Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Marvel Masterworks - the Atlas Era: VENUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Lilly Long Mysteries, Book 2 - Though This be Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 2, 2017

The First Northwoods Mystery - Enchantment Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 15 - A Con Artist in Paris

I hate repeating myself when talking about these books, but when it comes to the current condition of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, I find myself thinking the same thing with each book I read - why does Simon & Schuster not allow the writers to truly flesh out these mysteries?  Some of these stories have really good plots, and a few actually have some very interesting characters that could make for a really great read if the story were not rushed to fit into a dismal 120 or so pages...

But, alas, it seems The Hardy Boys, like Nancy Drew, are doomed to the shameful idea that the brand name alone will sell the books, so why bother putting any effort into them?

The fifteenth Hardy Boys Adventures book, A Con Artist in Paris, is one of those tales that could actually make you think. It has a creative premise - the boys are on vacation in Paris, where their father is supposed to attend a detective convention (and any time I think of a detective convention, I think of the second story from the old Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries on television - "The Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom"). They are enjoying the sites, marveling at the number of street artists who are making such a splash around the city. One artist, Le Stylo, seems to be making the biggest splash, with his activist art that is always intended to bring attention to various social injustices throughout the world. His fame turns to infamy, however, when a huge graffiti exhibit takes place at the Louvre, making it appear the Mona Lisa has been stolen - all of which is a distraction for a real crime - the theft of a very expensive pen that was being held in the safe across the street where the Hardys and all of the detectives are staying!

There are two real mysteries here that the brothers must solve - figure out the true identify of Le Stylo and prove that he is innocent of what they believe to be a copycat art crime.  The boys have their work cut out for them, as it seems the entire city of Paris has turned against the artist, and he now on the "most wanted" list.  Frank and Joe end up have quite the adventure - from borrowing a car that ends up being able to fly (you'll have to read it to believe it!) to combing the underground catacombs of Paris, to the ultimate showdown with the villain behind it all (which is actually a nice surprise twist).  The plot is well-devised, albeit rushed for the sake of brevity of pages.

What does bother me about the book is the fact, by pure coincidence, Chief Olaf is in Paris on a vacation of his own, so when the boys' father is delayed, he is asked to watch over them to make sure they don't get into any trouble.  Seriously?  Of all the places in the world, the Bayport police chief just happens to pick the very same city where the Hardys are vacationing for his vacation, and they happen at exactly the same time.  Even that is a hard pill to swallow.  That being said, there is one moment that I did enjoy with the Chief in this book - when the French police inspector snubs the Chief for "interfering" with his investigation, he gets angry, and in so doing, unwittingly helps the Hardys, if for no other reason than to see an American one-up the French police.

I keep hoping that sooner or later, S&S will wake up and realize that their books will sell better if they actually flesh out the stories and make them more enticing to the young readers, who (despite S&S's belief) are not so short of attention span that they can't read a book of more than 120 pages!

RATING:  7 Sky Ranger prototypes out of 10 for giving readers a unique mystery that wasn't yet one more tale of sabotage - and surprising readers with the reveal of the culprit at the end!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Star Power - TBP Vol 3 - Star Power and the Mystery of the Zel Gux Dynasty

Michael Terracciano and Garth Graham created a unique comic and a one-of-a-kind comic character when they created Star Power.  What started as a simple space adventure with a new star-powered super hero in Star Power and the Ninth Wormhole, continued as a space opera that not only more defined the characters, but opened up more questions about the star power and where it came from in Star Power and the Search for Black Hole Bill. Now, with this third graphic novel in the series, Terracciano and Graham conclude the so-called origin story of Star Power by sending Danica Maris on a quest to learn more about her power and whether she truly is the last Star Powered Sentinel.

The Mystery of the Zel Gux Dynasty is more than just a discovery quest about the Zel Gux Dynasty and why Danica’s star power seems to have no knowledge of these alien creatures.  It’s also a path of discovery for Danica and her friends.  Readers learn more about the Countess and the reason she is who and what she is.  Readers get another glimpse of the Void Angels and their thirst for vengeance against the Star Power (as well as a change of heart in one of them).  And readers will see the camaraderie, friendship, and jealousies grow within the group as they travel from one world to the next to find the keys that will lead to Danica’s ultimate discovery – is she truly the last Star Power, or do more Sentinels exist?

Terracciano provides a fantastic sci-fi ride through space and star systems, with each planet unique in its inhabitants, their interaction with Danica’s team, and the fallout from Danica’s discovery on each planet. Danica’s relationship entanglements with Beena and Burke are also explored as Danica learns how to deal with jealousy and how people can change, regardless of their vocation and history.  Graham maintains his beautiful art, with panels and angles that are cinematic and moving in nature, keeping the story going at a pace that moves not only the action, but the reader, forward.  The intermittent jumps between Danica’s story and the psychological interrogation of the Countess play flawlessly against one another, and the brief interludes to drop subplots never interrupt the flow of the story at all, but rather leave the reader wanting for more.

