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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LIFE.

Working, working, working.
Meh. Blarg. Argh!

Reading, absorbing, thinking, processing, formulating.
Woo-hoo! Hmmm... Oh my stars, yes!! Whuh? Whoa!


And some of this...


(Just because. :))


Something new, and good, soon.
Yes, a review. Patience.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vampires & Shapeshifters, Served up Chicago-Style

There’s plenty of uncertainty in this thing we can “life”, but there's one thing we can always count on: time is gonna keep right on doin’ its thing, marching along at its own pace. No matter how much we might want to stop it, or at least to slow it down a bit, that’s just not gonna happen.
It’s not always bad, that passage of time; some things actually improve with it. Wines and whiskies become smoother and mellower. A favorite t-shirt or pair of jeans grows softer and more comfortable. Trees stretch taller and fill out to provide more shade and beauty. (Okay, I'm sure there's more, but that's all that springs to mind.)   
Most things don't have such a positive relationship with time, of course. The cycle of life as we know it is such that, after a particular point, all living things cease growing or regenerating and begin the gradual process of decline, leading, inexorably, to... well, a last hurrah, if you will.
Generally speaking, animals (including humans) go through a predictable range of growth within a finite period of time, from birth to adulthood to old age, peaking somewhere between early adulthood and midlife. Humans don’t, however, completely relinquish the ability to grow once we’ve reached maturity; as long as we’re alive, we can always learn new things and attain greater levels of understanding. 
But, what of immortal--or just incredibly long-lived--beings? They don’t experience the same cycles; they don’t grow or decline in the same ways that we do... yet time still manages to be cruel to them, as well. Immortals run the risk of stagnation--of becoming so very set in their ways, habits, and lifestyles, that they cease worrying about trying to change, learn, or grow. They stop feeling, or experiencing, life.
That idea is sort of an undercurrent which runs throughout Chloe Neill’s Twice Bitten, the third entry in her popular “Chicagoland Vampires” series.   
Such a serious concept is a little unexpected, given her earlier books, although--for the most part--Neill still has quite a light touch, what with her grad-student-turned-vamp-against-her-will-heroine Merit’s snarky attitude and smart mouth, and all the will-they-or-won’t-they teasing between Merit and her maker, Ethan Sullivan. The other characters filling out the “cast” are likewise edgy, odd, and/or lighthearted... Mallory, Merit’s mouthy, blue-haired, on-again/off-again BFF and newbie-sorceress; Catcher Bell, the shaved-and-tattooed full-fledged sorcerer with a chip on his shoulder; Jeff, the adorable shapeshifter with the puppydog hots for Merit; Luc, one of Merit’s co-workers, who fancies himself an urban (vampire) cowboy; Lindsey, Merit’s flirtatious (and silly) new vampire-BFF; and Ethan, the four-centuries-old maker, impossibly hunky (and incredibly stuck on himself), who leads the vampires of Chicago’s Cadogan House with little more than a certain look from his piercing green eyes or the crook of an imperious blond eyebrow. (And that’s just for starters; there are several other semi-major and minor characters having an impact on the storyline, too.)
This time out, Ethan has agreed to lend his and Merit’s services--security support as well as gesture of goodwill--to the leader of the North American Central shapeshifter collective, Gabriel Keene. Keene and the leaders of the other three shapeshifter groups--along with contingencies from each--are convening in Chicago to determine their fate: will they remain spread out across the U.S.--where they constantly run the risk of being “outed” to the human population (as the vampires had been until fairly recently), and likely subject to human hysteria and enforced testing, in the event of such an “outing”--or will they remove en masse to a remote region in Alaska--where they would be able to live in less danger, in seclusion?
Ethan jumps at the chance he’s offered--both to be the only one of the three Chicago vampire houses to be present at the big shapeshifter meeting, and for the chance to potentially change millennia of distrust and hatred between vamps and shifters by showing solidarity and perhaps, even, beginning to forge an alliance between the races.
Things don’t go quite as planned, of course. At the very first meeting--an intimate little pre-convention get-together of the group leaders (the “Apexes”)--violence breaks out and shots (many shots, resulting in bloodshed) are fired. Clearly someone isn’t happy about the upcoming vote... but is the unhappy party to be found among the vampires, the shifters, or the human population? Merit and Ethan don’t know, but they vow to continue providing backup for the shifters, in a show of hope and trust, since Gabriel is determined that the show must go on.
Meanwhile, Merit has her hands full of plenty of other (non-life-threatening) concerns. She receives a surprise job offer, which begs thinking about. She and Mallory are still not on speaking terms, and it’s eating away at Merit to not have her best friend in her life. Ethan continues to be a major factor; he clearly wants Merit... but in what capacity does he want her? (And does he even know the answer to that, himself?) Her ex-not-quite-ever-a-boyfriend-even, the petulant Morgan (now master of Navarre House), will have to be dealt with eventually. Navarre’s ex-master Celina (who was behind Merit’s turning and who subsequently tried to kill her) is out there, somewhere, no doubt plotting some new evil against her arch-enemy Merit. (Okay, that last one actually falls under the heading of another one of Merit’s life-threatening concerns. Maybe. Probably. Someday.) Finally, Merit’s collection of bad karma is complete when someone unexpected--and most unwelcome--comes to town.
It’s rewarding to see many things resolved in this book, including some actual relationship growth involving several of the major players. Merit and Ethan, ehem, figure some stuff out. (Not everything, mind you, but some stuff. And it works--and that’s all I’m sayin’ ‘bout that.) Merit and Mallory work on patching up their friendship, as well, in a few really well-played scenes. (Their tiffs may have come across a bit juvenile in the previous book, but the resolution to their problems and disagreements, here, is believable.) Merit also has a couple of other crucial discussions with characters of varying degrees of importance and influence... but it’s best if you find out about those when you read the book.
I mentioned earlier the difficulties which both the immortals (vampires) and the very long-lived (shifters) have in regards to maintaining positive attitudes about the future and about change. Nowhere is that more apparent than with the 394-yr-old Ethan, who readily acknowledges how much of his humanity he’s lost over the centuries... and who cautions Merit to guard against losing her own. (The inclusion of some of Ethan’s long-ago history further builds on this concept.) There’s also an obvious sense of conflict regarding change among the shifters, as they argue and fight about whether to cling tenaciously to the ways of their past or to look to a different sort of future. All of these questions feel "real", considering what we know of the characters.
There are no quick, easy answers here--not to the bigger questions--and that’s a good thing; simple resolutions would lessen the impact of such interesting quandaries on the overall storyline. This series is still primarily a light and amusing, sometimes exciting, look at being a vampire, to be sure... but it has just enough bite to make you feel something, too. 
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 3.75 out of 5 mousies          

