Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 3 - The Star Reporter Mystery

Riddle me this - when is a Ted Wilford mystery not really a Ted Wilford mystery?  Why, when Ted Wilford is not the one solving the mystery, that's when!

I enjoyed the first two books in this Ted Wilford series, and so I picked up this third mystery with the expectation that it would be just as good. I was surprised, though, when the story opened with not Ted, but rather, his brother Ronald.  Thinking this was simply a lead-in to Ted's latest mystery, I kept on reading, only to discover that no - The Star Reporter Mystery was Ronald Wilford's opportunity to shine and show off his reporting and mystery-solving skills.

While, not at all what I was expecting, the book was still a really good read, and the mystery was well plotted and rather intricate for a young adult book.  The story centers around the mysterious disappearance of Barry Knight, a fellow reporter at the newspaper where he works (the Cleveland Star). Ronald's boss asks him to look into it and see if he can't find the missing reporter.  Ronald starts with Barry's secretary, Carole Curtis, on whom he has a secret crush.  She is unable to offer much help, though. Ronald checks in at the boarding house where Barry lives, but find no clues there either (other than a violin case that appears to have been left behind).  With nothing to go on, he starts delving into the most recent stories Barry was working on - but even an interview with the man who was the subject of the last story reveals nothing new.

I have to admit, this mystery kept me guessing.  With Barry Knight, nothing is exactly what it seems.  The more Ronald delves into the mystery, the more twists and turns there are.  Ronald ultimately elects to follow up on a letter of recommendation that was the only personal item in Barry Knight's personnel file at the paper, in the hopes that uncovering elements of Barry's personal life and past life might shed some light on where he has gone.  The only problem is, the man who wrote the letter of recommendation is deceased, his wife does not recall Barry Knight, and the town high school and the local newspaper have absolutely no records of a Barry Knight having ever lived there or having gone to school there!

So this begs the question - just who is Barry Knight, really?

Ronald begins to pick up on clues that he gleans from the newspaper reports of a robbery at a local gas station in Barry's alleged home town, and ultimately he calls his brother, Ted, to come help him as he picks up on the trail of where Barry may have gone.  Along the way, Barry's father suddenly appears, hoping to locate his missing son, and the three of them head up into the mountains to a secluded hunting lodge, in the hopes of finding Barry.  It's a definite race against time, as not only are Ronald and Ted searching for Barry, but men working for a purported crime syndicate are also hunting for Barry, and a possible avalanche in the snow-filled mountains threatens them all!

Once again, Norvin Pallas has written an intriguing tale that is not obvious from the get-go, which makes for a very enjoyable read.  I am definitely thrilled that Wildside Press is reprinting this series that I (and probably countless others) would never have the opportunity to read, and I'm looking forward as more of the books are published!

RATING:  9 visits to Short Vincent out of 10 for keeping the mysteries surprising and fresh and proving that even a boys' mystery can be a great read.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Spencer & Locke - an Action Lab mini-series

What would happen if Calvin & Hobbes grew up to become police detectives?  And what if Calvin's home life was not all sun and roses?  And what if a childhood friend of Calvin's was murdered, leaving behind a child that was his?

All of those questions (and more!) are answered in Spencer & Locke, a four-issue mini-series published under Action Lab comics' Danger Zone imprint.  Written by David Pepose and art by Jorge Santiago, Jr., this series tells the story of Locke and his stuffed blue tiger, Spencer (who Locke imagines is a real, live, talking tiger that assists him on his investigations).  Of course, he is nothing more than a stuffed animal, but for Spencer, he is a life-long friend that has always been there for him, through some of the worst moments in his life (such as being beaten by his mother or sexually abused by his babysitter!).

I have always loved the Calvin & Hobbes strip, so I wondered just how this dark/noir take on the characters would go.  I'm not a fan of the dark turn that comics have taken lately, as comics should be an escape - they should be entertainment, not reflections of the darkness in the real world.  Spencer & Locke pleasantly surprised me, and for that, I am glad.

While there's no getting around the dark nature - his best friend and mother of his child murdered, his abuse, both physically and sexually as a child, and the violence galore - there is actually an almost child-like innocence to the tale, sort of like a child Locke playing grown up with his imaginary friend (in fact, I could almost imagine this whole story as nothing more than a made up game little Locke was playing with his stuffed tiger as a child).  As a reader, you immediately get drawn into Locke's world.  You feel his pain at finding his childhood friend left for dead.  You admire the fact that he moved past all of the pain in his childhood to become a police officer and fight to protect the innocent.  And you smile at his continued dependency on Spencer, an imaginary friend who proves more useful than one might expect!

The mystery, as you can obviously tell by now, is who murdered Locke's friend and why.  Pepose spins a good yarn and reveals a lot of secrets about the town, about his friend, and even about his own father.  In solving this crime, Locke has to face a lot of unresolved issues with his past and his family, and Pepose provides a really sweet twist ending that I honestly did not see coming.  He writes a very satisfying mystery that is neatly tied up, but definitely leaves you wanting for more.

Santiago's art is spectacular.  The "real" world sequences are beautifully rendered, even during the violent scenes - and yet his panels of Locke's childhood play a loving tribute to the Calvin and Hobbes strip - one of my favorites was the one with the snowmen fighting each other - so classic!

I would definitely love to see where Spencer and Locke go from here, so I'm hoping that Pepose and Santiago have more stories to tell.

RATING:  9 stuffed rabbits named Hero out of 10 for creating such a great twist on a classic strip and keeping it fresh and enjoyable.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Thea Stilton, Book Three - Ghost of the Shipwreck

It's been a while since I've read one of these Thea Stilton titles, and quite frankly, I had considered just giving them up - read what I had already bought, put them on the shelf, and then forget about them.  However, after reading this third mystery in the series, it rejuvenated my interest in the series a bit, and I may pick up a few more...

Thea Stilton and the Ghost of the Shipwreck is a fun story about not one, but two different treasures that the "Thea Sisters" find!  As with the prior book, Thea Stilton is little more than the narrator for the framing sequences, and the five mouselings - Nicky, Colette, Pamela, Paulina, and Violet - are actually the mystery-solving protagonists.

As the title and cover would suggest, the story opens with the girls stumbling into a mystery surrounding a legend about a ship that supposedly sank just off the coast off Whale Island, where the girls attend school.  Before you know it, Professor Ian van Kraken goes missing, and it's up to the girls to find him!  In an unknown-to-the-reader-at-the-time subplot, a new nautical transport company is making waves (yes, pun intended!) as its owner takes business away from the previously sole source of transportation on and off Whale Island.  With his new hydrofoil ferry, Captain Coral is able to transport people much faster than the old transport.  Of course, the reader has to wonder if there is another reason this new Captain has set shore on the island.

Meanwhile, the girls finally locate Profession van Kraken - but in doing so, they not only discover the remains of the sunken ship, but also find the treasure long thought lost to the world.  The only problem is, they aren't the only ones who were looking for it.  The girls end up kidnapped aboard the boat of someone they thought they could trust, and it is only by a stroke of luck they manage to escape and see the criminal brought to justice.

But wait!  There's more!

The mystery of the shipwreck only fills about half the book; the remaining half is devoted to yet another treasure hunt, as an old friend of Violet's asks the girls to come to Beijing to help him solve a mystery about another treasure.  Of course, the girls jump at the change and are soon whisked away to China.  Once there, Xiao shows them a unique lacquer box her mother purchased, but which a mysterious Madame Hu is desperate to obtain.  The girls soon discover the box is a map to a treasure of the Jade Princess, and it becomes a race to see whether they can beat Madame Hu to the treasure!

It's interesting the author chose to basically combine two mysteries into one - and with the cover and title what they are, it comes as a jarring surprise when barely halfway through the story the girls solve the mystery surrounding the shipwreck and go off on a secondary adventure.  At the same time, it was a bit refreshing to have two relatively quick mysteries solved in the span of one book and both of them to be fairly enjoyable.

The reading level for this book is listed on the back as "RL3" - which I would assume means Reading Level 3.  When I did a search online, different sites gave different age levels for these books - some indicated the books are aimed at grades 4 - 6, while others indicate grades 2 - 5.  I'd have to say, the books are a bit complex for beginning readers, but they are definitely pre-Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys level books.  Whatever the target level, I'd say if you or your child enjoy some fun, easy-to-read mysteries, then this is the series to read.

