April 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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  • (4/20) Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    After watching the new "Little House" series that was on TV last month, I got the urge to reread all the books -- books I don't think I've read since about junior high. And yes, I realize this is actually the third book in the series, but a TV critic had mentioned that the series was extremely faithful to the book, and I was kind of curious to see if she was right. Short answer: yep!

    Anyway, if you've somehow gotten through life without reading these, there's just something wrong with you, and you should pick up a set, sit down, and right that wrong before you get any further along in life. Not just because the stories are so entertaining, but because Wilder is amazing at explaining in detail all the aspects of daily life on a farm back in those early days. Everything from building a house to digging a well to making door hinges out of leather. It's history, it's educational, and it's wonderful. Recommended!

  • (4/28) Diagnosis Murder: The Shooting Script by Lee Goldberg.

    About two weeks ago, my local library branch closed while it moves into a new building. So, on the last day it was open, I ransacked their shelf of freebie paperbacks to grab a couple of books to tide me over until it reopens (no due dates, see?). This one was one of the ones I picked up and I FULLY expected it to be terrible. Now, don't get me wrong, I love the television show it's based on -- I still watch it all the time because it's on every night at 10pm on the PAX channel. I can't get enough of Dick Van Dyke -- the man's a genius. But still, a paperback based on a TV show? It's gotta suck, right?

    Wrong! Turns out Goldberg was the primary script writer for the show, and he's not only got a good sense of what goes into a solid mystery, but he knows these characters like they were family. Reading it was like watching the show in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed every word. Sure, it's kind of corny. But the show was corny. And I love corny! And the plot was not the most clever or interesting mystery I've ever read, but it kept me plugging along. The story is about a B-movie actress whose Hollywood-producer husband is murdered while in bed with another woman. Mark Sloan is convinced she's the killer, but she has an airtight alibi -- a security video that caught her having a tryst of her own at a local hotel. Somehow, some way, she was in two places at once, and Mark and Steve are determined to figure it all out before her next film opens and makes her a gazillionaire from all the publicity.

    It's not genius, but if you're a fan of the show and you're looking for an entertaining way to kill a few hours, I'd recommend picking it up. And I'll definitely be looking for others in this series by Goldberg once my library reopens. It's just darn good fun, and that's all there is to it!

  • (4/24) The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Eric Larson.

    I’ve been hearing great things about this non-fiction book for at least a year now. Everybody told me it was wonderful, but for some reason, I just couldn’t muster up the interest. I mean, I barely knew there WAS a World’s Fair in Chicago.

    But then my husband picked it up while we were on a trip. And when he devoured the whole thing in about three days, I knew I had to try it. He’s a non-fiction writer himself, after all, and he doesn’t read just any ol’ thing.

    The minute I started reading, I was hooked. There are two stories being told here -- one is about the amazingly convoluted process behind putting the enormous fair together, which was surprisingly fascinating, and the other is the twisted story of a twisted man -- a Chicago serial killer named H. H. Holmes. (And the moral of THAT story is: never trust anyone who buys a life insurance policy on you, even if they are suave and debonair and have cute twinkly eyes!)

    Larson is an incredible writer with an amazing talent for making everything he talks about both accessible and thrilling. Even the more technical or architectural stuff -- that part of the story was at times even more entertaining than the tales of Holmes’s latest victim, believe it or not. My only complain is that Larson way, WAY overused a standard suspense-generating gimmick, ending far too many sections with sentences akin to, “Little did they know what horrors were actually to come. . .mua ha ha ha ha!” (I paraphrase, of course). That’s a good gimmick when you use it once or twice -- it lets the reader know to expect something catastrophic or scary and makes you desperate to find out just what that will be. But by midway, Larson had already used it nine times by my count, in one way or another, and he wasn’t even done yet. Not a fatal flaw, but sort of eye-roll-inducing nonetheless.

    This is an awesome book -- everybody who likes a good thrill should be sure not to miss it. And hey, if you’ve read any other of Larson’s books, email me and tell me what you thought of them? I’d be curious to hear if the others were really good too. Highly recommended!

  • (4/12) Liberty Falling by Nevada Barr.

