June 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(6/29) House by Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker. (read me!)

I should really start jotting down where I hear about books, because it happens so often that I'll get to the end of one and wonder who in the HELL recommended it to me. This book is one such book. And the foolish thing was that I KNEW Frank Peretti was a Christian horror novel writer, and I was fooled into thinking maybe this one wouldn't totally make me insane with the Godliness. I saw a movie based on one of his novels a couple of years ago, Hangman's Curse, and despite some gentle Christian overtones (the family prays a couple of times -- this I can handle), I really enjoyed it. It starred ex-Boyfriend David Keith as the father in a family of four, all of them undercover government agents who would infiltrate schools to solve crimes (kind of like 21 Jump Street, except with a whole family at the helm). It had pretty decent dialogue and a fairly decent storyline. So, I was fooled. Fooled, I tell you! Into thinking this novel might actually be good!

Because, as you may have deduced by now, it royally stunk. It actually started out really bad in a thoroughly good kind of way. I was immediately sucked into the story, despite the fact it was completely ridiculous, and it was a real page turner until I got to the end -- the end where suddenly I realized the direction the story was going in, and that there was about to be some serious, serious Jesus-speak.

The story opens, as most horror stories do, with a young couple driving along a back road in the woods at night. Suddenly, they hit a bump and all four of their tires go flat. They get out to see why, and find that someone had put a string of nails across the road. They set off on foot to try to find a phone, and stumble across a big house that appears to be a bed and breakfast. They go inside, but the owners are nowhere to be found (and neither is a phone). Just as they are wondering what to do next, another couple comes into the room and, eerily, has roughly the same story to tell -- their car was disabled, they came across this house, they can't find the owners, etc..

The four start poking around, and eventually do find the B&B's proprietors -- a crazy woman, a crazy man, and their even crazier son. Soon, the two couples are in mortal danger, trapped in a big maze in the basement full of hallways and rooms that seem to change position at will. There's also a little girl down there with them -- and a psychopathic ghost they soon realize wants them dead.

So far so good, until it turns out the killer is Satan and the little girl is. . . well, I suppose I shouldn't say any more. I'm not a Christian, but I'm extremely tolerant of religious stuff, as long as it doesn't get in my way. But this novel was good old fashioned horror fun until the God stuff took over at the end, and even though I can hardly argue that the ending "made no sense" because of that (like the rest of the book made any sense?), it just didn't fit AT ALL. We were suddenly supposed to think the four victims were major sinners who had a lot of confessing to do and would fry unless they accepted Jesus as their personal savior -- and, frankly, I'm just too tolerant of flaws to think people deserve to burn forever because they've made some mistakes. But let's not get into a debate about religion here -- I really am "to each his/her own" about the whole shebang.

My point is that this is a ridiculous, but also very entertaining, novel until the last 30 pages or so. And then it takes a big nosedive into the Land of Ugh. If you're a Christian, maybe you'll like the ending -- I can't really tell. But if you're not and you don't like to have Christian beliefs whapped over your head like a billy club, this probably isn't the novel for you. You can go ahead and safely rent Hangman's Curse, though. It's not brilliant, but I have a weakness for David Keith that made its flaws pretty forgivable overall. The end! [comment on this book review]

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(6/26) Last Days of Summer by Steve Klugar. (read me!)

I read this novel for the first time a few years ago and absolutely loved every page of it (except for the ending, which really upset me at the time). Now that I've read it a second time, I can say without a moment's hesitation that this book is one of my top ten favorite novels of all time. It's just wonderful -- hilariously funny, incredibly sweet, and an absolute blast to read from start to finish.

The story is about a little boy, Joey Margolis, growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1940's. Joey's extremely precocious -- sarcastic and stubborn and smart as hell. One of his idols is the all-star third baseman for the New York Giants, Charlie Banks, so Joey decides to write Banks a letter, asking him to hit a home run for him. When Banks responds with a form letter and signed photo, Joey is annoyed but refuses to give up. He starts sending letter after letter to Banks, each one telling an even taller tale of woe (like, that he's dying of cancer and having Banks hit a homer for him is his last wish in life), in the hopes Banks will take pity on him and do what he wants. Charlie catches on immediately, though, and writes Joey back to tell him to knock it off. But that's all it takes to get Joey hooked, and soon the two are close friends, Charlie ultimately taking the place of the father Joey never had.

The book is made up of letters, newspaper clippings, and other forms of correspondence, and it touches on a variety of themes surrounding the war. For example, Joey's best friend is a Japanese boy whose family ends up being shipped off to an internment camp in the West. And eventually, Charlie himself signs up for the military and is shipped off to the Far East. Through it all runs a current of family -- a story of a little boy who desperately needs a father and who, through sheer will and smarts, manages to talk one of the most famous New Yorkers into the job.

Last Days of Summer is literally laugh-out-loud funny -- I can't read it on the bus because I make an idiot out of myself by bursting into fits of giggles. And this second time around, the ending felt more "right" to me -- possibly because I knew what was coming and thus wasn't so startled by it. This is a wonderful, WONDERFUL book, and I really can't recommend it highly enough. If you've never read this one, oh, how I ENVY you your first time -- it's going to be a truly wonderful few days for you. If you can actually manage to make it last that long!

