Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Aunt Claire Presents (Book Two): Grace Harlowe's Freshman Year at High School

The books of yesteryear hold a very special place for me, as I absolutely love the writing of the children's series books from back in the day.  The writing has more depth and more complexity than the simple writing of today's books, and it has much more characterization and descriptive settings.  That's why I am thankful for this new "Aunt Claire Presents..." series of books, and it's my hope that the publisher continues to reprint a lot of the classics such as this.

Now, I have heard of the Grace Harlowe series, and on occasion, I've seen books in the series while shopping antique malls and used book stores.  I even have one book in the series (which, admittedly, I've never read), titled Grace Harlowe's Overland Riders and the Kentucky Mountaineers.  The only reason I picked up that book is because of the Kentucky reference, since I am from Kentucky.  So, it was with some bit of curiosity that I opened this second book in the "Aunt Claire Presents..." series, as I am more of a mystery fan and less of a girl's life series book reader.

Grace Harlowe's Freshman Year at High School, or The Merry Doings of the Oakdale Freshmen Girls, by Jessie Graham Flower, A.M., proved to be an enjoyable read.  While Grace Harlowe is the headliner of the book, as the introduction explains, the story is not just about her.  The story also highlights Grace's friends - Jessica Bright, Nora O'Malley, and Anne Pierson, with a good portion of the tale focusing on Anne and her desire to fit in at the school and win the freshman prize at the end of the year with a perfect score on her examinations.  The story also features a nemesis, of sorts, in the form of Miriam Nesbit, who reminds me a lot of Lettie Briggs from the Dana Girls mystery stories.  While there is no overarching mystery for the girls to solve in the books, there are a couple of minor mysteries that they solve along the way - such as who stole the answers to the final examination papers, and who sent Anne the frightening marionette in the image of her father.  There is no real difficulty in solving the mysteries, but it does provide the girls with some more adventures (as if trying to escape from ravenous wolves in the forest, helping Anne escape her father who is trying to kidnap her, fending off a thieving guest, and dealing with pranks from the sophomore class were not enough!).  And then there is the secret letter that Anne is hiding as the story reaches its end, a secret that could place Anne under suspicion for stealing the examination answers!

The introductions to these books by "Aunt Claire" are actually very informative, and give not only information about the book and its author (who I did not realize was yet one more pseudonym in the world of children's book authors), but also provide information about the time period when the books were written and how it affected the authors' writing.  It's great to see the text preserved and not edited to remove racial or social stereotypes and slurs, and I absolutely love that the binding of the book under the dust jacket is a reprinting of the original binding (which titles the book as Grace Harlowe's "Plebe Year" at High School, rather than "Freshman Year" at High School.

Now, remembering that this is a period piece, I did find a couple of passages somewhat humorous when read in the context of today's language.  One of them is the description of Mrs. Gray's nephew when he first appears at her house, on page 138:
He was tall and slender, very dapper and rather ladylike in his bearing  His alert, dark eyes were set too close together, and his face had a narrow, sinister look that made them all feel uncomfortable ... "Asinine dandy!" hissed Hippy.  "I knew he'd be a Miss Nancy," exclaimed Reddy ... "What do you like, then?" demanded Nora ... "I live afternoon tea," he answered, "and bridge."
The definition of a dandy, for this period, was someone who paid much too much attention to his appearance; usually, this type of person put on airs and tried to pass himself off as more affluent than he actually was.  The definition of a Miss Nancy was someone who was effeminate - a sissy, for lack of a better term.  Throw in the "rather ladylike in his bearing" description, and it could be assumed that the author was inferring that this Tom Gray character was a homosexual - but, at the time, she could not just come right out and say that.

Then there is the observation that David Nesbit makes on page 100 - purely innocent in nature, but read with today's language, society, and thought processes in mind, it takes on an entirely different meaning:
"If the Dunsmore boys are in good trim, I'm afraid they'll give us a stiff pull," observed David, "but the stiffer the pull the more interesting it is to watch, so long as they don't like us."
Now, in the story, David is talking about the important football game coming up between Oakdale and its big rival, Dunsmore; however, simply reading the statement in today's world, it comes across with a blunt overtone of sexual innuendo (which I doubt the author, back in 1910, intended).  Then again, perhaps it is just my dirty mind placing innuendo where there is none!

Nevertheless, the book was fun to read, and I look forward to reading what happens to these girls in their sophomore year in the next book (which is advertised to come out in the Spring of 2018 along with a Girl Aviators books, which I hope is true).

RATING:  9 crashing fir trees with ornaments and candles out of 10 for preserving the childhood joys of yesteryear for today's generation to read and love!

