Saturday, April 29, 2023

Conan - Conan the Bold

John Maddox Roberts is a Vietnam War veteran that served in the US Army from 1967 until 1970. His first novel, The Strayed Sheep of Charum, was published in 1977. Specializing in historical mystery and adventure, Roberts authored the successful Ancient Rome series SPQR, published as 13 installments between 1990 and 2010. He also authored titles like Stormlands, Hannibal, Space Angel, Cingulum, Island Worlds, and Falcon. My experience with the author is his contributions to the Conan pastiche novels published by Tor. Many Conan fans point to Roberts as one of the better authors of the post-Howard era of Conan literature. Roberts authored eight total novels featuring the hero, including Conan the Bold, originally published in 1989 with awesome cover art by Ken Kelly.

In Roberts' novel, he captures Conan's life at the age of 15 or 16, shortly after events in Conan of Venarium. After the sacking of Venarium, Conan headed south and wrestled with adventures in Pictland. It is here that he suffered injuries (off page), and as Roberts' novel begins, young Conan is being nursed back to health by a nice family in southwestern Cimmeria. In an interesting encounter, Conan is off hunting and reunites with a Great Valley Pict warrior named Tahatch. In reflection, Conan recounts his experience in the Pictish wilderness and battles with the Black Mountain Picts. After a battle, Conan first met Tahatch in a cave where the two struck up a friendship and Tahatch was able to mentor the young hero in ways of wilderness survival.  

When Conan returns from his hunting trip, he finds that his family, and the girl he was potentially to wed, all massacred by a band of slave raiders. Conan vows to track the raiders down and kill each of them. The book's narrative has Conan teaming with a swords-woman named Kalya, who has her own traumatic connection to the slave raiders. Together, the duo travel through Aquilonia, Ophir, Koth, Shem, and the River Styx over the course of nine months of hunting raiders.

Roberts compiles a lot of side-stories and small adventures in this 280 page novel. Aside from presenting these two heroes, the narrative spends a lot of time on the slave raiders led by a nefarious individual named Taharka. As the plot develops from different points of view, Taharka runs a gambit of slave raiding, pit fighting, robbing, and murder. These plot jumps feature an evil sorcerer named Alexandrias that uses drugs to bolster his fighting spirit. Readers experience the pit fights between slaves, Alexandrias, and Kalya, as well as prison breaks, boat fights, the liberation of a caravan, and numerous characters, the highlight being a dagger throwing phenom named Vulpio. 

Aside from too many story elements, Conan the Bold is a fantastic pastiche novel showcasing Conan's teenage years. At times the hero seems much older than 16, with dialogue suggesting he has lived a lot longer. But, the Conan Wiki has an excellent article justifying some of Roberts' writing and that Conan could have potentially experienced a lot of these things even at such a young age. If you are looking for a great adventure novel that fits into an old fashioned traditional western revenge yarn, then look no further than Conan the Bold. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, April 28, 2023

The Rest Must Die

Kendell Foster Crossen (1910-1981) was a popular author that created and wrote the crime-fiction series Milo March and the pulp superhero Green Lama. He contributed to a number of genres, including radio scripts for series titles like The Saint and Mystery Theater. Crossen used a variety of pseudonyms like M.E. Chaber, Clay Richards, Christopher Monig, and Bennett Barley. I am a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, so I was attracted to Crossen's The Rest Must Die. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1959 under the pen name Richard Foster. 

The author introduces readers to a handful of characters in the opening pages of the book. The locale is New York City and the two main protagonists are Bob, an advertising agency for Chaber, Crossen, and Monig (get it?), and a longshoreman named Joe. These are the guys you want on your team when a nuclear bomb wipes out the entire city. Conveniently, Bob and Joe, who don't know each other yet, each head to subway stations when they hear the siren wail of a bomb warning.

Inside Penn Station and 53rd Street Station, the survivors huddle together and listen to the ominous sounds of seven nuclear bombs pound the city into dust. Thankfully, Bob, Joe, and a dozen other survivors possess the wherewithal to understand that nothing above ground exists and that their only hope of survival lies in organizing roughly 3,000 people into small groups, each assigned to a group leader. 

The book's first half, roughly 90 pages, was mesmerizing as survivors traveled the subway on foot gathering supplies from the basements of pharmacies and department stores. Like any good post-apocalyptic novel, the true terror is humanity itself. It only takes a couple of days before people begin to spiral into savage depths of greed. The groups begin to war with each other, but the biggest threat is a mobster and a cop who team-up, oddly enough, to create a faction loaded with a supply of guns the mob had kept in a hidden underground locker. It's up to Bob and Joe to hunt down the faction's members and eliminate them. 

As you can imagine, I loved this book. It really has everything a good doomsday novel needs to be memorable and exciting. The bombs, fallout, radiation, rationing, dividing, conquering, it's all right here in these 200 pages. The novel still remains relevant today with many of the survivors dividing based on preconceived notions of stereotypes and former jobs. Bob is quick to notify everyone that whoever they were in a former life no longer matters. Despairingly, he reminds the survivors that they are now simply subway residents with no family and no home. By minimizing, Bob is able to calm most of the surviving population. It was so elementary, but a brilliant reminder that life resets often. The book's not-too-preachy message is that there's never an ending, only a reset and continuation. Sort of like Jeff Goldblum's Jurassic Park mantra - "Life Finds a Way". 

