March 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood



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(3/30) Wickett's Remedy by Myla Goldberg. (read me!)

I really enjoyed Goldberg's first novel, Bee Season, and when I heard she'd written a second novel that was about the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic in the U.S., I was pretty excited. Combine that quirky writing style with a subject that fascinates me (bring on the infectious disease/virus novels!), and I couldn't imagine it being anything but great. Alas, I couldn't have been more wrong. Because "great" is a word that can only be used to describe this novel when it's also combined with the words "big mess." Great big mess. Huge.

Don't get me wrong -- I actually enjoyed the core plot of this novel for the most part. It's about a young woman, Lydia, who, as the story opens, works in the mens' department of a big department store in Boston by day, and retires to her Southie apartment at night, where she lives with her big but exceedingly close family. One day, a customer named Henry Wickett asks her out to lunch and the two gradually begin to court each other. Turns out he's a medical student, but after they get married, he confesses to Lydia that he doesn't think mainstream medicine is what the sick actually need. Instead, he decides to quit school and follow his true calling -- the development and sale of a revolutionary tonic called Wickett's Remedy. Wickett's Remedy is not your standard medicine, though, as Henry believes that what really cures people of their ails is not chemicals or herbs, but instead just a caring touch. So, though customers who buy the Remedy get a bottle of good-tasting liquid to drink, the primary element of the package is a lifelong, loving pen pal -- Henry himself.

Wickett's Remedy never really takes off. And then the flu strikes, taking Henry as one of its first victims. The next thing Lydia knows, she's back in Southie, nursing an entire apartment building full of sick friends and family. When her own brother becomes ill, her mother casts her out of the apartment to try to protect her. Lost and grieving, Lydia ends up at the local hospital and soon discovers her true calling is nursing.

The next thing we know, the novel becomes based on a true story as Lydia is sent to Gallops Island to assist with the experiments going on there. The Gallops Island experiments were conducted on convict "volunteers" and essentially were developed in an attempt to figure out just how the flu was being transmitted. The only problem? None of the volunteers got sick! As Lydia "nurses" the healthy volunteers day in and day out, she becomes close to one of them in particular, and gahhhhh, here's where I started to kind of nod off.

The plot isn't too bad, though I felt like it lacked a strong purpose and, obviously, that it fizzled out pretty badly by the end. But the real problem with this novel is that it's just totally weighted down by a lot of gimmicky crap that adds nothing to the story and does a fair amount of damage in terms of being utterly distracting and stealing away from any sense of cohesive story. For starters, Goldberg, for some odd reason, decided to have a bunch of dead people from Lydia's life annotate parts of her story by adding sentences here and there in the margins of the book. This would've been fine if the annotations actually had contributed things that were interesting -- things we couldn't have known about otherwise, but that were vital to the story or the development of Lydia's character. Instead, these annotations are primarily just cutesy and pointless.

The same also goes for the (real, in some cases) news clippings Goldberg included, which add some interesting historical perspective to the flu story, but felt intrusive and kind of oddly irrelevant. And then there's a whole subplot involving a guy who steals the formula for Wickett's Remedy and turns it into a successful soda called QD Soda. This storyline goes nowhere, though, and it never really comes back to link up with the primary plot. It's like Goldberg couldn't resist the urge to spin the story off into as many directions as she could think of. But all in all, this technique succeeded only in creating a novel that felt scatterbrained, uneven, and essentially a big fat mess from start to finish.

If Goldberg's focus had been on Lydia's story instead of all the little peripheral gimmicky crap, this could've been a really strong novel. A novel about a woman, grieving for the loss of her beloved husband, who decides she wants to take what she learned from him (the power of a caring touch) and use it to continue his dream to help others feel better. To create her own Wickett's Remedy made of kind words and a gentle soul, tucked inside a nurses uniform. Instead, that story gets buried in a heaping pile of distraction. More than anything, I just felt disappointed after I finished this book. Not disappointed because I had hoped it would be great and it turned out it wasn't -- but because it had so much potential for greatness, and Goldberg just wasn't a strong enough writer to pull it off. I'll still give Goldberg's next novel a try, but I won't be looking forward to it with quite as much anticipation next time. That ought to help with the disappointment, at least, if it too turns out to be as bad as this one was. We'll see.

