Monday, May 30, 2011

What We Make of Ourselves; Part 2: South Riding (TV)

It doesn’t matter if we’re living in the big city, an itty-bitty hamlet, or something in-between, we all expect the same access to the world around us... and for the most part, we get it, with internet, cellular technology, and all those forms of transportation at our disposal. Go back as little as eighty or so years, though, and that wasn’t the case... not in a place like South Riding, the small Yorkshire town at the heart of a recent BBC production of the same name.
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When the train stops in South Riding and thirty-something Sarah Burton steps out onto the platform, her look of consternation speaks volumes; trains, it seems, do not adhere to the same rigorous time schedules in this northern backwater as they do in London--something which isn’t likely to improve her odds of making a good impression at the job interview for which she’s now running late.
She arrives with only a moment to catch her breath. That moment, however, is a telling one; a quick look at the other interviewees--much older, sterner, and plainer women than she, in her stylish, figure-hugging red suit--makes it clear just what the board of Kiplington Girls High is probably looking for in their new headmistress (and it doesn't, she suspects, look anything like her). 
Sarah isn’t about to play meek and submissive, though, and she proceeds to give the board members her vision of what she’d like to see in "her" school (if she were to get the job, as one of the board members haughtily corrects her); namely, female empowerment: that the girls under her care should never feel encumbered by any limits society attempts to place on them, but should have the same aspirations as their male counterparts. 
Sarah also clashes with landowning (and war veteran) board member Robert Carne during the interview, when she makes no bones about her opposition to war. The board is torn by her fiery passion and brash outspokenness, but with the particular support of members Mrs. Beddows and Joe Astell, the job eventually goes to her. (The final consensus is that Sarah, at least, has spirit--something none of the other applicants appear to possess.)
What she finds, though, is disheartening. Unlike the boys’ school, hers is old and un-renovated; it’s a dank and dreary place, where it needs to be light and airy. Books and furnishings are woefully outdated. The science lab has no equipment aside from that for the instructor; the girls can only watch the teacher perform experiments, instead of getting any hands-on experience themselves. Outraged, Sarah pushes for new facilities, but earns a reprimand for her efforts; it’s 1934--the heart of the Depression--and there is simply no money to make such sweeping changes. She will just have to make do.
Sarah then takes special notice of two girls--Midge Carne (board member Robert’s smart but odd daughter), who’d previously been taught at home, and Lydia Holly (the eldest daughter of a dirt-poor laborer), whom Sarah discovers is exceptionally bright. Their situations--troubled Midge, in need of the distractions of school and being in the company of her peers, rather than being coddled, alone; and penniless Lydia, desirous of the opportunity to attend school and to stretch her mind, rather than being relegated to looking after her seven younger siblings in the decrepit shack her family calls home--are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but Sarah understands what each girl needs in order to reach her potential.
There are other concerns outside Kiplington's walls. After well-meaning Joe Astell visits the Shacks (the aptly-named South Riding slums) and sees first-hand how deplorable the conditions there are, he attempts to gain support for building new housing for the poor... but his efforts are, in short order, perverted by the greedy, who concoct a scheme to sell a bunch of worthless swampland to the town (following a period of speculation, naturally) for any new housing. 
Affairs of the heart also occupy her thoughts, as Sarah deals with Astell’s admiring attentions, while trying to make sense of the strange attraction she feels to dour Robert Carne (her polar opposite in every way). Sarah insists she’s not looking for love... but companionship is another matter. 
Disagreements, confrontations, scams, scandals, disappointments, and tragedies mount, as the inhabitants of South Riding live out their lives against the backdrop of the rugged, windy cliffs of Yorkshire. Change and reform will, eventually, make their way even to that remote corner of England... but not without a passel of problems, beforehand. 
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As I alluded to earlier, the world depicted in South Riding is very different from that of the recent Upstairs Downstairs (which I discussed recently here), despite the fact that both take place in England during the mid 1930s. Most notably, the “haves” (and I'm using that term loosely) who live in South Riding are considerably less fortunate (if wealth can be equated with the state of being “fortunate”, anyhow) than the London families of Upstairs Downstairs, as whatever wealth the rural families once had has been steadily eroded by the on-going Depression. And, when it comes to the “have-nots” (or “have-much-lesses”, as the case may be), the household staff in Upstairs Downstairs have it downright cushy--living in a fabulous house with all the amenities, compared to the squalor experienced by residents of the Shacks--where whole families are packed like sardines in tiny, one-room hovels, without decent heat or running water, and with only a communal outhouse for a privy. This dichotomy between the two worlds is startling.
The types of prejudice differ, too. In Upstairs Downstairs, there is widespread prejudice toward the Jews, and some toward all foreigners, in general. In South Riding, the prejudices concern attitudes toward the poor and toward women. The former, no doubt, has a lot to do with proximity (or lack of); it’s much easier for the elite families in 1930s London to remain at a physical distance from the poor than it is for those living in the small town to do so; thus, there are more conflicts (and the resulting prejudices) in the small town. As for the latter (attitudes about women’s “place” in the world), I think that must be attributed to provincialism. Ideas--even the notion that women deserve just as much respect as men and are, in fact, their equals--are generally accepted more readily in large areas, where a greater number of progressive thinkers can be found to influence those less-progressive ones. Small towns such as South Riding, on the other hand, will almost inevitably cling to their traditional beliefs far longer, for it is how they struggle to maintain their identity.
On the whole, South Riding is another excellent BBC production, well worth watching. The setting is glorious, giving a splendid feel for time and place, with many outdoor scenes which take full advantage of it. The story--especially Lydia’s plight--is engrossing and moving; nothing happens quite as you might expect it would (although there are some triumphs). The only criticism I have, actually, is that the ending itself is a bit rushed. I don’t know if the screenwriter, Andrew Davies (of Bridget Jones fame, in addition to a host of other fabulous BBC TV productions), couldn’t conceive a better way to wrap things up, or if he simply ran out of the time allotted, but tacking on another ten minutes would have made it more complete, I think. 
Overall, this one really has a lot to recommend it. :) 

