Saturday, December 26, 2009

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

After my disappointment in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I decided to get the misery over and read the final installment of J. K. Rowling’s mostly excellent series. The first six novels followed Harry Potter and friends as they attend Hogwarts, a school for witches and wizards. Although exciting, the stories became formulaic and predictable.

Fortunately, Rowlinbg dispensed with the step-by-step routine in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The seventh and final novel is easily the best of the series and the most exciting.

Following the death of his beloved mentor, Professor Dumbledore at the hands of Severus Snape at the end of Half-Blood Prince, Harry sets of on the quest Dumbledor charged him with friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in tow. They have chosen not to return to Hogwarts for this final year, mainly because the school is watched closely by the Dark Lord Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters. His loyal disciple Severus Snape is now headmaster and the school has the feel of a concentration camp.
Potter and company stay on the move, changing their hiding places daily while desperately trying to complete Dumbledore’s quest which should destroy Voldemort for good. However, the Dark Lord always seems one step ahead, but the three teenagers are cunning enough and manage to elude his grasp.
Along the way, Potter and his friends argue, fight, break up and make up. There have always been disagrements among them but in Deathly Hallows, they are more impassioned and emotional to a point never approached in the previous six novels.

And this last novel is packed with more action than ever. The battle at Hogwarts is one of the most exciting scenes I’ve ever read. In my posting of Half-Blood Prince, I complained that Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood were all but ignored but now they are back and on the front lines. Rowling presents a good retrospective in Deathly Hallows of characters from the previous six novels in fierce battle. And it’s good to see professors fighting bravely and aggresively to save Hogwarts.

The novel’s seven-hundred and fifty-nine pages are a formidable length but the fast pace make it an easy read. It is certainly the crown jewel of the series.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling

Spoiler Alert!

Okay, I know I’m way behind in finishing the Harry Potter series since the movie version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is now out on DVD. Had I known what lay in store for me as I read it, I wouldn’t have been so eager.

Did J. K. Rowling give up on this one to focus on the last book? After three exciting installments of the series, this one was a big disappointment. I’d rank it on a par with the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The Half-Blood Prince seemed formulaic and didn’t contribute much to the series. At least not 650 pages worth. Consider the Harry Potter book formula:

1. At the beginning, Harry is enduring oppression under his aunt, uncle and cousin in the Dursley household until he is finally rescued. First, it was Hagrid, then its been the Weasleys. This time Dumbledore.

2. Then on the way to Hogwarts, Harry has a confrontation with Draco Malfoy.

3. Arriving at school, Harry is at once esteemed as some sort of celebrity because of some heroic deed that occurred at the end of the last novel (i.e. school year) and the resultant fall-out over the summer (always written in retrospect). Harry is unassuming and humbly tries hard to downplay his abilities and contributions.

4. Shortly after school starts, Harry realizes that something is not right. However strong his suspicions are, no one believes him. Haven’t they figured it out by now that Harry is ALWAYS right? First, it was the basilisk creeping around behind the walls of Hogwarts. Then it was the dementors. In Half-Blood Prince, he suspects Draco Malfoy is up to no good.

5. The school year passes quickly with Harry snooping around but not being able to convince anyone of his suspicions. He always has Severus Snape for a class and they hate each others’ guts. Snape always docks points from the Gryffindor house every time Harry, Ron or Hermione sneezes.

6. There are the Quidditch games, too. The other houses never play each other. It’s only Gryffindor against another house. Gryffindor may lose during the year but they ALWAYS win the championship game.

7. As the year comes to a close, things begin to happen at a rapid pace and soon everyone realizes that (gasp) Harry was right (again). They all apologize for not listening to him earlier and avoided all the death and destruction of You-Know-Who Lord He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named Voldemort.

The chain of events is exactly the same for the first 550 pages except for the particulars. However, in Prisoner of Azkhaban, Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, Rowling finished with spectacular breath-taking battles of wizards and witches. Good versus evil. There is a battle at the end of Half-Blood Prince but nowhere near the level of excitement as the previous four novels. Maybe five. And there is no build-up to the final scene until the last 100 pages.

