Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner

The best of the Spirit" chronicles the character created by Will Eisner. Denny Colt is a young criminologist drawn into the search for a criminal named Dr. Cobra. Denny tracks Cobra down, but is splashed with a strange chemical and falls into a coma-like state of suspended animation. Those who find his body think he is dead. There is a funeral and he is buried. However, he wakes up in his coffin and breaks out of it.

When he realizes that everyone thinks he is dead, he decides to become a vigilante and fight the crimes and criminals that the cops can't touch. He dons a harlequin mask and fights under the name of the Spirit. The Comissioner doesn't like the idea, but gives him tacit approval and missions from time to time.

After the initial story, the rest of the book is filled with various stories from the first nine years of the comic's run. It quickly becomes clear that, like other two-fisted heroes from the 40's and 50's, Denny's big weakness is women. He finds it hard to fight them, even when they are criminals and have done something bad. In return, he usually manages to charm them and turn them to his side, even former crime bosses such as Silk, one of his recurring foes/allies.

This is a fairly sizable book for a graphic novel. Most of the stories are short, approximately 5 to 9 pages. There is also a foreword by Neil Gaiman, about the ground-breaing nature of Will Eisner's creation.

Not that it's all to like. True to the 40's and 50's, all of the non-Europeans in the comic are caricatures, including a Stepin Fetchit-style black cabbie who is right out of the minstrel shows in appearance, and is drawn in a much more cartoonish style than the rest of the characters. This is extremely jarring for modern readers to see, and even if you understand intellectually that this was merely the style back then and not Will Eisner's personal animus towards non-white, non-European characters, it's still somewhat disquieting to view in the modern age. However, I will point out that the Spirit's young friend/sidekick, who is white and blonde, is also drawn in this fashion, so it's not totally limited to non-white characters.

Other than this particular problem, most of the stories stand the test of time well. The other thing that stands out as jarring, if only slightly, is Denny's attitude towards women, though this is less disturbing than only seeming old-fashioned. If you can get over the old-fashioned, insulting portrayals of blacks, you will probably enjoy this collection a lot. I know I did.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Volume 2- Flashpoint

Zayne Carrick and the others are still on the run from the authorities and the Jedi Masters of Taris. They have taken refuge on Vanquo, a mining colony on the edge of Republic space. There, they manage to trick the miners into believing that the planet is under attack by the Mandalorians. The miners flee, and the fugitives have just enough time to enjoy the fruits of their spoils when the real Mandalorians, who have declared war on the Republic, really do attack the colony.

Jarael, who had been pretending to be a Jedi Master, is taken into custody by the Mandalorians, who imprison her and take her to the station called Flashpoint, behind the Mandalorian front lines. Luckily, Zayne has caught one of the Mandalorians and imprisoned him, but he isn't talking. When he hears about Jarael and being taken to Mandalorian space, the man says they will need his help.

He turns out to be Rohlan Dyre, a Mando'ade, or front line infantryman. However, he had concerns with the way the war was being waged, and why, and when the higher-ups ignored or refused to answer his questions, he quit fighting. Jarael is being taken to Demagol, a Mandalorian biologist who is researching the Jedi. He wants to know what makes them tick and why they can do what they do. To that end, any Jedi captured gets taken to him.

Jarael is already there, and is befriended by the few Jedi captives, who cover for her when they know she isn't Jedi. Zayne and his friends must break into Flashpoint station, free Jarael and the other Jedi, and then break out again- hopefully after piking the Mandalorians.

Then, Zayne and the others must go to the banking planet Telerath, where his parents are living. But his Master, Lucien, has a plan to bring Zayne out of hiding... involving his parents. Can he hide his parents from his former masters before they succeed in hurting or killing his parents?

And we also get to see a bit of Lucien's background, revealed when he makes a visit to his home planet of Coruscant... and we see how much his own mother shaped him, and still commands him today.

This was a bit easier to read than the first volume, and I enjoyed it more as well. Though the Jedi, including his master, are resorting to many bad acts to get Zayne back, presumably for some horrible retribution, other Jedi seem to be willing to help him, although most of them don't know about Zayne yet, like Alek/Squint.

We also get to see more of the Mandalorians and see why they were so feared, though given that Boba Fett and his father were supposedly the last, I think the Republic is going to roll over them like a steamroller. But, we'll see.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Volume 1- Commencement

Zayne Carrick is a Padawan, or Jedi apprentice, on the planet Taris, along with a fellow group of students. However, Zayne has been charged with bringing a Snivvan con-man to justice. His constant attempts to bring the Gryph (Marn Hierogryph) to justice usually end in humiliation for him, but as the ceremony to be Jedi is fast approaching, he steps up his efforts, crashing the party held for the friends and family of his fellow classmates. However, when he finally brings Gryph in, he walks in on a scene of horror: his fellow Padawans slain by their Jedi masters. Apparently, his habit of constantly being late has led to him being the only survivor of his group.

Of course, he flees, and goes on the run. Gryph, the Snivvan he captured, is pegged as his "accomplice", leading to them banding together to survive. Zayne can't concieve of why the Jedi masters wished to kill all the Padawans, or why they blamed him for the deaths, but a trip through the seamy underbelly of the city brings them to a place called "The Junkyard", and a ship that can help them escape the planet, along with two aliens, Jarael and a man named "Camper". Leaving barely ahead of the city constable, the ship hides in a nearby asteroid field to escape. Zayne wonders what could have made the Jedi Masters go crazy and kill his friends, and hits on the idea of revisiting all the places they took their Padawans. On a small asteroid, he finds the droid that they took with them on their last test, and discovers that the Masters had been afraid of someone... or something. So afraid that they not only killed their Padawans, but did their best to destroy the droid who witnessed their visions of a Padawan destroying the Jedi order.

Zayne turns himself in, and the Masters reveal to him their version of why the Padawans had to be killed. Ironically enough, they say it was because the other Padawans objected to Zayne being made a Jedi Knight along with the rest of them, but Zayne has heard enough lies coming from their lips that he doesn't automatically believe it. The Masters slay the Captain of the Ship that brought him back and claim they have great plans for him... but he is rescued by the crew, including Camper and Zarael, who have never had anyone sacrifice themselves for them before.

Before they leave the system, Zayne sends a message to his masters, telling them he is no longer calling himself a Jedi, and that one of them will end up clearing his name. He doesn't care which, but he will hunt them down and kill them until one of them... the last one, clears his name. That one will live, and the rest will die. If his actions bring down the Jedi order, so be it. And to remember one thing- they started it.

This was a very unusual Star Wars novel, featuring a shocking act from Jedi Masters, who kill their own Padawans, Whatever the reason behind their decision, it shows how and why the Jedi fell. With Jedi like these, who needs the Sith to come in and destroy the Jedi? They are doing it to themselves!

Zayne's predicament is acute, since the rest of the galaxy at large have an image of the Jedi being wise, benevolent and always right. People reading the Star Wars stories have a similar image of Jedi, myself included, and this causes Zayne many problems, as no one else can concieve of the Jedi being responsible for the act that Zayne witnessed, and then lying about it afterwards. Even Zayne can't concieve of it, which makes it all the more shocking, somehow.

But there are hints here, of the Jedi that were the masters of Zayne and his friends holding secrets since they were taught by the mother of Zayne's master... hints that will be more fully explored in the second graphic novel, Flashpoint.

Is this an enjoyable story? Yes, but not a very comfortable one to read, due to the whole trust and betrayal issue. Still it's a story I enjoyed, and I want to read more.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Graphic Novel

It is now the 1950's, and Nazism was defeated at the end of WW2. Indiana Jones is still having problems, but this time with the Commies, who have taken over for Nazis as the all around bad guys.

When we first see Indy in this book, he has been locked into the back of a car trunk with a CIA agent and former MI-6 Agent George McHale. They have been kidnapped by the Commies to find an artifact that Indy found on a previous expedition. Specifically, a body wrapped in some sort of metallic, magnetic wrappings. Indy finds it using the pellets from the Commie shotgun shells, and then uses the distraction of finding it to escape them... only to find that his companion has sold out to them.

Indy still manages to escape himself, and after the requisite fistfight with the Commie Dovchenko, finds himself in a very strange small town. Trying to warn them of the danger of the Communists, Indy realizes that the town is peopled by Dummies. Literally. It's a test town for the firing of a nuclear bomb. Indy barely escapes the blast by putting himself in a lead-lined refrigerator. The Commies, of course, are not so lucky.

After a long period of decontamination later, Indy is questioned by agents of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. But when Indy is vouched for by General Ross, the FBI questions *his* loyalty, as he seems to know a lot about the Communist people. The FBI man promises to watch Indy, and Indy says people know who he is, and that he has friends in Washington. Later, we see at his house that Indy has been fired, although it has been spun as "a leave of absence". His friend, Charlie, the Dean, quit when it was clear that the board of Regents was setting out to fire Indy, but it made no difference. Indy thinks about teaching in Europe, but when he's setting out on a train, he is approached by a young greaser on a bike named Mutt Williams, who tells him his old friend Harold Oxley, "Ox" is in trouble, and they are going to kill him.

At a local hangout, Indy asks how Mutt knows Ox, but they are interrupted from their discussion when two men show up to try and grab the letter that Mutt's mother, Mary Williams, recieved from Ox after he found a crystal skull in a place called Akator. After a wild ride on Mutt's motorcycle that ends with them outwitting the men chasing them, Indy takes Mutt back to his house to translate the letter.

The letter leads them to the Nazca lines, and the town of Nazca, where Ox had been in the custody of the local sanitorium until his kidnapping weeks before. Marked in his cell are the word "return" in many different languages, and a map supposedly leading to the cradle of the Gods.

The map takes them to a cemetary outside Nazca, where they are attacked by locals who don't like the idea of Indy and Mutt desecrating their ancestor's graves. But Indy is able to fight them off, and find the entrance to the grave. Inside are the bodies of Spaniards, one of whom wears a gilded mask. Indy knows Spaniards didn't wear masks, golden or otherwise, and says this is Orellana, or "The Golden Man". When he removes the Mask from the body, the head is actually a Crystal Skull. Returning outside, however, shows that they have been followed, by Indy's "Old friend" McHale. They drug Indy and take him back to their camp, where Indy finds Oxley, mad as a loon and dressed in local clothing. Indy assumes it is the fault of the Commies, but they say the Skull drove him insane, and then force Indy to undergo the same experience, which frees Oxley from his madness.