The Rest Must Die is an easy recommendation for anyone that loves post-apocalyptic fiction. It's a realistic look at how humanity is quick to turn on each other when the chips are down. But, the author laces the message with a lot of action and excitement. It simply doesn't get much better than this.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Something for the Birds

Here's the deal. Amber Dean's real name was Amber Dean Getzin and she lived from 1902 until 1985. She wrote 17 total novels, but 10 of these were part of an amateur detective series starring Abbie Harris. What's left are stand-alone stories, mostly suspense or crime-fiction that uses odd plot devices to keep novels unique and innovative. Case in point, Something for the Birds (hardcover 1959, paperback 1961), which features bird watchers mixed up with a heist team. It's crazy. It's unbelievable. It's entertaining as Hell. 

First things first, if you love both Lionel White and Dan Marlowe's characters plotting to knock over a bank while also conspiring to knock off one or two of their own heist team, then you'll love half of this book. No question. From that perspective, Dean showcases Frank and his three teammates (2 male, 1 female) planning a bank heist in Rochester, NY. Mostly, they perform well and get away with the money. Interesting enough, they decide to mail the stolen loot to a general delivery address in the small town where they plan to chill until the heat is off. 

The small upstate New York town the heist crew picks is inhabited by a group of friends that spend their free time as “birders”. I had to look the term up, but it's basically Paperback Warrior nerdiness, only with birds instead of books. These jokers keep log books of flight patterns, migration, what bird is mating (giving the bird) to another bird, species, calls, etc. Like, totally spaced out on birds. 

One of the birders has a lazy daughter that ships a package of dirty laundry back home for washing. Inevitably, because this is a crime-fiction novel, the birder accidentally gets the box of stolen cash and the bank robbers receive the dirty clothes. The mail is so unreliable. However, the birders never stop to open the box they have mistakenly received because they are on the hunt for bird eggs. But, the robbers know the birders have the money and are suspicious that they will go to the police. Frank and his team, which are warring with each other over the botched plans, head into the forest to shoot the women. Thus, this book's second-half is a suspenseful womanhunt birdwatching adventure with some mild humor. 

Something for the Birds was a lot of fun to read and is on par with Deadly Encounter in terms of tight, concise plot development. Dean's novels possess quirky characters in unusual circumstances, performing “outside the box” hobbies or careers. She does create some reader abrasion by constantly changing character perspectives and locales. But, I was okay with the dizziness. In regard to the mailing fiasco, I believe the author had another novel with the premise wrapped around a New York Post Office, but the title escapes me.  

Overall, if you enjoy heist books and the ultimate fallout when the plan goes south, then Something for the Birds is a soaring recommendation. Don't let this one fly away.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 24, 2023

Zanthodon #02 - Zanthodon

The Zanthodon series was created by science-fiction and fantasy author Lin Carter. Inspired by “hollow Earth” concepts by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne, the series explores the adventures of action-man Eric Carstairs and his zany employer Professor Potter as they navigate an immense underground world. The series ran five total installments, all published by DAW and now available through Wildside Press. Considering how much I enjoyed the debut, Journey to the Underground World (1979), I was excited to read the next novel, simply called Zanthodon (1980).

For new readers that are picking up the series at this juncture, Zanthodon begins by summarizing the events from the first book. In this novel, main characters like Eric, Potter, Darya, Jorn, and Hurok are misplaced in Zanthodon, each forced to fight to survive in the cruel, harsh landscape. There are dinosaurs, giant spiders, Neanderthals, Cro-Mags, pirates, and cave dwellers that all play a hand in the characters becoming alienated from each other. 

Through the narrative, these characters eventually reunite under unpleasant circumstances. While either stumbling blindly or captured, the characters find themselves trapped in a giant cave system that is occupied by slaves mastered by the evil Gorpaks. Rape, torture, and sacrifices to enormous bloodsucking leeches are all commonplace in the Hellish tunnels. Needless to say, Eric comes up with a prison break plan that occupies most of the narrative's second-half. 

Zanthodon is much better than the series debut and offers up wild adventure in so many different ways. Whether it is pirates, monsters, evil villains, deadly soldiers, prison breaks, and sword fights, the book is saturated with nonstop action. Lin Carter's prose is rather goofy at times, especially considering he was using the concept that all of this is a real manuscript simply published for the public's sake using an alias of “Lin Carter”. It reminds me of all the MAMs back in the day that were “told by the real participants to the unknown writer”. It's really silly, and I wish the whole thing was presented in third-person to avoid the confusion of “this was relayed to me”. But, aside from that, there is nothing to dislike about the story. 

If you are familiar with Lin Carter, you'll recognize the formula of one event leading to another crazy event, like one long chain-reaction that the characters are experiencing. It's a lot of fun and makes for a breezy, easy to read action-adventure worth its salt. Highly recommended. Bring on Hurok

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Conan - The Vale of Lost Women

Many of Robert E. Howard's stories weren't published during his lifetime. His Conan the Cimmerian original short “The Vale of Lost Women”, estimated to have been written in 1933, was published in Magazine of Horror in the Spring, 1967 issue. Glenn Lord discovered two versions of the story, one as a 17 page draft and another finished version at 21 pages. According to the Deep Cuts blog, there was never any indication that the story was submitted to the pulps. Aside from its original publication, it was featured in Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer 1967), The Conan Chronicles Vol. 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz 2000) and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (Del Rey 2003). 

“The Vale of Lost Women” takes place after the events of “Queen of the Black Coast” and Belit's death. Conan has joined the Bamula tribe in the jungles of Kush, becoming their new tribal king. In an effort to propose a possible truce, Conan visits a rival tribe called The Bakalah. It is here that he meets a white female prisoner named Livia. He learns that both Livia, and her brother, are scientists from Ophir that were captured by Bakalah warriors. Livia's brother was tortured to death, and she's certainly next to die. 

Livia suggests to Conan that she is a virgin, and after he refuses to free her, she offers him her body. Conan then agrees to help her escape. Later that day, she sees Conan walking towards her carrying the bloody severed head of the Bakalah's tribal chief. In fear that Conan, now drenched in crimson, is coming for her, she escapes on horseback into the jungle. It's this portion of the story where things take a bizarre turn.

