Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Moment in Time... Can Last Forever

Children--as most adults who’ve more-or-less-successfully traversed those difficult years and emerged triumphant on the other end will attest--can be quite horrid. It’s not that they’re irredeemable little monsters, or anything... just that all children have the capacity to be incredibly cruel in their words and actions. Whether it be their peers and siblings, parents, other adults, pets (or other unwitting animals), or even inanimate objects, no one (and nothing) is safe from a child who feels compelled for whatever reasons to be nasty.

There’s a difference, though, between outright meanness to others and simple mischief--although the latter can also have the appearance of cruelty. The difference, of course, is in the intent, which is why most of us find mischievous acts more understandable and easier to forgive and forget.

As with anything else, however, not everyone agrees, as is the case in Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black, the compelling tale of a well-meaning and popular young boy who errs one fateful time on the side of a bit of innocent mischief... and ends up paying for his ill-considered deed the rest of his life.
✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

Boys will be boys, and William Bellman and his mates are just that--boys being boys--when they take it into their heads one lazy summer afternoon to try hitting various targets by slingshotting pebbles at them. Only clever Will has the insight to design his slingshot in such a way to actually succeed, though... and succeed he does, nailing a rook (crow) sitting on a tree branch some distance away, just as he’d boasted he would.

His three friends are elated as only a group of young lads can be, at first; Will’s prowess at hitting something so far away--and a bird, at that!--is nothing short of remarkable to them. But, once reality sets in a bit--and the dead creature has gotten stiff and less-appealing--their excitement fades. By the time a few weeks have passed, the incident has been all but forgotten.

The act leaves a more-lasting impression on Will. He hadn’t worked out beforehand what would happen when he hit the bird (although he knew he would); actually killing it never entered his mind. Eventually, though, as he grows up and takes on new responsibilities, he puts the memories, visions, and bad dreams behind him (as most of us tend to do with childhood things). He works hard at home and school, secures himself an apprenticeship at his uncle’s woolen mill, and learns the business from the ground up. By the time he marries and then has a family, he’s ascended to a top position at the mill, and is responsible for both modernizing production and substantially increasing business. Life is good. 

Until suddenly... it isn’t. An epidemic decimates the countryside, scattering death all around and leaving Will a broken man who cares little if he lives or dies, let alone gives a toss about business.

It’s precisely when he’s at his lowest point that a mysterious stranger--someone he’s seen occasionally, over the years, but has never actually met--happens upon him... and strikes a most unusual bargain. The pair of them will grow a brand-new business--one that deals in death as its stock and trade--with William standing as the public face of it. In return, his last remaining child’s life will be spared. (Exactly how the stranger will effect that circumstance is unclear, but Will clearly believes it possible.) 

But nothing comes without a price--particularly not matters of life-and-death. Fleeting memories from the past... a strange new existence... even a way out, if he can manage to grasp it... for William, a whole new nightmare is just beginning.

✦ / ✦ / ✦ / ✦

Bellman & Black isn’t an easy book to pigeonhole. Moody and atmospheric, and Gothic in tone, it’s not quite a supernatural thriller, nor a romance, nor even, precisely, a tragedy (though it has elements of all three). 

William Bellman is--if not an entirely-likable character--at least a fascinating one. (He isn’t really unlikable, either; rather, he often comes across as cold, and sort of empty.) His obsession with--and affection for--the mill is well-documented, yet is also surprisingly interesting (particularly how he goes about learning, then improving upon, conditions and practices at every level). It is with his family--and perhaps more poignantly, his friends--wherein his problems lie; even when he would consider his life “good”, he is doggedly single-minded in his pursuit of all things business... to the detriment of the rest of his relationships. Only a tragedy as devastating as the disease that scours his community can pull him out of himself. 

Once entered into the second phase of his life, however--that of being half of Bellman & Black--we quickly realize his previous preoccupation with work was merely a trial run for the utterly all-encompassing obsession he has with B&B. It isn’t merely the driving force in his life, that thing from which he derives validation... it is his sole reason for existence--a fact which becomes more and more sinister as time passes.

My one complaint with Bellman & Black is that the latter portion of the book goes on rather too long; once we see Will at the depths of the pit he’s fallen into, he just sort of stays there, with nothing much going on (aside from considerable repetition). That portion could’ve easily been cut down a good bit and still maintained its creepy foreboding. 

If you have some patience (for letting a story take its time in the telling)--and a hankering for a dark Victorian ghost story, unlike any other you’ve ever come across--then you’ll want to give Bellman & Black a go. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Unusual story, worth the effort

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Caught Between Tidy Science... and the Messy Reality of Falling in Love

A really good book has its work cut out for it. It needs to draw you in, making it seem as if you’re a part of the action. It should make you think, drawing parallels and conclusions of your own. And no matter what genre, it must make you feel something; you need to have a personal stake in the outcome, for it to matter.

