Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neighbors, Lovers, & Other Little Scandals: Upstairs/Downstairs for Today

Nanny, butler, maid, footman, valet, housekeeper, cook, chauffeur, gardener, au pair, aide... the titles may change over time, but the duties for those who toil away in the households of the rich and privileged remain much the same. And, though we might euphemistically lump them together under the more-palatable “domestic workers” (in our must-above-all-else-be-P.C. world), the truth is they’re still servants, whose jobs involve waiting on others positioned higher up the social ladder.

No one is apt to think there’s much equality between the two groups--particularly not the “haves” (those who have more of everything, whether money, status, or power) nor their household staffs (employed to do the menial work). The domestic hires have at their disposal one (potentially) very useful tool, however: knowledge, of all the little habits, eccentricities, and secrets of their employers (and something which the employers are probably mostly unawares they possess).

What might someone do with such knowledge... well, that’s the hundred-thousand-dollar question, isn’t it? Ruth Rendell--doyenne of the psychological thriller--gives her take on the matter, in The St. Zita Society.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Life for the homeowners--and for those who wait upon them--living in the elite London neighborhood of Hexam Place in Belgravia, is much the same from one day to the next. Cooks, au pairs, and maids get the inhabitants of the houses out the door in the mornings, whereupon drivers chauffeur them to work, meetings, or school. Housekeepers clean the messes left behind, nannies care for the babies and toddlers, and assistants see to the various needs of those residents who don’t work. Stability and orderliness, for the most part, prevail.

As with the majority of first impressions, though, things aren’t actually quite as tidy as they might initially seem. To wit... Montserrat, the au pair who works for the Still family (and who seems to have no real job duties aside from sneaking Mrs. Still’s soap-opera actor boyfriend into the house through the basement entrance when Mr. Still is at work) is always on the make to score more dosh so she can buy herself fancier things. Rabia, a young Muslim widow who works as the Stills’ nanny, dotes on the children--while keeping her own tragic past deeply buried (and trying to put off her devout father’s attempts to marry her off again). Thea, who teaches computer literacy skills to the elderly by day, is much put-upon by the gay couple who not only rent out one floor of their home to her but also view her as their unpaid servant; it’s always “fix this, cook that, clean this, find that,” with them. (To be fair, though, Thea does a lot of things she doesn’t really want to do, including shopping for the invalid spinster who rents the lower level of the house, and becoming engaged to a man she unsuccessfully tries to talk herself into liking.) Henry, the handsome (if hopelessly naive) young fellow who works as Lord Studley’s chauffeur, nervously spends his off-work hours shuttling between servicing Mrs. Studley and seeing the couple’s young-adult daughter (who has a place of her own). Dex, the neighborhood loony, does the gardening for some of the residents... and also hears the voice of God talking to him on his cell phone. And then there’s elderly June, who’s functioned as the housekeeper, dogwalker, and companion for more than sixty years to her even-more-elderly employer (a self-styled “princess” with vague claims to a dodgy Italian title). June frets over conditions in the neighborhood, both out on the street (doggy waste bags left on the sidewalks!) and within the walls of each house (poor Henry, whose boss makes him wait in the car for hours!), so she goes about setting up a special group open only to those who function in a service capacity.

The St. Zita Society, as she dubs their club (naming it for the patron saint of the serving class), meets once a month to discuss issues and plan the occasional group outing. It convenes at a little pub located just down the street--where considerably more drinking than discussion of club business takes place, to June’s disappointment.

It is thus amid the oft-scandalous comings and goings, confidences kept (and reneged on), deals made, gossip shared, shifting allegiances, group meetings, and the ever-watchful eyes of more than one Hexam Place resident that life goes on... until the shocking disappearance of someone they all know--and the lies and truths each resident proceeds to tell (or not)--puts everyone on the block under intense police scrutiny. 

What once seemed such a quiet, posh neighborhood is no longer; now, it’s nothing so much as a powder keg, just waiting for the right spark to set it off...

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Our fascination with the wealthy and their servants is nothing new; numerous “classics” are about poverty-stricken individuals forced by circumstance to go into service for the rich (often, their better-off relatives). TV programs--particularly the period pieces “Upstairs, Downstairs” and, more recently, “Downton Abbey”--have likewise achieved great success catering to our interest in (and in the latter case, obsession with) the same.

What Rendell manages with The St. Zita Society is to make the theme current, and it’s something she does fabulously well. Not only do we get the feeling of living in the neighborhood, we also get to be voyeurs, seeing what everyone sees, knows, and does at any all times. (The idea of who knows--or has seen--precisely what becomes very important as events play out.)

How Rendell portrays each character is what makes her work stand out, though. She clearly empathizes with those on either side of the have/have-not continuum, and shows good, very ordinary, and rather evil people on each side. Because she “gets” human nature, her characters never fail to make believably “in-character” decisions... and the consequences which follow their conclusions and actions always ring true.

Filled with suspenseful moments, The St. Zita Society is a fascinating tale of the rather ordinary... and is highly recommended.