I love Danica’s almost-child-like innocence with her star power; but it’s her determination and her willingness to sacrifice anything for her friends and for others that truly defines her as a hero.  She’s not in it because someone killed her parents, or because her home planet exploded, or because of any other tragic event in her life.  She’s also not doing it because she feels she has to, or because she has been ordered to do so.  Danice, a/k/a Star Power, is using her powers for good, to help people, because that’s simply who she is, and quite frankly, she enjoys doing it.  For me, the Star Power series is a completely refreshing take on the super hero / sci-fi story, and I give Terracciano and Graham the highest praise for sticking with it and providing truly entertaining, fun stories.  This is truly what comics are meant to be!

I’m hoping this is not the last graphic novel in the series. While the online comic appears to be continuing, both the writer and artist indicate in their introduction to this third book that this could possibly be the final printed book, depending on sales.  Hopefully, sales will be enough to continue with printed collections, as I definitely want to see more Star Power!


RATING:  9 flying sand dragons out of 10 for neatly wrapping up a lot of loose plot threads, while leaving just enough story open to continue the tale of Danica Maris – the Star Power.

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Cainsville Novel, Book 4 - Betrayals

I have been thoroughly enjoying the Cainsville series by Kelly Armstrong.  It has a bit of the Gothic feel from Dark Shadows, plus the supernatural elements of The Gates, and good ol' fashioned mysteries like Agatha Christie.  It has a strong leading character in Olivia Taylor-Jones (Eden Larsen), a woman with a mysterious past and an even more ominous destiny. It has definitely engaging supporting characters - Gabriel, the strong silent type and Ricky, the wild exciting type.  It has the perfect love triangle that has endured through the centuries.

The only thing this series apparently doesn't have - is a continuing saga.  Before I picked up this book to read it, I found out that the next book in the series, Rituals, is going to be the last in the series.  Which, is very disappointing, as I love the stories, I love the characters, and I really love ongoing series.  Yet, as with so many "series" in today's market, it has to be finite.  So, of course, knowing that this was the penultimate book in the series, it made it difficult to open it up and start that first chapter.

But I did ... and it was so worth it!

With Betrayals, Armstrong continues the destiny of Gwynn, Matlida, and Arawn - Gabriel, Olivia, and Ricky.  Are they doomed to repeat the same mistakes as their past lives?  Can they break the cycle of betrayals and jealousies?  As a new threat comes on the scene, and the three of them find themselves protecting the lives of desperate fae women who are being hunted by a rogue Cŵn Annwn and his broken hound, they find that keeping secrets from one another comes naturally, and what happens when those secrets come out?  Can their love and friendship withstand the test?

Armstrong plots a wonderfully crafted mystery, as I'll admit, I didn't see the twist coming with regards to who was really being the murders of the fae women.  And, as with the prior three books, she continues to drop more and more hints about Olivia's past, the reason her parents did the things they did, and more information on the two factions who are so desperately vying for Olivia to make her choice - will it be Gabriel (Gwynn) or Ricky (Arawn)?  So far, she has avoided making any final decisions, but it seems the time for making that decision is drawing close, as the battle lines are being drawn.

I love Olivia's strength - she has no problems standing up to those who would push her, and she certainly has no qualms about calling out others on their hypocrisy and their weaknesses.  At the same time, she can be vulnerable, like any real person, particularly when it comes to being hurt by the ones she loves the most.  But, as with any person, she has grown over the course of these first four books, and Betrayals gives Olivia the chance to really shine, particularly when it comes to her relationship with Gabriel and her love/hate relationship with her parents.  I'm still rooting that Gabriel will able to get her biological father freed - but he can leave her biological mother in prison to rot for what she did.  And while Armstrong has built up the love between Olivia and Ricky, I'm also still rooting for Gabriel to ultimately win Olivia's heart.  He's the real underdog in this series, despite his power and strength, and while this book does not yet answer that continuing question, I'm guessing the next (and last) book will.

So, yes, reading the book was most certainly enjoyable - it's well written, it's not riddled with editorial errors as many books I've recently have been, and it continues a saga of supernatural and Gothic intrigue that keeps me entranced - but that enjoyment was tempered with a bit of disappointment and sadness, knowing that soon, I'll have no more Cainsville to visit.  At least it won't be for another year until Rituals comes out in paperback, so until then, I can relish in the tales I have read and keeping hoping Armstrong and her publisher will change their minds...

RATING:  9 cans of beef stew out of 10 for showing the world that "supernatural" does not have to mean vampires and werewolves - there are other creatures of the night that can be just as scary, if not scarier!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Aunt Claire Presents (Book One): The Automobile Girls at Newport

There is a reason why, when I go to a bookstore, I will stroll up and down the aisles of the various genres - mystery, science fiction, graphic novels, young adult, and children's.  Sometimes, as I stroll down the aisles and let my eyes wander across each of the shelves, I will (a) see a cover of a book or a title that catches my eye; (b) see something new that I was not even aware was going to be published; and (c) see a book that really gets me excited about reading.

