Thursday, May 31, 2018

G.F.F.s (Ghost Friends Forever), Volume One - My Heart Lies in the '90s

Mysteries and ghosts are always a great combination.  Just ask the Scooby gang – it’s been their schtick for decades! So now Charmz, an imprint of Papercutz (who published those Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew graphic novels a few years back), has offered up a new series called G.F.F.s – Ghost Friends Forever.  It’s a new series (hopefully!) of graphic novels written by Monica Gallagher and drawn by Kata Kane about a fifteen-year old female protagonist, Sophia Greene-Campos, who comes from family of paranormal investigators.  Thus, ghosts don’t scare her and solving mysteries – well, it’s pretty much in her blood.

“My Heart Lies in the 90s” not only introduces readers to Sophia, her brother Felix, her boyfriend Jake, and Sophia and Felix’s parents, but it also presents readers with Sophia’s first ghost, Whitney – a young girl who died twenty years ago.  She has no memory of what happened to her, she only knows she is stuck on the bridge Sophia happened to be crossing and can’t move away from it.

Until she meets Sophia!

Something about Sophia opens a door for Whitney, and suddenly the young (?) ghost finds she can move away from the bridge – a little more each day.  Meanwhile, Sophia has decided to make it her business to figure out what happened to Whitney so the girl can move on.  But Felix finds out, and warns her that he will rat her out to their parents, since they were both forbidden to go into the family business until they had been properly trained.  And with her parents split up and living separately, Sophia knows there is no hope of that any time soon.

Gallagher provides a well-plotted mystery for the teenage paranormal sleuth to solve – what happened to Whitney and who did it?  But even more than that, Gallagher throws in several subplots involving Sophia’s parents and what happened that caused them to separate.  And what happens when Sophia suddenly finds herself breaking the one big rule that her parents were always warning her about?  Don’t get attached to the ghosts!  Only, Sophia can’t help herself, because the more she helps Whitney and delves into the mystery surrounding her death, the more she finds herself attracted to the young girl.

Gallagher’s dialogue is natural and flows smoothly among the characters, giving each one his and her own distinctive personalities.  There is plenty of teen angst, jealousy, betrayal, as well as a bit of humor thrown in for good measure, and the story has all the makings of a great ongoing series.  Hopefully sales on this first book will be enough to warrant future stories.

Kane’s art is simple, but effective.  It’s almost a cross between Manga and old-style Archie, and it almost has a feel of a Saturday morning cartoon from yester-year.  The backgrounds are detailed, without being overpowering, and the only critique I have is that the characters in a lot of places look cardboard (meaning when there is action, the reader doesn’t get the feeling of movement like you do with other artists).  However, it was not something that took me out of the story, just something I noticed as I was reading.

What’s in store next for Sophia?  Only time will tell…

RATING:  7 servings of orangey spicy pasta out of 10 for serving up a good little mystery and introducing a new gang of supernatural sleuths!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Shadow House Volume 3 - No Way Out

Dan Poblocki brings us back to Shadow House in the third installment that wraps up what appears to be the first trilogy in this series. Honestly, I wasn't expecting this story to end with this book - I thought it was an ongoing series; however, although there is a fourth book solicited on Amazon, I'm guessing based on the ending of this book, the fourth book begins a new tale with new characters.

But I digress...

No Way Out continues the story of Poppy, Dash, and Azumi as they try and escape the confines of Shadow House.  Picking up right where the second book ended, the three young teens have made it outside onto the grounds and are running from the monster determined to return them to the house and trap them inside forever.  Marcus is dead, and Dylan ... well, Dylan has turned on them and has joined the other "specials" in trying to either force the three back into the house or kill them.

Poblocki builds up the tension with quite a number of suspenseful moments.  The kids find themselves trapped inside a ghost carnival on the grounds, desperately searching for a way to escape the creepy clowns that are following them.  In the hall of mirrors, Poppy's ghost friend Connie and Azumi's sister Moriko seem to be giving them clues on how to escape.  But who can they trust?  Both Dash and Azumi are beginning to grow tired of Poppy ordering them around and wonder if the house is affecting her too.