Fortunately, there are books aplenty that can do those things. What’s a whole lot harder to find is the book that somehow manages to bring pure, unadulterated joy with every page... a non-stop transfusion of feel-good, happy vibes from the written word straight to your brain. (Seriously... what was the last book you can say that about??)

Until a couple weeks ago [and yes, it’s been that long since I finished it... grrr, there goes life, getting in the way again], coming up with something that made me that insanely giddy would’ve been impossible. But then, I came across Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, and everything changed.

Professor Don Tillman is, without question, a nerd. A top geneticist at a major Australian university, he’s a nice-enough-looking chap, and likable, but with all the little oddities and eccentricities one generally expects from such genius. (He also has an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s.) Socially inept? You could say that. (He once argued the science behind tasting ice cream so forcefully that a date walked out on him.) Orderly and precise? Doesn’t begin to cover Don’s habits. (Seriously, he cooks and eats the same meals every week--the identical meal each Tuesday, then the same something-else each Wednesday, and so on, which allows him to use the same shopping list every week.) Fussy? Well, every item in his pantry and fridge has its prescribed place... as does every shirt, sock, and other necessary item in his bedroom and bathroom. Literal? Um, yeah; sarcasm and (most) jokes tend to fly right over his head. Scientific? Absolutely. (His defense of the technical rain parka he wears to a fancy restaurant which requires men to wear suit jackets as “an intelligent and valid choice of attire” is beyond hilarious.) All of Don’s decisions are made with the same level of measured thought behind them, so he can be assured of always making the right choice. 

Or so he’s always thought... 

After a few less-than-successful attempts at dating (and honestly, it’s not like there’s been a string of eligible women or anything, since the professor would be hard-pressed to recognize a reference to Casanova, let alone take pages from the famed lover’s playbook), Don--acknowledging that he’s a little lonely (and isn’t getting any younger)--comes up with what he’s convinced is a brilliant plan: create a comprehensive survey (dubbed the “Wife Project”) which he’ll pass out to potential mates, then tally the results to find his ideal partner. (An achievable goal? Well, he thinks so. In truth, there might be one woman in a million--no, make that a billion--who would meet his stringent [and uproariously-funny] qualifications, but he doesn't understand that.)

As for the attributes of Ms. Right, well, no drinkers, smokers, vegans, non-exercisers, fashionable women, or makeup-wearers, and no one who isn’t serious about her job, or isn’t a neatnik, need apply--and that’s just for starters. (At least he’s trying to establish a very small pool... very, VERY small.) 

When fate (via his best friend, a fellow professor) tosses Rosie Jarman in his path, Don immediately discounts her as a candidate; she embodies every single thing he doesn’t want in a partner, and then some. She does possess a certain something, though... a problem which only an expert such as he can help with: identifying her biological father (whom her dying mother alluded to but never named) from a large pool of “possibles”. Thus is born the “Father Project” (naturally).

Much to Don’s surprise (and a bit to his dismay), he finds himself completely immersed in the Father Project (to the detriment of the Wife Project), and actually having fun whenever Rosie’s around--something he can’t, in all honesty, remember experiencing before. A bartender who drinks whenever she wants, smokes, favors edgy clothes and makeup, and prefers thinking outside the box, Rosie’s also outrageously funny, surprisingly (to him) smart, and incredibly interesting... a whirling dervish of fun and mayhem, whom he gradually comes to realize (long after we do, of course) he doesn’t want to lose. 

But, how to put aside nearly every single thing he always thought he valued in a life partner--forcing him to throw the entire Wife Project out the window--and setting out to win the heart of his polar opposite? It’s the “Rosie Project”, of course... the most important project he’ll ever undertake.

I love a great rom-com (romantic-comedy movie, if you’ve somehow missed that cutesy abbreviation until now), but haven’t actually found many... the ones that make me hope dream, swoon, and melt (without causing me to roll my eyes at an overabundance of convenient plot tricks and cliches). Well, The Rosie Project is a frickin’ awesome rom-com... in book form.

I dare you not to fall just a little bit for Don (or not to want to be him, if you’re a straight guy), because despite his oddness and quirkiness, he's impossible not to like and identify with in his earnest (if unusual) pursuit of love and happiness. You’re bound to root for Rosie, too; after all, Don falls for her, against all odds. 

