Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Merlin

I posted about the recent ROBIN HOOD movie the other day, so to go from one British legend to another . . . We’ve been watching the first season of the BBC series MERLIN on DVD and just finished it up. Like ROBIN HOOD, MERLIN takes considerable liberties with the traditional version of the legend. In this one, Merlin isn’t a wise old wizard but rather a young man struggling to come to grips with the powers he possesses, while living in a kingdom where magic has been banned by its ruler, Uther Pendragon. Merlin winds up working as a servant for Uther’s son, Prince Arthur, and discovers that there’s a dragon – the last of the dragons – chained up in a cavern underneath Uther’s castle. The dragon, who talks and sounds just like John Hurt, informs Merlin that his destiny is to protect Arthur and insure that he becomes a great king. And from that set-up, off we go adventuring, as various threats to Camelot crop up and have to be dealt with, mostly by Merlin who has to keep his powers a secret, otherwise Uther will have him killed as an evil magician.


There are a lot of special effects, nothing really fancy but reasonably good most of the time, considerable sword-fighting (always a plus in my book), and a few hints of romance. In this version, Morgan le Fey is Morgana, Uther’s ward and the daughter of one of the king’s old friends who died in battle, and Guiniviere is Morgana’s maid. Arthur is a well-meaning but somewhat dense young knight. At times the mostly young and pretty cast make this come off almost like CAMELOT 90210 (yes, I know that’s a cheap shot), but I got caught up in the storylines and wound up enjoying the series quite a bit. The writing is okay, and the cast does a good job, especially Anthony Head (who was Giles in BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) as Uther, taking a basically unsympathetic character and giving him some depth.


I believe our friend Gary Dobbs, proprietor of The Tainted Archive, is in either this season or the second one, which hasn’t come out yet on DVD. I looked from him in these episodes but didn’t see him. This gives me another reason to watch Season Two when it’s released, but I probably would have anyway. MERLIN is decent fantasy adventure, and if you’re a fan of that genre, it’s worth watching.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this movie. I didn’t know anything about the books on which it’s based except that they’re extremely popular and successful. But as sometimes happens, the unknown turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.


DIARY OF A WIMPY KID is a movie about a kid in middle school. That’s it. Although the script has some lines about how school is a metaphor for life, I’m not sure if the writers intended them seriously or meant them as a subtle dig at movies that take themselves too seriously. The filmmakers manage to avoid most of the other clich├ęs that crop up in movies like this. There’s no voice-over narration by the main character as an adult, looking back on his childhood and drawing valuable lessons from it. They don’t have the kid fall in love with some beautiful, unattainable girl and fail to realize that the girl who’s his buddy is a lot smarter and better-looking. Instead it’s just a movie about the stuff that happens during Greg Heffley’s first year of middle school. The plot is episodic and just sort of meanders along (much like real life). Greg is driven by the desire to be popular, and as a result he does some dumb things, some mean things, and occasionally some noble things. The other characters aren’t as well-developed, but this is Greg’s story, after all. The script has a lot of funny lines and situations, and the cast, mostly unknown to me except for Steve Zahn, who plays Greg’s dad, does a fine job.


This is a prime example of a low-key but very good film, filled with characters you’ll probably recognize from your own school days. Yeah, it’s a movie about kids, made more for kids than adults, but I liked it a lot anyway and highly recommend it. Whether it’ll prompt me to read some of the books is doubtful, but who knows? It might happen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fantastic Four: The Master of Doom - Mark Millar

Since I decided to give Marvel a try again and started reading some of the current books and catching up on the past few years by picking up collected editions, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed most of what I’ve read. And I’ve mentioned before that FANTASTIC FOUR is my all-time favorite comic book. So I had high hopes for this trade paperback collecting an eight-issue run from a couple of years ago that featured the classic FF villain, Doctor Doom. But . . . but . . . boy, I didn’t like it. Characterizations that seemed ’way off, a plot that barely made sense, and art that was good at times but filled with giant panels and double-page spreads that just seemed like a waste of space to me. I know, I know, I’m being a curmudgeon, and I hardly ever post negative reviews of anything, but this one just left a bad taste in my mouth. A new writer, Jonathan Hickman, picked up the title after this run, and I have the first collection featuring his work, too. I’m sure hoping I’ll like it more.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stark House Newsletter

