Thursday, December 31, 2009

Murder Uncorked

Murder Uncorked
Author: Michele Scott
Berkley, 2005
220 pages

If you're interested in wine and want a quick read, this book and series might be for you. As the first book in the Wine Lover's Mystery series. it combines sleuthing with an interesting backstory. In what could be one of the most hilarious book openers I've read this year, main character Nikki Sands - former actress and current waitress in Los Angeles - is introduced via a restaurant "scene" involving handsome Derek Malveaux and his catty date. Nikki impresses Derek with her knowledge of wine and suggestions for pairings, and that leads to a job opportunity in Napa Valley, where Derek runs a successful vineyard and winery.

Unfortunately for Nikki, just after she arrives, the master vintner is found dead in the vineyards. Another mysterious murder occurs just days later. Nikki finds herself caught up in the investigations, and it doesn't help that she once played a cop in a short-lived TV series that (to her chagrin) too many people remember.

An interesting ensemble of characters (including Derek's half brother Simon, his stepmother, ex-wife, a migrant worker, and a tabloid-like reporter) provide numerous opportunities for paths and red herrings. The scene where Nikki finds out "whodunnit" is tense, and probably my favorite part of the book. I had a hard time with some of the details: why would Nikki just take off to Wine Country on a whim without talking to her Aunt first? (you have to read the book to understand this). The relationship between Nikki and Derek seemed unrealistic (male employer pouring his heart out to female employee he's only known for a few days? Doubt it.) And there are a couple of very annoying editing errors, which most likely would only be noticed by me. Nikki's sad childhood story makes up for any flaws in her adult personality, as she is clearly a survivor.

Murder Uncorked was a fast and entertaining read, and you will get a short education on wine and wine pairings. I enjoyed that part enough to order the second and third books in the series, which I'm sure you'll be reading about here someday.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Druids

Druids
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Ivy Books/Ballantine, 1991
400 pages

Morgan Llywelyn is an American-born, Irish author who specializes in historical fiction, usually about Ireland or some aspect of Celtica. In Druids, she crosses the water to the continent, and writes about the Celts living in Gaul at the time of the Roman incursion. The story is told from the point of view of Ainvar, a curious young orphan from the warrior class who will eventually become Chief Druid of his tribe. During his manhood ceremony he is partnered with two others, new best friend Vercingatorix (whose name means "King of the World") and jealous rival Crom Dal. Vercinagotorix is the son of the recently-assassinated king of a neighboring tribe, and Crom Dal is the son of a warrior and his "stolen" woman from another tribe. The lives of the three boys will intersect at several points, always with Ainvar and Vercingatorix as friends and increasingly with Ainvar and Crom Dal as enemies.

The background on Celtic culture and the Druid life was the most fascinating part of Druids, and this is the focus of the first half of the book. Llywelyn is clearly a master at weaving actual historical events into fiction, and for the most part, I enjoyed reading Druids. However, the second half of the book focused on battles, which (although probably quite accurate from the historical standpoint) got a little redundant. I found myself skimming through the last half . . . ho, hum, another battle.

Vercingatorix, his father, and several of the Romans including Gaius Julius Caesar were "real" historical figures. Llywelyn provides references citing her research at the back of the book. Druids is the kind of book that makes you want to go back and read your history books to learn more about what really happened, and it also makes you think of what might have been if only the Celts had been able to unite in time to push back the Romans. I really wanted the Celts to win, even though I knew they wouldn't. The scene where Ainvar has a vision about the great grove was too cool, and was not lost on me (you will have to read it to find out what I mean!)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon
Author: Pascal Mercier (Translated by Barbara Harshav)
Grove Books, 2008
438 pages

This is a good example of a book that I probably would have never read if not for the recommendation of my friend Katarina from Vienna. When Katarina and I get together (a couple of times a year when she comes to Indy), we always talk about the books we've read lately and make recommendations to each other, and sometimes buy books for each other. She bought me this one in May, but I only just now got around to reading it (books tend to pick me, not the other way around! Night Train to Lisbon picked me after six months of sitting on my shelf.)

The author is Swiss, and so is the main character, Raimund Gregorius, also known as "Mundus" to his students. He teaches ancient languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin) at a school in Bern and is most likely some sort of genius. That is, he's brilliant, but not exactly the most "emotionally intelligent" person. His flashbacks to a failed marriage are testament to his aversion to -- or inability to have/maintain -- intimate relationships.  (In that respect, he kind of reminds me of the main character in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces - and if you haven't read that, you must.)

Perhaps this is why he does what he does when he rather serendipitously meets a Portuguese woman one rainy morning on his way to school. Something about meeting this random woman makes him realize he's (at age 57) getting old. This chance encounter, along with a book written by a Portuguese man named Prado that he finds in a used bookstore in Bern, propels him to leave his predictable life. He quits his job and runs away to Lisbon.

As he reads Prado's book, Gregorius is driven to find out more about the man. His adventures in Lisbon lead him to various people in Prado's life - former teacher, sisters, best friends, lovers, and fellow revolutionaries during the Salazar regime - and he finds himself getting deeper into Prado's world. Prado himself was a sort of genius, not really unlike Gregorius.

At first, I couldn't put the book down. That Gregorius chucked it all to go to Portugal was admirable to me. I mean, who doesn't dream of doing something like that? Only most of us just dream it, and then we get back to reality. Yet as Gregorius chases these "new" dreams, he leaves "old" ones behind . . . such as his long-time dream of living in Persia (not Iran, but Persia.)

About midway through the book, it started to bore me. If not for a couple of the characters (namely the old revolutionary in the nursing home), I might have given up without finishing. I also wanted to see the book circle back around to the Portuguese woman in Bern who started this whole thing. As to that, I was disappointed. Good writing (or good translation), though.

This is the type of book one could expect to read in a university class on Modern European Fiction. Maybe discussing it with other readers would help me appreciate it more. I will say that the book has me wanting to go back to Portugal. I'd like to see more of Lisbon and some of the other places mentioned in the book like Finisterre and Coimbra, and Salamanca, Spain. And I'd like to learn more about Portuguese history.

I know it was a big success in Europe and I appreciate the effort. However, I'm an American with ADHD who did not have the luxury of a classical education. I need to go back to something light and breezy now. :-)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Death By Darjeeling

Death By Darjeeling
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2001
242 pages

From coffee to tea . . . Death By Darjeeling is the first in a series featuring the cozy Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston's history and colorful charm make it an interesting setting for any type of literature, but it seems especially well-suited to mysteries and crime novels. Main character Theodosia Browning spent years in the advertising industry, but as she approached middle age, she began to question what she really wanted out of life. An opportunity arose to buy the tea shop, and she used her skills learned in advertising and got lucky with a hiring decision (her employee Drayton is one of ten tea masters in the USA) to make the business thrive.

Indigo Tea Shop is a happening place, but one evening during a festival, a man drops over dead while drinking tea. Turns out this man is a rather shady real estate developer who has lots of enemies. It just so happens that one of his last business dealings was an attempt to buy the historic building where Indigo Tea Shop rents space.  Rumors run rampant that the man was poisoned, and suddenly business at the tea shop turns south.

Theodosia and her staff (including perpetual student Haley and recently widowed Bethany, in addition to Drayton the tea master) join together to solve the mystery and to take back the tea shop's reputation. Who killed the shady real estate developer? Was it the abundantly passionate environmentalist? The absent wife? The chairman of the historical society? The equally shady business partner? Actually, I correctly guessed the murderer about halfway through the book, long before most of the clues were in. I'd like to think that I'm just smart (ha ha) because it's really not that obvious until the very end when the truth is revealed. It was probably a lucky guess.

The book was published in the spring of 2001, and since then, there have been several other books in this series. Before I read Death By Darjeeling, I honestly didn't think I would care to read more of these . . . but once again (as with the other cozy mysteries I've read lately), I'm curious as to how the characters will evolve. I actually like Theodosia. She seems like someone I'd want to be friends with. And I adore the others who work in the tea shop - especially Drayton. Another character I'd like to read more about is Aunt Libby, Theodosia's bird-loving, country-living aunt. It will be interesting to see if Theodosia starts getting along better with Tidwell (the cop) or if her relationship with Jory (the lawyer) goes anywhere. OK, so maybe I like soap operas.

As for downsides, this seems to be one of the first books by this author. At times it's just a little slow. It seems as if she wants to introduce all the characters at once, and there are lots of characters, so it's a little confusing to keep them straight. "Theo" drives a Jeep, but in one scene it's called a Cherokee, and in another it's described like a Wrangler (with a canvas top), so I wonder if maybe that was an editing error.

