Sunday, May 16, 2010

Short, Sweet, & Magically Delicious

I was messing around on Amazon late one night, when I found--{gasp!}--another work by Ilona Andrews! Something that was neither part of the Magic nor the Edge series! I felt like I’d won the lottery when I found this little gem. (Okay, a tiny little lottery, but still...)
Silent Blade is a short story, available only by itself (rather than as part of an anthology). The fact that it seems to be available solely as an e-book is the only possible downside I can see, here. It's definitely NOT like the other Ilona Andrews books I’ve read (and fallen in love with), and yet, in a way, it does remind me just a bit of them. For starters, SB is really not an Urban Fantasy story (although it is classified as such on Amazon), simply because there's no "F" involved. It isn't a Paranormal Romance, either, because there's no "P" aspect to it. If pressed, I'd have to make my own new classification for this one: USFR (Urban Sci-Fi Romance, of course ;D). And, if you look at it under this "new" heading (instead of trying to pigeon-hole it into one of the genres we're familiar with), you just might find that you like it, for what it is. I certainly did. :)
Without spoiling any of the fun, I can safely tell you that the story takes place in the future, when power (at least on a local level) is based primarily on what large family group to which you belong and swear allegiance. Only members of the most powerful families are allowed to have special genetic "enhancements" (which create special abilities/unique talents in those persons affected), and alliances and rivalries between these power-hungry families rule the day. If one isn't a member of a powerful family group, then she/he is destined to be no more than a worker, a plebeian. Unless, that is, she/he has the good luck (or bad, depending on how you look at such things) to be born with some phenomenally-rare ability... like our heroine, Meli, has been.
Meli can interact with and control the "ene-ribbon" bracelets she wears--which essentially turn her wrists into fearsome killing weapons of focused energy beams (trust me, it comes across better than I just made it sound ;))--and has found work as an assassin because of her nearly-unheard-of, millions-to-one ability. She eventually grows weary of that life after a dozen years of it, though, and retires... only to be called back into service, one final time, to "take care of" someone from her very distant past--someone she'd hoped never to see again. What follows is how both she and her "target" deal with her mission... and with the realization of exactly what and whom each of them has become in the intervening years since last they met.
SB is, as I've said, a short story and as such, a very quick read. That's a shame, in a way, because this early work (and I'm guessing at that, because it isn't nearly as polished as what we're familiar with from Andrews)--which, coincidentally, feels like it was penned more by Gordon than by Ilona--seems like it could have been fleshed-out quite easily into a full-length story. The world herein isn't nearly as fully-formed as either Kate's Atlanta or Rose's Edge/Broken/Weird--but then again, how could it be, with so few pages in which to create something of a world and tell a story? 
In all, this was a very interesting read, with a nice little romance, and it was fun to sit a spell with these folks and live in their world... if only for a very brief time. Is it fantastic, mind-blowing, and something you'll want to reread again immediately? No... but it's always fascinating to read an author's early work--and find out just how far she/he has come.
GlamKitty rating: 4 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Countdown to...Death. (Again.)

