Monday, November 30, 2009

The Avengers: The Serpent Crown by Steven Englehart and George Perez

Beast is going home one night when he is attacked by strange men in green costumes who almost get the best of him, when he is saved by none other than Captain America.

Cap tells him that the men worked for Roxxon Oil, so they gather the rest of the Avengers and go to check it out. At Roxxon, they are attacked by the Squadron Supreme, a group of adventurers from another world. On their world, they are analogous to the Avengers, and have come to work for Roxxon because the head of Roxxon promised to find a way to send them back home. And while they wait, they need something to do...

Temporarily captured, the Avengers, along with the ex-wife of the Roxxon Oil Chief of Security Buzz Baxter, find themselves free inside Roxxon. There, they discover the costume of a Hero called "The Cat", and Captain America, thinking they may need some more help, asks Patsy if she would like to put it on. She agrees and does so, but when the Avengers are sucked into the alternate world of the Squadron Supreme, they discover that the Squadron's world is under the thrall of an artifact known as the Serpent Crown, a mystic poison that takes over the wills of anyone who wears it. But when the Avengers steal the crown to save that alternate world, will the Scarlet Witch be able to avoid succumbing to its pull?

Meanwhile, the woman known as Moondragon comes to earth looking for the help of Thor against Kang the Conqueror, and tells him that Hawkeye has been imprisoned in the past, to be precise, the Old West. The two of them return there, where Hawkeye has found his ancestor, the original Hawkeye, Kid Rawhide, the Ghost Rider and the Two-Gun Kid to foil Kang and bring Hawkeye back home.

But Moondragon tells Thor he is being disengenuous by being just a superhero and not who he really is: a God. And he defends those he chooses to fight with, but during his battle with Kang, he comes to realize that Moondragon is right- he's become so used to pulling in his power to not kill the people he fights who are less than Gods, that he has unwittingly diminished himself. But can he and the others take out Kang, or will it be down to Thor by himself? And if they are able to defeat him, what will happen to his future incarnations who tried to make up for the evil they did as Kang?

Meanwhile, back with the other Avengers, having realized the power of the Serpent crown, they seek to remove its influence from the Squadron's World. But with the squadron thoroughly mislead by those who have worn the Serpent Crown, how can they remove the crown from the Squadron's world? Is there any hope to remove its influence for good?

Both stories were good, in their own way, but neither one was exactly suited to each other. The Western story was about the increasing dissatisfaction of both Hawkeye and Thor with their roles in the Avengers- Hawkeye because of his lack of Superpowers, and Thor because he is so much more powerful than any other superhero in the Avengers, which he only realizes while fighting Kang.

Meanwhile, on another world, the world is full of people deluded by their leaders into thinking everything is gravy, while in actuality, all those leaders are being controlled by the Serpent Crown. The world is ruled by big businessmen, and the current President, Nelson Rockefeller, is one, too. But even if he isn't wearing the crown- just having worn it once links you to everyone else who has ever worn it-all the better to plot with, of course.

But the two stories bear so little resemblance to one another that the other world story, for me, ended up losing out to the old Western story with Thor, Moondragon and Hawkeye. I had never heard of the Squadron Supreme before, and the plight of their world just... didn't interest me, except for the part of Nelson Rockefeller being President, It was as if the storyline was introduced solely to make Patsy Walker/Baxter into Hellcat.

Both of these stories are just fine, but they don't gain anything from being thrust together this way. I suppose you could say that the stories being unalike makes each more interesting, but for me that explanation doesn't jibe. So, while this graphic novel is neither bad nor exceptionally good. it just ends up somewhere in the middle for me. YMMV, of course.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Women Warriors by Teena Apeles

Women throughout history have not stood still and been good girls, good wives or good daughters- they stood and fought- for their people, for themselves, for freedom and autonomy.

This book by Teena Apeles gives the stories of women who fought, whether in a physical manner, or in writing, or in sports. Many of the examples are fairly well-known, from the Amazons to Joan of Arc, while others are more obscure, in the west, in any case. Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, Tomoe Gozen, female samurai of Japan, Lozen, an Apache warrior woman, and the Trung Sisters of Vietnam, as well as Boadicea are all given extensive writeups, and dozens more are given a small writeup in various different sections.

But in addition to the real-life women profiled, Teena Apeles also gives us women who are totally fictional, yet also aspire to the warrior spirit, like Wonder Woman (aka Princess Diana of the Amazons) and Storm of the X-men- even the Powerpuff Girls! Modern day Icons like Buffy Summers also have their place in this book.

This is a rather slim book, but covers quite a few notable women. Some of the "warriors" are more like sports stars, like Venus and Serena Williams- not exactly what I think of when I think of "Women Warriors", exactly, so the concept does get stretched more than a little. But still, girls looking for brave and valorous women to read about will find plenty to enjoy in this book.

This reminds me of the "Uppity Women" books- women who broke the mold, only for teenagers. But this one is more limited- to women who fought. It seems that Ms. Apeles should have looked up those women as well, and filled out this book a little better.

Don't get me wrong, I liked the book, I just thought there should have been a little more substance to it. But YMMV. Recommended.

Skulduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire by Derek Landy

Skullduggery Pleasant and his associate, Valkyrie Cain, are just finishing up a case where they collared the not-so-bad wizard Scapegrace, who is desperate to be horrible and feared, but just can't manage it.

After Valkyrie captures him, she and Skulduggery are immediately confronted with another problem. A really bad wizard has escaped from a supposedly ultra-secure prison, and this is a very bad thing. His name is Baron Vengeous, and he was once a follower of the Necromancer known as Lord Vile.

Vile sought to bring The Faceless Ones back from where they were banished long ago, and Vengeous completely agreed with Vile's plan, and now that his master is dead, he's out to See his master's plan come to fruition.

But Vengeus is no simple villain. He has followers of his own, like Dusk, a vampire, and those who don't follow him can be hired, like Springheel Jack and Billy Ray Sanguine. But he needs a few things to bring back the Faceless Ones- like Lord Vile's armor of Death and shadows, and to bring back a creature known as the Grotesquery, made from bits and pieces of other creatures so vile that many of them no longer exist.

And to bring the Grotesquery to life, he needs one thing, the blood of Valkyrie Cain. But then, she's wanted dead by a lot of people, including something known as the Torment, who wants her dead precisely because her blood can be used in such a fashion- and because she is one of the last living descendants of the Ancients, a group who were enemies of the Faceless Ones, but equally as objectionable in their own way.

But when Vengeous succeeds in finding and donning the armor, he's a significant portion of the way on his path to the goal. And only Skulduggery and Valkyrie stand in his way. But Valkryie is dealing with her own problems, including family and an increasing dependence on her reflection to live life with her family while she goes on "adventures" with Skulduggery. But eventually,something is going to have to give. But when Vengeous and Dusk target her family, will Valkyrie be able to save them? Will she even want to?

And there is the question of how Baron Vengeous escaped from his supposedly escape-proof prison. Can one of the good guys be on Vengeous and Vile's side? And how far up is he placed in the Council's Hierarchy?

I like this series of novels, both because of what it has (fantastic adventures) and because it points out the cost Valkyrie is paying to have these adventures- she spends so much time apart from her family that she no longer even really knows them well any more- including the two she really loves, her parents.

Because she has chosen to enter the game so young, Valkyrie is missing out on her real life with her parents. And yes, the rest of her family may be horrible people, but she isn't even spending time with her mom and dad anymore- and that just doesn't seem healthy. Only time will tell how this comes to affect her in the future.

The rest of the adventure is fairly thrilling, but most of the tension seems to come from her running up against the problem of what Valkyrie is doing to herself in the name of her pursuit of adventure, right up until near the end, that almost seems the bigger dilemma, no matter what else is happening, ad it's clear that this will carry over further into other books.

I liked the story, and I like the continuing story of Valkyrie Cain and Skulduggery as they work together. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kindred in Death by J.D. Robb

Deena MacMasters is a serious, shy sixteen year old, and the daughter of a cop. But when her parents come home for a trip celebrating her father's recent promotion to Captain, they find her brutally murdered in their home.

The first person they want investigating their daughter's death is Lieutenant Eve Dallas, who is already busy with preparations for the wedding of her friend Louise Diamatto. But Eve can't resist the pull of investigating the murder of a defenseless and innocent young girl, especially when the victim's family asked for her specifically.

But the murder scene almost stops Eve dead. The sight of Deena MacMaster's brutalized body brings back many bad memories of her own past, and it's all she can do to stay focussed on the case. She immediately identifies with Deena, and even though all cops hate the death of the young with a special intensity, Eve vows to find the killer and bring him to justice.

First they probe Deena's background, but she is exactly what she seems to be. However, they discover from her best friend that Deena had met a boy named David, who she was meeting behind her parents' back and without their knowledge. Great suspicion almost immediately falls on him, but thanks to the killer taking Deena's link and pocketbook, in which she kept her diary and journal, he is a cipher.

As Eve works to discover the identity of "David", they find a music disc he made for her in Deena's room, on which he taped her making coerced statements denouncing her father and telling him that she hated him. Also on it is a personal message for Captain MacMasters, informing him that the death of his daughter is payback.

But payback for what? Eve must assume it was something MacMasters did personally, as simply supervising a bust shouldn't make him responsible in the eyes of someone for the downfall of the person his officers arrested. But when another dead body turns up, murdered in the same way as Deena and with many of the same signs of torture, Eve is going to have to find the connection between them, as well as the real identity of the killer, before he strikes again, all the while balancing the murder investigation and the marriage of one of her closest friends.

I love Eve and Roarke, and the book begins with them enjoying a lazy afternoon together, but before they can escape to a lovely island getaway, Eve is called in by her own Commander as a favor to be the Primary on the Homicide.

