Monday, July 30, 2007

"Religion Gone Bad: The Hidden Dangers of the Christian Right" by Mel White

I wanted to read this title because I have gay/lesbian friends in my life and because I, too, have been concerned by the political actions/leanings of several figures of late. This was an eye-opening work, but not in the way I expected.

Mostly Mr. White talks about the leaders of several fundamentalist Christian groups, men like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, etc. These are the gurus that have been urging their flocks to vote for (or against, as the case may be) legislation they deem "immoral". Basically, this is anything that goes against a literal interpretation of the Bible, since fundamentalists believe the Bible is "inerrant" and that everything that is written in it are factual events. This would include things such as homosexuality being a sin, and that people engaging in that sort of "lifestyle" should be put to death (eventually - White is quick to point out that while that may be the ultimate goal of these groups, they're not crazy enough to try for it straight out of the gate).

Mr. White's interest in such things is personal; he's been out of the closet and in a committed relationship with his partner Gary for 25 years. Previously, he was married, had children, and was a pastor. He also waged war on a daily basis with his "sickness", trying to "cure" himself through therapy, electroshock, and various other devices. Obviously, he finally saw that he wasn't "sick", never had been, and that in denying who he was, he was also denying that God had made him that way. After coming out, he was ostracized and shunned by many of his former evangelical friends and peers. He also saw the growing danger to the gay and lesbian community by fundamentalist Christian groups, people who want several things changed to reflect "God's law", but seem to have an unhealthy obsession with denying basic rights to the homosexual community at large.

This book goes into great detail Mr. White's crusade to protect those rights, as well as pointing out several similarities between the American fundamentalist Christians and other fundamentalist groups. That part of the book is particularly disturbing, as the groups here have called for the death of such groups abroad (think Al Queda). Also, there's a whole section comparing the groups now to the groups that popped up in WWII, Hitler and fascist Germany as well as Italy. No, Mr. White doesn't go so far as to call anyone the new Hitler, but he does uncover some very disturbing similarities, which is probably inevitable; anytime you have one group of people trying to humiliate/destroy another group, there are bound to be similarities.

The surprising things I learned in this book were about Jesus and the Bible. I have to admit, I am not a religious person. What Mr. White pointed out is what I have, to some extent, felt in my heart, that to be a "good person" and follow a moral life, you should show mercy and kindness to others, take care of those less fortunate than yourself and seek justice for those oppressed. I'm glad to know that that philosphy IS in the Bible, a book I probably should read, as the only parts I hear about/know are the ones quoted incessantly by the fundamentalists. And remember, scripture can and has been twisted to promote any variety of ills, including slavery.

Bottom line, I found the book interesting, if a bit heavy-handed. Then again, I'm not in the homosexual minority that this book is probably being marketed to. I will state, for the record, that I have never believed that legalizing marriage for gays and lesbians is a threat to my marriage, and I just don't understand how others can feel that way. The only threat to my marriage would be my taking it for granted, a thing done on a daily basis by thousands, something glaringly obvious by the divorce rate in this country. Don't forget, marriage was and is still evolving; once upon a time, it was all about property rights and had very little to do with love. I think in this day and age, if you're lucky enough to find a person that you love with all your heart, a person that you'll respect and work towards building a committed relationship with, you should have every right to marry that person. True love is nothing to sneeze at, and it's hard work once you find it. I tell my hubby every day how lucky I am to have him, and how much I love him. I hope others can be so lucky.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Darkangel Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce

Do you remember when you first discovered The Chronicles of Narnia? I hope you do, because then you'll know how wonderful this series by Pierce is. Imagine discovering a series that let's you indulge in the wonder of childhood fantasy combined with more adult elements like love, honor and duty. That would be the amazing feat of The Darkangel Trilogy.

There are three books in the series: "The Darkangel", "A Gathering of Gargoyles", and "The Pearl of the Soul of the World". They tell the tale of Aeriel, a young girl who goes from being a homely slave girl to a young woman of beauty and immense courage. They also have all sorts of fantastical creatures in them, such as the Darkangel himself; Talb, one of the gnome-like beings that live underground; the Star-Horse, one of the lons that guard the lands of Aeriel's home world; Ravenna, one of the "Ancients" who created the world of Aeriel and her friends, etc.