All three of those reasons are why I picked up Aunt Claire Presents... The Automobile Girls at Newport.  Now, to be completely fair, this was not the first book I noticed.  The first one I noticed was actually Aunt Claire Presents...Grace Harlowe's Freshman Year at High School.  My eye caught the name "Grace Harlowe" in the part of the title on the spine on the bottom shelf at the store, and I immediately knelt down and pulled the book out.  I am fully aware that Grace Harlowe was a series of vintage children's books written nearly 100 years ago, so my first thought was that they were doing an updated version, or that possibly it was a pure coincidence that the name was the same.  Those ideas were quickly dispelled as soon as I saw the cover and read the back of the dust jacket.

"These are the series books that American girls read for fun a century ago.  They are not only fast-paced tales of friendship and adventure, but also pieces of history that reveal many interesting things - good and bad - about the time in which they were written.  Look under the book jacket to see the original front cover from 1910!"

Reprints!  These were surprising reprints of series books from the early 20th century, books that I never imagined in a million years they would actually reprint.  And just as the back of the dust jacket said - under the dust jacket, the cover to the book is a reproduction of the actual cover of the 1910 edition of this book (although it is not cloth, it gives the appearance of cloth and age, even with what appears to be shadowed stains here and there, which any collector will tell you appears on pretty much any of those old series books).  There is a frontispiece, and there are illustrations throughout the book - although not glossy, they are indicated to be copies of the original illustrations from the 1910 version of these books.

Needless to say, I quickly picked up both the Grace Harlowe and the Automobile Girls books (and a quick look at Amazon.com reveals a second Grace Harlowe book is set to come out, along with a reprint of the first Girl Aviators book).  I couldn't wait to tear into these (not literally tear - I would NEVER do that to a book!!!!), so I started with what is indicated to be the first one "Aunt Claire" reprinting, The Automobile Girls at Newport.

This book begins the adventures of Barbara Thurston; her younger sister, Mollie; their friend, Grace Carter; Grace's friend, Ruth Stuart; and Ruth's aunt, Aunt Sallie Stuart (who acts as a chaperone for the girls on their trip).  Pages 7 to 18 provide an introduction (aptly titled "A Note from Aunt Claire"), which gives young readers an introduction to the book and provides information on the time period, the characters, the ideals of the day and age in which it was written, the style of clothes, etc. It also gives a snapshot of the various titles in the 6 book series. It even provides illustrations of magazines, advertisements, and photographs from the era to help enhance the reading and understanding of the book.

The story itself was very enjoyable to read.  Barbara and Mollie are lower middle-class girls who help their mother in their modest cottage.  Their father died, and although he was partnered with his wife's brother in a lucrative business, their uncle, upon their father's death, claimed there was little money left on their father's part, as he lost a great deal on speculations (although, frankly, there are subtle hints that this is not the case, and I hope that later books in series revealed the girls were not as poor as they thought...).  As with any good series book, something unexpected happens in the first chapter that gets the mystery and adventures started, and in this case, it is sixteen-year old Barbara stopping a runaway carriage.  The inhabitants of the carriage happen to be none other than their friend, Grace, and her friend, Ruth - as well as the Thurston's rather uppity cousin, Gladys Le Baron, and her companion, Harry Townsend.  As a reward for her help, Ruth invites Barbara and Mollie (much to Gladys's dismay) to the hotel in town for a special luncheon the next day - where she invites the two girls to join her and Grace on a great adventure:  travelling by automobile to Newport!

Now, this is where one has to remember the time period in which this book was written.  First, automobiles were not something everyone had.  And those who did have them did not allow women to drive them.  Of course, Ruth, much in the vein of Nancy Drew, lost her mother at a young age, has an indulgent father, and is a determined young woman who accomplishes whatever she sets out to do.  And just so the automobile journey is approved by her father, Ruth's Aunt Sallie has agreed to accompany the girls.  It is only natural the girls are able to join them for the ride, and Mrs. Thurston even provides the girls with a little extra money that she has been saving up for them so that they can buy the proper clothing for riding in an automobile (remember, most roads were not paved back then, if any where, so driving along stirred up quite a bit of dust and dirt!).  The mystery, though, begins when two 20-dollar gold pieces that Barbara and Mollie had earned are discovered to be missing after Grace, Ruth, Gladys, and Harry leave.

The author, Laura Dent Crane (pseudonym or real?  good question...), writes a fun and engaging story of friendship, jealousy, accusations, mystery and mishaps, and adventures that girls back in 1910 would find exciting and perhaps a bit tense.  In today's day and age, a flat tire on the side of the road is nothing; however, in 1910 - without cell phones, without easy equipment to jack and replace the tire - a flat tire for five young women could be a near catastrophe, particularly when it starts raining, and Barbara gets caught "borrowing" a horse for a nearby farm house to race to town to get help!  But I do give Crane credit for keeping the mystery subtle at first, but slowly building it throughout the story as there appear to be thefts at every stop along the way, with big-ticket thefts occurring at the parties the girls attend in Newport!  And while I new who the culprit was pretty much from the get-go, it was fun to watch how Crane weaved the story and had the characters slowly figure it out.  Plus, the fact that Barbara did figure it out and make an accusation that caused her to basically be ostracized from the group - only to be vindicated later when the truth came out - made for some great tension among the characters.

