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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

What I’ve been reading in the Western, pulp and action/adventure genres — and beyond…


I always appreciate it when someone posts a positive review of one of the books in the Men’s Adventure Library series I co-edit with my publishing partner Wyatt Doyle (head of the New Texture imprint) on Amazon or Goodreads. So, I try to post reviews of books I’ve read when I enjoyed them.

I typically only post reviews of books I liked. In my humble opinion, criticizing is easy. Creating one is hard. And, everyone has their own opinions and pet peeves about books. So, the reviews I post are all positive.

Below are some of the reviews I wrote and posted on Amazon and Goodreads this year.

The most recent is about the newest fanzine from paperback maven and fanzine publisher extraordinaire, Justin Marriott — the  HOT LEAD “MOST WANTED ALL REVIEW SPECIAL.”

I’m a huge fan of all of Justin’s previous fanzines, PAPERBACK FANATIC, MEN OF VIOLENCE, THE SLEAZY READER, PULP HORROR, MONSTER MANIACS and HOT LEAD.

I interviewed him for this blog a while back and I’ve posted some other previous posts here about his fanzines.

His HOT LEAD fanzine on vintage Western paperbacks and authors. It’s part of what seems to be a resurgence of interest in the Western genre.

Publishers like Wolfpack Publishing and Rough Edges Press have been publishing new Western novels by both up-and-coming writers and experienced pros, and reprinting out-of-print Westerns in new eBook and print editions.

There are also some notable new printed and digital guides to Western books, TV shows and movies. Among those, in addition to the HOT LEAD fanzines, is the 52 WEEKS * 52 WESTERNS series co-edited by Paul Bishop, and the extremely well-researched and entertaining “The Six-Gun Justice” podcast hosted by Paul and his fellow novelist and Western maven Richard Prosch.

I’ve been on a bit of a Western reading and watching binge myself in recent months, partly because of The Six-Gun Justice podcast, so quite a few of the books I’ve read and reviewed are in that genre.

The HOT LEAD “MOST WANTED ALL REVIEW SPECIAL is the latest. It’s the fourth issue in Justin Marriott’s HOT LEAD fanzine series.

I like the first three HOT LEADS a lot, but this one is especially great. It includes insightful reviews of more than 200 Western novels by over 20 vintage paperback and Western genre experts, grouped chronologically by era and nicely illustrated with over 100 cover scans. It also includes some outstanding special essays.

The first of those essays — “Top 10 Western Authors” by Paul Bishop — is so full of fascinating facts and so well written that it makes this issue of HOT LEAD worth buying by itself. And, as a LONESOME DOVE fan, I also especially enjoyed the essay on that series.

I also got a kick out of the Foreword by the legendary comics and action/adventure novelist, Chuck Dixon. Chuck has contributed to the recent resurgence of Western novels himself by writing SOLOMON'S MINE, the fifth entry in the "Avenging Angels" series published by Wolfpack, under the A.W. Hart house name. I haven’t read that one yet, but it’s in my Kindle queue and I expect I’ll like it. I am a huge fan of Chuck’s action/adventure novels, like his LEVON CADE and BAD TIMES series.

In the introduction to the HOT LEAD special, Justin Marriott says he didn’t start out thinking it would be some kind of definitive guide to Western novels. But as reviews came in from contributors he collaborated with, that’s essentially what it turned into. It’s an amazing overview of the best Western novels from the 1920s to recent decades and it covers every Western subgenre, including classics by Louis L’Amour, Harry Whittington and Max Brand, ultra-violent Westerns, science fiction Westerns, “Cow Punk” Westerns, and adult Westerns.

Like all of Marriott’s fanzines, this HOT LEAD special is highly entertaining, beautifully designed. I think it’s also an instant contender for one of the best reference books about Western novels ever put together — and it’s definitely the most up-to-date and wide-ranging.

Not long before I read that HOT LEAD issue, I read 52 WEEKS * 52 TV WESTERNS, co-edited by Paul Bishop and Western novelist Scott Harris. I enjoyed their first two books in the series, 52 WEEKS * 52 WESTERN NOVELS and 52 WEEKS * 52 WESTERN MOVIES, and especially liked this latest one focusing on TV Westerns.

I was born in 1950 and grew up watching the classic Western series that were plentiful in the ‘50s and ‘60s, like CHEYENNE, MAVERICK, HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE and many others. I also loved later Westerns, like THE WILD WILD WEST, THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR, THE HIGH CHAPARRAL and DEADWOOD.

