April 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(4/29) Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, A Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother by Peggy Orenstein. (read me!)

I've been a fan of Orenstein's work ever since I read her nonfiction book Schoolgirls in college and then heard her give a lecture at my university. She's brilliant and funny and very empathic, and, what's more, she's an absolutely wonderful writer. I'd had this book on hold for a couple of months at the library before I got it, and it came in for me at the most bizarre time -- just a week after I had heard from a doctor that I might have a lot of trouble conceiving a baby myself.

I almost didn't read this book, because I've been struggling a lot with how to feel about this news from my doctor and I didn't want a book about traumatic infertility to push me right over the edge. We hadn't been planning to have kids any time soon, and we might not have ever wanted them at all. But hearing that I might not be able to has put a big spin on the whole situation. I feel a complex set of emotions -- sadness and grief, anxiety, fear, and, most incomprehensibly to me, a very distant sense of relief. But though I found Peggy's book hard to read, I'm really glad I did. She describes one of the things I fear the most now -- the feeling of becoming "hope's bitch" and losing all sense of myself and my marriage in a single-minded quest to have a child. My biggest concern is that if I start to WANT to have kids and HOPE to have kids, I will be devastated when I can't, and that I will eventually do what Peggy did: become so focused on getting pregnant that she lost sight of everything else in the world that mattered.

Orenstein had numerous miscarriages, and over a span of a few years, turned sex into science, endured crushing disappointment after crushing disappointment, and nearly lost her spouse in the process. She could only think about having a baby, nothing else mattered to her at all. She went through horrible procedures, IVF, and taking powerful drugs that made her feel awful, and every month she got her period, she was completely devastated all over again. But this book isn't just about what happened to her in this process, it's also about the variety of misconceptions about women and infertility, and what I loved most about it was Orenstein's honesty regarding her own set of conflicting emotions. Each time she was told it wasn't working, she felt that little tingle of relief, just like I've been feeling. And man, I've been so confused by that emotion in the wake of my own infertility concerns. But this book gave me a great deal of perspective on the struggle to have a child, and it also has served as a very timely warning as well. Orenstein is such an open and honest writer -- I would love it if she wrote a sequel to this book that talked about her experiences as a new parent next (she finally did conceive and bear a healthy child, Daisy). If anybody can revitalize the somewhat repetitive and tired genre of parental lit, it would be Peggy Orenstein. Highly recommended!

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(4/24) Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. (don't read me!)

This novel starts out fairly promising, but pretty quickly becomes cliched, boring, and trite -- three of the most perfect words to describe this book as the very words themselves are pretty cliched, boring, and trite. Hill is Stephen King's son, and he's definitely a chip off the ol' block, I have to say. In fact, too much so, in my opinion. His prose is unoriginal (lips pulling back into sneers, e.g.), his characters flat, and his storyline overdone to the point of being hard to swallow. I still enjoy the occasional King novel (loved Bag of Bones, for example), and I found a few things to enjoy about this one as well, but readers hoping to be blown away by the next generation of horror novelists will not find that explosion here.

The story opens with a middle-aged ex-rocker, Jude Coyne, finding an exciting Internet ad -- someone is selling a ghost on an auction site, and even if it's fake (most likely it is, right?), it'd still be a cool addition to his collection of macabre knickknacks. A few days after placing his order, a black, heart-shaped box arrives on his front step. Inside is a musty old suit. At first, he's disappointed -- and then he's terrified when he starts seeing a very cranky elderly man hanging around the house, dangling a razor from a chain and, well, pulling his lips back in a sneer every time Jude looks his way.

Turns out, the whole auction was a set-up from the start: the old guy is the stepfather of Jude's old girlfriend, a woman he loved and then left when she started to spiral into depression and out of control. At first, we think the stepfather wants Jude dead because he blames Jude for his daughter's suicide -- she killed herself shortly after Jude dumped her. But instead of taking it that route, a route that would've been fairly complex for the reader as it would've left us unsure who to root for (I had compassion for the ghost at that point, and also compassion for Jude, who didn't really mean to hurt her), Hill dumps that interesting motivation and instead sticks on one that made absolutely no sense. See, as it turns out, the stepfather had been sexually abusing his daughter, and she died because she had started to come to terms with the ramifications of that abuse. But in that case, there was no reason at all for the ghost to hate Jude -- at least, no reason that made a smidgen of sense. He had nothing to do with her death or her realization about the abuse. He had no role in any of it whatsoever. The ghost was just an evil bad dude, and Jude just in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess. Yawn. Been there, read that.

