Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Wonderful Future That Never Was by Gregory Benford and the Editors of Popular Mechanics

Back in the old days, the world was going to be so much better in the future. We'd conquer hunger, wars and disease, crime would be a thing of the past, and everybody would have their own jetcar or heli-car, and everybody would be comfortable, peaceful and happy. What happened to those predictions?

Well, for one thing, they were wildly off. For another, people became aware of a lot of downsides to the things they thought they wanted. It's all very well and good to promise people aerocars that combine a light plane and a car, but think about this: it's a lot harder to learn to fly an airplane than a car, and a single mid-air collision has a better chance of killing you than a rather simple car crash. For one thing, in a car, you aren't condemned to falling tens or hundreds of feet out of the air after the crash in a coffin made of metal. Second, think of the things stupid people do in cars... do you really want them doing these things in a car which is also a plane?

Third, a lot of the ideas were needlessly impractical. A Lightweight house that could go up in an afternoon and was made out of polymers? What happens on really windy days? Or phones with televisions that would show you the person you were talking to? Well, think about having to look good and made up every time the phone rings... or someone calling to see you while you are in your nightgown! Or in the shower... So, while we do have teleconferencing and other ways of combining video with phone calls, it was in much less demand than people thought it was going to be.

What's amazing is out of all the many advances predicted by Popular Mechanics, how many of them came true- ultrasound to diagnose disease, ultraviolet light to cure Vitamin D deficiencies, the rise of the computer, and even things like teleconferencing, which came out of the whole "video telephone" idea. But the hits are few and far between when most of the supposed technological advances are misses. Eating food made of sawdust doesn't even sound very appetizing, but you can see where most of the ideas weren't well thought out and why they failed, and in other cases the author explains why they never caught on with a wide variety of people. Things like houses that were mostly outdoor living spaces aren't really compatible with places that get extreme weather, like hurricanes, earthquakes, heavy snow (and to be honest, that's most of the country), while others are eventually coming true, like the truly paperless office.

This book provides a fun overview of the predictions of the past, and why most of them went horribly, horribly wrong. Written in a breezy and entertaining fashion, this book is a fun read that you don't have to plow through in one sitting- instead, you can nibble here and there among the past offerrings when you have the time and inclination. Well worth the read, I highly recommend this book.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dexter is Delicious by Jeff Lindsay

Dexter Morgan is a blood-spatter expert for the Miami-Dade Police Force, whose job it is to analyze crime scenes and help catch killers and predators. But Dexter Morgan is no ordinary cop, not even in Florida. You see, Dexter Morgan is also a serial killer, but with a difference. He's a serial killer who preys on other serial killers. Once he followed the rules laid down by his father, the cop Harry Morgan. Dex idolized him as a child, as much as he was able, but he found out that Harry wasn't the incorruptible role model that Dexter thought he was, and now Dexter does what he does because, in his own way, he makes the world a better place and takes out the trash that other cops can't catch.

Dexter recently married his girlfriend, Rita, and they have settled down together in happily married Bliss... as much as Dexter is able to feel or mimic any such thing. But Rita's two kids, and now Dexter's adopted kids have revealed that they, too, are incipent serial killers, and want to go along with Dexter and help them with his mission. Dexter delights in the thought of raising another two children to follow Harry's Rules, but with the birth of his new daughter, Lily Anne, Dex's Dark Passenger, the part of him that demands he track down and kill the people who deserve it, seems to have gone missing, and his two little incipent serial killer kids are feeling that he is letting them down by not training them as he promised.

Adding to Dexter's private life gone to hell is the return of his serial killer brother, Brian, who is willing to play uncle to his new kids and take them on all the exciting adventures that Dexter is no longer able to since his Dark Passenger abruptly abandoned him. Now he has to worry that Cody and Astor will abandon Harry's Rules and that Dexter might have to kill the two kids he really does have paternal feelings for, if totally twisted ones.

Meanwhile, Dex's sister, Deb, needs his help finding a missing girl. The FBI and her parents believe she's been kidnapped, due to a quantity of blood being found at the home, but Dex thinks that the girl has simply run off and is pretending she's been kidnapped to get more money from her parents. He tests the the blood and finds that it isn't the girl, Samantha Aldovar's type. Deb and Dex go to Samantha's school, and question the Principal, but she doesn't want to talk about it. However, they find out that there is another girl missing as well, Samantha's friend, Tyler Spanos.

Aside from that, both girls hung out with a boy who has his teeth filed into sharp points, and Dex questions Dentists who will do such a modification, only to find that there aren't that many. The boy might be Bobby Acosta, which is a problem, since his father, Joe Acosta,is a powerful politician in Miami with many powerful friends who are certain to cause problems for Deb and Dex.

Soon, Deb calls Dex to another crime scene, where it seems that someone has been cooked and eaten. But the bones don't belong to Samantha, only to her friend, Tyler Spanos. One of Deb's detectives finds two Haitian men who swear they saw Bobby Acosta leaving Tyler's car at a local chop shop. Deb and Dex also arrest a man named Chapin who runs from them when they try to question him, but before they can really grill him, the public defender shows up and forces them to release him. Dex tracks him down and unleashes his Dark Passenger on Chapin, and before he dies, he confesses having helped cook and eat Tyler Spanos. But Dex, of course, can't tell this to anyone, but when Deb's partner, Deke is found partially eaten, Dexter finds his blood-soaked shirt in a nearby garbage can, along with a chip for a Goth Nightclub known as "Fang".

Deb and Dex go to the Nightclub and use their police credentials to force their way in. Bobby Acosta is there, but before they can do much, the manager of the club, angry at their presence, has them thrown out. Dexter waits until everyone leaves, and then breaks into the club. He knows there is something going on here because he once researched the owner of the club for his Dark Passenger. Too many undocumented immigrants have gone missing from the club- and from the city, after working there.

