Friday, December 30, 2011

Eggsecutive Orders

Eggsecutive Orders
Author: Julie Hyzy
Berkley, 2010
352 pages

In this third book in the White House Chef Mystery series, top chef Olivia "Ollie" Paras is doing more than cooking. One early morning as she's getting ready for work, Ollie learns that a guest at last night's White House dinner has died of mysterious causes, and all eyes are on the kitchen staff. Ollie knows that none of her team would ever poison anyone, and she's fairly confident in the safety of her kitchen's ingredients. Unfortunately, the Secret Service (including Ollie's boyfriend Tom, who's assigned to the President) isn't letting her or her team back into the kitchen just yet.

As the Secret Service awaits the medical examiner's report, Ollie gets some unexpected time off -- just as her mother and grandma ("nana") are in town for a visit to Our Nation's Capital. But Ollie doesn't want to be off work. She wants to be in the White House kitchen, doing her job, along with the other chefs, Bucky and Cyan. She also wants to take her visitors on a tour of the White House, but now it looks like that won't be possible.

Turns out, the man who died was the head of the National Security Agency. He wasn't exactly well-liked, so there are lots of suspects, including his second-in-command, and a mysterious older gentleman who begins paying amorous attention to Ollie's mom. And then Ollie remembers that there were guests in the kitchen that night: Two of her friends who host a TV cooking show - along with their crew - had taped a segment in the White House kitchen for an upcoming episode . . . and one of the hosts had a history with the dead man. Yet the Secret Service doesn't want Ollie helping in their investigation!

Of all the times for something like this to happen . . . the big Easter Egg Roll is only days away, and Ollie and her crew need to boil something like 15,000 eggs and prepare other food for one of the White House's biggest events of the year. Will they be able to pull it off? That's one of many questions to be answered in Eggsecutive Orders.

Author Julie Hyzy has a knack for writing believable (and interesting) dialogue, so you feel like you're  in the same room as the characters, eavesdropping on their conversations. Ollie is growing as a character, and having her mom and hilarious nana in town was a great idea (I'd like to see more of them - especially nana). I'd still like to punch the "sensitivity director" character in the face, but since I can't, maybe someone will in a future book.

Eggsecutive Orders, like the other books in this series, is a light and quick read. I read it in two nights. As with the others, there are some yummy-sounding recipes in the back. I'm particularly looking forward to trying the Eggs Benedict and the Scotch Eggs recipes some upcoming weekend. I already have the fourth book, Buffalo West Wing, and have pre-ordered the fifth, Affairs of Steak, which will be released next Tuesday (January 3). So as you can tell, I like the White House Chef Mysteries a lot! :)

Previously read books in this series:

Hail To The Chef
State Of The Onion

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Traitor's Emblem

The Traitor's Emblem
Author: Juan Gómez-Jurado
Atria Books, 2011 (reprint)
336 pages

I bought this book a while ago and started reading it, but couldn't get through the first chapter. But I kept seeing good reviews about it online, so I decided to give it another shot. Fortunately, the results were different this time, and I was pulled right into the middle of a storm off the coast of Spain in 1940. A Spanish ship rescues a small group of Germans crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. As payment for rescuing them and taking them to Portugal (not Spain), the leader of the German group gives the Spanish captain an emblem made of gold with a diamond. Fast forward some sixty years, when the Spanish captain's son is offered a lot of money for the emblem. The potential buyer tells the tale of the emblem, and things really start to get interesting.

The tale starts in Munich, Germany just after the end of the first World War. Things are bad. The economy's in shambles, Germany's in major debt, and there's a shortage of jobs. Fifteen-year-old Paul Reiner and his mother, Ilse, live in the home of Ilse's sister, Brunhilda, who's married to a baron. The baron has a gambling problem and is quickly losing his assets, so there's a lot of stress in the household. The Reiners are treated more like servants than family. Paul's father disappeared when Paul was just a baby. The story is that the elder Reiner was captain of a ship that sunk off the coast of German South-West Africa (now Namibia). Paul wants to know more, but the subject seems to be taboo.

The baron and baroness have two sons: Eduard, a recently-returned war veteran with no legs and plenty of post-traumatic stress; and Jürgen, a big bully just a few months older than Paul. At a party in his honor, Jürgen tries to impress his mates by disrespecting young guest Alys Tannenbaum, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Paul steps in to defend Alys, and thus begins a rivalry between the two cousins that will just get nastier as time passes. An event later that same evening puts Paul and Ilse out on the streets, no longer welcome in the baron's mansion -- but not before Paul hears a different story about is father's death.

Paul and Ilse struggle to survive in a world where inflation is rampant and the political winds are beginning to shift. Gómez-Jurado masterfully weaves historical facts into the story, while creating a believable and very interesting story around the characters of Paul, Jürgen, and Alys. And that's really all I want to say, because otherwise I'm going to write all night and give way too much away.

Bottom line: GREAT book. Loved it. Glad I gave it a second chance.

Next up will be something light -- not sure what yet. I'm also reading a "healthy" book for a work initiative, so a nonfiction review is coming soon!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Boy In The Suitcase

The Boy In The Suitcase
Authors: Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis
Soho Crime, 2011
323 pages

This amazing thriller comes from Denmark. It was actually published a few years ago, and was a finalist for the Scandinavian Glass Key, an award given annually to a crime thriller written by an author from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway or Sweden. I've read online that it's part of a bestselling Danish series, and I really hope that others will be translated into English soon.

Main character Nina Borg is a Red Cross nurse who works primarily with refugees. She has a family of her own, but is passionate about her job to the point where she occasionally leaves her family to work in another country. When her old friend Karin asks for a favor, Nina reluctantly complies, even though she hasn't seen Karin in a while. In doing so, she comes across a suitcase with an unconscious little boy inside.

Other characters are introduced, and each chapter focuses on a different character. There's Jan, a wealthy Danish businessman who's stuck on an airplane and in a hurry to get back to Copenhagen, and Jucas, a temperamental Lithuanian thug who's in Denmark to do some sort of a job. Back in Lithuania, a young single mother named Sigrita is dealing with the disappearance of her three-year-old son, Miklas.

Of course, the characters are all interconnected, and it doesn't take long for us to know how. But we have to wait until the final pages of the book to find out why. Fortunately, you won't have to wait long to get to the final pages, because this is a fast read. So if you're thinking about reading The Boy In The Suitcase (and I think you should), plan a weekend or a day off where you can sit back for several hours and get it all done in one fell swoop. You will not want to put this one down. Not to eat, not to answer the phone/check email/Facebook/Twitter, and certainly not to sleep. When you do finally turn the last page, you'll finally be able to breathe again.

It's a fantastic story, and also a sort of mini-treatise on some of the social problems endemic to a "free" society. So in addition to entertaining you for several hours, The Boy In The Suitcase might also make you think about these issues. Who knows? Maybe you'll want to do something about them as a result of reading this book.

*****

This was Book #52 for 2011, and I'm well into Book #53 already. So I've broken the record I set last year, and I haven't slowed down yet. :)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Grind

Holiday Grind
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2009
384 pages

Ah, the holiday season! This eighth installment in the amazing Coffeehouse Mystery series finds Village Blend manager Clare Cosi trying to create the perfect holiday coffee drink. When Santa (Village Blend customer Alf Glockner) fails to show up at the tasting party, Clare goes out to look for him. Unfortunately, he's in a back alley . . . dead.

By now Clare's family (ex-husband Matt Allegro, the globetrotting coffee broker and reformed [?] playboy now married to publishing magnate Breanne Summour; Clare & Matt's daughter Joy, a young chef currently living in Paris; and Matt's mother Madame, who owns the Village Blend) and her boyfriend Mike Quinn (of the NYPD) are getting used to her propensity for crime-solving. And that's a good thing, because despite what anyone else may think, it's obvious to Clare that Alf was murdered.

Who could have murdered such a nice guy? -- In a Santa outfit, no less. Perhaps the shady businessman who lent Alf $200k. Or the businessman's son, who seems to have his own shady side business. Or perhaps Alf's bitter, plastic-surgeried ex-wife. Perhaps it was a professional hit? Just before Alf died, he was hanging out in a fire escape and looking through the window of the residence of a television producer . . . why?

