June 2002
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (6/28) Eleven Days by Donald Harstad.

    This is the first novel in Harstad's Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman mystery series, a series I discovered earlier this month when I read "Code Sixty-One," the latest installment. This novel was just as great as the other. So engrossing, in fact, that I read the whole thing in two sittings!

    In this one, a 911 call from a terrified woman sends Houseman out to a farmhouse in rural Nation County, Iowa. There he finds the caller gone and the owner mutilated and slaughtered. An hour later, another four bodies are found in a farmhouse down the road from the first crime scene. They too have been tortured and torn apart, and that house is covered in Satanic symbols and stuff.

    Houseman and his tiny department know when they need more help, so they send out for two state investigators, as well as a detective from NYC who specializes in cult crimes. One of the state investigators is Hester Gorse, a character I really loved in "Code Sixty-One" and was glad to discover is a regular. As the investigation gathers momentum, the group begins to discover that Nation County is PACKED with dirty little secrets. In trying to find out more about Satanism, the missing hysterical caller, and the possible motive for the killings, though, Houseman ends up having to fight for his own life against a force of unimaginable horror.

    Just a warning: both this and "Code" contain pretty graphic details about pretty gruesome crimes. However, the characters and plots are so great that you ought to read them anyway, even if you are a little squeamish. I was convinced that I knew who the killer was this time, and it turned out I was close but not quite on the money -- a sign of a truly great mystery plot, in my book. Also, I will confess that I am madly in love with Carl Houseman, who is intelligent, kind, and funny as heck. You can bet you'll be reading about all the other novels in this series right here over the next month or two. I just put 'em all on hold at the library! Recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (6/26) Horace Afoot by Frederick Reuss.

    Extremely quirky novel about a rich and strange man who has changed his name to that of his favorite author/philsopher (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace) and moved to a small town. He doesn't work -- instead, he mostly spends his days walking around the town observing others and then going home in the evenings to make random phone calls to various townsfolk. When people answer, he starts conversations with them by asking them a question, like, "Tell me, what do you think an illusion is?" Or, "How do you feel about St. Bernards?"

    When he encounters people during the day, he often treats them rather rudely -- wanting to get away from them quickly. But a few of them sort of refuse to let him go, and thus, Horace begins to make a few friends, initially sort of against his will. As the story goes on, Horace begins to change -- changing both himself and those who encounter him. His bizarre outlook on the world is both mellowed by the connections he makes with others, and also a bit strengthened by the fact he spreads those ideas everytime he makes a phone call that gets someone to think a bit differently.

    This is an extremely strange novel, but it's oddly mesmerizing. I read it very quickly and was completely charmed by Horace and his quirks almost immediately. Recommended if you're in the mood for something a little bit different.
    [FICTION]

  • (6/24) The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket.

    "Book the Fifth" in Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events" about the extremely unlucky Baudelaire orphans. If you haven't started this series yet, get the heck off the computer and run down to your local library. You won't regret it. Sure, they're kids' books, but they're also hilarious and wonderful. Highly recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (6/20) Code Sixty-One by Donald Harstad.

    Boy, it's not every month I read two such terrific novels back to back. "In the Lake of Dead Languages," the one I read last week, had characters and a setting that haunted my dreams. "Code Sixty-One" had a plot that kept me reading all night long.

    It's a mystery about a murderous vampire. But it's no cheesy Anne Rice rip-off. The main character, Iowa Deputy Sheriff Carl Houseman, is called to a huge mansion on the outskirts of town when the bloody body of his boss' niece (Edie) is found in a bathtub on the second floor. At first, it looks like a suicide. But as Houseman and forensics expert Hester Gorse study the scene, they see some things that just don't add up. After talking to Edie's housemates, all doubts vanish -- they tell Houseman about a man they both befriended and feared named Daniel Peal. A man they believe is actually a vampire and who had a special fondness for Edie's blood.

    Houseman and Gorse aren't sure what to believe, especially when a card-carrying vampire hunter also turns up on the scene. The more they learn about Peal, though, the more they begin to fear Edie's housemates may be next. But how do you stop a vampire? Especially if you don't know where to find him in the first place?

