Saturday, June 28, 2008

p90x Phase 2 Week 7 Day 2

I just finished plyo today, and although it went well, it never fails to challenge my limits. I find I can do the first two "parts" in plyo (2 rounds each) without pausing at all! Not only that but I'm jumping higher too. I should definitely take some pictures as documentation of my progress but I keep putting it off. I'm really pleased with my progress in the yoga as well. Previously, I would fatigue and wear out in the middle of the vinyasa's but now I can complete that whole opening sequence in yoga (which includes the various warrior poses and the twisting half moon's at the end) no problems! The balance postures I could always do, but I still can't hold crane or do the advanced wheel move for longer than 10 seconds. The Yoga Belly part of the Yoga X routine is no walk in the park either but I'm improving there as well as I take less breaks. I'm actually liking the yoga routine a lot. It's one of the routines I really look forward to during the week and I was big skeptic to begin with. The Yoga X routine has stretching, strength (both in arms and legs), flexibility and balance, not to mention a part which focuses on abs.

As for my pull-up progress. I can now do 10 (sometimes 12) wide front pull-ups without any chairs, which is huge for me as one of my weakest areas. My abs and upper body continue to exhibit stronger and stronger definition. With many of the weight lifting exercises, I'm lifting heavier weights and doing more reps. For example, I started out doing static arm curls at 20 lbs for 16 reps but now I can do that move at 30 lbs for 16 reps in the Back-and-Bicep routine. After lifting heavier weights for some of the tricep exercises in the Shoulders-and-Arms routine back in Phase 1, I was disappointed that I couldn't lift the same weights in the tricep exercises found in the Chest-Shoulders-and-Triceps routine of Phase 2. I think I understand the reasons (focusing on a different combination of muscle groups), but it was still disappointing.

My favorite routines are the Shoulders-and-Arms, Yoga, and Back-and-Biceps (can you say ouch! on corn cob pull-ups!). Back in Phase 1, I substituted Shoulders-and-Arms/Ab Ripper X for two of the X Stretch days because I liked Shoulders-and-Arms so much. In spite of popular opinion, I actually don't like Kenpo all that much. I can do Kenpo without pausing at all now for the past 2 weeks, but I find I sweat more during the "breaks" than during the actual fight exercises. And I'm moving my hips like crazy. Plus I did Kenpo last week bare foot on carpet (don't ever do that) and now I have blisters all over my feet. You're swiveling your hips and rotating your feet on your heels a lot.

Tomorrow, it's Back-and-Biceps. Corn cob pull-ups and strip set curls here I come!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Malazan Book of the Fallen series
1. Gardens of the Moon (1999) *
2. Deadhouse Gates (2000)
3. Memories of Ice (2001)
4. House of Chains (2002)
5. Midnight Tides (2004)
6. The Bonehunters (2006)
7. Reaper's Gale (2007)
8. Toll the Hounds - forthcoming
9. Dust of Dreams - forthcoming
10. The Crippled God - forthcoming

Normally, a book/series where anything/everything goes would present some intriguing elements for readers. Normally, I enjoy a book where conflict and war reign throughout. Usually, I don't mind a generous display of magic. Unfortunately, I found Steven Erikson's GARDENS OF THE MOON way too convoluted for an opening installment to an epic SFF series. All of the following severely handicapped the reading experience: Erikson's liberal use of magic, nonsensical events, and intricate names of races, people, gods, creatures, magical houses/warrens, history and places, all of which develop Erikson's world. Oftentimes, I doubted even Erikson's capacity to keep everything straight. GARDENS OF THE MOON appears to emphasize world building above all else and I thought suffered from it as a result. The history, the races, ascendant hierarchy, etc. all detracted from the characterizations, prose, the pacing and even the plotting. I found the characterizations one-dimensional, the prose below-average to average, the settings sorely lacking, and the pacing dull. Unlike another book I'm reading (Jim Butcher's episodic page-turner ACADEM'S FURY), Erikson's GARDENS OF THE MOON never really grabs you. Two very different books obviously but unlike Butcher's series, I was never really interested to read more in GARDENS OF THE MOON, much less entertained. I just continued to read out of rote since I harbor an obstinate habit of trying to finish books I start.

I thought Erikson did a relatively decent job of crafting the same event from multiple perspectives. For example, when the book first introduces us to the central focus of the novel -- the city of Darujhistan -- Erikson crafts a night from multiple perspectives: from a common thief, from an assassin, from various killers, and then from other Phoenix Inn regulars in the city. Erikson pursues a similar style at Lady Sinital's Fete in the finale of the book as the plotting comes to a head from various points of view: the alchemist Baruk, the eccentric sorcerer Kruppe, the thief Crokus, the assassin Rallick Nom, Captain Paran, Whiskeyjack and our antagonist Adjunct Lorn, or the Empress's right arm. Unfortunately, many obtuse occurrences jarred the reading experience. For instance, Paran at Hood's gate (entrance to death) early in the novel and salvaged by the twin gods of luck and chance, Oponn. Tattersail's bizarre reincarnation in Kruppe's dream, and Paran randomly hijacked by the House of Shadow late in the novel. The Jaghut Tyrant and his source of power in an object (Finnest) develops as the primary threat late in the novel despite the Malazan Empire and its quest to conquer the city of Darujhistan. Meanwhile, the 7-foot tall Lord of Moon's Spawn Anomander Rake evolves as the most powerful entity in the story. Also towards the end, Rake seems to randomly appear, saves Paran from the House of Shadow's hounds, and then Rake compels House of Shadow's King Shadowthrone to recall his assassin partner the Rope from possession of the girl Sorry's body thereby rescuing the Coin Bearer Crokus in the process. Convenient? Yep. Convoluted? Yep. Entertaining? No so much.

The Story, such as it is.

In the prologue, Surly (later, she fashions herself as Emperor Laseen) wrests the Empire from Emperor Kellanved in a coup with her "Claw," or a specialized force of assassins able to blunt magic with an "Otataral" sword. Many years later, Empress Laseen pursues her quest to subdue the free world and we pick up her plight in the siege of the city Pale. Immortal players from High House of Shadow (Ammanas, Cotillion or the "Rope") and High House of Dark (Anomander Rake) confound Empress Laseen's efforts along with the twin gods Oponn. The Empire, High Mage Tayschrenn, and High Fist Dujek (military commander) successfully conquer Pale but at a high price ultimately obliging the Empire's adversary Lord of Moon's Spawn (Anomander Rake) to retreat. The Empire's advance military task force responsible for fomenting dissent and clearing obstacles in a target city are called the Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners, headed by the wily old veteran Sergeant Whiskeyjack, play a significant role in GARDENS OF THE MOON when after Pale, the focus shifts to conquering the free city of Darujhistan. Meanwhile, High House of Shadow's assassin the "Rope" has possessed a young fisher-girl (initially called Sorry and later named Apsalar) to impede Empress Laseen's progress. High Fist Dujek and Whiskeyjack's popularity compels a ruthless Laseen to eliminate Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners. The Bridgeburners, it would seem, do their job too well. Laseen dispatches Adjunct Lorn for this special task.

As events shift to Darujhistan, we're introduced to a group of Phoenix Inn regulars that will eventually play critical roles: the assassin Rollick Nom, a petty young thief Crokus, the eccentric Kruppe, Murillio, T'orrud Cabal's leader alchemist Baruk, Crokus's Uncle Mammot and the Lady Sinital. Whiskeyjack and his squad arrive in the city to make contact with the city's assassin guild in order to eliminate the real power of Darujhistan: members of the T'orrud Cabal including Baruk thereby paving the way for conquest. The Lord of Moon's Spawn Anomander Rake allies himself with Baruk and Rake's band of Tiste Andu begin to eliminate Darujhistan's assassin guild hoping to ensure the security of Darujhistan's power. Most of the book centers on the Empire's efforts to conquer the free city of Darujhistan and all the various mortal and immortal players that obfuscate the endeavor. The Empress's "right arm" Adjunct Lorn, Anamonder Rake, Whiskeyjack, Captain Ganoes Paran, Baruk, Rallick Nom, and Crokus all play various roles. Darujhistan's Phoenix Inn regulars Kruppe and Coll also turn out to be more than they initially appear.

In the end, I found the characters stodgy, the events and magic jarring, the world building too involved for an opening installment, the settings entirely lacking and the prose pedestrian. I felt like I wasn't reading a story with interesting characters but rather a history text on a world of magic.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Academ's Fury, by Jim Butcher [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Codex Alera series
1. Furies of Calderon (1/5)
2. Academ's Fury (1/5)
3. Cursor's Fury
4. Captain's Fury

It's remarkable that Jim Butcher hooks readers (like me) enough to keep reading this very episodic Codex Alera series in his second installment titled ACADEM'S FURY (*). ACADEM'S FURY perpetuates much of the serial-like plotting and pacing found in the opening installment of this series FURIES OF CALDERON (*). Similar to the romance genre, the science fiction and fantasy genre contains books characterized by greasy burgers-and-fries and other books represented by delicious gourmet meals. You know Butcher's Codex Alera series isn't good for you, you know what you're going to get, and yet you return. Well, greasy burgers and fries aren't bad every once and while right? Right?

Similar to various parallel plots in FURIES OF CALDERON, we find three concurrent plots in ACADEM'S FURY: Amara & Bernard's struggle against a virulent "vord" queen out in the country and their serialized romantic plight (this time, surrounding marriage and children), Isana's journey to Alera's "capital" Alera Imperia to meet with the First Lord and ask for his aid on her brother's Count Bernard's behalf, and finally, seventeen year-old Tavi's continuing maturation as page to First Lord Gaius and his evolution as an Academ studying at the Citadel in Alera Imperia. Of these three disparate and disjoint plots, I found Isana's the most engaging (again) as enemies from the past realign their alliances for political gain. I found Amara's storyline the most taxing to read. Like tall, dark and handsome rogues in historical romance, Bernard and Tavi's friend Max symbolizes sexual eye candy for the female readership, and Amara renews her ardor for Bernard's strong physique. Like an exasperating serial, Amara at first confronts Isana regarding Isana's resentment towards Amara, then grapples with her inability to give Bernard children, struggling to part with Bernard when the Cursor Serai comments that Amara must inevitably leave Bernard. From a pure entertainment standpoint, I most enjoyed Tavi's capture of the mysterious thief "Black Cat" and their subsequent breach of the impregnable Grey Tower to liberate his friend Max. Also like FURIES OF CALDERON, the ending here in ACADEM'S FURY exaggerates the theatrics from different perspectives and two locales like a soap opera (Amara's perspective out near Aricholt in the country and Tavi's perspective in Alera Imperia). Like the previous installment, the seemingly innocuous Fade showcases his mastery with the sword at the end, this time against 9-foot tall Canim creatures (we learn more about Fade's history also). The book crosses its t's and dots its i's in order to accommodate a role for every character from Tavi's small friend Ehren to Captain Miles. ACADEM'S FURY throws 17 year-old Tavi a bone in the finale when he must battle an injured Canim all by himself while a bruised and battle-weary Amara dispenses of a vord queen by herself. Despite threats to both Tavi, Amara and Bernard, I never once felt like they were actually going to die. I thought Lady Aquitaine's impressive exhibition of power at the very end overshadowed everything else.

