Friday, September 20, 2013

The Secret Hide-Out by John Peterson

All but forgotten now except by the baby boomers that first read it, John Peterson’s The Secret Hide-Out is from that era when kids still used their imaginations, and their toys could be a simple as a cut-out paper bag and a broom handle decorated with colored cloth. A juvenile from the Scholastic Book Club, I purchased this one in the third grade. I recall that most of the boys in the neighborhood owned this book as well, and so its contents had an influence on us all during the summer of 1965. It quickly became an object of nostalgia as we transitioned into an adult oriented world that included James Bond and The Man from UNCLE. Peterson wrote the text and created the illustrations. Matt and his brother Sam are snooping around in grandma’s cellar one day and discover an old book hidden behind a loose brick. The book is a journal titled “The Viking Club 1938.” The journal documents a series of tests for the boys to undertake in order to become a Viking Club Senior Member. Membership designations include Golden Tiger, Red Feather, and Screaming Eagle. The tests for membership are diagramed and Matt and Sam decide to re-create the tests which include a backyard obstacle course. Recruiting their pal Beanie, they set up an obstacle course that includes jumping over a rope strung between trees, racing over an old tire and zig-zagging around some milk bottles. The ultimate test is sleeping out in the backyard and attacking the night monster that lurks in the bushes. The monster is actually the bushes and trees themselves, made spooky looking by the night. The book includes diagrams and instructions for making Viking Club member shields, spears and paper whistles. The Secret Hide-Out is harmless fun for young kids. This book remained in print until the early 1970s, and I understand there was even a sequel called Enemies of the Secret Hide-Out, but I never read that one.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Devil - With Wings by L. Ron Hubbard

When I began reading and reviewing the Galaxy Press reprints of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp fiction a few years ago, I knew I would enjoy most of the stories, if not all of them. What I didn’t know was the true depth of Hubbard’s talent as a genre writer. Now I do, and I am quite pleased to discover new favorites on a regular basis. The Devil - With Wings joins a growing list of stories that I list as among LRH’s best adventure tales. Stories such as Twenty Fathoms Down, Spy Killer, Devil’s Manhunt, Hell’s Legionnaire, Hostage To Death, The Tomb of Ten Thousand Dead, Red Death Over China, Under the Black Ensign and so many more are among the finest examples of pulp fiction you’ll find from the glorious Golden Age. Then, of course, there’s Battlefield Earth which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary soon. Hubbard’s air adventure stories are my favorites, and The Devil - With Wings falls neatly into that genre. A glittering jewel from 1937, Hubbard’s prose is perfect, the plotting impeccable, and the characters are American archetypes. The story involves a mysterious pilot known as The Devil - With Wings who is wanted by the Japanese. Feared by many, the black garbed stranger meets a vengeful woman who believes him to be responsible for her brother’s death. Hubbard’s prose is delicious throughout: “Dark strands of her brown hair curled out from under her flippant hat to lie smokily against the paleness of her brow. He could feel the intensity of her. She was like a swift storm or a blazing sunrise. Her mouth was full and sweet – and impetuous.” The tension in this story never lets up and the action is brutal and quite realistic. Hubbard is at his best when writing about topics that he understands, and as a barnstorming pilot himself you can feel the wind in your face as airplanes soar and dip in the sky: “The Kawasakis dropped like shot gulls out of a sky the color of flame...” This is great genre writing; vivid and alive with images. And when it comes to endings, well, let’s just say that Hubbard was a bit of a romantic, and that his romanticism, while not blatant, makes for the perfect concluding piece of dialogue. For those who prefer audio books, the Audio version is two CDs and stars Crispian Belfrage along with Bob Caso, R. F. Daley, Denice Duff and Jim Meskimen who also directed this outstanding performance. The Galaxy Press audio books have won numerous awards and are produced in the style of Golden Age radio dramas complete with sound effects and a quality musical score. The Devil - With Wings is now another in a long list of favorites. Thanks to Galaxy Press I am accumulating a hefty stack of great books. If you haven’t read one of Hubbard’s pulp tales I heartily recommend The Devil - With Wings.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Waters of Darkness by David C. Smith and Joe Bonadonna

