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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Mma Ramotswe is back for the twelfth time in The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party (#86) by Alexander McCall Smith.  This time the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency only has one puzzling cattle maiming case to solve, but there's plenty going on as Grace Makutsi prepares at long last for her wedding with Phuti Radiphuti.  With Grace, it's all about the shoes and in this case it's the shoes she doesn't wear to her wedding that lead to serveral surprising breakthroughs for her and everyone else at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

Family, friends, love of country and traditional values make this series set in modern day Botswana warm, comfortable and satisfying.  There are unpleasant things that happen: Phuti's slow recovery from the loss of his foot, a mysterious someone disabling cattle instead of killing them outright, even the political aspirations of Violet Sephotho, long Grace's rival.  But these are balanced by Mma Ramotse's clever and compassionate solutions that deliver justice and allow the wrong doer a chance to mend his or her ways.

If you've already read any of Mr. McCall Smith's fine books, you don't need me to tell you to get your hands on this book.  If you haven't made the acquaintance of these characters yet, it's time to discover a new country.  I just hope you have a better time than I did remembering the exact title!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

High Flavor, Low Labor

When I was in Connecticut recently, my sister-in-law introduced me to one of her favorite local NPR shows - Food Schmooze.  On our way back to the airport my husband and I happened to catch another episode of this show.  The host was raving about a new cookbook called High Flavor, Low Labor - Reinventing Weekend Cooking (#85) by J.M. Hirsch, Food Editor for AP.  She was thrilled that she had Mr. Hirsch as a guest for the entire hour and they proceeded to discuss his food philosophy: it should be easy enough to prepare while drinking wine and chatting with friends and family, it should be real and good going into the pot (think organic), and it should not take long to prepare.  All this keeping in mind that both he and his wife work, and that he has to make sure that his cooking appeals to and involves their young son as well.  Then they started talking about the recipes in this book!  We were drooling.  After we returned home, I reserved a copy of High Flavor, Low Labor at our library to check it out and see if it really was as good as it sounded on the radio. 

Once I had the cookbook at home, I did something I don't ever remember doing before.  I sat down and read the book cover-to-cover.  I was hooked.  Hirsch is amusing in his anecdotes and I enjoyed reading the introductions to each section of his book.  Skimming through the recipes, I was already making a mental list of which ones I would try first.  Although he manages to include several things I absolutely loathe in his high flavor category - thyme, blue cheese/gorgonzola and lamb (not too crazy about goat cheese, either!) - I found myself busy thinking about what I could substitute for those ingredients to make the dish something I would love (although in many cases, he made the suggestions himself, or noted how you could cut calories - all helpful).  His style is that easy that you know you can experiment with the recipes yourself and feel creative while enjoying the results.

I left the cookbook out for husband to take a look at, and while I was in my office ordering High Flavor, Low Labor online, he was in the other room saying "We've got to try this recipe.  Boy, does this sound good!" on every other recipe.  I've never known him to do more than leaf through a cookbook or cooking magazine before, other than when in search of a particular recipe, so it was a first for him, too!  Needless to say, High Flavor, Low Labor  is due to arrive on our doorstep in a few days.  I'm expecting a lot, but I'm sure this cookbook will deliver.   Can't wait to try one of these recipes; the only problem will be trying to decide which one!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Pumped for Murder

Elaine Viets has set her latest Dead End Job story in the world of Fort Lauderdale gyms.  Pumped for Murder (#84) has Helen Hawthorne taking a job as a receptionist at a huge gym.  This time, though, she's doing it as a private investigator trainee for Coronado Investigations, the company she and her brand new husband Phil have started.  She's there to find out if a spouse is cheating on their client, but when Helen comes across the body of a competetive body builder as she opens the gym one morning, things take a different turn.  In the meantime, there's another old case of suicide they're investigating; the brother is convinced it was murder.  But can Helen keep things together when secrets from her past threaten her marriage and her sister's family?

I found this book a bit darker than some of the other titles in this series, but still a good mystery.  Although this book can be read on its own, it would definitely be helpful to have read the previous volumes to better understand the source of the threat to Helen's happiness.

