Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sex, Drugs, &... Shady Real-Estate Shenanigans, St. Louis-Style

A decade. An awful lot can happen in that length of time... as St. Louis lawyer Rachel Gold is well aware. A successful young attorney who’d finally branched out on her own after giving several years of her life to one of those big, multi-name firms, it seemed--for a time--like nothing could go wrong. She had a small but growing roster of clients, got to choose her own cases, and had a couple of close friends with whom to share the good times. She’d even fallen for a great guy who appreciated her... and wanted to put a ring on it. 

Flash forward ten years, and things have changed. Oh, business is thriving--she’s even made a partner out of her former secretary-cum-recently-minted lawyer, Jacki--and their clients are satisfied. Her legal professor-BFF, Benny, is still his robustly-raunchy (and riotously-funny) self. Her husband has been dead and buried for four years, though... leaving her with their young son, his two teenaged daughters from a previous marriage, and a huge, gaping hole in her heart.

That’s where we find Rachel Gold, attorney-at-law, in Michael A. Kahn’s latest--The Flinch Factor--after a too-long absence.

If there’s one thing most lawyers do not want to be a part of, it’s a case that’s a real lost cause... yet that’s precisely what Rachel’s mother has managed to get her embroiled in. Her clients are the residents of a small, modest-income neighborhood--two hundred houses in total--who just want to save their homes from being demolished by a greedy developer bent on erecting a high-dollar gated community of McMansions in their place. Unfortunately for them, the developer has a huge tax incentive (plus those mega-profits) on his side... and a shady (but technically-legal) set of parameters which he’s used to sway the city council in his favor. The almighty buck being what it is, legal precedent is not on Rachel and her clients’ side.

All is not quite lost, though, because clever Rachel has come up with an unorthodox strategy of her own: playing on the eccentricities of the judge who’s wound up with the case... a man so famously capricious in his courtroom that probably ninety-nine-percent of the lawyers set to appear before him seek a change of venue, so as to not have to deal with him. (The reason this case will be before the dreaded Judge Flinch? Because opposing council has already used their one request for change... and wound up with him through luck of the draw.) Rachel's grand plan is simply The Flinch Factor.

One loser-of-a-case would hardly keep the firm afloat, of course, so Rachel takes on a second one. (The fact that it’s likely as hopeless as the first? Chalk that up to love of the underdog and a good heart.) The hunkiest man to remodel homes, ever (according to the metro area’s female population, who unanimously agree he’s positively dreamy), has recently died a shocking--and ignominious--death. Found parked along a remote section of road popularly known as “Gay Way”, his pants undone and drug paraphernalia around him, Nick Moran’s death is immediately labeled by the police as an accidental overdose during a sexual encounter (despite the fact that no one previously suspected him of being gay or bisexual, or using drugs).

When Nick’s sister asks Rachel to look into the death--swearing that her brother was neither gay nor a druggie--Rachel agrees for one reason; Nick had remodeled part of her house a couple of years ago, and she’d really liked him. If taking another look at things would give his sister some peace--even if it turned out that Nick had kept some big, personal secrets--she was happy to do it.

The thing is, when Rachel starts investigating the circumstances of Nick’s death (and life), she becomes convinced that the police actually do have it wrong... and worse, that his death may have been a murder. The kicker, though, is when she receives threats; clearly, she’s on the right track, which is just where the killer doesn’t want her... and that just makes her more determined.

I’ve been a big fan of Kahn’s work since 1992, when the first Rachel Gold mystery--Grave Designs--debuted, so for me, The Flinch Factor is a welcome return (after a long ten-year hiatus following his last book, 2003’s Trophy Widow). Absent he may have been, but this eighth book is definitely worth the wait, full of Kahn’s trademark clever plotting, easy-on-the-ears phrasing, and fascinating twists and turns.

This is, above all, a character-driven series, and Kahn gives us some terrific ones. Rachel is smart, funny, and attractive (but without falling into the trap of being a caricature); she’s just a good person and easy to root for. (She’s also Jewish, which further sets her apart from the usual “type”.) BFF Benny plays the super-smart sidekick brilliantly, if surprisingly; he’s a crude, not-just-a-little-overweight guy (with highly-questionable fashion taste), who somehow manages to ooze sex appeal. Jacki, the new law partner, is a transgendered woman who has successfully made herself over from the ground up (she used to be a brawny male construction worker), and is fascinating as well as entertaining. (As for the eponymous Judge Flinch, new to this book, well, he’s just... something else. A fun character, who totally steals a couple of scenes.) 

