Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Shadow Stone - a Mystery Story for Girls

Mildred A. Wirt Benson was a prolific writer of children's and young adult mysteries, mostly for girls, back in the day. She was the original ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series, and while she is probably most famous for that, Benson also wrote a plethora of books under her own name, as well as other various pseudonyms. She wrote books in the Ruth Fielding series, in the Dana Girls series, in the Kay Tracey series. She also wrote the Penny Parker series under her own name, as well as the Madge Sterling series under the name Ann Wirt. On top of that (and many other), she wrote several books in a series of books published by Cupples & Leon called "A Mystery Story for Girls" series. While not exactly rare, they are not always the easiest to find, particularly with their original dust jacket. So, when a good friend had one for sale recently, I bought it.  After reading it, I am so glad I did!

The Shadow Stone is a fun little mystery set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time. The protagonist is Carol Scott, a fourteen year old girl who is anxious to enjoy the Mardi Gras celebration, but her older brother, Jack, plays a large part in the story as well. In fact, what is interesting about the story is that while Carol is clearly meant to be the girl sleuth in the story, it is actually Jack who comes across several major clues and ultimately has to rescue Carol from dangerous men who have taken her captive. Clearly, Carol is not meant to be the strong, independent Nancy Drew-type character; however, she is smart, quick, and more than willing to step in and right a wrong when she sees one.

The mystery centers around a thought-to-be jade stone that is carved so that when held up to the light, it casts the shadow of a man's profile. Carol gains possession of the stone through a case of mistaken identity, but it is immediately clear to her that the gruff man who gave her the stone and the belligerent girl who is trying to get the stone away from her want the shadow stone for nefarious purposes. Because of that, Carol decides to hold on to the stone. Needless to say, this not only causes her a lot of misfortune and danger, but it also leads her to meet the Mercier sisters, Sonia and Seenia. Circumstances find her pretending to be the Mercier's niece, who has not yet arrived. Carol discovers that the sisters have been holding an inheritance for their niece, and they are waiting for her arrival so that they can bestow it upon her. Their attorney and financial manager, Barry DeForrest, has been helping them and arranged the meeting.

As an adult reader, it was not at all difficult to figure out who was behind the missing niece and the stolen shadow stone; however, it was fun to follow Carol and her brother as they searched for clues and the meaning of the stone and to read their adventures and narrow escapes from culprits determined to get the stone and keep them quiet at any cost (and I do mean ANY cost!). There's a hidden room, a desperate escape from a houseboat, and a race through the woods at night that will keep the reader enthralled - and Wirt (Benson) manages to throw one final twist into the story at the end regarding the stone and the identity of the true Mercier niece that is not only surprising, but quite ingenious (as it proves to the reader that not everything is quite as obvious as it seems).

It is a shame that Wirt (Benson) only had the opportunity to write seven mysteries in this series for Cupples & Leon. She is an excellent storyteller for children's mysteries, and it would have been a real treasure to have many more of these mysteries by her - but I suppose we will have to settle for the multitude we have from the various publishers and series and cherish the gifts she gave us before her passing.

RATING:  9 red imp costumes out of 10 for mystery, cliffhangers, daring young detectives, and a surprise twist ending.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Dusk County Chronicles - Ashcan Preview Comic

Okay, normally the only reviews I do on my blog are those of trade paperbacks, or graphic novels, or complete mini-series (when I review comics). However, I recently picked up an ashcan edition preview comic for an upcoming comic from an indy imprint, Metal Ninja Studios, and I enjoyed the preview so much, I figured it deserved a review.

The Dusk County Chronicles will be an anthology comic (wish we had more of those today!), but the stories it will tell are not your average super hero or horror comic stories. Writer Joel Rodriguez, instead of giving comic readers the standard fare chose to take a different route - instead, Rodriguez takes a unique spin on some childhood (and maybe even adult) favorites.  In this ashcan preview comic, readers get a taste of just two of the four upcoming stories to be featured in the full series to debut next year.

STORY ONE: "A Friend in Me" - as you might guess by the title, this first tale of terror spins a twist on the Toy Story franchise. In just six pages, Rodriguez turns the cowboy, space man, doll, teddy bear, and slinky dog toys into a nightmare of murder and mayhem. And, in a cute twist (if "cute" can be applied to a horror tale), readers will see why the story is actually titled what it is (and no, it's not in any sexual sense, so get your mind out of the gutter!).

STORY TWO: "Forever Young" - what if Peter Pan's world was real? what if a boy could fly? and what if that boy could take others to that never-never land where you can stay a child forever? BUT - what if none of that was exactly what it seemed? What if there is only one true way you can be forever young? In this preview story, Jenny is about to find out that floating and staying young may very well be more terrifying than anything she could have ever imagined!

And to whet your appetite even further, there's a one page "news report" at the end of the preview comic that gives readers a hint at "Mindgames" and "Just Right," the other two stories that will appear in the upcoming anthology. A super-villain and werewolves. Hmmmm.....

What if there was a place that would take all of your childhood dreams and turn them into nightmares? That is the question Rodriguez asks his readers, and that is the answer that The Dusk County Chronicles will provide.

Roman Gubsky provides the art for both stories, as well as the cover. The art has just the right amount of roughness to fit the dark tone of the stories - the characters are not flashy with smooth lines, nor are they all beautiful, strong, and endowed. They are normal, the lines aren't perfect or straight, and the coloring provides the right ambiance to except the totally unexpected from the story you're reading. If the final product is of the same quality as this preview issue, then I'd say Rodriguez has a hit on his hands.

RATING:  99 red balloons (okay, I couldn't resist that one....) - 9 floating red balloons out of 10 for creative re-imaginings in two genres I love - horror and comics!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Flash: Climate Changeling

The second novel based on DC's television show, The Flash, was just as good, if not better, than the first!  Not to be confused with the young adult series also being published, these adult novels (which I hate calling them that, because that brings about some very bad connotations with it) are definitely written at a much high reading level, are considerably longer than the young adults novels, and they pack a whole lot of story and action into one book. However, like the young adult series, they definitely capture the feel of the show, and the authors of these books show a strong talent for writing the characters as they appear on the show, so much so, that reading the books gives the reader a feeling that they are watching episodes directly from the television series.

"Climate Changeling" brings back the Weather Wizard, who was introduced back in the first season of the show. For those who may not remember, Mark Mardon and his brother Clyde both received weather-controlling powers from the particle-accelerator explosion that also gave Flash his powers. Mark was knocked into a coma, but Clyde went wild with his powers - until the Flash and Det. Joe West put an end to his tirade. Permanently. And that is something that Mark has never forgotten. Years spent in Iron Heights prison, Mark has had plenty of time to dwell on his hatred of Flash and Det. West, blaming them both for his brother's death. The guilt he feels for not protecting, not saving, his brother weighs heavily. And when a freak storm wreaks havoc on Iron Heights' security systems, Mark suddenly finds his powers increased, and breaks his way out of Iron Heights with only one thing on his mind.


I am not familiar with the author, Richard Knaak, but I definitely like his writing. He had the perfect feel for each of the characters when he wrote this book - Barry, Iris, Joe, Wally, Cisco, Caitlin, H.R., and even the Mardon brothers. Each character portrayed and read exactly as they are on the television show, and the dialogue was natural and in-character. The story was well-paced, never dragging, and Knaak even managed to make it accessible to new readers who have no knowledge of the history of the characters and the show without bogging it down too much with flashbacks or such. I did, however, have to keep reminding myself that this book clearly takes place some time before season four, and I believe before the wedding of Barry and Iris (although that fact is not exactly made clear - but since they never refer to Iris as Barry's wife, I'm just going to assume...)

As for the story itself, the Weather Wizard is out not only for revenge, but also to bring his brother, Clyde, back from the dead. It seems the spirit of Clyde is egging him on, pushing him harder and harder, causing a storm of unbelievable proportions to rain down on Central City. Barry and Team Flash can't seem to get a handle on it, and Cisco isn't able to pinpoint exactly where Mardon is at any given time. Meanwhile, Caitlin's powers are starting to surface again, someone in time with Mardon's vicious weather attacks. And all the while, Barry seems to be losing his strength and speed stamina the more he fights Mardon. Knaak definitely writes one epic battle here, with a climax that is well worth the wait (and with a story that is 430 pages, trust me, there is a wait!).

If you are a fan of the television show, then you'll enjoy this novel immensely - I highly recommend it!

