Saturday, June 30, 2007

End-of-the-Month Update

Well, obviously, my mother's situation dominated the month. We realized today that she passed away on her and my dad's wedding anniversary. They were married 66 years ago yesterday. Seems pretty appropriate to me.

Other things were going on as well. Here are the books I read in June:

JONAH HEX: GUNS OF VENGEANCE, Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray
THE OTHER SIDE OF ME, Sidney Sheldon
MIAMI PURITY, Vicki Hendricks
VALLEY OF JEWELS, Max Brand (Frederick Faust)

Plus I read several manuscripts for a contest I'm judging, but I can't really talk about those.

On the movie front, we watched:

MUSIC AND LYRICS (look for a post on this one in a day or two)

I have to say that I enjoyed every one of those movies.

As far as writing goes, this was my least productive month of the year so far, but I still got quite a bit done and think I turned out some pretty good work. The goals that I was trying to meet have gone by the wayside, but that's all right -- they were crazy to start with. I'm not trying to break any records anymore. Now all I'm worried about is getting things done in a timely manner and producing well-written books and stories. Seems simple, doesn't it?

Lastly, many thanks to everyone who's written to me about my mom, both here on the blog and directly. Your kind words are all appreciated, and they definitely do make a difference.

Voluntary Madness -- Vicki Hendricks

After being so impressed with Vicki Hendricks’ first novel, MIAMI PURITY, I had to try something else by her. VOLUNTARY MADNESS is narrated by Juliette, a young woman living in Key West with her somewhat older boyfriend Punch. An aspiring novelist, Punch is in poor health due to diabetes and heavy drinking, so he and Juliette make a suicide pact: for one year, they will live a wild, exciting life in Key West while Punch writes a novel about their experiences -- and then they will kill themselves while riding on one of the Fantasy Fest parade floats on Halloween. It’s a crazy plan, of course, and it becomes even crazier when violence and murder become involved.

The plot of VOLUNTARY MADNESS is sort of episodic and wanders around a little, which is why I didn’t like it quite as much as MIAMI PURITY. But the characterization and that distinctive Hendricks voice -- a blend of eroticism, despair, and wry, very dark humor -- are excellent. She also does a great job with the colorful Key West setting. I can recommend this one very highly, and I think it’s a safe bet to say that I’ll be reading more of Vicki Hendricks’ novels.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Ora Strickland Reasoner, 1916 - 2007

My mom passed away early this afternoon. In her 91 years and almost three months she was a schoolteacher, a library volunteer, raised three kids, and helped out immensely with numerous grandchildren. For a while after her stroke back in January she was making enough progress that we thought she might be able to move out of the rehab facility and go back to regular assisted living someday. However, over the past couple of months it's become obvious that wasn't going to happen. I saw her around the middle of the day today and knew it wasn't going to be much longer, but I really thought we were looking at another week or so. However, the call came from my brother about an hour later, letting me know that she was gone.

I'll still be blogging. I finished reading a book yesterday that I want to talk about, and there are still movies to be watched and writing news to report. So I'll be around.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Circus Parade -- Jim Tully

Having read and enjoyed Jim Tully’s memoir BEGGARS OF LIFE, about his life as a hobo during the early part of the Twentieth Century, I decided to try another of his books. CIRCUS PARADE is set during the same time period but focuses on a season that Tully spent traveling with a rather disreputable circus. It’s well-written and filled with circus lore, colorful characters, and both comedy and tragedy. Tully makes it seem as if the circus world was populated mostly by brutal, dishonest thugs, and to a certain extent that’s probably true. But there are a few sympathetic characters, such as Hilda, the 400-pound Strong Woman; Whiteface the Clown; and Jock, the livestock handler who was probably Tully’s best friend despite being a morphine addict.

CIRCUS PARADE is pretty episodic, and some of the episodes are so grotesque and over-the-top that you have to wonder if Tully made them up or at least embellished them. His books are supposed to be non-fiction, but I have a feeling that he didn’t always let the facts get in the way of a good story. Also, the sex and violence in this book must have been pretty shocking to readers in 1927, when it was originally published. Even a cynical old Adult Western writer like me was shocked a few times.

I didn’t like CIRCUS PARADE as much as I did BEGGARS OF LIFE, but I did enjoy it and found it to be well worth reading. I’m sure I’ll read more of Jim Tully’s books, too, but I’ll probably wait a while before trying another one.

