sadly, I wish I had waited...

Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps Ms. Colgan just really didn't get the characters as well as she should have.  But the Doctor / Donna in this book are not by any means the Doctor / Donna I have come to love so much.  I can see that Colgan made an effort to give Donna a sarcastic, bossy edge.  I can tell that she worked hard to make the Doctor bubbly and energetic.  But quite frankly, it just didn't work.  This book read nowhere near as well as the four books and four audios that have come before, all of which captured the true essence of both the 10th Doctor and Donna so wonderfully.  For me, neither character came alive in this story.

In the Blood finds the Doctor and Donna racing against time to stop a virus - one that starts out in the internet, but manages to infect humans, feeding on their anxiety and anger, causing them to become so angry, so violent, that they die from heart failure (but not before feeling an icy finger touch their heart).  When Donna's grandfather, Wilf, becomes infected, it becomes personal.  Along the way, they meet and keep a careful eye on an alien mercenary who has been sent to find whoever is causing this infection and put an end to him.  The Doctor, however, intends to beat him to the punch, to avoid any more death.  Donna does prove herself to be invaluable, albeit uncertain and down on herself, but in the end, she comes through for the Doctor and proves once again just how important she is to the Doctor (and the universe).

It takes a bit to get into the story - it's not your typical Doctor Who tale, and there is quite a bit of death and killing in the book (considering the Doctor abhors violence and prefers peace and saving lives to taking them).  The story spans a considerable time, since they travel the globe without the aid of the TARDIS, and there are some jumps in time to avoid having to spend pages simply telling of their airplace, auto, and train rides.  The ending, though...well, the ending made me smile, and it gave me flashbacks to the last Donna episode.

I hope the upcoming books and audios will be considerably better than this - for as much as I love Donna, I don't want to see her written so poorly.  (And the author clearly is familiar with Catherine Tate as an actress outside of Doctor Who, as she throws in a couple of Easter Egg lines from Tate's variety show - when Donna talks about something being "for losers" and later, she makes the remark, "Innit."  Those familiar with one of Tate's characters from her variety show will recognize those lines immediately)

Never thought I'd be disappointed with a book with Donna Noble in it...

RATING:  5 diluted Rempaths out of 10 just for having a Doctor Who book with Donna Noble in it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Hocus Pocus Hotel - Book 3 - The Thirteenth Mystery

The "Hocus Pocus Hotel" series comes to an end with The Thirteenth Mystery.  I suppose that "thirteen" really is an unlucky number, as least for this series.

Now, I'll be up front and honest - this is not the best children's mystery series on the shelves today.  It is cute, it has its moments, and I admittedly love the color internal illustrations.  The stories, however, are somewhat simple and the mysteries not overly complicated.  However, that being said, they can be fun to read, and there is a small amount of interest in seeing how the magic tricks are performed in the book (since the author leads the reader through the tricks and eventually explains exactly how they are done - removing all "magic" from the tricks).

Charlie Hitchcock and Tyler Yu are back for two final mysteries - first, Brack (the famed Abracadabra for whom the hotel is named) disappears, leaving it up to Charlie and Tyler to find him. When the new stage magician plays some new tricks on the 12th floor, suddenly Brack isn't the only one missing - Tyler has disappeared, too!  With the help of newcomers Annie, Rocky, and Cozette, not only do they find the missing magician and Tyler, but they stumble upon an even greater mystery involving twelve marble statues of the Greek gods that were thought missing for nearly 50 years!

Michael Dahl (the author) moves the story along at a fairly quick pace, and while all eyes seem to be once again upon Theopolis, the true villain who is determined to get his (or her!) hands on those statues comes as no surprise.  Again, this series is for pre-teens, so it is more about the clue-finding, trick-solving, and adventure than it is about actually "whodunnit."  Yet, Dahl does bring up a pretty interesting thing throughout this final story.

What is it about buildings and the thirteenth floor?  I have no doubt everyone knows that buildings with more than 12 stories to them for some reason skip from floor 12 to floor 14 - you will never find a button in an elevator for floor 13.  This stumps Charlie and Tyler briefly as well - until they, along with Brack, discover that the hotel really does have a 13th floor after all!  The question is - how does one get to it, and how was it being used by the villain of the mystery to escape detection?  I have to wonder - if I had read this book when I were a pre-teen, would I have been interested enough to start checking every building I visited without a 13th floor to see if there really was a floor between the 12th and 14th stories that the owners didn't want anyone to know about?  Knowing me, I probably would have!

While Brack ends the book with the statement, "The show must go on!", unfortunately for the Hocus Pocus Hotel, the show is over and so is the series.  Which, in a small way, is a shame, since some of the new characters introduced in this book actually had some personality to them, and it might have been interesting to see where Dahl would have taken them in future tales.  Alas, though, the further adventures of Charlie, Tyler, and Brack (and maybe even Theopolis, too) are left to the readers' imaginations.

