Monday, April 18, 2011

Goddess of Legend by P.C. Cast

Isabel Cantelli is a photojournalist who is used to covering war and its effects. But when she found herself developing feelings for one of the soldiers she was following for the paper, his bloody death in battle was the capper to a life that seemed to be getting more and more out of balance. Unable to return to the war, she went home to Oklahoma to de-stress, unwind, and hopefully find that internal balance that made her such a great success in the first place. Taking pictures of a lake near her home, she playfully imagines that she is talking to a water goddess, but when an accident sends her car careening off a bridge and straight back into the water, she finds herself fighting for her life.

Coventina, the water goddess also known as Vivianne, is looking for a woman to intervene in the history of Camelot. She is the lover of Merlin, and he wants to withdraw from everything, including her, because he knows that Arthur, and his entire court and Round Table, is doomed by the force of myth and history. Nothing he can do will prevent it, and already Guinevere and Lancelot are attracted to each other unbearably. Merlin can't stand to see what will happen, and he plans to sleep so he will not have to see it happen. Coventina would do anything to prevent his grief and anguish and keep him awake and by her side, so she makes a magic to find the perfect woman to intervene and seduce Lancelot away from Queen Guinevere.

When Isabel has her accident, she comes to the attention of the Goddess as the perfect woman to accomplish this task. Coventina saves Isabel and gives her the task she wishes her to accomplish. She sets Isabel up as the ruler of one of the small Kingdoms that dot the isle of Britain, come to possibly ally with Arthur. She also gives her all the clothes, jewels and guards that one would expect of such a ruler and sends Isabel to Camelot, for which she promises that she will save Isabel's life in the modern day. But Isabel couldn't possibly suspect that on her arrival at Camelot, it is not Sir Lancelot who attracts her at all, although he is certainly strong and handsome- it is Arthur, and only Arthur, whose wise, sad eyes tug at her heart.

Isabel knows she is there to do a job, but she cannot help her attraction, which quickly develops into much, much stronger feelings. But it is a similar inability to keep from introducing modern ideas to Camelot, like days off from work for the servants, or the idea of exercise and games for women, like baseball, that really set Camelot on its ear. As she and Arthur come closer and closer to a physical relationship, Arthur must deal with Lance and Guinevere's actions, and a new idea that Isabel has floated to him, the idea of a divorce to allow Lance and Guin to follow their feelings and allow her to truly be with Arthur.

But when Arthur's bastard son Mordred arrives to torment his father and those close to him, can Isabel use her modern ideas, not to mention her knowledge of martial arts, to beat some sense into Mordred's thick head and get him to see reason and mend his clearly broken relationship with his father? And what effect will her ideas and actions have on the state and future of Camelot, and how can Isabel stay in the past for a happy ending with Arthur when her entire life is in the future? is there any way for them to truly end up together?

I'll say it right now. I love the Goddess Summoning series by P.C. Cast, as well as her Partholon novels which are kind of sort of related. They are really excellent, mixing modern women with myth, magic and times long past. I have loved every one of those novels so far, but this one... eesh, where do I even start? I loved the idea of sending a modern woman back to Camelot and having her save it by changing history and the course of myth, but the way it was executed really set my teeth on edge.

I happen to be a writer, too, and one of my personal writings has a modern woman sent back 40+ years to the late 60's, where she is considered deeply, deeply weird for what she says, the modern cultural references and in-jokes that she uses, and is pretty much considered to be an unnatural woman who is possibly a hippy or on drugs a lot of the time. And this is just with a mere 40 years of difference. Imagine the cultural divide facing a modern woman in the 3rd or 4th century in a world where woman are expected to shut up and go along and where Christianity is so deeply believed by its adherents. In short, I'd expect Isabel to get burned at the stake for being a witch, possessed or a madwoman, not lionized by Arthur, or someone whose ideas fall from her lips like pearls, precious and right.

My suspension of disbelief was not only not engaged, it was blasted right off to somewhere in the outer solar system, where it slowly froze and broke into tiny bits the size of individual atoms. At every turn in the book, I found Arthur, the man who was supposed to be honorable and loyal, to be considering a liaison with this strange woman, and changing his attitudes and expectations of what was right and normal simply because Isabel assured him that it could work and be so. Arthur was so open-minded it seemed that his brain was in danger of falling out as he swallowed Isabel's ideas wholesale. And while I found her beating of Mordred to be at least amusing, you have to remember that Mordred is a total shit and would likely have done something permanently fatal to Isabel, if not by him, than by his men, no matter that his father warned him off trying something like that.

In short, this book sort of sank my interest with such blatantly out of character and anachronistic attitudes from all the characters involved. The ending was nice, but it just killed my suspension of disbelief once again, and I was wondering what happened to the actual Arthur in history when the Queen who had given him all this advice and help suddenly died or disappeared. It's also unclear if the people she meets at the end were reincarnations of the people she had known, given that Arthur the Paramedic had been dreaming of Isabel all her life. We're just left hanging as to what happened to the people in Camelot after Isabel disappeared, and it would have been nice to know the details.

In short, I can't recommend this book. I wish I could, but it has too many flaws to make it viable reading to someone who likes some kind of consistency in characterization, even in a fantasy romance. It twinged on the worst parts of my suspension of disbelief, to the point where i was expecting the heroine to die or be killed for what she said, not to mention dismissed and her ideas pooh-poohed.In short, not recommended, but the rest of the series is not that bad, and should definitely be read. I hope that any further books in the series can go back to the original qualities that made me so love the series.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Twilight's Dawn by Anne Bishop

Anne Bishop created the Black Jewels series years ago with her first novel, Daughter of the Blood. Now, it has spawned a long series of novels. This book has four novellas set at different points in the series.

The first story, Wintersol Gifts, takes place after the events in Tangled Webs. Daemon is celebrating his first Wintersol with his Queen, Jaenelle, and his extended family, all of whom show up for the holiday. But Daemon wants everything to be perfect for Jaenelle. Unfortunately, life doesn't go to his wishes. Can he get out of his resulting hissy fit in time to actually enjoy the holiday and have a good time?'

Shades of Honor, the second story, takes place before the book "The Shadow Queen" and explores what happens when Surreal SaDiablo returns to Ebon Rih. Her former lover, Falonar, decides that he is going to try and destroy Lucivar, who sent Surreal to Ebon Rih in the first place. He sets a trap for Lucivar in an attempt to kill him, using multiple Eyriens who serve Falonar. But when Surreal finds out about it, can she resist destroying her former lover for attempting to kill her foster brother?

Family, the third story, follows the story of Queen Sylvia and her sons. Killed by another family, but needing to ensure the safety of her sons, she rises as the Demon-dead and ends up in Hell, which is ruled by Saetan SaDiablo. When he hears her story, he pledges his support in rescuing her sons and making sure that she can keep them safe in the future. But as time passes and they continue to work together, Saetan finds himself coming to care for this Demon-dead witch. But will she accept a relationship with the Lord of Hell?

The last story in the book, The High Lord's Daughter, takes place after the death of Jaenelle. Saetan eventually allows himself to fade, and his son Daemon takes over as High Lord of Hell. But the death of two of the people he loves has caused Daemon to withdraw into himself and become cold and distant. But when he shares a single night with Surreal and ends up engendering a child, he becomes interested in controlling Surreal completely. But can she convince Daemon to open his heart again and be less controlling? Or will it take the spirit of Witch to bring Daemon to his senses and convince him to let himself love again?

I usually enjoy the Black Jewels stories, and most of the stories in this book are actually very good, but the last story was horribly painful to read, mainly because I loved the characters who died, and to see Daemon be so horribly cruel and cold towards Surreal while trying to make her toe the line because she is carrying his child. I hated seeing Daemon like that, and all the stuff that he goes through in the story alternately made my chest hurt and made me want to kick his ass into the next world.

As a series of stories, it's like a series of snapshots into the SaDiablo family over time. I had the feeling after finishing the book that this is the end of the series, and that made me feel sad, because it really is a good series, and I am actually sorry to see it end. On the other hand, perhaps this means that we will get to see a new series, like her Tir Allain or Ephemera series, both of which were good, but nothing compared to the Black Jewels series. And there does seem to be another Ephemera novel in the works, to be published next year.

This seems to be the endpoint of the series, and the stories here were written to answer questions that the readers asked about the series and some of the characters. I enjoyed the book, and the series, but this is not the book you want to read first. You should really read the books in order, and I highly recommend the series, and recommend this book, though not as a first experience with this world and these characters.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Kings of the North by Elizabeth Moon

Kieri Phelan was once a mercenary leader in Tsaia, but a woman, Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir, who was once of his company, found out that he was truly half-elven and of the royal line of Lyonya. By rescuing him and keeping him safe on the road, after she had discovered his true heritage, she made it possible for him to be crowned King of Lyonya. Soon after he was crowned, he was asked by the then-King of Tsaia to send his aide, Dorrin, who was actually Dorrin Verrakai, and the only trustworthy member of her family, to lead her family and root out the treachery within it after it was discovered that the Verrakais had designs on the Kingship for themselves.

