Saturday, October 31, 2009

New Story for Hallowe'en at Beat to a Pulp

Over at the fantastic Beat to a Pulp website today, you can read an oddball little yarn of mine called "One Night Near Hangtown". Many thanks to David and Elaine for publishing it. I've been trying to write more short stories in recent months, and I'm also attempting to do some different things in them than I do in my novels. I think it's good for a writer to shake things up a little, and it's also fun. I have three or four more stories that will be appearing in print anthologies, but I think it'll be a while before any of them show up. I'd also like to write some more flash fiction. I published half a dozen or so of those a couple of years ago, one under my name and the others under a pseudonym, and thought it was great fun writing them. I haven't had any ideas lately that seemed to fit the format, though. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy "One Night Near Hangtown".

Friday, October 30, 2009

Forgotten Books: Secret of Death Valley - William Heuman

Hamp Cameron comes to Mormon, a town on the edge of Death Valley, looking for the gambler who seduced his sister and then abandoned her to die. That’s a book right there by itself, right? Not in the hands of William Heuman, who often begins a book where others would probably end it. Hamp Cameron’s vengeance quest becomes something else entirely, as he finds himself caught up in a war between two rival outfits hauling borax out of Death Valley.

When I was a kid, we always watched the TV show “Death Valley Days”, which was sponsored by Twenty Mule Team Borax. So I was a little familiar with this background before I read Heuman’s book. He doesn’t go into great detail about the borax industry, but he puts in enough to be interesting. There are also a couple of romantic triangles, some shootouts, and several brutal fistfights, all told in Heuman’s terse, hardboiled prose that reminds me of the work of Ben Haas, Dudley Dean McGaughey, Peter Germano, and Gordon D. Shirreffs.

I’ve read several of Heuman’s books and enjoyed them all. Since he started out in the pulps, he knew how to spin a yarn and keep the reader turning the pages, that’s for sure. True, his work is very traditional and, yes, predictable if you’ve read very many Westerns, but there are always a few unexpected touches along the way, too, and the little moments of poetry that often crop up in hardboiled fiction. SECRET OF DEATH VALLEY is a very entertaining novel, and I intend to read more of Heuman’s work soon.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

And the Winner is . . .

Rick Ollerman, who was selected by random drawing to receive a free copy of Norman German's new novel, A SAVAGE WISDOM. Congratulations, Rick, and thanks to everyone who entered.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Okay, am I the only one who can’t tell what the hell is going on half the time in these movies? I mean, when the giant robots start transforming and whaling away at each other, I can’t tell which one is which and what they’re doing. At least most of this second entry in the series takes place during the day, so it’s a little easier to follow the action.

I wasn’t real fond of the first TRANSFORMERS movie, but we watched the second one anyway and I was surprised to discover that I liked it considerably better. I thought the plot was pretty good, as it delves into the history of the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons that eventually spreads to Earth and reveals that the Transformers have been here in disguise a lot longer than anyone suspected.

Shia LeBouef is fine as Sam, the sometimes hapless, sometimes heroic human befriended by the good guy Autobots. The always good Kevin Dunn and Julie White play his parents, and Megan Fox is, well, Megan Fox. Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson reprise their roles as soldiers from the first movie but don’t have much to do this time around. My biggest complaint about the film is that numerous battle scenes go on interminably long. This is a two-and-a-half-hour movie that could have easily been cut to two hours just by making some of those fights a little shorter. I think it would have been more effective that way.

Overall, though, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN is pretty entertaining, even if you weren’t a fan of the action figures and the original cartoon. (I certainly wasn’t.)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Guest Blog (and Book Giveaway!): Norman German's A Savage Wisdom

(Here's some information from Louisiana author Norman German about his latest historical crime novel, which sounds like an excellent book. I plan to read it soon. In the meantime, the publisher is giving away a free copy to one of the readers of this blog, and if you'd like to be entered in the drawing for it, post a comment saying so between now and 6 pm CDT Thursday October 29. That's a little over three days from now. I'll hold the proverbial random drawing for the winner on Thursday evening.)

Texas Completes the Circuit to Louisiana’s Electric Chair

The only woman to sit in Louisiana’s electric chair wound up there by killing a Texan.

In a portable electric chair nicknamed “Little Sizzler,” Annie Beatrice McQuiston was executed on November 28, 1942 for the Valentine’s Day slaying of a Houston salesman.

Annie grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana, the daughter of a hard-drinking, abusive Irishman. Her mother died of tuberculosis, compelling her to work in a macaroni factory until she was fired when the TB risk was discovered. She left home at 13, became addicted to cocaine, and resorted to prostitution to make her way in the world.

In 1939 in a brothel she called home, Annie, now going by “Toni Jo,” fell for Claude “Cowboy” Henry, an ex-prize fighter. On November 25, 1939, shortly after he isolated her in a hotel room and forced her to go “cold turkey,” they secured a marriage license in Lake Charles and married in Sulphur.

Cowboy’s arrest for murdering San Antonio policeman Arthur Sinclair (before meeting Toni Jo) cut their honeymoon short. In January 1940, Cowboy was sentenced to fifty years in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.

