Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Wrap-up

Well. What is there to say about 2008? Dickens was on to something with that “best of times, worst of times” business. I’m not going to rehash all the personal peaks and valleys this year, since most of you know about them already. I’ll just move on to my usual wrap-up.


My page total went down this year, which comes as no surprise. I knew I couldn’t keep setting a new personal record every year (although I did have my best-ever month in October). However, I wrote over a million words for the year again, which is the fourth year in a row I’ve topped the million-word mark. Back about March, I would have said that wasn’t even going to be possible this year, so I’m proud of reaching that milestone. That output breaks down to 13 novels (man, I wish I’d been able to do one more! he said superstitiously) under six different names, and one short story, which had my name on it. Two of the novels have already been published, as has the short story. I also started two spec novels that I’ll write one of these days, as well as a couple of short stories that I’ll finish before too much longer, I hope. I think I’m doing pretty good work most days. I continue to be amazed, after more than thirty years in the business, how much I’m still learning all the time about how to write.


I read 110 books this year. That’s low for me. I usually top 120, and 140 or 150 isn’t uncommon. But most of them were really good books. Here are my top ten favorites, in the order in which I read them:

MR. MONK IN OUTER SPACE, Lee Goldberg – probably the funniest book I read all year, and even funnier if you know Lee or even just read his blog. Plus it’s an excellent mystery.

SLEEPING DOGS, Ed Gorman – as usual, you can’t go wrong with Gorman, especially when he’s writing about something he knows as well as he does politics.

SHADOW OF THE LARIAT, Jon Tuska, ed. – a big anthology of stories and novelettes mostly from the Western pulps, with a superb line-up of authors.

MONEY SHOT, Christa Faust – a fast, well-written thriller with a wonderful protagonist and a great voice.

SANDSTORM, James Rollins – this book is too long and the plot goes ’way over the top at times . . . but Rollins kept me reading effortlessly all the way through and did a top-notch job of entertaining me.

DEAD MEN’S LETTERS, Erle Stanley Gardner – a collection of linked novelettes from BLACK MASK in the Twenties about Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. Nobody has ever topped Gardner when it comes to pacing a story.

THE ENEMY ACE ARCHIVES, VOL. I, Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert – a deluxe reprinting of some of the best war comics of all time, with beautiful art by Joe Kubert that’s stuck in my head ever since I first saw it in the Sixties.

LOST LIGHT, Michael Connelly – Connelly’s shake-up of his Harry Bosch series by turning Bosch from a third-person cop to a first-person PI, and it works beautifully.

WE3, Grant Morrison – the best graphic novel I read this year. A lightning-fast, heartbreaking story with a fantastic ending.

SOLOMON’S VINEYARD, Jonathan Latimer – a famously controversial private eye novel that I’ll be posting about in a couple of days on the return of Forgotten Books Friday.

As for what’s coming up that I’ll be reading (and writing about) in ’09, you can expect more graphic novels, more pulp stuff, more vintage paperbacks, a sampling of new books . . . really, you never know. My attention span is short, and I like it that way.


I didn’t keep track of how many movies we watched this year, nor do I have a list of favorites. But I enjoyed just about everything we watched, at least to a certain extent.

It seems like 2008 has been a rough year in some way for just about everybody I know. It’s my hope that 2009 is a better year for all of us. I plan to do what I can to make it that way.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

More Movies


One of the things I liked about this tale of a dysfunctional superhero is that we don’t get a traditional origin story. There’s not even much back-story until about halfway through the movie. Up to that point, the viewer just has to figure out what’s going on. Then there’s a big twist in the plot (you’ll probably see it coming). Overall I thought this movie was pretty entertaining. Funny, poignant, some nice action here and there. Not a great film but well worth watching.


If you liked the first Narnia movie (I did), you ought to enjoy this one, too (I did). You get weird creatures, swordplay, epic battles, stirring music . . . what’s not to like? I’ve never read the books these movies are based on, but I’m thinking maybe I ought to.


I’ve always liked Jean-Claude van Damme’s movies, and I’m not sure how we missed this one when it came out ten years ago. It’s right up my alley, with a plot like a yarn by Robert Carse or G
eorges Surdez in ADVENTURE or ARGOSY. Van Damme’s a boxer who doesn’t take a dive when he’s supposed to (do the boxing heroes of books and movies ever take a dive when they’re supposed to?), who winds up joining the French Foreign Legion to get away from the gangsters who are after him. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen in scores of cavalry Westerns and war movies, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Talk about a vanished genre, it’s got to be French Foreign Legion stories. From P.C. Wren’s BEAU GESTE to scads of pulp tales, it was once very popular. Several years ago I wrote a proposal for a Foreign Legion novel, but I couldn’t ever interest any editors in it. I’d still write a book like that without hesitation if the opportunity ever came up.

Monday, December 29, 2008

At the Bookstore

I found the December 1948 issue of AMAZING STORIES in the nostalgia section at Half Price Books today. They had it marked for $5.00, but since there was a 20% off sale going on, it only cost me four bucks. Even though it's not a great issue, contents-wise, I'm very glad to have it. I left there a happy camper.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Here are some brief comments on a few movies we’ve seen recently, in the order in which we watched them. And I warn you, they’re an odd assortment.


Man, this is the most relentlessly depressing movie I think I’ve ever seen. I imagine most of you have seen it already, so I’m not really going to comment on it, just say that I thought it was very well-made and effective, but I didn’t really like it. I think it’s going to prompt me to read Matheson’s novel, though, so that’s probably a good thing.


We hadn’t seen this for several years, so we watched it on Christmas Eve. What’s left to say about this movie that hasn’t been said many times over? I love it, think it has a great script and one of the best casts ever assembled. The stark black-and-white photography is beautiful. I realized this time through that the guy who opens the dance floor over the swimming pool is none other than Alfalfa from the Little Rascals. This is one of my all-time favorite films and always will be.


This movie is famous for introducing the song “White Christmas”. None of us had ever seen it, so we watched it on Christmas night, appropriately enough. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are a song-and-dance team who split up over their female partner. Bing goes off to Connecticut, tries to be a farmer, and eventually opens an inn that’s only open on holidays. The female partner runs off on Astaire. A new girl comes along, both guys fall for her, they sing, they dance, there are some fairly amusing moments. Irving Berlin’s music is dandy, as always. Eventually there’s a movie-within-the-movie that provides some mildly surreal moments. I’m a big fan of Bing, not so much of Astaire, although I don’t dislike his work. HOLIDAY INN is no WHITE CHRISTMAS, but it’s pretty entertaining.


