Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Mitch Mitchell Mystery, Book 4 - The Sun Goes Down

WARNING - this book and its review are definitely NOT meant for children!

That little disclaimer out of the way, I was surprised when I stumbled upon this fourth Mitch Mitchell mystery on Amazon a month or so ago.  I read James Lear's three previous novels in this series - The Back Passage, The Secret Tunnel, and A Sticky End (and yes, all three are definite innuendos) - and aside from the unnecessary graphic sex within the books, they are actually really well plotted murder mysteries.  Lear's protagonist, Edward "Mitch" Mitchell, an American doctor who is thriving (in so many ways) in England, finds that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time to ask the right questions and solve some rather unspeakable murders (and by "unspeakable," I'm referring to the fact that in the early 1900s, any acts of love or otherwise between two men was unspeakable and in Mitchell's case, led to murders!).

After the third book a few years back, it seemed that was the last we would see of Mitch, as he was happily settled down, having said a final farewell to his off-again, on-again fling/best friend and made the decision to stay with his one true love, Vince.  Now, with The Sun Goes Down, set some time after the end of the last book, it seems Lear cannot allow his unwitting detective to be happy.  Vince is gone, and Mitch is taking a trip to the Mediterranean island of Gozo to help a fellow doctor with a patient in the military.  While there, Mitch hopes to put his past behind him and with any luck, find some men to take his mind off of Vince.

What he finds instead, much to his liking, is not only one man after another - but another murder to solve!

Lear provides a very interesting romp through the Continental hotel on the island of Gozo - a hotel that caters to a very unique clientele.  The new owners, a young couple from England, are doing their best to follow in the previous owners' steps, but they find it somewhat difficult when the regular guests become more and more demanding.  Mitch, though, finds the accommodations just to his liking, and it provides him just the right place to make contact with the right individuals who can help him solve the case of the young lieutenant's apparent suicide - or, as Mitch believes it to be - murder!  Plenty of suspects, plenty of motives, and lots of secrets to be uncovered - and when a second body turns up, mirroring the death of the lieutenant, Mitch knows he's on the right track to finding the killer.  An aging star of the stage ... an uptight religious couple ... a young priest ... a has-been artist with a liking for boys ... a thieving young man still in the closet ... and a hostile military and police force who will do anything to keep scandal away from their ranks.  Mitch definitely has to watch his step, while at the same time watching the bountiful and beautiful men of the Mediterranean.

The big reveal is definitely very Agatha Christie-esque and provides a fantastic pay-off for readers that will leave you very satisfied and hoping that Lear will give us more of these mysteries in the future.  If he would just tone down Mitch's sexual escapades, then these would definitely be books for any and all mystery fans to enjoy!

RATING:  6 rocky cliffside paths out of 10 due to the completely unnecessary explicit sex scenes that added nothing to the story and only served to take the reader away from the wonderfully written murder mystery itself!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Mysteries of Maisie Hitchins, Book 5 - The Case of the Secret Tunnel

Everyone's favorite little detective-wannabe is back in her fifth book - The Case of the Secret Tunnel.  And, as with the four prior books, it's another romp of fun and a devilish good mystery that only author Holly Webb can dish out.

Maisie's favorite boarder at her grandmother's boarding house on Albion Street is moving out - Madame Lorimer is getting married and moving away!  That means it's time to find a new boarder, and when Fred Grange, the rather boring employee of the local biscuit company, moves in, Maisie wonders if she will die of boredom.  There is absolutely nothing at all exciting about him - he simply works, eats, and sleeps.  Her best friend Alice gets a new governess, but even she turns out to be thoroughly nice and trustworthy.

What's a detective to do when there's no mystery to solve?  Well, Maisie takes what she can get, so when she finds a grayish-white woolen flannel on the clothes line, where some rather unmentionable women's undergarments should have been, Maisie figures she may as well figure out what's going on.  Particularly when she learns that their neighbor has suffered the same fate - articles of women's clothing taken from the lines, only to be replaced with woolen flannel (only in her case, the flannel was red instead of white).

