Tuesday, December 16, 2014

[Book Review] Revealing Ruby

Revealing Ruby / Lavinia Kent

I previously reviewed Mastering the Marquess by Lavinia Kent, so I had a fair idea of what to expect in terms of how hot and heavy the story would get.

Madame Rouge runs a discreet, high-end brothel for customers of discerning tastes and needs.  She takes care of the women in her employ, and tolerates no mistreatment by her patrons.  One of the rules of the brothel is that as its proprietress, she is not on the menu, lest the power dynamic she holds is disrupted.  That doesn't mean Madame Rouge never has interest in the men who come calling at her establishment.  And Captain Derek Price definitely whets her appetite.

The attraction between the two is palpable, but Madame Rogue does not take customers.  However, maybe he's worth being herself with for once.

I will admit, in some ways Revealing Ruby was tamer than I expected.  Mastering the Marquess is full of longing and passionate kinky sex.  Revealing Ruby stays on the vanilla end of the spectrum, but is sensual and still heavy on the longing and naked romping.  Good connection to the larger shared setting, and if you like steamy historical atmosphere, Lavinia Kent does deliver.

I'm not sure if I think the dragon tattoo that Captain Price sports is quite as sexy as it's described.  I love dragons, but the image in my mind is perhaps a bit more comical than erotic.  The ending is not a happily-ever-after, but one of adults working with their obligations.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What's a weekend without a little madness?

I've written before about LARPing.  It's loads of fun and a great way to meet new people.

My first LARP occurred two years ago, and myself and three of my friends played a group of experts from the Vatican (well, I was there as medical support) searching for holy relics rumored to be hiding in Hungary (in particular the original top of the Holy Crown of Hungary).

Just your average team of Vatican treasure hunters

So it was that we, along with nearly 40 others, were traveling in December of 1935, only to be trapped in a mountain valley when sabotage knocked the train off the rails.  A valley scheduled to for flooding in two mornings.  Over the next 36 hours we found strange artifacts, encountered cultists and ghouls, were decimated by horrifying creatures from another dimension, and desperately tried to find what we needed to repair the damage to the rails in order to escape.

Ten of the original forty escaped, including one of ours.  All with scars and terrors haunting them.

Then this past October (the weekend after my wedding, my husband is very understanding) we costumed up and went back for the third and final "chapter" of this series of one-shot games.

This time the the group I attended with was a bit larger.

The Wang-Johnson Memorial Circus
After the events in Hungary, Professor Veritas left her faith and work with the Vatican behind.  In memory of the circus proprietors Messieurs Wang and Johnson who fought by her side for survival, she founded the Wang-Johnson Memorial Circus.  Drifting along in the wake of Hungary as well, Shaw LaMont joined the growing circus.

Now, near the end of October, 1938, we come to West Windsor Township, NJ, seeking to profit from the traveling crowds attending the World's Fair and looking into a generous offer by a local family for winter lodging in addition to a performance venue.

Little did we know what madness was in store, and what forces aligned to bring Shaw and Professor Veritas back with so many survivors of the events in Hungary?

There was an air of excitement, the German good will tour happened by, and we were all eagerly awaiting a broadcast by Orson Welles (what turned out to be the hysteria raising War of the Worlds radio drama).  Excitement soon turned to anxiety, with Welles' broadcast cutting out, townsfolk running in panicked with news of a found alien corpse and then something that can only be described as an alien visitation or as a mass hallucination.  No one was quite sure of what they saw, or heard.  Something possibly insectiod or robotic.  Was it asking for help or offering help, and if something this monstrous was offering help, what was lurking in the shadows? 

We deliberately scheduled the "real" show to take place after we'd all be dead or have escaped.
Since we came as a circus, we arranged a mini-show for players and cast for late Saturday morning. Early enough on that we knew we'd all still be mostly healthy, sane, and actually interested in a show.  Surprisingly, we weren't attacked during the performances.  Our ensemble included a magician, a fortune teller/belly dancer, a strongman and strongwoman (both named Sasha), a lizard-woman sharpshooter, a bearded lady, and others.

