Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Agency: Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

Mary Lang is a girl about to die. Sentenced to death for the crime of stealing, she simply does not care to live any longer. Ever since her mother passed away, and she found herself living on the streets, Mary has hated her life, and sees no good reason to prolong it.

But others feel differently. Stolen away from under the noses of the judge and the court officers, Mary is rescued by two women, Anne Treleaven, and Felicity Frame, teachers at Miss Scrimshaw's School for Girls. They want to save her because they see something special in her, something that she could become, if only she had the schooling. And Mary, despite her deep cynicism, can't keep herself from wanting that, and accepting it.

Six years later, Mary has gone from being a student at Miss Scrimshaw's, to being an assistant teacher. But when asked about her future, she isn't really sure what she wants to do, and has no plans for the future. So instead, the two women who saved her ask her to take on a new role and a new job: to work as a Spy in The Agency, a detective agency that hires only women, thinking that women are often unnoticed or disregarded, and not thought of as having the intelligence to notice what is going on around them.

Mary agrees, and her first job as a junior agent is to investigate the goings-on at the Thorold household. The master of the house is a wealthy merchant, and someone seems to be ensuring that his business is having problems- to wit, his ships are somehow disappearing. And as one of the suspects is the master's assistant, it makes sense to install someone actually is in the house to listen to what is going on.

So Mary enters the house as a companion to the Master's daughter, who hates her and doesn't want her to be there. And the house is full of secrets: the daughter has an interest in academics, and doesn't seem to want to marry her father's assistant, the mother disappears from the house for hours, and no one knows where she goes, and someone in the house is passing on information on what is going on in the business, information Thorold's competitors would love to have. And then there is James Easton, friend of the family and someone Mrs. Thorold would love for her daughter to choose as a husband. But when James takes an interest in the supposedly "invisible" not quite a servant, not quite like society Mary, can she keep him from discovering her true mission in the household while her heart yearns for him, even as she knows it can never be, and after this mission, she might never see him again?

This was a strong first beginning to the series, and Mary's voice pulls you into the series right from the start. From her not caring what happens to her when she is standing at the gallows to her stronger, confident voice after years of schooling and working, Mary comes off as a very strong character. She has her moments of not knowing what to do, but she always keeps her head and is willing and able to improvise and think on her feet.

I liked her unexpected feelings for James Easton, and how we works out that she isn't really what she seems to be, but she manages to snow him into her reasons why she is there and who she is there for. She also engages in behaviors that might seem less than aboveboard- like blackmailing the daughter of the house. But Mary never loses our trust or sympathy because of what she does.

I loved this book, and I loved the characters of Mary and James, and I loved the idea of a detective agency that only employs women, because women sort of fade into the woodwork to men, and most men think women aren't intelligent or interested enough to pay attention to what is really going on. I love this book and am looking forward to reading more books in this series.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stargazing Dog by Takashi Murakami

The discovery, in a field filled with Sunflowers, of the skeleton of a man in a wrecked car, and a dog's decomposing body nearby, leads to the caseworkers being summoned to discover how the man and the dog got to be there and how both died.

The dog's earliest memory is of a box, and being discovered and carried home by a young girl who cleans, feeds and adopts him, with the consent of her father. His earliest days are happy ones, but as he and the young girl get older, the family begins to fall apart. As the girl turns into a teenager, her relationship with her father turns dark and guarded, and this causes arguments between the man and his wife. Only the dog seems to love the man the same way, calling him "Daddy" and being happy to see him when he comes home and sharing long walks with him at night.

When the daughter finally announces she is leaving home, the marriage breaks under the weight of the declaration, and the man and the dog are left together. Tired of having to be on his own, the man takes his car, a bunch of possessions, and his money, and decides to return home to the south, where he originally came from. At first, the trip seems happy and carefree, but when the man tries to help out a shoplifting teenager and get him to straighten up and fly right, the boy repays him by stealing his wallet and all the money in it, leaving the man otherwise destitute. But his dog still loves him.

