March 2005
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (3/30) The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty.

    Smithy Ide is an overweight, chain-smoking alcoholic who works in a toy factor in Rhode Island. Life is dull and Smithy is duller. In fact, he's pretty much a loser. But then, in the span of a single week, Smithy loses both his parents in a car accident and finds out his mentally ill, long-lost sister Bethany has turned up a Jane Doe in an LA County morgue. Struggling to cope with the devastating losses, Smithy is suddenly overcome with the urge to get on his childhood bike and start pedaling.

    And the next thing he knows, he's begun a journey that will take him clear across the country. As Smithy pedals through state after state, he encounters the best and worst of not only the people he passes by, but of himself as well. In the meantime, he tells us all his stories -- stories of a family stretched to the edge by the madness of his sister.

    While I was reading this novel, which I really enjoyed, by the way, I kept feeling like there was something wrong with it. It's well-written, but sometimes seemed disjointed somehow -- like this or that character was being introduced to us just because McLarty had thought him up, not because he was actually a real part of the story. But, for some reason, I just didn't mind. I recognize it could've used some tighter editing, but at the same time, I wouldn't change a thing. Weird. It's simply a very engaging tale with a very engaging main character. Pick it up and see what you think!

  • (3/26) Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn.

    Strange but entertaining enough epistolary novel made up of letters written by various members of a small town called Nollop. It's named in honor of the town's most famous denizen -- the guy who "invented" the phrase "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." In fact, there's even a monument dedicated to Nollop that has that very sentence on it. But then one day the letters start to fall off that monument. And the town council becomes convinced it's not just because the glue has gotten stale. That it is, instead, a sign from the great Nollop himself that those letters are to be retired from use. Soon the council has passed a law banning all Nollopians from writing or speaking any words containing the fallen letters. And while this starts out pretty manageable when it's just Q and Z that have taken the plunge, once the vowels start to nosedive, all hell breaks loose. By the end of the novel, the townsfolk are down to about six letters total, making their letters one heck of an exercise in reading comprehension!

    It's a clever idea and an entertaining game with the language, but I did find this novel kind of dull in a lot of places. There's not really much of a story to go along with the gimmick and I never really felt like the characters came to life at all. I had a hard time connecting, even while I was getting a kick out of the words themselves. But, it was fun, and a quick read, so if the premise sounds intriguing, go for it. I'll definitely be watching Dunn to see what he thinks of next!

  • (3/24) Articles of War by Nick Arvin.

    George Tilson is a young boy -- barely a man -- who enlists into the army during World War II and is shipped off to France just after D-Day. Everything seems to be going as okay as possible at first for George, who is quickly nicknamed "Heck" because he's an Iowa farm boy who refuses to swear. He's a typical soldier -- willing to do whatever he's told without question. Or, for that matter, without much thought either.

    But then two things happen that change everything. First, Heck meets a young French refugee (a girl) and her family, and he falls in love with her just as he's packed off to battle. And then, during his first, frightening exposure to combat, Heck makes a horrifying discovery about himself -- he's a coward.

    This is a short novel, but it is just amazingly written. I read whole scenes more than once, so struck was I by the quality of the prose -- images that come alive, or even just simple turns of phrase that just take your breath away. Heck is a lot more complex than you might've expected from a simple country boy, and watching him struggle with the harsh, confusing realities of war is just intense and enthralling. This is a tremendous novel -- don't miss it. Recommended!

  • (3/17) Spilling Clarence by Anne Ursu.

    I read Ursu's novel "The Disapparation of James" several weeks ago and just loved it. So, I promptly put this one, her first book, on hold at the library. And man, there is just nothing better than stumbling across as author as interesting and talented as this one is. I can't wait to read more by her in the future! This novel is about a small town named Clarence. One day, a pharmaceutical company in the town has an accident and a chemical called "deletrium" is released into the air. At first, it seems like there will be no effects on the townspeople, but after a couple of days, strange things start to happen. Suddenly, people are remembering things -- things they had long since packed away into the depths of their minds. Some of the memories that suddenly flood back in are happy ones, but others are memories they'd put away for a reason. And the psychological effects of these recovered things turn every relationship in the town into a roller coaster ride, not just because they bring up remembrances of things past, but because at a certain point, it becomes hard to trust which memories are real and which were just created over time by a combination of other experiences.

    But, like with "James," what makes this book so great isn't just the story (though in both cases, the story is just delightfully original and entertaining). Ursu is a truly gifted writer and her prose reads like, well, "like buttah." She's funny and witty and has a light touch, but at the same time, she can break your heart with a single turn of phrase. She's just amazing. I've loved both these books and can't recommend them both highly enough. Check this writer out, folks -- she's one to watch.

  • (3/12) The Finishing School by Muriel Spark.

    This sparely-written novella is about a couple, Rowland and Nina Mahler, who run an itinerant finishing school, College Sunrise. Rowland is an aspiring, but failed, novelist and when they accept into the school a young man named Chris who is working on his own book, Rowland starts out somewhat paternalistic about it, but pretty quickly spirals into uncontrollable obsession and jealousy. Pretty soon, that obsession is about to kill Rowlandís marriage, yet Chris canít write without its influence, and the two become oddly dependent upon each otherís psychosis.

    Itís a strange book -- itís oddly written, and thatís just kind of Sparkís style, I think. But thereís also something sort of stifled about it, and I couldnít tell if that too was part of the style, or if it was just an effect of the style. The result, though, was that I didnít feel any connection to any of the characters -- this novel reads more like a sketch of ideas for a bigger work than a story all itself. Nevertheless, itís enjoyable and quick and probably well worth a look if youíre in for something requiring a small commitment. Plus, there are some great lines in it. Eh, you could do worse.

