Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: The Year in Review(s)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Crime: Antiques Flee Market: a Trash 'n' Treasures Mystery by Barbara Allan (Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins)

Following her divorce, Brandy Borne moved back in with her mother, Vivian, in her hometown of Serenity. Much to her chagrin, the first thing they did together was attend a mother-daughter meeting of the local Red Hat Club. (Mystery readers all, the local branch has been named The Red-Hatted League.) Vivian couldn't go with Brandy's much-older sister Peggy Sue (they were both named after popular songs of their day) because Peggy Sue was already a member.

Before her arrival, Peg informed Brandy that Vivian sold off most of her prized possessions to an antique dealer while on a "drug holiday" from her bipolar meds. When the antique dealer was found dead — and both Brandy and Vivian admitted to running over the body in their car — it was up to the Borne girls to sift through the other suspects (the dealer was known for taking advantage of citizens) and find the real killer. This story was told in the first "Trash 'n' Treasures" book, Antiques Roadkill.

Since then, they've become amateur sleuths of a sort, investigating murders in their formerly quiet little Midwestern hometown and generally causing havoc of one sort or another while getting in the way of genuine police investigation. The second book in the series, Antiques Maul, is Halloween-themed. It concerns Brandy's trying to keep Vivian out of trouble by opening a booth at the local antiques mall, then finding a woman dead, presumably by her pit bull.

The third book in the series is Antiques Flee Market. Now it's Christmastime, and a former "conquest" of Vivian's (a "mercy mission" during wartime) has been found dead in his nursing-home bed.

Along for the search this time is the victim's British, Goth granddaughter, Chaz, an ex-con with less than savory friends and a delightfully Cockney way of speaking. Meanwhile, Brandy is troubled by an anonymous note that suggests Vivian is not her real mother, and Vivian is excited by news that she is no longer bipolar but merely schizo-affective (which is actually bipolar with psychotic tendencies).

Antiques Flee Market shows a marked improvement over the first book in the series, which I was actually unable to finish (I skipped the followup). The prose here is smoother, with very little sign of one author taking over for the other. The Collinses work well together as "Barbara Allan," and even the humor — which definitely felt inserted into Antiques Roadkill — is much more seamlessly integrated, making for a genuinely funny read (as opposed to simply a joke-filled one).

Fans of co-author Max Allan Collins will appreciate a couple of touches that must have come from him: namely a Mike Hammer reference and the fact that the antique this time around is a rare edition of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (the "sleuth" Collins used for his Disaster series book The Pearl Harbor Murders). But all in all, "Barbara Allan" is really coming into her own, and the Trash 'n' Treasures series has to be the quirkiest cozy series on the market.

In fact, in many ways, the Collinses seem to be turning the classic tropes of the cozy subgenre on their ear. After all, the Bornes aren't independently wealthy; their dog is diabetic, blind, and named after raw fish; they're highly dependent on psychiatric medications just for their daily functioning (with disastrously funny results if, for example, they get their pill boxes confused); and their antiques are solely low-rent, flea-market fare (Mother is not averse to Dumpster diving) that clearly falls under the heading of the series' inspiration, the adage "One man's trash is another man's treasure."

In short, unlike most escapist fiction protagonists, the Bornes do not have a life to which it is likely the reader will aspire (except perhaps for those readers who should be, but aren't already, on psych meds). It more closely resembles horror fiction in that the events make you feel better about your own life.

Of course, I could be off on my facts a bit there, given that I wouldn't even have heard of this series if it weren't co-written by one of my favorite authors. But Antiques Flee Market actually turned out to be quite a fun read. Each chapter ends with an (often tongue-in-cheek) antique-buying tip, and the couple have a delightfully wicked sense of humor (dig that soap-opera-derived cliffhanger ending!). I'm already looking forward to reading the fourth book in the series, Antiques Bizarre.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas Crime: Damon Runyon, Douglas Lindsay, and Tom Piccirilli

If you're at all like me, when a holiday season rolls around, you like to gear your genre-fiction reading toward material with that theme. Where horror dominates Halloween, the Christmas season seems to focus on crime.

I first came across this seemingly ironic pairing in an anthology entitled Murder for Christmas, which still graces my bookshelf, waiting patiently through the other eleven months for me to pay it due attention each December. This book also has the special honor of having introduced me to Damon Runyon via "Dancing Dan's Christmas," which is not only an excellent example of Runyon's style and sense of humor but also holds up to annual rereading.

"Dancing Dan's Christmas" is a yarn (and Runyon's stories often feel like yarns) of getting one up on the coppers. It's a nice little holiday tale filled with Runyon's wonderful humor, sly references to crimes "not" committed by the narrator, and quite a good deal of the Christmas spirit. When a story contains a drunk in a Santa suit and still has an O. Henry–style happy ending, you know you're in the hands of a skilled writer. Murder for Christmas is out of print, but "Dancing Dan's Christmas" is currently available in the Penguin Classics edition of Guys and Dolls and Other Writings.

From upstart publisher Blasted Heath comes Douglas Lindsay's latest in his series of Barney Thomson, the "renegage barbershop legend," The End of Days, a novella set during December 2009. Carnage seems to follow Thomson wherever he goes, though Thomson directly causes none of it.

In The End of Days, at the same time Britain's Prime Minister hires Barney to do his hair ("He did Blair's hair at the last election. And he did the First Minister in Scotland a while back. He has form. Get him down here") — despite a warning that "death, murder, slaughter, blood, horror, mutilation and genocidal abomination are sure to follow" — someone starts killing off members of Parliament at an alarming rate.

As the PM is more concerned with how his hair looks at each speech he gives — "I want a haircut that transcends hair. That's what Gandhi had. He had a haircut that didn't even need hair. I want something like that, but a haircut that doesn't need hair but has hair anyway" — Thomson becomes his advisor during one of the worst times in Britain's history, culminating in a planned invasion of the United States! This combination of serial killer and political satire makes for great reading.

