Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A Blake Harte Mystery, Book 1 - Untouchable

A man is thrown into a shed and locked inside.  There is only one door in and out.  There are no windows and no trick doors.  The man was alive when he was thrown into the shed.  When the shed is opened, he falls out, dead with three gunshot wounds.

It is the ultimate "locked room" mystery, and author Robert Innes weaves a superb tale of secrets, pain (both physical and emotional), and new beginnings in his first Blake Harte mystery, Untouchable.  I had this book on my Amazon watch list for quite a while, and a few months ago, I finally took the plunge and bought this first book.  I figured if it wasn't any good, I could pass it on and not buy any more.  Well, that is certainly not the case by any means, and I have already ordered the second book and can't wait to read it!

Innes' protagonist, Blake Harte, is a believable, caring Detective Sergeant who has just moved to the small town of Harmschapel.  He's hoping to get away from a bad break-up, and a new job, a new house, and a new community might just be the fix.  But, immediately upon his arrival, he finds himself thrust into a domestic violence call that turns deadly.  Harrison Baxter is a young gay man who thought he found his true love - but can true love withstand physical and emotional abuse?  Just as he finally gets the courage to break things off with his boyfriend, Daniel, things go from bad to worse - his father catches Daniel attacking him, so he throws Daniel into the shed behind their house, locks him in there, and calls the police.  The only problem is, when the police arrive, they open the shed to find Daniel dead, from three gunshot wounds!

Harmschapel (gotta love that name!) may seem like a quiet, quaint little town, but it is harboring some deep, dark secrets of its own.  A bitter detective who makes no bones about the fact that he wanted the job Blake got.  An abusive boyfriend, whose father died in a drunk driving accident and whose mother can't stay sober enough to see what her son is doing.  A mother and father who have a strained relationship, to the point that Harrison has to listen from his room to the abuse that goes on each night.  And a new Detective Sergeant who hasn't quite gotten over the fact that he caught his ex-boyfriend cheating on him - with a woman!

How did Daniel get shot in a locked shed?  Who killed Daniel?  And how can Blake solve this mystery when all the evidence points to the one person he is sure is innocent?  I will say this - while I did manage to figure out the identity of the killer before the reveal, I can honestly say the secrets this person was keeping and the motive behind the murder were not at all what I was expecting.  Which, makes me happy, because it means Innes was not only creative in his plotting, but he creatively keeps the reader guessing with misdirection and red herrings so that the solution to the crime is not so easy to figure out!

And Innes rounds the story out with a large supporting cast, all of whom I grew to love pretty quickly.  Inspector Royale, Sergeant Mandy Darnwood, Sergeant Gardiner, P.C. Patil, and P.C. Billy Mattison make up the police force in Harmschapel, while the barkeep, Robin, at the local pub, provides the information contact that knows pretty much everything that goes on in that sleepy hollow.  Although probably not as much as Blake's landlady, Jacqueline, who is quite the gossip and more than a bit smitten with Blake (too bad she's barking up the wrong tree!).  Each of the characters are well-rounded, with their own set of quirks, and give the book a grounded sense of reality.  They also provide plenty of contrast to Blake's normally calm, caring demeanor.

And, if the end of this first mystery is any indication, Blake might not be on his own much longer...

Definitely a superb start to a series, and I am looking forward to following Blake as he solves more crimes in his new home town of Harmschapel.

RATING:  10 butting billy goats out of 10 for kicking off a mystery series with a twist-and-turn murder and quickly lovable characters - it's got me hooked!

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Normandy Gold - a Hard Case Crime Comic

Titan Comics seems to be have a big hit on their hands with its "Hard Case Crime" line of titles.  I gave it a shot with the Peepland mini-series, which turned out to be really good, so I took a chance with a second mini-series, and I have to say - I was just as impressed with this one.