There’s one additional recurring character to note--St. Louis, herself. Kahn does an excellent job of providing a real sense of the city, from the flavor of various neighborhoods to the atmosphere found in the lazily-sprawling suburbs, as well as doling out interesting tidbits of history and painting some fabulous visuals. A Rachel Gold story never feels like any other book (a tiring amount of which seem to be set in places like NYC or one of the major California cities); Kahn gives St. Louis, and her people, a voice... and it’s one I never tire of hearing.

Welcome back, Mr. Kahn. May you continue to be inspired... and please, not so long until the next one, huh?  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: All the Long-Awaited Mousies

[The Flinch Factor has a release date of June 4, 2013.]

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Bard, a Prostitute, a Soldier, & a Cat: Enticing Fantasy Shorts

It’s been a long time since I actually had a box of chocolates, but I remember looking at the just-unwrapped package with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation, because chances were just as good I’d select a yummy morsel (coconut creme, maybe) as a yucky one (like the dreaded cherry cordial). (And yeah, I know there are supposed to be certain shapes for the various flavors, but I never bothered memorizing them... hence all that uncertainty.) Anyway, the point is that not even the fear of biting into something I really dislike deterred me from enjoying my little box of choccies. 

So, when a friend recently gifted me with A Fantasy Medley 2, a collection of four short stories written by popular fantasy authors (and based in the worlds they’ve already created), I treated it the same way as those long-ago boxes of chocolates--with equal parts excitement and concern. And, although I’d previously only read one of the authors in the collection (we’ll call her my coconut creme), I kept an open mind about the other three; you just never know when you’re going to find a delightful treat.

~ / ~ / ~ / ~

The collection starts off with Tanya Huff’s “Quartered,” the tale of a young female bard, Evicka, who’s been tasked with spying on a married assassin couple in a remote corner of the kingdom. As she travels across the countryside, singing songs relaying history to the groups of people that she meets, she tries to pry gossip out of anyone who might know something of use to her (but with little success). Not until she finally reaches the assassins' small camp does she understand the truth: what her boss is actually afraid of, and how reality is similar to--and different from--it.

This story was the least effective to me, particularly as a standalone. While I finally got the gist of who--and, more importantly, what--the main characters were, after having read several pages in, it still felt like diving headfirst into the middle of something going full-stream... and me, without a life preserver. Bottom line, it’s an interesting story that didn’t feel entirely complete on either end.

Amanda Downum’s “Bone Garden” is the second tale in the collection. A young man who’d escaped a grim life of deprivation by moving to the big city and finding work as a part-time prostitute/part-time actor, finds himself unexpectedly drawn back into the world he’d fought to leave, when a cousin shows up out of the blue, needing his help... not to escape or for money, but to save the city’s lost children from a vengeful--and hungry--group of deadly spirits.

I found “Bone Garden” considerably more effective in this format; it no doubt complements Downum’s existing work (which I’m not familiar with), but also reads as a complete short story, and is quite good. 

Jasper Kent’s “The Sergeant and the General” is the third tale in the anthology. Told from two viewpoints--first, that of a medical student, then that of a soldier under Napoleon--we get the story in reverse of a man’s “golden years” in retirement and his stint of military service (which he is haunted by in his later years).

While I love the structure Kent used in telling his tale--I’m a sucker for non-sequential storytelling, every time--and found his characters and their story extremely compelling, this was also the hardest story, by far, for me to read. Why? Because I’m an animal lover, and, while retribution is eventually paid, there’s a horrendous scene of brutality that just about did me in. 

The reason I received this book, though, was for the final tale: Seanan McGuire’s “Rat-Catcher,” set many, many years ago in the October Daye series--specifically, in 17th-century London... where a young prince of a cat slips out of the Court of Cats as often as possible to visit the theater, his true passion. As the young cat finds a second (and kinder) home among the theater folk (who prize him for his pest-catching abilities and his affectionate purrs), trouble brews within the court and without... as a foretold scourge threatens to decimate all of London, both mortal and fae, and a cat must make a very big choice. 

As much as I’m enamored of the entire October Daye series, to date (click on “October Toby Day” over in the far-right column and see my reviews, if you’re new to the party and unaware of how very fond I am of these books), it shouldn’t be any surprise that this was my favorite tale from A Fantasy Medley 2. (Seriously, cats? I am so freakin’ IN!!) It’s also complete, easy to read (and impossible to put down)... and managed to twist my heart around inside-out via the emotional payoff. 

