Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Two Blogs of Note

Dr. Toni Johnson-Woods has a couple of blogs that will probably be of great interest to many of you:  A World of Australian Pulp Fiction and The Carter Brown Mystery Series.  Lots of great covers and information on both of these blogs (although purists will note that the books covered aren't actually pulps).  Thanks to Juri Nummelin for pointing these out on his blog.  I know I'm going to be spending some time going through both of them.

Black Sun - Graham Brown

This is another yarn about the Mayan prophecy concerning the end of the world in 2012, a subject that either interests you or it doesn’t. I’m not particularly taken by it (the 2012 business, not the book itself). In this case, it’s largely a MacGuffin anyway, as Danielle Laidlaw, an operative for the National Research Institute (a sort of scientific version of the CIA) teams up with a scientist and a mercenary (a guy named Hawker, who’s a terrific character) to chase around Mexico looking for some legendary Mayan stones that hold some sort of secret having to do with a great power that can destroy the world.

There’s not much here you haven’t seen or read before, especially if you’re a fan of James Rollins, but there are some good reasons why BLACK SUN is well worth reading. Brown writes fine action scenes, a requirement in this genre, and as I alluded to above, he’s a good hand with characters as well. I especially liked the relationships between Danielle, McCarter (the scientist), and Hawker, which don’t always play out like you’d expect them to. Any time a writer can make me think, “I didn’t see that coming,” I’m impressed. I also liked the fact that although this is the second book in a series where I haven’t read the first one, I was able to pick up on everything very easily. Brown does a fine job of working in the back-story and making it seem natural. The scientific and historical background gets filled in without any obtrusive infodumps. Throw in plenty of well-paced adventure and a really evil, over-the-top villain, and I’m entertained. That’s the case with BLACK SUN. I suspect there’ll be sequels, and I’ll probably read them.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Walk - Lee Goldberg

We all know Lee Goldberg as the author of the Monk and Diagnosis Murder novels, as well as a prolific and top-notch screenwriter, but this is one of his non-series novels, originally published back in 2004 by Five Star. The ebook version has been very successful for Lee, and it’s now available in print again, this time as a trade paperback. So you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a copy of it to read.

And you should find a copy and read it, just as soon as you possibly can. It’s that good.

THE WALK takes place in the first two days after the Big One, the incredibly devastating earthquake that everybody knows is coming, finally hits Los Angeles. TV executive Marty Slack is on the other side of the city from his wife and his home when everything comes crashing down. Marty survives the actual quake in fairly good shape, but his car is crushed and the streets are too torn up to drive on, anyway. So the only way he can get home and get back to his wife is to walk across the dangerous chaos that is Los Angeles after the earthquake.

Naturally it’s not easy. Marty runs into all sorts of trouble from looters, aftershocks, explosions, and other natural disasters. He nearly gets killed time and again and probably wouldn’t make it if not for the help of Buck Weaver, a very colorful bounty hunter and private detective he runs into along the way. While he’s trying to survive this odyssey, Marty also goes through an emotional journey as well, coming to grips with some of the problems that have plagued him throughout his life.

THE WALK is part adventure novel, part horror novel, part comedy. A lot of terrible, tragic things happen, but Goldberg’s dry, satiric wit crops up often enough to keep things from getting overwhelmingly gloomy. Marty and Buck are fine characters who play off each other wonderfully well, and the pacing really keeps the reader turning the pages. All of it leads up to an absolutely great ending that really put a grin on my face.

As with Cap’n Bob Napier’s THE TOYMAN RIDES AGAIN, this is hardly an unbiased review, since Lee Goldberg and I have been friends for years. However, trust me on this. THE WALK is one of the very best novels you’ll read this year or any other year.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Clash of the Titans

I have a confession to make: I’ve never seen the original version of this movie. So I can’t compare the two. My comments are based solely on the entertainment value of the 2010 version.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of Greek mythology. I may have been the only one in my elementary school who read that book on mythology by Edith Hamilton (wasn’t that her name?) for fun. Now, I have to admit that my interest in the subject was fueled by the fact that one of the local TV stations was always showing those Italian sword-and-sandal epics, most of them the so-called Sons of Hercules movies, and I was a devoted viewer. (I don’t want any AIRPLANE! jokes in the comments.)

Anyway, to continue in nostalgia mode for a moment, the first piece of fiction I ever wrote was heavily influenced by those Sons of Hercules movies. I was 11 years old, and the story filled up both sides of ten sheets of notebook paper. I wrote pretty small, so it was probably somewhere around 4000 words. The hero was some Steve Reeves clone named Argustus. That’s absolutely all I remember about it, no title, plot, or anything, and the story itself is long gone. (The second story I wrote, also when I was 11, was a Western – how’s that for foreshadowing – called “Guns in the Valley”. Something about rustlers. The more things change, etc.)

Anyway, the point of this digression is to explain that I am definitely the target audience for any movie with sword fights, Greed gods, and monsters. So, yes, I enjoyed CLASH OF THE TITANS. It’s big, loud, occasionally dumb, often hammy and over-the-top (especially Ralph Fiennes as Hades, Lord of the Underworld), CGI-laden, and has too much of that quick-cut editing. But the music is stirring, the heroes are heroic, the villains are villainous, and quite a bit of the action isn’t too jumpy. I’m really not sure why “Release the Kraken!” has become such a catch-phrase for this movie. It’s actually not that dramatic a moment. Overall, I enjoyed the movie and thought it was better than all the reviews made it sound.

