Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Please Look After Mom

Please Look After Mom
Author: Kyung-Sook Shin
Knopf, 2011
256 pages

As one of Amazon's Best Books of the Month for April 2011, this international bestseller comes from South Korea and is the author's first book translated into English. I'll just go ahead and tell you that I was blown away. The plot is wrapped around the disappearance of an elderly woman from the countryside as she travels to the city. While making a connection at the busy Seoul Station, her husband gets on the connecting train, but she doesn't. As her family searches for her, they experience flashbacks of their mother's life, and slowly begin to see her not just as a (strict) mother or (nagging) wife, but as a unique individual with her own hopes, dreams, and life.

The book's four sections are "narrated" by four different characters. Two of the sections are written in second person. This turns out to be a brilliant writing technique. As the story unfolds, her husband and their four children (who grew up to be a successful businessman, a famous author, an internet entrepreneur and a pharmacist) experience a sort of awakening . . . and lots of guilt.  Through their memories, they realize the sacrifices made by this amazing woman they called Mother (or Wife). 

Kyung-Sook Shin is clearly a genius at her craft. Many times, I found myself thinking of my own Mother, coming to a new appreciation of the sacrifices she has made for me over the years, and feeling like a dolt for not being able to see that she always has my best interests in mind. Most likely, this will happen to you as well if you read Please Look After Mom. So be forewarned that you'll probably want to give your Mom a hug, or phone her, or visit if you haven't seen her in a while. I would say do it now while you can -- if you can. I think that might just be an underlying message of this incredibly beautiful and moving book.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Long Quiche Goodbye

The Long Quiche Goodbye
Author: Avery Aames
Berkley, 2010
309 pages

Here's the first in a fairly new (2010) food-themed mystery series, this one centered around a small-town Ohio cheese shop. Cheesemonger Charlotte Bessette is the thirtysomething granddaughter of the cheese shop's owners, French immigrants whom she refers to as Grandmère and Pépère. When Grandmère (who also happens to be the town's mayor and up for re-election) is accused of murdering the husband of her opponent (I should mention here that the victim was also a philandering sort of fellow who was also a local real estate mogul), Charlotte springs into action to clear her grandmother's name.

You know, I read a lot of foodie mysteries and other types of mysteries, and let's face it, most of them are pretty formulaic. Usually the main character is someone you think you could be friends with. They're always experts in some particular field (coffee, tea, wine, cupcakes, etc.) They're always heterosexuals, so of course there have to be two potential and usually hunky love interests. They always have a best friend or sidekick. Truth is, The Long Quiche Goodbye has all of these. But it goes further, and takes the reader into some fresh, new directions. The Long Quiche Goodbye has a very diverse cast of characters: French, Italian, Japanese, African-American, Hawaiian . . . to name a few. There's a character who was raised Amish, but who has left her family and community. There's a single dad, and his lovely twin daughters (one of whom is gluten-intolerant). There are the two septuagenarian grandparent characters, and neither of them is a stereotypical elderly person. In fact, no one character seems to exemplify any stereotypes. This is what I like most about the first Cheese Shop Mystery.

As for the cheese, you learn quite a bit about it: different varieties, where it comes from, unique cheese trivia, what types of cheese pair well with certain wines, and so forth. Clearly the author knows her cheese. :-) So if you're looking for a cheese-y escape for a few hours, along with a good mystery (I didn't guess the murderer until the very end), you might enjoy this. The series' second offering, Lost and Fondue,  will be released in the USA in just a few days - on Tuesday (3 May).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Blacklands

Blacklands
Author: Belinda Bauer
Simon & Schuster, 2010
240 pages

I became aware of this book by browsing the best-selling Crime books on Amazon UK's web site sometime last year, and immediately put it on my list. I had to wait a bit to get the Kindle version, but it was worth it. Blacklands is definitely a page-turner (page-clicker?) . . . and a nail-biter, too.

Twelve-year old Steven Lamb lives in Somerset (England) with his grandmother, mother, and five year-old half-brother. He's a bit of a gloomy kid, seemingly unloved at home, tormented by neighborhood bullies, and continually betrayed by best friend Lewis. His majorly dysfunctional family is affected by a tragedy that happened many years ago when his Uncle Billy disappeared (when he was about Steven's age) after presumably being taken by a serial child molester/killer named Arnold Avery.

Uncle Billy's body was never found, and Steven is obsessed with finding it, hoping against all hope that this is the thing that will save his family. Using a spade given to him by one of his mother's boyfriends, he spends his spare time digging in the moors near his home. After months, perhaps years of unsuccessful digging, Steven decides to escalate his search by secretly contacting Avery, who is now miles away in prison. Thus begins a secretive correspondence between the two of them.

The author takes us deep into the minds of both Steven and Avery. At times the similarities between the two can be very chilling. The plot thickens, but of course, I can't tell you any more without giving too much away.

Amazingly, this is the author's first novel. But I'm not the only one who was impressed: Blacklands won the 2010 CWA Gold Dagger Award. With this honor, Belinda Bauer joins the likes of Ann Cleeves, Henning Mankell, and Arnaldur Indridason. If you like reading crime novels, thrillers, or what I like to call 'hardcore' mysteries, you would love Blacklands. I have a feeling I won't be forgetting this one for a long time!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Decaffeinated Corpse

Decaffeinated Corpse
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2007
273 pages

The more I read of the Coffeehouse Mysteries, the more I love them! Decaffeinated Corpse is Book 5. When I reviewed Book 4 (Murder Most Frothy) back in January, I said it was my favorite so far. But Book 5 is even better!

As you probably know by now if you've read my other reviews, this series is set around a Greenwich Village (New York City) coffeehouse called The Village Blend. It's been around a long time, and is managed by Clare Cosi. Her ex-husband, Matteo ("Matt") Allegro, is a coffee broker who's usually jet-setting somewhere in search of the best coffee beans. They have an adult daughter, Joy, who's in culinary school. Matt's mother, called Madame (she's French), rounds out the family; other recurring characters are Mike Quinn, a police detective and love interest of Clare's, and the Village Blend's team of baristas.

In Decaffeinated Corpse, Matt is visited by an old friend, Ric, whose family is in the coffee business in Brazil. Ric has developed a coffee plant that produces naturally decaffeinated beans. When Ric is mysteriously attacked outside the Village Blend one evening, Clare wonders what's up. Her questions lead her to visit with Ric's old girlfriend, Ellie, who now works in a botanical garden. There's a very funny scene involving Clare and Madame and a car chase through Brooklyn and Manhattan. The women learn that Ellie and Ric have rekindled their old relationship, and that the couple is being tailed by a private investigator.

Of course, someone turns up dead. Actually, two people turn up dead, but you'll have to read to find out who they are and whodunnit, 'cause I'm not saying anything else about it. :-)

In the meantime, Clare's relationship with Mike Quinn is heating up . . . or is it? And it looks like Joy is making bad decisions again. This time, it seems like she's in love with the wrong beau. Will Clare and Mike become a couple? Or will she and Matt get back together? Will Joy ever grow up? I guess if I want to find out, I'll have to keep reading this series . . . which won't be difficult for me to do since I like it so much.

By the way, I was thrilled to read a couple of paragraphs about Vienna's Café Central in Decaffeinated Corpse! Hope to see more references to Vienna coffeehouses in the future.

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)