Wednesday, August 31, 2011

High Heels, Ebony Paws, & Vegas Gold, Baby

When an intriguingly delectable-sounding blend of mystery, sly humor, Vegas glitz, and cats (yes, CATS, people!) landed on my doorstep, it seemed like a no-brainer.
There was, however, one small hitch: the book in question--Carole Nelson Douglas’ Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta--was actually the twenty-third in a long-running series... of which I’d read nary a one. (In fact, I possessed not even the vaguest general knowledge about it; no handy clues had ever seen fit to make their way into my subconscious via some sort of bookstore osmosis, sadly.) I would be a tabula rasa, trying to get caught up on all the important whos and whats in a hurry... and having nearly two dozen books’ worth of elapsed history to contend with was, frankly, more than a little daunting.
Still, that “But this is right down my alley!” refrain kept playing in the back of my mind, so I decided there was nothing to lose... but potentially, a fun, new-to-me series to find. 
~^.,^~   ~^.,.^~   ~^.,.^~
Freelance-public-relations-whiz-cum-amateur sleuth Temple Barr is a snappy-thinking (and even snappier-talking) young woman who (apparently) keeps finding her diminutive self in the middle of all manner of mysterious mayhem. By her side (literally) is the eponymous kitty and her roommate, one Midnight Louie, feline sleuth extraordinaire. (Louie, it must be noted, is quite the thinking cat, and--while he only communicates with “his Miss Temple” in the usual meows, trills, purrs, and paw action--entire chapters are devoted to his thoughts about the various goings-on and to recounting his own detecting exploits. They're fabulously true-to-feline form and a hoot to read.)
Other recurring characters include one boyfriend (fiancé in this latest outing), the popular late-night radio talk show host Matt Devine; one ex-boyfriend, the Lazarus-like magician Max Kinsella (more about that in a minute); and not-quite-nemesis (but not-nearly-friend, either), police detective Carmen Molina.
Vegas Gold begins with Temple receiving her first formal request to do some p.i.--not p.r.--work, for one of her least-favorite people... an aging B-movie starlet who goes by the highly-unlikely name Savannah Ashleigh. Savannah is convinced that the recent death of her wealthy, bed-ridden aunt’s loyal handyman was not the accident which local police have deemed it. Furthermore, Savannah fears that her defenseless aunt may be in line for the same fate--a scenario made more believable in light of the fact that Aunt Violet has yet to sign her will naming an heir, something which has the vultures (aka relatives) circling. 
Violet, meanwhile, is frantic about her cats, whom she insists have been disappearing, and she implores Temple to find them. (As a point of special interest to animal lovers, eccentric Aunt Violet is a one-woman cat-rescue operation--with somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty or so feline companions sharing her home--and her untimely demise with no will in place would not bode well for her furry family.) Naturally, Temple agrees to do whatever she can for Violet and her cats. 
With her PR business running smoothly plus the new side job to keep her occupied, it’s really Temple’s personal life that’s hitting a pothole-the-size-of-Rhode-Island bump in the road. Her ex-flame (“Mystifying Max”, the magician) suddenly pops up--months after what everyone believed to be his certain demise during an illusion-gone-wrong--suffering from amnesia. The only thing he's sure of is that someone wants him dead... something which Temple is determined to prevent. 
That’s not all for the tiny tornado otherwise known as Temple, though--not when a third mystery rears its ugly head. Another body is found in one of Detective Molina’s old cases--and both Temple and Max find themselves drawn into her investigation. (Now is a good time to point out that this case--as well as Max’s current predicament--began in previous books and are recurring plot lines. Fortunately, the author does a pretty good job of providing enough background so that newcomers aren’t completely clueless... while longtime readers won't be buried by endless repetition, either.)
Meanwhile, on the furry front, Midnight Louie (aided by his Girl-Cat Friday, the delightfully-sassy Louise) is occupied with the imminent peril faced by Violet’s clowder (that’s the term for a group of cats, by the way)... and with how to rescue each member before so much as a whisker can be harmed. 
Will Temple figure out what’s going on in Violet’s house before she suffers an unfortunate “accident”? Can Temple’s loves--past and present--somehow put aside their petty jealousies and rein in the raging testosterone long enough to keep their girl out of harm's way? Will Max be able to walk away from a killer again... or has his luck finally run out? And, can Midnight Louie and company rescue the rescues... before it’s too late??
~^.,^~   ~^.,.^~   ~^.,.^~   
As a general rule, I steer clear of anything that sounds too “cute”--which is the category I usually lump all those mysteries with “themed” titles into. (Ones about desserts, knitting, and shopping spring to mind.) Thus, it was with some trepidation that I agreed to read Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta; cat or no, the potential for death-by-cute-overload worried me.