It also makes me want to go back and watch some of those old Italian movies again . . . but I’m not sure that’s a good idea. (Actually, I have one coming up fairly soon on my Netflix queue, THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES, but that’s because it was the first film directed by Sergio Leone, and I’ve never seen it.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cop Out

COP OUT is the sort of violent, foul-mouthed, buddy cop action-comedy that Bruce Willis can do in his sleep. That said, this movie has some pretty funny lines and it’s interesting the way the script weaves several different plotlines together. I also like the fact that the MacGuffin driving much of the plot is a valuable baseball card. Willis is okay; I tend to like him in just about anything. Tracey Morgan, who plays his partner, is something of an acquired taste, I guess, one that I haven’t fully acquired yet. But I really liked Seann William Scott (also an acquired taste) as a goofy burgler. You wouldn’t expect him to play a non-goofy character, would you? All in all, COP OUT is pretty good, nothing special but an enjoyable enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Power of Positive Loving - William Johnston

When I was a kid, I read all the tie-in novels by William Johnston based on the TV series GET SMART. I think I liked them even more than the TV show. I also recall reading and enjoying the novelization of the movie LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, USN, which Johnston wrote under the pseudonym Bill Ford. Johnston’s books were all over the place back in those days, since he wrote dozens of excellent movie novelizations and TV tie-ins. For that reason, he was a more than worthy recipient of the IAMTW’s Grandmaster Award earlier this year. There’s a lot about Johnston in my buddy David Spencer’s chapter on TV tie-ins in the book TIED IN, which I posted about here a few weeks ago.

However, David has also mentioned to me that Johnston’s early, non-tie-in novels are very good, too, so I decided to try a few of them. First up is THE POWER OF POSITIVE LOVING, published by Monarch Books in 1964. I don’t mind admitting that one reason I bought this book is because of the cover. That’s one of the cutest redheads I’ve seen on a paperback cover, and the wink really sells the book.

As for the novel itself, well, that’s pretty good, too. The protagonist is Harry Ash, a down-on-his-luck public relations guy who comes up with a scheme to promote a sleepy little coastal town in California as a hotbed of sin and sensationalism. He plans to do this by teaming up with sexpot movie starlet Babe O’Flynn (that’s a great name), who has a habit of losing her clothes and winding up in the slick magazines like LIFE and LOOK. Harry comes up with a wild story for the gossip columnists about Babe going to this little town to recover from a broken heart after a top-secret love affair with the Secretary of State. He’s going to have a photographer get pictures of her on the beach in a bikini – or less – and figures that tourists, scandal-seekers, and sensation-mongers will converge on the motel and bar that he buys in partnership with a hamburger magnate. Naturally, things don’t work out quite like Harry plans.

Monarch Books lasted only a few years, but the company published quite a few books including some Westerns and mysteries. However, it’s best known for the abundance of slightly less graphic sleaze novels it put out. Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, and Robert Silverberg all wrote pseudonymous books for Monarch, including a number of so-called non-fiction studies of various sexual subjects that were really fiction, under imposing sounding names like L.T. Woodward, M.D.

THE POWER OF POSITIVE LOVING is risqué enough to fall into the sleaze category, but just barely. Unlike most books in that genre from that era, this one is a comedy, a racy, romantic, screwball farce that takes satiric shots at morality, the advertising business, politics, show business, the military, the media, and just about anything else you can think of. The title itself is a pun on the self-help bestseller THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING by Norman Vincent Peale. If it had been made into a movie in 1964, it probably would have starred Jack Lemmon as Harry and Ann-Margret as Babe. As usual with such a scattershot yarn, not all the jokes work all the time, but enough of them do that this is a pretty funny book. It reminds me a little of the work of Max Shulman, for those of you old enough to remember his books. (Probably the same ones who remember Jack Lemmon and Ann-Margret.)

Johnston was nothing if not a versatile writer, though. I have several more of his non-tie-in novels on hand, and it looks like every one of them is considerably different from the others. I’ll be getting to them in due time and reporting on them here. For now, if you want a nice entertaining slice of mid-Sixties comedy, THE POWER OF POSITIVE LOVING is well worth reading.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Toyman Rides Again - Robert S. Napier

Robert S. Napier is better known to all of us as Cap’n Bob, of course, so I won’t pretend this is an unbiased review. But you can trust it anyway, I give you my word on that.

The Toyman is Jack Lorentz, toy dealer, former investigative journalist, and occasional unlicensed private eye. THE TOYMAN RIDES AGAIN is, as you might expect, the sequel to Napier’s previous novel LOVE, DEATH, AND THE TOYMAN, which was one of the best debut novels I’ve read in recent years. This one takes up a few weeks after that one leaves off, in the summer of 1983, an era that Napier paints quite well. Jack is hired to be the bodyguard of George Armstrong Custer, or rather, the local businessman who plays Custer in a troop of military reenactors. It seems that “Custer” has received some death threats and somebody has even taken a shot at him, so one of the other Seventh Cavalry reenactors hires Jack to come along with the troop to Montana, where they’re about to recreate the Battle of the Little Big Horn on the anniversary of that famous clash. As a cover while he’s protecting Custer, Jack pretends to be a reenactor himself and takes on the role of Mark Kellogg, a journalist who was with the real Custer and lost his life in the battle.

Well, it’ll come as no surprise to anybody that a murder does take place during the reenactment, but the nicely twisting plot has plenty of surprises after that. This is a really well put together mystery novel, with plenty of suspects and clues. Jack is a great character, and his wry narration has plenty of humor in it to go along with some nice action scenes and the occasional poignant moments of melancholy that every private eye novel needs. It all leads up to an unexpected but very satisfying ending.

As good as LOVE, DEATH, AND THE TOYMAN is, THE TOYMAN RIDES AGAIN is a significant step up. It’s one of the best novels of the year, and if you haven’t read it yet, I can’t recommend highly enough that you do so.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Splendor in the Grass

When we started to watch this one, I commented that I’d never seen it before, and Livia asked, “How could you have missed it? It was on TV all the time when we were kids.”

Well, that’s true enough, but when I was a kid, I watched Westerns, comedies, Tarzan movies, war movies, monster movies . . . You get the idea. I wouldn’t have had much interest in a romantic drama about dysfunctional families and teenage lust, angst, and madness in 1928 Kansas.

