Monday, August 31, 2009

Dirt Farm - Orrie Hitt

My friend Pete Brandvold, who has also become an Orrie Hitt fan, recommended this one to me, and I’m glad he did because, as usual, it’s a fine yarn. The protagonist is Butch Hagen, a former carnival worker and truck driver who really prefers working on farms. He’s been shacking up in a small town with another former carny, the beautiful stripper Lucy Ellis, when he finds work on the very misnamed Friendly Farms, owned by brutal Clay Billings. Butch leaves Lucy to go work on the farm, where he finds that Billings has a beautiful niece named Candy. There’s another farmhand who has a beautiful redheaded girlfriend named Sherry, and on the next farm over there’s a hot-to-trot farmer’s daughter named Mae who happens to be a little underage . . .

Well, if you’ve read very many of these softcore sleaze novels, you’ll know how most of these plot elements are going to intertwine. And if you’re read much of Orrie Hitt’s work, you’ll find some of his familiar themes in DIRT FARM. But there are several things about this one that make it an excellent novel and well worth reading. For one, Hitt’s writing is really smooth and fast in DIRT FARM. He was a master at keeping the reader flipping the pages and this book is a prime example of that. For another, he throws in a noirish crime element reminiscent of James M. Cain and then proceeds to milk it for all the suspense it’s worth. Despite the predictability of some of the plot, I really didn’t have any idea how this book was going to end, and that’s rare. And finally, Hitt was among the best ever at writing about the desperation that fills most people, even the seemingly successful ones. Everybody in a Hitt novel wants something, needs something, is missing something. A lucky few find whatever it is that they’re seeking, but plenty of others don’t.

DIRT FARM isn’t as personal a book as some of Hitt’s other novels, so you don’t get his digressions about censorship and government, and not much about morality. But it reads like the wind and tells a compelling, if slightly formulaic, story. I had a great time reading it and recommend it for fans of hardboiled sleaze in general and Orrie Hitt in particular.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Voice Recognition Software

I've known for years that Erle Stanley Gardner and Luke Short, a couple of favorite writers of mine, dictated their novels. Years ago I tried dictating into a little tape recorder and did a chapter or so of one book that way, but I didn't care for it and didn't continue. I'm always on the lookout for anything that will speed up my writing, so when voice recognition software became available, I was always intrigued by the idea of it. I'd never actually tried it until now, though.

A friend of mine uses Dragon Naturally Speaking 10 and seems to like it, so when Livia ran across it on sale the other day, she picked it up so I could give it a try. I installed it on the computer this morning and spent an hour or so playing with it. So far it doesn't work very well, but I understand that it takes a while to train these programs so they work properly. (Hey, I don't always type what I'm trying to type, either.) And I can see enough potential in it that I'm still very intrigued. However, I don't have the time to keep messing with it right now, so I'm going back to writing my normal way and will try to train the program a little bit at a time. If any of you have used this software, though, and have any tips, I'd be very grateful to hear them.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Another New Orrie Hitt Fan

Today I got this comment on my first Orrie Hitt post back in February and thought I should move it up here. Thanks for the comment, Pattie.

"I recently found myself in a used bookstore in Portland, ME standing face-to-face with Orrie Hitt's UNFAITHFUL WIVES. I couldn't resist the front or back covers (See what I mean: So bought the book and am actually reading it. It's not the greatest, but for some reason I can't manage to stop reading it either! I found your blog googling his name and just wanted to share my experience."

I'm always glad to see someone else discovering Orrie's work. Although there is one thing that bothers me a little, and if you follow the link in the comment and take a look at the photo, you'll see what I mean. (By the way, I just finished reading one of Hitt's novels myself. I'll be posting my comments on it in a day or so.)

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Holiday

HOLIDAY has a lot in common with the better known THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, which was released two years later in 1940. Both films star Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, are based on plays by Philip Barry, and poke droll fun at the foibles of society’s upper crust. In HOLIDAY, Grant plays an up-and-coming young stockbroker who meets and falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy industrialist while they’re both on vacation in Lake Placid. They return to New York planning to get married, but first they have to introduce Grant to the family and get the approval of the girl’s father.

In a nice twist, Hepburn doesn’t play Grant’s fiancée but rather her sister. Grant’s character has some charming eccentricities, such as turning back flips when he’s happy, and it doesn’t take long for him and Hepburn’s character to realize that they’re kindred spirits. Meanwhile, another of Grant’s “oddities”, at least to his fiancée’s father, is that he wants to make enough money while he’s young so that he can retire and just enjoy life. When he says that he doesn’t want to make “too much money”, the industrialist just looks at him with a blank stare indicating that he can’t even grasp the concept of “too much money”.

The romantic triangle is kept pretty low-key for most of the movie, and while the script is more amusing than it is actually funny, there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. There are also some surprisingly dark moments for a romantic comedy, most of them provided by Lew Ayres as the industrialist’s alcoholic son who wants to escape from his father’s oppressive influence but can’t find the courage to do so. The rest of the supporting cast is very good, including the great Edward Everett Horton. (Probably very few members of my generation can hear Edward Everett Horton’s voice without thinking of “Fractured Fairy Tales” on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.)