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Badass in Beantown


Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past several years, you’re no doubt aware that Urban Fantasy fiction has virtually exploded during that time, in terms of both popularity and the number of new releases. That doesn’t mean it’s some newfangled genre, however; the fact is that there has always been a certain segment of readers devoted to the macabre, the mystical, the mythical, and the magical--and an assortment of writers more than willing to cater to such devotion. 
For those of us who like to dream of a different place--not necessarily better, mind you, just different than where we are right now--UF offers a chance to escape, to explore new worlds and new realities... while retaining at least some semblance to the world in which we live. New-to-the-genre Nancy Holzner’s Deadtown is an example of one of the best new UF series out there.    
Deadtown is set in Boston, in an uneasy world in which supernatural creatures are "out"... but not really trusted or respected. In fact, for the most part, these "Paranormal Americans" (PAs, for short) are shunned, forced to live in a cordoned-off area of the city known as "Deadtown". They need special IDs, marking their non-human/non-normal status. They can't go to other areas--let alone other states--without special passes... and that's if they're among the luckier ones, like vampires and werewolves. (Or Boston's only "active" shapeshifter, our heroine.) Things are considerably more grim for the "Previously Deceased Humans" (zombies, to you and me), a sizable segment of regular people who were unlucky enough to be congregated in a small area of town when a plague hit that area out-of-the-blue, and a super-rare virus changed their lives--and the attitudes of a city-- forevermore.
Victory Vaughn--Vicky, for short, naturally--is Cerdorrian, part of a very long line of Welsh shapeshifters (and, as already mentioned, the only "active" one registered in Boston). Vicky shares some of the same traits as werewolves--increased strength and greater regenerative powers--but unlike them, she can change into any sentient being she chooses (up to three times per moon cycle). Also unlike other paranormals, she can be killed by normal means (regular bullets, regular knife blades, etc., will do her in). So, she has to rely on her wits, as well as on skills acquired through combat training and spell-casting, in her job as Boston's (only) demon slayer-for-hire.
Um, demon-slayer? Yep. Demons, you see, are a whole 'nother matter--and a very troublesome one, indeed. There are many types of demons, all of which can only enter our world/our consciousness at night, for the sole purpose of bedeviling and making miserable the humans they attack (typically whilst the unwary humans sleep). In a city the size of Boston, there are many demons to be slain, so Vicky has a pretty good business going, ridding people of their assorted demons and allowing them to once again enjoy untroubled sleep. She has a nice apartment she shares with her vampire roommate, Juliet. She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, a charismatic werewolf who works as a high-profile lawyer. She has an older sister, married, and a niece and nephews to spoil. Life is running pretty smoothly for Vicky... until suddenly, it isn't, any longer. 
One of her clients--a satisfied customer, as it happens--dies a mysterious death, and Vicky is hauled in for questioning. A horrible monster from her past--one which haunts her own dreams and scares the crap out of her--returns. A glory-seeking researcher wants to study Vicky and her unique DNA, to see if a "cure" can be found (despite the fact that Vicky sees nothing wrong with who and what she is). Her boyfriend is in the middle of a huge political brouhaha as the elections role around, as he campaigns for the father-of-a-zombie-daughter incumbent mayor (supportive of the PA cause), who is facing off against a very anti-PA opponent (and whose win in the mayoral race would mean very bad things for Boston's PA population). And, Vicky discovers that the fate of the world--well, her little corner of it, anyway--rests in her own small hands. (Not because she's the best, as she's quick to point out, but because she's willing to fight the fight.)
I found Deadtown to be an “unputdownable” book. The world is rich and layered, with its well-drawn "monsters", atmospheric setting, and the believable relationships between humans and PAs. (If there really were such beings in our world, I could well imagine the world being something very much like the one Holzner depicts.) Perhaps even more importantly, Vicky is a superb heroine. She's strong and smart--but not ridiculously so. She isn't a man-with-brass-balls in the guise of a gorgeous-buxom-perfect-woman (as too many over-the-top heroines are often drawn); nor is she a whiny, helpless, "woe is me" female waiting around for the guy to save her. Not at all. In fact, in one scene... no, no, you just need to read the book yourselves. Far be it from me to spoil the fun of seeing first-hand where this wildly-creative, compulsively-readable story goes.


Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Werewolves in London? Try Bloodsuckers Down Under

Aside from a few dozen or so songs--the unremittingly-cheery sort of dreck I can only charitably term “uplifting”--there seems to be something of a universal consensus that life can be pretty awful.
Sound overly harsh? Let’s look to some experts then, shall we? Consider that the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is that “life means suffering”. Think back to John Hobbes, who concluded in his 1651 book Leviathan that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. “ Of course, if you prefer your proof to be of the less-erudite variety, there’s always that late-20th-century classic, “Life sucks, and then you die”. (Lacks a bit in the eloquence department, but it gets the same point across, in inimical Bill-&-Ted fashion.)
With such depressing thoughts bearing down on us like so many dark, angry stormclouds--and the fact that most of us have just seen too much bad to fall for the false promises in those sappy songs--it's no wonder a lot of people look for ways to escape the unhappiness.
That's what Lissa Wilson is thinking in Narrelle M. Harris’s sometimes-amusing, frequently-poignant, and always-thoughtful story, The Opposite of Life, a book about what it means to be alive, dead, or somewhere in between. 
When we meet the Melbourne-native Lissa, she’s at a crossroads--one of those brief but eventful periods that she'll be able to recall with perfect clarity (whether she wants to or not) for the rest of her life. This particular crossroads starts with a loser boyfriend. After he dumped her a few months earlier, she's fallen back on the time-honored tradition of wallowing in self-pity and being maudlin. (Un-health foods, mass quantities of chocolate, and weepy movies to the rescue.)  

That’s all about to change, though, because her friend Evie has finally succeeded in forcing her to leave the house in pursuit of some fun. For the first time in... forever, the girls are going clubbing. 
The goth bar they wind up at is cool, with good music and interesting people--especially Daniel. Attractive in a Byronic way, he seems to feel the same spark between them that Lissa feels, and after several months of non-stop moping, she realizes she’s actually sort of... happy. Finally.
Until nature calls, that is. (Now, something as prosaic as a jot to the restroom wouldn’t normally be a buzzkill; they’re in a club, throwing down some drinks--so of course nature’s gonna call.) The problem for Lissa (and her reawakening libido) is the two bloody bodies she nearly falls over when she goes to the loo. (Who knew, having the image of so much gore burned onto one’s retinas would put such a crimp on all that eagerly-anticipated snogging?) 
Lissa and friends are naturally shaken by the events of the night, but hey, they’re young and, after a few days, bounce back and decide to go out again. Everything appears to be going as swimmingly as before... until someone else discovers the mutilated body of a local drug pusher on the steps. Worse, Lissa can’t find Daniel; he's just disappeared, without a trace.
After a couple days and still no Daniel, some friends hold a candlelight vigil for his return. That kind of New Age-y, woo-woo twaddle isn't Lissa’s bag at all, but she goes, because she misses him. Wouldn’t you know it, though? Another dead body turns up, this time behind the house. Lissa finds it... and sees something else, besides. A shadowy, fast-moving figure (which seemed to place the body there), followed by an odd (but equally-quick-moving), nebbishy dude in a Hawaiian shirt.
She's fed up. The media won’t leave her alone; she’s now been at the scene of four dead bodies. The police are treating her with a certain degree of suspicion. Her coworkers are handling her with kid gloves, apparently fearing she’ll go off the deep end. And, there’s her family to deal with--her messed-up, fractured family, which has already dealt with one death (from childhood disease) and another (caused by a lethal combination of heroin and unhappiness). There’s only one thing for it--try to investigate this bloody mystery on her own, to (hopefully) get everyone off her back.
Investigating is, however, much harder than it's always seemed for her favorite sleuths, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Nonetheless, Lissa perseveres and eventually makes a shocking discovery: there are vampires out there, real-life (-death?) members of the walking (but not breathing), blood-swilling undead, mingling with the rest of society. (In the daylight. Not sparkling. If you’re curious...)
Lissa foists herself on Mr. Hawaiian Shirt--aka Gary (the vampire)--once she tracks him down, persuading him to let her be Watson to his Sherlock. As the body count continues to rise across Melbourne--and as Lissa fears for her life--the (not-so) intrepid duo race around the city, traveling from the seedier parts to the ‘burbs, and talking to some very scared mouthbreathers and some very scary bloodsuckers. All the while, an inevitable showdown is drawing ever nearer...
The Opposite of Life is a different sort of Urban Fantasy, and definitely an out-of-the-ordinary vampire tale. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. Most of us have done/seen/read/heard about such crazy stuff that we’re pretty blasé about so-called impossible things. This book takes a different tack; once Lissa (and we) quickly get over the fact of vampires, the story becomes more about discovering what being one means (and the before and after)... as well as what being human does--and doesn’t--mean. The two things are not, necessarily, what you might expect. 

