January 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(1/28) Now & Then by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

I always get excited when I find out Parker's got a new Spenser hitting the shelves -- I've been reading this mystery series since I was 16, and it's one of the few that has remained consistently entertaining for decades. Though the plots have gotten a little thin in the last several years -- the books are heavy on white space and light on intricacies -- I haven't cared. I've loved the characters so much and for so long that I just want to hang out with them for a few hours, whether they're solving a mystery, making dinner, or simply chillin' on the couch with Pearl. These books are fun -- they're not brilliant, they're not great literature -- they're just FUN. And there's something to be said for a book like that every now and then. Or should I say, now & then. Heh.

In this installment, the mystery plot kicks off when a middle-aged FBI agent comes to Spenser asking him to investigate his wife, whom he suspects is having an affair. Spenser follows her and quickly discovers her husband's suspicions are correct. When he slips a bug into her purse, though, he learns she's actually a victim herself of sorts. Her seducer, a guy named Perry, is the leader of a rebellious political group with ties to terrorism, and he's clearly using her to find out what her government-agent-husband is up to. When Perry finds out about Spenser's recording, he immediately has both the woman and her husband killed. And then he makes the biggest mistake of his life: he comes after Susan.

Though I felt like the resolution of this plotline was a bit too abrupt and lackluster -- a problem I've had with the last several Spenser's, actually -- this was another delightful and engaging installment, loaded with Parker's typical witty banter and a new development in Spenser and Susan's relationship that is going to make long-time fans yell with a grin, "It's about damn time!" This is really a series not to be missed by mystery fans, though if you like your novels with a bit more meat on their bones, you might want to start with the earlier ones. Recommended!

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(1/20) The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman. (read me!)

This is my third Carol Goodman novel, and, like with the two I've read, it too is set in a close-knit community of sorts (The Lake of Dead Languages was set in a small prep school, The Seduction of Water, a resort hotel in the middle of nowhere). Also like the other two, the protagonist is a young artistic woman who feels like a bit of an outsider in the community and who gets wrapped up in a mystery of sorts. And while I will confess this set-up is starting to get a bit old and repetitive (Goodman, time to try something new!), I still really enjoyed this novel, as I did Lake and Seduction.

This time, the story is set at a remote and enormous old mansion in upstate New York, where artists have traveled each year for decades to work under the spell of the Bosco House and its fascinating history. This year's group of five include a woman named Bethesda writing a biography of the Bosco House's original owners (the Lathams), landscape architect David Fox, poet Zalman Bronsky, and two novelists: Nat Loomis, who had one successful novel and has yet to write a second and newbie Ellis Brooks, our narrator, who is working on her first book ever -- a fictionalized retelling of the tragedy that struck the Latham family one fateful year at Bosco.

You see, a hundred years ago, three of the Latham children died of diphtheria in a single summer. Devastated, Aurora Latham begged her husband Milo to bring to the house one of the most famous mediums around, a young woman named Corinth Blackwell (who, not-so-coincidentally, was also having an affair with Milo). Desperate to contact her three dead children, Aurora has Corinth begin a set of nightly seances. But one night, the seance turns deadly, and the next day, Corinth and her boyfriend, magician Tom Quinn, disappear from the Bosco House, along with Aurora's only remaining child, a little girl named April.

Ellis thinks it's a great story for a novel, and she's excited to live in the very house where the tale took place while writing it. But the more time she spends in the Bosco House, the more she and the others in the group start to experience some very weird sensations. Before long, a series of bizarre accidents begin to take place, putting all of them on edge just as a huge winter storm moves in. Soon, the group is working together to uncover the truth about what happened a century ago at Bosco, a sinister tale involving much more than meets the unenlightened eye.

This novel starts out extremely compelling -- I was immediately sucked in, and Goodman is a terrific writer when it comes to transporting her reader into the world she's describing. The problem I had with this novel mostly had to do with its final 75 or so pages, where all the loose ends are just too tidily tied up for me. Far too many characters in the modern tale end up being direct descendants of the older tale, and that just seemed sort of cheesy and convenient. Additionally, turning Ellis into a bit of a psychic herself felt unnecessary, and added an edge of disbelief to the whole concept for me. To be honest, I think if the only way you can legitimately have your characters solve their story's mystery is to turn one into a psychic, you've got some plot problems.

Nevertheless, this is a highly entertaining novel, and anybody who loves a spooky tale will undoubtedly enjoy it. I've really liked all of Goodman's novels so far and will definitely be looking for any I've missed out on soon. Recommended!

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(1/10) I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. (read me!)

