Thursday, June 22, 2017

Shadow House Volume 2 - You Can't Hide

The second installment of this horror series was not quite as engaging as the first one, perhaps because the "unknown" factor of the series is no longer there.  Five children are trapped inside Larkspur House, where ghosts with animal masks are constantly chasing them, the mysterious man who called them there is haunting them, and the rooms and doors seem to change without warning.  In the first book, each of the children discover that they have similarities to the previous children in the house - children who died and now seem to be intent on seeing these five die as well. The only thing is - one of them already is dead!

The author, Dan Poblocki, continues the story in true horror-flick fashion. The kids are separated from one another, they don't know who they can trust, and while some want to get out any way they can, others are insistent that they find their missing siblings.  For Dash, his twin brother Dylan may be beyond help, while for Azumi, her sister Moriko may be the only hope the kids have of getting out of this shadow house.

The story moves pretty quickly, as Poppy begins to emerge as the leader of sorts, while Dash, Marcus, and Azumi each try to deal with their own personal horrors they are having to face in the house.  Marcus has seemingly lost his connection to the music that made him a prodigy, while Azumi is desperate to find her sister who somehow managed to appear in the house.  Dash is angry at being kept away from his brother, even though he knows, deep down, that his brother is dead.  Yet, in this house, the dead don't seem to stay that way - and Dylan does come back - as one of the "Specials." Dylan has now taken on the role of the Trickster, and a battle is building between brothers - the question is, who will win, and what will happen to the loser?

Poblocki takes us through more twists and turns of the house, as the kids explore ways to escape.  There's the greenhouse with the zombie-like creature; there's the school room with the chalkboard on which writing mysteriously appears; there's the laboratory filled with a number of dead things kept in jars; and there's the tower room, open to the outside that could mean release for the kids.  But it's a long, four-story drop on a slanted roof, and when the Specials follow them up through room after room, Poppy and her new-found friends realize their only way to survive is by taking a chance on that dangerous roof.

There are a few revelations about Cyrus Caldwell, as well as the first group of children who lived in the home.  Readers will learn more about why Cyrus did what he did - but the question is ever-present: what is true and what is a lie?  In the shadow house, one never knows for sure! And rest assured, this is not the end!  While four of the children manage to find a way out of the house, not all of them will make it out alive ... and for the three survivors, there's a hint at the end that what's waiting for them in the woods surrounding the shadow house could be much more dangerous than what they faced inside the house!

RATING:  7 fox-chasing rabbits out of 10 for maintaining a level of spookiness that keeps the story engaging, while reminding readers that in this story - no one is safe!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Complete Velda, Girl Detective (True Crime Comics) - Volume 1

I initially purchased this graphic novel on the title alone - Velda, Girl Detective. As a fan of Nancy Drew and other female detective series growing up, and as a huge fan of comic books with female leads, I figured there wouldn't be much about this that I wouldn't like.  It even seemed to be a reprint of vintage comics, during a time when detective tales were very noir and pulp in style.

Notice I said the word "seemed."

That is a very important distinction as I discovered when I began reading the first volume of this series and looked up some information about it online. It turns out that "Velda, Girl Detective" is a faux flashback to the noir and pulp detective titles of yester-year. Written and drawn by comic creator Ron Miller, the graphic novel not only features purported re-prints of stories from the 1950s, it also has parodies of comic book ads from the time period, as well as fictional magazine covers and photos to lend authenticity to the idea that this series was a 1950s comic book series based upon the life of a real female detective, Velda Bellinghausen.

This first volume not only collects issues 1 and 2 of the Caliber Comics series, Velda, the Girl Detective, but it also features a supposed look back at the history of Velda, both the "real-life" detective and her fictionalized tales in comics, on the big screen, and on television.  There was clearly a lot of effort put into this hoax, as the informational pages include alleged pictures of Velda on magazine covers of the time, as well as images of newspaper articles about her and her father, images of her working with the comic creators of those days, and other assorted items from "back in the day."

The end result is a graphic novel that is funny, entertaining, and nostalgic.  The stories are simple, short, and sweet - usually told in 11 pages or less. Velma is the daughter of a police officer who discovered the crooked nature of the D.A. - for which, he was killed and set-up to appear as a dirty cop.  Velda was never able to live down that ruined reputation, so she obtained her detective license (through the mail!) and turned to solving crimes herself.  Her first big mystery involved the revelation of D.A. Noorvik's connection to the crime syndicates, which suddenly thrust her into the limelight as a "real" detective.  The stories, while short and done-in-one style, are somewhat reminiscent of Max Collins' Ms. Tree, who stopped at nothing to help the innocent and find justice for them (even if that meant putting the criminals 6-feet under!).  

The stories are told in pre-Code style, with lots of unnecessary sexy poses for the ladies, and plenty of scantily-clad women (with only a few actual shots of full nudity - usually they are tasteful with something covering the actual naughty bits).  The stories in the first issue include "Homicide Hotel," "Butter Safe Than Sorry," "The Phantom of the Follies," and "Velda Does a Favor," while the stories in the second issue are "My First Case!," "Velda vs. The Red Menace," and "The Early Bird," along with the prose tale, "Velda Meets the Strangler."  The actual criminals are obvious from the get-go, and it's not so much about Velda solving the crime as it is about her hunting down the crook and exacting justice (plus, watching her get tied up time and again, yet escape with the ease of a contortionist is a marvel to see).

Just as much fun as the Velda stories are the little one- and two-page stories of Hawskhaw the Hawk, the World's Greatest Bird Detective and Neolithica, Girl of the Pleistocene. These are cute little parodies with puns galore and will most certainly make the reader smile, if not chuckle.

Definitely worth the price and the read, I already have Volume 2 and have seen that Volume 3 is on its way!  It's almost a shame that these tales were not published back in the day, as I am sure they would have been a hit with all the fans of pulp detective fiction back then.