This was really a very surprising find, as the different libraries I was able to obtain the books from had it listed from Juvenile Fiction to Young Adult. I would definitely put it in the YA category, although even that might be wrong, as some of the subject matter was very mature. Aeriel's growing love for the Darkangel as well as her increasing responsibilities to those around her are not child's-play. There's also a relationship with a young woman she meets, Erin, that may or may not have been romantic, depending on what you read between the lines. (Personally, I thought it might have been romantic, but only on Erin's end - another mature theme - unrequited love. Sigh).

There are great moments of joy in this series, as well as some truly heartbreaking sorrow. Not everyone is redeemed, nor does everyone get a happy ending. In fact, the last book leaves several things hanging enough that Ms. Pierce could always go back and revisit Aeriel. I was hoping she already had, but after searching high and low, it appears that this stands at just the trilogy right now, something I wasn't happy about at first. After giving it a few days, though, I think maybe this is for the best; it's hard to improve on perfection.

Monday, July 23, 2007

"There's a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going To Hell" by Laurie Notaro

Ms. Notaro is one of the authors that Amazon keeps telling me to read, so when it showed me that she had a fictional work, I finally relented and added it to my Wishlist. Amazingly enough, my best book buddy in Indy found me a copy post-haste and sent it on to me.

This is basically the story of Maye Roberts, a journalist and modern woman living with her husband Robert in Phoenix, AZ. Robert gets a fabulous job offer from a university in Spaulding, Washington, after which they uproot their lives to relocate to the tiny town that sewer pipes built. Yes, that's right - this is a town founded on poop, or rather, the means to deliver poop to treatment plants. The sewer pipe manufacturing business burnt down long ago and now the town is populated mostly by hippies and staunch environmentalists. It's a quiet little place to settle down and perhaps raise a family, get to know your neighbors, become part of the community.

But not for Maye. While Robert is busy with his new colleagues, Maye is desperately attempting to make friends, a feat that is proving to be far more difficult than she ever imagined. Writing freelance articles isn't helping any, either, as she doesn't have a ready-made pool of people to choose from like her husband. The first half of the book is devoted to Maye's mishaps at reaching out to form lasting bonds in her new hometown. By mid-book, she's managed to alienate the local mailman (and has been required to have her dog attend obedience school, which helps her in the end), the local coven of witches (all three of them), and a group of vegetarians, led by the rather militant Bob. Oh, and she's managed to make an enemy-for-life out of the Dean's wife, one Rowena Spaulding, all by wearing "the wrong sweater" to a faculty function.

At wit's end, Maye runs into her real estate agent and spills her tale of woe, only to find out there might be a way to win the town's love; she needs to enter the Sewer Pipe Queen Pageant, preferably winning it. Then everyone will adore her. After her first choice of coaches is inconveniently killed, Maye tracks down Ruby Spicer, one of the most famous (and infamous) Queens of all time. Ruby was adored by the entire town and won the crown hands down, then suddenly vanished midway through her reign, never to be heard from again. There were rumors that she was responsible for the rash of fires that summer, including the one that burnt down the sewer pipe factory.

The novel really gets good when Maye and Ruby meet and start working together. Maye needs Ruby's advice to win, and Ruby needs someone to believe in her again. The May-December friendship starts off rocky but quickly grows into a true, loyal and actual loving bond, one that helps Maye realize that she can make friends after all. Of course, this being a comic novel, the pageant does not go off without a hitch, and the results are almost disastrous. They are also very revealing, as Ruby finally admits who the real arsonist was and why. Does it have a happy ending? Yes and no. But I'll let you find that out for yourselves, as I'm hoping you'll be on your way to a local bookstore/library to find this little gem.

