Monday, December 31, 2012

The Playdate

The Playdate
Author: Louise Millar
Atria / Emily Bestler Books, 2012
379 pages

The Playdate is a psychological thriller and the first novel by London-based Louise Millar. I discovered it by surfing the top 'crime, thrillers and mystery' books on the Amazon UK web site, and read a positive review on one of the UK book blogs I follow. When I saw that my local library had a copy, I decided to give it a try.

The book focuses on three female neighbors: Callie, Suzy, and Debs. Callie is a single mom with a young daughter, Rae, who has a congenital heart condition. Suzy, an American, lives across the street with her three young boys and often-absent husband. They've been neighbors and friends for a couple of years and often walk the kids to school together or child-sit for each other.

Then Debs moves in next door to Suzy, just as Callie decides to go back to work and put Rae in an after-school program. Debs is a bit on the odd side. As the story is told (each chapter from the perspective of either Callie, Suzy, or Debs) we slowly begin to realize things aren't always as they seem. Everyone has their secrets, and one of these women simply cannot be trusted. But which one? I'll leave it at that.

The Playdate was different in that two of the characters were mothers of young children who were actually focused on daily child-rearing duties. In other words, they were ordinary people with no nannies (and for all intents and purposes, no partners) to help them out. In a way, this was refreshing, yet at times seemed just a bit too real for me. Yet, as I mused to a friend while reading The Playdate: "For some reason I can't stop reading it. It's like I'm spellbound."

Spellbound I was. And I was satisfied with the ending. So there it is, the last book I read in 2012! Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2013 will bring lots of good books your way! :)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Arabesk

Arabesk
Author: Barbara Nadel
Felony and Mayhem, 2009
384 pages

Arabesk is the third book in a series set in Istanbul featuring formidable Çetin Ikmen and his capable sidekick, Suleyman. This time, Ikmen is supposed to be on medical leave due to a duodenal ulcer, and Suleyman is leading a murder investigation. The victim is the young wife of a popular Turkish singer of arabesque music, Erol Urfa -- and their baby daughter is missing, too. Thing is, only a handful of people knew that Urfa was a married family man. Publicly, he was the lover of Tansu, a much older and enormously wealthy arabesque entertainer.

Tansu is a narcissistic bitch (well, she is) who seems an obvious suspect, but the fingerprints of a neighbor, Cengiz, have been found inside the Urfa apartment. Cengiz is an adult with Down's syndrome and super-protective parents. Are they covering for him? Oh, but wait! Two well-bred teenage girls confess to the murder and they know the cause of death . . . which hasn't yet been released to the media. So who killed Urfa's wife? (I actually guessed the culprit fairly early on, in less than one hundred pages. But that's OK -- the story and characters were compelling enough to keep me reading.) Where's the baby? And why would anyone want to hurt the beloved Erol Urfa in this way?

Erol and Tansu (as well as Suleyman's subordinate Çoktin, a new character) are Kurds from the eastern part of Turkey. This aspect of the story gives us another glimpse into Turkey's diversity (previous books have highlighted other cultures -- for example, Armenians in The Ottoman Cage). There's also an interesting side story about an elderly Greek woman and a eunuch.

My recent trip to Istanbul has increased my interest in this series. I can now picture the places and neighborhoods described: Sultanahmet, the Galeta Tower, Karakoy, Yenikoy, the Bosphorus . . . I can taste the apple tea  . . . I can hear the call to prayer. I'll keep reading this series!

Previous Inspector Ikmen books I've read:
Book 1 - Belshazzar's Daughter (reviewed May 2011)
Book 2 - The Ottoman Cage (also published as A Chemical Prison -- reviewed May 2012)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Killing Floor

Killing Floor
Author: Lee Child
Jove, 2006 (reprint)
532 pages

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read Lee Child. After all, his novels featuring Jack Reacher are very popular. There’s even a movie out this week. I didn’t know about the movie until after I started reading Killing Floor, the first Jack Reacher book (originally published in 1997) and winner of multiple awards. It's pure coincidence that I read this book at the same time the movie came out.

Reacher is an American who has lived mostly overseas as both a military dependent and member of the military. That life is now over and he’s feeling free for the first time in his life as he explores his home country. He has few possessions, no home, no car, not even a driver’s license, and he pays for everything in cash. In other words, he’s both interesting and mysterious.

On a public bus headed north from Florida, Reacher decides to stop in a small Georgia town after recalling a memory that blues musician Blind Blake had lived there many decades before. He’s just minding his own business, having breakfast at the local diner, when suddenly the cops burst in and arrest him for murder. A gruesome murder has taken place just outside of town, and someone swears they saw Reacher in the area. Who better to blame than a drifter, right? What follows is a riveting and believable story that kept me on edge until the very last page. It was the kind of book that I didn’t want to be interrupted while reading!

Reacher isn’t just an ordinary detective type. He takes names and kicks some serious ass – all justified, of course. (Side note: somehow as I was reading Killing Floor, I was thinking of the character Huck in the ABC-TV series Scandal.) I loved the side story about Blind Blake, and how it was woven into the main. Bottom line: I definitely want to read more of this series.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Brenner and God

Brenner and God
Author: Wolf Haas (translated by Annie Janusch)
Melville International Crime, 2012
224 pages

Earlier this week I found a package in my mailbox. Of course, this is the time of the year when an occasional unexpected package might show up. But this one was from Amazon.de and it was covered with German language import labels so I knew it must be something from one of my friends in Vienna. Sure enough, it was a copy of Brenner and God, the first English translation of a detective series written by Austrian author Wolf Haas, sent by my friend and fellow book lover IG. :)

Brenner and God is actually the seventh (I think -- based on what I could find online, anyway) book in a series featuring Simon Brenner, who has to be one of the most likeable detective-types I've come across in recent fiction. Now, I'm not sure why the publishers decided to introduce us English readers to Haas's work with the seventh (if it actually is the seventh) book and not, say, the first? Fortunately, it doesn't matter. We simply slide on in to the story as told to us by a rather quirky universal omniscient narrator, learning what we need to know about our main character exactly when we need to know it.

A former policeman, Brenner suffers from depression and has recently (and reluctantly) begun to take antidepressants. He doesn't have a home or a family and works 'odd jobs' to get by, and this is fine with him. His current employer is a wealthy construction magnate, Kressdor, and his much younger wife, a doctor who runs a clinic that (among other things) provides abortions. Since Kressdor works out of Munich and the doctor's clinic is in Vienna, Brenner's primary job is shuttling their two-year old daughter, Helena, back and forth between the two cities in a very fine BMW. Brenner knows his job is much more than chauffeur; one of the reasons Kressdor hired him is to protect the little girl from potential kidnappers.

So when on one random early morning Helena disappears from the car at a gas station while Brenner is inside paying (and buying her a chocolate bar), he finds himself suddenly unemployed and looked upon with suspicion. There's no shortage of potential bad guys, from the creepy leader of a pro-life group who enjoys bullying the clinic workers and patrons . . . to Kressdor's unsavory hunting lodge buddies . . . and there are lots of others, too. But no one has demanded ransom.

Brenner's guilt over 'losing' Helena combined with a rather unique sense of justice helps him snap out of the funk he fell into the night of her disappearance. The now former chauffeur goes back to his roots, becoming his own private detective. He'll stop at nothing to find the girl -- even if it means going without food, sleep, and other necessities. Brenner may be a good guy but he's one tough mutha.

Thanks again to IG for sending this jewel of a book my way. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I adore the Brenner character. In fact, I've already pre-ordered the next Wolf Haas book to be translated into English. The Bone Man is scheduled for release next March.

One final note: Hats off to Annie Janusch for an excellent translation.  :)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gone Girl

Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Crown, 2012
432 pages


Sometimes I pick up a book, read a chapter or two, and think: "Hmm. Maybe this isn't for me." This is what happened the first time I tried to read Gone Girl back in June, just after it was published and not long after Amazon named it one of their books of the month. I really couldn't get into it, and thought it might be one of two books this year that I was very disappointed with (the other I haven't revealed yet, and I'm not sure I will without giving it another try, also).

