Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Within the Flames by Marjorie M. Liu

Eddie is a former street guy, who have up a normal life because of a mistake he'd made when he was a kid, when he accidentally killed a man with his power to manifest and control fire, and ran away from his family for fear that they would be blamed for his crime, or that he would lose control and end up killing them as well. He lived on the streets until he was found and taken in by Dirk and Steele, the detective agency, that helped him control his talent and make a better way to live. But a recent near-death experience has once more stripped him of his control and left him with the power, forcing him to stay inside a glass box when he feels his own power cutting loose, as not to hurt anyone else.

But when he's sent to New York to help Lyssa, the last of her family, part dragon and equally damaged by life and her past, Eddie is struck by the fact that she is just as damaged as he is. For Lyssa, who makes her living illustrating children's books and living in the tunnels that honeycomb New York with the rest of the homeless and abandoned, is deathly afraid. For she is being hunted by the Cruor Venator, a group of witches that could make the evil witches of fairytales look warm and grandmotherly. They want Lyssa for the power in her blood and the strength that stripping her of her powers and adding them to their own could give them.

But despite her position among the down and out, Lyssa is also trying to protect those who share her home with her. Disfigured by the scales that she can no longer hide, Lyssa seeks almost to negate what she is, and keep those she loves and cherishes safe, while remaining untouched by them so that if she loses them, she will not be hurt when they are no longer there, not realizing it's already too late for that, and now that the Cruator Venator are tracking her down in earnest, they won't just go after her, but they'll target those she loves and is trying to protect in order to get to her and draw her out.

Eddie, too, is still trying to protect the ones he loves and his friends,but his presence in the city is causing friction between his friend Lannes, and his wife, a witch, who hasn't yet confessed to her very close family that not only is she in a relationship, but that she is married and expecting his child. And now he, too, has someone he wants to love and protect, But can he overcome his past baggage to do so?

Meanwhile, Lyssa is finding herself reliving the day her parents died, and remembering more and more pertinent details, all of which impacts the decision of the Cruor Venator to come after her. But when she takes out two of the minor members of the group, will it make her less inclined to face the single woman who embodies the Cruor Venator, or will their ability to strike total, petrifying fear into the hearts of others only make those of the strongest member seem worse? Because to truly overcome the evil witches, she will have to face every fear in her heart, and give in to love and hope...

I like the Dirk and Steele novels, and it seems I must have missed one because I don't remember reading the book in which Eddie got injured. But he's been in other novels, so it was nice to see him again. But now he's changed- stripped of his usual control, his life is spinning off the rails and he knows it. But the incident that made him run from his family was also the one which set him on the path of being a protector. And faced with the reality of a beautiful woman, and the vulnerable girl she once was, to protect, this chance means everything to him.

And Lyssa has her own demons to face and her own fears to confront. She has been running all her life, and without Eddie, she would just keep on running. Well, Eddie and a small boy with a mother who was an abused woman make her protect them and try to save them from life on the streets, as much as she can. Her reaching out is the first sign that she might be growing beyond her fear and might finally be able to face up to those who killed her mother and father, and at the same time, the lessons she still has to learn from their deaths are coming hard and fast. One of her fears is of her other side, and the damage she believes it can do. But perhaps what she remembers isn't all truth, and she must trust in herself and her mother's love to find a new and different way to be.

This romance novel involved supernatural beings, but it was not just about that. It was about choosing what we are, and how powers that seem hard and difficult and evil can be turned to be used for good and healing. It was quite wonderful to read, and the characters were wonderful to read about and share their thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, as I found this book simply wonderful. A gem.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The DC Comics Ultimate Character Guide by Brandon T. Snider

Back when I was growing up, one of my favorite comics being published was a multiple issue comic that covered all the characters in the D.C. Universe, known as "Who's Who in the D.C. Universe". I still remember the first issue I picked up, somewhere on the far side of the middle, and the character of Nekron, one of the first entries in the comic that I purchased.

So, when I picked up this book, I expected to return to those happy memories. But the "Ultimate Character Guide" is rather... sparse. far from that huge "Who's Who", this book only covers the really important main superheroes and villains, and everything else (and everyone else) is left by the wayside. This, I felt, was far from "Ultimate", and actually seemed rather sparse and anemic after reading the much larger character guide when I was younger. Yes, there might be a hundred or so entries in this book, but it can't come near to the number of interesting, if marginal, characters from the earlier work.

When I hear that a character guide is "Ultimate", I expect it to be the largest, best and most complete, and this particular guide is none of those things. Many characters are left out (like many of the named Green Lanterns, with the exception of Guy Gardiner and Kilowogg and Jon Stewart. And each character is given a short blurb about their abilities and history. While the same short blurb covered their statistics and abilities in the Who's Who series, there was definitely more description of their history and clashes with heroes or villains in the earlier comic series, and far less in this one.

Another thing I had a problem with is the images of the characters, too many seemed rather anime-ized, especially Lightning Lad of the Legion of Superheroes, and while I understand that showing characters as they are currently drawn is important, I also would have liked to see more classic images of the heroes and villains, as I found the anime-ized illustrations stomach-turning.

It's an okay book as far as the DC universe goes, but I would by no means label it ultimate (where is the original Liberty Belle's entry?) in any way, shape or form. I would have liked to see more character history and more than a page per character for the really important characters in the DC Universe. Not recommended, look to earlier works for a more complete comic book history and more on the heroes and villains of the DC Universe.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Changes: Book Three of the Collegium Chronicles by Mercedes Lackey

Mags was a former slave, worked in a gem mine in the backcountry of Valdemar along with other children, who could get into the tightest places to retrieve the gems that the owners of the mine demanded. Slavery, though, is not allowed in Valdemar, and when Mags and his fellow workers were found, it meant bad times for the owners of the mine, and Mags and his fellow workers were freed. Also, Mags was Chosen by one of the fabled Companions of Valdemar, the white spirit-horses that are so beloved by the people, and hated by the enemies of the small country.

Because of his background, and how much he had to learn before he could join the other Trainees, being unable to read or write, and his scrawny body from the lack of food given to those at the mine, Mags never fit in with the other trainees. But he didn't lack friends- Mags found friends in Bear, a trainee at the Healer's Collegium without a healing gift, but whose ways with herbs and other ways of healing not magical was near-legendary, Lena, the extremely gifted daughter of a famous Bard, whose own father ignored her and her gift because of his own need to be the best and the brightest, and Amily, the daughter of the King's Own Herald, whose crippling impairment makes most activities too strenuous or damaging for her. None of them seemed to judge him, and all had their own problems, which meant that they could just be friends, and lean on each other for support, knowing that the others would understand how they felt.

But Amily's friendship brought Mags to the attention of the King's Own. And this King's Own, Nikolos, was carefully chosen by his companion, Rolan, to be something of a spy. Nikolos is particularly forgettable when not in Herald Garb, and the small Mags, who is equally forgettable, had the kind of abilities that Nikolos is looking for to be of special service to the King. So while Mags undergoes standard Herald training, and plays on the Kirball team, he is also tagged with being part of the "Special Service", essentially, with being a Herald Spy, and training for that, too. In effect, Nikolos is setting himself up as a fence in the lower city, with Mags playing his deaf-mute servant, and using his knowledge of gems and gemstones that he learned in the mines, to aid Nikolos in his work.

