September 2003
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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  • (9/28) The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne.

    I went on vacation for a week with a stack of books piled high in my suitcase and lofty ideas of hours spent reading on the beach. A week and a bazillion activities later, I had only managed to read this one, and it's only about 130 pages long! But as far as vacation reading goes, one could hardly do better. I've read it before, and I'll say it again, this short mystery, by Winnie the Pooh creator A. A. Milne, is an absolute classic. It's a locked-room, British people stuck in a mansion together after a murder occurs kinda cozy, and it's clever, witty, and lots of fun. Ideally, I would've read this one while snowbound and sitting next to a roaring fire. But hey, the beaches of San Diego will always do in a pinch. Highly recommended!

  • (9/17) Shadows on the Coast of Maine by Lea Wait.

    Maggie Summer's friend Amy calls her out of the blue one day begging her to come to Maine to see the house she and her husband have just bought. When Maggie arrives, though, she learns Amy wasn't just after a pleasant visit from a friend -- she is scared to death and desperate for help.

    Not only do the residents of the town resent Amy and Drew already just for buying the house, which had been in the same family for 250 years before they came along, but Amy is convinced the house itself is haunted. And things only get weirder from there -- the next day, a local girl is found dead behind the house's barn. The day after that, Maggie and her friend Will find the bones of an infant in one of the old house's fireplaces. And the day after that, they stumble across a loose board in the attic hiding five extremely valuable Civil War rifles. All these things seem to be connected -- but how?

    Unfortunately, while this sounds pretty intriguing, in reality, it's ultimately pretty disappointing. The answers to the mysteries are uninteresting and unoriginal, the dialogue is clumsy, and the relationships between the characters are awkwardly drawn and forced. The only time this book is really any good is when Wait starts talking about antiques (she's a dealer herself). But those sections aren't enough to carry this mystery, and neither is any of the rest of it. Ultimately, probably not worth your time. There are too many other books out there about antiques, haunted houses, or murder that do a much better job with their stories.

  • (9/12) The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier.

    Oh, god, I love Tracy Chevalier. Her other two novels, "Girl with a Pearl Earring" and "Falling Angels" both knocked my literary socks off, and this one, her first novel, is just as wonderful. It's about two women -- the first is a present-day American named Ella who has just moved to a small town in France with her husband. Not having a job or friends there, she decides to spend her time trying to learn about her family's French heritage. The Tourniers go back centuries in France, but finding documents from that far back proves to be a greater challenge than Ella can handle alone. Luckily, she meets a local librarian named Jean-Paul, whose charm and intelligence quickly convince her to accept his offer of help (can you blame her? Librarians are so sexy!). The two become friends, and then become more than friends, and pretty soon Ella's got an existential crisis on her hands, as well as an increasingly bizarre compulsion to track her ancestors down.

    Meanwhile, alternating chapters tell the story of the second woman -- Ella's distant relative, Isabelle Tournier, living in the 1500's. When Isabelle married into the Tournier family, she was forced to give up her Catholic beliefs and become a follower of the "Truth" (Protestantism). The family is later forced to flee to Geneva when the religious wars in France come to their village and the Catholics burn them out of their home. Isabelle, can't shake her love for the Virgin, though, and this love ultimately comes between her and her husband, with extraordinarily tragic results.

    The two stories, though centuries apart, are quite brilliantly parallel to each other. Both are about women who are displaced and feel lost in their lives. Both about women whose feelings for another destroy their marriages. Both about women who ultimately force themselves into an almost violent inner struggle between their hearts and their heads that almost does them both in for good. Chevalier is an incredible writer, I can't say that strongly enough, and elements of this novel will stay with me for a long time. There was a bit of hokiness involved -- Ella has psychic dreams that lead her to Isabelle's story, and I would've liked it better if she'd just managed to turn up more historical documents instead, as convenient as that might have seemed. But the rest of the novel is magical in a much more grounded way, and I can hardly complain that that magic got a little too much free rein at times. I highly, HIGHLY recommend all of Chevalier's stunning novels, and can't wait to read whatever she writes next. Even if it's just her Sunday shopping list. Seriously, Tracy. Send it on over.