Happily, that didn't prove to be the case. Sure, Temple is a little breezy--it is Vegas, after all--but the author has created a smart, funny, spunky, determined, and genuinely nice gal in Temple, and I really like her. Her suitor situation is an interesting one, as well, what with two desirable fellows alternating between friends and lovers... and I’m curious about how everyone got to where they are now over the course of the preceding (gulp) twenty-two books.
Of course, the piece de resistance is undeniably Louis, the clever detective (who just happens to perambulate on four furry paws). Douglas lets him be a cat--a smooth-talking (to other felines) and urbane black-furred gentleman, who still retains his streetwise ways--and it’s clear she really “gets” cats, both in what they actually do (such as observing the ritual of turning in circles before lying down) and how they might think if they shared our vast vocabularies (that the prescribed three turns are an important ritual in tribute to Bast, the Cat God). Midnight Louie’s personal thoughts, as well as his interactions with other cats, are both fascinating and utterly delightful, and cat owners are sure to fall in love with this ebony charmer.
On the whole, Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta is a fun book with a lot happening--perhaps a somewhat-challenging read for newcomers, but spot-on perfect for longtime fans. I know that I have definite plans to catch up with Midnight Louis and his Miss Temple again in the near future. :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 Mousies

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Prowling the Streets in Search of Justice: A SuperHero is Born

Growing up, I idolized Wonder Woman. She had it all--awesome strength and beauty, intelligence and kindness. To me, she was female perfection.
Ever practical, I knew I’d never achieve that ideal (she was just fantasy, after all), but following her tireless quest to rid the world of evil and replace it with love and peace allowed me to envision a place and time in which women enjoyed real power and respect (and could fix problems without a lot of senseless bloodshed).
It's never all about thrilling feats of derring-do, of course. There’s a bit of melancholy attached to any superhero story too--sometimes a sense of loss, and always feelings of loneliness. Nothing comes without a price. 
Raymond Benson explores what it would be like to become an all-too-human superhero in his new book, The Black Stiletto.
✒ ~ ✒ ~ ✒ ~ ✒ ~ ✒
Martin Talbot is a just a regular Joe. Ordinary-looking, middle-aged, and divorced (with shared custody of an only daughter), he’s not the sort to inspire second glances. Methodical and careful, he works at a large accounting firm by day, then returns home at night to a modest home in the Chicago suburbs.
He has no major complaints about his lot in life--aside from being sad about his mother’s condition. Judy Talbot, the lively woman from his youth, is now an elderly woman--still physically-fit for her age but mentally-felled by the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s--living in a nursing home... a woman who only sometimes recognizes her own son. 
Martin thinks he knows Judy--the single-parent mom he grew up with as well as the befuddled and distant woman she’s become. He is about to find, however, that he knows nothing at all...
After a surprise visit from her lawyer one day, Martin finds himself checking on Judy’s old (long for-sale) house. Dutifully following the instructions she’d penned years earlier in a note the lawyer gave him, Martin winds up in a secret closet buried deep in the old house’s musty basement--a tiny room he never knew existed. 
The furnishings in the hidden room are sparse: a few boxes filled to the brim with journals dating back some fifty years, and--curiously--a couple of leather costumes (Halloween? bondage fetish??). Knowing that whatever he’s just found can’t be the sort of thing Judy would want the nosy realtor stumbling upon one day, Martin loads the dusty lot into his car. 
What he learns when he cracks open the first diary beggars belief, though; his parent-- perfectly-ordinary, suburban-mom Judy Talbot--lived a whole other life before settling down... a life in which she was (according to what she wrote in her journals, anyway) none other than the infamous Black Stiletto, masked crusader notorious for taking on Communist spies, the Mafia, and other assorted thugs and baddies, from the late 1950s to the early ‘60s.
Martin voraciously pours over every word, and as the tale--an ancient, unsolved mystery as far as the authorities are concerned--is told, the truth comes to light for the very first time. In young Judy’s own words, Martin sees how an abused girl--finally pushed too far--took matters into her own hands, escaping from a life of unhappiness into one that was completely foreign to her... then somehow managing to pick up all the pieces and reassemble them into something new.
As the fantastic tale continues, Martin reads that his mother wasn’t content to be just a survivor; she had a burning desire to see justice done, too... eventually, opting to go outside of the law to achieve it. As impossible as it seems that his cookie-baking mother was once a vigilante wanted by both the police and the FBI, there it is, laid out in black-and-white... and somehow, it has the ring of truth to it.
Unfortunately, Martin isn’t the only one in on the secret--something he unhappily discovers when one of the Black Stiletto’s worst enemies suddenly shows up in the Windy City, hell-bent on settling an ancient score. This enemy isn’t one to worry about any pesky little details, either, like whether or not the Black Stiletto’s son and granddaughter are in the way. 
Can the mild-mannered son of the former heroine/vigilante save the day... or does the septuagenarian Stiletto have one final trick up her cardigan sweater sleeve? 