Livia falls from her horse and discovers she's in a beautiful valley that is home to a tribe of black lesbians! But, the lesbians are using poisonous orchids to create a hallucinogenic effect, placing Livia in a trance. She finds that these lesbians are sacrificing her on an alter to a giant black bat! Thankfully, Conan has trailed Livia and fights off the giant bat thing. Livia, fearing that Conan will attempt to claim her, becomes frightened. However, Conan simply advises her that he made a mistake in accepting her proposal to give herself to him. Arguably, he is suggesting there is no honor in that. Instead, he agrees to guide her to the Stygian border where she can eventually find passage to Ophir. 

There isn't much to Howard's story, which probably contributes to the possibility that it was never submitted for publication during the author's lifetime. The imagery of Conan slowly walking through carnage holding a severed head is memorable, but aside from that there isn't a whole lot to highlight. But, the story does present a rarely seen moment of the hero's life as the Bamula leader. 

Besides “The Vale of Lost Women”, Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp authored a 1969 story called “The Castle of Terror” that briefly recaps Conan's tenure with the Bamulas, stating he ruled the tribe for a year. It further states that a severe drought struck the region of Kush, which the Bamulas blamed on Conan, ultimately forcing him into exile. Roland Green's 1994 novel Conan at the Demon Gate also depicts Conan's time with the Bamulas and his rise to ruler of the tribe. Marvel's Conan the Barbarian adapted events from “The Vale of Lost Women” in issues #101-104. 

Personally, I feel that artist Ken Kelly's cover art for Conan the Bold, a 1989 paperback by John Maddox Roberts, is a good recommendation of Conan battling a "bat creature" while protecting a girl, an event that happens in "The Vale of Lost Women" but oddly never occurs in Roberts' novel. Also, Conan battles a "dark bat thing" while protecting a girl in Conan the Barbarian #9, an adaptation of Howard's 1934 horror story "Garden of Fear". Both Kelly's artwork for the novel and Roy Thomas's writing in the comic just remind me of "The Vale of Lost Women" for some reason.

Friday, April 21, 2023

Death of an Intruder/Twice So Fair

Nedra Tyre (1912-1990), who was born in Offerman, Georgia, received her B.A. from Atlanta's Emory University and her M.A. from Richmond School of Social Work in Virginia. She worked as a teacher, staff writer, social worker, typist, and a sales clerk in addition to being a notable mystery and suspense author. She wrote six stand-alone novels and approximately 40 short stories for magazines like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Sleuth, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Mystery Monthly

Stark House Press have recently reprinted two Tyre novels in one volume, Death of an Intruder (1954) and Twice So Fair (1971), along with an introduction by Curtis Evans. Tyre's name was new to me, but thankfully this twofer served as a wonderful introduction to this talented author. Billed as “suspense classics”, both of these novels deliver deeply embedded mysteries that are ratcheted up to higher levels of tension and psychological edginess that is similar to Elizabeth Fenwick (real name Elizabeth Phillips) or Margaret Millar

The better of the two novels, Death of an Intruder, introduces readers to Miss Allison, a middle-aged woman who strives for independence after the death of her aunt. Allison finds a charming house, purchases the home, and begins a solitary life of enjoyment and simplicity. However, her bliss is short-lived when an elderly woman, Miss Withers, knocks on her door and invites herself in. After complaining about a rainstorm, Withers begs to stay the night. Allison, a quiet, non-confrontational individual, agrees to allow her uninvited guest to sleep on the sofa. The next morning, Allison is horrified to learn that Withers hasn't left. And she never will.

Through 150ish pages, Allison must contend with an unwanted roommate that violates her sanctity. As the narrative grips readers, Allison learns that Withers may have killed her pet, ruined her relationship with a prospective boyfriend and close friend, and alienated her from the life she once enjoyed. Debating on how to rid herself of the woman, Allison's only choice may be murder. 

Like Allison's introspective problems within her own home, Twice So Fair presents a recent widow, Rosalind, learning about her late husband's mysterious involvement with one of his students. Both of them were found dead in a college studio, but what was their relationship? As Rosalind contends with the loss of her husband, and the obligatory affairs of dissolving a happily married lifestyle by unforeseen circumstances, she is thrust into a mystery when a stranger invades her home. In a darkened room, the man confesses to be an estranged friend of the student found dead beside Rosalind's husband, and begins a conversational journey explaining his orphaned upbringing and potential “six degrees of separation” from Rosalind's life. But, could this uninvited stranger be a killer?

Nedra Tyre is a phenomenal storyteller, and it pains me to know that I've now read nearly half of her novels. I'm surprised, and disappointed, that she didn't write more full-lengths, but due to publisher issues in her late career, she was submerged into the short story market. Her perspectives on life, literary work, social inadequacies, marital harmony, and paranoia are center-stage attractions of these novels. It's nearly uncanny how well she can enter the minds of the characters she creates. 

According to Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, Tyre had a niche for “superbly handled suspense”, evident with these novels and her short stories “Locks Won't Keep You Out” (1978, Ellery Queen's Napoleons of Mystery) and “On Little Cat Feet” (1976, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine). I enjoyed her characterizations of both protagonists, with Allison and Rosalind sharing similar outlooks – as dreary as they may be. Interesting enough, there is a sense of wrongdoing on the part of supporting characters, those acquaintances of both Allison and Rosalind. When the support system is most needed, both intimately and professionally, it fails these less-than-confident protagonists. It was clever plotting and development by Tyre to force these characters into independent (irrational?) action. 

