Saturday, January 25, 2014

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volume 1 by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I admit I saw the movie first.  With that out of the way, I am going to try hard not to compare the two in my review, even though I did when I was reading. I will just add that I have no quarrels with the casting decisions all around (not including the addition of Dorian Gray and Tom Sawyer). I've been wanting to read this for a while because I love mashups, and I have a particular love for Victorian genre fiction and literature.  I finally bit the bullet and pulled this off my library shelves.

Here are my thoughts:

I think this book is too crass for my tastes.  The violence, the characterization, and to some degree, the sexuality (although that is probably more subtly done than the other aspects).  On the other hand, I did like Quatermain, Harker, and Nemo, and I sort of liked Dr. Jekyll. I loved the idea of a their teaming up for the defense of Great Britain and all that.  I despised Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man. He was repulsive. His behavior showed no moral compass whatsoever, and his willingness to harm innocent people was distressing. His behavior in the girl's school was beyond the pale.  I can't hold the actions of Mr. Edward Hyde against his alter ego, Dr. Henry Jekyll, but I wasn't a fan of the carnage that Hyde perpetrates, gleefully illustrated by the artist of this book, Kevin O'Neil.

Another big issue was the very racist Orientalism on display in this book. I realize that this is a realistic reflection of the time period, but I can't be too tolerant of how unrestrained it was , especially in a modern publication.  The pictures of the Chinese characters seemed too much racist caricatures from some sort of propaganda pamphlet for my comfort.  In contrast, Captain Nemo's character is portrayed with dignity and strength of character. It was hard to integrate the two in my thinking.  I want to guess that Moore and the artist wanted us to take it tongue in cheek, but it was a bit too offensive for my tastes.

I'm not sure how I feel about this book.  I guess if I pick this series up again, it might be with long intervals in between.  I definitely have to be in the mood for this kind of subject matter, with main leads whose behavior is disturbingly psychopathic and amoral, and the above mentioned racist content. While I can excuse Dr. Jekyll, right now, I pretty much hate Hawley Griffin and consider him a menace to society.  I haven't read The Invisible Man, so it's possible he's very much in line with the character from HG Wells' novel, so I guess I'll have to read it and see what I think.

I give this three stars because there is something worthwhile about this idea, but I wasn't too thrilled about several aspects of the execution.

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Powers, Volume 1: Who Killed Retro Girl? by Brian Michael Bendis

Powers, Vol. 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?Powers, Vol. 1: Who Killed Retro Girl? by Brian Michael Bendis

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Powers is a clever blending of superhero and noir crime/mystery fiction.  Superheroes not only exist, but they are a normal part of the landscape in this world.  And they can end up both as murder victims and perpetrators.

Detective Christian Walker hides a past that is interconnected with superheroes who are involved in the latest murder case, Retro Girl, a seemingly invulnerable crimefighter who is found with her throat slit in a playground underneath a spray-painted phrase, "Kaotic Chick."

This provides for some interesting moments as Walker and his new partner, Deena Pilgrim work to solve the case.  Any good police procedural includes a bit about the medical examiner, and one can imagine that trying to do an autopsy on a person whose body is invulnerable could be difficult.  There's a bit of black humor inherent in that situation, along with the sadness that someone would murder a woman who was very much beloved to the city at large.

Another fun bit was when the detectives interview various superheroes and supervillains.  Any self-respecting superhero-inclined geek would probably get a thrill out of this, and some of their answers were quite hilarious.  It's interesting to see the varying level of cooperation in the case that the super-villains provided.  Their replies very expressive of their individual personalities, both in the case of the heroes and villains.

The storyline in this is dark, but not too dark. Suitably noirish.  The character development is pretty well-done.  Christian Walker has the physique of a superhero like Superman or Batman, and the stoic demeanor, specifically the latter crimefighter. He also has a sense of latent anguish that his inquisitive partner ends up digging away at until he reveals a surprising past that provides a bond to the superhero community.  It's clear that these super-powered people have very human personalities, both in the good and bad ways, as the reader finds out more about Retro Girl and the people who knew her closest.

Murder is always a tough subject.  In this case, the reveal on who killed Retro Girl mirrors the senselessness  of violent crime that we see in our real life societies.  One would think that a superhero would be safe from such violence, but people always seem to find a way to harm each other. 

The artwork is tailored to the noir storyline, with bold lines and figures, and the backgrounds done in shadows with minimal bright colors.  The creators of the series studied the use of lighting in cinema, and it shows in the art design of this book.

This is a good start to a series.  I'll be coming back because the storyline is very intriguing to me.

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0 stars.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

No Longer a Dream by Carole Mortimer

No Longer a DreamNo Longer a Dream by Carole Mortimer
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

This was interesting and unputdownable until the end. This is the drama I was looking for in the last books by this author I read and was disappointed with. Add a hero who has a vibe that sets you up to dislike him, and mix him with a heroine who is sweet, but sassy enough to hold her own. Put a dash of "Wow! Did they really meet that way?" and some family drama. And lastly, great sexual tension, and you have an arresting read.

Caleb didn't endear himself to me at first. I admit the butt slapping intro was a black mark. It hit my male chauvinism buttons. Plus, he has the macho air of aggression that normally doesn't work for me when it hits me in the face in a book. However, Cat was so good at facing off with Caleb, and she's no one's pushover, so they were perfectly matched. While the age difference is pretty considerable (15 years), it didn't bother as much, because Cat is fairly mature, independent, and Caleb doesn't feel way too old at 39. He reminded me of the Hollywood sex symbols of the early 80s, and since I was a wee girl and I hadn't developed my palate for actors at that tender age (although I wanted to marry Hutch on the eponymous show for some reason), I can't say I was feeling that vibe. Caleb started winning me over gradually. I think it was seeing his vulnerabilities as much as his obvious strengths. And the fact that even though he was supposed to be this confirmed bachelor hardened against woman after a divorce (except as bedmates) and jaded about women, it's clear he's crazy about Cat. There is plenty of sizzle between Caleb and Cat, but Caleb doesn't win Cat over too easy (I hate that). He has to work to earn her. I liked that he was so jealous of her deceased fiance'/childhood sweetheart.

