Category Archives: Reviews

2016: The Year in Books

chase-the-tiger01-duplicateAs the year winds down, my eyes are protesting. They have a point. My steely blue orbs have absorbed a lot of words these past twelve months. I made a point in 2016 of reading outside my usual comfort zones, as well as putting an emphasis on reading books from indie authors. Add in my own writing, plus editing jobs, plus trying to read menus in darkened restaurants, and I’m fortunate I can see at all.

But I can, so let’s recount the wonders of the written word! First, while I did cast the net wide for genre fiction and independently published works, I read my share of conventional literature as well. I finally got around to some Tolstoy, for example.  And I read The Commodore in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, because I get the shakes if I go too long without reading one of those. I’m probably the last person to get on the Raymond Chandler bandwagon, but I’m making up for lost time. I read The Long Goodbye, and have another Phillip Marlowe mystery on deck.  I finished William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert Heinlein: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, an exhaustively researched biography. I even worked in a couple political polemics, because it was that kind of year.

But the indie works really stood out in 2016. Nick Cole hit two homescreen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-09-23-pm runs with Ctrl Alt Revolt and Fight the Rooster. The former won a Dragon Award for its sci-fi melding of AI, video games and caustic social commentary, while the latter is a manic romp about a Hollywood director trying to  break free from the chains of success.

Also standing out from the crowd was Liberty Boy by David Gaughran, a work of historical fiction set in Ireland that I enjoyed immensely.  The Missionaries by Owen Stanley was a fun skewering of do-gooder UN types set on a Pacific isle.

I’m one of Michael Bunker’s Patreon subscribers, so I’ve enjoyed the delicious chapters of Hell and the Sea as they’ve been released each month. The novel is a fictionalized account of the early days of the indie publishing revolution, and it has a big future ahead of it when it’s released in its entirety.

Part of my “reading outside my usual comfort zones” vow includes paying more attention to the romance genre. There is some great work being done on that side of the fence, like Place Your Betts by Katie Graykowski. The term “laugh-out-loud-funny” get overused a lot, but not in this case. Katie’s work just crackles with wit.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-19-01-pmOf course, my heart has always been in the science-fiction and fantasy fields, and I found some gems here in 2016. Vaughn Heppner is one of those indies who sells so many books it makes my head spin, so I downloaded Alien Honor, and admired how he set the table for an entertaining space opera series. I kept noticing The Long Way Down by Craig Schaefer in the also-bought feed for my Connor Rix series so I gave that a read. I snatched up a copy of Hugh Howey’s Beacon 23 when it went on sale earlier this year. It didn’t do much for me, but YMMV. Son of the Black Sword by Larry Correia isn’t indie published, but it hit a populist nerve and won a Dragon award. It’s the beginning volume in a great epic fantasy, and entertaining as hell.

I read The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, first published in 1912, one of the strangest science-fantasy books I’ve ever read, and I mean that in a good way. It’s set in a future so distant that the sun has burned out and all of humanity lives in one vast redoubt. Speaking of distant futures, I finally (finally!) found a battered paperback copy of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth at Half-Price Books, devoured it, and then raced through Dan Simmons’ homage to Vance, The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-06-18-pmThis was also a year for short stories. I started the year picking my way through Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. I snacked on the wyrd western Ledge Town by Jason Anspach, and enjoyed  Jessup’s Door, a time travel story by Michael Bunker.  I’ve also been working my way through the variety of indie voices in The Expanding Universe.

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-4-05-49-pmIn my role as editor, I get the first look at a lot of fun and compelling fiction. I’ve enjoyed working with Kate Baray on her Spirelli Paranormal Investigations series, Cate Lawley on her Vegan Vamp series, Anthony Whitt’s  Hard Land to Rule westernand Lori Ryan’s Sutton Capital series of romantic suspense novels.

Of course, I contributed to the indie market my own self, with the release of the dark fantasy Fight for the Night, and the fourth book in my Connor Rix series, Chase the Tiger. If you’d like to make an author happy in 2017, sign up for my newsletter over in the sidebar, and give one of them a look.

