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February 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (2/26) The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

    I really, really loved and was deeply moved by this novel. It's about a linguist named Paul Iverson whose perfect life is shattered when he returns home one day and finds his wife Lexy dead in the backyard. At first he, like the police, assumes it was an accident -- she had clearly fallen out of their towering apple tree, and the autopsy demonstrated without a doubt that she had neither jumped nor been pushed. But then Paul notices some strange things -- a missing steak, all the books rearranged in the living room, and why would Lexy have climbed that tree anyway?

    Obsessed with finding out what really happened, Paul becomes convinced the only way to get to the truth is to talk to the only witness -- their dog Lorelei. So, he quits his job and begins trying to teach the dog to speak.

    It sounds silly, of course, but the irrationality of it only intensifies to the sense you get of Paul's desperate, gut-wrenching grief. The scenes of him and Lorelei -- tender, sad scenes -- are interspersed between stories about happier times. Their first date, falling in love, their travels, their marriage.

    This book was constantly making me tear up -- I had to stop reading it in public, even. But, to my huge disappointment, the author nearly derails the novel at the end by tossing in this wacko subplot about a group of mad scientists who kidnap dogs and perform cruel experiments on them to try to get them to speak (by replacing their jaws and voices boxes with human equivalents, for example). Then it turns out there is a connection between that group and Lorelei, which was just ludicrous, and having this whole storyline in the book at all just made no sense. It was a completely unnecessary distraction. It added nothing. I also found the explanation for Lexy's rearrangement of the books to be ridiculously convenient and more than a little hokey.

    But despite these two disappointments, the rest of this novel was just wonderful. Parkhurst is a great writer and this creative, original book has the perfect balance of humor and emotion. My heart ached for Paul and Lorelei, and I think it's going to ache long after I've set this book aside. So, I have to highly recommend this one -- just make sure you're in the mood for some serious blues when you pick it up. And don't say I didn't warn you about the ending.

  • (2/20) Ring by Koji Suzuki.

    This is the Japanese novel that spawned the Japanese movie that spawned the American film that was the talk of the town for a few months last year. When I saw the American version, I was intrigued by elements of the plot, but ultimately pretty disappointed by the film as a whole. The Japanese version, on the other hand, was ten times better, and it impressed me so much that when I heard the novel had been translated into English, I immediately tracked down a copy.

    The story is about a reporter whose teenaged niece has just died in an extremely bizarre manner. When he discovers that three of her friends also died in the same horrific way at the same exact moment, he becomes intrigued and starts to investigate. He quickly tracks the group back to an isolated cabin at a resort in the mountains where they had all stayed overnight exactly one week before they died. There, he finds a mysterious videotape, pops it into the VCR, and watches it. The tape ends with an ominous message that says that anyone who sees it will be dead in exactly seven days. Though it suggests there is a way to prevent that, someone has maliciously recorded over the final instructions, and now our intrepid reporter (and a friend he enlists for help) has only a single week to figure out where the tape came from, what it means, and how to stop it from taking his life.

    Though the origin of the tape eventually turns this into a pretty unbelievable, almost hokey story, the Japanese are absolute masters of supreme creepiness (and the problem with the American version was that they decided the story was secondary to the freak-out factor, and overdid the freaky stuff so much that it became almost silly. With a chopped-up plot and too many "scary" scenes that were too over the top to be truly effective, it just turned a great horror movie into something more suited for Mystery Science Theater 3000 instead).

    The book contains a lot more plot than either of the films and that's one thing that made it so much better. The story is more fully developed (though holy crap are the two main characters misogynistic bastards), and it's even the first installment of a trilogy, so there is a lot more to be learned about the whole thing. Book two, "Spiral," has been translated into English and is due to be published in May. And even though, as I said, the overall premise of "Ring" is kind of ridiculous, I'm just a sucker for books so creatively spooky they keep me up way past my bedtime. Can't wait for part two!

    Anyway, I'm not sure I'd recommend either the book or the movies to anyone who isn't already intrigued by them. But anybody who saw only the American version and wishes there had been more to it will really enjoy this book. Check back in June for a report on "Spiral," and here's hoping Suzuki can keep the scares comin' steady.

