Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Authors who Charmed the Pants off a Virgin

It's official: no longer am I a book-signing virgin (and note that this achievement was free of any of the awkwardness or fumbling so typical with--ehem--that other type of virginity). Yes, it's true: having attended my very first signing, I'm now quite the experienced woman. (Note that I do NOT plan to start putting notches to commemorate future signings in my lipstick cases, however; they are far too expensive for me to risk ruining them.) 

Really, though, I was the proverbial "sure thing", here. (And yes, cue the '80s theme music if you must.)
1). The author I specifically went to see (technically, authors, since it was husband-and-wife team Ilona Andrews) is one of my absolute favorites. Really-truly.
2). The signing was held on the release day for Magic Bleeds (book #4 in the fabulous Kate Daniels series), which I'd already read. And ADORED. (What, you don't think it's possible to be in love with a book? Bah. If you think that, then you clearly haven't read it yet.)
3). The signing was in Portland, at one of the many locations of Powell's books. (So, one of my all-time favorite cities, and an awesome bookstore. Win-win.)
4). I was with a group of girlfriends--some old, some new. (Honestly, does it get much better than doing something fun with your friends?)

Everything about this experience was pretty terrific, actually. (Sheesh, if only we could say that about that other first time, eh?) The crowd was uniformly polite and good-natured; there weren't any trolls in the bunch. The people at Powell's did a fantastic job getting everything set up and keeping it running smoothly. (Plus, they seemed like nice--and patient--folks.) Another cool thing was that we actually got to watch--and later interact with--a whole panel of authors; besides Ilona Andrews, Lilith Saintcrow and Devon Monk were also there to speak and sign.

Rather than having the usual reading, each author instead stood and briefly listed her/their ongoing projects, as well as providing approximate dates for upcoming releases. Then, it was on to a Q-and-A session, which was the meat-and-potatoes of the evening.

Now, I've read a lot of transcripts from other signings, and I've watched several videotaped ones, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Frankly? What I was expecting made me shudder a little (on the inside); the majority of questions at most signings always seem to skew into serious "spoiler" territory--readers wanting to know what's going to happen next, who is going to end up with whom, etc. (About which I've always thought, "Hello? Why dontcha leave the author something to actually write about?!" and "Seriously? You won't even read the book if the author answers that question!".)

This signing did NOT go that way, though. Whether the crowd that night was just more mature and reasonable (um... maybe?), or because this signing involved a panel of a few different authors with multiple characters under their command (the more likely reason), there really weren't any of those cringeworthy questions. Instead, people queried the writers on topics such as technique, attitude and mindset, motivation, habits, etc.--and the result was a fascinating and very, very funny discussion. The four people representing the three authors (tricky, no?) came across as intelligent, witty, and personable without exception. These were people you could sit down and have a cup of coffee or a drink at a bar with, chatting about anything at all. They were unpretentious and charming, to a man (or woman).

That feeling was even more in evidence during the signing session, afterward. I've read all the Ilona Andrews books and short stories, but hadn't read any Lili Saintcrow and had only partially-read one book by Devon Monk. Lack of familiarity didn't matter a whit, though; each author seemed just as pleased to hear that she (or he) had been a delightful and entertaining speaker as that I'd read all (or none) of her/his books. It was more about being a nice human being and engaging in a genuine and friendly interaction with someone than it was about showing off or being a diva. It was about recognizing kindred spirits--people who really love to read books. 

And that's pretty good for a first (or a fiftieth) time, yeah? :)

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Lion, a Tiger, & a Bear (& a Jaguar, & Hyenas & Wolves & Foxes & Snakes)... oh, my!

