Tuesday, December 29, 2009

THE VALLEY OF FEAR

THE VALLEY OF FEAR
By A.C. Doyle
Hard Case Crime
224 pages.

It is no secret that I’ve been a huge supporter of Hard Case Crime and their truly marvelous line of new and classic noire crime thrillers. So imagine my utter surprise when I learned they were going to be presenting, in their usually garish pulp packaging, a Sherlock Holmes book. The idea seemed completely insane and I thought it was a mere marketing ploy to cash in on the release of the new movie blockbuster currently in theaters starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr.Watson.

Well, believe it or not, gimmick or not, this bizarre little suspense thriller actually fits Hard Case Crime’s line-up. It is a pulp crime tale from start to finish and one in which the Great Detective ends up playing a secondary role by the book’s end. That it is told in two halves is also unique and Doyle is clearly aping the early pop-boilers which were often focused on evil secret organizations. In this case, they are an American coal mining union whose brotherhood has taken to using criminal means to gain the power they desire.

Into their midst comes a new “member” eager to rise in the brotherhood. As the group plots one act of brutal terrorism after another against any and all that would oppose them, the character’s descent into a living hell becomes intense and incredibly suspenseful. Whereas all this so called back-story comes in the book’s second half, long after Sherlock Holmes has already solved a particularly ingenious murder. How the two halves are reconciled and the grim denouement at the end make this one of Doyle’s bleakest tales. One I might never have bothered to read had it not been for this very original packaging.

We tip our fedora to Charles Ardai’s and a very cool idea.

Monday, December 14, 2009

SHE MURDERED ME WITH SCIENCE

SHE MURDERED ME WITH SCIENCE
By David Boop
Flying Pen Press
282 pages

The joy of pulps is how some are so hard to categorize, case in point this terrific novel set in an alternate 1950s. It’s part detective story, Hitchcock chase thriller and all out pulp adventure all rolled into one.

Noel Glass is a disgraced scientist whose experiments with microwaves went horribly awry and killed six of his colleagues, including the woman he loved. Disgraced and banished from the scientific community, Glass, fifteen years later, is self-employed in Chicago as a private detective; a rather unique gumshoe in that he uses his genius intellect to help the police with difficult cases. Keeping in mind the setting is the 50s before forensic sciences were even known, let alone available. Glass is very much the science-detective to his small number of associates.

When a wealthy industrialist approaches him and reveals that tragedy that ruined his life was no accident, but a manipulated murder, Glass is propelled into the most important case of his career. In the process he becomes framed for murder and branded a spy and traitor. Suddenly he’s being hunted by the C.I.A., the F.B.I. and the Army as one of the most dangerous men in country. The only positive note in the entire affair is the fact that he not alone in his dilemma. Accompanying him as he races across the South West attempting to evade the authorities, are a Japanese entrepreneur with extraordinary martial arts skill named Wan Lee and a gorilla of gunman named Vincent.

Before their journey is reaches its conclusion, these three will deal with Russian sleeper agents, the assignation of Joseph Stalin and the many tentacles of a super secret organization bent on destroying the world so as to rebuild it into some technocratic utopia. Oh, and there’s also a beautiful femme fatale songstress somehow involved with it all. Talk about throwing in the kitchen sink, this book has it all and then some.

The writing is brisk, peppered throughout with colorful slang true to the era. It’s pacing is very Saturday matinee cliff-hanger, as Glass is forever falling into one dangerous situation after another and having to extricate himself any way he can, either with sheer brute strength or his exemplary mental prowess. All the while trying to solve the riddle of his past.

This is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year and David Boop is a writer you need to put on your radar. He’s fresh, original and laces his work with a spirit of zany, madcap fun that is truly infectious. Be good to yourself this Christmas season and pick up a copy of SHE MURDERED ME WITH SCIENCE. You can thank me later.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SORRY, NO E-BOOKS

Quick little note here, as we've recently been approached by several authors on this matter. Sadly, we do not review e-books. Bottom line is we spend way too much time in front of this monitor as is with our own writing and editing projects. When we read novels, both for our enjoyment and then these reviews, we want the old fashion joy of sitting back in a nice easy chair and having a real book in our hands. We don't think that's too much to ask. So, with no disrespect intended here, if your book is only available to read on-line, we're going to pass on it. Thanks, and a Happy Holiday to all of you out there in book-land.
Ron

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

FRANKENSTEIN - DEAD AND ALIVE

FRANKENSTEIN – DEAD AND ALIVE
By Dean Koontz
Bantam Books
352 pages

Once again reviewing the last book in a series is often times a fruitless enterprise.
Then again, if you may have passed over this trilogy, allow me to point out the error of your ways with this brief encapsulation of what occurred in the first two books; FRANKENSTEIN - PRODIGAL SON and FRANKENSTEIN - CITY OF NIGHT.

Both Victor Frankenstein and the man he created from spare parts survived throughout the ages. The mad doctor, after centuries of working with other egomaniacs like Hitler and his kind, ends up in New Orleans as Victor Helios, a wealthy man with a reputation as a philanthropist. What no one is aware of is the fact that Helios has perfected the scientific process of cloning and is busy making what he calls the New Race. Built in cloning vats, they are faster, stronger and more durable than mere humans, the Old Race. Helios’ plan is the complete and utter annihilation of the Old Race, replacing it with his artificial people.

The only things standing in his way are two street savvy detectives, Michael Madison and his partner/lover, Carson O’Connor and Helios’ original creation, still alive and calling himself Deucalion. Over the centuries, Deucaulion has become a philosopher and realizes the true horror that is Victor Frankenstein. He has vowed to stop his creator and end his mad dream once and for all.

In the first two books, Decaulion and the two detectives began to unravel Helios’ master plan and learned that many of the city’s officials and law enforcement chiefs had been murdered and replaced by Helio’s cloned replicants. In this the third and final chapter, Decaulion sets out to infiltrate Helio’s clone factory and his ultra secret laboratories to destroy them. But to do so, he and his allies will have to face unimaginable horrors. At stake the very survival of mankind.

Spinning the old Mary Shelley classic on its head, Koontz has a grand time making the “monster” his noble hero and the scientist the immoral, heartless villain. He does this with amazing skill as it is one of the hallmarks of his fiction, inventing heartless, sadistic sociopaths who are worst than any monstrosity Hollywood could ever invent. Koontz understands that in a world of sinners and saints, we don’t need special effects to make monsters. Too many of them walk among us every day. FRANKENSTEIN – DEAD AND ALIVE may be a pulp an outlandish pulp nightmare, but its good versus evil theme is all too believable and scary as hell.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ARIEL

ARIEL
By Steven R. Boyett
Ace Fantasy
389 pages

I generally tend to shy away from most fantasy novels as they seem frivolous and lightweight. It’s like having a vegetarian meal of tofu and other assorted veggies, when what you are really craving is meat and potatoes. Steven R.Boyett’s ARIEL is clearly a meat and potatoes variety of a fantasy adventure. There is nothing fanciful in his apocalyptic setting wherein the world we know, the world of science and technology, one day simply ceases to function. Just like that, all the laws of science are no longer valid and replacing them is the magic of ancient mythology.

Then one day the protagonist, a young man named Peter Garey, encounters a unicorn in his travels through this lonely, silent landscape. The snow-white unicorn’s name is Ariel and she an immature creature seeking direction and guidance. She is intelligent and can talk, able to learn from Pete. Thus the two quickly come to learn they need each other if they are to survive in this wasteland aftermath of what Pete calls the Change. Underlying the entire narrative is the sexual tension created by the fact that Pete can touch Ariel and share a bond with her because he is still a virgin. Ariel is purity personified and only virgins can make contact with her; others are painfully burned.

And that’s the entire set up. What makes it unique and original is putting such a fantasy pairing into a gray, foreboding world. Along their journey, they meet a sword wielding philosopher named Malachi Lee who warns them that a necromancer has set up shop in the ruins of New York and should he learn of Ariel, will make every effort to capture her for the magical properties of her horn. No sooner is this warning given then they are set upon by agents of that evil magician and blood flows.

Boyett, himself a student of martial arts, describes violent encounters with a clinical precision that is based on his actual fight training. There are some glorious sword duels throughout and when Ariel is eventually captured by the villain, Pete and Malachi lead a rag-tag army of Washington based survivors in an attack on the necromancer’s stronghold, the Empire State Building. This is not your kid sister’s fantasy, but a fast paced, thrill ride that culminates in a page-turning battle amidst the cramped halls and offices of this iconic landmark.

