Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Ancient Prophecy Never Means Good News

There aren’t many constants out there in the world, but one which seems to always hold true is that all of us will never really, truly, get along with each other.
Pessimistic, you say? Okay, fine... guilty as charged. Still, history argues pretty persuasively against the likelihood of any sort of widespread, lasting peace. From the days when cavemen stomped the Earth--when the males battled each other with clubs over who got the biggest hunk of meat from a hunt (survival), or got to claim the healthiest cavewoman (both survival and power), to today--when we still fight over survival and power, plus a whole mess of other things, we’ve proven ourselves to be quite the warmongering species.
So, just imagine what life on Terra Firma would be like if we threw zombies, vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, etc., into the mix. (One big party? Um, yeah, not so much.)
Last year we were introduced to just such a mix in Nancy Holzner’s Urban Fantasy Deadtown, the title of which refers to the special, few-block area in Boston reserved for all of the city’s other inhabitants--the “paranormals” and “previously deceased humans”. The fact that  Boston's powers-that-be have seen fit to segregate whole segments of the population--cramming them into a tiny neighborhood from which they aren't allowed to leave without proper identification and forcing on all residents a strict, punishable-by-law curfew--shows that Holzner is equally skeptical about our ability to fully embrace our peace-loving sides.
All too often, though, the ones initiating the fighting are far nastier than those against whom they’ve waved a red flag... and such is the case in this version of Boston, where the majority of real monsters don’t have fangs, sport putrid greenish flesh, or change form thrice monthly. Most of the genuine nasties there are walking around in three-piece suits or police uniforms... and would just as soon do away with all of Deadtown, permanently. (The denizens of Deadtown, on the other hand, more or less do get along with each other.)
That’s no picnic to deal with, but to Victory “Vicky” Vaughn (demon slayer to all of Boston) and the rest of Deadtown’s citizens, it’s just the usual, and everyone there generally tries to avoid conflicts. That is, until a brand-new evil comes to town, in Holzner’s Hellforged...
[Haven’t yet read Deadtown? Read my review here, first... then hie yourself back here, 'kay?]

