Sunday, December 31, 2017

Angel City, Volume One - Town Without Pity

This last book that I read for 2017 is something I almost didn't buy. This graphic novel was originally published as a six-issue monthly comic from Oni Press, and when it was first solicited, I considered purchasing it. Yet, when I looked at how many comics I was already buying each month, I decided to pass, figuring it was just another noir detective tale set in Hollywood, and there would be nothing special about it.  After the series ended, and Oni Press solicited the graphic novel collection of the series, I thought, "What the heck? I'll give it a shot." Having now read the story, I am more than glad that I did.

Angel City, "Town Without Pity," is not just the tale of Hollywood in the late 1930s - it's the story of how Hollywood takes the innocence of young girls hoping to make it big in Tinseltown and twists it into something dark and without remorse - without pity. This is hard-boiled noir with only a smidgen of soft edges, and it's unapologetic with it's realism, and it never promises a happy ending for everyone.

Angel City is the story of Dorothy Dunkel and Frances Faye Hallmeyer - two young blondes who head off to Hollywood to make all their dreams come true. As with so many young girls of that time, their dreams are quickly dashed, and they must face the cold, hard reality that is Hollywood. As Frances (going by Faye) sells her body to get ahead, Dorothy (who changes her name to Dolores Dare) sells her soul to the local mobster. They lose touch, and Dorothy believes she will never see her friend again.

Until the body of Faye Hallmayer turns up in a dumpster.

The past comes crashing into the present, and Dorothy realizes that she will never rest until her friend's murderer is caught. The police are in the pocket of Dorothy's boss, Gino Volante, the local mobster who hides behind the scenes in Hollywood's underworld, so they have no interest in solving the murder of yet one more call girl. With the help of her photographer friend, Joe, Dorothy sets out to catch a killer and regain some small portion of her soul - of the Dorothy Dunkel she once was.

Written by Janet Harvey and illustrated by Megan Levens, Angel City gives readers a gritty murder mystery with a determined, yet not invincible, enforcer-turned-sleuth. Harvey tells a magnificent tale with the perfect pacing to keep the action moving, while at the same time, providing backstory and depth to the characters (all except Joe, about whom we really learn very little throughout the six-chapter story). The characters are complex, and with the exception of only one or two, there is no true black or white, good or evil when it comes to people (just like in real life). There are simply individuals who face difficult choices and must live with the consequences of those choices.

Levens' art matches the mood of the story perfectly, with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood on the surface, yet dark and disturbing characters and acts behind the facade. The expressions she draws on the characters are outstanding! Not many artist I have seen can truly capture a wide variety of expressions, but Levens is able to show even the smallest hint of emotion - just check out Joe's face on panel 3 of page 90 to see what I mean. And Nik Filardi's colors definitely enhance the storytelling, with subdued reds and grays that blend beautifully to keep the noir feel to the book.

While Angel City is not for the faint of heart, neither is it overtly sexualized or profane. There is no real nudity (only implied) and there is very little, if any, cursing in the story. It is the subject matter itself that makes it dark, and it is the determination and realistic portrayal of the characters that makes the story so compelling.  This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys noir or just a good murder mystery, and it was definitely the perfect way to close out a year that did not end so well.

RATING:  9 pearl-handled revolvers out of 10 for proving that noir Hollywood in the 1930s does not need to be dominated by male detectives - a woman can do the job just as well.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Samantha Wolf Mysteries, Book Three - The Beach House Mystery

Author Tara Ellis raises the stakes quite a bit with this third Samantha Wolf mystery. And I'll get this out of the way right from the get-go - I absolutely cannot stand this trend of writing books in the present tense.  It is very annoying, as it does not at all make it feel like it is happening now, nor does it draw me any further into the story than if it were written in past tense.  Maybe it's just me becoming old, but give me a story written in past tense - even if it is in first person, not third - but let's put an end to this present tense writing, please!

Now, that being said, The Beach House Mystery is much, MUCH more than just a mystery surrounding a house at the beach. It involves a possibly haunted lighthouse that was abandoned years ago.  It involves a stranger creature that has become somewhat of a myth in the small fishing village.  It involves a stranger family that is staying next to the beach house where Samantha and her family are staying.  And it involves an international corporation that is bent on gaining sole ownership of the the next big pharmaceutical creation to use for nefarious purposes.

Yes, you read that right.  While the story starts off as a simple enough mystery (worthy of Nancy Drew fans), it suddenly takes a rather more adult turn that centers around a kidnapped girl who is being used as leverage to force a scientist to create a drug that could be used not only as a miracle cure, but also a deadly weapon.  Definitely not the subject matter of a children's mystery, but quite frankly, it created a story that was engaging enough that I managed to stop focusing on the present tense and start focusing on the story.

Ellis also continues to present her characters in a more realistic way than many children's series, where the young sleuths seem to have every freedom and never face any repercussions for their acts.  Sam and her friend Ally go with Sam's parents to the beach house (along with Sam's brother Hunter and Ally's brother John) with a very specific stipulation - there is to be no funny business, no sticking their noses where they don't belong, and absolutely no solving mysteries.  They are warned that if either parents gets wind of the girls getting involved in another dangerous mystery, they are going right home.  Of course, Sam and Ally have been bit by the detecting bug, and when the young girl Erica cries out for her sister, Carrie, but Erica's parents insist there is no sister and warn Sam and Ally to just stay away, they know something's up.

The pacing in the story is good - a slow build-up in the first third of the book, a deeper delving into the mystery during the second third of the book, and a thrilling conclusion in the final third.  And there is one specific moment in the story when I realized just how caught up in the story and characters I was - when Sam and Ally return from a day of hunting clues to find Sam's mother upset - it seems Erica's mother lied about how Sam and Ally helped rescue her, making it seem as if the entire incident was Sam and Ally's fault!  I began to grow aggravated at the unfairness of the situation, wishing I could reach into the book and slap the heck out of Erica's mom for lying to get two teenagers in trouble - and then it hit me:  this is just a book!  So kudos to Ellis for getting me that involved with the mystery!

This series is evolving and getting better with each book, so I'm looking forward to reading the next books with the hope they continue to hold up as well (and with the hope that I'll eventually get used to the present tense annoyance).

RATING:  8 falling sand castles out of 10 for surprising me with much more to this mystery than what it originally appears to be.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Class - from the Universe of Doctor Who: Joyride

This second Class novel, based on the television spin-off from Doctor Who, has an interesting premise.  What if you found a machine that would allow its users to switch bodies with someone else?  And what if you were able to use this machine to start a business, allowing those willing to pay a high price to use this chance to inhabit another person's body and basically do anything you've ever fantasized but were too afraid to do - such as take ballet lesson...or drive a car at the highest speed possible...or jump off the roof of a school...or set fire to a house while a family is still inside...?

Joyride answers that question when a man down on his luck happens across an alien being who seeks his help - only, instead of helping the alien, he kills him and all of his brethren and turns the alien technology into a profit-making business.  April, Tayna, Charlie, Matteusz, Ram, and Quill get drawn into the mix when one of their classmates is killed when she crashes her car into the front of a store after a wild joyride and another burns down his home while his family is inside - but claims he has no memory of it.

And then Ram wakes up in the body of a middle-aged, overweight man.

Author Guy Adams provides a story that is definitely worthy of the television show, and based on comments made by the characters throughout the story, it is set sometime in the middle of the season - before Ram and April hooked up, yet after their April takes half the heart of the shadow king. I think he captures the characters nicely, particularly the naivety of Charlie, the vileness of Quill, the shyness of April, and the energy of Tanya.  And to say there is only one villain in the story wouldn't quite capture the story - because let's face it: who's the greater villain?  The man who gives you the opportunity to kill others, or the one who actually switches bodies so that he can kill and get away with it?

And quite frankly, not all the body-switchers are pure villains.  The one man, with whom Ram is switched, doesn't actually switch bodies to commit a crime; rather, he switches bodies so that he can finally be himself and experience a life he only imagined but was forced to hide by his family and society's dictates.

Adams tells the story through the eyes of quite a few of the characters, and it's interesting to see how each of them view each other - particularly Quill and Charlie.  Poor Matteusz is barely in the story, which is a shame, as he was one of my favorite characters in the show, albeit underused there, too. I also liked what he did with Ram's character - don't want to give away anything, but suffice to say, this could easily be seen as a turning point for Ram, which could have easily integrated into the television program to show how Ram gradually grows as a character.

Now, the one thing I did not like, and quite frankly it bugged me for more than half the book (until I got so involved with the story that I didn't notice it anymore), is the use of present tense.  I've said it before (with the Curious Cat Spy Club series and the Samantha Wolf series), but what is it with this sudden fad of authors writing their books in the present tense?  For me, I find it awkward to read, and it always takes me a bit to settle into the book, because my mind constantly wants to change every verb into past tense.  Present tense does not make the story happen "now" for me - rather, it is jarring enough that it actually takes me out of the story and forces me to concentrate harder to read it.

