March 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(3/26) Code Sixty-One by Donald Harstad. (read me!)

This is another one of Harstad's great mystery novels featuring small-town Iowa cop Carl Houseman (all of which I've read before, but have recently started rereading because, happily, I've forgotten all their plots). In this one, Houseman and the gang are called in to investigate a pretty special case -- the death of their captain's young niece. At first, it looks like a possible suicide -- she's found dead in her bathtub with a knife next to her and a big gash in her neck. But after closer examination it becomes clear it was a murder, and a weird one at that. Her body's been almost completely drained of blood, and her housemates? All believe the guy who lives on the third floor is a vampire.

It's spooky. It's funny. It's clever. It's crafty. It's got great characters and a solid, suspenseful plot. These novels are a blast, so don't miss 'em if you're a fan of cop-focused mysteries. Recommended! [comment on this book review]

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(3/19) The King of Methleham by Mark Lindquist. (don't read me!)

I don't usually write reviews for books I didn't finish reading, but every now and then, I come across a book so bad I feel it's my duty to let you know you should avoid it like the plague. This is one of those books. I read Lindquist's first novel, Nevermind Nirvana, several years ago and while I appreciated the scene in which he has a Murder City Devils band member punch out my ex-boyfriend, for the most part, I thought the book was pretty bad. One of my biggest complaints about it was the constant name-dropping -- every matchbook was a matchbook from a cool bar in Seattle, every other paragraph contained yet another mention of a hip band. It was like Lindquist was desperate to make sure his readers knew that even though he was a stuffy lawyer, he was still really, really cool.

Though I had an interesting back-and-forth via email with Lindquist after he read my review of his first book, I can't say I was all that interested in following his literary career after that. But when I saw his new book was about meth users in Pierce County, Washington, I decided to give it a try, since it sort of relates to what I do for a living (I'm a substance abuse research librarian in Washington state).

Unfortunately, I didn't even make past about page 65 with this one. Why? Because, for pity's sake! He's doing it AGAIN! Every other paragraph, the dropping of a cool band or other hip pop culture reference. And yes, there are many novels that contain lots of pop culture references, but in those novels, the references feel natural. They feel like part of the characters' lives -- the things they'd actually say and do. Here, they're just so obviously Lindquist himself! Making sure we know he's a cool dude! And when he finally name-checked his own novel, that was sort of the final straw for me, I'm afraid.

But even not counting the annoying "LOOK AT ME! I AM COOL!" overload, the characters in this book are just plain awful. Lindquist is a lawyer who prosecutes meth users and his disdain for drug addicts is evident and intense from page one. Not only are all the meth characters in this book stupid, horrible people with no redeeming human qualities whatsoever, but just in case we manage to find anything even remotely charming about the main character, a meth cook, Lindquist makes him a pedophile too. Wanted to make sure all us dumb readers recognized that meth users are the scum of the earth, I guess, just in case we hadn't already figured that out from watching the nightly news in all its paranoid, over-reactionary glory.

Well, guess what, Mark? I disagree with you on that one -- meth users aren't actually the scum of the earth, lawyers are (dude, everybody knows that!). And if you hadn't been so busy trying to figure out how to work yet another reference to The Strokes into your flat, tedious novel, you might've been able to create some interesting characters who actually had a shot of teaching us dumb readers something useful about the meth culture. Instead, you've just gone and done it again -- another book that made me roll my eyes with impatience at your desperation to have your readers think of you as "cool," when the reality is, the word that actually kept popping into my head was "douche." Don't quit your day job, man. [comment on this book review]

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(3/16) The Big Thaw by Donald Harstad. (read me!)

For the most part, having a brain that can't retain useful data anymore because it's far, far too full of inane trivia about bad horror and sci-fi movies is a bit of an inconvenience. However, every now and then, I'm grateful that my memory sucks, because it means that several years after I've read a terrific mystery series the author has long since stopped writing new installments for, I can go back and read the books all over again as though it were the first time. This is one of those series, and Harstad one of those writers (darn you, Harstad -- where did you GO, man?). And these books are just plain FUN. I can't wait to get all the others from the library and read them all again too.