Now, of course, I was able to watch it with considerable interest. It’s the kind of movie they just don’t make anymore. Yes, it’s a little hammy at times. Pat Hingle, as an oil wildcatter who’s struck it rich, chews the scenery shamelessly, but character actors like that could really make it work, and Hingle does here. Mostly, though, the movie belongs to Warren Beatty (in his film debut) as the rich boy in love with the butcher’s daughter, played by Natalie Wood. I’m not sure there’s ever been a movie star as pretty as Natalie Wood, and she’s beautiful here, as always, and turns in a pretty good performance, too.

If you haven’t seen it before, most of the plot won’t really surprise you. Let’s see, it’s 1928 when the movie opens, and people are talking about getting rich off their stocks . . . hmm, I wonder what’s going to happen. However, the way the movie plays out does eventually take some unexpected turns. I was a little disappointed that some of the vital action takes place off-screen and is referred to rather casually by some of the characters, but other than that the story is pretty solid. William Inge, the playwright who did the screenplay, has a cameo as a minister. Always good to see a writer get some screen time.

I don’t think SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS is a great film, but I enjoyed watching it. And it’s one more movie off my list of Movies I’ve Missed (Until Now). (I don’t really have such a list, by the way. If I did it would be too long to manage.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Bob!

I'm told that today is Robert J. Randisi's birthday.  I hope it's been a good one, and here's the cover of Bob's next Rat Pack book.

The Damned: Three Days Dead -- Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt

THREE DAYS DEAD is a graphic novel that reprints the first five issues of the comic book series THE DAMNED, plotted by Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, with script by Bunn and art by Hurtt. It starts out with a great premise: set in an unidentified Prohibition-era big city, the various gangs vying for control of the city’s criminal underworld are actually run by competing gangs of demons. Our protagonist, a guy named Eddie who may or may not be a private eye (I wasn’t real clear on that), has been cursed by one of the demon families so that he can be killed, but he doesn’t stay dead. Anybody who touches his corpse immediately dies of the same thing that killed Eddie, and Eddie comes back to life. One such violent resurrection opens this volume.

After being brought back to life, Eddie is given a job by the demon gangster he works for. A truce is being arranged between two of the feuding families, and the big-shot demon brought in from out of town to broker the deal has gone missing. It’s up to Eddie to find him before a gang war breaks out.

Naturally, the case turns out to be a lot more complicated than that, with stakes even higher than what Eddie believes at first. The curse comes in handy, since he gets killed more than once but always manages to come back to life and keep on investigating in the classic dogged private eye tradition. The wrap-up is no great surprise, but it’s handled very well.

In fact, I liked this whole book quite a bit. Bunn’s script is fast-paced and funny in some places, grotesque in others, and touching in still others. Hurtt’s art captures the Prohibition era and is effective in the horror aspects as well, and he’s a decent storyteller. The private eye/supernatural hybrid is a tricky one to pull off. It’s been used quite a bit, and most of the time I’m not all that fond of it. THE DAMNED does a good job of making it work, though. Recommended.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Guest Post by Brian Drake: Reflections on the Revolution So Far

I suppose it was a year or two ago that e-books began picking up steam. I recall some skepticism regarding the Amazon Kindle and other e-reading devices when they were first released, but must admit my recall is a little hazy because I had no intention of ever having anything to do with e-books or e-readers. Paper and ink for me, baby, and no mistake. But then the economy went south, and a certain writer started pontificating about the terrible state of publishing, authors being dropped by book companies (including him), and the success of his work on the Kindle. He wasn’t entirely wrong, as my dear friend and fellow author Rebecca Forster was one of those writers dropped by her publisher, and her struggles in this racket have been very sobering as I began my assault on the citadel. Other articles appeared in business publications mentioning how hard a time Big Publishing is having these days--about the same amount of trouble as everybody else, really, but the tone of these articles was grim indeed. If there is any good publishing news in recent months, I haven’t found it.

I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, though the dream probably began back in the 7th grade when I discovered Ian Fleming and after that began gobbling up any other spy and adventure novel I could find, regardless if I had full comprehension of the plot and nuances of the stories or not. (Rereading some of those books as an adult proves I had no clue what I was reading at the time and I enjoy them much more now.) That dream includes printed books. Paper and ink. A real editor and real publisher. Not ones and zeroes. No “independent author” status--and is that title full of PC garbage or what?

But the reality is, the publishing world is a jungle and it’s not getting any friendlier (it probably never was very friendly, but there was a day when books outnumbered televisions; and back in the ‘80s, the latest bestsellers were always hot conversation topics). With the economy as it is who knows how long before the industry recovers, if at all, considering the poor sales reports that are not hard to find, and highlighted by those who now have a vested interest in electronic books.

E-books apparently are the future, though I’m sure print books will survive in a niche form. If motor cars ever go fully electric, we’ll still have gasoline engines for driving enthusiasts who need internal combustion for their sports cars. The car replaced the horse and buggy, but horses still occupy an important place in our culture.

So it’s with that realization in mind that I began putting my work out for the Amazon Kindle and other electronic reading devices; it’s why I’ve taken on the “independent author” title (gak!); and why I’m making the herculean effort of publicizing my work and build an audience. If I can bring an audience to a publisher instead of having to find one once a book is published. . .

My latest is called Justified Sins and it’s an action thriller with hard-boiled elements; fans of The Executioner and “Dirty Harry” and many of Charles Bronson’s films will find something to like; if you’re of the hard-boiled and noir school you will appreciate those aspects of the story. At 35,000 words it’s short, but I think it would have found a home with Gold Medal back in the day. Or maybe Ace. Or Pocket. One can only imagine. I guess that’s the nice thing about doing an e-book: I don’t need to write a 100,000 word door stop. But coming up next is a spy thriller called Heroes Wear Black, a 90,000 word story, which will not only be released for the Kindle but also shopped to real agents and real publishers as I continue my assault on the citadel.