It seemed that this story was only an epilogue for Deathly Hallows. Half-Blood Prince was written only for shock value, since the only significant incident is the death of Albus Dumbledore at the hands of Severus Snape. Neville Longbottom and Luna Lovegood who played very important roles in Order of the Phoenix are relegated to cameo appearances as hangers-on.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the God Emperor of Dune of the Potter series. Just read it to move onto the next novel, but if you skip it, you won’t miss much.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Smoke In The Wind by Peter Tremayne

In my previous posting, I reviewed A Wicked Deed by Susanna Gregory, another historical mystery novelist. In it, I mentioned how Gregory taught the reader about fourteenth century monastic life, alchemical recipes and business transactions for universities. Peter Tremayne does the exact same thing in his Sister Fidelma series set in ancient Ireland, giving the reader interesting insights into that culture in the mid-seventh century. I’ve enjoyed this series ever since reading a Sister Fidelma short story years ago. Tremayne weaves sinister plots with vibrant characters in the beautiful backdrop of Ireland.

In Smoke In The Wind, Tremayne takes Sister Fidelma and her ever-present companion Brother Eadulf into the land of the Britons. The Britons and the Saxons have a very bloody history but have enjoyed an extended period of peace, however tenuous. But Brother Eadulf is uncomfortable because he is a Saxon, and although there is no war between the peoples, some still have axes to grind. Nevertheless, he ventures deeper into the country to follow Fidelma who has been asked by a provincial king to investigate the mysterious disappearance of twenty-seven brothers from a monastery in his realm. And Eadulf knows that she will not back down from a mystery.

On their way to the monastery, they accompany Brother Meurig who is the Briton equivalent to Fidelma’s rank of dalaigh. He has been charged by the same king to investigate the murder of a young woman in a nearby village. Accused of her murder is a young shepherd whose guilt seems to have been determined by the villagers’ opinions. It isn’t long before Fidelma suspects that the two incidents are somehow connected.

Tremayne ramps up the action in Smoke In The Wind. Fidelma and Eadulf have oftentimes found themselves on the wrong side of a bow and arrow, but this is the first time that she is nearly raped by a captor. Fortunately, the cunning Eadulf manages to prevent Fidelma from being taken, but not before an exciting, white-knuckle page-turning scene that keeps the reader on the edge of the seat.

There were a couple of aspects of the novel that diminished its enjoyability but only by a small amount. First, there were too many scenes where Eadulf is about to speak but Fidelma stops him with a look or a gesture. The poor brother is hen-pecked and they aren’t even married. It’s not the notion of her keeping him in mental submission because she is in control of the conversation, but the frequency in which it happens.

Second, in the pre-Gutenburg Press era, everyone in the novel except for the villagers seems to be well-educated and knowledgeable of events two hundred years prior to the time of the novel. Perhaps the clergy and royalty were more educated than I previously surmised from other historical whodunits, but they seemed politically savvy as well.

Nonetheless, Smoke In The Wind is an action-thriller/mystery/history book that is enjoyable and entertaining. Very difficult to put down.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Wicked Deed by Susanna Gregory

Susanna Gregory’s series featuring physician Matthew Bartholomew just keeps getting better and better. In the fifth book of the series, A Wicked Deed, Gregory makes some significant changes to the life at the university in Cambridge in the year 1353. As in her previous works, the specter of the plague looms in the background like a stalker hiding in the shadows ready to pounce on an already devastated Europe.

Matthew is part of an entourage that travels from Cambridge to the idyllic village of Grundisburgh, where a lord has promised a lucrative gift of the church to the university. On the way, they find a man hanging from a gibbet and he’s still alive. They cut him down but despite Matt’s valiant effort he dies. Then a wrong turn takes the group through Barchester, a small hamlet that has been abandoned after the Black Death claimed nearly all of its inhabitants. But the ghosts of the dead aren’t the only ones haunting the spooky village. A white dog prowls the woods and the locals in the surrounding communities are convinced that anyone who lays eyes on it will dies shortly after. Two villagers are already dead.

Once arriving at Grundisburgh, the benevolent lord Sir Thomas Tuddenham seems very eager that the deed turning the church over to Cambridge be completed as soon as possible. Almost immediately after arrival, the student-priest who is to become the church’s priest is found murdered.

