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.