Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Ancient Prophecy Never Means Good News

There aren’t many constants out there in the world, but one which seems to always hold true is that all of us will never really, truly, get along with each other.
Pessimistic, you say? Okay, fine... guilty as charged. Still, history argues pretty persuasively against the likelihood of any sort of widespread, lasting peace. From the days when cavemen stomped the Earth--when the males battled each other with clubs over who got the biggest hunk of meat from a hunt (survival), or got to claim the healthiest cavewoman (both survival and power), to today--when we still fight over survival and power, plus a whole mess of other things, we’ve proven ourselves to be quite the warmongering species.
So, just imagine what life on Terra Firma would be like if we threw zombies, vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, etc., into the mix. (One big party? Um, yeah, not so much.)
Last year we were introduced to just such a mix in Nancy Holzner’s Urban Fantasy Deadtown, the title of which refers to the special, few-block area in Boston reserved for all of the city’s other inhabitants--the “paranormals” and “previously deceased humans”. The fact that  Boston's powers-that-be have seen fit to segregate whole segments of the population--cramming them into a tiny neighborhood from which they aren't allowed to leave without proper identification and forcing on all residents a strict, punishable-by-law curfew--shows that Holzner is equally skeptical about our ability to fully embrace our peace-loving sides.
All too often, though, the ones initiating the fighting are far nastier than those against whom they’ve waved a red flag... and such is the case in this version of Boston, where the majority of real monsters don’t have fangs, sport putrid greenish flesh, or change form thrice monthly. Most of the genuine nasties there are walking around in three-piece suits or police uniforms... and would just as soon do away with all of Deadtown, permanently. (The denizens of Deadtown, on the other hand, more or less do get along with each other.)
That’s no picnic to deal with, but to Victory “Vicky” Vaughn (demon slayer to all of Boston) and the rest of Deadtown’s citizens, it’s just the usual, and everyone there generally tries to avoid conflicts. That is, until a brand-new evil comes to town, in Holzner’s Hellforged...
[Haven’t yet read Deadtown? Read my review here, first... then hie yourself back here, 'kay?]

When we left Vicky last, she--along with her more-exuberant-than-competent, teenage zombie sidekick Tina--had pretty much saved all of Boston from the wrath of her longtime Hellion nemesis, Difethwr, by banishing him back to the fiery pit from whence he came. And, after the usual bouts of publicity following that epic battle, life has pretty much gone back to normal; Vicky is back to fighting assorted baddies all over town by night (like the drudes, which invade people’s dreams for nefarious purposes, and... well, who would have guessed that computer glitches are actually vile little creatures that invade your computer, sucking energy and making everything go haywire?), she still shares an apartment with her vampire roomie Juliet Capulet (yes, that Juliet), and she occasionally (okay, rarely) finds time to see her on-again/off-again werewolf boyfriend. Life is... well, if not good, at least it’s better. (Yeah, almost anything's better than being tortured by a Hellion.)
Strange things start happening, though (as they have a rather nasty habit of doing). After a blissful absence from Vicky’s own dreams, Difethwr reappears, and he seems, if anything, more evil than ever. Around the same time, she discovers one zombie--then another, and another--who have died horribly gruesome, permanent deaths... and she realizes that she knew each one of them and may, in fact, have been the last person to talk with them before they were killed. Her awful realization? That she is the link... that if not for her, these innocent zombies wouldn’t have met their final deaths now... and that somehow--although impossible--the banished Hellion must be behind it all. 
What follows for the poor, beleaguered demon slayer is a miserable, emergency trip to Wales, involving--under strict orders from Aunt Mab, her magical teacher and mother figure there--no sleep whatsoever (and describing it as “copious cups of joe” doesn’t begin to describe the staggering amount of coffee she has to consume), a near-concussion, and a case of delirium. Once Vicky recovers from the ordeal of just getting to the remote Welsh village where Mab lives, though, the news her aunt imparts is far worse: Vicky will, indeed, be facing her worst nightmare, once again. If she has any hope of defeating the forces of evil, she will need to master a weapon that she can’t even (literally) handle, understand a book of prophecies straight from the netherworld (which magically prevents itself from being understood), be prepared to do battle on three different planes of existence (each with their own peculiarities)... and basically do it all singlehandedly. 
Hellforged is a darker tale than Deadtown, with less levity and a considerable ramping-up of the terror. As difficult as Vicky’s primary task was in the first book, it is many times harder, here, and we feel all of her uncertainty, guilt, and sorrow--as well as the physical pain and fear--keenly.
The story is more complex, too, dealing with multiple realities and dream versus waking states, plus more of the very interesting lore. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally frustrating--trying to keep up with how some of the new characters relate to each other as well as going through a lot of training, but ultimately reaches a satisfying conclusion (emotionally and logically) following another epic showdown. Hellforged is a solid entry in Vicky’s saga, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what she gets up to next.
I really, really like how Holzner’s mind works. She writes some great dialogue, and she always presents a fine sense of place or space. She also manages to make me care deeply about the most minor of characters; I was almost unexpectedly saddened by the zombie deaths, despite the fact that Vicky only knew each zombie but slightly. (It’s rare for an author to achieve that kind of connection with a character so soon to be cast aside, but Holzner always manages it.)
Actually, I only have one complaint about Hellforged, but it has nothing to do with the author. The copy in the book is miniscule, making it a real reading challenge. (For someone forced by the constraints of work--and at this time of year, by a crazy holiday schedule--to primarily read very late at night or very early in the morning... in grey, cloudy December... it was seriously hard to get enough light on the pages for my strained eyes to decipher the teensy-tiny print, making for some uncomfortable, less-than-ideal reading.) As printed, Hellforged comes in at 340 pages, but it would have been much more enjoyable as a book with 400+ pages, employing a more reasonably-sized typeface. Getting past that one issue, though, I highly recommend this as a worthy and entertaining sequel.
Catnip Mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

