Monday, April 29, 2019

Samantha Wolf Mysteries, Book Five - The Haunting of Eagle Creek Middle School

It's been almost a year since I read the last Samantha Wolf mystery, so figured it was about time to delve into her next big adventure. Despite the author's use of present tense rather than the standard past tense used in fiction writing, I have grown rather fond of this series. It is almost a modern-day take on Nancy Drew, with a bit of Trixie Belden thrown in for good measure. Samantha ("Sam") is a typical teenager, with chores and problems at school, but she and her friends are never one to shy away from a good mystery, even if it means they could get in trouble with their parents.  Sound familiar?

The Haunting of Eagle Creek Middle School is set right before Halloween, and author Tara Ellis provides her protagonist with the perfect setting for a good mystery - a haunted house! Or rather, a haunted school! It seems that the school where Sam, Ally, and Cassy now attend has its own resident ghost story. None of them believe it, of course, because there is no such thing as ghosts, right? But when their school club decides to host a haunted house to raise funds for charity, in the hopes of helping a local afterschool program that is struggling, Sam and her friends find that secrets abound everywhere...

What really happened to the husband of Mrs. Potts, the benefactor of the afterschool program?

How much truth is there to the story of the ghost of a former janitor who supposedly died at the school?

And just what part does a local politician, Gregory Kingsman, have in all of this?

The book certainly has all the right elements for a good, old-fashioned mystery, and it is fun to follow Sam, Ally, and Cassy as they stumble across clues and slowly put together the pieces of the puzzle. Their determination to help Mrs. Potts, the afterschool program, and the secret that Mrs. Potts is keeping is admirable indeed, and Ellis manages to build just the right amount of suspense to keep the story moving at a pretty good pace. And the real danger faced by all three girls when they uncover the identity of the person behind everything and actually get kidnapped by the villain reads like a true Nancy Drew mystery!

And while the mystery is a stand-alone story, there are elements that continue to build from previous books (although you don't need to read them to understand what is going on - Ellis provides enough explanation to make it easy to catch up) and clearly story-points that will be resolved or built upon in future mysteries.  Ellis has created a believable world of characters and settings with the right amount of danger and mystery to make it a fresh and enjoyable read.  I definitely recommend this series to those who enjoy children's and young adult mystery series.

RATING:  8 pieces of unique and unbreakable wood out of 10 for proving that an ongoing mystery series for children and young adults can still survive in today's market!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

A Nicky & Noah Mystery, No. 2 - Drama Muscle

Nick and Nora were the crime solving husband and wife team from The Thin Man films back in the day. But, in today's world, crime solving duos come in all forms and fashions - and author Joe Cosentino has given the world a humorous, theatrical duo in his "Drama" series of mysteries starring two college theater professors - Nicky Abbondanza and Noah Oliver (get it?  Nick and Nora is now Nicky and Noah!). In the first mystery, Drama Queen, Nicky and Noah had to figure out who was killing people on campus before their entire department was put six-feet under! Now, they are back in this second mystery, only this time, someone is killing off the competitors in a muscleman competition.

Drama Muscle finds Nicky and Noah taking a break from their own theater and helping the physical education department put on a true show for their muscleman competition. But it doesn't take long before the bodies in this competition start piling up, and Nicky and Noah find themselves smack dab in the middle of another murder mystery.  As with the first book, there are plenty of characters, plenty of suspects, and plenty of victims. Thankfully, Cosentino provides a cast of characters in the front of the book (just before the first chapter), which acts as a program for the story (I mean, hey, this is a book about theater people, after all).

Brick Strong is the department head of bodybuilding who is helping his some of his students in more ways than he should. Van Granite is the professor of bodybuilding who would do just about anything to become department head (and to get into Noah Oliver's pants!). Tim and Kim Sim are twin brothers competing in the competition, and who are fighting over an inheritance they will receive when their father dies. Maria Ruiz is another competitor who has her own very shocking secret that she will do just about anything to keep from coming out. Jimmy Saline is a theater student who has been helping out in the physical education department to get close to one of its students - but what would he be willing to do to see his secret crush win?  Jillian Flowers is yet one more competitor who has her own issues that could spell disaster. Then, of course, there is Cheryl Stryker, another professor of bodybuilding, whose secrets could threaten not one, but two of the people involved with the competition. And, of course, this is all just the beginning...

Cosentino writes a fast-moving, always humorous murder mystery with fun, sometimes over-the-top characters and with a main character (the story is told from Nicky's point of view) who always has just the right quip or snarky response to make the reader smile. But he's far from the perfect detective - he has his own insecurities about his relationship with Noah, as well as his own prowess as a crime-solving sleuth. But, as he stumbles across one body after another, he soon realizes he has no choice but to figure out who the murderer is before he gets tied up to the weight-lifting equipment and his own life placed on the line!  (Oh, wait - that does happen!)

Admittedly, it wasn't hard to spot the killer pretty early on (I think I've read way too many murder mysteries at this point to make them overly difficult to figure out), but it is not so much the whodunnit as it is the how-are-Nicky-and-Noah-going-to-figure-it-out? The journey is what is so much fun, and Cosentino's writing makes it well worth the read. Already have the next book on my stack, ready to read - can't wait!