Because e-books are not my dream. Until paper and ink books go away forever, they will always be my preferred format.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Edge #1: The Loner

Starting tomorrow, the ebook reprint of the first novel in the long-running Edge Western series will be available from Amazon, Smashwords, and the other usual suspects.  The cover is a nice one, reminiscent of the original series but different as well.  The book includes a pair of fine introductions by the author, Terry Harknett, and our friend Gary Dobbs, who played a large part in making the series available again.

I first read this novel more years ago than I like to think about and enjoyed it a great deal.  Pinnacle published nearly fifty books in the series, and I read a lot of them (but not all).  Other books were published in England but not in the U.S., and in recent years Terry Harknett has written several sequels that take up the story of Edge's life as an older man.  This seems like a good time for me to reread the first one, which I intend to do in the near future.  I like books written in a distinctive voice, and the Edge novels certainly qualify.  At the time they first came out, there wasn't anything else like them, and although they were widely imitated, they still remain the prime example of Piccadilly Cowboy sub-genre of Westerns.  The Edge series probably isn't for all Western readers, but I've always liked it and hope its return is a triumphant one.

Green Hornet Covers

Here are the covers for the first volume of THE GREEN HORNET CHRONICLES, published by Moonstone Books.  My story "The Cold Cash Kill" appears in this volume, and I've got to tell you, it was great fun to be able to write a Green Hornet story.  I watched the TV show during the Sixties, of course, but my memories of the character go back even farther than that.  I may have talked about this before, in which my apologies for repeating myself, but during the early Sixties one of the local radio stations (KRLD, 1080AM -- which still exists) ran a syndicated package of old radio show reruns every night between 10 o'clock and midnight.  The series were The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Gangbusters, and The Green Hornet, in that order.  I was in elementary school and had to go to bed at 10 o'clock, but I had a radio right next to my bed and could get away with listening to those OTR shows if I kept the volume turned low enough.  I nearly always made it through The Lone Ranger and The Shadow, and about half the time I was able to stay awake long enough to listen to Gangbusters and The Green Hornet.  I loved the shows and never forgot the old "Extry!  Extry!  Green Hornet still at large!" ending.  Wonderful stuff.  Getting the chance to spin a yarn featuring the character nearly fifty years later . . . well, that's one of the great perks of being a writer, I guess.  I'm really looking forward to seeing this book.  It's at the printers now and should be out soon.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Another Picture From Way Back When

I think this must have been taken around Christmas 1975 before we were married.  I know it's in the living room of the house where her parents lived then.  I can barely remember being that young.


Today Livia and I have been married for 34 years.  August 21, 1976 still seems like yesterday in so many ways.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Book of Robert E. Howard

Between the ages of 18 and 23, I read a lot of books. I was in college part of that time, and the other part I was a young married guy trying to break in as a writer. As a matter of fact, I was 23 when I sold my first story. I read Doc Savage novels, Matt Helm novels, Saint novels, assorted Westerns, a ton of mystery novels, at least two tons of comic books, quite a bit of science fiction. I went through a literary phase where I read a lot of Hemingway (I read THE SUN ALSO RISES at least twice during that period and almost wrote about it for this post) and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read quite a bit of historical adventure fiction by the likes of Frank Yerby and Rafael Sabatini (SCARAMOUCHE was a favorite of mine, a great swashbuckler). But there was one book I read that was really special to me. Some of you could probably guess the author, even if it wasn’t right up there in the post title.

I’m talking about THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD.

I bought it off the paperback rack (it was a wall rack by then, not a spinner) in Thrifty Drug Store, where I bought a lot of paperbacks, digest magazines, and comics over the years and in all of its various incarnations. (The store changed hands four or five times while I was buying stuff there.) I think it was a Sunday morning when I bought THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, but I may be wrong about that. But whenever it was, I know one thing: I took it home and immediately began to read it.

You see, before that I had read all the Lancer editions of Howard’s Conan stories. I didn’t know the full story then about the involvement of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter with these stories, all I knew was that I really liked the ones written by Howard and published in WEIRD TALES during the Thirties. Of course, even those weren’t pure Howard as published in the Lancers, but close enough to make me a fan for life. I’d also read the Lancer edition of the Kull stories. But even though I knew from de Camp’s introductions to the various volumes that Howard had written other things besides sword-and-sorcery yarns, I hadn’t read any of them until I picked up that copy of THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD. My reaction to it was simple, yet overwhelming.

This guy could write anything.

There were humorous Westerns and serious Westerns, boxing yarns that were slapstick comedies and ones that were grim and bloody, historical adventures with just as much swashbuckling and swordplay as the sword-and-sorcery tales, detective stories that were more about headlong action than detection, creepy and atmospheric horror stories . . . Well, maybe I exaggerated slightly when I said that Howard could write anything. Not every single genre of fiction is represented among his work, of course. But not only was he able to write across a wide swath of the pulp market, but he had also done an excellent job of it.

Why should you dig up a copy of THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD and read it, if you haven’t already? Because it’s incredibly entertaining, and the Zebra edition has a pretty nice (if a little bizarre) Jeff Jones cover. You’ll get a fine cross-section of Howard’s stories. Zebra also published THE SECOND BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD, THE VULTURES OF WHAPETON, THE LOST VALLEY OF ISKANDER, THE IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF DENNIS DORGAN, WOLVES FROM THE SEA, etc. All of them are very much worth reading.

Most of this stuff has been reprinted in recent years in beautiful editions from Del Rey, Bison Books, and others, with the purest text possible and in some cases versions that have never been published before, and I highly recommend all of them. I own most of them, and when I reread Howard, it’s usually these newer editions I read.

But for sheer nostalgia, for taking me back instantly to that period of my life between the ages of 18 and 23, nothing has quite the same kick as THE BOOK OF ROBERT E. HOWARD. That copy I bought in Thrifty Drug Store is long gone, but I may just have to hunt up another one. I think I’d like to read those yarns again, in the book where I first discovered them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Agents of Treachery - Otto Penzler, ed.

