Monday, December 31, 2012

Snowbound Seduction by Helen Brooks

Snowbound SeductionSnowbound Seduction by Helen Brooks
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

This Christmas-themed romance has a thought-provoking level of character development within it. Rachel and Zac are both struggling with some massive emotional wounds, and their meeting is the catalyst for a great deal of healing.

Rachel struggles from a childhood of being unloved by her parents, especially her mother. It has made her feel less than adequate to everyone else, always failing in comparison. In fact, her conversations and remembered memories of interactions with her mother made my hair stand on end. It's actually surprising she turned out as well-adjusted as she did. She can't believe a man will love her enough...enough for anything. Yet, she shows a great deal of self-respect. I appreciated that she wasn't willing to settle for less with Zac.

As for Zac, he certainly was a layered character. He seemed like a really decent, straightforward guy, and I believed he was straight shooting. So when he owns up about his intentions, I admit I was shocked. Finding more about his past drew me even deeper into this story. That was dark. While I really don't like commitment-phobic heroes, rationally speaking, I can understand why he had issues with the idea of marriage. At the same time, I didn't want Rachel to be with him on his terms. She deserved better than that. I was glad he realized that at the end too. He came to the understanding that some things are precious, and they are worth holding onto instead of standing back out of fear. I wouldn't have been happy with this story if Brooks hadn't written Zac to make the gesture. It worked out just how it should have.

I really liked this story, more than I thought. It didn't sound like it would have much going on story-wise, but it turned out to be very deep, and I was very emotionally involved with the characters.

Brooks has a way of writing very modern stories, but with characters who have their own distinctive values true to themselves that manage not to be anachronistic or disjointed within the overall storyline. It makes her books resonate with me. Another good Christmas story with hidden depths. Thumbs up!

Overall rating: 4.25/5.0 stars.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Alpha Course Manual by Nicky Gumbel

Alpha Course ManualAlpha Course Manual by Nicky Gumbel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the coursebook for the Alpha course that I attended through my church between September and November.

What is Alpha?

Alpha is a course that introduces people to the fundamentals of the faith of Christianity. It's broken down into fourteen topics concerning the faith, and after a short talk, the members divide into small groups and discuss the issues. It is a way for people who have some tough questions and issues about God, faith, and Jesus to have a safe, non-judgmental forum for this discussion.

I decided to attend since it was free, and since it sounded like a worthwhile opportunity. It definitely was. I have never gotten this opportunity to sit down and talk about fundamentals of the faith like this course allowed. The book is a good adjunct. I finished the course and a few weeks ago, I read through the book again, referencing some of the Bible verses again. Reading the coursebook again cemented some of the concepts and allowed me to take the time to digest and reflect on the information offered in the weekly sessions.

What I really like about this book is the easy to follow outline style. I like that it's organized and it gives support for the points made with Bible verses and historical references.

I don't think God ever intended for faith in him through his Son to be complicated. He wanted each person to have the opportunity to know him, and that's the model that the writer of this book, Nicky Gumbel follows. Also the essence of Christ's personality, to speak the truth in love, is evident in the layout of this book.

While this isn't a scholarly approach like one would find with something like CS Lewis'
Mere Christianity, it shouldn't be. It's simple and straightforward, well-suited for the course and the group discussion style.

Taking the course was a real blessing, and having the coursebook to go back to, not to mention the notes I took during the talks (because I am a huge nerd), will be very useful and worthwhile in the future.

I am rating this book as I would any coursebook. On that level it's a five star rating. As I alluded to above, it's not written in sentence style, but more in bullet/outlines, but that doesn't detract from its usefulness. I'd recommend taking an Alpha course if you get the opportunity. You don't have to be a believer in Jesus to benefit from it. It's a good place to go even if you have questions about the faith and the idea of God in general.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for JesusThe Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is probably not as well-crafted as I would have hoped, since I am very swamped right now, and unable to do better. However, I wanted to write my thoughts on the book to the best of my ability as soon after I finished the audio version as possible so I wouldn't forget too much. I hope to reread it and analyze it more at a later date.

When I finished this book, I felt that Mr. Strobel tackled the tough questions about Christ that one might ask if they were skeptical about the faith and the person of Jesus Christ. I grew up in a Christian home and I have been a personal confessor of faith in Jesus for well over twenty years. However, it was good to take a hard look at the questions I didn't have the answers for from a scholarly standpoint. And I believe that Jesus wants anyone who chooses to follow him to count the cost and look hard at who he is. He is honest and righteous and doesn't want anyone to be misled about who he is. So I would say that anyone of my bent is encouraged to do the same.

I felt that Mr. Strobel showed his investigative journalism chops in addressing those important aspects of Christ's identity and the reliability of the evidence of his claim as the Son of God who died for the sins of every person who ever lived, and rose again from the grave, and the areas that one might use to discount his message and the affirming power of faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Ultimately, those who choose not to believe will probably continue to not believe (and they have that choice), but those who want to take that step to believe in him and have some factual proof about him and what faith in him offers, they will find enough here to further confirm that faith in Jesus is not blind faith, but a reasonable, eyes open step of faith. What I do not propose here is that this book takes the place of the Holy Bible, but instead, Strobel's investigation shows that the Bible is a reputable historical document and what it says about God and Jesus Christ is historically accurate. And for those who seek further inquiry, one will find a very good bibliographical source of reputable scholars who can offer even more sound information about Jesus Christ, the historicity of his persona, and the proven historical accuracy of the New Testament Gospels and how they relate to the Old Testament. In fact, this was one of strongest elements of the book for me, since it gave me even more books to read as I get the opportunity.

While I have seen plenty of 1 star reviews for this book, I personally feel justified in giving it 5 stars. One might argue that I like it because it justifies what I believe. That's not completely untrue. It does justify what I believe. I'm glad that I walked into this book with my brain prepared to take a hard look at the evidence and that scholarship was rewarded in Strobel's methodical and thorough investigative process. Let me add that I would have believed what I did anyway based on the process of my individual faith walk. Instead, this book just provides more solid evidence to underpin what I already believe.

I am a rational person. Very analytical, and I have never felt that having faith in God requires throwing out the thought processes and rational inquiry. After all, God gave us brains and he expects us to use them. So for me, this book takes a thinking person who values factual evidence and solid inquiry on a logical investigation into the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, who has proven he is the Son of God in so many ways that those who believe in him will not find themselves disappointed with that decision in the long run.

I would recommend this book.

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Coming Home for Christmas by Carla Kelly

Coming Home for Christmas: A Christmas in Paradise\O Christmas Tree\No Crib for a BedComing Home for Christmas: A Christmas in Paradise\O Christmas Tree\No Crib for a Bed by Carla Kelly
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

Spending Christmas with three generations of the same family written by Carla Kelly was an enriching experience. Ms. Kelly explored the way that war affects families during wartimes. In the case of the Wilkie-Warton family, all three generations of the family have met during a war and married. I liked how Ms. Kelly took the very depressing concept of war and loss and used it as a backdrop to romances in development, and in a way that felt realistic and involved me emotionally. I especially appreciated how each story read differently, but was no less enthralling.

My thoughts on each story:

1812: A Christmas in Paradise
: This story resonated personally with me because I lived in San Diego for six years, and it did feel a bit like being in paradise, although there were also some less desirable aspects about it. No, I wasn't shipwrecked there, a Scot in a strange land of perpetual warm weather, fish galore, and lots of Spanish/Mexican culture. But I think that I can identify with most of those things I listed. What I loved the most about this story was the earnest good-heartedness of the hero, Thomas. He is a Navy surgeon who genuinely cares about people. While human, that caring part of him motivated him to do the right thing and offer marriage to Laura Ortiz, who was truly in desperate straits. That marriage works out very well for them both, as they find true love. I admit one part made me cry like a baby. I'm sappy like that.

1855: O Christmas Tree : I don't have the pleasure of reading too many books set during the Crimean War, but this is one of them. That alone was one more advantage of this story. Added to this was the beautiful friends-to-lovers story between widowed Lilian, the daughter of Laura and Thomas from the first story, and an American Army Corps of Engineers officer, Trey Wharton. I loved how shy Trey was. He was constantly blushing, although he had a good sense of humor and a warm way about him. I wanted to give him a hug. I was glad that these two people found each other in a war-torn landscape where they saw too many bad things that weighed on their souls. I also like the unique way that they were able to bring and celebrate Christmas with the wounded soldiers and the Sisters who worked in the hospital. It had a bit of the "Gift of the Magi" by O Henry vibe to it. This one made me tear up as well. Yes, sap here!