Holiday Grind is a nice cozy mystery, and the Coffeehouse Mystery series just keeps getting better. As usual, Clare gets herself into some interesting . . . shall we say get-ups? There's still a sort of sexual tension between Clare and Matt, and in this book, the former Mrs. Quinn shows up, and it ain't pretty.

But the thing I appreciate most about Holiday Grind is the section in the back. There's a substantial section on coffee basics and terminology; detailed instructions on using a Moka Express Stovetop Espresso maker; and plenty of recipes for different types of holiday-themed coffee beverages, syrups for lattes, and other goodies. I'm keeping my copy of Holiday Grind, so I can refer to it whenever I want to make something really special for future holiday seasons.

Previously read books in this series:

On What Grounds (December 2009)
Through The Grinder (January 2010)
Latté Trouble (June 2010)
Murder Most Frothy (January 2011)
Decaffeinated Corpse (April 2011)
French Pressed (August 2011)
Espresso Shot (November 2011)


***********

Special NoteHoliday Grind is the 51st book I've read and blogged about in 2011. This ties the 51 books I read/blogged about in 2010. With eight days remaining in 2011, it's possible for me to break the 2010 record. Will I do it? Come back again soon to find out! :)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Dirty Parts Of The Bible

The Dirty Parts Of The Bible
Author: Sam Torode
CreateSpace, 2010
276 pages

Let me start out by saying that I bought the Kindle edition of this book for 0.96 cents on Amazon. From the very first sentence I was laughing, and there were many instances when I had to stop and read a section out loud to whomever was around (Dad, Mom, Sandy, the dogs) just to share my amusement.

It's 1936, during the period that would eventually be known as the Great Depression. Main character Tobias is the son (and only child -- you'll know why in the first couple of paragraphs) of a Baptist preacher in a small Michigan town. Tobias only thinks about two things: girls and religion (mostly girls) . . . and he has a wonderful imagination.

When a series of ironic events leads to the Reverend losing his job, Tobias sets out to save the family by returning to his father's home in Texas to retrieve some money his father secretly hid there many years ago. But first he has to get to Texas, and the journey is a huge part of this coming-of-age story.

Things start out well enough as Tobias rides the train to Chicago. But when he gets to the Windy City, he realizes his own unsophistication. I don't want to give away too much, but there are encounters with all sorts of people. When an innocent split-second decision leaves him broke, he decides to continue his journey anyway. Meeting up with some hobos, he hops a southbound train and yet another journey begins as one of the hobos, Craw, teaches him what it's like to live as a "free" man.

Craw ends up becoming a mentor and friend, despite their age and other differences. Eventually they make it to the family farm in Texas, where they both get jobs as farm hands. Tobias finds that he blends in better with his uncle's family than with his own. There's a funny family reunion scene involving Grandma and Craw, and there's this really cute girl named Sarah. That's really all I want to say in terms of plot.

In short, The Dirty Parts of the Bible -- aside from having one of the coolest titles ever -- is one of my favorite books of the year. It's definitely the best 0.96 cents I've spent in a long, long time.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct
Author: Zoë Sharp
Murderati Ink, 2011 (previously published)
509KB

I've read lots of mysteries & thrillers with female protagonists. But Zoë Sharp's Charlie Fox is . . . different. She lives in Lancaster, England, a small city situated along a river in the northwest of England, not far from the Lake District. This is a new setting for me, and it's always refreshing to read about a new place.

A motorcycle-riding, ex-member of the British military, the woman formerly known as Charlotte Foxcroft teaches self defense courses to women. One evening she tags along with her best friend Clare to a new club. There's an altercation, and Charlie's skills are observed by the club's owner, the mysterious Marc Quinn. Soon after, Marc asks her to work for him as part of the club's security detail. Charlie can use the extra money, so she agrees to work a few evenings a week. However, on her first night working at the club, she immediately feels unwelcome by the all-male security team . . . and it just goes downhill from there.

First, one of the women at the club that night is assaulted and murdered. This is followed by a string of other incidents, including more murders -- and threats to Charlie. As things become more personal, we learn that Charlie was attacked during her time in the military and suffered all sorts of losses as a result. The reason she teaches self-defense to women is so they won't have to be a victim, like she was so long ago. Charlie no longer defines herself as a victim. But does that give her the killer instinct? Her underlying struggle with this question is one of the things that makes her a unique female protagonist.

There are lots of red herrings and false leads, and things don't always turn out like you think they're going to. The last pages are so filled with action, I couldn't stop reading although it was way past my bedtime.

But my favorite thing about Killer Instinct was . . . Charlie. She's a tough cookie, with bit of marshmallow in the inside. She makes me want to get a motorcycle and a pair of leather pants, and to take up martial arts. And I'd definitely want her to have my back, if I was ever in any kind of trouble.

I'll be reading more of this series!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Start-Up

The Start-Up
Author: Sadie Hayes
Backlit Fiction, LLC, 2011
635KB

They say the Internet is the great equalizer, and more and more this seems especially true in the publishing world. The Start-Up is one of many books I've seen lately that are only available in digital form. I came across it while looking at a list of top-selling Young Adult books on Amazon.com. The description sounded interesting, and at 99 cents, I just couldn't pass it up.

Amelia and Adam Dory are twins who grew up in a series of foster homes in Indiana. Through their own hard work, they landed scholarships to Stanford University. It's not easy living in rich Silicon Valley when you don't have much money, but somehow they get by. Adam takes on temporary jobs, and Amelia has special talents with computers and coding. Adam longs for the lifestyle of the rich and famous and would like to see his sister 'do something' with her skills, but Amelia believes money's the root of all evil.  But when she hacks into a company to check out something Adam overheard at a party where he was tending bar, a frightening scam behind a multi-billion dollar investment is revealed. When the media breaks the story based on Amelia's tip, heads start to roll.

This little book is jam-packed with despicable characters, from the venture capitalist whose financial return is ruined by Amelia's discovery, to Amelia's scheming two-faced rich-chick roommate, Patty. But those are just two of many. The Start-Up (and apparently Silicon Valley) is replete with selfish, shallow characters who care about little else but making money, driving fancy cars, and partying. In that regard, it's a lot like a TV soap opera: You want to pull away and stop watching, you know it's wrong . . . but you just can't help yourself.

And sure enough, The Start-Up ends with a cliffhanger that makes you want to dive right in to the second book (called The Anti-Social Network). There's a third coming soon, and my guess is, there'll be several more.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Tempest Rising

Tempest Rising
Author: Nicole Peeler
Orbit, 2009
368 pages

Quick Quiz: You're headed out of town for a three-day weekend in sunny Florida with your friends, and you need something to read on your brand-new Kindle Fire. Do you choose: A) a work-related business book; B) historical fiction about the place where you're going; or C) a breezy chick-lit fantasy to take your mind off the Real World? For me, the obvious choice in this type of situation is always  C. Based on a recommendation from someone I follow on Twitter, I snagged Tempest Rising, the first book in a series featuring twenty-something Jane True. 
Jane lives in Rockabill, Maine, once a fishing village but now a tourist town thanks in part to its proximity to The Old Sow, the largest whirlpool in North America. Mysteriously abandoned by her mother as a child, Jane lives with her father and works in a book shop. A few years back, her boyfriend Jason died, and Jane still deals with the after-effects of that and her mother's disappearance. Actually, she feels like the Town Freak, and there are lots of people in Rockabill who reinforce her perception.

You'd think she'd just skip town and try to start over somewhere else. But she can't leave her Dad. Nor can she leave the water - at least not for very long. For some reason, Jane feels compelled to secretly swim in the cold ocean near The Old Sow every night. There's something about the experience that strengthens her and helps her forget about the stark realities of her life. When she emerges from her swim and finds a dead body, things start to get really weird . . . and they'll get even weirder as Jane becomes aware of her true heritage. Turns out she's a halfling: half human and (in Jane's case) half selkie. That's why her mother had to leave all those years ago. 

