Tuesday, July 31, 2012

In the Land of the Dark, Evil Rules

The next time you’re having an especially crappy day at work, remind yourself that things could always be worse. You could, for instance, be doing something like toiling away in a meat processing plant (shudder) or mucking about in a sewage treatment facility (cringe)... or, you could be earning a meager income as a demon-slayer-for-hire, valiantly battling all the ooky, creepy, dangerous creatures from the underworld every night, while most people (like you and I) are slumbering comfortably in their beds. 
See? Things really could be worse... as they are for Victory “Vicky” Vaughn, who continues trying to rid Boston’s residents of their pesky personal demons (with creepily corporeal forms), in the latest installment of Nancy Holzner’s consistently-entertaining “Deadtown” series, Darklands.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Not much has changed in Deadtown--the quarantined section of Boston which all of the city’s inhuman (supernatural) and undead (zombie) residents are forced to call home--since our last visit. (Well, not after Vicky defeated an old enemy and sent another off to rot in some eternal, underworld-y abyss, anyway.) The Goon Squad still patrols Deadtown’s borders and rounds up the unruly. Vampires still look for eager humans to feed from, werewolves still hold normal jobs but go off to get furry three nights every month, and zombies still cram junk food down their throats pretty much whenever they’re awake. 
A few things have changed, though. Vicky’s niece Maria is unhappily suffering through the awkward early stages of becoming a shapeshifter (like her aunt). Her vampire roommate, Juliet, is under house arrest and trying to help the authorities figure out what The Old Ones (evil, ancient supernatural beings, just like they sound) are secretly attempting to do. Her werewolf boyfriend, Kane, is busy working (rather more enthusiastically than Vicky would like) on a beautiful werewolf’s campaign for a seat on the city council.
And, curiously, Vicky’s clients are suddenly canceling their demon-extermination dates with her, almost every single one. 
She’s not entirely sure which of these changes she’s most worried about, but the last--the only one that directly affects her ability to put food on the table and pay her rent--is certainly the most pressing. It’s also the one she feels most qualified to deal with (given her basic lack of skill at dealing with family matters, The Old Ones, and romantic entanglements), so, it’s off to figure out where her clients’ AWOL personal demons have gone. 
Once she starts doing some digging, she realizes just how right she is to be concerned... really concerned. The demons aren’t just off playing hooky somewhere, or messing with everyone’s heads in some pesky demonic lark; they’re actually missing, vanished without a trace. 
Sure enough, a couple of personal chance encounters later--with creatures bent on putting her out of commission permanently--plus some time spent pouring over the local papers and trolling the internet, leads Vicky to a most unappealing realization: her own demi-demon cousin (and bane of her existence), Pryce, is back... trying to revive not only his own powers, but to resurrect the very life force of another evil being, too.
If he can do it, it will mean the end of everything and everyone, for the forces he’s trying to summon are the darkest there are. Vicky is the only one who stands a snowball’s chance of preventing the catastrophic loss and mayhem that would surely follow if he were to succeed... but in order to do so, she’ll have to make an unholy deal with the devil and face the worst things imaginable. Vicky will have to enter the Darklands, where all dead things live again... a place where she will have no powers, and with only her worst fears and nightmares to keep her company. 
The odds are not in her favor... 
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
There’s no shortage of urban fantasy series out there right now, from a few addictive, immensely-entertaining ones, to those that I only made it through a book or two before giving up on (and in one memorable case, not even a whole book, ugh). Holzner’s “Deadtown”, happily, maintains its place among those UF series I eagerly look forward to and really enjoy with Darklands.
The world-building is well-planned, striking a nice balance by showing what we need to know without overwhelming us. Her characters continue to be interesting, occasionally surprising me (just like people sometimes do in real life). And, I find the idea of the personal demons--demons that feed on things such as guilt or grief or the 7 Deadly Sins, and which Vicky battles in the flesh, in the sufferer’s dreamscape--fascinating. (Being eaten alive by guilt takes on a whole new meaning in Darklands.)
And, with this outing, we’re treated to a visit to those eponymous Darklands... a mysterious place different enough from depictions by other authors who’ve also ventured to the realm of the dead, to keep me mesmerized throughout. 
If you’re already a Holzner fan, pick up Darklands now; if you’re a UF fan but have yet to read her, I’d recommend starting at the beginning (because while you could read these alone, it would be a shame to miss out on how we got to this point). Either way, this one’s definitely recommended. :)

