Thursday, February 11, 2016

HUNT AT WORLD'S END



HUNT AT WORLD’S END
(A Gabriel Hunt Novel)
By Nicholas Kaufman
Titan Books
269 pages

We recently participated in an on-line round table forum on how to avoid clichés when writing mystery fiction.  Webster’s defines the word as “…a hackneyed expression or idea.”  Hackneyed in that it has been repeated more time than anyone could ever count.  Which we suppose is what makes it a bad thing, this constant repetition. Whereas, unlike a single sentence or phrase, there are entire books that entirely one humungous cliché.  Case in point the classic pulp novels of the 30s and 40s and the current books and films  they in turned inspired.

Several years ago, publisher/writer Charles Ardai, applauded for bringing back the dark, gritty noir melodramas to the paperback world with his Hard Case Crime line, had the idea of launching a modern day Indiana Jones style series featuring a character named Gabriel Hunt.  Now in keeping with the Jones/pulp mold, Hunt is an archeologist who co-operates the Hunt Foundation with his brother Michael.  Whereas Gabriel is the adventurer, Michael is the desk jockey who sends him on his wild adventures around the globe seeking lost artifacts.  Ardai recruited a group of modern day pulpsters, all with established bonafides, to pen these fast paced actioners.

“Hunt at World’s End,” by Nicholas Kaufmann is one of the latest in this on-going series and everything in it is cliché; from the smart female archaeologist in distress to the ancient mysterious cult and the evil power hungry foreigner all vying to find three lost jewels that when brought together on the face of a lost idol will grant the person possessing them a fantastical power.  And so from Borneo to Turkey and finally the sands of the Sahara, Gabriel and his allies race against time to stop the dastardly villains from achieving success and thereby save the world.

There is absolutely nothing new in these pages but we still relished the book.  Like wearing a comfortable pair of slippers or a favorite lounge sweater, were delighted to have had the experience.  You see, dear readers, most of the best selling series of any kind have to fall back on tried and true elements which readers expect.  Sure, it is always nice to discover something new, fresh and original.   But trust me, in the world of fiction, that is all too rare and one soon comes to rely and enjoy those books done in a familiar style we come to appreciate over the years like good and trusty friends who will not let us down.  The Gabriel Hunt books are such pals and we easily recommend them.  “Hunt at World’s End” maintains their level of excellence with a fast paced narrative, colorful characters and exotic locales.  What more could a pulp fan want?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

AMAZING - FANTASTIC - INCREDIBLE



AMAZING – FANTASTIC – INCREDIBLE
(A Marvelous Memoir)
By STAN LEE and Peter David and Collen Doran
Touchstone
192 pages

I was a 13 year old comic book reader when the birth of Marvel Comics launched the Silver Age of Comics in the early 1960s.  That’s why writer/editor Stan Lee, after family and teachers, has had more of affect on my life than anyone else in this world. Through his innovative changes to the media writing imperfect heroes with problems, he elevated the storytelling in comics and for the first time made them appealing to adults.  It is no small wonder that I grew up wanting to be a comic creator.

So yes, Stan Lee is one of my personal heroes and reviewing a graphic novel autobiography required a bit of distancing on my part.  What you have here is a one man’s story of what happened from his early days as a youngster in New York City to his becoming one of the most recognizable cultural celebrities in the world.  As with all such autobiographies, all we can rely on is his version and in that regards some of the stories concerning his conflicts with other well known comic personalities is to some degree suspect. In all such incidents we understand there was another side and yet Lee doesn’t shy away from those awkward events that were painful to him and his family. To his credit, he goes out of his way to credit people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and all the other amazing creators who built Marvel Comics. I was personally touched with his tribute to his own younger brother, Larry Leiber.  And whether you choose to believe his narrative completely or not, there is no escaping the fact that Stan Lee knows HOW to tell a story.

Which is the part of this volume we can address with unabashed praise.  The art by Colleen Doran is magnificent throughout and finds her adjusting her style from realistic depictions of actual people to outlandish cartoony figures when depicting one of Lee’s many wacky anecdotes.  Kudos also go to Peter David, one of the finest comic scribes in the business. I have to believe he is partly responsible for taking Lee’s wandering reverie and shaping it into a linear tale with a beginning, middle and end. 

