Thursday, July 29, 2010

Squinting up from the Abyss

Yes, I have fallen off the face of the earth.

Okay, not really...  gravity didn't decide to up and fail me, and I'm not floating around out there (or freezing, which I suppose would technically be the case) in space. It sure feels that way, though. (Actually, it feels like I've fallen right off and landed in a big ol' pit of crud.)

So, what is this abyss into which I've fallen, you ask? (And why the heck don't I have one of those "help, I've fallen" monitor thingies, har-de-har?)

Well, for one thing, work keeps on rearing its less-than-pretty head. (Owning your own business? Not so glamorous. If someone tells you otherwise, turn around and walk the other way. I mean it.)

Then there are the multiple governments which keep demanding another piece of our hot little pie, on a monthly and quarterly basis. (Not only does Uncle Sam come sniffing around for the daily special, but also the lesser uncles from three different states--and each one insists he is really quite hungry, and that pie sure does look tasty.) And here's something they never tell you about pie... it involves a whole boatload of paperwork, records, forms, copies, and mailings, in addition to a little something called money. (Yes, I would rather have fruit-filled-flaky-pastry-style pie, but as a small businessperson, this is what I get.)

Basic day-to-day stuff, of course, never goes away, for anyone. (Groceries? Urgh, again? Ditto for the prepping and cooking of all those groceries, plus laundry, dishes, housecleaning, bill paying, and the minimum of yardwork required to maintain a semblance of respectability in the 'hood.) I can't believe how much time these things suck up.

Friends. (Okay, that part's all good. :) I'm only a solitary being part of the time; the rest of the time, I need contact with my friends. Still, there are only so many hours in a day.)

Trying to think about/plan for the upcoming BlogHer convention--which should be an awesome time with some fantastic women. (I'm failing spectacularly on this one, though. At the rate I'm going, I'll probably show up late, with a suitcase stuffed with beat-up jeans and scruffy t-shirts... rather than be on time with the fabulous, cool things I'd rather take.)

A deep blue funk (because it just wouldn't be me without one of those hovering overhead).

What all that means to you is that I've managed to read maybe 75 pages in the last week. (Really. That's it.) Which also means no reviews, good or bad. (And that just plain stinks. Bites. Doesn't contribute to putting me in my happy place. Grr.)

But right now? I'm gonna go hug THIS:

There's definitely a boycat in my happy place. Oh, yes.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Runes, Lies, & Magics