RATING:  6 hydraulic dredgers out of 10 for keeping the fun in easy to read mysteries for all ages!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 15 - The Professor and the Puzzle

When Simon & Schuster reduced the number of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books being published per year, I had hoped that meant two things - (1) the books would have a greater page count within which to allow a story to be more fleshed out with greater character development, and (2) that the stories would have more depth and be more engaging. This most recent Nancy Drew mystery, however, evidences the fact that S&S is still trying to sell this series based on the brand name alone, which is sad.

The Professor and the Puzzle (really?  I mean, who in the world came up with this name for the mystery?) has a fairly good premise to it. Nancy, Bess and George are invited to Oracle College's Greek Gala, a big fundraising event for the college that also serves as a way to help boost their enrollment. It's a huge event just outside of River Heights where everyone, from students to faculty to sponsors, dresses up as a Greek god or goddess. This year's event, however, goes south when the keynote speaker falls from a balcony and is seriously injured.

Was it an accident?  Or did someone sabotage the railing that the young man was leaning on as he gave his speech?  And if it were sabotage, why would someone want to hurt a student who everyone claims is so well-loved at the college?  With Nancy Drew in attendance, it's a pretty sure bet she'll be on the case!

Even though the plot deals with sabotage (which these S&S writers can't seem to do anything but sabotage, making it a tiresome plot device), the underlying mystery is actually pretty good.  [NOTE:  SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!]  At first, it appears that someone has it in for Sebastian Rivera, one of the most popular students at school that everyone appears to love.  When he falls from the balcony while giving a speech, Nancy quickly discovers that the balcony railing had been sabotaged so that it would break if anyone leaned on it.  Only, everything is not what it first appears, for soon after, Nancy finds she is on the wrong track when it turns out one of the professors who is not well-liked at all was the intended speaker, but a last minute change put Sebastian on the balcony instead.  When that professor's prized parrot goes missing, Nancy is sure someone is out to get her. Then, during her investigation, Nancy is knocked out a window and is almost seriously injured in an accident meant for the professor, Nancy realizes the stakes are high and she must find out who is behind the attacks on the professor!

And there are some great moments in the story as well - while Nancy and Bess both dress up for the party as goddesses, it is interesting to note that the author has George dress up as Hermes, a Greek god. This begs the question as to why Nancy and Bess would dress in female form, while George would choose to dress in the male form?  There's also the introduction of Iris Pappas, who is toted as an "old friend" of Nancy's from her early childhood.  The interaction between Nancy and Iris is one between good friends, and even Iris' father refers to Nancy as his "little fox."  There is a reference to "The Case of the Missing Cat," which Nancy and Iris tried to solve when they were very young.  Iris could also be a replacement for Helen Corning from the original series, as Bess and George must both leave the college early the next morning after the party, so they are unable to assist with the mystery-solving as they normally do, leaving Iris to become Nancy's new partner-in-crime (even helping her break into the security room at one point to look at the security camera footage from the night of the party).

Unfortunately, all of this could not overcome the weaker elements of the writing.  Such as, when has Nancy suddenly developed a phobia of being in large crowds?  Several times in this story, the author has Nancy become overwhelmed, to the point where she needs to sit down, from being crowded with so many people around her.  Was this some new "human weakness" that the author tried to instill in Nancy to make her more relatable with her readers?  In addition, since when did everyone start referring to Nancy as simply "Drew"?  Both George and Iris refer to her in this way throughout the story, and it makes me wonder if the book was written some time around when the television pilot was being considered for a series, since the title for that show was simply Drew. And then we have the culprit behind all of the sabotage.  To say the culprit's identity is pretty obvious from the get-go is a pretty fair statement.  It leaves the reader with a feeling that Nancy is simply blind in this story to miss all of the glaring clues that literally jump off the page when they appear!  I won't go into them for fear of spoiling it too much for those who want to read the story, but let's just say this mystery is not one of Nancy's finer moments.

And on a side-note - it is confirmed in this book that Nancy, Bess and George are still in high school.   On page 26, Iris's father, who also happens to run the college, tells the girls he hopes they will consider Oracle College after they graduate.  Later, on page 88, Iris's father warns Nancy to keep her investigation on the down-low, as he and his college will become a laughingstock if people discovery he is allowing a "high-schooler" play private eye on his campus.  Now, this could mean the girls are seniors in high school, getting ready to graduate, which could place them at 18-years old or so; or it could be the summer between their junior and senior years; or they could be juniors in high school, placing them at 16 or 17 years of age.  At any rate, Nancy and friends are no longer as carefree as the original series when they were out of school.  I would love to see this series character outlines to find out exactly how S&S sees Nancy, Bess, and George these days.

One final note, and this about the cover.  The scene depicted by Erin McGuire (who has remained the cover artists for all 15 books so far) comes straight out of the book, from page 125.  Since there are no internal illustrations (which I really miss from the Nancy Drew books!!!), it's nice to see a cover image that is a specific scene right out of the book.

The title and cover for the next book, The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane, gives high hopes that perhaps S&S is taking the series back in the direction of its original books.  One can only hope!

RATING:  5 African gray parrots out of 10 for at least providing a unique setting and supporting cast for the mystery.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tarantula, Case File 1: Penumbra

Picked this graphic novel up based on the ad for it in Previews (the magazine that gives the solicitations of all the comics coming out in a particular month, usually 2 or 3 months in advance of their actually hitting the newsstand). I'm usually willing to give indy comics that feature female protagonists a try, and this one seemed fairly interesting.

It was not at all what I was expecting!

Who is Tarantula? That is not a question that is answered in this first story.  Yes, readers will immediately see that she is a tough-as-nails crime-fighting super hero that deals with more than simple street villains.  Yes, readers will get a brief glimpse of her origin - of how she was taken in as a little girl by Senor Muerta and trained to fight and survive.  Yes, readers will see her bravely take on a number of supernatural miscreants, such as vampires and werewolves and even demons from beyond.  But other than that, this new super hero remains a mystery.

"My name is Tarantula.  It's not the name I was born with, but it's the name that suits what I have become - - a protector of the innocent, an agent of order in a world of chaos.  And as long as I draw breath, I will destroy evil in whatever form it takes!"

That is who Tarantula is.  Written by Favian Rangel Jr. and with art by Alexis Zieritt, Tarantula is a throwback to the comics of the '40s and '50s. It is a mixture of horror and superhero.  It tells a straightforward story, gives readers just the information they need to know to enjoy the tale, and doesn't bog the book down with extended backstories or flashy splash pages every other page.  Tarantula is the tale of one woman who is determined to take down the criminal element in her town, only to discover that there is a satanic cult that is out to do more than just control her town.  Calling in a favor from her old mentor, Senor Muerta, and teaming up with the new vigilante in town, Sombra, she takes the battle to the villains in order to stop them from opening a gateway that will unleash Penumbra on the world.

The art is a bit what I would call primitive - and maybe that's not the correct word, as it's bad, per se, but it's not what I would call standard in today's comic world.  However, it is certainly fitting for the story and the character, and swings back and forth from little to no backgrounds to very detailed backgrounds (depending on what is happening with the story/characters).  And the book is colored in mostly red and black, with some blue, green, and yellow thrown in here and there for added effect.

Not sure if there will be any more original graphic novels featuring Tarantula, but if Rangel and Zieritt get together to tell more stories, I'd be likely to buy them.

RATING:  7 lucha libre detectives out of 10 for telling a comic story the way it should be told - simple, to the point, and done-in-one!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Viv and Charlie Mystery, Book One - The Darkness Knows

"Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man? The Shadow knows!" This catch phrase from the Shadow radio serials is pretty much commonly known, and quite frankly, it's what attracted me to the book. The title is clearly a play on the words, and the fact that it is set in 1930s Chicago and centers around a radio starlet sold me (well, honestly, it actually took a couple of months before I bought it, but I did pick it up pretty much every time I went into Barnes and Noble).

The Darkness Knows is Cheryl Honigford's first novel, but she definitely hits the ground running with this tale. The protagonist, Vivian Witchell, is a former secretary turned up-and-coming radio star who may finally be getting her big break on the detective drama, "The Darkness Knows."  Life is great, as she may also have finally caught the eye of her co-star, the gorgeous actor, Graham Yarborough. But, as with any good mystery, fate has other plans.