And those other so-called mythological creatures? Gnomes, vampires, goblins, succubae, and several you've never heard of? They exist, too. In fact, the detective who comes to Rockabill to investigate the murder is a vampire (actually, in the book he calls himself a baobhan sith) named Ryu (pronounced "Roo"). Wouldn't you know, one thing leads to another, and Jane find herself with a vampire boyfriend. Their romance happens quickly - no waiting three or four books for this couple to get beyond the, um, dance.  

Turns out there have been other halfling murders, and when their goblin investigators are also whacked, it's pretty obvious that there's a supernatural murderer on the loose. Jane and Ryu head up to Quebec, where there's a royal court that no full-blooded human knows about, complete with king (Odin) and queen (Morrigan) and some rather nasty supes. Things get really wild here . . . the water in the grotto has a crack-like effect on Jane and, well, let's just say we learned to never rub a genie's lamp. Of course, the truth will be revealed, and the ending isn't really an ending . . . in fact Tempest Rising is the first of five (almost six) books in this series.

Jane has a wonderful sense of humor, and most of the time, I really like her. I don't really get the attraction to Ryu -- he's just not all that to me. His baobhan sith isn't like any other similar character I've ever read about -- which doesn't make it wrong, just different. (I believe in literary license. After all, it's fiction.)

Although I didn't mention him until now, my favorite supe character in Tempest Rising is Anyan, the barghest. He takes on a sort of protector role for Jane, and I get the feeling their relationship will evolve over the series. I certainly hope it will, because to be honest, I like Anyan a lot more than Ryu. So if I continue to read the series, it'll be because I have a sort of literary crush on The Big Dog. :)

Tempest Rising turned out to be an excellent choice for my weekend getaway. But I really do want to read that historical novel about the place I visited, and there's that book I have to read for work . . . guess I need to get busy, huh?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Nowhere Else On Earth

Nowhere Else On Earth
Author: Josephine Humphreys
Penguin, 2001
368 pages

At a professional development conference late last year, I met a woman who asked me where I grew up. When I told her I was from Robeson County, her eyes lit up. "Have you read a book called Nowhere Else On Earth?" she asked. I hadn't. We exchanged business cards, and a couple of weeks later, I received a copy of this book (which won the 2001 Southern Book Award for Fiction) in the mail as a gift from this new acquaintance.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that my books tell me when I'm supposed to read them - not the other way around. So although I wanted to read it, Nowhere Else On Earth sat on my shelf for a while. The long wait ended on Thanksgiving Day. I spent the weekend in Robeson County, and I think the book wanted me to start reading it there, where this story takes place.

It starts in 1864. The US Civil War is winding down, yet to the people in the settlement known as Scuffletown, it seems like the war many never end. Once a player in the turpentine industry, the area is home to all sorts of folks. Caught between Union soldiers (who take whatever they want - even if it's everything a family has - and often give empty promises in return) and the local Confederate sympathizers (who want to punish them for "supplying" the Union - as if they had a choice), the residents of Scuffletown are just trying to get by in these desperate times. When the Home Guard starts taking their young men away to use as laborers at Fort Fisher, tensions thicken. But soon the situation escalates, and a group of men known as the Lowrie Gang sets out to avenge the many wrongs perpetuated on Scuffletown's residents.

This is the story of Henry Berry Lowrie (sometimes spelled Lowry), the young man from a prominent Indian family who led the "gang" and became a sort of local folk hero to many, and vilified by others. Henry's story has been told many times and in many different ways, including the outdoor drama Strike At The Wind. Nowhere Else On Earth tells it from the perspective of Henry's young admirer Rhoda Strong. The daughter of an Indian mother and Scottish father, Rhoda eventually becomes Henry's wife and the mother of his children. The author does take some liberties with the story (it's historical fiction, after all). To tell you more than this would be to give too much away.

Nowhere Else On Earth is good, solid historical fiction. I found myself wanting to know more about the place I'm from, asking my Dad lots of questions, and searching maps to find some of the places mentioned. I've come away with a new appreciation of the place where I'm from and a new respect for its history. And that's pretty cool if you ask me.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Author: Tom Franklin
William Morrow Books, 2011 (reprint)
304 pages

As a kid growing up in the rural American South, I learned how to spell Mississippi the M-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-crooked letter-crooked letter-I-humpback-humpback-I way -- so I knew upon seeing the title of this book that it had a Mississippi connection. Sure enough, I was transported to a small town and rural community in the southeastern part of that state, and into the lives of two men. Silas Jones -- known as "32" -- is black, with a past he's still trying to figure out. Larry Ott is white, a lonely mechanic with no customers . . . or friends.

Many years ago, 32 and Larry were secret friends -- it had to be that way for a variety of reasons. Then one night Larry took a girl out on a date, and she never made it back home. Although no evidence was found, everyone assumed foul play on the part of Larry, and since then he's lived his life in sad isolation, ostracized by everyone. 32 was the local baseball star who left town seeking glory, only to blow out his arm and return years later as the town constable.

In the present day: When the daughter of the richest man in town disappears, everyone thinks Larry had something to do with it. But then Larry gets shot in the chest at close range, and it's not quite clear whether someone shot him, or whether he shot himself -- perhaps out of guilt? As 32 investigates, the story moves back and forth in time. We learn how as a child 32 and his single mother came to Mississippi from Chicago, and the rather odd circumstances under which he and Larry first met. Larry was always a little "different" -- while other boys liked to hunt, fish, and play sports, he preferred reading Stephen King novels. Because of this, it wasn't all that hard for 32 to deny their friendship. Yet 32 doesn't think Larry had anything to do with the disappearance of either girl.

You won't have to wait until the end of the story to find out whodunnit, nor will you have to wait to find out the other big surprise (yes, there is another one) in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter seems like a crime novel, but it's really much more than that. The intertwined stories of the men, from their two vastly different perspectives, is compelling, and the writing is exquisite. I've read online that some people are comparing this book to The Help and even To Kill a Mockingbird. There's a strong sense of place that pulls you in from the first few sentences. Some people have complained in their reviews that the prose is a little overdone -- for example, in the opening sections when Larry's doing his farm chores. But I could totally relate to the mundane, everyday activities such as feeding the chickens and driving the tractor -- based on my own farm experiences. I've seen the result of trees being cut and companies closing and jobs being lost, and the long term effect that has on the psyche of a small community. I know people like 32 and Larry and many of the secondary characters. I went to school with them. I get them. I am them.

Fortunately, there's an undercurrent of hope and plenty of opportunity for redemption in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. That may be why I loved it so much, and why I didn't quite want it to end when it did.

In short, I think Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a fine example of contemporary literature. It's my favorite fiction read of 2011 by an American author, and IMHO, is highly deserving of every accolade and award that it gets. I'm hoping that someone out there in Hollywood-land will find it, because it's got terrific movie potential. Anybody?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Espresso Shot

Espresso Shot
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2008
321 pages

Book #7 of the Coffeehouse Mystery series starts out with a bang -- literally! Main character Clare Cosi manages the Village Blend, an independent coffee house in New York's Greenwich Village. Her friend/housemate/ex-husband Matt Allegro is about to take a walk down the aisle with wealthy fashion magazine publisher Breanne Summour. When a Breanne lookalike is shot dead while walking down the street with Matt and Clare after the bachelor party, Matt recalls an earlier incident where the real Breanne was almost run down by a car. It seems as if someone is out to get Breanne -- and they don't seem to care who gets in the way.

As a favor to Matt, Clare agrees to hang out with Breanne for a few days in order to investigate. Breanne is definitely in bridezilla mode, and there are several amusing scenes à la The Devil Wears Prada; Breanne and Meryl Streep's characters have a lot in common. Clare also spends some quality time with Breanne's friend, food writer Roman Brio (whose name cracks me up because I'm just barely old enough to remember the mid-1970s TV commercials for the cologne of the same name). Roman has been entrusted with the wedding rings, which were designed by a famous Italian sculptor. There are a couple of side stories involving the sculptor and the rings, but you'll have to read the book for that. :)

In addition to her sleuthing duties, Clare's got a gourmet coffee and dessert bar to prepare for the wedding festivities. Guests have come from all over the coffee world for the big event. But there's still a couple of questions that haven't been answered: Do the groom and bride really love each other? Will they actually get married? Is someone really trying to kill Breanne? If so, who? And why?

