Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Yellow Brick Road is a Twisty One... with Potholes, Bumps, & Thrill-Hills

As a general rule, I’m not big on grab bags. Those mystery collections of whatevers, thrown in a bag or box for one low price, have just never panned out for me. (Like, if I really needed four identical XXS aqua t-shirts decorated with a wolf scene and one XXXL maroon tee emblazoned with a box of cartoon french fries, all for only $7.95, I’d be set, but... yeah, not so much.) 

That thinking carries over to my attitude toward most anthologies, too. How many times have I shelled out a decent chunk of change for a tome of short stories penned by an assortment of authors... only to really like only one, or maybe two, of them? (More times than I care to admit, actually.)

Still, sometimes it can’t be helped; either that’s the only way to read a special one-off by a favorite author, or else the whole thing just sounds like a can’t-miss, must-have... as in the case of Oz Reimagined (edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen), a compilation of fifteen stories from the minds of several modern fantasy authors (most of whom I wasn’t that familiar with), each taking his or her turn adding to L. Frank Baum’s lore.

Oz Reimagined is a mixed bag, to be sure, but--much like those grab bags mentioned earlier--it’s as full of moderately-interesting tales as it is utter schlock. Fortunately, though, there are also a few diamonds (hmm, make that emeralds, since this is Oz we’re talking about) thrown in for good measure.

Things get off to a great start with “The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz”, depicting Oscar-the-evil-Wizard-of-Oz’s arrival in the Emerald City and subsequent rise to power. Entertaining, amusing, and clever, this is how a short story should be done.

Seanan McGuire’s entry, “Emerald to Emerald, Dust to Dust”, is quite enjoyable, as well.  Dorothy is all grown up, a take-no-crap Wicked Witch of the West in a considerably-more-grimly-urban Oz than Baum originally created. (She’s a lesbian, to boot, which--while I love the idea of that--is also my one issue with the story; the mere fact that she’s gay is repeated, a lot, for no apparent reason.) Still, overall a really well-done story, and one that could easily be expanded into a whole book.

“Lost Girls of Oz” holds up fine as a complete short story, giving us an eager young journalist who sets out on her own to investigate the disappearances of several young, abused girls... who’ve been rescued/spirited away to join Ozma’s Army in Oz. It’s a girl-power story, pure and simple, and interesting as such.

Things go downhill with “The Boy Detective of Oz”, in which both the land of Oz and the hero of the story--a young man named Orlando--are virtual entities inside a computer game. (I’m guessing this will appeal to gamers more than it did to me.) A let-down.

Unfortunately, the downward spiral continues... “Dorothy Dreams” involves a Dorothy who dreams she’s a very old invalid in a nursing home. It changes key elements from Baum’s books and is just plain bad. Then, in “Dead Blue”, Dorothy accesses memories from the Cloud so that she can kill the Wicked Witch of the West and take over her rule. (Or something like that. Really, really disliked this one.)

Definitely the award for most-disturbing/depressing entry, though, goes to “One Flew Over the Rainbow”, which puts troubled “Crow”, even-more-troubled “Tin-Girl”, slow “Roar, and a punk Dorothy together in a mental institution, run by (wait for it) the “Wicked Bitch of the West (Wing)”. Not content leaving it at that, the author throws in scenes of violence, self-mutilation, and rape. This one left me feeling deeply sad and more than a little empty by the end.

Fortunately, things improve--a lot--with “The Veiled Shanghai”, a clever tale of young, Chinese Dorothy Ghee, who gets swept away to an alternate Shanghai during the protests of 1919, where she (and the companions she picks up along the way) must seek out the politically-exiled Wizard in hopes of overthrowing the Wicked Warlord of the West, Emperor Yuan Shikai, and returning power to the people (as well as herself to her own Shanghai). Fascinating and real historical setting make this one a winner.

Also immensely entertaining is “Beyond the Naked Eye”, in which Dorothy and friends are the final contestants in a “Hunger Games”-style reality show, while a small group of dissidents work behind the scenes to oust the evil Wizard who created the show. (The fact that the story revolves around the thoughts and actions of a jeweler, rather than any of the characters we know, is very cool.) One of my favorites in the collection.