Monday, January 29, 2018

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Six – The Final Spell

Of all the comic series that have surprised me the most when I got around to reading them, I would have to say that Courtney Crumrin tops the cake.  I purchased this series, honestly, because the hardcover collection of seven volumes was so nicely bound with Gothic-style covers, and, of course, it carried a female lead.  I wasn’t really sure about the art, though, as I had turned aside this series many times when I would see the individual issues in the stores based solely on the art.  Now, though, six volumes in, and I am thoroughly engrossed in Courtney’s story and hate to see it reach an end.

The Final Spell brings to culmination several stories that have been brewing in the background over the course of the series.  Uncle Aloysius’ failing health.  The coven’s ultimate self-serving goals. The real secret the Duchess is keeping in the Twilight Kingdom. And, perhaps most important of all – the true nature and strength of Courtney Crumrin’s powers as a witch.

Author and illustrator, Ted Naifeh, tells a fast-paced story, jam-packed with adventure and mystery and surprises. This volume picks up immediately after the ending of volume five, with Courtney and her teacher, Calpurnia, are on the run from the Coven, who desperately want to place Courtney on trial for all of the magical trouble she has been causing.  But not before we get a four page prologue – four pages of two little boys in the past – two little boys who sneak into the Twilight Kingdom and come face to face with the Duchess – face to face with an impossible decision that will separate them forever…but which decision will ultimately have a profound affect on Courtney’s life, changing it in the most unexpected way!

The battle is definitely fierce, spanning pretty much the entire volume, as Courtney and her teacher run from place to place, ending with Courtney on her own, hiding out in the Twilight Kingdom, where she must face her own uncle.  And readers get a small taste of what Courtney’s life would have been like had she never known any magic – had she lived the “normal” life of a “normal” child, being bullied, having no friends, and watching each day go by without any hope for a change.  But, as with her former reality, Uncle Aloysius opens the door once again, leading to a spectacular final battle with the coven of Hillsborough.

The art, which has grown on me more and more with each volume, maintains consistency, and the purple / blue / gray coloring keeps the moodiness of the series at the appropriate level.  The art is very cinematic in nature, and the panels flow so easily, one into the other, and the change of scenes work flawlessly to speed the story along.  Naifeth has definitely become one of my favorite artists these days.

This volume provides a nice, neatly tied-up ending to Courtney Crumrin’s story, which begs the question – what in the world does Volume Seven hold in store?

RATING:  10 hands of fire out of 10 for giving Courtney Crumrin and ending that she so rightly deserves!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Arrow: A Generation of Vipers

It's always with just a bit of trepidation that I read a book that is based on a television show or movie, as I am always concerned that the authors will not be able to truly capture the feel of the show or film, or that they will be unable to give the characters the proper feel that they have in the show or film.  In the first half of this two-part story, which began in the Flash novel, The Haunting of Barry Allen, writers Clay and Susan Griffith showed that they had a grasp on the cast of Flash.  With this second part, they show that they have an equal feel for the cast of Arrow.

The Arrow television show is a bit darker and a bit more serious than the Flash, and A Generation of Vipers follows that format.  As Team Flash works overtime to try to find out what is causing Barry's gliches in the speed force, Arrow hits to streets of Central City to protect the town in Flash's absence.  But you can't keep a good hero down, and Barry is determined to help save lives, even if it costs him his own.  A cure, however, may not be as far away as they think.  When the combined forces of Team Flash and Team Arrow uncover a power source that was first created at Queen Industries back in the day, they set out to find it.  But someone else is also on the hunt...

Which, of course, leads to the obligatory Arrow flashback scenes (ugh, how I hate them on the television show, so to have to read them in printed form is pure torture!!  but, as I said, the Griffins definitely keep the flavor of the show, and sadly, those flashbacks are a part of it).  Readers will gain some more insight into Oliver's time on that dastardly island, as well as some pre-island time when Oliver was just another spoiled, rich playboy that influenced a friend that has now become a very dangerous enemy in the present.

Oh, and did I mention that the search for a cure for Barry ultimately leads the combined teams over to Markovia.  Yes, the very country from which Geo-Force and Terra hail from (although neither characters are seen or mentioned here, sadly).  However, we do get a surprise visit from Malcolm Merlyn, who offers his aid to the desperate heroes - but at what cost?