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Claimed by Shadow" by Karen Chance

Cassie Palmer, clairvoyant and possible Pythia, is back. Yes, another series. Good news is that this book could probably stand on its own without reading the first; it'd been so long since I read "Touch the Dark" that I felt like I was new to Cassie and her world. The only thing that might help that situation were a few more "reminders" from the author about events from the first book.

Cassandra Palmer is a clairvoyant and was raised primarily by vampires. She knows that they're dangerous and that they can't be trusted. That doesn't stop her from being attracted to them though, especially a very old, very powerful vamp named Mircea. Having had a crush on him in her youth, it's developed into full-blown lust now that she's an adult, and it would seem that the feelings are mutual. However, in this installment, Cassie finds out that her feelings might not be her own. Mircea had a powerful sorcerer place a geis on her when she was young, a spell that basically discourages would-be suitors other than one approved by Mircea. In the first book, that suitor was her roommate, the vampire Tomas. Or, of course, Mircea himself. In this installment, the geis has really powered up and basically anyone other than these two vampires causes Cassie extreme stress when she gets, uh, close to them, shall we say. As in extreme pain, blinding headaches, etc. The best sort of chastity belt that money can buy, at least for the supernatural set.

Why would Mircea place such a spell on Cassie? She believes it was to protect his "investment", her possible role in adulthood as Pythia, a powerful being who controls the timeline of events and ensures its protection. The Pythia must go after those that would shift in time and alter chains of events by introducing themselves, murdering someone, fathering/mothering someone, preventing the conception of someone, etc. Think of the Prime Directive of Star Trek legend and you sort of get the picture. Anyway, the Pythia comes into her full power once it's been passed to her from the previous Pythia and she has had sex for the first time. Yep, you got it - Cassie is still a virgin. I know! What a shock to read a series that has a virgin for the heroine, especially in the fantasy/paranormal romance vein!

When this book opens, Cassie has been passed the power, but has not yet committed the necessary act to totally claim it. Her main rival, Myra, has gone back in time to try to prevent the power from going to Cassie, which obviously can't happen, since Myra is not only evil but nuttier than a fruitcake. In what seems at first a most unlikely partnership, the mage Pritkin offers to help Cassie in her quest to thwart Myra. Unlikely since Pritkin was trying to kill Cassie in the first book; she knows she probably can't trust him. But she does need help, more than her ghost companion Billy can provide, more than her few vampire friends can risk.

This book is chock-full of action, which was a bit of a let-down. Not that the action is bad, just that, as you all should know by now, I like to get to know my characters. Cassie is pretty much just a catalyst for some of the other characters, really; readers will learn much more about Pritkin in this book, which I liked. I enjoy the interaction between Mircea and Cassie, which I don't really think is all tied in to the geis, something that may surprise our heroine down the road. I'm anxious to see what happens to Cassie in the next book, but I do hope that Ms. Chance provides those reminders in the third installment, otherwise I'm going to have to do some re-reading! Again, I highly recommend picking up "Touch the Dark", the work that introduces you to Cassie and her world; both titles are a nice change of pace from the glut of paranormal romance available on the shelves these days.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

"Drinking Midnight Wine" by Simon Green

Those of you who keep up with Novel News will recognize Green as author of the Nightside novels. I found this delicious little tidbit when pulling together a selection of Sci-Fi titles for our branch; of course, I had to give it a shot! Glad I did, too.

Toby Dexter is an average man, doing an average job, living an average life. Nothing exciting has ever happened to Toby, and he doesn't seem much inclined to change that. Granted, he's now in his 30s, and realizes that his life, while comfortable, is sort of headed nowhere. While riding home from work one day, he watches the beautiful woman with the perfect lips, a woman he's been watching for some time now. When they get off the train, it's pouring down rain. All of a sudden, Toby watches the woman go through a door and disappear. What's odd about this is that the door wasn't there when they pulled into the station, nor has Toby ever seen this door before in all his years coming and going from work. Taking a chance, he follows the woman through the door.