Life may be hard and cold... but it still has the ability to surprise and delight, as Lissa comes to realize. It's up to her (and each of us) to make that be enough.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.25 out of 5 mousies


[Note: This book is an Australian printing, and doesn't seem to be available (yet?) in the U.S. For anyone interested in obtaining a copy, contact either the publisher, www.pulpfictionpress.com.au/theoppositeoflife, or head straight to Ms. Harris's website, www.narrellemharris.com. You won't be sorry you did. :)]

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Don't Mess with a Killer Chick

One thing you can say about the field of Urban Fantasy fiction? It’s a crowded one, and getting more so every day. (Seriously, isn’t everyone writing one now?) Another thing you can say? As happens with most genres, the majority of UF stories tend to follow a similar formula (their authors obviously adherents to the school of “if it ain’t broke...”). 
That tried-and-true formula usually goes something like this... There's always a youngish kickbutt heroine--a gal who’s really good at, well, wiping the floors with bad guys (who totally deserve their really unpleasant fates, by the way). She generally has a friend or two she can rely on when things don’t go as planned (which is a very good thing, because nothing ever goes as planned). And, in between hanging out with her pals and engaging in all that bootay-kicking, the heroine always gets a hot love interest to spice things up. (Yeah, so the hunky dude is predictable; who really wants to read about her getting busy with the dweeby, schlubby guy, anyway?)
So, that’s the general pattern. Like everything else, though, it’s what the author does within that framework which defines how interesting the book is, and how well (or not) he/she sets the story apart from what everyone else is busy doing, in the packed-like-sardines field of UF.
Leaping into the fray with Spider’s Bite (the first in her so-called “Elemental Assassin” series), author Jennifer Estep succeeds in providing some neat and interesting twists on an old theme.

The first twist has to do with the heroine, herself. Gin Blanco is, no bones about it, an honest-to-goodness assassin. That’s her job from the get-go; it’s not something she suddenly falls into after Bad Thing X happens early in the book. Instead, from the moment we meet her, she’s a full-fledged killer-for-hire, known professionally as The Spider, with her own little support staff (a handler plus a sometimes-partner). She’s a master of the tools of her trade, with knives being her go-to weapon of choice. (She also has a little somethin'-somethin' extra... but I’ll let Gin tell you about that, herself. ;)) She isn’t on a personal mission to catch bad guys who’ve done her wrong; she accepts contracts to kill almost anyone, provided the money is right. (Note that--appearances to the contrary--she isn’t completely immoral, though; she draws the line at offing children or genuinely-good people.) Now 30 years old, she’s been in the business for a long time, amassing a small fortune. Knowing how bored she’d be if she didn’t have the job is the only reason she continues to do it.
Fresh from a gig which involved masquerading as an insane asylum patient, Gin wants nothing more than a little vacation. (As she says, pushing mushy peas around on a plate and playing with crayons for a couple of weeks does not a vacation make.) That, of course, isn’t in the cards, though, and when she meets up with her handler--Fletcher--to report on the just-completed mission, he tells her she’s got a new job. Effective immediately. This one is so urgent that she has less than 36 hours to kill the target. The real kicker--and why Fletcher accepted such a crazy last-second job? It comes with a $5-million paycheck. 
That kind of money never goes hand-in-hand with a cakewalk job, and this case is no exception. The target is a whistle-blowing accountant, a man whose bad news will affect to the most influential and powerful woman in the city, businesswoman Mab Monroe... who also happens to be the strongest Elemental in the region. Elementals are a Big Deal, especially the really strong ones. (There are four elements which a very rare number of people are connected to and can control: fire, air, water, and stone.) Mab is a fire elemental, and her powers are legendary.
The diligent accountant has discovered that someone's been embezzling a lot of money from one of Mab’s companies. That’s just the kind of news that will make for one exceptionally angry Fire Elemental. To hopefully avoid dealing with her fiery wrath, an executive at the company has commissioned The Spider to take out Mr. Accountant before he has the chance to hand his information over to the authorities. (Seems reasonable, right? I mean, if you’re a criminal...)
Ever the professional, Gin comes up with a workable gameplan and puts it into action the following night. There’s just a slight hitch, however, and The Spider finds out that she's been double-crossed. Gin winds up on the run, beat-up and bloody, along with her partner and the police detective. (Hunky-love-interest Alert!)
The story then follows the trio’s efforts to evade the bad guys long enough to figure out just who the bad guys are, before bringing them to justice (of whatever form that may take). There’s plenty of action, tension, and dangerous situations, all of which do a nice job of keeping the plot moving forward at a steady pace.
Estep peoples her story with an interesting group of characters, which further serves the plot. Besides plain-vanilla humans and the Elementals, we meet vampires, dwarves, and giants. It's an enjoyable mixture of beings with their different powers and abilities, and I like how they're integrated into society.
Most of all, I find Gin fascinating. She has a dark backstory (again, part of the formula), but it’s an original and believable one. She’s tough because she has to be, now, yet she grew up dreaming of being a princess. Despite her outer toughness, she manages to have good relationships with her work associates and friends, and that rings true, as well. Finally, there’s the clincher: I really appreciate the fact that Gin owns her sexuality. She isn’t a shrinking virgin (and thank Venus, since that hackneyed chestnut has been Done. To. Death.), but is, instead, a normal, mature, adult woman (yeah, yeah, as “normal” as an assassin can be), with actual desires and needs of her own. Given that her budding relationship with the lawman is, um, complicated (in every sense of the word), what results is both some steamy chemistry and a lot of understandable frustration and confusion. (More “real” relationship than fairy tale, then, which works perfectly in a book this gritty.)
Did I expect to like a book about an assassin? Well, yeah, actually I did. (I don't tend to be judgmental about characters; if the author makes the heroine or hero believable, I’m in.) Still, I know the premise will probably give a lot of other readers pause. So, let me say this. If you’re in the market for a solid UF story, set in a not-so-different-world from the one you know, with some genuinely interesting characters, then you could do a lot worse than putting Spider's Bite on your list. 
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day Tears

