Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Missing Millie Benson - The Secret Case of the Ghostwriter and Journalist

Since I just finished the most recent Nancy Drew book, figured it was only appropriate that I go ahead and read the biography for young readers that was written on the earliest ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series - Mildred Augustine Wirt Benson.

For those who don't know (and in today's modern age of instant information at our fingertips, I can't imagine anyone not knowing), the author of the Nancy Drew series is not, nor has it ever been, Carolyn Keene.  There is no such person as Carolyn Keene.  Well, there probably are some girls and women with that name, but they never authored a Nancy Drew book.  The "Carolyn Keene" whose name appears on the Nancy Drew (and Dana Girls) mystery stories was simply a pseudonym, created by Edward Stratemeyer so that this children's mystery series could be written by numerous ghostwriters, yet appear to the world at large as being written by one woman.  And the first ghostwriter hired by Stratemeyer for the Nancy Drew series was none other than Millie Benson (although at the time she first wrote the series, she was Mildred Wirt).  As the author of this biography points out, Millie wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books that were published (before they were later revised).

Julie K. Rubini presents the story of Millie's life as it centers around her writing and her involvement in the Nancy Drew series.  She provides a number of interesting photos that depict Millie in the various stages of her life, with her parents, her first husband Asa Wirt, her second husband George Benson, and in her career as a journalist.  It was a treat for me to see these photos, some of which I had never seen before, and to get a glimpse of this author's life outside of Nancy Drew.

Rubini mentions a number of high points in Millie's life - from her first published story, to her college life, to her response to Stratemeyer's ad for writers, to her two marriages (and her husbands' deaths), to her career as a journalist, and to her testimony given at the now-famous trial between the publishers of Nancy Drew books.  Rubini interviewed a number of experts, as well as spoke with surviving family members, in her attempt to flesh out Millie's life.  Unfortunately, without all the details, Rubini was left to speculate as to a lot of things that Millie did, the choices she made, the places she visited, and her reasoning for doing the things she did.  These speculations can be easily identified, as Rubini starts them off with phrases such as "Millie had to have been..." or "Millie might have found..." or "Millie must have been..."  So, while the book offers a number of facts about Millie (some well know, some not-so-well known), it also strays into a bit of supposition about the prolific author and journalist.

While the book is about Millie, it does offer some other insightful information.  There is a bit of history on the Stratemeyer Syndicate, its founder Edward, and his daughters, Harriet and Edna, who took over the business when he died just shortly after the Nancy Drew series debuted in 1930.  There is information about the first female flyers and the Powderpuff Derby, as well as the Nancy Drew Conference held in 1993 at the University of Iowa, where Millie was honored for her work.

Rubini clearly put some effort in the book; however, there were a couple of glaring errors that were more than noticeable.  When discussing Edward Stratemeyer and the beginnings of his Syndicate, she references his creation of the Bobbsey Twins in 1904, describing them as "Bert and Nan were twelve years old, Freddie and Flossie were six" (p. 35).  While the twins were these ages in the later, revised editions of the series, when the books were originally written after the turn of the century, they were actually eight years old (Bert and Nan) and four years old (Freddie and Flossie).  Later, when discussing the plot of the first Nancy Drew book, she wrote that it "involved the missing will of a character, Josiah Crowley, that had been stashed secretly by members of the wealthy and cruel Topham family" (p. 50).  This is inaccurate, as it was Josiah himself who hid the will in the clock.  And although this biography is aimed at young readers, I would still have to say that factual inaccuracies such as this should have been caught and corrected before the book saw print - otherwise, misrepresentations may be fostered and furthered by those who look to use this book as any sort of reference material for future writings.

That being said, overall, it was a good, simple read and provided a basic overview of Mildred Benson's life and career.  Now that we've read about this ghostwriter, I wonder when we will see some tales about the other authors who wrote Nancy Drew (such as Harriet Stratemyer Adams herself!)?

RATING:  7 typewriter keys out of 10 for sharing information about an amazing woman whose literary works and career have touched so many.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Nancy Drew Diaries, No. 11 - The Red Slippers

I will be the first to admit - the title of this "mystery" did not inspire much hope in me.  Even the cover did little to entice me to believe that there was a "mystery" involved in this book.  Then there's the description - someone is trying to sabotage Maggie Rogers' career as a dancer before it even begins.  Yet another case of sabotage in the Nancy Drew series.  Can Simon & Schuster not come up with any new ideas for a mystery?  Whatever happened to haunted houses?  Missing wills?  Lost jewels?  Long-lost relatives?  Stolen paintings?