By the way, I read the original edition, but the retitled paperback reprint has a better cover, so that's the one I've posted above.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

When comedians make serious movies, sometimes it works (most of Bill Murray’s efforts along those lines) and sometimes it doesn’t (most of Jim Carrey’s). In STRANGER THAN FICTION, Will Ferrell tries on a more serious role and succeeds pretty well. He plays IRS agent Harold Krick, whose life is suddenly disrupted by a voice-over narration that only he can hear, coming from some woman with a British accent. Eventually Harold discovers that he’s a character in a novel being written by an author (played by Emma Thompson) who’s struggling with writer’s block. But is he only a character on a page, or does he really exist? That’s the question on which most of the movie turns.

While most of the humor in this film is of the whimsical variety, there are a couple of laugh out loud moments, too, and they’re achieved without Ferrell having to run around naked as he does in most of his other movies. One of the questions plaguing Ferrell’s character is whether the novel about him will turn out to be a tragedy or a comedy, and the same question hangs over this movie until the end. The script is well-written and includes some interesting observations about the nature of fiction; the cast, which includes Dustin Hoffman as an English professor, is good all around; the minimalist sets fit right in with the characters and story; and the music, which is in the same vein most of the time, works well. I enjoyed this one quite a bit, more than I expected to, really. Well worth a look.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy -- Chester Gould

When I was a kid (funny how many of my posts start out that way), one of the features on the front page of the comics section in the Sunday newspaper was DICK TRACY. So I grew up reading this comic strip about the square-jawed police detective. Unfortunately, that was during an era in which the strip’s creator, author, and artist Chester Gould had taken it in some weird directions, getting away from the hardboiled police action and bringing in more and more science-fictional elements, such as hidden civilizations on the Moon. I read DICK TRACY anyway and enjoyed it, although it was never one of my favorites.

THE CELEBRATED CASES OF DICK TRACY, an oversized volume containing more than a dozen storylines ranging from Tracy’s first case in 1931 to episodes from the late Forties, is an excellent introduction to this classic strip, featuring numerous examples of the things that made DICK TRACY a success: hardboiled, even brutal, action with fistfights, elaborate death traps, and shoot-outs in which characters, both good and bad, actually died; grotesque villains with colorful names like Flattop, Mumbles, and the Brow; and at least an attempt to be realistic when it comes to police work, making TRACY an early example of the police procedural.

Chester Gould’s plotting, writing, and willingness to pull no punches in his stories are what made this strip work. The artwork starts off pretty crude, and while it improves some with time, it never comes close to the level of, say, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond, or Hal Foster. But by the Forties it’s good enough not to detract from Gould’s fast-moving storylines. My main complaint about this volume is that it reprints only the daily strips, leaving out the Sunday pages that were part of the continuity. As a result, there are some jarring gaps in the action where the reader has to figure out what happened on Sunday from the context of Monday’s strip. This isn’t a huge problem, but it can be annoying.

Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I have another Dick Tracy collection, THE THIRTIES: TOMMYGUNS AND HARD TIMES, which reprints practically the entire first two years of the strip, and I’m looking forward to reading it, too.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ghost Rider

Forget what the critics said. GHOST RIDER is a good movie. Not a great film, not a sterling example of cinematic art, but just a darned good piece of entertainment.

If you’re interested in this movie at all, you probably already know the story: motorcycle stunt rider Johnny Blaze sells his soul to the Devil in an attempt to save someone he loves and ultimately becomes the Ghost Rider, Satan’s bounty hunter who collects evil souls and zips around on a motorcycle with a flaming skull where his head should be. If that sounds silly to you, you might as well avoid this movie. If it sounds like a great comic book, that’s because it was, back in the Seventies, courtesy of writers Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich and artist Mike Ploog (all of whom are featured in one of the extra segments on the DVD, by the way).

Nicholas Cage does a fine job as Johnny Blaze, but to me, the highlight of the film is Sam Elliott’s performance as the mysterious caretaker of a cemetery. Elliott’s real identity won’t come as a big surprise to anyone paying the least bit of attention, but still, several of his scenes with Cage near the end of the movie sent chills down my spine and put a big grin on my face. You’ll know the sequence I’m talking about when you come it, if you’re anything like me.