HOLIDAY isn’t as good as THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, or for that matter, BRINGING UP BABY, the classic Grant/Hepburn screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. However, it is a solidly entertaining film and well worth watching if you haven’t seen it before.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Green Lantern: Secret Origin

Since I don’t have a Forgotten Book for today, I thought I’d return to something I haven’t done much of lately, namely reading superhero comics. GREEN LANTERN: SECRET ORIGIN reprints a story arc from last year that retells the origin of one of my favorite DC characters. Most comics fans know how test pilot Hal Jordan found the crash-landed spacecraft of Abin Sur, one of the power-ring-wearing Green Lanterns who patrol space as agents for the mysterious Guardians of the Galaxy. The scripts by Geoff Johns (one of the best writers working in comics today, in my opinion) expand on this origin story, giving us more background on Hal Jordan and the reason Abin Sur happened to crash-land on Earth, but unlike a lot of “re-imaginings”, this one doesn’t throw out all the history and continuity but instead respects what has gone before. (I wish more comics writers – and movie scripters, for that matter – would do this.)

Green Lantern has been one of my favorite DC characters since 1970, when he teamed up with Green Arrow in a series of ground-breaking stories written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams. Those stories have been reprinted many, many times in many formats, and deservedly so. If you’re a comics fan and you haven’t read them, I highly recommend them. If you’re a Green Lantern fan, you ought to read GREEN LANTERN: SECRET ORIGIN, too. It has very nice art by Ivan Reis to go along with Johns’ scripts, and it’s just a lot of fun, in the way that old-fashioned superhero yarns are supposed to be fun. I’m very glad I read it.

Another Gabriel Hunt Link

There's a very nice article about the Gabriel Hunt series in yesterday's Los Angeles Times by Sarah Weinman. You can check it out here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Some Came Running

This is another one of those movies that’s been on TV many, many times, and somehow I never watched it until now. Based on a novel by James Jones, it’s the sort of small town melodrama/soap opera that Hollywood did so well during the Fifties. Frank Sinatra plays Dave Hirsch, a former GI returning to the town where he grew up. He’s also a writer with a couple of unsuccessful novels and some short stories under his belt, and judging by the hard feelings some of the townspeople bear toward him, one of those novels was autobiographical and not very flattering about his hometown and its citizens. Naturally, Dave’s return stirs up all sorts of emotional turmoil, especially after he becomes friends with a professional gambler called Bama, played by Dean Martin. Shirley MacLaine is around, too, as a sweet but not very bright redhead who attaches herself to Dave. The usual sorts of complications ensue – jealousy, infidelity, frigidity, dark secrets, knife fights – and things wrap up in a manner that surprised me, anyway, even though it’s not some sort of huge twist or anything like that.

SOME CAME RUNNING is really a product of the Fifties. People smoke constantly, and when they’re not smoking, they’re drinking, or talking about drinking. Really, booze is the subject of a lot of discussion in this movie. It’s also about half of a really good film, too. The scenes that center around seedy nightclubs or back-room poker games are great, with hard-driving saxophone music in the background and an atmosphere dripping with doom and sleaze. Then the romance scenes come along and are so schmaltzy they almost seem like they’re from another movie. Another drawback is that the occasional bursts of violence aren’t staged well and aren’t very convincing. But then, Vicente Minelli was never really known as an action director, so I suppose that’s to be expected. And to get really nit-picky, Dave’s manuscripts that figure into the plot are bound like movie scripts, a mistake that Hollywood always seems to make. Not only that, but at one point he sends off a story to THE ATLANTIC, and a few weeks later he gets a letter of acceptance, a check, and the issue of the magazine in which the story is published, all at the same time.

But despite all that, Frank is good, Dino is great as the easy-going Bama, and the rest of the cast does a fine job as well. I don’t think this is anywhere near a great movie, but it is a good one and well worth watching.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

City of Refuge - Tom Piazza

Regular visitors to this blog know that my reading tastes run mostly to relatively short genre fiction. So why did I read this long, mainstream literary novel about Hurricane Katrina? Because I was asked to review it and host one of the stops on the virtual tour for it and its author, Tom Piazza. And I’m glad I said yes, because CITY OF REFUGE is a fine novel I might have missed otherwise.

Piazza follows two families, one white and one black, picking up their stories several days before Katrina strikes New Orleans, when everyone still believes the storm that’s just entering the Gulf of Mexico will turn east and miss the city. Since this is a literary novel, there’s a lot of characterization and back-story, as well as an amazing amount of detail about New Orleans itself, its culture and the way it works. Piazza writes very well, though, and never loses sight of the main story he’s trying to tell, so the novel never bogs down. One family stays in New Orleans to try to ride out the storm, while the other evacuates, but so late that they’re caught in the mad rush to get out of the city. Piazza follows both stories, letting them unfold in a natural fashion without trying to force them to weave together, as some writers might have done.

Then, once the storm actually hits, CITY OF REFUGE turns into a great adventure novel of danger and survival for the characters who stayed behind, before following up with the aftermath of the hurricane and the lasting effects it has on the characters and on the city itself. Some reviews have compared this novel to John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, and I think that’s valid. Both novels are about common people uprooted from their homes by a natural disaster, both are filled with tragedy leavened with a little hope here and there, and both are very well-written. Whether or not CITY OF REFUGE will have the lasting impact of THE GRAPES OF WRATH, time will tell. It certainly has that potential.