ARIEL was Boyett’s first novel and was released way back in 1983. It launched his career and became a cult favorite amongst sci-fi and fantasy readers. The book wraps up on an open-ended line that indicated there would be more adventures to come. Now, after twenty-six, a sequel has been delivered in hardback called ELEGY BEACH occasioning the re-lease of this new paperback edition of ARIEL. I’m eager to get to it, as ARIEL is truly a remarkable, entertaining adventure book that doesn’t disappoint. If you’ve passed it over all these years, undecided whether to give it a go, hesitate no longer. ARIEL is simply a terrific book.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

THE ROOK - Vol. Three

THE ROOK Vol. Three
By Barry Reese
Wild Cat Books
168 pages

He’s back, Atlanta’s own original pulp hero as created by Barry Reese, in another collection of six very exciting new adventures. The fun of Reese’s creation is how he is constantly pairing his beak-nosed avenger with classic pulp heroes from the golden days of the pulps. In this volume the Rook teams up with the Black Bat and criminologist Ascott Keane to take on the villainy of the red-garbed Dr.Satan.

Although the stories stand individually, they do form a narrative chain and in this volume the Rook takes on the growing threat of Hitler’s new super soldiers, each with his own unique scientifically altered abilities. But it is his confrontations with Dr.Satan that proved to me the most of fun this third outing. Reese clearly has fun with how he handles these old time baddies, giving each an obsessive drive to succeed in whatever their nefarious plans might be. They jump off the page and are truly part of the charm of his fiction.

There’s also plenty of action in the way of gun fights and knock-down, battering slug-fests between the minions of evil and the Rook and his own colorful allies. With this volume, Reese is three for three in the win column. His prose gets leaner and more confident with each new story he weaves, the sign of a real talent. Here’s hoping there are a lot more Rook adventures coming our way.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

CROMWELL DIXON'S SKY-CYCLE

CROMWELL DIXON’S SKY CYCLE
By John Abbott Nez
P.G.Putnam’s Sons
Illustrated 31 pages

Since the Wright brothers first took to the air, the history of aviation in America has revolved around unique individuals. All of them possessed indomitable courage which gave them the impetus to reach for the clouds and the annals of flight are filled with their names and exploits from Amelia Earhart to Charles Lindbergh.

Recently all of us were duped by a balloon-boy hoax that was cooked up by a warped, celebrity craving couple from Colorado. No sooner was this story plastered all over the news, then I received this marvelous book about the “real” balloon boy, Cromwell Dixon.
It is a beautiful illustrated children’s book that relates how, in 1907, a fourteen year old Cromwell, in wanting to emulate his flying heroes, decided to build a flying bicycle and ride it in competition over the streets of Columbus, Ohio.

After a few setbacks, to include a disastrous fire that destroyed his first lighter-than-air balloon, Cromwell, with the loving support of his mother, finally triumphed. He actually affixed a modified bicycle to a giant balloon and flew it. So successful was he that eventually the newspapers tagged him, “America’s Boy Aeronaut.” Now, thanks to the extremely talented John Abbott Nez, who has over fifty children’s books to his credit, this long forgotten story of Cromwell Dixon is finally retold. There is even a photo of Cromwell and his mother in their garage in the book’s special epilogue.

Everything in this marvelous adventure book is true. If you’ve any young readers in your family eager to experience the early years of flight through the eyes of one of their own, you should pick up a copy of this book. It is truly inspiring.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

BOILERPLATE

BOILERPLATE
History’s Mechanical Marvel
By Paul Guinan & Anina Bennett
Abrams Image
163 pages

Bogus documentaries have been a comedy stable of the film industry for many years now. In 1983, Woody Allen, using state of art the trick photography, invented a fictional biography of a fellow named Zelig; a living chameleon who was present at some of the major political events of the 20th Century. The film was so flawless in its special effects it helped coin a new word, mockumentary. Later Roger Zemeckis employed the same movie magic interweaving the life of the fictional Forrest Gump with real, historical personalities such as John F.Kennedy and John Lennon.

Now, thanks to the amazing work of graphic artists Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, we have this wonderful oversized coffee-table book detailing the history of the most famous mechanical man ever created, Boilerplate. Through the use of archival pictures, we are shown the histories of inventor Archibald “Archie” Campion and his sister, Lily, at the end of the 19th Century. Both siblings are pioneers for social revolution and deeply affected by the constant scourge of warfare that continues to take thousands of lives throughout the world in various global conflicts. Thus, in 1893, Archie builds Boilerplate to be a robot soldier, his dream being that one day governments will adopt his philosophy, and employ only armies made up of mechanical warriors.

In the process of promoting his grandiose vision, Archie and Lily travel the world with Boilerplate and thus find themselves intimately involved with some of the most monumental events of the late 19th and early 20th Century. From charging up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, to saving the life of Mexican revolutionist, Pancho Villa and battling with Lawrence of Arabia against the Turks in World War One, Boilerplate and the Campions move through history in an amazing visual Odyssey beautiful detailed in hundreds of authentic (hmmm) black and white photos and colorful pictorial essays of the time.

The fun of this volume is captured on every beautiful laid out page and even though the entire conceit is adult make-believe, let me make one thing extremely clear, Guinan and Bennett have done their homework and the history they present framing their fanciful tale, is true and absolutely just as fascinating. You can read BOILERPLATE for the sheer audacity of its gimmickry, but will also come away with a vast knowledge of little known historical data that is nearly worth the price of the book itself. Now that’s a double treat for any real lover of history, bogus or not.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

SENTINELS - The Shiva Advent



SENTINELS – The Shiva Advent
By Van Allen Plexico
White Rocket Books
238 pages

Van Allen Plexico seems determined to create a new sub-genre of adventure fiction I like to call tekno-pulp. The link between the roots of American pulps and comics books are so intertwined, it would take a Solomon to untangle them. At the height of their popularity in the late 20s and early 30s, hero pulps were the main course for imagination starved kids in this country. They feasted on tales the Shadow, Doc Savage and the Spider with unabashed relish, and then they grew up to create their own heroes; Sueprman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, etc.etc. And thus as the pulps died out, at the end of World War II, the superhero comics easily stepped in and took their place in the hearts and minds of the new post-war generations.

Over the subsequent decades, many writers have made cursory attempts to bring the excitement and wonder of super-hero sagas into the prose field. Few have had limited success. Which is why this series by an avowed comic-book lover, is finally breaching that gap between the two formats and doing it brilliantly. Plexico, inspired completely by the Marvel and DC books he read as a child in the 70s, has invented his own super-hero team, the Sentinels, and they are clearly his homage to those comics. But with a truly wonderful difference in his understanding of prose and the potential it offers to dig deeper into the psyches of his spandex-wearing characters. His gift of storytelling is razor sharp and he captures the reader’s interest from the first chapter to the last, never allowing the action to flag once.

SENTINELS – The Shiva Advent is Plexico’s fourth book in this series, taking up where he left off with his first Warlord Trilogy. Resting on their laurels from having the saved the world in that first series of books, the Sentinels are attacked by an alien robot of unbelievable power and their leader, the mighty Ultraa, is kidnapped. Now it’s up to super scientist, Esro Brachis, the armor clad champion, to lead the team and not only rescue Ultraa, but learn the secret of their new foe. At the same time, Plexico begins to delve into Ultraa’s mysterious past as the layers of his amnesia slowly begin to peel away to reveal an amazing history filled with alien visitors to earth during the time of the American Revolution.

Using the classic pulp styling of weaving in and out of several plots, Plexico delivers a gripping adventure that is so much fun, I hated to see it come to end. But be forewarned, this is only the first of a trilogy and the climax is a mind-blowing cliff-hangar of gargantuan proportion, leaving the fate of the world in jeopardy. If you are one of those readers who enjoyed comics growing up and have since put them away because of some ill conceived idea that they are no longer relevant, here’s your answer in recapturing that old magic, but in a brand new, clearly sophisticated adult approach. This is pure tekno-pulp heaven!

Thursday, October 08, 2009

THE NUCLEAR SUITCASE

THE NUCLEAR SUITCASE
By Joel Jenkins
PulpWork Press
303 pages.

The year is 1987 and the world is grappling with the economic collapse of the Soviet Union and end of Russian Communism . Fritz, Sly, Matthias, Mitz and Otto are the Gantlet brothers, a family rock group with a rather dramatic past. Born in East Germany, the five boldly escaped over the Berlin Wall to freedom years earlier. In the process, they acquired certain skills which, once relocated to the United States, they found commercially beneficial to their survival. To fund their music career, the brothers hire themselves out as bodyguard/security experts. This in turn leads to them into various adventures conducted in the shadowy alleyways of global espionage.

As this story beings, we learn that a disgruntled former KGB general is determined to see the Hammer & Sickle returned to its former glory. To achieve this end, he and his fanatical followers, hatch a plot to smuggle three nuclear bombs into the U.S. in small, harmless looking suitcases. It is only by chance that Sly and Fritz Gantlet discover the plot and are soon working hand in hand with the C.I.A. to find the three deadly containers and disarm them before the mad Russian can start World War III.

