Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday's Forgotten Book: My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence by Max Allan Collins and Matthew V. Clemens (short story collection)

For more of Friday's Forgotten Books, visit Pattinase.

Prior to the release of their first recognized collaboration, You Can't Stop Me, Matthew Clemens collaborated with Max Allan Collins on the research and plotting of nearly all of his popular TV tie-in series (CSI, etc.). Between novels, they have slowly built a cache of short stories published in various magazines and anthologies. My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence collects nine of those stories. It is a slim volume, but it really packs a punch.

It is a motley collection, to be sure, with stories based on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Hellboy, as well as pastiches of such cultural landmarks as James Bond and The Thin Man. Those only familiar with Collins's and Clemens's tie-in work may be surprised by the range present in My Lolita Complex, but probably not by the authors' adeptness with the characters of others, displayed in five of the nine stories.

Putting the weaker tales at the beginning isn't the greatest idea, but it gets them out of the way. "A Woman's Touch" is a mostly pointless Civil War story with an admittedly surprising ending, and "A Pebble for Papa" (the authors' first collaboration), is a tedious Prohibition-era mob tale.

I don't know how Collins and Clemens managed to write a story faithful to both the Buffy the Vampire Slayer mythos and also to Collins's own specialty (1940s private eye with connections to Frank Nitti), but "Stakeout on Rush Street" offers the best of both worlds. Hellboy meets cryptozoology in "I Had Bigfoot's Baby!" which shows the crimson hero investigating the title legend for the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense — and finding more than he bargained for.

In "Sand on the Beach" and "Lie Beside Me," Collins and Clemens bring forth international superspy John Sand — the "inspiration" for James Bond — and show that even a retired and newly married intelligence agent has made too many enemies to expect peaceful marital bliss, even when that marital bliss is as healthy (and happens as often) as occurs in these stories. There is a lot of humor, especially in "Lie Beside Me," as Sand discovers that, even in marriage, sexual shenanigans can be dangerous.

In "East Side, West Side," Collins and Clemens bring their own touch to Nick and Nora Charles from Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man — here Mickey and Maryanne Ashford, though Mickey still looks like "a taller, unmustached William Powell" — as they solve their first mystery as a couple. The inclusion of celebrity cameos harks back to Collins's Nathan Heller series, but the lighter tone reminds me more of Stuart Kaminsky's Toby Peters mysteries.

All three of the previously mentioned stories were originally the first chapters of novels for a publisher that wanted to produce sexy books for and about married couples, and Collins and Clemens add a lot of spice to these relationships. Another story that was originally the first chapter of a novel (the inaugural CSI release, Double Dealer) is "Graveyard Shift," which has been rewritten with a more shockingly unexpected finale that suits the theme of My Lolita Complex perfectly.

Finishing up, the title story, "My Lolita Complex," is a bit of a disappointment. It is lurid in all the right ways but also predictable, and the details of Clemens's life used as atmospheric details were distracting. I would have thought this was Collins's and Clemens's first collaboration had I not known that "A Pebble for Papa" held that claim. "My Lolita Complex" is not a bad little tale; it simply lacks the extra touch necessary to take it to another level and end the collection with a "wow finish."

All in all, however, My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence is an entertaining volume of sexy and violent stories. Fans of Max Allan Collins's and Matthew Clemens's other collaborations like You Can't Stop Me should enjoy this shorter side of their fictional output.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Devil's Lair by Peter Brandvold (Lou Prophet Western series)

Since the elimination of the gang that killed her family, Louisa Bonaventure has formed a partnership of sorts with Lou Prophet, bounty hunter. But their time together is limited to occasional jobs like catching the Thorson-Mahoney gang in the act of robbing a stagecoach. Otherwise, as Louisa puts it, "We both have men to hunt." So after said job is done, Louisa is not much a part of The Devil's Lair.

This novel, the sixth in the Lou Prophet "Devil" series, focuses on Prophet's delivery of the gang to Bitter Creek and how he gets drafted into defending the town from Sam Scanlon after the marshal and his deputy are lynched in the town center. Performing such work for no reward rubs Prophet the wrong way, and he's rubbed even wronger when he wakes up from a night-long drunk to find the marshal's badge pinned to his own buckskins. But if there's one thing that will make Lou Prophet cleave to a badge he doesn't want, it's finding out somebody else doesn't want him to have it.