Where The End of Days ends on Christmas Day, author Tom Piccirilli's "noirella" You'd Better Watch Out begins there, as the narrator watches his father brutally murder his mother on that holiday. (Piccirilli's time working in the horror genre comes in handy here.)

Soon, he begins working for mobster Johnny Booze, who trains the kid to be a torpedo (hitman) of the highest order, while the kid readies himself for the day his father is released. The tension Piccirilli weaves throughout the story is sometimes nearly unbearable, showing how he's one of today's top noir-fiction writers.

Piccirilli uses the Christmas theme well, as nearly every important event occurs on or around that day as the years pass. You'd Better Watch Out is certainly not a feel-good read — though there is a genuine soft spot at its center — and it is perfect for those not looking for some relief from the usual tidings of comfort and joy.

(And after you've read all three of these stories, be sure to add The Thin Man to your annual slate of holiday viewing, even if only for the scene where Nick Charles tests out his new air rifle — on the Christmas tree ornaments.)

Happy holidays!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: Serpent Girl by Ray Garton (horror novella)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Newly retired from his well-paying job, Steven Benedetti decides to celebrate with a visit to the carnival. There he meets Elise, the Serpent Girl (she dances with snakes), herself newly unemployed due to a fight with her boss/lover. Elise (whose real name is Carmen Mattox) and Benedetti subsequently hit the road together, spending the night in a roadside motel where they share their bodies and their histories — but not their secrets. That comes later; pieces slowly reveal themselves as the couple have a lot of sex and begin to think they're perfect for each other.

Author Ray Garton is probably best known as a writer of horror fiction (The New Neighbor, Live Girls), but Serpent Girl, originally one of his long line of books from Cemetery Dance Publications, seems to display the influence of the hardboiled crime novels and films of the 1940s and '50s: to wit, the beautiful woman whom trouble seems to follow and the world-weary man who is so attracted to her that he doesn't realize what he's gotten into until very late in the game. Steven and Elise fit their roles well, but each has a little secret in store for the other.

This blend of sex, horror, and crime fiction (I like to call it "erotic noirror," but your mileage may vary) plays to Garton's strengths: creative plots and the rare ability to know when to paint with broad strokes and when to be more detailed. Serpent Girl certainly has its flaws (conversations that border on the tedious, two-dimensional characters, and an abrupt ending), but they don't keep this novella from pulling the reader through to the somewhat unexpected conclusion. Its menacing foreshadowing alone would guarantee that, even if Garton didn't have a couple of surprises up his sleeve.

Garton's longtime fans will definitely be satisfied by Serpent Girl, and those concerned that he might be devoting himself to crime fiction entirely can be assuaged by his recent werewolf novel Ravenous (and its sequel, Bestial). Those, however, wanting more of this direction of the author's work should seek out his two books originally published under the pseudonym Arthur Darknell and now out under his own: Loveless and Murder Was My Alibi.

This review is an updated and revised version of the one that originally appeared in The Green Man Review in 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Best of the West, Vol. 1: Classic Stories of the American Frontier (Western audiobook anthology)

Best of the West, Vol. 1: Classic Stories of the American Frontier is a 2009 audio anthology of classic and modern classic Western stories by a wide range of authors from Matt Braun to Zane Grey, from Will Henry to Elmer Kelton. Here are some highlights:

Author Gordon D. Shirreffs (Rio Desperado) is always good for a Western filled with complex characters and situations, and "Death Hires These Guns!" is no different. Reed Emmons is in the Mexican border town of Nogalles when he gets word that his brother Rance was killed by a backshooter. Of course, he wants revenge, but he has trouble getting a bead on the killer.

First, it's Burt Whitman, marshal at the Cottonwood seat, but the evidence is circumstantial. Turns out Rance was seeing Whitman's sister Aurelia. But when Reed goes in disguise and finds Whitman had nothing to do with his brother's death, will an extra complication make him go through with his plan anyway?

In Loren D. Estleman's "The Death of Dutch Creel" (also available in his Western collection The Bandit and Others), someone who was actually at the titular event (in a way) sets the record straight after seeing a particularly sensationalist "authentic" retelling at the pictures. Arte Johnson's reading emphasizes the wry humor.

Gary McCarthy tells the story of a frontier doctor, James Stanton, who needs to learn how to "Grab, Root, and Growl" if he's going to marry the woman he loves. On the cusp of ending their relationship, he gets his chance. McCarthy portrays another kind of "true grit" here, in having Stanton show that one person's definition of "quitter" does not suit everybody.

Westerns from the Library

I went to the library in the next town over the other day. (If you have a library card in my state, you can borrow from any library in the state's network.) This was primarily because they have a much wider selection of Westerns than the library in my town.

However, as the librarians have mentioned, these Westerns are kept mostly to satisfy a handful of enthusiastic older gentlemen who stop in every so often. As such, I would guess that around 90 percent of them are large-print books. This is not my preference when it comes to reading material, but I'm just happy that the books are there at all.

Usually when I visit, there are numerous folks filing through the various stacks but I am alone in the Western section. Today, however, one of these spoken-of gentlemen was there, too.

We had a short conversation where he mentioned that he got the books for himself and his wife, who has macular degeneration, so he gets the large-print books, though "I have 20/20 vision." (It's little loving deeds like this that make for happy marriages, gents. Remember that.)

I also took the opportunity to ask him for recommendations. After letting me know that his favorite author was Johnstone, and saying that he didn't much care for Max Brand (too much description), he took a few moments to show me some specific books. Though these initial comments led me to believe our tastes might actually be diametrically opposed, I listened appreciatively and with an open mind. (After all, I won't really know until I've tried them, right?) The four I checked out are below.

The Man Who Believed in the Code of the West by George L. Voss

I found this one myself. The title and premise interested me, as did the portion of the author's bio that states on the back flap of this first edition hardcover (which, incidentally, cost $6.95 new) that "Like James Fenimore Cooper, George L. Voss began writing late in life because he was dissatisfied with what he was reading."

