Monday, August 10, 2020

Next Book

Since I finished a book Saturday, I spent yesterday doing some editorial work on various projects, plus took a little time off in the afternoon to watch hockey on TV (the only sport I still follow). Today, though, I started novel #387 and wrote 10 pages, which was also the first chapter. I always enjoy the first day on a new book.

Also dealt with another project that may turn out to be pretty good in the future, but I'll have to remain vague about that one for now.

And washed three loads of laundry.

The Dust of Stars - Robert E. Vardeman

Robert E. Vardeman has been writing top-notch science fiction for about forty years now, and that’s almost how long I’ve known him. His latest novel, THE DUST OF STARS, is the first book in a new series called ENGINEERING INFINITY, and it’s everything I love about science fiction.

First, it has big ideas. And I mean E.E. “Doc” Smith big: An ancient, long-disappeared alien race scattered planet-sized machines throughout the galaxy. These machines, called World Engines during the era in which the story takes place, are capable of pulling cosmic dust out of the void and using it to build entire solar systems, stars and all. This process takes billions of years, but because of the time-dilation effects of the faster-than-light drive humankind has developed to take them to the stars, somebody can start one of these World Engines going—provided he has the proper Key to make it work—and come back a week later, relative time, to find the new solar system up and ready to go. Our hero, Remagen Roullei, owns one of these World Engines and is one of the richest men in the galaxy because of it, and to satisfy his adventurous nature, he hires it out to people even richer than himself to make new solar systems for them. In order to do that, however, he first has to locate a new Key for each job, and they’re hidden in different places. Oh, and there are space pirates, too, including a beautiful former lover who now carries a grudge against Remy.

With this set-up, we get epic space battles (including using an artifically generated comet as a weapon—see what I mean about Doc Smith!), Indiana Jones-style exploits in underground temples on strange worlds, some hard-SF speculation, great characters including a sexy alien (it’s part of her biology that she gives off overwhelming pheromones, but she’s also the best at programming quantum computers),  a robot sidekick who may or may not be trustworthy, since his primary loyalty is to the mysterious leader of the robo-sapiens called the Gearmeister, other colorful aliens, and some despicable villains. Remagen Roullei is a fine protagonist, too, tough, smart, and even a bit swashbuckling on occasion, one in a long line of scientific genius mavericks in the tradition of Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, and Richard Seaton.

It’s easy to see that Vardeman had great fun writing this, because I sure had a great time reading it. He’s left things open for plenty of sequels, and I’m looking forward to reading them. If you don’t care for the glum, dystopian, navel-gazing stuff that passes for science fiction these days, you can still find the real thing among the independent and small presses. This is the second excellent new SF novel I’ve read in recent weeks, the other being David Hardy’s THREE BLACK DEEDS. As for THE DUST OF STARS, I give it a very high recommendation. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Top Detective Annual, 1952

That line "The Year's Best Mystery Story Anthology" makes it sound like the stories in this pulp are the best (in the editor's judgment) published in the past year, right? Well, you'd be wrong if you thought that. This is actually just a regular reprint pulp, with stories that go back to 1934 in their original appearances. Most are from various Thrilling Group pulps published during the Forties. But I'm willing to overlook that bit of hyperbole when you get a good Sam Cherry cover, along with writers such as Fredric Brown, William Campbell Gault, Murray Leinster, Stewart Sterling, Wyatt Blassingame, G.T. Fleming-Roberts, Dwight V. Babcock, Ray Cummings, and Joe Archibald. The stories may be reprints, but if you haven't read them before, they're new. And those are some good authors. 

Saturday, August 08, 2020

Pages, and Another Book Done

10 pages today wrapped up the current manuscript. It's just under 95,000 words. I started it on June 21, so that means it took exactly seven weeks to write. I'd like to get them done a little faster than that, but still, 95K is a pretty hefty book. It goes off to Livia now for editing, so I'll still have some work to do on it before it's truly finished.

This is my 386th novel. Steadily closing in on #400.

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Lariat Story Magazine, June 1934

I think this is a very dramatic and effective cover by Rudolph Belarski on this issue of LARIAT STORY MAGAZINE. "Real Cowboy Stories by Real Cowboys", the cover copy says. I'm not sure that's 100% true of all the authors in this issue. Walt Coburn and Eugene Cunningham certainly did some cowboying when they were young. I think Stephen Payne may have, too. I don't have any idea about James P. Olsen, Bruce Douglas, Hubert Roussel, or Ralph Condon. And John Starr was a house-name, so I'm pretty sure he never forked a bronc. Whoever really wrote the story attributed to him in this issue may have, though. Real cowboys or not, I think this looks like a fine issue.

Friday, August 07, 2020


I've been lax about reporting my progress the past four days. In that time, I did 6, 12, 11, and 13 pages. I'd hoped to wrap up the current book today but didn't make it. It's grown a bit longer than I intended for it to be. But I should finish it tomorrow.