All of a sudden, the beautiful peaceful serenity of Grundisburgh is surrounded by sinister forces and subterfuge, which are trying to delay the completion of the advowson. Cambridge Senior Proctor Richard Alcote does not appear to be in any rush to finish writing the document. Matt does not think that the greedy, opportunistic Alcote’s reasons are in the best interests of the University. More likely, he is trying to figure out how to line his own pockets.

Then a witness with a potential valuable clue to the murder is found with her throat cut. The primes suspect in both murders disappears. With one disaster after another, Matthew and his friar friend Michael are very eager to put as much distance between them and Grundisburgh as possible before they end up like Unwin, the murdered student-priest.

As with other historical writers, Gregory focuses on one or two interesting aspects of life during the time period of her work. It’s what helps keep the series fresh and from becoming monotonous or too similar. In A Wicked Deed, Matt meets de Stoate, a man with similar interests in medicine as he, and the landlord of the inn where the Cambridge entourage are staying. He is very proud of his own concoctions that he claims keeps the villagers healthy. Both men have very strong opinions about their abilities to heal people, formulate medicines and make scientific progress, much to Matthew’s horror. Gregory’s novel gives us a peek into the superstitions and alchemical environment and knowledge in the fourteenth century. Some of the recipes were described in disgustingly vivid details. Not only does Gregory bring the monastic living to life but also the gruesome reality of health care in the 1300’s. In the twenty-first century age of advanced medicine and sophisticated instrumentation, it’s a stark reminder of the difficulties the people of medieval times had to endure and the lengths they had to go through to try to warding off diseases and other maladies.

Gregory also spins a very complex plot that stymies Matt’s abilities, but he manages to unravel a twisted web of greed, lies and murder in the quaint village. It’s an intriguing story that’s difficult to put down.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chocolate Surprises available today at!

My latest short story "Chocolate Surprises" is released today from loveyoudivine Alterotica! Check it out at

Read the synopsis and exciting excerpt below:


When Shane invites him over, Jason does not expect to find Shane covered entirely in chocolate. He is eager to lick it off and enjoy the sexy body underneath, but Shane has a challenge for him. Find all the tattoos hidden by the layer of chocolate before enjoying the spoils. The thought of running his tongue over Shane’s delicious body sends Jason’s libido into overdrive, but he has discover all of the tattoos first. Will he find them before the sugar rush hits? Jason is willing to take that risk.


A big smile widened across Jason’s face as his eyes took in the vision standing before him. All he had imagined about Shane’s body came true as the evidence presented itself.
“Wow!” Jason breathed. “Screw the appetizers and main course. I’ll go straight to dessert. Is there a banana under there or are you just happy to see me?” He dropped to his knees, crawling forward but Shane stepped back, holding his hand out in front of him.
“Down, boy,” he warned with a grin. “No banana but you’ll find out soon enough.”
Jason remained on his knees, sitting back on his heels and looked up at him with a playful pout. “Do I at least get to peel it first?”
Shane laughed. “Remember I said I’d show you my tattoos?”
Jason nodded and licked his lips. His eyes rested on the bulge between Shane’s legs.
“I’m gonna let you see them but you have to find them first.”
“You mean like a scavenger hunt?” Jason rose to his feet.
“Exactly.” Shane winked and held up his forefinger. “Using only your tongue.”
Jason beamed. “If I start licking you, you’ll pop right out of here.” He reached for his crotch but Shane moved back again to avoid the touch.
“No, I won’t,” he laughed. “If you can find all of my tattoos before you get sick on chocolate, you’ll discover why.”
Jason circled Shane, running a finger very lightly along his exposed neck just above the chocolate. “What’s my first clue?”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Concubine's Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

The first novel I read by Laura Joh Rowland was The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria and I was immediately struck by the author’s ability to make medieval Japan come to life. The Concubine’s Tattoo is earlier in the series featuring Sano Ichiro (but not the beginning) and every bit as vivid and brilliant.

Even though I enjoy reading a number of authors who set their mysteries in medieval or ancient Europe, I find the Asian setting of Rowland’s novels refreshing. It’s a glimpse into another culture which sets her works apart. European courts were full of conspiracies, schemes and intrigue but that all pales in comparison to the environment at the shogun’s palace in Edo in 1690.

