November 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (11/23) Second Glance by Jodi Picoult.

    I really enjoyed this novel during its first half -- it's about a young man whose fiancee is killed in an accident. He's never recovered from her death and has sort of dedicated his life ever since to trying to find proof that ghosts are real -- trying to find her ghost, in particular.

    While investigating a haunting, he comes across a sad young woman in the woods behind the haunted property. She's out there running from her abusive husband, and he is quickly mesmerized by her beauty and her sadness. Slowly, she begins to help him let go of his grief as he starts to shift his focus from his painful past to his hopes for a future with her instead.

    But then the novel starts to go downhill, taking trite, predictable turns all the way down. By the end, I was skimming, and fifty pages before the final paragraph, I just quit reading altogether. I could see where it was headed, and I had better things to do with my time. Major disappointment, as Picoult is a very good writer and her original premise was really quite engrossing. I hate it when a promising book turns to pot! It ruins my whole day. Anyway, for a better ghostly romance, try Beth Gutcheon's "More Than You Know" instead. I loved that one.

  • (11/15) Life's Work: Confessions of an Unbalanced Mom by Lisa Belkin.

    Collection of Belkin's "Life's Work" columns from the New York Times. There are a few gems, but for the most part, most of these reminded me of this postcard a friend sent me once that said, in HUGE letters filling up all available space, "HI!" and then, in tiny letters crammed into the bottom, "Sorry, ran out of room!" Belkin spends too much time trying to set up a scene and then runs out of inches before she can fully develop her idea. Almost every column ended abruptly and I started to get frustrated by the points that didn't have room to go anywhere. Belkin's clearly a talented writer, but I have to say, I think columns are not her forte. One of her full-length non-fiction books looks interesting, though (the one about a hospital), and I'm eager to track it down and see what she can do when she's got unlimited space in which to maneuver.

  • (11/13) Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell.

    I could go on and on about the Kay Scarpetta, Medical Examiner, series, of which this is the latest installment. How great it used to be and how crappy it's become as of late. But, this book was just so disappointing and SO BORING that I just can't bring myself to say anything much about it at all. Except for this: this series is dead. It's time for Patricia Cornwell to retire her pen (she hasn't written anything good in years) and go back to her day job. Let Scarpetta, Lucy, and Marino die quiet deaths, I beg you, before you turn them into even worse parodies of themselves than you already have. This book stunk. One of the worst novels I've read in a long time.

  • (11/11) Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer.

    On July 24, 1984, two fundamentalist Mormon brothers, Don and Ron Lafferty, brutally murdered Ron's wife and infant daughter. They believed that God had instructed them to do so, because Dianna, the wife, was trying to "stop [God's] work" (by threatening to leave both her abusive, polygamist husband and the religious cult he belonged to), and the baby was fruit from a poisonous tree, so to speak.

    This is the violent, horrifying storyline that Krakauer uses in order to make this book marketable to today's readers - readers who looooove a good gory crime tale. But while Krakauer can definitely tell a great (non-fiction) story, this book is really much bigger than just that. It's actually a multilayered history of the Mormon faith in America -- from the days of Joseph Smith and his magical golden book through to the splintering of the faith into factions when the mainstream Mormon Church officially denounced polygamy. Many Mormon men (and women, I suppose) believed strongly that polygamy was God's will, and they refused to give it up, instead breaking off into almost cultish fringe groups, some of which currently control entire towns in Utah. The Lafferty brothers fit into one of these groups. Marrying prodigiously and without any real fear of legal repercussion (polygamy is illegal, of course, but rarely do the authorities try to crack down on it), fundamentalist prophets frequently transformed into despotic, irrational leaders, exercising absolute and even cruel control over the lives of their followers. When they tell their followers to take care of a problem, their followers take care of it. So, yes, this is a book about a faith that went too far, but it's also a close examination of the development of the mainstream Mormon Church as well -- a Church that, like the Christian church, abhors the direction many of its fundamentalist members have taken.

    Anyone who has ever been curious about the United States "most successful homegrown faith" will get a lot out of this very readable book. It's not flawless -- Krakauer is never really much for unbiased reporting, for one thing -- but it's still well worth your time. Recommended!

  • (11/7) A Long December by Donald Harstad.

    Another excellent, EXCELLENT installment in Harstad's series featuring Nation County sheriff Carl Houseman. In this one, Houseman is called in to investigate the execution-style murder of a local Hispanic man. A few days later, the man's close friend is also found dead, this time of what at first looks to be natural causes (illness). However, Houseman is suspicious, and his suspicions turn out to be valid once the autopsy is done -- the friend didn't die of some severe intestinal flu; he died after inhaling and ingesting a huge amount of the toxin ricin. A poison often used by terrorists.

    The clues end up taking Houseman and his friend and partner, DCI Agent Hester Gorse, to the local kosher meat packing plant, where both men worked. Their coworkers, though, were almost all illegal aliens (Mexicans), and when they heard about the murders, they ran. After some intensive investigating, however, Houseman and Gorse find a witness who knows exactly what's going on. Though he tries to mislead them at first, Carl and Hester quickly discover themselves smack dab in the middle of a complex terrorist plot and their quest to capture the man at its helm will culminate in an extremely suspenseful stand-off that makes the O.K. Corral look like a block party.

    Once again, Harstad, a former Iowan deputy sheriff himself, has crafted an exceedingly well-written and thrilling police procedural. I love these characters and their relationships with each other, and I especially love the way Harstad incorporates so much "radio" jargon into their dialogue. For some reason, this just makes you feel that much more like an insider -- it gives the characters a legitimacy and depth. In fact, these characters are so well-developed I forget they're fictional and Harstad's skill at sucking you into their world is just honestly unsurpassed. This is how you write a cop novel, people! And it was especially satisfying after last week's tedious Robert B. Parker novel ("Stone Cold"). If you haven't discovered Carl Houseman yet, you're really missing out. Start with "Eleven Days," the first book in the series. I dare you not to get hooked! Can't wait for the next one, Harstad!

  • (11/1) Stone Cold by Robert B. Parker.

    Robert B. Parker's Spenser series is, hands-down, my all-time favorite mystery series ever. And his two more recent series, the Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone ones, have always been just as satisfying. Parker's no literary genius -- Sunny and Jesse act, talk, and think just like Spenser -- but this is exactly what I love about him. I love Spenser, and the more the merrier, when it comes to characters just like him.

    But this, the latest installment in the Jesse Stone series, was a bit of a letdown. The best of Parker novels feature tight, but simple plots with lots of action and wisecracking, balanced out with a little personal growth from the main character (Spenser, e.g.). This one, though, features a mystery plot that was easily solved and carried no depth whatsoever -- two yuppies are shooting people at random. Jesse knows who they are the moment he meets them -- he's got a hunch. Turns out his hunch is right, and he catches them in the act. But no attempt is made to explain their motives. And the mystery was simple and almost trite. It was clear to me by the halfway point that this whole storyline was simply an excuse to write about Jesse himself, which would've been okay if it didn't actually reveal Jesse to be a flat, uninteresting guy. He's no Spenser, that's for sure. And I wouldn't have minded that so much if only he'd turned out to be somebody a little less, well, two-dimensional.

    Oh, I don't know. I'm probably overanalyzing a book, a series, and an author who I primarily love because his novels are so uncomplicated and fun. But I can't help it -- usually a Robert B. Parker novel is a very satisfying thing. This one just left me skimming the final two chapters, and eyeing my pile of more promising library books before I'd even hit the last page. Eh, skip it.

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