The Rosie Project is laugh-out-loud funny, going from being as effervescent as a glass of bubbly to being as deep and rich as a thick slice of pecan pie... and I haven’t felt this much continuous joy while reading a book in... well, maybe ever. :)   

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Jubilant Mousies to Infinity 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Be Careful what You Wish for... Because It Just May Come True

Grad student Nora Fischer wishes desperately that her life could be different. She’s hit a major roadblock in her studies, with nothing new or fresh to pursue in her thesis work (something which her adviser seems a bit too willing to point out to her), and inspiration isn’t exactly forthcoming. Even worse, her long-time professor boyfriend--whom she’d sort of been expecting to get a ring from--has just dropped a bomb on her: he’s engaged to someone he met (and obviously, was seeing on the sly) recently, and “hopes she [Nora] understands”.

Sometimes wishes do come true, though... as Nora is about to find out, in Emily Croy Barker’s magically-delicious debut, The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The last thing Nora wants to do is pretend happiness during a girlfriend’s weekend wedding festivities, but she puts on a brave face and dutifully shows up at the mountain lodge where events are scheduled to take place. Sadly, the first night turns out as horribly as she’d feared--especially since her (newly-engaged) ex is also in attendance. So, waking up the next morning with the mother of all hangovers, Nora decides to take a hike (literally); she straps on some walking shoes and sets out to clear her head and get away from everyone.

Not even that goes her way, though, and after a little fall on the trail she becomes disoriented. Nothing looks quite right, but she figures if she follows the trail she’s found, at least it will take her somewhere.

Where it leads her is to an old graveyard, which--as fate would have it--is also be a portal into a parallel world (not that she realizes that for quite some time, however).
Continuing along the path, blissfully unaware of what’s just happened, Nora suddenly finds herself on the manicured grounds of a country estate bordering the woods. There, she runs into an elegant and gracious woman, Illissa, who welcomes her and offers hospitality. 

Clearly thrilled to have a visitor, Illissa listens avidly to Nora as she (most uncharacteristically) pours her heart out to the other woman’s sympathetic ears. Illissa persuades Nora to stay the night; she has a huge house with plenty of room, and it just so happens she’s having a party that evening--surely the antidote for a broken heart. Nora, seeing no particular reason to hurry back (to attend a wedding she doesn’t feel like going to, anyway), agrees.

Illissa’s party turns out to be much, much better than the one Nora had gone to the previous night. Instead of being Ordinary Nora, she’s somehow transformed from a drab, depressed student into the life of the party... a beautiful, popular, and happy woman. She’s so happy, in fact, that she agrees to stay on a bit longer, and what follows is a whirlwind of fabulous parties and adoration (even a devastatingly-handsome and attentive new boyfriend) so satisfyingly perfect that in no time, she’s lost track of how long she’s been there or exactly what she’s supposed to be doing in her “real” life.

Until one day, that is, when cracks start to appear in the glamorous veneer of Nora’s fairy-tale life, revealing deception, ugliness, and some very evil intentions... and Nora finally begins questioning what she’s gotten herself into--and wondering how she can extricate herself from it. She’s a smart woman, without doubt, but nothing she knows or has learned in school could’ve prepared her for any of this; what’s needed is magic, real magic, to escape her suddenly-scary predicament.

As luck would have it, though, she actually met just such a practitioner one day (when she temporarily got separated from her merry little party at the edge of Illissa’s property). Unfortunately, the magician Aruendiel is a morose and prickly sort, who seems to think very little of Nora--and even less of her choice of “friends”. Getting herself rescued from the clutches of Illissa and her crowd is only the first of Nora’s obstacles; persuading a grumpy old magician to teach her enough magic to enable her to get back home where she belongs will be considerably harder to accomplish, in a place (and time) where everything is foreign and none-too-friendly.

Will magic even be enough... when she finds herself fighting a growing attraction, as well?

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is many things. It’s the ultimate fish-out-of-water story, plucking a perfectly-reasonable, modern woman and setting her down in the middle of a fairy tale (think no indoor plumbing and go from there for the downsides) already in full swing. It’s an intelligent look at how a normal adult would fare in that situation. (Does she always think/act smartly? No, but neither would you or I; we get to see her making some very poor choices and feeling sorry for herself before coming to grips with her new reality.) It’s also a grand and sprawling adventure... a mix of classic swords-and-sorcery with an epic, Harry Potter-esque journey, a smidgeon of Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and more than a touch of (the overall feel of) Deborah Harkness‘ A Discovery of Witches. In short, it’s a fabulously-well-written tale that takes its time (but without ever taking too long, as far as I’m concerned) getting where it wants to go. 

What it isn’t--at least, not yet--is a sweeping romance (despite a frequent and delightfully-clever use of Pride and Prejudice); this story is a slow-burn on the love-connection front, which I appreciate--much better to let Nora get her head on straight and decide for herself what she really wants, than to let things just happen to her. 