The Commies threaten Mutt to get Indy to lead them to the treasure, but Mutt tells Indy not to give them anything. Indy agrees, so the Commies threaten Mutt's mother instead, who just happens to be Marion Ravenwood, Indy's old flame. They force Indy to try and find out where the treasure is from Ox, and Indy is able to translate the map Ox draws. Mutt kicks over the map table to help them escape, but when Indy and Marion fall into quicksand, they are eventually recaptured by the Commies.

On the trip, their leader, Irina, wonders why the skull revealed its secrets to Indy and not her, who so desperately wants it. Indy and Marion's squabbling leads to the guard on them getting annoyed and telling them to shut up, but Indy parlays his attack into another escape, and Mutt retrieves the Skull. Following Oxley's memories and directions, they make their way to Akator, where they are attacked by natives, who retire when they are shown the crystal skull.

But Mac, who has allayed Indy's suspicions about his actions with the claim that he is a double-agent spy infiltrating the Commies, proves that he was lying, and leads Irina Spalko to the chamber with not only the Crystal Skulls, but thirteen alien Crystal Skeletons as well. She reunites the skull with the skeleton, and asks to understand it all, but it is too much for her, and she burns. The temple collapses, turning into a crystal-clear ball that then departs for other dimensions, and Mac, Indy's traitorous friend, is pulled into oblivion because he stole the treasures from the temple.

Back in America, Indy not only gets his job back, but is promoted to Assistant Dean, and he finally marries Marion. The end.

Okay, so an Older Indy is wiser and slower, but of course, still has his ability to kick ass despite being older now. This is given a nod in the movie when Indy is waiting to recover from one of his more improbable escapes: riding a military jeep over a waterfall! As he himself says, "It's not the years, it's the miles." I can sort of see why people didn't think the movie was a real Indiana Jones movie, in that he is still out-fighting and doing his own son, Mutt! That's about as realistic as T.J. Hooker, where William Shatner, playing the older cop, could consistently out-run and outfight a rookie 30 years younger than he is!

My biggest problem is that the villains, the Communists, were just plugged into the movie. There is nothing that felt realisticially "Communist" about them, and really, any group of people could have been plugged into the same gap and the movie wouldn't have been any different. In fact, Indy's foes could have been Americans without substantially changing the movie in any way, and that just seems wrong. When you have a plug-in villain, it makes that part of the story shallow. Well, it seems that way from the comic. The movie might have more bits in it that I haven't seen.

In any case, flawed villain execution, but an otherwise interesting and engaging storyline that brings back Marion for a stereotypical happy ending. I liked it, but am still aware of its flaws.

Shaman King Volume 11 by Hiroyuki Takei

Yoh Asakura's grandfather reveals the secret of their family to Anna, Yoh's fianceê. The family has possession of a book of spells that once belonged to Hao, but it is guarded by two Oni that Hao bound to the book to protect it. None of the Asakura family can defeat them, but when the paper Ofuda, or prayer strip, falls off, it is up to Anna to defeat them, which she does handily. She then calls on Manta Oyamada, Yoh's friend, whose family is very rich, to fly them to the site of the Shaman Fight. Manta is happy to be seeing Yoh again, but Anna has more important things on her mind.

Back in America, the path takes the Shamans to the mountains, where Horohoro takes one last chance to snowboard. A fall off a mountain sees him rescued by a Park Ranger who wants to save him from a bear named Apollo. Apollo had been shot at as a cub by poachers who came into the park, but Bluebell and her father raised him, then let him go as an adult bear. Apollo hates people. but Bluebell wants to protect him.

Horohoro sneaks out at night to go and confront Apollo, and when Bluebell comes rushing out to save him, Horohoro tells her that his people revere bears as Gods. All animals, really, and they intercede between the Gods and men. They are shamans, that is their task. He tells her that Apollo hates humans because he always had the smell of humans on him, and was thus shunned by bears. Bluebell cries when she realizes how her and her father's actions have unthinkingly hurt Apollo. But just as Horohoro gets Apollo to forgive the humans for their actions, another group of poachers shoots him, killing him.

Horohoro is about to let the poachers take the bear's carcass and go when Bluebell tells him they didn't shoot Apollo because they needed his meat for their village, but because they wanted his skin or his head for bragging rights. When he realizes she is telling the truth, he gets angry and punishes them. When they shoot him, his spirit ally, who has been missing since the battle with Lyserg, returns and protects him, allowing him to punish the poachers. Angry about Apollo's death, Bluebell comforts him and he returns to Yonta Fe to rejoin the others.

The Patch village is somewhere in Mesa Verdere park, so they travel to Monument Valley to view the cliff dwellings there. While there is no sign in the park that's open to visitors, they do spot a roped-off section of the park. But that leads to another fight with another set of Shamans, including one who is a vampire. Looks like they'll have to win another battle before they can continue on. And this is Wooden Sword Ryu's fight, as his wooden sword is tailor-made for fighting vampires. But he can he defeat their opponent?

Well, another volume barely saved from endless fighting by the character action. This can't last too much longer. One more volume, and they will be at the Patch village and the Shaman fight will begin. I did like the story of Apollo, but it confused me how a vampire could be a shaman.

The stakes are increasing, but I am becoming less interested the closer they get to the Shaman Fight. Oh well, this will interest some readers, even if I am less than thrilled with the endless fighting stuff.

Shaman King Volume 10 by Hiroyuki Takei

Still in the desert, Wooden Sword Ryu uses his Shamanic ability to get them a ride, which takes them to L.A., where they try to track down any mention of the Patch tribe, but no one seems to have heard of them. But a visit to a professional Ethnologist reveals that only one tribe seems to have known the Patch, a tribe called the Seminoa, who recorded their coming as the "Night of Doom". Apparently, there is one Seminoa woman still living in the area, and she is also a Shaman, so she may know where the Patch lands and their village are.

Lilirara, the shamaness, lives on the outskirts of town. But she doesn't want to reveal where the Patch village is, as her tribe sees the Patch as Evil, the kind of evil that will infect anyone who dares trust them or interact with them. In the last Shaman Fight her tribe was wiped out, and she uses their spirits to try and dissuade Yoh and his friends from taking part in the Shaman Fight. Apparently, 500 years ago, the Patch decided that only Shamans should live and rule, so they set up the Shaman Fight to make a magical theocracy of Shamans ruling the world, and whatever normal humans were left.

When the Seminoa shamans rebelled against such an idea, a Patch shaman who looked like a modern Patch named Silva slaughtered them all, leaving the tribe defenseless against the white men, who later wiped most of them out. The Shamans realize that the oversoul of this Shaman is the same as the modern-day Shaman Hao, who looks so much like Yoh.

Eventually, they talk Lilirara into telling them where the Patch village is, but that entails a trip to a thinly disguised Santa Fe (Yonta Fe). Of course, after they leave her, Hao appears and kills Lilirara, saying that the rest of the Patch weren't evil, only himself, and he needs Yoh to get strong so he can take him over and get revenge on the man that killed him 500 years ago.

Along the way they meet a young man named Lyserg Dyethel who wants to join them. But when he decides to force them to take him by attacking him, Yoh turns him down and defeats Lyserg and his spirit ally, Morphea. After being defeated, Lyserg reveals his backstory and why he wants revenge on Hao so badly... Hao killed his parents, including his father, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche who used dowsing to solve mysteries. After being roundly defeated by Yoh, Lyserg leaves to get stronger, and the three move on, still seeking the Patch village.

While, back at home, Anna is shown the secret of the Asakura clan by Yoh's grandfather, a secret that somehow involves Hao.

Ah, another mostly non-all-fighting manga. I'm gonna miss these during the Shaman Fight arc. Though this one is ostensibly about the Patch, we learn more about the last Shaman fight and Hao than we do about the present Shaman fight. This sets up the mystery to come. I enjoyed this book, because it was more about the characters than the fighting. Goodness knows how long that will last!

Shaman King Volume 9 by Hiroyuki Takei

Yoh and his friends are waiting for the Shaman fight to be announced, but there is still time, so they go to help their friend Tao Ren fight against his father. His father decries friendship as weakness, so when Tao gained Yoh as a friend, he was determined to prove to his father that he had been wrong about friendship.

Taken captive by his own family, Ren is freed by Yoh and his friends, Wooden Sword Ryu and Horohoro. Then, they must fight their way from the dungeon to the top of the house to take on Tao Yuan, Ren's father, who has an oversoul composed of all the Tao Shamans who have ever died, and can direct their spiritual force at will. After his father's defeat, Tao is joined by his mother and grandfather, who knew Tao Yuan was wrong, and hoped that Tao Ren would be able to make a friend.

After that, it is back to Tokyo, where Yoh and his friends enjoy a last few days of freedom before they are summoned to the Shaman fight. Surprisingly, they are called to a military base, where the Shaman tribe in charge of the Fight have gathered all the Shamans. They are also busy selling concessions to help defray the costs of the Shaman fight. As Yoh, Tao Ren and the others discuss things, a Shaman named Hao, who bears a startling resemblance to Yoh, appears and calls them all amateurs. A fight threatens, but it is stopped when Hao is reminded to save it for the real fight.

The Shamans are loaded onto a plane for a flight to America, where the Shaman fight will be run. However, while the plane is still hundreds of miles away from their destination, the Patch de-materialize the plane, which was actually one huge oversoul. Just before they do so, they tell the Shamans that they must make their own way to the fight, and they have three months to get there. Anyone who dies or doesn't make it was obviously not good enough a shaman to be part of the fights.

Yoh and his friends survive by making their oversouls cushion their landing, but then they are stranded in the desert, with no idea where to go. Meanwhile, at home, Manta is missing his friends, and although he returns to the places where they used to go together, it just isn't the same. Fond memories remain, of course.

Okay, this is the kickoff to the Shaman fight, but at this point the manga still feels less about fighting than about character stories, which means I can still read it with something like joy. The characters are strong here, and the story is superb. Although later it degenerates into a series of fights with stupid fighting moves and ass -pulling new moves, right now, it's still good.

Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicles, Volume 17 by CLAMP

His eye stolen by Syaoran, Fai is dying, his magic and life slowly being ripped away. Kurogane makes a desperate gamble to save Fai's life with Yuuho. But doing so will require a desperate price. Fai is saved by Subaru, who turns the mage into a vampire, and feeds him with his own blood, and the blood of Kurogane. Kurogane will now have to feed on blood, and since Kurogane's blood is in his system, he will only be able to feed on Kurogane's blood. If Kurogane is killed or becomes separated from Fai, Fai will die without his blood.

In return, Yuuho gives the people of the world slightly tainted water that has never known modern plumbing, which refills the cistern that was drained by the fight between Seshiro and Syaoran, while the enemies of the people who protect the cistern appear with another of Sakura's memory-feathers, which will be able to protect the building the cistern lies under from the acid rain.

The real Syaoran agrees to help Sakura regain her memories, but when Kurogane offers to get a special crystal that Yuuho wants in return for her help, Sakura says she will get it instead. They have been doing all the work for her, and now she wishes to help in her own recovery. But as she goes on a dangerous solo journey to recover the crystal, Fai must deal with his darker feelings and wishes to die. Yuuho cautions him that the people he has been travelling with consider him a friend now, and that his death would cause them pain. He can no longer put them off with a smile and use his cheerfulness to prevent them from getting close to them.

He may wish to die to keep others and himself from pain, but now he is caught in a no-win situation. Dying will cause the others pain as they lose someone they consider a good friend.

Sakura gets the crystal, but her compass is smashed, and she has to find her way back to the others on her own. But can she do it before the acidic rain finishes her off? And will Fai be able to live for himself as well as others? And most important, will they be able to catch up to the copy Syaoran and get Fai's eye back, returning him to normal?

This manga is turning very dark, and it seems to be near the end. The fight against the fake Syaoran is yet to come, and the team seems to be both breaking up, and, conversely, getting stronger. It is revealed that Fai has been trying to hold himself apart from the others, using his cheerful manner to hold the others at arm's length. But he will not be able to do that any more, and we see a much darker side of him emerging.

Kurogane, the man Fai has spent much of his time teasing and poking at, makes the sacrifice of his own blood to save Fai from death, and will continue to save him every time Fai feeds from him, which Fai apparently finds intolerable, but seems unable to say so.

I remain fascinated with this series and will continue to read, as the characters and story have touched my heart, and I look forward to seeing what will happen to everyone. I just hope the next volume comes out soon!

Neon Genesis Evangelion Volume 10 by Yoshiuki Sadamoto

While Rei goes out to fight the latest Angel in her EVA, Shinji is stuck at base, waiting to be given the signal to attack. But his father holds him back for now. Shinki remembers how Rei found out that she liked having Shinji touch her. It made her feel... warm, inside.

But the Angel is messing with her EVA, and it starts taking over her EVA, making strange bulging vein-type structures appear over her body. She has a vision of herself talking to her, and realizes that it is the Angel. But it is taking her over and Shinji is sent to help her. He tries to attack the Angel, but it starts taking over his own EVA, with many of the same affects. When Rei realizes what is happening, she gathers the Angel to herself and sets her suit to explode, which it does.

Shinji is devastated by what has happened and his inability to prevent Rei's death. Actually, she hasn't been declared dead yet, but he knows it is just a matter of time. Shinji spends his time with Kaworu Nagisa, a fellow schoolmate and pilot who seemingly hates Shinji, and is actually another Angel, this one in human form. Shinji cannot deal with Rei's death, nor with people who would try to comfort him, so he stays with someone who hates him instead. Kaworu kisses Shinji to prevent him from having problems with his breathing, which leads Shinji to remember Rei once again.

Shinji doesn't come home for days, until the rescue team recovers Rei from her suit, and somehow finds, amazingly, that she is still alive! Shinji is overjoyed, but when he goes to see her, there is something wrong with her. She seems to have gone back to the way she was when he first met her. It is as if it wasn't *her* at all. When he thanks her for saving him, she says she doesn't remember. Maybe because she is the third one.

Third one? What can she mean? While Shinji tells his guardian Misato about Rei's words, the Doctor of the facility, Dr. Ritsuko Akagi, remembers how her mother came to work at the facility and got her hired. That's where Ritsuko met Rei for the first time... the first one. As in the present time, she is questioned by the members of Seele, she remembers how her mother began to hate the little girl, then killed Rei and herself.

After the questioning, Misato and Shinji show up and take Ritsuko hostage, wanting to know Rei's secrets. And they are revealed. Rei is a clone, or, actually, a series of clones, made to be dummy plugs for the Evas. The EVAs were created by humans, and so was Rei, made to be the housing for her soul. Every time she dies, her soul is downloaded into another body. Ritsuko can no longer stand it, and kills the remaining bodies all at once, then breaks down as she confesses the details of why she kept doing this. Like her mother, she had fallen in love with Shinji's father, Gendo Ikari. But she was a fool, like her mother was a fool, because he doesn't love her.

As she cries, Shinji and Misato look at each other, wondering what to do next...

The anime for this series is one of the most confusing stories ever, and the manga series is better in terms of not being confusing, but not exactly being a story I enjoy. Secrets pile on secrets, and the characters all seem hampered by the secrets, wanting them to be uncovered, but the toll of those secrets is harsh when they are finally uncovered.

This is an intriguing manga, but you could die of anticipation waiting for the next one to come out, so I can't exactly recommend it. If you like your giant mecha series served with huge side orders of secrets and lots of weirdness, this might just be for you.

The Merchant of Venice by Gareth Hinds

The Merchant Bassanio is in love with the fair lady, Portia, but he needs money to woo her. He turns to his friend, Antonio, for help, and Antonio pledges it. However, he is short of money just then, as all of his money is tied up in a shipping venture, so he turns instead to the Jew, Shylock, asking him for money. Shylock agrees, but draws up a contract where, if the money is not returned, Antonio will owe him a pound of flesh. All though Antonio thinks the terms are ludicrous, he agrees.

Portia, meanwhile is wooed by three men, and Bassanio is merely one among them. However, to win her hand, a man has to choose between three caskets: Gold, silver and lead. Whoever finds the picture of her in the casket also wins her hand. Her first suitor chooses Gold and must go away, never to return nor to love anyone else.

Back in Venice, Bassanio hears that a ship sank in the English Channel, and hopes it was not Antonio's. Meanwhile, their mutual friend Lorenzo is in love with Shylock's daughter, Jessica, and Antonio helps their escape so they can run off and be together. They take a great deal of Shylock's money with them when they go. When Shylock discovers this, he is incensed, and blames Antonio, who cheerfully admits his part in the elopement. Shylock is determined to take revenge on Antonis. Bassanio hopes, again, that it was not Antonio's ship that sank, for Shylock will surely want his pound of Flesh.

Back on the island where Portia lives, two more suitors choose their fate. One chooses the coffer of silver, and again loses, while Bassanio asks to choose, no longer able to live without knowing if he has won Portia or lost her. He chooses the leaden casket, and wins her, as he had already won her heart.

Immediately, she tells him all she has is his, and Antonio confesses to having fallen in love with Portia's maid, Nerissa. Each man exchanges a ring with their love, and promises never to give the ring away, at pains of losing each woman's love. But bad news comes soon after the men's return to Venice: the ship that sank was Antonio's ship, and now he owes a pound of flesh to Shylock, who would love to do him harm.

Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as young men to see how their loves are doing, and find out Antonio's problem as he goes in front of the Duke of Venice. The Duke asks for a certain learned doctor to advise him of the problem in front of him, but Portia makes up a fake letter and takes the Doctor's place as an adviser, and counsels Shylock for mercy. When he will not, she says he may have his pound of flesh... but he may not shed a drop of blood as he does so, as that is not in the contract.

When Shylock can think of no way to do so, he agrees to sccept payment, but Portia points out that contracts that cause a member of the people of Venice harm are illegal, and therefore Shylock shall get no money at all. Further, he must agree to take conversion and become a Christian. Either that, or his life is forfeit. Shylock agrees, and Portia and Nerissa have a bit of fun by getting their men to give up the rings they had sworn never to lose or take off.

When they arrive to meet their beloveds, they ask the men if they still have the rings, and watch as each trembles as they explain how they gave the rings away. The ladies return the rings when the men confess Antonio's troubles, and then tell the men that the doctor and the clerk of the court who had taken the rings were none other than themselves. Whereupon the men confess themselves amazed, and vow to never give the rings away again, and all is once again right with the world.

This graphic novel version of the Merchant of Venice is very well done. I liked the art, which was clean and spare, although the character of Shylock is about as stereotypical of a Jewish man as you are likely to get. However, this fits in well with the way the play was staged in the Renaissance, so it wasn't as distasteful as it could have been.

The play is really an adaptation of the original, as the story is now set in modern times. All the merchants are men in suits, but Portia and Nerissa have a sort of 1920's look about them, probably due to their short haircuts, which reminded me a bit of flapper haircuts, even if the suits looked more 1930's or 40's (but then, with suits it is hard to tell. Men's fashions change less over time than women's do).

The words of the play are what change most in the adaptation. The book starte out with very nearly modern language, even some modern slang. But as the play and the story progress, the author returns to Chakespeare's language, especially in the trial with Antonio and Shylock. The way that the language changes in so short a time made my head spin, especially when Portia says, "Good one." near the beginning of the book. I found the modern language to be an imposition on the text, and extremely out of place, even off-putting. I'd rather have seen all the dialogue in the original Shakespearian text.

The problem with plays is that they can be confusing when read as mainly dialogue, but the author's illustrations, combined with the text, prevent it from becoming confusing to read and make it easier for readers to understand what is going on.

So I can recommend this graphic novel work, with some reservations on the early dialogue. I feel it would have been just as understandable with all Shakespearean text.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hulk: World War Hulk by Greg Pak and John Romita, Jr.

The Hulk is pissed, and he has every right to be. Banished from the earth by people he thought were his friends: Reed Richards, Doctor Stephen Strange, Black Bolt- leader of the Inhumans, and Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, the Hulk was sent to a strange world where he ended up as a slave before rebelling against those who would be his masters and becoming Warlord over the entire world. But just when he had settled down, found love and his wife was about to give birth to his child, the ship he had been sent to the world in blew up, robbing him of wife and child, and devastating the people he had freed.