“A Tornado of Dorothys” is easily forgettable (though not entirely awful); Oz isn’t just a moment in time, but a place that continues in perpetuity and, as such, requires new Dorothys once the previous ones have served their purpose.

Rather-more memorable is “Blown Away”, which tells the story of Dorothy’s disappearance in the fabled twister from an unusual perspective: that of one of the farmhands. Seeing what happens to the family and friends after she’s gone--then how everyone reacts when she reappears years later--is interesting. 

“City so Bright” is equally unexpected, dealing with none of the characters with whom we’re familiar, but instead with the land of Oz, itself, during the Industrial Revolution. The residents work in abominable conditions--unsafe, barely able to eke out a meager living--and some of them dream about rebelling. (This one is a disappointment only in that it leaves me wanting more, since the abrupt ending doesn’t answer enough questions.)

In “Off to See the Emperor”, a young Dotty makes friends with an even-younger (and very, very smart) little boy, Frank Baum, and takes him along with her on a quest to Oz to find her mother’s stolen wedding ring. This is a wonderful story--definitely true to the spirit of the originals--and quite clever in showing how L. Frank Baum eventually writes his famous stories. Nice.

Back to being disappointed with “A Meeting in Oz”, though, as an embittered, middle-aged Dorothy--whose life on returning to Kansas has been anything but magical--visits Oz one final time, to have it out with the elderly Wizard who did her wrong. The synchronicity between Dorothy’s life and simultaneous events in Oz could have been interesting, but overall this story just doesn’t satisfy. Meh.
And then, there’s the final entry in the anthology... the one that makes slogging my way through the lesser--and, in some cases, the truly dreadful--ones tolerable. In “The Cobbler of Oz”, a little winged monkey girl goes to see a cobbler about making her some traveling shoes... and winds up with so much more than she ever could have hoped or dreamed. This one’s an honest-to-goodness fairy tale, from beginning to end... the perfect essence of magic, goodness, hope, sadness, poignancy, and oh, so many wonderful things. My favorite, by far.

It took me a ridiculously-long time to get through Oz Reimagined (partly because I’ve been busy, partly because my focus is sort of not-there, and partly because the bad stories really didn’t make me want to continue), but on the whole, I definitely recommend this to anyone who ever lost her- or himself in the magical world of Oz. There may be some dirt clods and fakes lurking among the gems in Oz Reimagined... but gems there are. :)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Luck be a... Kitty

Crazy-busy here (so no new reviews yet), but here's a little Luck o' the Irish to tide you over...
You feel luckier already, don't you? ;)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The New Normal: A Bear, a Mini, & Three Dead Publicans

Picture, if you will, the bucolic English countryside... traveling along a narrow road as it wends its way along verdant hills and valleys... making the occasional detour through a small, picturesque village--the sort comprised entirely of quaint buildings and... well, let’s go with interesting townsfolk, shall we? It’s all quite lovely, really.  

Ah, but something vital is missing from this picture. What’s that, you say? Why, a murder, of course! (I’ve never figured out exactly why these charming little places are such hotbeds of murder most foul, but they clearly are, as anyone up on his/her Agatha Christie--or the works of any number of other British authors, not to mention rather a lot of TV shows--can attest.) So, then... let’s say we also happen to have a recent murder to pique our avid curiosities. Surely now the stage is set, yes?   

Well, not quite... at least, not in this case. The final piece of our tableau involves a bear, you see... and not just any old bear, but a teddy bear. Erm, make that a talking (also driving, employed, and somewhat-irritable) teddy bear (yes, really, so kindly lower those eyebrows!), positioned as the main character in author Mitzi Szereto’s--and writing buddy Teddy Tedaloo’s--delightfully-quirky spin on the traditional cozy mystery, Normal for Norfolk

Far from the madding crowds of London... that’s where intrepid photojournalist Thelonious T. Bear wants to be, so when opportunity--in the guise of a magazine job searching for the “real England”--knocks on his door, Thelonious gladly up and vacates his apartment and sets off across the English countryside in his Union Jack-emblazoned Mini. 