And his suspicions are confirmed when he finds Samantha Acosta in one of the massive refrigerators of the club. He tries to free her, but she locks him in with her. She tells him that both she and Tyler had the same dream- both of them wanted to be eaten, so this situation is a dream come true for her. Later, the cultists come back and move her and Dex from the refrigerator into a locked trailer in the Everglades. There is no food, and they are only given a jug of water to sustain them.When they drink it, they begin hallucinating, and end up having sex many times- the water was laced with Ecstasy.

Thankfully, the Miami PD tracks them down and rescues them both. But while Dex is grateful, Samantha is angry that she won't get her dearest wish- to be eaten, and threatens to tell the Police that Dexter raped her if he doesn't keep quiet about it. Soon, Samantha has run off again, and Deb and Dexter go to talk to Bobby Acosta's father, hoping that they can keep him from going to jail if they can find Samantha. But his father refuses to talk to them and is angry at the implication. Their meeting ends when Bobby Acosta's stepmother, Alana, comes in to see her husband.

Deb and Dex leave, but are surprised when Alana Acosta approaches them before they can exit the building. It seems she overheard their conversation with her husband, and she tells them that Bobby is hiding out in a defunct amusement park owned by his father. Even though she didn't give birth to him and she's a former singing star, she doesn't want Bobby to go to jail- she feels something maternal for him.

Dexter, Deb, and her lover Chutsky go to the amusement park loaded for bear to try and save Samantha and arrest Bobby Acosta. But it isn't nearly enough,and they are taken captive. Dex is thrown in with Samantha once more, and Deb and Chutsky are taken away, and then the real cannibal, the one who started the whole cult, is revealed. Can Dexter save Samantha, Chutsky and his sister from the Cannibals? How can you even save someone from something they want more than anything else in the world? And will Dexter be able to go back to killing after having given it up to make a better life for his new daughter, Lily Anne? What could cause him to back on that promise?

Jeff Lindsay and Dexter have taken us a lot of places I never expected to go as a reader. Having the main character be a serial killer and even sympathetic, to the point where you cheer for him- let's just say I never expected to be able to do anything like that for a serial killer. But Dexter Morgan, with his code and his strangely self-deprecating humor... well, it works. It just works, and I'm not completely sure how, but it does.

Yes, they've made a TV series from these books, but the television series Dexter is not quite the same as the Dexter from these books. He's a kinder, softer Dexter in the TV series, although both eventually come to the same conclusions about killing and why to do it. You'll also notice that they killed off Doakes in the TV series, where he is alive in the books. Alive, but very much changed- knowing what Dex is but unable to prove it, and missing a lot of his body parts, something book Dexter takes a sort of gruesome pleasure in. Like I said, different. But I have actually come to prefer book Dexter. While being darker, there is also something strangely purer about him. He's the real deal, not adulterated and watered down for television. Purer and more complex, which makes him, to me, a more interesting character.

If you watch or watched the television show, you'll find yourself enjoying these books, but will find the Dexter within somewhat to very different from the character on TV. Whether you like that, as I do, or find that a bit more uncomfortable, Jeff Lindsay keeps pushing the boundaries of what is possible and what is disgusting, but I love these books, and am looking forward to the next one. Highly recommended, but steer clear if blood, killing or cannibalism makes you feel sick.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 4 by Yuki Midorikawa

Natsume has always been able to see Yokai, and all his life it has caused him trouble- causing him to be labelled as a liar by other children, and turning the relatives who took care of him after his own parents died to feel creeped out by him and pass him onto other relatives as soon as possible.

But now his situation has changed. He's decided not to tell everyone what he sees, and not to trouble his new guardians with the details of what he sees all the time, and his new guardians, who are very distant relatives to him, truly do care about him and his welfare. He's also made friends at school for the first time, and he also has a new guardian, a Yokai named Madara, who can be seen by everyone as a cat due to his long imprisonment in a Japanese Maneki-Neko or "Beckoning/Lucky cat" statue for many years. In exchange for being given a book made by Natsume's grandmother, Reiko, Madara will keep him safe from other Yokai, and possess the book after Natsume dies.

Reiko could also see Yokai, and since other humans rejected her, she took her ire out on Yokai, challenging them to games and receiving their names in her book after they lost. Using their names, she could call on them for favors or tasks, a position many of them bitterly resented. Now, Yokai meeting Natsume tend to think he is Reiko, but he returns their names to them if they ask him, even though the task takes all his spiritual power and leaves him exhausted. But it is also getting the Yokai whose names he doesn't hold to trust him.

In this book, Natsume and Madara find a field which used to hold two guardian statues in the woods after a snowstorm. Now, only one is left, and the spirit inside tries to snatch Natsume's body when it realizes he can see it. But instead of taking him over, it misses and takes over a snow bunny sculpture instead. This miss causes the spirit to confess why it wanted Natsume's body: many years ago, an evil spirit was imprisoned in a tree that the two statues guarded. Three days ago, someone cut down the tree, freeing the spirit to do evil. Natsume agrees to help, but is the statue-spirit being truthful about why it wanted his body, and the nature of the spirit freed by cutting down the tree? Moreover, is any of what it has said truthful, and why would it lie?

Next, Natori returns once again, and seeks Natsume's help, this time by using his paper magic to literally drag Natsume from his home to where Natori is. He claims to want to take Natsume to a hot springs resort he won tickets to, and to wants Natsume to come because he and Natsume have the same problem- both have seen Yokai since they were young, and both were rejected for it. But now Natori is a fairly famous actor- but he's also usually less than truthful- and it seems to be true in this case as well- He's actually been hired to take care of a Yokai who is haunting the Hot Springs. But can Natsume overcome the Yokai with Natori's help, or will he always be the one doing the heavy lifting?

Next, Natsume goes to the market to buy some noodle dishes for his family when he passes a woman selling old furniture, including a painting that catches his eye. But it seems the painting is haunted by a Yokai who casts down flowers upon him as he sleeps. She calls Natsume a thief, though, and tells him that the painting was once hers, and contains a human named Lord Yasaka, and he loved flowers and butterflies. Natsume tries to give her the painting, since it is so important to her, but it literally won't come off the wall. The Yokai, Miya, promises to come back every day until the painting can be removed. But when the painting starts growing roots into the wall, can Natsume determine the true reason for it's sprouting, or will he be forced to destroy it and all it means to Miya, especially when it starts draining his energy?