When Vivian overhears a has-been actress arguing with an unknown man, she doesn't really think much of it.  After all, Marjorie Fox may think she is still the big star of radio dramas, but in reality, everyone knows she is little more than a washed up drunk.  Why the station's owner, Mr. Hart (and yes, the name made me think of 9 to 5 as well), keeps her around is anyone's guess. But that was none of Vivian's concern.  At least, not until she comes back to the station late that night to pick up the umbrella she left behind and stumbles across Marjorie's body in the radio's lounge.

Who killed Marjorie Fox? That is suddenly the question everyone is asking, and Honigford writes a wonderful murder mystery that is filled with suspects. No one liked Marjorie Fox, and it seems no one feels bad that she is gone.  There are plenty of people who had motive and opportunity - but the strange note found next to Marjorie's body indicates that Vivian could very well be the next victim.  Enter: Charlie Haverman - a private detective hired as a consultant for "The Darkness Knows" radio show who now is being assigned to protect Vivian from the potential threat.

But is Vivian really in danger?  Honigford does a great job of keeping the reader guessing on that point, and it seems just when you think you have it figured out, she throws you a curve ball and leads you in a completely different direction. Now, I will say that I did guess the killer pretty early on, but that's not because the author makes it obvious - I think it's simply because all my years of reading mysteries and watching television mystery shows has taught me how to pick out a killer from a cast of suspects. However, that did not stop me from enjoying the book at all - instead, it left me thrilled at the end that I was able to solve the crime right along with Vivian and Charlie (and while I did guess the killer's identity, I did not have the motive right at all).

Honigford provides two very interesting characters in Vivian and Charlie.  Vivian is headstrong and determined, does not want to fall back on her family's wealth, and when she wants something, she will do what she needs to in order to get it (to a degree).  Charlie, on the other hand, is a man's man, a product of his time who is very protective of the females around him and who has trouble coping with a woman who won't just let him tell her what to do; yet, at the same time, he finds himself attracted to Vivian's stubborn nature, and yes, the two definitely have the whole sexual tension thing going on that every male/female detective duo seems to have.

There are also plenty of supporting characters who ground the story and bring Vivian and Charlie's world to life - Vivian's best friend and fellow secretary, Imogene ("Genie"); the elevator operator, Angelo; the owner's daughter and station gopher, Peggy; the station's electronic whiz, Morty; Vivian's arch-nemesis, Frances; Vivian's mother; fellow voice actors; and so many others that flesh out this tale of 1930s radio and give the reader a sense of reality.  It will be interesting to see how many of them carry over into the next mystery.

Overall, an excellent read and another great adult mystery series to add to my collection.

RATING:  10 cowhide chaps and matching vests out of 10 for showing readers just want kind of evil really does lurk in the hearts of men!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Virginia Mysteries, Book 5 - Midnight at the Mansion

That pre-teen trio of detectives - Derek, Sam, and Caitlin - return for their fifth mystery-solving adventure in this latest book from author Steven K. Smith. And as Smith continues writing this series, his familiarity with the characters shows in their development as individuals,  and his storytelling techniques improve in keeping the story moving and keeping the reader engaged!

As with all of his prior books, Midnight at the Mansion is set in Virginia, this time at Richmond's historic Maymont mansion and its sister palace, the Swannanoa up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mystery involves the theft of two bald eagles that were kept in the animal sanctuary on the Maymont estate, and an FBI agent that literally stumbles across the three children as he attempts to evade capture by the criminals.  He barely has time to whisper, "Save the eagles," before he is up and running, leaving Sam, Caitlin, and Derek to wonder who he is and what he meant.

This book definitely has a stronger mystery than the last one, and it's got all the spooky elements that make it reminiscent of the old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. There's an old, abandoned mansion isolated in the mountain.  There's a dark, creepy tower with a locked room.  There are cryptic clues that the kids have to decipher before it's too late.  And the villains are the heartless, ruthless kind who are kidnapping endangered animals and selling them for profit in the secret of night.

The characters of Derek and Caitlin are much stronger in this book - Smith definitely has them growing up, which is nice, as it gives the reader an opportunity to watch as they mature and change in personality. Sam, however, seems to do nothing but whine in this book, which is somewhat annoying at times. I realize that he is the youngest of the three characters, but it would be nice to see him do something other than worry and complain (in a lot of ways, in this book Sam reminds me a lot of Bess Marvin - and all the Nancy Drew fans out there will know what I'm talking about).

On the lighter side, it's nice to see Smith utilizing other supporting cast members, such as Caitlin's father (who is the one who takes the kids hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains) and their neighbor, Mr. Haskins (who is always ready to impart some knowledge on the kids).

And I can't let it go by without saying something about the cover. Not sure who the artist is, as he or she is never identified (all the copyright page says is "Cover Design by EBookLaunch.com"), but I will admit to a smile at seeing the mansion, with the bird flying overhead. With all the blue and grey, the night sky, and the design of the mansion itself, I immediately had a flash of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? run through my mind.  It also bears some resemblance to the cover of the next Nancy Drew book coming out in January, The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane. It's nice to know the Gothic mystery covers are coming back in style!

Don't see any news about a sixth book in the series, but the author's website indicates there is an online short story available, so I supposed I'll have to check that out while I wait for the next book to be written (at least, there better be one on its way!).

RATING:  8 piercing warning whistles out of 10 for putting the "mystery" back into children's mysteries!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship

For me, the name Philip Pullman I associate with the Sally Lockhart mysteries, which were four mysteries set in London, the fourth of which barely features Sally.  They were interconnected and great reads. However, for a lot of people, I know Pullman's name is probably more recognizable for his series, His Dark Materials, from which the film The Golden Compass was based.

So, when I saw this new hardcover graphic novel on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I thought I'd give it a try. The Adventures of John Blake: Mystery of the Ghost Ship is not just the story of John Blake. In fact, John Blake doesn't really come into the story until 31 pages in; the story opens with several other of our main characters - Danielle, the employee at the International Maritime Organization in San Francisco who has been uncovering an unusual phenomena regarding an alleged "ghost ship" that has appeared throughout history; Mr. Harland, a man who seems more than determined to keep Danielle from uncovering the truth about that ship; Roger, a James Bond-type operative who is digging into the activities of the Pentagram Foundation and why they are so interested in the ship, the "Mary Alice"; and Serena Henderson, a teenage girl on vacation with her parents in the South Pacific when the ship appears, causing her to fall into the ocean - - and be rescued by John Blake himself!

And that's when the story really begins...

The "Mary Alice" is a very unique ship - its passengers are not only from all walks of life and from all around the globe - they are also gathered from various points in time throughout history! Serena finds herself overwhelmed, but John quickly takes her under his wing. In the present time, Harland's men steal all of the information that Danielle has acquired over the years regarding the "Mary Alice," and she is left wondering what she is going to do now - until a friend reveals a recent sighting of the ship in Fiji, where an Australian family reports seeing their ship and their daughter missing.  Danielle heads for Fiji, unaware that Harland is watching her every move and makes plans to go to Fiji as well.

As the story progresses, readers learn not only more about the "Mary Alice" and where it comes from, but also about John Blake and why he is such an integral part of the story and of the continued survival of the ship.  Readers also discover the identity of the person pulling Harland's strings and why that person is so desperate to get a hold of the "Mary Alice" and to silence John Blake once and for all.

This story has it all - high seas adventure, secret spy machinations, danger, and above all else, an underlying mystery. While the opening pages seem a bit disjointed as they jump from one unrelated character to another, Pullman manages to weave all the stories and characters together for one final showdown that will determine the fates of not only Danielle, John, and Harland, but the entire world and the future of science!

Pullman tells a great story, and artist Fred Fordham (with whose work I am completely unfamiliar, but would love to see him do more!) brings that story to life so vibrantly. I particularly love his scenes of the ship appearing in the fog, as well as the way that he draws John Blake's expressions - such determination expressed!

This is a great book that crosses so many genres - mystery, adventure, and comics all rolled into one. There's no indication that any further adventures of John Blake are in the works, but it would definitely be nice to see Pullman and Fordham come together to tell another story of Blake and the "Mary Alice."

RATING:  9 apprators out of 10 for mixing time travel, mystery, and high seas adventure and producing a fun story to read in visual form!