All who know me know that I love the vintage children's series, and this is one that I have taken a great liking to - I hope "Aunt Claire" presents some more titles from this series - would be a manageable (and affordable!) way to collect the series and read them!

RATING:  9 diamond butterfly pendants out of 10 for bringing back a classic tale and introducing it to a whole new generation of readers!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sugar & Spike: Metahuman Investigations Trade PB

Sometimes, something you read truly surprises you, and in a really good way.  That is exactly what happened with Sugar & Spike.

Comic fans of an older age may recall that Sugar & Spike was a comedic comic book about two toddlers who always seemed to get themselves into a variety of scrapes.  The series ran from 1956 to 1971, and was created, written, and drawn by Sheldon Mayer, who did quite a bit of work for DC Comics back in the day.  It seems he was the only person to ever work on the title, and when his eyesight started to fail, rather than replace him, DC cancelled the series.

Flash-forward more than 40 years later, and in 2016, DC Comics published a 6-issue mini-series anthology title called Legends of Tomorrow (likely to cash-in on the new television show that also featured a hodge-podge of DC lesser-known characters).  The anthology featured stories starring Firestorm, Metal Men, Metamorpho, and...yup, you guessed it - Sugar & Spike.  Only, the Sugar & Spike in these tales were not toddlers, and they did not talk in baby-gibberesh.  In these six, single-issue adventures, Sugar & Spike are adult investigators, doing work for the superhuman community that the heroes want kept...well, let's just say, under the radar.

Such as finding and recovering those multi-colored Batman costumes from that age-old issue of Detective Comics.  Or finding out what is happening on that Superman-shaped island from the silver-age issue of Superman.  Or how about those green, monster-type people that are hiding in plain sight, one of whom Wonder Woman nearly married way back in that early issue of Wonder Woman?  Then, there's that problem with Colonel Computron (does anyone really remember him from The Flash?).  Of course, we can't forget Green Lantern's friend Itty (the silver age of comics really did come up with some oddities). And finally what happens when three eras of Legionnaires show up to try and prevent something that they already prevented?

The fact that these stories are written by Keith Giffen should have been my first clue that they were going to be good.  Let's face it, his run on Legion of Super-Heroes...his work on Justice League International and Justice League 3000/3001...his recent work on Blue Beetle - they are all shining examples of what a stellar writer he is.  The man knows how to take serious, interject just the right amount of humor into it, and make it thoroughly enjoyable!  The art by Bilquis Evely and Ivan Plascencia fits perfectly with the characters and stories.  Plus - c'mon, taking two toddlers from the early silver age, making them grown-ups and private detectives to boot - and giving them just the right amount of tension (plus dropping hints here and there about parts of their lives that we have yet to see) - it truly has the makings for some great tales.

And the final element that made these stories to wonderful - 20 page stories all done-in-one!  That's right, no 6-part epic to make it fit into a trade.  No "to be continued" at the end of each story.  Just 20 pages of story and art that has a great, fun story with characters you get to know pretty quickly, and action that is fast-paced, but no so fast that it blurs by you (no offense, Flash).  How many writers and artists in today's comic realm can you say have the ability to do that any more?  Not many!

Of the four tales put forth in Legends of Tomorrow, I honestly had no intention of reading Sugar & Spike.  I was aware of the comic from the '60s, and so figured this would just be some "dark knight" version.  Man, was I ever wrong!  This turned out to be my absolute favorite from the series, which is why I bought the trade and re-read the stories.  Now, if DC would only take a hint and give us a regular, ongoing series written by Keith Giffen - then I would be a truly happy camper!

RATING:  10 Tiffany Trueheart dolls out of 10 for some of the best comic stories of the decade!  Don't stop now, Giffen - give us more Sugar & Spike!!!!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wonder Woman - the Official Movie Novelization

When a hurricane comes through and you have no power, trust me when I say - it gives you plenty of time to read!  And what better way to spend the time than reading the novelization of one of DC's greatest superhero films since Christopher Reeve's Superman!  The official novelization of the Wonder Woman film is, by far, one of the best film novelizations I have ever read.  It didn't just stay true to the film - it was the closest I've ever seen to a book matching the film exactly!

Author Nancy Holder adapted the film nearly flawlessly (and the reason I say "nearly" you'll see in just a bit...).  With every page, the descriptions so vivid, the dialogue such a match, that I could visualize with no difficulty the scenes from the film.  In fact, while reading the novel, I pretty much felt like I was the watching the movie again!  Every scene, every bit of dialogue (at least, to the best of my recollection), every character, every action, everything!  Yes, we did get some inner dialogue here and there from the characters, particularly Diana - but it fit the characterization, and I could easily see Diana and some of the other characters thinking these things as they acted the way they did in the movie.

