Saturday, October 18, 2008

Five Fall Books Read

I love fall, it's my favorite time of year. The air is crisp, cool and smells of apples and woodsmoke, the skies are sunny without the sun bearing down on you to roast you alive or bake you to a lobster-color, as always happens with me, and kids go back to school, allowing their parents to shop for office supplies (I am a pen collector who could spend at least an hour or three in the pen section of any office supply store). And fall is the gateway to the holidays, starting with every theater-major's favorite fest, Halloween, and moving on to Thanksgiving, my sons birthday, my husbands birthday, my birthday, Christmas and New Years.
Meanwhile, though, this year has been one of health difficulties/death/financial woes and strife for my whole family, and the stress has sent me to my TBR stack to devour one book after another, just to get away from it all.
I've read the following since I last posted:

Murder Can Depress Your Dachshund by Selma Eichler
The Bell At Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip
Wanderlust by Ann Aguirre
Table for Five by Susan Wiggs
The Land of Mango Sunsets by Dorothea Benton Frank

Out of those books only two were really worth reading, while the other three I plan on donating back to the library book cart, and wishing I could get back the time I wasted reading them.

First, the great books.
Ann Aguirre's Wanderlust is the sequel to her flashy debut novel Grimspace, which I reviewed here awhile back. Though I still think that there are way too many swear words in both novels (and I am by no means a prude, I just don't like seeing vehement curses and vile words tossed off on every single page), I can't deny my love of Aguirre's fine characters. Sirantha Jax is one tough cookie, a 'jumper' who navigates FTL ships through 'grimspace' which is sort of like the fluid space that the navigators fold in Frank Herberts Dune series. Jax brought the truth about the Farwan Corp to the world, and as a result has lost her job now that the company's corner on the intergalatic travel and commerce market has ceased to exist. So Jax is tagged by the government to lead a diplomatic mission to Ithiss Tor with her own crew of characters in tow--from the hottie March to Dina the lesbian mechanic, Jael the clone and Vel the insect inside a human sheath, to Doc and the others, its one wild and often painful adventure after another. Aguirre's prose is as edgy as her protagonist, with not a lot wasted on description or narration. Her plots move at light speed and her dialog is, as mentioned previously, spicy and crude, but it rings true for the universe she's created for her characters. I always have trouble putting Aguirres books down once I've picked them up, and such was the case with Wanderlust as well, as I stayed up until 2 am reading it after purchasing a copy on If you like your Science Fiction with a jalapeno kick and a heroine who stays with you, I recommend Grimspace and Wanderlust.

The Bell at Seeley Head was the 18th book of McKillips that I've read and adored, so it was natural for me to beg my husband to purchase the hardback for me as an 11th anniversary gift on October 5.
McKillip is my favorite fantasy author because her books read like a lucid and gorgeous dream; once you're in her world, even things that don't make sense somehow seem totally normal and reasonable. Her prose is luscious and evocative, her characters rare and fascinating, her plots meandering and magical. Each of her books brings a legend or fairy tale from another dimension to life. You know, once you've read one of her perfect paragraphs that you're in the hands of a storytelling master, someone who is so adept with words that beautiful prose comes as easily to her as breathing. When I'm in the presence of something beautiful, like a painting by Vermeer or Renoir, or music by Aaron Copeland, or glass blown and sculpted by hand at the Waterford Crystal works in Waterford Ireland, I tend to get all choked up, emotionally filled with an unspeakable joy that such things exist and were created by the hands of humans. I get the same feeling when I read something wonderful by John Steinbeck and Patricia McKillip and Diane Ackerman. All three share a deftness with words that is brilliant, blinding and joyful. But with the joy of reading perfect prose is the bittersweet feeling of knowing that I will never create something that incandescently lovely myself. My talents as a writer run to the mediocre, at best.
But I digress.
The Bell At Seeley Head is a tale of two dimensions in one home, of the person who vows to undo the evil magic binding some of the characters to nonsensical rituals that have gone on for centuries, and of two characters who fall in love rather accidently over books and mundane tasks. Gwyneth and Judd are both such sensible young people, and yet they inhabit a world that doesn't always make sense. They're constantly dealing with characters who aren't what they seem, and always trying to find ways to explain the tolling of a bell at sunset in a town without a bell anywhere. Seeley Head is a strange and fascinating town, the kind of place where fate and destiny colide. As with all of McKillips books, you have to glide along with the dream and know that it will all make sense in the end, otherwise you might get frustrated at the delicate pace the novel takes. For anyone who loves rich fantasy worlds and intriquing characters that are like no other characters anywhere, I recommend the Bell at Seeley Head.

Now as to the three paperback throwaways I read, I can't say that I hated Table for Five completely, but it was in dire need of a good editor to remove all the fluff stuffing and puffing out every chapter. The characters are somewhat stereotypical, and the plot drags in spots. The prose is okay, if not good, and the dialog rings true for the most part. However, I felt it was all a bit too "Cinderella" for anyone with a brain, and I have a hard time with stupid characters who seem to add no real value to the story. This book is what most people would call a decent beach read, something you pick up, whip through and then toss when you're done. I don't really think I will be yearning to read anything else Wiggs has written anytime soon, however, as her story seems a bit too formulaic.

It was better than "Murder can Depress your Dachshund" and "Land of Mango Sunsets" however.
I've read several of Dorothea Benton Franks works, and I liked a couple of them, but this particular work had such an annoying, b*tchy and shallow woman as the protagonist that I was tempted to quit reading halfway through. Fortunately, Miriam has a change of heart halfway through the book, and becomes tolerable enough that you don't want to strangle her. Miriam is a Manhattan socialite whose husband left her for a bimbo, and who has an apartment building that she rents out to a cast of characters, among them her gay best friend, who provides comic relief and clothing/interior design advice throughout the novel because, of course, that is what all gay men do, right? Miriam is prissy, mean and judgmental, and as a result has estranged grown children and few friends, which is no surprise. The plot drags like a dog with no hind legs for the first 2/3 of the book,and finally gets moving later on. Everyone but the main three characters are cliches, and the prose is rather turgid and tense.
The same can be said of Murder Can Depress..., whose main character is Desiree Shapiro, a loud and obnoxious New Yorker who is also a private investigator.The author spends a lot of time describing every morsel that Shapiro puts into her mouth, as if that is important or germaine to the story (it's not, trust me). The prose is cut rate, cheap sounding and the dialog anything but sparkling. Half the book is spent with Shapiro having no idea what is going on, who dunnit, why, or where she will find more clues. Shapiro whines, her clients whine and cry, her boyfriend is spineless and her friends are even more obnoxious than she is. Ugh. If you're in the mood for a fun and interesting mystery that moves along at a ginger pace, avoid this book. It's not worth the time or effort you'll spend reading it.

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