Saturday, July 31, 2010

Waking the Witch by Kelley Armstrong

waking the witch cover

I have never read a Kelley Armstrong novel, so when Wunderkind Publishing asked me if I wanted a copy of this book to review, I had no idea it was the 11th in a series.  That's right--eleventh.  On the plus side, I didn't feel when I opened this book like I was dropping into the middle of a long-running series, and I was never lost as to the plot and characters.  But on the minus side, that was probably because Waking the Witch was pretty light on both.

Savannah has been working in a supernatural PI firm since she was sixteen, when two PIs named Lucas and Paige took her in.  Now they're on vacation and Savannah's determined to prove herself by solving her very first case, on her own.  She travels to a small depressed town where she suspects women are being killed using witchcraft.  There she becomes embroiled with various men.  The major players are:

Jesse--Young guy Savannah's age who is half-demon and also a PI.  He handed her the case to check out while he took care of something else.

Michael--Cute detective trying to solve his sister's murder.  And he drives a BMW, yet isn't a gearhead?!?  Wow, cops are making a lot these days.

Adam--Savannah's true love, who plays the role of Oblivious Male Friend.

There's also the hick inhabitants of the town (remember, kids, people who don't live in cities are uncultured, uneducated, and poor), such as Difficult and Lazy Sheriff, Old People in Diner, and Town Richie Rich Who Thinks He Can Do Whatever He Wants.

Notice anything?  That's right, none of the major characters except for Savannah are women.  There are several female characters--one child, and a slew of minor adult characters, the majority of whom are villainous in some way.  By the end, the book winds up feeling weirdly male-centric.  Even Savannah isn't much of a girl--she could be a male and the book would probably be the same.

In addition, there are several plot holes and inconsistencies of logic going on.  Just to give one example, at one point Savannah thinks, "As I got older, I dated less, and I'd thought I was just slowing down, getting ready for that big moment when Adam would notice me, but after I realized that wasn't happening, and I just kept slowing down."  First of all, that's a lot of commas.  Second of all, as I got older?  The girl is twenty-one!  I find it difficult to believe there's much of a dating arc going on there.

My main gripe with the book, though, it that it was just BLAH.  I didn't care about the women who got killed, who killed them, the characters in the town--anything, really.  I also felt zero spark between Savannah or any of the characters, except possibly the little girl.  Perhaps if I had read the ten books preceding this one I'd have more invested in the characters and would care more, but as it was I didn't get much out of it.

There are a lot of light, fun UF books out there (I'm assuming that's what this novel is aiming for) that are more entertaining and creative than this one (Twice Bitten, for instance).  However, if you're a fan of the series and the author, you'll undoubtedly want to pick this book up--I'm sure you'll enjoy it more than I did.

On that note... Wunderkind sent me an extra copy of Waking the Witch to give away!  Just leave a comment with a valid e-mail address and I will pick the winner randomly and mail them a copy.  Contest will close on Friday, August 6th, at 11 PM MST.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Movie Review: The Talented Mr. Ripley


First released: 1999
Starring: Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jack Davenport
Director: Anthony Minghella
Based on: the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Tom Ripley is a young, very poor musician living in New York City in the 1950's.  The kid is earnest and hungry and at first seems like the perfect American caricature of a future self-made man.  But then he meets Herbert Greenleaf, famed shipping magnate, and a small white lie eventually turns Tom into yet another typical American archetype--someone who will do anything, even kill those he loves, out of greed and self-preservation.

If I had to describe this movie in one sentence, it would be, "If Hitchcock made The Great Gatsby."  The build-up of suspense is slow, but very effective.  By the end of the movie, the sinister mood weighs upon you like a brick on your chest.  At the same time, this isn't just a suspense film--it's about class and greed, as well.  Tom is a poor nobody trying to fit into life of the idle American rich in Italy, and the desire to remain there is what really draws him into a life of deceit and murder--a dark room where all his secrets are kept, he calls it.  The character he confesses this to assumes that he's talking about his homosexuality, but in reality he's talking about who he really is--someone who doesn't belong in the Greenleafs' world, and never will.

The performances were, by large, really great.  Especially Matt Damon's--he was totally convincing and pitch-perfect.  Jude Law has played the same type of character before, so--yawn.  Gwenyth Paltrow reminded me once again why she won an Oscar, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was excellent, as well.

I had two major problems with the movie, which actually tie into each other: one, Cate Blanchett's character.  She's utterly random and doesn't feel organic to the story at all; she just shows up whenever Tom needs the screws put to him a little tighter.  This kind of makes sense, though, since she's the only character who was added by the screenwriters and isn't in the book.  That leads me to issue two: the length.  This movie is two and a half freaking hours long.  By the hour and a half mark I was ready to wind this puppy up and put it to bed, and by the hour fifty mark I started reading a book.  There was a lot of
unnecessary crap in this film that could and should have been cut, not the least of which was Cate Blanchett's character--the ten-minute jazz club montage, for example.  God save me from directors and party/club montages.

As for the Venice part of the movie, it was small.  There are some great shots of Venice, but most of the scenes were in Rome.  They're great scenes, however, and the apartments Tom picks out once he takes on Dickie Greenleaf's allowance are absolutely to die for.

