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Monday, May 24, 2010

Tales of a Butt-Kickin' Hypochondriac

We have a system for dealing with “bad” people: if you break the law--and get caught--you’ll face the prospect of heavy fines, restrictions on what you can and can’t do, or, worst-case, incarceration in a prison facility. Like pretty much every other system, though, it’s an imperfect one, because sometimes, guilty people get off scot-free.
But what if there were another way--one outside of the law--to take care of those who, for whatever reason, go unpunished? And what if you, personally, had it in your power to make unrepentant criminals suffer and feel genuine remorse for their misdeeds? Enter Carolyn Crane’s fabulous new debut novel, Mind Games, which touches on those very questions.
Justine Jones is a typical young woman living in a Midwestern city. She’s intelligent, attractive, and self-sufficient, with a good job (managing a high-end clothing boutique), a boyfriend (nothing too serious, yet, although she’s holding out hope for something a little more permanent), and a decent place of her own. 
Really, if it weren’t for that debilitating case of raging hypochondria which is her constant companion every waking minute of every single day, Justine’s life would be just peachy.
But, Justine is absolutely, positively sure she has--or will very soon come down with--all sorts of horrific illnesses and diseases (not the least of which is a terrifying and rare brain embolism which felled her mother years earlier). She’s attuned to every breath, itch, tingle, twinge, and, of course, any instance of outright pain (and because of that, she’s practically on a first-name basis with the long-suffering ER staff at the nearby hospital). She spends countless hours scouring the internet for the latest info on all the scary-bad stuff that can go wrong with the human body, and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of them all. In fact, if one of these nefarious diseases doesn’t get her first, she’s well on the road to driving herself quite mad. Such is the intense nature of her mental illness, that no matter how very much she hates always living a life full of such extreme anxiety and paranoia, she can’t simply talk herself out of all those fears for her own health.
Until one evening, anyway, when her life changes. While dining out with her boyfriend (during what’s supposed to be a celebratory dinner for him, but is quickly devolving into concern about the brain embolism she’s convinced is imminent), Justine happens to spot a man from her past across the restaurant. The man, dining with a young couple, is someone Justine has ample reason to remember--and to hate; long ago, he bilked her father out of his life’s savings, leaving her family penniless. Worse, he was never convicted of the crime. Full of righteous indignation--and hoping to shield the young couple from the swindler’s evil plans--she storms across the room to confront him. The conversation is brief, however; he claims a case of mistaken identity, and the couple seems annoyed at her interruption.
The one good thing to come out of this little contretemps, though, is that Justine has caught the attention of the restaurant owner, who is anything but mad at her. Far from being upset, he wants to schedule a meeting with her, to make a proposition. (No, not that kind of proposition, although he is quite dashing, and being propositioned by such a man would hardly be an insult. But I digress...) Justine doesn’t intend to meet with him, though, until she receives a surprise visit one day by the same young couple she’d interrupted at the restaurant. They explain that they’d actually been working that night, on a kind of sting operation centered around that very swindler, and that their boss is Sterling Packard, the restaurant owner, himself. Intrigued, Justine acquiesces to the meeting.    
She learns that Packard is what is known as a “highcap”-- one of a very small group of people born with a genetic anomaly which allows them to develop unique mental abilities. His particular talent is being able to see into the minds of other people, to “read” their psychology and understand what makes them tick (including, most importantly, what they fear). He helms a special, hand-picked crew which hires out to punish criminals whom the law was unable to get. The real kicker, though, is that he has taught his crew of “disillusionists” how to channel the negative energy from themselves--from their own particular phobias and hang-ups--into their targets. Once enough of these negative energies have been “zinged” into the target’s mind, that person will be “disillusioned”, crumbling under the weight of all the anxious feelings and fears, and will feel remorseful. (At the same time, “zinging” someone has the added side effect of ridding the disillusionist of his/her anxieties for a period of time, leaving only a sense of peace.) Packard thinks that Justine would be a perfect fit for his team, and offers her a job.
After mulling it over and debating the ethics--does she really want to be a vigilante? is hurting other people, on purpose, ever a good thing?--Justine decides to try it out on a trial basis. She trains. She makes friends with the team. She develops a special relationship with Packard (who is not only handsome, but smart, funny, and obviously lonely). Eventually, she’s ready to go on missions, and soon finds herself dealing with progressively scarier, nastier targets. She remains conflicted, though. She knows the targets have all done something very bad--something for which they haven’t been punished--but as she gets to know them on a more personal level, she identifies with their fears (since part of the trick is matching a disillusionist with someone who has similar issues). She’s very uncomfortable with the practice of transferring her anxiety onto them, and is angry at Packard for insisting that she do so. She seriously debates leaving the squad... until Packard and the others remind her that she’ll literally go crazy if she can no longer “zing” away her anxieties.
Nearly at the breaking point from all this inner turmoil, Justine makes an unexpected discovery: Packard, himself, is in danger. He is so much in danger, in fact, that he cannot even set foot outside his restaurant. No matter how unhappy she is--how much she feels she’s been lied to, or how much she hates what she’s doing and what she fears it is doing to her soul--she can’t just walk away. Packard’s welfare is on the line, so she’ll stay to fight, no matter what.
_________
Mind Games is the first book in Crane’s Disillusionment trilogy, and is a brilliant debut. It is also a wonderfully-inventive and relevant story for today, touching, as it does, on crime and punishment, self-awareness, and mental illness. She writes with a deft touch, moving easily from laugh-out-loud funny moments to more serious thoughts and observations (but never getting too heavy-handed). It’s absolutely divine to finally have a UF heroine like Justine out there--not the typical butt-kicking, take-no-prisoners sort of gal who wields a weapon like a warrior and moves like a ninja, but a regular girl-next-door, complete with a realistic life and problems anyone can relate to, who makes something of herself by using only her wits and the powers of her mind. Actually, it’s a welcome change of pace that everyone involved is basically “normal”; no one changes form or drinks blood or sparkles in the sunlight or does anything else totally in the realm of fantasy. This is UF, to be sure, but with a heavier dose of realism than to which we are usually treated. Nor do the “good guys” wear white hats while the “bad guys” don black ones; in Crane’s inspired world, the colors are all the many variations on shades of grey, and truth--like justice and evil--are uncertain, at best.
After making it through her first missions--and leaving me very unsettled--I’m extremely anxious, myself, to see what exactly what Crane has in store for Justine and company in the second book. In fact, I’m nearly as anxious about what happens next, as Justine is about her health... which is really saying something.
GlamKitty rating: 4.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)