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Saturday, December 24, 2011

US Military Jargon Part 4

Another installment from the Hell and Gone website is long overdue, so here it is:

DD214: Official discharge form; "walking papers;" ticket to the World.
Deck: Floor or ground (navy/marine term).
Delta Force: A semi-secret subunit within the US Army portion of SOCOM, organized for direct action in counterterrorist ops, hostage rescue, etc.
DEVGRU: Short for "Development Group"--unofficially "Seal Team 6," a sub-unit within the Navy SEALs with a mission similar to Delta Force.
Didimau: Leave, run, escape, evacuate. (Vietnam era.)
Dittybop: To walk at civilian speed, usually with a swagger.
DILLIGAF: "Does it look like I give a (flute)?"
Dinki-dau: Insane; nutso; loony; whacked-out. (Vietnam era.)
Fartsack: A sleeping bag.
Fast mover: Jet fighter, jet bomber or jet attack aircraft (not counting the A10).
FNG: "F(lipping) New Guy"; a rookie; cherry; newbie.
Frag: Noun: Fragmentation grenade. The famous WWII/Korea "pineapple" type was replaced by a "baseball" type during Vietnam. Verb: To assassinate a unit member--usually an officer or NCO--in the field.
Front Lean-and-rest: The position from which push-ups are executed. There is no resting (or leaning, for that matter) involved. "Lean'n'rest" for short.
FUBAR: F(ouled) up beyond all recognition. (Originally a navy term, WWII era. Used by characters in Saving Private Ryan probably because the technical advisor was a marine.)
F(orget) the dumb s(tuff): Just get the job done, and don't waste time and effort going by the book, following assinine regulations or adhering to strac SOPs.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New Two-Fisted Fight Series


So far as I know, it's been quite a while since fiction like this has been available, and I'm pretty stoked that it's making a comeback.

Felony Fists is an installment in the new pulp Fight Card series by "Jack Tunney." For you armchair fight historians out there, that nome de plume is exactly what you suspect it is--a fusion between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, though the series takes place in the '50s, not the '20s.

Patrick "Felony" Flynn is an LA beat cop who is also possibly the world's most seasoned amateur middleweight. He's offered a spot on the detective squad if he'll help knock gangster Mickey Cohen out of boxing. That means he has to move up in weight to light-heavy, turn pro, and check Cohen's fighter Solomon King's ascent toward a title shot against Archie Moore (who really was light-heavyweight champ at that time, and quite an extraordinary man). A middleweight moving up to fight a badass light-heavyweight is a monumental chore all by itself, but in case the reader doesn't appreciate that, the pressure is heaped upon Felony Flynn increasingly right up until the last chapter.

During all this time, Flynn becomes partners with another rookie detective, Tombstone. A black detective on an historically/notoriously bigoted force like the LAPD must be exceptional, and Tombstone is. This subplot, a counterfeiting subplot, and the fight plot all come together and are tied off nicely. The writer set out to tell a retro-style pulp boxing yarn and I'd say he did a good job.

For my taste, Cohen's tactic to get Flynn to throw the fight was overkill. The stakes were plenty high already, as were the odds against Flynn in the fight. For Cohen to be so scared of an Irish brawler with one professional fight (against an over-rated has-been) presenting a threat to a contender who consumes talented pros for breakfast (and who Archie Moore is worried about) was just too much. In Flynn's other fights, he never was 100% on. He was either distracted, or careless...something to put the outcome in doubt. I really would have liked to see Flynn go to war from Round One in the climactic fight, and let the tension come from the fact that he's overmatched, and making it through 15 rounds with Solomon King requires a superhuman effort. Plenty of tension that way and far more realistic.

Speaking of realism, I just have to provide the following advisory about boxing technicalities:

In boxing, a right-handed fighter does not have a right jab or a right hook. He jabs and hooks with the left. He throws straight rights or a right cross. (Everything I'm saying is mirror-opposite for a southpaw, of course.) What some people call a right hook from a right-hander is actually either an angled right uppercut or a roundhouse right--an ill-advised punch 99% of the time, though I did see Lennox Lewis score a knockout with one.

I don't know how many other readers would notice or care about getting these fundamental details right, but for me it was an annoyance in what otherwise was an enjoyable read. And to be fair, a LOT of authors who write about boxing make these kind of mistakes. Even legendary writers like Robert E. Howard didn't always get everything right.

At the back of this book are sneak previews of two other tales from the Fight Card series. In The Cut Man, the author confuses the 1st Marine Division ("The Old Breed") with the 1st Infantry Division ("The Big Red One"). That made me grind my teeth, and I know any marine or grunt who reads it will have problems with it, too. I hope the author will correct this (edits are easy and painless for e-books), because details like this can really ruin a story for some readers.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Wild Geese

Don't ask me why it's taken so long for me to see this movie. It's up there with The Dogs of War for famous flicks about mercenaries. Finally having seen it, my feelings are mixed.

In short, I'd like to read the book because I suspect it is substantially better (usually a safe bet). There are things that bother me a lot about the movie from a tactical perspective. Even if the writer/screenwriter knows their stuff, actors and directors can still screw up the realism. These guys fight like they have no concept of cover or concealment. They don't even attempt to maintain reasonable intervals in the bush. They wear their berets (even the maroon ones, complete with shiny insignia) in the field--honestly, who does that? I could go on.

On the positive side, there were some realistic things. A plan only survives up until the first contact with the enemy, and we see this happen more than once in this flick. And our heroes are betrayed by the suits who sent them to do the dirty merc work. Boy, does that ring true--especially in Africa.

My original title for Hell and Gone was The Has-Beens. That label fits the Wild Geese even better than it fits my fictional mercs. I think there were only 2 bodies under 40 years old in the whole outfit.

