Saturday, December 29, 2012

Zombie Claus is Comin' to Town (so You Really Better Watch Out...)

So, it’s the holidays, and you’ve had your fill of relatives, leftovers, Christmas music, crowds, and Really Bad TV. Suddenly, getting away from everything--just you, a mug of something (hot cocoa, some Earl Grey, the last of the eggnog, a couple fingers of whiskey, whatever), and a good book to curl up with--sounds like the best idea you’ve had all season.

But what to read? Maybe something vaguely... festive. (‘Tis the season, fa-la-la, and all that.) The problem--for me, at least--is that most seasonally-appropriate books run toward the treacly, sugar-coated side... and I, most definitely, do not. 

If that scenario sounds familiar, then no worries; I’ve already done the searching for you, and have a positively-delectable morsel to offer up for your reading pleasure--one which is decidedly more, erm, meaty, rather than sweet (but more about that, later)--the irreverently-titled I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus, courtesy of S. G. Browne.

                                                             ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

The holidays are tough for a lot of people, but I’ll hazard a guess that no one else in the history of ever has had the misfortune to wake up a couple days before Christmas, dressed in a Santa suit, in the middle of a body farm (you know, those places where cadavers are left outside, to see what effects exposure and all sorts of freaky conditions have on bodies doing their decomposition thing? yeah, there...) in Portland, Oregon. This isn’t just any old body farm, either; the one Andy Warner wakes up in is populated entirely by the undead. (No, not the deceased... the previously-dead-but-now-reanimated undead. In other words, zombies.)

It isn’t quite the big freak-out you’re probably envisioning, though... since Andy, himself, has been a member of the walking undead for the past eighteen months. Still, for a not-even-close-to-dead-(again) zombie--and not just one who’s sentient, but who can also talk, walk around (rather than shamble), and, with an adequate diet of... (well, you already know what they eat), even pass for a normal breather--this is not an ideal situation. Not even close. Clearly, Andy needs a plan... but first, he needs to remember how and why he got there.

Gone are the days when there was substantial support for zombie rights, when a lot of people still thought we could all just “get along”. After a few memorable bloodbaths, your average zombie went from being warily-tolerated to “monster non grata”. As such, the fate of a new zombie these days is pretty much holing up somewhere and trying to survive, winding up in a body farm to die (another) horrible death, or getting sent to a research facility. That last is where Andy has been for the past year, being subjected to a lot of ghastly tests, all (purportedly) in the name of science. (Andy’s pretty sure some of the researchers derived a bit too much sadistic pleasure out of torturing him, though, for it to have been as pure as all that.)

So, when he sees his chance, he quite understandably makes a break for it, along with a couple dozen other test subjects. The good news? He makes it out. The bad news? Most of the others are caught and returned to the facility... leaving Andy on his own, on the lam.

When he stumbles (literally) onto an outdoor Christmas tableau, complete with a stuffed Santa in full holiday regalia, he realizes he may have just figured out a way to escape for good. And, when he chances on a small group of zombies-in-hiding--newbies, whom he spends a little quality time with, discussing the ins and outs of zombiedom (and going all Julia Child on them, rhapsodizing eloquently about... erm, cuts of human and how best to prepare and cook it [shudder]) plus a couple of old friends, he thinks he may even have the makings for a crazy plan to bust his recaptured comrades out of the research center, as well.

But, it’s only after encountering a lonely little girl who believe he’s the real Santa Claus--and reconnecting with memories of his former life and the family he used to have--that he starts to ponder Christmas miracles (on whatever street)... and discovers that the magic of Christmas doesn’t only apply to breathers, but that it works for zombies, too.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Reading (and chuckling my way through) I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus is some of the most sheer fun I’ve had all year. Seriously, this one has it all: a witty protagonist (granted, he’s decaying from the inside-out and salivates at the thought of fresh breather, but you can’t not like the guy for that); hilarious sidekicks (oh my stars, the elves? the drunken horde of Santas? had me in stitches!); well-done lore, with just-enough backstory to get me up to speed [I discovered only after reading that this is the second story to feature Andy Warner], without going into a lot of medical jargon or scientific hoo-ha (sometimes, you don’t want or need to know that much); and a poignant (but definitely not treacly) side story, with a sweet little girl who has so little in life, and wants nothing but a very small (yet seemingly-unattainable) miracle for Christmas. Pure gold, that is.   

Like waking up to fresh snow on Christmas morning, I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus is the perfect holiday treat (and if you’re just a little warped, like me, then all the better...). 

Happy Holidays! :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 fresh-from-the-Xmas-stocking new mousies!

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy Holidays to One and All!