From the Agean Ocean to London, New York, Seattle and San Francisco’s Chinatown, the brothers find themselves propelled into a tense race against time, with only their wits and reckless courage to see them through. And as if three nuclear suitcases weren’t enough to deal with, a former German adversary turned mercenary appears with his own personal vendetta to settle against the brothers. And then there’s the beautiful female rock star who Sly finds himself enamored with. But is she one of the good guys or a double agent sent to destroy them?

Jenkins is a capable storyteller who is clearly having fun with this old fashion thriller. He has created a marvelous cast of characters unlike any others we’ve encountered in action fiction before and the sibling dynamics is a truly fresh approach to the genre. This is clearly modern pulp and worth your attention and support. Here’s hoping we haven’t seen the last of the Gantlet Brothers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU

THE TERROR OF FU MANCHU
By William Patrick Maynard
Black Coat Press
242 pages


One of the most popular pulp villains of all time was Sax Rohmer’s Chinese mastermind, Dr. Fu Manchu. Rohmer was the penname of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, a prolific British novelist born in 1883 and died in 1959. Rohmer’s first introduced the character in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, which ran as a magazine serial between 1912-13. It was an immediate success with its fast paced action centered on Sir Denis Nayland Smith and his companion, Dr. Petrie, taking on the world wide conspiracy of the “Yellow Peril.” The character went on to be featured in motion pictures and television with such notable actors as Warner Oland, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in the menacing role.

Now for the first time in many, many years we have a brand new, authorized adventure by William Patrick Maynard and it is a gem. Maynard’s style perfectly captures the voice of Dr.Petrie, the stiff-lipped hero/chronicler who battles valiantly alongside his courageous boyhood pal, Nayland Smith. Maynard has clearly done his homework and he peppers the narrative with many references to the duo’s past sorties against the fiendish leader of the Si Fan, the Chinese secret society devoted to world domination and the destruction of the British Empire.

This particular case revolves around a retired cleric whose autobiography contains the whereabouts of a precious, long lost ancient artifact said to contain powers that could destroy all of mankind. As Smith and Petrie take up the hunt, they quickly find themselves not only battling Fu Manchu and his Si Fan, but a second mysterious organization, one steeped in the occult and devil worship. Amidst this contest between two equally deadly groups, our heroes must win out or the civilization is doomed. From London to Paris, the action moves at a breakneck pace with a marvelous collection of truly memorable characters, both good and evil.

I particularly liked how deftly Fu Manchu was described, Maynard opting to give the figure a subtle, devious villainy and not turn him into a cardboard stereotype. In doing so he has delivered one of the finest pulp novels of the year and a worthy addition to the canon of Sax Rohmer’s thrilling saga. If you’ve never read a Fu Manchu tale, this is a terrific place to get started. This is pulp at its best.

Friday, September 11, 2009

TRUST ME

TRUST ME
By Peter Leonard
Minotaur Books
290 pages

If you are an avid reader, then you are well aware of writer Elmore Leonard and his rise from an obscure pulp writer in the 40s and 50s to one of the country’s bestselling crime novelist. Although in those early years, Leonard was quite successful as a western writer, it was his shift to oddball crime stories that cemented his popularity among critics and readers alike. Of course it didn’t hurt that brash, innovative filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino adapted Leonard’s work to the movies as well.

Now I bring this all up to introduce this, the second novel by Elmore’s son, Peter Leonard. According to the book’s front and back cover blurbs, this is his second book and the first, called QUIVER, seems to have elicited much critical praise. Having not read that book, I can’t opine one way or the other. Rather it is TRUST ME that has now introduced me to Peter Leonard and I have mixed feelings about it.

No surprise that he would write a twisted, noir crime tale in the same vein as his father. This acorn has really not fallen very far from the tree, I only wish it was much more grounded like the originating timber. Karen Delaney is a beautiful, Detroit based model, who has been ripped off by her former boyfriend, a thuggish Chaldean immigrant named Samir. She foolishly hands him $300,000 to invest for her. When they break up, after he physically abuses her, she finds herself unable to get the money back. Desperate, Karen decides to hire local thugs to steal the money back. Of course once she sets this scheme into motion, it quickly goes awry. Within twenty four hours of the theft, two people are dead and Karen is running for her life with an eclectic bunch of hoods on her tail to include two Iraqi veterans of Saddam’s Royal Guard and an ex-Detroit cop name O’Clair, who is one tough dude.

Half way through the book, I found myself both enjoying and being annoyed by it. The story’s premise is fine and the action moves at a really fast pace. All too the good, but lost in the process is any real characterization, save for the two principle characters, Karen and O’Clair, everyone else seems totally one-dimensional and sometimes hard to tell apart. Then the writer starts playing footloose with the narrative’s time, much like those Tarantino movies I mentioned earlier. Which definitely did not work here and really stopped the flow of story like an unexpected detour roadblock. An example, in one scene a character is brutally murdered and dumped in a hotel closet, then in the very next scene appears at Karen’s door, very much alive. Huh? It took this reader a few minutes to realize Leonard had gone back in time for the second scene.

Sorry, but what works on the big silver screen was never intended for the pages of a book. That’s the lesson he needs to learn. If he wants to write screenplays, I say go for it, but books don’t work this way. In the end, TRUST ME, is a freshmen work by a writer with a lot of talent. Here’s hoping future efforts will improve and not repeat these early miscues.

Friday, September 04, 2009

QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE



QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE
By Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime
208 pages
Available 27 Oct.

First up let’s have no misunderstandings here, the release of a new Quarry novel is always cause for celebration amongst mystery and crime readers. Max Allan Collins’s prose is lean and mean in the best pulp sense. So a few chapters into this one, I suddenly find myself chuckling, “Shades of Yojimbo!!”

Back in 1961, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa dropped the film world on its derrier with an outlandish period drama called Yojimbo. In the movie a masterless samurai, played by Toshiro Mifune, arrives in a small town where competing crime lords make their money from gambling. He convinces each crime lord to hire him as protection from the other. By the time this conniving swordsman is done, he’s manipulated both gangs in wiping each other. He then cleans up the remnants with his lightning fast sword.

The film was such a huge international hti. Kurosawa said in later interviews that he was inspired by the American film noir classic, The Glass Key, based on a story by Dashiel Hammett’s 1931 novel. It is obvious there is something about this particular plot that fires the imagination of both writers and artist because, after seeing Yojimbo, in 1964 Italian director Sergio Leone remade it as the western A Fist Full of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood and then in 1996, director Walter Hill took his shot, filming it as The Last Man Standing. This time it’s a Depression Era gangster theme, almost bringing it full circle with Hammett’s original tale.

And now we have QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE, the title itself being a tip off that we are about to revisit this classic plot, but in a very fresh and nasty way. Quarry, the enigmatic hero of the book finds himself in the river town of Hadee’s Port, having trailed another assassin there. In previous books, Quarry had stopped working for others and become an independent contractor. Once in the little burg, he quickly learns it is a wide open gambling town run by two gangs with strong connections to the Chicago mob, each annoyed by the other and each trying to get the upper hand.

Quarry waste no time in playing both sides against the middle, at the same dealing with the hired gun. He maneuvers himself into a position of trust with the expatriate Brit, Richard Cornell, running the high class casino. Once Quarry proves to Cornell that someone on the other side is trying to take him down, Cornell waste no time hiring him to discover who has put out a contract on him and then take them out. It’s a dangerous cat and mouse game, particularly when there are a lot of the felines and only one rodent. Bodies start to fall like dominos and eventually Quarry’s impromptu game of cards falls apart leaving him exposed, beaten to an inch of his life and about to buy the dirt farm of eternity.

This book, like all Quarry tales, is as addictive as a jar of salted nuts. Once you’ve eaten one, you know damn well the entire bowl is going to get emptied before you’re done. So pour yourself a tall cold one, grab that bag of nuts and kick your shoes off. QUARRY IN THE MIDDLE is an audacious ride over familiar territory, but delivered in a knee-to-the-groin kick that is just too damn much fun. Nobody does it better than Collins!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

THE WINDS OF DUNE

THE WINDS OF DUNE
By Brian Herbert & Kevin J.Anderson
Tor Books
448 pages

Within every revolution, there exist the seeds of its own destruction. This is the overriding message of this new chapter in the Dune saga begun back in 60s with the release of Frank Herbert’s amazing novel, DUNE. Herbert was a farseeing visionary who extrapolated on the future of mankind, interweaving the politics, religions and economic factors that would shape our tomorrows. His vision was brilliant in that it foresaw our ultimate dependency on fossil fuels as a race and our slow, burgeoning awareness that the health of our very planet was tied to the abuses of that hunger. Only he made it all happen on a world called Arrakis and the oil there was something called spice.

During his lifetime, Herbert wrote five sequels to his bestselling book, ending with CHAPTERHOUSE : DUNE. In 1999, Herbert son’s Brian, and writer Kevin J.Anderson, working from notes left by the author, began a new series of prequel novels that would tell the saga of this universe before the events of DUNE. Since that time they have completed more than a half dozen such books. But with THE WINDS OF DUNE, the two have come back to the original series and taken on the challenging task of filling in some missing gaps left in those early books.