Long Lost Paperbacks No. 9

Roger Zelazny is one of the giants of the science-fiction and fantasy genres. He’d land a spot in my personal top-10 on the strength of Lord of Light alone. Throw in The Chronicles of Amber and This Immortal and he’s an absolute lock for my “favorites” list.

Still, Zelazny is one of those giants of the field that is in real danger of going undiscovered by younger generations of fans. Despite being a six-time Hugo Award winner and a three-time Nebula winner (This Immortal tied with Frank Herbert’s epic Dune for Best Novel in the 1966 voting), not a single one of his books was available in e-book format until 2014, and even now, much of his catalog remains out of print. Even Lord of Light is not available as an e-book.

Roadmarks, a short novel from 1979, is one of those books that

Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny, second paperback edition, 1980, Del Rey, cover by Darrell K. Sweet.
Roadmarks by Roger Zelazny, second paperback edition, 1980, Del Rey, cover by Darrell K. Sweet.

requires a trip to Half-Price Books or a tour through Amazon’s used book vendors to find. It is out of print and not likely to see the light of day anytime soon, given the travails of Zelazny’s literary estate.

In Roadmarks, Red Dorakeen and a variety of odd characters travel up and down a mysterious highway that can take one to the past or the future, even alternate timestreams. Of course, it requires a special talent to even find the highway, but those who do can wield enormous power. As in many of Zelazny’s books, the characters  may or may not be gods or god-like beings and you never quite know until the end. It’s a fast, fun read, but one that forces you to pay attention, as Zelazny not only jumps frequently from character to character, but also to different time periods for each of those characters. That’s difficult for any writer to pull off but Zelazny makes it look easy.

Roger Zelazny died young, at only 58 years old, in 1995. If he had lived a normal lifespan he would no doubt have produced at least a dozen more great novels, and his legacy would no doubt be on more solid ground. As it is, he left too soon and his literary estate has not advanced with the times. Take the time to search the “Z” section at your local used bookstore; Zelazny’s novels are too good to be forgotten.

Long Lost Paperbacks No. 8

Devils_and_demonsSome stories just stay with you. You read them once, and then again, and then one day the book earns a permanent spot on your shelf. You find yourself dipping back into the story years later and enjoying it every bit as much as you did the first time.

Ben Bova wrote one of those stories that got stuck in my brain and never left. I found it almost by accident. I was in the 7th grade and one of my teachers, Mrs. Howe, kept a shelf of books in her room loaded with paperbacks we could read in class or even borrow to take home. One of these was a battered 1967 edition, 7th printing, of Rod Serling’s Devils and Demons. Now, I was never much one for horror stories or the supernatural, but buried among the chillers was a true science-fiction tale titled Stars, Won’t You Hide Me?

That’s the story that pulled me in. The last human survivor of a colossal war against implacable aliens flees in his one-man starship, but the Others will never give up the chase. They have judged humanity guilty of a terrible crime and the penalty is the extermination of the species. But time dilates as they race through the universe at the speed of light. Ages pass, then eons, billions upon billions of years until our protagonist races on to the end of the universe itself, one step ahead of the aliens. I can’t claim it’s a work for the ages, but for a teenager stumbling his way into the science-fiction genre, it was positively addicting. Mrs. Howe noticed how much I liked the book and at the end of the school year gave it to me. I don’t know if she realized I was reading the same story over and over, but I was thrilled to have it. And I’ve never gotten rid of it.

Stars, Won’t You Hide Me? was originally published in The World of Tomorrow in 1966 and picked up for the Rod Serling anthology the following year. My copy is ugly as an old boot, so worn it doesn’t even have a cover. The original was either torn off by clumsy teenage hands or, more likely, it was a remaindered book that the teacher acquired for pennies and added to her class library. It has a large stain on the title page from a spilled coke, and that blotch shares the page with the teacher’s signature and the date she gave it to me. Old glue is exposed on the spine. The back page (Send for your free catalog of Bantam Bestsellers today!) is crumpled and barely hanging on.