One of the advantages of coming with such a large organized sub-group players is that we had the ability to cover the full range of skills and abilities.  As the circus "gypsy" fortune teller, my role was that of helping others through mental trauma and unease.  In preparation for the game I located a gorgeous and somewhat disturbing tarot deck, and learned to read tarot.  The folks running the game loved the idea of using tarot for the psychology skill.
I swear I didn't realize that my tarot deck had a card that resembled a Mi-Go when I bought it.

What I could not have expected was how well using tarot would work within this game.  I chose to use a seven-card spread indicating two possible paths/directions/decisions (one card representing the querant, one for the two possible paths, and two cards accompanying each path).  Often the readings worked reasonably well with the characters, and players and I had a great time with the readings.  But then I'd do a spread that so perfectly matched the game and the options that it would blow us away.  There were one or two where the spreads freaked out the other players near by and I had to convince them that I really have no ability or skill in stacking a deck.  The cards were just that fitting.  Starting late in the evening on Saturday and through Sunday morning I spent a lot of time with the two gentlemen who had survived both previous games (the only two characters that  made it through both games) keeping their sanity in check.  Both new things that none of the others did, and one turned out to be a crucial piece in the final plot.

Over the course of the game we discovered that there was an alien race replacing townfolk with sawdust men that keep returning no matter how many times they are slain.  It seemed some of the Germans were working with locals in summoning occult forces, while others were there unknowing of their countrymen's machinations.  We encountered hordes of  Mi-Go, ravening ghouls, survived a mind-destroying encounter with a Shoggoth, and found one of our number possessed by a Yith, helping us for its own reasons against the Mi-Go.  Our numbers slowly decreased under the onslaught, with sanity decreasing despite our best efforts.

Piece by piece we put together the larger picture.  Then a man long thought years dead arrived with the final pieces.  Access to a portal through which we could attack the Mi-Go forces on Pluto, and gather the remaining pieces needed to take on the cultists summoning Nyarlathotep.

Near 4:30AM, when the stars aligned, we took on the cultists seeking to summon Nyarlathotep.  With little sleep, in the dark, and with preciously few resources of any sort.  Somehow we survived, taking down the cultists and ghouls, but not soon enough to stop the summoning of Nyarlathotep.  One of our party signed his soul to Azathoth in order that the rest of live, while Nyarlathotep tempted others to sign with rewards and promises or resurrection for our fallen friends.

So we gathered ourselves together, leaving the carnage behind, and made to the German's zepplin, our promised escape.  We made it off the ground, but found that we were not safe.  Over the next hour or longer we fought sabotage and wave after wave of flying Mi-Go.  This part of the game was absolutely brutal.  We were so close to the end, we saw the outside turn from dark to light.  The floor of the space was a cold concrete leeching the warmth out of our bodies.  And the waves kept coming from all sides.  Between waves we'd shore up our wounds, mental and physical, and wait for the next wave.  Multiple times characters went temporarily insane, enough that one more instance of sanity loss would have driven some completely and permanently insane.  I was flat out miserable.  Cold, tired, hungry, and shaky.  It came down to sheer stubbornness that I didn't just give up.

When we finally landed we didn't know if this was the end.  Would we finally be able to escape?  A few of us came out of the zepplin, to be greeted by a man thanking one of our number for his courage, valor, and service to his country, right before our greeter was assassinated by the sawdust man Sheriff from the town we had fled.  We killed the Sheriff but were unable to save the agent.  As the rest of us came out, blinking in the early morning sunlight, the Yith bade us farwell.  Thanking us for our assistance in derailing the plans of the other race, that would have ultimately vastly delayed the extinction of the human race and the rise of the next dominant species.

At which point game was called.

Suddenly the misery of the last hours was replaced with elation.  We did it.  So many of us survived it was incredible.  Personally, after being up for at least 22 hours, I went to pass out for a nap before breakfast.

What's really amazing is how much you bond with the people you go through something like this with.  That we actually had fun while in such miserable and desperate situations.  The group that put on this LARP has an incredible bar set in terms of production quality, and while nothing is perfect, they have become the basis that I compare other LARPs I attend to.