If you are new to Nedra Tyre, then by all means this twofer is highly recommended. In general, if you are new to female mystery and suspense writers, Stark House Press have an abundance of long-forgotten, entertaining classics by the likes of Mary Collins, Helen Nielsen, Dolores Hitchens, Ruth Wallis, and Jean Potts to name a few. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Man Alone (aka Steve Douglas of Sleepycat Ranch)

In 1971, Belmont/Unibook published a book with a rather odd title, Steve Douglas of Sleepycat Ranch. I don't know who the author is, but the book's cover is amazing. However, I own the 1975 version of this same book, a Belmont Tower paperback called Man Alone. The author's name on the cover is E.H. Manring, a name that could resemble a real author or simply a pseudonym for any number of action-adventure writers of that decade. However, I believe the author is an old pulpster based on my reading experience with the book.

Traditional western formulas tend to fall into a handful of scenarios. Arguably, the most popular of these is the ranch stealing stories where either some wealthy bullish land baron forces the average working man to fight for his right to ranch or cattle-rustlers are stealing livestock from the average working man. Either way, it is always about a land grab with the trophy being water, gold, cattle, money, or the beautiful woman (mostly the widowed variety). Man Alone is that story, only modernized to fit the late 20th century.

Steve Douglas is a former U.S. Marine and a rodeo riding superstar. Nowadays (in 1971 that is), he is a horse rancher with a big 'ole spread in Arizona. Big city goons representing the Syndicate arrive with a proposition to buy out Douglas in an effort to take his horses to the races. Douglas says no, so the goons spike his punch, place him on an airplane, and advise the pilot to casually dump Douglas in The Grand Canyon. Thankfully, the pilot is a Yaqui from Old Mexico, so he shows pity on Douglas and takes him to his family's place across the border. Like a typical western, Douglas is initiated into the family through a ritual and then it is all guns blazing as Douglas grabs an M-16, some grenades, and a sawed-off and heads back to his ranch to kill the baddies and get his horses. 

Hold your horses right there mister. I totally forgot to mention that Man Alone, aka Steve Douglas of Sleepycat Ranch, is a G-rated pulpy juvenile family-friendly novel. So, shave off everything up top after the words “...through a ritual.”

Instead of maximum carnage, Douglas teams up with a Yaqui attorney to fight the baddies through legal means. It's a courtroom brawl instead of a slobber-knockin' beat'em up. There is a brief fistfight on the sidewalk, but it's short and Douglas's own girlfriend is involved. Instead, this vengeance yawn is a childish romp with very little payoff. 

The author uses quotations whenever Douglas is thinking to himself (I despise that), and consistently ends sentences with an exclamation mark! At one point a character tells another to “speak American” and “give it to me in U.S.A." instead of Spanish. To squeeze a lemon in the gash, there is even a gold mine with a curse. 

I debated on putting this into the Hall of Shame, but that isn't really fair. It isn't necessarily the author's fault that the book was marketed as a modern, gritty mob-buster. It also isn't the author's fault that I am a veteran of dirty westerns where the 'ole Double-D is being squeezed by a depraved rapist posing as a thriving businessman. So, it's a no contest. But, leave Man Alone alone.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 17, 2023

Brother and Sister

Do you remember the Don Pendleton series The Executioner? Of course you do, don't be ridiculous. Even a perfect stranger completely alienated from men's action-adventure literature will know who Mack Bolan is. Probably. Anyhow, in the debut of that series, War Against the Mafia, Mack Bolan is in the U.S. military and serving in Vietnam. He receives a letter from home advising him that his parents are dead. So, he comes home and starts banging on mobsters. 

But, if there was a PornHub take on War Against the Mafia, say 17 years before Mack Bolan and 30 years before the internet, it could have a U.S. military serviceman receiving a letter from home telling him that his parents are dead. So, he goes home and starts banging his sister. That's the introduction of Brother and Sister, a Monarch paperback original from 1961 authored by Edwin West, who is none other than the famous Donald Westlake who uses the name Richard Stark to pen the Parker series, the best heist books of all-time. 

Seventeen year old Angie's child-body has developed into voluptuous womanhood. So, she's consistently fighting off the sex-starved Bob by the dim light of the dashboard radio every Friday night. But, she's finally had enough lip-puckering and wants to totally take a low blow. So, she informs heavy-handed Bob that her parents are gone and if he can slip in and out really fast, they can successfully liberate her body from its virgin prison. But, when Bob pulls into Angie's driveway, all of the house lights are on and an old aunt is in the doorway. Angie learns that her parents have both died in a horrible car wreck. Bob's receipt of the news is equally devastating, but in a different way. 

Paul is twenty-one and an Airman Second Class in the United States Air Force. After bedding down a young woman in Germany, he marries her and they both live happily ever after for four consecutive months. But, one day Paul arrives home early and finds his wife serving as a blow-up doll for a another hump-happy Airman (see what I did there?). Paul divorces his slut of a wife, and after a few months receives the devastating news that his parents have died in a car wreck. The only thing he can think of is his little sister Angie. He has to come home quick.

After the funeral, Paul and Angie decide to just live together in their childhood suburban home. When Bob comes over to provide Angie physical therapy to mourn, Paul punches his lights out and sends him packing. After a few days, Paul begins to think of Angie in a different way. Angie begins to substitute Paul for Bob in her own mind. Before you know it, Paul and Angie are doing the nasty and pretending like they are married. It's a lot of incest. I mean a lot.

Thankfully, Westlake throws in a bit of crime-fiction when Paul and Angie's devious uncle appears to claim the house as his through a series of neglected loan payments. Apparently holing up in your dead parents' house committing acts of incest does come with a price. There's a mortgage payment and bills to screw with too. Ultimately, the book's second-half is like a countdown to madness as Paul and Angie begin to question their own sanity. The book's closing pages will be stuck in my mind forever. It was such a wild, crazy romp to the finish with a climax that borders on dark psychological horror. 

