July 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(7/26) A Country Affair by Rebecca Shaw. (read me!)

This is book one of a series featuring a vet clinic in the small village of Barleybridge, England. It opens when Kate Howard, a young woman who has just narrowly missed being accepted into vet school, takes a job as a secretary at the clinic, convinced that's as close to her dream job as she'll ever get. The busy practice sees a variety of animals, from cats and ferrets, to cows and horses, and soon Kate begins to realize she'll never be happy unless she gives that whole vet school thing one more try. Her plans are hindered a bit, however, when her old boyfriend Adam begins stalking her and she develops a crush on her sexy Australian veterinarian coworker, heartbreaker Scott Spencer.

This is a light, entertaining read, and I really enjoyed it even though I wouldn't say it was all that brilliantly written. For one thing, the characters never really seemed like real people to me (particularly Kate's cheek-twitching, stalker boyfriend Adam), and I can't quite put my finger on just why. However, I enjoyed the vet stuff, the setting, and the Aussie hunk (of course!), and am greatly looking forward to the next book in the series, due to be released in the U.S. in October (these books have been out for a while in England, I gather). It's no James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, but if they made this book into a movie, I'd go see it. Especially if they cast Hugh Jackman as Scott Spenser -- mrrrrrowl! Recommended if you're in the mood for something a bit frivolous to take with you on your summer vacation.

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(7/22) A Winter Haunting by Dan Simmons. (read me!)

This novel is a sequel of sorts to Summer of Night (see review below). This time, it focuses on one of the boys from the original, Dale, who is now in his 50's and is very, very messed up. After nearly committing suicide, he decides what he really needs to do to get better is return to his old hometown and write a novel about the summer of 1960. Purge the soul, so to speak. Let loose those old demons. Shake them skeletons out of dat der closet.

The problem is, Dale doesn't actually remember anything about the summer of 1960. He just knows something happened -- something bad. Back home, he moves into the little farmhouse where his best friend Duane used to live, and begins trying to dig out the memories he needs to write his novel. And here's where, as in Summer of Night, the story unfortunately spins wildly out of control in a direction that makes no actual sense. Suddenly Dale finds himself being haunted by two dead people from his past. Okay, that's cool by me. But the two people chosen -- well, uh, why them, exactly? One of them was barely in the first book, and certainly didn't play a major role at all in Dale's life. Even more bizarrely, while all this haunting is going on, Dale's also being threatened in a more real way by a group of, wait. . . SKINHEADS? Wha. . .?

Yet, as with the similarly nonsensical Summer of Night, I couldn't put this book down once I picked it up. Maybe Simmons' trademark style is stories that make no sense? That, indeed, don't even make a good-faith effort to make sense? I never would've said that would be the kind of story I could get into. Usually loose ends and badly explained events really irk me when I encounter them in novels. But this time. . . it was almost more disturbing because it was so ludicrous. I have no explanation for my reaction to either novel, but regardless, I really liked them both. I'm definitely going to be seeking out more of Simmons' novels -- if only to see if they are all as ridiculous and as utterly addictive as these two were. Just. . . just weird, man. Anyway, recommended. I think.

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(7/20) Summer of Night by Dan Simmons. (read me!)

A couple of years ago, I read a horror novel that actually scared the bejesus out of me -- first time a book has done that since I was a kid. It was called Song of Kali and was by Dan Simmons. For some reason, I never read anything else by Simmons after that -- strange because I was utterly thrilled by Song of Kali. But a week or so ago, I came across this novel at a used bookstore (as well as its sequel) and decided to give it a try.

It's about a group of 12 year old boys in 1960 who, that summer, suddenly find themselves up against a nightmarish evil -- ghosts haunting and following them, weird creatures coming out of the ground to devour them, evil trucks trying to run them down. Every time they get closer to finding out what's going on, the person who was helping them mysteriously disappears or ends up dead. Soon, though, the boys have traced the evil back to the place they always suspected was up to no good -- their elementary school, Old Central.

It sounds fairly straight-forward, I suppose. But it's really not. It's actually much weirder and makes far less sense than your typical "kids vs. evil" horror story. In fact, it made so little sense that I probably wouldn't have continued reading it after about page one hundred had it not been for the fact I couldn't put it down. The characters -- the boys -- are so wonderful, and the story so utterly bizarre that I kept turning the pages, unable to give up.

Ultimately, I'd have to say this is NOT a great book. In fact, thinking back on it, the plot could aptly be described by the phrase "ridiculously stupid." Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed every page of it -- I gobbled them all up, actually. There's just something about it that made the problems I had with it simply not matter after awhile (and that includes, oddly enough, the fact Simmons kept using the word "were" incorrectly, something that typically drives me absolutely bonkers). I don't know WHY I liked this novel so much, but I did. I really, really did. So, I guess I recommend it. Uh, even though I just called it "ridiculously stupid" not one paragraph ago. See what I mean?? WEIRD.