When we left Vicky last, she--along with her more-exuberant-than-competent, teenage zombie sidekick Tina--had pretty much saved all of Boston from the wrath of her longtime Hellion nemesis, Difethwr, by banishing him back to the fiery pit from whence he came. And, after the usual bouts of publicity following that epic battle, life has pretty much gone back to normal; Vicky is back to fighting assorted baddies all over town by night (like the drudes, which invade people’s dreams for nefarious purposes, and... well, who would have guessed that computer glitches are actually vile little creatures that invade your computer, sucking energy and making everything go haywire?), she still shares an apartment with her vampire roomie Juliet Capulet (yes, that Juliet), and she occasionally (okay, rarely) finds time to see her on-again/off-again werewolf boyfriend. Life is... well, if not good, at least it’s better. (Yeah, almost anything's better than being tortured by a Hellion.)
Strange things start happening, though (as they have a rather nasty habit of doing). After a blissful absence from Vicky’s own dreams, Difethwr reappears, and he seems, if anything, more evil than ever. Around the same time, she discovers one zombie--then another, and another--who have died horribly gruesome, permanent deaths... and she realizes that she knew each one of them and may, in fact, have been the last person to talk with them before they were killed. Her awful realization? That she is the link... that if not for her, these innocent zombies wouldn’t have met their final deaths now... and that somehow--although impossible--the banished Hellion must be behind it all. 
What follows for the poor, beleaguered demon slayer is a miserable, emergency trip to Wales, involving--under strict orders from Aunt Mab, her magical teacher and mother figure there--no sleep whatsoever (and describing it as “copious cups of joe” doesn’t begin to describe the staggering amount of coffee she has to consume), a near-concussion, and a case of delirium. Once Vicky recovers from the ordeal of just getting to the remote Welsh village where Mab lives, though, the news her aunt imparts is far worse: Vicky will, indeed, be facing her worst nightmare, once again. If she has any hope of defeating the forces of evil, she will need to master a weapon that she can’t even (literally) handle, understand a book of prophecies straight from the netherworld (which magically prevents itself from being understood), be prepared to do battle on three different planes of existence (each with their own peculiarities)... and basically do it all singlehandedly. 
Hellforged is a darker tale than Deadtown, with less levity and a considerable ramping-up of the terror. As difficult as Vicky’s primary task was in the first book, it is many times harder, here, and we feel all of her uncertainty, guilt, and sorrow--as well as the physical pain and fear--keenly.
The story is more complex, too, dealing with multiple realities and dream versus waking states, plus more of the very interesting lore. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and occasionally frustrating--trying to keep up with how some of the new characters relate to each other as well as going through a lot of training, but ultimately reaches a satisfying conclusion (emotionally and logically) following another epic showdown. Hellforged is a solid entry in Vicky’s saga, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what she gets up to next.
I really, really like how Holzner’s mind works. She writes some great dialogue, and she always presents a fine sense of place or space. She also manages to make me care deeply about the most minor of characters; I was almost unexpectedly saddened by the zombie deaths, despite the fact that Vicky only knew each zombie but slightly. (It’s rare for an author to achieve that kind of connection with a character so soon to be cast aside, but Holzner always manages it.)
Actually, I only have one complaint about Hellforged, but it has nothing to do with the author. The copy in the book is miniscule, making it a real reading challenge. (For someone forced by the constraints of work--and at this time of year, by a crazy holiday schedule--to primarily read very late at night or very early in the morning... in grey, cloudy December... it was seriously hard to get enough light on the pages for my strained eyes to decipher the teensy-tiny print, making for some uncomfortable, less-than-ideal reading.) As printed, Hellforged comes in at 340 pages, but it would have been much more enjoyable as a book with 400+ pages, employing a more reasonably-sized typeface. Getting past that one issue, though, I highly recommend this as a worthy and entertaining sequel.
Catnip Mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

[With sincere thanks to the author and publisher for providing me with the ARC for review. :)] 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Marriage or Murder at a Country Manor

A sprawling estate in the English countryside. A wealthy family, bound by the secrets they endeavor to keep from their friends and neighbors. A house party--with an engagement celebration its primary focus--featuring the usual assortment of pompous gentlemen of a certain age, mothers eager to make the best matches for their daughters, preening dandies too aware of their own highly-eligible status, and silly young girls harboring fairy-tale dreams of finding eternal love with their own handsome princes. A sudden, silent communication which sends the groom-to-be hieing off, breaking his engagement without explanation and leaving behind a tearful fiancée who refuses to accept that her perfect world has suddenly gone so very wrong. And, an intelligent and competent spinster, torn between duty to her niece and curiosity about her fellow houseguests, trying to make sense of it all.

All of that might well have been plucked straight out of a Jane Austen novel... were it not for the inclusion of a pesky little murder (the likes of which the very proper Ms. Austen certainly never wrote about in her own works).

Newcomer Anna Dean, however, doesn’t labor under such strict rules of authorly behavior in the 21st century, and in Bellfield Hall she tosses the murder of a mysterious young woman into the mix almost gleefully, resulting in a sort of Jane Austen-meets-Miss Marple story. (If you’re getting worried right now, don’t; it’s all good.)


When a distraught Catherine Kent summons her favorite maiden aunt, Miss Dido Kent, to the country estate of Sir Edward Montague, Aunt Dido understands that her purpose is a dual one: to try and soothe her adored niece’s frazzled nerves and broken heart, and to figure out why young Richard Montague has abruptly broken the troth between them. Catherine has always relied on her aunt--from a very young age--and knows the older woman to be both wise and clever (not to mention being far better at such things than Catherine's stepmother, whose interests only lie in the monetary and societal aspects of her stepdaughter’s impending nuptials, as she cares not a whit for the girl’s current misery). Dido, for her part, loves a good puzzle... and quite relishes the feeling of being needed.