Despite how you feel about incest (hopefully we aren't bipartisan on this), Brother and Sister was a thrill to read. Westlake is a masterful storyteller, and even when he wasn't writing crime-fiction, he could stir the emotional suspense. If you love Westlake, this is an easy recommendation. But, if you just want a wild and crazy leap into a PG-13 level sexcapade (nothing graphic here), Brother and Sister is the way to do it.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, April 15, 2023

Conan - Conan the Rebel

Prolific science-fiction and fantasy author Poul Anderson (1926-2001) wrote one Conan novel, 1980's Conan the Rebel. It was originally published by Bantam in 1980, then reprinted by the publisher again in 1981. Ace Books reprinted the novel twice, 1988 and 1991. England's Sphere Books also reprinted the novel in 1988. Tor Books published the novel as a hardcover in 2001 and a softcover in 2003.

What makes Conan the Rebel really interesting is that it is set in a time-period of Conan's life that directly places him in the middle of a Robert E. Howard story called “Queen of the Black Coast”. In Howard's story, originally published in 1934, Conan joins a sailing crew led by raven-haired pirate-queen Belit as they ravage the Stygian coast on their Tigress ship. The beginning of the story is Conan's introduction to Belit and incorporation into the life of piracy. The second half of the story is the Tigress destruction and Belit's death. However, in the middle of the story Howard suggests that the duo had a wonderful life together sailing the high seas as lovers. This is the era that Anderson hones in on.

In Conan the Rebel, both Belit and the titular hero are experiencing love and adventure at sea. But the two become targets of a sorcerer who is serving the dark god Set. In the opening pages, the Stygian magician Tothapis is warned by Set that both Conan and Belit are now a loving couple (that won't produce children). Set tells Belit that a magical ax will be used to wreak havoc on Stygia. Tothapis, gaining insight from Set's rather vague vision, assembles a meeting with a military leader and a vile priestess. The military man recognizes the ax in the description as the powerful Ax of Varanghi. Putting two and two together, the group focus on killing Conan to keep him from using this ax to destroy's Set's sanctuary. 

While Anderson's narrative is rather dense with characters and multiple story arcs, the collective whole is a rousing action-packed, sword-and-sorcery novel. There are multiple allies assisting Conan through various aspects of the adventure. Readers are provided varying backstories for each character to build validity and purpose to their inclusion in the plot development. The adventures incorporate nautical aspects, jungle escapism, a prison break, treasure hunting, and the wicked supernatural entities summoned by the magician and priestess. 

Conan the Rebel was a real pleasure to read and an entertaining romp through a small, isolated portion of Conan's spectacular history. Belit would later die in “Queen of the Black Coast”, so the character in the books and short story is short-lived. However, in the Conan the Barbarian comics by Marvel, she is featured predominantly in issues 58-100. Dark Horse's own Conan the Barbarian comic featured Belit through issue 25, later partially collected in the trade paperback Conan Vol. 16: The Song of Belit.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, April 14, 2023

Mission Impossible - The Priceless Particle

The Mission Impossible TV show aired for 171 episodes starting in 1966 and spawned four paperback tie-in novels and two juvenile ones. The first of the juvenile books was a 212-page novel from 1969 called The Priceless Particle by crime fiction veteran Talmage Powell (1920-2000). Having never seen the show or the contemporary movies, it seemed like a fair place to start.

The Impossible Missions Force - or IMF - is a secret U.S. Government Agency that handles jobs way too tough for other agencies. The IMF is headed by Jim Phelps, an executive who also seems to handle a good bit of fieldwork. While in Italy, Phelps is passed a secret message (cool tradecraft, by the way) alleging that a biochemical researcher has developed a synthetic protein that could end world hunger. The scientist has been taken captive by the evil dictator in the impoverished home nation of Masacar.

Both the Americans and the Russians want to bust the doctor loose and harness his formula. If the totalitarians gain control of the key to solve world hunger, they’ll leverage it to turn the world commie. Whereas the U.S. will use the technology for nothing but benevolent good — ‘cause that’s how we roll.

The mission, if Phelps chooses to accept it (spoiler alert: he does), is to free the captive scientist before the Russians do. He puts together his core team of agents from the TV show to handle the mission. The book nicely doesn’t assume the reader is a student of the show, so each character gets an appropriate amount of exposition.

It’s interesting that this book was originally released for the juvenile market because there’s nothing childish about the writing or plot. Powell’s language is mature and the geopolitics aren’t dumbed-down. Granted, there’s no sex or profanity, but I bet there wasn’t any in the adult Mission Impossible paperbacks authored by Walter Wager using the John Tiger pseudonym. Part of me wonders if Powell was even informed this would be packaged for kids with a cardboard hardcover like a Hardy Boys novel.

The Priceless Particle is a solid rescue-the-prisoner story sprinkled with lots of cool, espionage-fiction tricks of the trade. For my money, there was a bit of over-reliance on uncanny disguises, evidently a trope of the series, but not enough to ruin the adventure. There’s no real bodycount or violence, but the author generates plenty of excitement nonetheless.