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(3/25) Fiddlers: A Novel of the 87th Precinct by Ed McBain. (read me!)

I first discovered the 87 Precinct novels of Ed McBain's when I was in the 11th grade. I had a summer job as a librarian in a teeny tiny library in Pennsylvania, and I spent most of every shift completely alone. It was a small library, and not used much, and there wasn't a whole heck of a lot to do but to camp out in front of the single air conditioning unit in the back and read my way through the stacks. It took me about half the summer to get to the M section of the mysteries, and once I got there, I couldn't believe I'd wasted so much time reading so much other crap. These novels are perfect -- they're like the best episodes of NYPD Blue or Law & Order in print form. Cleverly crafted, quickly plotted, and full of characters that you come to know as well as your closest friends, they are utterly absorbing. All in all, there must be at least fifty 87th Precinct novels, not only a tremendous feat in sheer number, but because unlike with other series I've read, these books never got stale. McBain grew along with his characters, or maybe I mean that in vice versa, and the subjects and storylines were as fresh in 2005 as they were in 1956 when he first started writing them.

Ed McBain, also known as Evan Hunter when writing fiction, died in 2005, leaving behind a legacy of books that are as well-known as those of some of the greatest mystery writers of all time. This one, the last one we'll ever see, published posthumously, is as great as all the ones that came before it. Well, no, that's not exactly true. I will confess that this one wasn't quite as strong as some of the previous ones in terms of the actual storyline. But after you get to know Carella, Meyer, and even Fat Ollie Weeks, you hardly care what mystery it is they've been cast to solve this time around -- you just crave more time with them. Like Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, I usually gobble these books up in a single sitting. But, knowing this was McBain's last, I tried to make this one last as long as I could (though, even then, I could only drag it out three days because I had such a hard time putting it down). Quick, easy, and as entertaining as some of the best hours on television, this is a series to be savored, enjoyed, and adored.

Rest in peace, Mr. McBain -- your books remind me of the summer I first fell in love with librarianship, and remain some of the best mysteries I've ever read. And you guys -- if you haven't experienced the 87th Precinct yet yourself and you love cop or mystery shows on television, go grab a stack of these when everything hits reruns again, pull up a chair, and settle in for a long night. Once you pick them up, you won't put them down again until you've read them all -- the true test of a great talent.

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(3/22) Deadhouse: Life in a Coroner's Office by John Temple. (read me!)

This short, non-fiction book takes us into the fascinating world of the Pittsburgh coroner's office -- one of the few major U.S. cities that still uses elected coroners for its death investigations instead of appointed medical examiners. The book is broken into several sections, beginning with a chapter that follows a young college student around on her first night as an intern, capturing her horrors, fears, and reactions as she follows a death investigation from the call to the scene through the autopsy the next day. Another chapter shows us the ins and outs of the autopsy room, and another even takes us upstairs out of the morgue and into the world of inquest hearings.

In between personal stories about the coroners and descriptions of the fascinating cases they encounter, Temple educates us on the difference between coroners and medical examiners, as well as the pros and cons of relying on each type of organization for investigational work. Additionally, he mixes in some history, detailing the evolution of the coroner's office over the last couple of centuries. And though I will say the writing was a bit dry -- Temple definitely writes like a reporter, which is great when you're writing a scholarly piece of non-fiction, but less effective when you're writing a book like this that is clearly meant to appeal to the masses of CSI watchers out there -- overall, I found this book extremely engrossing and very educational. Anyone who's ever been curious about what coroners really do shouldn't hesitate to pick up a copy, and that goes double for readers who have enjoyed books like Jessica Synder Sacks' Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death or Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

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(3/18) Murder at Yaquina Head by Ron Lovell. (read me!)

I didn't really expect much from this mystery novel -- it's published by a publisher I've never heard of and is fairly short, and the book itself looks pretty amateurish in terms of the cover and overall presentation. But, as it turns out, you really can't judge a book by its exterior. Because this was actually a fairly strong mystery novel, with an intriguing plot, a great protagonist, and writing that was fairly solid (though a bit spotty in places, and lord, how I hate typos in novels -- I hope Lovell's gotten a new publisher since this one came out).

