August 2002
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (8/28) Known Dead by Donald Harstad.

    Another in the wonderful Deputy Carl Houseman mystery series, this one has Carl investigating the murders of a cop and a dope dealer. When it starts to look like a right-wing militia (oxymoron?) group was responsible, Carl is forced to team up with some experts in counterterrorism who really get on his nerves. Almost as much as that new low-fat diet he's one does. Nah, jokes aside (though Carl's deadpan humor is one of his finest qualities), this is yet another mighty fine novel by Harstad (a 26 year veteran of a small Iowa town PD himself). Strong plots, strong characters, strong writing. Definitely one of my all-time favorite series in the genre. Highly recommended!

  • (8/23) True to Form by Elizabeth Berg.

    When thirteen year old Katie finds out her father has signed her on for a summer of babysitting instead of letting her take a REAL job, she is convinced life as she knows it is over. And, it turns out, she's right, though not for the reasons she originally thought. That summer, Katie learns so many lessons about life, love, trust, and friendship that by the time September rolls around she seems like an entirely different girl. You could say that nothing in this novel is very original -- but I'd argue that that's it's biggest asset. Everything that happens to Katie is completely universal (at least for teenaged American girls). Katie's experiences are so true, her thoughts so right-on, that it's almost embarrassing to see them in print. I gather from the book's cover that Berg has written two other novels about Katie -- I'll definitely be looking for them soon. Recommended to fans of the "coming of age" genre.

  • (8/21) Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater.

    Short but very intense book about Slater's experiences with her first pregnancy and child. If you know anything about Lauren Slater, then you probably can imagine why this experience might be book-worthy. Slater is famous for her memoirs regarding her terrible problems with severe depression ("Prozac Diary") and so, for her, getting pregnant was a serious step. Does she stay on her meds? If so, at what risk to the baby? Does she go off them? If so, at what risk to herself? And, even more importantly, what if the depression gets in the way of her motherly responses? Like, in the way of that instant-love thing moms are supposed to feel? This is an incredibly honest and intense book -- though it should come as no surprise to anybody who has read "Prozac Diary" as Slater is nothing if not brave and strong. Recommended to anybody who likes books about motherhood -- books about the truth of motherhood, I should say.

  • (8/20) Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles.

    Entertaining novel by poet Paulette Jiles set during the American Civil War and focusing on a young woman named Adair Colley. When a group of Union militiamen attack the Colley home, taking Judge Colley, the father, prisoner, Adair is left in charge of herself and her younger siblings. She sends her brother off separately to hide from the militia and then gathers up her sisters and begins to make her way with them to the prison camp where she believes her father is being held. Before she gets very far, however, she is falsely accused of being a Confederate spy, a charge that lands her squarely in a squalid women's prison. Luckily for her, the commandant in charge actually turns out to be a sweet man rather embarrassed by his post. He and Adair fall in love and he ends up helping her escape, each swearing to try to find the other when the war is over.

    As love stories go, this one isn't too swoon-inducing. But even though the romance between Adair and her soldier is key to the plot, what's far more important in this book is the setting and the writing and in both those departments, Jiles does an amazing job. I loved that each chapter starts with excerpts from real Civil War documents and letters, and I really enjoyed the fact the story was set in Missouri, not a typical setting for these types of novels. I've read a lot of fiction about the Civil War, and I'd rate this one pretty highly in the list. It's very original (I don't think I've read a Civil War novel about the women's prisons yet, and they certainly existed!) and packed with vivid descriptions that really give you a strong sense of what things were like back then. I've definitely read better (if you haven't read "Cold Mountain" yet, you're really missing out), but I thoroughly enjoyed this one and will be looking for other words by the author.

  • (8/19) Long Time No See by Susan Isaacs.

    As this was the sequel to the fantastic and funny mystery "Compromising Positions" featuring the fantastic and funny accidental detective Judith Singer, I was pretty eager to read it. You can see from the time it took me to get through it, however, that it didn't turn out to be quite as delightful as I'd hoped. Granted, it was a busy week for me in general and I didn't have as much time for reading as usual. But still, had this been "Compromising," time wouldn't have been an issue.

    Judith Singer is back, twenty years after she first made readers laugh out loud. But she's not herself. And this novel turned out to be a duller, less exciting redo of the original, much to my disappointment. Judith is still bored with her life, doubly-so now that her husband is dead and she doesn't have him to complain about anymore. So when another criminal case catches her attention, she can't resist getting involved. This time the case involves a missing woman -- the daughter-in-law of a rather infamous mafioso. Judith is hired by the mafioso, Fancy Phil, to try to help him clear his son Greg, the woman's husband and police's only suspect. And, of course, since Judith helped the police solve that ONE case TWENTY YEARS AGO, the entire town knows who she is and takes her seriously as a detective. Uh huh. Yeah, right.

