May 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (5/27) The Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver.

    When it takes me this long to read a book, it means one of two things: either I couldn't get into it and reading it was just not a high priority for me, or it was so great and I loved it so much, I was rationing every chapter to make it last as long as possible. This book, as with all the others in the Lincoln Rhyme series, falls into that latter category. Yes, it's true -- Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs, stars of "The Bone Collector," are back! And this time, they're immersed into the world of magic when a serial killer turns out to be a talented illusionist with a nasty plan to baffle the experts with his prestidigitation and random victim choices.

    I don't need to say anything more than that to fans of this series -- as usual, this is a smart, funny, and exciting novel that all fans of forensics should read. I only wish they'd made more of the books in this series into movies! If you haven't yet experienced Jeffrey Deaver's creations, pick a book and dive right in. You cannot go wrong with Lincoln Rhyme. Highly recommended!

  • (5/17) Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde.

    Yay! Thursday Next is back! This novel starts out with Thursday trying to avoid the spotlight after her escapades in "The Eyre Affair" (the first book in this series) get out to the public. Everybody wants to know how she did it -- how she got INSIDE "Jane Eyre." And, even better, how she managed to change the ending of that novel from bleak and depressing to romantic and uplifting!

    But Literary Detective Next's success in "Jane Eyre" interests someone else too. First there are the Prose Police, who intend to charge Next with tampering with a classic. And then there's the evil Goliath corporation. They want Thursday to use her page jumping skills to retrieve a vanquished enemy, Jack Schitt, from "The Raven." And just in case she refuses, they've given her a good incentive -- they've gone back in time and eradicated her husband by changing one event in his past (keeping his father from preventing his drowning when he was three) and letting him die when before he was saved. If Thursday gets Schitt out of Poe and turns him over, they'll put history back the way it was. If she refuses, her husband will remain dead and buried at the age of three -- lost to her forever.

    But leaping into Edgar Allan Poe's works is no job for a rookie literary interloper. Many Prose Resource Operatives (PROs) have tried to get into Poe's works only to find themselves "boojummed" -- trapped inside their gruesome worlds forever. Lucky for Thursday, though, the top PRO at the Jurisfiction department has agreed to be her mentor -- to teach her the ropes of page jumping. Thursday rushes off to the department (which is located in a different dimension) to meet her mentor and is surprised to discover she is none other than Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations" (all the greatest prose operatives are fictional characters, by the way).

    Will Miss Havisham be able to train Thursday well enough so that she can survive a page jump into Poe? Or will Next end up boojummed like so many others? And, if she does bring Jack Schitt back, how can she be sure Goliath will honor their promise to return her husband to her? Or, perhaps even more importantly, how can she stop the evil corporation from using its chrono-skills to alter history and eradicate anybody else who ever gets in their way? Clearly a company with such a bad attitude can't be allowed to maintain that kind of power. But how can one Spec-Ops literary detective possibly stop them?

    Yet again, Fforde has written an absolutely delightful, quirky, and hilarious novel that takes the reader in and out of a variety of literary classics (her trial for messing with "Jane Eyre" actually takes place IN Kafka's "The Trial," for example, and just wait until you see what it's REALLY like inside Beatrix Potter's "Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies"!) and up and down a wild roller coaster of surprises and laughs. Fans of books and wordplay will love this book and its predecessor, "The Eyre Affair." And while Fford spends a lot of the novel on subplots that don't add much to the overall story -- in any other books, I would've found that extremely annoying -- his writing is just so damn fun, I didn't care what he was talking about. I just didn't want him to stop!

    Here's to hoping the Thursday Next series will be long and full. Fforde is one of the most clever, creative, and original writers out there today. You have never read anything like this, I guarantee it! Highly, HIGHLY recommended!

  • (5/14) CSI: Crime Scene Investigation -- Sin City by Max Allan Collins.

    A friend of mine loaned me two CSI paperback novels she'd picked up somewhere and this is the first of the two. I was a little skeptical at first -- how could they possibly be any good? But this one, about a professional stripper who is found strangeld to death in a locked room in the club where she worked, was actually pretty entertaining. It's not the most well-written novel I've ever read, but it moves at a pretty fast clip and seemed pretty true to the characters we've gotten to know and love on television. This was definitely an entertaining way to spend an afternoon -- almost as fun as watching the show itself! I'll probably read the second one my friend loaned me within the next week or so, so watch for a report on it here. If it's as fun, I'll definitely be looking for more of these in the future.

  • (5/12) Murder in the Hearse Degree by Tim Cockey.

    Another one in the Hitch the Undertaker series -- this one has Hitch being pulled into the case of a missing nanny. When Hitch hears through the grapevine that an old flame of his is back in town, he goes to look her up -- shoot the breeze, get caught up, remember old times, etc. But she's not around for a vacation -- she's left her abusive husband and she thinks he may have had something to do with the fact her young, lovely new nanny has suddenly disappeared. A few days later, the nanny turns up dead in the river. The cops say it was suicide, but Hitch is not so sure. . .

    Not as entertaining as others in this series that I have read, though it could be my fault -- I had a hard time concentrating on it because I've been kind of anxious lately about the arrival of my new nephew (born on May 13th!). This one didn't seem as funny as usual, though. Still, Cockey is a great writer and this is a series I have enjoyed quite a bit. I'll keep reading 'em, if he keeps crankin' them out! I'd recommend you start with another one if you are new to the series, though.

