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Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Stroll with Absurdity, Obsession, & Madness for Companions


Anyone who’s ever been in the market for a house--and almost certainly balked at the exorbitant asking prices--has doubtless been treated to the same tired bit of “wisdom” from his or her desperately-earnest realtor: “Well, yes... but what you’re really paying for is the neighborhood!” (as if that somehow makes x-ridiculous-amount more feasible, more doable).

In reality, what the homeowner or renter usually finds is something rather different--that there’s no such thing as a problem-free property, regardless of the neighborhood. (Whether it’s an HVAC or plumbing issue, an appliance on the blink, a leaky roof, a flooded basement, termites or other pesky bugs, obnoxious neighbors, or whatever, there’s always something going wrong or otherwise making life in one’s domicile less-than-peachy-keen.)

That being the case, it may not seem that following a cross-segment of ordinary people, going about their everyday lives, could be so fascinating... yet in crime fiction and suspense writer Ruth Rendell’s capable hands it is, in Portobello.

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Although shoppers and tourists alike have long been drawn to the quaint little shops and outdoor market stalls snaking along the portion of Portobello Road which runs through London’s Notting Hill, the locals tend to see it somewhat differently. To them, it’s nothing special, simply the place down the road where they’ve always gone to buy their sundries. Instead (and generally true no matter where one lives, when it comes down to it), it is the wide variety of people within the neighborhood, and the lives they lead, which make the area so intriguing... particularly when a series of innocuous events can (and do) lead to some surprising twists and turns.

En route to his chichi art gallery one morning, prim-and-proper Eugene Wren spies an envelope in the street and picks it up, planning to toss in the nearest bin. What he assumes is just another piece of litter, though, turns out to be holding a thick wad of bills, £115 in total. Not being the sort of chap to consider even for a moment keeping the money for himself (being plenty wealthy already as well as an honest chap, by nature), nor particularly wanting to trouble the police with the matter, Eugene devises what he’s convinced is a clever scheme to locate the money’s no-doubt frantic owner. He prints out a set of fliers, stating that an unnamed but substantial sum of cash has been found, lists his contact number, then proceeds to post the fliers all over the neighborhood. His great plan? To give the money only to the person able to correctly identify the exact amount missing. (His girlfriend, Dr. Ella Cotswold--who longs for nothing so much as a proposal from the fastidious and thoughtful gallery owner--fails to dissuade him from carrying out the plan which she feels is, at best, a questionable one.)

Over the course of the next few weeks, several people from the vicinity--some connected in a fashion to the money and others not--find their ways in and out of Eugene and Ella’s lives (and occasionally, their homes and places of business)... with varying consequences. Among them are young Lance Platt, on the dole (primarily by choice) his whole life, an aimless lad who wanders through Eugene’s posh neighborhood looking for houses easy to break into (a feat in itself, given his bungling proficiency as a thief); the widower Uncle “Gib” Gibson, a former burglar (now reformed from his life of crime and turned instead to bible-thumping), who grudgingly allows his ne’er-do-well nephew Lance to stay with him in his old Victorian home--a place which Gib is convinced is quite an investment (utterly blind to its wretched decrepitude compared to the renovated, now-posh homes all around him)--just a few streets over; the beautiful Gemma, Lance’s ex-girlfriend, who has since moved on to a new fellow (though she still harbors a few tender feelings for Lance), and whose flat lies somewhere in between the older men’s homes; and the strange Joel Roseman, a young man who rarely goes out, preferring to swan around the large old house--formerly owned by a fusty old lady (and still decorated according to her tastes)--which his estranged father rents for him, in near-total darkness, while trying to block memories of past tragedy from his mind.

As their paths (as well as those of a few tertiary players) intersect at various points, it becomes clear that it is really the characters’ inner thoughts and, particularly, inner demons, which are so compelling. Whether it’s one person’s desperate desire for belonging, another’s shameful (and surprising) addiction, the emergence of a split personality, an unhealthy jealousy rearing its ugly head, or someone’s deviously-scheming nature, the inner battles fought and won (or lost) hold the keys to everything that happens in Portobello.

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Portobello is a complex yet basically quiet tale; major events take place against a mostly-calm (though frequently-colorful) backdrop. There is little mystery involved, and what suspense there is builds slowly. As much of the “action” takes place internally as externally; this is a story in which the payoff is found in observing the small, incremental changes within the characters and how their lives unfold, rather than in a big, shocking finale.