This is a good movie I would absolutely recommend, especially if you enjoy suspense films á la Hitchcock.  The acting is impressive, the script is smart (even if it could have used some editing), and the setting's fantastic.  Definitely a solid film all-around.

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3/2 completed (I'm an overachiever like that)

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Epistolary Appeal

letter Image by kevinzim

I've been writing letters lately to one of my long-time friends who recently got married.  I used to write letters a lot, but ever since the invention of e-mail, FaceBook, twitter, and the other things on the intrawebz... not so much.  However, my friend just happened to send me a letter at a moment when I felt like writing, and so we've been corresponding by snail mail for about a month.

Aside from making me feel delightfully anachronistic (next I'm going to get a rotary telephone and plug it into the wall), there's something different about writing out a letter than an e-mail or other forms of electronic communication.  With twitter, you only have 140 characters to make your point, so usually tweets are about actions: "Ate a sandwich," "Reading The Odyssey--does it rhyme?" and other such fascinating tidbits.  Even e-mails tend to be short and straight to the point--you find out what the person wants to know, and you tell them.  The end.  Long, rambly e-mails typically annoy people.

While writing a letter, however, there seems to be more room for self-reflection, perhaps because it takes more time to write it out long-hand; or maybe because you've slotted time to just sit down and write, whereas things like e-mail and twitter are usually slotted in between actual "work" (which could be anything from Farmville to accounting) you're doing on the computer.  Also, even though letters have an audience, since you don't receive their reply for a long while it's kind of like talking to yourself.  Because of that, it seems like letters reveal more of the inner workings of the writer's mind than most other types of writing.  And rambly letters are the best kind of letters to get!

I read a quote recently--I can't remember where, I think it was on You've Gotta Read This--that the difference between movies and books is that books use the inner workings of the mind (and words, obviously) to create images, while movies use images to imply the inner workings of the characters' minds.  And while I'm not a big fan of epistolary novels (mainly because I'm worried there will be a lack of narrative), I think that's a big part of their appeal--letters are all about the inner workings of the writers' mind, and trying to convey that single view to another person.  In fact, letters may be writing in its purest form in that respect.

If you've read epistolary novels, what do you think their appeal is? Why would someone want to read someone else's letters?

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Twice Bitten by Chloe Neill

twice bitten cover

I still hate Ethan.

In the third Chicagoland Vampires book, our heroine, Merit, spends most of her time exploring the world outside Cadogan vampire house--she's invited to join the Red Guard, which is kind of like the Praetorian Guard of the vampire world; and she is further drawn into the world of the shifters, who are meeting in Chicago to decide whether to face the coming war as allies of vampires, or retreat to their isolated base in Alaska. 

As for Merit's love life, with Morgan (sigh) out of the picture, you can guess who takes lusty center-stage: the master with the mostest, Ethan.  I'll let you read the book to find out what happens there.

Twice Bitten is better than its two predecessors in the series, Some Girls Bite and Friday Night Bites, which is saying a lot.  The story moves along very quickly and there aren't a lot of lulls in the action.  That being said, I did start to get bored in the middle--mainly because of stupid Ethan.  If I never have to read him whining about his responsibilities to Cadogan House blah blah blah again, I will be more than happy.  In the previous novels I found him annoying; now he's just boring.  Yawn.

In her review of this novel, Colette from A Buckeye Girl Reads reminded me that I asked Chloe Neill about Merit's fascination with the tale of Tristan and Isolde and whether it would have any bearing on the story.  At this point, I'm not sure how it could, unless there's a more interesting love interest waiting in the wings for Merit, or Morgan is still a possibility.  If you're not up on ye olde Arthurian tales, Tristan and Isolde is a tragic love story.  Isolde is betrothed to King Mark, who lives in a far away country.  The king asks his nephew, Tristan, to escort his fiance to his kingdom so that they can get married; on the way, the two youngsters fall in love.  Although Isolde still marries King Mark upon her arrival, she can't help her love for Tristan, and they continue their affair.  Inevitably the king finds out, however, and while he forgives Isolde, Tristan is banished from the kingdom.

Isolde shouldn't be confused with Iseult, whom Tristan marries after his banishment because he likes the similarity of her name with Isolde's.

So if the books at all mirror this legend, wouldn't you think Morgan is Tristan?  Because Ethan is definitely the king, and he did ask Morgan to "escort" Merit around before she moved into Cadogan House.

That's really all I have to say about Twice Bitten, other than wonder exactly how long this series is going to go on for.  If there's going to be a huge war between sups (supernaturals) and humans, and Merit is going to save the Apex's son, then that's a looooong stretch of time.  And while I do really and truly enjoy these books, ever since Anita Blake, I've been leery of long-running series.  I don't want to be borrowing these novels from my mom ten years from now and reading about how Merit's slept her way from Chicago up to Milwaukee, okay?  Let's keep the love interests to half a dozen at most.

Anyway.  You should read these books.  The end.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Musical Notes: Twice Bitten Edition!

musical notes button

Musical Notes is a semi-regular feature here at Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Books, where I talk about how my reading inspired what I listened to.  This last week I read Twice Bitten, and there was a lot of music I listened to that related to that book.  So let's get to it!

My Man

For some reason, this song kept running through my head during the first half of the book.  I don't think Merit is quite this bad when it comes to her relationship decisions... close, but then that's just me.

