Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A Cainsville Novel, Book 5 - Rituals

I picked up the first Cainsville novel, Omens, because the description on the back of the book made me think of Dark Shadows.  A young woman goes to a town where she's never been and becomes involved in the lives of people she's never met, and there's a distinct supernatural element that she doesn't quite understand going on all around her.  There are secrets everywhere, including Olivia Taylor-Jones' own life and identity, and before I knew it, I was hooked!

Now, with Rituals, I've reached the end of the journey. Oliva (a/k/a Eden) has come to terms with the fact that she is the daughter of two alleged serial killers.  She has also accepted the fact that she is the reincarnation / host to a Celtic legend - Matilda - and that her boss/friend Gabriel is Gwynn and her ex-boyfriend Ricky is Arawn. Three individuals, forever trapped in a love triangle time and time again. And Oliva ... Eden ... Matilda left with the most difficult choice of all - choosing between the two, which choice breathes life into one of the two population of fae living here on Earth.

But what if there were a third fae? And what if that third fae decided after all these centuries, it wanted a piece of the action - it wanted an opportunity to receive that breath of life, while the rest of the fae dwindled?  And what if that third fae would do just about anything to get that chance - including manipulating people and events throughout the years to lead Olivia, Gabriel, and Ricky to this very spot at this exact time?

That is precisely where author Kelly Armstrong takes readers in her final installment of the Cainsville series.  All the secrets are out.  The truth behind Olivia's real parents - the how and why they were able to cure their daughter of spina bifida. The truth behind Gabriel's mother - why she was so heartless and cruel and how she was able to pull the ultimate con.  The truth behind the Cainsville cabal - the deal they made and with whom they made it.  And Olivia finally makes the choice - but it is not at all what anyone expects!

Armstrong has her usual dose of romance in the story, but it is such a small part of the overall tale.  The Celtic rituals, the supernatural powers, the visions, the lies, the machinations, the calculated plans, the sacrifices - there is romance, there is adventure, there is dark horror, there is supernatural powers, there is mystery, and there is good, old-fashioned action.  Let me tell you, this one has it all.  While I hate to see the series end, I definitely could not think of a better way to conclude Olivia's tale.  Not everyone gets a happy ending, but the reader does get a very satisfying conclusion that leaves no question unanswered and leaves you smiling as you turn that last page.

Plus - how could I not love a book and an author who has her characters engage in the following conversation:

"How about giving her the wine?" Ricky asked. "Isn't that what you used to handle Muggles who stumbled into the fae world?"
"Muggles?" Grace said.
"It's from Harry Potter," I said. "It means --"
"I've read Harry Potter, thank you very much. I just don't think a biker should use the terminology.  People might think he's semiliterate."
"I'm very literate," Ricky said. "I havea huge collection of comic books. I even know what most of the words mean."
"Name your favorite DC superhero."
"I'm really more of a Marvel guy."
"No, you're really full of $#!^. I'd be better off asking your favorite Faulkner character."
"Faulkner's not much for character.  He's more style-driven. I identified better with the characters in Harry Potter. As for Marvel, I'd say Kitty Pryde, but if you ask me officially, I have to say Ghost Rider, because it's, you know"-- he motioned at his Saints jacket -- "obligatory."

This series is a definite must-read for any fans of supernatural / horror / mystery - excellent writing, engaging stories, and characters that jump right off the page!  I can't recommend it enough!

RATING:  10 fae retirement homes out of 10 for sending this series off with a real bang!

Friday, November 23, 2018

Aunt Claire Presents (Book Four): Grace Harlowe's Sophomore Year at High School

I put off reading this book for a bit, as I knew it would be the last "Aunt Claire Presents..." book, and I hated the idea of reading this final bit of history.  It seems the children's series of yesteryear just do not receive the credit they are due, and "Aunt Claire Presents..." provided the perfect avenue to give today's readers a window into the past - to see, yes, some of the prejudices and stereotypes that were present in that time, but to also see the camaraderie, as well as the innocence of a different era.  But, alas, apparently today's readers just aren't ready for that, or they simply aren't interested - as I can only guess that sales just did not warrant any more books in this series.

