Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let Me In

Let Me In
Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist
St. Martin's Griffin, 2010 (media tie-in)
486 pages

Originally published as Låt Den Rätte Komma in Sweden (Let The Right One In is the title of the first English translation), this novel by an author that many are calling "the new Stephen King" is the most unique and creepy book I've read in a really long time. The book (and its Swedish language film adaptation) has been very popular in Europe, and a Hollywood version of the film (renamed Let Me In) was released in the States this year. I haven't seen either movie, and this isn't a movie review blog, so back to the book.

The story centers around Oskar, a middle school-aged boy who's tormented by neighborhood bullies. Oskar lives with his Mom in a suburb of Stockholm (I don't think the author cares too much for suburbia given his dreary descriptions of this one!) and he's a really odd kid, yet most of us should be able to relate to him. One evening after a particularly traumatic day at school, Oskar meets his new neighbor. Eli is a strange girl who smells bad and only comes out at night, but she and Oskar become friends. Oskar eventually realizes that Eli is a vampire . . . not only is she a vampire, but she's 200+ years old and, oh, she's not really a girl.

Woven into Oskar's story are those of several other characters who will eventually cross paths with Oskar. The most disturbing (and disgusting) is Håkan, who becomes the monster on the outside that he considers himself to be on the inside. Despite Håkan's actions, for some reason I still felt sorry for him when glances of his humanity came through. (He kind of reminded me of Frankenstein in that way.) But some scenes involving him are really, really gross.

There's a born-again Christian police officer, several absent/distant parents, a group of old stoners, a man with too many cats, and a teenager named Tommy whose story kind of runs parallel to Oskar's. At some point or another, we get into the heads of nearly all the characters to see things their way. Eventually we get Eli's story, who s/he is and how s/he became a vampire. There's an underlying current of sadness and gloom that makes you wonder if perhaps Lindqvist wrote this during one of Sweden's long, dark winters. And yet there's hope, exhibited in characters who undergo life-changing experiences and an edge-of-your-seat final scene of justice that will make you say "Yes!!!" out loud.

It really is an example of classic horror genre. Yet in a way, Let Me In is a love story, multiple love stories, actually. It's a friendship story that asks: what would you do/how far would you go for your friend? All the while weaving through multiple stories of acceptance of self and others for who they are. Each of us has an inner monster, and it's up to us to keep our monsters in check. Some say that's the difference between humans and . . . well, non-humans.

If you have a tendency to bite your nails, you'll lose a few while reading Let Me In. I know I did. Recommended if you like horror or suspense, or general vampire tales.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Fatal Fixer-Upper

Fatal Fixer-Upper
Author: Jennie Bentley
Berkley, 2008
336 pages

My recent adventures as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity have me interested in all aspects of construction and home renovation. As I searched my shelf for a new read, this one popped out at me. Fatal Fixer-Upper is the first in a series known as the Do-It-Yourself Mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Avery Baker. You've just gotta love that title, especially if you watch as much DIY and HGTV as we do in our home.

Avery is a thirty-something interior designer who works in her boyfriend Philippe's furniture store in Manhattan. Philippe is a beret-wearing Frenchman with a roving eye and penchant for speaking in French language clichés. Avery gets an unexpected letter from a nonagenarian great aunt from Maine; she barely knows Aunt Inga and only vaguely remembers a childhood family trip to Maine. The intriguing letter requests for Avery to visit as soon as possible. But Avery arrives too late; Aunt Inga is dead, supposedly after falling down some stairs in her old Victorian home.

At first, Avery isn't very interested in sticking around the small Maine village any longer than she must. She thinks she'll just sell the house and go back to New York. But when she realizes that Philippe is having an affair with a young woman barely half his age, she decides to use the distance to her advantage and renovate the house. In the meantime, she meets some interesting (good and bad) locals, including the hunky handyman Derek; a friendly bed and breakfast owner; an unscrupulous cousin; and a very annoying real estate agent. She also learns that on the day Aunt Inga died, a local college professor disappeared.  And did I mention that someone doesn't want her around? A threatening letter and a couple of menacing break-ins rattle Avery's nerves.

Are these events related? This, of course, is yet another mystery, and soon Avery finds herself conducting her own investigation. Along the way she comes across an old legend that links the town to Marie Antoinette. The historical trivia adds a nice element to a story that just keeps getting more interesting with each page. Oh, and Philippe? Turns out he has a few mysteries of his own. You'll have to read to find out how it goes!

I liked the book and will probably read more of this series when I'm looking for an escape . . . or perhaps some home improvement tips and ideas. :-)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Art of Racing in the Rain

The Art of Racing in the Rain
Author: Garth Stein
HarperCollins, 2008
336 pages

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my apartment building's office to pick up a package. While I was waiting for the leasing agent to finish up with a potential renter, a young man entered the office. He was carrying a book. I notice these things. It was The Art of Racing in the Rain. I overheard the young man say it was one of the best books he's ever read. I really noticed that.

I picked up the free sample on my Kindle, thinking this was probably not for me, but I was curious. I was hooked after just reading a few sentences. The narrator of book is Enzo, a dog (Labradoodle, if I remember correctly) looking back on his life. Enzo really wants to be a human. He's spent quite a bit of time watching television, and he's very smart. I love this dog!

Enzo recalls his early days on a farm in Washington state, and lovingly recounts his first meeting with the man who would become his best friend. Denny is a would-be race car driver who knows the art of racing in the rain (there's a lot of auto racing "philosophy" in the book - for that reason it should appeal to a wider variety of readers). As Denny goes through life's changes (marriage, fatherhood, ups and downs - including some really BIG ups and downs), Enzo is right there with him. All the way. Did I say I love this dog? I think you'll fall in love with him, too.

You'll also fall in love with Denny. He's such a gentleman, and a really good guy, which seems so rare in fiction. There are times when you'll probably want to punch someone on his behalf, yet you know that Denny wouldn't want you to punch them.

I really did like this book. The only problem I had was the ending. That's no fault of the author or the characters. You see, books don't normally make me cry. I can only think of one other time this has happened. But I had a near meltdown at the end of this book. So if you read it, get some tissues!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Help

The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2009
464 pages

As someone who was born during the Civil Rights era and raised in the South, I grew up hearing stories (from different perspectives) about what things were like back then. This is a period in history that has always fascinated me, and I've always gotten a great deal out of reading books and watching movies about it. That said . . .

The Help takes place in early 1960s Jackson, Mississippi and is "narrated" by three characters: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter. Skeeter is a young white woman who has recently graduated from college and wants to be a writer. Aibileen and Minny are black women who work in white homes doing the cooking, cleaning, and often the raising of children (Aibileen, for example, has raised 17 white children, and Skeeter herself was raised by a domestic helper named Constantine, who moved away without saying goodbye - this weights heavily on Skeeter's mind.)

Aibileen is in her fifties, single, and has recently suffered the loss of her only child, a young adult son who'd had quite a bit of academic potential. Thirty-something Minny is married to Leroy, who beats her when he's drunk. They have several children ranging in ages from toddler to teenager. Skeeter lives at home with her parents on a farm that her mother refers to as "the plantation."

For quite some time, Skeeter's been friends with a group of young women who are now the leaders of a Jackson societal group, led by Miss Hilly (who has to be one of the meanest beeyotches in recent literary history). The more Skeeter observes, the more she realizes the inequities of Jackson life. Her growing awareness leads her to form a relationship with Aibileen and Minny, which results in the three of them collaborating to write a book about race relations in Jackson that will shake that city's foundations. As the three narrators get to know each other (and some of the other characters such as the cold-hearted young mother Elizabeth and the insecure Celia, who married her way to the "right side" of the tracks, so to speak), they find that they have a lot more in common than they ever realized.

You'll laugh, you'll want to cry, and you'll really want to hit somebody (a couple of characters, I mean) when you read The Help.

Thanks to my friends Q and L for recommending The Help.  I don't often say "everyone should read this!" but in The Help's case, I really do think so. In fact, I'll go so far as to state that this book is the To Kill a Mockingbird of our generation. I'm not really doing it justice with this lame book review, and for that, I apologize. But run, don't walk, to get your copy . . . and start reading it today.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Definitely Dead

Definitely Dead
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2007
324 pages

Definitely Dead is the sixth book in the Southern Vampire series featuring telepath and self-proclaimed barmaid Sookie Stackhouse. This is the book series that became the hugely popular cable TV phenomenon, and True Blood the TV show is quite different from the books. I get confused sometimes. But things are starting to make more sense now. I think.

Let's see. In the past five books, we've learned that Sookie is irresistible to vampires, especially Bill the Confederate Army soldier and Eric the Viking. Her brother Jason and boss Sam are both shapeshifters. Sookie is now acquainted with witches and fairies. It kind of makes you wonder what's next. Book 6 provides a major revelation about Sookie . . . turns out, there's a genetic reason for her uniqueness. (Which I won't reveal yet. Sorry! Will have to see where Book 7 takes it.)

Of course, there's more of a plot than that in Book 6. Lots of things are going on in tiny Bon Temps, Louisiana: Sookie gets an unofficial request to help with a police investigation of a missing boy; the parents of a missing werewolf stalk Sookie for answers; and Sookie has a new boyfriend (a were-tiger named Quinn who kind of reminds me of Mr. Clean). Oh, but we're just getting started, for now the creepy Mr. Cataliades is in town to fetch Sookie to come to New Orleans. You see, Sookie's cousin Hadley - a vamp tramp-turned-vampire and one of the Queen of Louisiana's favorites - is dead again. For real this time. And by command of Her Majesty, the newlywed (to the King of Arkansas) Sophie-Anne, Sookie needs to close out Hadley's estate. When Sookie arrives at Hadley's place, she finds a "newborn" vampire waking up, and all heck breaks loose. She also learns the real reason for her summons by the Queen. Never fear. Sookie will save the day.