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What We Make of Ourselves; Part 1: Upstairs Downstairs (TV)

Destiny. Fate. Call it what you will, but the fact remains that all of us start out, to a certain extent, either cursed or blessed by circumstances entirely beyond our control--namely, the sort of conditions into which we’re born.
There’s little rhyme or reason to it, of course; it’s all a matter of biology and luck-of-the-draw as to our parents and their respective situations. Kings and queens are just as likely to have half-wits for heirs as paupers are to bear geniuses. (And no, I’m not discounting the importance of “nurture” in the old “nature vs. nurture” equation, I’m merely pointing out the randomness of it all when it comes to innate abilities.)
That kind of randomness--and whether or not we attempt to change our lots in life or just accept things as they are--struck me when watching a pair of mini-series which aired (on PBS, here in the States) recently. The two stories have their similarities and differences, but it was how each character’s situation in life informs his/her actions (or doesn’t) which stood out to me in both programs. First up, Upstairs Downstairs...
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Upstairs Downstairs picks up shortly after the point when the original, long-running (and über-popular) series left off. It's now 1936, and handsome diplomat Sir Hallam Holland is returning to England so that he and his wife, the elegant Lady Agnes, at long last can settle down. Their new home? A certain 165 Eaton Place--formerly a posh London town home, the site of so many day-to-day dramas (both above- and below-stairs), now dilapidated and swathed in layers of dust after sitting vacant for several years.
Lady Agnes isn’t daunted by the mess, however, and she fearlessly assures her slightly-skeptical hubby that she, herself, will oversee the house’s refurbishment. Her first step? Stopping by a staffing agency in Belgravia, run by none other than one Mrs. Rose Buck, who (unbeknownst to Lady Agnes) happened to work as a housemaid at that very address for thirty-odd years.
Rose dutifully goes about assembling a rather motley staff--with Lady Agnes’ dubious “help”. Naturally, the lady wishes to have the best staff possible (although, truth be told, the wages the Hollands are offering make that a rather tall task). Nonetheless, Rose cobbles together a more-or-less-workable bunch: Mr. Pritchard, the stiff and proper butler; Mrs. Thackeray, the feisty cook (who has her own views on how things should be); Johnny Proude, the young, inexperienced footman (whom Lady Agnes quickly approves, strictly on the basis of his apparent innocence); Ivy Morris, the cheeky little maid; and Harry Spargo, the dashing chauffeur. When Rose points out that the house lacks only a proper housekeeper, Lady Agnes cavalierly states that she--Lady Agnes--will be able to and will even find great pleasure in seeing to such tasks, herself. (It is to Rose’s credit that she doesn’t simply leave Lady Agnes to her own devices, but instead, helps the younger woman learn her way--and occasionally fixes things behind her back.)
With the “Downstairs” personnel thus taken care of, that leaves the “Upstairs” residents... which would have numbered only two (Sir and Lady Holland), were it not for the unplanned arrivals of Sir Hallam’s widowed mother, Maud (an opinionated and eccentric woman who, having raised her own family, is confident she knows better than Lady Agnes about everything), who also brings with her a foreign manservant, Mr. Amanjit, as well as a pet monkey. Lady Agnes’s younger sister, Lady Persie (a spoiled and headstrong debutante, previously relegated to living a sheltered and boring existence in a remote Scottish castle), rounds out the party. (Clashes, tantrums, and various contretemps are clearly inevitable.) 
It’s only after things start falling apart at the seams, though--both upstairs and down--that Lady Agnes admits she’s in over her head; one botched society party and one embarrassing arrest later finds her begging Rose to assume the position of head housekeeper. Graciously (and somewhat wistfully), Rose agrees. (Excellent timing, too, because things get progressively more difficult for every single member of the household.)
Set, as it is, against the turbulent backdrop of London on the eve of World War II, it’s fascinating to watch the various players act and react to everything going on around them. There are, of course, the royal scandals (King Edward VIII and his shocking American mistress, the divorced and outspoken Wallis Simpson, and Edward’s eventual abdication)--titillating subjects on everyone’s lips. There are grave political issues (the rise and spread of fascism across Europe, as Hitler and his Nazis prepare to make their next big move), which are cause for considerable worry. There are also societal concerns (strikingly exemplified by Lady Persie’s freedom to engage in a dalliance with one of the downstairs staff... and her newfound fascination with a particularly-troubling ideology), and never-far-from-the-surface prejudices (most notably, those faced by the newly-arrived German parlormaid, Rachel Perlmutter--a sad young woman with secrets aplenty).
Freedom of behavior has dramatically increased by this time, to be sure--although Persie, in particular, chafes at exactly how she is expected to behave. Class stratification is undeniably still the norm, yet there is evidence that the rules are gradually relaxing. And, there’s no doubt that the staff work hard for their wages, but their jobs seem more like jobs--and less like pure drudgery--than they did in the depictions of household servants fifty or sixty years earlier. The times, they are a’changing... slowly, but surely.  
Throughout, there are tragedies and disappointments, physical pains and emotional scars... interspersed randomly with little moments of pure joy. Life, we soon see, is really no less-messy upstairs (for those born to the silver spoon)... nor, perhaps, is it so much less-grand downstairs (for those from the most modest of backgrounds). And, in the end, redemption comes from both levels as well, as Sir Hallam rises above the haughtiness and class-consciousness of his wife, the bitter racism embraced by her sister, and the old fears and prejudices long-hidden by his own mother... and the staff come to terms with one another, finding forgiveness, friendship, and family within their ranks.
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Although I haven’t seen any of the original Upstairs Downstairs, I enjoyed this new, three-hour continuation of the series immensely. The cast is first-rate, including Jean Marsh (reprising her role as Rose Buck) and Eileen Atkins (Maud Holland)--two of the creators of the series, coincidentally--and Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes (Sir Hallam and Lady Agnes). The sets are wonderful, full of small details which give an excellent sense of time and place. Costuming, makeup, lighting, and cinematography are all top-notch. In short, this series is everything I’ve come to expect from a BBC production: beautifully-produced, intelligent, and entertaining. 