RATING:  10 communication devices on the fritz out of 10 for remaining faithful to the show, while expanding the stories and world of the CW's The Flash.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Paradise Court - a Zenescope mini-series

Back in 2010, there was a little show called The Gates, which was about a gated community where werewolves, vampires, and witches lived, free to be themselves - until a new sheriff arrives in the community, a human who has no knowledge of the supernatural nature of the residents. I absolutely loved this show, and I was extremely disappointed when they cancelled it after only one season (leaving off with a huge cliffhanger!).

So, when Zenescope announced it would be doing a mini-series titled Paradise Court, a horror story about a gated community, instantly my thoughts returned to The Gates, and I eagerly bought each issue. The story, as it turns out, is nothing similar to The Gates; however, it is a well-written horror tale that certainly kept my interest.

Amy, Robin, Christian, and Mike are headed to Las Vegas for a week of fun. On their way, however, they are taking a quick detour to visit an old friend of Amy's - someone she hasn't seen in fourteen years. Amy is excited, and a bit nervous, about catching up with her old friend, but as soon as they enter the gates of Paradise Court, it's clear that something is not right.

Amy catches a lecherous neighbor staring at her over the fence, pleasuring himself as he watches her.

Amy's friend, Janey, is informed that a girl from the community is missing - perhaps lost in the canyons that surround Paradise Court.

And when Amy decides to follow the lecherous neighbor on the first night, she discovers more than she bargained for when she comes across a human skeleton!

If you're thinking this is the perfect set up for a horror movie - four twenty-somethings in an isolated community, with perverts, missing girls, and dead bodies - then you'd be right!  The story reads just like a great horror flick.  A hooded figure with a demon-skull mask is terrorizing the community, using a huge carving knife to do some carving of his own. One by one, Amy's friends begin to disappear. The police think she is simply overreacting, dreaming of the terrifying things she has seen. Janey thinks perhaps it is the isolation of the community that is having an affect on her. But when they discover newspaper articles in the neighbor's house that reveal his murderous past, the community police have no choice but to act.

And just when you think you have it all figured out - writer Joe Brusha pulls the rug out from underneath the reader and gives you a twisted ending that will literally have you screaming, "NOOOO!" The art by Babisu Kourtis is visually appealing, the characters distinct, and the dark tone of the story is beautifully rendered (if you can call it that for a tale of blood and horror!). Each issue's cliffhanger leaves you panting to now what happens next, and while some of the characters are clearly stock / stereotypes (let's face it - all horror movies have them), you do - at least I did! - start to care about what happens to some of the characters, hoping they will make it out alive.

While I gave up reading Zenescope titles after the end of the first Grimm Fairy Tales series, if they produce more stories like this, they may just pull me back in!

RATING:  9 secluded, gated communities in the middle of nowhere out of 10 for a terrifyingly great horror comic!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Seckatary Hawkins Mystery - The Gray Ghost

The Seckatary Hawkins series is a unique one. The series follows a group of young boys on a Kentucky river bank who face some very dangerous, even life-threatening situations while trying to solve mysteries around them. They have their own clubhouse, hold regular meetings, require the boys to pay dues (a dime), and even keep minutes of their meetings and adventures - hence, the title character earning the name "Seckatary" Hawkins (as he admits that when he first was selected to keep the minutes, none of them could properly spell "Secretary").  The author, Robert F. Schulkers, provides detailed descriptions of the riverbanks, forests, fields, mountains, hills, and treacherous waters the boys travel in, around, and through, and the numerous boys are some country hicks, others learned school boys, and others just down-right rotten tomatoes.

I picked up the two hardcover editions printed by University of Kentucky Press - Stoner's Boy (the first book in the series) and The Gray Ghost, which is a later book in the series that sees the return of the boys' great nemesis. While I've never been a fan of boys' series, I find as a adult that I am reading more of them than ever before (although, admittedly, I still gravitate to the girls' series, simply because they do tend to focus more on the mystery and less on general adventure). I did enjoy Stoner's Boy, so I was curious to see where The Gray Ghost would find these boys.

The Gray Ghost is the fourth book in the series, and it appears that between the first book and this one, our young protagonist and his friends have had some interesting adventures. Seckatary and the Skinny Guy (gotta love the nicknames these boys have!) traveled to Cuba with Doc, and upon their return, they faced off against the Red Runners, and all but two of them were caught and sent off to reform school. As this book opens, Seckatary is thinking about the loss of a friend, the escape of Androfski (the "Silent") and Jude (the "Fifth) from capture with the other Red Runners, and the boys' upcoming summer break from school. Just when they think they might have an uneventful summer, though, they get a warning tacked to their door - Stoner's Boy, also known as the Gray Ghost, is back!

Reading the story is very much like reading Seckatary's journal - he provides descriptions of the day to day activities of the boys, but focuses on the adventures and mysteries they seem to lock into, in this instance, with the various "bad boys" who all seem to have reason to pester Seckatary and his friends. The mystery in Burney's Field turns out to be very puzzling for the boys, as there appears to be a ghost with an unearthly cry that scares anyone who tries to go into the field. There is also the three with the hidden "mailbox" that allows Androfski to communicate with those who are helping him. Then there is the tree in Parks Woods - a unique tree that serves as a door for Simon Bleaker into a hidden cavern. With so much going on, you'd have to wonder how Schulkers manages to keep everything and everyone straight, but with 335 pages of story, there is plenty of room to flesh out the tale. Plus, readers get treated to a brief return by the twins, Harold and Oliver, and discovery once and for all the true identity of the Gray Ghost (Stoner's Boy).

A Kentucky boy myself, I enjoyed the writing style, as well as the story, and it's easy to see what attracted Harper Lee to these books.  I wish the UoK Press would reprint more of the books, but I suppose today's society just doesn't know how to appreciate the works of art from yesteryear.

RATING:  8 wild and angry unicorns out of 10 for keeping the past alive and providing a little slice of country life with a great mystery.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Dying for a Thrill - a Mike King Mystery

Author Mark Zubro re-enters the world of detective Mike King in the second (but hopefully not the last!) book of the series. Our poor protagonist still hasn't found love, and his friends and co-workers are still harping on the fact that every guy he sleeps with winds up dead! Talk about bad luck. But that doesn't keep Mike King from falling for guys during his investigation, nor does it stop him from taking on his latest case when a young man with blood on his hoodie stumbles into his office and promptly collapses. And that's just on the first page.

Dying for a Thrill is a rather intense murder mystery, as not only does it deal with much higher than ordinary stakes for a standard detective novel, but the reader is never really sure who is telling the truth and who isn't. When a young, gay hacker shows up in King's office with blood on his hoodie, it's clear that something is wrong. The young man, who says his name is Jamie, begs for King to help him.  "They're after me," he says. It turns out, though, that the question is not who is after him - the real question is who ISN'T after him! It seems Jamie and his group of gay hackers, who not only think of themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, but also think that they can outsmart everyone, didn't quite cover their steps as carefully as they thought. Someone in their midst was a traitor, and now the government, terrorist groups, and radical religious rights groups are after Jamie and his friends. King agrees to help him, but even as he does, he knows that Jamie is not telling him everything.

You really have to pay attention as you read this book, as it becomes more and more difficult to tell who is real, who isn't, who's telling the truth, who's lying, who is using who, and who is the real villain in the story? The more King and his team learn about the situation, the more they get tied up into the violence, and the more they realize they may just be in way over their head. An accident that seems to have never happened (yet one cop is willing to tell King what he saw). The body of Jamie's friend that seems to have disappeared (and no hospital has seen hide nor hair of him). The numerous agents who seem to have no trouble finding and confronting King, asking for the whereabouts of Jamie and his friends (and none of them are who they claim to be). And then King has a very difficult time keeping track of his own client (who, by the way, transferred to King's account an astronomical sum of money to help him out). All the while, King and his associates find themselves targets of vehicular attacks, gun attacks, and physical attacks.

Then, just when you think things can't get any crazier - King finds out that Jamie and his friends may have uncovered a plot so detrimental to national security that the President himself could be a target!

There is absolutely no doubt that this mystery is one heck of a roller coaster ride, but definitely in a good way. Every time I thought I had it figured out, Zubro throws in another curve ball and send the story headed off in a completely different direction. There was one thing about the story that did bother me, however - not the fact that every agent and cop who was hunting for Jamie and his friends came on to, and one even slept with, King - no, it was the fact that each of these guys are all described as having well-endowed, bulging crotches. Yes, it's stretching it a bit to think that every agent, cop, or terrorist who confronts King just happens to be gay, but hey - this is a gay mystery, after all. But to think that every single guy is super-endowed? Well, that's pushing the envelope of believe-ability a bit too far. Some guys are well hung, some guys aren't. Some guys are showers, other guys are growers. It would just be nice, for once, to see gay fiction portray men in a realistic fashion, rather than having them all be "super-studs."