CITY OF REFUGE doesn’t get preachy or pretentious, and at its heart, it’s an old-fashioned yarn about people and a place. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it.

Huckleberry Finished Review

Publishers Weekly has a good review of Livia's second Delilah Dickinson mystery, HUCKLEBERRY FINISHED. Check it out on her blog.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hannah Montana: The Movie

Those of you who have read my HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL posts probably won’t be too surprised to hear that we watched HANNAH MONTANA: THE MOVIE. I thought it was pretty good, too, very much a descendant of those Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” movies, as well as the Beach Party movies from my generation. You get a little comedy, a little drama, a little romance, and lots of singin’ and dancin’. I don’t think I’d ever heard a Miley Cyrus song before, and while I’m far from an expert about such things, I thought she has a pretty good voice and is a decent actress. HANNAH MONTANA is all very lightweight and innocuous, but sometimes that’s just what you need.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hell to Pay - J. Lee Butts

I’ve known Jimmy Butts for several years and have read and enjoyed some of his house-name Westerns, but I’d never read one of the novels under his own name until now. The subtitle of HELL TO PAY is “The Life and Violent Times of Eli Gault”, and that’s a pretty good description of the book. It’s a first-person account of a Texas badman, the son of a crazed itinerant preacher who winds up killing his father in self-defense. Eli doesn’t necessarily set out to become an outlaw and a murderer, but circumstances continue forcing him in that direction.

Then he meets up with a gunfighter named Cutter Sharpe, who becomes a sort of surrogate father to him, teaching him how to handle a gun (for which Eli has a natural talent) and also how to play poker, which becomes Eli’s principal means of support. Eventually Eli and Sharpe go their separate ways, and Eli continues drifting. He even tries to settle down and lead a law-abiding life at times, going so far as to become a deputy marshal at one point, as well as joining a cattle drive to the railhead in Kansas, but sooner or later trouble crops up again and Eli’s natural tendency is to shoot his way out of it.

Butts really delivers the goods in this novel: colorful characters, headlong narrative drive, and plenty of gritty action, all told in a stripped down, distinctive style that reminded me of the hardboiled crime writer Paul Cain (FAST ONE, SEVEN SLAYERS). Eli Gault is a great character, reminiscent of Jim Thompson’s Lou Ford. He’s as friendly and likable as he can be, until it comes time for him to gun down somebody else in cold blood. His story builds up to a powerful ending, and after finishing it, I can say definitely that I’ll be reading more by J. Lee Butts. If you enjoy hardboiled Westerns, HELL TO PAY comes highly recommended by me.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Elmer Kelton, R.I.P.

I'm sure many of you have already heard about this, but we've lost a legend today. Elmer Kelton crossed the divide this morning. He wasn't just a fine writer, he was also one of the most genuinely decent men I've ever met. I interviewed him in front of a packed house at the Bouchercon in Austin several years ago, and his easygoing grace and charm made it a fine experience for me as well as for everyone in the audience. We also visited at every WWA convention I attended and I saw him numerous times at the annual TCU Press group book signing in Fort Worth. He got his start writing fiction by selling stories to the pulp RANCH ROMANCES, and we had several conversations about the pulps and what a fan of them he was as a kid, citing WILD WEST WEEKLY as his favorite. He'd been in bad health recently, but the last I'd heard, he had improved some, so while this doesn't come as a shock, it's certainly a surprise.

Nearly twenty years ago, I attended the WWA convention in San Angelo, Elmer's hometown. Someone at that convention, in talking about Elmer said, "He's the genuine article." I can't say it any better than that.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Livia's Vampire Cover

Here's the cover for Livia's vampire romance that's coming out from Silhouette Nocturne in a couple of months. Pretty cool, I think. I love the title THE VAMPIRE AFFAIR because that's also the title of my favorite Man From U.N.C.L.E. novel (#6 in the series, by David McDaniel), and as I've mentioned before, I was a huge U.N.C.L.E. fan. I remember buying that paperback in a gas station in El Paso in late May or early June of 1966. My brother-in-law John (who loaned me my first Edgar Rice Burroughs book, A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS, as some of you may recall from a Forgotten Books post a few months ago) was in the army then and had been on leave after finishing basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. He had to report to Fort Bliss in El Paso, so my parents and I took him and my sister out there, stopping along the way to visit Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico (not as far out of the way as you might think). I bought THE VAMPIRE AFFAIR (the U.N.C.L.E. version) while my dad was filling up the tank for the trip back home. The first day we drove only as far as my uncle Sidney's house in Goldsmith, near Odessa (remember Uncle Sidney from last Saturday's post about his birthday party? Same guy), and spent the night there. I remember reading that U.N.C.L.E. novel in one sitting that evening and loving every minute of it.

