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

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Life and Death Behind the Robe


I’ll never be a trial lawyer, yet have a fair idea of what they go through (no doubt seeing as it’s well-trod ground in countless books, shows, and movies). I haven’t had jury duty, but have no trouble putting myself in a jurist’s shoes. And, although I’ve never been (nor ever will be, knock on wood) the defendant in a court case, it’s easy enough to imagine how awfully fraught that situation must be. 

Being the judge, though--the mysterious, all-powerful figure who sports those flowing robes and rules like royalty in his/her courtroom--well, picturing just what that’s like is another matter. Until now, that is. Enter newcomer Michael Ponsor into the fray of legal thrillers with his stellar debut, The Hanging Judge.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

It’s just another ordinary morning in an urban neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts... until, that is, a drive-by shooting leaves a drug dealer and an innocent bystander--a nurse on her way to put in a shift at the lower-income clinic she volunteered at--dead, on opposite sides of the street. 

An off-duty officer gives chase, eventually apprehending the driver--an underage kid; the shooter had already bailed out somewhere else. After some questioning down at the station, though, the kid gives up the shooter: a fellow gang member (and ex-con) who goes by the street name “Moon” Hudson.

A warrant is issued for his arrest, and Moon is taken into custody in his own home early the next morning, in front of his wife and howling baby daughter. To his apparent surprise--and his wife’s obvious shock--a stash of drugs is also found, in the basement. Things don’t look good for Mr. Hudson.

Things look far worse, however, once the case gets political. The powers-that-be (including an influential relative of the slain nurse) are calling for heads to (more-or-less-literally) roll--Moon’s sizable melon, to be precise--but there’s just one small catch: Massachusetts doesn’t have the death penalty. So, the US attorney does some finagling, and the case is taken out of the state’s hands and placed squarely into the realm of the federal court (which does allow for penalties with the most final of punishments). 

Judge David Norcross--with only two years on the bench under his judicial belt--is the one “lucky” enough to catch the case... along with all the public outcry and political urging to see the guilty party get the needle. Unfortunately, Judge Norcross is sort of conflicted on the whole idea of the death sentence, and none too happy at the pressure being applied from all sides.

Of course, the outcome of any case is dependent upon a great many people... such as the chain-smoking, seen-it-all defense attorney with decades of experience (who actually sort of believes in his client’s innocence); the elegant, driven, female prosecutor (under enormous pressure to get a guilty verdict); the prosecution’s witnesses (from the sweating, beat-up cop who was first on the scene, to the shifty kid who acted as driver, to a storeowner who saw the shooter run by his establishment); the victim’s family (the nurse’s husband and three sons, each feeling sadness, anger, and/or bitterness over the crime); the defendant’s wife (who claims her husband was home at the time of the shooting); and the defendant, himself (sitting at the defense table, trying to marshal his emotions and expressions into something not-so-guilty-looking). 

Interspersed throughout the story are a series of interesting little asides, which depict a murder trial in colonial Massachusetts (and allow the reader see how far our legal system has come, in the interim). This side story--which also ties in with the author’s own tale--is a fascinating bit of history, and a nifty little bonus.  

With twists and turns galore--including a budding romance, assorted threats, missing persons, and so much more--it’s a bumpy, exhilarating ride to the final verdict.
   
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

It’s been a long time since I read a really good legal thriller--heck, even a not-so-great one, for that matter--something which dawned on me only a few short pages into The Hanging Judge. (But don’t worry; this one falls squarely under the “really, really good” column.) Better yet, it’s not just a compelling story with interesting characters and a fresh point of view--experiencing everything through the eyes of the judge, from his courtroom to his chambers to his home and personal life--but is a fully-fleshed-out tale, with due attention paid to all the characters, so that each feels like a real person (with believable emotions and motivations).

As it happens, there’s an excellent reason (aside from sheer talent) why The Hanging Judge feels so true-to-life: author Ponsor is, himself, a former trial attorney and magistrate judge, and has been serving as a US district judge for more than a decade. (Fortunately for us, he also happens to be a very clever man with a wonderful feeling for timing, a great sense of humor, and an easy and elegant mastery of words.)

In short, The Hanging Judge is a page-turner I don’t think you’ll want to miss. 


