Friday, April 28, 2017

Writers of the Future 33

This year’s WOTF cover by artist Larry Elmore is a departure from the standard science fiction themed artwork. To celebrate the collection, author Todd McCaffrey penned a special short story inspired by Elmore’s art. This cover and McCaffrey’s tale, along with the vibrant 30-plus year history of WOTF, encapsulate the richness, relevance and excitement represented by the 17 stories and artwork included here. I look forward to this annual anthology, and always come away feeling inspired by this marvelous tapestry of tales. 

Here’s the rundown on this year’s exciting collection: Moonlight One by Stephen Lawson is a tight and thrilling science fiction mystery; The Armor Embrace by Doug C. Souza brilliantly handles the man versus technology theme; and Envoy in Ice by Dustin Steinacker is a thought provoking tale about intergalactic intelligence and issues of faith. Tears for Shulna by Andrew L. Roberts is a wonderful, richly textured tale that resonated with me long after I finished reading it; The Drake Equation by C. L. Kagmi wisely tackles some heavy themes relating to violence, decision-making and responsibility. It was at this point that I realized this year’s collection was maintaining the high standard of diversity in viewpoints and styles that have become the unofficial hallmark of the WOTF collections.

Acquisition by Jake Marley is a top-flight supernatural thriller while Obsidian Spire by Molly Elizabeth Atkins is a riveting fantasy story with great a great character in Varga, and one that I’m certain readers will want to learn more about (hint!). Gator by Robert J. Sawyer, who is one of the judges, offers up a sharp tale to demonstrate the attributes and successes that come with “spec” writing; A Glowing Heart by Anton Rose is rich fantasy tale about life and death, but mostly about life; The Long Dizzy Down by Ziporah Hildbrandt is a hard-core science fiction tale and brilliant from the first paragraph; The Woodcutter’s Deity by Walter Dinjos had me spellbound with its vibrant texture.

The Dragon Killer’s Daughter by Todd McCaffrey was inspired by Larry Elmore’s fantastic cover and adds another layer of enjoyment to this already stunning collection. Useless Magic by Andrew Perry defines responsibility and power with this deftly told tale; Adramelech by Sean Hazlett explores the nature of evil with concise prose and great insight; and The Fox, the Wolf and the Dove by Ville Merilainen is another exciting fantasy story. The final tale, The Magnificent Bhajan David VonAllmen is a wonderful story about an old wizard returning home to save the day, if he can.

Included also is the fantasy classic story, The Devil’s Rescue by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the WOTF contest. Hubbard’s tale is a personal favorite, and is included in the collection along with essays on creativity by Hubbard, Anne McCaffrey, Larry Elmore, and Bob Eggleton. Once again the annual WOTF volume refreshingly delivers a sampling of diverse and highly creative stories that I guarantee will keep you flipping the pages!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Warriors of Plasm by Jim Shooter

I’ve met Jim shooter a few times, and spoke to him only briefly. I don’t recall my exact words, but it was something like, “I’ll always love those Legion stories you wrote for Adventure Comics.” Those are words I suspect he’s heard thousands of times. His tenure in the comic book industry is legendary, from the time he sold his first Legion of Super-Heroes story to DC Comics in the 1960s, when he was just 14 years old. He went on to succeed Stan Lee as editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics where he ushered in the “New Universe”, then on to Valiant and Defiant Comics, which published Warriors of Plasm # 1 in 1993. Everything he’s touched is highly creative, sometimes controversial but imminently entertaining. I suspect Jim shooter has been publicly vilified far more than any other comic book creator. I don’t have any insight into that, and I certainly don’t know him at all. Having met and spoken a few words with someone is not the same as knowing them. What I do know is this – I know talent when I see it. Jim shooter is a creative powerhouse. If his name is on something, I’m buying it. I know I’ll be entertained. His “New Universe” series at Marvel, especially, Star-Brand, is underrated. I was thrilled when he started Defiant Comics. Frankly, Warriors of Plasm was one of the best series introduced in the 1990s, a decade now infamous for the comic book industry’s implosion, the demise of independent comic book shops across the country, and the rapid disintegration of those two major brand names, Marvel and DC Comics whose titles were so bad by 1997 and 1998 they’re still scoffed at by longtime fans and collectors. There are a lot of reasons for all of that, but the bottom line is that basically comic books sucked. The corporations had taken over; and the men in high-water pants, penny loafers and ink-stained pocket protectors had fiscally analyzed and interfered one time too many. I thought Jim Shooter and Defiant Comics would usher in a new renaissance period; an era of unbridled creativity. When I look at Warriors of Plasm # 1 today I can see how close he came. I’ll go so far as to say that he did it for 13 magnificent issues. Those 13 Warriors of Plasm issues are still better than any single series being published by Marvel Comics today. With outstanding artwork by David Lapham and Michael Witherby, a bright color scheme by Janet Jackson, James Brown and Tom Ziuko, Warriors of Plasm # 1 remains a high-octane science fiction adventure. On the Org of Plasm, the Supreme Inquisitor, Lorca, sets a plan in motion to overthrow the rulers of Plasm who were responsible for the death of his true love, Laygen. The plan goes awry, but his effort results in five genetically modified humans who then find themselves responsible for defending earth from an invasion from Plasm. The five humans are a diverse group, and ultimately dysfunctional - a grandmother, an ex-military officer, a preacher, an auto-mechanic, and a young geeky girl who works as a cosmetics clerk. The visuals by Lapham and Witherby are stunning. Warriors of Plasm is one wild, wacky, weird and wonderful series, and over twenty years later I’m still pissed it didn’t run for at least a hundred issues. Jim shooter has never disappointed me, and these 13 issues are proof of his talent. I have over six thousand comic books in my collection, but the stuff that shines the brightest are titles like Warriors of Plasm. I believe a trade paperback was published that collected all of them. This post is for you, Jim, wherever you are. And, yeah, I still love those Legion stories you wrote for Adventure Comics. Rock on.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks

Those few of you that know me personally are undoubtedly familiar with my childhood tales of traveling the country with my parents. Those wonderful years were an education, and included a wild array of literature. Alvin’s Secret Code is a 1967 novel published at the height of the “Spy Craze” that swept the country. I Spy, The Man from UNCLE and James Bond were all the rage. It was this book and Codes & Secret Writing by Herbert S. Zim that led me to cryptology. This included my study of alphabet ciphers. I became adept at creating and using alphabet ciphers with other neighborhood boys willing to go along with the fun. Alvin’s Secret Code is silly and entertaining; and includes a thick dossier of material for any young brain to soak up. The main character is Alvin Fernald, who first appeared in The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald in 1960, and who subsequently appeared in 10 books. Hicks died in 2010 and his books remain popular. I am constantly encountering fans of his Alvin Fernald books. The premise of his Alvin Fernald stories was that Fernald would use his brain to solve problems and extricate himself from any difficult situation. His sister, known as the “Pest” and his friend Shoie serve as foils. Alvin’s Secret Code exploits the spy theme as Alvin decides to become a secret agent after reading The Great Spies of History in school. Hicks was a fine writer and takes a humorous approach to everything. The boy with “the magnificent brain” lands into trouble when he encounters a message he believes was written by a spy. Alvin’s Secret Code earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, side by side with Codes & Secret Writing by Herbert S. Zim, a 1966 title, also from Scholastic Books. There they reside still, the symbols and ciphers whirling to life out of the rainy mist of long ago Sundays when I penned a secret cipher and sat back to contentedly wait for a response from one of my co-conspirators. The code book is still hidden in the hollow part of the old oak tree in the park. A=5gt, B=u8g, C=ppl8, D=r4, E=2w, F=666, G=kkl97, H=qa, I=vh, J=3u, K=z5t, L=tg4, M=dsa, N=my7, O=6c, P=lb, Q=w9, R=zu, S=7ym, T=19j, U=f8h, V=6r9, W=9gy, X=tf3, Y=k1q, Z=8cx. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

It sounds so bourgeois to say I take my Algren with my morning coffee. From my viewpoint, Algren is synonymous with Carl Sandburg, and even Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, the latter two being authors I met, albeit briefly. I was born in Chicago, raised on the suburban prairie, lived and walked Chicago’s streets, and recall fondly those childhood years of summer in the Windy City. I still live on the prairie, and these days I might cross Chicago’s city limits three or four times a year. Algren’s books came to me during my bohemian 1970s misadventures, and he is still part of my library. I have newer editions and some older paperbacks, vintage Algren, reprinted Algren, and a book of Art Shay’s Algren photographs. Chicago: City on the Make is that type of book that elicits admiring prose from intellectuals, effeminate reviewers, and hackneyed page eleven newspaper writers suffocating in their own egos. I saw copies for sale in the Metro train station bookstore and the O’Hara International Airport kiosk. They market Chicago: City on the Make as “Local Interest” and “Regional History” for tourists from Russia, Japan and that most exotic of locations, Pittsburg. Do they know what they’re reading? Algren is the hard-edged poet of the alleys and side-streets, social critic and political observer with an unflinching habit of telling the truth. Chicago: City on the Make is a prose poem turned essay and marked by historical commentary and a baseball fan’s bleacher seat wisdom. The hustlers and con-men, crooked politicians and semi-literate boxers with more knowledge than a tenured university professor all populate his prose. The title gives it away - City on the Make – and the current crooks in City Hall like to ignore that. Algren’s affection for Chicago is sequestered between unblemished prosody that rises up like a neon sign: “Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” The struggles of the common people, the incessant manipulation of the masses by a broken political system, and the endless dreams of a winning baseball team gone bad (The White Sox) are rendered here with anger, dismay, and perhaps a touch of hope. In Algren’s Chicago “Every day is D-day under the El.” Chicago: City on the Make is punctuated by elegiac moments, as bright as anything Carl Sandburg penned. In fact, the first edition of Chicago: City on the Make was dedicated to Sandburg. This slender volume is a raw, conversational treatise on a city and its people that Algren loved but refused to view through rose-tinted glasses. Also recommended are Algren’s Never Come Morning, The Neon Wilderness, A Walk on the Wild Side, The Man with the Golden Arm, and The Devil’s Stocking.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ultimate Voyage by William Gilkerson

