Sunday, May 14, 2006

Two Odd Opposites

La Cucina, by Lily Prior and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields were almost completely opposite one another in style, tone and characters. La Cucina is a robust, saucy, juicy novel full of extravagant passions and drama. The Stone Diaries is, like its name, cool, hard, stiff with a prose style that is somewhere between Henry James and Mark Twain, with a bit of Thackery and Bronte thrown in for good measure. It is not an easy read, and there is just the faintest whiff of contempt from the author for some of her characters. La Cucina's main character, Rosa Fiore, reminded me of the main character in "Like Water for Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel, whose passions overtake her life. It was obvious that the author, Ms Prior, has a love of all things Italian and Sicilian in her lush descriptions of the food that Rosa makes and consumes, and in her descriptions of Rosa herself, who is of voluptuous proportions. I was fascinated by the Italian library that Rosa works in, and by the Englishman she becomes entangled with. His adoration of good food and lusty evenings with Rosa marked him as a rare hedonist with a heart. The ending was just right, just satisfying enough to send the reader off to dreamland knowing they've enjoyed a slice of life in sunny Italy. I wish that I could say the same for the Stone Diaries, which managed a Pulitzer on sheer prose density. The fact that Shields created a work of fiction that reads like a biography, and even has photos of various characters (!) shows that she has the grit to do the hard work of creating a world of people out of her own imagination, which is a feat. However, like real life, the main characters have disappointing lives and lingering deaths, divorces, despair and plenty of self delusions. Daisy Stone Goodwill Flett, whose life has a horrible start when her mother dies giving birth to her (she wasn't aware she was pregnant, apparently because she was fat. Shields seems to think that fat women are also incredibly stupid) spends half her childhood with an "uncle" whom she eventually marries. She has three children who seem spectacularly ungrateful and mean, and a host of grandchildren who seem slightly better. She is fired from a newspaper for no reason, something I could identify with, and goes through a depression that is described in odd ways via every other character. The switching back and forth between perspectives was unnerving and then irritating. The one thing I enjoyed about Shields prose was her descriptions of the natural world; the plants, the stars, the fields and gardens. She lavishes proud words on them that she stints on her characters. And in the end, instead of allowing Daisy's death to bring the book to a natural close, Shields adds all this superfluous dialog from Daisy's kids as they go through her things, her scrapbooks, lists, letters, etc, after her death. How ridiculous, morbid and awful. Why a competant author can't seem to end a novel properly is beyond me. It was certainly not a Pulitzer-worthy ending.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Two by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey, who goes by "Misty" to her friends and fans, is an amazingly prolific author. She's got dozens of books out in many different genre, and doesn't appear to be slowing down at all when it comes to publishing fantasy series and SF books. I read more than a few of her Valdemar series, and several of her other books, and I enjoyed most of them tremendously. Lackey's prose is usually zippy and fun, without any real jargon or too much exposition. She generally has nice, brisk plots, too, and hearty, realistic characters who fascinate the reader. Roughly 5 years ago I ran across her "Elemental Mages" series, and became riveted by the idea of having male and female mages of earth, air, fire and water getting involved in various historical milleau. I loved the fact that she had mages from various social strata and ethnic backgrounds saving the day and finding their soulmates. The latest in this series, "Wizard of London" was sublime, full of the usual riveting characters and interesting situations. My only qualm was the rather anti-climactic ending, in which one expects the warriors to vanquish the evil foe, only to find that she is swept away by that which she's sold her soul to, and her henchman, though he's a dolt, gets off scot-free for his part in the drama. Sad and limp, as endings go. But, even a limp ending can't ruin a book that good. I also read the second book in the Diana Tregarde series of paranormal mysteries, "Burning Water" which was written in the 1980s, and is just a bit dated because of that. Still, it was a fun read, and though I liked the first book, "Children of the Night" better, it was just as engrossing and enjoyable. Tregarde and psychic policeman Mark Valdez are on the trail of Aztec mass-murderers in this tale, and though there are some horrendous and gross descriptions of dead people, including dead children, the intrepid duo finally do track down the killers, only to let them go, and find out later that the main bad guy was killed, but again, evil female hench-women get off scott free for their crimes, which was upsetting. I can only think that Lackey has plans for them in some other volume of the Tregarde series. "Jinx High" is being ordered by my library, so I won't be able to read the third book until it comes in, but I look forward to hearing about Tregardes next adventure. I just hope she doesn't let the bad guys/gals get away this time!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Gathering a Chilly Basket of May

"On May Day on May Day I rose up at daybreak and went out to gather a basket of May" from an old folk tune. We used to sing the above when making May baskets for our neighbors during my youth in Iowa. We'd make a construction-paper basket, add some spring flowers like pansies or tulips and a sweet of some type, such as a pastille candy or a homemade cookie, and put in a tiny card that said Happy May Day or Happy Spring and set these little jewels on the neighbors doorstep, ring the bell and run away before they answered the door, so the gift would seem anonymous. I recall one year we had candied violets, which seemed so exotic that we were loathe to give them away. They tasted like perfume. Today, its been rather chilly and overcast, and the sun is just now making an appearance. I sincerely hope it will warm up this afternoon and become a picture-postcard Maple Valley spring day. Meanwhile, I finished Chaz Brenchley's "Bridge of Dreams," in uncorrected proof form for review. I appreciate Ace Books sending me this copy to review, because I know that genre books are often a hard sell and review copies aren't easily gotten. However, though I tried my best, I just didn't like this book. It was written by a UK author, and, as I've mentioned before in this blog, the British have a way with morbid and melancholy plots and characters. Bridge of Dreams went beyond morbid right to horrific and pessimistic in the extreme, with many ruthless, cruel and evil characters taking center stage in a world that is run by a fascist sultan. There are two worlds, actually, Maras and Sund, the former representing the "haves" and the latter representing the "have-nots" who have been ground under the bootheal of Maras oppression. The poor Sundains still have magic, however, while those of Maras only have a bridge that twists magic by using children as a power source. The reader follows the life of Jendre, a daughter of a Maras general who is sold to the Sultan as one of many wives, and the life of the street child Issel of Sund, who has water magic that can only be used to destroy. Though we are supposed to identify with Issel, I found it difficult to like the abused and neglected street thief because he casually murdered a waterseller to take over his business. We're also supposed to feel for Jendre, though she is terribly niave and spoiled, and not too bright, because she tries to save her husband and is foiled in the attempt by her evil mother in law...and most people saw that moment coming chapters before it happened. She also has an affair with a guard and tries to escape, but is caught and barely manages to avoid the death penalty. She is unable to save her sister or herself in the end. Issel is equally ineffective, as he botches a mission to try and overthrow the military occupation of Sund. What we are left with is everyone being unhappy, unfulfilled and unpunished for crimes commited. The prose was dense, there was plenty of exposition that could have been edited, and the plot was glacial. This is one coal that should have stayed in Newcastle, where the author lives.