But, that was a minor thing, and it certainly did not stop me from turning page after page to see where this was all going to lead. I'm not finding any more books listed for this series, but I hope Zurbo doesn't place Mike King on a shelf - he's a great character with a diverse, fun supporting cast, and quite frankly, this would make for a terrifically great television series!

RATING:  9 James Bond villains out of 10 for keeping the twists and turns coming so fast I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Ginger Fox - a Comico mini-series

Back in its "hey-day," Comico was an independent comic publisher who put out some pretty interesting material - Elementals, the Justice Machine, the Maze Agency, Grendel, the Fish Police, among others. One little known title, which, quite frankly, I had never heard of before combing through the $1 bin at a local comic shop, was Ginger Fox, a 4-issue mini-series written by Mike Baron and with art by the Pander Bros. (who, coincidentally enough, did the art for the first Grendel story I ever read).

Ginger Fox tells the story of ... well, Ginger Fox. Ginger is the C.E.O. of Peppertree Studios out in Hollywood, California. She has an ex-husband, a teenage son, an ever-loyal bodyguard / personal assistant, a nosy reporter, a fading movie star, a current boyfriend, and way more drama going on behind the scenes that in front of the camera!

Baron piques the interest of the reader right off the bat with opening pages that introduce a number of dramatic elements - Tammy True (the insipid reporter) shows up at Ginger's estate with questions about her boyfriend who may be cheating on her while making a film out of the country; questions about the new monster movie that was supposed to be kept a secret from the public while it was filming; and questions about the movie's star, Lewis Lassiter, a leading man whose stardom ended ages ago and who now could be fighting AIDS (the book was published in 1988, at the height of the AIDS crisis and the same year Worlds AIDS Day was celebrated for the first time - so it's no surprise that it was used as a topical issue in comics of that day). Before the first issue is finished, Ginger has found that her boyfriend is incommunicado, her ex-husband shows up wanting to see his son and creates a violent scene, and her babysitter attends a yacht party that leads to her being drugged and kidnapped by Tammy True! If that is not enough soap opera drama to capture your attention, then I don't know what is.

Over the next three issues, Ginger finds her attention divided between her love life, her professional life, and her home life, trying desperately to prevent all three from crumbling. Tammy True, with the assistance of an executive who wants to take over Peppertree Studios, will use Doris (the babysitter) to obtain information they can use against Ginger. Joe (the ex-husband) will stop at nothing to get his son away from Ginger.  And Creighton Caw (a new element added in the second issue) is determined to get back the motion picture that he believes Ginger stole from him. Each issue is filled with plenty of action, lots of drama, and the Pander Bros.' unusual art style that simply adds elegance to the story. Each page comes alive with the over-the-top characters, the creative panels, and the vibrant colors and backgrounds. I'm not a huge fan of artists who stray away from the realistic art style, but the Pander Bros. have an odd, abstact way of telling a story that it draws you in immediately.

And I would be very remiss if I did not mention that unique covers that Comico published these books under. Each issue is a different colored chapter (as in "Chapter Yellow," "Chapter Black," "Chapter Blue," and "Chapter Red") with a photo strip through the middle of each cover. Model Melissa Henderson brought Ginger to life on the covers, with other models used to create the Hollywood feel of the book. Quite honestly, it was the covers themselves that caught my attention and made me want to pick up the book - so kudos to Comico for offering up something different than the standard superhero / anti-hero fare.  Kind of a shame that Ginger Fox pretty much ended her career with this mini-series (although two years prior to this mini-series, in 1986, Comico published a graphic novel of Ginger Fox, which I hope to find one day and read).

If you ever come across this book in a back-issue bin, I'd definitely suggest picking it up - well worth the read!

RATING:  10 highly sought-after film canisters out of 10 for an out of the ordinary comic book
with extraordinary art and storytelling talent!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Secret Circle Mysteries #10 - The Secret of Spaniards Rock

Back in 2008, while in Toronto, a good friend (Bill!!!!!) introduced me to a series-that's-not-a-series of children's mysteries called the Secret Circle mysteries.  These books, written by various authors, are all set in different areas of Canada, and each book has a different set of protagonists (some brothers and sisters, some just friends, etc. - but there's always more than one). Published between 1962 and 1965, the 11-book series features 10 hardcovers with dust jackets published by Little Brown, while the last book was published only in paperback.  I picked up 8 books out of the series relatively easy from used book stores in Toronto, and later, from eBay.  The last two hardcovers I needed, though - The Mystery of the Missing Emerald and The Secret of Spaniards Rock - seemed to be impossible to find, and I have spent the last five years keeping an eye out for them.  Well, surprise, surprise! While in Arizona a couple of months ago, I came across The Secret of Spaniards Rock (in dust jacket!) at a Half-Price Books for only $3.00.  Needless to say, I didn't hesitate to buy it. This past week, I finally had a chance to read it.

Like the other Secret Circle mysteries, The Secret of Spaniards Rock is set in Canada, this time out near Vancouver.  Featuring Bob and Sue Channing, a brother and sister team, the story centers on the mysterious goings-on around Spaniards Rock, a small isle just off Galiano Island where a retired lighthouse keeper and his wife live. Her nephew and his scientist friend are currently living with the couple, performing experiments on sea water that are very hush-hush. They are very protective of their secret experiments, and it seems Bob and Sue are the only ones who question the secrecy. Perhaps that's because one night they witness the two men chasing a third man onto the jetty, and then hear gunshots. As Bob fervently tries to row their tiny boat home, a speeding cruiser nearly runs them down, knocking them both into the water!

From that point on, Bob and Sue knows that something fishy is going on - but the problem is, their parents won't believe them, and the scientist seems to have an answer for everything. When Bob and Sue find a bag filled with thousands of dollars in $5 bills, their curiosity grows even more - and when the scientist stakes a claim on that money, even going so far as to confirm his ownership by reciting the serial numbers of the bills, Bob and Sue know for sure that nothing is what it seems. A morse code signal for help from the lighthouse on Spaniards Rock move Bob and Sue into action, as they realize the retired lighthouse keeper and his wife are in danger. But what can two teenagers do?

 Author David Gammon gives readers a pretty exciting story, which surprised me, as most of the books in this series, while having somewhat interesting mysteries, have had consider exposition that was difficult to get through and made reading some of the books a real chore. But not this one! Gammon kept the action going, kept the mystery intriguing (although not really so difficult to figure out, particularly once the kids found the money), and provided some well-written characters who acted naturally and actually made you care about what happened to them. Makes me wish that Gammon had written all the books in the series (he actually only wrote two of the - the first one, The Mystery of Monster Lake, and the tenth one, this book).

If you are going to read any of the books in this series, this is definitely the one to read!

RATING:  9 weird, greenish-glowing lights out of 10 for writing a young adult mystery the way it should be written!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Creepella von Cacklefur No. 4 - Return of the Vampire

It's one of those days where you need something simple and light to read, and the Creepella Von Cacklefur definitely fits that criteria. A series for early readers, Creepella Von Cacklefur is a special-effects designer and director of scary films, as well as a student studying to be a journalist. Oh, and yes, she's a mouse. She lives in the world of Geronimo Stilton, an Italian creation (as is Creepella) whose name is pulled from an English cheese, "Stilton." All of the various series in the Stilton universe are for young readers, with an RL3 reading level. The prose is easy to read, and many of the words are written in stylized font to actually depict the word, as well as spell it, making it fun for the young readers to enjoy the story as the read.

Return of the Vampire is the fourth book in the series, which finds Creepella coming to the aid of Franco Fangley, an old friend of Grandpa Frankenstein who happens to be a vampire and a connoisseur of tomato juice. It seems Frangley's castle is haunted, filled with ghosts who persistently play pranks that are forcing him to make the decision to sell his homestead and leave the castle he has called home behind. Creepella, her niece Shivereen, and her friend Billy Squeakspeare, join Grandpa Frankenstein as they visit Castle Marinara (yes, there are plenty of puns - remember, this is a kids' book!) to see if they uncover the source of the ghostly pranks.