✒ ~ ✒ ~ ✒ ~ ✒ ~ ✒

The Black Stiletto is a mesmerizing tale. The fact that it’s actually told from several different points of view--and that it goes back and forth between present and past--is an interesting (as well as effective) way to relay the story. It allows us to get a handle on who Martin is, then to feel his frustrations and uncertainty when everything in his life starts changing. He’s not a bad guy, and when he thinks selfish thoughts or has trouble coping with his teenaged daughter’s opinions and plans, it’s understandable. 
Of course, the primary focus is on Judy. Seeing how such an iconic (in the framework of the story) character comes into existence is absolutely fascinating, and reading the words of a teenager is an unexpected (but oh-so-appropriate) choice--certainly much more affecting than if the tale were written as the memoirs of an old woman. The writing in the journals consistently sounds like that of a young (and, early on, innocent and naive) girl, a tone which lends her tale--that of the creation of an alter ego more Catwoman than Wonder Woman--a genuine poignancy. From the early tragedies and hard times that shaped the determined young woman and tough avenger she would become, to her invincible good cheer and can-do attitude, you can’t help but root for Judy, and like her.
Another element worthy of mention is the setting--notably that of 1950s New York. It just feels like author Benson must have surely gotten the details right, with the flavors, sights, and sounds of the city, as well as the overall look and tone of the era, and it was fun immersing myself in a time so foreign.
The Black Stiletto is a cool blend of smooth mystery-suspense with some dark comic-book spice, and I enjoyed every bit of it.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Mousies
[Note: The Black Stiletto will be released September 5, 2011.] 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Girl, a Boat, a Hero... and the Fate of the Universe?

