July 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (7/28) The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by "Avi."

    It's 1832 and thirteen year-old Charlotte Doyle is supposed to meet up with a family her father knows who have agreed to chaperone her on her sea voyage from England to Rhode Island (where her family moved a few months prior, leaving Charlotte behind to finish the school year). Much to Charlotte's surprise and dismay, however, the family never shows on the docks, and she is left to board the ship totally alone, with only nine dirty sailors and the ship's captain for company. Luckily, the captain seems to be a man of some quality and he quickly befriends Charlotte and promises to look out for her.

    And so the voyage begins. Charlotte quickly becomes bored with her plan to stay in her cabin and read books to better herself and soon begins to venture out, gradually befriending members of the crew, despite the fact she openly considers them beneath her (don't worry, she learns her lesson about smugness later). This familiarity, however, leads the crew to be less cautious about what she overhears in their company, and when Charlotte hears a group of them planning a murderous mutiny, she quickly races to the captain to warn him.

    Never has Charlotte regretted anything as much as she comes to regret her decision to rat on the crew. Because by the end of the trip, Charlotte is wearing pants, climbing the rigging herself, and, finally, fighting for her life, sentenced to hanging for the murder of another shipmate. She has only 24 hours before the captain intends to put the noose around her neck -- 24 hours to figure out who she can trust, and who is only acting trustworthy so they can more readily sneak up and stab her in the back.

    This short novel, which was an ALA Notable Book for young adults in 1990, is something I would have absolutely LOVED when I was thirteen myself. And, even at 29, it was a pleasure to behold. The writing is terrific and the story is utterly gripping. Also, there is just the right amount of detail about the ship and ship's customs, along with a diagram of the ship's various masts and sails, and a glossary of terms in the back. Absolutely wonderful and highly recommended to readers of all ages!
    [FICTION]

  • (7/25) Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling.

    I'm not going to say too much about this one, because anything I could say would just spoil it for those of you who haven't yet gotten your hands on a copy of it. Suffice it to say I definitely think this, the latest in the Harry Potter series, is the best installment yet, with absolutely wonderful villains, hilarious antics and pranks, a riveting storyline, and a lot of interesting and enlightening character and relationship developments. Rowling has said she cried while she was typing up the scene in which one of the characters is killed, but I confess I didn't get misty until much later -- when I read the final paragraph, closed the book, and realized my week-long adventure with Harry and his mates was at an end. This series is just getting better and better. It's an utter delight and I cannot wait for the next installment (here's to hoping it doesn't take Rowling QUITE so long to crank that one out!). Highly, HIGHLY recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (7/16) Bare Bones by Kathy Reichs.

    This novel, the latest in the Tempe Brennan, forensic anthropologist, series, has got me a little worried that Kathy Reichs may be going the way of Patricia Cornwell. After all, both of their popular series share several common story elements -- Kay Scarpetta and Tempe Brennan are very similar women living very similar lives. And, both series started out totally terrific - some of the most entertaining mysteries of all time. But Cornwell's books started to get sloppy several novels ago, and now it looks like Reichs' are headed down the same rotten path.

    This new installment, the sixth in the series, has an intriguing plotline. One afternoon, while picnicking on the fields of a remote, abandoned farm, Tempe's dog starts to go crazy. He begins to tear at the earth over by the treeline, and moments later, he's discovered a pile of bones. Tempe quickly calls in the cops and organizes an official dig for more remains. When she gets the bones back to her lab, she determines that they are primarily skeletal bear remains. Except for the couple of human fingers. Uh oh.

    Back to the farm the gang all heads, where they quickly discover in an outhouse the rest of a pair of hands, as well as a skull. In the meantime, a few other strange events are popping up - a small plane crash in which a pile of drugs is discovered along with the dead bodies of the two passengers, the discovery of a set of feathers from an extremely rare bird, threatening emails in Tempe's inbox, and the mysterious disappearance of a couple of Fish and Wildlife agents. Somehow, it seems, all these events are connected - connected to a woman whose baby Tempe found burned up in a furnace about a week before she found the bear bones. But how?

    Okay, so, the storyline was a bit convoluted, but it was still as entertaining as ever, and so was the science (though there was not nearly as much science this time as is usual for Reichs, much to my dismay). What's changed is Tempe, who in this novel rolls her eyes at least every other page and has turned into a crass, insulting, stuck-up-sticky-beak. She goes on and on (and on and ON) about how much she hates cop Skinny Slidell for how uncouth he is, and yet she spends a great deal of her time insulting people left and right (inwardly and outwardly). Making fun of their clothes, their body size, their mannerisms, etc. The only person she doesn't insult is her new love interest. And frankly, despite that, I couldn't figure out what that great guy was doing with her. Which is strange, because previously, I thought Tempe Brennan was one bitchin' chick.

