Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shades of Earl Grey

Shades of Earl Grey
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2003
234 pages

This breezy read is the third in the Tea Shop Mystery series, which is set in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina. Amateur sleuth Theodosia Browning (owner of the Indigo Tea Shop)  and her sidekicks Drayton (tea master and Renaissance man) and Haley (pastry chef extraordinaire) are preparing to launch a tea-based bath products line. Business at the tea shop is booming, especially now that Indigo has added a lunch service. Life seems to be going along rather swimmingly in the old town . . . until a bridegroom turns up dead, and a valuable piece of heirloom jewelry turns up missing.

When a couple of other valuables in the neighborhood mysteriously disappear, Theo begins to wonder: has a cat burglar come to town? She can list several people who just might be suspects. Take the creepy lawyer who keeps showing up in all the right places. And the special events bartender who was at all of the events, and loves to sell vintage "finds" on an internet auction site. Regardless of whodunnit, with the death of the groom, theft is not the only crime.

I like this light-hearted series, despite a few editing glitches (it was Wallis, not Wallace, who was Duchess of Windsor. And it was Pachelbel's Canon, not Cannon.) I kind of wonder how Theo's business would be doing in the current economy. Things are just a little too perfect; the banter between characters is at times just a little annoying. But it works, and I want to read more books in this series.

I can't wait to try the Chicken Perloo recipe. :-)

Previous books in this series that I've reviewed:
Book 1 - Death by Darjeeling
Book 2 - Gunpowder Green

Monday, February 21, 2011

Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2008
270 pages

This was another borrowed book on the El Salvador trip . . . we passed quite a few around to each other. (Thanks, Beth!)

Olive Kitteridge is a Pulitzer prize-winning collection of thirteen short stories seamlessly woven into a larger story about the impact one woman has on her family and community. The title character is a proud New Englander of substantial size, both physically and in personality. She's bold, bitchy, annoying, sensitive, and all too real. Olive treats her husband (Henry) and son (Christopher) like crap, yet she loves them fiercely (and has no idea she treats them like crap). Her "sphere of influence" may be somewhat small in that it's mostly limited to her hometown of Crosby, Maine, but she has an impact on all kinds of people as she defends the defenseless and never holds back, even when a gun is aimed her way.

I didn't like Olive at first. Her flaws and her humanness are just so real, at times it was like holding a mirror up to myself and seeing everything I don't like about me. But as the stories went by, I began to see her in a new light. By the last story (called "River") she redeemed herself almost completely.

I adored Henry, her pharmacist husband. His steadfast loyalty to Olive, despite her numerous shortcomings, reminded me that giving your life for someone else doesn't necessarily mean you have to die - at least not physically. Henry died a thousand deaths for Olive, but he would have died a million more. Talk about love. Not much was revealed about how they met, their courtship, and early marriage. At first, that kind of bugged me. I mean: why did Henry wall in love with Olive, anyway, if she was such a bee-yotch? Surely there was something "attractive" about her, at some point? But then I realized it didn't matter. Some things just are. And that's that.

There's an underlying current of depression throughout the book. Suicide, anorexia, alcoholism, divorce, loneliness, clinical depression and a whole host of other dark topics are woven into the stories. There are sad characters, such as Angela, the piano player at the local bar, and Denise, Henry's pharmaceutical assistant. There are people in loveless relationships, like Harmon. And people who don't love themselves. We also know that both Henry and Olive each had parents with problems, so there's the theme of passing things along to the next generation. Despite the sadness, I was drawn to the characters and increasingly, to Olive herself.

Now I'm ready to read something light and breezy. Gotta have balance, ya know?

Town in a Blueberry Jam

Town in a Blueberry Jam
Author: B. B. Haywood
Berkley, 2010
308 pages

Candy Holliday lives just outside a small Maine tourist town, having come here to run a blueberry farm with her retired Dad after a short career in the city. She earns a little money on the side making blueberry pies and other goodies, and has a banner year selling her goods at the Blueberry Festival. Life is simple, but sweet. 

When the local celebrity is found dead in the waters near a cliff, everyone wonders: did he jump? Did he fall accidentally? Or was he pushed? But when the newly-crowned Blueberry Queen (whom no one thought should win) is also found murdered and one of Candy's friends is accused of the crime, she gets involved in the investigation.

This cozy, food-themed mystery that will appeal to readers who like quaint and don't like anything too gory or scary. The writing is tight and the characters are set up well for future stories. The descriptions of the coastal town makes me want to visit Maine . . . and I'd definitely like to try some of Candy's baked goods. Of course, there are several recipes in the book. You can practically smell the blueberry muffins in the oven. :-)

Black Seconds

Black Seconds
Author: Karin Fossum (translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Borslund)
Mariner Books, 2009 (originally published in 2002)
266 pages

My family knows how much I love a good Scandinavian mystery, and Karin Fossum has been on my radar for a while. In fact, I have her book The Indian Bride on my shelf, and will no doubt be reading it soon. I hadn't expected to read Black Seconds before The Indian Bride (since I usually read series books in order), but on my recent trip to El Salvador I found myself desperate for something new to read. I saw that one of my traveling buddies was reading this one, and she generously passed it my way when she was finished (Thanks, Chris!)

From the first few sentences, two things were apparent. 1) It didn't matter that I hadn't read the previous books in the series; and 2) Putting this book down was going to be difficult. It grabbed me and didn't want to let go. And I didn't mind at all.