Then, when Natsume protects a fox spirit child from being picked on by other Yokai, the yokai follows him and tries to become his servant. But Natsume neither needs nor wants a servant. Could it be that he and the fox spirit can be friends instead? Next, Natsume is noticed by a Yokai when he is a child, and it picks on him. But will their interactions always be the same, and by following him, can it notice that he is alone and without friends? Finally, Nyanko has had enough of following Natsume's restrictions and runs away on his own. But when he falls into a deep hole in the ground and encounters a lost little girl who also fell down the hole, will he run away and leave her there, or will he take pity on her and keep her safe from harm?

Well, this set of stories haven't affected me in the same way that the others had, but I have to admit that I still loved reading them. It seems, especially from the last set of stories, that the reason why Yokai hate humans has to do with their misunderstanding them, and that if and when they do finally get to see that humans are often just as miserable as they are, that their hatred for humans as a whole evaporates and they end up seeing humans as individuals, not just a shapeless mass of malice, that, admittedly, many humans see Yokai as.

I also found it disturbing that some of the humans who see Yokai and who are exorcists, come off much worse than the Yokai themselves. Natori is a thoroughgoing user who usually ends up dragging Natsume along because of his great personal power- if he was a Yokai, his personalitty would fit right in with how the Yokai usually use humans. He uses Yokai (as his servants) as well as Natsume, so he comes off as a really repellent individual to me. Now, every time he turns up, I ask myself "Okay, what do you want now?" And its sad that humans come off as worse than Yokai in this respect. Everyone out to protect humans seems to be a not very likeable individual.

But the depictions of Yokai sell this book for me, and I love reading the stories where humans and Yokai get to interact and understand each other- that's why my favorite stories in this book were the three at the end, and I hope I get to see more of those character. Yes, Nyanko-sensei included. Highly recommended.

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 3 by Yuki Midorikawa

Takashi Natsume is teenaged boy who can see Yokai, or spirits. Because his gift caused him to be rejected by so many in his family after his own parents died, he has learned to keep his powers and talents a secret. Now, with the help of a spirit named Madara, who he calls Nyanko-sensei after his form, which is that of a ceramic Maneki-Neko or "Beckoning/Lucky Cat", he is attempting to return to the Yokai the names that his grandmother extorted out of them in her "Book of Friends". But ever since he made the decision to return them their names, he has learned a great deal more about the Yokai than he ever knew before.

In this volume, Natsume is suprised by a Yokai who looks almost exactly like Nyanko-sensei, right down to the Maneki-neko body. But when it steals "The Book of Friends" and takes off, it's up to Natsume and Madara to get it back, even if Natsume has to pretend to be a Yokai to do so. As they infiltrate the Yokai drinking party, they discover that the Yokai plan to attack humans to get "The King" back... the King, who has been imprisoned in the Black Maneki-Neko. But can Natsume discover the King's real name and free him in time to keep the humans safe?

Then, it's the time of the fireflies. Natsume and Nyanko go into the forest to look for them, and find a sleeping man being haunted by a Yokai. It turns out that the Yokai and the man were once friends when he could see Yokai, but he grew out of his ability to see them, and can no longer see her. She wants to see him in his finery when he is to be married, so she stays with Natsume until then. But as Natsume grows closer with the female Yokai he calls Veyo, can he find out her story and reunite her with the man she loved, and who loved her one last time?

Then, Natori returns to ask the help of Natsume in tracking down a Yokai. Not only is it a horrible one, it chased another Yokai into Natsume's closet, leaving a trail of Yokai blood only he can see. This time, there is a reward for the yokai and Natsume is interested, since it ran away from his closet when he and Natori found it, leaving the injured bird-Yokai behind. Natori takes Natsume to a meeting of exorcists, some of whom know of his grandmother. But can he trust them, or will they all turn out like Natori was at first? And when he and Natori track down the evil Yokai, will they be able to catch it and seal it away?

One day, when Natsume returns from school, he encounters a hungry Yokai who travels through the cracks in walls and floors. After he feeds her, she tells him that there is a bird's nest in the yard, and that the birds will hatch today. And there is and they do, but there is one egg left behind, still warm. Natsume decides to try and hatch it, but what is in the egg, and what will hatch from it? Something good, or something evil?

Once again, this series affected me deeply, nearly bringing me to tears several times, which is very unusual, especially for a manga. But for some reason, this series seems to being out the best in both the humans and the yokai, and reading that was very emotionally affecting, especially when the stories end happily for both the humans and the yokai... not that this means a traditional happy ending, but one in which the human survives, and the yokai is affected by their friendship in a happy way.

My favorite stories in this one are the one with Veyo and the one with the Dragon egg, as both were bittersweet, but beautiful. Veyo was affected happily by the human she came to know, and she was simply happy to have known him. And likewise, the story of the Dragon Egg showed the Yokai to have been positively affected by being raised by Natsume. I do hope that he comes back someday to repay Natsume, more than just helping him against the Yokai who was hunting the Dragon for a meal for its master.

I really love this series, and every time I read it, I just end up wanting to read more and see how Natsume affects the lives of those around him, almost always for the better. And I think he will also affect Natori's life as well, not just by Natori using him as a tool against other (bad or evil) Yokai, but against the other Yokai exorcists as well, none of whom seem to have Natsume's respect for Yokai or sensitivity in dealing with them. And strangely, it's Madara/Nyanko-sensei's "protection" that has allowed Natsume to see that Yokai are just as individual as humans. While some of them are bad, not all of them, or even most of them, are. It's a series that makes me think, and I love it. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen j. Dubner

Most economists wrestle with terms of power and money inherent in societies, but Steven Levitt is not your typical economist. He looks at questions most economists never think to ask, and doesn't accept the "accepted wisdom", asking why things are the way they are. And his looking at various parts of society that never get examined by most economists often brings strange and fruitful answers up into the light that most people would never realize.

