Book Review: Fantasy Encyclopedia by Judy Allen

Title: Fantasy Encyclopedia

Author: Judy Allen

Format: Hardcover edition, Kingfisher Publications

Published: 2005

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Being a writer, I end up with books for reference and research.  Actually, it has little to do with me being a writer.  I actually am just obsessed with research and reference, so I end up with those sorts of books anyway.  And, to be honest, I have benefitted greatly from the trend that started in the late 90s and continues to this day of publishing houses producing ‘coffee table’ style books that focus on a myriad of topics to be sold in the brick and mortar bookstores, at least initially.  As the electronic market increased, though, these oversized specialty books ended up not staying on the regular shelves as long and ended up, thankfully, in bargain bins.  This is one of the reasons I’m a fan of the ebook, because it makes it possible for me to take some of these great titles home in print.  And Judy Allen’s Fantasy Encyclopedia definitely qualifies as one of the best.

Divided into nine chapters, Fantasy Encyclopedia is more a shotgun approach reference type book than an actual comprehensive tone.  Having said that, it is absolutely awesome as that type of book, focusing on everything from witches to ghosts to vampires to little known beasties.  Each chapter is broken into two page sections that provide readers with insight into various creatures. Really, it’s a collection of snippets interspersed between fantastic art and photos when appropriate.  And, again, let me stress, as that sort of work, this book is a knockout.  It is ripe with tidbits for a writer and approaches each creature as if it is rich in lore, even though this book itself is only offering you a taste.  The structure of the book is conducive to not only quick, but also addictive reading.  It’s one of those you won’t just flip open on the coffee table. You’ll sit back with it in your lap and finish it in one sitting.

Fantasy Encyclopedia definitely rates five out of five pages.  It is fun and actually, because of the speed at which one can get through it, is an exciting read, keeping the reader moving forward, wanting more.

This one also rates a full gun from me, six out of six bullets.  The art and package is engaging and not only supports, but makes the information the book provides even that more interesting.

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Book Review: Bogart ’48 by John Stanley and Kenn Davis

Title: Bogart ’48

Author: John Stanley and Kenn Davis

Format: Paperback edition, Dell Books

Published: 1979

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As it’s been stated here before, I am a reader of particular tastes.  I love mysteries, I love tv/media tie-ins, and I love the era of the early 20th Century.  This review adds something to that list.  I love Humphrey Bogart.  Since I can remember, and that is a serious statement, I have been a fan of the actor who epitomizes for many both the consummate PI as well as the archetypal gangster.  Both onscreen and off, Bogey was a truly fascinating individual who blossomed into a fantastic character in his own right.  This blossoming is something the authors of Bogart ’48 took advantage of and used in all the right ways.

Bacall is away and Bogey is wrapping up shooting on a film in early 1948, when an old friend of Bogey’s is killed, an actor working on a western film.  With it clearly being murder, Bogey is pulled into a mystery worthy of Sam Spade by a call his now dead friend had a chance to make just before being killed.  Hollywood politics and celebrities come out of the woodwork as Bogart works his way up and down, in and out of the lights and shadows that make up the golden era of film making.  What was never a simple murder suddenly involves another person from Bogey’s past, an embittered screenwriter who penned a script with an ominous title-Hollywood Armageddon-that details a massacre of biblical proportions on Hollywood’s biggest night.  A script that he…or someone may be working desperately to bring to life and only Bogart and a band of Hollywood noteworthiest and scoundrels may be able to stop it.

Bogart ’48 hits on every single cylinder. Not only is the portrayal of Bogart realistic- he’s not suddenly transformed into some two fisted over the top hero, but he definitely holds his own- but the authors bring in everyone from John Wayne to Prince Romanoff to Peter Lorre and do it with a style that is exquisite. These aren’t just cameos to fill a book about Golden Age Hollywood. Every real character brought into the mix, right down to a pre Marilyn Marilyn Monroe, has an impact on the story and moves the plot along while also giving us a glimpse at how intense and simultaneously shallow relationships in a world of make believe can be.