Dorrin went and discovered that the older and more evil members of their family were putting their souls in the bodies of the young children, or others, and becoming perfect spies and hidden agents. She rooted out the evil with the help of Paks and some of her cohort, and for her efforts is now Duke Verrakai of Tsaia. Meanwhile, Prince Mikaeli of Tsaia has survived an assassination attempt on himself, and has become King of his country.

But both new monarchs and Dorrin Verrakai are not safe from the changes that continue to come from Paks' deed, and the upheaval that followed. As Dorrin tries to lead her family, many of which still fight her, thinking her a traitor, she seeks a way to keep the children of her family safe and to give them a normal upbringing, as well as to instill some manners and schooling into the little beasts that have been allowed to run wild by her family. She also must deal with a strange item discovered in her family's vaults and discover not only what it is and how to use it, but who to give it to so that it may be properly and rightfully used. Is anyone in Tsaia the proper holder of what she has discovered? And how did her family get it in the first place? Was it twisted into evil by them, and can she be trusted to determine that?

Meanwhile, King Kieri Phelan is dealing with problems in Lyonya. Though he has gone some way to relieving the fears of his people for how he wants to change the country to keep it safe, his grandmother, the elven ruler of Lyonya, seems to have developed a strange rift with him, as although he is asking her for aid in running Lyonya, she never seems to be there when he needs her, and won't answer his questions about why she is pulling away from him, or seems to be, and he's confused as to why this is so. Added to that is his need to marry and produce an heir for his kingdom, and the fact that his council all have plenty of ideas as to who that Queen should be and why, is making him cross and testy.

For Phelan was once married, and lost his wife, and he has long mourned her. And even though he could live another 200 or so years, being a half-elf, he must assure the security of the throne and its succession. He is perfectly willing to marry again, but the way the Council keep thrusting choices at him is getting on his nerves. He'd rather make a decision himself! But when a succession of eligible women come to his court for him to meet, and possibly choose, he realizes that many of these women aren't really any more happy about the situation than he is. Most have been forced to come to the court by their families, and some of the women's "protectors" have designs on the Lyonyan throne that would mean much ill for the King.

And Phelan is beginning to suspect that his grandmother might have had more to do with what happened to his father and sister than he ever thought or dreamed. As he investigates the family tomb beneath the castle, he begins to get a very bad taste in his mouth about what has come before. But can he stomach the investigation he must undertake, and will he realize that the answers will do more to change the situation in his Kingdom than anything that has come before, even his coronation?

Nor is King Mikaeli left out of the bad news and problems. He, too, is new on his throne and must secure it quickly from threats, especially that of the Duke Visla Vaskronin, and a man from the Southern lands of Siniava who thinks that he should be Ruler over everything, and has started a revolution by sending men who pretend to be bandits and steal weapons from merchants frightened of what these same "bandits" can do. But he's not alone in dealing with these bandits, Arcolin, who accepted a mercenary contract in the south for Phelan's former mercenary company, the Fox company, and who stands to become Duke in Phelan's place, must also solve the mystery of these seeming bandits and who they work for, while dealing with Stammel, who seems to be blinded, perhaps permanently, by the Demon who tried to take over his body in the last book.

And meanwhile, we learn that the eldest, (the elves, the dwarves and the others, including the elves and the rockfolk) are not the oldest races living. There is one older, but can any of them still be found among the living? Pakes makes a reappearance, along with an old friend of hers, and a new character, a gnome, whose abilities are unknown by most humans. Can war be prevented, and will the forces of darkness be defeated, or is there more evil to be found and dealt with? Can the three human and elven Kingdoms be saved, or will there be a new status quo in the lands?

I loved this book, but you have to realize that it is very dense, story-wise. So many plots and storylines, major and minor, crossed and recrossed and gave rise to so many different things that it was hard for me to try and write any kind of summary for it. Suffice to say, a lot happens, but it's all integrated so well that the story seems like one connected, flowing narrative, each told by different characters. Some of the plots, like the identity of Cortes Vonja and the information he carries from his native Aare to the Kingdoms of the North, unfold slowly, while others get plenty of time and are integral to the plot, like King Phelan's search for an acceptable bride, not only to himself, but to his people, the Council, and the elves of Lyonya, each of whom have very different ideas about the perfect bride for him.

And yet, despite all that happens, and its general slow pace (there are definite action sequences in the book, and plenty of military fighting, but the pace for most of the stuff is slow and thoughtful), you will find yourself being unable to put the book down. Indeed, I pretty much read it in a single sitting. Admittedly, that took up pretty much the entire day, but I found myself reading it even in the middle of preparing dinner, and then while eating that same dinner! There is a strong focus on the military and fighting, something that is informed by Elizabeth Moon's own life in the military, but it's never boring, dry or dull. And each character is interesting and stands out in his or her own way.

Admittedly, the end of the book pretty much relies on a deus ex machina, but the character in question is responsible for much of the happenings of the book, and isn't portrayed as a perfect, know-it-all character. We often see characters who seem that way, but who have feet of clay and make mistakes. This is another example of that, only on a much higher and more powerful scale, so I personally had no problem with the ending. And there will definitely be a third book- and a fourth, or so I hear.

This is an excellent series that attempts to answer what few writers attempt with regards to the worlds they have created: And what happened next after the Hero saved the day? It focusses on Kingdoms instead of one character (Paks), but it's a wonderful series that makes me feel as if I only read the original books last year instead of 20+ years ago. I'd advise checking out the original series (and thankfully, you won't have to wait a year to read the last book after the ending of the second, like I did all those years ago), but definitely check it out and read both series. It would be a crying shame if you didn't. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

In the Summer of 1868, Sherlock Holmes is fourteen. He's been away at school, and he's expected to go home and spend time with his brother Mycroft. But Mycroft's job with the government means that he doesn't have time to look after Sherlock himself, and instead, he sends his brother to spend time with his Uncle Sherrinford and Aunt Anna, neither of whom really want to look after Sherlock for the summer, but Mycroft has little choice, as an especially bad situation is shaping up overseas that he must take care of.

But in the meantime, Sherlock is expected to keep up his schoolwork, and his brother Mycroft has engaged a tutor on Sherlock's behalf, an American who is there to give him an education he can't get in school. Shortly after he arrives in the country, Sherlock finds and befriends a boy named Mattew Arnatt, who witnessed a strange event that he can't get out of his head. A man in town died in what everyone was sure was the plague or black death. But Matthew saw a strange black cloud come out of the man's window and fly against the wind up the side of the house and away. Sherlock is intrigued by this and decides to investigate what might have happened, as a cloud that moves against the wind isn't logical.

In this, he is helped by his new tutor, Amycus Crowe, a hunter from America. Sherlock wonders what kind of hunter would need to know all the things that Amycus is teaching him, which is less about knowledge from books and more about logic and deductions. Amycus reveals he was a bounty hunter, a hunter of men. And man is the most devious animal in the world, and it takes all the knowledge and observations one can make to catch them.

More deaths occur, and the region begins to believe that an outbreak of disease will lead to a quarantine. But aided by Matthew, Amycus, and Amycus's daughter, Virginia, he begins to believe he has discovered the nature of the cloud. But who is using it to kill and why are they killing? As Sherlock follows the killers from England to France, he is discovered, and he and Virginia are menaced by the killer and their method of killing. But can Sherlock pull out a save of not only himself, but Virginia as well, and turn the weapon back on the killers before they can use their weapon of death to injure England's ability to protect itself? And can Sherlock keep himself alive when he is trapped on an island with the killers?

I loved this book. I loved the old "Young Sherlock Holmes"movie, and this promised more of the same, seeing what Sherlock was like before we met him in "A Study in Scarlet". This actually shows him as he was before he learned so much of logic and how to collect facts to solve his mysteries and inculcates in him a love of knowledge that school had not, because as Amycus Crowe points out to him, if he doesn't have knowledge, all the thinking in the world won't help him when it comes to solving the problems that mystify him.

I also liked that Sherlock wasn't paired with a young Watson, but another boy who is just as interesting as Sherlock himself. At this point in time, Sherlock is amazingly intelligent, but his learning is all book learning, and his new friend Matthew is also intelligent, but has far more experience in survival and street knowledge, which doesn't prevent them from learning from each other or being friends. Indeed, Matthew becomes just as much a student of Amycus Crowe as Sherlock does, and seeing them work together was lovely. I also liked the like/dislike relationship between Sherlock and Virginia Crowe, as it presages that they might end up falling for each other, but because we know that Sherlock never has any sort of relationship with any woman, I don't forsee a happy ending for their relationship if they do end up having one.

Amycus Crowe is one of my favorite characters in the book. Salty but real, pretending to be just the sort of hick that one would expect to come out of the American West, he's far more intelligent and canny than he lets on at first, even to Sherlock. But it's the support of Crowe and his vindication of Sherlock's knowledge and deductions that allow the story to succeed, and I love reading about the sort of stuff, he teaches Sherlock which helps him grow into the kind of man he becomes later.