For example, cheating. Levitt exposes cheating in two places- Chicago schools and in Sumo wrestling. For example, Sumo wrestlers at a certain level of competition must win eight bouts to pass into the elite tournament. And if you look at a Wrestler who is 8-6 in their bouts will often fight wrestlers ranked 7-7. You might expect a wrestler who is already ranked 8-6 to win slightly more often in that last bout because he is slightly better than the other wrestler. But this often turns out not to be the case. But why?

The answer goes back to the Sumo Culture. Most of the top Sumo wrestlers know each other, and indeed, have trained with each other. The 8-6 wrestler knows he will be moving on to the elite competition. But because winning the match won't confer any additional benefit to the wrestler who already knows he's moving on, he often seems to let his opponent win simply to allow them a chance to enter the elite tournament with him. Now, the Sumo wrestling federation maintains that there is no cheating, but then, how to explain those results? (In fact, these elite tournaments were stopped in 2008 simply because of claims of this sort of cheating.

Similar are claims of cheating in academic tests in Chicago teachers. Some teachers will attempt to simply give their students the answers on the board during the test, while others cheat after the fact, correcting the answers their students give. But in both cases, this can be discovered. In the first case, one of the students came home and told her mother, quite cheerfully, how her teacher put the answers on the board for them while they were taking the test. In the second case, while students got earlier, easier answers wrong, they got later, harder answers correct.

The teachers, in both cases, were caught. But there are subtler ways of trying to cheat that may not get caught when the teacher or class is actually cheating. The best way to measure student achievement to track it over time. if a set of students have truly learned from a teacher, they will retain that knowledge into the next grade. If they mysteriously "forget" what they supposedly learned, it's a pretty good bet that they never really "learned" the information in the first place. But if they not only retain but build on the knowledge, it's also a good bet that the teacher they learned from is superior.

In addition, the authors take on how drug dealers are like any other corporations, how the Klu Klux Klan are like Real Estate Agents (and how they were taken down by the writers of Superman, no less!), why crime dropped in the 90's, what good parents do to help their kids succeed, and how your child's name can be an indicator of success, and why outlandishly-spelled names can cause your kids to do less well in life and in school.

While some of the conclusions of this book have been called into question (specifically the contention that crime went down in the 90's as a result of abortions that happened in the 70's after abortion was decriminalized), but the others have not been disproven, as far as I know. This is still a pretty mind-blowing book, linking together several things that actually seem counter-intuitive, and as a result, are surprising.

Well, perhaps not quite counter-intuitive, but definitely against common wisdom, and shows that common wisdom is often not what is right or correct. Some of the stories in this book are definitely interesting, like the one about how the KKK was defanged by the writers of Superman (and a spy who infiltrated the organization). Since then, it's still around, but not in the same large way it was in the 50's and before.

This may not have the same sort of impact it once did, but it remains a fascinating look at life and various things within it and how quickly names change from being trendy to being past when it is adopted by people perceived as being lower class. This book is still interestin and makes a great read. Recommended.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Blood Spirits by Sherwood Smith

Kim Murray knew nothing about her family's heritage or background until she took a trip to Europe last summer. Then, she learned her grandmother had once been the Princess of a small European nation called Dobrenica, and that she had run away, leaving the Kingdom in some turmoil. Kim found herself on the run with Marius Alexander Ysovorod, the Prince of Dobrenica, as he looked for the woman promised to be his bride, Aurelia, better known as Ruli. In addition to being related to Ruli, Kim, whose first name is also Aurelia, was her virtual double, enough to pass for her now-missing distant cousin. She decided to help Marcus search for his fianceƩ, and somewhere along the way, fell in love with him. But when they finally did find her, she knew that, despite Marcus returning her feelings, he was promised to Ruli, and that she couldn't get in the way of that.

He also needed to be with Ruli for a different reason- his marriage alliance with her was tied up in ancient magics that would conceal Dobrenica from the modern world, and Dobrenica, where magic itself still lingers, needed that concealment. So she left Dobrenica and Marcus and Ruli behind, returning to America, and a job teaching kids in Oklahoma German and French. But when one of her colleagues in the Language Department is injured in an accident, she pretends to be his sister to make sure he is taken care of until his new wife arrives. Somewhat grateful, the woman asks why, and when Kim tells her about the situation she left behind, the wife tells her she needs to deal with it. Kim agrees, and travels home to California for the Christmas Holidays, only to find that her mother and grandmother have already left for England to meet with the Dobrenican Ambassador. Her father says that they have bought a ticket in Kim's name as well, and she agrees to go with them to England.

In England is not only the Dobrenican Ambassador, but Marcus's cousin, Tony, who agrees to take Kim on a tour of the London sights, but actually takes her back to his place and challenges her to a duel. During the duel, he tells her that Ruli is dead in a car crash, and that Marcus appears to have been driving. He asks Kim why she has come back now, and appears to think that she and Marcus colluded in Ruli's death so that they would be able to be together. Kim denies any involvement in such a scheme, and Tony appears to believe her... for now.

But he abandons her in London, and Kim knows that she has to return to Dobrenica, and find out what really happened to Ruli and to see if she can put right what has happened and unravel the mysteries surrounding the land. But in the airport on the way to England, she had an encounter with Ruli's ghost or spirit, asking for her help and she wants to know what happened to Ruli as well. So she travels to Dobrenica, where Marcus is in mourning, and many people think of her as an imposter, if they think of her at all. But that is only the nobles. The common people think of her as a hero, and support her, but Kim must be careful, lest Tony's suspicions be shared by everyone.

What she finds is disheartening. Marcus, who has a drinking problem, thinks he was drunk and responsible for the crash that killed Ruli. In fact, in council, he asks for the matter to be investigated, and if they find him responsible, he will pay for his crime in any way necessary. And this has convinced many people that perhaps Marcus isn't the best heir to the throne, and so some of the older families are looking to overthrow him, either barely on the sly, like Tony, or in secret, like others. But something is also happening with Dobrenica's magic, and their connection to vampire-like creatures called the Dark Ones is also in the mix. As Kim tries to deal with learning to see and listen to the dead, and Dobrenican crystal magic, she must also learn to winnow the truth from falsehood and keep herself from dying in the coming conflict. Because if she fails, those she loves, and her own family might end up being the ones paying the price...

