Thursday, June 30, 2011

Naahmah's Blessing by Jacqueline Carey

Having married Bao after rescuing him, Moirin and Bao return to Terre D'Ange, but when they finally arrive, Moirin is startled to be recognized. People have not forgotten her, remembering her as Jehanne's witch. Sentiment seems alternately with and against her, and as soon as she can, Moirin goes to see King Daniel and his daughter, Desiree.

She finds the King very much sorrowing, and Desiree suffering from the King's lack of attention. Because of his great grief over the death of his wife, the King has withdrawn into sorrow, leaving the running of the country in the hands of the Duc de Barthelme, the companion of his youth, and looking to Moirin's father Phanuel for spiritual comfort, as he is another companion of Daniel De la Courcel's young manhood.

Where does this leave his daughter? Mostly ignored, and being very much like her mother, she is alternately demanding of attention from her nurses and attendants, and sad because she believes her father does not love her. Moirin, who loved Jehanne, remonstrates with the King for his treatment of his daughter, and he agrees that he has sorely neglected Desiree, but because she is almost the spitting image of his dead wife, which pains him greatly. Realizing that Moirin, despite just meeting Desiree, loves her deeply, he decides to appoint her Desiree's oath-sworn protector, in which capacity, her role would be to look after Desiree's interests and happiness above all else. Moirin knows this is a huge responsibility, but in the end, she agrees to undertake this role out of her love for Desiree.

Daniel also lets her know that Prince Thierry is away, far across the sea in Terra Nova, hoping to set up a trading contrsct with the peoples who live there, who have access to many spices, plants and other goods that are available nowhere else. Daniel is expecting him to return soon, and tells Moirin that he plans to relinquish the crown in favor of Thierry when he returns, having no interest in ruling any longer.

But although Moirin and Bao do their best for Desiree, getting her a new nurse who can calm her fears and working with her so flex her intelligent, curious mind, but she also notices that the Duc de Barthelme seems to be very interested in bringing together the four year old Dauphine and his eldest son, Tristan, who is ten years older. She suspects that Rogier de Barthelme would betrothe his son to Desiree, which Moirin feels would be a mistake.

Bao says that if she suspects something about the boy, she should follow him, so she does, following him about the city, then to his home, where she witnesses him making untoward advances to a maid at his house, a maid who is happily and newly married, but whom he would force to service him anyway, which is against D'Angelline law. Moirin, still under the invisible aura of her magic, manages to dissuade him from continuing, but she decides that Tristan must be kept away from Desiree at all costs.

She takes her concerns to the King, who agrees to make De Bartheleme step down as Regent. But before he can do so, the ship from Terra Nova returns, and it has dire news. Dauphin Thierry is missing, presumed to be dead. King Daniel takes the news hard and withdraws into solitude. The next day, he is found floating in the river, having taken his own life. The city goes into mourning, but Moirin is appalled that the King never got to take away the Regency from de Barthelme.

His plans go forward, so Moirin feels that the only thing she can do, and feeling the call of her destiny from her diadh-anam, says she will go to Terra Nova and bring Prince Thierry home, since it is not clear he is dead, and Jehanne's spirit has confirmed he is alive. But de Barthelme will not support the expedition. He is happy that the Prince is dead, since it allows him to rule, and, to betrothe his son to Desiree, who has fallen in love with the older boy.

But in the end, the Shahrizai family, and Balthasar Shahrizai, Prince Thierry's childhood companion, who underwrites the expedition, and Moirin gets permission from de Barthelme to go on the expedition by Blackmailing him with the knowledge that people will talk if he doesn't give permission after telling everyone she had a vision saying Thierry is alive. So, finally Moirin, Bao and the others set off for Terra Nova, along with a former member of the Circle of Salomon, and she knows from Jeanne that she will have to face her past with Rafael de Merellot along the way.

But someone doesn't want Moirin to succeed at her task. But is it de Barthelme or one of his family? And nothing that Moirin has done in the past can prepare her for the splendor or horror of Terra Nova, of altars piled high with skulls and altars piled high with flowers. But can the people of Terra Nova, who have never seen a European woman before, be expected to treat her with the sort of deference that the men she is used to are? And what will happen if she allows herself to sleep with the ruler of the Nahuatl people? Will she really have damaged the relationship with the Europeans, or just those of Aragonia?

And then there is the problem of Raphael de Mereliot, the man who caused Moirin to misuse her powers for the love of him. He's out there in the jungle somewhere, with the Prince's party, and by all accounts, he is no longer sane. The natives around him fear "The Dark River". But what is it, and can Moirin rescue the Prince and the rest of his party while keeping her own alive, and then returning to Terre D'Ange to put Thierry on the throne and bring de Barthelme to justice? And will Moirin and Bao ever be able to settle down and have the fat babies both of them want?

Well, I had been looking forward to this book for a long time. Did it live up to my expectations? Yes, and no. I have given up trying to see Moirin and Bao as some wonderful, romantic couple- they don't really come up to the standard of Phédre and Joscelin or Imriel and Sidonie. Their love seems more pedestrian rather than epic, and despite the fact that they made love quite a bit, it was just...lovemaking, not something that confirmed or showed their love. It was like it was somehow removed, and thus it wasn't as interesting.

It also seemed to me that many of Moirin's travels somehow mirrored those of Phédre- not in where she traveled, but in what happened to her. Moirin is going after someone who betrayed her when she was young, like Melisande Shahrizai. But in the end, Morin comes off as a second best to the original. The other problem I had was with Raphael. In the end, he came across as just evil with no redemption. So far, Carey has made pretty much all of her villains human, but here she abandoned that to make Raphael evil with no redeeming features, and in the end, the action doesn't come down to what Moirin does, but what Bao has to do to win, and that made the ending less interesting for me.

Carey also tried to make the story revolve around a sacrifice, but I felt that the run up to that part of the storyline was too short. She tried her best to make us feel something for the person who had to be sacrificed, but there just wasn't enough contact between Moirin and the sacrifice for me to come to care that much, rendering the whole "sacrifice" sad, but ultimately meaningless and not shocking or stunning in the way she probably meant it to be. Then, there is the whole thing of characters we are expected to care for because they are the offspring of characters we were introduced to in earlier books, which, to my mind, is shoddy writing. Give us a reason to care about this character now.

That being said, the adventure is still interesting, and I liked how the situation with Desireé was set up. I found the book worth reading, but I hope her next book manages to fix the problems she had with this one. I liked the whole idea of Moirin and her story, it's just that it didn't measure up to stories in the past, and that was a problem for me. I love Jacqueline Carey so much. She is really a good writer, but this volume and this series felt forced and not right. I will continue to read her, but I can't recommend this series as much as I could her others. Not recommended.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Where Shadows Dance by C.S. Harris

Sebastian St. Cyr's friend Paul Gibson, who has helped him with many of his investigations, is an anatomist, something that is strictly forbidden by law, so he must purchase bodies from the "resurrectionists", the name for grave robbers who sneak into cemetaries to steal the bodies of the recently dead for physicians to dissect. But when he gets his latest body, it's not the one he expects- and the body's injuries point to a death that was sudden and unexpected- like murder.

With no one else to go to , Paul calls on Sebastian to find out the identity of the body he received and who killed him- and why. But because of the circumstances of the discovery of the body, Sebastian will be hampered by not revealing the circumstamces of the body's discovery.

It turns out that the boy was named Alexander Ross, and far from being a simple bully boy or pub crawler, he was a rising star at the Home Office, and reportedly died of a weak heart. But why would someone want to kill such a promising young man? But as Sebastian investigates, he learns that Britain's government is facilitating a treaty with both Russia and Turkey, very hush-hush as it contravenes the conditions of another Treaty that Britain has sworn to keep, and the circumstances of the new treaty would fatally embarrass the new government if it were to get out.

And when another body is found, badly decomposed, but bearing marks of the same stiletto wound that killed Ross, Sebastian must discover the identity of the killer before anyone else has to die. And meanwhile, he must also deal with his very reluctant bride-to-be, Hero Jarvis, who is pregnant with his unborn child after their encounter in the last book. But her father has nothing but contempt for Sebastian. How will he react to their impending marriage, and does he have anything to do with the death of Alexander Ross?

I always love C.S. Harris' books, and this one was no exception. Sebastian is called in by his friend Paul to look at the body that he has been delivered, and in the course of his investigation, Sebastian is called on to do things he's never done before, like go dig up a grave for himself. He can't ask for permission or rely on his father's name to get him out of it if he's caught- and this is something that could land him in jail for a very, very long time.

But he also has to deal with the members of various delegations to Britain, some of whom, like those from Turkey, come from a cultural background that is barely understandable to Sebastian and his fellow Brits. The Russians are similar, but only slightly more understandable from a British perspective. And this is who Sebastian is going to have to question, get to know and understand to solve the crime. And worse yet, his Bride-to-be's father may have had a hand in the crime!

It remains to be seen how Hero's father will treat Sebastian now that he's her husband. Will he still continue to hate him and try to throw up blocks in Sebastian's way, or will the marriage mellow him out a little? And then there is Sebastian's former flame, now married to her Spy handler in London. Is she going to get back with Sebastian at some point, or will this romance be allowed to wither and fade. I'm of two minds on this, I never really liked Hero, but at the same time, now that she and Sebastian are married, I don't want him to cheat on her, or for her to die merely for the way to be cleared back to Sebastian's "First love".

But an excellent story, full of a engagingly twisty plot snd characters who seem impenetrable at first glance. Highly recommended, along with the entire series.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Dear America: Cannons at Dawn- the Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania 1779 by Kristiana Gregory

Sixth months after the Winter of Red Snow, Abigail Stewart and her entire family lose their house to a fire, and are forced to take shelter with their father in the Revolutionary Army after attempting to take shelter elsewhere. This means that they will be forced to make the acquaintance of the camp followers, women who are considered little better than whores, who cook and clean for the men.

