Friday, December 27, 2013

Lookaway, Lookaway

Lookaway, Lookaway
Author: Wilton Barnhardt
St. Martin's Press, 2013
368 pages

I first heard about Lookaway, Lookaway from a review in one of our local magazines back in the spring, just prior to the book's release. I knew I'd read it since it's set in Charlotte, a city I know well from living here in the mid-1980s and again since 2010. The author is a North Carolina native.

Lookaway, Lookaway focuses on the Johnsons, an "old Southern money" family living in the Myers Park neighborhood of Charlotte. For those of you who don't know Charlotte or its neighborhoods, Myers Park is an affluent area just south of downtown where the average home price is over $700,000. It's a beautiful, with broad avenues shaded by huge old oak trees. In other words, the perfect location for a family like the Johnsons with their Civil War gun collection, fancy monogrammed silverware and dinner parties.

The family is led by the very determined Jerene, whose sole responsibilities seem to be: 1) keeping up appearances and 2) overseeing the family's art collection at The Mint Museum. Her husband Duke, an attorney who hasn't worked in years, is obsessed with a Civil War-era ancestor and with participating in Civil War re-enactments. Their four adult children are as different as night and day and each have their own struggles. Annie, the eldest, is an overweight, loud-mouthed rebel who wants nothing to do with her family's wealth. Joshua is gay but deep in the closet. Bo is a minister on an upward trajectory in his denomination and a wife who feels more comfortable feeding the hungry than dealing with church politics. And Jerilyn, the youngest, is a sorority girl who feels like she's the only one left who can possibly take her mother's place as the family matriarch.

Two other characters who add a lot of spice to the story are Jerene's brother Gaston, an alcoholic who writes Civil War-era romance novels, and Dorrie, Joshua's best friend. Gaston and Duke have been best friends for decades; Dorrie, who happens to be African-American and a lesbian, often stands in as Joshua's girlfriend.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character, starting with Jerilyn, whose story about leaving home to attend the University of North Carolina immediately pulled me in.

The author clearly knows Charlotte, and isn't shy about inserting references to the city's rapid growth and the impact this is having on the environment as well as the culture. Lookaway, Lookaway puts a mirror in our faces and what we see in the reflection is Change with a Capital C. If you're a fan of southern fiction, you won't want to miss this one.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Storyteller

The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, 2013
480 pages

Of all the books I read this year, The Storyteller was my absolute favorite. It has all of my favorite book genres (historical fiction, mystery, contemporary, supernatural twist) wrapped up into one package. But most of all it's just good writing and a good story. Or stories.

Main character Sage Singer is a baker in New Hampshire, working the night shift so she doesn't have to interact with people. A person with scars on the inside and out, Sage goes through life as invisibly as she can. She lives with the guilt of surviving the accident that caused her scars and the death of another person. Reluctantly, she attends grief counseling sessions. There she develops a sort of friendship with an older gentleman. Their relationship intensifies when he shares stories of his earlier life in Nazi Germany and Sage begins to wonder who he really is. Meanwhile, a third storyline about a teenage girl living near a small European village being terrorized by a supernatural creature weaves through Sage's modern-day story and her friend's World War II-era story.

The Storyteller is a ultimately about forgiveness and redemption of the characters and ourselves. Once you get into it, it's impossible to put down. Highly, highly recommended -- this is the book I sent to my reading buddies in Austria and Belgium this year. I hope they'll like it as much as I did!

Jericho

Jericho
Author: Ann McMan
Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company, 2011
412 pages

I'm not a huge fan of the romance genre, but sometimes it's refreshing to break out of your comfort zone and try something new. On the advice of a friend, I gave Jericho a try. I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed it.

I love the southern Appalachian mountains, and the main locale of the book is a tiny mountain town in western Virginia called Jericho. The descriptions of small town life were spot on, and the local characters reflected a rural/small town diversity that exists but is rarely shown in works of fiction. I appreciated this busting of stereotypes.

