Wednesday, October 27, 2010

High Heels, Whiskey, & Murder under the Neon Lights

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

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

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Name of the Game is Revenge

An old and bitter rivalry, which has morphed over the years into an obsessive quest for revenge and blood...

Long-buried guilt over a series of tragic events that happened a decade ago...

A sometimes-partnership, one that has gradually progressed from wariness to a tentative respect and trust to something else, something more...

Hapless young Chinese women, who have unwittingly become prey for a sadistic madman bent on making a point...

These various elements come crashing together for one terrifying 12-hour period in S. J. Rozan's latest tale of suspense--once again featuring her New York private detectives Bill Smith and Lydia Chin-- On the Line.

The chain of events leading up to this eventful half-day begins with the mundane ringing of a cell phone. Bill, intently concentrating on the new piece he's been struggling to learn on the piano, stops what he's doing and picks up because the ring tone is Lydia's--the only person for whom he's willing to drop everything. Any warm tingles he feels at the prospect of talking to her come to a screeching halt, though, when she speaks only a couple of words... before the phone is taken away from her, and the voice in Bill's ear is replaced by that of someone using a voice modulator to disguise it. Lydia, the voice tells him, is being held captive.

As the conversation continues, Bill discovers he's dealing with a different sort of kidnapper--one who's making no ransom demands, not for money or help doing anything in particular. It is, however, someone who claims to know Bill well--taunting him when Bill doesn't recognize the voice--and who has only one request: he wants Bill to play a game with him. The kidnapper will provide various clues and evidence, and Bill's job is to figure out what they mean... if he ever hopes to see Lydia again. "You find her, she lives. You don't, she dies." The rules of the game? Bill can't involve the cops, he has only twelve hours, and the game clock starts right NOW.

Bill, normally a pretty cool customer, freaks out. Of all the things he's ever imagined happening, his part-time partner's kidnapping is bottom of the list. Still, it's not as if he really has the luxury of feeling sorry for himself here, so, after calming down enough to double-check Lydia's apartment and office (both empty), he calls in the only, definitely-outside-of-the-law experts he can think of--Lydia's young cousin Linus (hacker extraordinaire), and Linus's friend Trella (a sort-of Gal Friday, who--fortunately--seems to be proficient in all the things that Linus isn't).

The first batch of clues they receive initially appears to be nothing more than several odd bits of trash tied together in an orange trash bag... but after some head-scratching and brainstorming, the trio manages to make sense of them, and hop in a car to follow the trail. Their destination is a deserted, boarded-up bar in Brooklyn. Bill breaks in, only to find a young Chinese woman--bearing a marked resemblance to Lydia--dead.

That's a problem, obviously. An even-bigger problem, though, is the cops, pulling up all lights-and-sirens, only to find Bill standing over the dead body. He can't confide in them, according to the rules of the game--even if they'd believe him, which doesn't seem likely--nor does he have the time to waste being locked up while they investigate.

A little quick thinking, a little street-brawling, and one clever distraction (courtesy of Linus and Trella) later, finds Bill running down the street, free of his unwanted police escort... only to be snatched a block away by some very large, very unfriendly, and very well-armed Chinese dudes in a heavy-duty van. The dead girl, these new friends inform him, was a prostitute... and the leader of this anti-social crew just happens to be her out-for-blood pimp, none too happy about losing a high earner. From the frying pan into the inferno.

Fate has the grace to smile on Bill one more time, though, and after a quick phone call by Linus to his Aunt Mary--a cop (uh-oh) who is also Lydia's best friend--the pimp opts to set Bill loose (with a "we'll-continue-this-later" understanding). Yay, something to look forward to.

By-the-book cop Mary, meanwhile, is understandably furious with Bill (and with her operating-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law nephew Linus, naturally) for not going straight to the police despite the kidnapper's instructions, but she begrudgingly agrees to do what she can, without making it official, once the others make it clear that's the only way they'll tell her anything. 