One of the big reasons to read SFF and historical fiction - world building - disappointed big time in ACADEM'S FURY. Although the prose and world building in FURIES OF CALDERON wasn't great, it deteriorates tremendously here in ACADEM'S FURY. The people, creatures, world, society and magic of Alera never felt real. A good SFF book portrays its fictional magic, world and people so it feels and seems real. ACADEM'S FURY failed in this respect. Maybe it was just me, but reading Tavi's story, I felt like I was back in high school fighting a bully or back in college cramming for final exams. Reading Amara's storyline, I felt like I was was reading a potboiler romance. Random and seemingly arbitrary rules for the vord creatures exacerbates the reading experience. For example, each vord queen multiplies exactly three times (something simply known from Marat folklore), and there exists a hierarchy of vord from the queen to Keepers, to Takers, to Warriors. The Marat barbarian Doroga relays most of the vorg mythology via conversation. I thought ACADEM'S FURY consistently violated the cardinal sin in storytelling by telling us instead of showing us. Fancy names and titles like Maestro didn't change my feeling that all of this is just too fake. Amara even uses the phrase, "We will agree to disagree..." in a conversation with Isana once. In various conversations, the book further explains how country furies are more powerful than city furies (the rural vs. urban aspect). We as readers know the SFF story isn't real, but the base quality of the world building and conversationalist prose in ACADEM'S FURY mar the entire reading experience.

As for the characters, again I found myself drawn to the Jim Butcher's "gray" characters: Lady Aquitaine and Fidelias. Lady Aquitaine thoroughly steals the show in ACADAM'S FURY, and I thought Butcher's efforts to inject caring introspection in Fidelias' characterization detracted from his cynical outlook. Tavi was better here (he didn't cry) but Butcher is very careful to develop him very slowly, just enough to keep reading the next book. The book persists in highlighting Tavi's impotence from his point-of-view. By the end of the book, Tavi still doesn't have a fury and must continue to rely on his own instinct. Kitai was just plain fun. I liked Isana's characterization and the book reveals more of her mysterious history, her connection to the First Lord Gaius and her nephew Tavi's hidden parentage, as formulaic as all of this seems. Amara inspires two things: aggravation and annoyance. If ever Amara and Bernard actually die, I'll be a happy camper.

The Story, possible spoilers.

ACADEM'S FURY picks up from the best part of FURIES OF CALDERON: Tavi and Kitai's race in the Valley of Silence. We learn that when Tavi ignited the 'croach' (glowing, web-like material) in the valley from FURIES OF CALDERON, the ensuing conflagration awakens a vorg queen. The vorg queen promptly spawns three more. The Marat barbarian chieftan Doroga battles one of the queens and her nest with two thousand warriors. The ensuing battle leaves Doroga with two hundred remaining but he manages to eliminate the nest and queen (we don't actually witness the battle, we see the results). Two vord queens remain: one headed for Tavi in Alera's capital Alera Imperia and another in the slopes of the mountains surrounding the country near Isanaholt. From various conversations, we learn more about the vorg, that takers assimilate other beings essentially killing the spirit inside, and keepers and warriors hunt and protect for the vorg queen. The queen herself is very quick.

Isana travels to Aleria Imperia to ensure her beloved nephew's safety and seek aid from the First Lord for her brother Bernard and Amara as the two travel to confront the queen in the slopes of the mountains. Tavi meanwhile fends off bullies at the Academy and we're introduced to Brencis, son of Lord Kalare, a new player in Aleran politics. The bastard son, rogue, and ladies' man Antillar Maximus (Max) rescues our protagonist Tavi more than once. The lords Kalare and Aquitaine are at odds with each other for succession to the First Lord Gaius (who lacks an heir) and the phrase "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" compels unlikely alliances. When a coma-like condition claims the overextended First Lord Gaius, Gaius's page Tavi must scramble to keep the realm functioning. Max poses as the First Lord at various events while the real First Lord lies unconscious (despite almost all Alerans possessing magical powers, apparently only Max is trustworthy and capable enough to pull it off). When failing to reach the First Lord frustrates Isana, love for her family compels Isana to turn to Lady Aquitaine for succor. The Canim Ambassador Varg also fails to reach First Lord and instead drops Tavi subtle hints as to critical developments in the Deeps underneath Alera Imperia.

Like the prior novel, ACADEM'S FURY features a long and protracted finale often shifting perspectives and locales under the threat of death to a major character at a critical juncture in time. However, not once did I feel anyone major would die. Events climax around protecting a comatose First Lord against "taken" Canim coincided by eliminating the vorg queen out in the country from Amara's perspective.

The book is episodic fluff, but continues to hook me enough to find out what happens next. Astonishing.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sinclair's Finders Keepers, Obama vs. Clinton, P90X

So I read the first 50 pages or so of Linnea Sinclair's FINDERS KEEPERS and I just couldn't continue any further. The book intrigued me because I thought romance in a scifi setting might be good, but alas, no. FINDERS KEEPERS contains way too many references to the hero's perfect beauty, good-looks, and muscled frame. It's actually worse than historical romances in detailing the hero's perfection from the heroine's eyes while chronicling the heroine's "spitfire" personality from the hero's side (because we all know all good-looking men have had enough of pretty, air-headed and devious women; all three qualities linked in women of course). There's a lot of repetitive introspection and fancy names to make it seem like a legitimate science fiction universe. There's also an empire exhibiting the obligatory hierarchal society common to historical romances. Wouldn't want the heroine to marry anyone other than the gorgeous hunk born into his wealth and societal rank, right? Having read some good science fiction, the world-building in this one conveys a rather pedestrian, amateur feel. The repeated devotion to glorifying the hero's appearance as sexual eye candy for the female readership and yet notably avoiding the word beautiful or even attractive to describe the heroine from the lusty hero's eyes sealed the coffin on this one for me. Short-sighted of me? Maybe, but I contend the book itself warrants, at best, a short-sighted look.

As the Democratic primary winds down, I got a good chuckle from this well-crafted video featuring Hillary as Darth Vader, Bill Clinton as the Emperor, and Obama as Luke Skywalker: The Empire Strikes Barack. Granted you'll probably appreciate the video more if you're an Obama supporter, but the scenes pieced together hints at a clever author with too much time on his or her hands. I'm personally convinced that no matter who wins Democratic primary, the candidate will lose to McCain in November. No amount of time and "getting-to-know-Obama" will convince Hillary's embittered base to vote for Obama. As I mentioned before, history has shown that whenever the democratic party is this divided, the party loses the general election. McCain appeals to me while the incompetent Democratic party just plain annoys me. Their system of super delegates and proportionally awarding delegates hasn't made the process more democratic!

On a final note, I'm on Day 14 of Tony Horton's P90X fitness program. I really do like the variety of challenging routines and work-outs. You will get out what you put in, and with goals in mind, anything is possible. So far so good, although I'm a little bit disappointed at my lack of progress in the pull-ups department despite pushing myself hard (can still only do about 3-4 front pull-ups before I use the resistance bands). It's still early though so I should give it some time. I have noticed I'm able to do more push-ups and lift heavier weights for more reps (from 25lbs to 35,40lbs). The "mother of P90x," plyometrics, continues to pose the biggest challenge and the Yoga X exercise is no easy walk in the park either. Thankfully, my legs are getting stronger as a result. I've decided to try the program's recovery drink and vitamins which complements the work-outs. After trying the supplements for a week, I can't say I've noticed much improvement in my stamina however. Today is simply X-Stretch. Last week I followed up one hour of stretching with Ab Ripper but today I may just do the stretching alone. Then it's on to Week 3!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Welcome to Temptation, by Jennifer Cruise [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Jennifer Cruise's WELCOME TO TEMPTATION contains way too much estrogen for my tastes. I thought the book defined what it means to write a lot of words without an inkling of substance: it's episodic, melodramatic, and it's bloated nonsense. A lot of contemporary romance novelists write about Small Town America where everybody knows everybody and this one is no different. Similar to the innocence of a girl losing her virginity in historical romance, I suspect the contemporary romance genre enjoys stretching "innocent", conservative principles in Small Town America. The inane frippery in this one really knows no bounds. There's way too many characters (presumably setting up other novels), the plotting dulls, the pacing sags, the settings are empty, and worst of all, the leads lacked substance and chemistry. Although I can't say I liked McCarthy's HEIRESS FOR HIRE (*), lord that was heaven compared to this estrogen-pumped frivolity. Now I have to say the ending saved this novel from being rated a zero and Sophie reciprocates a little bit, but just not enough. For book containing some language, Cruise ignores the love scenes with the exception of Phin servicing Sophie orally in the beginning. For the rest of the book: "And one hour later...," or "The morning after..." Again, I found the passion and chemistry in McCarthy's HEIRESS FOR HIRE superior. I also found WELCOME TO TEMPTATION mundane and predictable: a mayoral election is on the horizon with Phin's chief rival Stephen Garvey hounding his every move, Sophie, her sister Amy crash into town (literally) to shoot a rather raunchy film starring the beautiful Clea, more people show up out of the woodwork including: Clea's jerk husband Zane, Sophie's hot brother Davy (for a future novel), and the porn movie producer Leo. There's a death, Sophie and her sister's bawdy version of the film scandalizes Temptation, OH, and lest we forget, love triumphs in the end.

The book presents the interaction between our heroine Sophie and hero Phin mostly from Sophie's cloying perspective. Predictably (for the romance genre) and much to my ire, our hero Phin notices Sophie's ordinary brown eyes, brown hair and lips ("devil's candy") while Sophie constantly swoons over Phin's classic beauty, incomparable height (the book meticulously notes how he's taller than his friend the police chief), broad shoulders, supple behind, and gorgeous good-looks. Phin is attracted to our ordinary heroine Sophie's mouth, he wants to kiss the skin between her neck and shoulders, but the book eschews Phin thinking of Sophie as beautiful or pretty. I don't get it. Why are heroes from romance novels forbidden from viewing the source of their attraction as hot while the heroines flushed over their heroes' perfect handsomeness, muscles, butt and height? You'd think these greedy romance heroines haven't seen a cute guy before. The plotting and pacing meanwhile pursues meandering, frivolous directions strife with insipid melodrama and soapy events. For example, Phin and Wes visit the Whipple farm to help fix up the place, Sophie makes sandwiches, Rachel helps paint the house, Sophie befriends a dog, more of Sophie antagonizing Phin, Sophie and Phin bantering (romance translation = Sophie being a bitch to Phin), etc., etc., etc. Phin gives Sophie the best oral sex she's ever had, Sophie calls her boyfriend Brandon to confess, Amy and Sophie gossip about Sophie's orgasms, Clea's husband Zane visits, they discuss the cherry wallpaper at the Whipple farm.