Personally, I'm sad that this was the final chapter of this story arc, but I have hope that the minds behind this game will run other story arcs or one shots that I may be able to attend.

The next LARP I'm making is a Zombie Survival setting, and I'm attending with at least two of the folks from the Circus group, and the player of "Mr. Wang" from the previous chapter.  I may also NPC a second event during that time, and will be starting to act as a (hopefully) regular NPC in a long-running game that two of my friends take part in.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

[Book Revew] A SEAL Wolf Christmas

A SEAL Wolf Christmas / Terry Spear

To start off, this is exactly the sort of romance novel (paranormal or not) I'm embarrassed to be caught reading.  I wouldn't have picked this up on my own, and really only did so as it was a book club pick.  If you are into books that have titles like A SEAL in Wolf's Clothing (admit it, you probably read it as "a seal in wolf's clothing" and giggled), A Highland Wolf Christmas (kilts AND werewolves), Call of the Cougar (were-cougars, not older women chasing significantly younger men), Jaguar Fever, and the like, you will probably like this book (and other titles by Terry Spear).

I didn't.  But then, I'm not someone who generally sees a book like this and says "hot damn, I have got to read this."  Exceptions standing for books involving Librarians for amusement reasons and review copies requested at 3AM.  I really can't defend many of my 3AM review choices.

Official teaser text for A SEAL in Wolf's Clothing:
Can an Alpha Wolf Who's Met His Match...

Navy SEAL Bjornolf Jorgenson has had tough missions before, but going undercover with feisty gray wolf Anna Johnson could top the list. She drives him crazy—in more ways than one. Now he has to investigate a murder, supervise a wild teenage wolf—and handle Christmas with Anna.

Survive the Holidays with Her?

For Anna, the only thing worse than staging the perfect family Christmas is having to do it with Bjornolf posing as her husband. Anna is a serious undercover operative who isn't afraid of a fight, even with a hunky SEAL shifter. With a killer on the loose, Anna just wants to focus on their mission, but the one thing she can't fight is her sizzling chemistry with Bjornolf.

Praise for USA Today bestseller A SEAL in Wolf's Clothing:

"A nonstop, action-packed romance with kick, growls, and sexy attitude."—Long and Short Reviews

"A delightful and tantalizing read...You'll be captivated."—Thoughts in Progress

"Edgy characters, lots of loving, and lots of action. Just about as good as it gets!"—The Book Binge
Guess who's not buying it?

Yup.  Me.

Okay.  Starting with "She drives him crazy - in more ways than one."  In this book Anna doesn't drive him crazy in "more ways than one"; his reactions to Anna are fuck and protect.  It's pretty clear cut.  Next, "supervise a wild teenage wolf."  I'm not sure they ever really supervise this kid, they're more there to be there as theoretically positive examples of adult werewolves.  That he requested.  And Nathan's more "earnest" and likely to cause trouble by mistake than actually act out in a "wild" manner.

My take on summarizing this book:

Retired Navy SEAL (because we have to have that in here, obviously) Bjornolf Jorgenson (now that I think of it, I don't think they ever address his rank) is a loner and a ghost.  He specializes in providing unseen security for teams operating in dangerous conditions.  But sometimes, revealing himself is inevitable.

Anna Johnson contracts with Hunter's rescue teams, but isn't part of the pack.  When on a mission in the Amazon to rescue a hostage family, she and Jorgenson end up working closely together, after his quick work saves her life.  Things get a little steamy between the two, and not just because they're in a jungle.

What Anna isn't prepared for is their next assignment.  Hunter wants Anna and Bjornolf to pose as newly wed relations of the teen were Nathan, who's stumbled onto evidence of foul play.  Not comfortable with Christmas or the temptation of shacking up with the sexy Bjornolf, Anna reluctantly accepts the assignment, determined to solve the murders as quickly as possible.  What she doesn't count on is Nathan and Bjornolf changing her mind about the holiday, and about family and relationships.
If I'm reading a book about werewolves I get that we'll have bad-ass alpha males coming to the rescue.  Here's the thing, Anna is supposed to be seriously bad ass.  Maybe not quite as deadly or combat experienced as Bjornolf, but she's been working as an independent security contractor for years.  I want to see her throw down.  Instead we pretty much get "she's a badass woman, look at how badass she is" while Bjornolf runs in to save the day.

