Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: Swan Song (The Rose Garden Arena Incident, Book 7) by Michael Hiebert

This is it, the time I find out how well I did in following the clues and determining who the shooter is at the Dakota Shane concert being held in Portland's Rose Garden Arena, who was shot -- and who, of those shot, would live, who would die, and whose lives would never be the same* -- and, most important, why the shooter is doing the shooting.

In an email I sent to the author after I read Cranked, I threw some theories out there, trying to see which ones would stick. They were all pretty off the wall, including, if I'm remembering correctly, that the person I thought would turn out to be Billy Ray's (Dakota's son) father would also be his killer. To my surprise, I was told I was about 30% correct with my guesses. After reading Swan Song I've come to the conclusion that Michael Hiebert isn't just a great storyteller, but he's a very generous person too. If I had even 0.3% (that's three-tenths of one percent) right, I'd be amazed at this point.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd say that Hiebert read my email, thought to himself, "How did Kevin get it right? He figured it all out, and now I'll have to change the ending so that he's wrong!" and then wrote a new ending. However, as I was reading Swan Song, as each piece was revealed it was obvious that some things I discarded as being improbable were not only probable but happened, and that, even with course corrections made necessary by the characters charting their own destiny as the book was written, each piece of the puzzle fits perfectly.

In trying to keep this review spoiler free, I'm avoiding saying too much about the book itself, but I will say this: The shooter's identity is so obvious, once revealed, but I kept finding reasons why it couldn't be this particular person. That, in itself, speaks to Michael Hiebert's ability to reveal only certain facets of a character's character.

Now that I've finished reading The Rose Garden Arena Incident in its original serial form, I plan to wait three or four months and read the entire saga as a novel -- in one or two sittings.

Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 Stars

I received an advance copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

*With sincere apologies to DC Comics for appropriating and paraphrasing their slogan for 1985's Crisis on Infinite Earths limited series: Worlds will live, worlds will die, and the DC Universe will never be the same.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Comic Review: Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie #1

Anyone who has ever met me eventually discovers I am a huge Nancy Drew fan and have been since I read my first Nancy Drew mystery – The Clue in the Old Album (original text) – when I was nine years old, way back in 1973.

Why Nancy Drew and not the Hardy Boys? Well, even then I was more into mysteries than adventure stories, and, to me, the Hardys always read as more of an adventure story with hints of mystery than actual mysteries. For what it’s worth, when I re-read the Hardys as an adult I am surprised at how much mystery there is in some of the books, especially in the revised texts.

A Little History . . .

Nancy Drew was the last successful series created by Edward Stratemeyer, a book packager who created and published series through several publishers, including Grosset & Dunlap (now part of Penguin Random House, LLC) and Cupples & Leon (defunct). He would create the outlines for volumes in a series and farm them out to carefully selected ghostwriters to flesh out.

Nancy Drew was first published in 1930, and the Hardy Boys debuted three years earlier – in 1927. Other Stratemeyer Syndicate series include the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Rover Boys, the Dana Girls, Kay Tracey, and Linda Craig. In all, more than 100 series were created by Stratemeyer and, after his death in 1930, his daughters, Harriet Adams and Edna Squier. The last series created by the syndicate was Wynn & Lonny, a six-book series set in the world of auto racing. In 1984, the surviving partners of the Stratemeyer Syndicate sold the properties to Simon & Schuster, who continue to publish Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books.

(Another popular Syndicate series was The Happy Hollisters. The series, created by Andrew E. Svenson and loosely based on his family, was given outright to Svenson upon his retirement from the Stratemeyer Syndicate.)

I’ve already used the terms “original text” and “revised text.” Collectors use these terms to denote the fact that the early volumes of both the Nancy Drew (34 volumes) and the Hardy Boys (38 volumes) series were revised to shorten stories to a maximum of 20 chapters, remove negative stereotypes (racial and/or ethnic, primarily), and/or update the stories in other ways including – at times – creating a new story based on the original title.

What may surprise some readers is that the original Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were written for an older audience (12- to 16-year-olds), though by the time I started reading the series the back of the Hardy Boys books proclaimed, “All boys 10-14 who likes lively adventure stories . . ..” (This was later changed to “Anyone 10-14 . . .,” which even then made a lot of sense as boys were reading Nancy Drew books and girls were reading the Hardy Boys.) Currently, the Nancy Drew Diaries and Hardy Boys Adventures stories are written for the 8- to 12-year-old crowd and there are series for both that appeal to even younger readers.

. . . before the main attraction . . . uh, the review . . .