Of course, I do have a few complaints. The lighting is so dark at times that it’s almost impossible to tell what’s going on, and the actors mumble so much that about halfway through we gave up and turned the captions on so we could understand what they were saying. Despite that, I enjoyed this movie as much as anything else I’ve seen lately, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Robert E. Howard Article

There's an interesting article about Robert E. Howard -- and Mark Finn's recent REH bio, BLOOD AND THUNDER, to be found here. The author is Michael H. Price, an old acquaintance of mine who did an interview with me in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when TEXAS WIND came out -- the first time! That's how far we go back. Good stuff about Howard, so check it out.

(Thanks to Ed Gorman for the heads-up.)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

West Texas War -- Gary Lovisi

I’ve known Gary Lovisi for many years as the publisher of the excellent small-press imprint Gryphon Books, as well as the long-running magazines Hardboiled and Paperback Parade. I’ve also read many of his mystery stories. In recent years, though, he’s started to make a name for himself as a Western writer, with stories appearing in several anthologies (some of which also feature stories by Livia and me, I might add). But I wasn’t aware until now that Lovisi had written a Western novel, WEST TEXAS WAR, which was published in England by Robert Hale Ltd. as part of the Black Horse Western line.

That novel has been reprinted by Ramble House in a fine volume that also includes a half-dozen of Lovisi’s Western short stories. WEST TEXAS WAR is a good solid traditional Western, with an action-packed plot and a few nice twists that lift it out of the realm of the formula Western. (As an aside, this is true of most of the Black Horse Westerns, whose authors generally do a great job of finding fresh variations on traditional plots.)

It’s in the short stories that Lovisi really shines, though. In a distinctive voice that mixes wry humor, colorful language, and terse action, Lovisi spins yarns that range from the supernatural (“Enough Rope to Hang”) to the quiet and poignant (“Old Aunt Sin”). He comes up with great titles like “Tombstones Are Free to Quitters”, which could have come right out of an issue of a Popular Publications Western pulp like Dime Western or Big-Book Western during the Forties, and “There Ain’t No Men in Heaven”, another of the more touching stories in this volume. “After the Great War” is a more modern-day Western, a Texas Rangers tale set during the period following World War I, and “My Brother of the Gun” features a more traditional Western plot elevated by Lovisi’s swiftly-paced writing.

I was familiar with Ramble House more as a publisher of mysteries, most notably those by the notorious Harry Stephen Keeler. I don’t know if WEST TEXAS WAR is the company’s first foray into Westerns or not, but it’s a good one, and I hope it’s not the last we see along these lines from Gary Lovisi.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Adventure Stories Cover

Juri Nummelin has posted the cover for the second issue of his magazine Adventure Stories on his blog. I mention this for two reasons: 1) it's a really good cover; and 2) this issue features the Finnish translation of my story "Devil Wings Over France", which was originally published in RETRO PULP TALES. Check out the cover if you like World War I aviation action. (Which I obviously do, or I never would have written the story in the first place.)


First of all, I was a huge fan of the Superman TV show with George Reeves when I was a kid. The scenes in this movie of kids rushing home from school so they could plop down in front of old black-and-white TVs and watch Superman, well, I was one of those kids . . . although in my case, I was watching the episodes in reruns in the early Sixties, rather than first-run in the Fifties. Channel 11 ran THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN every afternoon at four o’clock for years, and the school bus dropped me off at the end of the street about 3:55. It took me most of that five minutes to make it up the hill to my house, and if the bus was running a couple of minutes late I had to hurry to get there in time to see the opening. My mother usually had the TV on and tuned to the right station for me.

So you can see why I would enjoy HOLLYWOODLAND. The scenes with Ben Affleck as George Reeves filming the TV series put a nostalgic grin on my face. Affleck is excellent, as is everybody else in the cast. I’ve never been an Adrien Brody fan, but he’s got the sleazy, loser PI down pat as his character goes about investigating Reeves’ alleged suicide after the Superman TV series is cancelled and the actor can’t get any other work because he’s been so effectively typecast.

I vaguely remember Reeves’ death, but I don’t recall hearing any speculation at the time about whether it was suicide or murder. But I was a little kid in a small town in Texas, so I wasn’t really plugged into the Hollywood scene. I’d never even heard of Eddie Mannix, the MGM executive with whose wife Reeves had a long-running affair. Over the years I’ve run across those rumors but haven’t done much reading on the case, so I’ve never really come to a conclusion. Neither does HOLLYWOODLAND, although I think it’s pretty clear what the filmmakers want the viewer to believe.

