August 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(8/31) Endangered Species by Louis Bayard. (read me!)

Having recently read, and loved, Bayard's The Pale Blue Eye, I couldn't wait to read some of his earlier novels. I will say, though, that I was surprised to discover this one -- both Blue Eye and the other novel Bayard is known for, Mr. Timothy, are period pieces, set in the 1800's. So, when I found this novel, set in modern times about a young gay man in Washington, D.C., I confess to being somewhat taken aback. Though it sounds about as opposite as you could get from a period piece, it's definitely a Bayard novel, that's for sure. It's as well-written, and funny, as Blue Eye, with characters that amaze and seduce the reader with their charms and quirks.

It's the story of Nick Broome, a 30-something, single gay male living in our nation's capital. When Nick's grandmother dies, he suddenly finds himself overwhelmed by the urge to have a baby -- a big surprise not only to himself, but to everybody around him. None of his siblings seem remotely interested in procreating, and so, he announces one night over dinner with them, he is going to take on the task. Someone needs to carry on the Broome family genes, after all, and if they aren't going to do it, he will. The problem? Well, first of all, no sperm banks seem interested in his seed. Then, when one finally does accept his application, it turns out his sperm aren't motile enough for their standards. After that comes the string of crazy potential surrogates, followed by a somewhat shady deal with an egg broker who turns out to be an equally crazy stalker who can't take "no" for an answer. Eventually, Nick comes to the realization that his obsession may not be all that healthy for him. And, happily, just as his interest in babies begins to wan, the interest of his siblings seems to finally flood in. Perhaps Nick won't have to be the Broome family member to leave a genetic legacy after all?

Though I didn't think this novel was as well crafted as Blue Eye, I still really enjoyed it. It has some problems -- some of the plot points didn't make a lot of sense and a few of the characters were more annoying than endearing. However, it's well-written and very entertaining -- a good fluff novel for the tail end of summer. I am definitely planning on reading Mr. Timothy soon, and am looking forward to a long, long relationship with Bayard's books down the line. Recommended!

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(8/28) The Girls by Lori Lansens. (read me!)

Rose and Ruby Darlen are conjoined twins -- linked on the side of the head, with separate brains and bodies (though Ruby's legs are deformed and Rose has to essentially carry her around when they walk). They were born in a small town outside Toronto in the middle of a tornado, and when their teenaged mother saw what she'd created, she fled in a panic, never to be seen again. Luckily for the twins, the nurse who helped with the birth took them in, and, as a result, Rose and Ruby have been raised by a loving set of parents (Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash) who have encouraged their individualism and strength. Now that they're adults, on the verge of becoming the oldest living set of conjoined twins ever (yet recently hit with ominous news from their doctor), they've decided to write their memoirs. This book serves as those memoirs, with Rose doing the bulk of the writing, and a few chapters by Ruby thrown in here and there to interject some critical details. Through their alternating stories, we come to know "The Girls" as two separate women who long to be independent yet can't imagine ever being parted.

This is a brilliantly written, extremely powerful and engaging novel the likes of which I don't think I've ever encountered. As someone with a twin sister (not conjoined, but still), I could strongly identify with a lot of Rose and Ruby's emotions, and that made the book all the more intense for me. However, I think all young women will relate to the Darlen twins -- their hopes and dreams and wishes for romance and love are not unlike what we all feel in our 20's. I adored this novel and can't recommend it highly enough. I'll definitely be seeking out Lansens earlier novel next, Rush Home Road, so watch for a review of that one here soon!

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(8/20) The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman. (read me!)

I can't believe it took me this long to get around to reading Spiegelman's graphic non-fiction book Maus. I've been hearing great things about it for years now -- including the fact Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for it. And that, combined with my fascination with all things World War II, should've put this book on the top of my to-read list. My problem, I think, was getting over the whole "graphic novel" hurdle (though this isn't actually a graphic novel, as it's non-fiction). I've never been a big comics reader, and it's not a format I typically find all that easy to slog through. So, I wasn't sure I'd like Maus -- I wasn't sure I'd be able to tolerate its format long enough to be sucked into its stories.