The authors make full use of Bogart’s history and background, tying aspects of the mystery into his rather colorful past, and gives the reader a totally well rounded character in the lead.  Again, Bogart is not playing Sam Spade in the pages of this book. He is straight up portrayed 100 percent as himself, tarnish and all. And it makes Bogart ’48 a glorious read because of that.

Not to focus completely on Bogey, the mystery in this book is top notch and well constructed.  With shades of conspiracy, paranoia, and manipulation, the puzzle at the center of this book keeps the reader involved from page to page and wraps up tightly.

Bogart ’48 earns five out of five pages, nailing every cue and keeping the characters and story equally popping and entertaining.

This is a full six out of six bullets on my scale as well.  Bogart is written as not only he lived, but also as any real fan would imagine him. He is very human and that wonderfully infects the rest of the story too.

Book Review: Slay Ride: A Johnny Liddell Mystery by Frank Kane

Title: Slay Ride: A Johnny Liddell Mystery

Author: Frank Kane

Format: Paperback edition, Dell Books

Published: 1959

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The 1950s were most definitely the heyday of the hard boiled private eye in paperback.  Spurred on by the success of Mickey Spillane and others, publishers filled the shelves with their own takes on the two fisted gumshoe who straddles the line between Pulp and Noir.  Frank Kane was one of the better purveyors of this trend at the time and introduced the world to Johnny Liddell, a PI of questionable morals, but who lived inside a solitary code of his own making.

Slay Ride finds Liddell tied up with a detective agency that currently is working on a rash of jewelry heists that have taken the city by storm.  The agency’s part has been largely to handle the payoffs to crooks who contact them or the insurance companies and say for a cut of the value of the jewels or the policies on them, they’ll return said jewels to their owners via Liddell and his like.  Although he’s not a fan of this, Liddell accepts it as part of the business.  That is, until people start dying, including a young rookie PI who took a job that was originally assigned to Liddell.

This single death fires up Johnny’s code and spurs him forward into a tangle of conspiracy, theft, and murder.  Along the way, he runs headlong into various characters on both sides of the law and of course, enough women to turn any man’s head.  The resolution to this one is overall satisfying, but to be honest, there’s not much in these pages that can’t be found done as well and usually better in other books.

Liddell is perfectly cast in the mold of the 1950s private eye, solid with the women, always dodging bullets from the law and the lawless, and as cool as ice, in action and verbiage. The characters inside this little mystery are all done well, too, but again, there’s not a lot that makes this stand out from any other read from that era.

Slay Ride gets three out of five pages.  It’s a fun read if you’re a fan of the genre and aren’t looking for something other than a quick, good mystery.

I’ll load four out of six bullets in my usual scale for this one. Nothing surprising in this that makes it just top notch, but it meets every bar I think Kane was reaching for when he wrote it.

Book Review: Pieces of Modesty by Peter O’Donnell

Title: Pieces of Modesty

Author: Peter O’Donnell

Format: Paperback edition, Pan Books

Published: 1972

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Being at least a bit of a connoissuer of Pop Culture, I have always been familiar with Modesty Blaise, primarily through the comic strips I’ve read in collection over the years.  Due to some fortuitous occurrences, I came into a large collection of books this last year and in the midst of this bevy of reading material were several Modesty books by Peter O’Donnell.  Pieces of Modesty is the first Blaise prose I’ve read. And as often happens with short story collections, even those done by a single author, this one is a mix of good stories and ones who wish they were better.

“A Better Day to Die” finds Modesty on her way to see a dying associate from her days as leader of the Network.  Her best man, Willie Garvin, accompanies her, but they are split up when the reality of South American travel through a country seeded with revolutionaries forces Modesty into the company of a missionary and his female charges.  When attacked by said militant types, Modesty must take care to free herself and the others from imprisonment and death, with help coming from a couple sources, one rather expected and the other rather unlikely.

This story opens the book and is an odd choice to do so.  It feels like the publisher expected that already established fans of Modesty Blaise would be picking up this collection, so there was little to no need to establish who Modesty and Willie are in relation to their own context.  Combine that with a rather telegraphed ending in one respect and this is a rather lackluster opener.  Having said that, one twist toward the end ups this one a bit for simply utilizing what might have been a throw away character point as an integral turn in the story.

