Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Holy Terror, by Jane Holleman

(pb; 1999)

From the back cover:

"Working the streets, Caressa's world is full of seedy motels and passing cars, of men with kinks, men with wives, mens with secrets. Then she becomes a witness in an explosive murder case, and seeks shelter with a priest -- a man who must atone for the sins he committed long ago.

"As a killer stalks Caressa, prostitutes begin dying bloody deaths. Jesse Brucker, a driven detective, searches for answers. And Mick Ramsey, a sexually twisted, award-winning journalist, becomes the number-one suspect in the rash of murders. But in a world of illicit liaisons and dangerous obsessions, where the downtrodden mingle with society's most powerful, no one can guess who is really after Caressa -- or why the holy terror has only just begun..."


This gritty and suspenseful crime novel starts out with an impressive bang (a hopped-up prostitute takes a priest hostage, pressing a gun to his head) and maintains that pulpish twist-riddled pace for the next 300 pages. Holleman's simile-laden prose is hyperbolic at times, but it's an easily-overlooked flaw. The characters are compelling (though Ramsey's character is over-the-top) and there's a lot of dark humor and periodic dissertations about the nature of faith (religious or otherwise) to lighten the bleak twists on display in these dissertations.

It's in the final thirty pages that Holleman's story falters. One of the characters, bleak and somewhat amoral throughout the book, practically becomes a Christian saint at the end. The word "God" is uttered enough times that I sometimes thought I was reading a Bible.

This Biblical end-tone is inconsistent and startling. Not only that, but it suffers from a Hollywood finish, which almost negates any of the book's strong points.

It's okay, if you don't expect much.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Faerie Tale, by Raymond E. Feist

(pb; 1988)

From the back flap:

"Phil Hastings was a lucky man -- he had money, a growing reputation as a screenwriter, a happy, loving family with three kids, and he'd just moved into the house of his dreams in rural upstate New York. Life was wonderful, full of magic -- and about to altered irrevocably by a Magic more real than any dared imagine.

"For with the Magic came the Bad Thing, and the Faerie, and then the Fool.. and the resurrection of a primordial war with a forgotten People -- a war that not only the Hastings but the whole human race could lose."


This is a solid read, its characters fully-fleshed and its prose imbued with the very Magic it purports to detail. I agree with Bryan, who suggested (in a long-ago book review of this book) that one should read Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream beforehand, as it's an acknowledged influence/source of Feist's book. (It should be noted, however, that anyone who hasn't read the play can also enjoy the novel.)

The build-up is ably paced, the plot is an equal balance of drama, fantasy and horror; perfect for anyone who doesn't mind their fantasy dark, while maintaining that almost-antiseptic mainstream cleanliness that Stephen King's writing embodies. The Jungian overtones are wonderful, as well.

Highly recommended, this.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper & Other Stories, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

(pb; 1997: short story anthology)

From the back cover:

"Best known for the 1892 title story of this collection, a harrowing tale of a woman's descent into madness, [the author] wrote more than 200 other short stories. Seven of her finest are reprinted here.

"Written from a feminist perspective, often focusing on the inferior status accorded to women by society, the tales include: 'Turned,' an ironic story with a startling twist, in which a husband seduces and impregnates a naive servant; 'Cottagette,' concerning the romance of a young artist and a man who's apparently too good to be true; 'Mr. Peeble's Heart,' a liberating tale of a fiftyish shopkeeper whose sister-in-law, a doctor, persuades him to take a solo trip to Europe, with revivifying results; 'The Yellow Wallpaper,'; and three other outstanding stories..."


Gilman's writing is economical, engaging -- her characterizations aren't always as fully fleshed as they could be (a fault often found in writers of Gilman's ilk: the social point supercedes characterization), but it's a minor quibble.

If there's a glaring weak point, it's the title story. It rambles on about in a vague fashion about the woman's sickness (in reality, she's just depressed), ending on a symbolic, but equally vague note. I suspect this story has found acclaim with many because of Gilman's feminist leanings. That's okay, but one doesn't judge a writer's works for their political/gender beliefs alone; one judges a writer's works for their literary prowess, which "The Yellow Wallpaper" lacks.

The rest of the stories don't suffer from the vagueness of the title story. They're on-target, efficacious and near-perfect. My favorite stories are: "Mr. Peeble's Heart," "Three Thanksgivings" and "If I Were a Man".

(Note: Much of what Gilman has written has been done to death these days. Hence, one should read this with the notion that Gilman's work predated the cliche-dom/generalized assertions of her ideas.)

