July 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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(7/29) Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas. (read me!)

I always really enjoy Sandra Dallas's novels (Persian Pickle Club, The Diary of Mattie Spenser, and New Mercies being three of my favorites). They're usually the epitome of genteel, they're often about women living in interesting times or places, and the stories and characters are always intriguing and real. This one was no exception. It's set during World War II in a small farming town in Colorado where a Japanese internment camp has just been established on an old farm named Tallgrass. The narrator is a young girl, Rennie Stroud, who lives on a neighboring farm and who has never seen an Asian person before the Japanese come to town. Initially, she's more curious than anything else, but many of the Stroud's neighbors are openly hostile to the Japanese, believing, as the U.S. Government did at the time, that all of them, regardless of their citizenship, were an active threat to the security of the nation. When a friend of Rennie's is found raped and murdered a few months after the camp opens, many in town immediately suspect the Japanese. And so, when the Strouds hire a few of the camp's residents to help around their farm, they are quickly ostracized. Rennie's emotions run the spectrum from curiosity, fear, and finally the realization that her Asian neighbors are not so different after all.

Dallas opens this novel with a note saying she was inspired to write it by the current political climate, where the U.S. Government seems to have a similar lack of qualms about locking Middle Eastern people up at Gitmo without any real evidence of wrongdoing. Had I not actually read Dallas's note, I think I would've guessed this was one of her reasons for writing Tallgrass, as she's fairly heavy-handed at times with her attempt to stress just how wrong this whole concept is. This is okay by me -- I completely agree and I definitely see the parallels. However, there were a couple of scenes in this book that didn't feel as authentic as some of the others, in part because I felt they were being set up simply to help hammer home her point.

Nevertheless, this novel is a light read full of great characters, a fascinating setting, and a lot of important reminders about the perils not only of thinking this way, but of allowing others to act on such ideas without challenge. I definitely recommend this novel, as well as all the others Dallas has written that I've read (you can find them using the Book Search page if you're interested). And I greatly look forward to reading whatever she puts out next.
[FICTION]

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(7/24) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling. (read me!)

It's AWESOME.

And that's really all I'm going to say about the plot of this book. (This book review contains NO SPOILERS.)

Yes, there are things I could critique. For example, as with book six, there was a striking parallel to The Lord of the Rings that kind of bothered me (I know Rowling has more imagination than that). I also found the postscript a little too perfect. And I don't even really want to talk about the distractingly-bizarre sentence structure that was not only used unnecessarily and all-too-often, but which was also about as grammatically incorrect as you could get (for you fellow grammar snobs, I'm referring to all the sentences constructed like this: Independent clause 1; independent clause 2: independent clause 3. Wrong, wrong, wrong!).

But you know what? I'm not going to criticize this book like that. I mean, obviously, I kinda just did. But not as much as I would've had I not absolutely adored every single page of the entire Harry Potter series. I had a really hard time reading the last fifty pages of this, the final installment, because I couldn't stop crying -- not because the book was sad, but because it was ending. Even when it wasn't perfect, this series was transportingly imaginative, powerfully emotional, and dammit, just a hell of a lot of friggin' fun.

You know, there are a lot of people out there who scoff at us Harry Potter fans, saying it's dorky for us to do stuff like stand in line at midnight so we can get our hands on the earliest copy of the last book of a series written for KIDS. Saying stories about magic are stupid, or childish, or the work of the devil, or whatever. Saying it's all overrated or a fad.

But you and I -- we know better, don't we. We know to feel sorry for those people, who will never know Hagrid, Hogwarts, or Harry. They'll never know what butterbeer is. They won't know what a snitch is for, or what happens if you yell "Confundus!" at the top of your lungs, or how to use a Marauder's Map. They won't know any words in Parseltongue. They won't know that paintings can talk, or that dragons are real, or that there's actually a platform numbered nine-and-three-quarters at the train station. Man, what those poor Muggles have missed out on! And what I wouldn't give to be them right now, they who have seven amazing Harry Potter books out there that they've never read. Seven amazing Harry Potter books that they could read for the first time!

Unfortunately, that can never be the rest of us ever again. The rest of us -- us fans -- we're all done now. I myself finished the book days ago, but I haven't been able to put it away on the shelf just yet. It's still sitting out in my living room where I can see it out of the corner of my eye. I may be done reading it, for the first time anyway, but I'm just SO not ready to let it go. I can't remember ever feeling quite this way about a series of books, to be honest. And it's one of the most wonderful feelings I've ever experienced.

And so, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you, Ms. Rowling, for one of the greatest gifts anyone has ever given this world -- for millions of children, the gift of a love of reading that will probably last a lifetime; for millions of adults, the gift of getting to feel like a kid one more time. As long as I live, I will never forget the places you took me, the things you let me see, and the characters I got to know and love because of you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank you.

Harry Potter forever.