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Flash: The Haunting of Barry Allen

I may not have sped through this book as quickly as Barry Allen speeds through Central City as the Flash, but I can honestly say that I finished this book quicker than most! At 414 pages, I expected The Haunting of Barry Allen to take me closer to 4 or 5 days to finish, particularly during the week when about the only chance I have to read is when I'm eating lunch or working out on the elliptical in the gym at work; however, this book drew me in so quickly and had me so easily feeling like I was watching an episode of the television show that I couldn't put it down.

Authors Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith have written a number of science fiction / fantasy books, as well as some comics and young reader books. This appears to be their first time writing a novel based on a television show, but I give them total props - they managed to capture the character and essence of each and every person, bringing the television personas to life on the page. From Barry Allen to Oliver Queen and all of their supporting cast and sidekicks, the Griffiths brought just as many smiles to my face as I was reading the book as the television shows do when I am watching them!

The first part of a two-part book crossover (the second part of which is in the next Arrow novel), The Haunting of Barry Allen focuses more on the Flash. As the Pied Piper gathers a group of rogues (including Weather Wizard, Mist, Prism, and Peekaboo) with the idea of methodically wearing Central City's defenses down until it is ready for the taking, the Flash finds himself "blurring" out of phase with this reality and seeing not only his future self urging him to run faster, but all the failures from his past - including Gorilla Grodd, Ronnie Raymond, and the Reverse Flash.  As the blurs become more frequent and seem to happen at the very moment when he is about to stop the rogues, Caitlin and Cisco do everything they can to discover the source.  When all else fails, they call in some outside help.

Enter: Green Arrow and gang.

Oliver, Felicity, and John make a trip from Star City to help their friend. As Barry's health slowly declines, Oliver and John work feverishly to protect Central City from the attacks of the rogues, who are working with precision, sweeping in and out, causing the most damage to the city without ever getting caught.  And when the Piper makes the mayor an offer that could save the city but cost them millions - as well as their famed hero! - the Flash and Arrow know that their time is running out.

Dare I say it?  The story is very fast-paced, with the action never stopping; yet, at the same time, just like the TV show, there is plenty of character interaction and development and the right amount of humor to keep it from getting too bogged down with all the action.  The timing of the story is clearly after season one (as it references Reverse Flash being gone, and Iris knows that Barry is the Flash and is helping at Star Labs), but it's not clear whether it takes place after season two or not (although there is a reference to Zoom from season two). Regardless, not knowing exactly where it fit into the TV show continuity does not detract at all from the enjoyment of the story.

I would say this is a definite must-read for any fan of the show - and in case you are wondering, it does end with a mild cliff-hanger, which sets up the second part of this story in Arrow's Generation of Vipers.

RATING:  10 microscopes with slides of fly wings out of 10 for staying true to the television version of these characters and providing a Flash/Arrow fix during the summer break!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 48 - Deliver Us From Evil

Writer Aaron Lamont brings us back to the story of Sabrina Jennings and Cyrus Longworth, and ties up some loose ends involving Alfie Chapman (remember him from Beneath the Veil?) and his girlfriend, who is now possessed by the spirit of Danielle Roget. While these may seem like an unlikely foursome, Lamont weaves a well-crafted tale of pure evil and mournful regret that brings these four together for a night of pure terror.

Deliver Us From Evil opens with Amy Cunningham running into the last person in the world she wants to see - the woman who killed her brother! But when the two get stuck in an elevator together, Sabrina tells Amy the story of how she nearly brought the darkest evil into the world...

Told in flashback, this audio book completes the story that began in Beneath the Veil, with Alfie Chapman and his girlfriend, Emma Finney (who is now possessed wholly by the evil spirit of Danielle Roget, the French murderess). They are still on a killing spree, but there is more to be had. Alfie himself is beginning to have episodes of possession - episodes in which he is willing to give himself over to the son of the Dark Lord! But it seems that demon is toying with him, just as he is toying with Cyrus Longworth, convincing Cyrus that he is stronger and will eventually take over his body completely.

Meanwhile, Sabrina has found a way to rid herself of the werewolf curse - and she is determined to help Cyrus rid himself of the evil "John" that lives within him. Her deceased husband, Chris Jennings, appears to her and tells her where she needs to go to and what she needs to do.  At the same time, the son of the Dark Lord is leading Alfie and Danielle (Emma) on a trip as well - one that will ultimately lead to a final showdown as the son of the Dark Lord sets up the pieces to finally unleash the apocalypse on Earth!  It's a final battle of good vs. evil as Sabrina and Chris do battle with Aflie, Danielle, and "John" (revealed to really be the son of the Dark Lord), and should Sabrina and Chris lose, so will the whole world!

The story is chock full of the supernatural elements that make Dark Shadows what it is, and the dialogue and emotions remind us just how human these characters really are, even while facing unfathomable evil.  The writing is exceptional, as the story flows smoothly and builds dramatically to the big battle at the end, and you easily begin to care about Sabrina and Cyrus, longing to see them both released from the curse that haunts them.

With Lisa Richards reprising her role as Sabrina Jennings and Christopher Pennock returning to the role of Cyrus Longworth, listeners will definitely feel like the show has returned in all its glory.  This tale is a reminder of just how good these audio books can be.

RATING:  10 holiday shopping sprees at Ohrbach's out of 10 for bringing to a satisfying conclusion a stories begun 13 and 14 audios prior!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

A Wells & Wong Mystery, Book 3 - First Class Murder

This series keeps getting better and better. Author Robin Stevens is getting a better feel of her characters as the series progresses, and with each book, it's easy to see that Stevens is becoming more comfortable with writing these murder mysteries. Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells have never come alive as much as they did in this book - and to see the characters beginning to grow (Hazel not only shows more backbone when it comes to Daisy, but she also begins to realize that she is becoming her own person and that she has to take a stand now and then when justice and fairness demands it) is thoroughly entertaining.

First Class Murder is an homage to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. The author admits in the acknowledgements at the back of the book that when her publisher suggested doing a book where a murder occurs on a train, her first thought was Christie's mystery. So, as a way of honoring the great mystery writer, Stevens has her two teenage sleuths take a trip on the Orient Express, as the bequest of Hazel's father. It is meant to be a vacation, a chance for Hazel and Daisy to get away from the events that had recently unfolded (in the last book, Poison is Not Polite) and for Hazel to try and influence Daisy to not be quite so focused on solving murders. Of course, fate has other plans when Miss Livedon, the undercover officer from the previous mystery, unexpectedly arrives on the train under an assumed name and ultimately reveals to the girls that she is searching for a spy who intends to turn over government plans to the Germans. She warns the girls to stay out of it, that it is none of their concern.  Daisy, needless to say, decides they simply must find the spy before Miss Livedon...

Until the murder happens.

Poor Mrs. Georgiana Daunt is murdered in her cabin, behind locked doors.  No one could have gotten in or out of the room, and yet she is found with her throat slit, her expensive necklace gone, and a train full of first class passengers who had motive to kill the poor woman.  Her husband, who was broke before her met her and has been using her money to fund his business.  Her maid, who is much more interested in Mr. Daunt and her lady's material possessions.  Her brother, who was left out their parents' will and has always held a grudge.  Her medium, who may or may not be real, who stood to inherit a considerable sum of money upon her death.  The Russian aristocrat, who claimed the ruby in Mrs. Daunt's necklace was actually her family's heirloom.  The magician who seems to be the only one with the capability of getting into and out of a locked room without any trouble.  Even Miss Livedon, who possibly discovered that Mrs. Daunt was the spy she was after.

In good ol' fashioned Agatha Christie style, Daisy and Hazel work their way through all of the suspects, narrowing it down one by one.  And with the help from an unexpected sidekick (the Russian aristocrat's grandson), they manage to work they way through a number of red herrings, exonerate a wrongfully accused suspect, and get the clues they need to solve the crime - but it leads to a rather unexpected solution!  By the end, both Mr. Wong and Miss Livedon have to admit that Wells & Wong make a pretty good crime-solving pair.

Oh, and in this book, we may not learn who "M" is yet, but we do learn who Wong Fung Ying is - but don't think I'll be revealing that secret here...

I'm relieved to see that Amazon has the fourth book in this series listed with a publication date of 2018, so I already have something to look forward to next year!

RATING:  10 forged birth certificates out of 10

Sunday, July 30, 2017

We Can Never Go Home, Volume One - What We Do Is Secret

Last year at DragonCon, I was browsing artist alley, as I always do at the comic conventions, as I usually will find some really great stuff.  I was actually browsing at another table, when I happened to glance over and see the title of the graphic novel lying on the next table - We Can Never Go Home.  Curious, I picked it up and browsed through it, as the artist, Josh Hood, told me a little bit about the book. Two teenagers with super powers, a  gun, and each other.  It was certainly a different concept, so I picked it up.