This is quintessential Rendell, with her usual flair for portraying that which is visible on the surface as well as laying bare the secrets which lie beneath. Wonderfully subtle and thoroughly engrossing, Portobello is psychological suspense at its elegant prime.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  3.75 of 5 fascinating mousies

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Case of the Corpulent Copper and the Steampunk Ballet


After reading a goodly smattering of Steampunk, it seems to me there are two basic approaches to the genre: one, as a full-on fantasy (set in the Victorian era), with little technical and scientific elements providing an interesting spark to the proceedings; and the other, as straight-up sci-fi, with fantastical bits and bobs adding a delightful touch of whimsy.

Both styles are enjoyable, and the fact that each caters to a different mood--one, sort of dreamy and otherworldly, and the other, more grounded in reality (albeit an alternate one)--is cool. But, even better is when something unexpected is thrown into the standard mix, beyond just the de rigueur steam-powered this and mechanized that. Things tend to get really interesting when that happens... as in the case of Nathan L. Yocum’s Steampunk/detective mystery/action yarn, Automatic Woman

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Jacob “Jolly” Fellows is hardly your typical hero. A great, hulking bear of a man--one nearly as big around as he is tall--with the face of an oft-punched boxer, Jolly looks like what he is: a professional bruiser. In this instance the job is completely on the up-and-up, though, since London’s well-known Bow Street Firm employs him as one of their specialized “thief catchers”. A barricaded door needs busted open, or a suspect roughed up a bit to be persuaded to talk? Jolly’s the man for the job.

We catch up with Jolly as he’s beginning his latest assignment, helping one Dr. Saxon (as mad a scientist as there ever was) track down a valuable item which has been stolen from him. The purloined piece? A life-size, mechanized robot... but not just any robot, as Jolly is quick to realize (for such a thing would not normally be worth so much trouble in this steam-powered version of London, circa 1888). It seems there is true genius behind Dr. Saxon’s madness, and he has created not one, but a whole troupe of robots--ballerina robots, whose specialty is performing (always, curiously, for their audience of only one, the doctor) the entire Swan Lake ballet... and it is the prima ballerina--the Swan Princess, herself--which has been unceremoniously snatched from the doctor’s domicile.

Thinking the case to almost certainly be wrapped up within a matter of days--for what could a thief possibly do with such a one-of-a-kind item?--Jolly sets out on a quest for clues to the missing hunk of metal’s whereabouts. (It helps, of course, that in his line of work he’s made contacts everywhere; he knows the tavern owners, madams, fences, other assorted petty criminals, and any number of ordinary working folk... and they know him, and his brawn.)

Just when he thinks he’s nearly worked out the forces behind the dastardly deed, though, he has the misfortune to walk in on a murder in progress... and that’s when things suddenly take a detour into the strange. Jolly is knocked out during a fight at the crime scene, and when he comes to, finds that he is being held for the murder. Making matters worse, no one at the Bow Street Firm seems to believe him.

Help eventually comes along... but at a price. A wealthy dealer of arts and eccentricities (and a bit of a scientist himself) will pay Jolly’s bail, provided Jolly promises to locate the missing robotic ballerina (the titular “automatic woman”) and deliver her to his gallery. Seeing no alternatives--particularly not with everyone else set squarely against him--Jolly grudgingly agrees to the terms.

From that point, it’s a frantic chase around London and into the countryside, as Jolly tries to find the robot, figure out who was behind the murder (and why), and somehow clear his name at work (since the thought of being hung from the neck until dead holds little appeal)... all while being pursued by vicious, mysterious, gun-and-knife-wielding thugs wearing jungle-animal masks over their faces, trying to elude an angry pimp (and protect the woman who is the source of said pimp’s ire), and deal with the demands of one additional (and unexpected) entry into the fray. (No, I shan’t tell you who this mysterious character is--just that it’s a real-life historic figure, one who adds a very interesting perspective.)

Can the burly thief-catcher, always prized for his brawn rather than his brain, outrun a host of determined men younger, faster, and better-armed than he... without the loss of more innocent lives... in order to catch a clever killer? That is, indeed, the question.

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As mentioned earlier, Automatic Woman was a delightful surprise for me, with its seamless blending of genres. It’s one part gritty Steampunk (no ethereal stuff here), one part amped-up, Sherlock-Holmesian detective mystery caper, and one part raucous action romp through the squalid streets of Victorian London... with a little science and philosophy thrown in for kicks.

Another key reason it works so well? That’s down to Jolly, our fabulous, first-person storyteller... a man unapologetic about his appearance, without an ounce of remorse for his own brutality, and (mostly) unsentimental about the life he’s led and the choices he’s made. Right from the start, I had no trouble connecting with him--not because he’s familiar, but because he expresses himself with such candor and ease.

Automatic Woman is a highly-accessible read, whether you’re a historical-mystery aficionado, crazy for some Steampunk action, a police-detective-thriller buff, or all the above. :) 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  4.5 Mousies with Little Metal Bells