August 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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(8/26) The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly. (read me!)

I really wanted to like this novel, which reminded me quite a bit of some other books I have loved in my lifetime (mostly as a child), like The Neverending Story, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. But the problem was that, ultimately, I felt like it was too MUCH like those others in terms of concept, with not enough originality to allow it to stand firmly on its own.

It's set in the late 1930's in England, as the country stands on the brink of World War II. A 12 year-old boy named David has just lost his mother, and his father has remarried a nurse named Rose after knocking her up with David's half-brother Georgie. Feeling like he's growing further and further away from his father and his old life, David spends all his time fantasizing about the storybooks that line the wall of his bedroom. One night, he hears the voice of his mother calling him into the garden below and when he follows the sound, he suddenly finds himself entering a magical new world.

The world is full of very plainly-drawn characters of good and evil, and David soon finds himself put to a number of classic storybook tests. Many old childhood favorites are retold here in far more vicious or humorous ways (the Snow White revision was my favorite as it made me laugh out loud more than once -- gotta love sarcastic dwarves). David learns from a Woodsman who befriends him that the only way back to his real world is through a magical book the kingdom's King possesses, and so, with the help of a few good guys he encounters on the way, David begins to make his way towards the castle. Hot on his tail, however, is a pack of humanoid wolves, known as Loups, who want to eat David and then stage a coup against the King.

In theory, it sounds like it might make for pretty entertaining reading. And while I did enjoy the first third or so, after that, the magic started to wear pretty thin for me. Too much repetition, too much clumsy hammering home of all-too-familiar themes, and not enough really, really good writing. The revisions of the classic fairy tales were sometimes well done, but mostly just sort of half-assed, and though I know John Connolly is a very popular and respected author, I was surprised by the lack of solid, quality writing in this novel. By the end, I mostly was finding the story kind of tedious, and was getting more and more eager to just finish the damn thing and move onto something more interesting.

If I had read this book when I was about 13 or 14 years old, I probably would've absolutely adored it. But as an adult who has encountered this same story dozens of times, it didn't have the powerful writing or creative storytelling it needed to be really successful for me. I know several people who have really loved this novel (adults), however, so if it sounds intriguing at all to you, you might give it a try and see what you think. For me, however, it was kind of a dud -- c'est la vie.
[FICTION]

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(8/23) Deception by Denise Mina. (read me!)

When I first started this novel, about a husband (Lachlan) struggling to figure out if his wife (Susie) is innocent or guilty of a horrific double-homicide, I thought it was going to be a fairly standard thriller. Boy, was I ever wrong. The book is written as though it is Lachlan's diary, a diary he started after Susie was convicted of both murders and sentenced to life in prison. Lachlan is at first utterly convinced she is innocent, but the more he goes through the documents in her office and on her computer, the more he begins to find evidence that astonishes him and gradually begins to make him doubt both his wife and himself.

Susie was a forensic psychologist assigned to evaluate a serial killer named Andrew Gow. Eventually, Gow successfully appealed his conviction and was released from prison. He and his new wife Donna take off for Scotland, and within three weeks, both are murdered. Susie is the only suspect -- the Crown believes she was having an affair with Gow and was enraged when he left her for Donna. But the more Lachlan learns about his wife, the more twists and turns this tale actually takes, eventually leading him down a path that he never could've predicted.

What I really liked about this novel wasn't so much the story (though it's great too) as it was the psychology of the character of Lachlan. While he's going through his wife's things, for example, he comes across a book about women who fall in love with convicted murderers and marry them in prison. These women are nuts, he thinks. They're so desperate to be loved that they will believe anything the murderers tell them -- that they were framed, that they are innocent, that they killed only in self-defense, e.g. Yet, as Lachlan writes about his disdain for them in his diary, we, the reader, begin to realize he himself suffers from the same delusions. (Or does he?) Eventually, it becomes clear that we can no more trust Lachlan's version of the story than we can trust that of Susie, Andrew, or Donna. And though Lachlan starts out as a completely sympathetic character -- a good husband and father who has lost his wife in an absolutely unfathomable way -- the final "twist" in the story reveals him to be someone quite radically different from what we originally thought.