Showy meteorite displays on opposite sides of the world... a couple of driven scientists, trying to pinpoint the source of a group of unusual gamma rays, located far away in the solar system... the recent influx into the rare jewel market of some beautiful (but deadly) gemstones... a curious (and tenacious) young girl who sets out on a fishing boat from the coast of Maine to find her fortune... and the (former) CIA operative trying to put all these pieces together and make sense of things, before it’s too late for everyone: this is Douglas Preston’s action-packed, sci-fi adventure thriller, Impact.
★ // ★ // ★ // ★
Abbey Straw is a college student like so many of her peers, just going with the flow--but dissatisfied with her options. What she wants is to be an astronomer (which, unfortunately, isn’t what she’s been going to school for), so she drops out one day with only a vague idea of finding some long-buried treasure off the coast of Maine to fund her dreams. When she happens to witness a fabulous meteor shower one night--and also manages to catch the meteor’s fall with her camera--she can hardly believe her luck. It’s like an omen; this is what she’s meant to do: triangulate the coordinates of the landing using the images she’s captured, find the meteor somewhere out there (in the hundreds of small islands off the coast), and make her fortune. So, after enlisting the aid of her best friend and borrowing her father’s small fishing boat, she sets out.
Aerospace engineer Mark Corso feels like the opportunity of a lifetime has just fallen into his lap when he’s given the prestigious job recently--and tragically--vacated by his mentor, who was killed during a home invasion. The feeling of destiny soon intensifies--even as it also morphs into a certain amount of uneasiness--when he receives, shortly thereafter, a mysterious parcel in the mail. It contains an encrypted hard drive--stolen from his new place of work--and is chock-full of unusual, highly-classified images from the Mars mission... images that shouldn’t be. The sender? His dead mentor.
Wyman Ford, an ex-CIA operative, receives an urgent summons to the Washington, D.C. office of the president’s top science advisor, where he’s given a hush-hush assignment: locate the source of a new gemstone known as “honeys”, which have taken the market by storm--a beautiful stone, exact origin unknown... that just so happens to be radioactive (in other words, deadly to the wearer, with the potential to make some very nasty dirty bombs). Once Ford finds the honey mine(s), he is to report back to Washington, so they can decide what to do next.
None of these three people has ever met, but they’re about to independently discover perplexing clues to the same large puzzle... one with deadly implications, for each of them... and perhaps for the entire planet.
★ // ★ // ★ // ★
I’ve read a lot of things by Douglas Preston--books penned by him alone, as well as several collaborations with his frequent writing partner, Lincoln Child (going all the way back to 1995’s fabulous Relic)--so I knew about what to expect: a solid tech-y background with some interesting science stuff, a host of realistic characters to keep up with, plenty of drama and action, and a few spine-tingling chills. And, in many ways, Impact lives up to the long tradition I associate with this author. 
The book has a fascinating premise--one that doesn’t go in entirely-predictable directions, thank goodness. It’s definitely action-packed, with some key scenes reminiscent of those from the Indiana Jones franchise (yay!), and others drawing from sources like “The Perfect Storm” and “Cape Fear” (again, cool!). As for the characters, Ford and Abbey, in particular, are drawn extremely well, and their relationship--once they eventually meet--works quite nicely.    
It’s not a “perfect” book, though. Chief among my complaints is that it’s a slow-starter; I had to talk myself into trudging through the first fifty or sixty pages until my interest finally caught and held. (That kind of start doesn’t tend to put me in a very good mood.) The Corso character isn’t as strong as the other two leads, either, so those sections continued to be somewhat frustrating for me. (Maybe he’s exactly as Preston saw him--an annoying wienie--or maybe he just strikes me that way, I don’t know. Regardless, he grates on my nerves.) Finally, the ending feels a tad abrupt, with a little extra tacked on after that. (Let’s just say it’s not the cleanest job of setting out the grand conclusion.)
Still, Impact provides a good-enough ride overall that I think anyone who enjoys action/adventure-thrillers with a science twist should enjoy it (provided they have patience through the draggy beginning, that is). As for me, I’m holding out hope that Preston’s next solo adventure is just a little bit better.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Mousies

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Boy who Was Born a Man (Reacher's Early Years)

You might think that hearing about the continued exploits of a world-weary, tough-as-old-boots hero who’s seen and done just about everything there is to see and do during his five decades of tramping around the earth (and is thus, very rarely surprised by anything or anyone) would start getting a little old, some fifteen books in.
You’d be wrong to think that, though--at least, when the heroic fellow in question is none other than Lee Child’s veritable force-of-nature and one-man distributor of revenge and retribution, ex-military policeman Jack Reacher--because, like fine wine, Reacher just gets better with age.
Of course, there’s also the fact that age is such a relative concept with someone like Reacher... a point brought home rather persuasively in the newly-released (and first ever!) short story about him, Second Son, which provides a very different look at the stalwart fellow than we’ve ever seen before.
This mini-Reacher feature (hehe, couldn’t resist) covers only a couple of days’ time, yet it manages to paint the perfect picture of a younger Reacher--who, as we soon see, is really just a (somewhat-)smaller version of his present self.
Set in 1974, when Reacher is a boy of thirteen, Second Son offers a glimpse of what life is like for him and his family when they’re newly re-stationed on Okinawa. It’s an interesting time; President Ford has just taken over for President Nixon, and the U.S. military is, at long last, focussed more on peacekeeping than on active combat duties. For a military family such as the Reachers, it all means a whole new way of thinking about friends and enemies.
Or... maybe not so much, when Reacher and his older brother Joe immediately find themselves in the middle of a mess of trouble, both the usual hazing-of-the-newcomers variety, as well as something with far-more serious and wide-reaching (sorry, no pun intended this time) implications. 
At the same time, Reacher’s father finds himself caught up in a worrisome, politically-charged situation (snafu, anyone?), and Reacher’s mother has personal issues of her own to deal with... leaving Reacher to sort out everyone’s problems as best he can. (See, it really is the same old, same old for our trusty man of steel.)
✠ - ✠ - ✠ - ✠ - ✠ - ✠
Second Son may be but a tiny piece plucked out of the Reacher time capsule--I read it in its entirety during one powerwalk on the treadmill--but as informative blasts-from-the-past go, it’s a good one. I loved seeing Reacher (yes, always just Reacher) as a barely-teenaged boy/man, with his practical-thinking skills already honed to a fine edge, and that lethal combination of unemotional common sense and impressive brawn ready and able to solve any problem, even then.

