Thursday, June 29, 2017

Courtney Crumrin, Volume Five - The Witch Next Door

Ted Naifeh takes his incorrigible little witch, Courtney Crumrin, on a brand new journey in this fifth volume of the series.  And in The Witch Next Door, Courtney does, a little growing up, we learn a little bit more about the history of Courtney's uncle and the town of Hillsborough, we take another trip down in the dangerous realm of Goblin Town, and Courtney finally comes face to face with the consequences of some of her actions to date.

This volume opens with a flashback tale, giving readers a glimpse into the history of Hillsborough, the past of Uncle Aloysius, and we learn the real reason why this town seems to be the center of the magical world and its creatures. It's a great little breather from all of the supernatural dangers that Courtney has faced over the past four volumes - it's nice to have a rather simple tale of lost love, betrayals, and good ol' fashioned soap opera scheming and intrigue.

Of course, with chapter two, it's back to our regularly scheduled programming, as a new little girl moves in next door.  Young Holly Hart is not at all put-off by Courtney's demeanor - in fact, she feels she's an outcast the same as Courtney, and before you know it, Courtney has a friend! Someone she can pass the time with, she can share magical secrets with, and someone who she soon realizes may not be as altruistic as she first thought! First, it's a simple spell to make others at school like her - but then it's a trip to Goblin Town, which quickly turns into a very dangerous rescue mission.

But is Holly Hart really all that bad?

Naifeh gives us a bit of a twist here, as he uses chapter three to give readers a different perspective of the events that led up to Holly and Courtney being captured at the end of chapter two. While chapter two gives us the standard Courtney Crumrin point of view, in chapter three, readers are treated to the same events, but from Holly Hart's point of view - and suddenly everything you thought about Holly may not be accurate! It's a great story-telling technique, and it works flawlessly here to keep the story moving and to make Holly a bit more of a sympathetic character.

The concluding chapters find Courtney facing down some pretty dangerous characters in Goblin Town, and when Holly is sent off pretty much the way the writers did with Donna Noble in series four of BBC's Doctor Who, Courtney suddenly must face the consequences of her actions as a witch. Naifeh leaves this volume with a huge cliffhanger, and it's pretty much a guarantee that readers will be rushing to get to Volume Six to find out what happens next!

The art remains above par, with the heavy use of grey, purple, and blacks to keep the gothic, gloomy theme working throughout the story.  While the character depictions took me a bit to get used to in the beginning (as they are stylistic and not drawn realistically, like with artists such as George Perez, Jerry Ordway, or John Byrne), by now, I have grown not only accustomed to it, but find that it very much fits the story and the characters perfectly, blending the story and art to seamlessly, it would be impossible to have one without the other!

RATING:  9 tainted water bottles out of 10 for providing not only great supernatural stories, but also a character that has grown and evolved with each tale and continues to be engaging with every turn of the page!

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Seckatary Hawkins Mystery - Stoner's Boy

I had never heard of Seckatary Hawkins until the name was mentioned not too long ago in a Facebook group to which I belong. I looked on e-bay and saw some of the prices were rather high for books in this series, but in glancing through Amazon, I discovered that the first two books had been reprinted by University Press of Kentucky - so I purchased the first volume.

Originally published back in 1921 and written by Robert F. Schulkers, Stoner's Boy tells the story of a group of boys who live along the shore of a Kentucky river during a much simpler time, and who band together to form a club of sorts. They take their club very seriously, and they run regular meetings and keep minutes of the meetings. The main character, Seckatary Hawkins (spelled "Seckatary" because, as he admits in the prologue, he didn't know how to spell "Secretary" when he was elected as such in the boys' club), faithfully records all of the club's meetings and adventures, and so the book is written in somewhat of a journal format in first person from Seckatary's point of view. Each chapter runs Monday through Saturday (for the boys rarely, if ever, met on a Sunday), although occasionally a day is skipped, and with 34 chapters, it's easy to see that the story takes place over the course of more than half a year.

