August 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (8/28) A Vow of Obedience by Veronica Black.

    Another in the terrific Sister Joan mystery series, this one is about two young Catholic girls lured from their homes, strangled, and then dressed in wedding gowns and dumped. Sister Joan finds the first girl stuffed into the local schoolhouse. She reports it to the police, but for the most part, tries to resist getting too involved. When Sister Hilaria nearly becomes the killer's next victim, however, the case hits too close to home for Sister Joan to ignore. And pretty soon, she's working just as hard as Detective Mills to crack the case.

    Another delightful installment in one of the most thoroughly entertaining mystery series I've come across in years. Recommended!

  • (8/24) The Last Juror by John Grisham.

    I don't usually read John Grisham novels. I used to, but after a couple, they all started to feel the same to me. This one came highly recommended, however, so I decided to give it a try. And man, am I glad I did!

    It's set in a small town in Ford County, Mississippi. The main character, Willie Traynor, is a 23 year old college dropout who, pretty much on a whim, decides to take over the town's bankrupt weekly newspaper. Willie doesn't have much experience, though, and at first, it looks like he may have made the mistake of a lifetime.

    But then the biggest story ever to hit Ford County comes his way -- the brutal murder of a young mother, killed by a member of the notorious Padgitt family. Willie's colorful and daring coverage of the arrest and trial turn the paper into a hot commodity fast. It's a thrilling trial, made even more so when Danny Padgitt announces in court that if the jury convicts him, he'll kill them all. Nevertheless, convict they do, and he's sent packin' for life.

    The bad news is, this is 1970 in Mississippi, when "life" really meant "ten years with good behavior." And when Danny gets out right on schedule ten years later, the jurors start dying one by one. Just like he said they would.

    I know what you're thinking -- typical John Grisham. But you're wrong. This novel isn't really about the trial (and the murders of the jurors don't even start until about the last 50 pages). That storyline is just a thread tying the rest of the book together. What it's really about is Willie, his newspaper, and the small town he lives in in a very turbulent time in the United States (the 1960's and 70's). It's a book about people, relationships, and the kinds of changes that can rock a tiny community. And all the while, we are given a vibrant, delicious taste of small town life, and are introduced to some very colorful, very wonderful characters. There's comedy, drama, mystery, sociology, history -- there's really something in this novel for just about everyone. Just sheer pleasure, from start to finish and thus, highly recommended!

  • (8/20) Good Grief by Lolly Winston.

    Oh, I'm kind of stuck on what to say about this novel. I enjoyed it, but I'm somewhat puzzled by it's strong critical reviews. It's about a young woman, Sophie Stanton, struggling with the death of her husband. Unable to cope, she loses her job (well, quits, really) and then moves to Oregon where she hopes to start over. And boy, does she ever start over. Because she almost immediately goes from showing up at the office in her pajamas to becoming a Big Sister to a troubled pre-teen, falling in love with a local actor, and starting her own bakery business. All in the first year after her husband's death. I can't help it -- in my opinion, the moment Sophie moved to Oregon, this novel went from being an emotionally riveting story about grief to your standard, every day "chick lit" cutesy romantic comedy of sorts. I won't be surprised if this gets made into a movie, and ten years ago, that movie would've starred Meg Ryan. This is just not a plus in my book.

    But don't listen to me -- everybody else so far has given this novel two thumbs up. I guess I was just expecting something with a few more layers to it. It started out promising and original, but, in my opinion, before it even got fully off the ground, pretty much morphed into a fluffy beach novel. Oh well. Live and learn!

  • (8/17) A Vow of Sanctity by Veronica Black

    This is the third in the terrific "Sister Joan" mystery series I discovered about two months ago. In this one, Sister Joan is sent on a month-long retreat, primarily because her Prioress is getting a little exasperated with the fact Joan's been involved in two murder cases in less than a year. The retreat, Joan discovers, is a remote (but furnished) cave located in a wall of rock towering above a loch in Scotland. Looking forward to some quiet time for introspection and prayer, Joan quickly settles into her new home. And soon after, she begins to meet some of the local residents -- the monks who live across the loch and invite her over to paint and pray, the Protestant minister who lives the biggest house in town, his young and cantankerous daughter Morag, and a single mother and her son who run the local grocery store. It's at the monastery, actually, that Joan quickly finds herself caught in the middle of yet another mystery. It starts off with the feeling that someone is watching her, and rapidly progresses to her discovery of a dead body in the ancient crypt under the monastery, where the Abbots from centuries ago were laid to rest. At first, she assumes the body she's found is just another one of the leathery, well-preserved Abbots. But then she notices something awry -- the corpse is wearing modern shoes.