Loved the setting, though.  I've always known that there was a reason I never wanted to step foot in a gym in Florida (or anywhere else, for that matter!). The concentration on body image above all else, use of steroids, the posturing and sexually charged atmosphere on top of the high pressure sales tactics to join - ew!  Sorry if that offends any dedicated gym rats, but I seriously doubt that they would be reading this blog- they wouldn't have time. 

I know there's more to come in the Dead End Job series since Helen still has a huge cloud hanging over her.  I hope that Helen eventually gets her happy ending, but not too soon!  It's too much fun reading about her adventures and being glad I'm not in her shoes.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Turn In The Road

I don't know what it is about Debbie Macomber's books that make you feel so comfortable when you read them.  Her characters are often faced with difficult life situations or choices, yet she presents them in a way that is both positive and life-affirming.  Her latest book, A Turn In The Road (#83) fits that mold.

Bethanne, introduced in one of the Blossom Street Yarn Shop books, has made a successful career for herself with her party-planning company after her divorce from Grant.  Now that her son Andrew is about to be married, Grant wants back in her life, but does she want that, too?  To help her figure things out, she decides on impulse to accompany her ex-mother-in-law on a road trip.  Ruth is determined to drive by herself across country to attend her 50th high school reunion in Florida.  Her daughter Robin strongly objects until Bethanne announces she will go, too. At the very last minute, Bethanne begs to join her mother and grandmother after her boyfriend invites her to a special dinner not to propose, but to announce that he is leaving for Europe for a year with a co-worker and his girlfriend. 

There are unexpected adventures for the three generations as they hit the road and most of Ruth's original itinerary is thrown out the window.  One encounter will lead to unexpected emotional consequences for Bethanne.  Ruth will follow her dreams, and Annie will come to terms with her own relationships.

If you're looking for a book where you can root for the characters to make the right choices and put down the book at the end knowing that they did, I highly recommend A Turn In The Road. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dreams of Joy

Lisa See has continued the stories of The Shanghai Girls with Dreams of Joy (#82).  Joy is the daughter born to May Chin in that book, but was brought up as her sister Pearl's child in Los Angeles after they escape the chaos of Shanghai during World War II.  Now Joy has just completed her first year as a college student at the University of Chicago when she discovers the truth about her parentage.  She does not react well and runs away to find her birth father in the People's Republic of China in the late 1950s.  She is an idealist in tune with Chairman Mao's message to the people and thinks she can contribute to the people's struggle upwards.  Meanwhile Pearl, her aunt and foster mother, follows her chick to China to bring her home.  Things don't go as planned in the People's Great Leap Forward and both Joy and Pearl find themselves in harrowing situations in their new lives.

Besides writing a darn good story, Ms. See is a mistress of exploring relationships; they are the essence of her books.  Family and adopted family are everything in Dreams of Joy.  Both Joy and Pearl discover that home truly is where their hearts are in surprising ways.

The setting of the book is equally fascinating - Red China in the late 50s and early 60s.  Joy's experiences in the Green Dragon Village commune vividly brought to mind a book I hadn't thought about in almost forty years: Fanshen by William Hinton.  It described life after Communism in a country village very similar to Joy's adopted home.  I remember reading this book in college in the early 70s when it made a great impression on me.  (It's recently been reissued and is available on Amazon if you are interested in reading this classic for yourself.)

A thought-provoking read that deserves the #1 spot on the NY Times Bestsellers list.  You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Jefferson Key

In Steve Berry's latest, The Jefferson Key (#81), Cotton Malone comes home to the US with the lovely Cassopeia Vitt for company.  His former boss, Stephanie Nelle, has sent him an urgent request for help, so why not make it a fun weekend in New York City?  The only problem is someone tries to frame him or get him killed in an attempted presidential assasination.  It could be anyone from one of the multiple intelligence agencies, or from a shadowy group called the Commonwealth - pirates, one and all.  They've worked for the government legally as privateers during the the wars under a little-known provision of the Constitution, but have grown so ambitious they threaten to topple American allies in their pursuit of profits.  Meanwhile, the various intelligence agencies are ready to swoop in and destroy them.  The Commonwealth has been after the Jefferson Key and its solution that will absolve them from criminal prosecution ever since Andrew Jackson hid it on them.  And therein hangs the tale.