In any event, the final book presented by Aunt's Claire is actually the second book in the Grace Harlowe series - Grace Harlowe's Sophomore Year at High School (or "The Record of the Girl Chums in Work and Athletics"), by Jessie Graham Flower, A.M.  Grace and her friends Anne, Nora, and Jessica all return for new adventures and a new mystery, once again centered around poor Anne. In the first novel, there was the competition for the highest grade point average in the Freshman class, and someone was sabotaging Anne's chance.  In this second novel, the girls are excited about their basketball team, but it seems someone has given the junior team all of the sophomore's signals, leading them to lose their first game.  The blame is placed on Anne, and even she is uncertain as to whether it was her fault, since she lost the paper Grace had given her with all of the signals on there.

While the mystery is subtle and not at all difficult to figure out (who really did give the juniors the signals and put the blame on Anne?), the book focuses more on friendship, loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness, and standing firm in your beliefs.  While Grace sticks by Anne, the rest of the basketball team (except Nora) all fall in line with Miriam, who accuses Anne of leaking their secret signals and bans her from watching their practices.  A division begins to form within the sophomore class, and Grace finds herself a target of distrust for standing by Anne, despite all the accusations against her.

As the introduction by "Aunt Claire" points out, the book was written during a period when distinct prejudices existed toward people of a lower class and of certain professions (such as Anne's father, who was an actor).  While many of those prejudices have gone by the wayside, what is a shame is that some of the better attitudes displayed in the book - such as fierce loyalty to friends and a continued belief that even the worst people have some good in them - also seem to have disappeared in today's society.  Despite the other girls' vicious antics in the book and the last, when Julia  falls through the ice in an unexpected accident while ice skating, Grace doesn't hesitate to put herself in jeopardy to help rescue the girl (and in the process, learns to overcome one of her own prejudices when she meets a deaf-mute man who she immediately writes-off as slow and dim-witted, only to discover that he has more sense than her when it comes to lending aid to Julia!).

One thing I did find a bit odd about this book was that the mystery of the spilled secret was resolved by the end of chapter 22 - yet, for reasons unexplained, the author felt the need to throw in a couple more chapters and send Grace on yet a wholly unrelated adventure involving an escaped mental patient (who was mentioned nowhere earlier in the book, and whose appearance serves absolutely no purpose in the story other than to put Grace in a dangerous situation).  Perhaps the author was contracted to provide a certain amount of pages or chapters, and so this added plot element was thrown in at the last minute to meet the page/chapter count - whatever the reason, it was certainly out of place and unnecessary.

Nevertheless, I'm now considering hunting down the vintage books in this series to see where it goes next - after reading Grace Harlowe's freshman and sophomore years, I have actually found myself interested in these characters and curious to see what their junior and senior years bring, and how things extend beyond that.  I just wish the young adults and children of today's generations could appreciate the writing and stories of the early 20th century, so that more books along these lines could be reprinted.  But, alas, it's not meant to be - so it's out to the used book stores, antique malls, and online to eBay to begin my search for the next Grace Harlowe adventure...

RATING:  8 sprained ankles out of 10 for attempting to remind today's readers of the joys of the last century's reading material for children and young adults.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Dark Shadows Audio Tales, Vol. 3 - Phantom Melodies

In case you're keeping count, yes, this should have been volume 2 of the series of audio short stories, but somehow I skipped it and went straight to volume 3 - meaning I'll be going back to volume 2 when I next get a chance to listen to some more stories.  In the meantime, let's take a look at the four short stories featured on this third of the new Dark Shadows audio tales, Phantom Melodies.

As I mentioned with the first volume of this new series, I am not overly thrilled with them.  I miss the full, or even partial, cast audio stories.  These short stories feature the actors merely reading the scripts, as if reading an audio book, and sadly, they just don't have the same feel for me that the prior audio tales did.  Before, when I listened to the stories, it was like I were simply standing just outside the view of the show, but I could still hear everything that is going on.  With these, it's like I am simply listening to someone read the book (or short story, as the case may be).  Yes, some of the actors do try to vary their voice for the different characters; but hearing them simply read the action, rather than actually "hearing" the action - well, it takes away some of the joy I had in listening to the further adventures of Dark Shadows...

Regardless, the stories stayed somewhat true to the Dark Shadows world of darkness and supernatural. The first tale, "Last Orders at the Blue Whale," featured Harry Johnson - who, I will admit, I had no clue who he was.  I had to look him up on line to discovery that he was Mrs. Johnson's son who had spent time in jail before coming to visit his mother at Collinwood. He was featured in the pre-Barnabas episodes, and quite frankly, I have not yet seen all of those stories, which is why I didn't recognize him.  Read by Matthew Waterhouse (of Dr. Who fame), "Last Orders" basically provides the events of what happened to Harry after he left Collinwood. When he attempts to steal from a stranger, he finds himself facing a life or death choice - give up his soul, or turn over one of the Collins' family in his place!  Harry has always through of himself first, so what choice will he make, and what will that choice cost him?