With this second book in the series read, that only leaves one more Class book to go (it comes out here in the States in March 2018) - after that, with no more show and no more books, Class reaches the end of its short run. Which is sad, because it was a well-written show with great actors, interesting characters and stories, and a whole world of possibilities.

RATING:  8 pyramid-shaped pieces of alien technology out of 10 for expanding the Class universe just a bit farther and proving these characters have many more stories to tell!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Short Lived Comic Series #7 - Hawk and Dove (DC Comics)

Hawk and Dove were definitely characters that were a product of their time.  I was first introduced to them in the Teen Titans series by DC Comics, and later read the post-Crisis series, wherein Hawk's brother Dove (who died during the Crisis on Infinite Earths) was replaced by a female version of the character.  However, I recently was able to track down and purchase the 6-issue run of Hawk and Dove that was originally published back in the late 1960s, and after reading the short-lived series, I realized just how connected these characters were to the time period in which they were created.

The characters of Hawk and Dove are Hank Hall and his younger brother, Don Hall.  The two brothers are polar opposites - Hank is the hothead, violent, judge-now-ask-questions-later type of guy, while Don is the pacifist, determined to to solve any problem through talking and level-headedness with absolutely no room for violence.  Created by Steve Skeates and Steve Ditko, the pair made their first appearance in DC's Showcase comic before spinning off into their own series.  Creator and artist Steve Ditko only remained with the title for the first two issues, and creator/writer Steve Skeates left after the fourth issue, leaving artist Gil Kane (who drew issues three through six) to also write the last two issues of the series.

Throughout all six issues of this short series, there was a constant battle between the brothers - Hank (Hawk) always wanted to take matters into his own hands.  He wanted to beat the truth out of people and had no probably playing judge and jury for anyone who was committing a crime.  He had no tolerance for his brother's pacifist ways.  Don (Dove), on the other hand, was a man of peace.  He believed any problem could be solved by simply talking down the criminal, and he was a strict believer in non-violence, regardless of the situation.  This, of course, led to a constant barrage of name-calling between the two - but, being brothers, regardless of their differences, when push came to shove, they were there for each other and worried about each other.

The first several covers were similar to the romance / soap opera titles of the time.  It seemed each cover had Don fighting with himself over his inability to defend or help fight with his brother, or featured Hank screaming at his brother for his refusal to fight back in any given situation.  It wasn't until Gil Kane took over complete reigns with the fifth issue that Don/Dove gained a little bit of a back-bone - but, sadly, it wasn't enough to save the book, which was cancelled with the sixth issue.

The stories are relatively interesting, if you overlook the child-like barbs the brothers were constantly throwing at one another.  They featured non-super-powered villains who either evaded capture by the law, or managed to escape justice altogether by beating the court system.  Often times, the boys' father, who was a judge, was caught up in the story - which made for a difficult situation for Hank and Don, since their father hated the vigilante tactics of Hawk and Dove (which was a bit odd, since Dove never really did anything to anyone - rather, he allowed things to happen that could have been prevented if he would have simply stood up and fought).

While later incarnations of Hank Hall (after his brother's death) still showed him as full of anger and ready for a fight, none of those incarnations seemed as angry as the Hank Hall in this first series.  Honestly, I think if the writers had simply toned down both characters a bit, not made them so overtly polar opposites, the series may have had a better reception and lasted longer.  The art was not bad at all - Ditko, and then Kane, drew some great fight scenes, and their capture of the boys' expressions at various times was pretty much spot-on for the characterization of the heroes.

Interesting to note that the fifth issue ended with the boys stumbling across the Teen Titans - which was a lead-in of sorts to their crossover into an issue of the Teen Titans book.  While crossovers such as that are commonplace today, back then, direct lead-in crossovers such as that were few and far between.

It's always fun to go back and read comics from a prior decade, as they often reflected the stereotypes, beliefs, and emotions of that time - and definitely, this first Hawk and Dove series from DC comics can give us a picture of the general attitudes in America in the late '60s and early '70s.

RATING: 6 mysterious voices from beyond out of 10 for taking a chance on a unique brother team of heroes that faced down-to-earth, regular villains instead of the super-powered, out of this world villains of normal superhero comics.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Hot Ice - A Groovy Mystery Caper #2

I read the first "Groovy Mystery Caper" some years ago, back in 2011 not too long after it was first published.  The series is set in the 1960s, and its protagonist is Yancy Dunkle, a chauffeur for the quite outspoken Jean Sparks, former head of costume design at Colossal Studios.  Dunkle has a bit of a dilemma (other than stumbling into murder mysteries) - he has amnesia and cannot remember anything before just a couple of years prior.

After solving a murder in Palm Springs, Jean is taking Dunkle to Indio, California, just some twenty miles away, for a carnival, beauty pageant, parade, and some good, wholesome fun to take their minds off of everything they went through.  Of course, this is a mystery book, so it pretty much goes without saying that soon after their arrival in Indio, Dunkle and Jean stumble into a mystery involving - yes, I'm going to say it - midgets, clowns, and camel jockeys.

Interestingly enough, the author, James Huskins, doesn't bring in the murder until well over half-way through the book.  Instead, the mystery begins with a locked-room theft - someone has stolen the priceless Star of Arabia necklace from the safe in the locked library of Dunkle and Jean's hosts while everyone is there!  While the local beauty queen still has the knock-off copy of the necklace to wear at the pageant that week, Dunkle and Jean set about to find out what happened to the real necklace.

Meanwhile, their friend Polly, who is an investigative reporter, is in town as well, following up on a story that she claims could potentially blow the lid off of some long-held secrets in town.  But Polly disappears, and Dunkle and Jean begin to wonder if it has any connection to the theft.  Then there's the mystery of the midget's missing daughter at the local circus that is in town, as well as the mysterious message that the gypsy fortune teller gives to Dunkle about his past, and his future.  There are a jumble of mysteries and a plethora of characters - there are even some good, old-fashioned Nancy Drew-type foibles as they receive notes to drop their investigation, Dunkle gets conked on the head and tied up, they are almost run-down by a speeding automobile, and they get held at gunpoint.

The plot is actually well-thought out and expertly executed, with clues scattered here and there, and enough red herrings to keep you guessing up until the very end.  The only distraction from the story are the number of grammatical errors throughout the book.  Dunkle and Jean's hosts are named Earl and Bessy Garra - yet, whenever the author refers to the couple, he always identifies them as the "Garra's" (singular possessive) instead of the "Garras" (plural, non-possessive).  Once could have been overlooked, but the persistent use of the wrong possessive instead of plural became extremely distracting and constantly took me out of the story.  Then there was the use of "petal" (from a flower) instead of "pedal" (as in a gas pedal for a car); and the use of your's (non-existent word) instead of yours (showing possession).  And these distractions could have been annoying for me simply because I'm an English major and a grammar freak; perhaps for the every day person, these errors would not have jumped out at them.  For me, though, it was a clear reminder that there are no longer any true editors for books - editing is clearly a thing of days gone by, and computers are left to pick up on mistakes (which they don't always do when a word is spelled correctly, but it is a wrong word choice).

Regardless, I still enjoyed the story, and I love that Huskins is continuing the stories of Dunkle and Jean - particularly happy to see he has a third book forthcoming, Seriously Funny, so I can't wait to see what he has in store for these characters then!

RATING:  7 very revealing Aladdin costumes out of 10 for proving that a good mystery with fun characters can still be entertaining without any explicit sex or excessive violence.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 4 - Past Times at Super Hero High

The DC super hero girls are back in their fourth graphic novel - and sadly, this fourth venture into the realm where girls reign supreme does not fare any better than the third graphic novel did.  I'm not sure if the stories are just being rushed, or if writer Shea Fontana  was told to dumb down the stories a bit more - but the third and fourth graphic novels both feel as if they are being aimed at first grade readers rather than all-age readers (unlike the first and second graphic novels, which not only had strong stories and plots, but great dialogue and fun characters).

Past Times at Super Hero High (and yes, I will admit, I love the fact that the titles to these graphic novels are all puns, plays on either films, books, or other comic book tales) gave me some hope, as it deals with time travel, and that's always a favorite subject of mine.  Here, the students are taken on a field trip back in time by Liberty Belle (All-Star Squadron character - there's a plus right there!) to take a look at history in the making. However, that ever-so-dangerous butterfly effect comes into play when Harley Quinn steals a dinosaur egg and brings it back with her to the present.

Only to find that Super Hero High is now Savage High, and the principal is none other than the villainous Vandal Savage!  With Liberty Belle captive and the other students trying to figure out what exactly is going on, it falls on Batgirl and Harley Quinn to go back in time and set things right.  The overall plot actually makes for a fun adventure - or, it could have, had the dialogue been a bit less childish, and the characterization been a bit stronger (as it was in books one and two).  These girls do not whine near as much in the cartoon films, nor in the hardcover books by Lisa Yee.