RATING:  10 three a.m. telephone calls out of 10 for remaining faithful to the comics of the '50s while keeping it entertaining for readers of today.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Deluxe Junior Novel

Based on the feature film, this junior novelization was the first book based on the new movie to hit the stands - and, being the Wonder Woman fanatic that I am, I had to buy it.  I mean, let's face it - as great as the movie was, there was no way they could mess up the novelization of it, right?


For the most part, the book remains pretty faithful to the movie, although with a few variations that I have to believe were done for the sake of keeping it from being too violent and adult for the young readers.  For instance, one of the characters who dies on Themyscria in the beginning of the film does not die in the book; and, when Diana walks in on Steve stepping out of the baths, the book has him quickly wrapping a towel around himself (which did not happen in the film!).  And while some minor events and elements were skipped or glossed over that had no heavy bearing on the overall plot, as the book neared the conclusion, things suddenly changed...drastically!

I mean, c'mon.  Where's Ares?  In the film (spoiler here!), Ares plays an important part from the beginning, as the Amazons are basically in constant training so as to be prepared is Ares returns.  This aspect is mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book, that was it.  It's never brought up again, and Diana never once mentions him when she does into man's world.  And that epic battle at the climax of the film is completely missing in the novelization.

And that all-important sacrifice that one of the characters makes, something that has major impact in the film, is also not featured in the book.  In fact, Diana's whole reason for doing what she does at the end is completely re-written, and no sacrifice is needed (meaning that all characters survive in the book).

What were they thinking?  The book is adapted by Steve Korte, and I have no idea who this author is.  Perhaps this novelization was taken from an earlier version of the script? Although, to be honest, I've not read anywhere that there were any major re-writes, and there would have to be for the ending to be so different as it is in the book.  I guess when they say "based" on the feature film, the mean just that.  It's based on it, it is not a true novelization of it.

I did buy the deluxe edition, which is hardcover with the glossy photo and also has 8 pages of photos inside (which do not spoil anything from the film, if you were wondering). So, although the story was a bit off, the book itself is nicely put together and worth having for that alone.

Now, I also bought the adult novelization of the film, so when I get around to reading that one, we'll see how faithful that is to the film.

RATING:  7 melting gas masks out of 10 for getting Wonder Woman out there in the market again and hopefully leading more young readers to follow her adventures!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Scotty Bradley Mysteries No. 7 - Garden District Gothic

I was surprised when I saw this on Amazon not too long ago - I thought author Greg Herren had "retired" his two mystery series set in New Orleans - the Chanse McLeod mysteries and the Scotty Bradley mysteries.  Both series are set in New Orleans with gay protagonists, and Herren connected the series with a police detective and her partner who appeared in both series; however Chanse and Scotty have never met (yet!).  There are seven books so far in the Chanse McLeod series, and Garden District Gothic marks the seventh book in the Scotty Bradley series.  Perhaps that's why Herren wrote the book, was so that the two series would have an equal number of books.  Whatever the reason, I'm glad he did it, as Scotty, his two partners, and his unique family are always fun to read.

Scotty Bradley is a former fitness trainer, a former stripper, and a newly licensed private investigator (although he's never actually had any paying clients to date - every murder he's solved is one where he has stumbled across the body and inadvertently become involved in the investigation).  He has not one, but two partners - a three-way relationship with an ex-FBI agent-turned-professional wrestler, Frank; and a secret covert government agent for an unspecified agency, Colin.  Their relationship is anything but typical, but then again, Scotty's own family is just as unusual.  His parents are hold-out hippies who still smoke pot on a regular basis, who protest anything and everything, and who named their children Storm (Scotty's brother) and Rain (Scotty's sister).  Of course, Scotty isn't that normal - his full name is Milton Scott Bradley - yes, Milton Bradley (which is why he goes by Scotty).

Oh, and Scotty has a connection to the "Goddess," who sometimes comes to him with cryptic clues about what is going on in his life, or who guides him to answers through the tarot cards he keeps in a cigar box under his couch.  So, with all of these unusual situations in his life, you can imagine that following him as he tries to uncover a murderer can be easily engaging.

Garden District Gothic jumps ahead in time, as we find Scotty and his domestic life settling down.  Scotty is starting to put on a couple of pounds around the middle, which isn't setting too well with him, and he finds himself becoming the doting (and worrying!) parent to Frank's nephew, Taylor, who lives with them after his family kicked him out when he came out.  Colin is off on a secret mission, and Frank is away on a wrestling gig.  Which becomes the perfect time for a new mystery to solve.  Only this mystery isn't really so new - it's actually 25 years old.

Herren gives readers an interesting look at the lives of the rich and infamous when he has Scotty become involved in the 25-year old murder of a six-year-old beauty queen, Delilah Metoyer.  Her older brother tormented Scotty in high school, and now he's back - only this time, he's asking for Scotty's help.  A long missing mother who somehow escaped the notice of the press when Delilah was killed all those years ago ... a step-mother who left town and now lives alone, breeding cats for sale ... a twin brother who committed suicide ... a father who went to the grave with a deadly secret ... a sister who could care less ... a tell-all sensationalist author who may know more than he realizes ... and a voodoo priestest who could hold the key to Scotty's uncovering the truth once and for all.  Who is lying, who is hiding something, and who killed whom?

While the mystery is good and the characters engaging, Herren's writing style has become a bit repetitive.  I don't recall ever noticing it in prior books as much, but here, he repeats the same phrases and background information again and again.  It's almost like he's either beating the reader over the head with certain information because the reader might forget ... or perhaps he forgot himself that he just said the same exact thing only a couple of chapters before.  It does get a bit distracting after the first several times - - but the mystery was good, so I can give it a pass this time around.

Now, with both Chanse and Scott having seven books each under their respective belts, perhaps it's about time Herren brought his two super-sleuths together for one really big murder mystery - now THAT would be a book I'd love to see!