Someone is taking potshots at Prophet anonymously, so, though being marshal is an odd situation for a man who loves his freedom to be in, he's taking it honorably. "That's the straw I drew, but believe me, I'll never get that drunk again."

The Devil's Lair feels quite a bit different from the other Lou Prophet novel I've read, The Devil Gets His Due. In fact, with its handful of gratuitous sex scenes, I'm going to guess it was originally written for an adult Western series but was rewritten at the last moment. (The marshal angle suggests Longarm, but prolific author Peter Brandvold — he also writes under the pseudonym Frank Leslie — has written for The Trailsman as well, so that is also a possibility.)

Brandvold writes intelligent, action-filled Westerns that don't stop. Plus, any writer who uses words like "surfeit" and "ilk" with confidence in his genre fiction is one I can truly admire. He rarely makes predictable choices (except where genre dictates), which makes his work all the more fascinating. The Devil's Lair has an ending one can read only with awe at its brass, and as an added bonus, the book name-checks Frank Roderus, an influence on (and a supporter of) Brandvold's writing.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Death of a Hangman, a Ralph Compton novel by Joseph A. West (Western)

Since his debut, Me and Johnny Blue in 2000, author Joseph A. West has produced over two dozen Western novels, most recently under the Ralph Compton banner. Though West has stated that "I can’t write in Ralph’s style, nor do I try," he's producing some of the best work published in the interest of continuing the late Compton's legacy.

(If you're not familiar with this, a handful of new novels a year are published under the author "Ralph Compton" but with "a Ralph Compton novel by [author]" at the bottom of the cover and on the title page. This is one of the more respectful work-for-hire situations going, since most books published under "house names" don't credit the original author at all.)

When I first started reading new Compton Westerns, I encountered West's more "traditional" takes on the genre, Doomsday Rider and Vengeance Rider, and was not overly impressed. But there must have been something about those books because last summer, I gave him another try with The Man from Nowhere and was bowled over by its originality. This led to my choosing it for my Favorite Reads of 2009 list and to my recent purchase of the novel on shelves now, April 2010's Death of a Hangman.

When they fought together for the Confederacy, Brigadier General Henry J. Dryden saved the life of Major Charles Pike. Now Judge Dryden (known as "Hangin' Hank" for his particular brand of justice) is dying of cancer and wants to go from New Mexico Territory to his home in Texas to be buried there. He asks Pike to escort him, sort of calling in an owed favor.

The problem is that Dryden sent outlaw Clem Dredge's brother to the gallows. Dredge wants revenge, and he's offered a $500 reward for Dryden — dead or alive. It's up to Pike to get Dryden (and his whore, Loretta) safely to Texas while being pursued by bounty hunters of every stripe: professional and otherwise.

Author Joseph A. West offers up another original Western with Death of a Hangman. It is filled with terrific characterizations and West's usual cast of flawed characters. Always interested in entertaining the reader, he doesn't give Pike any chance to rest, even confronting him with one Ephraim Satin ("half Apache, half wildcat, an' all son of a bitch") on his way to the judge.

Before they get to Texas, they'll hold an impromptu trial, Pike will find out what kind of man the judge really is, and he'll go through more hell (with less to show for it) than any God-fearing man should be allowed. But, of course, all this conflict is highly entertaining and is what makes Death of a Hangman such a solid, page-turning read full of plot twists and surprising directions from West, who seems to improve his craft with each passing book.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Johnny Porno by Charlie Stella (Stark House Press)

John Albano is behind on his child support. To that end, he needs to make quick money, and his car-driving job isn't cutting it. Luckily, he's come into a job running bootleg copies of the newly banned porn film Deep Throat (labeled as "Peter Rabit," misspelling and all) between Brooklyn and Long Island, collecting the receipts from the head-counters at the box office (five dollars for each patron), and giving the proceeds to the mob guys who "bought" the movie (actually, forced the film's writer/director Gerard Damiano out of their partnership).

