Thursday, March 29, 2018

DC Super Hero Girls: Harley Quinn at Super Hero High

Harley Quinn has come a long way since Paul Dini first introduced her in the Batman animated series way back when. She has gone through countless costume and personality changes over the years, but currently, she's sort of a crazed anti-hero, not quite a villain, but sometimes yes when the mood strikes her - and she has gone back and forth with her delusion of being the Joker's girlfriend.  She is not really a character I have ever cared for, although I do admit that Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti did make her somewhat readable in recent years.

Lisa Yee, however, with her latest DC Super Hero Girls novel, has actually made the character fun and likable for me!  Harley Quinn at Super Hero High introduces the world to an entirely different Harley Quinn - one who loves attention, one who can't seem to find time for her friends, but most surprising of all, one who is a hero at heart.

While the previous four books in the series all had a mystery element from pretty much the get-go, this one's mystery at the beginning turns out to be nothing more than a prank by Harley Quinn - something to get more ratings for her Harley Quinntessentials internet channel!  While she finds it amusing, particularly her friends' reactions, the other heroes at Super Hero High do not find it quite as humorous - particularly Principal Waller, who puts her in detention.  But does that deter everyone's favorite prankster?  Of course, not!  In fact, all it does it start Harley on her path to finding a way to garner even more viewers for her channel by hosting a Dance Contest!

Of course, true to Harley Quinn form, the Dance Contest doesn't quite turn out like she expected (although it does increase her viewership) - so she does the only thing she can - Harley creates the next big thing with a Battle of the Bands to take place at Capes & Cowls! The heroes, the villains, the surrounding communities, the other countries of the world - heck, even some bands from outer space all try to make the final cut so that they can be a part of this big event!  But, as can be expected, the battle doesn't finish, because all of the animals at the local zoo are suddenly on the loose, and it's up to the heroes to capture them and return them to the zoo.

As a final attempt to boost viewership beyond anything the world has ever seen, Harley decides to film live at the Krazy Karnival that is coming to Metropolis.  But something is not quite right about the Karnival, and it soon becomes obvious to Harley, as well as Miss Martian (the shyest of all the heroes) - and Harley finds herself in a real predicament:  help save her friends and the city, or push Harley Quinnessentials into the stratosphere with more viewers than any other website in all of the internet history!  Which will it be?

These DC Super Hero Girls stories are not the standard versions of the characters you will find running around DC Comics today.  They are younger.  They are not quite as experienced.  They are definitely not quite as dark and villainous.  But, most importantly, they are fun!  Sure, they do battle against villains wanting to take over the world.  Of course, they sometimes battle each other by mistake or out of misguided fear.  And certainly, they make mistakes and have to account for their actions.  But they are light-hearted and enjoyable reads, something I haven't seen in DC Comics (or Marvel Comics, for that matter) in a long, long time.

Author Lisa Yee has remained consistent, more or less, with her storytelling of these characters, and each book builds upon the last (and yes, in case your wondering, there is a sort-of cliffhanger at the end that provides the identity of the next DC Super Hero Girl to be spotlighted in the next book - but don't think I'm going to tell you here - you'll have to read the book to find out who it is!).  This is a series I would whole-heartedly recommend for comic fans of any age.

RATING: 9 uneaten pieces of lemon cake out of 10 for making me wish DC Comics would let Lisa Yee write their comics in the same manner as she does this book series!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Generations - a Graphic Novel

I read this graphic novel while waiting backstage for the curtain call of the play in which I just finished acting.  I've heard of life imitating art and so forth, but quite frankly, reading this graphic novel, I was stunned.

In the play, I portrayed a young gay man who was a Christian, but fell in love with an athiest, all the while struggling to keep his homosexuality a secret from his parents - until he is in an automobile accident that leaves him in a coma, with his parents and his partner to make some tough decisions...

In real life, I just lost my mother last December, and I've been dealing with the emotions of that loss, as well as helping my father and coping with the sudden loss last month of a friend...

Then, to start reading this graphic novel about a young man who returns to his hometown, still hiding his homosexuality, afraid to face his father, and living with his grandmother, three aunts, and very pregnant cousin with no job, no prospects, and no future in sight...

What do these three things have in common?  They all deal with the harsh realities of life and learning to depend on, and trust, and never take for granted, the time you have with your family!