RATING:  7 episodes of Grande Dames of New Orleans out of 10 for bringing readers back to the Big Easy to share another adventure with the stripper-turned-detective.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Doctor Who, the 10th Doctor with Donna Audio Book - Volume 2 - Time Reaver

Simply put, there has never been a better pairing of Doctor and Companion than the David Tennant / Catherine Tate partnership of the 10th Doctor and Donna Noble.  Their quick retorts, their ease with one another, their interaction - it all comes across so naturally, so real, that you believe it.  I know fans of the original Doctors will say that the 4th Doctor and Sarah Jane were the best pairing, but having never watched those old shows, I'll stick with my love of the Doctor/Donna.

The second new audio adventure Time Reaver, just goes to further prove my belief.  The author, Jenny T. Colgan, not only has a real feel for the characters, but she clearly loves the Donna years, for the story is riddled with echoes that hearken back to the 4th season shows - from the man looking at the bomb strapped to Donna's back and saying, "There's something on your back," to the villain talking about the "Journey's End," to the Doctor discussing with Donna his desire to visit a place with lots of a books.  "A library," Donna says.  My inner-geek just thrilled with each and every reference!

The story itself was very Doctor Who-esque.  The Doctor and Donna have come to Calibris to get an item the Doctor needs to fix a part on the TARDIS. But on this spaceport, where anything goes and there have never been any rules, they suddenly find that a race of Vacintians are trying to enforce order on an otherwise lawless planet.  The Doctor wants to know why.  And when the Doctor discovers that an illegal weapon known as the Time Reaver is on the planet, he and Donna must hunt down the seller before it is distributed into the wrong hands.  The Time Reaver slows down a person's life - so much so, in fact, that the person can feel an eternity in just one second.  So imagine what would happen if the person were hit with the Time Reaver just when there is an explosion - he or she would feel the pain and agony of that explosion for an eternity!

I will admit that a couple of the actors that they picked to voice the other characters sounded similar to David Tennant and Catherine Tate, so every once in a while as I was listening, I had to pay close attention to make sure who was actually talking.  Otherwise, though, this audio was pretty much flawless - fantastic story, brilliant acting, and a great spot of time well-spent.  Could very easily see this one being an episode on television, particularly with regards to the couple of twists thrown in about the individual who has the Time Reaver, why that person has it, and how it all connects to the Vacintians and their dying planet.

RATING:  10 corset-crunching wench dresses out of 10 for keeping the Doctor/Donna alive and well for us fans!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Short Lived Comic Series #5 - Media Starr (Innovation)

Back in the mid- to late-1980s, independent comic book companies saw a big boom.  Companies were popping in and out, left and right, and there was a plethora of series to be found at the comic book stories.  One such company, who put out a number of licensed titles such as Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, Suspiria, Quantum Leap, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play, and others, was Innovation Comics.  Not everything they published, however, was licensed.  A few creator own projects were published, including a three-issue series called Media Starr.

Media Starr tells the story of Nancy Starr, a female boxer (who is secretly also a ninja and goes by the nickname "Ninja" in the boxing ring) who has a sordid past that unknowingly comes back to haunt her when her best friend, lover, and manager, Jeff, is killed.  While the comic was originally intended to be called Ninja*Starr and focus more on the ninja aspect of her life, writer Dennis Duarte took the story in a completely different direction, thus setting it apart from the other female ninja titles of that time (such as Whisper from First Comics and Ninja from Eternity Comics).  Duarte, instead, told the story of Nancy Starr, a woman who has finally made it, putting her past behind her and enjoying the life of a successful boxer and loving girlfriend.

And when she gets the chance of a lifetime, to be the first female boxer to challenge a male contender, someone wants her to lose - and will do anything to ensure it happens.  By the end of the first issue, Nancy loses the match because she is drugged, and she returns to the locker room to find her lover/manager dead from a supposed self-inflicted shot to the head.  While the police write it off as a suicide, Nancy knows otherwise - particularly since Jeff was holding the gun in the wrong hand!  Soon enough, she finds out from a friendly police officer that they were told to close the case, and that someone high up does not want there to be an investigation.

Touching on everything from television evangelists to stalkers to child molesters, this three-issue series is chock full of story and mystery.  Duarte doesn't pull any punches with these controversial issues, but they also are not thrown in without purpose.  All the threads are carefully woven, and seemingly unconnected events are eventually revealed to be all part of a larger picture.  And there are some rather interesting moments, particularly in the storytelling technique - such as the second issue's opening sequence, which is a game of Wheel of Fortune, in which the credits are seen as the contestant's names and the title for the issue's story is the solved puzzle.

The art, with pencils by Allen Curtis, is pretty standard of the time in which it was published, but the coloring is admittedly a bit off.  In places, it seems the colors bleed beyond the lines, with a lot of reds, yellows, and oranges throughout the books.  But it is not the cartoony or manga-style art that seems to fill so many comics today, so for that, I am grateful.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, and it's a shame the author never told any more stories of Nancy Starr - I have a feeling that after the final page of issue 3, Miss Starr had many more stories to be told.

RATING:  6 bottles of Presidential Pomade out of 10 for stepping outside the norm and giving comic fans a different take on the female ninja warrior.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Class - from the Universe of Doctor Who: The Stone House

Class has been an unexpected surprise for me.  The television show was announced some time ago, back when Clara was the companion of Doctor Who, but it never seemed to see the light of day.  Well, apparently it aired overseas last year, but it never made it to America until just recently.  In the meanwhile, I've heard reports that BBC is not picking up the show for a second season, which is truly sad - despite how dark it can be sometimes, the show has some really good stories, some very strong characters (both likable and not-so-likable), and a fantastic underlying thread of a subplots.

Then along comes The Stone House, the first novel based on the Class television show published here in the States.

Not exactly sure where this tale fits in with the television timeline, but the author, A.K. Benedict, manages to capture the essence of these characters pretty much dead-on.  Miss Quill, Charlie, Matteusz, April, Ram, and Tanya all read exactly as they act on the show.  While the whole "present tense" thing was a bit annoying (is this the next up-and-coming thing for writers to do?  write in the present tense, rather than past? it is not something I enjoy reading, but just like the switch to first person tales, I suppose it is something I will get used to as more and more authors do it), the story itself overcame that obstacle.

