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.