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. :)