September 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(9/18) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. (read me!)

This wonderful young adult novel is about a teenage boy named Arnold Spirit, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, Washington. Arnold was born with "water on the brain," and is a bit on the underdeveloped side, so he's been the target of bullies most of his life. His way of coping? Drawing comics, many of which (drawn by artist Ellen Forney) are "taped into" his diary, and playing basketball. And so far, life on the reservation has been fairly tolerable. He loves his family, troubled though it may be, he has a best friend who sticks up for him (aptly named Rowdy), and he's managing.

But then he starts high school, only to find that the rez school is giving him the same textbooks they gave HIS parents. Twenty year-old math textbooks? Suddenly, the unfairness of it all overwhelms him, and Arnold makes the decision to quit going to school on the "poor-ass" reservation and start traveling 20 miles away to a mostly-white public school instead.

By leaving the rez, Arnold becomes an outcast in his own community, as well as an outcast in the all-white school he has started to attend. But it's not long before he makes a few friends, and when his classmates see what he can do on the basketball court -- and get a taste of Arnold's personality -- it's not long before he goes from outcast to hero. Eventually, Arnold comes to terms with the two sides of himself -- his white side, and his Indian side -- learning how to balance the two and thrive in both worlds.

This coming-of-age novel is hilarious, powerful, and packed with stories of typical teenage problems (falling in love, losing a friend) as well as intense tales of reservation life (poverty, alcoholism). Arnold is irresistible, and it's pure pleasure to get to take this peek into his "absolutely true diary." Highly, HIGHLY recommended for teenagers and adults alike! [comment on this book review]

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(9/11) The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My Mind -- And Almost Found Myself -- On the Pacific Crest Trail by Dan White. (read me!)

I really enjoy "adventure memoirs" like this one -- books like Tracy Johnston's Shooting the Boh or Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. I like reading about people overcoming outdoorsy challenges and becoming better people from the experience, I guess. This is the first time I've read an adventure memoir, however, where the hiker actually became a WORSE person because of his time on the trail. But, hey, it's good to have balance, right? And we can't all be improved by our hardships, after all -- some of us must turn into poopheads instead. Such is the way of humanity.

The Cactus Eaters is about author Dan White and his girlfriend Allison, and their attempt to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail, which stretches over 2600 miles from Mexico to Canada along the West Coast. It starts with brutal deserts, moves into agonizingly high mountains and hills, and then ends in rainy, damp woodlands. Sounds like fun! Dan and Allison are rookies -- I don't know much about hiking, but even I could tell when they were making a biiiiig mistake (for example, the time they dumped half their food and water, despite the fact they knew getting MORE food and water was going to be extremely difficult to do. Such a bad plan, guys!). And throughout most of the book, it's really fun hearing the stories about their trek, as they stumble their way up California and manage to keep going every day despite the incredible odds stacking up against them. I really enjoyed hearing about the places they walked through, the people they walked with, the people they desperately did NOT want to walk with, etc. Dan is an entertaining writer, and though I will say this isn't a terribly well-written book, he's funny and honest, and also good at describing settings and people, and that goes a long way towards keeping the whole thing readable.

The problem with Dan, though, is that he becomes so obsessed with finishing the trail that, when Allison has to abort before Oregon due to a sudden, life-changing medical diagnosis (I won't say of what), his reaction is to say,"Whelp, good luck with that, Ally! I'm heading back to the PCT now! See ya later!" And then he's astonished when Allison later dumps his lame ass. I started the book really liking Dan and ended it thinking he was a complete wanker. I'm glad Allison figured that out before it was too late herself -- you go, girlfriend.

In any case, if you have any interest at all in adventure memoirs or the Pacific Coast Trail or the spectacular transformation of a good man into a total doofus in 2600 miles or less, this is definitely a book I think you'll enjoy. Recommended! [comment on this book review]

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(9/8) Devil Bones by Kathy Reichs. (read me!)

Has it finally happened? You know how I used to love Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series and then she started losing her touch and the whole series devolved into crap? I've been consistently impressed by Reichs's similar-ish series featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan (the series that inspired the hit FOX show Bones). But at the same time, I've been growing ever-so-slightly impatient with some elements of her writing style (namely her over-affection for cliffhanger chapter endings), and either I wasn't in the mood for this mystery when I picked it up (hope that was it!) or Reichs just put out a pretty crappy novel. Which, argh!

This time, it was less the cliffhanger thing that was bugging me and more the. . . absolute tedium. It started when I noticed she was spending an awful lot of time describing the history of the novel's setting (Charlotte, NC) and I realized that her historical references had virtually nothing to do with the plot itself. Why were those in there? Just to educate us about her favorite town? But I don't actually CARE about your favorite town, Kathy! Get on with the story already!