Published by Shamballa in 1998, William Gilkerson’s Ultimate Voyage is a masterpiece. To tag something a masterpiece in these cynical times leaves me open to criticism by the pundits in our ever-increasing negative culture, but it is a masterpiece. Great tales of the sea, written by knowledgeable authors are not uncommon, although finding them requires focus and determination. I don’t recall how I came upon a listing for this book, but my first edition hardcover is something I’ll never part with. Gilkerson himself is a respected artist and historian whose other fine books include Pirate’s Passage, The Ships of John Paul Jones, Scrimshander, and An Arctic Whaling Sketchbook. He was previously a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Most of his books are non-fiction tiles relating to nautical topics. William Gilkerson wrote and illustrated Ultimate Voyage. This is a tale of five young mariners who build a small vessel, Alembic, and embark upon a journey of discovery. It can be interpreted as a coming of age story, and that would be correct, although Gilkerson has accomplished something that exceeds a simple analogy for youthful travails. There is that, and there is his vast knowledge of the sea, his comprehension of the human condition, and his uncanny ability to connect it all. The illustrations are stunning and complement the narrative. Shamballa did it right in their design. Inset with a color plate prior to the title page, the chapter illustrations are offset in either blue or black and white. The endpaper illustration is blue. Gilkerson’s carefully crafted prose and illustrations will transport you to a Renaissance world where the salt-spray of the sea and the cry of gulls over a harbor are at your fingertips. Gilkerson’s prose is leisurely, confident and alive with images. This is the type of story that a reader can take their time with, savoring each sentence as the story unfolds. Ultimate Voyage is a treasure for lovers of sea tales.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Batman: Odyssey by Neal Adams