It's about a Harvard graduate who goes out West, and the promotional material calls the character "a combination of Destry and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And if those three classic-Western references don't seem like overkill yet, it continues, "but he has more charm, more wit, and yes, more true grit."

Death Rides the Denver Stage by Lewis B. Patten

I know Death Rides the Denver Stage will be a good one, since I've previously enjoyed Patten's short novel Wild Waymire. (Not to mention the numerous recommendations of his work by fellow bloggers and authors I admire.)

I also seem to have a liking for "Death does something" titles, given my enjoyment of both Death Waits at Sundown and Death Rides a Chestnut Mare (possibly my favorite title for a Western, and a damned fine read to boot).

(Patten himself wrote another called Death Rides a Black Horse, which has this fantastic review on Amazon you should read.)

Killer's Gun by Ray Hogan

Interestingly enough, in searching the electronic card catalog for newer Westerns, I came across the previously unknown name Ray Hogan. The cover to Killer's Gun intrigued me with its bold simplicity. So when Hogan was one of the names the elder gent recommended, I snatched it up with eagerness.

The book is a reprint of a 1966 novel by the prolific Hogan, who also has a good number of books available for the Kindle from Prologue Books. Luke Wade is searching for the man who killed his father. In the meantime, he gets work on a cattle drive and, against rustlers, manages to find ways to keep his "killer's gun" in good shape.

Jubal Cade #2: Double Cross by Charles R. Pike

My benefactor specifically pointed out this series as he stated that the library had all the volumes except the first. Numerous Web sources suggest that the first three books were written by author Terry Harknett, better known under another pseudonym as George G. Gilman behind the wildly popular and influential Edge and Steele series. (The Jubal Cade series was then continued to its conclusion by fellow "Piccadilly Cowboy" Angus Wells, with one intervening volume by Ken Bulmer.)

Based on the summary of this book, the first one saw poor old American doctor, trained in England, Jubal Cade losing his British wife to a killer Lee Kincaid and having to take a blind orphan boy under his care. Because of the need for money on his search for vengeance, he becomes a gun for hire. I've only read a couple of the Edge novels, but based on that, I'm excited to delve into this other series.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dark Thicket by Elmer Kelton (Civil War-era Western novel)

Owen Danforth is home from the American Civil War on temporary leave until his arm, deeply wounded by a Yankee saber cut earned in battle, heals well enough for his return. But Owen is not returning to a peaceful Texas: the people of his hometown are as divided here as on the battlefield. Even at home — Owen's father Andrew is a staunch Unionist though his son fights for the Confederacy.

But blood is thicker than politics, and to keep Andrew out of danger, Owen puts himself in the middle of a different kind of conflict but just as dangerous — and helping two women prisoners escape to the Dark Thicket from Phineas Shattuck and other local heel flies is just the beginning.

Elmer Kelton is one of the greats. His books have substance; they're as meaty and satisfying as a well-grilled T-bone. Buffalo Wagons was the first Western I read that made me realize the genre could offer depth along with a fast-paced read and historical authenticity. It's hardly a wonder that he has won 6 Spur Awards and was voted best Western writer of all times by his peers at the Western Writers of America.

In Dark Thicket, Kelton shows the other side of the Civil War — how it affected those back home, turning old friends into enemies (though those enemies are nonetheless eager to be friends again after the war is over). And in Phineas Shattuck, Kelton offers a villain that is both frightening in his realism and fun to hate in his over-the-top actions.

Kelton combines history with a no-nonsense writing style that expresses genuine human emotion without resorting to overt sentimentality, creating characters that are believable in their conflicted, sometimes inconsistent natures, with real feelings that linger in the reader's mind long after the book has been put back on the shelf. I feel I learned more about the actual effects of the War Between the States on individuals from Dark Thicket than from any history book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Death Waits at Sundown by L. Ron Hubbard (pulp Western audiobook)

These days, L. Ron Hubbard's name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of Scientology, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The audiobooks are a professionally produced combination of traditional audiobooks, with narration deftly handled by actor R.F. Daley, and old-time radio, with skilled actors, genre-specific music, and sound effects.  Death Waits at Sundown contains three stories: the title tale, "Ride 'em Cowboy" and "The Boss of the Lazy B."

When a vigilante committee convicts young Frank Taylor of stage robbery, he is scheduled to hang at sundown. His brother Lynn tries to cast doubt on Frank's guilt by robbing the next coach himself -- with the help of the sheriff, whom the vigilantes ran out of office. This is an exciting listen that was first published in Street and Smith's venerable Western Story magazine in the fall of 1938.

"Ride 'em Cowboy" is easily filed under "ranch romance," so much that one would think it first appeared in the long-running pulp of the same name instead of a summer 1938 issue of Western Story. All his life "Long Tom" Branner has been developing his horsing skills in order to prove himself worthy of Vicky Steward. But Vicky is looking to prove herself, and nothing irks her more than competing and coming in second place to Long Tom. The lead actress in "Ride 'em Cowboy" is unfortunately a detriment to this audio, but the action-filled climax more than makes up for it.

All three of the stories dramatized in Death Waits at Sundown should appeal to fans of good old-fashioned Western pulp fiction, and even more so to those who have enjoyed the Western offerings of old-time radio.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Torture Garden directed by Freddie Francis (starring Peter Cushing, Burgess Meredith, Jack Palance)

Torture Garden (1967). Screenplay by Robert Bloch, based on his short stories "Enoch," "Terror Over Hollywood," "Mr. Steinway," and "The Man Who Collected Poe."

Horror and carnivals: how long have these two been connected?  In any case, Torture Garden — a horror anthology film based on short stories written by Robert Bloch (who also wrote the screenplay, adding the wraparound story that ties them all together) — begins with a barker inviting us into the show.  