And that leads me to the final thing The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic isn’t: it isn’t a complete, stand-alone story; in the ending Barker makes it clear there’s more to come (so if that really bothers you, you may want to keep this on your TBR list until the sequel comes out). If you can handle the thought of a series, though, and you like your fantasy served up with a healthy dose of realism, this one’s a real gem and I loved every page. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Merrily-Magical Mousies

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Revolutionaries, Spirits, & Mages... and a Conclusion that's Sort of a Hot Mess

Are heroes formed through years of experience... or is it more likely that they’re simply born to it?

No doubt there’s a heap of anecdotal evidence supporting each side of such a “nurture vs. nature” question, but in her “Spiritwalker” trilogy--an alternate-reality fantasy series set during the Industrial Revolution, featuring two very young women (girls, still, really) who set their minds on changing the world--author Kate Elliott goes the heroism-as-a-birthright route. 

The entertaining Cold Magic first introduced us to the cast of characters (notably, feisty Cat Barahal and her irrepressible cousin Bee, along with Cat’s delightful half-brother, the cat/human Rory, and her newly-acquired-though-wholly-unwanted husband, the cold mage Andevai), as well as doing considerable world-building and setting the stage for all of their problems. [You can see my earlier review of it, here, by the way]. Cold Fire [which I somehow never got around to finishing a review for] followed a year later, ably picking up the reins, giving ‘em a good whack, and really getting the action moving along at an exciting, breakneck pace (while continuing to add interesting layers to each of the main characters and adding several new ones). 

Cold Steel’s job as the finale, then, is to tie everything together and provide some resolutions... something which, for me, it only partially succeeds at.

When Cold Steel opens, Cat’s just trying to make it through one day at a time, living among the family and friends she’s made in a far-from-home island kingdom after escaping both a shady revolutionary and the clutches of a dangerous fire mage... while fretting non-stop about the fate of her husband, Vai, who was taken captive by the Master of the Wild Hunt (and is now imprisoned--or worse--somewhere in the Spirit World). She also faces the threat of serious repercussions after (accidentally) helping the Wild Hunt’s Master kill the powerful female ruler of a neighboring kingdom (which in turn, is now ruled by the dead woman’s son... who recently married Cat’s drawer-of-dreams cousin, Bee). 

Meanwhile, trouble is still brewing in Europa, as war rages on. The revolutionary General Camjiata, whom she earlier refused to align herself with, keeps insisting on her help, going so far as to claim that the fate of all Europa--and whether or not its people can ever be free or are doomed to remain in servitude to the few wealthy, magically-powerful rulers--rests in her young hands.

So, find her husband, then rescue him from the Spirit World (while trying not to get captured by the Master of the Wild Hunt, again, herself). Evade a likely-unpleasant punishment at the hands of the Taino (whose leader she didn’t-mean-to-help-kill-but-did) and a certainly-horrid death by the angry fire mage (who’s still out for blood). Save war-torn Europa. Plus, keep all those she holds near and dear--including Bee, Rory, her troll friends, her adopted-island family, and Andevai’s relatives--from harm. Oh, and help some dragons. (Yes, really.) All in a day’s--or perhaps a couple years’--work, right?

While I really enjoyed the world, characters, and complex situations Elliott created in Magic and Fire, I found myself enjoying Cold Steel considerably less. 

For one thing, there’s just too much. Too many places, too many characters, too much story. It’s not that I couldn’t keep everyone and everything straight, though... just that I didn’t actually care about all of the people and story lines. 

There’s also a lot of repetition. Once Cat rescues Vai (which isn’t a spoiler, since you know going into a book like this that the heroine will, of course, do, in these circumstances) and they’re on the run, their journey is endless... and becomes, for me, excruciatingly boring. Yes, it’s very cold, and often wet, and the journey is hard. Yes, for them to sleep together, they can’t have a fire, because he’s a cold mage and puts out all fires around him by the nature of his being. Yes, she can’t get over that she really, really loves him... while finding him still to be the most annoying man she’s ever met. Yes, pretty much everyone they encounter along the way is scared of her, or him, or both. (And on and on, such scenes repeated themselves again and again, ad nauseum.) 

If Elliott had lopped off, say, 200 or so pages from the story--letting the readers make their own inferences rather than beating them over the head with things she’d already covered--and tightened the plot a bit, instead of going off on too many tangents, the result could’ve been a really satisfying ending to a fun series (for there is much to recommend in it)... but she didn’t, and I, for one, am left feeling quite frustrated. 

[Side note: The “Spiritwalker” trilogy isn’t classified as YA (young adult), but it reads a lot more like something from that genre than it does a geared-for-adults-only fantasy... not a bad thing, mind you, just something to make note of, especially if looking for recommendations for, well, a younger crowd.] 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Good grief... I thought August would never end.