~ / ~ / ~ / ~

A Fantasy Medley 2 would be worth the price solely for the McGuire story, as far as I’m concerned... but it’s actually a nice little collection with not one, but four worthwhile reads. 

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Lovely Little Collection of Mousies

Monday, May 13, 2013

Poker Faces and Killer High Heels: Just Another Day in Sin City

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Sometimes, though, it makes total sense.

Take, for instance, Las Vegas-native Lucky O’Toole’s equal parts charmed and cursed life. [If you haven’t been a party to her various Sin City exploits yet, then by all means dash on over to my earlier reviews, here, and go from the bottom post up, before reading any further.] Recently promoted to Vice President of Customer Relations--a euphemism for Problem Fixer Extraordinaire, which entails at least as many headaches as it sounds like--at the esteemed Babylon hotel, Lucky still has no “life” to speak of (unless your idea of such means “all work”, in which case she has it in spades). She races around the hotel (often on a pair of highly-unsuitable stiletto heels) putting out fires at all hours of the night and day--placating the occasional less-than-happy guests, unruffling disgruntled employee feathers, and juggling the needs of the various contractors, vendors, and special guests at the myriad conventions hosted by the Babylon--all while signing a forest’s worth of paperwork each day and keeping tabs on security, housekeeping, maintenance, the casinos, and the restaurants.

And, sure, her parents--after thirty-plus years of living apart--may have finally gotten hitched, with her former-madam mom moving into the Babylon to live with her (only-recently-revealed) hotel-owning dad, but mom Mona’s been driving Lucky as crazy as ever with her kooky ideas and outrageous, innuendo-laden comments, and her father is still “The Big Boss” to everyone. (Oh, and the fact that her parents are about to be new parents again? Just adds to the normal level of crazy.)

Everything would be okay, though, if only her own love life wasn’t still on the lam. (Hard to imagine, but watching her honey choose a globe-trotting career entertaining people with his music over being with her sorta put the big kibosh on the whole romance thing.) And sure, there’s a handsome (if occasionally testy and frequently demanding) French chef in the wings, but he has plenty of baggage of his own, and Lucky’s pretty sure she’s had her share of that kind of baggage.      

So, yeah, Lucky’s seen and done it all before... or so she thinks, until an encounter in the wee hours of the morning makes her rethink everything--even contemplating the idea that maybe she can’t fix every problem--in Deborah Coonts’ Lucky Bastard.

♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

When her friend (slash former co-worker and wannabe lover) Paxton Dane summons her down to the Babylon’s on-site luxury car dealership at three in the morning, Lucky can’t imagine what’s up, but the urgency in Dane’s voice convinces her she’d better get down there, pronto. What--and who--he wants to show her, though, is beyond the need for any hurry. Under the lone spotlight, a new Ferrari makes slow revolutions on a dais... but instead of a spiffy hood ornament, this one sports a drop-dead gorgeous woman in a tiny party dress, lying spread-eagled across the hood. This isn’t part of some heavy metal video shoot or an interrupted lovers’ tryst, either, not since this unfortunate woman has the spiked end of a limited edition Jimmy Choo buried in her neck.

Making awful matters worse, Dane finally admits--after some intense grilling by a very annoyed Lucky--not only to knowing the dead woman, but to holding something of a grudge against her... a fact which Lucky’s favorite Metro P.D. contact, Detective Romeo, finds very interesting, although Dane insists that he didn’t hurt her. (Hey, if you’ve got a likely suspect in front of you, who are you gonna believe?)

Of course, it wouldn’t be Vegas if that were the only thing on Lucky’s plate. It’s also time for the final round of the annual Smack-Down Poker tournament--a mega-popular tourney drawing players, fans, groupies, and major media attention from around the world--which just so happens to be taking place at the Babylon.

Throw in the mysterious on-site murder of a (much-reviled) casino employee, the shocking death of a (much-loved) tourney participant, and a surprise attack on Lucky herself (during some of her not-entirely-sanctioned-but-who-cares investigating), and Lucky and company decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands and find a way to rid the Babylon of its latest pest-with-deadly-intent.

She can only hope that Dane is actually telling the truth about not being behind everything... and that she is up to the task of proving the same thing to the police.

