The Killing Room by Peter May

During a major groundbreaking for the New York-Shanghai Bank in Shanghai, the struts on a projecting platform give way to plunge an American CEO into a pit full of corpses. This is a great opening not only because it is a well written, tense beginning, but also because it gives the reader the same warm visceral feeling that we got when the dinosaur ate the lawyer in Jurassic Park. For China, however, it’s a PR nightmare, and for Deputy Section Chief Li Yan, it’s the proverbial redball that he catches in Beijing. Sent to work with his Shanghai counter-part, Deputy Section Chief Nien Mei-Ling, Li is instructed to establish whether the Shanghai killings were in relation to similar murder in Beijing. With the bodies in such a state of decomposition, Li wants the American pathologist, Margaret Campbell, to work with the Chinese pathologists in determining the time and cause of death.  Based on the pathology reports, it appears that the corpses were subjected to live autopsies.  It would be easy enough to leave the dead women anonymous and have his detectives stalk the killer, but May does a beautiful job of humanizing the victims through Li and Mei-Ling’s investigation.

I can’t tell more without giving away a rather intriguing ending, but I will say that as a thriller, this book works beautifully; the pacing is good and the story moves along at an interesting clip. I loved the modern depictions of China; May’s writing style brings the cities of Shanghai and Beijing to life with all their beauty and grit. Li and Mei-Ling are believable characters, and the sexual tension between these two vibrates all the way through the novel, but I wasn’t as enamored with love triangle sub-plot between Li, Mei-Ling, and Margaret. Margaret comes across as a petty, childish, alcoholic, who disdains everything Chinese (except Li, of course). Where Li and Mei-Ling are multidimensional characters, Margaret is the quintessential arrogant American, and I never quite felt the same tension or even affection between Li and Margaret that I felt between Li and Mei-Ling. May ties everything together neatly in the end, and while I can’t call it the most captivating thriller I’ve ever read, The Killing Room was still a good read.

The Woman’s Field Guide to Exceptional Living by Corrie Woods

So you have the blahs, your life is moving nowhere, or worse still you’re in a holding pattern where your daily routines are so meticulously planned there is no room for spontaneity or change. Well, North Carolina author Corrie Woods has produced a refreshing little tome for women that extols them to move beyond ordinary living into extraordinary living, simply by changing ingrained habits and repetitive thinking patterns. Her guidelines for becoming a BOLD (Brilliant, Outrageous, Luminary Diva) woman are simple yet provide a subtle wake up call for women who are either disillusioned or simply bored with their lives.

Generally, I eschew self-help books because I feel like my life is just fine, thank you very much; however, I enjoyed the section on how to step out of the familiar and into new territories. This book is written for any woman, whether you have a PhD or a GED, you will get something out of The Woman’s Field Guide that will give you a little ah-ha moment (as I like to call them). Divided into three sections with succinct chapters, Ms. Woods presents a straightforward outline for living that can be revisited time and again.

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Consecrated Phrases: A Latin Theological Dictionary [2nd ed.] by James T. Bretzke

The Reverend James T. Bretzke is the Professor and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco, and he has presented a very concise and informative volume of Latin phrases utilized in Church liturgy and practice. This slim volume covers many phrases familiar to Roman Catholics and Protestants in addition to some classical Latin aphorisms.

Each entry gives a literal translation of a Latin phrase followed by a very brief explanation of the phrase and its usage within the context of Church theology or canon law. The text is designed to be a quick reference for theological students rather than an exhaustive explanation of Church terminology; however, even a lay person can enjoy reading Bretzke’s brief entries. Whether you are looking for a quick Latin reference or are just curious about the history or meaning of Latin phrases that have surfaced in our religious culture, Consecrated Phrases is a welcome addition to any library.

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The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

On a dark night in long-ago 17th century Persia, a comet streaks across the sky.  This event foretells bad luck for a young girl in a small village.  When her father passes away unexpectedly, she and her mother must move to the city of Isfahan and throw themselves on the mercy of their father’s half-brother Gostaham, a carpet maker to the Shah, and his greedy wife Gordiyeh.  Treated as servants in her Uncle’s house, the unnamed girl soon gains her Uncle’s respect when she demonstrates her skill at carpet making.    Women were not allowed in the rug making workshops, so the girl works on her own with guidance from her Uncle who grows to love her, seeing himself in her, but realizing the limits her gender places upon her carpet making career.