“Hitch was with this great, high-heeled monster of a woman and the only reason I was along, I spoke Italian and Hitch did not. It turned out that the woman was not Italian at all, she was Sicilian, and her glue-voiced accent was so heavy that I understood almost as little as Hitch. Not that it mattered.”

Hello Everyone--
Stark House Press is happy to announce the long-awaited publication of the late, great Peter Rabe’s final manuscripts, The Silent Wall and The Return of Marvin Palaver. Along with a very rare Rabe short story, “Hard Case Redhead,” the books will appear in a single volume this coming January. The above passage is the opening from The Silent Wall, which Booklist calls “a claustrophobic noir, at times almost unbearably tense.” And it is certainly that. Matty Matheson has the run of an entire town but he is not allowed to leave, held captive by the Mafia for reasons he only thinks he knows.

The Return of Marvin Palaver is a darkly comic, highly complex short book about a swindle, payback and the incredible lengths one man will go to get his revenge against the man who ruined him. Rabe never wrote the same book twice and even with his talent for writing different kinds of crime fiction, the story will leave you breathless with its unique voice and dark sense of humor.

Shortly before his death in 1990, Rabe had sent these manuscripts to friend and author Ed Gorman, who’s had them in his possession until now. We’re ecstatic to be the ones who are finally bringing these books, along with the short story “Hard Case Redhead,” into the world. In “Redhead,” two thieves and their uninvited guest try to wait out the aftermath of a troublesome heist. It’s hard-boiled and noir and shows that Rabe could write just as well at shorter lengths.

Donald E. Westlake named Rabe and Hammett his two major genre influences, Bill Pronzini called him “a kind of fictional surgeon,” and Bill Crider said, “Few writers are Rabe’s equal in the field of the hardboiled gangster story.” If you’ve never read Peter Rabe, there’s no better time to start.

We’re also announcing the creation of the Stark House Book Club with a special offer of free shipping on all our books to everyone who signs up now. No minimum to buy, no obligation, just sign up and you’ll receive each new release, hassle free and with no shipping, as they are published. For a limited time, each new member can order as many backlist titles as they’d like for 15% off list price and again, free shipping. To sign up for the club, e-mail us at griffinskye3@sbcglobal.net. And to check out our list of authors and titles, visit our website at www.starkhousepress.com.

On tap for the near future are a two-in-one volume of vintage sleaze crime novels from the famous (under his real name) Don Elliott and a nice trio from Day Keene, and many other exciting titles. So sign up now and don’t miss a book!

To receive this newsletter automatically, please send your e-mail address. We look forward to hearing from you.

Cheers,
Greg Shepard, publisher
Stark House Press

Robin Hood

From everything I’ve read about it, the latest version of ROBIN HOOD is so historically inaccurate that it might be best just to approach it as an alternate history version of the legend. So that’s what I decided to do, and looking at it that way, this ROBIN HOOD is a halfway decent adventure movie.


It starts during the Crusades and focuses on a common archer named Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe), who, through an incredibly convoluted bit of plot business, winds up impersonating a minor nobleman named Robert Loxley when he returns to England. Political intrigue abounds – in fact, there’s probably too much of it for my taste – but there’s still room for a number of good action scenes. Armies clash in battle. Swords get swung. Arrows fly through the air. The editing is okay for the most part. Eventually it becomes obvious that this is just a prequel, a set-up for future movies, but whether or not they’ll ever get made is anybody’s guess.


