Monday, January 16, 2012

It's true, wherever there's bad art, it feels like Chriiiiistmaaaaaas!

***Editor's note: I actually wrote this blog a while back and forgot to post it.  Oops!***

Seeing as how I already posted my annual reading list on my other blog, I ought to at least offer short write-ups of the Month of Christmas Reading.

Remembering Christmas 
by Dan Walsh

This is about as "standard Christian fiction" as you can get.  (Interestingly, I didn't know anything about this book when I reserved it.  I just caught the title and said, "Hey, I'm reading books about Christmas this month, why not?")  You have the kind, older parents who run the little Christian bookstore beneath the church.  You have their only other employee, the single mom with three jobs and a faith that can move mountains.  There's our protagonist, the prodigal son who is highly successful in the business world and dreads the annual call home for Christmas time.  And when Step-dad has a sudden aneurism at the beginning of the book, Skeptical Son has to run the little Christian bookstore over the holiday season!  All these church people are so weird and nice.  He doesn't know how to process it!  And his Step-dad actually gave books away and fed homeless people?  What kind of person does that??  But wait...Skeptical Son appears to be falling for Single Mom!  Oh, noes!  She has a kid.  He can't fall for her!  For her part, Single Mom likes him, too, but she doesn't want to pursue her feelings because she just isn't sure about his faith life.  And, of course, there's deep resentment causing rifts in the family due to some history. 

There aren't a lot of surprises in this story (well, scratch that, right about page 200 there's a real lulu.  It's sort of the book's Nuke The Fridge moment, but I have to credit the book that it caught me by surprise!) and most of it is kind of boring.  The dialog is often awkward, as every conversation is sort of forced into making the author's point, but again, this is Christian fiction and, sadly, most modern Christian fiction kind of fits that mold.  All in all, this book isn't very good, but it isn't terrible, and I'm sure its target audience really loves it.

The Nine Lives of Christmas
by Sheila Roberts

So, this was a romantic comedy for single cat ladies.  Well, part of the purpose of Christmas Reading Month was to broaden my horizons, genre-wise.  And, of my original CRM selections, this was the most enjoyable.  That doesn't mean it's a good book, of course.  Oh, heavens no.  The romance is shallow and doesn't really make any sense.  The mousy girl at the pet store wishes she could hook up with the hunky firefighter, who must be her dream guy because he took in a stray cat.  He likes her because she's hot.  But he doesn't want to date her, because she's not the messing around type, she's the settling down type, and he doesn't want to end up with that kind of woman.  Freedom and all.  Oh, and deeply-rooted scars from family history.  (Christmas is the season for deeply-rooted family issues)  He keeps having odd fantasies about her.  And by "odd," I mean many of them involve her wearing a Santa hat. I don't know why that's a turn on.  However, some of the scenes between the two of them are thoroughly enjoyable.  They do make a cute couple, even if their reasons for getting together are vague at best and shallow at worst.

Weaving its way throughout the romance is the plot about the stray cat the man takes in, a tom cat on its 9th life who is rescued by the firefighter from a murderous dog.  The cat, who has spent most of its lives taking care of itself, now owes the man somewhat of a life debt and devotes all of its energies to getting him to dump his girlfriend and hook up with the pet store lady.  And again, there are parts of this storyline that are pretty clever or entertaining.  And, to this book's credit, the big buildup at the end (oh, spoilers, they end up together) isn't the two lover climbing into bed together.  Rather, it's a year later, the following Christmas, with the two of them curled up on the couch looking at wedding decorations.  Again, the characters are shallow, especially the guy, and the plot is a bit contrived, but there are some nice moments in this book, so it's not like the book was a complete waste of time.  Quite unlike...

The Lawman's Christmas
by Linda Lael Miller

My experience with Westerns is limited, but I'd been led to believe they were pretty much all the same.  Episodic, adventures, hombres, Indians, storms, stampedes, poor weather conditions, someone gets malaria; it's actually a lot like The Oregon Trail.  Basically, a lot of stuff happens.  This book taught me that there are actually two kinds of Westerns: the kind where interesting stuff happens, and the kind where the rugged Western man ends up marrying the poor widow who is about to be kicked out of her house by greedy merchants or something.  That could be pretty riveting if the characters and prose were any good.  But they're not. The whole book is really slow-moving (one hundred pages in, the most interesting thing that had happened was when the new marshal got a dog) and the narrative is repetitive and dull.  It's hard to believe the whole thing takes place in about a week because A) that's a LOT of character/mood changing to happen in a week, and B) it feels like you've been reading FOREVER by the time you get to the ending.  And speaking of the end....

Okay, keep in mind the entire book has moved slowly, no action, no sensuality, and very little spirit in most of our characters.  There was a blizzard, but somehow it was boring.  Then these two timid, careful, nearly-strangers get together on their honeymoon...look, I'm not going to get into details, but it was gross.  Gross.  I mean, I've read sex scenes and have become mostly calloused to them, but nothing I've read has made me as uncomfortable as this scene.  And it didn't fit the characters.  Not at all.  I'm actually getting a little queasy right now just thinking about it.  Look, I know there are worse sex scenes out there, but this just comes out of nowhere and blindsides you with ick.  Again, however, this is clearly not a book for which I am the intended audience.  However, if your audience is waiting for this kind of payoff, then that's just wrong.

Now, all of these books were written by "Best-Selling Authors," so clearly they're much better at what they do than I am.  I'm not trying to take potshots at anybody or anything.  And I admit, I was looking for cheesy (borderline bad) fiction for this Christmas season because I missed the TV specials this time around.  But after these three, I needed a major change in my literary diet.  So I returned the last few books I "blindly" checked out and picked up a couple I figured I had a good chance to really enjoy.

The Angel, the Shepherd, and Walter the Miracle Christmas Dog
by Dave Barry
128 pages
Putnam Adult, 2007

I am a fan of newspaper humorist Dave Barry (though I was thoroughly disappointed by the one children's novel of his that I've read), and I'd read a few of his Christmas columns in years past, so I thought this book would be a positive step toward giving myself a merrier PowerCard Christmas.  I was right, as Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog is a charming holiday story about a family whose dog dies on Christmas Eve.  It's told from the viewpoint of a 12-year-old (I think) boy dealing with 12-year-old-boy problems like girls, siblings, and the annual church Christmas pageant.  Surprisingly, this narrative lacks the sarcasm and comic cynicism that I've come to associate with Barry's work.  In a way, the tone reminds me of the narrative voice in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, only from a boy's perspective instead of a girl's.  So if you're not offended by somewhat crude preteen boy humor (or large piles of bat guano) then this is a book I wholeheartedly recommend for some light, heartwarming holiday fluff. 

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits
by Les Standiford
256 pages
Crown Publishers, 2008

I read this book as a recommendation from my uncle's book store's web site.  I never got around to reading The Christmas Carol this year, so I figured this would be the next best thing.  It's kind of an introduction to Dickens in a lot of ways, sort of a light biography that focuses primarily on his career leading up to and including Carol, then glossing over everything afterward.  I enjoyed it, and it made me want to read more Dickens.  The purpose of the book was to show how Carol resurrected the dying career of one of England's greatest novelists while showing what an impact Dickens' book had on popularizing the holiday of Christmas itself in Western culture.  While I felt like the book did a great job on the first half of that premise and a decent job of setting up the second, I don't know if it necessarily showed as strong of a correlation between the book's success and the rise of Christmas.  Still, it was an informative and entertaining read, and a nice way to close out 2011.