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Monday, May 10, 2010

Talking for the Dying

An author--Jan Burke--whose work I love, branching out in a new (and exciting!) direction? I'm in. Oh, yes, and how.
The Messenger is something of an anomaly; Burke is well-known--not to mention much-praised, having received the Edgar, Agatha, & Macavity awards--for her wonderful mystery series featuring California newspaper-reporter Irene Kelly. What makes this book so unusual is that it is Burke's first foray into completely new territory: the world of the supernatural, in the form of a PR thriller. (Few writers attempt something so far out of their comfort zone; fewer still probably achieve much success with it.) Happily, Burke didn't falter; she managed to write something both completely different from her usual style as well as putting a unique spin on this new-to-her genre.
The story begins in an interesting fashion, with a salvage dive that doesn't quite go according to plan. (Well, really, who ever plans on multiple equipment malfunctions? Or attacks by sharks? Or... well, let's just say that something very strange and certainly out-of-the-ordinary occurs in the ocean depths that day. Nobody plans for that.) How the story unfolds from there is fascinating, as we begin to follow a mysterious young man (Tyler Hawthorne) who, we come to find, is so much more than he appears. He seems to be a handsome, intelligent, wealthy, and rather old-fashioned chap in his mid-20s... but the reality is that he's an immortal being whose "job" is comforting the dying by speaking for them when they no longer can, conveying their dying wishes and such. Due to a bargain he made long ago--after the battle of Waterloo, no less--Tyler is destined for a mostly-solitary existence of helping the gravely-ill, not by choice but from practicality; being immortal doesn't lend itself to forming "normal," long-lasting relationships with mortals. 
Of course, he comes to rue the course his life has taken when he meets (and is next-door neighbor to) a complicated young woman (Amanda) with plenty of baggage of her own, who neither trusts nor has any intention of liking him. (In fact, she's convinced he's pulling a con--trying to get dying people to give him the combinations to their safes or make changes to their wills or the like.) Only gradually do they form an uneasy friendship.
As if the hope for a relationship with Amanda weren't enough to occupy Tyler's thoughts, though, he suddenly has far more troublesome things to worry him: an enemy from his long-ago past has returned and seems determined to put an end to Tyler's immortality, once and for all... which wouldn't necessarily be so bad--since death has been Tyler's fondest wish for quite some time--but for the fact that this enemy doesn't have any qualms about killing anyone/everyone else around Tyler, in the process, as well. (Not good.)
Were I to say more, I'd start giving key plot points away--which I'm not gonna do ;D--so suffice it to say that this was a satisfying read. There wasn't so much a mystery (aside from the "just what are these people?" variety) as a sense of anticipation (hence the thriller designation). The budding relationship between Tyler and Amanda, from the prickly to the not-prickly stage, felt "right". There were several compelling side characters to either facilitate or throw spanners in the works, by turn. Tyler's ability was really interesting, as we saw him interact with the dying several times (and it felt "fresh"; I hadn't seen that before in a story). Tyler's history was very interesting, too. (It even put me in mind--just a bit--of Eric's history in CH's books.)
A couple of other, general comments... A dog (a gigantic dog, as a matter of fact) has a MAJOR role in the plot, and it's a really good one. (So, dog lovers, take note. :)) Also, there isn't anything overly graphic in this story (language, sexual situations, etc.), so this could likely be read by teens (or precocious pre-teens ;)) with no problems. 
In all, this was a fast, enjoyable read. It won't be for everyone, but if it sounds interesting to you, I'd recommend giving it a try. :)
GlamKitty rating: 3.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

