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 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.