Saturday, March 24, 2012

Desperate Lives and Deep, Dark Secrets

The real problem with getting into trouble, as almost every five-year-old knows, is getting back out of it... and the bigger that trouble is, the worse one’s chances of doing so are.
Not that understanding the odds seems to matter much; most of us still manage to get into varying degrees of trouble more often than we ought. It’s the particular sub-groups our troubles generally tend to fall under, though, which can determine the courses our lives will take... from the usually-fixable “sticky situations” and “misunderstandings”, to the unfortunate (and somewhat-more-awkward) instances of “wrong place, wrong time”, all the way to major violations of the law (clearly the worst of the bunch, and definitely best avoided). 
Hot on the heels of last year’s brilliant debut The Poison Tree (see my review for it, here ), author Erin Kelly takes a look at all sorts of trouble--and the multitude of repercussions--in her fabulous follow-up, The Dark Rose.
Louisa Trevelyan is a quiet, unassuming woman living a simple, solitary life, but that hasn’t always been the case. These days, her passion involves plants--particularly the designing of lush, new gardens and the renovating of old, stately ones to their former glory--but greenery was the very last thing on her mind twenty years ago. Then, Louisa was a rebellious young girl hellbent on rejecting the silver spoon she’d been born with, and was obsessed with only one thing: the beautiful, fascinating boy who was lead singer in a local band.
When her desperation for acceptance--into the coolly-seductive music scene, in general, and into the heart and life of sexy singer Adam Glasslake, in particular--finally led to her saying and doing things she would forever after wish unsaid and undone, though, everything underwent a drastic sea change. Louisa transformed herself almost overnight, altering her appearance and running off to study plants at school, leaving London, her friends and family, and the previously-alluring world of music far behind... and starting the long, unpleasant, and lonely task of keeping safe one very deep, dark secret. 
Paul Seaforth is at a crossroads. A boy of nineteen, on the eve of going off to college to pursue a teaching degree and leaving an unhappy past behind, he unexpectedly finds himself in custody at the local police station, accused of having a hand in the murder of an elderly man. The only way out of his predicament? To rat on his old chum Daniel, a kid who took Paul under his wing several years earlier, protecting him from neighborhood bullies when they were younger... and eventually leading him into his present life of petty crime. 
Although most of the affection Paul once held for Daniel is long gone (especially after the last escapade went so horribly wrong), the fact is that Daniel--and Daniel’s no-good father--scare Paul, and testifying against the volatile, dangerous Daniel seems unlikely to result in anything good for Paul’s own health and well-being (or that of his fragile mother, whom Daniel has threatened to hurt). 
The cops offer a solution: Daniel can go into a type of witness protection/community service program for safety. He will immediately cut off all ties with everyone he knows--which is primarily his widowed mum and her new husband, an ex-girlfriend (who wants nothing to do with him, anyway), and obviously Daniel and his father--then take a long bus ride halfway across England to a distant (safe) locale where he will live and work until the court date. Paul isn’t crazy about the plan, but he doesn’t really have much choice.
Paul’s new digs (hehe, double meaning there, as you’ll soon see) are in a tiny, out-of-the-way hamlet, and his new job is a daily bus ride away to an even-more remote location. He’s the newest member of a small group of “troubled youths” getting a “second chance” via participation in a labor-intensive work-study program. In their case, that involves a lot of digging and hauling; they’ll be clearing out a decades-overgrown garden at an ancient estate, then helping to recreate the Tudor garden which once graced its grounds... under the tutelage of none other than esteemed garden designer Louisa Trevelyan.
When Louisa first sets eyes on her newest young recruit, however, all thoughts of her fabulous current project momentarily disappear, as she’s transported back to her own youth and that briefly-magical time in 1989 when she was obsessed with Adam and being a part of his world. The new lad--Paul, she has to keep telling herself--looks so much like Adam that it’s uncanny, and Louisa is nonplussed. 
Paul--busy getting to know his fellow junior garden laborers and the past transgressions which landed them there--doesn’t think much one way or the other about Louisa, at first, aside from viewing her as one of his bosses on the site. Before long, though, he notices a few things that make him curious about her, and he gradually stops thinking of her as an “older” woman and sees her, instead, as an interesting one. 
From that point, it’s only a tiny step--on a particularly lonely, needy night--to fall into a passionate affair... one which gives each of them yet another secret to keep hidden.
What they find, though, is that secrets--no matter how long held--do not like to remain hidden... and that the real power of a secret is in how cruelly it can be used against oneself.
The Dark Rose is flat-out pure psychological suspense of the first order. Told in one of my absolute favorite styles--a non-linear re-telling which hops back and forth between decades as well as points-of-view--the full story takes its sweet time getting to where it needs to go. By so doing, author Kelly never lets us suspect too much; we know exactly what the characters would have us know--and little else--at any given time. 
And such characters she’s given us... painfully easy to identify with, for anyone who has once upon a time been nineteen. The freedom and constraints, warring against each other; craving the respect of adulthood, while in many ways still a callow youth; the all-consuming passions, colliding with reality; desperately clinging to big dreams, only to come to the crushing realization they will never come true... all that and more is here, allowing us to feel empathy for Louisa and Paul... and to understand why the things that happen must happen.
The Dark Rose is a darkly-atmospheric tale, full of secrets, lies, and misunderstandings... and when the end comes, the jaw-dropping climax ties all the pieces together in a perfectly unforgettable way.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Mousies