It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again--an author I like (or, make that used to like) puts out a piece of schlock, leaving me totally out-of-sorts about being cheated out of a respectable chunk of valuable reading time (not to mention, some hard-earned money).
The absolute worst is when an author you really liked suddenly starts producing dreck. Now, other people may be much more forgiving or tolerant than I am, but once an author loses me due to a run of bad books, it’s very hard--okay, nearly impossible--to ever get me back. (I can think of two popular authors, off the top of my head, whom I haven't read in years because of this.)
My willingness to give the author another chance is commensurate with his/her abilities, naturally; if the author showed impressive talent in the past, I’m more willing to give at least a couple future books a chance. If that writer’s abilities were only marginal at best, though, I’m considerably less inclined to reach for his/her latest at the bookstore. 
This time, my disappointment lies with Jennifer Estep and her Web of Lies, the second in her “Elemental Assassin” series. True, the first in the series--Spider’s Bite--fell far short of being a fabulous book, but it was nonetheless an entertaining-enough read, worthy of my time investment (and the cash outlay). And, it was certainly interesting enough to cause me to seek out the sequel. Unfortunately, that isn't the case after reading this time. [You can read my review of Spider's Bite by clicking on the author's name in the column to the right.]
The good parts are still there, of course; namely, an appealing mix of characters (headed by determined, ballsy heroine Gin Blanco) and an unusual setting (Appalachian coal country, right where Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia meet). The living is just as rough for all the regular folks, the cops are just as crooked, and the wealthy, powerful “haves” are just as dangerous and almighty as before.
This outing finds the former assassin (known professionally as The Spider) retired, doing nothing more strenuous than running the barbeque joint her former mentor/handler left her in his will, and auditing courses at the community college. The bad news is that the monotony is taking its toll; the good news is that there’s no more bloodshed or broken bones.
Trouble walks in the door of The Pork Pit soon enough, though. First it’s a couple of punk rich kids, high on a mix of drugs and drunk on their own self-importance, bent on robbing Gin and having their way with two female customers. Gin and Sophia (her dwarven, Goth cook) handle the bad boys, no sweat. Next, Donovan Caine stops by. The man who may be the only straight-arrow cop in the entire tri-state area--aside from that questionable, regrettable one-night stand he indulged in with The Spider--hasn’t been in touch with her since their last meeting, a few months earlier. Those confrontations are "excitement" enough for Gin... and then a young woman pushes through the door of the restaurant, asking for The Tin Man. 
Fletcher Lane, the only father figure Gin has known for nearly two decades, hadn’t gone by that nickname in a very long time--ever since Gin took over the assassin duties from him and he became her handler. After this many years, having someone seeking out The Tin Man is unexpected, to say the least. But, before Gin can find out more, her restaurant erupts in gunfire, someone shooting at it from a building across the street. While Gin dashes outside to catch the shooter, the girl flees, leaving Gin none the wiser.
Fortunately, Gin’s new handler--Finnegan Lane (Fletcher’s son)--possesses major computer skills, and is able to track the girl, a Miss Violet Fox, via her credit card slip. Once they finally catch up with her, it’s only to encounter an angry giant (yes, really) dead-set on raping and killing her. They rescue her and resolve to help her, since it’s now crystal-clear that she must have a really good reason for needing The Tin Man. Besides, it’s what Fletcher would have wanted.
So, that’s how Gin finds herself coming out of pseudo-retirement and doing a pro-bono job for Violet and her grandpa, who’s being squeezed by a neighboring coal-mine owner into selling his land. (It’s also how she finds herself doing a little breaking-and-entering, a little moonlighting as another sort of “professional” entirely, being in close proximity to Detective Caine once more, and taking an unplanned-for tour of a coal mine, among other things.) By the time Web of Lies is over, the main mystery is solved, and another one--continuing from book-to-book--has seen some progress. In that sense, mission accomplished, I guess. 
But the problems, alas, are many. A big one is that Gin--who’s portrayed as a smart and clever sort--is appallingly dim. Honestly, I knew the Bad Person involved in the continuing mystery from the very first time the character was introduced, early in the first book... yet it takes Gin until two-thirds of the way through the second book to kinda-sorta figure it out. There is no reasonable explanation for her slow-as-molasses-in-January thought process; she lives there and already knows the main players, so it should be more than obvious to her. That’s incredibly annoying to me. (I'm not really a throw-a-book-across-the-room-in-a-pique-of-annoyance kind of gal... but I swear, if I hadn't been reading this one on my Kindle, I'd have been sorely tempted to try out my throwing arm a few times.)
An even-bigger source of irritation, though, is the repetition. Good grief, if I had to read one more time as Gin described Donovan Caine’s personal scent (which consists of “soapy and clean... mmmm” at least a dozen times), I was going to scream. (No, I’m totally serious here. SCREAM.) It wasn’t just the eau-de-detective, though, which got my dander up; she also explained repeatedly why she was “listening” to the rocks and bricks outside her house, and outside her restaurant, and... well, everywhere she went. (Really, I caught on the first several times it was described--using the same words, even--so I didn’t need a recap. And another. And still another, etc.) Ditto on the repeated mentions of the spider-rune scars on her palms (how she got them/how they feel/what they mean). And, yes, you guessed it; more of that infernal repetition when it comes to talking about why a relationship between Gin and the detective just won’t work out. (In one of the many mentions of this, the same words and phrases were repeated nearly verbatim in the space of the same conversation, even!) To me, that’s just lazy writing and sloppy editing; this book could have been probably one-fourth shorter if all the pointless rehashing of everything were excised.
(My theory is that this series is being rushed into production at breakneck speed, undoubtedly to take advantage of the current popularity of Urban Fantasy. Spider’s Bite came out in February, with Web of Lies following only four months later in June, and the third, Venom, is set to come out only four months after that, in October. Do the math; that’s three books, in less than one year. While a lot of readers have been known to moan about the long wait between new releases in their favorite series, I think Estep is setting an excellent example of what not to do, and showing why a longer wait is a much better plan.)
I still believe that Estep probably has an interesting story to tell, but this portion was so poorly-executed that I honestly don’t know how willing I'll be to try the next one; being a glutton for punishment isn't high on my must-do list. It will take some serious persuading for me to pick up the third book... but at the moment I just don’t see much reason why I'd allow myself to be persuaded.
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 2 out of 5 mousies

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Revenge & Retribution in the Heartland