1877: No Crib for a Bed: Ms. Kelly takes the reader and Captain Wilkie Wharton, Lilian's son to the Old West, where this Army surgeon sees the aftermath of the Indian Wars in a very personal way. He's asked to escort a regained Indian captive white woman back to her people in Iowa. Only Nora doesn't want to go, because she has to leave her children behind, since their father was Indian. His heart hurts for her, but he doesn't have a choice otherwise. Along with Wilkie is Frannie Coughlin, a cheerful teacher in Fort Laramie, who is also traveling back East. They find a companionship together that is problematic, considering that Wilkie has a fiancee' waiting for him back home. When Wilkie delivers a baby from a dying mother with Frannie's assistance, both realize there is no going back when that strong a bond forms between two people. Yes, again this one made me cry. I felt so bad for Nora. To think that they were forcibly separating her from her own children because they were half-Indian and she wasn't. I couldn't imagine the pain she was in. Also the newborn baby was so cute. Yes, my sap quotient goes up even more. The romance part was good too.

Overall Thoughts: Carla Kelly successfully writes a trio of books that are interconnected in an ingenious way, all around the theme of wartime, medicine and Christmas away from home. Each one touched me in different ways, and I just plain like and respect her characters. They are all grounded and realistic people in the best of ways. While I didn't finish this one before or during Christmas, but in fact, three days afterwards, I still love immersing myself in the Christmas spirit, and this book provides that feeling in spades, along with a great romance.

For that, I give it 4.25/5.0 stars.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

His Christmas Virgin by Carole Mortimer

His Christmas VirginHis Christmas Virgin by Carole Mortimer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

His Christmas Virgin sort of has that 'A Christmas Carol' vibe.  That's a good thing because I love 'A Christmas Carol.' Jonas is sort of a modern-day, toned down Scrooge. He has divorced himself from emotional relationships because of his parents' horrible marriage, and how it affected him.  While Mac is an artists, she shatters the stereotype that all artists are bohemian in their morals. In fact, hers are rather old-fashioned. She doesn't believe in sex without love.  She is close to her family and embraces the commitments of family.  While Jonas tells himself he needs to stay away from Mac and doesn't want to be bothered with her, he continually finds himself in her sphere, falling deeper and deeper for him.  Mac doesn't like Jonas' attitude towards relationships, and finds him rather brisk and hard to like, but he is an intensely attractive, appealing man who 'does' it for her.  Love breaks through all their barriers and causes both to risk their hearts to each other. 

Mortimer wrote a story that is passionate and romantic, and with a modern feel.  Never is there a doubt that Mac is a modern woman. She is just a modern woman who doesn't believe in casual sex, and had good reasons for her virginity. She finds it nothing to be ashamed of. While Jonas is quite uncharitable to her in that regard, I felt that he was making a last ditch effort to wiggle out of the trap of his feelings for her, and using that for an excuse, knowing she won't settle for just his physical body and not all of him.  He falls in love while he doesn't believe in such a thing.  I liked that each person stayed true to who they were, but also realized that being locked into a certain mindset can limit ones' possibilities.  When they come together at the end, it feels right and felt very romantic.

His Christmas Virgin was a pleasant and fairly quick read. Definitely what I needed for this time of year when things are so hectic.

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A Royal World Apart by Maisey Yates

A  Royal World ApartA Royal World Apart by Maisey Yates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Royal World Apart stands out as a Harlequin Presents in good ways. We have a hero here who is very self-controlled, and physically dangerous, not just a guy with a lot of money and charisma who likes the ladies. In this case, Makhail is a man who took his responsibilities so seriously that he nursed a wife through a long illness (staying faithful to her while she was alive and even afterward). While Makhail isn't what I'd consider a passionate hero for most of the book, I loved that he was the 'still waters run deep' type man, very focused, intensely self-controlled. He had a maturity that was beyond his almost thirty years. I could see why Eva fell for him. He had traits that her brothers and father lacked, and even when he didn't have to care about her feelings and needs as her bodyguard, he took the extra step to do so.

Maisey Yates is a very good writer. While this book took me a while to read (because I am just very busy right now), I felt that it was a rich story, with well-developed, multi-layered characters. I was emotionally engaged in their story. Eva is a rich princess, but she's not spoiled as you might assume. Her life has been so controlled that she hasn't even had the opportunity to figure out who she is and what she wants, and she starts to act recklessly because of that fear that she will never have that opportunity. I loved that her and Makhail's developing relationship was so well-described in this book. I could see the progression from bodyguard and charge to man and woman deeply in love with each other and willing to give up everything to be together.

A Royal World Apart is a good romance for readers who enjoy royal romance and the bodyguard theme. Yates does a great job of combining both into an enjoyable story. Makhail is quite different from a typical Harlequin Presents hero, but in a thoroughly refreshing way. Some readers may not care for him because he seems so controlled and is not an arrogant man (very atypical for HP heroes), but I really liked him (and not just because he's Russian and I love Russian heroes). In fact, he might be one of my favorites. Another good book by this author.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Just One Last Night by Helen Brooks

Just One Last NightJust One Last Night by Helen Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just One Last Night is a very good and quick contemporary romance about an estranged married couple who have a very tragic event in their lives that causes a rift in their marriage.

Without spoiling readers, I would say that what happens to this couple was very devastating, and it would take two very devoted people in love to overcome it. Melanie is already carrying baggage from her childhood, on top of their recent tragedy, and this acts as the icing on the cake for her belief that she is poison to love. What I loved about this book is that Forde is a man who loves his wife enough to fight for her, and he loves her in spite of the way she pushes him away. When he made those marriage vows, he took them seriously, and is more than willing to fight for his marriage. A devoted hero is Helen Brooks' stock in trade, and she does it very well. One of my favorite kinds of heroes is a devoted one who will surmount any obstacle to win the woman he loves.

I could understand Melanie's emotional wounds. I could even give her some slack for how she was pushing Forde away, although she was admittedly being irrational about her past and how it affected her self-image. I mean, that's very human to be less than level-headed when it comes to emotions and their impact on our lives.

I especially enjoyed the cozy days around Christmas that Melanie and Forde shared, their feline companion(s), and the unique way that this couple becomes reunited. I'd have to be honest and admit I'm not big on stories with estranged married couples. However, Brooks acquitted herself admirably with this book. The execution was well-done, and Just One Last Night was a very good book to read in the month of December to get me in the Christmas mood.

I recommend it!

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Devil's Kiss by Zoe Archer

Devil's Kiss (The Hellraisers, #1)Devil's Kiss by Zoe Archer
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Devil's Kiss is the first in the Hellraisers historical paranormal romance series by Zoe Archer, and she has created an interesting world and an intriguing storyline that will keep me coming back to this series.

I loved how immersive this story was. I felt like I was in the Georgian period, where anything goes, if you have the money, power and status to make your own rules. With this background, the character have validity and their choices and motivations make sense. Whit is a hero that really sucked me in. He is not a good man, but he is a man that you want to be good, to make the right decisions in the end. I have to say that force of his personality pulled me right into this story. I found Whit very magnetic. Ms. Archer does an excellent joy of portraying the tug of war that Whit has between his good nature and his darker one. I don't think gambling was his vice in itself, but the desire to control fate and have power to manipulate fate and circumstances. Losing his family so young and becoming an Earl so early in his life gave him this vacuum inside, this feeling that he is being buffeted by fate, so that living on the knife's edge became the only valid lifestyle for himself. It's probable that he might have been a thrill-seeker, explorer or adventurer if he hadn't inherited his title. I found him quite fascinating as a character. I could see why Zora found him so irresistible and fell in love with him even though he's not a good man by any stretch. This aspect of the story, as well as the manner in which Archer establishes her story in the Georgian period reminds me of Anne Stuart, and that's always a good thing.

