November 2006
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(11/29) Ice Run by Steve Hamilton. (read me!)

Another great installment in Hamilton's mystery series featuring ex-private detective Alex McKnight. In this one, Alex has just fallen hard for an Ontario police officer named Natalie Reynaud. A big snowstorm is on its way (these novels are all set in snowy Missouri), so their plan to meet up in Ontario for the weekend is out. But the two decide to meet each other halfway at a hotel in Soo, Michigan, instead. When they get there, they encounter a strange elderly man in the lobby of the hotel. He keeps staring at them, then smiling and tipping his hat. After a drink or two, Alex and Natalie head up to their room where, outside the door, they find an old-fashioned hat full of snow with a note that says, "I know who you are." It's clearly from the old man, so Alex goes back down to try to find him. Only, instead, he finds the old man is gone. The next morning, they get the news -- the old man was found frozen to death a few blocks from the hotel, and the doorman has been telling everyone it was Alex's doing.

The next thing Alex knows, he's caught in the middle of a century-old family feud. As it turns out, the old man's father was killed eighty years ago and his family has blamed Natalie's family for the murder ever since. The old man's sons find out who Natalie is, and soon she disappears, leaving Alex to assume the only thing that makes sense -- that she's been kidnapped by the old man's family, who are hell-bent on taking her life in revenge. The snowstorm has made it virtually impossible to get anywhere safely, but Alex has to find Natalie. Before he does, though, he'll come across three more dead bodies and almost lose his own life in the process.

I know I've read at least one more novel in this series and enjoyed it, so I have no idea why it took me so long to get another one of these out from the library. I won't make that mistake again, though, as I thoroughly enjoyed this one and can't wait to read more! This is the perfect book to cozy up with on your couch by the fire on a snow day (which is what I was doing with it two days ago myself). Definitely recommended!

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(11/14) Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern. (read me!)

Though this novel had a few flaws -- there were a couple of passages where the writing could've been stronger, as well as a few plot points that seemed too far-fetched to me -- overall, this is a very entertaining and well-crafted mystery with a fascinating array of characters, many of whom are developmentally disabled, and a plot that really kept me turning pages.

It begins with the murder of a little girl named Amelia, stabbed to death in the woods just beyond the playground of her school. The only witness to the crime appears to be a boy named Adam who was in the woods with her at the time of the killing. The only problem is that Adam is autistic and is completely unable to tell the police anything coherent about what he saw.

Another boy, Morgan, who is also developmentally disabled in some way (his condition wasn't identified, but it seemed kind of like a mild form of Asperger's to me), hears about the crime and decides he wants to try to solve the case. He begins spending time with Adam, and, along with Adam's mother Cara, tries to elicit as much information from him as he can. Cara is amazed at Morgan's ability to interact with her usually pretty isolated son, and is even more surprised to hear stories from teachers and students that make it sound like Adam and Amelia had been spending most of their recesses together of late. Were they friends? Is Adam even capable of sustaining an actual friendship? Slowly, Morgan and Cara start to piece together the tiny details Adam is able to pass along in his own sort of non-sequitur-ish ways, and a picture of what happened that day begins to come into focus. But then another developmentally disabled boy disappears, and the race to figure out who killed Amelia becomes even more emergent. Can Morgan and Cara figure out what Adam is trying to tell them? Before it's too late?

One of the strongest parts of this novel is McGovern's insights into the struggles the parents of disabled children must go through on a daily basis. Cara's fight to keep her son's social and emotional development moving forward instead of backwards has utterly consumed her life and cost her nearly every friend she's ever had. Adam's progress, or lack thereof, forms the basis of Cara's entire world, and every step backwards from Adam can be a crushing blow to her self-esteem as a mother and her hope for the future. The long-term effects of this type of intensive stress for a parent can be devastating to their own emotional health, as evidenced by another character in the novel, the mother of a now-grown child who had struggled with brain damage after a car accident for most of his life. It's no secret why McGovern has such insight -- the book jacket explains that she, too, is the mother of an autistic child -- and this just made her characters seem all that much more authentic and alive to me.

In any case, McGovern has a real talent for telling stories about these types of characters, and for educating her readers, through those characters, on a variety of new points of view. I thoroughly enjoyed this mystery and will be looking for her earlier novel, The Art of Seeing, soon. Recommended!

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(11/8) The Ruins by Scott Smith. (read me!)

This horror novel opens with two happy, young American couples vacationing together in Mexico (Amy and Jeff, Stacy and Eric). As the story begins, they've been sunning themselves on the glorious beaches for days, thoroughly relaxed, and have even begun to make friends with a handful of other tourists -- a Russian named Mathias, and three Greeks who don't speak any English but are extremely happy and outgoing. After a couple of days of hanging out and drinking together, Mathias finally confesses to his new American friends that he's extremely worried about something. He had arrived in Mexico with his brother Heinrich, and several days ago, Heinrich disappeared, leaving Mathias a note with a map to a set of Mayan ruins he was going to go visit (ruins where he believed a gorgeous woman he'd met would be camping out with some archaeologists). Mathias hasn't heard from Heinrich since and has decided he needs to go look for him. Up for an adventure and interested in seeing some ruins themselves, the four Americans, plus one of the Greeks (who calls himself "Pablo" to get into the spirit of his Mexican vacation), decide to join him.

