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June 2012 Book Reviews:

 Non-Fiction
 

         
 

All Told: My Art and Life Among Athletes, Playboys, Bunnies, and Provocateurs


by LeRoy Neiman

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

 

LeRoy Neiman, whose paintings of sporting events and popular entertainers are filled with vibrant splashes of color that project energy and movement even when his subjects are still, was one of the superstar artists of the 1960s through '80s. In this autobiography, he traces the trajectory of his life and career, from a Depression-era childhood to his GI-Bill art student days, and his eventual friendships with Hugh Hefner, Frank Sinatra, and Muhammad Ali (who is himself an amateur artist). Neiman had always been enamored with color and with the “gusto” of the city life and rowdy tavern scenes he saw in centuries-old paintings. When, on a whim, he started painting with enamel house paint, he created his signature look, what he calls his “accidentally-on-purpose trickle-and-dribble style” that resembles a Jackson Pollock wrestled into something representational. Starting out as the staff artist for Playboy led to Neiman writing and painting about the good life for the magazine, which eventually earned him ringside / floor-level access to major sports events. When he began doing live sketches of these events, immersing himself and his creations with “the spectacle of big-time sport, and the hysteria and adrenaline of the spectators,” his career skyrocketed. Soon he was on television, sketching for the Wide World of Sports and the Olympics, and his work was everywhere from album covers to the official painting marking the Israel-Egypt Camp David Peace Accords. This entertaining book is packed with anecdotes about ballplayers, boxers, musicians, and politicians. Not to mention two art duels. Almost every page has a color reproduction of one of Neiman's works—some full-page—providing an informative and gorgeous accompaniment to his life story and making this book worth its purchase price for the illustrations alone.

 

 

 

 
         
 

Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV


by Warren Littlefield

reviewed by Jeff Ayers

 

 

From 1993 to 1998, Littlefield was the President of Entertainment for the NBC network.  During Littlefield’s tenure, he handled shows such as Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld, and Frasier. He takes the reader inside the daily workings of running a television network schedule during the height of NBC’s Must See TV Thursday night lineup.   

Just that alone would make the book a fun read, but there is more.  Telling the story as an oral history, he has the stars of the shows talk about their experiences from initial casting to becoming a celebrity.  The writers of the various sitcoms discuss the process of crafting consistently clever and funny scripts week after week. 

Readers who want insight into the history of some of their favorite shows will love this.  It’s also an amazing book for writers wanting to learn the ins and outs of the television business, and a guide for actors looking for secret methods on getting the part.  I watched a lot of these shows when they were on originally, and now on DVD and reruns.  They still deliver solid entertainment, and so does Littlefield’s book.

 

 
         
 

Mr. Churchill's Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book That Defined the “Special Relationship”


by Peter Clarke

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

Winston Churchill won not the Nobel Peace Prize, which might be expected of a statesman, but the Nobel Prize for Literature. In this entertaining examination of the whole of Churchill's literary career, Clarke centers on the British Prime Minister's multi-volume biographies and histories, eventually culminating in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Churchill began as a newspaper correspondent, using his mother's connections to find wars from which to report. But this was merely a means to advancing his career in politics through name recognition. The money he earned from writing eventually enabled his career in government, which, even at its heights, did not pay enough to keep Churchill in the style to which he had become accustomed. His salary as parliamentary back-bencher didn't even cover his annual wine bill. A love of history, as well as the very complex British tax code (carefully explained by Clarke), encouraged Churchill to keep starting new projects before previous commitments were fulfilled. Although much of the four-volume History was written in the 1930s, it was neither finished nor published until the 1950s. Along with the obvious delays caused by leading a crumbling Empire and World War II (about which he wrote six volumes), Churchill was constantly renegotiating with publishers. Having obtained a new due date, there was a “schoolboy glee with which Churchill, having got himself out of a scrape, instead used this stolen time for another project altogether.” When he did knuckle down to work on History, he was a dynamo of production, assisted by several researchers to whom this book gives due credit. The experience of the war shaped History so that, far from any mere catalog of facts, it developed the theme of “the growth of freedom and law, of the rights of the individual.” The idea that “the English-speaking peoples were the authors, then the trustees” of these freedoms was foremost in his mind during the battle against, then following the defeat of, the Axis powers.

 

 

 

 
 Fiction

 

 
         
 

Bloodline


by James Rollins

reviewed by Jon Land

 

 

“In U.S. history, three presidents have died on the exact same day, on July 4.  Today would mark the fourth.” 

That in itself would mark a typically classic, cliffhanging line from the annals of James Rollins.  But Rollins goes it one better by placing his long-time Sigma Force hero Gray Pierce behind the rifle in the devilishly brilliant opening of his latest potboiler Bloodline, as perfect a thriller as you will read this year. 

No stranger to using a smooth mix of science and superstition to supplement his tales, Rollins goes himself one better by focusing his latest on one of the last mystical relics untouched by the genre:  the staff of Jesus Christ.  Turns out the “Bachal Isu” is somehow connected to man’s endless quest for immortality which, of course, sets off a wild international chase undertaken by Sigma Force in tandem with new Special Ops series entry Tucker Wayne and his loyal dog who just might be the best canine to grace the pages since Dean Koontz’s masterful hybrid in Watchers.  In fact, there are parts of Bloodline that read like the best of Michael Crichton, especially Congo in which the animal of choice was a talking gorilla. 

The far more polished Rollins need take no such creative liberties in crafting the perfect summer book chock full of conspiracies, cabals, as well as questions of man’s place in the universe and whether eternity is worth hanging around for.  The immensely satisfying Bloodline is everything a thriller should be and, when it comes to layering action and intrigue with mysticism, Rollins has no equal.