Then I read the book.  And for what it is, it's not half-bad.  The plot itself (ignoring the fact that this is the 11th out of 11 Nancy Drew books that deals with sabotage) is somewhat interesting.  Someone is targeting Maggie Rogers, who is in River Heights with her dance troop to perform a lead role in "Sleeping Beauty."  Her wig goes missing, and her understudy has to go on.  Someone puts an app on her cell phone that causes her to be late for a rehearsal, which nearly leads to her understudy getting to take over the role. Someone has the hotel front desk making wake up calls every two hours through the night, causing Maggie to be too exhausted to finish a show, and her understudy has to step in.  See a single thread?  Of course, anyone who reads mysteries on a regular basis would guess right away that the understudy is too obvious a suspect, and they would be right.  But that begs the question - who is targeting her and why?

The author leads readers on a wild-goose chase through a number of potential suspects - the choreographer who pushes the students too far to get perfection from them; the father who would do anything to see his son not perform in a ballet; the jealous student who does not like the fact Maggie might have her dreams come true.  Any one of them have a reason to sabotage Maggie's chance at performing for a critic who could make or break her career.  And just when you think you have it figured out - the author pulls the rug out from under you with something completely different!

Obviously, I'm not going to spoil the surprise for those who do want to read the book.  I will say, though, that for me, it was pretty obvious early on who the culprit was.  I was just completely wrong as to this person's reason for doing what they did.

While the story is 162 pages in length, the font is so large, there is more than likely about 120 pages of actual story if they had used normal-sized font.  This means that there is less time for real character development, which is rather disappointing.  Had they fleshed out the story more, given some more time for Nancy to get to know each of the characters, how they interact with one another and with themselves, it could have turned out to be a very well-written story.
As is, it comes across as rushed with less than three-dimensional characters.   I guess I will never truly get Simon & Schuster's reluctance to allow authors of this (and the Hardy Boys) series to really provide a fully fleshed out, lengthy mystery with some great suspense and characters.

On a side note - when this book was first advertised, many people wondered if there would be any comparison with Nancy Drew's original 32nd mystery, The Scarlet Slipper Mystery.  The answer to that would be a resounding NO.  The only similarity comes in the fact that red (scarlet) slippers play a part in both mysteries.  In this one, the slippers are a good luck charm for Maggie, given to her by her mother.  Nancy uses them as bait to try and trick the culprit into revealing himself or herself.  Otherwise, there is nothing about the two mysteries that are in any way similar.

I continue to give this series the benefit of the doubt, hoping each time that the next book will offer a glimmer of hope of improvement.  I hate seeing S&S simply putting out books with the idea that the brand of "Nancy Drew" will sell it.  I would much rather have quality over quantity any day of the year.  I guess we will have to wait until May and see what the next book, The Sign in the Smoke, is like...

RATING:  6 violently scratched out posters out of 10 for providing a worthwhile plot that could have ultimately been a really great story.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Justice Society of America - A Celebration of 75 Years Omnibus

Ever since I first read a story with them in it back in 1980 with the JLA/JSA/New Gods crossover, I have been in love with the Justice Society of America.  I went back and purchased every issue of JLA that featured the JSA; I went back and purchased every issue of All-Star Comics revival series from 58 through 74, as well as the continued stories in the Adventure Comics run.  I was more than disappointed when the Crisis on Infinite Earths did away with Earth-2 and the original JSA - quite frankly, they've never been the same since (although there have been some good incarnations along the way).

This year (2015) marked the 75th anniversary for this super-team, who originally made their debut in 1940 in All-Star Comics No. 3. Sadly, DC Comics did very little to celebrate this momentous occasion.  They released the America vs. the Justice Society trade paperback, which was nice to see.  And they released the 75th Anniversary compilation hardcover.  And that was it.  Such a disappointment that the super-team that basically started it all (as there were no "super teams" prior to the JSA's debut in 1940) receives so little attention. But, alas, I suppose I should not look a gift horse in the mouth, and I should be grateful we did get the little bit that we did!