READ THIS BOOK! [and then comment on this book review!]

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(6/20) Stranger in Paradise by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

Well, it was bound to happen sometime, I suppose. After two decades (at least -- I've lost count) of reading and adoring every single novel Robert B. Parker has written, I finally hit one that left me feeling a little bit ho-hum. This is Parker's latest installment in the Jesse Stone series, which some of you might know from the books and others might know from the Tom Selleck made-for-TV adaptations of the books (which I've enjoyed quite a bit myself). The plot of this one has to do with a Native American hitman named Crow who is hired by a rich Florida dude to go to Paradise, kidnap his runaway teenage daughter, and return her to him.

At first, Crow is all over the idea, at least until it becomes clear that his new boss actually wants him to kill the girl's mother while he's at it, and that he primarily wants his daughter back because he misses getting to sexually abuse her. This puts a damper on Crow's enthusiasm, and he decides not to do the job after all. Which ticks off the rich Florida dude, who then sends a posse of bad guys up to Paradise to track Crow down and kill him.

Stone is pulled into this story when Crow comes to him and openly tells him exactly what's going on. The two form a plan to fix the mess, and voila, eventually they do. As plot concepts go, I've heard worse. But there were just too many elements of this story that made absolutely no sense for me to actually enjoy it all that much. First of all, Crow is a known bank robber who got away with ten million dollars the last time he was in Paradise, and Jesse is all "Hey, how's it goin', yo?" when he sees him? Sorry, but no. Second, Crow has ten million dollars stashed away and he's taking jobs like this lame one from the rich Florida dude? Sorry, but no. Third, Crow is both so emotionless he kills on a whim, but so passionate about women that he refuses to ever hurt a lady? Sorry, but, huh?

We're clearly supposed to fall madly in love with Crow (Stone's female deputy even sleeps with him, despite the fact she's happily married -- don't get me started on that one) and to respect and admire the fact he's a brutal killer who would never, ever hurt a lady. Annnnnd, sorry, but no. In fact, Stone himself clearly admires and respects him, because even after Crow admits to killing a gang member the next town over, Jesse STILL doesn't arrest him. Which, SORRY, but NO!

Additionally, I have to confess I'm really, really getting tired of all the subplot stuff about Stone's ex-wife. That thread typically consumes significant chunks of every Stone novel and it never goes anywhere interesting or new. Their relationship never changes -- it doesn't improve, it doesn't get worse. It's just boring and stagnant. And I've never fully believed it, either. The emotion just isn't there for me and it's time for Parker to drop that ex-wife character and try to do something new with Jesse's love life. I say it's time to combine this series with the Sunny Randall one for good, get those two back into a relationship (there was a crossover novel a couple of years ago that was a lot of fun!), and run with it from there.

Um, other than all the bad stuff, though. . . great book! *cough* [comment on this book review]

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(6/15) The Keep by Jennifer Egan. (read me!)

Goth tech-junkie Danny was surprised when his cousin Howie invited him to come to Eastern Europe to help convert an old castle into an upscale resort. It's been twenty years since they last saw each other, and back when they were kids, Danny did something unforgivably horrible to Howie -- something that changed Howie forever, and not in a good way. But Danny's sort of on the run from angry mobsters these days, so, despite his trepidation, he decides any excuse to flee to the Czech Republic is probably a good one.

When he gets to the castle, Danny's surprised to find that Howie is a changed man. He's outrageously gleeful about the hotel project, and wildly in love with his wife and young son. He's also got a close friend with him named Mick, and Mick and Danny bond pretty quickly, both being somewhat "other side of the tracks" compared to the insanely wealthy Howie. The more time Danny spends with Howie, though, the more he begins to realize why Howie actually brought him there. Danny's always been charismatic, in a quiet sort of way (if that makes sense), and there's this crazy baroness who has refused to move out of the castle's keep. Can Danny somehow convince her to give up the castle so that Howie can complete the renovations? Or is she just crazy enough to, say, try doing them all in?

Alternating with this story is another tale, this time about a prisoner named Ray who recently joined a writing class -- primarily as a way to escape his cell a few times a week. At first, his stories for class are provocative jokes, but he soon begins to craft a much more significant tale. One that slowly begins to merge with the story of Danny, Howie, and the castle keep.

And one that eventually leads to an attempt on Ray's life. . .

I found this novel to be thought-provoking and engaging. And, even better, I was surprised by almost all of the twists, which is a pretty rare thing for me. I really enjoyed the writing and settings a lot, especially all the history and lore about the castle and its keep. But I will say that when I got to the end of this novel, I felt a little bit disappointed somehow. I'd really enjoyed the whole thing and been very gripped by it all along, and yet, I couldn't really figure out what the point of the novel was. And sometimes it felt like substories were being introduced for ambiance rather than actual plot (like the tale of the two children who died at the castle hundreds of years ago). Sometimes novels don't really HAVE points, of course -- they just tell us a story and aim to entertain. But this book felt deeper than that -- and yet, somehow not quite deep enough, all at the same time.