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Werewolves (plus Vile Vampires & Steamy Steampunk) of London

The saying “You can’t tell a book by its cover” is an interesting one, because we almost never use it when talking about books, do we? We pull it out to describe the slovenly fellow who paints delicate watercolors... the fragile-looking woman who packs a mean right hook... or maybe, the old, driven-by-grandpa four-door that surprises with a souped-up V-8 under its oxidized hood. The point is that none of those things involves a book. 
More interesting, perhaps, is that the saying isn’t strictly accurate; I think you pretty much can guess what a book will be like by studying its cover. The artwork may not jibe completely with the author’s words, but you can usually get at least a sense of what kind of story you’ve picked up, and if there are any blurbs, quotes, or snippets on the cover, those all provide yet more clues to what lies within. 
But, what happens when there is no cover? With the growing popularity of e-books, it’s becoming more and more common to access something only via some sort of e-reader... meaning there may or may not be any “cover” artwork.
All of which leads me to a book I read recently--a friend-recommendation, as it happens. Only available in e-form, there wasn’t--at least, not at the time I downloaded it (there is, now, of course, pfft)--a cover to be perused, no blurbs to be considered. Nope, all I had was this friend’s enthusiastic “Try it, I think you might like it!”. 
Here’s where things get a bit dicey. Turns out this definitely wasn’t something I’d have chosen, had I been trolling the aisles at my local bookstore in search of something fabulous. Why? Because if this book were available in print form, it would’ve almost certainly been shelved in an area in which I never set foot--Romance. (For anyone who fondly remembers the TV show “Seinfeld”, you should know that I just uttered that word like Jerry always said “Newman”.)  
[Let me stress that I don’t look down on any of the genre’s avid readers; I just prefer love stories and any “smexy” scenes to take a big backseat to all the other action in whatever I’m reading.]  
So, my delightful friend suckered me into reading a romance... by luring me in with promises of Steampunkishness and a little mystery. Indeed, the title Steam and Sorcery (by Cindy Spencer Pape) sounded most promising...