I tend to like Russell Crowe, and he’s fine as Robin. His supporting cast of merry men, which includes the great Mark Addy as Friar Tuck (surely the role he was born to play), is good, too. Cate Blanchett is Lady Marion, a widow in this version, and the always-welcome Max Von Sydow is an elderly nobleman. There are several villains, and they’re all suitably dethpicable, as Daffy Duck would say. There’s a nice little in-joke in the script that harkens back to Crowe’s A BEAUTIFUL MIND. The problems are all that political intrigue I mentioned above, which gets a little dull and hard to follow at times, and the fact that the movie is more than two and a half hours long and feels a little too leisurely in some stretches. Overall, though, I enjoyed it and think it’s worth watching. However, it really makes me want to go back and watch THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD again, the classic version starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, and Trigger, and I just don’t have time right now to watch movies I’ve already seen. Maybe someday.

Friday, November 26, 2010

More Free Books

Livia's giving away books again on her blog. This time it's one copy each of the brand-new Delilah Dickinson hardcover, KILLER ON A HOT TIN ROOF (with a great cover) and the mass-market paperback edition of the second Delilah novel, HUCKLEBERRY FINISHED.  All the details are here.

Forgotten Books: Lawnmower Blues - Rex Anderson

My friend Clifford Fausset recommended this book to me, otherwise I might not have ever heard of it. The author, Rex Anderson, isn’t what you’d call prolific. LAWNMOWER BLUES, which was published in 2005, appears to be only the fourth novel in his career, which began with COVER HER WITH ROSES in 1969. But based on reading this one, I really need to go back and find those other three books.


LAWNMOWER BLUES is a medium-boiled private eye novel. Tony Aapt is a young Houstonian who inherited the agency from his grandfather. Tony’s trying to make a go of it in the security business but also handles more traditional PI work, mostly divorce cases. Then a barmaid at the watering hole Tony frequents wins the lottery and decides to hire him to investigate the murder of her husband. The problem is, the woman’s husband evidently committed suicide, and it happened more than thirty years earlier.


Tony takes the job and begins to investigate anyway, and sure enough, he starts to believe that maybe the guy really was murdered. Turns out there’s a motive worth millions of dollars, and some other things happen that make Tony think somebody – the real killer, maybe? – doesn’t want him to find out the truth.


This is a pretty standard private eye novel plot, and to be honest, it probably could have used another twist or two. However, what really makes LAWNMOWER BLUES worth reading is some wonderful writing. The first-person narration is fast and breezy and pretty funny in places, and Anderson does a great job with the setting (although I’m no expert on Houston, having been there exactly twice in the past fifty years). He also populates this novel with a multitude of eccentric, vividly drawn characters, none of them better than Tony himself. Smart, funny, flawed, and persistent, driven by a moral code that he struggles with, the reader can’t help but like him and root for him.


All that combines to make LAWNMOWER BLUES a top-notch novel that I really enjoyed. Highly recommended. (And if Anderson wants to bring Tony back in another novel, that would be just fine with me.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who celebrate it, and to the rest of you, I hope you have a great day, too!  I plan to work today, but not as much as usual, so there'll be time for family and plenty of good food.  I probably have more to be thankful for than anybody I know, and it's good to stop and remember that from time to time.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Karate Kid

I remember watching and enjoying the original version of THE KARATE KID, but not being a kid myself in the Eighties, I never had the emotional connection to the film that some of you might have. However, I thought it was good enough that there was really no need to do a remake of it, especially when it smacked of a vanity project for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith and their son.


However, now that I’ve seen the new version, I have to say that it’s fairly watchable. The screenplay is considerably different from the original, which helps, and the Chinese scenery is spectacular at times. Also, it has Jackie Chan in it, and he’s always worth watching as far as I’m concerned. And the fight scenes are surprisingly tough. At two hours and twenty minutes, the movie is probably half an hour too long and would be more effective if the pace was faster. But the payoff is okay. Overall I enjoyed it, and unless you’re heavily invested in the original version, it’s a pleasant enough way to pass some time.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bad Girls Need Love, Too - Gary Lovisi

From Gary Lovisi:

Thrill to the pleasures of sexy pulp paperback cover art gorgeously displayed along with those wild, campy, and sleazy blurbs and teaser text that are such a part of these amazing books. This attractive 6 x 8" hardcover contains almost 200 pages full of outstanding sexy pin-up covers, bad girls, steaming situations, wild text and blurbs, all in breath-taking FULL COLOR. It's a frolicking celebration of pulp fiction floozies doomed to keep looking for love in all the wrong places -- it's outrageous glorious pulp excess fun. This book is a feast for the eyes and would make a great gift for the holidays! It is out now. Cover price is just $12.99 + postage.