Despite the weak characterization, there were some good points - seeing the Metal Men (three of them, at least), was a nice surprise, and Fontana's use of Beast Boy as more than just a prankster was a great switch.  Plus, the little bit of competition between Batgirl and Harley as to which knew more about dinosaurs was something I thought would develop into an ongoing rivalry - sort of a precursor to Harley's future hatred of the bat-family as an adult.  But, being an all-ages book, I suppose the animosity didn't fit, so the two girls make-up in the end (yet, there's always a certain tension between Cheetah and Wonder Woman, so why not between Harley and Batgirl?).  And the changing timelines, the realization that they have to leave an alternate version of one of their friends behind in this alternate timeline, and the simple act of Harley calling Principal Waller "Amanda" to her face - they gave the story a bit of depth and humor that I wish I could find throughout the entire story.

The art chores seem to be shared among Yancey Labat, Agnes Garbowska, and Marcelo DiChiara, with additional breakdowns by Carl Potts.  Yet, despite the number of artists, the art (at least, to my eye) pretty much maintains the same level of cartoon consistency as the prior graphic novels, so the changing artists have no impact on the story itself.

I still love the DC Super Hero Girls concept, and I hope DC continues to do more graphic novels and DVD cartoons (whether regular cartoons or animated Lego versions - I am fine with either) - I am just keeping my fingers crossed that they don't continue to dumb them down further.  I would hate to see these characters on the same level with Teen Titans Go or Tiny Titans - that would completely ruin the concept and the characters for me.

RATING:  6 kite-flying aviatrixes out of 10 for keeping time travel light-hearted and reminding readers that there always consequences for our actions.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Nancy Craig and the Mystery of the Fire Opal

Thankfully, this "authorized edition" Whitman mystery was a far cry better than the one I recently read with Bonita Granville as its star.  What is interesting though, is although the dust jacket, as well as the cover and spine show the title of the book as Nancy Craig and the Mystery of the Fire Opal, the title page and the list of available books from Whitman in the back show the title of the book as Nancy Craig and the Fire Opal of Guatemala.  I'd be curious to know exactly why there is a variation in the title of the book and what caused the change from the inside to the actual cover and dust jacket.

In any event, author Matilda Bailey provides a great little mystery here, with an interesting view of life in the Guatemala jungles.  And Matilda Bailey, by the way, is actually the pen name for Ruby Lorraine Radford, who was a rather prolific writer back in the day.  It seems she wrote a number of the Whitman authorized edition stories, and from what I've heard, some are better than others.  Thankfully, this is one of the better ones.

The mystery involves El Valle Prohibido (The Forbidden Valley), where the people of Guatemala are afraid to enter.  Nancy Craig and her friend, Dannie Marston, go to Guatemala as guests of their respective fathers, who are traveling to the country on an expedition.  Nancy's cousin, Kathy, already lives there, and Nancy will be staying with them while the men, along with Dannie, go out on the expedition.  Nancy is somewhat put off, but she is not permitted to go, as she is a girl (which definitely shows the book as a product of its time).  This is not to say that Nancy takes such a shun lying down - no, instead, she goes out and finds her very own mystery to solve!

I have to admit, I smile when I consider how similar this is to a Nancy Drew mystery of the '60s and '70s.  Nancy (choose one) goes on a vacation, stumbles across some strange superstitions, and suddenly finds herself thrust into the middle of a mystery that only she can solve.  Bailey (Radford) makes Nancy Craig a strong, independent female who, even during the late '40s, was determined not to let men - whether it be her father, her uncle, or any other man - tell her that she can't do something. And when it comes to helping someone in need - in this case, her friend Dannie - Nancy will not stop until the mission is complete.

As can be pretty much expected from the moment Nancy is told that there is something dangerous about the valley that keeps the natives from ever setting foot therein, it's pretty obvious to the reader that that is exactly where Nancy is going to end up.  And end up there she does, along with her friend Kathy.  They are searching for their friend Dannie, who mysteriously disappeared after visiting with the parents of Kathy's native friend, Maria.  Nancy is sure that it has something to do with the valuable fire opal that Dannie had been carrying, and she is also sure that the rather slick North American men ("norteamericanos" as Maria calls them) are somehow involved.

There are plenty of clues and dangers aplenty for Nancy and Kathy - from earthquakes to infections to horse hoof-prints to fire opals in the raw to butterfly nets with cobwebs and so much more.  And it certainly can't come as any surprise that the girls eventually find Dannie and also manage to stumble across an ancient native temple hidden in the Forbidden Valley, I found it rather amusing how the two girls manage to outwit the culprits in the end.

This book was definitely worth the read, and I am glad I purchased it.  I suppose this will keep my faith in these Whitman Authorized Editions enough to purchase others if I stumble across them in my book-hunting.

RATING:  8 hand-woven shawls out of 10 for providing yet another strong female amateur detective in a well-plotted mystery in an exotic land.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Doctor Who - Diamond Dogs

I was finally able to find the first Doctor Who novel featuring Bill as the companion - even though all three books are supposed to be out (and have been out for a while), it seems none of the book stores in the Central Florida area are carrying them.  I lucked into Diamond Dogs by pure chance when I was visiting friends in the Tampa Bay area not too long ago.

Bill is the kind of companion that I love - she's quick, she's witty, she doesn't take any flack off of anyone, and she always manages to show the Doctor just how much he needs her.  It's what drew me to Donna Noble, who is and always will be my favorite companion, and now Bill without a doubt holds second place when it comes to favorite companions of Doctor Who.

Diamond Dogs doesn't come right out and give a time frame of where it falls within Bill's time with the Doctor; however, there are references to the creature beneath the ice, the emoji robots, the alien war machines, and the woman who turned to water, which would set this story about half-way through the 10th season of Doctor Who.  Interestingly enough, the author, Mike Tucker, also throws in a connection to Professor Marius's nurse from Doctor Who and the Invisible Enemy (a Tom Baker story).

The story takes place on a space station just above the rings of Saturn, where some very unique mining is going on - it seems that within the rings circling the planet, it literally rains diamonds!  Mankind, being greedy as it is, has decided to mine those diamonds to finance their expansion to other worlds, after having used up the resources of its own.  The Doctor brings Bill to that station for a quick pitstop to filch one of those diamonds.  The Doctor does have to support Nardole somehow, doesn't he?  And the mining company won't miss one little diamond out of the thousands upon thousands that they mine every day.  The security company has managed to find a way to keep the diamonds from falling into the hands of space pirates (known as "Diamond Dogs"), but they have yet to discover the pilfering hand of the Doctor.

Until poor Bill accidentally triggers an alarm...

Tucker gives us a tried and true Doctor Who story - the Doctor and his companion stop at a location for one thing, but ultimately get drawn into the drama unfolding around them and have to prevent or help stop an alien war.  When a minecraft returns to the ship empty, its occupant apparently trapped in the pressure crushing ring below, it is up to the Doctor to rescue him.  The corporate men don't want production stopped.  The ship's captain doesn't want the Doctor's interference.  The security detail doesn't want the Doctor in the way.  But when the being inside the protective suit turns out not to be the miner, everyone turns to the Doctor for help - and he, in turn, turns to Bill, the only one he can trust in ferreting out the traitor on board the ship before an alien invasion arrives and destroys the mining ship and everyone in it.

Lots of action, lots of twists, lots of Doctor-isms, lots of good, clean Doctor Who fun!  And really, when you are reading a Doctor Who novel, that's what you expect, right?  Well, Tucker managers to capture the characterization just right and provides the reader with plenty of variation in the supporting cast so that no one comes across as cardboard or overly stereotypical.  And, frankly, the reveal of the traitor turned out to be a surprise - not at all who I was expecting.  But, again, this is Doctor Who, so we should always expect the unexpected.

Now to hunt down Plague City and The Shining Man (since not even is offering them in any format other than Kindle...) and complete my collection of "Bill" books!

RATING:  9 tatty-looking boxes out of 10 for giving fans one more adventure with Bill before she rides off into the sunset as the new Doctor and her companion(s) take charge.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Hobtown Mystery Stories - The Case of the Missing Men

"Nancy Drew meets David Lynch" is how the back of the graphic novel describes this unique small-town, middle-American mystery.  David Lynch is probably most recognized for his off-beat television cult classic, Twin Peaks.  So take a little Nancy Drew, throw her into a Twin Peaks-type world, and that's a pretty apt description for this first Hobtown Mystery Story by author Kris Bertin and artist Alexander Forbes.  (Of course, I'd also say after reading the story that you could add X-Files into that mix, but that's just me.)