Set in the '70s exploitation style of writing and art, Normany Gold is not only the title of the book, but it is the name of the title character.  Normandy is a small town sheriff who heads to Washington, D.C. to find her missing sister.  When her sister turns up dead, murdered, Normandy takes it upon herself to search for her sister's killer, even if that means going undercover as an escort for Washington's most respected (and used) madame.  She quickly finds out that Washington is filled with a lot of secrets, and that a lot of high-powered men will do pretty much anything to keep those secrets hidden - even if it means killing!

Writers Megan Abbott and Alison Gaylin provide a really great murder mystery with a tough-as-nails protagonist who will do anything to get the job done. They manage to give the reader the feel for the '70s, with the macho men who are sexist pigs to the end, strong-willed women who are still trying to gain that equal footing, and the government wheelers-and-dealers who seem to live conscience-free and throw money wherever it is needed to maintain their power.  Despite her tough exterior, Normandy is a character the reader will not necessarily identify with, but you will definitely feel for her and will be rooting for her to catch the killer, despite the things she has to do in order to get there.  And believe me, some of it is NOT pretty!

Steve Scott's art is absolutely gorgeous.  The people are real, the clothing and backgrounds are time-period appropriate, and each page flows so smoothly, it comes across nearly cinematic.  The expressions he captures on the characters' faces are spot on, and about the only complaint I actually have is the fact that there are a number of scenes with full female nudity, yet with every scene where a man is nude, Scott conveniently finds a way to "shelter" the reader from actually seeing any full frontal male.  It's the double standard that seems rampant in our society - yet, I can be forgiving, since the comic is told in a '70s style, and let's face it - back then, female nudity in these type of films and/or books was the norm, and seeing a man naked was simply not done.  So, I suppose, it actually keeps the book on par for its intended goal.

I will say that Abbott and Gaylin kept me guessing through most of the story as to who the murderer would turn out to be - and when the ultimate reveal is made, it does come as a bit of a surprise.  But, it makes sense, and like with any good exploitation film (is that an oxy-moron) from that era, the ending is anything but happy or tidy; rather, it resolves the mystery, but it leaves the characters in a state of limbo (as well as the reader, who has to wonder, just what happens to these characters next?).

I do hope that Titan Comics continues to publish more of these type of crime noir stories, as they are not your typical continuity-heavy, super-hero comic tales, but rather, they are stories with a lot of meat and really make you think.

9 poison-filled syringes out of 10 for taking us back in time and reminding us that even 40 years ago, women could be tougher-than-tough when they needed to be!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Supergirl, Book 1 - Age of Atlantis

As I am currently rehearsing this month for a play that I am in, finding time to read has been difficult (in between work, rehearsals, remodeling our bathroom, and learning lines for the play) - but, as anyone who loves to read will tell you - there's ALWAYS time to read!

DC Comics has recently come out with two series of young adult books based upon their popular television shows on the CW - a Supergirl series and a Flash series.  Since I recently read the two part Flash/Green Arrow adult novels recently, I figured I'd read the first book in the Supergirl series, Age of Atlantis.

The first couple of chapters started off a little slow, and, well, quite frankly, a bit childish.  Yes, I realize the target audience is pre- to early-teens; however, I expected the writing to be a little more advanced. But, then the unexpected happened - after I got past the second chapter, and the real meat of the story began to evolve (the sudden appearance of super=powered citizens within National City), I found myself intrigued.  And when the DEO reveals they have a sea creature, with whom they are unable to communicate, captured, I began to smile.  Without realizing it, the story - and the book - began to feel more and more like I was watching (reading) an episode from the Monday night TV show!

The story is set prior to the end of Season 2 of the television show.  Mon-El is still on board, Snapper Carr is still snapping at Kara, and Alex and Maggie are still together.  The gang is all here - Winn, with his technological nerdiness; J'onn, with his near-complete lack of humor; and James Olsen, with his crime-fighting alter ego - the Guardian.  Author Jo Whittemore does a fairly decent job at remaining faithful to the characterizations as established on TV, but I did find myself thinking of Winn more as Cisco (from The Flash) - particularly with his desire to name all of the supercitizens.

