February 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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(2/15) A Novena for Murder by Sister Carol Anne O'Marie. (read me!)

This is another one of those terrific nun mysteries I've been reading lately. It's actually the first in the series, but I'm kind of glad I didn't start with this one because, to be honest, it wasn't as much fun as the others have been.

In this one, septuagenarian Sister Mary Helen has just gotten her new post at Mount St. Francis College, where she's been reunited with her old friend Sister Eileen (they were novices together decades ago). She's only there a few days when an earthquake hits San Francisco. When the shaking stops, the two old biddies decide they'd better check the building to make sure no one was hurt -- and they soon find, of course, a body.

The dead guy is one of the college's top professors, and it's clear he's been murdered. Before the mystery's solved, the sisters will uncover a heinous human trafficking ring at the college -- one helmed by none other than the dead professor himself, and involving the exploitation of countless illegal immigrants, as well as more than one murder. So, plenty have reason to want him dead -- but who actually did the evil deed?

Despite the fact this wasn't my favorite of the series, this is still an engaging mystery. It just didn't have as much funny banter between the main characters, and it didn't feel as "comfy" as some of the others. However, a series that actually improves with age can be a rare thing these days, so this is one no mystery fan should miss! I can't recommend it highly enough -- charming, entertaining, and very, very fun.

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(2/11) The Red Notebook by Paul Auster. (read me!)

This short little book is a collection of two-to-four page stories about coincidences Auster has experienced or heard about. It sounded kind of intriguing when I first read about it, but in reality, I found this book kind of, well, I guess the best word for it would be the most simple one: just plain ol' dumb. Had it been written by anyone but Auster, a well-known and highly esteemed author, I can't imagine it ever having been published. Because, honestly, these stories are just laughably lame. For example, there's one that essentially goes like this: one day, I lost a dime. A few hours later, I was walking down the street and, gasp!, there was a dime on the sidewalk! And here's another one: one day my wife and I were really, really hungry, and the next thing we knew, a friend came and took us out to dinner! Whoaaaa! How exciting! How curious! How philosophically intriguing! How . . .utterly inane!

If there was supposed to be a point to this collection of stories, some kind of deeper meaning to it all, I sure didn't get it. It either went way, WAY over my head, or else. . . borrrrrrrring! But go ahead -- you read it. You be the judge. And then you can let me know which one you think is the bigger idiot -- me or the guy who told Auster he'd love to publish this brilliant, insightful book. I know which one my money's on! One, two, three, NOT IT!

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(2/9) Derailed by James Siegel. (don't read me!)

This novel starts out pretty well -- an ad executive named Charlie, married with a young, extremely diabetic daughter, meets a beautiful woman named Lucinda on the commuter train one day and falls for her. After a few lunch dates, he finally gives in to his urges, books a hotel room, and officially cheats on his wife. As the adulterous couple is about to get back to the real world, though, a Hispanic man pushes his way into the hotel room, beats Charlie severely, and then proceeds to rape Lucinda about six times in a row.

When it's all over, Lucinda, in shock, begs Charlie not to go to the police. She's married too and knows her husband will kill her if he finds out about the affair. If she can stand keeping quiet, she says, than so can he. Though he's reluctant, Charlie isn't all that enthusiastic about telling HIS spouse either, so he agrees.

Things get worse, though, as the Hispanic dude, Vasquez, realizes he's robbed the perfect couple. They'll never go to the police because they were caught in a hotel room with each other, so, why not take this opportunity to throw in a little blackmail? First he demands ten thousand dollars from Charlie. But then the stakes go higher. And pretty soon, a desperate Charlie has taken his entire savings account -- the one he's been putting money into for years to help care for his sick daughter -- and handed it over to a criminal.

Right around here comes a twist that took me by surprise, even though in retrospect, it probably shouldn't have. But I was coasting along, engrossed in the fairly breezy suspense, not giving it all that much thought. Though it's not the most brilliantly written novel, I will say I was thoroughly enjoying it. I was on the edge of my seat, even.

Until I hit page 273.

And ohhhh, the crash and burn. On page 273 comes one of the stupidest, most convenient plot "twists" of all time. And things just end up getting lamer and lamer with each passing page from there on out. Did Siegel run out of ideas or time around page 273? Whichever one it was, it's a shame because it turned a relatively decent little thriller into one of the stupidest novels I've ever read. Ludicrously stupid, actually. Laugh-out-loud-with-derision stupid, actually. Utter. Ridiculous. Crap.

Oh well, at least now I know not to spend $4 renting the movie version (starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston), right? Man. Don't bother with this one, folks. Save yourselves!

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(2/7) Lunch at the Piccadilly by Clyde Edgerton. (read me!)

Lil Olive is an elderly gal with a lot of spunk, currently living at Rosehaven Convalescence Center after taking a bad fall in the tub. She spends her days hanging out on the porch with a bunch of the other old biddies, gossiping and daydreaming about the day she'll be able to get back behind the wheel of her sporty '89 Olds.

