Thursday, 18 March 2010

Coffeehouse Mysteries

I’ve already written something about the Coffeehouse Mysteries by Cleo Coyle (actually, that’s a pen name of a writing couple). I had found my way through four of the novels then, but it was only yesterday I actually finished the last of the seven novels currently in my possession.

Now, I’m not really into coffee myself (a bit of Wiener Melange every now and then or a cappuccino, perhaps), but I’m definitely into mystery stories and thrillers. I started reading them long before I actually hit my teens and, despite my flings with horror, science fiction and fantasy, I’ve always stayed faithful to them. There’s nothing better for me than an empty sofa (which I have again, now), a few hours to spent and a good mystery novel. Add some tea to the mix (or a nice, cool glass of lemonade in the summer) and I’m in heaven.

There’s a place for both in my heart, the mystery novel with its slow start and usually low body count and the thriller with its ‘head over heels’-start and lot’s of gruesome murders. And among the mysteries, the Coffeehouse Mysteries definitely have made it to the top of my ever-changing list with a head start.

I bought “On what grounds” on a whim. It was suggested to me by amazon one day and it actually was one of those ‘a look inside’ books – those books you can read partially (the first few pages) online. I read the first few pages and decided I could spent the few Euros the book would cost me. So I ordered it and started reading. The story of Clare Cosi, mother of one adult daughter and ex-wife of the son of her current employer, who stumbles upon a body in the basement of her coffeehouse, was interesting and I found myself thinking ‘just one more chapter’. Naturally, I was back checking amazon for the other books of the series afterwards.

[Sorry, no picture for this one.] While the first volume had set the tone for the series and brought in all recurring characters, the second one had to live up to it. “Through the grinder” definitely pulled it off. Clare was back and the other people I had started to know and care for had tagged along. The second novel was just as full of suspense as the first. I was wondering about who did it from page one, basically, and racing from page to page with Clare, trying to find the solution. Again, the authors managed to lead me down a meandering path, showing me all the possible solutions, keeping the real one close by, but giving me so many options, I was surprised with the ‘whodunit’ in the end.

I went on for the next story immediately, opening “Latte Troubles” and hoping it, too, would be great. I was not disappointed at all. The tone of the two previous novels was still there, that balance between mundane problems of managing a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, the slowly evolving romantic tension between Clare and Mike Quinn, a detective she’d met in the first novel, and, of course, the murder, this time at a fashion show. Again I was led back and forth between many possible reasons for the murder, as Clare tried to save one of her employees from a murder charge. I knew then I was going to read the whole series.

With “Murder most frothy” the series left Manhattan behind for a change. In the Hamptons Clare once more encountered crime and other troubles that come with being a single woman and the mother of a grown daughter. The new setting was a pleasing change and provided me with a new insight into the average New Yorker’s ideas of good living (spending the summer away from the city). The crime proved interesting and mysterious enough and so I enjoyed myself immensely while reading.

It wasn’t the quality of the next novel, “Decaffeinated Corpse”, which stopped me in my tracks, it was my own life. And as the heap of books and other stuff on my sofa grew, the last three novels got buried under all of it. So it was only the day before yesterday, when I finally cleared up the heap, that I got my hands on them again. “Decaffeinated Corpse” provided a lot of new insight into the world of coffee. It also provided a difficult murder situation and a change in Clare’s own situation (Mike Quinn now being in the middle of his divorce – his wife has found a ‘better’ husband – and Matt, Clare’s ex-husband, getting closer and closer to another woman).

“French Pressed”, the next novel of the series was set only one month after the horrible swan dive of a dictator’s son (see “Decaffeinated Corpse”). This time, crime struck very close to Clare when her own daughter was arrested for murdering her just ex-boyfriend. There were a lot of leads, but all of them led to a dead end, so I was really worrying about who had done it when I read the novel yesterday. The fever “Decaffeinated Corpse” had stirred again wasn’t lessening at all.

The next chapter of Clare Cosi’s life, the wedding of her ex-husband Matt Allegro and the snarky editor of an important fashion magazine, Breanne Summoure (who has featured in other stories before), provided a lot of personal changes. In “Espresso Shot” Matt finally moved out of the duplex he’s been sharing with Clare whenever he wasn’t somewhere on the globe, trading coffee. Mike will probably soon enough move in. And the murders that happened throughout the story made it more and more complex with each. Why did a young exotic dancer, posing as Breanne, get shot in the middle of a street in Greenwich Village? Did the upcoming editor at Breanne’s magazine (dubbed “Breanne 2.0” by her co-workers) really die of an overdose of her illegal drugs? Was someone really trying to overrun Breanne on her way to the fitness studio? And if someone wants to kill Breanne, what for? Those stories really made for a great mystery that only is solved at the end of the last chapter. It also made Breanne a much more lovable woman than she ever was in the books before.

I went through the last three novels within one and a half day. That probably should tell you something about how addictive they are. I found the style very fluent and easy to read. This way I could cover long distances of the story (a lot of pages) very quickly.

