Monday, September 27, 2010

Back to the Highlands: Jamie & Claire in Living Color

Everyone does it, and no matter what you like to read, I bet you've done it, too. You're reading along, perfectly happy, when suddenly you think to yourself, "Man, if only there were PICTURES in this book!".

That's perfectly understandable when you consider how much visual stimulation we encounter on a daily basis. TV, movies, video games, plus pretty much anything else that can be filmed then streamed to our computers and smart phones with only a few keystrokes, and... you get the picture, right? (Yep, that's a mostly-unintentional tee-hee, there, but it further illustrates the point, if you see what I mean.)

Of course, some things actually are hard to visualize--especially when you only have the written word to go by--and even when an author is adept at describing characters, scenes, etc., there are times when having a few pictures would help.

Occasionally, though, descriptions are so effective that the written word is sufficient. Take, for instance, Diana Gabaldon's Outlander. After finally getting around to reading it a few months ago (and yes, it took me long enough... although I devoured it once I finally picked it up! ;)), I was surprised to hear that a graphic novel was in the offing. Her depictions of everything are so vivid that a graphic version seemed almost superfluous. 

Then again, fast cars, exquisite jewelry, and luscious desserts aren't strictly necessary, either... yet we seem to derive considerable pleasure from having some combination or other of them in our lives. And, such is also the case with The Exile, the first graphic novel from Gabaldon's epic series, resulting from her collaboration with illustrator Hoang Nguyen.

Unlike the other (admittedly few) graphic novels I've read, Gabaldon takes a somewhat-different tack with The Exile. It's neither a wholly-new side story nor a straight-up retelling of her existing work. Instead, she's created a hybrid, using approximately the first third of her massive novel, adding a little bit of history before that story began, then switching the perspective. Unlike the original novel, though, which is told from heroine Claire's point-of-view, The Exile looks at events through hero Jamie's eyes.

As anyone familiar with the series already knows, the idea of condensing even one-third of a 650-page behemoth into a slender volume of illustrated frames is nothing short of mind-boggling. Outlander is so many things, rolled up into one immensely-satisfying and complex story: a romance, an historical saga, and an action-adventure tale... with dollops of sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery thrown in for good measure. How does one condense that??

For the most part, The Exile succeeds with flying colors (snicker). The addition of the pre-story, explaining how Jamie and his men happened to be in the area where Claire first appeared, works well. Gabaldon chose key events to focus on, so several of the major scenes that everyone remembers from the early portion of the book are included. And most importantly in a graphic novel, the illustrations themselves are simply stunning, with well-drawn and recognizable characters, wonderful attention to details, and glorious colors.

Where the book comes up just a smidgeon short for me is in its brevity. Sometimes it's a little confusing; there isn't an obvious segue from every chapter to the next, so it's a bit choppy in places. (And I think it would be nearly impossible for someone who hasn't read Outlander to really get the gist of the full story.) All in all, though, the end result is highly-satisfying; it's nifty experiencing the story from a slightly-different angle, and wonderful to see it brought to vivid, full-color life.

The book has one additional feature worth a special mention; much like the bonus section at the end of a DVD, The Exile has a "making of" section. Here, Gabaldon chats about the whole process, especially working with the illustrator and all the things they went through to get Claire and Jamie "just right". (I'm calling that the "Bosoms and Bums" portion. ;)) It's a humorous, behind-the-scenes look, and a lot of fun to read.

I've got my fingers crossed that The Exile does really well, and that the publishers will want to continue the series in graphic form. It's a super-cool change of pace... and a great way to relive and re-experience a sensational saga. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies


Saturday, September 25, 2010

A City Under Attack: Killers, Cannibals, & Stolen Dreams

Deep, dark secrets, buried a lifetime ago. Blatant deceptions and little white lies. Intense jealousy and bitter hatred. Paranoia and hysteria, obsessions and compulsions. Crazy, pent-up desire and ecstasy. Loneliness and the depths of despair. The mind is a complex and messed-up place, and author Carolyn Crane makes sure we know it.

Double Cross, the second book in her "Disillusionists Trilogy" (following 2009's Mind Games), runs the gamut of every one of those deliciously-deviant, scary, and trippy emotions and feelings--as well as the resulting actions--in what continues to be an utterly original and entirely entralling spin on the urban fantasy tale.

[Note: If you haven't read Mind Games yet, please read my review of it here, first. Better yet, after reading the review, click the link and get your very own copy of the book. It's good stuff. :)]

Now, to briefly recap where Mind Games left off...
Regular-gal Justine and her other "disillusionist" friends (all of whom suffer from one neurosis or another) managed to free their high-cap (human with a genetic anomaly which manifests in additional mental powers) boss, Packard, from his long imprisonment at the restaurant... but his freedom came at a price: Packard and his crew are now working for Police Chief Otto Sanchez, gradually disillusioning the other high-cap prisoners which Otto has been holding in check for some time by means of his own high-cap abilities.

