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.) 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Murders, Multiplying Cats... and Parallel Worlds

A reclusive heiress in the prime of her life is found murdered at home. The news is tragic, shocking, and (though it says nothing particularly flattering about them) quite titillating, as far as the remainder of small Jamesville County’s residents are concerned. 

When Detective Shawn Danger (yep, his real name) goes to the Sylvain mansion to investigate, though, it’s a whole different sort of excitement for him. Given the notoriety surrounding the mysterious Haviland Sylvain, Shawn is keenly aware the police department--the whole community, for that matter--will be placing top priority on solving this one. A lot of pressure? Sure, but that’s just the start of it, because things are about to get weird... very, very weird, in Nina Post’s sublimely-quirky spin on the standard police procedural mystery, Danger in Cat World.

Most people--plenty of cops included--would be pretty annoyed by a phone ringing off the hook at 4:44 a.m. Shawn isn’t exactly a “normal” anything, though; he’s obsessed with work, has no love life to speak of, keeps a trampoline in his living room (which he routinely bounces on to help him think), and lives with his white cat, Comet. So, instead of throwing the offending phone across the room and rolling over to catch a few more winks, he cheerfully bounds out of bed, yanks on some clothes, and heads for the door, pausing to give Comet the necessities--food, water, and a little love--on his way out... which is when he notices something decidedly odd. A cat he’s never seen before--a brown Maine Coon--is sitting on the trampoline, staring at him with enigmatic golden eyes.

Curious about the stranger (and how he or she got in)--but with no time to get to the bottom of things, he sets out some more food, double-checks the litterbox, and leaves Comet and friend(?) to their own devices. 

At the scene, all thoughts of strange tabbies fly away, because the Sylvain mansion is something else. Immense--with a foyer that’s larger than his whole house--with priceless objets d’art wherever he turns, it’s a wonder to behold. More importantly, it doesn’t appear to have been broken into, vandalized, or burgled... at least not until Shawn makes his way upstairs and into the young widow’s personal suite. Blood on the floor, her lifeless body posed, and every single thing in her rooms slashed, broken, or otherwise destroyed, the scene is one of great and terrible anger. (Not a spur-of-the-moment sort of anger, though. According to the crime scene techs, this was the work of a thoughtful, prepared killer--one who left no fingerprints or any other obvious clues.)

She isn’t the only victim. Lyle, a beloved tortoise who’d been in the family for more than half a century, is also found dead, part of his... erm... prep-school jacket shoved down his throat.

After ascertaining there are no more bodies, Shawn begins interviewing the suspects--Haviland’s small but motley assortment of household employees, a couple of whom had very... peculiar duties, to say the least. Of the five, one is missing, while the other four range from nervous to bereft to flaky to downright creepy.

Then there’s the matter of the old, 1950s-era TV in Lyle’s bedroom, which seems capable of showing only, well... a parallel universe... with all the same characters as, erm, in this one... but with different things happening.

But the biggest Twilight Zone moment is back at Shawn’s house. With each passing hour since the case began, another cat appears--each, a brown Maine Coon, identical to the first--so that after working the case twenty-four hours, Shawn has twenty-four tabbies in his house. He hasn’t a clue how or why it’s happening (seriously, who ever heard of such a thing?!)... he just knows his small abode is incapable of holding many more. 

As the suspects begin to crack and weird meteorological events start taking place all over town--in addition to the growing army of cats that have taken over his home--Shawn knows it’s all about to come to a head... and he has to get this right, whatever it is, or something awful and impossible and irreversible is going to change not only this world, but what happens in another.

Unbelievably, I didn’t realize this wasn’t my first Nina Post story--I saw the title, read the cover, and thought it sounded right up my alley--until I reached the end and found an excerpt for Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse... which I reviewed a couple months ago (see here). (Yeah, cue big “Doh!” moment.) From there, though, it all made sense; the same delightful wackiness, mixed with a big dollop of the familiar, then shaken up and served in a precariously-balanced glass on a lopsided tabletop.

Central to Danger in Cat World, of course, is the earnest young detective, Shawn. He’s a regular guy--complete with family problems out the wazoo and a stalled love life--who is immensely likable, sympathetic, hilariously funny, and who likes cats. All of the characters are entertaining, though--from the eccentric hired help, to the legal courier who catches Shawn’s eye, to the dead woman, herself.

And then, there’s the whole quantum physics thing (those parallel worlds). So quirky, so unexpected, popping up in the middle of a police procedural mystery... and so cool! 

My only problem with Danger in Cat World? The author’s repetitive use of “they” when referring to a single person of unknown sex. (One person is a "he" or a "she"; multiple people are "they". Period.) While I roll my eyes at much of the so-called “political correctness” (which often borders on the ridiculous), this is a matter of grammatical incorrectness, blatantly ignoring long-established rules--something one should never do. Ever.