Of course, anyone who is familiar with mysteries at all knows that even the smallest thing (such as switched laundry) can lead to a bigger mystery - and boy, does this one ever!  Rare art is being stolen throughout London, right under the noses of security guards and police, and no one can figure out how.  They know Charlie Sparrow and his Sparrow Gang are behind the thefts, but they have been unable to capture them.  Maisie wishes she could solve such a crime, but she has no way to involve herself in it, so she sticks with the case of the switched laundry.

Until her trip on the underground train leads her to witness a frail woman stop the train when she nearly faints...

Until she meets the brother of Charlie Sparrow, who works at the train station and who also happens to be a boarder at her neighbor's house...

Until she witnesses Fred Grange not at work during the day and discovers that he knows nothing at all about biscuits - which is very odd, considering he works at a biscuit company...

Maisie Hitchins suddenly finds herself right in the midst of the very criminal investigation she thought she'd never get to be a part of - and ultimately finds herself trapped in the middle of the night in a closed subway station.  Naturally, she doesn't take that sitting down and begins looking for a way out, only to find herself face-to-face with one of the Sparrow Gang who doesn't take to kindly to snoops!

Webb weaves another great mystery, and while those familiar with mystery storytelling will catch on pretty quick to what's going on, this is definitely another twisting tale that will enthrall the young readers.  No sign of the sixth book and beyond listed here in America yet, but the author's website shows there are eight books in the series, so that means there are three left yet to come out here!

RATING:  9 old stone drinking fountains out of 10 for making the mystery intricate, yet not overly difficult, and keeping the characters alive and fun to read.

Friday, November 25, 2016

the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl OGN - Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe

Ever since I first read an issue of the Great Lakes Avengers (a group of very D-List superheroes who wanted to be Avengers but just couldn't make it), I fell in love with Squirrel Girl.  She was a quirkly little girl with the powers of a squirrel - not only could she communicate with squirrels, but she had increased strength and a super-strong sense of justice and simply doing right.

"Eating nuts and kicking butts" is what she does!

the Unbeatable Squirrel Girls Beats Up the Marvel Universe is Marvel Comics' first original graphic novel featuring the brazen young superhero.  In the story, Squirrel Girl helps Tony Stark (a/k/a Iron Man) fend off a bunch of goons from the High Evolutionary who are trying to recover some technology that Stark sole from their boss.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), Squirrel Girl gets trapped inside the tech during the fight and when she comes out, everyone is shocked to see she has been duplicated - there are now TWO Squirrel Girls!  Thus begins a fun-filled romp through the Marvel Universe as the twin Squirrel Girl takes it upon herself to take over the world to allow squirrels to become the dominant species.  In so doing, she faces off against one hero after another and manages through ingenuity and the help of her squirrel friends to defeat them all.

All except the real, one and only true, Squirrel Girl and her friends, Koi Boy and Chipmunk Hunk (yeah, don't ask - you have to read this ongoing series to understand about those two).  Oh, and the non-powered Nancy Whitehead and Tippy-Toe the Squirrel, as well.

The writing is just as enjoyable as Marvel's regular monthly series starring Squirrel Girl, but sadly, so is the art.  I am not really understanding Marvel's decision to use artists with a rather - unique, to say it politely - art style for their lighter titles.  Silver Surfer.  Patsy Walker, Hellcat.  And the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.  All three of these books remain on the lighter side of storytelling, with humor thrown into the mix, and they are just plain fun to read.  Yet, with all three, artists were chosen who are definitely off the mainstream path, with cartoony images that make the characters seem very two-dimensional and not realistic at all.  (And true, that may just be my taste that I like my comics drawn in a more realistic style so that the people actually look like people and not cartoon characters, but when Squirrel Girl is consistently drawn so that she appears to be a chunky boy rather than an actual girl, it detracts from my reading of the story and lessens my enjoyment of the comic.)