So what does this have to do with Livia's book? Well, nothing, really, but if you've been reading this blog for very long you know I seldom miss a chance to wallow in nostalgia about books I've read. However, I've read THE VAMPIRE AFFAIR (Livia's version) several times now, and it's a heck of a yarn, with a lot of humor and action to go with the romance. In fact, there's one scene that wouldn't be at all out of place in an U.N.C.L.E. novel. She's writing about bad-ass vampires here, not soulful, tormented ones. I had a great time reading the book. Of course, I'm not the most unbiased reader in the world . . .

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Water Witch - Deborah LeBlanc

I’m a sucker for books with swamps in them, and I love a good opening line, too. Much of Deborah LeBlanc’s novel WATER WITCH takes place in the Louisiana bayous, and how’s this for an opening line:

After soaking his father with three gallons of gasoline, Olm lit a match and tossed it onto the old man’s body.

Nothing like getting right to it, I say.

The rest of the book is pretty good, too. The protagonist is a young woman named Dunny Pollock who has a secret: she has an extra finger on her left hand, and that finger allows her to find things. Sometimes it turns cold, sometimes it gets hot like it’s on fire, and sometimes it jerks around and points in different directions, depending on what Dunny is trying to find. She’s always considered herself a freak and tries to hide her ability, but she has to use it when her sister, who’s a schoolteacher in a small Louisiana town, asks her to help find a couple of young children who have disappeared in the swamp.

Of course, the reader knows there’s more going on than just a couple of missing kids. There’s a supernatural evil at work in the swamp, too, as Dunny eventually comes to realize. LeBlanc provides a lot of humor and small-town local color and a little romance, interspersed with scenes of creepy, graphic violence, and while it’s an odd blend, it’s certainly effective. She keeps the pace moving along nicely, throws in a plot twist near the end that I didn’t see coming, and builds everything up to a satisfying climax. WATER WITCH is the first novel I’ve read by LeBlanc, but it definitely won’t be the last. Recommended.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Another One: Honest Scrap

Nathan Cain over at the excellent Independent Crime blog tagged me with this one, and as usual, I'm going to be contrary enough not to tag anyone else. However, I will play along to the extent of listing ten honest things about myself:

1. I really don't like pork chops, and the rest of my family does.
2. When I was a little kid, I was afraid that a bear was going to come up from the creek behind our house and get me. This was totally my grandfather's fault for telling me that there were bears down there. (There weren't. Bobcats and possums, yes.)
3. It's hard going into a bookstore and seeing ten or twelve books on the shelves that I wrote, and my name isn't anywhere on them.
4. I'm very grateful to have the work, no matter what name is on the books.
5. I wake up yelling from a nightmare at least once a week.
6. Some days I will do almost anything to avoid writing, even for a little while.
7. I watch too much TV.
8. The only type of music I simply cannot listen to, even for a few minutes, is opera.
9. I once drove off the road, through a fence, and into a field to avoid hitting an armadillo. (Or was it a possum? I don't remember.)
10. When I was a kid, I had a dog named Egbert. And yes, I'm the one who named him that.

There you have it. Books, nightmares, possums, and a dog named Egbert. If you didn't think I was odd before, you do now. If you decide to play this game, I'd appreciate a mention of it in the comments, so we can all go over to your blog and see how odd you are.

100 Books

Several people have tagged me with this, so I thought I should give it a try. The books marked with an X are the ones I’ve read, 21 out of 100. There are several others on the list I was supposed to read in college, but I didn’t actually read them. There was heavy skimming involved on those. I tend not to tag people, so if you have any interest in this, have at it.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien X
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee X
6 The Bible X
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell X
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens X
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller X
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien X
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger X
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell X
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald X
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck X
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma-Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell X
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins X
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding X
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert X
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac X
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens X
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White X
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle X
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad X
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams X
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Sunday, August 16, 2009

John R. Baker, R.I.P.

I found out today that my friend John Baker from Charleston passed away last night. John and I never met in person, but we corresponded for nearly thirty years. I don't recall for sure how we got in touch, but he may have gotten my address from Mike Avallone. John was a mystery fan who read all sorts of books, but he had a special fondness for hardboiled private eye novels and had read everything by Avallone, Richard S. Prather, Mickey Spillane, and dozens of other authors. He traded letters with a lot of them, too, typed or handwritten letters because while John eventually gave the Internet a try, he still preferred the old-fashioned way of corresponding.

Like many of us, he kept a list of everything he read and was always on the lookout for new authors he might like, or old authors whose books he wanted to reread. In one of his last letters to me, he asked if I remembered the author of a private eye series set in Tokyo and featuring an ex-G.I. who was a karate expert. I suggested he might be thinking about the Burns Bannion series by Earl Norman, and that turned out to be right.

Not surprisingly, John was also a Mike Shayne fan, and in 1984 I came out of my "retirement" as Brett Halliday to write one final Shayne story, "Fishing for Murder", which featured John and a friend of his as characters and used some of his plot suggestions. I think he enjoyed appearing in a Shayne story like that.

It hasn't quite soaked in on me that next week or next month, there won't be an envelope in the mailbox with John's distinctive handwriting on it. He sometimes signed his letters, "Your faraway friend, John". Maybe a little farther away now, John, but still a friend.

