May 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (5/28) The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald.

    This is a book my mother used to read to my siblings and me when we were little kids. I remembered being absolutely mesmerized by it as a child, but couldn't remember much about the plot anymore. Now that I'm an aunt (2 nephews, 2 nieces!), I figured it was a good time to reacquaint myself with a few of my old favorites. And this one, I soon discovered, was just as delightful now as it was then.

    In short, it's about Princess Irene, a little girl who is never allowed outside after dark. One day, she gets so swept up in play that she and her nurse forget to head back until the sun has already set. Racing through the dark woods, they are stopped in their tracks by a terrifying sight -- a scowling, scurrying goblin! Just then, a brave young boy named Curdie comes by and rescues them -- and thus a friendship is born.

    After overhearing a dastardly goblin plan to flood the mine Curdie and his father works in, Curdie and Irene decide it's time to stop the goblins and take back the night. Only, things are never as easy as they sound on paper -- and they end up getting themselves into quite an adventuresome mess. It just doesn't get any more fun than that!

    This is a wonderful book for kids, and one moms, dads, and aunts will enjoy reading aloud (short chapters!). Watch for part two, "The Princess and the Curdie," to show up here soon! Recommended!

  • (5/25) The Breathtaker by Alice Blanchard.

    When Police Chief Charlie Grover finds three mutilated corpses in a tornado-ravaged farmhouse, he makes a logical assumption -- the family was killed by flying debris in the storm. But, a few details right off the bat don't feel quite right to him. And, sure enough, upon closer examination, Grover discovers a gruesome calling card on each body that can only mean one thing: murder.

    Thinking the killer might have fooled cops in the past, Chief Grover exhumes the bodies of a handful of tornado victims who died similarly in storms over the past decade. There he finds the killer's same sick mark, making it clear that these murders are the work of a serial killer, not someone with a specific grudge.

    Clearly, the murderer is extremely intelligent -- not only is he leaving no trace evidence behind, but he's able, with near perfect accuracy, to predict when and where a tornado will hit. He must be a storm tracker, but since that's a popular hobby in Oklahoma, Grover's list of suspects is as long as his arm. He decides the only way to find the killer is to track a storm himself, and to this end enlists the help of his new girlfriend, a savvy tornado scientist. But the killer ups the ante when he kidnaps the Chief's daughter and drives her right into the storm.

    I was pretty disappointed by the somewhat lackluster ending of this novel (every intriguing twist is pretty much explained like this: eh, he's crazy! Which, yawn.), but the rest of the book was extremely entertaining and pretty well-written. I'll definitely look for others by this author. Recommended to all fans of thrilling weather!

  • (5/18) Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willet.

    I couldn't resist this novel when I heard it was about two fraternal twins, both of whom lived in Rhode Island and one of whom was a librarian. I'm a fraternal twin, I'm a librarian, and I used to live in Rhode Island. Holy coincidence, Batman! Thankfully, though, that's where the similarities end. Because after finishing this book, I can't say I envied either character their tumultuous lives.

    The first sister, Abagail Mather, is a woman of enormous appetites, sexual and otherwise. Which is a polite way of saying she's easy. The novel is narrated by Dorcas ("Dork") Mather, her twin (the librarian), and is structured around Abagail's memoir, which Dorcas reads to us a bit at a time as she goes. The book is more fiction than non-fiction, however, and Dorcas has a wonderful time pointing out all the made-up stuff and filling us in on the real dirt. These are two girls who couldn't be more different. Abagail is wild and crazy, Dorcas controlled and darkly funny, and never the twain shall meet. The first half of this novel is a hilarious ride through Abagail and Dorcas's childhoods, full of all the typical disasters and easy material for sarcastic storytelling.

    But when Dorcas gets to the part where Abagail loses her virginity, however, things take a sharp turn. Eventually, she ends up sucked in by a sadistic man named Conrad, who sends her into a downward spiral of dieting, degradation, and dependency. A spiral that ultimately carries her down to. . .murder.

    But don't get all freaked out or anything. At its heart, this is very light reading. Willet isn't the greatest of writers -- for one thing, there are six grammatical errors in the first seven pages that can't all be chalked up to bad typing, and for another, she has an annoying affection for the use of capitalization as a way to make concepts stand out. You know, like, "That's when she told me about the Very Serious Event." That's effective if you use it once or twice, in a comic way. Or if you're Winnie the Pooh. But in this book, it's just used right into the ground, and it starts to get annoying after about page 50.

    Despite my complaining, though, I really enjoyed this novel. It's different, it's bitterly funny, and it's honest. Can't go wrong with that. Recommended, though I probably won't seek out others by this author.

  • (5/16) A Continent for the Taking: the Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard W. French.

    Part travel memoir, part history book, and part political analysis, this richly written look at contemporary Africa should be required reading for every future politician. French, who has travel extensively in Africa and who obviously loves it deeply, not only describes the current problems many African nations face, but takes us beyond those problems back to the history that led up to them - a history soaked in centuries of Western manipulation, greed, and convenience. The result has been a never ending spiral of ever-deepening crisis, not just political, but also economic, agricultural, and social. African nations with their own functional and growing governments and cultures were stomped to pieces by Western nations with an eye on more colonization. And when the West got tired of having to deal with them, it just "liberated" them, dumped them, and, in many places, left them in a state of absolute chaos from which they are still struggling to emerge.