In this book, we get to see Eve driven as never before. And also affected as never before, by the death of a young girl who Eve could possibly have been if not for her abusive father. Deena's death gets under her skin, and Roark, being the loving husband he is, supports her to the max. But at the same time, he grows to understand Eve a little better when he sees how she puts herself into each victim as the crime is unfolding in a highly personal way. And he realizes that while he is both mentally and physically strong, Eve outclasses him- he could not stand to do what she does, over and over and over on a daily basis, and he is both awed and saddened by Eve's ability. Awed that she can do it, saddened that she has to.

This is one of the most affecting cases of Eve's career. The idea of such a young girl being tortured in the way that she was is horrifying, but the horror is offset by the humor of how Eve feels so completely unable to deal with the "girlie stuff" surrounding the wedding of Louise Dimatto. But it's not only the worry, there is a genuine warmth between Eve and Louise that shows the softer side of Eve's personality.

I know that everyone else who loves this book seems to be waiting for Eve and Roark to put forth progeny, but it seems that Nora Roberts has decreed that neither character really wants to have children, due to their pasts. And honestly, I can't argue with that. I also like that "Happily Ever After" doesn't have to include children. (You can read another reason here: )

I love this series, and while not everyone seems to like Eve, I like this smart, funny, thrilling series, which features the romance stuff that shows why Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb is such a well-loved writer. I love the characters, I love the mysteries, and each one only seems to get better and better. This book is no exception. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris

Harper Connelly is in touch with the dead. Ever since she was struck by Lightning as a teenager, she's been able to sense the presence of dead bodies and tell how they died. She and her adopted brother Tolliver travel the country, making a living by finding dead bodies.

Now they are on their way to Texas to visit their two half-sisters, Grace and Mariella, who were adopted by Harper's aunt Iona and her husband Henry. Harper and Tolliver have a fairly adversarial relationship with the two, but they were the only ones in the family able and willing to adopt the two girls.

On the way, they stop in Texarkana to do a job for a rich woman named Lizzie Joyce. Her grandfather was found dead by his car almost ten years ago, and she wants Harper to tell her why her father died. But first she tests Harper with other bodies in the family grave plot.

One of the other bodies, her grandfather's caretaker, proves to be a surprise, because the woman died from a hemmorage after giving birth. They are surprised, and accuse her of being wrong, but she was right about the other bodies, and she tells them that Lizzie's Grandfather dies of a heart attack when someone threw a snake at him.

While Harper knows that there will be no proof of the cause of Rich Joyce, but they can look into the death of his caregiver, Mirranda Parish. Lizzie Joyce looks intrigued and says that she will. And then Harper and Tolliver leave to go to Dallas and spend time with their sisters.

Harper has always wanted to live with her sisters, and now that she and Tolliver are together, she wants to adopt them. But Tolliver isn't sure that they should. He thinks they are being disruptive to their sister's lives with Ione and Henry. Harper is hurt, and when she realizes that Ione has been bad-mouthing her to her sisters, that really rankles.

Worse, Tolliver's father is out of jail, and wants to be in contact with them again- especially their sisters, but neither Tolliver nor Harper want to spend time with him. They are still too angry and traumatized by how their druggie parents neglected them. He pleads that he wants to do better, but neither really believe him. Tolliver's brother Mark seems to have a better opinion of their father, but both Harper and Tolliver want nothing to do with him- they don't even believe him.

While they are in Dalla, Lizzie Joyce calls them to find the name of a good private investigator, and Harper recommends her friend Victoria Flores. Shortly afterwards, Tolliver is shot in the shoulder, sending Harper into a tailspin as she struggles to be strong.

But who would want to shoot Tolliver? Harper has no idea, and when one of the detectives on the case suggests that it might have been her that the unknown shooter was aiming at, she ignores it. But when someone tries to shoot her a few nights later, and a detective takes the bullet for her, she has to face the distinct possibility that someone wants her dead for some reason.

But why? The Joyces were the last case that she took on- could it have something to do with either Rich Joyce or Mirranda Parish's death? And then another spectre from the past raises its head: Harper's sister Cameron disappeared not long after Harper was struck by lightning, and Harper and Tolliver have looked for her ever since. But what could have happened to her?

As Harper struggles to keep herself and her brother safe, she realizes that the two cases come together in an extraordinary way. But who will turn out to be the real culprit, and can Harper discover the truth before anyone else is hurt or killed? It's already too late to help Victoria, but who else will have to die?

Harper and Tolliver have finally found love with each other, and, of course, everyone in their family is shocked and horrified, believing it to be wrong or unnatural or "not right", even though their entire family is extremely disfunctional to begin with. But little do they know that the job for Lizzie Joyce will completely change the dynamics of the family.

It was nice to see Harper standing strong and tall on her own, and to finally solve the case of her sister's disappearance, which has been troubling her since the series began, but the end was really shocking, and I never suspected who the real culprit was. It was also nice to see the return of Manfred, and the fact that while Harper might be in love with Tolliver- she's still human, and she still looks. But as she acknowledges- as long as that's all she does, it doesn't make her a bad person.

I liked how Harper and Tolliver waded their way through their family problems and managed to connect with the few decent family members they have left. They've come to a conclusion about their sisters, and both are happy with the decision, and they have managed to finally solve the one mystery that has really driven and irked them both for years. Not without pain and cost. And it's a very high cost, but it seems that life for Harper and Tolliver will be at least somewhat less screwed up for them in the future.

This is a wonderful book, and it seems to be setting up something of a change in the series for the main characters. Nothing will be the same for them, but in a good way. I can't wait to read the next book. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Why Men Love Bitches by Sherry Argov

Too many women, when they fall in love, give everything of themselves to the man they are in a relationship with, always being there for them, seeing them and clearing their schedule no matter how late they call, and generally becoming the man's little lapdog. Then, when the man cheat, or simply leaves, telling them that the spark is no longer there. they wonder what they did wrong, and resolve to be more open, more giving, more everything to the next man.

Whoa, sister! says Sherry Argov. Men may fall in love with you, but if you turn yourself into a doormat for love, the chase becomes a certain catch, and the man will lose interest. So, what does it really take to keep a man's interest? A bitch, that's what.

"Bitch" in the sense of "Babe In Total Control of Herself". A Bitch is not a ball-buster or someone who treats men like dirt. No, a bitch is a strong woman who not only refuses to be a doormat, but refuses to let herself be treated by one by the man she is interested in. Because if a man treats you like an easy booty call whenever he needs or wants one, why will he ever respect you? If you are so easily won, easily kept and let your man do anything he wants and get away with anything, he will neither respect you nor want you.

The way to get out of this trap is to be a bitch. Don't hang yourself on a man's opinions or wants- or needs for that matter. Be an old-fashioned lady, and be cool make him work to impress you, work to have to try and catch you, and he'll not only respect you, you'll be the one he keeps wanting to chase- because he can never really be sure that he's completely won you. And the fact that you can stand on your own will make him respect you much more.

You needn't be a tease, just keep a sense of your own boundaries, and a sense of yourself. Sherry Argov lays out the male mind, and sets out 100 "Attraction Principles" that will help you keep your feistiness and keep you from being a doormat to a man. Don't turn into a glob of jelly for a man. Keep yourself and who you are intact. Be a bitch, and watch the men come running to your door!

I admit that I picked up this book for the title alone, but in truth, it was the message in the pages that kept me interested, and kept me reading. And it's not only your man who will respect you more if you keep your head and your self-esteem and dignity- your friends and loved ones will, too.

It's not by becoming a cruel, hateful and controlling or vindictive woman that a woman becomes a bitch- even though that is the usual stereotype of the bitchy woman. It's about standing a little apart from a man, by not allowing him to call all the shots, not giving up and giving in to a man's every whim. Not allowinga man to get away with treating you like less than a lady or an easy booty call. It's about standing up for yourself. It's about not being an easy catch or an easy lay. it's about being dignified- and not giving up that dignity simply to catch or hold a man- because that never works.

Women have always been told that they have to be nice. Well, we do, but we don't have to be too nice. It's a very easy trap to fall into- but there are others as well. This book will help you to avoid those traps. If you're not in a relationship now, this book will help you avoid becoming road kill in your next one, and if you are in one now, and feel that the two of you have lost the spark, this book might help you recapture it.

I recommend this book highly. it has some truths all women should hear, and if your man is treating you badly, this book will help you rediscover your spine. Don't be doormat. Don't allow yourself to be treated like one. Be a bitch, and reap the benefits.

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

First Lord Gaius Sixtus is dead, and the Vord are sweeping across the continent of Alera as if nothing can stand in their way. The only hope for Alera is Tavi, better known as Gaius Octavian. But where is he?

Tavi is travelling back to Alera from Canea with the last remaining Canim, whom he rescued before their own lands were overrun by the Vord. Because they didn't nearly have enough ships, he and the Legions constructed vast ships of ice to bring the remaining Canim with them. But that is causing him some problems, because the Canim who aren't soldiers are ruled over by the ritualists, who use blood in their magic.

Some use their own blood- they aren't the problem. Some use the blood of others- and they are very angry and upset that the Canim have allied with the Aleran "Demons". One of them is causing major trouble for Tavi, convincing some of the Cane to try and take Tavi out. But if Tavi kills the Canim Shaman, it will cause him more trouble and undermine the Warrior Leader, Varg.

At the same time, Tavi's relationship with Kitai takes a rough turn. He wants to marry her, but he's having a physical relationship with her, and she discovers that this could cause him problems when he comes to be First Lord, as the council is trying to have him removed from the throne- in favor of the council, of course. And Kitai doesn't want anything to happen to give the council more ammunition. She demands to be romanced like an Aleran gentlewoman, which totally nonplusses Tavi.

Meanwhile, under the tutelage of the Fury known as Alera, Tavi is attempting to master his vast powers of Furycraft, because he is going to need them to defeat the Vord and their queen. However, Alera, composed of the many furies who have made this their land, is slowly dissolving and dying with the destruction of the great mosaic of Alera, and Tavi will be unable to save her, which makes him sad.