It’s nice getting to spy on their family dynamic, too... and to walk away with a better feel for where the pragmatism and integrity which guide the Reacher we know and love actually originated. Having this little bit of “firsthand” knowledge kind of fills in those small gaps and rounds out his character--making this both an effective and entertaining piece... and a must-read, for Reacher fans. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 mousies
[Note: This short story is currently only available as an e-book.]

Friday, August 12, 2011

Play Us a Song of Death

Things would be tidier if the monsters in our midst were easier to spot. If they were hideously ugly, spoke only nonsense, had atrocious taste in music and art, and were so thoroughly detestable that not even their own mothers could be relied upon to love them unquestionably... then the rest of us would be safe(r) from them.
We know that’s not the case, though. Spend a week following the news, and it’s clear that most of the people who commit those heinous acts look and seem like the rest of us. From the inconspicuous wallflower to the movie-star-attractive, the soccer mom (or dad) to the designer-clad, the lover of pop (or rock or country) to the opera buff... oh yes, we’d be hard-pressed to pick the monsters among us out of the crowd. Such is also the case in P.J. Parrish’s latest thriller, The Killing Song.

* / * / * / * / *
In his professional life, thirty-five-year-old Matt Owens has it made. He enjoys his job as a reporter for a Miami paper and has a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism hanging on a wall at home to show for it. His personal life is another matter, though. With a failed relationship recently behind him, most nights find him home alone, nursing a bottle of whiskey, rather than out on the town with friends.
When his sheltered baby sister Mandy graduates from college, it seems like the perfect opportunity to shake up both their routines a little, so he invites her down from North Carolina for a visit. Her trip is a success; Mandy is thrilled by everything in exotic and colorful Miami, and the pair happily explore neighborhoods and beaches by day, before hitting the clubs each evening.
On her last night in town, Matt--ever the indulgent big brother--agrees to just one more drink so Mandy can shake it on the dance floor a final time. Idly sipping his drink, his eyes wander over the crowd, people-watching. When the song ends, he looks around for her... but she’s nowhere in sight.
He pushes through the sweaty throng, searching; he checks the restrooms and looks outside on the street, in case she’s already waiting. Finally, he’s forced to conclude that she has vanished into thin air, and he contacts the police.
News comes the next morning: a body fitting Mandy’s description has been found. She’s in a derelict hotel, a few hours dead. Her clothing is nowhere to be found; the only item of hers at the scene is her iPod.
A few days later, he plugs it in, hoping to reconnect with a part of her by listening to the music she loved so much. Much to his surprise, the last song played wasn’t something by Lady Gaga or Shakira, but an obscure oldie by the Rolling Stones, entitled “Too Much Blood”--a gruesome song about a man who brutally kills his girlfriend in Paris-- something Matt knows Mandy would have loathed.
Convinced the song must have been added to Mandy’s iPod by the killer, Matt googles first the song, then murders in Paris... adding all the details of the crime he can think of to narrow the search parameters. What he eventually comes up with stops him cold: the murder a few months earlier of a young American woman in Paris, the body left just as in the Stones’ song. Both the description of the body and the crime scene sound like those in his sister’s case. It can’t be a coincidence, so he makes immediate plans to go to France.
In Paris, he soon finds more than he bargained for--multiple unsolved murders, each with a musical clue left at the scene. Eve Bellamont, the detective in charge of the investigations, is convinced that an even-older murder--one she’s been obsessed with for the past five years--is part of the same horrible pattern, as well. 
As Matt and Eve pursue the cryptic musical clues, their search crosses the Channel into England and Scotland, too. Horrified by how many victims this sadistic monster has already killed--and by the thought of all those still in peril--the duo frantically chase down leads, getting one step closer to their prey with each note of music... desperately hoping to find him before they hear his next song playing.