I never read "Crowns and Coronets", the first book in this duology, but in many places, I didn't really need to. The characters, while not familiar to me, were explained enough that I could understand the gist of who they were and how they were important, to both Kim and the plot. Plus, there are plenty of new characters, and eventually you get a feel for how it all works together. It takes a while for the main part of the story to start, but once it does, it pulls you right through to the end.

I did find this a little surprising, that the story is billed as a fantasy with magic, the book is so rooted in the real world, so to speak. But it's very low-fantasy fantasy. What magic there is is limited to seeing spirits and portals to a world where vampires (The Dark Ones) come from. And yes, vampires and ghosts exist, but it's hardly the sort of heroic fantasy I was expecting. I was thinking more something like Glenraven, and what I got... wasn't. This doesn't make it bad, but not having read the first book, it was rather disappointing. The only fantastic elements were a country that doesn't really exist, a very low-key, low-power magic and vampires. And while every story with fantastic elements can be said to be a kind of fantasy, that's not the sort of fantasy I was expecting, so I did find it somewhat disappointing, to be honest. But that was more about my expectations than the story itself.

As a story. it hangs together well. It's not the sort of high fantasy where elves, dwarves and wizards are lurking atop every mountain or in every grove, with unicorns hiding behind the trees. It's much close to reality than high fantasy, and as long as you aren't expecting "Normal human from reality meets high or low fantasy Kingdom", then you won't be disappointed. But I have to say I feel mislead by the dust jacket copy into expecting the first and getting the second, so I felt disappointed by the novel. I would recommend the story, but not as what I thought I was getting from reading the dust jacket blurb.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 2 by Yuki Midorikawa

Takashi Natsume sees Yokai. When he was a child, after his parents died, it caused him lost of trouble when he told the relatives who took him in what he saw, so he has learned to hide it. But his grandmother, Reiko m also had the same ability, and was rejected all her life by people. Instead, she turned to Yokai for someone to interact with, playing games with them and if they lost, making them write their names in her notebook.

Natsume is often bothered by spirits who think he is Reiko. Some of them attack him, while others only want their names out of the book. He can return the name to them by imagining the name in his mind, putting the page in his mouth, and breathing out, but doing so takes all his energy. Returning their name frees them to move on, but since not all the spirits like him, he has another spirit, Madara, who he calls "Nyanko Sensei" to be his bodyguard and protect him. He calls him "Nyanko Sensei" because he is bound into a Maneki- Neko or "Beckoning/Lucky Cat" statue. When he takes on statue form, everyone can see him, but they think he is just a cat. In his true form, only Natsume can see him.

In this book, Natsume is asked to join a summer group that is going to do a walkthrough in a haunted house. They need 50 people to participate, and he's the last person they need to get permission. He goes along, but the House is haunted by Yokai, and the yokai begins abducting members of the group as they go through the house. However, it turns out that the president of the group once encountered the Yokai in the house when it helped her find a special amulet she lost there. She's done this activity to try to meet it once more and thank it for helping her. But the spirit doesn't want to meet her. It considers itself tainted. Can Natsume speak to the Yokai and convince it that it isn't tainted, and get it to free all the people it has abducted?

Later, when Natsume frees a frog from a spiderweb, he is marked by a Yokai who wants to eat him. Through the assistance of the Yokai whose messenger he freed, he discovers that the mark is a five day mark- the Yokai will drain his energy for five days or until it has enough energy to leave where it is. Hinoe, a Yokai who once knew Reiko, helps Natsume for her sake. But when the spirit sends its shadow to find Natsume and eat him, can he stay out of its way for the whole five days?

Next, Natsumi discovers an actor, Shuichi Natori, has the same ability to see spirits, and a birthmark shaped like a lizard that moves around his body. But while Natsumi wants to be a nicer person, both to other humans and Yokai, Natori uses his own powers to exorcise and kill Yokai, while having three Yokai who serve him. But when he comes to destroy a Yokai he once helped, can Natsume protect the Yokai from Natori? Can the two of them ever agree on Yokai and whose attitude will affect whom when it comes to Yokai?

Later, Natsumi is at school when he encounters another Yokai who travels in a flying umbrella. When the Yokai senses that Natsume can see him, he demands that Natsume let him have his body. Nyanko comes along to prevent it, but he learns that the Yokai is carrying the spirit of a harpist named Asagi. Asagi was a lutenist beloved by the gods, until she fell ill. She went away into the forest, and her skin sloughed off. Now, she wishes to play for the gods one last time, but she needs a body to do so. And then the Yokai puts Asagi's spirit in Natsume as he sleeps. Natsume agrees to help Asagi, but can they find the things needed to make a lute, and return to Asagi's beloved Lord Mibu in time to help her put on one last concert for her friend?

This second book, much like the first, really touched my heart. We see more of the Yokai world, and how Yokai form attachments just like humans. But being unaging, if they form attachments with humans, it often leads to grief on both sides since humans age and die, unlike Yokai, and also unlike Yokai, are often weaker and more fragile, leading the Yokai to inadvertently damage their human friends without meaning to.

Also, since humans die, it means that the Yokai is driven to grief or rage when the human they counted as their friend is no longer there for them. But even while friendship between the two is a bad idea in most cases, it can also be beautiful and change both human and Yokai lives for the better. It's this beauty that Natsume's Book of Friends explores. While Natsume's grandmother, Reiko, had it wrong, Natsume can still make bad decisions, but for the most part he does the friendship aspect right.

And it's this reason that makes me want to read more of these stories and keep seeing more. Nyanko may view Natsume as an annoyance, but I think his friendship with Natsume will change him for the better, and Natsume as well. It's this peculiar relationship that makes the glue in this story, but it's a compelling one, along with all the other stories of Yokai. Highly recommended.

