Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 22, 2017

DC Super Hero Girls: Batgirl at Super Hero High

The series of books about DC's female super heroes continues with this third volume starring Batgirl.  Picking up at the exact point where the second book ended, Batgirl at Super Hero High tells the story of a hero without powers - a hero who uses her quick-thinking, super intelligence to outwit, out-maneuver, and out-smart her enemies.

Admittedly, the story starts off rather slowly - rather than a superhero battle or even a superhero origin tale, readers get more of a teen drama of "I'm not like all the other girls, I don't fit in, why won't my dad let me go with the other girls, etc, etc"  More than half of the book drones on this way, with only a tv show contest that Barbara (a/k/a Batgirl) wins to break the monotony.  It's not until Batgirl helps Harley Quinn create a three-dimensional HarleyGrams (instant messages that pop out of your computer in three dimensions!) that the battle comes into play.  Someone has tinkered with the HarleyGrams and turned them into HarleyWhams, bringing the messages to life so that they can not only cause damage to the individual computers, but ultimately bring down the entire internet!

The culprit is pretty easy to figure out, and it does provide a nice set up for the introduction of a new villain to the DC Super Hero Girls universe - one easily recognizable to the Barbara Gordon fans in her Oracle/Birds of Prey days.  (And speaking of which, Yee provides a nice nod to the BOP, as the "Birds of Prey" is a music group that Barbara listens to in her down time.)  The showdown between Batgirl and her arch-nemesis is fun to read, and I could easily picture it translated to comic book format as I was reading it.  While Yee does engage in some tech-savvy dialogue and such, she does not weigh down the book with so much technical blabber so as to bore the reader.  Plus, once Batgirl begins her campaign to defeat her nemesis, that is the time when we see the REAL Barbara Gordon / Batgirl come to life.  Prior to that, she's simply another whiny teenager.

While the story focuses on Batgirl, her friendship with Supergirl is a large part of the story (which is a nice throw-back to the pre-Crisis DC days when Supergirl and Batgirl were the best of friends in the comics) and Beast Boy actually gets some pretty good page time.  Wonder Woman takes a back seat, while lesser known character Katana sees more of the light (and well she should, since the epilogue would seem to indicate that she will be the star of the next book in this series).  If this series continues, I hope they will spotlight some of the lesser known characters - would love to see books on Starfire, Amethyst, Terra, Halo, Hawkgirl, and so on.  I suppose only time will tell.

RATING:  6 baby bats out of 10 for keeping the female super hero genre alive and for melding nicely Barbara Gordon's personas as both Oracle and Batgirl.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Twisted Dark TPB - Volume Five

The next installment in Neil Gibson's series of graphic novels, Twisted Dark, continues his tradition of short stories that not only interconnect in various ways, but also bring to light the darker side of humanity, both in good ways and in bad ways.  The first four volumes in this series have introduced a number of characters that have appeared here and there in scattered stories throughout the four graphic novels, and several of them return in this volume for readers to learn even more about them and the events that shaped them into the people they become.

I normally do not like the rotating artists that a lot of DC and Marvel titles have, as every artist has a tendency to draw the characters differently (sometimes very drastically), and so it detracts from the reading enjoyment of the story. For Twisted Dark, however, Gibson's decision to utilize different artists for each of his short stories works wonderfully. He manages to select artists that can perfectly portray the mood of the story, and thus, it adds a flavor of emotion and horror to each of the stories that otherwise would not be there if only one artist were to draw all of the stories.

"Embarrassment" and "Sunflowers" tell the story of Mark and his coming out - and how that affects his family and friends - including his first crush, his father, and ultimately, his mother (and even how it affects Mark himself). This one was probably the most touching for me, as it so brutally hits the mark (no pun intended) on the broken families that so many young men and women face when they come out to their families.

"Preparation" and "Interview" and "Art" tell the story of El Nudillo and Liam Chapman - the first from El Nudillo's point of view, the second from Liam Chapman's point of view, and the third from an omniscient point of view. By taking three different perspectives of this continuing story, the reader sees the warped psyches of each of the characters and sees how the depravity of one feeds off the other.

"Duty" and "Yubitsume" were only so-so tales - the first about a father-in-law's warning to his son-in-law about the duty he has to his wife and what will happen if he shirks it again, while the second deals with just how far two people will go to prove their love to one another.  I wouldn't call either story very "dark" per se, but they definitely made some valid points.