I am not sure if Holder adapted this from the original screenplay, a later revision, or if she simply took it from the film itself (the last seems totally plausible, since there are no scenes in the book that aren't in the movie, and there were no scenes omitted as was what happened with the junior reader novelization), but regardless of how she did it, I am impressed with her capture of the film.  It's not often you read a book and you can actually feel the innocence of Diana as she arrives in Man's World - or feel her betrayal and anger when she thinks Steve has lied to her - or feel her determination and loss when she battles Ares after ... well, I won't say that, as I don't want to spoil anything for those who may not have seen the film yet.

Now, the reason the book is only "nearly" flawless and not perfectly flawless is because of the number of editing snafus.  It's a shame really, since I just finished making comments about the lack of editing these days in my last review (of the second Boxcar Children Great Adventure book).  Yes, as I turned page after page, I was stunned at how many grammatical errors there were, or instances where words were simply missing from the sentence, or the wrong spelling of the word.  Do books even have editors any more? Or have we become a society so dependent on technology, that we think the computer will catch any errors and we don't actually have to read the drafts prior to sending to print?

Yes, I realize to err is human - however, when I'm shelling out hard-earned money for the books, I expect the product that I receive to be a bit more professional.  One or two mistakes in a 280 page book I can probably overlook - but when there are one or more mistakes in every other chapters, it becomes annoying, as it immediately takes me out of the story, ruining my full enjoyment of the book.

But enough about that.  This is Wonder Woman.  This is the Wonder Woman that I have been waiting years and years to see brought to life on the big screen.  This is the Wonder Woman that I absolutely love seeing brought into the limelight where she belongs.  Outside of the editorial errors, this is an engaging, action-packed, smooth read that made me smile, made me tear-up, and made me wish more and more and more that this was the kind of story DC Comics would publish in their comics these days.

Thank you, Holder, for taking the feature film and making Wonder Woman just as successful in print!

RATING:  8 golden lassos of truth out of 10 for, well, simply put, bringing more Wonder Woman to the public at large!

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Boxcar Children: Great Adventure 2 - The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll

Authors Dee Garretson and JM Lee continue the world-traveling adventures of the four Alden children - Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny - as they seek to return a number of valuable objects to their rightful owners.  In celebration of the 75th anniversary of The Boxcar Children, Albert Whitman & Company is offering up this four-part "mini-series" of sorts that has the Alden Children aiding the Reddimum Society returning historical artifacts and other priceless memorabilia  to owners from whom they were stolen.  This "Great Adventure" began with the 146th book in the series, Journey on a Runaway Train (although the book is renumbered as "Great Adventure No. 1"), and continues now in this second book, The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll.

Again, I'm not sure I like the idea of the renumbering.  Both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys have done this recently (and of course, back in the '70s, the Dana Girls played that same game).  I like having a series that is high in numbers, particularly well over the 100+ mark, as it gives the series a sense of history.  This whole idea these days that people want a "new number one" for their series - - well, that just isn't me!

Aside from that, the story in this book is a step above the previous book.  Yes, the four kids, all under the age of 15, have way too much freedom as they hop from one country to another, and it is rather unbelievable that so many adults would place such trust in these kids and leave them on their own to handle as many situations as they are forced to do; yet, it is rather fun to watch Henry, Jessie, Violet, and even little Benny work so hard to figure out the riddles left for them in order to solve the puzzles that will lead them to the return of the next treasure.

In The Clue in the Papyrus Scroll, readers get to see not one, but two different treasures returned.  The first takes them to the deserts and Great Pyramids of Egypt, and such is the source of the title of the book.  The second quest takes them to Stonehenge in England, where they are nearly thwarted on their mission by the nefarious Anna Argent. Along the way, the four children have to use all of their wits (and the help of the Internet) to solve some rather unique riddles that provide the necessary clues to unlocking the packages they are delivering.  Now, being honest, the riddles were fairly easy to figure out for me (as an adult); however, for the target age group for this series, I'd say the authors did a pretty good job at providing a fun way to figure out the codes and the next destinations.

What no one seemed to do, however (and not really sure any more whose job it is in the publishing world), is edit the story.  Normally, I can overlook one, or even two, editorial misses - however, this book had some very obvious, glaring errors that could easily have been caught if someone simply read the actual story.  Examples include:

p. 17 - "I had to attend in meeting in Cairo."  Clearly, it should have read "I had to attend a meeting in Cairo"

p. 42 - "A camel's gait is not a smooth as the way a horse walks..." Here, it obviously should have read "A camel's gait is not as smooth as..."

p. 60 - Rania says, "I'll stay with the car." Yet, on the very next page, it says the Aldens and Rania walk over to the professor. Then, on page 65, it says that Violet ran over and got Rania, and they followed Ken. However, on page 70, when the children come out of the pyramid, it says that Rania and one of the Egyptian policeman stood outside, waiting for them. There is a plain case of continuity error here that should not have been missed.

p. 76 - "They ... went through the airport where was a car waiting to take them..." The mistake this time was the omission of a word, as the line should have read "where there was a car waiting to take them..."

