Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Destiny Takes Flight on the Wings of a Song: Intrigue in Appalachia


Take some garden-variety youthful rebellion, then throw in a heap of raging hormones and rivalries old and new, and you’ve got the makings for the sort of angst-y drama which plays out everywhere, every single day. 
Add a few unearthly mysteries, a wealth of beautiful lyrics and exquisite music, the unmatched splendor of (mostly)-unsullied nature, and a small, enigmatic race of people into the mix, though, and the end result is something quite different... something which can only be found, in fact, in a place like the bucolic Great Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee, in author Alex Bledsoe’s newly-released novel, The Hum and the Shiver
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
The tale begins with what appears to be a festive event--a big parade, welcoming the return of still-wounded war hero Private Bronwyn Hyatt to her Cloud County, Tennessee home. In reality, the very last thing the twenty-year-old soldier with the shattered leg wants is fanfare, but--as someone points out to her--a parade isn’t actually for the benefit of the person riding on the float; it’s for everyone in the crowd. So, she dutifully grits her teeth and smiles through the pain, waves to the crowd, and rushes through the mandatory speech, waiting for it all to be over.
A canny observer--say, Don Swayback, the burned-out reporter from the small weekly newspaper one hamlet over, or even new-to-the-area (but observant) preacher, the Reverend Craig Chess--might notice one element curiously missing from the crowd: the distinctive faces of the locals. The reason for that is simple; their celebrations with Bronwyn (the ones glad of her return, anyhow) will take place later, far from the eyes and ears of the horde of media representatives who’ve converged on the tiny mountain town en masse to record the hero's homecoming.   
Bronwyn’s “people” aren’t the stereotypical hillbillies that outsiders expect, nor are they quite like anyone else. She is part of the mysterious Tufa, a small group comprised of two clans who--like the Native Americans--were already long-settled in these misty hills when the first Europeans arrived hundreds of years ago. With their characteristic dark hair, perfect white teeth, and similarly-good looks visibly setting them apart from the rest of their Appalachian neighbors, the mystical and poetic Tufa quietly live out their lives, rarely straying from their community... except, that is, for the occasional rebel like Bronwyn Hyatt. 
Were it not for her career-ending combat injury, the headstrong Bronwyn would still be off fighting... if only to stay away from everything which first drove her from her mountain home. The matriarchal Tufa have big plans (of the ”taking her rightful place” variety) for the Hyatt family’s only daughter--plans which Bronwyn is in no hurry to fulfill. Nor is she down with the whole idea of being forced to marry another Tufa just to pass along the bloodline--particularly not when that seems to mean being paired off with her abusive ex-boyfriend, the handsome but sadistic Dwayne. Getting away from all the omens, visions, and other portents of tragedy and unhappiness so much a part of Tufa life wasn’t a bad thing in Bronwyn’s mind, either. 
Regardless, her return signals that destiny will be resuming its course. Bronwyn spies a new charm hanging on the front porch... the type of magic used to ward off death. She barely makes it through the front door before learning that one of the female elders has already scheduled a meeting, and that a “haint”  has been coming around, waiting to impart who-knows-what alarming news from beyond the grave. Dwayne stops by, renewing his wholly-unwanted attentions. Most unsettling of all, however, is the discovery that she has lost her music; she can no longer play her mandolin nor remember the words to any of their songs... and a Tufa without music coursing steadily through his or her veins might as well be dead.
No matter what Bronwyn might prefer, things are, indeed, coming to a head... and soon. The question is whether or not she can regain the music that is her life’s blood, gather the courage to take her place among her people, and even, perhaps, open herself up to love, in order to meet her destiny. 
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Big props go to author Bledsoe, because The Hum and the Shiver is that rare beast--a work that actually feels fresh and original, instead of being simply another well-executed copy of something popular. 
Why, exactly, is it so special? There’s hardly a dearth of strong, young female voices out there in the crowded field of fantasy fiction. Still, Bronwyn manages to earn her place among the better ones as a complex, multi-dimensional character--one far from perfect, but eminently-relatable, likable, and funny, in all her imperfection.  
The mystery of the Tufa and their way of life is key as well, of course. (No, I’m not even going to hint at what that’s all about; let’s just say that the journey taken to get to that answer is at least as important as the answer itself.) The author paints a fascinating picture of these remote people, then adds shade and depth by exploring their treatment of one another and outsiders’ attitudes toward them... while still leaving plenty of things we don’t understand to future books. 
Above all, though, it is the uniqueness of the setting which really makes this story come alive. Sure, we have scads of urban fantasies set in metropolitan areas (hence “urban”) to choose from, but there aren’t many genuinely rural ones--and certainly very few in the Appalachians. It is a backdrop painted not only with broad brushstrokes of vibrant color, as seen in the extraordinary people and their intensely-moving music, but also tinted with the delicate wash of muted pastels, in the weatherworn hills as old as time itself.
The Hum and the Shiver is a thoroughly-satisfying read... leaving me eagerly awaiting a return visit to see what happens next. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Mousies