The main characters are Syd and Maddie, but I see Syd as being the "main" main character. As the book opens, she's in the process of moving to Jericho, where she plans to take an 18-month position as a librarian. This move is a big deal for Syd, as she's freshly divorced and at a sort of crossroads in her life. Maddie is a very attractive physician who lives in an awesome house and is friendly with everyone. The two women develop a quick friendship and their lives become intertwined through a series of events that are at times painful, and other times hilariously funny.

Three other characters that bring a great deal of life to the book are David, Michael, and Pete. David and Michael are a couple who own the local inn, which contains an awesome restaurant, of course. Long term friends of Maddie's, they add a lot of humor in tense situations, and they have Maddie's best interests at heart. Pete is Maddie's totally awesome dog, who steals several scenes and is the kind of canine companion that everyone wishes they had.

Jericho is a fine read, and one of the most well-written LGBT-themed books of any genre and probably the best romance novel I've ever read. Kudos to the author for focusing first on friendship, and on nailing the geography and culture.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Promise Not To Tell

Promise Not To Tell
Author: Jennifer McMahon
William Morrow, 2008
250 pages

This is a book I'd been wanting to read for quite a while when I finally picked it up. It's my first introduction to Vermont-based author Jennifer McMahon, and let's just say it now: I was blown away with the writing and the story.

Main character Kate Cypher has returned to her old childhood home -- a former hippie commune in Vermont -- to look after her elderly mother, who has dementia. The murder of a local girl on the very night that Kate arrives brings back memories of a similar and still unsolved murder some thirty years earlier, where the victim was Kate's neighbor and secret friend Del. As the only female being raised in a poor farming household, Del was ostracized and bullied for being different. In the decades since her murder, Del has become of sort of legend, and many believe that her ghost still wanders the woods at night. Some even think Del's ghost is responsible for the killing of the most recent victim.

The story bounces back and forth between the 1970s and the early 2000s, and as we get deeper inside Kate's head, we realize just how responsible and remorseful she feels about Del's death and how this tragic event has impacted her life. The plot twists as we meet characters as they were "then" and "now" with some surprises. Promise Not To Tell isn't just a whodunnit, it's a fine example of literary fiction, and I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Practical Paleo

Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole Foods Lifestyle
Author: Diane Sanfillipo
Victory Belt, 2012
432 pages

I've been a bit slow to embrace the Paleo lifestyle, but about a month ago, I decided to go for it. My first "Paleo purchase" was this book, which I chose based on the 1000+ five-star reviews on Amazon.com. But when the book finally landed in my hands, I was impressed with its sheer beauty as much as the wonderful content within.

This could be my favorite cookbook ever. Only it's not just a cookbook. It's a mission statement and a manifesto. A call to action!

Practical Paleo is full of useful and interesting information. Sure, there's the explanation of what Paleo dieting is all about (and why you should try it) but there's plenty more: how to shop for groceries, regulating blood sugar, 30 day meal plans for various health conditions such as fibromyalgia, kitchen basics (how to chop an onion), and tons of delicious recipes. My favorite so far? That would be a tie between the pumpkin pancakes, the bacon-wrapped smoky chicken thighs, and the vanilla bean tahini truffles.

Those 1000+ five-star reviews don't lie. If you're into Paleo -- or interested in it -- this is the book to get.

Swimming With Sharks

Swimming With Sharks
Author: Nele Neuhaus
Translated from German by Christine M. Grimm
Amazon Crossing, 2013
564 pages

Hello. I'm back! It's true that I've been absent since April . . . did you miss me? Thank you for your patience. :)

I'm not quite sure how I first heard about German author Nele Neuhaus, but at the time her books hadn't been translated to English yet. Over the course of a couple of years I kept checking Amazon to see if translations were available, and one day I found not just one but two books! I bought them both!

This fast-paced thriller takes place in New York, where main character Alex Sondheim (a native of Germany) has just taken a new job with an investment firm. Alex is a rock star in her field and is maybe just a little too proud of her accomplishments, and she's definitely drawn to power. Perhaps that why she begins an affair with billionaire Sergio, who is rumored to be a mobster. But when she overhears a conversation between Sergio and one of the many shady-looking characters who always seem to be nearby, Alex sees the light.

