Friday, November 1, 2019

Scotty Bradley Mysteries No. 8 - Royal Street Reveillon

Scotty Bradley and his very non-traditional family are back for an eighth book in this mystery series by Greg Herren. I am so glad that this series has continued, as I honestly never thought it would make it this far. Herren's Chanse McLeod series has had seven books, and now the Scotty Bradley series has surpassed it (even though I found the Chanse McLeod books first).  Where McLeod is a more traditional gay detective, Bradley is a think-outside-of-the-box, fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants detective with a rather unusual family - two husbands, a live-in nephew, and parents who are open to just about anything and will do everything they need to in order to protect their family...

Royal Street Reveillon finds Colin gone, off on a mission he can't talk about, and Frank is doing a show in Montgomery - leaving Scotty to care for his nephew, Taylor. And what better way to keep a young man busy than to take him to the grand premier of Grand Dames: New Orleans! I have to give Herren credit for his continuity here, as he builds this mystery around the reality television show that was mentioned in the previous book - a bunch of rich women in a particular city who snipe, gripe, and basically backstab one another every chance they get. (Real Housewives, per chance?) For Taylor, it turns out to be a fantastic night, as the creator/producer of the show only has eyes for him - and invites him back to his hotel room to prove it!  For Scotty, though, murder turns out to be on his menu for the evening....

First, he returns home to discover Colin standing over a man that he has clearly just murdered. After helping him clean up the evidence and dispose of the body, Scotty gets a phone call. From Taylor. Saying he doesn't feel so good, he woke up in Eric's suite naked, and, oh, yeah, Eric is dead.  Tis the season to the jolly, right?

Herren offers up a well-plotted murder mystery with lots of suspects, lots of motives, and a lot of red herrings (which frustrate me, but at the same time, add to my enjoyment of the book, as it keeps me from guessing the murderer's identity way too soon).  I will admit, I did guess the killer pretty early on in the story, but not for the reasons I first thought, and not because of any particular action or words of this person - rather, with as many mysteries as I have read over the years, I've come to the realization that 9 times out of 10, the killer is someone who keeps to the background and seems innocent enough without any real involvement - but who is ultimately revealed to have connections to all the victims.  Such is the case here.  However, Herren did have me wavering from time to time, thinking perhaps I was on the wrong track, offering up one after another potential suspects who had more than enough to hide.

On top of all that, throw in the whole Colin and Russian terrorists subplot, the car accident that wasn't really an accident, and Taylor's kidnapping - well, it's easy to see that there is quite a lot going on in this book.  NOPD officers Venus and Blaine are on the case (cases?), and at every turn they tell Scotty and Frank to keep out of their investigations. But when not only their lives, but Taylor's life, are on the line, how can they stay out of it?  Plus, let's face it - a gay man will have an easier job getting information out of upper-class, uppity rich divas than a police officer any day of the week.

The only problem I have with the book is the same problem I had with the last one - Herren has a habit of repeating himself - often! His descriptions of characters and their backgrounds are repeated in detail several times throughout the story - and after two or three times, it leads one to wonder if he either has forgotten he already provided all of those details, or if it is simply padding to fill out the book to a certain page count.  As with the last mystery, it wasn't enough to really ruin my reading of the book, but it was enough to be noticeable and distract me from the story.  Hopefully, in future books, he will shy away from the repetition.

And speaking of future books - when are we going to see a team up between Scotty Bradley and Chanse McLeod???

RATING:  8 highly sophisticated Russian tracking devices out of 10 for keeping the New Orleans mysteries coming and keeping the readers on their toes in trying to solve the mystery!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 8 - Spaced Out

And thus we come to the final (at least, for me) DC Super Hero Girls graphic novel. It's been a good run, more or less, and while not every one of the eight graphic novels were exceptional, I'd say that more were good than were not.  It has been fun reading stories that were not continuity heavy, they weren't all doom and gloom, and the heroes, while less than perfect, were still - - well, heroes! With these young women (and the few young men), they may have doubted themselves and their abilities, but there was never any question of what was right and wrong.  The stories were lighthearted, the adventures time- and universe-spanning, and the villains ultimately vanquished as they should be in any good superhero comic.  But, alas, for reasons unknown to me, DC decided that these well-drawn characters and good-natured stories were just not good enough - so, they redesigned the Super Hero Girls (with art that I absolutely hate!) and changed the tone of the stories (from what was light-hearted and fun to what comes across as silly and childish) and introduced a whole new DC Super Hero Girls...but more on that later...

"Spaced Out" introduces Jessica Cruz Green Lantern to the DC Super Hero Girls universe.  As in the DC Universe proper, this Jessica Cruz is fearful and not overly confident with her power ring.  The story opens in Coach Wildcat's training class, where Jessica backs away from a fight with a monkey. Of course, she becomes even more afraid when Principal Waller informs her she must go to Oa, the planet of the Green Lanterns, for her official induction ceremony.  Of course, she's not going alone - Big Barda, Star Sapphire, and Supergirl are going with her (along with a stowaway, but I won't spoil that surprise!).  Thus, the girls' space adventure begins!

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Wonder Woman is supposed to be watching Krypto. But when Krypto takes off after Catwoman's cat, then gets loose in Metropolis and finds a stray dog with her litter, it takes Wonder Woman, Batgirl (along with Ace, the Bathound), Flash, and the whole DC Super Hero Girls crew to track down the missing dog.  As such, readers are treated to two adventures within this one graphic novel!

It is fun to watch Jessica Cruz not only learn more about herself and her power ring through this adventure, but to see how she grows in courage with the help of her friends.  The use of Zod, Non, and Faora as the villains was perfect, as it gave some simple conflict with Supergirl's desire to reconnect with people from her homeworld, while at the same time, utilizing villains with strength far above that of the other heroes - meaning that they have to work together to overcome the Kryptonian criminals.  Writer Shea Fontana provides a very satisfying story (or should I say stories), and Agnes Garbowska provides art that blends seamlessly into the series (kind of a shame this is the last one, as her art was beautiful).

The book does at least acknowledge it's finality in the series, as writer Sholly Fisch and artist Marcelo DiChiara provide a mini-back-up story that has Zatanna showing the Super Hero Girls an alternate reality, where Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman are criminals, the girls all have secret identities, and instead of Super Hero High, they are attending Metropolis High.  It is an introduction to the new art style for the series, as well as a first look at the changes in the characters.  I'm not a fan of this new direction, so rather than collecting it simply for the sake of completing a series, I've decided that this graphic novel will end my DC Super Hero Girls collection.  And such a shame, as it has been a real jewel in the DC Comics world, and it's a shame that DC felt the need to change it.

So, goodbye DC Super Hero Girls - it was  true pleasure reading your stories and sharing in your adventures, and know that this fan will miss the fun-loving stories that you've had along the way!

RATING:  9 bowls of Slurp-O-Slop ice cream out of 10 for giving the girls two fantastic stories as a fun-tabulous send off!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

A Ted Wilford Mystery, no. 6 - The Counterfeit Mystery

This sixth Ted Wilford mystery was not overly exciting - however, it was definitely a product of its time!  Of course, the entire series is a product of its time (no cell phones, no computers, etc.), so when reading the books, I have to remind myself of that fact.  However, just because it is a story out of time does not mean that it can't be exciting, or that it shouldn't be enjoyable from the first page.  But I have discovered that these Ted Wilford mysteries are sort of hit and miss - some are really good, while some are not quite that good (and the mystery not overly engaging).  Sadly, this one falls into the latter category.

The Counterfeit Mystery is set during the summer following his graduation from high school and just before he is ready to leave for college. He doesn't have much work at the newspaper, and just when he thinks he will have a lot of free time the last few weeks of his summer vacation, he gets a call from Mr. Dobson, the editor at the town newspaper.  Along with newcomer Nancy Lindell (who happens to be he niece of the newspaper's secretary), Ted is brought into the editor's office to meet Mr. Woodring - a salesman set to introduce a whole new concept to Forestdale - trading stamps!  I had to smile when I read this, as I realized that most people I know today would have no idea what trading stamps are (and no, it doesn't mean collecting postal stamps and trading them as you would baseball cards or comics!).

For those who don't know, trading stamps were stamps that a person could collect every time they went shopping.  For every dollar you spent, you earned a certain amount of stamps.  You collected the stamps in books, and when you had a certain number of books, you could redeem them for various things - from dishes, to utensils, to pots and pans, to toys, to any number of items.  The more an item was worth, the more books of stamps were required to be redeemed to get it.  Additionally, you could purchase an item using both stamps and money - for instance, if you wanted a bicycle, and it cost you 250 books of stamps, but you didn't want to wait that long - sometimes, there was a special offer, and you could get the bicycle by redeeming 100 books of stamps plus $100 (that's just an example, so don't go trying to go search and see if that is accurate).  I can remember back in the day when I was a kid, my mom collected Green Stamps, but I don't remember if she ever had enough to redeem them for anything (she probably did, and I just never paid attention, as I was too worried about toys and Nancy Drew books LOL!).