Abigail and her family take shelter with friends, but because of some accidents and shortages, they must leave Abigail's oldest sister, Elizabeth, behind. Even as Abigail mourns, missing her sister, she at least knows that Elizabeth will be safe, and might even find love with the soldier Ben Valentine, who her sister likes.

But times are tough everywhere, and as the army alternately freezes and starves, so do the wives and camp followers. Abigail, thrust into the role of a more mature women, makes friends with a former slave girl and her mother, and must help out her friends when their former owner tracks them down. But can she make a happy ending for the two women with the connivance of her mother and the help of a free black man who is part of the Continental Army?

And when the army starves and freezes, Abigail, her mother and her sisters and brothers starve and freeze along with the army. General Washington and his men are waiting for supplies and reinforcements from the French. but as time passes, there is still no sign of the French ships. Even General Washington's wife is there, trying to help her husband and spending time with her own ladies, and extending the hand of friendship to Abigail's mother. But will Martha Washington's gifts of shoes and cookies be that much help to Abigail and her mother?

Meanwhile, Abigail is falling for her father's fellow soldier, Willie Campbell. but can someone as young as Abigail survive the war along with her husband and baby, or will the war be too much for them both? And can both of them survive to the end of the war and the celebration afterwards?

I enjoyed this book, which is told in the form of diary entries, and which follows the War for Independence. Abigail and her family are close to the Washingtons, which allows for readers to see both sides of the war- the one being fought on the ground by the soldiers, and the more removed and intellectual part being fought by General Washington to win those battles through tactics and with the lives of the soldiers.

Abigail, most of the time, could not care why the battles are being fought, she just wants to ensure that her family and loved ones are safe. But at the same time, she catalogues what is going on with the soldiers, and the want and deprivation they face on a daily basis, which she shares, along with her family. This puts a human face on the suffering of the troops. But it isn't all suffering, there are light times as well.

I liked the fictional look this book gave us of the Revolutionary War. It gives us a look at both sides of the war- on the American side, that is, and includes an ending to the war and the characters, including their children and descendants. I'd definitely recommend this series and this book to young readers interested in history. Recommended.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker

When Princess Gwen was born in the Kingdom of Treecrest, one of the fairies that was mistakenly not invited to the Christening cursed her with dying on her eighteenth Birthday, pricked by a spindle on a spinning wheel. The other fairies managed to mitigate that to her, and everyone else in the Kingdom sleeping for one hundred years, but King Halbert and Queen Karolina don't want to ever face something like that again. So when the next child, their daughter Annie, is born, they ask the Fairy named Moonbeam for her help.

She does this by casting a spell over Annie that makes magic unable to affect her or even act in her close presence. Which has another unintended side effect when Annie's lack of magic affects everyone who uses magic to make themselves pretty or improve their appearance, including her parents and her sister. So even though Annie is relegated to the back of the room so that her anti-magic doesn't show the world what everyone is trying to hide, Annie grows up to love her family and her sister, even if they can't stand having her too close because of her effect on them.

But when Gwen falls victim to the curse on her eighteenth birthday after all, it's up to Annie as the only one not able to sleep because the magic doesn't affect her, and Liam, a guardsman who can remain unaffected as long as he is in contact with Annie, to save the Kingdom by breaking the curse and the cursed sleep. But Annie has it in mind to change a few things. She doesn't like Gwen's current betrothed, the Prince of Shimshee, Digby. She thinks Digby is a horrible excuse for a man, and thinks that if she looks, perhaps she can find a better groom than him. So on her way back to Treecrest from Shimshee, she tries to pick up as many Princes as she can, hoping that if she tries all the available Princes, one will be Gwen's true love and wake her from her enchanted slumber.

But as she roams the Kingdoms with Liam, she becomes increasingly aware of what a wonderful man he is. Strong, brave, and loyal to her. But Liam is not the simple man he appears to be- he's actually a Prince, and his family, or at least his mother, is responsible for the predicament that Gwen and Anne find themselves in. But can Anne track down the fairy responsible for cursing her sister in the first place and get her to take off the curse, or will Anne's sister be forced to sleep the one hundred years mentioned in the curse? And can Anne find her sister's true love to waken her, and which of the Princes following her will he turn out to be?

I loved E.D. Baker's the Frog Princess series and books, and this looks like it will begin a new series, set in an entirely different world (or a different set of Kingdoms, at least). Anne may not have been turned into a Frog, but her lack of magic and anti-magic capabilities (as well as ability to sniff out magic) may end up saving her sister. And in a world where people use magic to seem prettier and more capable than they actually are, she is the only genuine girl around. Literally. But she doesn't allow it to make her bitter. Instead, she uses it to her advantage to keep her family safe.

I loved this adventure, in which we get to see that people who are physically beautiful and perfect on the outside can be the complete opposite on the inside, like Prince Digby. And Liam, who also eschews magic, is the best one of his family (while his father is by no means bad, he is subordinate to his wife in the family, which makes him weak). And while Gwen gets awakened at the end of this book, this series is definitely going to be ongoing, as there are plenty of plot threads that remain dangling, and menaces to Anne's family that remain to be dealt with.

If you enjoyed the books in the series by E.D. Baker that began with "The Frog Princess", you are sure to enjoy this book and any books that come after it in the series. Anne takes what could have been a severe drawback and manages to use it to her advantage and even as a weapon in a world where magic is so prevalent and endemic. I deeply enjoyed this book and hope that I will get to read more soon. Highly recommended, and I am looking forward to another long and enjoyable series.

Dear America: Standing in the Light- the Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Delaware Valley Pennsylvania 1763 by Mary Pope Osborne

Catharine Carey Logan is a Quaker Girl growing up in the Colonies. Usually her sect of Christians get along well with the Native American tribes around them, but when Native Americans are killed in a confrontation with colonists, and the agreements that the Quakers originally made with the local natives for land to settle on have been undermined by new leaders who perverted the original terms of the agreement to wrest more land from the Indians. Originally, the term was for as much land as one man could travel in a day, but when the time came to re-walk the land, the Quaker leaders hired professional runners and cleared tracks that caused the size of their claim to double.

All this has caused friction with the native tribes, and some of them have come to view the Quakers as no better or less greedy than the other colonists. So while Catharine struggles with her liking for a boy at her school and walks back and forth with her younger brother, she is secretly afraid of the natives that live all around her. And when she and her brother are abducted by a band of natives on their way back from school, she is afraid that she and her brother will be forced to pay with their lives for actions that they had no hand in.

Catharine is separated from her brother and sent to live with an older woman, a young girl, and a baby. At first deeply resentful of her new circumstances, Catharine treats her circumstances as living in a prison. She abandons any pretense of being calm and quiet and takes out her anger and fear on those around her. But when she realizes that one of the braves who helped capture her, Snow Hunter, understands some English and is himself a former captive. He helps her to see that the women who she is living with are wanting her to replace a daughter taken from the older woman, White Owl, and with this Catherine begins to see that the Indian way of life is not to be feared nor hated. She begins to see her onetime foes as people, people just like her own family, and finds someone to love in Snow Hunter, who she learns was formerly named John, through he claims to remember little of his former life.

Giving up any thought of returning home, and reunited once more with her brother, Catharine gives herself completely over to the Indian way of life, which may be strange to her, but holds just as much beauty and spirituality as her own faith. But when Soldiers storm the village of the band she is living with, kill the Indians and "rescue" her and her brother, eventually returning her to the bosom of her family, will she be able to make her friends and family understand what kind of life she lived among the Indians, and why her rescue hurt her so? Or will she have to live with the realization that she is forever marked by her time apart, and that her understanding will cut her off from the people who truly love her?

The Dear America books are told in the form of a diary kept by one girl and her experiences in unusual circumstances. In this case, a Quaker girl gets to experience the life of the Native American tribes and finds that it is just as fulfilling and beautiful and spiritual as her life before. Indeed, many whites who were captured by the Indians resisted being returned to their families and seemed to find Native American life and living to be freer and better than the lives they had lived before.

For Catharine, it comes down to realizing that her caricatured view of the savage natives isn't anything close to the reality of what their life and their people are truly like. Just like her own family, they live and they love and they have satisfying lives that are just like the lives of the settlers, only somewhat different, and that she isn't being tortured and imprisoned by living with two women, but they are attempting to adopt her into their family, to replace a child that was lost. We not only get to see the beauty of their lives, but experience Catharine's anger and grief when she loses them, having come to care for White Owl and Little Cloud. Although the massacre occurs "off-screen", it's an inescapable conclusion when none of the militia who "rescues" her will tell her what happened to the Indians.

The ending to the book, including the epilogue, is deeply sad and shows readers how affected Catharine, and indeed many survivors of Indian captivity, felt after they returned to the lives they had once led. It continues to be felt long after the book is over and leaves a sadness to linger in your mind as you think of the story. This is an excellent book, and it's part of an excellent series that deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended and sure to make readers think and remember.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Vampire Academy: Spirit Bound by Richelle Mead

Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, a half-vampire that is going to St. Vladimir's Academy. She and her friend, Vasilisa Dragomir, are closer than most. Not only does Rose act as guardian and protector to Lissa, a Moroi Vampire, but once Lissa brought Rose back from the dead with her elemental power of Spirit, making them psychically linked. In the past few years, Rose and Lissa have gone through a lot, especially Rose. After falling in love with her mentor, Dmitri, Rose lost him when he was bitten by a Strigoi vampire.

She may have lost him, but she still loves him, and she hasn't stopped trying to get him back. Now, however, she's heard a rumor that might be able to save her beloved Dmitri. But to do so, she is going to have to free her worst enemy, Victor Dashkov. But first, Rose is going to have to survive graduation, and a test of her guardian abilities. And she isn't alone. She is going to have to do it under the gaze of her classmates and her parents.