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Luck and Loss: Knowing When to Kiss or Run

Oh, to be one of those lucky ducks who gets all the “perks”... the to-die-for designer wardrobe (complete with smokin’ hot shoes and the coolest “it” bags)... the spacious high-rise apartment (with a stellar view)... 24/7 access to a stable of the hottest sports cars around... a choice of the finest cuisines and wines to be found... even rubbing elbows with the rich-and-famous on a regular basis. Pretty awesome, right? 
Nothing comes without a price, though... something which no one is perhaps more aware of that than professional casino “fixer” Lucky O’Toole, back for equal parts fantastic fabulosity and treacherous troubles in author Deborah Coonts‘ latest, So Damn Lucky. (By the way, if you haven’t read the first two books in the series yet, you can find my reviews for them here and then here.)

                           ~  ♠  ♣  ♥  ♦  ~
Lucky’s typical day can best be summed up as “expect the unexpected”, because just when she thinks she’s seen (and dealt with) it all before in her official capacity as The Babylon hotel’s Head of Customer Relations, something new pops up that leaves her scrambling.
Today is no different. After several hours of busywork and “fixing”, she dons some sparkly cocktail togs and heads down the Strip on a task she’s been dreading. Her destination is a downtrodden hotel newly-acquired by her boss (“The Big Boss”)--not to take over, but to bulldoze so he can start from scratch, erecting a glitzy and über-modern tower of excess in its place--and her mission involves catching the midnight swan-song of the joint’s long-running (if mediocre) showgirls-and-magic act. 
But, when the popular magician--who just moments before, received a death threat in Lucky’s presence--suffers a tragic accident in the middle of the farewell act, she and the other patrons get an entirely different show than they were expecting to see. And, when Lucky later arrives at the hospital hoping to get a status report, things get even weirder; the magician isn’t at the hospital... nor is he at any of the other area care centers. He’s simply vanished, and she, naturally (being Lucky), feels responsible.
Searching for the Houdini-wannabe isn’t the only thing on her mind, either. Her former neighbor and best friend Teddie--recently upgraded to the status of boyfriend (and hence, the object of her frequent lusty daydreams)--is currently on tour with a much-younger (as well as ridiculously-popular, talented, and gorgeous) female pop sensation. That’s bad enough, but the real problem is he hasn’t been returning any of Lucky’s calls, and she’s feeling woefully neglected. Then there’s her mother Mona--the tempestuous and needy bordello-owner--who just set up house with The Big Boss (with whom Lucky already had a complicated-enough relationship), putting mother and daughter much too close for Lucky’s sanity. Throw in the hunky cowboy who works out of The Babylon for the gaming commission plus the hotel’s imperious (and possibly too-hot-to-handle) French chef--each of whom has a more-than-strictly-casual interest in her--and it’s no wonder Lucky’s a bit more frazzled than normal.
Of course, none of that takes into account the other things that pop up each day to further occupy her grey matter... like the guests who inexplicably wind up naked as jaybirds on hotel property (and must be removed to their rooms post-haste with some quickly-improvised modesty)... or those requiring her to perform gymnastics and a little engineering magic to effect their rescues from complicated sex-toy contraptions. (Fortunately for all involved, Lucky is nothing if not plucky, and manages to handle such awkward situations with aplomb.)
It’s the perplexing mystery of her lost magician--one which sends Lucky barreling all over Vegas and out to the desert, looking for answers way down deep in Vegas’ underground tunnels, around a secret military installation popular among the UFO crowd, and sky-high in The Babylon’s rafters--though, which keeps us guessing. And, it’s that oh-so-tangled love-life of hers which leaves us hoping... hoping that Lucky makes it out of every dangerous situation in one piece, so her search for that elusive happiness can continue in high style.

                                                               ~  ♠  ♣  ♥  ♦  ~
Now that the Lucky series is three books in, it feels like a pair of well-worn (and outrageously-expensive, obviously) shoes, nice to slip into after a long day. Lucky is as cool as a cucumber, has a super sense of humor (surely a prerequisite in her job), and is surrounded by interesting people who do interesting--and often, hilariously-kooky--things. Everyone is a “character”, from the main players to the bit parts, and that makes for a lot of fun. 
So Damn Lucky is a nifty follow-up to the first two books, an easy-to-read romp that asks nothing more than that you sit back and enjoy the ride. (Don’t worry... you will. :))

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Plenty of Mousies