And when the dog is taken suddenly ill, the man must pawn his remaining possessions, except for the car, to pay the doctor to save the dog. How can he not? The dog is the only one left of his family who loves him, and is still always happy to see and be with him. But with only the car and a tiny bit of money, how will the man be able to survive? Especially when he, himself, is ill and cannot afford the money to pay for the medication that will keep him alive and healthy.

As the man and the dog keep on going, an attack of angina (or so it appears) makes the man crash his car into a field filled with sunflowers. They survive the crash uninjured, but with nowhere to go, and the only food they find being from the trash at a fairly popular campsite, how long can the two survive? And when the end comes, both will remain unfound for months. But will those who once loved the man and the dog ever know what happened to the two, and will they care that those they once loved are forever gone? The social worker, too, knows the unconditional love of a dog. Will he be able to track down the loved ones of the man and the dog, or will he be forced to admit defeat?

This manga is a stand alone story, and actually, a rather depressing one. But there are moments of stark beauty and absolute love between the man and the dog. The dog is the noble one, made only of love for the man, and always waiting, at the end, when the man is dead and decaying, for him to get back up and to walk and play with him. Reading his thoughts, uncomplicated and simple as they were, made me cry more than once during the story.

This book put me in mind of Hachiko- a dog who lost her owner when he was away at work, and so she waited for him faithfully to come home every day at the train station. Only, since her owner died when he was at work, he would never be coming home. And yet, still, not understanding, she went to the train station to wait for him, every day, until she, too, died. This book speaks powerfully to the loyalty, constancy and love of dogs for their owners- which many dog owners have trouble returning to their pets in equal measure. As the prayer goes, "God, help me be the kind of person my dog thinks I am."

Yet for all the depressing aspects of the subject, the book is powerfully moving, and beautiful as well, told through the dog's love for its owner, and the happiness and joy it finds in his company. The dog helps the man go on, even when everything seems lost, and when he is gone, the dog still cannot wait for the man to return, to find those happy times again. I say without reservation that this story made me cry, and still makes me cry when I think about it. Highly recommended- it's a three hanky read, but you won't regret letting this book into your life and your heart.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Copper Beach by Jayne Ann Krentz

Abby Radwell is a rare book dealer with an unusual talent- she can "read" the paranormal nature of books and decode any sort of paranormal code concealed within the pages and printing of the book to reveal the truth of the words beneath. Handling this energy isn't easy-in fact, Abby struggled with not being understood all of her life from her own family, and was accused of being crazy and starting fires, so she lives mostly estranged from her family, her famous psychologist father and his seemingly perfect blended family of her stepmother, her stepbrother and two half-siblings that are the product of her father's second marriage.

But when Abby is forced to use the psychic power inherent in a book with a special paranormal code to overcome a young man who threatened her unless she deciphered the code for him, this reclusive book dealer suddenly finds her name, and her talents, being known all over, something that makes her profoundly uncomfortable. She also has the feeling of being watched, and clients are suddenly trying to contact her, asking her to procure a certain rare volume that will be coming up for auction on the rare book market. All the attention makes her even more uncomfortable, so she asks a friend who is also a rare book dealer and has some of the same types of talents she does, for help.

He suggests going to Sam Coppersmith- a man whose family is rich, but made their riches through mining and the discovery and acquisition of rare stones. Sam has a talent of his own- he can read certain kinds of "hot rocks" and makes his living working R&D for his father's mining company- also researching the "hot rocks" and manipulating their energy for various ends. He is not the only one in his family with this talent, but his seems the strongest by far, and his powers may have risen out of an encounter his father once had with some strange extremely psychoactive rocks that he and his partners found in the desert.

The rocks were so strange and powerful that they were too powerful, and altogether too easy to abuse. Two of the three partners agreed to bury most of the rocks they had found and to stop digging for them until they better understood what they were dealing with, but the third partner didn't agree, and the three men came to blows and which ended with an explosion. However, after the third partner was dead, they discovered that he had kept his own notebooks on what they had found, and that one of the notebooks was missing, perhaps taken by his lover, who could not be found.

