Saturday, June 25, 2016

OUTLAWS OF OLYMPUS



OUTLAWS OF OLYMPUS
By C.E. Martin
Available at Amazon
55 pages

Just when you think a genre of pulp fiction has been fairly well exhausted, up pops a new wrinkle. In this case the genre is the Weird Western and the guy offering us a new twists on this popular field is C.E. Martin with his “Outlaws of Olympus” concept.  The title pretty much gives the idea away, but for those of you who somehow missed Classical Mythology in high school, here’s what C.E. sets forth.  The ancient Greek Gods, you know, Zeus, Mercury and the others have reappeared on Earth during the Westward migration of the late 1860s.  Ergo, you have gods, demi-gods and mythological monsters sharing the wild frontier with your cowboys, settlers and Indians.

It’s a heady stew and with this first little chapbook, things get kicked off fast. Mercury, in the guise of an outlaw known as the Quicksilver Kid, is causing mayhem and destruction as he mows down anyone foolish enough to confront him with a special six-shooter that fires gold bullets.  Then Hercules arrives in the guise of a Catholic Monk named Father Sergio Morricone.  (Yes, we know where that came from. C.E. has a fine sense of humor.)

The Kid is holding an entire town captive and forcing them to offer him a blood sacrifice every few days or else he’ll wreak bloody havoc.  When Father Morricone shows up, their confrontation is as one would expect between two gods.  But who is the black cavalry soldier riding with Hercules and what role will he play in their final battle?

Fifty-five pages flies by when the action is this colorful and frenetic.  We’ve been a fan of Martin’s “Stone Soldiers” series for a few years now and are thrilled to see him launching another great new pulp saga with tons of potential.  Stay tuned.

Friday, June 24, 2016

THE QUEEN'S MARKSMAN



THE QUEEN’S MARKSMAN
By Theresa M. Moore
Antellus Books
285 pages

In 1878, young Robert St. John, a descendant of the fabled Earl of Loxley, aka Robin Hood, joins the army to fight in Afghanistan.  On the journey east via the Orient Express with the new recruits, he encounters two very strange European noblemen.  They prove to be vampires and one of them, unable to control his blood-lust, attacks Robert in the middle of the night.  In doing so he turns the young Englishman into one of the undead.  From that point forward, this imaginative adventure focuses on Robert’s learning to adjust to his new life as a vampire.  He quickly learns to adapt his unearthly powers on the battlefield and soon becomes a war hero succeeding in exploits beyond the abilities of normal men.

Upon his return to England, he is knighted by Queen Victoria and, via Prime Minister Disraeli, put in charge of created a new secret service for the empire.  It is clear from the very first page that Ms. Moore had a genuine affection for all things British and she skillfully weaves both its actual history and those myths and legends that have endeared themselves to fiction fans for generations.  Via the exploits of Sir Robert, we glimpse a Victorian world on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution and a burgeoning 20th Century that will be filled with both wonders and horrors.

None of the latter is more gruesome than the appearance of Jack the Ripper on the streets of White Chapel.  As the empire’s colonial strength begins to wane around the globe, its own moral decay accelerates in the swelling ranks of the poor and homeless.  And amidst this changing world walks the Ripper, a madman with his own brand of soulless insanity.   Ms. Moore offers up Sir Robert, and his fellow vampires, as agents of good working in the shadows to keep civilization on track.  Soon our hero and his vampire companion are on the hunt to find Saucy Jack and end his murderous rampage.

Though not what we would label a fast paced action pulp, “The Queen’s Marksman,” is a steadily told adventure focused on developing rich, full realized characters both good and bad.  We enjoyed it a great deal and it once again adds substantial evidence to our beliefs that the best new fiction on the market today is coming from small, independent publishers like Antellus.  Bravo, Ms Moore and well done.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

LOOKING AT THE WORLD WITH BROKEN GLASS IN MY EYE



LOOKING AT THE WORLD WITH
BROKEN GLASS IN MY EYE
By Mark Justice
Graveside Books
304 pages

A few reviews earlier we talked about book titled “No Rest for the Dead.” This particular review should be offered under the heading of, “A Voice From Beyond.”  It’s pretty easy to rift off titles as this collection of weird, horror yarns by the late Mark Justice sports a mouthful itself.  And maybe that’s because of Mark’s talent for black comedy and his love of the truly bizarre.  Also let’s clear things up front here.  Unlike the times we review books by friends and colleagues where we do our best to remain fair and impartial, this time around it’s sincerely personal.