12 Rounds

I thought THE MARINE, the previous action thriller starring the WWE’s John Cena, was a surprisingly good, smartly written, and well-acted film. So I hoped that Cena’s latest film, 12 ROUNDS, would be pretty good, too.

In this one, Cena plays a New Orleans beat cop who stumbles into an FBI operation to catch a notorious international arms dealer. He winds up catching the guy and getting promoted to detective along with his partner. But a year later, the brilliant, ruthless villain escapes from prison and returns to New Orleans bent on revenge. He takes Cena’s girlfriend hostage and starts making our hero deal with all sorts of intricately plotted, deadly challenges (the twelve rounds of the title) in order to save her. Needless to say, mayhem ensues. Stuff blows up real good. Cena does a lot of runnin’, jumpin’, and fightin’. But then . . .

Ah, but then 12 ROUNDS turns into one of the most cleverly plotted movies I’ve seen in a long time, and as far as I could tell, all the twists were set up fairly. Some of them you’ll probably be able to predict, but all I can say is that I was surprised a number of times, and I love being surprised by a movie.

Cena handles the action scenes just fine, and he’s a pretty darned good actor, too. He has a very capable supporting cast in this one including Ashley Scott and Steve Harris. The director is Renny Harlin, who may not be the A-list director he was fifteen or twenty years ago but still knows how to put together a pretty entertaining film. (And doggone it, I still think CUTTHROAT ISLAND and THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT are good movies!)

So not only was I not disappointed by 12 ROUNDS, I was very impressed by it, and if you enjoy intelligent action thrillers, I highly recommend it. And I’m looking forward to Cena’s next film.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Livia and I drove down to Brownwood today for my Uncle Sidney's 90th birthday party. It was really good to see him and visit with some other relatives we don't see that often. During World War II, Sidney was a medic in Burma, and I always enjoyed listening to his stories about those days, although I imagine it wasn't nearly as enjoyable living through them.

I like Brownwood, and I like the drive down there. There's usually not much traffic and the countryside is pretty. I spent a lot of time in that area as a kid because we had a ton of relatives there. I probably drove Livia a little crazy by constantly telling her where things used to be, like in Stephenville where I pointed to a strip mall and said, "There used to be a little used bookstore there, but I only went to it once." Then it was, "There used to be a drugstore there where I bought an Ellery Queen paperback and a Thomas B. Dewey paperback and a Walt Slade novel." We stopped at the Hastings in Brownwood, and I said, "This used to be a grocery store, and when it was, the paperback rack was right over there, and I remember buying Louis L'Amour's FLINT here, and some Donald E. Westlake book that I can't remember the title of, but I can see the cover in my head . . ." And I didn't even tell her about the time I sat in the car outside a nursing home in Brownwood and read Edward S. Aarons' ASSIGNMENT - SCHOOL FOR SPIES. She probably thinks I'm a little nuts, and I'm sure some of you do, too, but I'll bet some of you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Yeah, it was a good trip . . . the real one, and the one into the past inside my head.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Man from Lordsburg -- Jack Slade (Peter Germano)

Since I had this book out for the post I wrote the other day about the Lassiter series, I decided to go ahead and read it as this week’s Forgotten Book. In his comment on the previous post, John Hocking mentions that in some of the books, Lassiter shows certain similarities to Parker, the late Donald E. Westlake’s professional thief character. That’s certainly true in THE MAN FROM LORDSBURG. (By the way, Lassiter is in Lordsburg when he gets the telegram that opens the book. Other than that, the entire novel takes place in and around Abilene, Kansas.)

Lassiter is summoned to Abilene by an old girlfriend who has a plan to steal a small fortune being brought in by a cattle buyer to pay for the largest herd to ever come up the trail from Texas. In order to carry out this robbery, Lassiter brings in a handful of other hardcases and outlaws, and the first half of the book is concerned with the planning and preparations for the robbery, which involves stampeding six thousand longhorns right into the middle of Abilene. The robbery takes place in the middle of the book, then the rest of THE MAN FROM LORDSBURG is about the aftermath and the inevitable violent complications.

Lassiter certainly isn’t a heroic character in this one (check out that front cover copy), although he’s slightly more honorable than most of the other characters. He has a code, too, which consists mostly of going after anybody who’s dumb enough to doublecross him. He really does remind me a lot of Parker, although the writing isn’t as good as you’ll find in a Westlake book.

Speaking of the writing, THE MAN FROM LORDSBURG is supposed to be one of the novels written by Peter Germano under the Jack Slade house-name. I’ve read quite a few of Germano’s books, both his traditional Westerns as Barry Cord and his Jim Hatfield novels published in the TEXAS RANGERS pulp as by Jackson Cole. His style was always rather hardboiled, and it’s even more so in this Lassiter novel. The pace is fast, the action scenes are well-written, and there’s a toughness about both the character and the writing that works very well. I think most readers of hardboiled crime fiction would enjoy THE MAN FROM LORDSBURG.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Writers' Offices

This is an interesting website with photos of the offices of a number of science fiction and fantasy authors. Thanks to Brian Earl Brown for the link.

17 Again

From ZULU in one post to Zac Efron in the next. Just goes to prove that you never know what you’re going to get from this blog.