There are a couple of big problems with this new arrangement. One, the whole business of disillusioning bad people--forcing them to give up their evil ways, then reprogramming them--creates a huge moral dilemma. Where's the element of free will? Shouldn't everyone be allowed the same right to choose his/her path in life, no matter what that path is? Justine, in particular, takes issue with it... even though the practice of disillusioning others is the very thing that allows her to live a mostly-normal life for the first time, free of her own severe hypochondria.

The second problem is that Packard and Otto are enemies and rivals of long-standing. Neither one trusts the other, and again, this puts Justine between a rock and a hard place. (Double entendre alert there, heehee.) Justine works--and still has feelings--for Packard; meanwhile, she's dating Otto, in an on-again, off-again relationship. (You just know that triangle can't end well, right?)

So, when we meet up with our fictional (loosely-based on Chicago) Midcity pals a few months later, there've been some changes. Otto is now Mayor Sanchez, as popular as ever... but his high-cap ability is still a big secret. (Less than half of Midcity's residents believe that high-caps even exist, so Otto doesn't see coming out of the closet as any sort of boon to his career.) On the personal front, Justine and Otto are taking things nice and slow.

That's the good part; now for the bad news. Midcity is under siege by a group of serial killers... or at least, the high-caps are, and the group of people responsible for killing them? They're doing something no other "regular" human has ever done before: they can somehow recognize high-caps on the spot, and are targeting them specifically.

When it rains it pours, of course, and the city is further thrown for a loop when one of Otto's still-imprisoned high-caps figures out how to use her ability to once more invade the dreams of others. Making matters worse, it looks like she's also responsible for sending groups of sleep-walking cannibals out to kill innocent Midcity residents. (Insert teensy break for me to giggle at the sentence I just wrote...)

Are you with me, so far? We have one group killing high-caps with the efficiency of a super-size can of Raid bug spray ("Killz bugz dead", remember?), and another group of sleepwalkers out there, jonesin' for some yummy human flesh. (Midcity. You totally want to move there, don't you?)

And if you'll recall Justine, previously caught between the proverbial rock and hard place? Well, that's where she finds herself again; she and Packard are ensnared together in the dreamcatcher's trap, experiencing each other's deepest, darkest, and most private dreams (including some things they desperately want to keep secret from each other). With Packard having to concern himself with the slightly-more-urgent business of catching the high-cap killers, though, it's up to Justine to figure a way out of the dreamcatcher-cannibal mess.

It's a mad race around Midcity, then, as the crew tries to track down two separate sets of bad guys. It involves the present-day city, which is being terrorized by the high-cap killers and cannibals, plus another version of the city set in the distant past, as it faced unspeakable horrors in what now appears as a confusing, swirling dreamscape of evil. And, in the midst of it all, Justine has to battle with who and what she is and with what she really wants, even while being pulled in all different directions.

There's no easy answer for Justine, or for any of her friends. Right and wrong, good and evil, normal and not normal--all are depicted in various (delicious) shades of grey. As the truth behind the secrets, lies, fears, and obsessions slowly emerges, Justine discovers that nothing is what she thought it was.

The question, now, is whether Justine can manage to save herself ... or if the bad things trying to pull her under will, in the end, prove too strong for her to resist.

Double Cross is one of those books I've really been looking forward to, and it doesn't disappoint. The premise--that regular people may/may not have these latent, very-special mental abilities--is an irresistible one, and the execution--showing that appearances can be deceiving, and that nothing in life is all black or white--is superbly realized. Crane has a flair for snappy dialogue and humor, and she's given us a nifty hodgepodge of messed-up, neurotic characters to do the interacting (just the sort of oddballs I always find so interesting in real life, actually). She avoids unnecessary filler, and seamlessly integrates the key plot points of the previous book into this one. She's also adept at creating not only visual but visceral psychological spaces; much of the emotional and scary stuff takes place solely within the confines of the mind, so it's imperative that we not just envision it, but that we also feel it and breathe it... and in Crane's capable hands, we do. :)
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Mousies!

