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January 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (1/27) Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks.

    When Billy Beede, the teenaged daughter of an infamous and six-years-dead scam artist named Willa Mae, finds herself pregnant, at first she thinks life is going pretty darn well for her. Her boyfriend Clifford, a moderately successful seller of novelty coffins, has proposed to her and he even handed her sixty dollars to buy a dress. She's to meet him the next day in Texhoma for the wedding, but when she gets there, instead of flowers and candles and a preacher, she finds Clifford's OTHER wife, and his four children. Furious, she decides the ultimate revenge on Clifford is to abort his baby. But to get the doctor to do the deed, she's got to come up with $100 in cash by the end of the week. And that's where Billy's dead mother comes in.

    Willa Mae, it's rumored, was buried with her jewelry on -- a pearl necklace and diamond ring -- and in the road trip to end all road trips, Billy, along with her cousin, uncle, and one-legged aunt June, pile into a stolen truck and a convertible and head out for parts west. LaJunta, Arizona, to be exact -- population 30. There, Billy'll dig up her mother's body, grabs the jewels, and set herself free.

    Only, as is usual for a Beede, things don't end up going quite as planned. And along the way, Billy herself will learn a great bit not only about her mother -- but about herself as well. Or, more accurately, about how much she is LIKE her mother, and just why that is actually okay.

    This is a clever and hilarious novel written by an author whose affection for her characters is absolutely infectious. I loved every minute of this book (especially the tips-of-the-hat towards Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying") and sincerely hope it marks the beginning of a long career in novel-writing for Parks (who is actually a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright). In fact, I think it would be safe for me to say right now, in January, that this will be one of my top ten favorite books of the year. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

  • (1/21) Biggie and the Quincy Ghost by Nancy Bell.

    Cute little mystery narrated by the twelve year old grandson of Texan Biggie Weatherford, small town busy-body and amateur sleuth. When young J.R. accompanies his grandma and a few of her friends on a trip to the neighboring town of Quincy, where they hope to learn how to start a historical society, he's pretty sure it's going to be one of the most boring trips of his life. But on their first night at the town's inn, J.R. runs into a ghost and then, a few hours later, discovers the dead body of a local teenaged girl. The town sheriff is in the hospital, but luckily, Miss Biggie is on the case, with J.R. dutifully recording her every Sherlockian turn.

    This book has an outrageous, inexcusable number of grammatical and spelling mistakes in it and sometimes the writing is a bit off, but it's a short, good-natured kinda thing, and the plot is pretty decent. It wouldn't be a bad choice for anyone in the mood for something extremely light. Let's hope, however, that Bell actually had an editor for the other ones. Because I'm not sure I can put up with another novel full of that many typos. Doesn't anybody proofread anymore?

  • (1/19) Blood Double by Neil McMahon.

    Mediocre medical thriller about an ER doctor who stumbles across a diabolical scheme involving genetic testing. Blah blah blah nothing new here. I did read the whole thing, primarily because it was short so I didn't feel like I was wasting that much time with it, but also because it was well-written enough to keep me turning the pages. But I probably won't look for others by this same author. I've read this book a thousand times before. I don't need to read it a thousand and one times too. Eh, my advice is to skip it. You'll find better medical thrillers reviewed on this site, if that's what you're lookin' for.

  • (1/15) Old School by Tobias Wolff.

    Wow, am I on a roll or what? This is the third great book I've read in a row this month! Not that I'm surprised about this one -- Tobias Wolff is one of the few authors whose short stories I'll actually read and I was pretty excited when I heard about this book, his first novel. Primarily known for his wonderful memoirs (especially "This Boy's Life"), Wolff hasn't really strayed all that far from biographical writing here -- at least, I sincerely hope the narrator of this novel is actually Wolff as a young man (because I love him). And while this novel has a plot -- it's about a bunch of boys at a prestigious prep school in New England and primarily focuses on their attempts to beat each other out to win private audiences with annual literary guests (Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, to name the first two), and the lengths one of them will go to in order to meet his hero -- what this book is really about is the way it feels to be young and on fire with words. A stanza in a poem can make you gasp; a line in a novel can change your life. For these boys, literature becomes their passion, and their lust for it is irresistible and infectious. It reminded me of how I felt as a high school kid discovering Faulkner for the first time. The way I'd sit and read passages out loud and just marvel over the amazingness of those sentences. This novel practically vibrates with Wolff's love of words and as if that weren't enough to make it a pleasure to read, the boys themselves are a blast to hang out with and Ayn Rand's speech to the students was one of the most hilarious things I've ever read.

    I think, though, that if I hadn't related to the narrator as much as I did, I might have found this book a little obnoxiously heavy-handed with the literary groupie stuff. You've been warned. But for those of you who copy out favorite passages from books and love to argue with others over the merits of a particular author, this is a book you should not let pass you by. I just loved it. It reminded me of feelings I haven't felt for a really long time. Highly recommended!

  • (1/12) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.

    Wow, what an incredible book! This novel, a mystery about a murdered dog narrated by a fifteen year old autistic boy is hands-down one of the most creative and enjoyable novels I've read in the past year.