 

 

 
         
 

Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny


by Garrison Keillor

reviewed by Kevin Lauderdale

 

The adventures of Guy Noir are a mainstay of humorist Keillor's radio program, A Prairie Home Companion. Here, the perpetually down-on-his-luck P.I., who, in order to make ends meet, is frequently forced to take on odd jobs, gets his first novel. Although set in contemporary Minnesota, Noir inhabits a hyper-literate world where, when not attempting murder or blackmail, characters discuss verb tense and predicates, and anyone might quote Robert Frost or crack a joke about public radio. The language is combination of Raymond Chandler and Damon Runyon if they had MFAs:  here a coffin is a “pine kimono,” and a woman comes on to Noir with, “If you kissed me forcefully right now, I might not resist as much as you'd expect an associate professor of women's studies to do.” Just like the sketches on the radio, the plot is merely an excuse for clever wordplay and twisting hard-boiled clichés. Here Noir gets involved guarding tapeworms as part of a million-dollar plan to market them as a weight-loss program. The novel reads like a string of Guy Noir sketches from the show. Listeners to PHC will hear Keillor's Bogart-light voice of Noir in every line of the book as he talks about “Desdemona and Jonah the Shoshone duo-trombonists from Sedona, Arizona, who perform pro bono with their palomino,” all the while fending off dames and gangsters as he drops parodies of Broadway show tunes and William Carlos Williams' poems. The book is not outrageously funny, but then that's never been Keillor's style. Instead, he goes for the warm chuckle of recognition that rewards readers who paid attention in class. 

 

 

 
         
 

The Conviction


by Robert Dugoni

reviewed by Jon Land

 

I thought I’d already read the best legal thriller of the year in William Landay’s brilliant Defending Jacob.  Turns out I was wrong.  The Conviction by Robert Dugoni is even more riveting and harrowing.  A brilliantly constructed and harrowing tale of the justice system run amok and one father’s fight to free his son from a modern day prison work camp. 

Not that the good guys are without blame here.  Series stalwart Attorney David Sloane is still struggling to reconcile the demands of his career with the struggles of his now sixteen-year-old son Jake.  Kid just can’t stay out of trouble; even when Sloane decides some time in the woods might be just what they both need, Jake a fellow bad boy break into a back country store and end up imprisoned in a juvenile facility that would test the will of Cool Hand Luke himself.  In fighting to free Jake from a miscarriage of justice at the hands of a corrupt judge, Sloane finds himself battling a justice system that seems straight out of Deliverance, resorting ultimately to the kind of tactics the people he defends normally use. 

The comparisons between The Conviction and Defending Jacob are almost eerie in that respect.  Both explore the bounds of fatherhood and limitations of truth, but Dugoni’s tale is immensely more satisfying and sensible, especially in the end.  His latest serves up the perfect mix of action, emotion and courtroom drama, so much so that The Conviction isn’t just the best legal thriller of the year, it’s one of the best thrillers period.

 

 

 
         
         
 Young Adult

 

 
         
 

The Fairy Ring, or Elsie and Frances Fool the World


by Mary Losure

reviewed by A.B. Mead

 

 

This small, short book tells the true story of the Cottingley Fairy hoax. In 1917, two young English girls, cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, took photographs of themselves with what they said were fairies living in the nearby woods. In reality, Elsie had drawn the fairies, and the girls had posed next to the paper cutouts, which were propped up by hatpins. Although Frances always insisted that she actually had seen little men dressed in green living in the woods, the photographs remained a family joke that no one asked too many questions about. That is, until Elsie's mother happened to talk to a member of the spiritualist organization the Theosophical Society. It was a time when many previously impossible things were becoming real. If an X-ray could see inside the human body, then maybe fairies existed and could be photographed and treated with scientific rigor. The Theosophists believed that fairies were real. Elsie's mother, who had thought the photos “mischievous nonsense,” now began to wonder. The pictures soon came to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who had become interested in all aspects of spiritualism. He and others analyzed the pictures and were convinced that two country girls didn’t have the skills necessary to fake them. When the images appeared in a magazine article by Conan Doyle, they caused a sensation that would last until the 1980s. The book contains all of the fairy photos plus other example of Elsie's artwork.

 

 

 

 

 
         
 

Ultraviolet


by R. J. Anderson

reviewed by Scott Pearson

 

 

Ultraviolet is an edgy young adult novel set primarily in the mental institution where Alison wakes up after—maybe—killing Tori, another girl from Alison’s high school. Sixteen-year-old Alison, the first-person narrator, remembers disintegrating Tori with her mind. Alison knows that’s crazy, but she has other reasons to wonder about her sanity: to her, numbers have colors and sounds have tastes. When she was little her mother punished her for talking about it, so Alison has grown used to hiding her unique perceptions. That is all the more challenging when she finds herself committed, psychologically evaluated, and under suspicion by the police. 

R. J. Anderson creates a number of believable teen characters with various behavioral problems. The interactions between Alison and her fellow patients are often moving, sometimes disturbing. Within this environment, Anderson makes the most of having an unreliable narrator, keeping the reader guessing about Tori’s fate and Alison’s sanity. Alison can’t help doubting her memories, but there is the fact that Tori has been missing ever since they last saw each other.  

The slow burn question of is she or isn’t she crazy is well developed, and the teenage patients’ ups and downs are engaging. By the time the truth is revealed, however, there isn’t much room left in the book, and the ending is a little rushed, almost tacked on. After the well-developed build-up, I would have preferred a more fully explored resolution. That said, Ultraviolet is an entertaining story with an unusual twist on the troubled-teenager set up.

 

 

 
         
         
         
         
         

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