Saturday, March 31, 2012


By Matthew Reilly
St.Martin’s Paperbacks
457 pages

When this reviewer can chew through four hundred and fifty-seven pages of fiction as if it were a ball of yummy cotton-candy, you know there is lots of awesome action in those pages.  “Scarecrow” by Matthew Reilly is easily one of the fastest paced action thrillers I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring.  From the very first page to the last, it takes off like a rocket ship cutting through one massive, terrorist style threat after another pitting our hero, Special Forces Marine Captain Shane Schofield against a veritable army of the deadliest professional killers in the world.

The plot is about as melodramatic as these kind of books can get.  A super secret group of arms dealers wish to create a second Cold War so that there will be a renewed demand for their product; a need that has lessened considerably since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  They plan elaborate missile strikes against the major cities of both the east and the west, using weaponry that can be traced back to specific nations and thus throw false blame on them. What the group doesn’t know is that amongst them is a psychopath who has no interest in a “cold” war, but rather this monster is intent on starting Armageddon and seeing the world destroyed.

The only thing that can foil this global scheme is the fact that all the missiles can be aborted by one universal “kill” code; a code that requires near super human reflexes to administer.  There are only fifteen men in the world, soldiers, who have such reflexes to properly activate this “kill” switch.  Thus the clandestine group puts a million dollar bounty on their heads, literally.  They also set a time-table as they want these targets eliminated before the launching of their insidious plan.  

Captain Shane Schofield, code name Scarecrow, is one of those targeted for execution.  Of course, he isn’t that easy to kill and when he escapes the first attempt on his life, he immediately begins to turn the tables on his hunters.  At the same time he is fleeing these crazed killers, he is using his Pentagon contacts to figure out what is actually going on and by the last quarter of the book, Scarecrow has unraveled the plot and begins racing against time to save the world.

Honestly, there were times when reading Reilly’s over-the-top outlandish action sequence where I was thought even Michael Bay couldn’t do justice to this gung-ho Road Runner cartoon brought to life.  There is more action in this one book than any other dozen bestselling thrillers on the market today.  Reilly is the quintessential New Pulp writer who understands the rules of break-neck pacing and the objective of entertaining the hell out of his readers.  He does both masterfully.  It is no wonder he has a huge fan following amongst action readers; this reviewer being the latest recruit.
Note, “Scarecrow” was written back in 2003 and the dog-eared copy I just read was sent to me last year by my Canadian colleague, Andrew Salmon, a long time Reilly convert who knew I’d get a bang out of it. I just couldn’t imagine just how big a bang it would be.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


By Deborah Harkness
Penguin Books
579 pages
Guest Review by Nancy A. Hansen

I’m a busy writer and editor so I don’t get to read very often these days. For a large book like this one to hold my attention long enough to get to the end, it has to be well written and engaging. Happily, A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES is all that and more. It’s an absolutely enjoyable and finely detailed novel, and yet it only slows down long enough to reflect on what has occurred and set the stage for another unexpected turn of events.

The premise behind the story is an interesting twist on the vampire mania that has been sweeping the novel and movie worlds. Here we are told, there are four types of beings on earth, only one of which is mundane humanity. The vampires, daemons, and witches that live amongst us are all classified as ‘creatures’ in that they have preternatural abilities that at times get them into very deep trouble. There is a good blend of what might be considered canon for both witches and vampires along with some very intriguing new insights into their background and behavior. Daemons I didn’t feel were explained as fully, other than being incredibly quirky and highly intelligent. Witches were clearly detailed in their ability to cast spells and do other magical working; vampires have the legendary supernormal strength and agility as well as a consuming need to feed on blood. Beyond that, there was a considerable amount of innovative new traits added. Behind all of it though is a taboo against mingling between types, and this sets the tension for the story, in which both main characters—a long lived male vampire named Matthew Clairmont, and Diana Bishop, a highly educated female witch in denial of her considerable powers—have inexplicably fallen in love.