The story is about a journalist professor in Oregon, Thomas Martindale, who is enjoying his first day of summer vacation at the Oregon Coast when he suddenly finds himself wrapped up in a mystery. A colleague of his from the college, a French professor, has recently given him the first few pages of her memoir -- not just because she wants his feedback on it, but because she's convinced that the content of her book is going to get her killed. But in reading the first chapter, Thomas sure can't figure out why. It's about her life as a young woman in France during WWII -- the time she spent working for the Underground as a French spy in the resistance effort against Germany. Thomas has plans to meet up with her the next night to talk about the first chapter, but when he arrives, she isn't there. The next morning, her body has been discovered floating in the waters off the beach near her home, and the next thing Thomas knows, he's wrapped up in a mystery that goes back fifty years. What could Madame possibly have had to say about her experiences during WWII that would make someone now, all this time later, want her dead?

I really did enjoy this novel, though I'd encourage you not to think too hard about the details of the actual mystery aspect of it (for one thing, I found the killer's motive to be pretty unbelievable and I didn't fully understand why it led him to kill two innocent women given the actual nature of that motive). It's not brilliant, but I enjoyed the characters, particularly the man character, Thomas, and was fairly sufficiently swept along for the ride. It sure beat the pants off of Darkly Dreaming Dexter (the book I read right before this one, see review below). I've put a couple others from this series on hold at the library and will be checking them out soon. Recommended, as long as you aren't too picky when it comes to plots, and I have a feeling that Lovell is the kind of fiction writer (he's been writing solidly reviewed non-fiction for years already) who is really going to blossom with practice.

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(3/15) Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. (read me!)

This novel started out fairly well -- it's about a handsome, intelligent (but somewhat socially inept) man named Dexter who works as a blood spatter expert for the Miami Police. He's phenomenal at his job, repeatedly noticing things the cops themselves never see, and his work has led to the arrest of a number of criminals who might otherwise have gotten away. The reason Dexter's so good at his job, though, isn't simply because he pays attention to detail. It's because he himself is a sociopathic serial killer. He knows how the killers think. He knows what drives him. He thinks and is driven by all the same things himself. But, hey, don't judge him too harshly -- after all, there is one big difference between those killers and Dexter: Dexter only kills bad people. His adoptive father, a homicide detective who died several years ago, knew Dexter's nature was to kill, and he took him aside one day and told him it was okay to be himself. He knew Dexter wouldn't be able to resist the urge to kill much longer, so he told him it was okay to give into the urges as long as he only killed people who actually deserved it. Sanctioned by the one man he truly respected, Dexter has made it his life's work to stop bad guys. You know -- by dismembering them.

Life is going fairly smoothly for Dexter until he gets called in to look over a crime scene and discovers something unusual -- it's a body, hacked into pieces, and there isn't a single spot of blood anywhere. As a guy who likes to chop up his own victims and who is likewise obsessive about tidiness, Dexter is immediately intrigued and impressed by this new killer's work. His sister Deborah, a beat cop who wants to be promoted to detective, immediately latches onto Dexter's uncanny insights about this new rash of murders and tries to use his theories to get herself noticed by her superiors. Soon, Dexter and Deborah are working off the clock, trying to find the killer before he strikes again. But they have two very different motives -- Deborah wants to keep him from killing anybody else; Dexter just wants to meet him and shake his hand, so to speak.

Up to this point, I was enjoying this book well enough. It's definitely readable -- fast-paced and darkly humorous. But I had some serious problems with the exaggeratedly stilted style. Dexter is the narrator of the novel, and we're supposed to get a sense of his complete inability to feel emotion -- his sociopathicness -- from the style in which the words are put together on the page. The problem is, I felt like the style was inconsistent, and in some places it was just plain ol' badly written. Nevertheless, I appreciated that Lindsay was trying to give his character a distinctive voice and I was intrigued by the characters and the storyline.

What blew the novel for me was the ending, when it is finally revealed to us who the mystery killer is. I don't want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that there are two "suspects" by the end, and neither one of them was interesting or unique in any way. The first one, the one we're led to think is the killer for most of the last quarter of the book, was a cliché of just epic proportions. And the second one -- well, hmmm, what's bigger than "epic"? Because, it, too, was just eye-rollingly "been there, done that" to me.

