Friday, March 27, 2015

Complex 90 by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins

Complex 90 is another of the Mike Hammer continuation novels by Collins based upon incomplete manuscripts given to him by Spillane. The books are fantastic. As a fan of Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Collins’ Nathan Heller character, I’m thrilled to see these books get published. Collins deserves a lion’s share of the credit for making this happen, and he is the perfect choice to continue the Mike Hammer series. Complex 90 is a direct sequel to The Girl Hunters, which was also filmed with Spillane himself playing Hammer. If you haven’t read that book or seen that film then stop what you’re doing now and seek them out. Then come back to this action-packed thriller. After barely surviving an epic and now legendary adventure in Russia, Hammer is stateside again and investigating the events that led him to be set-up as a target. What do the Russians really want from him? Is it vengeance for taking down so many commies in the early fifties, or is it something else? Long-time Hammer fans won’t be disappointed by the plot and characterization in this hardcore, tough-as-nails Mike Hammer story. Hammer’s secretary Velda is here and a few other luscious dames. And the bad guys are the usual duplicitous but ultimately doomed goons. No surprises in how things turn out, and that’s the way I want it. Collins writes awesome action scenes, and as I mentioned, his characterizations are spot-on and authentic. I would love to see Collins continue the Mike Hammer series with stories that are entirely his own. I think there may be only one or two more of these incomplete Spillane manuscripts left, and since Collins is so good at writing the stories I hope he can continue doing so. Complex 90 rates high on my list of favorite books this year. Kudos as well to Titan books for producing paperbacks with a retro cover style in the smaller pocket book format. Mike Hammer is one of the literary greats alongside Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and James Bond. May his smokin’ hot .45 Automatic blaze a path of justice for a long time to come.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Luckiest Man by Jonathan Eig

Baseball is a game that has always had its tough side. It was, as author Jonathan Eig points out in this splendid biography of Lou Gehrig, “a game for poor immigrants and high school dropouts.” Amid the squalor of class struggles and in the shadow of the industrial revolution, baseball spread across the country and for many decades was America’s number one sport. Baseball rose above its origins and became a national past-time. Today, baseball barely holds its position in the top five, having been displaced by television’s favorites: football, basketball, hockey, and boxing.

Gone now are the thrills of summer games, made unpalatable by television, but still revered primarily by community youth programs and National Little League games. Of course, the kids get it; they always did. Picking up a new bat, and stuffing your hand into a freshly oiled gloved and kicking at the dirt with cleated shoes with a mouth full of Bazooka Joe bubble-gum is something young boys still covet. There is something memorable about a summer afternoon when your standing at bat, poised to hit that ball as hard as you can, the sun hot on your helmet and the sweat trickling down your jaw. The moment is as much about skill as it is your personal will-power, and to achieve for one shining moment something that is a little better than what you might expect. Those moments of glory are few and far between in life, but baseball offers that opportunity on the sun-swept diamonds in neighborhoods across the country.
Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio on a long ago summer's day
All of these things were flashing through my mind as I read this book. The full title is Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Author Jonathan Eig offers two redeeming qualities that make this book a valuable addition to any library. First, he appreciates both Lou Gehrig and baseball; and secondly, he did the qualified research. The endnotes and bibliographic references are extensive. I am not a fan of biographies specifically because most of them are poisonous atrocities, but Jonathan Eig avoids all of those traps.

Baseball also offers moments of intense personal achievement, Horatio Alger characters, and the undying belief in the American Dream. Lou Gehrig’s incredible life story is all that, ending in tragedy, and now forever a part of that past when the heroes we believed in were honorable people. The book is chock full of details but never feels cumbersome, a testament to Eig’s ability to tell the story factually and cleanly.