The book paints Sophie's character as the daughter of two scam artists, the product of a tough, possibly loveless childhood, independent and someone who takes care of herself, whether that's sexually or otherwise. So of course the book is about Phin going down on her and Sophie turning herself over to him. I was more and more annoyed the more I read this completely senseless farce of a book detailing Sophie's evolution into someone selfish in bed and acrimonious otherwise. The perfect combination every gorgeous, successful guy prizes, right? Let's not forget Sophie's killer ordinary brown hair and brown eyes. The perfectly gorgeous guy tolerates the rather bland heroine's cold shoulder and insulting demeanor while she enjoys him wanting to give her oral sex endlessly without the least bit of a desire to reciprocate on her end. Like so many other romances, the ordinary heroine acting cold and insulting while the handsome hero services her carnal desires (he goes down on her) constitutes what passes for "witty" and "romantic" in this genre. Following the night where Phin orally services Sophie (and leaves Phin right after she's satiated), Sophie continues to act bitchy and resentful the next day. While Phin defends Sophie when Zane calls her sexless, Sophie continues to act like Bitch Numero Uno around Phin all the while enjoying him wanting to go down her.

Phin's "best friend" Wes starts scolding Phin not to casually sleep around with a nice girl like Sophie. Despite the fact Wes has known Sophie for only a couple days. When Sophie's brother Davy gives Phin a hard time for their relationship and offers to beat up Phin, Davy is lovable and cute because he's protecting Sophie. When Phin's mother Liz gives Sophie a hard time, Liz of course is the "ice queen." All to show how awesome Sophie is personality-wise, and how everyone close to Phin (except his mother) show instant loyalty towards Sophie including Phin's daughter Dillie. I had to suffer through Sophie's constant barrage of girly thoughts highlighting how gorgeous Phin is and how hot he looks all the time (he's immaculately pristine 24/7). If Sophie isn't thinking it, either Sophie or her sister are saying it; for instance, when Sophie defends her relationship with Phin to his mother by mentioning again and again how gorgeous he is and that she's not after his money. Phin, on the other hand, is easily attracted to a grubby, ordinary Sophie no matter her bland condition (she was painting once and yet the book goes out of its way to note that Phin is attracted to her in spite of her rather grimy, plain looks). The book exhibits a knack for dismissing any balance in the romance and skewing the relationship into a one-sided affair: the sex scenes were consistently a one-way street (Phin always services Sophie's pleasure -- and no after Sophie's greedy, selfish participation in the sex, it will inevitably bore the guy no matter her reaction), Sophie's cloying perspective inundating readers with estrogen, and Phin symbolized the female readership's sexual eye candy while noting Sophie's rather bland looks and emphasizing her hard-knock childhood and personality in the process. This book clearly demonstrates how to write chick-lit at its best (or worst, depending on how you look at it).

Friday, May 16, 2008

Update on reading and p90x

My heightened traveling as of late restricts my spare time, so here's an update on the books I've been reading.

While I read Steven Erikson's desultory GARDENS OF THE MOON and Cruise's soapy-strictly-for-juvenile-girls WELCOME TO TEMPTATION, it was rejuvenating to re-read Hunter's RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and re-re-read STEALING HEAVEN (*****). I always seem to rely on Madeline Hunter to restore my faith in substantive romance. Have to say, didn't like RULES OF SEDUCTION as much second time around, but boy is STEALING HEAVEN special. The unique rivalry and passion between STEALING HEAVEN's leads in the midst of a compelling historical backdrop reinforces a very special reading experience.

So a colleague recently loaned me Tony Horton's P90X discs. Although I consider myself fit (I work out and lift daily no matter my traveling schedule), hearing (and seeing) my friend's experiences with the program enticed me. Now I'm only on Day 2 of the 90-day program, but holy shit, is this intense! They tagged the 'X' at the end of P90X for eXtreme, and they weren't kidding! I avoid cardio exercises and I usually don't work my legs, but today's 1-hour Plyometrics program (a bona fide cardio routine involving high-impact jump training) really exposed my weak legs. Now before Day 1, I had done the Ab Ripper X twice and Shoulders and Arms already just get a feel for the routines and they didn't disappoint. The videos show you how to proceed if you're just starting out so I'd say anyone could jump into this program. Whether you want to simply lose weight, get lean, or bulk up, I'd say you could make it work for you as long as you have a goal in mind. I thought Tony Horton does a good job motivating and pushing you to the extreme as well. The program recommends purchasing supplements separately specifically designed for P90X exercises (this is a business after all), but I have my own vitamins, minerals, and protein bars. I may look into their recovery drink however.

As for the exercises, you'll need about an hour to an hour-and-a-half daily. I travel quite a bit, but with resistance bands, I can do most of the work outs from a hotel room. There's 12 different exercises, and you follow a daily schedule. I officially started yesterday (Thurs., May 15, 2008) and if I don't miss any days, I'll end Wednesday, August 13th. Like I mentioned earlier though, I did the Ab Ripper twice and Shoulders and Arms prior to Day 1.

Day 1 involves Chest & Back (~1 hour) and Ab Ripper X (~20 min). I could do about 2 front pull-ups and 6 reverse-grip chin-ups, so obviously my back needs a lot of work too. Unlike other Ab routines, P90X's Ab Ripper X is more core-oriented and I could feel it in my hips and thighs quite a bit. Taking Tony's advise, I paused during the Chest & Back exercise and took longer breaks. I even went back to do some things over until I was satisfied.

Today's exercise -- Plyometrics -- really killed me. Since I wasn't big on cardio and legs to begin with, this routine seriously challenged my endurance. Let's just say the pause button was my best friend, I could barely keep up, and my coordination left something to be desired.

I'm looking forward to Day 3 (tomorrow): Shoulders & Arms, Ab Ripper X.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Black Sun Rising, by C.S. Friedman [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Coldfire Trilogy
1. Black Sun Rising (1991) **
2. When True Night Falls (1993)
3. Crown of Shadows (1995)

Although I laud C.S. Friedman's efforts, I was mostly bored and annoyed by her first installment in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) Coldfire trilogy published back in 1991, BLACK SUN RISING. Considered by many in the SFF community as a classic, I thought this book amounted to little more than repetitive emotional introspection in the improbable journey of "friendship" between the "Hunter" Gerald Tarrant and Reverend Damien Kilcannon Vryce. Basically, it's a thought experiment in the unlikely teamwork and camaraderie between Evil Incarnate and Wholesome Good symbolized by Tarrant and Vryce, respectively. With the possible exception of the rakh-woman Hasseth, I disliked all the characters here. I had no stake in any of the characters and the book's efforts to endear the evil Tarrant failed miserably. In many books, you hope certain characters will survive, but here, I found myself wishing all of the main characters would keel over and die (Tarrant, Vryce, Ciani). Characterizations here are fairly weak in general, I've read more compelling characterizations in children's fairy tales. But alas, the story isn't interested in characters or plots, it chronicles a journey partnering good with evil to defeat another evil. Despite a decided dearth of plots and characters, BLACK SUN RISING contains rather intriguing elements of mystery and horror, and crafts a very eerie and rich setting. When the book isn't indulging in rather repetitive introspection, the prose is actually good.

From the very first page to the last, BLACK SUN RISING belongs to its evil protagonist hero Gerald Tarrant. Tarrant represents the biggest mover and shaker in the story and Friedman credits his presence and powers in Reverend Damien Vryce's every waking (and dreaming) thought. Tarrant is involved in or responsible for every twist, turn and plot. Our narrator the Reverend Damien Vryce serves as the reader's eyes and ears into Tarrant and even during the climax, Vryce acts as a conduit to facilitate Tarrant. We're told many times that Vryce is accomplished with his sword, but he does little with it and the climactic denouement resorts to vague and ambiguous powers of the mind between Tarrant and the Master of Lema. Certainly, writing sword fights isn't one of Friedman's strengths. In many ways, BLACK SUN RISING (1991) reminded me of Kay's TIGANA (1990), much more so than another book I read recently: Rawn's DRAGON PRINCE. Both BLACK SUN RISING (through Tarrant) and TIGANA (via the sorcerer Brandin) wish to portray the good in evil rather than tell an engaging story with interesting characters. Certainly not the first book to repudiate black-and-white fantasy and examine dark characters, it was nonetheless fad to make evil cool in the early 90s. Matthew Woodring Stover's HEROES DIE (*****) depicted a much more compelling case if you're interested in the "coolness" of evil and ruthlessness with enthralling characterizations and plots.

My biggest gripe with the novel: Vryce muses and thinks about Tarrant endlessly and repetitively. Whether Vryce is jealous of Tarrant because of Ciani (more than once), or calls Tarrant a bastard in his thoughts for thinking or doing something he (Vryce) is ashamed of as a priest (again and again), clearly the book wants to interminably drum out Vryce's evolving view of the apparently evil Tarrant. It's funny, only female authors care about a character's thoughts as much as C.S. Friedman spends time on Vryce's rather aggravating and repetitive introspection over Tarrant. And although I had no idea C.S. Friedman was a woman before I read this, I knew from reading the prologue and first chapter that the author is, without a doubt, female. Many times, Vryce's paradoxical and evolving view of Tarrant seemed exactly like a romance heroine's love-hate relationship with the tall, aristocratic and handsome hero. Tarrant certainly qualifies as the stereotypical tall, dark and handsome hero possessing the the requisite trimmings of corruption, arrogance and high-handedness. So what if Tarrant murdered his wife and children and kills thousands of innocents for his sustenance, he's not all that bad! Consider also these all too convenient cop-outs: Tarrant abstaining from feeding on innocents for a period of time and then, in the epilogue, all of sudden the book mentions how his "feeding" precludes sexual congress. All to make him seem redeemed and good.

The plotting which compels our narrator Damien Vryce to travel to the rakhlands seemed totally unwarranted. We're told Vryce makes the journey to help Ciani regain her memories and abilities as an adept (basically a human born to magic) because he loves her. But since Ciani fails to return the overwhelming love and devotion Vryce shows for her, I was mostly disgusted by Vryce's reasons to make the perilous journey. Tell us he's making the journey because of adventure, or to eliminate great threat to the planet Erna, but please don't give me bull about love. Damien Vryce at least deserved getting laid for all his trouble, lord! Damien is constantly there to support Ciani with an arm-around-the-shoulder, or encourage her dispirited state with words, or travel to the imposing Forest and rescue her when Tarrant kidnaps her. Vryce is consistently jealous of any man close to Ciani (mostly Tarrant and Senzei), thinks he cares for her and loves her, blah, blah, blah. Since Ciani fails to reciprocate even a fraction of Damien Vryce's affection, I was rolling my eyes at Vryce's resolve to hunt down Ciani's attacker and travel to the rakhlands all in the name of love. Please, Ciani astutely manipulates all three men on the journey: Tarrant's honor-bound words not to harm her, Damien's love for her, and Senzei's hunger for greater power (Sight). It's not like she doesn't remember in general, she harbors no physical strain from the attack on her, so the impetus to travel to dangerous lands and restore something vague and ambiguous to her (her "adeptitude") was lost on me. If she really cared for Senzei or Damien in any way, she would tell them not to risk so much for something so selfish (power, ability to Work the Fae, Fae memories). Despite Ciani constantly whispering or meekly vocalizing words, she skillfully exploits all three men: their ambitions, desires and honor, all of her sake.

