April 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (4/27) Cast a Blue Shadow by P.L. Gaus.

    Intriguing, but a bit slow, this mystery is part of a series Gaus writes, all of which are set in Ohio Amish country. In this one, a wealthy and cruel, controlling woman is murdered and the Amish girlfriend of her estranged son is found traumatized and covered with blood. The dead woman was widely despised, so everybody is a suspect. But what's the connection to the Amish girl? Was she a participant in the murder, or merely a witness? And what did she see that was so horrible she's gone mute with fear?

    I think I will enjoy others in this series, but kind of found the "rich snob is killed over money" plotline a bit been-there-done-that and snoozy. Luckily, it's pretty well-written and I've always been intrigued by the Amish, so I was definitely entertained. I'll look for others in this series soon.
    [MYSTERY]

  • (4/25) Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

    I have no idea how it happened, but I somehow missed reading all the Anne of Green Gables novels when I was growing up. After hearing good things about them for years, I finally rented the TV miniseries a few weeks ago and loved it so much I immediately hit up a used bookstore for as many of the novels I could find. I brought three of them with me last week while I went out of town for a librarians' conference, but was too busy partying with colleagues to actually get much reading done. However, one of the afternoons, I had a little free time and it was a beautiful, sunny day, and I sat under a tree on the UC Berkeley campus and read a few chapters of this book. Ahhh, I just have to say, it was one of those rare moments that is just absolutely perfect in every way. Sunshine and warmth, cool breeze, green grass, and a book about a lively, imaginative child and the beautiful Prince Edward Island farm she lives on.

    For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's the story of a young, fiery orphan girl named Anne Shirley. She is taken from the orphanage when Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, brother and sister and getting on up there in years, decide they want to adopt a child who can help them around the farm. They were expecting a boy and were surprised when Anne showed up instead, but she so charmed them right off the bat they couldn't turn her away. Eventually, after some initial upsets and excitement, they become as loving and close a family as if they'd always been together. Anne herself is a chatty, imaginative and intelligent child and it's just great fun reading about her daydreams and her daily life on the farm and in school. The miniseries (and I've now seen two of the three movies) is wonderful, but the book adds so much more dimension to Anne because you get to experience more of her thoughts and ramblings. I just thoroughly enjoyed this -- in some ways, I'm glad I never found it as a kid, because that means I get to discover it NOW instead! I'll be reading all the other books in the series gradually over the next few months, so watch for more! Highly recommended, for women of any age!
    [FICTION]

  • (4/19) Bad Business by Robert B. Parker.

    Nothing makes my day like news of a new Spenser novel, so when I finally picked this one, the latest, up at the library, I couldn't wait to crack it open. As usual, it's a super-fast read packed with the wittiest of banter and the broadest of character. The plot is almost negligible -- it's Spenser I love and if the book had been about him flossing his teeth and trimming his toenails, I still would've been enraptured. However, instead, it's about a corporation whose topnotch executives keep turning up dead. Eventually, Spenser uncovers a tangled web of adultery and deceit and all that nasty jazz. Along the way, we get to spend time with the usual sidekicks, including Hawk and Vinnie (my two favorite thugs), and Spenser is at peak form, spitting out literary references and sarcasm like the Old Faithful Geyser of Cleverness he always is. Another terrific installment in one of the most solidly satisfying mystery series around. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (4/15) Champagne Kisses, Cyanide Dreams by Ralph Graves.

    This delightful mystery, set in Martha's Vineyard, is a throwback to the classic Agatha Christie cozy. It's about a Vineyard resident, Jason Arnold, who is invited at the last minute to fill in a seat at a dinner party being given by the famous writer Mildred Silk. When he gets there, he discovers that the rest of the party guests are all celebrities (he was only invited because someone else canceled and Mildred didn't want an empty seat), and it's at dinner that Mildred explains why she's called them all together. She's written a new book and they're all in it. And, like Mildred herself, it's not very nice. She promises to reveal all their darkest secrets -- secrets that could cost many of them their careers. Not surprisingly, by the time the after-dinner drinks are served, Mildred is dead. Cyanide.

