July 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (7/29) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling.

    As I've done with previous reviews of Harry Potter books, I'm not going to say a single word about the actual plot of this, the newest installment in what is, hands-down, one of the greatest fiction series in all of literary history. However, I do have a few comments to make. The main one is that I was slightly disappointed by a few elements of "Half-Blood Prince," though it's still overall as captivating as the others have been. I think one of the reasons I feel this way is simply because Rowling really gets down to business in this novel -- she has a lot to do when it comes to setting up what needs to happen in the final book (coming next), and she spends most of her time doing that, at the expense of some of the fun imaginative stuff. In fact, two of the major plot elements of this novel were disappointingly unimaginative, and one of those two was even eye-roll-inducingly cliche (if you want to know which two I'm referring to, email me). It's still got some entertaining silliness ("U-No-Poo" leaps right to mind), but for the most part, lots of bad stuff happens and there's an overall sense of impending doom to the whole thing.

    That said, one thing I really LIKED about this installment is the way Rowling finally started letting the characters develop some real romantic relationships. This is not a heavy focus to the novel, but all along, we've been exposed to a variety of types of couples, from Harry's parents' idyllic marriage, to the stilted functionality of the Dursleys, to the spicy chaos of Mr. and Mrs. Weasley. Now we watch as the next generation starts to experiment with types of partners themselves, starting as we all did with the the "dumb but highly smoochable" type and eventually figuring out that there's more to romance than "snogging." Meanwhile, Rowling sets us up to assume that one of the other relationships introduced in this novel is purely based on dumb-smoochability. But just when we have gotten smug about our judgment, we find out we were completely wrong and that in relationships, as in books, one is always wise not to judge by the cover. Anyway, the romance lessons are not exactly subtle, but they are long overdue, and Rowling does a terrific job of weaving it into the heavier storylines without letting it become distracting or all grody (though I have to say, the word "snogging" is just a wholly unattractive term for making out -- I totally agree with a friend of mine who recently emailed to say it makes her think of kissing someone who has a bad snotty head cold).

    This novel is the most serious of all the ones we've come up against so far (and the one least appropriate for little kids, I have to say, as well -- even I get the willies when I think of the inferi). We've gotten far away from the light-hearted magical silliness of the earlier books and though I had a hard time putting this book down once I started it (in fact, I read the last 75% of it in a single sitting), it wasn't because I was "enjoying" it so much as it was that I knew I had to get through it because I need to know that Harry's going to be okay. And I know I won't know until the very last page of the very last book. And the worst part about finishing "Half-Blood Prince"? Knowing I'll only get to read one more Harry Potter novel for the first time and then this amazing ride will be over forever. Ugh.

  • (7/23) What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg.

    As this novel opens, a middle-aged woman named Ginny is on a plane to go visit her mother after thirty-five years of estrangement. Her sister Sharla, her best friend as a child, has called to say she (Sharla) may have cancer and she wants Ginny to join her when she goes to tell their mother. As Ginny sips scotch on the flight to try to settle her nerves, she tells us the story of the root of this estrangement, taking us back to the 60's when she and her sister were little girls and a beautiful, mysterious woman named Jasmine Johnson moved in next door and changed everything.

    Berg's novels never cease to amaze me. They are some of the most simply written and yet emotionally complex novels I've ever read. Honest, real, relate-able. They're everything the new "chick lit" genre ought to be and isn't. She's just wonderful. If you've never read any Berg, this isn't a bad place to start. I'll be finally getting around to reading all the others I've missed soon. Recommended!

  • (7/21) All Thumbs Guide to Home Plumbing by Robert W. Wood.

    As you know, my husband and I just bought our first home. Last week, I managed to create our first serious plumbing problem when I put about 87 gazillion grapes down the garbage disposal at the same time and clogged up the sink. I tried plunging it with all my might for about a half an hour and, after that, was just completely clueless about what to do next. So, we had to call Roto Rooter, and 12 hours later, we had a functional kitchen sink, which was good, and a bill for about $200, which was significantly less than good. It was actually kind of ridiculous, considering the fact that if I knew a little more about plumbing and had the right tools, I could've fixed it myself. So, I promptly went on-line to the local public library and started putting books on hold.

    This is the first one that came in, and it's a good little book for total rookies like me. It's about 12 years old, but I figured the basics of plumbing probably haven't changed all that much since 1993. The book features large, simplified diagrams of various tools and systems, and step-by-step instructions on doing some common plumbing repairs on your own. I think that had I had this book last week, I might have gotten a little further with the kitchen sink, though it's hard to say. The bad thing about this book, though, is that it didn't address the other problem we're having, which is that our toilet sometimes doesn't stop running after you flush it. The book has a chapter on this, but it only uses a ball-float-type system as an example, and that's not the type of innards our toilet tank has.