And just when they escape the carnival, they suddenly find themselves forced into an abandoned shed with a burnt-up old car.  The same car in which five previous children were killed when the car crashed and caught fire.  As the three begin to learn more and more about the house and the number of times five children were brought to the house and killed, they begin to realize that the only way to free themselves of the horror of Shadow House is to return to the house and destroy the pact that started it all.

But who can they trust, and once they find the pact and destroy it, will they be able to escape the fate that the house has in store for them?

The author provides a satisfying conclusion to the story of Poppy, Dash, and Azumi (although, I will admit I was a bit disappointed that Marcus did not turn up alive somehow and join them as they escaped), and a part of me will miss them. The creepy illustrations/photos throughout the book certainly add to the ambiance of the tale.  I will be curious to see where Poblocki takes this story with a new set of children in book four (whose description on tells you next to nothing).

RATING: 7 cherry cough drops out of 10 for nicely wrapping up a tale of terror filled with plenty of horrors and page-turning suspense.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Third Lucius Fogg Novel - Educated Corpses

The third, and what appears to be final, book in the Lucius Fogg series takes its protagonist, Jimmy Doyle, on some unexpected twists and turns and provides a cinematic-worthy climax to the book (and the series) that, while it leaves it open for more stories in the future, still provides a satisfying conclusion to Doyle's story.

And I still find it interesting that the series is "A Lucius Fogg Novel," yet all three books have focused on former vet turned private investigator, Jimmy Doyle.  But, author Dan Wickline has his reasons, so who am I to question it?

The series has already dealt with vampires and werewolves, as well as mad sorcerers and other creatures of supernatural myth - so it should come as no surprise that Educated Corpses brings Doyle face to face with zombies.  At the same time, Wickline forces Doyle to confront his past when a former mentor reaches out to him for help, but dies gruesomely at the hands of a re-animated gorilla before Doyle can find out why he called him.

But, as with any good supernatural story, you can't keep a good man down - or dead, for that matter.  As Doyle begins to look into the last case that his former mentor, Elias Chandler, was working on when he died (hoping it will give him a clue as to why Elias called him), he gets a surprise visit at Fogg's brownstone by none other than Elias Chandler!  It's definitely a case of dead-man-walking, but not at all in the usual way.  Wickline creates a unique story of lost dogs, greed, mad scientists, army involvement, a beautiful seductress, reanimated corpses, and - oh, yeah, just for good measure, a subplot involving a growing rebellion in the vampire community of Old Town.

And did I mention that Doyle finds himself using more and more spells in this book, to not only protect himself, but others as well?

Wickline pulls out all the stops for this final tale of Jimmy Doyle and friends.  Doyle's investigation into the reanimated corpses takes him to a university professor with a gorgeous assistant and a larger-than-life bodyguard who packs quite a punch.  But he's been knocked unconscious and thrown out of places before, so he doesn't let it deter him from his ultimate goal - finding out who is bringing the dead back to life and why.  And that fact that the new police chief has forbidden Doyle and Fogg to be involved with any police investigations under threat of revoking Doyle's P.I. licence and evicting Fogg from his brownstone, it seems Doyle will have to work his way around the police to solve this one.

But with the help of his friends - Patches, Seabass, Elias, Conrad, and Fogg's alchemist friend Claire - Doyle is sure to solve the case.  But at what cost?  As Elias reminds him, the use of magic has its costs, and Doyle has to ask himself, is he ready to pay the price?  Not everyone makes it out of this book alive (even the living dead can ultimately die), and the final showdown of zombies versus a united front of vampires, werewolves, sorcerers, and humans is the perfect pulse-pounding conclusion to a fantastic trilogy.

Educated Corpses was published in 2016, and in the author's bio at the end of the book, there's a short tagline that says Lucius and Jimmy will be back - but there is no indication of when, and I find nothing anywhere online to indicate a fourth book is forthcoming.  Which, if one never materializes, is okay, as the conclusion of this story wraps up a lot of subplots and leaves all of the characters who survive in a really good place.

Thanks, Dan Wickline for some really great reads and for adding Lucius Fogg and Jimmy Doyle to the supernatural/mystery/sci-fi world of reading!