Schulkers does not write Stoner's Boy as an origin story in any way; rather, there are several mentions throughout the tale of prior adventures the boys have had, but they are simple mentions and the reader is not given much in the form of detail. Rather, the author treats the group of boys as already established characters, and dives right into the story of the coming of "Stoner's Boy," who is a dastardly boy who causes problems not only for them, but also for the Pellham boys on the other side of the river. No one knows who Stoner's Boy is - he is sometimes referred to simply as the "Gray Ghost," as he wears a gray coat, a gray hat, and keeps a scarf over the lower half of his face so no one can ever see his face. He's a trouble-maker to the nth degree, as he maliciously attacks the boys and runs, he steals their possessions, he damages their club house and their canoes, and threatens them in any number of ways.

The boys' mentor, Doc Waters, warns them to stay out of trouble and to stay away from Stoner's Boy, but try as they might, they continue to get into the middle of things. And while the cover indicates this is "A Seckatary Hawkins Mystery," there really is not much mystery to speak of. There are a couple of minor mysteries, such as how Stoner's Boy disappears when he goes into the cliff cave, or how he disappears when he runs into the clearing on a nearby island; but the story is more of a boys' adventure tale, as the boys ultimately put aside their differences with the Pellham boys across the river and work together to bring an end to the Stoner's Boy's reign of terror.

The characters all seem to have nicknames - such as Skinny Guy and Long Tom - and there is even one character introduced half-way through whose name is Robby Hood, who is quite adept with a bow and arrow (gee, wonder where that idea came from?). The boys have a number of adventures and get into more than a few scrapes (one boy is tied to a tree and left there overnight in the rain!), but they remain determined to capture Stoner's Boy and his cohorts.

I have to give Schulkers credit - while the mystery part of the story may be tame, if not nearly non-existent, he does instill throughout the story (mostly through Seckatary's words and actions) the importance of honestly, trustworthiness, and loyalty.  It is no surprise that Harper Lee was a big fan of the Seckatary Hawkins books, and that she even referenced them in her classic, To Kill a Mockingbird (which I read many years ago, and now that I know these references are in there, I'll have to go re-read that book!). Another fact about the book is the use of dialect in his writing - Schulkers captures the essence of the time, the characters, and the location through the use of slang, misspelled and misspoken words, and the childhood innocence of immortality.

While not my typical cup of tea when it comes to mysteries, I would definitely recommend this for anyone who enjoys reading children's series, and I'll be hopping on Amazon to buy the second book published by University Press of Kentucky, The Gray Ghost.  Just wish they would reprint more from the series!

RATING:  8 floating barrels out of 10 for giving readers a great Kentucky adventure that, while a product of its time, still puts forth values that should be taken to heart today!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Shadow House Volume 2 - You Can't Hide

The second installment of this horror series was not quite as engaging as the first one, perhaps because the "unknown" factor of the series is no longer there.  Five children are trapped inside Larkspur House, where ghosts with animal masks are constantly chasing them, the mysterious man who called them there is haunting them, and the rooms and doors seem to change without warning.  In the first book, each of the children discover that they have similarities to the previous children in the house - children who died and now seem to be intent on seeing these five die as well. The only thing is - one of them already is dead!

The author, Dan Poblocki, continues the story in true horror-flick fashion. The kids are separated from one another, they don't know who they can trust, and while some want to get out any way they can, others are insistent that they find their missing siblings.  For Dash, his twin brother Dylan may be beyond help, while for Azumi, her sister Moriko may be the only hope the kids have of getting out of this shadow house.

The story moves pretty quickly, as Poppy begins to emerge as the leader of sorts, while Dash, Marcus, and Azumi each try to deal with their own personal horrors they are having to face in the house.  Marcus has seemingly lost his connection to the music that made him a prodigy, while Azumi is desperate to find her sister who somehow managed to appear in the house.  Dash is angry at being kept away from his brother, even though he knows, deep down, that his brother is dead.  Yet, in this house, the dead don't seem to stay that way - and Dylan does come back - as one of the "Specials." Dylan has now taken on the role of the Trickster, and a battle is building between brothers - the question is, who will win, and what will happen to the loser?