Originally published in 13 separate issues, this magnum opus was written and drawn by Neal Adams. That’s over 300 pages of outstanding, explosive artwork combined with a wild but compelling storyline. A lifetime of high-energy and critically acclaimed experience went into this amazing graphic novel, with “novel” being the keyword here. Batman: Odyssey is unlike any Batman story you’ve ever read before, although astute readers will likely recognize traditional elements from the era of the Silver Age Batman. Adams proves himself again and again The Master of sequential art, and this sprawling epic pays tribute not only to Batman’s rich history, but to the very essence of pulp fiction entertainment. The premise is simple enough – Batman tells several stories that reinforce his early struggle but ongoing, firm belief that he should never intentionally kill a criminal. That’s the premise, but the narrative structure challenges the reader by its non-linear approach. Adams employs flashbacks exclusively, with an ongoing framing sequence that reminded me of the Greek chorus in the plays of Sophocles. In this case, Batman is providing commentary to an unknown listener who is revealed only in the final pages. Each anecdotal tale he recounts is part of the jigsaw puzzle that makes perfect sense by the conclusion. There are also plenty of guest stars. Dick Grayson as Robin (this takes place out of modern age continuity), Deadman, Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, Man-Bat, The Riddler, The Joker, and others are featured. Superman’s appearance in the conclusion is breezy but fun. In fact, Adams seems to have enjoyed himself writing and drawing this amazing story. There are numerous references to Batman’s cultural impact, including a sly nod here and there to the famous 1966 Batman television program starring Adam West and Burt Ward. All of this is accomplished with a sense of affection for the characters and their history. Adams even has Bruce Wayne wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. At about the halfway point, we are introduced to the Hollow Earth section of the story, and it’s here that Batman and others are flying around with dinosaurs. This is where Adams took some heat from today’s synapse challenged armchair fanboys turned critics who clearly suffer from articulation issues. There is nothing new about Hollow Earth stories, and possibly Adams takes his inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hollow Earth stories of Richard S. Shaver. These sequences are wacky, imaginative, and at odds with Batman’s usual turf of Gotham City. Or is it? In fact, Batman and Detective Comics in the late 50s and early 60s were overloaded with aliens and monsters from all sorts of alternate universes, and in my opinion Adams has simply re-imagined that once common plot device. Batman’s encounter with a giant cyclops monster near the end is a treat. The “Underworld” is at the heart of Batman’s odyssey, and derives from the author’s interest in the expanding earth hypothesis. Consistently throughout the narrative, Batman is exploiting this idea that he should never take a life, and it’s eventually revealed that he went to great lengths to maintain that position. What appears shocking one moment might prove to be a duplicitous red herring the next. The artwork is pure Adams all the way, fluid and detailed when it needs to be, and I have always been a fan. The pages are awesome. The story is unique and ambitious, and Adams deserves credit for his imaginative approach. Humorous at times, while confounding and thought-provoking, Adams never loses sight of the fact that sequential art is meant to entertain.  Altogether, Batman: Odyssey is a fantastic graphic novel. Kudos!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Picture me wearing levis with long hair, a beard, and a rucksack full of books strung over my shoulder. That person, that edgy and mouthy bohemian, encountered The Cannibal by John Hawkes. This book comes back to me every few years, re-discovered amongst a stack of dusty literature, its dark visions very much alive, the prose resonating across time: “Beyond the edge of town, past tar-covered poor houses and a low hill bare except for fallen electric poles, was the institution, and it sent its delicate and isolated buildings trembling over the gravel and cinder floor of the valley. From there, one day in the early spring, walking with a tree limb as a cane, came Balamir, walking with a shadow and with a step that was not free, to fall under the eye and hand of Madame Snow. All of Balamir’s demented brothers, in like manner, had been turned out to wander far from the gravel paths, to seek anyone who would provide a tin plate or coveted drink.” The academic community has tagged The Cannibal as postmodern literature, which is a convenient and necessary way of labeling the heavy narrative. The Cannibal never follows a traditional novel format. Its parts are fragmented, and dense with analogy. The three opening sentences set the stage for a frightening vision of post-war Europe. I have read numerous theories on this novel’s meaning, and all of them are correct, but none of them are satisfying. I believe that’s because the novel itself is unsatisfying, but perhaps The Cannibal offers the strongest condemnation of Imperialism in post-war literature. What I know of the author is simple enough; a man of letters who spent his life in the academic community. I am fond of another of his books, The Blood Oranges, which is far different in structure and tone to The Cannibal. The plot switches back and forth between 1918 and 1945. Madame Snow is the only connecting character, a cabaret singer, a boarding house owner. She is everything and nothing, which might be the point. The tenuous plot of assassinating the American overseer during the German reconstruction strikes me as anti-militarism. The overseer’s motorcycle a symbol of industrial strength, at once appealing and pathetic. Germany in the wake of WWII was grimy, desperate, and murderous. But so, too, are the allied societies that rose against Hitler’s quest for global domination. How much has changed and how much is the same? In The Cannibal Germany is reconstructed and the true “nation” restored; the madmen line up and return to the insane asylum. There are many brilliantly written passages that are surreal but reflect an uncanny picture of modern life. I view The Cannibal as a piece of social criticism, satirical and unpleasant. Trust that mine is the minority view. Academicians have written thesis after thesis on the book’s meaning. I don’t have that much strength. I love The Cannibal for the quality of its writing and the relevance of its many themes, but ultimately its vision is disturbing. That’s why this book is important.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

Transcendental is a fascinating book by veteran science fiction author James Gunn. I was immediately struck by the world building that went into this because it seems so natural. I don’t think it’s easy to create alien species and alien worlds, but Gunn makes it look easy. Kudos to the author for this obviously well-planned and interesting book. The story involves Riley, described as a cynical war vet, who is contacted by a mysterious group and recruited to investigate the alleged existence of a transcendental machine and the source of a new religious cult. With an unwanted computer implant in his mind, Riley has no choice but to go along with the quest. Hurtling into deep space aboard a craft populated by others seeking “transcendence,” Riley meets a cross-section of galactic beings, and one attractive human female, each of whom has a fascinating back story. Gunn introduces these characters with a deft touch. I was caught up in a web of intergalactic deceit, although about halfway through the book I suspected this volume was going to be the first of several. I was right, and the sequel, Transgalactic, has already been published. I haven’t read it yet but I intend to. If Transcendental is going to be a part of a series that’s fine with me. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. There is less action in this story, but the general flow and suspense were sufficient to keep me reading. James Gunn tells a exciting tale without resorting to an indulgence of Space Opera action, although this is still a Space Opera all the way. I have read several of James Gunn’s science fiction novels and enjoyed every one of them. Transcendental is published by TOR and available in paperback and for Kindle.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