This nearly 500-page hardcover collection reprints in vivid color some of the important moments in JSA history (while noticeably leaving others out). For whatever reason, the very first appearance of the JSA in All-Star Comics No. 3 was not reprinted here - instead, they collection opens with All-Star Comics No. 4.  This is followed by All-Star Comics No. 37 (featuring the Injustice Society) and All-Star Comics No. 55 (featuring a space-faring sci-fi adventure of the JSA).  Missing is the last issue of the original run of All-Star Comics, which ended with issue 57.

Next up are issues 21 and 22 of Justice League of America, which not only re-introduced the JSA to the mainstream DC Universe, but also began a long tradition of JLA/JSA annual team-ups that eventually included other teams, such as the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Freedom Fighters, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the heroes of the Old West, the New Gods, the All Star Squadron, Infinity, Inc., and others.  Some of those team-ups are also included (although it is only one issue, and not the entire story) - Justice League of America issue 30 ("The Most Dangerous Earth of All," which introduced the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3), issue 47 ("The Bridge Between Earths"), and issue 82 and 83 (which did feature the complete story).

The trip down memory lane continues with the story from Adventure Comics No. 466, "The Defeat of the Justice Society." DC once again skips over some very important stories in the JSA history, such as the issues of the All-Star Comics revival series in the late '70s, which introduced not only Power Girl to the Earth-2 universe, but also brought back Star-Spangled Kid and introduced Batman and Catwoman's daughter, the Huntress! DC also skips over the first two stories of the JSA in Adventure Comics, which featured the all important Death of the Batman! Why these all-important tales were excluded is beyond me. The story in Adventure Comics No. 466 is set directly after the events of Justice League of America issues 171 and 172 (which featured the annual JLA/JSA crossover and resulted in the death of the original Mr. Terrific at the hands of the Spirit King). It is basically a flashback tale, as told by the Huntress to Power Girl, regarding the JSA's disappearance following the demand by the Combined Congressional Un-American Activities Committee that the members of the JSA unmask and reveal their true identities.

The next story is the All Star Squadron preview insert tale that was published in Justice League of America issue 193. This was definitely an important moment, and a particular favorite of mine, as it not only brought back the Justice Society in full-force (following their cancellation from the Adventure Comics run some years previous), but it introduced a whole slew of other Earth-2 heroes and was set in the JSA's original time of 1940s (during World War II).  Written by Earth-2 writer extraordinaire, Roy Thomas, this series ran a total of 67 issues (with 3 annuals) and even survived, albeit briefly, the game-changing Crisis on Infinite Earths.  In fact, the last issue of this series (no. 67) is featured next in this collection, featuring a re-telling of the first case of the Justice Society.

The remaining stories featured in this 75th Anniversary collection are all post-Crisis.  The last issue of the Justice Society series (which only made it 10 issues, but was definitely the best of the post-Crisis attempts to keep the JSA alive) from 1992, as well as the last issue of the All-Star Comics mini-series in 1999, which revived the team once again, setting the stage for a new generation of JSA-ers (and marking the team's start as a generational team, with many legacy characters as members). Then there is JSA no. 25 (2001), which features the return of Hawkman, and Justice Society of America no. 10 (2007), which deals with the Kingdom Come Superman's appearance and Power Girl's adjustment to the fact that she comes from a pre-Crisis reality (yeah, I know, it starts getting quite convoluted here if you don't know the story).
The book ends on a rather dour note, with Earth 2 issue 6 being the final reprinted issue.  Earth 2 is the title that came out post-Flashpoint (which was another universe-changing event that re-booted the entire DC universe yet again).  This series features some re-imagined characters from the Justice Society era; however, they are much darker, more violent, and as of yet, have never formed a team called the "Justice Society."

What IS nice about this collection are the tributes written by two influential comic creators, which are interspersed between the various eras.  Part I (1940-1951) is written by Roy Thomas; Part II (1961-1975) is written by Roy Thomas; Part III (1976-1989) is written by Roy Thomas; Part IV (1986-2011) is written by Ivan Cohen; and Part V (2011 and beyond) is written by Ivan Cohen.  These are some great reflections on the history of this team and how it impacted comics, characters, and the creators themselves.

The Justice Society truly is (in my book, at least) the quintessential super-hero team that has defined all other team books.  They have always been (prior to the Flashpoint change) more of a family than a team, and the generational aspect of it in the post-Crisis series really added to this familial element.  Seventy-five years is without a doubt a long time for a team to endure, and while this new Earth 2 incarnation of the characters may be a severe departure from the original team, I do hope that the writers eventually realize what makes the Justice Society so successful and return to that formula, so that the JSA will be around for another 75 years!