Her thinking clouded by desperation, Toni Jo hatched a plan to rob an Arkansas bank for money to shorten her husband’s sentence by legal appeal or perhaps bribery. On Highway 90 just east of Orange, Texas, outside the Night Owl bar, Houston tire salesman Joseph Calloway picked up Toni Jo and Army deserter Horace Finnon Burks. Wanting his Ford V8 as their getaway car, they forced him at gunpoint to a field south of Lake Charles and led him by pliers clamped to his penis to a rice-stalk stack, where Toni Jo plugged him once in the forehead with a .32.

At home in Houston that frosty Valentine’s night were Calloway’s wife and nine-year-old daughter.

Four days before Toni Jo was sentenced to die, Cowboy stole a truck from a Sugarland prison farm and headed for Lake Charles to spring her from jail. He was captured at a Beaumont hotel and thrown in solitary back in Huntsville. The day before her execution, Toni Jo told Cowboy via telephone to lead a straight life and “go out the front door” of the Texas prison instead of trying to escape again.

Cowboy was freed six years later because of terminal heart disease but a few months later was shot to death before he could die naturally.

About the Author

Dr. Norman German is Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, Fiction Editor for Louisiana Literature, and Winner of the Deep South Writers' Contest for No Other World. A Savage Wisdom is his third novel.

A specialist in twentieth-century American literature, he has also published award-winning short stories, poems, and literary criticism. His stories have appeared in commercial and literary magazines, including Shenandoah, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Sport Fishing, and Salt Water Sportsman. His scholarly articles cover a wide range of major American authors including Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Raymond Carver, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Dickey, and Anthony Hecht.

Visit the author and buy the book at

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 1

I went ahead and read this first volume of reprints from THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, which includes the origin story from AMAZING FANTASY #15 and the first ten issues of Spider-Man’s own title.

The first issue of ASM I ever saw was #11, and once I read it, I was hooked. My favorite Marvel title has always been FANTASTIC FOUR, but SPIDER-MAN was a strong second, and looking back on it now, I’m not sure but what these stories are even better than what was being published in FANTASTIC FOUR at the same time. The eleven-page origin story is an iconic classic, maybe the best origin story ever in comics, packing in a staggering amount of pathos, drama, and even a little humor. (I think I’ve been reading Stan Lee too much. I’m starting to sound like him.) But there’s no denying that this short yarn set the stage for all the decades of stories that came after, including a caption that has entered the public consciousness, albeit in truncated and slightly misquoted form: “And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!”

It takes a few issues for the scripts to really hit their stride, but by the third issue, which introduces the villain Dr. Octopus, all the elements are pretty much in place: the nerdy secret identity, the wisecracking during the heat of battle, the skirmishes with crusty publisher J. Jonah Jameson (who Stan based on himself, or so the legend has it), the perpetually feeble aunt, the terrible luck that hangs over Peter Parker’s head like a cloud, and the angst-ridden final panels that show up nearly every issue. The fourth issue introduces the Sandman, the Lizard shows up in #6, Electro in #9, and the tenth and final issue reprinted in this collection showcases Spidey’s battle against The Big Man and his henchmen The Enforcers, the first real example of Spider-Man fighting against organized crime, which would continue over the years and give the book a noirish feel that was similar to, though not as pronounced as, the one to be found in the Batman titles over at DC.

Stan Lee always seemed to be having a wonderful time writing Spider-Man. While his scripts in the Avengers collection I just read were good, they have a certain workman-like feel to them. But Stan definitely had a fondness for certain characters: Spider-Man, Ben Grimm, Nick Fury, Thor, and the Silver Surfer come to mind. As for Steve Ditko’s art, well, I had forgotten just how good Ditko was. His layouts flow seamlessly, and his style is utterly distinctive, unlike the work of any other artist in comics before or since. He’s one of those rare artists whose work is instantly identifiable, and he was particularly well-suited for the dark, ominous backgrounds in many of these stories.

I realize I may sound like a gushing fanboy here. Modern comics readers might look at these stories and find them crude and silly. But I loved them when I first read them more than forty years ago, and rereading them now, I think they hold up remarkably well. I had a great time reading them, but it may be a while before I get around to the other two volumes I have on hand. Or it may not.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Marvel Masterworks: The Avengers, Volume 1

I like Marvel’s Essentials series and DC’s Showcase volumes, those thick, black-and-white reprints of classic comic book stories. But I have to admit, when it comes to super-heroes, I miss color. War and horror comics work just fine in black-and-white, and so do most Westerns, but super-heroes are just so darn colorful. That’s why I picked up some of the full-color Marvel Masterworks trade paperbacks when I came across them recently: THE AVENGERS, VOLUME 1, and the first three volumes of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I just finished reading THE AVENGERS, which reprints issues #1 – 10, so naturally I have some comments about it.

First of all, I remember where I bought most of the original issues, back in 1963 and ’64, and to a certain extent, the circumstances in which I bought them. For example, I was sick and stayed home from school, but my mother took me to the drugstore with her anyway the day I bought AVENGERS #8 off the spinner rack there. I won’t bore you with the rest of those reminiscences, but reading those stories again really took me back.

