February 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(2/28) Hard Truth by Nevada Barr. (read me!)

This is another installment in Barr's always-wonderful mystery series featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon. This one takes Anna to Rocky Mountain National Park, where she's been stationed a few days after finally marrying her longtime boyfriend Sheriff Paul Davidson (who isn't in this one, alas). Anna's entering the park just a few weeks after official searches for three missing little girls have finally been halted, and the staff and locals are still stunned by the mysterious disappearance. But late one night, Anna gets an emergency call: a woman in a wheelchair camping in the park with her aunt has just found two of the girls. They're alive, but naked, half-starved, and covered in blood. The girls are whisked away to the hospital, too traumatized to speak, and they soon begin to claim they have absolutely no memory of their three months away.

As Anna delves deeper into the mystery, it takes her right into the middle of a polygamist cult she initially suspects is to blame for the girls' trauma. Are the cult's creepy middle-aged male leaders to blame for the what the little girls have been put through? Are they keeping the third girl captive somewhere, or is she dead? Or, is the cult simply a red herring? Hey, I ain't tellin'. All I'm saying is that if you, like me, are recovering from the flu, this is the perfect book to pick up. It was exciting, engrossing, and engaging (the three E's!), and it sure beat the pants off spending another day watching bad daytime television (one more episode of City Confidential on A&E and I think my head might've exploded). There are still a handful of books in this series I haven't gotten around to reading yet, and after this one, I think it's definitely time to get back to making that a priority. Definitely recommended!

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(2/24) The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. (read me!)

For the first three hundred or so pages of this novel, I was utterly enthralled. It's a bit hard to describe the plot, but it has to do with a young woman who one day comes across a strange book and set of letters in her father's library. The book is blank except for a large woodcut print in the middle featuring a big, creepy dragon and the word "Drakulya." At first, her father, a historian, doesn't want to talk about it, but she eventually begins to pull an incredible story out of him. When he was a college student, Paul was given the book anonymously, and, thinking it might be of historical value, he took it to his mentor, a professor named Rossi he was particularly close to. Rossi recognizes the book immediately, and is horrified to learn that his favorite student has been given a copy. Because, you see, it means Paul is the latest in a long line of people who have been pulled into the terrifying world of none other than Dracula, that sharp-toothed, black caped, creature of the night! Shortly after Rossi tells Paul about the book, the violence he's seen as the result of Dracula's dastardliness, and what it all may mean for Paul, he disappears, leaving only a puddle of blood in his office behind.

Shocked and scared that Rossi had been taken or killed by Dracula, Paul decides he has to try to find his mentor and stop Dracula from carrying out whatever evil plan it is he's got rolling. But just as he's putting together the research he needs to get started, he meets someone intriguing -- a young woman who is also looking into Dracula lore. And things only get more strange when Paul learns she's none other than Helen Rossi, his mentor's abandoned-at-birth daughter. The two soon fly off to Eastern Europe on a whirlwind quest to try to find Dracula's tomb, where they hope to also find (and rescue) Rossi. As he tells his story to his daughter, first in person, then in letters, Paul takes her and us, the readers, all over the map, in and out of a variety of fascinating libraries and archives, and all throughout a vividly drawn history of the real Vlad Tepes, known in the myths, legends, and stories as Dracula, the Prince of Darkness.

Before his daughter gets the full tale out of him, though, Paul too disappears, and soon his daughter is on her own quest to try to find him, following his footsteps all over Europe and wondering whether he too is in danger from Dracula or his evil minions. All the travel, the descriptions of the libraries, and the mishmash of odd and wonderful characters kept this novel highly readable and extremely engaging until. . . I hit about page three hundred. Then it just started to get almost insufferably repetitive. The various teams of characters travel to a town, meet someone who knows Dracula lore, find a hidden archive, locate a new clue about Dracula, go to the next town, meet someone else who knows about Dracula, find a new library, locate another clue, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum! And then, after all that, it turns out that Dracula's sinister plan for Rossi (or Paul, whomever he can get to stick around) is . . . really kinda boring!

And what a disappointment, because had this novel been edited better (at least a hundred pages could've easily gotten the ax, if not more), it would've been an amazingly wild and utterly riveting ride! Instead, by the end, I confess I couldn't have cared less about any of the characters or what was happening in the story -- I was just bored, bored, bored. Part of this might be due to the fact that I took a week-long break from the novel when I came down with the flu. And part might also be due to the fact that I found most of the Dracula stuff a bit on the hokey side (golly, they really DO hate garlic!). But really, it wasn't all just me. Others I've talked about this book with have said the same thing -- riveting, until it just got repetitive.

In any case, it's definitely worth picking it up, especially if you are a fan of Eastern European history or the Dracula legend. Just be forewarned that you may find yourself skimming the last two hundred or so pages to get to the good parts, and that those good parts tend to be few and far between. Or maybe you'll love it and I'm just a crazy lady with no taste in books -- this too is possible. In any case, it's probably worth finding out which one it is, just in case I'm wrong and this novel ends up being your favorite book of the year. Lots of people have loved it, and I could really see why -- at least until it started to put me into a coma. Recommended, with caveats, and definitely let me know what you think if you do pick it up!

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(2/14) Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. (read me!)

This is the kind of book that makes me slap my forehead and yell, "IDIOT! Why didn't YOU think of this?" Put simply, it's genius. Except that, actually, it's not really all that good. The concept is the brilliant part -- the content is a bit on the tedious side. Hold on a sec and I'll explain what I mean.

What this book is is a compendium of random knowledge possessed by the author. It begins with a very fascinating listing of various details about the modern day -- the price of milk, popular TV shows, appliances we all have in our houses, etc. From there, it's an alphabetical, non-sequiturish collection of things Rosenthal knows something about. For example, the "B" section contains entries on Birthmarks (she has one), Brokers (she thinks they're weird), and Butterscotch (mmm, tasty!). Most of the descriptions are simply stories from her life -- the day her favorite "Coffeehouse" closed, an "Older Couple" she was intrigued by once, an old high school friend she wishes she'd stayed in touch with.

Of course, the problem is that I don't know Rosenthal and therefore, am not all that interested in whether or not she likes butterscotch. Hence the somewhat-tedious part of most of the book. But while I was reading this, I just got more and more excited by the concept. Because what if this book had been written by someone I DID know? My father, for example, or the students in my creative writing class (if I had one). What if it had been written by someone living 200 years ago? I've been researching the lives of women from the 1860's recently for a project I'm working on, and damn, how awesome would it be to come across a book like this written by one of them? In another 200 years, I can see this book being a work of utter fascination for some historian or scholar or writer -- or even just for some ordinary woman who wonders what life was like way back in 2006.

Anyway, I recommend this book primarily for the concept alone -- unless you know Rosenthal or you're just really, really curious about her thoughts on a variety of random topics, the rest of it is kinda ho-hum. But check it out anyway -- if nothing else, you might get some ideas for a similar project you could do yourself for your kids or your grandkids or your parents or even for that curious young women living in the year 2207 who will be shocked (SHOCKED!) to discover a gallon of milk in 2007 cost a mere $1.65!

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All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
Email -- meg@megwood.com
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