Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Stone Man Mysteries, Book One - Stone Cold

It's a mystery. And it's a comic book. Therefore, it goes without saying that I would be getting it.  Stone Cold is the first of the Stone Man Mysteries by authors Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple and artist Orion Zangara. And by "Stone Man," no, it doesn't refer to a man made of stone (such as that unique little hero in the Legion of Substitute Heroes) - no, this is referring to one of those scary looking gargoyles that seem to overlook humanity from high atop a gothic structure - whether it be a mansion, a towering business building, or, in this case, a church.

Stone Cold is more than just a mystery, though - it's also an origin story of sorts.  Yolen and Stemple manage to weave an intriguing locked-room murder mystery with a supernatural tale of a demon bound do the top of the church, burdened with the task of watching over Edinburgh.  Silex, eternally trapped to the stone roof, guards the city and has determined to use his time wisely by solving crimes throughout the community over which he watches.  To do that, though, he needs human aides, people who can be his hands and feet.

Enter Craig McGowan - a young boy who is prepared to jump from the roof of the cathedral, ready to end it all - until he finds himself talking to what he mistook for a stone gargoyle.  He is soon called into service, along with Father Harris, who has been the servant of Silex for longer than he cares to remember.  Craig's first case is to find out what happened to Angus McFearsome, Earl of Stockbridge, who was found dead in his bedroom - his throat slashed and a knife with a black handle shoved into his chest. The bedroom door was locked, so who could have killed him?  And what do the two large feathers found under the bed have to do with anything? And how is this murder connected to the other two people who have been killed recently?  And why was each murder victim stabbed with a black-handled knife, even though that was not the cause of death?

For Craig, the mystery seems impossible to solve. But even the smallest, most insignificant piece of information could hold an important clue for Silex - the Stone Man.  So Craig, like Father Harris, does his duty, inquires of the townsfolk, pokes his nose where it doesn't belong, and reports everything he sees, hears, and finds to Silex, who sifts through it all to discover the truth.  Along the way, he reveals to Craig who he really is and how he came to be bound to the roof of the church.

Orion Zangara provides the art for this book, and the black and white images maintain a very gothic feel to the story.  Lots of shadows, lots of rain, and lots of gloom - it's a gothic-lover's nightmare (which, in this case, is a good thing!). While so many artists today try and use some "stylistic" way of rendering people as a means of making their mark, Zangara keeps his art realistic, with very vivid drawings of the characters - panel 2 of page 31 is such a beautiful image of Craig, you can literally see right into his eyes the way you would a person in real life - it's captivating!  While I've never heard of this artist before, I have no doubt we'll be seeing more of his work soon!

Here's hoping these three continue the series and that a book two will be forthcoming!

RATING:  8 Dirk Symbols of Scottish Freedom out of 10 for keeping the gothic alive and not only readable, but enjoyable as well!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Frat House Troopers - A Brandt and Donnelly Caper, Case File Number One

So, what do you do when you're a cop, you're straight, and you're asked to go undercover - as a male model on one of those "frat boys" website for gay viewers? That is question Officer Ethan Brandt has to ask himself when his superiors tell him he's going undercover - Brandt just never expected that undercover would turn into "under the covers"!

Xavier Mayne's first book in the Brandt and Donnelly Caper series not only introduces his two protagonists, Officer Ethan Brandt and his partner (work-wise) Officer Gabriel Donnelly, but introduces readers to a whole world of unique characters - such as Donnelly's sister, Chris; a fellow officer, Jimmy Walters; the flamboyant clothing store employee, Bryce, and his co-worker, Nestor; and a house full of frat boys and their too-good-to-be-true boss, Drake. Set in a non-specific state, Mayne (a pseudonym for an English professor at a university in the Midwest) gives readers an interesting premise - Brandt is sent undercover to get the goods (so to speak) on this online porn site, as the Attorney General wants to see the house shut down for good, utilizing tax evasion as the means to doing it.

I bought Frat House Troopers based upon the plot described on Amazon, thinking this might be another great detective / mystery series with a gay protagonist (yes, no big spoiler there - Brandt and Donnelly may claim to be straight in the beginning of the story, but it's quickly apparent that they are both closeted, and it takes this undercover mission to bring them both out and into each other's arms). The opening chapters even gave me some hope that this could be a great mystery - the characters are interesting, the dialogue natural, and the camaraderie between Brandt and Donnelly felt very real.  And while I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre, I admit to hoping the spark between the two men would eventually ignite into a relationship for them.

Sadly, though, once Brandt gets to the frat house, Mayne devolves into what most writers of gay stories seem to do - he starts pushing the explicit sex scenes.  Had there just been one, done tastefully, I might have been able to overlook it.  Had there been maybe just two scenes, I might have skimmed over them and kept going.  Instead, Mayne seems to have felt at that point that the only way he could keep readers interested was to have it one scene after another, with just a bit of story in between each scene.  While the first scene at the house might have had some actual import in the story, since Brandt was going undercover for purposes of setting up a sting to close the shop down, many of the other scenes were unnecessary (at least, there was absolutely no need for the explicit nature of the scenes) and added nothing to the story.

To make it even more sad, Mayne provided a great mystery, and he went in a completely different direction than I was expecting with the resolution - I certainly did not see that coming!  The man definitely knows how to throw in a twist that not only gives readers a surprise, but a very satisfying solution to the mystery.  His writing is really good, he can plot the heck out of a story, so why burden it down with the unnecessary explicitness of scenes that do not add anything other than "sex sells" to the book?

I will likely give the second book a chance in the hopes that Mayne tones it down a bit and starts to focus more on the mystery and the story itself - but if the second book has the same or even more scenes like this one, there will be no more on my shelves.

RATING:  3 Closet Busters out of 10 for throwing in that surprise twist at the end, which is the only thing that saved this book from being a total failure

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Friday Barnes, Big Trouble

"Something sneaky is going on at Highcrest Academy, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it." (p. 236). While this statement sounds like something Nancy Drew might say when getting ready to get to the bottom of a mystery, it's actually the declaration made by twelve year old Friday Barnes in her latest mystery, Big Trouble.

Author R.A. Spratt takes readers on another fun-filled, sarcastic-spouting, mystery with her child genius, Friday Barnes. Picking up immediately after the ending of the last book, Friday finds herself face-to-face with her father, Dr. Rupert Barnes has come to Highcrest Academy in search of his daughter's help - his wife, Friday's mother - the "other" Dr. Barnes - has disappeared! Of course, in typical Barnes fashion, nothing is quite what it seems, and soon enough, Friday uncovers the truth behind her mother's disappearance (much to the chagrin of the local police department) and must return to school, with her father in tow.

From there, the mysteries just keep on coming...

Spratt is a master of spinning an over-arching story that has numerous sub-plots, yet all without confusion, but with plenty of character development and Friday's blunt, no-holds-barred attitude. The main mystery involves the continuing thefts throughout the school campus - first, it's the headmaster's watch; then, a valuable letter written by Marie Curie; and the thefts continue, with laptops, jewelry, bond certificates, and even golf clubs going missing. Friday is on the case, but she finds herself constantly being pulled into other situations - such as helping her archnemesis (a/k/a her boyfriend?) Ian Wainwright's mother locate the jewely her prison-bound husband his before he was arrested, as well as helping two other students discover the source of the mysterious cries for help that they hear every night coming from the attic.

And, lest we forget, the school has welcomed two new students into its doors - the beautiful Norwegian princess, Ingrid, and the short, dowdy brown-haired girl who shares her dorm room, Debbie. These two girls play an important part of the overall story, particularly when the Binky, the brother of Friday's best friend, Melanie Pelly, falls head over heels for Debbie (yes, that's right - he's not interested in the beautiful princess - he's much rather have the frumpy one). Can Friday and Melanie help him talk to her? And can they help the princess protect the invaluable Haakon Stone?

It's a roller coaster ride of mystery, wise-cracking, and fun that just about anyone will enjoy. Each book gets better than the last, and I'm looking forward to the next book, Friday Barnes: No Rules!

RATING:  10 rhinestone-studded dog collars out of 10 for giving us big trouble, but an even bigger and better read!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Heroine Complex - "I Am Not A Superhero"

Being a superheroine is hard.
Working for one is even harder.

The tagline on the back cover of Heroine Complex probably describes the story of Evie Tanaka better than any words I could say. Author Sarah Kuhn has written a fun superhero romp through the streets of San Francisco, telling the story of Evie Tanaka, personal assistant to San Francisco's premier (and only) super hero, Aveda Jupiter - better known to Evie as Annie Chang, her childhood friend with whom she grew up. Evie does everything for Aveda: she documents her adventures, she cleans up after Aveda's adventures (making sure Aveda's outfits are stylish and spotless), and she puts up with her boss's tirade of temper tantrums behind closed doors. And she does all of it with a smile on her face, because handling all of this helps her keep a check on her own problem - Aveda isn't the only one in town with super powers.