Zora was a great character. I loved her strong personality, her determination, her independent spirit, and that she doesn't give up on what is important to her. She always felt strange and disjointed in her Romani family and life, although she does value it. When the giorgo men show up in her camp, her eyes are drawn to Whit, and she can't look away. He compels her in a way no other man has. His obsession with her isn't one-sided at all. And she becomes the only means through which he can regain his soul back from the devil. Zora is a good woman, but she's also a vital, primal woman, not a plaster saint. It means that much more when she stands up for what is right when it is so easy to choose self and do what is wrong in the process.

When I read romance, I want the bond and the relationship between the characters to be meaningful, real, and deeply emotional. I felt all that with Whit and Zora. Although they share a very primal sexual attraction, there is also an intellectual connection, and an emotional bond. Zora could have walked away and left Whit to his fate, but she cared for him and wanted to help him get free from his devil's bargain; or she could have destroyed him when she realized that his actions might bring on the end of the world. But love kept her with him. As for Whit, although his actions towards Zora weren't honorable initially, he shows that she is very important to him, her love and her light keeps him grounded and gives him the strength to fight for his soul and to do the right thing. The love scenes are very sensual and well-written, and they fit very well into this intense story about dark passions and desires.

This series has gotten me hooked, probably from the first page. Ms. Archer promises to deliver forthcoming books that avoid being predictable, and where the main character could perhaps be the worst villain of all, if he chooses wrongly. I like that kind of risk-taking when I read a story, especially when it's well-written as Devil's Kiss is.

For this very enjoyable, well-written book, I have to give a rating of 4.5/5.0.

Definitely recommended!

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Lie by Moonlight by Amanda Quick

Lie by MoonlightLie by Moonlight by Amanda Quick

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Lie by Moonlight, and I think a huge part of its charm was listening to it on audio. The narrator has a great voice, she speaks with an English accent, and she modified her voice for the various characters, based on class, gender, and personality.  I like how she captured the Victorian feel--both a mystery vibe and a romantic in a classic way vibe.  She showed the chemistry that Concordia and Ambrose shared, and also she conveys the sense of family between Concordia and the girls, Edwina, Phoebe, Hannah, and Theodora.  How they become a big family along with Ambrose, Mr. Stoner, and Mrs. and Mr. Oates.

The storyline was good. I liked that although Concordia is a woman who carries herself with respect and maturity, she does own up to her rather unconventional upbringing without letting it define her as a person.  I really appreciate heroines who are independent, but also rational and thoughtful in their decision-making.   Concordia never goes off like a loose cannon, which always seems to invalidate a heroine's intelligence and self-sufficiency to me when I read that in a book. Concordia also showed a lot of heart and integrity in how she protected the young girls in her care.  I personally like heroines who believe in doing the right thing and helping those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, or who are disadvantaged. Although Quick doesn't beat the reader over the head with the history of the Victorian times and how women were treated, especially orphans with no money or status, I could see that as the background for this story.  I respected that although Concordia's parents shared one set of values, she didn't feel like she had to adopt their own values for herself when they obviously weren't valid or healthy to her. 

Ambrose was a man of mystery and I liked that about him. I liked seeing how his background shaped his future and how he uses his skills to help people, even though he gets a personal high out of shadowy feats of espionage.  It was clear that he fell for Concordia fast, but it was also organic how his feelings evolved with each moment he spent with her.  I was rooting for Concordia to ask him to marry him, and I loved how he put that ball in her court because he knew she needed to have that sense of authority in her life.

The suspense and mystery elements were good. I didn't truly guess what was going on until the end.  I thought things would go in one direction, but with the excellent plotting, Ms. Quick was able to bring the story to a resolution that made sense for the story. 

This is my second read by Amanda Quick, Second Sight being the first.  I liked Second Sight, but I really liked this one.  I am glad I have several other books by Ms. Quick in my collection to read, and I will definitely avail myself of the Quick books on audio at the library when I can.

I do recommend this one on audio.  The narrator adds so much to the charm and appeal of this book. Thumbs up from this reader.

Overall rating:  4.25/5.0 stars.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Blood Brothers by Nora Roberts

Blood Brothers (Sign of Seven trilogy #1) (Abr.)Blood Brothers (Sign of Seven trilogy #1) by Nora Roberts
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Yay! I finished it!

Thoughts on the Story:

I loved the brotherhood bond between Cal, Gage and Fox. They had been friends for a very long time, and you could see that that bond was titanium and strengthened by their horrific mutual experience and legacy. I liked how they were three very different men, and I could see a distinction in their personalities throughout this book. I loved how the book started in the past, where we see how horrors begin in Hawkins Hollow, but also the three main characters as kids. It made me think of Stephen King's "It", "The Body", and also "Needful Things" and "'Salem's Lot". While I saw sort of an homage to King, I think Nora Roberts distinguished herself very well and gave this story her own stamp.

Additionally, I liked Quinn, Layla (writing this makes me laugh because I always thought of the Black Dagger Brotherhood when I heard their names in the same sentence, which also has a Quinn and Layla, although Quinn is spelled differently), and Cybil. I liked how their characters complemented Cal, Fox, and Gage's characters. While the other characters don't get as much page time, I got a sense for the local color and the world in which the main characters lived, how they related to their friends and family. I am a huge fan of small town fiction, and I think Roberts did a great job with creating this small town which seethes with dark secrets, anguish, but also loving families and friends, who are suffering with a difficult legacy and curse.

One of the best things about this book was the horror element. Roberts spectacularly imbues this book with a dark, horrifying atmosphere. I suppose this is a romance more than anything, but it really stands on its feet as a horror novel. The scary scenes were vivid and quite effective. I won't go into detail because I don't want to spoil anyone, but wow! Stephen King would probably give Roberts a pat on the back.

I have to say that the horror aspect engaged me more than the romance. I liked the romance, but I didn't feel any strong bond or connection to Cal and Quinn as a romantic couple. It could be that I like my romance intense and this wasn't that intense. It was more everyday to me, like when you see your friends meet and get together, and eventually get married. Nothing wrong with that. Just not as enthralling as the horror aspect of this book.

Audiobook Impressions:

I had mixed feelings about the narrator. He made some of the characters sound kind of goofy, but I liked how he made Gage's voice really deep, and how he did Giles' Scottish accent. I didn't like the way he did the female character's voices. They sort of sounded like men in drag. I think I might have connected more with the females if they sounded more authentically female. I think he did a good job of making each character have a different voice, so points there. On the good side, I loved the sound effects and music. It added to the eerie feel of this story. I listened to this at bedtime, late at night, and I had a couple moments where I questioned the rationality of that. Since audio is a good way to get a book read and still stay on my reading schedule, I'll probably get the other two on audio as well.

Overall Thoughts:
I liked this book, but I didn't love it. I think the horror part makes this a higher rated book for me. As I said above, the romance was sort of average to me. Not a big draw in this book. I did love the bonds between the characters and the small town feel, so that's another plus. I want to see how this series concludes, so I'll keep reading. It was a pretty good way to spend some hours listening.

Overall rating: 3.75/5.0 stars.

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The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

The Name of the Star (Shades of London, #1)The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Name of the Star was a hit with me.  Maureen Johnson got my attention as an author with her short story, "The Law of Suspects." It was utterly chilling and fantastic suspense. I appreciated how she writes with a respect for the intelligence of her readership, even though they are the YA audience. Like CS Lewis, I believe the best children's book is one that an adult can enjoy.  I knew I was going to follow her after reading this brilliant short story.  So when I saw this book was coming out, I was excited to read another full-length suspense novel by her.  Let's just say that she's now two for two.

Are you into Jack the Ripper?  I mean that in the best way. Meaning, do you have an interest in the mythos and story of Jack the Ripper?  Many people do, so don't be ashamed if the answer is yes. The only reason I ask is because this is a book to check out if you do.

While this book is very thrilling suspense with a supernatural twist, it's also a funny coming of age story. Our heroine Rory is from Louisiana, and she has that sparkling Southern woman vibe that I find irresistible. I love her character's voice, the down to earth way she looks at life, and how she manages to find the wry humor in her situation.  Johnson engaged me as a reader by giving me a protagonist that I started caring about on the first page of the story.  She also pulled the British card, which will get it me almost every time. Through in a modern story with a gothic atmosphere and it makes for an irresistible read.  She goes with a "Sixth Sense" theme, and like that movie, you don't quite catch on immediately, but when you do, it's a natural process.  I can't say much more about that, because as River Song from Doctor Who says, "Spoilers!" 