One of the first things Simon & Schuster attempted was to hold on to readers of the ongoing Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series (then at 74 and 81 volumes, respectively) by beginning to create books for older readers. The final two books in both series (Nancy Drew 77 and 78; Hardy Boys 84 and 85) before placing the original series on hiatus for more than a year were written for a teen audience. The books featured more mature themes including more serious crimes, romance and war in third-world countries. Evidently the experiment was successful as the publisher launched the Nancy Drew Files in 1986 and the Hardy Boys Casefiles in 1987. Spinoff series included the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys SuperMysteries (1988), River Heights (1989), and Nancy Drew on Campus (1995). Even Tom Swift got a new series in 1990.

Since 1998, however, Simon & Schuster has focused both series on the reader who is 12 or younger. That changed as of March 8, 2017.

Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys: The Big Lie #1 by writer Anthony Del Col (who secured the license to use the characters from Simon & Schuster and then shopped around for a publisher – the opposite of how things are usually done), artist Werther Dell’Edera, and colorist Stefano Simeone brings Nancy Drew, Frank and Joe Hardy, and their world into the 21st century in a noir-inspired setting where corruption is simmering just below the surface of an East Coast resort town like Bayport.
Synopsis: The Big Lie is a Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery unlike any other you've ever read...
When the teenage brothers Frank and Joe Hardy are accused of the murder of their father – a detective in the small resort town of Bayport – they must team up with the femme fatale Nancy Drew to prove their innocence (and find the real guilty party in the process) in a twisting, hard-boiled tale, complete with double-crosses, deceit and dames.
Inspired by new crime classics like Ed Brubaker's Fatale and Darwyn Cooke's Parker series, writer Anthony Del Col (Assassin's Creed, Kill Shakespeare) and artist Werther Dell'Edera (Batman: Detective Comics, House of Mystery) bring the iconic teen detectives into the modern age, and redefine noir for a new generation of readers!
Readers are introduced first to Bayport, described as a “. . . postcard kind of town. Postcards that show off all of its best parts.” The art on Page 1 reminds me of the location shots movie viewers would see in early James Bond movies of the ‘60s, where everything would look bright and happy just before the seedy underbelly is revealed. Colorist Stefano Simeone perfectly complements Werther Dell’Edera’s art on the first page by using techniques to duplicate (as closely as 21st century printing technology allows) the color palette and appearance of a 1960s or ‘70s comic printed on newsprint, right down to having the dots of color visible. Turning the page, the art and colors take on a different tone that immediately informs the reader that not everything in Bayport is as pretty as a postcard.

It is evident that Anthony Del Col has not only read Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books but has an affection for the characters. Yet he doesn’t allow that affection to keep Nancy, Frank, and Joe encased in the shrine of perfection that make up many of the books published from the 1950’s through the early ‘80s. Del Col states in the back of the first issue, “With this series I’m continuing the three teens’ quest to out-smart evil adults and organizations. But the world today is more complicated, and thus their adventures should be. That’s why I’ve put them in a whole new genre – the hard-boiled noir.”

No, Frank, Joe, and Nancy (what we see of her in the first issue) aren’t suddenly cursing like sailors, sporting tattoos, throwing back three fingers of scotch – neat, using drugs, or involved with busty, leggy blondes (or brunettes or redheads) who are more trouble than they’re worth, but they exhibit different characteristics than what we’ve been shown for years: that Frank is the thinker, Joe the impulsive one, and Nancy the one who puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. So far it appears that Nancy is the strategist for the trio and that Frank isn’t thinking of much other than fighting with Joe. And then there’s Bayport police chief Ezra Collig, whose law-and-order personality from the books is gone and in its place in The Big Lie is a man who is described by Frank as “not the smartest app on the phone.” Yet, later in the story, Collig and Detective Sam Peterson have a conversation where Collig shows he may be a little bit smarter than he appears while interrogating Frank.

Also making an appearance or mentioned by name in the first issue are Tom Swift and Nan and Bert Bobbsey, and the solicitation for the fourth issue of the miniseries mentions the name “Rover.” Del Col has certainly done his research on the Stratemeyer properties. While it is possible these are Easter eggs for long-time readers/series book collectors, I have a hunch that they will play a part in the rest of the miniseries.

For the covers of the first issue, Dynamite gathered an amazing roster of talent, including main cover artist for the series Fay Dalton, interior artist Werther Dell’Edera, Emma Vieceli, and Robert Hack.

To say that I’m excited about this miniseries – and future possibilities – is a major understatement. One issue in and I’m already hoping that Simon & Schuster will allow Del Col, Dell’Edera, and Simeone the opportunity to create additional stories for Dynamite Entertainment and that – once again – Simon & Schuster will realize there is also a market for a more “mature” series of novels featuring Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and possibly other Stratemeyer Syndicate properties. Del Col has capably proven that the characters can be taken in a more serious direction without resorting to excessive cursing (the word “ass” is used once in the first issue, and then by Detective Peterson) or anything else that might prevent the characters being marketed for younger readers at the same time.

