It’s been a while since I published one of these book blogs, but they are back by popular demand after my inbox got flooded with thousands of emails from devoted followers demanding that I bring The Reading List back.
Okay, that didn’t happen. The only thing my inbox gets flooded with is spam. I just always wanted to say that my inbox got flooded with thousands of emails from devoted followers, and now I can cross that off the list, even though it’s not true.
Anyway, because it’s been a while, this blog features more books than usual. More content – for the same low price!
These aren’t really reviews. Just short snapshots of what the books are about, and maybe a nugget or two about my reaction to them. If you’re a big reader, maybe you will find them useful.
Also: It’s a way to pimp my own books. So fair warning……
Harlem Shuffle, Colson Whitehead: Here is another celebrated modern writer I only recently discovered. Whitehead is the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, both of which apparently deal with some very heavy race-related subject matter (I haven’t read them yet). From what I understand, Harlem Shuffle is a departure of sorts for Whitehead in that it’s a straight-ahead crime novel, and an excellent one.
Set in the late 1950s and early ‘60s in (you guessed it) Harlem NYC, it follows the goings on of Ray Carney, a married family man who has chosen a life of enterprise over the life of crime much of his family is involved in – well, mostly. Ray earns his living selling furniture at a store on 125th Street. But he occasionally fences stolen goods for a little extra money. This leads to some bad juju involving gangsters, cops, hustlers, and sinister street folks.
There’s much to love about this novel. It provides plenty of action and intrigue while also giving you a buffet of great dialogue, memorable characters and lines that will crack you up. Whitehead is just one of those gifted writers who could probably make an instruction manual seem fascinating. I can’t wait to read more of his stuff.
Hold the Dark, William Giraldi: Here we have a brutally dark 2014 novel set in the wilds of Alaska, where people have gone missing, and wolves have been blamed. The main character is Russell Core, a nature writer and experienced hand at tracking and killing wolves. He’s been summoned by the mother of a missing child to find the wolf she suspects is the culprit. From there, hoo boy, do things take a very bleak and violent turn. We soon learn that humans are even better predators than wolves – and just as merciless at killing. This can be a riveting story at times, but there are too many missing pieces on why certain characters do what they do. They seem to be regular folks until all of a sudden they are not. I’d recommend it for those who enjoy a decent page turner without necessarily having to connect all the dots.
Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, Stuart Nicholson: If I were stuck on a desert island and could only hear one singer the rest of my life, that singer might be Ella Fitzgerald. It’s been said about a million times that a voice is a kind of musical instrument, and she’s the proof. Ella literally used her voice as an instrument through “scatting” – a vocal expression in which you create sounds and notes rather than singing words. Her voice was as close to perfect as any you’ll hear.
This biography does an excellent job of chronicling Ella’s career, from singing on street corners in Harlem (there it is again) to headlining concert halls around the world. Her rise to prominence happened almost instantly, when she joined the Chick Webb big band in the 1930s. Although some jazz purists preferred the grittier and more wrenching sound of Billie Holliday, I am firmly in the Ella camp. As to her life – this book doesn’t give you a great deal of insight into Ella Fitzgerald the person. This is partly because she kept her private life closely guarded, and did not have many demons to speak of (no drugs, addictions or tabloid scandals). She just wanted to sing. If there was some sadness in the fact that she never developed many strong personal or family relationships, there was plenty of joy when she was up on stage.
The Godfather, Mario Puzo: I finally got around to reading the 1969 crime novel that inspired the groundbreaking ‘70s mobster movies I have seen many times (except for Part 3). Since I was already familiar with the story and characters – Vito Corleone, Michael Corleone, Sonny, Fredo, Tom, etc. – there wasn’t a lot of suspense on my end about what was going to happen. Even so, I was yanked into the story and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. In terms of pure plot, this is a terrifically entertaining novel
The writing? Eh, it’s mostly pedestrian and even outright bad in stretches. One page devoted to a sex scene is almost comical in its breathless descriptions of various lewd acts. Puzo later lamented that he didn’t put more effort into polishing the writing. But he was a struggling novelist at the time with a family to support, and so put his full focus on writing a commercial thriller. He succeeded, and became one of the best-selling authors of his generation.
A quibble: I REALLY don’t understand why an entire section of The Godfather was devoted to singer Johnny Fontane (the Sinatra character). The book’s first section was a gripping tale of a coming mob war, and then all of a sudden it stops in its tracks to devote dozens of pages to a minor character. Weird.
Another quibble: I know it’s just a product of the era, but women and minorities are treated like lesser beings in The Godfather. This is the case even with sympathetic female characters like Connie Corleone (the daughter/sister) and Kate (Michael’s love interest). They are essentially there as props to serve the males. And blacks are reduced to being described as animals, thugs, criminals, junkies, morally corrupt. Again, it’s fiction, and in this world that’s the way women and blacks are looked at. But fair warning that the book is not long on racial or gender enlightenment.
God’s Little Acre, Erskine Caldwell: Here’s another novel that became something of a cultural sensation (and was later turned into a movie) for reasons that might seem unfathomable in 2022. A few months ago I wrote about this 1933 novel in a separate blog about male authors and female characters (a blog, by the way, that created quite the shitstorm when I shared it on various writer/author pages on Facebook). You can read what I wrote by linking to that blog. Otherwise, here’s my short take: A bunch of horny Southern boys want to sexually assault a few women in their small farming/textile community, and do so. Also, they’re digging for gold on a farm, which is stupid because there is no fucking gold on the farm. If the sexism doesn’t offend you, the racism will. The writing ain’t that great, either.
Voodoo Hideaway, Vance Cariaga. This superb crime noir thriller is so mesmerizing the sheer act of reading it will send you into a state of catatonic ecstasy. Here are some reviews:
The Book Commentary, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway is an intelligently imagined tale with a setting that feels eerie and transporting…The humor is exacting and even when Vance Cariaga writes about scenes with smoking guns, there is that element of humor that keeps the reader alert and engaged. Overall, Voodoo Hideaway is a captivating tale full of drama and sparkling dialogue, a fun ride that pulsates with action.”
Reader’s Favorite, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway by Vance Cariaga is a fascinating crime novel with an incredible twist…The author creates and develops some very colorful characters, each of whom gave readers the whole cinematic treatment.”
OnlineBookClub.org, 4 out of 4 stars: “This was a well-told story in a well-written book that got me wishing there was a sequel. Vance Cariaga’s Voodoo Hideaway was a thrill to my imagination, and it was filled with suspense. The author did an excellent job connecting dots to one central piece that climaxed to an explosive end...Science fiction, mystery, and adventure lovers would relish this book.”
Manhattan Book Review, 5 out of 5 stars: “Voodoo Hideaway shines as an absorbing mystery/sci-fi tale from the outset…Vance Cariaga has written a clever story in which the action is as ceaseless as the plotting, with danger lurking around every corner.“
Here’s how to order it:
Money, Love and Blood, Vance Cariaga: A dozen mind-blowing short stories heavy on the intrigue, foul play, dark humor, double-crosses, violence, and bad boys and girls doing bad things for your personal entertainment. Order it here.