"You'll shriek, you'll shudder, you'll shiver," he promises.  "But it's all in fun and no harm done."

We pay our half-crown and enter the realm of Dr. Diabolo (Burgess Meredith, looking reminiscent of his turn as the Penguin on TV's Batman).  His private exhibit offers patrons a look at their potential future, and the possible manner of their death if they give in to their inner evil.

The first story, loosely based on Bloch's 1946 Weird Tales story "Enoch," involves a man's search for his uncle's gold stash.  What he uncovers instead is a devil cat with a hunger for human heads.  Michael Bryant is somehow believable as a man under feline mind control, and the closeups of the cat's eyes help it along.

Next comes an adaptation of "Terror Over Hollywood" from Fantastic Universe in 1957, centering on an actress (Beverly Adams) who sabotages her roommate's date with a Hollywood bigwig to take advantage of it herself ... and gets in way over her head when she sticks her nose where it doesn't belong.  Adams is good as an overly ambitious starlet, but the story derails when it veers off into science-fiction territory.

The starlet's best friend (Barbara Ewing) is up next as a reporter who interviews a concert pianist (John Standing) then falls in love with him — much to the consternation of his piano, a jealous embodiment of the musical goddess Euterpe.  This silly conceit (originated in "Mr. Steinway," Bloch's feature in the April 1954 issue of Fantastic) is not helped by the predictable narrative, though the piano is suitably menacing.  ("She" also gives the best performance in this section.)

Finally, after standing around with a pipe in his teeth for over an hour, Jack Palance utters his first words as Ronald Wyatt, an Edgar Allan Poe fanatic who gets very excited when he finds that the collection of fellow Poe aficionado Lancelot Canning (Peter Cushing) also includes the famous author himself. 

Author Bloch was a huge Poe fan in his own right — he was the first to complete the one known incomplete work, "The Lighthouse" — and this knowledge adds to the verisimilitude of the story, based on "The Man Who Collected Poe" from Famous Fantastic Mysteries in 1951.  Also a plus is Palance, who is cast against type as an anxious, bookish type.

Much like Bloch's novels from the era, the stories in Torture Garden combine his talent for eerieness with a tongue-in-cheek approach that is not afraid to court the ridiculous in the name of a well-told story.  Those not familiar with Bloch's work may use Tales from the Crypt as a comparison (also directed by Freddie Francis and featuring Peter Cushing), though it came out five years later.

In addition to the stories mentioned above, the movie also features the goddess Atropos and her shears.  She (Clytie Jessop) appears in a different manifestation in each tale (really the only thing other than the wraparound that ties them together), and even the wraparound has a twist.  Torture Garden is by no means a classic, but it is definitely a good, fun time for those who enjoy horror anthology films.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: Horrorween by Al Sarrantonio (Halloween horror, Orangefield series)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Orangefield is a strange little town. As Detective Bill Grant said in The Baby, a lot of "weird shit" happens around Halloween, in one way or another involving the participation of Samhain, the lord of the dead. A children's-horror author, a five-year-old boy, an older girl named Wizard, a Halloween historian, and a pumpkin tender are all connected by visits from Samhain. Horrorween chronicles a series of events that comes to a head on Halloween, when people will die, others will redeem themselves, and Samhain with either succeed or fail.

Horrorween is primarily composed of three early Orangefield stories -- the short story "Hornets," the novella The Pumpkin Boy, and the short novel Orangefield -- tied together with narrative glue to form a novel that is a surprisingly cohesive read.

Sarrantonio combines the horror and innocence of Halloween in a way no one has since Ray Bradbury. Horrorween, unlike the vast majority of modern horror novels, is subtle, not beating the reader senseless with shock after shock but developing a sustained level of tension. When Sarrantonio delivers the final blow, it's almost a relief.

And his horrors are truly shocking events that anyone can relate to -- not based on what Stephen King called "the gross-out." Don't get me wrong: some of my favorite horror authors are gross-out artists, but it's refreshing to encounter horror of the old school that seeks to truly terrify, yet is otherwise basically PG-rated.

Though Sarrantonio has a very accessible style, his storylines manage to be unpredictable and not easily summarized because to describe the action would either be unhelpfully vague or would give something away. And that would be a shame because Horrorween offers such a terrific ride for lovers of Halloween and light horror fiction.

For more Halloween recommendations, check out my 2009 Halloween feature.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae by Steven Pressfield (historical Greco-Persian Wars fiction)

Author Steven Pressfield's epic retelling of the legendary battle of Thermopylae ("hot gates"), Gates of Fire, is told by the sole Greek survivor, a Spartan Perioikoi named Xeones, slain via spear, but revived by King Xerxes to tell "the infantryman's tale."

Xeo begins in childhood, begging His Majesty's pardon, when his hands were broken and he lamented that he would never hold sword, shield, or spear. But later he discovered that hands that don't close can still hold an archer's bow steady and pull back the string with two fingers.

He goes on to describe his time as the battle squire of Alexandros, a gentle youth housing great bravery, and delves further into Alexandros's own military training, including a humiliating lesson on keeping one's shield battle-ready, the conquering of fear, the identifying of the slain, the unconventional work of their commander Dienekes, and a particularly grueling session from Polynikes:
"Imagine the pleasure that awaits you when you clash in line of battle.... Killing a man is like fucking, only instead of giving life, you take it. You experience the ecstasy of penetration as your warhead enters the enemy's belly and the shaft follows. You see the whites of his eyes roll inside the sockets of his helmet. You feel his knees give way beneath him, and the weight of his faltering flesh draw down the point of your spear.... Is your dick hard yet?"
(Read more from that passage here.)

Gates of Fire covers every aspect of the battle from the lengthy preparations through the skirmishes themselves to the aftermaths.  Pressfield does not shy away from — and seems to sometimes relish in — descriptions of carnage, from "carpets" of corpses trodden upon by those still fighting; to calf-deep lakes of blood, urine, and "unholy" entrail fluids.