* / * / * / * / *

With The Killing Song, the two sisters who write together as P.J. Parrish take a break from their popular Louis Kincaid mystery series and deliver something a little different. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable read--although to be honest, I don’t yet feel the same sort of connection with Matt that I feel to Louis. Matt is interesting enough, a smart and flawed character, and he’s believable; what’s lacking for me is the same level of emotional intensity.
Looking at it as a one-off (at least for now), though, The Killing Song is easy to recommend. The story alternates between perspectives, first seeing through the killer’s eyes and then through Matt’s, and it’s an effective technique, because we always know more than either of them... while still remaining in the dark about how the last few pieces will fit together (until near the end). The use of music throughout is compelling, as are the settings--from the vivid colors of Miami, to the varied neighborhoods of Paris (including fascinating trips through ancient burial sites, both above and below ground) and the surrounding countryside, to London, all the way to a remote corner of Scotland. My favorite part, though, is the relationship between Matt and Eve; Parrish doesn’t go the route seen in most stories, but gives us something unexpected... and welcome.
Overall, this is an interesting police procedural/thriller with some really good suspense... and it holds out promise for future adventures.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 Mousies

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Deadly Games in the Hollywood Hills

With a nod at the oft-quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart (who famously said that even though he didn’t know the precise definition of “pornography”, he knew it when he saw it), I’m not always sure what constitutes “pulp fiction”... but I think I know it when I see it. (Thanks for that go to Quentin Tarantino and his oh-so-helpfully-named cinematic masterpiece... not to mention, pretty much every other movie he’s had a hand in.)
Until recently, my exposure to the likes of anything pulp-y was confined to watching such Tarantino-esque films on the jumbo screens at the multiplex. (The sheer outrageousness and larger-than-life everything in a pulp movie is positively tailor-made for a place which proudly serves up jumbo buckets of glistening, artery-clogging puffs of corn and carry-on-suitcase-sized boxes of Junior Mints.)
What I’d never done, though, was to read anything in the genre... but, figuring that you never know what’s gonna float your boat until you try it (well, aside from something like Brussels sprouts, which I’m positive beyond a shadow of a doubt I can’t stand, despite the fact that they’ve never actually passed my lips), I was open to the idea.
So, when the description for crime writer Duane Swierczynski’s latest book, Fun & Games, came along--and intrigued me, with its mix of familiar-enough territory (noir-ish mystery) and the promise of a little extra kapow (over-the-top action scenes in a bizarre-o setting)--I decided to take the plunge.
▼◊ ▲ ◊ ▼ ◊ ▲ ◊ ▼
A little drive-by, for starters...
First off, a quick check that the key ingredients are all present and accounted for, in the very best pulp fashion. Hardboiled action hero? Check; Charlie Hardie is an ex-Philly-cop, as tough as old boots, who’s trying to escape a lot of bad memories by consuming copious amounts of booze. Beautiful woman-in-peril? Check; Lane Madden is a beautiful, famous young starlet, on the run from some very bad people. That brings us to... Bad Guys? Checkity-check-check. There are at least three extremely-evil guys (well, make that two guys-and-a-gal) who want nothing more than to see Lane dead. Finally, fantastic locale? Check, if the fabulous homes in the hills of Hollywood count.
Now, let’s put everyone in motion... 
Charlie Hardie has completely turned his back on his old life, following the brutal murders of his partner--and his partner’s wife and daughters--during a drug case gone tragically wrong. He currently makes a living as a house sitter, a job that lets him be a rolling stone, always on the move with gigs all over the country (and as far away from Philadelphia as he can get). It’s easy enough; he secures the property, makes it obvious the house isn’t vacant, then spends the rest of the time watching old movies and making his way through as much bourbon as possible. (No matter that the pay isn’t great, since he carries all his worldly belongings in a couple suitcases.) 