So yes, this was a hit for me.  Such a marvelous concoction of suspense, humor, young adult emotions and situations, and yes, out and out terror in some parts of the book. Suspense builds wonderfully, adding to that gothic atmosphere until I was anxiously waiting for the next aspect of the story to be revealed. The villain is layered and complex, slowly being exposed to show that a lot more than I thought was going on.  I really appreciated that, that wonderful feeling of finding I didn't have the answers all figured out until the very end when I was supposed to know all those things.

Well, I think I talked myself into giving this book five stars, even though I told myself I was going to be more rigorous about reviewing books and giving five stars.

People I recommend this book to:

*Ripperologists or Folks who are 'into' Jack the Ripper
*People who have an obsession with boarding school (like myself)
*People who like Southerners and Southern philosophy on life
*People who like sausage (you have to read to know where I am going with this)
*People who like ghost stories
*People who like 80s new wave like The Smiths and The Cure
*People who like a good, well-written suspense novel
*People who like fish out of water books, specifically Americans in Britain

If any of these things sound like you, read this book!  I recommend it!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Wolf's Hour by Robert McCammon

Wolf's HourWolf's Hour by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What if one of the Allies' greatest spies during WWII was a werewolf?

The Wolf's Hour is the story of Michael Gallatin, born Mikhail Gallatinov. His journey is sprawling and meaty, full of intense moments, both emotional and physical. Although I am not sure this technically counts as an epic, it feels very epic to me. Because there is so much to see about how Michael goes from being a privileged eight-year-old during the bloody Russian Revolution to a thirty-four year old British Secret Service spy. You might say, "That's a big jump." But when you read this book, you find out how he evolved from that boy to the man he becomes.

Things to Take Into Consideration:

*This is a bloody, gory book. There is a lot of violence. The action scenes are almost always gruesomely described. If you're really squeamish, be warned. I am not big on gore (at all), and I often winced as I read. However, it doesn't come off as gratuitous. Why? Because this is about predators, human and animals. Michael has to learn to live in the brutal world of the wolf and the more brutal (for it is often not of necessity), unnecessary viciousness of humanity. I feel that McCammon draws a contrast between wolves and humans. Wolves kill for survival. They can attack fiercely and brutally, but their motives are for living another day. Whereas the vile actions of the Nazis and some of the Russians during their Revolution depicted in this novel speak of human evil and the dark heart of human nature. To kill, maim, and to harm for paltry reasons (if there are any good ones), that's not the animal world. That's purely human. Not all humans are evil, and McCammon shows that. But those that are commit so many heinous acts that it weighs on the soul, even when reading a fiction novel set during WWII. Even Michael, a man who lived as a wolf and has a dual beast nature, is not so cruel and blood-thirsty as the Nazis, with their racial and ethnic hatred, their greed, and thirst for domination. I liked how he is asked the question about where werewolves fit in God's eye, by his tutor, Wiktor, and eventually asks himself later on in his life--to find his answer. Suddenly he realizes his place in this world of ugliness, God's wolf avenger. I have to make it clear that I despise the Nazis so much, I liked the idea of having someone like Michael around to take care of them. He realized he couldn't save everyone, but he always tried to do what was right.

*There is a fair amount of sex in this book. Michael's life plays out over nearly thirty years, and in that time, he loves and 'loves' numerous women. I'm not real big on seeing a character 'hook up' with several people over the course of a book, but I suppose that this is another layer to his character that plays out. And in all those encounters, you get the sense that Michael does respect and love women. So it wasn't exploitative, in my opinion.

*As I mentioned earlier, this book focuses heavily on the War World II time period. McCammon does not shy around the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and if that is disturbing to a reader, you might want to avoid this book. If a reader has an interest in WWII, I do recommend this book. It focuses mainly on the Nazis as the evil entity behind this war. Interestingly, it does not focus as much on the political state or evolution of Soviet Russia, or the atrocities that were committed under Stalin. While he doesn't paint the Soviet Army as the only or primary good-guys, neither does he delve deeply into that part of the WWII puzzle (and the reasons why the Soviets were able to crush the Axis on the Eastern Front). This is interesting, since Michael is Russian born, although he becomes a British citizen. But at over 601 pages, this book is plenty long enough, and I can respect that McCammon chose to focus on one aspect of the war.

*This book is about loss, struggle, the fortitude it takes to keep going and living when everything you love and that is familiar and comfortable to you is taken away. It's very angsty and sad, in other words. Just when you have hope that things might turn out out okay, the rug gets swept out from under you. McCammon does a great job of building and sustaining that tension. In real life, there isn't a such thing as "and they lived Happily Ever After." Instead, we have seasons of joy and plenty, and then there are seasons when sorrow seems to prevail above other emotions. But we have to keep moving through those seasons and take the lessons we can from both periods in our lives. Michael shows tremendous fortitude in his life, considering all that he went through. Giving up just isn't part of his makeup. Instead, he takes those hard-won, painful lessons and uses those to grow stronger. How can you not love that about him?

*The mix of espionage with supernatural was very well done. You might be fooled into thinking that things will be much easier for Michael because he is a werewolf. Oh, no! He bleeds just like humans, he can be gravely injured, he suffers from illness and starvation. Being a wolf gives him strength and endurance more than humans, but he is not infallible. Instead, his dual nature is just one other tool in his spy armament. And even that can be a liability in some circumstance. Although I think I do like the wolf who regenerates quickly, even with life-threatening injury, and heals more rapidly than humans better, the portrayal of lycanthropy in this book is better-suited to the tone and overall story. McCammon very carefully avoids using deus ex machina, but instead relies on Michael's physical conditioning, his mental acuity, and his extreme drive and determination, along with help from the Resistance groups of various parts of occupied Europe, and his spy cohorts. The espionage unfolds very well. That razor edge of spywork, and the extreme cost that comes with it. Knowing your life could be forfeit from any mistakes or just because of the danger of the work, and also that you cannot save everyone. You have to make sacrifices so that the greater good could be done. Man, I felt that moral angst deep down as I read this book. I held my breath as Michael and his compadres dealt with the Nazis and did their dangerous work, hoping they wouldn't be caught, and if so, they would find their way to safety. With this book, there certainly are no guarantees. You don't know who will make it, including the lead character. As I said, very well done!

Concluding Thoughts:

The Wolf's Hour is compelling, involving reading. My emotions were deeply engaged, all of them. The story of Michael Gallatin, a man with many identities, drew me in. He is a great hero, and this is a great story about his life. When I finished it, I was kind of sad, because I felt as though he was part of my life for that time I spent reading this book. I highly recommend this novel!

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Monday, October 22, 2012

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (Necromancer, #1)Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

This was a breath of fresh air book.   I've read some disappointing books lately, and I needed a good one.  Plus I was pining for a good UF read.  I loved the easy writing flow, the funny dialogue, and the wonderful, self-deprecating hero, Sam.  Although this was released as a YA book, I think it easily could have been marketed as an adult UF novel.  I believe the older readers will enjoy it as much as teen readers because there is a lot to like in this book.

McBride keeps her world-building simple, but simple doesn't mean lacking.  She has an interesting reality here, with people born with magical abilities, specifically necromancers.  Sam is one, but he doesn't know it, because being one is quite dangerous for him.  His normal, rather boring, letdown life explodes into one of extreme danger and dread as he becomes exposed to a very dangerous, cruel, and evil enemy.  Along the way, he becomes aware of a supernatural world with its own rules.   He finds out that there are a lot of creatures out there that he didn't even know existed. That is one thing I love about UF--the normal is really far from normal when you take a close look around you.

Sam is the everyman that you like and feel protective of.  He has a rough journey in this book, but he weathers it all with grace and takes a lot of crazy stuff in stride.  I respected him for that.  I also liked his friends, specifically Ramon and Brooke.  I liked Brid too. She is pretty darn kickbutt.  Sam's mom is a sweet lady, and I would like to learn more about Sam's longlost uncle. He seems cool.