Worth checking out, this.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dizzy Gillespie and the birth of bebop, by Leslie Gourse

(hb; 1994: biography)

From the inside flap:

"In the fifth grade Dizzy volunteered to play in the school band. He was the youngest, smallest child to volunteer, and he was also the last to arrive in the instrument room. All that was left for him was a slide trombone. Nobody else wanted it. Far from being disappointed, Dizzy grabbed it, eager to make music, though he switched to trumpet soon after.

"The enthusiasm with which Dizzy grabbed that first instrument remained with him for the rest of his life. His passion for music was so great that it carried him through many lean years to later legendary success. He charted new territory into jazz, expanding the musical vocabulary of our time. He created music of dazzling rhythmic complexity and enriched it with new harmonic color, inspiring other musicians to challenge their limits, and winning recognition for jazz as a true American art form.

"... Leslie Gourse examines the life of this musical giant. Beginning in the instrument room in South Carolina, she traces the life of John Birks Gillespie, focusing on his musical development and the personal relationships and bonds he formed within the music world. Gourse illustrates Dizzy's lifelong commitment to the development of progressive music and his contribution to the birth of the style called bebop."


Gourse's writing is as lively as Gillepsie's often-effervescent personality and musical works, giving Gillespie more than a fair biographical shake. Gillespie's life story is indeed one of inspiration, from his longtime -- fifty-year -- marriage to level-headed Lorraine, to his dedication to his music (he was often poor, but working), to his friendships, some of them musical and legendary (e.g., Charlie "Bird" Parker, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk).

This is a great biography, modest, intriguing and effective, like its subject. Well worth your time, even if you're not a jazz afficionado -- sounds like the man oozed creativity and goodwill, and that's rarely a bad thing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Human Comedy, by William Saroyan

(pb; 1943)

From the back cover:

"William Saroyan... introduces his readers to his warm and captivating story of an American family in wartime, and in particular to Homer Macauley, the fastest telegraph messenger in San Joaquin valley. The Human Comedy is filled with unforgettable scenes: Homer running 220 hurtles, little Ulysses imprisoned in a bear trap in Covington's store, the old-time telegraph operator Willie Grogan, with a bottle in the drawer to blur the sharp reality of the everflowing messages of love and hope and pain..."


Rambly and heart-warming, this novel about a small town during World War II is a welcome change in my reading list. Its kindness regarding people and their intentions -- even an armed robber is revealed to be a good man -- borders on anachronistic, but again, that's a welcome attribute.

Occasionally, the novel's rambling gets to be a bit much. I suspect Saroyan may have used this as a device to show (not tell) how news passes from townsperson to townsperson. All the same, it gets more irritating as the novel progresses.

That criticism aside, this is a good, innocent read.

The film version was released stateside on March 2, 1943.

Mickey Rooney played Homer Macauley. Frank Morgan played Willie Grogan (easily my favorite character). Van Johnson played Marcus Macauley. Donna Reed played Bess Macauley.

Clarence Brown directed, from a script by Howard Estabrook.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

'C' is for Corpse, by Sue Grafton

(pb; 1986: third book in the Kinsey Millhone mysteries)

From the back cover:

"Kinsey meets him in the local gym. Bobby Callahan is a scarred young man struggling back to life after a car forced his Porsche over the edge of a canyon, battering his body and muddling his memory. All he remembers is that someone, for some reason, tried to kill him.

"Desperate for clues about his own pat life and certain he is being stalked, he asks Kinsey to protect him. Kinsey can't resist the brave kid -- and neither can the killer. Three days later Bobby is dead. Kinsey Millhone never welshed on a deal. She'd been hired to stop a killing. Now she'd find the killer."


Kinsey has two problems this time. The first is finding out who killed the nice young man (Bobby Callahan) who hired her to find his murder-minded stalker; the second is figuring out what exactly is going on with Lila Sams, the ill-at-ease, weird, sixty-something girlfriend of Henry Pitts, Kinsey's crossword-writing landlord. It seems that the possibly-shady Sams has leached herself onto the charming, smitten Pitts, while alienating everyone else around them -- including Kinsey.

The killer isn't so easily sussed out this time, at least not until the last third, and Sams, her character semi-transparent, is an alarming character/element in the third Kinsey mystery.

As thrilling, taut and unputdownable as the previous Kinsey mysteries (the last one being 'B' is for Burglar ), it's another hit for Grafton.

Followed by 'D' is for Deadbeat.

<em>Mother Night</em> by Kurt Vonnegut

(pb; 1961) From the back cover “ Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy du...