Fast forward to October. I was chatting with my work colleague K about books. She'd just recently finished Gone Girl and said it was awesome -- she was blown away -- and she reads a lot of fiction, so I knew I must have missed something the first time around. I gave it another try, and this time, it grabbed me and refused to let me go until the very last page.

Gone Girl centers around married couple Amy and Nick. Amy is missing, having disappeared on their fifth anniversary. Using an alternating chapters technique where one chapter is narrated by Nick and the next by Amy, we quickly learn this is a couple with some serious problems. This technique is like peeling back the layers of an onion, and little by little, we learn what's really going on. Turns out that Nick, a regular-guy native of a dying Mississippi River town in Missouri, has little in common with Amy, who grew up privileged in New York. 

Gone Girl is brilliant on many different levels. Sure, there's the mystery that needs to be solved. Where is Amy and what happened? But there's a lot of stuff going on underneath the surface, and lots of interesting secondary characters. Amy's parents, for example. They're both psychologists, and made a fortune years ago by writing a series of children's books based on their daughter. Nick's sister Go (short for Margo) is one tough chica. There's a sleazy lawyer character that's a bit over the top, and reference to a media character who sounds very much like . . . well, you'll know when you read it if you live in the USA.

[Aside and probably not relevant, but I'm gonna write it anyway: I was particularly impressed with the author's selection of a setting for Gone Girl. Her descriptions of a "lost" section of America were depressingly accurate. At least once a month, I drive through an area of my home state that was once a thriving manufacturing area; now the factories are closed and the towns have dried up. It tears me up inside when I pass by the boarded-up, fenced-in, weeded-over buildings and I think about the people who used to work there and wonder where they are. I'm glad someone had the guts to write about this often-overlooked reality of contemporary American life.]

I don't want to say more because there are so many twists and turns that I want you to experience for yourself. I'll just say that like my friend K, I think this is one of the best books I've read this year. Get it now! Then buckle your seat belts, and prepare to be taken on a ride. 'Cause that's what's gonna happen once you get past those first few chapters.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Åsne Seierstad
Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2002
288 pages

One of my friends from Europe gave me this book in 2009, saying it was a must-read book for our time. I put it on my shelf and there it sat . . . until a few days ago, when suddenly, it jumped out at me, demanding to be read. Sometimes books are like that, you know.

The Bookseller of Kabul examines life in Afghanistan, focusing on a man named Sultan Khan, who is the head of a large household as well as the owner of multiple bookstores in that city. The author, a Norwegian woman, went to Afghanistan within a few weeks of September 11, 2001 and after developing a customer relationship with Sultan and being impressed with what she considered his forward-thinking ways (for a man of his place and time) made a proposal: she'd live with his family for a few months if he'd let her write a book about him.

He agreed, but the author soon learned that Sultan wasn't as progressive as she thought he was. The book begins with the tale of a wedding. Sultan, who's in his fifties and married, wants to take a younger, second wife. He chooses Sonya, who at sixteen is some forty years younger than Sultan. His first wife, Sharifa, isn't too happy about this, especially when Sultan sends her off to live in Pakistan for a while.

The book's chapters focus on specific people in the family, such as Sharifa; Mansur, one of Sultan and Sharifa's sons; and Leila, Sultan's youngest sister, who lives with the family and is basically treated as a servant. Mansur is in his late teens and alternates between being somewhat likeable and a complete jerk. Deathly afraid of his father, he's struggling to determine the type of man he will become. There's a heart-wrenching scene involving a young street girl that leads him down a path of soul-searching and religious inquiry, but will it change Mansur's heart? Then there's Leila, who has dreams and so much potential, yet is trapped by the confines of her family and society. When an opportunity for change comes her way, will she take it? Or will it, like so many other things, slip from her fingers? These are just a few examples of the people and drama in Sultan's family that I won't forget anytime soon.

In addition to the family stories, Seierstad weaves in some historical background about Afghanistan. In the 1950s and 60s, it was an up-and-coming "modern" country. By the mid-1960s, the country was a democracy with free elections and women's rights. Then in 1979 the Soviets invaded, and things just went downhill from there. Reading this book was a good reminder of the complexity that is Afghanistan. Despite the controversy over the book (which you can read about online if you desire), The Bookseller of Kabul provides a fascinating look at culture, history, and family life, and I'm glad I finally read it.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Dark Monk

The Dark Monk
Author: Oliver Pötzsch (Translated from German by Lee Chadeayne)
Mariner, 2012
512 pages

(I read the first book in this series -- The Hangman's Daughter -- in February 2011. Click here to read that review and some additional background on the characters that's not included in this entry.)

The Dark Monk is the second in a sweet historical mystery series set in 17th Germany. All three main characters are back: Jakob Kuisl, the village executioner who has a side business in traditional herbal medicines; his young adult daughter, Magdalena; and Simon, the university-educated physician who has his eyes on Magdalena. They live in the Bavarian village of Schongau along the Lech River, not far from the Alps. Schongau is still recovering from the Thirty Years' War, (referred to as the war with the Swedes), which had a significant impact on the region and on European society in general. It's an interesting setting and time period for a mystery series, and the author does an excellent job of blending historical detail with a thrilling whodunnit.

The Dark Monk opens when a priest -- realizing he's just been poisoned and is about to die -- desperately scratches a cryptic message into the winter frost. Jakob and Simon find it and are immediately led to more cryptic messages, riddles, and clues as they investigate the priest's murder. Enter Benedikta -- a confident French-speaking, pistol-packing woman who joins the investigation and quickly becomes a bit of a competitor to Magdalena for Simon's attentions. Simon and Benedikta soon realize all those clues are leading them down the trail of an old Knights Templar treasure. But someone's watching them. A band of hooded monks, including one who smells like violets, lurks stealthily in the background. And some people may not be who they say they are . . .

A jealous Magdalena tries to distract herself by helping the town midwife. When the midwife (who also appears in the first book) needs some herbs and other supplies, Magdalena volunteers to travel to the nearby city of Augsburg to fetch them, thinking the trip will distract her from the Simon-Benedikta drama. Little does she know things are about to get even more dramatic.

Meanwhile, highway robbers are attacking travelers the roads leading from Schongau, and that's not good for business. Jakob is called away from his investigation of the priest's death to find the robbers and bring them to justice. Once again, his morals will be tested, and his humanity will be revealed. I love this character.

This series is a keeper. The third book, The Beggar King, is due in January. I've already pre-ordered it!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why We Get Fat

Why We Get Fat
Author: Gary Taubes
Anchor, 2010
288 pages

I've lost nearly 60 pounds this year. (For my UK friends, that's just over four stone. Not bad, huh?!) One of the books that inspired me was Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It, a book recommended by my friend JB.

Why We Get Fat begins by examining the weight issue from the perspective of scientific studies and ethnographic-type data, crossing continents, cultures, and decades (centuries, even). Turns out, overweight/obesity isn't just a current phenomenon, nor is unique to the USA or the 'western' cultures. The concept of the middle age spread isn't new, either, and has been documented in many parts of the world -- especially among women.

Yet for the past half-century or more, we've been told the key to weight loss is simple math: we need to cut calories by eating less and/or exercising more. We've also been taught that fat is evil, and encouraged to consume low fat versions of dairy, meat, and other products.

We've done all this. But we just keep getting fatter.

Through the studies and data presented in Why We Get Fat, Taubes proposes that it's not about calories and . . .  shocker! . . . fat isn't bad for you. The problem? Carbohydrates. Carbs increase our blood sugar, which in turn wreaks havoc on our body's metabolism and hormones.

While I don't agree with everything in Why We Get Fat, I was impressed enough with the argument and the writing that I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who's struggling with issues of overweight/obesity. I wish it were required reading for everyone. It's not just another diet book.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Bliss

Bliss
Author: O.Z. Livaneli
St. Martin's Griffin, 2007
304 pages

Recently, I visited Istanbul for the first time. While there, I learned of this book, which was originally published in Turkey in 2002. I couldn't find a Kindle version, so I ordered a paperback and began reading it as soon as it arrived.