Herbert’s second and third sequels were DUNE MESSIAH and CHILDREN OF DUNE respectively. At the end of the first, young Paul Atriedes, known as the Fremen Prophet Muab’ Dib, has come to realize his empire is corrupt and his own legend a major element of that corruption. Blinded by an assassin’s bomb, Paul makes the hard decision to exit the stage of history and walks off into the deep desert of Arrakis to die, leaving behind his younger sister, the insane Alia, to take control of the empire and the raising of his twin babies, Chani, their mother having died in childbirth. When Herbert returned to the saga with CHILDREN OF DUNE, many years had passed and the twins were young adults, being cared for by Princess Irulan and Paul’s own mother, the Lady Jessica.

It was an abrupt change that left many unanswered questions as to the events that took place immediately after Paul’s exodus and fans have long wondered about those early months following the end of DUNE OF MESSIAH. Now, with this book, they have their answers, as it attempts to fill in that missing time and explain some of the dramatic, early repercussions of the Prophet’s death.

Alia is manic in her desire to protect and preserve everything her brother had created, to the point of obsessive cruelty to all who would dare stand in her way. Hearing of her son’s death, Lady Jessica travels to Arrakis to be of assistance and soon begins to fathom the true moral decay that has infected her son’s regime and the savage legacy Alia is attempting to maintain. The main plot centers about Alia’s attempts to capture a former ally of Paul’s, one Bronso, who has begun writing critical essays denouncing Paul’s godhood and exposing his myth for the fraud it always was. But Lady Jessica is not of the same mind, having been entrusted long ago by her son with a secret so profound, it would destroy any who learned of it. Thus she must somehow honor her son’s memory and fulfill her obligation to him, even if it means conspiring against her own daughter.

THE WINDS OF DUNE is filled with the same psychological complexities that were a hallmark of Frank Herbert’s books. It twists and turns on matters of trust, loyalty and the meaning of honor. Familiar characters are brought back to life with poignant clarity and the suspense and tension never let up. Even knowing what comes next in CHILDREN OF DUNE, I was hooked by this tale and enjoyed it immensely. It is a worthy addition to the DUNE saga.

Friday, August 21, 2009

HELL ISLAND

HELL ISLAND
By Matthew Reilly
Pan Macmillan Australia
108 pages

The biggest criticism labeled at today’s most successful thriller writers is how long their books are. Most critics, and readers, are well aware that today’s writers are coerced by the publishers to deliver big, fat books to help justify the $8 to $10 price tag they then affix these mass market paperbacks. So, because of economic reasons, we readers have to dig through pages and pages of padding not vital to the actual plot of these action orientated pot-boilers.

Which is why discovering Australian writer Matthew Reilly was like a breath of fresh.
Reilly’s writing is totally reminiscent of the best of the old pulp scribes. His books are short, lean and simply the purest form of pulp writing on the market today. He doesn’t waste a single sentence, let alone a page, on telling us the characters’ thoughts, emotions, backgrounds or anything else for that matter that stands in the way of the action. Reading his stuff is like eating the leanest hamburger you’ve ever had. It’s not steak by any means, but it’s damn good regardless.

In HELL HOUND, a government weapons experiment on a secret island in the South Pacific has gone horribly awry. When the aircraft carrier Nimitz goes to investigate, it suddenly goes off the Pentagon’s radar, along with the six hundred marines on board. The military quickly sends in four crack recon teams made up of various units from Seals to Airborne Rangers to discover what has happened on Hell Island. The second these squads arrive, they are attacked by a horror beyond imagination and soon are battling for their lives.

The Marine team is lead by Captain named Shane Schofield, nicknamed the Scarecrow. He's the toughest badass in the world and he’s not about to go down without a fight, no matter how overwhelming the odds against him and his team. At 108 pages, this is a book you will most likely devour in one sitting. Then again, once you’ve begun, I dare you to put it down. In Australia these are called Short Novels, and if most of them are as much fun as this one, it’s a format I wish American publishers would consider adopting.

There’s no padding in HELL ISLAND. Only action, 108 pages of it. That should be cause of enough for you to find a copy. Amazon and other major book distributors handle it, and other Reilly titles. Then buckle up for a real thrill ride.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

VANISHED

VANISHED
A Greywalker Novel
By Kat Richardson
ROC Books
351 pages

Harper Blaine is a Seattle based private eye. She is murdered and then resuscitated, i.e. brought back from the land of the dead. But upon reawakening to the world of the living, Blaine discovers her death-experience has left her with the unique ability to walk through the grey realities that exist between life and death, ergo she has become a Greywalker. From that point on, her life is never the same and she soon begins encountering all kinds of devilish creatures both among the dead and the living, ala zombies, vampires and other assorted monsters. Who ever thought Seattle could be such a ghoulish center of activity.

Honestly, this series is simply a terrific, well envisioned saga that moves from novel to novel with a growing essence of urgency surrounding Blaine and the people who inhabit her strange world. Perhaps it is the book’s one and only flaw that it is an integral part of a series and if you haven’t picked up the first three, you might find yourself in over your head. Understandable. On the other hand there is so much to relish and savor in this book, you just might want to go out and find those other three.

VANISHED opens with Blaine being confronted with ghostly apparitions warning her about her past and the secrets held by her deceased father. She’s soon on a plane winging her way to Los Angeles to visit her mother and begin the process of unraveling both her father’s death and the true origins of her own abilities. Somehow the two are tied together in a twisted, complex mystery and her trip only confirms without providing any substantial answers. Just when she’s reached the end of her limited clues, Blaine is summoned back to Seattle by Edward Kammerling, the head of the city’s vampire colony. Although they are old allies from previous adventures, Blaine doesn’t trust the businessman bloodsucker and is wary of his demands.

Kammerling confesses that his financial holdings in London are being threatened by unknown forces and that his vampiric agent there has disappeared without a trace. Leary of sending one of his own kind, who would be recognized immediately, the crafty vampire wants Blaine to take on the assignment. It is a request she would have easily declined days earlier, but on the flight back home, Blaine experienced a horrifying dream wherein her old boyfriend, Will Novak, is in mortal danger by demonic forces. Will currently resides in London with his younger brother. Not believing in coincidences, when Kammerling explains his troubles and puts forth his offer, Blaine is convinced she has to go to London if only to find Novak and make sure he is safe.

Of course the dream is prophetic and by the time Blaine sets foot on British soil, all hell breaks lose and the action kicks into high gear and never once lets up. Richardson’s work is always straightforward, like a razor blade slash, clean and deadly. She creates amazing situations, forever putting Blaine through one harrowing challenge after another, yet controlling the plot with a truly deft imagination. From water born demons to a blind old Greywalker and a fiendish super-vampire whipped up by a Jewish sorcerer, VANISHED packs more action in one book than do many others in five. It’s a roller-coaster ride that will have you cheering and turning pages until your fingertips have blisters.

And the bloody prize at the end is the book is just a prelude for lots more to come in the life of Harper Blaine, Greywalker. I’m signing on now. You should too.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

THE LAST COLONY

THE LAST COLONY
By John Scalzi
Tor Science Fiction
320 pages

Here we have the third in John Scalzi’s Colonial Union series begun with OLD MAN’S WAR and followed by THE GHOST BRIGADES. Taking up the mantle of Robert Heinlein in dealing with mankind’s future and the roles the military and politics will play is the core of this series. In the far future, man has finally gone to the stars and learned that we are not alone in the universe. Some alien races are friendly and others are not. It is the latter the Colonial Union, the administrative body that controls colonization, learns to keep at bay with their Navy & Marines called the Colonial Defense Forces.

In OLD MAN’S WAR we first met John Perry, a seventy year old Earthman who volunteered to join the CDF in exchange for longevity via a newly manufactured synthetic warrior’s body. The deal was if he put his new body on the front lines for five year and survived, then he would be rewarded with a cloned, more human body and allowed to live the remainder of his days on one of the Union’s far-flung colonies. Whereas the sequel, THE GHOST BRIGADE, continued to the focus on the military, in particular the Special Forces group of which Jane Sagan was an officer, this third chapter takes us to Perry’s promised new life.

As the book opens, John, his wife Jane and their adopted daughter, Zoe, are all living peacefully and contentedly on such a colony planet. Much to their surprise, one day they are visited by John’s former military commander, a Marine General named Rybicki, with a very special request. The Colonial Union is about to start the first ever second generation colony made up of representative groups from ten established colonies. Rybicki convinces them that this amalgamated new colony is the wave of the future and requires their special skills, both as administrators and former military to make it succeed. He plays on their strong sense of loyalty and both agree to leave their home and become the leaders of the new Roanoke colony.