Premise and plot, possible SPOILERS.

The prologue and settings in the early chapters instantly capture the reader's interest. In a scene of horror, the prologue treats readers to the Neocount of Merentha, the Prophet, sacrificing his wife and children for greater power and immortality. On the fictional planet of Erna (presumably Earth's sister planet), there exists Fae, a powerful energy field incipient throughout the planet. The Fae are sensitive to the human psyche and manifest humans' fear in the form of demons and monsters, much to the humankind's dismay. Whereas the religious institution in this world (the Church, Holy Father) wishes to render the human psyche unable to impact Erna's Fae, the Church's Prophet on the other hand is an adept, and like all adepts, he's born with the ability to manipulate Fae. During his Sacrifice in the prologue, the Prophet will prove both the Church's salvation and damnation at the same time. Another paradoxical dichotomy in the vein of many SFF written to show the good in evil, the evil in good, and blur the lines of distinction between the two. Fusing science fiction and fantasy elements, human survivors of planet Earth colonized the fantastical planet Erna and struggled to live with its sensitive Fae.

In the city Jaggonath, when mysterious creatures strip the adept Ciani's ability to Work the Fae, the Reverend Damien Vryce, Ciani's friend Senzei Reese and Ciani embark on a journey to chase these creatures into the dangerous rakhlands and kill Ciani's attacker thereby returning Ciani's memories of her "adeptitude." The mysterious creatures strangely reminded me of the slake-moths in China Mieville's PERDIDO STREET STATION. There's nothing more horrifying than stripping a thinking, reasoning and experienced person of one's memories. Angst-ridden passages from Damien's perspective proclaiming his love for Ciani when she obviously fails to return even a fraction of his love and devotion grate the nerves. Along the way, more companions join Damien, Ciani and Senzei on their journey, most notable among them the adept Gerald Tarrant. Eventually the narrative shifts to the unlikely yet burgeoning camaraderie between Tarrant and Damien, Damien's conflicting view of Tarrant (Damien strangely finds comfort in Tarrant's powerful, dark presence, yet feels ashamed for it because he's supposed to be a priest). Just like some romance heroine sulking over a tall, dark and handsome hero. This emotional introspection from Damien highlighting his relationship with Tarrant comprises the bulk of the novel and the "point" of it all, such as it is. Damien reasons he needs evil to fight evil, and grows fond of Tarrant, even calling Tarrant a bastard obviously because Damien enjoys the reassurance of Tarrant's presence. Just like serving as our eyes and ears into Tarrant, Damien serves as a conduit for Tarrant to attack the main antagonist of this particular novel, the Master of Lema. The Master of Lema mysteriously harnesses power at the hub of Erna's frequent earthquake activity in the rakhlands. I failed to see a big difference between the Master of Lema and our supposedly redeemed Gerald Tarrant. Both use and kill innocents, so what really makes the Master of Lema the greater threat? The book says whereas Tarrant harbors some semblance of honor and sanity, the Master of Lema has gone insane in a lust for greater and greater power. I don't see it, both require innocent 'sacrifices' to sustain themselves, why is one morally wrong (the Master of Lema), the other forgivable (Tarrant)? By the way, I love how Tarrant's power keeps him tall and handsome, whereas the Master of Lema's appearance has withered. Does that mean: evil men = cool, evil women = bad?

In any case, improbable companions journey to a dangerous and forbidden land. The enemy (Master of Lema) wants the adepts to feed off their power (Ciani and Tarrant), and their journey into the rakhlands bring the enemy the very thing the enemy covets (Ciani and Tarrant). If that doesn't sound like another version of Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS, I don't know what does. The events are predictable, boring and annoying at the same time. I didn't care about any of the characters, I was annoyed by Damien's angst-ridden introspection of Tarrant, and in spite of my fondest hopes, nobody major died.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dragon Prince, by Melanie Rawn [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Dragon Prince series (Rohan)
1. Dragon Prince (1/5)
2. The Star Scroll
3. Sunrunner's Fire

Dragon Star series (Rohan's son Pol)
1. Stronghold
2. The Dragon Token
3. Skybowl

Don't let the title of this book fool you, this book belongs to its Sunrunner heroine Sioned as she facilitates every major aspiration and/or accomplishment for our golden boy Rohan. In a fantasy book with substantial romantic inclinations, I wouldn't mind the emphasis on the heroine if I didn't find our hero Rohan's character so dithering, so wishy-washy, and, for lack of a better word, so "wussified." Our milksop hero Rohan whines about everything, he often gives moral soliloquies and the story arc primarily describes Rohan's evolution from an erudite 21 year-old idealist intent on peace like a 1960s hippie to a 27 year-old realist who whines about doing some rather "barbarian" things to protect the future of his family and people. In Part 3 entitled "Vengeance," Rohan's "brother-by-marriage" Chaynal assuages this evolution in Rohan's character, noting Rohan embodies hope to everyone because he (Rohan) examines and re-examines his actions and motivations. Evidently, this examination makes Rohan the good guy and his actions justified. I say it makes Rohan an annoying milksop. Like an imbecile, more than once Rohan resolves to never do what he's doing now ("Never again."). After he kills a dragon, he resolves, "Never again!" After waging a war in Part 3 when he's supposed to be more mature and worldly, there's also a naive "Never again!" Please, times change and who knows what actions the future may compel. Choose a course of action and get on with it, live with the consequences and learn from them. Guy Gavriel Kay's TIGANA (*) demonstrated I usually don't go for thematic fantasy stories where emotional angst, lessons and morals lurk behind every plot device. Please don't try to teach me and advise me on the nature of life and society. Lamentably, such is the case here in Melanie Rawn's romantic DRAGON PRINCE.

In my endless quest for an entertaining fusion between many different genres, this book reminded me of a another (better) romantic fantasy, that is, Joanne Bertin's THE LAST DRAGONLORD (****). I thought the prose, romance and political intrigue in Bertin's THE LAST DRAGONLORD surpassed Rawn's book here. I also thought the worldbuilding and magic system in Bertin's book were better. Both books however featured fairly weak heroes, and Bertin's awful sequel DRAGON AND PHOENIX (*) exacerbated the male characterizations. Male fantasy authors rarely write engaging female characters and fun romance while female fantasy authors write heroes who often irritate me. Unlike the romance genre, I actually liked that our hero Rohan here in DRAGON PRINCE isn't an older, experienced libertine, I liked that he isn't a redoubtable warrior, but his incessant dithering introspection really sucked the life out of any enjoyment Parts 1 & 2 may have engendered. We're told our hero Rohan is clever, a political mastermind of sorts, but I'm not sure what he accomplishes from Part 2 in the Rialla really amounts to all that much when it all goes to hell in Part 3 anyway. The book glosses over the details of his political maneuvering in the Rialla from Part 2 anyway and we're basically told he deftly effected many favorable agreements for his princedom. If you want a substantively unconventional male hero, check out Tyrion's political maneuvering from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series (especially in A CLASH OF KINGS), or Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards series. Tyrion and Locke are both incredibly hilarious and politically brilliant. Regrettably, Rohan fails to even approach the Tyrion and Locke's realm of brilliance and humor.

Rawn's DRAGON PRINCE also reminded me of Terry Goodkind's fairly repetitive and sermonizing Sword of Truth series (which I've never reviewed and probably never will). I can't express enough how addicted I was to Goodkind's fantasy/romance/adventure Sword of Truth series. I will always maintain that his opening installment WIZARD'S FIRST RULE (1994) was quite good and I really liked the fourth installment TEMPLE OF THE WINDS (1997) as well. His never-ending, repetitive saga crumbles starting from his fifth installment SOUL OF FIRE however. Anyhow, Goodkind is always looking to impart real-life lessons behind his fantasy plots. Similar to Goodkind's series, Rawn's morals and lessons here in the introspection and narrative drain the energy and plotting.

The Story.

In Rawn's fantasy world, I found the magic system both ambiguous and common compared to other fantasy books. Essentially a society of 'Sunrunners' or foradh'im travel along light to communicate across vast distances, conjure images, and the most powerful among the Sunrunners may call fire to destroy and devastate (though they're forbidden to kill and conveniently all the Sunrunners obey the rule). Distinctive colors identify each person in Rawn's world and Sunrunners see the unique colors of the person they're communicating with over vast distances. The sunrunner talent is mostly hereditary although it surfaces randomly in genealogies bereft of the talent. In the beginning of the story, our heroine Sioned is a powerful Sunrunner having earned 5 rings (each ring representing another notch in talent or power). Only the Lady of Goddess Keep, the Lady Andrade and Rohan's aunt, possesses 10 rings. Sunrunners train at the Goddess Keep, earning rings, experience and furthering their talents. Hackneyed for the fantasy genre, everything is made up of Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. Since Sunrunners utilize light and manipulate fire, they can't withstand traveling on a boat in water, an indication of Sunrunner talent. The people in Rawn's world, regardless of whether they possess the Sunrunner talent or not, primarily worship the Goddess. There are no kings here, and instead there exists various princedoms ruled by Princes. Our main antagonist is the High Prince Roelstra who resides over all the other princes and princedoms including his own, the Princemarch.

As the story begins, we're introduced to one of the most powerful princedoms, Prince Zehava's the Desert. Old, grizzled, and a beast among men, Zehava enjoys hunting dragons throughout his princedom and he embarks on killing his tenth dragon. When the ensuing battle between dragon and Prince Zehava lands Zehava in his deathbed, his heir 21 year-old Rohan come into power. Described as learned, clever and political mastermind, Rohan isn't the warrior like his brother-by-marriage Chay nor the dragon hunter like his famed father. In fact, Rohan loves dragons. Outside and above the princes' hierarchy, Rohan's aunt the Lady Andrade of Goddess Keep wishes to arrange a marriage between her pupil Sioned and the new Prince Rohan. Sioned has foreseen Rohan in the flames as a prophecy and finds herself half in love with him without having even met him. When Andrade presents Sioned to Rohan in the flames as well, our golden handsome loverboy is also in love. Part One, Faces in Fire, concludes with the onset of the Rialla a congregation of princes and lords who ratify various trade treaties and compromise on borders. The event culminates with (appropriately enough) Lastday Ceremonies consisting of weddings. Occurring every three years, the High Prince Roelstra oversees all dealings amongst princes at the Rialla. Maligned by seventeen daughters but not one male heir, the High Prince Roelstra, his mistress Palila and his legitimate daughters lanthe and Pandsala scheme to ensnare the new Prince Rohan in a marriage alliance during Rialla.

