October 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(10/28) Spare Change by Robert B. Parker. (read me!)

This is the latest in Parker's series featuring Boston PI Sunny Randall, a character I frequently describe as "Spenser in a skirt," because Randall is extremely similar to Spenser in character and voice, and the two series also share a setting (Boston) and a set of common characters (Quirk, Belson, Susan, e.g.). Though I can quibble with some of Parker's writing (like the fact that ALL his characters are extremely witty, when in the real world, wit is a rare and precious thing), I always love and devour quickly his books, and this one was no exception.

As this installment begins, Sunny's father Phil, a retired homicide dick, has just been reinstated to help run a task force investigating a new series of murders that are identical to those of the Spare Change killer, an old unsolved case of Phil's from almost twenty years ago. The Spare Change killer has a unique signature -- he leaves three coins on or near each of his victims -- but his pattern is completely unpredictable. He kills men, women, whites, blacks, rich, poor, with no sense of rhyme or reason, making him virtually impossible to profile. It's not long before Sunny stumbles across a suspect, however -- a man found watching the cops work near the scene of the latest body. And her intuition tells her almost immediately that he's their guy. Unfortunately, intuition is not enough to convict him, so Sunny begins playing an extremely dangerous game of cat and mouse, letting her suspect buy her dinner and flirting with him in an attempt to make him overly confident, something she hopes will lead to his inability to resist boasting to her about his brilliant criminal mind.

Parker's novels never fail to be thoroughly engaging and entertaining. He's got great characters, excellent banter-writing skills, and a good brain for balancing complex crime stories with realistic portrayals of his players' personal lives. This is another completely satisfying installment in the Randall series, and I definitely recommend it to all fans of Parker, Spenser, and his myriad of investigative characters. Can't wait for the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that!

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(10/20) How to Be a Cat Detective: Solving the Mystery of Your Cat's Behavior by Vicky Halls. (read me!)

This might sound a little bit silly to some of you, but this is a book for cat owners who long to understand the emotional complexities of their pet. And yes, I did just use the phrase "emotional complexities" and the word "cat" in the same sentence. Halls is a "leading cat behavioral specialist" in England, which, it turns out, means she's kind of like a kitty shrink. If you are a frustrated kitty parent who is at wit's end over your cat's irrational behavior, Halls will come over, sit your cat down on the couch, and get your pet to open up about its dysfunctional relationship with its mother.

Okay, I kind of made that last part up (although, come to think of it, in one chapter, Halls actually DOES talk about how important it is to know about your cat's relationship with their mother). Nevertheless, that's kind of the gist of Halls' job. She takes dysfunctional kitty/human families and helps them become functional ones instead.

I actually love my cat quite a bit, as cliche as that is (a librarian who loves cats? Ugh.). And she seemes fairly hooked on me as well. However, in the last year or so, she's been getting more and more aggressive towards me. I finally had to shut her out of the bedroom at night six months ago after she attacked me viciously twice, both times right after I'd turned the light off, biting a chunk out of my cheek without so much as a reason why. According to what I've read in Hall's book, I've now decided this is because she's bored, and it sort of makes sense because ever since we moved into our new house two years ago, I haven't been playing as much with her as I used to (it's not the house, really, so much as the new leather couch we bought to go with it -- I used to play with her a lot from the couch, and now that the couch is made of leather and she is made of claws and teeth, I haven't been doing that as much anymore). So, based on some suggestions from Halls, I've come up with a few new ways I can keep Lucky entertained. And so far, I already see a difference in her behavior. Radness.

In any case, if you're a cat owner who has been stymied as to why your cat has started behaving in some weird way or another, I definitely recommend this book. It's got all the usual sections on multiple cats, litter box anomalies, indoor vs. outdoor, etc., but is written in a clear, engaging style and had a lot of information I had never encountered before. Definitely recommended!

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(10/16) The Hunting Wind by Steve Hamilton. (read me!)

I'm a huge fan of Hamilton's Alex McKnight series, but I've done a lousy job of reading them in order (luckily, they aren't serial, so it doesn't really matter). For example, though this is the latest one in the series I've read, I think it's actually book two. In any case, these never disappoint, regardless of the order you read them in, and this one was no exception!