But Mags, in addition to helping his friends Bear and Lena with their family problems, and planning for Amily to receive the surgery she needs to fix her leg from Bear and the Healers, runs into a group of ruthless men in the lower city, using a bunch of homeless orphans as unpaid servants and forcing them to steal and spy for them. When Mags finds out, he knows he has to do a horrible act himself- because of the way the orphans have been mistreated, they will never accept kindness or handouts, seeing charity as something completely unknown. Instead, he must force himself to act the bully and take over their small group- to treat them, in seeming at least, the way that others have while actually allowing them to eat better and get better food and clothes than they have ever been used to before, and also in better quality. He must also make them do the same job- spying, that they have been doing for others, and somehow prepare them to find better homes off the streets and be accepted, and all without letting any hint show how hard and sickening such an imposture is for him. For if they sense anything off, they will run as far and fast as possible, and Mags wants to save them, if such a thing can be managed. And the city is suffering from strange irritation, possibly from the heat and possibly from a far distant source. Can Mags track down what is making people so hot under the collar, or will he be drawn into these irritations himself?

But he's also trying to help his friends deal with their family. Lena's father cares nothing for her, and only for himself, and Bear's family has decided that he will never amount to anything without a healing gift, despite the fact that his facility with herbs and healing in the slower, more natural way is worthy of the time and attention of the Healing Collegium- and they agree. But Lena's father is more than simply self-centered, and when her own father's crimes are finally revealed, can she stop looking to him for attention and respect and decide to stand on her own talents? And what of Bear? He knows his skills have worth, and that the Healing Collegium respects him for them, but can he ever stand up to his own family and decide that he is worthy, even if that means they will never respect him? And Amily's crippled leg may hold her back, but why is she so important to the assassins that keep coming into Haven and trying to make trouble? Will Mags lose her love if she gets back her mobility, and can he rescue her when the assassins steal her and take her into the lower city to escape?

And will Mags ever learn who his parents really were, or is it more important that he decide who he wants to be without that knowledge? Can Mags and Nikolas track down who the real culprits behind the assassins and saboteurs are, and what is happening in the situation with Karse? What will become of the three friends after they have become adults? And how will they fare in the Valdemar to come?

In a way, I was happy to see this book, but after I finished reading it, I found myself in many ways disappointed. Most of Mercedes Lackey's series set in Valdemar and its world (like Arrows of the Queen, the Last Herald-Mage, Magewinds and so on) are trilogies, but this book is the least like the ending to a trilogy I have ever read. Too many questions are unanswered at the end to make me feel entirely happy with the ending. And given how Bear and Lena seemed to have made progress before at the end of a book, only to go back to whining about their problems in the next, I distrust that they have finally learned their lesson after this one. Okay, yeah, Lena's father is under house arrest, and so is the bard who got drawn up in the plan of the kidnappers, but not much else really changes- there has either got to be a fourth book or another trilogy coming.

That annoyed me. Another thing that increasingly annoyed me was Mags's accent. Its tried to be explained away by saying that he keeps it so that people who don't know him will underestimate him. Okay, I can understand that. So then, why does he speak that way when he mind-speaks with Dallen, his companion, for heaven's sake, and even with his friends? He can speak normally perfectly well, and he certainly does it at the end of the book when he is searching for Amily, but when he does, his speaking without that horrendous phonetical accent is only described, not written out. And reading his accent, with the missing letters, apostrophes and all, is time-consuming and kept breaking me out of the story because it didn't flow with the rest of the words of the narrative.

Another irritation is Kirball, which showed up way too many times, and for too long. It looked like it was there to pad out the pages of the story, and I would have preferred to see more story and less sporting event. And the constant telling, not showing got irritating to me. Mags is explaining how people feel with his empathy, and I felt talked down to like I was in first grade and not very bright, to boot. Come on, you can let me figure it out... I'm not stupid or dumb, or even autistic. I felt that the overinsistence on telling got me as angry as the people in the Capital when Stone and Ice were around. But I knew why I was angry.

That being said, I still found the situations intriguing, and the ending got my blood pumping, but the irritation at all the telling and having to interpret Mags's ludicrous accent rankled fiercely. So many questions stuck around and new questions were raised that it scarcely felt like the ending of a trilogy. Read it, but you might want to pick this up from the library, or wait until the series has ended before picking it up, because there is a fair bit of irritation to interfere with the pleasure of reading. Not recommended. YMMV.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ran Away by Barbara Hambly

New Orleans in 1837 is rocked by the scandal of two harem girls of the Hussein Pasha being thrown to their deaths from the roof of his house. Benjamin January, a free man of color who, although trained as a doctor, can get no patients because of the color of his skin and therefore supports himself by playing music on the cornet for the rich New Orleans Creoles at their parties, is thrown into the middle of what actually happened to the two women because he knows Hussein Pasha from his earlier sojourn in Paris, where he studied to be a Doctor.

Just as in New Orleans, Ben supported himself in Paris on the strength of his ability to play music, and even had a wife, an Arabian girl who herself had been raised in the Harem named Ayasha. Because of her knowing Arabic, when another of Hussein Pasha's concubines was poisoned with Quinine, his wife turned to Ayasha to find someone who would know how to save her. Ben was brought in to treat the girl and save her life, as well as that of her unborn child, which was supposed to be male, and thus would be Hussein Pasha's first and only son. The concubine's ability to get pregnant with a boy child engendered jealousy and hatred in the other concubines, and they wished to eliminate her.

Thankfully, Ben was able to save her life, but he is sure she will lose her baby- only she doesn't, and shortly afterwards, she runs away from the house and Hussein Pasha, for unknown reasons. Is she in fear of her life, or that of her unborn son, should she continue to stay among the other women of the harem? Ben only knows that he must find her before Hussein Pasha returns to the city from England if he doesn't want there to be more violence in the Harem.

But when kidnappers abduct his wife by mistake, apparently thinking her to be the missing concubine, he must ally with Hussein Pasha to save Ayasha and get Hussein back his son, if not his Jewish concubine. But can Ben do that, even with the help of Hussein Pasha, if his slave girl has returned to a distant branch of her family in Paris?

In the present, Ben knows from experience that simply killing the two women by defenestrating them is something that Hussein Pasha simply wouldn't do. He says as much to his mother, who tells him that everyone knows that women's lives mean nothing to Mohammedan men, and that "everyone knows this". Ben protests that, but it seems that nobody will listen to him except for his wife, Rose. Everyone is acting as if Hussein Pasha is guilty, but the man who says he saw the Arab kill the women was having carnal relations with one of them, and is in no way a credible witness- but he'll be believed simply because he's white.

With sentiment in the city souring towards Hussein Pasha, who is in jail, his wife and his household are in danger from those who would lash out at a man they consider a murderer. But as January works to find out the truth, there are those who would see him arrested and executed for supporting a man who everyone else thinks is guilty. Can Ben discover who really killed the women, and who stole Hussein Pasha's gold? And for that matter, can he save a man who may be ugly on the outside, but who is honorable and good on the inside, even if everyone else assumes his guilt as a matter of course?

I always enjoy reading the Benjamin January books, and this one was no exception. At first, I thought that the story of how Ben met Hussein Pasha,and how the man saved Ben's wife, Ayasha, was going to encompass the whole book. But that wasn't the case, and I was pleasantly surprised by how the first part of the book was a mystery all on its own. It's almost half the book, but at the same time, didn't feel rushed or cut short, and I loved the interaction of Ben and Ayasha.

