Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire
Author: Stieg Larsson
Translated from Swedish by: Reg Keeland
Maclehose Press, 2009
569 pages

Wow, what a ride!!! I read the first "Girl Who" book almost a year ago (click here for my April 2009 review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) but had I known the second one would be EVEN BETTER, I would have read it much sooner. The Girl Who Played With Fire grabs you from the very beginning and doesn't let you go until the last word in the last sentence.

Freaky genius Lisbeth Salander has been away from Stockholm for quite some time, traveling the world and doing a few other things. But within days of her arrival, she's suddenly a suspect in a shocking double murder. The victims are friends of Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist whose path crossed with Salander in the previous book. Mikael's friends were researching something that, when made public, would have implicated several people and government entities. Mikael knows Salander isn't a murderer - or is she? The evidence certainly points to her guilt.

There isn't much more I can write here without giving too much away. Just trust me that this is a really awesome series and that Book #2 is even better than Book #1. Yes, it does have some violence in it - it's definitely not a "cozy" mystery. But it's not as violent as the first book, and lots of questions that came up in the first book are answered in this one.

I read somewhere online that Larsson planned to make this a series, but he died suddenly just after finishing the third one. That's really too bad, because he was an amazingly talented writer, and the Blomkvist and Salander characters make a great team. Salander is one of the most unique and interesting literary characters I've come across in years. I like her.

The third and final book, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, will be released here in the USA in either April or May. But I have it already on my hot little bookshelf (ordered it from Amazon UK late last year). I'm probably not going to be able to wait much longer to read it. However, since I rarely read two of the same type of books in a row, you'll have to wait a while longer for that review.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Through the Grinder

Through the Grinder
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2004
276 pages

After the length and complexity of Wolf Hall, I desperately needed a quick and easy read. So yesterday afternoon, I selected the second book in the awesome Coffeehouse Mystery series: Through the Grinder. (See my review of the first book - On What Grounds - here.)

In Through the Grinder, coffee shop manager Clare Cosi is back with several of the characters introduced in the first book: her ex-husband Matt, a coffee broker who travels the world in search of adventure and great coffee; their daughter Joy, a culinary student; Tucker, the assistant manager/barista/actor; and the NYPD detective Quinn. When one of their customers is found dead in the subway just moments after stopping in for some coffee, the Village Blend team finds themselves involved in yet another mystery. Then a second customer death occurs . . . and detective Quinn is certain they are linked.

In the meantime, Clare learns that Joy has broken up with her Italian chef boyfriend, and is looking into "online dating." Under the guise of watching out for Joy, Clare finds herself looking for Mr. Right, too - and she thinks she may have found the perfect guy. But then, a series of coincidences link him to the dead women. Is Mr. Right . . . a murderer?

I spent four hours glued to the book. It was as good - if not better - than the first book. It was also grittier. The tension between Clare and ex-husband Matt continues to grow; the interplay between them is quite fun. Obviously they are made for each other - when will they realize it?!!! I really look forward to the next Coffeehouse mystery . . . and the next . . . and the next.

As with the first book, I appreciated the coffee tips and the recipes. In fact, as I write this, I'm making one of the recipes: the Coffee-Marinated Steak is marinating in my refrigerator. I can't wait to try it out later this evening.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2009
532 pages

Wolf Hall won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, a highly competitive award given annually to an author from the British Commonwealth or Ireland for an exceptional work of fiction. The winning books are typically very highbrow. That's why it took me so long to read it!

The book follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, from his upbringing as the abused son of a blacksmith to his rise from Cardinal Wolsey's assistant to Henry VIII's minister.  Most books, movies, and television shows like The Tudors portray Cromwell as the disagreeable, slimy, backstabbing enemy of Thomas More. But Wolf Hall shows us the more human side of Cromwell . . . family man, feminist, intellectual . . . and the imperfect side of More. More actually comes across as a jerk in Wolf Hall. It's no wonder that Cromwell opened up a can of whoop-a$$ on him.

The comparisons to The Tudors are unavoidable, but I actually found that having seen three seasons of the Showtime series helped me to understand the characters, the history, and the scenes Mantel describes in Wolf Hall. (Unlike a reviewer on Amazon.com, I wasn't thoroughly confused by all the Thomases, Henrys, Annes, Marys, and Janes in Wolf Hall - thanks to The Tudors!) But unlike the TV show, the focus is on Cromwell and not on Henry and his wives. Unique to Wolf Hall is the focus on the relationship between Cromwell and the Boleyns and Seymours - especially to Anne Boleyn.

Still, I couldn't help picturing some of the actors in The Tudors when I was reading this. Anne Boleyn was certainly not played by Natalie Dormer (simply because Natalie is way too pretty), but handsome Henry Cavill was the Duke of Suffolk; Nick Dunning was the scheming Thomas Boleyn; and of course, James Frain was Cromwell. Ah, the influence of media.

