Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Agony House - A Mix of Novel and Comics

The Agony House
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication Date (September 2018)
ISBN 10 - 054593429X
ISBN 13 - 978-0545934299
256 Pages of Story

It's not often that I will pick up a non-series book, but every once-in-a-while, something will catch my eye, so I pick it up and glance through it.  The Agony House is one of those type of books. The name alone was enough to intrigue me, but as soon as I saw the cover, I knew I had to know more. I opened the book and started to flip through the pages. The moment I saw the comic book pages mingled in with the text pages, I was hooked. The fact that the story itself involves a young girl moving into a new house that is supposedly haunted and sets about to solve the mystery - well, that was just icing on the cake, as they say!

I am not familiar at all with the author, Cherie Priest, nor the artist, Tara O'Connor; however, after this book, I may have to see what other projects on which they have worked.  I just hope Priest's other works are not quite as whiny at this one.  What I mean to say is that, while I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the underlying mystery, Priest gave her protagonist, Denise Farber, one main characteristic - she was always whining.  The house is a dump. There's no air conditioning. The house is falling apart. She does not want to be there. The house is a junk heap. She has an old cell phone. The house will never get fixed. You get the drift. She is always whining and complaining, and after a while, it starts to grow tiresome. Then again, perhaps that is what Priest was going for - perhaps she wanted a main character that was not the perfect go-getter, "I'm going to solve this mystery" type of person. Instead, we get a very typical teenager who has been uprooted from the life she's known, torn away from the friends she's made, and thrust into a wholly unwanted situation.  In that context, perhaps Denise is exactly who she's supposed to be.

For me, however, it is the supporting cast that I fell in love with. Pizza delivery guy, Norman, who Denise finds to be very hot.  Geeky neighbor, Terry, who is totally into hunting down some ghosts.  High-and-mighty teen queen, Dominique, who is not too keen on another white family moving into the neighborhood with ideas of "fixing it up."  The most unlikely of friends, and yet over the course of 200 or so pages, Priest manages to not only breathe life into this ragtag mix of teens, but also shows the reader that sometimes you can't judge people at face value.

And the mystery - well, the mystery is a real doozy that had me guessing pretty much up to the very end. The nail house (as the towns people call it) seems to have two resident ghosts - one of them good, one of them bad.  One of them a man, one of them a woman.  One of them a comic creator, one of them...well, no one is quite sure, since she disappeared a few months before the comic creator was found dead. In  her house. The nail house. And when Denise and Terry find an unpublished comic by that very creator in the attic, they soon discover that the comic is more than what it seems. Events in the comic seem to be happening in real life. It is a coincidence, or is it a supernatural case of life imitating art?  That is exactly what Terry finally convinces Denise they need to find out!

The decision to actually insert the comic pages of art/story into the book, in the moments when Denise and Terry are reading the comic they found - giving the reader the opportunity to read the comic right along with them - was pretty ingenious.  We, the readers, read the same pages as Terry and Denise, and we only read portions at a time, as they do, so we only know as much as they do. Which helps build the suspense, build the mystery, and build the clues that will ultimately answer the question - just what the heck is going on in nail house?!

A little bit of a slow start, but a definite good read.

RATING:  8 young blond haired men in distress out of 10 for a unique spin on the haunted house tale

Saturday, January 26, 2019

DC Super Hero Girls, Graphic Novel No. 7 - Search for Atlantis

DC Super Hero Girls
Search for Atlantis
Publisher:  DC Comics
Publication Date (October 2018)
ISBN 10 - 1401283535
ISBN 13 - 978-1401283537
115 pages of story

The girls (and boys) of Super Hero High are back for their seventh graphic novel in this series of DC Super Hero Girls comics. What I found to be unique about this book is that it not only follows the last direct-to-video cartoon film, but it also references events that took place in one of the prior DVD films. I can't recall any of the prior graphic novels actually making reference to the DVDs, so it's rather cool that they have now established that these books are in the same continuity and universe and the cartoon DVD films!  Yeah, I'm a nerd about these sort of things - sue me!

Search for Atlantis spotlights Mera, who is a new addition to the school (and to the DCSHG graphic novel universe). Taking place shortly after the recent DVD, this story finds Mera a new student at Super Hero High, and she is trying her best to fit in. It seems Wonder Woman and Mera have become best friends, but where does that leave Bumblebee, who thought she and Wonder Woman were besties? Of course, teen jealousies will have to wait, because when Atlantis goes missing and the villainous Braniac is found to be behind the disappearance, it's up to the DC Super Hero Girls to save the day!