This book is a gem and for this veteran Marvelite, a treasure.  It was given to me by my family for Christmas.  They obviously know that within this aged body there still resides an eager, excitable 13 year old who so enjoyed this trip back to a much happier time.  As Lee would say, Excelsior!!    

Thursday, January 28, 2016

THE HUMAN DIVISION



THE HUMAN DIVISION
By John Scalzi
Tor Books
431 pages

Rare are the times when a reviewer so loves a book that he or she has to share it with close friends and family, never mind their reading audience.  Such was the case years ago when we first read John Scalzi sci-fi actioner “Old Man’s War.” We hadn’t been that excited about a science fiction novel since the days of Asimov and Heinlein.  Thankfully that book was only the first in a series and subsequent titles set in that universe soon followed. All of them were exceptional and much fun. Scalzi is a skilled writer with a gift for creating endearing characters.

Now we have “The Human Division,” the latest in this series centered about the super military organization of earthlings known as the Colonial Defense Union. In the distant future, mankind has ventured into the stars only to discover they are populated with thousands of alien races, some friendly, others not so. To survive these encounters, humans create super soldiers, i.e. new scientifically enhanced bodies capable of withstanding harsh environments and going toe to toe with hostile aliens. These bodies are then offered to the Earth’s senior population; men and women in the twilight days of their lives. All they have to do is pledge ten years of service to the CDU and they’re consciousness is implanted into one of these green super bodies. Thus someone nearing death is given a second chance at life.

That’s the basic set-up. In this latest entry, a schism between the Earth and the CDU has materialized when it became clear to the governments of Earth that the CDU was basically using the planet’s over population as a breeding pool for their armies; an ugly truth that, when shown in such a harsh light, didn’t sit well with various Earth governments.  Earth has broken off relationships with the CDU prohibiting any further seniors from leaving. Then to add more headaches to the beleaguered CDU, a confederation of alien races calling itself the Conclave, begins overtures to recruit the Earth into their organization thus effectively separate it politically from the CDU.

As the book opens, members of the CDU’s diplomatic corps are tasked with smoothing over the Earth’s ruffled feathers and re-establishing a viable alliance between the CDU and its mother world. Without warning terrorist attacks are launched against both CDU envoys and Conclave diplomats. A mysterious third party has entered the game and is doing its best to start a war between the two space faring groups.  Caught in this topsy-turvy chaotic mess is the crew of the CDU Ambassador ship Clarke led by Ambassador Abumwe and captained by Sophia Coloma. Among the ambassador’s retinue are diplomatic assistant Hart Schmidt and CDU Tech Lt. Harry Wilson.  They are the book’s central cast and Scalzi tells his story via a series of interconnected short stories brilliantly wet forth; each building to the climatic finale.

“The Human Division,” recaptures the wonder and excitement of “Old Man’s War,” but on a grander scale and certainly left this reviewer wanting the next installment soon. This is old fashion sci-fi done right and we certainly need a whole lot more of that these days.

Friday, January 15, 2016

TRUCKIN' SANTA



TRUCKIN’ SANTA
Story by Paul R. Schwab
Illustrations by Emery Parker
Basti Publishing
39 pages

Okay, we’ve still got time to review a final holiday children’s book that landed on our desk a few days ago.  “Truckin’ Santa,” by Paul R. Schwab is a really fun story about how Santa Claus, his elf assistants and reindeer team end up stranded on the side of a country road in the middle of an horrendous blizzard on Christmas. With steadily falling snow making Santa’s sleigh too heavy to fly, he is grounded with almost half his toy deliveries yet to be made. It sure looks like Christmas is going to be a bust.

Then, after offering up a Christmas prayer to Lord of Peace, Santa and his friends see a huge 18 wheeler rig come lumbering down the road driven by a trucker named Nebraska Sam on his way home to spend Christmas morning with his wife and kids. Upon seeing Santa and his crew, Nebraska Sam stops and ask if there is any way he can help Santa save Christmas.  It does seem hopeless.  But then Santa remembers something Mrs. Claus had packed in his sleigh and gets an idea of how he, and the trucker from Ohio, might still be able to get all those presents delivers, blizzard not wisstanding.