The second part of the book, rooted in New Orleans is also amazing, and I have to say that the last page of the ending almost made me cry. The understanding that Ben and Rose have, and the new understanding they reach at the end, with their refusal to lie to each other about their dreams, really touched my heart. It felt very heartwarming and not at all fictional. People are people and sometimes, love and real life hurts in a way that fiction doesn't, and it was the most real part of the book to me.

I enjoyed this book very much. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have seemed a bit schizophrenic, with two separate stories joined into one. But the view of the marriage of Ben and Ayasha really made the ending, and the first story showed us the honor and nobility of Hussein Pasha in a way that a recounted story could not, and showed us why Ben knew that Hussein Pasha could never have killed his concubines the way he was claimed to. An excellent story that touched me and entertained me at the same time. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Christmas Homecoming by Anne Perry

Caroline Fielding is the mother of Charlotte, who is the wife of the policeman Thomas Pitt. Now married to her second husband, the actor Joshua Fielding, she and he are headed to Whitby, a Yorkshire Fishing village, to read and put on a play of Dracula written by the daughter of a rich man. Ordinarily, the troupe would never do such a thing, but the money that her father is paying them will be used to support other theatrical presentations that the troupe would like to give, so they do their best to make the best of it, and to iron out any problems the play might have before putting it on just after Christmas Day.

Traveling along with the Fieldings are the other actors: Vincent Singer, the man who is to play Van Helsing, Lydia Rye, who will be playing Lucy Westenra, Mercy Carstairs, the lead, who will be playing Mina Murray/Harker and James Hobbs, the other actor, who will be playing Jonathan Harker. Joshua himself will be playing Dracula, and Caroline will be both the book holder, and the person who is in charge of the lighting for the play.

At the house, they meet Alice Netheridge, the woman responsible for writing the attenuated play based on the book, and her father and mother, Charles and Eliza Netheridge, and Alice's fiancee, Douglas Patterson. While her parents are paying the actors to put on the play for Alice to be happy, her fiancee seems to think that she should forget all about any pretensions she has to writing or creativity and settle down to be a simple happy homemaker like her mother- who isn't actually all that happy, as her home was decorated by her husband's mother in a rather overwhelming style she is unhappy with, and she longs to change it, but her husband won't hear of it.

At their arrival at the Netheridge home, a bad snowstorm starts, one which everyone hopes will pass by the time they have to actually stage and give the play. But as they talk over the play, and Alice makes changes to what she has written to make the play better, a new arrival comes to the house. Anton Ballin, a businessman whose carriage was a victim of the storm, arrives to beg shelter until the storm abates. And while his arrival is unfortunate for him, he invigorates the play with his understanding of stagecraft that allows the play to descend into true horror and wrings the best performances from all the actors, and his discussions with Alice, Caroline and the others on the nature of evil allow her to craft an even better play.

Still, one night when Caroline descends to the room where they are to give the play in order to retrieve an article left behind, she trips over Ballin's dead body. But who has killed him? After alerting the Netheridges and the other actors, the family decides to leave the body in place over night and to look for clues in the morning, under better light.

But during the night, the body vanishes, and cannot be found in the house, despite frantic searching. Caroline, against her better opinion, knows that she must look into the death to save the theatre company from being blamed for Ballin's death. For only they are outsiders, and they are also the perfect scapegoats to blame when the storm subsides enough for the magistrate to come calling. But can she discover the true murderer and why Ballin was murdered in the first place? And will the theatre company leave the house intact, or will it split over the subject of the play?

Anne Perry is very good at mysteries and this book is no exception. In her Christmas mysteries, she takes a minor character from one of her other mystery series, one who isn't usually a crime solver, and puts them into a situation where a death occurs on or near Christmas and has them do the heavy lifting work of investigating the crime, usually because they are the only one who can or are the only one who cares to get to the true bottom of the mystery.

And this one is very good. Not quite a locked room mystery, but more of a locked house mystery, with a limited number of suspects and a missing body. There are two good suspects right away- one an actor, the other a member of the family, and both have unpleasant personalities, so she can't be accused of using "Unpleasant character is evil and therefore the murderer by default" excuse. But we get to see that one of them is not too bad, so, in a way, the unpleasant character does point the way to who really dunnit.

Yes, it's a bit formulaic, but it's also never dull, and despite the small number of pages, the characters seem fully realized, even if we don't get to see them onstage very often. The mystery and the denouement are wholly satisfying, even if the bit of information we need to identify the how and why of the murder isn't revealed until almost the last moment. Still, the excellent writing will make you forget the cliché nature of the story right until the very end, and it's still a satisfying mystery. Recommended.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Secrets of the F.B.I. by Ronald Kessler

The FBI, or the Federal Bureau of Investigations is in charge of keeping the Unites States secure from both terrorists at home and abroad. With a wide array of powers granted by the government of the United States, and limited by the power of the judicial system, it often seems monolithic to outsiders, as well as extremely mysterious and often secretive. But where did it come from and how does it work today? And what is the truth about several allegations made in the past, like the truth about J. Edgar Hoover's sexual and cross-dressing proclivities?

The Secrets of the FBI (such as they are) are all exposed in this book, from how the FBI believes information can be obtained from anyone, without torture, to how they work and the stratagems they use to catch crooks, and to why they didn't go after the Mafia in the US for so long. Other chapters talk about Waco, Ruby Ridge and how Robert Hansen, a former FBI Agent whose capture inspired the movie "Breach" was caught. But the movie, based very loosely on the case, is completely fictional when it came to how Hansen was actually caught. and this book tells the true story.

The book also tells the true story of the Break-in at the Watergate hotel, Deep Throat and his activities, and how the FBI began profiling serial killers, and the truth regarding one of the things that ended up bringing down Deputy Director Bill Sessions down- his wife, Alice. There is the truth behind the death of Vince Foster (that he committed suicide, unable to handle the stress of his position- he confessed as much to his sister, who gave him the names of three psychiatrists he could see), and how Louis Freeh, the next director after Bill Sessions, may have been a somewhat better choice, but at the same time, he had his own idiosyncrasies that hurt his own ability to do the job right.

In part, his contempt for technology and preference for doing "brickwork", or getting out and hitting the streets rather than investigation through computers, hamstrung the FBI when it came to things like investigating information on Bin Laden and other technologically savvy terrorists and individuals, leading almost directly to 9/11. It was only after Freeh left that this problem could be addressed.

The book closes out with more cases in which their TacOps team has broken into homes and businesses to plant cameras and microphones, and catching various crimes on tape, including Mafia takeouts and one in which Zein Isa killed his own daughter because she had a job outside the house and was therefore a danger to Isa and his cell. He even called 911 after the crime and claimed that he killed his daughter in self-defense, but the truth was that his wife held her down as he stabbed her in the chest multiple times, telling her to die quickly.

I found this book fascinating, with so much information about the FBI past and present, and the details of the cases were actually fascinating and horrifying at the same time. But still, I know that not everyone who reads this book is going to believe it, especially if they are heavy believers in certain conspiracy theories, like that of the Clintons having Vince Foster murdered, or that the FBI and other Federal agencies were behind a conspiracy to make believe 9/11 was done by bombs to make the US go to war in the Middle East.

People not as wedded to conspiracy theories and who don't necessarily believe that the government was behind 9/11 will find the accounts from the FBI personnel on the ground to be a mixture of competence and incompetence- exactly the way that humans always are, and that makes these accounts believable, especially to me. Most conspiracy theories require that those pulling them off are more perfect than any human could make them- all the time. In fact, most conspiracies fail for exactly that reason- humans aren't perfect. They fail, someone screws up, someone speaks out, and they get caught.