  • (2/17) The Frumious Bandersnatch by Ed McBain.

    I was extremely excited when my hold on this, the latest in the 87th Precinct series, finally came in. The last novel in the series had kind of disappointed me -- it focused on the character of Fat Ollie and he's not one of my favorites -- and I was looking forward to a return to the normal balance of things.

    But I have to confess, I had a hard time getting into this one too. It's about the kidnapping of a pop star and the title is from her hit song, a pop version of "Jabberwocky," a terrific Lewis Carroll poem she's somehow managed to turn into a song about sexy rape.

    Okay, two strikes against this one already. First of all, no pop song consisting solely of the words to Jabberwocky would ever be a hit, and as for the sexy rape thing? Just, ew. Just plain ew.

    The bad guys are boring, the victim is boring, and even the usual cast of characters is boring. Ed, what's going on here? Granted, he's written about 87 gazillion 87th Precinct novels and two bad ones out of the bunch isn't too serious an offense. But a few other favorite series of mine have started to disappoint me lately, and I'd hate to see this one spiral down the same drain. May this just be a fluke, and not actually the beginning of the end!

  • (2/15) The Moor by Laurie R. King.

    The fourth in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, this one takes the detecting duo back to the scene of one of Holmes's most famous cases -- the moor where the Hound of the Baskervilles once roamed. Having solved that mystery before, Holmes knows something is afoot when rumors of the hound return. This time, the dog's been seen trotting alongside a ghostly carriage made of bones and carrying the century-dead, similarly ghostly Lady Howard.

    A friend of Sherlock's, who lives outside the moor, has called him in to help, and is surprised when Mary Russell shows up with him. But fans of this series know better -- Sherlock couldn't crack this case (or any other) without the help of his genius, witty wife, and thank goodness for it too, because it wouldn't have been half as much fun without her.

    Another great installment in a high-class, charming, and original mystery series.

    (2/13) by Katherine Tarbox.

    In this memoir, 17 year old Katherine Tarbox writes about the year she was 13, when she got hooked on AOL chat rooms and became the unsuspecting target of a pedophile. It is, of course, an extremely sad story -- Katie was such an easy target not only because of her youthful naiveté, but also because her self-esteem was almost nonexistent. And then suddenly a man is taking an interest in her -- flattering her, adoring her -- and it was so easy on-line. So safe. For awhile.

    The problem with this book, though, is that while it is by its nature a powerful cautionary tale, it's written by a rookie and reads like a high school essay. There's no heart, no real emotion, no weight to Katie's words. It's stilted, styleless writing, and the clumsiness really saps the energy right out of it.

    The good news, though, is that this is really a book for teens and they are unlikely to notice the flaws and likely to relate to a lot of what Katie has to say. And, of course, it's just darn cool that a 17 year old got a book published. I have every faith that as Katie continues to write, and, more importantly (in my opinion), to READ, her writing will mature right along with her. It will be interesting to see what this obviously strong, intelligent young lady does next.

    But for now, I'd recommend this only to teens because I think most adults will have the same response to it that I did, which was a sort of guilt-inducing "ho hum."

    (2/11) The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters.

    "Mad Annie" was despised by most of her West London neighbors. For one thing, she was black and most of her neighbors were racists. For another, she had Tourette's Syndrome and it gave her strange tics and made her prone to yelling curses at people as she walked by them. The neighbors just thought she was a crazy, nasty drunk. And when her dead body was found in the gutter one night, they were smugly pleased she'd finally gotten her due. The cops didn't care either -- they didn't even bother to investigate, just assumed she'd gotten drunk, stumbled into the street, and been hit by a truck.

    But one of the neighbors, Mrs. Ranelagh, was convinced Annie was murdered. She became obsessed with the case and for the next twenty years, slowly collected as much information about it as she could. She wrote letters to her old neighbors and their now-grown children; she collected every news clipping about Annie, any of the neighbors, or the cops who had blown the case off; and she contacted Annie's doctor and an RSPCA agent who had investigated claims Annie was mistreating her cats, asking them for anything they could remember about her or her house.

    Finally, her meticulous sleuthing has gotten her close to figuring out the truth. And here's where this enthralling novel begins. Ranelagh is finally pulling it all together and we get to watch her wheels turn as we review the evidence right along with her (each chapter is separated by some of her letters and news clippings). And boy, when I got to the last hundred pages of this book, there was absolutely no putting it down.