But, as I said, the writing is solid and the story has more laugh-out-loud moments that keep me reading the monthly title.  I always find it amusing that the other heroes in the Marvel Universe never take Squirrel Girl too seriously (almost as if they simply tolerate her presence with a nicety that says "go play superhero while the big boys handle the real threat), yet it is usually Squirrel Girl that ends up saving the day in the end (at least, in her own title she does).  As long as the writing stays as strong as this, then I'm all for the fun-loving Squirrel Girl (a great example is the opening sequence in this original graphic novel, where Squirrel Girl has to fix a train track before the high speed train hits it and derails - a true heroic save but in a way only Squirrel Girl could do it, with a bit of a nod to the first Christopher Reeve Superman film).

Wonder what Squirrel Girl would do if she faced the DC Universe....?  Hmm, graphic novel number two, perhaps?

RATING:  8 Deadpool's Guide to Super Villains cards out of 10 for giving this underrated comic character a bigger story in a format that can truly spotlight her greatness!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Dark Shadows by Lara Parker - Heiress of Collinwood

Lara Parker, the actress who played Angelique in the original Dark Shadows television series back in the late '60s and early '70s, has kept the series going in prose format with her series of Dark Shadows novels. Her first two novels focused on the character she played, telling the history of Angelique and her passion for Barnabas, and then continuing the tale in the present day with the ultimate fate of Dr. Julia Hoffman, who vied with Angelique for Barnabas' love.  Then came my favorite of her novels, telling the tale of David's journey into the past to discover his aunt's fascination and love for Quentin Collins.

Now comes Heiress of Collinwood, featuring the long-awaited return of my favorite character from the television show in all of its incarnations, Victoria Winters.  I have been anxiously awaiting this book ever since Parker first talked about it at a meet-n-greet at the Barnes & Noble in Orlando a couple of years ago.  So, needless to say, the moment I bought the book, I had to delve into it.

Sadly, my expectations far exceeded my actual enjoyment of the book.  That is not to say it was entirely bad, but honestly, I didn't like at all the manner in which Victoria returned to the present.  I don't want to give away spoilers to anyone who hasn't yet read the book, but in the television show, her return from 1795 to the present made sense, as she had inadvertently switched places with Phyllis Wick during the seance at Collinwood (and I do have to give Parker props for at least acknowledging that situation in this story with the appearance of Wick's brother).  But this time around, the manner in which Victoria returns to the 1970s is too strange, even by Dark Shadows standards.  It also ignores the references made in the television show that Victoria died at the hands of the Leviathans while still living in the past.

Nevertheless, Victoria is now a television reporter in Bangor when she gets an urgent summons from an attorney in Collinsport.  She returns to Collinsport (with a very nice nod to her first appearance in that first episode on pages 51-54), only to discover that the entire Collins family has disappeared.  Some say they simply left town, while others think something sinister has happened.  Maggie is brusque and refuses to talk to her, while Willie is half-crazed and warns her to leave town right away.  But Victoria is determined to stay - to learn exactly why Elizabeth named her as the sole beneficiary of the Collins' fortune, but even more important - to discover her true parentage so as to solidify her identity and become the heiress of Collinwood.

Parker introduces several new characters and brings back a few old ones (including the gypsy Magda).  Victoria faces a number of dangers, and with the ultimate aid of Barnabas, she finds the missing Collins family and even learns her true parentage (which, frankly, comes as no surprise to true fans of the show).

Now, for those wondering what I didn't like about the book, besides that skewed way in which Victoria is brought back to the present - well, to me, Parker lessened Victoria's character by constantly having Victoria swoon over her long-lost husband, her newfound suitor, and the eternal Barnabas Collins.  It seems her actions are always being dictated by or brought into question due to her love for one or all of these men.  The Victoria I remember from the show, while innocent and naive, was never one to fall into the standard soap opera trope of "oh, I'm so in love with him, but oh, this one really makes my heart swoon - whomever shall I choose?"  And while I suppose these novels are more romance novels than true horror novels, the show itself focused less on the love aspect (except for the ongoing triangle of Barnabas / Josette / Angelique) and more on the gothic, supernatural, and horror.  I suppose that's why Wolf Moon Rising remains my favorite of Parker's four books thus far - it's focus was on the time travel and supernatural elements, with the romance more in the background.