In any event, Ted doesn't seem thrilled with the whole concept, but Mr. Woodring convinces the paper's editor, who agrees to endorse it.  Plus, Mr. Dobson has volunteered Ted's services to act as his assistant while he is in town trying to drum up business for the stamp sales. Ted chooses to use the opportunity to keep an eye on Mr. Woodring and make sure the entire thing is on the up-and-up.  It ultimately pays off, since the stamps that start showing up are a purple shade, while the original stamps that Mr. Woodring showed Ted and the others in Mr. Dobson's office were blue! Is Mr. Woodring counterfeiting the stamps, or is something else going on?

In the meantime, Ted gets to know more about Nancy and discovers that she has come to town for an ulterior motive. It seems her grandmother makes mention in some of her letters of a town named Freeport in the state, but it seems no one has ever heard of it!  Neither Ted nor Nancy can find any mention of it in the newspapers or other books in the local library, and even some of the older townsfolks have never heard of it.  How could a whole town disappear?

 The counterfeit stamps part of the mystery is rather tame, and the clues to that pretty much fall into Ted's lap without him actually having to look for them (except for when Mr. Woodring disappears, then Ted has to take action to actually hunt the man down).  His and Nancy's efforts to locate the ever elusive Freeport seems to find them doing active clue-hunting, but to no avail.  And, like pretty much every children's mystery story written, the two mysteries are eventually determined to have a connection, and solving one leads to the solution of the other.

The one element of this story I did find somewhat interesting was Ted and Nelson's trip to Hobotown, an area of the city where the hobos tended to congregate and set up temporary "homes." They are looking for Mr. Woodring, and the clues lead them to this community of hobos, and it was rather intriguing to see how author Norvin Pallas portrayed the people. Pallas wrote them as a tight-knit group of men who looked out for one another, had a code of honor, and did not tolerate outsiders; yet, the do decide to help Ted in his mystery, providing a very important clue to help him solve the case.

I only have two more books from the series - books 7 and 11.  While 8 of the books in the series have been reprinted in paperback editions, for whatever reason, the remaining 7 books are only available on e-readers, which I refuse to get.  So, once I read those last two books, then my reading of Ted Wilford mysteries will have reached its end...

RATING:  7 purple cows out of 10 for bringing back memories of my youth and my Mom with an outdated program that I hadn't thought of in years!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Blake Harte Mystery, Book 4 - Reach

With this fourth novel in the Blake Harte mystery series, author Robert Innes has without a doubt secured his place as one of my all-time favorite mystery authors.  Innes' ability to write a well-crafted murder mystery with endearing characters that will keep you guessing right up until the very end (or, for seasoned readers, at least until the half-way point!) shines through in each of his books, and this latest one I've read is a shining example.

Reach continues the ongoing threads of Detective Sergeant Blake Harte's growing relationship with young Harrison (as they take the next big step in this book), as well as his varied relationships with his superior and co-workers in the Harmschapel police department.  Readers also gain a bit of insight into Harte's past, as a criminal that he helped put away seven years ago comes back to haunt him in the worst possible way.  Thomas Frost was a serial killer who Harte captured just as he was about to claim his sixth victim. Kerry Nightingale is the one who "got away," so to speak.  But now, seven years later and from behind bars, Frost taunts Harte by claiming that he will finally finish what he started all those years ago.  "Before the end of the week," he threatens, "Kerry Nightingale will die!"

Innes then tells one of those "locked-room" stories that he is so good at.  Harte is determined to protect Nightingale at any cost, even if that means sitting outsider her apartment all night long with a security guard right next to him.  In a high rise building, there is no other way in or out - and yet, the next morning, Harte and the guard hear a crash inside, and when they rush inside, they find Nightingale on the floor, choking out the last bit of life she has left.  There are marks where she had been strangled, just like Frost had done to all of his previous victims.  But Frost is still behind bars ... so how in the world did Kerry Nightingale die?

All signs seem to point to the apartment building's other security guard, who was an ex-boyfriend of Nightingale.  As Harte investigates, it seems everyone has secrets, including Nightingale herself!  But even if that other security guard did kill her, how did he get in it and out of there without Harte and the first guard seeing him?  And how did he escape?  And to make matters worse, the prison where Frost is being held has footage of Frost from the morning when Nightingale dies - and at the time of her death, he can be seen with his hands out in front of him, as if he is choking the thin air!  Harte knows it is impossible for Frost to have killed her from behind bars, but there seems to be no rational explanation.

Then Harte learns that Frost had a son...and that Nightingale wasn't the only victim...and the ex-boyfriend's roommate can't provide a secure alibi for his roommate's whereabouts on the morning of the murder.  When a second body turns up and the ex-boyfriend goes on the run, Harte thinks the case is all wrapped up. But something is off about the whole thing, and when he finally confronts the ex-boyfriend, suddenly all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place!

Once again, Innes throws some nice little twists into the story, and while I had figured out a few of the aspects to the crime, the actual murderer didn't actually become clear until nearly the end.  At 160 pages, it is not a lengthy read, nor is it excessively heavy reading - but it is thoroughly enjoyable reading that you won't be able to put down.  Factor into that the background characters (Mattison and Patil's budding relationship; Sergeant Gardiner's bitterness about being passed on for Harte's position; and the unexpected death of one of the supporting cast that will shake everything up going forward!), and you've got the makings of a fantastic tale!

Can't wait to see what Innes has in store for the next novel!

RATING:  10 abortion clinic pamphlets out of 10 for keeping the mysteries fresh, unique, engaging, fast-paced, and utterly captivating!

Monday, October 7, 2019

The House of Mystery - Book #1

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, when I was first getting into comic books, I was buying pretty much everything off the rack (DC and Marvel - never really fancied Archie comics). That included a number of horror anthology titles by DC, including books like Ghosts, Unexpected, Secrets of Haunted House, and, of course, House of Mystery.  As my tastes in comics evolved, I eventually stopped reading the horror anthologies, and apparently I wasn't the only one, as they all seemed to disappear by the mid-'80s or so.  Thus, I never really gave them another thought...

Flash-forward 30 plus years, and this year, while at a comic convention, I was looking through a box of comic-related items and came across this novel of The House of Mystery, written by Jack Olsek and illustrated by the mega-talented Berni Wrightson!  I assumed it was a paperback novel-sized comic in book form, but no! When I opened it up, it was an anthology of eight prose tales of horror and suspense!  Obviously, I wasn't going to pass it up - I mean, a throwback to be sure, published back in 1973, and now that I've read it, it certainly brought back a lot of memories of those horror comics and their chilling tales of irony and the unexpected.

The book gets off to a great start with probably the most recognizable horror staple - the vampire!  In "Chamber of Horrors," a young man who seems to never have any luck happens to meet the perfect girl who - surprise surprise! - is actually interested in him. But when he drops her off that night at her house, he sees two people carrying what appears to be a coffin into the house.  No one will believe him, so he investigates on his own, only to discover that the girl and her parents are vampires! But, are they?  The police investigate, but find nothing out of the ordinary. The girl has a logical explanation for everything. Is he simply going mad, or do vampires really exist...?

"Nightmare" is one of those tales where the protagonist is someone you can't wait to see get what's coming to him. Kelso (what a name!) is a bitter man who is not happy about anything - certainly not about the trip to England that his wife forced upon him, nor about their excursion to see Stonehenge. He is belligerent to the tour guide and other people on the tour, he is downright nasty to his wife, and when he storms away from Stonehenge in the heat of the day to find some shade, he finally gets the peace and quiet he's been looking for. But what if those stories the tour guide was saying are true? What is Stonehenge is the place of ritual sacrifices? Kelso is about to find out...!

The third story, "Collector's Item," shows the lengths a man will go to when shown the ultimate collector's item - but at what cost?  "Born Loser," is yet another tale of a married man in an unhappy marriage. When he finds romance with a woman at work, he decides to summon a demon to get rid of his wife - but with witchcraft, there is always a price to pay! Then, in the fifth story, "Tomorrow, the World," a man in the psych ward is accused of killing a woman, but he insists he is innocent, that she was the victim of a satanic cult.  A new psychiatrist is hoping to help the man - but is the man's story a figment of his imagination, or is there something to his conspiracy theory?

