Sunday, September 23, 2012

Murder, Malevolence, & Mean Girls Run Amok

We’ve all seen them (or, in some cases, maybe even been one of them)... those school girls who hang around in their little cliques, firmly convinced they’re better than everyone else; the ones who, with not much more than condescending looks, artful head tosses, and a few well-timed insults, manage to make the lives of those unfortunate enough to be around them living hells. In other words, the mean girls.

But, there are girls who get off on being merely snobby-mean... and then there are the seriously “Mean Girls” we’re hearing about more and more--vindictive young women who are highly-determined and scarily-organized in their misery-making campaigns.  

Author Kate White takes a closer look at one such group--attending university rather than high school--in the thought-provoking psychological thriller, The Sixes.

In her early 40s--smart, attractive, and extremely successful, with an address book full of über-famous names and numbers, and a long string of best-selling books under her belt--the last thing Manhattan-based celebrity biographer Phoebe Hall expects to be doing is teaching at a small college in Podunk, Pennsylvania... yet that’s precisely where she finds herself.

It didn’t just happen, of course; there’s always some reason behind such a sea change. For Phoebe, it involves something which scares the pants off every writer who’s ever put pen to paper, fingers to typewriter (or keyboard), or voice to dictation machine: the accusation of plagiarism (which ranks in the top two of writerly crimes, alongside willfully making up “facts”).

Does it matter if she’s guilty or not? After reading or seeing enough tabloid “news” coverage in the media, you already know the answer to that; the mere whiff of salacious scandal is all it takes to change public perception for the worse... as Phoebe now knows firsthand.

So, when an old school friend, currently serving as president of a small private college, contacts her with a job offer--filling in a year for a professor who’s on leave--Phoebe jumps at the chance to get away from the scandal dogging her in New York... even if “getting away” is to a tiny river town somewhere in the Keystone State.

She soon finds, however, that no matter where you go, you never really leave your troubles behind...

It all starts when the campus flies into a panic over a missing female student. Phoebe doesn’t recognize the name, but after seeing the girl’s face on a flyer, realizes they’d actually met a few weeks earlier, briefly sharing an umbrella while dashing across campus in an unexpected downpour. With a sense of foreboding, she also remembers the girl had mentioned something about being in trouble--but since each had been been  running late for their classes, she’d merely wished the girl good luck. 

When a body washes ashore a couple days later, Phoebe’s worst fears are realized, and although the troubled young woman’s problems--whatever they were--are now, certainly, over, her friends and fellow students, faculty, and residents of the small community are all left wondering how and why this happened. 

It isn’t until Phoebe learns this wasn’t the first student to die in the same questionable circumstances, however, that things take on a decidedly sinister edge. 

Suddenly, everyone has a theory. One is that a serial killer--cutting a swath through universities in the nation’s midsection for several years, now--has added their small community to his rotation. Another involves a secret society of female students--in essence, a hush-hush (illegal) sorority at their non-Greek school--which induces its members to taunt and demoralize others.

It’s the second theory--a clandestine group of incredibly mean girls--that really grabs Phoebe’s attention, because she fell victim to something very similar during her own high school years. Just thinking about it dredges up a host of painful memories (plus nightmares she thought she’d left behind). Still, she can’t help but feel she owes it to the dead girl to figure out what’s going on, so she starts investigating.

When Phoebe gets the itchy sensation that she’s being watched--and when someone breaks into her house, leaving little “presents” behind--she’s positive she’s on the right track. But, when another person dies--not a student, this time, but a friend who’d been helping with her sleuthing--she has to decide whether or not it’s worth any more lives-- possibly including her own--just to finally uncover the truth.

The Sixes is one of those books that starts with a terrific premise, but sort of meanders off into stretching-any-believability-pretty-damn-thin territory. Why do I say that? There were just too many coincidences, for one thing. This book also involved a lot of suspension-of-disbelief, for me, because I simply cannot accept that a couple of the characters--supposedly personable, bright, capable people--would have turned such a blind eye on things that happened right under their noses. (Making smart characters look like idiots for no good reason isn’t the best idea.)

There were minor quibbles, too. Phoebe gets into a relationship--which is fine, no problem there--that causes her to get awfully angst-y (seriously? she’s in her 40s, folks),  and she has the same thoughts over and over... and over... a few too many times. (I’m not saying we don’t all do that in real life, just that I don’t necessarily need to read someone doing that.) Part of the big denouement felt a tad contrived, too (but some of it was also pretty good, so that probably balances out).

What’s my verdict, then? Actually, I’m going to recommend The Sixes. It isn’t a great story, by any means, but it’s also not a bad one; it’s an easy read, bringing up some interesting, current topics to mull over, and it definitely kept me turning the pages to reach the whodunit (and the whydunit). :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 3 out of 5 mousies

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Out of Magical Ashes... Rise Heroes

Oh, how time flies... except, of course, when it doesn’t... and you’re stuck drumming your fingers impatiently, wishing time would get the proverbial lead out, put the pedal to the metal, and resume that whizzing-by thing it does so incredibly well, most of the time.