Okay, let me pull out my handy-dandy Urban Fantasy checklist. Kick-butt heroine? Check. Kinda mouthy, with attitude to spare and a stubborn streak half-a-mile wide? Check. Complicated family, work, and/or relationship issues? Triple-check (and gosh, that’s like the holy trinity of kick-butt heroine problems right there, isn’t it?). Forever in serious peril, alwaysthisclose to cashing in her chips for the very last time? You betcha. 
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it, and somewhat derivative of far too many other works in the crowded UF field? Well, yeah... and it likely would be, too, were it in hands other than those of the über-talented, wife-husband writing team better known as Ilona Andrews.
Now with four books (plus a short story) in the “Magic” series under their collective belt, you could say that the Andrews duo are really hitting their stride with this story and these characters... although for me, that sort of implies that their earlier stories weren’t as good, which isn't the case, at all. I’ve enjoyed each book--featuring Ms. Kick-All-Sorts-(and-Species)-of-Butt, herself, Kate Daniels--immensely, and book #4, Magic Bleeds, is no different; I LOVED this book. 
The premise of the "Magic" series, of course, is that the world therein exists in a sort of flux, with magic and “tech” fighting for dominance. When the magic hits, tech is wiped out, and things everyone takes for granted--like electricity, phone lines, and gas-powered vehicles, for example--cease functioning, forcing people to rely on more old-fashioned methods (think kerosene- or wood-stoves for heat and cooking, and horses for transportation, and you get the picture). When magic falls again, the standard mod-cons come back on-line. There’s no set schedule for any of this, either; magic and tech are each as likely as the other to be active at any given moment, and this unpredictability leaves the world wide-open for all sorts of chaos. (Humans will be humans, you know.)
Enter several different factions, all seeking varying degrees of control, power, and influence. First, there are The People, who have achieved something like a cult status with their combination of learned scientists and corporate structure, gaining egress into the minds and homes of regular folks with the serious, learned front they project publicly. (The flip side is that they also operate the vampires, which in this world exist as kind of creepy, undead marionettes that are “piloted” via mind control by highly-trained masters, into doing... well, things. The ordinary Joe is much better off not thinking too much about any of that business, though.) Next is the Order of Merciful Aid, which is the more elite detective/policing unit (a magical Scotland Yard, if you will). Its counterpart is the Paranormal Activity Division (PAD), the actual arm of the regular police who are first in line when trying to deal with magical mayhem. The Mercenary Guild is just what it sounds like, for-hire “fixers” of magical messes (when other methods have failed, or when other methods won’t net the payer the desired results). Then, there are the usual assortment of religious and quasi-religious groups all trying to exert some influence too, and smaller rogue bands of like-minded people running around doing their thing. And then, in Atlanta--where the series takes place--there’s The Pack, one of the largest organized groups of shapeshifters in the U.S., with their own sorts of powers and magics. Kate Daniels’ current job, as an employee of The Order, is to play nice with all of the other groups; you might almost call her a glorified liaison, if only she didn't get so filthy and bloody all the time in the course of her job.
And what else do we know about Kate? Well, she’s the natural-born daughter of an ancient god (Roland) who wants--who has always wanted, actually--to see her dead. She was raised by her stepfather after Roland killer her mother, in fact. (Apparently gods don't do well with "family".) Fortunately for Kate, the stepfather was also a warlord, and understood what it would require for Kate to be able to take care of herself. She studied history and magic extensively, and honed her fighting (survival) skills to a razor-sharp edge. She grew up alone (and lonely), with her studies and her skills her only focus. Kate's real purpose (in the eyes of her stepfather)? To someday kill Roland, avenging her mother (and later her stepfather, himself, after Roland did away with him, too). If it seems a little unbelievable that Kate would be so very skilled, so incredibly tough, well... it’s really all that she was born and ever raised to do or to be. (Friends? She didn't have any. Shopping for fun girl-stuff for her bedroom? Lazy days watching movies or reading sparkly vampire novels? Attending a prom? Didn't happen.) 
This time out, Kate is dealing, first, with a broken heart. Her much-anticipated date with The Pack’s leader, Beast Lord Curran-the-annoyingly-full-of-himself-yet-flirty-&-irresistible-lion, was a wash; the muscly man-cat was a no-show. (But... standing up the woman he’s been chasing hard for the last three books, who made him a home-cooked-to-order meal, and was going to serve it in her underwear, according to the terms of their agreement? You don't seriously think he didn't have a REALLY good reason for missing that, do you??) Still, it happened, and she is dejected. Of course, a broken-hearted Kate isn’t exactly going to throw herself off a balcony or console herself with mopey sudsers on Lifetime TV; no, our Kate is going to be prickly and grouchy and dangerous (erm, more so than normal, that is; this gal is pretty dang feisty under the best of circumstances). Luckily, all that pent-up bad attitude is about to find a really good outlet, when the latest certified baddie comes to town, creating havoc the likes of which she’s (and we’ve) never seen. (No, really.) 
See, it turns out that this baddie isn’t just your run-of-the-mill evil-doer, out to cause a little bit of mayhem before moving on. No, this one has a specific mission (involving Kate)... and has seven (count 'em, SEVEN!) really scary henchmen to help carry out said nefarious plan. It takes Kate every ounce of her brainpower--not to mention every bit of her physical strength--plus help from members of most of the aforementioned other factions, to try to vanquish the plague which has hit her city like the sledgehammer of the gods. Because if she doesn’t succeed? Well, let’s just say that Atlanta will soon be a whole ‘nother kind of place, for everyone (left) living there. Not good, not good at all. (And since the rise of magic has already knocked down, crumbled, and otherwise turned into ruins and rubble the majority of Atlanta's former skyscrapers, highrises, and other fancy-schmancy establishments, well... we're talking really bad news, here.)
It's not exactly the best time for her boss at The Order to be causing her grief (second-guessing her methods and her loyalty), but he is. Not the best time for her new (and first!) best friend to be having problems with her boyfriend (and work, and The Pack), but she is. Not the best time to be looking for--or at least, finding--a new pet, but she does. And certainly not the ideal time to be stuck in a turbulent relationship maelstrom with the Beast Lord of Atlanta (whose 1,200-plus followers are actively following every step forward, backward, or sideways in their relationship), but that’s just the way it is. In Kate’s world, there’s never really a good time for anything... but a girl has to live, right?
It will hardly be spoiling anything to say that Kate does, indeed, emerge victorious at the end of the story. Bloody and bruised, just as you'd expect, but alive. (There are at least three more books in the series, so her victory is sort of a given. That doesn't mean it isn't a roller coaster, edge-of-your-seat ride getting there, though.) For anyone who has been sorely missing some major kick-butt action sequences in his/her reading of late, well, look no further; there are awesome battle scenes aplenty, here. There's also considerably more backstory, which is always fascinating to read--particularly as that history manages to wend its way throughout each book in the series, cluing us in to the greater meanings behind the things that happen; the Andrews team continues to excel at world-building. You want humor? There’s no shortage of funny bits, particularly when Kate and Curran are interacting. The witty banter just flies between the two of them, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments to lighten all the heavier, scarier parts. (A couple of scenes, in particular, are just brilliant. You'll probably go back and reread them a couple times before you can turn the page; I know that's what I did. ;)) Perhaps best of all, Kate continues to evolve. She isn’t some static, one-note character who always acts or reacts predictably; she is changing just as the world is changing around her. Although she’s never been "childish"--her upbringing was far too serious to allow for juvenility--it kind of feels like our Kate is growing up... or at least, growing into the person she needs and wants to be. And honestly, who can complain about that?
I highly recommend this book. Afficionados of the whole "Magic" world already know it's a must-read; but hopefully, the Andrews duo will gain some new fans with this one. It's totally worth all the hype... and the wait. :)
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Jetlagged, Prickly Pear of a Kitty

So. I'm back home safe and sound (as of last night, about 10:45 p.m.) from my most-recent Big Adventure (to the Pacific Northwest), only to find myself thrown most unceremoniously back into the fray, as it were. Did "life" have the basic decency to grant me a little reprieve, kinda letting me ease back into the groove? Um, no. [Cue crazed/maniacal laughter.] Not even close.

Paperwork is stacked up several inches high. A half-dozen orders were waiting for me to pack and ship. (As in today, chop-chop, whatdoyoumeanyouhave "jetlag"?!?) More taxes are due. (Taxes are always due.) Payroll is past due. I don't think I'm actually behind on any bills... but I better check; it's just tempting fate to say that I'm all caught up, you know?

To top it all off, my house is a wreck. One man and one cat, left to their own devices for a measly 5 days, can wreak utter and absolute havoc on what was previously a more-or-less clean abode. I am appalled, but this is good to know, I suppose, for future reference. If, say, I were to win the lottery between now and my next solo trip, I'd totally plan on hiring the Merry Maids to come by and tidy up a bit (a lot) before my plane touched down.

Of course, that would require buying a lottery ticket or two (thousand), bare minimum. Huh. So now I'm faced with a new (unexpected) quandary; do I really wanna go there--to the strange and foreign world of Lotto and Powerball and the hopeful folks who pick their numbers and scratch their tickets religiously every week--all for the sake of having a snowflake's chance of winning Big Money, or do I just heave a series of gusty sighs and clean my damn house?

Well, I'd rather throw away my hard-earned moola on something more substantial and satisfying than "hope" any day, so I'm going with Door Number 2, TYVM.  Guess when it comes down to it, it's pretty much like doing anything else, in'nit? Knuckle down and do the deed... all while singing songs in my head--loudly, badly--about bringing home some turkey bacon and nuking it in the microwave...

Yep. 'Cause I'm a WOOOOOO--MUN. Now back the heck up and hear me roar.