This is the first book in a new series, and if this book is any indication of how good the rest of the books will be, I honestly can't wait to see the rest, and there is already a second book in the works, Rebel Fire, that will be out in the Fall. I am definitely looking forward to reading it when it comes out. If you are looking for an excellent mystery in the Sherlock Holmes style, this book can't be beat, and will appeal not only to teenagers, but older and adult readers as well. Highly recommended. Pick this one up. You won't be sorry you did.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Blood Maidens by Barbara Hambly

James Asher, former Spy and Oxford Don, first encountered Don Ysidro when he was compelled by the vampire to solve a series of murders among the Vampires of London. Ysidro needed James Asher's intelligence and ability to solve mysteries, and the two worked together to find the murderer and put him to rest. At the end of their adventure, Ysidro should have killed James to keep the secret of the vampires, but in light of all the former Spy had done for him, he elected to keep Asher alive with his memory, and that of his young physician wife, Lydia, intact.

Since that time, Asher has worked with Don Simon Ysidro again, and now, it is 1911 and World War I is brewing. Somehow, it seems, the Germans and Russians have discovered knowledge of Vampires, and is interested in recruiting them to be agents in the coming war. While Don Ysidro knows that none of the older vampires he once knew in either country would be at all interested in working for humans, there are new vampires who are raised and disappear all the time in the hard countries of Russia and Germany who might still retain some human memories and feeling, like love in their country, and decide to do just that. But is Don Ysidro interested in keeping the secrets of vampires safe, or is he really interested in saving his former love, Lady Irene, who has warned Ysidro of the Kaiser's interest, and now seems to have disappeared.

But what really gets them going is the information that a physician interested in blood is also on the scene. Could this man be doing experiments with vampire blood in the effort to create agents with vampire strength and senses, who no normal human agent could hope to match or equal, and none of the drawbacks of being a vampire? In Russia, there is a problem: Two masters, not one, control St. Petersburg, and neither is strong enough or competent enough to kill or overpower the other, allowing vampires and their childer to simply fall through the cracks and disappear or simply be ignored.

Travelling as Professor Van Leyden, James must traverse the dangerous waters of Russian human society, with its interest in mysticism and the occult, as well as Russian vampire society, but be cannot reveal that he is in any way connected with Simon Ysidro, or his real identity And there is a female vampire who seems to be able to go out in the sunlight without dying. Who made her, and are the Doctor and his vampire patron seeking to make more of her for use as agents, or is her ability something unique to her and non-transferable? And what is Ysidro's real purpose in returning to Russia and Lady Irene?

It's been fourteen years since the last "James Asher" novel, and the time shows. While Barbara Hambly's writing is just as strong as ever (one might even say stronger, since she has been responsible for the Benjamin January mystery novels in the meantime), it was a bit of a struggle to remember what the last novel was about. I still do remember the first novel, as it made quite an impression on me when I first read it. Hoo boy, did it make an impression.

To start out with, Hambly's vampires are not the current stereotype of brooding, tortured loners looking for love and to escape their bleak existence. No, these harken back to old school vampires: cold, inhuman and above all else, able to pass as human by being almost perfect mimics of what humans are like. But all their seeming is just that: a pretense that they carry out only to feed. Don Simon Ysidro is an OLD vampire. He's been one for so long that he's gone very pale, even though he was bronzed and tanned in his human life. He's able to appear charming and courtly, but mainly because that is part of his pretending to be human, and probably something drummed into him when he was actually alive. He's still more than capable of being ruthless and cutting his losses, even when it involves people he knows and seems to have some feeling for.

James Asher is very human. He doesn't really want to help Ysidro, because he's getting old, and he'd rather spend time with his lovely wife and be the professor of Philology that he seems to be. But the idea that Germany and Russia might have vampire agents on their side, and love for the country he served for so long, impels him to try and do something about it. But he knows he's no match for a vampire in power, which is where Ysidro comes in, acting as muscle to his brain, intuition and logic. But can he trust Ysidro in a foreign country, and with a woman he seems to love?

I have to say that, as a book, it's not as good as the previous books in the series at holding my attention and getting me interested in what was going on. The early part of the book was better than the later parts, which seemed to dissolve in a welter of characters I had no interest in and didn't care about doing stuff that left me cold. I'd not recommend this book, but I would recommend the first in the series, which I felt was the best. Go read "Those Who Hunt the Night" instead, and only read this one if you are desperate for something to read. It just doesn't have the magic of the first one.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Midsummer Crown by Kate Sedley

Roger the Chapman is glad to be home after spending so long in London working for his lord, Richard the Duke of Gloucester. But no sooner has he come home to the bosom of his wife and family than he is recalled to London to solve another murder, this one of a tutor in an apparently locked room. But it's more than just a murder- the tutor's pupil, a boy named Gideon Fitzalan, has disappeared, and nobody seems to know whether he was also killed, or just kidnapped, since he was not of an age to have committed the crime or even helped.

Other members of his family are in London for the coronation of the Young King Edward V, a prospect that fills the country with both joy and fear. Joy to have him succeed to the throne, but since he is only 12 years old, someone is going to have to act as his mentor and protector until he actually comes of age, and the people of London, and the country, are dreading the inevitable infighting as powerful men and powerful families, come to blows over who the actual protector should be. And the Duke of Gloucester is right in the middle of this fighting, as is the family of the Queen, even if she is too ill to fight for her rights herself.

Is it possible that this murder and kidnapping has something to do with the forthcoming coronation, or is being used to put it off or even stop the coronation entirely? Roger, upset at being taken from his family, must deal with his resentment and the tension in the city as he investigates. But while he is sure that there is something odd and strange in the movements and actions of a maid named Amphillis Hill, he follows her to no avail. All he knows is that she, and the boy's nurse, Dame Copley, seem too much together and too much suspicious- only he can't be sure why.

As Roger desperately seeks for some reason to abduct the boy from interviewing his family, he is also aware that someone doesn't want him to investigate at all. In fact, he thinks that someone just might be trying to kill him! But who. and for what reason? Is it that they don't want him to solve the murder of the tutor, or that they don't want him to find Gideon Fitzalan? Is there a spy near Roger, reporting on what he does, and if so, who is it? And does he have any hope of solving a mystery that seems to have no motive and no reason behind it? And will he recognize the reason when he sees it, or have any hope of bringing Gideon Fitzalan back to his family?

I found this book a short but interesting read. Coming so soon after the last Roger the Chapman book, the reader almost feels the same way as Roger at the beginning of the book. Yes, he spent time with his family in London, but his daughters are beginning to wonder if he loves them when he spends so much time away, and when he promises to stay for a while, his promises are turned into lies when the Duke of Gloucester needs his services.

Still, the book remains an effective mystery while showing the simmering tensions in the city and around the country at the coronation of Edward V. Needless to say, the country needs a strong and effective leader, and a twelve year old boy is hardly either of those things. And everyone who is anyone is fighting (and in some cases, literally fighting) to be the one guiding him, which essentially means becoming de facto King until Edward turns eighteen, even if they would just be ruling in his name. The power is seductive to just about everyone in the nobility.

I liked the ending, and the reveal of just who the plotters were. It was so effective because it was so unexpected. I had an idea of who the murderer and kidnapper would be and the ending entirely set it on its ear, as well as the reveal of who the spy was and who had tried, twice, to kill Roger. That it was so completely unexpected speaks much to roles in society and who can subvert them without being expected. Magnificent and unexpected, and recommended.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Harry Potter Film Wizardry from the creative team behind the celebrated movies

Everybody loved the Harry Potter books, but how did filmmakers translate the scenes of magic in the books, into silver screen magic? This oversized book takes a look at scenes from the first six books and movies and has some sneak previews of the scenes from the seventh book and movie, covering all aspects of production and filled with all sorts of special items from within the movies themselves, from the letter that Harry received from Howarts to invitations to the Yule Ball, and advertisements from Weasley's Wizard Wheezes.

It's filled with hundreds of pictures and explanations from all sorts of set designers, prop makers and others telling how they set the scene, the kind of background they were going for, along with interviews with the directors, a look at the cast and how they have changed, and plenty of other goodies. We see how Aunt Marge got inflated (Actress Pam Ferris, who played her, said humorously that you have to eat a lot of beans and drink a lot of fizzy drinks to lift off like that!), How they created the Illusion of Hogwarts, the layout of Diagon Alley and its various shops.

From there we move on to Platform 9 3/4 and to Hogwarts itself, with an overview of the houses, House Ghosts and teachers, including Hagrid and hut, and some of his pets, like Fluffy and Aragog the Acromantual. Each movie is covered in 8 to 10 articles, each with pictures and plenty of text, including Foldout pages and various movie paper products, like the invitation to the Yule Ball or the Ministry of Magic Identification Papers, being included on the page. Some of these handouts can be quite substantial, and give the book, large as it is, a feeling of weight and heft.

Some of the best pictures in the book capture what may only be seen on the screen for a few moments, like the Hogwarts dining room decorated for the Yule Ball (as you can guess by now, it's one of my favorite scenes) or the tent the Weasleys put up for Fleur and Bill's wedding. There's even a wonderful look at the Black Family tree Tapestry with Sirius's name (along with a few others) burnt out.

This is a wonderful book, filled with plenty of pictures and wonderful things. Reading it is a way to look back on and remember the movies and books past and think on your favorite scenes and characters. I really enjoyed the closeup looks at the various rooms and characters, even the weird-eyed cats that Delores Umbridge puts everywhere in her office, and how her outfits throughout the film changed, from something supposed to make her look like a warm, granny-type character, to the laced-up little fascist dictator she turns out to be.