Aside from that one pet peeve, though, this is a fabulously-fun little trip. And, hey, you know... plenty of cats. :)

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: Dozens of Catnip Mousies (gotta amuse all those kitties, after all...) 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Books, Cats, & Daddy

Looking back on growing up and spending time with their dads, I'm guessing most people probably associate those years with things like learning how to ride a bike, playing catch in the backyard, or grilling hamburgers in the summer.

Not me. Sure, we did that stuff, too, but the way I'll always remember my dad is for his passions... the ones he didn't get to indulge in nearly enough (airplanes, photography, and art), and the ones that gave him pleasure his whole life long (reading and cats).

You were a good influence, Daddy... the best. :)


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Spies, International Terrorists... and the Girl Reporter who Outfoxes Them All

It’s one of those sad facts of life: get enough young people together--say, at a college or university--and bad things are gonna happen now and then. Drunken revelries lead to aggressive behaviors and all manner of accidents. Pranks that seem like great fun turn out to be anything but harmless larks. And, kids who haven’t yet figured out a way to deal--with life, studies, the grim realities of an uncertain future, being different, or rejection--decide it’s easier to just end things... permanently.

Thus is the stage set for Mary Louise Kelly’s top-notch thriller, Anonymous Sources.

When Alexandra James--current go-to reporter responsible for the New England Chronicle’s university beat--gets the call, interrupting her summer evening plans, to dash over to Harvard for a breaking story, such is the type of scene she expects to find. Another dead college student who took a dive from a campus bell tower... he either got plastered and lost his footing with tragic results, or was depressed and chose to permanently rid himself of his demons, whatever they might have been. Either way, it doesn’t sound like much of a story, and Alex is more than a little annoyed at being called out (particularly as she’s wearing a very expensive--and totally impractical for racing around Boston’s streets--pair of spike heels).

Once she’s had a chance to poke around a little, though, she realizes this may not be quite what she'd thought. The dead young man is Thom Carlyle, son of one of the President’s chief legal aides at the White House--which automatically raises all sorts of red flags. A grad student who’d only just returned from spending a year abroad as an elite Cambridge Scholar, Thom was smart, athletic, successful, and popular--not the sort of guy who tends to off himself. But, there were only a couple of empty beer cans found in the bell tower from which he’d fallen, making a drunken miscalculation of balance seem equally unlikely. 

There is, of course, one additional possibility--that he was pushed--and the more Alex thinks about it, the more determined she is to figure out why.

With only conditional permission from her editor, Alex leaves the ivory towers of Harvard for a jaunt across the pond to the stately courtyards of Cambridge, England--the last place Thom had been, and where she hopes to find some answers. An ex-girlfriend (the oh-so-British-named party girl, Petronella)--along with her new boyfriend--may hold some answers, as may a scientist acquaintance, who also attended Thom’s last Cambridge bash.

As Alex interviews those who knew Thom, though, the less clear things seem. If Petronella broke his heart right before he returned to Boston, might Thom have been upset enough to jump, after all? Did his low law test scores--which he had yet to reveal to his family--play a part? How did someone who was no more than a casual acquaintance get into Thom’s locked dorm rooms after he’d left England... and what was the fellow searching for? And what on earth could the receipt for a huge produce shipment have to do with anything??

Getting back on the plane with little more than she’d left home, Alex prepares to try and make the best of the meager info she’s gained... but when another passenger on the flight is poisoned and Alex’s laptop is stolen, she realizes she’s somehow stumbled into something big. The trick will be figuring out what.

As she races around Washington, DC--attending meetings with everyone from Thom’s grieving lawyer dad to bigwigs from the CIA, FBI (and probably a few other alphabet groups, as well), and taking phone calls from spies and at least one terrorist--a horrible idea emerges: that an innocent young man with a promising future was murdered to hide a deadly conspiracy at the highest levels in the nation’s capitol... and that Alex, unbelievably, holds the keys to unlocking it all... if she can avoid the same fate long enough to do so.

The best thrillers, of course, live up to their name--they thrill--and Kelly’s Anonymous Sources does just that. Blending a couple of sub-genres--the investigative-reporter suspense and the traditional spy thriller, Kelly has created a fast-paced, exciting, and thought-provoking look at some of the problems encountered in today’s global arena.

Despite all of the juicy, authentic details Kelly uses (as a former NPR correspondent, this is a world she understands and knows how to write about), Anonymous Sources is a spy story with a difference--namely, Alex. She’s young--in her late 20s--and has little reporting experience of anything other than the campus beats, local municipal matters, and puff pieces. She has good instincts and learns quickly, but has next to no prior knowledge of the politics, ideologies, or science involved in this story. Nor is she a gun- (or other weapons-) toting badass; she’s an attractive woman (who enjoys being a woman) who finds herself in a series of impossible-to-prepare-for situations that she’s forced to deal with, on the fly. (She also has a deep, dark secret, which affects everything she does and lends an interesting--and emotional--counterpoint to the bigger tale.)

With stories like this under her belt, one thing is certain: Mary Louise Kelly won’t remain anonymous as an author for long. Anonymous Sources is truly a great read.

[Anonymous Sources will be released June 18, 2013.]