About tea . . . it's obvious that the author has researched and perhaps even sampled different types of tea. The Author's Notes even state that she travels to China often, where she's sure to encounter great tea. But unlike the other "foodie" mysteries I've read lately, I don't really feel like I learned anything new about tea or tea making from Death By Darjeeling. I could be wrong here but I don't recall any reference in the book to the recipe that appears at the end of the book? I would have preferred the recipe for the cranberry scones or the lemony things. But that's just me. :-)

I'm a little burned out on cozy mysteries right now (although I really do like them, and I've recently received a ton of them from Paperback Swap so you'll definitely be seeing more reviews in the future). My next book is going to be . . . from a different genre. I've selected it, and I can tell you that it's 498 pages long. Therefore, it may take me a little longer to read than these books I've been reading lately.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On What Grounds

On What Grounds
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2003
275 pages

I love coffee! And espresso! And lattés and cappuccinos! So when I heard about this series of books called the Coffeehouse mysteries, I was definitely interested. On What Grounds is the first, and it's centered around the Village Blend, a coffee "institution" in New York's Greenwich Village. Clare Cosi has just become the manager again after a ten-year (or so) hiatus in which she lived the suburban life in New Jersey while single-handedly raising her daughter. Clare's ex-husband, coffee broker Matt, is the son of the Village Blend's owner and hasn't exactly been around much these last few years.

As the story opens, Clare has just spent her last night in New Jersey and is moving into the furnished apartment above the coffee shop. She arrives mid-morning at what should be the height of the morning rush, only to find the shop locked and dark. When she goes inside, the place is a mess. But worst of all, her assistant manager - graceful dancer Anabelle - is lying in a messy heap at the bottom of a stairwell.

Clare doesn't think this was an accident, so she and Matt (who just arrived back in town!) put aside their differences and join as partners in the investigation (and as reluctant roommates in the apartment upstairs - this is only temporary, of course) to try to determine what really happened. Even as Anabelle lies comatose in the hospital, it seems as if everyone is out to get the Village Blend: The former manager was fired for stealing an antique Village Blend sign, but his lousy management practices nearly caused the place to go broke and he apparently forgot to renew the coffee shop's insurance policies. So if Anabelle's golddigging stepmother sues, she'll probably end up owning the coffee shop. Unless a rival coffee magnate gets it first and turns it into one of those franchise coffee places. But then again, didn't Anabelle recently break up with her boyfriend?

The tales takes several twists and turns to its unexpected conclusion. Along the way we meet several characters who will no doubt be instrumental in future books, such as Detective Quinn (the 'sexy-in-an-aloof-Columbo-like-way' policeman), Joy (Clare and Matt's daughter, a culinary student), Mario (Joy's fiery Italian chef boyfriend, who reminds Clare of a young Matt), and of course, the Village Blend's owner, a cultured older woman called - simply - Madame. The interaction between Clare and Matt is at times quite funny. Obviously, Madame wants them back together.

BONUS!!! --> There's lots of info about coffee finely woven into Clare's narrative. Along with a little Coffee 101 (e.g., Arabica vs. Rustica, grinding beans, coffee vs. espresso), there are tips for storing coffee beans (NEVER in the freezer or refrigerator! Always in an airtight container!) and brewing coffee (if it's still sitting in the pot after fifteen minutes, you might as well throw it out). I think I may have even learned how to make espresso in the old-fashioned screw-top espresso pot that Sandy got me for Christmas last year (Clare Cosi says the water has to heat up slowly, on low. I previously tried heating it on medium-high and it exploded - sort of.) I'll try it Clare's way soon. If it works, the knowledge gained will be worth way more than the price of this book!

I wonder what my friend Bj would think of this series? Personally, I liked it, and I can't wait to read more.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Chocolate Cat Caper

The Chocolate Cat Caper
Author: JoAnna Carl
Signet Books, 2002
232 pages

In my Gypsy Roots blog last week, I wrote about my latest obsession: Paperback Swap. I'm embarrassed to admit how many books I've traded since I've discovered this wonderful web site. Most of the books have been cozy mysteries, as this seems to be another trend in my life right now. I received The Chocolate Cat Caper from a reader in Kansas City. It's the first book in JoAnna Carl's Chocoholic Mystery series.

Lee McKinney is a former Texas beauty queen. As a teenager, she spent a few summers in Michigan with her aunt and uncle, who owned the TenHuis Chocolade, a chocolate shop in a Lake Michigan tourist town. Lee is 28 now, a recent divorcee, and graduate of a college accounting program. She's living with her aunt (uncle is now deceased - see below) and keeping the books for the chocolate shop while she studies for the CPA exam.

One day Lee delivers a huge order to the town's seasonal resident, "celebrity" defense attorney Clementine Ripley. "Clem" is having a big party and has requested several special cat-shaped chocolates in honor of her award-winning Birman cat. The attorney is not exactly a nice person, and has made many enemies over the years. Lee witnesses an "incident" between Clem and Clem's ex-husband Joe while she is making the delivery. That evening as the party is getting started, Clem falls over dead, and a half-eaten chocolate cat rolls out of her hand. Turns out someone poisoned the chocolates with cyanide, and Lee and her Aunt Nettie fall under scrutiny.

They're innocent, of course . . . despite the fact that Aunt Nettie has a good reason to dislike Clem. But so do several other people. Like Joe, Clem's ex-husband; and the town's police chief, whom Clem had embarrassed years earlier when he was on the police force in Cincinnati. And what about Marion, Clem's freak of an assistant?

The characters are colorful, and the book is a very easy read. I learned quite a bit about the chocolate making process, and quite a few things about the history of chocolate. Every few chapters, the author inserts some interesting facts about chocolate. For example, did you know that chocolate is native to the western hemisphere? I didn't know this. (For some reason, I thought it was from Africa.) According to Carl, it was brought back to Europe by the Spaniards, who were introduced to it by the Aztecs. The Spanish managed to keep chocolate a secret for a hundred years or so, when it was finally leaked to the French via the Spanish royal family.

That doesn't explain why most "great" chocolate today comes from Belgium and Switzerland, but maybe it does explain why when I was in Barcelona last year, my Eastern European and Middle Eastern colleagues considered it such a big deal when we were all given some Spanish chocolate. (It was yummy, too!)

I enjoyed The Chocolate Cat Caper and I can't wait to read the other books in this series. I already have Book 2. I'm sure I'll be writing about it someday soon.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Trouble With Magic

The Trouble With Magic
Author: Madelyn Alt
Penguin Books, 2006
261 pages

The fascination with the mystery and paranormal genres continues.

I picked up The Trouble With Magic at B&N a few months ago on a whim. It just looked like a fun book, and the description on the back cover indicated that it takes place in a little town called Stony Mill, Indiana (which is supposed to be somewhere in the northeast, near Fort Wayne.) No idea if the author is a Hoosier, but she sure seems to know the culture. The Trouble With Magic is the first in the Bewitching Mystery series, and so far there are five others in paperback. A sixth is coming (in hardback) in January.

Main character Maggie is a likeable young woman who grew up in Stony Mill. She's in her late twenties, and has worked for several years under a horrid boss at a boring accounting firm. One day she decides she's had enough, and she finds herself jobless. Yet only a short time later she falls (literally) into Enchantments Antiques and Fine Gifts, where she's taken in by the elegantly wise and intriguing Felicity. Felicity, it turns out, isn't just an antiques dealer - she's a witch. And just a few hours after they meet, Felicity is accused of a murder.

Maggie knows Felicity isn't guilty, despite the fact that they've just met. As she's drawn into Felicity's world of interesting and diverse characters, Maggie struggles to define her own belief system and begins to recall times in her own life when she had felt drawn to the paranormal. After all, she's always been very empathic, and an above-average listener. She even had an imaginary child when she was growing up, and she hears voices in her apartment. Hmm.

It will be interesting to see how Maggie grows in future books. But first, she has to save Felicity from a town and a police force convinced of her guilt. She also has to hang out with two cute guys. One, Marcus, is a biker dude who hangs out with Felicity and says things like: "Thank Goddess." The other is Tom, hunky police officer. Guess we'll have to keep reading to find out how this goes. After all, this is a required part of the formula.

I'm also looking forward to learning more about some of the other characters, including the N.I.G.H.T.S. group members (especially Alice), Maggie's best friend Steff, and Maggie's Grandpa.