Each chapter tells the story of one movie and most scenes take up only a page or two, but biographies of characters (Everyone from Snape to Kingsley Shacklebolt) gets some sort of writeup exploring the character and has an interview with the actor who played them chiming in on how it felt to play the part and their insights on the character in question.

Anyone who loves the books, and loves the movies, will find something, and to be honest, lots of things, to enjoy in this book. My only problem was that it made me want to watch all the movies again, so I did, and I lost quite a bit of sleep over that weekend after reading to watch the movies all over again. Excellent, informative book that is a seduction of the eyes and mind. Well worth the price and Highly Recommended.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Diamond Secret by Suzanne Weyn

Nadya is a servant in a small Russian tavern. She has no memory of her childhood, and no prospects except for being a servant all her life when two ex soldiers enter her life. Ivan once served in the army, until he was sent to murder the royal family. He knows that one of the children, a girl named Anastasia, survived, but probably drowned in the river when she fell into it after being shot. Sergei, on the other hand, is an ex-nobleman looking for his wife and son, who disappeared in the chaos of post-revolution Russia.

Sergei has read that the Empress Marie, the last royal relation left alive, has heard rumors of Anastasia's survival and is looking to find her. So he hatches a plan: find a girl that looks like she could be Anastasia, and coach her on the skills she will need to pretend to be the Princess, get the Empress's reward and split the cash. Sergei will use his half to find his wife and son, and Ivan can escape to America to start a new life, or do whatever he wants.

When they come upon Nadya, they think that this girl seems perfect for the job, and her Amnesia will only help them in their plan, since they can say she has lost all her memories and simply cannot remember her past. But the woman who owns the tavern warns them that Nadya is insane- she spent time in an insane Asylum before the woman employed her at the tavern. Still, her sense of humor and lightheartedness, along with her occasionally imperious attitude, make them more than willing to take her on. They don't tell her of the reward or their plan to hoodwink the Empress, merely that the Empress sent them to find her granddaughter, and that they believe that Nadya is Anastasia.

But as they travel across Russia, Germany and many other countries in between Russia and France, where the Empress is living, Nadya begins having strange, troubling dreams of her life before the tavern, and living in the Palace with the Tsar and his family. But is Nadya actually Anastasia, or merely the daughter of a palace servant, and can she convince the Empress that she actually is Anastasia? And when she and Ivan begin to develop feelings for each other, can she leave him behind, or will he leave her out of a misplaced sense of class? For he, the son of a peasant, can never reach high enough to have Anastasia as his wife. And will Sergei ever find his wife and son? And who is the strange man with the scarred face that seems to be following them, and what does he want with Nadya? Will Nadya ever have the fairytale life that she sees in her dreams again?

Needless to say, this book is based on the true life of Princess Anastasia of Russia, and in large part on that of Anna Anderson, who believed that she was actually Anastasia, who had survived the assassination of the Russian Royal family and somehow survived many years before being rediscovered. Of course, Anna Anderson wasn't Anastasia, she was a German mental patient who seemed to think she was the Russian Princess, but was only discovered to be an impostor after her death. It's uncertain, due to her mental condition, whether she was aware that she was an impostor or if she actually believed that she was Anastasia.

In this story, the truth of the matter is soon revealed, but we get to fall in love with Nadya, who was pale and rather sickly until she, Sergei and Ivan had to work their way across Europe. She delights in her new strength, much to the horror of Sergei, who needs to keep Nadya looking like a Princess, and tanned skin and muscles are not in the image he wants to present her with. And Ivan soon becomes deeply concerned that their plans only screw Nadya over in the end.

But the Empress may be old, but she is no fool, and she refuses to pay the reward unless and until Nadya can be proven to be the Royal Duchess Anastasia. But can Nadya prove to the Empress who she is, and how will she react when she finds out about the reward promised by the Empress, which Ivan and Sergei haven't mentioned? Will Anastasia choose love or royalty? I'll bet most readers will be able to guess before the book even starts, but it was still a nice, exciting read. Recommended, but not much of a mystery to those who know their history. Still, solid.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Belle: A Retelling of Beauty and the Beast by Cameron Dokey

Belle is the third of three sisters, and her two elder sisters are stunningly beautiful, the eldest with hair of raven black and eyes of blue, and the middle girl is shining blonde and with blue eyes also. But Belle is brown haired and eyed, and even though her sisters are beautiful, it is Belle who was named for Beauty.

Early on, though, Belle comes to realize that while her sisters are beautiful, she is not, but she also has her skill in working wood, learned from her father, to bring her through. And from watching her eldest sister, she comes to realize that physical beauty doesn't always bring happiness, or even love, with it, as her eldest sister is engaged to the son of her father's erstwhile business partner, and the son is a cruel man. So when her father's business takes a bad turn, she copes best when her family must move out of the city and into a small manor house to save money. All she takes with her are her and her father's woodcarving tools, and her own talent for understanding what the wood itself wants her to carve.

In time, she and her sisters come into their own, with one taking over the gardening and the other taking over the cooking. Belle continues to carve. When her father hears that one of his ships has made port, he goes back to the city and asks his daughters what they want him to bring them back. Belle, knowing that part of the wood that he will travel through is enchanted, asks that if he finds the enchanted tree said to lie at the heart of the enchanted wood, to bring her a piece to carve, so that she can see the truth of the enchanted wood for herself.

And on his return, although he doesn't bring his family riches, he does have a story to tell, about the enchanted wood and a beast who he met there, a beast who wants the daughter who can see into the secrets of the wood so she can plumb the secrets of the enchanted tree and perhaps free the beast from the spell that he is under. Belle agrees to go and discovers that the beast is truly under an enchantment- no one can bear to look him in the eyes for even five seconds. But if Belle can discover the secret of the enchanted tree, perhaps she can also discover the secret of the beast, and why he cannot also see her except out of the corner of his eyes.

Who and what is the beast, and why does the secret of the tree so elude her? Can Belle free the beast and discover the true secret of the heartwood tree, and once she has, will she be able to leave the enchanted garden at the heart of the wood, now that she knows its secret?

Considering that the story is a retelling of the famous fairytale, you can guess that Belle is eventually successful in her quest, and finds love as well as the secret of the tree, but where this book shines is in the rest of the story. Beauty and the Beast often makes Belle into the only one of her sisters to have a humble heart and common sense- her sisters are usually depicted as vapid and vain, since in most retellings, they ask for ribbons and shoes from their father when there is a chance that they might have regained part of their fortune.

But this story avoids that by making her sister's requests equally as prosaic as Belle's. Where in the original, all she asked for was a single rose, here, she asks for a piece of the enchanted tree to carve, and her sisters ask for a mixing bowl and some flowers for the garden. And Belle is close to her other two sisters, even though she is the youngest of the family- there is real love there despite the usual depiction of sisters as adversaries or antagonists.

I found the story charming, and while there are lots of differences from the original fairytale, there are plenty of similarities as well, and they made the beast beastly enough without actually describing what it/he looked like, and that completely worked in the story. I also liked the real lesson of the tree, which to me came closest to almost all of the retellings of this tale to the message of the original, and the ending was wonderful as well.

I'd heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in fairytales retold, or just someone who wants to read about a fairytale love that could possibly happen in a more realistic world than that of traditional fairytales. It's a short book, but holds a lot of story impact for its size. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Stranger by Zoë Archer

Catullus Graves is a member of the Blades of the Rose, and also a chemist whose creations help the Blades in protecting the magical Sources of the world from the members of the Heirs of Albion, a group of British Aristocrats who believe that all the Sources should be in the hands of the British, to better help them rule the world. The Blades oppose the Heirs, but the Heirs have already gotten control of some sources that allow them to use fairly powerful magic.

Gemma Murphy knows none of this, but when she hears two Blades talking about magic in Canada, she decides to follow them back to England to find out what they are talking about. She is used to sniffing out stories in her job as an investigative reporter. But unbeknownst to most people, she has a magic talent of her own- she can open locks just by concentrating on it, and she uses her talent to get into places that she shouldn't be in and find evidence that she shouldn't have access to.

When she uses her family talent to sneak into a meeting of Catullus and some of the other Blades, she is discovered by Catullus afterwards, and while he is intrigued by both her and her ability to get into where she isn't allowed, he also finds himself attracted to her- even if he is convinced that he will never find a lover or a wife. Catullus is used to being rejected and alone as a black man in the almost completely white populace of England.

Gemma is interested in Catullus as well, but she always wants to find out about the Source that the Heirs have their eyes on, one that could enable them to win every future conflict and bring about the end they desire- a magic source of great power known as The Primal Source, constructed by none other than Merlin and invested with enough magical might to make other Sources seem like baby toys. But can Catullus, and Gemma, who is determined to stay with Catullus and write the story of the Blades, exposing them to the world, find the Primal Source and keep it safe from the Heirs? And is Gemma's power merely to open locks, or does it have a deeper application that might enable her to open other dimensions to Catullus? And can Catullus overcome the mental attitude that his past experience with prejudice have given him and accept the love of Gemma, and the possibility that she can see beyond his color and love him enough to stay with him forever? Or will all their problems seem small when the Heirs finally take over for good?