But for most people. this book will be one of the best and most interesting books you will read this year. The information and the stories are excellent and incredibly fascinating, both in the stories of what the FBI has uncovered and how it works. It opens a window on an agency and lets us see it doing its job, and how it does that job, along with past successes and failures. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler

Joseph Campbell is justly famous. For in his study of mythology, he realized that many of the great myths had the same structure behind them, a structure tied to "coming of age" tales the world over. Each culture, no matter how far distant in time or distance from our modern society, had the same themes and myths in their coming of age and hero tales (Hero tales are about coming of age and seizing power and agency for ones self at their very heart).

But while these tales still resonate within the cultures that use them to help their children grow up, our modern society has eschewed them almost entirely. Instead, we try and build that structure into our movies, so that the tales we tell within them resonates in the audiences that watch them. But in separating us from our own mythic tales, the tales we tell in the movies we see are flawed, and sometimes fatally so, by not including the normal parts of the mythic tales that make the tales themselves interesting. Christopher Vogler, himself a screenwriter, applied the Hero's Journey to the movies he saw and the ones he was writing to help make the tales more interesting and more fulfilling to the audiences that watched them.

This book is the result of that exercise, with a clear explanation of the parts of the mythic journey, how each is important to the tale, and how modern movies both get right, and mess up the hero's journey in their tales. And not just old Hollywood movies, but new ones like the Lion King, Finding Nemo, Dances with Wolves, Pulp Fiction, The Full Monty, Titanic, The Wizard of Oz, and of course, the most famous movie of all to use the Mythic Hero's Journey: Star Wars.

But even insofar as this book goes to explore the Hero's Journey, it's just that, a journey for men, used to get the hero into the outside world. The Journey to becoming a modern, fulfilled and adult woman is very different, and is often more of an internal journey than the external one of the male hero. But that isn't to say that women cannot have a hero's journey. The film Titanic is definitely based on the Hero's Journey, and the one on that journey is Rose, the main female character. Her lover, Jack, becomes a mentor on that journey for her, but he himself doesn't really change as the hero must during the journey. He is merely the catalyst for Rose's own journey of self-discovery and how to lighten up and find happiness.

I found this book invaluable as a writer, because most adventure stories are really all about discovering how to be a hero, even if it is only in small ways, and these are tropes and inspirations writers can use to make their stories of journeys of discovery and adventure better. He lists the different points on the journey and how filmed movies both made use of those moments, and how they got it wrong, and what he suggested for a better movie, but wasn't always listened to.

Moreover, he tells why these moments are important to the structure of both the mythic journey and to the story you are writing. Because if you use the Hero's Journey and get it right, the story will better resonate with your audience, who may not have the same connection to the Hero's Journey in cultural tales, but who will still have encountered them in our own modern society, through both movies and legends of other cultures (tales like those of Hercules, or modern-day re-envisionings like the Thirteenth Warrior). They show where modern tales have done it wrong, and how to make those tales work right to have them resonate in the same way as the mythic Hero's Journey. But it's not a template bolted in steel. it's a guideline rather than something you must follow slavishly.

"The Writer's Journey" is a book that gives you a great deal to think about, and a guideline to follow if you feel that your story is somehow lacking in something to make it interesting, memorable and most importantly, satisfying as a tale. Following the guideline can make your stories better and make it resonate more with readers. While not guaranteeing that this will fix all the problems in your narrative, it is certainly something to think about when you are planning your stories to give them greater impact and accessability. I found it very interesting, and will certainly recommend the book to other writers.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jane's Guide to Dicks (and Toms and Harrys) by Ross and Kathryn Petras

Once upon a time, Jane was a sad girl who knew nothing about Dicks. Or any other boys, either. All she wanted was a boy of her own. But she had to learn a lot of lessons about boys, and about getting along with them, before she could land one of her own.

But Jane learned her lesson, and now she's come to teach you the lessons she had to learn so that you can win a Dick, Tom or Harry of your very own!

The first thing you have to learn is that boys are simple. While girls can be very mentally and emotionally complex, boys think less about emotions than about things. This can be something concrete, like cars, or more abstract, like baseball statistice. They also don't deal with emotions. If you watch a movie about a romance between a jet pilot and a nurse. While you are thinking happily about their relationship and what it means (and how it might be like your own relationship), your boy will be thinking of the nurse's attributes, the fast jet, and the fighting scenes. This will make him equally as happy as you are, but it's not really in the same realm.

Jane will show you how to grab a boy's attention, and then keep it, and make it result in the desired action for you (asking you out on a date as opposed to just staring at you longingly from afar). She also shows you how to manage your expectations and keep the relationship spiced up so that neither of you end up bored and looking elsewhere.

With Jane's super-secret hints and tips, you can not only snag a hot hunk of your very own, but keep him and ensure that both of you are happy. And even if you think there is nobody out there for you, or that you have to kiss a million frogs to find your Prince, be assured that you will find the man of your dreams.

This short, amusing book, purports to be written by a grown-up Jane from the old "Dick and Jane" books, and while the advice is written in an amusing way, it does have some very, very good points to make. Like, not drinking a lot when you are out on a date, and spending less time talking about you than about him, looking in unusual places to meet a man (go somewhere guys hang out, but not a bar where there is too much competition, or at work, where such things are generally looked down on), snd even what men look for in a woman.

While many of the "Hints" are tongue in cheek, and are illustrated with 50's era illustrations, some of them are very spot-on. All of them are very amusing. But it's much better at amusing than at being taken seriously. Still, sometimes you need a laugh when trying to find a good date has got you down.

This is the perfect bite. Not long enough to be boring, and filled with plenty of amusing pictures and advice. It makes you laugh at the whole idea of dating and how to meet a man, and may even help you lose your fear over talking to a man. Recommended for a good laugh and some cute advice.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Tale of Castle Cottage by Susan Wittig Albert

Beatrix Potter, children's author and farm owner, has finally found a new man in her life to love, Will Heelix, the solicitor who helped her with so many criminal cases, has asked to marry her, and she accepted. But the renovation and remodelling of Castle Cottage, the farm she has inhabited for so many years, seems to be at a dead standstill. The man she has contracted to do the work, Mr. Biddle, is taking forever, and he claims the work has been stalled by someone stealing from him.

In fact, he soon fires Mr. Adcock, the carpenter, who seems as honest as the day is long, and which gains Mr. Biddle quite a bit of anger, not only from Mr. and Mrs. Adcock, but from the other workmen as well. Mr. Adcock can only maintain his innocence and stomp off in high dudgeon.

But Beatrix isn't the only one with problems involving theft. Everyone in town is missing something- and the culprits might very well be a group of thieving rats who have moved into town and are stealing everything that isn't secure- and that is an awful lot, from money and food to silver and small items. But when Mr. Adcock turns up dead soon after being fired, it's up to Beatrix to figure out what is going on and find the true culprit who is stealing from Mr. Biddle and who is behind the run on the town's possessions.

For among the missing items is a very, very valuable book that could be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. And Beatrix must find it to save the name of a maid and keep her from being transported for theft, because she is convinced that the maid didn't steal it. But the thefts and the slow work on the new house she intends to share with Will Heelis aren't the only things holding up her marriage,. for there is also her parents.

Beatrix's parents are not especially wealthy, but they are comfortable, and with that sort of money, they are completely opposed to Beatrix marrying anyone who actually works for a living, known as "Being in Trade". When Beatrix fell in love with and became engaged to her former suitor, Norman Warne, she was tremendously happy. But he died after a very short illness, and while Beatrix has fallen once again, her family will oppose her match with Will for the very same reasons that they opposed her match to Norman- and acted so very relieved when he died.