The fact that Caleb's dad is an elusive Hollywood maven still mourning his wife's death for thirty years adds an intriguing facet to this book. I have a bit of a jaundiced love affair for Hollywood, due to the fact that I am a huge movie buff and TV-watcher, so I am always a bit drawn to a bit of Hollywood thrown into my fiction reading. Lucien's POV was sad and gruff and intriguing, and the perfect touch to help Cat get over her angst over her lost love and to gain some insight on her feelings for Caleb. And his son, Luke's bad behavior (Luke's bad behavior is why Cat and Caleb meet under such infamous circumstances), hides a sad soul that Cat connects with on a deep level because she identifies the desperation within.

Every character in this book adds something to the portrait of its main characters, from Lucien (Caleb's father), Luke (his son), Norm (his assistant/Man Friday), and a bit of Mrs. MacDonald (Caleb's housekeeper) and Vicki, Cat's flatmate. They make a short novel feel incredibly textured.

No Longer a Dream is a vintage Harlequin Presents that I think is worth seeking out. There is a lot of emotional complexity in the short length, and a story that builds on the foundation of a good romance in such a way that you feel like you get a bonus level of storytelling. I think books like this make me keep seeing out vintage Harlequin Presents books.

Thought not a five star read, it's more than a four star. Let's say it's 4.25/5.0 stars.

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The Last Illusion by Diana Hamilton

The Last IllusionThe Last Illusion by Diana Hamilton
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

This was a pretty good book, but it's one of those books where it would have lasted thirty pages if the leads had just sat down and had a long conversation. There's only so long that you can sustain tension in a book in which the lead couple splits up due to lies and misunderstanding, without one of the leads being shown in a negative light. In this case, I did like Charley, but she seemed really immature in her decision-making. I couldn't help but think that maybe she needed some time to grow up. She married very young (soon after losing her parents), before her personality was even formed, and she felt so insecure that everything that happened in her marriage seemed like an indictment against herself as lacking as a wife/woman in comparison to the dreaded other woman.

Sebastian was actually a decent guy, although I wish he had been a little more proactive in demanding an explanation and explicitly clarifying his end of things when they were newlyweds. Again, back to what I sad before about the falseness of the conflict. You couldn't really blame either character, although they both messed up, so you're left to wonder what was the point of the four year separation. I think the author probably wanted Charley to have time to grow up, but I wish that their reason for breaking up the first time was more organic and less contrived (OW's machinations). Yeah, I realize that the OW drama is a very important sub-theme in Harlequin Presents books. This one was just so hackneyed and unbelievable, really.

I think this is one of those books you just have to be in the mood for. It's fairly classic Harlequin Presents from the late 80s-early 90s. Charley's fiance is such a buffoon, and actually quite unattractive (both physically and personality-wise). It's hard to believe that she would have fallen for him, other than the fact that she was just lonely and hurting and the oaf took advantage of that. I guess it was a good thing that Sebastian wasn't complacent enough to give her a divorce right way (wanted to fight for their reconciliation-although words wouldn't have gone amiss!). The heroine could use some maturity, even after four years apart from the hero, and the hero should learn to stand up for himself better. I do have to say the chemistry and sensuality was well-done and helped my rating considerably. I'm typically not into Latin heroes, but he was kinda scrumptious.

A slightly better than middle of the road read. Overall rating: 3.5/5.0 stars.

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Loser Take All by Rosemary Hammond

Loser Take All (Harlequin Presents, No 896)Loser Take All by Rosemary Hammond
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

**Let me give a warning in this review about this book:

If you don't like rape/forced seduction/non-consent scenario, do not read this book. If you tolerate or don't mind this content, then you may like this book despite that material. **

This book was recommended to me on a forum somewhere (perhaps for the objectionable content above). I must have ordered it to see how that was handled. I am curious about how authors were able to approach questionable content and still 1) get published, 2) gain a following, 3)write a book that others will recommend. I think that many readers have enough intelligence and self-awareness to read a book in which questionable content occurs and take it as written and either decide they can deal with the way it was written and treat it as fiction that doesn't espouse or endorse said behavior in real life, or decide that it didn't work for them. As I grow older, I have gotten very intolerant to rape (between the leads) in a romance. Let's face it, back in the 80s, it was hard to avoid this content, so you just dealt with it. Now, it's rare, and I think that is a reflection of the times. I never really liked it, to be honest. ( I am okay with forced seduction, but that does read different in a book. (although in real life, rape is rape) I think it's because the prevalence of violence against women (and the manner in which it is addressed) that occurs in society has sensitized me to this issue. Let me say this here and now: Spousal rape is a real thing, and it is 100% wrong. That's my official stance on it. That doesn't mean that I will give a book 1 star just because it has spousal rape or non-consent sexual encounters without consideration of other factors.

In this book, it was rather shocking to me. Not that it was graphically depicted, but that the writer didn't try to dress it up as anything other than rape. I believe that the author handled the subject matter responsibly and I feel that the hero was both sorry for what he did and realized how serious his action was. He didn't expect forgiveness, although he did ask for it. The heroine didn't accept blame for what happened or write it off, or assume that he had to right to rape her just because he was her husband (and Thank God for that). It was something she had to process emotionally and I was overall okay with the way the characters dealt with it. In the context of a fiction novel, I can see such a situation and deal with it. In reality, no. In my mind, I face the reality of this situation in light of a US senator's recent comment dismissing spousal rape, and it gives me a sick feeling inside. I wonder if that was a coincidence that I read this book a couple of days after seeing what this senator said. Maybe, but since I don't live in a vacuum, I can't really dismiss that coincidence.

