January 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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(1/31) Thunderstruck by Erik Larson. (read me!)

It's now my official opinion that Erik Larson is one of the most interesting non-fiction writers I have ever encountered. I just cannot get over how cool his mind works -- the way he is able to mesh seemingly-unrelated stories together so perfectly that by the end, you can't imagine how you could ever have believed them to be unrelated in the first place.

Last year, or maybe it was longer ago than that, I read his mind-bogglingly wonderful book, The Devil in the White City, a book that told two such stories: one about the World's Fair in Chicago and the other about a serial killer who was operating at roughly the same time and place. And the part that amazed me the most about that book was that I went into it fully expecting to do a LOT of skimming of the "boring" World's Fair chapters (seeing as how I'm much more of a sucker for stories about murderers than I am for stories about building structures and planting nice landscaping stuff, not to mention stories about city politics), and I came out of it utterly enthralled by every single word of the World's Fair stuff. I found it as riveting or even MORE riveting than the story about the murders, which just surprised the heck out of me. But could Larson do it again, I wondered?

Answer: yep. Because this book is just as great as Devil, if not even better.

Thunderstruck tells two similarly engaging stories. The first is about Guglielmo Marconi, the young Italian who invented wireless telegraph communication, and the second is about Hawley Harvey Crippen, a quiet doctor who, as it turns out, was actually a brutal killer. Before I even got fifty pages into it, I knew I would love this book -- for one thing, the Marconi passages begin with a focus on the science of electricity and communication and, as an armchair physics geek, I was absolutely riveted. That said, never fear if science isn't your thing, because the Marconi story isn't just about telegraphy. In fact, his story soon turns into a complex, soap-operatic tale of family, relationships, enemies, and girlfriends that ends up being just as juicy as the story about Crippen. What I loved about the Crippen story was the way it starts off very slowly -- he's just a normal guy trying to make a living in a very quiet, peaceful way. I knew from the book jacket that Crippen was somehow going to end up being the primary target of one of the most exciting manhunts of the era, but for the life of me, I simply cannot figure out how that can be possible, given the fact he appears to be the most foppish little Brit ever to faint at the sight of blood.

And it's in that regard that the two stories began to overlap for me. Because Marconi wasn't exactly the guy most expected to revolutionize global communication, either. For one thing, what he actually knew about science was. . .uh. . . not a whole heck of a lot. And for another, he looked about 15 years old. Crippen, on the other hand, looked like the kind of guy you can knock down with a sneeze, which makes it all the more nutty that he not only managed to kill his overbearing and comparatively-enormous wife, but also to . . . well, you'll see for yourself on that part.

[Note: the next paragraph contains some spoilers, but since this book is based on something that happened over a hundred years ago, it hardly feels like giving away a secret plot point by talking about it now.]

This alone would've been connection enough between the two stories for me, but it gets better, as when Crippen's crime is finally discovered, he has already boarded a ship for America, and it's Marconi's radio device that ends up creating the most exciting chase scene I've ever encountered. Here's Crippen, on his little ship to America, chillin' out with this dame, thinking his disguise is working and he's on his way towards freedom, while at the same time, all of England knows right where he is, due to the diligence of the ship's captain, and the brilliance of Marconi's wireless radio. Oh man, it was just AWESOME. AWESOME, people. I could feel the excitement of Inspector Dew and the ship's captain as their respective vessels got closer and closer to each other, and I could just picture every person in the entire world clinging to their newspapers waiting for the next round of details on the chase to come out. All this happening while Crippen lounges on the deck of the ship reading a book, twenty feet from the ship's Marconi device, smiling to himself about how great a caper he's just pulled off. Someone needs to turn this into a movie, ASAP, just so I can see the expression on Crippen's face when Dew finally catches up to him. AWESOME, people, AWESOME!

[Spoilers over!]