    This is an informed, deeply sympathetic portrayal of Africa, a continent that is endlessly fascinating and incredibly compelling. I go through periodic phases these days during which I lose all hope for Africa - it just seems so impossibly clouded with the thick smog of several lifetimes' worth of lost chances. But French - French has hope. And so do the people he tells us about. And that's pretty darn refreshing, not to mention inspiring. Now all we need to do is make this book required reading for the rest of the world - and then to get off our butts and start actually listening to what Africa is trying to tell us.

  • (5/11) Nearer Than the Sky by T. Greenwood.

    Indie Brown is a woman haunted by terrible memories from her childhood. Memories she's never really understood, yet is unable to shake. When she gets a call from her younger sister Lily saying their mother is in the hospital after a suicide attempt, Indie's initial reaction is of annoyance. Her mother was a drama queen her whole life, ignoring Indie for the most part and projecting all that drama onto the prettier, but sickly Lily. The suicide attempt -- it's just another in a long series of pathetic grabs for attention.

    When Indie reluctantly returns home to help Lily care for their mother she is assaulted by nightmares of her childhood that leave her reeling. Lily's own daughter Violet is also a sickly child and watching Lily and her mother interact with Violet, in concert with those bad dreams, suddenly brings a horrific realization to the forefront of Indie's mind. When Lily's husband confesses to Indie that he thinks his wife is actually making Violet sick, it all falls into place.

    Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a terrible mental disorder that causes afflicted mothers to make their own children ill, comes to life in this powerful, tragic, and moving novel. I couldn't put this down -- it's wonderfully, lyrically written and full of intensity and sensitivity. Does it end happily? I think I'd say yes. But it's a gut-wrenching journey, I'll tell ya. And one well, well worth taking. Highly recommended. And watch for two more novels by this author to be reviewed here soon.

  • (5/8) A Vow of Silence by Veronica Black.

    Oh, there's simply nothing better than stumbling across a new mystery series that is well-written, thrilling, and features a main character you just can't wait to get to know better. For those of you who love that too, here's a book you should check out ASAP.

    The main character is a nun named Sister Joan. This novel, the first in the series, introduces us to Joan a few years after she entered her holy profession. She became a nun later in life than usual, following a bitter break up with a man she truly loved. This piece of baggage is something she is still struggling with -- and it adds an interesting and very relatable level to Joan's character.

    She's spent her whole nun-life so far with the same set of sisters, so she's understandably reluctant when her Reverend Mother asks her to transfer to another convent. But then the Mother explains why -- a close friend of hers from that convent sent her a mysterious and cryptic letter, and then a few days later, she was dead. The Mother wants Joan to infiltrate the other convent and poke around a bit. Something seems fishy and the Mother wants Joan to find out what.

    From her first day at the new convent, Joan is uneasy. Her new Mother wears nail polish and perfume and has some extremely unorthodox beliefs about Mary Magdalene. As Joan settles in, she gradually begins to discover things that disturb her. And before long, she has grown to suspect at least one murder has been committed and that this convent has morphed into a very, very unholy place.

    Note for the record that I'm not a Christian and that while this novel is about nuns, it's not what I'd call a "religious" book. It's a good old-fashioned whodunit with your typical reluctant armchair detective at its helm. I find nuns and convent life fascinating and that made this doubly fun for me. But any lover of a good mystery will enjoy this. Recommended!

  • (5/4) Big Fish by Daniel Wallace.

    Wonderful short novel about a young man, William, whose father is dying. As the end of his father's life approaches, William grows increasingly desperate to know him before it's too late. His father was a salesman, and wasn't around much when William was growing up and thus, all he really knows about him he knows from the dozens of fantastical tales his father had told him over the years. While these stories, so obviously fabricated and so oft-repeated, used to irritate William, now that he's about to lose the teller of those tales, they begin to take on new meaning. As William remembers them, they slowly begin weaving together into a mythical history of his father's great feats and failings. And when his father finally does leave him, a storyteller to the end, William has finally managed to make peace with him, and to find a way to say good-bye.

    Though the Tim Burton film of the same name is based on this book, it's really quite different. You'll find the stories from the novel have been expanded into even greater, more magical tales. And, while some movies that stray that far from their original sources lose something in the distance, in this case, the book and movie are delightful companions to each other. They each add something the other is lacking. I saw the movie first, but I think you could safely begin with either medium. What I'd highly recommend, though, is making sure that if you have a "Big Fish" experience, you have the full experience -- read the book AND see the movie. What you'll end up with is a legend you won't soon forget. Highly recommended!

  • (5/2) High Country by Nevada Barr.

    The latest in Barr's popular outdoorsy mystery series featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon, this installment takes us to beautiful Yosemite National Park in California. After four seasonal park employees disappear, Anna is sent in to work undercover at the historic Ahwanee Hotel's restaurant, where one of the missing women worked as a waitress. Anna takes over her job, and immediately starts poking around for information on the girl and her friends.

    It's not long before she begins to stumble across more than just information, though. Not only does she find a syringe of HIV-infected blood rigged to jab her in her jacket one evening, but she also discovers a mysterious plane crash in the middle of the frozen hills -- a crash never reported to the authorities. And when Anna sees what the plane's cargo had been, things begin to get a lot more complicated. What looked at first like the job of one or two people suddenly turns into a conspiracy run by an entire network of danger, and all of the bad guys, it seems, are on staff at the Park with her.

    Another wholly entertaining thriller in a solid, dependable mystery series. Recommended!

    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
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