The second story, "The Scarlet Bride," features Andrew Collins once again assuming the role of Barnabas. It is bookended by Barnabas reading letters from a young bride-to-be, and tells the story of young Agnes, who is about to be married into a family that has a very dark secret.  When a supernatural creature begins to come into the house, it is assumed it is Barnabas, the vampire - but not all is as it seems.  While the "mystery" as to the identity of the creature is not hard to figure out, the one thing I enjoyed about this story was the continuing friendship of Barnabas and Julia Hoffman.

The third story, "On the Line," is the only tale that I thoroughly enjoyed listening to.  Nancy Barrett resumes her role as Carolyn, who gets a very unusual phone call - from her own future self!  Future Carolyn knows something is going to happen, so she begins to lead her younger self on a very specific path to prevent the coming destruction. But Carolyn of the present is not one easily duped, and she begins to suspect that something is not right - so she begins to question her future self and realizes that the path she is being led down is not one she would ever take!  Barrett shines in this story - it's pretty hard to pull off a story with only one actor, but she does it amazingly well - could almost picture this one in my head as she talked to "herself" throughout the story.

The final story, "In a Broken Dream," brings Stephanie Ellyne back as Amy Jennings, who has headed off to Paris to visit Roger and Elizabeth - only to discovery that they are missing!  Instead, she meets a mysterious Frenchman and starts to feel an unexplained attraction to him.  Something is amiss, but she can't quite put her finger on it.  This final tale fell rather short of the Dark Shadows' lore and felt extremely lackluster.  It never really caught my interest, and I had to force myself to sit through it to the end.  I liked the fact that Roger and Elizabeth were in it (it seems they are always out of town for most, if not all, of the audios), even if they were only read by Stephanie and not voiced by other actors.

Overall, this was definitely not one of the best audios in the series to date - I'm hoping these short story collections improve as the series continues - since I skipped volume 2, I'll have to go back and listen to it, and hope I find it more to my liking!

RATING:  5 shadowy figures outside the window out of 10 for, at the very least, keeping the legend alive for fans like me!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

DC Super Hero Girls: Bumblebee at Super Hero High

I cannot lie - I am truly surprised this series of books has lasted as long as it has.  Now, don't get me wrong - I'm glad it is still going, as I have always been a fan of female superheroes, and the DC Super Hero Girls line of comics, books, and toys has totally caught my interest.  I just did not expect it to last.  Apparently, though, the brand with its comics and books seems to be doing well.  (The toys, though, seem to have fallen off, as there have been no new figures, dolls, or any other toys at the stores lately...)

That being said, the sixth book in the series, Bumblebee at Super Hero High, gives fans and readers a more in-depth look at the life of one of the B-list characters (get it?), Bumblebee.  Karen Andrena-Beecher is unlike a lot of the heroes at Super Hero High - her superpowers are not natural. It is her suit that gives her the power to shrink, the power to fly, and the power to shoot stinging blasts. A suit that was designed and built by Karen herself! But that does not make her any less a hero, even though she begins to doubt herself when her super-suit begins to short out, failing to keep a battery charge, and basically preventing her from being the hero she wants to be.

But what really makes a hero?  That's what this book is all about!

Author Lisa Yee writes another character-building story that provides Bumblebee a chance to truly shine - with and without her super-suit.  Readers not only learn more about Bumblebee's past, but we get to meet her parents, find out how and why she built her super-suit, and discover how she got into Super Hero High.  Then the mystery starts - her family home is destroyed when the giant tree in their back yard crashes down into the house, destroying both her family's home and her tree-house lab.  Bumblebee notices her original suit is missing, but assumes it is simply crushed amongst the debris.  Then, the supply of honey in the world begins to diminish.  Then, plants begin to wither and die without warning.  Then, a strange pollen fills the air, causing people to sneeze uncontrollably.  Then, Bumblebee's suit starts to lose its charge and seems unable to keep a charge to stay powered.

Something is definitely amiss, and Bumblebee and the rest of the heroes at Super Hero High are determined to discover the source of all these strange happenings!