Still, this is Dark Shadows and it is Victoria Winters, so regardless of any disappointment in the story itself, the last quarter of the book made up for it as Victoria not only finds out her parentage, but faces the dangers of finding the Collins family, facing off against the villain, and unwittingly bringing Angelique back into the world.  Interestingly enough, while pretty much all of the regular cast of Dark Shadows is mentioned sometime throughout the story, there is absolutely no reference to Professor T. Elliot Stokes and Dr. Julia Hoffman.  With Julia having had such a large presence in the series, and particularly in the first two books, it's rather odd to not have them at least mentioned in passing at some point.

Now to patiently wait to see what Parker has in store for the next Dark Shadows novel (if there is one)...

RATING:  8 French birth certificates out of 10 for bringing Victoria Winters back into the world of Dark Shadows and back into the hearts of her fans!

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thea Stilton, Book Two - The Mountain of Fire

I honestly wasn't sure if I was going to continue this series or not.  Debated for a long time on whether to even try reading this series, and after the first book (which was cute, by the way), I was still on the fence.  I finally told myself to just pick up the second book and read it and make a decision one way or another.

So I did.  And I have.

Thea Stilton and the Mountain of Fire gave me the reason I needed to continue reading the series (although, admittedly, it will never be on the top of my list).  First, although this may be for young readers, it is still a mystery series.  Yes, it may have some focus on the friendship of the five "Thea Sisters," but at its core, it's still a series of mysteries.  Second, they are fun.  There is nothing overly serious, no deep meanings, and nothing dark and brooding about the books.  In other words, they are a real escape from the darkness that exists in our real world today.

The story involves the five mouselings heading off to Australia to help Nicky's family, as all of their sheep are becoming ill for no apparent reason, and if they don't cure them soon, their entire ranch could crumble.  So Nicky and her friends head off to the land down under to see if they can help solve this mystery.  Nicky's grandmother gives her a special necklace with a pendant that she discovers holds a key to solving the mystery.  Along the way, they are thwarted time and again by Mortimer MacCardigan, who is the nasty neighbor of Nicky's family and who is determined to see her family's ranch go under.  The girls must  seek out the elders, who they are told might hold the answer to curing the sheep's sickness.  After a number of misadventures, they finally find the mountain within the mountain and learn the secret that will help save Nicky's family's ranch.

But, even more than that, The Mountain of Fire was actually educational in a engaging, fun way.  Throughout the story, there are fun facts scattered here and there about Australia and its region, it's animal life, and its people and their ways of life.  While the characters are definitely fictional (I mean, let's face it, in a world where everyone is a mouse, it's gotta be fictional, right?), not all of the locations are made up.  There are quite a number of accurate facts about Australia, and it's nice to see geography, history, and culture taught in such an easy to grasp and natural way.  I'd almost venture to say that this book might even be useful in the classroom for getting kids to learn about other countries in a way that they won't necessarily even realize they are learning!  (Of course, all reading involves learning in some form or fashion.)

What is a bit odd about this book is the fact that although the title is Thea Stilton and the Mountain of Fire, Thea herself is barely in it - she is more or less the bookends, starting the tale and finishing it, but not really involved in it at all.  Actually increases my curiosity as to whether she will be featured in any of the future books, or if she will merely be the opening narrator, allowing the series to mainly focus on the five Thea Sisters.  I suppose there's only one way to find that out...

RATING:  7 moldy brie balls out of 10 for piquing my interest just enough to make me want to read more books in the series.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Super Zero Graphic Novel - Volume 1 - The Beginning

There can be no doubt that Jimmy Palmiotti has become one of my favorite writers over the past few years - from his work on Jonah Hex to Power Girl to Stargirl - he knows how to bring the fun back into comics, while writing interesting stories that give the reader plenty of action as well as plenty of character development.  I've been fortunate enough to meet Palmiotti over the years at various conventions and talk to him and his now-wife (and definite better-half), Amanda Conner, and they are just as down-to-earth and fun to talk with as their books are great to read.  (And Amanda has definitely come into her own as a comic writer as well, what with Harley Quinn reaching the heights it is these days.)

So, it's no surprise that I wanted to read their indy title, Super Zero.