Ah, yes, the supercitizens.  I loved the way the author handled that aspect of the story.  Ordinary, everyday people who suddenly find themselves endowed with super-powers!  What would they do?  How would they react?  What would they think if Supergirl told them to stand down, especially when she's always been known to make a mistake or two herself?  And what happens when a group of them band together to ensure that they never lose those powers?  And, in true television fashion, just how is that sea creature from Atlantis tied into all of this?

This was a nice repast from the heaviness of this season's Supergirl and the whole "Reign" storyline that's going on.  Sure, Supergirl/Kara has some self-doubts; yes, James is still trying to compete for his superhero status, even without powers; and yes, people are actually happy (did I say that about a comic-related show?!?!).  Supergirl is the Girl of Steel that we all know and love - still new the game, but always thinking of others and always determined to do what's right.  It was fun, it had some great fight scenes, some nice tender moments, and an post-show epilogue that leaves the reader hanging for the next mean, the next book!  Definitely gives me hope that these DC young adult novels will be good reads, and hopefully, they will stick around for more than just one or two books (and let's hope we see a Legends of Tomorrow series in the future - no pun intended).

Oh, and did I mention there were a few little nods in the story....

On page 83, after being reprimanded by J'onn for a decision she made, Supergirl remarks, "'s too late to change what I did.  Unless you want me to, I don't know, fly around the Earth a bunch and reverse time."  To which, Winn smartly replies, "Yeahhhh, I don't think that would actually work."

(For those who don't know, that's a direct reference to the first Christopher Reeve Superman film...)

On page 220, the sea creature (okay, okay, he's Atlantean) tells Supergirl, "You assumed I was the last of my kind.  That is untrue.  My king also lives ... He is reluctant to rule, but yes."

(Hmmmm, could there be an appearance by Aquaman in the future of Supergirl???)

On pages 150-51, Kara returns to CatCo and searches for "Vicky V," who is leaving CatCo for "that other paper," as Kara calls it.  Could that "other paper" possibly be in another city - one that happens to be home to a certain bat?  Hmmmmmmm...

All in all, the book was well-worth the read, and I'm looking forward to the next one!

RATING:  8 bear claws out of 10 for making me wish that the stories DC were telling in their comic books were this light-hearted and enjoyable!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Odelia Grey Mysteries, Book 12 - Too Big to Die

Sue Ann Jaffarian introduced the world to the middle-aged, overweight Odelia Grey back in her first mystery, Too Big to Miss.  Now, with her twelfth book, Jaffarian provides readers with a potential send-off of her fun-to-read, sassy, never-back-down amateur sleuth in a mystery to end all mysteries.

To say that Too Big to Die is a life-changing story for Jaffarian's characters would be an understatement.  So many things happen, almost happen, could have happened, and should have happened, it's like a whirlwind of events, and poor Odelia will definitely never be the same after this one.  Of course, that's not to say that Jaffarian doesn't interject her usual sense of sarcasm and humor throughout the story, but there are definitely some more tender moments, some frustrating moments, and some sad moments (particularly at the conclusion) that will make the reader feel closer to Odelia than ever before.

The book starts off innocently enough.  Greg wins a baby duckling in one of his regular poker games, so he and Odelia must decide what to do with it.  By the second chapter, though, Odelia and her husband become involved in something that will lead to murder - they rescue a small dog from suffocating in the California heat while locked in a car.  With the help of a stranger (Burt Sandoval), they manage to break the window and rescue the dog - just as the owner of the car and dog, one very rich, very snooty, and very nasty piece-of-work Marla Kingston, comes out and starts accusing them of vandalizing her car.  What starts out as a simple animal rescue mission turns into an online viral sensation when Odelia and Greg find themselves all over the internet as the heroes of the day.  Particularly since they videos not only show Odelia and Greg's heroic act, but it shows the police taking the high and mighty Marla Kington down a peg or two.