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Finding Strength Born of Earth, Blood, and Tears

It is often said that there is no rest for the wicked, and--regardless of whether you interpret it (as I do) to mean that evil never sleeps (but is always lying in wait, ready to attack)... or you prefer the biblically-derived (with oodles of hellfire-and-damnation implicit) interpretation which posits that evildoers will eventually find themselves forever in torment--it’s a saying which has the ring of a truism.
The equally-important corollary, of course, is that the good guys--namely, the police, watchdogs (be they canine or human), and other assorted heroes and super-heroes--manage to get precious little rest, either, since they must needs be ever-vigilant against the sundry forces of all that lurking evil.
Imagine, then, always having to straddle a line between the two sides... being viewed by certain segments as a savior, while others pegged you as a monster. That’s the uncomfortable (not to mention exhausting) position which Victory “Vicky” Vaughn finds herself in once again, as she tackles both prejudice and the baddest of ancient baddies in Nancy Holzner’s third “Deadtown” tale, Bloodstone...
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Fresh off saving the residents of Boston--both the “norms” and the “PAs” (short for Paranormal Americans, a designation which includes werewolves, vampires, and zombies)--from the united forces of the evil Morfran (sort of like the granddaddy of all demons) and her own (possibly)-very-distant-cousin Pryce, just one short month earlier, Vicky has barely found time to work on getting her own life back to normal.
Her vampire roommate, Juliet, is still missing (in addition to being wanted by the law), which--given the political and social climate in most of Beantown--is cause for considerable concern. Relations with her older sister, Gwen, are still strained, to say the least. Other areas of her life are faring better, though. Vicky’s hunky werewolf boyfriend, the successful paranormal-lawyer Kane, has healed nicely from his wounds, and their relationship is on an upswing. Things are likewise going well with her job, serving as Boston’s only professional demon-slayer-for-hire.
Naturally, the fact that anything is going well means it’s about time for some new evil to hit town, destroying the fragile sense of calm and normality (or at least, as normal as things can be, ever since the bizarre plague that turned two thousand Bostonians into zombies overnight a few years earlier). This time round, evil rears its ugly head in the form of a brutal killer known as the South End Reaper.
Despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever linking the mutilations and deaths of three humans from Boston’s south side to members of the paranormal population, it is nonetheless the city’s “monsters” who are bearing the brunt of this latest escalation of fear and rampant hate. Radical groups are calling for removal of all the PAs, and the mayor has ordered the police to take drastic measures, putting Deadtown’s residents under lockdown and enacting a strict curfew within the zone. (The reaction in Deadtown, unsurprisingly, is less than ecstatic.) 
With tensions growing--and additional murders by the Reaper a gruesome certainty--the whole city seems poised for a meltdown. And, when the long-lost Juliet suddenly reappears--horribly weakened (possibly even dying?), yet somehow, caught up in the middle of everything--Vicky knows that she can’t just sit by and watch things get progressively worse. 
Enlisting the aid of her stalwart little group of go-to friends and family--Kane; her indomitable Aunt Mab; the diligent detective (and briefly, potential love interest) Daniel; and the hulking, monosyllabic, and mysterious bar-owner, Axel--as well as looking to some unexpected sources--her teenaged zombie ex-intern, Tina, and Tina’s goth friends; her still-more-estranged-than-not sister, Gwen; and even her own young niece, Gwen’s daughter Maria--Vicky can only hope that she'll be able to scrape together enough mental, physical, and emotional firepower to get to the bottom of the murders, save Juliet (if possible), and bring the ancient evil out into the light of day in order to eradicate it (simultaneously vindicating Deadtown's hapless denizens). 
No sweat, right? Well, not exactly, because if she doesn’t succeed? Not only will there no longer be a Deadtown... but there won’t be a Boston left to speak of, either.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Bloodstone is another highly-satisfying tale in what has proven to be a compelling and intelligent series, and it may be my favorite “Deadtown” story yet, actually. Holzner continues to build on her small but strong cast of main characters, providing each of them a little more depth with every book, as well as offering up some tantalizing new characters in minor roles (characters that could easily be featured more prominently, because they’re so interesting). By turns funny, sarcastic, anxious, angry, sad, and even, occasionally, a bit wistful, Vicky and company are well worth spending quality time with, always.  
Speaking of interesting, there’s a lot of cool mythology in Bloodstone--English as well as Welsh, this time. The new historical elements the author introduces mesh nicely with what we already knew from the previous books, and help set up future actions (it seems inevitable that there will be an ultimate showdown at some point); by the conclusion of this book, I think I’ve worked out who will be involved.
If you’re a fan of urban fantasies but haven’t yet tried the “Deadtown” series, now is a great time to take the plunge. 



GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Mousies


[Note: Bloodstone will be released 9/27/2011.]

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Jack-o'-Lanterns from Beyond: Beware the Pumpkin Man

As summer eases into fall, we’re treated to a fabulous array of seasonal delights... brisk days warmed primarily by the sight of sun-dappled, multi-colored leaves, making their last (and grandest) hurrah; the smell of woodsmoke permeating the air by night, as fireplaces and wood stoves are brought out of semi-retirement; farmer’s markets piled high with enticements ranging from bags of shiny apples, mounds of gourds, and jugs of sweet cider, to paper cones filled with still-warm, freshly-roasted nuts; and a general desire for coziness, such as can be found in cuddly sweaters and mugs of hot cocoa.
Amusements are likewise in abundance when autumn rolls around. Homecoming festivals, arts and crafts shows, beer-and-sausage-themed “Oktoberfests”, and, of course, everything that Halloween brings--from the costumed day/night itself, to the various haunted houses, hayrides, and quirky regional offerings (corn maze, anyone?), that take place in the weeks prior.
Something a bit darker and more sinister returns with a vengeance this time of year, as well--a yearning for the chills and goosebumps brought on by the scariest of ghost stories... and the bloodthirstier, the better. Enter John Everson’s The Pumpkin Man.
~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~
Jennica Murphy has definitely had better weeks. Still reeling from her father’s gruesome murder only months earlier, the young schoolteacher receives--in the space of just a few days’ time--the additional blows of being “let go” from her teaching position and the news that her apartment building will be going condo... both, effective immediately
Fortunately, her best friend and roommate (and equally-fired teacher from the same school), Kirstin Rizzo, has a plan: with nothing tying them to Chicago, they should make use of Jenn’s recent inheritance--a house off the coast of California, which belonged to her father’s also-recently-deceased sister, Meredith Perenais--in order to regroup. What better place to take stock of one’s life than on the beach, with scores of hunky guys around, Kirstin argues (blithely ignoring Jenn’s insistence that her aunt’s house isn’t likely to be on that sort of beach).
Jenn, sad to say, is right, as they discover after arriving in San Francisco and making the three-hour drive north to remote River’s End; the old house sits alone on a rocky outcropping near the ocean, set apart from the rest of the tiny town (which itself boasts little more in the way of “excitement” than a general store and a small dive bar). Still, the accommodations are free, and the girls agree there’s much to be said for a change of scenery.
The house is hardly what they expected, either. A quick tour leaves them in no doubt that Aunt Meredith was not only a witch (something that Jenn had grown up knowing in only a vague sort of way), but that she was a very ardent practitioner of witchcraft, instead of just a dabbler... and that her specialty was in the darkest of dark arts.
The townspeople, naturally, have long been well-acquainted with the unusual proclivities and habits of the entire Perenais clan (of which Meredith was the last surviving member), and they greet Jenn and Kirstin with rather less than open arms (if the repeated messages of “Leave here now,” are anything to go by). 