Part two, the Rialla, concludes with the end of the Rialla as Sioned and Rohan publicly acknowledge one another as husband and wife despite Roelstra's various plots. If Parts One and Two were mildly entertaining viewed as a romance with a fantasy context, Part Three "Vengeance" decidedly switches gears. I don't mind that bad stuff happens in this last part, but I found Rohan's introspective dithering, wishy-washy introspection and emotional angst unbearable as each irritating facet of his characterization multiplies hundred fold. Sioned is clearly the man in the relationship when she goes to whatever extreme necessary -- killing, for example -- to save and succor her husband Rohan. First, I find it implausible that prior to Sioned, no Sunrunner used his or her powers to harm or kill or possibly tilt the balance in a war. Talk about an idealistic utopia. Second, the emotional wedge between Sioned and Rohan as a result of lanthe's scheming seemed to magically disappear at the very end. We're told after the fact that they harmed each other but they eventually found their way back to each other. I also found events describing the war and its strategy very amateurish. Clearly this isn't Rawn's strong suit. There's too many domestic issues miring the plot having to do with Rohan's sister Tobin and her husband (Chay) and children. At times, Part 3 read as a chick fest, the men not really having much to do. Consider: lanthe's plot to trap Rohan, Sioned's revenge against lanthe, Tobin's domestic issues with her husband and children, Chianna, Pandsala and Lady Andrade, and even Feylin of Skybowl antagonizing Walvis and finally Rohan's Commander of his guards Maeta at Stronghold (a woman, of course). Even the final duel between Rohan and Roelstra was one of the poorest sword fights I've ever read, Sioned was intimately involved in it of course from miles away. Victorious, Sioned and Rohan promote new princes and lords. I thought the rosy ending was very unsatisfying and out of place following the emotional angst driving Sioned and Rohan apart earlier.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Two more e reviews

Latin Moon, by Jeigh Lynn (***)

All in all, I enjoyed this werewolf romantica starring Latino-American heroes, and Jeigh Lynn slowly builds the foundation (rules) for her werewolf culture here in LATIN MOON (unlike Liz Andrews & Lena Matthews' SHADOW OF MOONLIGHT). Instead of making up fancy names to build the culture, Jeigh Lynn slowly reveals the crux of the werewolf culture via suspense and mystery. Family is clearly important to Jeigh Lynn and it shows in her story here with a Latino family (the Hernandez's) and their extended relations. The men are dark and handsome, the women petite and pretty and the sensuality oozes from the pages. There were some weird, jarring parts however (Alex's cousin Adrian giving Alex a massage? And Michael and Rand kneeling before Alex like some Godfather scene?) while the finale seemed to flounder around with so many characters involved. I don't mind a large cast, but when the story seems to throw names around just to account for them from a bookkeeping standpoint, I have to wonder whether the author is more interested in setting up sequels or telling this story. Still, it's one of the better werewolf erotica/romantic (whatever you want to call it) that I've come across.

After Dr. Alex Hernandez glimpses Jessica "Jess" Ingram at his little sister's dance recital, all that matters is meeting her, talking to her, claiming her. The 'pack alpha' (leader, dominant) for his group of werewolves consisting of various family, Alex formally meets Jess at the hospital later and the two immediately explore their attraction for one another. Uncommon nowadays, Jess is a virgin and since mating partly transforms Alex which could frighten Jess (nothing major, just an amber eye color to accompany a feral carnality), Alex convinces Jess to abstain until after marriage. Alex wants to slowly ease Jess with his true werewolf nature and so keeps that aspect secret from her. Meanwhile, anonymous phone calls warn Jess to stay away from Alex while attempted assaults and abductions on her person heightens the drama behind a threat to Alex's pack. When a pack member -- Rome -- goes missing, Jess and Alex must work with Alex's family to string together the pieces of the puzzle. Attempts on Jess's life and Rome's disappearance seem connected. The sensuous romance parallel this mystery plot as Jess shockingly comes to grips with Alex's true nature. Enjoyable, relatively substantive plotting and pacing, steamy, and romantic.

Wynd Temptress, by Kathryn Anne Dubois (**)

This is a futuristic paranormal and I thought the writing and settings in this were better than most from this genre. There's even some attempt at political maneuvering in the beginning with Alaska's resources. Still, I didn't find this story all that sensual, surprising since the beginning is written from the hero's perspective. Although Dubois injects love and romance, I found the ending flat and dry. It's the year 2150 where some people potentially have psychic power. When the League of of World Government Sectors subdues Jezermiah Cameron's evil great-grandfather years ago, the government establishes the Psychic Sensory Investigations Agency to ferret out psychics utilizing their talents to gain an unfair advantage. Jezermiah Cameron AKA Jesse Calhoun's evil great-grandfather was a level five psychic, and along with being a level five psychic herself, Jez controls the wind as well. The Psychic Investigations Agency brings Adam Wydner out of retirement to examine the new self-elected mayor of Chinook, Alaska, Jezermiah Cameron AKA Jesse Calhoun. A level five psychic himself, the agency wants Adam to determine if Jezermiah has inherited her evil great-grandfather's powerful psychic abilities and whether she isn't unfairly influencing people with her psychic abilities for (or against) an important new proposed pipeline through her city.

The premise has Adam abduct Jez, whisking her away to resort-like grounds where she has the freedom to go anywhere but endless surrounding fields offer no substantial escape. At the resort, Adam intends to conduct his investigation of her psychic talents and their influence in her mayoral position. But Jez quickly turns the table on Adam and ties him up instead! I always enjoy a fun turning-of-the-tables, and thankfully, Dubois obliges. Unfortunately, the sensuality failed to resonate although Adam and Jez's banter was fun at times. The ending was worse, with an overabundance of choking love sickness on Adam's part. Jez has two other sisters, Jez the wind to her sisters' fire and water. Their stories are explored elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Erotica reviews of the month

Is it a bad generalization to state that married women write erotica much more conducive to a guy than single women? I admit I'm generalizing (which is never good), but when I read the Author's Note at the end of an erotica I thought was good, the author is happily married, with kids, etc. When I read the Author's Note of erotica I thought was too girly-centric or containing menage and BDSM, the authors are usually single. Oversimplification? Maybe, but one that generally holds true (in my case).

Silver Fire
, by Jeanne Barrack (***)

Intense passion for her soulmate transports our heroine Mirelle to the fantasy world Hearthome teeming with magical wizards, princes, and flying unicorns. In Hearthome, magic comes from the dust lanbeth produced from a "joining" between true mates who climax together. True mates preordained by the Fates in Hearthome are rare, and their climaxing at the same time even rarer. Hence, many in this fantasy world covet the magic dust lanbeth due to its extremely sparse and dwindling supply. Our hero is the wizard prince Jareth set Morath, son of Morath, tall and very handsome of course. Jareth calls to Mirelle on Earth and migrates her back to his own fantasy world. Once in Hearthome, Jareth and Mirelle immediately pledge their devotion to each other and they engage in some steamy sex. Mirelle is in a trance and after, she tries to help Jorath and his mentor Narik piece through the conspiracy rocking Mirelle's own family. She discovers she's actually a princess from Hearthome, ordained as Jareth's soulmate, and her royal family devastated by insidious plots and treachery. Narik suggests Mirelle's uncle who seemingly eliminated any competition for dominion over Hearthome. Jareth and Mirelle work together to disentangle the pieces clouding Hearthome.

Admittedly, the tale exhibits its fair share of silliness and senselessness but I found the chemistry between Jareth and Mirelle very passionate and it doesn't shy away from allowing Mirelle to show how much she wants Jareth. There's plenty of sex scenes and most of them are extremely heated because of their mutual desire for each other. In trying to make the people of Hearthome authentic, Jareth sometimes comes across very flaky both in his speech and mannerisms. The plotting and settings obviously leave something to be desired, but you can't argue Jareth & Mirelle's passion and love for each other one bit.

Jeanne Barrack writes a series on Hearthome, and I started reading the second installment in this dealing with Jareth's brother entitled AMBER INFERNO but I couldn't finish that one. The plotting in AMBER INFERNO reached levels of inanity and senselessness I couldn't quite stomach.

Price of Fame, by Ashley Ladd ()

This receives a zero not because it describes elements of a menage a trois or BDSM (I find little value in either) but because it's so ridiculously *girly* and stereotypically skewed from a female's point-of-view, I wanted to literally retch my insides out. Our twenty-eight year-old heroine Wenefred "Wendy" Applegate AKA Skye Blue harbors a mountain of insecurities and prejudices from page 1 to the very end. All beautiful women in this story are either air-headed bimbos (Thunder's drop-dead gorgeous wife Carly, or Wendy's band members Rain and Hail evidenced by Wendy's derogatory thoughts when Rain suggests an idea for their band, or all the ditzy bimbos in Wendy's sister's beauty pageants) or the beautiful women are extremely annoying (Wendy's beauty queen little sister Angelina). There exists beautiful, confident and successful women, but you'd never know it from this story. Apparently only plain women like our heroine Wendy has any brains as she spends the whole story ridiculing beautiful women and yet fawns over handsome, ripped men. She summarily condemns all beautiful women as dumb, she entertains menage fantasies with two hot men and yet she's insecure in a threesome with another, potentially prettier woman (c'mon, we can't really measure beauty and yet there's little doubt we can gauge the size of two dicks in a menage and she as a woman is insecure?!). All the hot men in this story are of course considerate and smart along with possessing handsome faces, huge biceps, pecs, abs, hard thighs and mammoth erections described in excruciating detail ad nauseam. I wouldn't mind so much if I didn't have to read Wendy whining about her plain looks, her family ignoring her as a child and focusing on her little beautiful sister Angel, etc., etc., etc. You name it, our Wendy has a whine ready for it on autopilot. When a hotel concierge doesn't treat her with the utmost respect and care due to a diva because she didn't have her face paint on, she whines. Nevermind two hot guys pursue Wendy the entire story (her band member Thunder and the hot Dr. Trace Cooper), she continues to whine about her plain, insignificant looks. Nevermind that she's more successful than her little sister, she constantly whines about her pretty little sister garnering all the attention. Despicably, it's our hero the tall, hot and ripped Dr. Trace Cooper who makes all the sacrifices in the end (consistently shown working out and also a high school football star who enjoyed all the cheerleaders back in the day). Though he considers the peculiar resemblances behind Skye Blue and Wendy a couple times, Trace never explores his hunch behind Skye Blue's true identity. He dismisses the notion that Skye Blue could be his Wendy and everyone melodramatically learns of Skye Blue's true identity from the media. Instead of crafting a circumstance where Trace explores his hunch and possibly turns the tables on Wendy, Trace remains a dolt throughout. Of course he's built like a body builder, he's a doctor, played high school football and dated all the cheerleaders, what more could a plain, insecure girl like Wendy want? And from my vantage point, Wendy remains ugly both from the inside and outside. Her petty grudges and mountain of insecurities never diminish. Her bitchy attitude towards Trace never ceases until the last page. Trace must chase her across the country after she lies to him about her identity and Trace must declare words of love and devotion to assuage her concerns despite media attention of her new beau, a TV star. Trace must abandon his practice in Florida and relocate to California to accommodate Wendy's illustrious career. I literally wanted to barf.