Decent writing, good characters, and some funny situations involving Hoosiers and reruns of the TV show Magnum, P.I. Will definitely read more of these.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Carrot Cake Murder

Carrot Cake Murder
Author: Joanne Fluke
Kensington Books, 2008
324 pages

A coworker friend of mine (L) is into reading "cozy mysteries" and she lent me this book. We're both into cooking as well as reading fiction, and now we're trading books (she's reading State of the Onion, which I recently blogged about.) Typically, I like to read series books in order, but L promised me it wasn't necessary with the Hannah Swensen series. I'm not sure that I agree, so I bought Chocolate Chip Murder, the first in this series - I'll read it sometime soon.

Hannah is a (presumed) thirty-something, single woman who lives with her cat Moishe in Lake Eden, Minnesota. She grew up here, so she knows everyone and they all know her. Hannah owns a cookie shop (and she has a cookie truck that she drives) and occasionally partners with the local police to solve crimes. Carrot Cake Murder didn't really provide any background on that, except that one of the police officers, Mike, is a sort-of boyfriend of hers. (She also has another sort-of boyfriend. Norman is a dentist.)

Carrot Cake Murder starts with a weird scene in a church, where Hannah blurts out to everyone that the minister is about to get married. Although this is an interesting way to open a book, there was no connection between this chapter and the rest of the book. In fact, I don't recall that the minister or his fiancee were mentioned again??? This is the kind of detail that sort of drives me crazy when I read.

In the meantime, there's a family reunion going on, and Gus -- a family member who hasn't been around for many years -- shows up unexpectedly. He drives a Jaguar and wears fancy clothes and brags about his successful "Blues clubs" in Atlantic City. The next day, Hannah finds him dead, apparently stabbed with an ice pick and surrounded by a carrot cake that she'd made the day before. So this book is all about solving Gus's murder . . . but of course, other stuff happens, too. Like a lot of baking. And eating.

Fluke is really good with dialogue, especially dialogue where nothing much is going on. Here's an example . . . but I'm not writing it word for word as it is in the book. Hannah and someone else are sitting in a diner.

"I'd like a cup of coffee."
"I'd like a cup of coffee, too."
"OK, two cups of coffee coming up."

I'm being a little facetious here, but what I'm trying to say is . . . Carrot Cake Murder is not a sophisticated book, and its characters are not sophisticated either. I started reading it on a Friday night and finished Sunday night . . . only reading a couple of hours each day. If you need a quick read and you want something that's not full of sex, cuss words, and violence, then this is a good book for you. Would I read another Fluke book? Like I said, I ordered the first one already. So yes, I would read them - if not for sophisticated characters and writing, then for a good yarn and LOTS of recipes . . . which is really the highlight of this series. Among the recipes included in Carrot Cake Murder are:
  • Hannah's Special Carrot Cake (duh!)
  • Viking Cookies
  • Red Velvet Cookies
  • Salmon Cakes
  • Clara and Marguerite Hollenbeck's Mexican Hotdish
  • and many more. You get my drift. 
Each recipe is . . . cute, because Hannah (Joanne?) inserts funny commentary into them. I might have to buy all of these books just for the recipes. Reading them makes me . . . hungry.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Forgotten Garden

The Forgotten Garden
Author: Kate Morton
Pan Books, 2008 [UK version]
645 pages

In 1913, a little girl is found abandoned at a dock in Australia after coming all the way from England on her own. One of the dock workers, whose wife is depressed from not being able to have children, takes the little girl home and they pretend she is their niece who just arrived from London. When people start asking questions, the couple abruptly moves to Brisbane, and they raise the girl as their own. Eventually she forgets that she has ever had any other life. But on her 21st birthday, the man she knows as her father tells her the truth: that she isn't theirs.

The young woman, known as Nell, feels as if the rug has been pulled out from under her and she is never quite able to have the same relationship with her "parents" and her "sisters" (who were born several years after she was taken in by the couple.) She marries an American, and moves to California, where she has a daughter of her own. They never quite get along, and when Nell's husband dies suddenly and she returns to Australia with the girl, their relationship just gets worse. Eventually, Nell's daughter moves out and has a daughter of her own named Cassandra, who comes to live with Nell when she is twelve after being "abandoned" by her mother for a new boyfriend.

Without going into too many more details, I'll say that many years later when Nell passes away, Cassandra inherits a cottage in Cornwall. When she travels there, she knows that she must solve the mystery that is Nell. Where did she come from? Who were her parents? Why did they abandon her?

The book is written so that every other chapter takes place during a different era, starting during Edwardian times and weaving together characters and unravelling mysteries. The story turns from Nell and Cassandra to first cousins Eliza and Rose. Rose is a little "princess" growing up in a Cornwall estate; Eliza, whose mother grew up in the same estate and was cast out for falling in love with a man far beneath her station, was orphaned at an early age and lived in horrible conditions. When the two girls finally meet, they form a close bond made tight by Eliza's amazing ability to write fairy tales. Oh, and there's this really cool garden . . .

I can't really describe too much more than this without giving away too many spoilers, but there you have the basic plot. This is a book about abandonment, love, and loss. The losses are massive and I can't help but be a little angry at the way some of the characters in the book just had one loss after another and yet they kept going. There was too much loss for me in this book. At times, I couldn't decide if Morton was trying to write a fantasy novel, a historical novel, or a romance. The last chapter about Cassandra was predictable and sappy, and I wasn't surprised by the "truth" when it was finally revealed. In fact, I knew it was coming before I was even a third of the way through the book.

Australian author Kate Morton has woven a good story, and the writing is better than average. For the first two-thirds, I enjoyed reading it. But I'm feeling angry about how some things turned out. Maybe I'm too used to happy endings? - perhaps.
P.S. I have decided to stop rating the books I read. I want to read something totally mindless now. Like a mystery. Or a paranormal romance. Just something that will take me away but not make me angry. Let's see which of the books on my shelf will call me next . . .

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Death in Vienna

A Death in Vienna
Author: Frank Tallis
Random House, 2005
459 pages

I bought this book for the title alone, not knowing anything about it, or about the author. Turns out it's first in a series (three or four so far) set in early twentieth century Vienna, Austria. The main characters are a young physician named Liebermann who is continuing his studies in the new field of psychoanalysis and his friend, police inspector Rheinhardt. They collaborate to solve the murder of a young female "spiritual advisor" whose murder at first appears the result of too much experimenting with the supernatural. Using Rheinhardt's investigative techniques and Liebermann's knowledge of human behavior and psychology, they go down the list of suspects to solve the mystery of whodunnit.

Along the way, they meet some very interesting characters, such as Professor Sigmund Freud, whose work in the field of psychoanalysis has some thinking he's a genius and others thinking he's nuts. There's also Miss Lydgate, the Englishwoman who came to Vienna to work as a governess for some family friends, only to find herself a patient in the psychiatric ward. Turns out that Miss Lydgate's "hysteria" stems from the fact she was the victim of an attempted rape by the very man who hired her . . . and she's not his first victim. What you learn about how women are viewed in this society . . . well, it seems quite shocking but it's probably an accurate portrayal.

Vienna 1905 is definitely a man's world, and specifically a gentleman's world. Rheinhardt and Liebermann seem to be several years apart in age, and they have other differences as well. Rheinhardt is married and has two daughters. Liebermann is engaged to a young lady who despite being a family friend and "good match" doesn't seem quite right for him. The two men share a fraternal bond that includes a love of classical music, an enjoyment of hanging out in Vienna coffee houses, and smoking cigars. Kinda makes you wanna sing "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's, Man's World."

Behind the scenes there is an undercurrent of change. Foreshadowing of a growing anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant movement is evident in a couple of the characters. But the main focus of the story is still on solving the murder . . . and now a second, very different murder has occurred. Rheinhardt and Liebermann must move fast before someone else suffers the same fate.

The book got off to a slow start for me, but once I got into it, I was hooked. The writing is top-notch and the descriptions of Vienna were meaningful to me as I still clearly remember places like Cafe Schwarzenberg, the Votivkirche, and the Ringstrasse and lots of other locations mentioned. The author is a psychoanalyst in "real life" and I love how he weaves the history of his profession into the story. It made me want to read the other books, so now I've put them on my wish list on Amazon.com. Hint, hint!


Sunday, November 8, 2009

State of the Onion

State of the Onion
Author: Julie Hyzy
Tekno Books, 2008
325 pages

I've always loved a good mystery, and I love food. So when I came across this first-in-a-series paperback about a White House chef, I was intrigued. (I was also ready for some light reading, which a person needs every now and then.)