June is always a sad, melancholy sort of month for me. It's the month for Father's Day, obviously. It's also the month my folks used to celebrate their anniversary.

The last June they--or I--celebrated either one was in 1998. Two months later my Dad was dead.

Did he change the world? Did he discover, invent, say, or do anything amazing? Did he achieve either fame or fortune during the 65 years he graced this earth? Hardly.

Everything he did, though, he did with grace, dignity, and integrity. He was just an humble, regular guy who came from modest origins. His education went no further than the ninth grade, yet he was actually an incredibly intelligent man who read voraciously and was interested in everything. He loved all animals, but especially cats :) --and they, in turn, never failed to love him back. Everyone who met him, in fact, loved him; he was easygoing, had a great sense of humor, and was always ready to lend a helping hand, without ever being asked.

He will always be the finest man I ever knew.

So, Happy Father's Day, Dad. Love you and miss you. Always.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bon-bons and Idiots

Cursed with a sweet tooth, I am. Not one of those harmless little “oh, I’ll just have a miniature cupcake once a month and be perfectly happy with nothing but health food the other 29 or so days” things, either; this is more of a full-blown, “must-have-something-sweet-every-single-day-OR-ELSE”-kind of thing. (Fortunately, I love fruit. Unfortunately, fruit doesn’t cut it when I want a sundae. Or a cookie. Or that cupcake.) Still, one does what one must. Makes allowances. Fits the occasional sinfully-decadent whatever into the overall dietary plan (and hopes the combination of guilt and sugar buzz doesn’t prove lethal).
Although there’s a case to be made for the similarities between desserts and Romance novels, I have a very different relationship with the books than with sweets, because of suffering no ill effects from their absence. Not that I out-and-out sniff with disdain at love stories or anything--and not that plenty of non-romance books (meaning, the majority of what constitutes my library) don’t have at least some romantic element, because nearly everything does. It’s just that you just won’t find me trolling the romance aisles at my local Borders... the way you might find me gazing wistfully at a luscious Key lime pie in the bakery case. 
Honest-to-goodness romances do, however, occasionally find their way into my not-so-grubby little paws--especially historical ones, which for some reason seem much more acceptable. (Do I talk myself into believing they’re actually pseudo-educational, by dint of being set in the past? Hmm...) Anyway, on those rare occasions, there’s always the hope that I’ll feel nearly as satisfied as if I’d just devoured one of those so-bad-for-me-it-could-only-be-good, sugar-laden confections. (The very definition of a guilty pleasure, you see, and hence, a comparison one might conceivably make.)
Recently a fellow blogger (and you know who you are, you naughty little minx!) recommended something that sounded too irresistible to pass up--Sherry Thomas’s His at Night. (Let me take a moment to emphasize that I would never have picked this one up from a center-aisle display at the bookstore, not even if I tripped over it. First, the cover art. Gah!! Shield my eyes!! Second, the title. Ugh. Romance-kitsch, anyone?) But, this hilarious and über-talented person seems to like a lot of the same things as me, so giving it a shot was an acceptable risk to take. (And, in a fortuitous sign from destiny, it was available for Kindle... which meant no walking around trying to hide that cringe-worthy cover art from the raised eyebrows and giggles of anyone nosy enough to try to see what I was reading. Perfect!)
It’s certainly true that the bare-bones plot of His at Night is straight out of Historical Romance Books 101: beautiful young woman and handsome, heroic man meet, only to find that they must get married at once for some super-important reason (like, to avert impending doom or loss of a fortune or incarceration or... etc.). But, it’s how Thomas fills out those bones that makes this book such a thoroughly-delectable cream puff of a story.
The Marquess of Vere is typical of the landed gentry of a certain age; a handsome, debonair, and well-educated young man whose presence is in high demand at all gatherings of anyone who is (or wants to be) someone. Unfortunately, he is also something of an idiot... or at least that’s what he has everyone believe. Vere, you see, isn’t a man content to merely rest on the laurels of his birth, living a life of indolence. (He also has reasons for not wishing to pursue a political career, and apparently, given his family connections, those are the only two “acceptable” paths for him to take.) Instead, he has chosen to be part of a secret and elite little group of spies, affluent and important people like himself, who live for the thrill of solving mysteries and righting wrongs. The “idiot” persona which he has adopted allows him to say all sorts of outrageous things and to hear all manner of secrets, with no one any the wiser to his ruse.   