And not only does she survive, she does amazingly well. Well enough, that she soon realizes that part of the test that was given was given only to her, since she has so much experience fighting the Strigoi. Her parents congratulate her, and at long last, she graduates. But even as she is swept up in the partying and everything that follows graduation, she plans to find the Moroi prison that Dashkov is imprisoned in and break him out.

And soon after she and Rose go to the court to be introduced to the Queen and meet the other royals, she, Lissa and their dhampir friend Eddie take off for Alaska to free Victor. There, they manage to do so without being seen and by pretending to be merely human. They free Dashkov and travel to Las Vegas to meet with his cousin, Robert, who actually managed to free a Strigoi back into life. He reveals that the person must pierce the heart of the Strigoi with a special stake- one that is filled with spirit in addition to the other elements.

Rose knows Lissa can do this, so that's not a problem. However, it brings her up short when Robert tells her that the person who pierces the heart with the stake must also be the spirit-user, and that is much more of a problem. Lissa isn't strong enough to drive a stake through anyone's heart, and she once again thinks it is hopeless. While in Las Vegas, they are met by Adrian, who is Rose's new boyfriend, and he reveals that they are in big trouble at court thanks to their sneaking off. Victor uses the chance to escape with his cousin, and Rose, Lissa and Eddie are returned to the court in big trouble.

Rose assumes that their punishment can't be too bad- all Dhampirs are needed to protect Moroi, right? But Hans, leader of the Dhampirs at court, tells her that this isn't quite true: there will always be a need for Dhampirs to keep records and file. For Rose, the punishment that follows is torturous, as she has always expected to be out and doing things, and gardening and filing grate on her soul. And Dmitri is still out there, ready to kill her as his new highest form of "love".

So when Lissa, now being protected by two other Dhampir, is kidnapped by Dmitri, it's Rose and her fellow classmates to go to Lissa's rescue. And then, the shock of all shocks- Lissa is able to stake Dmitri with a spirit-infused stake, and he is saved. But he's not quite the same Dmitri that Rose loved. He doesn't want to see her, and the rest of the Moroi, not quite believing that he has been saved, keep him under lock and key for "protection". Whose protection is in doubt. But as Rose fights to see Dmitri, a change is in the air for the court- should the Moroi fight against the Strigoi to protect themselves? Or should the Dhampir only be schooled to sixteen to increase the numbers available to protect the otherwise helpless Strigoi? And what help will Rose's testimony be in helping to decide?

Will Dmitri's story have a happy ending? And will Adrian's parents like and accept Rose into their family? Is there any hope for Rose and Adrian when she and Dmitri have so much history together, or will Dmitri's rejection of Rose finally put an end to any feelings they might have for each other? And will Rose be stuck doing paperwork for the rest of her life after her little "adventure" with Lissa and Eddie, and will Eddie's promising future as a Dhampir guardian be blighted because of the decisions he makes for friendship?

Well, this series seems to be winding down now that Dmitri has been rescued from the curse of being Strigoi. But there are a lot of character threads still to resolve, and one major plot twist that occurs at the end of the book that came in completely out of left field. But it was good to see Dmitri back as a Dhampir. So much time has passed and so much has happened that I was beginning to think that the storyline would only end with his death. It's nice to see that it didn't.

But even while that is a major plot thread in the book, there is plenty more of story threads dangling, some of which get nicely wrapped up, and others which are left to dangle. We get to see more of the court and find out more of the politics, infighting and backbiting (and backstabbing) that take place amongst the privileged Moroi. But not all the nobles are like that. Adrian's mother welcomes Rose very warmly, but realizes that any romance between Rose and her son won't last and only asks her not to break his heart, while Adrian's father ignores her like a piece of furniture.

I found this book exciting and suspenseful at every turn. Richelle Mead managed to make me feel the same sort of frustration that Rose was feeling when she was stuck doing gardening and filing amongst the Dhampir. But at least Rose could get out of it, mentally, by seeing what Lissa was doing while she was doing the boring and backbreaking work. Imagine how much worse it would have been without that out. I am looking forward to the next book, which will apparently be the last. I am anxious to see how the story wraps up and who Rose ends up with. I am hoping for Dmitri. Highly recommended, both as a book and a series. But read the other books in the series before you attempt this one.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Goddess Girls #4 Artemis the Brave by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

Artemis is the Goddess Girl at Mount Olympus Academy who would be voted most brave by her friends. But Artemis is just as frightened as they are by their assignments in the Forest of Beasts, she's just better at hiding her fear and reacting anyway, which makes her feel less than Brave and more like a coward. She's also the least interested in boys among the three, and Athena is probably second to her, so when she catches sight of a young Godboy with blonde hair and bright blue eyes, it throws her for a loop that she finds herself distracted by him.

And then she starts feeling strangely untidy, because he is always so perfectly put together, coiffed and groomed. And he likes dogs, having one named Sirius that gets along well with her own hounds. This new boy is named Orion Starr, and although he looks like a Godboy, he's actually a human using a body spray that makes him shimmer just like one of the other Godboys. He was invited by Zeus himself to the school, and it's a question as to why, but Orion has a deep interest in the art of acting, and wants to be a star.

Artemis, attracted to him despite herself, goes to the tryouts for the school play, Eros and Psyche, and is completely blown away by the acting of Orion in the part of Eros. But when Zeus asks him if he can shoot arrows, as he will have to in the play. Orion tells Zeus he can definitely do it- he loves archery! But when Artemis takes him to practice with her, he claims to have forgotten his bow and asks her to teach him to shoot "as a God would do it". It's almost like he doesn't know anything about archery at all!

Later that night, it's Artemis and her twin brother, Apollo's birthday, and her friends gift her with special silver-tipped arrows made to be especially keen and sharp and true. In another session of Archery practice, Orion persuades Artemis to take him to the Forest of Beasts so that they can practice against real targets, and Artemis mentions that her godly arrows must be trained to hit the target, but because they are hers, she can speak to them and make them do what she wants them to do. But when they are nearly attacked by a scorpion-beast, they must leave in a hurry.

But when the archery competition that Artemis has been training for comes around, her arrows seem strangely untrained and don't hit the target, while Orion's hit perfectly. Artemis realizes that her arrows have been switched for those of Orion, which are merely wood painted with the same shimmer that he uses on his skin. Can Artemis, who has been used as a fetch and carry girl by her crush, get over her infatuation with Orion to see him as he really is? Helping her is when he abandons the school play for a play on Earth, which closes on its first night, and then he tries to get his old position as Eros back.

Will Zeus allow Orion back, or will he find an alternate way of making his wayward lead into a "Star"? And will Artemis, who had her first foray into love turn out so cruelly wrong, manage to make herself move on from her feelings of being used? And will Artemis be shown as really brave, or can she confess to her friends that she isn't really brave at all?

I must be insane. One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same actions over and over and expecting that the outcome of those actions will be different. I keep reading this series, hoping it will somehow get better and not make me cringe when I read the book, and it just never does. It's not just the liberties the series takes with the ages, characters and so on of the various goddesses and myths used in the series, it's how it perverts them until the goddesses are typical tweens, looking for love and more interested in hair and makeup.

I had hoped better for this book,as Artemis was the least romantic and girly of the Greek Goddesses. Yes, she fell in love with Orion. And Actaeon spied on her in the bath, but she's the least likely to go wibbly just because of a man/boy. In fact, I did find this book the least objectionable of all those that I have read. It does present an object lesson on changing yourself or allowing yourself to be taken over in personality just to attract a boy who likes you, and I did think the comeuppance paid to the self-important, arrogant Orion was funny, but it still made me cringe inside to read. And the ending, where Artemis sees Actaeon and is attracted to him, had me saying, "No. Just... no." aloud.

I don't like this series very much. The stories, like this one, are occasionally amusing, but I'd like the stories and characters much, much better if they weren't pretending to be the Greek Gods, whose attributes get ignored or seriously played with. I wouldn't suggest this series, and if you want to read funny stories about the Greek Gods, I'd point readers to the Myth-o-Mania series instead, by Kate McMullen, which are far truer to the myths and the characters of the various Gods. Avoid this series unless you have a girly obsession.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Skeleton Crew by Cameron Haley

Domino Riley is the war leader for the gang leader Shanar Rashan. She is a sorceress. as is Rashan, and since the Seelie Fae took over Hollywood, Domino has been leading the gang, acting as liason with both the Feds from the Department of Homeland Security, and with King Oberon and Queen Titania, because she brokered the deal that got them their turf.

But now something very, very weird is happening. People are dying, but they aren't staying dead. For some reason, their spirits are animating their dead bodies, and returning to feed on the living. Domino, having witnessed the rising of Terence Cole's nephews Antoine and Keshawn, knows that it's not a spell that's raising them, or any kind of supernatural mojo. It's a true mystery as to what is making them come back.

And it's not a disease, either. One of the zombies bites Domino's ear, but she doesn't get infected and get a sudden urge to eat brains. It's just painful as hell. Going into the between, to that place between life and death, she removes the souls from their bodies and meets both a spirit eater, and a ghost hunter who just happens to be a ghost himself, the hunter Abe Warren. Abe isn't particularly enamored of Domino, but he doesn't hate her, either, so after trading some information and a few quips, they part ways.

But Antoine and Keshawn aren't the only zombies rising, and with all the supernatural happenings in L.A., along with the normal murders, accidents and whatnot, the number of zombies start to rise and keep on rising. None of them know why they are coming back, and unlike movie zombies, they are intelligent- at least at first. But their dead bodies run on magic, and when the personal juice of the dead person runs out, they have to feed on the juice of others, killing them and causing them to rise as well.

Soon, the zombie numbers are rising out of control, and apparently, the increase in magic is making magic itself manifest... something. Something that might be a goddess, or might be something that is just the essence of magic itself. But it speaks in riddles, and it talks about what might be causing the rise in zombies all over. The Feds want to nuke the entire area, but that is a last-ditch option, and not one that Domino is very keen on.