What's that, you say? Jonesing for some boycat?

Fret not, dear reader... for if there's one thing there'll never be a shortage of, it's boycat pictures. ;)

Happy Howlidayz!!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Secrets that Kill (or Make You Want to)...

Relationships--much like dairy products and produce--can go bad when you least expect it (and in really unpleasant ways). Unlike the half-empty carton of lumpy milk you lost interest in or the mushy head of lettuce you just plain forgot, though, soured relationships are a whole lot messier to deal with.

There are things almost impossible to forgive, forget, or get past--betrayals, secret lives, abuse, infidelities, criminal acts, major differences about the most fundamental of concepts--any one of which can make the thought of continuing a relationship untenable.

But, when all of those things are present--as they are in Merry Jones’ upcoming thriller, The Trouble with Charlie--well, that’s when things can go from bad to worst in a hurry.

❖  ❖  ❖  ❖  ❖  ❖

After some of the stuff he pulled during the ten years they were together, Elle knows she should be glad to be rid of her almost-ex husband, Charlie. There were the lies (so many lies), the infidelities, and the stealing (like when he helped himself to her entire savings to cover a shady investment deal). Sure, in the beginning he’d charmed the pants off her (literally) and made her laugh... but that was just his way, with everyone. Only when the rosy glow had worn off a little did Elle begin to understand that Charming Charlie cared considerably more for himself and his own needs than he ever would for her.

Still, she would never wish him ill... not truly ill.

So, on the first night she’s allowed herself to be persuaded to go out--as a nearly-single woman--by one of her girlfriends, her heart isn’t really in it. The bar scene is too strange and she feels uncomfortable and conspicuous; she decides to go home early. 

Instead of finding peace and quiet, though, she walks in on a nightmare--something too horrible to believe, too shocking to comprehend... Charlie, lying in a pool of his own blood on her sofa, with one of her kitchen knives stuck in his back. Dead, so very, very dead.

And Elle, naturally, is the prime suspect.

She’s fortunate to have three BFFs from childhood to believe in her innocence, bolster her spirits, and, in the case of one of them--a lawyer--to advise and defend her. Unfortunately, however, the police seem to have some reservations... and not even Elle, herself, can be entirely sure she didn’t murder the estranged Charlie.

Elle, you see, has always had a tendency to mentally wander off during conversations, or while doing mundane activities. Her friends affectionately call it “pulling an Elle”, and it’s something which has never been a problem... until now, when she realizes there are blank spots in her memory from the time she got home after work until she returned again from the bar, later that evening, and found Charlie. She doesn’t think she could’ve killed him, in cold blood... but how can she be certain??

Still, the police continue looking into other possibilities in regard to Charlie’s death; affable he may have been, but he and his business partner had played fast and loose with their clients’ money, so there could be motives aplenty out there. Maybe.

It isn’t until a few days later, when Elle drops by Charlie’s apartment with the unhappy task of picking out a burial suit, that things really go bad, though. She surprises an intruder, winds up in a scuffle... and one of them ends up dead. (Here’s a hint: the no-longer-breathing one isn’t Elle.)

Knowing she only has a short time before the police circle, Elle decides to take matters into her own hands and find out, once and for all, who killed Charlie--and why the man whom she definitely killed broke in and was ransacking Charlie’s place.

Her investigation leads her to a plethora of Pandora’s Boxes which she would rather have never found, let alone opened. She’s horrified to learn that among Charlie’s secrets were some very shady deals, truly nasty business associates, and close ties to an international ring of pedophiles.

Those kinds of secrets? They’re the ones other people don’t ever want you to know... the kind that can get you dead.

 ❖  ❖  ❖  ❖  ❖

I was quite keen on reading The Trouble with Charlie after seeing a synopsis: woman finds her soon-to-be-ex husband dead--but doesn’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s not the one who killed him? Creepy-good stuff, that... and Jones delivers a suitably-chilling tale.

What I wasn’t expecting--but found utterly fascinating--is the dissociative disorder(s) Elle is diagnosed with, in the course of trying to establish her innocence. I’ve always “zoned out” like she does, too--but never thought it could be a kind of coping mechanism, getting away from something unpleasant or distressing (or uncomfortable or just plain boring).

Another surprising element is the voice from beyond, if you will; Charlie “speaks” to Elle, and we, as the readers, can take that however literally (or not) we choose. (Who is to say whether or not the recently, dearly [or not-so] departed return to have it out with us? Maybe they really do chat with us, tease, or chastise us... or maybe we just imagine it... but either way, I suspect it feels very real, and necessary.)