The Fae & the Fish Pond

“We hated each other so well and loved each other so badly... and I had no idea what I was going to do without her.” (excerpt from Rosemary and Rue)
Even though Rosemary and Rue (which came out in September 2009) reads as if it came from the pen of an experienced writer, it is, in fact, Seanan McGuire’s first published novel... and what a fabulously-engrossing novel she has produced for her debut. Avoiding the major pitfall inherent in the work of so many other writers out there today--that of falling back on yet another retelling of a story we’ve all read before-- McGuire has created a fresh and original story, with an array of well-drawn characters, an extremely well-realized world, and full of intricate plotting--and she has accomplished it all in a poetic, lyrical style. 
Rosemary and Rue starts off like a standard detective story. San Francisco P.I. October “Toby” Daye is several hours into a tedious stakeout of a bad guy, whom she believes to have kidnapped her client/boss’s wife and daughter. She thinks about the case, she daydreams, she takes a phone call from her boyfriend. Just another day in the life of a satisfied, modestly-successful working woman and mother.
Granted, there are a couple of small differences between this plot and one in which you’d find “V.I. Warshawski” or “Kinsey Milhone”. First, Toby is a Changeling (half-human and half-Fae). She has to conceal her pointy ears and unusual eyes; no one--not even her human family--can know of her Fae heritage. Second, she’s currently hot on the trail of a full-blooded Fae, the aforementioned bad guy, whose powers are far superior to her own. (He also happens to be her client/boss’s twin brother. Awkward.) Still, Toby’s life is pretty ordinary.
Until, that is, it comes to a screeching halt that very same day. The bad guy manages to catch Toby off-guard and springs a shockingly-unorthodox--and highly-effective--spell on her, turning her into a fish, consigned to living out her life with the other koi in a fish pond at the Japanese Tea Gardens. Not only is Toby unable to comprehend this change, but her friends and family--Fae, Changeling, and human--have no clue what has happened, either; to them it is as if she vanished from the face of the earth. And so it remains, for the next fourteen years.
When the story picks up again, it is 2009, and Toby has somehow managed to break free of the pond. She finds a world vastly changed from the one from which she was unceremoniously yanked so long ago. Everyone she knew has long considered her dead, and her boyfriend and daughter refuse to have anything to do with her after her long, inexplicable absence. With the help of some old Fae friends, Toby slowly re-establishes some semblance of life. She gets a rent-controlled apartment, and a couple of Siamese cats (Cagney and Lacey) for companionship. She shuffles from one low-paying job to the next (currently she’s a grocery checker), finding it difficult to stay employed given her utter lack of knowledge concerning 21st-century technology. She fights depression while mourning all that she has lost, yet she manages to find a bit of solace in the monotony of this new life; the drudgery of 16-hour days helps keep some of the demons and nightmares at bay. The last thing she wants is to return to her old life, as it holds so many sad memories.
Both Fate and the Fae have other plans for Toby, though. Evening Winterrose, the Countess of Goldengreen--one of her oldest Fae acquaintances, with whom she has always had a complicated like/dislike relationship--winds up murdered. Before dying, she manages to leave a binding oath for Toby, ordering her to solve the murder and see justice done. And, just like that, Toby is back in the game. 
Her search for Evening’s killer(s) leads her first to the scene of the murder, where she samples Evening’s drying blood. (Her Fae half is Daoine Sidthe, the branch whose members have some facility in “reading” blood and the memories stored therein--a handy, albeit somewhat nauseating and physically debilitating, skill to have.) Unfortunately, her reading of Evening’s blood doesn’t yield much in the way of clues; Evening was shot and stabbed without ever getting a good look at her attacker. Instead, all Toby gets is firsthand knowledge of the pain and suffering her old friend endured as she lay dying. (Although, as incentives go, that’s a pretty effective one.)
Toby’s investigation unearths a few clues and causes her to seek out many Fae she hasn’t seen in some time. She pays a call to--and is then refused help by--the local Faery Queen, who governs all the San Francisco-area Fae. She goes to see an ex-lover/ex-mentor who essentially runs a questionable shelter for runaway Changelings. She visits her Undine friend whose home is the Japanese Tea Gardens (though not in one of the koi ponds). She spars with the local King of Cats, the leader of the area Cait Sidthe (who are apart from Faery and abide by different rules). She finally gives in and goes to see her own liege, from whom she’s been estranged since rising from the pond several months earlier (and who, far from being mad at her, is almost heartbreakingly overjoyed and relieved to see her). She even has cause, at one point, to visit The Luidaeg (the immortal sea-witch of nightmares). 
There’s also a lot more pain and suffering. Toby manages to get shot (with iron bullets, so harmful to Fae--including half-Fae--flesh), stabbed (with an iron blade), and beaten up multiple times, along the way. There are more deaths. Whatever is at stake, the bad guys are deadly serious about it.
Eventually Toby figures everything out--who killed her friend, and why, and what they hoped to accomplish. All her questions are answered, and make a wonderful kind of sense in their absolute simplicity. As in the best tradition of murder-mysteries, the reason behind everything is almost stunningly-obvious, making perfect sense. Combining that with McGuire’s imaginative and fascinating mix of beings from supernatural lore, what we’re left with is a rather brilliant fusion of the two genres. This is a story, and a world, and a group of characters just begging for a continuing series. Fortunately for us, that’s exactly what we’re going to get.
GlamKitty rating: 4.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

