November 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  (11/30) Trophy Hunt by C. J. Box. (read me!)

Joe Pickett is a game warden in a small town in Wyoming. One day while out in the woods with his two daughters, he comes across a very strange sight -- a dead moose lying in the middle of a field, cut all to bits, meat and blood exposed, but being completely avoided by all insects or other animals. When Joe approaches it to get a better look, he feels something strange in his head, like a sense of pressure or dizziness. He quickly steps away from the moose, gathers up his girls, and heads for home to make an official report and get someone to come take the moose's body away for necropsy.

It was bizarre, yes, but Joe was just about to chalk it all up to the weirdness of nature when reports of similarly-multilated cows start coming in. Same situation: the cows have been sliced up in very specific ways and though they were lying in an open field for some time before discovery, there aren't even maggots crawling in their wounds. When two grisly human corpses are added to the deadly menagerie, the town calls in the big guns, getting the Feds to come down and help investigate. Much to his chagrin, Joe is assigned to a task force that also features his nemesis, the local sheriff, as well as a bunch of federal agents and some criminologists. In their first meeting, the task force begins brainstorming about who or what might be to blame. A grizzly bear? A bizarre virus? A crazy person? ALIENS?

The latter answer gets a round of uncomfortable chuckles from the group, but when paranormal expert Cleve Garrett pulls into town and starts talking about a series of cattle mutilations going back decades, people can't help but start checking the sky for UFOs. Joe collects testimony from numerous witnesses, but it isn't until he starts spending more time around Cleve that his suspicions about the TRUE killer begin to take form. Though he thinks the alien theory is "woo-woo crap," there's something about Cleve that is officially starting to creep him out. Either the guy's really onto something, or else he's the killer himself.

Though I found the ending of this novel a little bit unsatisfying (they didn't explain the lack of carrion feeders/insects at the mutilation scenes well enough for me), overall, I still greatly enjoyed it. I loved the character of Joe, and the setting is wonderful too. It's got a great supporting cast, is well-written, and has a good sense of humor to boot. I'm definitely excited to have stumbled across a new mystery series to delve into, and have already put the earlier three in the series on hold at the library. I think fans of Nevada Barr's series featuring Anna Pigeon may especially enjoy these books, by the way -- Joe reminded me a bit of Anna, and not just because they both work outside in parks. Highly recommended, and watch for reviews of the other books in the series soon!
[MYSTERY]

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(11/22) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. (read me!)

I read this book for the first time in 2003, after discovering and devouring Krakauer's earlier non-fiction book about Everest, Into Thin Air. I remember enjoying Into the Wild, but had forgotten until I reread my original review of it yesterday (you can find it by searching in BookSearch) how angry it had made me. I find this sort of interesting now, because this second time around, I didn't react quite as strongly. Instead of being annoyed by Krakauer's admiration of the subject of this tragic true tale, I was much more able to see why he felt the way he did and to feel some compassion and understanding. I guess I've grown up. Gotten some perspective. Changed in some way. I haven't quite figured out just how, but it's definitely given me something to think about.

In any case, this is the fascinating true story of a young man named Chris McCandless, who, after living a pretty privileged life, decides to throw away all his stuff and money and become a vagabond. For about two years, he bums around the United States, hitching and camping and touching the lives of just about everyone he meets. Then in spring of 1992, he decides it's time to take his life of liberty one step further, heading off into the Alaskan wilderness with almost no gear or food and planning to spend the entire summer living off the land. He decides not even to take a map, preferring to pretend he's heading into completely uncharted territory -- that he's a in a different time, heading off to discover a brand new world.