I can definitely recommend this novel without reservations. Talmage Powell wrote one other Mission Impossible juvenile novel for Whitman Books called The Money Explosion, which I’d read in a heartbeat if the price was right. Don’t spend a fortune on The Priceless Particle, but if you have it on a shelf or find a cheap copy, it’s a perfectly pleasant diversion.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Eternal Champion #02 - The Silver Warriors (aka Phoenix in Obsidian)

Michael Moorcock is a highly respected and admired science-fiction and fantasy author. His Elric Saga influenced dozens of genre authors, comic writers, and even rock bands. But, Moorcock also authored a number of other series titles that connect to the Elric Saga's robust multiverse. You can enjoy these series titles without reading Elric, but at some point you'll find the connection if you read enough. The Eternal Champion trilogy is one of those connecting titles. The trilogy, often called the Erekose series, began in Science Fantasy #53 in 1962, and then published by Dell in 1970. Its sequel, also published in 1970, is Phoenix in Obsidian. In 1973, the book was published by Dell in paperback as The Silver Warriors, with artwork by Frank Frazetta. 

The premise of most of Moorcock's fantasy novels is a special blade called the Black Sword. The sword desires blood and often can possess the one who wields it. The blade is the master, the swordsman the slave. Throughout time, whether there really is time, a hero is summoned to use the sword to fight for a cause. These heroes are incarnations of the Eternal Champ, and range from Elric to Hawkmoon and other characters. The Eternal Champions trilogy focuses on the hero of Erekose, who is flung from his time when someone, or something, summons him. 

In the book's opening pages, Erekose is summoned as the Eternal Champion again, this time as Urlik Skarsdol, a warrior of the Southern Ice. Urlik finds he is in a far flung future of a dying Earth, a frosty ice-world that now faces its final years. On a sled pulled by polar bears, Urlik takes a wrong turn and ends up on Rowernarc where he meets Bishop Belphig (bad guy) and Lord Shanosfane (good guy). 

In a humorous exchange, Urlik, knowing if he has been summoned it is surely to battle something, questions why he is in Rowernarc. Belphig and Shanosfane both advise him that they didn't summon him. Urlik then asks if anyone is out to dethrone or assassinate them, is there a plot emerging to overthrow the king, is there a rebellion to thwart? The answer is always no, so Urlik begins to think he was summoned by mistake. 

Eventually, the plot begins to take shape and Urlik is betrayed by Belphig and left to die on a glacier. He is saved by a race of people called The Silver Warriors, and the narrative begins to focus on Urlik's true calling. The Black Sword, really appearing as The Cold Sword, is introduced and Urlik has his destiny to face – take up the sword and try to control its powerful persuasion to slaughter or attempt to stop Belphig using another, safer means. The central element to Moorcock's writing is always this inner turmoil that helps elevate the story into something meaningful and wrought with emotion. 

The Silver Warriors, or Phoenix in Obsidian, is another remarkable novel by Michael Moorcock that is chock-full of action, adventure, fantasy, and sorcery. Whether you are brand new to the Eternal Champion mythos or a longtime fan, this book is a mandatory read. It also introduces a rare comical twist that I felt made it unique. Highest possible recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, April 10, 2023

Tortured for Christ

Right off the bat, let me just say I review vintage paperbacks. I love paperbacks. Bestsellers, Lowsellers, Nosellers, it makes no difference to me. But, I also do enjoy reading and reviewing paperbacks that were a sensation at the time of their publication. Books that flew off of shelves for no real reason other than just “you had to be there” sort of thing. 

Before you roll your eyes and think Paperback Warrior is now Paperback Priest, I'm reviewing Tortured for Christ because it is a vintage book from 1967, it was a sensation in multiple countries and languages, and for the most part it has everything I love - high adventure, military combat, WW2 history, good guys fighting bad guys, espionage prison, and escapism. So, if I'm going to read The Great Escape, If I Die in a Combat Zone, or Yet Another Voice, there's no reason to avoid Tortured for Christ. I believe everyone should have the freedom to believe what they believe and read what they want to read. Which is ultimately the premise of Tortured for Christ. If you are a believer or nonbeliever, it honestly doesn't matter. This is just a great book. 

The book is like an autobiography written in the third person by Richard Wurmbrand. As a fascinating history lesson, Wurmbrand chronicles his life growing up in Romania and the effects World War I and II had on his life and his country. The events of those wars are well documented in the book, but Wurmbrand goes behind the lines and really presents a human element to the madness of war and its effects on women, children, and families. 

Due to Wurmbrand being a Christian pastor, he immediately becomes a target of the Nazis. After World War II, his life and those of others in Romania seemed to have finally reached a bright spot. But, Stalin and communist forces took control of Romania and transformed it into a puppet government for Russia. Wurmbrand and his wife go on the run, working incognito and underground to avoid the brutal regime. Unfortunately, Wurmbrand is caught by the secret police and is shuffled through multiple prisons for 14 terrifying years.

I'm a veteran of the 70s, 80s, and 90s team-combat books, the military fictional men's action-adventure novels, the high-numbered installments of your favorite vigilante or supermerc, so I'm accustomed to heroes undergoing torture by evil governments, villains, drug dealers, etc. It isn't anything new. But, when it comes to real-life descriptions of torture, it's a different thing completely. 

The horrors that Wurmbrand endured, and his unbending faith in God, really had an impact on me. It made me question why I'm complaining about my coffee being served cold in the drive-thru lane when people like this suffered, and are still suffering, daily for various reasons. I'm not sure how Wurmbrand was able to do the things he did (which in itself might be hyperbole on his part), but the book's overall development from freedom to prison to liberation was simply mindblowing. 

If you do enjoy reading this sort of thing, I do recommend Yet Another Voice, which I reviewed, and also Faith of my Fathers, both of which depict real-life horrors of prison in North Vietnam. If you want to skip this book completely, the novel was adapted into a film this year by the same name. Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Conan - Queen of the Black Coast

Along with “The Tower of the Elephant” and “The Frost-Giant's Daughter”, “Queen of the Black Coast” is one of the most praised Robert E. Howard stories starring Conan the Cimmerian. It was originally published in Weird Tales in May, 1934. The story was reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #8 in November 1948. It was collected in The Coming of Conan (Gnome Press, 1953), Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969), The Conan Chronicles Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle (Gollancz, 2000) and later as comic book adaptations by both Marvel and Dark Horse. 