We read about spears torn from one body then thrust into another, flying battle axes, arrows shot at point-blank range, split oaken shields, and numerous other spoliations that will please any reader who enjoys the barbaric nature of real hand-to-hand combat before guns made everything so... distant.

Pressfield keeps the immediacy of the action through gore and the intensity of leaders through their frequent use of insults and swearing.  A highlight of a different sort comes via an amusing and surprising conversation between Xeo and Lady Arete.

While reading Gates of Fire, I was surprised at the variety of other works it reminded me of.  It seems to take inspiration from I, Claudius and Shakespeare histories like Henry V, and from heroic fantasy authors like Robert E. Howard and George R.R. Martin, as much as from the actual history of the Greco-Persian Wars (if not more so). 

It's easy to see why it has become required reading in the Marines and at West Point, preparing students for the fact of their own mortality and for situations when their greatest fear will be not of death but of hesitation.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Shadows from Boot Hill by L. Ron Hubbard (western multi-cast audiobook)

On the run from the law for the hired killing of a banker, Brazos asks livery man Whisper Monahan to help him out. Brazos had to light a shuck immediately after the murder and had been unable to collect his fee: $500 in double eagles.

Scotty Brant has been poisoning lands downstream by using cyanide to get gold from iron oxide, killing entire herds of sheep and allowing Whisper to buy thousands of acres on the cheap.  Whisper offers Brazos $200 to kill Brant, giving Brazos much-needed funds and simultaneously allowing Monahan to make good on his land investment.

Trouble is, it's going to take three deaths to get one, because to get Scotty, Brazos has to get through son Swifty Brant and the family jujuman, Bilbo.  But a lack of superstition and a silver cross given by a Mexican girl are no match for a curse spat out by a dying witch doctor.

A supernatural Western originally published in June 1940 in Wild West Weekly, Shadows from Boot Hill, and its ilk were a rarity in the days of the pulps.  But author L. Ron Hubbard once again shows his talent and imagination, and this audio version, directed by Tait Ruppert with Firesign Theater alumnus Phil Proctor playing Whisper Monahan and Scotty Brant, is bound to appeal to fans of both the "weird" and the traditional.

The audio of Shadows from Boot Hill also features two more Western stories Hubbard wrote in the 1940s, "Gunman!" and "The Gunner from Gehenna", both directed by Jim Meskimen performed with equal skill by the participants, including Proctor and Meskimen himself.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Stolen Away by Max Allan Collins (Nathan Heller historical mystery series #5)

The fifth novel in Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller series of historically accurate private-eye mysteries not only won the Shamus Award for best private-eye novel (the second in the series to win after True Detective), but is also, at 600 pages, the longest private-eye novel ever written.

But there's a lot of story to cover in Stolen Away, which focuses on the kidnapping of the "Lindbergh baby," 20-month-old Charles Lindbergh, Jr., son of the famous pilot ("Lucky Lindy"), who flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic and was the first person to do it solo.

The story begins, however, with Heller, at this point still a cop on the Chicago force, following a suspicious-looking blonde, baby in tow, through the local train station. The Lindbergh kidnapping is only a few days old, and Heller thinks he might be on the trail to solving it, which would do wonderful things for his career.

He tails the woman all the way home, only to discover he's stumbled onto another kidnapping entirely. But this case catches the attention of Charles Lindbergh ("Slim" to his friends), who requests Heller's assistance in the investigation of his own child's disappearance.

Since Heller is still a cop throughout most of the book, Stolen Away walks the line of being a true private-eye novel. It is only Heller's distance from his normal jurisdiction that, in the long run, makes it feasible -- that and its part in the already established series. Heller works alone, and I guess that's what counts.

Having an elderly Heller writing his "memoirs" from his retirement complex in Coral Springs is a nice touch. It lends a realism that an actual person is recounting these events from memory (though he must have Archie Goodwin's memory for dialogue to be able to remember conversations as clearly as he does).

Collins' solution to the kidnapping is a little too clean for my taste, but Stolen Away as a whole is quite a gripping read with a surprisingly emotional conclusion. Fans of the series will tear through this, but I would especially recommend it to those interested in the Lindbergh kidnapping as history, given that Collins's usual exhaustive research is in high gear here. All the characters, except Heller, are either real people, "have real-life counterparts," or are composites of real people, and their actions and motives are taken from various articles and books about the case, mostly written by the participants.

That it all fits together so well is a testament to author Max Allan Collins's skill, especially since, in his "I Owe Them One" afterword (where he lists his sources), he cites the "conflicting source material" and the fact that "none of the books contemporary to the Lindbergh case proved entirely reliable." Nevertheless, Stolen Away is by far my favorite Heller mystery, and Collins is always my go-to guy whenever I want to indulge my taste for a great historical whodunit.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Flesh Worn Stone by John A. Burks, Jr.

Chalk one up for free e-books. It's unlikely I would ever have heard of Flesh Worn Stone had it not come up in a list of books available free for the Kindle. But the name of the author, John A. Burks, Jr., also rang a bell from my time at a message board years ago. Said message board inspired a horror anthology, Damned Nation, which was co-edited by David T. Wilbanks, with whom I would later form Acid Grave Press. And Burks's story was one of the highlights within.

Flesh Worn Stone, despite its inscrutable title (which is mentioned near the end of the story), is a gripping novel that held me in its thrall for an entire weekend. A handful of people wake up to find themselves caged on a beach.

When they are taken out, these folks are introduced into an unfamiliar society overseen by an faceless individual who judges them on how well they perform in the Game — and who decides if they will eat or if one of them will be eaten.

The Game is an occasional event where two numbers are displayed and the people whose arms are tattooed with those numbers are expected to perform the requested action or pay the consequences. The consequences to breaking just about any rule involves being that night's dinner.

Burks has taken the post-apocalyptic-society scenario and taken out the apocalypse, and it still works.  This makes Flesh Worn Stone all the more interesting as the question, "Why are these people in this situation?" remains unanswered for quite some time. 