Yet this is far more than a gothic romance story. There is a sense of real and imminent danger from a vigilante controlling cartel of witches, daemons and vampires bent on keeping the bloodlines pure and unmixed. Also complicating matters are serious issues of personal tragedy in the backgrounds of these two diverse creatures that fate has brought together. The binding bit is Diana’s latent ability to call forth from an Oxford library archive a long lost and legendary alchemical tome named ‘Ashmole  782’. This is a manuscript that many of her fellow creatures covet for the knowledge of their origin it is believed to contain. That moment she held the book in her hands puts her life in grave danger and sends both her, Matthew, and a close knit group of relatives and trusted friends on a perilous course of discovery and ultimate rebellion.

This is a finely tooled tale of passion, danger, intrigue, and dark doings that skillfully weaves the trials of academic and family life in with the paranormal abilities of beings that have existed mostly incognito amongst the human race for millennia. The author’s background knowledge of history and literature allowed for a plausible rendering of past world events as well as great works of science and literature into the tale, giving it a richness and depth most fantasy books can’t emulate. I was especially impressed with her ability to smoothly transition from first to third person point-of-view, for while most of the book is told through Diana Bishop’s perspective, there are events that happen without her character involved that don’t suffer from an overbearing narrator explaining how she learned of this. That is not an easy shift to make even for an experienced fiction writer, yet it was seamless enough that it never felt jarring.

Overall, this is a very well done first novel from a new fiction writer. I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for something that effortlessly combines mature love and occult material fashioned around a heaping helping of eerie suspense. Since this is the first book of a trilogy and ends on sort of a cliffhanger note, I very much look forward to reading the sequel when it becomes available.


Longtime writer and avid reader, Nancy A. Hansen is the author of the New Pulp fantasy novel FORTUNE’S PAWN as well as the anthology TALES OF THE VAGABOND BARDS. She is a staff writer and assistant editor for Pro Se Press, has her own imprint HANSEN’S WAY, and many of her short stories have appeared in Pro Se’s monthly magazines and digests. She also pens a biweekly column called SO… WHY PULP? for Nancy currently resides in beautiful, rural northeastern Connecticut.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


By Max Allan Collins & Mickey Spillane
Titan Books
241 pages
Available May 2012

After returning home from World War II, veteran Mickey Spillane was prepared to go back to his civilian job of writing comics.  But instead, he opted to take an idea for a new comic series and turn it into a private eye novel called, “I, The Jury.” Released in 1947, it was the first book to feature tough-as-nails Mike Hammer. (His last name pretty much defining everything he was about.)  The book was a phenomenal success and the publisher was eager to get Spillane to do more.  Three years later the first Mike Hammer sequel, “My Gun is Quick” appeared on the bookstore shelves and became as big a seller as the first.  Both Spillane and his creation were on their way to becoming literary icons.

When Spillane passed away several years ago, he left his notes and such to his friend and protégé, Max Allan Collins.  Among these files were bits and pieces of unfinished Mike Hammer mysteries.  Getting the green light from several excited publishers, Collins set about finishing these projects and getting them in print.  Thus far we’ve seen three; “The Goliath Bone” (2008), “The Big Bang” (2010) and last year’s “Kiss Her Goodbye.” Now comes the fourth and perhaps the most anxiously awaited of the entire lot.  You see, according to Collins’ prologue notes, “Lady, Go Die” is actually the original sequel Spillane had intended to follow “I, The Jury.”  Why he never finished it and instead completed and offered up “My Gun is Quick” is a puzzle no one will ever be able to fully solve.  Still, it adds a generous slice of real mystery to this story that was envisioned by one of the greatest writers of our times nearly seventy years ago.

Taking up where the first Hammer book left off, “Lady, Go Die” finds the irascible P.I. and his gorgeous brunette secretary, Velda, traveling to a little beach resort town in Long Island for some R & R.  Velda and Hammer’s cop pal, Det. Pat Chambers, think the emotional battering he suffered in his first case has left Hammer in need of some quiet time.  Alas, as they discover all too speedily, Hammer’s personal shadow is called Trouble.  No sooner does the couple arrive in Sidon, nearly deserted in its off-season, then they witness the brutal beating of a slow-witted drifter by three policemen, one known to Hammer as a dirty cop from the City.

Hammer steps in, pounds a few heads and rescues the helpless young man.  Within hours, he and Velda learn that the small community is in a tizzy, as its most popular citizen, a famous ex-dancer turned media celebrity has vanished without a trace.  Days later, her nude body is found draped over the stone statue of a horse in the park on the public beach.