The other first lords have withdrawn to the city of Riva, where more and more refugees pour into day after day, stretching the ability of the Earthcrafters to feed them and the other knights and Lords to protect them. The Vord and the Croach which sustains them are spreading over the continent, and Tavi must find a way to cross the continent quickly. But he's hurt the Vord Queen by stealing away the humans kept in her reservation, so she retaliates by stealing the human who means something to him- his mother, Isana.

Meanwhile, the Vord move on Riva, and Aquilis, Tavi's adopted brother and husband to the traitor Invidiana, confronts her in the city of Riva, and is poisoned by a Vord Chitin weapon. He and the other lords, realizing that the situation in Riva is hopeless, retreat to the Calderon Valley, where Bernard has been preparing for the final battle against the Vord. But as Tavi advances across Alera, coming to be the hammer to smash the Vord against the Anvil of Calderon Valley, can anyone manage to survive?

This last book was more than a fitting end to the series, it was amazing. So much happens and so many things change for Alera- change that is sorely needed, from slavery being banned to sharing their continent with the other races and non-humans to the way that citizens and people with strong furycrafting powers will no longer be at the top of the food chain, so to speak.

But some strong threads are dropped as well. Crassus, who has been a friend to Tavi, discovers that Tavi lied to him and that his traitor mother is still alive, albeit as a collared slave, using her watercrafting skills as a healer. When Crassus finds out, he is upset at Tavi and rejects him. And that's where it ends. We don't see if they find a way to make up or not, although it's implied that their friendship simply ends there. It's so abrupt that it feels strange.

But the foes are dealt with in a very satisfying and final fashion, and although we get to see a more vulnerable side to the Vord Queen, it's not enough to make her a sympathetic villain. Yes, she may be something of a slave to her instincts, but by this time she and her children have killed so many people and perpetrated so much evil that it's really too little, too late. But the final battle, and her fate, is very satisfyingly ended, although the end of the book doesn't really end with all plot points resolved.

My biggest problem with the book is that, yes, it's long, but there was so much left unresolved about how Alera was going to recover from what had happened to it, not to mention take on the Vord Queens in the Canim lands, deal with the Croach that now covers much of Alera, feed the people, and so on, that it still felt way too short- like there was a book missing. And yes, this is supposed to be the last book in the series.

This is a great book, but not one you can just pick up if you have never read any others in the series. So much has already gone on, and not much of the book is devoted to a recap of the story so far- except that we do get to see what happened to other characters during some of the events in the last book, Princep's Fury. I do recommend it, but with that Caveat, and that you may not find the ending totally satisfying because it almost feels too short.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Torch of Freedom by David Weber and Eric Flint

Queen Berry of the planet Torch is a nineteen year old who is almost assassinated at her coronation. The slaves who made her Queen are rather perturbed that anyone would try to kill her, and pretty much everyone thinks that the Assassin came from the Corporation known as Manpower.

But Manpower, which makes its money from genetic slavery, is very strange for a corporation. It doesn't always seem to act like a corporation acts, and uses business practices that make no sense from a business standpoint- operating at a severe loss and giving certain corporate allies severe discounts, which make them operate at an even further loss.

Nor is Manpower the only entity making a profit from slavery. But freed slaves, and those opposed to genetic slavery- or slavery of any stripe, including the terrorist group known as the Audobon ballroom, makes it their mission to track down slavers and put them forcibly out of business.

One such group of slavers is using an old amusement park based around the planet Ameta, owned by a family known as the Parmleys. The Parmleys built the park and still run it, but it has never really been a going concern, and they are in no real position to throw the slavers off of their facility. So, when the slavers showed up, they fought them- twice, but lost so many family members that they had to make an accomodation with the slavers or be wiped out. So, the slavers keep to their section of the station/amusement park, and the family keeps to theirs.

But when a group of slaver-hunters lands and exterminates the slavers, the family is afraid that the slaver-hunters will want to kill them for treating with the slavers, because the Audobon Ballroom doesn't take kindly to that sort of thing. But with the accession of Queen Berry and the freeing of Torch, the Ballroom has given up its more terroristic ways, even though they still want to bring down Manpower.

The head of the family travels to Torch, along with some members of her family, hoping that the Ballroom will buy their amusement park and use it as an anti-slaver fortress. Though the amusment park belongs to their family, they no longer have the money to leave- or buy prolong treatments for their children. So they hope they can convince Jeremy X to be generous.

But in the meantime, another assassination attempt is made on Queen Berry, and she and her advisors sit down to get through the problem of Manpower once and for all. Two of her advisors, the Havenite spy and spymaster Victor Cachat and Manticorean Anton Zilwicki head to Mesa to plumb the depths of the corporation to see who was really behind the first assassination- and prevent any more.

Meanwhile, on Mesa, a security officer known as Jack McBryde is put in charge of an angry and distraught scientist named Herlander Simões. Both are members of the Alpha elite, and Herlander is angry that the girl he raised as his daughter, whom he deeply, truly loved, was deemed to be useless and destroyed when she developed massive autism suddenly.

Herlander wanted to keep her alive, and to keep his hope of having her recover, but the decision was take away from him, and now he is desperately angry and in danger of losing it. He doesn't even have his wife any more, for she left him. Now McBride is to keep him from cracking up as long as Herlander is working on a top secret drive project.

To do so, he talks to Herlander and tries to act as a sounding board. But as he does so, he's forced to confront some hard truths about his own society and comes to question the basis of what he's believed his entire life. But can two men really make a great change in their own society?

And meanwhile, Torch must once again be defended when a bunch of disgruntled Havenite Pirates are hired by Manpower to Eliminate the "problem" of Torch and Queen Berry once and for all. But with only a bunch of refitted merchant ships, can the Sollies defend Torch and emerge victorious?

I liked this book, even if it wasn't quite as thrilling as the books starring Honor Harrington. Part of this was because with so many "main characters", the story focus, even if they are all offshoots or subplots around the main thread, sometimes lacks cohesion and feels a bit unfocused.

So who is the main character here? I'd say Torch, since it is the focus around which all plots revolve, even that of Queen Berry, if you can say that a planet is a character. Perhaps it's the idea of what Torch represents- freedom and hope for those born as genetic slaves- through no fault of their own, they are ostracized for their origins.

By the end of the story, a new blow has been struck for the freedom of "gennies", and we have learned more about the structure of Manpower- but more importantly, so have the Audobon Ballroom and the rest of the galaxy- learned the true reason why genetic slavery and Manpower really exist, and who is really behind it. We haven't seen the impact of that knowledge, but I have a feeling that it will be like a dropped bomb- but Torch and Queen Berry's problems won't be over quite yet.

I recommend this book. Yes, the story may seem scattered and unfocused at points, but when things start to move, they really start to move, and the action races to a spellbinding finish that will make you unable to put the book down. A really wonderful story.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal

Halloween makes many people nervous. Some Christians dislike it for its Pagan roots, others feel it glorifies Satan and the forces of Darkness, while some people just remember the "Poisoned Candy" scares of the 1970's. But many people simply think of Halloween as a kid's Holiday, one where they get dressed up and get escorted from house to house, trolling for candy. And some think of it as nothing more than that.

But why does America celebrate Halloween, and where did the celebration come from? In truth, not only America celebrates a holiday like Halloween. In Mexico, they Celebrate "La Dia de las Muertos", or "The Day of the Dead", where families remember their beloved dead, and go to the cemetery to clean up graves, construct an Offrenda, or altar, which they fill with flowers and things that their loved ones enjoyed to entice them back. On the last day, they actually eat a meal at the cemetery with their ancestors, after which they let them return to the land of the dead for another year- and although Mexico is Christian, this celebration mingles Native Central American traditions with those to make a holiday uniquely there own, complete with plenty of Sugar skulls to be eaten and art showing skeletons enjoying all sorts of things they did in life.

Author David J. Skal crosses the nation to tease out stories and truth behind America's holiday most situated around death. He plumbs the real story behind the "Poisoned Candy" myth, which only occurred once and was the story of a father who poisoned his own son, not some neighbor bent on murdering an innocent child- and the motive was profit. He explores the European Pagan traditions that led to Halloween, and the purely American traditions which followed it.

But for some, Halloween isn't just a scary holiday, it's sacred. Skal also interviews American Neo-Pagans, who keep alive the Pagan holiday of Samhain (pronounced Sow-En, not Sam Hane), the time when the walls between the world of the living and the world of the dead are particularly thin.

The book also moves on to examine modern-day Halloween, and the people who go out of their way to turn their front yards, houses and/or backyards into places of horror. One Horror Master is profiled, along with the way he horrifies his neighbors, with some very interesting pictures, from the year an "alien" crash-landed on his roof to him transforming from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde.

I found this book rather enjoyable, from the history of Halloween to how Halloween is practiced in America. Currently, it's seen as mostly a kid's holiday. But before, it was primarily an adult holiday, for adults to go out and party on. It may be returning to that a very little bit now, but its fair to say that there are still more child parties on and for Halloween than adult ones, and that for all the "sexy witch" or whatever costumes that are sold to adults, you'll find more kids dressing up than their parents.

And yet, American Halloween celebrations are something very much unlike the celebrations of other nations and peoples. American Halloween is less about sacredness and more about having fun and getting candy. While other countries celebrate ties to dead family members- none more so than Mexico's Los Dios de Las Muertas, Americans have transformed those celebrations into something much shallower than that. Often, the connection with the original meaning of the Holiday is lost.