So what do I think about this book?

I don't know if it was a very comfortable book to read on many levels.

Normally, I love the marriage of convenience theme, and I like when the heroine is reluctant to fall in love with the hero and he has to woo her. I don't feel this book is a good representation of the timelessness of this theme. First of all, while I could understand Cara's reluctance to warm to her husband, I still feel that her treatment of him was immature and mean-spirited. I am not talking about the rape situation right now, let me be clear. Right now, I am talking about her attitude for the majority of the book. In my mind, she had a choice to marry Nicholas, and she agreed to marry him in good faith. Nicholas treated her kindly, was willing to give her space and room, and he was tolerant of her meanness. The way she treated him made her seem like a big baby and I admit it made her less likable. Considering that he was helping her family out of a situation that her father engineered (although there was definitely some self-interest on his part), she seemed very unbalanced in her enmity towards Nicholas compared to her father and brothers, who were essentially willing to sell their daughter/sister to a man to save their own butts. Not to mention she is used as a dogsbody in the family. There is a lot of unaddressed pathology in this family in the background of this book.

This is one of those books where the term 'enjoying' doesn't really apply. It was a painful situation, because you could see that Nicholas was deeply in love with Cara, but Cara had emotional problems stemming from her childhood that were never addressed or dealt with. I suppose that is an example of carrying baggage into a marriage that makes it very difficult for a marriage to survive. In this case, we have a tidy(ish) ending that makes you hopeful that their marriage will survive. I guess I feel that their chances are good, but in my mind, I feel that Cara and Nicholas both need to go to marriage counseling to deal with their issues and to learn how to communicate. While the rape was a huge issue, it was the tip of the iceberg of the issues they have in their marriage, and one would hope they are able to deal with these issues in a healthy fashion and keep their marriage together.

I guess I would give this book three stars because I wasn't overly satisfied with the subject matter treatment or with the story on an emotional level. I think that the author is a good writer, and it definitely kept me interested, although sometimes it felt like a train wreck about to happen. Sometimes, that kind of fun with Harlequin Presents, but not in this case.

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Hellboy, Volume 4: The Left Hand of Doom by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 4: The Right Hand of Doom (Hellboy, #4)Hellboy, Vol. 4: The Right Hand of Doom by Mike Mignola
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For some reason, I grabbed this graphic novel from my library, thinking it was the second in the series. I read this right after I finished Seed of Destruction, and I have to say I liked this much more. Maybe because of the short story format and the use of different folklore legends. As I've said before in my reviews of Mignola's work, I love his appreciation and encyclopedic knowledge of folklore from all over the world. As a person who is an enormous life-time lover of folklore, mythology and fairytales, I am endlessly charmed by modern writers who plumb the depths of existing folklore traditions and explore those in their work. I share Mignola's interest in the darker folklore and also his appreciation for the Gothic and Classic horror story. He mixes these snippets together into a whole that brings a respectful homage to all and creates something new as a result.

Mignola starts off this collection with a charming story called "Pancakes," in which a young Hellboy experiences pancakes for the first time, and the demons of hell mourn because they know they have lost his loyalty. Pancakes will always trump over ruling in hell. You have to laugh at that!

I had never heard of St. Leonard of Limousin, a folk story about a hero who fights a dragon and where his blood drips, lilies grow. Mignola does a nice twist on this, in "The Nature of the Beast," where Hellboy (with some help from St. Leonard himself) wins the day.

"King Vord" taps into the Norse legends when Hellboy gets sent to Norway to help out an old friend of Professor Bruttenholm, and is both dark and amusing. Be careful what you wish for!

"Goodbye, Mr. Tod," is a nod towards Lovecraft and spiritualist belief in manipulating ectoplasm. I didn't have very strong feelings towards this story.

Hellboy is the narrator through frame stories that revisit dark folktales from as far away as Japan, such as the story "Heads" in which Hellboy spends the night in the house of very strange hosts who have a tendency to lose their heads. Nobody knows how to scare a reader like the Japanese, or so it seems. I am too much of a coward to watch the Japanese horror movies, but here is a nicely chilling story for me to enjoy in that tradition.

Readers of Le Fanu's "Carmilla" will appreciate "The Vârcolac" as it looks at Eastern European vampire legends and has a scene that stood out for me from reading "Carmilla."

My favorite story was "Box Full of Evil", a pure horror story that features the Hand of Glory folk legend and some really evil people who think they can make deals with devils and come out on top.

I have to give this one five stars because it captivated me and had me writing down the various legends to look them up. That's always good when a book makes me want to do research on the background material used in the stories. A very enjoyable read.

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Hellboy, Volume 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction (Hellboy, #1)Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

It was really interesting to read the comic for Hellboy after seeing the movie first and so many years ago. It's no secret how much I love Hellboy.  I am eternally grateful to the Guillermo Del Toro movie (made with Mignola as his concept and art designer) for introducing me to this wonderful character and world where dark folklore has a vivid life (with some added humor).  I think that seeing the movie first did affect my rating. I hate to say this, but I think the movie was more dramatic in many ways than the graphic novel.  Maybe that's a good thing that Del Toro and Mignola collaborated so well to make such a fantastic cinematic vision that cemented unforgettable imagery in my brain. Having said that, I did enjoy this graphic novel version.