As for the mystery, well... truthfully, I wasn’t far off in my suspicions, but then something else came zinging out of left field (albeit in a very reasonable way), so The Trouble with Charlie worked for me on that count, too. Score!

The Trouble with Charlie is slated for a February 5, 2013 release. Make a note to check this one out; it’s a terrific read sure to keep you glued to the page. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Exuberant Mousies

Monday, December 10, 2012

After Jack: Murder & Mayhem at The Met

A year has come and gone since the infamous butcher who terrorized all of London last committed any of his atrocities against the city’s prostitute community--then simply vanished--but the effects of Jack the Ripper’s murderous spree can still be felt. 

Daily life has resumed, with the masses still struggling to eke out their meager existences in the squalid, teeming metropolis, while the more-privileged attempt to shield themselves from such ugliness, but the prevalent attitude among all of London’s residents toward the police force remains, to put it mildly, less than favorable. Five women murdered and horribly mutilated... and the murderer still on the loose? Such gross incompetence!

No one feels that failure more keenly than do the dozen members of the Metropolitan Police’s recently-formed Murder Squad--the undermanned, overworked (and underpaid) group of men tasked with solving not only the Ripper murders but every other murder in and around London, as well. That frustration--combined with the depressing realization that they’ll never be caught up on all the work (not in a city with yearly murders or other suspicious deaths numbering in the tens of thousands)--has left morale at an all-time low around Scotland Yard headquarters.

It is precisely this downbeat atmosphere--one of disdain on the side of the residents and discouragement on the side of the detectives--into which the latest series of murders intrudes... only this time, it isn’t the more-easily-overlooked, poorest class being targeted; the police, themselves, are the victims of this new round of murders-most-foul, in Alex Grecian’s richly-atmospheric tale, The Yard.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~

When Murder Squad-newbie Walter Day arrives at the scene of what promises to be a sensational case--the discovery of a body, chopped into smaller pieces then stuffed into a large steamer trunk and left at the train station--he has no idea how sensational it will prove to be. The unfortunate chap to have met such a gruesome end isn’t just anyone; shockingly, it’s one of their own--a Murder Squad detective, Inspector Little. And, no one is more surprised than Walter, himself, when he’s assigned the lead in the investigation.

The other remaining members of the squad range from mildly-surprised to downright-outraged at this decision; how could the commissioner put this young lad, new to London, who had never even met their deceased co-worker, in charge of something so important?   

Luckily for Walter, there are a few allies to be had. Besides the commissioner, one of the other detectives on the Murder Squad--Inspector Pringle--seems to have faith in him, as does an earnest young constable, Hammersmith. The most invaluable source of aid, however, comes from an unexpected (considering the era) source: the morgue.   

Dr. Bernard Kingsley had thought himself perfectly content with his teaching job at the university... until a chance visit to the deplorable, filthy hovel rather grandly calling itself the “city morgue” opened his eyes to a greater need--and to his true calling: seeing to the questions surrounding London’s dead, as only someone with actual knowledge of the human body could do (instead of the man straight from the workhouse and his mentally-challenged brother, as was the case on Kingsley’s arrival). The doctor immediately petitioned to open his own facility, and thus became the city’s first forensic pathologist.

Although Walter brings an impartial perspective to the case, and young Constable Hammersmith has a keen mind and good instincts--and both men possess the sort of single-minded focus which ensures no stone will go unturned--the problem is there’s not much to go on, leaving the squad stumped. Nor do Dr. Kingsley’s findings lead them to any real answers; it seems that scissors were used to repeatedly stab the victim, and sturdy thread to sew the eyes and mouth shut. Stray hairs found on the clothing suggest the presence of an animal at some point (although such could also have come from the lining of the trunk). Hardly helpful clues, in a city of millions. 

The investigation is basically stalled, with the general consensus that it was a one-off committed by someone harboring a serious grudge against Inspector Little... until, that is, a second body is found, chopped up and stowed in a steamer trunk... and it’s another policeman. 

A compelling--if highly-controversial--bit of evidence comes from Dr. Kingsley, who claims to have found identical markings on objects on or around each body... visible patterns made by the killer’s own fingertips which, according to Kingsley, are unique to that individual. This cutting-edge study--looked upon with varying degrees of interest, curiosity, and derision by the men of The Yard--could never be used in court, of course... but could well lead them to the brutal killer. 

Now, if only they can figure out who he is, and find him before their number has dwindled any further...