Sex (and Sleeplessness) in Seattle

Give me a great bunch of characters, and I’m willing to read about them doing nearly anything. Take, for example, the following characters... The pair of unexpectedly-harmless vampires--one, the metrosexual mentor (sort of a Nathan Lane-meets-Martha Stewart type); and the other, his innocent, boy-next-door protege who’s shy around girls. Then there’s the archdemon (a former angel who fell from grace, to you and I), who oversees all of the destined-for-the-Underworld residents in his area--just as cranky, imperious, and scary as you’d think (though ruining that image just a tad by dint of his quirky decision to go around looking like John Cusack’s identical twin). The still-in-divine-favor angel--who dresses in the very best Seattle grunge-wear, circa 1990, and (in a totally-unexpected twist) also happens to be the aforementioned archdemon’s BFF. A nephilim--the archdemon’s bastard child (the result of his fall-from-grace, as it happens), impossibly hunky but a touch, shall we say, prickly, who carries a very large chip on his sublimely-broad shoulder. A well-turned-out imp--who toils as a plastic surgeon by day and a supernatural pimp by night. The bookstore, where a regular human guy/wannabe-alt-rocker and his solidly-nice, normal sister work, blissfully unaware of any of the weirdness which touches their lives. The (also-normal, though not-so-blissfully unaware) best-selling thriller author, who has made the bookstore his second home. And, last but not least, the resident succubus--more than a thousand years old, a little gloomy, and doomed to an immortality of “sucking” the life force out of unsuspecting guys... while never able to enjoy a traditional relationship with a man again. Such are the inhabitants of Richelle Mead’s Seattle-based “Succubus” series--an undeniably likable mix of oddballs, misfits, and unusual beings, all a lot more sympathetic--and in the case of the supernaturals, more human--than you might expect.
Succubus Shadows, the fifth entry in Ms. Mead’s ongoing series, finds succubus Georgina Kincaid a trifle more morose than normal: her ex-boyfriend, author Seth Mortensen, is set to marry her best friend, fellow-bookstore employee, Maddie Sato. This wouldn’t be so bad, if only Georgina didn’t still carry a torch for Seth... and he, apparently, for her. But, Georgina is determined to take the high road--particularly since she can’t expect to ever have a “real” life with Seth--despite the fact that being around the “happy couple” is driving her crazy. (Of course, it’s REALLY hard to take any sort of higher road when Maddie--who knows nothing at all about Georgina and Seth’s past together--is busily cajoling her into helping pick out Maddie’s wedding dress. And the cake. And flowers. And, you know, into being a bridesmaid.) But aside from those few little details, it’s all quite cozy and happy. Really.
As if that weren’t enough, Georgina is trying to get used to her new roommate, the nephilim Roman (whom she also briefly dated, and who may--or may not--still want to kill her). That arrangement is, it comes as no great surprise, slightly awkward. Then there’s the annoying new succubus in town--supposedly on vacation in the Emerald City--who gets on Georgina’s (and pretty much everyone else’s) very last nerve. Oh, and did I mention the mysterious siren song Georgina keeps hearing at random moments? It’s an alluring melody which is inexorably trying to draw her into questionable (read, dangerous) situations... like stepping off her own balcony a few stories up, or walking mindlessly into the ocean. It’s a particularly worrisome problem, since none of Georgina’s superiors--not Roman, not Carter-the-angel, and not even Jerome, her archdemon boss--have a clue what could be causing said phenomenon to occur. (When something happens that neither an archdemon nor an angel has a handle on? Let’s just say it’s time to get worried...)
Succubus Shadows is full, as always, of all the delightfully-funny little things that happen in Georgina’s day-to-day life, whether it’s the antics of her two cats (and how much they love Roman but hate when Jerome stops by), or young vampire Cody’s crush on the new goth salesgirl at the bookstore (including elder vampire Peter’s “help” trying to turn Cody into a be-studded goth dude), or Georgina’s sexy succubus exploits with a horny neighbor (involving a single raincloud which soaks only Georgina). It plumbs the depths of deeper emotions, as well, though, as we see the pain and internal conflicts Georgina endures both in the present day and all throughout her very long past. 
It’s these two sides of her which so endears Georgina to me. She’s a bright, witty, loving woman, genuinely good (but for that deal made with the devil so long ago, selling her immortal soul to the “other” side), who tries valiantly to face the prospect of living for all eternity, knowing that she’ll witness the passing of so many mortal friends and loved ones... all while she, herself, is an instrument in shortening the lives so many others. 
I did get slightly weary midway through, however, of all the recounts of Georgina’s history. That isn’t so much a problem with the story as with my own impatience, though, in dying to see how Georgina would extricate herself from the mess she was in. Within the diabolical framework of the story, it’s essential that she relive those experiences; doing so holds the key to understanding what’s really going on.
There are six books planned in Ms. Mead’s Succubus series, and with only one book to go, I have to say that I have a pretty good idea of how she’s going to wrap it all up(particularly after seeing how this one ended). Still, each book has managed to hold me on the edge of my seat, by turns amused and enthralled--the kind of books I’ve set other books aside for, and ignored important tasks in order to race through in one day. And, while I’m left feeling vaguely melancholy by the ending of this book, I can still say unequivocally that it--like all the previous ones--is a very good ride. 
Rock on, Georgina (and company). And rock on, Ms. Mead. 
GlamKitty rating: 3.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

The Return of Inspector Lynley

Crack open an Elizabeth George book, and you can count on a few things. One, you might as well plan on devoting a couple of entire days to it--or spending at least a week leisurely wending your way through it--because the volume you’ve just sat down with will most assuredly be a hefty tome. Two, it will be such an intricately-plotted and intimately-personal tale that you’d swear you’re reading a combination of eyewitness and first-person accounts of actual events (rather than figments of a writer’s vivid and somewhat twisted imagination). And, third, you’ll get the pleasure of catching up with a sublimely-motley assortment of old friends (plus a handful of annoying acquaintances, the likes of which none of us seem able to escape) if you’re an old fan of her stories... or you’ll find the thrill of meeting them all for the very first time, if you’ve somehow never taken the plunge. 
George is actually something of an anomaly in her field; she’s an American author--not an ex-pat, either; she lives in Washington state--who writes British procedural mysteries. But really, to call her a “mystery” writer is to utterly miss two-thirds of what she manages to accomplish with her writing; George is a very fine novelist, whose work delves deeply within the hearts and minds of man--exposing the flaws, the twisted logic, the repressed feelings, the perverse pleasures, the secret desires, the hidden longings (as well as every other little oddball thing that makes us tick)--and showing why we make the choices that we do. To read her books is a lesson in the human psyche, and a primer on  how relationships do (and don’t) work.
The latest entry in her series (commonly known as “The Inspector Lynley Mysteries”) is This Body of Death, and it numbers either fifteen or sixteen (depending on whether or not you count one that is only very tangentially-related as part of the series or not). It’s a very good addition to a nearly-uniformly excellent body of work.
Let me lay down a bit of background for any newbies. The series revolves around a small group of detectives working for Scotland Yard, with Inspector Lynley as the nominal main focus Lynley is a very wealthy, very proper (as well as intelligent, witty, handsome, likable, and just plain decent) detective who also happens (somewhat perversely) to belong to the aristocracy. He wears Savile Row suits, has a butler, and drives a Bentley (or he did, before his partner wrecked it). So, no, he doesn’t “need” to work... but he does like to be challenged, and he wants to make a difference.
In a move reminiscent of The Odd Couple, his higher-ups long ago partnered him with his polar opposite: a dumpy (by her own admission) little woman from the wrong side of town, whose idea of fashion is baggy trousers paired with red high-tops, and who drives a beat-up Mini (that long ago saw its best decade) and rents a tiny little “apartment” not much bigger than a gardening shed. But, whatever Barbara Havers may lack in her sartorial choices or other lack of “polish”, she makes up for with her fine mind, dogged determination, and a genuinely kind heart. 
Although their pairing was initially done to spite them both--putting the popular fellow with the troublesome, mouthy (and distinctly not-popular) female--the two quickly developed a mutual respect, which has grown over the years into a real friendship. (Yes, they’re still opposites in many ways--including all the outward trappings--but their minds function as parts of the same, overall whole.) Theirs is a just a really neat partnership, devoid of any “will-they-or-won’t-they” flirting, and watching them play off each other is always great fun. (Plus, Barbara Havers is one of my favorite female characters of all time, incredibly “real” in her emotions and reactions. She is simply... wonderful.)
When This Body of Death picks up, a new candidate is trying out for the recently-vacated position of department chief, and luck of the draw sticks Isabelle Ardery with a real mess of a case to try to wow her superiors by solving: the mysterious murder of a young woman found stabbed in a mostly-forgotten old London cemetery. Quickly catching onto the fact that the members of her new team don’t trust her, Ardery pleads her case with Lynley, nearly begging him to return to the team. (He has been on compassionate leave these last several months following the shocking--and random--death of his wife, along with their unborn child.) Still not sure he’s “ready” to return, Lynley nonetheless acquiesces, returns on a trial basis.
His colleagues are relieved; they had been sorely missing his leadership, and have been unsettled by the revolving superintendents (as a new chief is sought following the passing of the previous one). Lynley settles in once more, albeit in a more subordinate position, with Ardery using him as her right-hand man as she tries to learn the ropes. 
The case takes members of the team all over London, searching first for the dead woman’s identity, and then--once that’s been established--for her old digs, habits, friends, and possible enemies. It also takes part of the team--the part including Barb Havers--to the New Forest, a rural area several hours remote from London, where ponies are allowed to run free, and many historic homes still have thatched roofs.
The various trails the team follows are confusing and conflicting. In London, there are ex-boyfriends (who are also boarding-house mates) to look at, as well as the elderly boarding-house owner (who also likes one of the exes) and a sham-psychic to consider. (That’s what Lynley is helping Ardery with... while she deals privately with the constant clashing with various members of her team, throughout the day, by way of airline bottles of vodka--and plenty of breath mints and gum--stashed in her handbag.) Meanwhile, in the New Forest, the dead woman’s brother and her best (though estranged) girlfriend have been worried about her, and an ex-not-quite-fiance (and his new girlfriend) have... not been worried about her. Throw in some ancient Roman coins, stolen ponies, rusty tools, a shady country police officer, and the dead woman’s car--still garaged at her ex’s--and all her clothes--left behind, now boxed up in the ex’s attic, and you’ve got the gist of the mess the team must unravel to see justice done. 
Another very interesting thing George has done with this book is to interweave (fictional) accounts of an absolutely horrifying crime, committed by three children. How she works that completely-separate storyline into the framework of the larger one is simply brilliant.
By the time you’ve reached the end of the book, most of the questions are answered, and some justice is, indeed, to be had. Things are hardly tied up with pretty little foofy bows, though; George writes with a (frequently) gut-wrenching sense of reality. People make decisions, and they all-too-often wind up hurting others. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not; sometimes permanently. In the end, what is left are the people who must pick up the pieces and try to reassemble them into some sort of manageable entity, a new reality.
And that is something they nearly always do.
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Death and the Hot Librarian