In what I’ve come to think of as typical romance-novel fashion, the HEA (that’s Happily Ever After, if you’re not entirely up on your acronyms) is broadcast loud and clear within the first few pages. Masculine, titled English hunk (Sir Merrick Hadrian) meets sweet, unassuming governess (Miss Caroline Bristol)... and they immediately proceed to experience tingling feelings and certain stirrings for one another (and yes, you can make of that what you will; no matter how innocent or bawdy your thoughts, you’ll be spot-on). 
When the pair are conveniently thrown together again, months later--after he unexpectedly acquires the guardianship of five children, and finds himself in need of a governess, pronto--it’s hardly a surprise.
Merrick isn’t just your run-of-the-mill, ruggedly-handsome gentleman, though; he’s actually an ancestor of one of the original Knights of the Round Table, and is, himself, a powerful knight (complete with some magically-enhanced abilities) in that order... which now functions as a sort of secret, special policing force under the auspices of the government. Their mission is to root out the most dastardly of criminals, as well as supernatural baddies (things like vampires and rogue werewolves, if you’re wondering). During the course of one of his investigations, Merrick is aided in fighting off a nasty band of vampires by a roving group of street kids. (With apologies to those who only like their vampires sweetly-sparkly, the bloodsuckers in this story are truly vile--disgusting, smelly creatures who harbor no love whatsoever for the living.) Knowing that the children’s actions have put them in danger, Merrick valiantly takes them in for their protection (thus necessitating the aforementioned, comely Miss Bristol’s presence).
So much for the “sorcery” part; what about the “steam” part? Well, there’s an element of Steampunk: there are mechanical animals and other small inventions which definitely didn’t exist in Victorian London (a motorized vacuum device that seems a lot like a Roomba, for instance), and people can take airships to distant locations. They also have something like our computers, in the early stages (past punch cards, but still huge and only institutional). And, the main plot (actually, I should say the secondary plot, because the romance is clearly what the author really cares about), concerns stolen technology--the use of which, in the wrong hands, holds dire repercussions for humanity.
Will Sir Merrick figure out and put a stop to the devilish plot before any of the children have been gravely harmed, or will the vampires triumph? Is it feasible for him to live in the same household as Miss Bristol without falling top-hat-over-riding-boots for her? And, what about the fair governess--can she possibly expect to retain her wits and her virtue while in such close proximity to such a specimen of manly splendidness? (Admittedly, I’m rolling my eyes right now. But, you know the answers, right? Right??)

This is by no means an “awful” book. It has a certain charm--particularly in the relationships between Merrick’s new wards, who had already formed their own little family unit out on the streets. There’s a touch of humor, too, which is always welcome. And--thank goodness--Pape shows some pretty decent writing chops, insofar as she keeps her plot going, creates a nice sense of time and place, and pulls it all off with a little creative flair.
But--and this is a large “but”--in the end, this book is still just a gussied-up romance, with itty-bitty dollops of “sorcery” and “steam” tossed in here and there. If Pape had shifted the balance--weighted her story more like two-thirds steampunk/mystery and only one-third love story--she might have had something really promising. (Less heaving bodices and more intricate plotting is always the best plan, in my book.) Instead, she stuck to her romance roots (as I found out when I got to the afterword), with the end result that this book is something of an oddity: not enough science-y stuff to satisfy those looking for the alternate-reality world of Steampunk... yet with enough of the mechanical-fantasy setting to make straight romance readers raise their eyebrows. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Ratings: for me, a non-romance reader, 2 mousies; for fans of romance (& a little light fantasy), 4 mousies

[Note: The Amazon "cover" image above wasn't available when I first downloaded this book. It's a very nice cover, and accurate inasmuch as the characters are properly depicted; plus, you can tell there's a Steampunk element at play. However, a glance at the covers of this author's other books--in all their near-naked, heaving pieces-&-parts, erm, splendor--is probably a better representation of her true style. ;)]