Beatrix doesn't know if she can go through with her father's anger and her mother's anger and fainting to push for another marriage, even if it would make her supremely happy- and she isn't the only one hiding her true feelings. Her brother. Bertram, hasn't told his parents that he has been married for years to a young woman who worked as a maid and in a factory and who now lives with him on his farm in Scotland.

When he comes to visit her, can Bertram help Beatrice face their parents, or will he remain a coward and leave it all to her? Will there be a happy ending for Beatrice and Will, or will the second great love of her life have as unhappy an ending as her first? And can the animals of the town and the Badgers of the Brockery end the plague of rats that have overrun the town?

This was the last book in the Beatrix Potter mystery series, and it's just as full of interesting characters, both human and animal, as the first. And both sides of the town, human and animal, are threatened by thieves and murderers. The humans by thieves both human and animal, and the animals because letting the thieving rats run wild may mean that their humans will no longer support them- after all, cats and terriers are supposed to mean the death of rats.

But both sets of thieves are unusually vicious and it's up to each side to gain allies and deal with the threats correctly. And in each case, to make sure a happy ending comes about with the miscreants dealt with and the status quo restored. If anything made me somewhat annoyed during the novel, it was Beatrice being allowed to not deal with her parents. Even if it was true to what really happened, I felt that she needed to take more of a firm stand to them, and that just felt lacking in the book.

Other than that, though, it was all good. Beatrix and her friends and neighbors have been a part of my reading life for so long that the ending was a little bittersweet for me- but I'll hsve fine memories of the books to look back on. Highly recommended, for both the book and series.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Vampire Academy: The Graphic Novel by Richelle Mead, Leigh Dragoon and Emma Vieceli

Rose Hathaway is a Dhampir, the half-vampire guardian of the Moroi Vampires. Ever since she was young, she has been bound to her friend, the Moroi vampire Lissa Dragomir, the last of her line. The bond they share is greater than any other Moroi and her Dhampir, because Rose can see through Lissa's eyes, and she also can feel what Lissa is feeling. But they are currently on the run from their people, because Lissa's life was at risk, and no one but Rose believed her.

Being on the run has made Rose do things that her sort of Dhampir shouldn't have to do- like feed Lissa on her blood. There are two kinds of Dhampir- Guardians, like Rose aspires to be, and breeders, who make more Dhampir by mating with other Moroi and who share their blood. But since there is no one in the human world that Lissa can properly feed on, Rose willingly shares her blood with her friend.

But soon, Rose and Lissa are found by the Moroi and dragged back to the school they fled two years before: St. Vladimir's Academy. Hoping that the threat they fled from is gone, Lissa and Rose slowly blend back in to the mass of Moroi and Dhampirs at the Academy. It isn't easy, though. Those who once knew them shun them, and while the Dhampirs are rather impressed that Rose has managed to keep Lissa alive all by herself, they aren't going to go easy on Rose- she endangered Lissa's life by removing her from school, and now she is going to have to work extra hard to make up on the training she missed.

But there are compensations for being back at School. Lissa meets a boy named Christian Ozera, who seems to like her and not shun her. And Rose is being tutored by Dmitri Belkov, a hunky Russian Dhampir Guardian who may not be as blind to Rose's feelings as he pretends to be. But when Lissa's life is once again put in danger, can Rose protect her friend by staying around instead of running off with her once more? And what is Rose and Lissa's connection to St. Vladimir and his Dhampir Guardian, Anna?

I have already read this series as a book, but it was interesting to see it turned into a graphic novel. Some incidents have been cut out, and the book as a whole shortened, but the story still carried through fine and clear. It's just that in this one, we get to see what the characters look like, and it's clear when a character stops being Moroi and turns Strigoi.

Although you lose a bit of the closeness of being able to read about the characters feelings without being distracted by the pictures, I think this was a successful adaptation of the original novel, even if it wasn't done by Mead itself. The art was nice, if a bit sparse, but the story itself was dense. Despite being more like a comic book, it still read like a book and took more than a considerable while to get through.

As a graphic novel adaptation lover, I admit it's always better to read the original book than a graphic adaptation because so many things are left out- especially when you consider the size of the book in comparison to the novel. It's well done, and I would definitely recommend it- but I'd recommend the book even more!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Devil's Diadem by Sara Douglass

Meg Langtofte is a good, god-fearing young woman, so when she gets a job as a nursemaid to the wife of the Earl of Pengraic, she is sure to thank God and keep the Earl and his wife in her prayers at night. But she finds herself liking her mistress, Adelie, who is blonde, pious and devout, much more than her Lord, who has always treated her coldly and who has an unnerving and secretive air about him.

But the news of a plague sweeping across Europe and heading for England strikes fear into not only the lowly, but the great and powerful as well. The Earl sends his wife and his family to safety in Wales, but is recalled to London by Lord Edmond, the King. It isn't just the sickness that has people worried, but the ending of it, where its sufferers burst into flame spontaneously. People whisper that it is no ordinary sickness, that it has actually been sent by the Devil.

Meg worries about her mistress, who is pregnant with the Earl's child, and whom the incessant travelling is weakening steadily. But Meg has caught the eye of the Earl's oldest son, Stephen, who lightens her days, even though she knows there is no future for them- he is the son of the Earl and must marry another noble or even royalty, but she finds happiness in his nearness nonetheless.

Arrival at Pengraic Castle is wonderful, but Adelie's weakness continues, and she withdraws into her room, with only Meg's fellow servant, Evelyn, for company. Meg keeps herself busy with other duties, spending time with Stephen when she can, but with no physical demonstrations of love between them.

Then, she discovers a horrible fact: Adelie has the Burning sickness, and she and Evelyn have been hiding it from everyone. Soon, almost everyone in the castle is either sick or dying, Meg and Stephen among them. Those who weren't sick fled, and all the rest of the Earl's children are dead. She and Stephen wait to die, knowing that their castle isn't the only one afflicted.

But when the Earl arrives, Meg is clinging to life by a thin thread, the last living soul in the castle. Somehow, the Earl is able to heal her, and saves her life, though he denies doing so. He tells her that she owes him for letting his family get sick and die, and he intends her to repay every last jot of the debt. Even as she wonders how she can repay a debt of such a vast scope, the Earl proposes marriage to her- she will replace his wife and give him children- many children, to replace those who died in the plague.

And while Meg secretly fears her husband, aside from those remarks, he is kind to her and doesn't abuse her-in bed or out. But then there are more disturbing rumors- that the plague was the Devil's attempt to find something that has been stolen from him, and that he still seeks the thief in the world. And when the sickness returns, Meg will discover that she has come to the Devil's attention. But what is it about her that makes the Prince of Darkness seek her out, and what does she have to do with the rumors of what has been stolen from the Devil? Can Meg find the object that the Devil is seeking, and what will his attention do to her life, that of a devout and God-fearing soul?

This was the first Sara Douglass book that was set in something approaching our world, and I found it much more interesting than the Axis books or the Wayfarer Redemption series, possibly because the story it told was complete in this volume. The story is sad and exciting all at once, and at the same time, mysterious, as we wonder what Meg and the Devil have to do with each other, and how her husband could save her from the plague when everyone else died.