For me, it all started a long time ago... when I was a child, staying up till the wee hours of the night (or morning), watching some made-for-TV movie about Jack the Ripper with my mom. Decades later, I have no idea what the actual movie might have been--although it probably wasn’t a very good one--but I do know that thus began my own curiosity with the particular subset of mass murderers commonly known as serial killers.  
But what, we might ask, does it say about us, to have something which almost borders on an obsession with these horrible criminals? (And if your first reaction is to shake your head, rejecting outright the notion that perfectly “normal” people could be so interested in any such thing, then a brief tour of the thriller section at your local bookstore is clearly in order.) No matter whether you're fascinated by them or not, the serial killer character--someone who repeatedly goes out and murders total strangers for no comprehensible (and certainly no defensible) reason--is here to stay, a popular fixture in books, TV, and movies.
Perhaps our peculiar interest has to do with the very foreignness of it; most people can’t imagine killing even one person, let alone killing a bunch of them. There’s almost certainly a bit of the horror aspect in it for us, too; reading about/watching these monsters lets us experience the thrills and the fear vicariously (like watching a slasher movie while munching on popcorn at the theatre). And, maybe there's an element of revenge in there, as well--a desire to see harsh justice meted out to an unquestionably-bad person (after he's committed a suitable number of atrocities, naturally).
Of course, there are no guarantees in life. The bad guys don’t always get caught.
Lieutenant Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels of the Chicago P.D. has been dealing with one such slippery killer in the last few books in author J. A. Konrath’s continuing series. And, in Cherry Bomb, the sixth in his lineup of named-after-cocktails books (following Whiskey Sour, Bloody Mary, Rusty Nail, Dirty Martini, and Fuzzy Navel), Jack meets her greatest nemesis once again, for what may--or may not--be their final showdown.
Cherry Bomb finds Jack at an all-time emotional low, attending a funeral on a cold and rainy day. A successful cop in her late-40s, Jack had only recently allowed herself to open up enough to have a real relationship again. Following a messy divorce, she’d given up on that sort of thing; it was simpler--and yes, safer--to keep everyone at arm’s length. When Latham--a good man, who understood how important her career was to her, and supported it--came along, Jack realized that maybe she could be happy again. And she was, until the serial killer she’d been trying to put away escaped and went on another killing spree... leaving Jack’s fiancé dead. Jack’s burden of grief--and even more, her feelings of guilt--are immense.
Serial killer Alexandra Kork, on the other hand, never experiences guilt, and rarely grieves. She has, to put it mildly, an extreme personality disorder. In the past, her behaviors were sociopathic, taking full advantage of her ability to charm her victims into compliance via a killer combination of attractiveness and magnetism. Everything changed, however, after a run-in with Jack left half her face permanently scarred, and Alex has become, out of necessity, more of a psychopath, evil without even a veneer of pleasantry.  
Alex definitely has the textbook history to be a serial killer. She and her brother Charles endured a strict, abusive childhood at the hand of an ultra-religious father on a farm outside Gary, Indiana, eventually growing up to become monsters, themselves. The only person Alex ever really loved was her brother... till he was taken from her by Lt. Jack Daniels, who finally caught the elusive serial killer and sent him to his death. Ever since, Alex has divided her time between continuing the random killings and plotting ways to make Jack pay--hence, Latham's death. 
Jack's response to being taken off the case is to take matters into her own hands, vigilante-style. Having only the cell phone which Alex had left behind as a clue--the one Jack was obliged to turn in to the police, but didn’t--Jack is resolved to go after the killer and end things, once and for all.