Kuhn opens the book right in the middle of all the action. Aveda is fighting demon-possessed cupcakes (yes, you read that right!) in a local cupcake store in San Francisco. Evie is present, doing a live video feed of all the action for Aveda's countless fans. Also present is Lucy Valdez, Aveda's bodyguard and personal trainer (as well as weapons expert). Kunh provides plenty of action in that first chapter, but at the same time, readers get a bit of the history that has led to this moment - the fact that portals from the Otherworld have been opening lately throughout San Francisco, and the demons that come through basically take an imprint of the first thing they see, then legions of that particular item, demon-possessed, suddenly start attacking. To date, Aveda Jupiter has been able to handle each and every portal attack with precision and crowd adoration - until today, when the filming of her adventure reveals a horrifying secret - Aveda Jupiter has a zit!

And that pretty much sets the tone for the book - there's plenty of humor, but a good mix of drama and super-heroics as well. Kuhn gives readers a well-rounded group of characters - and while some are more or less background supporting cast (such as Lucy, as well as Evie's sister Bea and Evie and Aveda's longtime friend, Scott), readers get a great deal of background on Aveda and Evie, as well as eventually Nate (the group's resident scientist). There is some unresolved tension and issues between Bea and Evie ... Between Scott and Aveda ... between Evie and Nate ... and even some unspoken tension building between Evie and Aveda - - and when Evie is forced to assume Aveda's identity and pretend to be the superhero that everyone adores, all of the stress and tension that Evie has kept under wraps and in control for so many years comes to the front - and literally explodes in a ball of fire!

While the demon-fighting and the in-house squabbles certainly stays to the forefront, there is an underlying mystery of who is opening those portals, what do the mysterious stones they keep finding after the portals close mean, and how in the world can they get rid of that annoying blogger, Maisy Kane, who claims to be Aveda's biggest fan and "best friend," yet seems to always cause them more problems with each blog post? And, of course, we can't forget the boiling (literally!) love story that blooms between Evie and Nate - who make a good pair, by the way - and how that is impacted when Nate's past comes back to haunt him.

Of course, as well with any good book, the resolution not only brings out the identity of the one who has been opening portals (and it's not at all who you would suspect!), but it also sees Evie come to terms with who she is and how she interacts with the people around her and opens the door for a world of new adventures for Aveda Jupiter and Evie Tanaka!

As you can see, this book has a lot of story packed into its 376 pages, and it's definitely well worth the read.  I am normally a fan of series books, not single, one-offers - but this one caught my eye on the shelf, and after passing it by several times, I finally picked it up with a coupon I had, and boy, am I glad I did.  A part of my hopes Kuhn eventually does a sequel to this; but, if she doesn't, it's still one book that will stay in my collection.

RATING:  10 bowls of Lucky Charms (without the purple marshmallows) out of 10 for giving readers a book that has it all - super-heroics, adventure, sci-fi, romance, mystery, and demon-possessed cupcakes, statues, and movie screens!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire - Volume 05

It doesn't matter whether it's book or video game or film or comic - when it comes to Resident Evil, there's always a great story that ends with a bang! And this final installment of the Manga series, The Marhawa Desire, is certainly no exception. Writer and artist Naoki Serizawa has done a truly outstanding job with this five-book series, and although it took a bit for me to get use to the right to left reading (honestly, still not fully adept with it - have to keep reminding myself as I look at each page to start on the right top and work my way left, then down), the story enthralled me so much that it did not affect my enjoyment at all.

This last volume picks up right where the previous one left off - the hooded woman kneeling over Ricky, getting ready to inject him with deadly T-virus. Then, out of nowhere, Nanan appears, knocking the hooded woman away, thereby saving Ricky's life. And that's when the fun begins...

Serizawa does something that few comic artists these days are able to do - tell a thoroughly engaging story more through the art than the actual dialogue!  It seems many comic artists today are very adept at splash pages, pin-ups and poses - but actually telling a story through only the images, so much so that the reader gets more than just the picture out of the scene, that is not an easy thing to do. Yet, Serizawa does it with apparent ease, as this final chapter of The Marhawa Desire is told more through action, expression, and visuals than through the dialogue or thoughts of the characters. In fact, I don't even think I realized there was so little dialogue until I was nearly half-way finished reading the book!

Storywise, Serizawa kept the surprises coming. Nanan's sudden appearance and saving Ricky gave me hope that perhaps her human side was coming back in control - but alas, that didn't last very long. And the last minute saves, the bloody battle as the small group of survivors try to escape by helicopter, the revenge of Bindi, the shocking revelation of the identity of the hooded woman (and trust me, you'll never see this one coming!) - and that one saddening death of one of the survivors. This one has everything. And it even has an epilogue that sets up the Resident Evil 6 video game (which, I've never played, let alone even seen it). But the epilogue does allow readers to see what happened to the three survivors after they escaped the horrors of Marhawa Academy.

Now that I've finished this series, there's a part of me that wishes they would turn this into an animated film - the story has so many cinematic aspects to it - characterization, action, a tiny bit of romance - I know I would buy it!

RATING:  10 swarms of infected students out of 10 for providing a more than satisfying conclusion to yet another great Resident Evil story!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Creepella von Cacklefur No. 3 - Ghost Pirate Treasure

The mystery and the horror return (for all ages, of course) in the third Creepella von Cacklefur novel for early readers, Ghost Pirate Treasure. Someone is lurking around Squeakspeare Mansion at night. There are holes all throughout the yard! Legend has it, there is a treasure hidden somewhere on the property - and quite possibly, the ghost of the pirate who buried it there might be coming to take it back!

If it sounds like the making of a great Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew adventure, that's because this mystery actually has some of the elements that made those mystery series so popular. Sure, it is written with very simple sentences and easy to read and understand words, but the mystery is still there, as is the plotting, the clues, the red herrings, and, of course, the "scares." The real author is not identified - the copyright page merely reveals that the series is translated from its original Italian manuscript, with illustrations provided by Ivan Bigarella (pencils and inks) and Giulia Zaffaroni (color). That's just one more way this series is similar to the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and countless other children's mysteries, who never reveal the actual author of the books (instead, utilizing a pseudonym as the series' author).

In Ghost Pirate Treasure, Creepella's friend, Billy Squeakspeare finds that someone is vandalizing the grounds of his estate by digging hundreds of holes. While Creepella is getting ready for the upcoming Melancholy Grand Ball, she takes time out to help her friend solve this mystery. They head up to Shivery Arts Academy, where they discover that not only did that ol' pirate, Morgan Blackwhiskers, leave a treasure somewhere on, in, or around Squeakspeare Mansion, but he was also known to forget where he hid things! This leaves it up to Creepella, her niece Shivereen, and Billy to figure out who is looking for the treasure and find it before they do!

It is rather fun to watch Creepella and her friends search out clues and follow the path they lead to find not only the identity of the thieving vandals, but also the treasure itself!  And, in true Nancy Drew fashion, when the treasure is found, Creepella convinces Billy to donate it to the school rather than keep it for himself.

Yes, I will admit, this series is a guilty pleasure - it's definitely way beneath my reading level (maturity level?  hmmm, that's another story), but they are fun, quick reads that bring a smile to my face when I read them - and isn't that what reading is all about - an enjoyable escape, even if only for a few minutes?

RATING:  7 monstrously moldy cheeses out of 10 for keeping the mysteries fun and simple, yet thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The First Veronica Speedwell Mystery - A Curious Beginning

A Curious Beginning, indeed!  I am not familiar with the author, Deanna Raybourn, at all, but this book had such great reviews, and - well, let's face it - I'm a sucker for a mystery series with a strong female protagonist. And, it seems lately, I'm also becoming a fan of female detective stories set in the 19th century - first there was the Lilly Long series, then the Change of Fortune series, and now the Veronica Speedwell series.  So long as these authors provide such enjoyable reads like this, I'll continue to be a fan!

From the very first chapter, it was clear that I was going to absolutely love Veronica Speedwell - not just the book itself, but the character.  Raybourn provides readers with a very outspoken, blunt, and undeterred young lady who is set upon making her own destiny and will not allow anyone to try and change it.  This becomes quickly apparent in just the first eight pages when Veronica must confront the unwelcome plans of the vicar's wife.
"Oh no, Mrs. Clutterthorpe.  I never mean to shock anyone.  It simply happens.  I have a dreadful habit of speaking my mind, and it isn't one I look to curb..." (p. 7)
And that one simply quote pretty much sums up Veronica's nature.  Of course, considering the fact that just as she loses her last aunt, the only caretaker she had left, she finds her home ransacked, she is nearly kidnapped, she is whisked off to London by a man she doesn't know, she is thrust into the care of an ill-tempered historian, and she suddenly finds herself the target of person or persons unknown, that rather impudent disposition of hers definitely serves her needs time and time again.