Four months later, Chris's dead, emaciated body was found by a couple of hikers. An autopsy suggested that Chris died from starvation, but Krakauer's dissection of his last few months (based on photos and a journal he left behind) results in a few additional theories. Regardless of what killed him, though, most people who read about Chris in Krakauer's original article for Outside Magazine were infuriated by what they saw as arrogance and a complete lack of respect for Mother Nature (as well as plain ol' stupidity). Krakauer, on the other hand, seems to understand Chris in a deeper, personal way. He tells the story of his own youthful brush with dead -- a solo attempt to scale a rockface called The Devil's Thumb -- and also shares with us the stories of a few other adventurers who died in similar ways and for similar reasons. When I first read this book, I primarily felt disgust in regards to what I perceived as McCandless's snotty and judgmental nature, as well as that arrogance and lack of respect. Now, I can better see the appeal of slipping the surly bonds of everyday earth and striving for a more "pure" ideal away from society. Though, despite Krakauer's repeated protestations to the contrary, I am completely convinced that Chris McCandless suffered from some sort of mental illness, and that primarily makes me feel a deep sense of sorrow both for him and for his family.

In short, though I still disagreed at times with Krakauer's assessment of Chris, I was a lot more moved by this story the second time around. Not only that, but I've been reminded, yet again, of how wonderful a writer Krakauer truly is, and I'm now planning on rereading Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven as soon as possible. The man turns a mean phrase, my friends, and he writes with intense emotion and depth. It's not unbiased reporting, that's for sure. But that's also, quite honestly, what makes his books so powerful.

Incidentally, if you've both read this book AND seen the movie, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the film. I'm probably not going to see it in theaters -- no time now that the holidays are upon us -- but will be eagerly awaiting the DVD. I'm sure it doesn't even come close to the book -- so much would be lost in a retelling of this tale on film. But I'm still holding out hope it will further reveal some of Chris's motivations and his personality. Recommended!
[NON-FICTION]

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(11/16) The Seduction of Water by Carol Goodman. (read me!)

Iris Greenfeder is a 36 year-old writer living in New York City. She has published a few short stories in literary magazines, but for the most part, still hasn't seen any real success. To make ends meet while she works towards a PhD, she teaches several writing classes -- one at a local college and the other at a local prison. She's always on the lookout for good ideas for class writing projects, and one night is inspired to write a short story about an Irish fairy tale her mother used to tell her when she was little. The story is of a half-woman/half-seal called a "selkie" who is tricked by a human man into becoming a full human herself. Once she is on land, she is forced to marry the man and essentially give up her own desires in order to serve his. It's not until her daughter gives her back something she had lost that the selkie is finally able to return to her true self and be reunited with her original family under the sea.

The story turns out so well, Iris decides to have her students try a similar writing exercise -- retell a fairy tale they loved as children. Meanwhile, the editor of a new literary journal gets her hands on Iris's selkie tale and offers to publish it. It is so well-received that Iris begins thinking she might try to write a whole book about her mother, who was herself a fairly successful novelist (she wrote two books in a trilogy about a magical fantasy world that included a lot of fairy tale lore). To get herself started, Iris decides to take a job at the hotel where both her parents worked, and where she herself grew up, and insert herself back into the world of her youth, where her mother would spend hours each day shut in one of the guest rooms, writing away on what is rumored to have been the third and final novel in her series. During her year back at the hotel, Iris hopes not only to write her own book, but also to find this missing novel of her mother's -- not only because publishing them together would increase the likelihood of her own book becoming a success, but also because she is convinced the characters in her mother's series are based on real people, and she is desperate to learn more about her mother's past.

As Iris settles into her new life at the hotel, she begins picking up pieces here and there about her mother's life before she married Iris's father. Her mother had died when Iris was just a girl -- she had told her family she was going into the city for a writers' conference, but instead died in a hotel fire clear across town, in a room where she had registered under a different name and as part of a couple (the guest book read "Mr. & Mrs."). Yet Iris is convinced this isn't a simple tale of adultery and bad luck, but that instead, her mother's death is connected to a famous hotel robbery, a young man wrongfully imprisoned for the crime, and his sister, who committed suicide right in front of Iris's mom. Also wrapped up in this past is the editor of the literary magazine that sought Iris out, as well as the editor's father who, not-so-coincidentally, has also just purchased Iris's parents' hotel. There's a mystery afoot, in other words, and Iris is determined to find out the truth about her mother no matter what the cost.