♠ ♣ ♥ ♦

Much like a trip to Vegas--where everything that happens stays (according to their motto)--you can always count on Lucky-and-company’s escapades to provide some fun, flashy, escapist entertainment, which Lucky Bastard does. That’s only part of what continues to lure me in, though; just as fascinating to me are the glimpses of Sin City’s seedy underbelly--the very unglamorous places, where grit and cast-off things collect--and the behind-the-scenes peeks into how such a wildly engineered-for-outrageous-extravagance oasis of glitz and luxury functions day after day (something which these books have in abundance).

In the mood for a clever mystery served up with a splash of glam, a soupçon of witty repartee, and a little desert grime? Pick up Lucky Bastard; it’s a sure bet.

[Lucky Bastard will be released May 15, 2013.]  

Monday, May 6, 2013

Maidens and Dragons and... Steamy, Oh My!!

When your sweet tooth demands that you satisfy it (since all of us know a sweet tooth never asks politely, right?), the choices available to do so run the gamut... from something like the lowly vending machine Twinkies or bag of M&Ms (cheap and found everywhere), to fancy-schmancy wrapped bon-bons or an exquisitely-decorated cupcake (requiring a bit more searching and considerably more than the spare change jingling around in your pocket or the bottom of your bag). Either way, though, you’re unlikely to make a meal out of the sweet you’ve chosen; it’s small--a snack, something to have with tea or coffee, or for dessert--and eating too much would probably leave you with a tummy ache (yes, I do know about that first hand). 

The same principle applies to sex in books (or movies), as far as I’m concerned. A little nookie at the right time--meaning, where it makes sense in the story--is great... I just don’t want that to be all there is.

So why (you’re going to ask) did I pick up Thrones of Desire: Erotic Tales of Swords, Mist and Fire, a book whose title screams its lusty intentions? (Perfectly reasonable question, that.) 

There are a couple of reasons. First, while I don’t read erotica (those books that make a meal out of the naughty bits), I have some good friends who do, and it’s neat to be able to give them a recommendation (or a thumbs down) now and then. Plus, it's kind of fun stepping out of the ol' comfort zone. 

The main reason I gambled on Thrones of Desire, though, is right there in the title. (No, not “desire”, obviously, but “thrones”... referencing the sort of fantasy that’s ultra-popular right now, a la George R.R. Martin’s books and “Game of Thrones” series on TV.) I figure if I’m going to dive headfirst into a full-on bodice-ripping, member-throbbing extravaganza, then I at least want the background and setting to provide a little distraction from all the thrusting, eh?

So, without further ado...

✠ / ✠ / ✠ / ✠

Piers Anthony sets the stage with a rather brilliant (and, in places, side-splittingly hilarious) foreword, outlining the idea behind Thrones of Desire, which is to straddle the two extremes of traditionally male- and female-written erotica. In the past, men tended to write the down-and-dirty sex scenes, while women leaned more to the flowery (euphemism-heavy) versions, which led to male-penned books having a predominantly-male audience, while female-authored erotica appealed mostly to women. That meant little cross-over in readership--despite the fact that the subject matter, sex, is universal.

Editor (and author of one of the stories) Mitzi Szereto continues in the same vein with her introduction. The result of her work is fourteen tales--each set in a world of magic and legend, populated by beings ordinary and supernatural, with good battling evil (and everything in between), and copious interludes of hot, steamy copulation--with varied appeal. Have a revenge fantasy? You’ll find a doozy here. Perhaps the romantic, maiden-rescued-(or stolen)-by-a-handsome-stranger is more your thing? Present. Gay, lesbian, or bisexual interludes strike your fancy? No problem, this book has you covered. Prefer one-night stands? That's here, as well.

But, is the book a hit or a miss? Actually, it's both (but I can recommend more stories than not, so there's that). 

The ones I really dislike include a revenge fantasy--not my cuppa (although if you enjoy those women-in-prison-getting-revenge flicks, it may be right up your alley)--and one I found utterly boring (man persuading women’s army not to form a city, but to take him with them, instead? I just lost the plot with this one). 

Among the better ones, though, Janine Ashbless‘ “Of High Renown” involves a young woman compelled to play nursemaid to a gravely-injured warrior dropped off in her village, and is a sweet (and steamy) romance. Madeline Moore’s “In the Kingdom of Roz” depicts a young woman’s arranged-wedding day... which goes along as planned (including her Lady Godiva-esque trip toward town) until she gets kidnapped right off her horse by a startling captor. These are more of a traditional take on standard romance novel themes--kicking the eroticism meter up a few notches--and are nicely done.