I loved every word of this book, and cannot WAIT to see what amazing stories Larson digs up to tell us about next. If you loved Devil, go get a copy of this one right now! And if you haven't read any Larson yet, oh, how I ENVY you the adventures you are about to embark on yourself. Highly, HIGHLY recommended!
[NON-FICTION]

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(1/23) Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs. (read me!)

This is the latest installment in Reichs's fabulous series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (this series is what the Fox TV show Bones is based on, though the characters on the two shows are really radically different). As usual, it was absolutely wonderful, and it had great banter between the characters, which I always appreciate! In this one, Tempe is sent down to Florida to substitute-teach a college class on forensic anthropology that involves taking the students to a tiny island where an archaeological dig has discovered the remains of some ancient Native Americans. She and her students are about to uncover yet another old grave when they encounter something unexpected -- the smell of rotting flesh. Yep, instead of digging in to find completely-decomposed remains, they have found the corpse of a victim buried only years ago instead of centuries.

Tempe teams up with the local coroner (an old friend of hers) and the two begin to investigate what caused the demise of their victim. The trail quickly leads to more and more bodies, and then eventually drops them right into a nightmare that's lasted for nearly a decade and involves a local medical clinic, a huge religious organization, and . . .Tempe's somewhat-goofy ex-husband Pete.

Though I love these novels and have greatly enjoyed every single one, I do at long last have a complaint I can't keep to myself anymore, as it's something I noticed in the last book as well and I'm already getting really tired of it. Reichs has started to rely on a writing gimmick I find extremely annoying -- ending every chapter with a "cliffhanger" to make sure we keep turning the pages. This is okay when done a few times in a novel -- but EVERY CHAPTER? First of all, it makes the chapter breaks feel stilted and unnatural. Here's an example of what I mean ( I'm completely making this up in terms of content, but not in terms of effect): ". . .She cut into the body and, oh my god! What she found inside was so horrific and amazing it would CHANGE TEMPE'S LIFE FOREVER! . . . Chapter Ten: The victim had eaten a Big Mac for dinner last night." I realize the point of doing this is to make the book impossible to put down, but first of all, the reality is that sometimes I actually do need to be able to put my book down, and second of all, this is just such a cheap gimmick, and Reichs is too good of a writer to need to rely on it. This is a trick used when you don't think your plot and characters are strong enough to keep your reader turning the pages -- and Reichs's always are. Back away from the cliff, Ms. Reichs. This extra drama is just so unnecessary!

Anyway, despite that little annoyance, this book, as well as the entire series so far, still kicks butt. If you're a fan of forensics and well-written mysteries, definitely check these out!
[MYSTERY]

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(1/18) Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier. (read me!)

Before I get started with my critique of this novel, I want to say right off the bat that while I was disappointed by this book, I still enjoyed it overall, recommend it, and think it was a fairly decent read. I say that because I'm about to spend the rest of this review telling you why I began this book excited beyond belief and ended it a bit let-down. You see, when I read Frazier's first novel, Cold Mountain, I thought it was so brilliantly written that I made my mom read it as well. And then the two of us made my great aunt read it. And pretty soon, the three of us were swapping favorite passages, marveling over the brilliance of the writing, and just going nuts in general over the fact we'd discovered this amazing novel that all three of us loved and that got us talking to each other about literature and books and writing and our mutual love of words in general. It was a great couple of weeks, and now that my great aunt (who I adored and was close to) is gone, I still think about that time pretty fondly. When I started this novel, Frazier's long-awaited second book, I thought of my aunt again, and wished I could talk to her about this one too.

It started off pretty well -- I even emailed my mom the text of the first two paragraphs because they were gorgeous and I was so excited I was about to read another book that would blow my literary socks off. But by about page fifty, the luster was beginning to fade. By the one-third mark, I had emailed my mom again, this time to tell her there was no hurry to pick this one up after all, and now that I'm finally done with it, I can say I'm glad I read it, but that I don't imagine I'll ever have the desire to read it again (unlike Cold Mountain, which I've reread more than once already).