Honestly, the book reads more like "here are normal humans who can be hardcore" with a propensity for turning fuzzy, rather than the superhumans they're promised to be.

Maybe I'm just yearning for Elena Michaels.

In this setting it's also made out that if two werewolves bone, they are mated for life (unless one dies, then the other is free to find a new mate).  Okay, so I totally get that relationships between werewolves need to be taken slow, and maybe they have a tendency towards one-night stands with humans whom they can't bond with.  Anna and Bjornolf sure shack up in a permanent relationship fast.

The narration switches from person to person quickly and without much warning.  Just paragraph to paragraph within the same scene.  The prose is weak and under developed.  Everything within the plot is so pat.  The villains are little more than paper dolls.  Hell, the sex wasn't even that hot.  It was just sort of there.  I've read hotter sex scenes in non-romance novels.

I don't see myself reading anything else by this author, her writing just isn't for me.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

[Book Review] Dust

Dust / Elizabeth Bear (Powell's Books)

I don't even really know where to start when summarizing this book.  I find it a fantastic blending of fantasy and science fiction.  To me the story starts out reading like high fantasy and then slides it way into high technology speculative fiction.  The story explores concepts of humanity, gender, religion, belief, society, and science.

I cannot think of a single way to review or summarize the book without any spoilers.
"Can an angel be imperfectly honest?"

"An angel can be whatever it is created to be," Samuel said, with perfect frankness.  "Humans are the only animals that intentionally, methodically change themselves."
Dust takes place on a generation ship, stranded in space for centuries.  Launched from Earth by fanatical Darwinists seeking to push the bounds of extreme, forced evolution using the ship as an petri dish.  Society is split into Means and Exalts, Engine and Comm.  The ship is the World.  The Angels that oversee the systems are warring for dominance.  War is coming and the twin stars they orbit are dying.

Overall, Dust is a fantastically textured novel.  It is the first of a trilogy, followed by Chill and Grail.  Bear does a fantastic job of setting the scene and slowly teasing out details as you read.  Dust was the September Virtual Speculation read.

Discussion Fodder:
  • What preconceptions or ideas did you form as you started the book?  How accurate were they?  At what point did they start to change?
  • Are there gender roles in Dust?  How are the expressed or sidestepped?  How does Mallory fit within the concepts of gender roles, and how does she subvert them?
  • How does the ability to consume the essence and memories of others effect the shape of a society?
  • The Jacob's Ladder is the world to those who live on it.  A lattice of passageways and habitats, engineering and command, kingdoms and domains.  Does the revelation of Jacob's Ladder as a starship change anything?  Is there any reason that it cannot be a world?  How do the concepts of different things change after so many thousands of years in an 'alien' environment?
  • Are the Exalt still human?  Some of their enhancements are bred and engineered, others implanted.  Are the Exalts monsters?
  • What does necromancy become in a world of fantastical technology?  What else could describe Mallory's role/occupation?
  • In the context of the world, does it make sense to call Dust, Samuel, and the others 'angels'?  What about identifying the original cohesive AI and computer system that ran the ship as 'god'?  What do you think about the use of Hebrew names for these man made angels, and the roles they represent?
  • Dust says he does not believe in prophesy, but does believe in stacking the deck.  Does prophesy ever amount to stacking the deck as people try to fit things within its framework?
  • Dust effectively invades and manipulates Percival's being, pushing her to make the world whole again.  Is he a villain?  Could he be anything but what he is?  Does that matter?
  • The Exalts have lifetimes measured in centuries, or longer, with bodies biologically and mechanically enhanced.  How would you imagine a life within such a framework would change outlook and behaviors?  What do you think of the moralities of the Exalt?  How does it effect their relationships, both romantic and platonic?
  • Rein tells Mallory there's no reason for to change from hermaphrodite to woman because she isn't in love with her.  Rein and Perceval argue about Perceval's celibacy, an elected biological modification.  Is Perceval's celibacy something to be "fixed"?  How does the choices that Mallory and Perceval have made regarding their physical and biological sexual forms shape who they are?  Would Mallory be different if s/he decided to spent half hir time in the form of one gender or the other instead of her blending of the two?  Does Perceval's celibacy change who she is?
  • A Jacob's ladder is many things, a toy, the ship, and the ladder that angels climb to reach Heaven.  "It is the hard path to exaltation."  The distinctions of Exalt and Mean are literal, the test and control groups to see how far mankind can elevate itself.  What do you think about the original mission?
  • What do you make of the heavy use of religious framework within the story?  Particularly considering the creation of life by man's hand and the man-made world in which they live in.
  • Perceval says "It is not a gift of freedom to not seize everything that it is in your power to seize."  How are the characters in this book free or constrained.  Do you see this sentiment reflected in your own life?
  • One of the themes in the book is love and wanting.  Is love more than a mix of chemicals?  How does an AI love its Captain?  How does the ability to change and constrain your emotions change the idea of love?