As for the stories themselves, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them. The dynamic art by Jack Kirby, the breathless, over-the-top prose of Stan Lee, the words and images that are still burned in my brain more than forty years later, all those things are still very entertaining. It's also interesting to see the introduction of storylines that would resonate through the Marvel Universe for years, and in some cases, decades afterwards. But (you knew there was a "but" coming, didn’t you) something struck me about those stories as I read them now, and to talk about it, I have to commit something like comic book heresy. You see, the conventional wisdom these days is that Jack Kirby created all the characters, plotted all the stories, and deserves all the credit for Marvel’s success, while Stan Lee just rode his coattails and screwed him over. Well, I wasn’t there, of course, so I can’t say for sure who did what, but I can tell you this: some of those stories that Kirby plotted and drew make almost no sense. You’re reading along, and suddenly you think, “Wait a minute. How did those characters get over there?” or “Wait a minute. Where’d all those characters go who were in the last panel?” or “Wait a minute. How could they possibly know that?” Numerous times in reading the first eight stories in this volume, I got the impression that Lee’s scripts were desperately trying to impose some sort of logic on art that looked great but didn’t come close to telling a coherent story. That changes to a certain extent in the final two stories, which were drawn by Don Heck. My memory is that comic book fans, even in that era, considered Heck a second-rate artist, but in reading the stories now, while Heck’s work lacks Kirby’s sense of drama and flair, the stories themselves flow a lot better.

I really don’t mean this to come across as Kirby-bashing. I love Kirby’s work. But I think Lee deserves a lot of credit, too, which he usually doesn’t get these days. Although he probably did hog too much credit back in the Sixties, so maybe it balances out. And I’m talking strictly about the creative end of the process, too. I know next to nothing about the business end of the comic book business, then or now.

All that said, what’s really important to me about books like this is that while I’m reading them, I feel like I’m eleven and twelve years old again. That’s worth a lot these days.

And I’ll have some comments on those Spider-Man volumes in the near future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Forgotten Books: Baal - Robert R. McCammon

Back in the Eighties, I was a big fan of horror writer Robert R. McCammon and read about half of his books. His werewolf novel, THE WOLF’S HOUR, is hugely entertaining, and his poignant and nostalgic novella, “Night Calls the Green Falcon” (which you can find in the excellent collection BLUE WORLD) is one of my all-time favorite stories by any author.

Then McCammon stopped writing horror and produced a couple of odd, unclassifiable novels, BOY’S LIFE and GONE SOUTH, which I liked but not nearly as much as I liked his other work. Then he retired from writing, and I never got around to going back and reading the earlier books of his that I’d missed.

Which brings us to BAAL, McCammon’s first novel, originally published in 1978, which I just read as the opening shot of my attempt to catch up on the unread McCammons. It’s the story of a cult leader, who may or may not actually be an ancient demon, and the three men who oppose his rise to worldwide power: an elderly professor of theology, a Russian/Eskimo hunter who claims not to be a shaman (although the other Eskimos say that he is), and a mysterious individual known only as Michael (no fair guessing who he really is, although of course you will, and of course, you’ll be right).

This book has some major problems, particularly with the pacing, which may well be because it was a first novel, after all. The entire first half is just set-up, and it’s pretty much of a slog to get through. One of the major characters isn’t even introduced until the final section of the book. So why am I recommending it? Because the plot finally gets going in the second half, and the last eighty pages or so are really good, giving the reader a taste of the full-throttle action that would dominate some of McCammon’s later novels. There are also several genuinely creepy scenes that are very effective, and the ending is a good, satisfying one.

In recent years, McCammon has come out of retirement with a couple of extremely long historical mysteries. I have both of them and will get around to them, though they may have to wait until I have more time to devote to reading. In the meantime, I plan to continue catching up on his earlier novels. I mean, good grief, Bill Crider recommended THEY THIRST, McCammon’s vampire novel, to me nearly thirty years ago, and I still haven’t read it. I need to remedy that.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Next of Kin

We had this movie on our Netflix list for several months before Patrick Swayze passed away, because neither Livia nor I could remember whether we’d ever seen it. It finally worked its way to the top of the list, and as it turns out, we hadn’t seen it. And that’s fine, because it left us with a good movie to watch for the first time.

NEXT OF KIN finds Swayze playing Truman Gates, a Chicago cop who hails from the mountains of Kentucky, where he still has a lot of relatives who work in the coal mines there. His younger brother, though, has followed him to Chicago and works for a vending machine company, and not surprisingly, said brother gets killed in a mob takeover of the company. Swayze’s character wants to find the killer and bring him in legally, but his other brother back in the mountains (Liam Neeson) wants to come to Chicago and avenge the death personally, as mountain tradition demands. Naturally this brings him into conflict with Swayze’s character.

This whole “hillbillies vs. the mob” scenario is pretty predictable but still very entertaining. Swayze is impossibly young and athletic and charismatic, although not as impossibly young as Ben Stiller, who is oddly cast but fairly effective as a mob leader’s son who wants to get into the family business. Adam Baldwin makes for a smarmy and menacing bad guy, and although Neeson’s backwoods accent slips over into the bizarre at times, he’s good as the vengeance-driven brother. There’s an occasional lapse of logic in the script, but it all ends up in a fine showdown that plays as if the screenwriter read one of Louis L’Amour’s Sackett books and thought, “Hey, you could do a modern version of this!”