Hungry Eyes

This is for the lauded Chapter Eight.

Stalker stalkery stalk.

So What

Possibly one of the greatest break-up songs ever.  Merit definitely needed a dose of this in the middle of the book.

Caroline, No

I can't tell you why I picked out this song because it would be spoilerage, but I think it fits the end of the book for both the mood and the lyrics.

What have you been reading and listening to this week?

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

~Odd~ Reads

books with odd titles

Odd Thomas
by Dean Koontz

The first in a series is a very well-written, funny, haunting, and spooky read that I really enjoyed.  Odd Thomas lives in small town as an unambitious fry cook; but his seemingly simple life hides the fact that he sees dead people.  When his companion, Elvis, starts warning of serious danger, Odd's life spirals into chaos as he tries to prevent a serial killer from harming the people in the town he loves.

Odds Against
by Dick Francis

The first in a mystery series by Dick Francis about a former jockey turned P.I.

Odd Girl Out
by Rachel Simmons

This just in: girls can be passive-aggressive!

From IndieBound: "When boys act out, get into fights, or become physically aggressive, we can't avoid noticing their bad behavior. But it is easy to miss the subtle signs of aggression in girls--the dirty looks, the taunting notes, or the exclusion from the group-that send girls home crying.

"In Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons focuses on these interactions and provides language for the indirect aggression that runs through the lives and friendships of girls. These exchanges take place within intimate circles--the importance of friends and the fear of losing them is key. Without the cultural consent to express their anger or to resolve their conflicts, girls express their aggression in covert but damaging ways. Every generation of women can tell stories of being bullied, but Odd Girl Out explores and explains these experiences for the first time."

Five Odd Honors
by Jane Lindskold

From IndieBound: "A story of betrayal and redemption, of bravery in the face of terror, and of loyalty and hatred that reach beyond the grave, Five Odd Honors continues Jane Lindskold’s stunning Breaking the Wall series."

Odd and the Frost Giants
by Neil Gaiman

This sounds like it might be really good.

From IndieBound: "In this inventive, short, yet perfectly formed novel inspired by traditional Norse mythology, Neil Gaiman takes readers on a wild and magical trip to the land of giants and gods and back. In a village in ancient Norway lives a boy named Odd, and he's had some very bad luck: His father perished in a Viking expedition; a tree fell on and shattered his leg; the endless freezing winter is making villagers dangerously grumpy. Out in the forest Odd encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle—three creatures with a strange story to tell. Now Odd is forced on a stranger journey than he had imagined—a journey to save Asgard, city of the gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded it. It's going to take a very special kind of twelve-year-old boy to outwit the Frost Giants, restore peace to the city of gods, and end the long winter. Someone cheerful and infuriating and clever . . . Someone just like Odd."

The Odds
by Kathleen George

From IndieBound: "The Homicide Department is upside down—Richard Christie is in the hospital, Artie Dolan is headed away on vacation, John Potocki’s life is falling apart, and Colleen Greer is so worried about her boss’s health, she can hardly think. A young boy in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood dies of a suspicious overdose. The Narcotics police are working on tips and they draft Colleen and Potocki to help them. In this same neighborhood, four young kids have been abandoned and are living on their own. The Philips kids, brainy in school, are reluctant to compromise themselves. But they need cash. Connecting these people and their stories is Nick Banks, just out of prison and working off a debt to an old acquaintance involved in the drug trade. Nick is a charmer, a gentle fellow who’s had a lot of trouble in his life. One day he gives free food to the Philips kids, little guessing how connected their lives are about to become.  Kathleen George’s latest work pushes the edge—a spectacularly original crime novel."

Do you have any "Odd" books?

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Movie Review: Don't Look Now

don't look now poster

First released: 1973
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Donald Sutherland's butt, Julie Christie
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Based on: a short story by Daphne Du Maurier

After their daughter dies in England, the Baxters need a change of scenery and take off for Venice, where John Baxter is restoring an old church.  One day, Laura Baxter meets up with two freaky old ladies to whom anyone with any sense would give a wide berth.  But not Laura--because one of the ladies, who's blind, says she can "see" Laura's dead daughter, and she's warning them of danger!  Lo and behold, pretty soon John's in danger.  He also thinks he's going mad because he keeps seeing his dead daughter in the labyrinthine streets of Venice.

This movie was definitely better than Summertime, although still not really that great.  My favorite part about it was Venice, which did feel creepy as heck by the end--and it definitely can be creepy when you're wandering around, semi-lost, all by yourself, and then you pass... a puppet shop!

Um, anyway, we definitely get scenes of a "different," non-touristy Venice in this film.  On the down side, however, this movie is pretty confusing.  There's a sex scene that lasts incredibly long and feels totally random, like it belongs in another movie.  And I saw way too much of Donald Sutherland's butt.  I could really use some mind bleach right about now, because Donald Sutherland and Skinemax-level sex and nudity is JUST. NOT. RIGHT.  To be fair, though, he looked pretty good.  Not Alexander Skarsgård good, of course; don't get your hopes up.  Just good considering it was Donald Sutherland.