Now, for me, it was fairly easy to guess who the villain was going to be for this book.  Not that Yee made it easy to figure out - she actually gave no clue whatsoever as to the identity of the villain.  Rather, I guessed the villain based upon simple deduction. Bumble"bee" is the hero highlighted in this book. The world's honey supply is diminishing.  Who likes honey?  I won't spoil it by revealing the answer, but let's just say that any major fan of DC Comics for any length of time will easily figure out who it is.

And, of course, the book ends with a bit of a teaser as to who is to come in the next DC Super Hero Girls book...a touch of ivy, a bit of poison, and the next book is bound to be good!

RATING:  9 giant mutant killer bees out of 10 for keeping the female heroes at the forefront and showing that they can hold their own as an ongoing series!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cleopatra in Space - GN Book Two - The Thief and the Sword

Take a child intended to be a famed queen of the Nile, send her thousands of years into the future, place her under the tutelage of a talking cat, make her the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, and what do you get?  Why, nothing other than Cleopatra in Space, that's what!  Creator Mike Maihack's spunky little queen-to-be returns in the second volume of this funtastic little space opera, "The Thief and the Sword."

This graphic novel opens not with Cleo, but with an unnamed thief, who is proving himself to an unnamed benefactor in order to get a job. Meanwhile, Cleo is attending a party put together by her roommate and friend, Akila.  The students at P.Y.R.A.M.I.D. are all for having a good time, but Cleo just doesn't seem to fit in.  Nor does Zaid.  Or Brian.  But when the thief runs into Cleo (literally!), her latest adventures begins with a bang!

While book one gave readers a clear-cut origin story, showing how Cleopatra ends up in the future and gives hints as to her prophecy, with book two Maihack expounds upon the future universe and its characters. We learn more about Cleo's roommate and what motivates her; we learn more about that mysterious sword that Cleo recovered in the first graphic novel; we are given some more glimpses into this universe's big bad buys; and we are given a few more hints about the prophecy surrounding Cleo and what it will mean for her and her newfound friends.

Maihack is creating a well-rounded universe of characters here, while at the same time, building the story and giving readers plenty of outer-space adventure.  I am thoroughly enjoying the budding relationships among Cleo, Akila, Zaid, and Brian, and even more particularly, Khensu.  And "The Thief and the Sword" definitely has a very Empire Strikes Back feel to it, insomuch as it feels like the connecting story - there is adventure, characterization, and moving story points; however, it ends with a cliffhanger and definitely sets the stage for what's to come.

The art is consistent with Maihack's quality (I have to give the guy credit - he writes and draws this book, which has to take a lot of time and effort!), but there are some pages during the dance party chapter where the art feels a bit rushed and not quite as complete as the rest of the book.  Perhaps that was on purpose, to give the party a more casual feel, but it came across as merely rushed to me.

Otherwise, I continue to enjoy the series, and I'm definitely thrilled that Scholastic picked up the book (I remember Maihack at conventions before this became mainstream!), as I fully believe this deserves to be marketed and on the shelves for kids to find and read and enjoy as much as I do!

RATING:  9 ancient time tablets out of 10 for showing the world that the "fish out of water" story can be told in new and fun ways!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Holmes and Moriary, Book Four - In Other Words ... Murder

Sometimes it is hard to remember what has happened previously in a series when the books come out infrequently.  Such is the case with the Holmes & Moriarty series.  Author Josh Lanyon is quite the prolific writer, authoring quite a number of series, but the Holmes & Moriarty books are the only ones I read. The series is about mystery writer Christopher Holmes and his (now) fiance, J.X. Moriarty (and yes, the author does have characters in the books acknowledge the significance of the names), who stumble across bodies are ultimately investigate to solve the crime.  Previous books in the series were Somebody Killed His Editor, All She Wrote, and The Boy with the Painful Tattoo. And while I remember some general premises about the stories, it's hard to recall the details, since it has been several years since the last one came out.

Like the fact that Christopher and J.X. have now moved in together.

Or the fact that Christopher has been on an extended sabbatical, unable to write any of his famed Miss Butterwith books.

Or even the fact that J.X.'s young nephew is staying with them.

But that's okay.  Thanks to Lanyon's excellent writing, I was quickly brought up to speed while reading her latest offering, In Other Words ... Murder.  Other than Christopher's writer's block, everything is going great for this couple.  They are planning a vacation getaway (that J.X. is hoping will be a honeymoon!), J.X.'s books are selling like hotcakes with one even optioned for a movie, and they have settled into their new home.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, a body found buried underneath the gazebo (er, I mean the pergola) in the backyard of Christopher's old house.  The one he sold a year ago.  And based upon the call from his ex, it appears the body may belong to the man his ex left him for - the same man that used to be Christopher's personal assistant.  How could things get worse?

