Saturday, July 5, 2014

Monsters in the Wilds of Ohio

Last year, when giving my two cents’ worth on Midnight Blue-Light Special (the second installment in Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy “Incryptid” series, which you can catch up on/refresh your memory about, here), I mentioned a few things of which I have no knowledge whatsoever. (And no, nothing has changed on those fronts, in case you’re wondering… including my utter lack of skill with an onion.)

That brings me to another area in which I have no personal expertise: knowing what it’s like to be the eldest child (or the middle, youngest, or any other position in the familial pecking order, for that matter, being an only, myself). Sure, I can sort of imagine what it must be like, growing up with siblings—splitting the attention, resources, space, blame, responsibility, etc.—but I’ll never actually know.

Not so with Alex Price, star of the third “Incryptid” tale, Half-Off Ragnarok. The first-born child in a branch of the family hailing from a very long line of cryptozoologists (think of them as scientists-slash-monster-wranglers), Alex is the serious one, the level-headed, even-tempered guy who has an ordinary day job… and pursues the not-for-public-consumption side of his work (observing and cataloguing various species of cryptids, or mythological-only-to-you-and-I creatures) under cover of deepest, darkest night.


Compared to younger sister Verity—who holds down a job working at a sketchy nightclub and splits the remainder of her time engaged in the competitive world of ballroom dancing and leaping across New York City rooftops in the wee hours of the night in pursuit of wayward (think badass-killing-machines) monsters—and baby sister Antimony—who is proving to be more than the proverbial handful, even at her young age—Alex is like Clark Kent: a stolid, nerdy, just plain nice guy.

Of course, when one deals with monsters on a regular basis, it’s vital to always keep one thing firmly in mind: Expect the Unexpected (and then, For Crying Out Loud, Deal With It).

Looking at it from the outside, most people probably wouldn’t envy Alex Price’s life. By day, he manages the reptile house at a Columbus (Ohio) zoo, which means handling exhibits and overseeing a tiny staff responsible for taking care of the snakes and other cold-blooded whatnots, therein. The majority of his nights are eaten up tramping through the woods of central Ohio, taking notes on the habits and lives of fricken (feathered frogs, basically), whose numbers seem to be rising at an alarmingly-dramatic pace, then writing endless reports on his findings. And occasionally, he squeezes in time to hook up with sorta-girlfriend Shelby Tanner, a visiting Aussie on assignment at the Big Cats house (think lions and tigers and leopards, oh, my). It’s a mostly-predictable sort of life, just the way Alex likes it.

But, when he and Shelby stumble—literally—across the body of their (former) co-worker one day while walking through the zoo grounds, and Alex notices that the dead guy appears to have been petrified—something which only a very few cryptids (and no humans) can do—life suddenly becomes a whole lot more interesting. Then, when another body, also petrified, is found—and an attempt is made on Alex’s life—it’s clear that life isn’t just more interesting; it’s dangerous.

With the help of his grandparents (whom he’s been living with, and who possess, shall we say, rather unique skill sets of their own), and his adopted cousin (a mind-reading “cuckoo” who was injured while saving Verity’s life, and subsequently got sent from bustling-with-too-much-humanity NYC to comparatively-safe-and-quiet Ohio to hopefully speed her recuperation)—as well as some unexpected aid from another corner, Alex understands that it’s up to him to shed his Clark Kent-ish persona and find his inner Superman… saving not only himself and those he cares about, but the secret that is the very existence of cryptids, from regular Joes like you and me (who, frankly, probably wouldn’t handle knowledge of snake-haired people, fire-breathing dragons who can speak, or creatures who can turn you into stone, very well at all).


Following a bit of a slow start (which both surprised and worried me a little, as I never feel that way when I pick up anything by McGuire), Half-Off Ragnarok takes off once the action finally gets going, and I actually wound up liking Alex Price just fine. Whereas Verity has flair, passion, and runs on high-octane energy at a break-neck speed, Alex is the solid, grounded (albeit monster-chasing) Midwesterner who prefers to live life at a different pace. While there isn’t as much excitement in that, it feels true to his character and serves his story well, as do the relationships with his grandparents and cousin, and with Shelby (who, coincidentally, graduates from casual date to full-fledged girlfriend in a neat way). 


Even with Alex’s relative stodginess and normal-ness, the “Incryptid” series remains a lighter-hearted spin on urban fantasy, as created by the almost-impossibly fertile imagination of Seanan McGuire (who also brings us the incomparable October Daye series). It’s a fun diversion and an easy read, and the upcoming fourth book already has a spot waiting for its arrival on my bookshelf.  :)


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Mousies Worthy of a Summer Afternoon   

Parts & Pieces

Yes, it's been a ridiculously-long time since I last posted anything, I know. Sometimes, that's just the way the cookie crumbles... or life explodes, all Humpty Dumpty-ish.