For this, he is paid fifty dollars a day — and these are 1973 dollars. The guy who did it before him got the nickname Tommy Porno, but he was caught stealing and turned up dead with his hands cut off. So now they call Albano Johnny Porno, and he doesn't like it.

Meanwhile, John's ex-wife Nancy's first ex-husband Louis — whom she cheated on John with, and is cheating on her third husband with, too (are you keeping up?) — has hatched a plan to rob John of the mob's money when John comes to make his weekly child support payment to Nancy, with her help.

Louis owes four thousand dollars to his shylock and his bookie. He keeps looking for his next score but can't cut his nickel bags any more than he already does, or they'll start smelling like an Italian dinner. But Louis is a full-time con artist and philanderer loaded with ideas for whatever can make him an easy buck.

At the same time, Albano is also being pursued by police. Captain Billy Hastings, forced to retire when he took a swing at Albano and got knocked out for his trouble, is bent on revenge. And a duo is trying to clean the porn off the streets by investigating John's boss, Eddie Vento. Author Charlie Stella keeps all these subplots up in the air simultaneously without ever dropping a single ball.

Stella was raised in Brooklyn and spent 18 years making money wherever he could (legally or otherwise, much like his protagonist), so he knows the crowd he writes about. He wrote his first novel, Eddie's World, to impress his current wife, and he has steadily grown a following for his intelligent and astute books about criminals, receiving starred reviews from Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.

Inspired by a viewing of the documentary Inside Deep Throat — Stella and his wife looked at each other and said "Next book" — Johnny Porno, Stella's seventh novel, is a terrific crime epic from this woefully underknown author. It is loaded with a cast of quirky losers, layabouts, and louts, with the one shining star being John himself. It's the got the kind and number of characters that director Robert Altman liked to juggle, and I like to think it could have been his 1973 crime film if he hadn't decided to reimagine Philip Marlowe with The Long Goodbye.

Based on my experience with Johnny Porno — I haven't read his other books but plan to remedy that soon (Charlie Opera is $2.00 on Smashwords) — I must say that Charlie Stella is one of the best writers the crime genre currently has to offer. He's a natural wordsmith, putting down the way people really talk in a way that still reads smoothly — not an easy task. The fact that Stark House Press, who previously focused on reprinting "lost" pulp novels, chose Stella as their first original author — after author Ed Gorman recommended him upon reading the manuscript — says a lot about his peers' respect for him.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed by Sean Williams, from a story by Haden Blackman (audio book read by Jonathan Davis)

Darth Vader's new, secret apprentice has one task remaining to complete his training: he must defeat an enemy of his master's. Then he will be ready to join Vader in defeating the Emperor. The chosen target is Jedi Master Rahm Kota, a former general of the Clone Wars. To do this, the apprentice (code named Starkiller) must travel to Nar Shaddaa accompanied by his droid PROXY and his new pilot, the beautiful and talented Juno Eclipse, hand picked by Vader for numerous previous missions, especially during the Great Jedi Purge.

(For those not familiar with the workings of the Sith, Vader's apprentice is secret because of the Sith's Rule of Two, which states that there must be only two Sith Lords at any given time: the master and the apprentice, who will then defeat the master and take his own apprentice. Trouble is, Vader is not a master but the apprentice of Emperor Palpatine and thus not eligible for his own student. But then Darth Vader has never played by any rules but his own.)

His task complete, Starkiller races to Vader's side to fight the Emperor, only to be met with an unfortunate surprise that will change the direction of his life yet again.

The Force Unleashed by author Sean Williams (from a story by Haden Blackman) is one part of a multimedia adventure of the same name, including two video games, a graphic novel, some toys, and other products, much in the same manner that Shadows of the Empire was launched in 1996.

The novel's main weakness stems from having to incorporate most of the video game while remaining a seemingly original novel with its own entertainment value. Plenty of familiar faces appear in supporting roles (the events take place only two to three years before the original Star Wars), and the book leads well into the next novel in the timeline, Death Star.