While I didn't buy the individual issues published by Aftershock Comics, I did pick up the trade while I was up in Atlanta a few months back for DragonCon.  I finally got around to reading it (yeah, spare time to read has been next to nil lately with the play I'm in), and man, what a read it was!

Just when you think you've seen about every take possible for superheroes, even the so-called "real world" superheroes - Amanda and Jimmy come along and put a whole new spin on things.  Super Zero tells the story of Dru Dragowski, a Tampa teenager (yay!  a story set in my own back yard!) who loves comics and believes that superheroes could be real under the right circumstances.  And she's bound and determined to prove it so!

Plan A:  pay a homeless man to rob her parents (not kill them, though) to create a set of circumstances that will spur her into a dark vengeance...

Plan B:  get bit by a radioactive spider (of course, her friend is afraid of spiders, so it ends up being fire ants who, even under an x-ray machine, only provide her with itchy bites all over her body)...

Plan C:  summon a demon to whom she can sell her soul in exchange for powers (although her dog has other plans for one of those candles)...

Plan D:  sneak aboard a space shuttle and get bombarded by gamma rays that will endow her with unbelievable power (yeah, like that's even possible)...

So, you ask yourself, which of the foregoing does she manage to accomplish?  Surprisingly enough, ALL of them!  But then, you ask, which of them actually gives her powers?  Well, this is a comic realm, and even though it is supposed to be a real-world setting, surely something has to give.  Surely, the superpowers can't only be in her imagination?  I mean, what if those people in the space shuttle heading up the space station were actually aliens who were planning to bring back an invasion of the planet?  Who would stop them?  Certainly not a teenage stowaway with a gazillion itching ant bites, right?

Well, Conner and Palmiotti take readers on a riotous romp through Dru's live, her family, her friends, and even her newfound mentor in the form of the homeless ex-military man who does provide her with a bit of training.  They slide in some inside jokes about the comic industry, as well as about comic books themselves, and they give readers a HUGE payoff at the end that not only makes the book so worth reading, but it also leaves you wanting for more - a lot more!

Super Zero is what comics are about - and what comics should be.  No agenda, no preaching, no dark-moody-brooding-self-doubting heroes that are never happy.  No two and three-panel pages with a splash page every few pages that keeps the story to a minimum and the art the focus (not that the art here is bad - in fact, it's beautifully rendered by Rafael De Latorre).  There is plenty of story for the buck here, and when you do get a splash page - it's because there is something important to tell at that moment!

This definitely needs to be an ongoing - I can see that there are plenty more stories of Dru and her friends, and I, for one, want to read them!  (And let's face it, you can't have a Volume 1 without a Volume 2!)

RATING:  10 affirmation hugs out of 10 for fantastically fun comic-reading enjoyment the way it's meant to be!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tom Stetson, Book 3 - And the Blue Devil

The third, and final, book in this vintage children's series was actually the real reason why I bought the series to begin with.  Unfortunately, of the three books, this was actually the hardest for me to get through.

Tom Stetson and the Blue Devil picks up the summer after Tom Stetson on the Trail of the Lost Tribe, as Tom returns to the Amazon jungles to visit with his uncle, Leo Jason.  While the prior two books were quick to swing into the action, incorporating the descriptions of the lavish jungles and its inhabitants, both plant and animal, this book spends the first 100 pages simply describing the men's journey down the Amazon to a place where they can search for an Indian known as the "Blue Devil."  The author, John Henry Cutler, provides such detailed descriptions of the plant life and wild animals that dwell in the forested land that it's obvious he has first-hand knowledge of the area.  However, it becomes a bit tedious when the descriptions begin to repeat, and there is no movement whatsoever in the story.

Once we get past that 100-page mark, though, the story picks up pace rather quickly.  Poor Manolo, Uncle Leo's adopted ward, once again gets kidnapped, and it's up to Tom and his uncle to rescue him.  In the process, though, Uncle Leo gets kidnapped, and Tom finds himself alone, having to not only save Manolo, but also find his own uncle!  In the process, Tom meets and must face off against the Blue Devil himself (who, interestingly enough, speaks perfect English and seems to live just as easily as an Englishman as he does an Indian).