Forgotten Books: X-O Manowar: Retribution - Bob Layton, Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter

A while back, having decided to dip my toe in the Valiant Comics universe from the Nineties, I picked up a couple of collections from some of their most popular titles. A few weeks ago I posted about BLOODSHOT: BLOOD OF THE MACHINE, which I liked overall but only at a lukewarm level. The other book I picked up was X-O MANOWAR: RETRIBUTION, which reprints the first four issues of the title character’s series from 1993. I found it considerably more entertaining and appealing.

The concept is that alien invaders have been lurking on Earth for several thousand years, and at a distant point in the past they kidnapped a Visigoth warrior named Aric to study him. Aric has been kept alive all this time on the aliens’ orbiting ship, but he finally escapes and winds up in possession of one of the aliens’ most dangerous weapons, a set of Manowar-class armor that gives its wearer great power.

So the aliens take off after Aric to try to recover the armor, which he’s trying to learn how to use it on the fly, so to speak. He also lands on 1993 Earth but he’s still a Visigoth warrior, so at the same time he has to learn how to navigate the strangeness of modern life, all while foiling various alien plots and interacting with other characters from the Valiant Comics universe. As it turns out, Aric is a fun character and his exploits are entertaining.

This series was created by Bob Layton, best known as an artist and inker, who contributes some to the scripts and also pitches in on the inking chores. For the most part, though, it’s written by Steve Englehart and Jim Shooter, two very well-known names in comics history. Englehart was a top writer for both Marvel and DC in the Seventies and Eighties, remembered these days for long, complex runs on THE AVENGERS and DETECTIVE COMICS. Shooter broke in writing Legion of Super-Hero stories for DC as a young teenager and went on to a controversial stretch as editor-in-chief at Marvel that left him either admired or loathed, depending on your perspective. I loved Englehart’s work and fall kind of in the middle on Shooter: I usually enjoyed his actual scripts but hate that his run at Marvel introduced the Big Event Crossovers that eventually ruined both Marvel and DC, as far as I’m concerned.

But I was talking about X-O MANOWAR. The first issue and the first several covers were penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith, who became an overnight sensation with his work on CONAN THE BARBARIAN and who also drew some great issues of THE AVENGERS. His pencils here are solid and I like them a lot. Sal Velluto replaces him after the first issue and also does a very good job. (Bear in mind that I’m not an artist, so when I talk about the art in comic books, it boils down to either “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”.) Overall I think these issues have good art and storytelling, paired with fast-moving scripts. I liked RETRIBUTION enough that I think it’s very likely I’ll read more of this series, whether I explore any more of the Valiant Universe or not.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Classic Mysteries: The Case of the Lonely Heiress - Erle Stanley Gardner

As I said about the Jim Hatfield novels a couple of weeks ago, I’ve never read a Perry Mason that didn’t at least entertain me. In the mood for a Mason recently, I picked up THE CASE OF THE LONELY HEIRESS from 1948 and had a grand time reading it.

This one opens with a potential client visiting Mason’s office, as so many of the books do. He’s the publisher of a somewhat shady lonely hearts magazine full of classified ads from people seeking penpals and romance, as well as having some confession-magazine-style stories in it written under house-names by the publisher himself. He’s concerned about one of the ads, since it claims to be from a young heiress looking for a man who’s not a fortune-hunter. He suspects the woman is up to no good, and he doesn’t want to be dragged into whatever her scheme is, so he hires Mason to represent his interests and get to the bottom of it.

Of course, as is usual with Perry Mason, what the novel seems to be about at first doesn’t turn out to be what’s actually going on, as Mason, Della Street, Paul Drake, and one of Drake’s operatives quickly find out when they investigate. Not surprisingly, the real mystery winds up involving the fortune the heiress is going to inherit, a last-minute will, a jealous wife, and a nude nurse who’s both blackjacked and stabbed. Mason defends the person charged with the nurse’s murder, so we get some of those always entertaining courtroom scenes full of rapid-fire dialogue and legal wrangling, although there aren’t as many of them as in some of the books. I guess Hamilton Burger was busy, because Mason’s opponent this time is an assistant DA named James Hanover. I have to say, Hanover is pretty bland compared to Burger’s usual bluster and clueless pomposity.