Definitely Dead introduces us to some new characters, including the Queen (we may have met her already, but we get to know her so much better in this book) and Hadley's landlord, a "good" witch named Amelia. We get to know Quinn a little better, and it's very clear that Bill and Eric are not the only ones in love with Sookie. There's now a third serious competitor. Who will win Sookie's love? I guess I'll have to keep reading. And watching.

I can't help myself.

Previous books in the series that I've reviewed:
Book 1 - Dead Until Dark
Book 2 - Living Dead In Dallas
Book 3 - Club Dead
Book 4 - Dead To The World
Book 5 - Dead As A Doornail

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
Author: Stieg Larsson
Translated from Swedish by: Reg Keeland
Knopf, 2010
576 pages

My Swedish friend Katarina introduced me to Stieg Larsson's work in 2008 when she gave me The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the first book in the Millennium series. I didn't read it until May 2009, but when I finally did, it blew me away. I pronounced it "the greatest mystery novel ever written" in my blog. Book two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, was even more riveting. I wanted to read the third and final book -- The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest -- right away, and yet I didn't because I didn't want it to end. My curiosity finally got the best of me, though. So here we are.

The second book ended with a cliffhanger: heroine Salander had been shot, buried alive, and was being rescued; meanwhile, the "Bad Guy" was (we hoped) bleeding to death. Book three opens from the perspective of the surgeon who's working on both characters and then shifts to a totally new intriguing story that features secret government organizations and cover-ups. Much of the book is focused on the police investigation and legal proceedings, so there's not nearly as much action in The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest as in the previous books. It's more of a thriller than a mystery, but still moves at the quick pace we've come to know and love. We get to know some of the minor characters more (in particular, Giannini, Michael Blomkvist's attorney sister -- she rocks) and meet some new ones. I'm sticking to my usual "don't give too much away" policy here, but you can always find more plot details online if you want.

My biggest concern about The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest before reading it (other than coming to the end of the series) was that it wouldn't end to my satisfaction. I had read somewhere online that Larsson had actually planned a series of seven (or more?) books featuring journalist Blomkvist and genius Salander. However, when I finally got to the end, I felt as if most of my questions were answered.

Still, I'm a little depressed that there won't be more books. I maintain my opinion in previous entries that Salander is one of the most unique literary characters I've ever "met" and I will miss her dearly. The bottom line: I LOVE THIS TRILOGY. Stieg Larsson, why did you have to leave us so soon?

P.S. If you also liked the Millennium series, you might want to check out the three Swedish movies based on the books. They're in Swedish (of course!) but are subtitled in English. Noomi Rapace, the actress who plays Salander -- well, she totally is Salander -- great casting there. The movies follow the books about as well as any movie ever does. There's supposed to be a Hollywood version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo coming out sometime next year and I will definitely want to see it . . . Daniel Craig should make an interesting Blomkvist. Not sure about some of the other casting, though. We'll see!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sprinkle With Murder

Sprinkle With Murder
Author: Jenn McKinley
Berkley, 2010
215 pages

I needed a quick read after my last book, so I grabbed this one off my shelf. I was missing my Foodie friends back in Indianapolis, especially my friend Lisa B. (Hey, Lisa!), who has a talent for and an interest in all things Cupcake.

Fairy Tale Cupcakes is a cupcakery (is that a word? If not, it should be) in a tourist area of Scottsdale, Arizona run by Melanie ("Mel") and Angie, who've been friends since grade school.  Mel was bound for a career in marketing, and Angie in education, but they decided to go for their dream of making people happy with cupcakes instead. They've got some simply amazing creations, and if you read the book, you'll actually find some recipes - what a nice bonus! (Unfortunately, I'm on a diet right now. Not quite sure how I managed to read Sprinkle With Murder under those circumstances, but I did.)

Unfortunately, they've also got a jealous rival (Olivia, who owns the other cupcakery in town) who's doing crazy things like driving past their store several times a day giving them dirty looks. But there's a bigger problem: best friend and investor Tate (who grew up to be a rich corporate executive) is about to marry Christie Stevens, a bee-yotch-y fashion designer who can't seem to get along with anyone. When Christie hires the ladies at Fairy Tale to make 500 cupcakes for the wedding, she can't just let them bake. She insists that they come up with five original recipes, which Christie (not Mel and Angie) will own.

Main character Mel isn't happy with this idea, but she accepts the challenge, and sets about creating some really yummy-sounding flavors - including a dark chocolate cake, cherry filling, dark chocolate ganache icing with dried cherries that sounds divine if you ask me. Mel sends the samples to Christie via Christie's assistants. When she goes to Christie's office the next morning to get her feedback on the samples, Mel finds Christie dead. Um, and there's a piece of a cupcake in one of her hands.

Of course, everyone thinks Mel did it. When business tapers off as a result of nasty rumors, Mel decided she has to find the real killer. She and Angie come up with some very clever investigative techniques and encounter some colorful individuals along the way. Whodunnit? The crazy cupcake rival? The dour, spooky assistant who looks a lot like a grown-up Wednesday from The Addams Family? The cross-dressing photographer who Christie constantly yelled at? Or perhaps Tate, the fiance and best friend of Mel and Angie? (And just why was he marrying Christie, anyway?!!!)

Unlike most cozy mysteries, I didn't guess the killer until that character was revealed. The murder technique was original, and all things considered, I really enjoyed the book. The only downside to me was what I considered an overuse of references to Mel's former weight issues and references to emotional eating. I really don't think it's necessary to get into that. After all, cozy mysteries are supposed to be fun. And darn it, if I can't eat the cupcakes, at least I can read about someone else eating them -- without guilt! :-)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Cutting For Stone

Cutting For Stone
Author: Abraham Verghese
Vintage, 2009
560 pages

Have you missed me? I can't believe it's been over two months since my last book review. There are lots of reasons for that, but the bottom line is, due to personal issues I just haven't had much time to read lately. I want to be very clear that my slowness has nothing to do with the book itself, because Cutting For Stone is, quite simply, one of the best books I've ever read.

In "real" life, author Abraham Verghese is a surgeon. Born in Ethiopia to parents who were from India, he came to the USA during a period of civil unrest in his birth country. These facts of his life play very heavily in Cutting For Stone. Main character Marion Stone is a surgeon who was born in Ethiopia whose mother, adoptive mother, and adoptive father are from India. The book is the story of Marion's life; of before his life, really, since it also tells the story of how is mother got to Ethiopia and how she met his father. I won't give away too many details, but Marion also has a twin brother named Shiva, who is his mirror image not just in physical appearances but sometimes in personality as well.

The twins are raised in a Hospital near Addis Ababa. Their adoptive mother, Hema, is the hospital's gynecologist; adoptive father Ghosh is a surgeon. So the boys grow up learning about medicine. Their extended "family" includes a woman with Eritrean connections and her daughter, Genet. Genet is about the same age as Marion and Shiva, and although they are raised so close together as to be brother and sister, Marion falls in love with Genet when they are still young. The three of them go through all sorts of adventures together, and share many secrets, including some that they will never be able to tell anyone.

Unfortunately, something happens between Marion, Shiva, and Genet that will change all their lives forever. This sets a chain of events in motion that is both fascinating and agonizing to read. Verghese weaves in bits of Ethiopian history throughout the book, and his explanations really helped me to understand the complicated situations that contributed to so many people leaving that country for the USA, Canada, and elsewhere.

At times, things seem a little overly detailed. The descriptions of medical procedures are both interesting and tedious. I mean, really, did I need to know that much about fistulas or vasectomies or liver transplants? No. But that's one of the things about the book that makes it so real.

There are so many rich characters. Ghosh is my favorite. His humor, his passion for medicine, and the thoughts in his mind as he relentlessly pursued Hema to be his wife made this so. He wasn't perfect (and one of his mistakes - if it is a mistake - isn't revealed until very late in the book), but I admired him. There were characters that I disliked a great deal. And then there was Marion. Unforgettable Marion!

I can't say enough about this book. Yes, it took me a while to get through it, but if I'd had nothing else to do with my time, I would have finished it a lot sooner.

If you like good literary fiction that broadens your horizons, teaches you something, and provides an insight into other cultures, you'll like Cutting For Stone. If you only read one serious work of fiction all year, this should be it. Buy it now.

P.S. My next book is going to be a quick read. :-)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Still Missing

Still Missing
Author: Chevy Stevens
St. Martin's Press, 2010
352 pages

I can't remember how or where I heard about this book (just published in June), but I'm glad I did. In her debut novel, Canadian author Chevy Stevens produces a nail-biting thriller. Main character Annie is a 32-year old real estate agent whose life is pretty normal: career, dog, boyfriend, overbearing mother, etc. But all is about to change when a would-be homebuyer abducts her during an open house. Her creepy captor takes her to his hidden hideaway in the mountains, where he has created a cabin prison from which there is no escape. There Annie experiences unimaginable tortures (warning: very graphic at times - this is not a "cozy" by any means) and learns some horrifying truths about her captor's past.

We know that Annie survives, because she's telling the story. But how? Each chapter is titled with "Session" (instead of Chapter) and a number. The book is written in first person with a blend of tenses (past and present) as if Annie is recounting her experiences with a psychiatrist. It's clever, and for the most part, it works. We learn not only about Annie's time in captivity, but of events in her childhood and in her family's history.  The sum of all the parts equals a compelling story that is much more complex than I expected.