Shown here is the 1950 Pocket Book paperback, listed as # 666 on the upper-right cover at the logo. It’s an actual pocket size and the cover painting is credited to John Northcross. On the first interior page an advertising blurb includes a quote by author Kenneth Fearing referring to The Girl on the Via Flaminia as “A timeless story, simple, vivid, dramatic.” Kenneth Fearing is forgotten now, too, although he lives forever on my bookcase in the poetry section. I’m confident that Alfred Hayes is unknown to most of you. In fact, I might never have encountered Alfred Hayes and this book if not for a film titled Act of Love and starring Kirk Douglas who turned 100 years old a few weeks ago. I’ve met Kirk Douglas twice and I am a fan. Act of Love, however, gets little attention. Released in 1953, Act of Love was based upon The Girl on the Via Flaminia. The are several other books bearing that title that are often confused with the Kirk Douglas film, especial An Act of Love by Ira Wolfert. To further confuse matters, Act of Love changes the location from Rome, Italy to Paris, France. Act of Love is an excellent film, one of Douglas’ best early films. The screenplay is credited to Joseph Kessel and Irwin Shaw, and Shaw himself was a powerhouse writer, and another of my favorites. The trivia keeps piling up here, but please be patient. In addition to the location, there are notable differences between the novel and the film. The film has perhaps one of the best surprise endings in a piece of dialogue spoken by Douglas, whereas the novel’s ending is ambiguous.  The Girl on the Via Flaminia is quite good. Hayes wrote in a clipped style that at times comes off as a Hemingway pastiche. Hemingway’s influence on post-war literature is something I’ve mentioned before. The market was glutted with novels about soldiers, and Alfred Hayes wrote another fine one titled All Thy Conquests which I’ll cover soon. The Girl on the Via Flaminia is about a soldier named Robert who meets and falls in love with Lisa in Rome during the occupation. Lisa was played by the lovely French actress Dany Robin in the film. The prose is never lush, and perhaps simplistic to the point of becoming mediocre. Hayes is redeemed by his intelligence. At the heart of the story lies this idea that Robert is a victim of circumstances that he can’t overcome, and so is Lisa. Robert and Lisa are involved, but in some way she is also distant from him. Robert is trying to understand Lisa and the world she lives in. When he looks at her mother, he thinks: “She stands there, Robert thought, like a collection of bad knowledge.” The mother tells Robert that he is a soldier and soldiers are always innocent, and implies the girls a soldier encounters are never innocent. Robert questions himself: “How do I know who these people are? How do I know what she is? How do I know I’m not being taken?” Alfred Hayes lived and wrote in New York and Italy, and his on-line bibliographies note his poem “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night” later became a popular folk song by Earl Robinson. Joe Hill is the final bit of trivia linked to this disintegrating old paperback, and I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to follow the trail of American history before it’s all lost like Joe Hill's ashes on the wind.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love

Deadman has long been one of comic’s underrated characters. I recall vividly the character’s initial appearance in DC’s Strange Adventures way back in 1967. Strange Adventures was one of those off-titles we kids bought only when we were bored with caped heroes (which rarely happened) or if nothing else on the spinner rack looked interesting. I have very few of these in my collection today. I loved the Neal Adams covers on just about anything back then. Adams did most of the early interior art as well. Those stories were later reprinted, and I recommend you track them down. Deadman has experienced only a modest revival here and there. When DC Comics announced the three issue mini-series, I made it a point to check in. Written by Sarah Vaughn with artwork by Lan Medina Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is excellent. Author Vaughn remains true to Deadman’s original characterization, but better yet, she tells a fresh and wholly original ghost story. I enjoyed every gothic page. Arriving at Glencourt Manor, Deadman encounters Adelia Ruskin, a ghost, whose connection to Berenice, a visitor, drives the mystery. There’s romance and complicated relationships, (Nathan and Sam), all of which lends the tale an aura of gothic romance laced with supernatural occurrences. I loved the artwork by Lan Medina, assisted by Phil Hester, with colors by Jose Villarrubia. The great cover artwork on the three installments is by Stephanie Hans. Combining the appeal of the romance comics of yesteryear, with the moody narratives once found in horror comics, Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love is an outstanding and wholly satisfying tale. With these three issues, I am now a fan of all the creators involved. DC Comics executives are making a heartfelt effort with their entire line of comics, and the results are fantastic books like this. I believe Deadman: Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love will soon be available as a collected trade paperback. Buy it, save for Halloween, and read it at midnight. Kudos!

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Love Seekers by Jay Carr

This vintage 1963 paperback might once have been described as “sleaze.” Sleaze is now called “erotica” which is the academic community’s way of applying manners to frank discussions about the horizontal bop. It’s all about sex, complicated relationships, and more sex. The cover artwork appeals to the testosterone crowd and generally gets across the book’s theme. Published by Beacon-Signal, whose phallic lighthouse logo was an indication of the lively prose one would find in their books, The Love Seekers is far less explicit than you might expect. The Love Seekers is about three girls in a boarding house – Nina, Joyce and Jerri – and the ignited passions they experience with Eddie and Martin, the two very lucky males who, if you’ll pardon the expression, come onto their radar. I think “boarding houses” must also be a thing from the past. I don’t know of any boarding houses any more (essentially, cut-rate dormitory style hotels). After reading The Love Seekers you’ll want to hitch-hike across the country, check into a cheap boarding house, and frolic with girls like Nina, Joyce and Jerri. There are worse things you could be doing with your time. Books like The Love Seekers are about desire, physical and emotional, and the trouble it causes under certain circumstances. Nina is the granddaughter of the boarding house owner and involves herself with men out of boredom; Jerri is a wealthy heiress also bored with life who finds excitement giving herself to men; and Joyce is married but unfulfilled. Martin and Eddie find themselves saddled with some unique problems in addition to their own wacky lives. The tag line makes it all clear: “An intimate glimpse of life as it is really lived behind the respectable facade of a down-at-the-heels rooming house.” Sounds like a good place to check in.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Need More Road by Stephen Jared