The stone house at the end of the street sits quietly.  No one has really noticed it.  Until the day Tanya finds herself walking past it.  And sees the face in the window. The face of a girl.  A girl crying out for help.  Who is she?  And why is it that Tanya feels a need - no, make that a NEED - to go back to the house?  To go into the house and help that girl.  A girl who doesn't seem to be there.

Miss Quill and her friends are somewhat skeptic of Tanya's request that they help her investigate the house.  But as with anything set in the Doctor Who universe, nothing is quite what it seems.  The house seems to bring nightmares to life.  Whether's it's Tanya's fear of never having her mother's approval, or Charlie's fear of being thrust back into the war that devastated his planet - the house seems to give those fears form and make them real.  But what's worse is what isn't seen.  Tanya knows there is a girl in that house.  Is it Alice, the former owner, who died at a ripe old age?  Is it a kidnapped young girl being held against her will?  Or is it something else?

There is plenty of mystery in this book, as well as good ol' sci-fi jumps and scares as the classmates realize that Tanya is on to something, and the danger this house represents could be a danger to the world at large - and only they can stop it.  But can they stop it before the developer who has purchased the property comes in and demolishes the old stone house?  And just what happened to Tanya...?

Benedict gives a bit of a lengthy build-up, but it's well worth the payoff in the end.  And while the overall mystery does have resolution, there is a subplot that is left unanswered, giving it some real-world feel (since, let's face it, every mystery in the real world doesn't get a clean-cut resolution, does it?).

Fans of the Class television show will enjoy this novel, and since it doesn't appear we'll be getting any more seasons from BBC, this and the next two books will have to serve to quench our thirst for more stories of these characters.

RATING:  7 white bone spiders out of 10 for expanding the Class universe, even if just a tiny bit.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen - Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History

I have always, always, ALWAYS been a huge fan and follower of female superhero characters in the comics.  From Wonder Woman to Supergirl to Batgirl to the original Ms. Marvel to Squirrel Girl to Patsy Walker, Hellcat to Ms. Tree to Whisper to Miss Fury.  For whatever reason, I enjoy reading the adventures and sagas of these strong, liberated, independent, intelligent women who have made their mark in comic book history.  And now, author Hope Nicholson, has written a book that compiles some of these characters that have made their mark in history!

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen is a truly fantastic look at not only how women have been portrayed throughout comic history (from the 1930s to the present day), but also looks at some of the female creators who have managed to make their way into what was once a totally male-dominated industry.  Now, I will admit, most times when I buy any kind of a reference book (like those DK books that give us an encyclopedia of Marvel or DC, or the various Who's Who titles that the different comic companies have done throughout the years), I just sort of flip through them and them put them up on a shelf (or in a comic box, whichever is more appropriate).  With this book, however, I actually felt compelled to sit down and read it and learn more about some of these comics, characters, and creators, many of which I had never heard of before!

Nicholson starts her study of these superwomen with the 1930s, and she opens each decade with a two-page history lesson about the particular decade and what it meant for comics, for superwomen, and for female creators in the industry.  From the birth of an industry, through the golden age, the comics code crackdown, the rise of underground comix, the black-and-white boom, and the age of web and digital comics, Nicholson covers more than 80 years of comic book history; but, with only 231 pages within which to put forth this wondrous world of women, it is, sadly, limited.  With each character and book covered, Nicholson provides not only first appearances, where you can find them now, and information about the character, but also gives readers insight into how the comic impacted the comics of its time, how its creators were influenced, and whether the comic/character has had any ongoing influence on comics through the years.  She gives some very insightful and poignant opinions on each of the subjects as well.

Nicholson manages to cover most of the "big-name" characters that pretty much anyone would recognize: Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl.  She also hits on characters that pretty much any comic book fan these days would know: the current Captain Marvel, the current Ms. Marvel, Witchblade, Squirrel Girl, Dazzler, Amanda Waller, Vampirella, and Miss Fury.  In addition, she includes lesser-known characters that probably only around 25% of comic fans would know, such as Ms. Tree, Fashion in Action, Dakota North, Martha Washington, Silk Spectre, DC's original Starfire, and Vanity. Then, there are characters and comics that probably very few are truly aware of: the Magician from Mars, Maureen Marine, Man-Huntin' Minnie of Delta Pu, Pudge - Girl Blimp, Bitchy Bitch (and Bitchy Butch), just to name a few.

Overall, the book opened my eyes to just how much diversity there is out there, and for just how long women have been struggling to make their mark in the comic industry (both on the page and behind the pages).  I actually found several books and characters that I intend to hunt down and add to my comic collection (such as Sally the Sleuth from Spicy Detective Stories, as well as Gail Porter, Girl Photographer from Blue Circle Comics, Gail Ford, Girl Friday from Super Detective magazine, along with some others).  Some obscure characters I already have the pleasure of owning, such as Starr Flagg, Undercover Girl, Gold Key's comic The Close Shaves of Pauline Peril, and Harvey Comics' Black Cat series.

What I will say surprised and somewhat disappointed me is the fact that several female characters who did make a pretty strong mark in the comic world were not covered, nor even mentioned.  The first one that comes to mind is Whisper, a ninja-style character first published by Capital Comics, then later picked up by First Comics for an impressive independent run of more than 30 issues of her own ongoing series.  And what about Huntress and Power-Girl from DC Comics, both of whom have been around since the '70s, and both of whom have had various mini-series, ongoing series, and appearances in a number of comics over the years?  Was it because they were alternate versions of the already covered Batgirl and Supergirl?  Then there's Evangeline, who went from Comico to First Comics.  And what about Somerset Holmes from Eclipse?  Or Ninja from Eternity Comics?  Or Media Starr from Innovation Comics?  Or Kelly Green, by Stan Drake and Leonard Starr?  Obviously, with the limited space, I realize not every single female character and comic could be covered - but I do wonder what Nicholson's criteria was for determining which characters and books would make the cut, and which ones would simply have to be left unmentioned...