Clearly, Annie will never be the same. This is one part of Missing Persons stories that you don't often hear about -- the return home and its affect not just on the victim but on friends and family. The police  investigation that follows seems to be a little unrealistic at times -- particularly Annie's relationship with the lead investigator. I'm just not sure that a seasoned professional like Gary would have behaved that way in real life. But :::sigh::: it's fiction, and I know certain things are expected.

Despite a few slow points in the second half of the book, overall this is a very good read, and an impressive debut for a new author. The Vancouver Island setting was a nice change, and when the motive for the abduction is finally revealed, you'll probably be just as surprised as I was. I just didn't see it coming.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010
192 pages

Like most other females, I'm a fan of the Twilight series, so when I heard that Stephenie Meyer had published a novella about a character only briefly mentioned (I don't even remember, to be honest) in . . . Eclipse, I think? . . . I thought: "Hmm. That sounds sort of interesting." Here's the deal. Remember Victoria, the vampire whose boyfriend was killed in the opening book? You may recall that she raised an army of "newborns" (newly-created vampires) to go to war against the Cullens as a sort of revenge. Well, Bree Tanner is one of those newborns.

When the story opens, Bree's still getting used to vampire life. She's living in a coven of newborns led by charismatic Riley and a mysterious female leader (whom the reader assumes is Victoria, but this is not known to Bree). There's a lot of political maneuvering in the coven, but Bree doesn't really want to be a part of it. She finds herself drawn to Diego, a trusted follower of Riley who shares some vampire secrets with her. For example, the newborns all believe that vampires can't go out during the day, but Diego proves that's not exactly true.

When it becomes apparent to Diego and Bree that something's up that they don't want to be a part of, they hatch a plan to break apart from the group. But first, Diego has to do one final favor for Riley, so they plan to meet later. This is where my description of the plot stops, because I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that I knew how the story would end, but I allowed myself to get so caught up in it, that I really didn't believe it was going to end the way it did. Until the very last sentence.

I liked the concept behind The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner and I can see where this might lead to other spin-offs from the series. I was impressed that the author was able to create such a fresh new voice. I would have loved to know more about Bree's past and how she became a vampire, but who knows, maybe there's another story (short or long) just waiting to be written.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Alchemist

The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho
Unabridged Audio Version [Time: 4:16:33]
HarperAudio, 2001 (originally published in 1986)

Three nonfiction books in a row . . . you might think I've turned over a new leaf. Actually, I've just been on the road a lot lately, and nothing passes the time like a good audiobook when you're driving. This is my second book by Brazilian author Coelho (I reviewed The Witch of Portobello in August 2008), whose works have been translated into numerous languages and sold more copies than you can imagine. But The Alchemist is probably the most well-known, and I totally get why.

The story begins with the introduction of a Spanish shepherd known throughout the book as The Boy. The Boy has a recurring dream about finding treasure near the pyramids in Egypt. Encouraged to follow his dreams by a gypsy woman and a mysterious man who claims to be the King of Salem, The Boy sets out on his journey. First, he goes to Morocco, where he encounters a thief, a crystal merchant, and an Englishman. As he ventures further, he meets other interesting characters, including a woman of the desert who might just be the love of his life . . . and an alchemist.

The simple yet deep allegorical tale of The Boy's quest for his "personal legend" reminds us of some simple truths, the main one (for me) being that we must always follow our dreams. If we don't, we'll always regret it.

I highly recommend the audiobook. A plus for me is that it was read by English actor Jeremy Irons. I could probably listen to him all day.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Girl Named Zippy

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana
Author: Haven Kimmel
Broadway Books, 2001
282 pages

I'm leaving Indiana soon after living there for just over 14 years, and I hadn't read A Girl Named Zippy yet, so I figured there was no time like the present. Boy, was I missing out. This quirky memoir, written by an author who is about my age, had me laughing out loud. Everything about this well-written book is, well, quirky.

Anyone who's ever lived in a small town - or spent much time in one - will be able to relate to some of the people and events in this book. Crazy neighbors, mean boys and girls, weird teachers, and even occasional total strangers make this book come to life. Sometimes it feels like you're reading fiction. I mean, some of this couldn't be real, could it? Well, there are some things you just can't make up, as you'll see when you read A Girl Named Zippy.

I loved it. I loved how she wrote so lovingly about her parents, and how her family was so accepting of each other's, um, quirks. I loved her humor, which could be snarky at times, but only when deserved. I loved the story about her being adopted from a band of gypsies and how her parents played along with her sister's suggestion . . . and when her Dad took her to his church in the woods . . . and her very vivid description of the time she ate a whole bag of carrots and . . . well, you'll have to read it.  Even the sad stories grabbed at my heart, like the one about the pet chicken . . . and so many about kids from her school.  I wanted to smack a couple of people up, and I couldn't help but wonder: was she using real names? How does that memoir thing work, anyway?!!

I read this on a recent visit to my parents' farm, and I laughed out loud so much that my Mom asked for me to leave the book when I finished so she could read it. Actually, I think she was just enamored with the cover photo. It is captivating.

Anyway, if you like memoirs, and you like quirky, then you should definitely add this one to your list. You'll probably want to add her follow-up memoir, She Got Up Off The Couch, also.

This makes two nonfiction books in a row. Did you notice?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Women Food and God

Women Food and God: An Unexpected Path To Almost Everything
Author: Geneen Roth
Unabridged Audio Version (Time: 5:30:45)
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2010

This seems to be required reading for North American women this summer, and although I'm definitely not a sheep when it comes to the books that choose me, for some reason I was intrigued. I listened to the unabridged audio version in one sitting during a long car trip. It gave me a lot to think about.

The author has had plenty of her own issues with food. She shares her personal experiences with weight gain, diets, and binge eating and says that she has gained and lost over 1000 pounds. Three decades ago, she made a sort of spiritual connection with food that helped her lose weight and keep it off. Now she conducts seminars on body image, apparently mostly with women.

She quotes Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron: "Never underestimate the inclination to bolt." Roth says you can't just bolt whenever you feel like it. Instead, you have to let yourself feel your emotions. Many people with eating issues don't want to feel their emotions. This discussion made me realize that there have been many times in my life when I've bolted in order to avoid unpleasantness when maybe what I really did was miss out on a growth experience. Another point she makes is: if you don't like yourself as you are now, you won't like yourself after you've lost weight (or after your eyelift . . . or after your liposuction . . . or whatever). You have to learn to love yourself and stop listening to the inner voice that tells you you're not good enough. (OK, you're probably humming Kum Ba Yah now, so I'll move along.)

Some of the stories had me laughing, while others brought tears to my eyes. Particularly memorable are the stories of Mookie the cat . . . and the "successful" CEO who admitted that she's wanted to die since she was about 10 years old because she never felt like she fit in anywhere.

There are some eating rules (guidelines?) . . . the first one is: eat only when you're hungry. May seem like a big "Duh!" -- but if you really think about it, how many of us truly do that? You'll have to read the book (or listen to it) to get the other guidelines.

If I have any "issue" with Women Food and God, it's the title. I know several men who could benefit from reading it, but with that title, the book might as well be wrapped in a pink cover. I'm just sayin' . . .

Monday, July 26, 2010

Pretty Is As Pretty Dies

Pretty Is As Pretty Dies
Author: Elizabeth Spann Craig
Midnight Ink, 2009
206 pages

The little town of Bradley, North Carolina is usually quite sleepy, so when super-beeyotch real estate agent Parke Stockard is murdered in the church sanctuary, everyone wakes up. Retired English teacher and octogenarian Myrtle Clover sees an opportunity: if she can solve Parke's murder, maybe people will stop treating her like she has nothing to contribute. Her son, Red (Red Clover - haha!) is the town's police chief, and he doesn't think it's a great idea for Myrtle to be, um, interfering in a police investigation. That only makes Myrtle more determined.

The murder victim may have been both wealthy and physically attractive, but she wasn't exactly Miss Congeniality. It seems as if everyone in town had a motive to take her out: from her druggie gambler of a son to the star reporter at the local newspaper . . . even Myrtle's own neighbors and fellow churchgoers could've done it. When Red concocts a "red herring" to lure Myrtle out of the way of his investigation, Myrtle learns of a connection between the dead woman and a local politician . . . and the plot thickens.

Along the way, Myrtle gets a sort-of sidekick: her new neighbor, the widower Miles Brandon. All the "mature" ladies have a sort of crush on Miles, so Myrtle doesn't mind their gossip. But one night when she's out walking by her pond, someone pushes her in! And then . . . another person turns up dead in Bradley. So is Miles a suspect, too? This whodunnit will keep you guessing.

Myrtle is a real hoot, and her character is well-developed. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the scenes involving minor characters, too, such as the French exchange student and a dude by the name of Crazy Dan. And I got hungry for Carolina food and sweet tea whenever any of the characters went to the local diner. But not when Myrtle tried to cook. :-)

Elizabeth Spann Craig is a North Carolina-based author that I follow on Twitter and on a couple of mystery-themed blogs. She just published a new book a few weeks ago under the name Riley Adams -- the first in a new food-based cozy mystery series based in Memphis, Tennessee called Delicious and Suspicious. I've already bought that one, and plan to read it soon!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Dead As A Doornail

Dead As A Doornail
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2005
295 pages

I can't believe I've now read five books in the Southern Vampire series (which the HBO-TV series True Blood is based on. I'm having to speed up my reading of this series in order to understand the show!)

In the most recent book, Sookie's brother Jason joined the supernatural world when he became a were-panther. Dead As A Doornail is more about this world of the "Shifters" than vampires. It just so happens that someone out there is shooting Shifters, and once again, all eyes are on Jason, since the Shifter community thinks he's angry about being "turned." When Sookie's boss Sam Merlotte and acquaintance Calvin (both Shifters) become victims of the sniper, she feels compelled to help Jason prove his innocence.