Bliss focuses on three characters: Meryem, a fifteen year-old girl from a small village in eastern Turkey; her cousin and former childhood friend Celem, a soldier fighting in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict; and Irfan, a middle-aged professor from Istanbul.

As the book opens, Meryem has been brutally raped. She declines to name her rapist, who happens to be her uncle and the spiritual leader of the village. Meryem's culture considers rape to be the fault of the female, who is typically expected to commit suicide afterwards. Meryem refuses to kill herself, and instead prepares to be sent away.

Returning home from a bloody war, Celem just wants to get on with his life. But his father (the rapist) orders him to take Meryem away and perform an honor killing. Meryem thinks Celem is going to take her to Istanbul. For the first time in her life, she leaves her village. On the two-day train ride, Meryem meets all sorts of people, including a left-wing family with a young daughter who speaks openly in front of men and doesn't cover her hair; a middle-aged Turkish woman who reads risque magazines; and an American journalist who's asking a lot of questions. The more she sees, the more curious she becomes.

In the meantime, Irfan has become dissatisfied with his wealthy wife, their shallow friends, and his meaningless job. In classic mid-life crisis mode, he emails a goodbye note to his wife, then sets off on a quest to find his metanoia. Irfan's story is a philosophical one full of both sadness and humor as he works things out. There's a really funny scene involving the language barrier that I liked so much, I read it to my BFF who laughed out loud -- as I think anyone who's done any significant international travel will do.

Meryem and Celem make it to Istanbul, where Meryem will be amazed with wonder and will also see the downside of big city life. Most importantly, both she and Celem will meet people who challenge their assumptions, but they will also challenge the assumptions of others and leave an impact wherever they go. It's a lot like life that way. :)

Bliss is an excellent tale, but it's much more: It's a revealing portrait of a very diverse country. I'm glad I read it just after I returned, when the images, sounds, smells and tastes were all fresh in my mind. But even if you haven't been to Turkey, if you enjoy good fiction, you will certainly enjoy Bliss -- one of the best books I've read so far in 2012.  It's also a movie which I haven't seen, but hope to do soon.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Snatched

Snatched
Author: Karin Slaughter
Dell, 2012
73 pages

While driving to work earlier this week, I heard an interview with Karin Slaughter on NPR, and I realized I had this novella in my Kindle queue, so I decided to go ahead and read it. It was my first time reading this Atlanta, Georgia-based author, and also my first Kindle Short. Hopefully it won't be my last of either.

Will Trent is an investigator with the GBI or Georgia Bureau of Investigation. (According to her Wikipedia entry, Slaughter has written six full-length books featuring Trent. Criminal is the most recent, and it was just released in July.) As Snatched opens, he's reluctantly participating in a sting operation in men's restrooms at the Atlanta airport when he overhears a brief conversation between a man and young girl in one of the bathroom stalls. Something doesn't feel right to Will, and this feeling is heightened when he and the girl briefly make eye contact and then loses one of her shoes as the man rushes her away.

Following his instincts, Will tails the two as they make their way through the airport, on the train, and to the airport exit. When he finally catches the man, the girl is gone without a trace. What follows is a nail-biting investigation to find the girl, with emphasis on getting the man to talk. It's a quick, engaging read, and yes, I do want to read more Will Trent now. Snatched also includes the first part of Criminal. So the novella was a great marketing idea and yes, I'll probably take the bait. :)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars
Author: John Green
Dutton Children's, 2012
328 pages

A few days after I wrote the previous entry, I started reading the Young Adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. At first, the reading went quickly and I became absorbed in the world of Hazel, a sixteen year-old who has cancer. Hazel is an incredibly gifted, quirky kid, whose lifespan has just been granted a few more years thanks to a tumor-shrinking drug. When her mom talks her into going to Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel meets the incredibly handsome and delightful Augustus "Gus" Waters, another sixteen year-old whose bone cancer is in remission.

Gus is an amputee with one leg, and his wits are a perfect match for Hazel's quirkiness and sarcasm. When he learns of her obsession with a book called "An Imperial Affliction" which was written by the elusive one-hit-wonder author Peter Van Houten, Gus is determined for her to get the answers to the questions she seeks regarding what happened to the characters in the novel. He'll go to great lengths to do so!

[It was about at this point when I received some sad news about a friend with a cancer diagnosis. Just days after that, a close family member learned the same. Needless to say, my reading of this book slowed down for a while . . . I just couldn't deal with the subject matter for a few weeks. I feel the need to emphasize that my putting it aside is not a reflection on the book but on my personal state of mind at the time!]

When I was finally able to return to Hazel's world, I found myself swept away on an adventure to find Peter Van Houten, who is nearly as interesting a character as Hazel herself. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to leave the plot at that, in order not to reveal too much. But I will say this: It's one of the most original, best written young adult novels I've read since [brace yourself] the very excellent Catcher in the Rye. The writing is exquisite and honest; Hazel and Gus are so real . . . and likeable, too.

If The Fault in Our Stars doesn't win a million awards, I'm going to be both disappointed and shocked.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Celtic Conspiracy

The Celtic Conspiracy
Author: Thore D. Hansen (translated from German by Anne Adams)
AmazonCrossing, 2012
471 pages

The Celtic Conspiracy is the recently-released (in the USA) English translation of a German language novel called Die Hand Gottes or The Hand of God. I took a chance on this book despite a 3-star rating and several negative reviews on Amazon.com. (Interestingly, the ratings on the Amazon Germany site average 4.5 stars as of this writing.)

I'm glad I took a chance, because despite a few first-time-author flaws, this is the best conspiracy novel I've read since Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (which blew me away when I read it back in 2004).

The Celtic Conspiracy's plot begins at the end of WWII with the discovery of a hidden cache of well-preserved scrolls and other items in a cave near Klagenfurt, Austria. The finder is a British Army officer who happens to be an archaeologist. Sensing that he's onto something, he takes what he can carry and then has his men seal up the cave's entrance to preserve the contents.

Flash-forward to the present time, when several characters cross paths, drawn together by Ronald MacLary, an Irish-American judge who happens to be a conspiracy theorist in his, um, spare time. Turns out MacLary is the son of the British Army officer/archeologist we met in the opening section, and he remembers his Dad telling him stories about the Celtic Druids and the stash of stuff he found in Austria. Unfortunately, the elder MacLary died when the boy was still young. The son's life obsession has been around solving the mystery his Dad passed along to him.

Joined by a couple of modern-day Druids, a linguist, and an attorney keen on revenge against the Church for wiping out so many indigenous cultures in the name of religion, MacLary sets out to find the antiquities and to learn what really happened. But of course, there are those who don't want these things found, because they'll reveal a secret that's been kept for some two thousand years.

There are lots of tense moments, and sometimes . . . sometimes, things seem a bit rushed. The Celtic Conspiracy at times seems like a spy novel, then a courtroom drama, then a sort of New Age manifesto. I think it's the latter that's sparking some of the low ratings for the book, but I could be wrong.

Bottom line? I was entertained. Not blown away. But entertained nonetheless. And it was nice to read a book that was (at least partly) set in Austria. :)

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Unwanted

Unwanted
Author: Kristina Ohlsson
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2012
368 pages

When a six year-old girl disappears from a high speed train on the way to Stockholm, legendary investigator Alex and his team spring into action. Fredrika is an academic who's fairly new to working with the police, and her colleagues don't yet appreciate her analytical skills. Peder, a law enforcement professional, is one who definitely thinks Fredrika is in the wrong place. But the three of them have work to do, so the investigation begins.

Turns out the girl's parents have split, and there's been a custody battle. Soon it comes to light that the girl's father had frequently abused her mother. Everyone is looking for the father so they can question him, but he's nowhere to be found. Naturally, he becomes suspect number one -- until the missing girl is found dead in a town some 600km to the north of Stockholm.

It's a page-turner. I read the last 40% in one sitting, not caring at all that I had to get up early the next morning to go to work. :)

Ohlsson does a great job of weaving social issues such as domestic violence and mental illness into the story.  Some of the characters are creepy. Really creepy. Yet if you take a look at their backgrounds and life experiences, they're creepy because someone made them that way. 