Unlike Alex, though, who has no friends, there are a few people whom Jack can count on, rain or shine. There’s her erstwhile (and still somewhat-injured after the last go-round with Alex) partner of the past decade or so, Herb. Her ex-partner, from her days as a rookie, the slimy (also injured, courtesy of Alex) private investigator, Harry. An ex-con (and cancer patient) who--for some reason she can’t fathom--is always around when she needs him, Phin. Her retired-from-the-job mom, now starting to seem like an "old woman". Her previously-deadbeat dad--who only left because he was trying to come to terms with being gay--now trying to play an active part in Jack’s life. Add in a couple of other cops--one of whom would help Jack do almost anything for the chance to hopefully get into her pants, and one who simply agrees with Jack’s plan--and she’s got a pretty fair support team. The flip side to that, of course, is that she also has the safety and well-being of that many more people to worry about. 
True to the other books in this series, there’s no shortage of action as Alex leads the rogue little band of crime-stoppers, so hot on her tail, on a wave of terror across Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana. (There are some interesting techie bits, involving cell phones, GPS, and explosives, along the way.) Nor is there any shortage of snappy banter and wisecracks; Jack may be feeling heartsore in this one, but her smart mouth isn’t going anywhere. For me, though, the best lines go--as usual--to the repulsively-boorish-yet-oddly-endearing Harry, a smart guy who pretty successfully pulls off looking like a moronic chump, most of the time. (I’d love to tell you about his Crimebago, and about Slappy, and the fate of a certain cashmere sweater, but... really, you’ll want to find out about those things for yourself. If this were a movie, I’d say those things alone were worth the price of admission. :)) 
As something of a break from the action and the craziness, we also get to see (briefly) a softer side of Jack, when she tries to work through her shattered feelings of guilt and despair over Latham’s death, and as she deals with Harry’s and with Phin’s concerns. None of it’s mushy, it just gives the characters a little more depth.
Cherry Bomb is full of action, as I mentioned, and I like that all of it feels “doable”, instead of being so ridiculously-plotted as to strain the bonds of belief. The ending takes place in stages, rather than one big finale, and that’s also good; nothing feels too tidy (which is so often the case). And I really do like the ending, because it sets up future books quite nicely. I’m looking forward to seeing where Konrath takes Jack Daniels & Co. next.  
Overall, this is an enjoyable series--a thrill ride with some laughs along the way. I’ll be the first to admit that it's a bit derivative. (To be entirely fair, though, it's probably really hard to be completely original in any genre any more.) So, while recommending it as a diverting-action-tale-with-humor, there are a couple of caveats. First, this is a hard-boiled series of the first order. Jack isn’t a fussy, frilly sort of gal; sure, she likes nice clothes and she (usually) wears makeup, but there isn’t much emphasis on stuff like that, at all. She doesn’t have a sweet little kitten or puppy, either; instead, she has an ill-tempered scrapper of a cat. Basically, she’s a take-no-crap kinda woman doing a tough job in what is still mostly a man’s world, and I like that... but some people may be put off by her. 
A bigger reservation in recommending the series concerns the violence. Fortunately, this isn’t a graphically "ooky" book, but the fact of all the blood, gore, and torture is always present. If you can’t handle even the thought of such things, it won’t be your cuppa. (Actually, if you’re the type to shy away from violence of any sort, you shouldn’t be reading any book about serial killers. Senseless deaths are what these tales are all about.)
On the other hand, if a modern-day, female version of a hard-boiled detective hero, mixed with a hodgepodge of over-the-top characters straight out of a loopy Carl Hiaasen caper, crossed with a Thomas Harris Hannibal Lector-style villain, sounds appealing, then this may be just what you've been waiting for to come along. 