The answers are eventually forthcoming, but Burks skillfully holds them back and dishes them out carefully one by one when they'll yield the most dramatic punch.  I even gasped a couple of times — actually, physically gasped out loud — from the shock of some of the revelations in Flesh Worn Stone. And you know how rare that kind of physical reaction is with fiction, however much blurbers would like you to believe otherwise.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hard Country: A Novel of the Old West by Michael McGarrity (family saga Western)

"When I first put Kevin Kerney on the page as the protagonist in my crime novels, I was already imagining his family history back several generations or more.... As the series progressed and Kerney grew and developed, I knew I would someday have to tell his family’s story generation by generation. I never once entertained the notion of simply writing the back story of Kerney’s life.... That seemed too mundane."
—author Michael McGarrity in an interview with Bookgasm

Fans of author Michael McGarrity have been waiting a long time since his last book, Dead or Alive, published back in 2008. And now that Hard Country is out, we know why. This beast of an epic Western was intended to be a single novel and ballooned into a trilogy!

McGarrity is best known for his series of southwestern mysteries featuring law enforcement officer Kevin Kerney. The only one of these I had read before Hard Country was Hermit's Peak, which was excellent, both as a mystery and as a portrait of New Mexico.

That McGarrity has been nominated for awards by both Western and mystery communities says a great deal about his ability in combining the genres. Hard Country is a deliberate departure from that series, but it retains a tie by going back into Kevin Kerney's ancestral line and telling the story of the expansion of the American West, from after the Civil War through the end of World War I, through the eyes of some of those involved.

From the opening portrait of a young wife's frustration with frontier life, I was caught up in McGarrity's characters' world. John Kerney is in west Texas to build up his Double K ranch. But, when his wife dies in childbirth, and his brother and nephew are murdered, he leaves his ranch and son behind to find the killers. Later, when Kerney decides to reclaim his son, Hard Country really starts to show its stuff. McGarrity's prose is so skilled as to be invisible, the words simply unveiling the story like truly great writing should.

It is impossible to read Hard Country and not recall some of the often-cited Western classics like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky in its sheer scope. But the book it most reminded me of was Wallace Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain, especially in its portrait of a father. At nearly 700 pages, the sweep of Hard Country is breathtaking, and yet its pages zip by like a desert wind and remains accessible to even the most reluctant reader. I'm already looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Antiques Disposal: a Trash 'n' Treasures Mystery by Barbara Allan (Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins)

Fans of Storage Wars, take note. Antiques Disposal, the sixth entry in the Trash 'n' Treasures cozy mystery series from author Barbara Allan (actually spouses Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins) has heroines (or anti-heroines, depending on your take) Brandy and Vivian Borne bidding on a storage unit to stock their antique shop. There they discover both a cornet (that may have belonged to Bix Beiderbecke) and a corpse (that definitely belongs to Big Jim Bob, owner of the storage area and ex-flame of Vivian's).

If you're new to the antics of the mother-daughter dueling duo (as well as the authors' prevalent parenthetical asides — apparently the subject of much debate), you may wish to start with the first novel in the series, Antiques Roadkill, though the authors will catch you up satisfactorily in Antiques Disposal

Just be aware that facts presumed here were used as revelations in previous entries, so reading a later book may spoil the impact of earlier ones.  (The authors tackle this with admirable wit within the text.)

The Collinses as "Barbara Allan" produce another wacky, lightweight romp perfect for an evening's escapism, despite the Bornes' increasingly complex family tree.  This series is just pure fun, and the humor, though readers of more "hard-boiled" fiction might call it silly, is a treat. 

However breezy the novel feels, writing funny is actually quite difficult to pull off while keeping a tight rein on a murder-mystery plot.  The fact that this pair (the Collinses, not the Bornes) keep managing to pull this off while remaining happily married is a credit to them. 

(For those thinking that the authors are merely cashing in on a popular fad, looking into the history on Max Allan Collins's blog reveals that the first chapter and synopsis of Antiques Disposal were sent to the editor in June 2010, and Storage Wars debuted in December of that year.)

Monday, April 9, 2012

Stressed by Taxes? Vinewood's Got it Worse!


Vinewood, GA — A sinkhole that appeared without warning in the middle of Main Street has the residents of Vinewood up in arms. It has already claimed one life, that of local man Calvin Hull, when it opened up under his car while he was driving.

Local pharmacist George “Doc” Taggert attributes Hull’s to pure bad luck — simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “It could’ve been any one of us,” Taggert said. “But it just happened to be Calvin on that very spot when the earth fell out from under him. Can you imagine what that must’ve been like? Tooling along Main Street in your new car, then boom. The street falls away and the earth swallows you up.”

The sinkhole is currently roped off with yellow “Caution!” tape, and through-traffic is blocked by yellow-and-black saw horses affixed with battery-operated flashers. But one man thinks that is not enough to protect the town....

Read the rest of “Sinkhole Shakes Up Vinewood Residents” over at the Acid Grave Press blog.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Outlaws All by Max Brand (Western novellas)

Outlaws All contains three novellas by author Max Brand. Like many of the novella collections released by Leisure Books, they are completely unrelated, except that they all originally appeared in Western Story Magazine, and two of them in 1921. Luckily, this does not matter so much, as Frederick Faust (under whatever name he wrote) was such a good writer that it is hard to go wrong with his work at any length.

"Alec the Great," a prologue to author Max Brand's novel Sixteen in Nome, was originally published in 1930 as "Two Masters." It is a "chronicle of hatred" between Massey and Calmont. The duo were inseparable friends, though almost total opposites. Then a third made them even more devoted enemies.

A girl? No indeed. It is a canine force that draws these friends apart: the titular puppy, Alexander. Confronted with this addition to their Alaskan gold-finding venture, the pair seem to completely forget their search... and their friendship.