It’s always been my least-favorite month (the hottest part of summer), for starters. It also turned out to be frustratingly busy (boring work stuff). The worst part, though? Being majorly let down on the book front. [sigh]

My boycat has the right idea about August, I think...

Sure, August found me reading one book (The Cuckoo’s Calling, reviewed here) that was fantastic, but the other two I managed to finagle enough time (and focus) for... well, weren’t. One of them--which initially had promise--turned out to be so mind-numbingly dull (and sloooow) that I gave up after the first 300 or so pages; there was just no way I could make myself finish it. The other I forced myself to slog through to the very end... but only because it was the final story in a trilogy (that I'd previously really enjoyed). Blergh.

At least my hopes are high for September. Autumn--my favorite season!--should start gusting in with blustery winds and a riot of colorful leaves toward the end of the month, and as for reading, well... it would be nearly impossible not to top August’s paltry haul... right??  :)        

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Different Kind of Magic: Rowling Continues Weaving her Spell, Sans Wands

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn. If so--and if you happen to find yourself in a tunnel--you’d better damn well hope there’s a glimmer of light shining down at the end of it.

Cormoran Strike is stuck in one of those abominable cycles--the kind where nothing goes right. After losing part of his leg to a land mine in Afghanistan, he returned home to heal and figure out what to do next... which turned out to be putting the skills learned in the military police to practical use by setting up shop as a private investigator. It’s something he happens to be really good at; problem is, business has been scarce, and is now down to a single client... which doesn’t come close to paying the bills (not even for his tiny, very modest London work digs). 

But that’s not the end of his troubles; the icing on Strike’s unhappiness cake is that he’s just broken up with his longtime girlfriend... which leaves him effectively homeless, forced to sleep in his spartan office (at least, until the landlord decides to evict him out for non-payment of rent, which is sure to happen before long). 

Then--as misfortune has a way of attracting more of the same--who should show up on his doorstep, but the temporary secretary he’d forgotten about requesting, some weeks ago. (How he’ll be able to scrape together enough cash to pay Robin-the-temp, he has no idea... but the thought of admitting failure to the pretty, earnest-looking young woman would indubitably be the greater evil, so he sets her up in the reception area and hopes for a miracle.)

Which, as fate would have it, is precisely what (who?) walks through his (erm, their) door later that morning, in Robert Galbraith’s endlessly-entertaining tale, The Cuckoo’s Calling

Mousy, twitchy lawyer John Bristow lays out quite a story for the private eye. He claims to be the brother of a very famous (adopted) sister--the magnetic supermodel, Lula Landry (nicknamed “Cuckoo”), whose mixed heritage had graced her with a bewitchingly-exotic (and highly-sought-after) appearance--who died tragically, falling from her own balcony during a snowstorm just three months earlier. 

Her death was subsequently ruled a suicide, but Bristow maintains that it couldn’t possibly have been; despite her past mental illness, he was sure that the right combination of drugs had finally succeeded in keeping Lula’s condition under control. What he wants? For Strike to look at the case (particularly video showing a couple of men in hoodies running pell-mell through the snowy neighborhood streets following Lula’s fall) and prove him right: that his sister’s death wasn’t a suicide, but murder. 

Strike doesn’t have good feelings about the case--the media storm following Lula’s demise had been crazy--or about his grieving client, for that matter, but when Bristow cuts him a large check and thrusts a wad of cash at him, he can hardly say no. (Business is business, after all, and has been in dismally-short supply of late.) Anyway, he tells himself that most likely it’ll just be a matter of poking around the evidence for awhile, then breaking it to his client that yes, sometimes people do just kill themselves, even when they’d seemed okay. 

Strike soon finds more beneath the surface than appeared on first glance, though. Lula’s adoptive family is--and has always been--a mess. She’d recently undertaken a search for her birth mother (which didn’t sit well with said family). Her on-again/off-again rocker boyfriend--in and out of rehab with a history of drug abuse--is widely known for having a violent streak. Her friends seemingly knew only the Lula who could benefit them--the one who was famous and could boost their status, or who was ridiculously wealthy and footed the bills. Her new neighbors include a nasty movie director with a wandering eye and his unhappy, coked-up wife. Plus, there’s always the possibility of a stalker, some nutcase who’d set his/her sights on the supermodel. And, in the heat of the moment--passion, blinding rage, jealousy, an argument--anyone could’ve pushed the waif-like model over the slippery, snow-covered railing.  

As Bristow and his newly-acquired Girl Friday, Robin, traipse all over London trying to ferret out the truth from the lies--following trails that lead to the hippest nightclubs, chi-chi boutiques, high-fashion shoots, and a homeless shelter, populated by loopy designers and models, jaded rockstars, groupies, and junkies--the case becomes more than just a paycheck or a puzzle; they want to solve it for her, Lula... to put the Cuckoo’s spirit to rest.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is that rare book that had me pinching myself (well, figuratively, at any rate) frequently, because it was Just.That.Good. (Of course, since Galbraith is JK Rowling’s--yes, of Harry Potter fame--pseudonym, that really shouldn’t come as any surprise. Also not, seeing as how much I loved her first post-HP work, The Casual Vacancy [see review here].) 