Now, nearly a year later, I finally have gotten around to reading it.  Whoa!!!  This is one helluva story, let me tell you!

We Can Never Go Home is the story of Duncan and Madison, two deceivingly average teens in small town America.  Only, each of them harbors a secret.  Madison is super strong and pretty much invulnerable when she becomes agitated or angry.  Duncan can kill people with a thought.  Or, so he tells Madison.  His real secret is something far worse...

Writers Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon, along with artists John Hood and Brian Level, tell a magnificent, somewhat dark urban tale of two teenagers on the run, thrown together by circumstance, but staying together through need and a sense of loyalty, for when it comes down to it, the only ones they can can on are each other.  Until, that is, Duncan's real secret comes out.

The story has violence, no doubt about it - but it's not gratuitous, nor flashy.  It's a part of the tale that defines both Duncan and Madison.  It's part of what makes them who they are and who they become by the end of this first graphic novel.  There's also a limited amount of nudity (surprisingly male, not female), but again - it's brief, but necessary, as it moves the story and pushes the characters further down their road of self-destruction.

What would a teenager in the real world do if they had super powers?  What would a teenager in the real world do if he or she met a fellow teen with super powers?  How far would you be willing to go to prove yourself?  To be that "knight in shining armor"?  Rosenberg and Kindlon answer that question with their first graphic novel.  And let me say, they are able to write some truly believable characters.  I easily got caught up in the story, and in the lives of both Duncan and Madison.  And there is no black and white in this story - no literal good or literal bad - instead, both characters have their good and bad traits, just like the rest of us.  The interaction feels natural, and their reactions and choices all have consequences.

I do hope that there are more stories of Duncan and Madison in the future, as the ending definitely left me a bit sad, a bit upset, and a lot wanting more.  Besides, these guys still have to answer the question of where Madison got her powers - why the government is after her - what really happened to Duncan's mother - and where do these two teens go from here?

This is definitely a graphic novel that I would place high on my recommendation list for anyone wanting a really good read!

RATING:  10 hot mix tapes out of 10 for making me really care about some teenagers who aren't exactly lovable, but who could be any of us at any time!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Greetings from Somewhere, Book 8 - The Mystery at the Coral Reef

Is it sad to admit that I actually enjoy reading this early reader series more than I have some other books I've picked up recently (can anyone say SpacePops?)?  Greetings from Somewhere is a series meant for 1st thru 3rd graders, and while the vocabulary is fairly simple (although each book does carry some of its own vocabulary lessons, particularly of foreign languages), the stories are actually pretty fun, the characters are engaging, and the mysteries are well-plotted.  Author Harper Paris manages to place Ethan and Ella in just the right place and right time to stumble across a mystery in each country they visit, but never makes it so fantastic that it is beyond believability.

The Mystery at the Coral Reef takes the Briar clan to Australia, as Mrs. Briar's globe-trotting adventures as the travel writer for their hometown newspaper continue. On this trip, however, they will be staying with their mother's sister and her husband and son (the twins' cousin, Harry). And while the trip starts off rather inconspicuously (as all the trips do), the mysteries quickly start to appear - first, in an e-mail from their grandfather who encourages them to find the Redthroat Emperor; then, a rather expensive looking watch they find on their aunt and uncle's private beach; and finally, the questionable dealer at the market who is selling items made from coral that is supposed to be protected.

Paris keeps the pace moving as the twins are taken snorkeling at night by their cousin, only to come across a suspicious boat anchored just off short from their relatives' house.  They only catch a glimpse of the name of the boat, but when they put their heads together, it isn't long before the twins and their cousin are able to deduce what is going on and who is doing what.

While the mystery is not complicated, and for adult readers, it is relatively simple to solve, the story is engaging from the perspective of its intended readers.  Plus, the many illustrations by the very talented Marcos Calo add to the enjoyment of the story (as we see it brought to life page after page).

Sometimes you need a quick and easy read to help you escape and relax, and quite honestly, the Greetings from Somewhere series satisfies that need in each and every respect.  It's fun, it's engaging, and it's well-written.  A great series for early readers and a guilty pleasure for us older readers.

RATING:  9 cricket matches on the telly out of 10 for good, clean, easy-to-read fun!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

SpacePop, Volume Two - Rocking the Resistance

Rhea, Luna, Athena, Hera, and Juno - the colorful all-girl YouTube sensations known as SpacePop, are back in the second volume of this book series written by Erin Downing.  I purchased both volumes of this series before I ever read the first one - otherwise, after reading the first one, I likely would have never picked up this book. However, since I did, I figured I might as well read it.

Sadly, this book was not any better than the first. Yes, I do realize that I am not the intended audience for this series, neither in age nor in gender. However, I'd like to think that I read enough books aimed at the pre-teen audience to be able to discern what is good and what is not. And as far as SpacePop goes, it's not the plot of the story itself that is so bad, but the actual writing and execution of the story that takes away from the enjoyment.

The story itself finds the five-girl space band on yet another adventure for "The Resistance" - this time, they are searching for the Empress's Dungeon of Dark Doom, which could be the place where the evil Empress is holding the girls' families. Thus, finding the dungeon would not only help the resistance, but also free the royal families, thus permitting them to overcome the Empress and win freedom back for their galaxy.  The resistance has narrowed down the location to five planets, so the girls use their band as a cover to get onto the planets and seek out the dungeon. Their ever-loyal butler, Chamberlin, is still acting as their manager, and the blogger/stalker Bradbury continues to follow the girls' exploits, unknowingly helping them fight for the resistance.  In each planet they visit, the girls get one step closer to finding their parents, and along the way, they manage to sabotage more and more of the Empress's plans.  The ending, though, is bittersweet, although it does leave a bit of a cliffhanger that may never be resolved...

And that brings us to the writing.  It is very stilted, very dry, and without any real emotion.  The characters come across very much as stereotypes, and perhaps that is just the author's way of making sure the reader is able to differentiate among the character (with five lead characters, they do have to all be different so as to make them recognizable).  However, there is no real emotion with any of them that comes across in the writing, and they all feel very cardboard.  The only character that actually feels "real" in any sense of the word when you are reading the story is Bradbury.  I've never watched the cartoon on YouTube, so I'm not sure if the writing there is any better, but it's a shame, really - this is a rather cool idea, so it would be interesting to see what another author could do with these characters.

At least there were two short sections of comic pages along the way, so it helped give the book some redeeming value (although some of the supporting characters are not drawn at all the way I imagined they would be).  No doubt, though, this will be the last SpacePop novel I read.

RATING:  2 android soldiers out of 10 for at least trying to provide a new take on the "Jem and the Holograms" idea.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Helena Crash - an IDW mini-series

Have you ever picked up a book or comic for a reason that others may find completely crazy? Well, most will likely think I'm out of my mind for picking up this particular comic for the reason I did - but I'll be straight up about it - the only reason I bought this mini-series from IDW comics is because of the name.

Helena Crash.

Those who know me will know how much I love the character, Huntress, from DC Comics.  Originally, she was the daughter of the Earth-2 Batman and Catwoman, and her name ... drumroll please ... was "HELENA" Wayne. So, because of this, the name "Helena" has special meaning for me. And, so, when I saw this series, the name along was enough to attract my attention, and I thought, why not.

Then I got the first issue through my subscription service and looked at the art.  UGH!  Definitely not my cup of tea. The less than proportionate people, the oddly drawn faces and heads, the almost child-like drawn backgrounds. What was I thinking?! But, I bought it, so I figured I might as well read it. And right off the bat, writer Fabian Rangel, Jr.  introduces readers to his title character, Helena Crash - a reckless, carefree black market delivery person who manages to get the people in this dystopian future what they want most - - coffee!  You see, in this future, coffee is illegal due to the nosedive that the environment took, and Helena happens to have a contact who manages to stay under the radar by growing and manufacturing his coffee underground - literally.

In a world now populated with aliens and humans alike, Helena (who is an orphan with no last name - she never knew her parents - so she took her last name from the thing that happens to those who try to chase her down - "CRASH!") tries to work outside the law, but stay neutral and out of the turf wars - such as that between the White Demon and Rojo. Unfortunately, circumstances conspire against her, and Helena finds herself thrust into the middle of their war whether she likes it or not.