Just make sure to save it for a beach read, when you’re surrounded by lots of people... or for when you’re safe at home, curled up on the sofa, with all the doors securely locked. You really can't be too careful, you know.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies 

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Ragdoll and His Book

See? I like books. (Dis iz a luvly book.)

And, um, clean feet. (Don't laff. U probly wish u cud kleen ur feet dis eezily...)

And, um, sleeping. (Obvsly. I iz kitteh.)

Books, clean feet, and sleeping.

I know there's more to life than that (liek noms!!), but this is a pretty good start. :)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Oh, Canada: Murder, Hockey, & Mum's the Word

Ah, Winter. How I love your cold, bracing winds and the snow you (hopefully) deposit in substantial amounts during your three-or-so-month reign. You make me feel so invigorated, and you give me a reason to own all those warm sweaters and cool boots. Of course, when you’re still leaving the white stuff around in April--as you occasionally do--my love affair with you becomes somewhat diminished. In the middle of summer, though, with temps hovering in the mid-90s? I love you, Sweet Winter, I truly do.
So, when a book set in Toronto primarily during the winter finally made its way to the top of my TBR pile? It was a happy July day for me, you better believe it. The fact that it’s a legal thriller was just more cause for celebration; it had really been awhile since a good courtroom drama found its way into my eager paws. (The blurbs on the dustjacket--quotes from others authors whom I regularly make it a point to read--didn’t hurt, either.)
Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall begins bright and early one blustery December morning, with an elderly man doing his usual thing, going about his retirement job delivering the daily morning newspaper to downtown Toronto residents. Mr. Singh--who had been an engineer in his native India--enjoys his new, late-life job; getting the news to the customers on his route in a precise and timely manner suits his conscientious and exacting nature perfectly.The real high point of each morning, though, is when he makes his delivery to the resident of 12A Market Place Tower. He and 12A--”Mr. Kevin”--have developed a pleasant little ritual: Kevin Brace meets Mr. Singh at the door for the handoff, after which they enjoy a freshly-peeled orange and a brief friendly chat in the hallway.
As I said, Mr. Singh is nothing if not punctilious, and when, one fateful morning, the door to 12A is ajar--but there is no Mr. Kevin standing in the doorway to greet him, Mr. Singh becomes most agitated. He waits a couple of minutes--not feeling it proper to intrude, but also not able to walk away without making sure his casual-but-pleasant acquaintance is quite well. When Brace finally appears at the door, it’s clear that things are most definitely amiss; he is disheveled, acting strangely... and has blood on his hands and bathrobe. Saying only “I killed her”, Brace lets Mr. Singh into the apartment, where the delivery man soon finds the other man’s wife--naked, in the bathtub, a stab wound in her chest, and unquestionably dead.
It would appear to be the proverbial open-and-shut case... particularly when the investigating police officers find a bloody knife--the murder weapon--in the kitchen, just a few feet away from where Brace and Mr. Singh are sitting, calmly having some tea. But things, of course, are rarely as they would appear at first glance.
As Canada’s #1 early-morning radio talk-show host, Brace is a famous man, which means, naturally, that his case will be huge. Many trial lawyers--on either side--would give their eyeteeth for the opportunity to be part of the proceedings. Nancy Parish is certainly happy enough to take the case when she receives a phone call from police headquarters informing her that Brace has asked her to represent him... by handing one of her business cards to the detective holding him. (Parish and Brace had actually met a few months earlier, when he interviewed her on-air for a piece on the difficulties that come with being a successful working woman, so it isn't completely out-of-the-blue.) Parish is somewhat less than thrilled, though, when she meets with Brace only to find that he is refusing to speak--not just to detectives or in court, mind you, but to her, as well. And his other stipulation? That she can’t tell anyone about this refusal to speak.
On the other side of the case, the downtown office for the Crown is operating off a list; as each new case comes in, the next prosecutor on the list will be assigned, regardless of experience, merit or any sort of preference. So, when the name of up-and-comer Albert Fernandez--who doesn’t follow radio, hockey, or anything else which doesn’t pertain directly to work--comes up (to the consternation of several of his co-workers), it's clear that he will soon be getting an unplanned lesson in Canadian pop-culture.