This is an extremely intriguing and engrossing mystery, well-written and very unique. I definitely recommend it and am excited to have discovered this terrific author. She has several more mystery/thrillers and I've just put two more on hold at the library and can't wait to read them!
[MYSTERY]

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(8/18) The Whole World Over by Julia Glass. (read me!)

Greenie Duquette is a pastry chef in the West Village with a son she adores and a husband she's rapidly falling out of love with. Though her career is taking off, her husband Alan, a psychotherapist, has been losing clients left and right and growing more and more cynical and pessimistic, something that has begun to put extreme amounts of stress on their relationship. When Greenie is offered a job in New Mexico as the personal chef to the state's governor, she leaps at the chance to start over fresh somewhere else. She takes her son and goes, leaving a bewildered and stunned Alan behind. But Alan soon meets a strange young woman named Saga whose oddness and passion finally seems to shake him out of his funk Things are shaken up even more when the attack on the World Trade Center hits, forcing Greenie and her family to reevaluate their choices and the paths of their increasingly-separate lives.

Though I enjoyed this novel overall, I will confess I had a few problems with it. For one thing, I felt like a lot of the characters weren't very effectively "brought to life" by the writing. Greenie in particular was a character I never felt I had a handle on, and many of the others seemed stilted, caricature-istic, or otherwise kind of "off." Because I couldn't relate to the characters and they didn't really come alive for me, I never found myself fully engrossed in the story -- I stayed somewhat distant from the whole thing. And that's okay -- not every story has to transport you somewhere or take you deeply inside it, but I think this story in particular would've been a lot stronger if it had since its plot focuses so heavily on the effects huge, life-changing decisions can have on people and their relationships.

Additionally, I found the book extremely sluggish in places, particularly in the first 100 pages or so. That said, while I was initially concerned that Glass's use of 9/11 would feel artificial or melodramatic, instead, I thought she handled it extremely well. Even six years later, I find it difficult to watch or read things about that day, and when I realized this novel was headed in that direction, I nearly put it down for good. I'm so glad I didn't, however, as Glass writes about that tragic day with vivid emotion, and its impact on her characters was palpable and realistic. I was impressed, in other words, and this part of the story did a lot to make up for the distance and sluggishness of the first half for me. Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I'll definitely be looking for Glass's last one, Three Junes, which I've heard is even better.
[FICTION]

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(8/14) Stephanie Pearl-McPhee Casts Off: The Yarn Harlot's Guide to the Land of Knitting by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. (read me!)

This is another amusing book by the Yarn Harlot, this time really directed specifically at more serious knitters (rookies won't relate to most of it, nor will they understand the jargon, which she doesn't bother attempting to explain). While I did enjoy this book for the most part, I really liked Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter better (see July 2007 reviews for that one). It was made up of actual essays and stories about knitting, whereas this book is a lot choppier and comprises a series of randomish tidbits about the knitting culture. Those of us who are Knitters-with-a-capital-K will definitely get a chuckle out of her descriptions of things like "Second Sock Syndrome" and stash overload, but aside from a few gems like those, the book is kind of disappointingly short on both substance and hilarity. It might work better read in shorter chunks, though -- a page here and there -- instead of doing what I did, which was essentially sitting down and reading the whole thing one evening.

Nevertheless, Pearl-McPhee is a great knitter, an excellent writer, an entertaining and educational blogger, and a woman who seems like she'd make a terrific best friend. If you're looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a knitting friend this year, you can't go wrong with any of her books, especially if you team them up with a skein or two of a lovely cashmere yarn!
[NON-FICTION]

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(8/12) The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. (read me!)

I'm not quite sure how to describe this novel, which is why it took me so long to get this review of it up. The problem was that I absolutely LOVED it while I was reading it, but as soon as I turned the last page, I started to feel a flood of criticisms rushing over my brain. And then I couldn't figure out if I should say it was a great book because I could barely put it down, or a terrible book because of the legions of problems I have with elements of the story and characters. I waffled for a few days and have now decided to describe it as both. It's a great book AND it's a book with a lot of problems. But the overall upshot is that I really enjoyed reading it and I definitely recommend it to anybody who thinks it sounds intriguing, despite its numerous flaws.