Despite some of my favorite characters not making the cut, I did thoroughly enjoy and appreciate this book.  It offers a lot of great information about women in comics, is a great resource for a lot of lesser-known and possibly even unheard of characters and comics, and brings some attention and notice to a lot of creators who deserve some recognition for the work they have done and the impact they have made for women in the comics industry.  A must have for any fan of females in comics!

RATING:  8 determined, no-nonsense female superstars out of 10 for providing great reference material for those of us who love women in comics!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, No. 3 - The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals

Young Ada Byron and Mary Godwin are back with another mystery to solve in Jordan Stratford's latest book in The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency mystery series!

I must say that I am impressed that Stratford is able to write some well-crafted mysteries that do not only stand on their own, but also include elements of some ongoing subplots - such as Ada's absent mother, the mysterious tattoo of the "S." on the villain's arms, Charles' difficulties with his employer, and so on.  There is even a greater development on a comment that was made in the last book about Ada being the "second-cleverest" girl in London (and readers will know that Ada will not sit still for being second best!).

The Case of the Counterfeit Criminals picks up shortly after the last book - with Ada at home sick in bed due to her excursion with Mary out in the rain at the end of the last mystery. It is nice that the author maintains continuity within the books, and that actions and even what appears to be half-hearted remarks can come back to play something important in a later book.  Stratford remains faithful to the time period in which the books are set, as the doctor treating poor Ada is using leeches to remove the "bad blood" that is causing her fever.  As those of us now know, these loss of blood leaves her in a weakened state.

While the first several chapters deal more with Ada fighting off the fever and trying to gain strength so she can get back to doing what she does best - plus, the problematic appearance of her grandmother showing up at the Byron house to see that Ada is properly taken care of - which, needless to say, makes it even more difficult for Ada to find a mystery.  Of course, this book is the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency so it wouldn't be much of a mystery without one to solve.  Stratford is sneaky enough to start it off with a simple enough case - a missing dog.  But if the last two books are any indication, it's clear that the case will be more than just that.

And it is!  Much more!

There's a lost dog - but the lost dog is connected to an intact ichthyosaur skeleton that could potentially be faked - with a possible connection to the Sons of Bavaria, that might just be related to that mysterious "S" tattoo that Mary and Ada saw in the previous mystery, all of whom seem to be tethered to a certain Nora Radel - Ada's presumed arch-nemesis who may or may not exist.  Then there are the secret codes, the anagrams, the counterfeit messages, and just who or what in the world are the two human size puppets that appear and disappear in the blink of an eye?  Do they relate to the missing dog and the fake sea monster?

Once the mystery gets moving, it really moves - and with Kelly Murphy's wonderful illustrations, this book is another real winner in the realm of children's mystery series.  A fourth book is given a sneak peak at the end, yet no title is given, and I can't find any reference to a title or release date on the author's website, Amazon, or anywhere else.

RATING:  9 pieces of corpolite out of 10 for taking small bits of reality and once again creating a wondrous fictional tale!

Monday, May 22, 2017

Gotham Academy, Volume 3 - Yearbook

I have thoroughly enjoyed the previous two Gotham Academy collections, but I have to admit - this third volume did not exactly hit the mark.  While the previous stories certainly had some fun and games within them, they were still tales of mystery, monsters, and mayhem with a touch of gothic suspense mixed in.  This collection of "yearbook" tales, however, not only lacked in any mystery elements (save for the last issue in the collection), but the rotating artists were less then stellar.

Gotham Academy: Yearbook collects issues 13 through 18 of the ongoing series, in which Mia and Olive take a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about various events that have occurred at the school (but which stories have not been previously told).  Perhaps to give the regular artists a break, or maybe simply to give each of these tales their own special feel, DC had a rotating cast of artists drawing each of these flashback tales, and quite frankly, most of the art was childish and not at all to my liking - which, sadly, distracted me and pulled me out of the story.  I am not a big fan of these recent trend of artists to draw like 5 and 6 year old children, where the people do not look like people, but like caricatures of people.  I've always preferred good, solid art where people and backgrounds resembled real people and backgrounds - Curt Swan, George Perez, Phil Jimenez, Stephen Sadowski, Jerry Ordway, and others.  Even some with their own style, such as Jim Aparo and Alan Davis, still retained a realistic look to their art.  But this nonsense, child-like art that seems to be growing in the comic community just turns me off completely.

That being said, some of the flashback tales themselves (referring to the story, not the art), were somewhat entertaining.  The story of Ham (the dog) was adorable, and the tale of Professor Milo was interesting.  "Serpents & Secrets" and "Talent Show" were both a bit touching, in that they dealt with the kids' friendships and their growing reliance and love for one another.  The final issue in the collection, though, "Broken Hearts," brought the series back to its roots, with a story of a vampire, a glowing skeleton, a beating heart, and believe it or not, time travel.  With this issue, we get back to the kids being what they should be - a group of young detectives exploring and investigating the inexplicable events that keep happening at the school.  We also finally learn just what Olive's nightmares about the grandfather clock and the arrow mean, and watch as the kids argue, divide up, and ultimately band together to stop not one, but two potentially dangerous menaces to the school and the world itself! And Colton's attraction for Kyle becomes a bit more apparent in this issue, leaving one to wonder if that story will ever be realized.

And with this volume, the first semester of Gotham Academy ends.  As with so many comics in today's market, Gotham Academy gets a re-boot and re-numbering as the second semester begins with an all-new issue number one - making me guess that the next graphic novel that will collect the first six issues of the second semester will likely go back to Volume 1 (because God-forbid any comic book series these days actually continue past issue 50 or more!).