Thinking that this was the plan for him all along... to blow him up somewhere in outer space, the Hulk has returned to Earth to take revenge on those who sent him away to begin with. But though he may have come alone from earth, he hasn't returned alone. Instead, members of his Warbond have returned with him. Elloim, Brood, Korg, Miek and Hiroim have all come to help the Hulk take his revenge for the planet called Sakkar and his Queen, Caiera the Oldstrong.

After first visiting the Moon and defeating Black Bolt, the Hulk demands that the city of New York be evacuated. He also shows the people of Earth why he wants his revenge, showing them his history on Sakkar. Then, he starts going after the heroes who sent him there.

Tony Stark goes first, in his armored suit, fighting the Hulk head to head, but he is no match for the Hulk, especially in the fury he's worked himself up into, and the Hulk smashes him, armor and all.

His cousin Jennifer tries to talk sense into him, but even with a crowd of heroes backing her up, she is no match for her cousin, or his Warbond. Next, the Hulk goes after the Fanastic Four's Reed Richards. But even though Reed tries to trick the Hulk using his super-science, the Hulk sees through it, and ends up defeating him as well.

Lastly, the Hulk goes after Doctor Strange, who also tries to trick him, but this time by getting Bruce Banner's longtime friend Rick Jones to let him get his mental guard down, then attacking him mind to mind. But even here, the Hulk is simply too strong for him, and he must resort to channelling a particularly nasty demon to try and defeat the Hulk. But he fails again, and the Hulk takes all of them prisoner.

At this point, some humans are actually backing the Hulk. When the Hulk brings them all to a massive gladatorial arena he has built, the Humans get to tell their side of the stories. A woman whose husband, finally retired, was killed by Black Bolt's people when they invaded Earth, a man whose hero uncle was on the wrong side of the registration battle and was killed by a cloned Thor created by Iron Man and Reed Richards, a young woman who was nearly killed when Doctor Strange was possessed by a demon.

Sue Storm pleads with the Warbond to let her husband speak, but Elloim says that her husband didn't let the Hulk speak before he banished him. The Hulk, using capture disks, makes Reed and Strange fight, and nearly forces Reed to kill him. At the last minute, though, he prevents the capture disk from doing so, and tells them that he and his warbrood have come for justice, not revenge. None of the Earth humans have been killed, and none will be. But the humans will know them for what they are: Liars, traitors and killers

Tony gives the Hulk one last chance to surrender, and the hero called Sentry shows up and gets into a Titanic fight with him. Sentry has finally lost all control, and he and the Hulk beat each other until both of them are bruised, reeling, and without their powers. The Hulk's Warbond wonders where he has gone, and when the heroes reveal that the strange human standing there *is* the Hulk, Miek goes crazy and pleads with the Hulk to return so that he can continue to fight the humans. The Hulk must keep fighting, just as Miek forced him to when he blew up the ship on Sakkar. He did it because the Hulk had stopped fighting and was settling down when he should have kept fighting.

Bruce turns back into Hulk and attacks Miek, along with the rest of the Warbond. But just as they have defeated Miek, Tony pulls one last trick and has the Hulk shot with all the lasers on the outer space sattellites and platforms, and the Hulk goes down, thinking of Caiera as he does so.

The ending reveals him in a coffin-like chamber, filled with drugs, and settling down to sleep three miles below the Mojave Desert. While back on Sakkar, Hiroim seems to have transformed into a Hulk-like figure.

I have to say that this was one of the few Hulk comics I have read where my sympathies were with the Hulk the entire time. The other one being "Planet Hulk". Yes the four "heroes" were afraid for the Earth if the Hulk was left on it, but sending him away to be the problem of another planet was a little too much, and I had a hard time forgiving them for it. Especially when we, the audience, is led to believe that the explosion of the ship was the fault of Reed, Stark, Black Bolt and Dr. Strange, as we are for most of the book.

I was wondering what sort of ass-pull justification they were going to come up with for why the heroes weren't actually responsible, and I was rather surprised with how not "ass-pull" it seemed. New York is in flames at the end of the book, but as another comic I read recently reminded me, the heroes have only themselves to blame for the entire situation, because they started it. I wonder if they will see it that way.

The possibility is raised, in the comics, of sending the Hulk away again, but Dr. Strange doesn't see the point, as he feels that the Hulk will be coming back, regardless. But, we know the Hulk will be back as soon as he gets enraged again, or one of his old enemies decides to take revenge on him and somehow lets him out of his coffin in the desert. Of course, having had combat training, the Hulk is much stronger and a better fighter now. We'll see if his enemies can keep up with him.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Warrior's Deception by Diana Hall

Roen De Galliard is a successful warrior for King Henry. He expects his skill in battle to be rewarded with money, or perhaps lands. What he didn't expect is for Henry to give him an heiress. No, a choice of Heiress. A hard man embittered by his cruel upbringing, Roen wants no part of marriage. He sees women as greedy, grasping, and false. But Henry will not be satisfied unless Roen is married.

Leonora of Woodshadow sees no need for a husband. But her ailing father sees things differently. The deaths of his wife and son have made Leonora his only heir, and he wishes to see her settled and happy. But she holds out for love in her marriage, the same kind of love that her mother and father had. But her father feels that something is wrong at Woodhaven, that some unseen foe shadows the keep, waiting to strike.

To save Leonora, he contracts a false marriage agreement with Roen, to which Leonora protests. But when Roen threatens to wed her cousin, who is petrified of men and would likely kill herself before she would bed Roen, Leonora has no choice but to agree. Despite their beginning, they begin to get along and fall in love, until they marry and Roen helps Leonora's father ride off to die in the woods.

This deception hurts her deeply, but even this she could forgive. However, the deceptive nature of their union comes back to haunt them both. Can Leonora ever forgive her father and Roen for tricking her into marriage, even to save her beloved Woodhaven? And can Roen convince her that he married her because he loved her, not because of some agreement? Can their love overcome the deception that birthed it?

I usually like Medieval Romances, and this one was no exception. Roen is a stoic warrior who has to overcome a truly hellish upbringing with an abusive father and a mother who would taunt his father by not letting him know if Roen was truly his son. Thus, he has no idea of what a loving relationship looks like or how to deal with a woman who isn't greedy and deceptive.

Because of this, he treats her very harshly at first, however, he soon realizes that he misses her when she is not around, and is willing to do almost anything to get her back. She, too, must learn to rein in her sharp tongue, and to have sympathy for her husband. She learns to do this faster than he does, although he gives her lots of reasons to use her tongue, especially when he treats her badly.

The enemy behind the troubles came as no real surprise to me. And if Leonora sometimes acts in a stupid manner, well, she was trying to be sympathetic when she did so. I can also smell a sequel brewing, but time will tell in seeing if I was correct.

Planets, Stars and Galaxies by David A. Aguilar

"Planets, Stars and Galaxies: A Visual Encyclopedia of Our Universe" is a roller-coaster ride through our solar system and then through our galaxy, showing off its features and explaining some of its mysteries and what we know about it.

The book starts off with a ride through the solar system on a futuristic space ship, starting with Venus, then Mercury, the Sun, Mars, the Asteroid Belt and dwarf planet Ceres, the Gas Giant Planets, and dwarf planets Pluto, Charon and Eris, the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud before returning to Earth and the Moon. Each planet is covered in detail, from the number of its moons (though several, especially for Jupiter and Saturn, are merely given approximate numbers, given how many are still being discovered), and in the case of the Gas Giants, the more prominent of the the moons are also covered in the writeup.

Pictures, from space missions and the Hubble telescope, are given for each planet, although Pluto, Charon and Eris are too far from the sun to be photographed, so artist's depictions are used instead.

From there, we move on to the stars, with discussions of the Milky Way, the various galaxies that make up the local cluster, and the "wall" of clusters and galaxies that the universe is formed from. Topics covered include what stars are, the different types of stars, and how their fates differ depending on their size.

The book concludes with speculations on what sorts of alien life forms could exist on other planets, extrasolar planet information, and possible future dreams that we could achieve, such as terraforming Mars, Space Hotels, and future space craft we could build. There is also a time line of the universe, and of our solar system.

This book is a fascinating, if shallow, look at the Universe. There is just enough information about the various planets to whet the reader's appetite and make them want to look deeper. Most articles range from 2-6 pages, with plenty of pictures, all in color (or mostly). As well, the book is up to date scientifically, with Pluto and Charon being identified as a double planet system, and as dwarf planets, the same as Ceres.

Though this book is meant for kids, the depictions of the planets, stars and moons of outer space will thrill adults as well. Not so much the text, which is definitely more for children. Still, this is the kind of "coffee table book" which you will come back to look at again and again.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Haridama Magical Cram School by Atsushi Suzumi

Hokuyo and Harika are two students at the Seikei Magic Cram School. Harika is the daughter of the former dean and Hokuyo is the adopted son of the teacher Seikei. Unlike most sorcerors, who have both Yin and Yang magic in their bodies and can cast spells unaided. Harika and Hokuyo are known as "Obsidians", sorcerors missing one of the two types of power and in need of a piece of Obsidian to help balance out their powers. These pieces of Obsidian not only balance their powers, but if they are separated from their obsidian, they cannot be affected by spells, it seems.

After a long time apart, Hokuyo and Harika are reunited and quickly come to blows. Hokuyo challenges her to a duel, but she outsmarts him with her spells and ends up defeating him, after which she points out that one need not point a spell at someone to affect them with it. Hokuyo learns quickly, but when Harika joins him in classes, she quickly pulls ahead of him by studying, which she excels in. Hokuyo, by contrast, tends to fall asleep during lessons.

But one day, while they are arguing, they meet Nekome, heir to the Nekome Cram School. When Hokuyo challenges him to a duel, Harika is forced to intervene. However, Hokuyo later collapses in class. They discover this is due to the effect of a creature called a Moon Beetle, which tends to attach itself to sorcerors and drain a tiny bit of their magic. Draining as much as was drained out of Hokuyo is unusual. Then, Hokuyo has a dream about the Moon Beetles, and their Queen, Maya, who is due to be hatched soon.