Just your typical martial arts epic, only with animated, anthropomorphic animals instead of people. I thought it was pretty funny and enjoyed it quite a bit. Although wholesome and inspiring overall, it has a few dark moments, and the action is good. Also, unlike a lot of animated movies, there’s not much in the way of wink-wink, nudge-nudge pop culture references, which is fine with me. Nothing wrong with a movie that’s a little more serious at times, even if it is animated. Another good cast, led by Jack Black.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

32 and Counting

It was 32 years ago today that I made my first sale, a confession yarn to the magazine INTIMATE STORY. I've written about that, and the early days of my writing career, on numerous occasions. You can check the December 27th posts in previous years, if you haven't seen them already and are of a mind to. Although I don't imagine I thought about it at the time, if you had asked me on December 27, 1976, if I believed I'd still be in the writing game 32 years later, I think I would have said, "Sure." A writer has to be confident. Sheer stubbornness doesn't hurt anything, either.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


It's been a quiet, peaceful day so far at the Reasoner household, just the sort of holiday we needed. Everyone was very pleased with what Santa brought. After some good food and some lazing around watching a DVD (the third Futurama movie, BENDER'S GAME -- which, as usual, is very funny and has almost too many pop culture allusions to keep up with), I've come upstairs to try to get a little work done. Yes, nothing says Christmas like writing an ambush and gunfight scene in a house-name Western. Seriously, it's been a fine day around here, and I hope it's been equally good where all of you are.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Between moving into the new house and everything else that's going on, Christmas sort of snuck up on me this year. But here we are on the verge of it anyway, so I want to wish all of you out there a very Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Silverfish - David Lapham

David Lapham is best known for his crime comics series STRAY BULLETS, which has been collected in several trade paperbacks, the first of which I own but haven’t read yet. SILVERFISH is the first thing I’ve read by him, and it’s excellent.

A stand-alone graphic novel published by DC/Vertigo, SILVERFISH is a dark, very fast-paced crime story about a teenage girl who discovers that her new stepmother has a sinister secret involving a suitcase full of money and a bloody knife. The protagonist and her little sister and a couple of friends set out to discover what it is, which winds up putting all of them in danger, as several people turn out not to be exactly who they seem.

The story isn’t overly complicated, but Lapham’s script moves it along very satisfactorily. In classic noir fashion, once things are in motion they just keep on getting worse and worse for the characters. The art, also by Lapham, is very good and especially effective in making a closed-down amusement park in the middle of winter a truly creepy place.

This is a fine graphic novel that definitely makes me want to read more of Lapham’s work. If you’re a comics and/or hardboiled crime fan, I think you’ll like it, too.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wild West Monday

Head on over to The Tainted Archive to check out Wild West Monday, a new effort to increase the demand for Westerns in bookstores and libraries. Although of course mine is not an unbiased opinion, I think it would be great if the Western could make a real comeback. People are really missing out on some great reading just because it's not out there as readily available as it once was. And for a field that's not nearly as big as it used to be, there's still a wide variety of material available in current Westerns, from historical epics to literary novels to Spaghetti Western-influenced action novels to noirish Western crime novels. It may take a little more looking these days, but no matter what your reading taste, I think the odds are good you can find a Western or two you'll enjoy.

Unbridled Cowboy - Joseph B. Fussell

I’ve never been much of a non-fiction reader, unless it’s things I have to read for research on a novel, but I’ll dip into a memoir or biography every now and then. UNBRIDLED COWBOY is the story of Joe Fussell, a Texas cowboy in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, told in his own words, the only book he wrote. This is a case of a manuscript being part of a family heritage until decades later when it’s finally published by a university press. That may sound like a recipe for boredom, but in the case of UNBRIDLED COWBOY, it’s not, because Joe Fussell had a way with words and a colorful life about which to write, his own.

Growing up in East Texas, Joe hated school for the most part and quit when he was fourteen to become a cowboy, an existence that took him all over the West. He also worked as a railroader, which contributed to his nomadic life as a young man. In his early twenties, after becoming acquainted with the famous Texas Ranger captain W.J. McDonald, Fussell went to work as an undercover agent for the Rangers, signing on as a cowboy on various ranches where rustling operations were going on and getting the evidence needed to break them up.

One thing that sets this book apart from the typical memoir – and Fussell’s grandson, who edited the manuscript, talks about this in the introduction – is the amount of violence. Before going to work for the Rangers, Fussell rode for a ranch in Mexico that was owned by some Americans. After one of his friends was murdered by a mob because of an altercation at a dance, Fussell barely escaping with his life, he returned to Mexico later, tracked down the members of the mob, and killed them one by one. Then, while working for the Rangers, Fussell mentions serving as judge, jury, and executioner for numerous criminals he tracked down. Fussell’s grandson speculates as to whether or not these gory adventures are true or just stories told by an old man reminiscing about his life. I have no idea, of course, but they make for some good yarns.

And that’s the sense you really get from UNBRIDLED COWBOY, that of sitting around and listening to an old-timer spin colorful yarns. It’s an excellent book and paints what I figure is a pretty accurate picture of Texas in a very different era. I’ve known some colorful old-timers myself – my grandfather used to talk about meeting Sam Bass when he was a kid – and so I really enjoyed UNBRIDLED COWBOY.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Mummy III: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Remember what I said about HELLBOY II yesterday? Pretty much the same things apply to THE MUMMY III: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. You’ve got an ancient bad guy trying to gain control of an invincible mystical army. You’ve got lots of CGI and explosions and running around. You’ve got a small group of heroes saving the world. Good stuff if you like that sort of thing, and you know I do. Really, all you need to know is this: Does this line, spoken in all seriousness, put a grin on your face: “Die, you mummy bastards, die!” If it does (it did for me), you’ll like this movie. I liked it a little bit more than the Hellboy movie, but that’s because I’m more of a fan of the Mummy franchise, I guess. I loved THE MUMMY, especially the first ten or fifteen minutes. The moment when Brendan Fraser’s character, who is being pursued by hundreds of enemies, runs out of bullets in both .45 automatics he’s using, is priceless. There are a lot of moments in that movie that look like pulp cover paintings come to life. The second one isn’t as good – the filmmakers make the common mistake of ramping up the special effects and explosions in that one – but I still enjoyed it. The third one falls into the same category, not as good as the first but still fun. Unless you’re a huge fan of this sort of stuff like I am, though, I’d recommend not watching it back to back with the second Hellboy movie, since they’re basically the same movie.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

I liked the first Hellboy movie, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of the graphic novels by Mike Mignola, so it’s no surprise that I’d watch the second movie and like it, too. It strikes me as being a little sillier than the first one, which is not necessarily a bad thing. No need to talk much about the plot: an elf prince wants to reclaim the pieces of an ancient crown that will give him control over an invincible army of golden robot warriors. Hellboy and his girlfriend and buddies from the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense try to stop him. CGI runs rampant. Stuff blows up real good. A couple of monsters sit around and croon along with a Barry Manilow song. Apocalypse threatens. That’s enough to tell you whether or not you’d like this movie. I loved it. Things are set up for a third movie in the series, and I hope it comes about.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Forgotten Books: Worlds of Weird - Leo Margulies, ed.

Normally, this collection would be a good candidate for a Forgotten Book anyway: a paperback original published in the Seventies, reprinting some great stories from the pulp WEIRD TALES, with a great cover, to boot. But it’s especially appropriate to remember this book at this time of year. Some of you already know why. For the rest of you, I’ll get to it in a minute.

