Saturday, February 25, 2017

Fear the Dark - a Bishop / Special Crimes Unit Novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

DC Comics Secret Hero Society, Book 2 - Fort Solitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 13, 2017

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Four - Monstrous Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 10, 2017

Shadow House Volume 1 - The Gathering

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

Definitely a good choice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Model Undercover, Book 3 - London, Deadly by Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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