    Jason, the only non-celebrity and also the resident Vineyard expert (having lived there all his life), is a writer himself and as such is always interested in a good murder. Since he was the only partygoer NOT in the book (Mildred herself said so at dinner -- nobody has actually seen the manuscript itself), he's quickly ruled out as a suspect, to his great disappointment. Unable to leave well enough alone, he hooks up with an old friend, a retired police detective, and the two of them start trying to solve the crime themselves.

    But before they get too far along, the killer strikes again, this time poisoning several of the celebrity suspects. And while it made sense someone might want to kill the mean-spirited Millie Silk, what could possibly be the motive for the other murders? Can Jason put the clues together and figure out the who, what, when, why, and where before he becomes the next victim? Don't ask me -- I ain't tellin'!

    Graves is a lifelong resident of the Vineyard himself and his knowledge of the local society and culture made this book that much more entertaining. This is just a great whodunit -- clever and funny. I hope Graves has written others! Recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (4/10) Bill Bryson's African Diary by Bill Bryson.

    Disappointingly short book about Bryson's week-long trip to Kenya, the sole purpose of which was to churn out this 49 page advertisement for the terrific aid organization CARE. The proceeds of this $12 book go directly to the organization and will help fund their numerous projects in Africa and around the world. Noble, yes, extremely. But I couldn't help but think Mr. Bryson could've taken this a step further and had a much greater positive impact on the future of Africa. If he was really interested in helping Africa, why not take a real trip there and write a real book about it? Bryson has such a magical way of transporting us to the places he's been. He makes them come alive. But here he remains a distant outsider the entire time. There's no excitement, no passion, no energy to this book. It's only value is in the proceeds -- and even then, a direct donation to CARE would be a much better way to spend your money.

    Bryson's talent puts him in a unique position, especially in regards to Africa. He has the power to teach his readers so much about the places he goes to and he makes learning about those places incredibly rewarding and fun. He even touches on exactly the right theme here -- right away, he tells us that he, like so many Westerners, has a variety of preconceived notions about Africa (based on movies, television, and bits and pieces of the news) that very he very quickly learned were completely inaccurate. These notions more than anything else make us think of Africans as so "other" we can't relate to them or their needs at all. But the reality Bryson discovers (but that he barely talks about because he's too busy complaining about potholes and going off on his fear of small aircraft) is that Africans are just like us. They have dreams, they want to be challenged, they make sacrifices for their children, they care about their communities. All the $12 donations in the world won't change things in Africa unless our opinions, perceptions, and assumptions are changed too. It's just such an incredible place full of incredible people. I couldn't help but feel like they deserved a little more than 49 stoic pages. Go back to Africa, Mr. Bryson. Give us a real book about the amazing things you see there. Make us care. I know you have it in you -- what do you say?
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (4/9) Silent as the Hunter by Christopher Lane.

    Another in Lane's terrific Ray Attla mystery series set in Barrow, Alaska. In this one, the day of the town's big whaling festival, an elderly Inupiat woman (Aana) opens her door expecting the traditional announcing of the celebration and is instead brutally attacked. As the killer is trying to hide the body, the woman's young nephew finds her door open and blood on the floor. He runs for Ray, the town sheriff and an Inupiat himself, but when the two return to the scene, they find everything put back to normal and a note on the table from Aana saying she's gone out of town to visit family. At first, Ray's not sure what to believe, but it eventually becomes clear that Aana has become the victim of foul play. Only who would kill one of the few remaining tribal elders? And why?

    The setting is wonderful; the characters are complex, funny, and endearing; and the plot is fast-paced and exciting. This is a great series for mystery lovers -- I'll definitely be working my way through the others over the next year. Recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (4/6) The Parker Grey Show by Kristen Buckley.