17 AGAIN is a good-hearted little film about a middle-aged guy full of regrets who, through some magical means, gets to go back and experience life as a teenager again, only knowing what he knows now. Matthew Perry plays the adult version, Zac Efron the teenager. And both of them are pretty good. The movie is more amusing than funny. There aren’t many laugh-out-loud moments, and it intentionally borders on creepy at times. But it has some interesting things to say about redemption and finding your place in the world, and it’s surprisingly serious for what you’d expect to be a throwaway teen comedy. I enjoyed it and think it’s well worth watching.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Zulu

ZULU is a John Ford cavalry Western. Oh, I know John Ford didn’t direct it, and there’s not an Apache in sight, but scene after scene in ZULU plays as if the filmmakers had watched FORT APACHE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, and RIO GRANDE a dozen times each before making ZULU. Take the opening scene, as the camera pans over a destroyed British regiment, then the victorious Zulu warriors come into the shot and one of them picks up a fallen rifle and thrusts it exultantly into the air over his head. That really plays like a John Ford scene to me. There are even several of Ford’s signature low-angle shots later in the film.

For those few of you who haven’t seen it, ZULU is the story of less than two hundred British soldiers trying to defend an isolated mission in Africa against four thousand Zulu warriors in 1879. I guess that makes it an Alamo movie, too, in the same way that David Gemmell’s LEGEND is an Alamo novel. The first half of the movie, before the attack begins, is really slow. It didn’t help matters for me that I had trouble telling the various soldiers apart, and the DVD didn’t have captions on it, so I understood only about half the dialogue. (Worst case scenario for a deaf old geezer like me: British accents and no captions.) The second half is full of action, though, and it’s well-staged. Given the movie’s age, all the fighting is pretty bloodless despite the rampant death and destruction, which seems a little odd after seeing so many war movies with such graphic gore, but I can’t say that the lack of blood splattering everywhere really bothered me. At least there was none of that blasted close-up, quick-cut editing.

Stanley Baker plays the engineer who winds up in command of the defenders, an impossibly young Michael Caine is his second-in-command, and Jack Hawkins is a Swedish missionary. All of them do good jobs. The photography and the scenery are spectacular. Going back to my John Ford comparison, that part of Africa really does look like the American West. Overall, ZULU is okay, a war movie that just tells a story without any heavy-handed messages. That makes it worth watching in my book.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Lassiter Series by Jack Slade

In the comments a couple of posts back, John Hocking mentions the Lassiter novel A HELL OF A WAY TO DIE, which was published in at least a couple of different editions under the Jack Slade house-name. Years ago someone – and at this late date I don’t recall who it was – told me that Ben Haas had written this early entry in the Lassiter series. I read it and thought it was possible, but at that time I hadn’t read as many of Haas’s novels as I have now.

Then there was some discussion on the WesternPulps group about the series, and someone pointed out a website put up by relatives of the late Peter Germano (better known under his pseudonym Barry Cord) that included A HELL OF A WAY TO DIE in a list of Lassiters written by Germano. I had forgotten about that until John’s comment, so I checked my shelves and found that I have a copy of A HELL OF A WAY TO DIE, as well as THE MAN FROM LORDSBURG, another Lassiter written by Germano, according to the website. I skimmed through them, and they certainly appear to be by the same author. The styles are very similar. So I’m thinking that maybe I made a mistake attributing A HELL OF A WAY TO DIE to Ben Haas.

That’s not the end of the story, though. This German website has a list of the Lassiter novels, and it attributes a different book to Haas. Here’s the list of the Lassiter series from that website, along with the best guesses for the actual authors:

LASSITER, W.T. Ballard
BANDIDO, W.T. Ballard
THE MAN FROM YUMA, Peter Germano
A HELL OF A WAY TO DIE, Peter Germano
SIDEWINDER, Peter Germano
FUNERAL BEND, Peter Germano
RIMFIRE, W.T. Ballard
LUST FOR GOLD, John M. Flynn
HANGMAN, John M. Flynn
WOLVERINE, John M. Flynn

W.T. Ballard has generally been credited as the creator of the series and the author of the first four novels, but this list attributes the third book to Germano, based on his records, so that’s probably accurate. I wonder if RIMFIRE, coming quite a few years after Ballard’s other books in the series, might be a retitled reprint of one of the early books. As for THE BADLANDERS, I’ve read it and I’m convinced it actually is by Tom Curry. I was reading a lot of Curry’s pulp work at the time, and a lot of his style tags show up in the Lassiter novel as well. Curry wrote two books in the Sundance series at about this same time, also under the Jack Slade house-name, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of the other Lassiters where the author hasn’t been identified were his as well. John M. Flynn, author of four books in the series, was better known as mystery writer Jay Flynn. I believe Bill Pronzini knew Flynn and has written about him in MYSTERY SCENE. Of course, I’m most interested in reading HIGH LONESOME to see if I think it was written by Ben Haas. I don’t believe I have a copy of that one right now, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it. The Lassiter
novels still show up fairly regularly in used bookstores.

By the way, some of these books were reprinted with “Zane Grey’s Lassiter” on the cover, which I think was just a marketing ploy on the part of the publisher. This Lassiter is not the same character as the hero of RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE . . . although there was a series of novels featuring that character ghosted by Dean Owen and perhaps others under the name Loren Zane Grey.