There’s just something about a small town. Leaving your windows open at night (even the ones on your car, if you’re of a mind to thumb your nose at the rain gods). Smiling and saying hello to whomever you pass by, and maybe stopping to chat for a spell with those who’ve known you--and all your family--forever. Quaint little mom-and-pop soft-serve joints on the roadside. Farmers (or their wives or their kids) selling sweet corn out of the back of a beat-up pickup truck in late summer. All told, just a slower way of life, because there’s really not much need to get anywhere in particular that fast (not that it would take all that long, anyway, mind you).
Then again, there’s just something about a small town. The neighbors as aware of all your comings and goings as they are of their own, and plenty of folks with the ability to air every bit of your dirty laundry (if they happen to get a wild hare to do so). Certain expectations to be met, or maybe a dubious family history to be overcome. A lack of excitement, aside from the new Qwik-Stop convenience store opening up, the high school football team winning a local championship, and the annual mid-summer “town reunion”. And, the primary nod to “culture” being the yearly Christmas pageants put on by youth groups at the area churches.
Whatever you might think pro or con small-town life, you just can’t know unless you’ve experienced both extremes--the cloistered security of thea hamlet and the hustle-&-bustle of the “bright lights, big city”. Jordan Poteet knows, though, and in Texas author Jeff Abbot’s Do Unto Others, he finds himself having to make a decision: leave behind his dream job--a fun and lucrative editing position--and all the excitement he loves in Boston, so he can return to tiny Mirabeau, Texas and help care for his ailing mother... or let his older sister have her way and move Mom into a home?
Of course Jordy opts to forsake the good life and go back to his childhood home--“of course” because it wouldn’t be much of a story if he didn’t, but also because Jordy is a genuinely good guy--and moves in with his sister, her 13-yr-old son, and their Alzheimer’s-befuddled mama.
Career opportunities are another area in which small towns are sadly lacking, so when Jordy returns to Mirabeau, the best he’s able to do is take the recently-vacated (due to a sad-but-not-unexpected death) position as head of the town’s little public library. (No, it doesn’t pay well. Not much in Mirabeau does, really. But, at least it provides him with a paycheck and keeps him around the books he loves.) And, it’s an interesting enough job in its own way. He has a small staff (of one), a pretty young woman with whom he sorta has a mutual crush. He sees the “regulars” most days--from the polite old Southern gentleman and his elderly cronies to the nerdy (and woefully style-challenged) D-&-D/sci-fi loner teenager; from the paraplegic Vietnam vet-turned-activist to the local “celebrity” (a pretty successful writer of steamy bodice-rippers) and her middle-aged cadre of tittering followers--by and large, a mostly-likable, relatively-harmless little group who all share in the love of reading.
But, just as there’s inevitably a bad apple at the bottom of the basket, there’s Beta Harcher, another of Jordy’s regulars... who sorta spoils whatever she touches. Beta is the town’s religious zealot, far more outspoken in her beliefs and viewpoints than the leaders of Mirabeau’s Baptist, Catholic, and Episcopalian churches, combined. In the few months Jordy’s been back in town and working at the library, Beta has made it her mission to get as many books as possible banned. (To date, her luck has been zilch in the banning department... not that that’s gonna stop her.)
One fateful day, while Jordy and assistant Candace are putzing around doing normal library tasks, and the little building itself is stuffed full of all the regulars, Beta storms in with a bee in her bonnet, ready to unleash her latest bout of vitriol on poor Jordy. (The target of her ire this time is DH Lawrence’s Women in Love--the sinfulness of which she is not to be convinced otherwise.) She and Jordy have words, and the confrontation ends with surprising violence when Beta wallops Jordy with the book in question and knocks him down, before some of the other patrons can herd her out. Everyone is suitably shocked, but after a bit even that topic is exhausted; nary a person takes Beta’s side.
Jordy returns to the library after-hours that same night, to get the prescription for his mom which he’d picked up earlier but had forgotten to take home with him. While there, he has the eerie sensation of being watched, but he puts it down to paranoia (and still being a little unnerved about having his manhood handed to him on a plate by a small, middle-aged woman that afternoon) and leaves without looking around.
He should have listened to his spidey senses. The very next morning, as he and Candace are opening the library for the day, they get the shock of their lives when they stumble across Beta’s now very-dead body, sprawled out on the library floor. In almost no time at all--in light of the previous day’s little scuffle, the history of animosity between the pair, and the fact that the murder weapon bears only Jordy’s prints on it--Jordy finds himself the prime suspect in Beta’s murder. No matter that the sheriff and he go way back; murder is murder, and a suspect with a motive (Beta threatened his library, and his job! She’d just made him look like less of a man!) is still a suspect.
No one seemed to like the unpleasant Beta, but Jordy still feels himself being railroaded (out of convenience, if nothing more), and decides it’s up to him to clear his own name by figuring out who actually did the dastardly deed. So, armed with the names of the library board members (whom Beta constantly battled), plus a handwritten list found on Beta’s person--a list of several local people (including both Jordy and his mama) with an ominous or perplexing bible verse corresponding to each name--Jordy sets out to play boy detective. 
What he finds is that everyone--and no one--might have had some motive for killing the spiteful shrew. There’s the hail-fellow-well-met used-car salesman who’d recently had a loud fight with her, witnessed by more than one person. A nurse whom Beta had accused of trying to poison her during a brief stay at the hospital. The romance writer, with whom Beta had a clandestine--and unfriendly--meeting earlier in the week (and which she neglected to mention, when sipping iced tea with Jordy on her wide front porch and running through theories). The prim preacher’s wife, who’d clashed with Beta many times over who could best do which church duties, and how. The paraplegic Vet, with whose radical beliefs Beta had loudly disagreed on multiple occasions (not that she’d think too highly of his toking up, either, were she also privy to that little factoid). Jordy’s teenage cousin, a football player and nice kid whom Beta could only find objectionable by his popularity. And Mrs. Poteet--the sweetest, gentlest woman Jordy has ever known--now addled by Alzheimer’s, whose presence on Beta’s mysterious list is the most perplexing of all.
Things are further complicated (well, that’s an understatement) when Beta’s niece--a beautiful, friendly young woman, as different from Beta as you could hope to find--comes to town from Houston to settle her aunt’s estate. Apparently surprising an intruder searching for... something in Beta’s house, the niece is shot, thereby doubling the incidence of serious crime in Mirabeau, and leaving Jordy more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the mystery.