Imagine having three days left to live... knowing that 72 hours was all the time you had, and that it wouldn't be spent wasting away in a bed somewhere in the last stages of disease, or waiting to be executed at a certain time; but rather, that once those 72 somewhat-normal hours had elapsed, your time would simply be up. You'd breathe your final breaths, then Game Over. 
Now, imagine that same scenario... but spending it not in your own familiar package of skin, bones, blood, and muscle--but in a stranger's body. Your thoughts, feelings and emotions--in someone else's shell. (That 72 hours just gets better and better, doesn't it?)
But, wait--that's still not everything. The three-day period isn't yours to simply enjoy (hugging loved ones, eating bon-bons and swilling champagne, having wild monkey sex in public places, or whatever); no, you have a mission: finding out who killed you (which, of course, is what necessitated your thoughts migrating to another still-functioning body in the first place), and why, and then trying to set everything (aside from your own death, which unfortunately cannot be altered) back to rights. (Okay. That's all.)
Well, that's the situation bounty hunter Evangeline (Evy) Stone finds herself in, in Kelly Meding's Three Days to Dead. After spending the last few years as part of a three-person "Dreg" bounty hunter squad, searching out and destroying evil supernatural creatures ("dregs")--such as ghouls and goblins--in an effort to keep the general (and unawares) human population safe and happy, Evy suddenly finds herself waking up in the morgue--in the body of another woman (who had obviously also been recently dead). And, although Evy remembers who she is (in her mind), she has no idea whose body she's now inhabiting. She also, as luck would have it, has no recollection of how she died, or what led up to those last few days prior to her dying.
Getting in contact with her friends and acquaintances is the logical next step, but that proves tricky; many of them--including the other two members of her old team--have recently been killed, too, and the rest of the people she knew and worked with are either out hunting the mysterious killers, or have run to ground out of fear for their own safety. Something very bad is happening, and Evy has walked right back into it. Things momentarily look a little brighter when she meets up with Wyatt, her former "handler"--the manager who gave the team its orders ("Charlie" to the "Angels", if you will ;)), but he doesn't know much more than she does. And he, like she, is now being hunted; it seems the pair of them are being blamed for an awful lot of the bad stuff going down.
What follows is by times frantic, and by times achingly slow, as Evy and company try to figure out just what, exactly, is going on, as well as trying to stay a step ahead of the game. Their efforts take them all over the city--to places, and meeting beings, they never before knew existed. Meanwhile, the clock races on, hurtling them all toward the end that--for Evy, at least--has been preordained.
Although TDtD had a slow beginning--I didn't really "get into it" until I was about 40 pages in--this was a fast-paced and fascinating read for me, once it got going. In fact, after figuring out enough details about the "world"--who the good/bad characters were, what roles everyone played, etc.--I had a hard time putting this book down, and wound up enjoying it immensely. It is an intelligent story, and the plot holds together well. I was genuinely surprised at the depth of emotion depicted, and how well it's portrayed, given the very limited timeframe the story plays out in. There are so many undercurrents--fear, rage, passion, love, and jealousy--all riding along the waves in a story with considerable action and excitement. 
This is a story about not only recrimination and guilt, but also about redemption. And, in the end, it's even about learning to love, against all odds. Who among us couldn’t use a little more of that in our lives?
GlamKitty rating: 4.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Sex, Drugs, and the Matrons

Sex, drugs, and... blue bloods? Hardly the trilogy most of us think of, is it? No, we’re much more apt to equate sex and drugs with good times (too-good times, actually), uninhibited behavior, and excess--an excess of pleasures of the flesh. Blue bloods, on the other hand, bring to mind historic mansions, butlers, and Bentleys--an excess, to be sure, but this one of showiness, of the outward trappings of immense wealth and privilege.
And yet, author P.J. Parrish manages to combine those two seemingly disparate themes--the lurid tawdriness of sex and drugs, and the power and prestige of old money--to striking effect in her latest novel, The Little Death, set in Palm Beach, Florida and its environs, circa 1989.
Parrish is actually a pair of sisters--Kristy and Kelly--now living in Florida and Mississippi, respectively, after having grown up in Michigan. (All three states have featured in their books, and it’s clear that the women have a real feel and genuine love for them all.) TLD is their tenth novel to date featuring ex-cop/current P.I. Louis Kincaid, and it proves this duo’s collective talents are as strong as ever.