Ex-cop-turned-PI Alex McKnight, as fans of the series know, began his professional life as a catcher in the minor leagues. He didn't stay with the game long, quickly realizing he wasn't destined for greatness, and after he got out, he pretty much never looked back. As this novel opens, however, McKnight is casually enjoying a beer at his favorite bar in small-town Paradise, Michigan, when a guy he hasn't seen in decades walks in and sits down next to him. Randy Wilkins was an old teammate of McKnight's -- pitcher to Alex's catcher for a single season way back when. And though he initially says he was just "passing by" and wanted to say hello, Alex knows there's more to his showing up than just that.

As usual, it turns out he's right. After a little pressing, Randy finally tells him an utterly fantastic story -- a story about a girl named Maria he spent a week with in Detroit twenty-five years ago (when he got called up to the majors for a week). It was a week he's never forgotten, in no small part due to this girl of his dreams. Now he's older, wiser, and realizing what life's got left in store for him, and he has decided he can't continue without finding Maria and seeing if she still feels the same way about him that he feels for her. McKnight isn't so sure he believes this whole song and dance -- Randy is pretty famous for being a smooth talker -- but since it sounds like an entertaining adventure, he agrees to go to Detroit with Randy to try and track Maria down.

Alas, nothing is ever as simple as it sounds when you're a character in a mystery series. When Randy and Alex are nearly killed almost immediately after entering the city, it becomes pretty clear that there's a whole lot more to Maria -- and to Randy -- than McKnight originally thought. This fact becomes even more obvious when Alex gets a call from the local hospital a few days later telling him Randy's been brought in with a gunshot wound that's left him in a coma. Who shot Randy? Is Maria in danger too? Why has she been in hiding for twenty years? Read the book and find the answers!

Though I didn't find the plot of this installment quite as engaging (or believable) as some of the others in the series (and I also found the character of Randy a bit two-dimensional, as they say), Hamilton is a great writer and an excellent storyteller and these novels never let me down. Definitely recommended and I hope Hamilton has another book in this series hitting the presses soon!

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(10/4) Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs. (read me!)

This is the latest in Reichs's Temperance Brennan series (made famous by the hit FOX series Bones, which is (loosely) based on these novels). I've loved all the novels in this series, but, as with Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries, lately I've felt like each installment has been a little bit worse than the last. A few novels ago, Reichs started doing this extremely annoying thing where she'd end almost every chapter with a cliffhanger-type scenario -- a very cheap gimmick to try to turn your book into a "page turner," and one I find distracting and obnoxious, especially since half the time the cliffhanger resolutions aren't really as exciting as the cliffhangers made you think they'd be, know what I mean? It's just kind of lame, and I'm really hoping it's something her editor is making her do and not Reichs's own un-brilliant idea. Additionally, I found the plot in this one a bit on the hokey and convenient side. That said, I definitely still enjoyed it overall, and these novels are still WAY better than Cornwell's, which I finally quit trying to read at all about two or so years ago.

The plot of this installment involves some missing girls, a skeleton found in the desk drawer of a cop hundreds of miles away, and an old friend of Tempe's who disappeared when she was a teenager. What I found hokey was the way all these stories ended up converging -- I mean, seriously, what are the odds that the Tempe's old friend would be connected to these missing girls decades later, and that this random skeleton in some cop's desk would also end up being tied in? To be honest, I was having a hard time suspending the requisite level of disbelief to go along with this one.

Nevertheless, I WAS willing to go along with it because I like the characters in this series, and I also always enjoy the science as well (Reichs is a forensic anthropologist herself, so she knows of what she writes). Overall, this is still a well-written and entertaining series -- I just wish Reichs would drop the gimmicks and slow down a bit with her writing, taking more time to craft solid plots that don't rely so heavily on what felt to me like lazy coincidence. I'm concerned she's decided that since every novel she puts out nowadays is going to make her a fortune regardless of its quality, especially now that Bones has become a big hit, there's no need to really take her time with each installment. And that would be bad for all of us. Love the show, love the books -- let's keep it that way, Reichs!

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