The storyline is actually quite different in several ways. It was darker (if that is possible), and Professor Bruttenholm (pronounced Broom)'s fate is harder to accept in the graphic novel (I felt it was more poetic in the movie).  Having said that, the graphic novel should stand alone, and should be respected for what it is, especially considering that this is the first full-length collection in the series (a few preliminary shorts notwithstanding), and a very strong foundation for a series that has branched out into so many different media (I am still keeping fingers crossed for a TV show).

Hellboy is quite a leading man.  His origins are as dark as one can imagine, but he rises above that to be more. That's a moral in itself.  Another way in which the movie excels because you can see that pathos played out in the excellent acting of Ron Perlman as Hellboy in the movie and in his relationship with his mentor, who is played by John Hurt.  (Okay, stop talking about the movie!!)  Anyway, his wisecracks and his power punches add some levity to the dark storyline.  Hellboy does get beat up a lot in this book, and I love the line "Gonna be sore in the morning."  I love this big, red guy.

Also appearances by Liz Sherman (who has her own angst to deal with), and Abe Sapien.  Together, the make a good team.

The villain is nasty with a capital N.  His master plan very dark and foul, but he had Hellboy all wrong, because Hellboy is no one's tool. and neither is Liz Sherman.

I do feel that this graphic novel suffered from having insufficient dialogue/text.  The panels tell a lot of the story, which isn't bad.  Again, I think it comes from having watched the movie first.  Ultimately, I have to give this 4.5 stars, not only because of what's there in this graphic novel, but what it has created in the creative arena, and the impact that this series has had on my literary life. Not a small one.

I stand by the assertion that Mignola is a literary hero of mine.  I will not be moved from that.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Fables, Volume 9: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire (Fables, #9)Fables, Vol. 9: Sons of Empire by Bill Willingham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sons of Empire was my last Fables installment before I stated a voluntary hiatus from the series. Fact is, I love this series, and I am not eager to get burned out on it, or to be devastated when it's over.  So I am going to take a break and investigate other graphic novel series for a little bit. Truth is, I doubt I'll stay away for long.  So let's get to the review.

This was an excellent installment to the series. It was great because we get to see Bigby and Snow and their cubs as a settled, happy family, which gave me lots of joy. Also, they go visit Bigby's estranged father, who is also the beloved grandfather of the cubs.  Bigby is hesitant to do so, but Snow asked for this as her Christmas gift.  Of course, this turns out to be quite an adventure.  In a word, this was a fun set of stories.  There was danger for the cubs, but nothing they couldn't handle, with the help of their dad.  Snow White went into a mommy rage, for good reasons. I don't think the North Wind will make such a mistake again with the cubs.  It was interesting to meet some of Bigby's family. Kind of reminded me of trips to visit my family.  I think some other people can understand what I mean if you have some interesting family members like I do. The art was lush and gorgeous as always. I enjoy seeing the cubs and how consistent the artwork is in individualizing them from each other.  As anyone knows, I am a huge fan of Bigby and Snow, so just having more of them was a gem.  This part alone is worth five stars.

The Sons of Empire arc in which we go to the Fablelands and sit in on a meeting with the Adversary and his top lieutenants wasn't quite as meaningful to me, at least emotionally. It was good to see what plans they had and what havoc they intend to reap.  Pinnochio is there to be a voice of reason, a person who knows the inner workings of Fabletown. I haven't decided if he's chosen a side yet. He seems conflicted in his loyalties. I am hoping that some of the actions of his beloved father wake him up to the extent of that person's megalomania.  I thought the use of the Snow Queen as a trusted leader in the Adversary's army was pretty interesting. The Snow Queen is in my top five favorite fairy tales.  Willingham stays true to her character.  I wonder if she will encounter Gerda and Kay later in this series???  Hansel's story arc was really disturbing, to say the least. To use a phrase from Hank Hill from Top of the Hill, "That boy's not right."  He gave me the big time creepy crawlies.  I can't believe he lasted as long as he did in Fabletown. 

Yeah, I don't love the concept of who the Adversary is, so that was not a favorite part of this story for me. However, I think it does build tension for the forthcoming volumes.  I hope that Fables will have their ducks in the row and be prepared when the Adversary makes his move for invading the world of the Mundanes.

Writing this review makes me want to jump back into the series, but I am going to stand strong. I know it will be all the more exciting when I pick up the next volume. 

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Fables, Volume 8: Wolves by Bill Willingham

Fables, Vol. 8: Wolves (Fables, #8)Fables, Vol. 8: Wolves by Bill Willingham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This volume of Fables is definitely for readers who have been following Bigby Wolf and Snow White's romance.  I think that it was very satisfying overall. I do have to agree with one of my fellow GRs friends/reviewers that Willingham committed the cardinal sin of an estranged couple, and that did bother me.  I couldn't not give this five stars though because it was overall very well done. 

I have always been enamored with werewolf stories.  I tend to shy away from the gratuitously violent gorefests, but I am fascinated with the idea of werewolves and the lore behind them.  How distinctive each story can feel. I pretty much love the whole idea of Bigby Wolf being who he is, and his evolution as a character. I feel that in this volume, his story comes full circle, although Sons of Empire (the next volume in the series) certainly adds to the story of Bigby significantly.

I liked the plot element of Mowgli trekking around the world to find Bigby, and how he encounters more than one wolf pack. You see, Mogwli is in his own way a wolf.  He's a human raised by wolves, and he understands the psychology of the pack. It's another opportunity to delve in that subject, which holds endless fascination for me.  I think there is a part of me that is attracted to the allure of the wild kingdom, not in a small way.  I don't spend a lot of time out in the wilderness, obviously. So I get my fill of it by reading stories that tap into that arena.  I feel that Willingham definitely satisfied me in that sense.