As for the police side of things, Detective Ari Greene has been investigating homicides for decades, and fully expects there to be considerably more to this one that meets the eye. With that in mind, he handpicks the first responding officer to the scene, Officer Daniel Kennicott, to help him. In his early 30s, Kennicott is a rookie policeman, who gave up practicing the law a couple years ago to join the force. Greene figures the younger man’s legal insights should help make up for any lack of experience.
These main players--plus a feisty-curmudgeon-of-a-judge, a loquacious crime-scene expert, a concierge with secrets to hide, an elderly woman with thighs of steel (from hot yoga, wouldn’t you know), a diner owner-operator in a remote and snow-covered area three hours north of Toronto, a group of codgers (all convicts) who play bridge together in the historic Don Jail (including the silent Brace, who communicates his moves via hand signals), a couple of scheming prosecutors, a sexy Chilean wife, a hockey-playing reporter, and plenty of other interesting characters--proceed to collide and bounce off each other throughout the book, trying to figure things out... or trying to prevent things from coming out, as the case may be. And all of this action plays out against a backdrop of Canada in winter--full of snow, bitter cold, and a whole lot of hockey. (A brief lesson: they don’t call it “ice hockey” up north; to them, it’s just hockey.) 
And the case? Well, like I said earlier, it’s hardly the slam-dunk it first looked like. The dead woman--Katherine Torn--was an alcoholic who couldn’t stay on the wagon. She had mysterious assignations with other men. Her parents reacted oddly to news of her death (although that may or may not mean something). The coroner finds peculiar bruising on her skin. Brace had been making substantial monthly withdrawals from his checking account, and--despite earning plenty of money as the morning voice of all Canada--the pair had been living abnormally frugally, pinching pennies and clipping coupons. Yet given all that, there’s still no clear-cut motive--something which juries invariably like to have. 
For the prosecution, the best part is Brace’s initial confession, uttered when he let Mr. Singh into his apartment that morning; of course, he hasn’t spoken a word since (not that anyone other than Brace’s lawyer, Parish, knows that part, though). And for the defense? Well, there really isn’t much reason to be positive. A client who won’t explain or defend himself--even to his own lawyer--doesn’t have a lot of hope on his side.
When the trial finally begins in May, the snow is gone and something even more momentous has just happened; the Maple Leafs have done the impossible, winning the championship for the first time in forever. So, Brace goes on trial, with a bit less fanfare than would normally be expected for such a high-profile defendant.
It really isn’t until witnesses are questioned on the stand that key pieces start falling into place for the detectives and the lawyers, and the bigger picture begins to emerge. From that point, it becomes a frenzied battle for Parish, Greene, and Kennicott to ensure that the right person is punished--and that any innocents aren’t made to suffer (more)--as both the defendant and the prosecution team seem intent on skewering Brace, as quickly as possible.
Old City Hall is everything a legal thriller should be; it’s a gripping and exciting tale with plenty of twists and turns--yet none of them come across as red herrings, thrown in solely for the purpose of confusing the reader. Instead, the facts come in random fits and spurts, only making some sense as other evidence gradually comes to light. This is an exercise in painting a picture slowly, just as things play out in real life. Rotenberg has created some memorable characters and given them all histories as well as interesting present-day lives; you can’t read Old City Hall without rooting for some of them. The city of Toronto is almost like another character, too, so pervasive is the feel, smell, look, and general atmosphere of the place. I really enjoyed reading about this city not often featured in books. Finally, the resolution is wholly believable; it isn’t telegraphed from a mile away, not one of those unsatisfying, overly-simplistic, black-and-white endings to a complex story. Instead, the author understands that there are few absolutes in life, and allows questions--and doubts--to remain, even on the very last page.
Although it certainly doesn’t bear any of the hallmarks of a novice, this is, indeed, Rotenberg’s debut novel.  So with that in mind, I say, “Good on you, sir... and keep up with this writing thing, eh?”. ;)
GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 catnip mousies   