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Totally Worth It!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Moment in Time... Can Last Forever


Children--as most adults who’ve more-or-less-successfully traversed those difficult years and emerged triumphant on the other end will attest--can be quite horrid. It’s not that they’re irredeemable little monsters, or anything... just that all children have the capacity to be incredibly cruel in their words and actions. Whether it be their peers and siblings, parents, other adults, pets (or other unwitting animals), or even inanimate objects, no one (and nothing) is safe from a child who feels compelled for whatever reasons to be nasty.

There’s a difference, though, between outright meanness to others and simple mischief--although the latter can also have the appearance of cruelty. The difference, of course, is in the intent, which is why most of us find mischievous acts more understandable and easier to forgive and forget.

As with anything else, however, not everyone agrees, as is the case in Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black, the compelling tale of a well-meaning and popular young boy who errs one fateful time on the side of a bit of innocent mischief... and ends up paying for his ill-considered deed the rest of his life.
✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

Boys will be boys, and William Bellman and his mates are just that--boys being boys--when they take it into their heads one lazy summer afternoon to try hitting various targets by slingshotting pebbles at them. Only clever Will has the insight to design his slingshot in such a way to actually succeed, though... and succeed he does, nailing a rook (crow) sitting on a tree branch some distance away, just as he’d boasted he would.

His three friends are elated as only a group of young lads can be, at first; Will’s prowess at hitting something so far away--and a bird, at that!--is nothing short of remarkable to them. But, once reality sets in a bit--and the dead creature has gotten stiff and less-appealing--their excitement fades. By the time a few weeks have passed, the incident has been all but forgotten.

The act leaves a more-lasting impression on Will. He hadn’t worked out beforehand what would happen when he hit the bird (although he knew he would); actually killing it never entered his mind. Eventually, though, as he grows up and takes on new responsibilities, he puts the memories, visions, and bad dreams behind him (as most of us tend to do with childhood things). He works hard at home and school, secures himself an apprenticeship at his uncle’s woolen mill, and learns the business from the ground up. By the time he marries and then has a family, he’s ascended to a top position at the mill, and is responsible for both modernizing production and substantially increasing business. Life is good. 

Until suddenly... it isn’t. An epidemic decimates the countryside, scattering death all around and leaving Will a broken man who cares little if he lives or dies, let alone gives a toss about business.

It’s precisely when he’s at his lowest point that a mysterious stranger--someone he’s seen occasionally, over the years, but has never actually met--happens upon him... and strikes a most unusual bargain. The pair of them will grow a brand-new business--one that deals in death as its stock and trade--with William standing as the public face of it. In return, his last remaining child’s life will be spared. (Exactly how the stranger will effect that circumstance is unclear, but Will clearly believes it possible.) 

But nothing comes without a price--particularly not matters of life-and-death. Fleeting memories from the past... a strange new existence... even a way out, if he can manage to grasp it... for William, a whole new nightmare is just beginning.

✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

Bellman & Black isn’t an easy book to pigeonhole. Moody and atmospheric, and Gothic in tone, it’s not quite a supernatural thriller, nor a romance, nor even, precisely, a tragedy (though it has elements of all three). 

William Bellman is--if not an entirely-likable character--at least a fascinating one. (He isn’t really unlikable, either; rather, he often comes across as cold, and sort of empty.) His obsession with--and affection for--the mill is well-documented, yet is also surprisingly interesting (particularly how he goes about learning, then improving upon, conditions and practices at every level). It is with his family--and perhaps more poignantly, his friends--wherein his problems lie; even when he would consider his life “good”, he is doggedly single-minded in his pursuit of all things business... to the detriment of the rest of his relationships. Only a tragedy as devastating as the disease that scours his community can pull him out of himself. 

Once entered into the second phase of his life, however--that of being half of Bellman & Black--we quickly realize his previous preoccupation with work was merely a trial run for the utterly all-encompassing obsession he has with B&B. It isn’t merely the driving force in his life, that thing from which he derives validation... it is his sole reason for existence--a fact which becomes more and more sinister as time passes.

My one complaint with Bellman & Black is that the latter portion of the book goes on rather too long; once we see Will at the depths of the pit he’s fallen into, he just sort of stays there, with nothing much going on (aside from considerable repetition). That portion could’ve easily been cut down a good bit and still maintained its creepy foreboding. 

If you have some patience (for letting a story take its time in the telling)--and a hankering for a dark Victorian ghost story, unlike any other you’ve ever come across--then you’ll want to give Bellman & Black a go. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Unusual story, worth the effort