[With sincere thanks to the author and publisher for providing me with the ARC for review. :)] 
       

Monday, December 20, 2010

Marriage or Murder at a Country Manor

A sprawling estate in the English countryside. A wealthy family, bound by the secrets they endeavor to keep from their friends and neighbors. A house party--with an engagement celebration its primary focus--featuring the usual assortment of pompous gentlemen of a certain age, mothers eager to make the best matches for their daughters, preening dandies too aware of their own highly-eligible status, and silly young girls harboring fairy-tale dreams of finding eternal love with their own handsome princes. A sudden, silent communication which sends the groom-to-be hieing off, breaking his engagement without explanation and leaving behind a tearful fiancée who refuses to accept that her perfect world has suddenly gone so very wrong. And, an intelligent and competent spinster, torn between duty to her niece and curiosity about her fellow houseguests, trying to make sense of it all.

All of that might well have been plucked straight out of a Jane Austen novel... were it not for the inclusion of a pesky little murder (the likes of which the very proper Ms. Austen certainly never wrote about in her own works).

Newcomer Anna Dean, however, doesn’t labor under such strict rules of authorly behavior in the 21st century, and in Bellfield Hall she tosses the murder of a mysterious young woman into the mix almost gleefully, resulting in a sort of Jane Austen-meets-Miss Marple story. (If you’re getting worried right now, don’t; it’s all good.)

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

When a distraught Catherine Kent summons her favorite maiden aunt, Miss Dido Kent, to the country estate of Sir Edward Montague, Aunt Dido understands that her purpose is a dual one: to try and soothe her adored niece’s frazzled nerves and broken heart, and to figure out why young Richard Montague has abruptly broken the troth between them. Catherine has always relied on her aunt--from a very young age--and knows the older woman to be both wise and clever (not to mention being far better at such things than Catherine's stepmother, whose interests only lie in the monetary and societal aspects of her stepdaughter’s impending nuptials, as she cares not a whit for the girl’s current misery). Dido, for her part, loves a good puzzle... and quite relishes the feeling of being needed.

What we are soon to learn, though--through a mix of first-person narration (via the letters Dido writes to her equally-spinsterish sister) and traditional third-person recounting--is that she has no idea what's actually in store for her. The latest shock to hit Bellfield Hall, you see--and on the very day Dido arrives, no less--is the discovery of the body of an unknown woman, found murdered on the grounds.

Catherine, understandably, isn’t nearly as concerned with a dead woman she’s never met as she is with her absent fiancé. Dido isn’t entirely convinced the two things are unrelated, however, and makes it her (secret) mission to find out everything she can about the poor dead girl--who she was, why she was killed, and who did the killing--just in case there is some sort of connection, which might conceivably cause further harm to her niece, whether to her reputation or her future happiness. (That, of course, is something Dido has no intention of allowing.)