The reason for their hostility is simple. One of the Perenaises--Meredith’s husband George, actually--was the infamous Pumpkin Man, a sort of urban legend-turned-horrible-reality who terrorized tiny River’s End for several years, stealing a child away each October... even as he innocently sat carving his beautiful pumpkins by day down at the pumpkin lot. But, when the townsfolk finally got their proof--the (headless) body of one of the missing kids turning up, with bloody shards of pumpkin nearby--it was all over for the Pumpkin Man. An angry mob lynched him, thus putting an end to all the terror... or so they thought.
Now, after more than twenty years, the Pumpkin Man has apparently returned from the dead. This time, though, his targets aren’t children, but rather the parents of those children killed so long ago. He’s leaving the bodies of his victims--their heads replaced with intricately-carved pumpkin likenesses--right out in the open. The townsfolk are convinced that Meredith is responsible for his bloody return... and Jenn and Kirstin have just landed in the middle of this dreadful mess.
To get away from it all for a bit, the girls head down the coast, where they soon hook up with a couple of guys. Suddenly, things are looking up again, and the foursome make plans for the following weekend. 
Unfortunately, that’s when everything goes really wrong. A little fun with Meredith’s old witchboard spooks everyone. Grisly discoveries in the basement sicken them. And then, someone--one of them--dies, another victim of the Pumpkin Man. 
As the last person still alive with any Perenais blood running through her veins, Jenn knows that somehow it’s up to her to figure out which of the black spells from Meredith’s vast library might undo the unspeakable evil which is her aunt's legacy. Otherwise, every single person in town--Jenn included--will soon wind up with very dead, with a pumpkin head of her or his own. 
~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ ☠ ~ 
First off, let me say that--much like with horror movies--I have rather different expectations when it comes to horror stories than with other genres. I still look for the writing to be good and the plot entertaining, of course, but with the emphasis placed on the scare-your-pants-off scenes instead of on depictions of personal growth, meaningful conversations, or the like. In that regard, The Pumpkin Man delivers, for author Everson crafts plenty of ghoulish, spine-tingling scenes full of shocking and vivid imagery. The level of suspense is high throughout, too, never making anything (or anyone) too obvious.
My one (big) problem concerns the “love connections”, because it is the arena of romantic relationships wherein Everson's weakness lies. (And no, I’m not talking sex scenes or feelings, here.) The rapidity with which the couples supposedly form their bonds (which are only a part, yet an integral part, of the story)--combined with Jenn's junior-high-schoolish thoughts and the (by turns) stilted/cheesy dialogue between the lovers--make for some groaningly-bad scenes, unfortunately.
Still, it is that time of year, when the days grow shorter, the nights grow longer... and curling up under a cozy quilt in the wee hours--when there’s not a sound in the house (save, perhaps, for the eerie scratching of an occasional branch against the window)--is the only thing you want to do. The Pumpkin Man should do nicely for that. You'll certainly never again look at a pumpkin pie in quite the same way.
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3 out of 5 Mousies

[Note: The Pumpkin Man will be released 10/15/2011.]

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Good Golly, Molly: Runaway Brides and Tong Wars