RATING:  9 cries for justice out of 10 for keeping the dream alive, albeit short a few truly important memories that would have made this book perfect!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Odelia Grey Mysteries, Book 10 - A Body to Spare

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post, as I got a part in a new play at the Breakthrough Theatre in Winter Park - it's called "The Library," written by Scott Z. Burns.  A very powerful drama, I would definitely recommend it to anyone who has never seen it.  Very relevant, very moving, and quite frankly, very sad.

However - - that doesn't mean I haven't had time to read at all.  In my spare time between work, rehearsals, learning lines, and Christmas shopping, I've managed to squeeze in a few minutes here and there to read the latest Odelia Grey mystery, A Body to Spare.

God, how I absolutely LOVE this series.

Odelia Grey is a middle-aged, overweight paralegal (and, coincidentally enough, so is her author, Sue Ann Jaffarian!) who has an uncanny knack for stumbling across dead bodies and getting mixed up in some rather exciting and often-times adventurous murder mysteries.  Jaffarian has an excellent skill at writing well-fleshed-out characters who literally jump off the page and read very much as real people.  Their reactions to situations, their interactions with one another, and their love and concern for each other instantly make the reader fall in love with them and root for them (regardless of what illegal activities they might be involved in...)

This time around, a body is discovered in the least likely of places - the trunk of Odelia's car! While getting her car washed, the employees of the car wash facility open the trunk to discover the body of a naked man. The body turns out to be none other than Zach Finch, who disappeared years ago when he was still a teenager. Who killed him?  Who put him in Odelia's trunk?  And of all the cars in the world, why her car?  Needless to say, Odelia's in the thick of things again.

While Jaffarian does not utilize all of the supporting cast in this mystery (and Odelia does have quite a large supporting cast!), we do find out what is going on with most of them.  Her boss, Steele, has gotten married and is off on his honeymoon; her brother, Clark, now retired from the police force, is working full time with Willie Proctor - a con man who remains in hiding, yet runs a number of 'legitimate' businesses; her mother is living not far from Odelia and her husband in a retirement community, still maintaining her blog; Elaine Powers is still staying under the radar and watching out for Odelia; Dev is set to retire and move to Seattle to be with his new girlfriend; Seth and Zee are always there to come to Odelia's aid (this time, Seth acting as her attorney); and Odelia herself is working part time for Steele.  And there's a surprise guest star in this one...

The police are all over this one, but they aren't alone; since the deceased was kidnapped, it falls under the jurisdiction of the FBI. So not only does Odelia have to deal with the new police detective Fehring, but she also is under the scrutiny of FBI Agent Shipman, both of whom are very adamant about Odelia keeping her nose out of this one.

Then, of course, there's that special guest star - Emma Whitecastle. Of course, I wasn't really sure who this was right away...until she started talking about the fact that she can talk to ghosts.  At which point, I began to suspect who she was and quickly contacted my friend Kevin, who has read some of Jaffarian's other series.  Sure enough, my suspicion was correct, that Emma Whitecastle is the lead character from Jaffarian's "Ghost of Granny Apples" series. While I have not read any of the books in that series, I have heard good things about them. And now that Jaffarian has crossed over the characters, it makes me wonder if perhaps Odelia won't pop up in that other series, or if Jaffarian might even write one mystery starring both of these sleuths.  If she did, I'd be right there to buy it!

I definitely cannot recommend these books enough.  I used to sing the praises of Lilian Jackson Braun's "Cat Who..." series back in the day (although the last few books in that series were definitely ghost-written, as the style and plotting was considerably different), and the Odelia Grey mysteries far surpass even those mysteries.  A fellow mystery-lover, Dina Stout, turned me on to this series, and I am definitely grateful she did (being a paralegal myself, plus a lover of mysteries, it was right up my alley).

Can't wait for the next one to come out!

RATING:  10 surprise-filled trunks out of 10 for such great, fun storytelling and lovable characters!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Doctor Who, The Glamour Chronicles Book 1 - Royal Blood

I'm very picky when it comes to which Doctor Who books I buy and read.  I'm not a fan of all the Doctors, nor am I a fan of all of his companions.  But there are particular ones I especially like.