The Case of the Missing Men is a twisted sort of mystery - what starts of innocently enough (six men have disappeared in the town of Hobtown) eventually turns into something not only far more sinister, but somewhat depraved and a bit extraterrestrial.  Lucky for the citizens of Hobtown, the local highschool's Teen Detective Club is on the case!  And in case your wondering, it's clear that not only does the writer of this mystery have an affection for the children's mystery series books from the '60s and '70s, but she also manages to throw in a few fun nods to those series - for instance, the leader of the teen detective club is an young lady by the name of Dana Nance ("Dana" Girls and "Nancy" Drew anyone?), whose mother died when she was young, and she has been raised by a very indulgent father. The other members are Pauline Lormier and the brothers, Denny and Brennan Hale.

The cases this after-school detective club has solved?

The Case of the Tire Fire
The Mayor's Old Watch
The Egg-Thief Mystery

Of course, we only know of these prior mysteries because Dana herself mentions them on page 170 (like any good children's mystery story did in years gone by, one has to reference prior mysteries!). This particular mystery finds Dana and her friends coming to the aid of Sam Finch, a young scientific genius already in the process of earning his engineering degree - and who is also a young inventor as well (a la Tom Swift!).  He is searching for his missing father, who they determine to be the sixth missing man in Hobtown.  A strange man digging in the forest.  Paper plates with animal faces drawn on them and their eyes cut out.  Yellow raincoats.  A murdered lunch-lady.  The attempted drowning of a slow, yet quite observant, man.  A body found bricked up outside an abandoned farm.  And more secrets than you can shake a stick at - all spell one very peculiar, yet thoroughly engaging mystery that is enjoyable from page 1 to page 300!

And just in case you were wondering how the X-Files angle comes into play?  Well, let's just say that there may or may not be an alien menace somehow involved in this whole thing.  The truth is out just have to buy the graphic novel if you want to find it!

RATING:  10 chalkboard timelines out of 10 for honoring children's mysteries of a more innocent time and giving them an adult spin without making it dark and gloomy.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Second Veronica Speedwell Mystery - A Perilous Undertaking

It's always a treat when you read the second book of a series and find it to be just as enjoyable, if not even more so, than the first!  I have been fortunate in a lot of series I've picked up in recent years, that the authors have been able to meet and exceed my expectations with more than just the first book (it's just a shame that the publishers for some of those series didn't want to do more than three books in the series, which seems to be the magic number these days...)

And Deanna Raybourn certainly did not disappoint with A Perilous Undertaking, the second Veronica Speedwell mystery.  Veronica and her not-quite-the-gentleman friend, Stoker, find their success in solving the previous murder mystery has made them people of interest - particularly to a mysterious Lady Sundridge, who asks them to vindicate a man condemned to hang for the murder of his mistress - but Lady Sundridge firmly believes he is innocent.  And Veronica and Stoker wouldn't let an innocent man to go the gallows, would they?

Raybourn builds on the budding relationship between Veronica and Stoker as they get sucked into yet another game of cat and mouse, where lies abound on every side, and no one is completely honest with them.  The sarcasm, quick wit, and playful barbs that bounce back and forth between the two protagonists make the characters more alive than simply stilted dialogue, and that underlying sexual tension building between the two keeps my rooting for them to eventually get together.  And their good cop/bad cop routine (who is good and who is bad depends wholly on the situation) manages to elicit any number of clues to lead them on the path to the real killer.

The story once again brings Veronica's royal connection into play, and readers also learn a bit more about Stoker and his past and family.  We also discover to just what lengths Veronica and Stoker will go to help each other, as well as protect each other.  And do so they must, as someone (in true Nancy Drew fashion) is leaving warning notes, threatening them off the case - and after a rather senses-enlightening interview with a suspect, they very nearly end up in jail!

But persistence pays off, and through a rather intricate web of entanglements, Raybourn leads her sleuths to the ultimate showdown in the most unlikely of places for those living in 19th century Victorian times!  The characters are fun and engaging, the mystery is so well-plotted - it definitely kept me guessing, and the continued subplots leave the reader with some answers, but even more questions about both Veronica and Stoker. 

I readily love the fact that this is a period piece, as it allows the author to lead her protagonists through old fashioned means of solving a murder - no cell phones, no computers, no easy access to all information.  And the fact that she has made Veronica so forthright and blunt makes it all the more fun, reading about the reactions of those Victorian hypocrites who are appalled at her speech.  Any book that can make me smile as I read it like there Veronica Speedwell books do are definitely high on my reading list!

RATING:  10 bloodstained dancing slippers out of 10 for showing the world that even in Victorian England, a female sleuth can still gain the upper hand on her male counterparts!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Wrestling Demons - A Brandt and Donnelly Caper, Case File Number Two

Okay, I decided to give this series a second chance and picked up the second book, hoping beyond hope that the author had toned down the graphic nature of his writing after that first so-called "mystery" story. I admittedly liked the characterization of Officers Brandt and Donnelly, so there is a part of me that was wanting to find a way to continue with the series - but I firmly decided if the graphic sex depicted in the first book inundated the second book just as much, then that would end it for me.

Thankfully, this was not the case!

Author Xaiver Mayne addresses something I believe to be an important topic in Wrestling Demons - the fact that sports stars are oft-times protected when they commit crimes, while others who perpetrate the same crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.  In this second case file, Officers Brandt and Donnelly are called to the Mayberry-type town of Woodley to assist the police chief there with a sensitive case.  It seems someone has made public a video tape taken in the boys' locker room, showing embarrassing images of the wrestling team, particularly the star wrestler, Jonah Fischer.  While the video goes no further than showing Jonah's backside, the police chief and the worn are worried that because the video has gone viral, it will put unneeded pressure on the team, and particularly on Jonah, before the upcoming finals.  Brandt and Donnelly agree to look into the matter, despite the clear feelings of the police chief (and the rest of the town for that matter) that the video is being used by "perverts" (a/k/a gays).

Mayne takes some interesting twists and turns throughout the book, as the two officers try to uncover the truth.  A second video placed Jonah in a very precarious position (as it not only shows full frontal of the eighteen year old, but it outs him as being attracted to one of his fellow players, who also happens to be his best friend!), and the town is outraged!  Brandt and Donnelly have a difficult time, since they are a gay couple, dealing with a homophobic town - but Jason is fortunate that is friend does not condemn his homosexuality, but instead, agrees to help him through it.

Things go from bad to worse for Jason, as his chances for a wrestling scholarship are taken away from him, and a third video that goes viral shocks everyone!  Brandt and Donnelly have to work overtime to put an end to this, as the town is getting ready for a mob lynching.  There's a huge surprise, however, when the town holds a meeting to address the situation - and when Brandt and Donnelly find an unexpected connection between these videos and the video of a young girl having sex with two high school boys that shamed the girl and drove her and her mother out of town several years back, they make it their mission to not only protect Jonah and his best friend, but to show the town of Woodley that it's time to come out of the '50s!

The story is actually very touching and definitely relevant to today's world (where people place sports stars above the law and victimize them when they are the perpetrators of crimes), and the growth and changes in Jonah's relationship with his best friend is really enjoyable to read.

NOW - that being said, Mayne still manages to throw in a couple of somewhat explicit sex scenes; however, they are toned down compared to the ones in the first book, and there are nowhere near as many, thankfully.  I am definitely more about the mystery and story, and Mayne definitely delivers that in this second case file - enough that I'll be search for the third book so I can see what happens to Brandt and Donnelly next (although the end of this book gives a very strong hint at what's to come).

RATING:  6 platters of half-baked scones out of 10 for providing a great mystery with a touching coming out tale that wasn't over-splattered with graphic sex.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Wonder Woman '77 meets The Bionic Woman - a Dynamite Comics/DC Comics mini-series

As a child in the '70s, I grew up watching both Wonder Woman (starring Lynda Carter) and the Bionic Woman (starring Lindsey Wagner).  Both shows featured strong leading ladies as heroes who were both super and lovely to look at, and both shows lasted only three seasons.  Coincidentally enough, both shows changed networks during their run - Wonder Woman's first season aired on ABC, then switched to CBS for its second and third seasons, while the Bionic Woman's first and second seasons aired on ABC, then switched to NBC for its third season.  Regardless of how short-lived they may have been, and regardless of switching networks, I absolutely loved both shows and both leading ladies.

As an adult, I have been fortunate enough to have met both Lynda Carter and Lindsey Wagner, and both are as nice and real in person as they are on the television shows, and both of them not only acknowledge their work, but are proud of the work they did in the shows.  Yet, in all these years, I can honestly admit I never really thought about the two of these heroes meeting.  So, when Dynamite and DC Comics announced a crossover mini-series, I got excited.  I mean, c'mon - what fanboy of the '70s wouldn't geek-out at the chance to see these two super-women team up for an adventure!

Simply titled Wonder Woman '77 meets The Bionic Woman, this six-issue mini-series offers up everything that a great comic should be - strong leading characters, a fantastic story with nasty villains from both shows, a perfect pace to keep the story going, yet highlight both characters equally, and enough easter-eggs and guest-stars to make you squeal with excitement as you read each issue!