I’ve long hoped to find a better edition, but I’ve never seen the story published anywhere else. I thought Stars, Won’t You Hide Me? had been well and truly lost to memory, but was astonished to find that the Rod Serling book has its own Wiki page, and I was able to download a cover image from there.

To track down any new editions I decided to go straight to the source. Ben Bova is still as prolific as ever at the age of 82, and his website has a complete bibliography, writing tips, chronology of his “grand tour” novels, and plenty more. I wrote to him, giving a brief version of this tale and how much his story affected me. He replied almost immediately. “You’ve made my day!” he told me. You can imagine what a thrill it was to read an influential story as a teenager, to carry the book around for decades through several moves and purges, and then 40 years later to correspond with the author by eeeelectronic mail. It’s not exactly the future I envisioned back then, but in some ways it’s more amazing.

Bova told me that the story had been reprinted in two other collections: Forward in Time (Walker, 1973) and Escape Plus (Tor, 1984). Although the paperbacks are long out of print, Forward in Time and Escape Plus are both available as e-books on Amazon. They may not be there for long, however. Bova recently signed a deal with Baen Books for a three-part omnibus of every short story he ever wrote. Stars, Won’t You Hide Me will be part of the Bova Omnibus, Volume III, due out in about three years.

Just goes to show—give a kid a book, you never know what direction it will take him. Thanks, Ben, and thanks, Mrs. Howe.

Long Lost Paperbacks No. 7

Firelord, 1982 Bantam edition, mass market paperback.
Firelord, 1982 Bantam edition, mass market paperback.

On the long list of books that should never be forgotten, Firelord by Parke Godwin rates a spot near the top. Godwin (1929-2013) was one of the best fantasy writers of the final decades of the 20th Century, yet sadly, nearly all of his books are out of print. If you want to read Godwin, you are relegated to the secondary market or a well-stocked library. None of his novels have been released as e-books that can be purchased through the usual retail channels (although if you search you can find e-versions available through Open Library).

That’s a terrible shame. Godwin was a great writer. He was a master at taking the epic legends of Western Civilization and breathing fresh life into them. Firelord (1980) is the best of his books, the finest take on the King Arthur legend I’ve ever read. It’s one of those rare novels I return to every few years and it gets better with every reading. I happily rank it as one of my top ten favorite books. As Godwin himself said, “It should have happened this way, it could have, and perhaps it did.”

Firelord begins at the and of Arthur’s life as he looks back at the events that placed him on the throne. There’s a maturity to the voice, a weariness, yet also a joyful embrace of both the pain and pleasures of life. This Arthur is a very real man, not a sterile and glorified archetype:

“I want to write of us the way we were before some pedant petrifies us in an epic and substitutes his current ideal for ours. As for poets and bards, let one of them redecorate your life and you’ll never be able to find any of it again.”

Godwin also does a masterful job of incorporating fantasy elements in a realistic and believable way.  Firelord was said to be a major influence on John Boorman’s movie Excaliber (1981), which was itself a break from the way the King Arthur legend had traditionally been told.

The follow-up, Beloved Exile, carries on the legend from Guenevere’s point of view after Arthur’s death. It, too, is an excellent read. But of Godwin’s other novels, The Tower of Beowulf is a particular favorite of mine. Seek any of these out through resellers on the internet or your local second-hand bookstore and you won’t be disappointed.

Long Lost Paperbacks No. 6

Let me just get this out of the way immediately: nothing by Robert E. Jones1Howard can truly be classified as “long lost.” His stories and novels have been constantly in print since the Lancer paperbacks revived Conan the Barbarian in the 1960s. Howard’s pulp-era stories have been recycled in so many volumes over the last 40 years that they practically rate an encyclopedia by themselves.

But some of these stand out from the crowd. The Book of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1, is one such. This Zebra paperback original from 1976 was edited by Glenn Lord and contained stories that had not been seen since their original publication in the 1920s and 1930s. The brooding poem Cimmeria was a particular favorite of mine.

Yet there’s something else that sets this book apart — the cover and interior artwork by Jeff Jones (1944-2011). Jones was one of the best fantasy illustrators of his day, but the man lived a… complicated life. More on that later.