Raybourn spins a really intriguing mystery of who killed the Baron Maximilian von Stauffenbach (you gotta love these character names in the book!), why did they kill him, how does it connect to Veronica and her past, and why, oh why, do they now want to kill Veronica?  It seems it is up to Veronica and her new comrade-in-arms, Stoker (a/k/a Revelstoke Templeton-Vane) to figure it all out before it's too late.  But, they find themselves on the run, hiding out in the most unlikely of places (including a traveling oddities show of which Stroker used to be involved).  While both Veronica and Stoker's pasts are shrouded in mystery, as the story progresses, Raybourn reveals bits and pieces.  And the budding friendship (possibly more?) between Veronica and Stoker definitely provides plenty of tension throughout the tale, as they never know whether to scream at each other or take the other in his or her arms.

The ultimate resolution of this mystery is just a bit of a stretch, but it does make sense in a very fictional sort of way.  And Raybourn is careful not to reveal all of her characters' secrets, leaving her readers wanting for more (which I am sure will come in future books - A Perilous Undertaking is already out in hardback, but my cheap self will wait for the paperback to hit the shelves).  This book is clear evidence of why Raybourn is a New York Times bestselling author.  The story is perfectly paced, with plenty of action and characterization to pull readers in and keep them engaged in the story, and the mystery is well plotted, with clues scattered throughout if you know how to recognize them (plus, knowing a bit of history helps, since the author manages to utilize some real historical facts mixed in with her fiction).

A Curious Beginning is just that - a beginning!  I anxiously await to see where Veronica and Stoker will go next!

RATING:  10 butterfly nets out of 10 for proving that even in the 19th century, a woman can be intelligent, independent, and utterly incorrigible - and still be enjoyable to read!

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 7 - The Mystery Across the Secret Bridge

The Briar twins continue their journey around the world, and as fate would have it, they find another mystery when their parents bring them to Peru.  Author Harper Paris leads Ethan and Ella (and readers) on a journey through the salt mines of Maras, the natural hot springs of Aguas Calientes, and into the mountains at Machu Picchu.  As with their previous adventures, the twins receive a cryptic e-mail from their grandfather, who provides them with clues to another mystery to solve.

The Mystery Across the Secret Bridge provides young readers with not one, but two pretty simple, but fun, mysteries to solve.  The larger mystery involves something that is connected to a snake, a bird, and another animal that required a rope for the twins' grandfather to reach.  Armed with such few hints, the twins are unsure exactly what they are searching for when they reach the Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu.  At the same time, the twins and their parents meet another family on the trip, and their young son loses his stuffed snake somewhere in the Temple.  Needless to say, it's Ethan and Ella to the rescue.

These books are certainly aimed for the early readers, what with the large font, the 100 page count, and the numerous illustrations.  And while it may only take an older reader such as myself less than half an hour to read it, that's not to say it's not a good read.  As with the prior books in the series, Paris provides readers with some knowledge about the customs and lives of the people in Peru, as well as some of the history of the country. She provides a few key words and phrases from the language, and does so in a manner that comes naturally - it flows as a part of the story, rather than beating the reader over the head with "Hey, I'm trying to teach you something here."

While not all of the books have real mysteries in them, those books in this series that do are a great way to get early readers who enjoy mysteries to start reading.  This would be what I would call a stepping stone to the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, which, let's face it, every kid at some point reads.

RATING:  7 baby alpacas out of 10 for making reading fun and providing an easy to read story that is engaging and educational at the same time!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

DASH - The Case of the Mysterious Zita Makara

It's not often (if at all) that I will review an ongoing comic series, mainly because I would have to keep coming back over and over to review the various stories throughout the series.  However, after reading the first four issues of DASH by writer Dave Ebersole and artist Delia Gable, well, I couldn't let it go by without saying something.

Dashell Malone - - or "Dash" as he's known to his friends - - is a small-time detective in the big city of Los Angeles back in the days when femme fatales were as deadly as they were beautiful, cops were none too keen on private dicks, and the mysteries always involved someone dying.  And from the moment the mysterious Zita Makara steps into Dash's office (which, coincidentally, is were our story begins), the reader knows she is going to be at the heart of this mystery.

Ebersole sets the stage for a great noir tale as Zita begs for Dash's help in obtaining a package for her.  He decides to think it over before making up his mind on whether to help her - a decision that turns out to be very costly!  It isn't until nearly half-way through the first issue that readers find out Dash is actually gay - meeting his male lover on the sly, since being gay was not tolerated in the time the story is set.  However, all his worlds come crashing together by the end of the first issue when Dash discovers his lover dead, yet another victim of the strange deaths occurring in Los Angeles recently - and finds the earring of the mysterious Zita Makara at the scene of the crime!

Thus begins Dash's investigation into the femme fatale that cost him the man he loved.  Only, finding her won't be as easy as he thought.  And not everyone he meets is who they appear to be.  And sometimes, the most unusual of all explanations could quite possibly be the truth - after all, the truth is stranger than fiction, isn't it?

The characters in this comic are diverse and very believable.  Dash, himself, is strong, self-reliant, yet sensitive and caring.  He has a great relationship with his secretary, Cindy Crenshaw, who, quite frankly, may be my favorite character in the series.  She is sarcastic, playful, yet 100% loyal to her boss, and the banter that occurs between her and her boss is pretty much the same way me and my boss communicate! Then there's Officer Sal McGillicutty, Dash's only friend left on the police force.  He has sympathy for Dash's plight and maintains his friendship with him, despite the rest of the force viewing Dash as a degenerate. Such as Detective Bruno Fernez, who is a bigoted, hateful cop who would like nothing better than to see Dash rot in a prison cell for no other reason than the fact that he is gay.  (Issue 2 has a very dramatic scene with Dash and the homophobic Detective Fernez, where we discover that while the force may not like Dash because he is gay, they have Fernez even more simply because he's a total @$$#*!%.)

In these first four issues, we not only get the set up for a unique mystery involving a centuries old mummy, a descendant from Egyptian royalty, and a dark power being used to revive a long forgotten son, but we also get an opportunity to see Dash face the fact that his lover was not exactly on the up and up with him and was hiding secrets that not only cost him his life, but may ultimately be the only thing that can prevent any more murders.

Ebersole knows how to provide the perfect issue breaks, ending each chapter (issue) with a great cliffhanger (like the old serials from yester-year) that leaves you desperately wanting for more.  The plot is face paced, yet not so fast as to not allow us to get to know each character (even some minor ones who are clearly going to play a much bigger role in the overall story).  Ebersole has the noir feel down just right, with Dash narrating the story like in the old black and white films.  The only drawback I can see at all from this series is the fact that after reading the first four issues together like this, I'm going to have to wait for who knows how long before issue 5 and future issues come out!

Oh, and did I mention that even though this is a comic / mystery series with a gay protagonist, there is absolutely no gratuitous sex / nudity?  I am so impressed and so thankful that Ebersole did not stoop to the level that most authors seem to find necessary with gay fiction to see his work.  Do Dash and Plink kiss?  Yes, of course they do, they love each other.  Do they end up in bed together?  In the first issue, yes, they do - but the reader only sees the after glow, with Dash and Plink waking up the next morning, fully covered.  It provides the same, if not better, affect for the reader, in that we see the characters actually have feelings for one another, and it's not just an act of animal lust used to titillate the reader for a few moments.  So, thank you, Ebersole, for proving that gay fiction can be great and enjoyable without the explicit sex.

RATING:  10 tail-eating snake necklaces out of 10 for a great detective tale combining the noir and supernatural genres seamlessly with great characters and even greater storytelling!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Samantha Wolf Mysteries, Book One - The Mystery of Hollow Inn

A haunted inn.  A missing treasure.  A hidden inheritance.  A lost will.  All of these things have the making of a great Nancy Drew mystery (isn't it funny how all children's mysteries all seem to compare themselves to the one great teen detective?).  Only, this isn't a Nancy Drew book.  Rather, these are all the elements of the very first Samantha Wolf mystery, The Mystery of Hollow Inn.

Author Tara Ellis definitely starts this series off right! This first book in the Samantha Wolf Mysteries series is well-written with a superb plot and a spunky protagonist.  Samantha Wolf is an inquisitive twelve-year old who, when she finds out there is trouble at her uncle and aunt's new inn, is determined to get to the bottom of things.  As with any good detective, Sam has her trusty sidekick, Alyson Parker (a/k/a Ally).  While Sam is always ready to jump into the middle of things and never backs down from a challenge, Ally is a bit more timid and more ready to turn things over to the adults rather than try to do it herself.  But, like Bess and George are to Nancy Drew, so is Ally to Samantha Wolf - a loyal friend who overcomes her fears to help her solve the mystery.