The characters are very believable and Clare has never been portrayed as a weak woman. She’s been bringing up her daughter mostly alone (before and after the divorce, as Matt was rarely at home for long times even when they were still married) and she has been managing a coffeehouse for a long time. Yet, as someone without a gun or experience with hand-to-hand combat is no superhero for sure, there are situations in which she needs the help of Matt or Mike. It’s usually a situation, though, in which most men would need help as well.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned a lot about coffee, too, while reading the novels. Clare basically breathes coffee, she loves it and knows all about it. And as the story is set in a surrounding with a lot of coffee (the coffeehouse “Village Blend” in Greenwich Village), there’s a lot of information about coffee told in passing. It’s not wrong to say that I, as someone who doesn’t drink a lot of coffee, easily have tripled my knowledge about coffee and its proper preparation while reading “On what grounds”. I have gained a lot more knowledge (and there’s quite some interesting recipes in the back of every book) about it throughout all seven novels I have read so far. Currently I wait for the next paperback (as I won’t buy hardcover editions unless I really, really feel I have to, not because of the money, but because of the space on the shelves).

I can only recommend the Coffeehouse Mysteries to everyone who wants to read a good mystery novel and maybe learn a bit about coffee on the go.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Apollo Justice

[Apollo Justice] As an addition to the posts about visual novels (see “visual novel” and “visual novel 2”), here’s a post about a special kind of visual novel that might be better known outside Japan than the rest.


About half a year or so ago, I bought “Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney” quite cheap. Then I had not even heard about visual novels, so I simply saw it as some kind of computer game I could not really place into a normal genre.

Now, replaying and finishing it after I had started to take an interest in visual novels, it was quite obvious that I was dealing with a sub-genre of this kind of game.

“Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney” is the fourth game in a series (if I get the number right). The first three (that is the first three I could find on amazon) have another main character, though: Phoenix Wright. He turns up in this game, too, first as defendant in a murder process (the first of four cases), later on as the head of the Wright Talent Agency which has two talents so far: Phoenix (no longer an attorney, instead a pianist and poker player) and his daughter Trucy (a stage magician).

As Apollo manages to clear Phoenix in the first case, but at the same time sends his own boss, Kristoph Gavin, to jail, he later on becomes another member of the Agency.

I liked the graphics from the very first time I played the game, as I’m a big fan of manga and anime and thus of that kind of graphics.

But I also liked the game-play a lot. There’s two main parts to every case (except for the first): investigation and trial. During the investigation, Apollo and Trucy (who usually calls him ‘Polly’) visit various places connected to the crime, gather evidence and talk to people. Later on, there’s the trial where Apollo has to find the loops and lies in the witnesses statements and prove it. If he gets it right, he can win the case. One really interesting thing about the trials of case 2 to 4 is the fact that the persecutor is always Klavier (in the German version his first name is Kantilen) Gavin, the younger brother and spitting image of Apollo’s former boss. That’s giving the third and fourth case a lot more action, because Klavier (or his band, the Gavinners) are involved with the case. In case no. 3 they are involved, because the murder happened during a concert, in case no. 4 the victim and defendant are part of an old case – the one during which Phoenix lost his attorney badge and the first Klavier ever had.

During the last case, the player goes back in time seven years. Because the only way to understand what happened in the present, it is important to understand what happened seven years ago. This also gives the reason why Kristoph Gavin murdered a traveller (who, seven years ago, was the defendant in the same process and is the real father of Trucy Wright) and how it could take seven years for a trap to finally be sprung. Needless to say the seemingly simple case for a new jury system in reality is the most difficult of all four cases. But then, it should be, as it is the last one…

The cases are quite interesting and feature a lot of twists and turns. They are, despite four murdered people, also quite amusing, mainly because of the strange characters. And the cases are almost all entwined (except for case 2) and based on what happened seven years (or a bit longer) before.

So, if you own a Nintendo DS and like to get a look at a visual novel and buying a game that will, at least, take about 10 to 15 hours to solve, take a closer look at “Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney” and his vocal cords of steel.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Percy Jackson 1

I’ve first read about the Greek gods when I was still a kid. I’m still pretty good with all of the important stories about them. (Even though I could not name all the women Zeus ever slept with.) So the first “Percy Jackson” novel proved and interesting and entertaining read for me.

On the whole, the story of “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” is quite enjoyable. Twelve-year-old Percy (short not for Perceval, but for Perseus) is considered a trouble maker. One summer, after he’s been thrown from yet another school, he learns the hard way he’s no ordinary child, but the son of Poseidon. That leads to all kinds of trouble, especially as he’s also accused of having stolen Zeus’ master lightning bolt (although he missed the most basic of all things necessary for such a heist: a chance to get near that thing). But then, arguing with the gods rarely works. Together with two friends, he therefore starts a quest to find the lightning bolt and bring it back. And, of course, he brings it back in the end.

I liked the idea of the old gods still being around in modern days. I could also live with the idea of Olympus being above the Empire State Building. But some things just didn’t work out for me.

For instance, it is claimed that Artemis (the virgin goddess of the hunt … although in older times she wasn’t a virgin at all and also taking care of pregnant women) has no children, as she’s still a virgin. Athena, on the other hand, is supposed to have some – even though she is described as a virgin goddess, too. (And, given the fact that his wife is out of his realm for most of the year, I personally would expect Hades to have had a little fling every now and then. And how does Ares handle the idea of his lover Aphrodite – married to Hephaestus – having children with humans, too? Now that’s a love rectangle I would not want to be part of…)

The three most important gods – Zeus, Poseidon, Hades – are not supposed to have any children of their own. I personally very much doubt Zeus only ever had one child out of marriage in modern times. You’d need far more than just an agreement to keep that guy from chasing every skirt in sight.

Still, “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief” is a good novel for kids or teens (or adults who, like me, have nothing against reading books ‘for younger readers’). And maybe it will teach kids something about one of the most interesting group of gods in mythology.