December 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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(12/31) Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. (read me!)

After reading a number of great reviews of this novel, I was excited to read it. I even actually BOUGHT it (rare for me), thinking Iíd need a good paperback for my vacation and it seemed like a safe bet. Alas, I found it somewhat disappointing, even though I did read and enjoy the whole thing. It opens promisingly, with the "case files" on three old murders. One is about a little girl who disappears from a tent in her back yard one night. The next is about a young woman slashed to death by a mystery man right in her office in broad daylight. And the third is the story of a young wife and mother who finally snaps and axes her husband into an early grave.

Switch to present day, when private investigator Jackson Brody suddenly finds himself working all three cases for various family members. It sounds intriguing, but the novel was really more about the characters than the plot, and I confess I didnít really take to most of the characters. Additionally, the mysteries themselves were pretty mundane and unoriginal -- I've seen all three stories told a hundred different ways on primetime television, and I saw every one of the handful of twists coming from a mile away as well (which was okay, except that one of them was just eye-roll-inducingly lame -- for those of you who have read it, I'm referring to the identity of the homeless girl).

So, what did I miss? Why did every critic love this novel so much? Is it because it's an unconventional mystery that tries to be more about the people than the crimes? Do you just have to be different to be considered great anymore? Because as much as I wanted to like this, it is simply not a great novel. It's really only a decent one. Will I read the next one in the planned series featuring Jackson Brody? Oh, probably. But Iíll be hitting the library for that one for sure.

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(12/27) North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. (read me!)

After seeing the BBC miniseries based on this novel, I knew I'd have to dig up my old copy of the book and read it again (itís a novel I read in a lit class in college many, many moons ago). I had forgotten a lot of the plot, of course, but I had been surprised by how similar the movie was to "Pride and Prejudice" and didnít remember ever having had that same thought about the novel. So, I wanted to go back and see what the deal with that was. Turns out, the book is a lot less like P&P than the movie was, and I thought this was important to point out because a the novel really does stand out as unique.

Itís the story of a young London woman, Margaret Hale, whose minister father leaves the church, uprooting the family and moving them to Milton, an industrial town in the North that is about as different from London as you can get. Milton is a town of factories, smog, and poverty, and it takes Margaret and her family a long time to get the hang of the much more frenetic pace. But soon, she has made friends with a few of the locals and, in so doing, becomes wrapped up in the struggles of the working class. Meanwhile, her father has befriended a local factory owner, Mr. Thornton, and Margaret and Thornton begin a chilly relationship as well. And that's the storyline the movie is focused on, of course -- the proud and haughty Mr. Thornton clashing with the equally proud and stubborn Margaret, and ultimately succumbing to their much-resisted mutual crushes. But the novel spends a lot more time on the plot involving the workers and their attempts to form a union and then strike against the bosses. Sure, it's a romance. But itís also a very powerful and historical "Norma Rae"-type story too.

All in all, a truly wonderful novel with a fascinating and educational story and some truly wonderful characters. I highly recommend this one and itís an absolute must-read for anybody who saw the miniseries and liked it. Definitely a classic!

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(12/19) Predator by Patricia Cornwell. (don't read me!)

Yee gads, why? WHY? Why do I keep reading these when every single one of them is so disappointing? This novel, the latest in the Kay Scarpetta series -- a series that blew me away with its awesomeness at first -- can be summed up in a single word: borrrrrrring! Look how long it took me to slog through this one! I'd read one page and start snoring! And, as if a weak plot weren't problem enough, the characters, once people I was quite fond of, have disintegrated into people I don't even recognize anymore. Cornwell has completely lost her ability to make her characters come alive and instead, Scarpetta, Lucy, Benton, and Marino have degraded into one-dimensional (well, technically nothing can be one-dimensional, but you know what I mean), trite, fake creations utterly devoid of a single drop of realness whatsoever.

It's sad, really, how a novel like this can get published simply because its author is a best-seller. But look at me! I'm part of the problem! I keep reading these stupid things! This is it, though. For the sake of the future of solid mystery fiction, I hereby announce that I shall support this drivel no longer. Next time I want a good science-based thriller, I'll reread some Kathy Reichs instead. I suggest you do the same. This book will suck the life right out of you!

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(12/8) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by Steven Jay Schneider. (read me!)

I thought that this week, given how close we're getting to the "holiday season," I ought to review a book that is, hands-down, one of the best gifts I've ever received from a friend. This book, given to me a year or two ago by my pal Jen, is probably the most popular item in my house when it comes to things guests pull off my shelf and then threaten to steal rather than put back. It's a large volume of, as the title suggests, 1001 great movies that the author thinks everyone ought to see before they die. The moment I got it, of course, I went through the entire thing from start to finish, marking all the ones I'd already seen with an "X" and, in some cases, details about where and when I'd seen it and what I thought about it.

And yes, I realize that writing in a book is a sin. I've got a library degree, after all. But it was my book, and how can you own a book like this and NOT go through it, marking the ones you've seen and keeping some notes on them? What would be the point, I ask you?

Anyway, what's great about this book is that it's in order chronologically. You start with the oldies and progress to the current day. Every movie has at least a single solid paragraph of description and commentary, and some of the more famous or popular ones have photos and longer reviews as well. I was astonished by the number I'd already seen -- probably over a third of them. And also by the number I'd never even heard of -- probably also over a third (there is a fair smattering of foreign film in there, and I've been slow to get on that bandwagon, and a lot of the really old movies were off my radar as well).