When it comes to books, I rarely do “charming” or “cute”; that sort of unrelenting cheer (and overly-pat endings) just isn’t my style. Give me something with a little bite, a sharp edge, every single time.
Still, I’m willing to make the occasional exception, and Rhys Bowen’s “Molly Murphy” mystery series has been one of those. With a feisty protagonist--an independent young Irish immigrant who takes up the unlikely job of sleuthing so that she can put food on her table and a roof over her head, and an irresistible setting--New York City, circa the early 1900s, this has been a fun little series with much to recommend it.
All of that may be about to change, though, on the heels of Bowen’s tenth entry in Molly's ongoing saga, Bless the Bride...
* ~ * ~ *~ *
It’s 1903, and our intrepid redheaded detective is on the verge of getting married (hence the dreadfully saccharine title, which if not part of the series would have sent me running away as fast as possible) to her NYPD sweetie, fellow-Irishman Captain Daniel Sullivan.
Apparently the couple have reached an agreement; Molly will give up her (hard-won) job as a private detective once she becomes Mrs. Sullivan. In reality, though, it seems that Daniel expects her to have already given up her work, since he’s bundled her off to the countryside to his mother's home, where they’re presently engaged in the sewing of wedding garments and her trousseau (a task at which, as it happens, Molly is really quite dreadful).
Molly gets a momentary reprieve from the onerous stitchery tasks (and from Mrs. Sullivan’s little jibes at her future daughter-in-law) when a letter from good friends and neighbors, the delightfully-eccentric couple Sid and Gus, arrives. The women want to host a little pre-wedding bash for Molly, and to let her know that a job offer (something secret! urgent!) has just come in. Molly quickly hops on the next train back to the city.
The case isn’t at all what she was expecting, though, when what turns out to be the male secretary of her prospective client leads her through a warren of strange streets to an address in Chinatown, where wealthy businessman (and tong big-wig) Lee Sing Tai resides. Mr. Lee wants a “missing” (stolen? lost? misplaced?) jade necklace found, and insists that he needs a woman’s--Molly's--touch. Almost against her better judgment, Molly agrees... figuring that the money she’ll earn will make a nice little nest egg to bring to her newlywed life.
Things get a bit more complicated the next day, however, when Molly returns to Mr. Lee’s with news of her failure. It turns out the jade job was little more than a test; the real job is to find the woman who was wearing the necklace... Mr. Lee’s bride-to-be (recently purchased from her family and brought over from China), who is also “missing”.
Trying to do the honorable thing by sticking with the case--although Molly is, understandably, appalled by the whole concept of a bartered bride--she searches high and low for the missing girl. In the process, she encounters not only a culture whose ways are foreign to her, but also forms of shame and degradation she’s never seen... opium dens (with their nearly-comatose clientele), religious persecution (in the guise of overzealous missionaries), prejudice (from members of all the neighboring groups and from within the Chinese community itself), brothels filled with Chinese women (forced into the trade by the Chinese men who had secretly arranged their passage), the practice of importing “paper sons”, and tong wars.
She finds a few things she’s rather more familiar with, too... police corruption, protection rackets, and murder. It will take a healthy dose of good ole Irish luck, along with the skills she's learned in the business, if she wants to locate the missing woman and solve the murder (keeping innocent people from going to jail)--without Daniel’s knowledge--in time to make it to her wedding.
* ~ * ~ *~ *

There is, as usual, plenty of good stuff to be found in Bowen’s latest “Molly” tale. The historical details about Chinatown and New York City during this era are fascinating--particularly the cultural insights. The immigrant experience is always one I’m keen on reading about; in the U.S. we were all, at one time, immigrants (aside from the Native Americans, of course). The case itself is an interesting one, too, as it hinges on differences in perception and mores. 
Another element which has consistently been a plus is the depiction of the struggle for women’s rights. The bohemian Sid and Gus are ardent supporters of the suffrage movement, which allows them to provide a bit of perspective on that important topic, even as they inject a bit of comic relief via their crazy schemes, eclectic tastes, and wild parties.
Unfortunately, it's the heroine with whom I really feel letdown in Bless the Bride. Yes, Molly takes the case--even though she knows how displeased Daniel will be if he ever finds out (which, of course, he eventually does), but the fact that she does so is almost unbelievable, in light of how extraordinarily worried and even guilty she seems to feel about it.
Where is the spirited Molly who would’ve (in previous books) stood up to Daniel, never acquiescing to his request to turn her back on her job (and for “request”, read demand or expectation)? She says she doesn’t want to sit at home planning dinner parties and improving her stitching after the wedding... yet her protests seem like so much lip service, since she does nothing to ensure that Daniel hears her.
And then, there’s the wedding (which is hardly a spoiler, since you know all along it’s going to take place)... and the living arrangements... and the plight of a little girl from earlier books... and... well, it’s all just too much schmaltz for me, in the end. 
Color me disappointed with this one...



GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3 out of 5 Mousies

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11: The Day That Changed the World

As I sit sniffling at my computer, reading countless articles and blog entries about this, the tenth anniversary of the day that will forever be known simply by its date-- “9/11” --it hits me anew how much this changed not just our world, but all of us. In that one horrific day, the last vestiges of our innocence literally went up in flames, leaving only indescribable sorrow, bitterness, and an increased awareness of evil in the remaining ashes.