RATING:  6 turning lilies out of 10 for unveiling the mystery behind the magic and showing just how important misdirection is in the world of magic tricks!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Short(est) Lived Comic Series #5 - Tiger Girl (Gold Key)

If a comic that only publishes one issue of an intended series can be considered a series, then Tiger Girl is by far the shortest "series" I have ever read.  Published in 1968 (a year before I was born, mind you) by Western Publishing Company under its "Gold Key" imprint, this one and only issue of Tiger Girl tells the story of the mysterious masked crusading beauty, described as "beautiful as Venus ... and as fierce as a creature of the jungle..."  Shapely aerialist Lily Taylor by day, but justice-seeking heroine Tiger Girl by night, readers are introduced to her world and her supporting cast, but never find out exactly how Tiger Girl came to be.

I chanced upon this comic at a convention from one of the dealers I regularly buy comics, so I managed to get a pretty good deal on it.  Can't say that I had ever heard of the character or even seen this comic, so I was surprised to find out when I got home and did some research that (a) there was only one issue, and (b) the comic was written by none other than Superman creator, Jerry Siegel!  It also turns out there was a "Tiger Girl" back in the 1940s, published by Fiction House in their Fight Comics books - however, that character was not the same (despite the similarities in costume and same blond hair).

The story itself is rather basic, as most comic stories were back in the '60s - Tiger Girl defeats one villain, then discovers that another villain has it out for her and must face off against him before ultimately defeating him by the end of the story.  With names like "The Growler" and "Wolf Hound," our dear Mr. Siegel was not being overly creative in the character department.  And the acronyms for the organizations - W.A.A.V. (War Against Arch-Villainy) and I.N.F.A.M.Y (the evil counterpart whose name is not even defined) - well, as you can see, they are definitely something else!

As far as supporting cast goes, that's actually where there are some characters that I would have loved to see more of.  Government agent Ed Savage is the egotistical male figure, determined to keep Tiger Girl in her place as a "mere girl."  There's Titan the Great, the circus strong-guy who pines after Lily (knowing she is Tiger Girl), and Laughing Boy, the resident clown of the circus who is always good for a quick laugh.  And, of course, there is Kitten, Lily's pet tiger who is just as dangerous as Tiger Girl herself when they are out fighting crime.

"With claw and fury she springs...into the trap of Wolf Hound, a human beast!"  A tagline on the cover that was meant to draw in readers unfortunately did not draw in enough, for despite the caption in the last panel indicating Tiger Girl would face more danger in the next issue - that next issue never came.

Tiger Girl is something older comic fans will enjoy - those who have a fondness for the comic tales of yesteryear, when the stories were just told for fun, we weren't bogged down with or worried about continuity, and one story did not need to be padded out to six issues to sell a trade paperback.  We don't need to know how she came to be Tiger Girl.  We don't need to know where Wolf Hound or the Growler got their powers or what caused them to be villains.  We just know who is the good guy, who's the bad guy, and who's gonna win.  Simple, enjoyable, and fun - exactly what a comic should be.

RATING:  7 silent stranglers out of 10 for giving a female hero her own title back in the '60s and giving her a chance to shine, even if it were for only one issue.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 2 - The Case of the Girl in Grey

Lady Ada Byron and Miss Mary Godwin are back in action as the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency - only this time, the agency has gotten a bit bigger, as Mary's step-sister Jane and Ada's sister Allegra join in on the fun.  I have to say that author, Jordan Stratford, appears to be having a lot of fun taking those two historical figures (Ada Byron being the real life daughter of that Lord Byron, while Mary Godwin grew up to marry a certain Percy Shelley and, well, I'm sure you know who she is...) and sending them off on this adventures to solve mysteries in the small little world of London around them.

While the historical facts may be somewhat off (in reality, there was an 18-year age difference between the girls, Allegra died at the age of 5, and Jane was actually Allegra's mother!), I have no doubt that Stratford has the girls' personalities down pat.  Ada is so literal and analytical, while Mary romanticizes things more.  Yet, they both have one thing in common - they are ready and willing to help anyone in need.

Stratford crafts in The Case of the Girl in Grey an almost Nancy Drew-like tale, in that there are two mysteries.  The first involves a mysterious girl dressed in grey that is nearly run down by a coach in which Mary and her friend, Charles (as in Dickens - yes, that Dickens) are riding.  When Mary tries to help her, she disappears, and Mary wonders if she has seen a ghost.  Meanwhile, Ada is asked by Mary Somerville (of whom Ada thinks very highly and is awestruck to actually meet in person) to look into the circumstances surrounding her cousin's daughter, who is engaged to be married.  While she is not quite sure what it is, Somerville feels there is something wrong with that engagement.  So, with no clues and no real idea of whether anything is truly wrong, Ada and Mary agree to take the case.

