Thursday, December 28, 2006

Books I liked, 2006

Aside from the books mentioned earlier in this blog, here are a few other books I read this year that I'd recommend:

Kamp, David. The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.

Very entertaining history of how the American palate changed in the last 50 years. Lots of inside dirt on the restaurant reviewers, cookbook authors, chefs, and merchandisers (Williams-Sonoma, Dean & Deluca) who've influenced what we eat in restaurants and buy in grocery stores. There are even a couple of pages on Odessa Piper of Madison's L'Etoile. I liked the book for all the "oh, that's how that came to be" moments it provided me with: where the Moosewood cookbook came from, how Dean & DeLuca got started (and why it's a big deal). Kamp places each of these names in context, and he has lots of juicy details (on Chez Panisse and Alice Waters, for instance). Also, Kamp gets off some funny lines.

Matthias, Rebecca. MothersWork: How a Young Mother Started a Business on a Shoestring and Built it Into a Multi-Million Dollar Company. New York: Doubleday, c1999.

Kind of my "sleeper of the year." This business autobiography won't win any literary awards. But advise anyone with dreams of building a big company to read it. Matthias is an entrepreneur at heart, and she was looking to start some kind of business, around the time she had her first child. During that first pregnancy, she could not find business maternity clothes. So that's the concept she built her business around--first a mail order maternity wear business, and eventually retail. She had never started or run a business, much less a clothing retailer, but her husband had started and run a tech company. Mostly, though, she learned by doing.

(I found myself using her "yellow pages chain" technique last week. You need to find a business that does something. You look in the yellow pages under the category you think might work. You call a place, and if they don't have/do what you're looking for, you ask them for suggestions of other places. And you continue this till you get what you're looking for. Sounds very simple, but I rarely did it till I read this book.)

Matthias ended up having clothes made for her stores, and I found the info about the garment industry interesting. I liked learning how she advertised and marketed too. Eventually she (and her husband, who got into the business pretty quickly) ended up with retail stores, and entered the world of franchising. Finally, they took the company public. At the end of each chapter describing her experiences, Matthias has a list of tips and lessons learned. Her tips section on an IPO explained an IPO in a way I could understand!! For that alone the book was worth it.

What I liked most about the book is how honestly it portrayed the hard work of starting your own business. I recommend it to anyone considering starting a business. Matthias and her husband didn't draw a salary for years. They had their warehouse and inventory damaged by fire. They raised three kids as they built their business. They had trouble getting financing. This book covers that and lots of other aspects of mail order/retail business.

Hirshenson, Janet and Jane Jenkins. A Star Is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood's Biggest Movies. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006.

This was just fun. It's not all that well-written: it tries to be a kind of exploration of the casting process--following the casting of one bit part in A Beautiful Mind--but mostly it's fun to read why certain people did or didn't get which parts. These women have cast a variety of movies over the years, working with a-list directors like Francis Ford Coppola (post-Godfather) and Ron Howard. Among other films, they cast The DaVinci Code, Mystic Pizza, The Outsiders, and the three lead kids in the Harry Potter franchise. It's fun to read about how they cast some actors in their first major roles (there's a cute story about Julia Roberts's audition for Mystic Pizza. I especially liked the descriptions of casting smaller parts and extras. The authors describe several tiers of actors, with examples, from extras and bit players on up through the mega-stars. There are different casting procedures and considerations for each. This is one of the things that made this a better book than another casting book I read this year, How They Cast It: An Insider's Look at Film and Television Casting (Rob Kendt; Los Angeles, CA: Lone Eagle, 2005). Kendt's book did have quite a bit on television casting, and a fun chapter on casting the kids in School of Rock. Both are quick reads.

Biank, Tanya. Under the Sabers: The Unwritten Code of Army Wives. New York : St. Martin's Press, 2006.

Biank is the reporter who broke the story (ie pointed out the trend) of four Army wives near Fort Bragg each murdered by their husbands during a single 6-week span in 2002. That prompted her to write this book covering a year in the lives of four other Army wives whose husbands were stationed at or near Ft. Bragg. I'm not entirely comfortable with Biank's style--there are some scenes she describes as if she had witnessed them, when one hopes, for discretion's sake, that she hadn't. But it was a compelling read. The wives profiled are an interesting cross-section: wife of an officer, wife who also has a son in the military, a wife who is herself in the military. Biank spends just as much time profiling Fayetteville (North Carolina) and its relationship with the military personnel around it as she does profiling the women.

There's never been enough attention to how families support and are affected by a spouse's/parent's military career. With an all-volunteer military, fewer people overall have direct experience with the military, but as the war in Iraq drags on, this will change. This is one window into the military world.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cozy Christmas mysteries

When I say cozy, I mean cozy, especially when it comes to Christmas. I'm happy the closer you can get to the Christmas song "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." I wish I were a bit less picky, because I'd have a few more Christmas mysteries to read! But there it is. So here's a list of my favorites (I'm pretty sure this list will grow by one or two books in the next month; I've saved a couple of likely candidates to read this month, including Joanne Fluke's Sugar Cookie Murder.)

