March 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(3/31) The Trench by Steve Alten (read me!)

This book is a sequel to Alten's novel Meg, which I read several years ago. I didn’t remember anything about the original book, other than the fact it featured a megalodon, a giant shark theorized to live at the very, very bottom of the ocean. But, when I saw there was this sequel, I decided to pick it up and see if I could get into it despite my lack of memory regarding the plot of the original. Answer: yep! Though this novel is essentially a bad shark movie in book form, y'all KNOW I love bad shark movies, so I had a great time reading this even though I fully recognize it’s not exactly brilliant. In fact, it's kind of the opposite of brilliant. Which, and you semantics experts can argue with me here if you'd like, I think means it's "stupid." I'm cool with stupid, though. In fact, anything that can be described using the words "stupid" and "sharks" is very likely to be something I greatly enjoy.

In this one, the same character who narrowly escaped death-by-chomping in the first book (Jonas Taylor) is now working for the aquarium that now houses the baby Meg he'd helped capture in the original. Jonas hadn’t wanted to capture any of the Megs -- he'd wanted to kill them all to protect humankind from an enemy it never would’ve encountered if it hadn't been for his meddling explorations of the Marianas Trench -- but when the aquarium got its hands on the baby, he decided the least he could do was work for them, in an attempt to make sure the Meg was cared for properly and would never be able to escape back into the “wild.” Thanks, Jonas. We delicious-tasting humans salute you.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a book if the killer shark was behind bars the entire time, so not only does that Meg end up escaping, but another ship down exploring the Marianas Trench finds more sharks down there too. Next thing he knows, Jonas is down in the depths again himself -- back to a place he swore he’d never go again -- trying to stop the horror he helped unleash the first time around.

Yep, it IS as bad as it sounds. In fact, it may even have been worse, if that's possible. Which is why: loved it! Recommended to anybody else who always grabs the killer shark movies off the shelves at the video store! Hi, Mom!

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(3/25) The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman. (read me!)

I haven't read a lot of Hoffman -- I like her stuff, but I'm not always in the mood for it. A friend of mine was reading this one a couple of weeks ago, however, and it sounded intriguing, so I borrowed it from her when she was done. It's about a family, the Sparrows, who live in a small town outside of Boston and have for generations. Every daughter in the family has been born in March, and every one of them has developed some kind of special "power" as they grew older. The matriarch in the family can "smell" lies. Her daughter, Jenny, can see other people's dreams at night. And the youngest, a teenager (Stella), has just started having visions of how other people will die. The main plot of the story features this last talent most -- one of Stella's premonitions involves her father, and not in a good way. He's soon jailed for murder, and Stella must try to unite the Sparrow women (her mother and grandmother are not close) to try to put things right again.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable book, with lots of "girl power" and some fairly good lessons about forgiveness and coming to terms with your past. It's not as heavily-magical as some of the other Hoffman books I've read, too, which is something I kind of liked about it. I definitely enjoyed this, and am sure that I'll be reading others of her books down the line as well. Definitely the literary equivalent of a "chick flick," though, which is the primary reason why I don't do a LOT of Hoffman reading all at once. Recommended!

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(3/19) High Profile by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

Wow, two new Parker novels in a single month -- I must've died and gone to heaven! This is the latest in the Jesse Stone series, which, with the last installment, has also kind of turned into the Sunny Randall series, as the two characters recently began a romantic relationship (of sorts -- it's complicated). Jesse's latest case begins with the murder of a famous radio host, Wendall Weeks, whose body is found hanging in plain sight in Jesse's small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. That same day a young woman's dead body is also found, this time buried in the dumpster behind a local cafe. As Jesse investigates, he discovers the two were having an affair, and that the woman was pregnant with Weeks's child. This doesn't go over too well with his wife -- his THIRD wife, I should say -- but she's not the only suspect, as Weeks was one of those radio hosts who raised a lot of hackles.

Meanwhile, Jesse's own ex-wife, Jenn, has reentered his life once again, coming to Jesse in tears and begging for his help. She claims she was raped and is now being stalked by the perpetrator, but Jesse's not sure he believes her. Plus, this Weeks case has the governor all over him, and he can't take time out to be with Jenn and figure out what's really going on. So, as awkward as it may be, he calls his new girlfriend, Boston PI Sunny Randall (star of another Parker series), to ask if she'd take Jenn's case. Reluctantly, Sunny agrees, and what she finds out about Jenn throws them all for a loop.

I could criticize a lot of things about this novel, as I fully recognize that Parker's novels are not brilliant. One of their primary flaws, in fact, is something I point out just about every time I read a Parker novel, which is that it's simply ridiculous how many of his characters are brilliantly adept at witty banter -- they ALL are, in all three series. Everybody! And in real life, witty banter is a rare, rare gem in a world full of ignorant baloney. The problem is, I love witty banter, and I love Robert B. Parker novels, and thus it's simply impossible for me to muster up the literary indignation I'd need to muster up in order give these novels too hard of a time. They're flawed. But they're still a hell of a good time. Recommended!