This is the final book in the Blades of the Rose series, and we finally meet Catullus, the genius inventor who is responsible for the creation of many devices in the past books that have gotten the Blades who bore them out of some trouble. But while his genius for inventing is unparalleled, he is hesitant in matters of the heart, since, because he is black, there is considerable prejudice towards him from other English people (not the Blades, of course, but ordinary people), and he is all too aware of the difficulties of any kind of romance with a white woman.

For her own part, Gemma knows that her own family will have a problem with her relationship with Catullus, but she still can't keep herself from wanting him, or being attracted to him. By the end, both have overcome their own mental difficulties, and decide to try and change people's minds, even if it is only one person at a time. But watching them come together was both wonderful and hot- my only problem was with the cover. The impression I got from the story was that Catullus was a really dark Negro man- darker, in any case, than the cover artist made him look, while the cover art makes him look like a very lightskinned guy- more on the order of quadroon/octoroon (to use the language of that time), and not very dark at all. Which would still have been equally as unacceptable to some people, but it was certainly jarring.

Other than that, I loved this book immensely. I liked that Catullus and Gemma not only had an external threat to overcome, but also a psychological one that held them back from engaging in a physical relationship with each other. Plus, it was Catullus who was the less willing one to engage in physical fighting, since he was more of a mentally engaged guy, and rather fastidious as well, while Gemma was based more on Nellie Bly and found it somewhat easier to engage in fisticuffs- a reversal of the usual male/Female traits I found delicious.

I definitely enjoyed the story, and the characters and well, just about everything about this book, and I would recommend this book to those who enjoy heroics and fights that aren't between the main characters, but the main characters and external forces.I am still looking for the other books in the series, but I highly recommend this book and this series, so far as I have read them. I would love to see what else Zoë Archer comes up with for her next series!

Friday, April 08, 2011

All U Can Eat by Emma Holly

Frankie Smith is a small-town girl who has it all- a wonderful boyfriend, a model, who she is thinking about marrying, a successful diner which she owns and runs, and she is generally happy with her entire life. Until her boyfriend leaves her for another woman, sending her into a bit of a tailspin. Especially when she realizes that he's leaving her for another woman- who he got pregnant.

But business won't wait for her to mourn the life she thought she had, and now the chief of Police, who has been long attracted to her, suddenly decides that he might now have a chance with Frankie- only he doesn't just want to be her rebound lover.

But when Frankie's wealthy friend, Tish Whittier, is murdered in the alley behind her diner, the All U Can Eat, both Frankie and her new cook, Mike, a recent returnee from Iraq who used to be a troubled kid, are the first suspects in her murder. After all, why was Tish's body in the alley behind the diner?

But Tish, who was a kind, wealthy, generous woman, had secrets about everyone in town, and with her death, those secrets are suddenly breaking out into the open, implicating everyone in a complicated web of sex, lies and murder. As the passions of the small town suddenly break out into the open, Frankie and Chief Jack West will have to unravel the tangled web and discover who really killed Tish before they can enjoy a happy ending of their own.

This book may be classed as a romance, but in actual fact, it's probably much closer to erotica than anything else. Emma Holly, when she isn't writing her vampire/shapechanger romance stories, also wrote a bunch of erotica books featuring, well, let's just say one of the titles was "Menage" and another featured a female dominatrix, while another involved the sub/dom scene.

This book isn't quite that into the "out there" sex, but Frankie isn't exactly celibate while she waits for Mr. Right to come along. In fact, she has sex an awful lot in this book. But it's not just her- everyone has sex an awful lot in this book, and the sex is very well, not to mention hotly, described. It should come as no surprise that most of the secrets in the town are sexual in nature, and that more is going on behind the scenes, and in the bedrooms, kitchens and livingrooms, not to mention one very specific dungeon, than anyone ever suspected.

If you enjoy the hottest of hot romance novels, this is definitely a book you are going to want to read. Especially if you like happy endings. In fact, people who enjoy Nora Roberts' Eve Dallas books would probably enjoy this one as well, although Frankie and her friends have a much higher sex drive than Eve or Peabody. Regardless, the story is wonderful and so is the mystery, the sex is hotter than hot, and the happy ending feels very satisfying. Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Science studies pretty much everything under the sun, but who knew, apart from Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, that science has turned its all-seeing gaze to the subject of sex? Even before these dedicated scientists turned their attention to the subject of sex, it was studied by no less than Leonard DaVinci and James Watson. But that is all in the past, quite literally. What sorts of things are sex researchers studying today, and can any of what they are studying make your sex life better?

Mary Roach goes undercover and behind the scenes, finding scientists researching help for frigid women, impotence cures, the importance of hormones to sex and whether orgasm increases one's chance of having a baby, among other things. Some sound rather outré, like helping people with missing genitalia gain orgasms and pleasure from sex (if you want to think of it another way, imagine what it would be like to be able to feel nothing from the waist down- and yet still want to have orgasms), while others are more prosaic, like prescription-strength vibrators- presumably much more powerful than those you can buy in drug stores or on the internet or through the mail.

Now, all these subjects could be covered in a dry and clinical way, making them seem as boring as dust, but Mary Roach manages to find the humor, and even the pathos involved in the subjects the scientists are studying and their attempted "cures" or solutions to the problems presented. Sometimes, she and even she and her husband, sign up to help the scientists, from attending a masturbation therapist, to having sex while being monitored for their various physiological responses. And for the record, that last one is not as easy as it sounds, each of them being laden with all sorts of bands, sticks and other objects, plus the knowledge that they are being watched- not quite conducive to a sexy mood. In short, while you will be tempted to laugh often at the direction of the scientist's studies, there are plenty of times when you realize that their solutions are often desperately needed by some people, and while many find sex and finding pleasure in sex easy, others don't have it so good, or even good at all.

I found myself really enjoying this book, which is filled with factoids I would never have known if not for reading it, and stories which are fascinating in and of themselves, such as Empress Marie Bonaparte's sexual problems, which led to her clitoris being moved- twice, in an effort to provide her with some satisfaction during sex. Even if the story did have me wanting to cross my legs, it was fascinating that the surgeon who perfected the technique had success using it on other patients- but not her.

Others will definitely make you laugh, like the Victorian obsession with "retaining one's vital sap" (read: semen), which was so important that you couldn't even lose any through "nocturnal emissions", and which inspired a number of patents devoted to items that would fulfill this function. All of them sound more like torture devices to me- which I suppose was kind of the point.

In short, this book is both funny and informative, making it an extremely enjoyable read. That being said, you will probably not enjoy it if you are unable to view sex as something both sublime and humorous at the same time, as many times, Mary Roach's words inspire laughter and amusement, at both herself and the science. But if you are relaxed enough to read about it, you will find plenty to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Gotham Central: Book Four- Corrigan by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Kano and Stephano Gaudiano

Gotham City is defended from supervillains by Batman and his assistant, Robin. But they don't do their job alone. They are helping, and being resented by, the Gotham City Police, and while the former Comissioner Gordon made great strides in cleaning up the formerly corrupt Police Department, his retirement has meant more corruption in the Police Department. This volume collects several stories.

"Nature" sees a young girl killed by a couple of corrupt cops who are shaking down a drug dealer for money. When they hear her, she attempts to flee, and one of the cops kills her by accident. When Renee Montoya and her Partner, Crispus Allen show up to the scene, they realize that the beat cops aren't giving them a straight story. But these two beat cops are part of a larger pool of corruption, and they are desperate not to go down for the killing. However, the young woman wasn't as alone and friendless as the cops seem to think, and another force comes in to get vengeance and justice for the murdered girl.

"Dead Robin" has the body of a young man turn up dead in Robin's outfit in a back alley. While the body seems like it might actually be Robin, since it is young and in very good shape, not to mention athletic, both Batman and other groups that Batman is a part of are all telling the cops that the real Robin is still alive. But the cops can't take their word for it unless the other superheroes give the Cops Robin's real name, which they won't do.

As it turns out, the young man is an gymnast who had recently broken into advertising and acting, and when a second man dressed as Robin turns up floating in Gotham's river, the cops and the regular inhabitants of the city begin wondering if the stories that Batman has multiple Robins all at the same time are true. But the Captain is worried that the picture of the body published in the local paper might have been passed on to the newspaper editor by one of the cops in the station. And the investigating officers, Romy Chandler and Nate Patton, are frustrated at being one step behind Batman all the way, as he takes this thing very seriously.

But when they catch him beating up the Penguin in the back of his club, Romy fires at Batman and hits him. When he goes down, she is so shocked that she drops her guard and Batman hits her back, breaking her nose and taking her gun. She can't tell the Captain what happened or be written up and possibly lose her job. But can the cops find the instigator of the Robin murders before he can kill any more young men?

"Sunday Bloody Sunday" shows the strain in the working relationship of Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya. Ever since she beat up Jim Corrigan in a back alley to find out who he sold the bullet that broke the case and saved her partner from IAD to, Renee has been drinking more and getting into more fights. Crispus is sick of it, and eventually finds out why she got into that fight, and that irks him even more, because while everyone knows that Corrigan is corrupt, now that Montoya hurt him, they can't as easily take him down. But when the aftermath of a fight with Captain Marvel sends the city into chaos, can both of them work together to get out of the chaos and make their way back to their loved ones?