The mystery is a cross between Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo, involving scheming real estate investors and the unmasking of the ghostly apparitions. It's simple, it's fun, and it's filled with plenty of full color illustrations that are sure to keep any kid's attention.  It's kind of a shame they didn't have any series like this when I was in elementary school, as I have no doubt I would have enjoyed it.

I am curious, though, to know what prompted the publisher to take these Italian series and translate them for American readers. There are actually several different series - Geronimo Stilton, Thea Stilton, Creepella Von Cacklefur, Cave Mice, Space Mice, and Thea Stilton Mouseford Academy, Mice Kings, Kingdom of Fantasy, and the Special Editions. They must be doing relatively well for the American publishers to continue translating and publishing them (and quite frankly, there are more of these series on the shelves at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million than there are Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, which is disappointing to me).

Regardless, it is a series I would recommend for parents who have elementary school age children, as it might entice those who aren't interested in reading to actually read!

RATING:  7 coffins filled with bread crumbs out of 10 for providing "spooky" tales that are not so scary that a young reader can't enjoy them!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Nancy Drew - a Dynamite Comics mini-series ("The Case of the Cold Case")

Take two of my favorite things, combine them, and you're bound to have a guaranteed success story, right?  Well, not necessarily.  Last year, Dynamite Comics acquired the rights to a number of the Stratemeyer Syndicate properties and published a mini-series, "The Big Lie," starring Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  It was very noir and centered around the Hardy Boys being accused of murdering their own father.  The story was a bit dark, but the author stayed true to Nancy, Frank, and Joe's characters, making it a mostly enjoyable read.

This year, Dynamite took a different route and allowed an entirely different creative team to tell a solo Nancy Drew mystery story - "The Case of the Cold Case."  Written by Kelly Thompson with art by Jenn St. Onge,  I always try to reserve any judgments until after I read the story as a whole, despite the number of complaints that I heard from fans up front, before the series even started:  "George is a lesbian?!" "Nancy wouldn't dress like that!!"  "Nancy never lived in Bayport!!" etc.  I realize that any time you cross mediums (from book to film, from comic to film, from book to comic, etc.), there are going to be some changes, whether creative, licensing, or otherwise.  Sometimes those changes can be good, sometimes they can be bad - it all depends on how they are handled.

With that introduction out of the way, "The Case of the Cold Case" had a pretty good mystery to it, definitely more long the lines of the Nancy Drew Files series rather than the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series.  Nancy, who now lives in River Heights and has been away from her hometown of Bayport (where, yes, the Hardy Boys live, too), is drawn back to Bayport when she receives a mysterious note that hints at her mother's passing some years ago.  Never one to turn down a mystery, she returns to Bayport, meets back up with her friends George Fayne and Bess Marvin, as well as Frank and Joe Hardy, meets a handsome new friend in Pete, and stumbles across a body while investigating.  (And yes, Nancy figures out pretty quickly, as do readers, that Pete is the one who sent Nancy the message - he needs her help solving his mother's murder, which the police wrote off as a suicide because they could not be bothered to investigate).  The gang investigates further and discovers that there is something very strange going on, and when Nancy and Bess are witness to another murder, and then Bess is kidnapped, it's a race against time to rescue Bess, reveal the identity of the crooks, and stop the smuggling ring that has set up shop in Bayport!

The mystery was certainly worthy of Nancy Drew, the investigation followed in true Nancy Drew form, using every resource available - online computer search, the good ol' fashioned library, flashlights in dark caves, midnight stake-outs and such.  Nancy's friends stayed involved and helped, but as in any Nancy Drew story, she remained the focus, and she is ultimately the one who figures it all out.  The breakout character in the series is definitely Bess Marvin.  Finally, after more than 85 years of publication, Bess Marvin is portrayed exactly as she should be!!!!  Always described as "pleasantly plump," the artists in the book never drew her that way - she was always stick-figure thin like Nancy and George.  In this series, though, Bess has some extra weight (not overly done or caricature-like), although she still retains that blond, curvy beauty that makes Bess who she is.  Further, she may be a bit nervous and frightened, Thompson writes her as determined and willing to overcome those fears to help out her friend.  She even surprises everyone when she comes up with information regarding the big party that could reveal more clues to help Nancy with her investigation.  Definitely not the dumb-bunny most people would assume the blond in the group is!  I fell so much in love with this version of Bess Marvin that I would love to see her in her own series (but I'm not holding out any hope that will ever happen...).  I also loved the chapter cliffhangers - now, I know, in comics, it is pretty standard for multi-issue stories to have cliffhangers at the end of each issue to leave the reader hanging and wanting more. But this worked perfectly with Nancy Drew, since her books are known for their chapter cliffhangers, and Thompson did a bang-up job of giving some pretty good cliffhangers at the end of each issue (and even at the end of the story!).

Now, on to some things that I did not like about the book, and a few things that should have never, ever been in the book.  First, before anyone gets concerned, no, I had no problems with George being gay.  Yes, the books always described her as a tomboy with a boy's name who liked sports, despised dresses and girlish things, so it was rather stereotypical for Thompson to write her as a gay woman.  It may have been a bit more creative if George had been straight and Bess, the uber-feminine of the three, had been gay.  But that's neither here nor there.  George being gay was no big deal, and thankfully, Thompson did not make it a big deal.  She did not push it in the reader's faces or turn it into a huge platform about gay rights.  What did bother me, more than anything else in this series, was the use of the word "goddamn" by the characters.  Had it been the villains or some previously unknown supporting character, I would not have liked it, but I could have passed over it.  No, Thompson, for whatever reason, felt compelled to have Nancy say it (issue 1), Frank say it (issue 2), and George say it (issue 3).  I'm not a prude or anything - I realize that people cuss, and I know this comic was aimed at adults, not children - but let's face it, the characters of Nancy Drew, Frank Hardy, and George Fayne would never cuss.  Period.  And the use of the words in the story are wholly unnecessary to the situations. The little Halloween give-away promotional book that Dynamite did, reprinting the first half of issue 1, proves that, as Dynamite removed the word - and guess what?  It made absolutely no difference to the story, the characters, or the intention of the dialogue!  Which proves to me that it was unnecessary and thrown in there to somehow make Nancy appear more adult, perhaps, or maybe more "relevant" to today's comic readers?  I don't know, but for me, it detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

Something else that was more likely an editorial issue than anything else was the changing of Bess's name.  In issue 1, she was correctly called Bess Marvin.  In issues 2 and 3, for reasons unknown, she is suddenly Bess "Martin" (with a "t' instead of a "v'). Then, in issues 4 and 5, she is back to Bess Marvin again.  Is it just me, or does it seem like editors (both in comics and in books) no longer truly EDIT books, but they simply manage the books, perhaps even stay involved in the marketing of the books.  I find more spelling, grammar, and continuity errors in comics and books than I ever did 10 or 20 years ago.  For self-published comics and books, I give some leeway, as there is oftentimes no editor involved in those; but for comics and books published by the big companies, particularly when the comic specifically identifies an EDITOR, it bothers me that blatant and obvious mistakes like that make it through.  It was already jarring that Nancy, Bess, and George are transported to Bayport for their hometown (the fact that Thompson indicated in early interviews that she was a big fan, but later interviews, she admitted to only reading a few of the books, leads me to think her desire to tell this story stemmed from Dynamite's previous story, "The Big Lie," where everything took place in Bayport - although Nancy was never said to be from Bayport in that story, I can see that Thompson may have misinterpreted it and assumed Nancy was from there), so to change her last name like that would give longtime fans cause to question Thompson's genuine care for the character and her history.

One final thing that bothered me about the writing was the way Frank and Joe were portrayed.  The instant attraction between Joe and Bess was fun (very reminiscent of the '70s television show and some of the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys SuperMysteries), but the fact that Frank and Joe were somewhat bumbling and not at all on par with Nancy Drew when it comes to solving mysteries did not work. I understand Thompson wanted Nancy to truly shine in this story, but it was extremely out of character for Frank and Joe to be merely "back-up" for Nancy and not side-by-side with her solving the crime.  Frank and Joe have been at mystery-solving for longer than Nancy, and I am left to wonder why Thompson used them in the first place, instead of simply having Ned, Burt, and Dave in the story instead.  Again, this was the writer's choice, and while I understand that changes are made when you cross mediums, if you don't stay true to an established character's history, personality, and skill-set, you run the risk of turning away and losing fans of the characters.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, I absolutely LOVED Bess, and I would certainly buy a sequel mini-series (which I'm assuming has to at least be in the planning stages judging by that cliffhanger on the last panel of issue 5!).  I just hope that if Thompson does write a sequel, she does a bit more research and reading into the Nancy Drew books to capture more than just a cursory essence of who and what Nancy Drew is.  (PLUS - love the fact that for the variant covers, they used the same font and style from the original yellow-spine books from back in the day!)