    Houseman and Gorse are wonderful characters -- smart, funny, and big into talkin' shop (and I LOVE forensics, so I really enjoyed that aspect of this novel). With them at the helm of what eventually becomes a very complex and riveting plot, this book was the very definition of "thriller." Fans of mysteries and the TV show "CSI" will love this. And there's good news -- it's part of a series! Highly, highly recommended!
    [MYSTERY]

  • (6/12) The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman.

    Occasionally, a book comes along that is so incredible that it starts to invade your life even when you aren't reading it. I realized last night, as I spent my second night in a row dreaming about this novel's characters and stories, that this is one of those books. The plot focuses on a young woman, Jane, who has returned to the boarding school she went to as a teenager to teach Latin to a new generation of girls. Three of her students remind her a lot of herself and her two best friends in school -- her two best friends who both died in her senior year (suicides, allegedly). When one of Jane's students also ends up dead in the local lake, and pieces of Jane's missing journal from senior year start showing up in her mailbox and stacks of papers for grading, all the old ghosts are stirred up. The story of what happened when Jane was a schoolgirl herself is told in pieces, scattered throughout the telling of the present day parallels. And the school with its lake and Latin scholars is so incredibly described -- its history, the way it looks, the way the air feels -- that it practically comes alive and becomes a character itself.

    I can't really put into words what is so wonderful about this book. Reduced to a paragraph description, it just sounds like a suspenseful novel. But Jane reminded me a lot of me, first of all -- and the setting just infiltrated my brain and wouldn't get back out. I had dreams about Jane and her friends -- I thought about what might happen next all day long. It's rare that a book like this comes along -- a book you can't get out of your system. Rare and wonderful. HIGHLY recommended!
    [FICTION]

  • (6/9) Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs.

    Judith Singer is a stay-home mom with a condescending, workaholic jerk of a husband (honestly, what is she DOING with that guy?). Her life isn't that unhappy (oddly enough), but it has become a bit repetitive and dull over the years. So, when a dentist in her small town is murdered, her ears prick right up. Especially when the rumors start to pile up and a friend of hers confirms they are true -- dentist Bruce Fleckstein did a little more than just fill cavities. He'd also slept with half the town's women -- and photographed most of them in (yep, you guessed it!) compromising positions! The more she snoops, the more consumed by curiosity Judith becomes. Her growing involvement irritates her husband, but impresses the charming police lieutenant on the case. Pretty soon Judith is working with the cops for real -- going undercover to follow the clues, while at the same time realized how fizzled out her marriage has become and just how cute that Lieutenant Sharpe actually is.
    Hilarious and fast-paced mystery that I could barely put down. I was excited to discover there's a film version and even more excited to discover this is the first of a series. Highly recommended to all mystery fans who love great plots, funny dialogue, smart women, and the occasional steamy kissing scene.
    [MYSTERY]

  • (6/3) Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.

    Part one of Reichl's autobiography. This book tells the story of her childhood and all the people who influenced her, eventually leading her down the culinary path that took her to where she is today, editor of Gourmet magazine. Highly entertaining -- funny and fascinating and full of some of the greatest characters ever, it even contains about a dozen recipes Reichl learns as a kid. I read this on an airplane trip -- fastest flight of my life. Can't wait to get my hands on part two, "Comfort Me With Apples." Recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (6/1) Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth.

    The classic novel by Roth featuring Alexander Portnoy. It's essentially a transcript of Portnoy's rather one-sided conversation with his therapist, in which it is revealed that he had a childhood characterized by very strict Jewish parents, a general sense of confusion about the world, and a LOT of masturbation. It is also revealed that Alexander is essentially a whiny, pathetic loser, but he's just so good at it, you can't help but love him. Roth is a wonderful writer -- he really captured Portnoy's emotions well. Though I couldn't really relate to Portnoy himself (being an agnostic white girl), I really felt like I understood him to some extent. Sometimes books about whiners are more annoying than entertaining -- Roth escaped that trap quite amazingly. I probably won't read any of the other Portnoy novels right away, but will get to them eventually. Recommended (but not to my mother)!
    [FICTION]


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