Parrish’s Louis is a compelling, complex character who lugs some hefty baggage around with him. After enduring a rough early childhood, he wound up in foster care and was eventually adopted (only to be transplanted far from his birth home). He got in trouble as a young adult, and did a brief stint in jail. He finally managed to straighten himself out and chose a career as a cop. 
Troubles continued to plague him, though, so more recently he has struck out on his own as a part-time private investigator/part-time beach bum. His relations with his family (his birth one and his adoptive one) are complicated. The (now) long-distance romantic relationship he’s been trying to keep afloat is floundering. And, he’s a young black man, so he all too often encounters just the sort of racial stereotyping you’d (unfortunately) expect. (I love that he isn’t played as A BLACK MAN, but rather, as A MAN, who happens to be black... just like he happens to have a cat, and happens to drive an old pony car.) Louis isn’t a happy and contented fellow; there’s always a sense he’s in a sort of stasis, waiting to see if something better comes along... but not going to exert himself too much to make sure that something does. He is an imperfect character, and as such, he’s very real--not to mention likable and sympathetic--in all of his imperfect glory.
There is one constant in Louis’ life, though--his friend, retired Miami homicide detective, Mel Landeta. Having met (and bonded) after Louis retreated to the little beachfront place he currently inhabits on tiny Captiva Island, Mel functions as both sounding board and sometimes-work partner. Theirs is gradually becoming a more-dependent friendship, too, as Louis helps Mel deal with the increasingly-debilitating visual impairment (retinitis pigmentosa) from which the older man suffers (which adds an interesting--and poignant--touch to the friendship). And, as friends are wont to do, Mel occasionally gets Louis into things which Louis wishes he hadn’t.
Such is the case in The Little Death. Mel persuades Louis to drive him to Palm Beach, where an old acquaintance of Mel’s has just been placed in jail on a murder charge. One problem is that this isn’t just any murder charge, but a horribly-gruesome one--the beheading of a handsome young man. Another problem is that their new client is a gentle, jovial, middle-aged gay man, who earns his living as a “walker” (basically, a platonic companion who squires wealthy ladies to events their husbands won’t attend), living in a conservative (when it comes to appearances, anyway) Southern town in 1989. The townspeople’s sympathies, needless to say, do NOT lie with poor Reggie Kent, currently being held on circumstantial evidence (he’s gay! he lived with the murder victim! they’d had a public argument shortly before!) for the vicious murder of his young friend. Since the police force takes its orders from the wealthy residents, no one is looking for an alternative murderer, or for motive (beyond what the prejudiced, privileged folks are determined to believe, of course). Reggie is not of “their set”, you see, but rather, a hanger-on; as such, no one wants to dig too deeply or question the “evidence” upon which the police have already made up their minds.
Enter Mel and Louis. Not even sure there’s a case to be made--yet firmly convinced that mild-mannered Reggie couldn’t possibly have swung a sword or big knife with such force and such hatred to behead another human being--they resign themselves to helping out the poor sad sack that is Reggie. And, the going is just as rough as they imagine; the police want no part in helping them look for other evidence or any motives. (In fact, the police are such sticklers--and so utterly bound by the whims of the snobbish inhabitants--that they not only have on the books, but also enforce, an Ugly Car Law... which insulting fine just so happens to be levied on Louis’ dusty old Mustang while it’s parked at the curb.) Nearly all of Reggie’s uber-wealthy women friends/clients refuse to support him. Their task seems hopeless.
Eventually, Louis and Mel happen upon an old dowager--an absolute hoot, Margery is a good-time gal from the flapper era, who downs gin and “shampoo” like they were water or tea, and rattles merrily all alone in her impossibly-huge mansion, save for her four pugs and her deaf old butler--who not only believes in Reggie (and is willing to pay the detectives’ expenses, something the strapped-for-cash Reg can hardly do from the county jail), but also knows all the dirt about everyone who means anything in Palm Beach. Of course, there’s just one itsy-bitsy problem (isn’t there always?)--she refuses to rat on her friends or possibly incriminate them by airing their dirty laundry.
Knowing that Margery’s font of knowledge is their only hope--particularly since none of their other ideas or leads are panning out--they keep on her, until it snaps into place one day that both Reggie’s dead friend and a young gardener who went missing five years before shared the same physical characteristics. Finally, Louis and Mel have a legitimate trail to follow.
From that point, the story only gets better (and it was already “unputdownable”, so getting better is no small feat). Louis, Mel, and one lone policeman who (finally) steps up to the plate and decides to do the right thing, travel all over the Palm Beach area. The trail leads them to mansions owned by wealthy, unhappily-married women to the home of a U.S. Senator, from the tiny one-bedroom apartment of an illegal Mexican gardener to a sprawling livestock ranch. They visit exotic flower shops and antique weapons dealers; they contemplate artwork. They think about the nature of sex, and the different roles men and women play. They look into events from 30 years in the past. Every answer elicits new questions... until one night, everything comes into focus. The answer becomes clear--and that answer is an ugly, scary, and surprising one. Most importantly, though, it is utterly believable and realistic; I think the events would play out in real life just as they did in the story, given the same set of circumstances. In the end, it is that sense of truth and honesty--both with the characters and with the situations the authors place them in--that make this book, and this whole series, so very satisfying to read.
GlamKitty rating: 5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