Generations, by Flavia Biondi, is the first graphic novel of this creator to be translated into English.  It tells the story of Matteo, who comes back home after a horrible break-up with his boyfriend, and chooses to live with his grandmother and three aunts than to return to the father he believes wants nothing to do with him because he is gay.  Matteo is in a funk, and he can't seem to climb out of the ocean of self-pity in which he finds himself drowning.  With no job, no friends, and no hope, Matteo simply sits on the couch and watches television with his aunts.

Until one night, he comes to the realization that he isn't the only one in his family to have struggles.  He isn't the only member of his family to face despair and fight to survive.  It dawns on Matteo that his grandmother, his aunts, his cousin - heck, even his father! - all of them have stories, struggles that they had to overcome to reach the point in their lives where they are.  It is a turning point for Matteo (and for the reader), as he determines that the only one who can help him is himself!  The next morning, he takes over as caregiver for his ailing grandmother.  He takes her, in her wheelchair, for outings, where he faces former friends and old faces, and discovers that it was not the horror he imagined.  No one looked down on him.  No one glared at him.  Life was moving on, and he had to move with it, or he'd be left behind.

And, of course, he meets Francesco, an aide who comes to assist at the house.  The two become friends, and they even go out for walks.  For the first time since coming home, he has hope.  He sees the sun shine.  Until he discovers that his ex-boyfriend is asking about him.  Until he realizes that there are still things that need to be resolved.  And, for the first time, instead of running away to hide, Matteo decides to confront them.

Generations is not a coming-out story.  It's not really about the fact that Matteo is gay.  His homosexuality is, really, not the focus of the story.  Generations is about family.  It's about relationships.  It's about understanding the importance of those around you, their experiences, and appreciating them for who and what they are.  It's about loss, about growth, about life, and about death.  This book is a powerful and insightful story, and it hits home regardless of your age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or anything else that society uses to separate us.  It's about us.  ALL of us.

I think Biondi summed it up nicely with what she says Auntie B. always says:

"We're all apples.
And families are like trees heavy with fruit
When we're ripe, we just fall off and leave."

What Matteo learns throughout this story is that even though the apples may fall from the tree, the tree lives on...

RATING:  10 cream pastries and a coffee out of 10 for taking a slice of life and really giving it meaning and making it so worth reading!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Death at First Sight - the first Bay Island Psychic Mystery

A young woman becomes embroiled in a mystery and can't help but follow up on clues and question suspects until she stumbles upon the solution - and along the way, she gets a threat or two.  She has two best friends: one is ready to jump to her aid and do whatever is necessary; the other is timid, afraid, and loves to eat.  People have a tendency to come to this young woman with their problems, in the hopes that she will help them out.

Now, most people who know me will automatically assume that I am talking about the world's greatest teen detective, Nancy Drew, and her friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  I mean, let's face it - the descriptions match almost perfectly! However, they would be, and even I was, surprised to find out that I'm actually talking about Cass Donovan and her two friends, Stephanie Lawrence and Bee Maxwell from the Bay Island Psychic Mystery series.

I recently picked up the first three books in the series (wow, just like Nancy Drew, who started back in 1930 with a three-book set of books!), figuring I loved mysteries and I loved psychic tales, so the combination should make for an enjoyable read.  And it did, no doubt there.  I just was not ready for the strong similarities to Nancy Drew and friends that I found - author Lena Gregory must be a fan, as I can't imagine all of it to be pure coincidence.

The underlying premise is somewhat traditional - young woman moves away from small town, her parents die, she returns to her hometown, but things have changed.  Cass Donovan, however, is a psychiatrist who now runs a psychic shop on the boardwalk of Bay Island, just off the New York coast.  While she doesn't see herself as a true "psychic" per se, she is quite intuitive and is often able to help others in a myriad of ways.  But there is a shadow looming over her, something that happened back in the city that she doesn't want to talk about and is the reason she left her psychiatric practice behind.  But what happens when that shadow follows her to Bay Island in this first book, Death at First Sight, and she suddenly finds herself faced with the same choice?

Cass is helping here friend Bee stage the annual fashion show on Bay Island.  But Cass comes across something unexpected when she arrives early to the theater and discovers a body - that of a woman with whom she just had a rather loud, and public, run-in.  Although Cass calls the police, she quickly finds that she is the prime suspect!  Bee and Stephanie are on her side, of course, but it seems the entire island, where news travels fast, suddenly believes she is a murderess!  She has to prove her innocence before she is locked behind bars for a long time.  But who killed Marge Hawkins?  Was it her timid daughter, Ellie, who disappears shortly after the murder?  Or was it Ellie's abusive husband, who Marge discovered to be cheating on her daughter?  Or was it, unthinkably, Bee, who has his own hatred for Marge? Or could it be that dark-haired stranger with the sexy Southern drawl, who has more secrets than anyone and carries a gun hidden under his shirt?