Poblocki takes us through more twists and turns of the house, as the kids explore ways to escape.  There's the greenhouse with the zombie-like creature; there's the school room with the chalkboard on which writing mysteriously appears; there's the laboratory filled with a number of dead things kept in jars; and there's the tower room, open to the outside that could mean release for the kids.  But it's a long, four-story drop on a slanted roof, and when the Specials follow them up through room after room, Poppy and her new-found friends realize their only way to survive is by taking a chance on that dangerous roof.

There are a few revelations about Cyrus Caldwell, as well as the first group of children who lived in the home.  Readers will learn more about why Cyrus did what he did - but the question is ever-present: what is true and what is a lie?  In the shadow house, one never knows for sure! And rest assured, this is not the end!  While four of the children manage to find a way out of the house, not all of them will make it out alive ... and for the three survivors, there's a hint at the end that what's waiting for them in the woods surrounding the shadow house could be much more dangerous than what they faced inside the house!

RATING:  7 fox-chasing rabbits out of 10 for maintaining a level of spookiness that keeps the story engaging, while reminding readers that in this story - no one is safe!

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Complete Velda, Girl Detective (True Crime Comics) - Volume 1

I initially purchased this graphic novel on the title alone - Velda, Girl Detective. As a fan of Nancy Drew and other female detective series growing up, and as a huge fan of comic books with female leads, I figured there wouldn't be much about this that I wouldn't like.  It even seemed to be a reprint of vintage comics, during a time when detective tales were very noir and pulp in style.

Notice I said the word "seemed."

That is a very important distinction as I discovered when I began reading the first volume of this series and looked up some information about it online. It turns out that "Velda, Girl Detective" is a faux flashback to the noir and pulp detective titles of yester-year. Written and drawn by comic creator Ron Miller, the graphic novel not only features purported re-prints of stories from the 1950s, it also has parodies of comic book ads from the time period, as well as fictional magazine covers and photos to lend authenticity to the idea that this series was a 1950s comic book series based upon the life of a real female detective, Velda Bellinghausen.

This first volume not only collects issues 1 and 2 of the Caliber Comics series, Velda, the Girl Detective, but it also features a supposed look back at the history of Velda, both the "real-life" detective and her fictionalized tales in comics, on the big screen, and on television.  There was clearly a lot of effort put into this hoax, as the informational pages include alleged pictures of Velda on magazine covers of the time, as well as images of newspaper articles about her and her father, images of her working with the comic creators of those days, and other assorted items from "back in the day."

The end result is a graphic novel that is funny, entertaining, and nostalgic.  The stories are simple, short, and sweet - usually told in 11 pages or less. Velma is the daughter of a police officer who discovered the crooked nature of the D.A. - for which, he was killed and set-up to appear as a dirty cop.  Velda was never able to live down that ruined reputation, so she obtained her detective license (through the mail!) and turned to solving crimes herself.  Her first big mystery involved the revelation of D.A. Noorvik's connection to the crime syndicates, which suddenly thrust her into the limelight as a "real" detective.  The stories, while short and done-in-one style, are somewhat reminiscent of Max Collins' Ms. Tree, who stopped at nothing to help the innocent and find justice for them (even if that meant putting the criminals 6-feet under!).  

The stories are told in pre-Code style, with lots of unnecessary sexy poses for the ladies, and plenty of scantily-clad women (with only a few actual shots of full nudity - usually they are tasteful with something covering the actual naughty bits).  The stories in the first issue include "Homicide Hotel," "Butter Safe Than Sorry," "The Phantom of the Follies," and "Velda Does a Favor," while the stories in the second issue are "My First Case!," "Velda vs. The Red Menace," and "The Early Bird," along with the prose tale, "Velda Meets the Strangler."  The actual criminals are obvious from the get-go, and it's not so much about Velda solving the crime as it is about her hunting down the crook and exacting justice (plus, watching her get tied up time and again, yet escape with the ease of a contortionist is a marvel to see).