But first, here’s the line-up of stories: “The Valley of the Worm” by Robert E. Howard (one of REH’s best yarns), “The Sapphire Goddess” by Nictzin Dyalhis (an obscure but often excellent author of fantasy, who published only a few stories), “He That Hath Wings” by Edmond Hamilton (a fine story by an author who is still underrated), “Mother of Toads” by Clark Ashton Smith (I’m not a huge CAS fan, but this story is enjoyably creepy), “The Thing in the Cellar” by David H. Keller M.D. (already an old-timer when WEIRD TALES was new), and “Giants in the Sky” by Frank Belknap Long (who had a long, productive career as author and editor for not only the pulps but also the digest fiction magazines). Pretty good stuff all around.

But there’s one other story in WORLDS OF WEIRD, and it’s the reason this is a good time of year to be talking about this book. It’s simply titled “Roads”, and the author is Seabury Quinn, best known for his long-running series in WT about occult investigator Jules de Grandin. “Roads” is a non-series story, and it’s also a Christmas story. You might not think so when you start reading it, but as you go along, you’ll be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute . . . could this be . . . nah, surely not . . . yeah, it is!” I think it’s the best thing Quinn ever wrote, and it’s one of my favorite Christmas stories as well. If you don’t have a copy of WORLDS OF WEIRD, it’s probably too late to hunt one up and read “Roads” before Christmas this year, but if you have the book sitting on your shelves and have never read it, now’s the time to go dig it out. And read the other stories, while you’re at it. It’s a great book, any time of year.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Writing Under Pseudonyms

In the comments on the previous post, Scott Parker says some things I think are worth a post of their own, along with my response:

Congrats on your first 30 years. You write the following: "Of course, one other thing that hasn’t changed is that, just like that Mike Shayne story, my name’s nowhere on the new books, either." I get the sense that your writing career is more important to you than name recognition. Not that your name is not well known but that you write more books under different names than folks who only write under their own names. Here's a question for you and any other writers out there: is that fact of modern publishing life--write lots of books in order to have a career as a fiction writer even though many of the books won't bear your name on the cover--the only true way to make a career as a writer (assuming a new writer is not the next Stephen King)? For me, from this side of the publishing world, I don't care if my name is on any cover. I just want the career. Sure, there's a part of me that wants to see my name on a book cover but if the price for a writing career is pen names, so be it. Thoughts?

You’re right about me. Being able to write for a living is more important to me than having my name on the cover. At one point in my career, I had published more than eighty books, only one of which (TEXAS WIND) had my name on it. People used to ask me how I could write a book knowing that my name wouldn’t be on it, and my stock answer was “I don’t care if my name is on the book as long as it’s on the check.”

Of course, that’s not exactly true now and wasn’t then. I’d love to be able to just write what I want, sell it, and have my name on it. But being able to keep writing, period, is more important to me. And I’d add that it’s not like I don’t enjoy the house-name books. I get a huge kick out of some of them, and I’ve never written a book that I didn’t enjoy writing, at least to a certain extent. (Some of them turned into nightmares later on due to editorial and publishing decisions I didn’t agree with, but writing the books themselves was okay.) I’m glad that it’s possible for diligent readers to find out which series books I’ve written and to get a little recognition that way, too. I really hope there are people out there who carry around a list of my books, including the ones under pseudonyms, and keep an eye out for them in the used bookstores, just like I’ve carried around such lists of other authors and series for many, many years. There are at least a couple of lists like that in my wallet right now.

There are dozens of books out there now with my name on them, and I’m thankful for each and every one of them. I hope there’ll be more in the future. But as long as I can keep writing, one way or the other, I’ll be okay. That’s just me. I don’t really think that’s the only way to carve out a career – I’m sure every author has a different approach – but I feel like I’ve played the cards that were dealt to me and won more than I’ve lost.

Update: Lee Goldberg chimes in on the subject over on his blog.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

30 Years Ago

I almost let this anniversary slip by, but then it occurred to me that thirty years ago this month, you could go down to your friendly neighborhood newsstand (you do remember newsstands, don’t you?) and buy the December 1978 issue of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, featuring my first Mike Shayne story, “Death in Xanadu”. I was reminded of this the other day when a friend emailed me with some comments on my Shayne story “Midnight Wind” (from the August ’81 issue of MSMM), which he had just read. It’s hard to believe that thirty years have gone by since I wrote that first Shayne story. Seems like yesterday in some ways, more like a hundred years ago in others. But I’m still proud of it and still remember what it felt like when I first saw the cover and picked up the issue. Luckily, that feeling has never gone away. I still experience it the first time I see a new book of mine in Wal-Mart. Of course, one other thing that hasn’t changed is that, just like that Mike Shayne story, my name’s nowhere on the new books, either. But I know I wrote ‘em, and by golly, I think they’re pretty good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Writer at Work, Maybe

Although knowing me, I'm just as likely to be checking email or playing chess as I am actually producing any pages. I'll try to post another picture once I get the rest of the room filled up with books.

Actually, this was my first full day working in the new office, and I had a better day than I'd been having elsewhere. Writers get funny things in their heads. I was convinced it would help to be facing north again, with a window over my right shoulder, just like it was in my old studio. We'll see.

The New House

Livia has posted several pictures of the new house over on her blog, if you want to take a look at where we're living and working now.

Monday, December 15, 2008


We haven’t had time to watch many movies lately, but we got a chance to watch this one over the weekend. It’s based on a video game, so you can expect lots of action. After an opening that’s extremely reminiscent of the DARK ANGEL TV series (little kids having their heads shaved and barcodes tattooed on them, intensive martial arts training, being held prisoner in a snowy compound . . . I mean, come on, it’s the exact same thing!), we jump ahead and find out that those kids are being raised to be professional assassins who work for a mysterious organization known only as (you guessed it) “The Organization”. One of them who grows up to be known only as Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant, who played Seth Bullock on DEADWOOD) is in Russia to carry out an assignment when he’s set up and betrayed by his own employers. That causes him to turn on The Organization and go after them to find out who’s responsible for double-crossing him.

The plot’s pretty hard to follow, although I’m fairly sure it does all make sense of a sort in the end. Also, I kept asking myself why in the world a bunch of professional assassins who work for some super-secret organization would walk around with their heads shaved and barcodes tattooed on them. Not exactly inconspicuous, is it? But a movie like this isn’t really about making sense. It’s about staging bloody, over-the-top action sequences and looking cool, and HITMAN succeeds pretty well on both those counts. Olyphant does a pretty good job as Agent 47, in a part that doesn’t require him to say much, and the supporting cast is okay. There’s a little too much quick-cut editing in the action scenes for my taste, but I’ve seen worse. And as gory as it is, it’s not as gory as it could have been. There’s actually a little restraint here and there.