Boy, was I ever wrong. If you've been putting off picking this one up because you, too, are not a "big comics reader," set aside your issues and go grab a copy of this ASAP. It's the phenomenal story of Spiegelman's parents' experiences during WWII as a young Jewish couple hiding out from the Nazis and ultimately ending up in concentration camps (his father in Auschwitz, his mother two miles away in Birkenau). And yes, you've heard this story before, countless times, in countless different ways (though probably not in THIS way, in which the Jews are portrayed as mice, the Polish as pigs, and the Germans as huge nasty cats). But it still never ceases to astonish -- the brutality, the inhumanity, the cruelty, and the incredible strength (and luck) that kept some of them going long enough to survive.

Though Holocaust stories are excruciatingly painful to read, I think it's vital that we all keep doing so. It shouldn't be so easy to forget what happened, even for those of us who weren't born until decades after it was all over. It's important to keep reminding ourselves of what people can actually do to each other when all hell breaks loose in our world. Beautifully drawn, wonderfully written, and emotionally intense, this is one of the most astonishingly brilliant books I've read in years. I look forward to discovering what else Spiegelman has done, and now that I've gotten the hang of reading stories told in this format, I'm definitely planning to investigate some of the other graphic novels I've been hearing so much about in the last few years. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

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(8/16) Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst. (read me!)

Fans of the television show The Amazing Race are going to love, love, love this novel. It's based on a similar premise -- it's about a reality show in which teams of two people are sent around the world deciphering clues, recovering mysterious artifacts, and outwitting, outlasting, outracing their opponents. The winning team takes home a million dollars. But in order to get there, each team's members must learn to work together and, perhaps even harder, learn to trust each other.

The novel focuses a lot more on the teams themselves -- the people more than the places they go to. One team is a mother-daughter couple recovering from a brutal shock to their relationship. The mother woke up in the middle of the night a few months ago to find that her daughter had given birth elsewhere in the house. Not only did the daughter hide the pregnancy from her mother, but her mother never noticed she was pregnant -- a double-whammy of bad communication and distrust. Another team consists of a married couple who have used their faith in God to overcome their own homosexuality -- or have they? Then there's the team of two washed-up child stars, grasping for what little last straws of fame they can get their hands on. Each team has its own complicated problems to sort out emotionally and high hopes the show is going to bring them closer together. But when does a reality show ever make things EASIER for people?

The complexity of the characters and their relationships, coupled with the excitement of the race itself (and the humorous satire of reality shows in general), turns this into a highly readable and engrossing novel. I had loved Parkhurst's first, Dogs of Babel, and thoroughly enjoyed this one as well. She's definitely going on my list of writers to watch. Highly recommended!

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(8/11) Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos. (read me!)

When 70 year-old Margaret Hughes finds out she has brain cancer, she decides to eschew the standard medical treatments and instead take a young tenant into her huge Seattle mansion to keep her company while she lives out the rest of her life. The boarder, a young girl named Wanda Schultz, is tough as nails on the outside, but remarkably prone to weepy breakdowns. As it turns out, she's secretly pursuing a man who left her, and is just as much in need of some female support as Margaret is. Though Wanda doesn't know about Margaret's illness, she quickly becomes enraptured with the museum-esque house and its eccentric owner, and as the two bond slowly, their armor begins to slip away. Things aren't all sweetness and light, though -- the house has a history, not to mention an extremely critical ghost, and both women are haunted by their pasts in a way that keeps them from real happiness. Wrestling to keep the dead where they belong, the two women slowly begin to use each other and their friendship to finally shake free of the bonds of their histories.

Though I had a few problems with the last third or so of this novel (lots of coincidences, which I hate), this is a haunting and well-written tale full of realistically imperfect and wholly loveable characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and am looking forward to whatever Kallos publishes next (I believe this is her first novel). Definitely recommended!