As always in Star Wars novels, the battle scenes are particularly exciting, and especially interesting is the internal conflict experienced by Starkiller as the destiny he thought his life held is changed irrevocably (though a novel with such a conflicted protagonist otherwise has little place in the black-and-white Star Wars universe). Williams offers few surprises in The Force Unleashed (some of these are more surprising to the characters than to the reader), and the "romance" between Starkiller and Juno (originally intended to be with Princess Leia, an idea nixed by George Lucas himself) elicits little emotion. However, Juno herself is a nicely complex character.

Audiobook reader Jonathan Davis, with the help of various sound and vocal effects, shows his vast range once again in The Force Unleashed. Davis and Marc Thompson are definitely the top readers of Star Wars audios, and just about any book they read is enjoyable from that standpoint, however weak the story may be.

Unfortunately The Force Unleashed is simply too flawed to recommend. A pivotal scene from Return of the Jedi is practically retold her word for word with a different character (whether this is supposed to be retroactive foreshadowing is up for debate), and in the end the protagonist is simply too dumb for his own good. He ends up being used simply as a tool in order to retain narrative consistency to the series, and that's no reason to exist.

Trivia: "Starkiller" was the original surname of the character that eventually became known as Luke Skywalker.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Nobody's Angel by Jack Clark (Hard Case Crime)

It's another self-publishing success story — 14 years after the fact. Author Jack Clark was nominated for the Shamus Award for his 2002 professional debut Westerfield's Chain. But back in 1996, he was still a beginning writer making ends meet by driving a cab in Chicago.

Following the old advice of "write what you know," Clark set his first novel Nobody's Angel in and around the Chicago taxicab community. Then, with apparently a good head for cross-merchandising as well as a talent for fiction, he printed up 500 copies and sold them for five dollars each to his fares.

When Clark first sent Nobody's Angel to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime for a possible reprint, Ardai had low expectations due to its self-published history. But it far exceeded his expectations, and now it's available again, for only three dollars more than the first edition.

Someone is killing cabbies and hookers. Though his fares assume he must be, Eddie Miles isn't all that worried about it. But Eddie doesn't worry about much, content to prowl the streets of Chicago in his hack, and even "go south" (to the rougher sections of the city) if it pays. The murders affect Eddie personally when a friend of his is one of the victims (Eddie was the last to see him alive), and again when his headlights discover a teenage prostitute left to die in an alley trash pile. Her name is Relita, and Eddie becomes her reluctant "angel," going to visit her at the hospital since her doctor says she only lights up when he comes. But, like the title says, Eddie is Nobody's Angel, not even his own.

Nobody's Angel is a little thin on plot, but it's definitely noir through and through. The main thing that keeps the pages turning is Eddie himself. He's intensely likable, even with his flaws, and it's a treat to watch his day to day existence as a cabbie. Clark makes every passenger an individual. Whether they're flirting with Miles, pranking him, or asking too many questions, they're all equally memorable, and Clark's confident style flows easily across the page.

I don't want to get into this too deeply, at the risk of revealing too much — spoiler warning? — but Eddie's likability actually fooled me. I thought he was something that he isn't. This made the ending seem ultra dark and somewhat disappointing, since I had invested so much in his decisions up to that point.

In retrospect, however, Clark is entirely true to his character. My surprise was due to my own wishes and expectations. Consequently, Nobody's Angel was a powerful read in addition to a well-written one, and it still has me thinking about it. I'm not sure yet how I feel about it, but I know that its effect on me alone qualifies it as a great achievement.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

You Can't Stop Me by Max Allan Collins and Matthew Clemens (crime thriller)

This spring is an excellent time for fans of author Max Allan Collins because he has three new novels out, all collaborations. Earlier in March, his fourth Trash 'n' Treasures mystery written with his wife Barbara Collins (as "Barbara Allan"), Antiques Bizarre, was released, and in May comes his latest posthumous collaboration with Mickey Spillane, the "lost" Mike Hammer novel, The Big Bang.

This review, however, is about You Can't Stop Me, the first time his long-time collaborator Matthew Clemens has received cover credit on a novel, though he has co-written or co-plotted and researched all of Collins's CSI novels (see Mortal Wounds) and other recent TV tie-in work. (He has always received equal credit on their many short stories together, collected in My Lolita Complex and Other Tales of Sex and Violence.)