RATING:  9 reflecting quarters out of 10 for mashing the supernatural and noir detective novels in a fresh way!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Scarlet and Ivy, Book Two - The Whispers in the Walls

Okay, c'mon, let's face it - with a title like The Whispers in the Walls, how could any true mystery lover pass this one up? Of course, fans of some of the older series books from wayyyyy back in the day might remember that the 15th Penny Parker book by Mildred Wirt was titled Whispering Walls. Could there be a correlation?  Did the author of this book read the Penny Parker series?  Was she a fan?  Hmmmmmmm...

Regardless, this second volume in the Scarlet & Ivy series is even better with the first, with a much darker mystery, some brand new sleuthing, and a few new characters thrown in to spice up the mix. Author Sophie Cleverly picks up exactly where the first book left off - Ivy and Miss Finch have arrived at the psychiatric hospital - and while book one ended with Ivy staring through the glass at her sister, The Whispers in the Walls opens up with Scarlet looking back at Ivy through that same glass, realizing that at last her wish has come true!  Her sister has found her!

Cleverly provides readers with more than just cookie-cutter characters, which makes for some really great reading.  Scarlet and Ivy find themselves changing - Ivy was always the shy, quiet one, while Scarlet was always the strong-willed, outspoken one. They are both shocked, though, to discover that Ivy's time pretending to be Scarlet has instilled in her some backbone, making her a bit more determined and a bit less timid; meanwhile, Scarlet's time in the mental institution has left her with some fears that she is having a difficult time overcoming.  The two girls are no longer polar opposites, which is a good thing, for they are about to face something even worse than Miss Fox (if that were even possible!).

There are a number of mysteries set up in this story.  First, there is Mr. Bartholomew, the new headmaster of the school (although, maybe not so new, as the twins find out that he used to run the school many years ago).  He is super-strict and none-too-friendly, but what raises questions is the fact that he seems reluctant to acknowledge what happened to Scarlet and Miss Fox.  In fact, none of the teachers will talk about it, and everyone is pretending that Scarlet was never away and that Ivy is a new student!  What gives?

Then Violet returns to school. The same Violet who nearly pushed Scarlet off the roof of the school.  The same Violet that disappeared around the time that Scarlet was carted off to the psychiatric hospital. But she's not the same Violet.  She's not hateful, or spiteful, or out for revenge.  Instead, she's quiet and secretive and ... well ... there's just something not right about her.

And that's when the thefts start.  Someone steals some clothes.  And food.  And blankets.  Mr. Bartholomew is out for blood, and students and staff alike are scared of what he will do to the person he finds out is stealing.  Ivy starts to question whether Scarlet could be the culprit when she finds her sister missing in the middle of the night.  Her distrust puts the two sisters at odds - at least, until they, along with Ivy's friend Ariadne, find a mystery to solve.  A ghost in the library.  A ghost that can apparently walk through walls.

Hidden doors, secret passageways, mysterious messages, and a terrifying secret from the school's past that someone will do anything to keep hidden - even if it means setting fire to the school!  And amidst all of this mystery and danger, Ivy and Scarlet stumble across the whispers in the walls, which ultimately lead them to a shocking discovery about their own mother!

Yes, folks, this one has it all.  Cleverly builds the suspense and mystery, all the while making the reader actually care about the characters so that you find yourself not only rooting for Ivy and Scarlet, but for Ariadne, Violet, Miss Finch, Miss Jones, and yes, even Penny.  And, oh, yes, that ending definitely sets the stage for what is to come in the third book of the series...

RATING:  8 bowls of runny, cold porridge out of 10 for wrapping a mystery within a mystery within a mystery to keep the reader engaged!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Dying to Play - a Mike King Mystery

What makes a good murder mystery?  Is it the mystique of keeping the killer's identity a complete secret, so that when it's revealed, it's a huge shock?  Or is it not so much the identity of the killer, but rather, the "why" instead of the "who" that really matters?  Or could it possibly be the strong characters that draw you into the story and make you care about them, regardless of whodunnit or why they did it?  Or, maybe, just maybe, it's a combination of any and/or all of the foregoing...

Well, with Mark Zubro's first (at least, I think it's the first) Mike King mystery, Dying to Play, I'd have to say a lot of those elements come into play (yeah, yeah, I see what I did there - just go with it and keep reading).  Sure, there are plenty of suspects that make the reader question the identity of the killer, but it doesn't exactly come as a huge shock when the reveal is made; moreover, while there is some mystery as to the reasons behind the crimes, the revelations are not totally surprising.  But what definitely hits the mark are the characters.