But someone doesn't see them as heroes.  It turns out that Marla's husband is the number one client at the law firm where Odelia works with her boss, Mike Steele, and he will simply not have his wife humiliated in that way, especially by an employee of the law firm that he employs.  So, Odelia finds herself unexpectedly on administrative leave until the firm can calm Kingston down.  With time on her hands, it's easy for Odelia to visit her husband at work - where, faster than you can say, "Really, Odelia?  Another dead body?!" - yes, another dead body turns up, this time shot and killed right in front of Greg's business.

And so starts that roller coaster that is Odelia Grey's life.  From a mysterious young woman who has been filming Greg, Burt, as well as the Kingstons, to a paraplegic who has a connection to someone in Greg's past, to a construction company secretary, to a tragic accident and a secret payoff to keep the truth about the accident hidden - someone willing to literally kill to keep that secret from coming out!  With all of Jaffarian's mysteries, there are plenty of twists and turns, unexpected surprises, and a climax that will leave you reeling - only, in this book, not everyone makes it out alive at the end (how about that for whetting your appetite to read this book!).

The one thing I have absolutely loved about this series is how real Jaffarian keeps her characters.  There are no stereotypes, there are no caricatures, and no over-the-top portrayal of any of the scenes.  The characters react in normal, human ways, and they face real consequences for all of their actions.  The stories are grounded, which make them believable and that much more enjoyable to read.  I am truly sad to think that this could be the last Odelia Grey book (as a friend has told me that the publisher, Midnight Ink, will not be publishing them any more, so unless Jaffarian finds another publisher or self-publishes them, then the misadventures of Odelia Grey have quite possibly reached their conclusion), but if it is the last book in the series, it is definitely a perfect send-off.

Oh, and as a final note on the story - Steele definitely proves his loyalty to Odelia in a rather unexpected way in this mystery!

RATING:  10 half-and-half pizzas with veggies on the side out of 10 for feeding my Odelia Grey fix with another well-written mystery that can both bring a smile to my face and tears to my eyes!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Night Owl Society Trade PB

"The Breakfast Club meets The Sopranos."

The tagline on the front of the graphic novel, given by the comic website Newsarama, I would have to say fits this trade paperback of the IDW Comics mini-series perfectly. Five high school misfits band together to take down the mob boss who killed one of the teachers at their Catholic school.  But what happens when they find out that the mob boss is actually the father of one of the boy who brought the team together?

Night Owl Society, which was originally published as a four-issue mini-series from IDW Comics, tells the story of high schooler David Foxworth, who is pretty much a loner that no one at the school really ever notices (emphasized by the fact that two of his recruits sit next to him in classes and don't recognize him or even know his name).  His best friend at the school was one of the teachers, Father Shawn, who was brutally murdered by a local mob boss.  David has been going out each night to exact his revenge on his crime lord, and when he realizes that he is going to need help, he reaches out to three other school misfits (with a fourth showing up because one of them can't keep a secret).

A.J. is in it because he thinks it would be cool to be a superhero.  He's the brawn of the team.

Laura is in it because she can slip in and out without anyone knowing.  She's the stealth.

Darsh is in it because he is a computer genius whiz-kid.  He's the techie (think Felicity or Cisco...)

Sarah is in it because she's A.J.'s girlfriend, and she's got strength, brains, and determination.

Together, these five set out to systematically dismantle and destroy the local mob boss's enterprises and to bring him to justice for killing Father Shawn.  Until they uncover the true identity of the mob boss - and for them, it changes everything.  It seems the mob boss knows all of them.  All it will take is for someone to see them, and their whole family could be threatened.  But when David takes it upon himself to face the mob boss in one final confrontation, the team realizes they need to have his back, or it could all go south - which it does very quickly!

Writer James Venhaus provides a fascinating tale of mob-related drama in pure soap opera style, throws in some teen angst and vigilante/superhero (non-powered) justice, and just for good measure, drops in a bit of surprising twists and turns that will keep the reader guessing - and finishes it off with a single line at the end that is a true game-changer and hopefully signals a sequel in the future!