Writer Andy Mangels brings Diana and Jaime together in the most natural of ways - a meeting of the national security organizations - the IADC, the OSI, the NSB, the FBI, and the CIA.  This, of course, means we get treated to appearances by Steve Trevor, Oscar Goldman, Eve Welch, Joe Atkinson, and Jack Hanson.  The organizations are gearing up to ferret out a new para-military organization known as "Castra."  The first issue ends with a bang, with the first casualty - Joe Atkinson!

Mangels takes readers (and fan boys!) on a fun jaunt down memory lane, as we learn that the cabal includes villains such as Captain Radl (from Wonder Woman), Dr. Franklin (from the Bionic Woman), Dr. Thiago Solano (from Wonder Woman) with Gloria Marquez, now calling herself Dr. Cyber (from Wonder Woman), Dr. Orlich Hoffman (from Wonder Woman), and Carl Franklin (from the Bionic Woman) - along with a whole new slew of Fembots (from the Bionic Woman)!  With all of these villains teaming-up for a new world-domination plan, it's a good thing Mangels doesn't leave Diana and Jaime to face these evil-doers on their own.  He brings back Druscilla a/k/a Wonder Girl - - we get reintroduced to Tina, the girl with powers - - there's Max, the bionic dog - - along with Queen Hippolyta, Nubia, Callahan, Fausta ... and on page 8 of issue 4, we see "Joanna," who Diana refers to as the mistress of the dance on Paradise Island, who called her dance the "Dance of the Zephyr Winds" (uhm, seriously - is there any child of the '70s that did not pick up on that direct Isis reference - Joanna Cameron was the actress, and "Zephyr winds that blow on high, lift me now, so I can fly!" was her cry to fly).  Oh, Mr. Mangels, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that you have made this fanboy's decade with this book!!!!

There are a number of fun surprises throughout the story, and it's great to see a team-up where the two heroes don't fight first and then become friends.  Let's face it, that gets old real fast.  Instead, Diana and Jaime hit it off from the start, and it brought a smile to my face seeing how Jaime reacts to the Invisible Plane, and later to Paradise Island.  The amount of continuity from the two shows brought into this series definitely reveals how much of a fan Mr. Mangels is of these two series.  And the ending - well, let's just say there's clearly more story to be told - I just hope he gets the chance to tell it!

The art is by Judit Tondora, with whose work I am wholly unfamiliar.  However, she manages to get the actors' faces pretty good throughout all six issues - with the exception of the Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers.  Wonder Woman pretty much comes across as Lynda Carter in every panel, and all the supporting cast resemble the actors who portrayed them in both shows.  But Jaime, for some reason, never actually comes across as Lindsey Wagner, and I'm not sure why.  Did that bother me?  Not so much - it was a little surprising at first, but as I got more and more into the story, pretty soon the fact that Jaime did not look like Lindsey Wagner at all became a non-issue.

This book is a DEFINITE MUST-READ for anyone who grew up watching these two ladies on the television each week (or even for those youngsters today who watch the shows in rerun, or on Hulu, or Netflix, or wherever).  With beautifully rendered covers by a variety of artists, to the fun-tastic fan-loving story inside, each issue is a true treasure, and I will be keeping fingers and toes crossed that Dynamite and DC give the go-ahead for a sequel (wouldn't it be great to see the Six-Million Dollar Man brought in, as well as perhaps the Christopher Reeve Superman! egads!!!).

RATING:  10 star-spangled swimsuits and white jumpsuits out of 10 for the absolutely best cross-over story I have ever read, and probably ever will read!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Heroine Worship - "Identity Crisis"

The one book I never thought would have a sequel, but which I desperately wanted a sequel - well, it actually got a sequel!  Heroine Complex was a fantastic, fun read with a unique spin on the whole super hero genre and with two Asian women as the lead characters.  Aveda Jupiter (also known as Annie Chang to her friends) and Evie Tanaka are back - the only problem is, the demon problem in San Francisco has been cured, and the city no longer needs any super heroes to protect it.

So what's a girl to do?

This is where Heroine Worship picks up, as author Sarah Kuhn brings back Aveda and Evie, along with all of their friends, to face a new and possibly more frightening adventure - Evie's wedding to Nate!  Okay, based on the cover, this story is not quite the "adventure" that I was expecting.  Even the back of the book with its synopsis made it sound like it was going to have a big mystery and another big baddie on the loose in San Francisco.

Instead, Kuhn gives readers page after page of Aveda bemoaning the fact that San Francisco doesn't need her and whining about the fact that the city has come to love Evie and her fire-throwing power far more than they ever did her non-powered antics.  In fact, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that this book (which, by the way, is told from Aveda's point of view, rather than Evie's like the first book) is one huge identity crisis as Aveda tries to come to terms with the idea that she is no longer the top dog and tries to figure out how to be a better friend to Evie, who is no longer her assistant, but also her friend and co-super hero.

The whining and self-doubt goes on and on ad nauseam, and quite frankly, I was about ready to put the book down after the first hundred pages or so, when there was nothing really interesting happening.  Sure, there were hints of a possible demon still hanging around the city, and yes, Kuhn provides a few scenes of character development with Aveda, Evie, Nate, Lucy, Bea, and Scott.  But the whole "no one like Aveda any more and everyone thinks she's an attention-starved diva" got a bit old when it was repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Then there was the fight at the wedding dress pavilion in the fashion market.  Okay, that caught a bit of my interest.  Then there was the crazed bride-to-be at the cake shop.  Definitely a pattern developing.  Then the mystery comes to light - just how is this demon controlling people - is it in the air?  Is it in the clothing?  Is it in the undergarments?  There are several viable suspects in the story, and by the second half of the book, I became hooked again, and I couldn't wait to tear through the pages to find out not only how Aveda and Evie were going to stop this new demon, but also who was the human counterpart helping it.  And I'll graciously admit - the person I had pegged as the human culprit was not the one.  So kudos to Kuhn for making the reveal a big surprise (and once it is revealed, the reader will see that the clues were there all along).

There's definitely romance in this one - Aveda does finally break down and admit her feelings for Scott.  The author throws in a couple of rather racy scenes of the two of them getting down and dirty, but it's not too blunt, thankfully.  And Kuhn provides more back story on Aveda (since this is her story, just as the first book was Evie's story).

So, while the book has a slow and rather ambivalent start, it definitely picks up after the half-way mark and makes it well worth the read.  As good as the first book - probably not.  But good enough that I'd buy a third one if Kuhn writes one?  Yes, definitely.

RATING: 7 demon-infested wedding gowns out of 10 for proving that super heroes do not need to be dark and gritty to still be good and enjoyable to read about.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 9 - The Mystery of the Icy Paw Prints

The Briar family nears the end of the travels around the globe in the ninth book of this early reader mystery series.  It's rather a shame that the series ended with the 10th book - not sure if that was the author's intent all along, or if the books did not sell enough for the publisher to continue the series.  In either event, the series has been a fun jaunt around the world, and it is definitely something I would have thoroughly enjoyed when I was in first or second grade (heck, I usually have a smile now as an adult when I read them!).

The Mystery of the Icy Paw Prints finds the Briar family back in the United States, albeit far from the mainland in the snowy, freezing mountains of Alaska.  Author Harper Paris once again provides us with some great descriptions of the area, including Mt. McKinley and the surrounding volcanoes, icefalls, and glaciers.  They arrive in Anchorage, where they plan to stay, but a side trip to Nome finds the family stranded in an isolated forest area when their car breaks down.

This time, the mystery the twins find to solve does not come from their grandfather's e-mail; rather, they stumble across a mystery when a local woman and her daughter rescue them from their stranded vehicle and take them to the small village where they live to wait for a mechanic.  The fact that it will take two or three days for a mechanic to traverse the snow and ice covered land to get to them provides readers with a feel for the isolation some of these smaller villages in the outer parts of Alaska feel.

Paris provides a rather tame and obvious mystery - someone, or something, has been stealing fish from all of the locals, and no one knows who it is.  With nothing better to do while stuck in the small village, the twins, with the help of their newfound friend, Malina, investigate the area where the fish were stolen from Malina's mother.  They find some very unique tracks leading away from the empty container, and upon investigation, the tracks appear to be that of a polar bear - which Malina says is impossible, as polar bears do not come that far south.

As can be expected, the twins ultimately discover the culprit (by setting a trap), and the grown-ups are all thankful to have the "thief" exposed and happy to know their future fish finds will not be stolen.  Ethan and Ella's parents are somewhat concerned that their children got involved in yet another mystery (one that could have been dangerous considering he animals that roam the area), but they are proud of them nonetheless.

Leaving readers, as well as Ethan and Ella, to wonder what mystery the next book would have in store for them?

Again, this is a series that I highly recommend for parents who have beginning readers - the books are easy to read, they provide engaging stories with likable characters, and Marcos Calo illustrates the books with beautiful renditions of not only the characters, but the various exotic locales that the Briars visit.  Plus, the books provide a learning experience, since the author always includes various references to local vocabulary and history.