"The Haunting" is a nice little twist on the haunted house tale, very much in the vein of The Sixth Sense.  The next story after that, "You Only Die Once," is another unhappy marriage tale (there seem to be a lot of those, don't there?) where a greedy husband is tired of waiting for his wife to die, so he sets a plan in motion to get rid of her before she can give away her fortune, leaving him penniless.  Of course, she's not going down without a fight!

The eighth and final story, "Act of Grace," is the perfect tale to end this one - it is one of irony, of sadness, of hopelessness, and of facing reality.  A young boy is sent to an orphanage - but he doesn't mind, as he has his Happy Place that he can go to any time he wants. No one believes it exists, until the other boys at the orphanage who have been bullying him watch him disappear into a stone wall! A successful psychiatrist is brought in to help him - but what will happen when they severe the boy's connection with his Happy Place?  Tragedy, in no simple terms....

Each story is introduced by a beautiful pen and ink drawing by the master of horror himself, Berni Wrightson.  And the stories are beautifully told so that it is very easy to imagine each one on the comic page - my mind vividly displayed each story, panel by panel, as I read the pages, leaving me to wonder if these were ever adapted into the comic book series published by DC Comics.  Regardless, the horror fan in me thoroughly enjoyed the read, and I am going to have to track down the second book that was published by Warner Brothers.

RATING:  10 mushroom filled boxes in the basement out of 10 for living up to the tagline on the back of the book:  "For the Connoisseur of Terror"!

Friday, October 4, 2019

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 18 - The Stolen Show

When a character has been around for 90 years (wow! that's hard to believe, seeing it in writing like that!), I can imagine it becomes difficult to come up with new stories to tell.  In the beginning, Nancy Drew solved mysteries involving lost wills, missing relatives, swindlers, haunted houses, and the like.  Somewhere along the line, however, the writers (more so after Simon & Schuster took over ownership of the property) seemed to fall back on one particular type of mystery: sabotage.  With the now defunct Girl Detective series and the current Diaries series, sabotage seems to be the only kind of story that the writers know how to tell.  We may get an occasional surprise story once in a while, but for the most part, you can pretty much count on a Nancy Drew mystery involving sabotage.

So, when I picked up The Stolen Show and started to read it, I sighed when it became apparent that this mystery was centered around someone sabotaging the contestants at a dog show.  A drugged dog, gum stuck in the hair of a dog, and the threat of more attacks has Nancy searching for a dog owner who will do just about anything to guarantee his or her dog wins the biggest dog show of the year!  The only thing is - Nancy (and the reader!) are in for a real surprise when she stumbles (literally!) upon an entirely different mystery - one that makes the doggie sabotage seem like kibbles and bits.

Yes, that's right - the big mystery in The Stolen Show isn't about the dogs at all.  Surprise! If you don't want any spoilers, then I suggest you stop reading this review right now, go read the book, and then come back.  Go ahead.  I'll wait....

Okay, I waited long enough!  You see, Nancy goes chasing after one of the suspects, thinking she is hot on the trail of solving the sabotage mystery, only to discover that her suspect is actually an officer of the law - Interpol, to be exact.  You see, the dog show circuit is being used by some criminal masterminds to smuggle rare and stolen jewels across borders. The international police have been trying to catch these crooks for some time, and they even have their own agent who infiltrated the dog shows in order to sniff out the culprit (see what I did there?).  But, to no avail.  The crooks keep evading them at every turn.

Well, it's a good thing they ran into Nancy Drew, because faithful fans of the teenage sleuth know that there's no mystery she can't solve!

The ghostwriter of this particular book manages to tell a pretty good mystery, and there is some great suspense with the kidnapping of Bess, a chase in a blinding snowstorm, and the ultimate showdown between Nancy and the jewel smuggler.  The camaraderie among the girls reads natural, and Bess and George's willingness to step up and help Nancy in any way possible doesn't feel overdone or forced.  I was a bit disappointed, however, that Nancy does not really hunt down or follow-up on clues to eventually solve the mystery; rather, it seems one event after another happens, until Nancy suddenly connects the dots and in an Agatha Christie-style reveal (all the suspects gathered in one room as Nancy rattles off the various things that led her to uncovering the culprit's identity, with a couple of misleads along the way), she unmasks the jewel thief.  I miss the days of Nancy finding one clue, that leads to another, and then she stumbles across another, and then begins to piece them all together to solve the mystery.  These days, it seems Nancy is pretty much "given" the solution, rather than working hard to find it.   Perhaps that is the problem with all the technology we have these days - it makes solving mysteries way too easy!

In any event, that one drawback did not at all ruin my enjoyment of the book.  This is definitely one of the better Nancy Drew Diaries, and if this is the direction that they are going with the series, then I hope they stick with it!

RATING:  8 plates of poutine out of 10 for making Nancy Drew mysteries enjoyable to read again!

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Hunting Prince Dracula - the second Audrey Rose Wadsworth novel

After ending the reign of terror of Jack the Ripper, one would think Audrey Rose Wadsworth would want to shy away from murders and horror-filled mysteries.  Perhaps that is what she thought possible when she heads off to Romania with Thomas Cresswell to study at the Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science.  There are only two spots available for the school, and a number of students are vying for those spots.  Audrey and Thomas will have to utilize all their skill and focus to beat all the other students and gain a spot in this prestigious school under the tutelage of Headmaster Wadim Moldoveanu.

But that focus gets derailed when a series of murders occur, beginning with a man staked through the heart just outside of their cabin on the train to Bucharest...

Author Kerri Maniscalco draws on another of history's blood-thirsty villains for this second mystery in the Audrey Rose Wadsworth series, Hunting Prince Dracula.  A man staked through the heart on the train to Romania, a clove of garlic in his mouth.  They arrive at the very castle that was owned by Vlad the Impaler, now turned into a college for the study of the forensic sciences, where shortly after their arrival, one of the students is found dead in the nearby town, his body completely drained of blood - - and two teeth punctures in his neck!  A young woman from town has been missing, and one of the maids at the castle is discovered dead.  When Audrey and Thomas find a body in the tunnels under the castle, being viciously attacked by bats, they reach the inescapable conclusion - someone is desperately trying to bring the myth of Count Dracula to life!

Without a doubt, Maniscalco picked the perfect Gothic setting for this mystery - an old, chilly castle filled with shadows, underground tunnels, secret passages, and a cold, stern headmaster who seems less alive than the castle itself.  Audrey quickly befriends the maid who is waiting on her, as well as the headmaster's own daughter who is defying her father by sitting in on classes of her choosing.  Audrey also learns more about Thomas when his sister unexpectedly shows up at the castle to visit her brother - as well as, Audrey discovers rather inadvertently, his sister's secret love.  And speaking of love, that festering romance between Audrey and Thomas definitely builds in this mystery, as Audrey has to weigh her growing feelings for her friend against his inept and interfering attempts to protect her.

In some ways, this mystery felt like the season two opening episodes from the 1970s Hardy Boys / Nancy Drew Mysteries, "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula."  In that two-part story, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew had to find the missing Mr. Hardy, all the while dealing with the unexplained deaths of people who appear to have been attacked by a vampire.  In this mystery, Audrey and Thomas are trying to track down a killer who is making it appear that either a vampire or a vampire killer (or both!) is at work, all the while searching for Thomas' missing sister and Audrey's missing maid.  Plus, there's the little matter of the Order of the Dragon that may hold the clues to unraveling the mystery and revealing the identity of the killer (killers?).

I'm not going to lie - at 424 pages, Hunting Prince Dracula is a pretty hefty read.  But it is definitely well worth it.  The story is engaging, the characters are so much fun (I particularly love the banter and biting sarcasm between Audrey and Thomas), there is plenty of action and suspense, and the Gothic elements will keep the reader turning page after page - they did me, that's for sure!  As with the last book, the end of this mystery sets the stage for book three, which, of course, just came out in paperback ... so it's off the bookstore I go!

RATING:  10 long plain boxes tied with twine out of 10 for showing the world that dark, spooky castles still make the perfect setting for a good mystery!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Short Lived Comic Series #10 - First Comics' Meta-4

I picked up this series for several reasons - first, I came to know Stefan Petrucha as a comic book writer when her wrote the Nancy Drew graphic novels for Papercutz and had the pleasure of meeting him when we were both on a panel at New York Comic Con; so, I know he writes some great stories.  Second, I loved quite a few of the comic books that First Comics published back in the day, so I figured if First put it out, there was a good chance it would be good.  Finally, the art on the covers is absolutely fantastic.  With all three of these things going for it, I just couldn't pass it up.