While I am not a huge fan of this trend in children's mysteries to make the protagonists so young, the fact that Sam and Ally are twelve years old doesn't really bother me so much in this book.  The girls are visiting Sam's aunt and uncle in their recently renovated inn up in the mountains of Montana.  Upon arriving, however, they discover that the inn may be haunted!  Guests have heard strange noises, have seen shadowy presences, and there has been inexplicable vandalism to the inn and some of the guests belongings.  Sam and Ally soon discover that these events could possibly be related to the inn's builder, one Shawn Hollow, who built the mansion for his wife.  Unfortunately, she died while giving birth to their fourth son, and thereafter, Hollow always blamed his son for his wife's death.  Legend has it that Hollow had a fortune in gold that he hid somewhere on the estate, and even after his death, none of his sons were able to locate it.

Sam and Ally, who don't believe in ghosts, quickly figure out that it's no ghost that's haunting the inn.  Someone is looking for that gold, and the girls are determined to find it first.  They face plenty of dangers - from a capsized canoe, to a rattlesnake in an abandoned mine, to being held at gunpoint - but no matter what they face, they never give up their search.  An old poem written by Hollow himself provides them with an all-important clue that could lead them to the treasure that just might save the inn.

The characters are all believable, and while there are too few characters to be suspects, the mystery is less about "whodunnit" and more about "where's the treasure."  At 141 pages, the book is an easy read, and it flows nicely and at a relatively good pace.  Ellis provides her readers with some great descriptions, but does not allow it to bog down the story.  She expertly lays the groundwork for the mystery, and all the clues are there if you know where to look for them.

The one distracting point of the book was the fact that it was written in present tense rather than the standard past tense.  I'm curious if that is becoming the new writing style, as Linda Joy Singleton uses the same tense in her Curious Cat Spy Club series, and each time I get a new book in that series, it takes me a bit to become accustomed to the tense.  Otherwise, I didn't really have any complaints about this book at all.  A very satisfying read and a fantastic first book for a series.

The cover art is definitely spooky and mysterious, with Sam and Ally outside of Hollow Inn at night, surrounded by the dark woods.  It is a wrap-around cover art that spills over onto the spine and around onto the back cover.

All in all, a definite recommendation for those who enjoy reading young adult and children mystery series.  Looking forward to the next book in the series!

RATING:  9 bronze bird baths out of 10 for taking children's mysteries back to their roots with haunted mansions, secret passages, and clues in cryptic poems!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Psychic Detective Mysteries, Volume 1 - Shadow's Edge

I love the concept of psychic detectives.  Author Kay Hooper has created a truly engaging world with her Special Crimes Unit and Bishop series of novels, and I honestly didn't think anyone could measure up to her storytelling abilities.

Then I stumbled across the first psychic detective novel by S.C. Wynne.  I came across the book while browsing, and when I read the premise, I figured I would give it a shot.

Liam Baker can see things.  Dead people like to visit him and tell him how they were wronged.  Some might call it a gift, others a curse.  But either way, this ability makes him useful to Los Angeles homicide detective, Kimball Thompson. Some madman is slitting the throats of young male prostitutes and then dumping their bodies in the desert with vague clues of pink feathers and the number five.  Usually Liam can talk to the spirits of the dead.  But someone is blocking him.  Someone is taunting him.

When I received the book, I realized it was self-published, so I was a bit concerned.  While self-published authors can certain be good, I knew this was a murder mystery with gay protagonists, so I held my breath when I opened the book, figuring it would be 90% gratuitous sex and 10% actual mystery.  Thankfully, Wynne proved me wrong.

The story opens with Baker waking up to the images of a dead male prostitute - one that is calling out to him for help.  Readers immediately learn that Baker is still dealing with the loss of his lover, William, who had been killed on the job nine months earlier.  William's partner, Detective Thompson, utilized Baker's psychic abilities to help him solve cases.  Only this time, they don't seem to be doing the job.

Wynne writes a very well-crafted mystery that surprised me at several turns - there is definitely nothing predictable about this story (well, except for the fact that Baker and Thompson are going to get together).  The murders are violent, the clues are vague, but the connections are there.  The only problem is, by the time Baker realizes it, it may be too late for him!  It seems the killer is a psychic as well - - one who is much more powerful than Baker, and one who can not only block Baker from talking to the deceased, but who can reach out with his mind and psychically attack him!  As the body count grows, time is running out until Thompson and Baker realize that Baker is next on the list.

The characters are engaging, and the revelations of the characters' back stories are not forced, but simply littered throughout the tale in natural ways.  By the end of the book, the reader feels like they know both Baker and Thompson pretty well (although there is certainly more to learn).

The only drawback to the book was that while, yes, the focus is the mystery and that does take up 90% or so of the book, Wynne does throw in some sex scenes.  They are not gratuitous, as they fit into the natural flow of the story and the men's budding relationship - however, they are overly graphic and unnecessarily so.  They could have been told in a more subtle way and still had the same, romantic impact.  I suppose Wynne has fallen into the same belief as many authors of gay mysteries do - you can't write a story for a male gay audience without throwing in graphic sex scenes.  That simply isn't true, and I really wish these authors would realize that!

Other than that, the book was a really great read, and I'm hoping Wynne comes back with a second volume to this series (it is advertised and sold as a series, so here's hoping that's the case!).

RATING:  7 little blue parakeets out of 10 for giving me a new psychic detective series to enjoy and hitting the mark right from the first page!

Monday, March 27, 2017

Flagler's Few, Volume 3 - The Vampirate of Matanzas Inlet

Matanzas Inlet is a small channel just south of St. Augustine, Florida.  It is named Matanzas (the Spanish word for "slaughters") due to the massacre that occurred back in the late 1500s when the Spanish came in and murdered over 200 French Huguenots.

It also plays an important setting in Andre R. Frattino's latest Flagler's Few graphic novel, The Vampirate of Matanzas Inlet.

As with Frattino's prior books, this story is fiction mixed with a good dose of non-fictional history.  Told between flashbacks and present day events, the story focuses on Roger and his ancestor, the famed pirate Captain Rogerick Blimes.  Centuries ago, Captain Blimes defeated the evil "Mad Eyes" Gaunt and captured his demon-possessed soul in a skull, which he later hid somewhere around St. Augustine, Florida.  Obviously, that very skull plays a very important part in events occurring in the present.  With the Flagler's Few two members down, Roger feels as if he has been betrayed by all of his friends - until he runs into a friend from his past (quite literally), who reminds him what loyalty is and what fun living a "pirate" life can be.  Raven and the Professor are worried about Roger, but he doesn't see it that way.

Now, you may be asking - what about that "vampirate" referenced in the title to the story? Well, that's another little subplot being told throughout this story. It seems Captain Blimes, in exchange for help in defeating Gaunt, agreed to assist a pregnant woman escape capture - but he was never able to rescue her, as she died giving birth during their escape.  He took the child with him - a child that just so happened to be born cursed as a vampire!  Raised on a pirate's ship (raised as a boy, mind you), Maddie grew up with indebted to Captain Blimes, and ultimately, to his descendants.  Which, of course, brings us to the present, where a young vampire girl (or rather, young in appearance) seems to be protecting Roger at every turn.

Frattino weaves another fun tale with banshees, vampires, possession, and good ol' pirate excitement. It's not only a tale of treasure hunting and high-seas pirating, but it's also a tale of friendship, loyalty, and well - the return of a member of the group thought gone (and his return brings with it some great geek-out references!).  The art, by Frattino, with Effie Rodriguez on inks, isn't quite as refined as the previous two books.  The characters' looks are not always consistent, and some of the panels seem a bit rushed.  However, none of that detracts from the story, and overall, the book was a great read (with a really good payoff at the end).

Don't see any word yet on a fourth graphic novel, so I guess I'll have to wait until I see Frattino at another comic convention and ask him then...

RATING:  8 witchy telepathic things out of 10 for taking the real history and locations of Florida and mixing them up with some great supernatural tales!

Friday, March 24, 2017

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 14 - Attack of the Bayport Beast

The idea of "Sasquatch," or "Big Foot," has always been a myth that is ripe for storytelling.  Take a quick look on Amazon, and you'll see plenty of books that use this creature as a premise for their stories.  Trixie Belden did it years ago with The Sasquatch Mystery, and now the Hardy Boys are following her lead with Attack of the Bayport Beast.