RATING:  7 crates of suspicious lobsters out of 10 for bringing Nancy Drew to a whole new generation of readers and welcoming her and her friends into the 21st century!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Cainsville Novel, Book 5 - Rituals

I picked up the first Cainsville novel, Omens, because the description on the back of the book made me think of Dark Shadows.  A young woman goes to a town where she's never been and becomes involved in the lives of people she's never met, and there's a distinct supernatural element that she doesn't quite understand going on all around her.  There are secrets everywhere, including Olivia Taylor-Jones' own life and identity, and before I knew it, I was hooked!

Now, with Rituals, I've reached the end of the journey. Oliva (a/k/a Eden) has come to terms with the fact that she is the daughter of two alleged serial killers.  She has also accepted the fact that she is the reincarnation / host to a Celtic legend - Matilda - and that her boss/friend Gabriel is Gwynn and her ex-boyfriend Ricky is Arawn. Three individuals, forever trapped in a love triangle time and time again. And Oliva ... Eden ... Matilda left with the most difficult choice of all - choosing between the two, which choice breathes life into one of the two population of fae living here on Earth.

But what if there were a third fae? And what if that third fae decided after all these centuries, it wanted a piece of the action - it wanted an opportunity to receive that breath of life, while the rest of the fae dwindled?  And what if that third fae would do just about anything to get that chance - including manipulating people and events throughout the years to lead Olivia, Gabriel, and Ricky to this very spot at this exact time?

That is precisely where author Kelly Armstrong takes readers in her final installment of the Cainsville series.  All the secrets are out.  The truth behind Olivia's real parents - the how and why they were able to cure their daughter of spina bifida. The truth behind Gabriel's mother - why she was so heartless and cruel and how she was able to pull the ultimate con.  The truth behind the Cainsville cabal - the deal they made and with whom they made it.  And Olivia finally makes the choice - but it is not at all what anyone expects!

Armstrong has her usual dose of romance in the story, but it is such a small part of the overall tale.  The Celtic rituals, the supernatural powers, the visions, the lies, the machinations, the calculated plans, the sacrifices - there is romance, there is adventure, there is dark horror, there is supernatural powers, there is mystery, and there is good, old-fashioned action.  Let me tell you, this one has it all.  While I hate to see the series end, I definitely could not think of a better way to conclude Olivia's tale.  Not everyone gets a happy ending, but the reader does get a very satisfying conclusion that leaves no question unanswered and leaves you smiling as you turn that last page.

Plus - how could I not love a book and an author who has her characters engage in the following conversation:

"How about giving her the wine?" Ricky asked. "Isn't that what you used to handle Muggles who stumbled into the fae world?"
"Muggles?" Grace said.
"It's from Harry Potter," I said. "It means --"
"I've read Harry Potter, thank you very much. I just don't think a biker should use the terminology.  People might think he's semiliterate."
"I'm very literate," Ricky said. "I havea huge collection of comic books. I even know what most of the words mean."
"Name your favorite DC superhero."
"I'm really more of a Marvel guy."
"No, you're really full of $#!^. I'd be better off asking your favorite Faulkner character."
"Faulkner's not much for character.  He's more style-driven. I identified better with the characters in Harry Potter. As for Marvel, I'd say Kitty Pryde, but if you ask me officially, I have to say Ghost Rider, because it's, you know"-- he motioned at his Saints jacket -- "obligatory."

This series is a definite must-read for any fans of supernatural / horror / mystery - excellent writing, engaging stories, and characters that jump right off the page!  I can't recommend it enough!

RATING:  10 fae retirement homes out of 10 for sending this series off with a real bang!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Aunt Claire Presents (Book Four): Grace Harlowe's Sophomore Year at High School

I put off reading this book for a bit, as I knew it would be the last "Aunt Claire Presents..." book, and I hated the idea of reading this final bit of history.  It seems the children's series of yesteryear just do not receive the credit they are due, and "Aunt Claire Presents..." provided the perfect avenue to give today's readers a window into the past - to see, yes, some of the prejudices and stereotypes that were present in that time, but to also see the camaraderie, as well as the innocence of a different era.  But, alas, apparently today's readers just aren't ready for that, or they simply aren't interested - as I can only guess that sales just did not warrant any more books in this series.

In any event, the final book presented by Aunt's Claire is actually the second book in the Grace Harlowe series - Grace Harlowe's Sophomore Year at High School (or "The Record of the Girl Chums in Work and Athletics"), by Jessie Graham Flower, A.M.  Grace and her friends Anne, Nora, and Jessica all return for new adventures and a new mystery, once again centered around poor Anne. In the first novel, there was the competition for the highest grade point average in the Freshman class, and someone was sabotaging Anne's chance.  In this second novel, the girls are excited about their basketball team, but it seems someone has given the junior team all of the sophomore's signals, leading them to lose their first game.  The blame is placed on Anne, and even she is uncertain as to whether it was her fault, since she lost the paper Grace had given her with all of the signals on there.

While the mystery is subtle and not at all difficult to figure out (who really did give the juniors the signals and put the blame on Anne?), the book focuses more on friendship, loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and standing firm in your beliefs.  While Grace sticks by Anne, the rest of the basketball team (except Nora) all fall in line with Miriam, who accuses Anne of leaking their secret signals and bans her from watching their practices.  A division begins to form within the sophomore class, and Grace finds herself a target of distrust for standing by Anne, despite all the accusations against her.

As the introduction by "Aunt Claire" points out, the book was written during a period when distinct prejudices existed toward people of a lower class and of certain professions (such as Anne's father, who was an actor).  While many of those prejudices have gone by the wayside, what is a shame is that some of the better attitudes displayed in the book - such as fierce loyalty to friends and a continued belief that even the worst people have some good in them - also seem to have disappeared in today's society.  Despite the other girls' vicious antics in the book and the last, when Julia  falls through the ice in an unexpected accident while ice skating, Grace doesn't hesitate to put herself in jeopardy to help rescue the girl (and in the process, learns to overcome one of her own prejudices when she meets a deaf-mute man who she immediately writes-off as slow and dim-witted, only to discover that he has more sense than her when it comes to lending aid to Julia!).

One thing I did find a bit odd about this book was that the mystery of the spilled secret was resolved by the end of chapter 22 - yet, for reasons unexplained, the author felt the need to throw in a couple more chapters and send Grace on yet a wholly unrelated adventure involving an escaped mental patient (who was mentioned nowhere earlier in the book, and whose appearance serves absolutely no purpose in the story other than to put Grace in a dangerous situation).  Perhaps the author was contracted to provide a certain amount of pages or chapters, and so this added plot element was thrown in at the last minute to meet the page/chapter count - whatever the reason, it was certainly out of place and unnecessary.

Nevertheless, I'm now considering hunting down the vintage books in this series to see where it goes next - after reading Grace Harlowe's freshman and sophomore years, I have actually found myself interested in these characters and curious to see what their junior and senior years bring, and how things extend beyond that.  I just wish the young adults and children of today's generations could appreciate the writing and stories of the early 20th century, so that more books along these lines could be reprinted.  But, alas, it's not meant to be - so it's out to the used book stores, antique malls, and online to eBay to begin my search for the next Grace Harlowe adventure...

RATING:  8 sprained ankles out of 10 for attempting to remind today's readers of the joys of the last century's reading material for children and young adults.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Dark Shadows Audio Tales, Vol. 3 - Phantom Melodies

In case you're keeping count, yes, this should have been volume 2 of the series of audio short stories, but somehow I skipped it and went straight to volume 3 - meaning I'll be going back to volume 2 when I next get a chance to listen to some more stories.  In the meantime, let's take a look at the four short stories featured on this third of the new Dark Shadows audio tales, Phantom Melodies.

As I mentioned with the first volume of this new series, I am not overly thrilled with them.  I miss the full, or even partial, cast audio stories.  These short stories feature the actors merely reading the scripts, as if reading an audio book, and sadly, they just don't have the same feel for me that the prior audio tales did.  Before, when I listened to the stories, it was like I were simply standing just outside the view of the show, but I could still hear everything that is going on.  With these, it's like I am simply listening to someone read the book (or short story, as the case may be).  Yes, some of the actors do try to vary their voice for the different characters; but hearing them simply read the action, rather than actually "hearing" the action - well, it takes away some of the joy I had in listening to the further adventures of Dark Shadows...