His destination of choice is Norfolk County, an area famously-eccentric enough to have its own phrase--”Normal for Norfolk”--bandied all over England. (What counts as “normal” there would apparently be considered quite odd, elsewhere.) It all sounds like a dream come true to our hustle-and-bustle-weary hero, and he arrives in the village he’s chosen as his base of operations fully expecting to be won over by the environs. 

There, however, is the rub... for what he finds shortly after setting himself up in the town’s only bed-and-breakfast isn’t the idyllic setting he’d envisioned, but a place in a tizzy over the recent murder of a much-liked pub owner. Murders just don’t happen there, the Norfolk residents keep repeating (rather erroneously, since one just did), leaving Thelonious wondering what he’s placed his trainer-clad paws into by taking on this assignment--especially once the county constabulary (in the rotund form of one Detective Chief Inspector Horatio Sidebottom) decides to set his sights solely on the ursine newcomer. 

Not one to be deterred from his dream, however, Thelonious sets about his original mission of finding genuinely English things to document photographically, as well as his secondary goal of hopefully fitting in (better than he ever felt he did in the big city).

Just when it seems like he’s getting somewhere, though, Thelonious stumbles on another murder, in a neighboring village... and then another one, in yet another Norfolk town, shortly after that. And, as fate would have it, who should be nearby each time to spot the hapless bear looking around nervously, but the increasingly-suspicious Inspector Sidebottom.

As Thelonious copes with things not squaring with his idea of life in Norfolk--shocking murders, a female innkeeper with a wandering eye (who very much seems to like what she sees in her favorite guest, Mr. Bear), an Audi that keeps barely missing him in the narrow streets, and the unwelcome arrival of trendy (and oh-so-London-y) “gastro-pubs”--plus a few things that really are just what he’d hoped--picturesque surroundings and a lot of lovable oddballs down at the local pub--he has to worry... who will be next to die, and will he end up being blamed for it?

Having poured over the entire Paddington Bear series at my local library as a wee girl (seriously, I adored that little bush-hat-&-duffle-coat-wearing bear), I pretty much had to read Normal for Norfolk when it came across my path. (Not that I actually knew what to expect... sort of a Paddington-all-grown-up thing, perhaps?) 

Thelonious T. Bear could be a relative of that other bear’s, I suppose... but one with a very different outlook on life. He drinks, swears, and gets testy (not always at the same time), and has a smart mouth--which he only sometimes manages to stifle. (You know those classic, hard-nosed private dicks? He’s like that... only smaller, furrier, and armed with camera equipment instead of a gun and pack of cigarettes.) He is, of course, small in stature, but like other “little people”, he’s tired of living in a world designed for much-larger beings--and royally fed up to the tippy-top of his beloved deerstalker hat at being made sport of by both children and adults. He may be an adorable (to his chagrin) teddy, but he’s also a smart, capable one--a contributing, tax-paying member of society, even--who just wants the same as everyone else: respect, friendship, some creature comforts, and happiness.

Did it matter that I figured out the who-(and why-)dunnit early on in the story? Not a bit; the fun--as with most cozies, in my experience--isn’t so much in waiting for a big denouement, but in savoring the journey to get there. 

I’m looking forward to Thelonious’ next big adventure... because after Normal for Norfolk, you just know there’s gotta be more to come. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  As much fun as a catnip-stuffed teddy has a right to be

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Family Feuds... and the Family You Choose

The world is full of things we know about... and things about which we know jack. For instance, I know a lot about cats, a respectable amount about fitness, and next-to-nothing about, oh, wild boars. Or jai alai. (Or how to chop an onion into neat little pieces rather than hideously mangling it, but that’s another story.) 

For the most part, it’s okay not understanding everything; I’m fine with my ignorance of meaner-than-snot hogs and weird handball offshoots (although I do secretly envy those who’ve mastered slicing-and-dicing).  

Now, let’s take monsters. They’re everywhere (remember the bogeyman who slithered from your closet to under your bed in the dark every night? or the Tooth Fairy, who only left you money when you placed your sacrifice--a bloody tooth--under your pillow?), but given that most people allow themselves to forget about all the things that go bump in the night once they’re adults, our knowledge of monsters is sadly lacking. 

That’s where cryptozoologists come in; they’re the studiers of all things cryptid (a fancy-pants word for monster)... scientists whose expertise lies in knowing about what lurks in dark corners, hides in nooks and crannies, and occasionally passes itself off as being just like you and me.