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(3/14) Diagnosis Murder: The Dead Letter by Lee Goldberg. (read me!)

Okay, I confess: I was really embarrassed to be reading this novel. So embarrassed, in fact, that I could only read it when I was at home -- I simply couldn't bring myself to carry it around in public! The thing is, I still love the old Dick Van Dyke series it's based on (Diagnosis Murder, which ran from 1993-2001) and I watch it fairly regularly in reruns to this day (it's on every night at 9pm on Pax). Dick is one of my all-time favorite actors, and the show itself is funny and entertaining, with fairly decent mystery plots and the occasional bonus of getting to see Barry Van Dyke (Dick's son and costar) with his shirt off. Hubba hubba!

So, when I saw this book on the shelf at the library the other day, I thought I'd give it a try. I fully expected it to stink -- a novel based on a TV show?? But then again, I knew Goldberg was one of the primary writers for the original series, and I figured that meant there was a chance it could be really fun. And guess what? It actually WAS really fun!

The mystery begins when Mark Sloan (Dick's character, a doctor) receives a large box from a mystery sender. He opens it up to discover a stack of files full of evidence about dozens of serious crimes committed by dozens of very important people. On top of the pile lies a note addressed to Mark that says, in essence, "If you're reading this, I've been murdered by someone in this box."

The box is from a private detective -- one known to be a blackmailer and overall scumbag himself. So, at first, Mark isn't sure he's too interested in getting involved. But, of course, none of the Sloans can resist a mystery, which is why we love them so darn much to begin with. And, true to form, soon Mark and Steve (Mark's son, a homicide detective) find themselves in the middle of TWO murders -- two murders that may not actually have been committed, actually -- as well as a myriad of blackmail schemes and a pile of crooked cops.

All in all, this was a fairly complex and well-thought-out combination of storylines and I was quite impressed with how well written it was. Plus, of course, I love all the characters from this series, and because Goldberg was one of the original writers for the show, the people in the novel were just like their television counterparts, making it all the more entertaining. If you enjoyed the original series, or you just love a good mystery, I'd suggest checking this one out. I'll definitely be looking for more of these myself (this one appears to be number 6 in the series), so try not to snicker if you happen by me on the street and I've got one of these silly things sticking out of my bag, okay? Recommended!

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(3/9) Blood is the Sky by Steve Hamilton. (read me!)

I'm still recovering from the effects of this book, another in Hamilton's terrific series featuring Alex McKnight, retired private eye, and set in Paradise, Michigan. It was so exciting and suspenseful that I ended up staying up until one in the morning two nights in a row because I couldn't put it down, and I swear, I'm STILL tired from doing that! Sleep is one of my favorite things in the world (I love sleep even more than I love bad science fiction movies, and y'all know how much I love me some bad sci-fi!), so for me to forsake the snooze not once but twice for a single book really tells you I found it entertaining!

In this one, Alex's friend Vinnie asks for his help in tracking down his lost brother, Tom. It's a touchy subject because Vinnie had given his brother his own identification so that Tom, recently paroled, could take a week-long, high-paying job as a hunting guide for a group of Detroit yuppies who wanted to go shoot some moose in Canada. Parolees can't leave the state, but Tom had been really depressed lately, and Vinnie thought the trip might do him some good. Now Tom and the yuppies are five days overdue, nobody has heard from any of them, and Vinnie's starting to worry that something's gone wrong.

So, Alex agrees to help, and the two of them drive up to the town where Tom had said they'd be staying. They are immediately suspicious when the people who had rented the group a cabin on a local lake act weird when asked about the missing group. Alex and Vinnie also discover that they aren't the only strangers in town looking for Tom and the others. And the next thing they know, they find themselves out in the middle of the wilderness, hunted by someone with a rifle and on the run from a group of particularly aggressive bears. This was the section that kept me awake the first night, with the resolution of the mystery being the cause of the second night's midnight-oil-burning! Another great installment in a consistently delightful series! Highly recommended!

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(3/7) In the Dark of the Night by John Saul. (don't read me!)

When I was in high school, I read several John Saul horror novels and loved them (one of my favorites being a novel called Swan Song, though I couldn't tell you now what it was about). But, when I got older, I kind of got sick of the horror genre and haven't picked up a book by him or his counterpart Dean Koontz in quite a while.