Cutler builds upon Tom's previous experiences in the last two books to help him evade capture himself and to climb unbelievably tall trees and swing across vines.  I personally found it interesting that no matter what Tom was doing - whether it be climbing a tree, crossing between trees on a thick vine, swinging vines from tree to tree, or even swimming in piranha-infested waters, he always manages to have his backpack with him and it manages to stay dry at all times.  Only in series books, I suppose...

Ursula Koering once again provides illustrations throughout the story, and the beautifully-painted wrap-around cover (the artist of which is not defined) depicts the boys daring escape from the Motilon tribe of Indians.  I give the author credit - despite the lengthy and somewhat boring first half, the second half of the story more than makes up for it, with a lot of close-calls, dangerous escapades, and a rather sneaky plan to help them evade the clutches of the Blue Devil's tribe.

While the conclusion of the story hints at more adventures to come, alas, this is the last book in the series.  Whether Cutler never intended to write any more, or the books just didn't sell well enough for the publisher to ask for any more is a mystery, I suppose, that will remain unsolved.

RATING:  5 iron vests out of 10 for bringing the jungles of Brazil and the Amazon to life in such a vivid way and making an adventure story for boys interesting enough for me to read.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Nancy Drew Anthology - Writing & Art Featuring Everybody's Favorite Female Sleuth

First published in 1930, the enduring pop icon, Nancy Drew, has maintained pretty much continued publication for more than 85 years now. So, it should come as no surprise that fan fiction would sooner or later be collected into a published form.  The real surprise is only that it took this long to happen!

The Nancy Drew Anthology was published this year by Silver Birch Press, and as the tag line on the back cover says, it is filled with writing and art inspired by the forever-teenage sleuth, Nancy Drew.  With a rather appealing cover of Nancy Drew studying a book through a magnifying glass (with her iconic "mystery shadow" in the background) - an image I would love to get a print of! - the book holds out hope of being something special, something that long-time fans have probably dreamed of for many years.

I can honestly say I would be one of those fans.

My mom bought me Nancy Drew books when I was a kid, along with all the other mystery series back in the day, including Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, etc.  But, for whatever reason, Nancy Drew always struck a special chord with me.  Perhaps it was because each book was all about mystery and not about adventure or science or nursing or such.  Perhaps it was because Nancy had strawberry-blond (or titian) hair like me, so I didn't feel so much like the odd-man out.  Perhaps it was because she was independent, quick thinking, and determined - qualities that any kid, male or female, would want in their own life.  Whatever the reason, I always loved reading the mysteries, and when I got back into collecting as an adult, I found the original text stories even more engaging!

So, I thought this book might turn out to give some interesting stories inspired by Nancy Drew.  Sadly, I found very little to be interesting (to me, anyway) within its pages.  First, this is not to say that the contributors were poor writers, or that the submissions were not worthwhile.  But, quite frankly, the anthology is overflowing with poetry in its many forms, and well, honestly, I can't stand poetry.  I have never liked it, and when I took two semesters of it to complete my Creative Writing degree at USF, they were my two lowest grades of my entire college career.

That was disappointment number one.

The next disappointment came when I realized that there was very little fan fiction at all in this anthology.  Rather, a good chunk of it is filled with authors' memories of how they first "met" Nancy Drew.  There is one short story, "Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Gravedigger," which is actually rather cute and brings back Helen Corning in a unique way.  There is also "The Mystery of the Northern Lights," which is toted as the last, unpublished Nancy Drew story, of which only the first chapter was written - it is a bit strange, in that it deals with supposed trolls in Iceland.  The author of that story does, however, have fun playing with Nancy's relationships with her friends, her father, and the police chief.

Now, that's not to say the book was a complete loss for me.  There were a few good little ditties that took the various Nancy Drew titles (either just the first 56 books, or in a couple of cases, the first 64 books) and integrated them into a story or poem, and there were several artistic images scattered throughout.

