Friday, January 22, 2021

Review: China Coaster

China Coaster China Coaster by Don Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An early adventure novel from Don Smith who went on to write the popular Secret Mission series. CHINA COASTER tells the story of Mike O’Connor, an American expatriate working as a ships captain in post-war China, a tumultuous time when emergent Communism and Chinese nationalism clashed. Adding to the complications are the infiltration of Soviet NKVD (precursor to KGB) agents, one of whom kills O’Connor’s lover which sparks an overarching revenge plot. O’Connor’s goal is to get out of the country before being detained by the Communists but is instead kidnapped and forced to work with Nationalist mobsters. After escaping he realizes that he can’t abide leaving until he avenges his lover’s murder setting up some extended hide and seek action. Well written with many fascinating details about China and the post-war time period. I though that it might be a little too ambitious and overly-detailed with a mind boggling rush of Chinese locations and characters which made following the story a bit of a chore. Still a fine book well worth seeking out and reading.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Review: Harry and the Bikini Bandits

Harry and the Bikini Bandits Harry and the Bikini Bandits by Basil Heatter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I first read back in junior-high that is every bit as fun as I remembered, even if there are no bikini bandits. Ok, maybe one. The form here is "my summer vacation" and it's a coming of age tale as seventeen-year-old Clay hunts down his uncle Harry and sails to the Bahamas with him aboard Harry's worn out old ketch Jezebel. That's the first third of the novel, which is a picaresque. And then, during the middle third, it turns into a heist novel as they plan and successfully rob a casino in Nassau. The final third completes Clay's coming of age in the usual ways: besting his uncle and finally losing his virginity. The end has a sweet twist that I won't spoil. The narration is first-person and the style is a cool mix of genre and literary quality free-indirect prose filtered through Clay's coming-of-age point of view. Good stuff!

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review: Understudy for Love

Understudy for Love Understudy for Love by Charles Willeford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the original 1961 edition of the novel reprinted in 2018 as Understudy for Death by Hard Case Crime, which they heavily marketed as his long lost novel. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is that both publishers misrepresented the novel. In 1961 Newsstand library pushed the sleaze and sex angle. In 2018 Hard Case pushed the crime angle. The book is neither sleaze nor crime. The two books that immediately came to mind for comparison were Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West and Revolutionay Road by Richard Yates. What we have here is a cynical journalist with a bad case of existential dread amidst his comfy suburban life. Your basic literary novel, which is how it would have been marketed if it had been published by one of the mainstream publishing houses instead of a sleaze publisher. So the first task in approaching this novel is to set aside both the sleaze and crime expectations. The question is will Richard Hudson get his head and heart in sync enough to keep his marriage and his life from imploding? Has its flaws, but is well-written, and actually quite good in its proper context. Willeford wrote a fascinating mix of novels that is worth deeper literary study.

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Review: Clint Adams, Detective

Clint Adams, Detective Clint Adams, Detective by J.R. Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another highly amusing and entertaining entry in the 465 book (and counting) series that tells the story of Clint Adams, The Gunsmith, called to Hannibal Missouri by Mark Twain to help defend a black man falsely accused of murder. Prolific author Robert Randisi’s conversational style of writing is well-tuned here with dialogue between the characters that nicely advances the plot with little filler or padding. The obligatory sex scenes are steamy and blessed with a lot of panache, not afterthoughts like in many adult Westerns. Plenty of interesting characters – Twain, the timid young lawyer, his enthusiastic sister, and the saucy banker’s wife, and a very propulsive plot, make this one hard to put down. I read it in one day and liked it a lot.

Not sure if this one is still in print or not. Here's a link to the J.R. Roberts page on Amazon.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Review: Gannon's Vendetta

Gannon's Vendetta Gannon's Vendetta by John Whitlatch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had read all of Whitlatch's books back in Jr. high and remembered them as being good action thrillers. Have to say I was disappointed rereading this one. We have a simple revenge plot as Gannon's wife is raped and killed by a motorcycle gang and he tracks them down to Mexico to get his vengeance. The action scenes are good, and it is pretty well written, but at least a third of the book is scenes that don't advance the plot, instead they just show how he passed the boring time between the action. This would have been much better at 160 pages instead of the 249 it is. Cover art by Norm Eastman who did a lot of men's adventure magazine covers back in the day.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Review: Killer Crabs