Olivia has one of the coolest jobs in the world: she works in the White House kitchen, creating food for the President, First Family, and the ever-changing lineup of Heads of State, diplomats, and lucky others. One day as she's just coming into work, she has an encounter with Naveen, a man being pursued by Secret Service agents. In their brief moment together, Naveen tells her: 1) he desperately needs to get some information to the President, and 2) no one can be trusted, not even the Secret Service. The incident won't leave Olivia alone, even after Naveen is apprehended. Who is he working for? Why did he do something so risky? Why can't she get some resolution from the Secret Service agents working the case (one of them is her boyfriend, Tom). And . . . why are the news reports on TV providing erroneous information about the incident?

Although she's warned by the Secret Service (and Tom) to drop it, Olivia finds herself getting in deep. Naveen contacts her and asks for a secret meeting, and Olivia is propelled by curiosity to meet him in a public place. However, before he can explain anything, Naveen is killed by a mysterious assassin! Now the assassin is after Olivia! Unfortunately, now the Secret Service (and Tom) are very angry with her for staying involved in the case. In fact, they're kind of wondering if she's a little off her rocker.

Meanwhile back in the kitchen, Olivia's mentor, Executive Chef Henry, is about to retire. Olivia would very much like to take on his role, but the new White House "Sensitivity Director" has other plans in mind: he wants to bring in a celebrity chef who went to school with the First Lady. (The chapter where the celebrity chef comes to the kitchen to "audition" is hysterically funny.) Who will get the job? You'll have to read the book to find out!

As Olivia dodges bullets (both literal and figurative), she also has to cook. An upcoming State Dinner could be the most important event of the new President's first year: he's bringing together two nations who have been at war for decades, to try to negotiate peace. The Heads of State and their entourages have different food requirements, so we learn a great deal about the "protocol" of food.

This may not be great literature, but sometimes you need a diversion. The interplay between the characters is fun (e.g., the "Sensitivity Director" is such an ass!) Just so happens, I really enjoyed this and will happily "devour" (ha ha) the rest of the White House Chef series as soon as possible.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zuzak
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
550 pages

This is one of the most unusual books I've ever read, and I have a feeling it's going to be one of the most unforgettable. Set in Nazi Germany, it's narrated by Death (a grim reaper) and follows a few years in the lives of some very interesting characters. Most notable is the title character, a young girl named Liesel who goes to live with foster parents in a small town near Munich after losing her brother to illness and being surrendered to the state by her mother, who for reasons we don't know, can no longer care for her. It's at her brother's funeral that Liesel "steals" her first book, a gravedigger's manual that she finds by the grave site. Although she can't read, this little book is the first of many that will come into her possession.

Her foster parents are a middle-aged couple whose children have already left the home. Rosa is Liesel's hard-assed, foul-mouthed foster mother who's really a marshmallow inside; Hans is her accordion-playing foster father who can't get work as a painter because he's not a member of the Nazi party. Their interesting assortment of neighbors on Himmelstrasse (Heaven Street) includes a hardcore "candy Nazi" who runs the corner store; the widow-next-door with whom Rosa has argued for so long, they no longer remember why; and Liesel's best friend Rudy, a runner who paints himself black and pretends to be Jesse Owens. There's also a young Jewish prizefighter, Max; and the Mayor's Wife, whose home has the largest library Liesel has ever seen.

Times are hard, but they're about to get harder. This is a story about grace and doing what you know is right even in the face of enormous pressures. Nearly all the characters will be tested and forced to make decisions that have huge ramifications on not just themselves but their families, neighbors, and communities. You will forget that Death is the narrator . . . until he reminds you.

Disregard the fact that this book is categorized as a Young Adult book. I don't think young adults will get nearly as much from it as us older adults. You need to read this book. Go get it. Now.

Rating: 5 stars. Hands-down the best book I've read this year . . . so far.



Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Unlikely Disciple

The Unlikely Disciple
Author: Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009 [Kindle edition]
336 pages

I don't often talk about my religious beliefs, and there's a reason for that: I was raised as a mainline Protestant - and while we're pretty good with feeding the hungry and dealing with matters of social justice, we don't (typically) evangelize. But I had grandparents who were evangelicals, so at least 4 times a year I was exposed to the other end of the Protestant spectrum. Going to church with them was always an odd combination of entertaining and horrifying: spontaneous prayers, interruptive shouts, speaking in tongues, baptisms by immersion - these things did not take place in my home church, so I was always on sensory overload on these visits.

Because of my life experiences, I could immediately relate to Kevin Roose, the author of The Unlikely Disciple: He was raised as a Quaker by parents who were politically liberal in a state that is typically known for being conservative. During his freshman year at Brown University - one of the most liberal universities in the USA - he got the idea to spend a "semester abroad" -- studying at Liberty University in Virginia. Liberty is the Lynchburg institution founded by the late Jerry Falwell, who in addition to being a preacher was a founder of the Moral Majority and a leader in the movement that encouraged many evangelical Christians to vote Republican. Thus, the book's subtitle: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University.

I really wasn't sure what to expect with this book. I didn't know if Roose would - you know - go down there actin' all Yankee and superior-like and write about how backwards everyone was - or if he'd end up becoming one of them. Ultimately, that's the "spoiler" that I won't give away. But I will say that I found the book to be very fair to all sides - without being fake about it. If you read the reviews on any of the major online bookstores, you'll see that most people agree with me on this call.

Roose shows up in January as a transfer student, and is quickly immersed in The Liberty Way. There are tons of rules on everything from haircuts to public displays of affection and movie-watching (only G, PG, and PG-13 are allowed). Bible study and chapel attendance are mandatory. Unmarried students are expected to be celibate, and there are curfews and strict rules about leaving campus. Female student are not allowed in the male student dorms, and vice versa. This in sharp contrast to Brown, which has few rules and like most other secular universities, has co-ed dorms.

He dives into Sunday worship services at Thomas Road Baptist Church, the Lynchburg megachurch established by Falwell. Pretty soon, he's singing in the choir - one of three hundred voices. At first, Roose is mesmerized by all the lights and sounds and technology - apparently this is his first megachurch experience - and he's fascinated by the emotional responses of the people in the audience. Remember, he was raised as a Quaker; he points out that Quaker services are often silent. But eventually he becomes used to things, and before you know it, he's one of the regulars.

Meanwhile, back at school, he experiences a curriculum that is very different from Brown's. At Liberty, he took courses like Old Testament, New Testament, Evangelism 101, and classes in Ethics and Creation Studies. In Creation Studies, he learned that the Earth is only six thousand years old; that the Earth took exactly six 24-hour days to create; that humans co-existed with dinosaurs; and that we definitely did NOT evolve from animals. In another class, he learned about Quiverfull, a growing movement among certain groups of evangelicals; married couples refuse to use birth control in order to have as many children as possible - kind of like the Duggars of TLC reality show fame. He also learned the fine art of evangelizing, and spent his Spring Break at Daytona Beach - not partying, but attempting to save souls on the beach and outside nightclubs . . . and experiencing the frustration and disappointment of failed attempts.

Throughout the semester, Roose stayed "undercover." No one knew he wasn't an evangelical Christian already, or that he was planning to write a book about his experience. At some point, though, he begins to question his own ethics. For example, he meets a girl that he really likes a lot, but "calls it off" with her because he doesn't want her to think that he's only in a relationships with her for the story.

Some of the people and situations he encounters are quite funny. For example, he visits one of the university chaplains to learn about a program that's supposed to "reform" homosexuals . . . he talks about his gay friend . . . and the chaplain thinks he's gay (as in "sure, you have a friend. Um-hum.") Speaking of gay, it may be cool at Brown, but not at Liberty. Acts of homophobia displayed by some of the members of his dorm - including one of his roommates - strikes a hard chord with Roose, who has friends and family members who are gay. He believes that this is just one of several social issues that Falwell and some other evangelicals have unnecessarily used as a wedge to divide, rather than unite, the country.

But as the semester goes by, Roose learns several lessons. One is that people don't always fit the stereotype. Not all Liberty students are anti-gay. Not all Liberty students are Republicans or politically conservative. Most don't even really care about politics. They don't all agree with their professors or take the Bible literally or believe the content they're being taught. And - shock! - some aren't even Christians, let alone "born-again" Christians. The lessons related to stereotype-busting are some of the most important in the book, I think.