And walks straight into Mysterie, a parallel universe to our own (known as Veritie to the inhabitants of Mysterie). There are all sorts of strange and exotic beings living in Mysterie, including Toby's beauty. She is Gayle, and while a true daughter of Mysterie, she has preferred to live as a human in Veritie for a long time. She is not happy that Toby has followed her into her home world; what's worse is that she soon realizes that something bad is coming to Mysterie and Toby will be involved. He is what is known as a Focal Point, and it's also quite probable that he's to be Humanity's Champion. A tall order for such an ordinary man.

While Toby and Gayle investigate the strange occurrences in both worlds, they meets some of the odd citizens of Mysterie, including Jimmy Thunder, son of Thor and a godling in his own right; Luna, Gayle's sister, who isn't quite in her right mind; The Mice, human-sized rodentia who were former hippies; Angel, a celestial being brought into the material world, and one that could be from either above or below; Leon, a werewolf; and finally, Hob, the son of The Serpent in the Sun, and a very, very bad man.

The action is pretty tight and the writing is, of course, excellent. This was a longer work than the Nightside books, and I liked that it stood on its own. I had plenty of time to get to know the characters, so when they were in danger, I cared what happened. I liked the budding relationship between Gayle and Toby, very realistic, no soppy romance here. Overall, I've decided that Green is one of the better writers out there today, and look forward to more of his works, be they Nightside novels or other Sci-Fi stuff.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"The Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford

Sigh. I now feel completely stupid, and it's all due to this book. I picked it up after reading a review of "Freakonomics" on Amazon, and I hate to disagree with that reviewer, but this book was not better than that wonderful work. Maybe as far as the economic theories it was better, but I don't think it even came close to being as entertaining or as accessible to us mere mortals.

Why did this book not "enthrall" me, as Steven D. Levitt, author of "Freakonomics", blurbed on the back cover? I don't know, not really. Maybe it was the writing. Maybe it was the subject. Maybe I just really don't like feeling like I'm failing my basic Microeconomics class from college all over again. Yeah, that's probably it.

Harford uses everyday examples to attempt to explain how economic theory works, and those were somewhat helpful. I think his writing bogs down under the writing - he lapses too often into what I came to think of as EconSpeak. Again, it made me feel like I was sitting in class and not understanding the professor at all. Luckily, there was no huge exam looming!

If you're really into economics and the theories behind it, I would recommend this book. If, like me, you're looking to be entertained and maybe learn something at the same time, go pick up a copy of "Freakonomics" instead.

"My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding" edited by P. N. Elrod

I love short story collections, especially when it gives me a chance to try authors I've not read before. For some reason, a book of short stories never seems to take me long to read, and this one was no different, as I plowed through it over the weekend.

I picked this up mostly because of some of my faves making contributions, and I pretty much enjoyed those stories the most. Jim Butcher's "Something Borrowed" was a nice little Harry Dresden vignette, concentrating on his werewolf friends, two of whom are being married. Only problem being that the bride disappears, then reappears suddenly, only it's not the bride. This story relies heavily on previous Dresden books, so it may be for true Harry fans only, as some of the action may not make a whole lot of sense. What I was really impressed with is that Butcher stayed true to his style of writing - no cute fluff here. Often, I find myself disappointed by more serious authors when they try to write lighter stuff. Butcher stuck with his tried and true, and it works.

I was surprised at the entry by Rachel Caine, "Dead Man's Chest", as it's much more romantic than her Weather Warden series. But again, the writing is still enjoyable, and she didn't make it total fluff. Love that!

Charlaine Harris's entry, "Tacky", is all about a marriage between werewolf and vampire, and if you've kept up with her Southern Vampires series, you know this probably won't be easy. Vamps are "out" to the real world, the wolves are not. The two factions don't trust each other any farther than they can throw each other, and in this case, that's pretty darn far. It's interesting to watch the groups tiptoe around, but I was disappointed that none of her usual characters made an appearance.

Sherrilyn Kenyon's "A Hard-Day's Night Searcher" was pretty much like all the other Dark-Hunter stories I've read. Nothing new, but that's not a bad thing. I didn't think it was her best try, though, and I'm hoping the new novel due out next month is better than this work.