Conan sailing the seas was something hinted at in “The City of Skulls”, “The Pool of the Black One”, then again at the end of “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Obviously, the hero conquered the high seas as a pirate, and nothing illustrates that part of Conan's life better than “Queen of the Black Coast”. 

The story begins with Conan fleeing the law in Argos. Conan explains later that his friend killed someone defending a girl, and after going on the run, the magistrate demands that Conan provide his friend's location. Instead of providing information about his friend, Conan kills the magistrate. In an effort to avoid his pursuers, Conan demands passage on the Argus, a trading barge. When the Argus crew refuses to allow Conan to board, he threatens to kill the captain and his crew. Conan then befriends the ship's captain, a guy named Tito. 

The story's title comes to fruition when Belit arrives, a gorgeous female pirate commanding the Tigress. Her clashing with Conan's crew in Kush is a violent, epic struggle as the Argos crew is annihilated by Belit's black pirates. However, she finds Conan's fighting skills to be superb, peaking her interest in the adventurer. Belit is sexually attracted to Conan and soon the two become lovers as they ravage Stygian coastlines as pirates of the Tigress. Conan is deemed “Amra”, meaning “Lion.”

On the river Zarkheba, Conan and Belit discover an ancient tower in the jungle. After rotating the tower, they find a wealth of treasures, including a cursed necklace for Belit. Soon, subhuman creatures (hyena men?) and a winged demon appear to slaughter the Tigress's crew. The necklace creates madness for Belit and after Conan's lone departure to kill a monster, he returns to find her corpse hanging from the ship. 

There is a lot happening within this short story, mostly death, destruction, and total carnage. The swordplay becomes nearly grotesque as brains are cracked and bodies are cleaved in half. But, Howard's violent storytelling is a necessity to convey the jungle horrors that befall Belit and Conan. It is gruesome, but still remains unique in its avoidance of any typical Conan tropes.

“Queen of the Black Coast” presents something unusual for Conan – a true love. This love interest is more powerful than that of Valeria (“Red Nails”, Blood of the Serpent) and Olivia (“Shadows in the Moonlight”). While readers don't partake in the relationship itself, they are there for the beginning. Belit's attraction to Conan is nearly hypnotic, submitting to the hero despite the number of crewmen she commands and the overall superiority of her ship. Conan instantly feels the attraction and is magnetized by this “She-Devil”. 

Howard's story is among the upper echelon of Conan tales and certainly deserves the accolades heaped upon it. This is an adventure story for the ages, but also a horror tale. The combination of genres is exciting, riveting, and completely awe-inspiring. This is the Conan story you need to read. Highest of recommendations.

Friday, April 7, 2023

Soldier of Fortune #3 - Spoils of War

Author Peter McCurtin launched the Soldier of Fortune series of men's action-adventure novels in the 1970s starring Jim Rainey, a Vietnam War veteran who became a mercenary. The series ran from 1976 through 1978, and was resurrected for a continuation from 1984 through 1985. Mostly, the series was authored by McCurtin, but Ralph Hayes also penned seven installments. I've had a blast reading the series and continue the enjoyment with the third installment, Spoils of War, written by McCurtin and published by Tower in 1977. 

The series begins with Rainey on a business trip in Jerusalem. In and out of getting laid by a beautiful language expert, Rainey learns through the grapevine that a notorious assassin named Maltese has been hired by an unknown banana country to kill him. These opening chapters have Rainey prowling the streets finding informers that could lead him to Maltese instead of the other way around. In the fast-paced, explosive early chapters, Rainey and Maltese square off in a hotel and those scenes alone are worth handling a filthy old paperback for an hour or two. 

These books have a pattern similar to the Assignment series by Edward S. Aarons. The hero is hired or assigned an international case involving the overthrow of a dictator, protecting a targeted leader, or quelling a rebellion. The pattern is the hero learns the history of the conflict, scouts the lay of the land, and then hires locals to train for assistance in stopping the global danger. 

In Spoils of War, Rainey takes a $3,500 per month job to fight for the Christians in Lebanon. The Lebanese government is experiencing a conflict between the Muslims and Christians (no shit) that they want to keep as peaceful as possible. But, the Muslims have been angered so they have captured a Christian village and have begun to systematically execute villagers each day until their demands are met. Lebanese's central government doesn't want to involve their military for fear of panic and hysteria. So, a discreet operation to retake the village and kill the Muslims is where Rainey's services are required. 

Needless to say, this series is exceptional and McCurtin's plotting is superb. Not only is the curtain jerker skirmish fantastic, but once the plot unveils with Rainey's newest gig, the novel hits a new level. What I love about these books is Rainey's interaction with the local governments and training killers. I also really admire Rainey's attitude that he will fight for any side if the money is right. But, his golden rule is once he's accepted and committed to one side, he is never convinced or lured to the enemy with more money. He is a man of his word and I find that admirable. 

Spoils of War is brutally violent, fast-paced, and chock-full of gunfire, fisticuffs, traitors, assassins, murder, and some surprising dialogue on the absurdity of these types of wars. If you love men's action-adventure novels, you need to be reading this series. Recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Gutter Road

Many authors have shied away from their early work in the sleaze/soft-core paperback market, but science-fiction royalty Robert Silverberg has made peace with his checkered past allowing Stark House Press to reprint his steamy crime-fiction-adjacent works. The latest vintage reprint is a double, including his 1964 novel Gutter Road, originally released under his Don Elliott pseudonym.

