February 2008
Book Reviews by Meg Wood


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(2/24) The Terror by Dan Simmons. (read me!)

Okay, enough with the tomes, already! Ordinarily, I kind of avoid novels that are 800+ pages long because, nine times out of ten, 200 or more of those pages are in there because of bad editing, and I often just don't have the patience. But this makes twice in a single month I've read and enjoyed a massively-overwritten novel, so I'm either getting less picky in my old age, or the books were just so entertaining I didn't care about the superfluous parts.

In the case of Simmons' The Terror, it was definitely the latter. This novel, a fictionalized retelling of Franklin's fabled Northwest Passage expedition of 1845, was absolutely gripping. Dan Simmons is one of the few horror writers out there who can truly scary the bejesus out of me, and this novel was noooooo exception. It had me up way into the wee hours of the night (or maybe that's the wee hours of the morning -- whatever, all I know is them was some hours of WEE), trembling under my bedspread and clutching a flashlight for protection against the things that might go bump in the night. I haven't been that freaked by a novel since I read Simmons' Song of Kali, another one to put on your list if you like a good thrill.

First, a little background about the real Franklin expedition: Sir John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer and Arctic Explorer who become somewhat obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage. He made several expeditions into the Arctic -- as did many others in his day -- but his last was easily one of the most famous, for reasons about to become very clear. That final trip involved two ships -- his, the HMS Erebus, and the HMS Terror, captained by a man named Crozier. The ships set sail outfitted with all the latest technological inventions (steam heating, gadgets, etc.), three years' worth of canned goods, and lots of fancy extras, including a library with over 1000 books and chests full of costumes for parties.

The expedition made it into the Arctic, but was quickly trapped by pack ice and became stranded. Based on notes found later, it was determined that the crews stayed on the two ships for at least three years before finally abandoning them and attempting to walk out. Clues found later also suggested that about half of their canned food, bought cheaply from a shady manufacturer, was tainted, leading to several deaths first from food poisoning and later, when provisions ran out, from scurvy and starvation. There was evidence that some had resorted to cannibalism as well -- a fact the civilized world found deliciously scandalous, pardon the pun.

By the time the crews of the Terror and Erebus abandoned ship, nine officers, including Franklin, and fifteen sailors had already died. The rest were never seen again.

All by itself, this makes for a pretty riveting tale, and I've always been fascinated by stories about those old Arctic expeditions so I was completely sucked in from page one. But since very little is actually known about the specifics of what happened to the crews of the Terror and the Erebus, Simmons decided to have a little fun with the story. And what could be more fun than throwing in a man-eating monster, I ask you?

We learn about this monster right away in the novel, beginning with allusions made about some mysterious deaths and disappearances on board, and reports that other crew members had seen something. . . strange. . . out on the ice before each incident. But, to my delight, Simmons employs the same terror-inducing trick used by Spielberg in Jaws -- he doesn't SHOW us the monster until we're already well past "scared" and into "holy sh*t!" Instead, all we "see" of the monster for the first half of the story is what it can do to the unfortunate souls it encounters. It not only seems capable of crushing a human with a single blow, but it's also got an intelligence that is downright horrifying. The monster doesn't just stalk its prey -- it plays with it. It taunts the crew, trying to trick or dare them to come out onto the ice where they are more vulnerable. And when we finally DO get to see this beast, we still only really get a glimpse of it through the eyes of a terrified crewman who can't stop shaking from fear. Is it just an oversized polar bear, turned into a devilish monster by the overactive imaginations and paranoid delusions of a group of men suffering from starvation and scurvy? Or is that monster out there on the ice actually that -- a monster?

Well, hell, people! I ain't tellin'!

This novel is an absolute must-read for anybody who loves a good Arctic exploration story, and people interested in the history of Franklin's "Lost Expedition" in particular will really find a lot to enjoy here as well. It's loaded with historical detail, as well as a wide range of characters and subplots (one of my favorite characters, incidentally, was the ship's doctor, Goodair, who starts the expedition a complete Arctic noob and ends it being one of the few actual heroes of the whole shebang). And while yes, there's no doubt this novel could've benefited from some tightening-up, by the time it was over, I was not at ALL ready for it to be done. HIGHLY recommended, and I'll be eager to hear what you think of it yourself if you do give it a try. [comment on this book here]

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(2/12) The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. (read me!)

I got this book as a Christmas gift and was excited to see it. I, like the rest of the library world (we tend to stay on top of this sort of thing), knew it was the current Oprah's Book Club selection and, while I'm not much of a fan of Oprah's, for the most part I think she's picked out some pretty good books for this li'l project o' hers.