At some point late in the semester, Roose approached the school newspaper with an idea to write an article about Falwell. They agree to support it if he can get an appointment with the chancellor. To everyone's surprise, Roose actually gets an appointment for an interview. In the chapter devoted to this experience, we get a very interesting glimpse inside Falwell's office and life. Instead of asking the usual boring political questions, Roose asks Falwell what young readers really want to know: What's his favorite drink? (Diet Snapple Peach Tea) What's his favorite TV show? (24) How many of those famous red ties does he own? (between 40 and 50) Will we ever be able to have dances at Liberty? ("Not in my lifetime.") The resulting article is published in the school paper as promised, and Roose becomes a campus celebrity. In a matter of days, Falwell dies, suddenly. So Roose has the distinction of being the last person to ever interview Falwell for print.

I could go on, but no matter what I write, it won't do justice to this very interesting and insightful book. The fact that The Unlikely Disciple was only nineteen when he went to Liberty, and twenty when he wrote the book, is particularly impressive. I think that Kevin Roose has a long and fruitful career ahead of him, and I look forward to more from this young author.

Rating: 4.5 stars - Excellent writing. Riveting topic. Smart kid.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hush Hush

Hush Hush
Author: Becca Fitzpatrick
Simon & Schuster, 2009
400 pages [advanced reading copy]

This is my second Barnes & Noble First Look reading club book in a row. (I just signed up for my third one!) Hush Hush is a Young Adult paranomal romance novel to be released October 13. New author Becca Fitzpatrick says it took her five years to write. In fact, the original title was Eclipse, but another very well-known YA book by that same name was published first, so she had to change it.

Hush Hush focuses on Nora Grey, a level-headed (some might say "goody two-shoes") sixteen year-old living on a farm in Maine who seems destined for an Ivy League education and an easy life. But Nora's world is far from perfect; her father was mysteriously murdered sometime in the last year, and her mother's demanding job requires a lot of time away from home. This demands a certain independence on the part of Nora, and she lives up to everyone's expectations. At least, until Patch comes along.

Patch is the black-wearing, pool-playing, motorcycle-driving bad boy who ends up as Nora's lab partner in science class. At first, Nora doesn't appreciate the sudden change of lab partner (previously, that position was held by her best friend, Vee) and Patch doesn't want to cooperate on the latest class assignment. They have a strange aversion-attraction to each other. Patch seems to know everything about Nora, but is tight-lipped about his past -- as if he has something to hide. But what?

Nora begins having unsetting "visions": a man wearing a ski mask, falling from an amusement part ride, a break-in at her house . . . but nothing actually happens. She thinks someone is following her, so one day she and Vee swap outerwear - and Vee gets attacked. Later, her arch-enemy is attacked, shortly after she and Nora have had a public argument. Who would do something like this? Vee blames Patch. But Nora, well, she's not sure.

Vee is a loud-mouthed, in-your-face character who is in Yang to Nora's Yin. The dialogue involving Vee is often funny and clever. But Vee is more than a sidekick - more than comic relief. She warns Nora away from Patch, but at the same time finds herself drawn to a boy who may well be involved in a crime that took place at his old school in Portland. 

There are "demons" in this book, but this is primarily a book about angels: fallen angels, guardian angels, avenging angels, and Nephilim characters will be revealed. I don't think I'm saying too much here given the cover art. There's plenty of action, and a little romance (rated PG, of course . . . I mean, it's a YA novel). I was so engaged, I stayed up until 4:00 AM to finish the book, and bit off all my nails in the process. 

A YA book wouldn't be a YA book without a snobby cheerleader type, and Hush Hush does indeed have one of those. It also has clueless parents, teachers who are trying to be cool, and other mysterious characters whose actions foreshadow their appearance in future books. A sequel to Hush Hush is already in the works. Titled Crescendo, it's set to be released sometime next Fall. I'm guessing there will be lots of teenage girls - and some older girls, also - who'll be eagerly anticipating its release, because I think Hush Hush is going to do for angels what Twilight did for vampires.  

Rating: 4.25 stars - great effort from this first-time author.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Under This Unbroken Sky

I Got a First Look at Barnes & Noble.  Get Your Copy Now


Under This Unbroken Sky
Author: Shandi Mitchell
Harper Books, 2009
348 pages [uncorrected proof version]

I'm so excited because I just read a book that hasn't been published yet! Thanks to Barnes and Noble's First Look Book Club, I was one of several people who received a free book from B&N and participated in an online discussion. I'm so glad I did, because this turned out to be a real treat. 

You know I like historical fiction, so this is right up my alley. The year is 1938, the place is a rural area in a Canadian prairie province. A family of immigrants from the Ukraine, including brother Teodor and his wife Maria and their kids, and sister Anna and her husband Stefan and their kids, are "sharing" a homestead. Teodor comes home from jail for stealing grain from his last homestead (hard to explain but it was a really stupid law to start with, and he paid the price). Since he's been in jail he's no longer eligible to homestead, so he arranges for his sister to get some land in her name, with the idea that she will eventually sign everything over to him. Obviously this is a sort of hint that it's not going to happen, right? 

They say blood is thicker than water. But is it? See, here's the problem. Anna's husband Stefan is a real jerk. Years ago, she was a beautiful, untamed, ambitious girl and he was a dashing, brave military officer. But over time, Stefan has become a loser and an abusive drunk. If not for Teodor and Maria, the farm would completely fall apart and they would all starve. Years of abuse have stolen Anna's youth and beauty, and she now suffers from a mental illness. In fact, most of the characters in the novel seem to suffer from some sort of mental illness or at least have a character flaw of some sort or a physical imperfection.  Stefan and Anna's daughter, Lesya, has a club foot and their son, Petro, is showing early signs of becoming an abuser like his father. One of Teodor and Maria's daughters has delusions of grandeur, and another is obsessed with the bread at church being called the body of Christ. 

Still, there is something completely captivating about the book and characters. Apparently, the author got the idea for the story while researching some of her own ancestors. That in itself is interesting to me . . . it was one of the things that drew me to Lalita Tademy's Cane River several years ago. This was another book that I found very difficult to stop reading late at night when I knew I should go to sleep. I just wanted to read one more chapter, to find out what was going to happen to the characters. Would the good guys win? Would the bad guys wind up paying? We always expect that to happen, don't we? 

This is what's known as an ARC or advanced reading copy. That means it's not necessarily the final - the publisher still may decide to make changes. So I'm not sure how the published book will be when it comes out. But the first chapter of this version opens with a description of a family photo and foreshadowing that in just a few years' time, two of the people in the photo will be dead.

One of the dead didn't surprise me, but the other one did. Actually, I was infuriated at the death of this other person, so I deducted a star (hey, I can do that) from my review. Why did this bother me so? Because the manner of death did not align with the character I came to know in the book. I will leave it at that, because I don't want to spoil.

Despite this one issue, it really is a very good book, and I really do think it has potential. I'm really excited that I was one of the first to read it!

Rating: 4 stars. Good writing and quite captivating for a first novel.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, Pray, Love
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Penguin Books, 2006
331 pages

Quite possibly I'm the last American woman to read this book. Subtitled One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, my initial reaction upon hearing about it was to want to barf. After all, it was about a WASP-y rich female from New York who was going through a divorce and (shock!) a sort of mid-life crisis. The whole concept seemed so . . . self-indulgent. But several of my friends kept bugging me to read it (you know who you are!) so I finally gave in. 

The book is cleverly divided into 108 chapters (3 sections of 36 "tales"). There's a reason for that, but you'll have to read it in the preface. The first section takes place in Rome, where the author experiences four months of food hedonism. OMG, the talk of food will leave your stomach growling. She obviously had a blast. Her attempts to learn (and translate) Italian are hysterical - especially this one "scene" involving a football fan in a stadium. I laughed almost all the way through this section.

India is next. She goes here to detox (so to speak) from all the excesses of Italy. Her time is spent at the ashram of her unnamed Guru. The strict life (up at 3AM for prayers and chanting; menial tasks and manual labor; living in silence) is the exact opposite of her experiences in Rome. Her quest is to know God. I thought this part would be really boring, but once I got through the first few chapters, it was fine. The Texan cowboy character (among several at the ashram) is a total hoot.