GlamKitty catnip mousie rating:  As enchanting as a new 'nippy toy

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Too Many Secrets to Live

Oh, how easy it is to loathe them, those obnoxiously self-important little rich kids... the ones born with tiny silver spoons in their mouths, whose every whim will be catered to by a host of cooks and nannies and household staff... children who have birthday parties that cost several thousand dollars, get whisked off in private jets and chauffeured limos for weekend getaways, and receive haute couture wardrobes and Lamborghinis as gifts once they’re teenagers... and who are always, always secure in the knowledge they’ll never want for anything... not when they’re destined, one day, to run huge companies, command vast fortunes, and otherwise lord over what they consider hoi polloi (that would be you and me, if you’re unsure). Yes, it’s almost ridiculously easy to hate them.
Dredging up any sympathy for those in the throes of teenage angst is, therefore, no easy task. With the world (read “every man-made convenience that makes life better”) at their fingertips, how could they possibly feel that much despair, depression, or unhappiness? 
Well, it turns out they can, and NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher has to try and look past all the excess and entitled attitudes--plus her own preconceived ideas--to solve a case involving the death of a wealthy teenage girl, in Alafair Burke’s latest crime caper, Never Tell.  
~ ★ ~ ★ ~ ★ ~
When Ellie and her partner arrive at an ultra-posh Manhattan address to investigate the circumstances surrounding a death, they’re predisposed to tread carefully; anyone who can afford digs in this kind of neighborhood gets the kid-glove treatment. What they aren’t so prepared for is the frantic mother waiting inside, commanding them to solve her daughter’s murder, posthaste. 
What’s odd about that? Nothing... except that the EMTs and local police first on the scene have already determined that Julia Whitmire, the daughter of a record producer mogul, most likely committed suicide. (The handwritten note in her bedroom and the mysterious bottle of pills found in her purse would seem to support their views on the tableau waiting in the adjoining bathroom: an empty wine bottle, a bathtub full of bloody water, and one very dead young girl, a razor floating in the water just below her hand.)  
Although Mrs. Whitmire insists her daughter would’ve done no such thing, Ellie is quick to agree with the first responders’ assessment; if it looks like a suicide, it usually is. The detectives spend a couple more hours questioning the parents, until it’s clear how little they--these parents who had left their sixteen-year-old daughter to live in the huge townhouse all by herself, while they made a home for themselves in the Hamptons--actually knew about their only daughter’s life.
After the angry (and influential) Papa Whitmire makes a few well-placed calls, however, the pressure is on; not only is this case not solved, it’s now Ellie’s top priority.  
Julia’s best friend says she’d been sort of distant recently, but had made a few hints about a secretive affair with an older man. The Greenwich Village street kids the girls liked to hang out with after school (against their parents wishes, of course) seem to have some ideas, too... if the detectives can persuade them to share what they know, and sort the half-truths from the rest. 
Julia was also--like all the other kids she attended the über-elite Casden Day School with--under immense pressure to excel, both by the school and their parents. One of the teachers--in an off-campus tete-a-tete, since the headmistress has expressly forbid contact with the cops--blames the school’s rampant drug use and abuse (particularly prescription ones, like antidepressants and ADHD meds) on that pressure. A Casden student Ellie corners on his way home concurs; the kids there, he insists, aren’t like other kids... and neither are the expectations placed upon them. So, they do what they need to, to cope.
Perhaps the strangest piece of the puzzle involving Julia’s death, though, comes when the police tech guy follows an electronic trail in the girl's laptop, which points to her engaging in cyber-bullying someone.
Is it just another case of a girl whose life had spun so far out of control that the only way out seemed to be taking her own life, though... or is there something dark and malevolent at play, the murder of a teenager with her whole life ahead of her, possibly in order to cover up something she had done? Ellie may have been reluctant at the beginning, but the more they dig, the more determined she is to find the truth. 
~ ★ ~ ★ ~ ★ ~ 
Never Tell is a kitchen-sink book; it doesn’t actually have a little bit of everything in it, but it comes pretty close. (In addition to the themes already mentioned, it also touches on rape, transgenderism, homelessness, blackmail, theft, stalking, the influence of the media, and various abuses of power.) That Burke is able to take all of these elements--some of which are hot-button topics--and mold them into a cohesive, thrilling, and believable story, without it feeling too ripped-from-the-headlines, is no small feat.  
Just as impressive is how she takes a lot of rather unlikable, unsympathetic characters--because honestly, even after reading about how un-wonderful the lives of the ridiculously wealthy can be, I still can’t find it in myself to pity them--and make them interesting and, if not precisely likable, then at least accessible. 
Finally, Ellie remains a strong lead character. (Note that it isn’t necessary to read the previous Ellie Hatcher books to plunge into Never Tell; it stands fine on its own.) She makes plenty of mistakes, professionally and in her personal life, but you’ll always root for things to work out.
I could say that Never Tell is the complex, multi-layered tale of a lot of self-important people who are all-consumed with the practice of deceiving themselves and each other, and who in general occupy the majority of their time doing a lot of very bad things... or I could just tell you it’s a highly-addictive story, well worth a read. :)  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Highly-Addictive Mousies