I really enjoyed this novel, though it's very badly edited (for one thing, it really needed to be at least 200 pages shorter) and not at all well-written. Follett is primarily known for his spy thrillers, so it was no great surprise to me that this novel is not "great literature" (in fact, it's not even "good literature"). That said, it IS pretty entertaining in places, and Follett does a fairly decent job of taking us back in time.

Back in time to the 1100's, to be exact. The novel opens with a master builder named Tom Mason on the open road with his pregnant wife and two children, Martha and Albert. Between jobs, Tom is desperately seeking work before winter comes. When he hears a rumor that a new cathedral is being planned nearby, he heads off to try to get involved. You see, Tom's always dreamed of being the master builder on a cathedral, and he's gettin' on up there in years now and knows if he doesn't get in on a project like that soon, he'll never see his dream come true. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when his wife dies delivering their new baby en route. Panicked, Tom abandons the infant, thinking there's no way he can keep it alive without its mother. Luckily, the baby's cries are soon heard by a passing priest.

The priest takes the baby to the local monastery where his brother, Philip, lives. Philip is embroiled in his own drama, though, one that, long story short, eventually lands him a promotion to Prior of Kingsbridge. Meanwhile, Tom meets and falls in love with a wild woman named Ellen that he meets in the forest (a mere day after his "beloved" wife died, I might add). Ellen brings with her her very odd son, Jack, and the newly expanded family are about to starve to death when they cross paths with Philip themselves.

Good lord, I'm only up to about page forty here, with roughly 86-gazillion pages to go. This novel kind of defies succinct description. But the gist of it is that Tom and Philip team up together to build a great new cathedral in Kingsbridge, coming up with a variety of ways to get the money and materials to support the project. Some of those ways make them some very powerful enemies, including the new bishop and a local earl. As the story unfolds, various characters' lives intersect -- they fall in love, they come to loathe each other, they become friends, they vow revenge, etc. etc. etc. There are lots of battles and knights and fair maidens, lots of monks and poor people and sinners. There's a backstory involving a man wrongfully hanged. There's a violent coup. There's a peaceful demonstration. There's way, WAY too much sexual assault. There's an elaborate plot for vengeance that takes 752 pages to work itself out. In essence, just about everything you can think of in terms of classic plotlines got tossed into this story, which is, in my opinion, one of its greatest weaknesses.

That said, though the writing isn't brilliant (in fact, it's pretty blah, I must say), the story itself was entertaining enough to keep me turning the pages -- who would've thought a 900 page novel about the building of a cathedral would be so hard to put down? I'm probably not going to seek out the sequel Follett wrote to this one (World Without End, a title that keeps getting that "Glory Be to the Father" church song stuck in my head, something I don't really appreciate, thankyouverymuch), but I did enjoy this one for the most part. My advice: give yourself permission to skim when you start to get bogged down in the dull parts, and don't worry too much about remembering every plot point you encounter -- you'll get hit over the head with tedious reminders as you go, I assure you! [comment on this review]

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(2/3) The Mist by Stephen King. (read me!)

This novella, originally published as part of the short story collection The Skeleton Crew, was recently made into a movie starring Thomas Jane. The movie got surprisingly favorable reviews, so when I saw this book at the library the other day, I picked it up. I usually think King is a pretty abominable writer, but he's occasionally a wonderful storyteller, and reviews had said the film was truly scary, so it seemed like a good bet. I crossed my fingers for a good thrill, turned to page one, and dove in.

The next thing I knew, it was 12:30AM and I had read the whole thing in one sitting. That tells you it's at least entertaining. But, while that's certainly true, I found this book laughably bad at times (especially the end -- not to ruin anything, but . . . Hartford?), and my god, the "scary" part? SO Stephen King! And I don't mean that in a good way!

I'm not going to tell you anything about the plot, because the less you know, the better, I think. Suffice it to say it's about 75 or so people who get trapped in their local supermarket after a deadly fog settles over their small Maine town. The characters are the same group you find in most King stories, and only the protagonist ever even came close to seeming like a real person to me (the rest are just over-the-top stereotypes). But a lot of the problems I had with this book are ones they could easily fix in the movie -- the flat characters, bad pacing, boring writing. I am definitely still looking forward to seeing the movie, and I'd suggest that if you're at all curious about this story yourself, you just skip the book altogether and leap right into the DVD instead. This is one occasion where I think the movie could actually be an improvement over the novel!

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All web content written by Meg Wood, sooooper genius.
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