After unearthing numerous assorted scandals--secret loves, hidden pasts, illicit affairs, and illegal drugs, to name a few (and which everyone involved would, by the by, have preferred to remain buried), Jordy and the killer finally have their final showdown... and it’s a doozy. (But no, I’m not gonna tell you what happens. The fun is in the getting there, trust me.) 
Do Unto Others, which is Abbot’s first in a series featuring Jordy Poteet, serves up plenty of twists and turns with a light, humorous touch and plenty of heart. Jordy-the-librarian makes for a likable, unexpected hero; he’s a bright, funny, regular guy, put into an awkward situation (or three), always just trying to make the best of everything (particularly saving himself from the aggravation of winding up in jail). Along the way, he makes some surprising revelations about himself... but not because he’s moved out of the big bad city back to the relative innocence of the small town. No, if anything, Jordy finds just as much evil lurking in Mirabeau as he ever did in Boston; this isn’t a preachy “message” book with that kind of agenda. What Jordy learns, he learns about himself--about the choices he makes, and about his own capacity for change. And yeah... thankfully, he doesn’t have to go to jail in order to do so.
I’m looking forward to getting caught up on this entertaining series, now that I’ve finally found it. :)
GlamKitty rating: 4.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)  

Monday, May 24, 2010

Tales of a Butt-Kickin' Hypochondriac

We have a system for dealing with “bad” people: if you break the law--and get caught--you’ll face the prospect of heavy fines, restrictions on what you can and can’t do, or, worst-case, incarceration in a prison facility. Like pretty much every other system, though, it’s an imperfect one, because sometimes, guilty people get off scot-free.
But what if there were another way--one outside of the law--to take care of those who, for whatever reason, go unpunished? And what if you, personally, had it in your power to make unrepentant criminals suffer and feel genuine remorse for their misdeeds? Enter Carolyn Crane’s fabulous new debut novel, Mind Games, which touches on those very questions.
Justine Jones is a typical young woman living in a Midwestern city. She’s intelligent, attractive, and self-sufficient, with a good job (managing a high-end clothing boutique), a boyfriend (nothing too serious, yet, although she’s holding out hope for something a little more permanent), and a decent place of her own. 
Really, if it weren’t for that debilitating case of raging hypochondria which is her constant companion every waking minute of every single day, Justine’s life would be just peachy.
But, Justine is absolutely, positively sure she has--or will very soon come down with--all sorts of horrific illnesses and diseases (not the least of which is a terrifying and rare brain embolism which felled her mother years earlier). She’s attuned to every breath, itch, tingle, twinge, and, of course, any instance of outright pain (and because of that, she’s practically on a first-name basis with the long-suffering ER staff at the nearby hospital). She spends countless hours scouring the internet for the latest info on all the scary-bad stuff that can go wrong with the human body, and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of them all. In fact, if one of these nefarious diseases doesn’t get her first, she’s well on the road to driving herself quite mad. Such is the intense nature of her mental illness, that no matter how very much she hates always living a life full of such extreme anxiety and paranoia, she can’t simply talk herself out of all those fears for her own health.
Until one evening, anyway, when her life changes. While dining out with her boyfriend (during what’s supposed to be a celebratory dinner for him, but is quickly devolving into concern about the brain embolism she’s convinced is imminent), Justine happens to spot a man from her past across the restaurant. The man, dining with a young couple, is someone Justine has ample reason to remember--and to hate; long ago, he bilked her father out of his life’s savings, leaving her family penniless. Worse, he was never convicted of the crime. Full of righteous indignation--and hoping to shield the young couple from the swindler’s evil plans--she storms across the room to confront him. The conversation is brief, however; he claims a case of mistaken identity, and the couple seems annoyed at her interruption.
The one good thing to come out of this little contretemps, though, is that Justine has caught the attention of the restaurant owner, who is anything but mad at her. Far from being upset, he wants to schedule a meeting with her, to make a proposition. (No, not that kind of proposition, although he is quite dashing, and being propositioned by such a man would hardly be an insult. But I digress...) Justine doesn’t intend to meet with him, though, until she receives a surprise visit one day by the same young couple she’d interrupted at the restaurant. They explain that they’d actually been working that night, on a kind of sting operation centered around that very swindler, and that their boss is Sterling Packard, the restaurant owner, himself. Intrigued, Justine acquiesces to the meeting.    
She learns that Packard is what is known as a “highcap”-- one of a very small group of people born with a genetic anomaly which allows them to develop unique mental abilities. His particular talent is being able to see into the minds of other people, to “read” their psychology and understand what makes them tick (including, most importantly, what they fear). He helms a special, hand-picked crew which hires out to punish criminals whom the law was unable to get. The real kicker, though, is that he has taught his crew of “disillusionists” how to channel the negative energy from themselves--from their own particular phobias and hang-ups--into their targets. Once enough of these negative energies have been “zinged” into the target’s mind, that person will be “disillusioned”, crumbling under the weight of all the anxious feelings and fears, and will feel remorseful. (At the same time, “zinging” someone has the added side effect of ridding the disillusionist of his/her anxieties for a period of time, leaving only a sense of peace.) Packard thinks that Justine would be a perfect fit for his team, and offers her a job.
After mulling it over and debating the ethics--does she really want to be a vigilante? is hurting other people, on purpose, ever a good thing?--Justine decides to try it out on a trial basis. She trains. She makes friends with the team. She develops a special relationship with Packard (who is not only handsome, but smart, funny, and obviously lonely). Eventually, she’s ready to go on missions, and soon finds herself dealing with progressively scarier, nastier targets. She remains conflicted, though. She knows the targets have all done something very bad--something for which they haven’t been punished--but as she gets to know them on a more personal level, she identifies with their fears (since part of the trick is matching a disillusionist with someone who has similar issues). She’s very uncomfortable with the practice of transferring her anxiety onto them, and is angry at Packard for insisting that she do so. She seriously debates leaving the squad... until Packard and the others remind her that she’ll literally go crazy if she can no longer “zing” away her anxieties.
Nearly at the breaking point from all this inner turmoil, Justine makes an unexpected discovery: Packard, himself, is in danger. He is so much in danger, in fact, that he cannot even set foot outside his restaurant. No matter how unhappy she is--how much she feels she’s been lied to, or how much she hates what she’s doing and what she fears it is doing to her soul--she can’t just walk away. Packard’s welfare is on the line, so she’ll stay to fight, no matter what.
Mind Games is the first book in Crane’s Disillusionment trilogy, and is a brilliant debut. It is also a wonderfully-inventive and relevant story for today, touching, as it does, on crime and punishment, self-awareness, and mental illness. She writes with a deft touch, moving easily from laugh-out-loud funny moments to more serious thoughts and observations (but never getting too heavy-handed). It’s absolutely divine to finally have a UF heroine like Justine out there--not the typical butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners sort of gal who wields a weapon like a warrior and moves like a ninja, but a regular girl-next-door, complete with a realistic life and problems anyone can relate to, who makes something of herself by using only her wits and the powers of her mind. Actually, it’s a welcome change of pace that everyone involved is basically “normal”; no one changes form or drinks blood or sparkles in the sunlight or does anything else totally in the realm of fantasy. This is UF, to be sure, but with a heavier dose of realism than to which we are usually treated. Nor do the “good guys” wear white hats while the “bad guys” don black ones; in Crane’s inspired world, the colors are all the many variations on shades of grey, and truth--like justice and evil--are uncertain, at best.
After making it through her first missions--and leaving me very unsettled--I’m extremely anxious, myself, to see what exactly what Crane has in store for Justine and company in the second book. In fact, I’m nearly as anxious about what happens next, as Justine is about her health... which is really saying something.
GlamKitty rating: 4.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ethics, Murder, & Journalism