This was a fascinating book to read, but I found the history of the holiday more interesting than the way it is celebrated today. The rest of it was interesting, too, but I felt the holiday came off rather shallowly in comparison to other celebrations. Recommended.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker, Dough Mahnke, Patrick Zircher and Aaron Sowd

Batman is still something of an urban legend when the city is troubled by murders perpetrated by a white-skinned, green-haired killer with an insane laugh, who makes it his own personal mission to go around killing Gotham's Lions of Industry, by making them look just like him, and die laughing.

But why is he killing these people and what does he want? Can an insane man truly want anything that the rest of the world can understand? Batman tries to bring him down, but he keeps running into, and up against, Police Comissioner James Gordon. And when Batman's alter-ego Bruce Wayne becomes a target of the Joker, he's going to have to really work hard to protect his true identity from being discovered by Jim Gordon- and everyone else!

But what is the Joker's true target? Can Batman find out and bring the Joker down before he unleashes his diabolical plan on the people he hates the most?

The second story, "Made of Wood" has the retired Jim Gordon discovering a corpse in the park with the words "Made of Wood" carved into his chest, dumped at the base of a statue of the first Green Lantern. Batman takes him for a ride, and says that since the original Green Lantern's weakness was wood, as well as the dumping ground, convince him that this has something to do with the Green Lantern specifically.

Bruce calls Alan Scott, the secret identity of the first Green Lantern, and asks him what he knows about the killings, since Scott was trying to bring down a "Made of Wood" killer during his own heydey in Gotham. The problem is that the killer was never caught, and the Killings just abruptly stopped.

But even as Batman and Green Lantern try to track down today's killer, and see if he's a mere copycat or the same killer from back then, Jim Gordon is also on the case. But when he stumbles onto the killer, can Batman and Green Lantern rescue him in time to keep him from being the latest victim of the "Made of Wood" killer?

I enjoyed both stories in this volume. The one of the Joker is meant to be the Batman's first case against the Joker as his foe, but honestly, I don't remember what the introduction of the Joker was in the original run of the comic. But this one is definitely worthy of being considered a classic. Seeing the cops deal with a real crazy- someone who is so insane, yet smart and able to plan while creating almost pure chaos, is very effective, and leaves you with a creepy feeling. And if you keep in mind that while the readers know who and what the Joker is, neither Batman nor the Police do, at this point.

"Made of Wood" is another creepily effective story. The original Green Lantern is another character I haven't read much of, and I have no idea why he looks so youthful in this story. I'm assuming that his lantern, which runs on magic, has something to do with it. This is another crazy-scary killer, and for a time, we even get to see the world through his own eyes- twisted, distorted and skewed. The best part of the story is how well Batman works and gets along with Green Lantern- seeing the two characters working the same case is an unexpected pleasure, and well worth the cost of the entire graphic novel.

I liked the juxtaposition of the two stories, both dealing with crazy killers, but two different kinds of crazy. Both stories can make a shiver crawl down your spine, even if the one about the Joker is muted because readers already know the character. But the "Made of Wood" killer is unknown, and therefore scarier because unknown means completely unpredictable- and I did prefer "Made of Wood" out of the two stories because of that. But both of them are worth the read, and this is a graphic novel you are going to want to buy- the stories are pure delight to read. Highly recommended.

After Dark: A Vamps Novel by Nancy A. Collins

Cally Monture is attending the Premier event of Vampire Society, the Rauhnacht Ball with her "Father", Baron Metzger, because Cally's real father, Victor Todd, is escorting her half-sister, Lilith. But Baron Metzger introduces Cally to Sister Midnight, a female vampire who owns the most exclusive boutique in the city, and when Sister Midnight learns that Cally made her own dress, she wants to see what else Cally has made, and wants to introduce a line of Clothes made by Cally at her boutique.

But the Ball is crashed by the Van Helsings, and Cally learns from Peter, the boy she saved and was interested in, that the Van Helsings have attacked her mother. She is furious with him, and when she comes across his father, and his father tries to kill her, she touches him, and a shadow destroys the man. Peter witnesses her killing his father, and even though he disagreed with his father, this makes him Cally's enemy.

Meanwhile, the other vampires fight the Van Helsings, and there are deaths on both sides, including Irina Todd, Lilith's mother. But while most girls would be upset and angry that their mother is dead, Lilith is more upset that her mother's blood right is gone, and throws a tantrum that makes her father seriously angry with her.

Meanwhile, Cally has manifested the Shadow Hand, which it was thought died out long ago in the blood. But the news that she is half-human means she must be questioned by the Vampire Council. She is more anxious to get home and see to her mother, but Baron Metzger proceeds her and tells her that her mother is gone.

With her mother dead, Cally has nowhere to go, so the Baron moves her into his apartment. While she is there, she makes changes to some sketches for a new line of clothing coming from one of the Baron's Designer lines, and when she realizes what she has done, she apologizes, but he's not angry. In fact, he feels her sketching has made things better, and he submits them to the head designer, who is also approving.

Lilith continues her snit, which gets on her father's absolute last nerve, and he puts some restrictions on her life which she feels are overly harsh. But she is determined to live her own life and go her own way, come hell or high water. And when Cally is given her own show by Sister Midnight, Lilith musclea her way into the show as a model with the threat of sinking the show if she doesn't get her way, and Cally is forced to agree.

But will Lilith's desire for fame at the cost of everyone else around her end up ruining Cally's show? And will Lilith be able to live with Cally if Cally becomes more famous and celebrated than she is? Lilith won't be happy as long as anyone else is on the radar, but can she get what she wants?

Wow, for such a tiny book (190 pages) a lot happened. Mot necessarily physically, although the ball battle scene was extremely well-described, and succinct. Once again, Cally arouses the reader's sympathy, and Lilith completely loses it for acting like a complete and total self-centered bitch. I mean, not even caring that your mother died because all you cared about is that you'd lose some servants? Not cool at all.

In fact, its hard to see any redeeming features in Lilith Todd at all. She's sly, scheming, and while she pretends to care for people, it's only in pursuit of her own ends, and once you have fulfilled her needs, she'll drop you like a dead skunk. No matter what she pretends to feel, it's only always and ever about her.

This isn't true about Cally, the main protagonist, who is much more real and sympathetic. While she believes her mother is dead, things are going well for her. Her real father has finally taken her into his house by the end, and her status as a designer is shooting off the charts. But now she will have to share a house with Lilith. Can she deal? I'm sure she will, but I can't wait to read more.

What can I say? my only complaint is that the book wasn't long enough, I wanted to read even more, you know I enjoyed it... maybe a little too much. But it really was an enjoyable read, and I can't wait for the next, I just hope it's going to be longer than this one. Recommended.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Goddess is in the Details by Deborah Blake

A lot of people have been attracted to witchcraft, either from popular literature (TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or from the many Wiccan books published, like "Teen Witch" by Silver Ravenwolf. But Wicca, real Wicca, is more than spellcasting and calling on a Goddess instead of a God, or a Goddess *and* a God in addition to just a God. Wicca is a religion, and a way of life.

You don't need to eschew your house in the city, leave modern life behind, and move to a log cabin in the woods where you will have to heat it with firewood and eat only food you've hunted, gathered or harvested yourself. It might be a little harder to be tied to nature's cycles when you live in a town or city, but it's still possible to do so.

Deborah Blake gives six sections on how to be a better Wiccan, going from the Everyday things to the Inner Witch, the Outer Witch, Social Witch, Practicing Witch and Natural Witch. At each step, she discusses small steps that any Wiccan can take every day to be a better, deeper, more thoughtful child of the God and Goddess. Each step is small, and fairly easy, from stopping repeating bad statements about yourself to yourself, to how to deal, sanely and rationally, with others when they find out about your religion to maintaining a clean and healthy home without resorting to cleaners that are bad for the earth on which we live.

A whole chapter is devoted to the issue of Hatred. Many people will hate Wiccans simply because of who and what they are, but it's best not to deal in hatred in return, no matter how tempting it is. Do Wiccans want to be like the people who hate them? Can they afford to be, emotionally and spiritually? Or can they be better than those who hate and fear them?

Other topics include Sex and the single pagan, relationships with Non-Pagans, and raising Pagan children, among others and the many pagan holidays, along with working both as a single witch and with a coven, and the pros and cons of both.

This is a wonderful book for Wiccans, though it's not the basics. Not quite advanced stuff, either, but things that are important for Wiccans to think about. Things that will deepen your faith and make you a better witch.

From Covening to solitary work, and with a lot of discussion of the stereotypes and how not to fit them, or fall victim to them, this book is one than any Wiccan will find interesting and thought-provoking. Each chapter is like a meditation with a short paragraph at the end as to how to apply it to your own life.

I highly recommend this book to any interested Wiccans and Pagans out there. It's the kind of book that makes you think about your life and beliefs, and allows you to greatly change your life with simple exercises that will make a world of difference.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Vein of Deceit by Susannah Gregory

Matthew Bartholemew has given up looking for the woman he loves, Mathilde, and returned to the college where he teaches and works. Michaelhouse is unexpectedly short of funds, which is strange because they recently took on an entire new group of students, complete with their tuitions. But the situation has gotten so bad that the food from the kitchens is barely edible, and worse than that, someone has stolen the pair of silver Chalices given to Michaelhouse by its founder.

But more than just money is wanting. After Matthew is summoned to side of a dying woman, he discovers that several medicines are missing from his stores, and one of them, Pennyroyal, is what killed his sister's friend, Dame Joan Elyan. He worries that one of his own students could have taken it from his stores, and given it to the woman- although for what reason he cannot say. Nobody but him seems to trust his students, and now he's wondering if he has been hasty in extending that trust.

Just before a weekly debate, Matthew is asked to attend upon the College's head, Langlee, and look through the college's books. What he discovers is startling. 30 Marks, a great deal of money, is missing from the college's books, and appears to have been spent on coal, pigs and wood- but the college never received the goods. Wynewyk, the Michaelhouse treasurer, seems to be to blame, but before anyone can question him, he dies at the college debate, apparently from laughing too long and loudly.