Unfortunately, it now seems that someone's out to get Sookie. Her house it torched, and the arsonist seems to be a card-carrying member of Sookie's nemesis the Fellowship of the Sun - the "church" she and Jason encountered in Book #2 (Living Dead In Dallas). But things don't quite add up.

In the meantime, Colonel Flood (werewolf packmaster introduced in the most recent book) is killed and a successor must be chosen. Sookie finds herself drawn into the world of werewolf politics. And we learn more about Claudine, the character who was introduced as Tara's friend in Book #4 (Dead To The World). Beautiful Claudine is . . . um, a fairy. With an equally beautiful twin brother named Claude.

Tara, meanwhile, has come under a sort of spell by an evil vampire who won't go away. Sookie will have to ask Eric for a favor, and since nothing's for free with Eric, she has to comply with one of his requests: he wants to know what happened to him in Book #4 because he cannot remember (his memory had been wiped out and it was bugging him like crazy that he didn't know what had happened. I have to say that I like Eric more and more.)

As I'm writing this, I'm realizing that describing this book is a lot like recalling an episode of a TV show to a person who's never really seen it before. Sorry. But it's getting more and more difficult for me to keep up with all the characters in this series!

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the vampires to the Shifters. I just don't care that much for werewolves or were-panthers or were-anythings. There was a new character introduced in this book that has me intrigued, though: Quinn, the big bald guy who reminds me of Mr. Clean. He tells Sookie that she will see him again. The plot thickens.

Dead As A Doornail is probably my least favorite of the series so far. This isn't to say that I didn't like it, but I wasn't sitting on the edge of my seat or anything. At this point, I want Sookie and Bill (her former boyfriend, a vampire) to get back together and just live (or not live, ha ha) happily ever after. Actually, I'd kind of like for him to just get it over with and turn her into a vampire and the two of them fly off to Romania or wherever. I WILL BE ANGRY if they don't eventually get back together. But I'm hooked on this series, and I'll keep on reading it. No matter what.

Previous books in the series that I've reviewed:
Book 1 - Dead Until Dark
Book 2 - Living Dead In Dallas
Book 3 - Club Dead
Book 4 - Dead To The World

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Adoration of Jenna Fox

The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Author: Mary E. Pearson
Square Fish, 2010
265 pages

I bought this Young Adult novel for my fourteen-year-old niece, and gave it to her a few weeks ago when I was visiting the family. She immediately began reading it, and I could tell she was hooked because she tuned out of the conversations taking place around her. (Yeah, I know teens don't necessarily need a good book for that.) When it was time for lunch, she didn't want to put the book down. When she completed it (just a few hours later) she dramatically closed the book and proclaimed for all to hear: "This is the BEST book I've ever read! You HAVE to read this!"

So I did.

Imagine a world in the not-too-distant future, not long after an antibiotic-resistant virus has wiped out a quarter of the world's population. There's a sort of battle going on between the scientists and the naturalists. The latter believe strongly that the virus would have never happened if not for all the scientific meddling in our food supply (e.g., genetically modified foods). In the meantime, a new product called BioGel has been developed that enables quick growth of new organs, among other things, making it possible to save lives, but also generating new questions such as: What percentage of a person makes them human?

Now imagine that you're a seventeen-year old girl who's just waking up after being in a coma for 1.5 years. You have no memory of anything, but guided by your parents and grandmother and digital recordings of your life, you start to put the pieces together. The more you learn, the more questions you have: What put you in the coma? Why did your family move from Boston to California while you were "out"? Why don't you - or your family - have any friends? How is it that you're able to recite entire literary works from memory? (Hmmm.) This is what happened to Jenna Fox, who slowly remembers her past and the accident that led up to this situation.

Of course, Jenna's Dad is the founder of the company that makes BioGel, and when you realize that, the plot thickens and you start thinking of various Kyle XY (former TV show) scenarios. The story is told from Jenna's perspective and therefore allows you to get totally in her head. It's confusing enough to be seventeen (from my memory, at least!), but the magnitude of Jenna's situation will blow your mind.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is  a sort of dystopian Sci-Fi tale, but it's also a treatise on ethics. I really want to have a conversation with my niece now to learn what her takeaways were (if she was able to read between the lines on the ethical issues.) My niece was totally right that this book rocks. Although it was written primarily for a teen audience, I think adults can take plenty away from it, too.

Check out the official "book trailer" here. Then go get the book. My niece was so right on this one. :-)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tressed To Kill

Tressed To Kill
Author: Lila Dare
Berkley, 2010
292 pages

Miss me? I mean, you'd think that if I read 10 books last month, I'd read at least one or two by the middle of this month, right? I have some really good excuses. I won't go into them here except to say that I wasted a good 10 days on a book that I couldn't get into (and couldn't finish.) This rarely happens with me. But this review isn't about that book. It's about a really cute book I just finished this afternoon!

Tressed To Kill is the first in a new series of cozy mysteries set in a coastal Georgia (USA) hair salon. (Ironically, I bought the book just a few hours before my most recent hair appointment - not thinking about the correlation, at least consciously!) Main character Grace Terhune is thirty, divorced from her childhood sweetheart, and has recently returned to her hometown after living in Atlanta for a few years. She's working in her Mom's salon. Her Mom, Violetta (for whom the salon is named) is a self-taught cosmetologist who started the business in their home when Grace and her sister were kids. Violetta's may not be the fanciest place in town, but the place has heart. So do the women who work there, including Althea, the aesthetician whose husband mysteriously disappeared many years ago.

Unfortunately for these nice ladies, local rich bi!ch and busybody Constance DuBois comes into the salon one afternoon, without an appointment and demanding a hair color job. Violetta obliges, but when Constance rudely insists on conducting business on her cell phone instead of rinsing at the appropriate time, her hair turns a ghastly orange color. This just gives her one more reason to be upset, and she threatens to have Violetta's unlicensed salon shut down. In the meantime, Constance pi$$es several other people off, including a neighboring shop owner, and a developer from "Morestuff" - a large retail chain hoping to build a store in the area.

That evening, Violetta finds Constance dead, and now everyone thinks Violetta did it. Grace knows her mother could never kill anyone -- even someone as annoying and mean as Constance. But the more she tries to prove it, the more someone wants to stop her. Things get more and more dangerous, and old mysteries will be solved along with new ones.

Tressed To Kill came along at just the right time for me, and it was a joy to read. I'm looking forward to the next installment in the series, but unfortunately, I'm going to have to wait a while. Polished Off won't come out until sometime in 2011!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sink Trap

Sink Trap
Author: Christy Evans
Berkley, 2009
244 pages

10 books in one month! Woo-hoo!

If you read my other blog regularly, you'll know that we had a "flooding event" at my house this week due to way too much rain in a very short period of time. I spent an entire day with plumbers and water removers and waterproof specialists, and that prompted Sink Trap to choose me when it was time for a new read. The first book in the Georgiana Neverall Mystery series, Sink Trap's main character and I have something in common: our stressful corporate lifestyles have gone down the drain. "Georgie" has recently moved back to her childhood home in Oregon, and -- to the chagrin of her high-maintenance, super-feminine mother -- taken plumbing classes and become a plumber's apprentice.

While unclogging a drain in a warehouse, Georgie discovers an old brooch trapped in the pipe. She recognizes the brooch as one that longtime local librarian Miss Tepper wore everyday. Miss Tepper recently retired to Arizona, but no one seems to know how to reach her. Even worse, no one seems to care! It's up to Georgie and her circle of friends (her old pals from high school) to figure out what happened to Miss Tepper.

Sink Trap is a light read, with so many references to junk food (pizza, fried chicken platters) that I was hungry nearly the whole time I was reading it. Well, except for the occasional times when our plumber's apprentice character encounters something gross in the line of duty. Still, I enjoyed it enough to look forward to future Georgie books.

BONUS-->There are some helpful tips inserted between some of the chapters. Turns out that I had a clogged drain in my bathroom. I'd been postponing doing anything about it. One of the hints told me exactly what to do. I followed the very simple instructions using very simple and common household ingredients, and Voila! Unclogged drain. And I didn't have to use any harsh chemicals!

That in itself was worth the $6.99 plus tax I paid for this cool little paperback. Go Georgie!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Death At La Fenice

Death At La Fenice
Author: Donna Leon
HarperCollins, 1992
270 pages

With the reading of this book (and posting of this blog entry), I've now surpassed my previous record of 8 books in a single month. Nine books for June. Woo-hoo!

I've had my eye on author Donna Leon for a long time. When I was living in Europe, I saw her books prominently displayed in bookstores, and I was always impressed with their pretty covers featuring the lovely historic city of Venice, Italy. I assumed that Leon was a European author. Turns out she's an American who has lived much of her life overseas. That gives her significant street cred which is proven in her exquisite descriptions of Venetian history and daily modern life. 

Death At La Fenice is the first of many books featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a police commissioner and native Venetian. Whenever possible, I prefer to start any series at the very beginning, so although it may not be necessary in this series, it's what I decided to do. The book opens as the intermission during a performance of Traviata is coming to a close. (Teatro La Fenice is the name of the opera house in Venice.) German conductor Helmut Wellauer, an iconic figure in the music world, is dead of cyanide poisoning. Commissario Brunetti leads the investigation, sorting through clues and talking to numerous potential suspects, including the conductor's much younger Hungarian wife (his third wife, actually), an Italian opera diva, various musicians and music critics, and a Belgian housemaid.