Apparently, Unwanted is the first book in a series. The other books aren't yet available in the USA, but I'll be on the lookout because I'm definitely interested in reading more by this author!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey
Author: E.L. James
Vintage, 2012
528 pages

I first heard about this book a couple of months ago, when it was being offered at a discounted price on Amazon.com. At the time I remember reading the description and thinking: "Hmm. This doesn't sound like my type of book. I'll pass." But for about a month now (maybe longer) it's been number one on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, followed closely by the second and third books in this series known as The Fifty Shades Trilogy. And then a good friend of mine confessed to me over lunch one day that she'd recently read all three books in a very quick span of time. Calling it "mommy porn" and "Twilight for grown-ups but without the vampires and werewolves", she found it to be very, um, shall we say compelling.

Obviously, I took the bait. And here we are.

Anastasia "Ana" Steele is a university student who is about to graduate with a degree in literature. One day she does a favor for her best friend that brings her into contact with one of the most successful young businessmen in the country - billionaire Christian Grey. Despite being worlds apart (Ana's from an 'average American' sort of family and is in many ways quite average herself; Christian's from a very wealthy family, is model-handsome, and quite a powerful man), they're drawn to each other.

OK, I really don't want to say much more except this:

There is mucho sex in Fifty Shades of Grey.

Hence the mommy porn. But look, here's the deal: I don't want my Mom to read this. And I don't want my niece to read it, either, although she probably already has -- kinda like I read Jacqueline Susann in seventh grade. :)

If you like romantic fantasy, you'll probably like Fifty Shades of Grey. As to whether I'll read the second and third books, the jury is still out. This is not my typical genre, and I'm ready to get back to a good international thriller or mystery now. Curiosity sated!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Ottoman Cage

The Ottoman Cage
Author: Barbara Nadel
Minotaur Books, 2005
320 pages

It's been very busy here these past few weeks. I've only had time for reading 20-30 pages a night . . . so it's taken me way too long to read The Ottoman Cage, the second installment in British author Barbara Nadel's series featuring Istanbul's chain-smoking, brandy-drinking detective Çetin Ikmen. (You can find my thoughts on the first book, Balshazzar's Daughter, by clicking here.)

This time, crotchety Ikmen and his colleague, the dashing young Suleyman, are working together to solve the murder of a delicate young man who had apparently been imprisoned in a private home for a very long time. As they try to determine: a) who the victim is and b) whodunnit, the case takes them in all sorts of directions and as usual, they encounter several interesting (putting it mildly) characters, including a delusional man who thinks he's Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, several pimps, and an extremely creepy murderer.

One of the things I love about Nadel's books is the emphasis on Istanbul as a very diverse city, and of course it is a major cultural crossroads. Whereas Balshazzar's Daughter highlighted the Jewish community, The Ottoman Cage puts the spotlight on the Armenian community . . . and we learn a bit more about Istanbul's complex and rich history.

But Ikmen and Suleyman are the ones we really care about. Ikmen has been married to his wife Fatma for more than two decades. They have nine children, and now Ikmen's elderly father -- who has dementia -- is living with them. Fatma is going through a difficult time and is having some health issues which she doesn't want to bother her husband with. The plot thickens with the introduction of their adult daughter, an international flight attendant who has her mind on . . . you guessed it . . . a pilot.

As for Suleyman, well, he's been unhappily married for several years. It was an arranged marriage, and he's tried very hard to make it work. Enter Ayşa Farsakoǧlu, a police sergeant who might possibly have a crush on Suleyman. Or does she? Whatever the case, his life is about to become much more complicated.

Read this series if you have any interest at all in Istanbul, Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire . . . but mostly if you just want to read a solid police procedural. Who knows, you might even decide to kick back with a strong cup of Turkish coffee. That would certainly keep you up so you could read.

P.S. In case you're wondering why the second book was published in 2005 and the first one in 2006 (if you clicked the above link to the first book) . . . well, I don't know the reason for certain, but most likely it has to do with the publisher. I just wanted to add this here in case you thought the mistake was mine. THIS TIME, it isn't. :)

Friday, April 20, 2012

Divergent

Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, 2011
501 pages

This young adult (YA) dystopian novel has been on my list for several months. After watching the movie The Hunger Games (which as most of you know is based on the first of another YA dystopian trilogy), I decided to jump in. I was immediately hooked.

Beatrice Prior is a sixteen year-old living in a futuristic Chicago where people are divided into five factions: Candor (truth/honesty), Amity (friendliness/peacefulness), Erudite (intelligence), Dauntless (bravery), and Abnegation (selfless). Beatrice's family is Abnegation. They wear colorless clothing, are very modest, and never take more than their share of anything. They're the folks who volunteer, and they're also in control of the government, according to the rules set up by their forebears since their faction is considered incorruptible.

Beatrice and her brother, Caleb, are at the age where they must choose a faction. Everyone expects them to choose Abnegation, since that's what their parents are. But Beatrice has always been a little different in her thinking, and that's a major dilemma. If she chooses another faction, according to the rules, that faction will become her new family. This means she would no longer be able to associate with her parents and brother. I guess you know where this is going. As it says on the book cover: One choice will transform you. Beatrice (who becomes Tris after making her choice) is about to be transformed in a huge way. And there's no turning back.

Of course, in the process of her transformation, Tris will discover her strengths. She'll also learn that her world isn't as perfect as she thought it was. Family and friends turn out to be not what you expect. Things are happening with the factions that were supposed to have been impossible. In fact, it's impossible not to draw parallels to problems in today's society while you're reading Divergent.  For this reason alone, I think Divergent is worth a read if you're into YA stuff.

Divergent appears to be the first in a planned trilogy. The second installment, Insurgent, is set to be released in May in the USA. That one's already on my list for sometime in the near future. :)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Circle of Bones

Circle of Bones
Author: Christine Kling
Tell-Tale Press, 2011
560 pages

The Caribbean is rich with history, and when you add to that a vivid imagination and some tough characters, you get Circle of Bones.

Maggie Riley is a former Marine who experienced great loss a few years back when something went down in Peru. Now, she spends as much time as possible on her sailboat. She takes care of her elderly father from a distance, touching base often with his caretaker in Washington, D.C.

Somewhere off the coast of Guadeloupe, Riley spots a man floating in the ocean. Riley rescues him . . . and immediately regrets it. He gives her a fake name and a wild story, then disappears soon after they reach the harbor.

Turns out he's Dr. Cole Thatcher, a marine explorer, and he's being chased by modern-day pirates. For real.

Meanwhile on Guadeloupe, Riley planned to meet her ex-boyfriend, Diggory ("Dig") Priest, who mysteriously dumped her after the incident in Peru. But their reunion isn't happy. In fact, Riley quickly discovers that Dig (a CIA agent) is a bad, bad dude.

Cole, Dig, and the freaky pirates are all looking for the same thing, and now Riley's caught in the middle. Unfortunately for her, some more bad stuff is about to go down. And it looks like some people in high places are behind it all. 

Circle of Bones is a clever thriller that also has its funny moments. I liked the Caribbean setting . . . and the sailing. Clearly the author knows her way around a boat, and I found that aspect of Circle of Bones to be refreshing. Although she's not perfect by any means, Riley is a formidable character with a great deal of potential. I hope to see her again in a future book.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Righteous

The Righteous
Author: Michael Wallace
Thomas & Mercer, 2012
338 pages

Deep in the heart of the US state of Utah lies a polygamist community called Blister Creek, where a young wife of an elderly husband is brutally murdered. From their sister community in Alberta (Canada), Jacob, a medical student from a highly respected family, is requested to go to Blister Creek to investigate the murder. He takes along his sister Eliza, who at seventeen is considered of marriageable age, with the intent that (despite her own wishes) she will choose one of three Blister Creek men to marry.

When they arrive in Utah, they find a community who wants to blame the murder on a group of immigrant laborers working in the area. But when Jacob examines the body, it becomes clear that the murder was not committed by an outsider. However, someone doesn't want Jacob to uncover the truth, and soon both he and Eliza are in serious danger.

