"The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker's Journey"
By Lawrence Osborne
Looking to deal with a serious drinking problem, British novelist and travel writer Lawrence Osborne decides to traverse the Muslim world to gain a different perspective on alcohol.
Out of this quixotic adventure comes a book that examines the role and history of strong drink, its impact on the author's life and the availability of beer, wine and distilled spirits in Islamic countries from Egypt to Indonesia.
The colorful characters and fascinating situations Osborne encounters during his travels provide much of the book's allure.
Osborne has surely faced his share of deadlines during his writing career, but perhaps none as strange and pressing as his attempt to score a bottle of champagne in the sultanate of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula as the clock winds down to midnight on New Year's Eve.
The suspense builds as we wonder whether he fulfills his promise of bubbly to his Italian girlfriend or must make do with fruit juice for their celebratory toast.
In Lebanon, Osborne checks out the bar scene in Beirut, visits a vineyard in the Hezbollah-dominated Bekaa Valley and meets with Druze warlord Walid Jumblatt in the Shuf Mountains for a lunch that includes arak, the potent anise-flavored firewater that's regarded as Lebanon's national drink.
Estranged from other Shiites and denounced by Sunnis, the Druze, we learn, are permitted to drink but are not allowed to eat watercress.
Osborne's travels, interspersed with the occasional hangover, take him to Pakistan's only brewery, whose owner tries to keep a low profile amid his nation's virulent hostility to alcohol.
He then heads east to the Thai border region with Malaysia, beset by a stubborn Islamist insurrection, where a slew of seedy bars attract Malay men bent on heavy drinking and whoring.
The author paints a bleak picture for the future of alcohol in the Islamic world.
In "Westernized" Turkey, the only Muslim country where adherents of the faith can legally drink and where Osborne has acquired a small house, the governing party is placing heavy taxes and restrictions on alcohol.
Moving on to Cairo, he revisits his favorite bar during riots in Tahrir Square and opines that it may be living on borrowed time amid the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Osborne set out on his journey to observe and perhaps learn from a culture of abstention, whose believers regard drinking as "a sickness of the soul."
Along the way, he weaves in memories of his alcohol-besotted past and examines Islamic history and the teachings of the Quran for clues to the restrictions on booze.
Two years of drinking in Muslim countries that reject "the corrosive pleasures of alcohol" leave Osborne sympathetic to the validity of their reasoning, but in the end it seems clear that he's not about to forgo the cocktail hour.
"The reasons for hating it are all valid. But by the same token they are not really reasons at all," he writes. "For in the end alcohol is merely us, a materialization of our own nature."
Jerry Harkavy, The Associated Press
By David Gordon
The main character in David Gordon's 2010 debut thriller, "The Serialist," was a novelist hired to write a serial killer's memoirs.
Now, in "Mystery Girl," he introduces a new protagonist, a failed experimental novelist named Sam Kornberg who finds work as an assistant to a private detective.
Gordon writes about writers because one of the things his books are about is the nature of storytelling itself.
"Does your life work like that?" Sam snaps when asked why he doesn't write "regular" stories. "Do the thoughts in your head sound like a normal book? Is there a narrator saying she did this and did that? ... Does your life have a plot?"
Fortunately for readers, "Mystery Girl" does have a plot - an intricate one in which Sam's obese and not entirely sane employer assigns him to tail a mysterious young woman.
What seems at first to be a simple job soon snares Sam in a murder case that takes him on a wild ride from Los Angeles to a poor village in rural Mexico and involves Satanists, free-love advocates, doppelgangers and underground filmmakers.
The result is a darkly comic, stylish literary thriller peppered with references to literature (Shakespeare, Proust, Kafka) and classic movies ("Vertigo," "The Wild Bunch," "They Live by Night").
This description of a rural church in Mexico is a good example of the author's fine prose:
"Like many poor churches, it was magnificent and overwrought, festooned with glitter-and-marble icing, bedoodled with arches, niches, flying angels, singing saints, and hailing Marys. It stunned us with its space and height and cool silence, offering the people a tangible vision of heaven, a working model of the miraculous to comfort them as they died face down in the dirt and sun."
