July 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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(7/26) The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. (read me!)

This fascinating non-fiction book tells the story of a gruesome murder and the undoing of one of England's first detectives. It began in 1860, when a three year-old boy named Saville Kent was found dead in the family's outhouse, after having been strangled and then stabbed repeatedly. Local police struggled with the case for two weeks before finally calling in Scotland Yard, who sent Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher to Road Hill House to investigate. Whicher was one of only 8 detectives at the time -- the first detectives ever -- and prior to his involvement with the Kent murder, he was one of the most well-respected men in London. He and his colleagues inspired the works of Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and many other mystery writers of the time, and their newly-developed methods of crime-solving had an indelible impact on society.

Though theories about who had killed Saville were abundant, it was Mr. Whicher's suspicions of elder daughter Constance Kent that really got people talking. His only evidence seemed to be rumors of her dislike of her little brother (the son of Constance's father and her former nanny, who married after Constance's mother died), and the fact she was missing a nightgown.

Arresting Constance without solid evidence of her guilt, however, was the official begin of Whicher's career decline, and without her confession, the case went cold, leaving Whicher looking the zealous fool. He returned to London, but never truly recovered from the effects of his "mistake." Even five years later, when the killer finally came forward with a breath-taking confession that ultimately led to a successful conviction, Whicher's reputation remained so marred he never really got back on his feet.

Aside from the actual tale of the Kent murder, though, this book was fascinating for its historical perspective on crime-solving and detective-ness in the 1800's. We learn the history of Scotland Yard's detective bureau, the semantic origin of terms like "clue" and "detective," and the way the detectives' much-more personal approach to crime-solving (going into people's houses, rifling through their stuff, following them in plain clothing, etc.) impacted the people of England and their opinions of the police department.

All in all, though this book got a little bogged down in places, it was an absolutely riveting read. I really enjoyed it and will definitely look for more works by Summerscale soon. Recommended! [comment on this book review]
[NON-FICTION]

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(7/18) Tell No One by Harlan Coben. (read me!)

David Beck and his wife Elizabeth have been in love since the second grade. And every year, on the anniversary of their first kiss, they return to the place where they shared it, kiss again, and mark a nearby tree with a new slash to show the passing of another year together. Eight years ago, right after they'd added yet another line to their tree, they separated briefly while David jumped into the lake for a swim. The next thing he knew, his wife was screaming from the shore and then gone, and he'd taken a baseball bat to the back of the head and nearly drowned. A few weeks later, Elizabeth's tortured and mutilated body was found in a ditch, the letter "K" branded into her cheek -- the signature of an infamous serial killer named "Killjoy."

Now, eight years later, David is still grieving. He sleepwalks through his days as a pediatrician to the poor, barely able to care about anyone, including his patients. But then the unimaginable happens -- David begins getting a series of messages from Elizabeth. As he struggles to uncover the truth (is she alive? is she dead and this is some sort of trap?), David boards a roller coaster of hopes lifted and then dashed, and, eventually, finds himself on the run from the cops, accused of Elizabeth's murder himself.

I enjoyed this predictable but engaging novel quite a bit until I got to the last five pages. Up to that point, it was suspenseful enough that I had trouble putting it down and I really found myself caring about the characters, which is not worth nothing. But the final twist in the story just made me MAD. At first, I thought it was because it was forcing me to hate a character I had grown to like -- but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was mad because the twist was just so unnecessary, thrown in at the last minute, it seemed, because the author had confused "unexpected" with "clever." Sometimes the unexpected in a novel CAN be very clever -- but here, it was only unexpected because it was COMPLETELY LAME. It totally ruined for me an otherwise pretty satisfying thriller.

I still enjoyed the story enough to want to see the recently-released movie version -- a French film that's gotten pretty decent reviews. But I think I'll go into it planning to stop the DVD before I get to the final moments of the story. Sure, that may seem like cinematic sacrilege to some. But ten bucks says those people haven't read this book. [comment on this book review]
[MYSTERY]

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(7/10) More Than You Know by Beth Gutcheon. (read me, already!)

This is now the THIRD time I've read and reviewed this novel here on this site. Continuing on with the tradition, I'll now report happily that it was just as great the third time as it was the first and second time, and then repost the review from the second time, which includes the review from the first time. Follow all that? I figure by the time I've read this the tenth time through, there will be so much indenting and subindenting the original review will show up with a single character per line. Ah, goals. It's good to have 'em. Here we go:

(from June 2003) I read this book for the first time a few years ago and recently got the urge to pick it up again. And boy, I now happily report that it was just as great the second time through as it was the first time (though the first time, I actually gasped in fear audibly a few times and this time, I knew when the scary parts were coming and was better prepared for them).

Here's my old review -- not much has changed!