Brunetti is a family man (the scenes with his wife Paola and their children are priceless) and also a Renaissance Man of sorts. He realizes that in order to understand what really happened to Wellauer, one must understand the person that was Wellauer.. There are rumors that the man was a Nazi back during the day. Few would argue that Wellauer had the power to make or break careers -- and some of the careers he broke have some sad stories attached. He was also a moral snob who threatened to expose homosexual liaisons of fellow musicians. There's no shortage of motives or suspects. I thought I had it figured out by page 202 . . . BUT NO. I was so wrong!

I enjoyed Death At La Fenice very much. In fact, I told "S" that it made me want to go back to Venice (which is kind of funny, because I didn't really like Venice when I was there. But maybe now I could see it with different eyes . . . and appreciate it properly this time.)

One final note: Since Death At La Fenice is approximately 18 years old and often references even earlier times, readers will need to keep in mind the differences between the current European Union and the days before the Berlin Wall came down. For example, nowadays you don't need a passport to travel from Italy to Spain and vice versa. Also, it might not seem like a big deal for a woman from Hungary to marry a man from Germany, but it would have been rather challenging in the days of the "Iron Curtain." Not that I'm an expert or anything. I'm just sayin'. :-)

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Diva Runs Out Of Thyme

The Diva Runs Out Of Thyme
Author: Krista Davis
Berkley, 2008
286 pages

Once upon a time there were two childhood rivals. Sophie had loving parents and a stable home. Natasha's father disappeared when she was young and her mother struggled to makes ends meet. They both grew up to become domestic divas, sort of. Natasha is a perfectionist with her own TV show and newspaper column on gourmet cooking and home decor. Main character Sophie has a similar type of career but is sort of the "anti-Natasha" -- she's all about simplicity. Oh, and to complicate things? Sophie's ex-husband Mars is now Natasha's boyfriend.

Our story begins when the two divas face-off in a Thanksgiving cooking contest: will Sophie's simple Crusty Country Bread, Bacon, and Herb Stuffing beat Natasha's fancy gourmet oyster recipe? Just as the contest is kicking off, the celebrity host is found dead offstage. Both Natasha and Sophie are suspects, since they were two of the last people to see the man alive.

Sophie expects a small crowd at her 1825 Federal-style house in Old Town (Alexandria, Virginia) for Thanksgiving dinner, but her plans change when several people show up unexpectedly -- including Natasha, Mars, an old friend from England, and a slimy little mortician who has a crush on Sophie. There are LOTS of other characters, too, including in-laws, out-laws, neighbors, and of course, a hot-looking police detective named Wolf. And did I mention there's another murder?

All the characters makes things a little complicated at times, but it all seems quite realistic. Even the murderers have solid motives, and you won't guess "whodunnit" until all is revealed. Sophie is someone you'd want to be friends with, and not just for her cooking ability. (I'd be willing to bet that she's a regular at her local farmers' markets!) Her house sounds awesome. Reading this makes me want to take a trip to the DC area . . . I haven't been there in a really long time. I'll have to check out Old Town Alexandria next time I'm in the area, for sure. Sounds like my kind of place!

BONUS: There are some really yummy-sounding recipes in the back of the book, including the stuffing recipe.

I've now tied my record of reading 8 books in one month (achieved in December 2008). I think things are looking really good for me to break that record this month. The question is, will the next book that chooses me be a quick read? Or something more complex? Only the Magic Library knows for sure . . .

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Speak

Speak
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Puffin Books, 1999
198 pages

This book may be eleven years old, but it's still #1 on several Amazon.com lists. It won tons of awards, including a Golden Kite and ALA Printz Honor, and it was a finalist for a 1999 National Book Award (those are just a few of the awards/nominations it received). I've wanted to read it for years. So why did it take me so long to finally crack it open? Maybe I was waiting for just the right time to pass it along to my niece. After all, she's about to enter the the lovely institution known as . . . High School [insert scary music here.]

Main character Melinda Sordino is starting her freshman year, which is traumatic enough for anybody. In Melinda's case, though, it's immediately obvious that something's up. She's been outcast from her circle of friends for calling the cops on a recent teenage party. What Melinda's friends don't know is why she called the cops, and Melinda's not talking. To anyone.

Instead, she slowly unravels while observing the world around her: cliques at school ("Jocks", "Marthas", etc.), weird teachers (with interesting, descriptive names such as Hair Woman, Mr. Neck, and Ms. Keen), mostly absent parents, and her one glimmer of hope - Biology Lab Partner David, who somehow manages to be popular and nice without joining any of the cliques. Her only friend is Heather, the new girl at school, who eventually dumps her in order to be more socially accepted by one of the cliques. The one teacher who seems to sense something's up is Mr. Freeman, the art teacher, for whom Melinda's sole assignment all year is to create an artistic piece involving a tree. The tree thing - combined with a new interest in plants thanks to Biology (her second favorite class) - turns out to be instrumental in Melinda's recovery.

Eventually, of course, we learn what happened that night when Melinda called the cops. When it appears that her ex-best friend, Rachel, may soon be in a similar situation, Melinda finally speaks . . . in an effort to save Rachel from the same fate. But Rachel's response is to get upset and call Melinda a liar. This leads to a climactic scene at the end. I'm doing my best to avoid spoilers here. You just have to read the book.

And do read the book . . . maybe not instead of seeing the movie but in addition to it. (I learned just before I wrote this review that there was a Speak movie in 2004, starring none other than Kristen Stewart -- Becca in the Twilight movies -- as Melinda. I'm sure that my niece will want to see it, since she's a fan of all people and things Twilight.) The movie and book are quite different, apparently, so if you "just" see the movie you'll be missing a lot.

Can't wait to get my niece's take on this.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Corpse Pose

Corpse Pose
Author: Diana Killian
Berkley, 2008
276 pages

When I was researching cozy mysteries to read, I came across this series involving a yoga studio. Now that's different, I thought, so I put it on my list. Corpse Pose is the first book in the Mantra for Murder series, which so far includes two books (the other being the cleverly titled Dial Om For Murder.)

The protagonist is A.J. Alexander, a young woman whose life is out of balance in so many ways: her husband left her for another man; her mother's a bit on the zany side, and A.J. no longer feels passionately about her career the way she used to -- or her life, for that matter. She needs a change, and she gets it when her aunt is murdered. Turns out, "Aunt Di" was a multi-millionaire owner of a New Jersey-based yoga studio and healthy living business, and it just so happens that A.J. is set to inherit the bulk of her aunt's estate. Or is she? Turns out, Aunt Di had a few enemies, and now at least one person is jealous of A.J.'s inheritance.

Of course, A.J. and her mother (a former actress who once played a detective on British television) set out to learn what really happened to Aunt Di. Along the way, they become acquainted with local police detective named Jake, and meet some local people, such as the mysterious neighbor Stella; Lily, Aunt Di's angry business partner; and a young man who's training for the Olympics, but seems to have something to hide. It seems as if everyone is a suspect, including A.J. herself.

The strengths of this book include the growth (and potential growth) of A.J.'s character, the sense of humor, and the not-so-obvious "bad guy." It's just too bad Aunt Di had to die, because I think she'd be a wonderful regular character. There were several loose ends that could be tied up in future books. For example, who is Stella, what was her relationship with Di, and why is A.J.'s mom so snarky towards her? OK, so she's a little flaky, but she really doesn't seem to deserve that treatment. And speaking of A.J.'s mom, she is quite annoying at times, particularly when she overuses British terms and slang. Yet you can't help but like her. Imagine that!

Anyway . . . I do like the yoga theme, and I'd definitely read more of this series.

On another note, I realize that some of you think I've gone to cozy mystery hell lately, so perhaps I need to explain again that I'm doing research because I plan to write my own cozy mystery someday. That said, my next book will NOT be a cozy, so if you're burned out on the cozy thing, come back in a few days for something different.

:-)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Dead To The World

Dead To The World
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2004
291 pages

The more I read this series, the more I'm amazed by the imagination of Charlaine Harris. Admittedly, I'm a little late coming to the paranormal mystery party. Or paranormal romance, or whatever this genre is called. Unlike my friends Karen, Jill, Elyse, and Sandy T., I haven't read a whole lot of this stuff. I resisted reading the Sookie Stackhouse series (also known as the Southern Vampire series, of which Dead To The World is Book #4) until it became absolutely obvious that if I wanted to truly understand the HBO series True Blood, these books are required reading.

This time our favorite small-town waitress - Sookie - is feeling a little lonely and a lot angry after her vampire beau Bill takes off for South America on another mysterious assignment. Things hadn't been quite right between them since he up and left her for his old girlfriend (and maker, the vampire Lorena), so it's all strange. Meanwhile, Sookie's friend Tara Thornton (who is not at all like the Tara character in the TV series, I'm learning), has a strangely alluring new friend named Claudine, and Claudine happens to be turning up in a lot of places lately. And Sookie's "horndog" brother Jason has taken up with a mysterious young woman from a clannish community way out in the sticks.

Our story begins early on New Year's Day as Sookie's driving home after a long night of working at Merlotte's Bar when she sees a naked man running down the deserted rural road. Turns out, it's Eric Northman, the vampire sheriff of Area 5 - Bill's "boss." But Eric isn't acting like Eric. He's scared, and he has no memory of who he is, who Sookie is . . . nothing. He's like a blank slate. Sookie finds herself strangely attracted to this new, innocent Eric. Let that be considered foreshadowing. :-)

Being the good Samaritan she is, Sookie takes Eric back to her house and tries to help him. As she digs into the mystery of what's happened to Eric, she learns that he's had a spell cast on him by a group of evil witches who are trying to hone in on his business dealings. It looks like the witches have declared war on the vampires - and the witches are winning. If the vampires have any chance at all, Sookie will have to enlist the aid of her new werewolf friends (including Alcide from Book 3 and the new were-character, Colonel Flood, who for some reason reminded me of Clint Eastwood in the movie Gran Torino). She'll also need to find some good witches, which is kind of ironic, since she had no idea witches actually existed. Especially in rural Louisiana.