“The Giggle Wrecker” finds Modesty’s sometimes ‘supervisor’/always father figure Tarrant in a spot where he has to once more have Modesty and Willie help him out of a tight.  An Asian Communist with a great deal of importance wants to defect from East Germany to Britain and needs to be gotten over the wall. Using an established route and plan, Modesty and Willie undertake the mission, only to find that their charge is rather more like a difficult child than a dissident genius.

Although there’s a rather fun aspect to this tale, it really is nothing more than another story about adventurers helping someone and that someone turning out to be more difficult than originally assumed.  Not a lot of characterization in this one and more fireworks than actual flame here.

Willie Garvin climbs into the narrator seat for “I Had a Date With Lady Janet.” By far, this was not only the best story in the collection, but hit all targets in every way.  The voice is Willie’s through and through and O’Donnell puts it on like a comfortable coat and brings Willie and everyone else to life.  We get to see a great glimpse into Willie’s feelings for Modesty when, on the night he is to have an evening with his Lady Janet, a regular paramour of his, Willie learns that a man he thought he’d killed is indeed alive and has captured Modesty.  With Lady Janet’s help, showing her own steel in a way, Willie undertakes to rescue Modesty.  The action, pacing, characterization, and voice are all superb in this short story that easily could have bloomed into its own full length novel.

“A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck” is another fun romp with Modesty and Willie, this time in the company of two old friends, a couple in their own right.  While on holiday, the four of them make their rounds of parties and such, only to end up in the middle of a crime spree. Jewel thieves are hitting the most prominent parties and getting away scot free.  Modesty puts her friend, a blind woman with skills all her own, and Modesty’s most prized string of pearls, a string hand harvested by Willie, on the line to catch the bloodthirsty thieves.  A good balance of excitement and insight makes this one a winner.

Modesty becomes involved with a sculptor and encounters a group of criminals that challenge her in every way in ‘Salamander Four’.  While living as the sculptor’s live model and enjoying all that companionship entails, Modesty helps a man who stumbles to their door bleeding.  This stranger turns out to be someone Modesty has never met, but knows quite well by reputation from her storied past and he is being pursued by a ruthless group of criminals known as Salamander Four.  Against the wishes of the sculptor, Modesty invests herself in helping the stranger escape and putting an end to this group of killers, if necessary.

Not as much romping in this one, but it reads as more of a tense chase scene, and that’s perfectly all right.  The story also allows readers to see Modesty interact emotionally with another man, other than Willie, and that is a welcome take as well.  Very tightly written, the action scenes definitely care the tale.

“The Soo Girl Charity” is definitely the weakest link in this collection. Angered by the behavior of a man while she is collecting money for a charity, Modesty intends to break into his house and appropriate a generous donation from him. What she finds instead is a kept wife that is being abused by the man and the tone of Modesty’s mission changes.

This story feels like a quick idea jotted down and then forgotten that was picked up and finished as an afterthought.  Modesty doesn’t seem as sharp or as aware as she’s written in previous stories and actually turns out the dupe in this tale, and not in a way that makes the reader feel okay about it.

As an entire collection, Pieces of Modesty is an average set of stories, ranking three out of five pages.

Three bullets out of six go into my gun for this one.  Some interesting stories, a couple of gems, but overall just a rather average read, if Modesty Blaise appeals to You.

Book Review: The Bat Strikes Again and Again by Johnston McCulley

Title: The Bat Strikes Again and Again

Author: Johnston McCulley

Format: Paperback edition, AltusBooks

Published: 2009

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It is no secret to anyone who knows me or follows what I do, both here and elsewhere, that I am a Pulp fan.  And I just simply don’t mean the style of the stories, but the actual classic tales first printed on rough, coarse paper in the early 20th Century.  From the obscure to the best known, Pulp heroes are a passion for me. But, even with that known, not every story from that era was a winner. As a matter of fact, Pulp magazines probably, if we’re being honest, contained one stinker for every homerun between each cover.  The same goes for the writers of the period as well, not all demand great accolades or attention.