Mark Justice was a pal and one hell of a damn great writer.  And no, we don’t toss that adjective around lightly.  This collection of 18 twisted tales of various lengths and subject matter are some of the best, funniest and truly creepy tales ever penned.  Each is a solid gem of wit, wisdom and incredible insight into what wise folks call the human condition.  Which in the end is the purpose of all fiction: to view the world through one’s unique life experiences and then have the courage to share them with others.  Mark does that so well, there were moments when reading through these yarns we were either laughing, crying or weary of any strange noises in the house around us.  The man had the ability to pull you into his fabulous imagination and hold you there until the final, bloody end.  And he left us there better for having gone along for the ride.

A quick glance at the table of contents and instantly we recall savoring these truly wonderful stories.  “Black Wings” is perhaps the most disturbing of the bunch and will most likely generate nightmares for lots of readers.  Whereas “Nursing Home of the Gods” and “Agent of Death” are hilarious, side-splitting black comedies.  Then there is the longer entry, “The Autumn Man,” which is both haunting and nostalgic with a good dash of horror thrown in for good measure.

Mark Justice left us too soon in the grand scheme of things.  Yet, during his short time with us, he wrote memorable works of fiction that will continue to both entertain and scare the hell out of readers for ages to come.  In that we take much comfort and devote ourselves to helping spread the word.  If this is the first time you’ve ever heard of Mark Justice, please, go find this book, it is a truly a gift from beyond.

Monday, June 06, 2016

THE ARCANUM



THE ARCANUM
By Thomas Wheeler
A Bantam Trade Paperback
325 pages

Here’s a question for you; can a book ever be too much fun to write?  Or how about the other side of that coin; can a book ever be too much fun to read? Well, not when it’s Thomas Wheeler’s “The Arcanum.” Of course our only regret here is that we waited so long to pick up a copy.  We love team-up tales wherein certain characters, either fictional or historical, meet and share an adventure together.  From the comic adventures of the Justice League of America and the Avengers to Alan Moore’s amazing “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” such team-ups have always fired our imagination with the idea of multiple heroes coming together to fight the forces of evil.

Published in 2004, this story informs us that long ago a mystic named Konstantin formed team that included author Arthur Conan Doyle,  magician Harry Houdini, New Orleans Voodoo Princess Marie Laveau and weird-fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft to help him fight all manner of occult evil.  He called them the Arcanum, deriving from the word arcane pertaining to the secret and mysterious.  The book opens twenty years later with Konstantin’s murder and the theft of a rare, lost religious tome called the Book of Enoch.  Supposedly it tells of fallen angels who still inhabit our world.  Whoever possesses the book will gain the power to find and control these supernatural creatures.

Realizing that threat, Doyle, now sixty-years old, both famous and tired, travels to America to reassemble the Arcanum for one last adventure. At the same time a maniacal serial killer begins murdering the poor and destitute homeless in the slums of New York by tearing out their spines.  All too soon, Doyle learns these killings are directly related to the Book of Enoch and the mastermind behind the killings is somehow using them as part of larger scheme.

Honestly, the second Doyle and Houdini are reunited, the sparks begin to fly.  Wheeler’s ability to capture the essence of these two wildly different personalities works to perfection in propelling the plot.  All of us are aware of the true friendship between these two turn of the century super stars and how it was ruined by Doyle’s emotional conversion to spiritualism after the death of his son in World War One. All these elements weave their way into this story.  Then there is the shy and enigmatic Howard Philip Lovecraft, one of the greatest horror writers of all time and the exotically beautiful and powerful Marie Laveau.

When one has such colorful characters, it is near impossible not to lose one’s self in the melodrama. It is clear from the onset that Wheeler had a genuine affection for the members of the Arcanum and writing their final adventure is truly a work of love on his part. That passion is infused in every single chapter. So much so that the reader can’t help but share it. Thus upon reaching the end, we were simulatneously happy and sad.  Happy for the ride Wheeler had given us with his marvelous imagination and sad that like all great carnival rides, it too had to come to an end. Please, if you love true, fast paced, action filled pulp adventure, you will not find any better than “The Arcanum.” Now go buy a copy.  You can thank me later.