The story focuses on a young woman named Margaret Lea, who is a quiet, nerdy kinda girl (hooray for nerds!) who helps her father run a bookstore and writes biographies in her spare time. One day, she's surprised to find herself summoned by one of the most famous fiction writers of all time, the enigmatic Vida Winter. Miss Winter has spent her life telling lie after lie about her background, and now, in her 90's, has decided it's time to put the truth to paper, and she wants Margaret to be the one who writes it all down. Margaret somewhat reluctantly agrees to take the task on, but soon finds herself thoroughly enraptured by Miss Winter's fantastic, gothic tale of an old English mansion, a set of eerie twin girls, a haughty governess immersed in scandal, a devastating fire, and finally, a ghost. As the story continues, Margaret soon finds herself reflecting more and more about her own past, for she, too, has a story about twins to tell. But even Margaret, as savvy as she is about the people she writes about, is floored by the twist at the end of Miss Winter's saga.

As I confess I was myself, actually, and therein lay one of the biggest problems I had with the book overall. I really felt like that twist came way, WAY out of left field, and that always makes me a little bit bananas. I hate it when plot twists feel like "devices" instead of natural turns in the story, and this one couldn't have been any more device-ish. It made me wonder if the author got to the end of the story and thought, "Crap, how am I going to make this all work out in a way that makes sense?!" and had to slap in the twist in order to tie up the variety of loose ends. Not okay.

Even worse (for me anyway) were the extremely heavy-handed and excessively-done references to novels like Jane Eyre and Turn of the Screw. It's like Setterfield wanted to make sure we understood that she was writing a novel that we were supposed to recognize as a classic of the same caliber. Or to make sure we understood what genre she was trying to fit her story into, as if we might otherwise mistake it for chick lit or something. One reference would've been fine, but after being whapped over the head with several of them, I had to stifle the urge to yell, "Okay, Diane -- we GOT it!"

That said, it bears repeating that while I was reading this novel, I could not put it down, and I really enjoyed the world it dropped me into every time I relaxed into its sentences. Setterfield is a talented writer, and though this book definitely has its rookie-author moments, so did Jane Eyre, quite frankly, and we still all loved that one despite its problems too. I definitely recommend this one to fans of gothic tales, and will be looking for more by this author down the line for sure. Go into it knowing you will have to suspend a lot of disbelief, and you'll be just fine.
[FICTION]

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(8/4) Blown Away by G. M. Ford. (read me!)

Frank Corso, Ford's mystery series regular, started out a journalist, then became a disgraced journalist, then became a sort of unofficial private investigator. As this novel opens, he's kicked off his latest career as a best-selling non-fiction author. Newly rich, he's annoyed to find the price he has to pay for signing such a lucrative contract with his publisher is that he now has to do whatever they tell him. So, when they send him into a podunk town to investigate a bank robbery gone bad (in hopes of digging up enough dirt for a new book, you see), he's pretty peeved. Things suddenly get a lot more interesting, though, when Frank's almost immediately attacked and nearly kidnapped -- clearly a warning to get him to stop snooping around. Things like that tend to rub the cantankerous Corso the wrong way, you see, and so the race for the truth begins.

Frank quickly finds himself unwillingly teamed up with the Feds as another bank robbery goes down. In both cases, the robbers turned out to be kidnap victims -- they were captured and drugged, and then woke up alone with a bomb strapped around their neck and a note telling them to rob a particular bank or else be blown to smithereens. As more and more victims detonate, Corso and the Feds are faced with a tough decision -- refuse to cooperate and let more die, or start handing over the cash for as long as it takes to catch the bad guys.

This is another gripping, thoroughly entertaining installment in Ford's consistently awesome series. And man, will the ending of this one make Corso fans howl! Highly, highly recommended!
[MYSTERY]

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