The plot centers around the disappearance of a pretty young girl and the impact this has on her family and some of the other people in the community. The author's technique of getting into the heads of other characters (not only the main "detective" character) is refreshing. The main detective (Konrad Sejer) doesn't seem as gloomy, depressed, or shell-shocked as many others out there in crime thriller land. Of course, he has his problems, and I'm sure I'll learn more about him when I read the other Konrad Sejer books.

There were plenty of weird characters, though . . . the mother of the disappeared girl was quite a head case, and there's the colorful local weirdo who never talks except to say the word "No" and drives around on a motorized three-wheeler. Born to be wild, yeah.

I can't say much more without giving too much away, but I will say that the way things unravel at the end is downright creepy. If you like mysteries and/or thrillers, you'll probably like this one. It's not a cozy, but it's not gross, either. Just know in advance that you won't be able to put it down, so wait until you have a block of time before you get started.

All Together Dead

All Together Dead
Author: Charlaine Harris
Berkley, 2007
323 pages

The seventh book of the Southern Vampire series finds our leading lady, Louisiana telepath and barmaid Sookie Stackhouse, in the weeks and months just after Hurricane Katrina. She's sharing her house with the displaced New Orleans witch Amelia and her cat Bob (who was Amelia's boyfriend until she turned him into a house cat during a spell gone bad) and getting to know her new boyfriend, Quinn, a little better.  If you're not familiar with this series, you're probably going: "Whaaaa?" So maybe I'll keep quiet about the fact that Quinn is a were-tiger (sort of like a werewolf, but tiger instead of wolf) and that in the past, Sookie's been romantically linked with two vampires, Bill the Confederate Soldier and Eric the Viking. Just trust me on this.

In Book 6, Sookie found herself working a special job for Sophie-Anne, vampire queen of Louisiana. During that job, Sookie was the sole witness to the murder of Sophie-Anne's new husband, so now she's called to accompany Her Majesty and the Louisiana contingent in order to testify on the queen's behalf at a sort of central states vampire summit. Traveling to the city of Rhodes (which sounds a lot like Chicago) is a big deal for Sookie. It's her first time in such a big city, and her first trip north.

In Rhodes, Sookie is reunited with Barry, the bellboy telepath she met during the trip to Dallas in Book 2. Barry works for the King of Texas now, and has lost much of his innocence as a result. Together they stumble upon an assassination plot. There's a huge disaster with several chapters of don't-bother-me-I-can't-put-this-book-down-now reading, and Sookie is challenged in ways she never imagined.

Meanwhile, the old love triangle between Sookie, Bill, and Eric is now a love quadrangle although Sookie can't answer the question when people ask her if she loves Quinn. Sookie is not really liking Bill much at all, but it appears as if her anger is cooling. Will they ever get back together? That's always the underlying question, isn't it? And in All Together Dead, there's a new twist in her relationship with Eric.

This is probably my favorite book in the series after Book 1. Some new "supe" characters were introduced - mysterious warriors from another dimension who can become invisible. I'm interested in learning more about them. That said, I can't help but wonder what other "supes" the author's going to send our way.

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

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter

The Hangman's Daughter
Author: Oliver Pötzsch (Translated from German by Lee Chadeayne)
AmazonCrossing, 2010 (Originally published in 2008)
448 pages

A few weeks ago, this was the top-selling Kindle book in the USA. The reviews were mostly good, but what really hooked me was that the author drew upon his own family history to create an amazing fictional family. You see, he descends from a line of village hangmen, or executioners. As an amateur genealogist, I kinda dig this.

Following the career path of his father, grandfather, and other male ancestors, Jakob Kuisl is the executioner and torturer for the Bavarian town of Schongau in the mid-1600s. Everyone is afraid of Kuisl not just because of his job, but because he's physically strong and imposing in stature. But Kuisl is actually a happy family man with a good wife, a young adult daughter named Magdalena (for whom the book is named), and five year-old twins. He's actually quite sensitive, too -- not at all the scary person he's made out to be . . . well, at least if you're not on the other end of his torturing. Ironically, Kuisl is more interested in healing than torturing. In fact, he supplements his income with herbs and other traditional healing methods (and also by cleaning the streets of the town once a week).

Bavaria is finally at peace after a long war (known historically as the Thirty Years' War), but peace hasn't fully come to Schongau. For one thing, mercenary soldiers are roaming around with nothing much to do except stir up trouble. And Schongau is slowly losing out economically to the nearby town of Augsburg, so there are issues between the tradesmen and merchants. When several young orphans are found dead, all tattooed with a mysterious symbol, there's talk of witchcraft. Immediately, the town's midwife is a suspect; she's a single woman who works with mysterious 'potions' and has been seen with the orphans. Although Kuisl is certain of her innocence, he knows he'll be expected to torture a confession out of the midwife . . . and eventually, to execute her.

Kuisl and his new friend Simon, a young university-educated physician who has a thing for Magdalena and a desire to learn the old ways of medicine, set out to find the real killer. But when Magdelena is kidnapped, things get personal for both Kuisl and the doctor. The last one-third of the book is especially hard to put down, and it's a breathless, fantastic ride.

The Hangman's Daughter is the first of at least two books featuring Kuisl, Simon, and Magdalena - but the others aren't yet available in English. Let's hope they are soon!