    I think our problem is related to the float, which isn't a ball but is instead a hunk of circular plastic that sits on top of the vertical thingy that sits on top of the "ball cock" (a term I learned from the book and which I can't actually say without snickering, for obvious reasons). Our float doesn't really float all the way up sometimes, and to stop the running, you have to go in and lift it the rest of the way up. The previous owners had foolishly put a brick into the tank to conserve water, not, apparently, taking into consideration the fact that bricks are made out of mud, and that mud is made out of dirt and water. Put mud into more water and what you end up with is MORE MUD. It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist, no offense. So, our toilet tank is now disgustingly cruddy and even though I have replaced the brick with a 1L plastic bottle of water (which works just as well, I might add), I haven't had much success in getting rid of all the melted brick that remains. My guess is that all the parts now have a lot of dirt built up on them and that the float is so cruddy it can no longer float as freely and easily as it's supposed to. My float longs to be free! Free my float! Unfortunately, this book didn't show me how to take that type of apparatus apart so I could clean it, and I'm afraid to do that without instruction, lest I find myself unable to put it all back together. It's our only toilet, after all, and even though I live in the outdoorsy Northwest, I'm simply not the kind of girl who enjoys peeing in bushes.

    So, I'll have to wait for my next plumbing book to show up at the library. However, I did learn quite a bit from this guide about the basic structures and functions of home plumbing, and I would recommend it to anyone else who is just getting started. A great beginner's book. Incidentally, if you have any suggestions about my toilet, or recommendations for other good beginner home repair books, make sure to let me know!

  • (7/19) Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs.

    Ooh, there's just nothing quite so delightful as a new Temperance Brennan novel, and this, the latest in Reichs' always-awesome series, came into my hands on exactly the same day I saw the ad for her new TV show, "Bones," which is slated to start this September on FOX. It's a one-hour mystery drama based on this series and featuring Tempe Brennan, crime-solving forensic anthropologist! And, as if that weren't promising enough all by itself, it costars ex-Boyfriend David Boreanaz! Keep your fingers crossed that it'll be good AND that it won't get canceled just because I like it!

    As for the book, I can say with complete conviction that this is by far the best installment in this series yet. It begins with Tempe being called in to investigate the death of an Orthodox Jew who was found with a shotgun at his side in a closet. At first, everyone thinks it was a suicide, but Tempe's analysis of his skull proves otherwise. As she's leaving the autopsy room, another Orthodox Jew comes up to her and presses a photograph into her hands, saying it's the reason his friend was killed. The photo is of a skeleton and the writing on the back leads Tempe to believe it was taken during the excavation of Masada in Israel in the 1960's. Masada was sort of the Jewish counterpart to the Alamo, where hundreds of Jewish people, the story goes, had holed up to try to escape the Romans. When they realized the Roman army was on the verge of breaking in and slaughtering them all, they decided that rather than let them take their lives, they would kill themselves and go out by their own hands. When the site was excavated in the 60's, the archaeologist in charge of the dig very suspiciously omitted a few extremely interesting discoveries -- one of which, Tempe learns, was the presence of the unidentified skeleton in the photo. Why did he keep the skeleton a secret? As it turns out, it's because the identity of that skeleton may completely destroy the very foundations of Christianity as we know it.

    Probably the most fascinating thing about this story is the fact that it's based very much on fact. As Reichs herself writes at the beginning and end of the novel, the vast majority of the things in the novel about the bones, the dig in Israel, and the various people involved are actually true. I loved that she included so much information about the REAL case of the Masada skeleton -- that was a wonderful touch and it's definitely made me curious enough to want to read some of the other books she recommended. In short, this is a well-written, highly entertaining, and extremely educational and intelligent novel. One of the most wholly enjoyable books I've read all summer! Highly recommended, and don't forget to tune into "Bones" next fall!

  • (7/11) The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier.

    A month or so ago, I was interviewed on a California radio station about the Boyfriend of the Week site. At the end of the interview, the DJ guy gave me this quiz he gave all his interviewees, and one of the questions involved naming three books I'd recommend that everyone read. I had a hard time coming up with three separate books, but instead offered up some authors, one of which was Tracy Chevalier. I've loved everything I've read by Chevalier, and had been kind of saving this one, the last one of her novels I hadn't read. The time was right this week, though, and once again, Chevalier has completely enthralled me.

    This story, like "Girl with a Pearl Earring," is a fictional fantasy about the origins of a real-life, famous work of art. In this case, it's the famous "Lady and the Unicorn" series of tapestries by Nicolas des Innocents, which now hang in Paris's Musee National du Moyen-Age Thermes de Cluny. The novel opens with Nicolas being commissioned by the Parisian nobleman Jean Le Viste to paint the pictures from which the tapestries will be ultimately be woven -- tapestries that were initially supposed to recreate a battle he'd never even heard of. While he's measuring the walls where the tapestries will ultimately be hung, struggling to think of how to paint a battle scene despite the fact he doesn't know anything about them (except that they involve lots of horses), he meets Le Viste's daughter, a beautiful young girl. Before they even speak, he's thinking more about getting into her pants than he is about the tapestries, and I don't even mean that in a flip way -- we're on page 15 and it's already QUITE clear that Nicolas derives much of his artistic inspiration from . . .well, from his pants, I suppose you could say).