He flies into L.A., thinking this latest job doesn’t sound like much of a challenge: watch the house of a famous musician who’s off working on the score for another blockbuster movie. (The fact that it’s an “upside-down house”, with three of the floors buried underground, would seem to make things that much easier.) And, when he sees the huge screens and amazing sound system in the media room on arriving, he decides this job will be just about perfect.
There’s just one teensy little problem: after being in the house for only several minutes, he’s attacked (impaled, actually) by a terrified young squatter... who turns out to be a considerably-worse-for-the-wear Lane Madden, gorgeous A- and B-movie actress (whose exploits are fodder for all the tabloids), insisting that “They” are out to kill her.
Initially, Hardie--while sort of preoccupied trying to stop the vast quantities of blood from leaking out his chest--thinks he has just another drugged-up (and crazy-ass dangerous!) starlet on his hands. Who in his right mind would buy her story that a group of hit men have been trying to kill her all morning, and to make the death look like an accident? Gradually, though, he realizes there might be some awful truth to the wild tale Lane’s telling him... especially after the power is cut, the phones are jammed, and someone drives off in Hardie’s rental car. (And don't even ask about the poor delivery guy who shows up unexpectedly with Hardie's wayward suitcase.)
Once these so-called Accident People successfully break into the house, making all-too clear their intention of killing both Lane and Hardie, all bets are off; Hardie’s not about to let another innocent person get whacked when he’s around. (At the very least, he's willing to die to prevent it from ever happening again...)
▼◊ ▲ ◊ ▼ ◊ ▲ ◊ ▼
What I can’t tell you about Fun & Games are all the specific moments of terror... anticipating the hammer to drop, the boogieman to get in, and the blood to flow. The chases are thrilling; there’s a very strong you-are-there sensation when reading, and you feel and “see” everything on a visceral level. This one grabs you by the throat from the start, and doesn’t let go until the bitter end. It’s larger-than-life, as promised, full of scary-creepy, heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled fun.
Swierczynski doesn’t just dish up some killer action, though; his Hardie is hardboiled-with-a-heart (a Bruce Willis character--smart-ass wisecracks included, thank goodness--if ever I’ve seen one), and Lane is sympathetic, too (in a suitably-spoiled, Lindsey Lohan way). As for the hit squad, well, they’re a nifty blend of all those really nasty baddies straight out of the better shoot-em-ups, and the fact that the leader of this particular group is a very smart and determined woman? Totally cool.
Fun & Games is the first in a trilogy featuring Charlie Hardie, and I’m kinda looking forward to seeing what other insanity Swierczynski has planned for him. Every once in awhile, you just need to let loose and go on a wild and crazy ride.   
Whatever else it is, let’s just say... this one’s definitely not Brussels sprouts. ;)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 Mousies

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Last Resort... and Second Chances

Words can have multiple meanings, and sometimes, the differences are subtle. Take “exhaustion”. We hear the word, and tend to picture a body utterly worn out by some sort of grueling physical activity, such as that of a workman who pounds nails into roof shingles for a living, after spending eight hours in the blazing July sun, or maybe a triathlete at the end of his/her race.
Exhaustion doesn’t manifest itself solely in the physical sense, though. Emotional exhaustion--that hollowed-out feeling which follows a period of intense grieving, for instance--can leave the body feeling just as fatigued as physical activity, and the same is true for mental exhaustion--such as when a person has thought long and hard about every aspect of a seemingly-insurmountable problem, in the fruitless search for a solution.
Any one of them--or a combination thereof--can lead to burn-out, that state of being completely fed up--with a job, a relationship, a situation... or with life itself. A dangerous thing, burn-out.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes is the tale of a man experiencing burn-out... and how he eventually finds his way again.