What I didn't realize, though, was that the book was published right as First Comics was getting ready to end its publishing era, and so the series only lasted three issues.  Thus, just as I was getting into the story, getting to know the character - BOOM - that's the end (and although the letter column at the end of the third issue said the series would be back with a mini-series, that never happened, since First Comics closed its doors not too long after that third issue was released).  So, Meta-4 (not to be confused with the Meta-4 comic published by Image Comics in 2010) was yet another short-lived comic that never got to truly come into its own...

It turns out that Meta-4 is somewhat similar to Comico's Elementals (which featured a team of four individuals - two men and two women - who harnessed the powers of the four elements) published back in 1984 and Continuity's Urth-4 (which also featured a team of four individuals - three men and one woman, who harnessed the powers of the four elements) published back in 1989. See a theme here? So, I was curious to see how Petrucha would take this concept in a different direction - - or whether it would simply be another rehash of an already existing idea, since Meta-4 saw publication in 1991, after the two previous comic series about earth elementals.  Perhaps he got his idea from the other two comics, I'm not sure - but I am sure that his story took this concept in an entirely different direction!

Emily Cayce, Allis Krafe, Craig Fallow, and Dirk Penderwhistle (gotta love the names!) are the four individuals who are gifted with the powers of the elements.  Emily, Allis, and Craig are college students, while Dirk is a drug addict and criminal. The powers they discovery they have are alien in nature, and, of course, the government wants to know (i.e., control!) them.  The series opens with all four young adults waking from a coma they have been in for the past three years, to discover that they are being watched by scientists and the government.  Each of them has experienced some weird dreams, but it turns out those dreams were precursors to the powers that they possess!  Emily (water) is able to control the "fluid forces" that exist within crystal; Allis (fire) is able to use energy of any sort; Craig (earth) is able to assume the form of any terrain that he is near; and Dirk (air) is able to manipulate electrical and mechanical paths.

The three-issue series not only provides readers with the origin of the group's powers, it also gives readers a really good lock into the psyche of each of the characters (including the government men and the scientists studying the team).  These characters are more than just typical, cardboard cutout stereotypes.  They are unique, interesting, and quite frankly, fun to read.  And lest you think the series is all cerebral - there are plenty of action sequences as the four elementals learn more about themselves and their newfound powers and fight to escape their captivity by the government. Petrucha inserts plenty of subplots that would have led to a number of great stories (had the series continued), and the third issue ends with a cliffhanger worthy of any nighttime soap of the '80s!  Sadly, because First went defunct, the promised follow-up mini-series never happened, so readers have never been able to learn just what became of the Meta-4...

Gibson's art reminds me a bit of Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel's art from First Comics' Mars series.  It is not refined (such as George Perez or Jerry Ordway), but it has its own style that fits the story.  In some instances, the faces and expressions are exaggerated almost to the point of caricature, but surprisingly enough, it works.  The story is offbeat, and so the characters and art should be as well.  Petrucha's writing and Gibson's art mesh nicely to give readers the constantly off-kilter feel that the four main characters are likely experiencing as they wake up from their coma (so that the readers have the same feelings as the characters).  Nicely done!

Wish there had been more - perhaps one day Petrucha and Gibson will team-up again and complete the tale?

RATING:  8 strangers dressed up in french-fry outfits out of 10 for a quirky, unique, and definitely one-of-a-kind comic series that was well worth the read!

Sunday, September 22, 2019

The Third Goth Girl Novel - Goth Girl and the Wuthering Fright

Goth Girl is one of those guilty pleasures that you can't help but enjoy, regardless of the fact it is a children's series intended for young readers.  While it may be over 200 pages in length, with full page illustrations pretty nearly every other page, a few two-page spread illustrations, and other illustrations spattered throughout, the actual story itself is likely only 100 pages or less. Regardless, they are fun tales with a perky little protagonist (Ada Goth) who stumbles onto mysteries within her unusual and weird homestead that she must solve with the help of her friends (the "Attic Club"). But, there is something else that brings a smile to my face with each book that I read:

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (the Vicarage sisters)
Sir Walter Splott
Plain Austen
William Timepiece Thackeray
Georgie Eliot
Homily Dickinson
Hands Christmas Andersen
Countess Pippi Shortstocking

I'm sure, just by reading those names, you are either (a) grinning, (b) groaning, (c) rolling your eyes, and/or (d) all of the above! For me, though, it is the author's twist on the literary giants that give these books part of their charm. Author Chris Riddell (who also provides all of the illustrations throughout the book) has taken the timeless concept of a young girl with only one parent who loves to solve mysteries and given it a unique spin.  The stories are humorous, poke fun at stereotypes, and manage to weave some pretty intricate little mysteries into such a short amount of story. I'd say that makes for one very talented writer!

This time around, Ada's father, the Lord Goth, has agreed to play host at his estate to the Ghastly-Gorm Hall literary dog show. World-famous authors (whose names have been tampered with to protect the originals!) gather together at Ghastly-Gorm Hall to show off their precious canines in a show to top all dog shows. At the same time, Ada's best friend, Emily Cabbage, and her chameleon brother, William (and yes, he really does have the ability to blend in with his surroundings) come for a visit during their school break, bringing with them some friends of theirs. Before you can say, "Good dog," there's a mystery that Ada and her friends must solve.

Strange howls in the night are scaring Ruby Kipling (the maid), and mysterious prints in the snow that start out human and end in paw prints have Ada and her friends stumped. Plus, the three seemingly trained monkeys that are helping Emily and William's father with his creation of his "Cogwheel Brain" seem to be going in and out of the library quite a bit.  Throw in a cheating butler, a free-spirited bully, and the looming threat of having her friends and their father kicked out of the house, and you've got a fun-filled supernatural tale of ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and things that go bump in the night! What could be more Gothic than that?

Riddell keeps a good pacing with the story, he continues to develop the characters by building on prior books and the experiences therein, but at the same time, any of these books are easily readable o their own.  This is a series I would highly recommend to anyone who wants a break away from the serious and dark mysteries that mirror the state of today's world - and find some escape in a gloomy castle filled with all kinds of stories, creatures, and settings that will make you smile and sometimes even laugh out loud!

RATING:  10 stealthily stolen Christmas baubles out of 10 for keeping it fun, lighthearted, and enjoyable!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Third Veronica Speedwell Mystery - A Treacherous Curse

I am thoroughly enjoying Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series. Not only is the title character a strong-willed, sarcastic, independent woman in the 19th century, but she is dedicated, loyal, and determined when it comes to solving a mystery. I also enjoy the soap opera elements of the series, with the slowly-budding relationship between Veronica and Stoker, as well as the gradual revelation of secrets about not only Stoker's past, but also Veronica's own royal connections.  Raybourn is creating a very believable world of characters and places, which makes for an enjoyable get-a-way when one sits down with her books.

A Treacherous Curse drops a new mystery in their lap by way of The Daily Harbinger, the local news rag that Veronica enjoys perusing. It seems an Egyptian expedition by the Tivertons has ended early, with the Tivertons returning to London with their finds much earlier than expected, all due to the curse of a long-dead princess.  Of course, neither Stoker nor Veronica believe in curses, but something definitely strange is going on - the excavation director has died, a priceless artifact has gone missing, and the Tivertons' photographer in the expedition has disappeared, leaving his wife in a frantic state. Veronica would have simply moved on after reading the story if it weren't for two small facts - the photographer who disappeared, John de Morgan, was a close friend of Stoker's back in the day, and the wife Mr. de Morgan left behind happens to be Stoker's ex-wife!

Yes, readers finally learn all they need to know in this mystery about Caroline, that elusive woman whose name Stoker inadvertently spoke while being intimate with Veronica.  Raybourn has been teasing readers for the past two books about Stoker's past, but in this book, we finally get the payoff, as the truth behind Stoker's relationship with Caroline, his failed marriage, and the real reasons she left him are brought to light - and, as with any good mystery, not everything is what it seems.  For instance, from all appearances, John de Morgan stole the jeweled diadem, ran back home with his wife, but disappeared before they reached London. His wife, Caroline, claims they took separate rooms at an inn, and when she went to find him the next morning, not only was he missing, but his room was decorated completely different, as if he had never been there! The police can no longer question her, as she has become hysterical and out of sorts. 

Surprisingly, Veronica and Stoker are brought into the investigation by Sir Hugo Montgomerie, head of the Special Branch, who has developed a begrudging respect for the detecting pair. It seems he has word that Stoker's past with de Morgan is about to be brought to light, so it is in his best interest to solve the case quickly.   The investigation seems to be thwarted at every turn, as Veronica and Stoker interrogate Mr. Tiverton, his wife, his daughter Figgy from his first marriage, his assistant Patrick Fairbrother, his former partner Horus Stihl, Horus's son Henry, and ultimately Stoker's ex-wife Caroline de Morgan (which is quite the fun read, for Veronica does not hold back her snippy comments from the woman!). No one is who they truly seem to be (which is not a surprise in a good mystery story), and while I admit that I pegged at least one of the people involved in the whole thing, I was surprised by what really happened to John de Morgan, and the final confrontation was anything but expected!