I’m not sure how we missed this when it came out twenty years ago. Most of you probably saw it then. But if you haven’t, it’s well worth investing a couple of hours of your time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Guest Blog: Mike Cox on Time of the Rangers

I remember a time when letters – those rectangular white envelopes sent not by pressing a button but by affixing a postage stamp that gets more expensive every year or so – used to bear real news instead of bills or solicitation flyers.

So when I opened the envelope from the Writers’ League of Texas a few weeks back, I expected to be reminded that it was time to pay my dues again. Instead, I found a letter from director Cyndi Hughes saying that Wearing the Cinco Peso
, the first book of my two-volume history of the Texas Rangers, had been selected as a finalist for the League’s 2009 Texas Book Award for Nonfiction.

In addition to being pleased, not to mention impressed at having received some good news the old-fashioned way, that letter got me thinking about something that every long-time writer faces sooner or later: Will my Ranger history (the other is Time of the Rangers: The Texas Rangers 1900 to Present)
be my signature work? Is it all down hill from here? At 60, have I written my best work?

That question aside, I am pretty sure I have written my longest work. Combined, the set covers more than 180 years of Texas history with more than a quarter-million words filling almost 1,000 published pages. Researching and writing it took 10 years, though I wrote a couple of other books along the way.

Coincidentally, about the time I got that letter from the Writers’ League, I read where Larry McMurtry, who won a Pulitzer for his epic novel Lonesome Dove, has declared that after 30 novels he may stop writing fiction. No one older than 60, he opines, has ever written a great novel. I get the feeling what he’s really saying is that no one older than 60 has anything of value left to put into a book or the energy to do it.

Oops! Not having checked with Larry first, I have two pending book contracts and plans for even more books. My dilemma is not running out of things to say, but time to say them. Of course, I write nonfiction.

But thinking about Larry’s pronouncement finally helped me get comfortable with my own question: My Texas Ranger history may or may not be my definitive work, but I’m going to keep writing books, with apologies to the National Rifle Association, until someone has to pry my cold, dead fingers off my laptop.
(Mike is doing a virtual tour for this book. If you want to check out some of his other appearances, the schedule can be found on his excellent blog, Lone Star Book Blog. You can also check out his website here.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Proposal

If you’ve ever watched a romantic comedy, you’ll know just about everything that’s going to happen in THE PROPOSAL long before it gets there. Sandra Bullock is the cold, driven New York book editor who’s actually Canadian and has a visa problem that means she’s about to get deported. Ryan Reynolds is her harried assistant who hates her. You can write the rest of the movie from there.

That said, they’re both so darned cute, and the script actually is pretty funny in places, and Betty White, who always cracks me up, has a major supporting role as the grandmother of Reynolds’ character, and a lot of the movie takes place in Alaska with some spectacular scenery (including a Bullock shower scene), and when you throw all that into the pot, THE PROPOSAL turns out to be a pretty decent little film. I enjoyed it, and as long as you’re not expecting anything ground-breaking, I think there’s a good chance you might, too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hard Case Crime Update (with Mike Shayne News!)

Brett Halliday
August 2010
ISBN: 0-8439-6328-X
Cover art by Robert McGinnis
Read A Sample Chapter


Ten years ago, private eye Mike Shayne did a job for one of the richest men in El Paso, digging up dirt on a boy courting the tycoon’s daughter. Now the daughter’s back, all grown up and dangerous. And so’s Shayne—but this time it’s to investigate murder...

First publication in 20 years
One of the most popular detectives of all time, Mike Shayne starred in more than 70 novels, a dozen movies, a TV series, radio dramas, comic books, and the long-running Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine

Filmmaker SHANE BLACK,creator of Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,on the Work of BRETT HALLIDAY

"In this age of private eyes with cats, funny neighbors, and relationship woes—here’s to 40’s thriller writer Brett Halliday, whose baffling, bullet-paced capers have come to light again.

"Halliday’s books were marvels of misdirection. Red herrings, skewed motives, mistaken identities—he did everything but come to your house and bang cymbals.

"Halliday’s plots are byzantine gems. This is back when mystery writers were so much smarter than you and me. Want an engrossing read? Pick this one up.

"Never heard of this book? No matter. It’s been waiting patiently, poised to dazzle you with raw, ingenious storytelling. Halliday is the king of the baffler novel. Pure pleasure.

"How long can Halliday’s best-selling books remain dormant, undiscovered...? The answer: not a minute longer, thanks to Hard Case Crime."

(And to add my own opinion to that of Shane Black, MURDER IS MY BUSINESS is one of my absolute favorite Shayne novels. I've read it a couple of times and look forward to reading it again in the Hard Case Crime edition.)