RATING:  7 grazing reindeer out of 10 for continuing to introduce young readers to the various wonders around the world!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Doctor Who, the 10th Doctor with Donna Audio Book - Volume 3 - Death and the Queen

Ah, the joys of the Doctor-Donna pairing.  I was never a Doctor Who fan until the new series started with Christopher Eccleston, and although I enjoyed those first three seasons, nothing compared to my love of the show until that fourth season when Donna Noble, as played by Catherine Tate, appeared! She was funny, she was snippy, and she was never afraid to call the Doctor out on things.  So when her character was written out after only one season, I was really disappointed.

Until the books carried on the stories - for four books.  And then there were several audio stories that continued the pairing.  But there were only three or four of those.  So I couldn't fill my Doctor-Donna fix - until Big Finnish came back with some full-cast audio dramas featuring both David Tennant and Catherine Tate reprising their iconic roles!  And after listening to the first two, I put off listening to this third and final story, because I knew once I had listened to it, that would once again be the end of my Doctor-Donna stories.

But this final story was well worth the wait!

Death and the Queen, written by James Goss (who has written in the Doctor Who universe a number of times over the years), perfectly captures the companionship and friendship that existed between the Doctor and Donna.  The little barbs and quips kept me smiling, and the non-stop action right from the get-go kept my full attention throughout the entire story.

The story centers around Donna (around whom ALL stories should center, in my opinion!), who has met her Prince Charming and is set to marry him.  Fans of the series may recall that Donna first met the Doctor on her wedding day (which didn't turn out well at all, so that should be a sign of what direction this story is headed), and Goss even manages to slip in a cute reference to that prior wedding.  We get a few quick flashbacks that provide all the backstory we need to get us to the point where Donna is ready to be married, but the Doctor suspects there is something way too sinister going on for him to allow her to get married in peace.

For one thing, the Prince comes from a planet/land of which the Doctor has never heard - and the Doctor knows everything, having pretty much been everywhere in the known universe.  That's the first red flag.  Then there's the fact that the Prince and his mum are set to go forward with the wedding, even though there is something out there that is slowly destroying the surrounding towns outside of the castle.  Donna, being Donna, does what she does best - she brings all of the surviving townspeople into the castle to keep them safe, much to the chagrin of the Queen Mum.  There's friction on all sides, but it is a wedding after all, and not even death itself will stop it from happening.

Of course, that's maybe because Death is an invited guest at the wedding - and maybe because Donna isn't set to be wed to the Prince she thought she was marrying!  Goss throws in several surprise twists, and the ultimate showdown between the Doctor and Donna and the Prince of Death himself is one worthy of Russell T. Davies himself!

I thoroughly enjoyed this final tale (only for now, I hope!) of the Doctor-Donna pairing, and I am thankful it ended on such a well-written note!

RATING:  10 inscribed undergarments out of 10 for keeping the memory of Donna Noble alive with stories like this!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Dopple Ganger Chronicles No. 1 - The First Escape

A doppelgänger is defined as a "ghostly counterpart of a living person." However, author G.P. Taylor took the work and used it to define not one, not two, but three characters in his series, The Dopple Ganger Chronicles. Now, it should be noted - this series came out back in 2008, and that is when I bought this first book, as well as the second book, in the series. The second book ended with a cliffhanger, leaving me with an expectation that a third book would be published. So I waited...and I waited...and I waited...and I finally gave up, I shelved the two books after reading them, and promptly put the series to the back of my mind.

Until a few weeks ago, as I was perusing, and somehow I came across this series as a suggested book. The only thing is, instead of showing two books in the series, it actually shows THREE books in the series! It seems the book was published back in 2011, but somehow I managed to never see it, and thus, for the past six years have assumed the third book never came to be. Obviously, I bought the book, but once I received it, I realized something - I honestly did not remember the details of the stories from books one and two. So, what else could I do? I decided to go back and start from the beginning...

The First Escape introduces readers to Sadie and Saskia Dopple, two trouble-making twin sisters who are identical in every way - except their eyes, which are mirror versions of each other (one blue, one yellow). The girls were orphaned by their mother and left at the Isambard Dunstan's School for Wayward Children, which is run by the very strict, very cruel headmistress, Miss Rimmer, who is looking for any excuse possible to get rid of the Dopple sisters. And that moment comes when the mysterious Muzz Elliott shows up at the school - and makes her wishes known that she wants to adopt Saska and not Sadie!

Taylor spins a fun little mystery that is filled with plenty of high-spirited antics and life-threatening dangers, and quite honestly, it's refreshing to see some protagonists who are not only NOT squeaky-clean, but who are devious little pranksters and have no qualms about thumbing their nose at authority. And if you're wondering, that second part of the "Dopple Ganger" refers to Erik Ganger, the only boy at the School for Wayward Children who also happens to be a former thief. He helps Sadie escape the school (which definitely makes for some fun-filled reading) and is instrumental in helping the sisters with the mystery surrounding Muzz Elliott's home and a missing treasure.

The story is told not only through prose, but also through comic book-style pages of art and story, and also through some rather interesting formatted pages that integrate the typed text with the action of the story (you have to see it to understand what I am talking about). But it all works - none of it jars the reader from the story, but rather, it actually enhances the uniqueness of the story and its characters.

On a side note, something I had forgotten about this series is the fact that it is a Christian-based series. There are some subtle references to God and angels, and I'm actually curious to see where Taylor takes these concepts in the next two books.

RATING: 8 stuffed donkey hinds out of 10 for finding a unique way to tell a unique story with unique characters - and to pull it off so successfully!

Friday, October 27, 2017

The First Goth Girl Novel - Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

Take the Oz books - mix it up with a bit of Gothic tales - throw in a bit of Nancy Drew for good measure - and what you'll end up with is the first Goth Girl mystery!  Honestly, I can't recall how I came across this series (that seems to happen a lot lately - although I think this was another series I stumbled across on Amazon), but I am definitely glad I did.  This first book, The Ghost of a Mouse, was a fun read with likable characters, a well-plotted mystery, and some truly gorgeous illustrations.

I'm not really familiar with the author, Chris Riddell, but I have to give him props.  He not only knows how to tell a great story, but he knows how to make his characters spring to live and, like L. Frank Baum did in his Oz books, Riddell draws you into the most outrageous situations with some very unbelievable characters who you have no problem accepting without question.

The "Goth Girl" in the title refers to the protagonist, Ada Goth, who lives in the stately (and somewhat off-beat) Ghastly-Gorm Hall with her father, Lord Goth.  Her mother, Parthenope (gotta love these names!), died in a tragic accident when she fell from the roof of the estate while practicing her tight-rope walking skills (you have to read it to understand it).  Poor Ada has gone through a number of governesses, all of whom have left or disappeared for one reason or another, and she is forced to deal with her father's rather eclectic staff - Maltravers, the indoor gameskeeper, and Mrs. Beat'em, the cook.  There were a whole crew of maids and lady servants, but none of them were allowed to speak to Ada.

The mystery begins when Ada is visited by the ghost of a mouse named Ishmael who was killed in a mouse trap set by Maltravers.  When Ada discovers where the trap was set, it sets in motion a mystery surrounding the "broken wing" of the house that is in complete disrepair; the heretobefore never heard of "even more secret garden" that is hidden away within the secret garden behind the house; the mysterious pheasants to be used in the upcoming hunt held every year by Lord Goth; the stranger-than-normal actions of Maltravers; and the secret that is hidden in the Bathroom of Zeus (just trust me on this - it really is a room in the house).  And while Ada thinks she is in this alone, she soon discovers that there are other children in the house - there are William and Emily Cabbage, the children of the inventor, Charles Cabbage, who came to Ghastly-Gorm Hall to build a calculating machine for Lord Goth (and who Lord Goth promptly forgot was there); there is Arthur Halford, who is the hobby-horse groom; and there is Kingsley, the chimney caretaker who was promoted when the prior chimney sweep left with a former governess of Ada's (hmmmm, a governess who falls for a chimney sweep?  yes, there are tons of literary references and nods to other great works scattered throughout the book - yet one more reason to enjoy it!).

The "Attic Club" as the kids are known, since they regularly meet in the attic to avoid being seen by or disturbing the inhabitants of the great house, allow Ada to join them, and together they set out to solve the mystery.  They soon learn, however, that time is running out - for there are lives at stake, and they must find a solution before the great hunt takes place!

According to the copyright page, Chris Riddell is not only the author, but also the illustrator of this enjoyable work of art.  There are numerous illustrations throughout the book, and they truly enhance the reading of and love for the story.  Visuals for all the characters, humans and non-humans alike, are given in full detail, and there is even a map of the entire Ghastly-Gorm Hall so you can keep track of all the unusual places Ada and her friends traverse (like the Alpine Gnome Rockery, the Dear-Deer Park, the Overly Ornamental Fountain, and so on).