What we are soon to learn, though--through a mix of first-person narration (via the letters Dido writes to her equally-spinsterish sister) and traditional third-person recounting--is that she has no idea what's actually in store for her. The latest shock to hit Bellfield Hall, you see--and on the very day Dido arrives, no less--is the discovery of the body of an unknown woman, found murdered on the grounds.

Catherine, understandably, isn’t nearly as concerned with a dead woman she’s never met as she is with her absent fiancé. Dido isn’t entirely convinced the two things are unrelated, however, and makes it her (secret) mission to find out everything she can about the poor dead girl--who she was, why she was killed, and who did the killing--just in case there is some sort of connection, which might conceivably cause further harm to her niece, whether to her reputation or her future happiness. (That, of course, is something Dido has no intention of allowing.)

Dido is relentless, asking questions (at times bordering on impertinence) of virtually anyone and everyone--from the lord of the manor to the other esteemed guests to the lowliest of the house staff and groundskeepers, noting all the gossip and innuendo for future consideration, and even going so far as to eavesdrop just the teensiest bit (but only when the opportunity presents itself, naturally). What she soon discovers, though, is that the secrets in the Montague family run very deep... and that plenty of the other houseguests have shameful things which they would also vastly prefer to keep hidden from her prying eyes.


Bellfield Hall is, as I indicated earlier, a lot of fun. It quite ably satisfies the desire for a charming Regency-era piece, with its polite society and intimate settings, while at the same time delivers some delicious intrigue and a compelling mystery.

The fact that everything works so well, of course, should be laid at the notably, unstylishly-clad feet of the fascinating (and unusual, for a Regency tale) heroine, Miss Dido Kent. Dido truly is a find; as an unmarried woman (of a certain age, herself) with no fortune to call her own, she is very much bound by the strictures of society and propriety. Despite those limitations, she nonetheless manages to live mostly on her own terms--using her cleverness, innate curiosity, and skills of observation more, and her somewhat lackluster talents at such things as stitching and the arts rather less--without being looked down upon or shunned by others. I really like the idea of such a woman... and I have an idea that the inimitable Ms. Austen might have approved, as well.

[Note: Anna Dean debuted with Bellfield Hall in 2008, and has since written two more books following Miss Dido Kent’s journey. As someone, erm, a wee bit past being a 20-yr-old ingenue myself, I must say that I'm looking forward to the continuing exploits of this something-special, mature woman... ;)] 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Nightmare Without End: Abduction & the Long Road Back