★ ~ ★ ~ ★
Ten years ago saw me far removed (in body) from the shocking events which would take place that day. I was nearing the end of a seasonal job in a midwestern state, preparing to pick up stake and move again in just a few weeks’ time. I’d been to Washington D.C. on a couple occasions (once for business and once for pleasure), but hadn’t yet ventured to New York. I barely knew anyone there at the time, either--one relative, a few business acquaintances. Still, having seen numerous TV shows and movies, as well as having read so many books set in New York, I--like probably the majority of Americans--had at least a passing familiarity with it, and certainly felt a connection to it.
On the morning of 9/11, I was engaged in the most prosaic of activities--picking up a few notions (thread, buttons) in the fabric department at Wal-Mart--when I heard the news coming over the p.a. system, interrupting the piped-in Muzak. (It’s actually a wonder it even penetrated my brain; I have an uncanny ability to block out advertising, deejay patter, and most other interruptions on radio or TV.) I can still remember my head jerking up, my ears straining to make sure I’d really heard what I couldn’t possibly have just heard, that a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers, even as the rest of me--my limbs, my breathing--simply stopped. I don’t think I moved for at least the next five minutes (aside from breathing, which of course resumed--albeit uncomfortably shallow and fast).
I have only the vaguest recollection of racing back to the apartment in a daze; fortunately, it was only a few miles away. I know I was paying a lot more attention to the radio than to the road and any traffic.
For the rest of that day and on into the night, we sat glued to the TV, seeing images of the smoking towers, hearing report after report of planes missing and then presumed hijacked, watching in disbelief as one--then hours later, the second--tower fell, seeing the Pentagon in flames, and listening to the plight of Flight 93. (It seems almost unspeakably sad to say that tales of the bravery of passengers on that doomed flight--passengers who managed to foil the hijackers!--was a tiny bright spot on such an impossibly awful day.) The next day was much the same--visions of smoking rubble and reports of casualties... and the shedding of so many more tears. It would be, actually, a very long time--even in the distant midwest--before things felt sort of “back to normal”... or as “normal” as things can ever be, in this scary, post-9/11 world.

★ ~ ★ ~ ★ 
This was not, of course, the first time a radical faction had chosen extreme and violent means to deliver a message of hate and intolerance. It wasn’t the first time planes had been hijacked with tragic results, nor the first time bombs had killed scores of innocent civilians in a metro area. It was, however, the largest of such heinous plans to be executed, and with such massively-devastating results. And it, perhaps more than any previous hate crime, changed the way we see our world. 
On this sad day of remembrance, I shudder to think about those who view this day as a cause for celebration of the lives, and hopes, laid to waste ten years ago... those individuals who actually believe that violence is some sort of solution. May they never again achieve such horrific results... and may the rest of us find it within ourselves to continue believing in the power of peace and promoting harmony, in the hopes of one day making our world a better, not worse, place. 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Beware the Darkest Dark of Night


A nearly-packed plane en route to Atlanta, departing several hours late from Denver, takes to the skies in the wee hours of a cloudy night with a passenger list ranging from the merely-inconvenienced and tired to the openly-disgruntled and testy. It will soon turn into a flight like none of them has ever experienced... nor even dreamt of in a nightmare, for that matter.
The switch from the rocking evening shift to the easy-listening, night-owls-only one is currently in progress at KMRT, a tiny radio station in small-town Jesman’s Bend, Colorado. Those loneliest hours of the night before dawn are about to become a whole lot lonelier. 
A handsome--albeit somehow “off”--young man, gloating over the fact that his identity as the city’s infamous killer, the “Mummy-Man”, is still unknown, gains entry into the home of his latest, soon-to-be-very-unlucky victim. Unbeknownst to the killer, he will shortly be getting more--and less--than that for which he bargained.
A middle-aged widow--who staves off the loneliness by listening to (and conversing with) all the voices in her head (voices of all the children she and her dead husband never had)--contemplates how to spend the following day. In her wildest dreams, she could never have envisioned how the next 48 hours will be spent.
And thus begins the first in Peter Crowther’s new, apocalyptic “Forever Twilight” sci-fi series, Darkness Falling.
✈ ... ☎ ... ☠ ... ✇
Things are going... well, if not precisely smoothly, then at least more or less predictably for everyone, considering the pre-dawn hour (when few people are awake by choice). Things are humming along mostly okay, that is, until an ear-shatteringly loud boom and a sudden, blindingly-intense flash of light obliterate everyone’s ability to see, hear, move, or think... to do much of anything, in fact, but breathe.
When the sound and light finally recede, the world is tomb-like, blanketed by both an unnatural darkness--a complete and utter absence of any form of light--and an absolute and eery silence.