I hadn't read anything by the other authors in this collection, and based on the stories they contributed, I'm not sure I will, except for the editor, P. N. Elrod. Her story, "All Shook Up", was a great little piece about an Elvis impersonator at a wedding. Except, is he really an impersonator? It's hard to tell, even for the reader, until the end of the story. I liked the characters, I thought the story itself was good, and now I'd like to read more of Elrod's work.

Esther M. Friesner's story was OK, as was Lori Handeland's, but neither will inspire me to seek them out in novel form. The only story I didn't really like was the final one, "...Or Forever Hold Your Piece" by Susan Krinard. There was a very brief explanation of her mythic world, but even that wasn't enough to help me wind my way through her short story. Too involved! If I had been reading her novels, I think I would've understood what was going on, but for a first-time reader, it was just too complicated, something that severely detracts from her piece.

Finally, I did not read the entire story by L. A. Banks, "Spellbound". I just couldn't get into it, and went on to the Harry Dresden short.

Overall, I would recommend this, especially since you can skip through (or over) the stories you're not enjoying. Life is too short to be reading something you don't like!!

Monday, July 9, 2007

"Undead and Uneasy" by MaryJanice Davidson

Elizabeth "Betsy" Taylor, queen of the vampires, is up to her eyeballs in wedding plans. Her own, finally! She'll be marrying Eric Sinclair (aka Sink-lair), king of the vampires, in about 2 weeks. Only problem is that everyone seems to have disappeared, her intended included.

This is a bit of a different Betsy book than we've had in the past from Ms. Davidson. I think this is mostly due to the fact that this book really is all about Betsy - she's almost the only character on the canvas for most of novel. Her entourage of friends and family have all done runners, or as good as: she fights with her mother, her friend Jessica is in the hospital for yet another round of chemo, her doctor-roommate Marc has simply vanished, her sister is off the radar, her minion Tina is in Europe attending to vamp business, and her fiance is nowhere to be found after they have an argument. It's weird, and not in a good way.

This is the first time we see Betsy start to acknowledge her role as Queen, one that she never asked for and hasn't really wanted to step into. She knows that something is wrong, but she's not sure what, and this time, there's no one around to help her solve the mystery. She has to stand on her own two feet (granted, very well-shod feet!) and put her brain to work, a thing not often done by her. The surprising thing is that I like the new Betsy - she's still pretty flighty and all about herself, but she's also showing some signs of - gasp! - maturity. That's good. If you're writing a series, I don't think it works very well to have your character remain stagnant; they need to develop, especially in the "chick-lit" category. Otherwise, I, as a reader, lose interest. Witness my quick boredom with the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella. Love her as an author, lost interest very quickly in that character.

This is still a quick read, and Betsy still has plenty of snarky comments to make. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next in her world, and am hoping that new, more grown-up queen is still around. Then again, she'd probably call me an ass-hat for even thinking such a thing!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

"Witch Hunt" by Shirley Damsgaard

This is the fourth entry in Damsgaard's Ophelia Jensen series. It's not as good as the first three in terms of plot, but more than makes up for it in character development.

Ophelia is the librarian for the small town of Summerset, Iowa. She's also a psychic and comes from a long line of mountain women famous for their talents as "witches"; Ophelia's grandmother Abby not only knows some magic but is well-known for her abilities with plants and healing, and her great-aunt is a medium. Of course, Ophelia and Abby don't make a lot of noise about their "specialness" because most of the town folk wouldn't understand. In addition to her immediate biological family, Ophelia is foster-mother to Tink, a teenage girl she rescued in the third book, a girl who just happens to be a budding medium and is need of guidance by Ophelia & Abby.

Bikers have descended upon Summerset, and not the kind that are "weekend warriors". These are rough, nasty-looking guys with bad reputations to match. There are rumors of drugs, prostitution and extortion swirling around El Serpiente, the gang in question. They've parked themselves literally at the edge of town at a bar called The Viper's Nest. And they've got everyone in town pretty much walking on eggshells.