The story really starts to take shape when Ada and Mary meet young Lizzie Earnshaw and Mary mistakes her for the "ghost" that she and Dickens saw earlier.  Longtime mystery fans will immediately recognize that this marks the beginning of a connection between the two mysteries, and it isn't long before both Ada and Mary start to connect the dots.  Even young Lizzie suspects something is amiss about her engagement, as a friend of her uncle is the one who introduced her to her betrothed, and now is demanding she sign over all of her estate to her fiance before the wedding even takes place.

While there is no real mystery as to who the villain is, there is a much bigger mystery involving the reasons behind their actions and the connection that mysterious girl in grey has to Lizzie and the whole marriage scenario.  I enjoy the fact that Stratford basically leads readers through all the clues as Ada and Mary stumble upon them, decipher them, and connect them, and in true Nancy Drew fashion, the girls not only solve the mystery and save an inheritance, but they reunite long-lost relatives!  And the elements of humor that play into the story through the involvement of acrobatic Allegra (who wants to join the circus) and prim and proper Jane (who knows anything and everything about anyone who is anyone) make for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Another big PLUS factor for this book (and this series) are the absolutely gorgeous internal illustrations.  Kelly Murphy does not only a magnificent job painting a beautifully mysterious cover, but she provides black-n-white pencil interiors that maintain the spooky, gothic feel of the mystery itself.  I'm definitely going to have to see what other work this artist has done.

RATING:  9 flaming snapdragons out of 10 for keeping gothic mysteries alive and well and enjoyable to read!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Finishing School, Book the Third - Waistcoats & Weaponry

I never imagined how much I could like a book that is deemed "steampunk," but this series literally has me turning page after page, not wanting to put the book down, yet, at the same time, not wanting it to end.  The first two books in the Finishing School series were good, and they firmly established these lively, adventurous characters - Sophronia, Dimity, Sidheag, Soap, and so many others.  The author, Gail Carriger, creates such vibrant personalities for each one, that they are all unforgettable.

Waistcoats & Weaponry picks up some time after the conclusion of the previous book.  Lessons continue on Mademoiselle Geraldine's floating finishing school.  Only, this time around, the school only plays a very small portion of the story, as Sighead and her family (or should I say, "pack") take centerstage.  The Kingair pack is in trouble, having committed treason to the British empire.  Sidheag is afraid of what will happen to her pack, and although she is not a werewolf, these are her uncles, and she can't leave them to their fate.  Sophronia, our ever true heroine, along with her trusty sidekick Dimity, as well as that sly little sootie, Soap, and the brazen Lord Mersey, set off to help her get to Scotland to be with her family.

In true steampunk/supernatural style, the gang not only has to keep up the facade for the engagement party of Sophronia's brother, but they deal with the surprise visit of Sighead and her two werewolf protectors, malfunctioning mechanicals, a suspiciously empty train, and a dirigible of Picklemen that keeps appearing for unknown reasons.  Then, there's the ever-present plot involving those pesky transmitters - are they part of a villainous plot of the vampires?  Or are they part of something even grander and more sinister that could spell doom not just for the upper class of society, but for all of Europe?

This is adventure in grand style, and with Carriger's typical humor, fine manners, and deadly fights (all the while maintaining all lady-like modesty), it is a true treat to read.  The story moves fast, so the 298 pages was almost like nothing.  As the characters age in the story, they also mature and change.  Sophronia fights to figure out her feelings for both Lord Mersey and Soap - the first insufferable but of equal class, the second more understanding yet beneath her station.  Dimity struggles to overcome her fear of the world of spies and intelligencers into which she has been thrust, still wanting more than anything to marry well and settle down.  Soap takes chance after chance in not only letting his feelings for Sophronia be known, but also revealing his desire to move up in station and put himself in a position where he could win Sophronia's heart in normal society.  And Lord Mersey - - well, let's just say that some people just can't help but be who and what they are.

Since the book is written for young adults, Carriger maintains a certain level of modesty - for when the werewolves shift back to human, as can be expected, they are naked.  But the author never deals in much detail (although there is certainly plenty of innuendo and insinuation).  And while there is certainly some violence (gun fights, hand-to-hand combat, train destruction), the gruesome details are kept to a minimum - and a certain werewolf situation at the end occurs off-screen (as the main characters do not witness it, so neither does the reader).