Now, I realize that these are children's mysteries, so I can't expect there to be underlying build-ups to these mysteries, but it would have made for a much better story if every once in a while during the past 13-books in this series, there had been a mention or a hint that there was some "creature" out in the woods surrounding Bayport.  That would have made this story a much bigger impact on the overall mythos of the Hardy Boys and their world.  But, alas, that would be asking too much from Simon & Schuster, who seem to spend very little attention to the quality of their Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books these days.  Which is a shame, because the premise for this mystery was actually a pretty good one.

The books opens with Frank and Joe at a sci-fi / cryptozoology convention.  What surprised me most about this opening chapter are the number of pop-culture references (as the books usually stray away from citing any real characters, films, etc.).  On the first page alone, the author mentions Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, Darth Vader, and a Jedi Knight.  From there, it expands to Wolverine, Batman, Robocop, Stormtrooper, Klingons, Star Trek, and even Doctor Who.  Unfortunately, we only get 8-pages of the convention (unlike the HBUB book, Comic Con Artist, which was entirely set at a comic convention) - after that, the book focuses on its main mystery - the mysterious and elusive Bayport Beast!

It's obvious from the get-go that the stranger with spiked hair that Frank sees at the convention and then Joe later sees at the comic shop will play an important part in the mystery.  It's equally clear that the brothers' friend, Benny (whatever happened to Chet Morton?), who is a Bigfoot fanatic, will also figure largely in the mystery.  Benny is a full-time believer in the Bayport Beast.  Joe is pretty open-minded about it.  Frank, on the other hand, is a skeptic, always looking for the logical explanation in everything.  Until he sees something in the woods.  Something he can't explain.  And that's when the real mystery begins.

The remainder of the book finds the books investigating the alleged sightings of the Bayport Beast in the forest around Bayport.  Their first big discovery comes as no big surprise to readers (unless you've never read a Hardy Boys book in your life). And the identity of the culprit is really not much of a surprise either.  The actual mystery behind the sightings of the beast, as well as the reason for the "beast" being in the forest is rather interesting and a unique take on these type of tales.  I applaud the author on coming up with a creative way to have "bigfoot" in the forest - and I also love that there is one small question that lingers in the back of Frank's mind at the end of this mystery (rather like the unresolved ghost issue in Nancy Drew's The Kachina Doll Mystery).

Another interesting tidbit was on page 37, when the author actually references a previous book, Deception on the Set, some 7 books prior.  While it is not mentioned by name, it is described as the boys think back to their detective work on the set of the zombie movie that was filmed in Bayport.

A relatively good story, this book suffers from the same problem all of the books in this new Hardy Boys Adventures series have - the way-too limited page count.  At 106 pages, this book is only a few more pages than the early-readers Hardy Boys Clue Book series!  The Nancy Drew Diaries series has been increasing the page count to somewhere 180 or more in many cases, so it's a shame they aren't providing the same page count for the Hardy Boys.  Of course, with the series now decreasing to 2 books a year instead of 3, it may not be around much longer (is this a sign that another reboot is coming?)

RATING:  7 game-changing game cameras out of 10 for keeping the story of bigfoot fresh without using any stale, overused ideas.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl - Her First Prose Novel! Squirrel Meets World!

One of Marvel's most enjoyable and fun comic characters is now starring in her very first prose novel!  That's right, Doreen Green, better known in the Marvel Universe as the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, now has her very own young adult book! I remember seeing this in Previews magazine some months ago, but quite honestly, forgot all about it until I happened to come across the books at Barnes and Noble recently.  I absolutely love the comic series (the writing, I should specify - the art is way too cartoonish and the artist makes all the characters, including Squirrel Girl, look way too mannish for my taste) - it's one of the few comics on the market today that is simply good ol', down home fun!

Well, authors Shannon Hale and Dean Hale certainly know their Squirrel Girl, as the book read just like the comic - a fun, outrageous story filled with human conflict, friendship, selfless sacrifice, and plenty of squirrels!  Squirrel Meets World basically gives readers the opportunity to see what it was like when Doreen Green first came to terms with the fact that her tail and her above-average strength, speed, and reflexes could be used for the greater good.  She could be a super hero - - like the Avengers!  And just like the comics, there are footnotes throughout the book, as Doreen comments on everything that's going on (including her own actions and dialogue!).

The Hales begin the story with Doreen having just moved from California to New Jersey, so the reader knows right away this is going to be a fish out of water story as Doreen must adjust to an entirely new world, a new school, and a new group of squirrels.  Her parents are insistent she hide her tail, as "everyone would be sad that they don't have a tail, and we don't want to make all the other kids sad, do we?"  Doreen, ever the optimist (and also always gullible) heads to her new school with her tail tucked between her legs (literally!), intent on making new friends.  But making new friends in this school isn't easy, and soon Doreen begins to think that maybe she's doomed to be alone - particularly when even the squirrels don't want anything to do with her.

It isn't long, however, before Doreen finds herself righting the wrongs that a group of vandals are doing throughout the neighborhood - and while she never expected anyone to see her, they do!  Suddenly, she becomes the talk of the town!  Only, not as Squirrel Girl (that name her inner voice gives her as she narrates her days), but rather, as the Jersey Ghost!  Although her parents do not want her out putting herself in danger, her newfound friend (Ana Sofia) begins to come out of her own shell and encourages Doreen to take action.  And the more she does, the more Doreen begins to realize that she could be the super hero she's always dreamed of being - particularly after she rescues a squirrel from a trap and they refer to her as Squirrel Girl (hey!  that's the name she's been calling herself inside - maybe it's fate?).

The thrill of it all!  The excitement!  Doreen ... er, I mean Squirrel Girl ... enjoys it all, believing she is doing good in the world!  Until her antics are posted via videos on the internet.  Until someone begins to question whether her actions are really good, or if she is wreaking havoc in the community?  Suddenly, all of her good deeds are being twisted into the crazed antics of a super villain!  But who would think that?  And why would they convince others of that?  Well, it seems that someone has targeted Squirrel Girl - could it be?  Does that mean?  Why, yes, it does!  Squirrel Girl finds herself facing her very own arch-nemesis!

With guest appearances (via text) of Black Widow, Iron Man, Winter Soldier, She-Hulk, and Rocket Raccoon, Squirrel Meets World is a rambunctious romp through Squirrel Girl's mind, as well as that of her friends (since we also get chapters narrated by Tippy-Toe and her new friend, Ana Sofia).  Readers and fans of the character will thoroughly enjoy this comic-like tale - my only hope is that Shannon and Dean Hale will bring us more tales (or is that tails?) of Squirrel Girl!

RATING:   10 over-protective robot parents out of 10 for a good, clean, fun story about a fun-loving and always-optimistic super hero!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Second Lucius Fogg Novel - Malicious Intent

Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here!

Jimmy Doyle and his cohorts are back for another round of noir supernatural mystery in Dan Wickline's second Lucius Fogg novel, Malicious Intent.  Ernie, Ryan, Patches, Emma, and of course, "Sea Bass" are all back for more 1950s action as the lines between the real world and the supernatural world are blurred by the sudden appearance of Kieran Drake, an old nemesis of Lucius Fogg.

Wickline provides another winner of a mystery, this time surrounding Fogg and his as of yet undisclosed past.  We find out exactly why it is that Lucius Fogg has not left his house in 65 years and why he will never be able to leave it.  We find out that he did, at one time, have a love interest (of sorts).  We find out that Ariel was not the first caretaker that Fogg had in his house.  We find out that Fogg has some secrets that are too powerful for anyone to know ... secrets hidden in his house ... a house that harbors some very unique, very strange, and very other dimensional aspects (such as a random room that can appear anywhere in the house; a room that is a warehouse larger than some on the waterfront; and more rooms and halls that can possibly fit inside of a house that size - think TARDIS, for those Doctor Who fans out there).

Doyle is written in his typical stubborn, out to help the underdog self, as he ignores his boss' directions at times to do what he knows to be right.  It gets him bit by a vampire, attacked by a powerful sorcerer, and it ultimately leads to some very meaningful and very saddening losses in his life (I won't spoil it by saying what happens to whom, but I will say that the losses are definitely game-changing events for Doyle and his life).  I must say, I was surprised by these events, and it takes a confident writer to make such drastic changes to his main character's life - but I will say, it definitely keeps things interesting and provides a warning - nothing and no one is safe in the Lucius Fogg universe!

An interesting tidbit was that when Doyle and Sea Bass went to the newspaper to follow up on a potential clue, a couple of names of the reporters stuck out to me - "Batson" and "Kirby."  Batson, for comic fans was the last name of Billy Batson, a/k/a Shazam!  And Kirby, well, I think anyone who's ever read comics knows about the "King," who created the Newsboy Legion back in the day.  Not sure if it was Wickline's intention to have those recognizable names or pure coincidence, but I personally would like to think it was a nice nod to them.