Problem is, the majority of “us” aren’t really ready to know about “them”... which is one reason why cryptozoologist Verity Price (hailing--as we learned last year in Seanan McGuire’s new-Urban-Fantasy-series-debut-with-a-bullet Discount Armageddon [see my review here if you haven’t read it!]--from a very long line of cryptozoologists) doesn’t publish the results of her work in scientific journals or go on any talk shows, but rather, keeps it all on the down-low.

But, it’s the other reason for her clandestine work--the ancient European order of cryptid hunters known as the Covenant, who are out to exterminate not only all monsters from the face of the earth, but her own family, as well--that’s keeping Verity on her toes (well, that and the competitive Latin ballroom dancing she tries to squeeze in whenever possible)... and never more so than in this year’s sequel(-with-a-dozen-sheathed-knives), Midnight Blue-light Special.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

After successfully managing to extricate herself and several cryptid friends from being made sacrifice to the last known male dragon living (that would be William, currently residing in the bowels of NYC’s somewhat-less-than-salubrious underground) by his nearly-unstoppable army of fertile females, things have been going almost swimmingly for Verity. She’s been maintaining the peace around the city, and has added “choreographer” to her list of duties at the now-trendy-ish T&A bar (newly-dubbed the Freakshow) where she still works in order to pay the bills. Even her love life has seen a little upswing, as she counts Dominic (conflicted Covenant agent on assignment in the States) her on-again, off-again boyfriend. (The only thing not going so well is her ballroom dancing, for which she just can’t find enough time.)

Everything changes when a freaked-out Dominic tells her he has some bad news. It seems a contingent from Covenant HQ has planned a little trip to the Big Apple to check up on his progress... and their arrival is imminent. 

The problem (in case you haven’t guessed) is that Dominic has fudged all of his reports to the home office; he claims to be busy ridding the city left and right of evil cryptids (which, if you’re Covenant, means ALL cryptids), when the opposite is true. His superiors won’t be pleased (to put it mildly). Worse, the fate of every monster who’s made NYC home will be at stake, because when the Covenant comes to town, they follow a strict policy of slash-&-burn, kill-on-sight-until-dead.

Even though Dominic gave her the heads up, part of Verity can’t help but wonder if he’s really on her side, or if it’s all an elaborate act... or how long he’ll be able to last once the Covenant learns the truth. 

With less than twenty-four hours before the apocalypse shows up--and no way to get everyone safely out of Dodge by then--Verity, her cryptid cousin Sarah, and her friends (adopted family, really) at the Freakshow and around town go to ground and settle in for what promises to be an epic fight (as all battles with evil hate-mongers tend to be).

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~

Whether writing under her own name or the pseudonym Mira Grant, common themes prevail in McGuire’s works: family (and the knowledge that blood or marriage aren’t guaranteed be-all, end-alls when it comes to same) versus the “family” of friends you cobble together along the road of life; coming to terms with differences; knowing when to stand up for something (regardless of how many or few are on your side); and accepting that you’re not an island, that sometimes you need a little help. Simple ideas? Perhaps... yet their execution never fails to strike a chord, make my heart race, and suck me in, as I hold my breath (cross my fingers, send good vibes out into the universe, etc.) for a good outcome. (And no, there isn’t always one, because that’s not life... and life, at the core, is what McGuire writes about... she just peppers it with pretty fairy wings, snarling teeth and stiletto-like claws, tricky sea creatures, Cats who will be King, devoutly-religious mice, and a zombie or three.)  

Midnight Blue-light Special isn’t just another hold-your-breath-and-jump-off-the-ledge, free-running thrill ride (with dragons! bogeymen! and more!), but is something that grabs you by the guts and puts you through the wringer... while never losing touch with your brain or your heart. With some surprising twists along the way--plus a very clever ending--it just doesn’t get much better than this. Or, as Verity’s delightful Aeslin mice might say, “HAIL! HAIL THE BRILLIANCE OF THE AUTHORIAL PRIESTESS!”. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  ALL the Mousies

Note: Midnight Blue-Light Special is set to release March 5, 2013...