Tuesday, October 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Superlative!

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2018

Boystown, Season Two

Okay, when I bought Boystown, Season One, I never really thought I would enjoy this series as much as I am. Back in the 1980s, the nighttime soap operas were all the rage, and there were some truly over-the-top storylines that you couldn't help but watch (kind of like passing an accident on the road). Jake Biondi, with his Boystown series, the characters, and the stories has truly captured the essence of those nighttime soaps and brought them to live once again on the written page. It's an interesting method of storytelling - seasons, instead of books, and episodes, instead of chapters. But if you loved Dynasty or Dallas or Falcon Crest - then prepare yourself, because Boystown tops them all!

This second "season" picks up right where the first season ended. Three ambulances are on the way to the hospital, the emergency room is preparing for the gunshot victims, and everyone's lives are about to be changed. Now, before we talk about the story, I will admit, it took me a chapter or two for me to get caught back up on each of the characters, who they were, and their relationships to one another. Once I did, though, I went back and re-read the first couple of chapters, so I could get the full impact of the story.  (What might have been helpful is if Biondi had provided a brief, maybe one page, synopsis of "Previously, last season on Boystown"...)

That being said, the story opens with a bang, as readers discover who was shot at the end of the last book, whose injury was not so serious, whose injury was very serious, and who didn't survive the shoot-out. As with any good soap opera, your mainstay characters survive (although not necessarily unscathed), and the baddie from last season dies ... or does he? Biondi weaves some brand new storylines this time around, introducing some new characters - David, the physical therapist; Tyler, the nurse at the hospital; Gino and Marco, the Ciancio twins whose family is at odds with the Mancini family; and Rachel, seductive vixen who has her own agenda. Add these into the already dramatic stories involving Derek and Joyelle (her pregnancy and his secret affair with Cole); Ben and Jacqueline's budding relationship (with Jacqueline's son being Ben's former lover); Justin Mancini having arrived in town, much to the chagrin of his brothers Derek and Emmett; and Emmett dealing with the after affects of having been held captive and raped by Keith's former boyfriend. And that's all just for starters!

Like I said - it's got more drama than Dynasty, Dallas, and Falcon Crest rolled into one!

What I really love are some of the undercurrent of mysteries - such as, who is sending Keith the mysterious phone calls from Nick?  Is he really alive and back for revenge?  Or is something more sinister going on? And just what is Justin really doing in Chicago, and how will it affect his brothers' lives?  And why are Gino and Marco intent on stealing the Mancini business away from the family and destroying the Mancini brothers once and for all? Oh, and just wait until the big new year's party, where secrets will be revealed, lives will be changed, relationships will be torn apart, and the new year will come in with a bang - literally!

Because, let's not forget, since this is a soap opera, more or less, there's got to be a wild season cliffhanger. And just when I thought Biondi would not be able to top the first season's shoot-out, this time we've got a car explosion that leaves six lives up in the air as the rest of the world rings in the new year...

RATING: 9 very revealing copies of Mancini's patriarch's will out of 10 for pulling me into this insane drama and keeping me enthralled to the very last page (NOTE - it would have been a 10 out of 10, but the explicit sex scenes felt very unnecessary and took away from the story)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Scarlet Rose GN No. 2 - I'll Go Where You Go

Eighteen year old Maud de Laroche has learned the identity of her hero, the Fox - Guilhem de Landry! The man she thought was her friend. The man who had been teaching her how to use a sword and how to defend herself. The man her father had hired to watch over her. The man she trusted. And so, this second graphic novel in The Scarlet Rose series picks up exactly where the end of the first book ended - with Maud in a complete state of shock!

With "I'll Go Where You Go," writer and artist Patricia Lyfoung expands the world of Maud de Laroche, as her protagonist learns more about Guilhem and the Fox, as well as uncovering secrets about her father's killer and the secrets behind his murder. The art, while very detailed in places, particularly with the spectacular view of several of the cities Maud and Guilhem visit, appears to be rushed in a number of places. The characters' faces and expressions are not quite as defined in some of the panels, especially when compared to the art of the first graphic novel. Not sure why the difference, when Lyfoung did the art for both, but it was a bit jarring.