Addendum: *headsmack* Doh! Bad kitty, bad! I almost forgot to thank Ms. Crane for the peachy-keen opportunity to win a spiffy ARC of this book (yes, the one I enjoyed so much!). Can we chalk my negligence down to excitement? :)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Lust, Murder, Obsession, & the Pigskin

Dark Horse (Jim Knighthorse Series #1)After listening--with an enthusiastic (could’ve been glazed) look on my face--to the first (well, probably two-hundred-thirty-ninth) person in my life as he/she proceeded to enlighten (actually, annoy-the-crap-out-of) me about the hilarity (hello--inanity) of the Three Stooges, I made a solemn vow to stop being so politic about the whole subject, and say what I really feel from the get-go in such situations (namely, that you’d have to hogtie me to a chair to get me to watch anything so mind-numbingly irritating).
All of which has what to do with anything? Well, a couple of things, actually. First, you’ve been warned about the Stooges and me, okay? And second, I’m trying to illustrate just how subjective humor really is; what one person--or even millions of them--find funny, won’t be the same for everyone. (Really, if you love the Stooges, that’s fine. Just please don’t drag me into it, ‘kay?)
What I like best is clever, witty banter, dialogue that preferably comes with a little “bite”; the off-the-cuff wisecracks from the smart alecks in the world (with an emphasis on “wise” and “smart”, there), and the dry, one-eyebrow-raised comments are right up my alley. Unfortunately, that kind of humor isn’t as easy to write as is broad slapstick, so when someone does nail it, it makes a big impression.
The newest addition to my short list of smart, belly-laugh-out-loud authors? The still-predominantly-self-published J.R. Rain. Chances are, you haven’t heard of him... yet. I hope that’s about to change, though, because this guy is that good.
In Dark Horse, Rain introduces us to private detective Jim Knighthorse, an ex-jock who was just one badly-broken leg away from an extremely promising career in the NFL. Instead, after that dream was dashed, he was forced to go for the considerably-less desirable Plan B... following his father’s footsteps into the p.i. business. 
Disappointment over what might’ve been has eaten at Jim for the past seven years, though, and when we meet him, he’s contemplating trying out for the San Diego Chargers. Yes, his leg still kills him... especially when he works it too hard. Or when he runs. Or when it rains. Pretty much all of the time, actually. But, everyone knows the world of pro sports is all about pushing past the pain, so he’s determined to make the team (or die trying out).
Meanwhile, his latest case is one he couldn’t say no to. Derrick Booker, a promising high school football player--much like Jim, himself so many years ago--has just been accused of murdering his girlfriend. The police case seems like a slam-dunk; no one can back up Derrick’s alibi, and the murder weapon was found in his car. Even worse, no one is interested in looking for alternatives; Derrick is one of only a handful of black students at his exclusive Orange County high school, and blaming the murder of the pretty white girl on him is such a “tidy” solution. 
Jim initially agrees to look into the case because of a natural curiosity about the young football star, now sitting in jail. After meeting with him, though, Jim latches onto the case with a fervor, because he believes that Derrick really is innocent... and the thought of the kid being tried as an adult, for a crime he didn’t commit, is more than Jim can stomach. 
Before long, Jim has a list of suspicious persons connected to the case, including a fellow student the dead girl refused to go out with (preferring Derrick, her true love); her own father (a scary man with violent tendencies); and her former band director (a movie-star handsome fellow who seems overly-fond of his female students). Helping Jim in his investigations are his best friend, now an officer with the LAPD; the dead girl’s sister, who has a unique perspective on events; an immigrant janitor at the school, who speaks little English and blends into the woodwork (as far as most people are concerned); and the school’s vice-principal, an attractive woman who slowly warms to Jim’s undeniable (especially to him) charms.
Obviously Jim has a life outside of work, too, and that life has plenty of problems. He’s crazy about his girlfriend (who, in a cool twist, is a descendant of Charles Darwin), but not sure just what’s happening between them. His relationship with his father is strained, at best, and doesn’t improve any when the old man dumps a major surprise in Jim’s lap, a piece of ancient history. And, of course, there’s that whole Chargers/NFL-career thing to think about (including his bum leg, which isn’t remotely happy about being put through the grueling training sessions).
There’s also a professional killer on Jim’s back, leaving increasingly-persuasive threats to back off the case. (Having bullets fired at you does tend to make you question your present course...)
Last but not least, there’s the bum named Jack--who may or may not be The Big Guy Upstairs, manifested down here on Earth in a less-than-godly form), with whom Jim occasionally shares coffee and philosophical conversation at a local McDonald’s. (Yes, seriously. No, don’t ask. Just read it.)
Throughout, Jim is one funny guy, with some absolutely hilarious comebacks. He’s always very tongue-in-cheek, but most especially when soliciting compliments about his own handsome, virile self. (No, he isn’t obnoxious; I said “tongue-in-cheek”, okay?) He and his cop-buddy have the ease of long-time friends, and they’re very funny together. And, since the story is told in the first-person, we get to enjoy Jim’s unspoken-but-equally-humorous thoughts, too. It’s all great fun.
Dark Horse is a quick read; at only 287kb--which I’m just guessing is somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 pages--the story moves along briskly, without a lot of extraneous filler or distractions, yet is long enough to solve the mystery (which is actually a rather good one), and to tell a complete story really, really well. 
There’s only one thing to note, which may pose a problem for some people: currently, Dark Horse is only available in digital format. (I have it on Kindle; I don’t know whether or not other e-readers can load it.) If you have a Kindle (or use the Kindle app on another gadget or on your computer), the story is well worth the very low price Amazon is charging for it. And, since Rain has several other digital books out now--with a couple of them available in print version, too--there’s plenty more belly-laughs, giggles, and smirks in store. I’m already grinning. :D