    Anyway, though Le Viste wants a bloody battle on his walls, his wife Genevieve tells Nicolas to create scenes with a unicorn instead, and the ultimate creations are a colorful, striking set of tapestries covered with beautiful women surrounded by bowing, subservient-looking unicorns with very pointy. . . horns. Meanwhile, he successfully woos Claude, Le Viste's daughter, she instantly falls for him (na´ve young thing that she is), and the two enter into a passionate, forbidden affair (Claude is promised to a wealthy noble and her father would be horrified to find her schtupping the hired help, even if the hired help IS an artiste). But as the paintings are sent on to the weavers, Nicolas goes with them to oversee the ultimate transfer of his images to cloth -- and there he meets the weaver's daughter, who has a quite different life, and perspective on love, from Claude's.

    What makes this novel so wonderful is not just the passion of the various romances, but the way the story is told, with each section coming from a different character's point of view. I also really enjoyed learning about the process by which these great tapestries were created -- it's amazing, really. Chevalier has such an incredible talent for storytelling -- I just can't get over how unique and original every one of her novels has been. I HIGHLY recommend this one, as well as all her others (and in particular "The Virgin Blue," which I think is still my current favorite).

  • (7/7) Codex by Lev Grossman.

    For the first time in years, Edward Wozny, an investment banker, is about to go on vacation. He's just gotten a huge promotion to a position in the firm's London bureau, and his plan is to spend his last two weeks in New York packing, relaxing, and saying good-bye to his friends.

    Unfortunately, his company has one last assignment for him in town. One of their oldest clients, the Duchess of Weymarshe, has specifically requested Edward for a strange task -- she wants him to come organize and catalog her large collection of medieval books. At first, Edward is incensed. But when he begins poking around in the books, his indignation turns to curiosity, which deepens even further as he learns that somewhere amongst the collection, there may be a very special medieval codex. One scholars for centuries have sworn doesn't even exist.

    Eager to find the codex for the Duchess, who seems desperate to get her hands on it, Edward enlists the help of Margaret Napier, a brilliant medieval scholar he bumps into while doing some research on the codex. But before they can even get started, they are ordered to stop by the DUKE of Weymarshe. And pretty soon, Edward and Margaret are stuck in the middle of a familial battle, the outcome of which depends entirely on the codex itself.

    Meanwhile, and sort of bizarrely, Edward's friends get him hooked on a strange and mesmerizing computer game called MOMUS. As Edward plays by night and hunts for the codex by day, the lines between the real world and the computer-generated one begin to blur. In fact, as it turns out, the computer game itself has a connection to the missing codex, and by the end, Edward's quest for the hidden text becomes almost obsessive, completely taken over his life.

    This was an extremely engrossing novel -- I just loved it. It's very unique, as well as delightfully odd, and even though I found the ending somewhat lackluster, I was so fascinated by the rest of it I hardly minded. I loved all the library and medieval book stuff, for obvious reasons, and the two main characters, Edward and Margaret, are just wonderfully drawn. Definitely one to add to your list! Highly recommended!

  • (7/3) The Twelfth Card by Jeffrey Deaver.

    Under ordinary circumstances, I would've devoured this novel, the latest in the always-terrific Lincoln Rhyme series, in about two to three days. However, I spent most of the past week babysitting my two nephews (ages two and four) with my parents while my brother and his wife were on vacation in Maui, and in the eight days I was involved in this venture, I read exactly six pages. Every night when I headed for bed, I planned to read for half an hour or so before turning out the light. But every night, once I got under the covers, I was asleep in about five paragraphs. Mothers of the world, I salute you!

    Anyway, when I finally got down to it, I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery, as I have all the others. It opens with a sixteen year old African American girl, Geneva Settle, hard at work in the library, researching one of her ancestors. While alone in the stacks, she's attacked by a big white guy, and only just narrowly escapes. The bad news is, he also escapes, taking the lives of two innocent bystanders in the process.

    Enter CSI Amelia Sachs and quadriplegic forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme. After some intense investigation, Sachs, Rhyme, and their crack team find themselves embroiled in a mystery that's 140+ years old. The murderer, it seems, was trying to prevent Geneva from uncovering something about her ancestor, a freed black slave in the 1860's who was later involved in the ratification of the 14th Amendment. But what secret is the killer trying to protect? And how could it possibly be meaningful over a century later anyway?

    This novel wasn't flawless -- it's overly long and could've benefited from some tightening up (also, Deaver appeared to have just learned the slang term "benjamins," and couldn't get enough of it, overusing it so much that after a while, it became like fingernails on a chalkboard to me). However, I love these characters and the plot of this installment is unique and intriguing. Recommended to all fans of the series, and if you're unfamiliar with it, hie thee to the library to track down book one, "The Bone Collector." It's a series not to be missed by any one who is a fan of crime scene investigation and forensic science.

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    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
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