One of the best things about this story is the character interaction.  All the non-super-powered characters of Arrow and how they deal with the super-powered characters from the Flash is always good for a smile and sometimes a laugh.  Felicity and Cisco's geekness, Barry's carefree nature at opposition with Oliver's seriousness, and John's struggle with grasping not only super-powered humans, but the idea of a multiverse.  With 402 pages of story, the book felt like an extra-long episode (or maybe even a two-parter if it were on TV), and had they elected to drop the flashback chapters, I would have found this book to be nearly as perfect as the Flash novel.  Fun, with plenty of action, spot-on characterization, a spectacular climax, and plenty of underhanded tricks and surprises.

Now, I'll admit, the only reason I picked this up was because of the Flash.  While I watch the Arrow television show, I'm not a huge fan of Arrow himself (the character - the actor, well he's a whole 'nother story!).  Not sure if I'll pick up any future Arrow novels, unless they have a crossover with the Flash (or maybe even the Legends of Tomorrow - wonder if we'll be getting any novels of that group?).  But, for what it was worth, this book was a good read, and I enjoyed it - provided a satisfying conclusion to the story started in the first Flash novel.

8 stolen wormhole generators out of 10 for being able to keep the feel of both television shows and all the characters therein and putting them into a story worth reading!

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Dark Shadows Audio Book 50 - …And Red All Over

Dark Shadows hits a big mark with its 50th audio story, and boy, do they make it worth the celebration.  Not only do we get the return of Mitchell Ryan, who originated the role of Burke Devlin in the 1960s’ television show, but it also provides its audience with a reference or two to young Miss Victoria Winters, who was always my favorite character on the show! And to top it all off, the audio was released during the 50-year anniversary of the television show.

And Red All Over, written by Cody Schell (who also wrote the audio story The Flip Side), tells the story of Maggie Evans, now Maggie Haskell after her marriage to Joe Haskell.  She is on her honeymoon – or, rather, was on her honeymoon. For Maggie has awoken in a strange bed in a strange house in the middle of a snowstorm.  And she’s not alone.  Someone else is in the house with her – a man who looks strangely familiar.  A man who’s supposed to be dead!

Schell ties up some unresolved loose ends from the television show with the return of Mitchell Ryan.  In the original series, Burke Devlin’s character disappeared after the plane he was on crashed in the Brazilian jungles.  While his character was a double for the Jeremiah Collins character in the past, upon the return to the present, Burke was never seen nor heard from again, and his “death” was never resolved.  Well, with this story, that changes…

The man Maggie mistakes for Burke turns out to be Burke’s cousin, Finnegan.  And while Finn first pretends he doesn’t know Maggie’s reason for being there, a mysterious note indicating that “they” have Joe and will only release him, and her, if she gives them what they want by sunset.  The only problem is, Maggie has no idea what these men want.  Finnegan claims he doesn’t know either, but he says that it has something to do with Burke Devlin and a deal he made with The Ink.

Schell provides a plausible explanation for Burke’s survival from the plane crash, said explanation including the fiery powers of Laura Collins.  Schell also plays up a story referenced only one time in the show, when Burke mentions in passing about a deal he made in Montevideo. Finally, Schell also re-uses a phrase that Burke once said to Carolyn Stoddard about lying to a lot of people in his day.  It’s clear the author either has a true love for Dark Shadows lore, or he simply did some very thorough research to ensure this story fit nicely into the continuity of the show as well as with the audio stories (since Maggie has no belief in the supernatural in this story, which places it after the events of Bloodlust, where her memories were altered).

The lines of reality and supernatural are blurred, and for both Maggie and Devlin, they are never really quite sure if they encountered the supernatural or merely imagined exaggerated events due to being drugged.  Either way, the story is solid, moves at a nice pace, and provides a nice, happy ending (which is befitting, since this is the final audio book in this “series” – the next audio is a 50th anniversary special, and then the audio stories return the numbering to one with a new series of audios containing short stories on each CD).

I am thankful to Big Finish, the numerous writers, and the cast and crew for keeping Dark Shadows alive and continuing the stories of these wonderful characters over the years, and I look forward to many, many, MANY more to come!

RATING:  9 Rorschach ink blots out of 10 for bringing back Burke Devlin, for at least mentioning Victoria Winters, and for giving this fan hope that maybe one day we’ll get an audio that will see the return of Victoria!

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 16 - The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane

Let me start off by saying that before I read this book, I had absolutely no idea what "heliotrope" is. And the only reason I know now is because I looked it up, not because the book in any way explains it.  Heliotrope is a pinkish-purple hue that gains its name from the heliotropium flower. Thus, the use of this flower/color to name a street for the title of this mystery hearkens back to the early Nancy Drew mystery, The Password to Larkspur Lane.  Of course, there is a big difference between that original Nancy Drew book and this one.