The novel explores not only storytelling but also issues of faith, personal identity, friendship and the decline of civilization.
Readers should be warned that the author, whose many and varied previous jobs include writing for magazines with names like Hustler and Barely Legal, has inserted a fair amount of explicit sex.
While the book is not a hard read, Gordon does ask more of readers than the typical thriller requires.
He's not just fooling around.
Bruce Desilva, The Associated Press
"The Cuckoo's Calling"
By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Full disclosure: I never would have guessed.
I've read every book J.K. Rowling has published, some of them several times over.
OK, all of them several times over.
And still, I doubt I would have picked up on anything that would have made me think that she was the author behind "The Cuckoo's Calling."
I almost wish I hadn't known, so I wouldn't have read it with some of my attention in search of clues that would have made me suspicious that the book's author wasn't, in fact, an ex-military police officer and was actually one of the world's most famous storytellers.
Because this is a good story, one that is entertaining enough to merit a read even if Robert Galbraith, Rowling's pseudonym, had been a real person who really wrote it.
"The Cuckoo's Calling" introduces readers to Cormoran Strike, a London private detective with his own complicated backstory - he's the son of a rock star and a groupie, has a prosthetic leg to replace the one he lost in Afghanistan during his military service, and he just ended a difficult romantic relationship.
He's also quite clever.
Along with his started-out-temporary-but-who-didn't-know-that-was-going-to-last secretary Robin Ellacott, he looks into the death of a supermodel, Lula.
Everyone assumes it was suicide, but Strike is asked to investigate it by someone who tells him it had to have been otherwise.
His investigation takes Strike into the worlds of high fashion and big money as he makes his way to the truth.
Rowling's (er, Galbraith's? Whoever.) literary gift is on display in this work.
She crafts an entertaining story with characters who hold the reader's interest, and comes up with an ending that I'll admit I was surprised by.
It gets a little too clever in some places, with the final denouement tying together some earlier elements in a way that's almost a little too pat, and some of the leaps Strike makes seem a little too out-of-nowhere.
And it wouldn't be a J.K. Rowling book if it didn't have lots and LOTS of description, not all of which seems necessary.
But overall, it's a fun read, with a main character you can care about and one you'll want to see again in other adventures.
It reads like Rowling had fun writing it. There's a certain lightness to it that was missing from her other grown-up fiction endeavor, "The Casual Vacancy."
Perhaps that came from the freedom of writing and publishing under a pseudonym without all the pressure of her own backstory. It will be interesting to see if she can maintain that sense of fun now that everyone knows it's her and that particular mystery has been solved.
Deepti Hajela, The Associated Press
"Dogtripping: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, and 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure"
By David Rosenfelt
When was the last time you laughed out loud? When is the last time you cried tears of genuine sadness? When was the last time you did both while reading a 260-page memoir?
David Rosenfelt, who is best known for a series of mystery novels, has written a book-length love letter to his canine companions through the years. "Dogtripping" is a delightful romp through his adventures - and misadventures - running a dog rescue along with his wife, Debbie, out of their Southern California home and their cross-country move.
As a dog lover, it's hard to know whether his stories will resonate with those less fond of his furry four-legged friends, but because Rosenfelt very well could be the funniest American author alive today, it's certainly worth a try.
He's charming, likable, self-deprecating, self-aware and utterly hysterical. Be careful where you read this one because you could invoke serious stares from strangers who may think you've lost your mind.
On the cleanliness of the hotel rooms he wants to reserve with 25 - mostly big - dogs during their road trip from California to Maine: "I hadn't done the math, but I was pretty sure that we would be traveling with well over a ton of dog, so the cleaning deposit would probably be the GDP of a third-world country."
On the bedroom he shares with his wife and a half-dozen dogs: "The noises ... are unbelievable. Between the snoring, and the scratching, the collars jiggling, and all the other weird noises, it sounds like a jungle in Zaire."
On the dogs, most of whom are old: "They sleep the majority of the day. I've often said that the inside of our house seems like a Civil War battlefield when the fighting was over ... eerily quiet, with bodies lying everywhere."
If it's been too long since you enjoyed a funny, sweet, romantic tale, read this book.
Kim Curtis, The Associated Press