Raybourn interjects plenty of humor into her books - and let's face it, Veronica's quick wit, biting sarcasm, and unwillingness to be anyone but who she is (no matter what others may think!) is probably the main reasons why I love the character so much. A cross between Nancy Drew and the Vancome Lady - the perfect detective! And, c'mon, let's face it - any author who can open her book with her protagonist from the 19th century going through a crate filled with an array of phalluses definitely knows how to set the tone for her stories.  I am now waiting anxiously for the fourth book to come out in paperback and hope, beyond hope, that there will be a fifth book and more beyond that!

RATING:  10 coiled papier mache snakes out of 10 for humor, danger, mystery, and sarcasm all rolled into one, making this book a perfect read!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Mad Dogs - an Eclipse Comics mini-series

I picked up this three-issue mini-series recently for two reasons: (1) back in the day Eclipse Comics put out some pretty good titles (after all, they were the first ones to publish Ms. Tree); and (2) it is written by Chuck Dixon, who has written some great comics over the years (including Evangeline and the initial Birds of Prey stories for DC). Therefore, I figured this had to have two things going for it right off the bat!  Plus, it was only three issues, at less than $2 per issue, so I figured even if it weren't the greatest comic ever written, I wouldn't be out much money. Now, having read it, I'd have to say I'm on the fence...

Mad Dogs is the tale of former police officers (and one former sheriff) who no longer serve due to their inability to adhere to the rules, their brutality, their fatal tactics, and their refusal to place procedure above justice. They have tried to settle into civilian life as much as possible, but when an Assistant District Attorney comes to Guy Brennan and offers him a chance to create a team of covert operatives that would operate outside the standard police force in an effort to clean up the city, Brennan jumps at the chance – as do the men and one woman that he chooses as a part of his “mad dog” team.

While the covers are full color, the interior pages are black and white, which probably works better for this story of urban violence and corruption.  The art, by Victor Toppi, is in a lot of places a bit rough, and his faces sometimes come across rather cartoonish and comical.  At this point in his career, he was clearly not proficient with facial expressions. I am unfamiliar with Toppi, and don’t believe I have ever seen any work by him before or after this series.  Yet, despite his less-than-stellar faces, he does a pretty good job with the backgrounds and shadows, which set the mood for the story more often than not.

Dixon’s story focuses on the team trying to take down a drug dealer who is working overtime to take over the entire trade in the area, creating turf wars and fights with the local mobsters. The entire first issue is devoted to Brennan assembling his team, with each member getting a flashback “origin” story as to what they did that resulted in their removal from the force.  In each instance, they sought justice, but the means they utilized were definitely not within the confines of the law.  Dixon’s use of flashbacks and action sequences to introduce the characters, rather than extensive dialogue, draws the reader in and gives you a sense of who these people are – they aren’t necessarily bad cops, and in nearly all of the cases, their action appears justified.  But it is rather surprising (for the time) that Dixon would devote the entire first issue to introducing the characters, with very little space given to the actual story that will encompass the next two issues.  (Of course, that one issue is nothing compared to today’s stories – if this same comic were published today, it would likely be a 12-issue series, with one entire issue devoted to each of the character’s backstory…)

Once we get into the meat of the story with the second issue, Dixon doesn’t hold anything back.  Brennan and his mad dogs will stop at nothing to bring down the drug dealer – and from this point forward, it is a standard tough-cops-versus-bad-guys story, with plenty of shooting, fighting, roughing-up, and even a couple of deaths – without giving away too much, not every member of the mad dog team makes it out of this mini-series alive.  Dixon uses a number of storytelling clich├ęs, as well as some typical stereotypes (this was the early ‘90s, so the whole politically correct phase hadn’t even begun yet), but they don’t overpower the story, and ultimately, the 3-issues are a fairly interesting read.  Definitely not your standard superhero fare that was being vomited out by everyone and their kid brother back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, so in that aspect, it offers a somewhat fresh read.

Whether I would recommend this to other comic book fans, well, let’s say that if you love movies with the hard-nosed ex-cop who’s trying to redeem himself, then you’ll no doubt like this comic; otherwise, I’d probably say this one is a pass…

RATING:  5 two-bedroom condos on Locust out of 10 for experimenting with a different type of comic at a time when superheroes were all the rage!

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Chicken Girls Mystery 1 - Rhyme and the Runaway Twins

Chicken Girls. That is definitely an unusual name for a mystery series, and I likely would have never picked up the book had the cover not paid homage to the classic Nancy Drew mysteries, with the yellow border across the top of the front cover, the yellow spine, the stylistic font, and the image of a young girl holding a flashlight in what appears to be an attic. Any book or series that honors the timeless Nancy Drew series in such a fashion has to be picked up and read. So I did.

Rhyme and the Runaway Twins turned out to be a really great mystery! I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect with the story, particularly when I discovered that the Chicken Girls is a web-series that can be watched on YouTube – a soap opera of sorts about these young, just-turned-teenage girls in a dance troupe at school. However, this book was far from sappy, nor was it over-the-top drama. Instead, it was a classic mystery of a missing relative, a hidden inheritance, a greedy uncle, and a young detective determined to help her new friends.  Sound like a true-to-heart Nancy Drew mystery? Well, it’s clear the author was a big fan, as the story and writing follow the standard formula of the classic Nancy Drews.  (More on the author a bit later…)

The story focuses on only one of the Chicken Girls, Rhyme McAdams, who remains behind in the summer of 2018 due to her need to re-take the “Test Test” (which appears to be a standardized test given in most schools before passing a student on to the next grade). Stuck at home while the rest of her friends are away at summer dance camp and the boy she likes is off in California, Rhyme anticipates a long and boring summer. But then her parents have to leave town with her younger sister, who is cast in a new television series, leaving Rhyme to stay with their neighbor. Then two strangers show up in town – twins, a boy and a girl (Conrad and Meg) – and with them comes an unexpected mystery that draws Rhyme, as well as Matilda Higgins (more on her later…), into a search for an old Vietnam war hero and a possible secret inheritance that could be hidden somewhere in the house where Rhyme is staying for the summer.

The characterization in this book is absolutely beautiful – the reader gets a full grasp on each of the various characters, their personalities, their eccentricities, and other aspects, such that the deeper you get into the book, the more you begin rooting for Rhyme to be able to help Conrad and Meg (and the more you keep hoping that Meg will lose that chip on her shoulder and Matilda will lose the attitude she sports). Rhyme is a normal thirteen year old, with normal problems, anxieties, and drama for a girl of that age; but once she gets involved with the twins’ search for their grandfather and their possible inheritance, she shows a determination and mindset that would make Nancy Drew proud.  The author also knows how to keep the reader hooked with chapter endings that make you want to turn the page right away and find out what happens next!  I can honestly say it did not take me long at all to read this book, as I could not put it down until the mystery was solved.

There are some surprises along the way, along with some red herrings; plus, there is a great mix of old-fashioned sleuthing, along with the use of modern technology (cell phones, computers, etc.), that adds a measure of realism to the book. The big revelation at the end, however, does come as a bit of a curve ball; but the final confrontation with the villainous uncle is definitely well worth the wait and read.  With some ingenuity and some determination, Rhyme, Matilda, Meg, and Conrad manage to outwit their devious uncle and find the answers they were seeking when they first came to town.

Now, about that author … the book is written by Matilda Higgins (or so the cover and inside title page say). Yet, reading the book (which is a book of fiction, mind you), Matilda Higgins is a major character in the story. In fact, at one point, Rhyme tells Matilda that she should write about their adventures solving this mystery. Which begs the question – who, exactly, is the real author of the book?  The copyright page reveals nothing, and the author bio at the end of the book provides information about the fictitious Matilda Higgins, leading me to believe that the producers of the show are utilizing ghostwriters for the books (and I do say books, plural, as this is advertised as a series, and this first mystery is labeled as book 1 on the cover, so I can only hope more will be forthcoming!).

I would most definitely recommend this book for anyone who loves Nancy Drew, who enjoys mysteries, and who wants a fun, easy read.