Artist Pius Bak does an amazing job with the art - providing pencils, inks, and color for the story. It's probably silly, but I love the fact that whenever he does a flashback, he grayscales it, rather than presenting it in color, giving it that sense of "past." And although there are a number of characters involved, each one is distinct and easily discernible from the others, and regardless of the dark colors (remember, a lot of this story takes place during the nighttime hours), the visuals are clear and crisp.

I'm happy IDW published this - it's definitely not something you'd see from either DC or Marvel, as it's not flashy, it doesn't have capes or wanton destruction, but it is definitely a people story, a drama ... a story with real feeling.  I would without a doubt recommend this for reading.

RATING:  10 silver chafing dishes out of 10 for, in just four short issues, making me feel for each of the characters and providing a satisfying story that is complete, yet open for more.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Devlin Quick Mysteries - Book Two, Digging for Trouble

Any good sleuth worth their grain of salt loves to dig for clues - and young detective-wannabe Devlin Quick is no exception. Only this time, she's digging for real, as she and her best friend, Katie, are in the badlands of Montana for a week in the summer to help dig for fossils.  When Katie stumbles across a few bones, she and Devlin are hoping they might actually be dinosaur bones. But their hopes are quickly dashed when the bones are switches, and it appears the paleontologist and his assistants are up to no good, it's Devlin Quick on the case!

Digging for Trouble is the second book in his quirky new children's mystery series, and author Linda Fairstein actually gives readers a mystery without beating us over the head with social and political correctness.  This time around, it's just Devlin and her friends solving a mystery.  And I give Fairstein credit on this one - she includes a lot of credible information about a dinosaur dig, but allows it to come across naturally through dialogue and interaction among the characters.  It's also nice to see a writer utilize modern technology without making it overly easy for her sleuth to ferret out the truth.  Devlin uses her cell phone camera, she takes advantage of her mom's position as police chief to utilize police search programs, and she even makes use of a CT scan in an unexpected way that helps her come to a startling revelation about the bones Katie found.

Another great thing about this mystery is that although Devlin has a certain amount of freedom due to her mom's job, she is still responsible enough to always let a grown-up know what's going on (even if they don't believe her) and calls them for help when she's in trouble.  It's also nice to see Devlin depend more on her friend, Booker, who plays a large part in the mystery once Katie and Devlin return to New York - where, interestingly enough, most of the mystery and the action takes place.  And even I learned something new from this book - apparently the Museum in New York hosts sleepovers for children!  I thought that Devlin's plan to surprise her best friend with a sleepover at the museum (which was actually a cover to allow her and Booker to investigate) was simply something made up by the author - but a quick look at the American Museum of Natural History's website reveals that they do indeed host sleepovers, and not just for children - adults have their own special sleepover nights as well!

While there is not a  lot of danger, per se, until the very end when Devlin confronts the culprit responsible for the theft of Katie's dinosaur bones, the mystery is still quite engaging as Devlin follows up on clues, goes with her gut-instinct, and doesn't ignore her suspicions.  The author fills the book with more than enough characters, most of whom were introduced in the first book, but some we meet for the first time (such as Kyle, the boy that Katie likes out in Montana) and Ling Soo (one of the college students on the dinosaur dig who I hope we see again in future mysteries).

Plus, let's face it - anyone who dedicates her book to Nancy Drew and Joe and Frank Hardy "who taught me everything I needed to know about sleuthing" - well, that pretty much says it all.  (Of course, that's not the only Nancy Drew reference - on page 33, when talking about Devlin, Katie tells Ling that "She thinks she's a detective.  Dev carries that [magnifying glass] almost everywhere she goes because that's what Nancy Drew did."

ONE LAST NOTE - I would be remiss if I didn't point out that, as with so many books published today, there was an editing snafu - on page 4, the author talks about the backyard belonging to the Cion family - but instead of saying "Cions' backyard," she refers to it as "Cion's backyard" (meaning one person's backyard, not an entire family's backyard).  And while only one missed grammatical error may not seem like much, it is just an unpleasant reminder of the lack of true editing in today's book market.