For one, the original mystery was actually well-written and portrayed Nancy Drew as most fans know her.  As for this new one...

Well, let's just say that the title and the cover to the book, which I saw long before it was published, gave me some hope.  The Haunting of Heliotrope Lane definitely sounds mysterious, and let's face it - that Scooby-Doo-ish cover, while not exactly scary, at least uses some of the Gothic tropes for which Nancy Drew is famous - the dark, moonlit night sky...the abandoned old mansion...the flashlight in hand.  Truly, what's not to love about it?  So, I went into this one with much higher hopes than I have any of the books in this latest reboot of Nancy Drew to date.  Sadly, though, this turned out to be one of the worst books in the series to date.

To be fair, I will point out that there are some redeeming points about the book.  The plot is actually somewhat interesting, and had it been better written, it might have really been a successful read.  An abandoned house where an elderly women died under mysterious circumstances has become the latest trend for teenagers in River Heights to check out - but something is not right.  When one girl who visits the house has a sudden change in personality, becoming nearly violent, her best friend calls upon Nancy to find out why. Is the house really haunted, or is there something more nefarious going on?  There is even a cute little in-joke on page 9, when Bess asks George, "It's like one of those old mystery stories--do you remember that series with the yellow covers...?" And without giving too much away, Bess finally gets an opportunity to save the day, which was nice to see.

What wasn't nice to see was the constant portrayal of Nancy Drew as scared, jumping at her own shadow, and afraid to enter a haunted house.  Since when?!  Part of the appeal of Nancy Drew has always been her strong will, her determination, and her unwillingness to let anyone or anything frighten her.  Trusted flashlight in hand, Nancy Drew has always been the one to lead the way down hidden staircases, around ghost-filled halls, across haunted bridges, and into darkened rooms.  Yet, in this one thirteen-chapter book, the author manages to show Nancy screaming in fear, afraid to enter an allegedly haunted house, made sick by watching horror movies, and so scared that she allows George to take the lead.  Nancy's reaction on page 70 pretty much sums up her character during the entire mystery:
I took in a breath, glancing back at the dark, creepy house.  I don't want to go back in there. My stomach clenched at the very thought.
Seriously?  I've never been one to cry out, "That's not my Nancy!"  I've always been willing to give the reboots and various series a chance.  However, this is simply not Nancy Drew in any sense of the word.  If it was the author's idea that the story served to show readers that if Nancy can overcome her fears, we can overcome ours, then it failed miserably.  Nancy does not overcome her fear in this book; if anything, it gradually grows more intense with each chapter.

I can only hope whoever wrote this book does not write any more books in this series.  This is the problem with having a rotating crew of ghostwriters - it's hit or miss with the stories, and you sometimes end up with great plots but very, very poor execution.  Now we'll see what happens with the next book, Famous Mistakes.  Hate the title, love the cover, so I guess we can only hope the story inside will be far better than this one.

RATING:  4 horror-themed DVDs out of 10 for the haunting title and the spooky cover - it's just a shame the story inside couldn't measure up.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fairy Godbrothers GN Volume One – Tooken

It seems that in recent years, there have been a number of different takes on the old Grimm Fairy Tale stories.  On television, there is Once Upon a Time, where the fairy tale characters were brought into the real world under a vicious curse by the evil queen.  In books, there was the Sisters Grimm series by Michael Buckley, in which two young girls are sent to live with their aunt in a town filled with fairy tale characters – only to discover they are the descendants of the original Brothers Grimm.  In the comic realm, DC Comics introduced readers to Fables, in which the characters of the fairy tale realms were forced to migrate to the real world when threatened by an evil Ghepetto.  Now, yet another spin on this concept has hit the bookshelves in the form of an original graphic novel series – Fairy Godbrothers.

Writer Ken Kristensen and artist M.K. Parker introduce readers to Sean and Marcus Redstone – brothers who have grown into polar opposites over the years and must find a way to be civil long enough to sell the family business their father started years ago before he died. But fate has other plans, and in this first volume, “Tooken,” Sean and Marcus discover that when their father told them about the magic that awaits them, he wasn’t kidding. The two find themselves whisked through their family’s hundreds-year-old grandfather clock into another realm where all of the fairy tale characters are real, just not in the way they remember. These versions are darker, meaner, and filled with much more sex and violence than imaginable. And when Sean and Marcus inadvertently kill the king’s tax collector upon their arrival, it sets off a chain of events that lead them down a path of adventure and reconciliation.