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 mousies!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Guilt, Redemption, & a Mother's Love

To what ends will a mother go for her child? Are there lines she cannot, will not cross... or does the mother-child bond trump all? That is one of the primary questions at the very heart of NY Times best-selling author Nancy Taylor Rosenberg's latest legal thriller,
My Lost Daughter.

Lily Forrester is definitely one of those "bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan" kind of women. But, after spending the last twenty-eight years working overtime, trying to make a good life for herself and her daughter--first, climbing up the ladder from prosecutor to superior court judge in the competitive California legal system, and then, trying to keep the family afloat while her alcoholic husband's career  languished--Lily is fully aware that she hasn't exactly been the model mother... and that her daughter, Shana, has always resented her for it. 

The rift between them has continued to grow over the years, turning Shana into a spoiled, bitter young woman. So, when Lily has some good news, she juggles her busy work schedule so she can fly up and tell Shana in person, hoping to repair some of the damage. What she finds at Shana's apartment is hardly encouraging, though; the place is filthy, and an unkempt Shana stares blankly at the static-filled TV. One screaming fit later, and Lily fears the worst: her daughter is having a meltdown. Lily does what any frantic parent would do today--a quick Google search to find the closest mental health facility, where Shana can presumably receive some medication.

The people running Whitehall Hospital have other ideas, however. The orderlies bundle Shana off to a room by herself, force her to sign some paperwork, and administer a knockout drug. At the same time, the administrator tells Lily that Shana has not only willingly checked herself into a meth-addiction program, but that she's refused to see her mother again. Lily has no choice but to leave her there.

What follows is a terrifying ordeal of abuse for Shana, as she endures solitary confinements, subsists primarily on a cocktail of mind-altering drugs, and has no contact with the outside world. Even in her perpetually-drugged state, though, she is her mother's daughter, and can tell that something is very, very wrong at Whitehall. She also knows that the people in charge have no intention of letting her go any time soon. (It's a horrible experience, but the peek inside life at a facility such as this is a fascinating one, and Shana's interactions with the other patients offer a compassionate look at some of the people suffering from mental illnesses.)

Elsewhere, FBI Special Agent Mary Stevens is elated when she realizes that she's onto something big; she has detected an unusual pattern among four separate homicide cases. Each victim was shot in the exact same spot (base of the brain stem), with the head at the same angle (chin almost touching chest), by the same type weapon (a very expensive handgun). Each victim also had legitimate reasons for wanting to die, one of them being the life insurance policy their survivors would be able to collect on. She's certain that the same shooter must have killed all the victims, in some kind of assisted-suicide arrangement.

The tension ratchets up even more, though, when she realizes that the interval between deaths has decreased, and that the killer, who seems to have settled in California, is making his way toward Los Angeles. Mary knows that once the killer reaches L.A., he'll be next-to-impossible to track down. She has to find him now.

After weeks of being kept incommunicado, Shana is finally allowed outside contact, and it's no surprise who rushes to the rescue. And Lily, the lifelong righter-of-wrongs (and very angry Mama tiger), means business; when she runs up against a brick wall with the local police, she pulls out the big guns, turning to her old FBI friend, Mary Stevens. (Convenient, yes, but we have to bring those parallel stories together sooner or later...)

Meanwhile, a sociopathic madman with a real penchant for killing has found a new obsession... someone he noticed during his latest sojourn at his favorite mental institution. Shana. (I know, it's sort of predictable, but it works just fine within the framework of the story.)

Rosenberg has crammed her nearly 450-page tale not only with multiple plots, but also with a lot of backstory, as characters think about the events, decisions, and actions leading up to the present moment. At first, I assumed it would be distracting, but the memory interludes turned out to be interesting enough that I actually looked forward to them. (Many of Lily's memories are rehashes from earlier books--so Rosenberg's fans will already be familiar with the events described--but they don't really come across like old news; Rosenberg has found a clever way to provide new readers with the necessary history without the awkward clunkiness we usually see in such retellings.)