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Mousies

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sleight-of-Paw in Vegas (or Murder, Mayhem, Magic & the Marvelous Moggies)

A vintage-attired, high-heel-clad little dynamo... a hunky ex-priest-cum-radio-personality superstar... a mysterious and rakish magician (in desperate need of finding his lost memories)... and one sleek-yet-stout, green-eyed, black-as-night feline... those four components can only mean one thing: it’s time for a return trip to Vegas, baby!

Hold the phone--and pack an extra bag--though, because this time out Midnight Louie is up to more than just his usual Sin City sleuthing-and-shenanigans; in Cat in a White Tie and Tails, he manages to squeeze in a visit to the Windy City, as well.

~^.,.^~   ~^.,.^~   ~^.,.^~

When suddenly-in-demand radio star Matt Devine receives yet another all-expenses-paid trip to Chi-town--where a group of network bigwigs will again attempt to cajole him into accepting their offer for a major TV gig--it seems like the perfect opportunity to knock out a pair of birds with one stone; he can take Temple Barr--plucky Vegas hotel PR consultant and his delightful fiancee--along for the ride, so she can meet his family. 

Of course, no outing would be complete without Temple’s real partner, the aforementioned ebony-furred Midnight Louie... which is how that twenty-pound fella finds himself encased in a chi-chi, leopard-printed “purse pooch” carryon, aboard a plane bound for the Midwest... far, far from The Strip he calls home. 

At first, things go... well, not-so-great, because while Matt (the ex-priest, remember) has plenty of baggage of his own, it’s nothing compared to the load of guilt his mother’s been lugging around for more than thirty years. And, wouldn’t you know it, just when some of her old family secrets start making their way out into the open--and putting the past to rest seems possible--everything goes to hell in the proverbial hand basket (or, in this case, in a pricey, designer cat carrier)... not because of the startling revelations, but because a couple of local thugs catnap Louie! (This, naturally, will not do!... but never fear, our Louie--former cat-of-the-streets--has proven time and again that he’s nothing if not resourceful, and the methods he uses to extricate himself from this latest predicament are a real hoot.) 

The surprises continue, when it turns out that the kerfuffle in Chicago ties in with a string of unsolved murders back in Vegas... each with some tie to magic.

And, speaking of magic, Temple’s ex-flame Max (he of the death-defying stunt which left him with a lot of broken bones and a seriously-bad case of amnesia) has been moonlighting for homicide detective C.R. Molina, using his knowledge of legerdemain to look into one of those very same cold cases (while Temple and Matt are off schmoozing, canoodling, and peacemaking in the heartland). If Max can somehow figure out what really happened, perhaps he can also clear his own name, once and for all, and stop the awful cycle of magic-related deaths.

The answers, however, have stubbornly eluded police thus far... and with mysterious ties linking past events to the Vegas mob, the IRA, a secret collective of magicians, a lost buried treasure, and an enormous jackpot to be given away in the next few days,  
unravelling the many clues will be anything but a walk in the park (or a stroll down The Strip, for that matter).

In fact, it will take every sleek black hair, twitching whisker, and sheathed talon on Midnight Louie’s magnificent body--as well as those of his cadre of feline relations and friends--to keep all of their humans (hopefully) alive and (mostly) whole...

~^.,.^~   ~^.,.^~   ~^.,.^~

Cat in a White Tie and Tails is the twenty-fourth(!) in Carole Nelson Douglas‘ prodigious series featuring Temple and Midnight Louie, and it’s another fine entry. (You can check out my review of the twenty-third book--when I first found the series last year--here.)

Although it’s part of a long-running storyline--a serialized one, at that, with the plots continuing from one book to the next--it is possible (if not quite ideal) to read it as a stand-alone, because Douglas provides both an introduction-slash-rehash of previous events as well as frequent commentary explaining things the reader may not remember (or, in my case, don’t know). So, aside from occasionally finding myself reading a passage back a second time, trying to catch the subtext of something dealt with in previous (as-yet-unread) books, I had little trouble eventually understanding the gist--which is important, because there’s rather a lot going on. 

The primary cast of (bipedal) characters isn’t all that large, but there’s definitely a lot of history to keep straight; the end result is a fun mash-up of the TV shows CSI and Vegas, with plenty of soap-operatics thrown in for spice.

It’s the furry cast of characters, though, wherein you find the real stars. As any true animal-lover can attest, our four-footed friends most definitely possess unique personalities, moods, abilities, and eccentricities setting them apart from each other, and Douglas clearly has a firm grasp on the delightful differences among felines. By turns clever, capable, affectionate, standoffish, proud, witty, agile, sleepy, or snarky (among others), Louie, Louise (who claims to be his long-haired daughter from a past fling), and the rest of the Vegas clowder shine whenever they’re on the page. (If it all sounds a little hokey, don’t worry; the majority of the story is still told from a human POV; the cats are there to provide a neat bit of fun, and to suss out things in ways that only animals can.) 