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Candle, Candle, Burning Bright...

>>ARC Review<<

There are probably as many different ways to be a hero as there are ways to die... a fact which is important to note primarily because the two things are so often inextricably linked.
Just ask October Daye; she’s an unwitting expert in the myriad dangers that seem to ride shotgun with all those acts of heroism. It’s not that she ever set out to be a hero, though--or to continually put herself in danger. Things just seem to work out that way. 
In case you’re unfamiliar with the heroic Ms. Daye, here's a little background. Toby is Sylvester Torquill’s favorite knight in the fae realm known as the Summerlands, and she’s also something of a problem-solver for the fae in the human world. (She's particularly well-suited for these dual jobs by virtue of being a Changeling--half-fae, half-human--and thus able to function well in both worlds.) In the past, she's battled (and defeated) both a Changeling ex-lover bent on a ruthless, murderous quest to gain power (not to mention immortality), and a crazy half-Coblynau computer hardware whiz intent on carrying out an incredible - albeit ultimately futile - plot to “save” and “equalize” all of Faerie, basically by transplanting the essences of every fae into a vast computer program. (You're getting the idea, right? Have a tough job involving some nasty-angry-crazy fae business, dial 555-TOBY.)
As you might imagine, Toby has emerged anything but unscathed following these epic battles. She’s been shot, stabbed, beat up, and cursed--and we’re talking powerful magical spells here, not being subjected to some crude language. (She actually spent more than a decade living as a fish because of one such curse.) She lost her family, who moved on when they gave her up for dead. When a close friend was murdered, Toby had to use her own special ability as a half-Daoine Sidhe to “read” the blood (basically, reliving in her mind a play-by-play of all the horrible things that happened leading up to the murder, after sampling her dead friend’s spilled red matter) in order to catch those responsible for the heinous act. Her scars are both internal and external, and her sadness--not to mention a fair amount of bitterness--runs very deep.  
So, yes, when Toby wakes up each day, she’d really prefer there be considerably less of that charging-headfirst-into-danger penciled in on her daily planner. Her life is tough enough, without the equivalent of walking around sticking forks into wall outlets in flooded rooms during electrical storms. (Okay, that's just crazy talk, but then again, so are some of the things poor Toby has to take on.) 
As everyone knows, though, since when do Fate or Destiny listen to anyone’s druthers? An ordinary sort of life just isn’t in the stars for Sir Toby the knight or for Toby the San Francisco-based private investigator, who finds herself in yet another impossible, not to mention--hello!--ridiculously dangerous, situation in An Artificial Night, the third entry in Seanan McGuire’s continuing October Daye saga.
Fresh off her latest job--that of ridding a client of a most inconvenient Barghest infestation--Toby receives a panicky message from her old friend Stacy. It's the sort of terrible news which features in every parent’s worst nightmare: two of Stacy’s five children have gone missing, disappearing from home without a trace. In addition, one of the three remaining kids has fallen into a sleep so deep that she can’t be awakened. Toby is stunned; these people are the same as family to her. 
Her initial search turns up few clues, but her rose goblin, Spike, is anxious. It’s clear that whatever has happened is magical in nature, so she goes to see her friend Lily the Undine at the Japanese Tea Gardens. Things take a turn for the worse at the Gardens, though, when Tybalt appears... requesting Toby’s help in locating the five Cait Sidhe children who went missing the previous night from his Court of Cats. The final blow occurs when she returns home to find a desperate Quentin (Sylvester’s page and Toby’s friend) camped out on her doorstep, frantic because his completely-human girlfriend has disappeared, same as the others. Like it or not, the services of a hero are obviously needed in order to find these missing children. And, like it even less, Toby--who feels the loss of children more keenly than most, after losing all contact with her own young daughter years ago--is the only one who can fill those shoes.
Having already talked to Lily and Tybalt, Toby consults with more fae friends. She meets with the Luidaeg (scary First-Born god-like being who--fortunately--has a soft spot for the Changeling p.i.), and checks in with her liege Sylvester and his wife Luna in the Shadowed Hills. The consensus is that a very bad character who goes by the name Blind Michael is almost certainly the one behind the rash of child kidnappings, all part of his infamous Wild Hunt, the stuff of legend... and nightmares.
Nothing is ever simple for Toby (as you've probably cottoned by now)... partly because nothing is ever simple in Faerie. Blind Michael’s realm isn’t a place one can just drive to; there are three magical roads which lead there--each of which demands a certain payment from the traveler, and each of which may only be traveled one time. Toby has nothing more than a special candle--made of blood and magic--to guide her on her way, and even the candle has issues: if Toby can’t rescue the kidnapped children before the candle burns itself out, then they--and she--will be trapped. (With crazy Blind Michael. Under his command, forced to do his bidding. Forever, amen.) 
Still, there’s really nothing for it but to make the scary trip and enter Blind Michael’s world, where the situation she encounters is worse than any nightmare. It will take every bit of her ingenuity, along with some help from each of her friends, plus an ability to just let go of everything, to the point of reconnecting her own inner child, if Toby is to have a chance of succeeding... of being the hero who saves the day, rather than the one who dies trying. But, even if she can, somehow, pull off the impossible and rescue the children from the monster, the price demanded by the blood and the magic may still prove too high...
As much as I'm crazy about the first two books in this series--Rosemary & Rue and A Local Habitation--I love An Artificial Night that much more. It feels like this is the story I’ve been waiting for... without ever realizing that I was waiting for something at all! For the first time, Toby understands right from the start just what her mission entails, lending an added sense of urgency to her actions. Instead of having to figure out the whodunnit and the whydunnit, she already knows the who, the why, and even the how. The focus here is entirely on doing what must be done to accomplish the impossible, and it gives Toby cause to finally(!) admit that she isn’t an island... to see that she has friends who love and support her, and to acknowledge that she actually needs each of them--and their help--very, very much. An Artificial Night is both pure fairy tale--a spine-tingly reminder of all those fantastical stories from my youth--and gritty, tough tale, which feels really right. 
Like I said, though, I have mad love for this whole series (which, fortunately, has many books yet to come). I adore Toby, one of the most mature protagonists out there (she’s older! she has at least a couple of serious relationships already under her belt! she even has a teenage kid!), who is also fortunate enough to find herself plunked down smack-dab in the middle of some fabulous, old-fashioned storytelling. I'm enamored of the world the author has created and continues to build on in each successive book. It’s vast and vivid and so very alive to me. And, I'm totally hooked on all the fascinating “side” characters (okay, especially Tybalt, as if that comes as any surprise), who get fleshed out a little more with each book-- but especially in this one. There are still untold layers to all the characters, and to the world, and it all adds up to a sort of perfection for me.
Bottom line, I can’t wait to see what happens next! (Really. There are only a couple of other series out there that can match the level of excitement I have for this one.) Whatever new hell McGuire has planned for her characters, though, I'm confident that Toby will be front and center, plunging yet again into some thrilling, crazy-bad danger... trying her damnedest, as always, to find another way not to die a hero.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies!!
(Note: An Artificial Night was released on Sept. 7, 2010.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Knights, Wonder Woman, & Kittens... (Etc.)