    Additionally, it seemed like every chapter ended in a cliffhanger. The last sentence was always a variation on "And you'll never guess what happened next!" And while this can create an entertaining "page-turner" effect when used every now and then, when it happens at the end of practically every chapter, it just feels amateurish and clumsy. As though Reichs realized her story was flawed and had to come up with some other way to make sure people kept reading. Or, even worse, as though Reichs has just started to focus on quantity instead of quality.

    Overall, I still enjoyed this novel and will be looking forward to the future installments, just as I still look forward to new Kay Scarpetta novels, despite the fact they usually disappoint me now. Fans of the series will definitely want to pick this one up. Newbies, though, should start at the beginning ("Grave Secrets"), not only because the novels contain plot elements that carry over, but because if you start with "Bare Bones," you'll never read the others. And thus, will miss out on the ones that made Tempe Brennan great. May Reichs be reading all the negative reviews of her latest and take their words to heart. This is one series I'd hate to lose.
    [MYSTERY]

  • (7/13) East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

    My Mom, an ex-English teacher, was amazed to hear that I, an ex-English major, had never read this novel and she suggested I pick it up, despite my protestations (read "Grapes of Wrath" -- wasn't that impressed). When I saw a nice new paperback edition of it for sale in the local bookstore (at half-price, no less), I bought it, though I'll confess that at the time I still wasn't sure I'd actually read it. After all, summer is not usually the best time for tomes (and at 600+ pages, this is definitely a tome) and I had a bunch of other books on my shelf I was eager to get to. Good, trashy, summery books. Like "Sanctuary" by William Faulkner (coming soon).

    Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try. Mom's are so often right about these things, after all. And boy am I glad I did. This is an absolutely riveting novel about three generations of fathers and sons, brothers and brothers, and their complex and often violent relationships to each other and those around them. There's love. There's hate. There's jealously and desire. Brawling and bawling. War. Honor. Introspection. Extroversion. Mind-broadening. Friendships. Despair. Tragedy. And a fair smattering of self-fulfilled prophecy to pull it all together. In short, there's a reason why they call these kinds of books "time honored classics" -- not much has changed, when you look closely, between the world of Steinbeck and the world of today.

    This is a terrific, fast-paced novel that would go great with a weekend at the beach, believe it or not. You will be engrossed, so watch out for sunburn. And, as if that weren't enough, this new Penguin paperback edition is just a mighty good-lookin' book. Recommended!
    [LITERATURE]

  • (7/6) Cuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin.

    Tattlin's husband's job kept the family living all over the world. For years, she begged him to find a position a little closer to home, the U.S. But she was a little surprised the day he came home and announced she'd gotten her wish -- sort of. They were moving to Cuba.

    Intrigued and a bit intimidated, Isadora pledged to keep a diary of her time in Havana, and this book is the result. Packed with fascinating descriptions of the country, its culture, its people, and their politics, this book was an absolute delight. I was having so much fun sinking into Tattlin's Cuban world, I hardly noticed how much I was learning about that enigmatic, isolated, beautiful country.

    This is a great book for people who like a little education with their entertainment. And I hope that wherever the Tattlin family is living now, Isadora is keeping a journal! Armchair travel doesn't get much better than this -- recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (7/2) Tell No One by Harlan Coben.

    Eight years ago, Dr. David Beck's life was perfect. He was a successful surgeon, married to his high school sweetheart, the only girl he'd ever loved. But on the 21st anniversary of their first kiss, something terrible happened. The two of them were spending a romantic night at the old family lake when Elizabeth mysteriously disappears. Her body was later found miles from the lake. She had been tortured and the signature of an infamous serial killer was left at the scene. When the killer was caught, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison, David thought the nightmare might finally be over.

    But he was wrong. Now, eight years later, a message has suddenly appeared on David's computer. It contains clues, including a secret phrase only he and Elizabeth knew about. Suddenly, he is faced with the idea that somewhere, somehow, Elizabeth is still alive. But how can that be? Her father identified her body -- it had to be Elizabeth!

    But Beck can't put the idea out of his mind. He begins to look back at the details of what happened that night eight years ago. Only, the people he's been questioning are showing up dead the next day, with clues left at the scene that lead the police to his front door. What's more, whoever is sending the emails is now sending him warnings -- tell no one, you're being followed, etc. etc. The more Beck pries into the past in an attempt to find Elizabeth in the present, the more some really bad dudes start to get antsy. The murder of Elizabeth was calculated as part of a cover-up -- if she's really alive, they've got to kill her quick or else she can ruin everything for them and for their rich benefactor. Can David find her before they do, though? Or before they find HIM?

    This novel was an absolute thrill-ride, fast-paced, suspenseful, and clever. It contained only one slight error -- Coben uses the term "microfiche" when he actually means "microfilm" -- But hey, we can't all be genius librarians, now, can we? This was a terrific book, perfect summer reading, and I'll definitely be hunting down more Coben novels soon. Highly recommended!
    [FICTION]


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