A lot of space is also devoted to one of Lily's cases-- a case which has virtually nothing to do with Shana's predicament or with Mary's serial killer. Instead of being annoying filler, though, the details of that case--and the opportunity to watch Lily perform in and out of the courtroom--were compelling in their own right. (As a matter of fact, I would have enjoyed an entire story built around that one case.)

My Lost Daughter isn't a "perfect" book, though. I could have done with a little less relationship melodrama; Lily had issues with Shana, her ex-husbands (both of them), and her fiancé, and all that angst wore me down a bit. I know it's fiction, but there's just no way Lily's sex life could always be that good, either (especially not the drunken sex). The sentimental talk between Lily and her fiancé was a little much (or should I say, mushy). And a cat killer? A cat killer??? I am so not happy about that.

Still, given that I finished the whole book in less than a 24-hour period, it's only fair to overlook a few small quibbles (well, not the cat killer)... especially since there was clearly so much about the book that was good. Thriller and suspense fans should definitely jump on this one, because it's a fast-paced story has no trouble enthralling you for those 450 pages. 

It's funny--for one reason or another, it had been a few years since I'd last picked up one of Rosenberg's books... but My Lost Daughter has just made sure that I don't miss the next one. :) 

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

***Now, for the goodies... a SPECIAL GIVEAWAY!! (Woo-hoo!) Leave a comment below, pertaining to the book, the review (or my boycat, who is always in need of more adoration :)), in order to be entered in a random drawing to win a free copy!! (U.S. readers only, please, unless you live elsewhere are are willing to foot the bill for international shipping costs... in which case, you're eligible, too!)*** 


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Crime and Magic Under Cover of Midnight

First impressions can be misleading. Take, for instance, author Kelly Gay's series starring Atlanta detective Charlie Madigan. If you only glanced at the covers, you might think the set-up sounded pretty derivative.

I mean seriously, don't many of us have to admit to more than a passing familiarity with all things supernatural (in this case, jinn, ghouls, nymphs, sirens, and even a dragon), and with characters who conduct some sort of witchcraft or produce magical results (witches, mages, various healers, and the like, here)? Haven't we run across more than one of these fate-of-the-world, impending-mega-doom-and-destruction scenarios? Doesn't seeing Atlanta, Georgia function as the backdrop for all of this magic-making and mayhem ring a bell? And, haven't we read umpteen cop "buddy" stories--a great number of which involve a pair of opposite-sex partners (who may or may not have some chemistry together)--and watched them solve crimes and put away bad guys?

Wait... what? 

See, that's the thing. Gay's "Dark" books (starting with 2009's The Better Part of Darkness, and continuing with the recently-released The Darkest Edge of Dawn) might contain some elements we've seen before, but it's what she does with them--mixing conventions from multiple genres together and creating a new and imaginative world--which sets her work apart as something a little bit different.

For instance, she tweaks things by giving her stories an intergalactic dynamic (and, although I worried at first that it would be hard to keep track of three different races--the regular humans plus the off-world Charybdons and Elysians--that wasn't a problem). Her end result is a cool hybrid; it actually feels considerably more like a traditional police procedural/ thriller, full of gritty urban realism--with a little sci-fi thrown in (via the visitors-from-other-worlds)--than it does a run-of-the-mill urban fantasy story (aside from the supernatural elements I mentioned earlier). The bottom line is that I am really digging her mash-up.

[By the way, if you haven't read The Better Part of Darkness yet, check out my review on it here, first, because spoilers from the first book follow.]

When last we saw Charlie, she was definitely a little worse for the wear. Sure, she managed to defeat the high-and-mighty Charybdon noble/evil madman, Mynogan--the man solely responsible for bringing the highly-addictive-to-humans drug ash to Earth--when she foiled all of his carefully-laid plans to seize control of our world by putting everyone into an ash-induced stupor. She also succeeded in rescuing her pre-teen daughter Emma from Mynogan's evil clutches without any harm befalling Emma. The cost to Charlie, for these heroics? Just some assorted bumps and bruises from a few knock-down, drag-out brawls... plus the chance to spend some nice quality time alongside Myongan, sharing space in his mind. Unsurprisingly, the result of that last (near-death) bit of fun was an altered Charlie, a person who knew herself not only in some metaphysical way, but who'd also gained a new understanding of her ancestry... of who and what she really was.