Also if you're looking for something extra, go to the Bad Girls Need Love Too website and get the lowdown on bad girl images, a free newsletter, free BGNLT wallpaper, and blog about the book at:
www.badgirlsneedlove2.com

You can order the book here.

Book Sale at the Library

Livia, Joanna, and I went to a big book sale at the local public library this morning.  You never know what you're going to find at sales like that.  The prices were good:  $1 for hardbacks and 50 cents for paperbacks (including trade paperbacks).  I picked up eight or ten novels, most of them fairly contemporary thrillers by authors I haven't read before.  I don't mind betting a buck a book in a case like that, especially when the proceeds benefit the library.  I don't check out all that much these days, but I like knowing it's there.

Those of you who remember my post about baseball novels a month or so ago will understand why I was excited when I found a couple of Chip Hilton novels by Clair Bee.  Unfortunately, when I looked closer I realized they were "new, updated" versions of the original novels.  Maybe I'm being unfair, but right back they went onto the shelf.  Nearly all the "updated" novels I've read in my life have been nowhere near as good as the originals.  (Yes, I'm talking to you, Frank and Joe Hardy and your chums.) Anyway, I did find a 1945 baseball novel by Jackson Scholz.  It's a later reprint but appears to have the original text.  That one I grabbed.

We also got a bunch of non-fiction books on various subjects to go in our research library (a high-falutin' name for dozens of books stacked here, there, and yonder), and Joanna picked up quite a few books for her third-grade class.  Right now the bags, nearly a dozen of them, are still stacked on the sofa, waiting to be gone through, so I don't really know what we have in there.  I do know, though, that it was a very pleasant way to spend part of a Saturday morning when I really should have been working.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Forgotten Books: The Iron Trail - Jackson Cole (Peter Germano)

Warning: Nostalgia ahead.

When I was in high school, my favorite class was . . . study hall. We weren’t required to take study hall, you understand, but I always did, and for one simple reason. Most of my teachers would give us time in class to work on our homework, and I’d finish it there, leaving me with nothing to do in study hall but sit and read some library book or paperback. Yep, 55 minutes in the middle of an otherwise boring school day when I could spend some time with John Carter or Simon Templar or Shell Scott or Donald Lam and Bertha Cool.

The teacher in charge of study hall (which was located in an old converted World War II army barracks) was Coach Gilmore, one of the assistant football coaches. The coach, as you might expect, was a large, rather intimidating man who didn’t seem to care for the fact that I always sat there reading. One day he got up from his desk, walked over to where I was sitting, and loomed over me with a frown on his face.

“Reasoner, don’t you have any homework to do?”

“Already did it, Coach.”

“What kind of grades do you make, Reasoner?”

“All A’s, Coach.”

He looked at me for a second longer, then sighed, shook his head, and walked away.

(That was a slight exaggeration on my part. I usually made all A’s, but occasionally I made a B in P.E.)

All of which is my long-winded lead-in to the fact that I remember very well the first Jim Hatfield novel I read. It was a Popular Library paperback called GUNSLINGER’S RANGE, and I read it during study hall in that old barracks building (which is long gone, by the way, and the high school I attended then is now a junior high). I wasn’t a big fan of Westerns at the time – most of my reading consisted of mysteries and science fiction – but I read quite a few of them here and there. GUNSLINGER’S RANGE was great fun. I recall racing right through it, flipping the pages as fast as I could to get to the big showdown at the end between Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield and the three outlaws who had escaped from prison to hunt him down. That made me a Hatfield fan, and so I immediately started looking for more Jackson Cole paperbacks and discovered that there were a lot of them. Even then I checked copyright pages and such and noticed that GUNSLINGER’S RANGE was copyright in the Forties by Standard Magazines, or possibly by Better Publications (it doesn’t matter, it was the same outfit). I was already familiar with pulps, so it didn’t take me long to figure out that the Hatfield novels were reprints from some Western pulp.