The book jacket claims that Cotton's latest adventure is a change of pace for him; he's in the USA, but actually a lot of the action takes place in Nova Scotia's Mahone Bay, long a haunt of pirates.  Berry states that the grisly punishments carried out by the Commonwealth are based on factual accounts of pirates, and they are remarkably unpleasant.   But still, I read a lot of this book with various choruses from Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance popping into my brain.  I just couldn't help it  "...The Pirates, the Pirates, oh beware!"  "Yes, we're the Pirates, so despair..."  So apt for a number of situations.  And then, at the end, that missing body...  We know who's going to pop up in future books now!

The Jefferson Key itself actually exists.  It was a code tool developed for Jefferson by his friend Patterson.  It worked so well that the key was not solved until 2009 with the help of supercomputers.  Have to admire the genius of Jefferson and his cadre of friends.  Reading about the damage done to Monticello while Cotton Malone visited made me cringe.  But you know his record with World Heritage sites...  Seriously, Monticello is a beautiful spot and well worth a visit if you can possibly do it.  I wouldn't miss Madison's or Washington's homes, either, if you're in that neck of the woods.

I enjoyed this as summer reading where I learned a bit more about American history, but I was jarred by the awkwardness of the language in a number of spots.  Either the construction of the sentence was off a bit, or the choice of words could have been better.  You would think that good editing would have picked these up.  It would have greatly improved the smooth flow of the book.  Just my opinion.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dead Reckoning

Sookie Stackhouse is back in Charlaine Harris' Dead Reckoning (#80).  Victor, the new Regent for Louisiana, is out to provoke Sookie's vampire lover Eric Northman and his child Pam into attacking him so that Victor can justify killing them both.  Sookie may provide just the right means of doing that...  But wait!  Is it really Victor's henchmen that firebombed Merlottes in Bon Temps, or is some other supernatural creature?  And what are Sookie's fae cousins up to while living in her house - could some of their employees at Hooligan's be behind the attacks on Sookie?  Or is it another old enemy resurfacing?

Sookie does have her hands full trying to figure out who her enemies are and supporting Eric and Pam against Victor.  More revelations about her fairy relatives and old relationships trouble her and bring her to another turning point in her bond with Eric.

I wonder why it is that I love reading these books so much, but I can't even stomach five minutes watching True Blood? (And that was the one and only episode I ever cared to watch!)  Maybe it's because the producers' vision is so different from mine.  And that's the whole point behind reading - to create a universe in your own mind in your own image.  Thank heavens for that!  I'm looking forward to what's next...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Stringray Shuffle

Florida's favorite serial killer with a conscience, Serge A. Storm, is on the loose again in Tim Dorsey's The Stringray Shuffle (#79).  This book was published back in 2003, but if you've been reading these books out of sequence, as I have been doing, a few more of the puzzle pieces do fall into place in this romp. 

In this adventure, Serge's obsessions include hypnotism, the Kennedy Space Center, trains and a silver briefcase filled with five million dollars.  Much of the action centers around getting the cast of characters - Serge and his sidekick Lenny (I really do like Coleman better.), the Russian mob, a Jamaican gang, a lounge lizard performing troupe and a women's book club - onboard the Amtrak Silver Stringray from New York City to Miami.  It's a mystery train trip to re-enact The Stringray Shuffle. After ten years of being remaindered, The Stingray Shuffle has suddenly rocketed onto the best-sellers list for author Ralph Kunkleton.  No one is more surprised than he about how it got there, but now he has a train full of fans along for the ride.  Along the way several morally reprehensible villains meet their demise at the imaginative hands of Serge A. Storms.  No wonder the trustees at the Flagler Mansion in West Palm Beach had to put up a building to protect Henry Flagler's personal rail car after what those two Palm Beach Ivy League brothers did to it during their Christmas break!  Good thing Serge was on hand to extract the apropriate penalty!