The series focuses on a small-town Iowa deputy named Carl Houseman, and in this one, he gets sucked into a murder investigation that ends up involving a local militia group, a dastardly villain named Gabriel, and an elaborate bank and casino riverboat heist that was so delightfully suspenseful it had me up way past my bedtime turning pages. I love all the characters in this series, and also really enjoy the dispatch stuff (we listen in, so to speak, on a lot of the police dispatch calls, which means we get to learn all the jargon (nobody ever 10-100's, though, which is better than a 10-200, of course, and yes, yes, I HAVE seen Smokey and the Bandit too many times. . .)). Every book of Harstad's I've read has been one I've really, really enjoyed, so if you are a mystery fan, go look these up ASAP. Highly recommended! [comment on this book review]

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(3/9) Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber. (read me!)

This novel really surprised me. When I first started reading it, I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it. The plot, about a fingerprint expert, Lena Dawson, working on a case about multiple infant deaths, didn't really seem all that intriguing. And, even worse, early on in the novel we learn from Lena herself that she was raised by apes. No, like, really. It's a long story, but as the result of her strange childhood and the emotional deficiencies of her eventual human foster mother, Lena's turned into a rather odd adult. She's socially inept but extremely perceptive (almost to the point where it seems she has a bit of a sixth sense, actually). She's exactly the kind of person who would make a truly fantastic criminalist.

Lena doesn't usually get called out on cases -- she's 100% lab geek all the way -- so she's a bit surprised when, one day, her boss sends her out to the scene of an infant's unexplained death. In the last few months, their town has seen a strange upswing in SIDS cases -- a swing that makes it seem more and more unlikely it's really SIDS causing the deaths. The more Lena investigates the case, the more she begins to "feel" someone is actually intentionally killing the babies. And when they finally get a glimpse of the murderer on a baby monitor, the killer is wearing something that directly relates to Lena's past. Or, at least, the past she thought she had.

This novel is extremely well-written and for that reason more than any other, I really enjoyed it. I gather Abu-Jaber doesn't usually write mysteries, and maybe that explains some of this novel's plot deficiencies (including one of the pieces of evidence that so confuses Lena and shouldn't have). But the lady crafts a fine sentence, and I'll be eagerly seeking out more of her work soon because of that. [comment on this book review]

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(3/3) Dead Connection by Alafair Burke. (read me!)

Detective Ellie Hatcher has always wanted to work homicide, so when she's called up for a special assignment to help eccentric homicide dick Flann McIlroy with a serial murder case, she doesn't really stop to question his motives. At first, it seems like McIlroy selected her because of her tech smarts, since the serial killer seems to be using an online dating service to choose his victims. But the more she works with Flann, the more she comes to realize it's actually because of her personal history. Her father, a homicide detective himself, was murdered by a serial killer he himself had been trying to track, and this has left Ellie with a unique determination to solve the cases she's assigned. Flann thinks she'll be unwilling to let this case go until it's solved -- to make her father proud from the grave, I suppose -- and, as it turns out, he's right.

To catch the killer, Flann decides they need to send Ellie undercover on the dating web site to see if she can lure the bad guy out by creating an online identity for herself that mimics the victims' profiles. But when the dating service killer starts to remind her a little too much of the same serial killer her father had been pursuing, Ellie begins to think she might not be the only player in this game who has a personal motivation to succeed.

This mystery is really nothing special. It's entertaining enough, but has a predictable story and is very awkwardly written in places (for example, McIlroy's nickname is "McIl-Mulder," because his colleagues think he's weird -- think Fox Mulder from The X-Files -- but that's hardly a nickname that rolls off the tongue, for one thing, and the comparison between the two characters never made any sense to me either). The characters are pretty trite and uninspired as well -- McIlroy is every grizzled detective you've ever encountered, and Ellie is every young female professional who has had to sacrifice her love life for the sake of her career. Man, I'm tired of that character -- she is everywhere these days! The online dating stuff was fairly entertaining, if only because I don't know much about that realm, but a lot of the pop culture and technology references were pretty remarkably dated for a novel that was published in 2007.

I've heard Burke's series featuring a lawyer named Samantha Kincaid is fairly popular, so I might check one of those out (Burke herself is a deputy district attorney in Portland, Oregon, which gives me hope I might find her lawyer character a bit more realistic than I found her cops). But I can't really say I found much in this novel worth recommending to others. Definitely one you can skip. [comment on this book review]

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