Writer Shea Fontana and artist Yancey Labat turn out some of their best work yet with this story. It flows nicely from the DVD story, and the characterization is on point. I absolutely loved the grouping of Raven, Cyborg, Beast Boy (I still want to call him Changeling, which is how I first met him in the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans series back in the '80s), and Starfire and the attempts of these four to figure out a name for themselves - - Teenage Group of Superheroes Who Work Together? Young Justice? Beast Boy and the Super Buddies? Super Friends? Super Acquaintances? Adolescent Adventurers? Or, how about - - dare I say it - - Teen Titans?!?!

It was also really nice to see Miss Martian take a bigger role in this book. Her character has always been portrayed in this series as super-shy, constantly turning invisible anytime someone spoke to her. But in this story, Fontana shows just how much the character has grown, giving Miss Martian not only a leadership role, but a chance to take on the bad guy directly. Plus, the cameos of Black Orchid and Mary Marvel on page 25, well that just made my day! I mean, it was only in one panel, but still - the costumes were fantastic, and hopefully that is a small hint that we may see more of these two in the future. I certainly hope so!

Overall, this was definitely one of the best books in the series, both story-wise and in the art department. If they continue in this positive direction, I think Fontana and Labat will have a successful series for many more books to come!

RATING:  9 shrunken cities out of 10 for continuity, characterization, and good, clean comic fun!

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Mystery of Nevermore - Snow & Winter, Book One

Snow & Winter
The Mystery of Nevermore
Publisher: DSP Publications
Publication Date (August 2016)
ISBN 10 - 1634770692
ISBN 13 - 978-1634770699
197 Pages of Story

Three things sold me on this book before I even knew what it was about. First, the title. Being a huge fan of Nancy Drew and other children's mysteries from the '70s and beyond, I love titles that begin with "The Mystery of...." or "The Secret at..." or "The Clue in...." Second, the book clearly involved Edgar Allan Poe, based on the title. And third, it's a mystery series. Put all three of those together, and you've got a combination that I simply cannot pass up! Thankfully, the book was well worth the purchase, and it was so good, I'm going online to order and second and third books in the series, hoping there are more to come.

That being said, The Mystery of Nevermore begins the sleuthing adventures of one Sebastian Snow (love that name!), antique dealer and fan of mystery novels. He is having difficulties with his closeted partner, Neil, who is a detective with the NYPD. With his assistant, Max Ridley, Sebastian runs a pretty successful antique shop, and life trudges along as normal. Until he discovers a bloody heart under one of the stairs in his shop. And he stumbles across the body of a competing antique dealer with a black cat hung over the body. And discovers a previous murder of a woman, whose blood is used to write a message on the wall. All of which lead Sebastian to realize that someone is a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and is using Poe's stories to stage his or her murders!

The backstory of these murders stems from a little known book (pamphlet, really) of Poe's known as Tamerlane. This poem, with several others, was the first published work of Poe, and is, indeed, extremely rare, as so few copies were printed, and even fewer remain in existence today. So, C.S. Poe poses the question - what would happen is an unknown to exist copy surfaced today? And what if that copy were sold, unknown, in a group of books to an antique dealer in New York City? And what if someone were to want that copy so badly that he or she were willing to kill for it - literally?! Poor Sebastian has to find out, as he begins to put the pieces together and realizes that a collection of books he recently bought could very well contain that newly discovered copy, marking him as the next target for this Poe-inspired killer!

C.S. Poe (I hesitate to simply use the author's last name only, as her last name coincidentally is the same as good ol' Edgar Allan's) writes a beautifully woven mystery, perfectly paced to keep the reader engaged and wanting to know what happens next. The characters are far from cookie-cutter, and the tension, not only relating to the mystery, but also to the relationships between Sebastian and Neil, and then between Sebastian and investigating detective, Calvin Winter, are natural and all-too real and relatable. Plus, I have to admit, love the combination of Sebastian and Calvin's last names - Snow and Winter.

The only drawback I would say to the mystery are the couple of fairly explicit sex scenes. I just don't see the need for explicitness when it comes to the sexual encounters of the characters in a good mystery. I know the expression, "sex sells" - yet, for me, if the explicit description of the sex can be removed and the story continues unchanged, then it isn't really necessary. However, there are only a couple in this book, so they did not take away from my enjoyment of the characters and the mystery - I simply overlooked them and moved on with the mystery!

