Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Meet Stella Hardesty...

A Bad Day for Sorry: A Crime Novel
by Sophie Littlefield

She's the 50-year-old the proprietress of Prosper, Missouri's only sewing machine and repair shop. Oh, and she's a card-carrying badass. Just ask anyone. This wasn't always the case. For nearly three decades, Stella was trapped in a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. Until the day she stopped it. Permanently. With a wrench. In her own words, that's "the day when she finally had enough of Ollie's abuse and made the transformation from passive victim to hell-for-leather avenger."

Because Stella wasn't content to help only herself. In the two years since she was acquitted for murder, she's started a little side business. "...A little seed of an idea had begun to germinate in her mind, a growing conviction that no woman should have to put up with abuse by her husband or boyfriend, and--to Stella's surprise--that she just might have a calling to help put a stop to it. After all, she already had one notch in her belt, so to speak." Stella Hardesty is in the "justice business."

Now, I don't mean to make this warm Midwestern lady sound like Missouri's answer to Dirty Harry, but she does have quite a reputation in certain circles. Let's put it this way, it's probably best to stay on her good side. Once you're there, she's as loyal as they come. And she has a terrible time turning away anyone in need, even if it's the 13-year-old kid across the street.

Now, knowing that this novel was the first of a series built around this character, I wasn't really sure what I was expecting. Or maybe I was. I think I was expecting something a little more cartoonish. I mean, look at the character I just described. She seems a little larger than life. Here's where Sophie Littlefield's talent comes in, because the truth is that she's created a fully believable, fully realized woman in Stella Hardesty. She's not a caricature at all. We spend this novel inside her head, hear her most intimate thoughts, and empathize with her fears, desires, and trouble with cosmetics. Well, at least I did.

The plot of A Bad Day for Sorry eventually proves to be a compelling mystery. Chrissy Shaw is the damsel in distress. Her no-good husband is one of Stella's "parolees." But just when Stella thinks she's knocked some sense into the man, he goes and runs off with Chrissy's toddler. Or did he? And why take the little boy?

This isn't one of those mysteries that you'll be able to solve if you correctly decipher the clues. No, this is one of those stories that you just need to read to the end to see how it plays out. But it sure wasn't predictable. I read this book in about a day and a half. The plot kept me turning the pages, but it's the endearing characters I met along the way that made me pick up the sequel as soon as I put this one down. Let me tell you--that Stella, she grows on you. Besides, I have to see what's going to happen between her and the Sheriff...

No rest for the weary

A Bad Day for Pretty: A Crime Novel
by Sophie Littlefield

Okay, there's a little bit of rest. Sophie Littlefield's second Stella Hardesty novel opens about three months after the events of A Bad Day for Sorry. Readers of that novel will realize that Stella was in no shape to rush back into the thick of things, so there was just a bit of rest and recuperation. And it looks like there may be a bit of relaxation in store with the last person Stella should be cozying up to, Sheriff "Goat" Jones. However, this is quickly solved by the inopportune arrival on the scene of Goat's not-quite-ex-wife, Brandy.

Now, Brandy is a pain in the patootie, and she brings a host of trouble with her, but Stella has other concerns. An old friend and client is in trouble. One of the few worthwhile men that Stella has ever had to scare straight is a suspect in a murder. Stella has a hard time imagining the gentle man is a killer, but all signs point to his guilt. Stella launches an investigation in her own inimitable fashion, assisted--you'll be glad to hear--by Chrissy Shaw, a character far too entertaining to have been left behind in book one.

Actually, in this novel we meet several more of the people in Stella's support network. The mysteries that Sophie Littlefield spins are well-plotted and compelling, but I'll be honest, it's these characters and the relationships of this quirky tribe that will keep me coming back for more.

Nosh on this...