    But okay, that would've been an okay problem for me had this novel been as vibrant as the original. Instead, Judith's jokes are weak and her best friend Nancy, a real fireball in the first one, is tame. And even Judith's illicit affair with that same homicide cop from "Compromising" is dull, dull, dull. While I read this and enjoyed it, I didn't laugh a single time (maybe, MAYBE I cracked the occasional smile -- but there was no laughing whatsoever). The plot is okay. The characters are okay. The writing is okay. The book is. . . okay. But I've got 35 books checked out from the library right now -- I probably shouldn't have wasted my time on "okay." And you probably shouldn't either. I have another Isaacs book on my shelf right now awaiting a perusal, and as it's not from the same series, I'll still give it a shot. But if that one doesn't woo me back, I think Isaacs will be a name I cross off my list soon. Only recommended to fans of the original who don't care that they'll be disappointed and only want to spend some time with Judith, however changed, again.

  • (8/10) Fish! Tales by Stephen C. Lundin, John Christensen, and Harry Paul.

    Lundin, Christensen, and Paul are the authors of the book "Fish!," which is a guide to improving your workplace by adding play into everyday office life. I haven't read "Fish!" but after reading this collection of real-life examples where businesses have successfully adopted the Fish Philosophy, I definitely plan to. Whose workplace couldn't benefit from a little lightening up? It's long been my motto that keeping the troops happy ought to be the primary goal of every boss, but it seems like far, FAR more bosses feel that their primary goal ought to be keeping the troops IN LINE. Pity for them, because without the respect of their employees, all the power they think they wield is actually only in their heads. Down with micro-management; up with play! This year for Christmas, anonymously slip a copy of this book (or the original) in your boss's box!

  • (8/8) Airtight Case by Beverly Connor.

    Nothing makes my day like discovering a great mystery series I've somehow missed for years. So, when my mom mentioned she'd read this great mystery about a forensic anthropologist, I got it from the library ASAP. And yahoo! It's not only fabulous, but the fifth in a series!

    The main character, Lindsay Chamberlain, is both a forensic anthropologist and an archaeologist. When this novel opens, she has just survived a kidnapping (which I presume is how the previous novel ended?) and has been sent by her boss to the Smokies to help out with a dig. A nice, easy, peaceful dig that he hopes will give her time to cope with her fears and refocus.

    Instead, the dig turns out to be haunted, Lindsay get sucked into a murder investigation, and someone starts leaving her threatening notes. Hardly a vacation! This was a great book -- fascinating science (Connor is an archaeologist and provides lots of cool details), great characters, and an extremely suspenseful plot. My only complaint is that since EVERY chapter ended with a cliffhanger, it was damn hard to put the book down at bedtime! Perfect for fans of the early Patricia Cornwell novels or Kathy Reichs' Tempe Brennan books. Those are slightly better written, but any fan of those stories will love this one as well. I'm hooked!

  • (8/4) The Book of Fred by Abby Bardi.

    Wonderful novel divided into five parts, each narrated by one of four main characters. The first and last are told by Mary Fred ("M.F.") Anderson, a young girl raised in an isolated fundamentalist sect whose primary obsessions involve a Y2K apocalypse and the propagation of the name "Fred" and color brown. Mary Fred has grown up unexposed to most of the experiences of modern youth -- no TV, no fast food, no malls, no "vegging out." When her parents refuse to seek medical treatment for her two ill brothers and they both die as a result, M.F. and her siblings are quickly separated and farmed out to foster families as their parents go on trial for murder.

    The middle three chapters are narrated by M.F.'s new foster family members. First there's Alic, the mother, a kind but somewhat confused woman recovering from a divorce that broke her heart. Then comes Alice's daughter, Heather, who is Mary Fred's age but her exact opposite in every way (sort of a spoiled brat, actually). And finally, there's Alice's brother, Uncle Roy, a flake with a dark secret. As M.F. struggles to adjust, she gradually begins to have an incredible impact on Alice, Heather, and Roy. In fact, she changes them so much for the better that they can hardly believe it themselves. Mary Fred is changing too, though, and the further away she gets from her faith -- the beliefs she's known all her life -- the more uneasy and confused she becomes.

    I found this novel to be addictively readable, not because the writing is particularly lyrical or profound, but because it is so real. So right. I really heard the voices of each character as I read their sections -- it was so authentic I felt like I was actually inside their minds, eavesdropping on their thoughts. Each voice is wholly unique, each character packed with subtle depth. This is a truly wonderful book -- sweet and funny and complex. Recommended!

  • (8/1) Fatal Care by Leonard Goldberg.

    This is the second novel from the Joanna Blalock, Medical Examiner, series that I've read so far. And, like the first one, I think the series is fun, but not the best-written stuff I've ever read. This one is about a new treatment for heart disease that comes under question when two of the small group of test patients develop extremely rare cancers. Joanna starts investigating both the experiment protocol and also the murder of a Russian man who, it seems, has been obtaining human fetuses, cutting them open to remove their organs, and then burying them in jars in a ditch. Are the two cases related? Oh, of course they are! Don't you read these novels? This is essentially just great summertime fun -- a no-brainer with a pretty good plot, interesting science in places (autopsies galore!), and some nice characters. While it's not literature by any sense of the word, it's not a bad way to spend a weekend. Recommended to fans of Robin Cook in particular.

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