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.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

All She Was Worth

All She Was Worth
Author: Miyuki Miyabe
Oriel, 1996 (original publication in Japanese language 1992)
296 pages

My friend Elyse, who lived in Japan for almost a year when she was attending university, tells me that Japanese fiction is . . .  different. Unlike Western fiction, which tends to be very linear, Japanese fiction is more circular. In describing what this means, Elyse said the story might start with the mention of a train station . . . and then take the long way around (so to speak) as the plot unfolds, only to wind up back at the train station again. I haven't lived in Japan (but I've been there! And I've ridden the bullet train!) and I certainly haven't studied Japanese literature, but sure enough, All She Was Worth begins with: "The rain started just as the train pulled out of Ayase Station."

Miyuki Miyabe is a prolific writer who is very popular in her native Japan, but so far, only a few of her books have been translated into English. All She Was Worth is a detective story (the author also writes science fiction, historical fiction, and the highly successful anime series Brave Story) whose main character is Shunsuke Honma, a middle-aged widower/single father/Tokyo police inspector on disability leave. Out of the blue, he's approached by Jin, the nephew of his deceased wife. Jin is a successful banker whose fiancée, a young woman called Shoko Sekine, has gone missing. He asks Honma to find her.

Honma learns that Shoko was recently turned down for a credit card due to a bankruptcy a few years earlier. As he searches for the young woman, he realizes she isn't who she claimed to be - and the 'real' Shoko Sekine is also missing. Honma spends lots of times in train stations and on bullet trains as he chases clues up and down Honshū island. Along the way, his eyes open to a serious problem in modern Japanese society: ravenous consumerism, especially among the younger generation, and staggering amounts of personal debt. He learns that both the real Shoko and her impostor both paid huge prices for their financial sins, and in some cases the sins of their parents. All She Was Worth asks: is keeping up with the Joneses (or the Suzukis or Watanabes) really worth it? The answer: it's a lot more complicated than you might expect.

I was mesmerized by this book. True, it's not a nail biter, and I wasn't sitting on the edge of my seat. But I couldn't stop reading it. There was nothing obvious about the story. The "bad guy" (or girl, in this case) wasn't even certain. The ending wasn't wrapped up nice and tidy-like (and that will drive many Western readers nuts.)

But it was mesmerizing, nonetheless.