Nevada Jim Covers by Bama

In yesterday's post, I mentioned the Nevada Jim covers by James Bama, who at the time was enjoying great popularity as the cover artist on Bantam's Doc Savage series. Since then he's also become very well-known as a Western artist. I thought some of you might like to see a few more of the Nevada Jim covers.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Forgotten Books: Big Lobo - Marshall McCoy (Leonard F. Meares)

First, a little history. Many of you know this stuff already, but bear with me. In the mid-Fifties, an Australian author named Leonard F. Meares began writing American Westerns under various pseudonyms for the Australian publisher Cleveland. These were short novels (30–35,000 words) published as digest-sized paperbacks. Meares’ best-known pseudonym was Marshall Grover, and his most popular series, which began in 1956, was about a couple of drifting Texans named Larry Valentine and Stretch Emerson, who always seemed to wind up in some sort of trouble they had to fight their way out of. The Larry and Stretch books also had a considerable amount of humor in them. The series ran for more than thirty years and eventually would number more than 400 books.

In 1960, Meares launched another series under the Marshall Grover name, this one concerning a small town called Bleak Creak. It lasted a couple of years and ran for eleven books. Then in 1964, he started the series that would be his most successful other than Larry and Stretch, about a former cavalry sergeant named Jim Rand, who left the army to search for the tinhorn gambler who shot and killed his brother Chris. This series began at Cleveland, but a couple of years later, Meares moved it, as well as Larry and Stretch, over to the Australian paperback publisher Horwitz, where the Marshall Grover books were so successful that they attracted the attention of American publishers. In 1968, Bantam began reprinting some of Meares’ books, but some changes were made. Marshall Grover became Marshall McCoy (I suppose someone at the publisher thought that sounded more Western). Larry Valentine became Larry Vance, Stretch Emerson became Streak Everett, and Big Jim Rand, as he had come to be known in the Australian editions, was changed to Nevada Jim Gage for the American reprints.

Which brings us to BIG LOBO, the first book in the Nevada Jim series as published by Bantam. I found this and GUN GLORY FOR TEXANS, the first Larry and Streak book from Bantam, at the same time in early 1968, bought them and read them, loved them, and bought and read the rest of the Marshall McCoy books, knowing nothing at the time about their history, only that I liked them. I never dreamed then that many years later I would go on to read dozens of the Australian originals and would also correspond with the author, Len Meares, for several years before his untimely death in the Nineties.

BIG LOBO is actually the thirtieth book in the original Big Jim series. By this time, Jim has spent several years searching for his brother’s killer and having numerous adventures along the way. He rides in to the town of Halesburg in Arizona Territory just in time to witness a raid on the town by the notorious outlaw Big Lobo, who leads a gang of several dozen vicious owlhoots. Big Lobo and his men don’t try to wipe out the town, though. They just steal some supplies and retreat, leaving the citizens of Halesburg to wait in fear for the next attack, which comes a day or so later. This time the outlaws just steal some horses and liquor before pulling back to their hideout on top of a nearby mesa. Jim realizes that something else is going on here, something odd.

And of course it is, because nobody could pack more plot twists and back-story into 35,000 words than Len Meares. Almost nothing is what it seems, because Meares was a master at taking standard Western situations and turning them upside-down. He didn’t do this in all his books, of course. He wrote more than 800 books, and some of them are pretty traditional Westerns. Many of them, though, have intriguing characters who turn out to be not at all what you expect when you start reading the novels, and that’s true of BIG LOBO. Rereading it now forty years later, I found it to be an excellent hardboiled action Western with some noirish elements. When I was reading these books back in the Sixties, I always preferred the more humorous Larry and Streak books, but when I began reading the Australian editions I discovered just how good the Big Jim/Nevada Jim books really are.

The American editions are still fairly easy to find. I think Bantam published seventeen in each series, all of them coming out in 1968 and ’69. In the Australian editions, the Big Jim series lasted twenty years, from ’64 to ’84, and numbered about sixty books. Halfway through, Jim finally catches up to his brother’s murderer, and after that he settles down to become a horse rancher near the town of Cornerstone, Nevada. I don't think these later books are quite as good as the earlier ones, but they're still worth reading, as are all the books I've ever read by Len Meares. (The Nevada Jim books also have excellent covers by James Bama.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Crank 2: High Voltage

Did you see the first CRANK movie? Did you like it? Well, CRANK 2: HIGH VOLTAGE picks up right where that one left off and is more of the same, only goofier and more over-the-top. Jason Statham, who’s always watchable, plays the same character, who didn’t die at the end of the first movie after all. His heart is removed by Chinese gangsters and replaced by an artificial one that needs a jolt of electricity every so often to keep functioning, so he has to keep shocking himself to stay alive while he tries to hunt down the guys who stole his heart. The plot is even sillier than that brief description makes it sound, and the highly stylized direction by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who also wrote the film, squeezes every possible bizarre image out of it.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy CRANK 2. It’s probably not going to be for everybody, but I found it entertaining. Just be aware that it makes a movie like, say, SHOOT ‘EM UP, seem genteel and restrained.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review of The Vampire Affair

The first review (that we've seen, anyway) of Livia's new book THE VAMPIRE AFFAIR has been posted on-line. You can check it out here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reading Habits

This one’s been making the rounds for the past few days. I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s responses, so I thought I’d add my own.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favorite reading snack:

Unfortunately for my weight, I do, especially when I’m reading late at night. It’s usually chips or ice cream.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
No, I never write in a book. If there’s something I need to remember or quote, say in a blog post, I might mark it with a post-it note, which is then removed as soon as I don’t need it anymore.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
Bookmarks, always. I have dozens of them, mostly from various bookstores.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?
95% fiction, and most of the non-fiction I read tends to be about writers or writing. I read quite a bit of non-fiction for research, but I tend to count that as “work” rather than “reading”.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
End of chapter if possible, but I’m not fanatic about it.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
No, and I’m usually too lazy to go and look it up later.