The idea for You Can't Stop Me began with the popularity of Collins's CSI novels. Tie-ins are traditionally works for hire where the author is paid a flat rate and nothing more, even if the books are enormously popular. Collins and Clemens wanted to create a similar property to which they would own the rights, and consequently the royalties. Thus began their brainstorming. What they came up with is pretty clever indeed.

Sheriff J.C. Harrow has just made the coup of his career — saving the president from an assassin — when he arrives home to find his wife and son slaughtered. A few years later, he becomes the voice and face of criminal investigation with the TV show Crime Seen!, which is responsible for the capture and conviction of numerous perpetrators previously on the loose (think John Walsh and America's Most Wanted).

But he's never solved the most important case of his life, that of his family's murder. One day, a production assistant comes to him with some new information linking another murder with his family's and suggests that they try to tie the two together, with her as the anchor. The studio gives Harrow the money and freedom to launch another show to follow this investigation.

Harrow gathers together the best individuals in crime investigation (giving the novel a crew of quirky experts who offer various opportunities for light characterization, mostly of type, and lots of different reactions to the situations. Meanwhile the killer, who calls himself The Messenger, has already left several other "messages" that have not yet been discovered.

It starts out great, but unfortunately You Can't Stop Me takes far too long to get where it's going. Collins and Clemens spread their story out thin, making a novel that could have been much shorter. It's a fascinating premise, but I was never really able to forget that it was a deliberate pastiche of another property, so it often felt more like a copy than an original.

However, the first Barbara Allan Trash 'n' Treasures novel, Antiques Roadkill, was also a weak series opener, but by Antiques Flee Market, Collins and his wife had really hit their stride, so I have faith that the second in this proposed series by Collins and Clemens will be an improvement over You Can't Stop Me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Vampire Affair by Livia Reasoner (paranormal romance)

Everybody thinks Michael Brandt is a millionaire tycoon playboy with nothing on his mind but his money and his seemingly endless string of beautiful women. Jessie Morgan, a freelance reporter of Native American descent (she was raised by her grandmother on a Cherokee reservation) is on assignment from a tabloid to get the scoop on Michael's latest alleged starlet romance.

In pursuit of her story, Jessie gets by Michael's security and stumbles onto the truth: Brandt is actually the latest in a family of generations of vigilante vampire hunters. Now that she knows, he can't just let her go, so Michael takes Jessie back to his Bruce Wayne–style headquarters/mansion and opens himself up to her.

They soon fall for each other — the fair Eastern European and the dark Native American — and this causes Michael pain because he doesn't want to lose Jessie the way he lost Charlotte years ago. He's lost one love to these creatures before. Will he lose another? He will if vampire overlord Jefferson Rendell has anything to say about it. Some people just never learn....

Author Livia Reasoner (also a writer of popular mysteries under the name Livia J. Washburn) offers readers all they expect and more in her Harlequin debut for the Silhouette Nocturne paranormal romance line. Traditional romance and vampire tropes get a good workout (as do Michael and Jessie in a steamy locker-room shower scene), but mostly The Vampire Affair is just a ripping yarn.

It's full of action and suspense, teeming with emotional conflict and sexual tension, and peopled with engaging characters in surprisingly plausible situations that make it easy to suspend the necessary amount of disbelief. Reasoner exhibits considerable talent in the equal effectiveness of both romance and battle scenes — with an exciting scene of bloodlust well balanced with a steamy scene of the other kind.

It's a bit on the long side, and the ending will surprise no one, but the Native American connection offers an original twist. The Vampire Affair is more than worth your time. It's pure pulp, with few surprises but lots of entertainment. Its combination of romance, suspense, action, horror, and adventure are just the kind of escapist reading this reader seeks.

