Archive for September, 2011

STRANGE GODS OF THE DIRE PLANET



STRANGE GOD
OF THE DIRE PLANET
By Joel Jenkins
Pulp Work Press
263 pages

Writer Joel Jenkins is one of the most prolific, exciting and talented members of the New Pulp movement today.  Through his association with Pulp Work Press, an outfit he started with fellow writers Joshua Reynolds and Derrick Ferguson, Jenkins has produced some of the most amazing, fast-paced pulp adventures ever to hit print.  The originator of several series in various traditional genres, STRANGE GODS OF THE DIRE PLANET, is the fourth book in this homage to Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic Martian books.

Having not read the previous three, I really appreciated Jenkins’ understanding that new readers would need a little extra background exposition to bring them up to speed on where the action was taking place and who all these characters were; while at the same time moving the story along at a breakneck pace to satisfy those fans who had been along for the ride from the beginning.  That he accomplishes this wonderfully is no small achievement and a big reason I enjoyed the book so much.

Here’s what any new reader will learn upon entering Garvey Dire’s world.  Dire is a modern NASA astronaut who, by some cosmic snafu, had his space craft hurled through an anomaly that sent him back in time millions of years to a Mars inhabited by humans like himself and all manner of beasts and fauna.  Realizing this is a one way trip; Dire accepts his fate and sets about making a new life for himself amongst the female dominated tribes of the giant red planet.  Jenkins has created a truly exotic social background that is fascinating with paying scrupulous attention to what each of these customs means to the entire culture he has created.

On Dire’s Mars, men are in short supply so they are protected and treasured and it is the abundant female sex that handles the affairs of state, commerce and warfare.  Obviously this is a different world than Dire is comfortable with, especially when adapting he realizes he must accept polygamy and marry several women to assume an active role in this society.  Like Burrough’s books, Jenkins’ Martian civilization is crumpling and the population struggling daily against both the forces of nature and time to survive.

The crux of this fourth volume centers about a long kept secret of an occult group of fanatics known as the Technopriests and Dire and his allies attempt to uncover it.  There is bloodshed galore, non-stop action and great heroic characters battling against truly beautifully crafted background.  It also ends on one of the most dramatic cliffhangers this reader has ever encountered.  Over the many years since Burroughs created his interplanetary pulp classics there have been dozens of imitators who have attempted to recapture the magic he wielded but none has ever come as close as Jenkins with the Dire Planet books.  These books are rock!

GRIOTS

GRIOTS
Edited by Milton Davis & Charles Saunders
MV Media LLC.
284 pages

This reviewer has often made it known that he enjoys anthologies for two reasons; the first being the concept of similarly themed tales from various writers collected between two cover is just plain fun.  The second is the continued encouragement of the short story format. For many years academics were decrying the extinction of this form with the loss of so many monthly literary magazines and they were right to do so. But thanks to the emergence of genre themed anthologies, the short story has truly had a strong resurgence in popularity over the past decade.

Now comes this truly unique book which heralds the supposed creation of yet another fiction genre, that of “sword and soul.”  In the opening introduction, editors Davis and Saunders, both African Americans and leading writers in the field of fantasy adventure, detail a history of the genre first established by pulp writer Robert E. Howard when he invented sword and sorcery with his well known Conan adventures.  Whereas Saunders entered the field in the 1970s with the creation of his own barbaric warrior hero, Imaro and later Davis followed suit, each imbuing this fantasy sub-genre with what they believe is a clearly felt African sensibility.  Davis argues this is a new, original evolution of the well established sword and sorcery theme.  Are they correct, or simply trying to sell us something old with a new coat of paint?

As always, reviewing an anthology to determine its entertainment worth is pure mathematics.  You simply count how many stories are in the volume and then during the course of reading label those which are exceptional, those which are simply mediocre and those that are ineffective. At the end, whichever way the scales tip, you have your verdict.  GRIOTS, that’s a French word  for African storytellers, collects fourteen tales of exotic action and adventure all presented by African American writers.  Here are my favorite six in this collection.

“Changeling” by Carole McDonnell is my favorite of the bunch.  It tells the story of three sisters and their fates in a poignant tale of human emotions from the noble self-scarifying nature of true love to the petty ugliness of greed and jealousy.  Three princesses, each cast in a different mold confront the meanings of their lives and truth while resigning themselves to destiny proving the age old adage that a leopard can’t change its spots.  McDonnell is a gifted writer and she lays out her plot with an efficiency of words that mesmerize and paint images long remembered after the reading.

“The Three Faced One,” by Charles Saunders was no surprise as my second favorite here in that it is us another great tale of the wandering warrior, Imaro, the hero of several of Saunders’ novels.  This story finds Imaro coming to the aid of a tribe of cattle herders being taken abused by a three-faced demon.  Once more the powerful hero must pit his muscles against the forces of evil sorcery.  This is pure Imaro gold and worth the price of admission by itself.

“Skin Magic” by P.Djeli Clark is a gripping, original action piece about the victim of a dying sorcerer’s curse.  A young thief must live with moving tattoos etched his chest that are actual portals to other worlds and the monsters that live there.  How he comes to deal with this horrid fate is a very gripping and exciting entry. 