If you love letting your imagination run wild while you are reading, and you love a well-written mystery with humor and Gothic undertones, then you will absolutely love this first Goth Girl book!

RATING:  10 psychic governess agencies out of 10 for a superb beginning to an unusual new mystery series that will definitely pique the interest of any aged reader!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Gotham Academy, Second Semester - Volume 1 - Welcome Back

So the kids of Gotham return to the academy in the first of the new set of graphic novels collecting the "second semester" of DC's Gotham Academy comic series.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first three graphic novels chronicling the first semester of these students, so I was anxiously looking forward to reading more of these kids adventures.

While I won't say the second semester was off to a poor start, I will say that these first several stories just did not hold up to the original series collected in the first three graphic novels.  The opening story, "Welcome Back to Gotham Academy" starts out well enough, with conflict created when Olive suddenly finds herself with an unexpected and unwanted new roommate.  And while the ultimate revelation as to the identity of the roommate was a surprise, the character change in Olive was somewhat jarring and felt forced - as if the writers were purposefully changing Olive to fit the whole origin story for Olive's heritage.

A few things I did like in these stories are the homages to the 1960s television show - with Aunt Harriet, the ceramic bust, and so on.  I am also glad they finally pushed Colton's story forward as he revealed his feelings for Maps' brother.  And there's the continued use of the Detective Club, even though they had to search high and low to find a mystery to solve in this collection.  I even felt a bit sorry for Maps, as Olive grew more and more distant from her friends and closer to her roommate, Amy.

I do have to give the writers props in one area - they have quite a number of characters to manage, yet all of them do have "screen time," so to speak, and none of them are used superfluously.  Each character has a purpose for being there in each story, and clearly some of them are set ups for future stories to be told.

I guess being a Batman-related book, Batman had to make an appearance - I could have done without it.  He is so overused in the DC universe of comics, and I hate the fact that they have grounded Olive's origin tale with Batman-involvement.  I won't spoil anything for those who haven't read it yet, but her backstory could have been just as powerful without the Batman appearance.

The art continues to be well done - the characters' looks remain consistent, and the Gothic tone of the panels and colors keep the book balanced with the not-too-dark stories.

Despite my feeling of lackluster towards  most of this collection, I am curious to see where they are going to take it from here, considering the final pages.  That's quite a cliffhanger, and with Olive origin out there for all to know, it will be interesting to see what it does to the group's dynamic.

RATING:  6 circuit-board lined witches' hats out of 10 for not being afraid to take chances with these characters and take them in directions that, while I might not like it, will make me curious to see what's next

Monday, October 23, 2017

Whitman Mystery Stories - Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island

Bonita Granville is mostly known to me and my fellow series book collectors as the actress who portrayed Nancy Drew in the four films from the 1930s.  However, Ms. Granville starred in a number of other films for which she is probably more popularly known.  In fact, she was popular enough that Whitman, the book publisher, somehow gained the rights to publish a fictional tale of Ms. Granville wherein, like her Nancy Drew counterpart, she is thrust into an unexpected situation where she must solve a mystery and help the innocent!

As it states on the front flap of the dust jacket, this book (along with a number of others) allowed readers to "(f)ollow your favorite characters through page after page of thrilling adventures."  And thanks to a special friend and fellow series collector, I was given a copy of this book in the beautiful dust jacket showcasing a photo of the ever-smiling Bonita Granville.

I just wish the story inside had held up as beautifully as the dust jacket and the photo did.

I'm not sure what I expected from the story.  I honestly had not heard anything about the mystery prior to reading it - no reviews, no critiques, no bashing or praising.  So, I went into this story with absolutely no knowledge whatsoever.  Based on the title, The Mystery of Star Island, I gathered that somehow Bonita would end up on an island where she would become instrumental in solving a mystery.  And as I began reading the first couple of chapters, it seemed such would be the case.  Bonita bumps into an old friend who is headed to Star Island to serve as a companion to a young girl near their age; but, before she can leave for the island, she is overcome with appendicitis and must go to the hospital.  After much beginning, Bonita agrees to take her place on the island with no on the wiser because - coincidentally enough - she and Bonita strongly resemble each other.  So much so, in fact, that in their younger days, they were known as "Parey" and "Lelle" (for "parallel").

Sounds enough like a typical children's mystery so far.  There's also a mysterious stranger who shows up at the train station, and Bonita feels there is something not right about him.  Yet another coincidence finds him heading in the same direction as her - to Star Island!  All good set ups for a nice mystery - except, at this point, we still don't know what the mystery is, if any.  Bonita and this stranger get ferried to the island, where Bonita meets her new benefactor and the young girl she will be chaperoning, Betts.  Her benefactor, known as "Muffit," has been injured and must leave the island to get medical attention, leaving Bonita alone with Betts and the nervous-nellie housekeeper, Thelma.  There are claims of stranger noises in the night (reminiscent of Gothic-style storytelling), but again - still no defined mystery.

What we do have by this point, however, are countless instances of Bonita's internal turmoil of why she is there.  "Go back while you have the chance!" and "I knew there'd be trouble!" and "You'd better go back - before it's too late!"  Again and again and again the author has Bonita doubting herself, questioning her actions, and warning herself to go back home and forget Star Island.  I'm not sure if this was intended to build drama, but for me, it simply dragged down the story and lessened my ability to see Bonita Granville as a strong protagonist.  Instead, she comes across weak, whiny, and at times, very unlike any female sleuths of her time.

The author, who interestingly enough is not identified on the cover of the book, is Kathryn Heisenfelt,  who appears to have written a number of "authorized" books for Whitman during that period.  If all of her books are written in this vein, it leaves me to wonder how they performed sales-wise.  The book has a number of illustrations by Henry E. Vallely, all of which are beautifully rendered and are one of the saving graces for the book.

The mystery itself is finally revealed near the end, and it is wrapped up not by Bonita, but rather, by some of the supporting characters.  The identity of the stranger at the beginning is finally revealed at the end (after he is pretty much absent during most of the story), and everything is resolved with very little help from Bonita at all.  Definitely not a book I would recommend reading to any fans of the children's mystery genre; however, I would probably suggest it as a collectible for any Nancy Drew completionist, since it does star the actress who first portrayed everyone's teen sleuth.

RATING:  3 missing used bandages out of 10 for at least attempting to give a Nancy Drew actress her own mystery - and providing some lovely illustrations throughout!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Marvel Masterworks - the Atlas Era: VENUS

Now that I'm back from vacation (a week-long trip to the New England coast!), I can get back to talking about my reading materials.  Taking a train up the East Coast, from Florida to Massachusetts, gave me plenty of time to read the Marvel Masterworks that I picked up back in July - the collection of issues 1 through 9 of an old Atlas comic titled Venus.

I picked up this book for two reasons - one, its original price was $59.99, but the dealer was selling it for $10; and two, it was a comic with a female lead.  My love of comics has always gravitated towards comics with female leads - Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Huntress, Power Girl, She-Hulk, Hellcat, Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, etc.  So, the opportunity to read a comic from the 1940s with a female lead definitely intrigued me.

With an introduction by Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, who is touted as being "a noted comics historian and a chief authority on Marvel's Atlas period," the first (and only) volume of this collection of Venus tales presents in full (including covers and all ads) the first nine issues of the comic, as well as two short tales of Venus that appeared in Lana no. 4 and Marvel Mystery Comics no. 91.  The stories in the this volume are all fairly tame by today's standards, and definitely lean more towards the romance comics than adventure or mystery.

Now, I'm not the biggest fan of romance stories (unless it is gothic/supernatural in nature), but I do have to admit, these stories were kind of fun.  In a way, it is almost a reverse of the Superman/Lois Lane love story.  Venus is a goddess (alien) from another planet who falls for a publisher of a fashion magazine - he also falls for her, but he refuses to believe that she is really the goddess of love.  And, of course, there's a nemesis in the form of Della, secretary for Whitney Hammond (the publisher of Beauty Magazine).  She resents Venus' sudden appearance and her appointment by Hammond as the new editor of the magazine - a position she had been in line for until Venus showed up on the scene.  Throughout nearly all of the stories, Della is trying one stunt or another to take Venus out of the picture (in a way, Della reminds me a lot of Lettie Briggs from the Dana Girls Mystery Stories).

The early stories are focused more on the rivalry between Venus and Della, and each issue contains several self-contained short stories, along with a 2- or 3-page prose story, as well as other short features (such as  Hedy De Vine tale, or a "Hey Look!" comedy page, or a "True-To-Life Romance" story.  But, later issues began to evolve into longer tales with two or three chapters, in most instances filling the entire comic with a single Venus tale.  In addition, the later tales also began to focus more on Venus compatriots from the gods and goddess realm on Venus, as well as from the underworld itself.  While the first nine issues compiled here are more romance and slight adventure, according to Dr. Vassallo's introduction, issues 10 and beyond became more sci-fi oriented, and then horror-oriented before the series was finally cancelled with issue 19.