Every time I read one of Stephen Jared’s books I come away from the experience impressed by his insight into human nature. He knows people, and he understands their foibles, idiosyncrasies, desires and dreams. His fiction is dramatic, adventuresome, and infused with real emotion. I can never guess how the plot will turn out, but I am compelled to turn the page. Need More Road is a heartfelt story about Eddie Howard, a bachelor with a lonely life. He takes pleasure in movies because there’s not much else to do in post-war Barstow, California. Working as a bank clerk, his life changes when a knockout blonde doll with movie star looks walks into the bank to set up an account. The tension builds inexorably, and the woman, Mary Rose, is part of a plan to rob the bank. I will say no more regarding the plot, except that Eddie and Mary share a long and winding road together. This is a short novel, and the pacing is even. The circumstances Eddie and Mary Rose find themselves in have an existential feel to them, which by its literary application involves the characters experiencing confusion in our absurd world. This is not blatant, but rather a feeling I had reading the book. Hollywood is part of the background, but greed and desire drive the plot which lends a film noir feel to the narrative. I don’t know if Jared intended that, but the tone is the direct result of Eddie and Mary Rose’s actions. Eddie sometimes struck me as a Walter Mitty type, and in one brief scene he imagines making love to Mary Rose in Paris when he’s actually at a dismal gas station. His relationship with Mary Rose after the robbery is surreal. Stephen Jared is a splendid writer, and the prose flows seamlessly. I enjoyed Need More Road, as I have enjoyed all of his stories. Jared has a natural born talent, which is complemented by his career as a professional actor in Hollywood. Kudos!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Roots of Heaven by Romain Gary

Titled Les Racines du ciel in France, the novel won the 1956 Prix Goncourt, a prestigious literary award administered by the académie Goncourt.  The book was translated into English by Jonathan Griffin and published in hardcover as The Roots of Heaven in January, 1958. Shown here is the second paperback edition (September, 1958) featuring Errol Flynn and Juliette Greco on the cover although their names never appear anywhere on the book. This edition coincided with the release of the Twentieth Century Fox film. Director John Huston and producer Darryl F. Zanuck are named on the book’s cover. For vintage paperback collectors this is the Pocket Books Cardinal Giant GC-61 and priced at 50 cents upon its release. The page count is 389 pages which was thick for a traditional pocket paperback. Gary’s novel is quite good, although my assessment is obviously based upon the translation. The protagonist is Morel, who is described as a man who exceeds loneliness and is quoted as saying: “People feel so damned lonely, they need company, they need something bigger, stronger, to lean on, something that can really stand up to it all. Dogs aren’t enough; what we need is elephants…” There are enough motifs and themes in all of post-World War II French literature to keep an academic elbow deep in analysis for a lifetime, and these ideas are sprinkled throughout the narrative, although I discerned nothing that was blatant other than Gary’s intent that Morel represents an “allegory of ideas.” His fixation on elephants drives the plot. Readers are free to infer what analogies they may as the adventure unfolds. The supporting players are a diverse lot and add substantial texture. This includes Minna, a German girl had had lost her innocence when Berlin fell to the Allies; A brainwashed American officer named Johnny Forsythe; a photographer, a gunrunner and various hangers-on who cross the path of the idealist Morel. The subject matter is typical of a post-war novel and stated implicitly throughout the narrative: “…the elephants were only a pretext, a useful means of propaganda, the symbol of the exploitation of African natural resources by foreign capitalism. They knew of course that colonialism had implanted itself in Africa because of ivory, before turning to more lucrative sports. The elephants were also a convenient image of African power on the march – a power that nothing could stop…they were an anachronism, a weight tied to the legs of a new, modern, industrialized and electrified Africa. They were a survival from a tribal darkness.” (p.213) Morel’s fate is inextricably tied to the elephants and the encroachment upon Africa of an industrialized age. The Roots of Heaven itself is stylistically removed from today’s clipped journalistic prose, even among the French, and its vast array of characters and monologues all combine for an enlightening reading experience for any anyone willing to tackle the book. I enjoyed it, and I took my sweet time reading it to allow its ideas to resonate. It’s easy to see why John Huston was attracted to the material, and while it’s true he said later that he disliked his own film, The Roots of Heaven has its merits. I agree that the film is meandering, and Huston never fully came to grips with Morel’s character and the impetus behind his actions. But Trevor Howard as Morel is wonderful, and the great Errol Flynn, in a brief and watered-down version of the Forsythe character, turns in a superb performance as an aging alcoholic.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