What Galbraith/Rowling does so brilliantly is make every character important, and interesting. With a flair for observing and describing the smallest things that cause each scene to spring to life--whether hilarious, poignant, or thought-provoking--she ensures that every word and every nuance matters... and that, to readers, is a rare delight.

I also don’t think it’s possible to not like Cormoran Strike--as multi-layered (and on occasion, nearly as tear-inducing) as an onion, that one--or his fabulous (and brainy, kind, funny, relatable) sidekick, Robin. Theirs is a working partnership I cannot wait to see again. Soon

The Cuckoo’s Calling is one of the best things I’ve read recently--as a mystery/suspense, and as pure entertainment. Really... this one’s awesome. :)    

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: ALL the mousies, period

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Murder in Michigan... Broken Hearts & Dreams, Buried in Ice

“Growing up” means different things depending on what stage you’re at in life. To kids, it usually symbolizes forbidden fun--namely, whatever it is they’re currently not allowed to do. As an adult, though, it takes on rather an opposite, somewhat-ominous meaning--a mantle of responsibility resting on one’s shoulders, complete with obligations, choices, and repercussions.

A little growth is actually nice to see in a character--be it book, TV, or movie--in the “yeah, this stuff happens to us all” sense; no one goes through life without it changing them, and it’s good to have that reflected in the characters we follow (particularly in an ongoing series). 

Yet, for whatever reasons, a lot of times we don’t really see much of it... which is why it really struck me in P.J. Parrish’s latest mystery, Heart of Ice, featuring private eye Louis Kincaid.

Louis is at an interesting place in his life: after a tumultuous childhood spent in the foster care system, he grew up and became a cop... only to watch his career get flushed down the toilet (after doing the “right” thing around a corrupt superior officer). Following that debacle, he picked up stakes and left Michigan for Florida, where he’s been a beach-bum-cum-sometimes-detective ever since. He has a shack on the beach where he ponders the mysteries of life, gets depressed, drinks too much, and works a case now and then, whenever one stumbles his way (which isn’t often). 

Heart of Ice finds him doing something a little different, though; he’s on a short vacation... with a dual purpose. First, he’s meeting up with the ten-year-old daughter he’s only recently discovered--the result of a brief relationship back in college--to hopefully forge a connection with her (something of which he’s in short supply). He also wants to re-establish his relationship with Joe Frye, the on-again/off-again girlfriend he met in Florida, who’s since returned to upper Michigan where she’s sheriff of a small town.

Nothing goes as planned, of course (but seriously, when does it ever, for anyone?). While he and daughter Lily are exploring quaint Mackinac Island, Lily lands on--literally--a human female skeleton, when she sneaks into a boarded-up mansion and falls through some rotten floorboards. Once the local police have been notified--and it’s clear to Louis that the sheriff has no clue how to handle what looks to be an awfully cold case (since the skeleton is just that, instead of a body), and a more-than-usually-difficult one, at that (given the skeleton happens to be missing its skull and any trace of clothing, implying something other than an accident)--Louis agrees to postpone his visit to Joe for a few days, to remain on the island and offer his assistance. (The fact that Lily isn’t horrified--but instead deeply saddened by the thought of the skeleton all alone--and that she pleads with Louis to help reunite the bones with the woman’s family, plays a not-insignificant role in his decision, as well.)

After arranging for Lily’s mother to pick her up early and seeing her off, Louis gets down to the business of investigating--something with which he’s quite comfortable. What he isn’t nearly so sanguine about is the arrival of a gruff, thoroughly-unlikable state investigator--one who just so happens to have a less-than-happy history with Joe, from several years earlier--who insists on taking the lead in the case (and dissing both Louis and the local sheriff at every turn).

It’s not long before the two men are forced to come to an uneasy truce, however, when clues lead them to suspicions which neither man is comfortable having. Could the bones belong to Julie Chapman--a wealthy girl who summered on the island with her family (then subsequently went missing) some twenty-plus years ago... and whose older brother is now running for Congress? What secrets did she hold... and if the bones are hers, why would someone have wanted such a shy, harmless, teenage girl dead?

When the sheriff is shot during the course of questioning area residents, and the shooter seems to have a very good reason for being a little... trigger-happy, the men assume they’ve found the guilty party. The more they dig, though, and the more tangled truths and dirty little secrets they uncover, the less they realize they understand...