Now, at this point the real question is: who cares about any of this stuff? Well, me, for one, and I hope at least a few of you reading this. But I still have vivid memories of buying my first Lassiter novel, THE MAN FROM DEL RIO, brand-new off the spinner rack at Lester’s Pharmacy and reading it one summer day in 1969. I’d been reading Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Clarence E. Mulford, so that Lassiter novel, with its grittier violence and slightly graphic sex, was a big change for me. The Lassiter books, not the Jake Logan series, are the first true “Adult Westerns”, as the genre came to be known, and as such, they have some historical importance in the Western field. Over and above that, though, some of them are pretty darned good books and worth checking out if you happen to run across any of them. (Fair warning, though: some of them are pretty bad, too.)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain

The other day I wrote about a movie with fictional wrestlers, and today it’s a movie with a real former wrestler. Dwayne Johnson isn’t billed as The Rock anymore, because he’s made a respectable career for himself as a movie star in both action movies and family comedies and dramas. His latest film, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, manages to merge a couple of those genres. It’s a family-friendly science fiction adventure yarn that’s a remake of a Disney movie from the Seventies.

I never saw the original, so I can’t compare this one with it. In the new version of RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, Johnson plays Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno, a former wheelman for the mob who’s trying to go straight even though his old boss wants him to return to a life of crime. That ambition gets complicated when a couple of aliens on a mission from space wind up in the back of his cab. The aliens have taken on human guises, of course, and look like brother and sister teenagers. Jack winds up helping them on their quest to retrieve some important information, and along the way they’re pursued by sinister government operatives and a nearly unstoppable robot assassin from the alien’s planet. Action ensues. Stuff blows up real good. Lessons are learned.

Yes, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN is predictable, but it’s also pretty darned entertaining. Johnson has turned into a good actor, and early on I sort of wished this had been a straight, hardboiled crime film about his cab driver character. I’d like to see him make a movie like that. But RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN is what it is, and despite the script’s tendency to take the easy way out by overplaying the “evil government, evil military” card, it races right along and is enough fun to be worth watching.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Forgotten Books: Exile's Quest - Richard Meade (Ben Haas)

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the late Ben Haas, who wrote Westerns as John Benteen, Thorne Douglas, Richard Meade, and possibly other names, in addition to historical and mainstream novels under his own name. Some of you may not be aware, though, that he also wrote three sword-and-sorcery novels, two as by Richard Meade and one under the name Quinn Reade. One of the Meade novels is our Forgotten Book this week.

By the time EXILE’S QUEST was published in 1970, the Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien booms had been going on for several years, and editors were looking for those sorts of action-packed fantasy novels. EXILE’S QUEST actually has some science-fiction trappings to it, because, like Robert Silverberg’s CONQUERORS FROM THE DARKNESS from several weeks ago, it takes place on Earth. In EXILE’S QUEST, it’s a barbaric Earth thousands of years after a nuclear war. Civilization has worked itself back up to a medieval level, so there are kings and barons and lots of swordplay. The hero of this one, a young nobleman named Gallt, is the Baron of the Iron Mountains and swears his allegiance to Sigreith, King of Boorn and Emperor of the Gray Lands. (About where Germany used to be, I’d say.) In a fight with another nobleman over a woman, Gallt accidentally kills his opponent, and so the king strips him of his title and sentences him to death . . . only there’s a way out for Gallt. He just has to agree to lead an army of prisoners from the king’s dungeons on an expedition into the Unknown Lands, discover what happened to a previous expedition that never came back, and retrieve a mystical and mysterious Stone of Power.

I’m well aware that this is a pretty stereotypical plot, but I don’t think it was quite as much of a cliché nearly forty years ago when Haas wrote this novel. What elevates it to a level worth reading is his ability to craft a gritty, fast-moving story using those traditional elements, just as he does in his Westerns. There are some vividly bizarre images as Gallt and his men encounter several different sorts of mutants left over from the nuclear war, and as always in a Haas novel, the action scenes are good, especially the one-on-one battles.

When it comes to heroic fantasy, EXILE’S QUEST is nowhere near the level of Robert E. Howard, but I’d say it’s as good as John Jakes’ Brak novels and better than Lin Carter’s Thongor and Gardner Fox’s Kothar and Kyrik novels. Haas’s Westerns are better than his sword-and-sorcery novels, but EXILE’S QUEST is well worth reading. Had he lived longer (he died of a heart attack just a few years later at a relatively young age), and had Signet put a better cover on this book and the other Meade fantasy novel, THE SWORD OF MORNING STAR, Haas might have developed into a much bigger name in that field. That wasn’t to be, but we can enjoy the books of his that we do have, and this isn’t a bad place to start if you haven’t sampled his work.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Wrestler

I know some of you have seen this movie already, because I remember reading your blog posts about it. For those of you who haven’t, it’s the story of a has-been professional wrestler, Randy “the Ram” Robinson (played by Mickey Rourke in a great performance), who is still hanging on in the fringes of the business. At the same time, he’s dealing with all the damage he’s done to his body over the years, as well as the damage in his personal life, such as his relationship with his estranged daughter. Plot-wise, it’s pretty standard stuff. I doubt if there’s much in THE WRESTLER that will really surprise you. What makes it a fine film are the performances by Rourke and Marisa Tomei as the stripper who winds up as Randy’s reluctant girlfriend, along with the well-staged wrestling scenes. The sense of camaraderie among the wrestlers is very effective, too, and for a movie that’s fairly bleak overall, there are quite a few humorous moments. The set-up is maybe a little too long – we get it that professional wrestling is a brutal business – but not enough so to be a real problem. Overall, this is a very, very good film, and well worth watching.