But the strange magic force (which the lead scientist of the Feds is calling Hecate, seems to point to a messenger being interfered with. A little investigation leads Domino to a creature called a Xolo, who is responsible, at least in L.A., for the souls of the dead being being separated from their bodies. Xolos or Xoloitxcuintli, are Mexican Hairless Dogs. But not all Mexican Hairless are Xolos. merely the purebred ones, and there aren't many of those left. They are able to cross into the spirit world and tear the soul from the no longer living body, and if they don't do their job, the soul can't leave and will re-animate the body.

The problem is that someone in the between has been catching the Xolos when they cross over, and not letting them go or do their job. And that someone is a big woman in the underworld, a woman named La Calavera who runs a club in the between where she uses the Xolos in dogfights to interest her supernatural customers. Taking part in these fights is driving the Xolos insane, and Domino can't just go into the club- she has to be introduced by someone who is already a member. Someone like... the Burning Man.

But the Burning Man does nothing for free, and he has another little job for Domino, taking out another gang leader who is causing trouble for him. But even if Domino and Adan can take out the other supernatural, are they up to taking out La Calavera to free the Xolos? And will the Xolos be overwhelmed by the over one hundred thousand zombies now roaming the streets of L.A.? And that isn't Domino's only problem, as another gang boss has made a deal with the Foimor and a demon to allow him to summon all sorts of things to L.A.'s mean streets, making them even meaner and more dangerous. And the demon is using the chaos created by the zombies to gain more power from death. But can Domino, even with her allies, return some sanity to the streets?

I like this series a lot, which combines L.A. Street gangs with magic and sorcery. Domino has to pull out all the stops in this one to keep her streets and the people of L.A. safe. At least this time, she's on the side of the angels, something she has always wanted to be. And she keeps on proving what a kick-ass character she is, taking on zombies left right and center, sometimes by herself, and sometimes with others.

But she isn't the only character in this book. Many best-loved characters return, like Adan, this time not a changeling, and her best bud Honey the Piskie, who shares her apartment with her. Also returning are Mrs. Morgan. the ghost, and a host of gang characters, some of whom meet their ends in this book, while others change immeasurably. I love how well-thought out all the characters are. We get to see a Piskie Romance and wedding, while the aftermath shows us how different the fae are from humans. Even Oberon and Titania get some fleshing out, and its as wonderful as it is inhuman.

I'm liking this urban fantasy series a lot, and I enjoy all of the characters, not just Domino, which makes it wonderful and a joy to read. Even while things are going to hell in a handbasket at the speed of light, Domino keeps fighting tenaciously and using her allies to their best effect. I only wonder how things are going to change at the end of this book, and how what has happened here will change not only Domino and the L.A. Scene. This is a wonderful book, a fantastic series, and I will keep repeating that you must read this series. Really wonderful. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Law of Angels by Cassandra Clark

Hildegard is the Abbess at a small country house in Deepdale, gone temporarily apart from the sisters of her mother house in Swyne to make a new house for the sisters of the faith. She is not alone, but with other nuns, but Hildegard is in charge, and she is happy exactly where she is. Until her former abbess sends her two young girls who might possibly want to become nuns, Petronilla and Maud.

Petronilla claims to be an heiress running away from marriage to a too-old man, and Maud can barely speak at all, it seems. But when her convent is attacked by armed men shortly after the arrival of the two girls and the house and all its holdings destroyed, Hildegard thinks that this may have something to do with Petronilla, the heiress. She, the rest of her nuns and the two girls decamp to York, where it will soon be time for the mystery plays.

There, her abbess bids her stay, and while she is there, asks her to show the Cross of Constantine, whom the Abbey is holding for some monks in France whose Abbey was destroyed, to the local Bishop. But two lords of the realm are entirely too interested in the cross, and when it is stolen out from under her by bandits, Hildegarde must turn her time and attention to retrieving it, as it is not the property of her abbey to lose. They only hold it in trust for others. But it seems that Hildegarde is the best person to retrieve it, as she is the one who rescued it for the monks in France in the first place.

But even if it isn't the real cross of Constantine, it still holds value for those who wish to take the throne of England, and with the two contenders circling around York with their men, Hildegard will have to work fast to ensure that the cross makes it back to the monks who are the real owners. At the same time, she must address the mystery of whose were the nights that destroyed her little holy house, and which of her two new girls the Knights were seeking, plus find out who has been killing some players of the mystery plays in York, and what that may have to do with a possible rebellion against the Lords and Ministers of York.

But Hildegard is just one woman. How can she do that and keep her nuns and herself safe and alive in a city seething with rebellion and murder? And will Hildegard be able to keep that symbol of victory, the Constantine Cross, out of the hands of contending Lords and where it should be, in the arms of the monks who have guarded it for so very long?

Anyone who's spent just about any time reading this blog will know that I absolutely love historical mysteries. I have a huge stable of favorite writers which I enjoy, and any time I spot a new historical mystery or writer I haven't tried before, I always decide to take a chance on him or her on the off chance I can add another name to that long list of authors I must read. So, you might be asking yourself, did Cassandra Clark make the cut?

And the answer is, yes, she did. Though this is the first book I have seen by her, it's not her first book, nor even the first book in the series. It's the third, and so I was missing some back story about Abbess Hildegard and her past, but there's certainly enough in the book to make you enjoy it quite thoroughly. Hildegard, of course, brings to mind another famous abbess with that name, Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun who wrote some very famous music.

But in her personal life, she reminded me of Heloise, the beloved student of Abelard, who joined the church along with him when her brothers made her mentor and love a eunuch. Because like Heloise, Hildegard seems to have joined the church over a failed romance, and her former lover is also now a churchman. It's perhaps a cliché that so many female medieval sleuths seem to be either women of the church or ex-women of the church, but the church was one of the few places where women could receive learning and not be considered unwomanly for it. And if one didn't feel the need to marry, the church was a place of sanctuary.

And this Hildegard, in addition to being clever and learned and all those other things, is also a very good detective, being mostly fearless and inventive and intelligent. Not only does Hildegard do all her abbess wants of her, she reunites both of her new girls with their loving families and saves the day in a timely and clever fashion. I found her a treat to read, and I do want to read more of her stories, I thank this novel showing up on the New Books rack at work for allowing me to find this author and her character. Hildegard is interesting and engaging, and I can recommend her with a whole heart.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Lady Most Likely: A novel in three parts by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockaway

Hugh Dunne, the Earl of Briarly, has recently suffered a near-death experience, being almost killed by a horse he was training. Since he trains all his horses by the hands-on method, this is perhaps understandable, but the resulting damage to him has made him aware that he isn't invulnerable and that it is past time for him to settle down and sire an heir to his vast estate, to ensure the succession, since if he dies, his estate goes to a cousin who is utterly unsuited to running the place and who would drive it into the ground.

Since he hasn't had any interest in socializing with the current crop of debutantes and beauties, he goes to his sister, who herself is already married to a man she loves and adores, and begs her to help him find a crop of beauties and heiresses to whom he could possibly make a marriage to. With her when he asks her is his old friend, Lady Georgina Sorrell, a widow who has expressed no interest in marrying again after her marriage to a man of fashion.

His sister has the idea of throwing a house party and inviting all the fashionable and single ladies, along with a number of men so that it's not just a bunch of women and one man, the Earl, Along with Georgina, she invites the singular beauty of the season, Miss Gwendolyn Passmore, the Earl of Charters, Alec Darlington, Neill Oakes, a war hero, and Katharine Peyton, an outspoken young Miss.

But Hugh, although he may find romance in the offing, will be beaten to the altar by other young gentlemen at the party when two women he shows an interest in are snapped up before he do any more than talk to them. Gwendolyn Passmore is lovely, but shy. Twice denied her season by circumstances beyond her control, she has found no man worth marrying in her entire season and wonders why, despite her vaunted beauty, her painful social shyness makes people, especially other women, treat her badly.

Alec Darlington has only heard of Gwendolyn from his sister, who thinks of Gwen as horrible and stuck up, not realizing what keeps her apart from others is her painful shyness. But his sister thinks of Gwen as a shark, taking away men who might have otherwise paid attention to her. When Alec realizes he is falling for the woman his sister despises, can he make both of them see the light, and become friends, or is that a task beyond his capacity?

And when Katharine Peyton's brother decides to abandon the house party and leave the protection of his sister in the hands of Neill Oakes, his next door neighbor and former friend, can Neill face up to the fact that Katharine, whom he once loved and realizes he is still in love with, seems to think him cruel for abandoning her for a post in the army after they once shared a kiss?

In truth, he left because her father told Neill that he would not accept Neill's suit for Katharine's hand because of Neill's reputation as a rogue and a hellraiser. And he left to try to make something of himself in her father's eyes. But Katharine has her own secrets, and she never answered his letters to her, ripping them up as soon as she received them. But can they make their peace and find a way to rekindle the love they shared?

Finally, Hugh finds himself in the company of Georgina, and discovers that the young girl he once played with as a child is now all grown up and worthy of his attention. Except that Georgina doesn't want to marry anyone after realizing that her deceased husband, who she married because he was always laughing and seemed a merry person, was actually laughing at the faults of others. He didn't laugh at hers... unless he was really angry at her. But can she realize that she still has feelings for Hugh and perhaps she isn't as opposed to marriage as she thought... if it's Hugh she is going to marry...

I liked this book, which instead of being told as three separate short stories, was much less segregated. The story is set up by, presumably, all three authors, and then each story is told by a different author. Julia Quinn takes Miss Gwendolyn Passmore and the Earl of Charters, Connie Brockaway the story of Neill Oakes and Katharine Peyton, and Eloisa James finishes out the book with Hugh Dunne and Georgina Sorrell. Instead of being broken up into separate stories, each is related in a series of chapters, and the first chapter of the new story has the characters (and Hugh) reacting to the fact that so and so is no longer available to wed.