RATING:  5 wool-wearing pranksters out of 10 for giving readers at least one really good tale out of six that is in keeping with Gotham Academy's gothic fun.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter

I went back and forth for quite a while before I ever made the decision to buy this book.  Anyone who knows me and my reading habits knows that I love series books - whether it is children's mysteries, young adult mysteries, super-hero related, adult mysteries, psychic novels - so long as it is a series, I am pretty sure to give it a try at some point.  So, what made me give this one-offer a shot?

I had a coupon.  Plain and simple.  I hate letting a Barnes & Noble coupon go to waste, and when I couldn't find any new books in any of my current series that I am reading, nor could I find any new series that seemed interesting - I ultimately settled on this.  A young newsgirl working in 1920s Chicago is witness to a murder, and now it's up to her to prove that the victim's pretty young fiance was not the killer.

Isabel Feeney, Star Reporter is a bit of a deceptive title,  Isabel is not a reporter - at least not yet.  She does work for the Chicago Tribune, though - selling newspapers on the street corner to help her mother, who works nights at the hospital to make just enough money to keep a roof over their head and food on their table.  Isabel's father died in the war, leaving Isabel and her mother to fend for themselves in a cruel world where women had not yet gained the equality in the job market.  Isabel is determined to change that.  She wants to be just like Maude Collier, one of the very few female beat reporters, and while she may not \go to school any more, Isabel can read and write, and she's got a lot of spunk.

I mean, a LOT of spunk!

Beth Fantaskey's protagonist may be young, and in some ways naive, she is determined, she is outspoken, and she never backs down from a fight.  So when she hears a gunshot one night just after one of her regular customers - the pretty department store clerk, Colette Giddings - went down that alley with her fiance, Isabel runs down to see what happens.  Although she sees Miss Giddins kneeling over the body, blood on her coat and the gun lying right next to her, Isabel is certain she is innocent.  The police may think she's guilty...her idol, Maude Collier may think she's guilty...heck, everyone in Chicago may think she's guilty.  But Isabel knows in her heart that she's innocent, and she will do anything to prove it.

Fantaskey takes readers back in time to a period with no internet, no cell phones, no computers, and no instant communications.  She writes some very believable characters in very believable situations and isn't afraid, even in a middle-school book, to show Chicago for the way that it was back then.  Bootleggers, mobsters, hard-nosed police detectives, and adults who barely give a poor young girl a second glance find that they underestimate this one - for Isabel Feeney is on the case, and she won't let anyone get in her way.

Along the way, Isabel meets Miss Gidding's son Robert, who is still struggling after a bout of polio.  She also meets the victim's daughter, Flora Bessemer, who is a bit of a braggart and a lot uppity.  This unlikely trio ultimately have to figure out who really killed Flora's father.  Was it Miss Gidding's sister, who was jealous of her beauty and relationship with Flora's father?  Was it Robert's father, who wanted nothing to do with a weak, crippled son, but who couldn't stand to see the mother of his child with another man?  Or was it one of the many mobsters in Chicago's underworld who was making Flora's father pay for some unknown crime?  And just how do a smashed piece of gum, some footprints outside of an abandoned building, and a scent that Isabel just can't put her finger on all figure into it?

On the front cover of the book is a blurb that reads "...a satisfying mystery with a daring female heroine."  I certainly would agree.  Fantaskey gives readers a mystery that could easily be enjoyed by adults as by middle-schoolers, and in some ways, is probably better plotted that some of the adult mysteries I have read.  It's a real shame this isn't an on-going series of mysteries, as I could definitely see Isabel Feeney stumbling on more mysteries to solve, and I would most definitely pick them up and read them!

RATING:  10 jars of Vick's Vapor Rub out of 10 for creating a lovable little detective (a la reporter) who reminds us of those perky children's detectives of yesteryear!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Boxcar Children: Great Adventure 1 - Journey on a Runaway Train

Growing up, I can remember reading "The Boxcar Children" series of books from my school library.  Back then, there were only 19 books in the series, all written by the series creator, Gertrude Chandler Warner. I enjoyed reading the stories about Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, four children whose parents died and who found themselves on their own.  They discovered an abandoned boxcar, which they quickly turned into their home.  Eventually, they found their grandfather, and he brought the boxcar to his property, so that the four Alden children could always have it as a memory of their first adventure on their own.

Fast forward to 2015, when I stumbled across an animated version of the first book, simply titled The Boxcar Children.  Having fond memories of the series, I picked it up and enjoyed it immensely.  At my local Barnes and Noble recently, I found that, like so many other ongoing series), the publisher has rebooted The Boxcar Children.  After 145 mysteries (there being a 15-year gap between Warner's last book #19 - Benny Uncovers a Mystery and the first of many books written by unnamed ghostwriters), Albert Whitman & Company has now brought The Boxcar Children back to #1 with a new "Great Adventure" 5-part series.  I figured, what the heck - I loved them as a kid, let's see what they are like now.

Journey on a Runaway Train, written by Dee Garretson and JM Lee, reconnects the children with their love of trains.  It's funny to note that just like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, the four Alden children have not aged a bit - Henry is still 14, his sister Jessie is still 12, their younger sister Violet is still 10, and the youngest, Benny is still 6.  (However, when I did a quick search online about the series, I discovered that in the original series, Henry did age and go off to college in the eighth book, The Lighthouse Mystery - I didn't remember that at all).  Garretson and Lee provide readers with a pretty good set up for the mystery - a stranger shows up at the house with a flyer advertising an antique store, but the children and their grandfather soon discover that the stranger had an ulterior motive!  The antique trunk that stores the children's passports and other important papers has an odd new addition - a tiny painted ceramic turtle.  The family soon discovers that not everything is what it seems, and the children realize that there's a mystery to be solved.

The mystery quickly becomes an adventure, as the children are introduced to the Silverton family, who are involved in a very unique business - locating historical and ancient items that have been stolen and discreetly returning them to their original owners.  Where the story suddenly becomes out of the realm of reality is when the matriarch of the Silverton family asks the Alden children to basically become her agents and deliver a group of boxed items to a contact in New Mexico so that they can be returned to their rightful owners.  While I could find plausibility if this were a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mystery, where the teen detectives were in their upper teens and used to traveling around the world solving mysteries on their own, I find it highly unlikely and extremely unbelievable that such an important and most likely very dangerous task would be given to four children, three of whom aren't even teenagers yet!