Now, it seems that someone has found that notebook and put it up for sale on the rare books market, and very many rare book collectors are interested in it. Sam's father asks him to try and buy the notebook before anyone else can get their hands on it. But to do that, Sam needs the help and assistance of a rare book dealer like Abby- someone who can understand why such a book shouldn't be released to someone who can't understand why such a thing should be kept secret, and who doesn't understand the risks involved with the "Hot rocks".

But he also has a tragedy in his past. Sam was involved with a woman, a woman who was just as interested in hot rocks as he was. But when she was at his family's island, Copper Beach, she somehow came to a bad end, dying just outside Sam's personal lab in the cellars beneath the house. Since Sam was the one who came home after working a job for a secret government agency, and found her, he was considered the prime suspect in her death. While none of the Copper Beach locals believe that Sam was responsible (if he really wanted her dead, she would just have disappeared and never been found), he was in the papers as being the prime suspect. But no murderer was ever found.

He finds in Abby a kindred spirit- someone who can reach out and touch supernatural powers that no one else seems to believe exist. But Abby's family is putting pressure on her- to be the "perfect child" her father's new book assures his readers can exist, despite Abby being the black sheep of her family for her powers. After a mishap when she was just a child, her family considered her "troubled" and had her sent to a home for troubled youths- one that so traumatized her that the things she experienced there still affect her to this day, strongly.

When someone breaks into her home and messes with all of her possessions, she can no longer even stand to touch them- a legacy of her time at the school. But when her stepgrandmother realizes that Abby is the only one who can prevent the disgrace of her stepbrother and save their family's fortune, she will do anything, and threaten anything to get Abby to agree to get the book for her stepbrother's client to save him. And this client will do anything to get Abby to agree, from threaten her brother's job to kidnapping and murder.

But as Sam and Abby find themselves powerfully attracted to each other and begin a relationship together, can it survive the stresses of both their families insistence on being the one to attain the book? And can Abby discover the traitor at Sam's company and the one who murdered his girlfriend, and possibly save a man who was tricked into attacking her, with Sam's help? And will Sam be able to keep the secret of the psychoactive rocks from everyone outside his own family, and make Abby realize that what they have is special and that they should stay together? Or will the competing forces pull them apart before they even have a chance to explore what they have together?

This is a new series for Jayne Ann Krentz, known as the "Dark Legacy" series. The cover is a little misleading, saying it was a "a Dark Legacy volume" and making me think that I had somehow missed a series in the past- but no, this is the first one. And for those who have read her Arcane Society novels, this series is going to seem awfully familliar, like an Arcane Society novel with the serial numbers filed off. In other words, it takes place in the same world, but the characters have never heard of the Arcane Society or the Arcane family- or, indeed, any other bunch of highly powerful psychic talents. Since the Arcane Society novels seem to give the impression that the Arcane family and Society are literally everywhere, I had a hard time believing that neither character had ever met someone with powers known to the Arcane Society- and vice versa.

Aside from that, though, this reminded me of all the Arcane Society novels- people who are outcast because of their abilities find each other, and find that since both have powers, they are able to understand each other better than the non-powered. Only in this case, the characters are not virtual outcasts from the society because of their overly strong (or the overly misunderstood nature of those powers), but outcast because they have powers that "normal" people don't have at all. It's almost same old-same old with a slightly different twist. And since Sam's brother and sister are also known to have powers, I can guess that further volumes in the series will involve them (which would fit with the "Dark Legacy" title, Sam's powers being the legacy of the psychic explosion experienced by Sam's father and his partner (His partner only seems to have had one crazy kid, so while I don't discount other characters showing up from those lines, it's going to be a lot harder to justify characters like that in the series.