The Concubine’s Tattoo opens with the death of one of the shogun’s many concubines Harume. Fearing she died of disease, the shogun calls in his honorable investigator Sano Ichiro to determine if the palace is at risk from contagion. Sano, whose wedding festivities were interrupted and postponed by Harume’s death throes and the ensuing panic, quickly ascertains that the concubine was poisoned. It’s well-known but not discussed openly that the shogun’s tastes run toward men rather than women. It comes as no surprise to Sano that Harume, a woman of youth and unparalleled beauty, had a lover, someone for whom she tattooed herself. He is shocked to learn that she was pregnant when she met her demise.

Sano finds that Harume may have had a number of admirers and wannabe suitors and not all of them were men. Who was jealous enough to murder her and the possible future shogun of Japan?

Confounding his efforts is his sworn enemy Chamberlain Yanagisawa, who is certain that Sano will not replace him as the shogun’s favorite. Also frustrating him is his new wife Reiko, fiercely independent and headstrong. For much of the book, they butt heads as she tries to convince him to let her help with his investigation. She is eager to prove that she is a good detective and worthy to aid him. Sano is horrified since he was expecting an obedient unassuming traditional Japanese wife.

Rowland depicts late seventeenth century life in Japan’s court with stark realism and transports the reader there. Her biggest strengths are the characters she develops. She’s almost feminist in The Concubine’s Tattoo since all the women are strong, independent and intelligent. Some of the men, those with a lot of power mainly, are rather hen-pecked. Even Sano must bow to the whims of his bride Reiko.

Another aspect of Rowland’s novel that sets her apart is the amount of eroticism. She unabashedly writes lively scenes of men and women coupling as well as same-sex partners. But she uses them to advance the plot as opposed to just spicing up the action.

Since her main character is a samurai, there is no shortage of exciting fight scenes. Here Rowland spices up the action with sword play and other Japanese weapons.

I found The Concubine’s Tattoo a very exciting and satisfying read. It gives us a rare insight into a world where few mystery writers take us.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jester Leaps In by Alan Gordon

Jester Leaps In is the second installment of Alan Gordon’s medieval series involving the mysterious Fool’s Guild. This concept of jesters and fools belonging to a secret organization that infiltrates and manipulates European politics in the early thirteen century is both ingenious and intriguing. The fools in Gordon’s world are very well-educated in different languages, know all manners of songs and physically adept for tumbling, juggling and many other acrobatic feats. They must maintain their abilities while subtly influencing the minds and opinions of the powers that be to keep the rules of Europe from assassinating each other or plunging the continent into war.

Feste is now married to the Duchess Viola, whose ducal responsibilities have ended. She is more than happy to be with him and learn the trade. Feste is recovering from the wound he received when an arrow pierced him through the thigh in Thirteenth Night, the previous and first novel in the series.

Feste and Viola are sent to Constantinople to investigate the disappearance of six fools, who haven’t been heard from in months. Political intrigue surrounds the Byzantine throne. The current Emperor has imprisoned and blinded his brother, the previous emperor. His nephew has escaped his clutches and fled to the protection of his sister in Germany.

Feste is reluctant to bring Viola into such potential danger, but she is adamant to stay with him. However as a safety precaution, Feste insists she disguise as a man and continue her training. Viola is not happy with those conditions but understands the needs for the ruse, since it allows her to do some prying while Feste entertains the masses.

Gordon’s choice of a fool for a sleuth/spy is interesting but it makes sense. As he portrays in this story, emperors and empresses enjoy the company of fools or jesters because of their entertainment. During these happy moments, rules let their guard down, voicing plans and opinions that otherwise would not be so freely given. A fool can influence decisions with jokes or quips, or hear about plots that others would pay dearly to learn.

The Guild in this series is intent upon keeping the peace and in Jester Leaps In, Feste and Viola prevent an assassination that could spark a vicious war for control of the Byzantine throne.

The plot is intriguing and very easy to follow with Gordon’s ability to help the reader visualize the environs of Constantinople in the year 1202.