Meanwhile, Eliza is being forced to choose one of her three potential husbands. One is in his seventies and already has several wives; another is the same age as Eliza but not a nice person at all (in fact, he's so despicable, it's creepy); and the third, while handsome and seemingly honorable, has his shortcomings. Eliza is fully aware of the female role in her community, but this doesn't stop her from wanting more options.

It's difficult to write much more about this book without revealing spoilers. Let's just say the pace is fast, the plot is unique, and the bad guys are really bad. I found the setting (both the physical location and the polygamist community) to be intriguing; this may be a point of interest for other readers, as well.

I enjoyed the book and can't wait to read the others in The Righteous series. There are currently three available (Mighty and Strong and The Wicked), with a fourth (The Blessed and the Damned) expected in October, 2012.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Keeper of Lost Causes

The Keeper of Lost Causes
Author: Jussi Adler-Olsen
Dutton, 2011
400 pages

A while back, there was a great deal of buzz on some of the European book blogs I follow about a book called Mercy by Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen. Unable to find it here in the States, I came very close to ordering Mercy from Amazon UK. Then I found out that for some unknown reason, the same book was called The Keeper of Lost Causes when it was published for the market over here. I don't know why publishers do this, but sometimes they do. However, after reading it, I can say that either title works well for the story.

This is apparently the first book in a series featuring Copenhagen detective Carl Mørck and his increasingly capable assistant, the mysterious immigrant named Assad. (Assad is the best sidekick character to come along in ages. I like Carl, but I adore Assad.)

When the book opens, Carl is just coming back to work after being on leave for a while following an incident in which he and two police partners were gunned down on the job. One of the partners was killed and another was badly wounded. Carl is left to wonder why he survived and is also going through a sort of mid-life crisis, re-thinking career and all that. But when an opportunity comes along to lead a newly-funded crime unit looking at cold cases, Carl takes it.

The first case involves the disappearance of a beautiful young politician who went missing five years ago. Merete Lynggard was at the top of her game and one of the paparazzi favorites when she disappeared from a ferry. Although no body was ever found, she's been declared dead, but to Carl, it just doesn't feel right. As he and Assad look into the case, they find out that Merete had at least one big secret that few people knew about.

[Actually, she isn't dead. She's being held captive. Take a look at the official book teaser trailer (for Mercy), you'll see that I'm not giving away any spoilers by saying this.]

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a wild ride and one of the best psychological thrillers I've ever read. I read the last 50% in one sitting. I LOVED it, and recommend it highly to fans of this genre.

Another special thing about this book is that it was the first Kindle book I got from my local library. This is a super-cool service and yet another reason to support libraries!!! :)

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Flatey Enigma

The Flatey Enigma
Author: Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson (translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon)
Amazon Crossing, 2012 (originally published 2002 in Iceland)
224 pages

It's 1960 and off the west coast of Iceland, a family hunting seal on the uninhabited island of Ketilsey stumbles upon a decomposing human body. Kjartan, a representative of the district magistrate, is sent from Reykjavik to the nearby island of Flatey to identify the body. There he finds a harsh environment and several quirky characters, including an elderly man with dementia, a man who sees fairies, and a reclusive female doctor.

Flatey is also home to an ancient Icelandic saga called The Flatey Book, which contains an unsolved puzzle known as The Flatey Enigma. When the dead man turns out to be a Danish researcher whose life's work revolved around unlocking the puzzle, the plot thickens. But it gets even more thick when another stranger turns up mutilated in the cemetery.

Kjartan transitions from investigator to cryptographer as the mysteries are uncovered. There are more twists and turns in The Flatey Enigma than there are fjords in Iceland, and each of them has credibility. It's almost like three different stories sometimes: 1) the murder mysteries; 2) the historic tales of the saga; and 3) the incredible descriptions of daily island life and survival.

The Flatey Enigma is a solid crime thriller, but it's much more than that. It's magical. My resolve to go to Iceland has been strengthened, and my attraction to the northern isles is now more intense than ever.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Wheat Belly

Wheat Belly
Author: William Davis, MD
Rodale Books, 2011
304 pages

When I came across Wheat Belly (subtitled Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back To Health), I was intrigued. I mean, seriously . . . what nerve? Give up bagels, sandwiches, tortillas, naan, and pita? Not to mention cake, CUPCAKES, and assorted other sweet things. Are you crazy? Yet after reading only a few pages, I decided to give up wheat, just to see what happened. It's been three and a half weeks, and I'm still wheat-free.

As far as diet books go -- and believe me, I've read several -- this is about the most well-written and well-researched I've come across. The author starts out by giving us a sort of history of wheat, arguing that the genetic changes in wheat over time -- along with how it's processed nowadays -- isn't good for us humans. It's a convincing argument, but there were a few times when I thought I might be able to fill in the blank and insert anything (dairy, meat, sugar, whatever) considered "not good for us" over the last forty years or so. Still, like I said, the argument is convincing.

The next section of the book goes through several health problems/issues, such as celiac disease, inflammation, diabetes, skin conditions, dementia, etc. and presents studies that show removing wheat from the diet can improve conditions or maybe even make them go away entirely. Some of this was section was a bit too scientific for me, but I kept going.

Following the health section, there's a sort of call to action, with a list of foods to avoid as well as foods that are acceptable. This is followed by a recommended eating plan (for one week) and some recipes. Some of the recipes looked pretty tasty to me, and I'll probably try a few of them soon.

In case you wondered, I've lost 9.8 pounds since I gave up wheat shortly after starting to read Wheat Belly. I don't know how much longer I'll keep it up, but for now, I'm wheat-free.

OK, my next book is going to be a mystery/thriller from Iceland, so if you've missed that genre lately, check back again in a week or so. :)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower
Author: Octavia Butler
Grand Central Publishing, 2000
329 pages

This book is a radical departure from my usual mystery/crime thriller, but I do enjoy an occasional diversion. With all the hoopla surrounding the upcoming release of the movie The Hunger Games -- another example of dystopian fiction that I enjoyed -- I thought I'd check out Parable of the Sower by the late science fiction author Octavia Butler. It's the first of a two-book series that was originally published in 1993, and after reading it I can't help but wonder how many other books could have followed if not for Butler's untimely death in 2006.

Main character Lauren Olamina is a rather complicated young woman living in the 2020s. Her father is the local preacher, a man of great intelligence and a big temperament. Lauren lives with him, her brothers, and stepmother in southern California. The United States has gone to hell in a hand-basket, so to speak, the result of decades of economic and environmental disaster: it's now a third world country. Things are bad -- really, really bad.

Lauren has a sort of ability (some might say disability) in that she can feel the pain and pleasure of other people. This hyperempathy is a result of her mother's abuse of a drug while she was pregnant with Lauren; no doubt this is a huge reason for her complexity. But she's also a very forward-thinking young person, and while she's a teenager she begins putting down verses in a notebook that will eventually become the foundation for a new faith.

In the meantime, things go from bad to worse, and Lauren loses her family. Along with two others, she sets off on a journey to the north, where supposedly there are jobs and not as much chaos as in southern California. On this journey, Lauren will see the darkest sides of humanity, but will grown in strength and resolve. We know from reading the book's description that eventually she's going to be some sort of leader, so Parable of the Sower is really the back story. I'm looking forward to the second book, Parable of the Talents, which I seriously hope will come out on eBook sometime soon.

If you like dystopian stuff, this is a must read. However, it's very heavy. Hopefully it will make you think. And possibly act.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Exit 22

Exit 22
Author: p.m. terrell
Drake Valley Press, 2008
328 pages

A few weekends ago I was visiting with my old friend "TJ" (old as in we've been friends since grade school) and I asked her what she was reading. She replied that she'd just started Exit 22 by p.m. terrell. (Apparently, it's p.m. terrell, not P.M. Terrell.) I admitted being unfamiliar with the book and author, and "TJ" explained to me that she learned about them from the recent Book 'Em North Carolina event held on the campus of the local community college. (Check out Book 'Em North Carolina - it looks like a great organization!) "TJ" said she was really enjoying it so far, in part because the story actually takes place in our hometown.