It’s all here, all of Gehrig’s greatest moments and what a cast! Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and all of the New York Yankees at their finest hour. Gehrig’s untimely death from ALS-amyotrophic lateral schlerosis (forever known now as “Lou Gehrig’s disease) is heartbreaking. Lou Gehrig, was a celebrity who also happened to be a genuinely warm person, and his story is remarkable. This is a truly fine biography.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Master Sergeant by Mel Odom

Master Sergeant is the best science fiction novel I’ve read in years. This book is a high-octane adventure classic starting on page one. My hyperbole and enthusiasm should not be dismissed as fanboy ranting, although I suppose that’s partially true. There’s nothing like a really great science fiction novel that’s well-written and fulfills your expectations from start to finish. Master Sergeant has the groove, it has the spunk, and it has the balls, if you’ll pardon the expression. Mel Odom is always good, but this one ranks up there as the best of the year. Mel Odom has written an adventure novel in the classic vein of pulp fiction and golden age science fiction. At its heart is master sergeant Frank Sage, a grizzled veteran of numerous intergalactic campaigns, relegated to Makaum but itching to be at the front line. Sage is a soldier and he wants to live like a soldier. Sage immediately gets into trouble because he’s more than a bit of rebel, but he’s a rebel that understands honor and loyalty. At the center of the Makaum conflict are the Terrans and Phrenorians. The Phrenorians are creepy insect-like humanoids, and some of the inhabitants on Makaum are up to no good themselves. Sorting out the good guys from the bad guys becomes a challenge as Sage puts together his own team for some undercover military action. On top of it all he has to deal with the planet itself – Makaum, also known as Loki 19, or “Green Hell” is planet where “everything wants to kill you.” The plants, insects, wildlife and other facets of the planet are all lethal. And please don’t dismiss Master Sergeant as Space Opera because it’s the best Space Opera you’ll ever read. The action scenes in this book are breathtaking and relentless. There are numerous villains in the book, but my favorite is Zhoh GhiCemid, a nasty Phrenorian who will give you the chills. Odom wisely devotes most chapters to Frank Sage, and only offers up chapters highlighting other characters when it’s necessary for the story. Too often I read science fiction novels where chapter after chapter details numerous secondary characters and I often wonder if those writers are doing that simply to jack-up the page count. Well, you don’t have to worry about that here. Mel Odom gives readers exactly what they want in a hardcore science fiction novel. I really can’t praise this book enough. Mel Odom’s Master Sergeant is the first in a series. I don’t know how many books are planned, but count me in. Master Sergeant is a rollicking great adventure novel.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Mesa Grande by Ralph Cotton

Ralph Cotton knows how to write a solid western. I pick-up his paperbacks automatically when I see them, and sometimes I stockpile them and read two or three at a time. Cotton is dependable. You know what you’re getting and you’re always entertained. Mesa Grande is his latest featuring Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack. This time around, Burrack finds himself entering the town of Mesa Grande only to discover the town sheriff has just been shot. Finding himself surrounded by some suspicious and increasingly un-friendly townspeople, including the deputy, Burrack is forced to deal with a marauding band of scalphunters in addition to some nasty Apaches. The blend of action with opposing forces introduces a wide assortment of characters, and very few of them are likable.  I never felt that Burrack would lose, but that was okay because I didn’t want him to lose. Cotton lets the suspense build before unleashing the action, but the pay-off is great. Cotton is consistent in his characterization of Burrack and I like the character a great deal. I know Cotton is considered a “mainstream” Western writer, but I feel he deserves a tad more credit for not only his obvious talent but for what appears to be a hardworking ethic. It’s something I sense, and it can’t be fabricated. That is to say I sense that Ralph Cotton is having fun writing these books. It shows on the page and it makes a world of difference. I’ve read several other novels featuring Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack and I enjoyed them all. Ralph Cotton has been around long enough so that I’ve accumulated a hefty stack of his books. They’re all keepers. Cotton is also one of the few Western writers whose books have value for me, which I hope says a great deal about his talent. Ranger Sam Burrack is a solid character, cut from the heroic cloth you expect in a lawman. Mesa Grande is traditional Western fare at its best.