It concerns me that editing on books these days has become a real issue, particularly in children's books, as they are the ones who are learning how to read and write - and what do glaring errors such as these teach our children?

I suppose we'll have to wait and see what the third book in the "Great Adventure" holds...

RATING:  6 shy and hungry giraffes out of 10 for searching for ways to keep a series that is 75 years old fresh and accessible to today's readers (just work on the editing!)

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Jackaby, the Second Novel - Beastly Bones

This series has quickly jumped to the top of my "most enjoyable books to read" list.  The Jackaby series is a mix of mystery and supernatural, with some well-written banter and underlying subplots that would work well in a soap opera.  Simply put, the Jackaby books are a near substitute for the Dresden Files, which series has seemingly stayed on hiatus until such time as Jim Butcher can get in the mood to write more!

In Beastly Bones, the second Jackaby novel, author William Ritter delves a little more into the past of our two protagonists - R.F. Jackaby and his assistant, Abigail Rook (from whose perspective the books are told).  Rook finally gets an opportunity to show her knowledge of archaeology when she and Jackaby are asked to assist an old friend (and former love interest of Rook!) with regards to a mysterious death - one that has a strange connection to a seemingly unrelated death right in Jackaby's hometown.

Ritter provides his usual brand of humor and quirkiness as Jackaby follows his own path of investigation upon arrival, and Rook is forced to do everything she can to not only keep up with him, but to soothe the natives who don't understand Jackaby's ways.  Something is attacking the farm animals in Gad's Valley, and someone ... or something ... is stealing bones from a rather odd archaeological find - the skeleton of what at first appears to be a dinosaur.  But the bones were found too close to the surface, and when they uncover bones that would indicate wings, there is question as to whether it is a hoax.  While the two famed archaeologists fight it out, Jackaby and Rook come to a completely different realization - it's not the skeleton of a dinosaur at all - rather, it is a dragon!

As with the first books in this series, nothing is ever quite what it seems.  From the first chapter, when Jackaby and Rook are called in to look at a woman's cat who has inexplicably turned into a fish, to the bones of the "dinosaur," to the unseen creature that keeps attacking the livestock in Gad's Valley - there is always something that is just not right; something that just does not properly fit.  And ultimately (as with any good mystery), the elements eventually tie together and lead to a very explosive finally (in this book, literally!).

Ritter throws in a number of supporting cast, some of whom are extremely likable, some of whom the reader will detest and want to knock onto their kiester.  The big trapper, Hank Hudson, is a Hagrid-type character - lovable, huge, and with a soft spot for Jackaby and Rook.  The reporter, Nellie Fuller, is definitely a go-getter - determined, strong, and unwilling to let any man hold her back.  And then there are the two archaeologists - Owen Horner, who is a bit of a prankster and never takes himself seriously, and Lewis Lamb, who is such a tyrant when it comes to his work that he is seen as a curmudgeon - who are competing for the right to study the bones found in Gad's Valley and making it very difficult for Jackaby and Rook to investigate.

One never knows quite what to expect with a Jackaby adventure, and this book is certainly no different.  There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader on his/her toes, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed Rook being reunited with the shape-shifter, Charlie the Cop.  It is interesting to note that despite the time period of the novel (late 19th century), Ritter portrays Rook as a very independent woman capable of her own thoughts, conclusions, and determination, and her impulsive decision near the end of the novel definitely had me cheering!

While the conclusion is satisfying, it still leaves some unanswered questions, which, along with the underlying sub-plots concerning the mysterious man in black and the unanswered questions of the past of Jenny, the resident ghost at Jackaby's house, leave one wanting for the next book in the series (and thankfully, I already have it in hand, so I don't have to wait long to read it and find out what happens next!).  This is most certainly a series I would recommend to anyone who enjoys a good read, regardless of what genre you like.

RATING:  10 rare Stymphalian birds out of 10 for filling the gap left by the lack of Dresden Files books with well-written, smile-bringing stories of mystery and supernatural.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 49 - Tainted Love

Back from DragonCon, and the travel time gave me the opportunity to listen to yet another Dark Shadows audio tale.  As I close in on the 50th story, I find myself loving how interconnected the stories have become, and this one seems to tie into quite a number of the audio tales so far.

Tainted Love finally tells the story that I've been waiting years for - the love triangle between David Collins, Amy Jennings, and Hallie Stokes.  When the show was originally on the air, obviously they were all too young for any kind of romantic entanglements; however, after the show ended, and I continued to think about the show over the decades, I honestly wondered which girl David would eventually end up with.  As much as I loved the character of Hallie Stokes, I still had a soft spot for Amy and hoped he would eventually end up with her.  But, when Amy returned to Collinsport over the course of these audio stories, and she was married and had two children, I realized that there was no chance of her and David getting together.  And then her husband was killed.  Leaving her a widow.  And single.