As I said earlier, what stuck most with me while reading Heart of Ice was what a turning point this is for Louis. Rather than shying away from familial ties, here he is, trying to make a go of it with his daughter. The same is true of his relationship with Joe; Louis goes to see her with the express goal of taking things to the next level, because he’s realized that something is missing from his present life.

This also marks a change in Louis‘ professional aspirations; between the last book and this one, he has actively been pursuing the chance to get his badge back (albeit in Florida), no longer satisfied with moping away in the house on the beach (and working only whenever something falls into his lap or he needs some cash). 

Every Louis book that Parrish (actually two sisters, writing jointly) has put out has been a treat, and Heart of Ice is no exception. What’s so cool about this one, though, is that besides a really good mystery, great writing, and interesting characters, we get to witness an evolution... and to wonder about what lies ahead. Hard to top that. :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Well-chilled Mousies

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Vengeance, Bruges-Style

It’s not something we tend to brag about, but most of us do, at some point, crave a little spot of revenge. (Whether or not we ever act on that desire is another matter entirely.)

The catch is, there really isn’t much in the way of well-established guidelines out there to help us accomplish it (should the urge get the better of us, that is). About all we’ve got are the immortal words of Khan*, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Yes, I know that others have said it before, but hey, this is my frame of reference.) And, whether we take that to mean vengeance should only be sought once we can maintain a certain emotional detachment, or that retribution is most effective after a period of time has elapsed, one thing is clear: it should never be doled out immediately... not if either party is to feel the full force of said payback.      

In The Square of Revenge, Belgian author Pieter Aspe serves up a very, very cold dish of revenge... with second and third helpings, even.

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Jewelry stores may not get burgled every day, but it’s certainly not an unheard-of crime. What we’re not accustomed to is a heist in which nary a single glitzy bauble gets carted off. (If not to grab all the gold and jewels you could get your hands on, why go to all the effort of breaking in?)

Such appears to be the case, however, at Ludovic Degroof’s exclusive shop located in the heart of Bruges; the cops arrive at the scene only to find the jewelry safe has been blown open, yet not one valuable seems to be missing. Quite the contrary, in fact... with the most interesting--and baffling--aspect of the crime being where, precisely, everything is found: at the bottom of vats full of aqua regia, a corrosive mixture of hydrochloric and nitric acids capable of dissolving gold. The only clue--if it can be called that--left behind in the otherwise-empty safe, is a piece of paper with some sort of weird shape drawn on it.

Inspector Pieter Van In--the chain-smoking, hard-drinking, and well-seasoned detective unlucky enough to be lead investigator--doesn’t know what to make of anything, and neither does the ambitious young assistant district attorney, Hannelore Martens, who--uncharacteristically for someone in her position--shows up at the crime scene to help out. Clearly there must be a major grudge at play, but who, and why, and what on earth might’ve happened in the past to make this bizarre form of revenge somehow appropriate? (With a man as wealthy, influential, and politically-connected as the elderly Degroof, anything is possible, but still...)

When Degroof’s adult children start receiving messages--bearing the same archaic squiggles as the note found in the safe--Van In and Martens understand that the  reverse alchemy at the shop wasn’t a one-off, but rather the tip of the iceberg... and that something far worse is yet to come. 

From the picturesque charm of historic old Bruges, to the posh, über-wealthy neighborhoods inhabited by the Degroofs, to a spartan abbey--reportedly the most-strictly-cloistered in all of Europe, to tiny, rambling towns around the Belgian countryside, Van In and his new sidekick attempt to follow multiple trails of clues. As they let their suspicions guide them, they’re hyper-aware of the ticking of the clock--not only for their own careers, but for everyone involved. The case is a political hot potato, and an unhappy result would likely have Van In and Martens out on early retirements. Worse, the fate of Degroof’s grandson lies in the balance, after the boy is snatched and a most, well... unusual (remember the jewelry store?) ransom demand is made.

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The Square of Revenge is a good, old-fashioned detective mystery (a good thing). All the key elements are there: a perplexing crime, a determined detective (aided or hindered, as the case may be, by his associates), an innocent life in peril, plenty of secrets (which the concerned parties prefer would stay that way), misdirections aplenty, a few red herrings, a bad guy (with a believable axe to grind), and a suitably-twisty plot. 

The backbone of the story, naturally, is Pieter Van In, a complex guy--likable and oh-so-imperfect--and it’s fun meeting him in this, the first of Aspe’s novels to be translated into English. (The series has been ongoing for some time, now, so hopefully all the books which follow will also be translated.) Van In is smart, but his real talent lies in his intuitive powers; he comes to his knowledge as much through mulling things over as by grilling suspects and the like. He has a good sense of humor, which plays well when he’s among friends, and a surprising awkwardness around women, which plays out amusingly around the beautiful, self-assured Hannelore. His relationships with these and other co-workers hint at shared pasts and things to come, and keep the story--and the series--moving forward.