The period details are just right; if there are any anachronisms, I didn’t spot them (although it’s possible they’re there and I just didn’t notice). The frequent switching back and forth between timelines requires some attentive watching, and the plot gets fairly convoluted before it’s over. But the entire cast does a fine job, the photography is really good, and although the pace is a little slow starting out, the movie eventually drew me in and held my attention right to the end. HOLLYWOODLAND isn’t a period PI classic like CHINATOWN, say, but it’s a good movie and well worth watching.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Wounded and the Slain -- David Goodis

Some critics have said that David Goodis’s novels read like book-length suicide notes. That’s certainly an apt description of THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, originally published by Gold Medal in 1955 and recently reprinted by Hard Case Crime. This one even opens with the protagonist, James Bevan, contemplating doing away with himself, even though he’s on vacation at a luxurious Jamaican resort with his beautiful young wife. Bevan’s wife is his problem, though, since their marriage is one of the most corrosive you’re likely to encounter in fiction. Like other Goodis characters, Bevan seeks refuge from that unhappiness in booze, which leads him into an encounter with violence and death.

Then, yep, you guessed it, Things Get Worse.

THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN is somewhat unusual among Goodis’s novels, in that it takes place in Jamaica rather than Philadelphia or some other large American city. It veers away from the noir stereotype in another way as well, with many of the scenes taking place in hot, bright sunshine rather than dark alleyways. The interior of James Bevan’s mind is plenty dark on its own, though, and ultimately the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, are just as mean as those of Philadelphia or New York. The motivations of some of the characters may seem a little clich├ęd today, but Goodis’s writing still makes them ring true. The headlong pace carries the reader along to a very satisfying conclusion. All in all, and not surprisingly, this is an excellent novel and comes with a high recommendation from me, for whatever that’s worth.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

You Never Even Called Me By My Name

One of the regular readers of this blog told me I ought to post more about writing. So I'm going to try to do that, but I make no promises. Like puppies and toddlers, I'm easily distracted.

But I did encounter something while reading a short story the other day that bothered me, so I thought I'd mention it. Two characters were having a conversation, and every time they said something, they used the other character's name. This is not the way people talk in real life. Now, I realize that dialogue in fiction can't be just a transcription, with all the awkward pauses and "uh"s and "you know"s. You have to clean it up some. But you want what your characters are saying to ring true, and to me, the constant use of the characters' names doesn't. When you're talking to another person, you don't call them by name unless you're trying to get their attention or emphasize a point. For that reason, I don't think you can eliminate the names entirely. But you can sure cut down on them and make your dialogue sound more natural.

I know this because I'm prone to doing the same thing, and so that's something I look for when I'm editing my manuscripts.

In other writing news, an editor called today and asked me to do a short story for an anthology. I said yes, of course, even though in this case, the story won't have my name on it. But I'm excited about it anyway, for two reasons: 1) it's a themed anthology and I like the theme, and 2) I'm always glad for the chance to write a short story. They make really nice breaks between novels.

By the way, for those of you who are interested, the title of this post comes from a great song written by Steve Goodman and sung by David Allan Coe.

King Solomon's Mines

This is another movie we picked up at the library. I believe it originated as a two-part cable TV miniseries, which you can kind of tell from the way it’s structured. I read H. Rider Haggard’s novel KING SOLOMON’S MINES ’way back when I was in high school (the only Haggard I’ve ever read, as far as I can recall). I don’t remember all the details from the novel, but I suspect the screenwriters went fairly far afield in creating this movie, which comes across as a combination of Indiana Jones, Tarzan, and a B-Western. I like all three of those things, so I enjoyed the film quite a bit.

Patrick Swayze is Allan Quatermain, and probably wisely, he plays him as an American rather than attempting an English accent. Not surprisingly, Swayze makes a fine, steely-eyed, two-fisted action hero. He’s surrounded by a good cast, including a big galoot sidekick, a couple of old-timers, a beautiful blonde, and some dastardly villains. The first half of the film is really structured like a Western and has that feel, with our group of intrepid heroes being trailed by a gang of owlhoots who are also after the same treasure, with everybody riding horseback and carrying six-guns and Winchesters. There’s even the scene where Swayze straps on his gunbelt, loops a bandolier of ammunition across his chest, and then puts on his hat, all the time looking grim and determined. Hell, they might as well be going into Mexico for lost Aztec treasure or some such.