This novella is a good example of why I enjoy Max Brand so much. In addition to his poetic yet accessible style, he writes nontraditional Westerns of other frontiers (called "North-Westerns" by some).

"Riding into Peril" saw print in November 1921 as by John Frederick. The Kid — Kestrell Irving Dangerfield — was a true presence in Jorgenville. His silky blond hair and mild blue eyes drawing the ladies to him, and his way with a gun endearing him to the townspeople due to his ending fights with transients (not starting them).

Justice Bland, even with his affection for Dangerfield, knows the Kid needs to be taken down a notch. But he has no legal recourse until Dangerfield accidentally wounds an innocent bystander — even though the Kid apologized immediately, took the victim right to the doctor, and paid his bill. Bland then tries to teach the Kid a lesson, saying he will make sure Dangerfield serves a full six years in the county jail unless he promises to forever put down his guns.

The title story, "Outlaws All," appeared in September 1921 and features Brand's popular Bull Hunter character. It was, in fact, used as the opening chapters of that character's second eponymous novel. (A total of five novellas comprise the two novels Bull Hunter and Bull Hunter's Romance.)

The main focus, however, is on the half-wolf, half-dog known as The Ghost. The first chapter is a beautifully written and self-contained tale of the Ghost's attack on a bull, and the majority of it is told from the dog's point of view. This is unusual even for Brand, who is even now remembered for taking the Western to uncommon places.

This trio of Western novellas was a treat, and both those who enjoy traditional Westerns and those looking for something a little different will find something for them in Outlaws All.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Coming soon from Acid Grave Press: Hellfighter by David T. Wilbanks

The next release from Acid Grave Press will be Hellfighter, an action-packed sword and sorcery novella from David T. Wilbanks, co-author of the Dead Earth series and co-editor of Living After Midnight: Hard and Heavy Stories.

The eye-popping cover art was commissioned from Nick Gucker and really reflects the contents. Check out what he says about it on his website, Nick the Hat.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Too Poor for Texas by Joe Donn Martin (short stories)

Since, as a reviewer, I come across quite a lot of writing that was not quite ready to be published, it makes the good ones all the more special. Too Poor for Texas was a particularly pleasant surprise.

It took me a long time to get through this collection, but not for the usual reason. It was the high quality of the stories and the writing that made sure I didn't just speed through.

Author Joe Donn Martin's cast of Texans are rich and real, and they refused to be forgotten immediately. Thus, I had to take my time and savor each story and each character's struggles before continuing on to the next.

Each tale is so different from the one before that Too Poor for Texas felt more like an anthology than a collection, and since Martin is a new author, his ability to inhabit the varied individuals is especially remarkable. Though each story stands on its own as is, the depth of character is such that I could easily see their lives lending themselves to longer works.

I don't usually announce this so boldly, but Too Poor for Texas comes with my highest recommendation.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Sky Birds Dare! by L. Ron Hubbard (aviator pulp adventure audio)

I am continually impressed at the breadth of material produced by author L. Ron Hubbard during the second half of the 1930s. He wrote everything from Westerns and suspense to adventures of the air, sea, and foreign lands. First published in the September 1936 issue of Five Novels Monthly, Sky Birds Dare!, as its title suggests, centers around aviation.

Breeze Callahan is one of the best glider pilots around. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean much in the age of motors. Though Breeze's gliders would keep a plane in the air after its motor failed — and would be able to soar into enemy territory without a sound — the Navy is more interested in the training ships of Breeze's rival, Badger O'Dowell, for the war effort.

Breeze has to prove that his gliders are good enough, and that he is good enough for the hand of Patty Donegan (his designer's daughter) — who has recently taken a shine to sailors — even if he has to crash and burn to do it.

As is fairly common in Hubbard's fiction, narration carries the day over dialogue in Sky Birds Dare!, allowing the author to display the extensive knowledge he seems to have gleaned from his time as president of the George Washington University Glider Club. (The promotional materials from Galaxy Audio often emphasize how much of Hubbard's verisimilitude came from personal experience.)

Regular narrator R.F. Daley once again puts his all into delivering the power of the words. And some of Hubbard's most effective prose is in Sky Birds Dare! — during the soar in chapter 3. Every detail is painted from the POV of the cockpit, first the exhilaration of flying, then when things start to go wrong, the fear and rush of thoughts. I felt like I was in the glider with Breeze, and that's precisely what I want from escapist fiction.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: The Boar by Joe R. Lansdale (young adult novella)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

Author Joe R. Lansdale's March 2012 novel Edge of Dark Water is his latest venture into the young-adult field. But those readers who can't wait to see what he does with this type of material can check out this one in the meantime.

Inspired by the more adult subject matter covered in the young-adult novels by authors like Gary Paulsen and Robert Cormier, a young Joe R. Lansdale set out to write his own YA entry, using his particular style while telling a simple, straightforward story. The Boar was the result.

Unfortunately, it proved to be impossible to sell until a limited Subterranean Press edition. Night Shade Books released it in an affordable trade hardcover a few years ago, and now it's finally available as an e-book, hopefully allowing even more people to read this terrific little novella.

The story follows the coming of age during the summer of 1933 of 15-year-old Richard Harold Dale ("Ricky" to his friend Abraham, who shares this adventure). When Ricky's father goes off to make money for the family the only way he can — by wrestling at fairs, just like Lansdale's own father — Ricky is left man of the house. Out hunting, he runs across the legendary boar that terrorizes the Sabine River Bottoms: Old Satan, the Devil Boar with a hoofprint the size of a man's hand.

After the boar kills Ricky's dog and attacks his family — including his pregnant mother — he vows to take his family's protection into his own hands and kill Old Satan once and for all — even though local sage Uncle Pharaoh says he's crazy to try. But first, he'll need some training and something larger than a .22....