The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: The Evil Monkey Dialogues
by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

Okay, this slender little book charmed my socks right off! That's a fact. And I write reviews of every book I read. Another fact. But for some reason I'm having a difficult time articulating exactly why I enjoyed this light-hearted gift so much. I think it's actually because there's quite a bit packed into this small package. What I can tell you is this: It brought a smile to my face when I was well and truly blue.

After a couple of very brief prefaces, the bulk of the book is made up of an alphabetical listing of fantastic creatures. There are 34 total, each with a two-page spread. Squeezed neatly into those two pages is a charming black and white illustration of a critter; a colorful description of its history, origin, habitat, etc.; and the "Evil Monkey Dialogues." Despite the bizarre name, this is simply a little light kibbitzing between husband and wife authors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer on the presumed kosherness of said creature. She's a member of the tribe, he's the Evil Monkey.

Of the 34 creatures covered, I was familiar with about a dozen of them. Some were as basic as a Dragon or Mermaid or Sea Monkey, but other creatures were exotic beasts from far away lands and cultures like the Jotai, the Encantado, and the Abumi-Guchi. I'm fairly positive at least one, the Borges, was made up entirely in the authors' imagination. As it happened, that was my favorite listing in the book.

After the creature listings, the final section of the book was discussion with chef/baker Duff Goldman about how one might prepare these creatures, kosher and treyf alike. Now I've never seen his TV show, Ace of Cakes, but he must be an entertaining guy because he's got a delightful sense of humor and a whimsical streak a mile wide. Not only does he discuss the creatures featured previously in the book, but he improvises with other imaginary animals. In fact, he may be a closet sci-fi fan, because he proposes recipes for a Chewbacca and a Tribble, which, let's face it, is pretty much a hairy Rocky Mountain oyster.

My copy of this book had a delightful bonus. Tucked inside were three postcards that the publisher had used for promotional purposes. They were recipe cards for the preparation of Mongolian Death Worm and other culinary delicacies.

I'll tell you what, this little tchotchke is the perfect gift for the person in your life who could use a little more whimsy, a little more magic, and a little more laughter--even if that person is you. I can only hope there's a second volume on the way!

Light and slight (with just a bit of trashy underwater fiction)

Crazy for Love (Hqn)
by Victoria Dahl

Do you ever just feel like reading something completely fluffy? Maybe you read a few pages and you just get sucked in? And reading the novel in a day is easier than stopping? Such was the case on Saturday. Despite the Harlequin imprint, I'd classify this one as more of a chick lit novel than genre romance.

It's the story of Chloe Turner, a nice girl in crazy circumstances. Specifically, her former fiancée has embroiled her in a tabloid news scandal by faking his own death to get out of the wedding! Now hounded by paparazzi, her best friend Jenn has taken her to a remote island off the Virginia coast to hide out and begin to heal. Wouldn't you just know that there are two gorgeous brothers (with issues of their own) in the cabin next-door.

As noted above, this was a quick, fluffy read. There wasn't a thing believable about it, but there were a few laughs and I didn't have to think too hard. It was hardly the worst way I've spent a Saturday afternoon.

Where the hell have I been?

Dear readers,

Long time, no blog. Sorry about that! The answer to the question above is Wasington, DC; New York, NY; and I'm writing to you from Goshen, Indiana! Tomorrow I head back to Chicago for five days. I've been roaming, and there's been little time for blogging. I have such a backlog I have to catch up on!

A few things I'll be posting in the near future:
  • I've got at least half a dozen book reviews to post. Maybe I can do a few tonight.
  • I need to report on the Thrillerfest conference in New York. What a blast!
  • I've got literary gossip...
  • David Mitchell came through San Francisco on book tour last week for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet *swoon*
  • I attended the super-cool staged reading of Christopher Moore's Fool in San Francisco on Saturday. (Yes, I do occasionally spend some time there.)
  • It's not bookish in nature, but I absolutely will have to post about my first-ever visit to the midwest. What an eye-opener!

So, yes, there's exciting stuff ahead. Thanks for your patience and for not giving up on me!