The one problem I did have with this book was with the actual printing of the book itself, not with the plot or actual writing.  I was reading along and as I finished chapter 26 and started chapter 27, I noticed that the 27 opened exactly the same way that 26 opened.  And the more I read, the more I thought to myself, "Didn't this just happen?"  So I went back and started comparing the paragraphs and pages of chapter 26 with chapter 27 and discovered they were exactly identical!   So I went on to read chapter 28, but immediately realized there was a jump here - meaning that somehow my copy of Malicious Intent did not have a proper chapter 27 - so whatever material was meant to be there, I did not get - instead, I simply go a repeat of chapter 26 and completely missed out on the real chapter 27 (which I'm guessing, based on later chapters, that chapter 27 gave the inside scoop on what the first gem held....).

However, that one flub did not take away from my thorough enjoyment of the story, and I am definitely looking forward to reading the third (but hopefully not the last!) book in this series.

8 seductive sirens out of 10 for having the guts to tell a great story with love, loss, vampires, werewolves, sorcerers, and a gumshoe detective willing to sacrifice everything to do what's right!

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love - a 3-Issue Deluxe Comic Book Series

The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love was a gothic horror series published by DC Comics in the early 1970s (with the fifth issue, the title changed to Forbidden Tales of Dark Mansion, and it's format changed from gothic tales of suspense to tales of horror and terror, with a host by the name of Charity coming into it with issue seven).  After only fifteen issues, however, it was cancelled in 1974, thought never to be seen again.

The series' host, Charity, did appear in James Robinson's Starman series from DC Comics, but that "Dark Mansion" did not return.

Until now...

Whether it was simply to retain the copyright to the title or whether DC actually believed comic readers might enjoy a bit of gothic suspense again, who knows.  All I know is DC definitely tickled my fancy with the three-issue mini-series, Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love.  The covers alone were enough to draw me in, hearkening back to the days of those gothic novels from the '60s and '70s.  But the story - WOW!  A young woman is brought to this mansion by her fiance, who needs to the time and seclusion to write his book.  The funny thing is, Berenice begins to see ghosts - including Boston Brand, better known in the DC Universe as Deadman.  But the ghost that haunts this mansion is after something.  Deadman tries to help the ghost, but her intentions are unclear, and he soon realizes he has to help the living residents of the house before they become victims of the ghost.

In true gothic fashion, Berenice feels an undercurrent at the mansion.  Something is off about her fiance, Nathan, but she can't put her finger on it.  Her good friend, Sam, is ready to stand at her side, but his attentions only make Nathan jealous.  Meanwhile, Berenice joins forces with Boston Brand to determine what the ghost that haunts the mansion really wants - is she a victim or is she hell-bent on revenge?  As the nights grow longer, the terror rises until Berenice stumbles upon the truth - one that puts her very life in danger and reveals a dark truth about the man she loves, the house she is in, and the ghost that could destroy it all!

Author Sarah Vaughn weaves a wonderfully gothic tale of twisted and tainted love, ghostly hauntings, and a surprising twist that makes you realize nothing was ever as it seemed throughout the story.  And while I was initially a bit leery of having Deadman thrown into the mix when I first heard about this story, any fear I had was quickly laid aside once I read the book.  Good ol' Boston Brand was seamlessly woven into the tale in such a way that it simply would not have been as good without him.  Lan Medina's art is drop-dead gorgeous (no pun intended) - definitely the perfect choice for this chilling tale.  Just look at the covers of the first two issues if you have any doubt.

It's truly a shame that this was only a three book mini-series.  I would absolutely love to see more tales told in this vein. Surely there has to be a fan base of gothic-tale-loving fans out there that would support on ongoing book such as this (or at the minimum, a couple of mini-series each year).  With all of the supernatural and demonic possession movies that seem to be populating the movie theaters these days, some ghostly tales such as this are bound to hit it big right now!

The Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is one place you definitely want to visit!  I would recommend this even to readers who aren't necessarily fans of comic books - the story is worthy of the gothic stories of old!

RATING:  10 failed binding spells out of 10 for a truly spooky tale of suspense that leaves the reader longing for more!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Finishing School, Book the Fourth - Manners & Mutiny

The girls of Mademoiselle Geraldine's floating finishing school have reached their final year of lessons, and what a year it is!

Having survived tech week for the play I was directing, I finally have the chance to settle down and read some more, and this is one I've been waiting to read.  It's bittersweet, as it is the last in the series, so it's hard to pick it up knowing once I finish it, there won't be any more - yet, at the same time, I couldn't wait to pick it up, because I wanted to see how everything would reach a conclusion.  Author Gail Carriger certainly did not disappoint!

Sophronia and her friends, Dimity and Agatha, are back in school, but the changes are obvious.  Their fourth conspirator, Sighead, has left the school to pursue a future in her clan back in Scotland.  And Soap - - the young sootie who seems to always be in Sophronia's heart and mind - - is now living as a werewolf after having nearly died at the end of the last book.  But there is no time for wistful thoughts or heart-felt longings in Manners & Mutiny, for there is a New Year's ball to attend!  The school is all aflutter over the fact that they will be mixing it up with the boys from Bunson and Lacroix's Polytechnique.  Only, this once a year event turns into a catalyst that leads Sophronia and her friends on their final confrontation with the ever-increasing threat of the Picklemen.

The action in this novel builds slowly, with the first third of the book focused more on reminding readers that you can't always trust everyone, and that those you thought you can't trust might not be everything they seem.  It's not until the Picklemen's ultimate plan is revealed (SPOILER - they intend to take over the dirigible that hosts Mademoiselle Geraldine's school!) that the action intensifies.  Sophronia and her friends must part ways in order to effectively stop the machinations of this evil group, who are hell-bent on overtaking the government and using the mechanicals to do it.  How the finishing school fits into that plan is something else entirely, and Sophronia finds herself on a lone wolf mission to stop them before it's too late!

While Soap does not appear much in the book, fans of this lovable character will be pleased with the ultimate outcome of his storyline.  Sophronia's nemesis, Monique, returns as well, although not quite as expected.  In fact, there are several characters who will surprise readers in this finale, and while it may be somewhat cheesy, I absolutely loved the ending - it was everything I could have hoped for in this series and wrapped up the loose ends, while leaving room for more stories if Carriger ever decides to return to tell more.

I may not be a huge steampunk fan, I can honestly say that this series gave me something to think about when it comes to that genre.  Would definitely recommend this series for anyone who enjoys the supernatural or steampunk or a bit of espionage games (or all three!).

RATING:  8 exploding chickens out of 10 for finishing these girls off in style!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fear the Dark - a Bishop / Special Crimes Unit Novel

I can always tell when I'm really, truly, utterly enjoying a book, and that's when I start reading it and literally cannot put it down.  No matter how late I have to stay up, now matter how many times I have horns honked at me because I am reading at a red light and don't notice it turn green, no matter how many times I go over my hour for lunch at work - I just cannot put it down!  And that has been the case with pretty much all of author Kay Hooper's books, and her latest paperback, Fear the Dark, is certainly no exception.

Hooper, in her Bishop/Special Crimes Unit series, has created such an engaging group of characters, who come to life and jump off each and every page as if they were actually here in front of me.  And while Noah Bishop and his wife, Miranda, who head up the organization, certainly have my attention, it is all of the agents who work under them and the various people they meet in the small communities throughout the southeast on their adventures who really bring the stories to life.  And while, yes, the series does deal with an organization of government sanctions psychics who hunt down and capture and/or kill psychic villains of pure evil, Hooper manages to keep the tales grounded in reality and does not allow the psychic powers go beyond what what might deem the "realm of reality."

In Fear the Dark, two new agents (Dante and Robbie) tag along with two seasoned agents (husband and wife team, Lucas and Samantha, who first appeared in Hunting Fear) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of six  apparently unrelated persons in the small Tennessee town of Serenity.  And no, there is no Serenity, Tennessee that I'm aware of (although there are apparently a string of Serenity rehab/treatment centers throughout the state).  In each case, the victims appear to have literally just disappeared - footprints just stop suddenly; video footage show the person, then they don't; and one is seen leaving a crowded theater, but he never appears in the lobby on the other side of the door!  It seems the circumstances are completely without explanation - until the SCU shows up on the scene.

Hooper takes an interesting twist in this story, as the psychic who has kidnapped these individuals has the unique ability to warp memories and convince people they have seen - or have not seen, as the case may be - things that may or may not be real.  At one point, he nearly convinces Robbie that she has killed her new partner, Dante.  Is he mind controlling or is he simply adjusting memories?  This is something the SCU has to determine.  When a cop who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time turns up dead, they realize the kidnapper has upped the game and their time is running out to find the victims.