The bad times never work like that, though, do they?

❖ ~ ❖ ~ ❖ ~ ❖ ~ ❖ 

Nearly a year after half-human/half-fae Sir October Daye (a knight in the twilight shadows of the fae world and a gritty private detective in both) once again saved the immortal world from certain doom and destruction (this time, from what would’ve been a no-holds-barred civil war of epic proportions), she’s still reeling from the fallout... specifically, trying to cope with the simultaneous, heartbreaking losses of an old friend and of her part-fae/mostly-human daughter.

Sometimes--make that, often--Toby’s life really sucks, and--happily for us, if not for her--it dishes out more of the same in Seanan McGuire’s latest tantalizing Toby tale, Ashes of Honor

If you know Toby (and hopefully you do, since you’re reading this--but if not, then for Oberon’s sake, please read the previous books in the series, which you can find a bit more about here, scrolling down and reading the earliest post to the most recent...), you’ve no doubt already guessed how she’s been dealing with that whole world of grief in which she’s buried herself: by charging headfirst into whatever trouble (danger) she can find, giving no thought to her own safety, of course. Toby may not have a death wish, exactly... but the way she’s been acting is much too close to it for her friends’ comfort.

So, although everyone is a little shocked when Etienne (a fellow knight in the service of their liege, Sylvester) asks for Toby’s help with a personal problem--finding the changeling teenage daughter he never even knew he had (until the girl’s mother called him out of the blue and told him “their daughter” had just disappeared)--no one is remotely surprised when Toby agrees to take on the job. (Granted, since she’s become something of an expert on finding lost children, she is the obvious choice.)

Before she has the chance to go racing off alone, sword in hand, in typical fashion, however, her friends weigh in. 

“You can’t save everyone and leave yourself lost, October. It isn’t fair. Not to you and not to the people who care about you,” says Tybalt, the Cait Sidhe King of Cats (who counts himself among Toby’s small group of friends). Her squire-in-training, Quentin and her personal Fetch, May (now a roommate and like-a-sister, instead of a creepy specter just waiting to cart her off to the afterlife) express similar concerns. 

Figuring it’s probably easier to acquiesce than to argue--and also considering the fact that Chelsea, Etienne’s daughter, inherited his ability to teleport (one thing Toby definitely can’t do)--she agrees to some help.

Good thing, too, because once they start following Chelsea’s trail, it’s clear she isn’t just teleporting herself to the usual sorts of places an angst-y teen might go... but that she’s somehow managing to open doors into long-ago, sealed-off, distant realms... other worlds, that were never meant to be visited again. (Just so we’re clear, when something in the land of fairies is deemed off-limits, forever-and-ever, well, you should pretty much assume it’s a Really Bad Thing.)

Naturally, finding one scared-witless teenager--a mere girl in possession of ridiculous powers, who’s on the road to singlehandedly causing the imminent collapse of all of fairydom(!)--isn’t their only problem. (Seriously, that would be much too easy.) It seems that something wicked is also afoot in the Court of Cats, while Tybalt’s off helping Toby. (Think, “when the cat’s away, the mice will play”... but change the last part to “some of the other cats will band together and plot bloody overthrows of their leader”, and you’re in the ballpark.)

Will Toby and crew manage to stay a couple steps ahead of a lot of angry kitty claws and sharp, pointy kitty teeth long enough to find a little girl who can magically hop from one place to another, before she manages to bring about an apocalypse... or will this be the case that changes everything?

❖ ~ ❖ ~ ❖ ~ ❖ ~ ❖

My usual modus operandi, whenever my greedy little paws wrap themselves around a hot-off-the-press October Daye, is to take a deep breath, plunge in, and keep going until I’ve reached the end (or as near to it as a busy life allows). This time, however, I took a different tack--pacing myself, reading just a couple of chapters at a time, then letting things sink in (or, given Toby’s unholy love of coffee, perhaps “percolate” would be a better word). Was it easy, making it last? Erm, no; I was dying to know what was going to happen. Am I glad I took the extra time, though? Yep, so glad, because I got to enjoy all the anticipation, for a change. (The Heinz people and Carly Simon were both definitely onto something, there.)

What continues drawing me to this series, like a moth to the flame, is Toby. One of the best female characters to come along in Urban Fantasy, ever, she remains perfectly imperfect... damaged goods, with a boatload of guilt, sadness, and regret perpetually battling amongst themselves in her brain and in her gut. Toby never really “gets over” things, but continues to feel each one of her hurts deeply. (After living quite a few years on this earth, that sort of things feels right to me... and the fact that Toby is nearly immortal just makes the thought of every hurt, every bad feeling she relives again and again, that much more poignant.) 