The second half of the movie is that Indiana Jones/Tarzan hybrid I mentioned, with warring native tribes, witch doctors, fights to the death to determine who’s going to be the king, underground passages full of death traps, an idol with a gem called the Stone of the Ancestors mounted on it . . . good Saturday matinee/Republic serial stuff, in other words. The script lapses into cliches a little too often, especially toward the end, and there are some gaps in the logic, mostly of the “Okay, why don’t they just go ahead and kill ’em instead of giving them the chance to get away?” variety. In a movie like this, though, that’s pretty much forgivable as far as I’m concerned. Overall, I found this version of KING SOLOMON’S MINES to be a lot of fun.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Publishers Weekly Likes Dust Devils

Publishers Weekly has given DUST DEVILS a starred review. You can read it here.

This is seriously cool.

(Thanks to Scott Cupp for the heads-up on this.)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

John O'Hara's Hollywood

I haven’t read much of John O’Hara’s work. I remember reading his first novel, APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA, some years ago and enjoying it, and I’ve read a few of his short stories here and there. When I came across this collection of his novellas and short stories set in Hollywood, I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did because it’s a pretty good book.

O’Hara worked in Hollywood off and on for most of his career, working on original stories and screenplays for films, most of which were never produced. He was enough of an insider that the stories in this volume really ring true when it comes to the actors, producers, directors, writers, and agents of the studio system during the Twenties, Thirties, and Forties, which is the era in which most of the stories are set, even the ones that were written much later. He wrote great dialogue, too, and was very observant of people’s foibles and failings.

The knock I have on some of these stories is that nothing much happens in them, and no matter how slick the prose is, I want some plot to go along with it. But some of them -- “In a Grove”, “Yucca Knolls”, “James Francis and the Star”, and “Natica Jackson” -- are wonderful tales, alternating between wry humor, unexpected twists, and some of the bleakest situations this side of Jim Thompson and David Goodis. It also seems at times that O’Hara is a little too obsessed with the sex lives of his characters, but in morality plays like most of these stories are, I guess it’s difficult to avoid that.

One more complaint -- and this has nothing to do with the stories themselves -- is how poorly edited this volume is, with numerous typos and an introduction that credits THE LAST TYCOON to Budd Schulberg and WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN to F. Scott Fitzgerald, when of course it’s the other way around. A fairly inconsequential mistake, but somebody should have caught it.

Overall, though, I enjoyed JOHN O’HARA’S HOLLYWOOD quite a bit, and it’s made me want to read more of O’Hara’s work. I even picked up a biography of him the other day, to learn more about his life. Don’t know when I’ll get around to reading it, but I’m confident that I will.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Pale Horse

I’m not quite sure what to make of this movie. We picked it up at the library (nothing like free movies, I always say). It’s based on an Agatha Christie novel and appears to have been made for the A&E cable network. I’d never heard of anybody in the cast except Jean Marsh, who was on the old PBS series UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS.

Since I haven’t read the book, I don’t know how faithful an adaptation this is, but the plot is certainly convoluted enough to have come from the mind of Agatha Christie. The hero is rugged young sculptor Michael Eastabrook, who finds a priest who’s been walloped over the head with a spanner (a wrench to those of us over here in the U.S. of A.). The priest gives Michael a bloodstained list of names and then dies, the cops come along and arrest Michael for the murder, and as soon as he’s out on bail he sets out to find the real killer, of course. This leads to a bunch of people who have apparently died of natural causes, a sinister guy in a wheelchair, more murders, a couple of pretty girls, a creepy old house, and an evil mastermind behind the whole thing. It all winds up being so complicated that after it was over Livia turned to me and said, “Wait a minute. Why was so-and-so murdered?” I had to answer honestly that I had no idea. It probably would have helped if I’d been able to understand more than half the dialogue, most of which was delivered in such thick English accents that my Texas ears couldn’t decipher it. I’d go and read the book, but hell, now I know who the killer is, so what’s the point?

Despite those complaints, I have to admit that I sort of enjoyed the movie. It was made in 1998 but set in the Swinging Sixties, so it has a little of the vibe of those old ITV series that the American TV networks imported back then, like THE AVENGERS. I wouldn’t run right out and look for a copy of it, but if it crops up on your TV schedule on a lazy Saturday afternoon, it might be worth a look.