But the old adage is true – be careful what you wish for!  In Kristensen’s fairy tale world, the magic in the fairy realm and that in the real world are connected, and when Sean and Marcus not only meet the mother they never knew, but witness the demise of a fairy godmother, they unwittingly create a butterfly effect that changes things in the real world – for when they return to stop the sale of their family ice cream business, they are shocked to learn their family business no longer serves ice cream – but porn instead!?!  Thus, the Redstone brothers prepare to head back to the fairy realm to set things right…

Kristensen does provide a unique take on the fairy tale/real world story; but, sadly, he seems to feel that vulgarity and perversion are a necessary means to not only make the story more adult, but to keep it “dark” and “gritty.”  Unfortunately, I would have to disagree.  The underlying story itself was really good, and the characterization (both of the brothers and of the fairy tale characters) was defined enough that there was no need for the massive amount of cursing and sexual remarks – they added nothing to the story. Instead, they come across as a poor man’s way of making a story more “adult” themed.  Aside from that, I do like the fact that neither of the Redstone brothers are truly likable in the beginning, but they are both redeemable, and along the way, the reader slowly grows to appreciate and understand why the brothers became what they did, making their reconciliation all the more meaningful.

Perker’s art is somewhat rough, but it works well on the black and white pages – I’m thankful they chose the B&W route instead of color, as I think it keeps the hard-edged feel to the story, particularly when the brothers enter the fairy realm.

This is not a series I would recommend to anyone under the age of 16, and I hope that if a second volume is forthcoming, that the writer will consider toning down the profanity and let his story speak for itself.

RATING:  7 bandages of human hair out of 10 for spinning a new tale of the fairy tale / real world connection – and giving a nod to Narnia with the old grandfather clock acting as a wardrobe door.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Dressed for Death – the Fourth Drew Farthering Mystery

Sometimes life throws us some unexpected surprises.  I read the first three Drew Farthering mysteries a few years back, and they were very enjoyable Christian-based murder mysteries set in England.  After finishing the third book, it appeared that the series was merely a trilogy, as the third book ended with the protagonists, Drew Farthering and Madeline Parker, getting married and settling down at Farthering’s estate.  I gave it no more thought until a few months back, while browsing on Amazon, I stumbled across not one, not two, but THREE more titles in the series that I apparently missed.  The fourth and fifth books were already published, and the sixth book was soon to be out.  Without hesitation, I ordered books four and five.

Dressed for Death, the fourth book, is set six months after Drew and Madeline’s marriage.  The two of them, along with Drew’s house manager Nick and Madeline’s best friend from the States, Carrie Holland, and her younger brother William, head off to the great Winteroak House to enjoy the weeklong festivities in a Regency-era setting.  Drew and Nick are old friends with the hosts son, Talbot Cummins, and they are excited to learn he is engaged to be married.  His fiancĂ©, Alice, however, seems a bit off, but everyone puts it down as pre-wedding jitters.

Until she turns up dead of  an apparent cocaine overdose.

Author Julianna Deering (which, it turns out, is merely a pseudonym for DeAnna Julie Dodson – have yet to figure out why these authors choose to continue using pen names, when their real identity is revealed in the short bio at the back of the book…) is without a doubt a master storyteller when it comes to telling a good mystery. There is more than one murder, and while the clues are anything but obvious, I honestly believed I had figured out one of the people involved – in fact, I was so sure, I was patting myself on the back for figuring it out so early in the story, and asking myself why Deering made it so obvious, when the prior books had not been quite so easy to figure out.  Then, in Chapter 18, when the killer is revealed, my jaw dropped.  I couldn’t have been farther from the truth!  I had not seen this one coming at all – Deering surprised the heck out of me, but once revealed, it all sort of fell into place and made sense.  Not many mysteries these days give me this much of a surprise, so I give Deering (a/k/a Dobson) my highest esteem for misleading the reader with subtle clues that take you in one direction, only to pull the rug out at the end.  Red herrings at their finest, indeed!

The characters are relatable and likable, and it was so easy to find myself sharing the emotions of the characters when Alice is killed – and later, when a second body turns up – and later still, when a third body is discovered.  The pain and heartache of losing someone you love, and the guilt of feeling like there was something you could have, should have, done that would have prevented it from happening.  The sense of loss and despondency, the feeling and frustration of feeling useless and totally incapable of doing anything…Deering more than pulls on the readers’ heartstrings with this story, but it’s well worth the read.  She gets her readers completely invested in all of the characters, so much so, that when a death occurs, it hurts you - - and when the killer is revealed, it fully shocks you.