Hammer smells the familiar odor of corruption and begins to investigate on his own. He soon learns the dead woman’s mansion was in actuality a secret gambling casino being fronted by a mob personality whose identity is carefully hidden.  As if that weren’t enough to keep Hammer and Velda busy, dodging lead and wrestling with gangster muscle, their inquiries also unearth other, supposedly unrelated murders; all of young women in neighboring towns and counties.  Now the savvy Hammer has to follow two different trails and decide if they connect or not.  Suddenly he’s confronting dangerous mob gunsels at the same time hunting a twisted serial killer who may be targeting his next victim.

“Lady, Go Die” is another terrific Mike Hammer caper that moves non-stop like a flying cheetah across the reader’s field of imagination and comes to a pouncing kill in a truly classic Spillane finale.  A big tip of the pulp fedora to this one, gents.

Friday, March 16, 2012


By Percival Constantine
Pulpwork Press
180 pages

Pulpwork Press is one of the leading New Pulp publishers and books like “Outlaw Blues” are fine examples of the fast-paced, action packed offerings they put forth.  This particular novel, by Percival Constantine is the second in a gritty spy-vs-spy type series labeled Infernum.  Infernum is an ultra secret organization of mercenary assassins operated by a shadowy spy-master called Dante.

Although I did like the first book, it had flaws common to most new writers.  This is Constantine’s second book since that review and it is all too evident that his innate talent is quickly maturing with each new effort.  I have no reservations in saying this is easily the best thing he has ever written.

“Outlaw Blues” tells the story of a former Army Special Forces vet who becomes a killer for hire after leaving the military.  His name is Carl Flint and during the formative stages of his new career, he manages to rationalize his actions with the belief that the world is an inherently bad place and he’s doing what he must to survive and prosper.  If Flint has a conscious, he’s found a way to bury it until that time he can take his ill gotten gains and retire to a more normal lifestyle.

Unfortunately life doesn’t always adhere to our plans and during a botched up assignment, he accidentally guns down a pregnant woman.  Later, when he learns her baby was saved in the hospital, his dormant decency breaks free and from that point on he becomes a haunted soul.  He goes into semi-retirement, opens a blues bar and proceeds to spend the rest of his days in an alcoholic daze.  Then one day, one of Dante’s stooges surfaces to recruit him for one more mission; a job that will pay him enough money to set up a trust fund for the little orphan girl whose mother he killed.  Flint takes the job, fulfills his contract and then, after setting up the trust fund, disappears into Mexico under a different identity.

Of course in all noire tales, the hero can never truly escape his fate and sure enough death and violence follow him to this sleepy town south of the border, compelling him to finally accept his fate.  Carl Flint is very much a Heminway-like protagonist whose bloody finale is was set from the first time he picked up a gun.  Constantine writes him with such clinical economy, never wasting a single adjective or paragraph of mindless exposition.  By allowing Flint to define himself by his actions, we are given an honest look into his soul and by the book’s end come to respect him, if we are still unable to condone him. 

The bible quote is, “He who lives by the sword, shall perish by the sword.”  Around that one single theme, Percival Constantine has given us a truly memorable character and powerful tale that proves his emergence as a genuine master of noire fiction. Even though intended as part of a series, let me assure you this is very much a stand-alone book that should be read for its own merits.  Not having read the first will not impeded your enjoyment in the slightest.  Whereas missing this book would be a real crime.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

GIRL GENIOUS - Agatha Awakens

(Agatha Awakens)
By Phil & Kaja Foglio
A 319 pg graphic novel.
Tor Books

One of the things I bemoan as a professional reviewer is the lack of graphic novels I’m sent to look at.  Note I did say, “look at.”  The fun of such material is that, when well done, it becomes both a literary and visual feast; a narrative told with both words and art.
The problem is that, even in our supposed enlightened times, most major publishers still do not appreciate or acknowledge graphic novels as legitimate and thus are not receptive to publishing them.  Those pioneer publishers who do are few and far apart.  Happily Tor Books is one of the leading pioneers in this acknowledgement and they deserve credit for not only publishing books such as the Foglios’ “Girl Genius” but also promoting them so heavily.