I suppose that’s why I particularly loved 52 WEEKS * 52 TV WESTERNS. The shows covered in this book include virtually all of my favorites and some I was unaware of. It brought back fond memories and provided fascinating facts I didn’t know about the shows and actors.

I also recently read and reviewed the Western novel OUTLAW BLOOD, the eighth book in the “Wind River” series co-written by James Reasoner and his wife Livia J. Washburn.

They are both top professional writers who’ve written novels in several genres and publish a great line of books by various authors via their Rough Edges Press imprint. Any book they write separately or together reflects decades of experience at telling well-crafted action/adventure stories.

OUTLAW BLOOD is no exception. It’s a fast-paced Western that literally starts with a bang, involves some very bad bad guys, and moves quickly to a satisfying conclusion. It has the flavor of a good, old-fashioned Western novel or TV show. If, like me, that’s the type of Western novel you like you’ll enjoy OUTLAW BLOOD and other books in the Wind River series.

Another review I posted on Amazon recent months is for a Western novel written by the legendary comics writer, novelist, editor, and Captain of the mighty Airship 27 “new pulp” publishing company, Ron Fortier.

That novel, THE WIND UP KID, is in what’s been called the “Western Steampunk” subgenre. I’m a big fan of Ron’s and I’m amazed by his range as a writer.

His comics and novels run the gamut from from superhero stories and science fiction to horror and adult action/adventure and young adult fantasy. He’s even written a moving play, titled WHERE LOVE TAKES YOU.

THE WIND UP KID pits the residents of a small town against a gang of truly vicious bad guys. Luckily for the townsfolk, Professor Phineas Proctor happens to have brought his traveling circus to town, and its big attraction is a golden, 7-foot tall robot sharpshooter. Proctor’s automaton joins with the village blacksmith, his son, and other town residents to fight the gang members. If you like good, pulpy, escapist entertainment, check it out. It’s a fun, quick read or listen. I listened to the Audible edition, which I’ve been doing more and more lately.

By the way, if you’re a fan of the realm of “new pulp,” which Ron and his partner Rob Davis helped pioneer and establish through their Airship 27 line, check out their book WHO’S WHO IN NEW PULP, which was just published in July 2020. It includes profiles of over 200 writers, artists, editors, and publishers currently involved in the realm of pulp fiction and pulp art.

One of them is Will Murray. When it comes to writing “new pulp” — generally meaning new stories about classic pulp magazine characters or stories about new characters who fit the classic pulp mode — Will Murray is one of the best and most prolific. As a longtime fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs since the 1960s, I had to check out Murray’s latest novel TARZAN: CONQUEROR OF MARS, and I’m glad I did. It’s a terrific, creative mashup involving two of Burroughs’ best-known characters: Tarzan and John Carter

Murray is a pulp expert in multiple ways. He’s a pulp fiction historian who has written extensively about and helped preserve the legacy of vintage pulp magazine writers like as Lester Dent, creator of Doc Savage, and many others. Among other things, Murray is literary executor for the Dent estate and has written fifteen modern Doc Savage novels under Dent's Kenneth Robeson pseudonym. In recent years, he has also written “new pulp” novels featuring other old pulp characters, including The Shadow, The Spider and Tarzan.

TARZAN: CONQUEROR OF MARS is the third Tarzan novel Murray has written for the Altus Press “Wild Adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs” series. I have been amazed and pleased by how well Murray both maintains the iconic ERB style while also creating fresh storylines. Setting this novel on Mars was a genius idea, well executed.

Another action/adventure novel I recently enjoyed and reviewed recently was DRAGONFIRE!, written by one of the longtime pros in that arena: Stephen Mertz.

Under his own name and various pseudonyms, Mertz has penned many of the best men’s action/adventure novels ever written, ranging from the classic M.I.A. HUNTER series he created to some of the most popular books in the long-running Executioner/Mack Bolan series created by Don Pendleton (cover art for which is featured in the latest book I co-edited, ONE MAN ARMY: THE ACTION PAPERBACK ART OF GIL COHEN.)

More recently, Mertz launched a new MISSION IMPOSSIBLE-like series that features Jack Cody, a Former Navy SEAL U.S. who became a troubleshooter and operative for the U.S. government. For reasons explained in DRAGONFIRE! – the first novel in Mertz’s “Cody’s War” series – he has been nicknamed “Suicide Cody.”

