December 2002
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (12/17) Alice's Tulips by Sandra Dallas.

    Wonderful novel by the author of two other books I greatly enjoyed ("The Persian Pickle Club" and "The Diary of Mattie Spenser"). This one is very similar to those in that it focuses on women and, in the case of "Pickle," quilting plays a major part in the storyline. The "Alice" in the title refers to the main character, Alice Bullock, a young newlywed from a wealthy New England family whose husband, Charlie, has just joined the Union Army, leaving her alone on his Iowa farm with only his formidable mother for company. The entire book is composed of the lively letters Alice writes to her slightly older sister Lizzie, full of accounts of her involvement with the local quilting bees, the rigors of farm life, and the customs of small town America. At first, Alice seems to be adjusting to life without her husband quite well. But small towns are notoriously hard on outsiders and when a man Alice had been seen being sort of flirty with in town is found dead in the river near the farm, Alice finds herself not only accused of murder, but suddenly the subject of bitter, malicious gossip and ill treatment from people she once considered her friends.

    Rich in details of quilting, Civil War-era America, and the realities of life for women in the 19th century, this is a light-hearted, fast-paced and delightful novel. I couldn't have picked a better book for the stressful week before Christmas! Highly recommended!

  • (12/14) The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscila Uppal.

    When 14-year-old Angela is sent away to Catholic boarding school, essentially so her sick mother can die in peace, she is convinced she'll never be happy. Never fit in or make friends. Be alone. Instead, though, she almost immediately settles in with a group of fellow "leftovers" -- girls whose parents don't come to pick them up for the weekends. Together, the lonely leftovers form a little club called "The Sisterhood." On the verge of becoming women, the sisters spend a great deal of time taunting themselves and the other girls about their sexuality, as well as flirting with as many boys as they can find.

    But behind their boisterous, outgoing exteriors, all these budding women are really just sad, frustrated little girls. And this sorrow eventually turns into increasing vehemence, especially in regards to the girls at the school they are jealous of -- the popular girls with talents and parents who love them. And one night, the Sisterhood goes too far with a cruel joke and one of those popular girls gets killed. Nobody knows the sisters were involved and afterwards, the club breaks up and the girls go their separate ways, forced to carry a terrible burden of guilt for the rest of their lives.

    The story is told to us by Angela herself, now grown-up. After leaving school, Angela had sought refuge from her guilt in Catholicism, dedicating her life to penance by becoming a nun. But now, 20+ years later, someone has sent Angela a package. A package that essentially is saying, "I know what you did." And this hard reminder throws Angela into a tailspin of fear and doubt.

    Though I really enjoyed this novel, I was pretty disappointed by several aspects of it. First of all, we never find out who sent the mysterious package to Angela, or what their original intentions had been. Why not? And second, the entire boarding school plot didn't have an original bone in its body. Man, EVERY novel about an all-girls boarding school features a group of troubled young women who bond together and eventually end up hurting themselves or others. What is it with that?

    Also, the ending is pretty unsatisfying in general. Angela's sudden transformation from guilty conscience to a calm sense of c'est la vie (okay, that's an exaggeration, but still) just didn't make sense to me. Maybe it was finally time for her to accept what had happened and try to move on, but the spark for this transformation didn't seem significant enough to warrant the change, in my opinion. It seemed like a tidy, convenient way to tie up the ends of a novel about untidiness and inconvenience. It just didn't fit.

    Still, overall, this is a very well-written novel about some very intense little girls with heartwrenching problems and misconceptions about themselves and live around them. Recommended to fans of the genre, as long as you're willing to put up with a few minor distractions.

  • (12/6) Dead Guy's Stuff by Sharon Fiffer.

    Imperfect but still entertaining mystery featuring Jane Wheel, a middle-aged mom who makes a living as a professional "picker" -- someone who scouts out rummage and estate sales and "picks" through the stuff looking for valuables she sells to antiques and collectables dealers. One early Saturday morning, she happens upon a sale in which she discovers an entire basement room packed with old tavern decor and fixtures. Since her parents own a tavern and she knows they'd love the stuff, she immediately gives the seller $500 for the entire room. Then she loads all the boxes into her car and goes home to sort it all out.

    In the boxes are all kinds of great things -- old beer ads, gorgeous glassware, antique gambling "punch cards," and. . .a dismembered human finger in a jar.

    Unsure what to do with the finger, she calls in a friend -- Homicide Detective Bruce Oh. But while they are puzzling over the finger, something oddly coincidental happens -- the man who owns the building Jane's parent's tavern is in is found dead. With the same finger nearly chopped off.

    This sends Jane on the trail of a killer, which ultimately leads her through a pretty convoluted mystery plot. I had several problems with the actual mystery in this mystery, like when the woman dies from anaphylaxis and her body is found sitting calmly against a wall, on a tippy pile of boxes, holding a smaller box firmly in her hands. Yeah, cuz anaphylactic shock is a PEACEFUL way to die. Uh huh. Sure. Also, while I understand that both Jane and the author love to collect things made out of something called "Bakelite," if I have to hear the actual WORD "Bakelite" one more time, I just might go mad and hurt someone. I didn't count, but I'd estimate that "Bakelite" was used approximately 36,000 times in this short novel. Just, please, SHUT UP ABOUT THE BAKELITE! No offense.

    That said, believe it or not, I actually really enjoyed this book. Great characters -- quirky and funny -- and lots of non-B-word-related shoptalk about garage sales and junk, which is always fun. It's a light, mindless kind of novel, which is just what I want sometimes. I'll definitely look for the first book in the series, "Killer Stuff," the next time I'm in the mood for something frivolous.

  • (12/3) The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston.

    Absolutely fascinating non-fiction book that begins with an exploration of the investigation after last year's anthrax letters and eventually moves into a detailed look at the history -- and potential future -- of smallpox. Personally, I've been fascinated by viruses and how they work for over a decade, so I was a little bit disappointed by the lack of technical detail Preston goes into when it comes to the nitty-gritty biochemical details. It's a book written for the general interested public, not for science geeks. But still, I found everything Preston did talk about extremely interesting, from the eradication techniques used to snuff out smallpox in the 70's to the politics involved in controlling biowarfare materials today. Preston is an excellent writer, and this is a thrilling book.

    Of course, it's not a book for everybody. If you bought stores of Cipro over the Internet and called the cops every time you saw a pile of white powder last year, I think you'll be a lot better off if you skip this one. If instead you're like me -- interested in how it all works, but unable to freak out too much over it simply because you know that won't actually help -- then I think you'll enjoy the time you spend with pox, thrax, and Preston. Ooh, and just THINK of the people you can freak out with this information at your next cocktail party! Hah, just kidding. Don't do that. Seriously.

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