Dido is relentless, asking questions (at times bordering on impertinence) of virtually anyone and everyone--from the lord of the manor to the other esteemed guests to the lowliest of the house staff and groundskeepers, noting all the gossip and innuendo for future consideration, and even going so far as to eavesdrop just the teensiest bit (but only when the opportunity presents itself, naturally). What she soon discovers, though, is that the secrets in the Montague family run very deep... and that plenty of the other houseguests have shameful things which they would also vastly prefer to keep hidden from her prying eyes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Bellfield Hall is, as I indicated earlier, a lot of fun. It quite ably satisfies the desire for a charming Regency-era piece, with its polite society and intimate settings, while at the same time delivers some delicious intrigue and a compelling mystery.

The fact that everything works so well, of course, should be laid at the notably, unstylishly-clad feet of the fascinating (and unusual, for a Regency tale) heroine, Miss Dido Kent. Dido truly is a find; as an unmarried woman (of a certain age, herself) with no fortune to call her own, she is very much bound by the strictures of society and propriety. Despite those limitations, she nonetheless manages to live mostly on her own terms--using her cleverness, innate curiosity, and skills of observation more, and her somewhat lackluster talents at such things as stitching and the arts rather less--without being looked down upon or shunned by others. I really like the idea of such a woman... and I have an idea that the inimitable Ms. Austen might have approved, as well.


[Note: Anna Dean debuted with Bellfield Hall in 2008, and has since written two more books following Miss Dido Kent’s journey. As someone, erm, a wee bit past being a 20-yr-old ingenue myself, I must say that I'm looking forward to the continuing exploits of this something-special, mature woman... ;)] 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Nightmare Without End: Abduction & the Long Road Back



Danger takes many forms.
Most of us--once we’ve become rather uncomfortably aware of our own mortality--make an effort to take at least a few precautions to ward ourselves from some of the dangers we face. 
At a bare minimum, we look both ways before crossing the street. We inoculate ourselves against deadly diseases. We bolt our doors and lock our windows to all the scary things (and bad people) that go bump in the night. We fasten our seat belts before setting out on the roadways in our little hunks of metal (although statistics show that a lot more of us could stand to be doing that). Taking such measures is empowering; we’re proactively doing something to safeguard ourselves.
So many other things, of course, are completely outside the realm of our control. We’re unable to prevent cancers or illnesses that we’re genetically predisposed to getting. We’re at the whims of Mother Nature when it comes to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and such. We can’t predict if a random stranger in a crowd will suddenly “go postal”... or if we’ll be in the line of fire should he or she take aim. We’re aware these sorts of perils exist, too, but we know there’s nothing we can really do about them. 
And then, there are those dangers which lurk in the shadows... the ones that have never even crossed our minds, leaving us completely unprepared to face them, should they arise. It is this, the truly unknown, that holds the most terrifying dangers of all, and author Chevy Stevens paints a shattering portrait of one woman‘s struggles with just such an unspeakable, unknown horror in her phenomenal debut, Still Missing.
*~*~*~*~*~*~*
Annie O’Sullivan thinks she’s a careful person. As a single 32-year-old living on her own on Vancouver Island, she practices all the normal precautions regarding her health and personal safety, plus a few others, for good measure. She tries to eat right and exercise. She’s a cautious driver. She has a little network of friends and family who know her whereabouts and schedule. Her dog is both beloved companion and bodyguard.
In all her wildest dreams, Annie never guessed that the worst danger she’d ever encounter would occur while she was working--she’s a realtor, for crying out loud!--yet that’s exactly what happens, when she’s abducted in the middle of hosting an open house on an otherwise perfectly-ordinary autumn afternoon. One minute, the charming man who arrives just as she’s about to lock up the house she’d been showing is earnestly discussing windows and square footage with her... and the next, he’s bundling her into his van at gunpoint, then shooting her full of drugs to knock her out. This seemingly-innocuous day suddenly becomes a pivotal moment, a point from which Annie’s life will be changed forevermore.
When the drugs wear off and Annie comes to, she indeed finds herself part of an incomprehensible nightmare. She and her captor seem to be in a remote cabin somewhere in the mountains. (Where it is, she doesn’t know, and he’s not telling.) He proceeds to lay out a series of ground rules for her. They will be staying there, just the two of them. There’s to be no contact with the outside world, period. (No phone, television, internet, radio, or newspaper.) Adherence to a strict set of rules governing her behavior is mandatory. (All behavior. Daily bathroom breaks are penciled in on the schedule, just like dishes and laundry and reading time, with no exceptions permitted.) Annie will be locked inside the cabin all day, every day. 
All of this, he tells her, is for her own good. The outside world is evil, and she has been corrupted by its influence, but he aims to rectify that via his master plan. He intends for them to be a “family”--in every sense of the word--and he quickly sets about ensuring that will happen.  
As far as Annie is concerned, it will be the absolute worst year of her life.
************
In a very unusual--not to mention, incredibly-powerful--twist, we learn about Annie’s ordeal solely through her four-months-after-the-fact narration of events to her psychiatrist. Rather than a linear recounting, though, the tale emerges in bits and pieces, as Annie struggles to tell what details she can handle describing--and in whatever order she can stand to impart them--during her weekly sessions. 
Gradually, though, the full story is told in its horrifying entirety--everything her captor made her do, how he made her suffer, and how she learned to cope. When we finally get a clear sense of what transpired, it is awful beyond belief.
Unfortunately, the nightmare doesn’t come to a convenient stop with the end of her captivity; that was merely the beginning of it. And, as Annie dwells more and more on the present in her counseling sessions, we realize just how profound an impact that year has had on her, the toll it has taken on all aspects of her life. She has begrudgingly chosen to bare her soul only because she simply can't cope. Her story may be old news in the media, but she continues to relive the whole dreadful experience during every one of her waking--plus most of her sleeping--hours.
Annie wants more than anything to have a “normal” life again... to enjoy at least a semblance of safety and to somehow cobble the pieces of her shattered life back together, instead of this awful existence of cowering in fear and rehashing painful memories over and over again. 
What scares her to death most of all, though, is the certainty that she is still in grave danger... and about that, she is absolutely right.
*~*~*~*~*~*~*
I found Still Missing to be a profoundly-affecting book, shocking and horrifying in its subject matter and stunningly brilliant in its execution. It's a first-rate thriller, with twists you won’t see coming, as well as some that you might guess at-- all the while desperately hoping that you’re mistaken. It’s also a psychological masterpiece, with its grim, visceral depiction of abject terror and tormented souls; you're unlikely to forget any of these characters any time soon. 