Meanwhile, Mayor Nick Kostidis -- a former prosecutor -- has spent his career fighting corruption, and Sergio is enemy #1. Yet somehow, every time Nick thinks he's got something on Sergio, witnesses mysteriously disappear or change their stories. But if he plays his cards right, he may get Alex to fight for his side . . .

There were times I didn't like Alex at all and found myself getting very frustrated with her reasoning re: Sergio. I mean, seriously? She's so brilliant and successful, yet she allows herself to be controlled like that? Her relationship with Nick was a bit too predictable. But I can forgive all that because when it comes down to it, this was a fast read for 550+ pages and I didn't want to put it down.  

I paid US$3.99 for the Kindle version of this book -- I just checked and the price is still the same. So if you hadn't previously heard of Nele Neuhaus, this would be a good introduction to her work. Otherwise, definitely look for Snow White Must Die or Bad Wolf (the latter will be available in the USA in January 2014), part of her series (huge sellers in Germany) featuring two police detectives.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Silenced

Silenced
Author: Kristina Ohlsson
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, 2013
342 pages

If you asked me to list some of my current favorite authors of crime thrillers, Kristina Ohlsson of Sweden would definitely be in my top five. I read her book Unwanted last year and found it to be a breath of fresh air. In addition to being an edgy thriller, it shed light on domestic violence and mental illness. (Click here to read my entry on Unwanted.) Her second book Silenced focuses on a different type of social issue: immigration and the plight of refugees. Despite the heaviness of these topics, Ohlsson succeeds in giving us a great story without being judgmental. I like her balanced perspective.


Silenced opens with an assault on a young girl during the Midsummer holiday in Sweden. This changes not only the girl but her entire family. Years later, a clergyman and his wife are found dead in their home. They were both known for their work with refugees. At first, it looks like a murder/suicide, but Alex and his team aren’t convinced. When an undocumented immigrant is found dead soon after, the team begins to wonder if there could be some connection to these incidents. 
 
In a parallel story, a Swedish woman is trapped in Bangkok. We don’t know why she’s there, but it appears that someone out there doesn’t want her to come back home. (As someone who’s done quite a bit of global travel, I have to say that the scenes involving this character were made of stuff that could easily give me nightmares.)


There’s a lot going on in the investigators’ personal lives, too. Alex Recht, the team leader, has a strange feeling that his wife is about to leave him. Pregnant Fredrika Bergman is having difficulty dealing with her need to work a reduced schedule. She’s also struggling with an increasing desire for more time with the baby’s father; they're in a long-term relationship, but he's actually married to someone else. Meanwhile, 'bad boy' Peder continues to offend people left and right, always saying the wrong thing and not quite understanding why people react the way they do. And there’s a new investigator on Alex’s team. Joar is a sort of a golden-boy who’s very serious and professional – the complete opposite of Peder, who sees him as a rival. 

If you enjoy Scandinavian crime thrillers, I think you'll like this series. I'd recommend for you to read Unwanted first in order to understand the dynamics between the police investigator characters. If you do, I hope you'll continue on to Silenced. According to online sources, there are a total of four books in what's called the Fredrika Bergman series. The third book, The Disappeared, is available for pre-order at Amazon UK for release in early August. No sign yet of when it might be available on this side of the pond, though. I'll keep looking because I want to read it.

[Apologies for the weird formatting in this entry. I'll try to correct the HTML later  -- don't have time right now!] 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Andalucian Friend

The Andalucian Friend
Author: Alexander Söderberg
Crown Publishers, 2013
446 pages

OK, I'll admit it: I was attracted to this book because of its title. It just sounds cool, doesn't it? Especially when you imagine Antonio Banderas saying it. Go on. Imagine that. The book is set in Stockholm, though . . . at least for the most part.

As The Andalucian Friend opens, a Swedish nurse named Sophie has befriended one of her hospital patients, a man named Hector Guzman. We soon learn that Hector is the head of an organized crime family who's in a sort of war with a rival organization based in Germany. One by one, we meet some of the people involved on both sides including Aron (who works for Hector and the Spaniards) and Mikhail (who works for the Germans.) And then there's the mysterious independent Jens, an old friend of Sophie's who sort of gets caught between the two groups.