A journalist’s job is to seek out and report the truth about... well, about whatever it is he or she is covering, no matter if that something has wide-reaching political or social implications, or is merely a recap of last night’s potluck dinner down at the local Elks’ Lodge. As long as the news is at least “interesting”--with little chance of negatively affecting any of the reading/viewing/listening audiences, personally--then most folks are satisfied. And if the news is titillating, then so much the better. (“If it bleeds, it leads” isn’t just a catchy little rhyme, that’s for sure.) 
To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, however, for every fascinating story or salacious tidbit, there are a proportionate number of instances in which the people’s attitudes are unfavorable toward the press... such as when they believe themselves to have been lied to by those reporting the news. Most people also tend to get a little miffed when they suspect they aren’t being told the whole truth, that the reporter is holding something back. When public favor turns, a journalist’s life can be pretty grim.
In author David Rosenfelt’s newest thriller, Down to the Wire, one reporter experiences both the soaring highs as well as the lowest of lows. For an added little kick in the pants, he has also been targeted by a terrorist.
Chris Turley works at a small newspaper in a small New York city. He writes well enough, and has the respect of his peers. He dreams of bigger things, of course--what journalist hasn’t daydreamed of getting a Pulitzer for the big scoop, the killer story, the insightful and poignant tale that moves the hearts of a nation? Such pressure to achieve is especially keen for Chris, though, since he also just so happens to be following--but not too closely--in his late father’s footsteps. His father, who achieved nationwide acclaim during a long and illustrious career as an investigative journalist--along with earning himself one of those Pulitzers--is proving a very tough act to follow.
It seems like the most fortuitous twist of fate, then, when Chris arranges to meet an anonymous caller promising him a big tip in a little park on the other side of town one morning... only to watch as the building across the street explodes, right in front of his eyes, while he’s waiting for his informant to show up. Not so much seizing the opportunity as acting on instinct and impulse, Chris rushes over to the building and plays the hero, bravely rescuing several people who’ve been trapped inside, just before the rest of the building comes down. And, voilà! Just like that, nothing-special reporter Chris Turley is both the flavor of the moment for his heroics, as well as the writer whose work everyone wants to read, for his Johnny-on-the-spot relaying of everything that happened. He guests on major TV shows, as the interviewee rather than the one posing the questions. He’s featured in national news magazines. He gets special “star” treatment at restaurants and events; he signs autographs and has “fans”. He’s a big deal, and life is sweet. 
The anonymous tipster--who’d arrived just after the explosion that fateful day, and didn’t want to get involved in the resulting mess--once again reaches out to Chris. This time, he offers Chris part of the information on the phone that he wasn’t able to give him earlier, involving an upcoming compromising position in which the vocally-conservative mayor (with his pro-family-values platform) will soon be putting himself. Thrilled about what seems to be a fabulous scoop, Chris enlists the police; if this tip pans out, then crimes will be committed (by the mayor), and corroboration is vital. When the day comes, the mayor is caught--as promised, in flagrante delicto with a professional woman most definitely NOT his wife, along with a boatload of pharmaceuticals--and Chris is, once again, the flavor du jour, for both his eyewitness account and the exclusive scoop he got the police to agree upon granting him. His life has sped up to a ridiculous pace, but Chris is still mostly enjoying the perks of sudden fame.
All good things invariably come to an end, though, and one day Chris’s happy little whirlwind of a dream spins all the way out of control. When the next call from his anonymous-but-helpful “friend” finds him hurrying down a nearby walkway to finally meet face-to-face, Chris instead comes up-close-and-personal with a dead body, hanging from a tree over the path right in front of him. In that instant, Chris realizes that everything--EVERYTHING--has actually been orchestrated by the man feeding him these little tips... the man he now knows to be a cold-blooded killer.
The authorities quite naturally come to the very same conclusion. Chris is interrogated. All six of the basic questions taught in journalism school are asked: who, what, where, when, why, and how? (Unfortunately, Chris has very few of the answers.) He becomes a suspect, too; being the sole reporter on the spot of three huge, breaking stories seems like impossibly good luck, and no one can figure why someone else would want to help Chris’s career along in such a way.
The killer/tipster remains close-mouthed (and, not surprisingly, invisible), but starts dropping little hints to Chris about one of the questions--”why”: he’s out for revenge on the Turleys, both (Iate) father and son. Does that narrow the field any, for potential suspects the police and FBI can focus on? Not a bit; Edward Turley reported for nearly 40 years, which means about 40 years of potential suspects who were angered by something he wrote. 
The remainder of the story alternates between Chris (and a few friends at the paper) working their way through old files; the authorities tracing down any remotely-promising leads from Chris and company or from the public tip hotlines; and the killer, plotting and enacting his devious plans, getting ever closer to Chris... and ever more deadly.
I have mixed feelings about Down to the Wire. On the one hand, this is another compelling story from an author who previously has written several other entertaining thrillers (more often than not, legal ones). The “bad guy” is interesting, and has plenty of surprises up his sleeves. The twists and turns all come together in the end. On the other hand, this book doesn’t have the same narrative flow his earlier books had. (I understand why; he’s attempting to give the writing a more “newsy” feel, by using lots of abrupt, statement-of-fact sentences and employing extremely short chaptering. It’s definitely a little hard to get used to, though.) This treatment also makes certain elements feel a bit “off” in a book written for adults; the descriptions of relationships and some of the dialogue come across vaguely juvenile.
On the whole, it’s an interesting story. It’s a fairly quick read, and makes some pertinent observations about our society and the role of journalists in that society, while handing out a few thrills and chills along the way. Not too shabby, for a day’s work.
GlamKitty rating: 3.25 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Medieval Temperance Brennan or Kay Scarpetta