Just as much fun as the Velda stories are the little one- and two-page stories of Hawskhaw the Hawk, the World's Greatest Bird Detective and Neolithica, Girl of the Pleistocene. These are cute little parodies with puns galore and will most certainly make the reader smile, if not chuckle.

Definitely worth the price and the read, I already have Volume 2 and have seen that Volume 3 is on its way!  It's almost a shame that these tales were not published back in the day, as I am sure they would have been a hit with all the fans of pulp detective fiction back then.

RATING:  10 three a.m. telephone calls out of 10 for remaining faithful to the comics of the '50s while keeping it entertaining for readers of today.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wonder Woman: The Deluxe Junior Novel

Based on the feature film, this junior novelization was the first book based on the new movie to hit the stands - and, being the Wonder Woman fanatic that I am, I had to buy it.  I mean, let's face it - as great as the movie was, there was no way they could mess up the novelization of it, right?


For the most part, the book remains pretty faithful to the movie, although with a few variations that I have to believe were done for the sake of keeping it from being too violent and adult for the young readers.  For instance, one of the characters who dies on Themyscria in the beginning of the film does not die in the book; and, when Diana walks in on Steve stepping out of the baths, the book has him quickly wrapping a towel around himself (which did not happen in the film!).  And while some minor events and elements were skipped or glossed over that had no heavy bearing on the overall plot, as the book neared the conclusion, things suddenly changed...drastically!

I mean, c'mon.  Where's Ares?  In the film (spoiler here!), Ares plays an important part from the beginning, as the Amazons are basically in constant training so as to be prepared is Ares returns.  This aspect is mentioned briefly in the beginning of the book, that was it.  It's never brought up again, and Diana never once mentions him when she does into man's world.  And that epic battle at the climax of the film is completely missing in the novelization.

And that all-important sacrifice that one of the characters makes, something that has major impact in the film, is also not featured in the book.  In fact, Diana's whole reason for doing what she does at the end is completely re-written, and no sacrifice is needed (meaning that all characters survive in the book).

What were they thinking?  The book is adapted by Steve Korte, and I have no idea who this author is.  Perhaps this novelization was taken from an earlier version of the script? Although, to be honest, I've not read anywhere that there were any major re-writes, and there would have to be for the ending to be so different as it is in the book.  I guess when they say "based" on the feature film, the mean just that.  It's based on it, it is not a true novelization of it.

I did buy the deluxe edition, which is hardcover with the glossy photo and also has 8 pages of photos inside (which do not spoil anything from the film, if you were wondering). So, although the story was a bit off, the book itself is nicely put together and worth having for that alone.

Now, I also bought the adult novelization of the film, so when I get around to reading that one, we'll see how faithful that is to the film.

RATING:  7 melting gas masks out of 10 for getting Wonder Woman out there in the market again and hopefully leading more young readers to follow her adventures!

Friday, June 9, 2017

Scotty Bradley Mysteries No. 7 - Garden District Gothic

I was surprised when I saw this on Amazon not too long ago - I thought author Greg Herren had "retired" his two mystery series set in New Orleans - the Chanse McLeod mysteries and the Scotty Bradley mysteries.  Both series are set in New Orleans with gay protagonists, and Herren connected the series with a police detective and her partner who appeared in both series; however Chanse and Scotty have never met (yet!).  There are seven books so far in the Chanse McLeod series, and Garden District Gothic marks the seventh book in the Scotty Bradley series.  Perhaps that's why Herren wrote the book, was so that the two series would have an equal number of books.  Whatever the reason, I'm glad he did it, as Scotty, his two partners, and his unique family are always fun to read.