~ / ~ / ~ / ~

The Yard, for me, is that rare beast--a perfect book. From the opening scene, which introduces most of the main players and sets a chilling tone, I was seriously hooked. There’s something eerily compelling--even all these years later-- about the mystery surrounding Jack the Ripper, but other books, TV shows, and movies have dealt with that many times over. The Yard offers a different spin; it looks at what (at least, fictionally) happens next

What makes it so compulsively readable, besides the fresh take on an old story? Fabulous attention to period detail (seamlessly mixing historical facts in with the storytelling), with rich descriptions that evoke another time and place (and not a particularly pretty, clean, or romantic one, at that; this is a dirty, smoggy, mean London). Characters that come alive on the page, and feel true to their era (without coming across as either fusty, ridiculous caricatures--although there are some delightfully-eccentric characters here--or as modern-day men and women who just talk a little funny). Some interesting settings--places we don’t often get to visit in period books--that allow for surprisingly-cool action sequences. And, an overriding sense of doom, brought about by the grim realization that Jack wasn’t just a shocking anomaly, a lone perpetrator of unspeakable horrors... but that another madman, targeting a different group of people, is on a rampage... and that still others must surely be out there as well, biding their time.

Alex Grecian hits it out of the ballpark with The Yard, one of the best series’ debuts I’ve come across in ages. Whether you fall more on the murder-mystery side, the historical-fiction side, or the thriller side, this one is, without a doubt, a can’t-miss read.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Mystery-Loving Mousies

Monday, November 19, 2012

Prying Eyes & Hidden Lives

In the wee hours one morning, a sleepless woman gives up on her futile attempts to lure Mr. Sandman and gets out of bed to sit down at the desk in her home office, where she logs onto the internet to indulge in some mindless surfing. 

Connie Bowskill’s “mindless” surfing is hardly without thought, however; she knows exactly what website she’s going to visit--a homes-for-sale site run by a realtor in a larger town some distance away. Nor is the listing number she types in a random one; the luxury address is one she knows by heart. (In fact, she’s already viewed this particular property’s virtual tour so many times, she could recite the contents of every room by memory.)

What she isn’t prepared for, though, is the scene before her when the tour gets to the living room... because this time through, in the middle of the den’s (normally-pristine) pale carpet, lies a woman, surrounded by a sea of thick, viscous, blood-red. And, as the camera completes its pan around the room, Connie is convinced of one thing: the woman in the video is most-surely quite dead.

Shocked, Connie races back down the hall to rouse her husband Kit, so she can show him the unspeakable horror she’s just witnessed. But, when she’s finally managed to drag him to her office and clicks the “view tour” icon again, nothing is out of the ordinary on the playback... the living room is as spotless and unremarkable as the rest of the house. No body. No pool of blood. Zilch.

Kit--with a vaguely-disgusted and more-than-a-little-pitying look on his face--goes back to bed, leaving Connie alone with her fears--and starting to question her own sanity--in Sophie Hannah’s gripping psychological thriller, The Other Woman’s House.

Despite Kit’s lack of support--and despite not seeing the same horrifying scene repeated, not even once, in the subsequent dozens of times she viewed the tour--Connie will not be dissuaded, and contacts the police. She shows them the online listing--displaying the perfectly-innocuous (and body-free) set of rooms in the tour, of course--then repeatedly describes what she saw. It sounds implausible, she knows... but she remains convinced she didn’t dream it up, regardless of what anyone else might think.

Making matters more interesting--for her husband, and certainly for the police--is the peculiar connection (and rather sordid fascination) which Connie has long had with that particular address. She’d borrowed Kit’s car one day several months previously, and was fiddling with the GPS unit on the way home. When she’d pressed “home” to see what route was recommended for her return trip, though, it wasn’t their own address which popped up... but the one of the house for sale. 

Kit, when she’d confronted him that evening, had sworn he had no idea what to make of it. It must’ve been some random setting entered by the person who tested the unit at the factory, he said. Why on earth would he program the address of a place he’d never even been into his own GPS?

Connie could think of one very good reason: Kit must have another woman, another life, on the side. He did, after all, spend a lot of time on the road between their little village and London, where he worked much of the week. It would be so easy for him to stop off somewhere for a little something-something any time he was supposedly out working... 

But even as Connie’s obsession with the house, with the dead body she knows she saw, and with the woman selling the house (Kit’s “other woman”?) escalates, making her appear less and less stable to everyone around her, something unexpected happens: another person steps forward, claiming to have seen the same scene--the same dead body--in the virtual tour that Connie did. And just like that, everything changes again...

The Other Woman’s House is a fascinating psychological thriller which takes a look at the darkness that can live inside us. It doesn’t go precisely where I expected for much of the book that it would (which is much appreciated); instead, it twists and meanders throughout the history of a relationship (that of the Bowskills) and takes interesting little turns in and out of Connie’s memories and thoughts, keeping the reader a bit unbalanced, a bit uncertain (much as Connie, herself, is, throughout the story). 