The plot thickens with the introduction of the police investigators: Lars, who develops a creepy fascination with Sophie; the mysterious Anders; and Gunilla, their leader. These are not your typical civil servants. And that's all I'm gonna say about that.

Are you still with me? Because there are a LOT of characters, and it takes some effort on the part of the reader to keep them all straight. Söderberg does a great job of getting us into their heads. Even when we might not want to go there. The focus is on the characters, not on a specific crime. That makes The Andalucian Friend, well, unique.

The Andalucian Friend didn't end like I was expecting, and it wasn't clear to me if the plan is for this to be a standalone or the first in a series. Know what? I kinda like the not-knowing. I'm keeping my eye on this author, though. You can count on that. :)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Safe House

Safe House
Author: Chris Ewan
Minotaur Books, 2012
448 pages

Safe House has been #1 in the Crime, Thrillers & Mystery category at Amazon UK for quite some time now. It takes place on the Isle of Man. For my geography-challenged friends, that's an island in the Irish sea between Ireland and Great Britain. It was one of the six Celtic nations. It's where Manx cats come from. And it has a very interesting-looking flag. :)

It became very clear to me within just a few pages as to why this book has been at the top of the UK charts: IT'S REALLY GOOD. I was hooked from the get-go when main character Rob wakes up in the hospital after a motorcycle accident. When he asks about the condition of his companion rider, no one seems to know who or what he's talking about. They blame it on his head injury.

But Rob knows he was with someone. Her name was Lena. They hadn't known each other long. In fact, they'd only just met as a result of Rob's work. Now there's no proof that Lena exists, except in Rob's mind.

I don't want to say more, because the plot quickly adds another mystery and more intriguing layers and characters. To say more about it would give too much away. Let's just say this book is quite the ride. Sure, it's over 400 pages long, but those pages fly by quickly.

I'm not sure if this is going to be the first in a series, or if it's a standalone. If it is to be a series, then I can't wait to read the others. Bottom line: If you're a fan of the crime thriller genre, I'm pretty sure you'll love Safe House as much as I did.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Home

The Home
Author: Scott Nicholson
Haunted Computer Books, 2012
333 pages

Somewhere up in the mountains of North Carolina lives an author who's living the dream. Even though we live in the same state, it took a random browse on Amazon UK for me to discover Scott Nicholson. Turns out he's written numerous books. I decided to start with The Home.

It's set in a world in the not too distant future where religion has taken over the state and secret organizations do nasty things behind closed doors. The protagonist is Freeman Mills, the pre-teen son of an abusive, mad scientist who's in jail for murdering the boy's mother a few years back. Freeman's now an experienced ward of the state, having been in and out of several unsuccessful foster situations. He's gifted with the occasional ability to "triptrap" or read the thoughts of others, and he has a wicked sense of humor.

As the book opens, Freeman's being transferred to a group home in the Blue Ridge mountains called Wendover. There, he'll meet the creepy director of the facility, a man who thinks his brand of religion is the solution to every problem. Other characters include a researcher who thinks he's smarter than everyone else; a therapist with big faith and a big heart; the resident bully; and a girl who just may give Freeman a run for his money.

Then things start to get weird. No spoilers from me. Let's just say that The Home is probably best categorized as a paranormal thriller. It was an easy read, and the Kindle version is in Amazon's Top 40 bargain books as of this writing. (I bought it several months ago for $2.99.)

I'm ready to get back to an international crime thriller now. The question is: where will I go next?  So many books. So little time.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Geography of Bliss

The Geography of Bliss
Author: Eric Weiner
Twelve, 2009
368 pages

I'm a geography geek. I've been one for as long as I remember. If you want to get my attention, show me a map, or start talking about your travels. I'm also interested in happiness (and the pursuit of it), so when I learned this book is subtitled One Grump's Search For The Happiest Places in the World, well, you could say it had me from the title.

Eric Weiner is an NPR correspondent who's lived in many interesting global locations and done a great deal of travel. For this project, he visited several countries and talked to lots of people to find out who's happy, who's not, and why. First up: the Netherlands, home of an academic researcher who studies happiness. The Netherlands is also known for its freedom and tolerance. Is that what makes people happy?