Mike King is a likeable, down-to-earth, every-day guy who happens to be a detective, who happens to be good looking, and who happens to be gay.  Yet, none of those things completely define him as a character.  He is multi-faceted, he is relatable, and he is, without a doubt, thoroughly enjoyable to follow on his investigation.  Plus, he's never quite on his own.  He has his own crew - from the ever-efficient assistant Duncan (everyone's dream of the perfect secretary!), to the master (mistress?) of disguise Georgia (male, female, young, old, she can become him/her!), to the expert strategist Jerry (who I think is my personal favorite) - and clearly could not survive without them.

In Dying to Play, King is hired to pose as a baseball player in a (very) minor league team to uncover who has been making threats to the players and trying to run the team and its owner out of the small town of Butterfield, Wisconsin.  King soon finds out that while no one in town has a huge ax to grind with the players, nearly everyone has a problem with its owner, Connor Knecht.  Rich, egotistical, and completely careless with how he treats others, so long as he gets what he wants, Knecht is determined to keep the Mustangs in Butterfield, and he wants King to uncover the stalker who seems to have it in for his team.

It doesn't take long, though, for King to discover that his undercover status is not quite so undercover (unless, of course, you're talking about the reporter ... who ends up dead ... or the baseball player ... who ends up ... well, that would be telling ... he he he).  Pretty much the entire town seems to see through his cover, but that doesn't stop him from his investigation.  And things quickly become personal when he stumbles over a body in an investigation - - and then gets shot at - - and then has the body placed in his hotel room for the cops to find - - and then is involved in a horrific bus accident.  Oh, and just for good measure, let's throw in some Nancy Drew-style foibles, such as the threatening note telling him to "Get the hell out before you die."  And there's also the high-powered players in the limousine who take him for a ride, warning him to get out of town.

Zubro weaves a magnificent tapestry here, with more than a few handful of characters, very few of whom have truly redeeming qualities, a crooked police force, a widowed local herb maker, an over-zealous reporter determined to make a name for himself, and a team of hot, young baseball players that King can't keep his eyes off of (but has to!).  And, I have to say, I love the fact that instead of "chapters," Zubro utilizes date and time to mark each chapter, which, for me anyway, helps keep things on track and makes me, as the reader, feel like I really am following along with King on his investigation every step of the way.

Thankfully, Zubro avoids the pitfall that some gay mystery authors fall into, as he does not get graphic with any of the romantic (or lustful, depending on the time) interludes, which for me, is a plus, as it keeps the focus on the mystery side of things.  I do not believe that explicit, erotic scenes are necessary to make gay fiction successful.  I think there is a place and genre for that type of writing, and there's nothing wrong with it - but when I sit down to read a good mystery, that's what I want.  And Zubro definitely delivers with this one!  I'm looking forward to reading his second book, Dying for a Thrill!

***NOTE - I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of this book, autographed by the author, but I can 100% guarantee that such kindness had absolutely nothing to do with the above review - the book was, simply put, really that good!

RATING:  9 leaves of lettuce out of 10 for hitting it out of the ballpark with a thrilling story, engaging characters, and more than a couple of chuckles along the way.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 5 - Date with Disaster

Writer Shea Fontana takes the DC Super Hero Girls on a brand new adventures in the latest graphic novel in DC's series about the girls in the DC Universe as teenagers at Super Hero High.  The last two stories have been less than stellar, and I was worried that perhaps the books were being pushed out too fast for Fontana to provide well-written, fun tales.  This most recent book, however, proved me wrong.

Date with Disaster brings back not only a fun-filled story with a dastardly villain for the heroes to stop, but it's also filled with fun and some surprise appearances (including my favorite character, Captain Carrot, albeit as a screen-saver and poster, not an actual character in the story).  I won't say who, but let's just say that Fontana manages to weave them into the story pretty subtly and surprise the reader when they appear.