Monday, May 30, 2016

TRANSCENDENTAL



TRANSCENDENTAL
By James Gunn
Tor Books
302 pages

When one titles a book “Transcendental,” it’s probably a good idea to start our review with a clear definition of that word.  Our trusty old Webster list it as an adjective; 1) or relating to transcendentalism.  (The philosophical belief that knowledge of reality comes from intuition rather than from objective experience.)  2) rising above common thoughts or ideas; mystical.

Confused yet?  Maybe looking at the root word transcend can help clarify things a bit more. It is defined as 1) to pass beyond (a human limit) 2) to exist above and independent of (material experience or the universe) and 3) to surpass. 

Set in the far-far future, mankind has encountered many different alien races representing the spectrum of our natural universe; animal beings that look like elephants; flower beings that stand on tall stalks and whose roots are mobile. There is even a machine race.  Then the various empires fought each other in decades old wars until reason and sanity won out and peace was established.  Still, the quest for knowledge is so ingrained in the nature of all sentient beings, ultimately that seeking creates a quasi religion surrounding a so-called Transcendental Machine.

And therein lays the crux of James Gunn’s fantastic plot in which a group of aliens from the furthest reaches of the known galaxy come together to journey beyond known space in the hopes of finding this wondrous Transcendental Machine.  Riley, a cynical ex-mercenary is kidnapped by unknown parties and has an organic computer implanted in his brain. If he refuses to obey this “pedia” it will kill him.  He is told to sign aboard the spaceship Geoffrey about to undertake that trip.  On the ship are representatives of the various galactic races each hoping to experience instant evolution to a higher state of being via the Transcendental Machine. 

The “pedia” also informs him that one of the passengers may be the rumored Prophet, the only being to ever find the machine and be transformed by it. It is believed the Prophet is traveling with the expedition to determine which of the travelers is worthy of undergoing the change.  No sooner does the group assemble at the space ladder taking them to the Geoffrey then an attempt is made to sabotage their launch. Then, shortly after passing through the first nexus jump point, a passenger is found murdered in Riley’s cabin.

Why are we here?  What is our true purpose?  Is there a higher evolutionary step in our future?  All these philosophical questions surround a standard suspense thriller in this truly unique narrative. Gunn’s depiction of the various races is imaginative and compelling.  One of the classic faults of most science fiction has always been, according to critics, our inability to accurately understand something alien.  We can only ever interpret this world via our own human limitations. Whereas Gunn’s tale argues quite powerfully that all species born of the same physics will ultimately share the same perspective inherent in the same nature, be rocks, vegetables, or flesh.  One universe equals one truth.  In “Transcendental,” Gunn invites us on a journey to discover that truth, no matter how beautiful or frightening.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

NO REST FOR THE DEAD



NO REST FOR THE DEAD
By 26 Mystery Writers
Edited by Andrew F. Gulli & Lamia J. Gulli
Touchstone Books
252 pages

Ever heard of a round robin?  A round-robin story, or simply “round robin,” is a type of collaborative fiction or storytelling in which a number of authors each write chapters of a novel or pieces of a story in rounds.  They were invented in the 19th century, and later became a tradition particularly in science fiction.  Having been personally involved with several round-robin projects, we can attest to just how difficult they are to pull off and most of them begun are never completed.  Conflicting egos, styles of writing, etc. etc. all are factors in undermining a project that demands a strict adherence to one narrative plot. Round-robins are easily derailed for dozens of reasons.

Which is why when we stumbled upon “No Rest For The Dead,” in an old bookstore last year, we were immediately intrigued by the dust-jacket’s claim that 26 writers had successfully come together to create gripping murder mystery.  Was it true?  Did the book actually work?  We took a chance, bought a copy and hoped for the best.

Rosemary and Christopher Thomas are curators of a well established art museum in San Francisco.  Their marriage is falling apart thanks to his wandering eye.  Aware of his unfaithfulness, Rosemary threatens to divorce him.  Christopher warns her that should she do so he will fight for custody of their two children; thus assuring he maintains his hold on Rosemary’s inherited wealth. When Christopher disappears soon after a public confrontation at the museum, the police are ultimately called in as a matter of routine. Months later his body is discovered in a Berlin museum folded into a medieval torture device known as an iron maiden. What is left of it, that is. Only through a single tooth and pinky finger are the authorities able to identify the liquefied remains as those of Christopher Thomas.