The story opens with an old man, Will Cooper, sitting in a chair talking about the olden days. As his story begins, we learn Will was an orphan sold at age 14 by his aunt and uncle to a man who wanted him to run one of his supply stores way out in the middle of Cherokee country. The boy is sent there with little information and no real skills, but he's smart and soon is not only is running the store successfully, but is the owner of it and another one several towns away. As he gets older, he befriends the local Cherokee population and eventually becomes a "white chief," who tries to protect the Cherokees when the U.S. Government comes in and tries to push them off their land. The story eventually takes us back to a real historical event -- the forced expulsion of over 15,000 Cherokees who are sent packing along what was later known as "The Trail of Tears."

It's a powerful story, but my problem with this novel was that, eventually, it started to feel like that story and the characters involved in it were secondary to Frazier's real purpose for writing this novel: to show off his masterful grasp of the English language. There are so many superfluous passages in this novel that felt like they were included simply because Frazier is madly in love with his own written voice. But while he truly IS a beautiful writer, this kind of literary self-absorption gets old pretty quickly. Passages that, alone, might've moved me beyond belief were, taken in tandem with the rest of the book, much more likely to make me roll my eyes. I started to get so sick of his flowery analogies and stylistically-stilted wit, two elements I had loved when I first started reading, that I began to skim sections, trying to find the point where the actual story started up again. And even then, I felt like this "excess of style" (I'm not sure what else to call it) finally sucked all the characters under, so that ultimately they really almost ceased to exist for me. They never became like real people, and that made it pretty impossible to become emotionally involved in the wrenching things that happened to some of them.

All that aside, I do still think this is a decent novel, and people who are interested in Native American history, or in American history in general, should definitely pick it up. Just know that at some point, the writing may start to irritate you and, when you hit that point, feel free to skim the extra paragraphs -- you'll know them when you see them as they frequently start out with flowery descriptions of local terrain.
[FICTION]

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(1/10) Sorcery and Cecelia OR The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. (read me!)

You see? THIS is why I love it when you guys email me with suggestions. Because there's no way I would've ever come across this novel (if only because it would've been in the Young Adult section at the library, where I rarely venture) had it not been for the awesome reader who wrote to tell me she thought I'd really enjoy it. Truth is, I didn't just enjoy this novel -- I LOVED it! It was one of the most thoroughly entertaining and absorbing books I've come across in some time. An absolute pleasure from start to finish.

It's an epistolary novel, made up of letters being sent from one young cousin, Kate, to another, Cecy. It's set in the late 1800's in England, and as it opens, Kate has just left home to spend the Season in London (essentially, her coming-out into society), leaving her close friend and cousin Cecy back home (Cecy is a year younger). Almost right off the bat, though, Kate's supposed-to-be-tranquil Season turns into a harrowing adventure when she is nearly poisoned to death by an evil witch named Miranda who mistakes her for her nemesis, the magical Marquis (Miranda thinks the Marquis has cast a spell on himself to make him look like someone else). Narrowly escaping, Kate and the Marquis soon find themselves teamed up to try to stop Miranda's evil plans to destroy both the Marquis AND her own daughter, a friend of Kate and Cecy's. Meanwhile, back at home, Cecy is getting sucked into the same adventure when she discovers that her neighbor, Sir Hilary, is Miranda's partner and has in his possession a magical chocolate pot that holds the key to the Marquis's destruction. Cecy enlists the help of another young wizard, James, and the two of them struggle to stop Sir Hilary before he figures out how to use the pot to steal the Marquis's powers and end his life.