The essential premise revolves around Wendy struggling to hide her public persona from her family and friends back in Florida. She resents her family (her mother and little sister) for always making her feel secondary, and she hates her childhood crush Trace for saying he would prefer her sister Angel's beauty when they were all very little. Wendy has grown up to be the distinguished lead singer Skye Blue in the famous band called Storm and with all the face paint she's successful keeping her real identity secret from the media and her public persona hidden from her family. When health conditions handicap her aging mother, Wendy returns to her home in Florida and the girly, juvenile feeling of the story steadily rises while everything else promptly disintegrates. Her childhood crush Trace is her mother's doctor and she's Bitch Numero Uno around him. Shockingly, our doctor is a fan of Wendy's band Storm and he attends her Florida concerts dressed in tight leather and of course the Wendy's girly notions escalate. Wendy wants men to look beyond superficial beauty in women and yet fawns over beautiful men (Thunder and Trace) at every turn. She's not only petty, jealous, insecure and plain looking, but she's also hypocritical. Trace enjoys Skye Blue's attentions after a concert, completely ignorant of Skye Blue's true identity. Trace never discovers anything for himself and the story continues on its girly, stereotypical and hypocritical course.

Before the Fire, by Jaid Black (****)

I've skimmed through a few of Jaid Black's work and I can confidently say that compared to all the other erotica (i.e. Lora Leigh), Jaid Black writes one of the few erotica that guys can read as well as women. Her stories contain hot guys, but they also contain hot, smart women and the passion isn't heavily one-sided (all the pleasuring from the guy to the girl) nor the plotting too feminine (notions of tingly reactions for example). BEFORE THE FIRE comprises of futuristic, scifi elements merged with time traveling to the common setting of most historical romances, Georgian England. Although I tried not to, BEFORE THE FIRE made me laugh so many times that I have to recognize its light, passionate and humorous touches in an otherwise silly and foolish tale. If a nonsensical story makes me laugh, I have to give it props, and if the story is meant to be an erotica strictly for women, I have to laud its efforts. It's like laughing at one of Mel Brooks' silly yet funny movies (like SPACEBALLS). Some of the "magical" elements here weren't nearly as inane here as in Barrack's SILVER FIRE.

In the year 2429 AD, a new mutation of a virus threatens all of mankind distributed across various planets and solar systems. I had to laugh at the name: BV-5, or Brain Virus Five. Scientist and "planabotonologist" (a botanist for all the planets, I'm assuming) Kane Edmonds represents Commander Linder's last hope for his stricken son Egis. Linder asks Kane to travel back in time during Georgian England when there exists evidence of a "kabitross" plant which possesses herbs to combat the deadly BV-5. Kane agrees, traveling to the estates of Blackmore, where rumors abound of the Earl of Blackmore having murdered his wife. George Wyndom, the ninth Earl of Blackmore and heir apparent to the Duke of Browning, espies a thoroughly nude Kane on his land and understandably falls prey to lust instantaneously. Kane is taken aback by George's massive size and handsome countenance and asks some amusing and yet pointed questions of George. George finds a woman like Kane who doesn't abide traditional protocol and custom very refreshing. Kane tells George she's American and she seeks a plant vital to her research. George wants to court Kane formally but Kane refuses to march to the time period's pace and proceeds to shock George all the while capturing his heart thoroughly. More characters from the 1776 appear and the mystery behind George's first wife is unraveled. Kane slowly acquired new friends and family in 1776 all the while searching frantically for the plant. Again, the passion resonated and chemistry sizzled in this one minus the cloying muliebrity so characteristic of this genre.

Rainlashed, by Leda Swann (****)

This one is too fun for guys, what guy wouldn't want a hot mermaid-like creature wanting nothing more than to please him 24/7? This one is definitely skewed a little bit for guys but not nearly as bad as Agnew's DANGEROUS INTENTIONS (below) or Ladd's PRICE OF FAME (above) are skewed for women. RAINLASHED contains paranormal elements in the Regency England setting. Our heroine Maya is a "selkie," or a creature capable of shape-shifting between seal and human form though her first love lies with the water and oceans. Selkies also possess magical powers affecting the ocean. Our hero Ian Argyle, Earl of Stoneleigh, was born to the land but also shares a love of sea and ocean like Maya. Iain comes to terms with his love for Maya in the end and sacrifices a part of himself to be with Maya long-term. Maya is sexy, innocent, unabashed, and provocative -- pretty much every guy's dream and Leda Swann captures a guy's dream perfectly just this once.

The premise: Iain dreams of capturing one of the slippery selkies on the shore of his estates ever since they taunted, teased and finally escaped his clutches as a child. When Iain stumbles on some beautiful female selkies bathing on the rocks in the sun, he resolves to capture their seal skins which would effectively enslave them. A selkie would do anything to reacquire her seal skin. In fact, a selkie without her seal skin is powerless to transform to seal form and enjoy the waters. When Iain captures Maya's younger sister's seal skin, Maya barters her own seal skin in exchange for her sister's. Iain would have returned the younger sister's seal skin, it's Maya he's wanted from the moment he laid eyes on her, and he cruelly uses Maya's desperation to enslave her to him. Iain tells Maya that if she pleases him enough, he'll return her seal skin back to her. Unfortunately whatever Maya does for him sexually only makes Iain latch onto her harder and harder. The story's end satisfies as Iain forsakes part of his life on land to be with Maya, and Iain doesn't ask Maya to abandon her love for the sea and ocean permanently. Leda Swann's love for the water and ocean is evident and I enjoyed the story thoroughly.

Naughty Mistress Nita, by Jodi Lynn Copeland (**)

Conservative and a general good girl, NAUGHTY MISTRESS NITA describes Anita Roemer shedding her shell of inhibitions and discovering her sexual side in the arms of tall, gruff and handsome Zane Matthews. In spite of any expectations stemming from the title, our dominant hero Zane Matthews quickly turns the tables on Anita and she's the recipient of some of Zane's naughty ministrations, not the other way around.

Jordan asks her best friend Anita to drive to a lodge in the boondocks in order to cancel an appointment with one Zane Matthews. Jordan works as a professional dominatrix, and she's tried calling him, but there's no answer. Jordan doesn't want to leave the guy hanging since he's prepaid and so Anita drives all the way to Zane's cabin to cancel the appointment with the professional dominatrix Jordan. The entire premise is way too bizarre and Jordan goads her friend Anita that she could sit in for her, but then laughs it off recognizing Anita for the sexual prude she is. Anita walks in on Zane's empty but messy cabin and proceeds clean up the place and sleep in the bed after a storm strands her there. Fairly outrageous circumstances to be sure. Zane walks in on the professional dominatrix his buddies have arranged for him after his recent separation with his cheating ex-wife. Her conservative attire sure doesn't scream dominatrix, Zane thinks. The story has Anita shifting between her conservative self and the role as a confident dominatrix. Zane believes Anita is new at this but then quickly deduces she couldn't be a lifetime dominatrix. Like Copeland's INTO THE ARCTIC piece in the Anthology: A Faerie Tale, I smiled and chuckled at some of the amusing and humorous writing. Still, there was something missing in the sensuality (compared to Copeland's INTO THE ARCTIC in Anthology: A Faerie Tale), and the plotting and ending seemed empty.

Erotic Stranger, by Cheyenne McCray (*)

This is a full-fledged BDSM fantasy though it restrains from any menage. Corporate lawyer Teri Carter wants to drop her inhibitions for a night, have pure, unadulterated sex with a stranger who will nail her hard, long and leave her satisfied. Used to ordering and bossing others around, Teri is a closet subservient in the Dom/Sub BDSM relationship. Successful entrepreneur and Dom Josh Williams recognizes Teri in the hotel bar as a hot potential Sub. Both are attracted to one another and Josh takes Teri back to his room, ties her up and their games in bondage and pain escalate as Josh unveils his arsenal of BDSM toys and gadgets. Some of the pain Josh inflicts on Teri borders on torture and I guess I'll never understand a woman actually liking this much pain. I'm all for some butt slapping, but some of Josh's professional BDSM toys mean business. Somehow, love ensues from all this. This is, by far, the shortest of the stories amongst these reviews and offers little substance and less plotting.

Dangerous Intentions, by Denise A. Agnew (*)

This begins with some substantive prose and promise with respect to the plotting but quickly takes a nosedive for the worse. Although not as girly and woman-centric as Ladd's PRICE OF FAME (above), it comes darn close! Thankfully it forgoes PRICE OF FAME's nauseating insecurities and the heroine here in DANGEROUS INTENTIONS is really hot. But this story is interested in one thing and one thing alone: magnify the appearance of the hot, ripped guy, and detail his pleasuring of our heroine Kiley. Every time Kiley wishes to offer something for our hero Scott Danger, he brushes her off. It gets old after the third and fourth times which are so female-centric and imply any ripped, handsome guy could elicit such uninhibited reactions from our pretty heiress Kiley. Not to mention any man would love to have her doing a small fraction of the pleasuring Scott bestows Kiley; and no, after the third, fourth, fifth times her favorable reactions alone are not enough and *every* man would move on after the the woman's selfish second time. If she really "loved" him, she wouldn't let Scott brush her off so easily when she starts to return a fraction of his servicing attentions. The whole time, Kiley shoulders bruises from a prior relationship (Barclay), someone macho and handsome who looks and acts like Scott. Hence, she's reluctant to submit to him completely and commit to him. Scott has no problem loving her, giving her pleasure, and putting himself out there for her without the least bit of any expectation on her part to reciprocate (in anything).

Kiley's billionaire uncle Reginald Casey Chapman of Chapman Enterprises has some enemies and expects some trouble from his old business partner Gregory Thorson who was recently released from prison. Kiley's uncle hires Scott's agency and specifically Scott to protect Kiley. Scott is the best: he's "lean and mean," possesses the obligatory wide shoulders, ripped muscles, handsome countenance and hails from a celebrated past in secret ops and protection which would hone and tone his muscles. The story shifts to mostly Kiley's very girly and cloying perspective as Scott responds to Kiley's ad looking for a hero and having qualities of a hero. Kiley would be around the successful candidate 24/7 to observe the qualities of a hero, and that would suit Scott's purposes just fine -- to protect her of course. Kiley's uncle advises that he must protect her without revealing that he was hired to protect her since Kiley would have none of that. The story contains absolutely zero surprises, everything is predictable and the villains do some things that make Scott desperate to protect Kiley and want her more (also predictably).

His Female (Gryffin Strain 01), by Madison Hayes (**)

Another paranormal story, this one deals with a human -- our heroine Chiarra -- caught in the midst of Gryffin politics. Gryffin are fantastical creatures but essentially humanoid in form and genitalia. Both females and males have these fantastic multi-colored fans spanning their body, females are straight-waisted and flat-chested, while males' phallus stem directly from underneath and between their legs. Their arousal leans horizontal while a human male's arousal leans vertical more often than not. Also, females are common amongst the species while males rare. A male's "fold" will contain the male with as many as 8 wives. In fact, our hero Jarrk's fold consists of 7-8 women. Male gryffin can perform some neat tricks while embedded in the female and consequently the females climax almost immediately while it takes many females for the male to climax. Male gryffins covet human females because they're able to last longer. It's all very amusing and silly at the same time.