I think McBride has all the right ingredients in this story, but it doesn't add up to 'formula', but instead a fun, enthralling, sometimes scary and thrilling, and very enjoyable read.    The quote on the cover by Sherman Alexie is so true.  This book is both scary and funny, and a good balance of both.  I am a big fan of snarky dialogue in books, and she does it well. I loved all the pop culture jokes.  They were hilarious! I was quite impressed with how McBride reveals the menace of the villain and his heinous acts without going overboard.  Poor Sam and his friends are truly in jeopardy, but you manage to catch your breath with some good laughs along the way.

I was very satisfied with this book, and even if it's a one-shot, I am still happy. If she continues the series, I'd be even happier, because I do see some threads that I would love to be explored further. Although McBride does a good job of making this a self-contained read that stands on its own (cliffhangers are a freaking enormous pet peeve of mine), I could easily see her going back and writing more in this world.

I do recommend Hold Me Closer, Necromancer to UF fans of all ages. I think they'll enjoy it.

Overall rating: 4.5/5.0 stars.

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Friday, October 19, 2012

Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber

Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of DarknessDark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness by Fritz Leiber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. I am glad I finally read this one. I've had it in my pile for a while, and in my classic horror/fantasy reading quest, Fritz Leiber definitely is a must read.

So, let's get down to business:

Review of Conjure Wife

I read this out of the Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness duology, but I wanted to jot down my thoughts separately for this one before I finish the volume.

I found the writing clever. I was transplanted into the cutthroat world of college politics. Who knew that the wives could be just as fierce as their faculty husbands? And that they would resort to sorcery and witchcraft to keep their husbands (and themselves by relation) in power? Things get pretty nasty!

I think that there is some very interesting commentary about male and female relationships here. That old Venus Versus Mars argument. I felt at first that Norman was a rampant sexist (in a way that is very common even today). He had a superior attitude towards his wife, while simultaneously being in awe of her at the same time. He seemed to view her as an alien creature, constantly analyzing the way her mind worked, as if it was so different from his. I liked how his feelings of mental superiority over her backfired when he realized that she was in fact the one who was right about what was really going on, and how he had to rely on her knowledge of the situation. I liked how things turned around and it was clear how much he did care for his wife. How he fought for her well-being, willingly putting aside his hard-headed scientific skeptical thought processes to save her.

I feel that there is a heavy tone of satire cleverly mixed in with well-executed psychological horror. Norman's internal dialogue engenders a tone that is analytical and observational (although he doesn't seem to be as observant as one would think for a sociologist), wry and sarcastic at other times and quite laden with a menace that sneaks up on the reader. At first, I found him to be a bit of a pompous twit. I admit I can't stand when men treat women like their brains and mental capacities are limited. But I couldn't stay angry at him. He learned the hard way not to underestimate women, particularly his own wife. I think in this, Leiber is making a point. For all the men did have a tendency to view their spouses through a skewed lens, not realizing just how much power the women truly had in their lives and over them. Leiber seems to throw sexist ideas out with a wink and a nod, as if he expects the readers to reject those thoughts, or perhaps to poke fun at those who believe what he's saying. My take, anyway.

I wonder what the reception was to this book in the 1940s. The ideas of male/female relations are probing and insightful in a way that seems a bit subversive. But what do I know? At any rate, I liked this story very much. It's beautifully subtle in the slow building of menace and fear, and the ideas about society seem to be relevant today in how men and women and spouses relate to and view each other. Also it speaks to the often venomous way that women can sometimes turn against each other, belying what some (including myself) naively believe about the sisterhood of women. On the horror level, the truly heinous and scary nature of witchcraft used as a tool for power and control is enough to send a shiver down my spine. It makes you wonder just how much witchcraft may be going on behind the scenes today.

Overall rating: 4.25/5.0 stars.

Review of Our Lady of Darkness

In this story, Leiber demonstrates an incredible knowledge base about dark and supernatural fiction, going back into the 19th and early 20th century. He writes this story in the style of Lovecraft, or should I say Machen, since he wrote The Great God Pan long before Lovecraft, in which the unknown menace is slowly being revealed to the protagonist. This is a knowledge too terrible to behold. Many have been damaged and have succumbed to it in the past.

I liked the nod and the reference to all those various works of literature, and the inclusion of real life people in the world of the arts and science in this story. That was very cleverly done. This does a lot to create and flesh out the fictional world. As with the other book in the duology of Dark Ladies, "Conjure Wife", Leiber does do a good job of building menace and the tension level, and with using that thematic question ‘Is it real or am I losing my mind?

This story has an air of decadence I didn’t care for. You can see changes in the times, with the shift in values that occurred past the mid-20th Century, both good and bad. For instance, there is an air of anything goes sexuality, the rejection of anything good and decent for the sake of nihilism or the love of chaos/anarchy, and the liberal use of drugs and alcohol. The author doesn’t quite condone this in the story, but he is not shy about showing some of these aspects. Some of it gave me a bad feeling, but then I have never been one for sexual violence, darkness or depravity, in real life, or in my fiction.

Overall, I can’t say I liked this book that much. There were some appealing components, such as the literary nods and the clear evidence of Leiber’s extensive knowledge of classic dark fiction and horror, as well having his bibliophilia show through in his characters. As a huge fan of MR James, it was great to see more than a couple of references to him. Similarly, fans of Lovecraft will appreciate the nods to his pivotal work in 20th Century horror and supernatural fiction. I guess my big issue was the fact that some concepts were just too out there for me (and their explanations somewhat tedious), the overall level of moral decadence (not a big draw for me), and the slow unfolding of the plot. Sure enough, the climax is a good payoff (really quite scary), but not enough to elevate this book to a higher level. Especially after how much I enjoyed its sister story, “Conjure Wife" out of Dark Ladies: Conjure Wife/Our Lady of Darkness. It's never a good idea to compare things, but sometimes the comparison is obligatory and that one thing fails to live up to its companion in the end. Such was the case with "Our Lady of Darkness."

I would still consider this semi-required reading for the 19th-20th Century classic horror scholar or devotee. You might like it more than I did, and that would be an a good thing in the end if you find another book you love.

Overall rating: 2.5/5.0 stars.

Well, there you have it. My thoughts on this volume. Leiber is a good writer. He knows what he is doing and has a way with telling a scary story. I will be reading more of his books!

Although my rating for "Our Lady of Darkness" is low, I can't give this less than four stars overall, because it has an impact and seems very canonical in the development of supernatural fiction and horror from the 20th century overall. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it!

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Long After Dark by Greg F. Gifune

Long After DarkLong After Dark by Greg F. Gifune
My rating: 2.58 of 5 stars

The writing in this book was very good. A dark vision, like nightmares that blended into nightmares. I'm not sure I understood what was going on after all, and that's hard to swallow. Sometimes it's good to question and ponder, but in this case, it was unsettling and unfulfilling. If the reader wants a story that is more about fears, regret, and doubt, with a pervasive sense of nebulous menace, they will probably appreciate this. For a complex mix of horror and emotional angst that ultimately makes no sense, this will qualify. If the reader wants a more coherent story that makes some sort of sense and has a point to it, instead of a sense of futility, then this won't do. At least it didn't quite do it for me.

My rating is complicated, so I am going to get mathematical here:

Writing quality: 4.25/5.0 stars
Coherency: 1.5/5.0 stars
Reader fulfillment rating: 2.0/5.0 stars

Overall rating: 7.75/15 = 51.7% ---------> 2.58/5.0 stars.

Thanks to my friend for letting me borrow this book!

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Monday, October 15, 2012

12.21: A Novel12.21: A Novel by Dustin Thomason

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

12.21 was an entertaining read.  I never got bored, that's for sure.  I'm not big on the whole Mayan Prophecy thing, so I normally wouldn't run to read this sort of thing. However, Random House offered a giveaway for the Action/Adventure Aficionados group, so I decided to give it a try. I am glad I did.

