July 2002
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


2003 and Before


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  • (7/30) A Year in Van Nuys by Sandra Tsing Loh.

    Very funny novel about a kooky middle-aged woman, Sandra (playing a fictional version of herself), trying to come to terms with the fact her life hasn't gone quite as she planned. She's been struggling to write a novel, and failing. Her quirky, comic column for a new women's on-line magazine gets cancelled when she sort of accidentally insults the new editor (oops!). Her TV show, based on her column, never gets off the ground. Her eye bags and extra ten pounds are driving her nuts. Etc. etc. All in all, not really a story we haven't heard before (think Bridget Jones). And, additionally, Loh's style, full of cross-outs and parentheticals and lots of tangents, started to grate on me after awhile. It's really a style better suited for short pieces. This meant that the sections that were essays Sandra wrote for the web site were wonderful -- and the narrative in between was kind of too cutesy for its own good. Nevertheless, there were many parts that made me giggle so madly that people on the bus started to move away from me -- always a good sign. And I will probably look for more of Loh's work (though will stay away from her novels, most likely). Recommended for anybody looking for a good beach book or for people who are already a fan of Loh's and just want to spend some more time inside her very wacky head.

  • (7/26) Widow's Walk by Robert B. Parker.

    Oh man, is there ANYTHING better than a Spenser novel? Ooh! Ooh! Yes! A NEW Spenser novel. And this one is a mighty fine one, to boot. This time, Spenser is hired to help a lawyer who is defending a woman accused of murdering her husband. Both the lawyer and Spense are convinced the woman is FAR too stupid to have actually done it. And that conviction is only strengthened when someone starts tailing Spenser and, ultimately, tries to kill him. Clearly, someone doesn't want him to find out the truth about the man's death. But, well, don't these bad guys read Spenser novels? That's exactly the kind of thing that makes Spenser's entire day! An excuse to use those boxing skills and that sharp, sleuthing brain! An excuse to hurl fabulous and literary insults! An excuse to get Hawk on the case with him! Bad guys, you're such fools!

    Of course, the plots of Spenser novels are always secondary to me. The best part of about them is getting to spend some time with the regular cast again. And they're all here, of course -- Spenser, Susan, Pearl the Wonder Dog, Hawk, Belson. All here and all just as hilarious and wonderful as ever. Everybody's older (Pearl, especially) and their relationships are just as realistic and strong as they've always been. The writing made me laugh out loud more times than I could count, and I read the whole novel in one sitting because it's the perfect length, with a great story, a great cast, and some of the greatest lines ever ("when you make tea, you burn the WATER!"). Typical Parker in every way -- fantastic. If you have never read a Spenser novel, you're the biggest fool I know. Highly recommended!

  • (7/24) Valentine by Lucius Shepard.

    Short novel written in the form of a letter from a man, Russell, to his married lover, Kay. It recounts their last encounter -- their first encounter since Kay went back to her manipulative husband six years ago. An encounter that began purely by chance. A hurricane shuts down the roads out of a small town and, unbeknownst to them both, they check into the same hotel for refuge. Upon seeing each other, all the old feelings come flooding back to them and they spend the next several days wild with passion and, at times, overwhelmed with pain. Though they make promises to stay together this time, they both seem to know, deep down, that it won't happen. They try to live in denial of it, but, as the letter shows, their determination to make it work this time fades almost the moment they separate and return to their regular lives. The letter is a valentine to Kay -- a soft, quiet plea for her to reconsider her perpetual decision not to try to break free from her husband. Her perpetual decision to break Russell's heart over and over instead of doing what they both really want. The fact that she does that, and the fact that he lets her, is so realistic. It's something you don't often see in a story about lovers of this type. I found this to be an incredibly real and moving description of the anguish of impossible love. Nothing like it, really. And that feeling -- you never ever forget it, even if your life's new path takes you somewhere you love just as much. Beautiful. Recommended.

  • (7/23) The Big Thaw by Donald Harstad.

    If you've been keeping up, you'll already know I stumbled on this series a few weeks ago, when I read Harstad's most recent novel in the Carl Houseman (a small-town Iowa deputy) series, "Code Sixty-One." I then read the first in the series, "Eleven Days." Loved 'em both so much, I promptly put all the others on hold at the library.