My various pieces are mostly back in order, though, finally... so I'll try to show up more often.

Happy reading, one and all. :)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Like Wading Through a Field of Oatmeal

Sometimes, reading just isn't fun. Slow starts, characters that don't grab me from the get-go, or a general feeling of "huh?" after x-amount of pages--those things just happen, now and then, sure. But when a book--one with excellent write-ups, no less--feels like wading through an endless field of oatmeal? Ugh. That is a special form of hell. 

But no, before anyone asks, I won't share what I'm reading right now. (Or "valiantly attempting to slog my way through", as is actually the case.) Perhaps putting it down and diving into something else will render the porridge-like tome more palatable in future, who knows? (And if so, I'll fill you in, then.) 

For now, though, there's always another book to read (and another, and...). I'll try to find something worthy, and see you soon. :)
   

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Fears that can't be Fought


The world is full of scary things. And, while I’m as terrified by the thought of chainsaw-wielding lunatics (‘nuff said), friendly sociopaths (mainly the ones with a horde of dead bodies stashed in their basements), and evil clowns (who, let’s face it, are just plain creepy even when it’s only your Uncle Bob wearing a layer of grease paint and a stupid red nose) as the next person, those aren’t the things that really give me the heebie-jeebies.

What scares the living daylights out of me--turning run-of-the-mill dreams into nightmares--is quite ordinary. Losing control of my car and plunging over a cliff. Getting hopelessly lost--and running really late--in a humongous airport, all alone. Slipping through the treads of an open staircase, and falling to certain death below. In other words, Normal Stuff that Doesn’t Happen Only in the Movies. (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t too likely, but it’s my bad dream.)

The uniting theme is being powerless when something bad happens... a concept which Nick Cutter gets--and expresses--brilliantly, in his terrifying new thriller, The Troop.


It should’ve been just another ordinary weekend camping trip, with a scout leader taking his troop out for their yearly bonding-and-badge-earning excursion in the woods, with plenty of campfires, mosquitos, and ghost stories. And, indeed, this year starts out no differently.

Scoutmaster Tim--the local doctor in a small Canadian coastal town--and his troop of five boys are dropped off on an uninhabited island ten miles off the coast on Friday. They won’t see another soul until late Sunday afternoon, when the boat returns to pick them up.

Although a bad storm has been forecast, Tim hadn't wanted to cancel the trip--not with this almost certainly being the last one, since the boys are at that age when things like scouting become totally uncool. Worst case, he figures they can radio the mainland and get picked up within the hour if things get bad.

The unquestionable leader of the group is Kent--the jock, popular with (nearly) everyone, and son of the town’s police chief. Newton is his polar opposite--the nerd, an overweight boy who’s had to learn ways to avoid being picked on, and is happiest with his head stuck in a book or out by himself cataloguing the flora and fauna. Best friends Max and Ephraim (“Eef”) fall somewhere in the middle; most people like them, or at least have no beefs with them. And then there’s Shelley, the weird kid whom no one really understands or likes, just sort of ignores. 

After sending the boys to bed, Tim heads outside for a last look around before turning in... which is when he hears something he definitely shouldn’t be hearing on a deserted island: someone else

Walking into the shadows, he can’t believe what he finds. It’s a man, sort of--an emaciated, crazed, barely-recognizable-as-human creature. Tim debates the wisdom of taking the horrible specter back to the cabin where the boys are, but the doctor in him doesn’t have a choice, especially given the approaching storm.

He tries to make the fellow comfortable, but something is obviously very wrong. Ranting, sweating, and starving--no matter how much food he’s given--and certainly near death, the man is like nothing Tim has ever seen. 

He should’ve radioed the mainland right then... but he doesn’t. And then, suddenly, it’s too late. The stranger freaks out in the night, smashing the radio. He attacks Tim, infecting him with... something

Tim downplays what’s happened when talking to the boys; it wouldn’t help to frighten them when there’s clearly nothing they can do. In the morning, he sends them out exploring.

The boys return to the cabin late that afternoon to a terrifying scene. Dr. Tim has become a monster--incoherent, looking as though he’s lost 30 pounds in one day--forcing the boys to employ drastic measures to contain him. Meanwhile, the epic storm arrives, furiously pummeling the house with wind, torrential rain, and knocking down trees.

It only seems as though things couldn’t get any worse, though. When one of the boys starts showing the same symptoms as the ghastly stranger and Dr. Tim, the terror really begins... because if you can no longer trust the friends you’ve grown up with, then you really are all alone. 