Though this novel relies a bit too heavily on coincidence at times, and features a few storylines I found kind of superfluous (it would've been a better book had it been about 100 pages shorter, in other words), overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Goodman's first novel, The Lake of Dead Languages, had a similar feel to it -- it too was about a young woman who returned to a place of her youth to unbury her past, and it also featured an isolated setting (an insular old private school). It's interesting to me that Goodman keeps picking settings like that. Yes, it could just be because these types of locations are great for tales of suspense, yet I can't help feeling it's something more personal than that. In any case, both these novels are well-written and engaging, and I enjoyed the characters and overall story as well. Recommended!
[FICTION]

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(11/10) Homebody by Orson Scott Card. (don't read me!)

The most surprising thing about this extremely awful haunted house novel is that it was written by the same guy who wrote the utterly brilliant and amazingly creative Ender's Game series. If I didn't already know that was true, I'd never believe you if you told me. Because this novel was just utter craaaaaaap. Crap with a capital C-R-A-P, in fact. I really don't know why I even read the whole thing -- I think that, loving Ender's Game as it did, my brain simply refused to give up hope Card might eventually start engaging his brain and turn this piece of junk around. Alas, this simply doesn't happen. Save yourselves!

The worst part of this novel is that it actually had a decent premise. The main character, whose name I've already forgotten, so let's call him Joe, lost his wife and only daughter a few years ago. Since then, he's made a living by flipping houses -- he buys run-down places, moves into them, remodels them, and then sells them for a profit. He's been looking for his next flip when he espies a lovely old, but very decrepit, house in an otherwise-lovely neighborhood. After chillin' with the place's realtor for a while (more on this in the next paragraph), he buys the place and moves in. Squatting in the house is a young homeless woman -- who, Joe eventually realizes, is actually the ghost of a dead woman whose body was stashed in a tunnel in the house's basement. The house itself appears to be some sort of life-force-draining entity, and the more Joe remodels the place, the stronger the woman's presence (and the house itself) seems to get. Contrarily, the stronger the house gets, the weaker three little old ladies living next door to the place are becoming, and Joe soon learns they too have a connection to the old place. What gives?

Good idea, right? I mean, for a haunted house novel. Unforunately, it goes off the rails almost immediately when Joe starts a bizarre love affair with the realtor, macking with her practically from day one even though he's supposed to be all "damaged" 'n stuff, and then, by day two, trying to have sex with her on her couch only to have her flip out and say, "But I almost killed my own children on purpose!" I'm sorry, what the hell is going on here?

A few pages later, Realtor Lady's coworker tells Joe he's going to rat on her for unethical behavior with a client, and, to protect her, Joe immediately agrees to pay the guy $20,000. Say what? But okay, maybe Card is setting this up because Realtor Lady and/or Evil Coworker are going to play some major role in the story as we go? But no! Despite the fact Card spends practically the first 75 pages of this novel establishing all these plot points about the realtors, as soon as Joe pays that 20-grand, we never hear tell of any of them again. Huh? Wha'?

Then there's the problem of this story with the squatter and the little old ladies. Man, if only the focus of this novel had been on the young woman's murder, it would've been so much better! Instead, that's barely a footnote, all things considered, gotten to only after we've spent waaaaaaay too many pages reading about Joe knocking down walls, hitting his head, having his buddies come over to take away the old furnace, drinking lemonade with the biddies down the street, and blah blah blah blah BLAH! My god, this was one of the most utterly unfocused and badly written novels I've read since Thomas Harris's Hannibal, and that's saying a LOT. I was just stunned that Card would put out something this bad and that, even worse, someone would publish it! Is he so famous nobody reads his drafts before slapping hardcovers on them? I mean, honestly -- more than anything else at this point, I just feel embarrassed and ashamed on his behalf. If this had been my first Card novel, it would surely also have been my last. As it stands, I think I'll stick with Ender's Game and never run the risk of encountering another novel like this one from his bibliography again. Avoid like plague!
[CRAP]

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(11/6) The Alchemist's Daughter by Katherine McMahon. (read me!)

This novel had an extremely intriguing concept, but ultimately got so bogged down by its characters -- characters that felt to me like inadequately reheated Jane Austen leftovers -- that I ended up not enjoying it as much as I'd thought I would. It's the story of a young woman living in England in 1725, Emilie Selden, whose mother died in childbirth, leaving her to be raised by her father, John. John Selden embraced single parenthood as a sort of scientific challenge; as an alchemist (a science involving the combination of chemistry and philosophy), his primary goal was to see if he could teach Emilie everything he knew in the hopes that she would be able to continue his experiments after his death. To aid in this process, he decided to raise his daughter in social and emotional isolation, resisting his urges to embrace or dote on her, and instead trying to keep her mind as free of distracting humanistic clutter as possible.

When Emilie hits puberty, though, this all pretty much blows up in John's face. The first grown man to pay any sort of romantic attention to her turns her from an intellectual to a bodice-ripping swooner, and she is quickly seduced and promptly knocked up. When Emilie announces her impending nuptials to the man, a merchant named Aislabie, John is devastated, casting her out of his life for good. He had seen Aislabie's true nature from the first moment he met him -- that he was nothing but a wealthy rogue out to do no good -- and he's disappointed beyond repair that his brilliant daughter Emilie could have been so fooled.

Of course, Emilie allows Aislabie to whisk her off to London, where she soon begins to realize her mistake in judgment. When her father dies and Aislabie begins to demolish the family home and the nearby village of Selden, putting dozens of the already-impoverished locals onto the streets so that he can build an enormous mansion, she is increasingly horrified. Emilie retreats into her father's laboratory to try to focus on her former love -- alchemy -- but, well, things in there don't end up working out all that well for her either.

Now, a story of this type certainly can't be allowed to end unhappily, so the more miserable Emilie becomes, the more the tale begins to shift its focus to Mr. Right, a local religious man named Shales who fell in love with Emilie at first glance and has longed for her ever since (think Col. Brandon and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, right down to the part where Marianne must first fall in love with Mr. Wrong before she can see the glory of Mr. Right). Insert tidy, happy ending here. Huzzah for Mr. Right!

The problem I had with this novel was that while I enjoyed some parts of it -- especially the rare moments when the focus was on science, alchemy, Isaac Newton, natural philosophy, and the other fascinating debates of the Enlightenment -- ultimately I just found the characters way too trite to really sink into and enjoy it. I had no patience at all for Emilie, who is exactly the kind of woman I can't stomach, and while it wasn't really her fault she was that way, that didn't make up for the fact she made me utterly bananas. Additionally, ALL of the men in this novel are romance novel cliches. I started to wonder, actually, if McMahon was an old Harlequin writer desperately trying to go legit after a fortnight's binge on Charlotte Bronte. Ugh. I can certainly see why a lot of people have enjoyed this novel -- if you're a fan of period dramas, there really is a lot you might like about this book. But I went into it expecting it to be a story about a young woman wrestling with the dichotomy between the logic of science and the illogic of the heart, and instead, it was too busy throwing in pointless subplots (the slavery thing, and also the story about Emilie's mother) and recycled love stories to really get into anything too deeply intricate. Ultimately, I couldn't help but think, "Great concept, poor execution." In other words: disappointing.
[FICTION]

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(11/2) Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. (don't read me!)

A few months ago, a friend of mine told me this book was terrible. I'd checked it out from the library a few times and had never gotten around to reading it, so, figuring she was probably right, I crossed it off my to-read list and forgot all about it. But a couple of weeks ago, a different friend of mind was raving about it, so I decided I probably ought to give it a try.