Gregory provides plenty of twists in this story, that's for sure.  I honestly believed I had it figured out (from some very obscure clues - at least what I thought were clues - that pointed to a not-so-obvious person as the killer), and I was so proud of myself for having caught on.  The only problem is, those "clues" were nothing more than red herrings, if that, and Gregory pulled the rug out from underneath me with the final reveal of the killer.  Of course, it made sense once the reveal occurred, but that didn't take away from the suspense as Cass was not only taken captive by the killer, but also forced into a deadly game of cat and mouse in a dark woods.

Once again, I was extremely fortunate to pick up a series that drew me in and made me love the characters and story right from the get-go.  While I'm not usually a fan of the so-called "cozy" mysteries, this series is a definite must-read on my list now!

RATING:  10 big, furry, lovable Beasts out of 10 for a well-crafted murder mystery and a Nancy Drew-worthy protagonist and friends!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 16 - Stolen Identity

When I'm doing a play, it is so hard to find free time to read - usually my free time is spent learning lines, running lines, at rehearsal, or actually performing once the play opens.  But I do manage to sneak some time in here and there to get some reading done, and that's how I was able to finally read the latest Hardy Boys Adventures book.

Stolen Identity provides readers with something refreshingly different. The brothers are drawn into a new mystery as someone toys with them, planting stolen evidence on them at every turn, forcing them to not only hide that evidence, but work extra hard to avoid police capture.  They are bring framed, but they have no idea by whom or for what reason. And with the police chief out of town and a visiting chief putting them on notice to not get involved in any mystery, it's going to be tough for Frank and Joe Hardy to solve a case without letting anyone know they are investigating!

The author draws readers in to the story pretty quickly, with the manuscript pages of the original Arthur Conan Doyle mystery being discovered stolen by the end of the second chapter.  From there, things happen quickly - missing pages turn up in the boys' lockers at school just as a surprise inspection by the police takes place. Next, two more missing pages show up in menus at the local diner where the brothers are being interrogated by the lieutenant taking the police chief's place. Then, missing pages show up in the back seat of Frank's car.  The author plays on the whole Sherlock Holmes/Moriarty comparison throughout the story, as the Hardys begin to believe they have their own Moriarty playing games with them.

Could it be a former villain they helped get locked away?  Or was it someone connected to the museum where the Arthur Conan Doyle manuscript was on display when the theft occurred?  Or perhaps it was even the new lieutenant, who was trying to pin something on the Hardy Boys to impress the out-of-town police chief?  The game is afoot, as the famed detective would say!

The story is fun, and following the brothers through the twists and turns, the red herrings and the misdirections, keeps readers on their toes trying to figure out whodunnit. It's just a shame (once again I find myself saying this) that Simon & Schuster seems to now allow the writers of both this series and the Nancy Drew Diaries series to flesh out the characters a bit more.  The supporting cast come across very stiff and stereotypical, filling a particular need for a moment, then off the scene.  I mean, let's face it - in the original Hardy Boys books, Chet Morton was a major supporting character throughout the years.  In this book, we see him for barely a few pages, and he is no more important than any of the other friends of the Hardy Boys who appear in the book and then disappear just as quickly when they are no longer needed.  Imagine how intriguing this book could have been if it were longer than just 117 pages (which is not much longer than many early reader books these days!).

That being said, the story is pretty satisfying - although I wish there had been a few more clues, regardless of how subtle, as to the identity of the culprit prior to the big climax at the end. However, that didn't take away from the enjoyment of the mystery, so I'll have to give this book a thumbs up.

RATING:  8 grind boxes out of 10 for keeping the mysteries fresh and unique, and not depending on sabotage to sell another mystery.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Misfit City TPB, Vol. 1

When Boom! Studios first solicited Misfit City as a monthly title, I was curious and considered picking it up - however, due to the numerous (and I do mean NUMEROUS) monthly titles David and I already buy on a monthly basis, I decided to pass and see if the trade paperback caught my eye.  Well, I missed ordering it through Previews, so when I happened across it at Barnes & Noble, and I had a coupon, I figured now was my chance.

Definitely well worth the purchase!