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(7/15) Vanish by Tess Gerritsen. (read me!)

This is another one of Gerritsen's thrillers featuring regular characters Detective Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles. It starts with a shock when Maura prepares to begin an autopsy and discovers that the corpse. . . is NOT a corpse! The young girl on her table is suddenly wildly alive, and Jane must quickly rush her across the street to the hospital, where is is promptly admitted for hypothermia (among other things), the result of having been shut in the morgue fridge for over eight hours!

All hell really breaks loose, though, when a few hours later, the girl has locked herself in radiology along with several hostages, one of which turns out to be a VERY pregnant Jane Rizzoli. Pretty soon Jane and Maura are entangled in a complex government conspiracy involving the Russian sex trade. And though I found parts of this a little too hokey, it was definitely a story that held my attention -- something I find myself saying a lot when it comes to Gerritsen's novels. They novels aren't brilliant, but they're pretty entertaining, and sometimes a little mindless entertainment is just what the doctor ordered. For that reason: recommended!

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(7/13) Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. (read me!)

Eliza Sommers has never really fit in. As an infant, she was deserted by her real parents and taken in by a wealthy British family living in Chile. Her new mother, Miss Rose, desperately wanted a child, but didn't quite know what to do with Eliza once she got her. So, she did what had been done to her -- rigorous training in how to be a proper lady, and not much affection to balance it out.

You can imagine, then, her horror when sixteen years later, Eliza falls in love with a thief named Joaquin. Even worse, he soon decides he must go to California to join the Gold Rush so he can make enough money to support Eliza, and when Eliza finds out about this, she smuggles herself onto a later ship and follows him across the sea.

Luckily for Eliza, she's not alone on her voyage -- luckily, I say, because she's pregnant and has a terrible miscarriage mid-route. Her traveling companion, though, is a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi'en, and he ends up saving her life.

When they arrive in San Francisco, Eliza sets out to find Joaquin and soon realizes she'll get nowhere in the new world dressed as a woman. So, she dons men's clothing instead, and becomes a young boy. Over the next several years, Eliza travels all over California, following a trail of wild stories about a bandit named Joaquin. Little does she know, though, that the REAL man she loves is the one who has become her constant companion -- Tao Chi'en.

This is a wonderfully written novel that really transported me to another time. I loved the combination of so many races and cultures, as well -- the British, the Chileans, the Chinese, and the Old West all in the same novel! Another fine book from Allende, and one definitely not to be missed. Recommended!

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(7/10) Cell by Stephen King. (read me!)

The premise of this novel was so hilarious to me there was absolutely no way I could resist reading it. As an official hater of cell phones, nothing could be quite so perfect as a novel about a transmission (the "pulse") that immediately turns all cell phone users into idiotic, man-eating zombies. Dude, rock on, Stephen King. I am so with you on this one. (Of course, in my opinion you don't actually need the "pulse" to turn cell phone users into idiotic zombies -- they pretty much tend to take care of that all by themselves.)

However, as is usual with a Stephen King novel, there are a lot of problems with this one. The primary one is that it turns out the premise was really the only original, creative thing King had to offer in this novel. The rest of it is pretty much ripped off from a variety of other sources, including every Romero "Dead" movie (though King tips his hat to Romero in the beginning as if to say, "Sorry I'm TOTALLY stealing every good idea you ever had about zombies!" so at least he wasn't just out-and-out thievin', right?), as well as the stellar zombie movie 28 Days Later (about a small group of survivors, including a young girl, who must struggle to live after a virus turns everybody else into zombies. That group hooks up with another group, and pretty soon humans are turning on each other as well as on the zombies -- gee, sound familiar?).

Heck, King even rips HIMSELF off, as there are also strong elements of The Stand, Carrie, and Firestarter mixed in for good measure.

About the only original or clever thing about the plot, in my humble opinion, was the way it looked like King was going to use the virus to flip the whole "instant information" thing right on its head. That is, suddenly the technologically-vacuous zombies are the only ones who can effectively communicate with each other (well, sort of), and the humans are left struggling with only word of mouth to guide them along. Oh, the irony. Here we were laughing because cell phone users got turned into disgusting poo-covered monsters, and dammit it all to hell if they don't STILL have better access to information than the rest of us!