Rating: An enthusiastic 5/5

Cover Gallery
Top row, from left, Cover A - Fay Dalton; Cover B - Emma Vieceli; Subscription Cover C - Robert Hack; Hardy Boys Artboard Sketch 1:10 Incentive Cover D - Werther Dell'Edera; and Nancy Drew Artboard Sketch 1:20 Incentive Cover E - Werther Dell'Edera; bottom row, from left, Virgin Art 1:30 Incentive Cover F - Emma Vieceli; Virgin Art 1:40 Incentive Cover G - Robert Hack; Virgin Art 1:50 Incentive Cover H - Fay Dalton; Final Order Cutoff 1:5 Incentive Cover I - Werther Dell'Edera; and Fried Pie Variant Cover J - Robert Hack. (All images obtained from Dynamite Entertainment's website.)

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

With 85 percent or more of the books I read being mysteries of some sort (including suspense/thrillers/romantic suspense) or comics related (comic books/comic strips/graphic novels), every now and then I take a chance on something different.

And Abbi Waxman's debut novel, The Garden of Small Beginnings, is different. Words like "funny," "original," "poignant," and "quirky" are being used in advance reviews of the book. And they're all accurate. The book is that good -- and "good" isn't enough of a superlative for a book where the characters feel so real that the reader can feel the pain Lilian Girvan lives with since the death of her husband or laugh out loud with complete abandon at some of the all-too-real conversations and situations between Lilian and the family and friends in her life. I'm kind of partial to describing The Garden of Small Beginnings as "magnificently fantastic."

Synopsis: Lilian Girvan has been a single mother for three years—ever since her husband died in a car accident. One mental breakdown and some random suicidal thoughts later, she’s just starting to get the hang of this widow thing. She can now get her two girls to school, show up to work, and watch TV like a pro. The only problem is she’s becoming overwhelmed with being underwhelmed.

At least her textbook illustrating job has some perks—like actually being called upon to draw whale genitalia. Oh, and there’s that vegetable-gardening class her boss signed her up for. Apparently, being the chosen illustrator for a series of boutique vegetable guides means getting your hands dirty, literally. Wallowing around in compost on a Saturday morning can’t be much worse than wallowing around in pajamas and self-pity.

After recruiting her kids and insanely supportive sister to join her, Lilian shows up at the Los Angeles botanical garden feeling out of her element. But what she’ll soon discover—with the help of a patient instructor and a quirky group of gardeners—is that into every life a little sun must shine, whether you want it to or not…

I found it extremely difficult to put The Garden of Small Beginnings aside once I started reading. It will be the perfect read at the beach or on a rainy weekend afternoon or anytime the reader can block out a few hours for some reading enjoyment. Highly recommended!

(While writing this review I read on-line that Publishers Weekly announced recently that Waxman's second novel, A Variety of Tremendous Things, will be published by Berkley in 2018. That seems like a very long time to wait . . ..)

Rating: 5 Stars

I received a copy from Berkley through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: Cranked (The Rose Garden Arena Incident Book 6) by Michael Hiebert

Cranked covers the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday leading up to Dakota Shane's Saturday evening concert at Portland's Rose Garden Arena.

I admit I've been loving this series. I've been taking the information provided and piecing it together, and have made my guesses as to several of the mysteries weaving their way through this series. (No spoilers ahead, just asking some questions.)

Who are the four women who die? One of them is already known, a second is pretty obvious after reading this installment, and the other two I'm just speculating.

Who is the shooter? This is the one that I'm taking the wildest guess on. It's not exactly an obvious person, yet I'm going to go out on a limb and say the person I'm thinking of also plays another role -- also unrevealed at this point -- and is central to all of the mysteries surrounding Dakota Shane.

Will Reggie survive and reunite with his friend Marshall and his aunt and uncle? This one is tough. Readers know that Reggie is between the proverbial rock and hard place. If there's one character in this book that I think deserves a miracle, its Reggie.

I read a lot of mysteries, and I enjoy playing armchair detective. Michael Hiebert is an author who keeps me guessing. I don't have everything figured out yet, and I'm 99.999% sure that I could be wrong about everything I think is right.

Highly recommended!

Release date: March 26, 2017

Rating: 5 Stars

I received an advance copy from the author in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review: Some Small Magic by Billy Coffey

Mattingly, Virginia, can be a very dark place yet it is also a place where the light is given a chance to shine. In Billy Coffey's latest Mattingly novel, "Some Small Magic," the light comes from two of the town's misfits: Abel Shifflett, a middle school student whose small stature and brittle bones makes him a target for the school bully, and Dumb Willie, the 22-year-old man whose parents are abusive, cold, and indifferent to him and who may or may not be responsible for why Willie is the man he is today.
Synopsis: She whispers, “I’m supposed to take you home.”