The books are in alpha order by author.

Atherton, Nancy. Aunt Dimity's Christmas. New York: Viking, 1999.
Aunt Dimity is a very gentle ghost. You can't get much cozier than this series. It's set in a small village in England; the detective is a young American mother. The mystery involves a World War II veteran.

Borthwick, J. S. Dude on Arrival. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
One of the better (maybe I mean "more literary"?) writers that I read. As hinted at in the title, this does take place at a dude ranch (in Arizona). While the main detective is a Sarah Deane, an English professor, this book features her aunt Julia Clancy in a major role. Aunt Julia is one of those feisty, independent older women who is a definite character. I don't remember much Christmas atmosphere, but I do remember it took place AT Christmas. Actually, another one of Borthwick's books, later in the series, Dolly Is Dead, ends with a Christmas Eve Audobon Society bird count. But that one is not heavy on traditional Christmas details.

Churchill, Jill. A Farewell to Yarns: A Jane Jeffry Mystery. New York: Avon Books, 1991.
---. The Merchant of Menace: A Jane Jeffry Mystery. 1st ed. New York: Avon Twilight, 1998.
Ah, I remember A Farewell to Yarns quite well. A Christmas craft fair, and Christmas crafts generally, play a large part in the book, and crafting has been a big part of my holidays. I think it's actually the second book in the Jane Jeffry series, but was released first because it was thought to be a better intro to the series. Jane is a recently widowed suburban mom and homemaker, and the book is filled with details of preparing a family for Christmas.

I don't remember The Merchant of Menace quite as well, though I think it would do for a Christmas cozy. I've found the later Jane Jeffry mysteries to vary quite a bit in quality. This doesn't stick out one way or another. But the mystery parts of her novels get pushed further back in later books. I do look forward to re-reading this one.

Daheim, Mary. The Alpine Christmas. 1st ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1993.
It took me several tries to get into this book, because the premise is kind of grisly (a couple of body parts showing up in the snow--not usually something that shows up in cozies). But for the most part, this IS really a cozy mystery. The detective is the editor of a small town newspaper in a mountain town in Washington state. Lots of fun small-town details, and I love that there's plenty of snow around. Also, the protagonist is a practicing Catholic (I am too), and I like seeing Catholicism portrayed accurately (at least accurately according to how I experience it). Not only does Catholicism play a large role in the protagonist's life, but the church and parish play a part in the mystery, as does the protagonist's brother, a Catholic priest.

I'm looking forward to a Christmas mystery, Nutty as a Fruitcake in Daheim's other series, featuring a B&B owner, as well as more books in the Alpine series.

Donnelly, Deborah. May the Best Man Die. New York: Dell, 2003.
I love Donnelly's series about Seattle wedding planner Carnegie Kincaid. Lots of details about whatever setting Carnegie's in (Seattle and environs first three books, Idaho and San Juan Islands in books 4 and 5), and lots of details about weddings. The books are also very funny. In May the Best Man Die, Carnegie's planning a big Christmas-themed wedding (which we get to "attend" at the end). The coolest, most Christmas-y part of the book: Carnegie's trip to Seattle's Figgy Pudding caroling contest. It's a real event!! Teams of carolers sing in various downtown locations one night, collecting money for charity and competing against each other. I'm a huge fan of Christmas caroling. I think all cities should have this kind of event. Not having been to Figgy Pudding myself, I don't know how accurate Donnelly's description is--I hope it's as cool and fun as she makes it seem.

Ferris, Monica. Crewel Yule. 1st ed. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2004.
---. A Stitch in Time. Berkley Prime Crime ed. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, 2000.
This series features an owner of a needlework store in suburban Minneapolis. Betsy Devonshire inherited the shop from her sister, so she's a relative novice at needlecraft, but surrounded by customers willing to share their expertise. A Stitch in Time is set in the Minneapolis suburb, and revolves around the restoration of a Christmas-themed tapestry. Some fun small-town Christmas/winter details.

Crewel Yule takes place at a needlecraft convention in Nashville, TN. A snowstorm traps everyone in the convention hotel. This book uses multiple narrators, a device I usually don't like in mysteries. But I liked this book a lot, mostly in spite of the multiple narrators, and the "locked room" scenario (the "locked room" being a hotel filled with people mitigated that some). Some real-life figures from the craft world make appearances, and I enjoyed the details of the needlework retail business. While the cover screams "Christmas," the holiday doesn't play a huge role in the book.