The Cabbie, the Cop, & the Killer

What would you do if you were a regular Joe (or Jane), just living your life, when one day you suddenly found yourself the prime suspect for a murder--one that you know you  most definitely didn’t commit? What if physical evidence of this murder--say, oh, the dead body--were found in your possession? Try to imagine the mental stress you’d be under, unable to comprehend how your life had gone so horribly wrong, so quickly. And, think of the practical problems you’d have--seeing as how word of your alleged murderous rampage would be on the lips of your neighbors and coworkers the very next morning, following a daily cuppa joe and quick scan of the local paper? Would you still have any friends? Would you still have a job? If the evidence were stacked against you, and almost no one believed you, what would you do?
That’s precisely the mess Bo Forrester lands in, in Nancy Holzner’s gripping mystery, Peace, Love, and Murder. One day her hero, Bo, is just an easy-going fellow who (until now) has been content to mind his own business... and the next, he’s drawn the number one slot on the town’s Most Wanted list. Bo quickly comes to the unhappy realization that the police are pretty happy with him as the main suspect, and that the only way out of his predicament--and the only way to avoid a long, guaranteed stay in prison--is to take matters into his own two hands and search out the truth.
That, however, is easier said than done. Bo isn’t a detective, nor is he in any way connected to anyone rich and powerful. He’s just a regular guy--a world-weary, somewhat-rootless chap approaching middle age, living alone, eking out a meager living as a cabdriver in the small, upstate New York hometown to which he’s recently returned. We gradually learn through Bo’s first-person narration that it’s a desire to reconnect with his estranged parents which led him back to his birthplace. After joining the army fresh out of school in a fit of teenage rebellion, Bo’s peace-loving hippie parents effectively disowned him. Twenty years later, though, Bo gets a hankering to mend the family fences... only to find that his folks moved away several years earlier, leaving the area without a trace. At a loss for what to do next--and having nothing better to do with himself, anyway--Bo decided to just stay for awhile (which wouldn’t have been such a bad plan, really, if this whole murder thing hadn’t cropped up).
Yeah, about that murder. In one of those “that-could-totally-happen” random twists of fate, Bo’s cab is pulled over by a police officer for speeding one day. Unfortunately, the deputy is a young woman with a large chip on her small shoulder, eager to make a name for herself, and she proceeds to give Bo--along with his fares, and then his cab--the full work-up. That’s when she finds the dead body in the trunk.
The dead man, it turns out, was a respected philanthropist with a passion for The Arts. Fred Davies was happily married to a beautiful woman, successful in her own right (who won’t be inheriting any of the money). He was generous with his grants. But, even though Bo has absolutely no motive--no ties to the victim other than driving the cab on the day the body was found in it--the police decide to pin their suspicions on him. They take to dogging his every step (as does the frustrated female deputy--who isn’t even on the case). Sooner or later, they’re sure he’ll slip up and, oh, go on another murderous rampage or something. (And then they’ll nail him.) That’s their plan, anyway.
Not being the murderous sort, though, Bo has no intention of going along with that particular plan. After he and Mrs. Davies meet at her husband’s funeral--Bo may not have known the guy, but nice fellow that he is, he can’t help but feel a little connection after unknowingly chauffeuring the other man around for a few hours, and thus feels compelled to pay his last respects--Mrs. Davies enlists Bo’s help. (Does it hurt that the widow is a stunningly beautiful woman, with bottomless green eyes and such a sad aura surrounding her? Of course not.) And, in short order, Bo finds motives aplenty--none of which the police bothered to follow up on once they’d set their sights on poor Bo. There’s the art history professor/wannabe seductress who’d been in Fred’s orbit (and whose drunken advances had been rejected), and her insanely-jealous, built-like-a-linebacker hubby (who’s already served time in the pokey for assaulting one of his wife’s former flings). A graffiti artist sponsored by Fred’s foundation, who seems more poseur (with his affectations of gangsta style and love of guns) than serious artist. And then, there’s the man who worked at the foundation with Fred, who’s hiding a nasty little gambling habit up his sleeve (and may very well be cooking the books). 
The further Bo delves into the lives and backgrounds of everyone Fred knew, the more confused he becomes. And then, it gets even worse. A local banker is found dead; it may have been meant to look like a drug overdose, but, nope, apparently the banker is yet another victim of murder. Now the police suspect Bo of dealing drugs and committing murders. Everything comes to a head--and time runs out for Bo--when an ex-coworker of his is killed in a hit-&-run... with Bo’s car. It’s clear to Bo (and to us, since we’re inside his head) that someone is setting him up to take a really big fall--and that someone is well on the way to succeeding.
Holzner really kicks the story into high gear at this point, as Bo goes on the lam in a last-ditch, desperate effort to clear his name. (Don’t worry; he does.) It’s an intense, high-octane race to the end (and it’s easy to imagine a very entertaining suspense/thriller movie being made from her story). 
This book is about so much more than exciting action sequences, though, or even about “whodunnit”. At times it’s delightfully witty, peppered with snappy dialogue (and monologue--Bo is an amusing guy, even in his own head). It’s also an intelligent story; Holzner has crafted a really fine mystery which holds together well. (None of those “oh, geez, not that old trick again” moments that serve only to insult the readers’ intelligence.) Finally, this is a book with a lot of heart. Several minor characters are depicted with nearly the same care as the primary ones, further adding to the impression that we could go and meet Bo and his eccentric pals, if we drove around upstate New York long enough. The author has imbued her characters--but especially Bo--with real depth, and manages to convey a genuine sense of his vulnerability. How Bo deals with everything, while facing his own fears and demons, gives the story real substance. 

I don’t know if Holzner (or the publisher) has plans to continue Bo’s saga, but it seems like a natural. Bo still has plenty of questions, and plenty of demons still to face. I’d really like to be around to see him do just that.
GlamKitty rating: 4.25 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)