RATING:  9 slow-turning ferris wheels out of 10 for offering an enjoyable new mystery series in the classic tradition of everyone’s favorite teenage sleuths!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Mystery of the Curiosities - Snow & Winter, Book Two

I love a good mystery, there’s no doubt about it – and author C.S. Poe knows how to write a really good mystery! Her first Snow & Winter mystery was so well-written and plotted, and so engaging and fun, that I figured it would be pretty difficult for her to beat that in the second book. But, I was wrong. Antique dealer Sebastian Snow and his partner, police detective Calvin Winter, are back in action, solving another series of murders that once again pull Snow right into the midst of them in an intricately-crafted scavenger hunt of sorts centering around P.T. Barnum and his love of curiosities.

The Mystery of the Curiosities is set just months after the events of the first book. Snow has settled back into life, now with Winter at his side – but the peace doesn’t last long. An antique brick thrown through the front window of his store gets the ball rolling, and in true Nancy Drew fashion, there is a note attached to the brick.  I know you like mysteries is all the note says, but it is clear that the message is meant for Snow.  The next day, Snow finds another brick outside of his store, along with a floor inside covered with the antique bricks.  When the surveillance cameras are checked, it seems someone used spray paint to black them out. And, of course, there is another note.  Curious?

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but that isn’t going to deter Snow from figuring out what is going on. Then he finds a body in his apartment. Then his apartment explodes, bringing down the entire building, nearly catching him and his neighbor inside. Oh, and there was yet another note, which leads Snow to one of his favorite museums – and another body.  Winter nearly has a breakdown as Snow gets deeper and deeper into this game of cat and mouse, with Snow following the clues from the notes, only to discover that each one eventually leads him to another body. The only connecting factor seems to be the curiosities associated with each location … curiosities specifically associated with P.T. Barnum and the fire that nearly destroyed his collection many years ago.

Poe keeps the reader guessing on the identity of the killer – twice I thought I had it figured out, but I was wrong in both cases.  The ending definitely creates some tension (and excitement!), and it ultimately provides resolution for not only the mystery itself, but also a couple of underlying subplots that were started in the first book.  Snow and Winter’s relationship develops more throughout the story, and it is nice seeing some of the supporting cast continue to be a part of their lives (such as Snow’s father, the owner of the neighboring book store, and Winter’s partner on the force).  Those kind of small continuing details help flesh out the characters and make their world all that more real.

I thoroughly enjoyed the treasure hunt (so to speak) as Snow is forced to follow up not only on each clue provided in the notes, but also in attempting to solve the cold cases that are connected to the murder victims found at the solution of each clue.  I also absolutely love Snow’s interaction with his assistant, Max, as the sarcasm and barbs that they throw at one another come across as natural and remind me very much of myself and my boss when we are at work!

As with so many gay mysteries, the only drawback for me are the explicit scenes with Snow and Winter.  For me, this type of explicitness is unnecessary to the story, as it does not add anything to the mystery, nor does it do anything for the character development.  To me, it is superfluous and unnecessary.  Thankfully, the rest of the story is so great, that I can overlook it here.

Now to pick up the third book in this series and read it!

RATING:  8 pairs of aviator shades out of 10 for piquing my curiosity enough to plow through this book to find out who was behind the murders!

Monday, September 2, 2019

Fashion in Action - the Collected Edition

Back in the 1980s, a number of independent comic book companies hit the market, flooding the direct market with hundreds of titles. Going to The Great Escape in Louisville, I found myself enamored by a number of indy titles: Ms. Tree, DNAgents, Evangeline, Grim Jack, Whisper, and quite a few others. One title I can remember seeing on the shelf, but not picking up, was the Fashion in Action Summer Special. The art looked kind of cool, and I have always been a fan of female-led titles. But, at the time, I was more focused on on-going series, so a one-issue special just wasn’t on my radar, and I passed it up.

Now, here it is, some thirty-plus years later, and I come across the collected Fashion in Action, featuring all of the back-up stories along with the two specials in one trade paperback. Nostalgia instantly set in, so I ordered it. This was a title I never read back in the day, and to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But as the introduction by John Ostrander states, this book was unlike any other of its time, and even today, it stands out as not only unique, but well-written, beautifully drawn, and just plain good to read!

The comic tells the story of Frances Knight, a patch-wearing woman who specializes, along with her all-female team, in providing bodyguard services for celebrities of all kind in the not-so-distant future. The first issue opens with the New Year’s celebration of 2087, and the FIA team is on the job when a pulp character suddenly comes to live as Dr. Cruel kidnaps the man they are supposed to be protecting from right under their noses! The case becomes personal when Frances learns that Dr. Cruel’s cohort, known only as Roxanne, has a personal score to settle with her.  Plenty of action, plenty of fashion, and plenty of twists abound in the first seven-part story that was originally published as a back-up in Eclipse Comics’ Scout title.

Snyder followed-up his initial back-up run with two one-shot specials – the Fashion in Action Summer Special and the Fashion in Action Winter Special. Each special was a done-in-one story, the first focused on the girls’ hunt for a designer who has been stealing and profiting from other designers’ creations, while the second provided a flashback story that gave readers some insight into Frances Knight and why she is who she is (side-by-side with a present day story involving Dr. Cruel and Roxanne once again).

The series clearly focused on its main protagonist, but readers did get a glimpse into the other women who made up FIA. They were varied in size, color, and nationality, as well as skills – ranging from psychics to demolition experts.  Plus, Snyder gives them a base of operations in the Statue of Liberty!  How cool is that?!?!

It is interesting that back in the mid-to-late ‘80s that a male creator wrote and drew a comic dedicated to an all-female team that showcased strong, independent women in stories that would normally be written for male heroes. Perhaps the female readership just wasn’t large enough back then, or perhaps the male readers simply didn’t appreciate the appeal of this female team, but after the Winter Special, the FIA team disappeared from the comic scene.  Reading these stories now, I can see a bit a similarity between FIA and Dakota North, a fashion-centered character who held her own five-issue series at Marvel around the same time.  (Coincidentally, Martha Thomases, who created and wrote the Dakota North Investigations series, also writes an Afterward in the FIA trade paperback!)

Another interesting tidbit of which I was unaware was that Snyder created paper dolls of the characters, with fashions and a bit of character info that was placed on the back of each issue of Scout, as well as the two Specials. The paper doll pages are also reprinted in this collected edition, along with in-house ads from Eclipse Comics, original concept sketches for the characters, and even a "runway gallery," featuring various artists' interpretations of the characters from the series.

I wish Snyder was in a position to revive the series and give fans a continuation of Frances Knight’s saga.  I have a feeling he had plenty more stories waiting to be told, and in today’s independent market, a series of Fashion in Action mini-series would certainly be a hit!

RATING:  9 mystical life-giving gasses out of 10 for giving the comic world an all-female team of fashion-conscious bodyguards that are well worth the read!

Friday, August 30, 2019

A Wells & Wong Mystery, Book 5 - Mistletoe and Murder

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are back again, ready to solve another murder. Of course, it wasn't their intention to become involved in yet one more murder investigation. But author Robin Stevens brings her two incorrigible young sleuths into a new mystery with the latest book in the Wells & Wong Mystery series.

Mistletoe and Murder begins only a month after the events of the previous mystery, Jolly Foul Play. Daisy and Hazel have been sent off to Cambridge University to visit Daisy's brother, Bertie, who is attending Maudlin College. The girls, of course, can't stay at the all-boys' dorm, so they are shuffled off to St. Lucy's College to stay with Daisy's Aunt Eustacia. During their stay, they are to remain under the watchful care of Bertie's friend, Amanda Price - but a deal has been struck, and as long as the girls don't get into any trouble, Amanda will leave them to explore Cambridge on their own, as she has other things to which she must attend (and those "other things" definitely play a large part of the mystery that comes their way!).

Also returning in this book is Alexander, that Junior Pinkerton who helped the girls with the Orient Express murder mystery, and he has brought along his fellow Junior Pinkerton, George (who turns out to be not English at all, much to Hazel's delight). So, when a new mystery presents itself, the competition between the Junior Pinkertons and the Detective Society begins in earnest.  Who will solve the mystery first?  Charles and Donald Mellings are twins living on the top floor of the dorm where Bertie is residing - Charles is the outgoing, well-liked twin, while Donald is a bit more reserved and tends to follow in Charles' shadow. But Donald is the older twin, meaning he will inherit his family's quite massive wealth on his twenty-first birthday. Which happens to fall on Christmas Day. Charles is none too happy about that, and he persistently pulls pranks on poor Donald, warning Donald that he will be taking part in his brother's wealth. When Charles turns up dead at the foot of the stairs, everyone in the dorm thinks it is simply a prank gone wrong. Daisy and Hazel and Alexander and George know otherwise. It's a new murder mystery - the girls' fifth and the boys' first! - and the Detective Society will have to team up with the Junior Pinkertons if they hope to solve this one.