In "Corrigan II", we find out that while Renee kept the secret of how she got the bullet that saved Crispus from him, he's been keeping a secret from her as well- Crispus has been doing his own investigation into Corrigan and is determined to put him away for good- but he can't involve Renee in the investigation, as the slightest hint of her presence could taint it. But when Crispus is lured into a dark garage and slaughtered by other corrupt cops, Renee must find a way to get justice for her partner. But will she make the right choice, or go for vengeance instead?

I love this series. I love the fact that none of the cops have super powers or super skills, and that they must do their best to try and deal with criminals both ordinary and superpowered to keep their city safe. I like reading about the different detectives, and even the support people like Stacy the Receptionist, who has a crush on Batman and is seemingly friends with Robin as well, and Nora, the city coroner.

These stories are great human stories, and yet they gain something by being set in a world with Superheroes. You have to wonder who is more heroic: those who fight crime with superpowers or super skills on their side, not to mention armor and technology the police can't hope to match, or those same human cops who go out every day to do their jobs with merely human strength and crappy guns, and do it day after day after day, knowing that every case could be their last. Even if they are getting paid for their work, the reader often feels that it isn't enough, and the sometimes quiet triumphs that the cops get, while Batman may get the limelight, they are the ones doing the work and only get complaints.

I really enjoy this series, and this book was both painful to read (because I really like both Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya, and they get put through Hell in this book) and wonderful to read, because I was still enjoying the story and hoping they would manage to bring Corrigan down. I highly recommend this series. It's grim and gritty and while in some aspects, it's not exactly realistic, in other ways, it is extremely realistic, and that realism is part of the attraction of reading it. If you haven't picked it up yet, do so as fast as you can. One of the best series out there today.

Tortall and Other Lands by Tamora Pierce

Tamara Pierce is well known for her many works set in the lands of Tortall and the surrounding countries. "The Lioness Quartet", "Protector of the Small", "Wild Magic", and the "Beka Cooper" series each tell of this world. But the stories in the series are big ones, and are about the big plots, while other, smaller stories go untold. Until now. Here, Tamora Pierce tells stories that she wasn't able to before, including two set on modern-day earth.

"Student of Ostriches" tells the story of the Shang Unicorn, a woman who learned to fight and defend herself while guarding her flock and watching the Ostriches, Giraffes, and Elephants in the land around her. She is successful in fighting off the bullies who would try to steal her ball, and when her sister's betrothed wants to cast her off as a witch so that he can take a new girl to wife, it falls to Kylaia to defend her sister's honor against her former betrothed, in place of their father, who is lame. But who will want to take her to wife if she defeats a man who is already a warrior?

"Elder Brother" follows the story of Qiom. When Numair Salmalin turned his enemy into an apple tree, to maintain balance, an apple tree elsewhere in the world had to become a man, and that man is Qiom. But unused to being a man, how can he survive, even with the nighttime teaching of Numair. And when Qiom encounters a young man named Fadal, who becomes his companion, can he risk his own life to the possibility of fire when Fadal is arrested because of his secrets?

"The Hidden Girl" follows Tekalimy, one of the women living in the town where Fadal was captured. The people of her land believe that women are lesser, and should go veiled, and their Prophet, who was male, spoke only to men. But she and her father know better, and know that the Book of the Flame was not the Prophet's only writing. He also wrote the book of the Distaff, that spoke of the strengths and dignity of women. But when her sick preacher father succumbs to his cough, can Tekalimy bow to the will of her gods, and become a new prophet, allowing women to take their voices once more?

"Nawat" is about the young crow man who married Aly, the heroine of the Trickster series. He and his group of warriors, crow and human both, have stayed together to protect Queen Dovasary Balitong. But the crows of the city think that the crows of his group have become too human and less like crows, and reject some members of his group. Worse, they steal the sick baby of one of the group and dash it to the stones because it is too damaged to ever grow up normal. But when one of Nawat's daughters shows the same signs of dangerous oddity, can Nawat do the crow thing and kill her, or will he give into his human side and defend her- risking being thrown out of his flock himself?

"The Dragon's Tale" follows Kitten, the orphaned dragon that Numair and Daine are raising. Because she is so young that she cannot speak the human tongue, she is widely regarded as a mere pet by the soldiers of the new King who are escorting Numair and Daine around Carthak. But when Kitten goes exploring and discovers a human women who is hated and abused by the rest of the village, she is determined to rescue the woman and her baby and bring her to Daine and Numair's attention by herself. But can she get the woman to trust her, and what is the meaning behind the magic in the maze of stone outside the village?

"Lost" follows a young girl named Adria, a whiz at mathematics who recently changed teachers. While she can look at a problem and know the answer in her head, her teacher wants her to be able to show her work and has started marking her down for not being able to do the work correctly, which has angered her father, a merchant. But when she discovers a darkling named "Lost", he defends her, and allows her to encounter a female engineer brought in to work on a new bridge being built in Tusaine. And being late for school because she was talking with the engineer leads to her teacher complaining to her father. But can Adria, who truly is a mathematics prodigy, save herself from being denied schooling and sent to a farm, and instead attend college for mathematics in Tortall? Or will her father have her sent away for dishonoring him?

"Time of Proving" brings together a bull man who escaped from slavery with a young soon-to-be ruler of the Wind People. She is in an area of the desert that her people rarely travel to for her time of proving, a year away proving she can survive on her own. The bull-man is a scholar who studies art and calligraphy, but who was kidnapped to be sold into slavery, as his people are considered no more than a tale. He needs her help to survive his injuries and to learn how to survive. But while he pays her for her help and her lessons in survival, might she find that she needs him as well?

"Plain Magic"is about Tonya, a young girl living in a village under threat of a dragon. As her family packs, she encounters a peddler named Lindri, a seller of cloth and embroideries who seems no more than a peddler. But Tonya soon sees that Lindri has magic like she has never seen. Tonya has magic also, but her teacher seems to be afraid that she might surpass him, and so refuses to teach her much. But when Tonya is selected by the villagers, including her own father, to be a sacrifice to the Dragon, can Tonya and Lindri save the village from being devastated, and find a true teacher for Tonya?

"Mimic" is the story of Kit, a herder of sheep who saves all the wounded creatures she can. But when she rescues a strange lizard being carried off by an Eagle, she names him Mimic and saves his life from a fever that could have killed him. But when weather proves a threat to not only Kit, but her entire village, her flock and the many birds she has saved, can Mimic save them?

"Huntress" is set in the modern day and follows Corey, a girl who lives for running, and has few friends because her mother is a pagan and follows the family Goddess. But when Corey gets to attend the Christopher school, an academy that has top-notch schooling as well as a top-notch track team, she falls in with an upperclassman named Felix who calls his female friends his "Lionesses". As Corey begins to hear of a new gang who pick on criminals and bums, she begins to suspect that her new friends have something to do with this. But when they turn on her, who can save her from the pack?

"Testing" follows the inhabitants of a home for troubled teens. When one of the beloved monitors leaves, the girls refuse to accept the lackluster replacements who don't really care for them or who are phonies. Overhearing the administrator, they realize that they have the power to decide who they want to care for them. But when the latest hire proves to be a young woman just out of college, she slowly begins winning the young girls over. But can she survive the many tests that the girls devise to try and make her leave?

This is an excellent collection of short stories that grabs you and just will not let you go. Every story, whether short or long, sucks you in as soon as you begin reader and won't release you until it's over. The only time you can stop is at the end of a story, and even then, it's tempting to start another and another, and before long it's three AM and you have just finished the book,

Most of the stories have characters that will be familiar to Pierce's work. Even Qiom, who was mentioned only in passing, and not by name, will evoke memories of the story he was mentioned in. Others have main characters who may not even be given a name, or their whole name, until late in the story, but you never feel the lack of a full name as you read. I found all the stories enjoyable, even when, as in "Nawat", the subject of that story is difficult and somewhat off-putting. That's not the only difficult story- "The Hidden Girl" has parallels to the current situation in the middle east for women, and "Huntress" explores the problem of becoming part of a group that may seem like it's full of the best people, but which turns out to be horrible anyway.

My favorite story in the book was probably "Student of Ostriches", because I didn't recognize the main character until the end, and it really did suck me in. The idea of learning to fight by watching animals is part of many martial art histories, including Wing Chun, supposedly started by a woman who studied the moves of a mantis. And there are no bad stories, so I couldn't pick a least favorite- they are just all too good.

This is a book I would highly recommend. The stories are short and engaging, and the characters who make up the stories are all of the sort that attract the reader in various ways as they attempt to overcome the problems of their lives. So, if you want to read something new and interesting, this is a collection you should definitely pick up if you have enjoyed Ms. Pierce's work in the past. Some of the stories might not be best for readers new to her work, but even then, they can make you want to pick up the past books and read them again.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Dead Is Not an Option by Marlene Perez

Daisy Giordano is a senior now and preparing for life at College, but although she's sent out plenty of letters to colleges, none of them have come back yet, and Daisy is worried that she might have to go to the local college and end up being separated from her boyfriend, Ryan. But there's plenty to distract her from that particular worry.