And so it continues, over the next several hours... the kidnapper--whose identity Bill finally figures out, part-way through the game (for all the help that does)--leaving his little trash bags of bizarre clues all over the city, and Bill-and-company racing around New York, hearts in their throats, hoping against hope the next lead will point them to Lydia, safe and alive... and not to another dead woman. The Chinese pimp and his henchmen (all of them sure that Bill is to blame), as well as the cops (who have a warrant out for Bill, after escaping from them at the scene of the first girl's murder), are only a few steps behind at any given moment. And, the kidnapper continues making his periodic calls on one untraceable cell phone after another, taunting Bill... threatening, making fun, and showing signs of becoming increasingly manic, while the the game clock keeps on winding down. 

There are a few different ways this horrifying twelve hours could end... but only one of them is acceptable to Bill.

On the Line is the tenth book Rozan has written featuring Bill and Lydia, and she delivers in a big way, once again. Quite simply, Rozan does everything right. From the crisp, realistic dialogue, utterly-believable relationships, plausible villains, splendid sense of place (she breathes New York, and it really shows), to her innate understanding of so many different "cultures" (those encompassing variations due to sex, age, experience, and ethnicity), she never fails to craft a thoroughly-entertaining story... intelligent, poignant, thrilling, and honest.

I never know whether to describe Rozan as a brilliant suspense writer who always stretches beyond the bounds of that genre with her elegant prose, emotional depth, and vision... or as a superb contemporary novelist who pens some of the most ingeniously-crafted tales today, liberally peppering them with gripping suspense and heart-pounding action scenes throughout. 

Perhaps I should just say "her books are not-to-be-missed", and leave it at that. :)
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 mousies!


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Fairy Tale for Adults

Fairy tales are made of magic.

I wonder how many of you are sitting there right now, nodding (with the large, up-and-down head movements which signify your enthusiastic agreement, or maybe with those small, I'm-incredibly-uncomfortable-in-my-own-skin head bobs which indicate a more-cautious accord), compared to the number of you with a pained look plastered across your faces. "Fairy tales?", the skeptics among you are thinking. "Didn't we leave those behind in grade school?"

Well... yeah, most of us probably did... but why we did that is what I'd like to know.

Look at it this way-- most books do a decent job of throwing "real life" in our faces. It may not be the real life you or I have (and in the case of murder mysteries or horror stories, that's a really good thing), but you know what I mean. It's either the stuff we do, or the stuff we see on TV or in the news. Fantasies, on the other hand, are sort of like grown-up fairy tales, and they offer us something very different--a respite from what we see around us every day, a chance for our imaginations to soar and our dreams to take flight. (Who wouldn't want some of that, right?)

We appreciate fantasies well enough when we're young. At age 8, my friends all knew the same fairy tales that I did--scary stories with their dark forests full of menacing characters, threatening the lives/happiness of the good, who had to figure some clever--and often magical--way out of their predicaments. All these years later, though (yes, it's a lot; no, I'm not going to tell you how many), and probably only a handful of my former compadres have any interest in such things. Adults tend to liken fairy tales to cotton candy and rainbow-colored unicorns, forgetting the darkness and the thrills, and the absolute belief that "other" things are possible. The magic, you see, is gone.

There are always exceptions, though...  a few people who retain their sense of wonder, those who not only believe in the possibility of the magical, mystical, and supernatural, but can also bring them to glorious life. Patricia Briggs is one of them.

Although Briggs is better-known for her contemporary urban fantasy series (featuring coyote-shifter-and-mechanic Mercy Thompson), her roots are actually in classical fantasy. In fact, after having her very first book--the fantasy Masques--published (only to watch it go pretty much nowhere), Briggs continued in the fantasy genre, writing several more books before finally turning to urban fantasy.

Switching to the newer genre wasn't a mistake; her Mercy books are very entertaining (and popular) reads. But, here's the cool thing... Briggs has recently returned to her original love--literally.

Masques, as originally published, wasn't a "bad" first novel; it had an interesting central story line, and Briggs' talent for creating a fascinating world peopled by compelling characters was obvious, even then. But the finished product was, shall we say, a little rough around the edges. There was a choppy quality to the writing, and I, as a reader, was left wanting to know so much more. (When a reader is left wanting more from an author's first novel? Take that as a very good sign... provided the author follows through, continuing to get better, of course. In Briggs' case, she hit it out of the park.)