Answers will be revealed in Espresso Shot, which may be my favorite in the series so far. The characters continue to grow, and I keep learning interesting stuff about coffee (Espresso Shot will always be memorable for the tale behind the world's most expensive coffee.) I can hardly wait to read Book #8 . . . and since it's called Holiday Grind, I have a feeling I'll be reading it soon!

Previously read books in this series:

On What Grounds (December 2009)
Through The Grinder (January 2010)
Latté Trouble (June 2010)
Murder Most Frothy (January 2011)
Decaffeinated Corpse (April 2011)
French Pressed (August 2011)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Winter Sea

The Winter Sea
Author: Susanna Kearsley
Sourcebooks, 2010
544 pages

When I got into genealogy a few years ago, I learned that several of my ancestors came from Scotland. Among these was a young man who fled that country after the Battle of Culloden. He fought on the losing side of said battle and was considered an outlaw by the English. This personal connection got me interested in the Jacobites, which somehow I missed in my history classes. I've been looking for a good historical novel set in that era for several years now, and I found it in The Winter Sea.

There are two main storylines in The Winter Sea. One is first person, told from the perspective of Carrie, a present-day author of historical fiction who's recently arrived in Cruden Bay (near Aberdeen) to research and write her next book, which takes place at nearby Slains Castle.

A Canadian of Scottish descent, Carrie grew up hearing her Dad's stories about their Scottish ancestors, who were from the western Shires -- the other side of the country. Yet for some reason, upon arriving in Cruden Bay, Carrie has a feeling that she has come home. Almost immediately, she's compelled to begin writing the story of one of her ancestors, Sophia.

The second story is Sophia's. A strong, clever girl, she has come to Slains from the west to live with a distant relative, the Countess of Errol. The Countess and her son (the Earl of Errol) are both Jacobites, and Slains castle is a hub of Jacobite activity. As Sophia is drawn into the day-to-day affairs of the castle, she develops a relationship with a young soldier who will change her life forever.

Back in the present time, Carrie becomes increasingly drawn into the story she's writing about Sophia. It turns out that many of the things she writes about (without researching first) are actually true: names of people and ships, descriptions of the castle layout, and so on. Carrie begins to wonder if she's sharing some sort of ancestral memory with Sophia. When she's not writing, she's dealing with two brothers, Stuart and Graham, local lads who are competing for her affections.

The Winter Sea is probably most accurately categorized as a historical romance. But don't let the "R" word put you off. Canadian author Kearsley does a fabulous job explaining the very complex history of the Jacobite era, which is so complicated I found myself consulting Wikipedia and other internet sources on occasion, just to catch up. For example, I never knew about the Darien Colony, a failed attempt by Scotland to establish a territory in Panama. This is the reason it took me so long -- about 3 weeks -- to read The Winter Sea.

Whether or not you have connections to Scotland, if you appreciate good historical fiction, I'm pretty sure you'll like The Winter Sea. (Or Sophia's Secret, if you're in the UK.)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Happier Than A Billionaire

Happier Than A Billionaire
Author: Nadine Hays Pisani
CreateSpace, 2011
240 pages

I'm seriously considering retiring somewhere outside the USA. There are lots of reasons for this, but the biggest is that I probably won't be able to afford to retire in the USA -- at least if things keep going the way they have been lately. Costa Rica is one of the countries in my sights (there are several others) so when I came across this book, whose official title is Happier Than a Billionaire: Quitting My Job, Moving to Costa Rica, and Living the Zero Hour Work Week, I knew I'd have to read it.

I was immediately hooked and could totally relate when the author described the sort of mid-life crisis that preceded her move. After all, I've been there myself. She was a chiropractor with a thriving practice and a 3,000 square foot house filled with crap she bought from QVC because she was bored and/or unfulfilled. To outsiders, she probably looked the epitome of success. But she longed for something more.

Enter her very cool husband, Rob. Instead of saying No! or questioning her sanity, he chose to be supportive. Rob researched various countries where they could live cheaply and without working. Costa Rica, with its stable government, excellent health care system, and other perks, seemed to fit the bill. After a visit or two they decided to go for it. They sold all their stuff back in the States and took the plunge, moving to this Central American country despite not speaking much Spanish or knowing anything about the culture.

A result is this often laugh-out-loud hilarious little book, one of my favorite (and least pretentious) reads of the year so far. Let me sidestep for a moment and confess that one of the reasons it took me longer than usual to read this book is because I was reading it out loud to Sandy at the rate of two chapters per evening. We've never laughed so hard. Part of this is because (both of us have expat experience and therefore) we could totally relate to and understand the multiple culture shocks. Let's see. Stepping in cow poop. Paying bribes to get stuff done. Dealing with the local maintenance man who never quite gets around to fixing stuff. And oh, Costa Rica may have an excellent health care system, but their roads are really, really bad.

Even their expat neighbors provide material. I wonder if the woman who pees in the yard realizes she's being written about? Somehow I have a feeling she wouldn't mind. Or wouldn't care.

Of course, the main thing is that living the Pura Vida life in Costa Rica mellows Nadine out. Here, whether she's watching spider monkeys or getting up close and personal with a volcano, she feels at home. After a year in Costa Rica, she's able to live in the moment and just be. Based on her blog (also called Happier Than A Billionaire -- and this interview), she and Rob have been in Costa Rica for four years now. And they live off about $1,000 a month. A thousand dollars a month for two people! Now you know why I'm thinking about retiring South.

Bottom line: if you're thinking about skipping the country and heading South, or if you just like good/fun writing, read Happier Than A Billionaire. You'll like it.

Dear Nadine, you are living my dream, and I'm highly jealous. :) With Best Wishes, Mariandy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Three Seconds

Three Seconds
Authors: Anders Roslund & Börge Hellström
Translated from Swedish by Kari Dickson
Quercus, 2011
683 pages

What happens when an ex-journalist and an ex-con hook up to write fiction? In the case of Sweden's Roslund & Hellström, the result is an international bestselling, award-winning crime novel. Three Seconds won the 2011 CWA International Dagger Award in July, but it's been on my list of books to read for several months. I kept waiting for it to be available on the Kindle. I waited. And waited. I'm still waiting, for it still isn't.

In the meantime, I ordered the paperback version from Amazon UK, even though that was more expensive than getting the hardback here in the USA . You see, I don't like hardbacks. I've noticed that many books come out in paperback months earlier in Europe than they do over here, which I find very annoying. But this review isn't supposed to be about my views of the publishing industry's marketing practices. Moving right along.

Despite my exuberance over reading Three Seconds, the truth is, I wasn't immediately drawn in. I plodded through the first 150 pages or so, trying to figure out who was who and keep track of the characters. But once I figured that out, I was good to go, and it soon became apparent what's so special about this book.

Main character Piet Hoffmann has a life so secret, only one other person knows about it. A police informant, he's so deep into the Polish mafia that he's now organizing sales of amphetamines smuggled into Sweden by human mules. Yet Piet is also a family man with a loving wife, Zofia, and two young sons whom he adores. Only Piet's handler Erik (who knows Piet by his code name Paula) is aware of Paula's role in this highly covert mission.

When a drug deal goes bad and an undercover policeman is killed execution style, Piet begins to struggle with the conflicting priorities of his life. His Polish 'CEO' back in Warsaw wants him to lead a new 'business initiative' supplying drugs to Swedish prisons. But in order to do this, Piet will have to be convicted of a crime and go to prison. In doing this, he risks everything, including the family he loves.

In the meantime, veteran Stockholm investigator Ewart Grens is looking into the drug-related murder. Still grieving from the loss of his wife and his role in it (a sub-story which will be partially revealed), Ewart sincerely believes he's on the trail of a psychopath. Since I don't do spoilers, I won't say more, except to say that the last 200 pages of this book are impossible to put down. And I didn't put it down until I finished, even though it was well after midnight on a "school" night when I finished it last Thursday.