  • (3/10) Outside Valentine by Liza Ward.

    This novel has a really interesting premise -- three stories set in three different decades all linked in some way to the brutal (true life) murders committed by teenager Charles Starkweather and his 15 year-old girlfriend Caril Ann. The first story is Caril Ann's, set in 1957, and it takes us through her relationship with Charlie, beginning with their first meeting and finishing with their Bonnie and Clyde-like rampage. The second story, set in 1962, focuses on a young girl named Puggy who becomes obsessed with the Starkweather story and with spying on the son of a couple Charlie and Caril Ann murdered. Finally, in 1991, we have that son's story, which focuses on the emptiness of his life and his disintegrating marriage.

    Add to that the fact this novel is very well-written -- lyrical, even -- and you should've ended up with one of the best books of the year. But the reality is, for the most part, I just found it pretty tediously boring. The only thing that kept me reading was the intensity of the writing, but by the end, I started to feel like the writing was actually the problem -- it was like Ward focused so hard on each individual turn of phrase that she forgot she was trying to tell a story. I was completely unable to empathize with any of the characters -- they never become anything other than words on paper. They never come to life. And she took even the most thrilling of the three stories, the one about Starkweather himself, and somehow stripped all the energy right out of it. It's just a flat novel. Flat, flat, flat.

    The good news, though, is that it's also a first novel, and I think with practice Ward will probably get better at equalizing her writing with her storytelling. I look forward to seeing what she cranks out next, but I would skip this first attempt and wait for the next one with me if I were you.

  • (3/7) Deenie by Judy Blume.

    I was rummaging through some old book boxes in the basement the other day when I came across my well-worn collection of Judy Blumes. It's been, oh, probably eighteen years since I've read any of them, and since then I've heard "Deenie" referenced a number of times as being a commonly banned book in schools. "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" I could see being banned (not that I don't think that's RIDICULOUS), since it's all about (gasp!) MENSTRUATION. But Deenie I could never understand, because all I remembered about it was that it was about a girl who finds out she has scoliosis and learns a lesson about treating people who are different like crap. Why isn't this required reading, given that it's a lesson more girls ought to learn when they're in junior high?

    Well, after reading it, I came across the couple of parts that probably led to the banning decision (though as a librarian, I still contend that all school book banning stems from ignorance and agenda, two bogus reasons for trampling on the education of our youth). But I also came across a story that has really held up well over the years. Who knew that over twenty years after it was published, it would still be so readable and universal and authentic? Anyway, if you have grown up without ever having read Judy Blume's more controversial kid-works, make sure you at least hit this one. And if you have a daughter who is 13 or older, you should buy her a copy. The "controversial" part is about masturbation, and it's about two pages long and involves a health class in which the teacher tells the students masturbation is normal and healthy and won't make them deformed or blind or devil-fodder. How is that dangerous information? It's just so stupid. Judy Blume, you're my hero, and I hope some day I have a daughter so I can shower her with every banned book on the list. And watch for more of my old pre-teen favorites to show up here soon!

  • (3/1) Aunt Dimity: Snowbound by Nancy Atherton.

    Every now and then, I find myself in the mood for a cozy -- a light little mystery novel I can curl up on the couch with. And when I mentioned that to a friend of mine, she was aghast to hear I had yet to discover the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton. She didn't tell me anything about it, but simply recommended this particular installment as a good "sittin' next to the fire with a cup of tea" kind of book.

    She was right too -- this would've been the perfect novel for a snowy day indoors. And while I confess I found it slightly heavy on the silly and cheese, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and will be sure to track down others in the series.

    It's about a wife and mother of two, Lori Shepherd, whose friend sends her out one afternoon on a solo hiking trip to clear her mind. It was all going surprisingly well, too, until Lori is blindsided by an unpredicted blizzard. Dazed by the sudden cold and blowing snow, Lori starts wandering in random directions until she finally stumbles across a huge old house in the park -- a mansion called Ladythorne. When she knocks, there's no answer. But a split second later, she's joined by another hiker, Wendy, who also got caught in the storm. Wendy has a crowbar and the two promptly bust inside and start looking for firewood to heat the place up.

    Just as Wendy and Lori are settling in next to a warm fire, they're suddenly confronted by a raving man with a shotgun, who has another hiker, Jamie, in tow. The raving man turns out to be the mansion's caretaker, and after explanations are traded around, he settles down and offers to let the three hikers stay in the house until the snow clears.

    As their stay progresses, however, Lori becomes increasingly suspicious of her fellow hikers. It's so odd -- so coincidental -- that they both are also Americans (this is set in England) and that they both also stumbled across Ladythorne in the storm. And eventually, Lori finds her suspicions are right -- the two hikers are there together and not by accident. The reasons why involve an old WWII story, a woman driven mad by fury and sorrow, and an invaluable set of jewels called the Peacock parure.

    Where Aunt Dimity comes into all this is the "silly" part. She's dead, and Lori talks to her by writing in a magical notebook. Lori also talks to a stuffed animal as well, but since I confess I do that myself periodically, I can hardly hold that against her. The cheesy part comes in at the end, when all is revealed to be far less sinister than we all imagined it would be. But since the cheesy part made me a little misty, I can likewise hardly hold that against the author. All in all, it's not what I'd call "great literature." But if you're looking for a cozy -- a good, simple mystery for a snowbound day -- this is one I'd highly recommend. And I look forward to reading the others over the next year or two as well, as the cozy urge hits.

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