Other "happy" countries highlighted in The Geography of Bliss include Iceland, where people have a sort of freedom to fail (is that what makes them happy?) and Bhutan, which actually has a Gross Happiness Index (is happiness required?) Weiner also visited the world's wealthiest country (Qatar) to find out if money makes people happy (does it?) For contrast, he visits the world's unhappiest country (Moldova). These are just a few of the countries visited and questions asked.

Along the way, Weiner has all sorts of adventures: Caffeine withdrawal at an ashram followed by a death-defying motorbike ride in India. The purchase of a ridiculously expensive pen in Qatar. Interesting accommodations in Moldova. Pub time in Great Britain. He also meets all sorts of interesting people  . . . and reveals a very personal addiction (I won't say what it is, but Eric, if you're reading this, you're not alone, my friend).

So what makes people happy? You didn't think I was going to tell you the answer in this entry, did you?! Get the book. That is, if you enjoy reading about travel, psychology, and other cultures. Or if you're a geography geek. Like me.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Soul To Take

My Soul To Take 
Author: Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
William Morrow, 2009
352 pages

My Soul To Take is the second book in an enthralling series featuring Reykjavik-based attorney Thora Guðmundsdóttir. I accidentally read this series out of order, starting with the fourth book The Day is Dark -- but I read the first, Last Rituals, earlier this year.

This time around, Thora's at a New Age spa on the west coast of Iceland -- not of her own volition, but at the request of a Jonas, the spa's owner. Jonas wants to sue the former owners of the property for their failure to disclose that the property includes . . . a ghost. And the ghost is having a negative impact on the business.

Just as Thora's getting settled (and having a nice massage in the spa), the body of a dead woman is found on the shore. Turns out the woman is the architect Jonas hired to design a second building -- and she wasn't exactly popular with the staff or in the community. When police find evidence that implicates Jonas as a murder suspect, Thora shifts to investigator mode, enlisting Matthew (her German 'boyfriend') to help out. There's no lack of other suspects, including an old politician with a secret past; a jealous wife; and a local farmer.

But wait. Soon there's another murder, and suddenly nothing is quite as it seems. Is this place really haunted? Or cursed, perhaps? Thora must look back to the past to find out what's going on the present . . . to hopefully prevent any more murders in the future.

This series is one of my current favorites. Yrsa's descriptions of the otherworldly landscape, combined with her amazing ability to weave history and culture into a crime thriller, have put Iceland at the top of my 'Places I Must Visit' list. And I hope to do just that very soon! :)


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

In The Blood

In The Blood
Author: Steve Robinson
Amazon Digital Services, 2012
312 pages

When I was in third grade, my teacher had everyone write a one-page report on a topic of her choice. My topic was my mom, and in doing the research for that major publication I became aware of my French heritage. I've been hooked on genealogy ever since. Add that to my appreciation of a good mystery and you'll understand my excitement at discovering a wonderful new-to-me series that begins with In The Blood: A Genealogical Crime Mystery #1.

Our story begins when American genealogist Jefferson Theodore "JT" Tayte reluctantly sets off on a mission to Cornwall in southwest England to fill in some gaps in the family history of a wealthy Boston client. 'Reluctantly' because, you see, JT hates to fly. He's a rather quirky character (in a good way, of course) who drives a classic red Thunderbird, listens to show tunes, and eats too many Mr. Goodbars. An expert genealogist, his own heritage is a mystery: he's an adoptee who has so far been unable to determine his own family tree. The possibilities for growth in this character are practically limitless.

JT's in Cornwall to research the Fairborne family, loyalists who returned to their native England after the American Revolution. Thing is, James Fairborne's wife Eleanor and their children have been 'lost' to history. Records show that James married a woman named Susan and had children with her. But what happened to his first family? As he pokes around and gets to know some of the locals, it soon becomes clear that someone out there wants to keep JT from learning the real story, and they'll stop at nothing - even murder.