If you like thrillers, police procedurals, or Scandinavian crime novels, you have to read this. And although it's still not on Kindle (WTH???), it's available on Nook. The US paperback is being pre-sold online now with an expected release date of 01 November 2011. Oh, and there's always the hardcover -- if you can stand it. :)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Into The Darkest Corner

Into The Darkest Corner
Author: Elizabeth Haynes
Myriad, 2011
403 pages

This has been a great year for reading books by first-time authors. Allow me to introduce you to Elizabeth Haynes from the UK. Her freshman entry Into The Darkest Corner is so clever, it doesn't seem like a first book at all. From the opening two scenes (one, an excerpt from a court hearing transcript; two, a murder), I wasn't sure at first where I was headed. But I felt compelled to keep reading . . .

Main character Cathy was once a big time party girl, with a life full of good times, alcohol, and casual relationships. But that was three years ago. Now, she's a somewhat shy and obsessive-compulsive recluse who has set patterns for doing things like checking to see that her doors are locked, having her tea at certain times of the day, and avoiding red clothing. Through the technique of describing past and present in alternating chapters, we learn what happened to Cathy, how she came to be in this condition, and why she trusts no one.

In the present-day chapters, Cathy slowly and reluctantly develops a relationship with Stuart, who moves into the apartment upstairs. Turns out Stuart's a doctor, and it doesn't take long for him to realize that Cathy has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Through him she begins to trust again, and takes steps toward getting the help she so badly needs. But when ghosts from Cathy's past come around, she just might take a giant leap backwards.

I don't feel that I can say too much more about the plot without giving too much away, so instead I'll focus on my reaction to the book. It's a true psychological thriller with lots of nail-biting, cringing moments. Even now, hours after I've finished reading, I still find myself thinking about some of the more disturbing scenes. Into The Darkest Corner is definitely an apt title.

One other thing. In the afterword section of the book, it's noted that the author wrote the first draft of Into The Darkest Corner during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November of 2008. I think that's really cool!

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Cold Day For Murder

A Cold Day For Murder
Author: Dana Stabenow
Gere Donovan Press, 2011 [original paperback published in 1992]
208 Pages

One of the blogs I follow mentioned this book in a recent post, and it occurred to me that I'd never read anything by Alaskan author Dana Stabenow. I thought it was about time, so I decided to start with A Cold Day For Murder, the first book in the Kate Shugak series and winner of the 1993 Edgar Award for best paperback original. I read the Kindle version, which was released this year and is currently a free download on Amazon.com.

Kate Shugak is a thirty-year-old Alaskan native who lives alone, some five miles from her closest neighbors. She travels by snowmobile and her best friend is her half Husky/half wolf, named Mutt. Her relationships with family (namely her grandmother and a few cousins) is complicated. Actually, Kate herself is a little complicated. In a former life, she worked in Anchorage as an investigator for the D.A.'s office. In fact, she's still recovering from an altercation with a child abuser she was investigating, in which she received permanent injuries.

But now her old friend Jack has made the long trek to Kate's cabin, hoping to get her help on a case. A local park ranger, a young "Outsider" whose father happens to be a U.S. congressman, has gone missing - as has the investigator sent to find him. In solving the mystery of these disappearances, Kate is forced to confront her past, to overcome her fears, and face up to some serious problems in her community.

Stabenow weaves a solid mystery into a unique geographical setting, with some very colorful characters.  Kate is a strong yet tender character who is able to navigate the cultural complexities of her world with a great deal of sensitivity. I have no doubt that she grows considerably over the course of the now eighteen-book (that's amazing!) series.

Most likely, if you like Tony Hillerman's Navajo Tribal Police mysteries, then you'll like this series, too. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Half-Assed

Half-Assed
Author: Jennette Fulda
Seal Press, 2008
250 pages

This may be a first for me: I found out about this book via Twitter because a friend of mine (@zigged) follows author Jennette Fulda (@jennettefulda), and one day she RT'd one of her tweets. I don't remember what the Tweet was about, but it was funny and therefore got my attention. So did the concept behind Half-Assed.

The actual title of the book is Half-Assed: A Weight Loss Memoir, and that's what it is - a memoir. So, let's just get it out in the open right now: this isn't yet another one of those books that tells you what to eat and what not to eat. In fact, the author never reveals exactly which diet she's on.  But the writing is so entertaining and the stories are so compelling, it doesn't really matter.

Jennette was an overweight kid who grew up to be a morbidly obese adult. At one point, she weighed 372 pounds. After gall bladder surgery in her early twenties, she decided to do something about it. One of her deal-with-it methods was writing a blog called Pasta Queen, which developed quite a following while she was on her journey of losing more than half her body weight. Her humorous way of writing led me to more than one laugh-out-loud moment, and her dogged determination is nothing short of inspirational. But what I like best is her honesty. She doesn't hold anything back.

Nor does she gloat in her success. In fact, she often seems reluctant about being an inspiration/guru/weight loss expert, and reminds us several times that everyone has to find their own way. Again, very honest.

At the time she was writing the blog, Fulda (a native of Indiana) was living in Indianapolis. She now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This is interesting to me personally because I've lived in both cities. Her second book, Chocolate & Vicodin, came out earlier this year. It's about the aftermath of Half-Assed, when she developed a "headache that wouldn't go away" and how she dealt with that. Given my history with headaches, I might have to give it a try sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

French Pressed

French Pressed
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2008
288 pages

This is the sixth book in the Coffeehouse Mystery series featuring Clare Cosi, the amateur sleuth and manager of the Village Blend Coffee House in Greenwich Village. Clare's the mother of culinary student Joy Allegro, and ex-wife of globetrotting coffee broker Matt Allegro. Other recurring characters include Matt's Mom, a spirited octogenarian known as Madame; Detective Mike Quinn of the NYPD, Clare's sorta/kinda boyfriend; and the fabulous baristas of the Village Blend, namely one Miss Esther Best.

French Pressed begins with Clare and Madame having dinner at Solange, the hot New York restaurant where Joy is completing her internship. Clare's not happy about Joy being romantically involved with the much older (and married) Chef Tommy Keitel (who for some reason reminds me of a certain real-life celebrity chef whose name I won't mention). Nor is she thrilled when she witnesses another chef's abusive behavior toward Joy and other restaurant employees.

When a talented co-worker of Joy's is murdered in his home in Queens, the po-po think Joy did it since she was the one who found the body. But when another murder takes place, and Joy's expensive Shun knife is the murder weapon, she becomes the prime suspect in two murders. Of course, we all know that Joy isn't a murderer. She may have lapses in judgment, but hey, she's really new at this adult thing. Clare, Matt, and Mike must work together (like it or not) to prove Joy's innocence and find the real murderer(s).

It's always enjoyable to read these books because not only are they well-written, clever, and fun . . . you learn stuff, too. French Pressed continued my java education, including the possibilities of pairing coffee with different types of cheeses. Who woulda thunk?!! And it was really cool to see the shout-out to the amazing North Carolina institution known as Counter Culture Coffee. Woo-hoo!!!

SPECIAL MESSAGE: Congrats to author Cleo Coyle for the recent release of the latest Coffeehouse Mystery: Murder By Mocha. I'm trying to get caught up with this series this year, so maybe by the release of her next book, I'll be one of the first to review it! :-)

***

Previously read books in this series:

On What Grounds (December 2009)
Through The Grinder (January 2010)
Latté Trouble (June 2010)
Murder Most Frothy (January 2011)
Decaffeinated Corpse (April 2011)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Farishta

Farishta
Author: Patricia McArdle
Riverhead, 2011
368 pages

I know hindsight is 20/20, but if I had a chance to live the last 25 years of my life over again, I'd either join the Peace Corps or the Foreign Service. According to Amazon.com, first-time author Patricia McArdle did both. Her experiences as a diplomat in Afghanistan inspired her to write Farishta, a novel about a middle-aged female American diplomat assigned to the northern part of that country in 2004. Perhaps that explains why this novel reads a lot like a memoir.

Many years ago when main character Angela Morgan was beginning her career as an American diplomat, she experienced a devastating personal tragedy. Since then, she's been lying low in a DC-based job while fighting her personal demons. Needing a promotion in order to move forward in her languishing career, she takes a crash course in Dari and begins a year-long assignment at a British Army post in Mazār-i-Sharif. It's 2004 -- a few years into the war. She must keep her fluency in Dari a secret, since one of her assignments is to ensure accuracy of translation by the local interpreters.