Otherwise, the story was just as fun and as engaging as the previous book. Maud has to get over the shock of discovery Guilhem is the Fox, and at the same time, Guilhem struggles to convince Maud that his identity as the Fox is nothing more than a way for him to escape the boredom of his life - he is not interested in justice, nor does he specifically give the spoils of his adventures to the poor; rather, he simply gives them to the first person he comes across. With her entire image of the Fox spoiled, Maud lashes out...but not for long! The Baron de Huet sneaks into the house and discovers Maud - the girl he has become infatuated with. She awakes with a scream, bringing Guilhem into the room, and the chance meeting starts off a chain of events that leads Maud and Guilhem (as well as Scarlet Rose and Fox) to Venice, to a party in honor of the Scarlet Rose and the Fox, to join a ship of pirates, and ultimately to Istanbul, where they will begin their search for the fabled."place of God."

Through the diary of Maud's father, and through information provided by Guilhem's friend, the "archivist," readers are provided with some of the intrigue that will set the stage for Maud and Guilhem's further adventures. It is a quest, of sorts, for a fabled place that can grant the power to change the world - but in order to do so, three things are required - a ring, a key, and a drop of blood. The ring and the key are said to have been safeguarded by the famed Templars, whose descendants still keep the items safe. As for the blood, well that requires a drop of blood from an actual descendant of one of the Templars...

So why are the de Huet's chasing after this fabled place? Who is their mysterious benefactor? Will Maud and Guilhem be able to track down the artifacts and get them before the de Huets? How will Maud react when she finds out that the Baron de Huet has a twin brother with a scar across his face that was the true murderer of her father? And when will Maud and Guilhem just admit their feelings for one another and move one?!

So many questions, and a few actually get answered this book - but, hey, you've got to save some for future stories, right?  Lyfoung knows how to keep the story moving, how to break from one scene to the next without it being jarring, and how to insinuate subplots into the tale without being overly obvious about it.  I look forward to where future books will take these characters!

RATING:  8 red chests with locks shaped like a dragon out of 10 for keeping the story interesting, mixing in just the right amount of drama along with a pinch of humor, and making me want to know what happens next!

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 5 - The Empty House Mystery

Like the Judy Bolton series, the Ted Wilford series finds its lead character (and his friends) growing older with each book. While so many children's mystery series have the protagonists at a stagnant age (forever eighteen in the olden days, and now it seems the lead characters are fifteen, fourteen, and or some cases, even younger!), author Norvin Pallas decided to allow Ted to age naturally, and in this fifth book of the series, Ted and his best friend, Nelson, are graduating high school with all of their classmates.

The Empty House Mystery actually has a really interesting, and surprisingly political, plot that kept me guessing. Pallas begins the story with Ted and Nelson helping a stranger search for his missing dog outside of the local theater - a stranger who oddly enough recognizes Ted and begins to ask him questions about a new highway that is being planned to come through the nearby town. Ted doesn't really have any information, but finds it strange the man knows him. When he follows up on it, however, he discovers the man doesn't exist!

And with that, readers are off to the start of a mystery that winds its way through the newspaper, where Ted is helping out for a few weeks while Mr. Dobson is in the hospital, to an empty house with a ringing phone, to an allegedly haunted house where Ted and Nelson get stranded, to a new housing development with yet another empty house and ringing phone. And be prepared, because it seems everyone in this story is harboring one secret or another. First, there's the stranger with no dog. Then there's the man who places an ad for a lost red leather notebook, followed by the nervous woman who turns in the lost notebook. Let's not forget the state auditor, who is filled with anger and sarcasm. And finally, there is the man from the Highway Department, who seems just a bit too authentic to be true. Poor, Ted - he's stuck in the middle of all of this drama, and one innocent attempt to be helpful by personally returning the lost notebook to its owner proves to be the catalyst that sets off a chain reaction of events like you wouldn't believe!