As always, I learned many interesting bits of Florida history along the way, and noted several more places ot visit.  I also checked out the Amtrak website  to see what it would cost to ride the rails myself from New York City to West Palm Beach in a private bedroom with all my meals included.  It definitely sounds like a lot more fun than flying these days!  Thanks for championing the railroads, Mr. Dorsey.  I'd hate to see them fade from Florida's history, too.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Matchmaker of Kenmare - A Novel of Ireland

The Matchmaker of Kenmare (#78) by Frank Delaney surprised me.  I guess I was expecting a warm, cozy Irish folk story, along the lines of the movie The Quiet Man.    I think even the cover flap blurb leads you in this direction.  What you get instead is an absorbing, but on many levels, disturbing tale of Ireland during World War II.

Ben McCarthy is a young man roaming Ireland on his bike collecting stories from remote villages and hamlets for the Irish Folklore Commission and simultaneously searching for clues to the whereabouts of his missing wife, Venetia Kelly.  His travels eventually lead him to Kenmare to meet their legendary matchmaker.  The matchmaker turns out to be two women: grandmother and granddaughter.  Miss Kate Begley is the younger and Ben is immediately struck by her.  Although Ben has not recovered emotionally from Venetia's disappearance, he feels that his fate is entwined with Kate's.  While observing Kate's matchmaking techniques, they encounter an American soldier stationed in Ireland, Charles Miller.  Kate knows that she has met her match.  Everything else that happens in the book, their multiple forays into war-torn Europe as neutral Irish citizens, is driven by Kate's determination to marry Charles, and then to find him behind German lines.  Unbeknownst to Ben, Kate is acting as a spy for the Allies.  The major question the novel raises is: can a person be neutral politically when confronted by horrifying devastation; or emotionally when one loves and the other does not?

I'm not sure after reading The Matchmaker of Kenmare that I liked or admired either Ben or Kate.  I did want to find out what happened to them, but Kate led Ben around by the nose and always got her way.  She did regret that she hurt or caused the death of many innocent people because of her actions, but it never stopped her from pursuing her own ends.  Ben, on the other hand, I wanted to dope slap.  Why did he go along with Kate's wild schemes so meekly?  Yes, he was in love with her, but he know the havoc she was wreaking on everyone around them.  And what about Charles Miller?  He was portrayed as such a strong, forceful character by everyone that I did not buy what happened to him.  If you've read Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken (See my 4/28/11 post on this.) I don't think you'll believe it, either.

I really wish I had read Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show first.  Ben and Venetia's story is apparently told in this book with the complications of Ben's father's involvement with Venetia and how that played out ten years later.  Maybe I would have understand Ben better.  My recommendation is that if you read The Matchmaker of Kenmare, make sure you do read them in order.

The second thing was that as soon as I came across the name Joachim or Jochen Peiper, I googled him.  There are a number of websites on him, and I read through a few.  I don't know that much about World War II, and this gave me a lot of useful background information that filled in a lot of blanks in the narrative.  I would advise that you do the same.  Besides, when a book uses a real person as a character, I like to know what they looked like.  If you read the Wikipedia article on Peiper, be sure to check some of the other sites to get a more balanced picture.

Frank Delaney is a wonderful writer, but you'll have to make up your own mind about this book.  I'm thinking I loved the writing, but not the subjects.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Medusa Amulet

If you're looking for a realistic thriller The Medusa Amulet (#77) by Robert Massello won't be your cup of tea.  On the other hand, if you looking for a great beach read, this book will handle the task nicely.

David Franco, a young scholar at the Newberry Library in Chicago, has been approached by a wealthy woman to locate an artifact - the Medusa Amulet.  She promises him that if he can locate this medallion she will provide a cure for his cancer-stricken older sister.  David can find no references to this mysterious amulet supposedly crafted by Benvenuto Cellini, but he presses on to Florence to see if he can unearth a clue from sources there.  He meets up with a charming tour guide who uses him to gain access to the Laurenzian Library for her own purposes.  It's at that point that things start to go very wrong.  Who else is after the Medusa Amulet and why?  Can he live long enough to find it himself and prevent his beloved sister's death?

If you like a touch of the occult with a bit of time travel thrown in and a hint of romance, this book has it all.  Enjoy!