But his death means that Matthew and his colleague, Brother Michael, cannot question him to discover the truth about what happened to the College's money. It's no secret that Wynewyk was a scoundrel and a cheat, but Langlee hoped that Wynewyk would use his legendary powers of double-dealing and craftiness on behalf of the college, not use them to cheat the college. But Langlee, who once checked up often on Wynewyk's figures, had grown to trust him, and no longer kept so strict a watch on their colleague.

Now, the only solution is for Matthew and Brother Michael to go to Suffolk and retrieve the college's missing money. But there, they discover that the money is part of a dispute between two towns over a strange coal mine. And one of the men involved in the dispute is the husband of the pregnant woman who may have been killed with Matthew's Pennyroyal. She was pregnant, and had her child lived, it would have substantially altered the outcome of the matter, which also involves another college nearby.

But that's not all they'll discover on the road. For more is lurking in Suffolk than just the answers to the mysteries and problems besetting Matthew, Brother Michael, the rest of the scholars of Michaelhouse. Because another set of villains lurks, waiting to be exposed... but can Matthew stand for the truth to be shown?

I have always enjoyed the Matthew Bartholemew books, ever since I read my first, "A Plague on Both Your Houses", and the prediction I made when I read the last book in the series came true in this one, that as soon as Matthew stopped looking for Matilda, we'd probably see her turn up again. And yes, but for now, she is being kept a secret from him.

In a way, this book's title is very appropriate, more so than even most of the books in this series, as everything in the book is based on lies. The lies of different characters to each other, to themselves, and to those who love them twists and distorts the lives of everyone in the book, Matthew included. I loved how each piece of information eventually came to hold some importance to the plot, although I did twig to one important item immediately.

I also loved the continuity of the characters. Many secondary (and even tertiary) characters from past books return, whether they are indigent patients of Matthew, unable to pay for their medicines, so he gives them the medicine for free, his students, the scholars and teachers at Michaelhouse, Matthew's sister and other characters have all appeared before. But here, we see them begin to pay him back for his care of them with their own help. It was very nice to see, and heartwarming to read.

Read this book, and you will find a well-crafted medieval mystery with great characters who exhibit real human frailties and cunning insight. But these aren't just cardboard characters, but ones that will become close to your heart, who you can cheer on and root for, and that's what you have here. Recommended.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Shadowlight by Lynn Viehl

Jessa Bellamy is the adopted daughter of a rich man, but an incident in her past made her change her name and take on a different identity. Now, she has her own company where she and her employees probe the backgrounds of prospective employees for different companies. But whereas most rely on background checks, fingerprints and other high-tech devices to probe the prospective employees, Jessa Bellamy relies on a simple handshake.

A handshake, because when she touches someone's skin, she can see their worst moments play out in her mind, and she can tell if they are honest or dishonest. And sometimes, she can read the minds of someone that the person she is touching has had physical contact with.

What she sees in the latest woman she is checking out makes her very concerned. First of all, the woman is only applying to steal from the company. But she is working for a man, her lover, who is only using her. Once she has done the theft, he is going to kill her, then abscond with her ill-gotten gains. Jessa, knowing that she must do something, informs the FBI about her suspicions from a pay phone far from her office, but this time, she is not alone. Someone is following her.

That "someone" is Gaven Matthias, and he wants to save Jessa from a company called GenHance, a company who supposedly is all about finding cures for genetic diseases, but in reality is about finding a way to create perfect soldiers for anyone who can pay for them. They have found out about Jessa's talent, and want to extract her means of doing it from her DNA- and to do so, they will have to kill her. Gaven's seen it happen before, and he doesn't want it to happen to Jessa- because he's started to fall for her.

When Jessa is contacted by GenHance to do background checks on their employees for a new subsidiary of GenHance being built in the area, she immediately agrees, and a meeting is set for her at a French Restaurant named Cecile with a man named Dennis Lawson. Lawson plans to drug her and take her out during the meal, but before he can do so, Gaven rushes in, to find that she has been faking being drugged. She shoves her entree in Lawson's face and Gaven cuts him badly before they escape outside.

There, Gaven tells her that she must come with him before she is killed, and she reluctantly accompanies him. In his car, she attempts to use her power on Gaven to see what kind of man he is, but only gets an image of an avalanche and a snowstorm, which confuses her and puts her to sleep.

When she wakes, she is in Gaven's secret underground lair, along with his associate, Rowan, a peppery-tongued cook who takes an instant dislike to Jessa, calling her "Queenie". As Jessa fights her attraction to the man who kidnapped her, she discovers that many of the things he is telling her are true.

But back at GenHance, Dennis Lawson, terribly injured by Gaven's attack, is putting all the blame for it on Jessa, thinking she paid Gaven to attack him. Already out of his mind on Steroids and cocaine, injections he's been getting from his personal trainer, he's upset that the doctor's won't give him painkillers for the excruciating pain of his injuries, and resolves to go to GenHance and get the only thing that can heal him- the very serum that GenHance has been building from the members of the Takyn.

He lies and tricks his way back into the company, and injects himself with the serum, killing anyone who tries to stop him or who gets in his way. And it works on his injuries, but ramps up his anger at Jessa and need for revenge- as well as enabling him to track her. But his rampage hasn't gone unnoticed, and two of the Darkyn, Lucan and his sygkenis, Samantha, a cop, become determined to track down Dennis Lawson and find out where he got the powers he now has- powers that seem to be growing, changing and mutating all the time. But can even the Darkyn and Gaven keep Jessa safe from the man who so obviously wants to kill her?

I enjoyed Lynn Viehl's Stardoc series, and her Darkyn series, and this series is an offshoot of the second. The Kyndred, also known as the Takyn or Taken, were an experiment by the church to induce Darkyn-like powers in children. But the experiment was shut down, and the children dispersed into foster homes and adopted families. The Darkyn have been trying to track them, but too many of the records were destroyed.

This book does a good job at setting up the Kyndred's new adversary, the GenHance company and its owner, Jonah Gennaro, who is the last living descendant of the man who originally killed Gaven, who was a Roman soldier. Hints are dropped throughout the story that Jonah is attempting to keep his Ancestor's name unstained. So, anyone who discovers anything to his discredit is killed, and the information destroyed or discredited, all the while a team from his company is sent in to help clean up the damage.

The message is rammed through over and over that the people who work at the company, especially those in the higher executive levels of management, and the scientists are evil: people who don't give a damn about the source of the products they are testing so long as they work and make money. When Gennaro procures a brain dead man (a Takyn) to be a subject for the experiments with Transserum, nobody else seems to bat an eye. The only exception to this is a man named Alex, who actually works for Gaven, a deep mole planted inside the company. And in the end, he is forced to flee.

At the end, the Darkyn and Kyndred come very close to meeting, but don't quite, which is a shame, since the Darkyn have been seeking these children for a while now. But, of course, it also stretches out the story and the forces that the Kyndred must fight against.

I enjoyed this book, the villains were extremely villainous, even if that villainy rose out of reasons of making money and just not caring about anyone they hurt on the way to making that money. The character of Dennis Lawson is downright frightening, even before he injects himself with Transserum. His madness and sadism were actually disturbing to read, and made him a perfect villain. The love/attraction between Gaven and Jessa actually faded into the background compared to his insanity, but I'd still recommend this book in a heartbeat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Skin Trade by Laurell K. Hamilton

Anita Blake is a Federal Marshal of the Supernatural Squad, and in her off-time, works for ReAnimators, Inc. But even with all the freaky things she's seen so far, she's never gotten mailed a decapitated head before.

The head is a present from a vampire named Vittorio, a vampire serial killer. Anita had tracked him, but he'd gotten away and fled. Now, Vittorio is in Las Vegas, and issuing a challenge to Anita to come, find him, and take care of him. But Anita's rep isn't all that good any longer- now that most of her allies know she's shacking up with the Supernaturals she should be policing, not many people want to work with her, afraid that she's gone soft or is selling out to "other side". But regardless, she has to do her job as a Federal Marshal and track down Vittorio.

But she knows Jean-Claude will argue with her over it, so she leaves during the day, while he is still asleep, and this will later cause tension between them. She also calls Edward, the former assassin, who is also a Federal Marshal, to help cover her back. But he's already been called in, along with two other marshals, and he tells her that he will meet her in Vegas, since he's likely to get there first.

Anita arrives, but Edward is nowhere to be seen, and the Local Undersheriff and the SWAT squad seem more interested in a "Whose got the biggest package" contest, because they think Anita can't hack it, being petite, pretty, and, of course, female. But she's much, much tougher than she looks, and even though many of them look down on her for shacking up with the monsters, eventually, they come to some sort of understanding, and she's taken to the main police building. Where, because of the great number of weapons she is carrying, she is treated as a possible suspect and interrogated- all because of her "connection" with the crime.

Anita knows this is crap, but holds tough through the questioning, and is finally released so she can meet the other marshals and get to the crime scene, where she is now several hours overdue. She finally meets Edward, and the two other Marshals, a native American named Bernardo Spotted Horse, and another Marshal that Anita is familliar with and wishes she wasn't a serial killer named Olaf. Anita's worked with Olaf before, and he creeps her out. She suspects that he wants her because of her physical similarity to his victims, and that he's seen her fear.

But she also has a job to do here, figuring out what exactly killed the cops that tried to take down Vittorio in Las Vegas. Several of the wounds say "Wereanimal" and "Weretiger" is high on the list, given that the Master of Las Vegas, Maximillian' s wife, Bibiana, is the head of a group of Weretigers. Two of his sons also share the weretiger gene.. But when Anita goes to see them about the killings, Marmee Noir does something to her shields, leaving her dangerously vulnerable to the Weretiger's influence, and Bibiana is almost able to use it to control Anita..