In the meantime, Jason Stackhouse mysteriously disappears, and the only clues to his disappearance are one of his footprints, and blood that turns out to originate from . . . a panther? The whole town is out looking for Jason. When Sookie learns that Jason's new girlfriend's family are "shifters", she's certain they know something. She makes the trip way out to the country to visit the family, and receives a very interesting proposition from their "packmaster", a man named Calvin.

It's been nearly a year since Sookie first learned about the Supernatural world, and she's learned about the existence of vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, and now, human witches with real magical powers. She'll also find out who - or should I say what - the mysterious Claudine is. (I'm being purposefully vague about Claudine in hopes that she'll appear more in the next book. Let's hope. I can tell you, though, she's NOT Maryann in the True Blood series, which is what I initially suspected given her relationship with Tara.) What was it I said earlier about Harris having an imagination? Dead To The World is the most imaginative book so far, I think.

I must confess to being spellbound (ha ha) by this series. I really would like to rush through the remaining six books (so far), but I'm restraining myself.

*****

Previous books in the series that I've reviewed:
Book 1 - Dead Until Dark
Book 2 - Living Dead In Dallas
Book 3 - Club Dead

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Latte Trouble

Latte Trouble
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2005
256 pages

Here we are with the third Coffeehouse Mystery (preceded by On What Grounds and Through The Grinder) and I'm starting to feel like a regular at the Village Blend. One evening our favorite fictional coffee house hosts a private party for a group of fashionistas who are celebrating the opening of Fashion Week and a new line of coffee-themed jewelry designed by Village Blend regular Lottie Harmon. This is a sort of comeback for Lottie, who rose to fame in the 1980s after designing a hit line called Spangles. It's also special for the Village Blend: it was there that Lottie got the inspiration for the new coffee jewelry. It was also where she serendipitously met marketing genius Rena, who was instrumental in Lottie's resurgence.

Just as the party's getting started, Tucker (talented barista and budding actor/playwright) sees his old flame walking in with a flirty new lover. This gets Tucker agitated, and he starts to get a little careless in his work. When he's asked to make a special latte for Lottie (love the word play here), Tucker decides to deliver the drink himself. But as he walks across the room, his ex takes the latte off the tray and starts drinking it, sharing it with his new pal. Suddenly, both of them become very sick, and Tucker's ex collapses and dies. When the police arrive, they quickly determine the cause of death as cyanide poisoning, and since Tucker had made such a scene earlier, he's taken into custody.

Village Blend manager Clare Cosi knows Tucker couldn't hurt a fly, and she sets out to prove his innocence. Besides, Clare is certain that Lottie was the intended victim - not Tucker's ex. When Rena is found dead a few days later - also after drinking a cyanide-laced latte from a Village Blend cup - she is absolutely certain someone else is the murderer. But who? And why?

As Clare unravels the mystery, she meets some very interesting (and twisted - and sad) people who work in the fashion industry. She's also reunited with an old enemy, a scheming slimeball of a businessman who seems to want nothing more than to destroy the Village Blend. Despite the plethora of suspects and motives, it's never really obvious what's really going on until the last few pages. Once again, Cleo Coyle delivers.

Oh, yeah -- Detective Quinn - who reminds me of a young, sexy Colombo - returned in the latter part of the book. But he may be too late as a potential romantic interest for Clare, because she and her ex-husband and business partner Matt have - shall we say - rediscovered each other. Clare and Matt are going to have to unite to do some parenting, anyway, since adult daughter Joy appears to be hanging with the wrong crowd. Matt has new plans to take the Village Blend to the next level as a business, so we can be sure that there will be a fourth book. And a fifth. And a sixth, etc. I'm still planning to drink them all.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Alpine For You

Alpine for You
Author: Maddy Hunter
Pocket Books, 2003
246 pages

What happens when a 29-year-old American divorcee with no previous international travel experience goes to Switzerland with her 78-year-old lottery winner Grandmother and a bunch of senior citizens from Iowa who have no previous international travel experience? In the case of Alpine for You, everything that can go wrong will. The hotel room sucks, the food is horrible, and the weather is dreadful. But things really go downhill when philandering tour guide Andy is murdered in his hotel room. When two other members of the tour group kick the bucket, everyone begins to wonder: is a septuagenarian serial killer on the loose?

Emily (the 29-year-old) volunteers to take Andy's place as tour guide when she learns she'll get a refund of her fee. After all, her "Nana" may be a lottery winner, but Emily has recently become unemployed. She soon proves herself to be a huge resource to the tour group, and she also catches the eye of the handsome police inspector Etienne Miceli. OK, so the hot-and-heavy thing with Miceli seems a little forced. And the book is definitely written from the American perspective and with the American reader in mind. But I can forgive these things because there were so many parts that had me laughing out loud. The incident with the self-cleaning toilet, for example. They have those toilets in the washrooms of my former company's Geneva office. When I visited there in 2008, I had a moment not unlike the one that Nana and the other ladies had. (This would have totally gone over my head, though, had I not been to Switzerland and seen these toilets.)

This international-themed "cozy" is the first of a series of six books called Passport to Peril. I was drawn to it because of the international focus, but I'll probably read all of the books eventually because this one was just so funny. The interplay between Emily and Nana is fantastic, and the author has a way with dialogue as well as with going off on humorous tangents. Unfortunately, according to the author's web site, the series was discontinued after the sixth book. But she's at work now on a new series (also with an international focus) and the first book should come out in 2012. If it's anything like Alpine For You, I'll be very happy.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Grace Under Pressure

Grace Under Pressure
Author: Julie Hyzy
Berkley, 2010
310 pages

Julie Hyzy is the author of the mystery series about the White House Chef (e.g., State of the Onion, Hail to the Chef, and Eggsecutive Orders), and she's taking a daring detour with Grace Under Pressure, the first in a new series called Manor House Mysteries. Instead of a chef amateur sleuth who shares recipes, we have a young executive-type named Grace Wheaton who works in the Marshfield Manor, a place that reminds me of the Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. Part hotel/resort and part museum, it's also the home of Bennett Marshfield, sole remaining member of the Marshfield family. Grace grew up nearby, and has fond memories of childhood visits, even though her own family eventually moved away. Now she's back in town and part of a new crew that's been hired to bring Marshfield Manor into the twenty-first century.

The story begins with a disturbance in the Tea Room, which as it turns out, was merely a diversion from the real crime: Grace's boss, long-time employee and personal friend of Bennett Marshfield, is shot and killed by a mysterious intruder. Grace must step into a leadership role so that the manor can continue with "business as usual" during the ensuing police investigation, while also mourning this loss and dealing with the fear of a murderer still on the loose. Immediately, Grace faces obstacles, including a gossipy administrative assistant who seems hell-bent on seeing Grace fail, and an increasingly annoying private detective.

Grace faces additional problems at home. The old house she inherited from her parents has not been taken care of over the years, and repairs cost a lot of money. Grace had to take in some housemates to help makes ends meet. Partners Scott and Bruce run an emerging wine business and provide a good support system as well as some comic relief for Grace. There's also an underlying story about the shaky relationship between Grace and her sister, Liza, that leaves room for growth in future books.

The mystery was a good one involving a Ponzi scheme, a scam artist, and other interesting elements. The identify of the murderer wasn't obvious to me until almost the end. As is the case with the White House Chef series, Hyzy tells a good story, and there are a couple of nail-biting moments. But the strength of Grace Under Pressure to me is Grace herself. She's a strong young woman with good leadership skills and lots of potential. Yet she also has a lot of heart . . . and grace.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Bantam, 2010 (originally published in 2009)
370 pages

This first novel from Canadian author Alan Bradley is both delicious and ingenious. Main character Flavia de Luce is a highly precocious eleven year-old girl with a passion for chemistry and an obsession with poisons. It's 1950, and Flavia lives on an old family estate in rural England with her emotionally distant father, two older sisters (looks-obsessed Ophelia and bookworm Daphne), a mysterious groundskeeper called Dogger, and Mrs. Mullet, a part-time housekeeper and cook who occasionally bakes awful custard pies that no one in the family will eat. Flavia's mother, an adventurous flapper-type named Harriet, died when Flavia was only about a year old, something that lingers in the back of Flavia's mind.

But this is really a mystery, and that part of the story begins when a dead bird is found on the doorstep. The specific type of bird was out of season in England at that time of year, so obviously, it hadn't come from those parts. An orange postage stamp was hanging from the bird's bill, as if placed there on purpose. Flavia's father, a passionate philatelist, immediately knows something's afoot. Hmmm.

Sometime later, Flavia and Dogger eavesdrop on an argument between her father and someone they cannot see or identify. The next morning, Flavia stumbles across a dying man in the cucumber patch. He breathes a final word to her, and then dies. Turns out the dead bloke and Flavia's father were old school chums, and suddenly, another very intriguing story begins to unfold. Flavia becomes a fine amateur sleuth, combining her knowledge of science and chemistry with an often amusing "common" sense that only someone her age and inexperience could have.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is a story within a story - and a mystery within a mystery. The writing is superb, and Flavia is the most wonderful literary character I've come across in years. I simply adore her! She makes me want to break out in a British accent. Even in this review. As you can probably tell.