Of course, the fabulously-realized worlds McGuire has built--and keeps tinkering with and refining along the way--plus all those other undeniably-cool characters, heaps of fascinating lore, the often sparklingly-witty and always-insightful dialogue, and always, always, a whole lot of heart... have a little something to do with my undying love for this series, too. 

Whether you’ll want to read it slowly or blast through it, put Ashes of Honor (or the whole October Daye series, if you’re a newbie to the series) on your "Read Now" list. Your only regret will be reaching the final page. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 5 out of 5 Exuberant (and worthy of the Cait Sidhe) Mousies

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Something Rotten (plus Vile, Cruel, & Deadly) in Denmark

Have you ever tried guessing what you would do, if faced with some extraordinary situation? (“If a flood came and you could only save three things...”, maybe, or “If you could go back in time and stop ‘x‘ from happening... would you?”.) Whether it’s a solitary mental exercise or a discussion of hypotheticals at a dinner party, most of us enjoy such little games now and then.

One thing almost certainly never subjected to the “what if” treatment, though, is how you’d react to finding something--make that, someone--in a... well, in a most-unexpected place.  

Danish authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis tackle precisely that unusual--and horrifying--prospect, in their haunting tale, The Boy in the Suitcase.

***** // *****

Nina Borg is a weary, one-woman dynamo. Married with two children, she works as a nurse for the Red Cross. She also volunteers in an underground network that attempts to aid battered or shunted-off-to-the-side-and-otherwise-forgotten women, children, and elderly folks. Everyone who knows her knows she’s a soft touch; if you go to Nina in a bad way, she’ll move heaven and earth trying to make things better (even to the detriment of her own too-often-neglected family).

When an old college friend--a fellow nurse she hasn’t seen or talked to in years--calls with a frantic request for help, then, it’s only natural that Nina agrees. The request itself is an odd one, though; Karin needs Nina to pick up something--a suitcase--from a locker at the train station in Copenhagen, then transport it safely to her car before opening it up.

What, exactly, is in this suitcase, Nina asks, and why can’t Karin collect it, herself? Karen refuses to say any more--insisting that Nina will know what to do--then runs off, leaving her friend holding a numbered locker key.

Fearing the worst--drugs, perhaps, or some kind of stolen goods (after all, who knows what her beautiful but flighty friend might have gotten herself into)--Nina drives to the busy terminal against her better judgment. Finding the right locker, she wrestles out a surprisingly-heavy bag and briefly toys with the idea of opening it then and there--if only to see whether the contents might be rearranged for easier carrying--but the memory of Karin’s panic stops her. Only after she’s lugged the unwieldy case all the way to her car, a couple blocks away, does she dare open it... to find a naked child inside.

Years of training immediately take over, allowing her to focus on what--on who--is before her: a fair-haired young boy, perhaps three years old... breathing, ever so faintly. She carefully removes him and performs a quick visual inspection; he seems healthy enough, aside from his nearly-nonexistent respiration, and reasonably clean. But, what to do with him? Has he been kidnapped for ransom, she wonders... or is he yet another tragic victim of child trafficking? 

Her first instinct, of course, is to go straight to the police. Two things stop her, however; first, until she knows just what Karin is mixed up in, contacting the authorities seems unwise for everyone. Second, and more importantly, Nina has seen firsthand what happens to too many unfortunate souls who enter the public care system: they wind up in group homes, neither cared for nor loved, where abuse is prevalent, and their already-troubled lives are subsequently ruined. She cannot blindly sentence an innocent waif to such a fate... particularly not once he wakes up and speaks to her in a foreign language.

When the pair of them catch up with Karin--only to find her brutally murdered--Nina realizes beyond a doubt how dire their position truly is. They’re in grave danger... from whom, and why, she has no earthly idea... but their lives--and possibly those of their own families, as well--depend on staying enough ahead of the killer (or killers) to have the chance of finding out, and bringing whatever awful truth is out there into the open.

***** // *****

Over the past few years, I’ve come to expect amazing things from Scandinavian crime/suspense/thriller authors, so I approached The Boy in the Suitcase with big expectations. I’m totally jazzed to report that I wasn’t disappointed; this book is terrific.

From the start, there’s such a refreshingly female take on things. The women are unapologetically honest in their thoughts and actions; whether good or less-than-good, these characters ring true no matter what they’re doing, which lends the whole story an undeniable believability. (It would be nearly impossible to read this and not feel something for the characters and their situations.) Some tough realities are exposed, packing a lot of emotional wallops along the way.

Beyond the gut-level punches, though, this is just an all-around, well-crafted bit of story-telling, delivering a taut, tense, and terrific ride that never lets up. The story doesn’t go quite where I was expecting it to, either, which makes it that much better.

Whether you’re looking for a thrilling, stay-up-late-to-finish page-turner, a complex and compelling mystery, or a gripping psychological study, The Boy in the Suitcase delivers big time. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Mousies