Well, that pulp was TEXAS RANGERS, of course, which ran from 1936 to 1958, making it one of the last true pulps. Over the years I read all the Hatfield paperbacks I could find, learned more about the actual authors behind the Jackson Cole house-name, and even amassed a sizable collection of the original pulps (although it didn’t rival the collection of my friend Jim Griffin, who had the entire run before he donated it to the Texas Ranger Museum in Waco). Through the generosity of several people after the fire destroyed my original collection, I once again have quite a few issues of TEXAS RANGERS.

But what about “The Iron Trail”, you ask? It’s the lead novel in the January 1953 issue, which I read recently. In this case, the actual author is Peter Germano, who wrote quite a few of the Hatfield novels during the Fifties but is better known as the Western novelist Barry Cord. Germano was one of the best of the Hatfield authors, and “The Iron Trail” is a fine yarn that opens with a great scene in which outlaws attack a medicine show wagon that’s pulling a cage with a huge tiger in it. The medicine show is called Doc Pinkle’s Jungle Caravan, and Doc Pinkle sells a potent potion known as Tigereye Tonic, the Wonder Remedy. Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, also known as the Lone Wolf, who is riding into the area because a railroad baron building a spur line has been plagued by payroll holdups, interrupts the attack and from there is drawn into a fast-paced adventure featuring gunfights, double-crosses, and a hidden mastermind (and if you don’t spot said mastermind right away, you’ve never read a pulp Western or watched a B-Western movie, but that’s okay).

While the plot of “The Iron Trail” is pretty predictable, it has several things going for it that make it well worth reading. First is Germano’s usual lean, hardboiled prose, which makes for some fine action scenes. Then you’ve got off-beat elements like the presence of that tiger, and a great fight that takes place on top of a moving train. If you’ve read many of my Westerns, you know I like that sort of stuff, and the fact that this battle takes place while the train is racing over a high trestle makes it even better.

“The Iron Trail” probably isn’t in the top rank of Jim Hatfield novels, but it’s a solidly entertaining yarn. It hasn’t been reprinted since its original appearance, so it’s not like you can run out and grab a copy. But the paperback reprints of many other Hatfield novels are still fairly easy to find in used bookstores and on the Internet and usually aren’t very expensive. The quality of the stories varies, of course, as with any house-name series, but I’ve enjoyed nearly all the ones I’ve read, both in the pulps and in paperback. If you’re a Western fan and you run across one, I recommend that you give it a try.

By the way, as I said last week in my comment about reading Shadow novels while I was in college, Coach Gilmore didn’t know it, and I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but I really was studying when I was reading all those paperbacks in study hall, especially the Jim Hatfield novels, which years later had a definite impact on my career . . .

But that’s another story.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Book Giveaway

Livia's giving away one copy each (autographed, of course) of her most recent Fresh Baked Mysteries, KILLER CRAB CAKES and THE PUMPKIN MUFFIN MURDER.  You can find out all the details on her blog here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Legendary

I enjoyed John Cena’s first two movies, THE MARINE and 12 ROUNDS (I thought 12 ROUNDS was one of the best action movies I’ve seen in recent years, in fact), so it should come as no surprise that I watched his latest film, LEGENDARY. This one is much different from the first two, though. It’s not an action movie at all, but rather an inspirational sports movie, the sport in this case being high school wrestling. And Cena’s not the star but plays a supporting role instead, as the older, estranged brother of the misfit high school kid who decides to take up wrestling.