I think pretty much any mystery-lover will appreciate and enjoy this book!

RATING:  8 cardboard-tasting pizzas out of 10 for giving readers a new mystery series with truly interesting characters and a superbly-written mystery right off the bat!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Curious Cat Spy Club, Book 6 - The Trail of the Ghost Bunny

The Curious Cat Spy Club
The Trail of the Ghost Bunny
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Co.
Publication Date (September 2018)
ISBN 10 - 080751392X
ISBN 13 - 978-0807513927
263 Pages of Story

"I grin at my club mates, hop on my bike - and we ride off together."

I can think of no better way to end this series than to send Kelsey, Becca, and Leo off into the sunset, searching for more missing pets. Well, actually, I could think of a better way - don't end the series at all! Let it keep going, let Linda Joy Singleton tell more stories of these three curious young sleuths, and let readers continue to enjoy these fun, well-written mysteries that hearken back to the days of children's mystery series! But, alas, that is not meant to be, so as send-offs go, I'd have to say Singelton pretty much nailed it with this sixth, and final, Curious Cat Spy Club mystery.

The Trail of the Ghost Bunny finds Kelsey and her family settling into their new home, which readers were introduced to in the previous book. It's a bit of a fixer-upper, so everyone is chipping in to help clean, paint, and renovate the house. But there's a catch - in order to keep the house, the family will have to take care of the previous owner's bunny, Trixie (Belden, anyone?). Kesley is overjoyed - her father, not so much. But Kelsey and her friends are good with animals, and she soon has it settled safely in her room.

But then the bunny escapes its cage. And disappears in the attic. And uncovers a hidden cubby that holds an old-fashioned key. And then gets kidnapped! Needless to say, it's the start of a whole new mystery for Kelsey, Becca, and Leo - one that involves a rumored treasure, a mysterious girl, a disappearing bunny, a hidden room, the tinkling of bells throughout the house, and the frightening shadow of a ghost bunny! Singleton incorporates so much into the story, by the time you finish reading the book, you feel like you've experienced more than just a single mystery.

I truly enjoy the way Singleton intertwines the lives of so many characters - bringing back a number of characters from previous books (even me! you'll have to read it to understand what I mean!), as well as incorporating peripheral characters into the overall mystery. And while it doesn't come as much of a shock as to who the culprit is, it's not the whodunnit that really matters, as much as how Kelsey and her friends get there. And, on top of everything else, the CCSC must also find a way to raise money for the local animal shelter to purchase a mobile pet van. As if they didn't have enough on their plate already.

One of the joys I find in reading series books is that you get to know the characters, and in a weird sort of way, you feel like these characters are "friends," or even "family," because you are right there with them during each and every adventure. You share the good times, the bad times, the rocky roads, and the thrilling successes right along with them. So, that is why it becomes bittersweet when a series comes to an end, particularly when you know there are so many more stories yet to be told. But, alas, for Singleton and her Curious Cat Spy Club, the sleuthing adventures of Kelsey and her friends have come to an end, and so we must bid farewell - and as Carol Burnett so eloquently put it at the end of each episode...

"I'm so glad we had this time together...."

RATING:  10 sparkling ruby necklaces out of 10 for saving the very best CCSC story for last and making it well worth the read!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Doctor Who - The Good Doctor

Doctor Who - the 13th Doctor
The Good Doctor
Publisher: BBC (Penguin Group UK)
Publication Date (November 2018)
ISBN 10 - 1785943847
ISBN 13 - 978-1785943843
230 Pages of Story

I have been very selective about the Doctor Who books that I buy. Initially, I bought only those books that featured Donna Noble as the companion (as she is, and always will be, my favorite!). Then I bought the books with Rory Williams as a companion (even though I disliked Amy, I liked Rory's character enough to buy them). Then along came the 12th Doctor, who I enjoyed immensely, so I picked up his books (even though I found his first companion, Clara, to be very boring - did like his second companion, Bill, but she only lasted one season, sadly). Now, enter the 13th Doctor and her three companions.

That's right - HER! BBC decided to go with the times, and when Peter Capaldi's Doctor regenerated, for the first time, Doctor Who became a female Doctor! Joining her in this new era are three new companions - police officer Yasmin, young Ryan, and his step-grandfather, Graham. An odd mix of characters, to be sure; however, from the first episode that introduced all four of them, I've been hooked. So, when I discovered new books with these characters at Barnes and Noble, I snatched them up right away.