When the group gets to the jungle, they at first encounter a strange Mayan village. The natives ignore them for the most part, until they start wandering down a different path. Then, suddenly, they find themselves surrounded by Mayan men, all of whom are yelling and threatening them with weapons, clearly trying to keep them from continuing down the path. But then Amy, in an attempt to take a photo of the group, steps off the pathway and into some jungle vines. The Mayans go quiet, and then quickly their actions change. Suddenly, they are violently shooing the group UP the path -- up the hill into the ruins. Left with no alternative since they are unarmed themselves, the group goes up, while the Mayans set up camp at the base of the hill, clearly there to prevent any of them from trying to escape and go for help.

At first, it just seems odd. But then they find Heinrich's body. And soon after that, they begin finding bodies all over the hillside, choked and wrapped in these strange vines with bright red flowers. Before long, Pablo has been mortally injured in a fall, Eric has gotten a nasty gash on his leg, and they have started to realize that they are not really alone in the ruins. Because those vines? Aren't really vines. They're some kind of creature. A creature with acid running through its veins and a hunger for human flesh.

Annnnnd, yep, you just read that right. This novel is about KILLER PLANTS. And here's the thing -- once I picked this book up, I could NOT put it down, despite the fact I kept kind of rolling my eyes at the plot. I was up until two o'clock this morning finishing it off because it's just so grippingly written. The style Smith uses -- a long narrative with no chapter breaks, which makes it feel even more fast-paced and almost suffocatingly intense -- is pretty effective. But the truth of the matter is, this is a bad, bad novel. There's no attempt made at explaining what the vines are or why the Mayans won't let them leave once they've come into contact with them (hypotheses are made, but none of them are very original -- religious sacrifice! -- or intriguing). And it has one of the most utterly unsatisfying endings I've encountered since I saw the abysmal movie Open Water. It's just a lot of semi-ridiculous thrills and chills (and lots of pee, poop, blood, and vomit, I might add) with no ultimate attempt to make any kind of real point. The characters don't seem to learn anything about themselves or each other, really (and all we readers learn about them is that most of them are outrageously stupid and weak). They take no lesson away from any of it. They just suffer, suffer, suffer, and quit. Big freakin' whoop, I say. I vote for skipping this one and sticking with Smith's earlier and much more entertaining and thrilling novel, A Simple Plan. Smith is clearly a very talented storyteller when he's got a good story to work with, so, here's hoping his next one has a bit more depth.

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(11/5) Dark Winter by William Dietrich. (read me!)

This highly entertaining mystery novel is set at Admunson-Scott research base at the South Pole. A team of researchers and support crew are preparing to spend the next eight months "wintering over" at the base, where they'll be completely cut off from the outside world (except for email), and completely on their own. The temperature can get down to minus 110 degrees, which means no planes can fly in, and nobody can be outside for more than a few minutes without risking life or limb. Once you're in the station and the last plane has left, you're stuck there with no options for escape for eight frozen-solid months. Most of the station's winter staff have been there before and know each other well. But there are two newcomers this year as well: Jed Lewis, a geologist who has been hired to study the weather, and Bob Norse, a psychologist there to monitor the emotions of the others, as part of a space-related study to see how people cope when they are thrust into a stressful, isolated, and small environment.

At first, everything is pretty exciting for Jed, until he finds out he's been hired for an ulterior reason -- the main scientist on the base, an old-timer named Mickey Moss, didn't actually bring a geologist out to study the weather after all. Go figure. Nope, instead, he brought Jed to the South Pole to analyze a rock he's found -- a rock he thinks is from Mars, something that would make it worth over five million dollars. But before Jed even has a chance to really examine it, the rock goes missing. And then Moss is found murdered. Pretty soon, the researchers and staff find themselves being picked off one by one, with one body found with an anonymous note implying that the killer is after the missing rock, and will keep killing until whoever stole it hands it over. Everybody suspects Jed -- after all, he's the newbie and he was the only one who really knew how valuable the rock would be. Then again, there's also the mechanic with an extremely large, and violent, chip on his shoulder. And, frankly, I'm finding that psychologist guy a little bit shady, as well, though I can't really put my finger on just why. Who is killing off the staff at Admundson-Scott? And how can the others stop the murderer when they have no weapons, no crime-fighting skills, no contact with the outside world, no means of escape, and no locks on any of their doors?

Man, this was just a really exciting and thoroughly entertaining novel. I can't remember the last time I found a book so gripping it kept me awake for hours and hours past my bedtime -- but that's exactly what this book did. When I got to the last third, I couldn't go to bed until I was done. I love it when that happens (that is, until the next morning, when I'm utterly exhausted!). Highly, highly recommended, and I can't wait to read more by this author soon!

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