Well, the new owners are threatening to sue Christopher and break the contract on the house. Then, there's the sudden appearance of Jerry Knight, his biggest fan.  The one who tried to kill him.  Oh, and did I mention the clown that has been stalking Christopher?  So, yeah, maybe things aren't going quite as well as Christopher had thought they were.  And just when J.X. was getting ready to leave on his book tour.   And if all of that weren't enough, let's not forget that Christopher's father is in town and wants to meet J.X.   Meanwhile, Christopher's ex (David) wants to not only help Christopher with his investigation into the murder (who even said Christopher was looking into it?), but he also wants to get back into Christopher's pants!

Without a doubt, there is PLENTY going on in this book, but despite the overwhelming amount of story, Lanyon does an amazing job of keeping the story flowing nicely, never rushed, but with no lulls, and brings the mysteries to a very satisfying conclusion.  Lanyon is without a doubt an author I would highly recommend for anyone who loves a well-crafted mystery with fun, believable characters.  Now, the only mystery that remains is - how long before we get the fifth Holmes & Moriarty book?

RATING:  10 hotel glasses washed with toilet brushes out of 10 for a truly great murder mystery!

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Lou Lou & Pea and the Mural Mystery (Book One)

I picked this book up at Barnes & Noble a few months ago, even though the protagonists, Lou Lou and Pea (short for "Peacock") are rather young - as in, elementary school, getting ready to go into middle school young. But the mystery itself - crimes begin to occur throughout their neighborhood, and clues appear in the various murals painted on the side of buildings - caught my attention. That, and the story seems to focus a lot on Hispanic culture (Pea's cousin's quinceañera, Dia de Los Muertos, etc), and there is a lot of Spanish dialogue throughout the story. It was nice to see a bit of diversity in a book aimed at children without it beating the reader over the head.  So, I bought it.

Lou Lou & Pea and the Mural Mystery turned out to be mostly enjoyable, with the two title characters being a lot of fun to read.  I will admit, it was a bit tedious to have their full names (Lou Lou Bombay and Peacock Pearl) repeated over and over and over again throughout the book - not sure what the author's intention was with that, but it became repetitive and annoying after a while. That aside, Pea's formal nature and Lou Lou's spunky side definitely played well off of each other, and they make quite a team. And while they were given a lot more freedom than real children their age ever would be, let's face it - this is a children's mystery novel, and in every mystery story I've read, the children and young adults have way more freedom than they actually should! That's what makes it enjoyable.

That being said, the mystery itself was certainly well crafted. Various incidents occur throughout El Carazón (their neighborhood) - Pea's cousin's dress is ruined by someone staining it; Lou Lou's prize plant is destroyed; their friend's rabbit is kidnapped; a singer's stage show is sabotaged; a craft store is water damaged; and the trusted candle lady's story is ransacked and robbed! And what is weird is that after each incident, something connected to the crime suddenly appears in one of the painted murals throughout their small neighborhood.  As the town gears up for the special Dia  de Los Muertos celebration, Lou Lou and Pea are determined to get to the bottom of the crimes. Lou Lou is certain that it is her new neighbor, the young boy with blue spiked hair, as all clues seem to point to him; but Pea reminds her to keep her mind open and not jump to conclusions.

Of course, it all culminates during the Day of the Dead celebration, where Lou Lou and Pea find the kidnapped rabbit and stolen items in the most unlikely of places - and find themselves trapped in the criminal's cellar with no way to escape!  The big revelation will definitely come as a surprise to most readers, as author Jill Diamond provides a surprisingly unexpected twist in the story, and the mystery ends in true Nancy Drew-fashion, with the culprit unveiled, the young detectives hailed as heroes, and all the wrongs made right again.

Diamond's story is littered with a number of cute illustrations by Lesley Vamos.  The art style is a bit cartoony, but considering the age level of the intended readership, I would have to say it fits in nicely.  In the back of the book is a glossary of the Spanish terms used throughout the book, so that readers gain a bit of a learning experience from reading it (although, in most cases, readers will be able to figure out the meaning of the Spanish sentences and phrases used by their context, and in other instances, the characters themselves provide the translation in the dialogue).

Overall, it was a fun little read, and I would certainly recommend it to those who enjoy children's mysteries.

RATING:  8 rose gold Sugar Mountain Sisters necklaces out of 10 for mixing mystery, diversity, and fun to create a really good book!