For one, she's still trying to free Lily Wilder and her fiancé from the spell of Circe Silvertongue. Daisy knows that Lily's spirit is trapped in the jukebox at Slim's Diner, and her fiancé, Bam, is actually Circe's pet pig, Balthazar, but she's no closer to figuring out what spell Circe used on them, or how to undo it, or how to make Circe undo her spell.

And now there's a new wrinkle in the mix: a vampire and a werewolf, each showing signs of the victim being killed by the other kind of supernatural creature, have turned up in Nightshade, and it's causing lots of tension between both groups. Each is blaming each other for the killing, and now the leader of the Vampires, the actual Count Dracula, has shown up in Nightshade to lead the vampires, with a new romance on his arm- none other than Circe Silvertongue!

Daisy is upset, mainly because with her boyfriend, she's on the side of the Weres, or at least it's assumed she is, and her sister, Rose, is also. But their older sister, Poppy, is dating a vampire, and this leads to some tense times in the family. Even though Daisy's hobby is cooking, which brings her family together, the tensions between the two factions may end up driving it apart. And while the tension in her own family is bad, the idea of a vampire/werewolf romance is even stranger, but it seems to be happening right there in Nightshade. But will the romance pour oil on the waters of the conflict, or just make it worse?

And while Daisy has promised to free Lily, the amount of time she's taking is making Lily impatient. And Circe, who might be persuaded to free Bam and Lily, needs some special items to free them. But can Daisy find those things while taking part in all the madness that is Senior year at Nightshade High? And when a tragedy afflicts Ryan's family, will Daisy choose to stay close to him, or go to college somewhere far away?

I love this series and I love Daisy Giordano. I was wondering if this book might be the end of the series, since both Daisy and Ryan are supposed to be leaving Nightshade for college. But it seems not, although both Daisy and Ryan seem to be made for colleges much more academically rigorous than Nightshade junior college. But at least Daisy and Ryan will end up being together. And her father is a teacher at the college, which means that she'll still be there interacting with the rest of the interesting characters and creatures in Nightshade.

Of course, the Scourge is still out there, and there are plenty of stories untold and characters unexplored in the town whose stories and baggage may end up featuring in future stories about the town. And as Daisy gets more known, she and her family might end up gaining more power in Nightshade itself.

This book sort of reminds me of a cross between Scooby Doo (with Daisy playing the part of Daphne/Velma and Ryan being both Fred and Scooby Doo (since as a werewolf, he's also a Dog), but without a Mystery Machine, and if Daphne or Velma was psychic. There's a sort of bouncy fun to these novels, even when stakes are high and bad and strange things are happening. I love the town of Nightshade and all the people and the characters who live there. It's fun and a great series that I love every time I open the covers on the books in the series.

II can't recommend this series highly enough. The stories are wonderful, and so are all the characters, even the minor ones who spend a lot of the time in the background. I can't wait to see what happens in the future and what happens in Nightshade and the end of the Scourge storyline. Highly recommended.

Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites by Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson

Burden Hill is a peaceful suburban community- on the surface. But something is wrong underneath and the animals of Burden Hill can sense it. It starts when Jack, a dog, experiences a coldness in his newly built doghouse, he is sure that it is caused by a ghost in his doghouse. So the other dogs summon a wise dog to help them, and uncover the bones of a dog, fifty years old. The Wise dog helps lay the spirit to rest, and the dog's spirit tells them that she was hit by a neighbor, who panicked and buried the dog, after she had been left behind and had finally tracked down her family.

But it's not just the dogs of the neighborhood who help, but a cat named "The Orphan". And when a group of witches move into the area, it's up to the Wise Dog, the Orphan and the other dogs to drive them off by substituting the Orphan, now dyed black, for one of the Witch's familliars, Dymphna. But while the witches are taken care of by the Goddess they worship, Dymphna escapes, swearing vengeance.

Soon the dogs and Orphan get to see her vengeance when she animates the bodies of all the dead dogs that the dogs of the neighborhood have been burying when they find them on the road. But when she gets frightened by what she's called up, can she help the dogs put the bodies to rest again?

When Ace, a husky, finds a strange human boy sleeping in his doghouse, all the dogs are surprised to see the boy can speak their language and understands them. But why? Is he, as some of the dogs maintain, a witch? Or is the truth something else entirely? And when the dogs discover his secret, will they be able to save him from the forces arrayed against the boy? And can they even save Ace from the loyalty of a dog for the one he loves?

When the dogs witness a rain of frogs, they summon the rest of the group to witness it. But the frogs start eating each other, and when the dogs and Orphan go in search of the frogs, what they discover is a single, tremendously large, bloated frog, can they destroy it before whatever it was sent for occurs? And will the wise dogs, summoned to this same neighborhood so many times, find a series of better protection for the neighborhood of Burden Hill?

Now inducted into the Wise Dogs, the pets of Burden Hill become the Wise Dogs protecting the neighborhood (and one wise cat), can the Animals of Burden Hill keep the Humans and pets safe from the dark forces that seem to have targeted this peaceful, sunny place. But why here, and why now, and can the new Wise Dogs (and Cat) of Burden Hill keep themselves up to the challenges they will face ahead?

I liked this graphic novel a lot. It was unusual to have a book where all, or even most of the characters are non-human animals. But while the characters are animals, they all have lots of character, from Ace, the Husky, who loves and befriends a werewolf and attempts to save his friend, to the Orphan, a cat who is often braver than some of the dogs, and even Dymphna, the cat who starts out an adversary and becomes, well, not really an ally, but an associate.

The stories are wonderful, with just the right mix of mundanity (a group of dogs, each of a different breed, who have formed a pack, and even a cat who somehow runs with them) and the supernatural, which, for some reason, has targeted this small community. But why? So far, we don't know. I can only hope this will be answered in the next volume, whenever that comes out. I like seeing how the different characters interact, and the stories themselves.

This is a great graphic novel, very different from most of the graphic novels I have read, but it's not a bad thing. In fact, this is a very good thing. It's different, enjoyable, and well-told and illustrated. I can't recommend this graphic novel enough. It's not the usual sort of thing, but it's wonderful and amazing, and very highly recommended.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Scoundrel by Zoë Archer

London Harcourt is enjoying her first trip to the Greek Isles, finally free of a suffocating girlhood and out of mourning for a marriage pushed on her by her father. She is traveling with her father and her father's assistant, Fraser, who unbeknownst to London, her father intends to marry her to at the end of the trip as a means of controlling her. Because, also unbeknownst to London, her father is part of a group called the Heirs of Albion, a group bent on subjugating the many magical legacies of the world to the control of the British Empire, with the intent of ruling the entire world.

But they aren't alone in the world, because another group, known as the Blades of the Rose, stands in their way, and they are trying to protect those legacies and sources of magic, called "Sources", from the Heirs, keeping them free of British control and in the hands of the native magicians and powers whose heritage they are. The Heirs also have a contemptuous view of women- the only reason why London is accompanying her father on this trip in the first place is that she is the only one who can speak an ancient dialect of Greek that is necessary to find the legacy in the first place. Otherwise, she would never have left her birthplace.

When London meets Bennett Day, the Blades man on the ground in Greece, neither she nor he know each others' identity, they only feel an instant sense of attraction towards each other, an attraction that only deepens when Bennett is forced to abduct her from her hotel room after learning her true identity. But he also finds her woefully ignorant of her father's true purpose in Greece and why she has been taken along- and also why her father is so desperately trying to get her back. And once she learns the truth of what her father plans, she finds it monstrous and decides to join Bennett to help him keep the Greek Source out of the hands of the Heirs.

Unbeknownst to London, Bennett is also hiding a secret from her. He was one of the Blades who caused her brother to be disfigured by scars, which has turned him bitter and reclusive since his trip abroad, which was on work for the Heirs. And Bennett is a man who likes and admires women, especially married women, which has led to more than a few run-ins with enraged husbands. Will London be able to see beyond Bennett's rakehell past to see past his devil may care exterior and unleash the need for a single love within him? Or will she choose to leave the man who accepts and admires her for all of who she is and choose to stay with her family out of a sense of love and duty? Because her father may be in charge of the expedition on behalf of the Heirs of Albion, he's not the greatest threat to the Source, or to London and Bennett...

I loved this book, which hooked me right from the start with the wonderful descriptions that really set this book in time and place. And I also loved the characters of both the hero and heroine, each in their way strong characters who do and defend what they think of as right from a strong personal moral sense. London may start off as naive in the ways of the world, because she is stronger at book learning, but she soon grows into a fighter who is every bit as effective as Bennett, albeit in different ways.

Bennett, too, undergoes personal growth, from being a man who is like a bee in a field of flowers when it comes to women: buzzing from bloom to bloom without staying at any one too long, to a man who craves and sustains a deeper love with a single woman, and no longer finds himself wanting to roam. And he and London are balanced in equally strong supporting characters, including Athena, the latest in a long line of Greek witches, prickly and protective of her heart but who is wooed by Kallas, the captain of a Greek ship who finds himself caught up in the Adventure of searching for the Greek Source. And later, we also meet another of the Blades, Catullus Graves, the reclusive inventor who is the closest thing the Blades have to a leader.