 
This riveting and superbly told tale is highly recommended for historians and armchair scholars alike. Douglas Preston has written a true-life adventure story that is layered with a texture of history, wild characters, dangerous situations, and exotic locations. There is intrigue, suspense, and notebooks of facts and figures, and it all flows into a compelling and unforgettable story. To his credit, Douglas Preston never presents himself as a hero of any type; in fact, quite the opposite. He paints himself as an impartial but excited observer. The Lost City of the Monkey God is Preston’s chronicle of a series of events commencing in 2012 when he joined a team of scientists and visited a remote Honduran archeological site which turned out to be the sprawling remnants of a lost civilization. I couldn’t put this book down. You’ll meet the diverse and talented team that includes Steve Elkins, the late Bruce Heinicke, Chris Fisher, Andrew Wood, Bill Berenson and so many others. Douglas Preston acknowledges their hard work with respect and admiration. The tale of this lost city involves several historical figures, and Preston gives each his attention. The ghosts of William Duncan Strong, Sam Glassmire and Theodore Morde haunt the story, as readers will discover. The historical events leading up to this expedition involve heroic exploration, wild adventure, deceit, deception, legends and lies. Taken together, the tale of Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” reads like a pulp fiction adventure story, except it’s all real. Preston also documents the public criticism of the expedition, which he handles fairly. You’ll get a taste of the academic community’s seamy side and wonder how such allegedly educated people can wallow in greed and egotism. This is my perception, not Preston’s who handles the matter diplomatically, although you won’t have to guess what his opinion is. The sobering facts at the conclusion are an eye-opener involving the transmission of certain diseases, and the importance of Preston’s story wasn’t lost on this reader. There are several pages of photographs, but I would have preferred a few more photos. I highly recommend The Lost City of the Monkey God. Douglas Preston has told an amazing story that you won’t want to miss!

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Long Night of Winchell Dear by Robert James Waller

My friend David DeWitt gave me this book in Los Angeles in 2009 where we had come to celebrate Errol Flynn’s centenary at filmmaker Jack Marino’s home. I began reading it on the flight back to Chicago. The Long Night of Winchell Dear is both a novella and a Modern Western, two categories that generally don’t elicit excitement. Waller’s blockbuster best-seller, The Bridges of Madison County, quickly made him a fan favorite of the literati, but the mainstream critics too often dismiss him. Waller has been criticized for being sentimental and romantic. Yes, he is, but why is that bad? Waller is a superb storyteller. His stories are compelling, the characters believable, and the prose is alive with the sights and sounds of the world around us. My only complaint about Robert James Waller is that he doesn’t publish enough which is a purely selfish criticism on my part. The Long Night of Winchell Dear is a really fine story. I know it sounds cliché, but I couldn’t put it down. A tale of the past, the desert and the intersecting lives of several people, I found myself captivated by Winchell Dear, a Texas gambler living in the desert. His life is suddenly connected to that of the Indian Peter Long Grass and a Mexican woman named Sonia Dominguez. Hurtling in their direction in a Lincoln Continental are two killers intent on their special mission. Something evil is blowing in on the night wind and Winchell Dear senses it. The prose is lush, charged with a foreboding sense of terror, and readers will be challenged to read this one slowly. I’ve read The Long Night of Winchell Dear twice now. Obviously I’m quite fond of this book. I recommend you check out some of Waller’s other books including Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze and High Plains Tango. A tip of the Stetson to David DeWitt who traveled a long way himself to give me this book.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Death is My Shadow by Edward S. Aarons

I’m a fan of the Sam Durrell thrillers that made Edward S. Aarons a best-selling author, but he also wrote the occasional stand-alone mystery. Death is My Shadow is one of those, published in hardcover in 1957 and reprinted in paperback by McFadden in 1965. I don’t think it’s his best book by any stretch, but Aarons was good at his craft in so many different ways that I’ll still recommend this one. Peter Byrum, a Navy man released from service after an accident that haunts him, returns home to New Orleans to pick up the pieces of his life. His girl, Clemi, is waiting for him, and his pal, Steve Dulaney. Byrum learns that his pal Steve has been accused of murder, and his involvement with the blonde giant of a man named Rudge and Serena Thayer lead Byrum down a road of deceit, seduction and death. The plot is complex, at least in its presentation, but once you peel back the layers the true level of skill employed in crafting this nifty thriller will be apparent to all. The New Orleans mob will not be happy with Byrum by the end of this one, but he’s a man with confidence and inner strength. While the action sometimes feels rushed, I still enjoyed it. Aarons is infinitely enjoyable. What he does with fourteen chapters and 128 pages should be a lesson for suspense writers who these days take way too long to tell their story. I gave up on the padded and overlong novels flaunted as “best-sellers” specifically for that reason. Aarons gets right to it, and when its over you’ll feel like one of his heroes – a little worn out but tough-as-nails and happy to have survived the thrill ride.