Even though she's fixated on finding Vittorio and the vampires and the creature who slaughtered the cops, Marmee Noir's influence over her is very strong, leading to Anita becoming Queen over several different colors of Weretiger, including the legendary Blue Tigers, through Bibiana's son, who is only 21. Marmee Noir wants Anita's body for her own. Failing that, she wants a baby of Anita's body to be hers, a baby from a weretiger mating. And with her defenses down, Anita has no way of resisting a weretiger orgy.

Worse, Vittorio is obsessed with Anita for a reason. Like Anita's lover Asher, he was tortured with Holy Water, so badly that he can no longer function sexually. And with Anita subject to the Ardeur, he wants to experience fulfillment and release. But can Anita give it to him? As Anita discovers that Vittorio has a longtime connection to Marmee Noir, she must deal with the demands of her ardeur, demands that are making her more and more convinced that she cannot do her job any longer. Anita is also a vampire, a psychic vampire, and luckily, the government has no conception of what she can do, so it doesn't legislate against her. But can Anita stand the strain of feeling she has become a monster, when only the monsters accept her? Only time can tell as this book counts down to the finish.

Wow. Just... wow. I really liked this book, which concentrated on the effects that Anita is feeling from her decisions to love the kind of people that others see as "monsters", vampires and wereanimals. And people can be very cruel to those who buck the established trends, whether because they are afraid that women will find the Monsters better in bed (as one character suggests) or just because they think it will make Anita soft, she's suffering the fallout.

But in a way, the other characters are right. Anita is already struggling with the consequences of what she does as a Marshal. She's close to suffering complete burnout, and whether it's as a result of who and what she sleeps with, or the fact that she's been at her job for too long, something has got to give. At this point, we can only hope that what gives isn't Anita. But she knows something isn't right, and she has a lot of scary issues to deal with- her increasing number of lovers, thanks to the Ardeur, is very scary to her, and not something she's proud of. She has to make some hard choices, and its getting to the point where the implication of the choices she makes is slowing her down.

But not everyone hates her. Sometimes, the other humans out there are just as confused as she is. Another psychic in SWAT, nicknamed "Cannibal" by his fellow SWAT guys, asks Anita how to prevent himself from becoming a monster, and what the definition of being a good guy is. Anita's answer is that a good guy knows he could use his powers to do bad things to people, and is even tempted to- but doesn't because the person knows they are wrong. That's quite a change from what Anita might have said earlier in the series.

It's also nice that this book heralds a change to the "Less about sex, more about paranormal mystery and horror" type book. No sex for about 3/4 of the book, and then Anita has to feed her ardeur, but when Marmee Noir forces her to try and have a baby by initiating an orgy between Anita and several flavors of Tiger, Anita doesn't even realize what's happened until she wakes up afterwards... and one of the participants was only 16, something that squicks Anita deeply.

My only real complaint is that the ending of the story with Vittorio was over so quickly. After hundreds of pages seeking him, the ending confrontation is only about 30... and that is Anti-Climactic. On the other hand, Anita does discover how to perhaps Heal Asher of his holy water burns, but nothing seems really resolved about Anita's burnout and dissatisfaction with her job. I guess we'll have to wait and see on that one.

In short, this book marks a return to the earlier Anita books in terms of story, with less sex overall and more of a horror/Mystery vibe. While Sex is not completely eliminated, we get to see the strain it's putting on all her relationships (even Jean-Claude seems to be tired of it- but wouldn't he know what the Ardeur is like, being subject to it himself?) It's not a perfect book- the ending is rushed, and we rehash what is already known about Anita, but I would recommend this to a friend still.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Marvel Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Characters of the Marvel Universe by Dorling Kindersley Books

This is a encyclopedia of all the heroes, villains and important people in the Marvel universe. It comtains an entry on everyone from the Abomination to ZZaxx, and any character who has interacted in a significant way with any of the heroes of the Marvel Universe.

This means not only characters like The Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, Hercules, Ant Man, Storm, Professor X and Thor, but Villains like the Mandarin, Abomination, Magneto, Mystique, Sandman, Vulture and Mephisto. It includes peripheral characters and sidekicks like Jarvis, Willy Lumpkin (Whose superpower is to be able to wiggle his ears. No joke) and Rick Jones.

Each character is given either a short bio and information on their powers for minor characters or villains, and a much longer writeup for fan favorites or more important characters who have been around for a while. Some of these can run several pages, and each entry is graced with one or more pictures of that character. The longer-lived characters are depicted with different entries showing changes in costume and hairstyle along with their writeup.

The real reason for this updated book is the character information. So much has gone on since the last volume was printed, including the Secret Invasion, World War Hulk, the Aftermath of that, Xavier's attempted assassination, the House of M, and so on, that much of the information on characters has changed. Not only is World War Hulk covered in the entry on the Hulk, but the appearance of the Red Hulk and the changing of Rick Jones into A-Bomb is discussed as well.

Several entries discuss the Ultimates Universe, as well as the Marvel Zombies Universe, and how they differ. Splash pages show important comics of different decades from the 1950's to today, and the back has a discussion of the Various "What If" comics as scenarios observed by Uatu the Watcher from his position in the Multiverse. But only one character from those stories rates her own entry among the others- Bloodstorm, aka Storm as a vampire.

This is a great encyclopedia of Marvel's characters and storylines- because there are so many of them, you'd have to read nothing but comics to keep up with them all, and even then, you wouldn't be able to remember it all. Here, all the characters and storylines- even those in which the character is only known to appear because his or her costume is spotted, is mentioned in the section on that character.

I was constantly surprised at how large the Marvel Universe has become, and how many characters it now holds. I was also pleased to see still represented Mandrill and Nekra, who I remembered from my first comic overview of the Marvel Universe, published by Marvel itself in the late 70's. Back then, you could fit all the characters in 12 30-page issues. But this isn't the case any more- this is a huge book that was almost a struggle to carry, and not quite comfortable to read except lying down on my stomach.

This is an excellent book, filled with art from some of Marvel's best artists and colorists. The information on each character is precise and well-realized, and it's a wonderful value for the money. Well worth the investment.

Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P.C. Cast

Vampires are hot again, thanks to Eclipse, The Vampire Diaries and TrueBlood, programs and movies about Vampires in all their seductive power.Here are eight stories of vampires and love, each from a different author.

"Haunted Love" by Cynthia Letitch-Smith has a vampiric teenager being chased by the daughter of the Town's new Mayor, and haunted by the ghost who lives in the old movie House he has decided to reopen. Each has their secrets, but who is the real monster among the three of them, and can the other two take care of the monster before it kills again?

"Amber Smoke" by Kristin Cast has a young girl being chased by the son of the Furies, the Greek punishers of the wicked. Monsters have escaped into her world, and unless she finds out how to use her new special abilities, someone close to her is going to suffer the consequences.

"Dead Man Stalking" by Rachel Caine returns to her Morganville Vampires Universe, where the son of the man who believed he was meant to slay all the vampires must deal with the return of his father, who has come home with an unsettling new power, and an undead companion who isn't a vampire at all. Can the son free his vampire friend before he's used as a sacrifice to raise another ghoul?

"Table Manners" by Tanith Lee has a young woman who meets a real vampire at a ball given in the country by the friends of her father and her family. But can she help the vampire, who is locked into a worldview of bad movie myths and believing himself to be unnatural, or will she end up being his dinner?

"Blue Moon" by Richelle Mead concerns a young vampire whose family wants to kill her and a human boy who helps her get away. She can't understand why humans hate vampires, and while he helps her understand, he also finds that she treats him better than any vampire he has ever encountered. But can they escape the vampires out after her without using her powers?

"Changed" by Nancy Holder, gives us Jilly, a young woman in love with her gay best friend, Eli. Setting off in search of him across a Manhattan changed by an invasion of Vampires, they end up looking for Eli's boyfriend, Sean. But Sean has been changed, and nothing can ever be the same...

"Binge" by Rachel Vincent introduces us to a girl who is friends with a Siren. She's jealous of her friend, who is a magnet of attention wherever she goes. But when she finally finds a boy who loves her for her own sake, can she find happiness, or will it all end in tragedy?

"Free" by Claudia Gray takes us into the life of a young woman whose mother is a part-black mistress to a rich white man. She loves Amos, a free black blacksmith who her mother would never approve of, and waits for the local ball to be introduced to the man who will be her lover and Sugar Daddy. But the man who takes an interest in her is nothing human, and when he goes to make her like himself, will she choose to be free, or live her life in slavery to someone else?

This was an unusual sort of book. Not all the stories are about happy endings, or even about romance, but more about love and attraction. Even the Morganville Vampires story was about love- a strange and twisted sort of love between father and son. Not all of the stories leave good feelings inside you after they are over, but all are compelling to read and leave you changed after you read them.

This is not the sort of book that you can read and blithely go on to do other things. The stories make you think, and make you feel- often quite different emotions after you are finished. The book starts out with fairly conventional love stories, but moves on to stories of other kinds of love. Before you know it, you are sucked in to each story, and they become too fascinating to put down the book. Even when some of the stories become uncomfortable to read, you aren't able to turn away.

I really liked this book, and I think that anyone who enjoys vampire stories will find this collection fascinating reading. It's definitely aimed at teens- all the protagonists are teenagers, but the stories you will find here go far beyond teenage love. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree- The History and Lore of the World's Most Famous Evergreen by Nancy Armstrong

Christmas at Rockefeller Center is the standard by which all other Christmas Celebrations, and tree lightings, are judged. Every year, Rockefeller Center has a magnificent, stately evergreen standing front and center, lit with lights and decorated, and now with a magnificent Swarovski Crystal star atop the tree.

But where do those trees come from, and how are they selected? Are they bought, donated, grown or some combination of all three? How do they get from where they are grown to Rockefeller Center in New York? And how do they put all those lights and ornaments on the tree when the top of it is so high up? And what happens to all those trees when the holiday is over and it must come down? How do you dispose of a tree that big?