What are you currently reading?
BIG LOBO, a Nevada Jim Western by Marshall McCoy. (Much more about this later in the week.)

What is the last book you bought?
LONGARM AND THE SHOTGUN MAN by Tabor Evans (in this case, Peter Brandvold)

Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?
I have several short story collections and anthologies that I’m slowly working my way through, reading a story here and there between novels, but I only read one novel at a time.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?
A very wise man once told me, “The trouble with a writing career is that it interferes with your reading time.” That’s certainly true. I read a little in the morning while I’m eating breakfast, maybe thirty minutes, and I read at night before I go to bed, maybe half an hour to an hour, depending on how sleepy I am. Very occasionally I find a little time to read at home during the day. But I always take a book along whenever I have to take someone to the doctor, for example, or go anywhere else I might have to wait for a few minutes. When our kids were still in school and too young to drive, I always took a book along when I went to pick them up in the afternoon, or took them to dance classes or Girl Scout meetings or things like that. Grab every minute you can to read, I say.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
No real preference, although I’ve probably read more series books over the years than stand-alones.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
Robert E. Howard. All-time favorite author, etc. People often ask me to recommend Western authors, and since the people asking are usually crime fiction fans, I tend to recommend the darker, more hardboiled Western writers such as Ed Gorman, H.A. De Rosso, Lewis B. Patten, Luke Short, and T.T. Flynn.

How do you organize your books?(by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)
Before the fire I had them categorized and then alphabetized by the author’s last name within those categories, although with house-name books I tended to put them all together. I’m still in the process of getting new shelves built for my new collection (actually, I’m not building them, Livia is), but once they’re in place, the plan is to not categorize but to put everything together and alphabetize by the author’s last name, and by that I mean the name actually on the book, whether it’s a house-name, personal pseudonym, or whatever. We’ll keep paperbacks, trade paperbacks, and hardbacks separate from each other, though.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Secret Agent X: The Golden Ghoul -- Brant House (G.T. Fleming-Roberts)

Here we go with another novel from the pages of the pulp SECRET AGENT X, this time “The Golden Ghoul” from the July 1935 issue, which will appear sometime in the future as a reprint from Beb Books. (If there are any FTC spies lurking out there, the reason I get to read these volumes ahead of time is because I proofread the reprint’s page proofs for the publisher. Make of that what you will.)

The author behind the “Brant House” pseudonym this time around is G.T. Fleming-Roberts, known for his science-fictional plots and the fact that his Secret Agent X novels often feature a femme fatale. The latter is certainly true in this novel, as adventuress, blackmailer, and murderer, the beautiful Drew Devon, plays a big role in the action. Things get off to an inauspicious start, as the criminal mastermind known only as the Golden Ghoul is carrying out one of the most overdone schemes in pulp fiction: threatening to kill rich men with his mysterious, gruesome weapon called the Amber Death unless they pony up big payoffs. Naturally, Secret Agent X, utilizing a wide variety of disguises, sets out to stop the Golden Ghoul, expose his true identity, and bring him to justice.

Despite the rather weak plot, several things make this novel worth reading if you’re a fan of pulp fiction. Fleming-Roberts’ prose is pretty terse and hardboiled, and there are several really good action scenes. There’s also some nice skulking around in the musty old catacombs underneath an opium den, where the Golden Ghoul’s headquarters is located. Then there’s the gimmick that the Ghoul’s henchmen use to mysteriously appear and disappear, and it’s one that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before. I don’t know if it would actually work or not, but it seems like it might. I can’t say any more without venturing into spoiler territory, though. And finally, Drew Devon is a pretty good character, the sort of villain that you can almost root for at times.

Fleming-Roberts is often regarded as the best author of the Secret Agent X novels, and that’s understandable given the fast pace of his work and the nice flourishes he includes. Myself, I have a fondness for the purple prose and over-the-top melodramatics of Paul Chadwick, who created the character and wrote many of the early novels in the series, but I like the Fleming-Roberts entries, too. “The Golden Ghoul” isn’t a top-tier Secret Agent X novel, but it’s a good, solid pulp adventure yarn and well worth reading.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Hide Hunters - Lewis B. Patten

Unlike most of the Lewis B. Patten novels I’ve read, this one is based on a historical incident, the epic battle between thirty or forty buffalo hunters and hundreds of Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne warriors under the command of Quanah Parker at Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. I think it’s a rule that every Western author has to write an Adobe Walls book sooner or later. I certainly have (STAGECOACH STATION: PANHANDLE, as by Hank Mitchum). It’s such a good, dramatic story, with the buffalo hunters, including Billy Dixon and a young Bat Masterson, standing off what should have been an overwhelming force of Indians.

In this novel, Patten creates a few fictional characters and gives them reasons to be at Adobe Walls when the attack takes place. Would-be buffalo hunter Jess Burdett rescues beautiful Edith Clinger from her abusive husband, who of course follows them to Adobe Walls bent on reclaiming his wife and having his revenge on Burdett. For some reason, a lot of Patten’s heroes wind up in love with other men’s wives, and that’s the case here. He usually has some sort of violent death conveniently befall the husband, freeing the woman to wind up with the hero, but the resolution isn’t quite so neat in this book.