What I liked:
* I love medicine, so medical dramas in various incarnations almost always appeal.  The whole concept of an epidemic illness arising out of a connection to an ancient Maya tomb and civilization, and related to the Mayan Prophecy was a unique approach. I liked the characters' race to find out what the etiology of the infection was and how to combat it.  There was a real sense of urgency and I felt my pulse racing as I read.  History is another favorite subject, so there's a good combination here.
* This was quite readable.  The narrative was cohesive between modern day and flashbacks to the ancient Maya times (900AD),  and there was a sense of steady progression in this story that I appreciated, especially for a suspense-driven book. 
*I like that the author didn't slow down the story too much with excessive explanations, but the Maya cultural elements seemed well-researched and the science was fairly credible (except one heinous element below that I must rant about).
*Sadly, I knew little about the indigenous Maya descendants of Guatemala. That was very interesting to read about their thriving community in LA (assuming that it's real).  Also, I wasn't aware of the situation with the indigenous people in Guatemala.  It's always good to learn about different peoples and their struggles, and it will make me more sensitive about their plight.

What could have been better:
*Okay, I have a mini rant. The scene with the slaughterhouse/meat processing factory is so unrealistic it's insulting and laughable. The things that occur in that facility would never happen. I know for certain.  They had serious food safety issues going on, including commingling of meat ingredients and use of products that definitely are not approved for meat production or use in the United States. Then the author made a point of saying that kids eat that product. A lot of inspectors work very hard to make sure that products safe for consumption make it on the shelves, and that was offensive to the hard work they put in and the many safety checks that meat plants have to follow in their food safety system.  One could argue that maybe that facility was not under government oversight, but the author made a point of mentioning the USDA, so I know it was. And let's be clear that is not going to happen in a federally inspected facility.  I don't mind the line between fiction and reality blurring in appropriate settings. This wasn't one. For a medical science drama, I expect more realistic and credible use of information in a story.  Fortunately, I was able to get over my disgust with this and keep reading the book, but it affected my rating without a doubt.
*I didn't feel a heavy sense of connection to any of the main characters.  The storyline itself was more interesting to me.  Towards the end, the sense of urgency for their situation did hit me, but I can't say I fell in love with anyone in this novel. 

Overall Thoughts:
*A pretty good, readable, suspenseful novel. I liked the mix of ancient civilizations and treasure hunting with modern medical science.  There were a couple of pitfalls that lowered my rating, but overall, it was a worthwhile read, especially for those interested in the Endtime Mayan Prophecy and Meso-American ancient civilizations.  For a quick-read medical suspense story with some ancient connections, this is a pretty good one to pick up.

Overall Rating: 3.75/5.0 stars.

A special thanks to Random House for the opportunity for members of the Action/Adventure Aficionados to read this novel.

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Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake

Anna Dressed in Blood (Anna, #1)Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think I sabotaged myself with this book. I got so excited about it. I read too many good reviews. When I finally read it, it couldn't live up to that high expectations.

Fundamentally, Anna Dressed in Blood was a good book. There was really some art in the writing. Full of visually evocative scenes and descriptions, this book appealed to me esthetically and it also made me feel stirrings of unease, pity, and horror. What I didn't feel was a kinship with Cas. Cas is a good guy, a good hero as well. I just didn't connect with him. I have a thing for books with a male point of view. I enjoy reading them and getting inside the head of a male protagonist. With stellar examples of monster hunters like Dean and Sam Winchester from the TV show Supernatural and Cal and Nik Leandros from the book series by Rob Thurman, Cal had some hard acts to follow. I didn't ever get beneath the surface of his sarcastic, wounded by his father's untimely death exterior. I felt like an observer. When I read books, I want to be a part of the story, and feel the emotions of the characters. That can be a dicey thing with this kind of literature, but that's one of the appeals of horror and dark fantasy. If I don't get that engagement, I feel sort of lost.

On the other side, I did feel some emotions for Anna. When we first met, I was really shocked and quite horrified. But that didn't last long (well not as much). As I came to know her, I felt pity and curiosity for her, and a strange sort of sympathy and liking. Now the author did succeed at this. I didn't understand how she could make a love story out of this idea, and she created a very young, fragile seed of one between Cas and Anna. One that I am encouraged to watch grow or at least hope for the best. Other than Cas and Anna, the characterization was sketchy. I did like that Carmel was the 'it girl' with a heart. And I liked Thomas. He's a sweetie who reminded me of my TV husband Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds for some reason.

As far as the suspense storyline, it fell somewhat short. I don't care much for modern horror, with its dependence of shock, gore, and grisly, visceral violence. I like the gothic style, where atmosphere is pivotal. What we don't see feeds our imaginations and escalates the tension we feel to a razor sharp edge. There was some of that beloved gothic appeal, but it was ruined by the injection of teen slasher style horror moments and high school "mean girl/it clique" dross. That's a big turnoff for me. While I don't feel that Blake trivializes the horrible death of teens in this book, I think that going there sort of tarnished this story for me. Also, the climax was too abrupt and I didn't quite get a strong feel or read a strong enough connection between the Anna situation and the one that had steered Cas into his career. I felt like there were embryonic tendrils there that could have bloomed beautifully with more intensive narrative. But not enough in their present form. It felt like voodoo/malevolent entity lite to me. I honestly feel that this book falls into that category of books written for the new generation of tv and movie watchers (and no offense when I say that). The stories have the basic presentation of ideas that reads like a movie, but not in the visual sense. More in the sketchbook/screenplay-basic narrative. Mainly images and snarky comments, but where's the beef fundamentally? While this is not a bad thing in itself, it's not my preferred sort of writing when it comes to novels.

I can see why this book has so much appeal. There are parts that I give an A+ too (namely the imagery and back story of Anna), but they are more sparse than I would like in a book. The overall product is vaguely unsatisfying overall. I give it four stars because of the things I liked about it. I'll keep reading this series because I do like Anna and her relationship with Cas, and Thomas, the teen who befriends Cas, sparkes with his geeky sweetness. I'd like to see what mess they get into next. And I'd like to see if Blake can develop this good idea into something more meaty in the end.

Recommend with some serious reservations.

As much as it pains me, this book turned out to be a very low rated four stars.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Affair by Lee Child

The Affair (Jack Reacher, #16)The Affair by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As my second book in the Jack Reacher series (although #16 in publication and a prequel in sequence), The Affair wasn't a shabby audio read at all. The narrator Dick Hill has a terse, noirish delivery that adds to the story. He sounds a bit older than I would associate with Reacher, but he definitely has Reacher's 'you ain't the boss of me' attitude and conveys his ruthless, efficient approach to solving injustices. I think he is a good choice to narrate for the Jack Reacher books. I do have to admit that I was giggling like a schoolgirl on the love scenes. I can't help it. Audiobook love scenes always strike me that way, and especially with an older male narrator who sort of gave them a 'dirty old man' vibe!

It's interesting. This seems like a simplistic storyline, but when everything came together, it wasn't. The Affair is the story of small town secrets tied in with the bigger and murkier waters of powerful people who feel the impunity to do whatever they want. Child kept me guessing. I went back and forth about what was going on and who was behind it. He really had me going and thinking that the killer was someone I really didn't want it to be. In the end, I was like, "So that's not the killer?" That was well done.

Child has an interesting way of being very brisk about describing some aspects of his narrative, but descriptive in a vivid, emotive way about others. I felt immersed in this small town with its racial divisions, brutal poverty and a seething sense of injustice that comes from the eternal 'haves versus the have nots'. As it does to Reacher, injustice sits heavy on my stomach, so even though Reacher can be highly ruthless, in a way it's a rewarding thing to know that there is an avenging angel out there at least in the fictional world to fight for those who have been disenfranchised and denied of their rights and their voices. I suppose that's why Reacher is around. When you have these kinds of situations with so much brutality and casual discarding of lives, it makes you want a meaty fist of vengeance like Reacher who is there to clean up the mess. His descriptions of Army/military life also grabbed my interest. I don't know if he got all that right, but it sounded plausible to me. At least some of the governmental parts struck a familiar note.

Reacher is an interesting character. He's really kind of a basic sort. His view of life is so simple and without the extra qualifiers that most characters seem to have. He understands authority, but he also has a habit of doing what he thinks is right even if that's against the dictates of authority.

Sheriff Elizabeth Deveraux was an intriguing character. Ex-marine and sheriff of Carter's Crossing, the daughter of the long-term sheriff. She's a bit of a study in contrasts. The romance between Reacher and Deveraux was fairly basic, although Child effectively conveys the attraction and mutual respect between them. Neither is a good bet for a long-term relationship, but I still wished that things might work out in that direction (view spoiler)[(even knowing this is a prequel so that wasn't in the cards) (hide spoiler)].