Rangeltells a hard-hitting action tale that has its funny moments, as well as endearing ones, and well, before I realized it, I was thoroughly enjoying the tale.  Each issue is packed with story, and while there are several subplots that don't necessarily see resolution (leaving it open for more stories in the future I hope!), the main story sees a great resolution.  It definitely leaves me wanting for more - Helena is an intriguing character with a mysterious past, a sarcastic, but caring side, and is full of spunk and determination.

And the art - - well, it grew on me.  By the end, I realized the art had nearly as much impact on the story as the writing did.  Sure, it's not your standard art, but in some ways it reminded me of a style that would have been used for storytelling in that old MTV television show, Liquid Television.  So, I applaud IDW and Rangel for going with Warwick Johnson Cadwell as the artist for this series - definitely a pefect fit for the story and the characte.

RATING:  8 Gatling guns out of 10 for some high-speed, action-packed storytelling with characters you quickly learn to root for and love!

Friday, July 21, 2017

House of Shadows: Book One

The television show, Dark Shadows, was probably my first real foray into the realm of the Gothic (although some would say that the Nancy Drew series utilized a lot of Gothic tropes in its early years).  The house on the hill, the innocent governess, the bumps in the night, the forbidden rooms, the terrifying secrets of a reclusive family.  I was enthralled, and from that moment on, I still love reading, watching, and listening to Gothic tales.  I even took a Gothic literature class as I pursued my English degree.

So when I came across a series of books called "House of Shadows" by Darcy Coates on Amazon.com, I thought I'd give it a shot.  Honestly, the cover with the blond woman in the red dress staring at the foreboding mansion in the distance, covered by dark clouds, sold me on the book.  Now that I've read it, I can honestly say I'm glad I took the chance.  House of Shadows is Gothic at its finest.

Sophie Hemlock is a young girl who is just coming of age. She has dreams and plans, but all of that comes crashing down around her when her father's business fails, nearly destroying the family, and the only means by which he can save their family from losing everything is to give Sophie's hand in marriage to the rather enigmatic Mr. Argenton.  Sophie is uncertain, as she does not know the man, but she will do anything to help her family - so she says "I do."

As with pretty much all Gothic tales, Sophie is whisked away to a secluded mansion, one that she immediately fears when she sees it.  It is enormous, with more rooms than she can count; but it is dark and gloomy, and even the grounds that are grey and dying reflect the nature of the house itself.  Sophie is quickly introduced to the only remaining Argentons - his uncle Garrett and aunt Rose, as well as Garrett's daughter, Elise.  The house has minimal staff, but Mr. Argenton ("Joseph," as he reminds his newly-wed wife to call him) had hired a young mute girl to serve as Sophie's maid.

Mute?  Sophie immediately begins to wonder if that was intentional, to keep the girl from revealing any secrets about her new husband, his family, and the house.  And secrets, oh, there are plenty of those.  Coates provides a riveting, engaging story as one by one, each of the Argenton family secrets are revealed, each more horrifying than the last - - and just when Sophie thinks things can't get any worse, they do, particularly when she discovers that her own life is in jeopardy simply by marrying into the family.

I have to give Coates credit on one thing.  Most times, I don't pick up Gothic tales, because they are steeped in romance (which is not particularly a favorite genre of mine).  In this book, though, Coates manages to play down the romance side of things.  Let's face it, neither Sophie nor Mr. Argenton married for love, and although some feelings do start to develop, it is by far not the main focus of the story.  And for those wondering whether the Gothic elements remain subtle and grounded in reality, I can tell you right now - the supernatural is a very real thing here, as the curse on the family is tied so closely to the house itself, Sophie discovers that the house will never let her leave!

Now, the one moment in the story I did find rather odd was Chapter Twenty-Five, aptly titled "Joseph."  While the remainder of the book is told solely from Sophie's point of view (in third person), for some reason, Coates switched POV and told Chapter Twenty-Five from Joseph Argenton's point of view. Normally, that would not necessarily bother me, except for the fact that in doing so, Coates reveals much about Joseph's inner-thoughts, so much that the reader learns truths that might have been better saved for the reader to discover along with Sophie, rather than to "tell" the reader through Joseph's thoughts.  It was not enough to spoil the story as a whole, but it was disappointing to some extent to have this revealed so early.

Otherwise, the book was definitely a success for me, and the ending clearly leads into the second volume in the series, House of Secrets.

RATING:  9 red doors out of 10 for proving that Gothic doesn't need to be all about romance - that the terror and supernatural can hold the story all on its own!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Knightley & Son - Book Two: K-9

As the title of this second Knightley and Son mystery suggests, Darkus Knightley is up to his nose in canine trouble when a number of police officers are attacked by some highly trained, unnaturally intelligent dogs.  When Darkus' own Uncle Bill falls victim to one of these shadow dogs, it becomes personal, and Darkus tracks down his once again missing father to discover that he is already on the case - without him!

Author Rohan Gavin returns with another tale of mystery, danger, and the Combination as Darkus finds himself facing off against the villain who may or may not be a werewolf.  The elder Knightley believes there is a supernatural creature that is running around, but his son, Darkus, sticks to his belief that there has to be a rational explanation.  And regardless of which side of the fence it falls on, they both have their suspicions that the Combination, that sinister group that somehow affected Darkus' step-father in the previous book is behind this latest attack on London.

The story drags a bit in the first half, with the focus more on the family drama that Darkus faces with a half-crazed step-father, a missing biological father who falls into unexpected comas, and a beloved dog that he is forced to give up (but, of course, later learns will be taken in by his father's housekeeper, Bogna.  And when he forces his way into his father's latest case (bemoaning the fact that his father hid the case from him and did not include him, despite the business cards he gave him in the last book that said "Knightley & Son"), he faces disappointment when it seems his step-sister Tilly is more interested in a boy than in helping him figure out what is going on.

Once the mystery gears up, though, the pace begins to move and the book becomes much more engaging. What first appears to be two unrelated mysteries eventually prove to be interrelated, and Gavin provides a few nice surprises along the way as Darkus, his father, Tilly, and Uncle Bill, along with Darkus' new pet dog, Wilbur, race against time to solve the mystery before the next full moon.  When a reporter is kidnapped and a television celebrity discovers footage of what appears to be a supernatural creature trying to break into her home, they know time is running out.

And one warning about this tale - not everyone makes it out unscathed.

At the end of the book is a preview of the next mystery, 3 of a Kind - - which, I've had on my Amazon watch list for a while, but it was recently listed as "unavailable."  I found out why the other day, because the publisher has decided to issue the book in hardcover first.  That is SO annoying, as the first two books came out only in paperback, but I guess they sold well enough that the publisher is now going to go to hardcover first, meaning I'll have to wait another year or more for the next book to come out in paperback - - UGH!

Of course, I guess I could look at the bright side - if it's doing that well, perhaps that means we'll get a fourth book or more!

RATING:  7 strong-scented bags of coffee beans out of 10 for providing an unexpected twist ending when it comes to the villain behind all the machinations!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 47 - In the Twinkling of an Eye

The Dark Shadows audio saga continues with this forty-seventh installment, In the Twinkling of an Eye.  Interestingly enough, though, other than a very brief appearance at the beginning by David, Amy, and Hallie (and when I say brief, I mean a less than 30-second appearance), the story does not feature any of the traditional Dark Shadows characters.  Instead, this installment features the character of Jessica Griffin (as portrayed by DS veteran, Marie Wallace), who is the mother of Ed Griffin, a character introduced in the very first DS audios.  The story also features Jackie Tate, the daughter of Collinsport's current sheriff, and introduces the character of "Nate."

The story takes place not too long after the conclusion of the Bloodlust mini-series, and finds Jessica released from the hospital (where she was placed after being violently attacked and left in a coma during the mini-series) and back to working at The Blue Whale. Jackie Tate is helping her out, despite her young age, and the two women have formed a friendship of sorts.  Enter the enigmatic stranger - Nate!

While the characters may not be drenched in DS history, the story definitely falls in line with your typical Dark Shadows storylines.  A mysterious stranger blows into town and immediately strikes up conversations with both Jessica and Jackie - and while both women feel a connection, it turns out that only Jessica has a real connection to this stranger - one that could have dire consequences if she doesn't figure out what it is before it's too late!  In true soap opera style, we get gradual flashbacks throughout the story, as we learn slowly but surely the true nature of Nate's connection to Jessica. There's a supernatural element to the story that is played subtly, which makes the story creepier than if it were overly dark.  Plus, in true soap opera fashion, we learn a lot about Jessica Griffin's past that, up till now, has not been revealed.