I was caught up as much in the exciting adventure as the romance between Bennett and London. In each other, they find love and support and someone who appreciates all of their strengths, as well as helping each other find new ones. Neither is portrayed as dumb or weak, and their conversations fairly snap with wit and tension. This is a book you will enjoy from the beginning right up until the end, and I can't wait until I read the other three books in the series, though the library only currently has one of the other books: Stranger, catullus's story.

If you are looking for a Victorian Steampunk Supernatural romance that is filled with high adventure, magic, wit and wonderful characters, you can definitely do a lot worse than Scoundrel. I was happy to find the work of a superior writer, and I loved the adventure and ending so much it has impelled me to find the rest of the books in the series. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Fledgling Handbook 101 by P.C. Cast with Kim Doner

In the world of The House of Night, any teenager might wake up one day to find themselves marked and fated to become a vampire. When they do so, they must leave their previous life behind and move into a House of Night, one of the many schools for Vampires, which have classes at night and are closed during the day. And, upon entering the House of Night, fledgling vampires will be given a handbook to guide them in learning about their new lives and the history of their new races.

But until now, we haven't gotten to see what is actually contained in such a handbook. This book is the book you would get if you were to be marked and go to a House of Night. The book opens with a number of quotations from famous vampires, and includes an introduction to what it means to be marked, and the fact that not all marked fledglings become full vampires. Sometimes their bodies reject the change, and they die. This is only to be expected.

The first part of the book covers the material facts of the change, along with sigils to show the different years of enrollment in the House of Night, a discussion of the Sons and Daughters of Night, the Sigils for teachers, and what each of those sigils mean, as well as the warrior bond. There are pictures showing how a normal human differs from a fledgling, and a full vampire, and how each forehead tattoo will differ, based on the affinity of each vampire for their element.

From there, the book moves on to rituals, discussing each element, and relaying a story about it, plus examples of tattoos from vampires touched by that element. Air, for example, shows how the Dark Daughters started, and gives their induction ritual. While Spirit tells the story of Heracles and Hyppolyta and tells how to break an imprint.

Then, a discussion of when you were born and which element will imprint you. Most of the year is taken up by the first four elements, while Spirit is limited to about 20 or so days during the year. Then a brief history of some better known vampires, and some pictures and inspiring quotes from famous vampires, along with their markings. The book ends with comforting words that despite the often-frightening changes that are occurring in their lives, the new fledgelings should be strong and take comfort in their goddess, Nyx.

This was another interesting book, as I love the entire house of Night series. While it's not a book you really need to get to complete the series, but it fleshes out the history of vampires and allows readers to pretend even better that they are a part of that world- if they want to. Otherwise, it gives the world more backstory and allows for small mythological/historical stories of vampires in the world and fleshes out the various looks of vampire markings, and how one can tell their connection to an element through the markings they wear.

Despite that, it's rather long for a handbook (it's the size of a small book rather than a pamphlet), and the art and pictures that accompany the text are very nicely done. I would be interested in finding out why certain dates are considered to be assigned to spirit. Some I get: they are the 8 major Sabbats of the Wiccan/Pagan faith, but the rest seemed a bit more random, and I am hard put to figure out why they are assigned to spirit.

That being said, this is an awesome companion book to the House of Night series, with plenty of pictures and lore to flesh out the world of Zoey and her friends. I hope that someday soon, they will clue us in on what is happening with the Red Fledgelings/vampires. I mean, they are undead, but what is their ultimate purpose? Will more be born if and when Neferet is defeated/dies? In any case, I enjoyed it, but I'd rather spend my money on the actual books rather than this adjunct, so i got it from the library. Recommended, but unless you are obsessed with the series, you'll probably want to get this from the library, like I did.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense by Suzette Haden Elgin

There are some people, and you know who they are, who always seem to be making digs at you, or who are arguing with you, that you cannot seem to win against. They force you to do whatever they wish by running verbal rings around you, or by making you feel somehow abused and unsettled. You may have perfectly good arguments, or they may be completely wrong, but you cannot win against them when they start in on you. This book exposes the arguments that these people make, and shows you how to defend yourself against them when they attack you by getting you to see the way they are attacking, and teaching you how to fight back to avoid falling into their traps and win the argument. You can even, by showing that you know how to defend yourself and defeating their attacks, keep them from attacking you ever again.

Author Elgin shows the types of people that most people communicating fall into: Placater, Blamer, Computer, Distracter and Leveller, and then covers the "Verbal Violence Octagon", eight different sorts of verbal attacks. Each section covers the attack, the implications implicit in the attack that you must rebuff or lose, and how to head off or defend against the attack. While each attack is considered verbal violence, Elgin stresses that self defense against these attacks should be a gentle one, and that the person under attack shouldn't attempt to attack the attacker in return, because that could lead to real violence of a more physical kind. Instead, Elgin shows how to make it clear to your attacker that they are not going to be able to draw you into an argument that will bring them satisfaction or allow them to win. And by demonstrating that you are capable of verbally defending yourself, they will be less inclined to attack you that way.

However, it's not just women who are attacked, and Elgin writes most of the book as if it was for men who need the advice. But she does mention that women in our society are actually almost brainwashed to defend those who attack them, and sometimes need to be shown that what this person is saying actually is an attack. She cautions women, in a special section dedicated to them, not to give into the temptation to use their very femaleness to try and deflect or defend against an attack. Men will quickly come to see you as weak if you do so, and use it as another reason to attack you. She also has advice when people need to be placated without casting oneself as a wrongdoer, and what to do and say if you are clearly in the wrong.

I enjoyed this book, but I thought that this is one you will need to read more than once; in fact, at least five or six times, followed by a lot of work to internalize all the information that is contained within. And this is because it's more than just knowing the kind of attacks that are leveled against you, but what the unspoken assumptions are behind each of these veiled attacks with words, and how to refute these unspoken assumptions when you reply- because if you don't, the attacker can still bring you down.

This is a book that demands more than just reading, it demands work to be able to use it effectively. You can't just read it once and assume you are done, you have to prepare by thinking about how to turn back these attacks, and practice until you can do it reflexively, because until you can, you can still be savaged by those seeking to attack you with words.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, but it's worthless without the work required to use the information properly. Unless you are willing to do the work and prepare, this book is pretty much useless. Regardless, recommended, but what you get out of this will depend on the effort you are willing to put into it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Grand Tour by Ron Miller and William K. Harrtmann

Back when I was young, I lucked into buying a book full of Chesley Bonestell's art. Known as the "Father of Planet Painting", he was the first to imagine what landscapes on other worlds that weren't like Earth would actually look like. And while he didn't make any of the paintings in this book, the book is dedicated to him and his visions of other worlds.

Normally, when writing a book about our solar system, conventional wisdom is to start at the sun and work your way outwards, ecountering many different worlds as you go. In contrast, this book starts from the largest body in our Solar system and works its way downwards from there. Minus the Sun, the book starts with Jupiter, then Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Earth. Venus, Mars... but the main difference here is thatin addition to just the planets, the book includes all of the known moons of the planets (at least, as they were known in 1981, the time of this book's publication), but even some of what could be called small or lesser planets, including some of the asteroids, such as Ceres, Eros, Amor and Apollo.

Each section starts with an overview of the world in question, from size and other vital statistics, along with numerous pictures or paintings of what the world looks like, both from space and either on the surface or in its atmosphere. Even the Earth is given this treatment, and one of the most interesting and enlightening pictures is a view of the ocean, with no land in sight. This is a view any alien astronauts would see from over 75% of the Earth's surface. In fact, as the authors of the book tell us, the more accurate name for our planet would be "Sea" or "Water", since our planet has so much of it.

At the time this book was written, Voyager had not yet reached Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, so the sheer, staggering number of moons discovered there was not yet known, nor about the Shepherd Moons that are part of Saturn's Ring system, keeping the ring particles in place. Only one , S2, was known at the time, instead of the 48 we currently know about. Likewise, not all of Jupiter's 62 moons are covered here.

More interesting than the planets are the so-called minor worlds or small planets, including Pluto, Chiron, Ceres, Charon and the other asteroids, which presciently predict its current status as a "Dwarf Planet" or "KBO/ Kuiper Belt Object". Most of the illustrations here are paintings and not pictures, but the closer planets that we have explored are shown with not only pictures, but also maps, even the parts we don't see, like the dark side of the moon (since the moon always has the same side turned towards us).

I found this book fascinating, even if it was sadly out of date, and there were plenty of interesting pictures, paintings and factoids to keep my interest. As I said before, the book is dedicated to Chelsey Bonestell, and while the pictures in here are not his, they certainly evoke much of his best work, such as the surface of Jupiter, a sea of liquid methane that barely moves under the grinding pressure of its atmosphere, while lightning continually sparks and jumps through the dark clouds. I found it an evocative picture, no less than the one showing the thinness of Saturn's rings or the painting of how the ring would look from one of Saturn's moons, a tiny white crack splitting the sky in half.

Though the material on how many moons each planet has may be out of date, the pictures are still wonderful to behold, and the views and shape of the various minor worlds is wonderful to view. Perhaps it's not too late to wonder when we will be able to experience these worlds through more than cameras and paintings, and actually see them with the naked eye, or from a spacecraft orbiting the planets. As an aid to imagination and wonder, I would still recommend this book.