Soon after Rosemary is arrested, tried and convicted of his murder.  She is sentenced to be put to death by chemical injection.  And that, dear readers, is where this mystery begins, at the execution of Rosemary Thomas.  Present are her closest acquaintances including her alcoholic brother, Peter, and Detective Joe Nunn, the cop who’s testimony help convict her. It is a riveting scene and one that propels the tale. Ten years pass and Nunn learns there is a memorial service planned for the anniversary of Rosemary’s death to be held at the museum. Invited are the same select group who were present at her demise. 

For Nunn, the intervening years have been haunting as he never truly believed Rosemary killed her husband thus his guilt for helping to bring about her death has destroyed both his marriage and career.  With the news of this gathering, the ex-cop begins to wonder if it may be a way for him to reopen the case and not only prove Rosemary’s innocent but eventually find the real killer.  As the date of the event draws nearer, he begins to suspect that, if he is correct, that killer may be among those invited to participate.

From its first page to its last, “No Rest For The Dead,” is a truly masterful, intense and beautiful crafted mystery.  That 26 different writers were involved with its creation is nothing short of mind-blowing to this reviewer.  All mystery novels should be this good. And so let us end with a tip of our pulp fedora to the 26.

(Jeff Abbot – Lori Armstrong – Sandra Brown – Thomas Cook – Jeffery Deaver – Diana Gabaldon – Tess Gerristsen – Andrew F. Gulli – Peter James – J.A. Jance – Faye Kellerman –Raymond Khoury – John Lescroart – Jeff Lindsay – Gayle Lynds – Phillip Margolin – Alexander McCall Smith – Michael Palmer – T. Jefferson Parker – Matthew Pearl – Kathey Reichs – Marcus Sakey – Johanthan Santlofer – Lisa Scottloline – R.L. Stine – Marcia Talley)


Monday, May 09, 2016

QUARRY'S VOTE



QUARRY’S VOTE
Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime
237 pages

This is one series we came in late on, not having been aware of Max Collins’ hitman Quarry until Hard Case Crime convinced him to bring the character out of mothballs for one more tale; “The Last Quarry” in 2015.  We were hooked instantly and obviously not alone in our appreciation as the publisher continued releasing new Quarry tales.  By this time Collins had long since established himself as one of the premier mystery writers in the country. This was due in large part to his historical Nathan Heller crime novels and his posthumous collaborations with late Mickey Spillane in which Collins completed many unfinished Mike Hammer mysteries.

And still, despite these truly wonderful books, Quarry, in our opinion, is Collins’ most successful series.  A fact now bolstered by the forthcoming TV series being produced for the cable outfit, Cinemax.  In lieu of its premier, Hard Case Crime is reprinting the original Quarry novels first released in late 70s and early 80s.  “Quarry’s Vote,” first published in 1987 as “Primary Target,” is one of these.

As the story opens, Quarry has quit the killing game, married and settled down.  He’s also about to become a father for the first time.  One day, while his wife is away, he is visited by a stranger wanting to hire him to assassinate a radical political figure running in the current presidential race.  Quarry is offered the sum of one million dollars to take the job; the largest such payment he’d ever been offered.  Still, because of the contentment he’s finally found in his life, he turns the job down.  Days later he feels anxious about his decision, beginning to worry that his turning down the hit will have dangerous repercussions.  Tragically his haunting premonitions become reality and everything he held dear is taken from him in an act of cruel savagery. 

Having the survived this attempt on his life, Quarry sets out to find those who have targeted him and wreak his own brand of retribution.  Pulled back into his life as an agent of death, he sets about proving that his years away haven’t dulled his skills in the slightest.  He is the embodiment of the relentless Reaper and woe to those who find themselves in his path of bloody vengeance.

“Quarry’s Vote,” is Collins as his best, delivering a top notched thriller with a dark, twisted lacing of black satirical humor that weaves itself through his depiction of modern politicos from both sides of the aisles.  And it’s returning in this particular year of such a outlandish presidential contest couldn’t be more fitting.  We’re only too happy to cast our own vote for this Quarry ticket.  As you should be.