This small book answers all that and more, such as how the tradition started in Rockefeller Center, and the names of the men who decide which tree should grace the center, along with tales of the trees they have chosen. Suprisingly, perhaps, the tree is often donated to the Center, although a group of gardeners move in to make the removal site pretty- or to at least reduce the scars left by the removal of such a large tree. Sometimes, they plant another tree it its place. At least once, they have planted a number of trees, all gratis.

But the tree can't just be big, it must be stately and beautiful. It also must have that special "something" that sets it apart from other trees, even if that "something" can't be verbalized into exact words. Perhaps, the tree must have Character.

This small book is packed with the most fascinating facts about Christmas at Rockefeller Center. How the tradition started, and what decorations were added when (the angels date from 1952, The Swarovski Crystal star from 2004), and the locations the trees came from and the families or organizations that donated the tree(s) of that year, along with the size and variety of evergreen. (Most of the trees are Norway Spruces).

I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of the trees came from the county where I grew up (Rockland County, NY), and at least one from my old home town, Nanuet. You will slso learn a lot, like that the trees are recycled after being used (one was made into Lumber for houses constructed by Habitat for Humanity, but generally, they are wood-chipped and used as ground cover).

This is a great book, one that shouldn't be missed, filled with fascinating facts and plenty of pictures. You owe it to yourself to pick it up and read it, because once you start, you'll find it very hard to put down. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Dorothea, Volume 4 by Cuvie

Dorothea is an albino living in Germany. In most of the Germanic states, being one of the "White Children" is a death sentence, as they are thought to be witches. But in Dorothea's own small state, the daughter of the King is a "white child", and so they are protected. But Dorothea wasn't content to live in the "White House", a sanctuary for those white children. She wanted to fight for her kingdom.

When she was young, she trained with her friend, Gyurk. Even though Gyurk wanted to protect her, she was always a better swordsman than him. Now that the various kingdoms that make up Germany are at war, Gyurk returned, and Dorothea decided that she must fight, even though at any time she could be captured, imprisoned and burned at the stake as a witch. Gyurk wasn't happy with her decision- he'd rather be the one doing the fighting and protect her. He's in love with her, but he can't even admit it to her because he doesn't know if she feels the same- in case she rejects him and he loses her friendship.

Still at Ward with Ems, Dorothea and her force advance on a small fortress, only to find it guarded by ferocious mercenaries called the Swiss guards. Though Dorothea and Gyurk are at the forefront of the fighting, and do well, the rest of the army is not as lucky, and the army retreats, pursued by the mercenaries and the men of Ems.

With so many wounded, the army cannot move as swiftly, so Dorothea and Gyurk stay behind to delay the opposing troops near a river. There is another fight, and they are soon overwhelmed by the numbers of men against them. Gyurk takes a wound meant to hit Dorothea, and both fall into the river, where they are swept downstream. But she gets them out, and half-dragging, half-carrying her friend, finds them shelter in a farmer's barn.

When the farmer arrives, she is about to kill him to protect Gyurk when she realizes that he doesn't consider her a witch, and gives her shelter in his house as well as the injured Gyurk. There, Dorothea must come to terms with what she feels for Gyurk, as well as wondering what he feels for her. But it won't last long- because men are coming who fancy themselves witch hunters, who want to kill Dorothea and cleanse what they feel is her evil from the land. But can she and the wounded Gyurk survive?

I read this series, but as much as I want to really like it, I don't feel that enough goes on, character-wise, for me to get really into the characters. Each volume seems like it should be longer to be really satisfying to me. Don't get me wrong- the series is very well done. I like the art and character designs and the writing is good, but the story is divided into the fighting parts and the relationship parts, and I never feel I really get enough of either.

Perhaps that's my biggest problem with the story. each volume is slender and just doesn't feel long enough. We don't get enough emotional payoffs for the story to feel like it is actually going somewhere as opposed to in circles around and around. It got to the point where I wanted to smack both Dorothea and Gyurk with a big fat cluebat, because I found his "I love her! But I can't tell her!" and her "Where do I stand with him? Why is his protecting me?" to make me very annoyed. Yes, both characters are in their teens, but in that time, they'd be considered adults, both of them, and a lot less innocent about the world.

I'm willing to read more of this series, but I want something with meat in it, not so much pointless fluff where the relationship is concerned. I like reading romance, yes, but this just scratches at my nerves. You can't even really call it "romance" yet, but more like "pointless pining". I hope it gets resolved soon, because this isn't fun to read.

Deadpool Classic by Various

This book reprints some of the early Marvel Comics stories of Deadpool, the "Merc with a Mouth"- another produce of the Weapon X development project, one that left him with a mutant healing ability similar to Wolverine, but a horribly scarred face and body.

The first story is the introduction of Deadpool in the pages of "The New Mutants", where he is sent by a man named Mr. Tolliver to kill Nathan Summers, better known as Cable. Neither is able to overcome the other, though Cable wins with the assistance of the New Mutants and a new female character known as Domino.

Next is a Deadpool stand-alone comic where Tolliver is dead, but has left behind the greatest weapon in the world. He also leaves behind clues to the location of the weapon on two floppy discs, which are sent to two of Tolliver's associates to keep safe. But Tolliver knew many mercs and employed them, and all of them, Deadpool inciuded, want to get their hands on this "ultimate weapon" before anyone else does.

So Deadpool, accompanied by his associate, Weasel, plays tag-team around the world, trying to recover the location of the weapon. On his tail are not only Black Tom Cassidy and Juggernaut, but a killing machine known as Slayback and Deadpool's former love Vanessa Carlyle, also known as Copycat. But when they track the weapon to a holding of Tolliver's in Nepal, the battle between Deadpool and Slayback inadvertantly powers up the weapon. But can Deadpool stop it before it kills them both?

The next story pairs Deadpool and Banshee's daughter, Siryn, on the trail of Black Tom Cassidy, who is dying of a strange disease that is turning him into something like a plant, with spines and bark growing on his skin. Juggernaut wants to save his partner from the Virus that is so obviously killing him, but the Doctor who says he can cure Black Tom, Killebrew, needs something of Deadpool's to save Black Tom. In a word, some of Deadpool's cells, whose healing factor might overcome the virus infecting Black Tom. And when Deadpool gets his hand chopped off, that seems to be the part of him that Killebrew will use. But can Black Tom be cured, and can Deadpool save Siryn from her Uncle's mercenaries?

Ending out the book is a tale of Deadpool sent to Antarctica to break into a secure facility down there. But the facility, headed by Dr. Walter Langkowski, better known as Sasquatch, a former friend and mental health provider to Deadpool. The facility is meant to drain off gamma radiation from the atmosphere and sequester it so it can't affect people on earth. But when Deadpool and Sasquatch's fight breaks the containment field, they have to work together before the entire southern hemisphere becomes irradiated, causing all the people living there to get cancer or die horribly. But can Deadpool, a mercenary, bring himself to work for free and help?

It was interesting to see how the early Deadpool stories differed from the later ones I have read. Deadpool now seems just this side of sane, breaking the fourth wall constantly and making asides to himself just about as often. But when he first appeared, he wasn't that way at all. In fact, he was quite menacing and not such a figure of fun. It's not until nearly the end of the graphic novel stories that he started to have those qualities at all. so reading the past stories might not satisfy as much if you are used to the current Deadpool.

But you can definitely see the progression starting in the story with Siryn, which is much more jokey and bantering than the stories that have come before. But even in the last story in the volume he isn't quite his usual schizophrenic self, though he does have his usual sense of humor. What is interesting is the picture we get of Wade back before his face turned into a mass of blisters, and he looks an awful lot like Cable. In fact, I wondered what Nathan was doing in that story, until I realized it was supposed to be Deadpool.

This graphic novel is interesting, even if, like me, you aren't all that in love with the character of Deadpool. It's an interesting journey into the origins of the character, although if you like him, you may have trouble recognizing the barely sane character you have come to know and love. I found it interesting, though hardly a must-read. Someone who is a real fan of the character may see things differently, of course, so YMMV.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

From Baghdad, With Love by Lt. Colonel Jay Kopelman with Melinda Roth

A marine company known as the Lava Dogs was clearing out a house in Baghdad when they heard a strange clicking and snuffling noise. But when they found out the source, they were ready to shoot, until they discovered that it was merely a puppy.

Marine regs say that Marines are not to make pets of animals they discover on the job. If they find a starving puppy or donkey, or any other animal, they are supposed to dispose of it on sight. And yes, that means shoot it. But these marines couldn't bring themselves to shoot an otherwise innocent puppy, and instead took the dog back with them to their base, naming him, rather unimaginatively, Lava.

That was where Jay Kopelman first encountered Lava, living with the other members of the Lava Dogs. Lava was annoying. He chewed up gear, made noise when they were supposed to be sleeping, and urinated and defecated on just about anything, too. But very quickly, he came to see Lava as less of an annoyance and more as something that would keep him sane doing a job that could easily turn deadly in the blink of an eye.

But Jay knew he wouldn't be in Baghdad forever, and if no one else helped the puppy, he would be killed by the brass, or another soldier who wouldn't want to, but would have to do so. And so began the search- a search for someone to vaccinate the puppy, to get him some kind of papers, to get him out of Iraq and into another country from which he'd be allowed entry to the US. It took many people working on both sides of the world, from NPR journalist Anne Garrels, who lived with the puppy for months in the Red Zone of Baghdad- where just to be American is seen as a deadly crime, and to be seen speaking with one can get you killed.

Kopelman wasn't alone in saving an animal and wanting it to survive the war zone. He recounts the stories of other soldiers who saved animals and underwent the same sorts of trials that he went through to save Lava. He tells of one soldier who fought hard to save his dog, and just before the dog went onto the plane, was shot by a civilian contractor, practically in his arms. Of another set of puppies, trapped in a sewer, being fed by marines, until the puppies were found by a higher-up, and buried under a load of dirt, meant to suffocate. The marines dug them out by hand and saved them from death right then, but were unable to keep the puppies alive forever.