Only ... one victim isn't quite the victim that the kidnapper supposed.  Despite the utter and complete darkness in which the victims are being held, one victim is just a bit stronger than the rest, and when she escapes his clutches, she could very well provide the key to the puzzle that will help the SCU and local sheriff's office rescue the others.  Or, is that all simply a part of the twisted plan of the kidnapper to extract the ultimate revenge?  With this story, the reader is never quite sure!

The only problem I ever have with the Kay Hooper books is that I love them so much, I can't help but tear through them and read them in just a matter of days - - yet, once I finish them, I'm a bit saddened, as I know it's going to be a another year before I can get the next book to read!

RATING:  10 not-so-safe security systems out of 10 for building suspense, maintaining the mystery, and shocking the daylights out of me with that explosive ending!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

DC Comics Secret Hero Society, Book 2 - Fort Solitude

The adventures of elementary-school age Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, and Diana Prince continue in the second DC Comics Secret Hero Society book, Fort Solitude.  As with the first book, this is not a typical prose novel, nor is it wholly a graphic novel.  Rather, it is a combination of comic book pages, journal entries, "photo" album pages, notes, e-mails, text conversations, and more.  However, despite this form of storytelling, the story and plot flow nicely and it makes for a very easy, fun read.

The second volume of this series finds our trinity of young heroes headed off to Evergreen Adventure Camp (the name should have given me a clue - and no, I'm not talking about Poison Ivy - but I'll admit, even I didn't catch it until the villain was revealed at the end!), where they and tons of other young future heroes and villains hope to have a week of crafts, hiking, competitions, and adventures.  Only, one by one, some of the campers begin to disappear (specifically, those who exhibit any kind of powers that help them win a particular game or tournament).  Bruce is suspicious from the get-go, but eventually Clark and Diana jump on the bandwagon, along with Victor Stone (a/k/a Cyborg) and several other campers who grow concerned that they may be next.  The counselors seems totally unconcerned, even going so far as to make excuses as to why the other campers are missing.

Clark finds a hidden treehouse, where one Lois Lane, a camper from a previous year, had set up a station to keep all her secrets about the camp.  It seems this year is not the first year campers went missing, and Lois was doing everything she could to expose what was going on.  Clark and his friends set up headquarters in this "Fort Solitude" to figure out what's going on.  Using themselves as bait, however, they do ultimately overcome the villainous plan and reveal the true culprit to be a long-time enemy of Superman in the comics (and no, not Lex Luthor, if that's what you are thinking).

The little Secret Hero Society expands with this story, as Barry Allen, Victor Stone, Ollie Queen, and Arthur Curry join the ranks, and their adventures appear to be just beginning...

Derek Fridolis tells a romping fun tale, very worthy of the characters he is writing.  Definitely intended for children, it is not dumbed down in any way, and quite frankly I'd be willing to bet just about any comic book fan would enjoy the story.  Dustin Nguyen provides the art for the cover and the interior, and frankly, it fits perfectly with the storytelling technique.  It's not overly childish (such as the art in certain DC books supposedly aimed at children), but it's not all dark and gloomy like a lot of the mainstream comics.

Fun and easy - exactly what comic and comic-related books should be!  Definitely an A++ read!

RATING:  9 cabin inspections out of 10 for actually making me enjoy stories about Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman as kids!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Devlin Quick Mysteries - Book One, Into the Lion's Den

It appears that perhaps mystery series are starting to make a comeback in the young adult / children's sections.  Wells & Wong mysteries.  The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency mysteries.  the Curious Cat Spy Club mysteries, the mysteries of Maisie Hitchens, Young & Yang mysteries, the Friday Barnes mysteries, the Amanda Lester mysteries, and now ... the Devlin Quick mysteries!

So far, I've been fortunate.  The series that I have picked up have, for the most part, managed to be well-written with great plots and interesting characters.  A couple of friends read this first Devlin Quick mystery before I did and had good things to say about it. So, I went into it with a bit higher hopes than I probably should have.

Into the Lion's Den is not something I would call "off to a good start" as far as mystery series goes.  The plot is actually interesting - a friend of Devlin's is a witness to a thief cutting a map from a very valuable book in the New York Public Library, but no one believes her.  Devlin, of course, does and helps her friend not only prove that she was telling the truth, but track down and reveal the identity of the culprit (who, as it turns out, has been stealing maps from antique books in libraries for some time).  Devlin is quick-thinking and determined (similar to Nancy Drew), but as with many of the young adult mysteries these days, she is only 12 years old.

Maybe I'm dating myself here, but I remember reading children's mysteries about older teenagers (anywhere from 16 to 18 years old), which, in a way, gave me something to look forward to when I got that age.  They inspired me, in some degree, to strive to do better, to help others, and to realize I could do anything I wanted.  Sure, the teenage detectives were somewhat rebellious in nature, bucking the system that told them they couldn't do these things with adults who did not take them seriously.  But this trend in recent years to have detectives who are 12 years old, or thereabout, just doesn't work for me.  Yes, the stories may be good, but the idea that 12-year olds have as much freedom as these kids to and are able to get around and do things without parental supervision is stretching the line of believability.  Perhaps that is the trade off for all of today's technology that the teenage sleuths of yesteryear didn't have - computers, internet, cell phones, etc.

Regardless, the book does have the obligatory Nancy Drew reference (as every mystery about a female sleuth set in the present time has to do).  While investigating the library, they come across a sign up sheet for WOMEN IN CRIME FICTION: NANCY DREW TO JANE MARPLE (p. 196). Then, just one page later, when Devlin's friend shows signs of being scared, Devlin remarks, "Really?  Do you think Nancy Drew let every little thing scare the daylights out of her?"  Still nice to see that Nancy Drew remains the icon when it comes to female sleuths.

Unfortunately, none of that was enough to make me enjoy the book.  The author, Linda Fairstein, weaves a pretty good plot, but sadly, she seems to rely so heavily on having Devlin explain everything - and I do mean EVERYTHING!  From explaining who Teddy Roosevelt was, to what a facial recognition system is (in excrutciating detail), the fact that the library holds things other than just books, what carbon paper is (seriously?), what a subpoena is and how it is used, who Andrew Carnegie was, and so many other things.  In fact, it got to the point where any time an historical person or a technological item was mentioned, I could count on an overly-detailed explanation to follow.  Clearly, Fairstein does not give her readers credit for knowing things they should know - - either that, or she had a certain page count she wanted to read and figured padding the story with needless explanations would fill those pages.  Either way, it became distracting and, quite honestly, ruined my enjoyment of the story overall.

And editing seems to be a thing of the past (as my reading friends and I have discovered in recent years).  Not exactly sure what editors do these days, but it appears not to be actual editing.  For instance, one of the suspects is said to own a bookstore called "Blogett Books" on page 183 - - yet, just 23 pages later, that same suspect is said to own a bookstore called "Buckhead Books."  Honestly, how hard is it to remember a name you've given a bookstore, especially within 20 pages of each mention?

Would I recommend this series to mystery fans?  I doubt it.  Will I purchase a second book in the series if one comes out?  That remains to be seen...

RATING:  4 marble lion statues out of 10 for centering a mystery around a library and for giving Devlin a grandmother who is one to be reckoned with!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Four - Monstrous Holidays

The dark and lonely world of Courtney Crumrin seems to get darker and lonelier with volume four of this graphic novel series.  Writer and artist Ted Naifeh takes his little sorceress on a journey through Romania and old Germany as she travels with her Uncle Aloysius, who, rather than teaching her about her powers, seems intent on holding her back - particularly when it comes to helping those she knows to be in need!

The first story in Monstrous Holiday finds Courtney trying to help two lovers escape the bigotry and hatred of a superstitious townsfolk.  When she discovers the daughter of the man she and her uncle are staying with is not in love with her fiance, but rather, has true feelings for a gypsy (who also turns out to be a werewolf), Courtney makes it her mission to confront the townspeople about their prejudices and help the young woman realize that following her heart and being true to herself (and her lover) is more important than abiding by her father's wishes to marry someone of means and stature.  Of course, love can't always conquer all, as poor Courtney finds out the hard way, and she leaves the village behind her with a growing bitterness to the emotion that seems so elusive.

The second story, though, shows Courtney what true love - and sacrifice - is all about.  While touring a castle that may or may not have been once owned by Courtney's own ancestors, she meets a young man who seems to share the same loneliness that she does.  The two become fast friends, but gradually Courtney, as well as her uncle, begins to suspect there is more to Wolfgang than meets the eye.  When she finds he casts no reflection, she first thinks he's a ghost ... but quickly discovers he is so much more than that.  Her Uncle Aloysius, on the other hand, takes the necessary precautions, which Courtney throws to the wind to be with her newfound friend.  And then the marks on her neck appear.  And just when all hope seems lost for poor Courtney - - well, I'm not going to spoil it, but let's just say that true, sacrificial love saves the day!