Additionally, though the early scenes with the ghost are truly spooky -- he's just hanging around the house, with his eyes all scribbled out in black and his razor dangling ominously from that chain (before death, he was a hypnotist, and it becomes clear that he can talk people into doing fairly horrible things to themselves and to others) -- Hill quickly puts everybody in cars, taking them on the road trip from hell, so to speak, and at that point, the ghost suddenly becomes able to drive a truck, ram into Jude and his girlfriend, follow them around on the freeway, etc. The inanity of this kind of did in any interest I still had left in what was going on. I ended up not really caring about any of the characters or the storyline, and by the last fifty pages, instead of keeping me up late into the night to find out how the book would end, it was making me nod off way before bedtime. We'll have to see if Hill can do better with his next outing. But if he's just going to write the same overdone, implausible books his father writes, I'm not sure there's much point in him writing at all. Major bummer. Stay away from this one, unless you really like to read utter crap.

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(4/18) A Stolen Season by Steve Hamilton. (read me!)

Another terrific installment in Hamilton's series, set in the Upper Penninsula and featuring an ex-cop, ex-PI named Alex McKnight, who now spends most of his time working on his father's log cabins and jonesing for Canadian beer. This one opens on a freezing cold, foggy evening in Paradise, Michigan. In the distance, fireworks. Wait, fireworks? Yep, it's forty degrees on the Fourth of July -- you can hear me NOT packing my bags to move to Michigan right now. Alex is helping a few friends at a house on the side of the lake when the group suddenly hears a boat motoring in the distance, coming closer. The fog is so thick they can't see it, but they can hear that it's moving fast, which isn't a good sign -- if they can't see IT, it probably can't see the enormous wooden pilings it's about to run into. . . oh, crap. The next thing they know, Alex and his pals are hip-deep in freezing water, trying to pull three men out of a sinking boat.

The thanks they get? Starting the next day, the three men Alex helped rescue beat up his best friend Vinnie. And pretty soon, Alex and Vinnie realize they are no tourists. In fact, they're up to something illegal -- something regarding prescription drugs. Selling? Buying? Using? Trading for something even worse?

Meanwhile, Alex's new girlfriend, Canadian policewoman Natalie Reynaud, has just gone back to work after losing her partner. Nothing like getting right back on the horse, she thinks, so she immediately agrees to go undercover to try to help the Mounties bust a gang of gun smugglers. The only problem is the leader of that gang is the most terrifying man Natalie's ever encountered. And right about then is when all hell breaks loose, as Alex and Natalie's two cases collide violently, resulting in the shocking death of one of the characters in this series I'd come to greatly respect. Damn. Hate it when that happens.

This series consistently delivers with great mysteries, terrific characters, and a good sense of humor in all the right places. It's definitely become one of my top five favorite active series, and I'm hoping Hamilton keeps cranking out more of them with each passing year. If you haven't read any of these yet, add them to your list! Highly recommended!

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(4/13) Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris. (read me!)

St. Oswald's is your stereotypical British prep school for boys. For generations, its majestic stone buildings have been full of the children of the rich, being taught the classics, "maths," history, and Latin by a series of stuffy professors in robes. Now, though, the school is going through some changes. They've gotten their first computer lab, school memos now go out via email, and 64 year-old Roy Straitley, St. Oswald's Latin teacher, isn't taking too well to the changes. Not the least because he knows that, slowly but surely, Oswald's administrators are trying to nudge him out the door to retirement.

As the school year begins, five young, bright-eyed teachers have been hired, and Roy's office has been usurped by the foreign language department. He's pretty cranky, but is determined to make his "century" (teaching one hundred school terms in a row) before calling it a career. This year's new term has brought more than modern computer labs and youthful teachers, though-- it's also brought someone who knows St. Oswald's very, very well. Someone with a grudge against it. Someone who wants to destroy it. This someone has a complex, elaborate, and slowly-paced plan -- a plan intended to gradually take down the entire place and everyone in it. Standing in the way of this destruction is none other than old man Roy Straitley himself.