Meg is quite suspicious of her husband, and readers come to share her suspicions, because we often feel he is lying or being less than truthful to her, and his secrets made me feel that neither Meg nor anyone else should trust him. Is he the Devil himself, or was he sent to this world by the Devil to bring back the thing he wants to Hell? Nobody can be sure, although what the Devil is searching for should be obvious from the title of the book.

An interesting, fascinating book that keeps readers guessing right up until the very last page. Meg's life was rather fantastic, but at the same time, it was easy to understand and go along with the decisions she made and to feel sorry for her- sometimes, it feels as if life has her over a barrel and any choice she makes will end badly for her, but she can't refuse to choose at the same time. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Born of Shadows by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Caillen Dagen is the half-brother of the bounty huntress Shahara Dagen. He's a smuggler, and pretty much good enough not to get caught. But when his sister Kasen gets in trouble, he's enough of a gentleman not to drag her down with him- because she would crumble and fold the minute any authority would start questioning her, torture or not, while he knows he can stand on his own, and often has.

However, Kasen is smuggling an antibiotic so potent that it's completely outlawed by a number of systems under the control of the pharmaceutical companies who don't want it cutting into their enormously bloated profits- and in the system they are in, it carries a death sentence. Cai hates that, but he's willing to face it, until his execution is cut short by the knowledge that he is a Prince, the son of Emperor Evzen of the Garvon and Exeter systems. Caillen has a hard time believing it, and he doesn't want to be an Aristo, since he hates that more than anything, but at the same time, he also doesn't want to die, and he guesses that going with the Emperor and learning to be his heir beats being killed for being a smuggler of prillion.

However, learning to be a Prince of the kind that he thinks his father wants is very hard for him. His upbringing has been anything BUT Princelike, and with his father going into talks with the Quillaq Empire, he wants to keep him safe, because his father has always been the target of assassins. Still, knowing that is nothing compared to having to rescue your father from one yourself, and his dad's lacksadaisical attitude towards the situation doesn't help.

Meanwhile, Desideria of Qillaq is a member of the Royal family, but her position hasn't made her life any pampered or easier. In fact, because her father was actually able to escape his servitude to her mother, the Empress, has made her genetic heritage looked down upon and her life a living hell. Anyone who is able to kill her or humiliate her won't be punished- they'll be lionized, including her own half-sisters and her other relatives. So, when her mother takes her along to the talks with Emperor Evzen and his Empire, it's a signal honor like nothing she's ever known- even if all her mother's other guards hate her and despise her- and make no secret of it.

But when an assassin kills her mother's guards, and nearly her mother, she's the only survivor, and thinks that Emperor Evzen's people are responsible- and Caillen is most insistent that his father had nothing to do with it. Alone and at the mercy of Caillen and his people should the assassins try again, Desideria must team up with Caillen to find out who is really responsible for the attack on her mother. But as she begins to have feelings for this most unusual Emperor's son, who treats her like she's valuable and worthwhile instead of worthless trash as her own people do, can she prevent the takeover of her own planet and save her mother and her people from those who would wish them harm?

Caillen has never felt this way about anyone, and he can't see why anyone would reject such a strong and intelligent woman. Can he convince Desideria that he is on her side and that she has worth in herself? Or will politics end up rending them apart- with each Empire blaming the other for assassinations and attempting to start a war?

This is the first new book in the League novels in some time, and to be honest, I wished I liked it more than I did. But it has the same problem that plagues the other series that Sherrilyn Kenyon writes- reusing the same background and ideas. So far, every man in the League novels has turned out to be some sort of Prince. Every one, and every one, of course, has the requisite "My background is shittier! No, mine is!" contest that is making me sick of her heroes. It's okay a few times, but that horse she is beating is just stinky bones- not just dead, but completely decomposed for me.

What I liked was that the heroine in this one has a shitty life, too. In fact, it's worse than the hero's. This is a first for a Kenyon book, and was at least a change from what I was used to. It's not just the heroine making it all better for the hero by applying her love and body to his life, but the hero doing the same for her. Again, a huge change. I only can see that there is some sequel-baiting for Desideria's brother, who finds out his mother wasn't as big a bitch as he thought she was, but the "secret King/Royalty" bit is getting old. And so is the "I've had the shittiest life ever" competition going on among her heroes. Honestly, can't she try something new?

It was an okay book, and really only okay to me, because I am getting tired with the overused tropes in her stories. I'd really like to see her try something different for a change. There are other ways to generate conflict than someone whose life has been total shit as a reason to be untrusting and cynical. It's typical Sherrilyn Kenyon. Whether you see that as a plus or a minus is up to you as a reader.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 6 by Yuki Midorikawa

Takashi Natsume has long been able to see things that others can't, specifically Yokai. And because of this, his relatives rejected him after his parents died, and his classmates in school called him a liar. Now that he has been taken in by distant relatives, he doesn't want his aberrations to cause them problems, so he keeps quiet about everything he can see, both to his relatives and classmates. There are a very few who know his secret, and even fewer know about the reason why so many Yokai are hostile to him: The Book of Friends.

Natsume's grandmother, Reiko, had the same talent for seeing Yokai that Natsume has. Rejected by humans for her strangeness, she turned to Yokai to interact with, but went about it in the wrong way- challenging them to contests of power and taking their names when they lost, making them her virtual slaves who had to come when she called. Natsume inherited the book, and his resemblance to Reiko made them hate him as well. But a chance encounter had him freeing a powerful Yokai named Madara, who agreed to be his bodyguard in exchange for the book when he passed on. Madara can be seen by normal humans because he's been trapped in a Maneki-Neko or "Beckoning/Lucky Cat" statue for years. So he can only be seen as the cat. In his normal Yokai form, he's invisible to normal humans. But he wants the Book of Friends to boost his own power, and he gets upset when Natsume frees names from the book.

In this book, Natsumi discovers a child locked in a coffin in an abandoned house on his way home from school. He manages to find the boy's nametag, which got left behind in the box and tries to track him down to give it back. He learns from the boy's schoolmates that he feels he's being stalked, and can see ghosts, but the boy thinks that Natsume is the one stalking him, and gangs up on him with his friends, driving him off with stones. But there is a Yokai who is after the boy to eat him. And when Natsume and Madara take care of it, they find out from Natori that the child they have been helping is really a Yokai- a Yokai powerful enough to disguise itself as a human child. But even though Natsume has befriended him, can he keep the child, who loves its life as a human, from killing any human, like Natori, who threaten it? And when the Yokai gets the wrong idea about Natsume, can he repair their friendship before it comes to a real impasse?

And then the child fox spirit, rescued once by Natsume, decides to run away and visit himin the city. Another Yokai promises that if the child fox brings him three baskets of fish, he will give the child a pill that will turn him human for a day. But it's a trick and will merely allow him to be seen by humans for a day. But can he find Natsume among the noise, stench and crowds of the city?

Then, we learn how Hinoe met Reiko and how they became "friends". Reiko met Hinoe in the woods, and while Hinoe hates men, she likes women. She only likes Natsume because of how much he resembles Reiko. Is there anything that means more to Hinoe than her hairpin?

And the final story is a romance between a schoolgirl and her teacher. "The Corner of the Schoolhouse" tells of Kanako Noda, a schoolgirl who finds her teacher, Mr. Suga, catching her attention. But even though he's young, he's quiet and standoffish. How can she make him interested in her, with all the problems that come from a student/teacher romance? And is he even interested in having a romance, let alone with his student?