From India, she travels to Bali in Indonesia. She considered this to be her destiny, as she was once told (in a previous visit) by an old Balinese medicine man that she would eventually come back there and study with him. Her descriptions of Bali, the culture, and her often funny stories of the medicine man and other local people, were good enough for me to read aloud to S, who lived in Indonesia back in the 1990s. ("Um hum," she'd say knowingly.) The downside (?) to the Indonesia section is that here, the author takes a lover, and for at least a couple of chapters we're forced to read all about her sex life, which I was not particularly interested in. That part was seriously self-indulgent.

So the author got some sort of huge cash advance before she even wrote the book because she already has an established writing career. She probably would not start out her sentences with the word "so." Despite this, and despite a few pukey moments of the aforementioned self-indulgence, Eat, Pray, Love was decent enough for me to finish. It might be a good summer read for all you female readers out there (maybe some males, but I doubt it) who are looking for something a little different. Yes, I'm leaving out all kinds of stuff, like the whole new age-y growth experience thing. But I've been through that myself, so it's no big thing to me.

Rating: 4 stars.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Woman With Birthmark

Woman With Birthmark
Author: Håkan Nesser (translated from Swedish by Laurie Thompson)
Pantheon Books, 2009 (originally published in Sweden in 1996)
335 pages

Two books ago, I entered the world of Swedish mystery novels, and never quite managed to leave it. I found Woman With Birthmark while looking for books like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on Amazon.com several weeks ago, and decided to borrow it from my local library. I was the first person to check out the brand new book, which was written by an award-winning author of several books featuring the character known as Inspector Van Veeteren. 

Van Veeteren works in a city called Maardam, which is a fictional city -- but based on the other place and character names, seems to be somewhere in The Netherlands. Nesser writes with a strong sense of place, which gives this book a very European flavor.

In the opening section of Woman With Birthmark, a young woman is dealing with her mother's last wish: the elder woman had confessed something to her daughter just before she died, and implored her to do something about it. Next comes a series of bizarre murders as three men are killed under very similar circumstances. Van Veeteren and his colleagues at the police department find a connection with the dead men, who were all in the same military unit in 1965. It becomes a question of motive: what happened in 1965 that would cause someone to murder these men thirty years later?

Nesser provides us little insights into several of the characters, including the title character and the Inspector, but also Biederman, the last of the intended victims. Biederman is a despicable character. His growing paranoia is nearly comical at times. 

Van Veeteren is a dull, middle-aged, divorced father (I forget the details, such as whether he has one or two children, but he doesn't seem like a candidate for father of the year or anything.) Don't get me wrong - it's not that I don't like him - rather, that I just didn't feel anything for him. He has a new "girlfriend" - a psychologist who, upon hearing of the murders, tells him that the murderer is a woman. Then suddenly, a witness comes forward and sure enough, the suspect is a female . . . a mysterious woman with a birthmark. To my memory, there was only one reference to the birthmark in the book . . . I could be wrong, or perhaps it was a translation thing. Or perhaps it was meant to be that way.

I didn't enjoy this book very much, yet for some reason I kept reading it. I have no idea why. It took way too long. I still have one more Swedish mystery book on my shelf, but I think I'm going to read something else next.

Rating: 3.5 stars. OK, but not impressed.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle
Author: Andrew Davidson
Canongate, 2009 (UK paperback version)
499 pages

After I finished reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I made several trips to Barnes & Noble, Borders, and my local library looking for my next book. While I found lots of interesting candidates, none was as interesting as a book I had just received in the mail from across the Big Pond. I got my paperback copy of The Gargoyle from Amazon.co.uk, which even with international shipping, cost me less than a hardcover, currently the only version available here at home. As soon as I opened the box (which took a mere 5 days to get to me after I placed my order), The Gargoyle called to me like a siren. I knew it would be my next book.

Ironically, it's not so much about gargoyles as it is . . . love. Yet it's not a Romance novel. Actually, it's quite difficult to place this book into a genre. OK, so maybe there are Romance elements, but also Historical, Contemporary, and even Fantasy. It's a magical book, featuring some of the most unlikely and yet memorable characters to come along in a really long time. The main character (now that I'm thinking back, does he even have a name? The book is told in first person. Honestly, I cannot remember if he is named) is a former porn star and producer of blue movies who, in the opening chapter, is badly burned in a car accident. The description of the accident and of the resulting burn treatment is not for the faint of heart. But hang in there, I promise . . . it will be worth it.

The story really takes off when the "other" main character is introduced. Marianne Engel is a successful sculptress (she sculpts gargoyle-like creatures) who bounces into our storyteller's hospital room one day and begins to mesmerize him with tales of their long ago life and love. Long ago, as in the fourteenth century. Of course, at the time they meet in the present day, Marianne is also a "guest" in the hospital . . . in the psych ward. But our main character is fascinated by his visitor, who tells amazing, timeless stories of her life in medieval Germany but also of other times and places: Italy, Japan, Iceland, England. How is it possible that this woman tells such realistic stories? Or that she speaks fluent German, Latin, Italian, and Japanese? Could it be that she really is seven hundred years old? (And hey, I promise you, there are no vampires in this book.)

The secondary characters are equally well-developed, like the Japanese physical therapist who works with our main character; Marianne Engel's manager; and a dog named Bougatsa (after the Greek pastry). While love is the major "theme" of the book ("Love is as strong as death, and hard as hell" graces the front cover of my paperback), there are other themes, like good vs. evil, head vs. heart, duty vs. destiny, faith vs. logic, etc. Dante's Inferno plays a role - ironic, since the main character is a burn victim. I'm sure there's lots of other stuff I could point out here, but it would be better for you to just read the book.

I enjoyed The Gargoyle so much that I read it slowly on purpose. Why? Because I didn't want it to end. And neither will you. Go get it now. 

Rating: 5 stars  . . . YES! 5 stars!!! 


Monday, May 11, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Translated from Swedish by: Reg Keeland
Maclehose Press, 2005 (English translation 2008)
533 pages

This could very well be the greatest mystery novel ever written. Did that get your attention? I hope so, because I want everyone I know to read this amazing book. It's so . . . different . . . and extremely well-written. [To get an idea of what some "real" critics think, check out this short video from Amazon.com.]

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a multi-layered, formula-busting motorcycle ride of a book that was given to me by my Swedish friend "K" last summer on my last working day in Vienna. (I had not heard of the book or the author at the time, but "K" told me that it was a phenomenal success in Sweden, but had only recently been translated into English.) Released in the USA in late September of last year, it became an immediate bestseller here and even today is #250 on the Amazon.com bestseller list. Not bad at all for a Swedish mystery novel - especially considering it's been on the list for seven months now!

In Sweden, the title of the book was "Men Who Hate Women" . . . I really don't want to give too many spoilers out, but yes, there are a couple of those in this book. Fortunately, the book isn't so much about them as it is the other characters: Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who was recently convicted of libel against a billionaire businessman. Lisbeth Salander is a top-notch investigator with some strange behaviors and several secrets. Mikael and Lisbeth make quite a team, but there are several interesting secondary characters, as well, such as Henrik Vanger, the octogenarian CEO of a prominent Swedish corporation, who longs to know the truth behind the disappearance of his favorite niece back in 1966. And that is the biggest mystery to be solved in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Or is it?

Things started out kind of slow, but for some reason I hung in there, and I'm really glad I did. There were so many twists and turns, so many interesting characters. There is definitely something very European - maybe Swedish, specifically - about the book. Certainly there is an aspect of the characters, the settings and locales that's very different from the usual "American" mystery novel. Some people call it "Scandinavian noir." 

Larsson's frequent references to other mystery writers (including Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Sara Parestky) and formulae ("locked-room mystery") reveals him to be one who read his share of mystery novels. I say "read" in past-tense because sadly (and also ironically), Larsson died not long after delivering the manuscripts of this book and two others to his publisher. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or "Men Who Hate Women") was supposed to be the first of up to ten books in a series. Three books were complete. The second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire is not yet available in the USA, but can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk - it's supposed to be even better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I've already ordered it. 

I have to warn you that there are a couple of violent scenes. OK, you were warned. Now, go read the book. If you are over 21. 

Rating: 4.75 stars.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Made from Scratch

Made from Scratch
Author: Jenna Woginrich
Storey Publishing, 2008
184 pages

This cute little book is part memoir, part advice on being more self-sufficient through farming, or as the subtitle states: Discovering the pleasures of a handmade life. Hey, I like that, even though I typically choose to spend my "free" time doing other things - like reading. Yet, this book was worth my time. I was entertained, inspired, and I even learned some stuff. 