Reasoner is currently working on her followup to The Vampire Affair, a werewolf novel (Enemy of the Wolf) that was changed from a shape shifter novel (Shifting Affections) due to the demands of the marketplace. Reasoner is a true professional who never forgets that publishing is a business, and you must change to meet its needs, not the other way around. Read about it in her blog post Do You Write from the Heart or for the Bucks?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Guest Blogger: Scott Nicholson, author of The Skull Ring

Today, I have the honor of welcoming author Scott Nicholson to the pages of Somebody Dies. He has written over half a dozen horror novels, including The Farm and They Hunger. His latest is The Skull Ring, published by his own Haunted Computer Books.

I asked Scott about his recent decision to embrace electronic publishing.

I’m one of those writers teetering between two worlds. I was inducted into this writing game with the typical professional mantras: Write what you know; never pay an agent to represent your work; never self-publish.

About 700 rejection slips later, I sold six mid-list mass-market paperbacks. Some sold well, got award notice, and earned fans; others faded with barely a trace. Somewhere along the way, my career lost its momentum. I am captain of the ship, so it all starts with my lax hand on the rudder.

After parting ways with my agent and going several years without a book sale, I was at a crossroads. Giving up wasn’t an option, since I’d been writing new novels, screenplays, comic books, and short stories and had a mountain of material. I queried a few agents and publishers and found the industry had changed a lot since I broke in — now not only did industry professionals take six months or more to respond, but they often didn’t bother to reply at all.

I’d followed the developments of the Kindle, but I was still too doped from my industry indoctrination to seriously consider self-publishing. Every professional writing organization I’d ever been in had a list of “approved publishers,” and you couldn’t call yourself a “professional” unless you sold a book to someone on the list. It didn’t matter that some of the publishers on the list might only pay a $500 advance, and that you might earn $20,000 from selling the book yourself — it’s shunned within the tribe.

After I got the rights back to my first and best-selling novel, the supernatural thriller The Red Church, I kicked around ways to get it back out to the public. All of them looked difficult or costly, and I knew I didn’t want to print a garage full of books and drive around servicing commission accounts of two or three books per store.

Luckily, the e-book phenomenon was taking off, mostly in the underground, where independent authors could release books with little overhead. Amazon also made it very easy to publish e-books, and even set up paper books through its print-on-demand press.

After a little research, I put out a couple of e-books on Amazon, including The Red Church and some older story collections. To my utter delight, the novel quickly reached a new audience and sold steadily. It sold so well that I predict I will earn more from it this year than I did from its original advance paid by the print publisher.

After a couple of months, I released The Skull Ring, a psychological thriller in which a flawed heroine is targeted by a sinister cult. The novel always seemed to slip between the cracks and had been around for a while, but never got shopped. Today, with the click of a few buttons, I can send it on its merry way to e-book audiences in multiple platforms and formats.

I never dreamed I’d self-publish, much less release an original novel. I had to step out on the tightrope and realize no one — agent, publisher, or another writer — was going to save me. If I wanted a career, I’d have to risk it.

The mere act of taking action rejuvenated my writing, put control and outcome back in my hands, and opened an entire new world. The only limit to my growth is my ability to connect with an audience and please it. If readers like the work, they buy it, and I write more books. Shortly after that second novel was released, I was contacted by an agent, and hopefully I will be releasing paper books through New York again. In the meantime, I am preparing two more original novels [Drummer Boy and Disintegration] for release while working to get back rights to my older novels.

It’s a new era, and the old-school phrase “Money flows to the writer” can now be absolute — it doesn’t have to detour through agents, publishers, corporations, distributors, or bookstores. The successful writers of this new era will move in both worlds and take more responsibility for their careers, and they will choose their industry allies carefully.

In this new era, you can actually say “No” to a book offer — something nearly unthinkable a decade ago — because you know what your books are really worth. The audience tells you.

That sounds like a sustainable career move to me.

Scott Nicholson is publishing books and comics through Haunted Computer Books. Check out their titles. He has signed copies of The Skull Ring for $9.95 plus $2 shipping, as well as other books available through his website. His e-books The Red Church, The Skull Ring, Burial to Follow, Ashes, The First, and Flowers are available through Amazon and Digital comic books, including the Dirt and Grave Conditions series, are available through his Web site and DriveThru Comics. The novels Drummer Boy and Disintegration will be released in April and May 2010. For writers, he operates the freebie download manual Write Good or Die.
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