This first book, The Good Doctor, is written by Juno Dawson, who is a new author to me in the Doctor Who universe. It seems a number of the previous books were written by many of the same authors, so it is nice to see a new author (at least, new to me) step in and breathe some new life into the Doctor and her companions. And Dawson doesn't fail the Doctor Who fans, as she manages to nicely capture the voice of the characters, despite how new they all are.

In this adventure, the Doctor and her companions help broker a peace treaty between a race of humans and a race of canine-type aliens who are sharing the same planet. Everything seems to have turned out nicely as the Doctor, Yasmin, Ryan, and Graham leave in the TARDIS - only for Ryan to discover that he left his cell phone behind on the planet. Not wanting such Earth-technology to be left in a place and time where it could greatly affect the people, the Doctor goes back to the planet Lobos. The plan is to sneak back to the tower where he left his cell, grab it, and leave before they make any further impact on the planet.

But they soon discover it's too late for that...

The Good Doctor answers the question to what happens to a planet and its inhabitants after the Doctor does some good there, thus changing the course of their lives? What happens if the Doctor's actions are, perhaps, misinterpreted, or even changed in the course of translation? And how will generations down the road look back and view the Doctor, her companions, and what they have done to their society? In this case - they worship the Doctor. The only problem is, it is now hundreds of years later, and the current generation of humans worship the Good Doctor - or rather, the man who they think is the Good Doctor - Graham! Talk about a case of mistaken identity!

This book also addresses some of the unique factors that the Doctor must face, now that she (he?) is a woman - how people and aliens view the female of a species, how a hero is automatically viewed as male, and what it takes to change that point of view.  The television episodes have briefly been touching on this, but this book faces the issue head-on, with a society that now worships the Doctor - but the Graham "Doctor," not the actual Doctor, as this race cannot possibly conceive of a woman being their Good Doctor. On top of that, the book also looks at organized religion, how it begins, and how it can be abused and misinterpreted over the years. Dawson handles the story nicely, and even manages to equal out the time for the three companions, so that no one hogs all the spotlight in the adventure.

A great start to a new era of Doctor Who, and I'm looking forward to seeing what future stories of the 13th Doctor hold in store!

RATING:  10 teddy bears with only one eye out of 10 for taking the newest Doctor on a fantastic, most brilliant adventure on her first outing in prose form!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Merry Men - a Graphic Novel

Merry Men
A Graphic Novel
Publisher: Oni Press
Publication Date (December 2018)
ISBN 10 - 1620105470
ISBN 13 - 978-1620105474
152 Pages

A couple of years ago, Oni Press (an independent comic book company) offered up a new series called Merry Men, which was a new take on the Robin Hood mythology, where Robin and his friends were all gay and had become outcasts due to the villainous Prince John and Sheriff of Nottingham wanting to rid the land of such "merry men." The first three issues came out, and then ... nothing. The remaining issues in the series never appeared, and I sadly gave up hope of ever reading the conclusion to the story. Recently, however, Oni Press published a trade paperback of Merry Men which featured not only those first three issues, but the remaining 7 issues as well, finally providing readers with the complete story!

Written by Robert Rodi, who is probably best known for his comic series, Codename: Knockout, a Vertigo series back in the early 2000s. With Merry Men, Rodi teams up with artist Jackie Lewis to tell the story of Robert Godwinson, who is the former lover of King Richard in 13th century England. Godwinson is forced to flee because of his gay nature, so he bands together with other "merry" men in Sherwood Forest. Prince John has outlawed any homosexuality, and with the help of the Sheriff of Nottingham, is working hard to rid of the land of any such men. Godwinson, who is nicknamed "Robin," is content to simply hide in the forest with his friends - until the mysterious young lady, Scarlet, shows up begging for Robin's help. The Sheriff has captured Daniel of Doncaster, a close friend of Robin's and benefactor to Scarlet. Robin is reluctant to help at first, but through circumstances beyond his control, he and his merry band get sucked into the battle.

This is not simply an updated version of Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights. This is a story of friendship, of love, of discrimination, of exile, of loyalty, and of true heroism - standing up for what is right in the face of real danger.  There are some soap opera elements to the story (cheating lovers, friends turned enemies, surprise betrayals, and daring rescues), but Rodi keeps the focus on the Merry Men's fight to be accepted and be free from the hatred and discrimination. After freeing the men in one town, who were being held captive to be turned over to the Prince, Robin's merry band begin to realize the good they could do in freeing men from other villages who faced the same fate. While Robin is reluctant to become any kind of hero or go on any kind of crusade, he eventually goes on the quest to find and rescue his old friend, Daniel, and along the way, his world expands, as does his group of friends.