David C. Smith and Joe Bonadonna have written a rousing adventure tale with “Waters of Darkness.” Part swashbuckler and part fantasy with a generous dose of horror, this is the book that bridges the gap between Robert E. Howard and Rafael Sabatini. Believe it, m’hearties, “Waters of Darkness” is equally as good as anything Howard and Sabatini ever published. The action heats up immediately when Bloody Red Buchanan and Crimson Kate O’Toole set out to retrieve the lost treasure of an Arab named Achmed-ibn-Abdul from a place called the Isle of Shadow. After narrowly escaping the clutches of a weird creature with shark like fins down the length of its spine and frog/fish hybrid head, they are besieged by a castaway named basil who morphs into squid like monster with arms that grow into tentacles. Dispatched by Kate’s musket (this lass is skilled with a sword or musket and happy in bed with the likes of Bloody Red Buchanan) they escape the Isle of Shadow after losing quite a few men. To compound their confusion and fear, the treasure has changed into lead coins. Buchanan is uneasy and feels that they have literally sailed into strange waters. Naturally, he’s right. Some time later they encounter a drifting raft where the last surviving occupant warns them “The gong. Oh God, God. No–no. The beasts!” Buchanan sees this as a bad omen, and that it is. As captains of the Raven and the Witch, Buchanan’s partnership with Crimson Kate O’Toole has been successful and the adventures remarkable, but now they have sailed into dark waters, and their path is plagued by demons. “Waters of Darkness” is a grand adventure, brimming with action, fantastic characters, villains and monsters and heroes and damsels. The plot twists are delicious. I was floored when a certain character...oops...that would be telling! The action scenes are plentiful and written in the classic style of pulp fiction: “His steel was a silver rush, dipping, slicing, sliding in and out and then striking again.” (p.90) David C. Smith has previously published twenty-two novels, primarily sword-and-sorcery, horror, and suspense. Joe Bonadonna is the author of “Mad Shadows” and “Three Against the Stars.” This marks their first collaboration together and I am looking forward to more from these two talented wordsmiths. “Waters of Darkness” is a great swashbuckling entertainment!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Custer by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry refers to this volume as a “short life” on Custer, written after reading (and re-reading) four long books on Custer. I believe that term – short life – is a tad misleading. This book is not a biography, but rather a personal essay. There is a difference between a formal essay and a personal essay. The personal essay tackles a topic wherein the author readily interjects his own experiences as they may relate to his subject. Ultimately, this type of writing (which I also favor) is a rumination featuring whatever emotional opinion the author may harbor. When done right, as McMurtry did with his book on Crazy Horse, readers are rewarded with an intelligent albeit biased view of the subject at hand. Larry McMurtry’s Custer is an essay, padded with chapter breaks and profusely illustrated. I purchased this at Half-Price books. The volume sports the traditional remainder bin sharpie slash across the top. I paid a third of the original inflated $35.00 price. Custer was published by Simon and Schuster over a year ago with little fanfare. I cannot fault the design. The photographs are fantastic and will keep even die-hard Custer aficionados enthralled. I admit to being a fan of Larry McMurtry, although I prefer his early novels over his recent work. I have read many books on Custer and the American West and confess to enjoying my role as an armchair historian. When dealing with popular historians the main question is always this: Does the author understand his subject? If the answer is yes, then some good can be inferred from the book. When the answer is no, as we so often see with popular biographies by Andrew Morton, Kitty Kelly, David Bret and the late Charles Higham, then I always recommend taking the book out and shooting it. I prefer a .45. In this manner we can remain civilized without resorting to slaughtering the likes of opportunists like Andrew Morton, Kitty Kelly and David Bret. Larry McMurtry’s Custer is a fine essay and McMurtry does indeed understand his subject. I don’t think he likes him, but at least he understands him. McMurtry admits to preparing for this essay by reading Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (which he refers to as ‘a masterpiece that is unlikely to be bettered: a literary mosaic on one hand and a feat of literary archeology on the other’), Robert Utley’s Cavalier in Buckskin, James Donovan’s A Terrible Glory and Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand. All fine books in my humble opinion, with the exception of Philbrick’s whom I find unreadable. Note that unreadable is different than shootable. Philbrick’s brand is not to my liking, but also not without merit for those that can stomach his convoluted writing. I enjoyed Larry McMurtry’s Custer for what it is. Naturally, there are necessary lapses. Absent here is any real assessment of Custer’s best quality, his courage. I would have preferred a little more on the Washita. Now I’m nitpicking. In the conclusion, McMurtry reveals that as a collector he owns thirty-seven unpublished glass negatives that include unrecorded images of Geronimo and Quanah Parker. He throws this little nugget at us on page 170. Are you kidding me? Now there’s a coffee-table book that would be a real treat, with McMurtry commenting on each plate. Finally, the concluding image in this profusely illustrated essay is one of the Little Bighorn battlefield, the gravestones gleaming under that expansive Montana sky. Looking at the photograph I was reminded that this creviced landscape is as deceptive, as dangerous and as enigmatic as Custer himself.