Another interesting volume of this series. Most of it is taken up with one story, that of Kai, and how, even though he was set to free two horrible ogres just to try and make friends, his friendship with Natsume was such that even after he believed that Natsume betrayed him, he still couldn't bring himself to try and hurt Natsume, not even by trying to steal the Book of Friends that the Yokai believe is so important.

All the stories bring attention to how strong the bonds between human and Yokai can become. Humans bring something to Yokai lives that Yokai cannot get from their fellow Yokai. It seems that because human lives are so short, that they burn brighter and more brilliantly than Yokai can- and their memories linger far longer than human memories can. It's sort of like how elves are traditionally portrayed in fantasy fiction- much longer-lived than humans, but humans fascinate elves because of their vitality and how they burn so bright and so brilliantly.

I liked this volume's story a lot, and the smaller, side stories were excellent as well. I thought the extra romance story was only okay, as it kind of hit an area which wasn't quite pedophilia, but is close enough to ephebeophilia to make me a little uncomfortable. But it was only an extra story, so it didn't really affect my perception of the series as a whole. I still enjoy this series, and find myself wanting to read more- a lot more, I hope. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Natsume's Book of Friends, Volume 5 by Yuki Midorikawa

Natsume has long had a problem. Ever since he can remember, he has seen Yokai. And after his parents died and he was taken in by relatives, it caused him problems, because he was truthful about what he was seeing, and told his guardians as well. They considered him creepy and it caused them to pass him on to other members of his family as quickly as possible. Children at the schools he went to thought of him as a liar.

But now that he has been taken in by distant relatives, and he is older, he has begun to see what he hears and sees as something he wants to keep to himself. He is tired of causing problems and just wants to seem normal, no matter how abnormal he really is. And this set of relatives really likes him and treats him kindly, so he really doesn't want to cause problems for them. He has also acquired a guardian/Bodyguard, a Yokai named Madara who inhabits a statue of the Maneki-Neko "Beckoning/Lucky Cat" variety. Because he has been in the statue for so long, normal humans can see him as a normal cat, but cannot see his Yokai form at all. Natsume calls his cat form "Nyanko-sensei".

He has agreed to act as Natsume's bodyguard to get access to the "Book of Friends" a book assembled by Natsume's grandmother, Reiko. Reiko, like Natsume, could see Yokai and was rejected by normal people for it. So she took out her frustration on Yokai, challenging them to contests and taking their names when she won. The Yokai whose names she held were essentially her slaves, and they resented her for it. Thinking Natsume is Reiko, who he strongly resembles, they try to get revenge on him, but he has been giving back the names, which Nyanko hates, because he only gets the book when Natsume dies, and Nyanko wants the power of the book over others for his own.

In this book, Natsume and his study group take a trip to an inn to finish the last studying they will have to do this summer before the school year starts. But it seems the lake is haunted by a Yokai- a mermaid. Legends tell of the power of a mermaid's flesh and blood- they can confer immortality. The lady who runs the inn tells Natsume that she saw a mermaid when she was young, and it gave her some of its blood. But she gave it to someone else, and now she is looking for him. The mermaid is real, and wants the Book of Friends. Although she's weak as a Yokai, can Natsume discover what the truth is about the claims of Mermaid blood and find out what really happened to the man who the innkeeper gave the blood to?

Then, Natsume discovers a strange spell scratched into the ground, and an even stranger girl hovering nearby. She recognizes him by name, and then curses when she realizes she's said it aloud, and promises Natsume she'll win, then runs off. He's puzzled, but the next morning, he discovers his name and the word "one" written on his body in the mirror. The words quickly disappear, but he's puzzled by what happened. And then he sees the girl again, and she tells him that her family are diviners. Her grandfather wanted to see Yokai, and she found the spell diagram in his notes. She used to draw it everywhere, unthinkingly, until she realized that with it, she could see Yokai. But one of the Yokai saw her back, and it told her that if she could find him again within a year, he'd let her go. Otherwise, he would eat her, and the last thirteen people she'd called by name. Now that she's named Natsume, he has no choice but to help her find the Yokai. But time is running out. Can she find and see the spirit, and if they find him, will he live up to his word? And when Nyanko-sensei also falls victim to the curse, can he help the both of them find the spirit and end it?

Next, when Natsume goes to pick Persimmons on his uncle's property he is nearly killed by an axe flung from the trees. Shortly afterwards, he sees strange, six-toed tracks going down the street to the door of the house he shares with his aunt and uncle, and a strange shape drawn on the street. Strangely enough, his uncle sees it, too, and feels that the art is familliar somehow. Then, it seems that a strange Yokai has somehow come into the house, but it's too fast for Natsume to catch. And then his uncle tells him a story from when he was young, and he knew a very strange girl who lived nearby. He was friendly to her, even though everyone in the area said she was cursed. But when his house was haunted and strange footsteps were heard in the night, she was the only one who could help- and she did, and the curse of bad luck was broken. Was this strange girl Reiko? And can Natsume and Nyanko-sensei exorcise the Yokai a second time? Or will the strange curse of bad luck plague the house again?

The last story involves Tanazma, the boy in Natsume's class who can see the Shadows of Yokai sometimes. He knows Natsume's secret, and wonders how different Natsume's world is from his own, which for Natsume must be in living color, as opposed to his shadows. It gives him something he can share, just a little bit, with Natsume, and makes him wonder at the world that Natsume sees, which must be so large and colorful, which he can only see as shadows.

Another wonderful volume. This one involved threats to Natsume's life and health much more than usual, and the Yokai in this one are also less strongly drawn. We never know why the spirit wants Natsume's house, and Natsume connects much more strongly with the human girl than the Yokai who has cursed her, but the first story about the Mermaid is one where Natsumi finally connects with both the human side of the story and the Yokai side of the story. Each side has a point of view, and the scene where the old woman sees the Mermaid who helped her when she was a girl once more was absolutely beautiful. We get to see the girl inside the old woman, and it had a wonderful beauty to it.

We also finally get to see Reiko interacting with humans, and get a sense of why people found her so scary and troubling. I also felt more than a little sympathetic to her, despite the lengths she eventually went to to pester Yokai aren't that nice, you can understand why she used Yokai as her outlet. It's also aninsight into her character by a child, who accepted her as she was. I found it wonderful as well. But my favorite story is the last, and it's bittersweet and beautiful as well. It sort of reminded me of the way that artists see things in a way normal people can't (or won't), and yet, we can see through a glass darkly by looking at their art. It made me smile, but it made me a bit sad, too.

I love this series. Every new volume brings more stories to love and enjoy, stories that pluck at my heartstrings and make me feel things that very few manga stories, heck, very few stories at all, ever make me feel. That's my reason for loving this series, and I'd love to keep reading this series forever and for the stories to never end. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett

Tiffany Aching is the Witch of the Chalk. It is her duty to make people's lives a little smoother with her magic and her ability to make medicines. But not to make their lives too easy. She also has to deal with other problems, like abusive husbands. One of the men discovered that his daughter was pregnant and nearly killed her with a beating, and his wife as well. Tiffany has to save his life by convincing him to flee the chalk before his fellow men kill him for what he has done.

After he takes off, she takes his daughter to the mound of the Nac Mac Feegles for some more healing from their Kelda, Jeannie. But she discovers that the girl loves being with the Nac Mac Feegle, and doesn't want to be separated from them, more, she can understand some of the secret language of the Kelda.