Friday, June 15, 2007

John Tucker Must Die

Sometimes you just want to watch a silly little high school comedy. JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE certainly qualifies, as several girls who are dating the captain of the basketball team at the same time find out that he’s been lying to all of them and set out to make him pay. This movie is so lightweight it almost floats away, but there are a few decent laughs and the girls are cute. Don’t expect too much and it’s an amiable time-waster.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Island in the Sky

I was right when I said I didn’t think I’d ever seen this film before, so if for no other reason I enjoyed it simply because to me it was a new John Wayne movie and that’s a real rarity. Luckily it’s also a good film.

Wayne plays a pilot flying for the Air Transport Command during World War II (as did Ernest K. Gann, author of the novel upon which this movie was based). Bad weather forces him to land in the snow-covered Canadian wilderness, far north of any civilization. Wayne and the four members of his crew have to survive the sub-zero weather until search parties can find them, and they have only a little food and a hand-cranked radio with which to send out distress signals.

The action cuts back and forth between the stranded men and the other pilots who are searching for them. There are character actors galore in this movie: Andy Devine, Harry Carey Jr., Bob Steele, Paul Fix, Sean McClory, an impossibly-young James Arness . . . If there had been a tough, wise-cracking dame among them, I would have sworn this was a Howard Hawks movie. Instead it was directed by William Wellman, another master of the hardboiled aviation film.

While this is a good film and I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t put it in the top tier of John Wayne movies. Wayne is okay in it, but it’s not one of his better performances. And the sheer size of the ensemble cast maybe works against it. There are too many characters to keep up with, and while everybody gets a little to do, nobody is on-screen enough to make much of an impression, with the exception of Andy Devine, who doesn’t play his role as comedy relief for a change. According to Leonard Maltin’s introduction on the DVD, this film was overshadowed by THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, another Wayne/Wellman/Gann aviation picture that was released the next year. That’s probably true. I think THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY is a better film. But ISLAND IN THE SKY is well worth watching, too.

Incidentally, among the DVD extras is a short but very nice interview with Harry Carey Jr. Be sure to watch it, too, if you’re checking out ISLAND IN THE SKY.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A First For Me

Something happened to me today that hasn't happened, as far as I can recall, in my thirty-plus years as a writer: I got an email from a descendant of a historical figure who's been featured in several of my stories as a character. I've written maybe half a dozen stories about Captain Rip Ford and the "Old Company", the company of Texas Rangers that Ford led in the 1850s. One of them, "The Conversion of Carne Muerto", appeared on-line on the Hardluck Stories site, and the great-great-great-granddaughter of one of Ford's Rangers came across it and contacted me to thank me for writing about her ancestor. This is pretty cool, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Miami Purity -- Vicki Hendricks

MIAMI PURITY is Vicki Hendricks’ first novel, originally published in 1995 but more readily available in a recent reprint from the excellent Busted Flush Press. It’s about as noir as they come, as narrator/former stripper Sherri Parlay tries to end her boozing, sex-addicted ways by getting a more respectable job. She winds up working at Miami-Purity Cleaners, managed by Payne Mahoney, the son of the owner. As is her habit when she runs into a good-looking man, Sherri falls for Payne right away and starts to think that her life might actually be starting to work out.

Well, we all know better than that, don’t we?

In this book, Hendricks accomplishes something really special for a debut novel. She establishes an utterly distinctive voice right off the bat, allowing Sherri to tell her story in a way that nobody else ever would. She also manages to capture that old Gold Medal feeling while turning on its head the Gold Medal paradigm of the sympathetic loser making all the wrong choices because of a beautiful young woman. Sex and murder and despair permeate this book, told in such headlong prose that I read almost all of it in one sitting, something very rare for me these days. This is the first novel I’ve read by Vicki Hendricks but won’t be the last. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Other Side of Me -- Sidney Sheldon

This memoir by the late novelist and screenwriter Sidney Sheldon has a great opening: “At the age of seventeen, working as a delivery boy at Afremow’s drugstore in Chicago was the perfect job, because it made it possible for me to steal enough sleeping pills to commit suicide.” Knowing that Sheldon had a long, successful career, you can’t help but wonder how he got from the point of wanting to commit suicide as a teenager to winning an Academy Award, creating several highly successful TV series, and writing eighteen novels that have sold over 300 million copies so far.