Now, before I start in, I have to admit - I have never seen the movie, The Goonies.  I, of course, have heard of it, and I've seen previews of it, and I've heard people talk about it, about how great it was, and how it was a true treasure of the '80s.  For me, though, it just wasn't my thing.  Back then, I was watching either Star Wars, Superman, or Friday the 13th.  So, although this book as advertised as an homage to The Goonies (heck, the story is based upon a city where the treasure-finding movie, The Gloomies, was filmed!), that did not give away anything for me, nor did it fill me with any pre-conceived notions about the story or the characters.  Which was a good thing, because for me, these first four chapters were fresh, and fun, and thoroughly enjoyable to read!

Wilder is the sensible one - but she's tired of the dull life that is Cannon Cove, and she's even more tired of all the "Gloomers" (as the fans of "The Gloomies" movie are called) who come to the town hoping to see all the sets and props from the movie that put the town on the map.  Karma is the charismatic one - she moves as the spirits move her, and she knows a good aura when she sees one.  Nancy is the tough one - she doesn't back down from a challenge, nor does she put up with the nonsense of all the Gloomers.  Dot is the bookworm - she's got the book-smarts and never lets a puzzle outsmart her.  And then there's Pip - the dog.  Yeah, that's pretty much all she is.  Well, she is a pretty clever dog, so there is that...

Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith and Kurt Lustgarten know how to tell a fun adventure story, there's no doubt.  Their characters are diverse and believable, the mystery is engaging, and the action is fast paced and keeps the pages turning.  Honestly, I didn't even realize this was more than a four-issue story until I reached that last page and said, "Oh, no, wait!  You can't leave it hanging like this!"  But, I suppose, that's good writing that leaves you waiting breathlessly to see what happens next.

Naomi Franquiz' art is a little rough and cartoonish in style, but it's not outlandish or unrealistic, and she is able to make each character so unique from the others, that even the side characters who only appear in a few panels have their own character to them.

And, yes, I had a geek moment when Wilder says "Holy Goldie Vance!" (making reference to the Boom! Studios series about a young girl sleuth).  Does it say something about me that I'm more excited by the one Goldie Vance reference that by all The Goonies references?  Makes me wonder if these characters are in the same "universe" as Goldie Vance, or if perhaps Wilder enjoys reading girl detective stories?  Hmmm.......

Misfit City is now on my must-read list, and I've already added Volume Two to my Amazon watch list so I can get it as soon as it comes out.  After all, I have to know what happens next!

RATING:  9 poker-playing dogs out of 10 for proving that four young women can have just as much fun, adventure, and mystery as a group of boys can!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Doctor Who - Plague City

The second Doctor Who book featuring Bill Potts as his companion was even better than the first!  Author Jonathan Morris truly captured both Bill and Nardole (although, admittedly, I'm not a fan of Nardole - never really saw any purpose for him in this last season with Peter Capaldi), although at times, I think Morris' Doctor was a bit harsh.

Plague City returns the Doctor and his companions to Earth, albeit in the 17th century. And, wouldn't you know it, but they arrive right in the middle of the plague, which is taking lives left and right.  But something is amiss (as is often the case when the Doctor is involved) - there's a Night Doctor who pays a visit to those houses where someone is dying.  A dark, mysterious stranger in a black cloak and hat, wearing a bird mask with an elongated beak.  But who is he, and what makes the Doctor think there's more to his nightly counterpart than there appears?

It's a good, ol' fashioned Doctor Who tale as the Doctor and his companions stumble upon some strange goings-on that are somehow the result of an alien presence.  Edinburgh is suffering the affects of a horrific plague, and it seems anyone who is visited by the mysterious Night Doctor is doomed to die.  But for one family - Thomas and Isobel - their daughter was not only visited by the Night Doctor, but the next night, she was taken away by him, never to be seen again.

Until her ghost appeared ... along with the ghosts of everyone else who had died from the plague in this small Scotland community.  But the Doctor knows better.  He knows these astral projections are not ghosts.  They are a sign of something far more insidious, and with the help of Bill and Nardole, he's going to get to the bottom of it - ultimately offering his help to the alien presence that has been trapped under the small town since the Ice Age.  But there are grief-leeches that seem determined to stop him - for if the Doctor puts an end to the death, it will put an end to the grief, and they will not have anything left to feed on!