(from about 2000) Hannah Gray, an elderly woman, returns to the house she summered in as a young woman and decides to tell us the story of the summer she spent falling in love and being terrorized by a ghost. Her story is separated by the story of a family who lived on the island across from Hannah's old summer houseover 100 years prior to that fateful summer. The love story is intense and unforgettable, the ghost story is scary as hell, and the connection between Hannah's ghost and the old island family that slowly emerges as the stories progress will totally surprise you. I could not put this down once I picked it up. It's FANTASTIC.

Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

[comment on this book review]
[FICTION]

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(7/5) Cause of Death by Patricia Cornwell. (read me!)

For the last few years, I keep picking up Patricia Cornwell's latest mysteries featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta and being stunned by how utterly awful they are. I used to adore this series -- I remember totally devouring all the books I could find when I first discovered it over a decade ago. But now, good lord. They're so unbearable I've decided I absolutely MUST stop reading them. For the sake of my own sanity! I mean, I thought for a while that maybe it was just a fluke -- maybe the NEXT book would be good -- but they're getting worse and worse instead, and I'm completely out of optimism at this point.

After reading the last one, The Book of the Dead, it occurred to me it was possible this series was always bad, and that I simply hadn't known any better way back when I used to enjoy it. So, I decided to pick up one of the series' earlier installments and see what I thought. I chose this one because I couldn't remember a single thing about the plot -- seemed like a good one to use as a test case.

And guess what! This is a really good book! It was an excellent reminder of all the things I used to adore about this series -- the sharp plots (this one involving the mysterious death of a reporter in what at first glance looks like a diving accident), the great characters (ah, the old Lucy and Pete -- so much less thoroughly annoying than the NEW Lucy and Pete!), and the solid medical science. And, wonder of wonders, the writing isn't bad either.

So, I guess the answer is: No, the series wasn't always bad. In fact, it used to be pretty great. Cornwell, you've got some 'splaining to do. [comment on this book review]
[MYSTERY]

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(7/1) The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg. (read me!)

I had a really hard time writing this book review because I'm still, several days after finishing it, feeling extremely conflicted about this novel.

It's the story -- told in alternating diary entries and letters to her husband -- of a 50 year-old woman named Nan who is unhappy with her life and her marriage and decides to get in her car and go on a road trip until she figures out what to do about it. On the way, she frequently stops to talk to other woman -- total strangers -- about their own lives, eventually getting a better handle on her own in the process.

Sounds great, right? And it starts out pretty great, too. I can't tell you the number of times I've gotten in my car, gotten onto the freeway to go run an errand, and had to battle the urge to just KEEP GOING. So, I could relate to Nan's yen for freedom, in some ways. But it wasn't long before I started to get a funky feeling about her. And then it wasn't long after that that I found I just absolutely wanted to smack her and tell her to wake the frak up and get a heckin' life. Which is, ironically, exactly what Nan thought she was doing -- but she was doing it WRONG, my friends. Totally and completely WRONG.

Most of what Nan has to say in her diary entries and letters to the husband she left behind, Martin, can be summed up with these three words: bitch, moan, complain. And her single greatest complaint has to do with the fact her husband has never listened to her. Never taken the time to understand her. Refused to consider appreciating the little things that she so appreciates. Nan tells us story after story of the time Martin rolled his eyes at her when she stopped to point out the lovely shape of a perfume bottle in a store, or the time Martin took her for granted, or the time Martin didn't want to do this, or didn't want to do that, or said this, or said that. She complains that she just sucked it up for 30 years of marriage -- swallowed her sense of self-worth and pressed on without complaint -- and now she's had it with Martin and his utter lack of appreciation for what makes her HER.

In theory, I can see how this might appeal to a lot of women, and at first, it also appealed to me. I mean, I know I complain about my husband not appreciating me from time to time, and I hear a lot of other women doing it too. But it wasn't long before I started to feel really, really bad for Martin. Because every letter Nan writes to him is packed with vicious little jabs disguised as her increasing self-awareness, and all the while, she keeps reassuring him over and over that she loves him and is coming home ("You stink. Love you!"). I found that pretty twisted, personally. And by the end of the novel, the last sentence of which was STILL a little jab, however unintentional, I couldn't help but think Martin ought to pack his suitcase and not be there when she gets back.

Got a husband who makes you feel underappreciated? Well, here's a tip -- don't wait THIRTY YEARS to speak up about it! If you do then I'm sorry, but I can't help but feel you and your self-made martyrdom are far more to blame for your unhappiness than the fact your husband doesn't appreciate the glassy curves of a perfume bottle.

And, as if all this weren't bad enough, allow me to also point out that the fact Nan could afford this rather extravagant punishment of her husband -- leaving him for several months spent driving around, staying in hotels, and eating in restaurants -- because Martin just spent 30 years working hard and investing his income, making Nan an extremely rich woman.

Frankly, after turning the last page of this novel, my primary thought was, "Martin, buddy -- you could do a lot better." Hey, whaddaya know -- turns out my feelings about this novel weren't so complex after all. . . [comment on this book review]
[FICTION]

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