Still Missing made me, by turns, breathless and furious and heartbroken--at the system, at people, at our world in general. In the end, though, what it left me with above all else was a sense of hope... that within each of us lies a grim determination and the will to live, to conquer, and to triumph--if only we can somehow manage to find that will and then hang onto it for dear life.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies!!


Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Real-Life Temperance Brennan: Kathy Reichs on a Case

It's a case of life imitating art--as well as art mirroring life--when it comes to bestselling author Kathy Reichs and her always-engrossing mystery series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

Since first springing onto the scene in 1997 with her debut novel, Deja Dead, Reichs has consistently delivered intelligent, unputdownable tales depicting the painstaking work that goes into piecing together the last moments of someone's life through the study of the bones left behind.

There's an excellent reason for the success of this series; these books are, of course, grounded in real science. Reichs herself holds the same dual positions as forensic anthropologist in North Carolina and Montreal, Quebec as does heroine Dr. Tempe Brennan, so she really knows her stuff. Fortunately for the reader, though, she manages to avoid the pitfalls that sometimes trap other experts who try their hand at writing--that of coming across textbook-dull, or of being patronizing. Instead, her Tempe is a fully-fleshed-out character with a rich an interesting life--an intelligent and successful professional woman, as well as one who is sympathetic and relatable in her personal life (while attempting to balance the demands of relationships with those of her career).  

Reichs isn't stingy about giving her readers enticing, suspenseful mysteries, either. Years of experience under her own belt have provided her with ample inspiration to draw upon for Tempe's cases... and as they say, truth is (often) stranger--not to mention more interesting--than fiction.

******
It's that type of real-life experience which is at the heart of a new television series on Investigation Discovery Network (ID), called "Hardcover Mysteries". Chronicling the journeys of eight novelists, each of whom has crossed over from the world of fact to the world of fiction, the series sets out to depict a real-life case which has had a profound impact on each author, then show how he/she has been changed or affected by it.

When offered the chance to view Monday night's episode of "Hardcover Mysteries" (featuring Kathy Reichs, no less) before it aired on TV, it was a no-brainer. I've been a huge fan of Reichs' books since the very beginning, and this sounded like a cool look at a little piece of her history. I wasn't disappointed...

Reichs' episode details a case from 1995. During a stint at her Canadian office, she became absorbed--along with everyone else--in following the mysterious disappearance of a 46-yr-old journalist named Louise Ellis. 