[FICTION]

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(7/21) Tin City by David Housewright. (read me!)

This is the first Housewright mystery I've read, but it sure won't be my last. It's the second in a series featuring an ex-cop named Mac McKenzie who reminded me just enough of Robert B. Parker's Spenser character to make me love him, but not so much he felt like a copy. Good balance, there.

This installment opens with an old family friend, a beekeeper named Mr. Mosley, coming to Mac for help with a mystery. Something or someone has been killing off his bees, and he's eager to find out what or whom so he can put an end to it before his honey business goes under. Mac enlists the help of a local university researcher, but when she's shot at by a man who sees her taking soil samples near his farm, the plot thickens.

As the story develops in a completely unexpected direction involving a dirty FBI agent and an infamous New York mobster, I got a little worried things would be too hokey to believe -- mobsters in Minnesota?? But I should never have doubted, as Housewright is a deft writer who draws lively characters and has a real talent for action scenes, plot twists, and wit.

All in all, I found this novel highly entertaining (though Spenser lovers will definitely find it a bit grittier and more violent than the R. B. Parker series I just compared it to). Before I had even finished it, I'd put two more on hold (including the first one in the series, A Hard Ticket Home). I definitely recommend this installment, and I'm sure I'll love the others as well. Watch for reviews of those coming soon -- but first, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows which arrived on my doorstep this morning. Woo!
[MYSTERY]

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(7/18) Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. (read me!)

I've been reading Stephanie Pearl-McPhee's blog (also called Yarn Harlot) for about a year now, but never got around to picking up any of her books until I stumbled across this one at the library the other day.

It's a collection of essays (short ones) she's written on a variety of knitting-related topics and reads a lot like her blog -- a friendly, chatty tone and conversational style. Most of the essays have to do with yarn addiction, stash management, and the anxiety induced by letting piles of half-finished projects take over your living room. But occasionally, McPhee takes a serious turn, like when she writes about a good friend who had to give up her love of knitting when her rheumatoid arthritis worsened so much in her hands she could no longer work the needles.

Overall, this is an entertaining, light collection of amusements. I enjoyed it and definitely recommend it, and the Yarn Harlot blog, to anybody who loves making stuff out of sticks and string like we do. Two needles up!
[NON-FICTION]

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(7/14) World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. (read me!).

This novel is written as though it's a non-fiction compilation of interviews from survivors of a worldwide war against zombies. The interviewees encompass a wide variety of types of people, from the doctors treating the earliest cases of infection without realizing what they were up against, to military men called in to battle against the moaning hoards, to Chinese government officials who tried to keep their outbreak silent in order to avoid bad PR (hmmm, sound familiar?), to just random civilians who saw their families killed and somehow managed to survive themselves. Though I found this book slow in many places (too much focus on war tactics at times, and not enough eating-of-brains for me), and also a bit unoriginal just in terms of the zombie elements themselves, overall, I was pretty entertained. I thought the "oral history" idea was a pretty clever one, and though it's about zombies, and thus has an air of the ridiculous, in actuality, it's got quite a bit of relevant social commentary (particularly in regards to SARS and bird flu news stories and paranoia, as well as the war in Iraq). All in all, I give it a thumbs up and am definitely planning to read Brooks's other zombie non-fiction, The Zombie Survival Guide. You know, just in case.
[FICTION]

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(7/7) Still Life with Husband by Lauren Fox. (read me!)

I was surprised by the fact I kinda enjoyed this novel, about a 30-year-old woman (Emily) whose dissatisfaction with her marriage and her life leads her right into the arms of an affair. I don't read a lot of novels in the "chick lit" genre, because I tend to find them too cutesy and too much the same. I've never been a very girly-girl, and I also typically can't relate to people or stories that are sort of "boy crazy," either (ironic, I know, given the title of my very own web site!). This novel, though, isn't really what I'd describe as "chick lit," and it's also sort of . . . okay. I mean, it's not great -- it's certainly nothing original or unique, as the story is one that will be completely familiar to anybody who has ever seen a soap opera. But the writing is tight and witty, and even though I found most of the characters pretty flat (well, all of them, really), I was able to relate to Emily's issues in a lot of ways. These two things combined made the novel, on the whole, surprisingly tolerable for me. Hardly booming praise, I realize, but I did enjoy this novel, for the most part, and I would certainly consider reading more by this author down the line (in addition to the things by this author I already read, that is -- she frequently writes for Salon.com, for one thing). Not brilliant, but also not bad. Do with this information what you will.
[FICTION]

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(7/4) I Love You Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle. (read me!)

