March 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (3/29) Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman.

    Kooky story of Gillian and Sally Owens, two orphans raised by their aunts, Frances and Jet. In the Massachusetts town where they live, the aunts are ostracized by all for being witches (despite the fact they only practice "practical magic," that is, magic that helps you with a problem). Whatever goes wrong, no matter how otherwise explainable, is always blamed on them and, by proxy, on the girls, who are picked on and teased by all the other children.

    Longing for a life of normalcy, Gillian finally runs away, getting mixed up with a series of dangerous men while Sally finds true love and marries. The Owens women are cursed, though, and when the curse takes Sally's husband from her, she packs up her two daughters and moves back in with her aunts. Not long after, Gillian shakes up their entire world, not to mention the netherworld, when she shows up with the body of a dead man in her car. All three generations will have to bind together to put things back to right, and in the meantime, they'll finally break the curse and learn a little something about the real dangers of true love.

    I enjoyed this book -- it's very well-written and almost ethereal in tone. The funny thing is, after I read this, I was thinking it was good, but not great, and that I probably wouldn't actively seek out others like it. But a day later, I found myself kind of missing Hoffman's world. And I've put two of her other books on hold.

  • (3/26) Desert Places by Blake Crouch.

    This novel started out with a pretty original, bone-chilling premise. A famous mystery writer is relaxing at his cabin after finishing his latest thriller, when he gets a letter that says, "There's a dead body buried on your property -- killed with your knife and covered with your blood. Do what I say or I go to the police."

    The writer follows the instructions and winds up unconscious in a hotel room. When he wakes, he finds he's been kidnapped by the killer, who wants to teach him a lesson about murder.

    But, unfortunately, the novel gets kind of lame from there. And, while it's at it, it also becomes pretty disturbingly sadistic. I read a lot of mysteries and serial killer novels and none of them has made me as uncomfortable as this one (frankly, I wouldn't want to meet the author of this book in a dark alley). I guess that might have been a compliment, if it weren't for the fact that this novel goes from original to "seen this before -- a million TIMES before" in only 100 pages.

    Why did I keep reading? I liked the writer character, for one, and after all those sadistic murder scenes, I kind of needed to get to the part where the killer gets his comeuppance. But I was skimming by the end. And it's too bad, because the beginning of this book gave me the willies -- that IS a compliment -- and had it been able to maintain that intensity throughout, it would've been great. Too bad.

  • (3/24) True Notebooks by Mark Salzman.

    When Mark Salzman is invited to visit a creative writing class at Central Juvenile Hall, the lockup for LA's most violent adolescent criminals, he scrambles for a way to weasel out of it. Unable to come up with a good excuse, he ends up going, expecting the absolute worst. But instead of the chaos and violence and anger he thought he'd witness, what he sees instead is a group of thoughtful, troubled boys, writing their deepest thoughts on paper, grateful for the opportunity to finally use their voices. Inspired by their essays, Mark decides to become a teacher there himself and this book is the account of his first year there. Through his observations, and the words of his students, we are offered a rare glimpse into a world few of us know anything about. The kids write with devastating clarity about their pasts, their fears, their regrets, and their hopes. They tell the stories of how they got in trouble, how they got involved with gangs, what it was like growing up without fathers, and, most of all, what it's like to have your life taken away from you at age 15 because of one uneraseable mistake.

    This is a riveting book -- I absolutely couldn't put it down. Salzman is an excellent writer and he really brings these boys to life through his descriptions of them. This is a book about the rewards of self-expression, and the process and power of writing, but it's also a book about a lot of little boys lost in lives they can't seem to get any control over. I was sad when I got to the final page, not just because that meant the book was over, but because it meant my relationship with the boys was over too. And I may never find out what happens to them -- whether they keep writing, whether they get out of jail and do better. After spending all this time with them, finally getting to hear what they have to say, I just really had a hard time letting them go. Another terrific book by Salzman (whose novel "Lying Awake" I really enjoyed). I can't recommend this one highly enough.

  • (3/16) Termination Dust by Sue Henry.

    Jim Hampton carved his own canoe by hand and decided to give himself a dream vacation -- a solo trip along the Yukon River, enjoying the beautiful scenery as he paddled and camped his way from Whitehorse to Dawson. And everything was going great -- better than expected, really, because one night while setting up camp, he came across the most amazing thing -- a tin box containing a journal written in 1898 by a man who had given up everything to seek his fortune during the Yukon Gold Rush.

    A history buff himself, Jim is captivated by the author's descriptions of the hardships and challenges he faced on his quest for riches. But the next day, Jim is accosted by two gruff men on a larger boat. They not only steal almost all his gear, but they nearly kill him too. Luckily, Jim escapes -- with the journal. But, wet and freezing, he's forced to set up camp not far away.

    In the night, things get even more strange. And when Jim awakes to find the cops at his campsite, he is shocked to discover all his stuff has been returned and there is a dead body in the bushes a few feet away. Alex Jensen, the Alaskan cop who is the central character of Sue Henry's mysteries, has teamed up with the RCMP -- and they all think Jim's guilty of the murder.

    But as the investigation proceeds, Jensen becomes less convinced that Jim is really the killer. Too many things just don't add up. And then another body is found, followed quickly by the theft of a copy of the Gold Rush journal. It just doesn't make sense. Could events from 1898 have something to do with the murders today? And if Hampton isn't the killer, who framed him and why?

    This was a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat kinda mystery, and the historical stuff about the Gold Rush was just totally fascinating to me. One of the most entertaining mysteries I've read in a while (though I will confess that I found the ending a little lackluster). Highly recommended, and I can't wait to read others in this series.

  • (3/13) The Photograph by Virginia Ellis.

