November 2004
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (11/30) Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village by Sarah Erdman.

    Wonderful non-fiction book about Peace Corps volunteer Sarah Erdman's two years in a small village in the Ivory Coast. I've read a lot of books like this one -- an outsider's experiences in Africa -- but this is definitely one of the best. Not only does Erdman have an eye for the important things, even the smallest of important things, but she's got a real talent for writing. Her words really transport you to Nambonkaha, and the people you meet there feel as real as the people you meet every day (which they are, of course, since this is non-fiction, but not every non-fiction writer can actually get that sense across so well). Even better, Erdman is there to teach the village about health and hygiene, so a lot of this book is about the various health issues facing the people of the Ivory Coast -- not just HIV, though through Erdman we experience the village's first AIDS loss -- but more the everyday issues surrounding childbirth, infections, sanitation, and birth control. I found everything about this book fascinating. And I hope Erdman will take us to more amazing places like this one soon. Recommended to all fans of the genre!

  • (11/22) Safelight by Shannon Burke.

    Frank Verbeckas is a young paramedic in Manhattan with a strange passion -- he likes to photograph the injured and dead bodies he encounters on his rounds. He thinks of it as just a hobby, but it's really more a metaphor for the detached way he views everything in his life, including himself. One day, he's called to the apartment of an HIV+ man who's committed suicide. There he meets Emily, the man's friend, who is also HIV+. Emily's hobby, fencing, is sort of the opposite of Frank's, in that it actually involves engaging and interacting with another human being -- not just seeing them, but reacting to them, anticipating them. Emily likewise has a more open take on the world around her and even though they both know their relationship is doomed from the start, these two opposites are intensely attracted. Slowly, Emily begins to shake Frank out of his detachments, ultimately changing the way he views the world, himself, and his photographs.

    This is a strange but very engaging novel. It's dark and its writing style is stark and simple. But the spareness of the prose works brilliantly here -- setting a vivid tone and feel to the novel that wonderfully enhances it ultimately pretty moving story about beauty in misery. It's not a book for everyone. But I'll definitely be looking for more from this author in the future.

  • (11/20) The Christie Caper by Carolyn G. Hart.

    In honor of the 100th anniversary of Agatha Christie's birth, Annie Darling, owner of the popular mystery bookstore "Death on Demand," decides to throw a week-long Christie convention complete with treasure hunt, games, and tons of Agatha trivia. With a host of famous authors slated to attend, Annie is convinced it's going to be a smash. But then, too late to do anything about it, she learns that Neil Bledsoe has registered. Bledsoe is the most despised book critic in America -- openly disdainful of Christie's novels and of "cozies" in particular. And, sure enough, the moment he arrives, everything starts to turn ugly.

    Things only get worse when someone takes a shot at Neil and the police open an investigation right in the middle of Annie's conference. Everyone has a motive to want him dead, but the real surprise comes when someone else entirely ends up being the first corpse.

    This was a charming, entertaining mystery, though it could've benefited from a little tightening up. These kinds of novels are great escapist books -- kind of mindless and frivolous. And, they're just really darn fun. So, the next time you're in the mood for a little mental vacation, especially if you're all out of Diane Mott Davidson's novels (this book reminded me of the Goldy series a bit -- similar tone and feel), check this one out! A great book for a vacation or a plane trip!

  • (11/17) D.B. by Elwood Reid.

    On the day before Thanksgiving 1971, a man calling himself D.B. Cooper handed a note to the stewardess on his flight from Portland to Seattle. The note read simply, "I have a bomb in my briefcase." And thus began a chain of events that have gone down in history as one of the greatest capers of all time. A few hours later, the passengers were released in exchange for $200,000 in cash and some parachutes. D.B. Cooper forced the pilot back into the air, and somewhere over the woods of the Pacific Northwest, he jumped out of the plane and was never seen or heard from again.

    This novel is a fictionalized take on this story, focusing on both D.B. himself and an FBI agent on his trail. But, instead of being the riveting cat-and-mouse tale this might have been, it's instead a rather hit-or-miss examination of two men struggling with feelings of purposelessness.

    Cooper in the novel is actually a Vietnam vet named Phil Fitch -- jobless, luckless, alone, and uninspired. After pulling off the hijacking, he finds himself condemned to a life of anonymity, even while his alter ego of Cooper becomes a legend. When he can finally stand it no more and tells his girlfriend who he really is, instead of fawning all over him, she has him beaten and robbed. And thus, he's forced to return to those woods to try to find the part of the money he'd stashed there years before.