It resembles a tomb in one other way, as well; it is almost entirely devoid of living, breathing human beings.
The passengers left on the jet can now be counted on one hand. Likewise, with the inhabitants of admittedly-small (but not that small) Jesman’s Bend. The same seems to be the case wherever you look, actually; nearly everyone, everywhere, has just disappeared... vanished without a trace, into the murky darkness.
Twenty-four hours go by, and then, something strange happens (as if this empty new world didn’t already push the very limits of bizarre); people start returning.
The problem, for those who remained when the others did their presto-magic disappearing acts, is that something just isn’t right about those who’ve come back. (Things such as the dark sunglasses, gloves, and strangely-awkward gaits are obvious clues to that particular bombshell). No, it’s pretty much as wrong as wrong can be, especially once it becomes clear that not only are the returnees altered... but that they seem to have some mighty evil plans in store.
✈ ... ☎ ... ☠ ... ✇
Author Crowther shows an impressive patience when setting things up, letting us get a real feel for the main characters (so that the choices they make and the sometimes-extreme actions they later take will ring true? so that we’ll be invested in them as people, instead of thinking of them only as convenient props for something to happen to?), and his restraint is effective, allowing, as it does, for a wealth of tension and suspense to build up. Once things start happening, though, it’s a no-holds-barred, full-on frontal assault of action, terror, and (okay, let's be blunt, here) gore. (If you can’t handle any ookiness whatsoever, then this isn’t for you. Trust me.)  
Darkness Falling is, without a doubt, one of the spookiest, creepiest books I’ve ever read. Ever. (I mean that in a good way, though.) Drawing from those fabulously-fun (and much beloved-by-me in reruns) TV frightfests from days gone by--think “The Twilight Zone”, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, and “Tales from the Crypt”, here--then pulling in elements from some of the better sci-fi/horror movies and sci-fi/thrillers, and finishing it all off with dollops of relationship drama and tongue-in-cheek humor, Crowther delivers some creepy-cool fun.
As mentioned earlier, if “gruesome” isn’t your bag, you’ll want to steer clear. If, on the other hand, you like to throw a little eyes-wide-open-and-breath-held-in-wincing-anticipation reading into the mix, now and then, this one should find a place on your list. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 (goosebumpy) Catnip Mousies
[Note: Darkness Falling will be released 9/27/11.] 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sons, Daughters, & the Deep Blue Undersea


It’s always something, when it comes to life in Faerie... and for a knight who’s only recently added “Countess” to her growing list of names and titles, truer words were never spoken.
Sir October Daye is still getting used to all the changes that have taken place since she unravelled the nefarious plot against her liege, Duke Sylvester Torquill of Shadowed Hills, and his wife, Luna. Their daughter--the insane, angry, and unhappy Rayseline--has fled to parts unknown. Sylvester has seemingly aged overnight, and Luna now wears a mantle of sadness instead of her former kitsune disguise.
Things have altered for Toby, as well. After being hit with deadly elfshot during the last skirmish, she underwent some major (magical) resuscitation efforts--courtesy of her freaky-powerful (but rarely-seen) mother, Amandine--which left her... well, rather different than she was before... and she’s still trying to come to grips with what all of that means.  
Not everything’s doom, gloom, and thirty-nine shades of awful, though (thank Oberon). Toby has the running of her newly-acquired knowe, Goldengreen, to keep her busy. Sylvester insisted she learn how to use a sword (which, let’s be honest, is a pretty savvy move, given how often she ends up staring down some Big Bad), so she’s (okay, grudgingly) taken up training like an Olympic hopeful and is in the best shape of her life. There’s also the squire that she’s finally been persuaded to take on (much to everyone’s delight). Oh, and a love life. She (woo-hoo!) even has one of those now, too.
This is where that “it’s always something” comes in, though... the point where Toby’s world turns upside down once more, in the fifth of author Seanan McGuire’s continuing tales of Toby and company, One Salt Sea.

✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠
Upon receiving a summons to an official to-do by her perpetual nemesis, the Queen of the Mists, Toby--along with the rest of the queen’s subjects--learns some very troubling news. The sons of the queen’s undersea counterparts, Duchess Dianda Lorden and her husband Patrick of the Undersea Duchy of Saltmist, have been kidnapped... and the Lordens believe the Queen of the Mists is behind it. They’re so sure of that, in fact, that they’ve sworn to go to war against the kingdom of the Mists unless their sons are returned, unharmed.
The promised war will commence in just three days’ time... and if it does, the land fae will almost certainly lose, because they’re ridiculously outnumbered (not to mention out-prepared) by the undersea fae. 
Toby, naturally, is the obvious choice for the sorts of sleuthing and saving-of-everyone’s-magical-butts that this type of hellish situation requires. Fortunately, she has her trusty, go-to crew to aid her in yet another seemingly-impossible mission, including Sylvester and all of Shadowed Hills; her own subjects at Goldengreen; her sidekick Quentin; her former-fetch-cum-roommate-and-friend, May; her very old friend (and Raysel’s ex), Connor; The King of Cats, Tybalt, plus his nephew Raj; reliable bridge troll (and capable cabbie) Danny; and, last but never least, her kinda-sorta aunt, the sea witch monster known as The Luidaeg. If Toby has a chance in Hades of somehow preventing the impending war, she’s going to need every single one of them.
Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against her but good (or bad, which is actually a lot more accurate). For one thing, it means that Toby--who already spent fourteen miserable years living as a fish in a koi pond (thanks to a really nasty enchantment by Sylvester’s evil brother, Simon)--will somehow have to figure out a way to get herself down to the deep-undersea realm of Saltmist in order to conduct the investigations which only she is qualified to do. (Yay, fun.)
There’s another problem, too, of course. Someone is prepared to do just about anything to stop her from succeeding in her mission--the person (or persons) who abducted the children, knowing full well such a horrible act would be the catalyst for major war between the two realms. Whoever it is can pass easily between the worlds of land and sea... and clearly will go to any means necessary to see the goal through to the bitter end.
When members of Toby’s little group of friends and family become targets, too, well, that's when the glove--or in her case, the leather jacket--comes off. Sir Daye is willing to go to any lengths and do anything to protect those she holds dear... anything at all. 
Anything.
✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠ ~ ✠
Once again, McGuire graces us with a completely unputdownable book in the continuing (and rather delightfully, Shakespearean-titled) saga of Toby Daye. (Okay, I lied; technically I did put it down. I’m not a speed reader, so 368 pages at one sitting--especially with so much pesky, real-life stuff constantly intruding--isn’t actually possible for me. But, it was just a little white lie so you’d get the idea, capiche?)
McGuire’s Faerie is a complex and endlessly-fascinating place, full of countless species of fae, all of whose actions are governed by complicated (and to us, sometimes a tad nonsensical) practices, laws, and rules of etiquette. To really get it, be prepared to immerse yourself in the lore... and yes, a la Tinkerbell, to believe
As fabulous as the world she’s created is, though, the characters remain an even-bigger draw for me. Toby is very, very real--heartbreakingly-so, oftentimes--and feels, by now, like an old friend. Her joy (not that there’s overmuch of that, mind you), her anger, her confusion, and her fears all come across pitch-perfectly, lending the stories a gut-level emotional punch. Her relationships with the others are likewise well-expressed... particularly those with The Luidaeg, Sylvester, Quentin, and Tybalt. 
Like each previous entry in what has thus far proven to be an almost-impossibly brilliant storyline--vast in scope as well as heart, One Salt Sea delivers the goods, big-time. There’s suspense and action galore, friendship and love (of so many awesome varieties), knowledge and understanding gained, and loss--always so much loss--as we watch the worlds of Faerie struggle to remain relevant and to survive. 
It’s nice to think that love and the forces of good might someday overcome all the evil out there. If it eventually works in Faerie (which still remains to be seen), then maybe--just maybe--it might one day work for us, too. 
I’m holding out hope, for both our worlds... and I know that Toby is, too. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 (Exceedingly-Potent) Catnip Mousies out of 5!!

[Note: One Salt Sea will be released on September 6, 2011.]