May 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(5/31) Murder Below Zero by Ron Lovell. read me!

This is the third book in Lovell's mystery series featuring Oregonian Thomas Martindale, and though none of the three were particularly well-written (lots of typos and punctuation errors, to begin with (get a copy editor, Lovell!), and also some clumsy set-up and exposition at times), I have enjoyed them. I like the main character, Martindale, a journalism professor at a college in Oregon who keeps getting himself wrapped up in various mysteries. And the settings have been a lot of fun as well, especially since I'm familiar with the Newport, OR area.

This one was no exception -- not great in terms of writing, but very entertaining in all other ways. But the setting changed to one that was even MORE fun for me, the frozen North! In it, Martindale has been asked to join an expedition up to the Arctic to study ice formation and flow -- he's to serve as the project's PR person, writing press releases and such. But things heat up almost immediately when Tom clashes with the Russians who have also joined the project. Pretty soon, they've all been left for a few weeks on a hunk of ice, and people start dying left and right. Is it the Russians? Is it a local? I ain't sayin'. But one of the things I really enjoy about these books is that they are extremely educational about whatever it is Martindale is currently involved with, and this one was packed with information about the changes in the Arctic ice, as well as a real-life disaster that took place in 1897, when a group of people became trapped on the same icy island and didn't make it through the winter. Definitely recommended, if you don't mind a little clumsiness. These novels have been entertaining, and I am glad to see the series will have a new installment soon as well.

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(5/24) Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala. (read me!)

Wow, is this novella ever hard to read. Its graphic brutality and overwhelming sense of sorrow and loss nearly did me right in. But it's brilliant -- brilliant -- and is definitely a must-read for all.

The story follows a young boy, Agu, who is happily enjoying a good life with his parents and sister in an unnamed West African country when all hell breaks loose. It begins when his best friend disappears, and quickly escalates to the point where the family is hunkered down in their home listening to guns firing and machetes hacking just outside their door. In a desperate attempt to save his son, Agu's father whips open the front door and tells Agu to run as fast as he can away from the guns. As Agu hoofs it at warp speed through the dirt, he turns back just in time to see his father murdered before his eyes.

Later that day, Agu is found by a gang of rebels, led by a charismatic and manipulative man known only as Commandant. Agu is given a choice -- join the "army" and fight with them, or die right there on the spot. At first, Agu is horrified by the violence that quickly unfolds, as the army comes across a truck full of adults identified as bad guys and proceeds to hack them to pieces. But as Agu brings down his machete for the first time himself, he immediately connects with the violence, and slowly begins his tortured transition from a normal, happy, "good" boy, to a killer.

It's that transition that is so, so overwhelmingly sad. He's so young and was so happy, and now he's left only with anger and hate and blood and fear. Agu tells us his story in brilliantly written prose that immediately gives him a unique, childlike, authentic voice ("I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing," he says. "I am telling this to myself because soldier is supposed to be killing, killing, killing."). That voice will haunt me for weeks, I suspect. And this story has brought to painful life all the horrors we've only heard about in our safe little Western nation. This book is one of the strongest first-novels I have ever read. And the author is only in his early 20's! Can't wait to see what he writes next. Don't miss this one, people. It's incredible.

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(5/22) Sea Change by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

This is another installment in Parker's terrific Jesse Stone series. In this one, Jesse (Chief of Police of the small town of Paradise, MA) discovers the dead body of a woman that has washed up on a local beach. It's the week of the annual boat races in Paradise, and there are dozens of boats in the area, all of them full of outsiders and wealthy snobs.

At first, it looks like the victim was on one of those boats, a boat infamous for wild, underage sex parties. But as Jesse continues to investigate, he discovers an even more disturbing "sex ring" of sorts -- one that horrifies him as well as his deputies Molly and Suit. Working the case with another cop down in Florida, as well as Boston lawyer Rita Fiore (from the Spenser series), Jesse scrambles to uncover the truth and stop the person responsible for the murder and a variety of terrible sex crimes.

As usual, this is a fast-paced and very funny novel -- Parker is the king of witty banter and even though all his protagonists (including Stone, Spenser, and girl P-I Sunny Randall) are essentially the same, I never get tired of these novels. Definitely recommended, and I look forward to seeing this one turned into a TV movie starring Tom Selleck, as three of the others in this series have.