Jester Leaps In has some good surprises if not many twists but it is an exciting page turner for all medieval mystery enthusiasts.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Sacrilege by John Maddox Roberts

In The Sacrilege, the third installment of John Maddox Roberts ancient Roman mysteries, everyone’s favorite beleaguered quaestor is back in Rome after a year of required military service but now, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger is a Senator. With the small promotion comes substantially more trouble. His sworn enemy Clodius is stirring up problems and vows to kill him in the streets. The hated Pompey is outside the city walls pushing for a triumphant procession the likes Rome has never seen. His father is still distant but shows signs of mellowing in his old age.

Decius’s new duties allow him to do some networking, which he enjoys. At a dinner he attends, the man he has been sent to persuade and draw him into his relatives’ corner is struck down by an assassin. Decius himself barely escapes an attempt on his life at the same party.

The following night, a woman’s sacred rite is infiltrated by a man dressed as a female. Roman law detects that the man be put to death. But the impostor turns out to be none other than his arch-enemy Clodius, evil but well-connected. This complicates matters.

But what was he doing there?

Decius suspects that much more is going on than a simple prank to see what men are forbidden to see. Fortunately for him, he is in good graces with Milo, a common thug rising to power and controls an enormous street gang that comes to Decius’s rescue more than once.

As the saying goes: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Milo has no love for Clodius either. But unlike Decius, Milo has the manpower to keep Clodius away from his door and from taking over the city with his army of thugs.

Two more people are murdered after his investigation starts. One of the victims is the very young kinsman of Clodius who tried to poison him at the dinner. He begins to piece together a daring plot to cease all power of Rome.

During the course of investigation, Decius winds up playing cupid for his friend Milo and the beautiful Fausta. Later he meets, Julia, the lovely and intelligent niece of Julius Caesar. She persuades him to let her help him in his investigation. Decius agrees but mainly as an excuse to see Julia more often.

It’s interesting to see how Decius is moving up the political ladder as the SPQR series progresses. Also, John Maddox Roberts pumps up the action and excitement in this third novel.

In The King’s Gambit, the second novel, and The Sacrilege, Decius pokes fun at his own culture’s naming conventions that many members of a family have very similar names. It makes it difficult to keep up with one’s own family, let alone anyone else’s, Decius grumbles. But it seems to be less frustrating the third time out. Or maybe I’m getting used to the Rome that Roberts portratys in his mystery series. He interjects many terms that must be part of the ancient Roman vernacular. However, with the help of the glossary, the reader is not left behind.

One aspect that is consistent, if not improving as the series progresses, is the vivid description of ancient Rome. He brings the past to life in its open and often ugly glory.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a medieval mystery set in an Italian monastery, is a difficult read but rich in history. Eco fills his story with vivid and detailed descriptions of the culture, lifestyle and issues facing monks in the early thirteen hundreds. Eco even provides a map of the monastery, its grounds and a layout of the labyrinth of the library, which becomes central to the mystery.

Brother William of Baskerville, a Franciscan, arrives with his scribe and novice Adso at the very rich abbey just after a young monk has died from a tall from one of the towers. Was he pushed or did he jump?

Soon Brother William and Adso are confronted with two more murders. Instead of help from the resident, monks, William and Adso are hindered in their efforts by secretive scripts, underlying plots by disgruntled brothers and a library that is fiercely guarded by the librarian.

William and Adso manage to find their way into the forbidden library and promptly get lost in its labyrinthine corridors and rooms. Adso discovers one of the snares set by the librarian the hard way. Painstakingly, they map the layout, which reveals even more secrets kept from most of the brethren. The body count rises and they are faced with an impatient abbot, ready for them to leave.

Eco’s plot is borne of religious ideals and opinions of the time period. But the mystery is only a secondary story as Eco adds many additional stories that confuse and overwhelm the reader. He takes great lengths to illustrate both sides of the debate on what constitutes heresy. A good portion is given to Adso’s unexpected tryst with a beautiful peasant girl who delivers her body to the monks in exchange for food.. A meeting to reconcile certain religious differences between Pope John XXII and the Emperor last a good chunk of the book.

Eco impresses the reader with an extensive knowledge of medieval literature and the religious climate but if one is not on equal footing as the author, the story seems to ramble.

The Name of the Rose is well-written but definitely not a cozy read. Perhaps a good knowledge of medieval religious societies would make it more enjoyable for the reader. It certainly warrants a second look since the reader will not have to be reintroduced to the main characters and can focus more on the story.