Santa’s solution is brilliant and we won’t give it away.  We’ll just say this is a truly sweet and charming tale perfect little ones just learning to read.  The story is ingenious and fun and the art colorful to max.  This is the kind of book any small child would love to have.
Do yourselves a favor and pick up a copy and have it ready for next Christmas. It’s a gift all of you will cherish.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

AIRSHIP HUNTERS



AIRSHIP HUNTERS
By Jim Beard & Duane Spurlock
Meteor House
210 pages

It’s 1897 and the 19th Century is coming to an end.  America, still rebuilding from the ruinous Civil War, is on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution.  Things look bright for the future until mysterious reports of strange flying aircraft begin to filter into Washington. Staring from sightings on the west coast, these viewings begin springing up in an eastward route until they become weekly occurrences in the skies over America’s heartland.

Unable to ignore the public’s fears as fueled by exploitation newspapers, two young men are sent to investigate different aspects of this phenomenon; Army Lt. Valiantiene and Treasury Agent Cabot.  All they manage to uncover is yet more mysteries such as the appearance of strange, counterfeit gold coins in the vicinity of the airship sightings and the brutal slaying of innocent country people at the hands of monsters that tear their victims apart as if they were rag dolls.  Can these beasts also be connected to the weird skyships?

About this time, both men are introduced to each other and told they are to work together as the first operatives in a new branch of the Secret Service to be known as A-23 Aero Marshals.  Up until this juncture, the book had been a straight mystery novel but once Cabot and Valiantine join forces, their burgeoning relationship adds the much needed fun part of the entire adventure and easily sets up the following series of events the two must content with and overcome.

If we have one critique with “Airship Hunters,” it is that the publisher should have announced somewhere on the covers that this was only the opening chapter of a series and that the main mysteries that set everything in motion are actually not solved by the book’s end.  Which is a minor cheat, but still a cheat.  You see, we liked this introduction to Cabot and Valiantine and are eagerly going to be awaiting the next chapter of this saga regardless.  We’d strongly urge you to join us.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD



SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD
By J. Aaron Sanders
A Plume Book
294 pages
Available 1st March

It takes a rare brand of imaginative courage to transform a famous American poet of the 19th century into a bonafide pulp detective and that is something author J. Aaron Sanders has in abundance.  As an associate professor at Columbus State University with a PhD in American Literature, it is easy to understand Sanders familiarity with poet Walt Whitman.  What is a revelation is his grasp of the times in which the writer lived and honed his skills to claim his cherished position in our cultural history.

The year is 1943 and young Mr. Whitman is working as a journalist for a New York paper called the Aurora.  Two of his dearest friends are Abraham and Lena Stowe, doctors operating a medical college for young women. When an unmarried girl is found dead from a botched abortion, the finger of guilt points to Abraham.  But before he defend himself in count, he is murdered and his wife Lena found standing over his mutilated corpse.  She is quickly arrested, tried and found guilty. Despite the fact she is pregnant with their child, the civil authorities fear a public riot and her death sentence is hastily carried out.  Poor Whitman makes a foolhardy attempt to stop her hanging but in the end Lena Stowe is executed in this barbaric fashion before his eyes.

From that point on, Whitman vows to uncover the truth behind the deaths of his friends.  Who really killed the poor unwed girl and put the blame on Abraham?  Who then butchered the innocent doctor and made it appear his own wife had committed the crime? It is at this point in Sanders tale that mores of the era come into play in regards to common practice of grave robbing to supply medical schools with cadavers on which their students could study.  In the early 1800s society was unwilling to accept that only through clinical dissections could medicine advance.  Zealot religious leaders saw autopsies as sacrilegious and believed if a body was dismembered after death, then the deceased would be incapable of resurrection as promised in the Christian bible; thus being eternally damned.  Thus the body snatching business was a lucrative one for a callous breed of criminals trying to survive in an overcrowded metropolis filled with both disease and political corruption.

Whitman, with the aid of an old editor friend, Henry Saunders, learns that Abraham had been advocating for a new Bone Law that would make it legal for medical schools to purchase cadavers. If enacted, it would end the illegal body snatching trade.  He suspects that would have been cause enough to make his friends the targets of the criminal ring unwilling to see their illegal profits come to an end.  Then, he and the female students of the Stowe’s school become threatened and the center of undue public scrutiny.  Whitman’s inquiries have alerted the killers and they are not about to allow him to discover the truth, even if it means silencing the reporter and hurting those nearest to him.