But, by far, my favorite tale from this volume was "The Secret War" (not to be confused with nor in any way connected with the various Marvel Comics series by the same name). This story delves into the truly twisted logic of some minds - how one woman, whose husband, and later son, were taken from her due to the government's repeated bombings of foreign soil. So she sets out to teach people how to defuse the remaining bombs and incendiaries that were left behind, un-triggered, so as to avoid any horrible accidents. However, her class field trips to the very area where the bombs remain turn into a horror story of accidents, mishaps, and lost limbs - all so she can use the horrific photos as a means to spark special interest stories in the situation and raise funds to put an end to it. How often in real life do people and corporations use the misfortune and losses of others to further their own goals?

Gibson admits in the introduction to this volume that even he has a difficult time keeping track of the characters from his various stories, and yet his fans are able to track them and repeat them to him in a clear and concise timeline.  Yet, from my reading of these first five volumes, he has flawlessly weaved these stories into one another, some subtly and some blatantly, all the while making each short tale a stand-alone story that will make the reader think.

This series is not for the casual reader, is definitely not for kids, and is not for anyone who simply wants a fun story to read - be warned: these graphic novels will make you stop and think!

7 Darth Vader helmets out of 10 for not being afraid to tell some extremely dark tales about our society and, yet, make them engaging to read.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Odelia Grey Mysteries, Book 11 - Rhythm and Clues

Sue Ann Jaffarian returns with her latest Odelia Gray mystery. The fifty-something, overweight corpse magnet is up to her old tricks just months after finding a body in her trunk (although, for those of us in the real world, it's been a whole year since the last book came out). While previous books have found Odelia stumbling across a body within the first chapter, if not the first few pages, this time Jaffarian eases readers into the mystery. And, instead of Odelia finding the body, we discover that her "corpse magnet" curse is a family thing - as her niece, Lorraine, is the one who actually finds the body in the house of one of her grandmother's neighbors at the quiet little retirement village.

As with all of the Odelia Gray mysteries, the plot is rather intricate, and the tale Jaffarian weaves is full of red herrings, murder suspects, and just good ol' plain fun. This series is one of the few that I actually laugh out loud while I'm reading it.

"Oh my God, Odelia!" Greg shouted. "I haven't even been gone twenty-four hours and you've managed to find a dead body?"

At this point, you pretty much are waiting for that line to come out of someone's mother - whether it's Greg, Zee, Clark, Seth, Steele, or any of the other countless people Odelia knows. Only this time, Greg and Clark are out of town, so Odelia gets involved in yet another murder with the help of her mother and Clark's daughter, Lorraine. In fact, poor Lorraine is the one who discovers the body (while breaking into the house of a former rock singer who lives in the same community as Odelia's mother, Grace - that's a whole 'nother story in and of itself!), and it goes without saying, she finds herself drawn into figuring out who killed Cydney Fox, the agent (or should I say, former agent) for Bo Shank, the former lead singer for Acid Storm, an old rock band of yesteryear.

With Greg and Clark out of town and Seath and Zee running off to visit relatives, Odelia's sidekicks become Grace and Lorraine, with a bit of Willie and his new bodyguard, Buzz, thrown in for some fun.  The interaction between Odelia and Willie is thoroughly enjoyable to read, and it was nice to see that even Willie can get exasperated by Odelia's gung-ho desire to follow-through and figure out exactly who the murderer is and why they killed Cydney Fox.  But when an Armenian group appears on the scene and kills the band's recent agent who could have vital knowledge as to not only the murder of Cydney Fox, but also the disappearance of Bo Shank (as well as the disappearance of another resident at the Seaside Retirement Community), the danger escalates quickly.

Jaffarian knows how to plot a good murder mystery, there is no doubt. From page one, whether Odelia stumbles across the body there or two chapters in, the story and the characters are so engaging that the reader is immediately drawn into (or in my case, back into) the world of Odelia Gray. Jaffarian's characters are believable, never so over-the-top that it reminds you that this is pure fiction, and despite how crazy and zany things get, the reader makes an easy and immediate connection with Odelia and wishes that he or she were there in Odelia's stead!

I will say that Jaffarian had me guessing up until the very end.  I admit that once I realized who the killer was, the rest of the pieces fell into place pretty easily. But up until that point, I truly thought someone else had done it (which, surprisingly enough, the motive of the person I thought had done it turned out to be pretty close to the motive of the real killer!). And with as many mysteries as I read, both adult fiction and young adult fiction, it's nice to know I haven't got the skills yet to figure them all out pretty early on!