HITMAN is pretty much a live-action cartoon, but there are touches of humor here and there and it moves fast. Overall, I enjoyed it and thought it succeeded in what it set out to do. I don’t ask much more than that from a movie.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Beat to a Pulp

If you haven't done so yet, head on over to David Cranmer's new Beat to a Pulp webzine and read Patti Abbott's story "The Instrument of Their Desire". It's an excellent story with one of the best opening paragraphs I've read in a long time, as well as some very nice twists in the plot. A great beginning to what promises to be a fine webzine.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Batman: Vampire

First of all, the three graphic novels from the Nineties reprinted in this very nice trade paperback collection – BATMAN & DRACULA: RED RAIN, BATMAN: BLOODSTORM, and BATMAN: CRIMSON MIST – don’t take place in the regular Batman continuity. They’re alternate versions of Batman – “Tales of the Multiverse”, according to the cover. I believe at one time DC also referred to this sort of thing as “Elseworlds” stories. When I was a kid, anything outside the established continuity was called an “Imaginary Story”. I always loved the concept that some superhero stories could be more “imaginary” than others.

I missed these particular stories when they were first published, so they were new to me. Author Doug Moench spins a yarn that could only be told in an alternate DC Universe. Simply put, Batman becomes a vampire, just as the collection’s title says. This takes place in the first of the stories during an epic war against Dracula, who has come to Gotham City to expand his legion of undead followers. Batman’s allies in this struggle are vampires who have overcome their thirst for blood and dedicated themselves to wiping out Dracula. Even though the Lord of the Undead is defeated, things don’t turn out too well, and Batman is left a vampire himself, although a “good” one, much like the TV character Angel would be a few years later. The Joker enters the plot in the second story and makes things even worse, and they continue to spiral downward for Batman in the third story, which involves many of the villains from his rogues’ gallery, such as the Penguin, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, Two-Face, and Killer Croc. And if Batman has always been the most noirish DC hero, that’s really true here, as he struggles against evil both without and within.

This is classic Batman with a horror spin. Doug Moench was one of my favorite comics writers during the Seventies, based mostly on his great run on MASTER OF KUNG FU with artist Paul Gulacy. (And, boy, I’d love to read all those issues again and see how they hold up.) His scripts on these three Batman stories are excellent, with plenty of action and angst. Speaking of Paul Gulacy, the artwork in this collection by Kelley Jones reminds me a little of Gulacy’s work, as well as Berni Wrightson’s. I’m not always a big fan of Jones’s art – his human figures get a little elongated and bizarre-looking for my taste – but it’s really good in these stories, especially the first one, RED RAIN. I’m glad I was able to catch up to these three stories all in one book, and if you’re a Batman and/or horror fan, I think you’ll enjoy them, too.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Forgotten Books: Arizona Guns - William MacLeod Raine

With some authors, you can be aware of their work for years, even decades, without ever reading any of it. That’s the way it’s been for me with William MacLeod Raine. If you’re like me and practically grew up in used bookstores during the Sixties and Seventies, you saw plenty of paperback Westerns by Raine. While he was never as popular as Zane Grey, Max Brand, or Louis L’Amour, Raine was prolific and a strong presence in the Western field for many years. Now, of course, he’s barely remembered, and based on ARIZONA GUNS, the first of his novels I’ve read, he deserves to be not only remembered but read.

Born in England in 1871, Raine moved to the American West ten years later and lived through much of the time period about which he wrote. Like Walt Coburn and another English immigrant, Fred East (who wrote as Tom West), Raine was an authentic Westerner with experience as a cowboy before he became a write
r. ARIZONA GUNS was originally published in 1919 by Houghton Mifflin under the title A MAN FOUR-SQUARE. There were at least two paperback reprints under the title ARIZONA GUNS, which despite having a classic B-Western sound to it, isn’t appropriate at all. Not one bit of the novel takes place in Arizona, and the only connection is that one of the characters mentions having gone there.

Instead, nearly all the book is set in New Mexico Territory, in the fictional Washington County. If you’re sharp enough to realize that there’s a real county in New Mexico named after a famous president, you’ll have a pretty good idea where this story is going. Yep, this is another fictionalized version of the Billy the Kid saga, with the “Washington County War” taking the place of the real-life Lincoln County War. In Raine’s version, the young hero is named Jim Clanton. After growing up somewhere in the Appalachians and being involved in a feud there, Clanton goes west in search of his enemies who have fled the mountains. He winds up joining a cattle drive up the Pecos, fights outlaws and Indians, becomes friends with a cowboy named Billie Prince, meets up with his old enemies, makes new enemies, romances a couple of beautiful young women, and eventually winds up on the wrong side of the law. By this time, Clanton’s friend Billie Prince has become a lawman, making him the Pat Garrett stand-in for this story, and when Clanton is accused of murdering one of the local cattlemen, Prince has to
form a posse and go after him.

Raine veers off from history in various places, so the story winds up being only loosely based on the Lincoln County War. Because of this, he’s able to throw some nice twists into the plot, especially where various romantic triangles are concerned. Romance plays a big part in this book, as was common in Westerns of the time period, especially the bestsellers authored by Zane Grey. ARIZONA GUNS reminds me quite a bit of Grey’s work, in fact, although it’s not nearly as flowery and melodramatic. Raine slips in a dark undertone to an otherwise happy ending, too, which sets it apart from Grey’s novels and the other popular Westerns of the period. The writing is a little old-fashioned in places (what else would you expect from a book written ninety years ago?), but it holds up well, the style tough and spare for the most part.

I’ve always liked Zane Grey’s plots, and when he finally got around to writing action scenes, he produced some corkers, but I also find it hard to wade through the long-winded prose in his books. If you’re the same way, I think you’d enjoy William MacLeod Raine’s novels, at least based on this one. I definitely intend to read more of them.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Backwoods - Edward Lee

I was in the mood to read a horror novel, and having heard good things about Edward Lee’s work, I decided to try one of his. I knew his books have a reputation for containing a lot of extreme violence and a considerable amount of sex, so I wasn’t really surprised to encounter both of those things in THE BACKWOODS. It’s the story of high-powered Washington D.C. attorney Patricia White, who returns to the small town in rural Virginia where she grew up for her brother-in-law’s funeral. What she finds there are all sorts of sinister, dangerous secrets, including a clan of mysterious backwoods folks who practice an ancient religion of their own and a series of bizarre murders that have no rational explanation.

Well, those of you who have read very many horror novels will know right away where some of these plot elements are going, and I was somewhat disappointed that there weren’t more plot twists along the way. Lee does include some surprises in his story, though, and tells it in fast-paced, evocative prose that’s fun to read. I found enough to like here that I’m definitely interested in reading more of his books. Although it’s not for everybody, I’d recommend THE BACKWOODS to anyone who likes the novels of, say, Richard Laymon – which I do, quite a bit.

I’d like to pass this book along to someone else who might enjoy it. So if you’re an Edward Lee fan and don’t have a copy of THE BACKWOODS, or if you haven’t read him but would like to try his work, it’s yours if you’re the first one to email me and ask for it. The email link is in my profile, if you don’t have the address already.

Saturday, December 06, 2008


This is the first post from the new house. We moved in today, and while there’s still a lot of stuff in the mobile home and we’ll be carrying things over here for days, if not weeks, we now officially live here. It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a little over ten months since the wildfire destroyed our original house and my studio. That seems like a whole other lifetime.

I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone who’s helped us get here. I’m not going to start listing names, because I’d be bound to forget someone. But scores of people – family, friends, total strangers – came forward to help us. People sent money and books. Some showed up with money, books, household goods, furniture. It was amazing. So thank you all for everything you did to lift us up out of the terrible situation in which we found ourselves.