One author who does deserve such things, however, definitely more than he gets today, is Johnston McCulley.  Most people, if they’re even aware of who he is, believe his one true claim to fame is that he is the creative genius behind the master swordsman, Zorro.  Although that is indeed true, McCulley was also one of the most prolific authors and creators of the Pulp era, not only turning out story after story of daring do and action, but also bringing to life a myriad of interesting and fascinating heroes.

The Bat Strikes Again and Again collects the four stories of Dawson Clade, a private investigator who is wrongfully convicted of murder and scheduled to be executed.  Due to a last minute plan, however, Clade’s execution is faked and he is set free to become the masked menace of the maniacal machine of evil that nearly killed him. Clade becomes The Bat and over four stories takes down the men and women responsible for his conviction and much of the evil in his city.

With a fantastic introduction by Will Murray, this collection is one of the best set of Pulp stories I’ve encountered in a long time.  Each tale builds on the previous one, keeping a continuity of sorts for Clade’s harrowing adventures.   Not only are all the right tropes in place, but many of the things we’d call tropes for stories like this may very well have had their origins in The Bat’s tales.  It is likely no coincidence, for instance, that this character in name and activities resembles a much more popular, longer lived bat themed crimefighter.

The strongest aspect of these stories, though, is simply the consistency of McCulley’s writing.  The characters are not only engaging, but they grow and shift within each story and over all four.  And not only The Bat, but even his police foil gains various facets.

The Bat Strikes Again and Again definitely rates five out of five pages. Pulp storytelling at its best.

This one is fully loaded for me, a straight six out of six bullets.  These stories have a lot of the same twists and nuances that modern episodic television seems in love with and are definitely worth the read.

 

 

Book Review – Games Wizards Play

Title: Games Wizards Play

Author:  Diane Duane

Format: Hardback

Year Published: 2016

I’m a long-time fan of Diane Duane. I discovered her Young Wizards book in high school, and pretty much fell in love immediately. So, in general, I was predisposed to like Games Wizards Play.

Games Wizards Play is the tenth book in her Young Wizards series, which is really nothing at all like Harry Potter, despite the surface similarities.

I very much enjoyed it, but I would not recommend it for people who have not read the rest of the series – there is some backstory given, but in general the author assumes that you’ve read and retained the previous books.

The book starts with a bang, literally, as Kit is involved in a war-game on the moon, and then we get flung into the ocean where Nita is testing out a type of shape-shifting spell that was brought up in previous books. Once away from Nita, we go to her sister Dairine, who is working with a mentor to learn to control suns. A quick introduction of our main cast, and then we’re introduced to the main plot: the Invitational, an event that occurs every 11 years where wizards are encouraged to build a spell that will allow them to show off to the whole world.

Nita, Kit, and Dairine are all selected to be mentors to wizards in the Invitational, and they find that they have challenges that they are not used to having.

The book was a solid offering in the Young Wizards universe, but it was not outstanding. Despite the book’s length, the ending felt very rushed as all of the problems were loaded upon the characters at once, rather than being allowed to be introduced earlier, and while the romance angle was necessary, based up on events of the previous book, it got more play time than it might necessarily have needed.

The ‘how do I navigate starting a romance with my best friend?’ question period Nita goes through is very true-to-life, however, and I loved the scene with her dad about it. I also loved Dairine a lot more in this book than I have in books previous – Nita has always been my favorite – but I do feel that our usual supporting cast are part of a check-list of people that should be mentioned, and then are shunted off to the side again.