When Mowgli finally catches up with Bigby, it's to find he has tried to start a new life (or more likely hiding from the pain of having to leave Snow and the cubs behind). I was annoyed at what he does to keep his mind off that loss.  This is where Willingham messes up, if I can be frank. Snow White is awesome!  I hate that aspect, but I do like the way it was handled when he and Snow reunite.

Speaking of, I loved their reunion and where Bigby gets to be acquainted with his brood.  It doesn't take long for them to grow close to their dad.  It has a lovely element of big happy family, and I won't lie I am definitely a sucker for that.  The wedding was fun and it was a great chance to bring many of the beloved Fables characters together.

Yeah, you can tell I loved the heck out of this volume of Fables. I am incapable of hiding my enthusiasm about it.  Other than Willingham 'going there', this was a top notch addition to the series, and it ranks as one of my all time favorites.


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Perilous Refuge by Patricia Wilson

Perilous Refuge (Harlequin Presents #1518)Perilous Refuge by Patricia Wilson

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

This book turns out to be deliriously romantic by the end.  I definitely didn't expect that, although some of my trusted HP Buddies have raved about it, so I should have thought there would be some winning element here.  It's ground that has been covered before:  the boss and his secretary.  In this case, Helen is a single mother who is is also the bread-winner for her small family of a three-year-old daughter and a sister who is just about to go to college. She has no time or inclination for romance, especially after her disastrous marriage to an abusive jerk her sister Tina refers to only as 'Pig.'  She wants to keep her head down and have her safe, well-organized life.

When Ross Maclean, the owner's son, takes over the position as the head of the London office of their company, that dream bites the dust.  Ross needs a secretary who can work the hours that suit his own needs. At first he plays along, but he's intrigued why she must leave precisely at 5 pm everyday.  When she explains her situation, he seems angry.  Helen thinks it's because she allows him to think she's an unwed mother. How wrong she is.

The tension in this story builds slowly. There are a few misunderstandings (not annoyingly so, but because both characters aren't anxious to unshield well-guarded hearts). The fact that we don't have much of a hero POV assists in us feeling like Helen, on a precipice, completely unsure about Ross' intentions.  What his endgame is.  Ross has a cold, calculating demeanor that makes him feel unpredictable.  He plays his cards very close to his chest.  While I love a demonstrative hero, I think this layout worked well for the book, leading to a beautifully surprisingly conclusion.

At the end, you realize just how desperately in love Ross is, and the reveal is rapturously romantic.  Although I do have to say he showed his love in many other ways.  I for one, loved how he bonded almost instantly with Tansy.   It's because I am a sucker for men who love children.  I also liked how he gets along so well with Helen's sister, after she realizes he's not a jerk like her sister's ex.

There is a little bit of "Other Woman" drama, but it's not overdone.  Just enough to prick Helen into realizing that she does love Ross and doesn't want to share him or allow his love to go elsewhere.

Overall, this was a lovely surprise for me.  A book with some very effective romantic elements, and one that takes the often overused boss/employee relationship theme and creates a distinctive and satisfying romance story.  A vulnerable heroine and a tough hero, but done in a way that doesn't seem like gross mismatch, but a meant to be love story.  As such, I'd give this one:  4.25/5.0 stars.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Tiger Eyes by Robyn Donald

Tiger Eyes (Harlequin Presents, #1755)Tiger Eyes by Robyn Donald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to sneak in a Harlequin Presents book in the middle of my review reading schedule, and my eyes fell on this book. It's a reread, but it felt fresh and new for me. If asked, I wouldn't have listed Robyn Donald as a favorite author. But a book like this makes me want to change that.  This short romance packs a powerful punch.

Tansy is a singular heroine. She's very independent, quite confident, and very much her own woman. Her true love was always music, and she made a lot of sacrifices for that love. However, her heart is larger than she thought, because she made room for a teenage runaway with big problems.  But you know what they say about good deeds? Now she has to deal with his older, domineering and very fascinating older brother, Leo.  Leo wants to know where his brother is, but a promise is a promise.  He won't go away until he gets the knowledge he seeks.  And the more time she spends with him, the more he intrudes into the small world that Tansy has created for herself with her music.  As a music love, I can appreciate the impact that music continues to make in her life, and I love that she was determined to be a composer, and willing to work and sacrifice towards that dream, cherishing her independence along the way.

I just plain loved Tansy. Despite her young age, she is a very self-actualized woman, and she's fearless about life.  That doesn't mean she doesn't have room for growth, because she realizes that there is room in her heart for love, and that her music doesn't have to consume her whole world. 

Leo is fairly likeable as well. I think the one aspect that really appealed to me was how hard he fell for Tansy, despite the fact that she didn't fit into his world.  She challenges him and he rises to the challenge.  He's a good brother and son, and that is definitely worth admiring.  And despite his rough edges, he is a honorable man. 

This book has the zing that has me coming back to vintage Harlequin Presents.  In the short 189 pages, Donald packs in a powerful story with textured characters, dynamic interactions built around strong chemistry and a story that screams romantic and true love to this die-hard romantic.

For that, I'd have to give it 4.5/5.0 stars.

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Fables, Volume 7: Arabian Nights (and Days)

Fables, Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days) (Fables, #7)Fables, Vol. 7: Arabian Nights (and Days) by Bill Willingham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Willingham's exploration of fables wouldn't have been complete without a look at the Arabian Nights.  The folklore of the Middle East fits into this series very well, especially as the Adversary is expanding his takeover of the Fable lands into the Middle Eastern worlds now. 