Sometime between running errands and making it to a birthday party, the woman had simply vanished without a trace along a deserted stretch of highway. Massive searches were conducted, and her husband and friends made appeals in the media for any info as to her whereabouts. One suspect was investigated, then cleared. When a second person became a suspect, the authorities found reasons aplenty to be suspicious... but what they didn't find was Louise Ellis. 

Reichs, meanwhile, felt especially drawn to the story. She was approximately the same age as the missing woman, and they seemed to share a number of personality traits as well as their professional drive and ambition. Perhaps most striking, though, was the fact that she was at that same time in the process of writing her first book (the aforementioned Deja Dead). She couldn't not be interested in the fate of a fellow writer.  

When the body was finally discovered, Reichs became more than just an observer, though; she became a participant, as she and a team were responsible for recovering the remains and trying to make sense of them. And, with art imitating life, she was also to find that this new role would inspire elements in the novel she was hard at work writing...

******

Alternating between present-day narration and interviews with those involved, actual footage from the era, and re-enactments of events, the story--and the mystery--unfolds gradually. It's a compelling look at  a horrific crime (including what led up to it and the aftermath) and the insights of those who experienced it firsthand. But more than that, it's also a fascinating look at an author in her own, "other" element... the real-life version of the fictional character we know so well. 

"Hardcover Mysteries" airs on Investigation Discovery Network (ID) Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT;  the Kathy Reichs episode airs November 22. Mystery, suspense, and true-crime aficionados will definitely want to pencil this one in on their calendars. (For more info on the series, visit http://investigation.discovery.com/tv/hardcover-mysteries/ .)


Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Game of Cat and Mouse: The Secrets we Prefer to Keep


Inner demons... we all have them. Those things we wish we’d never done/said/thought, the choices we’d unmake (if only we could), and the internal battles we’re constantly fighting--all the things we’re ashamed of, but can’t escape. When it comes to our deepest, darkest secrets, we’ll go to great lengths to ensure they remain  hidden... and with good reason.
So, imagine that one day you receive a letter from a total stranger who claims to know your deepest, darkest secrets. To prove the point, you’re instructed to play a little game, something that, in person, would seem like a parlour trick: you’re to think of a number between one and one thousand, then to open a second, sealed envelope and read the contents therein... at which point you discover that the mystery correspondent has correctly guessed your chosen number. Out of a thousand numbers you could have chosen. 
Naturally, you freak out, thinking that if the impossible has just happened--if a complete stranger has inexplicably but accurately predicted such a random thing about you--then what awful, buried things might this person also know... and how?
More importantly, what is he/she planning to do with that knowledge? And, what lengths are you willing to go to, in order to keep your dark skeletons buried?   
Those are the questions facing retired NYPD homicide investigator Dave Gurney when an old college acquaintance phones him out of the blue one day, frantically requesting some advice, in newcomer John Verdon’s tour-de-force debut, Think of a Number.
Gurney has plenty of reservations about getting involved. He’s retired, for starters, living a tranquil existence in upstate New York with his long-suffering wife Madeline (and she certainly doesn’t want to hear that he’s considering anything resembling police work). And, frankly, he was never that close with his former classmate; they’d been in the same large circle twenty-five years ago, nothing more. 
Still, there are plenty of other considerations in favor of Gurney’s involvement. For one, he’s been going stir crazy; living in the country was always Madeline’s dream, never his. He is capable of incredible focus, and he has a real knack for making sense of bits and bobs of seemingly-disparate information--so much so that he cracked some of the biggest murder cases in the state during his years on the job--but there’s been nothing to apply that talent and intensity toward in the two years he’s been retired. There’s something hard to deny in his larger-than-life former classmate’s voice, too--an uncharacteristic fear and desperation to which he can’t say no. Perhaps the deciding factor, though, is the knowledge that seeing his friend would provide Gurney with a distraction from the inner turmoil that’s been threatening to overwhelm him recently. (Everyone knows that it's always easier to sweep a mess under the rug than to deal with it.) 
After reading the letters (poems, actually), Gurney is dismayed to realize that this is much more than just a challenging riddle or an elaborate practical joke... and that his friend has good reason to be worried (although he refuses to seek help from the authorities). Over the following days, the clever poet continues sending messages, each more ominous in tone than the last. Like a cat who's closing in on the mouse, he delivers taunts and subtle threats to his prey... creating a frenzy of confusion and fear. 
When Gurney's friend is suddenly, brutally murdered--abruptly changing the game from a clever puzzle to a bloody, violent crime--a horrified (and guilt-stricken) he goes to the police, (eventually) persuading them that they’re looking for more than just a run-of-the-mill murderer. He even agrees to act as consultant--much to his wife’s disappointment.
Before long, it’s not just his friend’s murderer he’s helping to track; two more bodies turn up under nearly-identical circumstances, with the same creepy messages ramping up the psychological terror prior to the victims’ murders. The poet is now a serial killer.
Gurney knows he’s messing things up with his home life by delving deeper and deeper into the case, yet he also knows that he can’t just walk away; using his mind in this manner--figuring out the mystery--is part of who he is, as essential as breathing. 

