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.