I think that it would be impossible to integrate all of the encompassing Arabian Nights lore into one volume, and I don't think Willingham ever intended to try. Instead, he uses this story as an introductory volume, and it has some elements that really stand out in the 1001 Nights lore.  One well done example was the Jinn that the Arabian delegation brings alone with them.  I think that perhaps that shows you the powerful motifs of the Arabian Nights in one large sort of concentrated burst at the audience.  And of course, the Fables of Fabletown have to account for the power of such a force of nature, and counter-attack or at least attempt to neutralize it, much as one would consider taking on a nation with a stockpile of nuclear weapon that you want to maintain peaceful negotiations with.  Never fear, Fabletown has some potent tools in their own toolkit.

Another effective aspect of this volume was the addressing of cultural differences that the Middle Eastern worlds had from what I would consider the European Fableworlds.   Prince Charming is a big buffoon, and is completely unequipped to handy any diplomatic relations, thus his predecessor King Cole is called in to do this important job.  I did find myself agreeing with Charming on one aspect of the Middle Eastern Fablelands culture though.  Sinbad is a diplomatic leader of the Middle Eastern contingent, with a very wicked advisor who might open a few cans of worms that need to be dealt with. 

Not related so much to the Arabian Nights storyline but to the overall Fables arc was a story about two wooden creations of Geppetto who fall in love for each other and wish to be human, but will have to pay a hard price.  This story reveals Willingham's wonderful storytelling skills and the bittersweet tone and content of this volume in a nutshell.  He shows that the opposite side has players that can also evoke the sympathy of the readers, even though their acts and methods might be reprehensible or just neutral morally in the scheme of things.

I'm sure there are some heavy underlying themes in this graphic novel, and I have only scratched the surface.  I feel that I would love to reread all of these and revisit the whole series at my leisure, which is why I definitely want to get copies of these for my collection one day.

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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Virgin Secretary's Impossible Boss by Carole Mortimer

The Virgin Secretary's Impossible Boss (Harlequin Presents #2854)The Virgin Secretary's Impossible Boss by Carole Mortimer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book suffered from a lack of good romantic tension.  I just didn't feel much of a spark between Andi and Linus, which was disappointing, since there was good potential. I think this book is one of those identity crisis books where if it had been written twenty years earlier, I think Mortimer would have felt the levity to go there and make Linus the meaner, manipulative hero who propositioned the heroine and went through with it.  It would have made for more intense drama.  On the other hand, this isn't a very modern book where the couple just have their sex without commitment or any desire to commit either, where both characters felt free to cross the line between employee and employer. So, we ended up with somewhere in between and it feels and read awkward.  

I feel like I am always a little hard on Harlequin Presents that lack drama and romantic tension.  I feel like this is such a hallmark of this series, so I miss it keenly when it's not there.  I'm not just a drama-hound. I love books that are very emotionally intense, which is another good thing about this line of books. In this case, I didn't get either.  The characters weren't that engaging to me.  I would have liked it more if Linus had been more of a possessive/obsessive hero and more of a pursuer than he was.  Or if he had an unrequited love for Andi. I think he mainly just was attracted to her and finally decided he wanted to act on it.  And Andi certainly wasn't going to pursue him.  So the romance didn't really gain a lot of momentum.  I think if the author just went there more, it would have been better. I get a little bored with run of the mill contemporary romance, which this felt like.  Not enough oomph to keep my interest.   Or at least more of an emotional hook. Instead, it's just fair to middling.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Christmas Promises: The Christmas Eve Bride/A Marriage Proposal for Christmas/A Bride for Christmas by Lynne Graham, Carole Mortimer, and Marion Lennox

Christmas Promises: The Christmas Eve Bride\A Marriage Proposal for Christmas\A Bride for ChristmasChristmas Promises: The Christmas Eve Bride\A Marriage Proposal for Christmas\A Bride for Christmas by Lynne Graham

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I'd better finally write my review for this before it disappears into my mind forever.

This was a surprise find on my library's trade shelves, and I grabbed it because it had stories by Lynne Graham and Carole Mortimer. To my surprise, my favorite story was by Marion Lennox, who I had not read before.

The Lynne Graham story is very much in the vein of her full-length romances.  The heroine who is young and bubbly, and becomes an unwitting sex toy for the hero (granted he fell in love with her, but he treated her like a sex object). He dumps her because he thinks she spills the goods on his sex life to a tabloid, and it turns out she got pregnant.  Now she's working as a landscaper on the estate of a business associate and Rocco sees her and is reminded that he's not over her, despite his contempt. This story rubbed me the wrong way. I felt the heroine allowed the hero to treat her with minimal respect.  She didn't stand up for herself enough and was willing to go back to him because she loved him and because he was her baby's father. I think he owed her a lot more than she was willing to accept from him.  I don't like that in a relationship when the hero doesn't respect the heroine as his equal. In my mind, I don't see Rocco treating Amber as an equal.  Graham is a good writer even when she's not at her best. But this one just offended my sensibilities too much.  I couldn't give it more than three stars.

Carole Mortimer's story is a bit ho-hum in the sense that it's almost drama free (I admit that I am a drama hound, so I missed it).  It's a decent Christmas romance, and the hero was a nice guy. He palliated my senses after the first arrogant, and in my mind, sexist hero.  He was more of an everyday kind of guy (although wealthy). Cally has the wrong idea about Noel, and she comes to realize that he's actually a good guy.  Cally has some issues in her past that made her reluctant to trust, but I liked how Noel earns her trust by being a straightforward decent guy and showing his love for her and her daughter. The family interactions (since Noel's family descends on them en masse) were good and what you'd want in a Christmas story. This was more of a 3.5 star read.