If you’ve ever seen one of these sports/family dramas, you’ll know just about everything that’s going to happen in LEGENDARY long before it gets there. Despite the predictability of the plot, though, it’s a fairly entertaining film with the occasional funny line and good performances all around. Cena is a more than decent actor and does a fine job as the guilt-haunted, black sheep older brother who has problems with boozing and brawling. An actor I’d never heard of, Devon Graye, plays the protagonist, Patricia Clarkson is the widowed mom, and another actor I’m not familiar with, Madeleine Martin, gives an oddball but very effective performance as the kid’s best friend/potential girlfriend. Danny Glover, whose work I’ve enjoyed since SILVERADO, is the Wise Old Black Man. (Morgan Freeman was either out of town that week or else the budget wasn’t big enough to hire him, probably the latter.)


If you enjoy this genre, which I do, LEGENDARY is certainly worth watching. I like John Cena enough that I’ll probably continue watching whatever he’s in, at least for now. Oddly enough, I’ve only seen him in movies. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him “rassle”.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Forgotten Books: Gangland's Doom - Frank Eisgruber Jr.

I think I’ve mentioned before that my introduction to The Shadow was through syndicated reruns of the radio show in the early Sixties. The first Shadow novel I read was THE SHADOW STRIKES!, the second book in the series of original Shadow novels published by Belmont and the first one by Dennis Lynds writing under the Maxwell Grant name. I was a big fan of that series and read all of them as they were published. Then Bantam started reprinting some of the original pulp novels, followed by other publishers doing the same, and I read ’em all. I remember sitting in the university library when I was in college, reading Shadow paperbacks with those fine covers by Jim Steranko. Great stuff. (What’s that you say? I should have been studying? Considering how I’ve made my living all these years . . . I think maybe I was!)


Anyway, at the same time, 1974, Robert Weinberg was publishing the first book-length study of the Shadow pulp series, GANGLAND’S DOOM: THE SHADOW OF THE PULPS, by Frank Eisgruber Jr. I’d heard of this book but never read it until now, in a revised edition published by Altus Press in 2007.


A lot of the information contained in it – bibliographic info about the story titles, publication dates, and actual authors, as well as chapters on The Shadow’s agents and the villains he fought – has appeared elsewhere over the past three-and-a-half decades, but GANGLAND’S DOOM is an important book because it was the first. Not only that, but despite Eisgruber’s modest comments about his writing ability in a new preface, this is a well-written book with plenty of the charm that comes through when an author is writing about a subject he truly loves and enjoys. It’s fun being a fan, and that quality is definitely in evidence here. In addition, if you’ve never read a Shadow novel and don’t know much about the series, GANGLAND’S DOOM is an excellent concise introduction to one of the longest running and most influential pulp magazines that also had an important influence on other areas of popular culture. This is well worth reading and highly recommended.


And since I haven’t read a Shadow novel myself for a while, it’s really put me in the mood for one. Whether or not I actually get around to reading one before something else distracts me (I’m a lot like a puppy that way), who knows? We’ll see.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Oh, Well . . .

Yeah, I went back to the old template.  I never could get the colors on the new one to look like I wanted them to.  Just pretend that you never saw the other one.  These are not the droids you're looking for . . .

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Blog Redesign

I changed the look of the blog sort of on the spur of the moment, figuring that after more than six years it was time for something new. So far I like it, but if I decide I hate it I'll change it to something else. No point in standing still.


I started working on a new book today, too, always a good feeling, and got some more details on my schedule for next year, also a plus.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Pumpkin Muffin Murder

Livia's latest Fresh-Baked Mystery novel is now available.  I'm hardly an unbiased reader, but I really like these books.  Great characters, very twisty plots, and lots of local color.  And I get to sample most of the recipes that are featured in them, too.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Hascal Giles, RIP

As reported by Curt Phillips on the PulpMags Yahoo Group:


"Western writer Herman Hascal Giles died Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in a hospice facility in Bristol, Tennessee. He was 88. Giles was well known locally as a former newspaperman and had been the publisher of our leading regional newspaper - The Bristol Herald Courior - for 30 years beginning about 1950, but pulpfans will remember him as Hascal Giles, the author of 5 novels and several dozen western short stories for MASKED RIDER and other western pulps."