The author was seventy years old when The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (his first novel) was published. (That gives me hope!) Hopefully, the commercial and literary success of this book (it was a bestseller and won a Dagger Award in 2009) will ensure future books featuring Flavia. Actually, the next book - The Weed That Strings The Hangman's Bag - is already out, in hardcover. And a third book is in the works. I look forward to reading them all!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Charmed Death

A Charmed Death
Author: Madelyn Alt
Berkley, 2006
289 pages

We last met Stony Mill, Indiana native Maggie O'Neill in The Trouble With Magic. At that time, she'd just started working in the Enchantments gift shop with Felicity, an Englishwoman who happens to be a witch. When Felicity's sister was murdered, everyone thought Felicity must have been involved, but Maggie proved her innocence and helped catch the real killer. A Charmed Death takes place two months later, in early December. Felicity's away on sabbatical and Maggie's running the store, along with part-time Evie, who attends the local high school and secretly hangs out with the N.I.G.H.T.S. (Northeast Indiana Ghost Hunting and Tracking Society).

When an in-store altercation between Goth Girl Tara and Mean Girl Amanda is followed shortly by Amanda's murder, Maggie once again finds herself drawn into a mystery. Clues lead her to an underground sex ring - could Amanda, a daughter of privilege who seemed to have everything, have possibly been involved in something so dangerous and controversial? The more Maggie learns, the more questions she has - and there are lots of red herrings. I actually guessed the murderer early on, but I was thinking: "Nah, can't be this person" and I went down the wrong trail!

But the murder isn't the only story in A Charmed Death. Tara the Goth Girl is a new character, and she seems to have a gift. Unfortunately, the intense, angry young woman hasn't learned all the rules - or the necessity of respecting them. Her attraction to dark energies is of great concern to Maggie. In the meantime, Maggie's still trying to come to grips with her own gifts, and she's learning all sorts of new things from some of the N.I.G.H.T.S. members. When Felicity returns in the second half of the book, she continues her mentorship of Maggie - and that's another story!

You've heard this from me before, but the growth of the characters and the relationships between the characters is critical to the success of the "cozy mystery." Certainly the relationship between Maggie and Felicity is of great importance, but so are Maggie's relationships with her Mom, her sister, and her best friend. Then there are the Dudes. In The Trouble With Magic, Maggie was sort of developing a relationship with Tom the police officer, but it seems to have fizzled in A Charmed Death. Or has it? In the meantime, this second book has Maggie getting to know Marcus, the mysterious warlock who Maggie assumed was Felicity's boyfriend in the first book. Turns out that Marcus and Tara the Goth Girl are cousins, which adds an extra element and additional potential for future books.

This series is a guilty pleasure to me, sort of like the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. I like it because it's set in Indiana, and also because I can read an entire book in just a few hours. It's fun, and doesn't give me a headache. :-)

It occurred to me as I was writing this review that I haven't read a book with an international focus since early March. Not sure what I'll read next, but it will be set outside the USA. I'm heading to my home library just as soon as I press "Publish Post" to select the next book. Cheers!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Fallen

Fallen
Author: Lauren Kate
Delacourte Press, 2009
452 pages

Recently, I bought several Young Adult novels, with the intention of passing them along to my niece (age 14) so she'd have something to read this summer. I'd seen Fallen in the bookstores, and remembered reading a good review when it first came out - so this was the first of the new books I decided to read.

The plot goes something like this: Seventeen year-old Luce (named after singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams - her yuppie academic parents met at a concert) is the new girl at a very unusual reform school near Savannah, Georgia called Sword and Cross. Luce, who was previously schooled in the finest college-prep institution in New England, has a history of seeing strange shadows that give her a sense of foreboding, followed by some sort of disaster. Her parents have spent loads of time and money on psychiatrists to help Luce, but the visions escalated until the event that sent her to Sword and Cross.

While Luce tries to assimilate at Sword and Cross, she gets to know some of the other students; all of them are strange in one way or another. She finds herself particularly drawn to Arriane and Penn, two very different girls with whom she becomes friends, and the overly pleasant and romantic Cam. But Luce is attracted to Daniel, who seems not only disinterested in her, but hostile.

When the Nancy Drew-like Penn (whose name is Pennyweather Van Syckle Lockwood, one of the coolest names in recent literature IMHO) begins to research Daniel's past, she discovers a book written by someone with his name (an ancestor?) back in the 18th century.  It was about here that things started to get predictable for this experienced reader. However, for some silly reason I kept reading. The more I read, the more annoyed I became with myself for reading!

I know I haven't been seventeen in almost thirty years, but I don't remember ever feeling as if I had anything in common with most of the characters in this book. As much as I wanted to like Luce, there was something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. The only character with any real redeeming qualities was Penn, and I was not pleased with what happened to her (so much that I nearly threw the book across the room - and from there on out, I just skimmed.)

This is not to say that my niece wouldn't like Fallen. Or that you wouldn't like it. But I didn't like it. Don't get me wrong: the idea behind Fallen is pretty cool, and the author writes well. She's just not writing to me. :-)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gunpowder Green

Gunpowder Green
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2002
244 pages

This was another book I took with me on the recent trip to North Carolina, but I didn't start reading it until I got back home. This second book in the Charleston, South Carolina-based Tea Shop Mystery series (I reviewed the first - Death by Darjeeling - last December) was even better than the first, IMHO (in my humble opinion). In fact, I'd love to jump right into Book #3, but that would violate my self-imposed rules of reading. :-)

Gunpowder Green starts out with main character Theodosia Browning and her staff providing tea service for a large gathering of people watching the annual Regatta yacht race. One of the more prominent members of Charleston society has the honor of discharging the antique gun that ends the race, but when the gun goes off, it misfires and kills the man. At first, most people think it was an accident. But Theodosia has her suspicions, especially when the brother of an old acquaintance becomes the prime suspect.

One of the things I most like about this series is the likeable characters. Tea shop owner Theodosia is just the right balance between the "snooty" and the down-to-earth: she enjoys the finer things in life, but hasn't lost touch with her rural roots. Drayton, Indigo Tea Shop's tea master, is one of my favorite characters in the series. He reminds me of any number of "Renaissance men" I've known in my life. I also like Haley, the tea shop's young baker, who in addition to having a talent for producing delicious baked goods, has a heart of gold.

A few of the secondary characters who made things interesting (challenging?) in the first book were back in Gunpowder Green. Crotchety Detective Tidwell's appreciation of both tea and Theodosia appears to be growing, and I foresee some sort of mutually respectable friendship on the horizon (not sure about anything else at this point, but it seems to be possible if things don't work out between Theodosia and her attorney boyfriend Jory.) The snobby Timothy Neville let down a little of his guard in this book, leading me to believe that Theodosia will win him over . . . eventually.

I also like the Charleston setting. As I said in the Death by Darjeeling entry, Charleston is the perfect city for a mystery/crime series . . . it's got history, interesting people and cultural traditions, and that oh-so-Southern Gothic charm. I'm really surprised that more Hollywood types haven't figured this out. In fact, I predict that a CSI: Charleston would go over really well . . . just in case anyone out there in Hollywoodland is reading this.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Farm Fresh Murder

Farm Fresh Murder
Author: Paige Shelton
Berkley, 2010
304 pages

I needed something to read while I was visiting the farm recently, so I picked up this new, first-in-a-series paperback. To my delight, it was set in South Carolina, in a fictional town that (at least in my mind) seemed a lot like Anderson, where my family lived for several years.

Becca Robins is a thirty-something farmer and jam/preserves maker who sells her products at the local farmers' market. When one of the peach vendors is murdered one morning before the market opens,  all clues point to crusty old Abner -- the fresh flower vendor who happens to be a good friend of Becca's. But Becca knows Abner could never do such a thing, and with the help of her sister (Allison, the manager of the farmers' market) and some friends (including hunky young artist Ian and the increasingly attractive Officer Sam Brion), Becca sets out to find the real killer. In the process, she evolves into quite the amateur sleuth.

Farm Fresh Murder was a fun way to spend a few hours. I liked Becca and most of the other characters, and look forward to reading future books in this series. By the way, I thought I'd guessed the murderer early on, but I was wrong. (You won't see me write that often!)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Club Dead

Club Dead
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2003
292 pages

Ahhh, there's nothing quite like a short, easy-to-read book when it took you a month to read the previously read book.

We're back with Sookie Stackhouse and the rest of the True Blood gang in this third-in-a-series paranormal yarn about a Louisiana waitress and her two hundred year-old vampire boyfriend. This time Bill the vampire goes missing while working on a top-secret assignment. Unfortunately, Sookie hears rumors that he's reunited with an old vampire flame, Lorena. Needless to say, she's not very happy about that, especially when there are so many other potential suitors around vying for her attention, such as Eric Northman (the vampire "sheriff" of Area 5 in Louisiana, which includes Sookie's hometown of Bon Temps) and Alcide, the really nice werewolf who's been hired to take her to Jackson to look for Bill.

In Jackson, Sookie learns all about werewolves and more about shape shifters, increasing her knowledge of Supes (creatures with supernatural powers). While a guest at Club Dead - the nickname for a mysterious bar frequented mostly by Supes - Sookie meets the vampire king of Mississippi and saves him from an assassination attempt. This provides her access to the king's castle, where with the help of a few friends (including Bubba, the never stated but heavily implied Elvis in vampire form), she learns Bill's fate.

Will she rescue him? Will they break up over his behavior? You'll have to read Club Dead to find out. Which unless you're a True Blood or paranormal romance fan, you probably won't. I realize that. But for some weird reason I'm hooked, and I plan to read this entire series.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Hawaii

Hawaii
Author: James Michener
Fawcett Crest, 1959
1036 pages

I can't believe it's been over a month since I've written a book review. Believe me, it's not because I haven't been reading -- I have -- a very long book!