Did Donald push his brother down the stairs to end the intimidation regarding the inheritance?
Did Alfred get fed up with the racist remarks and get even with Charles?
Did Amanda really get a phone call about the accident, or was there more to it than that?
Did caretaker Moss, who was protective of Donald, finally have enough of Charles' pranks?
Did Michael grow weary of all the trouble Charles' caused in the dorm and put an end to it?
Or, God forbid, did Bertie commit this heinous act?

All of them have something to hide. All of them are keeping secrets, not just from the police, but from each other. And how does the secret climbing society figure into all of this? With only two days until Christmas, the Detective Society and the Junior Pinkertons have some quick investigating to do! Plus, with the girls not allowed to visit the boys' dorm without a specific invitation, the girls have to come up with new ideas every time to wiggle their way onto that staircase to investigate the crime - whether it is the idea of dropping off Christmas gifts, or bringing decorations to help make the dorm festive for the holidays, they always manage to find a way in.

Stevens once again comes up with a creative crime that keeps the readers guessing. I honestly thought I had it figured out - until a second murder takes place, and the very person I thought was the killer turns out to be the second victim! Talk about throwing a monkey wrench in my ideas. I am amazed at how fresh she keeps each mystery, yet manages to maintain consistency with the myriad of characters she is working with in the series. Additionally, I love watching the growth in both Daisy and Hazel, and the surprising build-up and revelations regarding Hazel's interest in Alexander (as well as the very surprising revelation regarding who Bertie likes) were all subtly played but important elements in the characters' growth.  Unlike Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Dana Girls, and the Bobbsey Twins, who never aged over the decades of solving mysteries, Daisy and Hazel are growing older, and I'm enjoying the different perspective it gives them as they chase down clues to solve the crimes.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - the Wells & Wong Mystery stories are definitely books I would recommend for anyone who enjoys a well-written, engaging mystery!  I just hope Simon & Schuster will continue to publish the series (as there are more books that have been published in Britain, but I don't see any more forthcoming here in the States yet...)

RATING:  10 compacts to be used for fingerprinting out of 10 for proving that children's mystery series are still viable and fun to read!

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Night Force - DC Comics Collected Hardcover Edition

Back in the ‘80s, DC Comics occasionally provided a preview of upcoming new series within an issue of an already ongoing title. Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld had a preview in an issue of Legion of Super-HeroesDial “H” for Hero also had a preview in a different issue of Legion of Super-HeroesThe New Teen Titans had a preview in DC Comics Presents. All-Star Squadron had a preview in Justice League of America. Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew had a preview in The New Teen Titans. Blue Devil had a preview in The Fury of Firestorm.  The updating of Wonder Woman saw a preview in DC Comics Presents.  And then, in the July 1982 issue of The New Teen Titans (#21), there was a 16-page preview of a new title by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan titled Night Force.

I can still remember reading that issue of The New Teen Titans and becoming enthralled with that 16-page insert. I was used to reading all of the superhero titles published by DC and Marvel, and while I had picked up the occasional issue of Ghosts, Secrets of Haunted House, or House of Mystery, none of those anthology horror titles ever really caught my interest. But this Night Force really captured my attention. It’s lead character, Baron Winters, reminded me in appearance of Barnabas Collins (from Dark Shadows).  His house gave me a feel of Collinwood (again, from Dark Shadows). And the young innocent girl haunted by demons that no one else could see made me think of Victoria Winters (from, where else but Dark Shadows). I think you can see the thread here. There was enough similarities, yet plenty of differences, to pique my interest and make me want to buy the series. Which I did. All fourteen issues. And to say I was thoroughly disappointed and upset when the series abruptly ended with issue 14, well, that would be an understatement.

Now, here we are, more than 35 years later, and while DC has attempted to revive the title twice (in 1996 for 12 issues, and again in 2012 for 7 issues), neither of those revivals managed to capture the mystery, intrigue, and horror that worked so well in that first run by Wolfman and Colan, despite the fact that Wolfman remained the writer for all three incarnations.  Perhaps it was because neither of the later series carried over the story threads from the original, nor did there seem to really by any connection between the three series.  (DC has most recently attempted to revive Night Force yet again in the Raven, Daughter of Darkness 12-issue limited series; unfortunately, though, this was an instance of Baron Winters gathering supernatural themed heroes and anti-heroes to fight for him, rather than using regular agents…)

But DC has done something I never imagined would come to pass.  DC has collected all 14 issues, including the free 16-page preview) into one hardcover collection.  I have not read the original run since it first came out and I bought those issues, so it was with much pleasure that I sat down to re-read the stories that so enthralled me when I was in my early teens. I absolutely LOVE the mystery surrounding Baron Winters. Who is he? How does he know so much? How in the world does his house have doors that lead to different points in time throughout history? How does he know what people to use (manipulate, really) as his agents in the war against supernatural evil?

The first seven-issue arc introduces readers to Vanessa Van Helsing, a young woman who is believed to be mentally unbalanced, but who in actuality is the doorway to something very evil; Jack Gold, a down-on-his-luck journalist who may have hit the story of a lifetime when he is called upon to save Vanessa; and Dr. Donovan Caine, a research professor who is trying to figure out a way to channel the energy people refer to as “evil” – and when the Baron brings all three of these people together, an unnatural terror is unleashed that only they can stop. But at what cost? While the Baron seems to be fighting for the good of humanity, he does not seem particularly concerned about the lives that are lost or forever changed by his use of them in this war…

The second story arc, lasting only two-and-a-half issues (the first half of issue 8 is an epilogue of the initial story), gives readers a rather unique tale of a criminal, who is not above killing the innocent, who is used by the Baron to free an apartment building of a strange creature that is basically holding all of its tenants captive. This story is definitely a character-driven tale, as readers watch this callous, petty man who is only out to save himself, put it all on the line to save a group of tenants who have become so complacent that they may not even want to be saved!

The final story, which comprised the last four issues, sees the return of Vanessa and Jack, with Vanessa once again becoming a key component in the Baron’s plan. However, this story reveals the origin (of sorts) of Baron Winters, introduces his former paramour and his son, as well as reveals a surprising secret about Vanessa and why she is so important in the Baron’s battles against the rising tide of evil.

There are so many fantastic elements to this series – Baron’s pet leopard, Merlin; Baron’s attorney, who happens to be from the past; Vanessa’s inherent goodness and naivety; the variety of evil and how it changes the people who battle it; the police officer determined to bring the Baron to justice; Baron’s house and its never-ending source of possibilities; the Baron himself, with his enigmatic ways and unlimited source of knowledge. I think the series was definitely ahead of its time, and it is so sad it was not given a longer life span to really develop a larger readership.  There were plenty of hints within those 14 issues of potential future stories, and I have to wonder if Wolfman had other ideas already in mind that never got to see the light of day.

This series epitomizes the true joy of comic book reading, and it a series I would recommend to any comic fan of any era!

RATING:  10 doorways to the past out of 10 for giving readers a horror story that was thought-provoking, terrifying, engaging, and all-too-short-lived!

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories #47 - The Mysterious Mannequin

I grew up reading Nancy Drew, and by 1979, I had purchased and read all 56 books that had been published at that time (the yellow spine editions, which, in the case of books 1 through 34, meant I had read the revised texts for those books). This included book 47, The Mysterious Mannequin.  Since that time, I have collected  Nancy Drew books, as well as many other children’s mystery series; but, I have honestly not gone back and re-read many of those first 56 Nancy Drew books.  So, when our Central Florida Sleuths reading group decided to read The Mysterious Mannequin for our August get-together, well, let’s just say it was almost like reading the book for the first time - - again!

By the time The Mysterious Mannequin was published, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, the daughter of Edward Stratemeyer, who created Nancy Drew, was writing the manuscripts for all of the new Nancy Drew books being published.  The later books in the series (such as The Crooked Bannister, The Sky Phantom, The Thirteenth Pearl, etc.) were not good reads at all, so I wondered how this story would be.  Imagine my surprise when I started reading the book and found myself really enjoying it.  The mystery was unique and engaging, and the dialogue was very well-written.  The banter between some of the characters was fun to read and breathed new life in Nancy, Ned, Bess, George, and their friends.  It actually left me wondering if Harriet actually wrote this manuscript, or if someone else ghosted the book. However, from the sources I was able to locate online, it appears that Harriet did, indeed, outline, write, and edit this book.  A close friend of mine even shared some photographs that Harriet took while on a vacation in Turkey, which trip provided Harriet with information for this particular mystery (which was partially set in Turkey).