And, this being a Christian based mystery, it is clean reading (no cursing, no graphic violence or sex). In addition, while it doesn’t beat you over the head with Christian beliefs or the evil of sin, it does provide some comforting truths that definitely struck a chord with me.

When trying to cope with a recent death, Drew is beside himself with guilt, so Madeline, one page 234, reminds him that “Our times are in God’s hands, and if it’s my time or yours or anyone else’s, there’s nothing you can do to change that.  All you can do is keep on doing whatever it is He’s given you to do for the time you’re given to do it.”

Later, near the end, when Drew, Madeline, and their friends are preparing to leave, Drew is given some very sage advice on page 303: “Don’t let anyone despise the gifts you’ve been given, and don’t you do so, either.  They may not fit anyone else’s idea of a calling, but the world has all sorts of needs, and God has provided for each of them to be filled if we all do our part.  It would be a shame if your part were left undone.”

Well said, Deering.  Well said.

RATING:  10 cat collars with bells on them out of 10 for showing that Christianity and murder/mystery fiction are not necessarily mutually exclusive things.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Boxcar Children: Great Adventure 3 - The Detour of the Elephants

The Boxcar Children's 75th Anniversary celebration continues with this third book in the "Great Adventure" series. And as I continue reading this five-part mystery/adventure, I discovered that this "Great Adventure" series falls outside the ongoing mystery series - for Amazon shows that once these five books are published, then the next book, The Donut Whodunnit, is listed as book 146 - which would be the correct number following The Election Day Dilemma, which was the last book published in 2016 and was numbered 145.

In any event, The Detour of the Elephants was, I thought, a rather odd name for a mystery. This series has found the four Alden children traveling the world to return priceless artifacts to their original owners, helping the super-secret Reddimus Society. And even though it is a bit of a stretch to think that any responsible adult would let four children, all under the age of 16, go gallivanting across the globe without any parental supervision, one simply puts that factor aside for the enjoyment of the story. After visiting New Mexico, Egypt, England, and Italy, this third installment finds the Aldens visiting Beijing, China and then Bangkok, Thailand.

Authors Dee Garretson and JM Lee provide plenty of clues for the children to solve (although they are not so difficult for any adult reader), and that is half the fun of reading the story is watching as Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny work their way through the clues to discover their destination, as well as the code necessary to open each box containing another artifact.  Garretson and Lee provide plenty of history for the two countries the siblings visit, and like with the children's mystery series of days gone by, there is plenty of knowledge to be gained about the various cultures and lifestyles of their foreign citizens.  (In a way, this "Great Adventure" is somewhat similar to the Greetings From Somewhere series for early readers - making the Boxcar Children an almost intermediate series, bridging the gap between Greetings From Somewhere and the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew series.)

This book also features an interesting departure from the previous two books. While the rival organization, the Argents, have been following the Alden children, trying to steal the artifacts before they can be returned, their antics have been somewhat limited to simple theft. In this mystery, however, Garretson and Lee raise the stakes - for not only does the Argent society mislead the children and have them travel to Thailand unnecessarily, but the children learn there is a traitor in their midst - and while they don't know exactly who it is, they have it narrowed down to two people who are very close to them!

The art, for both the cover and the interior, by Anthony VanArsdale is beautiful.  His pencil art on the interiors is especially gorgeous to me, as I love the pencils - very reminiscent of the Ruth Sanderson art in the Nancy Drew and Bobbsey Twins books back in the early 1980s, in that there are the soft lines and curves, rather than the dark, harsh angles from a lot of pencil interior art I've seen in children's books.

Only two more books to go in this 5-part adventure, so I'm curious to see how the authors will ultimately resolve the over-arching mystery.

RATING:  7 empty camera cases out of 10 for reinvigorating a childhood favorite series of mine with a fun new mystery adventure.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Clue - an IDW mini-series

Who did it?  In what room? And with what weapon?

These are the three question that every person who has ever played the game of Clue knows must be answered before someone can win the game.  In 1985, the game was brought to life on the big screen in a film adaptation that was not only a fun-filled comedy, but it did something unique - offered three different endings!  Was it Mr. Green in the conservatory with the leadpipe?  Or Miss Scarlet in the library with the revolver?  Or was it Professor Plum in the kitchen with the knife?  So many choices, yet only one could be right.  Right?