RATING:  9 ninety-four foot long blue whales out of 10 for improving on the quality of the mystery and the quirkiness of the young detective, all the while keeping it fun and engaging!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Nicky & Noah Mystery, No. 1 - Drama Queen

Back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Nick and Nora were THE crime-solving couple.  Today, though, author Joe Cosentino introduces readers to a brand new couple who are ready to solve the latest murder mystery - Nicky and Noah!  Nicky Abbondanza is a college theater professor, and Noah Oliver is an assistant professor in the theater department.  When their fellow colleagues start turning up dead, Nicky and Noah are called upon by the department head to look into the murders, since the police do not seem to be making any headway.  Of course, the fact that Nicky has a crush on Noah, and Noah has secretly been in love with Nicky but was just afraid to say so only makes their partnership all the more fated to be!

Drama Queen combines two things I truly love - theater and murder mysteries!  As anyone who has been involved in the theater knows, there is always more drama going on backstage than there is on the actual stage, and with this mystery, things are no different.  There are relationship issues, there are friends and enemies, there are jealousies and bitter regrets, and above all else, there is someone who is exacting revenge on the faculty members of Treemeadow College one by one!  And while murder is definitely a serious business, Cosentino adds in a good measure of humor, sarcasm, and overly dramatic soap opera elements that make this a more-than-fun read.

Nicky Abbondanza is a middle-aged college professor who is directing another play at Treemeadow College.  His lead is a self-absorbed stud, and three of his actors (two women and one man) are so enthralled with the lead that they trip over themselves to garner his attention.  Noah Oliver is an assistant professor with whom Nicky is in love, but he can't say anything or act upon those feelings, since Noah is seeking tenure and it would give an appearance of impropriety if Nicky made a move on the younger man.  Scotty Bruno is Nicky's assistant who appears to not only have the hots for Noah, but is also competing with him for that tenured position.  Tyler Thompson is technical theater assistant who teaches under the wing of the professor of technical theater, David Samson (who, to put it bluntly, is a bitter, spiteful, hateful man that is determined to keep anyone from getting tenure at the college).Ariella Samson is the professor of costuming and David's wife (the two of whom are separated).  To round the cast out is Martin Anderson (department head), Jackson Grier (stage movement professor), Loptu Lee (playwriting professor), Millie Rodrigues (voice and diction professor), Wally Wanker (Emeritus Professor of Voice and Diction), and Shayla Johnson (theater office assistant).  And, as any good murder mystery and soap opera will, each of these people have plenty of secrets...

It's no surprise that David Samson is the first to be murdered.  Everyone hates him, and pretty much everyone has a reason to see him dead.  But then more bodies start turning up, Nicky gets propositioned in the men's restroom by one of the investigating police officers, Noah gets jealous, Nicky reveals his feelings to Noah, the two of them get together, and before you know it, they are on the track of the real killer, uncovering one surprising secret after another (from a professor's fight to keep his/her transgendered identity a secret to the filming of porn films right there on the college campus to blackmail and secret siblings!).  The ultimate reveal of the killers does come a bit out of left field, but once explanations are made, it makes sense.

Cosentino gives readers a very satisfying read, and it makes me happy that he write a mystery with gay protagonists without resorting to the unnecessary graphic sex scenes that so many other writers do.  A "gay mystery" can be well-written and fun to read without the graphic sex - leave that stuff to the imagination, and it reads so much better.  Yes, he does throw in some humorous innuendos and suggestions, but no more than any "straight mystery" does.

If you love theater, you'll love this book. If you love gay detectives, you'll love this book.  Heck, if you love a good mystery with some humor mixed in, you'll love this book.  I can't wait to read the next Nicky & Noah mystery.

RATING:  10 bronze monuments of the founds of Treemeadow College out of 10 for proving a gay detective novel can be a great read without being overly graphic.