As the only woman stationed at the post, Angela must earn the respect of the men around her, including her British Army guard and driver, young "Fuzzy" and Jenkins, and Rahim, her assigned interpreter. Once that respect is earned the first half of her tour seems fairly easy. That area of Afghanistan was relatively conflict-free at the time, so Angela becomes relaxed about going out in public and even doing things that women there don't do, such as going to the local buzkashi games and driving her vehicle ("The Beast") around town. She and Rahim develop a sort of mother-son relationship, and when Rahim falls for a strong-willed young law student named Nilofar, she supports him even though the relationship seems doomed since one of the young lovers is Tajik, the other Hazara.

Then there's Mark Davies, the handsome, stiffly formal officer in the British Gurkha battalion. Since the first time they met, he's been nothing but disagreeable, and he seems to really dislike Angela. You can kinda guess where that leads. In the meantime, Angela's dealing with a sick, elderly parent back home in New Mexico . . . and sometimes you can't help but ask yourself: What's next? I really sympathized with Angela as a character, so I wanted her to catch a break every now and then. But in order for her to be fully redeemed, some things have to play themselves out.

The author does an excellent job of exploring the complexities of Afghanistan's history and culture by weaving in several interesting sub-plots. There's a French archaeologist whose "finds" prove the historical prosperity and strategic importance of the area; a sneaky Russian diplomat and references to the Russian-Afghan war and why it failed; the local warlords and their complicity with the opium trade; and environmental issues related to cutting down trees in a land that was once covered with forests. Of course, there's some emphasis on the differences between the diplomacy corps and the military and reminders that the British and Americans aren't the only players, with abundant references to NATO forces, Swedes, Danes, Romanians, Estonians, Dutch, etc.

The result is a captivating read. I totally lost myself in Farishta, and for a few nights I felt like I actually was in the Foreign Service as I followed Angela's adventures. There may no longer be any hope for me to become a diplomat, but I can always live vicariously through others. (And who knows? Maybe it's not too late for the Peace Corps.)

Farishta, by the way, is a Persian/Dari name that means "angel" . . . a sort-of nickname given to Angela by her Dari teacher in DC and also by one of the local warlords. It's also the first name of a young girl she meets in Afghanistan.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Day Is Dark

The Day Is Dark
Author: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
Hodder, 2011
432 pages

I've been wanting to read something by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir for quite a while now, and I even bought Last Rituals, the first book in her series featuring Icelandic attorney Þóra (Thora) Guðmundsdóttir. Unfortunately, it's in a box somewhere and I can't seem to find it after two moves in less than one year. Last week, quite randomly, I decided to break my rule of reading series books in order, and went for this one - her fourth featuring Thora. (It didn't hurt that the Kindle version of The Day Is Dark is currently available for less than eight bucks on Amazon.com.)

Enlisted by her partner Matthew, who works for a bank that underwrote a loan for a mining company start-up, Thora finds herself on a team being sent to a remote work site on the eastern coast of Greenland. Three of the company's employees have gone missing, and now their other employees are refusing to work there. When creepy things begin to happen (sabotaged satellite dishes and snowmobiles, mysterious blood stains, and the appearance of human bones in office desks, for examples), this book turns into a genuine thriller. The unusual setting and remote location only add to the intrigue.

The character lineup includes some native Greenlanders in the nearly village. Most of these folks seem unwelcoming and unfriendly to the non-natives, but they have their reasons. This community has been slammed by change in a very short time, and the natives are torn between the old and modern ways. They want to be respectful of their own culture, but they see the value that the mine could bring (in the form of jobs) to their economically-challenged village. Thus, there are some additional elements that take you down a unique path as a reader.

In the meantime, we have Thora. She's a great main character: intelligent, personable, and appropriately witty. As a lawyer and a young grandmother, she's just so . . . real. I really must go back to the beginning and start over, so I can find out how she got to where she is in The Day Is Dark. So I do need (and want) to read the first three books. I just wish I had more reading time! :-)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Ice Princess

The Ice Princess
Author: Camilla Läckberg (Translated from Swedish by Steven T. Murray)
Free Press, 2011 (originally published in 2002)
416 pages

When I learned from one of the book blogs I follow that Swedish crime writer Camilla Läckberg was about to release her fifth book translated into English (The Hidden Child -- not yet available in the USA), I knew I had some catching up to do. I believe in starting at the beginning whenever possible, and The Ice Princess is the first in this series. (Yes, I was late to the party, but at least I arrived.)

The plot goes like this: While temporarily staying in her hometown of Fjällbacka on the coast of Sweden (which is also the author's hometown) after a family tragedy, writer Erica Falck finds her childhood friend Alex dead, a victim of a brutal murder. Alex was a physically attractive girl who grew into a beautiful woman, and seemed to have all of life's successes. Distracted by current events, Erica finds herself drawn into Alex's world as she tries to unravel the mysteries of her former friend's life. One of the mysteries is why Alex ended their friendship so suddenly all those years ago, when they were only ten years old. Turns out this is something that had hurt Erica very deeply.

Another mystery is Alex's connection to one of the town drunks, a brilliant artist whose difficult life has undoubtedly contributed to his current state. Evidence suggests a relationship between the dead woman and the artist, which blows everyone's minds and makes him an easy target to pin the murder on. Erica's path soon converges with Patrik Hedström, another old school friend and now local police officer. Their relationship grows as the story progresses, and soon Erica is questioning whether she'll ever return to her old life in Stockholm.

There are lots of secondary characters in The Ice Princess, and it seems as if all of them are struggling with some sort of challenge or secret. In particular is Erica's sister Anna, who's trapped in an abusive marriage. The author skillfully describes the terror of an abuse victim, and I'll admit that I found myself wishing for the abuser to suffer some sort of twisted yet karmic fate.

The writing (translation) is excellent; getting inside the heads of the various characters held my interest and I didn't stress over the 400+ pages or mind that it took me a little longer than usual. Some might argue that the outcome is predictable. I sort of guessed what was going on fairly early, but only in a big-picture sense.

Based on the first part of the book, I assumed that The Ice Princess was the first book in a series featuring Erica Falck, writer. That was refreshing, being that so many crime novels out there feature a male police officer/detective/whatever as the main character. At some point Patrik seemed to overtake Erica as the main character, and alas, the series is indeed known as the Patrik Hedström series. I can live with that, because I actually like Patrik as a character. It'll be interesting to see where the series takes him -- and where it takes Erica, if indeed she goes along for the ride.

Bottom line: The Ice Princess is an engaging "first in a series" that should appeal to those who enjoy Scandinavian crime novels in the vein of Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Karin Fossum, etc. If you enjoy getting into the heads of characters, and reading "daily life" stuff going on behind the scenes, you'll really like this one. I read somewhere online that Camilla Läckberg is one of the best-selling authors in all of Europe, and now I know why. Check her out.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hounded

Hounded
Author: Kevin Hearne
Del Rey, 2011
320 pages

I'm smiling as I write this review because I feel like I'm one of the first people who's just discovered something really great, although there are already 121 reviews (as of today) of this book on Amazon.com. Hounded is the first of three books (so far!) known as The Iron Druid Chronicles. It was released in May and quickly followed by books two and three, Hexed and Hammered, released in June and July. I predict that I will be reading them soon.
Atticus O'Sullivan appears to be a young Irish immigrant of twenty-one years. He runs a New Age-y bookstore within walking distance of the university in Tempe, Arizona, rides his bike, and hangs with Oberon, his Irish Wolfhound. On the surface, he seems to be a very normal young man with lots of tattoos. In fact he's twenty-one hundred years old, and he's the last of the Druids. Of course, the fact that he doesn't age requires him to move around every so often, but he's found that he really likes Arizona, and he feels safe in his desert haven after centuries of running from an old enemy. You see, a long, long time ago he came into possession of a special sword that Aenghus Óg - Celtic god of love - believes is his. Atticus believed he was safe in the desert. But now Aenghus's Fir Bolg henchmen have found him, and it appears that Aenghus will do anything to get the sword back - including enlisting a coven of local witches, possessing 'innocent' police officers, even getting Oberon into trouble. Hold on, 'cuz you're about to go for a very exciting ride.