The other thing I wonder is if Ms. Krentz will be able to resist crossing over the two series at some point. After all, they take place in the same world/universe, and in the same general area, so it's sure to be a temptation for her at some point in the series. At least this one won't be travelling to her other pen names, remaining firmly rooted in the here and now.

I did like this book. It may be the Arcane Society with the serial numbers filed off, but the situations and characters are strong and gripping, and I enjoyed it immensely while I was reading it. Ms. Krentz's ability to make strong characters that you enjoy reading about, whether main characters, secondary characters or those merely in the background, is what makes this series such a joy to read. Highly recommended, especially if you have enjoyed the Arcane Society books. More of the same, when it's as enjoyable as this, is never a bad thing.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I am Maru by mugumogu

Maru is a cat that is an internet sensation- a Scottish Fold cat who lives in Japan with his owner (here in the book, she is referred to a his "roommate", who keeps a blog and uploads videos to Youtube of Maru's various antics and interests- mainly relating to boxes, bags and his enjoyment of throwing himself into boxes or sliding into them from across the floor- sometimes even more than one box at once!

In this book, we get the true story of Maru, whose name means "round object", and who was partly named for his owner's first impression of him (all rounded), but also because such a name is short and easy to call. The book starts off shortly after mugumogu (his owner's online name) adopted Maru, and is illustrated in the many, many pictures that were taken of him when he was young. Some are images of him at rest (along with the story of how owning Maru changed his owner's understanding of what cats were like. The only other cat she knew loved warm places, being cuddled, and would sit in his owner's lap, while Maru loves and/or does none of those things), while others show his funny faces, and him peeping out from under a blanket, which he loves to do.

Maru also loves to be in things- boxes especially, but he also evinces an interest in being inside small trash cans, or emptying the trashcans so that he can get inside. But he never looks apologetic about it. His face always seems to say, "What?! I'm happy right where I am."

This book is written in both Japanese Kana and Kanji, and in English, which is the original Japanese translated. At the end of the book, screenshots of the famous Maru videos are displayed, as well as an explanation of what those videos show, and some more information about Maru's life. Most of the book is supposedly from Maru's POV, and has the cat "talking to" the readers, explaining what he likes or doesn't like. The rest is straight from Mugumogu's voice, and lets us in on why pet ownership is so hard in Japan (very few places allow pets, but it doesn't say that this is because of lack of space in Japan. Only the very wealthy can afford to own pets, especially dogs, who need space to be walked that industrialized Japan just doesn't have.)

For those people who have seen Maru videos on Cute Overload, or just on his Youtube channel, this book will round out their Maru knowledge and experience with plenty of fun pictures. Maru is such a big cat, so fluffy and soft-looking, that you will want to dig your hands into his fur and touch him for yourself- but you can''s just a book.

Still, anyone who loves cats or even animals in general will find this a fun and heartwarming book to read. The pictures are truly priceless, especially Maru's many faces and his dressing up (including one as "Hello Kitty" that really made me laugh). It's a piece of fluff, yes, but it's a cute and adorable piece of fluff, and you certainly can't go wrong showing off more of an adorable cat like Maru.

For those who love looking at cats, or who want a cat of their own, or even people who just want to vicariously know what owning a cat is like, this book will be a fun read. It's not too large, or too expensive, but honestly, I don't know that buying the book is really worth it- it's nice to look at, to be sure, and easy to read, but you could have a lot of the same experience looking at his pictures and videos on the web. Recommended for reading, not so much for the buying.

Awkward Family Photos by Mike Bender and Doug Chernack

Everyone who lived through the 70's and 80's has one or more of "those pictures" in the family photo album. You know, one of those pictures that seemed fine at the time you were taking it, but you look back on it now and the only thing that goes through your mind was "What was I (or they) thinking? Was everyone on drugs when this was being taken? How could they not know how hideous this looks? Did they actually want to preserve THIS as a family memory?!" From pictures of the entire family wearing outfits cut from the same ugly cloth, a picture of a girl who had literally peed her pants, or wet spots on the front crotch of a young man's jeans, the amount of embarrassing pictures that were immortalized in print pretty much approaches infinity.