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 1 by Yuki Midorikawa

Takashi Natume is a strange boy with very few friends because of a shameful secret: he can see Yokai. Because of this, and the way he acts and reacts around them, other children think he is weird, and he's been shuttled around from relative to relative in his family, because his parents died shortly after he was born.

But he's finally in a better position, being taken in by relatives who, though they may not completely understand him, do love him and feel happy to have him there. But as he is chased by a Yokai one day, he takes refuge in a shrine in the woods, and releases another Yokai, this one imprisoned in a ceramic Maneki Nekp cat statue. The spirit has been in the statue for so long that it spends most of its time in that form. In exchange for rescuing Natsume from the Yokai, and helping him, Natsume agrees to give the spirit, who he calls Nyanko Sensei, a book called the Book of Friends when he dies.

You see, Natsume's grandmother, Reiko, also was able to see Yokai. But since other people around her treated her so badly, she turned to the Yokai. Not to befriend them, but to test her spiritual power against them in battle. When she won, she forced them to scribe their sigil onto a piece of paper, which would make them come when she called on them. Nyanko wants this book for power for himself, but Natsume would rather free the Yokai from the book, despite his experiences with the book. In addition to helping him, Nyanko will be Takashi's bodyguard from angry Yokai.

And right away, Takashi discovers he can return a Yokai's name to them by taking the page from the book, wetting it with his saliva and breathing on the spirit's name. But doing so tires him out, as it takes spiritual energy to do so.

When a Yokai approaches him for the return of its name, the page its name is drawn on is stuck to another. He can't rip the pages apart- that would harm the yokai whose names are on the pages. All he can do is search for the Yokai on the second page. But as he does, he comes to know one who embodies the spirit of a shrine. Once many people came there to worship- now only one woman remains. But the Yokai has grown small from a lack of worshippers, and the woman is old. What will happen when she ceases to worship the Yokai of the shrine? And can Natsume find the second Yokai to free its name?

Next, two Yokai come to Natsume, not to get their names back, but to ask him to get rid of a Yokai exterminator that has been bothering them. While Natsumi is excited to run into someone who can see Yokai like he can and who might understand him, Natsume has begun to sympathize with the Yokai,but will this new person feel the same? And can Natsume find the real Yokai exorcist? And will he bond with a new kid who can feel and sometimes see strange things?

Next, Natsume goes to see a submerged village, visible because the summer is hot and the water has dropped. The Yokai there come to get their names back, but also reveal that Natsume is being haunted by yet another Yokai. But the Yokai only hitched a ride because there was a human it once knew that it wanted to see again. Can Natsumi find the person the Yokai wants, or has it simply been too long?

I love this series. I didn't expect much out of it at the beginning, but some of the stories honestly made me cry. Like the one about the Yokai who became the shrine God. The ending of it was so bittersweet and lovely that I just teared up. Yokai in Japan are very much like monsters, but not all of them are necessarily bad. Like European Faeries or Fae, most of them can be very, very bad for humans, but some of them are helpful, like brownies.

As soon as Natsume is befriended by Nyanko-sensei, he begins discovering that Yokai don't exist merely to make people's lives hard- they have their own lives and their own concerns, and only because humans live just about everywhere in Japan do their lives cross with those of Yokai. But while humans have moved on in technology and culture, that of the Yokai is pretty much stagnant. So looking at their culture is like looking back in time.

I really enjoyed this first volume in the series, and I want to read more. I feel that this series has a lot of the same things that attracted me to Fruits Basket- a kind, gentle look at the world, a damaged main character, and yet he is someone who doesn't resent the things that have made their life hard. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Deeper Than Midnight by Lara Adrian

Hunter is a Gen-One Breed, a vampire bred from humans by an alien race known as the Ancients. The Breed are policed and protected by two forces, the Breed Enforcement Agency, and the Order. The Agency, however, has birthed Dragos, a man determined to rule over both Breed and human society by mating female humans and Breed with the last remaining ancient.

For too long, his actions and plans went unnoticed, but now the Order have uncovered his plans, and even rescued women from the labs where they were tortured and experimented on, forced to carry the children of the Ancient. Corinne Bishop was one of those women, abducted from her home and enslaved by Dragos. But her friends who promised to take her home are now stuck in Alaska, trapped by a blizzard, so Hunter agrees to escort her back to her Breedhaven.

Hunter feels that he knows Corinne from somewhere, but cannot recall where, and then, he suddenly remembers looking into the young seer, Mira's, eyes, and seeing a woman pleading for the life of someone she loved, begging Hunter not to kill him. And Corinne was that woman. He also finds himself struck by and attracted to her, something he doesn't quite understand, since he was raised to feel nothing and have no ties, except to Dragos. But he can't deny the pull he feels towards her.

Corinne wants nothing more than to go home, to the family she was stolen from. But there are lingering problems from her imprisonment. She continually fought her captors for almost the entire 70 years she was imprisoned, until she gave birth to a son that was stolen from her almost thirteen years ago. Now, even though she has been rescued, she wants her son back. She will do *anything* to rescue him.

But on her return home to Detroit, she finds out that the man who adopted her, who she thought of as her father, was the one who was complicit in her not being rescued. He was being blackmailed by Dragos, in his role as Starkn, head of the Agency. Discovery of his role in Corinne's abduction drove his son into Bloodlust, from which he only escaped by comitting suicide. This revelation destroys any peace Corinne might have been able to find in her old home, and her mother, who still loves her deeply, and Corinne ends up leaving with Hunter, travelling with him to New Orleans, where the Order has discovered a new link to Dragos.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, Sterling Chase, known to the other Order Warriors as "Harvard" is becoming increasingly aggressive and angry. As an Op spirals out of control into a fight, he finds himself giving into his bloodlust and causing no end of problems for his former friends and brothers. But when his uncontrolled investigation ends up with him outing another of Dragos' plans, he has to figure out what plans Dragos is hatching to destroy the Order once and for all, and if he possibly can- put a stop to it.

Hunter and Corinne's path takes them to the Big Easy, and to another of Dragos's pawns, Henry Vachon. Vachon has kept a lot of the data that flowed out of Dragos's labs, and unbeknownst to Hunter or Corinne, Vachon was one of the people responsible for Corinne's abduction and rape those many years ago. Hunter discovers this when he finally finds out his talent.