  • (5/10) Jarhead by Anthony Swofford.

    When the U.S. Marines were sent to Saudi Arabia in 1990 to fight the Iraqis, Swofford was there, a jarhead in the infanty, on the front lines. This is Swofford's story about what life was like fighting the war and living for six months in the deserts of the Middle East -- the sand, the camaraderie, the physical challenges, the heat -- as well as a few anecdotal flashbacks to boot camp. While those stories are definitely enthralling, what makes this memoir really stand out is Swofford's honesty and candor about what he felt while he was there -- the emotional ups and downs. Anger, hate, fear, compassion, sadness. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Swofford swears like a sailor and writes like a pro, but everything else about him is 100% USMC. This book isn't pretty -- it delivers as many troubling truths about war and soldiers as it does inspiring tales of incredible valor. But it's a must-read for anyone curious about what life is like, physically and mentally, for the military personnel who fought in Iraq then, as well as now. Highly recommended, unless you are easily offended by lots of cursing or talk about private parts. I'm looking forward to reading more of Swofford's writing soon -- hope he keeps churning things out!

  • (5/8) Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane.

    When I first read about the plot of this novel, a psychological thriller about two cops who are sent to an Alcatraz-like mental hospital for the criminally insane to investigate the escape of a patient, and who then become trapped on the island when a hurricane hits, I thought to myself, "Not a terribly original idea," but since I'm always up for a good trapped-on-a-dangerous-island-during-a-hurricane story, I immediately put it on hold at the library.

    I was quickly glad I had, too, because almost instantly I could tell Lehane was a terrific writer. And the two cops are wonderful characters -- I just love witty banter and clever dialogue, and these two absolutely excelled at that.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book -- until the astonishingly unoriginal (and stupid, no offense) "plot twist" that comes in the last twenty pages. When I realized what Lehane was about to do, I literally groaned with agony from the let-down. What could've been an exciting, intriguing, complex conspiracy-type spin on a story I've read dozens of times before instead ends up standing out from the others only because it's such a perfect example of the "author couldn't figure out how to successfully end his complicated story, so he weaseled his way out of even having to try" thing. Think "and then I woke up and it had all been a dream." Man, bummer. The weird thing is that I totally loved Lehane's "Mystic River" and heartily recommend it to people who love a good thrill. But I'll have a hard time recommending this one to anybody, good thrill lovers or not. Dammit. I hate it when a great book is ruined by a bad ending like that! Sucky.

  • (5/2) Gray Matter by Gary Braver.

    I'm not quite sure how I felt about this book, a medical thriller about a doctor who performs a risky, experimental brain surgery on kids with low IQ's to make them smarter. Well, let's begin at the beginning and see where it leads us. Okay, so, one of the two storylines in the novel follows the Whitman family, Rachel, Martin, and their six year-old son Dylan. Rachel did drugs in college so, of course, her child is brain damaged (because drugs are BAD! BAD, I TELL YOU!). Well, not really brain damaged, actually, but dumb as a post, although incredibly cute, happy, and talented at music. She becomes desperate to do something about it -- to make him smarter -- and that's how she ends up finding out about Dr. Malenko and his experimental, secret brain surgery.

    The moment Rachel tells her husband Martin about Dylan's low IQ and Dr. M's magical cure, Martin becomes obsessed with fixing Dylan too. Only, ridiculously, Rachel suddenly flips over to the skeptics' side, immediately arguing that she doesn't trust the doctor she just convinced Martin was the solution to all their problems and becoming self-righteously disgusted by Martin's desire to make Dylan "better" instead of just loving him for who he is. Even though, pages before, she was essentially talking the same way. Insert big sigh of annoyance here, as well as a snort of disgust for both selfish, yuppie, lame-o, undeserving parents who think of their child in terms of what he can do for their social status instead of in terms of what he can do for their happiness. And nevermind HIS happiness. As if that's important -- ptaw! There's a lame attempt by the author to make us believe Rachel wants to have her kid undergo secret brain surgery because she doesn't want him to suffer as a result of his low IQ (teasing at school, etc.), but it's made wholly unbelievable when she later talks about how stupid people can't succeed, even if they are musical geniuses. If Dylan isn't smart, he's worthless. She sucks and so does her butthead husband.

    Okay, so the surgery actually works, but since this is a medical thriller, it doesn't work quite the way the parents are led to believe it does. In short, it turns their kids into obsessive-compulsives at best and sociopathic murderers at worst. The second plotline involves a cop on the trail of a serial killer, after finding the skulls of two little kids, both with strange drill marks in their skulls. As Rachel and her family slowly edge closer and closer to Dr. Malenko's hospital, so does the cop, as he picks up clue upon clue leading him to suspect Malenko of being involved in the murders. The two groups collide at the hospital, in a very disappointing and uneventful denouement. And though it sounds like I must have thought this was one of the worst books ever, you'll note that I did actually make it to the denouement, and that's because despite the totally unsympathetic characters and several ridiculous plot elements, the writing is pretty good. Suspenseful and well-paced. So, I couldn't put it down, even though I was spending an awful lot of time sighing heavily and rolling my eyes. For whatever that's worth. Which, in retrospect, isn't a lot. I suggest skipping this one. Unless you're trapped on a desert isle and this is your only option for passing the time. In which case, enjoy!

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