Title: "The Big Book of the Blues"Author: Robert...

BOOK BRIEFS

May 29, 1994|By VICTOR PAUL ALVAREZ Title: "The Sport of Queens: The Autobiography of Dick Francis" Publisher: Otto Penzler/Macmillan Length, price: 254 pages, $20 | VICTOR PAUL ALVAREZ Title: "The Sport of Queens: The Autobiography of Dick Francis" Publisher: Otto Penzler/Macmillan Length, price: 254 pages, $20,LOS ANGELES TIMES Title: "Daybreak" Author: Belva Plain Publisher: Ballantine Books Length, price: 360 pages, $22.95

Title: "The Big Book of the Blues"

Author: Robert Santelli

Publisher: Penguin

Length, price: 491 pages, $15 (paperback) If Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf wanted to get a bunch of their friends together for a jam, and they were all still alive, of course, "The Big Book of the Blues" could be their address book.

Robert Santelli has brought together in "Big Book of the Blues" a strong collection of legends and losers in the blues arena. Here's the entry on "Hawkins, Screamin' Jay":

"No other R&B artist has possessed the strange charm, black humor or onstage histrionics of singer and pianist Screamin' Jay Hawkins. Wearing capes and weird clothes, using a flaming coffin as a prop, working with all sorts of smoke boxes and voodoo accoutrements, and projecting an image of a man besieged by lunacy, Hawkins made his stage show far more important than his music. He was a pioneer in the kinds of theatrics later used by rock artists such as Arthur Brown, David Bowie, and Alice Cooper."

Mr. Santelli includes a good bibliography and essential listening lists for each musician; I cannot think of anyone he has missed.

This is a blessing to the folklorists or blues fanatics looking for hard-to-find facts on artists. But the casual fan doesn't need this information and may see this as the kind of novelty book to be skimmed through, and shelved.

Dick Francis won his first purse at the age of 5 -- sixpence, from his brother Douglas, for jumping a donkey over a rail fence, on the fourth try, while facing the donkey's tail. He never looked back again.

"The Sport of Queens" chronicles the rare good fortune of a man doing exactly what he wants to do with one exception, an exception that proves a blessing and a boon to millions of readers. From an exuberant youth spent on the farm of a Welsh grandfather who rides to hounds, through a tour of duty with the RAF, to a career as Britain's (and the queen's) top steeplechase jockey, Mr. Francis' life, to hear him tell it, is straight out of the Barnyard Beatitudes.

Underscored by genuine and disarming modesty, with honest praise for rivals and colleagues alike, with rare communion with God's noblest beasts, the updated reissue of Mr. Francis' autobiography is odds-on to delight.

He has broken dozens of bones (a fence-jumping jockey is thrown an average of once every six races; one pal shattered collarbones so frequently he had them removed). While leading the Grand National at Aintree, Liverpool -- the long, (4 1/2 -mile) grueling Super Bowl of steeplechasing -- after his last fence, his (and the queen's) mount fell, an excruciating and still inexplicable mishap. A newspaper asked him to write about it. He did. Then he tried a novel. And another. . . . Yes, that Dick Francis.

The news from the doctor shattered Margaret and Arthur Crawfield's world twice. Their son, Peter, was dying of cystic fibrosis, but, even more stunning, DNA tests have proved that Peter is not their son. Evidently their baby was switched when Margaret gave birth. As they come to grips with Peter's death, they also know they must find their biological son.

They locate him living with Laura and Bud Rice, who are well-to-do Southerners. The son's name is Tom and he is vastly different from what the Crawfields would have wanted.

Belva Plain manages to knit together timely themes without being preachy or boring. "Daybreak's" true strength is the characters, who are wonderfully drawn. Ms. Plain does not stoop to easy stereotypes or simple solutions to the issues she raises. This is a startling, original work populated by people the reader will come to care deeply about.

EILEEN POWER

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