The main story is true super-hero fare - an explosion at Star Labs has the heroes investigating, but the Mayor insists there is nothing wrong, and to move on.  Poison Ivy becomes more than curious, as it turns out she has a secret connection to Star Labs, as well as Dr. Faulkner, who tells Supergirl to not tell Ivy as she is rushed to the hospital.  The super hero girls are on the case, alongside aspiring reporter Lois Lane, who smells a story herself.  But their investigation hits a pause when Batgirl discovers her father - - on a date!

Batgirl sets about to find her father a real date, while at the same time, the girls unexpectedly find their principal is also out on the dating scene.  Through an online dating ap, Batgirl finds who she believes could be the perfect match for her father - sadly, though, she couldn't be farther from the truth.

With big super hero vs. super villain battles, plenty of humor, lots of match-making (I mean, c'mon, there is the dance that Harley is putting together that has to be considered - who at Super Hero High will be taking who to the dance?), and several well-threaded plot lines all equal a great story.

Yancey Labat's is back on full art chores for this book, and his art remains consistent.  I could easily see him doing art for cartoons on a regular basis.  He provides exaggerated expressions without making them too much so, and he knows how to create a fantastic action sequence that jumps right of the page at you.

Overall, this fifth graphic novel in the series definitely reminds me why I enjoy these characters so much, and it definitely proves DC can have an all-ages series without dumbing it down to pre-school level antics.

RATING:  9 fist-fulls of electric sting out of 10 for good, clean, dramatic super-hero fun without all the unnecessary darkness and continuity!

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Meddling Kids - a (sort-of) tale of the Scooby gang...

"And I'd have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling kids..."

Now, where have we all heard that before?  If you are thinking Scooby Doo, then you're only half-right!  Yes, the kids and their Mystery Machine heard that line countless times by the criminals-dressed-as-monsters that they stopped in every episode.  In this instance, however, the line comes from the novel written by Edgar Cantero about four kids and their faithful dog who put away a madman masquerading as the Sleepy Lake Monster thirteen years ago.  No, it wasn't Scooby and the gang.  Although the similarities are there...

A good looking blond guy...
A red-headed beauty...
A dark-haired tomboy...
A tall, skinny geek...
And their ever-faithful dog...

A group of teens and their pet who liked to solve mysteries in their sleepy hometown and disprove the theories of supernatural and monsters.  But all that ended thirteen years ago when they unmasked Thomas Wickley as the Sleepy Lake Monster.  Something happened that night.  Something that changed their lives forever and sent them all on their separate ways.  Something they all wanted to forget.  Something they could never forget.

Cantero takes the "Scooby" gang in a completely different direction in this enthralling take on everyone's childhood cartoon group of mystery-solving kids.  Peter, Kerri, Andrea ("Andy"), Nate, and their faithful dog, Sean, are always ready to solve a good mystery and unmask the man-pretending-to-be-a-monster in and around their hometown.  "The Blyton Summer Detective Club" is their name, and unmasking ne'er-do-wells is their game.

Oh, and did you catch that reference?  Blyton?  As in, Enid Blyton?  The author of numerous British children's mystery series.  If that weren't enough, the faux newspaper article at the beginning of the book is published by Stratemeyer Press.  In the small town of Belden.  And the front page article about the crime-solving kids is written by Nancy Hardy.  Hmmm, would almost make one think that the author is somewhat of a children's mystery series connoisseur, eh?  Of course, all these references were really only icing on the cake for me - the story, in and of itself, was a riotous romp through a Scooby-Doo like world where the reality of the supernatural and actual monsters and occult suddenly becomes all too real.  When you are used to only dealing with men and women in masks, how do you handle a real monster that could quite possibly destroy the world?

Well, you do it the same way you would with a man in a mask - you outwit it!

It's thirteen years after the kids stopped the faux Sleepy Lake Monster.  Peter is dead, Kerri is barely surviving, Andy has embraced her tomboy nature, and Nate has admitted himself to a mental institution.  And Sean ... well, Sean is long gone, but his descendant, Tim, is still around.  They are all suffering from nightmares, and Andy decides it is time to put the nightmare to rest once and for all.  After all, isn't that what meddling kids do?

The book is a fantastic read, fun not just for fans of Scooby Doo, but for fans of supernatural, mystery, and pretty much any other genre.  A definite recommendation!

RATING:  10 gold bars painted to look like bricks out of 10 for taking a childhood favorite, bringing it into adulthood, but keeping it fun and engaging!