An old estate. An arrogant, wealthy politician. A lonely widow. Lots of other interesting characters. The hauntingly romantic Cornwall setting. An earworm of Chris de Burgh's "Don't Pay the Ferryman." OK, that last part was my own contribution -- but you'll understand when you read In The Blood. It all adds up to a satisfying, fast-paced escape from reality. In other words, my kind of read. Oh, and now I want to go to Cornwall. :)

Kudos to English author Steve Robinson for creating this wonderful character and series. I can't wait to read the other two available books (To The Grave and The Last Queen of England) and look forward to many, many more of these.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Happier Than a Billionaire: The Sequel

Happier Than a Billionaire: The Sequel
Author: Nadine Hays Pisani
CreateSpace, 2012
318 pages

In October 2011, I came across a delightful book about an American couple who said goodbye to careers in the States and moved to Costa Rica in search of La Pura Vida. (You can read the review for that similarly-titled book here.) I've been following the adventures of Nadine and Rob via Twitter, Facebook, and the Happier Than a Billionaire blog ever since -- and so have a lot of other people. Clearly, Nadine and Rob are living the way LOTS of us would really like to live. Being one of their biggest fans, I was thrilled to learn a few months ago that Nadine had published a second book titled Happier Than a Billionaire: The Sequel.

The Sequel picks up where the first book left off in that it chronicles (among other things) their move from the mountains to the beach; their plans to build a house; their adventures when friends and family come to visit; and their ever-increasing love of their new country. Once again, there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, especially when Nadine writes about Rob, her Dad, and her mother-in-law. There are also plenty of emotional moments. For example: Rob experiences the Costa Rican healthcare system. Will he survive? (Actually it seems that Costa Rica's healthcare system is pretty awesome.) Although I'd followed the story of Rob's surgery on the blog, I was still on the edge reading about it in The Sequel.

Woven into the stories of daily life is a sort of "insider's report" about Nadine's journey into writing and publishing. Her sheer joy over the unexpected success of the first book is evident throughout The Sequel. As a writer* I appreciated Nadine's stories of pushing the button (uploading her first book to Amazon), stalking the publisher's web site to peek at sales, getting the first call from CNN about an interview, doing that interview, dealing with the thrill of victory (good reviews) and the agony of defeat (bad reviews), becoming a celebrity, etc., etc.

Nadine has elevated Costa Rica's status on my list of places for travel and retirement. I will get there eventually. Until then, I'll keep going back to both of these books whenever I need a reminder that there's something waiting for me beyond this 8 to 5 American life I'm currently living. Thanks, Nadine, for helping me get my priorities straight! :)

***

*I published a travel memoir in 2009: The Wienerschnitzel Diary made it to #11 on the Amazon bestselling books in the Travel-->Austria category . . . for about three days. :)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Frozen Assets

Frozen Assets
Author: Quentin Bates
Soho Press, 2011
330 pages

As I've mentioned previously, I'm planning a vacation to Iceland this year, and that's got me excited about reading books set there. You'll probably see at least one more Iceland-themed book on this blog before I make that trip, and I'm sure there will be several more as time goes by, because I'm really enjoying Iceland as a setting. Frozen Assets (Frozen Out in the UK) was written by an author from England who lived in Iceland for several years. Allow me to introduce you to the first of what I hope will be many books by Quentin Bates.

Officer Gunnhildur is a female policewoman in a small coastal town. Gunna, as she is called, is a rather large and not particularly attractive widow in her mid-30s who has a young adult son and a teenage daughter. She's also a person with obvious leadership skills and she's not afraid of standing up for herself or stating her opinions. You will like her, I'm pretty sure of this.

When the body of a young man is found floating in the marina of Gunna's little town, most people want to brush it off, thinking he was just a drunk who fell into the water after a night of partying. Gunna has a feeling he was pushed, and the ensuing investigation is going to take us to that dark intersection where corporate greed meets political corruption. The opening stages of the financial crisis are woven into the storyline, and apparently that will be a theme of some of the other books in the series.