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(5/16) Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door by Lynne Truss. (read me!)

I knew I was playing with fire by reading this book. Truss's last work, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, irked me to no end by being extremely preachy about proper punctuation (ZERO TOLERANCE, she said), but then failing to be checked extensively itself for grammatical errors. Oooh, I hate it when people correct someone else's grammar and yet make ridiculously obvious mistakes themselves. That makes me batty. And what's more, it's kind of . . . rude.

So, why on earth would I want to read this book, Truss's latest preachy treatise on what's wrong with the world today? Because as much as I was annoyed by her previous book, I was also entertained by it. She's a truly funny writer, and, what's more, as a librarian, I thoroughly appreciate her dedication to solid research. This book doesn't disappoint in either of those two categories either -- it made me laugh out loud several times, and is packed with fascinating snippets from etiquette essays and books of days' past.

Unfortunately, the irony factor remains solidly in place here, as well. Because while Truss is bemoaning the loss of polite society, she is making all kinds of rude mistakes herself. For example, she is astonished when she gets an "Eff Off!" in reply whenever she trails after someone who has littered and says, "Excuse me, I think you dropped this!" Cannot believe it when someone isn't grateful that she's popped her head in a door and said, "You know, you have an incorrectly used apostrophe on your sign out here!" Is incensed when someone actually objects to her marching up to the stereo in the local dentist's office and hitting the "off" button -- why, surely everybody knows it's more polite not to make people listen to bad soft rock in waiting rooms! But, Lynn, you know why people react rudely to this behavior? It's because THIS BEHAVIOR IS RUDE. I mean, honestly, picking up litter and saying, "Hey, I think you dropped this!"? That's plain snark, pure and simple. Miss Manners, wherever she is, is reading this book with a look of exasperated horror on her face. Poor dear.

That said, she makes all kinds of apt points about the state of modern society. (Of course, they're all things Miss Manners has been saying for years -- no one ever listens to her, either.) Being polite doesn't mean following a set of arbitrary rules that are impossible to keep straight. It can all be boiled down to this: realizing that you are not alone in this world and taking the feelings of others into consideration in every situation. So, kudos to Truss for laying it all out. But kudos deducted slightly by the fact she has now produced ANOTHER book that contains grammatical and punctuation errors any decent editor should've picked up on. Yee-gads, Truss! Next time, send me your manuscript first! I think we'll both benefit! I promise to offer only constructive criticism, and not to be rude about it. But seriously, this whole misused semi-colon thing has GOT TO STOP.

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(5/15) Blood Music by Greg Bear. (read me!)

This novel started off pretty riveting -- it's about a genius biochemical researcher named Vergil Ulam who is fired from his job at a company called Genetron when the bosses discover he's been working on an experiment with mammalian DNA behind their backs (as well as against the law). Dismayed that he's about to lose all his research, Vergil decides the only way to smuggle out his new line of "biologics" -- intelligent cells -- is to inject them into his own body and then walk out the front door. At first, everything looks great, literally, as the intelligent lymphocytes begin to work on Vergil's insides, repairing his eyes, healing any wounds he gets, boosting his metabolism. But then the cells begin to change his skin, his shape, and then . . . they get out.

Pretty soon, nearly everyone in North America has been infected by the biologics. People's bodies become transformed into brown and green sheets of goop covering everything. At the same time, a few "survivors" have banded together to try to figure out what is going on -- and why they were spared. And, across the world, one infected scientist has quarantined himself so that he can be studied, and soon discovers that not only are the biologics intelligent, but they can actually communicate with him from inside his own brain. Through careful conversations with the biologics in his mind, the scientist begins to unravel their plan for a kind of world domination. But is it a good plan or an evil one? Do they want to destroy humankind, or just make our bodies a nicer place to live in?

I found this sci-fi novel pretty gripping until we started to get into the final third of it. Right around that point, I started to find it a bit repetitive and hokey, and confess that I began skimming a few sections so I could hurry up and get to the end and find out how the author was going to clean up the mess. Still, I enjoyed it enough to know that Greg Bear is an author I need to get to know better -- a science fiction writer who really uses SCIENCE in his fiction, which I truly appreciates -- and I will be looking for more of his books soon.