The one person I will name is my beautiful wife Livia, who picked this family up, put us on her shoulders, and carried us to the point we are now: in a new home, starting a new life. Thank you so much.

Regular blogging resumes tomorrow. Life goes on. And thank God for that.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Forgotten Books: A Fighting Man of Mars - Edgar Rice Burroughs

Nostalgia is about to be wallowed in. Consider yourself warned.

In the summer of 1964, my sister’s boyfriend had been telling me about this science-fiction author he’d been reading named Edgar Rice Burroughs. The name was familiar to me, probably from the Tarzan movies that one of the local TV stations ran constantly on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but I’d never read anything by him. I asked John to loan me one of the books, and so one Friday evening when he came over, he brought along a copy of A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS, the sixth book in Burroughs’ Martian series, in what was then a fairly new Ace Books edition with a cover by Roy G. Krenkel. (At the time, of course, I had no idea who Krenkel was, and Ace didn’t mean a whole lot to me, either. Those things were soon to change.)

According to John, these Mars books by Burroughs were a blend of science-fiction – they had flying machines and invisibility rays and four-armed green men in them, after all – and swashbuckling adventure. So I sat down on that Friday evening to read the book, expecting to be entertained. Let’s just say that A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS more than met my expectations. Most of Burroughs’ Mars novels feature his iconic hero John Carter, an Earthman transported to Mars, or Barsoom, as its inhabitants call it, where he fights monsters, mad scientists, evil cults, giant white apes, and assorted other villains, all the while romancing the beautiful princess Dejah Thoris, who loses her clothes more than any heroine short of a Spicy pulp. I discovered all that later, though, because this book, while it uses the same background, features a Martian hero, Hadron of Hastor. To tell you the truth, I don’t recall all that much about the plot. It’s been a lot of years since I last reread the book. But I recall vividly how I sat up late reading it that night, flipping the pages until I just couldn’t stay awake anymore. I finished it first thing the next morning and was hooked. I had to have more Burroughs, all the Burroughs I could get my hands on, as soon as possible.

So I read all the other Mars books, pretty much in order from that point, although I skipped around a little because I couldn’t find some of them right away. It doesn’t really matter all that much, anyway, except for the first three books of the series, which need to be read in order. I found a copy of TARZAN AND THE LOST EMPIRE at the library and read it. That was my first Tarzan novel, but over the next few years I read most of them, too, often in Ace editions with Krenkel covers. Those babies were everywhere back then. John loaned me some of the books from the Venus series. In the more than four decades since then, I’ve read probably three-fourths of Burroughs’ novels. Every now and then, I still pick up one that I haven’t read and go back to being eleven or twelve years old again for a while.

But it all started on that summer weekend in 1964 with A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS, a book that, as it turns out, is really a fairly average entry in Burroughs’ canon. I love it anyway, and always will.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Public Reading

For the first time in quite a while, I spotted somebody reading in public today. (Actually, Livia saw him first and pointed him out to me.) An older man sitting in a car in the local Wal-Mart parking lot was reading a paperback copy of Herman Wouk's THE CAINE MUTINY. I had a hard time not thinking about strawberries for a while.

New-to-Me Authors

Nobody tagged me with this meme that’s going around, but I’m going to take part in it anyway. Here are the authors I’ve read for the first time this year:

David Jack Bell, THE CONDEMNED
Michael Chabon, GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD (no, I haven’t read KAVALIER & CLAY, but I’ll get to it sooner or later)
Christa Faust, MONEY SHOT
James Rollins, SANDSTORM
Harlan Coben, THE WOODS (followed by several others by him)
Charles Bukowski, FACTOTUM
Ross Laurence, THE FAST BUCK (evidently his only novel)
Charles N. Heckelmann, RIVER QUEEN
Edward Lee, THE BACKWOODS (reading this one now, comments in a day or two)

Not an extensive list, but I’d read more by anybody on there.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Bat Lash: Guns and Roses

Back in the Seventies, Bat Lash was one of the regular features in the comic WEIRD WESTERN TALES, along with Jonah Hex and El Diablo. The stories featuring him were probably the most traditional in that group, but they still managed to be off-beat in a MAVERICK sort of way. Bartholomew “Bat” Lash was a drifting gambler who read poetry, wore a flower in his hat, romanced every good-looking woman he encountered, and tried to avoid violence. Of course, he was never very successful at that, so it was lucky he was fast on the draw and good with his fists.

The character has attracted a number of devoted fans over the years and continues to make occasional appearances, usually as a guest star. A recent mini-series brought him back as the lead, however, and it’s now been collected into a very nice trade paperback. BAT LASH: GUNS AND ROSES finally gives us an origin story for the character and finds him as a young man in Texas, the son of a former outlaw who’s trying to go straight and run a horse ranch. Bat’s romance with the beautiful daughter of the local cattle baron leads to all sorts of trouble, including a clash with the corrupt local sheriff who wants the young woman for himself.

Authors Sergio Aragones and Peter Brandvold take this standard set-up and throw in some nice changes on it. The story definitely doesn’t play out the way I thought it would. Every time things seem to be leading up to a cliché, Aragones and Brandvold find a way to put a new spin on the plot. And the art, by comics veteran John Severin, is just wonderful. I enjoyed Severin’s art for years back in the Sixties and Seventies, especially on SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS (and what a great comic that was, by the way, silly title or not). Severin hasn’t lost any of his skill, and looking at his panels in these stories was great fun for me.

As some of you know, Pete Brandvold is a good friend of mine, and I know that this mini-series was a real labor of love for him. He’s a fine writer, and in tandem with comics legends Aragones and Severin, he’s produced an excellent Western mini-series. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Killing Ground - Graham McNeill

I haven’t read that many Warhammer 40,000 novels, but I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read. For those of you unfamiliar with them, these books are a rather odd mix of far-future space opera and gothic horror, featuring various groups of Space Marines who do battle for their emperor against not only aliens but also demons and other supernatural monsters. They’re related to the Warhammer sword-and-sorcery novels (both series are based on role-playing games produced by the same company, after all), but they can be read independently of each other.

THE KILLING GROUND is the fourth book in the Ultramarines series, featuring a couple of rugged Space Marines, Captain Uriel Ventris and Sergeant Pasanius Lysane. Picture, say, Gunner and Sarge in the far future, with no Pooch, for those of you with long memories of DC war comics. This is the first one I’ve sampled from this series, as well as the first thing I’ve read by author Graham McNeill, and while it’s very unusual for me to jump into a series in the middle – I’m obsessive enough to feel like I have to read a series from the first, in order – I didn’t have any trouble getting up to speed on the story, which says something for the author’s skill. Escaping from the calamitous events in the previous book, Uriel and Pasanius find themselves on the planet Salinas, which has a grim, bloody past and now finds itself engaged in guerrilla warfare as rebels battle against the local governor. As space-hopping science-fiction heroes always do, the two Ultramarines wind up being forced to choose which side they want to be on.

