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.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Rapture

The Rapture
Author: Liz Jensen
Doubleday, 2009
304 pages

Since the world's gonna end on May 21, I thought I should read this book before it all goes haywire. This end times-themed novel by English author Liz Jensen is set sometime in the not-too-distant future. Gabrielle Fox, an art therapist at a psychiatric hospital in England, is assigned to work with sixteen year-old Bethany Krall after Bethany's therapist takes a mysterious leave of absence. Gabrielle has struggles of her own; she's a survivor of a car crash that killed her married lover and left her paralyzed from the waist down. She's vulnerable and depressed, but trying to hide it, since she has to work in order to support herself.

Bethany's in the facility because she brutally stabbed her own mother to death. Complicated and narcissistic, Bethany grew up in a strict religious household; her father is a well-known Evangelical preacher who believes she's possessed by the devil. There's been a spike in religious fervor all around the world, perhaps a result of increasing ecological and weather disasters. When Bethany claims that the world's about to end and brags that she can predict hurricanes and earthquakes, Gabrielle doesn't pay much attention at first. But when it becomes clear that a pattern is in force, Gabrielle turns to a new friend, Scottish physicist Frazer Melville.

I don't know if I've grabbed your attention yet, but this is a pretty interesting story. If you like "scientific" thrillers, if you like sitting on the edge of your seat while you read, if you like it when your eyes are ten words (or more) ahead of your brain, then you'll want to read this. Although it was just a teensy bit slow in the beginning, the last half to one-third of it leaves you breathless. In fact, I told S that it hooked me in a way sort of like The Da Vinci Code did many years ago. Will there be a sequel? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Belshazzar's Daughter

Belshazzar's Daughter
Author: Barbara Nadel
Felony & Mayhem Mysteries, 2006 (originally published in 1999)
448 pages

British author Barbara Nadel is the CWA Silver Dagger award-winning author of several mystery novels set in Turkey and featuring crotchety police inspector Cetin Ikmen, and Belshazzar's Daughter is the first. I've been wanting to read it for a while, motivated by my buddy Mike, who is a fan of all things Istanbul. In fact, Mike gave me the second and third books in the series (The Ottoman Cage and Arabesk), which I'm sure I'll be reading and writing about soon.

The book opens quickly, with the finding of a brutally murdered old man in a traditional Jewish quarter of Istanbul known as Balat. Inspector Ikmen, his young sidekick Suleyman, and medical examiner Sarkissian immediately spring into action to solve to mystery of this gruesome crime. Learning that the dead man immigrated to Turkey not long after the Russian revolution of 1918 leads them to a very strange Russian family called the Gulcus. Led by (OK, 'dominated by' is more accurate) the elder matriarch Maria, this multi-generational family includes the young Natalia.

Natalia is the obsession of expatriate English teacher Robert, whom it just so happens was in Balat at the time of the murder. He's sure that he saw Natalia running away from the murdered man's building, although she denies it. The inevitable mess brought about by Robert's obsession is one of many twisted roads the author takes you down. Another path leads to Smits, a wealthy Nazi sympathizer who fired the dead man from one of his companies during the time of the second world war. So who dunnit? It could have been any of these characters . . . or someone else entirely.

I'll confess that before I was even halfway through the book, I'd figured out where the "main highway" was leading. I even had a strong suspicion who the murderer was, although I was kind of shocked when all was revealed.

But the ride was good, and I enjoyed getting to know Ikmen and his colleagues. Ikmen reminded me of a Turkish version of Columbo, only instead of a raincoat and cigar, he sports a flask of brandy and chain smokes cigarettes. Despite his crotchetiness, he's extremely likeable, especially in the tender moments with his wife Fatma, who in Belshazzar's Daughter is pregnant with their ninth child. (Yep, you read that right! And this is just the first book in the series! LOL.)

I've never been to Istanbul, but Nadel's writing definitely arouses my curiosity. It sounds like a city of great contrasts, from economic to cultural and religious diversity. Hopefully someday I can see it for myself. Until then, I'll keep reading Nadel.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Diva Takes The Cake

The Diva Takes The Cake
Author: Krista Davis
Berkley, 2009
320 pages

The hoopla surrounding the recent royal wedding in the UK had me in the mood for a wedding-themed story. So I picked up this second-in-a-series cozy mystery featuring domestic diva Sophie and her snooty rival, Natasha. Natasha in now living with Mars (Sophie's ex) in a house just down the street from Sophie's beautiful nineteenth-century home in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Sophie's unlucky-in-love sister, Hannah, is about to marry for the third time -- this time to the shady-seeming Craig. Sophie has been against this marriage from the beginning, but is doing everything she can to support her sister - including hosting family and members of the wedding party in her home. As people start to gather, some uninvited guests show up. One of them is a woman who claims to be Craig's ex-wife. When she turns up murdered, clues point to either Hannah or Craig as the murderer.

Sophie knows her sister isn't a murderer, so despite warnings from her police buddy Wolf, she takes it upon herself to not only prove Hannah's innocence, but to prove Craig's guilt.. The wedding is off, then it's on again . . . . or is it? In the meantime, Natasha wants to help with Hannah's wedding. The two domestic divas are opposite in every way, so hilarity ensues as they try to outdo each other (or, I should say as Natasha desperately tries to outdo Sophie).

Witty, with plenty of mouth-watering recipes in the back, The Diva Takes The Cake is a quick, fun read if you're in the mood for a cozy mystery . . . and if you can keep up with all the characters. Davis has created a great lineup of family, friends, and neighbors. Let's admit it: we all know someone like Natasha, whose insecurity is masked by a strange combination of vanity and innocence: one moment you want to slap her, the next you feel sorry for her. The slimy mortician, Humphrey, has a couple of fabulous moments in this one. I don't know why I like him, but I do. I also like the mysterious Mordecai and his little Pomeranian dog, and neighbor Nina. As is the case with many of the series books I read, I'll keep reading this one just because I want to know what happens to the characters! (And, oh yeah, the food!)

Previously reviewed books in this series:
The Diva Runs Out of Thyme (June 2010)