In this initial outing, Cody is tasked with trying to stop the Chinese from employing a shockingly dangerous new experimental weapon they stole from a scientist against the US. There are few writers who can create a major new action/adventure hero and series that doesn’t just tread old ground. Mertz is one of those few. DRAGONFIRE! starts off with a mind-blowing bang and never lets up. It hooked me on the Cody series right off the bat.

Not everything I’ve been reading lately is in the realms of pulp or action/adventure. For example, one of my favorite recent reads was HOLLYWOOD'S HARD-LUCK LADIES by Hollywood historian Laura Wagner. I first became a fan of Wagner from reading her articles and book reviews in the magazine CLASSIC IMAGES. She is an excellent researcher and writer who has a special talent for biographies.

Those skills are very evident in her book HOLLYWOOD'S HARD-LUCK LADIES. The subtitle — 23 ACTRESSES WHO SUFFERED EARLY DEATHS, ACCIDENTS, MISSTEPS, ILLNESSES AND TRAGEDIES — is apt but it only hints at how moving the tragic stories of the 23 actresses Wagner picked seem when you read them. It doesn’t really matter if the actresses are before your time and you don’t know them. It doesn’t really matter if you haven’t seen the movies and TV shows they appeared in.

This is a book that portrays the essential humanity and pathos of mostly little-known actresses who were badly treated by men or the Hollywood studio system, or both — or who should have taken better care of themselves, or whose fate involved tragic accidents. Each biography is a fascinating, self-contained story. And, I love the way each one starts with a paragraph that foreshadows what’s to come. For example, here’s the first paragraph of the chapter on Suzan Ball, a gorgeous actress who had an affair with Anthony Quinn in 1953 while shooting the film EAST OF SUMATRA with him: “One of the most courageous stories in show business concerns Suzan Ball. A star in the making with leads at Universal, she seemed to have a bright future. She was 19 years old when an injury on a movie set put in motion events that would lead her to an untimely death at 21. The way she handled her illness was an inspiration and every turn for the worse was met with a positive outlook.”

Did lead paragraphs like that make me want to read more? You bet. And, Wagner’s bios of many of the actresses made me want to Google more about them and look for streaming or upcoming airings of the movies and TV shows they appeared in. So, for me, it’s a book that kept on giving after I read it.

Another books outside the pulp and action/adventure realm I recently read and loved is MILESSTYLE, by Michael Stradford. It’s unique book that provides fresh perspective on one of my favorite musicians, Miles Davis. It is, in part, about Miles’ creative choices of clothing. But the fashion style angle is a springboard that leads to other insights about Miles’ mind, music, and self-image.

Author Stradford has in-depth knowledge of music and musicians. He was a radio DJ, music director and program director for major stations in Toledo, Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, Houston, and Los Angeles, then became Quincy Jones’ Vice President of A&R at Qwest Records.

The fact that Stradford is both well-qualified and well-connected is evident in his overview of Miles’ music and it’s important place in America’s music heritage, and in the impressive list of people he interviewed for the book. Stradford is an exceptionally good interviewer and the range of people he interviewed is amazing.

They include great jazz musicians who played with Miles, famous rock musicians who were inspired by him, his ex-wives and lovers, fashion experts who had a hand in or studied Miles’ ever evolving clothing, and academics and social observers who provide insightful commentary on Miles’ towering persona as a black celebrity whose life spanned decades worth of changes in racial attitudes in America. I really like the way Stradford interspersed his Q&A style interviews with well-written chapters about Miles personal life and the evolution of his clothing and music. It makes it far more lively and interesting reading than if he had incorporated it all together as running text, like a standard biography.

Of course, I should note that one of my top favorites books of the year so far is STICKING IT TO THE MAN: REVOLUTION AND COUNTERCULTURE IN PULP AND POPULAR FICTION, 1950 TO 1980, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntrye. In addition to posting a glowing 5-star review of it on Amazon, I wrote an extensive post about it on this blog. You can check out that blog post by clicking this link. STICKING IT TO THE MAN is a fascinating deep dive into the realm of vintage novels about Hippies, Yippies, gays, and other social outcasts and rebels.

Whenever you read and enjoy a book, I urge you to write a review and post it Amazon or Goodreads or both. Reviews are especially helpful to writers and publishers of non-mainstream books. Giving them 4 or 5 stars and even just a sentence or two of praise will make their day and help ensure that more books by them will be published.

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