When the latest message targets Gurney specifically, the ex-cop knows there’s no alternative but to meet the madman face-to-face. He has no idea if he’ll walk away from the confrontation alive... because in the end, the final showdown won’t be about who can outwit whom, but about who is better able to face--and conquer--his inner demons.
******
Think of a Number is a psychological suspense novel which strikes the perfect balance between the terrors of facing an unknown evil and the turmoil of dealing with the ever-present darkness in one’s mind. In so doing, it successfully bridges the genre divide to become a powerful, moving piece of literary fiction in its own right. 
The real key to the book’s success is, of course, Gurney; he’s an incredibly-sympathetic character, an all-too “real” man struggling to make some sense out of his life in middle age and to figure out what the rest of that life might hold in store. His relationship with wife Madeline is believable and well-played, and their conversations--as well as all the pauses, looks, and other nonverbal communications which fill in the conversational gaps--ring entirely true. Gurney, like the rest of us, is far from perfect. He’s made his share of mistakes. He’s always placed such a high priority on work that his relationships have suffered. In so many ways, he’s feeling like a personal failure. Over the course of the case, though, he finally comes to the realization that--much like the art he’d been working on to counter the boredom of retirement--his life is actually still a work in progress... and that the power to change things is his, and his alone. 
In short, Think of a Number is a thriller that thrills and a psychological study that makes you think, and it--and author John Verdon--are the real deal.


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies!