He also wrote several Steve Reese novels for RANGE RIDERS WESTERN
and came out of retirement in the Eighties to write several stand-alone
traditional Western novels that were published by Zebra, I believe. I hate
to admit it, but I don't think I've ever read anything by Hascal Giles. I
probably ought to remedy that. Rest in peace.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Another Million Words

I know I said I wasn't going to be posting as much, but yesterday I hit a million words for the year again, sixth year in a row, and I think that's worth noting.  Last year I didn't reach a million words until December 1, so I'm a few weeks ahead of that pace.  I'm very grateful to the editors who have faith in me and give me a chance to write that much, and to Livia for everything she does to make the process work as smoothly as it does.  (And let me tell you, she does a lot!)

Friday, November 05, 2010

Forgotten Books: Tarzan and the Lion Man - Edgar Rice Burroughs

As with so many of these books, I can tell you where and at least roughly when I bought my original copy of this novel. I picked it up used at Thompson’s Bookstore in downtown Fort Worth during one of those long-ago, seemingly-endless-at-the-time junior high summers I spent watching old movies on TV, playing sandlot baseball, kissing a girl who was spending the summer with her cousin who lived down the street from me (I wish I could remember her name!), and reading mass quantities of comic books, digest magazines, and paperbacks. I probably read most of it on my parents’ front porch stretched out on one of those folding lounge chairs made from interwoven strips of green and white plastic that left a crosshatch pattern on any bare skin that came in contact with them for very long.


But what about the book, you say, or am I going to spend this entire post waxing nostalgic? Well, I can tell you that I remembered it as one of my favorites from the Tarzan series and one of my favorite Burroughs novels, period, because it was so goofy and over-the-top. When I recently came across a copy of that same Ace edition with the Frazetta cover, I decided it was time to reread it and see how it holds up after all those years.


I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, this time around. It’s certainly the funniest Burroughs novel I’ve ever read.


Tarzan himself barely appears in the first half of this book. It’s the story of a group of filmmakers who go to Africa to make a picture about a “lion man”, a boy who is raised by lions and becomes, well, the king of the jungle. This allows Burroughs to make considerable fun of Hollywood, including the casting of a novice actor and champion marathon runner as the Tarzan-like Lion Man. Any resemblance to champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller I’m sure was completely intended. By this time in his career, Burroughs had already gone through the experience of producing his own Tarzan movie, the serial THE NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN, starring Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett), so he’s able to paint a satirical picture of Hollywood executives, directors, and writers, along with the other members of a motion picture company on location.


Not surprisingly, the movie safari runs into a lot of trouble. They’re attacked by hostile natives, betrayed by some of their own, and split up to endure some assorted adventures, as Burroughs employs his usual technique of cutting back and forth between parallel storylines. So far, so good, although other than the humor there’s really not much to distinguish TARZAN AND THE LION MAN from most of the other books in the generally lackluster second half of the Tarzan series.


But then, halfway through, Burroughs comes up with a twist so bizarre that I remembered it vividly more than four decades later, and that plot element, which I can’t even describe without ruining it for any potential readers, dominates the rest of the book. Reading it now, it made slightly more sense to me than it did the first time around, but it still requires a considerable suspension of disbelief. Burroughs makes it work, though, and he’s not content to leave things that way, either, but instead piles on more and more goofiness, throwing in plot twists almost all the way to the end.


And what an ending. The final chapter serves as an epilogue to the book and is one of the best things Burroughs ever wrote. Which is why I issue this warning: if you happen to read the Ace edition of this book, don’t read the foreword by Camille Cazedessus, Jr., which gives away ’way too much of what happens, especially in the end.