Monday, May 16, 2011

A Windy City Cocktail: Jack's Reunion

We may not give much thought to it one way or the other--in fact, I’m pretty sure we don’t--but no matter what else we do, we’re constantly doing one thing: filing away memories, for later retrieval at some unspecified date. 
Case in point? All we have to do is hear a song playing in a store, catch a few minutes of an old movie on TV, get a waft of a certain perfume while walking through a room, or read a name or phrase in a book... and suddenly, without even trying, we’re right back in the middle of whenever, reliving in our minds some episode--either momentous or inconsequential--from the past. 
Good, bad, and boringly-mundane memories... our minds are like so many rows of filing cabinets in a huge warehouse, with vast storage space to hold all that stuff as we accumulate it with each passing day. But, we might ask, why do we have so many memories? Is their purpose, by turns, to titillate, amuse, anger, and/or embarrass us... or do we learn something valuable from them, as well?
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As anyone familiar with J.A. Konrath’s “Jack Daniels” detective series can attest, Chicago PD’s Lt. Jacqueline “Jack” Daniels has racked up more than her fair share of really, really bad memories. During her years on the force--particularly in the homicide squad--she’s seen nearly every type of heinous murder, committed by some of the most violent and depraved individuals imaginable. She’s had to fight for her life on several occasions, too, and has fought for--and, sadly, lost--the lives of some of those closest to her. 
When she joined the police department more than twenty years ago, her goal was to make a difference, and she’s certainly accomplished that... but at what cost, she often finds herself wondering.
Never more so, though, than she does in Konrath’s brilliant Shaken, which finds Jack not in pursuit of a killer, nor even among the killer’s prey... but already captured, with just hours left to live. Her captor? None other than the infamous “Mr. K,” one of the vilest, most sadistic serial killers ever, with more than 200 unspeakably-gruesome murders attributed to him--and someone with whom, as we quickly discover, she happens to have a very long history. (By the way, if you’re worried I’m divulging spoilers? Don’t be; I’m never one to give away any of the “good stuff”. This is something you can read about right on the book cover.)
Jack--bound in an anonymous storage locker no different than thousands of others in the Chicago metro, with only the implements of her impending torture and eventual, miserable death around her--can do nothing with the short time left to her but desperately try to escape her restraints... and to think, dredging up memory after memory from the course of her long career, especially from her prior run-ins with this particular maniac .
Those memories take her back some twenty-five years, from her time in the police academy (where she learned to ask a couple of extremely important questions) to her rookie case in homicide, up to the more recent past, when she retired from the force and set up in private practice. And always, surrounding those important events, she remembers the uncertainty accompanying her decisions--both personal and professional--and now, ponders them anew. 
Did she do enough, on the job? Were her efforts worth giving up having a family of her own? What of those she lost, all because of her chosen profession? Should she have made different choices? Is it enough, now, to know she stopped a lot of very bad people, when she goes home to her wanted-by-the-law, cancer-stricken boyfriend each night? 
Nimbly jumping back and forth--and back again--between 1989, 2007, and 2010, we see through Jack’s eyes exactly what her current predicament means to her and those around her, as well as why it was, perhaps, almost an inevitability. Not an inevitability that she--or anyone but Mr. K--would have likely foreseen, mind you, but rather, it’s the sort of thing that makes perfectly-logical (albeit twisted) sense when viewed in retrospect.
Meanwhile, as Jack struggles with the physical bonds and with her mounting anxiety and terror (because once you’ve been captured by a madman who’s killed hundreds of people with his bare hands, you have to know your chances are definitely not looking any-too rosy), the three men in her life are scrambling to figure out her sudden disappearance.
Herb, her long-time partner on the squad, who knows her better than probably anyone else in the world, frantically combs his memory and Jack’s files, seeking clues from their joint past to her possible whereabouts. Harry, her abrasive first partner--and once-again partner in their new p.i. venture--as well as recently-discovered (in what has to be the ultimate, cruel twist of fate) sibling, makes the usual raunchy jokes and crude remarks... even as he goes around with his kit, searching for evidence to analyze and test. And poor Phin--always sick, in pain, and a little loopy from his unholy cocktail of pain meds and chemo drugs, and whose status recently underwent a change from casual-friend-and-billiards-buddy to live-in boyfriend--is in a focussed-but-frantic furor, over the possibility of losing the woman he loves. 
The tension escalates, the horror builds... and then, things get so much worse.
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I’ve been a big fan of Konrath’s since picking up Whiskey Sour (the first in the series) several years ago. He’s always displayed a way with words, a wicked sense of humor (both the normal “cop” humor you’d expect from those who have to deal with bad people day-in/day-out, and the obnoxiously-crass [yet, amazingly, frequently hilarious] style humor as doled out nonstop by Harry), and a finesse for creating genuine suspense (with terror and shock value, to boot). If you like chills (and can stand a certain amount of gore), Konrath is always sure to deliver.
With Shaken, though, Konrath did something I wasn’t expecting: he got a lot better.
The most noticeable difference between this book and his others is, of course, the structure, which works brilliantly here. With a storyline that refuses point-blank to be anything remotely linear, it hops from 1989 to the near-present and the right-now with absolute ease. It may sound unlikely, but the story flows with nary a hiccup throughout all these multi-year jumps. (Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of non-linear storytelling--no doubt because that’s the way I tend to relate things, every day--but I honestly can’t imagine other readers not being able to follow the action.) It’s also important to note that he doesn’t do this merely to be “different”, but to allow for insight into the characters. (It works.) 
Speaking of the characters, this book also marks a real maturity and understanding among them. In previous outings, Jack has sometimes been a little too witty (especially at inappropriate times) for her own good, so that she hasn’t always come across as entirely believable, but that’s never the case in Shaken. Harry, well... Harry is the sort of living caricature you do, on occasion, have the (mis)fortune to get stuck spending time with, so his problem (for me) has always had more to do with being so frequently, thoroughly detestable than with any actual unbelievability. (Don’t get me wrong; it’s not even remotely essential that I love everything about the characters I read.) Harry has always been an entertaining-if-controversial player in the series; here, though, we see through/around the haze of his obnoxiousness and repulsiveness to... something more, and it’s that depth which is quite rewarding. Phin reins in some of his, shall we say, “bad behaviors”, and shows admirable control. And as for Herb, we finally discover what he was like all those years ago, then follow the progression of his relationship with Jack since their very first meeting. Their relationship has always rung true to me, but getting to see it unfold through Jack’s recollections is a special experience.
And what about the infamous Mr. K? Well, he’s something you’ll need to see for yourself, but suffice it to say that he is Evil personified... but the truly horrifying kind of evil that you wouldn’t recognize if you bumped into him on the street. He--and his psyche--are the stuff of which nightmares must surely be made.
Shaken won’t be for everyone. Obviously, it’s a book for devotees of suspense/psychological thrillers and police procedural/mysteries. (If you never gravitate toward those sections in the library or bookstore, then you already know this.) I didn’t find it overwhelmingly gruesome--then again, I’ve read a lot in this genre, so I’m probably somewhat immune--but if you have real difficulties dealing with any gore or scenes of torture, you may want to take a pass. Finally, this is actually a two-parter; the sequel Stirred will be coming out later this year, and is reported to tie up not only the cliffhanger ending from Shaken, but the whole Jack Daniels series. So, if you abhor cliffhangers of any sort--which don’t bother me, but seem to make a lot of people I know go ballistic about them--it’s probably best that you wait until the second book comes out, so you can read them back-to-back.
If, however, you can’t get enough really fine writing, plotting, and storytelling, served up with a heap of heart-stopping, gut-clenching chills, then by all means go, make haste, and pick this one up. It doesn’t disappoint. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mousies 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Conspiracy and the Persistence of Memory