Drugs, Magic, and Life After Death... Just Another Day in Atlanta

During a recent Amazon shopping extravaganza, I loaded up my cart with all manner of nifty things--a couple of new Urban Fantasy books I was looking forward to, some favorites I wasn't content to only have on Kindle, a classic, a few older/used books (friend recommendations) from outside sellers, plus a couple of DVDs and a few other gifts. My virtual cart was stuffed; at least, the real-world version would have been. 
Still, I wasn't content; I had to add "one more thing". So I browsed some more, until I came upon a new book, by a first-time author, which sounded promising. Into the cart it went. A few more mouse-clicks, and my shopping was completed. (Ah, the wonders of cyberspace.)
Only a couple days later, and I'd already received most of my goodies. I was in reader heaven. I dove into my new UFs and my classic. I lovingly stroked the new pb-versions of my Kindle favorites, promising to reread them in tactile form very soon. I cracked open the older/used books and planned which of them I'd attack first.
Meanwhile, my last selection sat unloved and unappreciated, following a cursory glance at the cover when it first arrived. For some reason, I just wasn't into it. It was another UF, but it sounded too... sci-fi, or something. Finally, though, I decided to give it a go, and, woo-hoo! It turned out to be one of those stories in which the further I read, the more absorbed I became, until it was almost unbearable to put the book down, just to go take care of Real Life!
Kelly Gay's The Better Part of Darkness is, as already mentioned, an Urban Fantasy with strong Sci-Fi leanings. (It probably delves more into Sci-Fi territory than any other UF/PR book I've read. It's also a more-complex story than most, requiring greater attention on the part of the reader; if you don't pay attention, you will miss something important that you need to know/remember later.) The story focuses on a detective duo working for the Atlanta PD--Charlie Madigan, a recently-divorced mom with an 11-yr-old daughter at home, and her partner Hank, a siren from another world. (The Atlanta setting feels pretty much like the present-day, but it's a present-day in which races from two alien worlds have come to Earth and begun to settle, becoming members of our society and finding acceptance to varying degrees.) Charlie and Hank are well-trained and well-armed; they have regular weapons to use if necessary against human baddies, and they carry specialized weapons designed to take down or incapacitate the "alien" evil-doers--and won't hesitate to use any of the weapons at their disposal. As so often happens when dealing with any special "foreign" groups, though, the detectives frequently find themselves at odds with the powers-that-be, as all their interactions with these new beings have potential political and racial/species ramifications.
Charlie and Hank soon find themselves embroiled in a very worrisome case--a new drug, known on the street as ash, has hit the city, and human victims of it are turning up every few days, comatose. Even worse, there isn't a known cure; after coming out of their comas, the victims invariably die. When a prominent city mover-and-shaker's daughter (who also happens to be Charlie's daughter's babysitter) turns up a victim of ash, Charlie and Hank are on the case full-time. From there, the story builds, as the pair confront an "alien" gang (which may or may not be supplying the drug), unhappy political leaders and campaigners in the upcoming elections (who may or may not be behind the drugs and receiving funding), and a host of other off-world beings and magic-makers (who either hinder or help the detectives in their investigations, for reasons of their own). 
As is true for women everywhere, Charlie's problems and headaches don't end at work, either. Having only been divorced for several months--after making the sudden, shocking discovery that her ex-husband was into some very bad things--she still harbors residual feelings for him (and her daughter, Emma, still adores him). So, she's trying to work through all of that. After having been hurt a few times too many on the job, she also frets that maybe she's selfishly putting herself at risk, so she contemplates switching to a desk job so that her daughter won't be in danger of losing her mother. She has family nearby, as well; her baby sis Bryn is into magic and woo-woo stuff (which Charlie hates)--and both of them are still trying, years later, to deal with their brother's tragic death and their own guilt and uncertainties.
And then there's that near-death experience Charlie underwent recently. Well, actual-death experience, really; Charlie died on the job and was brought back to life by a brilliant doctor... who just so happens to be the uncle of the ash-comatose babysitter, who is the daughter of a nasty, mean super-rich guy currently running for office, who hobnobs with some of the off-world higher-ups, including a very scary man also campaigning for a higher office... who, coincidentally, moonlights as a feature player in Charlie's daily nightmares, which are interrupting her sleep to the point that she's starting to come undone. There's also this strange new rage she feels inside, which keeps trying to burst free and take over. (See? I told you you'd have to keep up... ;))
Although I definitely felt a little unsure of everything for the first few pages, it didn't take long at all till I was able to let go, settle in, and just go with the flow. I enjoyed the complexity of the story and the many levels on which it worked; it's a fascinating and creative spin on UF. (And definitely not PR, for anyone trying to avoid that.) There was a lot of realism, which really helped to make it more accessible, with themes of addiction, race relations, political intrigues, and family dramas. The off-world characters turned out to be absolutely fascinating to me, and I reveled in how different they were... while in other ways, being quite similar. There were no vampires or shapeshifters here, but there were mages and jinns and seers, all of which made for really interesting reading. I don't believe this book will be appealing to everyone; it requires both a little more effort (to keep things straight) and a certain degree of patience on the part of the reader, as well as at least a smidgeon of interest in sci-fi. For anyone who likes the sound of things as described above, I'm giving it a very high recommendation! 
I'll be reading this again in the next few months; I know there are little details I missed, and I'll want to have them all worked out in my mind before the sequel, The Darkest Edge of Dawn comes out on Aug. 31, 2010. I am really excited to see where this story goes next... :)
GlamKitty rating: 4.25 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)