He follows the beetle into the Magic Forest near the school, and Harika follows him. There, they find Nekome, who also had the same dream. They trail the beetle to a cave, where they discover Queen Maya's cocoon is being held prisoner by a horrible lizard, and after Nekome fails to defeat it with his magic, Harika and Hokuyo must join up to defeat the monster and free Queen Maya's cocoon so that it can finally hatch.

Nekomo's father asks his son if he was the one to defeat the lizard, and Nekomo can't lie, whereupon his father said he once dismissed the two Obsidians. Looks like he can't do that any more.

Finally, after many months of study, Harika and Hokuyo are deemed ready for their third-level sorceror exams. But the students from Torame Cram School have decided to make things harder for Harika and Hokuyo. But when a huge monster is unleashed on the testing facility, can Harika and Hokuyo find a way to join their magic and defeat it?

This manga doesn't know a single thing about slow starts, throwing the characters, and by extension, the readers, into the story. However, this is one story that I can't tell if it is supposed to be a single volume or not, since the story is so open-ended. Despite its small size, a lot of story is packed into these pages, and honestly, I would like to see the further adventures of Harika and Hokuyo.

The character designs are standard cute, and remind me a bit of CLAMP in the character designs, with a bit of Naruto-style thrown in. The story, with its explanation of magery/sorcery, and the bit about how the two leads are able to combine their powers to do more, is intriguing. I have never seen a manga story quite like it before, and it is refreshing.

That said, Hokuyo does remind me a lot of Naruto, with a strong desire to succeed. But neither lead dominates the story. I am disappointed, but resigned to the fact that Hokuyo ends up being the one to do most of the monster beat-downs, leaving Harika to be less effective at combat magic for the most part. She does get some chances to shine, so I hope Harika will not fade into the background in later volumes (if there are any).

I am interested in seeing more, and that's the best indicator of success in manga. An intriguing story with refreshing ideas, but mostly stock characters that ends up placing it in the higher middle rank of manga. I'll be looking forwards to more.

Cancer Vixen: A True Story by Marisa Acocella Marchetto

What happens when a 43 year old cartoonist, living in New York City, in love and getting married for the first time in her life, discovers a lump in her breast on a visit to the Doctor's office?

Well, if you're Marisa Acocella, you panic, cry and call on all your closest friends while waiting to find out if the lump is cancerous. Try not to tell your charming Italian Restauranteur Fiancee, because you're afraid he's going to leave you if he finds out you are seriously damaged goods. Then, when it is confirmed, your friends will get behind you and kick your butt to ensure you fight this thing and don't just give up.

Oh yes, and when you do finally tell your fiancee, he won't reject you. He loves you for you, and will not only tell you so, but prove it. And he'll end up marrying you anyway, because he loves you for you. He won't even give those thin, catty models another look. And if they give him their card, he'll feed it to a dog.

This cartoon-based book explores exactly what happened to Marisa Acocella after she was diagnosed with cancer, giving an unexpurgated look at her life and her mental and physical breakdown as the strain of cancer, chemotherapy, operations and so on took their toll on her life.

This story has a happy ending, so far, in that she is still alive and happy. But the ending is not without its clouds. For example, having once had cancer, she has to look out for other forms of it, and had a brush with skin cancer via an abnormal mole. She also had to kiss her chances of ever having a child goodbye, as you should try not to concieve on chemotherapy drugs.

But it isn't all sad. Marisa relates several humorous stories, such as the ones about "Chemo Farts", and when she went to the "rejection show", was dissed by another performer, but still ended up victorious.

This is a bittersweet, true tale of a woman with cancer who wins against her disease. But like all true stories, it isn't as neat as fiction. Nevertheless, women, even those without cancer, should read this book. It's an eminently readable work of biography that has something for everyone.

Batman: The Joker's Last Laugh by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty

The Joker has been in prison for quite a while, imprisoned in a facility for incarcerated super-powered villains. But when he finds out he's dying of a brain tumor, he decides to break out and cause mayhem until Batman goes after him and kills him. Yep, you got it, he wants to commit "Death by cape"!

He starts out by jokerizing the entire section of the prison into clones of him, then inciting his brothers to help him break out of the prison. As he and his newly joker-fied brothers go on a rampage of destruction, Joker decides he wants to pass on his genes, and who better to bear his joker baby than his longtime girlfriend, Harley Quinn, aka Harlequin?

Harley isn't exactly sold on this idea, and she flees from Joker's new "brothers" when they come to abduct her. She also calls on Oracle to rescue her. Oracle calls on some friends to rescue her, and take her to the Lab of Kirk Langstrom, also known as the Man-Bat, who has been working to neutralize the Joker Juice. However, there is a drawback. If the Joker Juice isn't neutralized within 48 hours, the effects are not only permanent, but fatal.

Back at the supernatural prison, the head of security and one of the female guards struggle to stay alive. Joker convinced another villain, Black Mass, to put the entire prison into a singularity, and somehow Shilo Norman and Dina Bell must get him to return them to normal space.... a plan that goes awry when Marshall Bell blows a hole right through Black Mass's skull. Then, they will have to come up with another plan, one that involves Captain Marvel foe Mr. Mind and Multi-Man, to get the Slab back to where it belongs.

Meanwhile, Oracle and Batman coordinate all of Batman's friends, allies and partners to end the Joker's mayhem. But when Tim Robbins, aka Robin, is killed and eaten by Killer Croc, Nightwing becomes enraged enough to provide the dying Joker with the end he seeks. But is he really dying after all?

This was an interesting novel, focussing on the wacky cracka-loonery of the Joker. Apparently, even believing he is dying doesn't cure his insanity... it just amps it up to 11, so to speak. It's also about the lengths people will go to when faced with death, and the possibility of revenge, and shows us that even if Batman is personified Ice in the Veins, some of his students are not. The ultimate irony is that neither the Joker nor Tim is actually dead at the end. It all turns out to have been a Hoax on the Joker by his own doctor!

The art varied widely from issue to issue, going from near-realistic (for a comic book) to extremely cartoony. Now I could have understood it if certain sections were done in one style, and others in another, but each page was done by a separate art team, and the results vary so widely and wildly that it was just completely jarring to read. Lex Luthor, now President of the US, goes from a stocky-looking man in the first issue, to a cartoonish fatty by the fourth. For this reason, I found the collected story rather a disappointment as far as the art was concerned. They should have either picked one sty;e/art team and gone with them, or done each section (The Slab from Shilo Norman and Dinah Bell's perspective, The Joker's perspective, The Oracle and Batman's perspective, and so on) in a different style/art team.

It was okay, but to me, not worth spending money on. I found the multiple art styles distracting to the storyline, and worthy of more attention than the story itself. Not one of the better art decisions. The story, taken on its own, is respectable, but the changing art just ruined it for me.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Personal Demon by Kelley Armstrong

Hope Adams is a tabloid reporter who covers the kind of supernatural stories that only the most gullible and brain-dead believe, for a paper that is the equivalent of the Weekly World News. But while she appears to be nothing less than a normal human working girl, albeit one who is Indian, she is actually a half-demon, fathered by Satan himself, and like all half-demons, she has a supernatural powers to show for it.

Unlike some half-demons, who can cast fire, ice or make their skin hard as iron, Hope's talent is to read Chaos. Chaos is generated in all humans and supernaturals, but Hope has a special talent for reading it, to the point where she ccan see past images or read the minds and/or emotions of those projecting the chaos, which mostly comes from the darker emotions. Hope also feeds on the chaos, and it can provide her with a high-like sensation.

On a cold day in Philadelphia, Hope is approached by Benecio Cortez, head of the Cortez Cabal, a group of supernaturals that looks out for other supernaturals, with a request: Hope and her ex-partner, Karl, a werewolf, owe the Cortez Cabal a favor. Hope can repay her part of it by infiltrating a gang that has set itself up in opposition to the Cortez Cabal, and going deep undercover to find out exactly what they are planning. Hope, anxious to be free of her obligation, agrees, and is sent to Miami Beach, where the gang operates.

Hope finds the gang easily, and manages to pass their entrance tests without much problems. Once in the gang, she finds herself attracted to Jasper, or "Jaz", one of the members. He exudes Chaos and a sincere appreciation for her beauty that she finds charming and intoxicating, and after a scant few missions together, she is ready to let him take their association "to the next level".

But when her ex-partner Karl shows up, she realizes how quickly she is getting addicted to the chaos she is experiencing, and how easily she could become a chaos-junkie, becoming a demon just like her father. Frightened by that realization, she pulls back, and realizes how much she misses Karl. Returning to the gang, she is startled when she thinks that the Cortez Cabal is taking them out, and turns to Karl, who extracts her from the situation. They swiftly become lovers, and then both of them must deal with the fallout.

In reality, there has been an attempted coup at the Cortez Cabal, and two of Benecio's sons are dead. Lucas, Benecio's son who rebelled against him, and Lucas' wife Paige, a witch, come to Miami beach out of concern for Hope, but must save Lucas' father and last remaining brother when the situation goes south. And when Hope is imperiled by those she thought were her friends, Karl, Lucas and Paige must join forces to get her back safely, even if it costs someone their life...

I liked this book a lot. The descriptions of the life in Miami Beach, the tension of the gang war, and the aftermath of the coup were well-written, immersing you in the story. The book is told from two perspectives, Lucas and Hope's, and each has quite a different perspective on events. The chapters are clearly labelled at the top as to who the viewpoint characters are, so you don't get lost in the tale.

Although this is a story that has a great deal of supernatural characters and world-building, it never got in the way of the story. For example, demon species names are latin, but are explained soon after the names appear, so you are never left in the dark about what they can do. And although this is not the first book in the series, you never feel like you need to track down the others to understand what is going on. Like to, of course, but not need to.

I will be reading other books in this series, but only because I find it fascinating, not for any other reason. It is a very good series, well-written and filled with intriguing kinds of creatures and people. Try it for yourself and see.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Laird's Lady by Joanne Rock

Rosalind of Beaumont is a lady beset on all sides. With her parents and brother dead, she has been running her keep on the border of Scotland with the help of her father's Squire, Gregory Evandale. But he has been gone this past year, serving the King in hopes of being allowed to marry Rosalind. Despite the fact that her keep is mostly undefended, Rosalind puts on a good show in hopes that no one will attack her home.