Enter Hallie Stokes.

This audio story picks up shortly after the events of the Bloodlust mini-series, as David and Amy are coming to grips with all that has happened.  David still feels guilty, even though he was possessed and had no control over his actions, and Amy is still trying to figure out how to raise two growing boys on her own.  Then a stranger shows up, accusing them of having his wife, of hiding her from him.  Just as he attacks, however, someone appears and utterly destroys the man.  That someone is Hallie Stokes, returned to Collinsport as a bona fide demon hunter.

Yeah, okay, that sounds kind of hokey, but when you remember that this is Dark Shadows, where the supernatural is common place, perhaps it is not quite as ludicrous as it sounds.  As the story unfolds, we discover that a demon is trying to crossover, using individuals who have lost something important and are completely obsessed with recovering whatever was lost, and, as misfortune would have it, all roads lead to Collinsport.  Specifically, that cave at the bottom of Widow's Hill where Angelique was living during the Bloodlust min-series.  But as David and Amy grow closer, Hallie seems more and more intent on driving them apart.

It's pretty obvious from the outset what direction the story will take.  The writer, Daniel Collard, does not in any way try to downplay or use subtlety with regards to the "villain" of this tale.  However, Collard does nicely connect this tale to a number of other audios - as this picks up shortly after Bloodlust; Hallie references meeting Amy on a train, which occurred in Carriage of the Damned; Amy mentions her meeting with Sabrina Jennings, which occurred most recently in Deliver Us From Evil; and there is talk of Maggie Evans' marriage to Joe Haskell, which is part of the plot in the upcoming 50th audio story.

Without giving anything away, I will say that the ending was not what I was expecting, nor was it something I particularly liked.  I realize that stories in soap operas like this will not always go the way I want them to, but this one just seemed too much out of character and left me wondering why they chose to go in this direction.  I assume as I continue to listen to the ongoing stories, it will eventually all play out and I'll (hopefully!!!) have an explanation.

Overall, I would have to say this was not one of their better stories.  Yes, I enjoyed the characters together again, and yes, it was great to actually see Amy and Hallie come face to face after all these years; but the story seemed a bit forced and contrived, almost as if it was written only for the reason of reaching the specific conclusion it did.

RATING:  6 hidden strips of bacon out of 10 for bringing together the youth of the original Dark Shadows for a story that resolves (??) the question of who will end up with David in the end...

Monday, August 28, 2017

DC Super Hero Girls: Katana at Super Hero High

So, after the disappointment of the recent DC SuperHero Girls graphic novel, I figured I may as well read Lisa Yee's most recent DC SuperHero Girls novel and see how it compares.  And honestly - it's almost as different as night and day!

Katana at Super Hero High is definitely a refreshingly good read.  In fact, I'd say this is the best DC SuperHero Girls book written to date.  Not only does it highlight some of DC's lesser known characters (and I'm not just talking about Katana, because Miss Martian also plays a larger role in the story, as does Big Barda), but it actually has a nicely plotted mystery to it that gives readers the opportunity to learn all about Katana's past, her family, and her heritage.  Instead of the normal teen angst or obvious super villain battles, Lee provides readers with a quest of sorts.

First, there's the sudden appearance of 100 mysterious swords in an underground tunnel.  Then there's the constant chittering sounds that suddenly appear throughout the school, with Katana as the focal point.  Then there's Liberty Belle's history project for the students to look into their heritage and report what they find.  Katana is surprised as she begins to learn that all three things are connected, and their impact will forever change her point of view about her life as a hero!

Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl - all of whom played large parts in the previous three books - have only supporting roles in this story, which really gives Katana and Miss Martian a chance to shine.  Yee may be writing these stories for the pre-teen age kids, but she treats the characters in this book with respect and does not dumb-down the story at all.  While Katana has some self-doubt and there is a bit of teen angst, it is not overplayed, and it flows nicely with the story.  There is a natural progression as Katana looks into the secret of the 100 swords, as she and Miss Martian learn how to deal with the ghost-crabs, and how she and her fellow super hero students must face off against a villain from Katana's past.

Something else I will mention, and not just about this book, but about the series as a whole, is the treatment of Harley Quinn.  Instead of the dark psychopath that DC has made her in recent years (with the exception of Palmiotti/Conner's take), Yee allows her to be a free-wheeling, high-spirited, fun-loving, hyper-active teen who simply seems to enjoy life.  And, of course, this is clearly a different reality, as these characters were not all teens at the same time, and most of them were not "heroes" in their teen years; however, it's nice to see the author really just having some fun with the characters.

As with the previous books, the epilogue in this books features the set up for the next book scheduled to come out - featuring, who else?  Harley Quinn!