All in all, I think Lindsay has come up with a very interesting character in Dexter, and though I thought this novel was pretty weak, I was glad to see he's working on a second novel featuring the same characters. Maybe he'll get the hang of this in time for the second one to turn out great. Dexter is a unique character -- a clever idea. I'm just hoping he wasn't Lindsay's only clever idea. Only time, and the next book, will tell!

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(3/10) Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett. (read me!)

This is another one of Pratchett's light-hearted and funny romps through Discworld. In this one, Death, the ol' Grim Reaper himself, starts getting a little too existential for his boss and soon finds himself getting shitcanned, so to speak. Now, suddenly, Death has a life, and he goes off into the world to learn how to live it. He soon lands a job at a farm, and though he still can't speak without using a reaper-esque all-caps kinda voice, nor can he get the hang of this whole time thing, Death settles into life fairly happily, and even begins to fall in love. Well, sort of, anyway.

The only problem is that a world without a Grim Reaper is a world where people's bodies die, but their spirits just keep on truckin'. Soon Discworld is starting to fill up with the undead, one of whom, elderly wizard Windle Poons, is pretty annoyed. He was all set to go gently into that good night, and being stuck in limbo has become rather irksome. So, he bands up with the rest of Ankh-Morpork's zombie population and sets off to find Death and get life back on track.

This is a pretty silly novel, as all these Discworld books tend to be. But everyone can use a little silliness in their lives from time to time, so definitely stick this one on your list if you're in the mood for something goofy and fun. Pratchett is a fantastic writer -- his prose reads like great banter -- and I look forward to reading the whole Discworld series (which is huge -- yay!) over the next year or two. Recommended!

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(3/6) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (read me!)

Wow, I think this is the longest I've spent with one book in eons -- over three weeks! And every single moment I was reading it was simply phenomenal! It easily goes down in my history as being one of the most enthralling, transporting novels I have ever had the wonderful pleasure of reading.

But, oh, how do I describe the plot of this novel, which is so many things wrapped up into one? It's partly a coming-of-age story, partly a mystery, partly a work of philosophy, partly a historical novel, partly a romance, and partly a sheer white-knuckle thriller. I guess all I can do is just describe the root plot of the book and let you discover its numerous other characters, storylines, and intricacies on your own.

It's the story of a young boy of about twelve, Daniel, whose father, a bookseller in 1940's Barcelona, takes him one day to the most wondrous place on Earth -- the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It's here that every obscure book ever written has been stashed and archived in an elaborate labyrinth of shelves and corridors the likes of which we haven't heard tell of since the monk's library in Umberto Eco's In the Name of the Rose.

There, deep in the Cemetery's tunnels, Daniel comes across a book called The Shadow of the Wind. He takes it home with him and begins to read it that night. As soon as he starts it, however, he's so entranced by its story he doesn't put it back down until he's read it once, twice, over and over. In love with the novel's prose, characters, and stories, Daniel decides to try to find out more about the author who created it, Julian Carax. But, he soon discovers that Carax is a complete enigma. Most people have never even heard of him, and those who have no longer know where to find any of his work. As it turns out, someone calling themselves Lain Coubert, the name of the devil in The Shadow of the Wind, has for years been systematically tracking down and destroying every copy of every book Carax ever wrote. Not just destroying them, though, but actually setting them on fire and burning them into oblivion. Every. Single. Copy.

Determined to find out why, Daniel soon finds himself on a decade-long quest for the truth about Julian Carax -- a mystery involving so many incredible, wonderful characters and twists I thought I'd died and gone to storytime heaven.

This novel transported me like no other -- when I was reading it, I truly lived and breathed it. And the significance of this feeling, given the storyline of the novel itself, is not lost on me. Just as Daniel was enthralled by a novel that fell into his lap one day, so indeed was I, and I found this element of the book utterly delightful, because what better way to make your reader connect with your protagonist than to give them something so powerfully in common -- the love of a good story? I thought this novel was utterly brilliant and I can't wait to share it with everyone I know, starting with you. So, don't let this one pass you by! I simply cannot recommend it highly enough! Go get a copy! RIGHT NOW! And don't come back until you've read it!

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