    This is where his path finally crosses with that of the FBI agent. But first, we have to slog through that guy's parallel story of aimlessness. Frank Marshall has the perfect life -- a house and family and career -- but when he is forced to retire from the FBI, everything kind of falls apart for him. He becomes enamored of the wife of a man he put away, but is unable to do anything about his feelings. He's sort of trapped by his inaction -- unable to shake himself loose of the perfection and simplicity of his life so far.

    I'm not sure I can actually recommend this book, despite the fact I found the writing to be utterly fantastic in places. The plot just meanders so much and so pointlessly, and the two stories seemed to kind of stall in the middle. I started skimming, eager for some development -- any development! But while the end kind of made it worth the effort, I mostly found myself just glad I could put the book down and move on to something else. Eh. I appreciate that Reid was trying NOT to write the typical page-turning thriller this book could easily have been. But frankly, that would've been a lot more interesting.

  • (11/13) A Vow of Poverty by Veronica Black.

    Another one down, only two more to go in this totally delightful mystery series featuring Sister Joan of the Order of the Daughters of Compassion. As usual, the convent has been struggling to stay afloat fiscally. So, Mother Dorothy decides to get Sister Joan to clear out the attic, in the hopes she'll stumble across some antiques of value. When Joan gets a flyer the next day offering the services of a professional scrap hauler, it feels like divine intervention. But when she goes to the address, all she finds is a secretary who doesn't know anything about it. The next thing Joan knows, the secretary is dead, a body's found in a truck in the attic, and a man she knows is dead is tipping his hat to her in the backyard. Yep, here we go again! Man, I love this series. It just kills me there are only two left! Recommended!

  • (11/6) Melancholy Baby by Robert B. Parker.

    This is the latest in the Sunny Randall series, a series I think of as "Spenser in a dress" because the two characters have a LOT in common. And this time, they have even more in common than usual, because two characters from the Spenser series are involved (Susan Silverman and Tony Marcus)! How fun! Sunny's latest client is a young woman who is convinced her parents aren't really her parents. When Sunny starts investigating, someone gets extremely upset. It starts with threats, and progresses into the murders of two people Sunny had questioned, one of whom was the client's father, Sunny's original number one suspect! This young woman's origins are a secret someone desperately doesn't want revealed. Thank goodness a Boston PI is on the case! As usual, this is a speedy read (I read it in an afternoon) and it's as much fun as ever. As far as I can tell, this author has never written a bad book! Recommended!

  • (11/3) Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield.

    This witty, light little novel, written in 1931, is the extremely entertaining fictional journal of an upper middle class wife and mother muddling through a relentlessly domestic existence. It's kind of like a Bridget Jones's Diary from 70 years ago, with a little Jane Austenesque social satire thrown in for good measure. Our narrator spends her days struggling with a cranky husband, a perpetually overdrawn bank account, a hard-to-manage country house staffed by sour servants, and two precocious young children. She's constantly pawning the same ring over and over to cover the bank overdrafts, and spends all her time at dinner parties biting her acerbic tongue. I laughed out loud many times and just thoroughly enjoyed this quick read. A great book to snatch pieces of throughout the day. Recommended!

  • (11/1) A Vow of Devotion by Veronica Black.

    Yet another in the ever-enjoyable Sister Joan series! In this one, two young women come to the convent to stay for a few weeks and decide whether or not they want to become postulants there. One of them, Magdalene, strikes everyone as a bit odd. She's quite, yet somehow manipulative, and, as Sister Joan discovers, she's carrying a flick knife (British for a switchblade?) for protection, clearly afraid that someone is after her. Soon after Joan discretely disarms her, a postulant wearing Magdalene's scarf is attacked. And then, a nun sleeping in Magdalene's room is brutally murdered in the dark.

    Who is after Magdalene, and why would they be leaving roses all over the place as a warning if their intention was to kill her? It just makes no sense. But, thankfully, Sister Joan and Detective Sergeant Mill are on the case! And while Joan has the ironic audacity in this one to actually think to herself, "withholding evidence is a serious crime!" despite the fact she is CONSTANTLY withholding evidence, this is another fine installment in the series. Recommended!

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