Concurrent with the problem of the girl, Tiffany discovers that people on the chalk are suddenly becoming distrustful of witches. When the Baron, lord of the village, passes on, Tiffany has to track down his son in Ankh-Morpork to deliver the news, only to be accused of killing the baron and stealing money from him by his nurse when Tiffany had merely come to take away the Baron's pain away. But the Chalk isn't the only place that seems to be coming to hate and fear witches, and Ankh-Morpork is being affected as well.

Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax track Tiffany down to tell her that her kissing the Wintersmith is having widespread consequences, one of which is the return of a spirit known as "The Cunning Man", a former witch-burner who has lost his body but is still looking for more witches to burn- and now, thanks to Tiffany, he has his eye on her, and is influencing people to hate and fear witches even more. Tiffany must team up with the only female wizard ever to come out of the Unseen University, an extremely intelligent man of the Baron's guard, and the affianced Bride of the new Baron to be to try and keep witches safe. But only she can deal with the Cunning Man and banish him back to the void- because if she doesn't do it on her own, she'll forever be known as the witch who couldn't cut it, and secretly be pitied by all the witches.

And she also has to decide several things about her own future and what she wants to do with her life besides being a witch. It's possible for a witch to get married (witness Nanny Ogg), but what does Tiffany really want for herself, and if she does want marriage and even children, who can she find that isn't afraid of her and her powers? And can she do all this while fighting the Cunning Man and keeping other witches out of his grasp?

This book is the final book in the Tiffany Aching series, and even though it's for young adults, the book talks about some very dark subjects- about abuse and the darker side of human nature, where you may owe someone, but feel resentment for owing them, rumors and jealousy, as well as the difficulty for women of being a woman and having a job without having one or the other taking over your life to the exclusion of all else. Yes, Tiffany is a witch,and a young one, but she also wants to be a woman and do other womanly things, and she feels a pang of what she might miss out on should she ONLY be a witch all her life.

But for a book that deals with some very dark subject and uncomfortable emotions, Terry Pratchett is also careful to leaven the book with a goodly dose of his usual humor. The Nac Mac Feegles are responsible for a lot of it, but the inhabitants of a shop for witches and witchly paraphenalia also brought a lot of humor to the party. And who doesn't love the Nac Mac Feegle, Scottish Faeries who spend their time stealing, drinking, brawling and getting into trouble?

I found the book entertaining, but also more serious than any of the Tiffany Aching books before it. Some readers may feel that the serious nature, aspects, and some of the foul language of the book are something they don't want their own teens/children to read- and that's okay. But adult readers will find much to enjoy here as well. Admittedly, the beginning of the book is somewhat rambling- maybe the result of Terry having to dictate the book rather than type it due to his Alzheimer's, but the book does a wonderful job of coming together in the end, and I found it a satisfying ending to the series. Recommended, but with some cautions for subject and language depending on the reader.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Beauty and the Beast: A Tale of the Five Hundred Kingdoms by Mercedes Lackey

Bella is the daughter of a rich merchant who remarried after her mother died. Saddled with a stepmother who is young, beautiful, and not very good at doing anything, Bella has become the de facto head of the household, keeping the servants in line, doing all the menus and some of the shopping, and making sure her two step-sisters are her friends as well as keeping her new stepmother appreciating rather than resenting her by going through her father's warehouses and gathering up small bits of fabric, lace and other bits for all of them to beautify themselves, but saving the best for her new stepmother.

Bella works hard to prevent becoming the resented normal daughter, and knows that if she didn't take the care she did in catering to the others that they would resent her or turn her into an unwanted workhorse. One of the ways she befriends her stepsisters is to help them sneak out to the local guild ball for some dancing and punch, but making sure they all leave before things get too heated or the hard liquor comes out. But when she leaves the town to visit Granny, the local wisewoman who lives in the woods, her old, normal world is dealt a hard shock.

First, she has a nasty encounter with the local Lord's gamekeeper, who thinks she is a peasant girl trying to poach game from the woods, which is against the law. Bella really starts to get upset with him when he tries to demand a pawing (or worse) for his encountering her in the woods, which is when she unleashes her real name and position on him. He's mildly cowed by her name and position, but it still makes him angry when she treats him coldly. She dismisses him and continues on to Granny's house to ask her advice.

But when she stays a bit longer than she planned for, asking Granny for both advice and for her normal teaching about herbs to be found thereabouts so that Bella can make her own potions and tinctures, she tries to hurry home as night falls and the moon comes out. But as she hurries through the forest, she is attacked by a gigantic wolf who knocks her down and nips her ankle before she can scold it away from her. She somehow manages to make it home, and bathes her wound, hoping that the beast can be found and killed.

Of course, her attack doesn't go without being notice, and before she can properly recover, she is collected by the town guardsman and taken to the castle of Sebastian, the mostly-unseen local Lord. As it turns out, Sebastian is not only the lord of the town and surrounding area, but he is also a werewolf, cursed into a monstrous beastly form during the time of the full moon. But as far as anyone can tell, he's never been bitten by a werewolf, nor done any of the usual sorts of things that would lead to the disease or curse of werewolfism. It is a puzzling case, and this is why he stays on his estate and is never seen.

During his beastly transformations, he is supposed to be locked up in a cage and watched over by Eric, his woodsman, and as it turns out, his half-brother. But somehow, last night he broke free of the room he was supposed to be locked in and ran off into the woods, where he attacked Bella. Since no one knows if his disease is catching, Bella must be imprisoned with him for at least three months, since, if she is going to become a werewolf, it will happen in that time.

Bella is upset, to say the least, with her own imprisonment, but she wouldn't want to endanger her father or her own family if she was somehow infected with vampirism, so she agrees to stay in the castle with Sebastian and Eric and wait and see if the curse strikes her as well. But her hunger to see her own family lead to several gifts from Elena, the grandmother who is overseeing the problem of Sebastian's curse- a mirror that will allow her to watch her family, and an enchanted box that will allow her to exchange messages with her father once a day.

The mansion she is now living in is devoid of human servants, but strange, invisible spirits watch over the castle, cleaning where it is needed, cooking food and doing many of the chores that humans would normally do. But Bella is the first person to actually talk to them, and discovers that they aren't merely dumb spirits. Some of them can actually think.

As she sets the castle in order, she finds herself coming to appreciate Sebastian more and more, as well as helping him work on his magic and developing her own magic, which has increased with the trials she has undergone. But as she deals with the trials ahead of her, she must also discover who is behind turning Sebastian into a werewolf, and her fears that she herself might turn fuzzy on the nights of the full moon. But can she discover who is behind the curse when even the Grandmother Elena cannot, and will she be drawn to the bookish Sebastian, or his half-brother and gamekeeper, Eric?

Of course, this book is based on the faerie tale, "Beauty and the Beast". But, unlike the original tale, the Beast is only a beast part of the time- at the full moon. The rest of the time, he's a somewhat bookish mage who spends more time in his head and on his magic than thinking about other people. It takes Bella (whose full name is Isabella) to make him take an interest in the world around him.

Sebastian has to learn to interact with people, and Isabella has to learn to let go a little and not try to run everything around her, and both have to deal with treachery and betrayal and learn to love. And save both Sebastian and Bella when the true author of the curse reveals themselves. But can they do it alone, or will they need help?

Anyone who knows the fairytale will probably be able to figure out who the villain of the piece is long before the end, but the story is very well-told, with lots of twists and turns, and the usual reaction towards people learning about the traditions when they didn't before (cue "Oh, that's horrible- but it explains so much). I enjoyed this book a lot. Even though it's based on a fairytale, the characters are well-developed and never feel like cardboard cutouts. Highly recommended.