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!