Then one of the gang is found dead at Ophelia's best friend's house. Darci is not only upset at the dead body in her guest bedroom, but also at the arrest of her cousin Becca for the murder. Darci is sure that Becca was drugged and that she's innocent of the crime, so she asks Ophelia to use her "sight" to investigate. Needless to say, this brings on all kinds of mayhem as Ophelia's "visions" are never straight-forward and to-the-point.

As I said in the beginning, this is a pleasant little read, but not the best of plots. I saw several of the red herrings for what they were, as well as figuring out one of the "bad guys" pretty early on. I had the mystery at Ophelia's house figured out about half-way through the book, too (it has to do with someone breaking in - maybe). But where the plot was weak, the characters were strong. Ophelia's growing relationship with Tink, her attempts to be a mother (and one not like her own), as well as the change in her relationship with her grandmother Abby, made the book for me. I also like the friendship between Ophelia and Darci, as it's a real friendship, not a convenient one for plot's sake.

If you haven't checked out the Ophelia Jensen series yet and you're looking for some light mystery-reading, these books are a good choice. Nothing too complicated, nothing that will give you nightmares, and great characters make these books very enjoyable to read.

Monday, July 2, 2007

"Harm None" by M. R. Sellars

This is quite the surprise! This poor little book was in the box o' books sent over a year ago by the Bookbabe's little sis, and has sat languishing on my dining room table. In an effort to put myself back on the right track, I've been making a very concerted effort to read everything that was "waiting" on me, and to not pick up/reserve anything new. Well, ya'll know what that means - the box o' books needed serious attention! As you probably remember, I recently reviewed The Bast Books from that box, and have now moved on to this little gem. Let me just tell ya'll, I LOVE it when a book is this good, leaving me anxious to read the next in the series!

Rowan Gant is a Witch and so is his wife, Felicity. Rowan's "day job" is working on computer stuff from home, and his wife is a photographer. They live with their two dogs and three cats. They lead a fairly peaceful existence until the day their friend, homicide detective Ben Storm, shows up with some disturbing crime scene photos. He needs Rowan's help to determine if a murder was done by a person practicing the Craft, a psycho, or someone who just happens to be both. Worse for Rowan and Felicity is that they know the deceased, Ariel Tanner; she was a student of Rowan's several years back.

Ben isn't entirely sure of Rowan's religion, but he knows that he trusts Rowan more than he does the "professional" called in by the Major Case Squad. Rowan soon realizes that the killer is practicing for a specific ritual, and with each murder is getting closer to his "finale". The suspects include members of Ariel's coven, including a young man named R.J. who may or may not have had a crush on Ariel. There's the member they just ousted from the coven for performing an animal sacrifice; Devon is number one on Rowan's list of suspects for just that reason. Wiccans may seem like devil worshippers to most of the world, but Rowan knows one of the first laws of Wicca is "harm none" - and that would definitely make animal sacrifice a big no-no.

The suspense grows as Rowan visits each crime scene (there are two more murders after Ariel, each grislier yet more precise). One of the skills that he's honed during his practice of the Craft is a lot like what psychics do - he can "see" what the deceased saw in her last moments. Some of the things he "sees" help the police get closer to the killer, but it comes at a price. Rowan suffers from extreme headaches and nightmares, especially when he realizes that the killer plans to kill a child for his last sacrifice; the killer needs someone pure and virginal, and Rowan is afraid he'll kidnap a young girl. Rowan is right, of course, and it becomes a race to not only find the killer, but also rescue the young kidnap victim.

Don't let the fact that Rowan and Felicity are practicing Wiccans put you off this book. The writing is excellent, the plot is very well-written, the character development is great, and there's not a lot of "woo-woo" stuff, as some of the cops put it. Actually, I thought the Wicca element was handled very well, and it should be - Sellars does professional talks about the subject, trying to teach people what Wicca is and isn't. I'm not sure about Rowan's pseudo-psychic abilities, but then again, there are people out there who believe we can access unused parts of our brain and train them to do just about anything we want them to do. Science doesn't know everything, so I guess it's possible. I just really enjoyed this book immensely and can't wait to find out if my little sis has the other books!

Check out Rowan today!