And that's where Mike Bender and Doug Chernack come in. For they have taken the very worst of these pictures submitted to their website- awkward family photos dot com, and put them out in book form (and as a game as well) to show you that perhaps that ugly or hideous family photo in your own album might not be so bad (or if it is that bad... or even worse, you can always submit it to the site and know that at least someone is getting a chuckle out of it, and it's bringing humor to the world!) and you can take heart that there are far, far worse ones out there.

The book starts with family photos of the entire clan, moves on to mom and Dad, the kids, Grandma and Grandpa, the other relatives, Pets, and then things like Holidays. While some of the photos are just strange, a good many cross over the line to the point where your jaw will be hanging open, especially in the holiday photo section. One of the Easter Photos makes me think that the child in the picture must have been traumatized for life. It's truly that horrifying. And then there are the vacation pictures and the wedding pictures that are equally as bad.

Everyone takes bad pictures, but this book goes beyond bad to the truly horrifying. You will definitely wonder what the people who took those pictures were thinking, or if, indeed, they did think before pointing and clicking. Even more horrifying is the fact that many of these pictures were professionally taken, and are still plenty horrifying.

But these pictures allow us to laugh at the 70's and 80's, and the pictures we were all taking back then. Especially bad offenders are 80's dance togs, 70's suits and tuxedos (powder blue,anyone?) and the ever-popular hairstyle for men and women: the mullet. Other bads including trying to dress everyone in the family in the same fashion/pattern and the "ghost technique of a picture in a picture" that was also more than popular back then not to mention all the fashion trends that make people shriek in horror (goth, "cowboy", bowl haircuts...).

This book may be full of really horrible pictures, but the fact remains that they are ripe for inspiring hilarity in anyone who sees them. The wonder is not that these pictures got taken (or saved), but that those who are in these pictures are willing to let others see and laugh at them, knowing that what they are doing is going to be questioned by anyone seeing them. This book is a laugh riot, and i have to give my thanks to those who were secure enough to let them go to be laughed at by anyone seeing them or reading the book. Highly recommended for a good laugh!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nights to Imagine by Peter Guttman

Anybody can go to a big hotel on vacation and have a good time. Even some of the smallest tourist places might have a bed and breakfast to stay in, or a motel or a campground where you can experience the outdoors or find a place to sleep after a long, eventful day. But there are always those who crave something different- an experience that few others can have, or are even willing to undergo in exchange for a once in a lifetime experience.

Instead of looking for something normal, why not go off the beaten track to the truly unusual? Nights to Imagine gives people tired of the same and the usual ways of spending a night in a place something new and different to look forward to. Instead of a hotel, imagine spending the night in an actual old West jailhouse. Or on a houseboat on a lake in the everglades, where only mosquito netting stands between you and the great outdoors.

Imagine sharing the keeper's cottage on a lonely island home only to a lighthouse. Or staying in an actual mill. Or in a colonial era tavern. If getting away from it all is your thing, but camping or backpacking isn't something you particularly enjoy, you could stay in a Shaker Village, or in a lookout tower high in the hills where it is only you, your loved one, and the spectacular views everywhere around you. Or on your own private island in the Gulf of Mexico, just big enough for two to relax and enjoy and never be bothered with the outside world.

Then there are places where you can find out for yourself how the other half lived- spend a night or two on an actual battleship, in bunks where once only sailors could find rest. Or travel on a real New Orleans Riverboat or spend your time in a modern-day pyramid in Las Vegas, the Luxor. Or spend your time in a treehouse such as the Swiss Family Robinson could only dream of, or in a small hut where your next door neighbors (or all your neighbors) are Walruses.