At the same time, there’s quite a lot of meandering, so if you’re not much for personal introspection and psychological baggage, or are just the sort who likes things explained succinctly and wrapped up tidily, without a series of misdirects, you may find The Other Woman’s House a little trying.

Another thing worth noting--especially for those readers for whom it's imperative to really like the main character--is that Connie can be, in a word, annoying. Sure, there are plenty of reasons behind her manic thoughts and bizarre actions--namely, her smothering, controlling family--but there were a lot of times I just wanted to shake some sense into her.

Still, if you’re as much a fan of dark psychological thrillers as I am, this one’s a recommended read, because it is intriguing. Just be sure to save it for a lonely weekend--the kind that makes you double- and triple-check all your windows and doors, and jump at every little sound--to get the benefit of the full paranoid effect. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3.75 out of 5 mousies 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Fluffy the... Vampire Slayer(?!)

Scary movies and spine-tingling tales... everyone craves a few chills this time of year. But what to choose...

When it comes to movies, it all boils down to how serious or campy you like your horror, plus your tolerance for gore (none at all, stick with the classics; the bloodthirstier the better, anything since the late-1970s should work). Add some popcorn, a significant other or a few friends, and you’re set. 

If you’re in the mood for snuggling up under a pile of blankets, alone in the dark, with nothing but a small lamp, a mug of cocoa, and your cat or dog by your side, though, only a good book will do. All the usual names--Poe, Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, or some Stephen King if like your monsters on the modern side--are there for the choosing, of course. 

But what if you crave something a little... different? That’s how I was feeling, so a little digging around on Amazon later, and I’d found the “purrfect” tale for a blustery night with my boycat snuggled up on my legs... the deliciously-titled (and beautifully-illustrated) Shadow of the Vampuss, by Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov.

✟ * ✟ * ✟ * ✟ * ✟

The best stories often have a romance at their core, and such is the case here. Studly young ginger tomcat Jonathan Harker has known the lovely Mina, a Korat blessed with stunning green eyes, since kittenhood... and has loved her nearly as long. The only obstacle to their being wed is Jonathan’s meager savings, as he has only recently passed the bar exam and has yet to make his fortune at the prestigious legal firm of Slaughter and Fluffkins. 

Then, one day, what seems like the answer to their most-fervent feline prayers arrives, in the form of a mysterious communique requesting Jonathan’s immediate presence in far-off Transylvania so that he might oversee the important legal matters of a wealthy--but reclusive--client (who is looking to purchase a house right there in Kitby).

Mina voices her concerns, but Jonathan insists she has nothing to worry about; a month or so with the client, and they’ll have the nest egg needed to marry. And so, bag in paw, he hops in a carriage and sets off. 

It proves to be a long, uncomfortable, and lonely journey--over rough terrain, in bad weather, with strange sounds all around. Still, the intrepid Jonathan is not dissuaded. Not even the gasps and horrified expressions he receives when he stops at a Transylvanian inn to rest one evening--and happens to mention his destination to the blue smoke Persian innkeeper (and all the other patrons, too, as felines have excellent hearing)--can sway him from his goal. He does, however, graciously accept the smelly catnip charm pressed upon him by the innkeeper’s kind tabby wife as he’s about to depart the next morning, and pockets (then quickly forgets) the ancient book she urges him to read, The Book of Nosfelinu.

When Jonathan finally arrives at the castle (after a perilous ride up the side of a mountain), even he begins to question the wisdom of this endeavor, however. The castle itself is an immense, starkly-imposing place... but of greater concern is his elderly host, a peculiar, wrinkled Sphynx who introduces himself as Count Scratchula. (Something, Jonathan fears, is not quite right about the old fellow.)

Still, he has a job to do, and the sooner he completes it, the sooner he’ll find himself back in Mina’s warm embrace, so he sets about getting all the proper documents in order as expediently as possible. But then, when everything is signed and their business is seemingly concluded, something bizarre happens... Count Scratchula insists Jonathan stay a bit longer, and--although the young lawyer was sure he wanted nothing more than to return to his home and Mina--he finds himself strangely compelled to do precisely as the Count says.

As the days--then weeks--go by, Jonathan can no longer recall why it had seemed so urgent that he leave... particularly not when he’s ensconced in the lavish bedchamber to which he retires each night, there to dream such strange and fantastical dreams. (He certainly isn’t performing any sort of legal duties for the Count; in fact, he doesn’t even know if the Count is actually at Castle Scratchula much of the time, and instead he’s often attended by the Count’s strange court of Sphynx ladies-in-waiting.)

