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Some Things better left unread 

Pearl Cleage's latest novel begins: "I have really screwed up now." And for the first 40 pages or so you can't help but wonder if that oh-shit sentiment applies more to the book's protagonist or its author.

Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do (One World) suffers from a sleepy start and a less than catchy premise. Regina Burns, fresh out of rehab for her coke habit, has 60 days to save her family home in D.C. from creditors. Conveniently, she's offered a temporary job in Atlanta that pays just enough to fend off the foreclosure. But the real deus ex machina comes in her Aunt Abbie, whose psychic visions foresee Gina meeting her soul mate in the South.

The story finally gets started once sister-girl settles in her new apartment in West End. There she entangles herself in the lives of her female neighbors, a vaguely entertaining crew of Waiting to Exhale extras, and falls instantly in heat with her mysterious landlord.

With its unwieldy E. Lynn Harris-esque title and beach-book cover art, Some Things seems like a sub-par entry in the growing monotony of African-American chick lit, How Stella Got Her House Back, if you will. Cleage avoids a total fumble with a thoughtful -- and sometimes revolutionary -- subtext commenting on the shaky relationship between black men and women today.

Unfortunately her language elsewhere often stumbles. Her glowing description of West End, Cleage's own stomping ground, comes off as unctuous and overly optimistic, like a heavy-handed sales pitch from a too-eager Realtor. Though her aspirations may be admirable, the preachy gender equality message gets lost among an unsurprising romance.

The author, known locally more as a playwright than a novelist, struck publishing gold a few years back with What Looks Crazy on an Ordinary Day, a pick for Oprah's Book Club. And Cleage's talents for dialogue and scene-setting shine through in Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do. One thing we wish she'd do is let the novel-writing thing rest for a while and return her powerful voice to the stage.

Pearl Cleage appears Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St. Free. 404-370-8450.

Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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