So, when given what is a mighty unique opportunity in the world o'writing, Briggs jumped at the chance not only to see the long-out-of-print Masques republished, but also to revise portions of her early work for the new edition. (How cool is that, right?) The result is less a do-over than a polishing-up; it addresses some of the inexperience evident in the original, finally giving us a really good story that at long last feels truly complete.

Masques is the first in what is actually a loose trilogy known as the "Sianim" books. (Don't worry if you read the books out of order; the only recurring characters are minor ones, and each story is really a stand-alone.) It follows the adventures of Aralorn, a most-unusual daughter of a nobleman, who opted to forego a life spent doing ladylike things in favor of going out on her own as a mercenary (first a fighter, and now a spy). Aralorn is also something more than what she first appears; she is a shapeshifter (albeit an untrained one), possessing a degree of "green magic" (the ability to harness magic from the earth around her).

In the midst of an increasingly-troubling political landscape--one in which the most powerful (and scary) mage in all the land, Geoffrey ae'Magi, is suddenly, inexplicably gaining overwhelming popular support--Aralorn discovers that she is the only hope. So, together with a very small band of other non-believers--one ousted king, a handful of poncey noblemen, a few tradesmen, several small children, plus her own sometimes-companion, a wolf (who is also not quite what he appears)--it falls on Aralorn's small shoulders to hatch a plan to defeat the evil ae'Magi... before he and his men--and his monstrous magical creations--can find where the rebels are hiding and destroy them.

Masques is full of vivid imagery and fascinating lore. I had no trouble picturing the forests, the snowstorm, the caves, or the castle. I loved the Man in the Mountain tale, and how the telling of it played into the story. Briggs also did a superb job of adding in more dialogue, lending the interactions (and the relationships which develop from them) more believability and greater emotional depth. This time around, her finished work is a complete story--exciting, touching, and very hard to put down.

Originally, fairy tales were full of evil characters bent on doing some very bad things. Black-hearted witches plotted to kill the fair maidens, dastardly bakers-of-cookies really threw plump little children into their ovens, etc. Pastel-rainbow-colored unicorns had no place in real fairy tales... yet somehow that's how a lot of those stories have been bastardized for today. Briggs, however, holds firm, maintaining the grittiness of her own first fantasy/fairy tale--good characters die! even kids! really bad stuff happens!--while also giving us the satisfying, exciting, fantastical, happy ending we all expect (and need) from our fairy tales. Briggs is bringin' the magic back for adults... and I absolutely cannot wait to get another taste of her particular brand of magic in the totally-new sequel to Masques (Wolfsbane, which is set to drop in early November). :)

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Obsession & Addiction on the Mean Streets of San Francisco

Addiction. According to the dictionary definition, it's "the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming... to such a state that its cessation causes severe trauma".

How unfortunate that the word itself sounds so innocuous, considering that it refers to something so unpleasant. Far better if it were an ugly word, guttural and harsh... something to be spat out, distastefully.

I don't suppose it really matters what it's called, though--either to the person dealing with the addiction, or to his/her friends and family. As far as the addict is concerned, the addiction is what defines him or her and drives most of his/her actions. For everyone else, it means a grim acceptance of the fact that life can really suck.

Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with some of the more-obvious signs of addiction; it's easy enough to spot the chain-smoker addicted to nicotine, and nearly as easy to pick out the drug abuser or the alcoholic. 

Other addictions can sort of hide in plain sight. A gambler or someone with an eating disorder often passes by completely unnoticed. So does a sex addict, who might look like anyone... from the suit on his lunchbreak to the grandfatherly fellow next door to the skeevy oddball you instinctively avoid on the street.  

It's the latter, a sex addict, whom we get to know very well in Stephen Jay Schwartz's Beat.