They say we gain wisdom with age... and, although that seems like a no-brainer (for how could anyone
not gain wisdom, knowledge, etc., the more years lived and the more experiences had?), I suspect the reason behind the oft-repeated platitude is two-fold. 
First, it’s no doubt intended to cheer us up. Waking up each day with another twinge or crick--even as we observe our mental capacities and physical abilities gradually diminishing and going the way of the dodo bird--is hardly encouraging. We need something positive to cling to, so, by golly, wisdom it is.
The second reason--while related to the first--is a bit more organic, I suspect. The bigger truth may be that we truly need such reminders, because, under the best of circumstances, we really don’t have a handle on what goes on in our brains. 
Author Matt Richtel doesn't go the wisdom route; instead, he paints a fascinating and terrifying picture of what may lie in wait for all of us, in Devil’s Plaything.
Nathaniel “Nat” Idle is probably a fairly typical twenty-first-century San Franciscan (if such a thing may be said). In his mid-thirties and single, with a small apartment, beat-up car, and one cat (Hippocrates) to his name, Nat lives a modest existence, complete with a link to pervasive Silicon Valley. After having come to the realization a few years earlier that life as a doctor sounded way too rote-assembly-line-boring for his adventurous and inquisitive spirit, he quit med school and bounced around a bit, until he eventually landed his current position as a medical blogger (for which he reports on trends, breakthroughs, and other bits of medical interest via thrice-daily, online snippets).
His life is a rather solitary one, though. He has only a few friends and no steady love interest (although the latter is something he’d like to change). His parents, to whom he isn’t particularly close, live in another state. There is, actually, only one person whom he’s always cared deeply about--his grandma, Elana “Lane” Idle.
Despite the generational gulch between the pair, they share a similar sense of humor and intellectual curiosity about the world around them, and have spent a good deal of time together, telling stories and sharing secrets. Nat has never really given much thought to Grandma Lane’s age; she’s been a steady presence in his life for as long as he can remember. 
But, time marches on, and even those “constants” have a way of changing on us.
For some time, Grandma Lane has been living happily in the pleasant and well-run retirement home, Magnolia Manor. Recently, though, Nat has started noticing a marked decline in her recall of memories and her ability to hold conversations--a striking decrease even for an octogenarian. Following a battery of tests, he receives the unwelcome news: his grandma is in the early-to-mid stages of dementia.
As a journalist (and one with a medical background, at that), he takes the news and starts doing what comes naturally to him--researching the latest studies, talking to experts in the field, and looking into possible treatments. He also decides to write a story about Lane, interviewing her while she still has enough lucid spells to make such an endeavor possible.
As it happens, he isn’t the only one to have that idea. For the past few months, Grandma Lane--along with several other Magnolia Manor residents--has been participating in a special program known as the Human Memory Crusade. Designed to stimulate dormant memories via a “smart” computer interface which interacts with the participant, the HMC program aims to collect data from a large cross-section of elderly people, to be processed and eventually shared with their descendants. So, each week Lane spends a lot of time alone with the computer, trying to accurately recount long-ago remembrances from her youth, marriage, and the war years. 
The HMC program sounded innocent enough, originally, but as Nat watches Lane deteriorate ever-more rapidly, he starts to wonder. Meanwhile, he’s also been contemplating the negative, harmful role which computers--and other technology--might, conceivably, be playing in everyone’s life. The realization that Nat, himself, recalls less and less information--things like telephone numbers, addresses, and combinations which, prior to cellphones and widespread computer use, he would’ve needed to commit to memory--troubles him.
Could there be some connection between Grandma Lane’s steadily-worsening condition and all the time she’s been spending talking to “the box” and telling it her secrets, Nat wonders... or is that just wishful thinking on his part, a convenient place to lay blame? (But, if there’s no connection, why does Lane suddenly seem so agitated, and why does she keep referring to something bad in the past that she doesn’t want Nat to know??)
He doesn’t have any answers, but he suspects that something is very wrong... a belief that only grows stronger when a series of bizarre incidents occur in a short period of time, which put both him and Grandma Lane in danger--starting with someone using them for target practice while they’re enjoying a walk in the park. When Nat soon afterwards receives a mysterious thumb drive (passworded and encrypted) which makes no sense whatsoever, meets a menacing fellow with military connections (who inexplicably wants to play cloak-and-dagger with him), notices that the same car seems to be following him all over the city, and gets a message to meet a strange woman (who subsequently winds up missing, instead)... he can only surmise that he--or he and Lane--have stumbled into the middle of something very, very big. 
As the intrepid (if addled) duo find themselves hurtling from one dangerous situation to the next, they hope to emerge not only with their memories intact... but with their very lives. 
Devil’s Plaything is a compelling book which touches on a wide array of emotions, fears, and concerns. It’s a cautionary tale for the modern age, above all; not only are we unable to fully comprehend the ramifications of this techno lifestyle, but it’s even more impossible for us to envision the crazy innovations and gizmos that have yet to make their way down the pike... or how they will affect us. 
As Nat puts it, “Maybe my problem is technology. The Internet age exacerbates my frenetic characteristics. Information, ideas, and emotions flit in and out--a veritable blog of a world with constant updates and no time to stand still.”
This is also a tale built around a surprisingly-touching love story--that of a grandson and grandmother. Nat and Lane’s relationship is warm and genuine, and it (thankfully) never devolves into the sort of schmaltzy, sentimental tripe which too many authors are prone to fall back on when portraying grandparents.
Finally, Devil’s Plaything deals with a universal concern: the fact that most of us will someday be old, and likely suffering the effects of various losses, lapses, and other indignities (of which we may or may not be fully aware). So, going back to that wisdom which, we’re frequently reminded, we can look forward to in our so-called golden years? We’re probably lucky to have it... because the way things stand now--considering how little we know about the intricate workings of the human brain--we’re definitely going to need it. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