Meanwhile, beautiful Elissande Edgerton is virtually being held captive at a country estate, along with her ailing aunt, by her urbane but sadistic uncle, diamond mogul Edmund Douglas. Elissande dreams of escape, but knows it to be an impossible dream, since she refuses to leave Aunt Rachel behind in the hands of such a cruel monster. Given that, she has resigned herself to an unhappy fate of loneliness and fear.
As fate would have it, though, Lord Vere’s partner-in-crime-solving--Lady Kingsley--has just taken on a case revolving around the investigation of a certain shady diamond dealer--a Mr. Edmund Douglas, to be precise. Time is of the essence; it is believed Douglas has incriminating papers somewhere in his house, which must be acted upon with haste. A plan is thus concocted to get the spies onto the Douglas estate and in the house while Douglas is away on business--a plan involving a rather large (and shockingly sudden!) rat infestation, a bevy of lovely young ladies, and a host of willing but not-terribly-effective young men, all of whom shortly descend on Highgate Court, the Douglas manse. (Well, all exact the rats. Those remain in residence at Lady Kingsley’s ill-fated home.)
The comely Elissande is nothing if not an opportunist (which is not such a bad thing to be when one has lived under the iron rule of a monster like Uncle Edward for one’s entire life). She hatches a plan of her own, to make one of the gents among her houseguests fall in love with her and want to marry (riding in on a white horse and rescuing her and Aunt Rachel from the clutches of evil, in other words). Her plan seems even better once she sets her gaze on Vere, for he is truly an awesome specimen of manflesh. Until he speaks, at any rate, which is when she quickly changes her mind and conspires instead to entrap his younger brother, Freddie (not quite as good a catch, monetarily speaking, but also not an idiot). Plans go awry, though--as they naturally have a way of doing--and Elissande and Vere do, indeed, find themselves unwittingly headed for the altar. Together.
Things could be worse. Vere has a lovely townhouse in London, and Elissande and Aunt Rachel are quickly installed there. Vere and Lady Kingsley continue their investigation into Douglas, aided by a few suspicious items they managed to pilfer from Highgate Court during their brief sojourn within. And Elissande, ever leery of Uncle Edward somehow managing to spoil all her planning, sets out to make her marriage a “real” one (meaning, with verifiable proof that an annulment would no longer be a viable option). 
Will they or won’t they see through each other’s secrets and lies, subterfuges and guises, to the wounded souls hiding inside? Will Douglas be caught and put away for good, leaving the women he’s abused for so long free at last? Does anyone (or everyone) find happiness, true love, and eternal bliss? You can guess the answers, I’m sure. (This is a Romance; thus, it will have a happy ending.)
The real pleasure, of course, is in the getting there, in watching the complex and sexy tango in which Vere and Elissande engage. There are delicious conversational gambits, and delightfully flirty exhanges, and mouthwateringly-yummy scenes of seduction. It’s a harmless bit of pure, unadulterated pleasure, an excuse to lock yourself away alone somewhere to revel in a Victorian fantasy, undisturbed by 21st-century distractions.    
You just never know what’s inside anything, do you... until you take a peek in there and see what’s what. Maybe it’s that yucky, fake-cherry filling (instead of the creamy pecan-praline you were really hoping for) hiding within. But maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s a really fun and engrossing story, hiding behind some cliched, swoon-y cover art. 

Take my word for it; it’s worth finding out. :)
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Eye Candy



While I'm busy thinking about a couple of upcoming reviews (in the as-yet-to-set-fingers-to-keyboard stage), reading something else (ooh, shiny!), and tenderly caressing the pretty-pretty book I just received in the mail from a friend who knows me well (squee! more shiny!)...

my boycat amuses and distracts me by doing stuff like this.

Yeah, TOTAL eye candy.

You're welcome. ;D

You're Gonna Need More Popcorn...

When I first got the notion to do a fun (well, fun to me, at least) little series about Classic Favorites, it seemed like two posts would probably cover it. (Hmm. Can only two posts a series make?) But once I'd written the first post, I realized that my favorite movies based on those book picks really deserved a post of their own, too. And so it grew, until, finally, we're now at the fourth (and last) post on the subject. (Hey! That makes it official, right? It's a bonafide "series", after all. A mini-series, if you will. ;))

In the same way that North and South, the book, has topped my short list of Really Good Stuff, so has North and South, the BBC production. It's nothing short of amazing.

Since I've already described the overall storyline in (ehem) some detail, I won't rehash any of that. (If you haven't read my thoughts about it yet--and you're breaking my heart if you haven't, you know--then check out yesterday's post first, 'kay? Oh, and grab a danish and a cuppa joe while you're at it. I do tend to run on a bit...)