Pushing that unbelievability factor aside for the moment, the plot does have some great moments.  There's an unexpected visitor on the train who tries to steal the items the children are supposed to be safeguarding.  There's some good, old-fashioned sleuthing in the library that hearkens back to days before cell phones and laptops that was enjoyable to read.  There's an intense chase at the airport and a sudden, unexpected take-off that leaves the children wondering if they've been kidnapped.  And readers will definitely enjoy following along with the children as they endeavor to unlock the clues they find.

I do give props to Garretson and Lee for writing the four children so appropriately for their ages.  The dialogue, the interaction, the reactions - everything about Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny coincides appropriately with their ages, so that none of them are out of character at any time (despite being thrust into a situation that is so totally inappropriate for four children of these ages).  The book ends with a set-up for the next in this "Great Adventure" series, a hook to hopefully entice readers to buy the next book in the series (which, I'll admit, I've already bought...we'll see how well it holds up against this one).

RATING:  7 pirates-turned-delivery-men out of 10 for reviving a love for a childhood series of books and remaining somewhat faithful to the original author's creations.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Amanda Lester and the Orange Crystal Crisis (Amanda Lester Mysteries No. 2)

Paula Berinstein returns to the world of Legatum Continuatum, that famed school that serves only the descendants of the world's greatest detectives. This second novel in the mystery series finds Amanda Lester and her fellow detectives-in-training returning to school after the break, only to be thrust into the middle of another crisis.

The Orange Crystal Crisis begins right after the school break, as Amanda Lester and her fellow classmates at Legatum return for the new semester. Berinstein throws her young detective right into the thick of things from page one, when Amanda overhears the teachers discussing the fact that something is missing from the school - something that could spell disaster for the school and everyone in it! Needless to say, Amanda confides in her friends - Simon, Ivy, and Amphora - and they realize the semester has yet to start, and they already have a new mystery to solve!  After stopping the Moriarty clan from spreading their poisonous pink sugar in the last book, you'd think these kids would want a break.  But, as the saying goes, there is no rest for the weary!

With 404 pages of story, Berinstein provides readers with not one, but multiple mysteries that somehow fall into the laps of Amanda and her friends - while the mystery of the missing whatzit seems to be of most importance to the school, there is also that skeleton that they stumble upon after an earthquake reveals a hidden room under the school grounds. Who is it, how did he or she die, and how did he or she wind up under the school?  And just what are those glowing orange crystals surrounding the skeleton?  And just where is Editta - no one has seen or heard from her, and she is never late for anything! Plus, there is the matter of the countless drawers down in the tunnels beneath the school - why are they there and what secrets could they hold?

And if that weren't enough - Amanda comes face to face with Scapulus Holmes!  If you thought their ancestors were always at odds, you ain't seen nothing yet. Amanda takes an immediate dislike to the Holmes boy, even though he is nothing but friendly and courteous to her. When the headmaster gives the two of them a project that they must complete together, Amanda doesn't know how she will survive it. However, all of her pride gets swallowed when she and her friends discover something unexpected about the crystals - they are alive (in a way), and the only way they can ensure they don't fall into the wrong hands is with the help of - - yup, you guessed it - - Scapulus Holmes.

Despite the length of the book, the story is constantly moving, and Berinstein weaves back and forth among the numerous mysteries without losing the reader.  We are introduced to a number of new students (new to us, not necessarily the school), as well as new teachers (again, new to us, not the school), and we get to see a lot more interaction among Amanda's friends, fleshing out their personalities.  However, I do think the author went just a bit far with Amanda's dislike of Holmes.  I realize the characters are barely teenagers, but Amanda's constant whining about Holmes and her dislike of him began to grow old after a while - and the sudden change that takes place about 2/3 of the way through the story happened so quickly, with no gradual build up, that it felt forced (and sadly, did not last).  I did, however, enjoy the inclusion of Clive into this little group of mystery-solvers.  He makes an excellent edition, and I certainly hope Berinstein continues to utilize him in future books.

And not to be nit-picky (but these next items were too glaring to not be noticed), but there were two major continuity issues that literally jumped off the page when I read them.  On page 157, when deciding how best to search the tunnels under the school, the kids decide to flip a coin - - only problem is, no one had a coin, so Simon used a virtual coin.  Then, just two pages later while they are still in the tunnels, Ivy fines Amphora for insulting Simon (an on-going thing throughout the book as Ivy tries to get Simon and Amphora to stop fighting) and Amphora easily produces a fifty p coin!  Now, just where was that coin two pages earlier when they needed to flip one?  Later in the book, as Amanda and her friends are in the common room discussing the mysteries, on page 326 it states, "Meanwhile, Editta and Amphora left and Amanda and Simon turned the subject back to the crystals."  Just three paragraphs later, at the top of page 327, when Amanda makes it clear her feelings for Nick are gone (after what he did in the previous book), the author writes, "Simon and Amphora looked at each other."  If Amphora left with Editta, how did she and Simon look at each other?  Obviously, neither of these ruined the enjoyment of the book, nor did they completely take me out of the story when I read them - but they were pretty obvious errors that I'm surprised ended up getting past the editing stage and into the final printed version.

Surprisingly, the resolutions in this mystery are not quite as clear cut as they were in the first - yes, we do find out what the missing item is, who has it, and what ultimately happens to it.  Yes, we find out exactly what the crystals are and how they do what they do.  But the remaining mysteries are not neatly wrapped up, leaving elements unanswered (perhaps to be resolved in future mysteries, as this book makes it clear that the Moriarty family is going to be an ongoing threat to the school and its students, and that there may even be a bigger threat orchestrating behind the scenes!).

Oh, and lest we forget, Amanda's passion for film-making is not overlooked.  There are some interesting developments with her continued communications with the director, Darius Plover.