Would I buy it had I known?  Probably, simply because it is yet another Nancy Drew collectible.  I just wish it had been advertised as being more about poetry than anything else, so that I would have been aptly prepared for what I found when I opened the cover.  I have no doubt there are a lot of fans out there who enjoy poetry (Lisa coming to mind right away!) and who will thrill over the lyrics and rhymes they find inside, and honestly, I'm glad that they have something that appeals to their taste.  For me, however, this will go on my collectible shelf, likely never to be opened again...

RATING:  5 magnifying glasses out of 10 simply for giving Nancy Drew fans an opportunity to express their own creativity inspired by their favorite sleuth.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Young & Yang Mysteries, Book 2 - The Tiara on the Terrace

Sophie Young and Grace Yang are back in this second mystery by Kristen Kittscher. Admittedly, this second entry in the series is not quite as entertaining as the first.  The mystery is good enough, but Kittscher seems a bit uncertain with the story as to whether she wants a dead-on mystery or whether she wants a cross between Sweet Valley High and the Dana Girls. The story wavers too much between the girls fighting about Sophie's desire to spy and Grace's desire to "fit in" and be a part of the Winter Sun Festival's royal court of princesses, and the actual mystery itself.  This, in turn, leads to a lot of pages that feel like too much padding to the story.  By the end of 388 pages, I was left wondering if perhaps the story could have actually been told in closer to 288 pages.

Nevertheless, the mystery itself was pretty good, and the ending had a great payoff.  The Tiara on the Terrace, finds Young and Yang still riding on their success of revealing the Tilmore Eight fugitive from the last mystery, Sophie is none-too-thrilled to be helping her friend Grace with the preparations for the upcoming Winter Sun Festival, but when the dead body of the Festival's president turns up inside one of the floats, Agents Young and Yang (along with their trusty sidekick, Trista Bottoms) are on the case!  The police suspect there may have been foul play involved and that the investigation could take weeks - - but the girls are shocked the next day when the new Festival president announces that the police have wrapped up their case and have ruled it an accidental death, and that, as such, the Festival will go on as scheduled!

Sophie, Grace, and Trista know something is very amiss, and when the new president falls face down in his soup at a reception dinner, the girls suspect someone is out for revenge!  Is it the enraged mother, whose daughter was not named queen of the festival?  Or is it the former official who was demoted to "pooper-scooper" duty for the parade?  Or could it be the Festival's treasurer, who sent a very suspicious e-mail that could indicate he is mishandling the Festival's funds?  With too many suspects and not enough clues, Grace convinces Sophie and Trista to do something they would never dream of doing - going undercover as pages in the Royal Court of the Winter Sun Festival.  This means they will have to wait hand and foot on the Queen and her Princesses during the three days leading up to the big parade - but, it also provides them unlimited and unrestricted access to the huge mansion that serves as the Festival's headquarters.

The investigation serves up a lot of potential motives and opportunities - - and when the girls are locked inside of a refrigeration unit used for storing the Festival's flowers (and poor Trista is majorly allergic!), they realize that someone not only knows they are investigating, but also knows they may be getting close to uncovering the truth.  But when Trista stumbles onto a clue that could reveal the killer's identity, she finds herself locked on a runaway float, and Sophie and Grace must break away from the page duties in the middle of the parade and chase the runaway float before it goes careening off the side of the cliff, taking Trista with it!

Kittscher provides some interesting twists and turns with the big reveal at the end, leading readers to wholly suspect one person, and then turning everything on its head in the last few chapters.  I will admit there was one underlying clue throughout the entire book that seemed glaring, but even I had a difficult time connecting it to the murders until close to the end.   And perhaps the intended audience for this series might enjoy all of the girl-centric sub-plots (the fighting over spy-business vs. girl-business, the fight over Sophie revealing one of Grace's most embarrassing moments, etc), but for me, those elements felt unnecessary to the story and merely thrown in to pad the book and remind readers that these two young sleuths were girls with "typical" girl problems.

With only two books, it appears this series may be at an end already, as there is no third book listed on Amazon.com or on the publisher's website.  Perhaps, after all, I wasn't the only one who felt this second book did not hold up quite as well as the first...

RATING:  6 inspirational posters of seals out of 10 for reminding readers that  beauty goes far beyond skin deep and for providing a surprise twist with the identity of the killer!