    This one features all the same regulars: Hester Gorse, Carl, Lamar, Sally; and this time it doesn't have anything to do with anything too freaky (61 was about vampires, 11 about satanists). Well, okay, it's about an anti-government militia group (wait, is that an oxymoron?) -- that might be considered kind of freaky in some circles. But at least there are no children of the night and upside-down crucifixes, right?

    Anyway, the head militia guy, a notorious killer named Gabriel, has been preparing to rob five banks in Nation County. When two thieves break into the house where he's been staying, he murders them to keep them quiet (and also because he thinks they are FBI and he hates FBI). This gets Carl, et al, on the case, of course, though at first, they suspect a friend of the two dead robbers. Just because he seems to have been the only person who knew they were going to be there.

    Soon, however, they discover Gabriel has been back in town and, not only that, was crashing at the scene of the crime while he plotted a massive heist. First of all, Carl and the gang need to figure out which banks are going to be hit so they can get teams in place before it goes down. Second of all, it would be nice to find out just where Gabriel is. Really nice. Fortunately, two of Gabriel's men are arrested and are all too happy to give Carl information on the plan -- especially after Gabriel tries to have them killed while they're in custody. Unfortunately, they're both stupid and Gabriel never really trusted them with any serious details.

    The last hundred pages of this novel were so suspenseful and marvelous, I had to stay up WAY past my bedtime to finish them. There was just no putting the book down once the bank heist began. This is, like the others I've read, just a magnificent mystery with fantastic, funny characters and a supremely entertaining and clever plot. If you're a fan of small-town cop mysteries and you haven't started this series yet, you've got a lot of great reading in store for you. Can't wait to read the others!

  • (7/19) Some Deaths Before Dying by Peter Dickinson.

    Ninety year old Rachel Matson lies in bed, paralyzed from the neck down by a progressive neurogenic illness that will soon take her life. Mostly, she spends her time looking at the hundreds of photographs she took during her lifetime, remembering the wonderful times spent with her long-since-deceased, beloved husband Jocelyn.

    When her son Dick comes for a visit out of the blue, she is immediately suspicious he is up to no good. Sure enough, he tells Rachel he'd just seen one of a pair of valuable antique pistols that belonged to Jocelyn on the "Antiques Roadshow." The pistols, a gift from Rachel to celebrate Jocelyn's safe return from a WWII POW camp, have tremendous sentimental value to her. Clearly Dick is merely interested in selling them for cash, however, so instead of taking him up on his offer to help track the missing gun down, Rachel shoos him away.

    She then has her nurse pull the old pistol case out of the hiding hole she had put it in years before. Sure enough, one of the guns is missing. And, not only that, she remembers Dick saying the Roadshow expert had devalued the missing gun, saying it had been put away dirty after firing and was damaged as the powder sat against the metal for a time. Knowing Jocelyn would never have neglected to clean the gun, let alone allowed it to be separated from its mate, Rachel enlists the help of her trusty and delightful nurse Dilys and the two of them begin making calls.

    Together, they begin a search that ultimately leads Rachel back to her husband's friends from WWII. A group of them, all survivors from the same POW camp, had formed an organization after the war. One story about the group in particular stands out in Rachel's mind. Something about some stolen money, a broken engagement, and then a disappearance. But Jocelyn had always been very secretive about it all. Convinced that that story and the two guns are connected, Rachel becomes determined to uncover the truth before she dies. No matter how many closeted skeletons she has to let out in the process.

    This was a totally riveting novel. Fascinating plot -- complex, original, and packed with absolutely wonderful characters and history. I just loved it. Highly, highly recommended!

  • (7/14) Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.

    Terrific novel that has a murder mystery plotline as its backbone but is really about a lot more. It starts with the story of three young boys (Jimmy, Sean, and Dave) -- all friends -- and a kidnapping that changes their relationships forever. Then the novel leaps forward about twenty years. The three boys are now men, complete with families, careers, and a lot of baggage.

    They are brought back together when Jimmy's daughter Katie is murdered; Sean, now a police detective, is put on the case; and Dave rapidly becomes the prime suspect. But this novel is really more about issues of social class, small town life, family loyalty, psychological scars, and the difficult choices all these things force us to make at times. Choices we so often make so instinctively. So thoughtlessly. And sometimes so regrettably.