Of course, Charlie wasn't the only one who emerged from the chaos changed. Her younger sister Bryn became hooked on ash after being exposed to it during the rescue attempt. Charlie's ex-husband Will, guilty of practicing dark magic in secret, wound up in big enough trouble to necessitate cutting a deal with the devil--that his dying body would remain alive, while his mind was taken over by a spirit (named Max) who happened to be in need of a host body. Even the city of Atlanta itself suffered, when Mynogan put it into a state of perpetual darkness prior to his demise--a nice little parting gift, if you will. So, a couple of major victories, and a lot of residual damage.

The Darkest Edge of Dawn picks up the story two months later. Charlie is still healing, and she's been training with her nymph mentor and co-worker, Aaron, to learn how to use her newly-acquired powers. (Remember the ancestry and bloodline bit? The powers she gained after the little mind-meld with Mynogan have to do with that.) Bryn is still an ash addict, and will be one until somebody figures out a cure; the value of ash as a weapon is that if the addict stops taking it, he/she will die, period. On the homefront, Charlie has been letting Max stay in her house, but it's not easy living with someone who looks/sounds/smells just like her ex-husband... but isn't him, any longer. Plus, she managed to acquire an illegal hellhound after that last adventure, and he's staying in a doghouse out back (when Emma isn't sneaking him into the house to sleep in her bedroom, that is). Charlie's plate is full.

People don't suddenly stop committing crimes, though, so Charlie and her partner, Hank the siren, are no less busy at work, and their newest case? It's shaping up to be a doozy.

It seems that several of the Adonai--the most powerful class of the Elysians--have recently gone missing, without a trace. Searches thus far have proven fruitless. When a tip leads Charlie and Hank to an abandoned warehouse, they make a gruesome discovery: the bodies of all the missing Adonai, tossed into a big pile on the floor of the otherwise vacant building. A little hocus-pocus by their medical examiner (who also has certain "special" abilities), and the most-recently-deceased Elysian is revived, just long enough for the detectives to see if they can glean any clues about her last minutes alive. What they learn from her isn't much, but it's enough to worry them; the only beings with enough power to brutally murder that many of the mightiest Elysians are the strongest of the Charybdons, the nobles--and if that little tidbit were to leak out, it would almost certainly lead to war, which is something Charlie and Hank wish very much to avoid.

With that in mind, they set about learning as much as possible about the last victim. They find connections to the jinn, who are the Charybdon warriors, which means a visit to the Underground lair of Charlie's arch nemesis, Grigori Tennin, leader of the jinn. (Think Tony Soprano and all his henchmen at their nastiest--only imagine them with dark grey skin, being incredibly strong and buff, rather than pasty and overweight --and you get the picture.) Charlie starts having weird visions and dreams, seeing writing crawling underneath her skin and picturing things that haven't happened... but which seem all too real.

Going home at night isn't much better, because there Charlie is just assaulted by problems of a different sort. Emma has a mind of her own... and maybe some brand-new powers, which she's been hiding from her mother. Rex is impossible to live with... and that's before Charlie gets a bill from a debt collector for more than $20,000 Rex owes, past due, payable to the jinn leader. Bryn is miserable, neglecting both herself and her work under the influence of the drug. And Hank is... well, Hank is different, too, in ways Charlie finds herself completely unprepared to handle. [Gay's writing is very strong when depicting the relationships between her characters; they have intelligent, interesting dialogues (and inner monologues, in Charlie's case), and their reactions ring true.]

As racial tensions escalate, Charlie finds herself in the middle of all the bad stuff once more, and against nearly insurmountable odds, she and Hank prepare to make one last, glorious stand. (No pressure; it's only the fate of Atlanta, and perhaps all of Earth, hanging in the balance.) It's as exciting and visual a confrontation as anyone could hope for, playing out like a fantastic scene in a really good action movie.

Obviously, it isn't exactly spoiling anything to say that the good guys are victorious... but only partially so, with plenty of things left unresolved, to be dealt with in future books. (Don't worry, though; there isn't a big cliffhanger at the end, if that kind of thing chafes your backside.) The characters' personal lives are likewise in a state of flux, with many different paths they may or may not choose to follow. I'm not sure what choices they'll make--or where author Gay is leading them--but I've reserved my seat for the full journey.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Girl Who Led a Revolution

John Lennon might have believed a better future was within reach when he penned "Imagine" nearly forty years ago, but my considerably-more-pessimistic take on humanity causes me to conclude that his vision was little more than a sweet-but-naive pipe dream. (I mean, sure, I enjoyed all the various iterations of "Star Trek"--with the wholesome "Prime Directive" and the "we're-all-equal-pals" federation--as much as the next sci-fi geek did... but it was all those other TV shows and movies set in outerspace--the grungier, nastier ones free of any lyre-playing--that I actually found sort of believable.) So, while Lennon's little wire sunglasses had a rosy cast, my own plastic ones sport a murky, grey-brown tint--and it's through them that I'm picturing a very un-Lennonesque tomorrow... a world full of hungry, desperate people, who never seem to have enough of anything--money, resources, or opportunities--and are concerned only with basic survival. A world full of people without hope, in other words.
Grim, yes... but when you consider that you have only to pick up a newspaper or flip through the TV channels to be inundated with countless images of unhappiness and hard times, it's almost impossible to think otherwise. There's never a shortage of stories about blighted areas, or scenes of lands utterly devastated by natural disasters, or pieces on war-torn countries full of displaced people who have nothing left. Real-life isn't painting us a pretty picture here, folks.