Donna Noble - I have every book and every audio book with her as the 10th Doctor's companion; she is by far my all-time favorite companion and always will be

Rory Williams - while I never liked Amy Pond, and I did learn to accept Matt Smith, it was Rory Williams, as one of the 11th Doctor's companions, that prompted me to buy the books with him in them

And then there's the 12th Doctor - Peter Capaldi.  While I can't stand Clara Oswald as a companion (and am thankful she is gone in the television show), I do love Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  He's a breath of fresh air after three relatively young Doctors, and his fierce, cantankerous nature is somewhat reminiscent of the very 1st Doctor, William Hartnell.  He's enjoyable to watch, and he's just as enjoyable to read.

The Glamour Chronicles is a new trilogy of books with the 12th Doctor and his companion, Clara, and Royal Blood is the first of this three-part tale. Set on an unnamed planet in an unnamed galaxy, the Doctor and Clara find themselves in the city-state of Varuz, where the Duke is trying to protect it from being invaded by their enemies, while the Duchess and her conspirators are doing what they believe will help prevent war.

Enter the Doctor and Clara, who the Duke mistakenly believes is an Ambassador, and later, a Holy Man...

Then, enter Emfil, an alien collector searching for the mysterious Glamour, who the Duke mistakenly believes is also an Ambassador...

Then, enter Sir Lancelot and his knights, who are searching for the Holy Grail, and who the Duke mistakenly becomes enamored by and willingly bestows his own army of knights to aid this fabled quest...

Not everyone is who they seem to be, and not all of the good guys are as good as they appear (nor are all the bad guys as bad as they appear).  The Doctor knows Sir Lancelot is a fictional character, so who is he, really?  Clara knows the Duchess is conspiring behind the Duke's back to seek peace for her kingdom, but is there more to it than that?  The Doctor knows there is more behind these electric lights and laser swords and bejeweled trinkets that fill the city, but what is their purpose?

While the plot is teemed with war and traitors and conspiracies, it remains lighthearted with the usual banter so excellently written between the Doctor and Clara, and even the alien collector is fleshed out fully so as to make him interesting and fun to read.  As with most of the prior books I've read, it really felt like a good episode of the television show, and when I was finished, I was more than satisfied.

RATING:  10 glamorous trinkets out of 10 for keeping the feel of the show in the written word!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Midnight Society - the Black Lake

"The agents of MI: Omega transformed her into a monster killer, but she was already something else! What Matilda Finn discovers on her first mission to Loch Ness threatens to shatter her connection to her team and to humanity!"

Thus is the only introduction given to this great little mini-series published by Dark Horse Comics recently, as issue one throws the reader right into the middle of the action.  Described as a pulp story told in a modern setting, the story focuses mainly on Matilda Finn, an agent of a secret British organization who hunts down "monsters" that the outside world cannot believe really exist.  In this instance, it's the Loch Ness Monster.  It seems that a famed cryptozoologist has gone missing, and it's up to Matilda and her group to find and rescue him.  So she heads out with the MI: Omega team to search for the missing scientist, only to discover that the Loch Ness Monster is definitely more than just a myth.  The boat is attacked, the crew is killed, and Matilda and her partner are left to fend for themselves.

It's a well-written fantasy story with a mysterious lead character who knows so little about her past - but who catches glimpses (along with the reader) as the story progresses, and by the end of the second issue, you realize there's a lot more to Matilda Finn than meets the eye (hint:  her last name should have give readers a clue).  Issue three reveals a very surprising fact about Matilda, and in the final issue, you learn how she came to be with MI: Omega.

While the story of the Loch Ness is neatly resolved by the end of the four issues, there are a number of unresolved plot threads left dangling, which, hopefully means that there will be more stories forthcoming.  Such as how the director for MI: Omega has his headquarters shrunken in an aquarium behind his receptionist's desk.  Such as what exactly is the "Midnight Society" of mythological creatures?  Such as how MI: Omega began looking for these creatures in the first place?  Such as what's next for Matilda, now that she knows the truth about herself?

Drew Edward Johnson, who both wrote and drew this marvelous tale, did some fantastic art on the Wonder Woman series for DC, as well as Star Wars: X-Wing Rogue Squadron for Dark Horse.  I knew he was a very talented artist, but this mini-series just goes to show how versatile he is, in that he is able to write and draw such an engaging story.

Here's hoping he brings another Midnight Society tale soon!

RATING:  10 mermaid fins out of 10 for putting out a comic series that is truly worth the money spent!