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It's a given that no matter how good things might seem, there’s always something (or someone) waiting to knock the wind out of our sails. Carl Mørck, a highly-regarded homicide detective in Copenhagen’s police force, was no different. His team had an excellent record, and Carl enjoyed the respect of his peers. So his personal life was somewhat less-than-idyllic, with a wife who moved out (but refused to divorce), leaving him responsible for a surly teenage son. On the whole, though, he was happy enough.
Until one day, that is, when everything was turned upside down during what seemed like just another routine murder investigation. In the span of a few seconds, Carl was shot, one of his partners was killed, and the other suffered injuries which would leave him paralyzed. And Carl, who failed to draw his weapon, now blames himself for the whole pathetic mess.
Returning to work following his leave of absence finds Carl a changed man. Gone are his curiosity about cases, his sense of humor, and his will to be a part of things; instead, he's a bitter, burned-out, unapproachable shell of his former self--and a man around whom everyone else soon learns to steer clear. 
This new-and-unimproved Carl is the last person in the department that anyone would expect to receive any commendations; forced into an early retirement, sure, but promoted? Never... yet that’s what happens, when his boss informs him that he’s been chosen to head the newly-established Department Q, a division created to investigate cold cases of significance from all over Denmark.
There's a caveat, of course. His new office is buried all alone in the basement, in a former grave for used office furniture, and manned by a staff of one. (Well, make that two, after Carl finagles an assistant for himself out of the boss.)
Carl continues to while away the hours doing puzzles, playing video games, and napping--just as he’s been doing ever since coming back on duty--while blithely ignoring the fifty case files that were delivered to his new digs. His assistant is another matter, though; Assad needs more of a challenge than swabbing the floors and running around headquarters searching out files and making information requests (the tasks for which Carl hired him). So, when Assad asks if he can look through a few files in his spare time, Carl figures it can’t hurt.
Turns out Assad has unexpected depths and insight (secrets, too, but that’s something Carl doesn’t discover until much later), and he becomes intrigued by one case in particular--the mysterious disappearance some five years earlier of an attractive young politician named Merete Lynggaard. Before long, Assad is pestering Carl every few minutes (or so it seems) with questions about the case file. Meanwhile, Carl’s boss makes it clear he expects regular progress reports from the basement. And just like that, Carl finds himself getting pushed into the Lynggaard case.  
The case, he has to admit, is interesting. The young woman vanished without a trace from a ferry one day. No one saw anything, so it’s been generally assumed that she must have gone overboard and drowned.
The lack of evidence leads to unanswered questions. Could this seemingly-successful and happy woman have been a suicide? If it was murder, then why? Or, if she was abducted, then how/what/why did that occur? 
Carl’s malaise ebbs away, as he and Assad go over everything again. Slowly, a different picture emerges, and the more scraps of information the pair manage to cobble together, the more certain Carl is of one thing: Merete Lynggaard didn’t drown, as people have been content to believe... but something far, far worse took place that day. 
And he’s convinced of one thing more: she’s still alive, somewhere... for now.

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Adler-Olsen really knows how to ratchet up the tension, and does so from the get-go in The Keeper of Lost Causes, successfully maintaining that same intensity and sense of urgency until the end. Alternating between episodes in the past and the present (for both Carl and Merete), the story ever-so-gradually takes shape and form for us. We learn how events occurred; we see why certain choices were made (although we can’t put everything together for quite some time).
Make no mistake, The Keeper of Lost Causes paints a grim picture--particularly in regard to Merete. The horrible conditions she has endured are harrowing. Hers is the story of a woman, caught up in the worst-possible nightmare, clinging desperately to her fragile sanity... because that is all she has left to call her own.
Carl Mørck’s story is nearly as haunting, as he deals with demons from his recent past (which continue to gnaw away at him even when he sleeps). The realities of having a paraplegic best friend and a dead one--both conditions for which he feels responsible--are heartbreaking, and how he copes feels very honest and true.
The author also does justice to his lesser characters, from the supporting to the most minor; we get a very good feel for what each person is like, and what attitudes, biases, and motivations each has, which further contributes immediacy and connection to the story.
And finally, there’s Denmark itself in a key role, from the clogged city of Copenhagen, with its many diverse neighborhoods, to the small, remote towns, and all the country roads in between. For me, a story is incomplete unless it provides a genuine and vivid sense of place... something which this one does, beautifully.
Jussi Adler-Olsen has long been an award-winning, bestseller crime writer throughout Northern Europe... finally getting the chance to take other markets (including the U.S.) by storm. For anyone who can’t get enough psychological suspenses or police procedurals, his introduction is long-overdue... but oh, so very welcome.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.75 out of 5 Mousies
Note: The Keeper of Lost Causes will be released Aug. 23, 2011.