Once they, and twenty-five hundred colonists, arrive at their new world, they immediately learn just how much they have been duped. Not only is the planet they have come to not the one they were intended for, but it is revealed to them that they are about to become pawns in a new cosmic conflict that threatens the Colonial Union. Over the past decade, unbeknown to the average citizen, a group of aliens under a visionary named General Gau, have formed an alliance called the Conclave with the solitary goal of control all future expansion in the universe. Once established, the Conclave declares itself the only authority on colonization and no new colonies, from any race, will be permitted without their approval, including those of the human race. Bristling at this imposed alien threat, the Colonial Union responds by openly defying the Conclave with the establishment of the Roanoke Colony. But to guarantee its safety, it uses subterfuge and keeps the exact location of the colony hidden from the Conclave.

Once Perry and the other colonists learn they’ve been put into a potential new apocalyptic struggle, things start to go to hell fast. John and Jane find themselves trying to make the colony work while at the same time learn if the Colonial Union’s schemes and strategies don’t have further implications for their very survival.

Scalzi’s pacing is first rate and the surprises keep coming, one after another until the true purpose of THE LAST COLONY become horribly clear to our characters. All the while he weaves a skillful story about likeable people caught up in a situation that will test their loyalty, character and eventual love for one another. It’s powerful stuff and it is played out without skipping a beat. There are timeless questions about what rights does any government have to control the destiny of its citizens on the basis of doing what is right for them. Is it really government by the people, or government by the bureaucrats?

Action, adventure, alien races, philosophical debates and a very polished narration. What more could you want from a science fiction novel? Scalzi is clearly one of the best writers of the genre working today. THE LAST COLONY is just more proof of that fact.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

TWO FOR THE MONEY





G.I.JOE –Above & Beyond
By Max Allan Collins
Ballantine Books
260 pages.

G.I.JOE – The Rise of Cobra
By Max Allan Collins
Based on Movie Screenplay
Ballantine Books
259 pages

If you are an avid reader and also love movies, the novelization of a movie script into a book is like having two deserts served up on one platter. Max Allan Collins is no rookie when it comes to adapting movie screenplays, he did Saving Private Ryan, Airforce One and American Gangster. When approached at the San Diego Comic Con last year to turn the script of this summer’s latest toy to mega-hit blockbuster, G.I.JOE, into a paperback novel, Collins opted to up the ante and deliver not one, but two books to aid the cause. It was an extremely wise idea on his part, as I’ll explain.

Films, like books, are generally told in three acts, the opening, the middle and the climax. The opening is used to introduce the characters and supporting players. Once established, the story evolves to the middle, where heroes battle villains or whatever obstacles might exist to thwart the protagonist. All of which culminates in the third act, the major confrontation and its resolution, leading to a fade out or simply the words; the end.

The Achilles heel of an action adventure movie is that it cheats on the opening. Hollywood producers today are anxious to get to the fights and battles and with each new film we are given less and less information on the background and motivation of the characters. Thus we end up with two dimensional characters going through the motions. Hardly engaging or demanding of our time and attention. Collins may never publicly admit it, but this sacrificing of the opening act is one of the major flaws of the movie script for G.I. JOE – The Rise of Cobra. Throughout the book the people who dreamed up the story strategically placed several truncated flashbacks intended to make up for that flaw. Sadly they are so brief that they only pose more questions than they answer.

Collins somehow convinced the studio people to allow him to take these skeletal flashbacks and from them build an entire body of prose which would become a proper prequel, clearly defining all the characters and also adding weight to the crucial mysteries that are revealed at the end of The Rise of Cobra. The result of that request was G.I.JOE – Above & Beyond, a book that takes it time introducing us to Duke Hauser, Ripcord Weems, General Hawk and all the terrific Joes who make up this special, international strike force established by the U.N. to take on only the most critical assignments. In Above & Beyond we learn how Duke and Ripcord met, became pals and then came to the attention of G.I.JOE. We also learn the true origins of Cobra’s leaders which adds tremendously to the pay-off reveal at the end of The Rise of Cobra. Initially I had planned to simply pick up the movie novelization, but because I’m familiar with Collin’s work, I was aware that he doesn’t pad anything, his story telling simply smart and complete. For him to have opted to do this prequel meant it was important to the whole and so it is. With the prequel, G.I.JOE – The Rise of Cobra becomes a something more than merely a cartoon movie adaptation. Without it, well, save your pennies for the movie itself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

HONEY IN HIS MOUTH

HONEY IN HIS MOUTH
By Lester Dent
Hard Case Crime
250 pages
Available in Oct.09

For most of his writing career, Lester Dent chronicled the adventures of heroes like Doc Savage, Richard Benson; the Avenger and the Skipper. He was considered by many to be one of the greatest pulp writers of them all. What most people don’t know is that Dent was never satisfied with his pulp efforts and aspired to work for the higher class publications known as the slicks. To achieve this goal, he wrote crime fiction like HONEY IN HIS MOUTH, which was completed a few years before his death in 1959 but never published. Kudos to Hard Case Crime for releasing what is a delicious black comedy.

Walter Harsh is a two-bit con artist barely making a living with his portrait scams. An automobile accident lands him in a hospital with a broken arm. Here he is approached by a group of South American agents who worked for a ruthless dictator known as El Presidente. Their leader’s position is precarious at best and it appears a military coup is in the offing. The clique, consisting of three men and El Presidente’s former mistress, have hit upon a scheme to do away with the soon-to-be disposed tyrant and abscond with his hidden funds deposited in various American accounts. To do so they need to find someone who can pass as an exact double for El Presidente and that person is none other than Walter Harsh.

Of course Dent is taking the basic plot line of Anthony Hope’s classic adventure romance, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and turning in on its head. Instead of a noble British adventurer coming to the aid of a small foreign republic, as happens in Hope’s 1894 novel, we are given a low-life hustler about to become the lynch pin to a million dollar scheme far beyond his meager imagination to grasp. The book works because Dent’s ability to capture the essence of his characters is simply brilliant. Harsh from page one is a sneaky little creep the likes of which you never meet. Throughout his adventure, he never once shows an ounce of decency or goodness. His selfish perspective on life is simple, all the world’s riches were meant for him and him alone.

Which is why the ending is truly inspired justice that will have you chuckling. Lester Dent was a rare talent who carved out a niche forever in the annals of hero pulps, but books like HONEY IN HIS MOUTH lay claim to the true depths of his writing genius. This book comes out in early, Oct. Don’t miss it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

KILLER TEASE

KILLER TEASE
By Danny Hogan
Pulp Press
100 pages

It happens regularly that I’ll get an e-mail from a new publisher asking me to review one of their titles in the hopes of increasing their visibility in the marketplace. Such was the case when a received such a letter from the good folks at UK’s Pulp Press. I decided to take a few seconds to check out their website (http://www.pulppress.co.uk/). I came away with a feeling that here were a bunch of talented young creators eager to set the publishing world on fire by bringing back the fast-paced, punch-in-the-groin pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. Sort of their version of our own Hard Case Crime. I let them know I’d be only to happy to read anything they sent along. A week later this slim little book arrived in the mail.

Eloise Murphy is an aging dancer who believes she’s experienced all the ups and downs life has to offer. Having been inspired by the classic “tease” dancers like Belle Starr and Gypsy Rose Lee, Eloise is disgusted with the new anything-goes mentality of the current lap-dancers taking over all the gentlemen’s clubs. When she gets fired for being too old fashion, it leaves her in a depressed state and ripe for targeting by a very secretive outfit in town.

A wealthy businessman owns a unique, private club and wants Eloise to come and work for him. When, during her interview, she is given a set of photographs depicting dark events of her past, the truth about the set-up is revealed. She is being blackmailed into performing for a group of cruel, sadistic men who relish inflicting pain on women. The violence is quick and vicious and by the end of her first encounter, Eloise is left bruised and battered, what whatever little decency she had left completely obliterated.

She then becomes deadly and sets out to claim bloody vengeance against those who have used her. As the violence escalates from page to page, I found myself recalling all those exploitation B-movies of the late 60s and early 70s. Writer Danny Hogan is a capable craftsman whose prose is extremely lean and he doesn’t waste a line or paragraph about anything other than Eloise’s fury and the hell she brings down on her enemies. This is a short book which can easily be finished in an hour or two. But don’t let that fool you. It may just be the most enjoyable reading hour you’ve spent all year. Finally a word of caution, this isn’t for the squeamish. You’ve been warned.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

THE MAGICIANS

THE MAGICIANS
By Lev Grossman
Viking Press
402 pages

Long ago, while in high school, I read two coming-of-age novels that stayed with me for the rest of my life. Both were as different as books could possibly be. One was an assignment, the other of my own choosing. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger brilliant captured the obscene vulnerability of youth and the horrors of adulthood as played out against two different settings; on an urban maze of loneliness, the other a southern community filled with backwoods racism. Since reading those two books, I’d not found another voice so rich in describing the adventure and confusion that is growing up in America until now. THE MAGICIAN, like those earlier books, tells that same journey; only its route is one of magic and fantasy.