But what Wolf Hall has on The Tudors, in addition to changes in characterization, is historical accuracy. Hilary Mantel spent five years researching the book. Her excellent research skills are apparent in the exquisite detail of every aspect of this tale, from descriptions of court life (fashions, art, activities such as hunting) to snapshots of ordinary daily life, from the bathhouse to the pub.

It seemed to take me forever to read Wolf Hall, but I enjoyed every moment of it, and recommend it highly. Just be aware that it isn't a quick read, and it's not an easy read, either. If you find yourself getting confused with all the Thomases, etc., just consult the handy-dandy chart in front. It explains everything.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth

Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth
Author: Tamar Myers
Signet, 1995
246 pages

I don't know when the "food cozy" mysteries started, but this is one of the oldest I've come across. Magdalena Yoder is a fortyish, never married innkeeper of the Penn-Dutch bed-and-breakfast in Hernia, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Amish country. Unlike her younger tarty sister Susannah, "Mags" has traditional values, and is the more responsible of the two. Of course, there is a mysterious death - actually, two mysterious deaths - and suspicion on Mags, her hired help, and her mostly disagreeable citified guests: a handsome but not-so-nice Congressman, his dutiful wife, his ambitious assistant, and four animal rights advocates.

I found myself laughing out loud at several folksy parts, yet rolling my eyes at others. Still, it was a quick read, and for the most part, enjoyable. The best part? Probably the recipes interspersed with the story. Of course, this also occurs with most of the other cozies I've read recently . . . but the recipes in Too Many Crooks Spoil the Broth (e.g., chicken and dumplings, a no-bake cookie, and a broiled banana dish that sounded simple and delicious) I actually might try. I'd go make the banana recipe right now, but I don't have any brown sugar.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Down to This

Down to This
Author: Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall
Vintage Canada, 2005
475 pages

When I was in Toronto last summer, my co-worker friend Rosa lent me this book to read. It sat on my shelf until New Year's Day, but once I started it, I couldn't put it down. The strange thing is, I really didn't think the subject matter (homelessness) would interest me that much. But from page one, I was fascinated.

Subtitled Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown, this is a very raw description of a group of homeless people squatting on 28 undeveloped acres between an expressway and Lake Ontario in Toronto. The land is owned by Home Depot.

The author (known as "Shaun") goes to Tent City with the intention of living among the people for a year or so and writing a book about his experience. He's a middle-class, university-educated young man in his mid-twenties who has already had several adventures, from hitchhiking to Costa Rica to working in Spain and Italy. But none of his previous experiences compare to what unfolds in Tent City.

He tries to live in an actual tent at first, but soon learns that there aren't many tents in Tent City. In order to survive the winter, he must build something more substantial. Using castoff materials and items given to him by the other Tent City residents, he builds a one room shack, and furnishes it with a bed and other items he is given or finds.

One by one, he introduces his neighbors, and for many of them we learn the circumstances that brought them there: most were abused as children, and most are not willing to live within the "normal" rules of society. In Tent City, they can pretty much do as they please, including smoking marijuana or crack, or staying drunk all day and night.

Despite the way in which they live, Tent City residents don't consider themselves to be poor. In fact, many of them have the same material things as ordinary citizens. A few people even have televisions and computers, using electricity "hijacked" from the city. Several of the residents have regular jobs, and at least one makes a salary of $80k.

There is a lot of sadness in Tent City, though, and Shaun writes realistically about the rawness of daily life there and the stories of the people like Eddie and Karen, the crack addicts who vow to change when their baby is born, but then slowly fall prey to the realities of their world; Bonnie, the clinically depressed social activist; Hawk, the survivalist "sheriff" of Tent City; Jackie, the prostitute; and all the other couples and individuals who make up Shaun's group called The Dirty Thirty.

It doesn't take long before Shaun starts to lose himself. He openly describes his own experiences with drugs and alcohol, and of his thought processes around staying in a place like Tent City versus living in regular society. He brings to light some of the real reasons for homelessness, and why some homeless people would rather live in a place like Tent City instead of a homeless shelter or government housing. He writes candidly about the various "do-gooders" who frequently come around to Tent City to drop off food, clothes, heaters, and other items.

Shaun planned to stay in Tent City for one year, and he chose a good time to embed himself, as two major things happened. First, the crack sellers (who previously worked outside of Tent City) moved in, and . . . there goes the neighborhood. Second, Home Depot decided to reclaim their land. As Shaun's year is ending, Home Depot hires private security to come in and remove the squatters. Shaun's neighbors are all "relocated" to other homes in the city.

Down to This raises a lot of questions about how a "civilized society" treats its people. It raises questions about government policies and makes you think about social issues. It shows the human side of homelessness and living off the grid.

Ironically, as I was starting to write this review today, the TV was on and a documentary called Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa was playing on Sundance Channel. The documentary was so compelling that I had to stop writing to watch it. Although Off the Grid is more about the need to be self-sufficient in a Thoreau-like way, I found many parallels between it and Down to This.

Sure makes you think.