The best part, though, is that it's not snooty. You'll find "Citizen Kane" in there, sure (over-rated, in my opinion). But you'll also find some of my all-time favorites, like "Jaws," "Tombstone," and "Top Gun." "Top Gun"! In the same book as "Citizen Kane"! Gotta love that. It's not a book about appreciating film as an art form so much as it's a book about loving movies and the way movies can transport you or make you feel. Because of this book, I've seen all kinds of films I never would've seen without it. I've been transported to places I never would've gone otherwise. I've met people I'll never forget. I've seen things that will always stay with me. This book has had a tremendous impact on my movie-watching ways -- and since watching movies is a huge part of my daily life, that's saying a lot.

So, if you're still looking for a great present to give a movie-loving friend or family member, you absolutely cannot go wrong with this one. It's the only book I own that I probably go through at least once a month, writing down movies I want to look for soon or adding notes about ones I've seen since the last time I sat down with it. I don't even do that with my Faulkner, people, and you know I loves me my Faulkner. This book rules the roost. And hey, Jen, if you're reading this, I don't think I ever thanked you profusely enough for it. You rock, ya rock star. You can give me a present ANY ol' day of the week.

By the way, there's a newer edition of this book out now -- to take a look at that one, click here or search on your favorite bookseller site for ISBN 0764159070 (my version is ISBN 0764157019).

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(12/5) School Days by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

After the last Spenser novel I read, Cold Service, I was a little concerned that Parker was starting to lose his touch. That novel actually made me pretty cranky -- I felt like it hadn't been fair to Spenser's character at all. That it wasn't true to him. After over a decade of getting to know Spenser through every book in the series, the one thing I've become absolutely certain about is that he is one of the most ethically "good" people ever dreamed up. And what happened in Cold Service, what Parker had Spenser do -- well, it just wasn't right. But, thankfully, this new installment in the series takes us back to the gentle giant we so know and love. And Parker definitely ain't losing his touch. At all. I can't believe I ever even entertained that thought. I hereby officially eat my words.

In this one, Spenser is hired by a grandmother to try to prove that her grandson is innocent of a horrific set of charges. Just days earlier, two teenagers had walked into their high school and opened fire on the staff and students. When the cops finally stormed in (well, when ONE cop finally stormed in -- the others were all pretty incompetent), they found only one shooter -- a well-known delinquent named Dell. But Dell gives up his partner right away, seemingly pissed that the other kid, Jared, had fled the scene and left him holding the bag.

It's Jared's grandmother who has hired Spenser. She swears he's innocent and wants Spense to prove it. He's a good boy -- a quiet boy. Sure, he's sort of . . . odd. But he's not a killer, she says. The problem? Jared's already confessed, and it's not long before Spenser is as convinced as everyone else that he actually did it. The only thing left to do is try to figure out why. What drove this strange but never violent, upper-class kid to storm into his school armed to the teeth? And, what was a kid like that doing with a kid like Dell to begin with?

As usual, this is a fast-paced, well-written mystery with lots of sarcastic humor and some of the best witty banter ever to grace a page. Spenser is totally the ideal man -- smart, funny, well-read, and a great cook to boot. If you still aren't reading this series, gah -- get hot! You are missing out on an extremely good time!

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(12/2) Inside Job by Connie Willis. (read me!)

Connie Willis is one of my all-time favorite science fiction writers. I've loved everything I've read of hers -- she's just a lot of fun. So I was pretty excited to see she'd published something new, though a bit disappointed to discover it was just a novella. That disappointment doubled when I got a few pages into the book and realized it was going to be just as entertaining as her full-length books had been, too. Connie! I want more, more, more!

The story is a bit crazy, but since when isn't Willis a bit crazy? It's about a guy named Rob who is the editor and publisher of a small magazine called "The Jaundiced Eye." The purpose of the magazine is to debunk all the con artists and scams in the field of mysticism, so Rob and his assistant Kildy spend their time going to see channelers and psychics and then exposing them and their methods in the magazine. But one day, Kildy comes in and tells Rob there's a new channeler he has GOT to see. Rob is reluctant -- a bit burned out on lame channelers -- but he goes along with it. And at first, he's confused -- the channeler, a woman named Ariaura, isn't anything special. She's charging a fortune for tickets and then pretending to be a mystical figure named Isus -- typical. But then, halfway through her show, Rob realizes what Kildy was all excited about when Ariaura suddenly switches voices and quickly begins to berate the audience for being gullible fools. Surprised by how totally realistic that second voice is and by how totally weird it was that Ariaura was suddenly channeling someone who was mocking her own high-paying fans, Rob and Kildy go backstage after the show to try to talk to her about what happened. But Ariaura again breaks into that strange character, and this time, the words she says suddenly make Rob realize who that character is -- it's H. L. Mencken, one of the most famous skeptics of all time, known primarily for his scathing coverage of the Scopes Monkey trial. Is this for real? Is Ariaura really channeling H. L. freakin' Mencken? If so, what's Mencken doing? If not, what's Ariaura doing?

It sounds kind of goofy, doesn't it? But it's just really a lot of fun. Willis is a terrific writer, funny and clever, and she comes up with great characters and nutty original storylines. Plus, it was really fun getting to learn a bit more about Mencken. I knew who he was, but aside from his most famous quote ("Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people"), I hadn't really read anything he'd written or, indeed, even really known what it was he did besides cover the Scopes trial. This was just a blast to read and I was bummed to the extreme when it was over. Highly recommended, and that goes for all her other books as well.

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