Quentin Coldwater is a young New Yorker about to enter college. An only child of disinterested middle class parents, the one joy in his life to this point has been a series of fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory. Think Narnia and you’ll be quickly brought up to speed. On the eve of his entrance interview for Harvard, Quentin enters a cold winter alley in Brooklyn and emerges in the woods of upper New York State on a warm summer day. He has traveled to a school of magic known as Brakebills, where he is informed that he posses such arcane skills and if he can past the curriculum, he will be trained to become a real magician. Here the reader will most likely envision Harry Potter’s Hogsworth. But the similarities are few, as Grossman paints Brakebills as an imperfect setting for lost children frantic to find their place in a world they feel constantly alienated from. They are a jaded group of loners and even a wondrous school of magic cannot completely eradicate their self-imposed ennui.

At Brakebills, Quentin finds love and friendship and eventually the grandest surprise of all, Fillory actually exist and he and his chums discover the magical means to travel there. But alas, every Eden has its serpents and the fantasy world that so comforted him as child soon becomes a hellish nightmare with a monster like none other he had ever imagined. Through his trials, Quentin sacrifices much and endures great pain before coming to grip with life’s most difficult challenge, making sense of it all.

Grossman’s tale is part coming-of-age fable and part philosophical dissertation on what the nature of life might be. If there is a God, he posits, then perhaps he, or she, is the Great Writer of All, and Quentin, like the rest of us, must eventually come to the realization that we are all characters in some cosmic book. It is up to each of us to decide whether we are the heroes, villains or merely supporting players. Quentin has to stop giving the past unwarranted importance and stop believing the future holds some pot of gold happiness, if only he can reach it. In the end he learns to accept that immortal Now, which as Thorton Wilder once wrote, is only captured briefly by poets and saints. Grossman may not be a saint, but with THE MAGICIANS, he clearly establishes his poetic sensibilities. This is a book I will not soon forget.

Friday, July 03, 2009

THE ROOK Vol Two

THE ROOK Vol. Two
By Barry Reese
Wild Cat Books
147 pages

After enjoying Reese’s first collection of stories starring his original pulp character, the Rook, I was anxious to get into this new volume which sports a terrific Frank Brunner cover. The book contains six fast paced, action heavy stories of Max Davies, a man psychology scarred as a boy when he saw his father gunned down by hoodlums. Davies, in the vein of the classic Bruce Wayne/Batman mold, travels across the globe as he matures and learns all the sciences and fighting skills he will require in his campaign to combat evil and injustice.

These are classic hero pulp yarns set in the 30s and 40s and told in the manner of those great digest mags. One of Reese’s strengths as a writer is his ability to reinvent iconic pulp figures in a whole new light. An example of that in this collection is his debut of the Russian hero, Leonid Ksalov, clearing meant to be a new version of Doc Savage. He’s a great character and another helpful ally to the Rook in his war against the agents of darkness.

Which brings us to this series’ overriding theme, occult and supernatural threats. Unlike other classic pulp vigilantes who battled mobsters and would-be world rulers, the Rook takes on the bizarre, other-worldly foes like vampires, immortal Chinese madmen, zombies and even a baby blood-sucker at one point. Ghosts abound in every adventure and one quickly learns that the Rook’s world is a very scary and menacing one. Yet with the help of his lovely wife Evelyn, a one-time movie B-queen, McKenzie the local sheriff and now Leonid Kaslov, the Rook still manages to overcome the forces of evil and win the day.

So in the end, this volume is even better than the first. Although you don’t need to read the first to enjoy it, I’m betting once you delve into the Rook’s adventures, you’ll most likely want to collect all of them. I sure do.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

THE CUTIE

THE CUTIE
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime
250 pages

The late Donald E. Westlake was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993, the highest honor bestowed a mystery writer. During the course of his life (12 July 1933 – 31 December 2008) he won their prestigious Edgar Award three times in three different categories; in 1968 for Best Novel, God Save the Mark, in 1990 for Best Short Story, Too Many Crooks, and in 1991 for Best Motion Picture Screenplay, The Grifters.

This dandy little thriller was first published in 1960 as The Mercenaries, and it’s Westlake at his best. Like the majority of his crime dramas, The Cutie takes place in New York City, a territory Westlake was highly familiar with and used to color his stories with deft, literary strokes. When a two-bit heroine junkie is framed for the murder of a young actress, the case seems unimportant to mob soldier, George Clayton. As the muscle for underworld boss Ed Ganolese, Clay assumes the murder is inconsequential until Ganolese orders him to find the junkie and hide him from the police. It seems this addict has connections to the Families back in the old country.

In an original twist, Clay takes on the role of detective not only find and protect the falsely accused doper, but at the same time learn who the real killer is and bring him to justice. When another woman is killed and the frame put on Clay, things get personal fast. Soon he’s dodging bullets and cops all the while wondering what was so important about a no-talent actress that would warrant someone crossing swords with the mob.

The plot is straight forward and moves at a good clip, allowing readers ample opportunity to collect the clues along with Clay and in the end come to the logical, well set up denouement. Westlake’s characters all come to life quickly in short, skillful paragraphs and he cleverly layers their personalities with every day moral issues. Clay is not a mindless thug. He’s an intelligent guy, yet he willfully chose a career of crime. Was it the right choice? By the last chapter of this book, his reassessment brings forth some startling revelations that end the book on the perfect pitch note.

The Cutie is terrific crime novel. If I have any quibbles, it is with the beautiful cover by Ken Laager. It has absolutely no bearing on the story, nor is the lethal lovely painted on it in this particular book. Mostly all the Hard Case Crime books’ have featured relevant covers. One or two have not. You can add this one to that short list.

Monday, June 15, 2009

THE SEA WRAITHS

THE SEA WRAITHS
(A Secret Agent X Adventure)
By Sean Ellis
Age of Adventure Press
188 pgs.

Sometimes when a certain writer latches on to a particular character sparks fly. It is as if the two were meant to hook up in the grand cosmic scheme of things literary. Thus is the case with this book. Sean Ellis, a new and exciting thriller writer, first discovered the pulp hero, Secret Agent X, several years ago while contributing to an anthology featuring “the Man of a Thousand Faces.” This B-pulp hero was created back in the 1930s by veteran pulp writer Paul Chadwick for his own title, under the pseudonym Brant House. Chadwick wrote the character’s bible and first half dozen adventures. There would be a total of forty-five in all before the title ended.

Secret Agent X is a lone agent who, although sponsored by a cabal of wealthy Americans, chooses his own assignments in defending America from evildoers. His greatest skill is his mastery of disguise and only one other person has ever seen his real face, the beautiful reporter Betty Dale, who is X’s ally and lover. Although never quite as popular as the top tier heroes ala the Shadow and Doc Savage, Secret Agent X captured a strong following which remains loyal to this day.

THE SEA WRAITHS is a well written two-fisted, fast paced adventure book. When cargo ships begin disappearing mysteriously in the North Atlantic, America’s top agent launches his own investigation which soon reveals ties to organized crime. But that is only the beginning. He soon discovers other clues that lead him to Nazi Germany and a one on one confrontation with the devil incarnate himself, Adolf Hitler!! Perhaps the most ambitious Secret Agent X tale ever conceived, Ellis brings to it modern day sophistication while at the same time remaining faithful to the traditional pulp trappings of exotic locales, amazing super weapons and daring-do last minutes escapes by a stalwart hero battling against impossible odds. He gives old pulp fans a real treat while at the same time satisfying new readers meeting X for the very first time.

And I certainly can’t think of a better way to do so than with this book. THE SEA WRAITHS is pulp fiction at its finest! Here’s hoping Ellis has a few more X tales to spin.

Monday, June 08, 2009

THE CHASE


THE CHASE
By Clive Cussler
A Berkley Novel
448 pages

This is the best Clive Cussler book I have ever read. No sense mincing words here. Twenty years ago fellow pulp fiction enthusiasts turned me on to Cussler’s adventure series starring an underwater engineer named Dirk Pitt who traveled the world’s seas in the service of an organization known as NUMA. I recall reading what was, by then, the fifth book in that series and instantly becoming hooked on these new, modern day pulp thrillers. I immediately picked up the previous four books, read and enjoyed every single one and was by then a bona fide Dirk Pitt fan.

Over the years Cussler, and his editors, have turned the Pitt books into a very successful cottage industry, actually spinning off two other series with the aid of other writers working with the author; the Kurt Austin adventures and the Oregon Files. All of which have made Cussler one of the most popular pulp writers in America today. He has millions of fans around the world and his books become instant bestsellers the day they reach bookstore shelves. Which is why THE CHASE almost slipped under my radar of personal interest. I saw it in a store, realized it was a Cussler book I had not read, bought it and then stuck it on stack of to-read titles in my office.