Hounded is a mix of urban fantasy and mythology with a dash of history, and at times it's laugh-out-loud funny. There's one scene in particular with Atticus's neighbor (an elderly, whisky-drinking Irish widow) that still makes me laugh when I think of it. She's a hoot, and I hope there will be more of her in future books. Then there's Oberon, the Irish Wolfhound. Atticus can communicate with Oberon telepathically, and the interplay between them is nothing short of brilliant. Oberon may just be the coolest character of all. 

The author's knowledge of Celtic mythology is impressive, but Hounded isn't just about the Celts -- there are Nordic, Vedic, and Native American characters and mythology woven throughout the book. After reading Hounded, I want to know more. I've been reading Wikipedia articles about the Tuatha Dé Danann to try to give myself a better understanding. When a work of fiction leads me down the path of constructivist learning, I say that's a good thing. :-)

I liked Hounded so much that I told my 20-year-old nephew about it on Friday night. (If you read my most recent review of Game of Thones, you'll know that he's a major fantasy fiction fan.) He immediately ordered Hounded for his Nook, stayed up all night Friday night reading, and finished it several hours before I did. He's now well into the second book, Hexed. My guess is, he'll have all three books read by Monday night. Since he doesn't blog, I'll just add his review to mine: "Read this series. It's awesome. You'll love it."

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
Bantam, 2011 (reprint)
694 pages

It seems as if everyone I know is either reading this book or has watched the HBO series upon which it's based -- or both. Truth is, although I'd heard of the Song of Ice and Fire series (A Game of Thrones is the first book) long before the captivating TV series, I'd never read any of the books. And I didn't plan to, until my nephew (aged 20 and serious fantasy fan) read the verrrrrry long A Game of Thrones in two days and told me I just had to read it.
Thing is, I so loved the TV series, that I really wasn't sure I wanted to read the book -- but I did, for my nephew. I quickly found that the book is indeed much like the series in terms of both plot and characters. You would think this would have made it easy for me to read, right? Wrong. For some reason I plodded through the first 50 pages or so. Fortunately, things picked up thereabouts, and I decided to fully commit to the book.

And I'm glad I did, because the book is helping me to understand the complexities of the TV series and its characters. I'm no longer stomping mad that [a certain character whose name I won't reveal] was killed because I now see that it had to happen for the storyline to move forward. I have increased respect for at least three of the characters (Tyrion, Jon Snow, and Daenerys) and a greater dislike of others. In fact, I may just have to watch Season 1 again on On Demand because I think I may view it differently after having read the book.

Here's the basic storyline. In a fictional land that often (hmm) resembles the island of Britain, in a time that for some reason reminds me of a blend of Arthurian and 13th/14th centuries C.E., several families joust (sometimes literally) for power. Currently Robert is king, but about ten years ago, he and his buddy Ned Stark, along with several other key characters, overthrew the previous king. That king and his son were assassinated; the next generation (children at the time) were taken to exile. Those children have now grown up and want their kingdom back, and are plotting from foreign lands. In the meantime, the current queen has secrets that she'll keep at all costs - and she'll do anything (and I do mean anything) to see her son ascend to the throne.

If that's not enough drama, to the north of this land there is a wall (hmm, Hadrian's wall?) that separates 'civilization' from a place of legendary, scary creatures (e.g., skinwalkers) that seem to be most active in cold weather. In this land no one can predict how long the seasons will last. Winter can last for decades. The older folk remember winter as a horrible time when people starve and freeze and die all sorts of gruesome deaths, but the kids just don't understand. It's late summer in A Game of Thrones, and. . . well, um, Winter is coming.

The question now is, do I read A Clash of Kings (the next book in the series) before or after next season of Game of Thrones (TV version)? That's a tough one. I'm glad I don't have to decide today.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Trace of Smoke

A Trace of Smoke
Author: Rebecca Cantrell
Forge, 2009
292 pages

It's 1931 in Berlin, Germany, and crime reporter Hannah Vogel is just trying to live her life and make a living. As a single woman in her early thirties, she has her share of challenges. As a Socialist living in a Nazi world (the Nazis are just coming to power), she has other challenges. One of them is her younger brother, Ernst -- a cross-dressing entertainer in one of Berlin's most notorious gay bars. Hannah has been one of the few people in Ernst's life who accepted him for who he was, despite an increasing Nazi enforcement of the (then) German law known as Paragraph 175.

In the opening chapter, Hannah learns that Ernst has been murdered when she spots his photo on display in the Hall of the Unnamed Dead at the police station, where she's researching an article for her newspaper. Without letting anyone else know about Ernst's fate or that she knows he is dead, she sets out to find out who killed her brother, and why. Hannah soon finds that Ernst had more secrets than she could have ever dreamed possible.

When a young boy named Anton shows up on Hannah's doorstep in the middle of the night, things get even more complicated. Anton claims to be her son, although she has never had children. Now Hannah has another mystery to solve: who are Anton's real parents, and why don't they want him? She quickly grows to love the boy as her maternal instincts kick in, and soon she finds herself doing all sorts of things to protect him. (He is adorable.)

This book is an exciting blend of history, mystery, and thriller. It's got an admirable heroine, scary Nazis, and a seedy underworld. It covers an aspect of the time and history that I hadn't read about previously, which for me, is always a plus. A Trace of Smoke ends with a cliffhanger that makes you want to keep reading. Fortunately, there are at least two more novels featuring Hannah Vogel. The next one is called A Night of Long Knives, and I hope to read it soon.

Monday, July 4, 2011

From Dead To Worse

From Dead To Worse
Author: Charlaine Harris
Ace, 2008
303 pages

Season 4 of HBO's True Blood started last week, which put me in the mood for another Sookie Stackhouse book. This one's the eighth in the series. I haven't read eight books in a series since I was a kid reading Nancy Drew. So I see this as some kind of milestone.

To those who haven't read the books and don't watch the show, I apologize for the lack of a thorough recap. Feel free to click the links below -- preferably in order -- to get an idea of the series plot and characters.

This time around, Sookie's dealing with the revelation of her fairy/faery/fae heritage. With the help of vampire Eric Northman, Sookie has a secret meeting with her great-grandfather, who happens to be a Fairy Prince. In the meantime, werewolf Alcide's new girlfriend has been murdered, someone is trying to kill Sookie, and the vampire hierarchy in Louisiana is under fire, too. All signs point to war, but the question is, who's fighting whom? After all, things aren't always what they seem in supernatural Louisiana and Mississippi.

Sookie's friend (and roommate . . . and witch) Amelia has a pretty heavy role in this one, and new character Ophelia (older, powerful witch) is introduced. Quinn (Sookie's boyfriend in Book 7) returns, along with some major drama. For some reason, I never really warmed up to the Quinn character. I keep hoping that somehow Sookie and Bill will get back together, but I have to say, Eric is becoming more appealing as time goes by.

I'm glad I read From Dead To Worse now because it's helping me to understand the whole fairy thing, which apparently is going to be a continuing theme in the TV series. It's also helping me stay caught up with the changing vampire politics, but I suppose I'll need to keep reading if I want to fully get it. Like the other Sookie books, this one's an easy read. It took me a while, though, because I've had a LOT of personal stuff going on over the last week. Oh, well. On to the next book!

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
Book 6 - Definitely Dead
Book 7 - All Together Dead

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go To Sleep
Author: S.J. Watson
Harper, 2011
368 pages

I discovered this novel on Amazon.com's Best Books of the Month for June 2011 list. Here's the overview: A woman wakes up one morning, only to find a strange man in bed with her. She goes to the bathroom and looks into the mirror, only to see the hands, face, and body of an older (age 47) woman. She freaks out, and the man in bed comes to her rescue, telling her that he's her husband, Ben. Turns out the woman is Christine, and this happens every morning. Christine has a type of amnesia where her memory is erased every time she goes to sleep, due to an injury to her brain from an "accident" when she was in her late twenties.

One morning after Ben leaves for work, Christine gets a phone call from a man named Dr. Nash who claims to be her doctor. Dr. Nash tells her to look in a certain place in her house for a journal. Turns out, Dr. Nash has been working with Christine on the down low, and he had encouraged her to keep a secret journal to record her memories. One of the first things Christine reads in the journal is the cryptic message written in her own hand: Don't Trust Ben.