Wateber duz dat tuxy boycat haz??
Meanwhile, back in Kitby, faithful Mina frets about her beloved’s absence, and expresses concern to her confidante, the stunning, golden-brown tabby Siberian, Lucy (herself engaged to the dashing tuxedo kitty, Lord Arthur), who chuffs at Mina’s fears. (Little do either of them know how right Mina is to be afraid... nor how wise Lucy would be, to show more caution with the stranger she has secretly befriended...) 

Can Jonathan escape Count Scratchula’s taloned grip and mesmerizing gaze? Will Mina ever see her dearest again? And what of innocent, trusting Lucy--can she be saved from herself? Only with a generous dose of feline “purrspicacity” (hehe)--and the help of one Dr. Von Helsing, a ruggedly-handsome, cameo tabby Maine Coon scientist (and practioner in the black arts)--do any of them stand a chance of escaping the horrors... with some of their nine lives in tact.

✟ * ✟ * ✟ * ✟ * ✟

Shadow of the Vampuss is unique in the crowded field of vampire tales, a delightfully-clever take on Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula. It doesn’t come across as silly or contrived (a niggling fear I had before cracking the cover), nor does the novelty get old before reaching the end (an even-bigger fear I had, given my own inability to read more than half-way through books such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).

So dis iz da famoos Von Helsing, huh? No wunder Kate Beckinsale lieks 'im...
Instead, Shadow of the Vampuss sticks closely to the original work while also showing a genuine understanding of felines (their movements, thought processes, behaviors, etc.); the writing is entertaining and humorous.

The artwork is the real draw (no pun intended) here, though; stunning images offered in splendid full-color line every other page (often bleeding onto the opposite page, too), making this a glorious Gothic tale (with a twist!) not to be missed.

GlamKitty (& Boycat) Catnip Mousie Ratings:  Shivering Mousies Galore! :D

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Friends, Neighbors, & All the Spaces in Between

Say what you will about Mr. Rogers* (yeah, I giggled plenty at those ghastly cardigans and nerdy lace-up shoes of his, too), but the man knew something about being neighborly. To him, it had nothing to do with what you wore (teehee), drove, or did for a living; it meant being friendly and nice to the people next door or down the street... waving and stopping to chat, making the effort to learn pets’ and people’s names, even having a cup of sugar at the ready to lend during baking emergencies. 

Things have changed a lot since Mr. Rogers first went on TV showing good little boys and girls around his perfect neighborhood, though. We pick up stakes and move (often, before we’ve even met those who live on either side of us); we keep odd hours (not exactly conducive to friendly coffee klatches); and, while technology has given us the ability to interact with people all around the globe... it has also pretty much done away with the desire for all but the most strictly-necessary contact with our physical neighbors. 

Still, the smaller the area, the more traditionally-neighborly folks tend to be... and, in her first work since completing the mammoth Harry Potter series, author J.K. Rowling puts the residents of one such small British town under a microscope, with her eagerly-awaited tale, The Casual Vacancy.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

The residents of tiny Pagford are much like people in any little community. Some of them--namely, those who claim the honor of holding one of sixteen coveted spots on the Pagford Parish Council (and thus feel more than the usual amount of pride at the smooth runnings of their quaint, peaceful community)--are pleased as punch with the status quo. Others--those not born-and-bred in Pagford, or who don’t enjoy the benefits conferred by any particular status or rank, who instead pine for the bright lights of the big city (any city, really)--are rather less than sanguine with their surroundings, picturesque as they may be.

When youthful council member Barry Fairbrother drops dead suddenly, the whole town is shocked--not just because he was a generally well-liked, nice man who had a kind word for everyone, and a popular teacher with boundless energy and an upbeat attitude, but because his demise leaves an unexpected hole on the council. 

So, while much of the town mourns the loss--from his wife Mary (who can’t begin to understand losing her husband on their wedding anniversary) and their four children, to fellow council member (and close friend) Dr. Parminder Jawanda, to his old university chum-cum-lawyer Gavin Hughes, to all the members of the after-school girls‘ rowing team he had coached to numerous victories--another segment finds itself contemplating how his demise might affect each of their political futures.

Pagford, it seems, is something of a political hotbed beneath the outer layer of gentility... and the sudden opening on the council (the titular “casual vacancy”, in legal-speak) is about to blow that prized gentility to smithereens.