I’ve come to expect big, sprawling action scenes in both Warhammer and Warhammer 40K novels, and in that respect, the first half of THE KILLING GROUND sort of disappoints. The pace is a little slow, as McNeill spends a lot of time setting up the conflict on Salinas. But the second half of the book makes up for that with plenty of action. Stuff blows up real good, to say the least, and McNeill conjures up a number of bleak but striking images. Also, Uriel and Pasanius are really likable heroes and the reader can’t help but root for them.

It took me longer than usual to read this book, which is usually a sign that I don’t like what I’m reading. That’s not the case here. I’ve just been really busy and haven’t had much time to read. I thought THE KILLING GROUND was very good and liked it enough that I’m definitely going to search out the first three books in the series and read them, too. If you think you’d like space opera with some horror elements blended in, I recommend it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Forgotten Books: To Tame a Land - Louis L'Amour

I suppose it’s hard to consider any Louis L’Amour novel to be truly forgotten, since they’ve all been in print for decades, some for more than fifty years, including this one originally published in 1955. But of all the L’Amour novels I’ve read (about two-thirds of them), TO TAME A LAND is my favorite, and it’s also one that nobody talks about much.

This novel is an expansion of the novelette “We Shaped This Land With Our Guns”, which appeared in the April 1951 issue of the pulp TEXAS RANGERS. Its narrator is a likable young man named Rye Tyler, who, in the course of the novel, takes part in virtually every sort of Western plot that’s ever been invented. He’s a pioneer, along with the rest of his family. He fights Indians. He scouts for the army. He drives cattle, saves the ranch from rustlers, becomes a reluctant outlaw himself, reforms, becomes a lawman . . . You get the idea. If it’s a standard Western plot, it’s in TO TAME A LAND. That’s why I sometimes tell people that it’s the best example of a “kitchen sink” Western ever written.

Yet in L’Amour’s hands, what could have been nothing more than a gimmick novel becomes something else: a tautly written epic that rings true from start to finish. Knowing some of the history of the West, it’s not all that far-fetched that Rye Tyler could reinvent himself time after time. Plenty of people involved in the settling of the West did just that. TO TAME A LAND is also important because it’s a precursor to L’Amour’s lengthy Sackett saga, only instead of spreading out the action through an extended family, it’s all embodied in Rye Tyler. This book also contains some of L’Amour’s best writing. The final showdown between Rye and his mentor/nemesis (a theme that shows up again and again in L’Amour’s work) is a wonderful scene.

I’m not as big a fan of L’Amour’s books as many Western readers are, but when he was at the top of his game he was very, very good indeed, and he wrote several novels that I consider classics. I’d also put FLINT and THE DAYBREAKERS (the first Sackett novel) in that category. But TO TAME A LAND is the best of them all, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have a copy of it to give away, but it shouldn’t be hard to find if you're interested in reading it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Rocket Science

My brother and one of my nephews came over today to install a TV antenna on the new house. Out in the country where we are, we can’t get cable TV, so we just watch broadcast. Maybe we’ll go the satellite route eventually, but not now.

But to get back to the antenna . . . The brackets my brother brought with him to attach the mast to the house weren’t long enough for it to clear the eaves. He and my nephew are both engineers, so they just went to Lowe’s, bought a yard-long strip of steel, and modified the brackets so they’d work. It’s amazing what you can accomplish with some steel, a hacksaw, and a drill if you know what you’re doing. My dad was one of those guys who was raised during the Depression and had a knack for fixing anything mechanical or electrical. My brother inherited that skill and has raised it to even higher levels. (Needless to say, I didn’t get any of that particular talent.)

So, the modified brackets work great, the antenna is mounted right up at the peak of the roof, and a nice long length of coax is attached to it. Then my brother hauls out another piece of equipment he brought with him: a Spectrum Analyzer, with enough buttons and dials on it that I think in a pinch you could use it to talk to the space station. (My brother does talk to the astronauts on the space station, but that’s another story.) He hooks the coax to the Spectrum Analyzer and then goes back up the ladder to rotate the antenna until it gets the strongest signal. If you have one of these babies, you don’t have to hook the antenna to the TV and then have somebody watch it and yell out when the picture gets better. You get the best signal locked in before any TVs ever get hooked up.

After that comes the clambering around in the attic and hooking the coax to the signal amplifier and then sorting out the cables that go to the various wall plugs. Even though we haven’t moved in yet, when we do we should have the best TV reception we’ve ever had out here. So we’re one step closer, and I had a good time helping out, even though I didn’t actually do much. I sure got a kick out of that Spectrum Analyzer, too.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Fine Night for Dying - Jack Higgins

Over the years I’ve read a number of books by Jack Higgins (whose real name is Harry Patterson) and enjoyed them all, but I haven’t read anything by him in a while. To remedy that I picked up a recent reissue of A FINE NIGHT FOR DYING, originally published in 1969. This is the next-to-last book in a series about British secret agent Paul Chavasse, which was first published under the pseudonym Martin Fallon and later reprinted under Patterson’s better-known pen-name.

I hadn’t read any of the Paul Chavasse books until now. There’s a certain similarity to James Bond: Chavasse reports to an M-like boss who has a flirtatious secretary like Miss Moneypenny, and Chavasse can also be brutally and efficiently violent when he needs to be. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, though, at least in this book. Although it has an international espionage angle, at heart it’s really a gritty little crime story about a ring of smugglers who bring people without visas into England. Chavasse is given the assignment of breaking up this smuggling operation, and to do so he has to pretend to be a fugitive from the law himself.

This is a tightly written book, the sort of lean little British thriller that doesn’t get written much anymore, if at all. A couple of years ago I read a debut thriller from an author who has gone on to be a best-seller. I remember thinking that it had a pretty good plot, but Nick Carter could have handled the same plot in a third as many pages. The same is true of Paul Chavasse. There are no wasted words here. Despite that, the story didn’t really draw me in until the extended action sequence that closes the book. The plot doesn’t have much in the way of twists and turns; the only real “surprise” is telegraphed early on. But the action scenes are very good, and in the end I enjoyed the book enough to make me want to read more of Higgins’ work again. I’ll probably pick up another of his novels soon.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Forgotten Books: River Queen - Charles N. Heckelmann

If Charles N. Heckelmann is remembered at all today by paperback fans, it’s probably as the founder and editor of Monarch Books or the editor at Popular Library during the Sixties. However, before that he worked as a writer and editor in the Western pulps, most notably those in the so-called Thrilling Group, and he continued writing Western novels from the late Forties throughout the Fifties. He was never very prolific as an author, but his books were well-regarded in their time.

I just read my first Heckelmann novel, RIVER QUEEN, and it’s a good one. That’s the title of the Graphic Books paperback reprint. The novel first appeared in hardback from Henry Holt under the title THE RAWHIDER. RIVER QUEEN is actually the better and more appropriate title. This is a riverboat book, set largely along the Missouri River in Montana Territory, although the first section of the story centers around the battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Bill Horn is the captain and pilot of the riverboat Western Star. His main rival on the river is Kay Graham, the beautiful female captain of the Queen. Both of their boats wind up being hired by the army to carry troops and supplies up the Missouri River to help deal with the rising threat of the Sioux, who have started raiding the settlements there because the army is stretched so thin due to the war. There’s also a romantic triangle going on, as well as an old enemy of Horn’s who is now a Jayhawker, ostensibly helping the Confederate side while really being out for all the loot he can get his hands on.