Whereas co-editor Milton Davis’s own “Captured Beauty” is the rollicking action tale of Changa, who despises slavery and risks his own position with his sympathetic employer to find a kidnapped maiden and rescue her from a cruel master who wields black magic.  

Another winner is “The Demon in the Wall,” by Stafford L.Battle featuring beautiful Makhulu and her warrior grandson Zende.  Together they must rescue their captured family from the demoness Swallow and her human ally, the rich and fat Fabu. Together they are an unbeatable combination of sorcery and strength.

In “The Queen, The Demon & The Mercenary,” by Ronald T. Jones, Queen Zara’s land is besieged by an evil demon warrior and her salvation lies in the hands of an enigmatic mercenary with a cocky air of self-confidence.

The above half dozen are extremely well done and highly recommended.  At the same time honorable mention goes to “Awakening” by Valjeanne Jeffers, “Lost Son” by Maurice Broaddus, “The General’s Daughter” by Anthony Kwamu and “The Leopard Walks Alone,” by Melvin Carter.

The remaining four failed to impress me and one was so convoluted in its prose, I re-read it twice and still couldn’t decipher what exactly was going in the story.  You may have a different opinion.  Still six truly well crafted adventures and four equally well told make GRIOTS a winning anthology unlike most of the fantasy found on today’s book shelves.  Is it really a new genre?  I leave that for you to decide, me, I just enjoyed the stories regardless of what anyone wishes to label them.

Review Postscript – I do have one final critique concerning GRIOTS, but as it does not concern its literary contents, I felt it best to set this issue apart from my main review.  Many readers do not give much attention to the accompanying artwork in such volumes but they are, at least to this reviewer, an integral part of the book’s overall presentation.  Following the tradition of classic pulp fiction, GRIOTS, besides its lovely cover painting, also showcases fourteen black and white interior illustrations, one for each of the stories. 

And therein is my frustration as the art is delivered by half a dozen artists.  At their basic core, anthologies are diverse stories all connected by a central theme.  Nothing helps cement that theme more than one artist bringing his or her talent to a book, giving it a visual cohesiveness that is crucial to the overall feel of the tome.  But when a reader is confronted by multiple art pieces done in a variety of styles with differing levels of quality that unifying thread is shattered. 

Consider this analogy if you will.  Imagine being invited to a fancy, hip hop dance with lively modern music.  You’re out on the dance floor have a grand time when suddenly you have to hold up because every new track being played has to be handled by a new D.J.  All too soon what was once a fun time is now a discordant mess.  A single, talented D.J. can clearly leave his or her personality imprint on such a party, a single illustrator for GRIOTS would have left the same kind of visual oneness.

I would strongly urge the editors to consider using only one interior artist for their follow up sequels.  And just so you do not think I’m anti artists, let me finish with saying I really liked the work of Stanley Weaver, John Jennings, Paul Davey and Shawn Alleyne found in this book.


THE CONSUMMATA



THE CONSUMMATA
By Mickey Spillane & Max Allan Collins
Hard Case Crime
247 pages
Release Date - 4 Oct. 2011

In 1967 popular mystery writer, Mickey Spillane, sought to cash in the James Bond spy craze sweeping the world of literary fiction.  He created a Florida based government agent named Morgan the Raider; obviously referencing the famous pirate with the same name.  The book was titled THE DELTA FACTOR and the plot revolved around Morgan and a beautiful female agent, Kim Stacy, going to a South American island to rescue a scientist being held by terrorists.  Spillane had begun work on a sequel when THE DELTA FACTOR was made into a rather bland, lackluster movie in 1971 and disheartened by that film; he shelved the new book and never completed it.

Forty-four years later, thanks to Spillane’s good friend and protégé, crime novelist, Max Allan Collins, fans can now enjoy that sequel, THE CONSUMMATA.  The story takes places only a few months after the events in the first book, with Morgan now a felon having been framed for an armored car hold up that netted the thieves forty million dollars.  Although innocent, the only way he can prove his innocent is to find the stolen loot and return it, all the while eluding both local and government agents.

As if that isn’t trouble enough, he finds himself entangled with a group of Cuban exile patriots living in Miami who have become victims of a lowlife named Jamie Halaquez;  a spy for dictator, Fidel Castro.  Halaquez has stolen the rebels’ war chest containing seventy-five thousand dollars; money intended to fund the group’s activities and help other refugees flee Cuba.  Owing them a debt of honor, Morgan volunteers to find Halaquez and return their money. 

Less than twenty four hours later, a bomb destroys the hotel room in which Morgan was to have set up his base of operations.  Only through a sixth sense honed through years of espionage work does Morgan avoid being killed but at the same time is made aware that there is another spy in his new circle of friends.  Now things are really complicated, in a very deadly way.  At the same time he is playing detective in the seamy world of Miami’s sex clubs, unknown killers are dogging his trail.