Scotty Bradley is a former fitness trainer, a former stripper, and a newly licensed private investigator (although he's never actually had any paying clients to date - every murder he's solved is one where he has stumbled across the body and inadvertently become involved in the investigation).  He has not one, but two partners - a three-way relationship with an ex-FBI agent-turned-professional wrestler, Frank; and a secret covert government agent for an unspecified agency, Colin.  Their relationship is anything but typical, but then again, Scotty's own family is just as unusual.  His parents are hold-out hippies who still smoke pot on a regular basis, who protest anything and everything, and who named their children Storm (Scotty's brother) and Rain (Scotty's sister).  Of course, Scotty isn't that normal - his full name is Milton Scott Bradley - yes, Milton Bradley (which is why he goes by Scotty).

Oh, and Scotty has a connection to the "Goddess," who sometimes comes to him with cryptic clues about what is going on in his life, or who guides him to answers through the tarot cards he keeps in a cigar box under his couch.  So, with all of these unusual situations in his life, you can imagine that following him as he tries to uncover a murderer can be easily engaging.

Garden District Gothic jumps ahead in time, as we find Scotty and his domestic life settling down.  Scotty is starting to put on a couple of pounds around the middle, which isn't setting too well with him, and he finds himself becoming the doting (and worrying!) parent to Frank's nephew, Taylor, who lives with them after his family kicked him out when he came out.  Colin is off on a secret mission, and Frank is away on a wrestling gig.  Which becomes the perfect time for a new mystery to solve.  Only this mystery isn't really so new - it's actually 25 years old.

Herren gives readers an interesting look at the lives of the rich and infamous when he has Scotty become involved in the 25-year old murder of a six-year-old beauty queen, Delilah Metoyer.  Her older brother tormented Scotty in high school, and now he's back - only this time, he's asking for Scotty's help.  A long missing mother who somehow escaped the notice of the press when Delilah was killed all those years ago ... a step-mother who left town and now lives alone, breeding cats for sale ... a twin brother who committed suicide ... a father who went to the grave with a deadly secret ... a sister who could care less ... a tell-all sensationalist author who may know more than he realizes ... and a voodoo priestest who could hold the key to Scotty's uncovering the truth once and for all.  Who is lying, who is hiding something, and who killed whom?

While the mystery is good and the characters engaging, Herren's writing style has become a bit repetitive.  I don't recall ever noticing it in prior books as much, but here, he repeats the same phrases and background information again and again.  It's almost like he's either beating the reader over the head with certain information because the reader might forget ... or perhaps he forgot himself that he just said the same exact thing only a couple of chapters before.  It does get a bit distracting after the first several times - - but the mystery was good, so I can give it a pass this time around.

Now, with both Chanse and Scott having seven books each under their respective belts, perhaps it's about time Herren brought his two super-sleuths together for one really big murder mystery - now THAT would be a book I'd love to see!

RATING:  7 episodes of Grande Dames of New Orleans out of 10 for bringing readers back to the Big Easy to share another adventure with the stripper-turned-detective.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Doctor Who, the 10th Doctor with Donna Audio Book - Volume 2 - Time Reaver

Simply put, there has never been a better pairing of Doctor and Companion than the David Tennant / Catherine Tate partnership of the 10th Doctor and Donna Noble.  Their quick retorts, their ease with one another, their interaction - it all comes across so naturally, so real, that you believe it.  I know fans of the original Doctors will say that the 4th Doctor and Sarah Jane were the best pairing, but having never watched those old shows, I'll stick with my love of the Doctor/Donna.

The second new audio adventure Time Reaver, just goes to further prove my belief.  The author, Jenny T. Colgan, not only has a real feel for the characters, but she clearly loves the Donna years, for the story is riddled with echoes that hearken back to the 4th season shows - from the man looking at the bomb strapped to Donna's back and saying, "There's something on your back," to the villain talking about the "Journey's End," to the Doctor discussing with Donna his desire to visit a place with lots of a books.  "A library," Donna says.  My inner-geek just thrilled with each and every reference!