Let the nail biting begin!

Every day, Christine must piece together clues. As she does, she begins to realize that Ben has lied to her about several key things in her life. Yet he has taken such good care of her since her accident. Or so it appears.

This is a fast-moving read and very cleverly written. I read it during an unusually busy week (we were moving into a new house), so often I could only read a few pages or a few minutes at a time -- which was quite challenging because I wanted to keep reading. The last 50 pages or so are particularly engaging and difficult to put down.

This is a psychological thriller in the true sense, and one of the best I've read in a really long time. I've no doubt that someone in movie land is going to jump on this soon and make a film version -- probably starring someone kind of big (Nicole Kidman comes to mind). Read the book now, and you'll be way ahead of that game. :-)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The English Breakfast Murder

The English Breakfast Murder
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2003
274 pages

The fourth book in the Tea Shop Mystery series finds Theodosia Browning (owner of the Indigo Tea Shop) and her young pastry chef, Haley, volunteering with the Charleston (South Carolina) aquarium's sea turtle rescue program. It's late at night; the sea turtles are hatching and instinctively making their way to the water; and Theo is absolutely amazed with the beauty of it all . . . until she spots something in the water. Swimming out to get a closer look, she discovers the dead body of Harper Fisk, a local antiques dealer who was a member of a circle of friends known as the English Breakfast Club. It soon becomes apparent that Fisk's death was no accident, and once again, Theo (along with sidekicks Haley and Tea Master Drayton) get caught up in solving a murder.

The English Breakfast Murder is a fun, quick read that introduces us to several possible suspects, all of whom are either in the same business as Fisk, or share his hobby of exploring shipwreck sites and looking for treasure off the coast of Charleston. Once again, the author excels with spinning a yarn while sharing her knowledge of Charleston's rich culture and history, and making me hungry for shrimp and grits (and, of course, Haley's scones). I'm ready to plan a trip to the Low Country. Who wants to go with me?

Previous books in this series that I've reviewed:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Red Wolf

Red Wolf
Author: Liza Marklund
Atria, 2011
400 pages

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but it was the cover of Red Wolf that captured my attention. I love it. So, kudos to the designer.

Welcome to the multidimensional world of Stockholm's Annika Bengtzon. Annika's an investigative journalist who writes mostly about terrorism, something she's actually had first-hand experience with. She's also a wife, mother, and best friend, and if you're like me, you'll be wishing she was one of your friends by the time you get halfway through Red Wolf.

While researching an incident that happened on a military base in northern Sweden in the late 1960s, Annika travels to the Norrland town of Luleå to meet with another journalist. Unfortunately, she arrives too late -- the journalist is dead, the victim of a hit and run. Annika soon learns that this was no accident. In fact, it's just the first of a string of murders -- all different, but all sharing similar cryptic clues.

Back home in Stockholm, Annika's husband Thomas is experiencing mid-life crisis. He's a sort of project manager in a boring government agency, and although he loves his family, he's feeling unappreciated and unfulfilled. This leaves him vulnerable to a young coworker who is more than happy to pay him some attention. In the meantime, Annika's best friend Anne is having serious troubles of her own. I won't say more except that one of the strengths of this book is its emphasis on relationships and the behind-the-scenes "non-work" stuff that actually makes the main character who she is.

But this is a crime thriller, with a crooked politician, a scheming business executive, and an old revolutionary who has come back home after many years away. There's a lot of interesting Swedish cultural and political stuff woven into the storyline. Marklund definitely has a strong sense of place which is reflected in Red Wolf. It makes me want to visit Scandinavia and drink lots of coffee.

After I finished reading Red Wolf, I learned that it's not the first in a series, nor is it a standalone novel. It's actually the fifth book featuring Annika. I would have preferred to read them in order, but the truth is, in this case you don't really have to. I'm planning to start from the beginning next time, and as soon as the first book The Bomber is available on Kindle, I'll be buying it.

Gonna read something light next. :-o

Monday, May 30, 2011

Train to Budapest

Train to Budapest
Author: Dacia Maraini
Arcadia Books, 2010
342 pages

In the years prior to the second world war, a boy and girl growing up near Florence, Italy met and became close friends. The girl, Amara, was the daughter of a local shoemaker. The boy, Emanuele, was the son of a wealthy Austrian industrialist and former actress, who happened to be Jewish. In the first of several unfortunate decisions, Emanuele's parents decide to move back to Vienna. Thus begins a series of letters written by Emanuele to Amara describing his family's removal from their home in Vienna to the Jewish ghetto in Łódź, Poland. There, he wrote to Amara in a notebook that was found after the war and sent to her in Italy.

Thirteen years after the war is over, Amara is now a journalist, traveling to the East to write stories about life behind the "Iron Curtain" . . . but she also has a personal mission: to find out what happened to Emanuele. En route to Poland to visit Auschwitz, she meets the very interesting Hans, a "half-Austrian, half-Hungarian, half-Jew" whom Amara calls The Man With Gazelles because of an unusual sweater he wears. They team up to search for Emanuele, meeting all sorts of people with incredible personal stories.

While they wait for visas to return to Poland for another Auschwitz visit, their travels take them to Budapest, where they get caught up in the Hungarian Revolution. This is a period in history I know very little about, and I was surprised at the unexpected twists. But this was just one of several.

This amazing novel does an extraordinary job of describing some of the dramatic changes that took place in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. It's been a bestseller on Amazon UK for a while and when I last checked, it had a perfect five-star rating. There's a reason for that. It's really, really good. If you're into fiction about World War II or European History, go get it. And read it. Now.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Grace Interrupted

Grace Interrupted
Author: Julie Hyzy
Berkley, 2011
278 pages

I had an opportunity to receive a free advanced reading copy (ARC) of this book from the author in exchange for a review. Having previously read the first book in the Manor House Mystery series (Grace Under Pressure, reviewed June 2010), I was both happy and honored to do this.

In the first book, Grace Wheaton was just getting settled into her new role as curator of Marshfield Manor in a small tourist town. Grace Interrupted opens just a short time later. The grounds of the manor have been transformed into a Civil War camp and battleground, and the Blue and Gray reenactors are in town. When one of them is murdered, it seems there's no shortage of people with motives, including Grace's sort-of boyfriend, landscape gardener Jack Embers.

Many years ago, Jack's sister was involved with the victim's brother, who was also murdered. Lots of folks thought Jack did it, and that he got off because his father was a cop. Now it seems as if the clues are again pointing to Jack, or to his offbeat younger brother, Davey.

Grace's assistant, Frances, makes no bones about her feelings when it comes to trusting the Embers brothers. Yet she willingly goes undercover among the reenactors in order to dig for dirt, and in doing so becomes not just Grace's assistant but her sidekick. A word or two about Frances. She's worked at the manor longer than anyone else. She's nosy, crotchety, and highly disagreeable. Yet you can't help but like her. At least I do. She reminds me of someone I used to work with - I'll say no more about that. But I have a feeling that by the time Hyzy is finished with this series, Frances will be redeemed.

In addition to Jack and Frances, several characters from the first book are back: Tooney, the annoying private detective; Grace's boss, the wealthy Bennett; and Grace's housemates, wine shop partners Scott and Bruce. Several new characters add to the story and potential growth of the series. One of these is Tank, a (female) police consultant imported from Michigan to bring the police department into the twenty-first century, much like Grace was brought to Marshfield Manor. Tank may roll some people over, but she's probably a marshmallow on the inside. Perhaps we'll get to know her more in future books. But the coolest new character of all is Bootsie, a stray tuxedo cat who makes her way into Grace's life and home.

The Civil War reenactment makes an interesting backdrop, with some colorful characters . . . like the pompous play-by-the-rules General, the ornery Hennessey (some of his scenes with Frances were laugh-out-loud funny), and the Soiled Doves, a group of women who role-play, um, shall we say nineteenth century ladies of the night.

All in all, Grace Uninterrupted is a nice second installment to a series that fits nicely into the cozy mystery category. I look forward to book number three.