The new supporting characters – Penn, Nita and Kit’s mentee; Mehrnaz, Dairine’s mentee; and Nelaid, Dairine’s mentor/Roshaun’s father – are very distinct characters. Not necessarily likeable (at least not all the time) but no character should always be likeable.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, and will reread it (though, perhaps, not as much as I’ve reread the first few books). 3/5 stars

Book Review: The Perils of Sherlock Holmes by Loren D. Estleman

Title: The Perils of Sherlock Holmes

Author: Loren D. Estleman

Format: Hardcover edition, Tyrus Books

Published: 2012

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It is no secret to anyone that Sherlock Holmes is popular. Even before the Supreme Court voiced its learned opinion that Holmes should be and is in the public domain, many authors have tried their hand at their own versions of the Great Detective’s adventures. Either sanctioned by some version of the Doyle estate or written under the auspices of being free and clear, scores and scores of Holmes tales now fill the market. From mediocre to nearing the level of Doyle himself, quality of these takes on Holmes varies broadly. This is also the case for the stories between the covers of The Perils of Sherlock Holmes by Loren D. Estleman.

A renowned author, Estleman in his introduction to this volume reveals that he is a devotee of Holmes and that is much of the drive behind the various stories he has written over the years that are included in this collection. What follows the introduction is quite literally a mixed bag of stories, some definitely living up to the shadow of Doyle, others feeling more forced or even lazily produced.

In “The Adventure of the Arabian Knight”, Holmes takes on a case for Sir Richard Francis Burton that is related to a rather famous Egyptian King’s tomb. Although the use of Burton and egyptology is interesting, this story is not only easily predictable, but the various turns and herrings of red used within are cliched and obvious and leave little mystery for the reader to enjoy.

“The Adventure of the Three Ghosts” is a rather fun tale focusing on potentially ghostly visitors harassing a rather strict man of business in the style of Dickens’ famous tale. Unlike the previous story, this one makes great use of distraction and leads Holmes and those reading along down a few rabbit trails, ending with a twist that is both interesting and satisfying.

Sax Rohmer makes an appearance in “The Riddle of the Golden Monkeys” and again, this proves to be terrific read. Both Holmes and Watson are properly presented here as Doyle created them and tying into Rohmer’s own adventures makes for a great adventure.

Estleman includes a one act play he wrote for a group he was a member of and although it is Holmesian, it is out of place in this collection and that may be why it simply doesn’t work. “Dr. and Mrs. Watson At home: A Comedy in One Unnatural Act” takes a look at the home life of the Watsons and does this in a rather ludicrous, tongue in cheek fashion. I have enough knowledge of Holmes to catch the majority of the inside jokes contained in this script, but even with that, it just isn’t very funny or engaging.

“The Adventures of the Coughing Dentist” is by far the best story in this collection. Finding Holmes and Watson in America, this tale is a wonder on a few levels. First, it is a direct follow up to Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” and fulfills that function well. Secondly, it’s a dandy mystery all the way around. And lastly, but by far the best part for me, Holmes teams up with none other than Wyatt Earp to hopefully free Doc Holliday from a hanging. In every way, Estleman nails not only Holmes, but Earp (a personal fascination of mine as a writer) and the blending of the two is exquisite.

Visiting a Christmas theme once again, “The Adventure of the Greatest Gift” is as far from the story before it as it can be. Ham handed in delivery, this story makes Holmes seem inferior and rather less than his usual razor sharp deducting self. Part of this may be because of a particular supporting character who shows up, one always fancied to be smarter than Sherlock, but other writers have used this character without weakening Holmes’ strengths and made it work. Not in this case, unfortunately.

“The Devil and Sherlock Holmes” is perhaps the oddest story in the collection and actually reminds me a tad of Lester Dent’s last Doc Savage adventure. In both cases, the heroes come face to face with what very well might be The Devil. In Holmes’ case for this story, he engages in a conversation and a battle of wits of sorts with a man who claims to be Lucifer himself. The man’s claim is at the center of the mystery and every turn is well executed, even leaving enough question at the end to make the open ended finale work very well.

The book closes with the first chapter of an unfinished Holmes round robin novel and two essays. Although all three are interesting ‘trifles’, to use a term from one of the essays, they are little more than this and serve as filler more than anything.

Overall, The Perils of Sherlock Holmes is a hit and miss collection, rating just barely 3 out of 5 pages.

Using my usual scale, Estleman’s Holmesian anthology rates 3 out 6 bullets. A rather up and down tangle of tales that makes the entire collection rather average.

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