What could possibly be so hotly-contested in this bucolic hamlet? It almost always comes down to money, doesn’t it, and is true here as well, as a group of the townsfolk focus on ridding themselves of fiscal responsibility for the Fields, a low-income housing development. Built on the edge of Pagford decades earlier--against popular wishes--on a chunk of sold-off land formerly owned by the wealthiest family in the community, it’s been a sore spot ever since. (The estate is actually a continuation of one maintained by neighboring Yarvil, a larger town down the road, and nothing would make many Pagfordites happier than if Yarvil had total responsibility for the running--and policing--of the troublesome neighborhood.) 

The biggest proponents of foisting off the Fields? Council leader--successful deli owner and hale-fellow-well-met--Howard Mollison (who would love to see his son Miles in Barry’s old seat) and all of his supporters.

On the other side of the fence--the followers of Barry Fairbrother, who had fought hard to keep the Fields and funding for the anti-drug clinic there--are Dr. Parminder, new-to-Pagford social worker, Kay Bawden (who didn’t know Barry, but believes real good can be done for area residents via the clinic’s drug program), and Barry’s fellow teacher, Colin “Cubby” Wall (a mousey, troubled fellow who would do anything to honor his friend’s memory).

Somewhere in between, of course, lies everyone else... those who have no interest in politics, and those not eligible to vote if they did care--the youth of Pagford and the Fields.         

From the usual frenzy leading up to an election, and some surprising candidates throwing their names into the ring, to several shocking revelations that come to light when person (or persons) unknown hack the council website, dishing out major dirt on the various contenders, things are about to come to a head in Pagford... and the neighbors will never be the same again.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

The Casual Vacancy is destined be one of those love-it or loathe-it books. Much of the dislike will be down to nothing more than the complete absence of wizards, wands, and mythical critters. (Rowling made not only a special kind of magic with her wildly-popular Harry Potter series; she created her own monster, as well, and will have to live with it.) There will probably be a lot of of naysayers among those willing to give her first adult-themed work a shot, though, too. It’s a long book, and will doubtless strike some as a rambling road ultimately leading to nowhere (with frequent stops for soapbox stumping along the way). Others will find the some of the subject matter unpleasant or hard to take (physical abuse, rape, self-mutilation, poverty, drug abuse, bigotry, and pedophilia are all present).

But there will also, I think, be plenty of people like me, who find The Casual Vacancy a ridiculously-good read... a justifiably-big book (meandering only in the sense that life is like that), chock-full of the blackest humor, brilliant observations (adults and teenagers alike alternate between being canny and patently blind), pithy witticisms, and of course, Rowling’s ever-eloquent (and always in a completely-accessible sense) prose... all wrapped around bigger ideas that get at the very heart of who we are, how we view one another (and our responsibilities), and the lengths we will (or won’t) go to, in the pursuit of chasing our ideals.

From the very first pages of The Casual Vacancy, I was reminded of two of my favorite authors of psychological suspense--Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell, both of whom have a real knack for watching and understanding human nature, and conveying the varying degrees that responsibility--personal and social--play into our actions. That this book made me draw such a comparison--and that it ripped tears out of me like a leaky faucet at the end--is high praise, make no mistake.

If you’re fascinated by what makes regular people tick, and you like taking on thought-provoking questions, pick up The Casual Vacancy. It’s really worth it.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: ALL the exuberant mousies

* Host (now deceased) of the long-running American TV show for children, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Tripping the Greedy Fantastic

greed (noun): excessive or rapacious desire, especially for wealth or possessions.

Ask a hundred people if “greed is good”, and probably ninety-plus percent of them will look at you strangely, wondering why on earth you’d even ask such a question. Greed, after all, has the dubious honor of being listed among the so-called 7 Deadly Sins (along with lust, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride)--not exactly a point in its favor. Recent history hardly endears it to us, either (considering all the fallout from those banking and investment scandals). 

Still, there’s not much we can do to combat the existence of greed; we’re compelled to tolerate it in others simply because we don’t really have a say in the matter.   

Now, imagine for a moment a world in which greed isn’t merely put up with... but is praised, encouraged, and rewarded. Such is the mindset in the not-too-distant world of Culpa Innata, as envisioned by B. Barmanbek (and based on a popular computer game of the same name).

✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

Some forty years in the future--after a worldwide economic collapse known as the Great Meltdown plunged everyone into the worst financial depression in history, only to be followed by decades of deadly civil unrest and warfare--things are very different. Rather than a handful of countries with great economic and military might regaining power, the countries boasting the greatest technological minds were the ones which survived and thrived, eventually forming a global coalition known as the World Union. (Nation-states not on the technological forefront are excluded from the union and deemed “rogue” territories.)