Happy Mom's Day

I've never been one to give much thought to my relationship with my mother; she's just... Mom, and we've always been two very different people.

Still, for all our problems--the mild annoyances, and those areas in which our opinions, beliefs, and attitudes do a complete 180 from each other--the inescapable fact is that I wouldn't be, precisely, who I am today... were it not for her.

Am I going to spout some claptrap about how, with each passing year, I feel closer to her or understand her better? Um, that would be a big "no". On the verge of acknowledging that the things which have always made me grit my teeth are now just cute little eccentricities? Again, a resounding no. ("Hell, no," would be my woefully-inelegant response to that, actually. I just don't do sentimental.)

But, there are a few things I definitely like and respect... things that (usually) make it possible for me to bite my tongue and silently tolerate the rest, even.

So, here's to my mom's unfailing and absolute generosity to everyone... her abiding love for animals, cats in particular (and the fact that she has rescued--then kept and cared for--untold numbers of them? so cool)... her  devotion to education... her fondness for fashion--coupled with an ability to create stylish looks on a teeny-tiny budget... and, of course, her lifelong passion for reading, which she thoughtfully passed along to her only child a very long time ago.

Thanks, Mom... that was the best gift, ever. :)

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Folly in Using Time to Change the Past (on monsters, mayhem, & more)

We’d all like a re-do now and then, wouldn’t we? After royally mucking up something--saying or doing the exact wrong thing--think how fabulous it would be to have a second chance to make things right.

Therein lies the problem, of course: it’s not possible; for there to be any second chances, we’d need the ability to go back in time.

Ah, but what if time travel were possible... if we had the technology and know-how to traipse back and forth between present and past? If we had the opportunity to go back and undo whatever--and then, to do it differently--wouldn’t most of us take it?

~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~

At a large (and highly-anticipated) London congregation of geographers, naturalists, botanists, and journalists in 1861, the stage is set for Sir Richard Francis Burton, famed (and famously-controversial) world explorer and linguist, to--hopefully--lay waste to some of the spurious claims recently made by his former-friend-and-exploring-partner, Mr. John Hanning Speke. Tonight will be Sir Richard’s opportunity to publicly have it out with the other man once and for all, questioning Speke’s negligent scientific techniques during their joint exploration of the Nile, as well as his chance to deny the behaviors (of a rather-more-personal and unsavory nature) of which Speke has so boldly accused him. (Having long been in the doldrums--and somewhat in the bottle--over the curious set of circumstances surrounding the demise of their once-solid friendship, Sir Richard even holds out hope that this evening might set the stage for a reconciliation. Ah, sweet hope.)

Before the night has barely begun, though, something shocking happens which knocks Sir Richard for a loop: news arrives that Speke has been shot in the head, by his own hand, and that survival is doubtful. There will be no debate to clear the air (or mend any fences) tonight.

Nor, as is about to become apparent, will anything ever be the same for Sir Richard again.

Thus begins newcomer Mark Hodder’s extraordinary tale, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, as it more or less recounts these events just as the history books tell us they occurred. It is also, however, the last time in which our story and the history books concur, because from this point, Hodder gallops off in a most-surprising, wildly-inventive, and thoroughly-satisfying direction.

In this version of Sir Richard’s life, you see, he doesn’t get married shortly after the above tragedy and then proceed to get shuttled about from one boring consulship to another. No, Hodder lets his Sir Richard have considerably-more fun and excitement, when the Prime Minister--with the approval of King Albert--appoints him as a very special sort of investigator, one who will work in conjunction with Scotland Yard on some of their most-perplexing cases.

Wait... what? King Who, in 1861??

Ah, yes... told you this was a different sort of history, didn’t I? In this telling, poor Queen Victoria--only three years into her reign--was assassinated at the tender age of 20, leaving (after some necessary Parliamentary shenanigans) hubby Albert her successor.