    You know, every now and then, I get a craving for a novel that's just really good-natured and sweet. I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, as you may have noticed, and sometimes it's nice to step away from the corpses and get into something happy. This novel isn't ALL sweetness and light -- it's got a darker, sadder side to it too -- but for the most part, it was just what I was in the mood for and I greatly enjoyed it.

    It's about two young women in the 1940's, Ruth and her sixteen year old sister-in-law Maddy. When Ruth's husband Davey (Maddy's brother) is sent to Florida for six weeks of training before he ships out for the war, Ruth and Maddy go with him. At first, life in sunny Miami seems almost perfect. They're living with the nice family of one of Davey's fellow soldiers and friends, working to support the war effort, and getting to spend a last few precious moments with Davey.

    But then something happens that changes everything. It begins with a photograph of both women surrounded by Davey and a handful of his military friends. Shortly after it was taken, Ruth starts to see changes in the picture -- a soldier vanishes from it and the next day is shot down over Europe. It's clear to Ruth that the changes in the photograph are telling her the future -- a heavy burden to bear when both she and Maddy have become close to many of the men in the frame.

    When Maddy's picture is the next to change, though, Ruth finds out her sister-in-law has a terrible secret, and the two of them are forced to work out an elaborate ruse to keep the truth from getting out. Luckily, this is a novel by a romance writer, and it has a happy ending full of marriages and babies. But the getting there is tense at times, and not just because of Maddy's dark secret, but also because this novel's real strength is its story about the women left behind when their men went to war -- the emotional, physical, and economical stresses they had to face, all on their own.

    The subplot about the photograph was actually kind of pointless, to be honest. It adds absolutely nothing vital to the novel and instead gives an otherwise very realistic and powerful story an air of hokiness it just didn't deserve. But whatever. On the whole, this is a very well done, engrossing novel about love, courage, friendship, honor, strength, and family. Very charming. Very sweet. And for that reason, very recommended.

  • (3/8) The Journals of Eleanor Druse by Eleanor Druse (or, more likely, by Stephen King).

    This novel is written as a companion book to King's latest television endeavor, an American spin on a great Danish miniseries called "The Kingdom." King's "Kingdom Hospital" is pretty much an example of everything that can go wrong when Steve-o gets actively involved with the conversion of fiction into film. It's corny, overdone, and pretty unwatchably bad. The book, on the other hand, is pretty much an example of why King really ought to take back that thing he said about never writing again. It's well-written, for what it is, and offers lots of chuckles as well as chills. The unfortunate thing about it is that it IS intended to tie-in with the show, and thus, it doesn't really have an ending. If you want to find out what happens, you have to sacrifice an hour of your life every Wednesday for the next several months. Sorry, just don't think I can do it, despite my affections for Andrew McCarthy. My recommendation is just to pass on the whole King version and stick with the original, which is one of the spookiest ghost movies I've ever seen. But if you find yourself inexplicably drawn to the TV show, do yourself a favor and read the book as well. It will help keep the cringing over the horrible TV dialogue (and what the heck is up with that stupid anteater, anyway?) from becoming completely overwhelming.

  • (3/6) Come Closer by Sara Gran.

    Strange but strangely mesmerizing short novel about a woman who is gradually possessed by a demon. It starts out almost like a haunting -- she and her husband hear a persistent tapping in their house and can't find the source. But as the demon becomes stronger, the woman starts having blackouts and fighting with her husband over and over for no reason. By the end, she is so deeply a part of the demon, she has almost completely lost herself.

    I wish this novel had been about a hundred pages longer, and that there had been more of an evolution back towards something normal for the main character. Instead, it just ends miserably and with no hope for the woman's future. In short, major downer. And while I can understand and even appreciate why the author might not have wanted to give this a pert Hollywood happy ending, I don't have to like it!

    Except that I did like it. Oh heck, I don't know what I'm talking about. This is an interesting new author we have here though, folks. She's one to watch.

  • (3/5) Handsome Harry (or The Gangster's True Confessions) by James Carlos Blake.

    Presented as his intimate "confessions," this extremely entertaining memoir-like novel tells the story of "Handsome Harry" Pierpont, one of the founding members of the infamous Dillinger Gang. Harry starts his story in his teenage years, telling us tales about his first petty thefts and his early adolescent romances. As he grows up, both his crimes and his passions mature, and he soon finds himself deeply in love with a gal named Mary. And then deeply in trouble with the law.

    While in prison, he meets and befriends John Dillinger. When John is released on parole, he helps Harry and some other pals carry out a daring prison escape, and the group of them (plus Mary and a few other molls) become one of the greatest bands of bank robbers in American history.

    The story ends as these stories always do -- with fatal shoot-outs, arrests, and the electric chair. But boy, I tell ya, the ride is sure worth it, something Harry and John would both undoubtedly agree with.

    The best thing about this novel, though, besides the thrilling knowledge that most of the events really happened, is Harry's voice. He's one of the most charming, witty, and intelligent narrators I've come across and by the end of the book, I certainly understood why the ladies fell for him left and right. This is an absolutely marvelous novel -- sizzling with excitement. It would make a terrific film, actually. And though I had never read anything by this author before, it looks like he's written quite a few books like this one (taking a historical figure, usually an outlaw, and transforming his life into what's really almost like a non-fiction novel, even though I realize that's a contradiction in terms). I'm particularly curious about his book about Pancho Villa, as that bandito has a connection to my own past (a distant relative spent a fair portion of his life tracking Villa and trying to catch him). Can't wait to see if that one is as good as this one was. Anyway, this book was just rollicking good fun. Read it!

  • (3/1) The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance by Nat Hentoff.

    Read this book, get mad, vote Democrat.

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