Regardless, the stories stayed somewhat true to the Dark Shadows world of darkness and supernatural. The first tale, "Last Orders at the Blue Whale," featured Harry Johnson - who, I will admit, I had no clue who he was.  I had to look him up on line to discovery that he was Mrs. Johnson's son who had spent time in jail before coming to visit his mother at Collinwood. He was featured in the pre-Barnabas episodes, and quite frankly, I have not yet seen all of those stories, which is why I didn't recognize him.  Read by Matthew Waterhouse (of Dr. Who fame), "Last Orders" basically provides the events of what happened to Harry after he left Collinwood. When he attempts to steal from a stranger, he finds himself facing a life or death choice - give up his soul, or turn over one of the Collins' family in his place!  Harry has always through of himself first, so what choice will he make, and what will that choice cost him?

The second story, "The Scarlet Bride," features Andrew Collins once again assuming the role of Barnabas. It is bookended by Barnabas reading letters from a young bride-to-be, and tells the story of young Agnes, who is about to be married into a family that has a very dark secret.  When a supernatural creature begins to come into the house, it is assumed it is Barnabas, the vampire - but not all is as it seems.  While the "mystery" as to the identity of the creature is not hard to figure out, the one thing I enjoyed about this story was the continuing friendship of Barnabas and Julia Hoffman.

The third story, "On the Line," is the only tale that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.  Nancy Barrett resumes her role as Carolyn, who gets a very unusual phone call - from her own future self!  Future Carolyn knows something is going to happen, so she begins to lead her younger self on a very specific path to prevent the coming destruction. But Carolyn of the present is not one easily duped, and she begins to suspect that something is not right - so she begins to question her future self and realizes that the path she is being led down is not one she would ever take!  Barrett shines in this story - it's pretty hard to pull off a story with only one actor, but she does it amazingly well - could almost picture this one in my head as she talked to "herself" throughout the story.

The final story, "In a Broken Dream," brings Stephanie Ellyne back as Amy Jennings, who has headed off to Paris to visit Roger and Elizabeth - only to discovery that they are missing!  Instead, she meets a mysterious Frenchman and starts to feel an unexplained attraction to him.  Something is amiss, but she can't quite put her finger on it.  This final tale fell rather short of the Dark Shadows' lore and felt extremely lackluster.  It never really caught my interest, and I had to force myself to sit through it to the end.  I liked the fact that Roger and Elizabeth were in it (it seems they are always out of town for most, if not all, of the audios), even if they were only read by Stephanie and not voiced by other actors.

Overall, this was definitely not one of the best audios in the series to date - I'm hoping these short story collections improve as the series continues - since I skipped volume 2, I'll have to go back and listen to it, and hope I find it more to my liking!

RATING:  5 shadowy figures outside the window out of 10 for, at the very least, keeping the legend alive for fans like me!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

DC Super Hero Girls: Bumblebee at Super Hero High

I cannot lie - I am truly surprised this series of books has lasted as long as it has.  Now, don't get me wrong - I'm glad it is still going, as I have always been a fan of female superheroes, and the DC Super Hero Girls line of comics, books, and toys has totally caught my interest.  I just did not expect it to last.  Apparently, though, the brand with its comics and books seems to be doing well.  (The toys, though, seem to have fallen off, as there have been no new figures, dolls, or any other toys at the stores lately...)

That being said, the sixth book in the series, Bumblebee at Super Hero High, gives fans and readers a more in-depth look at the life of one of the B-list characters (get it?), Bumblebee.  Karen Andrena-Beecher is unlike a lot of the heroes at Super Hero High - her superpowers are not natural. It is her suit that gives her the power to shrink, the power to fly, and the power to shoot stinging blasts. A suit that was designed and built by Karen herself! But that does not make her any less a hero, even though she begins to doubt herself when her super-suit begins to short out, failing to keep a battery charge, and basically preventing her from being the hero she wants to be.

But what really makes a hero?  That's what this book is all about!

Author Lisa Yee writes another character-building story that provides Bumblebee a chance to truly shine - with and without her super-suit.  Readers not only learn more about Bumblebee's past, but we get to meet her parents, find out how and why she built her super-suit, and discover how she got into Super Hero High.  Then the mystery starts - her family home is destroyed when the giant tree in their back yard crashes down into the house, destroying both her family's home and her tree-house lab.  Bumblebee notices her original suit is missing, but assumes it is simply crushed amongst the debris.  Then, the supply of honey in the world begins to diminish.  Then, plants begin to wither and die without warning.  Then, a strange pollen fills the air, causing people to sneeze uncontrollably.  Then, Bumblebee's suit starts to lose its charge and seems unable to keep a charge to stay powered.

Something is definitely amiss, and Bumblebee and the rest of the heroes at Super Hero High are determined to discover the source of all these strange happenings!

Now, for me, it was fairly easy to guess who the villain was going to be for this book.  Not that Yee made it easy to figure out - she actually gave no clue whatsoever as to the identity of the villain.  Rather, I guessed the villain based upon simple deduction. Bumble"bee" is the hero highlighted in this book. The world's honey supply is diminishing.  Who likes honey?  I won't spoil it by revealing the answer, but let's just say that any major fan of DC Comics for any length of time will easily figure out who it is.

And, of course, the book ends with a bit of a teaser as to who is to come in the next DC Super Hero Girls book...a touch of ivy, a bit of poison, and the next book is bound to be good!

RATING:  9 giant mutant killer bees out of 10 for keeping the female heroes at the forefront and showing that they can hold their own as an ongoing series!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cleopatra in Space - GN Book Two - The Thief and the Sword

Take a child intended to be a famed queen of the Nile, send her thousands of years into the future, place her under the tutelage of a talking cat, make her the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, and what do you get?  Why, nothing other than Cleopatra in Space, that's what!  Creator Mike Maihack's spunky little queen-to-be returns in the second volume of this funtastic little space opera, "The Thief and the Sword."

This graphic novel opens not with Cleo, but with an unnamed thief, who is proving himself to an unnamed benefactor in order to get a job. Meanwhile, Cleo is attending a party put together by her roommate and friend, Akila.  The students at P.Y.R.A.M.I.D. are all for having a good time, but Cleo just doesn't seem to fit in.  Nor does Zaid.  Or Brian.  But when the thief runs into Cleo (literally!), her latest adventures begins with a bang!

While book one gave readers a clear-cut origin story, showing how Cleopatra ends up in the future and gives hints as to her prophecy, with book two Maihack expounds upon the future universe and its characters. We learn more about Cleo's roommate and what motivates her; we learn more about that mysterious sword that Cleo recovered in the first graphic novel; we are given some more glimpses into this universe's big bad buys; and we are given a few more hints about the prophecy surrounding Cleo and what it will mean for her and her newfound friends.

Maihack is creating a well-rounded universe of characters here, while at the same time, building the story and giving readers plenty of outer-space adventure.  I am thoroughly enjoying the budding relationships among Cleo, Akila, Zaid, and Brian, and even more particularly, Khensu.  And "The Thief and the Sword" definitely has a very Empire Strikes Back feel to it, insomuch as it feels like the connecting story - there is adventure, characterization, and moving story points; however, it ends with a cliffhanger and definitely sets the stage for what's to come.

The art is consistent with Maihack's quality (I have to give the guy credit - he writes and draws this book, which has to take a lot of time and effort!), but there are some pages during the dance party chapter where the art feels a bit rushed and not quite as complete as the rest of the book.  Perhaps that was on purpose, to give the party a more casual feel, but it came across as merely rushed to me.

Otherwise, I continue to enjoy the series, and I'm definitely thrilled that Scholastic picked up the book (I remember Maihack at conventions before this became mainstream!), as I fully believe this deserves to be marketed and on the shelves for kids to find and read and enjoy as much as I do!

RATING:  9 ancient time tablets out of 10 for showing the world that the "fish out of water" story can be told in new and fun ways!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Holmes and Moriary, Book Four - In Other Words ... Murder

Sometimes it is hard to remember what has happened previously in a series when the books come out infrequently.  Such is the case with the Holmes & Moriarty series.  Author Josh Lanyon is quite the prolific writer, authoring quite a number of series, but the Holmes & Moriarty books are the only ones I read. The series is about mystery writer Christopher Holmes and his (now) fiance, J.X. Moriarty (and yes, the author does have characters in the books acknowledge the significance of the names), who stumble across bodies are ultimately investigate to solve the crime.  Previous books in the series were Somebody Killed His Editor, All She Wrote, and The Boy with the Painful Tattoo. And while I remember some general premises about the stories, it's hard to recall the details, since it has been several years since the last one came out.