Recently, Paul Allor (writer) and Nelson Daniel (artist) brought the game to life in a new fashion - with an IDW comic book mini-series.  In six issues, Allor and Daniel tell an intricately woven story of seven strangers brought together by the mysterious "A. Boddy" - Miss Scarlett, Mr. Green, Dr. Orchid, Professor Plum, Col. Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, and Senator White (yes, they manage to use the original six AND include the new one introduced not so long ago in the board game).  In addition, we get Det.
Ochre and Det. Amarillo from the local police department (notice even the detectives maintain the color theme) and the ever-present, nearly omniscient butler, Upton.  And what's most enjoyable about Upton is that not only is he the narrator of the story, and not only does he break the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader - but he also breaks every other wall to actually communicate with the editor, the writer, the artist, and even the letterer before the six issues are done!  Talk about self-awareness!

As was done with the movie, Allor leads the reader in so many surprising directions with the story.  While at first, the characters seem wholly unrelated, it pretty much goes without saying that the reader can expect that all of them are harboring secrets, and they are all connection in one way or another.  At the center of it all is a very unique flower that contains healing properties corporations, doctors, and people would kill to hold the patent to - literally!  But how do Scarlett, Green, Orchid, Plum, Mustard, Peacock, and White all connect to the flower, and who is willing to do what in which room to further their own agenda?  Definitely not in the way you would expect!  Allor keeps one surprise
after another coming - and when Mr. Boddy turns up dead, it's only the beginning to the number of murders that take place in this secluded mansion with dozens of rooms, hidden passages, and more weapons than you can shake a stick at.

Oh, and if you think you figure it all out, let me tell you - when Upton (the butler - remember him?) warns you at the end of issue five that you'll never see the ending of this mini-series coming, he ain't kidding!  I was so not expecting what happened, but yet it was the perfect ending to a perfect mini-series, and I am fully satisfied with the experience of reading Clue: The Comic Book.  I would love for there to be a second series, but I really wouldn't want anything to ruin the enjoyment of this one.

Daniel's art is expressive and detailed, and he really gives the reader the feel of these characters being in a huge mansion.  Each character is distinctive and most fitting for his or her name, but the art is not so "stylistic" as some artists try to do these days so as to detract from the story.

If you love the board game, if you loved the movie, if you love a good/fun mystery - then you have to pick up Clue and read it - trust me, you'll be glad you did!

RATING:  9 fresh surobi zinnias out of 10 for taking the nostalgia of Clue and breathing new life into it in a fun new way!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Friday Barnes, No Rules

I have to commend any author that is able to make me laugh out loud when I'm reading a book, and R.A. Spratt is one of those authors.  Four books into the Friday Barnes series, and I can honestly say that each book gets better than the last.  While I prefer to read about teenage detectives, I am learning to accept the current trend for pre-teen detectives in children's mysteries - and 12-year old Friday Barnes is a Sheldon-esque sleuth with a knack for not only solving mysteries, but also for driving people crazy! (And if you don't know what I mean by Sheldon-esque - go watch an episode of Big Bang Theory...)

No Rules picks up exactly where the previous book left off (and that's one more thing I love about this series - the books always leave off with a cliffhanger, and the next book starts right off at that same exact moment - with a recap to boot!), with Friday suddenly finding herself being deported, as she find out she is not a legal citizen of the United States!  It seems Friday was born in Switzerland, and her parents never bothered to complete the proper forms to ensure Friday had her U.S. citizenship - so it's off to Switzerland with her.

In usual Friday Barnes fashion, Spratt soon has Friday solving a mystery for the Swiss government, thus earning her a passport that allows her to return home - and none too soon, it would seem.  Highcrest Academy has lost all of its teachers (it seems someone fired them all!), and the students are making the most of their newfound free time.  But Friday quickly uncovers the culprit - her very own nemesis/boyfriend, Ian Wainscott!  Ian is expelled, but Friday does not have time to even consider the consequences of that, since the school suddenly has a new Vice-Principal - one who is laidback and determined to change Highcrest into a whole new learning experience for its students.

Spratt fills the book with the overall mystery of who really fired all the teachers and why, but along the way, Friday has to solve "The Case of the Missing Math Textbooks," "The Case of the Wet Boy," "The Case of the Missing Furniture," and "The Case of the Colored Eyes," as well as figure out how the beef stroganoff was poisoned, who changed the signs during the cross-country race, and just who is the Vice-Principal really?  And, of course, there's always the ongoing question of when will Friday and Ian stop acting like enemies and finally just admit they like each other?!

Oh, and this book has one scene that literally made me cry out, "Yes, at last, someone recognizes it!" On page 111, Friday receives a telephone call from her uncle, and it goes like this:

When Friday picked up the phone in the school office, she recognized the heavy breathing on the other end.  "Uncle Bernie?"
"Friday, thank goodness! You've got to come at once," said Uncle Bernie.
"Are you in the bathroom?" asked Friday.
"What?" asked Uncle Bernie.
"Your voice sound echoey, as if you're talking to me on your phone from inside a bathroom," said Friday.
"So?" asked Uncle Bernie.
"I refuse to talk to you," said Friday.  "It's unhygienic."