    Christopher John Francis Boone is a very complex kid. He knows all the countries of the world and their capitals, can rattle off every prime number between 1 and 7057, and is an expert at logical thought. But everyday interactions, facial expressions and even metaphors have absolutely no meaning for him.

    When he finds his neighbor's dog Wellington murdered in the yard with a garden fork, Christopher is at first unsure what to do. But he's a huge fan of mystery novels -- most of which are based on logic, if you think about it -- and he decides that since it's a day when he saw five red cars in a row (a "Super Good Day"), he ought to be brave and try to solve the crime.

    Christopher's investigation leads him down an unexpected path, though, and when he comes face to face with a disturbing fact about his father, we get an amazing look at how an autistic boy with no concept of emotion processes something absolutely gut-wrenching. As Christopher's thoughts race out of control, he undergoes an indescribable transformation. There's just no way to explain what I mean -- it's simply phenomenal.

    The author, Mark Haddon, apparently spent many years working with autistic individuals and his ability to take those experiences and turn them into Christopher is nothing short of dazzling. The result is a novel that is not only original, but which is also funny, heartbreaking, and absolutely fascinating. I loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Go get a copy RIGHT NOW, before you see three yellow cars in a row and your day is ruined!

  • (1/8) The Little Friend by Donna Tartt.

    Complex, wonderful novel about a 12 year old girl, Harriet Dufresnes, whose older brother Robin was murdered when she was just a baby. Robin was 12 himself at the time, and his horrific death (he was found hanged from a tree) made him an icon in the town for good. Everybody still talks about the murder, which was never solved, and about how loving and clever and just plain good Robin was.

    Harriet, on the other hand, grew up to be a strange, almost cold child, quite possibly because she grew up so keenly aware that she would never be as good as Robin in the eyes of her family (especially her devastated mother who still, 11 years later, rarely gets out of bed). But Harriet does have two things that make her stand out -- she's unnervingly intelligent and insufferably determined. And so it is that Harriet decides one day that she's going to solve Robin's murder.

    Though this description and every review I read about this book makes it sound like it's a murder mystery, that storyline is really just in the background of this novel. Really, this is about Harriet and her family, her almost pathetically adoring friend Hely, and the eclectic bunch of people who live in the small Southern town of Alexandria, Mississippi. Don't come into this expecting CSI or Sherlock Holmes -- more than anything else, this is a coming-of-age novel about a town where race, prejudice, grief, and tradition have carved rigid lines in the sand -- and where a 12 year old, insanely precocious girl is about to cross every one of them. Highly recommended! And don't miss Tartt's other novel, "The Secret History," which is one of my favorite novels of the past few years.

  • (1/3) Toxin by Robin Cook.

    Picking up and reading this book right now was probably not the greatest timing. Not only is it about a deadly disease -- I have the flu at the moment -- but that disease is E.coli and the novel primarily focuses on the horrible, unsanitary conditions at slaughterhouses and lax federal control over meat safety in our country. You know, the same problems being addressed in the news these days, this time in regards to Mad Cow disease.

    The story itself is about a doctor whose daughter contracts E.coli and dies, leading him to begin a one-man crusade against the source of the tainted beef. His threat to expose the truth about the sloppy meat industry angers and scares some of the big wigs, though, and, ridiculously, they then attempt to kill him off. The science is fun but, as usual, the writing, plot, characters, and dialogue are all absolutely wretched. Man, Cook is just SUCH a bad writer! Why do I keep reading these? I'm nuts.

    Anyway, if you're feeling a little overweight and are looking for inspiration to help you eat better in 2004, this book ought to dry up those pesky Big Mac cravings. That's not worth nuthin', I suppose. But if instead what you're feeling a yen for is a good book to curl up with, you can do a lot better than this.

  • (1/1) Season of Death by Christopher Lane.

    When Inupiat police officer Ray Attla warily agreed to join buddies Lewis and Billy Bob on a hunting trip into the Alaskan bush, he knew he was asking for trouble. Lewis, an infamous knucklehead, was trying to start a new career as a hunting guide but, Ray discovers, he hadn't actually bothered to make any of the necessary preparations before leading this first trip into the woods. Not six hours have passed before they're all soaking wet and missing gear after their kayaks capsized in the too-full, raging river. And things only get worse from there. By day's end, they've discovered a dead body, been shot at by a crazy pot grower, and are running for their lives from someone desperate to keep the corpse's identity a secret.

    Fleeing on foot, the trio manages to get back to civilization. From there, Ray's investigation leads him (in a roundabout kind of way) to a young Athabascan girl who has sacred visions. Though he's initially a disbeliever, when her visions end up being about a faked archaeological dig and a missing UW professor, Ray is forced to reconsider his opinions about his own culture and his connection to the spiritual world. Oh yeah, and he's also forced to solve the case or end up a corpse in a river himself.

    This was a riveting, engrossing mystery with great characters, a fast-paced plot, and a well-developed sense of humor. Can't wait to read others in this series! Recommended, especially to fans of Tony Hillerman, whose influence on this novel is evident not only in its style and content, but in the fact the main character's got a Hillerman novel in his back pocket for much of the trip!

    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
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