Friday, November 5, 2010

Snowbound: The Frostbitten Fingers of Fear... and Murder

He’s like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, popping up at the perfect moment to do his thing (which typically entails saving the proverbial day). He’s the Timex of heroes, taking a licking (and another, and another), but continuing to keep right on ticking. And, in true Weeble-like fashion, no matter how many times he’s knocked down, he (eventually, anyway) bounces back up. He is, in a word (okay, two words), Mr. Reliable. 
Who is he? Why, he’s Jack Reacher, of course--the no-BS, ex-Army MP who regularly fixes problems and makes things hunky-dory again, all while pursuing a vagabond existence of roaming wherever the wind blows him, carrying all his worldly possessions on his back.
There’s never a scrape or a tight spot that Jack can’t--sooner or later--wriggle out of, never a trap from which he can’t spring himself. (Not that he’s invincible or anything; he bears plenty of scars for his troubles.) Years of experience combined with an ability to think and act rationally and to harness his powers of keen observation, have allowed Jack to hone his survival skills into something quite extraordinary.
Even Superman had his Kryptonite, though, and in Lee Child’s fourteenth entry in the Reacher series, 61 Hours, it appears that Jack may have finally met his match, as well.
While traveling as he often does--by hitching a ride, or, in this case, arranging a cheap, cash-under-the-table seat on a half-empty charter bus en route to Mount Rushmore--Jack has the grave misfortune to find himself stranded in a small, isolated South Dakota town... in the middle of winter... in the middle of a series of major snowstorms. 
Now, unless you’ve ever spent a winter in South Dakota (I have, btw), or another place with comparable weather patterns (which, again, I have), then you only think you know cold. And snow. There are few things as isolating--or as claustrophobic--as being surrounded by nothing but a frozen white tableau, or as frightening as being outside in that double-digit-sub-zero weather, when it feels as though every part of you is literally freezing. And the thought of something, anything, bad happening in such conditions? A whole new level of terrifying. 
Jack has, of course, experienced snow and cold before... but nothing like this, and not while being co-opted by the local police department for help with a huge problem. Battening down the hatches and waiting out the awful weather by hibernating indoors isn’t an option; the town of Bolton needs his help.
A gang of bikers has moved into an abandoned military facility nearby, and their sole source of income apparently comes from a massive crystal meth operation. They’ve been very careful, though, and the police haven’t been able to pin anything on them... until now, that is, when one brave, elderly woman who witnessed a big sale has stepped forward and agreed to testify.
Provided she survives until the trial starts in about a month’s time, there’s an excellent chance the gang member in custody will be convicted. Far more important, though, is the possibility of getting him to roll on his bosses; someone, somewhere--with considerably more smarts than anyone in the gang possesses--is obviously pulling the strings, and it’s that layer which the police hope to penetrate. Conservative estimates are that this operation is taking in millions of dollars... and a bust of that magnitude would put tiny Bolton, SD on the map. 
The key to successfully bringing everything down is clearly the old woman--but she’s stubbornly refused to leave town and go into protective custody, insisting on remaining in town in her ancestral family home, instead. The Bolton police are watching her and staying with her round the clock; they know that someone will be coming, sent by the real boss of the operation, to take her out. It’s not a question of “if”, but “when”. 
Due to a bizarre arrangement between the local cops and the new, nearby prison, one potentially-deadly problem looms: any sort of outbreak at the prison will, legally, pull every single officer from the police department (on- or off-duty), to the prison grounds to maintain a perimeter... a situation which would conveniently (for the bad guys) leave one old lady alone and defenseless.
But, even as Jack works with the police on figuring out how to penetrate the bikers‘ compound (in order to assess the magnitude of the threat), who the leaders of the huge drug operation are (trying to pinpoint from what direction and when the hired hitman will be coming), and making plans to adequately protect the witness from the certain danger headed her way, he’s aware that other forces are completely out of his hands. The killer will arrive, with little or no warning. One bad storm after another is rolling through the state, making almost any sort of travel (or escape or rescue) next-to-impossible. And, someone, somewhere in town, has been in contact with the bad guys... a fact which Jack and the police become aware of when the bodies start stacking up around them. 
Jack can feel the clock winding down and knows that things will come to a head soon... but he doesn’t know just how soon. In fact, though, less than sixty-one hours from the moment Jack’s bus swerved, veered off the road, and wound up in a snowdrift, it will all be over. 
61 Hours is typical fare from author Child; it’s the quintessential high-octane thrill ride with plenty of dizzying twists and turns, led once again by the ever-capable, battle-scarred Jack. As always, Jack’s military knowledge comes in handy, as does his ability to read people and situations with great perspicacity. His detachment gives him an edge; he doesn’t respond to things as so many people do, on a purely-emotional level, but rather, on a more rational one. 
At the same time, this is a very different Reacher tale. The ever-present countdown, for one thing, gives a heightened sense of urgency to all the goings-on... and the fact that we readers are privy to this information--while Jack isn’t--leaves us more-than-normally anxious about the outcome. We see a “softer” Jack here, as well, as he bonds with the old woman he’s guarding, and--via a series of phone calls--with a younger woman who now holds the job he used to hold in the Army (whom he calls when he needs some help answering questions he’s unable to answer). Watching this man who rarely (okay, pretty much never) opens up do just that, is interesting. We gain some rare insight into this outwardly-simple, inwardly-complex man. And, finally, there’s the ending, which is--without giving anything away--unexpected.
61 Hours adds up to a fantastic adventure, delivering everything you’d expect and hope for, and then some. I recommend grabbing a comfy pillow, a warm throw, and a mug of hot chocolate (or a pot of the bitter black coffee which Jack drinks copious amounts of), then settling in for an awesomely chilly--and chilling--read.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