Overall, this was a great read, well-plotted and perfectly paced.  Am definitely curious to see what Purple Rainbow Puzzle holds in store for Amanda and her friends.

RATING:  8 surprise birthday parties out of 10 for showing readers that being a Lestrade can sometimes be better than being a Holmes!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Peepland - a Hard Case Crime Comic

And they lived happily ever after...NOT!

Christa Faust is no stranger to hard-hitting stories. When I first saw Peepland advertised in the Titans Comics section of Previews, I immediately recognize Faust, as she had authored several horror books that I have read (including a Friday the 13th novel, a Nightmare on Elm Street novel, and the movie novelization of Final Destination 3). Thus, I not only knew she was a great writer, but I knew she wasn't afraid to tell a killer story!

Published under the "Hard Case Crime" imprint, Peepland tells the story of New York City at the end of 1986 - back when Times Square was still filled with dirty bookstores, porn-film theaters, and live peepshows.  It's the underbelly of New York and the people who lived and worked there.  Faust takes us not just into the adult-side of things, but also into these girls' homes and their regular lives filed with heartache and misery.

Roxy, one of the performers, is the main characters - and her story begins when a regular customer bursts into her booth, hides a video tape on the inside of the cushioned chair, and tells Roxy to leave it there until he comes back for it.  Which, naturally, he never does, because he is killed by two goons who push him in front of an oncoming subway.  Roxy knows something is up, so she takes the tape and passes it on to her fellow co-worker and friend, Aiesha, to hide for her.  It goes without saying that this tape holds something very important - something worth killing for - and soon enough, Roxy and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Nick, discovery what that something is - a murder, caught on tape!

While there's never any mystery as to who the killer is, the stakes are high in this roller coaster ride of a tale, with unexpected twists every time you turn around.  No one is exactly who they seem, and some people will do just about anything to cover-up the truth of the murder.  And when Aiesha's son, Lorenzo, is accused of the crime, Aiesha's girlfriend convinces her brothers to pull off a high-stakes robbery to get enough money for Aiesha to hire a lawyer to save her son.  Of course, there's also the witness to the crime, who comes forward to tell what she knows and ask the police for protection - problem is, the detective she asks happens to be on the payroll of the one man who wants this murder covered-up - at any cost!

Faust pulls absolutely no punches with this story, and there are several unexpected and rather heart-breaking deaths throughout the tale.  Just when you start to feel for these characters, when you think you know who will survive, who will not, BAM!  Faust gives readers a hard core, hard crime story that will leave you breathless, yet wanting for more.

And Andrea Camerini's art is so perfectly fitting for the story - the characters are harrowed and flawed, the backgrounds are dirty and shadowed, and you can literally feel the Times Square grit as the story flows from panel to panel.  Kudos to Titan Comics for selecting the perfectly fitted artist for this tale.

This is one story that I would HIGHLY RECOMMEND to anyone who enjoys a good noir detective / murder mystery tale - it's gripping, it's fast-paced, it's engaging, and it will keep you hoping then dash them all  up until that very last panel.  Because, just like real life, there is no happy ending in the world of Peepland.

RATING:  10 live nude peep shows out of 10 for giving readers a crime noir story that kicks you in the gut, but leaves you 100% satisfied.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 46 - The Curse of Shurafa

At long last we find out exactly what happened on Barnabas' jaunt to Cairo with Dr. Julia Hoffman and Professor Stokes.  This story has been hinted at in past audios, and finally we learn exactly what happened. With Andrew Collins reprising his role as Barnabas Collins (and yes, the fact that the actor is a "Collins" himself is not lost on me), Stephanie Ellyne continues voicing Amy Jennings Cunningham, while Scott Haran plays her son, Harry (as he did in the Bloodlust mni-series).

The Curse of Shurafa is told as a flashback, as Barnabas sits at the table with Harry, following the events in the Bloodlust story.  Barnabas tells Harry about the trip he took with Professor Stokes and Dr. Hoffman to Cairo, where they visited the famed City of the Dead cemetery.  Only, their visit quickly turns to horror when zombie-like creatures infested with flies appear and seem to be chasing after a young woman - a woman they soon discover is the last in a bloodline that is keeping a cursed Egyptian noble from coming back to life!

Author Bob Morris weaves a captivating tale of horror, friendship, love, family, evil, and sacrifice, as Barnabas quickly discovers that Dr. Hoffman has been infected by the spirit of Shurafa - and the only way to save her is to kill the young woman who can end his curse and free him to come back to life and reign terror on the earth!  What length will Barnabas go to in order to save his friend, the woman who has stood by his side for so many years and has done everything in her power to save him?  How can he not do anything he needs to in order to save her life?

As Harry listens, fully attentive to every word, Barnabas reveals the cost required to save Dr. Hoffman - and their ultimate battle to keep Shufara from every being freed from the curse that keeps him bound in his sarcophagus.  But did they truly defeat him?  For, before this story is finished, one final shock is revealed - one that will test the limits of family loyalty and love and prove, once and for all, that the Collins' family will always stick together and they will always win.

While Andrew Collins provides the voice of Barnabas, he also does the voices of Professor Stokes and Dr. Hoffman as he relates the events that occurred in Egypt.  What's funny is that there are moments where he manages to capture Thayer David's unique voice, and there are a couple of instances where it sounds like they used some footage from the original Dark Shadows with Grayson Hall's one-of-a-kind moans and cries of "Nooooo!"  There is also a reference to Professor Stokes helping Amy fight some zombies, which Amy also mentioned in an earlier audio drama, The Happier Dead.  This again shows the strengths of the writers and editors of these DS audios, as they keep the continuity flowing nicely, and even with stories that have never actually been told, the references are dropped now and again to keep it all the more real.

RATING:  9 fly-filled corpses out of 10 for honoring Thayer David, Grayson Hall, and Jonathan Frid with a great little story about the characters they so vividly brought to life on screen.

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!