The Affair was a good book, but I felt an emptiness when it ended. I don't know if it was just the stripped down nature of the overall plot or that I felt unsatisfied with the overall nature of things that went down. It bothered me to see those people die like that and how it was handled. And while Reacher did what he could to make things right, it doesn't bring those people back, or prevent it from happening again. And Reacher pays a heavy price in the end to do what he did, or maybe for being the kind of man he is. Was that a deliberate thing on Child's part? Maybe. Overall, a pretty good book that I'd recommend to fans of thriller/suspense and kickbutt heroes.

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Monday, October 08, 2012

Serial Games by K. Victoria Chase

Serial Games (Virginia Justice, #1)Serial Games by K. Victoria Chase
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Serial Games is a gripping romantic suspense thriller. Maggie and Brandon are an FBI profiler and a Fugitive Retrieval Specialist US Marshal who team up to recapture a notorious serial killer who escapes custody.

What I liked about this story:

*Maggie is an appealing heroine. She is a black woman who doesn't pander to stereotypes that are all too prevalent. Not only is she reserved, cerebral, and very good at her job, she is a woman of faith who shows dedication and drive to catch a very cunning serial killer--one that she had been highly instrumental in putting away the first time. I liked how she carries herself--she's not focused on being sexy or catching a man. She's focused on doing a good job in her field, putting her intelligence and training to use to better the world, and is a bit of a workaholic--not very good at the life/work balance. Even though she has feelings for Brandon, she doesn't allow herself to be his punching bag or let him to take advantage of their attraction to each other. She juggles a family dynamic in which she feels competition with her older sister, who is a successful attorney who is also happily married with a child. Her mom constantly reminds her of her need to get married, but Maggie isn't worried about that, when her job keeps her so busy.

*Brandon is magnetic and scrumptious. He's a bit tortured after losing his fiancee' and he is nursing an anger with God as a result. He was definitely blowing hot and cold, and he knew it, but I liked the way he interacted with Maggie.

*The chemistry was great in this book. It's clean romance, but the author conveys the attraction and the developing relationship between Maggie and Brandon in an engaging way. It's good romance for Christians who have certain beliefs about how to conduct a relationship and a courtship. It's kind of hard to find books that show this well. It's usually one extreme or the other: no chemistry, and too 1950s or way too erotic with behaviors that don't fit what is expected of single Christians in a dating relationship. I liked how Chase uses kisses, dialogue, and physical interactions and body language to build the chemistry between Maggie and Brandon. I found it very believable.

*The suspense part was well done. I felt like I watching an episode of Breakout Kings or Criminal Minds. Chase doesn't make things gruesome, but she portrays the pathology and the darkness of the serial killer very realistically.

*Chase's writing style is active and her voice is confident and sophisticated. She did a good job of balancing the varied themes of this book, without sacrificing any in the end result. It's only fair to say that I am not a big fan of serial killer fiction. While I didn't think she was heavy-handed, Ms. Chase doesn't skimp or go lightweight on this aspect of the novel. On the other hand, I didn't yearn for more focus on the romance because she was spending too much time on the suspense angle. I think that while she does convey a spiritual message, she does it naturally, so I don't feel like this book was at all preachy. Instead, it's a good choice for a reader who wants a good romantic suspense novel that is on the clean side and with characters who have personal relationships with God that they are working through. A person who is open to reading a novel with a Christian message, one that isn't focused exclusively on that message, or a reader is not necessarily a Christian, might enjoy this book.

Overall Thoughts

My thanks to K. Victoria Chase for the opportunity to read Serial Games. I was happy to be able to explore some interracial romantic suspense that is clean, and not focused on eroticism. These are quite hard to find in this genre. I liked that this storyline is unique for the majority of the interracial content available. Maggie is a heroine that I could respect as a person and admire for her work ethic and her personal ethics. Brandon is definitely appealing as a hero, with a touch of the tortured aspect to his character, and also very good at his job. I felt the chemistry between them, and I can definitely see them building a life together. I would recommend this book.

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Monday, October 01, 2012

Hellboy, Vol.7: The Troll Witch and Others

Hellboy, Vol. 7: The Troll Witch and OthersHellboy, Vol. 7: The Troll Witch and Others by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dark and dreamy imagery. Mignola shows a love and appreciation for myth and folklore that I find endearing as a fellow aficionado.  With the inking and drawings, much is left up to the interpretation of the readers, and the writing itself is cerebral enough to appeal to a reader who likes to ponder what the point of a story is, and not feel spoon-fed.  Whenever I read some of Mignola's work, it makes me want to go out and find more of it.  That's a good thing, I think.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mere Christianity by CS Lewis

Mere ChristianityMere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished listening to this book early this morning, a little before seven. I could not sleep, and as I lay in the darkness in need of some comfort and company, I thought that I should go ahead and finish it.  I am glad I did. 

I am perhaps a bit biased. I have always liked Lewis, ever since I read The Chronicles of Narnia in high school.  My liking deepened for him when I saw the movie Shadowlands.  Something about his life called to me.  I have since done research on him and his journey from atheism to fervent Christian belief.  I cannot deny how inspiring I find his life.

I started this book years ago, and put it down, not out of disinterest, but because of other priorities at the time. As far as I got, which was not far, I appreciated his methodical, clear approach.  I always intended to finish it.  I actually own two copies, one on my Kindle, and one paperback copy.  When I saw this at the library on audiobook, I decided to listen to it.  That was a good decision.

Mere Christianity is a book on the fundamentals of Christian belief. Its audience is not just Christians, but also non-believers, folks who would like to investigate the faith of Christianity, what it entails, and what it doesn’t.  Although the Bible is the foundation of our beliefs, I think this book does an exceptional job of condensing, or explaining, if you will what Christians espouse. 

I respect Mr. Lewis that he does not pretend to have all the answers.  That he does not deny that there are some things he had not figured out.  Nor does he deny that he struggled with some aspects of being a Christian at times. That is a strong testament to the life of a Christian. We admit that we are flawed folks in need of saving. We admit that we strive to know God and to have God work in us to make us more like him.  That takes a fundamental humility, one that is rewarded time and time again. By breaking down and admitting our brokenness, we become whole by our acceptance of him who made all things. 

There were parts of this book that spoke so intimately to my spirit, that I lifted my hand to praise God. For Mr. Lewis had indeed through the power of the Holy Spirit, put on paper that feeling that I believe all people who are born again in Christ feel and experience.  For that alone, I could easily give this book five stars. However, it has yet more to offer.

I appreciate just as much, how logical Mr. Lewis is in his discussion of Christianity. While many feel that Christians are fools who believe in fairy tales, he shows just how much sense Christianity makes to those who choose to follow it.  While atheism might have appeal for some, there is more appeal to those who choose to follow Christ than deciding to reject God in any form.  He takes it a bit further to explain why some point in between atheism and Christianity  (including other belief systems) won’t work for those who choose to follow Christ. We freely admit we have nothing to lose, looking at the facts, and yes, there are inescapable facts about Jesus Christ, not just found in the Bible, in human history recorded by those who have absolutely no stake in affirming or confirming that miracle of God begotten man who came and died and rose again for the sins of humanity.  He also speaks into the facts about the nature of humanity and what makes us uniquely created to love and to interact with a Creator who became man so that we could have an intimate and real relationship with him.   If we are fools to seek Christ, then why do the laws of human morality and that essential need inside ourselves point to the need for a savior, for fellowship with God?

I won’t say I didn’t struggle with some aspects.  And Lewis does not in any way excuse the fact that he is saying things that are hard to face.  I like that brutal honesty.  Brutal honesty is as much a part of the Christian faith as the comfort is in knowing that while the walk in following Christ is a tough road, we do it not alone, but through the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, who lives in us and empowers us to follow him.