    Usually when I see books like this one on the shelf at the library, I don't pick them up. To be honest, I've had all the "chick lit" (a phrase I hate, by the way, but I'm at a loss for something better) I can take. It's all the same. Young, harried women with mixed-up priorities, an all-too-universal reverence for fashion (Prada, kiss my ass), and more often than not, near-fatal cases of witty-banter-itis. It's why I haven't written the novel based on my web site everybody keeps urging me to do. Does the world really need another book like that?

    The answer is: yes, but only if it's like THIS.

    The name "Parker" is what intrigued me (anybody else remember that old show "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"? Comedic genius!). And then the description -- Parker Grey waits tables by day, lusts over a TV actor named "M" by night. Aside from the waiting tables part, I can totally relate. And that went double when it became clear "M" was a fictional version of Goran Visnjic. Nummy.

    The plot involves a ridiculously silly kidnapping. Great fun. But primarily, it's about a young, harried woman with a passion for television trying to figure out whether the un-aired life is actually worth living. Sure, it's got some of the same tired elements so many other novels in this genre share. But get beyond that and what you have left is a truly enjoyable novel. It's kooky and, I'll be damned, actually extremely clever and funny. I confess I didn't expect to get past the first few chapters when I picked it up and instead, I could hardly put it down.

    Unfortunately, the end is total, absolute, complete and utter crap. It nearly ruins the whole novel with its lame preciousness. Gaaaaaaah, why did Buckley have to DO that? Why? It was just so unnecessary! But, I'm trying hard not to let it ruin the rest of the book for me. I'm trying really, REALLY hard. Up until that point, it was one of the funniest novels I've read in a long time. So, go ahead and check it out. Just do yourself a favor and stop reading when you get to chapter twenty-eight. You'll thank me for it later. Trust me.
    [FICTION]

  • (4/3) Revolting Librarians Redux: Radical Librarians Speak Out edited by Katia Roberts and Jessamyn West.

    This collection of witty, insightful essays on various aspects of modern librarianship is a updated edition of the original "Revolting Librarians," published in 1972. Librarianship has definitely changed a lot since then, but you'd be surprised at how many things have actually stayed roughly the same too. The technology changes -- the stereotypes remain. This book, like its predecessor, aims to set the record straight. Not all librarians are humorless, shushing stinkpots. Some of us are actually damn cool.

    The book examines everything from the Patriot Act to the significance (or insignificance?) of librarians in porn. At times hilarious (my personal favorite: "Being a Cataloguer is Better Than Gutting Fish for a Living Because. . ."), at other times politically stern, this book is a must-read for modern-day librarians.
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (4/1) Wonder When You'll Miss Me by Amanda Davis.

    Brilliant, sad, funny, amazing, original, and thrilling novel about 16 year old Faith Duckle. The story opens a few days after she gets out of a mental institution, where she'd been for seven months after attempting suicide. There, she didn't really grow any mentally healthier (at least, in my opinion), but she lost so much weight, she looks like a completely different person. Hoping that physical transformation will be enough to give her a fresh start, she returns to the very place that drove her to suicide to begin with -- her high school, where she was once gang-raped by a group of football players.

    But nothing's changed. Except that she now has an imaginary friend she calls "the fat girl" who constantly encourages her to get revenge on the boys and run away. Finally, miserably lost and unhappy, Faith listens. And when she's done, she not only runs away, but she runs away and joins the CIRCUS.

    From there, this novel becomes completely exhilarating as we watch Faith enter the crazy, complex, adventuresome world of the Big Top. On her own for the first time in her life, she gradually begins to reinvent herself for real -- not so much through physical changes, but instead through the inner strength and confidence that results from the challenges of hard work and life in a place where the only person you can really depend on is yourself.

    This marvelous odyssey just absolutely shines. After awhile, the world Davis created in this novel felt so alive and real that I forgot I was only reading it, not actually living it myself. Faith, and all the other characters, are intensely alive and the circus scenes are just a total blast. I hated to see it end. The bad news is, this is Amanda Davis's first and her last novel -- she was killed in a plane crash on March 14, 2003. She was only 32 years old.
    [FICTION]


    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
    Email -- meg@megwood.com
    Web -- http://www.megwood.com


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