  
The Troop is one of those books that leaves a lasting impact in its wake. (I finished it over a month ago, and still get chills when I think about it.) It packs such an effective wallop because it simultaneously taps into some of the fears we have as adults--diseases (whether naturally-occurring,  created as weaponry, or by-products of something else) that take root and mutilate/kill almost before we even know we’ve been infected, leaving us able to merely watch helplessly--as well as holdover fears from childhood--facing a monster all by yourself, without a weapon (or even having the faintest clue what an appropriate weapon might be).

It’s more than just an ingeniously-crafted and deeply-disturbing horror story, though; surprisingly, The Troop also offers up a poignantly realistic portrayal of boyhood. Cutter understands being a kid, latching onto all the uncertainties, anger, and fears one experiences at that age, and displays both brutal honesty and touching sensitivity when allowing us a glimpse of each boy’s unspoken thoughts and feelings. (Seriously, there were a couple of passages that brought me to tears... something which rarely happens.)

The Troop is, pure and simple, one helluva read... and author Nick Cutter is absolutely one to watch.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  All the Mousies 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Wearin' of the Green (fun placeholder)

Hello out there! Yes, it really has been forever and a day (erm, at least) since I posted. Just one thing after another, so far this year... which is frustrating, since I've had two separate reviews started--and waiting--on my desktop for... [gulp]... a looong time, now. Ah, well... I promise something new, soon. Really. :)

For now, please enjoy a little boycat, in the spirit of all-things-Irish day. (And no, if you rub/kiss on his belly three times, it does not automatically confer good luck upon you. It does, however, win you purrs, which is a whole 'nother sort of wonderful magic.)

"Lookin' fur a lucky shamrock... "

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cleanin' Up Evil... with a Broom, Some Fangs, and a Bit of Fur


A bed-and-breakfast, to me, involves a large Victorian house--bedecked with ornate, pastel gingerbread on the outside, with uncomfortable sofas protected by embroidered antimacassars, ruffled floral curtains, and old porcelain pitchers full of cut flowers perched precariously on doily-covered, three-legged tables, on the inside--sitting on a large corner lot in a quaint small town, and run by a nice, older couple clad in matching cardigan sweaters. (And no, I’ve never actually been in a B-and-B, in case you’re wondering.)

Something that’s definitely never been part of that picture, though, is for said establishment to be run by a young witch (complete with broomstick and some crazy-ass magic powers), or for a werewolf to be living just down the street. 

Trust Ilona Andrews to think of those quirky little touches--suddenly making a B-and-B sound like a much-more interesting place--in the nifty new urban fantasy, Clean Sweep.

#######

Twenty-something Dina Demille runs the Gertrude Hunt Bed-and-Breakfast in a sleepy little Texas town, where business isn’t exactly booming. Still, she’s proud of the job she’s done over the last couple of years, taking over a long-neglected inn and bringing it back to life (literally, in this case, as she and the building have what I can only call a symbiotic relationship). 

The Gertrude Hunt has one permanent guest--a retiree who used to travel across the galaxy and is a stone-cold killer (thankfully somewhat mellowed now, in part due to her fondness for Mello Yello soda and Funyuns snacks being indulged regularly)--but is lucky to get any other guests, “normal” or otherwise. 

But, when neighborhood dogs start dying--horrible, mutilated deaths--Dina is almost glad business is so slow, because it’s clear that something very evil has come to town... and not in the form of your garden-variety sicko, either. She understands something which none of her non-magical neighbors can: there’s powerful, evil magic behind these killings... and whatever it is, it’s far more dangerous than the nightmares any psychopath could dream up.

Young and relatively-inexperienced she may be, but Dina takes her job of care-taking very seriously, and isn’t about to let anything so wicked decimate her pleasant little town full of decent people. Luckily for her, a lone wolf (of the werewolf persuasion) has recently settled in the community... and seems to have the same sense of obligation that she has. The two (reluctantly) join forces to try and get a handle on just what in blazes they’re up against. 

When a vampire suddenly drops into their laps (figuratively, thank goodness), though... well, that’s when things really start to get interesting. Who can trust whom in this unexpected supernatural trio... and who will live through the carnage to tell the tale?

#######

The husband-and-wife writing duo known popularly as Ilona Andrews never fails to deliver fun, clever Urban Fantasies peopled with appealing, down-to-earth characters (or as “down-to-earth” as supernatural beings can be, anyway), and Clean Sweep is no exception. Dina is unlike other witches I’ve read about, and the cool bond she has with the house is an especially novel touch. (Plus, anyone who names her Shih Tzu “Beast” is worth knowing, am I right?) The werewolf and vampire seem to have some interesting layers, too (even if they do fall into the stereotypically super-handsome, irresistible-he-man mold which apparently all male heroes in such books must).