Short version: Friend 1 was correct.

Long version: This is a particularly gruesome story about a depressed young reporter named Camille who works for a crappy newspaper in Chicago and, essentially, can't write worth beans. But, based on what I gathered from the story anyway, her editor has taken pity on her because she's so "damaged," and he's taken her under his wing and continued to let her work for the paper even though she sucks. When he gets word that two girls from her hometown in Wind Gap, MO have been murdered in the last year, he decides to send Camille to go cover the story, hoping that A) she'll finally write something good, and B) she might resolve some of her issues with her family -- issues that have repeatedly landed her in the hospital over the last few years.

Camille is a cutter, we learn. In the last two decades, after her sister died when she was a teenager, she's carved words into her skin all over her body, leaving almost no spaces uncovered. Periodically, the urge to cut gets so strong she cuts too deeply, which is how she keeps ending up first in the hospital, and then in the psych ward. But, she's managed to get control over these urges over the last couple of years. Reluctantly, she agrees to go back to Wind Gap, and there begins looking into the murder cases.

Both the victims are young girls -- under the age of 13. They were killed nearly a year apart, but the cases are clearly connected (the killer has a unique signature -- he removes all their teeth post-mortem). As Camille looks into the case, she begins to learn the girls had emotional problems of their own. They were violent, friendless, picked on, and also, oddly adored by her own mother, Adora. Likewise adored by Adora is Camille's half-sister, Amma, who is 13-going-on-30 and runs with a pack of nasty blonde girls. Amma obviously has a bunch of emotional problems as well -- emotional problems that have begun to manifest themselves as extreme cruelty and viciousness.

Right around page 50, I started to realize that, in fact, EVERYBODY in this novel has "a bunch of emotional problems," most of them completely cliché, and, to be honest, while I found the murder case itself intriguing enough to keep plodding along, it didn't take long before I started to become irritated beyond belief by every other aspect of this story.

I hated every single character in this book -- all of whom are complete stereotypes and none of whom come to life in this story at all. Camille is such a whiny, self-pitying wannabe I started to wish she were real so I could kick her in the shins and tell her to suck it up. The Fed character who falls for Camille (god only knows why) was also completely unbelievable. We were supposed to find him dashing and intelligent, yet he'd been on the case for nearly a YEAR and hadn't managed to get any leads whatsoever. Camille, on the other hand, practically had the case solved in about three days. I think we were supposed to believe this was because Wind Gap was a small town that didn't feel comfortable opening up to a stranger. But since Camille was obviously universally loathed by everybody in town, including her own mother, it didn't really make sense they'd all open up to her either.

Amma and her friends were all completely ridiculous stereotypes ripped off from Heathers and Mean Girls, and so was Camille's mother, the insidious Adora, who was essentially Mommy Dearest taken to an even-more-extreme extreme. I had the "twist" figured out practically from page one, and the writing itself was very amateurish. I was surprised, in fact, to realize the author, Gillian Flynn, is the same Gillian Flynn who writes for Entertainment Weekly. I never would've guessed that, because this novel is just simply NOT well-written. It's clumsy, it's plodding, the language is boring, and the dialogue didn't feel real. And, as I said before, the characters are all completely unoriginal. It felt more like the first draft of a novel written by a 17 year-old, than a book written by a grown-up who has been writing professionally for years. Gillian -- what happened?

Plus, of course, the story is a total downer. There's not a single thing that's pleasant about it -- no comic relief, no hope for a brighter future, nada. And while that doesn't automatically mean I'm not going to like it (after all, I really loved Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and you want to talk about downers. . .), that just made all the other things that were bad about it that much harder to take. Do yourselves a favor and listen to Friend #1 -- this book is a waste of your time. (Also, never fear, Friend #2 is just going to laugh and roll her eyes when she reads this review. I'm pretty sure she thinks I'm an idiot already. Heh.)
[MYSTERY]

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