Of course as much as I love Cussler’s books, after having read two dozen of them over the past twenty years, it is hard to get overly excited about a new one. Rather they’ve taken on the guise of familiar friends you know will provide you with some fun, but not a whole lot of new experiences. I could not have been more wrong about this particular title and am now kicking myself for not having read it sooner.

My first surprise was that THE CHASE is not a Pitt book, nor a part of the other two series mentioned previously. It actually appeared to be a stand-alone offering. My curiosity piqued, I began reading the prologue and before I knew it, I was completely yanked into the narrative as if hypnotized. Once begun, I could not put this book down, it captivated me. THE CHASE is an historical crime adventure that takes place in the early years of the Twentieth Century. A cunning villain is robbing small western banks. At the same time he kills all the eye witnesses, be they man, woman or child. Thus the local law enforcement agencies are left clueless. Not only are his robberies bold and bloody, but he also manages to elude his pursuers and simply vanishes without a trace after each strike.

Enter the book’s protagonist, Isaac Bell, a renown agent of the Van Dorn Detective Agency, a pseudo Pinkerton organization, which has been tasked by the Federal Government to find the “Butcher Bandit” and end his reign of terror. Bell is a unique, clever individual who realizes he is at a great disadvantage as he begins his hunt for the phantom-like outlaw. He quickly assembles a team of agents and operating from the company’s Denver office, begins a methodical campaign to uncover even the most insignificant clues to aid him in both identifying his prey and ultimately bringing him to justice. Cussler weaves a grand tale that masterfully captures the mood and feelings of the times. In the early 1900s, America was on the cusp of a technological golden age, what with the advent of automobiles and electricity, it seemed the old frontiers were quickly being civilized by the marvels of the new. From Denver to San Francisco and many small western hamlets in between, Bell and his men begin beating the bushes. Meanwhile the wily criminal, whose identity is another original twist, soon becomes aware of their presence and sets about plotting their murders. The deadly cat and mouse game begins to take on a frantic pace that is filled with suspense. From a mad car versus locomotive race along the coast of southern California, to the horrendous San Francisco earthquake, Bell’s epic manhunt culminates in a fantastic train chase through the Rocky Mountains that had this reader whipping through the book’s last quarter to reach the amazing finale.

Detective Isaac Bell is a great character and easily Clive Cussler’s greatest literary achievement. After a truly magnificent career, THE CHASE, in this humble reader’s opinion, is his masterpiece, and that is not a statement I make lightly.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

HUNT THROUGH THE CRADLE OF FEAR

HUNT THROUGH THE CRADLE OF FEAR
By Gabriel Hunt
Leisure Adventure
217 pages
Available July 2009

With the second book in this series, creator Charles Ardai becomes Gabriel Hunt, the globe-trotting archeologist. For those of you who came in late, here’s the idea. Ardai , the genius behind the Hard Case Crime books, has invented a modern day pulp hero ala Indiana Jones to mimic the exuberant adventure pulps of the 1930s. He wrote a character bible detailing the history of Hunt and his family and sent it off to five writers inviting each of them to contribute a book to the series, reserving one for himself. In the grand tradition of pulp pen-names, all of the books are credited to the character himself.

Of course with any such series, a formula is quickly established and that becomes a mutual blessing and curse. A blessing in that any reader who picks up any one of these six books and comes away enjoying the experience will most likely like the other five. A curse in that after two or three of them, it’s hard not to second guess what comes next in the tale. In both this and the first book, HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY, by James Reasoner, Gabriel Hunt comes to the aid of a beautiful woman whose life is in danger because of some knowledge she possesses. In attempting to solve the mystery involved with the woman, Hunt is sent on a continent spanning quest, with each clue discovered leading to as yet another exotic locale. THROUGH THE CRADLE OF FEAR begins in Hungary, jumps to New York and then barrels off to Egypt and Greece before reaching its climax in Shri Lanka.

This time Hunt is involved with the ancient myth of the Sphinx, that bizarre creature made of parts from multiple animals and possessing the head of a man. The villains here believe the riddle of the Sphinx contains information about a powerful weapon capable of immobilizing armies with paralyzing fear. Ardai understands the fast pacing require of this genre and its obvious he had fun devising hair-raising traps for his hero to battle through, all of them coming at break-neck speed. All well and good, but it wasn’t these action sequences that won me over as much as the all too brief glimpses into Gabriel Hunt’s family life.

Gabriel is the oldest of three children whose parents disappeared in a flight over the Mediterranean seven years ago. Now his younger brother Michael runs the Hunt Foundation that bankrolls his archeological expeditions. Shortly after the loss of their parents, their younger sister Lucy vanished. Regardless of whatever case he is involved with, Gabriel Hunt is a haunted man in regards to these losses. When a strange twist of fate allows him to reconnect with one of these three, Hunt’s character takes on a more complex personality which saves him from becoming a cardboard hero caricature. It’s these insights we hope to see more of in the future.

I also appreciated the supernatural elements weaving themselves into the action and found the ending terrific fun. Oh, and Ardai also adds a bonus short story after the Hunt adventure, making this book a really nice buy. This is a good series that seems to be picking up steam with each new entry. Hopefully that will continue when number three appears later this summer. This reader will be keeping an eye out for it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

THRESHOLD

THRESHOLD
By Bonnie Kozek
iUniverse, Inc.
118 pgs

What are the odds I’d end up reviewing two books back to back whose protagonist is named Honey? Which is exactly what happened, but be warned, these ladies are about as different as night and day can be. Read on, MacDuff.

This book kicked me in the teeth. It’s an ugly slice of life few of us ever get to see, or want to for that matter. Which is why turning its pages was like sparring with a heavyweight. Every few scenes your get you jaw rocked and your gut punched. It hurts like hell, but once the literary adrenalin starts juicing, there’s no way you are going to stop. Of course the challenge here is to try and tell you what Bonnie Kozek writes like, when it’s damn near impossible. She’s an original. Imagine what kind of hard boiled fiction Mickey Spillane would have given us if he’d been a she? A sassy, angry, tough, twenty-first century dame with a story to tell. That’s Ms.Kozek.

Honey McGuinness grew up with a suicidal mother who wanted to share eternity with her. Only problem is, mom didn’t want to wait until nature ran its course and opted to punch both their tickets by taking a flying leap off a high-rise. She died, Honey lived. If you call the messed up life she endured from that point on was living. Sex, drugs and a little rock and roll, the girl walked on the wild side until it all became home, one she has no intentions of ever leaving.

“…what was I afraid of? I’d ingested, digested, shoved up my ass, and shot into my bloodstream every kind of consciousness-numbing intoxicant, narcotic, and medication known to man-and whatever I missed in my later years my sick-o mother shoved down my throat in the first sixteen. I was experienced, stoned and beautiful.”

When one of Honey’s homeless friends is gunned down in front of her apartment and left to bleed to death, her bleak, comfy world is shattered. Especially when she finds Billy was wired and the machine tape is still on his body. Was he a helpless pawn of the cops? A patsy sent into the drug flooded streets to be sacrificed to the scum? Honey believed her heart had turned to stone long ago but with Billy’s murder, she realizes, much to her own utter disbelief, that she gives a damn. Then she finds an unlikely ally in a goody-two-shoes rookie cop named Skinner. All of which propels Honey on yet another personal voyage through hell to uncover a truth too many powerful people want hidden permanently.

THRESHOLD is a brutal, take-no-prisoners adult thriller that paints a disturbing, factual picture of a culture most Americans will never know. Thank God for that. Whereas the fact that people do live like this is a crime against all mankind. Bravo to Bonnie Kozek for having the guts write about it. My only question is, why was this book published by a small, unknown publisher? If any book deserved to be a Hard Case Crime title, it’s this one. They just don’t come any meaner.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

KISS FOR A KILLER

KISS FOR A KILLER
By G.G. Fickling
Overlook Press
200 pgs.

Sexy, blond, private eye, Honey West, was created in 1957 by the husband and wife team of Gloria and Forest Fickling. She was a fashion writer and he covered sports; they wrote ten Honey West paperbacks under the pseudonym G.G. Fickling. Honey is notable for being one of the first female private detectives in popular fiction. She inspired a short lived TV series (1965-66) starring Anne Francis and was a very popular heroine until here retirement in 1971.

KISS FOR A KILLER is the sixth book in the series and is typical of most of them. When a professional football player, with whom she once had a fling, is run over by a steamroller, Honey takes it upon herself to get involved with the case, much to the chagrin of Deputy Sheriff, Mark Storm. Soon she’s caught up with a zany bunch of lethal nudists who have a lot to hide in more ways than one. The Fickling’s clearly wrote these as light, comedic tales and were ingenious in just how many times they could get poor Honey out of her clothes.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a couple of truly creepy sequences in this story that are extremely well handled and make the book worth picking up. But be warned, the plot is paper thin and there are so many red herrings sprinkled throughout, it is sometimes hard to keep up with the determined Ms. West. New bodies keep popping up like dandelions on a spring lawn. In the end, Honey solves the case in her own unique style and walks off in the arms of the ruggedly handsome Deputy Storm.