One day an offer of marriage arrives, but since the girl (who remains nameless throughout the novel) has no dowry the offer is for a “sigheh” or temporary marriage to a rich man.  Gordiyeh pressures her to accept the offer, reminding her of the expense she and her mother have caused Gostaham and herself.  The girl accepts, thus losing the only thing of value she owns — her virginity.

Throughout the novel, the girl’s mother weaves fables and tales like Sheherazade, providing stories within stories.

This beautifully written first novel captures the sights and sounds of medieval Iran, bringing to life the city of Isfahan with it’s bridges, mosques and colorful bazaars, while providing insight into a society with little regard for women beyond their abilities to look beautiful and bear children.  Recommended.


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Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

I’m late to the party with this series.  I had not heard of the Southern Vampire Series until recently, and decided to give the first book, originally published in 2001, a try (I believe there are 8 Sookie Stackhouse books).  I was about a third of the way through it when I found out that the series is now also a show on HBO called True Blood

Sookie lives a quiet life with her Gran in small Bon Temps, Louisiana.  She waitresses at the local beer joint, Merlotte’s, where people think she’s a bit odd.  You see, Sookie has a “disability” as she calls it — she can read minds.  Her quiet world is turned upside down when Bill, a dark sexy vampire who is trying his best to fit into small town life, walks into the bar one night.  As her romance with Bill blossoms, women start turning up dead.

Harris keeps the story moving along and the premise that vampires “come out of the coffin” and live openly among humans, even stopping by the local bar for a cold one (synthetic blood, that is) is unique and intriguing.  The story veers awfully close to romance novel territory in places, and I would have liked for it to be a little less fluffy and a little more dark, but overall a very entertaining read and I’m looking forward to seeing the HBO series.  That being said, I’m not chomping at the bit to read the second Sookie Stackhouse book, but then I’m not big on series fiction to start with.  Recommended.

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The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser

I first read this book when I was in college in the ’80s (showing my age here).  I remember my three roomates and myself passing it around and how excited we all were to find such a great book.  Over the years since then, once in awhile something would remind me of it, and I would think about finding a copy and re-reading it.  Well, I have finally done that. 

The book begins in modern day Boulder, Colorado where Shay Garrett gazes into an old mirror and suddenly finds herself transported almost 100 years into the past.  She soon realizes that she is now inside the body of her grandmother, Brandy McCabe, and about to be married to a miner who lives in tiny Nederland, a mining town.  Shay must deal with living in a world that is alien to her, living her grandmother’s life, and knowing the future before it happens. 

In the meantime, you guessed it, Brandy has now taken over Shay’s body and life.  Not only must she deal with the evils of the “modern” world, but she soon realizes that Shay had conceived a child before the big switch.  What a shock since Brandy has never even “lain with a man”.  I put that world “modern” in quotations because this book was written in 1978 and the world certainly has changed in those 30 years.  Probably more than in the 100 years between Brandy and Shay!

I do remember loving the first half of the book (Shay as Brandy) much more than the second half (Brandy as Shay).  That still holds true, even though the “blast from the past” descriptions of life in the 70’s were entertaining this time around.  The description of the mysterious polished box with a glass front and the words “Zenith Solid-State Chromacolor II” on it and 2 buttons (one labeled Off/On and one labeled Chromatic)  made me giggle.  Reminded me of our TV when I was a child.  Still, I’d love to chop the last 100 pages off and add 100 to the first part of the book.  I’ve become a bit more discriminating in my reading since the first time around and the writing in this book is not particularly good.  Why does Millhiser insist on using contractions whenever possible? (Shay’d walked around the house as if she were in a trance … Rachael’d carried a tray of goblets into the dining room, etc.)

All criticism aside, if you like time travel books give this one a try.  Even with its faults it is an entertaining read.