This book comes highly recommended by this reader.  It’s not overly long, certainly not bogged down in theological doctrines that won’t make any sense to a person who does not belong to a specific Christian denomination or who isn’t even a Christian. In fact, Mr. Lewis works very hard to use concrete examples that illustrate his points.  His analytical approach makes this profound spiritual message that much more powerful, because he does not seek to play on the reader’s emotional heartstrings or sentimentalities.  As a lover of Christ, he does not seek to turn his message into another one of manipulation (as many view Christianity and the followers of this faith), for it’s far too important for that.  I know that I will read this book again, probably more than once. I would like to come back to it and explore some of the thoughts here. They speak to me, and perhaps will speak to others, regardless of how they currently feel about Christianity.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and BoneDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not sure how I feel about this book. It has beautiful writing. The descriptions are lyrical and lush in their imagery.  The ideas are very imaginative.  I loved Karou. She's strong and vulnerable. She's old for her years, but full of youthful energy.  Akiva has an appealing brokenness and dangerous allure. And of course, I love angels.  However, I didn't feel satisfied when I finished this book. I felt rather empty, to be honest.  I felt a twisty knot of anguish inside.  Maybe that's a sign that it was a very good book. That I felt deeply for both Karou, Akiva, Brimstone, Madrigal.  I couldn't take sides easily.  That's real though, isn't it?  War always has losers and rarely has winners. Even the winning side counts the cost, with the innumerable loss of lives, as much as their way of life in no small part.

Now this is embarrassing for a huge romance fan to admit.  I found the romantic descriptions a bit much for my tastes.  A little too saccharine for me.  It could be because I listened to the audiobook version, and honestly I tend to avoid romance on audiobooks (with some notable exceptions).  I think I liked this better as fantasy than as a romance.  Certainly the end was a hard slap in the face.  Very melancholy!

I can see why this book is so well-loved and highly reviewed. It has a lot to offer a fantasy reader. The storyline is very creative, with the author's building of unique myths just for this novel, and the writing is lush and beautiful.  As an audiobook, it's a feast to the ears, and the narrator does a great job.  However, since I am an unrepentant emotional reader, I couldn't give this five stars, because I wasn't fully satisfied in some intangible way.  Having said that, I am looking forward to the upcoming sequel.

Would I recommend this? Yes.  It's a book you don't want to miss.  Whether you'll feel the same way I did, I can't say.  It's important for you to make up your own mind.

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Saturday, September 01, 2012

Living Words of Jesus

Living Words Of JesusLiving Words Of Jesus by Mark R. Norton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good devotional for a Christian to read in that it is a collection of what Jesus taught and said during his three year ministry on earth, found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In the style of the Touchpoints series of books, the writing is divided into sections based on content. The scripture is provided in New Living Translation, and commentary on the scripture is included under the Bible verses.

To know Jesus is to believe what he said and what he expects of his followers.  That knowledge is right there in the Word of God, the Bible.  As Christians, we have the Holy Spirit to guide us into truth, and the Bible as our reference on God.  With those sources of inspiration we can live our lives through the power God gives us.  This devotional in my hands helped me to focus on his sayings and teachings and put them into the perspective of addressing life's specific conditions and what my calling is as a believer in Jesus.  This book doesn't take the place of reading the Bible, by any means. Instead, it's a good adjunct for those who are desirous to hide the words of the Lord in their heart, and to apply what he said and what it means to your life in particular.

Although this is pretty basic, it serves its purpose. The four star rating is because it's a good condensation of what is spread throughout the Gospel that Jesus said and taught, and I like the ability to reference the Lord's sayings based on subject matter. I picked my copy up at the used bookstore and it more than paid for itself. 

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Samurai Game by Christine Feehan

Samurai Game (Ghostwalkers #10)Samurai Game by Christine Feehan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was so sad to finish this book. I love visiting with the GhostWalkers in any capacity, and the arrival of the long lost Thorn (now called Azami) was desperately appreciated. Sam is a sweetheart while clearly maintaining his capable and lethal identity as an enhanced soldier. He is a very calm, together person. I think in some ways, the quiet heart of Team One. From the other books he seemed courtly and down to earth, eminently huggable. It's nice to see more dimensions to him and to see his love story unfold.

Hanging out with Team One again was awesome. And getting to meet the incredibly gifted and advanced Daniel was a real pleasure. He's going to make life very interesting for his parents and the Teams. Also, it was nice seeing Ryland in the field again. I missed seeing him kick some butt. The Team is not just a well-oiled military team, but a close-knit brotherhood/family.

While there is definitely an insta-love vibe between Sam and Thorn, it works for them. I could and do believe in their love. Sam and Azami connect on an intellectual, physical and emotional level. Sam has always kept a part of himself separate from others (despite his tight bonds with the other members of Team One and their wives), and when Azami comes along, she finds her way into the deeper parts of him very quickly. He wants to be her protector, although this lethal woman is more than capable of taking care of herself and others. Sam sees the wounds that Whitney's experiments have left on Azami's psyche and body and it only makes her more beautiful to him, not the broken, unwanted person she fights to leave behind. I loved that Azami is a samurai warrior in every way. I also loved her demure, together, composed demeanor. Despite her calm, she is a very passionate, deep person. She has a lot of strength to survive what she endured from Whitney's heinous experiments, rising like a phoenix from the ashes. The tattoos she wears are very representative of her journey and her psyche. I have to admit, I wish I had gotten to see her go to town with a katana (I'm a martial arts freak, so forgive!), but she proves her lethal skill in many ways, as much as ninja assassin as a samurai (and for a girl who has always thought ninjas were freaking awesome, that worked for me). I liked what I saw of her brothers, and honestly would like to see more.

I am very curious to see where the conspiracy will go next with Whitney and Violet. It looks like there's going to be a game-changer on this front. Azami is going to be a real asset in this arena, with her intel into Whitney, and her resources as a Yoshiie. She probably hates Whitney more than all of the other GhostWalkers combined, and with good reason. Whitney made a huge mistake underestimating her and the other GhostWalker women, not to mention the strong bond between the GhostWalkers. His reckoning is coming, although I don't want to see this series end any time soon.

This book felt too short. I was enjoying it so much, when it ended, I was like, "Oh, no!" I would have been happy with seventy-five more pages, easy. It's like leaving a gathering of your favorite people when these books end, knowing you might not get to spend time together again for a while. I really don't want to wait a year for another installment. It's going to be a long wait. I think I will end up rereading this book to experience more of Sam/Azami's love story and the GhostWalkers yummy goodness.

It's hard to say how I felt about this book, other than loving it and smiling most of the time as I read. The action was hardcore and fierce, and the loving was intense and beautiful, deeply emotional. Despite that satisfaction I felt reading it, I fight a pervasive feeling of sadness because it's over and I don't want to leave this world. I guess I need therapy for my GhostWalkers addiction! That's all I can say right now! Another thumbs up from this die-hard GhostWalkers fan.

*This might be a first draft for this review as my feelings coalesce into something coherent.*

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The Lone Wolfe by Kate Hewitt

The Lone WolfeThe Lone Wolfe by Kate Hewitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little different from what I expected. I thought Jacob would be more approachable based on his appearances in the other books.  However, it makes sense to see him so cold, so disconnected from life.  Especially with his fears of hurting others and doing violence as a legacy of his father's abuse and substance abuse. 

The metaphor of a gardener painstakingly and lovingly transforming and rehabilitating a neglected garden to its former glory reflects how Mollie helps Jacob to come to terms with this fears and his isolation and open himself up to her love. With her gentle, loving care, she coaxes him back to an emotional life.  Jacob always was a family man, no question. He loved his brothers and sister deeply, and the only reason he left and abandoned them was to save them.  This sets the pattern for twenty years of running away and isolating himself.  He was out in the cold and while it was for his survival and protection of others, it was to his detriment. When he returns to Wolfestone Manor and becomes involved with Mollie, he is able to put his demons to rest.

For a short book, Hewitt creates a believable emotional journey.  The fact that she does have all the siblings come together at the end as a family is the absolutely crucial element I needed.  It was the resolution of this eight book journey that left me ultimately satisfied, even though I am not 100% sure that Kate Hewitt's writing style reached me as much on an emotional level as I wished.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I would have preferred a deeper connection, since I have wanted to read Jacob's book from the very beginning.  I am sad to see this series end. I grew very attached to the Wolfe family. I can at least be satisfied that they are all happily married and beloved by their spouses and others, with a hopeful future.  When I finished this book, this desire was fulfilled, and that is a good thing!

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