Naturally, I had to buy and read it asap. This was a bit of rough week for me personally, and I had a lot going on, so I didn't read quickly at first. But last night, I couldn't stop . . . I was literally on the edge of my bed, biting my nails, completely oblivious to anything else going on around me.

Quick plot summary: Chris, a political strategist who lives and works in Washington, DC, is driving down I-95 to Florida. There's an ice storm, and just as he's approaching exit 22 (the number of the exit from I-95) in Lumberton, North Carolina, he has a car accident. Since his car needs repairs, he checks into a motel, thinking he'll just be in Lumberton for a day or two. But while dining in the motel restaurant, he meets Brenda, a mysterious, beautiful woman who's about to take him on the ride of his life.

You see, just as Chris arrived in Lumberton, a double murder of a successful banker and his pregnant wife took place on a farm just outside of town. Local Sheriff's deputies Alec and Dani are trying to piece together the incident and find the killer. Nosy neighbors tell them that the dead man was having an affair with a woman named Brenda. Hmm.

I don't want to give any more of the story away, so I'll leave it at that. The characters are fresh and the two deputies (especially Alec) are completely real. The storyline is believable, as in YES, THIS COULD HAPPEN . . . and it could happen in a place like Lumberton. The setting is different (again, fresh) -- so if you're used to reading crime thrillers/mysteries set in California, DC, New York, or Europe and you want to try something new, check Exit 22 out and read all about a new-to-you place. 

It seems as if p.m. terrell has a couple of other books set in this area (some are called the Black Swamp Mysteries). I'll be looking for them. And I'm gonna ask "TJ" what she's reading more often. :)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Blue Monday

Blue Monday
Author: Nicci French
Penguin Books, 2011
401 pages

My good friend Sophie from Belgium sent me this book a few weeks ago. She has great taste in fiction, so I knew I'd really like Blue Monday even though I hadn't previously read anything by the author (um, authors -- Nicci French is actually a husband and wife team). And wow, this book hooked me from the first few sentences and didn't let go until the very last!

The main character is a London-based psychotherapist, Dr. Frieda Klein, who has a thing for walking the streets of London in the middle of the night. Frieda can seem really cold at times, especially with regard to how she treats her boyfriend and other people who care about her. But perhaps this is what makes her so good at what she does -- helping people.

When a new patient starts telling her stuff that makes her think he might be connected to the recent disappearance of a five-year-old boy, Frieda contacts the police. Suddenly, she becomes a part of the investigation, which has more twists and turns than a mountain road. A five-year-old girl disappeared twenty-two years ago, and her case was never solved. Now it seems the two cases are related, but time is running out for the missing boy. This is edge-of-your-seat reading!

I don't get the luxury of reading an entire book in a single day that often, but in the case of Blue Monday, I couldn't help myself -- I didn't want to put the book down. The addition of some unexpectedly humorous scenes involving a character who's introduced by falling through a ceiling . . . sheer literary brilliance! I fell in love with Josef and if there are more Frieda Klein books (which I hope there will be!), I look forward to seeing more of him.
 
Thank you, Sophie! :)

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Shack

The Shack
Author: William P. Young
Windblown Media, 2007
272 pages

This is a book that was a big bestseller here in the States a few years ago. I knew the gist of the story -- and I bought the book -- but I resisted reading it until last weekend. It didn't take me long to get hooked into the story of a man named Mack, his family, and the loss of a child during a family camping trip. That was pretty much the first one-third of the book.

The last two-thirds are how Mack deals with this loss, revisiting the area where the incident happened some four years later after receiving a mysterious invitation in his mailbox. This is where (depending on your personal philosophy) you'll either like or dislike (online reviews are more like "Love!" or "Strongly dislike"). I'm not going to tell you which group I'm in. And I don't want to reveal the plot, so I'll just say that if you like books dealing with spiritual issues, then this might be of interest to you.

I'm glad I finally read The Shack, because now I know what some of my friends and family members have read, so I feel like we're on the same, um, page. Pun not necessarily intended.

I need to follow this up with an easy, simple read, because my brain feels a little like mush right now. :)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Empty Mirror

The Empty Mirror
Author: J. Sydney Jones
Minotaur Books, 2009
320 pages

I've found an author who seems to love Vienna as much as I do. J. Sydney Jones has published three books (so far) in his Viennese Mystery series -- The Empty Mirror is the first. Set in 1898 as the sun is setting on the Habsburg Empire, this wonderful series features fiction-writing attorney Karl Werthen and his criminologist colleague Hanns Gross.

There's a murderer on the loose in Vienna, and when one of the victims turns out to be one of artist Gustav Klimt's models, the painter himself is arrested and jailed. Werthen happens to be his attorney, and although the Advocat isn't a criminal lawyer, the truth is, he'd like to be.

Of course, we know that Klimt isn't a killer, but the real killer must be found. As Werthen and Gross pursue him, they cross paths with the likes of Mark Twain and Franz Ferdinand. They also spend time in places in Vienna that I used to frequent when I lived there, such as Café Landtmann, the Ringstrasse, and the Prater. I could taste the coffee, the Kipferl, and the Wiener schnitzel as I worked my way through. It was like going back home, while also going back in time.

I love a good blend of history and fiction, and The Empty Mirror didn't disappoint me. Woven into the serial killer storyline are other stories based on actual historical events, such as the mysterious death of Crown Prince Rupert and the assassination of Empress Elisabeth ("Sisi") in Geneva. There are also a couple of references to that famous Viennese psychotherapist, Sigmund Freud. Perhaps Freud will appear in a future Viennese Mystery. I'll keep reading this series!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Coroner's Lunch

The Coroner's Lunch
Author: Colin Cotterill
Soho Crime, 2005
272 pages

It's the mid-1970s and seventy-two year old Dr. Siri Paiboun is living in Vientiane, Laos just after the Pathet Lao government came to power. Although he's old enough and would like to be retired, Dr. Siri has been called . . . er, placed into service as the state coroner for the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Not that he's a trained or experience coroner, because he's not.

He's a medical doctor, though, trained in France. Widowed several years ago, he now has some fantastic sidekicks: an ambitious nurse and a morgue helper with Down's Syndrome. And he has friends in high places in the government -- sort of. His neighbor spies on him, and he has a crush on the sandwich maker. These are just a few of the other colorful characters in this wonderful first-in-a-series mystery by English-born author Colin Cotterill.

Dr. Siri is a man who takes things in stride and has a sense of humor despite the time and circumstances. But things get deadly serious when the morgue starts getting customers. A fisherman loses his legs in a horrible boating accident -- but was it really an accident? The wife of a Party leader keels over at a luncheon -- natural causes or murder? Three drowned soldiers  -- what really happened?

These are just a few of the cases that Dr. Siri must solve with his limited skills in forensic sciences. Dr. Siri faces all sorts of challenges, from lack of basic supplies and equipment to lack of support from his own superiors. But he's a resourceful man, and he's also got something else on his side. Let's just say he has some special abilities. 

The Coroner's Lunch is a mystery with added elements of fantasy and historical fiction. Not being very familiar with Laos or its history, I felt like I was learning something while also being entertained by this wonderful main character and his excellent supporting cast. I want so badly to continue reading all the Dr. Siri books in order. I think you'll be seeing more Dr. Siri books on this blog . . . sooner rather than later.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Involuntary Witness

Involuntary Witness
Author: Gianrico Carofiglio (translated from Italian by Patrick Creagh)
Bitter Lemon, 2005
274 pages

Here's a book I noticed on the shelf in the library a few weeks ago without knowing anything about the author or series. Luckily, Involuntary Witness is the first of several books featuring Italian attorney Guido Guerrieri. From the opening pages, a couple of things are clear: Guido's not particularly happy, and he's entering that challenging phase of life known as mid-life crisis.

Guido doesn't seem to really enjoy his chosen profession. He seems lackadaisical about lots of things. At the office, he tends to ignore his assistant, and he often makes his clients wait. His similar lack of enthusiasm at home leads his wife to announce (to his surprise) that she wants a separation, and at this, Guido starts to fall apart at the seams.