Back during the secret agent craze in the Sixties, I was a huge fan of espionage fiction and read all of it I could get my hands on: from John Le Carré and Eric Ambler to Ian Fleming and Donald Hamilton to now obscure stuff like Desmond Cory’s Johnny Fedora series and Manning Coles’ Tommy Hambledon books to the pulpier yarns like the Nick Carter series and the Man From U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novels. In recent decades, though, not so much. Not nearly so much.

But I did pick up a new anthology edited by Otto Penzler, AGENTS OF TREACHERY, which he claims in his introduction is the first original anthology of spy fiction. That doesn’t seem like it ought to be right, but I’ll give him this: I sure couldn’t think of another one. This volume features spy stories, most of them novelette or novella length, from some of today’s big-name writers. I thought it would be a good chance to sample some work by writers I hadn’t read before, and that certainly proved to be the case. However, in the end I found the book to be something of a disappointment.

I can’t fault the writing, which is certainly excellent all the way through. Most anthologies include a story or two I just don’t like and don’t finish, but that’s not the case here. All the stories are very well-written and very readable. I suspect the problem lies more with me. Some of them just don’t have enough plot for their length, as far as I’m concerned, and I didn’t like the endings of most of them. I realize the world of espionage isn’t all sunshine and roses, but man, these are some bleak stories. Also, a lot of them deal with modern-day terrorism, and as a subject for fiction, that just doesn’t interest me much unless it falls into more of the action/adventure category, and even then I’m not all that fond of it.

So it’s no surprise to me that the stories I liked best in this volume are more historical in nature. Stephen Hunter, an old favorite, spins a good World War II yarn about commandos being dropped behind the Nazi lines in conjunction with D-Day. Charles McCarry, whose work I hadn’t read before, contributes a very elegantly written story set in Africa during the 1950s. This is one that maybe could have used a little more plot, but I still liked it. John Lawton, another author new to me, provides a story about spying and scandal in England in the early 60s that’s surprisingly funny and has some nice twists. All the other stories range from good to okay to not-bad, mind you, but those are the three that resonated the most with me.

There are probably a lot of you who would like this book more than I did, so I recommend that if you see it, give it a try. Don’t let this old grump scare you off.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Frequency

This movie is ten years old, so I think it falls into the Movies I’ve Missed category. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Dennis Quaid and Jim Caveziel play father and son (Quaid a New York City firefighter in 1969, Caveziel a homicide cop in 1999) who wind up talking to each other on the same ham radio thirty years apart. They’re able to do that because of something about solar flares and the Aurora Borealis (don’t bother trying to figure it out, just accept the gimmick and move on). Caveziel’s character, who knows that his father died fighting a fire in 1969, seizes the opportunity to change the past and save his dad’s life.

Of course, things don’t work out like he intended, because as anybody who’s ever read any science fiction knows, when you change even one thing in the past it has a ripple effect and a lot of other things get changed, too. In this case, people die who weren’t supposed to and lives get ruined. Father and son wind up having to work together to solve a thirty-year-old mystery and catch a serial killer.

There are a lot of twists in this plot, which, while not completely unexpected, work very effectively. It’s a well-written film, nailing down all the loose ends I could see, and well-acted, too, which helps to generate considerable suspense in some scenes, especially toward the end. I liked this one a lot, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s certainly worth watching.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Orrie Hitt Article

This is purely a wild coincidence, but I've found out there's an article about Orrie Hitt in today's edition of the Port Jervis, New York newspaper (Hitt's hometown).  You can read it here.

According to the article, he died in 1975, not 1967, as I stated in the previous post.  But I think his last novel was published in 1967.  That must have been what I was thinking of. 

Forgotten Books: The Tavern - Orrie Hitt

It’s been a while since I read an Orrie Hitt book, so this seemed like a good time. THE TAVERN was published in 1966, very late in his career. It also has some personal meaning to me, because I had a copy of this one before the fire but never got around to reading it. It may have been the only Orrie Hitt novel I owned at that time. I might have had one more, but I can’t remember for sure. For some reason, copies of his books just never showed up in the used bookstores around here.

This one revisits many of Hitt’s usual themes but also has some interesting differences. The protagonist is Hal Mason, a young man just out of high school who goes to work as a bartender at Mike’s Place, a rundown tavern just over the county line from the county where Hal and his friends live. You see, the drinking age in the county where Hal lives is 21, while in the next county, where Mike’s is located, it’s 18. So naturally, all the kids go across the line to Mike’s to get drunk. As usual in a Hitt novel, that’s not the only line they cross.

Hal’s youth and relative inexperience set him apart from most of Hitt’s protagonists, but he’s still worldly enough to be juggling the standard three women: Wanda, the good girl (one of many Wandas in Hitt novels); Gert, the slut with a good heart; and Tina, the stripper who’s married to Mike, the owner of the tavern. Of the three, Hal falls hardest for Tina, who is, of course, exactly the one he shouldn’t get involved with. Eventually, blackmail and murder rear their ugly heads.

Hitt has done all this many times before in his books, but the character of Hal makes THE TAVERN an interesting novel. He considers himself a heel-in-training, so to speak, but despite a few slips, he’s such a decent kid at heart that this book might almost be titled ANDY HARDY GETS LAID. Which brings up another point: other than the blonde’s outfit on the cover and the fact that Hal drives a Renault, there’s no sense that this book is set in the Swinging Sixties. It might as well take place in the Forties or Fifties, which gives it a certain nostalgic charm.