FINALLY!  Someone else in the world recognizes that it is absolutely disgusting for someone to be talking on the phone while they are in the bathroom!  Of course, it turns out Uncle Bernie was only hiding in the bathroom so he could talk without being overheard, but that's beside the point.  It gave validation to my annoyance any time someone calls me while they are using the facilities...

There are plenty of laughs throughout the book, and yes, I did figure out who was behind the firing of the teachers (Spratt was just a bit obvious with the clue dropping in this one), but that didn't stop me from enjoying Friday's antics and the daring rescue that was required to save her from falling off of a cliff near the end.  And have no fear, for this book not only ends with yet another cliffhanger - the author bio at the end states that Spratt is working on the sixth Friday Barnes novel - which means we are getting at least two more in this series!!!  Yay!!!!!  More Friday Barnes is a good thing.

RATING:  10 packs of cookies dipped in strawberry sauce out of 10 for giving readers more fun than they can shake a stick at, with a main character that you can't help but love!

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A Change of Fortune Mystery, Book Two - Whispers of Warning

I always love it when a book gets a hold of my attention and simply will not let it go until I finish it - and Jessica Estevao's second "Change of Fortune" mysteries certainly did that! While the first book in this series was definitely the set up, providing the background for the main characters and introducing the setting, this book is the full force of Estevao's skill as a master storyteller.

Whispers of Warning returns readers to Old Orchard, Maine where our protagonist, Ruby Proulx, is enjoying her new life with her aunt at the Belden hotel.  No longer afraid of the voice that she hears, comfortable in her own skin, enjoying the newfound friendship with Lucy, and still basking in the rush she felt in helping Officer Warren Yancey solve a murder just weeks prior, Ruby is truly happy. But, as any reader of a good mystery series knows, that happiness is only going to be short-lived.

Estevao mixes real history with fictional mystery, as her story this time centers around Sophronia Foster Eldridge, a very outspoken suffragist who has come to Old Orchard to further her cause for women. Needless to say, certain men in the community are not at all happy with this, and none moreso than Congressman Nelson Plaisted.  Of course, the chief of police isn't too thrilled either, nor is Robert Jellison, the owner of the hotel next to the Belden.  Then there's the brother and sister-in-law of Aunt Honoria's friend, George, who show up in town for the grand opening of the brand new pier that the city is hoping will bring in more tourist trade, as well as the odd writer who is also a member of the Hay Feverist Society.  As with every good mystery, all of the characters have secrets they are hiding, and many have connections that start to come to light only after the body is found!

Yes, remember, this is a mystery, so there is a body. After the stage collapses and the crowd erupts into chaos at the suffrage rally, it certainly comes as no surprise that Ms. Foster Eldridge is found dead in a pool at one of the local bathhouses.  Wearing a man's overcoat and weighted down with stones, the police chief writes it off as a suicide.  But Ruby and Officer Yancey believe otherwise - particularly in light of the threatening letter received just the previous day and the purported manuscript that Ms. Foster Eldridge was threatening to publish, exposing the secrets and lies of many men within voted positions.  Any number of people could have wanted the suffragist dead, but the question was - which one actually did it?

I thoroughly enjoy Estevao's writing style, and her dialogue is so natural - especially the interaction between Ruby and Officer Yancey.  There's a playful tension between the two of them, and their constant battle with their growing feelings towards one another makes for fun banter - although Estevao doesn't keep the readers waiting indefinitely.  Her characters grow as they get to know each other, and the continuing subplots (will Ruby keep her past under wraps? will Officer Yancey prove his father's innocence?  will Thomas and Lucy get together?) remain a constant within the stories.  In some aspects, these mysteries have a soap opera theme - we have a number of characters, and while Ruby may be the central focus, the other characters have their stories as well.  And it's a fun ride to get to know each of them, liking some while disliking others - all the while trying to figure out whodunnit right along with Ruby and Officer Yancey.

And, oh yeah - just when you think you've got if figured out, Estevao pull's the rug out from underneath you and surprises you with the identity of the killer!  Definitely a surprise, but not someone that was totally out of left-field.  A satisfying payoff to a well-written mystery - I do hope a third book is forthcoming (although none is mentioned, and there's no indication anywhere online that a third one is in the works).

RATING:  10 tapestry valises out of 10 for a fun, engaging, and fully satisfying mystery with characters that I have truly grown to love.