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's a (Bad) Man's World

Out of all the evils which men can do, sexual predators are among the most reviled. So deeply-rooted is our hatred of them, in fact, that it’s impossible for us to feel much sympathy for a sex offender who is himself the victim of a serious crime. (It seems a lot less awful and a lot more like karmic retribution, if you will.) 
What if the person has already been amply punished (according to the legal system), though? Is he still exempt from sympathy if the worst happens to him?
Author Jane Casey offers a thrilling--and thoughtful--look at how we view the monsters who live among us, in The Reckoning.  
 ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan doesn’t know whether to be happy or horrified when her supervisor tells her she’s being partnered with DI Josh Derwent. On one hand, working with an experienced, successful detective like Derwent should prove invaluable to Maeve, still a newbie on the murder task force. On the other hand, she’s heard through the grapevine that he’s a loose cannon. Worse, she can tell within minutes of their introduction that her new partner is a thoroughly-detestable chauvinist pig who gets his jollies by saying outrageous things to others.
As for the case they’ll be heading, it looks like a nasty one. A killer is at large, and he (or she) has already brutally murdered and mutilated three men--three known pedophiles, to be precise. With precious little in common between the crime scenes, all they can really be sure of is that their killer will almost certainly strike again.
It’s soon apparent to Maeve that while Derwent wants to find the killer in order to clear the case, he won’t be shedding any tears for the victims. She feels differently; not only does she want to catch the murderer, but she feels awful about what the victims--who were tortured horribly--must have endured before dying. (She’s also aware how unpopular their investigation will be with the public; no one will be rooting for the cops to catch someone viewed as a righteous vigilante, an avenger who targets only the sicko pedophiles living with impunity alongside the good citizens of London.)
The detectives begin with an assumption of revenge for a motive... perhaps someone whose life was touched by a pedophile and is now exacting what he or she sees as justice on those convicted and since returned to society. But, when Maeve unexpectedly winds up saving the fourth (intended) victim’s life, the detectives are forced to conclude they’ve been going at things all wrong. 
The person behind the killings isn’t who or what they were expecting, nor is the motive what they assumed. And, they’re no better prepared when what began as a string of murders suddenly becomes a frantic, city-wide search for a missing teenage girl, instead. 
As their case grows ever darker, Maeve and the rest of the team realize they only thought they’d seen the face of evil in the victims and murderers who populated the inquiry early on. Now, evil is much closer to home... and that evil has become personal.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Characters--with all their foibles, quirks, hangups, and personal baggage--are key to a story like this, and author Casey is more than up to the task of bringing them to vivid life. 
Maeve, as the star of the story, has impressive depth. Young and attractive, she could rely on her feminine wiles to get by, but doesn’t; for serious Maeve, her youth and appearance are things she rarely dwells on (unless someone like the obnoxious DI Derwent coerces her into trotting them out while interrogating a suspect). She really thinks about the cases that make up her work, not merely as intricate puzzles to be figured out, but as moral questions that require real answers. She uses her brain as well as her heart.
She’s never sure of herself, though--not because she’s a woman in a male-dominated field, but because of her inexperience--always second-guessing her thoughts, worrying about her suppositions, and agonizing over her decisions, actions, and words.(Interestingly, her personal life parallels her work life; she’s involved in a relationship--a forbidden one with another member of the murder squad--and is even more hesitant and unsure about it than she is about her cases. Heck, Maeve can’t even commit to long-term living arrangements; her longest lease has only been a couple of months.)
The story isn’t only about Maeve, of course (nor is it shown solely through her eyes, although she is the primary voice), and the author does a good job making the other characters equally interesting. Derwent may be the surly jerk who keeps Maeve unbalanced and uncomfortable, but he also has a long, successful working relationship with their supervisor, which is a point in his favor. The boss is someone Maeve knows only as a proper, by-the-books sort of chap, yet he reveals an entirely different side of himself--something coarser and angry--during the case. Maeve’s boyfriend is a nice guy, and considerably more interested in pursuing a committed relationship than she is (a nice twist on things). Even the newest member of the team--the only other female on the squad--is well-drawn in her minor role, and what feels like it could become a real friendship between the two women slowly develops.
Finally, Casey knows how to craft a riveting story. Whether it's the intricate, twisted turns, the absolute relevance to modern society, or the final act of tying it all together, this is one keenly-plotted tale.    
I hadn't heard of Jane Casey until I picked up The Reckoning (which, as it turns out, is actually the sequel to 2011’s The Burning, which kicked off the Maeve Kerrigan series), but I’ll definitely be snatching up her new releases from now on... and if you give her a try, chances are, you will be, too. :) 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sometimes It Takes a Clown

Life (with a capital "L") is patently refusing to cooperate with me right now. I have this perfectly-reasonable little list--want to read, want to write, want to have some fun (not too much, just a bit)--yet all I've managed to accomplish for the past couple of weeks is a (ridiculously-)small amount of the first, none of the second (grrrrrr), and only a smidgeon of the third. (Oh, yeah, and work--boring, crappy work, how could I forget that?--which seems a lot more like punishment than accomplishment.)

So, in the spirit of... well, of something--yes, I know it's a day late (but it goes back to the un-cooperativeness of Life... see how that works?)--and since it's been, oh, forever-and-a-day since I did one of these, I'm giving you some Patriotic Boycat to enjoy.

Here he is, in all his splendor... 

(Just humor me, okay? He's the large, gorgeous bundle-of-fluff feline clown who keeps me somewhat sane, and I adore him.)

Oh, and I will have something new for you soon. Promise. :)