Aside from the sex scene, the rest of the movie had a bunch of disparate plot elements that never came together for me.  There were the creepy old ladies, the Cosa Nostra guys who loitered around street corners and freaked John out, the gloomy religious aspects, and the visions of Baxter's daughter.  Admittedly, I did get bored and started reading a book about halfway through (I also might have drifted off at one point, I can't remember), but I didn't really understand what was going on aside from the blind woman who could talk to dead people and thought Laura's son and husband were in danger.

And don't even get me started on the foreshadowing and slow-motion, which was OUT OF CONTROL.  Aie freaking yai!  I get it already!

It's pretty unbelievable, but according to Wikipedia, this movie has been referenced a lot in popular culture.  Some of the more interesting examples:

  • In the feature film Flatliners, Kiefer Sutherland is tormented by a small childlike figure in a red hooded coat in a homage to his father's film.
  • The video to Sophie Ellis-Bextor's single "Catch You" draws heavily on the film's imagery as Bextor runs around Venice in a red evening dress.
  • Clips from this film appear in the video for Big Audio Dynamite's 1986 hit "E=MC2" which is an homage to the films of the director, Nicholas Roeg. It contains the lyric "met a dwarf who was no good, dressed like Little Red Riding Hood" etc...
  • The drowning scene is referenced by the 2005 film The Dark starring Sean Bean and Maria Bello in which their daughter drowns wearing a bright red sweater.
  • The end chase scene is referenced in the 2006 release of Casino Royale where James Bond is pursuing Vesper Lynd through Venice while she is wearing a red coat.
  • The 2008 film In Bruges has many references to Don't Look Now, including the claim by one character that the film-within-a-film is a pastiche of Don't Look Now.
  • Portions of the film are sampled in the M83 song "America."
  • The film is mentioned in a portion of the graphic novel Swamp Thing, written by Alan Moore.

See, don't you want to watch it now?  You're missing out on this cultural phenomenon, not to mention Donald Sutherland as you've never seen him before!  Unless you've seen this movie, of course.

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2/2 completed

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Are Your 3 Favorite Genres?

booklist button

The Book List is a meme created by Rebecca from Lost In Books.  This week she wants to know what our 3 favorite genres are.  I think I may actually be able to follow the directions with this one.


Mystery was my first love, literary genre-wise at least.  When I was young all I would read were mysteries, especially ones with paranormal elements in it.  The first book I remember thinking was better than others was The Ghost Wore Grey by Bruce Coville, where two young girls solved the mystery of where an artist left his last painting with the help of Civil War-era ghost.

Even though I haven't read a lot of mystery in a while, I think the basis of all great books, in any genre, is mystery--wondering what's going to happen next and keeping the reader guessing and interested in the outcome.  Will the hero and heroine get together?  Will the day be saved?  Etc., etc.  It's questions that I want answers for that keeps me reading.


Romance is another early love of mine.  The first book I read where I was really engaged by the romantic elements was The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart.  One of the fun things about Mary Stewart books is that it's usually a secret who the heroine is in love with until the end (mystery again).

I don't remember what the first romance novel I read was, but the book that definitely got me hooked on the genre was Stranger In My Arms by Lisa Kleypas.  Of course, right now I'm kind of in a downswing with romance novels, but I might get deep back into them someday.  I probably will.


My third favorite genre is fantasy.  It's a great genre because you can do so much with it.  You can set it in any time period, play with any mythology, and bring in all sorts of different story elements--including fairy tales, mystery, and romance. 

The first SciFi book I read was in grade school, and I loved it--but I have no idea what the title was, or even what the general plot was other than it was about interstellar soldiers and there was a romantic sub-plot.  The book was really, really good though; I wish I could remember it.

I think I love these three genres because they distill my favorite things about stories into a concentrated format--being transported to different worlds, places and times; wondering what's going to happen next; and love, which as Poirot said in tonight's Masterpiece Mystery, is "The mystery that even I, Hercule Poirot, am unable to solve." 

What are your three favorite genres?

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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Movie Review: Summertime

summertime still

First released: 1955
Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi
Director: David Lean
Based on: the play Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents

Camera in hand, spinsterish Jane fulfills her lifelong dream of traveling to Venice.  But despite the fact that she's in beautiful Venice and has a great wardrobe, she's sad and lonely until she meets a swarthy Venetian antiques seller and both he and the city overcome her pride... so to speak.  But alas, all vacations must come to an end, and Jane returns to Akron, Ohio.

This is definitely not one of Katharine Hepburn's better movies.  Thinking, "Oh, I've never heard of this one before"?  Well, there's a reason.  Trust me.  The entire movie is simply an excuse for Lean to film Venice--which would be fine, honestly, if he showed us anything original.  Instead, it looks and feels like one of those prepackaged travelogue movies that use stock footage--Grand Canal, St. Mark's Square, St. Mark's Square, Murano, St. Mark's Square.  You can probably get more interesting views of Venice from watching Rick Steves' Europe.

As for the script, it's a mess.  Every conversation and plot development feels totally random.  Hepburn is way too old to play The Frightened Virgin, and her personality doesn't really suit the role, either.  There were times when it felt like she was in a completely different movie... a good one.  In other words, she took the role way too seriously and it felt over the top. 