A perfectly-paced story that easily reads like I was watching an episode of Doctor Who.  There are support characters who are quickly likable (on, in a couple of instances, not-so-likable), and as the Doctor begins to put his plan into action to end the alien menace of the grief-leeches, clues spread throughout the book suddenly begin to make more sense, and I found myself smiling and saying, "A-ha!" a few times.  Morris expertly ties everything together, even placing some time-travel moments that are very reminiscent of things like "Bad Wolf" of the early seasons, or the election of season three.

It is truly a shame that Bill Potts will not be returning for the next season of Doctor Who, as it pretty much confirms that these three books (Diamond Dogs, The Shining Man, and this one) will be the only ones with her as a companion.  Although Donna Noble has managed to come back in some books and audio stories, so perhaps we will see more of Bill yet!  I hope so!

RATING:  10 flagons of cloudy brown ale out of 10 for perfectly executing a time-travel story that throws in some timey-wimey twists to surprise the reader!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 4 - The Singing Trees Mystery

Ted Wilford is back in the saddle in this fourth book of the Ted Wilford mystery series.  While the last book found Ted's older brother, Ronald, off solving the mystery, this one finds Ted and his best friend, Nelson, trying to figure out who is vandalizing the local Y camp, where they will be serving as junior counselors for a week.  Could the answer lie in a treaty signed by a prior property owner many years ago with the Indians of the area, a treaty that has been missing for too many years?  Or does the answer really lie in a missing inheritance that has led many people to believe the fortune still lies somewhere on the Y camp property?  And just how does a serpent rock and a forest of singing trees factor into all of this?

Author Norvin Pallas weaves yet another satisfying tale with The Singing Trees Mystery.  While the actual singing trees play very little part in the overall mystery, they do make a unique background story that leads a young boy at the camp to disappear not once, but twice (leading to a very daring rescue in a snowstorm at night near the end of the book).  Ted and Nelson certainly have no intention of becoming involved in yet another mystery, but fate has other plans.  When they arrive at the Y camp, they discover that a number of the cabin's windows have been shattered, mattresses have been sliced up, and the canoes have been damaged beyond repair.  What is odd, however, is that nothing has been stolen.  All of the supplies that Mr. Blair (the director of the camp) and Mr. Krillman (the manager of the property) had brought into the camp was untouched.  Nelson believes it was simply the act of some juvenile delinquents; but Ted is not so sure.

Of course, when you factor in the appearance of a ghost in the middle of the night, as well as a warning message that appears and disappears and an air raid siren that sounds unexpectedly, it quickly becomes apparent that something else is going on.  When Mr. Krillman finds his office files rifled through, Ted is certain that some is looking for something in the camp.  An intercepted message meant for Ted's rival, Ken Kutler, confirms Ted's suspicions, and with Mr. Krillman's help, Ted and Nelson make several efforts to capture the ghost vandal.  Ultimately, though, it is young Joey, a rambunctious boy with a penchant for telling tall tales, who leads Ted to discover the who and why behind the vandalism and clear up a mystery that has been left unsolved for many decades.

Pallas continues to age his characters, as Ted and Nelson are now seniors, preparing to graduate and enter into the working world.  While not integral to the immediate mystery, but definitely a part of the ongoing tale of Ted's emerging reporter status, Pallas throws in a confrontation with Carl Allison, the reporter who took over Ronald Wilford's job when Ron moved to the big city.  There is also some development of the friendship/rivalry between Ted and Ken, who try to remain friends even while competing for the same stories for their respective papers.

One thing that definitely makes this book a product of its time (the mid-1950s) is the reference to "trailerites" and the transient nature of people who life in trailers.  In fact, one of Ted's fellow classmates is not allowed back in school due to his status as a "trailerite," which leads him to do some devious acts (which are not quite criminal, but definitely not in good fun).

And while I'm happy that Wildside Press is reprinting these books, I do wish a bit more care was taken in the editing and printing process.  The synopsis at the front of this book, while indicating it is The Singing Trees Mystery, gives a description of the next book, The Empty House Mystery.  Further, the acknowledgement at the front of the book still thanks Steve Romberger, "whose copy of The Secret of Thunder Mountain was ultimately used to create this edition...", despite the fact that Thunder Mountain was actually three books ago!  Of course, neither of these things actually affect the story itself, so I suppose I can't get too worked up over it.

I hope that Wildside continues to reprint more of this series, as I currently have only been able to obtain books 1 through 7, and book 11.  I'm not sure why books 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, and 15 have yet to be reprinted.  Only time will tell...

RATING:  9 broken treaties of friendship out of 10 for giving readers a very likable protagonist who has believable self-doubt, but at the same time, a heart to help others!