RATING:  9 china cups of hot cocoa out of 10 for combining mystery with humor for a truly enjoyable read!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Seven - Tales of a Warlock

And so we reach the end of the Courtney Crumrin saga - only, her story technically ended with Volume Six. With Volume Seven, Ted Naifeh, creator of this quirkly little magical series, takes a step back in time and gives readers a look at Courtney's Uncle Aloysius back when he was just a young man. What made him into the man that Courtney knew? Well, Tales of a Warlock answers that question...

Throughout this series, Aloysius Crumrin has been harsh, a bit stodgy, sometimes rather cranky, and every once-in-a-while protective. So, it's quite interesting to see Aloysius as a young man, cocky and free-spirited, yet at the same time, a man with a mission who is not afraid to use anything and anyone at his disposal to accomplish his goal. In this instance, his goal is to stop the misuse of magic, not only by the witches and warlocks in his own community, but by those outside of the community. Hence, his sudden appearance at the Anti-Sorcery Society (let's now discuss what the acronym for that would be...) and his willingness to help them out.

Or so it would seem...but as long-time readers will already know, there's more to Aloysius Crumrin than meets the eye. Naifeh provides his usual unique art style with this last book, and quite honestly, when I first started flipping through the pages, I thought Alice Crisp was a grown-up Courtney (which would have been interesting to see) - but alas, Alice is the daughter of the leader of the Anti-Sorcery Society, as well as the one person who catches Aloysius' eye. Only, he has his own agenda, and Alice is merely a means to an end. Or is she?

Naifeh continues with his brilliant writing, keeping the reader on his or her toes all the time. Nothing and no one is really what they seem to be, and even Aloysius finds that you can't control your feelings - but at what cost is the real question. Magic abounds in the story, as does evil and greed and jealousy and power - everything that makes us human, only amplified with the magical realm. Needless to say, by the end of the story, readers will learn a bit more about the magic of Hillsborough, as well as a bit of why Aloysius is the way he is in the present day.

And now the Courtney Crumrin saga has come to an end, and overall, I am completely satisfied. There was no huge cliffhanger or unresolved story, and this final chapter provided a great bookend to give us some history of Aloysius and Hillsborough. Kudos to Ted Naifeh for a story well-told, well-drawn, and well-crafted (and, for that matter, well-packaged!).

RATING:  9 field agents turned into ducks out of 10 for wrapping up this series in true style!

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Scarlet and Ivy, Book Three - The Dance in the Dark

I'm a bit behind in posting my reads - not for lack of reading though!  I just have had a number of things come up in the past month that have taken my focus ... but I'm back, and hopefully can get back on a regular schedule here.

Now, for poor Scarlet and Ivy Gray, it seems there are always more secrets lurking just around the corner. First, Ivy was forced to impersonate her dead sister, Scarlet, at the private school where her sister attended - only to discover that her sister never died, but was locked away in an insane asylum by the school's headmistress! And just when she got her sister back and a new headmaster took over the school, they discovered that he was behind the death of a young student twenty years ago - only to find that the student he killed had the name their late mother had used! So, now, that begs the question - just who is their mother, and why did she lie about who she was?

Thus begins the third mystery in the Scarlet and Ivy series, The Dance in the Dark. Scarlet and Ivy are back at school, but without their friend Ariadne. Things seem calm, Mrs. Knight has taken temporary charge of the school, and their beloved ballet teacher, Miss Finch, has announced that the ballet class will be performing Sleeping Beauty this year. Scarlet is determined to get the lead part, but she, of course, faces competition from her nemesis, Penny, believes she is perfect for the part. And then Ariadne returns to school! Before the competition can begin, however, Miss Finch disappears! Without warning, without so much as a good-bye, she is gone, and in her place is their new ballet teacher, Madame Zelda. No big deal, right? Wrong!

The horses are suddenly released from the stables. A note is intercepted that reveals what the girls believe to be a cry for help from their former teacher. The school lunch is poisoned, making most everyone in the school sick. A student is pushed from a second floor window. The danger keeps escalating, and parents begin pulling their students from the school. Scarlet believes the new ballet teacher is behind the recent events, but Ivy is not so sure. She fears it may be worse than that. Could it be...the return of...Miss Fox? Something is definitely going on, and Scarlet and Ivy (and Ariadne!) are determined to get to the bottom of it before the production of Sleeping Beauty puts everyone to sleep - permanently!

A very strong entry into this series, author Sophie Cleverly (still love that last name!) keeps the mystery fresh, the characters engaging, and the story fun. The underlying storyline regarding the girls' mother continues in this book as well, with more of the secrets revealed, and a surprising revelation that leads to Scarlet and Ivy finding a new relative - someone who might actually care about them. Cleverly reaches into the psyches of both Scarlet and Ivy in this book, and readers will get to see the characters mature in a number of ways as they deal with both the mystery at the school and the mystery of their own mother.

As we get a number of questions answered and most of the mysteries resolved with this third book, the only question that remains is what happens next? As Ivy so aptly puts it on the final page, "Anything could happen. But that doesn't matter. Because we are together..."

RATING:  9 blood-encrusted walking sticks out of 10 for keeping the Gothic elements of stately old estates, dark attics, and even darker secrets in young adult mysteries!