That hope is cruelly dashed when Malcolm McNair comes to beseige the keep on behalf of his liege, Robert Bruce of Scotland. Rosalind poses as a boy to hear out the raider, then decides to fight him, taking to the battlements herself with a crossbow to fight alongside her people. But they are sadly outclassed and quickly defeated. But then she has to explain to Malcolm where her "brother" went to.

She claims that "he" sneaked out of the castle and went for help, which Malcolm finds hard to believe, but he can't exactly claim otherwise. He imprisons Rosalind in her own dungeon, only to find her sick and feverish when the time comes to bring her out, because one of his own men thought she needed to be punished for shooting at him... but is sorry and heartsick at seeing her ill.

Malcolm brings her back to her rooms, where she slowly recovers... but still treat him as her enemy afterwards. In return, he treats her with kindness and deference, because he finds her strength of will and courage powerfully attracting. A series of kindnesses by him make her see that Malcolm isn't the bad man she thinks he is, and she almost starts to fall for him, until Gregory Evandale shows up, and she tries to tell him to go, only to be kidnapped by him.

She quickly finds out that Gregory is not the man she took him to be, but when Malcolm finds her gone, he assumes that she ran off with Gregory, and goes in pursuit of her. She is grateful to be rescued, and gives herself to Malcolm at last, even if he doesn't really believe she was abducted. But it will take a visit from Robert Bruce, and Rosalind's hardest decision in her life, to change her allegiance to Scotland, before Malcolm can finally marry her and be happy. But before he can do that, he must find the person or persons responsible for the attack on the castle that killed Rosalind's mother, father and brother. Will he find that his own people were responsible after all?

This book was an okay romance, but had another trope I find endlessly annoying: the heroine with the bad taste in men before she finds THE HERO. To wit, Gregory Evandale, her father's squire, is the man she is in love with and he turns out to be murdering scum. Why can't romance writers ever write a heroine in love with someone who just turns out to not be the right man for her? Why does it always have to be a bad man, and not only the bad man, but a man disasterously wrong for her, who's insane, evil, and/or plans some horrible sexual torture for her? Does the heroine's taste in men always have to be that badly wrong?

It's just annoying because then I have to wonder if the heroine has such bad taste in men, how can I see a happy ending for her? She might be just as wrong about the hero, too! It makes the heroine look stupid, and I don't like that at all.

So, an okay romance, just standard. Nothing really stood out at me, except the hero's taking special pains to leave Rosalind's garden intact when he had to repair the castle (after she revealed how much the garden meant to her) was actually rather sweet and brought a smile to my face.

Ever by Gail Carson-Levine

Olus is the Akkan God of the Winds, son of two Akkan Gods, Arduk and Hannu. As a young God, with no other Gods his own age, he becomes interested in Humans. He tries to befriend one, but it goes badly, and he withdraws to watch humans until he gets older. Eager to experience life among humans, he goes to the neighboring land of Hyte and eventually takes on the job of Goat-herder at the estate of Pado, and spends much of his time spying on Pado's family, especially his daughter, Kezi, a dancer and rug weaver, who Olus loves from afar.

The people of Hyte believe in only one God, Admat, who is God of everything. To them, no other Gods exist. So when Kezi's mati, or mother, falls ill and is close to dying, her father makes a pledge to sacrifice the first thing that congratulates him on her safe recovery... if it happens in the next three days.

It seems to work. The oil lamp flashes and Kezi's mother recovers. To keep from having to fulfill his promise, Kezi's father stations a servant at the door to keep anyone from entering. But when Kezi's aunt Fado bulls her way in and tries to congratulate Pado on his wife's recovery, Kezi does so first so that her aunt will not have to die. But now Kezi is marked for death by the priests of Admat.

Kezi petitions Admat for one month with her mother, and Olus uses his winds to manipulate the smoke from the altar so as to make it seem the God has granted her wish. He then goes to meet her at a wedding that night, posing as a slave and saving her from the man who would have been her husband had this not happened. She has been attracted to him since she first saw him, so when he lifts her and him with his winds, she assumes he is a mage who has come to protect her until Admat can claim her.

Olus has asked the other Gods of Akkat if they have ever heard of Admat, but none of them have. The God of Wisdom says there is more out there than even the Gods can know, and perhaps Admat does exist... but he has never heard of him. Olus reveals his status to Kezi, who cannot believe that he is an immortal God, as her beliefs say there is only one God, but eventually she must believe him, and it nearly destroys her beliefs. He tries to take her to the mount of the Gods, but she can only come if she becomes a hero, and Olus must become a champion to bring her there. To do so, they must each undergo a test: Kezi must travel to the underworld and bring back the feather of a Warkis, a feather-covered creature of Wadir, land of the dead.

Meanwhile, Olus is thrown into his own test when the villager he tried to befriend falls into a deep well and Olus must save him without the use of his godly powers. And when it appears that Kezi has failed in her task, Olus decides to throw himself down a volcano to the land of Wadir, where his powers will go away forever, to join her. But can Kezi save herself and Olus, and can she undergo the final test to become a God and join her love forever?

This was an unusual love story, and a somewhat subversive one. Some might see parallels between Admat, God of Everything, and the Abrahamic God worshipped by three faiths today. But the story is more about love than theological truths or untruths. Love both dooms and saves Kezi, who is willing to sacrifice her life for love of her aunt, and her love for Olus and his for her, enable her to undergo the test for heroism and immortality and save the life of the man she loves.

It's a beautiful tale, but it actually approaches the level of a myth that has never been in its beauty and lyrical form. Anyone who loves tales of love, adventure and sacrifice, as well as truth-seeking, will love this book. I know I did.

Terra Incognita by Ruth Downie

Gaius Petrius Ruso is a medicus, or a doctor, stationed with the Twentieth Legion in Britain. Stationed there for nearly a year, his career has suffered a bit too much attention lately, mainly because of a case he got pulled into where he investigated the murders of some local prostitutes. Looking for a change of scenery, he chooses to go with the legion to Coria, near Hadrian's wall in the very wilds of Britain, on what is the edge of the Roman Empire.

With him is his servant Tilla, a native woman he took in to be his housekeeper and has since become his lover. She is grateful to him for saving her when she broke her arm, and has set his household in order as a way to repay him. Coria is where she was born, and she has come with him to find out if any of her family is left alive. As a former slave, she has been working as a midwife and interpreter for Ruso, but a confrontation on the road has him realizing she has also been stealing when she believes people have been cheating him... or her.

After giving him the ill-gotten proceeds of her "savings". Ruso uses it to pay for a room at the inn, where Tilla sees a man with deer's antlers who she identifies as the God Cerunnnos (pronounced Hurrrn). Ruso is skeptical, but later the next day, the wagon train runs into difficulties, and several men are hurt, including one who has to have his leg amputated. As the man's wife has just given birth, Ruso finds it hard to tell her how good the chances are that her husband could die. When they arrive in Coria, he commandeers the local infirmary to look after his patients, and finds that the medicus stationed there has confessed to the murder of a trumpeter named Felix, and seems to have gone insane.

The commander of the fort doesn't want to believe that the Doctor had anything to do with the murder, but he shares enough details that they must lock him up. They want to pin the blame on Rianorix, a local basket maker who was involved in an altercation with Felix before he died. Since he will have to stay here to look after the man who lost his leg anyway, Ruso offers to look at the body of the dead Felix and the commander asks him to take on the job of organizing the infirmary while he is there.

While doing the autopsy, Ruso discovers one fact that isn't being gossiped about all over town: Felix is missing his head. Without that, he can't make a true determination of death, but puts it down to "possible head injuries", since there appears to be no other major wounds on the rest of his body.

Tilla, meanwhile, attempts to track down her family. The maid left to look after her uncle's house is of no help, but tells her that her uncle now has a grand house in the town. Even though it is a long journey back, Tilla doesn't choose to stay the night, but decides to return, only to encounter the bruised and beaten Rianorix, who she helps and stays the night with. However, during the night, they are woken by Roman soldiers, who drag Rianorix back to their fort, leaving Tilla behind.

She attempts to see Ruso the next day when she returns to town, and is refused by the soldiers at the front gate. Even when she tries to pay them for taking him a message from her, they pocket her money and refuse to do it. She has no choice but to find her uncle in town and stay with him.

Ruso is missing Tilla, and he finds that Gambrax, the second in command of the imprisoned Doctor, is extremely lazy and doesn't like to do any work. Ruso practically has to stand over him with a stick, but gets him to do the work that is needed, while trying to doctor the former doctor and dealing with repeated attacks by the antler-headed man, who has been killing people in town and foementing rebellion against the Romans.

Tilla discovers that her cousin Aemilla was seeing Felix and in love with him. She even thought she was pregnant with his child. When she told him, she expected him to be happy, push for a promotion, and marry her. But instead, he ran as far from her as he could, so she asked her friend Rianorix, who was like a brother to her and was charged to act as a brother would, to get something from Felix. Rianorix attempted to ask the man for five cows, the traditional payment for a slighted woman, but was refused and beaten by Felix and his colleagues. Not just once, but twice.

Felix seems to have had his hand in many pots, and kept a list of those who owed him, which was not found with his body. As Ruso attempts to reconstruct the last days of Felix's life, he will have to deal with Tilla's apparent betrayal, the members of her family, rebellious natives, and the Roman military and higher-ups to bring true justice to the perpetrators of the crime. But can he survive the experience?

There seems to be no shortage of historical mysteries set in Roman times nowadays. We have Gordianus the Finder of Steven Saylor, Decius Metellus of John Maddox Roberts, Marcus Didius Falco of Lindsay Davis and even Flavia Gemina in the Roman Mysteries, a series for children by Caroline Lawrence. There also may be others I am unaware of, but never have I seen a Roman mysteries series featuring a medicus, or Doctor.

I was rather disppointed that the medical part of the description didn't wind up being used much in the mystery. Ruso takes care of wounds, and attempts to find out what is wrong with Tullius, the supposedly insane doctor, but otherwise, his medical profession doesn't come into it very much in the course of solving the mysteries.

I found the book a very easy read. The writing style is fresh and open, and while the parts involving native Saxon tribes is a bit more stilted, it gives the impression that one would get if they were a Roman and trying to understand strange (to them) foreigners. The mystery is fairly muddy, and readers will struggle to understand, along with Medicus Ruso, but the outcome is satisfying, and presages a follow-up volume.