When I first spied this paperback on the shelves in ’76, I immediately recognized Jones’ artwork. Along with Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, I considered Jones among my favorites, the kind of artist who spurred me to buy books on the strength of his artwork alone. He had painted the covers for Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser sagas, a series of books that I enjoyed immensely in the mid-1970s. In high school art class I had even tried my best to reproduce the awesome Jones2Jeff Jones cover of The Swords of Lankhmar, (shown at left). Jones also had a cartoon strip called Idyl in the National Lampoon, a magazine that was at its outrageous peak in the 1970s.

Jones’ paintings were atmospheric and dream-like, but the subject was always finely rendered, with excellent detailing. On this book in particular, the artwork stood out. There were interior illustrations as well, plus blue colored page edges, which probably contributed to the fact that The Book of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1 was more expensive than most paperbacks of the time at $1.95. A second volume appeared later that same year, also with artwork by Jones.

Despite his success (at least to my young eyes) Jeff Jones wasn’t the most contented soul. He married young and had a daughter, but Jones was never comfortable in his skin as a man. In 1998 Jones began hormone replacement therapy, changed his name to Jeffrey Catherine Jones, and lived the rest of his life as a woman. By most accounts that didn’t bring the peace he sought.

Robert E. Howard’s place in history has long-since been secured. It would make me happy if the artwork of Jeff Jones was similarly remembered.

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

GOTG_wps_teaserAh. There we go. A wide-open galaxy full of hyper-fast spaceships, exotic alien species and swashbuckling adventure. That’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Hollywood, was that really so hard?

Apparently it was. So much of what passes for science-fiction these days is small and cramped, inward-looking and cynical. Especially on the print side. It’s almost as if many current practitioners of the genre don’t actually like science-fiction very much, or are embarrassed by the whole “spaceships and aliens” thing.

The creators of GOTG apparently remembered why generations of young fans stayed up all night reading dog-eared sci-fi paperback novels. They understood why all those kids stood in line 10 times in a single week to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977. Guardians of the Galaxy is space opera on a grand scale, with painful conflicts for the protagonists to overcome, but a joyful feeling woven into the background. It conveys the sense of a galaxy unbound, of endless possibilities. In the course of the film we fly to astonishing worlds and civilizations. Every scene featuring space in the background is churning with glowing nebulas and roiling clouds of gas. This is not space as a cold vacuum, but a living environment that’s almost a character in its own right.

And make no mistake—this is a science-fiction adventure movie first and foremost. It may come from Marvel, home of those superheroes you’ve probably heard about, but this is no costumed crime caper, at least in the traditional sense. The Guardians have heroic feats to perform, but they don’t fall into the standard superhero mold. Each of the five have different powers and abilities and very clearly-defined personalities. They are thrown together as they seek, for varying reasons, a mysterious orb of great power. Their predicament and character development reminded me a little bit of a certain Firefly crew—smugglers, mercenaries and haunted souls forced to work as a team for a higher purpose.

If there’s one weakness of the film that goes right to the precipice of being annoying, it’s the reliance on Baby Boomer (or even Gen-X) pop culture references for laughs. What saves it from dragging down the whole enterprise is a nicely-crafted and touching backstory for “Star Lord” Peter Quill that gives him good reason to hang onto the cassette-tape songs from his past. It doesn’t hurt that the 1970s-era tunes selected for the soundtrack are so appealingly catchy.

Fans of nuts-and-bolts hard science-fiction may also feel the temptation to roll their eyes at the ease with which these techno-miracles appear on screen. I understand that temptation. All too often the “science” part of science-fiction gets tossed out the airlock if it gets in the way of a good yarn. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably guilty of this. The movie doesn’t slow down long enough to explain how these starships are zipping from planet to planet so quickly and easily. Faster-than-light travel is just baked into the Guardians universe, as are all the other feats of questionable physics.

Just go with it. We get little enough fun space opera as it is. If I have to choose between another round of zombie apocalypses, YA dystopias, environmental disasters, and mutating viruses, or the joy of a swashbuckling space opera, I’ll take the cool starships and exotic aliens any day.