On a personal note, there’s a great scene where Randy takes part in an autograph show at an American Legion post, but not many people show up. So you have about a dozen wrestlers sitting around at folding tables, bored, waiting for somebody, anybody, to come along and buy their autographs, their DVDs, their T-shirts, and as I watched it, I thought, “Hey! I’ve been at book signings just like that!” In fact, the whole movie, with its seediness and scrounging for jobs, with its characters clinging desperately to the hopes of either a big break or a big comeback, made me aware that being a freelance writer is a lot like being a professional wrestler . . . minus the blood and the broken bones, of course.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Fake I.D. - Jason Starr

I’ve seen a lot of positive comments from Juri Nummelin and others about this book, which previously had been published only in England, and I’ve enjoyed the other Jason Starr novels I’ve read (including PANIC ATTACK, just a few weeks ago), so when Hard Case Crime recently reprinted it, I picked up a copy. FAKE I.D. is narrated by Tommy Russo, a bar bouncer and would-be actor in New York who’s struggling with a compulsive gambling problem. One of Tommy’s racetrack acquaintances invites him to join a syndicate that’s being put together to buy a race horse. All Tommy has to do is come up with $10,000 to buy in. Being the confident kind of guy he is, he’s sure he’ll be able to do that.

Of course, it doesn’t turn out to be that easy. Every plan Tommy comes up with seems to go wrong, and sometimes they go wrong in spectacular ways. But Tommy plows right ahead, always sure that he’s doing the right thing and that it’s all going to work out for him.

I’m not sure there’s anybody better than Jason Starr at creating likable characters the reader will root for, then having them turn out to be absolute monsters. Tommy is maybe the best example of that I’ve come across yet. He struggles along through his life and you actually start to hope that things will work out for him, and then, with no sign whatsoever of remorse, he does something totally despicable. And this happens more than once along the way to a really powerful ending.

I could see this same set-up working for one of the late Donald E. Westlake’s comic crime novels, but of course Starr takes the story in very different directions. His prose is smooth and he keeps the pace racing right along, and the result is one of the more enjoyable novels I’ve read recently. FAKE I.D. veers into some pretty dark territory at times, but I was glad to go along for the ride. I think it’s the best Jason Starr novel I’ve read so far. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Memento

This one isn’t actually old enough to fall into the Movies I’ve Missed category, but it’s close enough, and anyway, that ten-year-cutoff I mentioned a while back isn’t a hard and fast rule. Even if it was, it’s my rule, so I can change it.

As for the movie itself, I’ve wanted to watch it ever since it came out and finally got around to it. As someone who struggles with short-term memory myself from time to time, I can sympathize with the protagonist, who has no short-term memory at all and is still trying to track down his wife’s killer. MEMENTO got as much notice for its structure as for anything else, I think, and it’s certainly odd, since each scene ends where the previous scene began . . . or something like that. I watched it last night, and I’m still a little confused. But the plot basically runs backwards, and given that, you’d think it would be impossible to have a surprise ending. MEMENTO manages to do just that, though, and it’s quite an achievement in storytelling.

I like Guy Pearce and Joe Pantoliano, and they’re both fine here. Director Christopher Nolan has gone on to much bigger things (Batman movies). I think he could have picked up the pace a little in this one. Overall, MEMENTO is one of those movies that I admired quite a bit, but it’s hard to say that I actually enjoyed it. It’s so odd that that mixed reaction may be the best I can do. But I’m glad I saw it after all this time.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Fast & Furious

We watched and enjoyed the first three movies in this series, so it was inevitable that we’d watch the fourth one, too. When it came out, some reviews called it a remake of the first one (maybe because of the similarities in title), but it’s not at all. True, all the characters from the original are back, but it’s a completely different story.

And while the background from the other movies is touched on, there’s a lot that’s not explained, so if you’ve never seen any of the Fast and Furious movies I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. For those who have seen them, FAST & FURIOUS once again features FBI agent Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and crook Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) teaming up to take down the bad guys, in this case the head of a drug cartel. Since all the movies are set in the world of street racing, you know what you’re going to get: lots of chase scenes, spectacular stunts, and beautiful women in skimpy outfits. There’s plenty of that in FAST & FURIOUS. But you also get morally conflicted but stalwart heroes, really evil villains, tragedy, and a little humor.

Much like the UNDERWORLD series, if these movies had been made in the Sixties I think they would have gone straight to the drive-ins. They don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, slickly-made action/adventure yarns where everyone involved seems to be having a great time. I did, too. I think FAST & FURIOUS is maybe the best entry in the series so far, and if you’ve seen the others, you definitely need to watch this one, too.