I also liked the characters of Ruso and Tilla (or Darlughdacha, her native Briton name). Ruso is portrayed as blind to the motives and emotions of women. He is divorced from his wife, one reason why he is in Britain in the first place, and Tilla is no less strange to him. I liked their interactions. Tilla is supposedly his slave/servant, but he has freed her, and protects her from the other Romans when they would use or abuse her. Tilla feels gratitude towards him, and has become his lover, but is his lover for seemingly more than reasons of gratitude. And in the end, when he believes she has chosen her old life over life with him, he prepares to leave, knowing he will miss her dreadfully, but she turns up again to stay with him.

All in all, the mysteries were good and satisfying, I found the main characters delightful and charming, and the book was easy to get into and satisfied my need for something not a brainless romance right to a T. Anyone looking for a good mystery set in Roman Britain will deeply enjoy this book. Even mystery fans should check it out.

Lady of the Lake by Elizabeth Mayne

Tala ap Griffin is a princess of the Leamish people, who live near Arden Wood in Avon, England. She is upset and angry that Viking Warriors have decided to leave the Danelaw and take over the land of her people. Especially their leader, Embla Silver Throat. So when a new contingent of Vikings shows up to inhabit the land, she and her brother, Venn, decide to spy on them.

Edon Halfdansson is newly arrived from Constantinople. He is the one who purchased the land on which the Vikings are now living, but he finds that his chosen emissary, his cousin, Harald Jorgansson, has disappeared, leaving his wife, Embla Silver Throat, in charge. Embla blames the Saxons, specifically Tala ap Griffin and her people, for the disappearance, and even death, of her husband. When he finds Tala and her brother spying on him, he orders her to attend him at his home, and Tala does go... after taking care with her appearance first so that she appears as a stunningly beautiful woman.

His sister-in-law, Embla, immediately calls for Tala's arrest, naming her a witch and saying that she has poisoned the wells, which went bad with salt earlier in the day. Tala only laughs at this, and Edon tells Embla to be quiet, which makes Embla leave the table. Tala has come to see Edon at his own request, and he is extremely surprised that this beautiful woman is the same scamp he saw spying on him from above. Tala asks for Wergild for the captured men of her tribe, and contests his right to own the land. telling him to take his men and return the boundary of Danelaw, Watling Street. Edon refuses to do so, and tells her that Wergild would not be paid to her anyway, but to the King, Alfred of Wessex.

He tells her that the King doesn't want to have people fighting over this land any longer, that both Kings, Danish and English, want peace in this land. He is to marry her, and both of them will be converted to Christianity, and hold the land together. Tala cannot concieve that her King would ask her to do this, because as the Royal Princess of Leam, she must remain a virgin priestess for her people. She lays a list of grievances at his door, and when asked about the disappearance of Embla's husband, she says she doesn't know where he is, but she would rather have Harald here than Embla. Harald was at least a reasonable man.

Edon investigates her claims, and frees the Leamish men held captive by his people, who have been using them as slaves. When Embla's guard captain challenges him, Edon fights him and cuts the man's head off, which makes Embla angry. Edon tries to find out more about Tala, but is thwarted at every turn by her cunning and the loyalty of her people.

Tala finds Edon attractive, but she has problems of her own. The land is suffering from a heat wave, and it hasn't rained in far too long. Even the water of the river has gone down, leaving both sets of peoples suffering. Worse, the bard teaching her brother has been telling him that the gods are angry, and the only way they can be appeased is by the blood sacrifice of Venn at Lammas. Venn feels a sort of fatalism about this, and is resigned to his fate.

Tala's sisters have discovered some new animals in the woods, tiny fluffballs that hop. When Tala returns to Edon's keep, she finds out that these are rabbits brought by Edon in his train. Venn's attempt to steal a black rabbit for one of his sisters leads to his capture and Embla's accusation that he was stealing in to put poison in the water supply for the keep. But Tala contests this. Although a bag found near Venn is claimed by Embla to be the boy's, Tala says that as the royalty of Leam, everything she, her sisters and her brother use is made especially for them, and has a specific sigil sewn or worked into it, and all items are of the highest quality. Though she proves her case about the Sigil to Edon, his threat to whip her brother has her sacrificing her freedom and servitude to Edon for Venn's.

Edon makes Tala his lover, with no protests from her, and in the morning, she does not wish to return to her people, because they will see her as soiled and defiled. One of her sisters will now have to become the virgin priestess, as she is no longer qualified. But a quarrel with Edon leads to them both being chastised by their kings. No longer able to stomach her pride and quarreling, Edon approaches her with his belt to beat her, but is blown against the wall by a lightning strike and nearly dies. Only Tala is able to save his life, by interceding with the Gods for his soul.

After Edon recovers, Embla runs off. Venn has found her oubliette, and they rescue Harald, beaten, battered and dreadfully abused, but still alive from its depths. They also find that Embla has been working with Venn's tutor, and has bribed him to kill Venn. Edon and Tala must recover Venn from their hands, and later, after they are married, they must work out what to do with their respective families. But a last minute reappearance by Embla puts all their lives at risk. Can they take care of the mad woman or will their story end just as it has begun?

This was an okay romance. Not especially good or especially bad, but rather standard. I liked the contrast of Saxon versus Viking, as all too many romances set in England seem to go straight for the Saxon-Norman split for their tension. As a result, this was a welcome change, and rather unusual for the Dark Ages romance genre.

Both characters, being royal, or at least of high status, have their high-handed moments, but Embla is a mere cardboard villain with only two dimensions: Naked greed, and boundless ambition, which of course makes her teh ebbul! and nothing else. She shows not a single ounce of morality or softness, and while these category romances rarely have time for a well-rounded villain character, I get so tired of characters who are just unreservedly EVIL as villains. Even villains have lives and something that makes them that way, and I think the "Evil for Evil's sake" villain is entirely overdone.

So, to recap: standard romance, intriguing setting, standard romance-style hero and heroine, stock cardboard villain who is EVIL (all capital letters *not* optional). Not one I'd go out of my way to recommend, but enjoyable if there is nothing else around to read.

Tempted by Laurel Ames

When Evan Mountjoy returns home from the Napoleonic Wars battered and bruised from an injury on the line, all he wants to do is recuperate. An injury years before has left his memory spotty, but he knows he will not be wanted at home. He has struggled to please his father for years and has disappointed the old man at every turn.

But he is surprised to find that his father has married in his absence, and his new stepmother takes an immediate dislike to him, leading him to think that his father has died. He soon finds out differently, but things have degenerated in his absence. His younger brother has taken to drink, and his stepmother's two sisters and brother have moved into the house.

Evan's servant and aide de camp, Bose, wants to know if they will be moving on soon. Bose is in love with Joan, another servant in the house, and would get married to her if they are to be staying. But if they will be moving on, she will not marry him because life is too uncertain. Evan agrees to stay, at least for a while, especially when he meets Judith, his new Stepsister. He is attracted to her immediately, but she only seems interested in pushing him away. But while her body says no, her eyes say yes, and he finds himself frustrated by the way his entire family warns him off his pursuit of her.

His father drops a bombshell on him by making Evan his heir... precisely because Evan disagrees with him. His father acknowledges that he needs a check on his ideas, especially when he is wrong. This causes tension with Evan's younger brother, who was hoping for Evan to die in the war so that he can inherit it all. His stepmother hoped he would die also. With so many people wishing he was dead, Evan has disappointed them all. But now his father needs him to build a canal, and to take advantage of Sylvia, a widow who has bought up the land needed to bring his father's canal to the river.

Sylvia, though, is no innocent, and has her own reasons for wanting the land she bought. She hopes to end up controlling the canal Evan's father, Lord Mountjoy, wants to build, and is not above manipulating every member of the family she can, Evan included, to achieve that end. Evan wants only to marry Judith and be happy, but someone has taken exception to his existence, and is trying to kill him. And they have even tried to make Thomas, Evan's new step-brother, a small child, do the deed.

Can Evan unravel the problem of who wishes him dead, convince Judith to marry him, and complete the mad idea for a canal envisioned by his father, for a purpose he will not reveal? Or will his family and sense of guilt finally do him in?

I didn't like this book at all. Reading it left a bad taste in my mouth. Everyone in the book, with the exception of Evan, Thomas and Bose, were lying to Evan, decieving him, or just trying to bend him to their will. Even Judith conspired to leave Evan out in the cold, and I found the book a chore to read, rather than delightful. Just the situation, with so many characters, including the heroine, lying to the hero and keeping information from him, was not my idea of a entertaining romance.

Absolutely none of the characters had my sympathy and I found all of them, except for the three mentioned above, to be distasteful. I had a bit of sympathy for Judith, but the rest of the family, as well as Sylvia just left me dead cold. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone, and I'd advise you to stay as far away from it as possible, unless you like reading about deceptive, disapproving people.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Adventurous Bride by Miranda Jarrett

Mary Farren is the daughter of a Lord, and her sister, Diana, has been playing about with too many servants. When Mary, on the eve of her long-awaited "Grand Tour" to the continent, tries to save her sister from her father's wrath, it has one very unexpected consequence: she is ordered to take her sister with her by their father, who is tired of having to deal with his younger daughter's dalliances with the stable boys and groomsmen.

She finds her sister uninterested in the same things she is: antiques, old paintings and museums, so when in France, she leaves her sister and their chaperone sleeping in the hotel and goes out to a small shop selling antiquities. Unbeknownst to her, the owner of the shop is a conman, and most of the items in his shop are fakes, created by sharpers to sell to tourists with more money than common sense.

There, she encounters Lord John Fitzgerald, a near-penniless Irish Lord who makes his way by playing cards for a living all over Europe. He's had a good night, and has come to Dumont's shop to see if the man has anything genuine in all the dross. Both he and Mary are taken with a painting of an angel, but not the usual sort of angel, rather an angry and protective one, with a fierce expression. Fitzgerald knows it is real, and more than taken with the picture, he is also taken with Mary. He attempts to buy the picture for her, but she offers more to Dumont and buys the painting for herself. He finds this charming, and after she leaves, he quickly questions Dumont, figuring out the painting was probably stolen.