This is definitely a series I would recommend - it's not a mystery, per se, but it is filled with intrigue, mystery, and some soap opera elements mixed with humor that will hold a reader's interest and make a reader smile.

RATING:  9 steel-bladed fans out of 10 for proving that fashion accessories can be useful, as well as deadly.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Goldie Vance - a Mini Series by Boom Studios!

Nancy. Harriet. Veronica.  There's a new sleuth on the block!  Introducing...GOLDIE VANCE

The above tagline clearly refers to Nancy Drew, Harriet the Spy, and Veronica Mars, but it is definitely an apt comparison.  This comic book mini-series (turned into an ongoing series, thanks to the high sales and number of fan response) is all about teenage Goldie Vance, a young girl who works with her father at the Crossed Palms Resort in St. Pascal, Florida, where she spends her times parking cars and helping guests solve mysteries!

The series is written by Hope Larson and drawn beautifully by Brittney Williams.  While the comic is drawn very much in the style of the '60s and '70s cartoons, the story itself and the writing is far from cartoony.  Larson gives us a spunky teenager (whose actual age is never defined, but based on the fact she drives a car in the comic, one would guess that she is somewhere around sixteen years of age) who is determined to see herself (and prove herself!) as a detective for the hotel where her father works.  In fact, when readers are first introduced to Goldie, she has solved the mystery of a missing boy in the hotel (turns out he caught a ride in the housekeeper's cart and ended up in the laundry room).  Soon enough, though, she finds herself involved in a much greater mystery when a guest's jeweled necklace is stolen.  Only, everything is not exactly what it seems, for when Goldie recovers the necklace, they discovery it's owner is missing!

Just like every other teenage sleuth, Goldie has her own group of friends to help her along - the front desk clerk, Cher; the in-house detective, Walter; the young valet, Rob; and the record-store worker, Diane.  And, of course, she has her own nemesis in the form of "Sugar" Maple, daughter of the man who actually owns the hotel where Goldie and her father work.

Taking a cue from Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars, Goldie isn't afraid to step outside the lines of the law to find a clue.  From "borrowing" a guest's car to compete in a race to win back the stolen necklace, to breaking into the missing guest's car to see if there are any clues, Goldie will do whatever it takes - even if it costs her and her father their jobs (which, it does!).  That's not to say Goldie never plays it right.  When she is chasing one of the crooks and their car goes off the road, she immediately rushes down to help, even though it means someone else is able to snag the necklace.

Larson provides a really great build up for this mystery:  what exactly is the necklace, why do so many people want it, and what really did happen to Dieter Ludwig (the owner of the necklace)?  The only problem is, the ultimate payoff is a bit of a let-down and leaves you feeling like:  huh?  what just happened?  I won't give it away for those who want to read the series (and despite the ending of this first mystery, I would definitely recommend the series), but the ending comes totally out of left-field and honestly, it has no causal connection with anything else that has happened in the story thus far.  So, for those, like me, who search for clues throughout the story, expecting to find something that will lead you to the solution before the sleuth gets to it, don't expect to find it in this one,

As my friend Kevin suggested, this ending could have been altered when it was decided to make the series an ongoing title rather than a 4-issue mini-series.  That is a possibility, but I have a hard time swallowing that.  I guess we will have to wait and see what issue 5 and beyond hold in store and see where Larson takes Goldie and her friends after the ending in issue 4.  Hopefully, like the launches at the Kennedy Space Center (hint, hint), the only place to go is up!

Now, before I leave off, there is one more element to the story that should be mentioned, and that is the fact that it is plainly suggested that Goldie is a lesbian, or, at the very least, bi-sexual.  Goldie has a definite interest and affection for Diane, the clerk at the record store, who is portrayed as somewhat butch (in her jeans and jacket with the sleeves rolled up and her short, boyish haircut - in fact, she in some ways reminds me of the way George Fayne was sometimes drawn in the Nancy Drew series).  The reason I applaud Larson for this is not because she has given the gay community another comic character, but rather, Larson does not harp on it, nor does she make it any big issue; rather, Goldie's attraction to Diane is simply a part of the story that is no more hyped than Nancy Drew's interest in Ned Nickerson.  So, kudos to Larson for keeping it real!

Okay, okay, last note on these books, really, no honestly - just have to mention that I absolutely LOVE the cover designs.  With selected characters taking center stage on the front cover, while behind them in wraparound format is a scene (or a collage of scenes) highlighting some portion of the mystery in that issue.  Judging from previews of upcoming issues, they are keeping the format (yay!!!!), only changing the color to blue (which I'm hoping means that each mystery story arc will have it's own color to identify it).  And with that, I'm done!  (for now....)

RATING:  7 magnifying glasses out of 10 for a family friendly, teen sleuth mystery series in an ongoing comic format!