But back to Sir Richard. He’s ushered immediately into his new job (for which he summarily breaks off his engagement, by the way, since the sort of dangers he’ll be facing leave no safe place for a wife) with a pair of exceedingly-vexing cases. In the first, a figure out of folklore--and to many people, a mere figment of the imagination--has reappeared, and is causing quite a stir: Spring Heeled Jack, the strange fellow with a circus-like appearance, is a literal bodice-ripper, going about accosting young women and leaving them with torn garments, and always escaping before he can be captured. (With the female population understandably scared out of their collective wits, this is a situation which must be stopped.)

The second case is no less bizarre; as improbable as it sounds, London is also in the midst of a series of attacks by roving bands of loups-garous (aka werewolves, to you and me), which are in the habit of leaving brutalized (and often, partially-eaten) bodies in their wake. (Clearly, this is a situation no more tenable than the first, for anyone who wishes to avoid mass hysteria--not to mention, all that blood and gore.)

But what to do, and how to go about it? With the aid of an investigator from the Yard--and with his own, handpicked assistant (none other than the flamboyant and radical poet, Algernon Swinburne)--Sir Richard proceeds to scour every seamy, squalid, teeming inch of London, following up on clues and tracking down leads.

[A bit more about that... I suspect most of us have a general sort of feeling wherein we “know” that we wouldn’t want to live in Victorian London... but through his detailed and (brutally) vivid descriptions of the lives of the myriad “have-nots” (in other words, the miserable majority of the city’s residents), Hodder effectively blugeons the last trace of romantic folderol onto which, oh-so-foolishly, we may have been holding. Gut-wrenching to read? Without a doubt. Intensely moving? Absolutely.]

Meanwhile, Sir Richard’s new destiny--not to mention Queen Victoria’s and [King] Albert’s changed circumstances--aren’t the only things to have been so altered... no, far from it. For this, I should tell you, also happens to be a full-on Steampunkish fantasy world, replete with incredible inventions and amazing contraptions. Rotochairs and steam-powered velocipedes, an ingenious pneumatic rail system, and genetically-mutated animals (think monster horses, for example) serve as transportation, alongside the more traditional horse-drawn conveyances. Communication among the more elite occurs not only by standard postal methods, but letters can now be delivered via speedy hounds (who are born knowing all of London’s addresses), and verbal messages may be sent via special messenger parrots (who... well, let’s just say aren’t entirely polite in their form of delivery). It is, indeed, a very different sort of world--and some of the auxiliary cast--including Charles Darwin, civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and Florence Nightingale--appear in surprisingly-different roles, as well.

[Time for another aside... There were, as many people probably recall, a number of popular movements at the time. The Libertines (comprised of both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their considerably-more-radical brethren, the “Rakes”), for instance, believed that life should be free of the moral restraints typically placed upon it by man, and instead should be concerned with the pursuit of beauty and pleasure. (It was the particular forms such pleasure took which differentiated the two branches.) There were also the Darwinists, who supported Charles Darwin’s (mostly-unpopular) theories of evolution. To those movements, we will add the Technologists, including the Engineers (those who conceive the contraptions in this alternate, Steampunk world) and the Eugenicists (those who work with genetics and have created, among them, the mega-dray horses and trained parakeets and dogs described above). As with the Libertines, these two branches tend to be somewhat at odds with one another. Hodder cleverly interweaves all these different factions into the story, and it’s utterly fascinating.]

Still, after some truly grueling investigative work (including both help and hindrance from members of the above, various movements, as well as quite a lot of help from some wonderfully-unexpected quarters), Sir Richard and his team succeed in figuring out the nearly-unimaginable truth behind everything that’s been happening.

And what of the time travel I mentioned earlier? (No, I didn’t forget about it.) It’s sort of the beginning and the end of everything, actually... as someone makes a seemingly-innocent choice which sets off a whole chain of events... and someone else makes a rather-less-innocent choice to seal the deal. Re-dos, it seems, come with a very steep price, indeed.

~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~

With its wildly-fantastical story, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack almost defies categorization. Part historical novel (since we learn much of the real history, too), part sci-fi (with its Steampunk and time travel bents), part fantasy (which is surely what we hope werewolves are), as well as pure mystery/suspense (Sir Richard is kind of a pre-Sherlock Holmes-meets-Victorian-James-Bond chap, with the delightfully-quirky and deviant Swinburne serving as his Dr. Watson), it might--at a glance--seem too much of a good thing (or things). Trust me, it’s not.

Is this a “perfect” book? Well, perhaps not quite. There were occasional patches which dragged a bit. (To be fair, though, that’s nearly always the case with the first book which sets up a series, and that’s what this is.) But, for the sheer amount of research Hodder undertook--the results of which he then seamlessly blended into a fabulously-creative story--and the logical manner in which most of his characters acted and the events played out, this book is certainly a rare wonder. Without question, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack is one of the most fascinating, absorbing, intelligent, and all-out entertaining books I’ve ever read.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies!