September 2002
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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  • (9/29) Song of Kali by Dan Simmons.

    My husband, who usually takes several months to finish a book because he reads about six at the same time and doesn't have a lot of spare moments for books, read this one in two days because he could barely put it down. I heard him gasp and exclaim, "Oh my god!" periodically as he read, so I was understandably intrigued and immediately picked it up as soon as he was finished.

    And boy, was he right! Oh my god! The plot goes a little something like this: writer and poet Robert Luczak is offered a story assignment by Harpers Magazine. They'll pay him and cover all travel expenses if he'll go to Calcutta and get a manuscript reported to have been written by the famous Indian poet M. Das. The only problem? M. Das died seven years ago. Harpers wants the manuscript AND they want Luczak to find out if it's legit. If it is, they also want an interview. Luczak agrees, excited both by the big story and the chance to meet M. Das and get involved in a little mystery. At the last minute, he also decides to take his India-born wife Amrita and their infant daughter with him. Maybe turn the trip into a little vacation while they're at it.

    Once they get to Calcutta, though, the trip takes a depressing turn. Calcutta is an awful place -- smotheringly hot, filthy, and packed with the most terribly poor and sick people they have ever seen. As Luczak begins to track down the people who have the manuscript and might know Das, things quickly go from odd to downright freaky. A strange man befriends Luczak and introduces him to another man who claims he was once a member of a violent cult that worshipped the evil goddess Kali. During one of their rituals, he was ordered to give Kali a corpse as an offering. Rather than kill a man himself, he stole a body from the crematorium. During the ceremony, Kali brought the corpse back to life. The dead man? M. Das.

    Luczak isn't sure what to believe or who to trust. Though the strange new friend saves his butt a few times, he doesn't completely understand why. But the more he delves into the mystery, the deeper he gets into the city's frightening cult underworld until, finally, he is so deep he narrowly escapes with his life.

    The novel ends with a horror that will haunt me for a very long time. And I read this entire book in a single day, it so gripped me. Once you start, you cannot look away, even though the stories thrown your way by the narrator are often nearly unbearable, from the violent tales of the cult's rituals to the simple descriptions of the children and lepers in the streets. Though it's hard to actually come out and say, "This is a good book," just because there is so little "good" actually in it, I will say this much: it's an absolutely harrowing experience and not one I'm likely to forget any time soon. Recommended to anyone who is now thoroughly intrigued!
    [FICTION]

  • (9/27) Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.

    I think probably the only thing I should say about this autobiography by the author of the delightfully depressing "Series of Unfortunate Events" is what Snicket himself says in the preface:

    The book you are holding in your hands is extremely dangerous. If the wrong people see you with this objectionable autobiography, the results could be disasterous. . . Disguising this book, and yourself if necessary, may be your only hope.

    Fans of the "Series" will know just what to expect, based on that paragraph alone. And if you haven't discovered the Beaudelaire children yet, GET HOT! You're missin' out! Highly recommended to all readers, though you'll have more fun with this if you read a few of the "Series" installments first. A familiarity with Snicket's style will make his autobiography that much more amusing. Oops, I mean, DANGEROUS.
    [NON-FICTION?]

  • (9/25) A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother by Rachel Cusk.

    I have no doubt that the feelings Cusk describes in this non-fiction book about her first child (pregnancy through about the first year) are feelings many, many new mothers experience. The loss of self, the way motherhood consumes everything in your life, the fear, the self-doubt, the loss of self-esteem. I'm sure it's very common. But boy, do I sure hope that if I ever have kids, I do not feel any of what Cusk felt. Because, frankly, I was horrified by a lot of this book. Not just because it is so NOT how I think of motherhood, but because after all that -- all the resentment she clearly harbors about the way motherhood turned out for her -- she tells us she is writing this book while pregnant for the second time.

    Man, I sure hope her kids never read this book, about how their births took so much from their mother. Ugh, how awful it would be to hear that. I feel pretty badly for them, to be honest.

    Of course, I'm not a mother. So, what the heck do I know, right? And she did say in the preface that her intended audience was mothers (from which I now extrapolate that the intended is NOT wannabe-mothers like me). I should've taken that as a warning, as I found this book pretty troubling. But that's hardly Cusk's fault -- she was just being open. And courageous, as her feelings are not ones you often hear mothers being honest about. As always, her writing is strong, and this book is well-crafted and peppered with interesting bits of politics, philosophy, and literature. Cusk is a terrific author. But I think I should've just stuck with her fiction. Ugh.
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (9/24) All That Lives: A Novel of the Bell Witch by Melissa Sanders-Self.

    I'm not sure what to say about this novel. It had such an interesting premise and could have been so good! It's a fictionalized telling of the true(ish) story of the Bell Witch, a spirit that is said to have haunted the Bell family of Tennessee in the early 19th century. In the real story, young Betsy Bell was said to have been repeatedly attacked by a spirit in the night that would wrench her hair, slap her, and cause her to convulse. The consensus among historians is that Besty was faking it. This novel, however, operates on the much more delicious theory that the witch was real and that it not only tormented poor Betsy, but her entire family.

    The problem is that, in my opinion, the author was far too focused on the witch's actions. Since the witch mainly came at night, that left Sanders-Self with a whole lotta days to pass for the Bell family. And here is where the novel could have been really wonderful -- had these days had plot as well, had they been fully developed explorations of early 19th century life, had the author taken her time with them, this book would have been terrific historical fiction. Instead, she races through the days to get us back to the witchipoo, and the witch itself is pretty damn dull. For most of the book, the spirit's motivation is completely unknown to the family or the reader. And at the end, when the reason the Bell Witch has come is finally explained, it hardly makes one sympathetic towards it after the hell it's put the entire family through. Needlessly. And with far too much drama.

    To me, it seemed like Sanders-Self had the wrong focus. Sure, it's a book about the Bell Witch, so it only makes sense that it focus on the witch itself. But what the tale of the Bell Witch REALLY is (in my opinion), is a story of a time, its people, and their superstitions and personalities. Had that been the backbone of the novel, it would have been irresistible. Instead, this is a long-winded, ridiculous, and ultimately completely unsatisfying ghost story. You won't be scared, you won't be moved, you won't learn anything, you won't be entertained. And, unfortunately, you sure won't be missing anything if you just pass on this novel.
    [FICTION]

  • (9/22) The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-la by Todd Balf.

    In 1998, a group of adventure seekers decided to try to conquer the "Everest of Rivers," the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet. Though they were all expert whitewater kayakers, their lust for danger ended in tragedy. This book details their trip, taking us through every stage of the journey, from its inception through the planning and research stages, and then onto the water itself. Though I found it a little too long and a bit slow in places, when the team finally gets on the river, the book became impossible to put down. As far as rafting adventure books go, I still think "Shooting the Boh" is my favorite. But this one has a lot to offer fans of the genre, that's for sure. Recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (9/20) City of Bones by Michael Connelly.

    The latest in the Harry Bosch series. In this one, Harry is called in to investigate when a homeowner out in the rural part of town discovers a skeleton buried in the woods by his house. After a little digging, the remains are uncovered and the body is identified as that of a 12 year old boy who disappeared over 15 years ago. The primary suspect is the boy's father -- the skeleton showed scars from a lifetime of injuries that look like child abuse to the ME. But the more Harry learns about the boy and his family, the less it looks like his theory is correct.

    I have read and enjoyed many of the Bosch novels, but have to admit this one kind of dragged on for me. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for it -- I can't actually point to anything as the source of the problem. The characters and plot were as strong as usual. It just seemed to go on a bit longer than was necessary. Eh, probably just me. In any case, I think fans of the series will enjoy it. Anybody knew to Connelly might want to start elsewhere, though. Just in case.
    [MYSTERY]

  • (9/17) Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

    This is the sequel to that old King/Straub novel "The Talisman," and while I thoroughly enjoyed it, it definitely wasn't the best King novel I've ever read. The plot picks up later in Jack Sawyer's life, in his 30's, when he's pulled back into the Territories (that mystical alternate dimension from the first novel) by a twisted serial killer nicknamed the Fisherman. While the plot is as engrossing as King plots always are, I found the narrative style kind of annoying for a variety of reasons, the main one being that it's tediously overdrawn. But hey, I finished the whole thing, right? And the book weighs about ten thousand pounds, so it's not like it was easy (ever seen that New Yorker cartoon that simply features a big fat book that says "'Hernia' by Stephen King"? That is this book.). I'll confess to a lot of skimming, but the plot did keep me reading, which is more than I can say for some other books I've picked up recently. If you're a huge King fan, or if you loved the original, this is one for you. Otherwise, skip it and save yourself the back (and brain) strain.
    [FICTION]

  • (9/13) The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington.

    Only one day after putting up a sign advertising a room in her basement for rent, single mother Rebecca Martin has a new tenant moving in. She could hardly say no to him -- Michael Christopher is a monk on the lam after twenty years of contemplative life in a monastery. A man right smack dab in the middle of a dark night of the soul -- not far off, in fact, from where Rebecca herself is. Both are on the rebound from the loves of their lives -- for Rebecca, that's her flakey ex-husband Rory; for Mike, God -- and both are struggling to keep their footing in a world that suddenly seems wildly unbalanced to them.

    It isn't long after, however, that Michael and Rebecca become friends. And eventually, that friendship grows into something deeper. But while this is a really sweet love story, there is actually quite a bit more to it than just that. Because it's not just a story about two people holding hands and smoochin' -- it's also a story about how two people finally figure out a way to balance lives of contemplation with lives of action -- who discover that working together they are finally able to come up with the right combination. And, ultimately, it's a story about the mysteries and depths of love and faith, and how similar those two things really are. Well-written and thoroughly engaging, this is definitely a novel not to be missed.
    [FICTION]

  • (9/10) Shark Trouble by Peter Benchley.

    Probably a lot of you have heard me say in the past that my all-time favorite movie is "Jaws," based on the author of this book, Peter Benchley. I had absolutely no idea, however, that Benchley himself has quite a lot of experience in the non-fictional shark world. He has spent decades diving in some of the most remote, dangerously-shark-infested waters of the world, watching them, studying them, enjoying them. This is a truly entertaining book that is part shark encyclopedia, part memoir. Mixed in with a ton of information about a variety of shark species are dozens of stories about Benchley's actual experiences with them. Some of his stories are just incredible -- how did he ever get out of THAT? -- though quite possibly the most amazing story comes at the end of the book when he writes a chapter about his experiences with some other dangerous sea creatures -- an orca in the one I'm thinking of right now, though the story about the manta ray comes in at a close second, in my opinion.

    Benchley is an extremely entertaining writer -- witty and intelligent -- and this book was a joy to read not just because the stories were incredible (I'm fascinated by sea creatures and would love to learn how to dive, so his stories appealed to me on a variety of levels), but because the author himself is so personable it felt like we were chatting over a cup of coffee somewhere. I greatly enjoyed this book and it would be a great one to recommend to interested adults and kids alike (I know some 8 year old shark lovers who would really get a kick out of it!). Highly recommended!
    [NON-FICTION]

  • (9/7) The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

    There is nothing so tragic as the violent death of a child. It's something that can tear apart not just the family of the lost, but anyone even remotely connected to them. And this kind of grief is something authors have struggled to describe since the dawn of storytelling -- weaving that sorrow into some of the most painfully beautiful works ever. Until now, however, no one has really explored the grief the dead child experiences -- at having their life taken from them, at having to leave abruptly from the secure warmth and ease of their families and friends.

    This is a unique and incredibly moving and tender novel written from the point of view of 14 year old Susie Salmon, brutally murdered by a neighbor. The story begins in Susie's first days in heaven, a place where she finds she can have anything she wishes for, except that things she wants most -- to be alive and allowed to grow up.

    Susie can see the world from heaven (note that she uses a lowercase "h" herself for the word "heaven" until the end of the novel) and so her story tracks not only her own journey of grief, but also that of her parents, her sister, her brother, her friends. Each of them struggling in their own, wholly individual ways. Her father is desperate to catch the killer. Her mother, desperate to move on -- to get away from the horror and pain. Others are consumed by feelings of guilt or anger or fear, sorrow, confusion.

    Despite the fact that this sounds like it must then be the most depressing novel ever written, it truly isn't. The pain is very real, but Susie herself is actually a rather delightful narrator. She's funny and smart. And a bit on the devious side. She made me laugh, broke my heart, and kept me reading long into the night. She will not easily be forgotten.

    If you love books that truly impact you -- books that have the potential to change you -- then this is one to add to your list. And while I generally feel a need to warn parents away from stories about lost children (for example, I won't be renting "In The Bedroom" with my mother), this is one I think anyone who has lost a loved one could benefit from reading. Because it wills you to believe "that the dead truly talk to us, that in the air between the living, spirits bob and weave and laugh with us. They are the oxygen we breath." And that is an idea I am happy to accept as true.
    [FICTION]

  • (9/5) Grave Secrets by Kathy Reichs.

    The latest installment in one of my favorite mystery series (about a Canadian forensic anthropologist named Temperance "Tempe" Brennan). In this one, Tempe is asked to join a team of experts in a dig in Chupan Ya, Guatemala where the bodies of 23 victims of a military massacre in the early 1980's lay buried. Its heartbreaking work, as Tempe soon discovers the majority of the bodies are those of women and children. But the heartbreak doesn't stop there -- one evening as the team is packing up for the day, they get a call that two of their colleagues have been shot. One is dead, the other in serious condition. This brings in the local cops, and when they later discover a body in a septic tank, they remember about Tempe and her skills and ask for her help with the ID. The body is that of a young woman whom the police suspect is one of four young, wealthy women who have recently disappeared. Since one of the missing is a Canadian, Tempe becomes more and more involved in the case, as the suspects range in nationality from South American to Canookian.

    It soon becomes apparent that the crimes of the past at Chupan Ya and the crimes of the present are all connected -- connected by a web of power, money, and greed that stretches far beyond Guatemalan borders. A web in which Tempe quickly finds herself fully entangled as she gathers more clues and begins to follow the science wherever it leads her. And I better stop there or I'll ruin the rest of the plot for you!

    Every book in the Tempe Brennan series has been even better than the last. Fascinating science (Reichs is herself an internationally known forensic anthropologist) and complex, wonderful characters and plots. One of the most consistently entertaining, well-written, and engrossing series in the genre. The perfect replacement for Patricia Cornwell, whose last several Kay Scarpetta novels have been major disappointments. Highly recommended! (And, FYI, the first novel in this series is titled "Deja Dead.")
    [MYSTERY]

  • (9/1) The Tutor by Peter Abrahams.

    Predictable, formulaic, but still highly readable thriller about a bad guy who charms his way into a nice, yuppie family (by pretending to be a tutor for their misguided teenage son) and then plots to destroy them. You and I both have read this exact storyline a gazillion times, but I will credit Abrahams with at least coming up with one cool character who made it all worth reading -- the family's youngest, eleven year old Ruby. Ruby is a funny, clever girl who also happens to be a major fan of Sherlock Holmes, and it's her amateur, Holmesian detective skills that end up saving the family from complete destruction. Sure, the rest of the book was just one big cliche, the other characters were vacuous stereotypes, and the bad guy had absolutely NO logical motivation. But Ruby kept me reading and I don't regret having spent the time. I'm not sure that's much of a recommendation, but for a quick end-of-summer weekend read, you could do a lot worse. I'll probably try at least one more Abrahams novel, too, before officially writing him off as a hack. Do with this information what you will.
    [FICTION]


    All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
    Email -- meg@megwood.com
    Web -- http://www.megwood.com


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