It is late in the 12th century--1170, to be precise. Tensions between the Church and England’s King Henry II are running high, following on the heels of the recent assassination--committed by a group of Henry’s followers--of the (former) Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, in a dispute over the rights of the Church.
In the midst of this religious turmoil, Henry is also growing exceedingly concerned with an issue which has plagued rulers throughout the ages--that of money, how to collect enough income to effectively continue governing his lands (and the people living therein). For Henry, an important part of that equation centers around a group of people scorned and distrusted by the majority of his subjects--the Jewish population, whose menfolk have proven to have an aptitude for money-lending, and thus, have become quite valuable to the king in terms of producing revenue. The latest snag for Henry is that the Church, already furious with him, has just petitioned the Pope for the removal of all Jews from the realm. The putative reason behind the Church’s request involves a group of children, one of whom was murdered and three others who’ve gone missing from what is now known as Cambridge, whose death/absences have been--rather conveniently--blamed on the Jews. Henry, acting on the advice of a trusted advisor, arranges to have an expert--a so-called “master of the art of death”--go to Cambridge to ferret out the truth--and hopefully, to vindicate his Jewish subjects in the process. 
After consulting with his cousin, the King of Sicily, it is arranged that a Jewish advisor, Simon of Naples, will head to Salerno to seek out an appropriate medical expert. Salerno is home to a renowned school of medicine, the University of Salerno, and is known because of it as “the world’s doctor.” If a specialist in the medical aspects of death is required, he will be found in Salerno. 
Simon meets with one of the most-respected teachers and works out an agreement to borrow the teacher’s best pupil for his special mission. If only things were as simple as they appear on paper, though... Simon’s first surprise occurs when he meets his newly-formed crew at the boat shortly before departing for England, and finds that it consists of a huge Saracen man and two women. The second surprise--shock, really--comes when Simon learns it is not the Saracen man who is his new expert in matters of death, but the younger of the two women, Adelia Aguilar, who happens to be the esteemed professor’s own daughter. Such is the setting for Ariana Franklin’s fascinating historical mystery, Mistress of the Art of Death.
It matters not that today we think nothing at all of women entering into virtually any and every profession; in the 12th century, women most definitely did NOT go into the study of medicine. (Actually, women didn’t formally go into any study, unless it was conducted in a convent, and even that was not commonplace.) Only in progressive Salerno was it the accepted practice for both men and women to seek knowledge of the workings of the human body; elsewhere, women who endeavored to heal were branded as witches (and subsequently punished or killed). Because of these prevailing attitudes in the rest of the world, Adelia and her comrades are compelled to perform a little charade--the Saracen (who is actually her family’s servant, the eunuch Mansur) acts as the doctor, with Adelia posing as his translator and aid.
Upon landing in England, it is in these roles that the little band joins a group of Cambridgeshirians, returning from Canterbury--and also when Adelia and Mansur encounter their first (and unexpected) practical test. 
Prior Geoffrey, one of the many returning from the trek to Canterbury, is in absolute agony, and everyone around him is helpless. (He has even gone so far as to hold and pray over the finger bone of the dead boy--the skeleton of which the nuns at the nearby Abbey are holding in an effort to have him declared a saint. Needless to say, touching the finger bone has done nothing to ease the prior’s pain.)  Adelia, though still a student--and one who studies the dead rather than the living, at that--nonetheless feels the call of her profession to aid a hurting fellow human, and arranges for the ailing prior to be carted to a secluded area atop a high hill, whereupon “Dr. Mansur” can examine him privately. Although Adelia’s own studies have only dealt with death, she’s heard stories of the symptoms she now observes... and proceeds, in a rather unorthodox--not to mention uncomfortable--manner, to rid the prior of his problem (an inability to relieve his bladder). Prior Geoffrey’s relief is so great that he vows not only to keep the identities of the investigators secret, but to aid them in any way he can.
Upon reaching town, Geoffrey arranges lodging for the trio--Simon, Mansur, and Adelia (for Adelia’s elderly maidservant had died en route to England, reducing their party to only three)--with an old friend of his, a hardened, no-nonsense eel-seller named Gyltha, and her young grandson, Ulf, who soon become privy to the doctor/assistant charade, as well. Though coarse and gruff, Gyltha and Ulf are “good people”, and have ample reason to want to help: the missing children are all locals, and friends of little Ulf. Or, they were his friends; the very next day the three children’s bodies are all found nearby, laid out almost ceremonially. Adelia now has something to examine.
Although not allowed to do formal autopsies--the public outcry which would ensue if the mostly-uneducated, highly-superstitious townsfolk heard that “Dr. Mansur” had cut open their children’s bodies, would be deafening--Prior Geoffrey arranges for Adelia to view the bodies in secret. What she finds is curious. In different stages of decomposition, the bodies all bear traces of a similar substance. All have been tortured and brutalized in similar ways, too. Adelia is sick at heart after looking at the abused bodies, but understands more than ever the importance of the task before them; their investigation revolves not only around finding the killer, but also preventing the loss of any additional innocent lives.
And so, the curious trio works nearly round the clock. They interview anyone who might have seen the children just prior to their disappearances. They comb the surrounding area, searching for traces. They try to place what they observe and learn into context. For instance, Adelia finds a strange sticky item in one of the children’s hair. Eventually determining that it is a type of candy, from the Middle East, they conclude that the killer must have been on the last Crusade, the only way he’d likely have come into contact with the foreign sweet and learned how to make it. (Of course, such a deduction proves only to be of limited use, since it appears that a goodly portion of Cambridge’s adult male population--from wealthy men to laborers to paupers to those in the Church--had all taken part in the 2nd Crusade.)
As the investigation continues, and the team tries to narrow down the pool of suspects, Adelia makes friends by way of her medical knowledge. Acting as “Dr. Mansur’s” assistant, she treats the nuns at the local convent when an epidemic of cholera fells them. She sees many of the local townspeople, who flock to see Mansur with their various ailments. She visits the embattled Jews, who have been kept cloistered for their own protection in an empty castle (and who haven’t a doctor among them). She even falls into an uneasy friendship with the local tax collector, to her great surprise.
Tensions continue to rise, and the team starts to make some progress--when a shocking turn of events changes everything, and the hunt for the truth couldn’t be more personal to Adelia. One of her new friends is found dead in what appears to be accidental circumstances... but which Adelia is positive is actually murder.
By the time the little team solves the “case”, the reader has been treated to a tale by turns fascinating and thrilling--and always absorbing, one which offers a look into an era we do not all that often encounter in fiction. Chronicles of historic events meld seamlessly with the fictional narrative, giving us a view into a world replete with sights (rugged natural beauties corrupted by the filth of hygienic practices of the era), sounds (those of animals, and the myriad noisy things people did every day), and scents (tempting ones--of cooking food and wildflowers, as well as smells most foul--living in close quarters with animals, the odors of disease, and the lack of sanitation). We see a world in some ways harsher than our own, yet one in which people still ate and laughed, sang and danced, and went about their daily business. The characterizations are equally rich, neither cheapened via stereotypical portrayals, nor overly-modernized (or over-glamorized) to compensate for our sensibilities (which might be offended when faced with a fairly accurate portrayal of the attitudes and practices of yesteryear). Instead, the story has the more grounded feel of reality, of something that could have actually happened, given the right set of circumstances. There is also considerable depth of character, as we get to know not only the main players, but many of the secondary ones, as well. Adelia is particularly compelling, of course, for her intelligence, open-mindedness, and dedication, as well as for her stubbornness and insecurities. 
In Mistress of the Art of Death, Ms. Franklin offers a wealth of delights as if laying out a sumptuous feast for her readers. And, as the first book in a series about Adelia Aguilar,  it’s wonderful to know that, just as at the banquet in this story, there are still many fine courses yet to enjoy.
GlamKitty rating: 4.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Shades of Nosferatu and the Independent Woman