This book is both extremely entertaining and REALLY bad. That is, once I picked it up, I literally couldn't put it down until I'd read the whole thing (it's a short novel, though, so don't panic). And yet, I spent at least half my time reading it rolling my eyes. The plot focuses on a man who, we come to realize, is the last human being alive on the planet, after a massive plague has turned everybody else into a blood-sucking vampire. As long as he only goes out during the day, covers his house in garlic and crosses, and follows all the rest of the standard vampire-avoidance rules, he's been able to survive and muddle through. So, every morning he goes out to run errands and then spends the rest of the day staking as many sleeping vampires he can find, watching the clock and the sky carefully for signs of impending dusk. And then every night, he locks himself into his house and drinks, trying to intoxicate-away the harrowing sounds of the hungry vamps outside his front door.

I won't tell you anything else about the plot, because half the fun of this book was having no idea what was going to happen (and, incidentally, I did like the twist at the end, though I think it would've been more effective had Matheson been more subtle about his "we're no different" morality lesson). But I will tell you that all the science in this novel -- and Matheson really makes an attempt to put a lot of it in there -- is totally and completely nonsensical. The revelation the guy makes that the way to kill vamps is to expose their insides to air, for example, makes no sense because he's already demonstrated that staking the vamps works, but shooting them with bullets does not (and yet, in the real world, if someone gets impaled on a sharpened fence post or shot with an arrow, that wound typically won't start bleeding externally until you pull the post/arrow OUT, because it's creating a seal that's keeping the insides from coming into contact with the outside, see?). And that's not the only inconsistency -- the novel is absolutely riddled with them. Not to mention the fact all that stuff about bacteria was just . . . I mean, even though it was relatively textbook-accurate, it still made absolutely zero sense whatsoever.

But, while I've said before I find Matheson to be an utterly abominable writer, the man can definitely tell an entertaining story, and this book is no exception. It's repetitive, it's full of things that make no sense, and it's packed with continuity problems. Yet, at the same time, as I said, once I picked it up, there was just really no putting it back down. I'm eager to see the movie versions now (both the older Omega Man and the current Will Smith film), just to see how different they are from the novel. And if you enjoy a vamp yarn and haven't read this one yet, definitely add it to your list. Make sure you go to bed early the night you decide to start it, though, as you'll be up way past your bedtime if you don't!

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(1/7) Saturday by Ian McEwan. (read me!)

It always takes me a while to settle into an Ian McEwan novel -- his writing style is so unlike that of any other author I read regularly, it sort of throws me for a loop at first. For one thing, McEwan takes the time to describe the smallest of things in his narratives, and, at first, I often find myself kind of impatient with his wordiness and detail. But about 20 or 30 pages in, I invariably start sinking into the world he's creating, and after that, I have a hard time putting his books back down. He writes with a deliberate slowness that somehow manages to build up suspense in a way that is so subtle you barely realize it's happening until you look at the clock and it's suddenly two hours past your bedtime. This is one of the numerous things that makes McEwan, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and unique authors the modern era has ever seen.

This novel is set not long after 9/11 and opens with a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, awake in the wee hours of the morning for a reason he can't quite pinpoint. On a whim, he rises and goes to the window, where he suddenly sees a plane crash in the distance. Though he's startled, his reaction to the crash is surprisingly subdued. Nevertheless, the plane is about to serve as a motif for the day Henry's going to have, as things in his own life start to collapse and burn shortly thereafter.

On his way to a racquetball game later in the morning, Perowne gets into a car accident with a group of hoodlums, one of whom he immediately diagnoses with Huntington's Disease. The hoodlum is taken aback by Henry's interest in his condition, and this distraction gives Perowne just enough time to skedaddle away.

Later in the day, however, the hoodlums track Henry down, this time breaking into his house and holding him and his family at gunpoint. How this scene unfolds is absolutely riveting. But, as with the other McEwan novels I've read, the actual storyline really isn't the part of the novel that pulled me so deeply in. It's much more the characters themselves -- their personalities and conversations with each other. In this one, those conversations focus a lot on the nature of art vs. science (Henry, the neurosurgeon, has no idea how he managed to spawn a daughter who is a published poet and a son who's a jazz musician, but he almost achingly wishes he could be more like them), as well as the politics of the post-9/11 world.

And, of course, there's this thought-provoking little element running in the background that directly relates to the modern world too -- the difference between Henry's "subdued" emotional reaction to the plane crash (during which, for all he knew, dozens of people might've been killed) and his reaction to what happens to him personally later in the day. I'm still turning this over and over in my head periodically, thinking about the way this relates to our nation's reaction to the attacks on 9/11, and, even more personally, to our individual responses to tragedies all over our planet that don't directly impact us. I have no idea if McEwan meant for us to pull that out -- but I did anyway, and I find myself unable to let it go. The fact I'm still trying to process my thoughts on it several days after finishing the novel is just another testament, I think, to the genius of Ian McEwan. If you haven't read any of his books yet, you definitely ought to give one a try. This is a good one to start with, if it sounds intriguing, and his novel Atonement is also very engaging, as well as quite popular at the moment due to the Keira Knightley film version currently in theaters. Highly recommended!

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