The problem with said irony is that it didn't quite work. The "normies," as the non-infected call themselves, end up doing quite well with their word-of-mouth transfers of information, in ways that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. What is really the likelihood that multiple groups of humans are going to watch the zombies' behavior and come up with the same terms for it ("flocking," e.g.), or that suddenly, all the normies seem to know to put their shoes outside their doors before falling asleep? Word of mouth really isn't all that effective, especially since the normies actually rarely seemed to run into each other. This didn't make a whole lot of sense, and that's not a rare occurrence in a King novel, unfortunately.

That said, I have to disclose right now that once I picked this novel up, I couldn't put it back down. I was riveted the entire time. King is the master of snappy dialogue, for one thing, and he's gotten a lot funnier in his old age as well. Additionally, though the main character (Clay) didn't really do much for me (oh, of course he has a missing son he's desperate to get back to, yawn), I loved Tom and I confess to falling for the little boy (Jordan) as well. Spunky, that one.

Anyway, I could go on and on with the criticisms, but really, who among us goes into a Stephen King book expecting genius? When we pick up a King novel, we merely expect to be entertained. And he does that here very, very well. This is definitely a great summer beach book, folks. Don't miss it if you enjoy a good zombie bloodbath. Or a bad one, for that matter.

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(7/6) The Bell Witch: An American Haunting by Brent Monahan. (read me!)

Entertaining, but not really all that scary, horror novel based on the "true" story of the haunting of the Bell family in Tennessee in the 1800's. The novel is supposedly made up of an actual record of the events written by someone who was there -- Richard Powell, a schoolteacher who was a friend of the family and who later married Elizabeth, the young girl who seemed to be the primary target of the witch. Powell is our narrator, and he begins with the theory everyone seemed to have at the time, which was that the Bell Witch was thrust upon the family by a neighbor named Kate Batts who hated John Bell (the head of the family) because of a land dispute. However, as the story progresses, we come to find out the "truth" about the reason for the haunting, which is far more dastardly, even while it's not all that terribly original.

The thing I enjoyed about this novel was the witch herself, who was definitely one of the most complex, funny, and entertaining spirits I've ever heard tell about. She mocks people, she stalks people, she loves people, she helps people, she lies, she tricks, she schemes, she's mean, she's nice, she's everything in every extreme and in every direction. I started to wish she were actually real, to be honest, because life would be so much more interesting if ghosts like Old Kate actually existed. That said, I don't believe for a minute that this story is in any way true, and I don't really care that there are historical documents that suggest it might be.

Wait, I take that back. Old Kate seemed to hate it most when people doubted she was real, and that probably means I'm in for a rough night tonight. Kate, if you're out there, I take it back! In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the movie based on this novel, An American Haunting, starring Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek, which should be out on DVD pretty soon. Recommended if you like a good ghost story. But you can read this one in dim lighting late into the night without having to worry about actually getting the willies.

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(7/4) A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger. (read me!)

When journalist Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, was an infant, he lived with his parents in a small suburb of Boston named Belmont. One year, his parents decided to build an addition to their house, and hired a team of workmen to come in and construct it. This was during a time when the entire city of Boston was in a state of terror -- a serial killer known as the Boston Strangler had murdered nearly a dozen women, including one, frighteningly enough, only a few streets away from the Junger house.

It wasn't until a few years later that the Jungers realized who it was they'd had working in their backyard all that time -- a young man named Albert DeSalvo. The man who later confessed to being none other than the Strangler himself.

After growing up listening to this family story over and over, Junger decided to do a little investigating about the Boston Strangler crimes himself, and the result of that investigation is this riveting, though not terribly well-written, book. The murder near the Junger house was actually pinned on a young black man who had been working for the elderly woman who was killed, and that man, Roy Smith, was eventually tried and convicted on roughly no evidence whatsoever. He served over twelve years in prison before he was let out for good behavior, only a few weeks before he died of stage-three lung cancer.

But though DeSalvo confessed to thirteen of the Strangler murders, he never confessed to the one in Belmont AND he never really confessed in such a way that satisfied many people. His confessions were scatterbrained and often inaccurate. And the investigator who interrogated him fed him details the entire time. DeSalvo was never convicted of the stranglings, but was killed in prison in the 70's, there serving time for rape. Some think he was killed by a conspiracy to punish him for letting an innocent man, Smith, serve time for his crime. But no one really knows for sure, and, really, no one is likely even to know now.

This book explores the many facets of both the Smith and DeSalvo cases, shedding both light and dark on them simultaneously, to the point where I had absolutely no idea what to believe by the end. And though, as I said, it's not the most brilliantly written book of all time, it was definitely engrossing -- I could barely put it down once I started it. This is actually the first of Junger's books I've ever read, and it's certainly made me think it might be time to go back and read his two others (the famous Storm and also his second book, Fire). He's a marvelous storyteller, and this is definitely a book that can keep you up until the wee hours of the night. Recommended!

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