The World Union is a formidable presence, priding itself on having the best of the best, from the smartest, cleverest, fittest, and richest peoples... to all the finest things for them to acquire. (WU school kids don’t just study science and the “3 R’s”; they learn that being prosperous--and able to show it--is the ultimate goal, and that selfishness--focussing only on one’s own needs and desires, above all else--is the optimal way to achieve it.) Crime is rare in the union, people are healthier than ever, pollution is nearly non-existent, and murder, well... murder is almost unheard of. Almost

When thirty-something Phoenix Wallis, as-yet mostly untested in the field--is promoted to senior agent with the Global Peace and Security Network, eyebrows are raised. That’s nothing, though, compared to the reaction when a WU resident is murdered a week later--in the rogue state of Russia--and Phoenix is given the lead in the investigation. How could the director give this newbie such a prestigious case... especially a woman with a history of being far better at analyzing data than interacting with other people?

Inwardly daunted (and suffering from a serious lack of sleep due to the childhood nightmares that have recently returned to haunt her dreams), Phoenix nonetheless picks an assistant and gets to work tracing the dead man’s last days. Why would a middle-aged businessman--an immigrant who’d studied and worked for years in order to become a WU citizen--ever go back to the rogue state from which he’d escaped... and why would someone murder him, once he did? None of it makes any sense, and nor do the odd bits of information Phoenix and her assistant discover.

The investigation itself wouldn’t be so bad, if Phoenix didn’t also have an arduous task to complete at the GPSN offices--the annual academy graduate interviews. (Each member of every graduating class undergoes a rigorous, one-on-one interview conducted by GPSN agents, who evaluate whether or not the graduate is worthy of permanent admission to the World Union. Anyone who passes is accepted; a “strike-out”, someone deemed unworthy--having ulterior motives, unstable, or otherwise unlikely to live up to WU ideals--is returned to his/her homeland, put into psychiatric care, or even imprisoned.) To say the interviews are intense for both parties wouldn’t be understating it.

Nor are her co-workers making her job any easier... not with a stern, unyielding Scandinavian director (coerced into hiring Phoenix by her boss) watching every move; a rival agent (and chauvinist pig) wanting to bed her before ousting her from the position he’s sure he really deserved; a naive assistant (literally) jumping into bed with said rival; a mysterious company boss (with who-knows-what agenda of his own) operating in the background; and a creepy, lifetime-student/janitor roaming the halls, nicking small personal items (such as Phoenix’s all-important earbud communicator), making dire predictions, and uttering nonsensical gibberish as he goes about his job.

Then there’s the mysterious man who comes into contact with Phoenix for the space of only a few seconds... yet somehow manages to leave her with a bizarre sense of happiness, which returns at unexpected moments. 

Finally, someone is controlling things she isn’t even aware of (a la the Wizard of Oz performing behind his curtain)... things which will ultimately affect everyone in the agency in very permanent ways.

No one expects the unassuming, under-qualified Phoenix to solve the murder--or to solve the subsequent ones (which she alone is convinced are related). 

No one expects the analytical, aloof agent to ace the graduate interviews, either.

But Agent Phoenix Wallis--sleep-deprived, confused, and freaked-out as she may be--is about to surprise everyone... including herself. 

✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

I’m not a gamer, so the world of Culpa Innata was new to me. Still, it didn’t take long to figure out the basic premise (although, in truth, it did take rather longer to get into the story and actually care). 

Phoenix is a sympathetic-enough character--a survivor of a horrible war, with a stash of dreadful memories (some accessible, some thankfully buried), who has somehow managed to carve out a little niche for herself--but she’s also an incredibly-aggravating one. (If she inappropriately used “Sweet!” as an interjection just one more time, I was going to scream. Seriously.)

Several other characters have similarly-annoying habits and tics, such as winking (who on earth has ever winked as much as these people wink?!?), and also using the same catch-phrases again and again. Hard to take, that sort of thing... and please, please don’t even get me started on the schmaltziness of the “romance” (for lack of a better word). 

So, is there anything I liked about Culpa Innata? Actually, there is. First, the concept of a world wherein Greed is God is an interesting one, and how the author got from where we are today to that point made enough sense to seem feasible. Some of the behind-the-scenes characters could use more fleshing-out, but the gist of what they’re after comes through, and is interesting, as well. And, a few scenes--particularly the interviews Phoenix conducts--are so fascinating to watch that they make up for a fair portion of the negatives. 

Bottom line... if you’re into playing the game, then Culpa Innata is, of course, a must-read. If you like sci-fi or fantasy tales with a sort of alt-reality future setting, it’s worth considering.

Note: Culpa Innata is set to be released around mid-October, so keep an eye out for it if you're interested in checking it out. :)