Hager, Jean. The Last Noel : An Iris House B & B Mystery. New York: Avon Books, 1997.
The only book I've read in the Iris House series, because of the Christmas tie-in. I seem to recall the protagonist's (an innkeeper somewhere in the midwest) pre-teen niece and nephew have prominent roles. There's a Christmas pageant/play involved. Often Christmas mysteries pull me into a series, but this one didn't. I guess I'd have to call this one "inoffensive."

Kisor, Henry. Season's Revenge : A Christmas Mystery. 1st ed. New York: Forge, 2003.
Only the last part of this mystery takes place at Christmas. I highly recommend it, but more for the overall setting than holiday atmosphere. It's also the only one on this list that features a male detective, and a pro at that--a sheriff's deputy, I believe. The setting is the upper peninsula of Michigan. It's a pretty isolated, economically depressed region, where the resource industries (mining, forestry) are dying off, and being replaced only partially by tourism. I've spent a bit of time in northern Wisconsin, which has been undergoing a similar shift. I like this book because I always wonder what it's like to live in an area like this, not just visit for a couple of weeks. This book gives that picture--and it's a contemporary one (seems like there are a lot of historical books about the region). (Another one along those lines, though nothing to do with Christmas, is K.C. Greenlief's Death at the Door, set in Wisconsin's Door County in May.)

Meier, Leslie. Christmas Cookie Murder: A Lucy Stone Mystery. New York: Kensington Books, 1999.
---. Mail-Order Murder. New York: Viking, 1991. aka Mistletoe Murder : A Lucy Stone Mystery. New York, NY: Kensington Books, 1998.
As far as I'm concerned, Mail-Order Murder is the quintessential small-town Christmas cozy mystery. I think it's one of Meier's best books. Lucy Stone, mother of three, living just outside a small town in Maine, takes a job at the local LL Bean-clone mail-order company, and of course, ends up investigating a murder. Each chapter starts off with a description of an item in the holiday catalog. She describes a wonderful Christmas morning, and the stress of preparing for relatives' visits.

By Christmas Cookie Murder Lucy has four kids and is working part-time as a reporter for the local weekly. I remember a lot of Christmas shopping, especially at local stores, in this one!

As the series goes on, I think Lucy's husband gets more annoying, as do her kids. She puts up with too much crap from all of them. Also, the puzzles in each book vary wildly in quality, though I think they're declining overall. I like the atmosphere in each book (all but two so far have taken place in the small town of Tinker's Cove), and I like how Meier takes on a topical issue or two in each book. I've learned not to expect too much from the puzzle/mystery itself. Still, these two titles pretty much epitomize what I'm looking for in Christmas mysteries.

One of the more recent entries in the series is the New Year's Eve Murder, which I'm saving for later this month.

Page, Katherine Hall. The Body in the Big Apple. 1st ed. New York: Morrow, 1999.
Faith Fairchild, caterer, minister's wife, and mother in small-town Massachussets, stars in a long-running series (16 titles and counting). This book, though written in the middle of the series, is a prequel: Faith is single and working in New York City (and dating a writer who's working on a book very similar to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.) There are some, though not a lot, of details of the holiday season in a big city.

Thomas-Graham, Pamela. Orange Crushed : An Ivy League Mystery. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Thomas-Graham's Ivy League mystery series is one of my favorites. She covers academia well--she's always writing about current issues in academe, and she manages to include students, faculty, staff, and community members. As someone who's never vistited the campuses she's written about (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton), I really enjoy her descriptions of the campuses and communities surrounding them. That's how these campuses should be, even if they're not!! Orange Crushed takes place at Princeton in December, and there are nice scenes of Princeton holiday doings.

Wolzien, Valerie. Deck the Halls with Murder. 1st ed. New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1998. (Josie Pigeon)
---. 'Tis the Season to be Murdered. 1st ed. New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1994. (post-Christmas)
---. We Wish You a Merry Murder. New York: Fawcett Gold Medal, 1991.
Among "my" authors, Wolzein takes the cake for the number of Christmas mysteries--3 between her two series. Susan Henshaw, suburban wife and mother in an upscale Connecticut suburb, investigates in both 'Tis the Season to be Murdered, and We Wish You a Merry Murder. We Wish You... takes place before the holidays. I think I'd like it more, except that I really like 'Tis the Season... It takes place between Christmas and New Year's. The co-owner of a catering company is murdered. Investigating this mystery involves learning a lot about catering and attending lots of holiday parties in the neighborhood.

Wolzein's Josie Pigeon series provides a break when you get tired of Susan's perfect suburban life. Pigeon is a general contractor and single mother on a Maine island. Her house and office are almost too messy for me at times (a notion which my friends and family, who've seen MY homes and workspaces, will find amusing). But I can relate to the lack of organization in her life. Deck the Halls with Murder is a pleasant small-town Christmas mystery, with a nice community project (some kind of Christmas light display) thrown in.

Update: Another cozy Christmas mystery, reviewed on January 2, 2007.