I lol'd my way through the romance between her and Italian Guy, especially seeing as how she fell in love with him in a day, he was married, and her vacation lasted a week.  I'm sure she'll be scarred for life from leaving her luhvahr. /sarcasm  I did have to admire Italian Guy's argument in favor of their having an affair despite the fact that he was married with four kids, though, which went something along the lines of, "I'm a man, you're a woman.  We're attracted to each other.  Why do you care about my wife?  Maybe if I was rich you'd care about me!  You Americans are all alike--so uptight, you don't know how to enjoy life the way Italians do."  Uh-huhhhhh.

I really would not recommend this movie.  I laughed, but not at any of the parts that were supposed to be funny, and the last half hour seriously tried my patience.  There's got to be better Venice movies out there.

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1/2 Completed

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rosario + Vampire by Akihisa Ikeda-Volume 2

rosario cover

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again:  manga is some subversive shit.  At least by US standards.

You might recall that after I had finished Volume 1 of Rosario + Vampire, I was on the fence about continuing the series.  The stories were just too repetitive.  But one of my lovely blog readers told me the series improved, so I decided to give Volume 2 a try--and if this volume is anything to go by, the series definitely gets better!

In case you missed my first review, the manga is about a normal human boy, Tsukune, who attends a school for supernatural creatures.  Since no one is supposed to reveal their inner monsters, no one knows or suspects that Tsukune is human, except for Moka, a beautiful vampire whom Tsukune met the first day of school and has been crushing on ever since.

While the first chapter (or test) in this volume was still a little formulaic, the plot is clearly starting to get more varied as it centers on the group of friends that make up the newspaper club, which Tsukune and Moka started along with Kurumu, a succubus who is in love with Tsukune (and the girl on the cover of this manga).

In "Love Is a Witch," Moka is stalked by an 11-year-old bisexual witch who keeps squeezing her breasts.  She wants Moka all to herself, so she tortures Tsukune with voodoo and other magic, making him flip up Kurumu's skirt and show the reader wayyy more than I needed to see.  Everyone is annoyed by this little witch except Moka, who understands what it's like to be alone.

In "The Art of the Birthday" (creative title), Tsukune is having his birthday and wants to tell Moka he loves her on his b-day.  But Moka's too busy modeling for art class and the seriously creepy art teacher.  "You're so pretty, just looking at you makes me want to create art," she purrs.  Meeeeanwhile, girls are disappearing from the school, so it's creeptastic all around.  Is Moka in danger?  And will Tsukune man up and profess his feelings for her?

For "Deadline," the newspaper club is in a rush to report Moka and Tsukune's discovery of the identity of the person who was kidnapping girls from the school.  But Kurumu keeps wandering off, a she's being blackmailed by some Hayden Caulfield type with a camera.  Once again, we peek up her skirt.  Every female in this series is sexually objectified, even the 11-year-old, but with Kurumu it seems especially bad.

Finally, in "Wish Upon the Moon," the newspaper club faces down the school bullies who want to extort money from them for handing out newspapers.  However, this gang doesn't go down with a simple fight, and the story will continue in Volume 3.

The sexual objectification of the female characters continues to bother me, but overall this manga shows a marked improvement over its predecessor.  I do want to find out what will happen next in the story, so I'll be reading Volume 3 soon!

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

To the Hilt by Dick Francis

to the hilt

This isn't the typical book I would pick up by any means, but the lovely Orannia from Walkabout was so excited when she recommended it to me that I thought I would give a try.  And then I just happened to run across it in the $1 shelves at a used bookstore, so I figured it was kismet.  And it was!  I freaking LOVED this book, and I'm so so happy I read it.

Alexander, or Al, Kinloch lives the idyllic existence of an artist in a stone cottage (or bothy) on the side of a mountain in Scotland, with no electricity, running water, cell phones, or intrawebz.  Then his peaceful paradise is shattered when four thugs appear, toss the bothy, beat Al up, and throw his barely-conscious self down the side of a cliff.  The only clue Al has as to why the men attacked him was the question they kept asking: "Where is it?"

Since his home is pretty much destroyed, Al decides to go to London to visit his mother and ailing father-in-law.  This is where he learns that Sir Ivan has entrusted him with his two greatest treasures, one of which was probably the "it" of the thugs' questioning.  On the plus side, Al is relieved to know they weren't looking for what he thought they were.  On the downside, he now has to save Sir Ivan's business from bankruptcy, protect his father-in-law's treasures from creditors, and keep an eye out for whoever hired the thugs to beat him up.  Things only get more complicated when someone dies.

This book tells a fabulous story.  Even though it's classified as a mystery, I think it's more accurate to call it a romance--but in the Arthurian sense of the word.  Al is the knight errant, called in to fight his lords' battles for honor and treasure--swords and chalices, no less.  He is ridiculously brave and honorable and true, and the villains are equally unreasonable and devious.  Instead of jousting or going on quests, Al plays golf.

One of the more interesting aspects of this book, which works into the Arthurian romance theme, are the female characters.  Some are honorable and brave, and meant to be protected (Al's mother, for example).  Others are villainesses, witches and dragons who do not make life easy for our noble hero.  Even the honorable women are meant to be treated with caution: "Men were right to be afraid of women, I concluded," Al thinks at one point, "the witch lived near the surface in all of them."  This may sound really sexist, but I actually didn't feel like it was at all.  Yes, the women are characterized according to types you can find in an Arthurian romance--but they're not reduced to sexual objects or denigrated, and all of them have several aspects to her personality.  They are for the most part minor characters, but well-rounded minor characters.  Overall the women in this book are depicted as powerful forces for good and evil, and the equals of men.  I think the fear Al refers to isn't misogyny, but respect.