Frozen Assets was an enjoyable read, and I'm looking forward to reading more Gunna books and learning what happens with her career and in her personal life. The second book is called Cold Comfort, and a third book is being published in Europe this year so hopefully we'll get it here in the USA soon after.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Medicus

Medicus
Author: Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury USA, 2006
384 pages

It's been a while since I've read anything set in the days of the Roman empire. To be honest, I was never interested in that time period until I actually visited places where there are Roman ruins. If I'd seen places like Pont du Gard or Ephesus when I was younger, I might have appreciated my history classes more. :)

Medicus (or Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls in the UK) is the first in a series featuring Gaius Petreius Ruso, a doctor or medicus in the Roman Army. There are currently four other books in the series (US titles: Terra Incognita, Persona non Grata, Caveat Emptor and the just-released Semper Fidelis).

As Medicus opens, Ruso has only recently arrived in Britannia, looking for a place to start over after a divorce. The fortress town Deva (modern-day Chester, England) is about as far as one can go and still be in the Roman Empire. Think frontier town with lots of soldiers and all the businesses that support them, e.g., watering holes and houses of ill repute. Now add natives -- in this case Celts -- some who assimilate and others who don't. Congratulations, you've got a setting with all sorts of interesting storyline possibilities.

When a woman turns up dead and another goes missing, Ruso finds himself becoming a sort of involuntary detective while also juggling things many of us are still juggling two thousand years later: bills, office politics, greedy administrators, family problems, and tricky human nature. Key characters I'm expecting to see more of in future books include Tilla, Ruso's native slave girl (interesting storyline there); Albanus, Ruso's clerk/assistant; and Valens, another medicus who shares mouse-infested quarters with Ruso.

Medicus is a compelling read, and Ruso is a likeable protagonist. It may have been many years since I read a book set during this time period, but I have a feeling I'll be reading the second book, Terra Incognita, sometime soon.

Monday, January 14, 2013

My First Murder

My First Murder
Author: Leena Lehtolainen (Translator: Owen Witesman)
AmazonCrossing, 2012
257 pages

The folks at AmazonCrossing have done it again, this time introducing us to Leena Lehtolainen from Finland. Lehtolainen's books featuring detective Maria Kallio have long been popular in her home country, and even inspired a Finnish TV series. My First Murder -- originally published in 1993 -- is the first book in the series and the first to be published in English (as far as I can tell).

My First Murder seems to take place in the 1980s. There's a big emphasis on Maria being a 'female' detective, and a strong sense of old boys' mentality in the police department. Maria makes it clear that she's not planning on being a police detective forever. She's just doing this temporary gig as a bridge between law school and taking her exams so she can practice law.

When the body of an old acquaintance shows up in a lake one morning and a bloody axe is found nearby, Maria finds herself in charge of -- you guessed it -- her first murder investigation. The suspects? There are at least seven of them, all members of a choir. The more Maria digs, the more dirt she finds, not just on the murder victim but on each of the suspects. Anyone of them could be the killer. Or maybe the killer is someone else entirely . . . there are several layers in this onion.

But the most interesting layer of all is Maria. Despite a few issues (she doesn't do laundry often enough, for one thing), I really liked her a lot. Hopefully the rest of the series will be translated soon, because I'd like to know what happens to Maria. Does she become a lawyer? Or does she stay with the police department? I'm curious.

I discovered My First Murder via the Amazon Prime program, which allows members to "borrow" one book per month from a sort of virtual library to read on your Kindle. If you prefer, you can purchase the Kindle version for only $2.99 as of this writing. If you like Nordic crime thrillers, definitely check it out.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Forty Rules of Love

The Forty Rules of Love
Author: Elif Shafak
Penguin, 2010 (reprint)
368 pages

When we were in Istanbul a few months ago, we came across a wonderful bookshop on Divan Yolu that specializes in books about Turkey. I could have spent a fortune in there. Actually, I did spend a small fortune in there -- heheh. One of the books the friendly, knowledgeable bookseller recommended was Elif Shafak's The Forty Rules of Love. She said it was one of her favorite books ever, and that everyone she'd recommended it to loved it.

I'm now officially one of those people.