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(8/9) Blue Screen by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

Ah, Robert B. Parker. Nothing beats a new Robert B. Parker novel! Even when, as in this case, it's not a Spenser one, but instead a Sunny Randall/Jesse Stone one. Wait, Sunny Randall AND Jesse Stone? In the same book? Yep, you heard that right. And not only do they end up working on a case together, but by the end of the story, they're also in a relationship together, which bodes very, very well for the future state of my happiness. Man, was that ever fun!

The mystery begins when Sunny is hired by a wealthy movie mogul to bodyguard his biggest star, a brainless Barbarella named Erin Flint. Only a few days into the job, though, Erin's friend Misty is found with her neck snapped in the mansion's gym. That brings Paradise police chief Jesse Stone into the picture, and from there we progress from a bodyguarding-a-celebrity novel into a novel about a prostitution ring gone awry (do they ever go any other way, I ask you?) and the murder of more than one person who had the goods to bring a bunch of rich movie people down.

Honestly, though, who gives a hoo-hah about the plot? What's fun about Parker's novels are the characters and the writing. And bringing together Jesse and Sunny in this way made for an absolute blast. My only criticism of Parker's novels, and it seemed particularly true of this one, is that EVERY character in his books who is intelligent also possesses an extremely snappy wit -- and not only that, but it's the SAME extremely snappy wit. And, I'm sorry, but extremely snappy wit is actually a very, very rare thing. The good guys are always funny and clever in Parker's novels, the bad guys, always stupid and sloppy. Nevertheless, I LOVE extremely snappy wit, and despite the fact it makes all Parker's main characters sound exactly the same (I've long contended, for example, that Sunny Randall is, in fact, just Spenser in a dress, though Jesse does seem to have somewhat more of a unique character these days), I love Spenser so much and have for so long that I hardly mind. Another highly entertaining novel from one of the greatest, most enjoyable mystery writers I've ever encountered. Definitely recommended!

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(8/6) The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard. (read me!)

Wow, this book is absolutely wonderful! It's probably one of the most entertaining mysteries I've ever read, though I'm sure that has something to do with the fact I'm a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories and this one is extremely, delightfully similar to those. Except, dare I say it? EVEN BETTER.

It's the year 1830, and retired New York City detective Gus Landor has just settled into his new quiet life in Hudson Valley when he receives a special request from West Point's superintendent. You see, something strange has happened to one of their cadets. First, the young man committed suicide by hanging himself, and then the body disappeared and reappeared in another location -- minus its heart. Landor is asked to come in and figure out what happened, but to keep it on the Q.T. for the sake of the Academy's reputation. It gets harder to stay quiet, however, when he realizes the cadet was actually murdered. And when even more bodies start to show up, also mutilated after death, Landor starts to worry it's not just a single killer on the loose, but instead some kind of satanic cult.

As part of his investigation, Landor begins to interview cadet after cadet after cadet. And then he encounters one that intrigues him particularly -- a young man named Edgar Allan Poe. Yep, THAT Edgar Allan Poe. At first, Landor is suspicious of Poe, as he's, well, a bit odd, really. But eventually, he comes to see Poe as an important ally in his sleuthing -- Poe, you see, is the perfect insider source. He's a bit of an outcast, and therefore won't raise suspicions if he acts a bit strangely, or starts asking weird questions of his fellow cadets. But things become more complicated when Poe falls head-over-heels for Landor's chief suspect's sister. What is going on at West Point? And can Landor and Poe find out who is killing and mutilating cadets before they become victims themselves?

This book is masterfully written, with a voice extremely similar to that of the Holmes stories. It's funny, wonderfully crafted, and just absolutely marvelous from start to finish. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a book this much. I've put Bayard's earlier novel, Mr. Timothy, on hold at the library and cannot WAIT to get my hands on it. Highly, HIGHLY recommended! Do not miss this one, people!

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