I’ll be honest with you. You might find this book stupid, silly, and ridiculous and think that I’m crazy for recommending it. What can I say? It worked for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have remembered it so well and enjoyed it so much 45 years later. It’s really not representative of the Tarzan series, other than TARZAN AND THE FOREIGN LEGION, which has some of the same sort of humor although it’s played much more straight for the most part. But if you want to read a book that’s almost a MAD Magazine version of Tarzan, written by the character’s creator himself, look no further than TARZAN AND THE LION MAN.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Shhhhh . . . We're Hunting Wabbits . . .

Well, actually, we're not.  I haven't hunted rabbits since I was a kid visiting relatives in West Texas.  However, the reason this blog has gone silent in recent days is because Monday I got an email from one of my editors wanting to know the ETA on the current manuscript.  Seems the publisher wants to move it up several months on the schedule.  So I'm trying to wrap it up in time to send it to him next week.  I have a Forgotten Books post lined up for tomorrow (although it's not an official Forgotten Books week), and I'll have one for next week as well.  Other than that I'll just be writing most of the time.  Of course, don't get me wrong, this is a good thing.

Monday, November 01, 2010

The Incredible Hulk: Planet Hulk - Greg Pak

Possible SPOILERS ahead.


Several people recommended PLANET HULK to me as one of the best things Marvel has done in recent years, so I finally got around to reading it. Unlike a lot of storylines, you don’t have to have read 400 previous issues to know what’s going on. If you have even a basic grasp of the Marvel Universe you can follow this one. Several brainy superheroes – Reed Richards, Tony Stark, and Dr. Strange among them – decide the best way to deal with the Hulk is to send him to a distant uninhabited planet where there’s no one to hurt him and no one for him to hurt. The Hulk has always professed a wish to be left alone, so they decide to give him that life. They get their chance when S.H.I.E.L.D. sends the Hulk into space to deal with the threat of an artificially intelligent satellite that’s gone rogue. Reed and Stark modify the shuttle carrying the Hulk so that when he’s finished with his mission, it will carry him off into deep space to the sanctuary planet they’ve selected. (All this is told in a run of issues collected in PLANET HULK PRELUDE, which I’ve also read.)


Unfortunately, things don't go as planned. The shuttle carrying the Hulk goes through some sort of mysterious portal instead, and he finds himself on the savage planet Sakarr, where he is enslaved, forced to fight for his life as a gladiator, leads a rebellion, winds up as the king of the whole place, and falls in love. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler, but honestly, if you’ve ever read Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs, you’re gonna know where this epic yarn is going pretty much every step of the way. It’s not quite “Hulk as Conan” or “Hulk as John Carter”, but it’s close to a blend of the two with some influence from Harlan Ellison as well, by way of the classic Ellison-plotted Hulk story, “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom”. (Funny, when I bought that issue and a handful of others at Lester’s Pharmacy and took it home to read on a summer morning, I never dreamed I’d be writing about it more than forty years later.)


Despite having a pretty good idea what was going to happen, I really enjoying reading this massive collection. As scripter Greg Pak mentions in an afterword, the whole storyline had its genesis in four words: “Hulk”, “alien planet”, and “battleaxe”. That would have gotten my blood pumping, too, as it did Pak’s. His scripts are excellent, with plenty of action, some colorful back-story, the occasional poignant moment, and the even more occasional touches of humor. There’s an effective cameo appearance by another major player in the Marvel Universe, too.


I wasn’t as fond of the art by Carlo Pagulayan, Aaron Lopresti, and various other hands. Some of it’s great, including a number of full-page panels reminiscent of Frank Frazetta’s Conan illustrations, but there were too many pages where the action was confusing and difficult to follow. I know, you’ve heard that complaint from me before about today’s comic books, but I like to be able to tell what’s going on. Overall, the art is okay, and you certainly shouldn’t let it keep you from reading this collection if you’re a fan of the Hulk, but I would have loved to see this storyline illustrated by, say, Neal Adams and Tom Palmer. That’s just me, though. The whole thing is good enough for me to give this one a solid recommendation.