Clean Sweep doesn’t have quite the same vibrancy or pace as Andrews’ fabulously-entertaining Kate Daniels series--it’s more on par with their very-good Edge series (which, like Clean Sweep, is also set in a small, rural area, and thus feels similarly-appropriate to the slower pacing)--but don’t let that deter you. It’s a neat little tale with some intriguing twists, quick to read, and a pleasant way to spend a bit of time. :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: A Worthy Diversion

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Hospital of Death: Patients' Worst Nightmares, Come to Life


No one likes going to the hospital... not as a visitor, and certainly not as a patient. Could there be a scarier, more vulnerable position to be in, than spending time on an uncomfortable bed in a strange, sterile room, clad only in a skimpy gown that flaps open in the back... anxiously awaiting tests, treatments, or (gulp) surgery? 

That last is, I think, the absolute worst of the worst... “going under the knife”. (Who in their right minds would want to find themselves under a sharp-pointy-stabby thing?!)

Consider the near-absolute power which surgeons wield... armed with their scalpels (and all those other scary-looking things that grab, grip, swab, cut, and so on); surrounded by an array of ridiculously-expensive, beeping and humming machines; and aided by a number of other individuals, each with her or his own job to do (or not); all crammed into one small operating room, with your naked body lying helpless on the cold hard table... and your life in their hands.

The hope, of course, is that everything goes right, and your condition or problem improves... but the reality is, so many things can go very, horribly wrong.

Welcome to Boston’s prestigious University Hospital, where chief resident Steve Mitchell--a hotshot young surgeon with talent (and confidence) to spare--goes from thinking the world is his oyster... to discovering it’s the end of the world as he knows it, in newcomer Kelly Parsons’ top-notch medical thriller, Doing Harm.


It’s taken a long time to get to this point, but Dr. Steve Mitchell has finally--almost--arrived. As a chief resident he now has a pair of budding young doctors under his guidance (meaning he can shunt off the scut work to them), which in turn allows him to focus on honing his surgical skills. Even better, it looks like the hospital--the creme de la creme of teaching hospitals--is seriously considering offering him a permanent position... provided he keeps cruising along the same path during the next year. 

His home life is pretty great, too; he has a wife he adores, and two small daughters who bring him endless joy. And, with the likelihood of the coveted new job in the offing, he can envision moving out of their tiny house into a place with a little more room for a growing family. 

But then--just like that--everything changes. Following a drug mix-up during a routine surgery, the patient develops one after another increasingly-serious complications, leaving him hovering on the brink of death. 

And then, to make matters worse, it happens again. Another surgery--one in which Steve is called in to assist a senior surgeon--goes bad in a big way, as Steve’s cockiness gets him in over his head, and another patient nearly dies on the table. 

With two patients “circling the drain”--and Steve getting blamed in both instances--his job prospects (and all thoughts of a happy future) are looking less promising by the minute. He haunts his patients‘ bedsides in his free time, endlessly playing back every moment of both surgeries in his mind, wondering how things got to this point. 

Gradually, there’s a little improvement, and he dares to hope everything will work out... which is when one of them mysteriously, suddenly dies, and Steve’s world comes crashing down once more.

When he emerges from his funk (drunken stupor), though, and has time (since his surgical duties and resident responsibilities were put on an indefinite hold by the hospital) to think again, one thing is clear to him: there’s no way his patient--who’d been getting markedly better--could’ve just died... not without some help. As impossible as it sounds, he realizes the facts are telling him there’s a cold-blooded murderer walking the halls of the hospital. And, whoever it is, is almost sure to murder again.

Steve doesn’t know if he’ll have a career--or even a family, if it comes to that--once the dust has settled... but he knows he has to stop the killer before another innocent patient--someone who went into the hospital full of natural trepidation as well as realistic hope--needlessly dies. 

He can only hope he’s up to the task.


There’ve been a lot of good medical thrillers over the years, mostly full of earnest young doctors fighting against some horrible wrong--a formula which Doing Harm also follows. What sets this one apart for me, though, is Parsons‘ attention to realism... not just the technical terms for things--which are easy enough for any writer with the right background (or some research) to include--but in the sense of telling us who these people--the doctors, surgeons, medical students, nurses, and other support staff--actually are... what they think and how they feel (and why), and what they go through.

(An example? I didn’t always like Steve--particularly when he was being a smug, cocksure jerk [who didn’t even see--let alone care about--his patients as real people with lives outside the hospital]... yet I grew to understand why a certain amount of that attitude might be beneficial, or even necessary. It feels like a very honest portrayal.)

It’s when adversity comes along--when the hero is beaten down, forced to either sink or rise out of the ashes a better, stronger person--that most good stories provide the reader with the pay-off, and so does Doing Harm. The very ordinariness of the setting is gripping; the “why” behind the murder(s) is compelling; and the little twists and surprises are, frankly, pretty terrifying. 

I won’t forget Doing Harm any time soon. I doubt you will, either.


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Worthy of Caterwauling into the Wee Hours of the Night