The only question I have now is - when's the next book coming out?!?!

10 sleeping night-shift guards out of 10 for always providing engaging stories and keeping the plots fresh and new with no rehashed ideas!

Monday, January 9, 2017

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 14 - Riverboat Roulette

It truly is a shame that Simon & Shuster does not put more into this new Nancy Drew series.  This latest offering, Riverboat Roulette, has such a great premise to it (finally!  it's not sabotage!!), but it is not realized to its full potential due to the restraint in the page count.  With S&S reducing the number of books published per year from 3 down to 2, it was my hope that the series would not just increase the page count, but they would also provide higher quality tales of mystery.  Instead, this first book of 2017 features a lesser page count and a rushed story that misses the mark on providing a truly enjoyable tale.

Now the mystery itself was actually pretty good, all things considered. For one thing, it was not sabotage (the first book in this series, I believe, that does not feature this tired trope). Maybe this is a sign that we might be getting back to the days of mysteries involving thieves, kidnappers, counterfeiters, missing heiresses, haunted houses, etc.  I doubt it, but once can always dream, right? Anyway, the mystery centers around the charity proceeds that go missing aboard the Delta Queen, where Pet Crusaders is holding their annual benefit to raise funds to help shelter homeless animals.  Nancy and her friends only have three hours before the ship will dock, at which point the culprit may depart and the money gone for good!  Nancy's sleuthing skills are definitely put to the test as she narrows down her suspects, ferrets out clues, and does her best to avoid being pushed overboard or falling into the churning paddle wheel.

During the course of the mystery, there is an interesting subplot about George and the high-stakes poker tournament that is a part of the fundraising activities.  An never-before-revealed fact about George comes out, inasmuch as it seems that she has a real love for poker!  It is mentioned that this year is the first time the girls are old enough to actually participate in the games, leading the reader to believe that Nancy must be 18 years of age, since it is unlikely they would allow minors to play games where true monetary bets are stake.  In fact, George brings several hundred dollars with her, money she has been saving just for this occasion.  It is also clear that the author is either a poker enthusiast, or simply did a lot of research on the game, as there are a lot of interesting facts about the game and its players (particularly the professional ones) that are scattered throughout the story.

A few things I noticed as I was reading...

"Slalomed" - growing up reading Nancy Drew and other children's mystery series books, I picked up a lot of new vocabulary words I had never known.  As as adult, however, I certainly didn't expect to come across any in a Nancy Drew book.  This one proved me wrong.  "Slalom" is to move or race in a winding path, avoiding obstacles.  A new word for me, and kudos to the author for throwing it out there!

Something else I hadn't expected to see in any of these new books was a reference to prior mysteries.  However, on page 13, Nancy thinks back to prior mysteries she solved, involving historical museums (The Phantom of Nantucket), ballet companies (The Red Slippers), and organic farms (The Clue at Black Creek Farm).  Even later in the book, on page 52, Nancy remembers when they all went camping out by Mystic Lake (Secret at Mystic Lake).

And on page 28, there's a humorous moment when the head of Pet Crusaders questions Nancy's ability as a detective, commenting, "we need someone with a little more experience than the Case of the Stolen Lollipops from Mrs. Benson's Fourth-Grade Classroom."  A little nod to Mildred Wirt-Benson, the original ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew books back in the '30s, perhaps?

Now something others may not appreciate as much as me are the references to Superman and Lex Luthor on pages 66 and 67, when they are discussing Bess's 'superpower' at being able to get pretty much any man to do whatever she wants when she turns on her charm.

On the negative side of things, the editing was not particularly strong, as there was a glaring error on pages 84 and 87.  On page 84, Nancy refers to the competing pet charity as "Critter Kings," but just three pages later, she calls it "Kitty Kings."  So, which is it, and how did no one catch something so glaring before the book went to print?

And, sadly, the villain in the story is pretty much obvious from the moment Nancy meets this person.  The very first words this person says just screams, "It's me, I did it!" - - and, yet, throughout the entire book, Nancy never even suspects this person, which makes no sense, since this person has the most obvious motive.  Again, this boils down to page count and an inability of the writer to have more pages and a larger word count within which to fully flesh out the story and characters.

