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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 26, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


The Books of Fall

It's autumn. The leaves are brightly colored on the trees, blowing lazily along the street, and clogging the filter in the fish pond.

Time for the publishers to bring out their biggest books.

Not because people have a lot of extra time to read, but because books make a great gift for the dozens of people in every city who have friends or loved ones who (a) know that they like to read and (b) have a clue what books they might enjoy.

Oh, there's another thing. Their book-happy friends must also (c) not by likely to buy the book for themselves.

That's why I almost never get books as gifts. My friends and family know that if I saw it, and it's a book I might like, I own it long before Christmas.

What are your choices, really? To buy no books between now and Christmas, only to discover that nobody bothered to buy you any? To buy the books you want and then make sure to talk about them with all your friends so they know you already own it?

Or create a wish list at Amazon.com and then subtly email the URL to everybody you know?

The first option isn't all that bad an idea. It's a perfect time to bring out a book you love and read it again. Maybe an old book you read as a child -- Little Women or Little Men. Tom Sawyer or The Prince and the Pauper.

How long has it been since you read Pollyanna? I promise you, even though you're old enough now to see how sappy and manipulative it is, you will still cry, if only because you remember what it felt like to read the book as a child -- to understand Pollyanna's pain, and yet to be moved when all the people whose lives she has brightened are desperate to help her be happy.

Maybe it's Anne of Green Gables or Gone with the Wind or Pride and Prejudice or The Wind in the Willows or Dune or Lord of the Rings. There's got to be a book that you'll want to read again and delight in discovering everything you forgot and revel in reliving all that you remembered.

But that's not what I do. I just buy the books and read them immediately, because my whole family is trained never to buy me a book. I'm on my own.

So ... if you're looking for a book to read -- or to give -- here are some of the blockbusters of the autumn that are worth the money and the time:

Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels should have collapsed in on themselves long ago. There are more of them than there are books in the Bible. By this time in a series, most writers are just going through the motions.

Not Parker. All the aspects of the series that were starting not to work, he has fixed. Everything you might be tired of, he uses so sparingly now that it stays fresh. And he still finds good stories to tell, stories with real characters and human dilemmas.

Parker's writing style is so spare that his publishers have to set them in a large, widely-spaced type and print them on very thick paper in order to make them thick enough to feel like you're getting an actual book. But the story is as thick as any full-length novel. Plus they're witty and exciting.

This fall's novel is Rough Weather, in which Spenser is hired to protect a woman who already has a security force, not to mention some very rich ex- or soon-to-be ex-husbands. In the middle of a hurricane, a bunch of highly trained abductors kidnap the client's daughter, killing a few people in the process, and Spenser isn't able to do a thing.

Then the storm ends, and he finds there are some things he can do. So he does them. And by the time they're all done, you've read a terrific book.

Then there's Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict. Connelly's hero, L.A. cop Hieronymous "Harry" Bosch, is getting older. So every now and then, Connelly sets him aside and writes a book about somebody else. In this case, it's Mickey Haller, the defense attorney introduced in The Lincoln Lawyer.

Having finally recovered -- more or less -- from wounds and life damage he suffered in the last book, Haller is given a gift out of nowhere: another lawyer dies and leaves him his practice, including a celebrity client with very deep pockets. His worries seem to be over.

The only trouble is, the friend who left him the practice was murdered, and because Haller benefitted so much from his death, it's natural that the investigating detective suspects him of having done in his benefactor.

And that detective is ... Harry Bosch.

Yep. Connelly is doing a gimmick -- bringing together his two heroes to face off in the same story.

Parker did the same thing not long ago, with not just two but three of his sleuth characters. So maybe it's the thing to do. (No, I'm not going to write a novel that includes Ender Wiggin, Alvin Smith, and Moses. Though it is tempting.)

The thing is, when you've got "the best mystery writer in the world" (according to GQ), you can bring it off, and Michael Connelly does it beautifully. Parker's Rough Weather expects you to already know the characters, but Connelly's book is written so that you could start reading the series with this volume. And if you aren't already a Connelly fan, that's a pretty good idea.

When it comes to Jonathan Kellerman's novels about psychologist/detective's helper Alex Delaware, it happens that the reader of the audiobook is the brilliant (and endlessly charming) John Rubinstein. If Rubinstein read the airplane safety card you'd pay attention and at the end feel as if you really knew the plane.

When he has terrific material like Kellerman's mysteries to read, he's even better.

Unlike some writers, whose audiobooks were not improved when the industry shifted from abridgements to the full magilla (Grisham is way better when his books are drastically shortened), Kellerman rewards you for listening to every word.

Even on the printed page, the newest book, Bones, is great bedtime reading. As long as you don't have anything important to do the next day, since you're likely to stay up really really late to finish it.

Alex's friend, brilliant misfit cop Milo, lands a serial murder case and a new partner all at once. The young cop is potentially a great new series character, especially because the cop's half-brother is an arrogant private detective. But Kellerman never lets the new sleuth characters interfere with the main story, which is properly grisly and psychologically fascinating.

The murder victims are found in the Bird Marsh, an environmental refuge with a guardian angel, of sorts. Most of the vics are prostitutes -- but that doesn't mean they don't have families who grieve for them, even if they always caused problems when they still lived at home.

One victim, though, seems not to fit the pattern -- she was a piano teacher for a child prodigy whose parents are very, very rich. How in the world did she end up in the marsh? It doesn't take long to find a couple of likely suspects. And it gets even easier when somebody keeps killing off the suspects, narrowing the field until there aren't a lot of choices left.

Three terrific mysteries. Don't think of them as books you won't get for Christmas. Think of them as books you get to read between trick-or-treaters on Halloween.


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