The story itself was very Doctor Who-esque.  The Doctor and Donna have come to Calibris to get an item the Doctor needs to fix a part on the TARDIS. But on this spaceport, where anything goes and there have never been any rules, they suddenly find that a race of Vacintians are trying to enforce order on an otherwise lawless planet.  The Doctor wants to know why.  And when the Doctor discovers that an illegal weapon known as the Time Reaver is on the planet, he and Donna must hunt down the seller before it is distributed into the wrong hands.  The Time Reaver slows down a person's life - so much so, in fact, that the person can feel an eternity in just one second.  So imagine what would happen if the person were hit with the Time Reaver just when there is an explosion - he or she would feel the pain and agony of that explosion for an eternity!

I will admit that a couple of the actors that they picked to voice the other characters sounded similar to David Tennant and Catherine Tate, so every once in a while as I was listening, I had to pay close attention to make sure who was actually talking.  Otherwise, though, this audio was pretty much flawless - fantastic story, brilliant acting, and a great spot of time well-spent.  Could very easily see this one being an episode on television, particularly with regards to the couple of twists thrown in about the individual who has the Time Reaver, why that person has it, and how it all connects to the Vacintians and their dying planet.

RATING:  10 corset-crunching wench dresses out of 10 for keeping the Doctor/Donna alive and well for us fans!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Short Lived Comic Series #5 - Media Starr (Innovation)

Back in the mid- to late-1980s, independent comic book companies saw a big boom.  Companies were popping in and out, left and right, and there was a plethora of series to be found at the comic book stories.  One such company, who put out a number of licensed titles such as Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire, Suspiria, Quantum Leap, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Child's Play, and others, was Innovation Comics.  Not everything they published, however, was licensed.  A few creator own projects were published, including a three-issue series called Media Starr.

Media Starr tells the story of Nancy Starr, a female boxer (who is secretly also a ninja and goes by the nickname "Ninja" in the boxing ring) who has a sordid past that unknowingly comes back to haunt her when her best friend, lover, and manager, Jeff, is killed.  While the comic was originally intended to be called Ninja*Starr and focus more on the ninja aspect of her life, writer Dennis Duarte took the story in a completely different direction, thus setting it apart from the other female ninja titles of that time (such as Whisper from First Comics and Ninja from Eternity Comics).  Duarte, instead, told the story of Nancy Starr, a woman who has finally made it, putting her past behind her and enjoying the life of a successful boxer and loving girlfriend.

And when she gets the chance of a lifetime, to be the first female boxer to challenge a male contender, someone wants her to lose - and will do anything to ensure it happens.  By the end of the first issue, Nancy loses the match because she is drugged, and she returns to the locker room to find her lover/manager dead from a supposed self-inflicted shot to the head.  While the police write it off as a suicide, Nancy knows otherwise - particularly since Jeff was holding the gun in the wrong hand!  Soon enough, she finds out from a friendly police officer that they were told to close the case, and that someone high up does not want there to be an investigation.

Touching on everything from television evangelists to stalkers to child molesters, this three-issue series is chock full of story and mystery.  Duarte doesn't pull any punches with these controversial issues, but they also are not thrown in without purpose.  All the threads are carefully woven, and seemingly unconnected events are eventually revealed to be all part of a larger picture.  And there are some rather interesting moments, particularly in the storytelling technique - such as the second issue's opening sequence, which is a game of Wheel of Fortune, in which the credits are seen as the contestant's names and the title for the issue's story is the solved puzzle.

The art, with pencils by Allen Curtis, is pretty standard of the time in which it was published, but the coloring is admittedly a bit off.  In places, it seems the colors bleed beyond the lines, with a lot of reds, yellows, and oranges throughout the books.  But it is not the cartoony or manga-style art that seems to fill so many comics today, so for that, I am grateful.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, and it's a shame the author never told any more stories of Nancy Starr - I have a feeling that after the final page of issue 3, Miss Starr had many more stories to be told.

RATING:  6 bottles of Presidential Pomade out of 10 for stepping outside the norm and giving comic fans a different take on the female ninja warrior.