I am truly amazed at how varied these stories of Courtney Crumrin are.  Naifeh is able to craft unique, stand-alone tales, while at the same time, weaving an ongoing tale of this little witch and her growth in not just her powers, but in her understanding of human nature (as well as the nature of the supernatural beings that dwell around us).  These are not just tales of horror and supernatural - they are tales of human nature and makes you wonder, who is truly darker - man or monster?

Each volume I read of Courtney Crumrin makes me all the more glad that I picked up this series.  It's just a shame that there are only three more volumes left...

RATING:  10 sacred wafers out of 10 for making the reader question their viewpoints on good and bad, right and wrong, saint and sinner.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Shadow House Volume 1 - The Gathering

I actually debated about buying this series for quite a while - so long, in fact, that I didn't pick it up until the second book had come out.  I had some coupons for Barnes & Noble, didn't find anything else, so figured, what the heck?

Definitely a good choice!

I didn't realize when I bought that book that I already had other books by the author (although that explains why his name sounded familiar to me).  Dan Poblocki had previously written a three book series about "The Mysterious Four," a mystery trilogy about four young kids who decide to form a detective squad to solve mysteries in their town.  Fun reads, but definitely for the pre-teen crowd.  Not this series!  This series is dark, filled with supernatural and creepy horror, and most definitely for the early teen readers.

Shadow House: The Gathering introduces readers to its five protagonists - the shy orphan, Poppy; the musical genius, Marcus; the surviving sister, Azumi; and the precocious twins, Dash and Dylan.  Five pre-teens who couldn't be more different if they tried. Yet, they soon discovery they do have something in common - they have all been summoned in one fashion or another to the Larkspur house.  Poppy discovers a letter from an unknown relative; Marcus receives a scholarship to a new school of music; Azumi finds a boarding school that would take her away from her grieving family; and Dash and Dylan are hired to star in a new horror movie - all of them at the Larkspur house, otherwise known as the Shadow House.

As soon as the kids arrive at the house, the find themselves targets - from shadowy creatures, to masked ghost children, to the house itself.  Rooms and hallways change without notice, and once inside, the five kids find themselves locked in with no way out.  Of course, each of them is harboring a secret.  Poppy sees a ghost girl in every mirror.  Marcus hears music that no one else hears.  Azumi left her sister behind to disappear in a Japanese forest.  And Dash and Dylan - - well their secret was actually a big surprise, so I'm not going to spoil it here.  Suffice to say, it will not be what you expect!  From there, things only get worse, and the five of them must put aside their differences and band together if they want to survive whatever is happening in that house!

Poblocki definitely writes one heck of a scary tale!  The story itself is enough to give any pre-teen, or possibly even teenager, reading it the heebie-jeebies, but the ghostly photos throughout the book only cause readers even more uneasiness.  The images in the photos are not only ghostly, but downright creepy and disturbing.  Mix the story and the photos together, and you get a truly engaging story that will make you uncomfortable at times, make you jump at times, and make you want, above else, to read more and get these kids out of there!

By far, this has truly been my biggest surprise read of the year - did not initially hold out much hope for this to be all that great, but it far surpassed any expectations I had.  Not at all what I was expecting, and certainly scarier than some of the horror tales I've read lately aimed at adults.  Would definitely recommend this to any horror fans, young and old alike!

RATING:  9 ghostly girls in the mirror out of 10 for knowing how to tell a true tale of horror!

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Model Undercover, Book 3 - London, Deadly by Design

While directing an upcoming play has eaten into my free time, it hasn't stopped me from reading completely - particularly when I have the third book in the superbly written series Model Undercover series.  This is definitely one of my favorite series.  Author Carina Axelsson has created a smart, lovable detective in Axelle, the wanna-be detective who is thrust into the world of modeling, where she manages to find mysteries galore to solve!

After Paris and New York, Axelsson brings her young detective back home to London in Deadly by Design.  And while her previous mysteries involved a kidnapping and stolen property, Axelle finds herself looking into a decades old murder when a friend of one of her model friends comes to her asking for help.  It seems this woman's brother was attacked and is now in a coma, and Axelle's friend, Ellie, referred the woman to her for help.  Having had no mystery to solve since her adventure in New York City, Axelle jumps at the opportunity.

The only clue she has to work with is a thumbdrive with the young man's last photo shoot - numerous "day in the life" shots of famed fashion designer Johnny Vane, as well as one very out of place photo of a picture with two young boys who appear to be twins.  Axelle knows the clue must be somewhere in that extra photo, but she doesn't know what.  With the help of her very own "Watson," the always faithful boyfriend, Sebastian, Axelle sets out to discover just what that photograph has to do with the attack on the young man, and how Johnny Vane and the tragic death of his mother and brother fit into it.

Weighing in at 349 pages, there is never a dull moment in this book.  Axelsson maintains a steady pace with her storytelling, providing a great build-up to the huge reveal at the end.  Yes, any true fan of mystery series books will figure out at least part of the solution to this mystery pretty early on, but seeing how Axelle and Sebastian get there is half the fun.  Plus, Axelsson provides a pretty good twist with the actual identity of the culprit, and the big reveal at the end when Axelle pulls all of her suspects into the same room before confronting them is sure to bring a smile to your face - it did mine!

And, of course, no good mystery series book about a young girl detective would be complete without a reference or two to Nancy Drew, the original girl sleuth:

"...all I wanted to do was solve mysteries--and I'd always felt that way.  Well, ever since my granny started spoon-feeding me detective stories:  Nancy Drew before I could read..." (p. 2)

"That, Nancy Drew, is on a need-to-know basis." (p. 31)

"All right, Nancy Drew, then what else do I have on my mind?"  (p. 342)

If only the Nancy Drew books of today were written as well as the Model Undercover books, then Simon & Schuster might actually have a best-selling series once again.  For now, though, I have the MU books to satisfy my well-written girl sleuth mystery series - and thankfully, there is a fourth book on its way (set in Milan, as the ending of this book hints).  It is already published overseas, so I can only hope it will eventually makes it way for sale here in the States this year.

RATING:  10 mudlarking adventures out of 10 for mingling the fashion world with the mystery genre in such a way as to make them both interesting!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Doctor Who, the 10th Doctor with Donna Audio Book - Volume 1 - Technophobia

I've been waiting for these Doctor/Donna full-cast audio CDs to come out for a while.  But after the let-down when reading the recent book that came out with these two, I started listening to this with a bit of trepidation.  Thankfully, the author (Matt Fitton) and the cast (including David Tennant and Catherine Tate) proved more than up to the challenge of bringing back this dynamic duo as the 10th Doctor and his best-ever companion, Donna Noble.

Donna Noble has always been (and will always be!) my favorite Doctor Who companion.  She is quick-witted, sarcastic, and never afraid to dress someone down if they disrespect her.  She's also never afraid to call the Doctor out on things if he isn't exactly handling things the way she feels they need to be handled.  And Fitton definitely 'gets' Donna.  Her characterization in this story is spot on, as is the 10th Doctor, with his fun-loving quirkiness that never takes himself too seriously and always offers any alien threat an opportunity to walk away before he does whatever he has to in order to protect the lives of the innocent.

In Technophobia, the Doctor and Donna pay a visit to London's Technology Museum, where they discover something is not quite right.  The technology seems to be attacking the visitors and employees of the Museum, and no one seems to be able to control any of it.  In fact, the more terrorizing the technology becomes, the more afraid people grow, to the point where they refuse to go anywhere near anything that is technologically based.  Except for the Doctor and Donna, of course.  And the receptionist, who just got back from a three-month back-packing trip. Which raises an alarm in the Doctor's mind, as he and Donna slowly come to the realizing it is not the technology that is doing anything - rather, it is actually the people who are changing.  They are losing their ability to understand and cope with the technology around them - from even the simplest coffee maker to the elevators and escalators to the high tech laptops.  The human race has sudden devolved in their intelligence and growing dumber by the second.

In true Doctor Who fashion, it is up to the Doctor and Donna to save all of humanity.  But how? And when the Doctor becomes infected with the virus and finds his own intelligence dwindling by the minute, it is up to Donna to put her noggin to good use and figure out how the bloody hell she's going to stop an alien race intent on wiping out the minds of the human race and creating a population of mindless slaves!

Excellent writing, fantastic characterization, and brilliant reading by the cast.  The Doctor and Donna are back and just as good as, if not better than, ever!  Can't wait to see what the second story holds in store...

RATING:  10 subway trains out of 10 for bringing this Donna Noble fanboy some great new stories of his favorite companion!