Hayden Glass is a detective with the LAPD's robbery and homicide division. Smart and tough, he has several years under his belt and a handful of commendations and honors to show for them. He's seen it all, working in a city riddled with crime--all the depravity, violence, and ugliness you can imagine. That's his job. 

But Hayden has issues of his own. He has difficulty controlling his urges, and on his last case, he finally snapped; he not only killed a murderer in order to save the latest victim's life, he went berserk, completely mutilating the killer's body in a blinding rage. His actions led to public commendation (for catching the killer and saving the victim), plus a private, mandatory six-month leave of absence (complete with psychiatric care).

Hayden also has another, far-more secret problem--an all-consuming addiction. Hayden, the successful cop, is a sex addict... and that enforced "vacation" time is about to introduce him to a whole new outlet for his addiction.

He used to troll the streets during his off-hours, looking for the "working girls" he'd noticed while on the job during the day. Satisfying his need was so easy. This leave of absence is leaving him depressed and cut off from his old life, though, no longer caring about much of anything... until one day, that is, when he sees an advertisement for a private online room while he's surfing the net. That little ad is about to change everything.

The detective becomes obsessed with the new form of gratification he's stumbled onto, and starts spending all his time--and a considerable amount of money--visiting these private rooms, where the women perform sexual acts on camera, on demand. He becomes infatuated with one woman, in particular: a fragile, red-headed beauty named Cora. After becoming one of her online regulars, they arrange for an in-person session... which soon leads to a full-blown obsession. He spends thousands of dollars making frequent trips to San Francisco just to have sex with her. Having sex with her is the only thing he thinks about, and he imagines that she feels the same.

Any happy ending to Hayden's little pie-in-the-sky fantasy life is cut short, though, when he walks in on something very bad one day, which leaves him beaten up and Cora missing. And, just like that, Hayden-the-cop comes out of his depression-induced lethargy, with only one goal in mind--being the knight on a white horse, riding in to save the object of his obsession (or affection, as he sees it).

There's far more at stake than Hayden realizes. The Russian mafia isn't about to let anyone damage their incredibly-lucrative sex slave trade in San Francisco. Corrupt SFPD cops with their hands in the Russian pie are no more thrilled than the mafia is when Hayden starts making waves. There's also the FBI, which has an ongoing investigation into the whole sordid business, to worry about. No one wants the rogue LAPD detective mucking about in things which can't possibly concern him.

A man obsessed isn't about to take no for an answer, though. With only a couple of wary SFPD detectives and an ambivalent local pathologist on his side, Hayden is determined to tackle the sex slave ring, contend with some seriously bad apples within the police department, and rescue at least one woman from an appalling life.

Beat isn't an easy book to read. Apart from the graphic violence you'd expect from a tough police-procedural dealing with murder, prostitution, and torture, it's saddled with an incredibly difficult hero. The descriptions of Hayden's sexual kinks sometimes come across as pathetic, but at other times, they're maddeningly misogynistic. (If he had more remorse for his desires and needs, those sections might be easier to read and identify with, to feel compassion for him... but he doesn't; he revels in the sensations and in his need.) It's a gritty story of an addict spiraling out of control, and the depiction of his downward spiral is just as ugly and seamy as you'd expect. 

Contrarily, though, it's that same unlikableness which also makes Beat so effective. Trying to find the good in Hayden forces the reader to look beyond his/her own knee-jerk reactions, to put aside prejudices, attitudes, and personal experiences, in order to find the redeeming qualities within this very-flawed character. (They are there. It just took me a little while to see them.) Hayden is on a painful journey, and I'm anxious to see how it all works out for him in future books.

Of course, Beat works not only as a psychological exercise, but as a gripping thriller in its own right-- fast-paced, exciting, and incredibly visual. Schwartz has concocted a darkly-twisted, devious tale of corruption and greed, cruelty and depravity, obsession and desperation... and given it a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat finale.

I hadn't heard of Schwartz before receiving this book to review... but with his combination of no-holds-barred writing, compelling dialogue, and an excellent feeling for the setting, he has most definitely won himself a place on my list of intelligent and challenging must-reads.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4.25 out of 5 mousies