An interesting aside:  The  house Shay/Brandy lives in is referred to as “The Gingerbread House” throughout the book.  There really is a “Gingerbread House” in Boulder.  It’s pictured on the cover of the book, and you can check it out here as well.

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Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

Castle Waiting opens with a re-telling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty, but after Beauty rides off with her prince, the inhabitants of her former home are left with no one to rule them. Many move away, but a few stay with the castle that is now a sanctuary for travelers and awaiting a new king to claim her. From the opening pages until the end, Castle Waiting never loses its fairy tale quality, the black and white drawings are simple yet pleasant and the nouveaux fairy tales are an enjoyable read.

I understand that part of Medley’s allure is the unresolved “ever after,” but I felt a little cheated when I finished this graphic novel, because I would have liked to know more about Medley’s fairytale world and her characters. I would have liked to know Lady Jain’s past and why her child looks like he does; what is the significance of Jain’s arrival at Castle Waiting; and why Rackham and Chess (and other assorted characters) are depicted as sentient animals. I enjoyed the last few chapters depicting the story of Sister Peace and the Solicitines better than any in the entire book.  These final chapters felt like the most complete story in the book with a beginning, middle, and an end.

However, throughout the entire novel, the characters are engaging and these enchanting stories are a lovely way to spend a quiet afternoon.

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Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel

Belle de Jour (Beauty of the Day) was published in French in 1928, but was not released in English until decades later due to its sadomasochistic theme.  Severine is a beautiful young housewife, married to the handsome young surgeon, Pierre, and seemingly living a dream life amongst the wealthy citizens of Paris.  The problem is that although she loves Pierre, she feels no real passion for him and his gentle lovemaking.  Something inside her drives her to search out a brothel in a seedy side of town and become “Belle de Jour” by day, submitting to the rough and dangerous men who frequent the establishment, then returning home to her loving but oblivious husband in the evening.  Her double life leads to a tragedy along the lines of that in Ethan Fromme.  A bit slow in the beginning, Belle de Jour builds to an inevitable climax (no pun intended …. well maybe just a little!).  Recommended.

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The Outlander by Gil Adamson

This book grabbed me from the very first page with the description of the protagonist.  “Nineteen years old and already a widow.  Mary Boulton.  Widowed by her own hand.”  What drove Mary, or “the widow” as Adamson refers to her throughout the book, to murder her husband and flee West?  We find out in brief flashbacks and dark descriptions of her depression, loss of an infant, and unhappy marriage.  On her trail are the twin brothers of her husband, bent on revenge.  Mary retreats into the wilderness, meeting a few eccentrics along the way such as William Moreland, mostly referred to as “the ridgerunner” who is the outlander of the title.  Mary and William spend a few passionate days together, but William just isn’t cut out for even the small amount of civilization that Mary brings into his life and he vanishes.  Mary finds her way to a small mining town where the relentless twins eventually catch up with her.  A beautifully written first novel whose style is reminiscent of Cold Mountain.  Recommended.


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The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen takes chick lit and mixes it with a pinch of magic and a good dollop of whimsy to give us her second novel, The Sugar Queen. Josey Cirrini is 27 years old, unmarried, living with her mother, and she has a secret. Hidden in her bedroom is a closet filled with all the sweets the sugar queen can’t live without. Mallomars, Little Debbies, candy corn, cookies. She secretly munches on these delights as she waits for the highlight of her day — the arrival of Adam, the hot ex-ski bum who now delivers mail.

One day she opens the door to her secret stash and is startled to find Della Lee, a rough-around-the-edges waitress, who has decided to crash in Josey’s closet indefinitely, hiding from problems of her own. Over time, Della Lee encourages Josey to expand her horizons and literally “get a life” outside of her closet and house.

Allen’s book, Garden Spells, (reviewed here) was a delightful first effort and The Sugar Queen is just as charming. I love the magic interwoven into each of the books (Josey’s friend Chloe attracts books — they literally show up out of the blue and place themselves where she can’t miss them). I also love the detailed artwork on the covers of each book, and the North Carolina setting (one of Josey’s secret treats are Moravian cookies!).  An easy, fun read that is highly recommended.  Update 4/26/2010:  Read a review of Allen’s newest book, The Girl Who Chased the Moon here.

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