But back to the movie. The highest compliment I can think to give a filmed version of a book (any book) that I really love, is to say that not only is it true to the original, but that it's also true to the spirit of the original.

Think about that for a moment. Some adaptations treat the original work almost as though it were a play, copying every scene to the smallest detail, and speaking all the dialog verbatim. Nothing really wrong with that approach, I suppose, except that some things just don't translate smoothly from one medium to another, which winds up leading to a good deal of awkwardness. Other filmmakers take the opposite approach; they "loosely base" their adaptation on the original--a treatment that, more often than not, manages to lose far too much of what made the original so good in the first place.

North and South is a great example of blending those two approaches. It doesn't follow every single page of the book to a T. Instead, it takes an idea or a scene and moves it or alters it a bit to create a smoother narrative flow. At other times, it makes up an entire scene out of whole cloth, something that didn't exactly happen in the book--but in doing so, devises a more effective way to show something or to better get a point across. And obviously, there are the sort of changes made so that the cast can number in the dozens (rather than the hundreds), and so that only a handful of sets and locations are needed (instead of a prohibitively-expensive amount of them). Familiar with the book, I'm certainly aware of all the changes that have been made, going from book to movie; but the key here is that I'm really happy with the lot of them, because nothing altered the spirit or the tone of Gaskell's work.

Finally, a bit about the actors. Daniela Denby-Ashe is perfectly cast in the lead role as Margaret Hale. She embodies the mature, opinionated, determined, and passionate character precisely as the author wrote her, I think. Richard Armitage is (thank goodness) equal to the task of appearing opposite her, with that cold, rather-stiff formality which he almost seems to wear as a cloak to guard the lonely, sad man inside. And the brilliance just continues with the supporting actors. Of special note are the amazing Sinéad Cusack (Thornton's protective battleaxe of a mother--a good, albeit very hard woman, who truly loves her son), Brian Protheroe (Mr. Hale's old friend, a very smart chap who manages to make a lot of pointed comments and observations about Margaret and Thornton, and interferes more often than anyone seems to realize), and Brendan Coyle (as Nicholas Higgins, the union man at the very heart of so much of the action). And, in the same way that these actors--as well as all the rest not mentioned here, for they're really uniformly good--provide the heart and soul of the movie, the location shots perfectly contribute to the feel of the place, which is so important in understanding the characters and their situations.

This is a longer production, running some four hours. If you trust me when I say that this is REALLY a must-watch, then be sure to set aside one four-hour block. (And plenty of snacks and beverages.) Trust me. (Yes, continue to do so.) Once you start, you won't want to stop watching until you've seen the final credits roll.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The World through Smoky Grey-Tinted Glasses...





Green is the color of life to me. (Consider plants, and the relationship which chlorophyll, photosynthesis, and oxygen forges between us and them. See, like that.) Still, despite these beneficial, life-giving qualities, some people don’t seem to feel any particular need to be around greenery. (Those would be the people inexplicably content to have treeless, postage-stamp-sized lawns, or no lawns at all, I guess.) Meanwhile, others--like me--crave the presence of green like... well, like one of those plants you see which bends and stretches and does a crazy little jive-dance in its efforts to get just a little bit of sunlight.
My soft spot for classic English novels comes as no surprise then, eh? Overflowing with all those vivid descriptions of fragrant purple heather blowing on the moors, peaceful arbors wreathed in roses and honeysuckle, and colorful, carefree English gardens full of flittering butterflies (I know, I know--what other type of garden would one expect to find but an English one... in England?), they're a delight for the senses.
How is it even possible, then, that my new favorite classic is set predominantly in a dirty industrial city... a place perpetually made grey by the smoke pouring from the stacks on the rooftops of an endless sea of factories? 