Lewis' art is on the edge of cartoony, but her ability to capture expressions is exquisite.  Her expressions of love, anger, surprise, mirth, slyness, and sadness shine forth beautifully in the panels of the book, and she keeps the action and story flowing from panel to panel, page to page, which helps make the book a very nice, smooth read from beginning to end.

I would certainly recommend this book to any Robin Hood fan, as well as any comic book fan that loves a good non-super hero story.  I'm curious to see if there will be any future stories with these characters, as that final page, last panel definitely says that there is more story to tell....

RATING:  8 severed hands out of 10 for spinning a new twist on an age-old story, making it fresh and relevant for today's readers.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Hardy Boys Adventures, Book 17 - The Gray Hunter's Revenge

Hardy Boys Adventures (Book 17)
The Gray Hunter's Revenge
Publisher:  Aladdin
Publication Date (October 2018)
ISBN 10 - 9781534411500
ISBN 13 - 978-1534411500
124 Pages of Story

With this book, the Hardy Boys overtake Nancy Drew in the numbering with these new series. Nancy Drew was ahead of the game, as the "Diaries" series began publication before the "Adventures" series for the Hardys. However, because NDD 17 was delayed so that the ND Christmas Special could be published, this 17th Hardy Boys Adventures story now places the Hardy Boys in the lead. Of course, since the plots and writing of the Hardy Boys Adventures is actually better (did I really say that?) than that in the Nancy Drew Diaries, it almost makes sense to let the Hardys lead the way, so to speak.

That being said, The Gray Hunter's Revenge brings back the old-fashioned haunted house tale. Cliffside Manor has been empty for a long time. The legend goes that the people who built the house ignored the land ownership claims of a rough man who swore vengeance on them for stealing his land. One night, during a party, the man entered the home with a long gray jacket and an ax. No one survived the massacre. Now, all these years later, famed horror author Nathan Foxwood has moved into the mansion. The fame and fortune associated with his books has dwindled, and he is said to be writing a new novel, based on Cliffside Manor. But then something horrible happens. His mood darkens, and one night, with his assistant and his wife away from the manor, Foxwood drives off in his car and drives off the road and down a cliff, his car a mess of flames and metal. There were barely enough remains to identify Foxwood, leaving his wife a grieving widow...

Such a wonderful set-up for a haunted house mystery, as Frank and Joe are asked to quietly investigate the house by Foxwood's assistant, who is helping Mrs. Foxwood with the estate sale. Ever since Foxwood died, there have been strange goings-on in the house. There have even been sightings of the legendary "Grant Hunter." The media is all-over the events, but the Adam Parker, the assistant, knows there has to be a reasonable explanation and asks the Hardys to find it. Joe, a huge fan of Foxwood, is more the eager, but Frank is not exactly thrilled about the idea of spending a night in a haunted house. Before they can get started, though, Frank sees the shadow of the Gray Hunter, while Mrs. Foxwood is nearly attacked by the ghostly apparition!

The ghostwriter (seems appropriate for this story, does it not?) for this mystery, despite the short page count, knows how to build some tension, throw in some good scares and jumps, and keep the "horror" element of the story at the forefront.  I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to curl up with this book under my covers had the author been allowed to truly flesh out the story with no limitation as to the length it would take to truly tell the story.  I say this every time, and it bears repeating - I really wish Simon & Schuster would wake up and realize that it takes more than 124 pages to tell a really great story with character and story development sufficient to engage and draw in the readers. Kids today do not have the short attention span that S&S seems to think they do - the Nancy Drew Christmas special book proves that, I think.

Regardless, the plot and overall writing of this book were well done, and the cover art certainly sets the mood.  Artist Kevin Keele captures the spookiness with the dark, decrepit house, the barren trees, the fog in the background, the shadows everywhere, and the hesitation of the boys to enter the house. (Admittedly, there is some similarity with the last Nancy Drew book, The Haunting on Heliotrope Lane, which also dealt with a supposed haunted house.) Overall, I would definitely call this book a winner.

RATING:  9 Foxwood Fan Club pins out of 10 for telling a good, old-fashioned Hardy Boys-type story and making it truly enjoyable.