Nevertheless, despite the somewhat "huh?" feeling it left me with, I really enjoyed this book a lot and am looking forward to trying more of Egan's novels soon. Recommended! [comment on this book review]

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(6/12) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. (read me!)

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby was editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France when he suffered a massive stroke that left him completely and permanently paralyzed. It’s a rare condition, and one quite aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” His brain was completely fine and he could hear and see (out of one eye, at least). But he couldn’t move any of his limbs, nor could he move most of the muscles of his face or mouth (so, no speech). The one thing he could move with ease? His single functional eye. And, believe it or not, Bauby was soon able not only to communicate with family, friends, and medical staff using that one eye, but also to write a memoir about his experiences.

I had both the book and the 2007 film based on it out from various sources (library, Netflix) at the same time, and spent about a week trying to decide which one to start with. I ended up going with the book, but, in retrospect, I think that was the wrong choice. It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the book, to be honest, because it feels insufferably unsympathetic to make even the slightest negative comment about a book written by a guy who dictated each word one letter at a time using the blinking of his eye. Yet, I confess that while I found the book quite beautifully written in parts, overall I just never felt like I was getting much of a sense of Bauby himself. Or of what he was really going through. The book itself felt somewhat “locked in” emotionally to me and I had a hard time connecting to his words, even while I recognized the very triumph of their very existence.

After seeing the movie, however, Bauby really came to life for me, and I actually began to feel some tiny, slight sense of the true horror he was experiencing (as much as anyone could feel, not having been through it themselves). The film is quite brilliantly made — it’s filmed from Bauby’s perspective, and that, more than his words themselves, was what I think finally gave me the slightest notion of what he was going through. For example, after reading the book, I knew that one of Bauby’s eyes was sewn shut soon after he awoke from his coma, because the muscles controlling the lid had failed and it was no longer able to lubricate itself. That’s why he was left with only the one eye to use for sight and communication. But while that sounded horrible in print, in the film, we actually SEE the eye getting sewn shut from the inside, and hear Bauby’s terrified thoughts while it’s happening. And oh man, I didn’t last twenty minutes into the movie before I started crying, and I pretty much didn’t stop after that until the credits rolled.

We also get more of a sense of what those around him are dealing with — his wife, his father (who is somewhat “locked in” himself, in that he can no longer navigate the stairs that would take him in and out of his apartment), his children, even the therapists around him who are struggling to figure out how to communicate with him or how to improve his quality of life. Hearing Bauby’s thoughts articulated in his mind, as well as the emotions on the faces of those around him, finally seemed to bring the whole story to life for me.

A lot of the “dialogue” in the film is taken directly from the book — Movie-Bauby’s thoughts in many places are recitations of sections from the memoir. But it wasn’t until I really heard his assistant run through the alphabet over and over and over (he would blink once when she’d hit on the correct letter, and then she’d start over again) that I truly got a concept of how amazing it is that this book exists. I can’t imagine having the patience — either as Bauby or as his assistant — to get 130 pages of a book written one letter at a time in such a painstakingly slow process. And for him to, in the process, craft sentences as poignant and beautiful as some of the ones in his memoir is just doubly astonishing.

I highly recommend both the book AND the film, but would also recommend that you start with the movie and then read the book immediately afterwards. Reading the book first just didn’t work very well for me. I found it too hard to connect through the short vignettes and snapshots it contains. But after the film brought the entire story into a more cohesive and personal whole, I read the book a second time (it only takes 1-2 hours to get through the whole thing) and was absolutely blown away by it.

Definitely a book/movie combo not to be missed. I hate to throw out the word “inspirational,” because that seems so trite, but it sure did make me think twice about complaining about my own problems for a while, know what I mean. Highly recommended! [comment on this book/movie]

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(6/3) Improbable Cause by J.A. Jance. (read me!)

After slogging through and then giving up on not one but TWO novels in a row (I only lasted 25 pages into the second one, Katharine Weber's The Triangle, so won't bother reviewing it), I decided I needed something I knew would be entertaining. I have a stash of about three J.A. Jance paperbacks for just such an emergency, and this was exactly the book I needed this week!

This is one of the Detective J.P. Beaumont books, set in Seattle, and this time the mystery involves the murder of a dentist who, it turns out, was pretty much loathed by everyone who knew him. That makes coming up with a suspect a bit on the tricky side. But we all know Beaumont will get to the bottom of things eventually, and, even better, he'll do it with a sarcastic attitude and a fair degree of justifiable swagger. Love that guy!

This is a good one to pick up if you're in the mood for something fast and frivolous -- I'd describe it as the perfect "beach book," except that we appear to have skipped summer here in Seattle and moved right back into fall. Frakkin' climate change! Anyway, these are always fun, so definitely add them to your own emergency pile if you see 'em for sale cheap anywhere. Can't go wrong with Jance! [comment on this book review. . .]

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