Nights to Imagine can fill your head with so many ideas for where to go on vacation- whether you want to be in the center of it all or just find a private place to sleep and spend your time exploring. Not all of the places shown are small (certainly, the Luxor, the Delta Queen and the U.S.S. Massachusetts are not places where you will be far from it all or alone), but for those people looking for something different- more adventurous, more quiet, more out of the way or different, this book shows incredible places to think about when planning your next vacation.

These places certainly aren't for everyone- not even for many or most people, but if you ever do decide to, say, overnight in a building literally shaped like a shoe (The Shoe House in Pennsylvania), you will certainly be the person whose vacation is most talked about at work or amongst your friends. And even if none of these places is right for you, you can still dream about them, or use the ideas to make your next getaway something special and off the hook.

I loved this book for the pictures and the ideas it gave me, not just for me, but for some of my characters as well. It's always beautiful to see what's available, and to maybe seek out other unusual places as well, because this short list of thirty places is hardly likely to be the only unusual places out there. Highly recommended if you like to dream of the unusual.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Dear America: With the Might of Angels- The Diary of Dawnie Rae Johnson by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Dawnie Rae lives in Hadley, Virginia in the early 1950's, when it was still segregated, both in neighborhoods and schools. She lived with her momma, who took in washing, her father, a deliveryman for the local dairy, and her brother, Goober, who is a little "special". She receives a diary for her birthday from her brother, and uses it to record her life, and her fascination with the civil rights struggle then taking place. She imagines herself writing to famous Black people, like Jackie Robinsons, Martin Luther King, and others, asking how they feel about the changes taking place in American society.

Dawnie goes to school at the local all-black school, Mary McLeod Bethune, but it's not the best place to go to school, as all of its books are old and out of date. Despite this, Dawnie is the smartest student in the school. But she and her best friend, Yolanda, both wish they could go to the other school in town, Prettyman Coburn School, which lives up to its first name. But they can't go, because that school is for white children only.

During the summer, though, "Separate but equal" educational facilities are struck down by the courts, and Dawnie and several other children from Bethune school are visited by Equal rights workers seeking smart black children to attend all white schools and integrate them. However, Dawnie's parents are the only ones to accept this offer. Even Yolanda, who is almost as smart as Dawnie and has dreamed of entering Prettyman, turn down the offer.

The white people in town attempt to close down the school to stop Dawnie from attending, and some of the most prejudiced members of the community take their children out of the school, but eventually Dawnie gets her chance to go to school, where she is picked on by her fellow students, discriminated against by the teachers and turned into the janitor for her classroom, making her do the job of cleaning up before she can join the other kids at recess. Even at home, her father is fired from his job at the Dairy, which is owned by a white man.

But Dawnie perseveres, even when her old friends accuse her of wanting to be white. She finally gets a friend at school, a white Jewish girl from New York City whose family moved to Virginia, and who is equally an outcast for her religion, and the black community decides to boycott the local Dairy, who does most of its business with the black community, and stands strong together, even if not everyone agrees with Dawnie's parents and sending her to Prettyman.

But as the school year draws to an end, the entire school must take a test to see who will be the valedictorian of the class and who will be able to ring the new Bell that is being installed to call students to class. Will Dawnie be the new bell-ringer, or will the forces of hatred, bigotry and racism triumph over her intelligence and preservance to deny her the job? And what will happen to Dawnie's family?

I enjoyed reading this book, which I felt had a lot of parallels to marriage rights for gay people today. Setting up "Civil unions" as marriage for gay people strikes me as the same "separate but equal" deal that had been struck down when it came to educational facilities. And that was hardly equal.

Dawnie Rae comes across as a very strong young woman. She is subject to a lot of discrimination when she changes schools- not just from the white students and teachers, but also from her former friends and neighbors, who think it's bad of her to try and better herself by going to Prettyman Coburn. And while not all the white teachers are against her (there is one male history teacher from Boston who treats her the same as he treats the other students), he gets fired for writing a letter to the editor of the local paper in support of her going to Prettyman Coburn. But he doesn't leave Virginia, he stays to work for desegregation.

