September 2007
Book Reviews by Meg Wood

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(9/28) Walla Walla Suite: A Room with No View by Anne Argula. (read me!)

I probably never would've picked this novel up had it not been for the fact my husband and I know Anne Argula's literary agent (Fleetwood Robbins, son of Tom Robbins). We bought a copy to support Fleetwood, as this is the first book he's gotten published in his new job. And man, am I ever glad we did, because not only was it entertaining, but it's also the second in a series, which means I get to read more, more, more of them! Yay!

To tell you the truth, I almost didn't read the novel even after we'd purchased it. Why? The problem can be boiled down to the fact Anne Argula is actually the pen name of a man (Darryl Ponicsan, author of numerous novels and screenplays), and this book's main character is an older female private investigator (Quinn) who suffers from hot flashes due to menopause, something mentioned so many times on the book's cover it led me to believe it was going to be her defining character trait. It's not that I think male authors can't successfully write stories from the perspectives of female characters. It's just that the stereotype about menopausal women and hot flashes gets old pretty fast for me -- about as fast as the one about irritability and PMS -- and that goes double for when it's coming from the mouth or pen of a man.

The bad news is I was kinda right about this problem -- Quinn complains about her body temperature waaaaay too often in this book, and that aspect of her character got old fast (suck it up, ya old bat!). But the good news is that aside from that and her extreme overuse of the annoying phrase "da frick," I fell in love with Quinn almost instantly. She's got a sharp wit and a savvy brain, and she's exactly the kind of older woman I really hope I turn into some day: independent, strong, smart, open-minded, and, tough as nails.

Quinn's a retired cop who fled Spokane for Seattle when her husband left her for a younger woman. She quickly got licensed to be a private investigator, but so far has been working as an investigator for her neighbor Vincent, who is hired by defense attorneys to help mitigate their clients' sentences (Vincent tracks down people from a client's past who can tell the jury things that might persuade them not to apply the death penalty). When a young girl who works in their building disappears, though, Quinn quickly finds herself unable to avoid the allure of a good mystery. She gets hired by the girl's boss, who had a somewhat suspiciously close relationship to the victim, and soon is hot on the trail of her first case.

This is a well-written and engaging mystery, with a truly entertaining protagonist at its helm, and a great supporting cast to boot (I found Vincent's fear of his father's Alzheimer's extremely authentic and endearing, as well). I also loved the Seattle setting, a town Argula clearly knows very well. All in all, this was a really pleasant surprise -- great job, Fleet! I highly recommend this one to all mystery fans, and look forward to going back to read the first in the series (Homicide My Own), as well as the third installment, due out in 2008.
[MYSTERY]

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(9/26) Last of the Breed by Louis L'Amour. (read me!)

This action-packed novel is quite a departure from L'Amour's usual genre (which I'd describe as "romanticized Westerns," I think). It's about an American Air Force pilot (Joe Mack) who is lured into Russia under a ruse and then essentially kidnapped and plunked into a Siberian prison. The Russian government fakes his death so no one will come looking for him, and then tells Joe they'll be commencing torture soon if he doesn't tell them everything they want to know about the U.S.'s newest super-secret spy plane technology.

What they don't realize is that Joe is not only one majorly tough dude, but he's also a Sioux Indian. Within days, he's busted out of the prison with plans to essentially WALK out of Siberia. He'll need all his ancestors' hunting and tracking skills to do it, as well as his military training. And, to make things even more complicated, he's got to do more than just get out (during winter, no less) -- he's also got to elude recapture, and the Russian officer responsible for getting him back is taking his escape VERY personally.

This exciting novel reads in many places like an episode of Man vs. Wild, as Joe comes up against deadly animals, terrain, and weather. Though it gets a bit sluggishly repetitive in a few spots, and I found the writing a bit stilted (which actually may have been done on purpose, as it kind of lent it a "translated from the Russian" sort of feel, I thought), it's a very entertaining story and a serious page-turner. Definitely one to check out if you love action/survival stories -- recommended!
[FICTION]

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(9/20) A Superior Death by Nevada Barr. (read me!)

Another in Barrís superb mystery series featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon, this one takes Anna away from the hot desert parks she loves so much and tosses her onto the chilly, damp shores of Lake Superior. The one upside? She gets to drive around a boat all day watching divers check out cool shipwrecks submerged below the lakeís dark surface. But when one of them comes up raving about the six nifty dead bodies on the sunken Kamloops -- a ship that should only have FIVE old, waxen dead bodies on it -- the race to find a killer and some pretty unusual stolen treasure begins!