I loved this book, but Kopelman definitely doesn't pull his punches. He tells us the reason for the order not to save animals. It's because the armed forces have taken away your moral clarity in order to make you be able to kill. Anything that allows you to have compassion, to try and save people you are supposed to be fighting, or to have any kind of human feeling for them, can quickly get you killed if your foes take advantage of that. Modern American military forces are trained to shoot when ordered, and if you can't do that, well, you're pretty much useless.

But they can't see that these soldiers have to have some kind of life when they come home, because, hopefully, they will be coming home. Reading about how these soldiers are trained felt almost like being punched in the gut. It's a real visceral pain to read about how the army takes away all of their moral compass to enable them to kill. Even the k-9 units used in war are almost regarded more as tools. When they get too old to serve (about 10 years old), a military review board judges their cases, and in most of them, the dogs are deemed non-adoptable and Euthanized. Why? Because the dogs, who served their handlers well, are trained to attack, and kill, and it takes very little to set them off- not the kind of dog most people would be able to handle. And yet, this is how the army trained them to be.

Reading this book made me sad and angry about how soldiers were being treated, and animals as well. But unlike many others, Jay Kopelman was able to save Lava, and lives with him today in Southern California. Happy endings remain elusive for both of them. As he says in his book, Lava has taken many obedience courses, but has yet to pass any of them. But just like his new owner, Lava is still working on his life. We can only hold out hope for both of them to have some kind of normal life. I highly recommend this book for showing what the war in Iraq ia really like, and the cost on the humans and animals who have to fight it and those who get caught up in it. It's amazing, and will have a strong effect on anyone who reads it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

More than a Mistress by Mary Balogh

Jocelyn Dudley is Duke of Tresham, and in the middle of a duel when a young woman runs onto the field, shouting at the participants to stop. This causes him to hold his fire, but not his opponent, who fires and wounds Jocelyn in the leg. Jocelyn lets his opponent sweat for a bit, then fires in the air, but the leg wound is a bad one, and he lays the blame at the feet of the young woman who distracted him at a critical moment

She is Jane Ingleby, and she tried to stop the duel because she was saddened at the thought of two men throwing their lives away on something so pointless as a duel, especially one over a woman. But when she receives the sharp side of Jocelyn's tongue, she doesn't shrink back, she answers him in a like fashion, despite the fact that she is a mere shopgirl and not a Duke. But when she finally makes her way to work in the milliner's shop in which she toils, the proprietress will not accept her excuse and wants a note from the Duke before she will believe Jane.

Jane tracks down the Duke to his home, where the surgeon is removing the ball from his leg. He declines to give her the note, mainly because he blames her for his injury, and partly because he is drunk from the liquor that was pressed on him to dull the pain from his injury while the ball is excised. But he decides to have his revenge on her by making her play the part of his nursemaid while he recovers. Ordinarily, he's a trial to deal with. But injured? He's a thousand times worse. He views it as only fair to make her pay in that way.

And so she goes to work for him, hired for a period of a mere three weeks, by which time he should be mostly recovered. But Jocelyn is a man always on the go and chafes at inactivity. He's angry at Jane, angry with her ugly dress and the hideous caps she hides under. Perceptively, he realizes that she is very pretty, and figures she must have a good reason to hide her beauty. But he doesn't want her to hide it from him.

Jane is not just the orphan she pretends to be, and someone is hot on her trail. He is Mick Boden, a Bow Street Runner hired by the Earl of Durbury, who claims that a certain young blonde-haired woman attacked his son and robbed his house. He wants Mick Boden to apprehend her.

That young woman, of course, turns out to be Jane Ingleby- but that isn't her real name. And Jane is terrified of being dragged back to him, especially when she hears the rumors being bandied about concerning her and the attack- that she burst in with a pistol in each hand and shot the Earl's son when he didn't move fast enough, and made off with a fortune in jewels.

All of this is a lie, of course, but Jane keeps herself hidden, thinking-knowing that no one will listen to a penniless woman when placed against an earl. But Jocelyn has discovered that his nurse has unexpected depths. She sings like an Angel, but doesn't want to do it professionally. At his wit'e end, wanting her like he's wanted no woman before but unable to marry her because she is so far beneath him,he approaches her about setting her up as his mistress.

And she, wanting to hide, agrees. But first, she will redecorate the house, which she feels makes the inside look like a brothel. A really tacky brothel. But when Jocelyn takes her virginity in the newly remodeled house, something special happens. He doesn't treat her like a man with a mistress, but as a man with his lover. And he begins telling her things, things he's kept locked inside him for his entire life.

He's alarmed by this tendency, but he finds that he can't stay away from her, even if he does treat her coldly and arrogantly after he unexpectedly lets loose with one of his recollections. But when Mick Boden comes to Jocelyn's house looking for Jane, who is actually a lady named Sara Illingsworth, Jocelyn suddenly finds himself absolutely furious. Suddenly, everything changes. Suddenly, the world is different- he doesn't have to make her his mistress- he can have her as his wife. But will she have him after the way he's treated her? And what about the Earl's son? Is he really near death, and can Jocelyn save Sara from the hangman's noose?

I liked this book. I liked how Jane stood up for herself, and how she had spine and backbone despite being reduced to near-penury and having to support herself with work. I also liked the real reason that the Duke's son was injured and how, and the comeuppance that not only the Duke, but her supposed fiance got at the end of the book.

However, I didn't think that Jocelyn really groveled enough for the way he'd treated her. And I know it was hard for him to apologize or even admit any softer feelings after the way he'd been raised and what his father had done that brutalized his feelings. But I do feel he got off a little too easily. He should have suffered a bit more before he won the heroine.

I also liked the way the hero and heroine came together. Not necessarily the sex part, although that was fine, but the way they came together as people and as a couple. She is able to pull out of him deep emotions that he's repressed for far too long, and even though he hates looking and feeling weak, he feels better in her company than anyone else.

I found this an altogether charming book that made me care when I was sure I never would care about the hero and heroine at the start of the story. Each character is damaged in some way, but Jocelyn's is by far the worse, and he's adopted a cold, unfeelingly arrogant mask to hide the damage. But with Sara/Jane, you feel that in the end, he might actually be all right, and become a deeper, richer person, while Sara was already rich and seasoned, but untried as well. Recommended.

Royal Blood: A Vampire Kisses Novel by Ellen Schreiber

Ever since the return of Alexander and Raven to the town she calls Dullsville, Raven's been in a starry swoon on cloud nine. It's summer vacation, and she's been spending lots more time with Alexander, simply enjoying being in his presence, kissing and caressing under the light of the moon and stars. But now summer is over, and it's time to get back to school.

Ugh, school. Raven isn't looking forward to waking up early or to encountering her preppy Nemesis Trevor Mitchell again any time soon, but when Alexander receives a strange letter, he wants to avoid opening it for as long as possible. Raven, however, is desperate to know what is going on and who sent the letter. Eventually, at her urging, he opens it.

The letter is from Alexander's parents, and they have news for him. They are coming back to Dullsville. Raven thinks this is awesome, but Alexander is downcast at the news. Obviously, once his parents arrive, they aren't going to be able to spend as much time together. Raven hopes to be introduced to them. She wants to be a worthy love for Alexander, and hopes that his parents will like her as much as hers love him.

But once they arrive, she hardly sees him at all, and he certainly not rushing to introduce Raven to them. In fact, several other people see them around town before Raven does. Even Trevor sees them before Raven does! But when she finally does get to meet Raven, as Alexander's "Friend", she finds out the most startling fact of all- Alexander's parents are selling the house and moving back to Transylvania... with Alexander! Raven is shocked and heartbroken, but Alexander hasn't been able to tell his parents that he doesn't want to move. He wants to stay- with Raven.

But what choice do they have? Alexander finds it hard to stand up to his parents, especially his father, who he doesn't even call Dad or Father, but by his given name. Raven and Alexander decide they can keep anyone from buying the house by spreading rumors about it being just this side of falling down. And that seems to work... at first. But when Trevor Mitchell's father decides to make an offer so that he can bulldoze the house and build a mall, Raven and Alexander know they have failed.

Now, the only way for them to win the house is for them to raise money and make an offer on it themselves. But how can they do that? Raven's not rich, and has barely any money, and even if her family had money, they wouldn't lend it to her to help her buy the house, no matter how much she and Alexander are in love. So, how can they raise the money? And even if they do raise the money, will Alexander's parents agree to sell him the house and leave him in America while they return to Europe? And will Jameson return with Alexander?

I liked this volume, which finally gives Raven and Alexander a problem to deal with besides something exclusively vampire-related. Yes, his parents are vampires, and they are responsible for deciding to sell the house, but it's not an exclusively vampire problem. Who hasn't lost a friend whose parents moved away? In this case, it just happens to be Raven's Boyfriend, and she doesn't want a long-distance relationship at all.

Raven and Alexander are ready to move heaven and earth to stay together- everything except talk to his parents. Raven is hesitant because she's afraid that Alexander's parents won't think she's good enough for him, and Alexander because even though his parents love him, they aren't really close. He hasn't even told them that Raven is his girlfriend! And he's also afraid that his parents would reject her for being merely human.

In the end, it takes a spectacular display of talent for Alexander to realize his wish and stay with Raven. Hopefully, at the same time, he grows a bit closer with his parents and might find it a bit easier to confide in them the next time. But once again, we see how Raven does care for Trevor and he for her, which worries me, if Raven and Alexander are going to find a way to somehow stay together. If Raven and Alexander do break up and she ends up with Trevor, nobody will be able to say that Ellen Schreiber didn't lay the groundwork for that long ago. Recommended