Other than an ending that seems a little rushed, as if Hitt realized he’d made his word count, THE TAVERN is a pretty good book, very readable and fast-paced. At this point, Hitt didn’t have many books left in him – I believe he died in 1967 – and he seems to have mellowed slightly, but this novel still has plenty of drive to it. If you run across a copy, I recommend that you grab it. THE TAVERN is well worth reading, and I’m glad I replaced the copy I lost and finally read it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hemingway Cutthroat - Michael Atkinson

I’ve long been a fan of Ernest Hemingway’s work, and I like the literary detective sub-genre where an actual writer from the past functions as the detective in a mystery novel. (See Joe Gores’ excellent HAMMETT for an early example of this sort of book.) So it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT, the second novel in Michael Atkinson’s series casting Papa as a crime-solver.

For one thing, the set-up is perfectly believable. Hemingway is in Spain in 1937, writing dispatches about the Spanish Civil War and struggling with the creative process for the novel that eventually will become FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Fellow writer John Dos Passos shows up and tells Hemingway that a mutual friend of theirs who they knew in Italy during World War I has disappeared and possibly been murdered. The two writers set out to find out what happened to the missing man, which proves to be dangerous in the political minefield that is Madrid during wartime.

There’s not really a lot of mystery to this one, although Hemingway does wind up solving his friend’s murder, of course. It’s more of a historical adventure novel, and an excellent one, at that. I’m not a real student of the Spanish Civil War, but the details seem accurate enough to me and Atkinson does a fine job of recreating that particular time and place. Wisely, he doesn’t try to imitate Hemingway’s style – although the Hemingway voice does come through in places – but rather tells his story in prose that ranges from bleak and hardboiled to bizarrely funny, almost surreal, in fact (as in the opening scene that involves a bullfight in the basement of a building in Madrid).

Atkinson also succeeds in painting an interesting portrait of Hemingway as both a writer and a man: struggling with his work, juggling the affair he’s carrying on with Martha Gellhorn with all the fleeting relationships he has with various women in Madrid, wrestling with the issues of honor and bravery that crop up so often in his writing as he risks his life to find out the truth of what happened to his friend. One of the goals of historical fiction is to make it seem to the reader like the events mixed in with the historical background really could have happened, and Atkinson succeeds admirably in that regard. Once Hemingway reaches a certain point in his investigation, history tells us what’s going to happen next, but that doesn’t take anything away from the headlong pace of the book.

I haven’t read the first novel in this series, HEMINGWAY DEADLIGHTS, but I plan to. HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT is a well-written, very entertaining yarn.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Late Rain - Lynn Kostoff

Earlier this year, New Pulp Press reprinted Lynn Kostoff’s debut novel, A CHOICE OF NIGHTMARES, which was originally published in 1991. I have a copy of that one but haven’t read it yet, but I’ve just read Kostoff’s brand-new novel, LATE RAIN, published by Tyrus Books.

LATE RAIN is a crime novel set in Magnolia Beach, South Carolina (“The other Myrtle Beach”, as a billboard on the road coming into town proclaims). Stanley Tedros is the elderly owner of a regional soft drink bottling and distributing company that’s poised to go national. He has a very lucrative buy-out offer from a national company on the table, but he refuses to take it, which annoys his ambitious daughter-in-law Corinne, who has a shady past that she’s trying to hide. Corinne knows she can get her husband Buddy to do whatever she wants, so she decides her life would be a lot better if Stanley was dead and Buddy inherited the company. She sets out to make that happen.

Meanwhile, former homicide detective Ben Decovic is working as a patrol officer in Magnolia Beach, handling all sorts of petty crimes and trying to deal with his own tragic past. When Stanley Tedros is murdered, Ben winds up investigating and becoming involved with the family of the only witness, an elderly former building contractor named Jack Carson who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and can’t really give the police any useful information.

Naturally, Corinne’s plans don’t work out exactly the way she wants them to, and things get out of control, resulting in several more murders. Kostoff keeps all the plotlines perking along nicely, weaving them together into a fast-paced, very well-written novel. The prose is terse and hardboiled but has plenty of poetic touches, but where Kostoff really shines is in his handling of the characters. The “cop with a dark past” bit has been done a lot, but Kostoff makes Ben Decovic believable and sympathetic. Corinne is evil but human at the same time, and the assorted criminal lowlifes who populate the book are both funny and scary. The highlight of the book for me, though, is Jack Carson. Writing from the point of view of someone with Alzheimer’s had to be a tricky task, but Kostoff manages to do so with plenty of poignancy that never turns into pathos. It’s a really nice achievement.

Overall, so is LATE RAIN. It reminds me a little of the work of Elmore Leonard, only it’s more tightly plotted. This is an excellent novel that makes me eager to read Kostoff’s earlier books.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Adventures of Dodge Dalton in the Shadow of Falcon's Wings - Sean Ellis

A while back I was privileged to read the manuscript of Sean Ellis's new novel, THE ADVENTURES OF DODGE DALTON IN THE SHADOW OF FALCON'S WINGS.  Yes, that's a long title, but when you read the book you'll understand why it fits.  It's an excellent pulpish adventure yarn.  Here's what Amazon has to say about it:

IN THE GOLDEN AGE OF ADVENTURE... Dodge Dalton's stories about the adventures of Captain Zane Falcon have made both the author, and his iconic protagonist, famous. Maybe a little too famous.

When a diabolical villain, wielding a fantastic power unearthed in the ruins of a forgotten civilization, kidnaps the president, he has only one demand...a fight with America's greatest hero. There's just one problem: Falcon doesn't exist.

Or does he?

In order to save America, Dodge must embark on a journey to the ends of the earth to find Captain Falcon, and along the way will discover the hero within himself.

"Falcon's Wings is high flying adventure at its best. Cleverly conceived, original, and multi-layered, the action literally jumps off the page and takes the reader through unexpected twists and turns," says Rob MacGregor, author of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Amazon: The Ghost Tribe.

I really enjoyed this book.  It's available for the Kindle and also in trade paperback.  Check it out if you enjoy pulp yarns and cliffhanger adventure serials.