These are always satisfying, entertaining, and a blast to read, so if you havenít picked up an Anna Pigeon yet, get thee to the library STAT! Barr is a terrific writer and every time I read one of these, I think about how much fun it would be if somebody turned the series into a TV show. I wish some network or another would take that task on!
[MYSTERY]

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(9/8) Smoky Mountain Tracks: A Raine Stockton Dog Mystery by Donna Ball. (read me!)

Raine Stockton is a dog trainer living in Hanover County, North Carolina. Until recently, she was famous in the area for having one of the best Search and Rescue dogs the county had ever seen. But when that dog, Cassidy, died, Raine quit the S&R team and has been struggling to recover from the loss of her beloved pet ever since. One morning, however, she gets a call from her ex-husband, a deputy sheriff, begging for her help. A mother and six year-old girl are missing in the woods and they desperately need a Search and Rescue dog on the scene as soon as possible. Raine reluctantly agrees and brings her young golden retriever Cisco out to do the job. But Cisco is no Cassidy, and Raine is impatient and frustrated with her lack of focus. Cisco ultimately leads the group to a cabin deep in the trees, but they find no sign of the woman or the child at the scene. An hour later, however, they've found the corpse of the man accused of kidnapping them -- shot in the head with a single bullet.

The next day, Raine is dealing with her frustrations over Cisco's failure when she meets an interesting woman named Sonny who claims she's able to communicate with animals. Raine thinks she's a nutcase at first, but something Sonny says Cisco had told her stays with her and, after giving it some more thought, Raine decides to return to the cabin and poke around a bit more. To her surprise, she finds both evidence of the little girl and the murder weapon, a handgun, and suddenly realizes Cisco had been onto something after all. Pretty soon, Raine is caught up in a tangled web of deceits and cover-ups, while also struggling with her complicated emotions about Cassidy's legacy and Cisco's future.

Yes, it IS pretty much as hokey as it sounds -- dog psychic and all -- but at the same time, I actually rather enjoyed this mystery. It's not a bad story, and I enjoyed the Search and Rescue dog stuff in particular, as well as the main character Raine. It's a short novel, one I could've probably easily whipped through in a single afternoon had I had the time, but overall, it was pretty satisfying. I'm not convinced at the moment that this will be a series worth sticking with in the long run, but I'll definitely be looking for the second installment and will let you know what I think of round two when I'm done. In the meantime, if you're looking for something that doesn't require much in the way of brain power and features lots of sweet dog stuff, this might be a good one to add to your list.
[MYSTERY]

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(9/5) Heat (An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) by Bill Buford. (read me!)

Well, technically, the subtitle of this non-fiction book pretty much tells the whole story. Buford, a writer for the New Yorker, had always loved to cook. But one day, he just decided that wasn't enough for him anymore -- he wanted to be more than an amateur in a home kitchen. After a little cajoling, he managed to talk one of the most famous New York chefs, Mario Batali, into letting him learn the ropes at Batali's popular Italian joint, Babbo.

In between hilariously-written stories of Buford's experiences at Babbo (and then eventually in Italy, where he goes to learn how to make real pasta and to apprentice with a Tuscan butcher), this book features a veritable encyclopedia of Italian cooking and food. It's all utterly fascinating and Buford's writing is absolutely impeccable. This is one of the most engaging and entertaining non-fiction books I've read in a while -- I could barely put it down (and man, did it ever make me crave tortellini!). If you love eating, making, or thinking about food, this is a book not to be missed. Highly recommended!
[NON-FICTION]

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(9/2) The Dead Survivors by K. J. Erickson. (read me!)

Another well-written mystery from Erickson featuring improbably-named detective Mars Bahr. This one begins with what looks like a suicide -- a man down on his luck found hanged in his office. But a few things don't add up for Bahr, most notably a set of numbers written on the dead man's forearm. As Mars and his partner Nettie begin to investigate, they turn up something interesting in the victim's past -- a connection to the Battle of Gettysburg. A little more digging uncovers two more victims with the same set of numbers and the same family ties to the Civil War, and pretty soon, Mars and Nettie find themselves caught up in a 150 year-old revenge crime.

Though this novel got a bit sluggish in a number of places (too much procedure sometimes, not enough plot), overall, I really enjoyed it . I'll definitely be keeping an eye on this series (I also enjoyed the first in the series, Third Person Singular, by the way, though it had an ending that kind of wrecked the rest of it for me). Recommended!
[MYSTERY]

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