Danger takes many forms.
Most of us--once we’ve become rather uncomfortably aware of our own mortality--make an effort to take at least a few precautions to ward ourselves from some of the dangers we face. 
At a bare minimum, we look both ways before crossing the street. We inoculate ourselves against deadly diseases. We bolt our doors and lock our windows to all the scary things (and bad people) that go bump in the night. We fasten our seat belts before setting out on the roadways in our little hunks of metal (although statistics show that a lot more of us could stand to be doing that). Taking such measures is empowering; we’re proactively doing something to safeguard ourselves.
So many other things, of course, are completely outside the realm of our control. We’re unable to prevent cancers or illnesses that we’re genetically predisposed to getting. We’re at the whims of Mother Nature when it comes to floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and such. We can’t predict if a random stranger in a crowd will suddenly “go postal”... or if we’ll be in the line of fire should he or she take aim. We’re aware these sorts of perils exist, too, but we know there’s nothing we can really do about them. 
And then, there are those dangers which lurk in the shadows... the ones that have never even crossed our minds, leaving us completely unprepared to face them, should they arise. It is this, the truly unknown, that holds the most terrifying dangers of all, and author Chevy Stevens paints a shattering portrait of one woman‘s struggles with just such an unspeakable, unknown horror in her phenomenal debut, Still Missing.
Annie O’Sullivan thinks she’s a careful person. As a single 32-year-old living on her own on Vancouver Island, she practices all the normal precautions regarding her health and personal safety, plus a few others, for good measure. She tries to eat right and exercise. She’s a cautious driver. She has a little network of friends and family who know her whereabouts and schedule. Her dog is both beloved companion and bodyguard.
In all her wildest dreams, Annie never guessed that the worst danger she’d ever encounter would occur while she was working--she’s a realtor, for crying out loud!--yet that’s exactly what happens, when she’s abducted in the middle of hosting an open house on an otherwise perfectly-ordinary autumn afternoon. One minute, the charming man who arrives just as she’s about to lock up the house she’d been showing is earnestly discussing windows and square footage with her... and the next, he’s bundling her into his van at gunpoint, then shooting her full of drugs to knock her out. This seemingly-innocuous day suddenly becomes a pivotal moment, a point from which Annie’s life will be changed forevermore.
When the drugs wear off and Annie comes to, she indeed finds herself part of an incomprehensible nightmare. She and her captor seem to be in a remote cabin somewhere in the mountains. (Where it is, she doesn’t know, and he’s not telling.) He proceeds to lay out a series of ground rules for her. They will be staying there, just the two of them. There’s to be no contact with the outside world, period. (No phone, television, internet, radio, or newspaper.) Adherence to a strict set of rules governing her behavior is mandatory. (All behavior. Daily bathroom breaks are penciled in on the schedule, just like dishes and laundry and reading time, with no exceptions permitted.) Annie will be locked inside the cabin all day, every day. 
All of this, he tells her, is for her own good. The outside world is evil, and she has been corrupted by its influence, but he aims to rectify that via his master plan. He intends for them to be a “family”--in every sense of the word--and he quickly sets about ensuring that will happen.  
As far as Annie is concerned, it will be the absolute worst year of her life.
In a very unusual--not to mention, incredibly-powerful--twist, we learn about Annie’s ordeal solely through her four-months-after-the-fact narration of events to her psychiatrist. Rather than a linear recounting, though, the tale emerges in bits and pieces, as Annie struggles to tell what details she can handle describing--and in whatever order she can stand to impart them--during her weekly sessions. 
Gradually, though, the full story is told in its horrifying entirety--everything her captor made her do, how he made her suffer, and how she learned to cope. When we finally get a clear sense of what transpired, it is awful beyond belief.
Unfortunately, the nightmare doesn’t come to a convenient stop with the end of her captivity; that was merely the beginning of it. And, as Annie dwells more and more on the present in her counseling sessions, we realize just how profound an impact that year has had on her, the toll it has taken on all aspects of her life. She has begrudgingly chosen to bare her soul only because she simply can't cope. Her story may be old news in the media, but she continues to relive the whole dreadful experience during every one of her waking--plus most of her sleeping--hours.
Annie wants more than anything to have a “normal” life again... to enjoy at least a semblance of safety and to somehow cobble the pieces of her shattered life back together, instead of this awful existence of cowering in fear and rehashing painful memories over and over again. 
What scares her to death most of all, though, is the certainty that she is still in grave danger... and about that, she is absolutely right.
I found Still Missing to be a profoundly-affecting book, shocking and horrifying in its subject matter and stunningly brilliant in its execution. It's a first-rate thriller, with twists you won’t see coming, as well as some that you might guess at-- all the while desperately hoping that you’re mistaken. It’s also a psychological masterpiece, with its grim, visceral depiction of abject terror and tormented souls; you're unlikely to forget any of these characters any time soon. 

Still Missing made me, by turns, breathless and furious and heartbroken--at the system, at people, at our world in general. In the end, though, what it left me with above all else was a sense of hope... that within each of us lies a grim determination and the will to live, to conquer, and to triumph--if only we can somehow manage to find that will and then hang onto it for dear life.

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating: 4 out of 5 mousies!!