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(5/9) Radical Prunings: A Novel of Officious Advice from the Contessa of Compost by Bonnie Thomas Abbott. (read me!)

This novel is written in the style of short newsletters -- that is, each "chapter" is actually a newsletter called "Radical Prunings," published by Miss Mertensia Corydalis. Miss C is a master gardener who opens each newsletter with some musings about her garden, certain plants she loves or hates, her employees (the dashing Tran and his obfuscating little sister Miss Vong), and her awful ex-husband, celebrity gardener Norton Doyle. Then she launches into a Q&A, written sort of like an advice column, with fictional people writing in fictional gardening questions, and Miss Corydalis. . . well. . .Miss Corydalis pretty much sniping their heads off and calling them all stupid. Hmmm.

And here's where I struggled with this novel. You see, "snarky" is only the same thing as "funny" one time out of ten when it's being heavily employed for comedy. And since Miss C is always snarky (especially when answering lawn questions, which by the third one begs the question, "Why keep answering lawn questions, if you hate them so much?"), that means this novel of 235 pages is only amusing for about 23.5 pages. Oh, that's a lie. It's pretty amusing. But I almost quit reading it thirty pages in because it wasn't putting me into a good mood -- it was just annoying me. Obnoxiousness always irritates me, and as a librarian whose job it is to answer questions, stupid or not, I also bristle when rookies get the slap-down from snooty know-it-alls, instead of just an answer to their question, simple and clear and without patronizing judgment.

Luckily, I stuck with it, and Miss C started to lighten up a bit on her readers by about the midpoint. After that, she even managed to get me to chuckle twice out loud. As it turns out, this is a pretty entertaining little novel, and if Miss Corydalis ever puts together another collection of her newsletters, I will definitely put it on my to-read list. In the meantime, I'm off to the yard to check on my peas. First time I've ever planted peas (I'm a rookie myself when it comes to gardening, this being my first official spring with a yard), and holy cow, are those babies gettin' big fast! Recommended, but, Miss C, you would've made a truly abominable librarian. Don't quit your day job.

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(5/5) Ordinary Heroes by Scott Turow. (read me!)

When Stewart Dubinsky is cleaning out some of his father's papers after his dad has passed away, he comes across a startling discovery -- a series of letters his father had written during World War II, where he had served as a young JAG lawyer attached to Patton's Third Army. At first, the surprising element of the letters is the fact some of them are to an old girlfriend Stewart knew nothing about. But as he reads them more closely, he learns something else he'd never known -- that his father had been arrested and tried for treason during the war for helping a wayward OSS officer named Robert Martin escape from imprisonment.

Stewart decides to begin piecing together the truth about his father, a task made much easier when he discovers his father had written a lengthy manuscript detailing everything that had happened to him during the war. It begins with David Dubin (who'd removed the "sky" from his last name to fit in better) being assigned Martin's case by an extremely cranky general, furious that Martin keeps disobeying his orders. The general demands that Dubin find Martin and order him to return to London for further instructions.

But Dubin soon realizes that Martin is not about to go quietly. He's not only stubborn and intolerant of authority, he's also one of the most daring, brave soldiers Dubin has ever met, something that appeals strongly to Dubin as a young lawyer who has not yet gotten a chance to see real battle. Ultimately, his pursuit of Martin sends him parachuting out of an airplane into Bastogne, just as the famous Battle of the Bulge reaches its apex. Soon, Dubin is fighting alongside the 101st Airborne (hi, Band of Brothers guys!), forced to abandon his quest for Martin and his elusive comrade and sometime girlfriend, Gita Lodz. But when he gets word that Martin has been killed in action, he knows better to believe it's true without a body. And ultimately, his hunt for Martin teaches him a lot about himself, the nature of war, and what's important in life.

Yeah, okay, so that last bit sounds cheesy. But this was actually a really gripping, very well-written novel that so transported me to Europe in 1944 that I was literally dying (well, okay, not literally dying) to see Band of Brothers again. Anyone who was a fan of that series will really enjoy this book, I think. And I was extremely impressed with Scott Turow, a writer I'd long dismissed as somewhat of a hack. Anyway, this book was a surprising pleasure with great characters, a thrilling story, and some pretty powerful reminders of the effects of war on men and country. Recommended!

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