It's hardly surprising, then, that so many writers choose imminent doom-and-gloom scenarios for their subject matter; there are tales aplenty cautioning us against letting all the bad stuff subvert what little good still exists. The warnings aren't always delivered with the force of a sledgehammer, either; in the best examples, the message is carefully couched in elegant prose, vivid imagery, and fantastical situations--hovering just beneath the pretty, shiny surface for anyone who cares to look for it. So I'm really not surprised that there are some very good dystopian stories out there; what floors me is the realization that my hands down pick for the absolute best of these works isn't shelved in the "literary fiction" or "sci-fi" sections at the bookstore... but instead, can be found in the "young adult" area.

I can remember making many trips down the aisles of what used to be called the "juvenile" or "children's" section when I was a young child--but definitely don't recall finding much there that I'd have wanted to read as a pre-teen or teenager (let alone as a grown-up). Times have changed, though, and a perusal of the YA section these days nets even bonafide adults some intelligent and thoughtful reading... including, notably, the flat-out brilliant "Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins.
The recently-released Mockingjay is Collins' grand finale in the trilogy, and what a finale it is. (I honestly can't say that this third book is better than either of the preceeding ones--The Hunger Games or Catching Fire; each book in the series is a beautifully-rendered piece, telling a complete part of the story while meticulously uniting all the threads together.) Mockingjay is simply the perfect ending to a magnificent--even important--body of work.   
For the benefit of anyone not well-versed in it, the series is set in a post-apocalyptic world at some unspecified (but probably not-so-distant) future point, and centers on an area (which seems roughly-comparable to the U.S.) known collectively as "Panem". Panem is divided into thirteen districts--the Capitol, where life is sweet, and the remaining twelve districts, which fall under the Capitol's rule. Each district specializes in producing something (mining, crops, textiles, etc.)--the proceeds of which mostly wind up benefiting the Capitol, with only minimal sharing amongst the other districts. Such a system leaves most of the districts very poor, full of hungry people who enjoy few (if any) pleasures. Strict rules are in place regarding what the people can and can't do; personal freedom doesn't exist. In a world like that, hope is in short supply.
By far the most demoralizing aspect of this lop-sided relationship between the Capitol and its districts, however, comes in the form of an annual event with mandatory participation. In this event--known as the Hunger Games--two children are plucked from each of the twelve districts each year and forced to compete in a brutal, no-holds-barred, gladiator-style match to the death, which is televised live--and is required viewing--all across Panem. (Only the Capitol's children are exempted from the yearly lottery drawings which determine those youths participating.) The victor--the last boy or girl standing--is then allowed to live a life of relative luxury, back in his/her district, along with the victor's family. (Meanwhile, the other twenty-three families have to deal with not only the same undesirable living and working conditions as they had before, but also with the mind- and soul-numbing heartbreak of losing their children to such barbaric and senseless deaths, for the "amusement" of a privileged few.)

Lest anyone shrug off the idea of the Games as absurd, merely some convenient fictional device, remember that this sort of thing is hardly without precedent... and nor is having an enthusiastic audience bearing witness to the "sport". Gladiator death-matches in ancient Rome were popular events, and all manner of publicly-viewed punishments (beheadings, hangings, burnings-at-the-stake, mutilations, etc.) have been eagerly-attended throughout history. What purpose do they serve? Often, they're a means of exerting control over people, and such is the case here, too, as the downtrodden districts are kept in line by being forced to participate every single year in the agonizing lottery drawing and the Games which follow. (It's an "if you think this is bad, just imagine how much worse we could make things for you, if you don't toe the line" form of control, and it's fairly effective.) Also, don't forget that we actually have modern-day versions of such contests (albeit, non-lethal ones); consider the huge popularity of the TV show "Survivor". Although it's purely for sport and entertainment right now, a precedent of sorts has been set by leaving us comfortable and familiar with the whole spectacle.  
When the first book begins, we find ourselves following the journey of one Katniss Everdeen (only 16 years old when she first volunteers in place of her younger sister in the District Twelve drawing) and her co-competitor, Peeta Mellark, as they prepare to compete in the 74th Games. What follows is every bit as horrifying as the worst nightmare; the Gameskeepers can control what sorts of obstacles the competitors must contend with, so not only do the children face off against each other--armed with weapons meant solely for the purpose of killing--but they also have to deal with the capricious whims of the Gameskeepers, who delight in throwing impossible survivalist situations at them... all to create a more exciting spectacle for the viewers. To say that it's a truly shocking turn of events when the outwardly cold and calculating Katniss and her partner from Twelve, the generous and considerate Peeta, somehow manage to pull off a joint win, is an understatement.