He quickly kills Vachon when Vachon starts bragging about Corinne being a fine piece of tail that anyone would want, implying all sorts of nasty things about them both. But when Hunter recovers the data from Dragos' labs, he quickly discovers that there is more information than just about Corinne and her son in there- there is information about himself as well. But what will he learn about his upbringing, and can Hunter and Corinne find her son and free him from Dragos' control, and the UV collar that is sure to kill him if Nathan ever tries to escape?

I was of two minds when reading this book. For one thing, Lara Adrian always writes well and movingly, and her treatment of Corinne Bishop was more than up to her usual high standards. But on the other hand, Hunter is sort of.... well, a rather non-entity. He'd been introduced several books back, but as the consummate killer, he rarely shows anything like a personality- certainly not as much of one as the other Breed Warriors of the Order from her past books.

But the story of Corinne and Hunter isn't the only one to make up this volume, and the seeming nonentityness of Hunter's personality also doesn't come on stage for much or very long. Instead, more time is given to Sterling Chase, setting him up as the possible protagonist of the next book, and of a problem- that the Order must move their HQ, as they have been infiltrated by a Trojan Horse from Dragos.

I felt that towards the end of the book that Hunter was starting to develop a strong and interesting personality, but by the time the "Happily Ever After" was made, it hadn't quite gelled yet and I would have liked to have seen more. Perhaps he'll be developed more in a future book, but the romance story here ended just when it was getting good. It felt a bit abrupt and rushed, and that was a shame.

I still enjoyed reading this book, but it wasn't one of her best. I felt Hunter needed to develop a stronger personality sooner to make the book a success on the romance front. The rest of the book was excellent and tightly plotted. Worth a read and somewhat recommended.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Exiled: Clan of the Claw by S.M. Stirling, Harry Turtledove, Jody Lynn Nye, John Ringo, Michael Z. Williamson

The world of this book is one where the asteroid that struck the earth and caused the death of the Dinosaurs never happened.. Dinosaurs developed human-level intelligence and created massive lands ruled over by Saurian lords who could control the others with the power of their minds. They call themselves the Lishkash, and their primary lands are in the South, where it is mostly hot and dry. But they aren't alone on this world. Mammals also survived on this world, becoming cat-like creatures who call themselves the Mrem, and they and the Lishkash fight on a regular basis.

But catastrophe has come to the Mrem, and their own southern lands are being overrun by waters, forcing them to travel to reach the northern lands where their people dominate. But their journey will take them through the Lishkash lands, and the Lishkash love the Mrem... they think they make the best slaves. Can the Mrem survive the Lishkash lords who will attempt to enslave them on their journey and keep themselves strong until they reach their northern kin?

"The Mrem Go West" by Harry Turtledove tells the story of Rantan Taggah, Clawleader of the Clan of the Claw. It is under his aegis that the clans, seeing that they will be overrun by the Lishkash as the waters continue to rise, decide to gather up their beasts, possessions and warriors, and begin their trek across the Lishkash lands to those of the Northern Mrem. To do this, the warriors will have to work with the Priestesses of the Goddess Assirrah and the God Aedoniss to ensure that the armies of the Lishkash don't find them easy marks. But there are warriors who have never been in battle and only talk a good game. Can Rantan Taggah keeo his warriors safe when there is dissent and even treasonous cowardice in the ranks that can end up defeating his force before it has even begun to fight?

"A Little Power" by S. M. Stirling is about a Mrem who has been enslaved by the Lishkash, Ranowr. When the Lishkash ruler Ashala (who calls herself a goddess) decides to use her slave Mrem as warriors against their own people, she assigns her daughter Hisshah as their leader, tasked with turning them into a viable fighting force. But as Ranowr works to help his slave brothers become an effective fighting force, can he play Hisshah off against her mother and the other Lishkash who are expecting her to fail- even to the point of placing her on her mother's throne? And can he do it without selling out either his fellow slaves or the free Mrem who he hopes will accept his people into their ranks? And furthermore, what will be the cost to him and his fellow Mrem should he somehow succeed?

"Battle's Ride" by Michael Z. Williamson tells the story of Nrao Aveldt, a farseeing Mrem who carved out his hold from the lands of the Lishkash. But the encroachment of the waters means he soon must move, because displaced Lishkash will reinforce the ones he already must protect his land from. So he assigns his Talonmaster, Hress Rascil, to work with the Priestess Cmeo Mrist to strengthen the battle chant that allows the Priestesses to Dance and make the Magic that can protect the warriors from the Lishkash assault on their minds that can enslave them. But will the warriors be able to work with the priestesses on an arrangement that is fair to all and keep everyone protected? And can the two of them find a way to ensure that the warriors keep the Priestesses from harm and don't run off to join the slaughter of Lishkash, leaving the Priestesses unprotected? Can they defeat the forces of Oglut with magic or nature?

"Cata" by John Ringo and jody Lynn Nye tells of the Rangil Clan, who had to trade with a Lishkash city for food to continue their Trek to the great Water. But the Price of the food is for the ruler of the city to see the Dance to the Mrem Goddess. So, some Priestesses and Warriors must travel there to do it, and a group of Warriors must be sent along to protect them. But is the price merely a trap intended to kill or enslave the Mrem in it, or are they hostages for the rest of the tribe? When the rulers decide to kill the warriors and priestesses in the city, can the warrior and Priestess in charge of the detatched group escape the city and rejoin their tribe without falling victim to the Lishkash who want to kill them? And will they succeed in allowing the rest of the tribe to get far enough away to escape any Lishkash sent after them?