Anyway, the plot is kind of hard to explain, now that I find myself getting right down to it. But perhaps it would suffice to simply say this novel reads like it was written by the love child of Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and Pride and Prejudice's Jane Austin. I absolutely LOVED every word of it, especially when I learned that it was written using "The Letter Game," a variant of which my mom and I used to "play" when I was younger. That is, authors Wrede and Stevermer essentially took on the parts of Kate and Cecy and wrote the letters to each other, each playing their respective roles, with no plan for the plot in mind when they began. As Kate's latest letter arrived for one author, she would write Cecy's response back, adding a bit to the story with each exchange. When they were done, it occurred to them they might be able to turn the piles of letters into an actual book, and thus this novel was born. When I was a kid, my mom and I did the same thing once just using a notebook that we passed back and forth (including sections from my best friend at the time, as well). So, it was a thrill to remember back to my youth when I read about Wrede and Stevermer's "Letter Game." And, even better, it turns out this novel is just one in a series, so I will get to enjoy more from Kate and Cecy soon!

Highly, HIGHLY recommended! Thank you, Awesome Reader who suggested this one to me! You are the best!
[FICTION]

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(1/7) 2182 kHz by David Masiel. (read me!)

I've had this book out from the library more than once because it just sounded so much like my kind of thing -- a guy named Henry Seine is working on a tugboat up along the Alaskan coast when he picks up on a distress call and mounts a rescue mission. But, the fact I had it out so many times should've told me something, because every time I checked it out, I read the first chapter, and then promptly decided I wasn't in the mood for it. I'd turn the book back in, and a few months later find it on the shelf and pick it up again. This time, I was determined to read the darn thing, as the cycle was just getting vicious. But, as it turns out, there IS no mood that works with this book, because it's simply not that good.

As the story opens, Henry has sacrificed his marriage for his dubious career, thinking he had to keep his wife in money in order to keep her in happiness. He bounces from job to job up in the icy waters, from what I think was an oil drilling station to a tug boat staffed with a bunch of totally crazy coworkers (I guess you'd almost have to be nuts to be in their line of work, though), and out of sheer boredom, he turns to the distress channel to keep himself entertained. The actual rescue mission was the only part of this novel that was at all entertaining -- for the most part, the rest of the time I was as bored as Henry was. There's just something about reading about other people's ennui that is soooooooo. . . dull. Anyway, it's described on the book jacket as being The Perfect Storm crossed with Chuck Palahniuk. To which I reply: the hell you say. Do with this information what you will!
[FICTION]

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(1/2) Country Wives by Rebecca Shaw. (read me!)

This is the sequel to Shaw's earlier "Barleybridge novel," A Country Affair, which I enjoyed quite a bit (see July 2006). I enjoyed this one as well, but confess it wasn't nearly as much fun as the original. In this one, young Kate Howard is still working as a receptionist at the Barleybridge Veterinary Hospital, but she's become more determined than ever to qualify for veterinary school herself. Disappointingly, her new boyfriend from the previous novel, the enthusiastic and utterly charming Aussie vet Scott Spencer, has just kind of disappeared from the story altogether, with not much explanation as to where he went. Replacing him at the clinic is a stern, arrogant vet named Dan who starts his career off at Barleybridge by offending just about everybody he encounters. But Kate, and the others, soon realize that deep down, he's just a heartbroken man struggling to get through each difficult day now that his beloved wife has left him.

For a while, it looked like maybe he and Kate would get together, which I would've enjoyed. But for some reason, Shaw brings his estranged wife back at the very end and the two reconcile. And while that's okay too -- I liked Dan very much by the end of the novel and was glad to see him happy again -- the problem I had with this one is that I just really missed Scott and I, let alone poor dumped Kate, could've used a little rebound romance in the story myself. Scott was an extremely entertaining character and he brought a lot of energy to the story, so without him, I felt like this novel was a bit flat. I'm not sure what Shaw was thinking ditching him -- surely she must've known her readers would fall for him every bit as much as her characters did. My only hope is that he's destined to make a return in the next novel, Country Lovers, due out in the U.S. in April.

In any case, I did still thoroughly enjoy this novel -- the setting of an English vet hospital reminds me quite a bit of that old TV series All Creatures Great and Small (which I think I'll check for on DVD soon, actually). I definitely recommend the first novel to anybody who thinks it sounds like fun, and keep an eye out for my review of the third one this spring.
[FICTION]

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