Reading this book was a wonderful, eye-opening experience, and I enjoyed the story and the characters. My only quibble with the book (and, indeed, all the Dear America books) is how many of the characters end up unmarried, and instead, seem married to their careers. It seems like a significant number of them do. But other than that, I have nothing but praise for the books, and that includes this one. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Body of Sin by Eve Silver

Lokan Krayl is one of the sons of Set, Egyptian god of darkness and evil. Ever since their birth, their father has used them as messengers and servants, tasked with bringing him the horribly evil souls that he had to eat to sustain his Godhood. However, Set knew that one of his sons, just one, would have the power to procreate and have children, so when Lokan was seduced by a woman and ended up siring a daughter by him, Set knew that his plan to escape the underworld could finally bear fruit.

Set had long ago been banished to the underworld for trying to overthrow Osiris and Ra and take the premier place in the Egyptian pantheon himself. But to prevent him from taking over Lokan's body, he was killed. Lokan's brothers risked their own lives to bring him back from the dead. But that still left him stranded in the land of the dead. And now Set's priorities have shifted, from taking over Lokan's body, to taking over the body of Lokan's daughter. And now that they need Lokan back in the real world more than ever, retrieving him falls to Bryn Carr, the mother of his daughter.

Bryn is unusual. Unlike some people who have access to the underworld through one or two parents of various lines of gods and goddesses dealing with either bringing the souls of the dead to the underworld or guiding them through it to various realms where the dead souls end up, Brynn is descended from all the lines of every God or Goddess of the dead or underworld soul guides from every pantheon known. It was what made her so valuable to her brothers and made them use her in their various missions as mercenaries. This is what made her go to a bar and seek out the nearest available man to get her pregnant, because it meant she would no longer be useful to them.

But she and Lokan have gotten over how she used him and he had been a real father to her daughter before his untimely death. But to escape the underworld in his body, it won't just be business as usual for Brynn. For while guiding souls into the underworld or the death realms is usually what she does- guiding someone who is alive out is a far different task, and one not undertaken without cost- something she is all too interested in keeping from Lokan, perhaps because this is her way of atoning for using him in the first place.

But as they travel through the twelve gates of the underworld, their trials are bringing them closer together, to a need for each other that has everything to do with love. But how can Bryn confess the cost of bringing Lokan out of the underworld to him when he has suddenly become everything to her? And how will Lokan react when he is told that he can only end the threat to his daughter by taking his father's place, and when Bryn is suddenly snatched away from him by the immutable laws of the underworld?

This book is the finale of the part of the series focussing on the sons of Set in the Otherkin series. So far, we have seen what happened to Lokan's brothers, but now we get to see Lokan himself, and how he got himself into the situation of fathering a child- the very thing that got him killed in the first place. Of all of his father's children, he was the one most content to serve his father, so his death at the hands of his father's enemies was quite a surprise.

But as much as he is willing to serve his father, he is neither willing to give up his own body to his father to have him free of the underworld, nor is he willing to give up the body of his daughter, either. And the realization that he comes to about his father, and how he has been used almost means nothing when compared to putting his own innocent daughter through the same fate. But if he chooses to stay behind in the underworld, he cannot protect his daughter, and leaving means having to give up Bryn. Is there some other way to keep the woman he loves, and the daughter he adores?

I loved the ending, because Lokan thinks he's lost it all, only to have something quite different happen, and the ending is as happy as happy can be: the bad guys are punished, the lovers happily reunited, and the brothers back together at last. The ending, in addition to being happy, was more than fitting, and so receives high marks from me. Highly recommended, but read the other Otherkin books first, as you'll like it better with more background.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Chalice of Blood: A Mystery of Ancient Ireland by Peter Tremayne

Sister Fidelma, a dalaigh, or advocate of the Brehon courts, and her leman, the Saxon Brother Eadulf, have been arguing and upset over the news that Fidelma no longer feels the same commitment to the religious faith of Christianity that she once felt, and that her apparent dedication to it actually came from the fact that such a religious turn would be better for her acceptance as a dalaigh outside of the Irish courts. And now that her star has risen and she is accepted far outside of the court of ColgĂș, her brother, who is King of Muman, she feels that she should leave the body of the faith and become a simple worshipper rather than a member of the clergy.