Like the fact that Christopher and J.X. have now moved in together.

Or the fact that Christopher has been on an extended sabbatical, unable to write any of his famed Miss Butterwith books.

Or even the fact that J.X.'s young nephew is staying with them.

But that's okay.  Thanks to Lanyon's excellent writing, I was quickly brought up to speed while reading her latest offering, In Other Words ... Murder.  Other than Christopher's writer's block, everything is going great for this couple.  They are planning a vacation getaway (that J.X. is hoping will be a honeymoon!), J.X.'s books are selling like hotcakes with one even optioned for a movie, and they have settled into their new home.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, a body found buried underneath the gazebo (er, I mean the pergola) in the backyard of Christopher's old house.  The one he sold a year ago.  And based upon the call from his ex, it appears the body may belong to the man his ex left him for - the same man that used to be Christopher's personal assistant.  How could things get worse?

Well, the new owners are threatening to sue Christopher and break the contract on the house. Then, there's the sudden appearance of Jerry Knight, his biggest fan.  The one who tried to kill him.  Oh, and did I mention the clown that has been stalking Christopher?  So, yeah, maybe things aren't going quite as well as Christopher had thought they were.  And just when J.X. was getting ready to leave on his book tour.   And if all of that weren't enough, let's not forget that Christopher's father is in town and wants to meet J.X.   Meanwhile, Christopher's ex (David) wants to not only help Christopher with his investigation into the murder (who even said Christopher was looking into it?), but he also wants to get back into Christopher's pants!

Without a doubt, there is PLENTY going on in this book, but despite the overwhelming amount of story, Lanyon does an amazing job of keeping the story flowing nicely, never rushed, but with no lulls, and brings the mysteries to a very satisfying conclusion.  Lanyon is without a doubt an author I would highly recommend for anyone who loves a well-crafted mystery with fun, believable characters.  Now, the only mystery that remains is - how long before we get the fifth Holmes & Moriarty book?

RATING:  10 hotel glasses washed with toilet brushes out of 10 for a truly great murder mystery!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Lou Lou & Pea and the Mural Mystery (Book One)

I picked this book up at Barnes & Noble a few months ago, even though the protagonists, Lou Lou and Pea (short for "Peacock") are rather young - as in, elementary school, getting ready to go into middle school young. But the mystery itself - crimes begin to occur throughout their neighborhood, and clues appear in the various murals painted on the side of buildings - caught my attention. That, and the story seems to focus a lot on Hispanic culture (Pea's cousin's quinceañera, Dia de Los Muertos, etc), and there is a lot of Spanish dialogue throughout the story. It was nice to see a bit of diversity in a book aimed at children without it beating the reader over the head.  So, I bought it.

Lou Lou & Pea and the Mural Mystery turned out to be mostly enjoyable, with the two title characters being a lot of fun to read.  I will admit, it was a bit tedious to have their full names (Lou Lou Bombay and Peacock Pearl) repeated over and over and over again throughout the book - not sure what the author's intention was with that, but it became repetitive and annoying after a while. That aside, Pea's formal nature and Lou Lou's spunky side definitely played well off of each other, and they make quite a team. And while they were given a lot more freedom than real children their age ever would be, let's face it - this is a children's mystery novel, and in every mystery story I've read, the children and young adults have way more freedom than they actually should! That's what makes it enjoyable.

That being said, the mystery itself was certainly well crafted. Various incidents occur throughout El Carazón (their neighborhood) - Pea's cousin's dress is ruined by someone staining it; Lou Lou's prize plant is destroyed; their friend's rabbit is kidnapped; a singer's stage show is sabotaged; a craft store is water damaged; and the trusted candle lady's story is ransacked and robbed! And what is weird is that after each incident, something connected to the crime suddenly appears in one of the painted murals throughout their small neighborhood.  As the town gears up for the special Dia  de Los Muertos celebration, Lou Lou and Pea are determined to get to the bottom of the crimes. Lou Lou is certain that it is her new neighbor, the young boy with blue spiked hair, as all clues seem to point to him; but Pea reminds her to keep her mind open and not jump to conclusions.

Of course, it all culminates during the Day of the Dead celebration, where Lou Lou and Pea find the kidnapped rabbit and stolen items in the most unlikely of places - and find themselves trapped in the criminal's cellar with no way to escape!  The big revelation will definitely come as a surprise to most readers, as author Jill Diamond provides a surprisingly unexpected twist in the story, and the mystery ends in true Nancy Drew-fashion, with the culprit unveiled, the young detectives hailed as heroes, and all the wrongs made right again.

Diamond's story is littered with a number of cute illustrations by Lesley Vamos.  The art style is a bit cartoony, but considering the age level of the intended readership, I would have to say it fits in nicely.  In the back of the book is a glossary of the Spanish terms used throughout the book, so that readers gain a bit of a learning experience from reading it (although, in most cases, readers will be able to figure out the meaning of the Spanish sentences and phrases used by their context, and in other instances, the characters themselves provide the translation in the dialogue).

Overall, it was a fun little read, and I would certainly recommend it to those who enjoy children's mysteries.

RATING:  8 rose gold Sugar Mountain Sisters necklaces out of 10 for mixing mystery, diversity, and fun to create a really good book!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Dark Shadows Audio Tales, Vol. 1 - Echoes of the Past

Thus begins a new era in Dark Shadows audio stories. After 50 audio dramas, plus a 50th anniversary special, Big Finish re-started the audio series back at #1, altering the format so that each volume features several short stories. Each short story centers around a different character from the Dark Shadows universe, and each story is read by a different actor. I wasn't sure how this format would fare, but it is Dark Shadows, after all, so it's not like I wasn't going to get it and listen to it!

"Echoes of the Past," the first of these new volumes, feature four tales - the first starring Reverend Trask, the second Quentin Collins, the third Maggie Evans, and the fourth story starring Angelique. Each of these four tales is read by the actor who portrayed the character on the television show: Jerry Lacy, David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, and Lara Parker, respectively. Now, be warned - these are not full- or even partial-cast audio dramas; no, these are simply short stories read by the actors (the same way regular audio books are done). Yes, the actors do put a little emotion into the dialogue (particularly Lara Parker!), but they are still just stories read by the actors. That was a little disappointing to me, as I had grown accustomed to audio dramas with at least two or three actors, or often-times more, sound effects, and storytelling techniques that made me feel like I was listening to episodes from the TV.

Regardless of the change in format, the authors of these stories at least stayed true to the characters and to the Dark Shadows mythology. With Reverend Trask, we learn a bit more about his background before he came to Collinwood in 1795 and accused Victoria Winters of witchcraft. Trask is a charlatan, but when he comes face to face with a real demon, he makes a bargain to not only save a girl's soul, but also to garner some success of his own in the eyes of the townspeople. With Quentin Collins, it's another glance at Quentin's immorality, as he tries to once again evade inspection - but what happens when a fan obsessed with an old silent werewolf film seeks him out to find the lost footage of the aged film? Quentin will do just about anything to protect his secret, but that lost footage may reveal more about Quentin than he wants anyone to know. For Maggie Evans, the planning of a party for the upcoming lunar tide event is keeping her busy; however, a newcomer to town may be more than she seems, and when a mysterious mist comes in from the ocean and starts making everyone in Collinsport sick, Maggie realizes her days of fighting the supernatural are far from over! Finally, with Angelique, it is time to confess. Angelique, whose love for Barnabas has cost her so much over the years, has finally gone too far in her quest to protect him, and now the stoker of hell's fire has come for recompense - the only way to escape eternal damnation is to confess to all her sins. Of course, Angelique is full of tricks, and one is left to wonder - how will she escape this time?

The stories themselves are not bad at all, and I could easily see any of them turned into their own full cast audio drama; however, I cannot hide my disappointment in simply hearing them read by the actor as if they were reading a book for an audience. For me, this caused the stories to fall a little bit flat, and it took away some of the enjoyment and excitement I've had over the past years listening to the dramas by Big Finish. Don't get me wrong - I still enjoy listening to new tales of my favorite characters and storylines, but I will definitely miss the feeling of hearing a "real episode" rather than a book reading.  At least I know Big Finish is working on a sequel to the Bloodlust story, so that is something to look forward to!