The mystery begins when Carson Drew receives a package from Turkey – a intricately designed rug that Carson can only assume was sent by a former client who was wrongfully accused of smuggling. There is no message, so Carson and Nancy wonder if perhaps there is a message woven into the rug.  The two of them, and later Hannah, Ned, Bess, and George all join in, search carefully along the border of the rug to locate any potential clues for a hidden message – and eventually they discover that his client is wanting them to search for a mannequin that used to sit in his store window and bring it to him.  Of course, the client left the country two years ago, and no one has seen the mannequin since…

It was actually rather fun to read along as Nancy and her friends return to the rug time and again to locate more parts of the message; rather than the clue just being dropped in her lap as happens in many of the mysteries, the young detective has to really work for it in this one.  And when a stranger breaks into the house and tries to steal the rug, it was cute to see Togo (Nancy’s pet terrier) jump in to help Nancy keep the rug away from the intruder!  It is also nice to see the financial aspect of the sleuths brought into question. When the trip to Turkey is decided, there is a question raised as to how the girls will afford it (something that usually is never a concern for Nancy and her friends). The fact that they get a group discount through the travel agent, and then obtain lodging with friends rather than a costly hotel brings some realism to the tale that makes it all that more believable.

There are a few scenes in the story that seem rather superfluous – Ned being asked to hold a potential witness’s baby, and Helen (Corning) Archer joining the girls for a game of tennis – but, these scenes add some humor, as well as rare moments of characterization that you don’t often see in the series.  For instance, when Ned is asked to hold the baby, he is rather reluctant, and Nancy has to hold back her laughter at how uncomfortable and uncoordinated Ned is with trying to hold the baby. And the scene with Helen ends with the girls in the gift shop, where Bess accidentally knocks over a vase, which shatters, leaving the girl to wonder how she will possibly afford to pay for it!

The only true drawback to this mystery is the fact that there is so much talk about Turkey, but Nancy and her friends spend very little time there at the end of the book.  It would have been nice to see the young sleuths spend a bit more time in Turkey, so readers could get more information about the country, its people, and its splendor.  (Also, the fact that Nancy figured out the location of the mannequin “off-screen,” so to speak, was a bit of a disappointment.)

Overall, the book was a satisfying read and definitely one of the better Nancy Drew books from that era.

RATING:  8 winking mannequins out of 10 for not only showcasing Nancy Drew’s skill as a detective, but showing readers just how human she and her friends can be with fun dialogue and banter!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Doctor Who - Molten Heart

When any series of books are written by different authors, you never really know how each book will turn out. Will the author capture the characters’ personalities? Will the author pace the story appropriately and keep the reader interested? Will the author give the story a great payoff in the end? And when you are talking about a series based upon an established television show or movie, then the bar is even higher for the authors. So, with each Doctor Who book, I always go into it wondering if the author will have a real grasp on this particular iteration of the Doctor, and whether he or she will be able to get the companions right.

One of the more recent Doctor Who books, Molten Heart, definitely succeeds. Author Una McCormack must be a true fan of the show, and particularly of the new Doctor. She had Jodie Whittaker’s version of the Doctor down pat, with her blabbering, her confusion, and her ultimate saving ideas at the last moment; and she also managed to write the companions (Yaz, Ryan, and Graham) with their three distinct personalities, although admittedly, Ryan did not have his usual balance issues that he faces in the show.  However, that was not enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story.

The Doctor and her three companions land on a planet that seems void of any life – at least, on the outside.  Take a look at the inside, however, and the travelers discover a world inside the world, where rock-like beings have lived out their lives never realizing there was a surface beyond their inner-globe. The problem is – one of the species was beginning to realize that something was wrong, and (like Jor-El and the doomed planet of Krypton), no one believed him.  So, he set off on his own to discover what is causing the fissures, the seething pools, and the decreasing of their seas of magma.  But he hasn’t come back, and his daughter is beginning to worry. Enter: the Doctor and her companions!

This adventure has plenty of what makes Doctor Who so…well, Doctor Who! There are unusual aliens, startling off-world adventures, dangers, misguided rulers, dungeons, last minute rescues, and, oh, yes, plenty of running. I mean, let’s face it – it wouldn’t be Doctor Who without the Doctor and her companions running, now would it? And when the Doctor discovers that other aliens have come before them, and that something happening on the surface is creating the fissures that threaten to crack the planet wide open, she takes it upon herself to find the cause and put a stop to it, even if that means facing down an interstellar corporation that has deadly security measures in place to keep outsiders from tampering with their technology.

McCormack provides a very satisfying adventure that could easily be translated to the small screen. In fact, as I was reading the book, I felt like I was watching an episode of Doctor Who, the images so clear and vivid in my mind (and it’s not easy for any author to write such a vivid picture, no matter how good one’s imagination is). I hope BBC books brings McCormack back to write more of Jodie Whittaker’s adventures as Doctor Who, as she certainly has a hold of what makes Doctor Who so special.

One interesting tidbit about the story is that the alien life forms that they discover within the planet are never actually given a species name. The characters have individual names (Ash, Onyx, Emerald, etc. – get the theme here?), but there is no identification of the actual species, which is rare, since Doctor Who normally knows pretty much every species she encounters on her adventures.  I’m not sure if this was intentional by McCormack to keep it a bit unique, or if she simply didn’t have a name for them.  Either way, it’s still a fun story and well worth the read.

RATING:  10 hungry lavasharks out of 10 for a thoroughly enjoyable Doctor Who tale that makes me even more excited about Jodie Whittaker's second season as the Doctor!

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Dusk County Chronicles - Advance Reader Copy - Issue 2

Advance Reader Copy!
The Dusk County Chronicles 2
Publisher: Metal Ninja Studios
Publication Date (Forthcoming)
24 pages of story and art

The Dusk County Chronicles returns for a second issue, thanks to the creative talents of Joel Rodriguez (writer) and Roman Gubskii (artist). The nightmares that plagued this small county are not over yet, as Rodriguez and Gubskii provide four more tales of terror, providing unexpected twists on somewhat familiar stories...only this time, Rodriguez goes beyond the well known into the little known fairy tales, children's stories, and folklore to give readers more chills than before!

The book begins with "A Mother's Love," a story about the lengths a mother will go to protect her child. The story opens with a women carrying a little boy, running through the woods with the realization that monsters are real.  A shadowy creature is chasing them, and the woman is determined to do whatever it takes to protect her child.  Night has fallen, and she knows she only needs to last until the break of dawn, at which point, the monster will be gone, and they will be safe.  Or will they? Remember, in The Dusk County Chronicles, everything is not always what it seems...oh, and if you are wondering what story this was taken from? Well, there's mention of a bag and an umbrella, so you figure it out...

"Niki" is a completely different sort of tale (or is that tail?).  Dan is in the hospital, unconscious.  Michelle is attending, and her friend, Eddie, who is a police officer, is there to keep her company.  When she tells him Frank is on the way with the equipment they need, Eddie becomes a bit concerned.  "Frank's coming?" he asks. "Does he still have that damn dog?"  The dog in question is Niki. And then the lights go out. And then there is a "thud" in the other room. And then Frank shows up, bloody, missing a hand, with Niki. You see, Niki is a dog that looks like a wolf. Plus, Niki sees things. Niki knows things.  And before the night is over, Eddie will learn that outward appearances can be deceiving...

The next story returns readers to the station of DC-34, where a young woman sits, remembering the land of wonder she once visited (gee, any idea who she might be?).  "No Longer" is told completely in rhyme, and therein, the young woman finds her cherished wonderland has been turned into a nightmarish wasteland, with old friends dead, and those who aren't have become dark and deadly.  But just when she thinks her time is up, just when she thinks she's reached the end, her eyes flutter open and she sits up in bed.  It was only a dream. Only a dream.  But it wasn't a dream.  Remember, this is Dusk County, and in Dusk County, a dream is actually nothing more than ... a nightmare ...

The horror story that rounds out this issue is "The Toy Box," and quite frankly, this is possibly the darkest of them all, and that's no lie!  A father stops by a toy story to pick up something for his newborn son.  This toy shop is very special, as the owner practically raised the man when his parents left.  But the owner has recently died, and his son now runs the shop, carrying on his father's tradition. So, would he like to buy one of his latest creations?  He can make stringed puppets just as well as his father could - some would say even better! After all, they are so life-like.  So realistic.  So, do you want one?  Do you?  C'mon, don't leave me hanging...

The stories are getting darker, bloodier, and scarier - which means to say, they are getting better and better! Dusk County is not a place I would want to visit for real, that's for sure, but I definitely will be back for another visit when The Dusk County Chronicles issue 3 comes around!  After all, this is the kind of horror anthology title that is missing from comics today!

RATING:  10 burning mushrooms out of 10 for terrifying tales that will satisfy the most rabid horror fan!