What I did think was a bit odd about the story, however, is that for all the sleuthing Ted and Nelson do throughout the book (I mean, let's face it - any good sleuth worth a grain of salt will stay in a haunted house overnight for the sake of solving a mystery!), it is ultimately not Ted at all who solves the mystery and figures out not only the importance of the stolen notebook, but also who was involved and why. Rather, it is Ted's newspaper rival, Ken Kutler, who makes the final revelation, in a several page monologue setting forth all the details. Of course, this isn't the first time that Ted did not solve the crime - in The Star Reporter Mystery, the story was centered around Ronald, Ted's older brother, and not Ted at all. This leads me to wonder if the author never intended for the series to be solely focused on Ted, but on the entire cast (almost like a soap opera).

In any event, it was still a really good mystery, smooth story-telling, and enjoyable characters. For someone who is not a huge fan of boys' mystery series, this one has really grown on me, and it's a shame the entire series has not been reprinted (as I have been purchasing the paperback reprints from Amazon and reading them).  If you like mysteries, then I would definitely suggest you check these out.

RATING:  9 mislabeled, penciled-in headlines out of 10 for reminding me just why the children and young adult mysteries of the '60s and '70s are still some of the best out there.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Doctor Who - The Shining Man

With the new season of Doctor Who just around the corner, and the introduction of the Thirteenth Doctor, I thought I should probably read the last novel of the Twelfth Doctor and his companion, Bill Potts. I was sorry to see Peter Capaldi's run as the Doctor come to an end, and even more disappointed to see that Pearl Mackie's Bill would not be around for more than just the one season. It seems the more I enjoy a character on this show, the shorter period of time they stay.

Ah, well, after all, this show is all about change, if nothing else.

The Shining Man finds the Doctor and Bill back on Earth, this time in the small town of Huckensall, where there has been an unusual number of sightings of the mysterious "Shining Men," described as tall and thin, with shaggy long hair and bright lights for eyes. No one takes them too seriously, but for young Noah Holland, a run in with one scares the living daylights out of him. No one believes him.  Not his school teachers. Not his sister. Not even his grandmother. But, his mother - well, that's a different story. She believes he saw something. So, when she sees a Shining Man outside the window of her flat, she goes out to confront him. She firmly believes whoever is dressing up in these costumes and scaring children should be taught a lesson. However, Sammy Holland quickly discovers she is the one to be schooled, when the Shining Man turns on her, his eyes brighter than ever, and swallows her up into the night...

As usual, the Doctor and his companion step off the TARDIS and right into the middle of things. Author Cavan Scott gives Doctor Who fans a roller coaster ride of what's going to happen next! And, befitting of the upcoming holiday, the tale certainly has its fair share of scares. Sammy Holland is missing, and her children think a Shining Man took her. Charlotte Sadler thinks the Shining Men are just what her vlog needs to get more followers - until she meets the Doctor and Bill. Hilary Holland thinks it is all one big hoax and that her daughter will be back home any moment. But Bill suspects there is something alien, something sinister hiding in the woods of Huckensall, and if even the Doctor is unsure, then everyone would do well to be frightened.

And when the Doctor and a local constable are pulled into the faerie realm - well, let's just say that's when the adventure REALLY begins!

I can easily envision this book as a television episode, and because of that, it makes me long all the more for Capaldi and Mackie, as they really had such a wonderful rapport on the show, and I'm going to really miss them. Thankfully, there will always be more opportunities to see them (or, at least, read about them) in future books - I hope! But, if this turns out to have been the final adventure of the twelfth Doctor and Bill, then a fine adventure it was. Scott captured every element that makes Doctor Who the successful show that it is - there is adventure, fun, some scares, aliens, believers, disbelievers, awe-inspiring moments, daring rescues, and a victorious Doctor who proves that, once again, nothing can keep a good man (or soon to be, woman) down!

RATING:  10 camera phones out of 10 for giving Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie a very nice send-off!