The Trailsman #346: Arkansas Ambush

Speaking of writing under house-names, as I was yesterday on the Western Fictioneers blog, there's a new Trailsman novel just out that readers of this blog might be interested in.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Lance Star Website Launches

(Here's an update from my friend Bobby Nash.  I've read the first Lance Star comic book, and it's a lot of fun.  Check it out.)


Bobby Nash is proud to announce the launch of http://www.lance-star.com/.

www.lance-star.com is the new home for all things Lance Star: Sky Ranger. Since 2006, Lance Star and his air aces, the Sky Rangers have thrilled readers with their amazing adventures. The first Lance Star: Sky Ranger pulp anthology was published by Wild Cat Books in 2004. Vol. 1 was reissued in 2006 by Airship 27 Productions and Cornerstone Books where they remain available today. A second volume of anthology tales was released in 2009 and is also still available. You can find out information on the Lance Star: Sky Ranger Pulp Anthologies, volumes 1 and 2 on the site.

In 2010, BEN Books will release the first Lance Star: Sky Ranger comic book "One Shot!" by writer Bobby Nash and artist James Burns. Additionally, Bobby Nash is currently working on the first Lance Star: Sky Ranger novel, "Cold Snap." Nash says that he hopes "Cold Snap" and "One Shot" will be the first of many Sky Ranger projects to come.

Thanks for stopping by Star Field. Please check back often as we update you on the adventures of Lance Star: Sky Ranger.

There’s more to come.

Happy flying.

New Post at the WF Blog

I have a guest post about writing under pseudonyms and house-names up this morning at the Western Fictioneers blog.  Check it out.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Savage Kick #5 - Steve Hussy and Richard Watts, eds.

First of all, you’ve got to love that cover. At least I do. As a long-time fan of the Fantastic Four and of Jack Kirby’s art, it really jumped out at me. The art is by Richard Watts, based on the cover of an early issue of the FF. (#20? #22? Somewhere along in there.)

This is the first issue of THE SAVAGE KICK I’ve read, and it lives up to its name. It includes ten novelettes and short stories, all of them rough and violent (even when the violence is mostly emotional). Most are crime stories, but there’s also a war yarn and a few that are unclassifiable. The highlights for me were the interviews with Seymour Shubin (the author of the novel THE HUNCH, published by Murder Slim Press, among others) and Joe R. Lansdale his ownself, accompanied by previously unpublished stories by both authors. Shubin’s story is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read, and I say that as a good thing. Joe’s story is short, nasty, and as usual, very evocative of a time and place. I enjoyed all the other stories, as well as the politically incorrect cartoons by Ivan Brunetti.

Like Pete Risley’s novel RABID CHILD, most of the stories in THE SAVAGE KICK are not for the squeamish or easily offended. But they have the same sort of raw power, and editors Steve Hussy (who also contributed a story) and Richard Watts (the cover and interior art) have done a fine job of producing this issue of “The World’s Greatest Literary Magazine”. It’s available at the Murder Slim Press website, along with back issues and their other fine publications.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Scar Tissue - Marcus Sakey

For several years now, I’ve been seeing the name Marcus Sakey on crime fiction blogs, being mentioned as one of the best new novelists in the genre. But I hadn’t read any of his work except for one short story that appeared in the anthology THRILLER 2, which I liked (and which is reprinted in this collection, by the way).

SCAR TISSUE is a collection of seven stories, all of them previously published but new to me, except for the one mentioned above. It’s also proof positive that yes, I do need to be reading Sakey’s novels, because they’re all excellent stories.

SCAR TISSUE is subtitled “Stories of Love and Wounds”, and that’s a good description. Everyone in these stories is wounded in some way, some by war, some by crime, some by love. Not surprisingly, they’re pretty dark and grim yarns, except for one, “Cobalt”, a story about Y2K that manages to be both dark and very funny. “The Desert Here and the Desert Far Away”, the story that first appeared in THRILLER 2, is about the aftermath of the Iraq War and two soldiers who are similar in some ways but very different in others. It’s very effective and probably my favorite in the collection, but they’re all good.

All these stories are told in tough, unsentimental prose, and I like the way Sakey uses short scenes that jump back and forth in time. Usually I don’t care much for that technique, but he makes it work very well.

SCAR TISSUE is an ebook that’s available on Amazon, Smashwords, and the other usual places on the Web. I read it on the Kindle. It also includes excerpts from Sakey’s four published novels and an advance look at his next novel. This is a fine collection and well worth reading.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Forgotten Books: Ringmaster of Doom - Brant House (G.T. Fleming-Roberts)

When you saw the title RINGMASTER OF DOOM and the by-line Brant House, you probably thought, “Hey, a Secret Agent X novel about the circus!” I know that’s the first thing that went through my mind. Well, as it turns out, this is a Secret Agent X novel, all right, from the November 1935 issue of the pulp magazine of the same name, but there’s no sign of a circus. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good pulp yarn.

This one finds New York City being terrorized by a series of robberies and kidnappings being carried out by brutal, misshapen fiends who look like Neanderthal men. (And speaking of Neanderthals terrorizing modern-day America, I believe there’s a Spider novel by Norvell Page that features the same sort of menace.) Naturally, Secret Agent X has to investigate, and he starts at a fabulous society party being hosted by one of the rich men targeted for kidnapping. While he’s there he has his first violent encounter with one of the beast-men and also runs into a beautiful, redheaded, evil female spy he first crossed swords with during the Great War. From there it’s one breathless adventure after another as the Agent battles the schemes of the mysterious mastermind who calls himself Thoth, after the Egyptian god of the dead, and even wears an ibis-headed mask to make himself look like Thoth.