This novel, written by a former writer for The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead, starts out extremely entertaining, but lost my interest about two-thirds of the way in when the plot got a bit repetitive and tedious. The story is either unoriginal or timeless, depending on how you look at it -- it's essentially a John Hughes movie for the new generation. It opens with the school geek, Denis, announcing in his high school valedictorian speech that he has always been in love with Beth Cooper, the school babe. Surprisingly, Beth turns out to be a genuinely nice girl, and when Denis stammeringly invites her to his (nonexistent) graduation party, she actually shows up later that night with her two pals. Fortunately, Denis has managed to throw some snacks and booze together along with his not-gay friend Rich. Unfortunately, coming quick on Beth's heels is her extremely violent and aggressive ex-Army boyfriend, who is none too happy to find a dork hitting on his girl.

From there, things kind of go nuts, with Denis, Beth, and the others spending most of the night running from Keith, and Denis, in the process, learning that Beth is not the epitome of perfection he imagined her to be. But once the fighting and chasing started up, I confess I started skimming a lot. It gets really repetitive -- they get drunk and crash the car a lot, the Army boyfriend keeps hitting Denis in the face (each chapter begins with a drawing updating us on the status of Denis's face, which started to kind of stop being funny right about the time he nearly loses an eye, I must admit), Beth keeps doing things that are shocking, Rich keeps quoting movies and swearing he isn't gay. Essentially, it's like a two hour movie made into a four hour book, with all the unnecessary filler you'd expect from such a venture.

That said, what kept me reading despite the fact I, like everyone else, know this age-old story like the back of my hand, is the writing, which is full of sharp wit and sarcasm, as well as lots of truly terrific turns of phrase. It's the style of writing you'd expect from someone who used to do scripts for The Simpsons, and when Doyle is on, he really hits it. I'm not sure I'm sold on Doyle as a novelist, but I'm definitely willing to hang in there a bit longer and see what he puts out next. And if you're in the mood for a very funny, very goofy beach book for the summer, you could do worse. Feel free to start skimming around page 200, though -- you, like everybody else who's seen a Brat Pack movie, already know how this story is going to end.
[FICTION]

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(7/2) Deep Storm by Lincoln Child. (don't read me!)

This sci-fi thriller starts out with a really great concept, but completely blows it about halfway through the story when it gets boring with a capital D-U-L-L. It begins with an ex-Navy doctor, Peter Crane, who has been urgently summoned to a remote undersea research center in the middle of the North Atlantic. He's been told a bizarre medical condition has begun to afflict the staff on board, and that they are in the middle of a miraculous excavation that can't be stopped -- the discovery of the famous sunken city of Atlantis.

It's not long after arriving, though, that Peter begins to suspect he's not being told the whole truth. For one thing, the disease is staggeringly widespread, and it doesn't act like any disease he's ever seen before. And for another, he begins to deduce, based on snatches of conversation, that it's not Atlantis they've found under the water, but instead some kind of alien device. The nature of this alien device and the reason why it's down there to begin with ends up being what I thought was a highly original and quite crafty concept. In the hands of a better writer, it could've been one of the best sci-fi novels of the year, in my opinion. Unfortunately, Child screws it all up by throwing in a nonsensical and clichéd sabotage subplot, and an ending that really blew me away with it's complete lack of blowing-me-awayness. A great idea like that, and this is the best you can do with it, Child? No wonder most of your other novels have been written with a partner! Damn. I seriously hate nothing more than I hate seeing a great idea wasted by a subpar writer! Move along, folks; nothing to see here.
[SCIENCE FICTION]

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(7/1) Acupuncture: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know by Dr. Gary F. Fleischman. (read me!)

After over thirteen years of chronic back pain and gazillions of conventional medicine treatments that did essentially nothing, I finally caved last month and decided to give acupuncture a try. I didn't really believe in it, I didn't really believe it would do much good, but I figured I couldn't give up officially until I'd tried everything.

Three visits later, I had the first day without any back pain whatsoever that I've had in over a decade. Call me a believer -- I have been healed! As a librarian, of course, my immediate response to this revelation was: I NEED INFORMATION! After not believing at all in this type of medicine, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by the urge to learn more, and have since checked out about half a dozen books from the library that I hope will educate me on the mysteries of not only acupuncture, but many other aspects of Chinese medicine as well.

This is a great book for beginners and new patients, as it lays out the basics in a very accessible Q&A format. It covers everything from what you should expect from your first acupuncture visit (not just jumping right into the needle part, but instead starting off with a lengthy examination and medical history), to the basics of Chinese medical theory (Qi, Yin/Yang, etc.). I still have a lot of questions I felt haven't been satisfactorily answered after reading this, but I do have a better overall sense of the basics, and from there, I think I'll find it a lot easier to delve in a bit deeper into the more advanced texts. Definitely recommended, and if you are someone with chronic pain, particularly neuromuscular pain, I really can't stress strongly enough how much you really need to try this therapy out. If you have any questions about it, or you want to know more about how I've been doing with the treatments myself, please don't hesitate to email me (meg@megwood.com)! I can't believe I waited this long to try acupuncture -- don't be dumb like me!
[NON-FICTION]

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All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
Email -- meg@megwood.com
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