Combining the glitz and glamor of Vegas with the seamy underbelly that visitors rarely get to see--while proving that cats really are as smart as we’ve always thought--Cat in a White Tie and Tails is a sure bet for mystery fans with an appreciation for felines. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Ratings:  For Connoisseurs of Intricate, International Mysteries... & Fabulous Felines

Monday, August 13, 2012

Changing the Future... with Love, Magic, & Time Travel

Humans have probably been longing to go back in time since... well, since man first realized there was a “back then”, and that things in the past may hold clues about the future.

Short of running across an H.G. Wellsian time machine or a souped-up Delorean, though, such time-traveling jaunts have long been viewed as either ridiculously unlikely (by the glass-nearly-empty naysayers) or a maybe-one-day possibility (by the glass-half-full hopefuls)... until now, that is (and still, possible only if you’re chummy with a time-weaving witch willing to take you along for the ride).

Good thing that Diana Bishop (an American professor at Oxford) is just that sort of witch, then, because she and fellow scholar (and ancient vampire) Matthew Clairmont have an urgent need to go back, way back, following the events in last year’s A Discovery of Witches [see review here] by Deborah Harkness. 

At least, it would be a good thing, if only Diana weren’t so woefully-untrained at almost every aspect of being a witch. 

Shadow of Night is their tale of what happens next...

✠ / ✠ / ✠ / ✠

Things were looking rather grim for Diana and Matthew when we last saw them. After escaping the clutches of a host of very determined (and awfully bloodthirsty) creatures in Europe, they fled to America, seeking refuge in her ancestral New England home. Their plan was to stay under the supernatural radar while Diana trained with her aunts (both witches), hopefully learning how to use the various talents she’d inherited from her parents--namely, how to travel through time. 

Why the urgency? Because, while at Oxford, she’d stumbled upon an ancient manuscript which had long been missing--a mysterious tome which subsequently disappeared again... but not before nearly every other creature in the world (witch, vampire, and demon) heard about it, and knew that she was the one it had chosen to appear to (however briefly).  

So what’s the big deal about that particular book, anyway? Basically, it’s an origin-of-the-supernatural-species book, and holds genetic clues to their creation. (In an era when fewer creatures are being born/created--a condition which will lead to eventual extinction, if not reversed--that’s a very big thing.)

Through trial and error, Diana figures out how to whisk herself and Matthew away to a time when he says the enchanted manuscript was generally known to be around. His chosen destination? Scotland, circa 1590... unfortunately, when the political and religious leaders are calling for witch burnings.  

Not everything about 1590 is bad, of course--particularly not to an historian like Diana, and especially not when she learns that Matthew is part of the infamous School of Night, a group of thinkers, writers, and scientists--among them Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Harriot, and Sir Walter Raleigh--who met and debated matters of science, religion, and philosophy. (She’s almost giddy the first time she’s in their collective presence.)

Still, there are major hurdles to overcome. First, Diana is clearly out of her element. She doesn’t sound right (or look right, though there isn’t much to be done about her modern-day size in an era of smaller-statured women); she’ll need a crash course in 16th-century dialects and vocabulary if she’s to pass among the people. Second, she still knows next to nothing about being a witch; she needs to know spells useful for searching out and deciphering the wayward book. Finding a knowledgeable witch to tutor her--not the easiest task given the public persecutions--is vital. Third, Matthew will have to confront his own past, which means dealing with painful things he’d rather not face again as well as things he’d like to change but can’t (as doing so would alter the future--a huge no-no, obviously).

Meanwhile, life goes on around them, creating additional problems. Always in danger of the wrong people finding out who, what (and even when) they are, Matthew and Diana, plus their small entourage, race around Europe (as fast as 1590s transportation allows, anyway), going from Scotland to France to London to Austria and back to London again, as circumstances and historic persons (some related to their mission and others not) force them to alter their plans again and again. 

Will they get their hands on the accursed manuscript they came so many miles--and so many centuries--to find (and if so, what will they do with it once they have it), or will they fail miserably in their attempts? One way or the other, the clock is ticking down, in the present and in the past...

✠ / ✠ / ✠ / ✠

A Discovery of Witches was a delightfully-original and compelling find last year, and Shadow of Night is its well-deserved sequel. Intelligent and utterly engrossing, the focus now is on the lifestyles of a long-ago era (rather than on the intricacies of supernaturals and their relationships), and author/historian Harkness delves into the past with gusto, providing a fabulous sense of the period. (Appearances, smells, sounds, tastes, and moods... she paints vivid pictures of everything with an extraordinary eye and ear for detail.) 

Shadow of Night is also a deeply-romantic tale. Yes, there are plenty of steamy scenes, as layer (after layer after layer!) is unbuttoned, unlaced, and painstakingly removed--and making up for the dearth of “shmexy” in the first book, which was noticeably chaste--but that’s not what I mean; this one’s romantic in the literal sense, in an overtly-sentimental way. (For me, that aspect comes across a little schmaltzy, but that’s just a personal preference thing; I suspect many other readers will revel in the sheer romance of it all.) 

Fortunately, the thrilling action which continuously swirls around the large and deliciously-colorful cast of characters (both real and imagined) more than makes up for that one quibble. Shadow of Night is, by and large, a sumptuous and enchanting read. It’s an epic tale to savor. :)  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  4 out of 5 Anxiously-Awaited Mousies