If you are old enough to remember the TV series, you may be surprised by these books, as by the time Honey was brought to the small screen, she’d undergone a serious make-over to dampen her risquĂ© (for that time) nature, although Ms. Francis certainly captured her allure and sensuality. This is the second Honey West book Overlook Press has released, the other being the first in the series, THIS GIRL FOR HIRE. Both are inexpensively priced and if you are looking for some fun, summer reading, you could do a lot worse than meeting Ms. Honey West.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

THE AVENGER CHRONICLES

THE AVENGER CHRONICLES
Edited by Joe Gentile & Howard Hopkins
Moonstone Books
361 pages

One of the most original and enduring pulp heroes was a character known as the Avenger and another product of the successful Street & Smith publishing house. This was the same company that had given the world both the Shadow and Doc Savage, by far the most famous pulp characters of all time. The Avenger came about when the folks at Street & Smith came up with the idea of creating a new character who would combine both the mystery elements of the Shadow and the globe-trotting adventures of the Man of Bronze. The result was the dramatic story of Richard Henry Benson, a famed adventurer whose beloved wife and daughter are murdered by a ruthless gang of killers. Benson suffers a traumatic breakdown that not only turns his hair prematurely white, but at the same time deadens the nerves in his face so that it takes on a putty-like malleability thus allowing him to shape it in any manner he desires. Suddenly, with a little make up and a few wigs, Benson can become anybody. Seeing this bizarre ability as a sign, he opts not to wallow in self-pity, but to devote his life from that moment on to the cause of righting wrongs for other victims like himself. He soon recruits a band of loyal follower, each of them with their own personal history of loss at the hands of criminals, and thus is born Justice, Inc.

The series was written by pulp veteran Paul Ernst and although the stories were extremely well done and very popular with the fans, the title was doomed to a short run. It had the misfortune of coming on the scene as the door was closing on the pulp era wherein economic hard times and paper shortages were forcing all the major publishers to cut back on their output. The Avenger was one of the early casualties of this media demise.

Now pulp fans can take rejoice, as the Avenger and his entire team are back in a terrific anthology featuring eighteen brand new adventures by some of today’s finest action writers. Here are Nellie Gray, the spitfire blonde, Smitty, the veritable seven foot electrical genius, Fergus MacMurdie, the Scottish chemist, Josh and Rosabel Newton, the African American husband and wife team and the debonair Cole Wilson; all of them willingly racing into danger at their leader’s bidding. The stories themselves pit them against assassins, mad scientists, and killer robots all penned by today’s modern pulp scribes to include Mark Justice, Martin Powell, and Ron Goulart amongst others.

This reviewer would be hard pressed to pick a favorite in this collection, as all eighteen are truly great, fast paced action yarns. Kudos to editors Joe Gentile (a true pulp enthusiast and promoter) and Howard Hopkins (an authority on the Avenger) for putting these pulse pounding new chapters in the life of one of pulpdom’s greatest heroes. This is one of the best pulp anthologies ever produced. Here’s hoping there are future volumes in the works. You can never have too much of a good thing.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

FAKE I.D.

FAKE I.D.
By Jason Starr
Hard Case Crime
Available May 26
253 pages

This is one of the grittiest, most hypnotic novels I’ve ever read. True to classic noir, it introduces the reader to a luckless schmuck with illusions of grandeur and then proceeds to suck him into a bottom-less pit of crime and insanity. Like the gory roadside crash on the highway that compels us to slow down and stare at mutilated figures, once we meet would be actor and bouncer, Tommy Russo, we become his shadow and watch helplessly as his life unravels thread by agonizing thread.

In his early thirties, Russo is a gambling addict and all-around loser who lies to himself about one day hitting the big score at the tracks or getting an acting gig that will instantly catapult him to fame and glory. When he is offered an opportunity to join a small syndicate of men in buying a race horse, Tommy sees it as his one big chance to grab the brass ring of life and become a winner. But to join he’ll have to come up with ten thousand dollars, which he of course doesn’t have.

Using his good looks, Tommy seduces an old girlfriend and steals her jewelry. He pawns the stolen baubles for seed money, believing he can win at the tracks and thus earn his stake in the proposed syndicate. Of course he only ends up losing the money, making the girl suspicious and in the process he becomes even more desperate. Enough to rob the safe in the bar where he is employed by a man who trust him like a son.

Starr’s writing is economic to a fault, sparing little verbiage on anything other than Tommy’s cold, cruel, irrational look at the world. Within the first chapters the reader realizes the guy has no real grasp of reality and is on a one way trip to hell. How that doom befalls him is both ironic and pathetic.

FAKE I.D. is a nasty piece of work and thus a delicious noir experience you will not soon forget. Powerful stuff.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

CONQUISTADOR

CONQUISTADOR
By S.M.Stirling
RoC Books
582 pages

I love what-if stories that set the imagination free. Growing up in a small New England town, I spend many hours playing in the surrounding woods that ran along the small river that wound its way through the center of town. Often I would find myself on a summer afternoon hidden in a copse of oak and elms, no view of our house or the street. Then I’d begin daydreaming what this entire land must have been like before Columbus and the Europeans arrived. Indians, as we wrongly referred to them back then, had the entire North American continent to themselves; a vast empire of mountains, valleys, forests and plains as yet unspoiled by what some folks call civilization. As a teenager, I thought how truly magnificent that world must have been.

Writer S.M.Stirling must have done much of the same daydreaming as the plot of this mammoth what-if adventure makes it possible for his characters to find that uncorrupted land. The book begins in 1947 when ex-Marine, John Rolfe returns to civilian life after having survived brutal combat in the South Pacific. He buys an old, long abandoned house in San Francisco and one night, while cleaning out its cellar, a blue shimmering wall of energy suddenly manifest itself in midair before him. Not one to shy away from a mystery, Rolfe soon discovers the blue wall is a portal to another Earth, one wherein America was never settled by Europeans. Rolfe immediately realizes the importance of his discovery and beings to hatch a wild, outlandish scheme to conquer this new land and there create his own government, his own social order, his own idealized world. To do this, he enlists several of his old war buddies and once they are brought to this “other” California through the dimensional gate, they are easily swayed by Rolfe’s dreams of power and wealth.

The story then jumps ahead to the year 2009 (a neat twist as Stirling penned the book in 2003) and introduces a California Wild Life and Game warden named Tom Christiansen. Christiansen and his colleagues have stumbled upon an animal smuggling operation in Los Angeles. In the process of investigating the case, they find several rare animals thought to be extinct. The mystery eventually brings him in contact with the beautiful Adrienne Rolfe, the granddaughter John Rolfe, who attempts to divert Christiansen’s case by providing him with false information. The two become romantically attached and ultimately Tom and his pal, Roy Tully, uncover the truth about the “other” Earth and Adrienne has no choice but to abduct them and bring them through the gate.

Once there, they learn that a descendant of the original families, Rolfe’s World War Two companions, is plotting a revolution to seize control of the gate and in the process the new world they have built for themselves over the past sixty-one years. Slowly Adrienne begins to win Christiansen’s support until he signs on as her ally to discover the truth behind the secret coup and then defeat it.

Stirling is remarkably adept at world-building and he goes on for pages at a time explaining the history of this alternate world and John Rolfe’s new society. All well and good, as he wants to show he’s clearly thought it all out. I do appreciate that, but don’t wonder if a more critical editor, for the sake of narrative pacing, might not have found a few dozen pages here and there to trim. Christiansen’s indoctrination into this macho social experiment at times seems naively idyllic as when all the locals sign on to help harvest Ms.Rolfe’s wheat fields. It’s romantic fantasy to the tenth degree.

Where Stirling excels is in his action scenes. These are extremely well written, taut and suspenseful. The last section of the book, when Christiansen must fall back on his warrior training as an Army Ranger in the Iraq, is superbly handled and had me turning pages fast. CONQUISTADOR is a big book with big ideas and not something you want to pick up for a fast weekend read. It will demand a hefty investment of time. If you are willing to give it, you will be amply rewarded for the effort.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

STILL KICKING

Just wanted to take a few seconds to let all of you fellow readers that I'm still alive and kicking. And I apologize for lack of a new review in a while. I am also a writer and editor and the past few weeks have been very work intense. Hopefully that is about to ease up and I'll have a new review up soon. And while I'm here might as well let you all know, I will be attending the Windy City Pulp & Paper show the 1st May representing my pulp company, Airship 27 Productions, along with my partner, artist Rob Davis. If you've never been to a pulp convention and live in the Chicago area, I urge you to give it a try. They are tons of fun. Okay, back to work, and as always, thanks so much for stopping by.
Ron