    Another in Barr's great mystery series featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon, this one takes Anna to Liberty Island in New York City. When her sister Molly becomes seriously ill, Anna rushes to New York to be with her in the hospital, watching helplessly as simple pneumonia turns into something horrifyingly more complicated. Instead of staying at Molly's apartment during this time, though, Anna decides to stay at her friend and fellow ranger Patty's place on Liberty Island. One night, while walking the grounds alone to think, Anna meets the nightwatch police officer, a gentle, considerate man named Hatch. The next day, though, a 14 year old girl plunges to her death off the top of the Statue of Liberty right in front of Anna, and when she looks up, the person she sees peeking over the edge of the platform is none other than her new friend.

    Everyone else assumes the girl jumped or was pushed by a stranger. But a few days after her death, Hatch takes the same plunge himself, solidifying the theory in some minds that he was the killer all along. Except, something's wrong with the picture -- Hatch's death doesn't look like a suicide to Anna. And there's just something weird in general going on on Liberty Island. Cops are telling stories about phantom dogs and ghostly faces, and even Anna herself is starting to think she's seeing things inside the old, crumbling buildings around her.

    I have to confess this novel got off to a bit of a slow start for me, and I almost quit reading it around page 30 or so. Not sure just why, except that it took a while for the mystery plot to kick in, and I guess I just wasn't in the mood for the storyline about Molly and her brush with death-by-lung-gunk. Nevertheless, I stuck with it because I have SO enjoyed all the others I've read in this series. And by the end, I was as engaged as ever. So, definitely add this one to your list, if you're a mystery reader, and I can't wait to see where Anna will take me next! Recommended!

  • (4/7) Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death, and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years by Michael J. Collins, M.D.

    I'm kind of torn about this book, a memoir about Collins's first few years as a resident in orthopedic surgery. I really wanted to like it, primarily because I could feel that Collins himself was quite proud of it. But despite that, I have to be honest here -- it's just NOT well-written and, as far as medical memoirs go, it's one of the least interesting ones I've ever read.

    It's still readable, I guess -- I mean, I read the whole thing and never really felt bored enough to quit. But Collins is no writer and there were many MANY occasions when I actually felt a little embarrassed for him. For one thing, he tries really hard to be funny, but he's just soooooo not. And a lot of his more "introspective" passages just made him seem completely obtuse about the complexity of other people's emotions and perspectives. I'm sure it was really just an effect of his bad writing and that in real life he's much more empathic and understanding. But uggghhhh, this book was just kind of painful to read all around. I'm sorry to say this, because Collins seems like a nice guy and all, but this is just one of the worst non-fiction books I've ever read. If you're looking for a medical memoir, try any of the other ones I've reviewed here in the past (you can probably find them by doing a keyword search for the word "doctor" in the Book Search engine on the left). This book just really has nothing to offer.

  • (4/3) The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day.

    For some reason, I just love reading books about circuses. In the last year or two, I've read several, and loved them all. And this one, a collection of short stories about the various members of a circus over the span of several decades (around the 1890's to the 1930's), is no exception. Each story is about a different person, and they cover everyone from the owner himself and the tragedy that led him to the circus, to his unhappy wife, to a retired clown who now works for a business called "Clown Alley Cleaners." At its heart, it's a book about desperation, I think, and thus even the happy stories have just the slightest tinge of sadness to them. But it's also about the magical world of performance, and each story captivates in its own way. Very wonderful. Recommended!

  • (4/2) The Expert's Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How to Do compiled by Samantha Ettus.

    This little handbook is made up of 100 2-3 page entries with instructions on how to perform a variety of everyday tasks. Each set of instructions is written by an expert (I particularly liked the choice of Tucker Carlson for the "How to tie a bow-tie" entry) and they're organized by categories such as "Mornings" (how to tie a tie, wash hair, care for your skin), "Work" (ask for a raise, organize), "Home Life" (balance your checkbook, remove a stain), "Weekend Life" (relax, wash a car, be a good houseguest) and "The Big Life" (how to flirt, buy a diamond, plan a trip). I love the idea behind this book, but the execution was a little, well, boring. Maybe a 16 year old would find this book useful, but how many adults do you know who still need to be told to eat their vegetables or use the shampoo BEFORE the conditioner? And even the interesting entries ended up being too short to be of much use. Possibly a good gift for your teenager, but even then, expect them to scowl and scorn you for thinking they're so dumb they need to read a book that has a chapter on how to water a houseplant. Like, DUH, Mom.

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