“Speakers of the Dead,” is a fast paced mystery to rank with the best this reviewer has ever enjoyed.  Sanders effortlessly propels his protagonist through the streets of a past New York that comes to life in his prose.  His characters are complex, vulnerable and brave Whitman emerges in a whole new light for those of us who struggled with his works long ago in high school.  This is a Walt Whitman who is very much the symbol of a country undergoing growing pains and aspiring to be something ever grander than its origins.  Pick up this book and get ready to be entertained to max.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

LUST QUEEN - LUST VICTIM



LUST QUEEN – LUST VICTIM
By Don Elliot
Stark House
257 pages

Robert Silverberg is best known for his science fiction titles but during his early days as a writer, he produced hundreds of racy sex pulps under very pseudonym.  In this volume, Stark House reprints two he did under his Don Elliot by-line. The book’s real bonus is Silverberg’s introductory essay in which he details those years between the 50s and 70s when such “risqué” paperbacks flooded the drugstore spinner racks and push the boundaries of sexual acceptance. There is humor in how restrictive the writing had to be to adhere to the more of the time; the so-called sexual revolution hadn’t fully infiltrated the public with its anything goes philosophy.  And so writers had to be inventive with their choice of words in describing the amorous antics of their characters.

In the first tale, “Lust Queen,” a New York mystery writer named Joey Baldwin is given the assignment of ghost writing an autobiography of a popular Hollywood star named Mona Thorne. To do this he has to leave his young, nubile young fiancée for several months; something he is definitely not happy about. Then, upon his arrival in L.A., he discovers that Mona Thorne is an aging sexpot wishing to make him her new love interest and she quickly seduces. Joey doesn’t mind the sex, but Mona is a real she-bitch who demands complete obedience.  Although formulaic in its set-up, “Lust Queen” in interesting in that creating a writer as his protagonist, Silverberg authentically details the publishing world as it existed in those post World War II days gives us an intimate look at the life of a professional pulp scribe.

With “Lust Victim,” the tableau involves a happily married suburban couple, Dave and Moira Lamson.  Dave owns his own business in the city and is doing quite well, and with young boys, Moira is a busy, content mother and housewife. What is clear at the offset is that they still enjoy sex a great deal. Then one night, a burglar breaks into their house, ties Dave up and rapes Moira in front of him. It is a brutal act compounded by the fact that the attacker strongly resembles Dave. After the rapist has fled with what little jewelry he stole, Moira is so emotionally shocked that she makes Dave promise not to tell the police about the rape, only the robbery. He capitulates but soon comes to regret that action when in the succeeding days he slowly discovers just how changed his wife has become.

Rape is always a traumatic experience but when reading “Lust Victim,” it is easy to see that people’s attitudes and reaction to it back in the 60s was far more ignorant than today. Initially Dave naïve believes all Moira needs is time and that she’ll eventually return to her former self and they can merely get on with their happy lives. When this doesn’t happen and she begins to push him off from any physical contact, he is not so much understanding as angry and frustrated. Enough so that he falls prey to the temptations of his flirtatious secretary. And of course his dalliance doesn’t stop there. The more annoyed he becomes with Moira, the more he excuses his cheating habits with the rational that if his wife cannot meet his sexual needs than he has no choice but to go to bed with other women. It’s a convoluted logic, but if one is writing a “sex” book, then one has to have x number of sex scenes to titillate the readers.  Eventually Dave forces Moira to get counseling and this leads to uncovering a very dark secret regarding the night of the rape. A secret, when revealed, leads to dramatic climax, exposed the rapist and ends with Dave and Moira once again happy bed partners…just like that. Once has to wonder if Dave will ever get around to telling Moira about all his escapades while she was going through her personal ordeal?

Reading these books today without knowing their history most likely elicit unfair critiques. Despite one’s thoughts on the field of 60s adult paperbacks, what no reviewer can argue is the competency in which Elliot/Silverberg wrote. His fiction is always precise and enticing, regardless of the plot, his skill as a writer is what is always on display and for that reason alone, picking up this volume is well worth it. Hey, even the best authors had to make a buck.