You might wonder why I would even read a book like this to start with. Well, I read an article in Mother Earth News magazine by the author, who happens to be a young graphic designer by day and homesteader/blogger by night and weekend. Cold Antler Farm blog is as adorable as it is informative. But wait, this is supposed to be about the book.

Truth is, I haven't read all of it yet. But I'm reviewing it now, because this one is a keeper that I want to savor and re-read. That's right, folks, this one is going back to the library, but will be replaced with a permanent version for my library. I'll read Jenna's tales of chickens and dogs and Angora rabbits; her advice on country cooking and country living; and peruse the resources in the aptly-named Research, Son! section. Jenna just makes farming seem so cool.

Rating: 4.5 stars, so far. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Sister's Keeper

My Sister's Keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult
Hodder and Stoughton (UK), 2004
407 pages

First of all, it's great to be reading again. April has been way busier than I ever expected, and my reading suffered. Actually, it was me who suffered, due to lack of reading. Thankfully, I chose a really awesome book to get me back into the swing of things.

I bought My Sister's Keeper somewhere in Europe last year, but I don't remember where. I know I bought it in Europe, though, because it still has the price sticker on it, in Euros. Also, the cover looks different than the U.S. version - because what I have is the British version. But I didn't buy it in the UK or otherwise the price would have been in pounds. (LOL, I digress.)

Whatever. The fact is, I've been seeing some stories on those entertainment shows lately about My Sister's Keeper the movie, which will be released in the U.S. in June and stars Cameron Diaz, Alec Baldwin, Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine, Jason Patric, and Sofia Vassilieva (the adorable girl who plays the oldest daughter on the TV show Medium), and others. Anyway, just by reading about the movie on the Internet Movie Database, I can already tell it will not be exactly like the book. But then the movie never is, is it? In the book, the character played by Alec Baldwin is 32 years old, for example. And there is no Aunt Kelly (but there is an Aunt Zanne).

But this is supposed to be about the book. OK. I was sucked right in . . . the opening "chapter" is written from the perspective of ??? I was never really sure if it was Jesse, the brother, or Anna, the sister of Kate. Kate is a sixteen year old who has had leukemia since she was two years old. Turns out that Jesse was never a match in terms of being able to help her with donations, so their parents used modern science to create Anna ("test tube baby") with the idea that Anna would be able to provide umbilical cord blood to help save Kate. Over the years, though, Kate had more needs . . . platelets, bone marrow, etc. and each time, Anna donated - not through her own consent but because it was what was expected. Anna's needs, it seems, have always been neglected (as have Jesse's.) Now, Kate's disease has progressed so that she is on dialysis and needs a kidney transplant. And everyone is expecting Anna to give her sister a kidney.

Anna, age 13, sues her parents for "medical emancipation" or the right to make her own medical decisions. Enter a couple of interesting characters: Campbell, the attorney, who has a medical secret of his own; Julia, Campbell's long-ago girlfriend, who is unexpectedly reunited with Campbell when she is appointed by the court as Anna's guardian ad litem; and "Judge" - who happens to be the coolest fictional canine I've come across in quite some time.

Mix them with Anna's complicated family - her lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-Mom, Sara; her firefighter Dad, Brian; troubled brother Jesse, and of course, Kate - and you have a very interesting, thought-provoking story of family love, loss, and fate. 

I could hardly put My Sister's Keeper down. The only disappointment for me was the ending. I won't spoil, but prepare yourself for the unexpected. Not sure how the movie will deal with it, but most likely, it would be a good idea to carry some tissues.

Rating: 4.75 stars.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Snowbound

Snowbound (Kindle Edition)
Author: Janice Kay Johnson
Amazon Digital Services, 2009
288 pages

As promised, a review of a really bad book that was a free Kindle download. It didn't take me long to realize that quantity does not equal quality. Snowbound froze me over so badly, I haven't been able to read for over a week now.

Lots of people would disagree with my opinion that this is a really bad book. In fact, it has 4.5 stars on Amazon.com. I'm not sure if these are real people or friends of the author, but it doesn't matter. I think the real problem is that Romance is not my genre.

Fiona is a secondary prep school teacher who takes a wrong turn in the mountains while driving a group of students home from an academic competition. A snowstorm blows in and they become stranded at an inn up on a mountain. Guess what? A sort of hunky veteran of the war in Iraq is the reclusive innkeeper who takes them in for several days. Sparks begin to fly between the innkeeper and the teacher. It is SO predictable and boring. I don't know why I kept reading as long as I did, but I eventually quit at 68% complete because I just couldn't take it anymore.

Next time I'll just PAY for what I really want. (By the way, I've deleted all of the "free" books from my Kindle because I can't take another experience like this one!)

Rating: 1.5 stars (just for keeping me interested that long).

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Author: Junot Diaz
Riverhead, 2007 
352 pages (Kindle edition)

I bought a Kindle 2 a couple of weeks ago and this was the first book I chose to read on it. I really had no idea what to expect. I just bought it because the description sounded interesting. 

The plot centers around a young man named Oscar. He lives in New Jersey but his family connections are in the Dominican Republic. Back during the years when Rafael Trujillo ran the country, Oscar's grandfather - a prominent physician/scholar/writer - got into a bit of trouble with the dictator. Since then, the family has had an amazing streak of bad luck. This bad luck was deemed a sort of curse that had been put on the family, and considering all that Oscar's mother went through in her life, it's amazing that Oscar was even born.

All of his life, Oscar's been . . . different. He's an intellectual, a sci-fi geek, with an amazing propensity toward fantasy. He's also obese, with a perception of himself that isn't anything like how the world sees him. He reminds me of the main character in Confederacy of Dunces. I feel sorry for him until he gets on my nerves - and then I no longer feel sorry for him and want the book to end. But each time I think we're wrapping things up, the narrator takes me in a new direction. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao seems neither. But for some reason I feel guilty for feeling that way.

My review falls short of the kudos this book probably deserves. I believe it is a first novel for the author, and if that's true, it's definitely a fine debut. This is the type of book they make you read and analyze in university classes. On the whole, it's interesting (I never knew all the historical stuff about Trujillo and the DR). It took me a long time to figure out "who" was telling the story (it's not Oscar) and I also had to work my way through (or ignore) many of the Spanish phrases and DR localisms. (I found out that the Kindle 2 dictionary doesn't recognize Spanish! English only.) 

Almost everything in the book is tragic, including the end to Oscar's brief life, which is foreshadowed even in the title so you know it's going to happen. The question is why, and if you read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, you'll find out.

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

As to the Kindle, I'm finding it to be really easy to use. Just about everyday there's some type of free book to download, and I've been taking them even though they're not my usual genre. So, don't be surprised if you read some reviews of really stupid books on here soon. Oh, well. 

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rebel Angels

Rebel Angels
Author: Libba Bray
Random House, 2006
583 pages

This is the second book in a trilogy - I reviewed the first book (A Great and Terrible Beauty) on 25 December 2008 in case you want to check the archives. Actually this is one of those rare instances, I think, where the second book is better than the first. Although A Great and Terrible Beauty did a good job of setting up the scene and introducing us to Victorian-era England and all the main characters (Gemma, Felicity, Ann and Pippa), Rebel Angels is full of action.

It's nearly time for Christmas break at Spence Academy, that excellent boarding school for girls. Mysteriously, a new teacher arrives (in the middle of the night). From the beginning there is something unsettling about her, and Gemma soon begins to suspect that the teacher is an enemy of the Order, a secret band of special women (including our main characters, of course - as well as Gemma's late mother, whose murder set off Gemma's self-discovery that she is the long-awaited new leader-figure of the Order).

Christmas break comes and the girls go to their homes in London - except Ann, the scholarship student, who has no home to go to. She is taken in by Felicity and the girls concoct a story that Ann is the recently-discovered heiress of a (nonexistent) Duke with connections to the Russian royal family. The behaviors of the society class of London in the late 19th century are as amusing as they are disgusting, and we learn a lot about how people in Gemma's world treated each other and those who were different. A dark secret of Felicity's will be revealed . .  we learn how she came to be known as the strong one. In the meantime, Gemma is dealing with some issues of her own . . . her father's secret drug addiction, for one.

As the title suggests, there are allusions to Milton's Paradise Lost - throughout Rebel Angels I wondered which of the girls would fall from grace and was kept guessing. Pippa was the obvious, but power-hungry Felicity and desperate Ann kept getting themselves into situations. It soon became apparent that "fallen" could refer to a number of the secondary characters, as well.