This has thrown her lover, Eadulf, into a tizzy. He feels that this would mean either she or he would have to leave the other behind, as being unequally yoked is something anathema to the Christian Religion, and wonders what sort of future the two of them, and their daughter, would have together without the tie of being both religious clergy (this being before the rule of celibacy for priests was widespread and expected among the Christian clergy).

But then, they are summoned to a small abbey named Lios Mor, on an island just off the coast of Scotland. The small abbey is set to become a great church, bolstered by a large gift by the local lord, Lady Eithné, who has made the gift in honor of her son, now known as the Brother Donnchad, who has recently returned from the holy land with many books and scrolls which he collected to show his faith and to enhance the Abbey's consequence and learning.

But now Brother Donnchad is dead, slain in his room with the door locked from the inside, and no way for someone to slip in or leave after the door was shut behind them. So how did he die, and who might have killed him? Fidelma and Eadulf discover that Brother Donnchad made the trip to the Holy Land with his brother, leaving behind a former servant who had joined the order with him and become his "soul friend", a kind of confessor who is supposed to listen to a brother's spiritual concerns and keep him on the straight and narrow with regards to his faith.

But this former servant was considered not an adequate soul friend for Brother Donnchad after he returned from the Holy Land, and there were things that his fellow brother didn't understand- he just knows that something was troubling him deeply- deeply enough that he was almost suicidal about it- but not enough to kill himself.

And his fellow brothers, the other monks, he either did not confide in, nor do they understand what so troubled Donnchad. But the monk who will be the successor to the leadership of the Abbey is eager for the matter to be swept under the rug and shrugged off, even if that means the wrong murderer is apprehended, or it is determined that Brother Donnchad committed suicide, even in the absence of evidence for such a thing.

Or does someone have it in for the Abbey monks? When Eadulf is nearly killed, he is told he was struck down by a shifting beam in the construction of the new church, but even he knows that isn't true. Things are changing at the Abbey, major things, and someone may be using that as an excuse to churn up trouble. So why is everyone so desirous of smoothing things over and not making waves. Why do people not want the true murderer of Brother Donnchad to be found?

I have been reading the Sister Fidelma series since the beginning, and I really have enjoyed it greatly, and so it was interesting to see it be taken in this new direction. For so long, Fidelma has been as much about the church as she was solving mysteries, and seeing her leave while acknowledging that she was never really that much into being a member of the church because of strong faith, but did it to be accepted, might end up pissing a lot of people off.

A whole lot of the assumptions about people who don't really believe or have faith because they can see the inherent contradictions in faith and in the words of the Bible and as preached by the church is sure to rub at least some readers the wrong way. But I did like the way that Fidelma and Eadulf's struggle was mirrored in that of the mystery they were solving. And let's be honest, Eadulf is worried that with Fidelma seeming to lose a good part of her faith, he is afraid that he will lose her as well. Now, that would be bad, because they work so well together, but they share more than faith-affection (if not love) and a child are not inconsiderable bonds.

This is something that can't be worked out in a single book, but I enjoyed the way that Peter Tremayne shook up the status quo in the series. It can be so easy, as both a writer and a reader, to fall into a rut, and keeping things fresh and new while keeping what makes the series great can be a struggle. For the moment, I remain hopeful about the direction of the series, and that the characters will eventually stay together and also show the strains in a relationship where one character believes or has faith much more strongly than the other.

I love this series, and continue to love it despite the curveball that the author threw to his readers here. Not everyone who loves this series is going to feel comfortable with the change, but I, for one, thing change can be good and refreshing. I can't wait to see where this goes and what happens next. Highly recommended, but be aware this is a significant change in the series for readers.