Can lightning strike--the same place, or the same person--more than once? Statistically, yes, although a high concentration of electrical wires and/or electronic equipment seems to play a major role in determining the likelihood of such an occurrence. Under most conditions, though, it’s pretty unlikely.
But what if we’re talking about authors? (Metaphorically-speaking, of course; I’d really hate to see Zeus flinging lightning bolts at my favorite authors, all of a sudden...) What are the odds that an author with a very successful book or series already under her/his belt can create similar results, a second time? 
With that question in mind, I had high hopes going into Deanna Raybourn’s latest book, The Dead Travel Fast. As the first standalone from her delightful Lady Julia Grey series, this new book would have a very pretty pair of slippers to fill. Still, the idea of a supernatural mystery set in the 19th-century was utterly compelling, especially coming from the mind of such a talented author.
The Dead Travel Fast starts off promisingly enough; Theodora LeStrange, a Scottish woman in her mid-to-latter 20s, has just lost her source of income following the death of her only living male relative. Her sole option, it appears, is to move in with her sister’s family--her sister, the husband (a parson), and four (soon-to-be-five!) small children--in their already-cramped home. The problems with that plan are abundant; Theodora and her sister have little in common, the husband is a busybody who insists he knows what is best for Theodora (regardless of how little he actually has a handle on any such thing), and the children are all small, noisy, and constantly underfoot. In addition to these frustrations, such conditions would also seriously hamper Theodora in pursuit of her dream--that of becoming a published author capable of sustaining herself. 
It is, therefore, with a great deal of joy that she receives a most-fortuitous missive from an old boarding school chum, Cosmina Dragulescu. Cosmina, it seems, is soon to be wed, and would like nothing better than to have her dearest friend by her side for the upcoming nuptials a few months hence. Such a wonderful opportunity this presents for our fledgling writer, as Cosmina’s family lives far, far from Scotland... in the Carpathians, in the heart of mysterious Transylvania! Theodora accepts the invitation with alacrity, as it solves both her immediate problem of a place to live as well as offering her the chance to travel and have a great adventure. (Note: Theodora, although perhaps not fully-realized, is another admirable Raybourn heroine--progressive in her thinking and independent by nature--and it is interesting to see just how she goes about achieving her dream.)
Eventually Theodora arrives in Transylvania, only to encounter her first hints of the strange foreignness she will soon find. The tiny village she has been dropped off at isn’t her final destination; she discovers that she still needs to traverse the steep and rugged mountain nearby in order to reach the Dragulescu castle at the very top. Carriage travel isn’t possible up the shear precipice, though, and so she must be carted up--in what proves to be a most unsettling ride--in a sedan chair, on the backs of two strong men.
Once deposited safely--albeit a bit jostled--at the castle, she is nervous and excited, for the edifice awaiting her is straight out of a fairy tale--all dark and menacing and exotic--and the inhabitants of such further contribute to her overall sense of anxiety. Her old friend Cosmina is quite altered in appearance, not the plump, rosy-cheeked girl she’d known, but one grown thin and wan. The other castle-dwellers are even more distressing: the Countess, an older woman obviously suffering from some illness which has left her in a weakened state; the Countess’ companion, a stiff, severe Austrian woman who serves as her nurse/attendant; the nurse’s son, a taciturn young man who functions as the steward; the requisite cook and a couple of servants; and finally, the Countess’ son Andrei, now the current Count following his father’s recent passing.
Theodora doesn’t quite know what to make of her fellow residents. Even Cosmina is not as she’d expected, for she is suffering from some malaise (which Theodora soon learns is disappointment over her broken engagement). The Countess is polite but haughty, causing Theodora to be uncomfortable and wary in her presence. Frau Amsel, the companion, takes an instant dislike and is most unpleasant toward her. Florian Amsel is quiet, dour, and odd. And the Count? He is quite the enigma--an urbane, handsome man who has spent much time in Paris, he clearly doesn’t fit in with the rest of them, and yet there he is, forced to take over the running of the castle as well as the welfare of the villagers (who have a feudalistic relationship with the Dragulescu family), by dint of his father’s death. Of course, such interesting companions also have the potential to provide much fodder for a budding writer, so Theodora is determined to make the best of her time among them.
As her days are spent primarily in the library, writing, and her nights, with the family, it only gradually becomes clear there is much evil which lies beneath the surface of life at Castle Dragulescu. Rumors of supernatural things abound, and it isn’t just the uneducated peasants down in the village who believe in such legends. The family doctor tells Theodora tales of local werewolves, and the castle servants are sure the dead count has become a strigoi mort (a vampire who returns by night to suck the blood from those still living in his lands). From her room in the tower, Theodora experiences firsthand strange happenings; the dog wakes her up--then disappears, as if by magic--in the middle of the night, from within her locked room. She sees what appears to be a winged creature (a vampire bat?) from her window. She hears the eerie howling of wolves (werewolves?), at all hours of the day and night. Things come to a head when the castle is awakened one night by horrific screams, to find that a maid has been murdered, and there are two puncture wounds--still bleeding--visible on her exposed breast. It is clear that something must be done; everyone is surely at risk from whomever, or whatever, has committed this atrocity.
Theodora, meanwhile, has struck up a relationship of sorts with the Count. Their attraction doesn't come as a surprise, since both are unattached, intelligent adults, but the fact that they meet in secret, late at night, is most shocking. It is through this unorthodox friendship of theirs that Theodora persuades the Count to set aside his playboy ways and take responsibility for setting things to right within his demesne--including the murder and the subsequent fears which everyone now labors under--no matter what the cost. His subsequent actions put in motion a sequence of events which lead to the eventual, inevitable, revelation of “who/what/why/how-dunit”.
The revelation is rewarding, paying homage to all the classic Gothic horror tales from which Raybourn obviously takes her inspiration. I also appreciate that she continues the story a bit past the denouement, because it gives her the opportunity to tie up those little loose ends (which authors so often neglect to do)--the what happened to whom, afterward, sort of questions. 
There are a few little quibbles, though. The middle of the story is a bit repetitive, with Theodora thinking the same thoughts again and again. Also, it would have been nice if the legends she introduced had been explored more fully; we only come face-to-face with a few of the possible horrors mentioned--even though the groundwork was laid for there to have been so much more. (Perhaps Raybourn is saving some ideas for future books?) Finally, one can’t help but make comparisons between this book and the Lady Julia series--and Lady J comes out the clear victor. That series is superior both in degree of complexity (so many more details and such a richly-layered world), and in the nature of the conversations between the characters (witty banter and genuine feeling in the Lady Julia books, versus a somewhat flatter, thinner dialogue here).  
The Dead Travel Fast is an enjoyable book, but it isn’t an outstanding one--especially not from Ms. Raybourn. It’s definitely worth a read for all her fans, though, as well as for anyone with a hankering for an old-fashioned, classic tale of Gothic horror.
GlamKitty rating: 3.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)