We learn more about Kartik, the young Indian man with whom Gemma became acquainted in the first book. A couple of sparks fly between them - will it lead to anything? Hmmm. We're not even really sure if he can be trusted. Two other new interesting characters of note (in addition to the new teacher) are Nell, a girl who lives in the insane asylum where Gemma's brother Tom works, and Simon, a dashing young man of Gemma's class who wants to court her. How will she respond to that, especially when she has an underworld to save?

A lot will happen in the 2 to 3 weeks covered by this book, and it's a mesmerizing page-turner, especially in the fantasy sequences when the girls are in "The Realm." Things don't always turn out as expected - even in the end. I guess that's why it's a trilogy. I definitely want to read the third book.

Rating: 4.5 stars (slightly more than the first book)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Confessions of a Pagan Nun

Confessions of a Pagan Nun
Author: Kate Horsley
Shambala, 2002
188 pages

How do I begin to describe this little gem of a book? Written in the form of an autobiography (supposedly from scrolls found and translated from Irish Gaelic) of a woman who was born into Ireland’s pre-Christian “pagan” society, apprenticed as a Druid priestess, and winds up as a nun in the abbey of St. Brigit at the dawn of the Christian era in Ireland.

Gwynneve is a literate woman, and her job at the abbey is to translate church documents from Latin and Greek. As she tells her life story, she is translating some works of Patrick, the man whom we know today as Ireland’s patron saint. We learn of her origins in a village far away and of her love for her mother, a kind woman who was the essence of feminine beauty and a sort of healer in the community; it was from her that Gwynneve learned about the healing powers of herbs and plants. We learn of Gwynneve’s apprenticeship with a Druid priest who was also her lover for many years, and of her losses.

Gwynneve’s firsthand experience of man’s inhumanity to man perplexes her, as she doesn’t understand how the Christians can have such a beautiful theology (she loves that Jesus Christ was all about love and helping the less fortunate), yet be so violent and extreme. The abbot at St. Brigit’s, for example . . . she witnesses him having wild sex in the church with another one of the nuns. So obsessed is he with his own guilt that he has himself castrated so that something like this will never happen again. Gwynneve doesn’t understand why Christians deny themselves the passions of the body – any why they would inflict pain on themselves to overcome it. After all, according to her culture and upbringing, pleasure is something to be celebrated.

So she’s caught between two worlds – the old pagan world and the new Christian world – and she doesn’t really belong in either, entirely. She finds herself drawn to St. Brigit (formerly a Druid goddess? Made a saint by the church in attempt to convert the locals?), yet she is also drawn to Jesus Christ’s messages of love and helping the less fortunate. But the Druids have lost their power now and the Christians are in control. The tide has turned. Forever.

They say the winners write the history books. What knowledge was lost in this transition of power? What power was lost by women as Ireland transitioned to a patriarchal religion? (Gwynneve’s life embodies the “death of the divine feminine” in so many ways.)

There’s just no way I can do justice to this small but powerful book. Reading it was like a dream. I was transported to 5th century Ireland. I was there. Wow. Yet it’s not an easy book to read and it may be way to slow (even boring) for some. I think that it helped that I’d been to Ireland before and knew a little about the historical part. OK, really a little. But at least I had some context, which I think will be helpful for anyone who reads this book.

Rating: 4 stars. 


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life As We Knew It

Life As We Knew It
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt, 2008 (originally published 2006)
337 pages

First, let me say that this is one of the scariest books I've ever read. Not stupid scary, but realistic scary. It's scary because . . . it really could happen.

Miranda is an ordinary, average teenager living in rural Pennsylvania, just outside of a small town. As the book opens, she learns that her Dad's new wife is pregnant. This is a difficult concept for her (apparently her parents haven't been divorced that long, wounds are still fresh, and her Dad has already moved to another state and remarried) but she tries to be grown-up about it, which makes her Dad and stepmother very pleased. Miranda writes about her feelings and her life in diary form, and just a week or so after the opening, everyone is excited about an astronomical event: an asteroid is due to hit the moon.

However, no one could have predicted that the impact of the asteroid would be powerful enough to shift the moon from its axis, bringing it much closer to the earth. Suddenly, there is a global emergency: tsunamis and tidal waves submerge entire countries and states; hundreds of millions of people are killed and more are homeless. Governments collapse. Weird things happen. 

But this is only the beginning. Soon, earthquakes begin occurring in unusual places. Long-dormant volcanoes in places no one even knew their were dormant volcanoes begin erupting. This changes the weather - first frost comes in August instead of October, which kills crops that would have otherwise been used as food. The winter is longer, colder, and darker than usual.

Quick thinking and planning by Miranda's mom in the beginning of the catastrophe ensured that they had enough food and supplies . . . at least in the beginning. But as winter encroaches, one disaster leads to another. Will Miranda and her family survive? Will she ever see her new baby brother or sister? Will life ever get back to normal? You'll have to read the book to find out.

This is a Young Adult novel, but adults who like disaster stories will enjoy it. It certainly opens the doors to some interesting "what if" conversations. It might prompt some to stock up on canned goods. And it certainly makes you think twice about wanting that oceanfront property.

CREEPY!

Rating: 4 stars.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The 19th Wife

The 19th Wife
Author: David Ebershoff
Random House, 2008
507 pages

Every now and then a book comes along that just surprises you with either unexpectedly good writing or a deliciously palatable plot. Here's one that has both. The 19th Wife is a book within a book, a thesis within a history, a complex web of plots and twists. It's just clever. And I like that.

Ann Eliza Young was one of polygamist Latter-Day Saint (Mormon) leader Brigham Young's wives back in the late 19th century. Apparently she divorced him, wrote a book, and toured on the lecture circuit, making her quite the tabloid celebrity of her day as she campaigned against polygamy. Eventually, the Church had to end its official policy on plural marriage, and she gets part of the credit for creating awareness of the various negative aspects of that institution. The 19th Wife is in part "autobiography of Ann Eliza Young" combined with various "historical documents" written by people in Ann's life: her father, her son, her brother, and Brigham himself. 

Meanwhile in Mesadale, Utah - a desert outpost of a town known to be the home of an offshoot of the church that still practices polygamy - a family patriarch is murdered. His "19th wife" is implicated, arrested, and prepares to be convicted in what will surely be the trial of the century. Her son, Jordan, returns to Utah from California to help, and through his narrative we get the perspective of polygamy's affect on a 21st century male - who happens to be gay. 

The books goes back and forth between characters, writing styles, and centuries. Ebershoff is convincing using any voice. Despite the mediocre ratings on Amazon.com and other book review sites, I liked it a LOT. It's one of the best books I've read this year (OK, I know it's just February). Consider it highly recommended from this reviewer!

Rating: 5 stars because I LOVE the writing. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets

The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets
Author: Korin Bridges
Create-Space, 2008
422 pages

It wasn't all that long ago that a friend of mine mentioned to me that she was writing a novel. My first impression was skeptical. After all, I'm writing a book, too! I'm constantly writing a book; I just never seem to finish. Not only did my friend finish her book, she published it! And she wrote a second book, and is now almost finished with her third! 

The main character in The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets is a young woman named Isabella who has a group of close girlfriends, of whom she is the clear leader. One night, on a whim, the women decide to visit a new age store to have a psychic reading. They learn that each one of them has a special "gift" and this draws them into a supernatural world, the likes of which they had previously only seen in movies or read about in paranormal romance novels. I can say no more about the plot except to say that the ending is a cliffhanger and you will immediately want to read the second book.

I like that this first-in-a-series installment features some really strong females, including a few who don't fit the usual stereotype. Even the men are a little different. Strong women plus hot men always equals steamy. So don't make the mistake of reading Chapter 17 on an airplane, like I did. This series may have been inspired in part by Twilight, but it's not for Young Adults.

I actually liked The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets, despite some editorial issues that Korin became aware of after publication. (She gets extra credit because unlike me, she actually FINISHED her book(s) and is now officially a published novelist.) I really believe that if the right person would come across this book, Korin could be the next Charlaine Harris, because I could so easily see this story as a TV series like True Blood

The Awakening: Sisterhood of Secrets is not available in stores, but can be found on Amazon.com. Check it out. Read something pure and raw for a change. Invest in a local author. Be inspired that if Korin can make it happen, then you can, too. (And so can I, if I can just focus on something long enough to finish it!)

[I should also insert a plug for "S" because she designed the book cover. She also designed the book cover for Book #2, which I believe will be available in March.]

Rating: 4 stars - for the story that kept my attention, and because I like the Sadie character so much.  :-)