One reason is because it’s also the setting for a glorious, passionate, and intelligent love story. The other reason has to do with the great well of compassion it displays, as well as its serious look at social, economic, and political issues. This is Elizabeth Gaskell’s epic North and South.
Unlike so many of the better-known classics, the heroine of North and South--Margaret Hale--is a happy young woman, not suffering from cruel (nor deceased, nor absent) parents, nor burdened with any jealous or otherwise ridiculous siblings. And even though her own father is but an humble country preacher (possessing neither wealth nor fame), Margaret herself has had the luxury of attending London schools (and staying with her affluent aunt and family there). She has thus enjoyed the best of both worlds: the bucolic New Forest setting of her father’s modest parsonage has been her vacation destination, while all the excitement London has to offer (especially for a charming young lady of some means) has been hers for the taking, the remainder of each year.
All that is about to change, however. Margaret and her same-age cousin Edith have completed their schooling--and Edith has only just gotten married--leaving Margaret to return to Helstone to live with her parents. She looks forward to the prospect of living once more among the uncomplicated, kind people in the beautiful countryside she considers home. 
That, however, is not to be. Her father, Margaret discovers, has recently suffered a “crisis of conscience” and is leaving the Church, effective almost immediately. To make matters worse, he feels the need to remove his little family far from their beloved Helstone, and plans to relocate them to an area in the distant north, where no one knows his name (or will have heard the scandal attached to it). He has chosen Milton for their new home, an industrial city well-known primarily for its cotton mills.
This new circumstance is anything but happy news for Margaret, and is even worse news for her mother, who has always been of a rather delicate constitution. Nonetheless, Mr. Hale’s mind is made up, and the three of them are soon en route to the North.
Once there it is, of course, as bad as or worse than the female Hales had feared: dirty, polluted, noisy, and overcrowded with a rather coarse lot-- in short, it’s everything that Helstone (or even the part of London which Margaret knows) isn’t.
Mr. Hale’s closest friend--who grew up in Milton--has arranged for him to work as a tutor, offering instruction in the study of the classics to adult pupils. His very first student is John Thornton, a self-made man who owns one of the more prosperous mills in town. The two men quickly form a fast if surprising friendship, despite the fact that their experiences and outlooks are so different. Mr. Hale is a deeply-religious man, regardless of his fallout with the Church, and looks to a divine power for answers to life’s questions and solace for life’s problems. Thornton, on the other hand, has a hard-scrabble background, and sees everything through the rather more practical eyes of a businessman; his problems are his alone to solve. Hale considers the souls of the men, women, and children working in Thornton’s mill, whereas  the owner himself sees them only in terms of how to get the most productivity out of them and how to keep them healthy and able to work.
During one of his frequent visits to the Hale home, Thornton and Margaret meet... but their meeting is hardly the love-at-first-sight of fairy tales. Margaret is appalled by how little Thornton seems to care for the plight of his employees, and he thinks her misguided in her blind championing of their cause. Yet Margaret has reason for her concerns; she has recently made friends with a local girl--Bessy, a former millworker now riddled with consumption, and thus forced to quit her job--and has heard tales of what factory life can be like. Margaret even forms a surprising friendship with Bessy’s father, Mr. Higgins, an outspoken rabble-rouser of a man with ties to the millworkers' union, who shows unexpected depths. 
Although Thornton disagrees with most of what Margaret so heatedly espouses, he finds himself hopelessly attracted to the headstrong daughter of his teacher. He admires her intelligence and fiery passion (as well as her pleasing looks). Margaret, on the other hand, suffers no such affliction of affection for the mill owner. While it’s true enough she occasionally finds him interesting, and certainly respects all the hard work and years of deprivation he endured whilst trying to make something of himself, she spends the majority of her time being repulsed by his views. 
Thornton has more pressing concerns to occupy his thoughts than the allure of one challenging female, however. The situation at the mills has suddenly become very grim; all of their costs (supplies, equipment, and upkeep) have increased, while the price they can get for their product has gone down, due to a recent glut of American cotton in the world market. Meanwhile, loans--for equipment purchases deemed necessary and made during a more profitable era--are rapidly coming due. 
It is at this exact--and unfortunately, highly inauspicious--moment in time that the Milton millworkers decide to make their move. The union wants more money for all the employees at all the mills, and so they strike.
What follows during this walkoff, which lasts far longer than anyone ever anticipated, is heartbreaking. The already-destitute can no longer eke out even the most meager of livings, and people begin first to starve, and then to die. Tensions escalate to incredible highs, and crime, naturally, rises. Margaret wants to do what little she can, such as taking food to some of the neediest, and Thornton berates her for her foolish largesse; feeding the hungry, he insists, will only serve to prolong the strike, by making people less desperate (thus, less willing) to resume their old jobs at the old pay--which, at present, is truly all the owners can afford to offer. (Obviously--at least, I would think it should be rather obvious--things are going no better for Thornton in his pursuit of Margaret than they are for those displaced workers.) And so it goes.
Besides the primary themes I’ve touched on, there are several other important sub-plots woven throughout, as well, which I won’t mention. (All of them, though, are vital to the overall story, and are very compelling.) The developing relationship between the two, seemingly diametrically-opposed leads is wonderful, full of frustration, sadness, and confusion, but also moments of hope and joy. 
Overall, though, North and South does not paint a pretty picture. There are no lives of genteel ease--not for anyone in Milton; there are no carefree days spent picnicking on scenic hillsides, and no balls to plan and attend. Instead, we get a view of the working world, where regular people live and struggle to scratch out a place for themselves--a place where things are oh-so-far from idyllic. There is poverty, disease, filth, hunger, social injustice, political (and social, and sexual) inequality aplenty--and disagreements about what might be done for any of it. 
This isn’t a sweetly-romantic tale of lovers pulled apart merely by pride or circumstance (only to be joyously reunited at the end); nor is it a gothic story of madness and desire--although it does have some elements of each. What North and South is, instead, is a gritty tale, and I absolutely love it for the brutal way it looks at conventions and ideas. I know it may seem on the surface to offer anything but the verdant, life-renewing qualities (of which I rambled on about earlier), but in the end, it offers something that turns out to be even more precious: life and love amidst all the unremitting grey. Rather than a vast sea of green, it gives us one stubborn-but-glorious weed, tirelessly pushing its way between the cracks in a dirty grey sidewalk, to come bursting forth, full of hope as it reaches for the sun. 

 


GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 5 (out of 5) mousies!!