An interesting tidbit is the t-shirt that Nate wears. It's sort of a running gag through the story that Nate is always wearing the same t-shirt, and eventually, Jessica becomes somewhat hypnotized by it, as it reminds her of the garden she used to have at home - a garden that she seems to be reliving while she was in her coma (during the flashback scenes) - yet, sadly, it sort of gets dropped as the story wraps up, and there is no real explanation or connection made for the t-shirt or why it resembles her garden.

I wouldn't say this was one of my favorite stories, as it is missing the regular Dark Shadows cast, but I suppose the DS universe does need to expand to keep Collinsport alive and real.

RATING:  7 glasses of delicious lemonade out of 10 for offering up something different and giving some supporting characters a shot at the limelight.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Short(est) Lived Comic Series #6 - Lady Cop in 1st Issue Special (DC Comics)

As a comic fan, I always seem to gravitate to comics with female leads - from Wonder Woman to Batgirl to Supergirl to Ms. Marvel to She-Hulk to Squirrel Girl and so on. So, needless to say, whenever I am combing through comic boxes at comic conventions or at comic stores, when I stumble across a comic with a female lead, nine times out of ten, I'll pick it up.

This is what happened when I stumbled across 1st Issue Special no. 4 featuring "Lady Cop."

1st Issue Special was a series published by DC Comics back in the mid-70s that basically featured "first issues" of various comic book characters.  It seems to have been an attempt by DC to jump-start some new ideas and titles, but out of the 15 issues published, only one character actually jumped from 1st Issue Special into his own series, and that was Warlord.

Issue number 4 of this series featured a character called "Lady Cop." As can be pretty easily guessed by the character name, the issue tells the story of a female police officer.  Liza Warner is a young woman who witnesses the murder of her two roommates - and the only thing she sees of the murderer is a pair of white boots with black skull-and-crossbones hanging from the laces.  Knowing she will never rest easy until the killer is brought to justice, Liza enrolls in the police academy to become an officer and not only protect others, but find that killer.

Unlike today's comics which seem to drag out storytelling so as to pad it into a 6-issue collected trade paperback, this issue tells Liza's "origin" so to speak in a mere 5 pages - from her witness of the murder, to her enrollment in the police academy, her graduation, and her first act of bravery to prove herself.  It was actually refreshing reading this, as the story moved quickly without splash pages every other page and unnecessary drama thrown in to lengthen the story unnecessarily (not that there isn't drama in this issue - after all, it is very much soap-opera-etic by its very nature).  The remaining 15 pages of this issue contain the main story - "Poisoned Love."  (The title alone should give readers the immediate understanding that this story, and potential series, would be much like a soap opera)

And to say those 15 pages are packed with story is an understatement.  Liza, now an officer on the street, rescues a woman from two male attackers and sees them off to prison; she then saves a store owner who is being robbed; deals with a boyfriend who doesn't like the idea of her being a cop; and ultimately helps the woman she rescued earlier face her father and admit that she has a sexually transmitted disease.  There also remains the subplot of finding her roommates' killer (which is never resolved), as well as an introduced subplot of a friend of the two men she sends to jail who is watching her from a rooftop.

It's obvious from the subplots and unresolved story elements that DC was hoping this might evolve into an actual series; however, nothing ever came from it.  The character, though, did appear again - in the All-New Atom series as the police chief for Ivy Town, and then on the television series Arrow, as a member of the Anti-Vigilante task force.  I've never actually heard of the writer, Robert Kanigher; however, the artists, John Rosenberger and Vince Colletta, I have seen their names in other DC Comics from that period.  And speaking of time period, the story is definitely a product of its time.  The comments made by other officers regarding Liza being "the weaker sex," and the references to "V.D." rather than a sexually transmitted disease and Liza's reaction to it - they definitely date the story.

What does carry through to today's time is the character's strength and determination. Liza Warner is not a weak, timid female who needs a man to rescue her; rather, she is strong-willed, determined, and she is not afraid to step in to protect those in need.  She faces down two potential rapists; she faces down a rough robber; and she boldly confronts an enraged father - and for Liza, it's all in a days' work.

I really enjoyed the story, and it's somewhat disappointing that DC never did anything further with this character.  Obviously, I don't see "Lady Cop" as being a successful name for an ongoing comic; however, the character of Liza Warner was actually an engaging character to read, and I would like ot have seen more of her (particularly, I would have like to have seen resolution regarding her search for her roommates' killer).

RATING:  8 lighthouse beacons for floundering humans out of 10 for reminding readers that strong female lead characters in comics are timeless!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter - Movie Novelization

Evil Comes Home.

While some people have criticized the Resident Evil films for various reasons, I have absolutely loved each and every one of them.  Milla Jovovich breathed life into the character of Alice, the protagonist through all of the films, and so it was with a bit of sadness that I went to see "The Final Chapter," which is toted as the conclusion to the series of films:  Resident Evil, Apocalypse, Extinction, Afterlife, Retribution and now, The Final Chapter.

I have not read any of the novelizations until after I saw the film, and this novelization of the last film is an example of why. The books, which are based on what I assume to be the original screenplays, tend to have not only more story to them (including backgrounds, characterization, and such), but they also tend to have additional storylines that don't appear in the movie.  For this book, it was the story of Becky, the girl who Alice believed to be her daughter during the alternate reality sequences of the last film/book.

The Final Chapter stays somewhat consistent with the film, although its opening offers a lot more backstory to connect the ending of the last film with the beginning of this one. Readers learn more about the fight that Alice, along with Ada, Jill, and Leon, endured as the hordes of undead and vile creatures created by the Umbrella Corporation converged on the White House.  We find out more about Albert Wesker's betrayal (like we didn't see that coming" during the battle, and we learn the ultimate fates of Ada, Jill, and Leon.  Readers also discovery why Alice was underneath all that rubble at the beginning of The Final Chapter.

I'll admit, I had fun reading the novelization, as there were moments where I felt like I was sitting in the theater once again, watching the movie.  Alice's battle with the nightmarish creatures unleashed by Umbrella.  Alice reuniting with Claire Redfield.  The revelation of the traitor in their midst.  The big reveal of Alice's true identity and her connection with the Red Queen.  The ultimate battle between Alice and Wesker & Isaacs.  The sad deaths of some of Alice's companions.

The underlying thread of Alice's search for and concern for Becky, her "daughter," is the biggest difference between the film and the book.  The film has no mention of Becky whatsoever, while the book continues the subplot throughout the whole story.  In fact, the very end is drastically different - without providing any spoilers here, let's just say that the end of the book focuses on Becky, while the end of the movie provides an entirely different direction for the story.

And the epilogue ... I have to wonder if that was a post-credits scene in the movie, as I did not stay for the end of the credits.  Once I buy the DVD, I'll have to watch and see.  Not that it really makes a difference, since there talks of re-booting the whole Resident Evil franchise, which would make the epilogue pretty much irrelevant. (Personally, I hate the idea of a reboot.  There is a whole world of stories that they could tell set within this world already created - plenty of other characters they could follow).

So, the saga of Alice has come to an end.  It was a satisfying series of stories, and although she will be missed, I can say that they provided the story a very satisfying conclusion.

RATING:  9 decanters, sculptures, and fountain pens out of 10 for concluding the Resident Evil saga of Alice with some unexpected twists and turns, but with no dangling plot threads.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Scarlet and Ivy, Book One - The Lost Twin

"This is the story of how I became my twin sister."

With a tagline like that, how could you pass up a mystery like this? Sophie Cleverly has written a superbly plotted mystery with fun, believable characters, a dastardly villain, and intriguing clues that lead not only Ivy, but readers on a twisted chase through the halls of Rookwood boarding school as Ivy Gray searches for answers as to what really happened to her twin sister, Scarlet. The Lost Twin has everything a good mystery should have, and it really doesn't matter your age, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll enjoy it.