It's a conceit that works admirably well for the story and the book, making it seem far more polished and connected a work than three separate stories, each with a different title, and separated with a title page and author attribution. The only way you can tell who the writer is, is to look at author attribution at the top of the page. Nothing else sets the stories apart. The work of all three authors flow together well and if they hadn't said which author was which at the top of the page, I would have been hard-pressed to tell which author wrote which part of the book.

This book may have been something new for the publishers to try, but I liked it and I think it worked. I hope shared book stories like this happen more often in the future, as I consider this one a stunning success. With the right authors, and the right scenario, I'd like to see more books like this in the future. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Spellweaver by Lynn Kurland

Sarah of Doire is the daughter of the witchwoman Seleg. Born without any magic powers whatsoever, she has been content to sit, spin and weave while her mother cast her spells. But when her mother died, her brother, who had very little magic, came into contact with a spell that had been developed by Gair, one of the most evil mages who ever lived. Gair, to prove his power, uncapped a well of evil magic, intending to show his power and control by capping it again almost immediately. However, the magic overwhelmed him, and slew him, his wife and most of his children outright. His son Ruithneadh was, as far as he was aware, the only survivor of that day, and he immediately went into seclusion, unable to face using magic ever again.

But when Sarah's brother found that one spell, incomplete as it was, he immediately set about causing havoc with it, and Sarah knew it was up to her to get someone to deal with it. She went to the half-mad mage on the hill, whom she thought was an old man, but it turned out to be a young man named Ruith. She shamed him into following her and helping her, but his reluctance to do anything with magic, or to be kind or grateful to her has earned him nothing but her scorn. After an adventure where they collected mages whom her brother had stolen something from- trying for their magic, but ending up with something else every time, Ruith found himself collecting pages from his father's spellbook, which has apparently been scattered all over the land. But when his treatment caused Sarah to leave him, they were attacked, and Ruith wakes tied to a tree, the spells he so carefully collected gone, and him being haggled over by slavers.

But he's not just in this predicament. Someone has cast a protection spell around him, and then someone else has cut it open, leaving a section where the spell doesn't protect him. He's baffled as to who could have done either of those things, but his first task is to discover who sent the men to attack him and where Sarah is now.

That done, he tracks down Sarah and forces her to come with him to Beinn oran, and the school of magic there. He wishes to consult with his friend and Mentor Solléir, both about the pages of his father's spellbook, and who might have found it and scattered its pages about. Sarah has also been showing a distressing tendency to See things, and to Ruith's shock, he's found himself falling in love with Sarah, making her dislike and distrust of him extremely hurtful. While they are with Solléir, she finds herself trapped in the garden of the Master of Olc, a sort of magic that is extremely evil and hurtful. The master, Droch, uses his magic to draw her into his garden while hiding how truly terrible it is- it's a place that could consume her.

Ruith can't aid her without coming to Droch's attention, something that wouldn't be good for either Sarah or himself. So Solléir ramps up her ability to SEE so that she cannot be blinded to the evil and danger all around her, and that has consequences as well. For although Sarah uses that ability to escape, it's a power that cannot be turned off, and her dreams reveal to her where Gair's spells are, blazing like dark fires in the night across the entire continent. Her time with Ruith goes some way towards diminishing her ire at him, and she even begins to believe that he might have tender feelings for her.

But believing her far below him in station and power, she gives him a condition for going any way towards accepting his suit for her. For one, he has to meet and dance with at least ten princesses before she will even think about returning his regard. And he lays a condition on her as well: Knowing her extreme dislike of formal dinners, she will be able to refuse to attend three of them with him before they marry.

Teaming up to retrieve his father's spells, Ruith and Sarah find themselves in the hall of the Dwarven King, and as a parting gift, Solléir gives her some books in his native language so that Sarah can translate the runes on her knives, ones that can part a spell as easily as a thread, and gives Ruith a sword that had been forged by the Dwarven King to bring to him as a message. But as they travel together, Sarah begins to find out information about herself that may make a lie out of everything she ever believed she knew about herself, and when they travel to An-uallach to retrieve two of Gair's spells that lie within the castle of Queen Moragh, Sarah finds herself in mortal danger simply because of who she really is.

But can she believe the truth, and what cost will it demand from her self-image and soul when she finds out just who she really is? Will it allow her to accept Ruith's love and finally allow her to return it completely? Or will it be the final blow that makes her world crash down around her? And who is placing scraps of Gair's spells around for Ruith to find, and where is that person leading them, and why?

This book is the second in a three part trilogy about Ruith and Sarah. Just like the first trilogy set on this world following Mhorgainn and Miach, the two have finally both fallen for each other, and the female half has discovered something about herself that is shocking to her and which she finds hard to credit. But unlike Mhorgainn, who had to retreat to reorder her life and find peace, Sarah seems to be taking the knowledge much better. Some of this book is contemporary to the second and third books in the prior series, and Miach, at least. shows up to talk to Ruith.

An awful lot of talking goes on, but it's mixed with a good dose of action so that the book never drags or feels too wordy. Ruith is really in the doghouse with Sarah at the beginning of the book, and it takes a lot of explaining, and being much, much better to her to get her to forgive him. But eventually she does, and while she's not necessarily happy to be traveling with him (she's much more of a homebody), she is at least somewhat happy to be with him, even though she doesn't take his suit seriously at all.

Well, some of the book was a little hard to believe- that Ruith found Sarah, a real-life princess, just out in the middle of nowhere. But it wasn't played completely ridiculously, and I did end up enjoying the novel a lot, but while I am happy that Lynn Kurtland can inject such interest into a story that's largely cliché, I am also looking for something else to happen with the other brothers that the story is so avidly sequel-baiting at this point. As in, not have one participant in the romance be all unknowing of their heritage. Well, I can hope, anyway.

This isn't a bad novel, but it's the second in a trilogy, and if you want to enjoy it to its utmost and understand all the references to the first book and the first part of the story, you are really going to have to read that story first. Many of the details are just otherwise glossed over. So, recommended, but read "A Tapestry of Spells" first.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Seduce Me in Dreams: A Three Worlds novel by Jacqueline Frank

Bronse Chapel is the leader of a specialized unit of men and women in the interplanetary Militia, but lately, something has seemed... off about their missions. The intel they have been handed has been different from what they found on the ground, and sometimes, the missions themselves have turned bad. But Bronse and his team have soldiered through and made the missions end successfully despite the intel that has been lacking.

But now one of his team, the new comm tech Trick, is injured and Bronse is having to carry the young man out on his back out of the Grinpar desert on the planet of Ebbany, a harsh planet that is one of the three that the Interplanetary Militia keep watch over. And when Bronse and his team get back to base, his own lack of sleep combined with an inability to relax over what might be happening to him and his teammates in the Extreme Tactics Force makes him decide to work out his tension with some exercise. But somehow he falls asleep in the middle of his exercises and dreams of a lovely, auburn-haired woman who warns him that his life is in danger, and that an unspecific "they" are seeking to destroy him and his team.

Bronse thinks that it was merely a hallucination caused by the lack of sleep, but when his own second-in-command warns him that the higher-ups want his team to go out again on a mission almost immediately, which enrages Bronse, who is always careful to ensure his men make it back from a mission. Asking them to go out again after such a hard and torturous mission is a sure way to kill his team, and he wants no part of it. Thanks to a sympathetic superior, he wins two weeks of rest and recuperation for his team, during which he has more dreams and visions involving the woman.

The woman is Ravenna, one of the "Chosen Ones" of Ebbany. She and her fellow Chosen Ones have psychic powers and live in a temple near a village of her people. But when a Warlord threatens the villagers, they decide to send him tribute to keep him from attacking and devastating the village. So they sent Ravenna to be the man's bedslave and her brother, Kith, to be his seer. But in truth, it is Ravenna who is the seer of the pair, and due to her insistence on not following orders to be quiet, she is whipped, although not raped, because she is to be the Warlord's.

She isn't sure why she has begun having visions for Bronse, a man she has never met, but when his next vision takes him back to Ebbany to "extract a diplomat", he ends up near where Ravenna is imprisoned, and she is able to give him advice to keep his team together and keep any of them from being killed. But when Ravenna's escape puts the rest of the Chosen Ones in danger, Bronse decides to bring them back to the IM base and trust in his comrades to keep them safe, even Ravenna, who he has come to feel something for and has become the lover of.

Neither of them can forget that someone wants Bronse and his team dead, but can Ravenna's senses, and those of her fellow Chosen Ones, keep them and Bronse's team safe and root out the traitor in command while keeping them alive and unharmed? And can Bronse keep the younger Chosen Ones from becoming lab rats to the IM Scientists and assure them something of a normal family life while their secrets and powers are examined?

I've loved Jacquelin Frank's other series, the Nightwalkers, ShadowDwellers and the world of stolen women (my personal name for her series that started with "Hunting Julian"), and this new series was both interesting and different. It takes place in a more science fiction-y universe that is composed of a system with three habitable planets, and it seems that the other members of Bronse's team and the other chosen ones will be the ones taking part in any future books in the series. And while I liked the Chosen Ones and their powers, I didn't find Bronse quite as compelling. Yes, he's hot, hunky and a great warrior, but sometimes he seemed like your standard cutout hot hunky military man.

Okay, he's brave and all, and has made the military his life and the team his family, but there was a strong bead of familiarity in those concepts that just never seemed to make it to somewhere where he stood out and was different. It's not a bad story by any means: it's hot and there is plenty of great character interaction, but I just felt that he wasn't much different than the last twenty hot, hunky military guys who have been the hero in military-themed romance novels. There just wasn't enough to me that set him apart from the pack.