Lastly, Marion Lennox was a pleasant surprise. There is something very fresh about this story. I admit I was really impressed with the fact that the hero is a wedding planner. And no, he's not gay.  Yay to bursting stereotypes. Guy's cold and precise and a bit snooty, but it's clear that he has a heart underneath that he buried due to tragedy in his past. The heroine was also refreshing in that she was a very down to earth girl who likes her quiet, small town life and embraces family obligations.  She's a widow who has dedicated her life to taking care of her son who was burned badly in the accident that killed her hubsand and is recovering slowly from that debilitating accident.    I loved her bond with her family-in-law and that she happily embraces their eccentricities.  Her son made me cry, I mean big time. I can't believe how mean people are to people with disabilities and physical differences, but I could see what a good man (and a potential family man in the making) Guy was in how he interacted with Henry.  I just plain liked this story, maybe because it taps into my fascination with wedding planning and my love for kooky people who don't read the book as far as being trendy and fitting in.  Lennox also touches on the phenomenon of celebrity, since Guy is a celebrity wedding planner.  Although this couple falls in love over a short time period, I believe in their happy ending. I have to give this four stars.

Because the first two stories weren't as satisfying, I'd have to give this one 3.5 stars.

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My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

My Utmost for His Highest: Traditional Updated Edition (My Utmost for His Highest)My Utmost for His Highest: Traditional Updated Edition by Oswald Chambers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In order to have written the most successful review for this book, I should have started with Day 1 and wrote something about each entry every day. Sadly, I didn't do that.  So I'll just do my best to write a summary of my thoughts of this devotional over the year-long experience of reading it.  I hope that any reader of this review finds that helpful.

Oswald Chambers is a man who definitely had an ongoing encounter with God.  His thoughts tap into every aspect of the experience of following Christ and having communion with the Spirit of God.  His words are at times an incredibly profound comfort to a broken heart.  At other times, they are a prod to one's flagging determination to fight the good fight and continue that daily walk with God in a meaningful way. Other times, they convict the reader in the best way. The way that the Holy Spirit convicts a believer of complacency or willingness to settle for a life that merely pretends belief in God as opposed to a life-changing, ever-evolving relationship with God that affects every aspect of that person's life in the more meaningful ways.  I do believe that God used Mr. Chambers powerfully in writing this devotional.  I cannot count how many times I read an entry and I felt that God was talking directly to me.  A person once said that we don't read the Bible, but the Bible reads us. I believe that Mr. Chambers was prompted by the Holy Spirit to write something that does exactly that.  I found that questions I was struggling with that week were addressed so many times in the entries I read, and I saw the lightbulb go on inside my mind.

I would recommend this devotional to every believer in Jesus, and even to people who seek to know God in a deep way.  I believe that the reader will feel touched deep inside and it will make them desire for more of God in their life.  The good news is that God wants to walk with each and every one of us in that way and relate to us in a truly real way. God always rewards those who seek him.  And "My Utmost for His Highest" is a good tool in that journey of discovering who God is and how intimately we can relate to him everyday.  Definitely worth getting a copy of this and spending a year with Oswald Chambers.

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Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Question, Volume 2: Poisoned Ground by Dennis O'Neil

The Question, Vol. 2: Poisoned GroundThe Question, Vol. 2: Poisoned Ground by Dennis O'Neil

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first became acquainted with The Question by watching Justice League Unlimited, and I knew I wanted to experience more of him.  I enjoyed the first graphic novel The Question, Vol. 1: Zen and Violence, and this one was good too, but not as good.  I think the tone didn't work for me.  In a word, sleazy.

Let me explain.  This graphic novel feels like the dark side of the 80s.  From the over-the-top 80s hair and clothing, to the whole sex, violence, and drugs atmosphere.  Yes, this is dark fiction about a shades of gray antihero who adheres to strict Objectivist philosophy.  I totally respect that.  I just didn't love the vibe.  Especially the titular story, Poisoned Ground. It starts with a real WTF.  I thought it was about a kid who wasn't right in his head going around killing people.  That's so not what this is about.  Although I'm relieved I was wrong about the story initially, I didn't like the developments that much.   It was just took icky for my tastes. The story where The Question goes to a shady Latino-Caribbean Island to rescue his mentor really didn't work for me.  I mean, really.  I find alchemy as interesting as the average weird fiction aficionado, but that dictator guy was such a psycho, and he did not get the resolution he deserved. The other two stories were pretty good. Basically masked crimefighter stuff in the dark, dangerous city stuff.   

Like I said initially, this isn't bad.  It's just not my cup of tea as far as the sleazy vibe.
I will give the next volume a try since I still like The Question character.

Readers who like Noir/Crime stories might enjoy this one.

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Joined by Marriage by Carole Mortimer

Joined By MarriageJoined By Marriage by Carole Mortimer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting little book. I think it was more of a family drama than a romance though.  I found the enormity of the family situation faced by Brianna and Nathan to overshadow their romance in many ways. At the same time, I was really drawn into that situation after the book got started.  I wonder what influenced Carole Mortimer when she wrote this book. It seems like it would make a good BBC drama, which isn't a bad thing.  Some aspects of this book were surprisingly dark and sad for a Harlequin Presents, especially the reveal about Brianna's mother.   It is a statement on how the sins of the prior generation can have a huge impact on the next ones, and that plays out in so many ways in this book. 

I want to rate this one in two different ways.  For a romance, I'd end up giving it three stars, because the romance is just not as well-developed, although there is certainly potential.  I liked Brianna and Nathan quite a bit and I wish they had more page space to shine outside of the tangled family dynamics.  As a serious drama story, I'd give it four stars.  So I think 3.5 stars is a more than fair rating.

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Friday, January 03, 2014

The Sandman, Vol.1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman #1)The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been wanting to read this one for a long time, and finally it came back in at the library.  Of course I grabbed it, and this was my last finished book of 2013. 

I've been reading Neil Gaiman for about two years, and I consider myself a pretty healthy fan of his work. This first installment showcases a lot of his style and thematic focus in his work.