Since its inception as a webstrip many years ago, this manga inspired sci-fi steampunk comic about airships, monsters, half-humanoid beings and a magical talent called “the Spark,” has won three Hugo Awards and been nominated for both the Eisner & Eagle Awards; the best for American and British strips respectively.  It is a grand, over-the-top tale that showcases a world where machines are looked upon with fear by the average citizen and those scientist who can master them considered heroes of mythic proportions.

Agatha Clay, an orphan college student in Transylvania, is being raised by her aunt and uncle and has no knowledge that she possesses the Spark.  Her only clue being that she often awakens from deep sleeps in her uncle’s workshop surrounded by tools and bizarre, unfinished, “cranks.”  These are robot-like inventions that come in all sizes and shapes with a variety of functions.  Eventually, her secret ability begins to assert itself and she comes under the scrutiny of Baron Wulfenbach, one of the most powerful political scientist in all the world.  He ultimately brings her aboard his city-size airship and there she meets an assortment of characters, both human and half-human, along with a talking cat with attitude and the Baron’s handsome young son, Gilgamesh. 

The boy is keen enough to realize Agatha has the Spark and suspects her talents are greater than most others known to his father.  At the same time, the great ship is coming other attack by an alien entity from another dimension and in the end, there is a climatic battle wherein Agatha, using her gifts consciously for the first time, helps Gilgamesh save the day.  But not before she uncovers other mysteries of her past and her parents.  In the end she is forced to steal an airship and along with her pal, the feisty talking cat, makes good her escape, thus ending the first part of her saga.

At 319 pages, “Agatha Awakens” is a whopping chunk of madcap, graphic fun and action galore.  Although the first hundred pages display a roughness to the depiction of the characters, it is easy to reconcile this was the first year’s worth of pages and the artists were gradually beginning to know their characters.  By the second hundred pages, the art settles into an easy, cartoony style that is part manga, without being overly exaggerated, and typical Saturday morning fare.  I particularly liked the use of coloring, which has been redone for this collection.  It shifts from the duotone and sepia when detailing earthbound city scenes and then explodes with a vibrant rainbow palette upon arriving at the giant airships that cruise majestically through the sky.

Agatha and her supporting cast of characters are fresh, original and fun.  This beautifully produced hardcover is like nothing else I’ve read in graphic form and it truly impressed me a great deal.  If you are a fan of American manga, sci-fi or steampunk, you are going to love “Girl Genius – Agatha Awakens.”  Take my advice; get two copies, one for yourself and another for your pre-teen kids or grand kids. They’ll eat it up.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


By Justin Scott & Clive Cussler
Berkley Novel
528 pages

The third adventure in this series created by Clive Cussler and taken over by Justin Scott is another fine entry relating the cases of Isaac Bell, the top agent of the Van Dorn Detective Agency.  When foreign spies from Japan and Germany launch acts of murder and sabotage aimed at crippling the Navy’s battleship program, the noted detective agency is brought into the case.  This happens at the request of a young lady whose father, a gun battery expert, is found to have committed suicide after taking a bribe. Incensed by this slur of her father’s good name, the woman begs the agency to dig deep and prove what she suspects; that her father was actually murdered and the charges against him false.

The start is slow going for Isaac Bell, but bit by bit, oddities in the case begin to surface while at the same time, supposedly unrelated accidents continue to plague the Navy’s shipyards on both the East and West coast until the pattern of these events is just too coincidental to be ignored.  Once on the case, Bell becomes the bulldog man-hunter we’ve come to enjoy in his previous outings and he soon comes to realize he is chasing a deviously cunningly spy with no loyalties to any single government.  This shadowy manipulator is in fact a mercenary attempted to create a world conflict that will line his own pockets with riches.  War is good business.

From the docks of the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the ports of California, Bell and his courageous team of agents find themselves racing against the clock to prevent the Spy Master’s ultimate coup, a terrorist attack that will set the country’s defense plans back by decades and leave American vulnerable to its enemies abroad. Once again Scott sets his suspense thriller against a backdrop of historical accuracy, detailing the emergence of a young republic about to claim its place on the world’s stage.  But will this Manifest Destiny end long before it is born?

Filled with colorful characters and a beautiful glimpse of another, more innocent time, THE SPY is a worthy addition to this already much acclaimed series.  Issac Bell is clearly the Nick Carter & James Bond of his times.