Still taken with Mary, he tracks her to her hotel and offers to buy her some fresh strawberries. She is about to agree, when Dumont appears and tells her to let no one know that she has the painting. She is shaken by the warning, and leaves Fitzgerald to move on to Paris with her sister and chaperone. Later that night, Dumont is killed and his shop burned, and Fitzgerald tracks Mary down again to inform her of this new development. Feeling less than sanguine about her safety, and still attracted to and intrigued by her, he offers to show her and her sister around to all the places they would like to go, taking the place of their bearleader, or guide.

Mary, finding him attractive, as well as his offer to help her unravel the mystery of the painting, agrees. The two of them spend time in each other's company, and find their attraction growing. But there is danger. Some very ruthless men want that painting, and will do anything, including theft and murder, to retrieve it. Can Lord Fitzgerald keep Mary *and* her sister safe, or will the men who are searching for the painting kill or injure them before they can unravel the mystery surrounding it?

I liked this book a great deal. The characters are fresh and interesting, and even though they have little in common at the start of the book, they are soon drawn together by the mystery they have stumbled into and their mutual attraction for each other. Set against a backdrop of medieval, renaissance and regency France, the book sppealed to me very much, drawing me into the story in a way few other romance novels have done lately.

I recommend this one highly. It didn't just stand out because I compared it to a bunch of losers, but because it is very, very good. It's more than just the characters, the mystery, and close brushes with death or maiming, but all of those combined and more that makes a sweet and thrilling love story that's a sheer pleasure to read.

Heart of a Warrior by Betty Davidson

David D'Aubere is a Knight without lands or a home, but he has sided with Henry VI, the side of the Lancastrians. Or to be more accurate, with Henry's wife, the Queen, Margaret. In exchange for David's killing of Richard, Duke of York, the Queen rewards him with the Castle of Glenwood, the lands of the Earl of Cornwich. The Earl's sons have all been killed in battle. However, he does have a daughter, and so the Queen weds David to her by proxy, with herself standing in for the bride, making him Cornwich's son-in-law and inheritor to his vast estate, lands, and title.

David is given leave to travel to his new lands, to bed his wife and hopefully get her with an heir so he can return to the war and continue winning battles for his chosen monarch. But a near-assassination by a maid who turns out to be a Yorkist spy, and the revelation that his bride is actually mentally handicapped, sets David on a dangerous path: He cannot force himself on his bride, seeing that as dishonorable, so he plots to force Riley Snowdon, the Yorkist assassin, into the role of Leman and make her bear an heir for him, which he can foist off on everyone as that of his wife's, and once she has done so, he will set Riley free.

She reluctantly agrees to the plan, upset that she was unable to do away with the former Earl of Cornwich, whose family killed hers when they were banished from court and had their lands forfeit to the crown. With nothing left to lose, most members of the Snowdon family have sworn eternal vengeance against the Cornwich family, with Riley, and Gertie, her mentor, posing as wenches working in the Castle kitchens. Now that she is taken prisoner, Riley would rather die than give up any information to her captor, but when faced with David's bargain, she agrees, seeing it as the only way out of her predicament.

But both soon run into trouble. First, Riley is ordered about by Gertie, who gives her a pouch of an herb that will keep her from getting pregnant, and soon, Riley feels that she is getting too close to David. For himself, he cannot keep his hands off her, and when he discovers her trick with the herb, he is furious, but cannot stay angry with her for long, even when she runs away. He also discovers that the people he pledged to serve care little about him, just his ability to win battles. When they discover that he has Riley and will not give her up, they besiege his manor house, causing him to renounce his allegiance and support the Yorkists instead, allowing him to keep Riley as his own.

But members of Riley's family, specifically Gertie, want to see David killed for his crime of killing Richard of York, and trust in the Lord's son to do the dirty work for them. But will Edward want to kill David, or have him work on the side of the Yorkists more? Can Riley and David really end up having each other forever, or is it only a dream that can never be?

This was an unsuccessful book for me, mainly because I never really connected with the two protagonists. David D'Aubere seemed to care more for money and power at the beginning than anything else, but redeemed himself slightly when he refused to force himself on a mentally retarded woman. Riley starts off as a vengeful terrorist and putative assassin, then ends up falling in love with her target. Neither were all that sympathetic to me, so I never really found myself caring for them or wishing they'd end up together (well, perhaps only in a 'they deserve each other' kind of way).

I didn't find myself uplifted by their story or give much of a care about them, and that's the worst kind of failure a story can have, really, not to engage the reader. I give this one a big thumbs down.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard S. Marcus

I work in a library, and I only rarely wonder how any book makes it to the shelf. Last year, I read a book about books and why children read them where the author wonders why children no longer find reading "fun" any more, then comes to the conclusion that too many of the required reading books are less about escapism... the kind of things the author herself read when she was a child and which she looks back on fondly, and more about characters with problems. And not solving the problems, but dealing with the problems of being a teen in the modern world.

She made the point that these depressing sorts of stories are not ones that teens find interesting to read. Or perhaps because they are required to read them, what could have been an enjoyable experience for some becomes instead a chore. And it begs the question: How are children's books selected? What goes into the making of a book list. How did books for children even come about?

"The Minders of Make-Believe" answers all these questions, tracking children's books from the first days of the Puritans in this country, who believed any books of fiction were, in point of fact, lies and therefore the works of Satan, to the time when parents decided that Children needed edifying stories and works to guide them into being "proper" adults who grew up to become not only a credit to their family, but to their country as well.

Then, the struggle between houses that published books mainly for schools and libraries and those that published books for the home. It details how, although men usually controlled the adult books realm of publishing, women ended up in control of the Juvenile, or Children's book lines. partly from the belief that women knew best what children wanted and were interested in (as they were usually mothers), but also from pragmatism: most book publishers were not truly interested in publishing works for children at first, and women could be paid less than a man for the same sort of position.

The struggles these female editors went through to find truly excellent and engaging books for children make up the bulk of the book, along the the stories of the Newberry and Caldecott medals for Children's books. Later, in the 1960s and 70's the scandals and tempests that covered the world of children's books, mainly, the charge that most books depicted white protagonists, leaving children of color or other ethnicities out of the picture created a tempest in the publishing world, along with the slow replacement of female editors by males for the same positions, and the downturn in book sales that have replaced small or large publishing houses with huge conglomerates that seem to care more about the bottom line than crafting beautiful, well-beloved books for children.

The last chapter shows that these huge companies can still be outdone by the children's enthusiasm for books they love. In short, the Harry Potter story trumps all stories of corporately-produced books, raised to success by the love of children worldwide, so, while the companies may think they know everything about kids by the years of experience on their side, in the end, the kids are the ones who really control the market. Not parents, librarians or educators. The children, and that is really as it should be.

As an explanation of the reasoning behind the modern and even past publishing of children's books, "The Minders of Make-Believe" really excels. But it is also a history of children's book publishing in America, and some related stories are brought in from Britain, too. The amount of interesting and previously unknown facts, like how the McCarthy Era affected the publishing of various children's books, such as a book called "The Two Reds", about a red-headed boy and his ginger-colored cat, are profiled.

This book could have been told in a dead, dry manner that would put off any sane reader. But instead, it manages to be fascinating as well as informative, full of insights on both the publishing world and children's books and the personalities behind both as well, from Ezra Keats to Robert Cormier. This is a treasure-trove of facts and history that anyone interested in the publishing of books, or the history of children's fiction and non-fiction, will find invaluable. A stellar read.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Dragon's Knight by Catherine Archer

Lady Aislynn Greatham is concerned for her brother, Chistian, who left the home where he had but recently returned from the Crusades to go off on a mysterious mission and didn't tell anyone, his family included, where he was going. Desperate for help, and hoping Christian's friends could help them where others could or would not, she writes to them, hoping they can track down her missing brother, or find clues to where he went when others could not.

Jarrod Maxwell answers her call, and she finds him distracting from the first. But his cold attitude towards her puts her off, and she finds herself glad that she is already betrothed to her childhood friend Gwyn, a Welshman, despite the fact that he does not inspire in her the same sort of feelings that Jarrod does. Jarrod, too, finds himself being affected by her, but coldly denies that part of himself as he goes about, questioning everyone who might have had conversations with Christian.

At last, he finds a merchant who said Christian was asking about a village named Ashcroft, which the merchant knows is far away... near the border with Scotland. Jarrod decides to ride for Ashcroft, but when Aislynn's father has a dream of Christian lying near death, and hears that he must be tended by the fairest one, he tells Jarrod that he must take Aislynn with him on his journey, as there is no woman fairer than Aislynn. Jarrod reluctantly agrees, seeing no choice but to have this warm, beautiful, distracting woman with him on his journey.

As they travel, Aislynn slowly realizes that she is falling in love with the cold and stoic knight. This perturbs her, mainly because of her promise to wed Gwyn, but she is soon persuaded that the pleasure she feels when Jarrod touches her is true and real. He can barely forgive her prying into his past, first with himself, and then with his friend Sadona, wife of a fellow knight who has opened an inn with her husband, and from whom Jarrod begs shelter.

The wounds of the past still hurt Jarrod deeply, and it is only after their mission is done, Aislynn is freed from her promised marriage and his wounds have been salved that Jarrod can be free to both love and marry her. But can he overcome the hurts of his past to love Aislynn freely, or will she forever have only part of his heart?

I liked this book, although the hero's name unfortunately reminded me of an online game I was once in, as there was also a character with the name of Jarrod Maxwell. The game, unfortunately, ended badly, so it added a not-so-welcome element to the book. Another problem was the hero's cold nature. Even when Jarrod realizes he loves Aislynn, he is very cold-blooded about it, and this was something of a turn-off for me.

The story, on the other hand, was excellent, and the slow delving into the hero's background was fascinating. The use of other characters to explain, at least from their own points of view, what the hero had experienced in the past, was very realistic, and it forces the hero to explain himself to the heroine to quiet her questions.

I realized after I read it that I had read the companion book about Aislynn's brother, Christian a few years ago, and this is apparently the third book in the series about the three friends who went on Crusade together: Christian, Jarrod and Simon Warleigh. In fact the third name also sounds familliar, so I have probably read that one as well.

If you are looking for a good medieval historical romance, but don't have a great deal of time, this book could be for you. It has a few flaws and some great points, but for most people, this would even out at good.