My favorites, though, are the ones with the highest level of fantasy. Eric Del Carlo’s “Hot as a Dragon’s Blood” presents an interesting quandary: a skilled young dragonmaster--who happens to be gay, and therefore won’t be allowed by his homophobic tribe to fly his dragon into battle, after being outed--can either stand on the sidelines by his dragon, watching the upcoming action... or he can share his blood (or semen) with someone from another tribe, transferring the dragon bond from himself to another. (It’s a thoughtful tale with a neat premise.) Jo Wu’s “Key to the Queen’s Elixir” reads as a true fairy tale (and not the happy-ending-for-all, Disney version, either). Finally, Zander Vyne’s “The Last Sacrifice”  tells the story of a princess who wins (or loses?) her city’s annual lottery, meaning she will be the year’s virgin sacrifice to appease the dragon who sleeps in the forest outside the city walls. What she finds, however, when she rides her horse out to meet her unhappy fate, is one surprise after another.

✠ / ✠ / ✠ / ✠

There’s plenty in Thrones of Desire to appeal to readers of pure erotica and fantasy, alike... just remember to pace yourself, and enjoy it like you would a dessert (because reading it all at once, like I did for this review, is the equivalent of eating the whole cake in one sitting... and that's a bit much). 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book-to-Movie: How Headhunters Fares

Anyone who’s ever read a great book--or even just a really good one--then looked forward to seeing the movie or TV version of same, knows what it’s like to be disappointed. Sure, there are some amazing adaptations out there (“Game of Thrones” and nearly all of the recent BBC adaptations of the classics, for instance), but the duds far outnumber them (“The DaVinci Code” was, at least, an interesting book, but the movie was like cruel-and-unusual torture, and “The Scarlet Letter” with Demi Moore was a really bad joke).

So, after reading Headhunters last month (see my review here), I made myself wait awhile before streaming the movie. Despite the overwhelmingly-positive reviews, the fear of being let down was just too strong. (Well, that, and the fact that it’s a Norwegian film, which means sub-titles, which is not my favorite-thing-ever, seeing as how I'm a face- and body-language-reader, which captioned dialogue doesn't make easy. [sigh])

After watching it earlier this week, though, I have to say it’s definitely one of the better adaptations--no, it's not perfect, but it keeps to the overall theme and feel of the book quite well, and offers up plenty of suspense and a few good chills.

The movie version of main character Roger Brown may not be exactly how I pictured him (nor does he ever come across as cocky as in the book), but actor Aksel Hennie makes the role his own, giving Roger a likability to balance his insecurity, with just a hint of the slick shyster. (Hennie reminds me of a blond, considerably-better-looking Steve Buscemi crossed with a younger Christopher Walken, which is kind of cool.) 

Synnøve Macody Lund, on the other hand, is pretty much how I pictured Roger’s wife Diana; she’s a tall, Nordic beauty, possessing more sweetness than one might assume of someone so used to being pandered to and getting her own way (in both book and movie). Very good performance. 

The only actor I was already familiar with (from “Game of Thrones”, as it happens) is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, playing Roger’s nemesis, Clas Greve. Again, he really isn’t what I pictured (a little too young, a lot too handsome), yet he, too, inhabits the role so completely that I had no trouble putting aside my mental image of the character. Coster-Waldau is believably tough, intelligent, and arrogant (no surprise there, given his "GoT" work as Jamie Lannister), and he also brings a nicely-honed sense of frightening menace to the role.

So, if not at the hands of the actors (who were all quite good, actually, from those just mentioned to the most minor characters), where did I experience those “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!” moments? With the things that got left out, or compressed... such as Roger’s extensive mental acrobatics while he’s at work. All that thinking--about an interviewee, about his wife, about his money problems, about his next heist--paints such a vivid portrait of who Roger is, in the book, that I really missed it in the movie. 

Another key difference--which I understand, since a movie needs more “show” than “tell”, but definitely miss, especially for chills-and-thrills suspense--is how and when we, the viewers, find out everything. (We’re privy early on to what will happen in the movie; in the book, those same actions come as a complete surprise, and we’re not made fully aware of the hows and whys of the surprise until after the fact, which is basically at the very end.)

Still, “Headhunters” the movie holds its own extremely well, and makes for a fun, smart, and entertaining evening... whether or not you’ve already read Headhunters the book. (Of course, you already know I highly recommend you read the book... but whether you read before or after the movie, I suspect you’ll really enjoy both.)

(Oh, and those subtitles? Didn’t bug me a bit, after about the first five minutes or so. :))  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  A Must-Watch (preferably whilst engaging in some bunnykicking-of-those-Mousies)