    In just two installments (the local library didn't have the second volume of this series, so I've read one and three so far), this has become one of my all-time favorite mystery series. Sister Joan is just a wonderful character -- intelligent, witty, and even sarcastic at times. And the setting of this one was delightfully creepy and extremely well-drawn. I just really, really enjoyed it. So, if you're in the mood for some terrific writing and a riveting mystery, pick up the first in this series, "A Vow of Silence." I can't wait to read all the others, and sure hope Black is planning to keep churning them out! Recommended!

  • (8/9) Songs of a Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism by Dawn Prince-Hughes, Ph.D.

    Fascinating memoir tracing Prince-Hughes's growth from undiagnosed, uncontrolled autism to the day when she discovers the Woodland Park Zoo's gorilla exhibit and changes her life.

    After a youth of disaffection and dismissal, Prince-Hughes's finally gave up at 16, dropped out of school, and left home. Homeless for years, and nearly unable to function in the chaotic world around her, things start to change for her when she becomes, of all things, an exotic dancer. There, she's finally able to express herself (through dance) and she forms her first friendships (of a sort) with her coworkers. By watching them interact with each other, with patrons, and with her, Prince-Hughes gradually begins to learn about human behavior: how to act interested, how to fake happiness or concern, how to avoid conflict. Unable to really feel these emotions herself, she at least learns how to mimic them and through that mimicry, she's finally able to join society and make a living.

    But it's not until she meets the Woodland Park gorillas and begins to study their behavior that she finally starts to learn the reasons and emotions behind those reactions she's become so good at faking. She falls in love with the gorillas, who quickly accept her into their community, and as she learns from them, she slowly starts to grow outward, instead of inward, for the first time in her life. Eventually, her fascination with gorilla culture leads her to a Ph.D. in anthropology and, in her mid-30's, she finally gets a name for her "dis/order," "Asperger's Syndrome," a form of autism.

    This is a riveting book -- I read it in a day -- and while I'm sure part of my pleasure was due to the fact I know these same gorillas myself (Woodland Park Zoo is only a mile from where I live and I go there often), the rest was purely because of Prince-Hughes's incredibly interesting perspective and stories. She's one cool lady. Recommended! And I look forward to reading more from her soon.

  • (8/8) The Poet by Michael Connelly.

    When Jack McEvoy, a crime reporter for the Rocky Mountain News, learns his brother Sean, a homicide detective, has committed suicide, his whole world falls apart. The twin brothers had had a falling out and hadn't been close for awhile, each waiting for the other to make the first move and mend the fences. Now Jack has lost his chance. The guilt is overpowering, and the only thing he can think of to try to come to terms with it is to write a story about his brother for the paper. About Sean and about the case that drove him to suicide -- the brutal slaying of a young co-ed that Sean was unable to solve. It was a case that had so much power over Sean that it first drove him to therapy, and then to giving up.

    But as Jack begins his research, he starts to feel like something is off. Things aren't adding up correctly. And before long, he's made a stunning realization. Sean didn't commit suicide -- he was murdered. And not only that, so were about six other homicide detectives around the country, all of which were ruled suicides but all of which share a startling similarity. Pretty soon, Jack has teamed up with a bunch of G-Men (and one G-woman, Rachel, whom he soon falls in love with) and they are off on a cross-country race to catch the killer known as "The Poet" before he strikes again.

    This was a wonderfully-written and clever mystery that had me so sucked in I read the whole second half in a single afternoon. Can't wait to read the sequel, "The Narrows," which was recently published and is supposed to be just as great as this one. My husband's long been a fan of Connelly's -- and my husband is a reporter himself who typically only reads non-fiction. For him to pick up a mystery, and then to read voraciously several mysteries by the same author -- well, that says quite a bit. He recommended this one to me, and I'm passing that recommendation along! All fans of smart crime novels will enjoy this one.

  • (8/4) A Superior Death by Nevada Barr.

    Another in Barr's terrific mystery series about park ranger Anna Pigeon, this one has Anna assigned to the Isle Royale National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior. It starts out kind of slow -- Anna on a boat, Anna at her desk -- but things pick up when two divers start chatting about the dead bodies in the wreck they were just exploring. Anna knew there were five victims of that 1927 wreck, and that their bodies were still down there. But these divers are reporting six corpses, and they have photos to back it up. Anna immediately calls in a team and together they go back down to the wreck -- and discover the sixth body is a coworker dressed in the costume of an old-fashioned ship's captain. I really enjoyed this one, though it got off to a rocky start and I almost didn't continue reading it. By page 60, I was hooked as usual, though, and skated through to the end without pause! I look forward to more from this wonderful writer!

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