Why this novel was never adapted into a movie starring John Wayne, I’ll never know. Bill Horn seems to be a perfect character for the Duke to play, and considering the way Heckelmann describes him, I wonder if he thought the same thing. Barbara Stanwyck would have been great as Kay Graham, and the villain cries out to be played by Forrest Tucker. It’s not really a John Ford or Howard Hawks type of story, but in the hands of a director like Michael Curtiz or Henry Hathaway . . . Well, never mind. There’s no such movie. But it would have been a good one, because Heckelmann has packed a lot into this book: epic battles, romantic intrigue, mano a mano showdowns, and a little reasonably accurate history. The action scenes are really good, and my only real complaint is Heckelmann’s occasional tendency to slow down the story in order to explain the backgrounds of some of the characters. This is especially annoying early on, but once you get past the first chapter or so, the action never flags for very long. I enjoyed this one enough that I definitely plan to read more by Heckelmann.

This week marks the beginning of a new wrinkle in my Forgotten Books posts. From time to time I’m going to give away the books I’m writing about. People have been incredibly generous this year in sending books to me after the fire back in January, and I’d like to pay back that generosity in small part by passing on some of the books that I’ve read and enjoyed. Just to clarify, I’m not giving away any of the books that were sent to me. Those occupy a special place in my new collection. These will only be books that I’ve bought myself.

So here’s how it works: if you want this copy of RIVER QUEEN, it’s yours if you’re the first person to email me asking for it (not by posting a comment in the comments section). There’s an email link in my profile, if you don’t have the address already. I’ll update this post as soon as the book is spoken for. It’s that simple. I’ll probably be doing this with some of the other books I post about, too, not just the Forgotten ones on Friday. This copy of RIVER QUEEN isn’t in top-notch shape, but it’s all there, so if you’d like to read it, this is your chance.

Update: This book is now spoken for, but I'll be giving away more in the weeks to come.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Justice Society of America: The Next Age

Back to more traditional superhero fare . . . Even though I grew up during the Silver Age of Comics, I’ve always been a fan of the Golden Age characters, too, as far back as I was aware of them. Which is pretty far, because “Flash of Two Worlds” and AVENGERS #4 featuring the return of Captain America were some of the first issues I read when I became a serious fan. I always enjoyed the annual crossovers between the Justice League of America and the Justice Society of America, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for the JSA.

So it comes as no surprise that I enjoyed the recent relaunch (one of many) of the JSA. This one features three of the original members, Green Lantern (the Alan Scott version), The Flash (the Jay Garrick version), and Wildcat (a long-time favorite of mine) trying to recruit the grown-up children of some of the original members for membership in the Justice Society. Some of these recruits are even grandchildren of the original members. But even as this effort is getting started, along come some mysterious super-villains who seem bent on wiping out these descendants of former JSA members, along with all the members of their families. One thing about modern comics, the body count is certainly higher that it was in the Silver Age, and that’s true here. But that really raises the stakes for the heroes involved.

Other than that, this collection has a definite old-fashioned feel to it. Some might call it “retro” or “classic”. Me, I’m fine with old-fashioned. I like old-fashioned. I got a big kick out of the trio of geezer super-heroes at the core of this story, and even though a lot of the younger characters – or younger versions of old characters – were new to me, I liked them as well. The script by Geoff Johns works in a lot of comics history, which I appreciate, and the art by Dale Eaglesham is really good. JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA: THE NEXT AGE is a lot of fun, and I recommend it highly, especially for comics readers who remember the Silver or even the Golden Age.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I guess I’ve just been in the mood for bizarre comics recently, and WE3 certainly fits that description. This ain’t no funny animal book. Instead, it’s a gritty, near-future, science fiction yarn about three pets – a dog, a cat, and a rabbit – that are kidnapped by the government and bio-engineered so that they can operate heavily-armored and heavily-armed battle suits, the purpose of this experiment being to see if someday animal armies might be able to replace human ones. But, as always happens in stories like this, Something Goes Wrong. The animals, who can now speak and refer to themselves as 1, 2, and 3, get loose, and the government tries to hunt them down before they can hurt any civilians and/or expose the experiment to the public. As you might imagine, bloody chaos ensues.

I wouldn’t recommend WE3 to everybody. Grant Morrison’s story and Frank Quitely’s art are rather disturbing at times. But they generate a lot of suspense and more than a few poignant moments, too, especially if you’re an animal lover like I am. And no matter how you think this story is going to end, you’re probably wrong. I know I was. Overall, this is one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in quite a while, and while I say again that it won’t be for everybody, I really liked it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Exterminators: Bug Brothers

This is a far cry from my usual comics reading, which tends toward the traditional (Superman, Batman, other super-heroes, Westerns, war comics, etc.). THE EXTERMINATORS: BUG BROTHERS reprints the first five issues of a relatively new series from Vertigo/DC and centers around the largely dysfunctional lives of the men and women who work for a pest control company in Los Angeles. The narrator is Henry, a recently paroled ex-con whose stepfather owns the company. Unless I missed it, I don’t think the story ever mentions why Henry went to prison, but in this first volume, at least, it doesn’t really matter. He’s an intelligent, flawed, but ultimately likable protagonist. As the story begins, he’s partnered with an exterminator named A.J., who’s just as despicable and repulsive as the vermin they go after. Along the way Henry is also teamed at various times with Stretch, a black Buddhist cowboy, and Kevin, a fundamentalist Christian. There’s also Henry’s girlfriend Laura, who works for the company that makes the poison the exterminators use on roaches.

This is more than just a bizarre soap opera, though. It’s also a bizarre scientific/conspiracy thriller, because the vermin encountered by the exterminators are getting steadily larger, more aggressive, and even intelligent, especially the cockroaches. Could the new poison they’re using have some connection? Well, of course it does. Does the evil corporation have some hidden agenda, possibly connected with the government? You know the answer to that as well as I do. But despite those areas of predictability, the script by Simon Oliver (a newcomer to comics; I think this series was his first published work) is funny and well-paced, and he’s created some interesting characters. I like the art by Tony Moore, too, which is easy to follow and suitably grotesque when it needs to be. Overall, I enjoyed THE EXTERMINATORS quite a bit, and I’d certainly read more in the series.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sandhills Boy - Elmer Kelton

I warn you, I’m going to digress a little here. Elmer Kelton was my father’s favorite author, although I’d like to think that my dad thought my books were pretty good, too. But Elmer’s work really struck a chord with him. They were roughly the same age, both came from a rural Texas background and had cowboyed some as kids, both were in the army and stationed in Austria right after World War II, and as it turned out, they had some mutual acquaintances. So when I took my dad with me to the Western Writers of America convention in Jackson, Wyoming in 1992, he was excited to meet Elmer, who I had known since ’86.