And he doesn't even know it.

This is a well-written and extremely entertaining novel, with a twist that completely caught me by surprise (a rare thing, and thus a much-appreciated one). I kind of have a "thing" for stories (books and movies) about private schools -- I think it's for the same reason I'm attracted to stories about the military or nuns, as weird as that sounds. I just seem to really enjoy stories about tightly-knit communities. In any case, it's that interest that made me why pick this book up at first. But once I had it in my hands, I found it almost impossible to set it down again. Gentlemen & Players has a great plot, terrific characters, and a wonderfully drawn setting in St. Oswald's. I definitely recommend this one highly, and I'll be looking for Harris's earlier novels soon!

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(4/8) Murder on Astor Place: A Gaslight Mystery by Victoria Thompson. (read me!)

This novel is the first in the terrific "Gaslight Mystery" series featuring Sarah Brandt, a young midwife in turn-of-the-century New York City. In this installment, Sarah is called to a rooming house late one night to deliver a baby, and there encounters a young woman who looks extremely familiar to her. She can't place the woman, quite, and soon is so wrapped up in the delivery that she forgets all about her. A day later, however, she returns to the house to check on the new mother and discovers that that familiar young woman has been brutally murdered. And, as it turns out, she is who Sarah suspected she might be -- the younger sister of an old friend of hers she hasn't seen in a decade or more.

Shocked by the tragedy, Sarah is even more surprised when the lead detective on the case begins to grill her -- as it turns out, an abortionist's tool was found under the victim and when the detective learns Sarah is a midwife, he thinks she might be able to help. At first, Sarah isn't interested in helping out. She has nothing but disdain for the local cops, as most of them are notorious for taking bribes and doing whatever it takes to get rich, instead of whatever it takes to get justice. After talking to Detective Malloy a few times, however, Sarah begins to suspect he might be different, and soon she has teamed up with him in an attempt to find out what happened to the sister of her old friend. Things get more complicated, though, when the powerful family of the victim shuts the investigation down, afraid of a scandal. But with Malloy's help, Sarah begins a dangerous quest to catch the killer and bring him, or her, to justice.

This was a really well-written and very intriguing mystery, with great characters and a highly entertaining setting. I loved getting to know old New York, and enjoyed learning the details about high society and midwifery in the turn-of-the-century as well. All in all, a terrific read, and I look forward to hitting the next book in this series soon. Recommended!

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(4/3) Morgue Mama: The Cross Kisses Back by C. R. Corwin (read me!)

This mystery is the first in a series featuring an absolutely delightful character, Maddy Sprowls, known behind her back as "Morgue Mama." Maddy has been the librarian in charge of the Hannawa Herald-Union's "morgue" (newspaper library) for over forty years. She's sharp as a tack and witty as hell, and about as no-nonsense as they come. So, when 24 year-old Aubry McGinty gets hired at the H-U, assigned to the police beat, Maddy is pretty sure she's going to drive her insane. Aubrey is high-energy, sassy, and, it turns out, stubborn as all get out. Not so unlike our Maddy, come to think of it. . .

Within a few days, Aubrey's cracked open her first big story. A young woman named Sissy James is in prison for murdering a television evangelist, and Aubrey believes she's innocent. Teaming up with Maddy and Maddy's assistant Eric, Aubrey begins digging deep into the evangelist's past and, pretty soon, has discovered half a dozen suspects who seem far more likely to have committed the crime than Sissy. Despite threats and harassment, Aubrey and Maddy become convinced they must free Sissy. It's clear she confessed to protect someone else. But who? And how will they prove it?

Though the writing felt a bit amateurish in part (especially in the final chapter, when Maddy essentially lays out the entire story for us step-by-step in what has to have been the worst violation I've ever seen of the writer's code, "Show, not tell"), overall I thought this novel was extremely entertaining. I was taken completely by surprise by the twist at the end, which is something that doesn't happen very often. Definitely one worth checking out, and I can't wait to read the next installment!

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