The American South — as depicted in The Boar, at least — is a place where stubbornness doesn't get you smacked, and where adults respect the ambitions of teenagers. (When Ricky tells his father he wants to be a writer, nothing whatsoever is said about "something to fall back on." But then again, this isn't your typical Lansdale novel; he is best known for portraying the much darker side of humanity in his extreme horror stories (see The Drive-In and High Cotton for examples).

You'll find no such over-the-top evil characters here (unless you count a boar called Old Satan, that is), only a young boy on a quest to call himself a man and kill himself a boar. Lansdale makes the characters individuals and, although the plot definitely rides the line of believability, I never doubted it for a moment.

The Boar also has that unmistakable Lansdale voice coming through the page, that down-home delivery that makes his skill with dialect effortlessly ring true and has made his public readings so popular. This is an ideal choice for readers wanting an exciting nostalgic experience — or wanting to introduce the new generation to the terrific storytelling of Joe R. Lansdale.

This review is an updated and revised version of the one that originally appeared in The Green Man Review in 2005. Reprinted with permission.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: Dark Side of the Morgue by Raymond Benson (The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

A blonde wearing sunglasses and a big, floppy hat has been killing members of Chicago's prog-rock scene (known locally as "Chicagoprog"), and Zach Garriott (guitarist and vocalist for the seminal bands North Side and Red Skyez, but gone solo since 1980) wants Spike Berenger's help finding the suspect — he's on the list. The trouble is, the main suspect is Sylvia Favero, and she's been dead since 1970.

Dark Side of the Morgue is author Raymond Benson's second Spike Berenger novel. This Kindle edition (called The Rock 'n' Roll Detective's Greatest Hits) contains it and the other two, A Hard Day's Death and On the Threshold of a Death for less than the price of one of the original paperback editions.

P.I. Spike Berenger used to be in a progressive rock band called The Fixers, but they didn't last long (though they still have some devoted fans). Now Berenger and his partner Rudy Bishop run Rockin' Security, a service for the music industry. Berenger also has his private investigator's license because it sometimes helps with business. Suzanne Prescott, a former Goth devotee now into Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) and martial arts, is his investigation partner.

Berenger, a little bored with his current caseload involving Iggy Pop's dogs and Debbie Harry's landlord, decides to take the case, partly because he's friends and former colleagues with many of the participants. Here, Benson's knowledge of the prog-rock industry serves him well (he wrote The Pocket Guide to Jethro Tull and is himself a composer and songwriter).

After a long exposition introducing character relationships and band histories, Benson's feel for the high points brings authenticity to the story and never feels just like some guy trying to write a rock novel. (A Chicagoprog "family tree" at the front of the book is great for reference, and the table of contents is actually a "track listing" of song titles.)

Dark Side of the Morgue is funny, disturbing, and filled with deep knowledge of the music industry and abnormal psychology, all combined to make a really terrific read that I wanted to pick up whenever I had a free moment. It is assembled from P.I./thriller tropes we've seen many times before, but Benson has put them together in a way that feels fresh and original, and results in the reader responding to them as if they were brand new.

My only real complaint is that protagonist Spike Berenger is the least interesting person in the book. But Berenger's transparency allows the supporting characters to truly shine (for example, in how Prescott's T.M. skills actually figure into the plot instead of being just an interesting character quirk). Benson obviously spent a great deal of time developing his musicians' relationships and histories, and the hard work pays off as Dark Side of the Morgue is an engrossing read that is as much for rock fans as it is for fans of conventional P.I. novels.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Re-Kindling Interest: The Words by Douglas Clegg (novella)

This is one of a series of reviews focusing on out-of-print works that have become available again via a variety of e-book formats.

The new ebook explosion has been great for the novella. Previously only to be found in limited editions in the small press or in anthologies, this former bastard of the literary world has finally found a form in which it can thrive.

This is not only good for the authors but also for readers who may have missed out on hidden gems like this one (originally published in Four Dark Nights).

Douglas Clegg's The Words is a real stunner. In fewer than a hundred pages, Clegg creates a mythology, ages it, and sets its destiny in motion via two teenage boys, Dash and Mark, and their poorly chosen selections of reading materials.

Once Dash initiates the events, only Mark can stop them, but he can't for the life of him remember the words Dash begged him not to forget. Oh, he can remember the names that started it all, but those foreign-sounding words continue to escape him.

Clegg creates real tension, even during the flashback scenes used to explain the history and lead up to the present. Using the novella form to its utmost, The Words could have been told no other way, and I'm glad to see that it may finally find the audience that missed it the first time around.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bad Juju: a little something for the weekend

  • First off, Bad Juju is available from the Amazon Kindle store this weekend, January 21 and 22, for free! If you were hesitant to try it out, now's the time.
  • Also, Walt Hicks, the publisher of the original paperback edition, reminisces about Bad Juju in his review of Randy Chandler's latest novel, Daemon of the Dark Wood:
    It's hard to believe that almost exactly a decade ago I was searching high and low for that perfect first novel for HellBound Books Publishing. Looking for something original with a fresh voice, but also a real page-turner, I sifted through over a hundred 'first three chapter/synopsis' packages, many quite well-written, most of them starring ghosts, zombies, werewolves, and other auld beasties; the vast majority showcasing hordes of vampires in every conceivable shape, stripe and configuration.

    One day, I opened an e-mail, quickly buzzed through the cover note, started the chapters, and ... wait. I think I may have something here. Quickly followed by: How the hell is this NOT published already? I immediately fired off an e-mail request for the complete manuscript. Within a few days' time, I knew I had that elusive first novel for HellBound: Bad Juju by Randy Chandler.
    Read the rest of the review over at Hellbound Times.

Friday, January 13, 2012

My Latest Project

For the last several months, I and my colleague at Acid Grave Press, David T. Wilbanks, have been working steadily on getting a new edition of Randy Chandler's novel Bad Juju ready for publication. And now it's out on Amazon. (Other stores will follow.)

More info at the Acid Grave Press blog.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011: The Year in Review(s)

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