Aside from that, I loved the details in this book.  Francis definitely knows how a painter thinks:  when Al looks at something, he can see it on the canvas, and thinks about how he would create it with layers of paint and different techniques.  I loved learning about how he painted his works, and how even supposedly pedestrian subject matter was illuminating and inspiring to viewers who really took the time to look at his paintings.  I also love Al himself--I really hope, though am doubtful, there are more books with him--and how the title has multiple meanings, and how the plot thickens.  I love it when the plot thickens!

The only thing I didn't like about this book was the ending, which kind of felt like a Deus ex machina.  I would have preferred it if Al had discovered the perpetrators on his own instead of them revealing themselves.  And I was all set for there a much bigger conspiracy and evil plotting than there was, so I was left hanging there.

All that is a minor quibble, however, for what for the most part is simply a perfect book.  Thoroughly enjoyable, smart, with great characters and a well-told story.  I can't recommend it enough!

So who has recommendations for another good novel by Francis?

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Whodunnit or It Was Done?

Funny Pictures of Cats With Captions

I've been reading quite a bit of mystery books lately, and have a question:  do you prefer a "whodunnit" or an "it was done"?

We all know what a whodunnit is:  a traditional mystery where the protagonist tries to solve a mystery.  An itwasdone--the term, at least--comes from the one time I tried to watch Gosford Park.  On the special features of the DVD, the director, Robert Altman, said he didn't want to create a whodunnit; rather he wanted to make the movie an it-was-done.  Which goes a long way to explaining why that is one of the worst, boringest movies I have ever sat through in my life.

ANYway, I like whodunnits.  I like solving mysteries, I like guessing who the murderer is, and I like reading about a character who is smart enough to solve the mystery before or at the same time I do.  However, some mysteries don't seem to want to be mysteries.  Instead of focusing on the crime and the journey to solve it, they use it as a mere excuse to focus on the setting or social issues or something along those lines. 

Now, I enjoy a great setting as much as the next person, but I think a book that self-identifies as a mystery novel needs to be primarily about a mystery, just as romance novels need to be primarily centered on a romance, or an erotic novel needs to focus on sex.  If I didn't want those things when I picked up a book, I would just read general fiction!

How particular are you about genre classifications?  Does a mystery novel have to be centered around a mystery for you to enjoy it?

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Tasha's Guide to Not Reading the Dark Side

jessica cover

Have you ever read a book that really pissed you off just on principle?  I recently finished Jessica's Guide to Dating the Dark Side, and let me tell you--to anyone who thinks Twilight "sends the wrong message to young girls," I challenge them to read this novel and then tell me how bad they think Twilight is.

The novel itself is pretty shallow, as one can guess from the summary: "Marrying a vampire definitely doesn’t fit into Jessica Packwood’s senior year 'get-a-life' plan. But then a bizarre (and incredibly hot) new exchange student named Lucius Vladescu shows up, claiming that Jessica is a Romanian vampire princess by birth—and he’s her long-lost fiancé. Armed with newfound confidence and a copy of Growing Up Undead: A Teen Vampire’s Guide to Dating, Health, and Emotions, Jessica makes a dramatic transition from average American teenager to glam European vampire princess. But when a devious cheerleader sets her sights on
Lucius, Jess finds herself fighting to win back her wayward prince, stop a global vampire war—and save Lucius’s soul from eternal destruction."

It sounds silly but essentially harmless.  I would argue it's hardly the latter.

First, the cover:  The main character, Jessica, is a size ten.  Does the girl on the cover of this book look like a size ten to you?  As Carrie from Books And Movies pointed out, plus-sized and overweight characters are often "white-washed" off the covers of their own books.  Size ten isn't overweight by any means, but I bet it's about eight sizes larger than the model on the cover.  I found myself wondering how this connects to the book itself, where the character doesn't eat because she thinks she needs to lose some weight.  Which brings me to a second major problem with the book...

The hero, Lucius:  Putting aside how cheesy he is (which of course doesn't really bother me) and how the way he speaks can go from fresh-off-the-boat to MTV Cribs in a single sentence, the guy's an arsehole.  He judges the heroine on how she dresses and behaves, and subsequently lectures her on the correct way she should be dressing, acting, eating, etc., going so far as to actually buy her clothes for her (and was that dress really appropriate for a carnival?  Really?)  You ladies all know how attractive a lecturing male is!  Although some of his words may have been that Jess needed to accept herself, the actual message was that she needed to accept Lucius' view of herself.  Plus, he was a serious stalker.  Edward Cullen's got nothing on this guy.

Violence=Good:  Jessica's parents are tofu-eating, organic farming types who don't believe in violence.  Lucius is a vampire who solves almost every problem through violence.  The parents are repeatedly made fun of for their passive attitude toward violence.  And, when Lucius intervenes on Jessica's behalf against a bully (after her repeatedly telling him it was none of his business) by tossing him around and threatening to do more, he is painted as a hero while the "Jacob" character who did nothing is somewhat vilified for being passive. 