Somebody recommended this one to me (though, lucky for them, I can't remember who now), however, so I thought maybe I'd give it a shot and see if it was any fun. Head on back to the joys of my high school reading days, perhaps. Even if it was a bit on the hokey side, it might still be entertaining, right? And, at first, I confess I was intrigued by the plot -- a group of teenaged boys are spending the summer with their parents in some rental houses at an uppity lakeside community, when one of them finds a bunch of furniture, photos, and documents that seem linked somehow to the disappearance of a local doctor years ago. Sounds like fun, right? Except it turns out to be incredibly stupid instead. What could've been a really entertaining mystery, as the boys try to figure out the meaning behind the stuff they've found and its relationship to the lost doc, turns into an utterly unbelievable tale of "evil" furniture (!) that starts giving them nightmares about actual murders taking place in the town around them. Borrrrrring. And also, stuuuuupid.

Right about the time we got the section written from the point of view of the main character's CAT, I started to think, "WHY am I still reading this?" Soon after, I began to skim, and then about fifty pages after that, I finally skipped to the end, read the last chapter, and realized the whole book was just a complete waste of time and paper. So much for heading back to high school, eh? Maybe I just hit a dud, but I confess I won't be too eager to try any of the Sauls I've missed since I grew up any time soon. Bad enough I wasted two days on this one! Man, I hate it when that happens!

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(3/5) Hundred Dollar Baby by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

This is the latest in Parker's always-awesome Spenser mystery series (hands-down, my favorite mystery series of all time). As usual, it's a speedy read (more white space in every installment, as near as I can tell), but also as usual, it's wonderfully written with an engaging storyline and the same set of dependably-entertaining characters (Spenser, Hawk, and the gang). This one finds Spenser faced with a young lady from his past -- April Kyle, a prostitute Spenser first met when she was just a young girl, and who he's had to rescue in two previous novels already. This time, April's all grown up and has begun a new adventure -- running her own high-class brothel (how's THAT for an oxymoron -- "high-class brothel"?). Her business was doing well until suddenly, some thugs began showing up and scaring off her customers. She tells Spenser she's since gotten a few phone calls from a mysterious man who is demanding she cut him in for 25% of her profits, and asks for his help in finding out who and stopping him before someone gets hurt.

It doesn't take Spense long to figure out, however, that April is not telling him the full truth. And as he digs deeper into the case, he finds a whole host of twists that take him by surprise, including a link between April and some serious organized crime. Can Spenser save April before she gets herself in so far over her head there's no way back out? Or is her lifetime of struggle, suffering, and abuse finally going to pull her under for good?

There are a couple of problems with this novel -- for one thing, I found the ending a bit abrupt and a little on the overly-convenient side (though I'm not sure April would agree with that description). And for another, it IS somewhat ridiculous how many characters in these novels are adept at witty banter (that is to say, nearly ALL of them are, and I think we can all agree that in the real world, witty banter is a much rarer commodity). That said, the witty banter is what I love most about Spenser novels and I'm willing to go along with the idea that there are just a lot of smart-asses in Boston if that's what it takes to keep reading these. Nothing makes my day like a new Spenser novel, and if you still haven't read any of them, you seriously need to get hot. I'd start at the beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript, if I were you (the earlier novels were a bit meatier, I will confess), though it's not really necessary that you read them in order. As usual, highly, HIGHLY recommended!

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(3/2) We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. (read me!)

This short novel is strange but ultimately quite mesmerizing. It's the story of two young sisters, Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwell, who live in their old family home along with their elderly uncle, Julian. A few years previously, the entire Blackwell family was murdered -- poisoned by arsenic later found to have been put in the family sugar bowl. Constance was tried and acquitted for the murders, and now mostly hides in the house taking care of Mary Katherine ("Merricat," she calls her) and Uncle Julian (who had ingested only a small amount of the poison and is now mentally incapacitated but still alive and kickin'). For the most part, the two girls are happy. Merricat goes into the village once a week for supplies and suffers a great deal of cruelty and teasing from the locals whenever she's out. But when she's home with her beloved sis Constance, the two live in a magical world of happiness and simplicity. . .

. . . All of which is soon completely upset by the arrival of a distance cousin, Charles, who moves into the Blackwell house and begins to interrupt their previously-happy lives. Merricat takes an instant dislike to Charles, whom she suspects of wanting to steal their fortune. And she likes him even less when she discovers that Constance has taken a shine to him, and is starting to think he might be right -- maybe it IS time for the Blackwood family to reenter society.

What happens next won't shock you by the time it comes along (I suspected the truth about the murders from page one, personally). But the plot of this novel isn't really its strong suit. Instead, what I found engaging about it were the characters and the storytelling itself. Once I picked this book up, I had a really hard time putting it down -- it's strange, it's unique, and it's just really, really entertaining. I'm a big fan of Jackson's, having loved her novel The Haunting of Hill House, her well-known short story "The Lottery," and her lesser-known non-fiction books about parenthood, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. How I managed to miss this book for so many years, I have no idea! In any case, it's a quick read and well-worth picking up. Recommended!

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