One interesting tidbit I did enjoy seeing was the ad that appeared in several issues, in which "The Editors" at Marvel Comics urged readers to consider why they were buying and reading this comic.  "We want to help you protect your right to buy and read your favorite magazines," the ad says, "as long as they contain nothing that might be harmful to you ... Lately, lots of people are criticizing comics.  They have been saying that comics teach you youngsters things that are not good for you, things like violence, cruelty, immorality, etc."  The ad then goes on to explain that Marvel has engaged the services of Dr. Jean Thompson, a psychiatrist in the Child Guidance Bureau of the New York City Board of Education to serve as editorial consultant on all of their magazines, to help ensure that their comics are "safe" for children to read.

Something else I found intriguing was the fact that when Marvel listed in the ads their regular titles, they were divided into two categories:  the "Red Unit" and the "Blue-Yellow Unit."  Not really sure why the books were assigned to which unit, or even why they were designated as "units" and what the colors meant.  I suppose the readers back in the late '40s would have known.

The writer of these comics are unknown, as the comics in those days rarely gave credit to the authors and artists; however, through research, the artists for some of the stories were determined (George Klein, Vic Dowd, Harvey Kurtzman, Ken Bald, Ed Winiarski, Don Rico, among others - none of whom I have ever heard).  The art is not consistent, as the artists changed, but the one major thing I noticed is that in the first issue, Venus is portrayed as having silver/white hair, but starting with issue 2, even though Venus is shown with white hair on the cover, the interior pages all show her with blond hair (which is the color that continued through the rest of the series).

The supporting cast was not large - Whitney Hammond - the publisher, Della - the secretary, and Marvin Klee - staff artist at the magazine, and the various gods and goddesses from Olympus.  Otherwise, there were no other regular cast members.

I enjoyed the stories enough that I would have liked to have seen the second volume, just to see how the comic fared with sci-fi and horror stories.  Sadly, although a second volume was discussed, it was never published (making me wonder if sales on this volume were so low that Marvel decided to pass on a second).  It's a shame, as I don't believe the remaining issue of Venus were ever collected.

RATING:  7 statues of Juno out of 10 for proving to me that even back in the late 1940s, comics could provide a strong female lead (even if she did only last for 19 issues...)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Lilly Long Mysteries, Book 2 - Though This be Madness

That persistent red-headed actress is back in her second mystery, as author Penny Richards provides another captivating adventure of actress-turned-detective, Lilly Long.

Though This be Madness, taken from a line in Shakespeare's Hamlet, gives readers the perfect mystery, filled with murder, greed, lies, secrets, and even a little voodoo thrown in for good measure.  Oh, and let's not forget some of that romantic tension that we saw between Lilly and McShane in the last book - it definitely intensifies in this book, particularly since they are sent on an assignment together, posing as husband and wife!

The mystery comes to the Pinkerton Agency in the form of a letter from a wealthy widow in New Orleans - her grandson's former widow has been committed to a psychiatric institution for the insance, and the family matriarch believes her new husband had her committed solely for the purpose of gaining control of the family fortune.  To make matters worse, one of the grandson's daughters was brutally murdered shortly after the grandson's former wife gave birth to a stillborn child.  From any outsider's point of view, it would seem only natural the grief was so much, she was overcome and needed psychiatric help.  The matriarch, LaRee Fontenot, does not believe this is the case.  So, it is up to Lilly and McShane to work together, posing as newly hired help on the Fontenot plantation in New Orleans, to uncover the truth, one way or another.

As with any good mystery, Richards throws in a few hiccups along the way.  First, there's the distrust between Lilly and McShane, neither of whom wish to be paired with the other for an investigation. Then, there's the matter of young Robert Jenkins, a street urchin and pickpocket who has a past with McShane that neither will reveal, who shows up as Lilly and McShane are traveling to New Orleans and who ends up having to pose as McShane's younger brother to help with the investigation. And we can't forget the vile Henri Ducharme, who is the current husband of Mrs. Fontenot's granddaughter-in-law - a self-absorbed man who believes he runs the house and the family - but who Lilly notices becomes unusually uneasy any time his step-daughter's husband, Preston Easterling.

Lilly's acting skills are put to the test in this mystery - not only is she forced to assume an Irish accent and humble herself as a housekeeper and maid for the Fontenot plantation, but she must also deal with the fact that as "husband and wife," she must share a room with a man she has conflicting feelings about.  On the one hand, he is arrogant and demeaning, and she would much prefer to have been assigned this case on her own; on the other hand, she continues to find herself drawn to him and he is able to teach her things about the field that she still needs to learn.

With this mystery, it's not so much about the whodunnit? part, but more about the "did he do it?" part and "what's really going on at the Fontemont plantation?"  Lilly, McShane, and Jenks (the name by which Robert Jenkins prefers to go by) actually make a great team, and their family dynamic works well in solving the crime(s).  I readily confess, reading 260 pages has never been so easy, when you an author draws you into the tale like Richards does.

RATING:  10 hard boiled eggs dyed red out of 10 for creating an investigative "family" that is engaging and entertaining to read.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The First Northwoods Mystery - Enchantment Lake

I love books.  If you've been reading this blog, then you KNOW how much I love books.  Mysteries are, by far, my favorite all-time books to read.  My love for mysteries stems from my mom buying me Nancy Drew, Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, and other various series books back when I was a kid.  Thus, while I enjoy some select adult mystery series, my true love will always be children's and young adult mysteries.  And in the past few years, I have been fortunate enough to stumble across some really good series (particularly in light of the slim pickings when it comes to children's mysteries today).  But rarely do I buy a "one-off'er" mystery.  I prefer my ongoing series.

Yet, for some reason, I was drawn to Enchantment Lake, by Margi Preus.  I'm not sure if it was the "A Northwoods Mystery" header, or if it was the description of the book that describes the protagonist as a Nancy Drew-type, or if it was the rather unique cover art and design.  Regardless, I did ultimately purchase the book through Amazon in the hopes that it would be a good read.

I was wrong - this was not a good read at all - it was a FANTASTIC read!

Preus introduces readers to her reluctant teenage detective, Francesca (Francie) Frye (a/k/a "French Fry" or "little Frenchie") at an audition in New York, where Fancie is nervous about her audition.  Before she can audition, however, she gets a call from her Aunt Astrid, who lives with her other aunt, Jeannette, up in the north words of Minnesota.  The connection is anything but good, but it's enough for Francie to hear her aunt say "murder" and that "someone is trying to kill us" and "come quickly."  Now, her aunts are known for their absurdity and odd ways, but Francie can't imagine them asking her to leave New York where, despite being only seventeen, she is pursuing her career as an actress.  But they do - - and she does, flying halfway across the country to discover whether her aunts really are in serious trouble.

She soon finds her concern for her aunts misplaced, when they reveal that someone is forcing people to sell their properties on the shore of Enchantment Lake to build a road through the area.  Francie could kick herself for dropping out of an audition for this "emergency" - until her aunts reveal that the people who sold their property have been dropping like flies!  A falling tree limb, a drowning, a poisonous snake bite, a poisoned well, a heart attack, and most recently - a gunshot made to look like a suicide.  Are they merely coincidences, or is something more sinister happening around Enchantment Lake.  And what is this story Francie hears about a supposed treasure said to be under enchantment?  Or, more accurately, under Enchantment (as in, under the lake)?

Preus weaves a wonderful mystery tale about murder, secrets, greed, and blackmail, and quite frankly, it will keep you guessing until pretty much the end when the culprit is finally revealed.  Every time I thought I had it figured out, another curve ball was thrown, displacing my theory.  The characters are charming - love the local lawyer's intern, Nels, as well as Sandy, the owner of the local store.  And, of course, Aunt Astrid and Aunt Jeannette are barrels of fun with their quirky strangeness.  And as for Francie herself - she may begin as a rather reluctant detective (having played one as a child on television), she soon finds herself drawn into the mystery, and before you know it, she turns all Nancy Drew, refusing to turn away from solving the crime and saving her aunt's lives, even when her grandfather shows up and threatens to tighten the strings on her trust fund if she doesn't drop it and return to New York City.

And to top it all off, Francie herself has some mysteries of her own to solve - like, what really happened to her father?  Was his death an accident, or something else?  And who is her mother?  Why will no one tell her anything about her?  And what happened between her and her brother to create the strained relationship that they now have?

With a great mystery and fun-tastic characters, there's no way you'll be able to avoid falling under the "enchantment" of Preus' writing.  And thankfully, while writing this post, I checked on Amazon and found that there is a second book in this series - The Clue in the Trees, wherein we will discover more about Francie's estranged brother.  I definitely cannot wait!

RATING:  10 brown casserole dishes out of 10 for giving readers a contemporary teenage detective that is over the age of 13, a well-written, superbly-plotted mystery, and an excellent read!