Annnnnnd, that latter dream is one of the things her devoted nephew Carl really needs to talk to her about. Because, as spit-firey as Lil is, she's long past the time when she needed to hand over her keys. But Carl is a bit of a wuss when it comes to his aunt and instead of "having the talk," he distracts himself by taking music lessons from one of the other patients, a gospel-music-loving preacher named L. Ray Flowers. Yep, L.Ray Flowers, who may, or may not, have flashed one of the old ladies when they were both teenagers, and who is currently trying to start a religious movement he calls "Nurches of America, Chursing Homes of the United States." But that's neither here nor there, especially considering the fact Clara Cochran's been telling that story again -- the one about the time Walter Cronkite gave her four thousand dollars and her son blew it all in a week spent "whore-hoppin'" in Reno again. Tsk, such filthy language from that Clara Cochran! She really makes the other old ladies blush.

Full of colorful characters the likes of which you won't believe, this entertaining and thoughtful novel is about more than just the kookiness of old ladies. It also kind of gently touches on some of the struggles those who care for their aging relations encounter. Carl's life has been put on hold for a procession of sick, elderly family members over the years, and though he loves his Aunt Lil immensely, he's getting pretty worn out. So worn out, in fact, that every now and then, ever so quietly, thoughts that surprise him flit through his mind -- thoughts about how much easier things would be if Lil would just. . . go.

I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, which I was expecting to be a lot more fluffy than it actually was. Don't get me wrong, it ain't heavy -- in fact it's extremely charming -- but it's not all happy, either, and I think a lot of the subtle undertones about caregiving will really resonate with anybody who has ever been in a similar situation. Definitely recommended, and I'll be looking for more Edgerton novels soon.

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(2/5) Women in Pain: Why It Hurts and What You Can Do by Mark Young, MD, FACP, with Karen Baar, MPH. (read me!)

This interesting book is a little too outdated now to take without a grain of salt (it's from 2002 and four years is eons in the world of medical research), but I still found it very enlightening. It begins with several chapters discussing the myriad differences between men and women when it comes to issues surrounding pain, and explains in detail why it's so critical that more research be done that takes those differences into consideration. Drug studies are typically not gender-specific, despite the evidence demonstrating that women and men respond radically differently to medications -- and to pain itself, for that matter. Instead, drug therapy and dosing guidelines are more likely to be identical for the sexes, a fact that just flies in the face of common sense.

The rest of the book is divided by disorder, with sections on dozens of pain problems, including PMS, migraines, osteoporosis, arthritis, tennis elbow, bunions, eyestrain headaches, and fibromyalgia. Pretty much every pain problem -- from acute to chronic -- is covered, with each section starting with a thorough description (including causes and signs/symptoms) and ending with detailed information about both conventional and alternative strategies for managing the pain. The book also contains a lot of recipes, for dishes that fit into the various "dietary strategies" the author recommends. At the end are chapters on mind-body therapies, including yoga, stretching, and information about meditation, acupuncture, and reflexology. There is also an interesting chart at the end that lists about 100 different foods and then checks off which pain disorders they are good for (look up almonds, for example, and you quickly see that they can help with back/neck pain, breast pain, cancer pain, osteoarthritis, and PMS).

A lot has changed since 2002, so I wouldn't want to believe everything in this book without question (plus, as I've said before, I'm not 100% on the boat when it comes to alternative therapies in general). However, as a woman with chronic pain, I found it all pretty intriguing. Definitely recommended -- I learned a lot from this one.

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(2/2) The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. (read me!)

My husband has been badgering me to read this, book one in a series called "His Dark Materials," for a really long time now. I finally picked it up a few days ago, and was amazed at how quickly it sucked me in. Why do I ever doubt my husband in the first place anymore? He's always right about this stuff!

Anyway, this is a fantasy novel about a young girl named Lyra Belacqua who has spent most of her childhood being raised by a consortium of scholars at Jordan College. The book is sort of set in England, but it's not the England of our universe, exactly. Though many things are the same or similar, people in this world have little creatures that go everywhere with them -- indeed are actually somehow almost physically connected to them -- called daemons. When people are children, their daemons are shape-shifters, which makes quite a bit of sense considering how many "hats" kids are always wearing as they scramble around trying to figure out just who they truly are. When they hit adolescence and their personalities finally settle in for real, their daemons pick a shape and stick to it as well.

But that really doesn't have much to do with the plot -- it was just a little tidbit I found particularly clever and thoughtful. In the story, Lyra overhears a bunch of the scholars talking about a magical substance called "Dust." She begins to suspect that Dust is one of the driving forces behind this gang of evil-doers called Gobblers who have been going around kidnapping children at random. Then Lyra hears that her beloved uncle has been imprisoned -- he had left her just days earlier to go on an expedition to the north to try to study Dust himself. She immediately hooks up with some pals and the group sets out to try to rescue her uncle and stop the Gobblers. Upon finally finding her uncle, though, Lyra makes a startling discovery that makes her unsure of who she can really trust. And whether or not Dust is a substance that will save mankind -- or destroy it.

This is a really creative, unique story with wonderful ideas and characters. A lot of the themes, though magical in the book, relate very strongly to things we encounter in our universe as well, such as the experimentation on innocents for the greater good, for example (think The Constant Gardener on that one). I would say that this book is slightly too long -- a good editor would have hacked out several parts of the middle of the book that were not all that necessary and got a bit tedious at times. But, a good reader can spot those parts for themselves and skim through them if they want to (which I did in a few places myself). All in all, a delight from start to finish, and I am looking forward to reading the next one in the series soon!

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