It's still a good novel, with a strong romance, and a mystery of who is trying to kill Bronse, but there was something lacking in the plot. When the villain is finally caught, we never seem to get the reason why he is so pissed off at Bronse and needs him to die. Bronse is like "Why?" and the villain just never says why, and I found that irritating. Maybe I missed the reason somewhere, but they never really do find out, and that peeved me off, as I wanted some kind of story closure on that. So I would come closer to recommending this story than not, but there are some issues that made this book less than fully enjoyable for me, and some might also find issue with a possible underage (really underage) romance that seems to be happening to one of Bronse's team in the background with one of the Chosen Ones. I can only hope the Chosen One ages to something near legal before they make an appearance in a future sequel;.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey

Hua Mulan is the only daughter of a General in China who saved the life of the Emperor's son when he was kidnapped by Huns. This so moved the Emperor that he granted his general any wish he wanted. And the General's wish was a wife of his choosing, whom he had long loved. But when Mulan was born, it killed her mother, and her father left the home he had made with her and returned to the service of the Emperor.

Mulan, whose name means "Wild Orchid" was not raised by her father at all. Instead, her raising was accomplished by her nanny, Min Xian. But Mulan, as she grew older, soon outgrew the reach of her nanny when she undertook her favorite pastime, climbing trees. It was during one such endeavor that she met the son of the neighboring family, a boy named Li Po. Li Po's family was quite important, and he was learning all sorts of interesting things, and after he and she became friends, he began to teach her everything he was learning, from calligraphy to how to ride and how to fight as both an archer and a swordsman. This was far, far more interesting to Mulan than embroidery, sewing and weaving, which are all Min Xian is teaching her.

Soon, Mulan and Li Po are inseparable, and this alarms his family, who thinks that he might wish to marry Mulan, and they have plans for him that do not include marrying the unnatural girl next door. But one night, Mulan and Li Po witness two men coming to Mulan's house through a path in the woods, and Mulan, who has taken to dressing like a boy for their lessons, learns that much to her surprise, one of the men is her father.

Her father has been injured in the battle and is coming home to recuperate. But what must he think of his daughter, who he assumes would be raised to be a proper flower of young Chinese womanhood? Mulan feels that her father is put in a state of consternation by her and her interests, and his companion, the General Yuwen Huaji, takes an interest in what she is doing. He tests her on what she knows and has learned from Li Po, and helps her build on it, but soon he must go, and when he goes, Yuwen Huaji asks her pardon, because he knows he will be taking her friend Li Po with him as his adjutant.

Left alone with her father, Mulan scrapes along with him, slowly becoming used to him, and he becoming proud of her. When her father takes in a young, displaced woman with a young son, she learns to live with the woman in her household, and manages to not be angry or jealous when Zao Xing and her father fall in love and gives her blessing on their marriage.

But when her father is recalled to battle to fight another battle against the Huns, Mulan knows that he is too old, and his injuries are still too fresh to go back into battle. Waiting until the house is asleep, she plans to take his place as a son would, and hopes that her skill with archery and fighting won't make anyone look too long at her suspiciously beardless face. But she is not the only one in the house who knows what she is going to do, and her new mother-in-law helps her to leave, knowing that her husband would die were he to go to war so quickly again.

But when she shows up where the troops are mustering, her appearance incites comment, enough that one of the young princes feels they must challenge her to an archery battle, which, amazingly enough, she wins. The Prince she beat is upset at her skill being greater than his own, but her skills there get her assigned to the archers led by Prince Jian. But when it comes down to fighting the Huns and Prince Jian's premonitions about the battle conflict with that of his older brothers, can Mulan and her bravery and skill save the day? And what of Prince Jian? What will he do when he finds out that she is a woman?

I read the story of Fa/Hua Mulan long ago, and while this story certainly is an updated version of the tale, it sort of cuts down on the character's bravery and skill. In the original tale, as I read it, Fa/Hua Mulan fought against the Huns, and other nomadic people, for twelve years. At the end, she herself was a general and was offered a title, but refused it to go home. It is also noted that she died of old age and not in battle, and her sex was only revealed after she went home and came out to her battle comrades in a woman's dress and asking if they recognized her now.

In this book, Mulan fights in only a single battle, and while she is instrumental in bringing it to a successful conclusion, it's because she and her troops cause an avalanche on the Huns and not because of her skill in fighting or strategy. While it's easy to see that Prince Jian is intrigued by her battle skills, I would have preferred a version that emphasized that her skills were just as good as those of the men, and had her achieving rank after fighting, because this version downplays her skill in many ways. She's still good, but it seems less when compared to the original tale.

I enjoyed this book, which is part of the Once Upon a Time series, but of course, it seems to be based, much like the book "Diamond Secret", on stories of a real woman's life. I just wish it had hewed a little more closely to the original as it comes off as her being less of a warrior and merely someone whose victory should have been based on her fighting prowess rather than ability to arrange an avalanche. I'd still recommend the book, though, and the rest of the series.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Golden by Cameron Dokey

Rapunzel is born of her mother's bargain with a witch. Before she was born, her mother had a fierce craving for Rapunzel, a kind of Parsley. When her father was caught stealing the Rapunzel from the witch's garden, the witch made a bargain with her mother: all the Rapunzel she could eat from the Witch's garden, but if her mother found herself unable to love the baby she gave birth to, the witch could take the baby in payment. Rapunzel's mother agreed, and when Rapunzel was born, her mother was horrified. Not only was Rapunzel as bald as an egg, but she would never be able to grow hair. When the witch came for the baby, Rapunzel's mother was only too glad to give her up.

So the witch took Rapunzel and left, and now they live in one place at the furthest edge of a small village. The villagers disdain the witch except when they need her magic, and even Rapunzel is considered strange. Her only friend is a boy named Harry who travels with a tinker and merchant, who rescued him from another village. Once every year or so, the tinker/merchant and the boy come by to visit and spend time with the witch, Rapunzel and their cat, Mr. Jones, who is named after the merchant who gave her the cat.

Until the year that the drought comes, and all the crops dry up. The witch is blamed for this, even though she has never done anything to the villagers, and she and Rapunzel only have time to dispose of their property to a farmer whose land adjoins their own before the merchant and Rue come and they all flee together. But the Witch is hiding a secret of her own: Rapunzel, who is not the witch's real daughter, has replaced her real one, who is imprisoned in a tower by horrible magics. And only Rapunzel can free the witch's daughter- but to do so, she must discover her secret and why she agreed to be imprisoned in the first place.

And there is a Prince coming around whose intention is to free the captured woman (who he thinks is a Princess) in the tower. As Rapunzel lives with Rue, the witch's daughter, can she find out the girl's secret and free her, persuade her to marry the Prince who is in love with her despite only talking to Rapunzel, and bring about a reconciliation between the witch, Melisande, and her daughter? And if she can, what will Rapunzel, having given Rue everything of her own, including her name, do with her life afterwards?

I liked this book, which takes the story of Rapunzel and twists it just enough to be recognizable, yet different, and more enjoyable than the straight retelling of the story as well. Rapunzel without her iconic hair? Impossible, and yet here it works quite well at setting her apart. I was wondering why, at the beginning of the story, Rapunzel's mother was so certain that she would never grow hair. I mean, most babies are born bald, and eventually grow hair, but maybe the witch knew it and that was why she was so certain.

The witch, usually portrayed as horrible and evil, here is sympathetic and loving, certainly moreso than Rapunzel's real mother. But everyone in this book had a secret to hide, from Harry to Mt. Jones, as well as Melisande and Rue, her daughter. It's up to Rapunzel to unravel them, and to find a way to live after her entire life has changed. I also liked the ending and the new life and name that she chose.

Fairytales are often seen as old and outdated, but this series puts a new spin on the old stories and I enjoyed it very much. The "Once Upon a Time" series that this book is part of would make a good reading choice for teens who like fantasy, but only want a pinch of it in their stories. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ménage by Emma Holly

Kate Winthrop is a business owner who runs the "Mostly Romance" bookstore that is such a hit in Philadelphia. But when she becomes the landlady to two young college students she knows, she is drawn out of the shell that her husband leaving her left her in, and becomes a sexual adventuress that is drawn into a romance with both young men.

At first, she thought that Sean and Joe were strictly gay, but when she caught them making love in her bed, using an item of lingerie that Sean said belonged to her to fantasize with, she can't help but join them in their erotic lovemaking. They make love more than once, and she ends up with both of them before they all fall asleep in her bed.

The next morning, she makes her way to work, leaving them still asleep in her bed. There, she meets with her business partner, Marianne. Marianne is bragging about having her way with the stock clerk, Keith, who sucked her feet when she met him on the street the night before. And then they had sex on his motorcycle. But Kate keeps mum about her lovemaking with Sean and Joe. In fact, she has let Marianne believe them to be gay, something that she knew wasn't true even before she let them rent space in her house. Marianne is partly jealous of the fact that Joe is never interested in her when he comes by the shop, and when Sean comes over to talk to Kate and ends up having anal sex with her in the rare books room, Marianne's jealousy goes through the roof.

Afterwards, Sean and Kate leave to talk and Sean tells her how he met Joe, and that after they had sex in a college bathroom, he felt a flare in Joe that had Joe believing he was gay for the first time. But Sean knows that Joe likes both sexes, and that Joe is really attracted to Kate. He likes both of them and doesn't want to lose either one.

Later that night, Sean is out of the house, so Kate and Joe have dinner, and then sex. He's upset that Sean took her "anal cherry", which he wanted to have first, but they make love many times to make up for it. When Sean arrives home, he's drunk, and Kate helps him up the stairs. But when she challenges him over his relationship with Joe, he sees it as something he can't back down from.

The next day, Sean sends a beautiful female transvestite to Mostly Romance with a message for Kate, challenging her in return. Kate takes him up on it, and ends up in a corset, body paint, and not much else at her own home. There, she shares a sexual adventure with Sean, Joe and two other people. Then. she turns the tables on Sean and gets him to accept being loved and cared for in sexual ways. Then, someone calls and reports them for loud noises. The police arrive and they have to hide what they are doing. But who was it?