Killer Crabs Killer Crabs by Guy N. Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The second book in the Crab series shows significant improvement in the author’s writing, which unfortunately negates most of the amateurish charm of the first book. This time the monster crabs have shown up in an Australian resort area - discovered by a cantankerous fishing boat captain named Klin, who reminded me of Quint from Jaws, only a lot hornier. Fortunately for him (but not for us) a promiscuous model impersonating a wealthy woman is staying at the resort, a goofy subplot that yields several gratuitous and puerile sex scenes with various partners, but ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. Professor Davenport is back and teams up with Klin to fight the monsters. No surprise that I didn’t like this as much as the first book, which wasn’t very well written, but was entertaining and charming in a pulpy way, where this one is mostly just a clunker.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Review: The Death Riders

The Death Riders The Death Riders by Jackson Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jim Hatfield, Texas Ranger, goes undercover while investigating some troubling reports of outlaw rustlers wearing luminous skull masks that have been terrorizing ranchers and townsfolk. Like most good pulp Westerns this one is an easy and entertaining read, well written and simply plotted with a nice few surprises, and it’s all tied up neatly at the end with Hatfield revealing his identity and then methodically describing how he was able to solve the mystery, much like a Golden Age Mystery detective. Like so many pulp Westerns it ends with a planned wedding. I found it a fun and comfortable read - perfect for a cold and snowy day in January.

James Reasoner posted a nice review with much more detail on his blog.

Available as ebook from Prologue Books and Amazon.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Review: Legend of the Black Rose

Legend of the Black Rose Legend of the Black Rose by A.W. Hart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are a lot of demands on the first book in a planned series, introducing multiple characters, backstories, locations, etc. This book does a solid job with all of these although I felt that the descriptive prose was a bit excessive and it seemed over long, like 50 pages could have been cut. This was probably mostly due to the nature of being the first book so it’s forgivable. A young woman named Catalina Riviera, well trained in martial arts, is rescued by a convent of nuns after her family is slaughtered in a raid. The nuns are warriors themselves, protecting underground springs with metaphysical properties, and Catalina is a welcome addition. Catalina assumes a Zorro-like disguised identity called the Black Rose, a crime fighting vigilante in her efforts to bring the persons responsible for her family’s murder to justice. A bevy of interesting characters are introduced, some unlikely alliances, a couple of twists, and an explosive climax all contribute to a satisfying read.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Review: Love-Starved Woman

Love-Starved Woman Love-Starved Woman by Peggy Gaddis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Really enjoyed this fast-paced pulp romance. Fantastic dialog in places, with insults thrown back and forth in a way that I'd think was quite edgy in 1953. The plot is a bit straight-forward, but has a enough twists to keep the pages turning. Starts off tightly leashed to Isobel Lamar's POV and then roves around amongst the other characters. At first this POV switch was unsettling but it quickly became a strength of the novel as it rounds out the perspective of the situations and the characters. Nothing too exciting. Just a good time-capsule into small town 1950s life. And Gaddis is on top of her game with energetic and sharp prose. This is a digest-sized paperback original published in 1953 by Croydon. Can't find any record of this having been reprinted, which is quite rare for a Peggy Gaddis novel. Cover art by Bern Safran, who painted a lot of the early Croydon covers.

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Friday, December 18, 2020

Review: House of Flesh

House of Flesh House of Flesh by Bruno Fischer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another great noir from 1950 that deserves to be ranked with the classics of the genre. Really surprised that this was never made into a movie because it has all the elements. I've seen this one labeled as horror or "male-gothic," but neither of those labels fit as this is straight-ahead noir. Harry Wilde is a pro-basketball player reeling from a divorce and a loss in the final game of the championship series. He goes to the countryside for the summer to regroup. He plays around a bit with young and beautiful Polly Wellman until he meets Lela Doane, the wife of a local veterinarian (who is rumored to have murdered his first wife and fed her body to the vicious dogs he keeps). Harry soon makes the classic mistake that drives so many noir plots as he pursues a torrid affair with Lela. The plot complications accelerate from there as Harry, wanting to have Lela Doane for himself, tries to prove that Doane killed his first wife, starting with a search for her bones on Doane's property. Fischer keeps the plot and the atmosphere thick throughout. Perhaps a bit too much dialog for my taste toward at the very end as it wraps up the way a lot of mystery novels do with the unraveling of the who- and how-dunnit, but all-in-all a great noir.

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