    Walters is a terrific writer -- intelligent and crafty. And while I was actually a little disappointed by the answer to whodunit (it seemed too artificially "ha HA, bet you never suspected THIS!"), I was absolutely captivated by this mystery. I've read a couple of other Walters novels in the past and remember enjoying them as well. But after this one, I'll definitely be searching high and low for any others I may have missed. Highly recommended!

  • (2/6) Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates.

    Heartbreaking novella about a 35 year old woman and her twelve year old daughter who were walking home late one night when they were brutally attacked by a gang of young men. The mother was raped repeatedly and beaten so badly she nearly died, while the daughter, also beaten though thankfully not sexually assaulted, watched the whole thing helplessly. The first cop on the scene is so struck by what he sees that he becomes obsessed with catching the perps, and his zeal eventually leads the girl into developing a crush on him -- her protector, her knight. Meanwhile, the novella takes us through the trial and the effects of the trauma, primarily the psychological trauma, on all three of these main characters

    Though it's a mere 154 pages in length, this book packs a serious emotional wallop. I haven't read much Joyce Carol Oates -- I'm not sure why -- but I was impressed by the style and tone of this novella. I'll definitely look for more of her fiction soon.

  • (2/5) When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance and Planetary Survival by Matthew Stein.

    As an avid fan of "Survivor" for all of its eight seasons, I've found myself growing more and more interested in learning what it really takes to survive when you're stuck alone on a desert island or, closer to home, when local disasters strike (we get earthquakes up here in Washington) and the water and power stops flowing. This book, which I've been poking through periodically for the last week, is jam-packed with everything you'd ever need to know to survive that nuclear winter, from building fires with sticks to eating plants to metalworking and harnessing wind power. Great diagrams, great ideas, great instructions. You know, really, survival is all about science. This book has botony, biology, physics, and chemistry. It's got everything! And frankly, it's just darn fascinating how all this stuff works. Recommended to all Boy Scouts, Mounties, and anybody else who thinks it's cool to "be prepared." And if I ever get the call from CBS saying there's a spot for me on the next Survivor, at least I'll show up reading to build a fire and eat some bark! Yeah, baby!

  • (2/5) Chopping Spree by Diane Mott Davidson.

    Another in the delightful Goldy Schulz series, always an old stand-by whenever I want to read a mystery that isn't too intense. In this one, an old college friend of Goldy's, Barry Dean, calls her up to hire her to cater a very important cocktail party for the "Elite Shoppers" at Westside Mall. All the wealthiest people in town will be there, and, Barry hopes, they'll be throwing money around like crazy. The party starts off with a bang, though, when Goldy and Barry are nearly run over by a truck in the parking lot. Shaken, they go inside and set up for the party. But there are fights instead of festivities, and after it's all over, Goldy discovers that Barry's been stabbed -- and then she herself is knocked unconscious by a masked intruder.

    When she wakes up, Barry is dead and Goldy's protege Julian has been arrested for the crime! To prove Julian's innocence, Goldy knows she's got to solve this case. And the mall has to have something to do with it. Something about the construction that's going on? An evicted tenant who's holding a grudge? Or did it have to do with an affair between Barry and one of the shop clerks?

    Once again, this is a very entertaining and fast-paced mystery with a great sense of humor. I always get a couple of great recipes out of these books as well -- I love that! If you haven't discovered Goldy Schultz, you've got a lot of catching up to do. I envy you! Recommended!

  • (2/1) Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes.

    Since I'm pretty sure I'm one of the last people on the planet to get around to reading this book, I probably don't need to say much about it. It's the memoir of an American woman who buys a house in Tuscany and spend the next several summers fixing it up. Think "The Money Pit," only smaller and a lot more charming. I really enjoyed it (though there were a few sections that were a bit on the slow side), and especially liked the fact Mayes included some of her favorite regional recipes. Did reading this make me want to buy my own Tuscan fixer-upper? Nooooooo way! But I sure wouldn't mind crashing at Mayes's house for a couple of weeks a year! Recommended, especially to Italiophiles!

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