Now, my dad was always supportive – in his way – of my desire to be a writer. Oh, he thought I was crazy, no doubt about that. He didn’t see how anybody from our small town could ever make a living writing books. Writers were all folks who lived somewhere else. But he did everything in his power to see to it that I had the chance to succeed or fail on my own, and nobody can ask for more than that. Even after I broke in and started selling books, my dad didn’t quite grasp what was going on.

But then, at that WWA convention, when he saw Elmer greet me by name and shake my hand, my dad’s attitude changed. By golly, if I was friends with Elmer Kelton, then there had to be something to this writing business after all. He got to talk to Elmer at length, and that was when they discovered they knew some of the same people and had been to many of the same places, in both Austria and West Texas. It was fun watching them talk, because they obviously spoke the same language.

We spent that weekend hanging around not only with Elmer but many other writers, editors, and agents as well, and from that point on, my dad was more interested in the writing business than ever and managed to pick up quite a few of the intricacies of it. We spent hours talking about it, and those were some great times.

Now, back to Elmer Kelton. SANDHILLS BOY is his autobiography, and it’s a fine book, written in his usual straightforward style. He begins by covering several generations of his family that came before him, painting a vivid picture of their interaction with the somewhat harsh West Texas landscape, then launches into a lengthy section about his boyhood on the ranch that his father managed. It’s good stuff, humorous and poignant in turn, and along the way he mentions his mother reading the pulp RANCH ROMANCES, a magazine that would prove to be quite important to him later on.

The second half of SANDHILLS BOY deals primarily with Kelton’s service as a combat infantryman in Germany during World War II, and then his romance with Anni Lipp while he was stationed in Austria during the year following the war. They weren’t able to get married until after Kelton returned to America and was discharged from the army, and then only after another year of dealing with all the bureaucratic red tape involved. The final few chapters center around their lives since then, including Kelton’s duel careers as an agriculture journalist and a novelist.

This is not really a literary autobiography. Kelton mentions making his first sale to RANCH ROMANCES and touches in passing on becoming a novelist. It would have been fine with me if he had gone into more detail about that part of his life – I’m a sucker for the “And then I wrote”-style of autobiography, although I know some people don’t care for it – but hey, it’s Elmer’s book, and Elmer’s life, for that matter, and he can write about what he wants to. Especially when it’s in such eloquent, compelling prose. His unassuming personality really shines through in this book. There’s no sense that he considers himself any more special or important than any of the other cowboys, ranch women, or soldiers he describes. That’s one of the things that makes him the man he is, and one reason this book gets a high recommendation from me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Forgotten Books: Climb a Broken Ladder - Robert Novak

I had never heard of this novel or the author before reading it. There’s a political columnist by the name of Robert Novak, but I have my doubts he’s the same guy who wrote CLIMB A BROKEN LADDER and B-GIRL, both published in 1956 by Ace and as far as I’ve been able to determine, the only two books by this author.

CLIMB A BROKEN LADDER is a low-life novel, I guess you’d call it, a story about the drunks, beggars, and prostitutes who live along Seattle’s skid row, characters with colorful names like the Bohunk, Big Phil, Newsy Nellie, and Pushover Patty. Though not as well-written, it reminded me of what I’ve read by Charles Bukowski, since a lot of the book finds the characters just wandering around in an alcoholic haze. This makes for a pretty meandering plot, but the story does have a coherent thread running through it, that being the budding romance between the Bohunk and Newsy Nellie. The book picks up steam in the final third with a twist or two that I didn’t see coming. It never quite becomes the noir crime novel that I thought it might, but it’s dark enough to please most readers of noir.

One thing I really liked about the book is its Seattle setting. I expect most skid row novels to be set in New York or San Francisco or some place like that. Novak also does a good job of working in the back-stories of the various characters, and then at the very end throws in a final plot twist that left me going, “Huh,” even though I wouldn’t go quite so far as to call it jaw-dropping. This is a pretty stark book that impressed me enough I may have to try to find a copy of Novak’s other novel, B-GIRL.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Killer Contest

Livia's running a contest over on her blog to give away a basket containing a signed copy of THE CHRISTMAS COOKIE KILLER, a mug, cookies, chocolate, and other assorted goodies. This is some good swag. Head on over to check it out.

Monday, November 10, 2008

JLA: That Was Now, This Is Then

It’s an indication of how long I’ve been reading comic books that creators such as Roger Stern and John Byrne are considered old-timers in the business (and rightly so), while unless I stop and think about it, they seem like relative newcomers to me.

The new trade paperback JLA: THAT WAS NOW, THIS IS THEN, which reprints a five-issue story arc from the comic JLA CLASSIFIED, is definitely a little old-fashioned in its story (by Stern) and its art (by Byrne) – and that suits me just fine. It centers around some of the core characters in the DC Universe – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, and Black Canary – battling in both the past and the present against a super-villain who’s new to me, the alien strongman called Titus. Because of the flashbacks involved in the story, we get to see old favorites Barry Allen and Hal Jordan in action as The Flash and Green Lantern, respectively. Call me a curmudgeon if you will, but I’ve never really warmed up to the newer incarnations of those characters, although I don’t mind Wally West being the current Flash all that much. This is a straightforward super-hero vs. super-villain battle story (what we used to call a slugfest in earlier days), and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of the classic Justice League of America, and if you are, too, I think there’s a good chance you’d like this yarn a lot.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Just One Look - Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben’s JUST ONE LOOK has to be the most complicated novel I’ve read by him so far. In fact, there are so many characters and plotlines introduced in the first fifty pages or so that I figured there was no way he could tie all of them together and have it make any sense.

The main plotline involves suburban New Jersey artist/wife and mother Grace Lawson, who finds an odd photo among some other pictures she’s had developed at a local photo store. It’s an old photo of a group of five college-age people, and Grace thinks one of them might be her husband, whom she didn’t meet until after college. When her husband Jack sees the photo, he takes off without any explanation and disappears, prompting Grace to launch an investigation to find out why he ran off and what has happened to him. As Coben reveals to the reader, Jack Lawson is soon captured by a mysterious Korean assassin who starts slaughtering people right and left. Then you’ve got a former hitman, a U.S. attorney with secrets of his own, gangsters, rock and roll bands, a peeping tom, enigmatic figures pulling strings behind the scenes . . . You get the idea. This is one crowded book.

Despite all that, Coben keeps the action moving right along, including several very suspenseful action scenes, and he creates a strong, sympathetic, and likable heroine in Grace Lawson. And sure enough, he does tie everything together in a fairly logical manner, taking until the next-to-last page to wrap up the final twists. I’ll admit, though, that some of the explanations seemed to come from pretty far out in left field, and the motivations for some of them left me saying, “Is that it?”

Still, JUST ONE LOOK is a very entertaining novel that really kept me turning the pages. I’ll definitely read more of Coben’s work, but probably not for a while, because I don’t want to risk getting burned out on his books.

Friday, November 07, 2008

General Reasoner

A friend of mine sent me this photo of me as a Confederate general. The last time I saw something like this, the result was the Judge Earl Stark series. So you're bound to know what I'm thinking . . .