I'm a fan of historical fiction, and I've heard about Michener all my life, but this was my first book of his. Although I bought Hawaii a while back, it sat on the shelf until I packed my bag for the recent trip. I figured: first time going to Hawaii, first time reading Michener -- and I started reading it on the first leg of the journey. I was sucked in immediately. WOW! Michener knows his stuff! His writing was as amazing as his grasp of history and people.

Hawaii the book starts out with a short chapter explaining how the islands emerged slowly over time from volcanic action. The next chapters are long - hundreds of pages long -- excellent fictional tales of how the first humans might have come to Hawaii from Tahiti, the 19th century Christian missionary and native Hawaiian perspectives, and the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrant perspectives. Surely it was intentional that the book was first published in 1959, the year Hawaii became the 50th state in the USA.

I'm not exaggerating when I say the human drama in this book is unsurpassed in any other fiction I've ever read! I felt like I was in that tiny boat with the Tahitians when they saw "new" (northern hemisphere) stars for the first time. I was seasick with the missionaries during the month it took them to get around Cape Horn. It was as if I was working alongside the imported workers in the pineapple and sugar cane fields.

Covering the evolution of Hawaii from pre-history to just after World War II, this book is a true epic. Very highly recommended. I'm just sorry this review doesn't do the book justice. Truth is, I'm ready for a short, easy read now!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Kitchen Garden

The Kitchen Garden
Author: Alan Buckingham
DK, 2010
352 pages

If you read Gypsy Roots (one of my other blogs), then you'll know that I've been spending a little time in the garden lately. I'm still a novice vegetable gardener, so I'm constantly on the lookout for resources that are basic but not too basic, with just the right info. I like things in small bites, otherwise I get bored. The Kitchen Garden is, in a word, perfect. For me, anyway.

It's divided into four main sections. 1) An introduction, with just enough of that basic info mentioned earlier. Particularly helpful for me were sub-sections on plot layouts and bed systems, tools/equipment, and crop rotation. 2) A month-by-month listing of tasks to be completed (specific to the northern hemisphere, I must point out), e.g., what seeds to start indoors (or outdoors). I wish I would have had this info in January. 3) Detailed info on various vegetables, in mini-sections divided by the type of vegetable (root, brassica, etc.) 4) A troubleshooting section, with helpful info on problems, pests, etc.

Like most DK books, there are lots of photos, and I find this to be particularly appealing. The layout and photos aren't just helpful, they're beautiful and inspiring. I want my vegetables -- heck, I want my gardens -- to look like the ones in this book. :-) I know I'll be referring to The Kitchen Garden on a regular basis. Highly recommended for beginners, and maybe even for those with several years of experience who are interested in growing something new.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife
Author: Robert Goolrick
Algonquin, 2010
320 pages

The year is 1907. The place: a small town in northern Wisconsin. A man named Ralph Truitt waits at a train station for the arrival of his bride-to-be, a woman who responded to his want-ad in a Chicago newspaper for "a reliable wife." As it turns out, neither of them is really who they seem to be, and the theme of trust (along with several other themes including loss and redemption) is a key component of Robert Goolrick's first novel.

Goolrick isn't exactly a spring chicken, and neither are his characters. Truitt is pushing 60, and Catherine Land, the beautiful woman he will marry despite trickery, plots, and schemes you simply cannot imagine until you read the book, is at an age where she is "no longer youthful."  Like his father before him, Ralph is a very successful businessman. He wasn't always responsible, but over time has become worthy of inheriting his kingdom. Catherine is equally interesting, a person with many secrets whose photographic memory enables her to make her way through the world in a chameleon-like fashion.

From northern Wisconsin with its long winters to the slums of Philadelphia to old world Europe to opium dens and whorehouses of Chicago and St. Louis we go, experiencing nearly every human emotion imaginable. I can't remember ever reading anything (fiction or not) that describes the "seedy" side of the early 20th century like A Reliable Wife does. It's disturbing, and (for me) it was difficult to put down. Nearly every chapter ends with something you didn't expect, leading you to keep reading . . . all the way to the shocking and unpredictable (for me, at least!) ending. I read it in about four hours - maybe less -- not in one sitting, but if I'd had the time it could have been so.

I read online that the movie rights have already been snapped up. It will be interesting to see how Hollywood interprets this story for the big screen. I'm perplexed by the negative reviews on Amazon and B&N's web sites. Both ratings are averaging 3 out of 5 stars, but it seems as if people either really love or really hate this book. If I'd seen the reviews before I read the book, I might not have read it. But I'm glad I did, and I'd like to give a shout-out to my co-worker friend Jan for the recommendation.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hail to the Chef

Hail to the Chef
Author: Julie Hyzy
Berkley, 2008
328 pages

We last checked in with White House Executive Chef Olivia "Ollie" Paras in State of the Onion, the first book in the White House Chef mystery series. Several months have passed, and now it's Thanksgiving. Ollie and her crew are frantically trying to stay ahead of the game as they prepare Thanksgiving dinner and plan for the annual Holiday Open House.

Out of the blue, a bomb-like device is found in the White House, and Secret Service Special Agent-in-Charge Gavin wants all staff trained in new procedures. Then the chief White House electrician, a very experienced fellow, is electrocuted in a freak accident. In the meantime, the First Lady is having some trouble with some business partners who want her to sell her stake in a company. Her nephew Sean, a young financial advisor who has a bit of a crush on Ollie, is trying to help his aunt -- but is found dead of an apparent suicide.

The holiday season is obviously made somber by these events, and since Ollie's boyfriend Tom (a Secret Service agent assigned to the President) is traveling with POTUS, Ollie's pretty much on her own. She finds herself consulting with a retired electrician neighbor, who tells her about floating neutrals and encourages Ollie to bring this to the attention of the other White House electricians, lest they too fall prey to this electrical anomaly. But the electrician brotherhood is hostile to Ollie when she asks them about it. The First Lady's business partners are becoming increasingly hostile, too -- and now there are rumors that one of them is a murderer!

There are a couple of new characters in Book 2, such as Gavin (a potential rival of Tom?) and the Swedish bombshell Agda, whose excellent work in the kitchen (as a seasonal employee) cancels out her lack of English skills. (I'm hoping she'll become a regular.)

Although I figured out what was going on early, there were enough interesting twists and turns that my fingers kept turning pages. Actually, I enjoyed this book even more than the first. This series makes me want to go to culinary school and move to DC. :-)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sunshine

Sunshine
Author: Robin McKinley
Berkley, 2003
405 pages

Wow, I just realized that this is the 75th book I've reviewed! Pretty cool, huh?!!

Sunshine came highly recommended by my co-worker friend Sandy T. (who also recommended the Karen Marie Moening series that begins with Darkfever). "Sunshine" is a nickname for Rae Seddon, who at first seems very ordinary: she works as a baker in the family diner owned by her stepfather Charlie. She has a Mom, two younger stepbrothers, a tattooed, motorcycle-loving boyfriend, Mel (who also works at the diner), and a mysterious landlord named Yolande. They all live in a sort of post-apocalyptic world where "Others" (vampires, werewolves and other weres, etc.) have come out of their closets.

One day Sunshine decides to drive out to the lake, where her family once had a cabin. She is kidnapped by a band of vampires, who hold her prisoner along with another vampire in a nearby old mansion. A sort of Beauty and the Beast story enfolds, and circumstances bond her with the vampire. Sunshine's memories of her paternal grandmother suddenly come forward, and as she realizes her father's family were magic handlers, she also realizes that she has inherited some special abilities.

No, Sunshine is not ordinary at all.

Without giving too much away, I'll just say that this is the kind of story that just sucks you right in. There's a lot of narrative, which I normally find off-putting but in this case actually helps provide context that is necessary to understand the last part of the book. I found myself really liking the main character Sunshine as well as Constantine, her vampire friend. I would have liked to know more about Yolande, and through her to learn more about Sunshine's father. Also, it was interesting that Sunshine's mother was referred to often, but never really appeared in the book. I found myself wondering about her: who was she, really, and why was she so hell-bent on separating Sunshine and her father (and his family)? 

The last 80 pages or so are full of action. I couldn't stop turning the pages. This book begs for a sequel, but so far, there hasn't been one. That's a shame.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Three To Get Deadly

Three To Get Deadly
Author: Janet Evanovich
St. Martin's, 1997
321 pages

This is the third Stephanie Plum book, and this time, bounty hunter Stephanie is on the trail of "Uncle" Mo, the popular proprietor of the local candy store who failed to make a court appearance. As Stephanie attempts to track him down, she faces the wrath of Mo's neighbors and friends, who not only don't want to help her find him, they're angry with her for trying. Suddenly, local drug dealers start dropping like flies . . . and signs point to Mo. Has the candy salesman turned into a vigilante? His neighbors and friends see him as a hero, but Stephanie may be about to uncover something that will shock everyone.

Three To Get Deadly is an easy read, and I should have finished it sooner. However, a houseful of guests knocked me off my routine in the middle of the book. I was able to recover, but for some reason I didn't enjoy this book as much as the last one. There was a lot of comedy in the book that at times seemed like filler material. Stephanie's relationship with Joe Morelli is heating up, so it'll be interesting to see where that goes (I can imagine, LOL!) Lula's character provides a certain comic relief; I can see lots of potential here. I missed Grandma Mazur in this one and hope she'll be back in future books.

All in all, entertaining, with several laugh-out-loud moments -- and some eye-rolling moments, too. Fortunately, there were more of the former than latter.