But then he's visited by a student from Africa, who tells him about a friend of hers who desperately needs help. The friend -- Abdou Thiam, an immigrant from Senegal, has been imprisoned for the murder of a young Italian boy. Although he was a teacher in Senegal, Abdou is unable to get similar work in Italy so he peddles wares (including a few counterfeits) on the beach near Bari.

Upon visiting Abdou in prison, it's pretty clear to Guido that the man is not a killer. However, according to the Italian legal system, Abdou basically has two choices: 1) he can admit guilt and serve a shortened sentence; or 2) he can have a trial, which he'll probably lose, and spend the rest of his life in jail. Since Abdou maintains his innocence, he decides to risk a trial. As Guido works to free his client, he also attempts to put his personal life back in order.

Guido comes across as a guy who used to be a jerk, but has learned some very big lessons. Actually, he learns several (and somewhat redeems himself) in this book. That makes him a likeable character. He's also quite clever and creative, and the scenes involving some of his adventures can bring a smile to your face.

According to online sources, the author is a former judge in southern Italy (in Bari, the city where Involuntary Witness takes place). He obviously knows his way around the very complex legal system there. That the accused is a "non-European" (the term used in court) immigrant adds an additional level of complexity to this finely-told legal tale.

Another win for the library. Glad I picked this one up.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Stolen Life

A Stolen Life
Author: Jaycee Dugard
Simon & Schuster, 2011
288 pages

On a typical morning in 1991 as eleven year-old Jaycee Dugard walked to school, a strange man drove up beside her in his car. Moments later, the California girl was kidnapped, only to be found eighteen years later. A Stolen Life is the memoir of that experience, and the first year (more or less) of Dugard's new life after she was finally able to break free.

The book is as forthright as a memoir can be while also describing her feelings about the man who kidnapped her. It was hard to read because it's difficult to imagine anyone doing the things this man did. Not only did he steal Jaycee's youth and innocence, he made her (and his accomplice wife) totally dependent on him for even the most basic human needs. He also fathered her two daughters; the first born when Jaycee was only fourteen. She was so terrified of what would happen if she tried to escape, that she never even attempted it.

Fortunately, Jaycee didn't just find a path to freedom - she bravely took it. Since then, she started The JAYC Foundation, an organization that helps families who've been impacted by abduction. That so much good can come from so much bad is something that leaves me speechless.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dublin Dead

Dublin Dead
Author: Gerard O'Donovan
Sphere, 2011
418 pages

This book isn't available in the USA yet -- it's scheduled for release here in print and eBook on 13 March. I ordered my copy from Amazon UK, and it arrived a couple of weeks ago. It's the second book in the Mike Mulcahy series (the first book was The Priest, which I haven't read). Normally, I don't read books out of order, but when I ordered Dublin Dead I didn't know it was a series. Fortunately, I was able to jump right in to Book #2.

When an Irish drug dealer is killed in a Spanish resort town, detective Mike Mulcahy and his special task force are asked to look into the dead guy's connections in Ireland. This leads to them learning about a similar murder in the UK of an English drug lord, and a missing shipment of cocaine that seems to have disappeared into thin air. In the meantime, key people in the investigation keep getting bumped off by a mysterious blonde assassin.

While Mulcahy looks for links between these events, journalist Siobhan Fallon is making a comeback. Apparently she was the victim of some brutal stuff in Book #1. We're given hints to explain why she hasn't worked in a while, why she has nightmares, and what her relationship with Mulcahy might have been at one time. Siobhan's looking into the suicide of a very rich Irishman (well, he had been rich, until the economy went bad) that took place in Bristol, England. Her investigation leads her to Cork, where she's approached by a woman who's adult daughter has gone missing.

There's a lot going on in these 400+ pages and it's a bit of a challenge to keep up in the beginning. There's a certain tension between Siobhan and Mulcahy that makes you want to keep reading about them.  I enjoyed the Irish setting, as well as the various side trips and mentions of other places. And it was kind of cool to read a book that's not available over here just yet.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with Dublin Dead and will be looking out for more books by Gerard O'Donovan in the future.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dregs

Dregs
Author: Jørn Lier Horst
Sandstone Press, 2011
320 pages

Out of Norway comes this very intricate novel featuring police investigator William Wisting, a descendant of a polar explorer. As far as I can tell, this is the sixth Wisting novel, but the first translated into English. I'm not sure why publishers translate series novels out of order, but I suppose that's a different blog entry. So let's focus on Dregs now.

Wisting is 51 years old and has been a police investigator for quite some time, apparently. He's feeling old and a bit burnt out, and is having some health issues that he refers to as the menopause. A recent widower, he lives in the Larvik area of southern Norway. The two main people in his life are his daughter Line, a journalist, and his girlfriend Suzanne. Line is visiting for a while to conduct some interviews with a handful of local ex-cons for a story she's writing on the prison system.

Suddenly, a shoe is found on the beach . . . with someone's left foot still in it. But that's not all. Over the course of a few days, other left feet & shoes will be found. They appear to belong to missing persons from the area, including a couple of men from the local nursing home. Then one of the nursing home's carers disappears.

As Wisting investigates, Line interviews a local man who recently got out of prison for killing a police officer some twenty years ago. He doesn't seem like a killer -- in fact, Line is sure he served time to cover up for someone else. But can she prove it? And will Wisting find out what's up with all the left feet?

Dregs is very clever. It addresses certain aspects of Norway's history, and examines an important social issue from both sides, without taking sides. Wisting is likeable, and I like the idea of father and daughter working together, so I hope future books are headed in that direction. There were several red herrings that had me going down wrong paths more than once. By 50% complete I was sure I knew who the killer was . . . but I was wrong.

I just wish I had the background on Wisting that I feel like I'm missing by not having read the books before Dregs. And I'd like to tell the author that 51 is not old. :)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mixed Blood

Mixed Blood
Author: Roger Smith
Picador, 2009
320 pages

I needed a little break from North America and Europe, so I decided to look to Africa for my latest read. Roger Smith is a South African author and this was his first book (followed by Wake Up Dead in 2010 and Dust Devils in 2011 -- I predict that I'll be reading both of those). Mixed Blood is a thriller in the true sense: It had me from the first few pages, and never let me go. So I'm telling you now, be sure you have some time to read before starting this one, otherwise, if you're anything like me, you'll be very grumpy if interrupted.

Paul Burn is an American living in a posh area of Cape Town with his beautiful pregnant wife, Susan, and their young son, Matt. At first they seem to be a "normal" expat family. When a couple of local meth-heads breaks into their home and it seems like they're about to rape and kill them all, Paul turns the tables on them. Suddenly we're wondering who Paul is . . . or maybe what Paul is.

Before we find out, our attention is turned to another character, Benny Mongrel. Raised in the Cape Town area known as the Flats, Benny's a former gangsta who's trying to turn his life around after doing serious jail time. He works as a night watchman in the construction site next door to where the Burn family lives, and he witnesses the two thugs breaking in. He's quite surprised when, a short time later, instead of seeing them run back out and drive off in their red BMW, Paul Burn drives away in his Jeep.

Next we meet a rotten-to-the-core policeman named Rudi Barnard. He's a large, stinky, freak of a man and one of the most crooked cops I've come across in recent literature. Truly, he's a bad, bad dude.

Finally, we meet 'good cop' Disaster Zondi (who probably has one of the coolest character names ever). Zondi works out of a special unit in Johannesburg that investigates crooked cops, and Barnard is on his list. (By the time Zondi is introduced, you're totally ready for Barnard to get his karma.)