Link Smorgasbord, November 2014

Reading Privacy Enables Reader Sharing
On privacy and e-reading.

If your website still uses HTTP, the X-UIDH header has turned you into a snitch
About privacy, HTTP/HTTPS, and online tracking.

Preventing Digital Decay
A lot of people are shocked that as a relatively technology savvy person and as someone under 30 that I think microfilm is awesome.  The reason I think microfilm is awesome is for all of its limitations it is a stable method for archiving.

I'm really glad that the challenges of digital preservation are getting more attention.  The fact that you cannot rely on just shoving a photo somewhere on your hard drive and expect it to be readable in 10 years is really important for people to be aware of.

Internet Speculative Fiction Databse
A FANTASTIC resource for fans of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and other related genres that fall under the Speculative Fiction umbrella.

War Ink : See Their Ink.  Hear Their Stories
"The War Ink virtual exhibit is a partnership between the Contra Costa County Library, a collective of California's major library systems, and Jason Deitch, a former Army medic and military sociologist."

Book News: Ursula K. Le Guin Steals The Show At The National Book Awards
I am very fond of Ursula K. Le Guin.  She is a brilliant author with a high intelligence and wit.  So this speech just made me even happier.  For those who aren't familiar with her work she wrote the Earthsea books, as well as numerous other Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.  We have her to thank for coining the term "ansible" in her 1966 novel Rocannon's World, a FTL communication device that appears again and again within the Science Fiction genre.

Awful Library Books
There are some utterly amazing books on this site.  A lot of them are odd erotica stories (many involving humans getting it on with dragons), others are victims of changing social norms, or are poorly conceived, and some are the victims of poor title or cover art choices.  I however want to buy Dragons Love Tacos for everyone I know with small children, and I have this site to thank for introducing this book to me.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

[Book Review] Otherworld Nights

Otherworld Nights / Kelley Armstrong (Powell's Books)

While I read a lot of urban fantasy/paranormal there are few series in the genre that I enjoy as much as Kelley Armstrong's Otherworld novels.  I stumbled across Bitten by chance when browsing for something new to read in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of a used book store over a decade ago.  First I met Elena Michaels and the Pack, then Paige Winterbourne, and others, eagerly waiting for the next title in the series to come out.

The challenge of loving this world is the number of short stories and novellas, the former scattered through genre anthologies and the latter often published in limited runs through specialty imprints.

Otherworld Nights is a fantastic collection of stories enriching the world of the Otherworld.  They take place over the whole span of the novels, and across the entire cast of characters. I highly recommend this for fans of the series.  If you haven't read any of the novels but like urban fantasy with a touch of paranormal romance, you're risking spoilers and the characters won't be as familiar, but it may whet your appetite for the series.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.