I’ve read maybe half of those novels and enjoyed all of them. I’ll probably read the others eventually, because Sheldon, while not a great stylist, was an excellent storyteller, a master at making the reader want to find out what was going to happen next. The same thing is true of this memoir, which is written in a quasi-novelistic style with lots of dialogue, no doubt recreated from memory by Sheldon. How accurate it is is anybody’s guess, but it’s entertaining, that’s for sure. Sheldon writes at length about the battles with depression that plagued him all through his life, and he doesn’t spare himself as he details all the mistakes he made in his personal and professional life. Nor does he pull any punches about people who caused problems for him, like producers Dore Schary and Harry Cohn and actor Larry Hagman. That darkness is balanced by the breezy, fast-moving style and numerous amusing passages, including several in which Sheldon’s good friend Groucho Marx takes center stage.

Ultimately, though, THE OTHER SIDE OF ME is a pretty frustrating book. Sheldon concentrates so much on his movie and television careers that his work as a novelist is barely mentioned. He doesn’t even get to the point at which he finished his first novel, THE NAKED FACE (one that I haven’t read yet) until there are only ten pages left in the book. He barely touches on his other novels and the various movies and TV mini-series made from them, giving this memoir a definite unfinished feeling, as if it’s only the first half of something. Still, I raced right through it and had a fine time reading it, so I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys Sheldon’s novels or is interested in Hollywood during the glory days of the studio system and beyond.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Jonah Hex: Guns of Vengeance

This is the second trade paperback reprinting issues from DC’s new Jonah Hex series, in this case #7 - #12. These are all stand-alone Western stories featuring the scarred bounty hunter Jonah Hex, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. The biggest influences on these stories are Spaghetti Westerns and Seventies series like Edge, which were the product of British authors who referred to themselves as the Piccadilly Cowboys. So if you’re looking for traditional Western yarns, you won’t find them here. But if your taste runs more to the bizarre and gritty and violent, these are some of the best examples you could hope for. I actually liked this collection even better than the first one, JONAH HEX: FACE FULL OF VIOLENCE, because each story in this volume has a different artist, giving the reader a variety of styles. The line-up includes Paul Gulacy, who did the art on one of my favorite Seventies comics series, Doug Moench’s MASTER OF KUNG FU, and Tony DeZuniga, the artist on the original Hex series, also from the Seventies. Plenty of good stuff here.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Dust Devils Review

A lot of writers will tell you that if you're going to ignore the bad reviews, you really ought to ignore the good ones, too. That's probably sound advice . . . but golly, that's a nice review of DUST DEVILS from Bruce Grossman over on Bookgasm:

"Many authors have tried to duplicate the feel of the old Gold Medal classics, but usually are slightly off the mark. Not James Reasoner; his new one from Point Blank Press – DUST DEVILS – hits the bull’s-eye from page one. What starts out innocently enough takes some jaw-dropping turns in a taut 150 pages."

High praise indeed in my world, and I'm human enough to feel great about it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Yesterday was my 54th birthday, and I celebrated by vegetating pretty much all day. The only work I did was some research reading. But what you really want to know about is the swag I got, right? In addition to some clothes and a battery-powered lamp (for when the electricity goes off, as it does several times each year, minimum), I got boxed DVD sets of all three seasons of KUNG FU, a series that has a lot of nostalgia value for me since it was a Really Big Thing while I was in college; the first season of BOSOM BUDDIES, a fine sitcom; and the new collector’s edition of ISLAND IN THE SKY, which is one of the very few John Wayne movies I’ve never seen. Maybe the only one. I mean, I’ve even watched the serials THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLE.

Now all I have to do is find the time to watch all that stuff.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers

Sometimes after we’ve watched a particularly boring film, Livia’s been known to say, “That movie would’ve been better if some stuff had blown up.” Well, before we watched FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, Clint Eastwood’s movie about the battle of Iwo Jima, I made the comment that stuff would probably blow up in it. Boy, does it. Lots of stuff blows up real good.

As well-done as the battle scenes are, though, this movie is more than that. It’s also the story of how there were actually two flag-raisings by the Marines atop Mount Surabachi, not one, and it was actually the second one that was the subject of the famous photograph. The movie follows the story of the young Marines involved, too, including the ones who were sent back to the States to take part in a bond drive while the war was still going on. Eastwood has the story jumping around in time quite a bit, which can be confusing if you don’t watch closely, but all the various storylines are effective. Ryan Phillippe, who has never impressed me as an actor, is pretty good as “Doc” Bradley, the medical corpsman who was the father of James Bradley, author of the book upon which the film is based. Adam Beach plays Ira Hayes, the Pima Indian whose life seems cursed by the “heroism” he gets credit for, and is also quite good. There’s no real star, though. The cast is very much an ensemble and is populated with some fine character actors.