The stories of the four men come together in this rollercoaster ride of a novel. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the complexities of South African culture -- and It's Complicated. But it's also a stunningly beautiful country, and Cape Town is widely known to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. To me, that's what makes it the perfect setting for this very raw and gritty story.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Jasmine Moon Murder

The Jasmine Moon Murder
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2005
272 pages

Although my taste in fiction has evolved over the years toward more international crime/thrillers and historical fiction, I enjoy a good "cozy" mystery every now and then. One series I absolutely adore is the clever Tea Shop Mystery series by Laura Childs, of which The Jasmine Moon Murder is Book #5. Every time I read one of these Charleston, South Carolina-based works, I want to drink tea and demonstrate gentility. And of course, I want to visit Charleston immediately (I'm only 3 hours 47 minutes away according to Google Maps! Hmm, if I leave now . . . )

This time around, Indigo Tea Shop owner Theodosia and her steady crew (tea master Drayton and baker extraordinaire Haley) are catering a Ghost Tour event in a cemetery when a man collapses. When Theodosia rushes over to try to help him, she finds out it's too late. The man is dead -- and Theodosia finds a syringe nearby. Later tests will reveal the contents to be a lethal drug: it was murder!

Turns out the dead man wasn't a stranger -- he was the uncle of Theo's boyfriend, Jory. Uncle Jasper was an executive at a medical devices company that's about to release a revolutionary new product, meaning that he was probably about to make a boatload of money. He was also in the middle of a divorce from a woman who's obviously a gold digger. Suddenly there are lots of potential suspects around, including a couple of rival CEOs and a shady PR man who seems willing to do anything to promote his clients -- and himself.

By now, even Detective Burt Tidwell knows he can't stop Theo from conducting her own investigation. But when someone takes a couple of shots at Theo at the fox hunt, and throws a rock through the window of the mansion Theo is housesitting, it becomes personal. But then one of her top suspects is also murdered . . .

The Tea Shop Mystery series just keeps getting better. I'll definitely keep reading these . . . and I'll keep dreaming of a Charleston getaway. Hmm, I wonder if I could get down there for the Spoleto Festival this year? :)

Previous books in this series that I've reviewed:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Invisible Ones

The Invisible Ones
Author: Stef Penney
Putnam, 2012
416 pages

This book is still hot off the presses, so I'm really excited to be one of the first to read it. Mostly set in England (with a portion set in France) in 1986 or so, it's a detective story and also a coming of age story, told by two characters.

Main character Ray Lovell is a hard luck private detective whose cheatin' wife has left him all messed up. Half Romany Gypsy, half gorjio (non-Romany), Ray is in the hospital when the book opens, suffering from an unknown condition that has him partially paralyzed with no memory of what has happened. Slowly, he begins to remember a recent missing persons case he worked on involving a young Romany woman. The woman, Rose Wood, married into an "unlucky" Romany family -- The Jankos -- and has not been seen by her own family since the wedding some six years ago.

Meanwhile, young James "JJ" Smith is a teenager being raised by his single mother and her family . . . The Jankos. They live in a trailer encampment on the outskirts of town: JJ and his mom, grandparents, uncle, and cousin Ivo and his son, Christo. When the book opens JJ and his family are in France, on their way to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle for Christo, who has the family curse -- an unknown illness that has killed many young Janko boys -- a source of their unluckiness.

While Ray navigates the Romany culture to find Rose (who was Ivo's wife), JJ navigates gorgjio society. He's a good kid and a good student with lots of potential, but not knowing his father (or who his father is) is eating him up inside. Eventually JJ's path will cross with Ray's, and we can only hope after reading The Invisible Ones that Ray will continue to be a role model for him.

Ray has his own demons, of course. Will he be able to fight them off? Will he get his memory back? Will he find the missing woman? Things aren't always what they seem in The Invisible Ones. Guess you'll have to read it to find out. :)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Among Others

Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Tor, 2011
304 pages

I saw this book on the shelf of my local library recently, and decided to pick it up because (deep breath - I usually don't admit this) I was attracted to the pretty cover. Something about the reddish glow and the fairy dust, I suppose. When I started reading it last Saturday, I was drawn into a sort of mystical world that bridged the gap between humans and the supernatural (witches and fairies) in the year 1979. Turns out, I was born in the same year as the main character (I was 15 in 1979), and that made her instantly relatable. She could have been someone I went to school with.

"Mori" or "Mor" has recently moved from Wales to England to live with her father and his three strange half-sisters. The half-sisters are wealthy, having received an inheritance. They seem to be in their forties, and are all unmarried and childless . . . and a bit on the strange side. Just prior to moving to England, Mori lived with her twin sister and extended maternal family in South Wales. But there was an accident that left Mori with a bad leg and killed Mori's twin. We eventually learn that this "accident" was caused by the twins' mother, who was apparently doing some pretty serious magic at the time.

The supernatural element isn't the star of this show, however. Books are. Mori is a fanatic reader of science fiction, and also of classical works written by the likes of Plato and Virgil. Among Others is written like a diary covering several months, and during that time Mori reads and/or refers to dozens of books. One review called Among Others a long song to librarians and libraries, and this is very evident in the relationships Mori develops with two characters, her school librarian and Greg from the local public library.

It's the books that help Mori make the transition from Wales to England, from her home with "Gramper" and her favorite Auntie, to her English boarding school and new sort-of home with her father and his family. Her Dad (she can't call him 'Dad' so she uses his first name) is also a voracious reader of science fiction, which gives them common ground. Science fiction will also provide Mori with a new circle of friends.

So maybe it's Science Fiction that's really the star of this book . . . yes, I think so. I kind of hate to admit that I've only read a handful of the books discussed. Maybe I should look more closely at that genre.

Whatever the case, Among Others is truly other-worldly. I felt like I was dreaming much of the time I was reading this very interesting "coming of age" story. And that was OK with me.

P.S. I love libraries, so it was kind of ironic that I checked out this particular book from a library. Our local library system (like a lot of others) has experienced some hard times over the last few years. I find this to be very disconcerting and I urge you to SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY!!!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Purge

Purge
Author: Sofi Oksanen
Grover Press, Black Cat, 2010
320 pages

I want to start out with a confession: This book blew me away, and I was not prepared for that. I knew that Purge was: 1) set in the country of Estonia; and 2) written by a young author from Finland -- but that's really all I knew before I read it. I've never been to Estonia (but I've been to Finland) and I don't know much about the history of Estonia or the Baltic states. But none of that mattered because I was transported there, and now I feel as if I've been there many times.

The story revolves around two women, Aliide and Zara. In the present day (which is really the early 1990s), Aliide is an old woman who lives alone in a rural area of Estonia, and Zara is a young woman from Vladivostok in far-eastern Russia. One rainy morning, Aliide looks out her window and sees something in her front yard. When she goes outside to investigate, she finds Zara, who is barely conscious, dirty, and covered with bruises. Aliide struggles with whether or not to help Zara, but decides to bring her into her home and take care of her.

Through a combination of voices in mostly alternating chapters, we learn their life stories. Aliide's is a woeful tale of sibling rivalry and star-crossed lovers in parallel with the history of 20th century Estonia. Zara is a victim of the sex-trafficking industry between Russia and Western Europe (in her case, Germany) and is now being pursued by her ruthless Russian captors. The women have much in common. They've both made some bad decisions. They've both been used and abused. They're both survivors. But those aren't the only things they have in common, as we'll learn from a secret photo that Zara keeps tucked into her bra.

Purge refers not only to the title of the book, but to the political purges that occurred during the Soviet occupations of Estonia in the early 1940s. Many Estonian nationals disappeared. Some were forcibly removed to Siberia or other places in Russia to be "rehabilitated." Others went into hiding, escaped to Finland or another country, or were killed. To say that it was a very bad time would be a major understatement.

There are several other literary references to Purge throughout the book. Both Aliide and Zara have things they need to purge from their pasts in order to heal -- if indeed healing is possible. We're not really sure it is, at least not in the traditional sense, as the book's ending only leaves hints of an ending. Or perhaps a new beginning, which is what will soon be happening to Estonia (during the early 1990s).

Although Purge is classified as a thriller in many circles (and it certainly has its "thrilling" moments), I'd recommend it more for fans of historical fiction, women's literary fiction, or world literature. It would be an excellent choice for a literary book club. I wish I knew someone else who's read it, because I'd love to chat about it! There's so much more I'd like to write about Purge, but instead, I'll just end with this statement:

This is a book that's going to stay with me for a while.