You know by now whether or not you love this stuff or think it’s just about the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard of. And you know which camp I fall into. You’ve got your Neanderthals serving as henchmen for a criminal genius. You’ve got said criminal genius lashing his prisoners with an electric whip. You’ve got Secret Agent X escaping death-trap after death-trap by the skin of his teeth. And finally you’ve got a battle royal in a network of abandoned sewers along the East River that’s being flooded. There’s not much time to take a breath in this one, and that’s good, of course, because it is wildly, unabashedly, and wonderfully goofy.

But no circus. That setting was a staple of pulp yarns. I don’t know if any of the Secret Agent X novels takes place in a circus, but it would have been a good setting for the Agent to have an adventure. As it is, RINGMASTER OF DOOM is a lot of fun, and as usual, it will soon be available in an affordable reprint edition from our friends at Beb Books.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Shootout at Picture Rock - Joseph A. West

I made the email acquaintance of Western author Joseph A. West a while back, and since I try to read books by people I know, I picked up his 2006 novel SHOOTOUT AT PICTURE ROCK. Set in 1877, the book’s protagonist is Deputy U.S. Marshal John Kilcoyn, who works out of an office in Dodge City that he shares with Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson. One of Kilcoyn’s old enemies, a former lawman turned outlaw, comes back to haunt the marshal by kidnapping Dodge City’s doctor and the doctor’s beautiful daughter, who, as it happens, Kilcoyn intends to marry. With the outlaw holding his hostages for ransom, Kilcoyn sets out to rescue them, along with Bat Masterson and a young Irish photographer who is new to the West.

Well, that’s enough plot for a book right there, you say. But no, Kilcoyn is also being hunted by a renegade Cheyenne war chief because he killed the chief’s son in battle. The marshal also has to deal with a family of crazed, perverted sodbusters who make a business of robbing and killing travelers, somewhat like the infamous Bender family. Oh, and did I mention that while all this is going on, there’s also a killer blizzard bearing down on Kansas?

I had a great time reading this book. West has the knack of piling more and more problems on his hero until the reader really has to wonder how he’s going to get out of it. SHOOTOUT AT PICTURE ROCK has a nice epic feel to it, even though the actual scale of the story isn’t really that large. There’s plenty of action, the characters are well-developed (including an interesting portrait of Bat Masterson, one of my favorite real-life Western characters), and there are some nice twists relating to who lives and who dies (not everybody you’d expect). This is an excellent traditional Western, and lucky for me West is a fairly prolific author, having written more than thirty novels so far with more to come. I plan to read more of his books very soon.  (That's the large print edition of this one over in the Amazon box.)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Whip It

I remember watching roller derby on TV back in the Sixties, but I never had much interest in it because it made absolutely no sense to me. Unlike INVICTUS and rugby, WHIP IT does a pretty good job of explaining the basics of roller derby. And while I’m still unlikely to actually watch any real roller derby contests, it makes a really interesting background for what turns out to be a fine film.

Ellen Page (still adorably cute but less snarky than usual) plays a high school senior in a small town in Texas who is being pressured by her mother to compete in beauty pageants. She has no real interest in the pageants, but during a trip to Austin she discovers something that does appeal to her: roller derby. Lying about her age and sneaking around, she tries out for one of the semi-pro teams, finds out she has a real talent for it, and not only makes the team but becomes one of its stars. She even gets a boyfriend out of the deal. But naturally, complications ensue, some of them comedic, some considerably less so.

This is a really smartly written film with a good mix of laughs and drama, and it does a fine job of capturing the mundane small town life Page’s character wants to escape from. The cast is excellent, with Drew Barrymore (who also directed) and Kristen Wiig playing a couple of Page’s teammates and Juliette Lewis as the arch-villain from another team. Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern are Page’s parents. There’s also an extensive soundtrack that works very well.

My only real complaint falls into the quibble category. For a film that’s set in Texas and that tries very hard to capture a Texas atmosphere, why in the world did they shoot it in Michigan? Some authentic Texas scenery would have helped nail down the setting, which turns out to be a little generic.

But like I said, that’s a quibble. I liked WHIP IT a lot. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s well worth watching.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Beat to a Pulp Round One Cover

I know most of you have seen this already, but it's so cool I wanted it on my blog, too.  Can't wait to see the actual book -- and read it, of course!

Also on the subject of BTAP, this week's story is by my buddy Matt Mayo, and it's a dandy.  Check it out, if you haven't already.

Killer Diller

This is another of those Movies I’d Never Even Heard Of, and as often happens with those, it turned out to be a pretty good little film.

The protagonist of KILLER DILLER is a young man who gets in trouble with the law for stealing cars and brawling in bars. (“Stealin’ cars and brawlin’ in bars” . . . Sounds like a line from a country song, doesn’t it?) He’s sent to a halfway house that’s affiliated with the Baptist college in the small Missouri town where he lives. It turns out that he was sent there because he can play the guitar, and the director of the halfway house is putting together a band to play Christian music. Our guitar player hero doesn’t like that, so when he runs into an autistic young man who is a genius at playing the piano, he decides that on the sly, he’ll transform the Noble Defenders of the Word (the name that the director of the halfway house gives the group) into the Killer Diller Blues Band. Naturally, complications ensue.

While this movie definitely falls into the heart-warming and inspirational category, it manages to be fairly gritty in places, too. There are a lot of scenes set in sleazy bars, the language is rough enough to earn a PG-13 rating, and the hero has plenty of flaws. But it’s really nice to see a movie in which religion plays a major part where the script is neither overly sweet and heavy-handed or cynical and mean-spirited.

William Lee Scott, an actor I’m not familiar with, plays the protagonist and does a good job. Lucas Black is excellent as the autistic, piano-playing prodigy. The rest of the cast is populated with character actors like Fred Willard, Ashley Johnson, and one of my favorites, W. Earl Brown (who played Al Swearingen’s right-hand man Dan Dority in DEADWOOD). Most of the music is by veteran bluesmen Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’. I’m not a big fan of the blues, but the music works great in this film.

If you’ve never heard of KILLER DILLER, either, check it out if you run across it. It’s well worth watching.