From my experience of his writing, there seems to be an undercurrent of prevalent sadness , and this was no different.  It fits the overall story, considering that the main character is an immortal who interacts with humans to a varying degree.  To this ancient being, humanity is as fleeting and temporary as a blink of an eye. That has to feel rather morose to an immortal, who wonders what purpose such a short life would serve.  Also he seems to feel lonely and disconnected.  Morpheus makes an interesting lead because of his power to enter and to shape the dreams of humans, since he is the god of sleep.  He makes for a ripe subject in a fantasy graphic novel series because the concept of dreams can go in so many directions. 

Essentially, The Sandman works very well as a frame story, and that was my experience as I read the stories in this volume.  I liked them all except 24 Hours, since it is the kind of visceral modern horror that rubs me the wrong way.  Otherwise, I was pretty happy with this book.  I liked the numerous cameos for those who are familiar with the DC Comics universe (yes, some big ones!).

I feel that the collaboration between writer and artists here was very successful, as I could see a very cohesive effort in the narrative and imagery.  I have the feeling this will be a series that I enjoy, and I am looking forward to following this series in 2014.

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The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde Mysteries #1)The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Gods of Gotham was an impulse audio read from my trusty library, and it was definitely worth the read.  The narrator really took this book where it needed to go.  His voices were subtly different for each character.  He endows Timothy with the integral mix of hardened cynic and stubborn idealist which defines his persona. For Valentine, Timothy's jaded older brother, his tone is more sardonic and poised, what I would expect of a borderline shady rakish fellow such as Valentine.  The narrator also does the voices of women well. He doesn't fall into the trap of endowing all women with a high falsetto, but instead their voices are higher than men and have the feminine softness expected of women, without each one sounding like a clone. Even the children's voices are well done.  I would give the narrator five stars alone, although I am not committed to giving this whole book that rating.

Readers who have watched the television series Copper or the movie Gangs of New York will find this world familiar.  Set in New York City in the mid-19th century when the influx of Irish into the country reached an epic high, the author doesn't hesitate to be real with the situation. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from historical documents of the time, including some horribly bigoted written statements against Catholics and particularly the poor Irish that came over in the wake of the Potato Famine in Ireland.  It paints a very vivid picture of the realities of this time with all the depths of the ugliness of human nature on display.

There were more than a few wince-worthy moments, from the rampant racism against Irish and blacks (among other marginalized groups, even Jews), and not to mention the horrible bigotry towards Catholics. All these are crucial to the story, although Faye focuses more on the Irish-phobia and the racism against other groups is a realistic backdrop.  One aspect that I found the most chilling was the casual acceptance of existence of child prostitution.  This was just one of the many extant social ills of the time, but the idea is so abhorrent that it did make this read a little more difficult for me.  I was grateful that Timothy in his own way takes a hard stance against this. 

Some readers might find the portrayal of women in this novel quite jaundiced. I can't really point fingers in that area, since most of the characters have their share of stains on their soul. Having said that, I really did not like Mercy Underhill. Although I realize that Timothy is deeply in love with her, I hope he gets over her, because she does not deserve him, and not because of her failings but the callous way she treated him.  I liked Mrs. Boehm and young Bird a lot.  Their characters help to give texture to the story and to further define Timothy's own characterizations. Despite his cynicism, his deep sense of justice is shown in how he interacts with their characters in particular, but also in other ways.

It's obvious I really liked Timothy and with good reason. He's a good everyman hero.  Imperfectly perfect as a lead for this book.  I liked that he has a keen detective mind, but his reasons for having it have to do with his background as a bartender and his own hard life in New York City. He's very down-to-earth, but honorable at the same time.  His conflicted relationship with his older brother is a very important aspect of this novel.  Readers who enjoy the theme of familial relations (often troubled) will appreciate their relationship.  There is a deep seed of bitterness between them that tarnishes many of their interactions, and I was glad the author took the time to delve into that, and the reasons turn out to be very crucial to the story. I rather liked Valentine, even though he has some very questionable morals and his behavior is quite debauched even at the best of times. Deep down I think he's a good man who truly loves his brother, despite his admittedly flawed moral compass.

Overall, Gods of Gotham is a gritty, atmospheric historical mystery/thriller that made for very good listening. From a stellar narrator in Steven Boyer, to well-crafted historical details, to characters that are far from one-dimensional, this has all the ingredients for a good read.  Although not a five star book, it's definitely a four star read with my thumbs up to it and recommendation to readers who enjoy historical mysteries and thrillers.  I will be picking up the sequel, Seven for a Secret very soon.

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30 Scripture Readings for Christmas complied by Christopher D. Hudson

30 Scripture Readings for Christmas by Christopher D. Hudson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is basically a compilation of scriptures distributed into bite-sized readings over the 31 days of December. Some are more directly focused on the story of the Christ child, and others delve into his majesty and identity as the savior of all humanity and his fulfillment of the ancient prophecies that foretold of God's promise to reunite and redeem humanity through his Son. The scriptures featured are both Old and New Testament and show the unbreakable link between Mosaic Scriptures, and the work of the Prophets (looking forward to the awaited Messiah) and the New Testament, which focuses on the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. It worked very well as a devotional during the very busy month of December. It serves a dual purpose of reminding believers why Christmas has crucial spiritual importance and also as a reminder of our hope in Jesus. It's fairly no frills, but it serves its purpose and the scripture was food to this reader's spirit.

30 Scripture Readings for Christmas was a gem of a free read on Amazon. I could see me reading it again next year. It's great for readers who want to follow the scriptures through the Christmas story in December, but it could work any month, honestly. After all, the promised and fulfilled hope of Christmas can live everyday in our hearts.

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