Marriage:  I don't have anything against marriage on principle, but would any mother in America seriously encourage her 17-year-old daughter to marry a guy she only just met and move to Europe, let alone a guy as controlling as Lucius, with the words, "You'd be surprised how often disgust turns to lust"?  Uhg, are you SERIOUS????  Don't worry sweetie, you'll want to fuck him eventually no matter how much he disgusts you!  Because it's twu lurv. *GAG GAG GAG GAG*

Other than those four things, there were inconsistencies of logic, tone, and the characters were poorly drawn and thought out.  However, I don't think I would have hated this book half so much if the above issues weren't present. 

This book is insanely dumb. I do not recommend anyone buy it.

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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Wicked Becomes You by Meredith Duran

In which Tasha has a case of the blahs.

wicked becomes you cover

Dear Historical Romances,

You and I, we used to be so close.  You gave me escapism, long sighs, and swoon-worthy heroes.  Long nights staying up way past my bedtime to find out what would happen next.  I gave you... well, money.  But I was glad to give it!  So long as I got a wonderful romance in return that transported me to another place and time.

But now, I'm just not feeling it.  I haven't for a while.  It's not you--well, sometimes it is you.  Okay, MOST of the time it's you.  But in this case it's not.  There is absolutely wrong with this particular book.  On some level, I recognize this, and thus I kept reading until the bitter sweet end.  Sweet because it was a HEA (naturally), bitter because all I felt was bored.  When the hero and heroine first kiss--meh.  When they start throwing glasses and pitchers of beer at one another in public--yawn.  When they purge deep emotional issues--are you freaking kidding me?  Is this supposed to be the tortured emotional part?  Because BLAHHHH.

Gwen is the perfect debutante, but the men she agrees to marry keep ditching her at the altar.  Why???  After the second one, she has a breakdown and decides she's done with being good--she wants to be wicked!  Fortunately, the person she comes across just as she arrives at this deep personal realization is Alex Ramsay, her brother's bestie and a notorious kick-boxing rogue.  Or is it roguish kick-boxer?  Whatever.  They travel to Paris, Monte Carlo, Alex shows her how to be wicked, blah blah blah.

Did you hear that?  "Blah blah blah."  That's what I kept thinking while I was reading this book.  But it's really not the same old thing--it's set in exciting locales, is cunningly researched and written, and... well, those are the only positives I can think of at the moment.  I did really enjoy the parts of the novel that showed me settings I'd never seen in a romance before, like the freaking Moulin Rouge (!); I should have been geeking out something fierce, but instead all I could keep thinking while I read it was, "This book would be so much better if it wasn't a romance!  Then I wouldn't have to suffer through this rigmarole of a relationship."

I didn't feel any chemistry between the hero and heroine at all.  Alex's contempt of Gwen's innocence was more believable (and off-putting) than his sudden breakdown into admitting, "Oh, I've been in love with you all along!"  Suuure.

Meredith Duran's greatest strength has always been her fascinating heroes, but Alex isn't terribly interesting.  He doesn't do very much and I never got a sense of his history or emotions, or even what he looked like for that matter.  Gwen, meanwhile, was hard to take seriously, and every time she said she never wanted to get married, it made me roll my eyes.  Perhaps I would have found her protestations easier to believe if this wasn't a romance novel.  Or if she hadn't been raised to believe her entire roll in life was to marry an aristocrat.

As the book went on, the only thing I really cared about discovering was why Gwen's fiances kept dumping her.  Sadly, the explanation was stupid and unsurprising.

Of course, perhaps someone who isn't a jaded old crone in the course of a genre breakup would feel differently.

I'm sorry, historical romances, but I don't think we should see each other any more.  At least not for a while.  I thought we were true loves and nothing would ever be able to keep us apart, especially with a book like this one.  But Wicked Becomes You has served to show me that even the best relationships have to come to an end eventually, and I'm not sure I have the fortitude to read another book by a great author and feel nothing.


Tasha B.

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Monday, July 5, 2010

The Wild Irish Sea by Loucinda McGary

wild irish sea cover

I liked Loucinda McGary's Treasures of Venice, so when Sourcebooks offered me an ARC of her next release, The Wild Irish Sea, I was happy to accept.  This is another fun, escapist read with a fabulous location that I enjoyed reading.  I think the plot and story are much improved in this book, as well, which leads me to suspect McGary might become an auto-buy for me if this trend continues.

Kevin Hennessy (two n's, two s's) is an alcoholic who no longer drinks and a cop who is taking an extended vacation--very extended--in the remote Irish fishing village of Donegal.  One dark and stormy night, some crazy American woman crashes into his solitary brooding, insisting that her brother is nearby and in danger.  Because he suffers from a hero complex, Kevin agrees to help, discovers the loopy American is telepathic and her brother really is in danger from nasty smugglers.

Here's what I loved about this book:  you know when it's so freaking hot you can barely stand it, and then you pick up a book and feel like you've been given a refrigeration device?  OH YEAH.  This is sooo like that.  I could practically feel the North Atlantic spray against my face and the cool sea breeze.  It was heavenly.  This is definitely pure, escapist, summer reading.