I liked the Premise of the book, which is a mix of science fiction (asteroid which wiped out dinosaurs never fell and Dinosaurs and mammals both achieve sentience) and a sort of fantasy, as the world is in a fairly medieval state and has a kind of magic with mind-powers, goddesses and protection from Mind-Powers. It's an intiguing mix. The Mrem, while forced to being warriors because of the Lishkash hostility, don't inspire parallels with the Kzinti. However, the Lishkash are portrayed with the sort of cold-bloodedness that Dinosaurs are supposed to possess, but at the same time, Dinosaurs weren't really all cold-blooded, and the Lishkash shown on the cover looks an awful lot like a Dragon, while the Mrem looks like a cat-eared Neanderthal (with a Longbow, I must admit).

But the stories inside are pretty much all stories of war, and owe a lot to science fiction war stories written by authors like David Weber and Simon Green. Most of the characters in the stories are warriors and Talonmasters, like Generals or High-ranking army guys, while the Priestesses are more like civilians or support personnel. Most of the stories end up with the warrior and priestess falling in love, or at least showing some sort of attraction, which made some of the stories more attractive to me. And even though each of the stories are written by separate authors, the stories as a whole hang well together, and some of the details from one story are known to the clan in another, making them seem like they are happening in the same world and to the same people.

Some worldbuilding goes on, but it's limited to about two pages at the beginning of the book, and you don't need to read all of the stories to know what is going on- you can read the two page setup/intro and one story and understand everything that is going on, which is really nice. The interstory links are just icing on the cake, really. And as this js just the first volume of the story, it;s a good thing that I want to see more. It would be nice to see some Lishkash that didn't decide to kill or enslave the Mrem merely because they are different. Can we have some non-villainous dinosaurians? That being said, my favorite story was "A Little Power" because of the interaction of the characters on each side.

It's a great volume that manages to make a coherent work from four different stories and a background. I liked the book and the characters. Each story was different, yet managed to evoke the feeling that each was happening on the same world. A wonderful story and each one is well-written and compelling to read. I am looking forward to more books in this series. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Retribution by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Not all Dark-Hunters are from Greek and Roman times, or even the Dark Ages. Take William Jessup Brady, a gunslinger from the Wild West. Just when he was about to marry the woman he loved more than anything, he was gunned down by a man who was supposedly his friend, a man who also wanted the woman Jessup loved. Taken by Artemis to become a Dark-Hunter, Jess has never forgotten that moment, and took his revenge on the man who killed him before becoming a devoted protector to the humans he once scorned and killed.

Meanwhile, Abigail Yeager is the only survivor of a massacre that destroyed her entire family while she remained hidden. Taken in by a family of vampires, she's been raised with the belief that it was Dark-Hunters who destroyed her family, and that they are the evil ones who go after and kill, not only blameless vampires, but humans as well.To that end, they have trained her to go after and kill the Dark Hunters to keep humans and vampires safe, and Abigail is eager to both take revenge for the death of her family and protect the new family who took her in and kept her safe.

But when Jess is sent in to find out who is killing off Dark-Hunters, he's more than surprised to find out that it isn't a Daimon or some other funky race that wants to off Dark-Hunters, but a human. While Dark-Hunters have power over Weres, Apollites and the like, they are meant to protect ordinary humans, and won't kill them. But what can Jess do when he finds out that the beautiful Abigail is behind the killings? Can he persuade her that the Dark-Hunters had nothing to do with the death of her family? And what will happen if the foundation of everything Abigail believes crumbles away under her feet? Can she survive the shock of having been willfully lied to for so long?

But the death of Dark-Hunters isn't the only thing on the minds of Abigail's "family", and there is a greater purpose at play in who they are planning to kill off among the Dark-Hunters. Because the Native American God Coyote wants to get more power and have his revenge on a certain couple who were once human and rejected him- long ago powers that Abigail and Jess are heir to. If he can have them kill each other, or worse, be at each other's throats, he can easily defeat them separately. But if they should manage to get back together, and worse, come to love each other, it could seriously ruin Coyote's day.

But can Jess make Abigail see he is telling the truth, and what is going on with the strange signs of the coming apocalypse? Or will the very strangeness of what is happening all around them convince her on its own? And, more importantly, can he and the other Dark-Hunters tied to the coming apocalypse avert it and save the world from the machinations of Coyote?

Well, I've ranted about how Sherrilyn Kenyon's heros all seem to have a "worst childhood EVER" competition going on, so I won't reiterate that here, but while Jess, while he had a pretty bad one by most human standards, it wasn't as bad as some of Sherrilyn's heroes, so this was actually pretty nice to read. I'd honestly say that Abigail's was worse, because having your entire family slaughtered, raised by the people who killed them (although she didn't know it at the time), and lied to about it while being raised to kill the ones you thought was responsible? Well, that's pretty damn bad. Especially when you suddenly realize you've been lied to all these years, and the people you thought cared for you were only taking care of you and pretending to care to make you into the perfect weapon.

And in this book, we also get to see that it's not just the Gods of the Ancient world that are real- Native American gods are real, too, if somewhat less "hands-on" with their worshippers than the Greek and Atlantean Gods. But Abigail kills someone important, so she is not only being used by the vampires, but by Coyote as well.

To be honest, this book is a departure from Sherrilyn Kenyon's usual crew of Dark Hunters that hang out in New Orleans. Most of the usual suspects are missing, and cameos are sparse. A "Bonus scene" at the end of the book with Ash, Soteria, Nick and Artemis is a blatant attempt to shoehorn those characters into a novel that is completely not about them, except in the most peripheral ways. And I didn't see why Dark-Hunters had to even come into it. It felt like a new series that could just have been about the new characters and mythology without being crammed into the Dark Hunters series. It's like the League Novels, and could have been a fine stand-alone series, but trying to put it into the Dark Hunters feels more than a little out of place.

This book was an attempt at something new for Sherrilyn Kenyon, working up a new mythology and characters into her usual Dark-Hunters series. It felt a bit out of place for the Dark Hunters, and I wish she'd had the courage to turn it into a separate series rather than shoehorning it into an existing one. The attempt feels less successful and the Bonus scene is not going to be enough to satisfy fans of the New Orleans crew. It will work better if you pretend this is an entirely new series and approach it that way. It worked for me, but other readers will feel differently. Recommended, but not highly, and with big caveats to her regular Dark-Hunter fans.