    In a lot of ways, this novel reminded me of "Snow Falling on Cedars." I mean, really, two books couldn't be more different, but at the same time, they felt very similar to me. Both feature a murder as the skeleton, but are made much heavier with the meat of social and familial issues. In both novels, love makes people do crazy things -- and it also threatens to destroy some of them. Two very fine "literary" mysteries. Both highly recommended!

  • (7/11) The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke.

    Two high school girls are chatting in the school bathroom one morning when they hear gunshots in the hallway. Suddenly, the gunman, a classmate, burst into the room and sees them there. He quite calmly announces that he's going to kill one of them. And then he asks them to choose. Diane, without hesitation, says, "Kill her. Not me."

    And he does.

    That's Chapter One. In the rest of the novel, we see Diane as a middle-aged woman, still tortured by what she said back in that bathroom. Her shame is intense -- stemming not only from the fact her words got her friend killed, but from the fact they were so instinctive. So immediate. So cowardly. Everything about her life has been colored by the fact that the very existence of her life at all is so horrific. As the novel progresses, we see both Diane's vibrant youth and her solemn middle age and how inevitable a life can seem when it's looked at backwards. How much of life is lost to youth and bad choices -- and how much can be gained from that loss. This is a stunningly original and moving novel. Intense, sad, beautiful, tragic, and highly recommended.

  • (7/10) Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death by Jessica Synder Sacks.

    The title kinda says it all -- this is a fascinating non-fiction book about the various methods used (past and present) to determine time of death. Though many of us are under the impression this is a relatively simple task (after all, they do it on tv all the time!), in reality, it's actually one of the most difficult calculations a medical examiner is asked to make. And, unlike many of the other realms of forensic science, it's one area where natural methods trump technological ones. Plants, chemicals, and insects found on or near the body are turning out to be the fiercest weapons in the forensic scientist's arsenal.

    This is not only an interesting look at the history of a criminal investigation tool, but also a remarkable and almost beautiful examination of what happens to our bodies when we give them back to the earth. A must-read for all armchair forensic expert wannabes or anyone else who just thinks science is damn cool. Recommended!

  • (7/6) Empire Falls by Richard Russo.

    Extremely comic novel about 40-something Miles Roby, proprietor of the Empire Grill, a greasy burger joint located in the heart of the small Maine town Empire Falls. Though Roby is sort of the central focal point of the novel, it's the characters who rotate wildly around him that really made this story a blast. First, there's his teenage daughter (who is everything you'd expect from a teenage in a small town with divorced parents). Then there's Roby's ex-wife Janine, his cantankerous father Max, and the rich, manipulative widow Francine who owns the Grill and takes an almost sick joy in making Roby's life difficult.

    There are so many plotlines in this novel -- everything from romance to social class satire -- that you'd think it would drive you nuts trying to keep track. Instead, Russo is somehow able to keep every storyline in steady orbit around our Good Guy hero Miles. And the result is a novel that feels both controlled and chaotic. An epic of both large and small proportions, if that makes any sense. Even without the characters, this book would have been amazing, just in scope and structure. But add to that a town full of characters that have the power to make you laugh even as you ache with them from their miseries and what you have is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Highly recommended to anybody who appreciates a finely crafted piece of fiction. Or who is just out for a really great ride.

  • (7/1) A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel.

    This is a pleasant little memoir about Kimmel's childhood in a small (pop: 300) rural community in Indiana. Lots of stories about pigs, chickens, dogs, and her crazy friends and family. But, to be honest, in my opinion this book lacked whatever it is that usually makes me so love a memoir. Maybe it's that the stories are very short and not terribly cohesive. Maybe it was that occasionally Kimmel's writing kind of irked me (more than once, she used an analogy that sounded clever but actually made no sense to me -- like describing an overweight lady who'd just fallen in a mud puddle as lying there spread-eagled "like an artifact." Huh?) Maybe, too, it was the fact that I didn't get much of a sense of who Kimmel is today, as the result of her experiences. Her stories are funny and I laughed out loud more than once. But they seemed impersonal. Detached, somehow. As though she'd heard them from someone else and was relating them, not as though she'd experienced them, they'd changed her, and she wanted to share them with us. While most memoirs make me feel close to the writer (occasionally so close that I actually worry about them later!), this one really made me feel nothing. I was amused, but I wasn't affected. And I'm left with no real curiosity for how the rest of Kimmel's life has turned out. Kind of a disappointment.

    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
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