Shy, young Ivy Gray has been living with her slightly off-balanced aunt ever since her parents shipped her twin sister, Scarlet, off to boarding school. Ivy missed her sister, but never so much as when she receives the news that her sister has died from an illness.  Ivy is heartbroken - until the headmistress from the school arrives and announces that Ivy is coming to Rookwood to take her sister's place.  Ivy doesn't want to go to the school where her sister died, but it seems she has no choice.  Upon arriving at Rookwood, however, Ivy is shocked to discover that Miss Fox, the headmistress, meant exactly what she said.

Ivy would be taking Scarlet's place.  She would BE Scarlet!

Such a premise clearly sets the stage for the real mystery of what happened to Scarlet and why is the headmistress of the school intent on making sure no one ever finds out that Scarlet is gone. Of course, Ivy isn't going to just be facing the villainy of Miss Fox, she also has to deal with mean girls Penny and Nadia, as well as the stress of pretending to be the outgoing, trouble-making twin who was the exact opposite of her! Help arrives, though, in the form of a diary. Scarlet's diary, to be exact. Ivy finds pages of her sister's diary hidden throughout the school, and each page tells bits and pieces of a story, as well as provides cryptic clues as to where the next piece of the puzzle can be found. Slowly, but surely, and with the help of her new roommate and friend, Ariadne, Ivy begins to uncover the truth behind her sister's death. Only, the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to doubt her sister is dead. But, if she isn't dead, then where is she?

The book may be just under 300 pages in length, but it reads so easily, and it is so engaging, that I managed to finish it in just a couple of days.  I had to know what really happened to Scarlet, and I loved watching both Ivy and Ariadne become stronger and braver in their words and deeds while trying to decipher the clues and face off against the villain.  And face-off they do!  Let me say, Cleverly wrote the perfect confrontation scene, and the big surprise that is revealed during that scene was definitely not expected at all.

I did not read the preview of the second book, The Whisper in the Walls, as I did not want to do anything to spoil the pleasure of reading it (which I will get to before too long, because I can't wait to see what happens next!).

RATING:  10 midnight feats of pear drops and fudge out of 10 for keeping the young adult mystery genre alive and thriving!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Five - The Witch Next Door

Ted Naifeh takes his incorrigible little witch, Courtney Crumrin, on a brand new journey in this fifth volume of the series.  And in The Witch Next Door, Courtney does, a little growing up, we learn a little bit more about the history of Courtney's uncle and the town of Hillsborough, we take another trip down in the dangerous realm of Goblin Town, and Courtney finally comes face to face with the consequences of some of her actions to date.

This volume opens with a flashback tale, giving readers a glimpse into the history of Hillsborough, the past of Uncle Aloysius, and we learn the real reason why this town seems to be the center of the magical world and its creatures. It's a great little breather from all of the supernatural dangers that Courtney has faced over the past four volumes - it's nice to have a rather simple tale of lost love, betrayals, and good ol' fashioned soap opera scheming and intrigue.

Of course, with chapter two, it's back to our regularly scheduled programming, as a new little girl moves in next door.  Young Holly Hart is not at all put-off by Courtney's demeanor - in fact, she feels she's an outcast the same as Courtney, and before you know it, Courtney has a friend! Someone she can pass the time with, she can share magical secrets with, and someone who she soon realizes may not be as altruistic as she first thought! First, it's a simple spell to make others at school like her - but then it's a trip to Goblin Town, which quickly turns into a very dangerous rescue mission.

But is Holly Hart really all that bad?

Naifeh gives us a bit of a twist here, as he uses chapter three to give readers a different perspective of the events that led up to Holly and Courtney being captured at the end of chapter two. While chapter two gives us the standard Courtney Crumrin point of view, in chapter three, readers are treated to the same events, but from Holly Hart's point of view - and suddenly everything you thought about Holly may not be accurate! It's a great story-telling technique, and it works flawlessly here to keep the story moving and to make Holly a bit more of a sympathetic character.

The concluding chapters find Courtney facing down some pretty dangerous characters in Goblin Town, and when Holly is sent off pretty much the way the writers did with Donna Noble in series four of BBC's Doctor Who, Courtney suddenly must face the consequences of her actions as a witch. Naifeh leaves this volume with a huge cliffhanger, and it's pretty much a guarantee that readers will be rushing to get to Volume Six to find out what happens next!

The art remains above par, with the heavy use of grey, purple, and blacks to keep the gothic, gloomy theme working throughout the story.  While the character depictions took me a bit to get used to in the beginning (as they are stylistic and not drawn realistically, like with artists such as George Perez, Jerry Ordway, or John Byrne), by now, I have grown not only accustomed to it, but find that it very much fits the story and the characters perfectly, blending the story and art to seamlessly, it would be impossible to have one without the other!

RATING:  9 tainted water bottles out of 10 for providing not only great supernatural stories, but also a character that has grown and evolved with each tale and continues to be engaging with every turn of the page!

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Seckatary Hawkins Mystery - Stoner's Boy

I had never heard of Seckatary Hawkins until the name was mentioned not too long ago in a Facebook group to which I belong. I looked on e-bay and saw some of the prices were rather high for books in this series, but in glancing through Amazon, I discovered that the first two books had been reprinted by University Press of Kentucky - so I purchased the first volume.

Originally published back in 1921 and written by Robert F. Schulkers, Stoner's Boy tells the story of a group of boys who live along the shore of a Kentucky river during a much simpler time, and who band together to form a club of sorts. They take their club very seriously, and they run regular meetings and keep minutes of the meetings. The main character, Seckatary Hawkins (spelled "Seckatary" because, as he admits in the prologue, he didn't know how to spell "Secretary" when he was elected as such in the boys' club), faithfully records all of the club's meetings and adventures, and so the book is written in somewhat of a journal format in first person from Seckatary's point of view. Each chapter runs Monday through Saturday (for the boys rarely, if ever, met on a Sunday), although occasionally a day is skipped, and with 34 chapters, it's easy to see that the story takes place over the course of more than half a year.

Schulkers does not write Stoner's Boy as an origin story in any way; rather, there are several mentions throughout the tale of prior adventures the boys have had, but they are simple mentions and the reader is not given much in the form of detail. Rather, the author treats the group of boys as already established characters, and dives right into the story of the coming of "Stoner's Boy," who is a dastardly boy who causes problems not only for them, but also for the Pellham boys on the other side of the river. No one knows who Stoner's Boy is - he is sometimes referred to simply as the "Gray Ghost," as he wears a gray coat, a gray hat, and keeps a scarf over the lower half of his face so no one can ever see his face. He's a trouble-maker to the nth degree, as he maliciously attacks the boys and runs, he steals their possessions, he damages their club house and their canoes, and threatens them in any number of ways.

The boys' mentor, Doc Waters, warns them to stay out of trouble and to stay away from Stoner's Boy, but try as they might, they continue to get into the middle of things. And while the cover indicates this is "A Seckatary Hawkins Mystery," there really is not much mystery to speak of. There are a couple of minor mysteries, such as how Stoner's Boy disappears when he goes into the cliff cave, or how he disappears when he runs into the clearing on a nearby island; but the story is more of a boys' adventure tale, as the boys ultimately put aside their differences with the Pellham boys across the river and work together to bring an end to the Stoner's Boy's reign of terror.

The characters all seem to have nicknames - such as Skinny Guy and Long Tom - and there is even one character introduced half-way through whose name is Robby Hood, who is quite adept with a bow and arrow (gee, wonder where that idea came from?). The boys have a number of adventures and get into more than a few scrapes (one boy is tied to a tree and left there overnight in the rain!), but they remain determined to capture Stoner's Boy and his cohorts.

I have to give Schulkers credit - while the mystery part of the story may be tame, if not nearly non-existent, he does instill throughout the story (mostly through Seckatary's words and actions) the importance of honestly, trustworthiness, and loyalty.  It is no surprise that Harper Lee was a big fan of the Seckatary Hawkins books, and that she even referenced them in her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird (which I read many years ago, and now that I know these references are in there, I'll have to go re-read that book!). Another fact about the book is the use of dialect in his writing - Schulkers captures the essence of the time, the characters, and the location through the use of slang, misspelled and misspoken words, and the childhood innocence of immortality.

While not my typical cup of tea when it comes to mysteries, I would definitely recommend this for anyone who enjoys reading children's series, and I'll be hopping on Amazon to buy the second book published by University Press of Kentucky, The Gray Ghost.  Just wish they would reprint more from the series!

RATING:  8 floating barrels out of 10 for giving readers a great Kentucky adventure that, while a product of its time, still puts forth values that should be taken to heart today!