The Capitol, naturally, is displeased at being shown up by a couple of teenagers, and in the second book we see them punish the pair exactly one year later, as part of the special, 75th-anniversary Games--by engineering it so that every winner (still living) from the past seventy-four contests will serve as the current year's competitors. (If you're wondering whether you did the right math in your head--that teenagers and octogenarians, alike, will be pitted against combatants of every age in between--then yes, you did.) The majority of the players die... but this time, there's a handful who band together--forming friendships in some cases and alliances in others--and manage, somehow, to come out alive.

The Capitol is once again in a state of shock... but there are huge shocks in store for Katniss and Peeta, as well, when they learn that they're actually an integral part of a much-larger scheme... a plot, many years in the making, to overthrow the oppressive Capitol by first uniting all the Districts in a common cause. The impetus for uniting the disparate peoples? Katniss herself, the co-winner of not one, but two, Games, now to be restyled and fashioned into a colorful, daring heroine: the Mockingjay, face of the new rebellion. (Peeta's job, meanwhile, is to be the calming, levelheaded partner to her flash and impetuosity.) The Capitol isn't about to sit idly by while the Mockingjay goes into action, though, and the second book ends on a bad note for the rebels, with some casualties, several people captured and imprisoned, and many others seriously wounded.

The third and final book, then, revolves around the role of the Mockingjay, leader of the people--but it is so much more, besides. We learn who survived and who perished, and we discover the fate of those who are in a sort of mental limbo, a place between sanity and insanity. We observe as the rebels train--with the meager supplies, equipment, and forces they can scrounge together or create--all so that they can go out on insanely-dangerous missions in an attempt to win the support of the other districts before Capitol forces can come in and wipe everyone out (because they realize that only an entirely-united front has any shot at succeeding against the wealthy and well-equipped Capitol). We're privy to the tiny, rare moments of something akin to joy. We see unexpected friendships and even love blossom, much like tender little shoots poking up determinedly through rocky, unyielding soil. We have front-row seats to the war once the rebels are ready to wage it. We hold our breath as they try desperately to figure some way out of yet another terrifying, certain-death situation. We cringe as we see them suffer; we cry as we watch them hurt and bleed and (some), die.

And, we exalt when we realize that some of them survive. Not, necessarily, who or how we might have thought (or hoped), but... there are survivors, those on whom it will fall to carry on, to honor those sacrifices which have been made over the years, to rebuild all that has been destroyed, and to finally just... live.

In the end, we're left wondering what tomorrow might bring, both for the former rebels... and for ourselves. It is somewhere in all of that uncertainty that our fragile future lies. What we make of it, though--whether we aim for Lennon's idealized, more utopian world or just settle for a bleak, dystopian one--is up to us.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 5 out of 5 mousies!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Furry Wisdom Gets You Every Time

It took me almost one entire week to read a book I should have been able to finish in two days. o_O

You're thinking that it must have been an incredibly awful book, right? Something so bad it was like facing the dentist (armed with that horrid, noisy drill) over and over again, to get me to read it? Well... um, no, not so much. This was actually one of those rare, OMG-this-is-so-amazingly-awesome books.

Huh. Then, I was probably moseying along at what was surely less-than-an-injured-snail's pace in order to savor it, to make it last longer, yes? Erm... yeah, okay, that sounds good. Let's go with that.

(Of course, I was also busy with work and life and... all that other stuff. So there's that, too.)

Anyway, this means I should have a review up in the next day or so (depending, as always, on how quickly I'm able to switch gears, focus, and formulate some sort of remotely-coherent thoughts... Hmm.).

For now, though, here's a pearl of wisdom from my boycat--wisdom which, coincidentally, happens to have a lot to do with the book in question...

(Furrendz furever.)
... good to tell stuff to...
(Sekrets: we haz dem.)
...right there by your side...
(Ohai, u agin?)
...and they always have your back.
(Ahhhhh, I noo I kept u arownd fur sumfin, Snowy.)

Real friends are special. Know who they are, and never lose sight of that fact. :)