As for the rest of the book, it was pretty silly.  But it made perfect sense within the confines of the story.  In fact, this is the type of book I would really suggest you read in one sitting, because after you put it down, it's very hard to get back into the headspace of the novel.  Luckily, the book is quite short and a quick read, so it's something you could read in a day if you had the free time.

I really liked most of the characters, especially the younger ones--Conan, Ronan, and Meriol were delightful and added a lot of energy and spunk to the story.  The only character I didn't particularly like was the heroine, Amber.  She was just so fainty and panicky and clingy.  Not sure what Kevin finds attractive about her, either, but that's his problem.

This book isn't deep or challenging reading, but it does succeed in what it set out to be, which (have I mentioned this before?) is a light, fun, romantic adventure.  If you feel like you need a vacation from everyday life, I would unhesitatingly recommend this novel.

Strange aside:

This novel reminds me of the movie The Birds.  A lot.  No, there aren't any birds in it--just seals, and they're friendly--so I don't know why exactly it kept picturing Donegal as Bodega Bay, or Amber as Tippi Hedren, but I did.  Was it because animals with a freakish interest in humans creep me out, even if they are helping?  Who knows.

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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Musical Notes

musical notes

Musical Notes is my semi-regular feature where I share what kind of music books have reminded me of lately.

The Wild Irish Sea

The hero in this book is an alcoholic who compares the heroine's love to his desire for booze.  Which made me think of this song--too bad, because I actually find it pretty annoying.

Is this video trying to make some snarky comment about the search for Osama Bin Laden or Jesus or what?

Wicked Becomes You

Unfortunately there was no Beyoncé in the Edwardian Era--Gwen could have used some Single Ladies to cheer her up after being jilted by her fiances.

What have you been listening to and reading this week?

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Friday, July 2, 2010

A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King

a letter of mary cover

In the chronicles of Mary Russell, book three, Russell and Holmes have settled into married life.  If the cottage (or the car or the train or the great outdoors...) is a-rockin', don't come a-knockin'!  Ha ha, I kid.  Or do I?????

ANYway, Holmes is bored, which means everyone in the house is walking on eggshells.  But then, lo, Dorothy Ruskin, whose name always reminds me of John Ruskin, arrives to give Russell and Holmes some much-needed excitement.  Dorothy is an amateur archaeologist whom the couple met on their trip through Palestine in The Beekeeper's Apprentice, and she wants to give Mary a letter that she believes is from Mary Magdalene.  Then she is murdered and, naturally, Holmes and Russell decide to investigate.

Again, this book was better than the previous ones--much more focused plot, and a very quick read without many lags in the story.  The writing is also very intelligent--which is appropriate, considering our heroine is smart enough to keep up with Sherlock Holmes--and full of literary and cultural allusions, most of which went completely over my head.  I don't think you need to have a degree from Oxford to enjoy the book, though, or catch at least some of the references.

That being said, there were two main things that continue to bother me about the novel.  Thing one is, what the heck happened to Colonel Edwards' wife and the woman who was killed after taking her to the hospital?  That had foul play written all over it, but the Holmes' totally let it go after the death of their friend was solved.  And speaking of Edwards and his loathsome son, this leads me to thing two:  what was the point of Mary going off and investigating them at all?  Seriously, I want to know.  Because this is the kind of book where everything is a red herring, and because of the way the mystery was solved, I can only conclude that the novel itself isn't a mystery.  So what is it, then?  What are we supposed to infer from the misadventures of Mary?

Despite the fact that the ending of the book left me with a kind of w-t-f feeling, I found myself impressed all over again by this series and in love with characters.  They kind of remind me of something Elizabeth Peters might write if she was inclined toward Sherlock Holmes instead of Ancient Egypt, and I'm looking forward to digging my way through the rest of the Russell and Holmes books memoirs.

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Monstrous Regiment of Women by Laurie R. King

a monstrous regiment of women cover

The second book in the Mary Russell series (or memoirs, as we are presented them) finds Mary all grown up, finished with Oxford, and about to be emancipated from her hated relative.  But what direction will Mary's life as a free and independent woman take?  This is the question she faces in A Monstrous Regiment of Women.

I read this book many months ago, but never wrote a review for it--probably in the self-delusional belief that I would read the entire series in a timely enough manner to recall all ten books and write a review of all of them at once.  Clearly, this is not going to happen; so from now on I'm just going to review every book individually.  Mmkay?

I did enjoy this novel and thought it was an improvement over The Beekeeper's Apprentice--it's much less episodic and the plot is more focused.  That being said, the mystery was pretty lame.  I honestly don't even remember what it was about, other than it involves some extreme religious society run by a charismatic woman who thinks God is actually female.  This is 1921, so you can imagine how far-out most people would think she is, and that includes Mary.  Since Mary's newly minted degree is in theology, she regards Margery Childe--the religious leader in question--with something similar to the fascination of a train wreck.  In any case, the mystery here feels incidental.

However, the interaction between Holmes and Russell makes this book completely worth it, especially as Holmes is pushing Russell to consider their partnership in a new light.  The direction of his thoughts isn't particularly surprising (especially if someone's already spoiled it for you, coughRuthcough), but the way it's handled and Mary's reaction is.  Plus I loved the ending.

I wouldn't say Monstrous Regiment is a delight from start to finish, but it does have moments of pure storytelling genius that give me great hope for the rest of the series.  Highly recommended!

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