Friday, January 13, 2017

I Spy: Message from Moscow by Brandon Keith

This 1966 Whitman hardback was a vital book for a generation that came of age watching the television show. It has since become one of Whitman’s highly sought after 1960s TV tie-in titles that collector’s love. I Spy: Message from Moscow is a pedestrian book, of interest today only because the television program it was based on has become a cult classic. What’s lacking in this story by author Brandon Keith is any of the pizazz and charm that actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby instilled into their performances. It reads like the flat, exploitative product that it is, and even the artwork by Al Andersen, Ernie Kollar and John Miller fails to evoke any nostalgia associated with the famed TV show. I was thrilled to own this book in 1966 even though it failed to charm me. It is a collector’s item solely based on its appeal as a cultural artifact from the 1960s. Nostalgia is a part of its appeal, and that alone may account for some high prices I’ve see tagged onto this book. This book was written for young readers. I’m not saying the writing is bad, but it’s flat and uninteresting. This is a book that I’ve always wished was better than it is. The book’s physical merits lie in its cover design and endpapers which emulate the TV show’s opening montage. Later, I’ll post something about the I Spy paperback series, written for adults by Walter Wagner under the pseudonym John Tiger, and which are much better. I Spy: Message from Moscow is a must-have book for the I Spy fan and collector only.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Gonji: Red Blade from the East by T.C. Rypel

I can’t think of a better reading experience than to open a book, start the first chapter, and find myself immersed in another world. T.C. Rypel’s prose crackles with imagery and energy and most readers will be hooked by the opening chapter. That opening chapter is what hooked me on this book. I am now officially a T.C. Rypel fan. Gonji: Red Blade from the East is fast, fun, bloody and exciting from start to finish. This is the first of a trilogy which has also been expanded with these new editions from Borgo Press. Gonji Sabatake is a Samurai-Viking who pursues his quest across a wild, sixteenth century landscape. There are demons and monsters and villains and intense battles. Gonji is fighting an ancient sorcery, and Gonji will be put to the test unlike any hero since, well, Conan the barbarian. Author Rypel has created a refreshing, mythological world that sparkles with heroic grand fantasy combined with gothic elements and other-worldly elements. The book is layered with stark images, at times disturbing, always exciting, and feverishly fun. The complex supporting players come and go in rapid scenes. The book includes a character index which will help you keep track of the players. The pace is fast. T.C. Rypel’s action scenes kept me on the edge of my seat. Gonji: Red Blade from the East by T.C. Rypel is tremendously entertaining. He is seeking the “Deathwind” and the occupiers of Vedun set the stage for a smack down. Fusing multiple elements into a palpable pulp fiction style adventure is no easy task, but Rypel pulls it off beautifully. Now I need to gets books 2 and 3 to find out what happens next. Kudos!

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Discovery by Louis Kraft and Robert S. Goodman

Authors Louis Kraft and Robert S. Goodman have created an intelligent and compelling novel that easily held my attention. This is a complex, carefully constructed drama that touches upon numerous themes while offering a suspenseful and fascinating tale. Writing with knowledge and authority, Kraft and Goodman present a stage populated by diverse characters, each fascinating in their own way, and the suspense builds with each section. At its heart is Harry Chapman, an OB/GYN physician on the verge of retirement who is suddenly hit by a malpractice claim 21 years after the fact. Kraft and Goodman establish the framework immediately. A wave of blindness in premature infants since the 1940s is linked to excessive oxygen in the incubators for preemies. This disorder is called “retrolental fibroplasia,” an actual condition that once plagued preemies. With the historical background explained, The Discovery delves into the many players who will have an effect on Harry Chapman’s life. The drama includes the legal proceedings and fact that a malpractice suit could be filed only because the medical records had been altered, thus negating the time limit for filing.  The novel’s opening sections expertly recount the tribulations of Laura Smith, who becomes pregnant and subsequently seeks medical assistance for her child’s birth. These early chapters are vital to the story’s scope. The Discovery is a novel that offers multiple character studies. Laura’s life, and the difficulties she experiences leading to the birth of her son, putting him up for adoption where he is taken in by Susan and Cliff Weston who name the baby Gregory, all held my attention. The novel jumps from the early 1950s to the early 1970s where a grown Greg Weston begins his journey in unraveling his past and initiating legal proceedings against Dr. Harry Chapman. I found myself enthralled by the characters, sympathetic to some, angry at others, and spellbound by the drama as it played out. There are many surprises with these characters, but read the book to see for yourself. This is an excellent novel, and when I was finished with it I was struck by the fact that The Discovery would make a great film. The plot twists in the latter half are superbly handled. The lives of Greg Weston and Harry Chapman are intricately entwined, and their story is impossible to ignore. Highly recommended!