And then, there are the delights of the unusual setting; it isn’t often one reads a book that takes place in Belgium, but Aspe provides enough color to let both the city (Bruges) and the country really come alive. 

The Square of Revenge is a great summer read, whether you’re ensconced in a lounge chair, an airplane seat, on a park bench, or sprawled in front of your air conditioner... but don’t worry if it doesn’t happen to be summer where you are; this one will be fun any time of year.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Mysterious Mousies!

*That would be Khan the Klingon (memorably embodied by Ricardo Montalban), in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Yep, I’m a nerd... and I’m fine with that.)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Foibles & Bits of Foolery: A Yank Takes on Merry Old England... and Learns to Fit In

Like a lot of people, I enjoy travel. Not so much the getting-there part, mind you (which, in my experience, involves enduring either too much mind- and posterior-numbing time on an uncomfortable car seat while watching a whole lot of nothing pass by, or a killer-migraine-inducing flight during which I’m forced to toy with the question of what good the seat-cushion flotation device would really do me, were we to unexpectedly make a hard landing in Farmer Johnson’s wheat field--or for that matter, even in a semi-handy body of water, seeing as how I can’t swim), but the being-there part--provided there’s plenty to see, do, and experience--is pretty swell.

Actually finding the time and opportunity to do much traveling has always been a challenge, though, what with trying to juggle work and other responsibilities. (And perversely, all the interconnectedness we have at our disposal today only makes matters worse, not better; it’s impossible to truly “get away from it all” when anyone can--and most assuredly will--reach you at any ol’ inconvenient time.)

It’s not much of a stretch, then, to say that a considerable amount of travel is done vicariously. We read books set elsewhere, avidly soaking up the author’s descriptions of exotic (or at least different) places; we watch movies showing far-off locales with wide-eyed wonder. (Okay, perhaps you don’t, but I do.)  

One thing I don’t regularly do much of, though, is read travel books. Sure, if I’m planning that rare trip to wherever, I’ll scour the bookstore for all the helpful guides and insiders’ tomes of tips I can get my hands on, but as a general rule, they’re never my standard reading fare. (Maybe because such books would serve as more of a downer than means of enlightenment, if travel were indeed not imminent...)

Nonetheless, after spying Michael Harling’s Postcards from across the Pond, there was no way it wasn’t going straight into my shopping basket. Such an irresistible premise: an American expat (who moves for love rather than for some dodgy financial finagling or quasi-political reason) finds himself uprooted and replanted on the other side of “The Pond”, to a place that--despite a so-called common language--quite often seems to be like a whole ‘nother world.

Happily, it delivers. Written in a breezy, “postcard”-style (although none of the pieces could, technically, come even close to fitting on a postcard in the most cramped of handwriting), Harling’s essays-in-miniature describe in no small detail the various quirks, oddities, and other interesting bits and bobs he’s encountered whilst going about his daily life since undertaking his own personal sea change several years ago.

What makes the assortment of ramblings in Postcards from across The Pond so refreshing is Harling’s own good-naturedness. Even when regaling us with something that must have been monumentally frustrating at the time (for instance, coping with a bus system that frequently--and without any warning or explanation whatsoever--neglects to show up at its designated spots to pick up the expectant passengers, who, in turn, might wait hours for naught), he manages to find considerable humor in the situation... and often at his own expense (why he’s so befuddled with the system, while the rest of the country just goes about with business as usual). 

More than serving as an amusing travelogue, highlighting all the memorable (and not-so) places he’s been, Postcards from across The Pond  is, at heart, a fish-out-of-water tale. Equal fun is made of customs, attitudes, and habits on both sides of the Atlantic (but never in a mean-spirited or petty way) from someone who’s experienced both; Harling simply recounts what he sees and observes the differences (often, to great comedic effect). From holidays and customs (Easter? not remotely the same thing in England as it is in the States) to the scale of things (the minuteness of English cars, household appliances, and stores, compared to the mega-size everything he grew up with) to being surrounded by the ubiquitous British passion for football (which is known as soccer only to the Americans), he covers the stuff you’ve probably always wondered about--but didn’t necessarily realize you did--than the info commonly provided in all those guidebooks.

Full of laugh-out-loud funny bits, wistful asides, and charming observations, Postcards from across The Pond is a thoroughly-delightful read, offering something for (nearly)everyone... not just the hardcore Anglophiles or those of us merely longing to set foot on English soil someday. (At least now I'll know what to expect--or not--from the bus system. Also, to say, "Sorry..." rather than "Excuse me..." when someone's in my way. I'm still not trying blood pudding or haggis, though.)