As always with Patten’s work, there’s a good deal of moral ambiguity, plenty of terse prose, and some hard-nosed action scenes in THE HIDE HUNTERS. He gets the history right and does a fine job of portraying the battle itself, so the reader winds up with a very good blend of fact and fiction. I enjoyed this one enough that I’m tempted to read his Custer book, THE RED SABBATH, another historically-based novel.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Cult Magazines: A to Z

This is another recent release from Nonstop Press, the publisher of the Robert Silverberg book I posted about earlier in the week. It’s equally as entertaining, too, if more awkward in its size.

Don’t expect me to define what a cult magazine is or why some magazines were included in this book and others weren’t. One of the editors, Luis Ortiz, covers that in his introduction. The other editor is the legendary Earl Kemp, and the authors who contributed essays on various titles include pulp experts Mike Ashley and Will Murray.

As the title indicates, CULT MAGAZINES: A TO Z is set up like an encyclopedia, an alphabetic listing of scores of magazines, each one with an essay discussing its history and contents. Some essays are fairly short while others are long and comprehensive. There are also hundreds and hundreds of cover reproductions ranging from strange to beautiful.

Admittedly, there are a lot of magazines covered in this volume in which I have no interest at all. But I thoroughly enjoyed reading all the essays on the pulps, the mystery and science fiction digests, the humor magazines, the men’s magazines, and titles that you might not think I’d like, such as MECHANICS ILLUSTRATED, which my buddy Doug Keyes and I read faithfully when we were in seventh grade. I also found myself reading about magazines that I’d only vaguely heard of, like FATE. (What can I say? I just never saw it around here when I was growing up.)

There’s also a lot of information I didn’t know, such as the identities behind some of the pseudonyms used in the Spicy pulps. (“Robert A. Garron” was really Howard Wandrei? Who’d a thunk it!) You might find a typo or a little factual error here and there, but really, how could anybody produce a book of this size and scope without a few such things creeping in? Overall, the writing and production values are outstanding. This is a beautiful book, and I’m sure I’ll be dipping into it again and again.

Finally, to satisfy the FTC, these are not review copies. I shelled out my own hard-earned pazoors for them. Nor do I have any connection with anybody at Nonstop Press other than being in the same Yahoo groups with some of them, which is where I found out about this book and the Silverberg volume. Both are highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Nonstop Press comes up with in the future.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Hired Lover -- Fred Martin (Orrie Hitt)

A while back, Michael Hemmingson discovered that “Fred Martin” is a previously unknown pseudonym for Orrie Hitt. HIRED LOVER is one of only two novels published under the Martin name, and after reading Michael’s review of it, I had to hunt up a copy and read it for myself. I’m glad I did.

This is one of Hitt’s James M. Cain-influenced novels, with the narrator, tough guy Mike Callahan, going to work as a driver for a rich old man who has a beautiful young wife. Well, you know what that leads to, or at least you should if you’ve read very many of these novels. Mike falls in love with his boss’s wife, and sure enough, the subject of murder comes up. Was there ever a better piece of cover copy for a noir novel than "She gave him her body -- and took his soul"? Of course, since this is an Orrie Hitt novel, there’s another woman vying for our hero’s affections, a good woman he’d be a lot better off with, if he wasn’t too dumb and horny to realize it. Hitt’s not content to have the plot unfold exactly in the way you’d expect, though. He throws in enough twists to keep the pages turning and at the same time does a masterful job of manipulating the reader’s emotions.

Hitt was really firing on all cylinders with this one. The prose is tough and spare, without the digressions and repetitions that he was sometimes prone to. HIRED LOVER is as potent a combination of crime noir and sleaze novel as I’ve run across in a long time. And while the endings in Hitt novels often come across as rather lame, not so here. The last few pages of this book really pack a punch.

This may well be the best Orrie Hitt novel I’ve read so far. If you ever run across a copy, I highly recommend that you grab it.

(One word of warning: if you read Michael’s review of the novel on his excellent Orrie Hitt website, be aware that it contains numerous spoilers.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): Dazed and Confused

I graduated from high school in 1971, which means I’m a little older than the characters in this movie that takes place on the last day of school in 1976. The emphasis is on that year’s juniors, who will be seniors the next year, and the eighth-graders who will be the incoming freshmen. To make the film resonate even more with me, it takes place in Texas and was filmed in Austin.

Those of you who know me now probably won’t be surprised to hear that I wasn’t one of the cool kids in high school, nor was I a stoner. But I knew plenty of both sorts and everybody in between. I’ve been to a lot of the same sort of places and witnessed the same sort of stuff as you’ll find in DAZED AND CONFUSED – although some of the rituals, such as paddling the incoming freshmen, never went on at all in the town where I grew up.

There’s not much plot in this movie. The characters just sort of amble along. Things happen to them, of course, but in most cases they don’t add up to much. With a couple of exceptions, the characters are all the same at the end of the movie as they were when it began. Of course, that’s somewhat realistic. Dramatic changes in people’s lives sometimes do happen suddenly, but for the most part change is a long haul, an evolution rather than a sharp turn.