  • (9/8) Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself by Becoming an EMT by Jane Stern.

    Five years ago, food writer Jane Stern was over 50, overweight, and overly anxious about everything in the world around her. Her marriage had gotten stale and she was virtually immobilized by panic attacks and depression. But every day on her way to the supermarket for more food to self-medicate with, she passed by the local fire station and saw its ever-hanging sign that said "volunteer EMTs wanted." And one day, instead of continuing on to the cookie aisle, she parked her car, went inside, and filled out an application.

    This hilarious and poignant book is the story of what happened next in Jane's life. It takes us through her training, on site at her first accident, into the hospital where she bonds with a dying AIDS victim, and all the way to becoming the first woman officer of her department. Her stories will make you laugh, and her determinance will inspire the pants off you. I've often thought about becoming an EMT myself, actually. But I never thought I'd really be able to do it. Though I'm still not sure I'm ready to sign up, thanks to Jane, I know I could make it if I really wanted to. This is one awesome lady, folks. Oh, and also a damn fine writer to boot. Read this book! You're going to love it.

  • (9/6) Flashback by Nevada Barr.

    The latest in Barr's popular Anna Pigeon series, this one takes Anna, a park ranger, to a small island off the coast of Florida. On the island stands an old fort, built in the 1800's for use in war, but ultimately used only as a prison for confederate POWs in the 1860's. The fort is now a national park, and when the original ranger started to become mentally unstable, they called Anna in to cover for him.

    The fort is very isolated, though, and while it's a popular tourist attraction, the park staff is limited and Anna quickly finds herself becoming a little bored and lonely. To cheer her up, her sister sends her a packet of letters she found in the family attic, all from their great-great-aunt Raffia, whose husband was the warden of the fort-prison during the Civil War. Anna is immediately sucked into Raffia's world as she reads the letters -- but disturbing events have started happening in her own life that are keeping her a little on edge. Maybe it's that edginess that is to blame for the fact she's begun to see things? Like, the ghost of her long lost great-great-aunt? Is Anna going mad? Or is there someone on the island just trying to make her think she's going mad?

    I haven't read many of the Pigeon novels, but after reading this one, which was very entertaining, I'll definitely look for others. The only downside to the novel is that it's clear Barr has fallen victim to the same thing many established, popular authors fall victim to -- once they become sure things in the market, it seems their editors stop actually reading their books before printing them. This one is full of grammatical errors, unnecessary repetition, missing words, poorly constructed sentences, and a whole host of other problems any two-bit copy editor could've caught and corrected. Just think of how great this book could've been if only someone had proof-read it first! Nevertheless, it was very engrossing and fun, and I do recommend it to all mystery fans.

  • (9/1) The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt.

    I really liked Blunt's first Detective John Cardinal mystery, "Forty Words for Sorrow," and so was looking forward to this one, the second in the series. But even though it started out with a promising premise -- a body found in the woods mauled by a bear and a doctor who vanishes into thin air -- by about halfway, it started to get unbearably clunky. I actually gave up at the 2/3rds mark, and for me to quit when I've come so far says a lot. But I was bored with the story and was beginning to find the main characters kind of tediously one-dimensional. There was just no point in continuing.

    The book jackets says Blunt is hard at work on book three and I'll probably give it a try before dismissing the series, just because "Forty Words" was so great. But if I were you, I wouldn't bother with this one, and I'd wait to hear from the critics when the third one is released.

  • (9/1) Down to a Soundless Sea by Thomas Steinbeck.

    Collection of short stories all involving in some way the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. Many of the stories are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they are, for the most part, simple stories about regular people and everyday life (and a lot of donkeys). While I wouldn't say Thomas is as great a writer as his father John, he can definitely put together a good tale and I really enjoyed reading one or two of these at a time over the last couple of months. Recommended!

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