THE CONSUMMATA is a typical pedal-to-metal Spillane thriller that zips along at a fast, gut tightening pace filled with lots of sexy and dangerous women and a true exotic mix of colorful supporting characters from both sides of the law.  There are always a few critics who will claim they can discern where Spillane left off and where Collins took over the yarn. This reviewer is happy to say he is not one of those.  This is a seamless adventure that moves smoothly from chapter to chapter with one clear and exciting voice, echoing the bullet-blasting tales of a true Mystery Grandmaster.

THE WRECKER



THE WRECKER
By Justin Scott (&Clive Cussler)
Berkley Books
562 pages

Several years ago best selling writer Clive Cussler created a new turn of the century hero in Isaac Bell, an operative for the Van Dorn Detective Agency in the early 1900s.  Bell appeared in Cussler’s excellent novel, “The Chase.”  It is the one and only Isaac Bell adventure Cussler has ever written, although there are two more currently on the market with a fourth on the way all bearing his name on the covers.  But then again, as most book lovers know, covers do lie.

So here’s more pulp history. Publishers would create characters then hire writers to spin their adventures.  Aware their demands for monthly stories would be too much of any one scribe to produce, they would hire several and print their work under a house pseudonym.  That’s why all of Walter Gibson’s great Shadow novels were published under the by-line of Maxwell Grant, because he did not write all the Shadow adventures.  Likewise, even though Lester Dent did write the majority of Doc Savage tales, he did not write them all. But they were published under the bogus house name of Kenneth Robeson.  This was an established practice of the times and as long as their checks didn’t bounce, most pulp writers never quibbled about such aesthetics as fame and glory.

Jump ahead to the early 1980s and this established deceitful tradition was suddenly given a new spin by the publishers’ marketing departments when they realized certain bestselling authors’ names have what is commonly referred in the advertising game as Brand Recognition.  That simply means that over a period of time these writers (Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler to name a few) have created, via their books, an army of loyal fans numbering in the thousands. Fans who will buy anything with their names on it, regardless of the plots, themes, genres etc.  If it says Clive Cussler on the cover, X number of thousands of copies are guaranteed to sell. Thus for Cussler’s publisher the logical next step was to get him to write more books every year to keep those sales coming in on an annual basis.  After all the book business is no different than any other, the bottom line isn’t art, its profits.

Unfortunately they soon discovered that poor Cussler didn’t want to be chained to his PC twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  The guy very much wanted to eat, drink, sleep, spend time with his loved ones and actually have a life.  What’s the point of making all this money if he couldn’t have time to enjoy it?  Such an awful dilemma to have.  So what’s was the solution that placated both the writer and the publisher’s needs at the same?  The answer, most likely first originated by some truly ingenious marketing manager, was to use the famous author’s name but hire someone else to do the actual writing.  We are not talking about co-writing here, although that is what these money hungry publishers would like you to assume.  Oh, no, they went out and hired other writers to take over the series created by the big name authors and then let them write them solo.

Of course not being privy to these inside machinations, we can only speculate.  As a reviewer who does enjoy Cussler’s work, I’d like to believe that when he first began whipping up all these spin-off series from his Dirk Pitt books, he did take some time in overseeing the creation of these new concepts and did investigate, as much as time would allow him, who these new writers would be.  He may even have contributed an occasional plot or two in the beginning.  But that’s it, readers.  At present Cussler has his name on a total of five on-going series and I’m guessing the only one he actually does any writing on are the Dirk Pitt books which he now co-authors with his son Dirk Cussler.

The Kurt Austin adventures, the Fargo Adventures, the Oregon Files and now the Isaac Bell adventures are handled entirely by hired guns.  If the books are still good, is this a bad thing?  Not necessarily.  But it remains a deceitful trade practice this reviewer is getting more and more tired of because it does rob the real authors from the full praise they deserve.  Thus, I for one, will from this point on list the names of the true writers over those of the “brand name” celebrity.  That said, let’s look at “The Wrecker” by Justin Scott.

The year is 1907 and Southern Pacific Railroad is on the verge of completing the last section of its Cascades express line.  It is a project the company is heavily invested in and should it fail would mean their ruin.  When a brilliant saboteur known as the Wrecker is wreaking havoc and destruction on the line, causing multiple deaths in the process, the company is thrown into turmoil. Finally the president and owner, Osgood Hennessy, hires the famous Van Dorn Detective agency to hunt down Wrecker and bring him to justice before he totally destroys their operations.  Because of the prestige status of his client, Joe Van Dorn assigns his best agent, Isaac Bell, to the case and thus the hunt is on.

This book is a fast paced thriller pitting two cunning intellects against each other, with the Wrecker having the advantage as his true identity is unknown to the determined investigator.  From one end of the sprawling continent to the other, Bell and the Wrecker play a deadly cat and mouse game like Grandmasters at a chess tournament, each moving his pieces skillfully with deadly intent.  Soon both are aware there can only be one victor in this contest; only to who will survive their final conflict.  “The Wrecker” is a truly magnificent historical adventure with a relentless pace as speedy as the trains it describes populated by noble heroes and dastardly villains.  If you enjoy solid adventure with an authentic historical background, this is one book you do not want to miss. Kudos to Mr.Justin Scott, we can’t wait to read the next book in this entertaining series.