Finally, something that does hearken back to the old yellow-spine days happens towards the end of the story, as Nancy, Bess and George are investigating the crew's locker room on board the ship.  The suspect's locker is locked with a combination lock.  Nancy proudly steps up and says, I"I know how to crack those."  And not only does she get it opened, she (the author, really) provides a pretty detailed way in which to open a combination lock when you don't know the combination!  I always knew Nancy could pretty much do anything, but with the details she provides, now her readers can, too!

Let's see where 2017 and beyond takes our favorite teenage sleuth!

RATING:  6 scuba diving suits out of 10 for offering up something other than sabotage and as least providing a pretty decent plot.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Dark Shadows Audio Book 45 - Panic

Can one every truly get enough of Quentin Collins?  After sharing an adventure with Olivia Corey (Amanda Harris) in audio CD 44 - "The Darkest Shadow," Quentin comes right back for the 45th audio story, "Panic."  This time around, however, he shares the tale with none other than Susan Sullivan, who David Selby fans will remember worked with Selby for a number of years on the set of the nighttime soap, Falcon Crest.  It was actually kinda cool to hear the two of them together, although their characters here are a far cry from the Falcon Crest days.

In this tale, Quentin is talking to his great-great-grandson, Tom Cunningham (who fans of the audios will remember from the Bloodlust story, setting this tale after that saga.  Quentin is remembering a time when he traveled to London in an attempt to escape all the horrors and events that have plagued him through the years in Collinsport.  While there, he settled down into a "normal" life as the owner of an antique store.  Until the day Lela Quick comes in.

(Side note - clearly Lela Quick is clearly an homage to Lela Swift, who directed nearly half the episodes of the TV show)

The story follows Lela's fascination with a song that she can't get out of her head.  A song that one of her students tells her he overheard coming from the Pandemonium Antique shop.  The very shop that Quentin now owns, and over which Lela happens to reside.  The tune she can't seem to shake Lela finds on a record in the store.  She is prepared to make the purchase until Quentin stops her, and she leaves the shop rather perturbed.  Needless to say, she wakes to the tune that night, and discovers it is not just in her head.  Breaking into the shop, she finds the record playing - and ultimately finds herself wandering into the back of the store and into another realm entirely!  Lost in the woods, she comes face to face with Quentin Collins!

The author of this audio, Roy Gill, weaves a wonderful tale of mystery, secrets, and forgotten pasts, and he even integrates some long forgotten mythology involving the god, Pan.  There is some great references to the fact that gods of long ago can be completely unfamiliar with the technology and inventions of today, and he provides a rather ingenious means whereby Quentin helps Lela break the hold that Pan has over her.

And I'll hold off on revealing the rather surprising secret that comes to play at the end of this audio - a secret that I have no doubt will have repercussions in future stories of the Collins' family!

As I get closer to reaching the point where I am caught up with all of these audio stories, it is with mixed feelings - I'll be thrilled to have finally heard all the stories that are out there, but it will be disappointing to know that I have to wait right along with everyone else for however many months until the next ones come out!

RATING:  10 haunted phonographs out of 10 for keeping the tales of the Collins' clan fresh and exciting and just as new as they were back when the TV show first aired!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Resident Evil: The Marhawa Desire - Volume 04

As the series draws closer to its conclusion, the action and intensity increases.  Volume 4 of "The Marhawa Desire" picks up exactly where Volume 3 left off - with poor Ricky surrounded by zombie students who seem prepared to eat him.  Feeling he has no alternative, he points the gun at his head, preparing to end it all - - when suddenly, Chris Redfield appears and saves the day!

I am a huge Resident Evil fan, so any time one of the 'main' characters from the series shows up to do battle with the mindless zombies, it brings a smile to my face and reminds me why I enjoy the series so much.  Chris Redfield.  Claire Redfield.  Jill Valentine.  For me, Resident Evil just isn't Resident Evil without them (which is why I was so ecstatic when the RE films introduced all three of them into the movie franchise).  And with Chris on the scene, you know things are going to get really bad@$$!

At this point, the school is completely overrun with the infected students.  A small group of survivors is hiding out in the chapel, but when Bindi, who has become a bio-organic weapon herself, shows up, the number of survivors quickly whittles down to zero.  Leaving Ricky, along with Chris and his fellow B.S.A.A. members, Merah and Piers, to face a horde of zombie creatures all on their own (and with back-up a full 24 hours away...)