And then something even worse happened -- I realized about half-way in that I also didn't care about the plot either. I was just really, really bored. The crime in this one has to do with religious human sacrifice and dirty politics, and while that sounds like it might be pretty exciting, it somehow managed to come out dry and slow instead. Go figure.

Also, I have to mention this: there was a plot element early on in this novel that really bothered me -- one of the victims is found virtually intact even though the body had been wrapped in plastic and out in the sun (in other words, it should've been fairly decomposed, both from the heat and from animals and insects). When they take it back for autopsy, they discover it had started decomposing from the inside out, instead of the outside in. To anybody who watches CSI, the reason for this should be obvious -- the body was frozen before it was dumped! But it takes Brennan and her colleagues practically the entire novel for this idea to occur to them. What?? And though this is the kind of stuff that happens a lot in the Scarpetta series these days, it's the first time I've ever figured something out before Brennan did. And that's not a plus for me.

Anyway, I know fans of the series won't be able to just skip over this one -- I couldn't myself even when I realized I wasn't actually enjoying it. But if you are only dropping in now and then on Reichs's books, you can let this one go. And let's hope it's not the start of a steady downward trend, because that would royally suck. [comment on this book review]

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(9/5) Avalanche by Patrick F. McManus. (read me!)

This is the first McManus mystery novel I've read, and it was totally an impulse buy while I was on vacation a few weeks ago. After a week of temperatures in the 90's, I just couldn't resist picking up a novel titled Avalanche with a picture of snow all over its cover. Ahhhhh, snow. Add to that the fact it appeared to come highly recommended (The New York Times said, "Everybody should read Patrick McManus") and it seemed like a fairly safe bet.

As it turns out, it's quite entertaining, though not without a few flaws. The main character of this series is a small-town Idaho sheriff named Bo Tully. When Bo is called in to a local ski lodge to investigate a missing person, he initially expects an open-and-shut case coupled with a vacation-esque stay at the lodge. But on the way there, he and his partners (his dad, Pop, who is a retired sheriff, and his buddy Dave) are nearly killed by an avalanche, leaving everybody at the lodge, including them, trapped for several days. After poking around a bit, Bo and his team quickly discovers that A) the missing person is actually a murder victim, and B) someone was trying to kill THEM with that avalanche.

Though the writing could've used a little tightening up in places, and McManus sometimes tries just a little too hard to be funny, for the most part, this is a thoroughly entertaining and engaging little romp. I really enjoy mysteries that are set in small locations (a mansion, a ski lodge where everybody is trapped, etc.), and this one was exactly what I wanted when I read it. I'll definitely be looking for the first book in this series, The Blight Way, and recommend this one to anybody who is in the mood for a light mystery with a comic edge and a lot of blizzardy snow. [comment on this book review]

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(9/2) Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott. (read me!)

This enthralling novel opens with the mysterious death of a present-day Cambridge scholar most widely known for her studies of Isaac Newton and his involvement in the world of alchemy. She had been in the middle of writing a book about that very topic when she was found drowned in a creek near her house. The historian's son asks his old lover, Lydia Brooke, also a Newton scholar, to finish his mother's book. Lydia agrees and accepts his invitation to live in his mother's old house while she works on the project.

As she delves into the work, Lydia discovers her old mentor had a complex, detailed conspiracy theory about Newton -- one that gradually becomes more and more ghostly and spooky. Primarily because it involves, like, ghosts and spooks and stuff. As Lydia struggles to figure out whether the things she's seeing are real or she's simply going insane, she also finds herself drawn back into the arms of her old lover, a reuniting that threatens to have disastrous effects for all.

Sounds kind of cheesy, right? And yet, it's really not! I almost didn't stick with this novel after about the first 75 or so pages, I will confess. It's written in the second person, with Lydia as the narrator and the "you" her old lover, the dead historian's son. And I found the "you" a bit annoying at times. Stott also commits one of my personal pet peeves in fiction, which is when an author repeatedly, excessively, obnoxiously keep saying things like, "If only I'd known then what I know now. . ." or "Little did I know what would happen when I. . ." The first few times, I got excited, like I'm supposed to -- oooh, something BIG is coming. But by the 86-bazillionth time? It just starts to feel tedious and lazy.

Luckily for Stott, she doesn't disappoint with all that foreshadowing and right when I started to lose patience, she walloped me with some twists and turns that sucked me right back in. Ultimately, I found this novel extremely gripping and seductively charming, and enjoyed very much the world it slowly pulled me into as I read. The language is stunning in places -- Stott is a wonderful writer -- and the story itself was unique and intriguing. I also enjoyed all the historical stuff about Newton and alchemy, and was quite pleased to find at the end that a lot of it was true. Fascinating! Made me want to learn more!

All in all, this is a novel I highly recommend, especially to anybody who likes historical fiction and/or slightly spooky fiction and/or kissing scenes. You too may feel a bit impatient the first 75-100 pages in, but hang in there, because it gets a lot better after that. [comment on this book review]

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