After Chiarra ventures to gryffin territory and is captured, she watches a fight between the evil Gryffin male Grat and our hero Jarrk. Our human heroine Chiarra was brought up to believe gryffin are less than human, that they're mostly animal. Grat abused and killed the last human female that they captured and Jarrk wishes to protect Chiarra from Grat's malevolence. After Jarrk defeats Grat, Chiarra joins Jarrk's fold (consisting of him and his 7-8 wives). Jarrk has no desire to force her to stay though but the maelstrom and dragons across the land prevent Chiarra from returning right away. An acrimonious disposition mars Chiarra and Jarrk's exchanges but their attraction to one another steadily builds. When Chiarra leaves to brave the maelstroms, Jarrk gives chase to help and protect her from Grat. Events progress and Jarrk and Chiarra find bliss in each other's arms. It's an interesting story if nothing else, definitely different from what I've been reading. It was also amusing at times and didn't piss me off as much as some others here.

Shadow of Moonlight, by Liz Andrews & Lena Matthews (*)

This is a werewolf story which attempts to imbue some societal culture and hierarchy to the wolf packs. Tanned, muscled and surfer-boy-like Jace McClellan is the anomaly within his own Pack, a seer of his pack, a Rakshasa as they're called. For most of his adult life, Jace has wanted Elizabeth Remington, or "Remy." Remy is a warrior, a Venator, second-in-command to their Pack leader, and she's earned her title, scars and bruises by fighting. This story attempts novelty by substituting fancy names for the various titles in the wolf packs for a meaningful setting. One of Jace's visions about a pregnant human woman could threaten the tenuous stability between wolf packs and heralds danger for the werewolves. Remy dumped her last hot, muscled lover Kellan (all the guys in the pack are obviously tall, steroid-pumped and handsome) and her attraction to Jace evolves as the pack's leader Nico orders to investigate the identity of this woman. In any werewolf or fantasy-based romantic erotica, there exists some notion of mates and here is no different. Fear of injuring Jace (because mating involves partially shifting to wolf form) prohibit Remy from mating with Jace since Jace isn't a true wolf (he has were DNA which allows him to see visions, but he can't shift into a wolf). The sex scenes were fairly one-sided focusing on Jace pleasuring Remy which I wouldn't have a huge problem with if the words and emotions from Jace for Remy weren't so much more profound than the other way around. Jace says he's intoxicated by the smell and taste of her arousal, that it's imprinting itself in his brain, that it smells and feels like home, blah, blah, blah. He tells her he loves her early and often and of course he's understanding enough to allow Remy to work out her own issues and fear of committing to Jace. The story meticulously describes Jace loving to pleasure Remy with his mouth and hands but of course anytime an opportunity for the reverse presents itself, Remy performs out of rote or they're interrupted by the pack leader Nico. The servicing from the hero to the heroine isn't nearly as bad here as in Agnew's DANGEROUS INTENTIONS, but it's still fairly lopsided, in thoughts, words, and deeds.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Beyond A Shadow (SG-5 08), by Alison Kent [4]

****/***** (4/5)

Thirty-five year-old school teacher Alexa Counsel knows trouble when she sees it. As the dark and mysterious Ezra Moore walks up to her with little Emmy Rose Maples, Alexa purposefully inserts herself as a barrier between the little girl Emmy Rose and the local inn's new handyman, the dark, dangerous and perceptive Ezra Moore. Divorced two years ago, Alexa discerns danger in Ezra Moore and her intuition screams at her to run and protect herself and friends from Ezra Moore. This constitutes my first book by Alison Kent, and I found BEYOND A SHADOW very refreshing in the romance/erotica genre. I thought the writing was above average, the settings in small-town Comfort Bay, Oregon, strong, the plotting and pacing grips while the romance steadily evolved and could appeal to both guys and gals, something very rare in the romance/erotica genre. The characterizations of our lead pair Alexa Counsel and Ezra Moore reminded me of Madeline Hunter's characters: mature, compelling, and the two together exhibit an electrically-charged chemistry. Alexa and Ezra's exchanges aren't childishly antagonistic, but rather exude wit and inflammatory passion. I understand Alison Kent writes a series of books on SG-5 (Smithson Group), or Hank Smithson's team of rogue undercover operatives. Ezra Moore has appeared in prior SG-5 novels and the group's involvement and role sometimes obfuscate the plotting for completely new readers to the series. I found the finale very anticlimactic and for an accomplished operative, Ezra seems to blunder and fails to anticipate problematic scenarios which arise at the end. Ezra's overwhelming feelings for Alexa could excuse his oversights though.

This book's romantic crux describes a spiritual cleansing of the battered and damaged goods that are Ezra Moore. Certainly not the first romance novel to depict a bad boy finding redemption in a strong woman's arms, I found BEYOND A SHADOW nonetheless gritty, engaging and substantive. Approaching Anne Stuart's bad boys, Ezra Moore surpassed the well-muscled, well-endowed and rakish heroes common to most romance and erotica. In fact this book simply doesn't dwell on appearances as so many other romance books and we don't find detailed accounts of a hero's "aquiline" nose, handsome face, chiseled frame nor the heroine's ample beauty. The passion wasn't nearly as one-sided (all the pleasure and giving from the hero to the heroine), and I can't tell you how much I appreciate heroines actually enjoying giving their heroes pleasure. It's so rare because most of erotica/romance is all about the rake igniting the heroine's passions (the hero's touch, lick, suckle, blow, steady and slow deliberations) that the reverse rarely happens or when it does, she does it out of rote, not necessarily out of her desire for him. Whereas the hero yearns to taste her and savor her everywhere, the woman simply receives it. Whereas the hero really treasures her response to his ministrations, the heroine oftentimes becomes greedy time after time. A woman's uninhibited reactions to a man's ministrations definitely signify to the man, but to me, any attractive and learned man can engender such a response. It's when a woman enthusiastically does something just for her man that really captures that man's heart. Alexa Counsel is so uninhibited in her response, so giving in kind, so genuine, I found Ezra's overwhelming love for her justified. Enthusiasm and genuine desire trumps skill in every guy's book. In fact he's very lucky to have found someone so understanding and giving like Alexa.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Ezra Moore accepts a handyman job for the Maples Inn in small town Comfort Boy, Oregon, as a cover in order to eliminate the virulent organization SpectraIT headed by Warren Aceveda and Cameron Gates. He's expected to rendezvous with a couple of SpectraIT representatives who will arrive at the Maples Inn in a week's time. Ezra arrives early to reconnoiter the small town and embed himself within the community to avoid any suspicion later when SpectraIT's representatives arrive. Respected schoolteacher Alexa Counsel provides the perfect excuse to insert himself within the community... or so he tells himself. The two explore their mutual attraction the very first night. While Ezra intends to use Alexa as his connection to the local community, Alexa has a police officer friend investigate Ezra's background because she still doesn't completely trust him. Some of the chapters from little Emmy Rose Maples' perspective (Alexa's close friend's daughter) are some of the most funny and interesting.

Ezra's plans goes terribly awry when someone from his ignominious past shows up for the arranged meeting with SpectraIT instead, all the while holding Alexa hostage in the process. One of the most touching scenes in the book was Alexa "cleaning" Ezra of his dirt after the dangerous fray, symbolically cleansing him of his crimes. The finale, though anticlimactic, still concluded the novel satisfactorily.

Overall I found BEYOND A SHADOW a very satisfying read and a slight detour from juvenile romance stories so common to this genre.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The many faces of Hillary Clinton

So here we are late-February-early-March in 2008, and the Democratic party has yet to decide on their nominee for President of the United States of America. Despite the huge voter turnout in the Democratic party (compared the Republican side), I have to wonder at their chances of beating 71 year-old Arizona Senator John McCain. On the eve of the debate at Cleveland State between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both candidates have dialed up their scathing tone considerably. History has shown that whenever the Democratic party has been this divided over their candidates as this year, the party loses. Case in point: 1972, 1980 and finally, 1988, all consisting of protracted battles for Democratic delegates. The democratic nominee in each of those years lost in the subsequent general election. Also note that many states allow anyone (democratic, republican, independent) to vote in one of the primaries as in my state of Virginia. I suspect that the relatively high number of independents and republicans vote for Obama because the republican race has been over while the contentious Democratic nomination rages on. I gather many Republicans vote for Obama because they fervidly dislike Hillary more than they like Obama or like McCain.

Which brings me to the many faces of Hillary Clinton we've seen over the past couple of weeks.

Now as a disclaimer, I will say outright that I voted for Obama in the Virginia primary, I consider myself a fiscal conservative but a social liberal. I usually vote for the Democratic candidate in general elections because I dislike the religious overtones of many Republican candidates. No, I don't begrudge a candidate's faith, but I do begrudge that faith instituted in law and federal policies. I find it contradictory when Republicans talk about toning down federal government involvement and yet want to ban abortion and, as they call it, "preserve the sanctity of marriage," at the federal level. Mike Huckabee even called it changing the Constitution to reflect God's will, he used those words, I kid you not (Huckabee: "But I believe it's a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."). Never mind that divorces skyrocket year after year, Huckabee wants to ban same-sex marriage. Now I'm not for same-sex marriage, but I am against instituting a federal law that bans same-sex marriage under the guise of "preserving the sanctity of marriage." Faithfulness should be more important than banning certain groups of people from marrying legally. Which is why I'm glad McCain remains opposed to socially conservative principles enforced at the federal level. I do agree with Hillary when she says we have to stop George Bush's war on science, there's plenty of evidence of that, just ask the scientists across the country. G.W. Bush uses his faith to enforce policies.

If John McCain is the Republican nominee and Barack Obama is the Democratic nominee, it will represent the first year where I will be happy with either candidate despite their stark differences. Being a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I may even vote for McCain. McCain actually has a record of crossing party lines whereas Obama has stuck with his party on almost every vote (though Obama's voting record is short). I would definitely vote for McCain if Clinton is the Democratic nominee. I know many Clinton supporters have said that they'd vote for McCain if Obama is the nominee. Again lending credence to the fact that neither Democratic candidate can win the general election in a hotly-contested democratic nomination.

I sincerely hope I'm not being sexist, but as far as politicians go, I find Hillary Clinton the most disingenuous of the lot. I lived in New York State when Hillary Clinton exploited New York State's lax residential prerequisites to become its state senator. All because of her name recognition in one of the most liberal states in the country. Her move to New York State had less to do with New York State's interest than her own. Which would be fine if I didn't feel like her every vote and every public statement seemed so calculated. When the Republicans deftly blasted John Kerry's liberal voting record in the Senate during the 2004 presidential election, Hillary Clinton's votes moved decidedly more centrist. She voted for the war in Iraq because it had less to do in what she believed in or what was right for the country, but what she thought could advance her political career long-term. Looking towards a general election against the Republican candidate, her centrist votes could be viewed favorably and less susceptible to attack. It's no wonder that right-wing conservative talk show radio hosts such as Bill Cunningham from Cincinnati, OH, and Rush Limbaugh prefer Hillary Clinton to John McCain and Barack Obama.