High Heels, Whiskey, & Murder under the Neon Lights


A pretty young thing does a swan dive into a hotel pool part-way through a splashy (teehee) production number, surprising the hundreds of people watching. Granted, it’s a cool effect. Problem is, she’s not part of the show, and her unscripted entrance--tumbling from a helicopter--is also her exit. (Like, her final exit.)
Meanwhile, in another hotel... an enormous fellow is sleeping off a bender in a not-so-out-of-the-way stairwell, clad in nothing more than his pasty-white Birthday Suit.  An uber-rich Japanese businessman--who regularly throws tens of thousands of dollars around each trip on wine and women--has just crashed the brand-new Ferrari that he’d put on his room tab. A national group of swingers is due to arrive any time (for an unbridled week of rowdy spouse-swapping), as is a huge contingent of techno-geeks (ready to get their nerd freak on during that little version of heaven known as ElectroniCon). And absolutely everyone who is--or who aspires to be--”someone” in the adult film industry will also be converging shortly--in all their tanned, waxed, siliconed, and barely-contained splendor--for a XXX-rated version of the Oscars. 
It’s Vegas, baby... and they don’t call that glitzy little playground in the desert “Sin City” for nothing. 
For Lucky O’Toole--head of Customer Relations at the Babylon, Las Vegas‘ newest premiere hotel/adult playground extravaganza--it’s all in a day’s work, though. Or it would be, that is, if not for what happened down the strip at Treasure Island... that fatal bellyflop from the chopper during one of T.I.’s nightly pirate shows. Why? Because the girl who landed in the middle of all those battling pirates and scantily-clad sirens was an employee at the Babylon, a nice girl with a bright future... someone Lucky is positive wasn’t about to kill herself.
Of course, the alternatives to her death being a suicide are few. People don’t just accidentally fall out of helicopters with closed doors... which pretty much leaves murder as the only other viable scenario. The very public murder of a perfectly-ordinary cocktail waitress is one hassle Lucky doesn’t need--especially not this week, with everything else going on--but she is determined to find out what happened, anyway. She knew and liked the girl; it’s personal.
It’s a pretty thankless task, though, as she’s about to find out. Her boss--whom everyone refers to as The Big Boss--only wants to get his hands on the eyewitness tapes and nothing more. The fact this man--her mentor--is so preoccupied and closemouthed, all of a sudden, has Lucky on edge. The helicopter pilot (who also happens to be a personal thorn in Lucky’s side) has to know something, but he’s apparently done a runner, along with his girlfriend (another Babylon employee). The handsome head of security seems to know more than he’s letting on, too, leaving Lucky uneasy about the hot-and-bothered sensations she experiences whenever she’s around him, in light of the fact that she has to wonder what sort of angle he might be playing. Even her own mother--a woman who has achieved her own brand of fame in the Vegas area over the years--has some sort of intel on the situation... but she’s playing her cards as close to the vest as everyone else.
It’s not like the rest of the world comes to a convenient stand-still so Lucky can figure out this mess, either. Every time she turns around, there’s another little fire to be put out (like the naked guy, the drunk guy, and anyone else who feels he/she just isn’t being catered to quite enough), plus the mad flurry of final preparations for all the various conventioneers (along with the titillated crowds and paparazzi that the porn banquet will certainly draw). And somewhere, sometime, Lucky would sorta like to squeeze in a little bit of personal life.
Will Lucky find the incriminating tapes, flush out the bad guy(s), get justice for the dead girl, and save The Big Boss’s skin (from whatever trouble he’s in) along with the reputation--perhaps even the very future--of the Babylon? Will any of her matchmaking efforts on behalf of a friend pay off? Will she, herself, find true love... perhaps falling for her hunky security guy, or for the sexy female impersonator who has decided that this is the day to begin his courtship of her? Will she and her estranged mother start to mend any of their broken fences? Or are all these 20-hour days, nights with next-to-no sleep, and the dark circles under her eyes for naught? 
(What, you don’t seriously think I’m going to tell, do you?? Ha, fat chance!)
No, the fun is definitely all in the reading of newcomer Deborah Coonts’s dazzling debut, Wanna Get Lucky?...and giving away any hints on the rolls of the dice therein is one sin I’m not about to commit. 
What I can tell you is that it’s a fast-paced romp throughout, from that very big splash at the beginning all the way to the thrilling end. (Seriously, I wish I could tell you more about the ending... but suffice it to say that it involves, among other things, a naked mariachi band. And yes, I am giggling as I write that. ;D) Full of terrific characters--drawn with surprising depth and compassion--and snappy dialogue, it’s impossible not to get hooked. Coonts has created a real winner in Lucky, a smart, capable, but not too-perfect heroine (yes, she straps on some killer Jimmy Choo's... but they hurt her feet, and she's sort of clumsy in them), with the most divinely-dry wit and snappy comebacks around. (OMG, do I love her!! I grinned, chuckled, and smirked my way through this entire book... and was really sad to turn that final page.)
The other star here deserves a shout-out, as well... Vegas, of course: a city which was born in a dry, dusty desert, and has managed to transform itself with a glitzy, glamorous, neon-lit veneer into a place where wild fantasies can come true... and where secrets can be kept (if one believes the popular slogan, anyway). Coonts offers a cool, insider look at stuff visitors aren’t meant to see or even think about, and it lends her story a real authenticity and a feel all its own. 
And what about the mystery, you ask? It’s a really good one! It isn’t entirely unexpected (which also means it isn’t unbelievable), but it comes with plenty of twists and turns that you won’t necessarily see coming. 
If Wanna Get Lucky? were a drink, it would definitely be a long, tall, cool one... much like Lucky, herself. As for me, well... I’m just sitting here, anxiously waiting for my refill. :)


GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 mousies!!