As their three-way relationship goes on, Kate knows there is no way it can last. But when Joe proposes to her, Kate can't find it in herself to accept. She's older than Joe, and feels that with her as his wife, she'd be holding him back, especially when she realizes how phenomenally talented he is at composing music. But can Joe, who loves her, persuade her to look beyond their ages and the image she has of him and accept him for the man he is and love him with her whole heart?

This book might be seen as a romance, but considering that the lovemaking is right in your face at the start of the book pegs this right away as more erotica than romance. Not that there is anything wrong with that! I actually like erotica, and I had no problem with the threesomes and moresomes that make up this novel. I realize that not everyone will, but the sex in this book was extremely, seriously hot.

Towards the end of the book, the power and dynamics between the three characters in the book changes dramatically and drastically, but in the end, the three characters come together in a way that it is left up to the reader to dream up, but which is still pretty hot, no matter what way you slice it. All three characters experience personal and professional growth, and I could tell who really called the cops on Kate and the boys, even if she never figures it out in the story. But all the characters, even the secondary ones, experience some kind of appropriate end, and the story ends just as hotly as it began, with the promise of more to come (ahem), even if it isn't written down.

The only "problem" I had with the story as such is that it's hard to tell how much time passes between Joe leaving Kate, and his return to her. He was in several commercials and one season of a show, and then made salary demands for the next season, and yet tells us that six months had passed since they last saw each other. Unless they are counting Kate seeing Joe on TV, I can't see how that is possible. I might have missed something, but it just seemed off.

I found this to be a very hot, entertaining story that had not only really hot, erotic sex, but an excellent story as well. It's usually easy to find one or the other, but finding both together is rare, so this book scratched an itch that I don't usually find fulfilled. I would highly recommend this book, and much of Emma Holly's other work as well. You're sure to find something wonderful in her books that is missing from many other romance authors.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Hit List by Laurell K. Hamilton

The Harlequin serve Marmee Noir, Mother Darkest, and they have made a try at Anita Blake before. But that was in St. Louis, at the heart of her power, and with all her friends, lovers and guardians around her. Since Anita is also a Federal Marshall, the Harlequin have decided to lure Anita out of her home by killing Wereanimals, specifically Weretigers, which are her animal to call, in several different states, knowing Anita will be called out to try and figure out who is doing the killing, and to try and put a stop to it.

Anita ends up in Oregon, leading a bunch of Federal Agents alongside Ted Forrester, better known to her as Edward, serial killer and monster hunter, but the local marshall, Raborn, thinks that Anita has sold out because of her relationship with monsters, and wants her taken off the case. One of the Marshals she is assigned, Laila Kalborn, has never been on a hunt before, which makes her a liability to the whole case. Anita decides to talk with her, but before she can really ask Laila to hand over the case to the more experienced Marshals, Anita and Edward included, they are attacked in their hotel room and Laila is injured by one of the Harlequin, a wereanimal. Laila, who is severely injured, is taken to the hospital, where she finds she has been infected with lycanthropy of the Wolf variety. Anita tries her best to convince Laila that this isn't the end of the world, and that she and her family can survive this blow.

But almost immediately, Anita is assigned another Marshal, also with no experience in the hunt, and finds out that two more Federal Marshals, Bernardo and Otto, who happens to be another serial killer, named Olaf, to the hunt. Olaf is fixed on Anita, thinking he can have her as a lover and not want to kill her, because she fits his preferred type of victim. But Olaf is also jealous that he can't be the only man in her life, so when Anita is injured in the line of duty because she hasn't fed the Ardeur which is a part of her, Edward takes her to see one of her lovers a weretiger journalist named Alex. Alex is a red tiger, but the Queen of the Tigers here doesn't want Anita to see Alex, because he is the Prince, and it could cause them problems if she bewitches the Prince of the Clan.

Instead, Anita is allowed to meet Ethan, a mixed blood weretiger that is red, blue and white. Anita is being thrown Ethan as a bone, since if she bewitches him, there isn't much loss to the clan. But Anita notices that he also has a strain of golden tiger in him as well. She doesn't get a chance to be with him before the Harlequin attacks, but she manages to beat them off with the help of the Weretigers. Ethan begs to be allowed to come with her, because not only does the clan dislike him, they don't even allow him to cuddle up with the rest of them, and he's hungry for skin to skin contact. Anita agrees, but since the Harlequin are taking out weretigers, she also doesn't want to end up with Ethan being killed because of her. Still, it's likely he will be killed anyway just because of his ancestry, and Anita tries to keep him safe.

But it soon becomes clear that Anita cannot forestall a confrontation with Marmee Noir forever, and if she wants to stop the killings and have any hope of being safe, she is going to have to stop following the killers and take the battle to them if she wants to triumph. But do Anita and the friends she has with her have any hope of stopping Marmee Noir? Can Anita prevent Mother Darkest from taking her over and using her body as Marmee Noir's latest meat puppet? And how can Anita stop a woman who has no real body and is only a spirit, anyhow?

I actually rather enjoyed this book, as it was all about Anita having real consequences for her actions, and she couldn't deal with a lot of her problems simply by pulling more powers out of her ass to deal with it. She had to talk to Laila's family simply as a human and a Marshal, and had to make Laila and her family see that she wasn't going to become some kind of monster simply because she got infected with Werewolf Lycanthropy.

Nor can she deal with Ethan's problem with her powers. He's being criminally underused where he is simply because of his mixed background, and while it does take Anita's powers to pull out the Golden Tiger in him, in a sense, her powers are causing all the problems in the first place, as it is Anita's powers that are causing Marmee Noir to go after her in the first place. And while she may add another lover to her posse that help her feed the Ardeur, she also has another problem looming in Olaf, who now knows she will never be his. And he's returned to his serial killer ways (but really, who didn't see THAT coming?) by the end of the book.

Will Anita's next job be in taking down Otto/Olaf for the Marshals? And will this end the whole Monster Hunters as Marshals thing, because if it turns out the Marshals didn't know about Olaf's "extracurricular activities", it could still be bad for them. And if they did, well, that opens up a whole new world of hurt, on not only the Marshals, but Anita, Ted/Edward, and the others. This was an interesting, enjoyable book that looks to have far-reaching consequences for Anita and her friends. Let's hope, anyway. Recommended.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Seer of Sevenwaters by Juliet Marillier

Sibeal is a young druid-in-training, with the powers of a Seer. Her family has long been of the druidic faith, but no one is sure about Sibeal being a druid because of her extreme youth, only seventeen. So, to ensure her suitability for being a druid that young, she has been sent to Inis Eala, the isle of warriors, where reside members of the raiding pirates once led by Bran, Sibeal's uncle, who left off raiding to marry Sibeal's aunt, Liadan. Now the island is where the warriors who protect Ireland are trained in wielding the new iron weapons, much lighter and easier to swing than those of the past.

Sibeal wants nothing more than to serve out her time and return to the druidic camp known as the Nemetons to take her final vows. But when she and the others witness a horrible accident, a longboat sinking in the middle of the harbor on Inis Eala, they take in the survivors: Knut, Rodan, and Svala, a beautiful woman who is in a dreadful state. Later that day, Sibeal finds another survivor, a man without a name who she finds freezing and nearly dead by the sea. Keeping him alive with her warmth, her cousin Gareth rescues them both, and the man (who Sibeal eventually names Ardal, meaning Great Courage) is taken to the infirmary to heal.

Knut, the only man who can speak some Irish, tells a story of how the boat came to crash and the survivors, claiming that Svala is his wife, and that he doesn't know the name of the man who Sibeal rescued, but that he and four other men had taken a journey on the longship together, and were presumably some sort of scholars, but as a mere crewman, he doesn't know any more about them.

When Ardal comes to, he can't remember his name, but he does feel that Knut is telling a lie. He remembers that one of the men on the ship was his brother, Paul, and that Knut was responsible for Paul's death. As he heals, he begins to remember more, including his real name, Felix, but keeps it secret from everyone, including Sibeal, who he has begun to have feelings for. Especially after Knut comes to him one night when he is still weak and sick and threatens his life if he tells anyone what really happened on the boat.

Slowly recovering, Felix must remember what happened on the fateful voyage on the longboat, including what Knut doesn't want him to remember. And while Sibeal struggles with trying to connect with Svala, she must understand the woman if her and Felix's journey is to have any successful end, and at the same time, she has to deal with the feelings she is developing for Felix, feelings that might put an end to any hopes she has of becoming a druid after all- which will she follow, her heart, or her hopes?

I find myself of two minds about this book. Yes, i loved the prose, which had a very dreamy feel to it, and was almost poetic in its loveliness, but at the same time, not much happens in the book up until about 3/4 of the way through. And while I could see that the story was heading for an action-filled ending, the wait to get to that ending was very annoying. I could forgive the slow startup until about halfway through the book, and then it really started to drag for me. I knew where the story was going, but the endless wait to get there was making me antsy.

And if you liked the slow start, once the story started to move, that felt a bit strange, too. I figured out who Svala had to be long before the book actually got to the island, since tales of Selkies and other creatures that change skins aren't unknown in Celtic myth. Some parts of the solution eluded me, but I found myself out of charity with the waiting, and hoped for a quicker speed up than the book actually gave. I have read Juliet Marilier before, so I wasn't unfamilliar with her style, and I have read her other three Sevenwaters books, so I am not sure why this one gave me so much trouble with its slow unfolding style.