I don’t think FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS rises to the level of a classic war movie, but it’s pretty darned good, with some really poignant images, especially toward the end.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Beggars of Life: A Hobo Autobiography -- Jim Tully

I first became aware of Jim Tully and his work a few years ago from reading Rusty Burke’s article “Robert E. Howard’s Bookshelf”, available on the REHupa website. Tully was one of Howard’s favorite authors. Along with Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, he’s generally credited with being one of the founders of the hardboiled school of American literature. The difference is that Tully most often wrote non-fiction rather than fiction.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading one of his books. BEGGARS OF LIFE: A HOBO AUTOBIOGRAPHY is the story of Tully’s experiences as a “road kid” in the early Twentieth Century. The Hammett and Hemingway comparisons are apt. Tully writes in a terse, spare style that’s punctuated by occasional bursts of lyricism. He’s especially good at capturing characters in a few short sentences, and the moments of violence are handled very effectively. Since the hobo life is largely an outdoor one, Tully’s descriptions of nature also stand out, especially a sequence about riding on top of a train car during a spectacular storm. There are also plenty of wry observations about sex and politics and culture along the way.

My only complaint about BEGGARS OF LIFE is that it’s a little too long and occasionally repetitive. There are only so many times you want to read about Tully and his hobo friends getting onto or off of a train. But other than that, I think this is a truly fine, maybe even great, book. I highly recommend it to anybody who enjoys hardboiled writing. I believe it was reprinted fairly recently, although I read the original 1924 Albert & Charles Boni edition, obtained through Interlibrary Loan by the local library. Tully also wrote books about the circus and boxing, and I intend to read those, too.

Bridget Jones's Diary

Talk about a movie for which I’m really not the target audience! I mean, BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY is based on the novel that sort of started the whole chick-lit movement (and I mean no offense by that, I’m just using it as a publishing term), it’s got a bunch of British people, and one Texan pretending to be British, in it (and I mean no offense by that, either, I’m just not British), and nothin’ blows up real good (although, surprisingly, there is a decent fistfight). But darned if it didn’t win me over with good writing and fine performances by Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant (the latter two of which aren’t favorites of mine, but they’re good in this movie). The music is really good, too, heavy on the Van Morrison (hard to go wrong with that). So, before I set a record for parenthetical asides in one blog post, I liked BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY, and I’d say that if you haven’t seen it and don’t think you’d like it, it might surprise you.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Catch and Release

You can’t help but like Jennifer Garner. She’s just so gosh-darn cute. In the romantic comedy-drama CATCH AND RELEASE, she plays a young woman who has to cope with the sudden, unexpected death of her fiancee just before their wedding. Turns out there were things about the guy she didn’t know, which puts her through all sorts of emotional turmoil. That’s the drama part. The comedy part comes from Kevin Smith as one of her buddies, who shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. In fact, for a while I wondered if Garner’s character might fall for Smith’s character. I mean, really, would the world come crashing to an end if the fat, bearded guy wound up with Jennifer Garner for a change?

Evidently it would.

That note of bitterness aside, CATCH AND RELEASE is well-made, well-acted, but only intermittently amusing and not very involving at all. Bear in mind, though, that I’m clearly not the target audience for this sort of film.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Scarlet Goddess -- Ennis Willie

I believe SCARLET GODDESS is the novel that introduced Ennis Willie’s iconic hardboiled character Sand, a former top man in the Syndicate who leaves organized crime despite the fact that doing so means there will always be a price on his head. That’s already happened when this book opens, so it’s not really an “origin story”, so to speak. Sand agrees to deliver a mysterious package for a friend and former Syndicate associate of his, and that proves to be a mistake. Before he can get the package to its destination, it’s stolen from him and he finds himself in a violent mess involving a serial rapist/killer known as the Sasquatch, a cult of Satan-worshippers, and a gigantic fire-opal called the Devil Stone that carries a deadly curse with it. The story rockets along at a fast pace to a fiery, apocalyptic climax.

It’s easy to see that Ennis Willie’s work was a big influence on James Dockery, the author of those early novels in the Butcher series. Their styles are very similar. Willie’s prose is considerably smoother and more polished, and despite the bizarre subject matter is more grounded in reality than Dockery’s. SCARLET GODDESS is sexy, violent, and a real pleasure to read. Ennis Willie’s work deserves to be back in print, and I’m glad that efforts to insure that are underway.