Admittedly, part of the fun in watching DAZED AND CONFUSED for the first time at this late date is looking for people who went on to become more famous for their roles in other movies and TV, like Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Adam Goldberg. I looked for Renee Zellweger (“Girl in blue pickup”, as she’s credited on IMDB), but never saw her. The soundtrack is also great, especially for people who grew up in that era.

In the spirit of full disclosure, several of the people who were watching this movie with me didn’t care for it at all. ("That's two hours of my life I'll never get back" was one comment.) I thought it was great and thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe that was because I felt like I knew everybody in it. I’d never go back to my high school days, mind you, but it was nice visiting them for a couple of hours.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Other Spaces, Other Times - Robert Silverberg

I’ve probably never read as much of Robert Silverberg’s work as I should have: several of his early science-fiction novels from the Fifties, a couple of his pseudonymous sleaze novels published in the Sixties, and maybe a dozen short stories ranging throughout his career. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that I really ought to expand on that and especially need to read some of his more recent novels.

What I’ve started with, though, isn’t fiction at all, but rather the new, somewhat autobiographical volume OTHER SPACES, OTHER TIMES, a beautiful book from the small press publisher Nonstop Press.

I say somewhat autobiographical because OTHER SPACES, OTHER TIMES isn’t a full-fledged autobiography and Silverberg makes it clear in his introduction that he doesn’t intend to write one of those. Instead, this is a collection of essays, magazine columns, and introductions written for short story collections that come together to give a picture of, as the book’s subtitle has it, “a life spent in the future”.

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a sucker for authors writing about their careers. I can read that “and then I wrote” stuff all day. Not surprisingly, Silverberg isn’t content to do only that. These pieces really flesh out what it was like to be an aspiring science-fiction writer in the mid-Fifties, including a great anecdote about John W. Campbell and Murray Leinster, and the essays that talk about his life prior to that really resonate for me, too, especially when he writes about finding a magnificent stash of old SF pulps in a junk store in Brooklyn. I’ve made some finds like that myself, most notably the bags and bags of vintage paperbacks and digest magazines I carried out of an old junk store just down the street from the front gate of the General Dynamics plant on the west side of Fort Worth during several years in the early Eighties. General Dynamics is now Lockheed-Martin, and the store is gone, leveled for a city park that never was built. All the books and magazines I bought there are gone, too, lost in the fire, but I read many of them and will never forget how much fun it was to discover them.

But to get back to Silverberg, this book also goes into detail about his two voluntary retirements from writing and the way he was drawn back into it both times, as well as providing considerable material about the writing of LORD VALENTINE’S CASTLE and the other Majipoor books (I really want to read these), and the books he has written in recent years. His career as an author of non-fiction books is also covered, but his sleaze novels as Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp, and other pseudonyms are only mentioned in passing a couple of times. To tell you the truth, I think Silverberg underrates his early work, both his SF and his sleaze novels, but who has a better right to an opinion than the guy who wrote the stuff?

OTHER SPACES, OTHER TIMES also includes an exhaustive bibliography of Silverberg’s science fiction, including some pen-name work I hadn’t heard of before, and a lot of photographs from throughout his life. This is an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read this year, and if you’re a Silverberg fan or just a fan of science fiction in general, I recommend it very highly.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Forgotten Books: Trail of the Hunter -- Dudley Dean (Dudley Dean McGaughey)

This book opens right in the middle of the action, a technique I always like, with brothers Justin and Ford Emery clashing over Justin’s wife Samantha, whom he suspects of having an affair with Ford. This rift, following a really brutal fistfight between the brothers, causes them to split up, Ford remaining on the ranch they own in Texas while Justin takes part of the herd and starts north for Dakota Territory.

As it turns out, that’s not a very smart move, because first the trail drive runs into a killer blizzard, and then a deadly menace from Samantha’s past unexpectedly shows up to threaten not only Justin and Samantha’s marriage but also their lives. And from there, things get even worse as the author, Dudley Dean McGaughey (who also wrote under the name Dean Owen and several other pseudonyms), really heaps on the trials and tribulations for the troubled couple.

This is a fine hardboiled Western novel with plenty of gritty action scenes and nice lines like describing a man as being “mean enough to braid his own hangrope”. For a Western published in 1963, there’s a lot of talk about sex, although all the actual bedding down happens off-screen, so to speak. Justin Emery is a really tough hero, absorbing an unusual amount of punishment but still coming back to take on his enemies. McGaughey was a consistently fine Western author, and I thoroughly enjoyed this particular example of his work.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Righteous Kill

The first thing I thought as I was watching this movie was “Dang, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Brian Dennehy sure have gotten old!” (But then, I have, too.) The second was that the big “twist” ending they were setting up sure was obvious.

That said, watching De Niro and Pacino as tough New York cops hunting a vigilante serial killer can’t help but be mildly entertaining for a couple of hours. The presence of Carla Gugino as a crime scene tech doesn’t hurt anything, either. There’s an occasional funny line and a few decent action scenes. But RIGHTEOUS KILL never really rises above the level of a minor, very generic film, watchable but nothing more.