The Forty Rules of Love is like a Turkish carpet, beautifully weaving together multiple storylines. One of them belongs to Ella, a wife, mother, and manuscript reader living in modern-day Northampton, Massachusetts. Ella's about to turn forty, and she's suddenly realized that she no longer believes in love. She fell out of love with her husband years ago, and she's not so keen on her college-age daughter's plans to get married. Then she begins reading a manuscript by a mysterious foreigner. The author is a Sufi, and through his writing (titled Sweet Blasphemy), we're taken back in time to the thirteenth century and into the lives of Shams of Tabriz, a wandering dervish, and Rumi, the religious teacher who will eventually become a great poet. Their relationship is the main story, but we get to meet other memorable folks as well -- and learn the forty rules of love, of course. Love is what this story is all about.

The Forty Rules of Love is one of the most beautiful and brilliant books I've ever read, and I think it'll have a lasting impact on me much like other great works of 'spiritual' fiction (Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist comes to mind). I just finished reading it tonight, and I feel like I'm waking up from a dream way too soon. I'd like nothing more than to curl up in a blanket and go back to sleep, to be transported back in time to the city of Konya. (I don't normally read books more than once, but might make an exception for this one.)

[I regret that I didn't get to visit Konya on my recent trip, but am definitely putting it on my list for next time. Fortunately, I was able to see the whirling dervishes in Istanbul. It was great to have that context while reading this amazing book. But I don't think it's a requirement to enjoying it and getting something out of it.]

If you enjoy reading books that make you think philosophically, you'll enjoy The Forty Rules of Love. If you like historical fiction, you must read it (and make yourself get past the opening part, which takes place in the present time. Once you read a few pages of the thirteenth century, you'll be hooked.) There are also elements of mystery in The Forty Rules of Love. And of course . . .  romance.

It's now one of my favorite books ever. Thank you, nice bookseller lady: You were absolutely right!

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Last Rituals

Last Rituals
Author: Yrsa Sigurdardóttir
Harper, 2007
314 pages

We're planning a trip to Iceland this year, so I thought it would be appropriate to begin the new year with a book by an author from that country. I read my first Yrsa Sigurdardóttir book (The Day Is Dark) back in 2011. When I started reading that one, I didn't realize it was the fourth book in a series featuring attorney Thora Guðmundsdóttir until I was already into it. No matter -- Last Rituals is the first book in that series.

Thora is a divorced mother of a sixteen year-old son and elementary school aged-daughter. Like most of us, Thora struggles financially and constantly juggles home and work life. So when an opportunity comes up to make some extra money by helping a foreign visitor with a murder investigation, Thora decides to take it -- even though this isn't her normal line of work.

The foreign visitor is Matthew Reich. He represents a very wealthy family from Germany whose son, Harald, was the victim of a grisly murder. Harald was in Iceland studying history at the university. His specialty area was medieval torture and witchcraft, and let's just say he was a little bit different, with extreme body art and unusual friends. Did this have anything to do with his death? The police have someone in custody, but Harald's family isn't convinced he's the murderer . . . and now Thora isn't so sure, either. The more she and Matthew, um, dig into the investigation, the more interesting things get.

Last Rituals is an enjoyable, unpredictable mystery. (I didn't figure out the murderer until the very end.) The thing I liked most, though, was the emphasis on Icelandic history and culture. I have very little context in these areas; in fact I'll admit: I know next to nothing about Icelandic history other than what I learned in school about Iceland being more 'green' than Greenland and Greenland being more 'icy' than Iceland. :) 

I absolutely adore Thora. She has a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and there were several instances where I laughed out loud at something she said . . . or thought. She's a loving mother and fiercely loyal to her kids. I like that.

Matthew comes across as a bit of an 'arse' in the beginning, but it doesn't take long to warm up to him. Compared to Thora he's -- well, snobby, and Thora plays this off well (refer to above-mentioned statements on her sense of humor -- I particularly enjoyed the scenes involving his reactions to Thora's goose down coat!) Given than I've read Book 4 already, I know they'll be partnering on other cases. I just don't know how that's going to happen yet, since he lives in Germany . . . right???

There's a third character of note: Bella, the secretary at Thora's law firm who seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. I remember her from The Day is Dark. She's kind of unforgettable that way. It'll be interesting to learn how her character develops.

I will be reading more of this series, and hopefully will be able to complete (at a minimum) Book 2: My Soul to Take before our trip.