“Not yet,” Abel says. “Please, just not yet.”

All Abel wants is a little bit of magic in his life. Enough money so his mom doesn’t cry at night. Healing for his broken body. And maybe a few answers about his past.

When Abel discovers letters to him from the dad he believed dead, he wonders if magic has come to the hills of Mattingly, Virginia, after all. But not everything is as it seems.

With a lot of questions and a little bit of hope, Abel decides to run away to find the truth. But danger follows him from the moment he jumps his first boxcar, forcing Abel to rely upon his simpleminded friend Willie—a man wanted for murder who knows more about truth than most—and a beautiful young woman who was already on the train. From Appalachia to the Tennessee wilds and through the Carolina mountains, the name of a single small town beckons: Fairhope. That is where Abel believes his magic lays. But will it be the sort that will bring a broken boy healing? And is that the magic that will one day lead him home?

Life in Mattingly is raw and exposed even when its citizens try to keep things hidden. Yet it’s when the flaws – the ugliness . . . the infection, so to speak – is revealed that healing begins for all involved. Coffey’s prose is painstakingly slow at times as he delves into his characters’ lives and discovers nuances that are hidden in depths far below the surface. At the same time, however, mining those depths to reveal secrets also allows for the beauty – the magic – to be revealed as well.

I don’t know that I’d want to live in Mattingly, but I appreciate the opportunity to visit every chance I get. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 Stars

I received a copy from Thomas Nelson through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

Authors must hate it when readers compare their current book to the one(s) that came before. It's got to be, at worst, like comparing one child to another or, at best, choosing between three or four favorite flavors of ice cream. You recognize the differences -- the strengths -- each one has and love each of them because of those differences.

Last year, I had the opportunity to read Jeff Zentner's first novel, The Serpent King, and said in my comments (posted to NetGalley and Goodreads) that, "Zentner's novel is a mix all the things that life brings: friendship, love, dreams, tears, the ordinary, and much more . . . all wrapped up in a bundle of hope. I cannot wait to see what Jeff Zentner writes next." Having now read his next book, I am definitely not disappointed.
Synopsis: Carver Briggs never thought a simple text would cause a fatal crash, killing his three best friends, Mars, Eli, and Blake. But now Carver can’t stop blaming himself for the accident and even worse, a powerful judge is pressuring the district attorney to open up a criminal investigation.

Luckily, Carver has some unexpected allies: Eli’s girlfriend, the only person to stand by him at school; Dr. Mendez, his new therapist; and Blake’s grandmother, who asks Carver to spend a “goodbye day” together to share their memories and say a proper farewell.

Soon the other families are asking for their own goodbye day with Carver—but he’s unsure of their motives. Will they all be able to make peace with their losses, or will these Goodbye Days bring Carver one step closer to a complete breakdown or—even worse—prison?
Jeff Zentner does not write books that are necessarily easy to read. He asks questions that don't have pat answers, if there are answers at all. He writes characters that leap off the page and into our heads and hearts, characters who somehow are all the more real because we each know people who share similar traits. Because of this, it is easy to find yourself laughing along with the antics of Carver, Mars, Eli, and Blake one minute and crying over how unfair it is that three teens died with only memories left behind for friends and family.

I have no idea what Mr. Zentner has planned next for readers, but I plan to be there -- ready to read -- when it's published. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 Stars

I received a copy of this book from Crown Books for Young Readers through NetGalley in exchange for honest review.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Review: Ready to Fumble by Christy Barritt

What a dilemma! Gabby St. Claire or Joey Darling? I'll take both, please!

Christy Barritt's new series introduces Joey Darling, an actress who is being manipulated into taking on her most famous role -- TV P.I. Raven Remington -- in order to solve a murder. As with the Squeaky Clean Mysteries, the Worst Detective Ever debut, Ready to Fumble, features a mix of fun, mystery, and even a little romance.

Joey Darling is in Nags Head, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, to find out why her father disappeared. Sure, she told him she never wanted to see him again, but she didn't mean it. So with her life at an all-time low, she's heads away from Hollywood, rents a place, takes a job as a cosmetologist, and starts digging into her dad's disappearance. However, before she makes any headway, a "client" comes into the salon where she's working and hires Joey to find a missing boyfriend.

Along the way Joey gets help from next door neighbor Zane Oakley and Nags Harbor Police Detective Jackson Sullivan. Both come across as potential romantic partners, but one is more than willing to help with her investigation and the other is more than willing to discourage those pursuits.

Only five weeks until Reign of Error -- Book 2 in "The Worst Detective Ever Mystery Series" is released. I can't wait!

Highly recommended!

Rating: 5 Stars