In the end, unless you are someone who has lots of patience with the story, I can't really see myself recommending this book too highly. It's too slow and hangs and drags too much for me to think that people would enjoy the ending after such a long buildup. YMMV, of course.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Unnatural Issue by Mercedes Lackey

Richard Whitestone is an Earth mage who lives in the wilds of Yorkshire with his beloved wife. Called from her side when she is heavily pregnant with their child, he returns from his mission for the master of the White Lodge to find his wife dead in childbirth, having given birth to their daughter. But the circumstances of his wife's birth make him reject the child, and find solace in the second floor of his house, leaving his daughter to be raised by his servants.

Years pass, and having failed to simply lay down and die, he went on to reading through his large store of magical grimoires kept by past Elemental Masters. When in his collection he finds a set of books belonging to a Necromancer, a sort of twisted Earth Magician who has powers over the dead. And in these books, he finds a thread of hope- missing his wife so much, he resolves to try and bring her back to life. But to do so, he needs a vessel to contain her spirit, and while he can send his earth creatures into the nearest city to kidnap a girl and bring it back to his house, the spell will fail unless he invests it with a great deal of magical energy- energy that can only be raised by killing, which at this point, he still doesn't want to do.

But if the vessel is perfect enough, and the sacrifice happens at the right time, it will take far less energy. As he is contemplating this, he looks out the window and sees a woman enough like his wife to make him sit up and take notice. Of course, it is his daughter, Susanne. And since he already hates her for killing his wife with her birth, he thinks he has finally found a solution to his dilemma...

Suzanne, like her father, is an Earth Master. And since he ceased looking out after his property many years ago, it has fallen to her to keep everything clean and to do away with magical troubles. Her teacher has been Puck, the faery lord, ever since she was young and missing friends and went out to the wood to call one. Her will and magical powers summoned Puck, and while he was just her friend at first, it was to his interests to make sure that she used her powers well and correctly, and later because he realizes that she is very powerful and must maintain the countryside in the absence of her father.

But when her father takes notice of her, it causes her carefully constructed world to crumble in many ways. First, her father separates her from the servants she has lived among for all her life by making it clear to them that she is still the daughter of the house. He gives her lessons that make her stay indoors and away from the world that needs her help and care, and he makes it clear that she will be educated as a young lady. But when she realizes that her father has designs on her body, and not the sort of designs that one normally has for a daughter, she flees the house, looking for shelter elsewhere.

That elsewhere happens to be the Kerridge estate. The Kerridges are also elemental masters, mostly of Earth, and their son, Charles, is used to working with the White Lodge. In fact, the knowledge that something is amiss in the country has not passed unnoticed by Lord Alderscroft, leader of the White Lodge, and he sent his agent, Peter Almsley, to find the source of the necromantic disturbance, and to deal with it. Peter is pretending to be an artist roaming around Yorkshire, but once Suzanne has found her way to Kerridge's, she gets hired as a milkmaid and Peter, who pretends to be a newly-hired gatekeeper, teaches her how to summon elementals and defend herself with her magic.

During this time, he falls in love with her, but she has fallen in love with Charles Kerridge, and doesn't even look at Peter. But when her father sends his undead minions to attack the Kerridge estate after a private eye finds Suzanne, Peter and his friends know they must do better to protect her, and Peter sends her across the channel to his uncle in France to keep her safe while he and the others do their best to track down her father. But the foiling of his attack warns him that he must be gone, and he leaves, leaving behind the animated bodies of his servants, who angered him when they didn't know where his daughter had gone.

They discover the remains of the servants some weeks later, decaying and rotting, but still carrying out their former duties, with their master long gone. The Fire Master of the group cleanses the bodies and souls with fire. But in France, Suzanne must come face to face with her own feelings, and the onset of war when Germany invades France. But with her father now somewhere on the continent, and Suzanne mired in the horrors of war among the nurses, can Peter persuade her to come home and be safe, or will it take the near death of the man she loves to convince her to finally come home and put matters to rest?

This, like the other Elemental Masters books, is based on an old fairy tale. Among others, it is known as "Catskinella" or "The King who Wanted to Marry His Daughter". But unlike the former Elemental Masters books, it takes place without much of a romance. Yes, Suzanne is interested in Charles Kerridge, but the book makes it clear that Peter will end up with her. And he does at the end, but it's hardly the foregone conclusion here that it has been in other books. Up until the last chapter, it is quite clear that she is pining for a man who barely even remembers her, and who, by the time he meets her again, already has a fianceé.

Yes, it's kind of ridiculous, but what is also ridiculous is that we never get the feeling that Suzanne is actually in danger. About all she does on her own behalf is to make the plan at the end that brings her back into her father's clutches, and in the end, a bomb kills him off. Yes, literally, a bomb falling from the sky. I suppose you could say it's ironic, but it just seemed a waste to me. I would like Suzanne to have more of a hand in eliminating the threat her father posed than to play act for a bit. The whole bomb thing was too much Deus ex Machina for me, and it seemed a quick out, since the ending of the threat was held right up until the end of the book.

Add to that some dropping of threads in the story, and it made this book seem a lot sloppier and not as well written as previous books in the series. There are certainly funny and amusing parts, but the whole romance element was not as well done, and it just seemed the book needed a lot tighter editing than those in the past. I'd still recommend it as a good book, but it doesn't hold up to the standard of her former works. Recommended, still.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

The Seven Natural Wonders of the World by Raymond Coutu

Everyone has heard of the Seven Wonders of the World, but there are more than just seven these days. In addition to the original Seven Wonders, there are now several categories of "Seven Wonders of the World". They are broken down into the "Seven Wonders of the Modern World" and "Seven Natural Wonders of the World". While the other Seven Wonders change with time, the Seven Natural Wonders aren't going to change.

This book describes and profiles all seven natural wonders of the World- sights and places that have entranced humans ever since they were discovered, and describes how they were formed, and found by humans and even first explored, along with information about how the wonder is viewed by the people who live near or in and around it.

Two countries share the distinction of having two Natural Wonders each- The United States, and Australia, while the others are scattered across Europe, Asia and Africa- one to each continent. So, you may be wondering, what are they?

The Natural Wonders of the World are The Grand Canyon, Meteor Crater, The Matterhorn, Mount Everest, Victoria Falls, Ayers Rock and The Great Barrier Reef. Each section contains many pictures and explains why each Wonder is important (like the Great Barrier Reef's Diversity of Species), and gives the History of how each Wonder got its name and why it's considered a wonder (for example, Mount Everest is the world's tallest mountain and the highest point on Earth. The Matterhorn is only half as tall, but is noted for its extreme beauty.)

This book covers each of the Natural Wonders in extensive detail, including how each was formed and their discovery by Europeans (even the section on Ayers Rock mentions that Aborigines knew of Ayers Rock for many, many years before any Europeans did). It's a nice overview that explains the sites and why they are considered Natural Wonders.

This is a very nice book for kids wanting to see and know more about the Natural Wonders of the world. This book is short, but the multiplicity of pictures and the nice amount of information allow kids to get a good idea about each wonder, and can serve as a springboard to finding out more information on each one.

Difficult word concepts are explained at the back of the book, and the book itself is good for second through fifth graders, and maybe even a bit beyond. The wonders it covers are fascinating in and of themselves, and the written information is sure to incite more exploration of not only the Natural Wonders, but also other wonders of the world as well.

This book is recommended for kids of late elementary school. It will probably be too short and simple to attract the interest of older kids, but can still spark their learning. Well-written and researched, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Secret Avengers: Mission to Mars by Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato

Captain America, Steve Rogers, is given the mission to rebuild the Avengers, But alongside the regular team, he also has the idea to build a covert team, one that isn't as much about flashy power, but about doing a job in a covert fashion and getting out afterwards, like the Shadow Ops of his World War II Invaders.

To this end, he recruits War Machine, Black Widow, Beast, Valkyrie, Moon Knight, Ant-Man and Nova to form that covert mission force. Not all of them exactly want to do this full-time, but Steve Rogers can be very persuasive. But when they receive Intel that Roxxon has found the Serpent Crown, it's up to the new Covert team to get it away to where it can be secured, but after getting into a firefight with Roxxon's men, they retrieve the package, only to find out what's inside isn't the Serpent Crown... not exactly.

But hacking into Roxxon reveals that the Crown wasn't found on Earth, but on Mars. Not only did Roxxon get mineral rights to dig on Mars, but shortly before the rumors of Roxxon having the crown surfaced, their entire group of workers employed on Mars went off their employment rolls with no reason given as to why.

When Nova goes to Mars, though, he enters the facility where Roxxon had been mining, and discovers a strange, thorny crown that makes him take off his helmet and replace the helmet with itself. But what is the crown, and why was it in that strange facility on Mars? Who and what are these strange figures that seem to be boiling up out of Mars? And what is Nick Fury doing there, and who are those strange, non-SHIELD people with him?

At the end of the book, we get to see exactly who that man who looked like Nick Fury was, and how he came to be running around away from SHIELD and Fury himself. Because like Fury, this person has all of Fury's memories, and his skills as well. And now, it seems that those skills and that sharp mind will be focussing on the Secret Avengers strike team... and he doesn't like what he sees...

I liked the idea of a Secret Avengers, as it's not necessarily new to the Avengers to need a more covert team to take out threats and to deal with things that need "plausible deniability", to use government weasel words. Here, the former Captain America has made a team of characters who need redemption, or who would have a hard time working with a group, and floated his team as a vehicle for redemption, one in which they need not take part full-time.

We've never seen some of these characters as Avengers before, and many of them aren't as suited to straight-up battling roles, but work better as infiltrators or whose powers and abilities lend themselves to sneaky uses. It's hard to see Thor, for example, battling at anything less than high volume and sneaking isn't really in his purview. But they still need power characters for backup when things go south. So it's a strange mix of sneaky and brutal.

I enjoyed the story, though taking place on Mars made it seem rather... otherworldly. But problems on Mars are just one short jump away from Earth, and that's where the bad stuff goes down. This was an interesting tale and whetted my appetite for more Secret Avengers. I just hope that further graphic novels live up to the standard in this one. Recommended.