I've been trying to work on a review--when I've been able to squeeze in a few minutes here and there, that is, which has NOT been easy, recently (hence, the "trying" part). Anyway, it's had me mulling over the nature of heroes...

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and the acts of courage (honor, bravery) they perform are just as varied. Still, most people have at least some idea about what the term "hero" means to them.
Many of us cling--rather tenaciously, too!--to our fairy tales. (Why? Because they almost always have happy endings, of course, whereas Real Life so often... doesn't.) We picture a brawny, armor-clad man with flowing locks, thundering in on his majestic steed to save the fair maiden from the clutches of an evil tyrant, shouting “Unhand her!” as he dismounts, with his trusty sword at the ready. (If you say you’ve never dreamed that, I won’t believe you. Certainly not if you're female. But, if that's really your response, I’ll tell you right now to stop reading, and hie off to the local library for a King Arthur or Robin Hood fix, stat, because you're missing out.) 

Men and women in flowing capes and tight spandex outfits (or specially-engineered impenetrable suits, or even a mass of, say, shaggy blue fur) spring readily to mind, too. (Me? I picture Wonder Woman. She's smart, totally hot, and has cool functional accessories AND an invisible plane.) These particular heroes--so fantastic they're known as SUPERheroes-- (almost) always get the bad guys. Awesome powers, cool gadgets, and wicked get-ups... yeah, that works.
Another image sure to be popular (also harking back to our grade-school years) is that of a sooty fireman--who valiantly risks life and limb each day--tenderly cradling a tiny kitten he's just rescued to his manly chest. It speaks to our sense of bravery, not to mention the always-important “awwww” factor (a given any time you put a big man and a wee kitten together, trust me). 
Other people choose more serious objects. For instance, a weary soldier, bravely heading out to battle once more, easily makes the list. (Actually, pretty much anyone in emergency services or the military does; it's sort of their job description, isn't it?) 
And then there are those examples a little less flashy (and less obvious)... like the protestor who boldly champions a cause, advocating change in the face of seemingly-impossible odds. Or maybe the devoted teacher, who works long hours for little respect and even less pay, in the unwavering belief that education matters. A parent, who goes without something, so his or her kids can have more. It might even be a kid who once stood up to a bully for someone else on a playground, long ago.
See, there's really no one "type" which covers all acts of heroism, no more than there's just one for the people who commit them. Yet, some thread must bind them all together. It can't be the expectation of fame and glory, since there's not exactly an abundance of that to go around. We can't just put it down to a surfeit of bravery or great physical strength, either; the passing motorist who heroically pulls an injured stranger from a mangled wreck on the freeway is as likely to be your shy, pudgy neighbor who regularly does nothing more dangerous than bookkeeping, as he/she is to fit into some traditional “hero” mold. No, the common denominator seems to be selflessness-- a willingness to put oneself at some degree of risk (or at the very least, some discomfort) out of a desire to help others.

Some days, it seems like there aren't nearly enough heroes out there... that if only the world were chock-full of them, it would have to be a better place. (Then again, if everyone were a hero, that would sort of render them moot, wouldn’t it?) 
Are we born to be heroes? Or are they created by fate and circumstance? (It’s one thing to say you’d dash into the blazing inferno/leap in front of a speeding train/lead a protest march/face the neighborhood bully... and another thing, entirely, to actually do it.) Most of us probably won't ever know... and that's, perhaps, as it should be. Super or not, I think we can only handle so many heroes.

Anyway, next up... a review about a book about a hero--a reluctant one, at that.

(Oh, and in the meantime? You can find me listening to a certain Bonnie Tyler song, over and over again...)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Yay. Independence.

So, it turns out I'm just like a cat and could really do without all the noisy fireworks, TYVM. (I could also live without the accompanying stink which will permeate the neighborhood for the next couple of days, after the people down the street have their yearly [illegal] light-'em-up-&-shoot-'em-off extravaganza tonight. Not too crazy about cleaning up the stray bits of their firecracker debris which will somehow find their way to my yard from half-a-block away, either.)

But--also like a cat--I totally get the spirit of the celebration. Being independent, free to make (at least some of) my own choices is, on the whole, a good thing. And, although there are plenty of choices I'm not allowed to make--courtesy of a plethora of pesky rules, regulations, and laws (not all of which I agree with)--it's certainly better than the alternative. (See? Just. Like. A. Cat.)

"Mommy, de only boom-boomz we needz today iz ME."

Oh, and our friendly public service reminder... If you absolutely insist on risking your own life and limb today with some of those exploding paper packages? Please keep your pets inside, safely away from your temporary insanity.