RATING:  7 perfectly preserved movie reels out of 10 for providing more back story and further adventures of the DS characters for fans who continue to cry out for more!

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Short Lived Comic Series #9 - Marvel Comics' Beware! The Claws of... The Cat

Now this little series is something I was eyeing at my local comic store for quite a while.  I've always loved comics with female leads, and this series was originally published long before I started reading comics. But the store had them a bit high priced, so I waited until they had a 50%-off back issue sale, and I purchased the complete set (and later found the Marvel Team-Up and the Spidey Super Stories issues that featured this character).  And now, I finally got caught up on a lot of my other comic reading, so I had the chance to read it!

Beware! The Claws of... the Cat was a four issue series published by Marvel Comics back in the early 1970s. As with comics back in that day, her origin story was told in one issue (egads! imagine that!), but there was enough story packed into that first issue, that you definitely got your money's worth! The Cat, it turns out, is Greer Nelson - a former college student turned housewife after she meets the man of her dreams. But, as all dreams are wont to do it becomes a nightmare when her husband, a police officer, is killed in the line of duty. Greer returns to college and volunteers with an old professor to help her on a project. It turns out, however, that the project is one that gives volunteers extraordinary powers. When an unscrupulous partner steals the technology and creates his own powered volunteer, it turns to tragedy - Greer watches helplessly as the woman falls to her death!

But, as with any good origin story, from tragedy comes the birth of a hero - and, thus, the Cat is born! Greer takes on of the other woman's costumes and goes out to avenge her professor (who she thinks is dead) and takes on the bad guys. And all of this was just the first issue!

Written by Linda Fite (a woman writer for a woman character - and a darned good one at that), the first issue boasts art by Marie Severin and Wally Wood. The second issue keeps Severin, but the inker is switched to Jim Mooney. The third issue saw a new penciller, Paty Greer (coincidence?), and a new inker (Bill Everett), and the fourth and final issue brought yet another art team, with Jim Starlin and Alan Weiss taking on the pencils, while Frank McLaughlin was on the inks. I find it odd that a series that only lasted four issues had four different pencillers and four different inkers in the span of four issues. This was a bi-monthly book, so I wonder what Marvel was thinking, switching the art team around they way they did. Was it Marvel's choice, or was it the creator's choice? At least the writer remained the same, so the stories were consistent, building on one another, and while the artists did change, the quality of the art never wavered.

The second issue featured the Owl, the third issue brought in the Kraken (along with some aliens pretending to be government scientists), and the fourth issue found the Cat battling the Man-Bull. Something interesting about the fourth issue is that it features a short back-up story starring Marvel Girl (of the X-Men). It had no connection to the main story, and I have no clue why that was thrown in, unless the main story just didn't fill out enough pages.

Now, before the series was cancelled, the Cat did make an appearance over in Marvel Team-Up, issue 8 of that series. Perhaps as a way to try and promote the character in the hopes of selling more issues of her regular title, the Cat teams up with Spider-Man to fight the villainy of the Man-Killer. It's a fun little tale written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Jim Mooney.

The Cat made one other appearance two years later in issue 12 of Spidey Super Stories, the younger-age comic presented by Marvel in collaboration with The Electric Company. The Cat guest-stars in the main story (there are a couple of short stories after the main one), in which she and Spidey team-up to battle ... the Owl. Interesting that she fought the Owl in her own title, and fights him again in this all-ages story. With the plethora of villains Marvel has to choose from, why re-use one she's already faced? And, being the first Spidey Super Stories comic I've ever read, was surprised to see how large the font was - I guess to make it easier reading for the children who picked up the comic.

Now, something I didn't realize - apparently the Spidey Super Stories issue, which came out in 1975, featured the Cat after she had been turned into Tigra (the character she still is today), since Greer became Tigra in Giant-Size Creatures #1 in 1974. Something else I have to wonder about - the Cat's costume is yellow and blue and very similar in so many ways to Hellcat's costume (a/k/a Patsy Walker). So, being the diligent little detective I am, I looked it up and discovered that it IS the same costume, as Patsy found it in Avengers #144 and dons the costume to help the Avengers.

With all that explained, I can look back at Beware! The Claws of... the Cat and say that I enjoyed the short-lived series very much. It's a shame that so many series back in the day with female leads just could not seem to last - Night Nurse, the Cat, Ms. Marvel, Dazzler, Sheena, etc. Even today, while there are a number of female-led titles on the market, with the exception of Wonder Woman, the others are on a constant rotation, restarting, changing, etc.  Is it the fans' lack of interest in the titles?  Is it the creative teams not telling good stories?  Or is it the comic companies' belief that female leads cannot sell titles?  Who knows....

RATING:  8 far-reaching grappling claws out of 10 for introducing Marvel's newest action bombshell to comic fans of the '70s and creating a character that, although changed drastically, has managed to maintain a presence in the Marvel universe all these years!

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Captain Superlative - Life is Too Short to Be Anything Less!

When I was down in Key West earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to have met Judy Blume, the children's author who happens to own a bookstore in KW. While at the store, she offered those of us there to pick from a shelf of "Advance Reader Copies" of various books that she had received.  I went through the titles, and nothing really stood out for me, but since she offered, I though I might as well snag one. I saw the title, Captain Superlative, and after reading the back, thought it might be readable. Anyone who knows me knows that I love series books, and if it's not a part of a series, it is not very likely I will pick it up, let alone read it.  But, there's always that rare exception.

This one definitely turned out to be one of those exceptions.

Since this is the Advance Reader Copy and not the final product, not sure what, if any, changes were made prior to its final publication (other than a few grammatical mistakes I noticed while I was reading), but I hope they didn't change a thing. Captain Superlative may appear to be a light-hearted tale of middle-school friendship - a young girl dresses up and acts like a super hero, running through the halls of Deerwood Park Middle School, holding doors open for teachers, picking up books for students, preparing study guides to help others pass their tests, and standing up against the school bully. Yet, as with people, and particularly children, not everything in this book is what it seems.

Now, reading this as an adult, I quickly began to pick up on some of the signs of where this book was headed.  And, quite honestly, I almost didn't want to finish it. This past year has been extremely rough, and the ultimate reveal of Captain Superlative's secret was a bit hard to take. But, I stuck with it and finished the book, and let me tell you - author J.S. Puller definitely doesn't pull any punches. She does, however, balance the serious moments with some lighter scenes, and there are a few times where you will want to stand up and cheer!

While the title character may be a super hero (of sorts), the main character in the book is actually Janey Silverman, a middle school nobody that likes to stay off everyone's radar and does everything she can to avoid being noticed. Particularly by Dagmar Hagen (gotta love that name!), the star pupil of Deerwood Park Middle School, and also the domineering tyrant who scares everyone - but no one more than Paige McCoy, a shy young student who has the misfortune of being Dagmar's number one target. Janey hates seeing Dagmar torture the girl, but there's nothing she can do. Until she shows up.

Captain Superlative!

"Have no fear, citizens! Captain Superlative is here to make all troubles disappear!" With that one line, this young hero in a swimsuit and cape starts to make waves that have a ripple effect throughout the whole school. Janey can't believe she would make such a spectacle of herself. Why would she bring attention to herself like that? Until the day Janey witnesses Dagmar slapping Paige; and, without thinking, she does the unthinkable - she tells Dagmar to knock it off!

And thus begins Janey's road to transformation - from being a wallflower to being a full-fledged sidekick to the school's number one (and only!) super hero! Janey finds that doing good and helping others is surprisingly catchy, and she begins to see other students following suit (although no one else is dressing up in a cape and gloves like C.S.). She is truly happy and enjoying herself for the first time since her mother died, and everything is going great. Until the Captain misses a day of school.  Then two days.  And then three. And Janey is determined to find out what's going on.  What she finds out, though, rocks her (and the reader) to her core and will change everything about what she believed.

Puller writes a very thought-provoking, funny, tender, and heart-breaking story about childhood innocence, bullying, and the unseen things in others' lives that we never really know about; and, while she doesn't beat us over the head with it, Puller definitely makes the reader realize that before we judge someone else's actions, we should stop and consider why the other person is doing what they are doing.

It may not have been a series book, but Captain Superlative was definitely worth the read.

RATING:  9 floating paper lanterns out of 10 for making me laugh, cry, cheer, and empathize for the characters more than I would have thought possible.