RATING:  8 cryptic haikus out of 10 for combining female super heroes, the comic genre, and prose novels, and making it fun to read.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 3 - Summer Olympus

The DC SuperHero Girls are back in their third graphic novel - but sadly, this story does not quite hold up as well as the previous two did.  The concept is not so bad - it's summer vacation, and the heroes of Super Hero High School are all planning their vacation trips.  Wonder Woman gets an invite from her god-father, Zeus, to spend some time on Mount Olympus, and she is welcome to bring as many friends as she wants.  Sounds like a great set up for having these young heroes have a hey-day in the home of the Greek gods, right?

Unfortunately, that's not the direction it goes.  Rather, writer Shea Fontana, who has written two rather enjoyable stories prior to this one, instead chooses to have all of Wonder Woman's friends abandon her for other summer adventures, leaving only Bumblebee to accompany Wonder Woman on her journey to Olympus.  Summer Olympus becomes one of Wonder Woman feeling sorry for herself and upon arriving at Olympus, meeting her half-sister, Siracca, who, like her, is a half-god, half human.  They wallow in self-pity at being different and suffer through silly "dad jokes" from Zeus.  Yes, I realize these stories are aimed for younger readers, but this one felt a little too dumbed-down for my taste.

On the brighter side, Fontana and artist Yancey Labat provided brief snippets of the other students' summer hijinks, which include a summer tour in Europe with Batgirl, Katana, and Beast Boy.  The reason these interludes are more enjoyable is because the three young heroes find themselves following the theft of Greek artifacts from various museums throughout Europe.  With the help of Hawkgirl, they discover the connection the items have and what it could mean for their friend, Wonder Woman.  They head to Olympus to warn her, but it's too late...

And this is when the story actually gets good.  It seems two of the gods have some ideas of their own, and they intend to use the items they have gathered to cause strife and discourse throughout the world, beginning with Metropolis.  Once again, it's up to the DC SuperHero Girls to swoop in and save the day!  The last two chapters are what ultimately redeem the story, saving the graphic novel from being a complete disappointment.  I have really loved this entire DC SuperHero Girls line of books, toys, Legos, etc., so my standard is already set high.   Hopefully the next graphic novel will be back up to par.

RATING:  5 amulets of harmonia out of 10 for showing the comic world that female super heroes can stand on their own!

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Samantha Wolf Mysteries, Book Two - The Secret of Camp Whispering Pines

Author Tara Ellis brings readers another well written mystery with the second Samantha Wolf book. Although the present tense still takes some getting used to (you'd think after four Curious Cat Spy Club books and one Samantha Wolf book, all in present tense, I'd be getting used to it by now), the story is engaging enough to draw you in, regardless.  I suppose present tense is the "up and coming" thing in story telling, just as books have gradually made the change from third-person to first-person POV, but I will be blunt when I say that I still prefer reading books told in the old fashioned third-person, past tense.

Nevertheless, The Secret of Camp Whispering Pines picks right up just a few weeks after Samantha and her friend, Ally, return home from Hollow Inn, where they solved their first mystery.  As with any good sleuth, Sam is antsy for another mystery, but there doesn't seem to be any coming her way.  Until Ally calls with a surprise - her aunt has an extra space for one more camper at a week-long summer camp, and Ally asks Sam to take that spot.  While it's not quite a mystery, a week in the woods with horseback riding, swimming, crafts, and sports sounds good to Sam!

Of course, this is a mystery series, so it goes without saying that as soon as they arrive at Camp Whispering Pines, strange things start to occur.  The attendance is a bit down from previous summers, and the camp's owner seems not only unhappy, but downright rude.  Then there's the story of the Sasquatch sightings in the area, which, of course, no one believes.  Until the girls catch a glimpse of what they think could be the creature!  That turns out to be the least of their concerns, however, when they return to their cabin to find raccoons rifling through their belongings.  And when the owner shows up and finds food in their cabin, which was strictly prohibited, Sam finds herself facing punishment.

Ellis keeps the pace up, with one disaster after another - one of their cabin-mates nearly drowns when her canoe sinks; Sam nearly plunges into a ravine when her horse gets out of control; and Sam and Ally get kidnapped when they get too close to solving the mystery of who is sabotaging the camp (yes, yes, yes - it's the ol' sabotage trope that permeates the children's mystery world these days - writers seem to fall back on that as the standard go-to instead of giving us haunted houses or missing heirs or other creative ideas).  Yet, the energy in the novel is high, and I found myself unable to put it down - even though I knew who was behind everything, I still wanted to see how the girls would prove it - particularly when Sam continually gets in trouble and faces higher levels of punishment (up to the point where the owner expels both her and Ally, calling their parents to come get them)!

And just in case you're wondering - was the Sasquatch real, or was it a part of the sabotage plan?  That's a very good question...

A very satisfying read, and at 214 pages, Ellis is able to provide better character and plot development than the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books of today.  Simon & Schuster really could take a page out of Ellis' book and learn what it takes to tell a great mystery.

RATING:  8 water-logged, multi-colored flyers out of 10 for expanding the world of Samantha Wolf and giving readers a good mystery along the way.

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!