The paperback begins with 38 year-old, married accountant Fred Bauman picking up a stacked female hitchhiker (Reviewer Note: Silverberg is totally a breast man). The young babe is Joanne, and she strikes Fred as a sex-positive kinda gal with an aggressively flirtatious streak. In fact, she teases Fred into such a sexual lather that he forces himself upon her in what we’d call a date-rape by today’s standards.

After their car-bang is fully consummated, Joanne shifts gears and blackmails Fred. She wants $5,000 or she’s going to the cops with a load of his DNA to report his suburban ass for sexual assault. She gives him a couple days to pull the money together before disappearing into the night.

We quickly learn that this isn’t Joanne's first rodeo. In fact, the date-rape-blackmail game is her go-to source of income. Previously, she worked as a prostitute and a dominatrix, but the fake-rape business just pays better. She also has a vibrant, consensual sex life with a hoodlum named Buddy, and Silverberg certainly knows his way around a good 1960s-style sex scene.

There are a handful of side characters and family members in the novel, and Silverberg gives us a peek into each of their secret sex lives. Some of this felt like filler, but it was always well written and compelling. The problem with Gutter Road is that there’s not much of a story arc throughout the novel other than the beginning and the resolution. Otherwise, it’s really just a cycle of sex scenes among the cast of dysfunctional characters.

I will add that the last part of the book finally becomes a crime novel once Fred decides to deal with the problem of Joanne the blackmailer head-on. The climactic sequences are pretty great and in total keeping with the dark, violent, twisty conclusions of the best Manhunt stories from the same era.

Overall, I enjoyed Gutter Road. It was an interesting glimpse into societal norms and taboos from 60 years ago. Even with his early sex books, Silverberg could deliver interesting characters and some damn fine prose with a violent conclusion. I’m glad he and Stark House are making these old novels available.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, April 3, 2023

Barsoom #01 - A Princess of Mars

In the same year that he created and authored Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs also introduced readers to John Carter of Mars, an equally adored and respected character that would surface in the author's bibliography from 1912 through 1941. The first appearance of Carter is in A Princess of Mars, originally published in All-Story Magazine from February through July, 1912. This novel-length adventure is an original tale that cornerstones the Barsoom series.

After the Civil War ends, Virginia Confederate veteran John Carter heads west to prospect for gold. With his partner, Carter finds a gold vein in the dry rocky desert of Arizona. When his partner agrees to head to town for supplies, Carter suspects that the Apache tribe of Native Americans will attack him. Riding in pursuit, Carter discovers his friend has been killed by the warriors. Hoping to avoid death himself, Carter stumbles upon a sacred cave that is actually a “stargate” portal. In a blink, Carter is surprised when he looks around at his surroundings. He is on Mars!

Burroughs spends some time for world building, but the short version is that Mars, called Barsoom, is inhabited by various races of intelligence that wage war with each other. Carter finds himself a prisoner of green, tusked Martians known as Tharks. Carter wants to locate other humans, and is shocked to find Dejah Thoris, a captured princess from Helium, a red “humanoid” Martian race.

The narrative is a bit clunky, but the premise is that Carter rises through the ranks of the Tharks while falling in love with Dejah and befriending a Thark warrior named Tars Tarkas. Eventually, Carter leads the Tharks against Helium's enemy Zodanga to achieve peace between the red and green. As the book closes, readers learn that Carter spent nine years on Mars, but it ends with the character unexpectedly back on Earth wondering what befell his friends on the red planet.

I'm motivated enough by Princess of Mars to pursue reading more installments. I much prefer Burroughs' Tarzan novels thus far, but this first Barsoom novel was entertaining enough. The story is a showpiece for science-fiction fantasy, inspiring countless authors and filmmakers. One can journey down any pop-culture or literary rabbit hole to learn more about the series and its legacy. If you love science-fiction, the Barsoom series is probably already on your shelves. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, April 1, 2023

Conan - Lair of the Ice Worm

“The Lair of the Ice Worm” was authored by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It was first published in Conan of Cimmeria, a 1969 omnibus published by Lancer Books, then later by Ace. The story was also published in the Sphere Books collection The Conan Chronicles and adapted into comic book form in Savage Sword of Conan #34

The story picks up after the events of "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" as a twenty-something Conan is trudging through the snowfall in Aesir. A short distance away, Conan sees a young woman being attacked by savage men resembling Neanderthals. Soon, Conan is slicing his way to the woman's rescue, but his horse is killed in the battle. In an eerie premonition, the girl warns Conan of something ominous called a Yakhmar, but Conan (and readers) isn't sure what that is.

Finding shelter in a cave, Conan makes love to the girl by the firelight. He awakens to discover the girl is no longer in the cave. With the icy conditions outside, Conan fears something may have happened to her. Outside, he follows a trail that leads to two skeletons, one of the girl and another of his horse. Both have been picked clean of all flesh and oddly enveloped in ice. Conan begins to think that this Yakhmar thing is actually a Remora, a giant vampire-like worm. Feeling responsible for the girl's death, Conan tracks the worm's trail to an icy cave. Will he escape this fiendish assault of Remora?

An eerie atmosphere and ambiance prevails throughout this short fantasy story. There's the obvious elements of horror, complete with a worm-like creature squirming under the icy tundra. It was this sort of vibe that made me think of Lovecraft in a broader horror sense. The early battle with the savages was written well and contained the sweeping adventure that REH's Conan stories frequently possessed. As an aside, the brawny hero had no resistance in bedding down the beauty of the story, another obvious trope of Conan storytelling.

Overall, this was another great short story told by de Camp and Carter. It certainly fits into the Conan of Cimmeria collection alongside "The Frost-Giant's Daughter" and "Queen of the Black Coast" in terms of extreme locations. There's nothing about the story to really dislike. Recommended.