Saturday, June 22, 2013

Assassins' Dawn, by Stephen Leigh

Assassins' Dawn: The Complete Hoorka Trilogy, by Stephen Leigh

Three books in one, the blurb on the back described "a guild of assassins, whose single law is that the victim must always retain a tiny but finite chance of escape." This struck my fancy, so I grabbed it and started reading. Assassins' Dawn depicts a fascinating universe with three warring cultures: one hidebound and stagnant, one militaristic and xenophobic, and one capitalist at any cost. What starts as the story of a group of people pulling themselves up out of the mire over the course of the novels becomes the story of the latter two societies warring over the dying third. Unfortunately, the drama drags on and on and never really lives up to the early promise. With a strong start and a depressing finish, this is an okay read but hard to truly recommend.

First Sentence:

Thursday, June 06, 2013

A Wanted Man, by Lee Child

A Wanted Man, by Lee Child

In Gone Tomorrow Jack Reacher finds himself in a NYC subway car with a suicide bomber. In Die Trying he is accidentally kidnapped. Here in A Wanted Man he hitches a ride in a car with three mysterious strangers during a statewide manhunt for a vicious killer. Reacher has some of the worst luck I've ever seen, but it sure does make for entertaining novels!

This is a good story, with virtually everyone the reader meets keeping a secret of some sort. Starting with a bizarre murder in rural Nebraska Child weaves a pretty good tale filled with twists; we know Reacher is in the car with the killers, but as he doesn't the suspense ratchets up well. Initially the storytelling is split between Reacher's POV and the murder investigation, eventually joining up for the second half. There are some pretty unbelievable twists but in the spirit of an action thriller I can let them go. The strangest scene was when Reacher communicates in a fairly ridiculous code using eye blinks and head nods to spell words. I can't imagine trying to drive a car at highway speeds at night while staring in the rear-view mirror and counting eye blinks; even for Reacher this seemed a bit much.

Also included is a short story "Deep Down" that is set in the late-eighties when Reacher was still in the Army. I like these glimpses into the past, and this one in particular tells how he earned his prestigious Legion of Merit award. While it wouldn't be a Reacher story without a few busted heads, the bulk of this is about an undercover investigation into a possible traitor. Workmanlike but entertaining—I can't imagine this story encouraging me to read other Reacher novels, but having already developed a fondness for the character I quite liked it.

As an aside, I recently saw the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher (based on the novel One Shot) and quite enjoyed it—but the 5'7" clean-cut Cruise didn't fit my image of the character. "Reacher was a big man, six feet five inches tall, heavily built, and that night as always he looked a little ragged and unkempt." Great movie, but I'm still waiting to see the Reacher I've read about on the big screen.

First Sentence:
The eyewitness said he didn't actually see it happen.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

This is the story of two soldiers, both of whom went to war but neither entirely came back. Powers writes a powerful tale that does a marvelous job of describing both what a soldier's life serving during the war in Iraq is like, and what it is like after returning home. The imagery is powerful and poetic, painting pictures that vividly mirror the bleak outlook of war. "We'd been granted a reprieve from the heat and the dust, both gently smothered by flat sheets of rain fallen from skies the color of unworked iron." Powers also captures the internal melancholy of PTSD, giving a potent glimpse into what some returning soldiers endure. "I was tired of my mind running all night through the things I remembered, then through things I did not remember but for which I blamed myself on account of the sheer vividness of scenes that looped on the red-green linings of my closed eyelids." While beautifully written, the subject matter makes this difficult to finish. A depressing book, but one well worth reading.

First Sentence:
The war tried to kill us in the spring.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Defying Gravity, by Carol de Giere

Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked, by Carol de Giere

This isn't exactly a biography of Stephen Schwartz (the famous musical theater lyricist and composer), but rather one of his artistic output. We get a fair amount of vital stats along the way, but the book really starts with Godspell and ends with Wicked. Godspell is one of my favorite musicals; "All For the Best" is up there with "I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair" from South Pacific and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" from Kiss Me, Kate. One of the tidbits we learn is that Toronto apparently had a company of players at one point performing Godspell that included Martin Short, Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, and Eugene Levy with Paul Shaffer as the music director. I would have loved to have seen that!

Schwartz is hugely talented; not only did he create music for Godspell, Wicked, and Pippin on Broadway, but for Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Prince of Egypt on the big screen. (And of course many others I'd never heard of.) For all this talent he has been the recipient of many awards: three Oscars, three Grammys, one Golden Globe, but amazingly no Tony Awards. Bad timing seems responsible for the lack of Tonys; Godspell lost to Annie for Best Original Score, Pippin to A Little Night Music, and Wicked to Avenue Q.

Defying Gravity is a great look at not only the career of Steven Schwartz, but of the behind-the-scenes of making a Broadway musical as well. The story of Wicked occupies over half the book and tracks development from the initial idea through the various read-throughs and out-of-town tryouts, up to the debut and critical reviews. I found this to be terribly interesting; I had no idea of how many changes a show goes through during development, or more impressively how many songs get written and thrown away. Some people seeing a show multiple times in these early days could conceivably see a different show each time!

While some of the names and shows are presented as if the reader is already fairly familiar with the world of musical theater, overall it is quite accessible. de Giere has done a good job of describing both Schwartz's success and failures as well as his creative process. I found this a compelling—if simply written—book and thoroughly enjoyed it.

First Sentence:
On warm days in the Long Island suburb of Rosyln Heights, seven-year-old Stephen Schwartz could hear piano music coming through his open window.

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