Over the past couple of weeks, we've seen many faces from Hillary Clinton. On CNN's debate last Tuesday, I wasn't so moved by Hillary Clinton's closing remarks as some of the pundits. I found them fabricated to stave off the sting from her "change you can xerox" criticism of Obama's famed oratory. The audience booed her xerox comment and she closed the debate in a very conciliatory fashion, supposedly "honored" to be on the same stage as Barack Obama. I thought it was fake, and an obvious ruse to atone for her earlier comment which didn't go over very well. Then, we have Angry Hillary as she responds to Obama flyers (which are misleading, see denouncing her views on NAFTA and criticizing her Health Care plan. These flyers have been out for weeks, so I have to wonder why she's so visibly angry about it now (Hillary: "Shame on you Barack Obama"). Then we have Sarcastic Hillary (and in my opinion, the worst) where she lambastes Obama for his optimism (Clinton: "Now, I could stand up here and say, 'Let's just get everybody together. Let's get unified. The sky will open. The light will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing, and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.'"). I think most people want to believe in optimism and hope, and I find this sarcastic side of Hillary very superficial. Not only does all this make her seem fake, but it makes her appear desperate after losing 11 Democratic contests in a row.

Let's see which face shows up tonight.

Monday, February 25, 2008

More erotica reviews

Diamond (Galaxy 03), by Michelle M. Pillow (****)

There exists three erotic stories in the Galaxy Playmate series (that I know of) though I found DIAMOND the best of the lot. Jane, whose stage name is Diamond, meets her childhood nemesis Liam Ferguson while traveling back to her home planet of Werten. Diamond wants to throw her fame and beauty in her brother's friend (Liam's) face after all these years, she wants to flaunt her beauty in Liam's face for teasing her when she was an awkward girl. After a very enjoyable reunion in which Diamond fails to recognize Liam in the space hunk body before her, Diamond soon learns of his true identity and seethes over repressed feelings for Liam as a little girl even when he used to tease her. This is a story about rediscovering a childhood love that never died and of course I'm always partial to those. The love scenes are very hot and the love resonated.

Forbidden Fruit,
by Caitlyn Willows (*)

This one is also about reigniting a childhood crush/love. Abby Strickland runs into her childhood crush Richard Braddock (a cop) at a wedding after many years. Richard has just divorced from his wife and seeing Richards after all these years makes Abby all hot and bothered. This story is written almost entirely from Abby's perspective and I found myself mostly bored with the end result. After a devastating prior relationship, her childhood crush fifty year-old Richard is johnny-on-the-spot. Although he's in top form as a cop, Richard's advanced age seems part of Abby's attraction. I wasn't moved by their "connection" in the least though I do give points to any erotica that mentions g-spot stimulation as this one does.

Claiming (Outlaw Lovers 2)
, by Jan Springer ()

This one obviously gets a zero because it's about a ritualistic "claiming" between multiple brothers and a woman. It wouldn't be so bad if the woman in question (Callie) wasn't married to one of the brothers (Luke). Luke gets off watching "his" woman claimed by his brothers at the same time. Supposedly, Callie and Luke "love" each other. Again, I wouldn't mind this so much if the author didn't disgustingly bring love and marriage into it. The story is obviously a woman's fantasy to have multiple hot men with huge erections nail her in multiple orifices and the farthest thing from a guy's mind during all this is "love." Yeah, I cannot imagine a guy sharing a woman he supposedly loves, and no, I'm not a prig about sex believe me. There's a reason why you won't see any stories where the woman supposedly gets off sharing the man she loves with other women. Again, I consider myself fairly liberal but something like love is so much more intense and fulfilling in a monogamous relationship (both emotionally and physically). And stories which manufacture love into multiple-men-single-woman scenes incite my rancor to no end. It's raw sex, so LEAVE LOVE OUT OF IT.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Erotica reviews

Anthology: A Faerie Tale, by Paige Burns, Jodi Lynn Copeland, Rae Monet, and Tiffany Aaron

RING OF FIRE (***), written by Paige Burns, begins this anthology on four faerie princesses forced to live on Earth (separately) and find love before their 28th birthday. All four of these stories are very readable, and they don't just portray how much the guy wants the girl but how much the girl wants the guy back (beyond the responsiveness). In RING OF FIRE, our nature faerie Damia meets scientist Mateo De'Acosta in a jungle where he's studying and measuring an active volcano. This qualifies as a very rare romance/erotica story where the guy isn't a notorious rake, but rather a studious research scientist. He's very attractive though and our libidinous faerie Damia directs her ample charms on Mateo. The passion is heated and the chemistry palpable. Towards the end, Damia's special faerie powers aid Mateo and his project on the volcano. Mateo, meanwhile, falls hard for Damia and both discover true love in each other's arms.

The second story features the faerie sister Albinia in Jodi Lynn Copeland's INTO THE ARCTIC (****). Some amusing twists to the common werewolf storyline make this tale an enjoyable and yet very passionate affair. Geologist Flinn Gregory is a were-penguin who is studying glacial tectonics at an outpost in the frozen tundra to save his imperiled species (were-penguins). Along with a couple guys, Albinia arrives at the post under the guise of a student named Erin finishing her masters in geophysics. Albinia coaxes Flinn to allow her to stay with him at his outpost to study glacial drifting while the two other guys (Lance and Rusty) move on. Albinia and Flinn enjoy a very heated passion and similar to the previous story, Albinia saves Flinn's life along with finding a means to salvage his race.

The third story showcases the the faerie of luck and fortune Nortia in Rae Monet's LUCK OF THE DRAW (**). The focus shifts here a bit to south France where Nortia uses her powers to win at slots in a casino called Ranger's Palace. Owned by Brice Ranger, Nortia's vast winnings compel Brice to investigate her. Passion takes over from there but this story lacked the fresh appeal from the prior two. It was also the most mundane in this anthology because unlike the volcano and penguins in the first two stories, LUCK OF THE DRAW lacked a compelling premise.

The final story, TIGER BY THE TAIL (***) by Tiffany Aaron, focuses on the final faerie sister Alida, the faerie of glamor manifested by her singing talent. Taking place in Australia, Cyno Wellington is a were-tiger, the very last Tasmanian Tiger in fact. Cyno attends one of Alida's concerts and of course he's mesmerized. The plotting here deals with Alida stalked by her Aussie manager Jason via anonymous threatening notes. Cyno and Alida's chemistry resonated in this one and the passion was definitely heated.

Anthology: Pleasure Raiders, by Katherine Kingston, Arianna Hart and Dawn Madigan

These three stories are about space pirates discovering love in a science fiction universe. The first story, CHECKMATE (**) by Katherine Kingston, is interesting to say the least. Written entirely from the heroine Devonne's perspective, Captain Dev crosses paths with her hero Raje. Both are pirates of a sort. Devonne and Raje share an early passion and later Devonne learns he's none other than Prince Reginald of Gambria. His uncle is the Grand Emperor. Devonne recoils feeling he used her for a short time. Circumstances land both Devonne and Raje in a bind with the Sangari government. The Sangari people enjoy exhibition and in order to escape charges, both Devonne and Raje must successfully perform various acts in front of a live audience. They involve combat, mazes, and of course, sex. One scene with another couple was especially memorable. In the end, the Sangari trials prove to Devonne that Raje really loves her.

The second story, Arianna Hart's CONCUBINE'S REVENGE (***), also represents the most heated and passionate. Space pirate Triona Fallon of the The Bunny's Revenge captures Captain Drake Cantor and his ship. Drake is Traminian where it's customary to own concubines as slaves. Triona was captured from her rural home and forced into the concubine slave trade on the planet when she was 16. A cruel Traminian master abused Triona for a two years before she finally escaped to engage in space piracy. Triona takes revenge on the captured Traminian Drake who offers sexual services in exchange for his freedom. Triona agrees and puts a collar around Drake controlled by a remote. The premise engages from the outset. Although Triona's treatment justifiably angers Drake in the beginning, I was rolling my eyes at Drake's lovesick introspection relatively early. He forgets about escape and instead he's emotionally enslaved by Triona too early. Both obviously discover true love in the ruse and the love scenes are hot.

The final story here, Dawn Madigan's CRASH COURSE (*), is weakest of the lot although the initial premise intrigues. Navy commander Blade Steele hounds captain of the Ambrosine pirate Chiliad-Kai Jayrt'ian. In an act of desperation, Chiliad orders his ship the Ambrosine to hyperleap without a functional navigational system. A smuggler and scoundrel, Chiliad prays he doesn't end up in the heart of a supernova. Our heroine is virginal Valasca ("Val") of an Amazon-like race of females who make their home on the planet Chebrri in uncharted territories. Val chances on Chiliad in the desert of her home planet and agrees to help him find fuel for his ship. An entertaining belligerent quality characterizes the early exchanges between our hero Chiliad and Val. Chiliad initiates Val to passion and it's first story which saves any oral until the very end.

London Falling, by Eve Vaughn (****)

A very short read, this is about our alien heroine London who falls for ordinary nice guy Matt Taylor. Ordinary nice guys who haven't had a myriad of nameless, faceless women are a rarity and Matt is exactly such a guy. Although he's dated plenty, women dump him because they find him cute, but lacking in enough sex appeal. Matt isn't bitter about it though, and he perseveres reasoning he isn't looking for a beauty queen just someone he could talk to and share his deepest thoughts with. Unfortunately, Matt only seems to attract abused women who want him to clean up the pieces. Meanwhile, London is a princess on another planet who refuses to marry the General. Instead, she falls on Earth in what looks to Matt in his telescope as a comet or falling meteorite. The story is sweet and although it doesn't contain the obligatory rakish hero, I thought it was very passionate.

Last Kiss
, by Dominique Adair (*)

In her mid to late 30s, Elaine Nichols decides to attend her millionaire friend Dirk Prentice's weekend party. Organized for sexual excursions, Elaine wants to have lots of sex before succumbing to her cancerous tumor which grows worse by the day. At Dirk's ostentatious castle, Elaine meets Count Alexei Romanov, a man whose very presence calls to her. Elaine has been having dreams of a mysterious man all of her life and she suspects Alexei may have some answers behind her dreams. As you might suspect, Alexei and Elaine cozy up and when Elaine's tumor catches up with her, Alexei reveals he's a vampire. Apparently, in prior lifetimes, Elaine has been with Alexei but Elaine tragically died. Hence, her fractured dreams. Determined t0 be with Elaine forever this time, Alexei explains their history and turns her into a vampire so they can finally be together. Why he didn't turn Elaine in one of her earlier reincarnations is beyond me. I wasn't moved by anything here: neither the premise nor Alexei and Elaine's "connection."