The author provides more insight into Ricky's character in this volume, as we see his dedication to his uncle, who took him in after his parents died - - and we see (SPOILERS AHEAD) how it affects him when Bindi turns his uncle into a mindless zombie.  Ricky does what he has to do ... what he knows his uncle would want him to do ... and he makes a vow to see it through to the end, not resting until he puts an end to the pandemic that has taken over the school.

The author also begins to give us a bit more of the cloaked figure - the one who gave Bindi the serum that brought her friend, Nanan, back to life (albeit a much more horrifically altered life) and has been working behind the scenes to keep the infection spreading.  While we don't see who he or she is, we do confirm that this person has a very definite agenda - - and when Ricky catches up to him (her?), Ricky suddenly finds himself on the wrong end of a very deadly syringe!  Talk about a cliffhanger!

Once again, the art is absolutely beautiful.  Naoki Serizawa (who is also writing the series) provides some fantastically rendered fight scenes (and some pretty graphic ones, too!), and is able to move the story visually in some instances without any words at all necessary.  That takes a very talented artists (as I have seen a lot of artists in comics today who know how to draw splash pages, but can't really tell a story in art without the words).  It's a shame this creator isn't going to be doing more Resident Evil stories - I'd love to see Serizawa doing a regular, ongoing series of graphic novels set in the RE world!

With only one book remaining the series, I'll be curious to see how the story ends - who survives and who dies - and who exactly is that cloaked figure?

RATING:  9 emergency helicopters out of 10 for upping the ante, putting our heroes in a nearly impossible situation, and leaving off with a cliffhanger that demands resolution!

Monday, January 2, 2017

SpacePop, Volume One - Not Your Average Princesses

The Dark Empress of Evil has taken over your galaxy.  She controls all modes of communication, regulates all modes of travel, and incites separation and fighting among the once united planets.  She has kidnapped the ruling leaders and destroyed their palaces.  Who are you going to call?

Ghostbusters?  No, this isn't supernatural in nature.
Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys?  No, there's no mystery here.

No, in this world, the citizens of the Pentangle galaxy must pin all their hopes on the five princesses who have gone into hiding ... who have decided they can't just sit back and what as Geela, the Dark Empress of Evil, destroys their home worlds.  Enter: Athena, Hera, Juno, Luna, and Rhea - the hottest new girl band in outer space - SPACEPOP!

Yes, folks, I couldn't make this up even if I tried...

While I've been raving recently on how fortunate I've been in picking up new series where the introductory book to the series has been absolutely astounding, garnering my interest in future books, once in a while I'm not quite so lucky.  This would be one of those cases.

Not Your Average Princesses is a Jem and the Holograms wannabe that doesn't quite cut it.  The five princesses turned rock-stars are too cliche - the stuck-on-herself diva, the earth-loving peace maker, the rambunctious tomboy, the determined genius, and the sly schemer and planner.  Their dialogue and actions continually thrive off of these characteristics, as if these are the only things that define the five girls.  And, yes, while I realize these books are written for a young audience, marketed pretty much solely for girls, I'd like to think that the young girls would want the characters in the books they read to be a bit more three-dimensional.  And we won't even begin to talk about the girls' pets that seem to go with them wherever they go...

The underlying plot to the story isn't truly bad.  An evil empress has taken over the galaxy, and the girls decide to do what they can to spread the word of rebellion.  When they are contacted by a member of an underground resistance, they decide to join, further proving their desire to free the Pentangle from the cruel and vicious rule of Geela.  The story moves fairly quickly (not only do the girls form a band, but they begin a tour and go on three ever-increasingly dangerous missions by the end of this first book), and it's pretty straightforward and simple in the storytelling.

The one saving grace for me in this book were the comic pages within the tale.  Chapters Six, Fifteen, and Sixteen are all told in comic format, with art by Jen Bartel (who, interestingly enough, is not given credit for the art on the cover or the title page).  She actually brings the characters to life on the page in full color, and while the comic chapters are pretty short, it gave me pause to think - this would have probably been much better told as a full comic, rather than prose with only a few pages of comic.

Ah, well, I suppose you can't win them all when trying new series.  I have the second book in the series, and one day I'll get around to reading that - but I've got plenty of other books that I know will be good to read before it.

RATING:  3 lipstick and compact communicators out of 10 simply for the comic book pages within the story that kept the book from being a total fail.