That’s about the only drawback in THE CASE OF THE LONELY HEIRESS, which I think is one of the better Perry Mason novels I’ve read. For one thing, it may be the funniest Perry Mason novel I’ve come across, with an overall tone that approaches screwball at times. Gardner has great fun writing his version of a confession-mag yarn when he has Mason read excerpts from the original client’s magazine. Mason and Della have a run-in with a uniformed cop that’s hilarious, especially in its outcome. The jealous wife who henpecks her hapless husband is a stereotype, but Gardner manages to make those interchanges funny. Now, admittedly, there’s a lot in this novel that might be either puzzling or offensive to younger readers today, but luckily, I’m old and don’t care. I had a great time reading this one, and if you’re a Perry Mason fan and haven’t gotten around to it yet, I recommend it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Classic Western Comics: El Mestizo - Alan Hebden and Carlos Ezquerra

I’m familiar with Alan Hebden’s work from his scripts for the British war comic COMMANDO, but a while back my friend Paul Bishop mentioned this Western comic strip written by Hebden and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, which ran in the British magazine BATTLE during the summer of 1977. There are only sixteen episodes, each running either three or four pages, but Hebden’s scripts and the great art by Carlos Ezquerra pack a lot of story into that limited space. The whole run was reprinted in 2018 in a handsome hardback collection from Rebellion Books in England.

These are actually Civil War stories, not Westerns, but the two are close cousins and Mestizo certainly has Western elements in his background. He’s a half-black, half-Mexican former slave who escaped from the plantation in Alabama where he lived and went to Mexico to become a bandit and gunfighter. During the Civil War, though, he returns home to try to rescue the girl he loves but instead winds up as a mercenary working for both north and south, taking on whatever dirty jobs need to be done as long as the money’s right. Generals on both Union and Confederate sides come to depend on Mestizo to carry out the missions they give him, which include stopping a crazed southern doctor from unleashing bubonic plague in Washington, D.C., and tracking down renegades on both sides who use the war as a cover for their outlawry.

As you can tell just by looking at that cover, there’s a great deal of Spaghetti Western influence in this comic strip. Actually, EL MESTIZO would have made a great series of movies with, I don’t know, Fred Williamson, maybe, playing the character. Likewise, what a series of novels it would have made for the Piccadilly Cowboys. There’s plenty of gritty violence, and Ezquerra’s artwork makes it even grittier. I enjoyed this collection enough that I’m really sorry the series was so short-lived. If you enjoy this sort of Western, I give EL MESTIZO a high recommendation.

Monday, August 03, 2020


The morning was taken up with real-life responsibilities again, so I only wrote during the afternoon. One problem with having to be an adult, instead of an overgrown kid making up stories about cowboys, is that once I've done that, I feel like I've accomplished enough for the day and don't want to write. However, that doesn't get books written, so I went upstairs and got 10 pages done. And I've figured out most of what's going to happen in the rest of this book, so maybe I can gallop on to the finish in fairly short order.

YouTube Interview

Last week I took part in a Zoom discussion about writing with Paul Bishop and Robert Vaughan, and it was posted this morning on Wolfpack Publishing's YouTube channel. I always enjoy talking about books and writing, and both guys are old friends, so I had a great time.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Pages--and an Avalanche

I wrote 15 pages today and seem to be settling into a groove in that neighborhood. I'll take it. I got to a place where I wanted to stop for the day and saw that it was a little earlier than I usually knock off, so I thought I'd clean up a little in my office, which including moving some books around.

That was a mistake. A rather tall pile of books decided to collapse, and when that happened, they all landed between me and the door, so I had to clean them up in order to get out. That took longer than I intended. But things look a little better now, and it's a start, anyway.

You're not really a book collector until you've had a few avalanches like that, I say.

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Hollywood Detective, November 1946

This issue of HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE sports a distinctive cover by Joseph Szokoli, who was known for distinctive, eye-catching covers. Inside, of course, are lots and lots of Robert Leslie Bellem stories, four of them under his own name featuring Dan Turner. He's also on hand with non-series stories under the names Harley L. Court and Frank Roberts. There's also a yarn by the always dependable Laurence Donovan and one by house-name Paul Hanna, who was probably Donovan again in this case, although you can't rule out yet another story by Bellem. 

Saturday, August 01, 2020


I wrote 13 pages again today. Thought it was 14, but then I did the math in my head again. I have a wall calendar on which I write down my day's pages, keeping a running total for the current book and also for the month. I've been doing that for at least 40 years. After our house burned down in 2008, I tried to stop keeping track of my pages that closely and also tried to stop keeping a list of every book that I read. I found that I just missed that structure and routine too much and went back to it very quickly.

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Complete Western Book Magazine, April 1934

That's a pretty nice cover on this issue of COMPLETE WESTERN BOOK MAGAZINE by W.L. House, an artist I'm not familiar with. The complete Western book of the title is "Desert Guns" by William MacLeod Raine, backed up by short stories from B.M. Bower and Joseph T. Kescel, an author who is also unfamiliar to me. I like what I've read by Raine and Bower, although I haven't read extensively from the works of either author. I remember Jory Sherman talking about Bower, who was his great-aunt, I believe. "Aunt Bert", he called her, because her name was Bertha Muzzy Bower.

UPDATE: I discovered that I've featured this pulp before, back in 2012. Well, it was bound to happen eventually and probably has happened before now without me realizing it. The funny thing is, I said almost exactly the same things eight years ago. The more things change, etc., etc. . . .