Anyway, there are more wasteful activities you could engage in for 129 minutes. And I do want to read the book, now.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

PROMIS # 2: Rhodesia by Jack Murphy

The love affair with my Kindle rolls on. I have kicked off this Thanksgiving by finishing Jack Murphy's latest installment in the PROMIS series.

Sean Deckard is back. Last we saw him, in PROMIS: Vietnam, he was a One-Zero on a SOG team. He made some mistakes fatal to his career in the US military: he assumed the top brass in his chain-of-command wanted victory in Vietnam (an assumption so many people still make), and he went berserk on a room full of field-grade officers.

Despite that most un-soldierly conduct in his past, Deckard is a soldier through and through, with no desire to be anything else. I'm tempted to compare him with the main character in "The Hurt Locker." War is all he knows and seemingly all he wants to know...the family he acquires in this tale notwithstanding. But Deckard isn't just an adrenaline junkie. He cares about more than just the rush of death's presence--namely achieving the long-term, big-picture objectives that win wars. IOW what western politicians allegedly send young men to war for.

What happened in Rhodesia is a sadly familiar story to anyone familiar with what's been happening in Africa from 1945 to the present. The betrayal of the men sacrificing for duty, honor and country by fat cats and chairborne commandos with hidden agendas is also tragically reminiscent of what Deckard glimpsed in Vietnam. If allowed to pursue victory on a strategic level, the Rhodesians probably would have prevailed, and the author shows that (or at least Deckard's perception of it) without getting bogged down in the geopolitics.

The action is fast and heavy, but never without purpose and impact on the flow of the plot. We are also teased along with Deckard by another encounter of the "predictive algorithms" of the PROMIS project. We can't help but imagine (especially given the title of the series) that Deckard is on a collision course with PROMIS, which will play a larger and larger role in future installments. This e-book could use some editing, but is a good, fast read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Return: a Novel of Vietnam by Charles W. Sasser


I've read a couple of Sasser's autobiographical works, as well as 100th Kill--his other Vietnam novel. While I appreciate his perspective (he's a vet of the Special Forces Reserves, an author and a rancher, among other things), I've always found his writing to be competent, but not stellar. By his own admission he is not the most talented writer...but he is hard-working at his craft (if any of you remember the paramilitary magazines of the '80s competing with Soldier Of Fortune, he wrote many articles for them). So I wasn't quite prepared for the caliber of this novel.

The Return is one fine work of fiction--probably Sasser's best, though I haven't read all his books to state that emperically.

The narrator is Jack Kazmarek, a widower with miriad health problems on top of his PTSD. For many years he has been neighbors with another Vietnam vet, Pete Brauer. Both of them were mustang officers--having taken their lumps as enlisted men prior to being commissioned. Kazmarek was a platoon leader in the 9th Infantry, while Brauer had been a Navy SEAL. Although both of them spent a tour in the same AO during the same time, they never met until retiring in the same Florida trailer park decades later.

The story opens on the loss of Kazmarek's closest friend. Pete dies alone in his trailer, clutching a photo of a beautiful French-Vietnamese woman. Jack has noticed the portrait in his friend's house over the years (even finding her face familiar), but Pete rarely talked about it. His only mention of the woman in the image was cryptic: "May God forgive me."

Jack is almost as intrigued as I was. Eventually he begins investigating, to find out who the woman was and where she might be now. The investigation leads Jack back to Vietnam where he must confront some of his own long-buried demons.

The story is filled in with flashbacks--some of Jack's own, but most by the people who remembered Pete and Mhai (the woman in the photo). All the reader's curiosity is satisfied by the end, as we learn just how extensively Jack and Pete crossed each others' paths during that insane conflict.

Sasser is not your typical war novelist who portrays American involvement in Indochina as one huge Mai-Lai massacre. And yet he does depict atrocities committed by Americans. And there is surprising depth to all the main characters, including the Viet Cong, who are treated as even-handedly as any reasonable person could hope for. Sasser's Vietnam is not black or white, but a convoluted, maddening mess of grays. Perhaps the Cong sympathizers (which comprise most of our government, media and education establishments) would even enjoy how, in the novel, US forces suffer a significant tactical defeat--something that didn't happen but makes the VC seem more heroic in retrospect. Everyone conveniently forgets that failure to achieve victory in Vietnam was mandated by the very government that put Americans in harm's way to begin with. The VC and NVA didn't defeat the US military--the "war" was lost in the Oval Office.

There are a few plot twists Sasser has in store, and I didn't deduce all of them beforehand correctly. Characters are complex and believable. Narrator Jack Kazmarek has political opinions, but the story "he" tells lets the chips fall where they may, regardless of who it may please or offend (in fact, it reminds me somewhat of The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna). There's enough action and conflict to keep you turning pages, and even a few tugs at your emotions here and there.

This is a very good novel.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Mercs in the Congo: Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith


The 20th Century history of the (formerly Belgian) Congo is a fitting representation of what the United Nations is all about when the rubber meets the road.

A novel about mercenaries operating for Katanga, written by Afro-centric historical thriller writer Wilbur Smith just promised too many savory ingredients (prepared by a master chef) for me to resist. I haven't researched this yet, but I have a strong suspicion the Bruce Willis flick Tears of the Sun was adapted from this yarn--updated from the early 1960s to about 2003, changed from mercenaries to SEALs, and some other tweaks.

(It turns out what I have is an abridged version, so my comments may not apply to unabridged versions.) Uncharacteristically for Smith, he completely ignores the politics of the historic backdrop and focuses solely on the immediate plot: Mercenary commander Bruce Curry (a Rhodesian) is tasked to rescue a small community of Belgians who've been cut off by the cannibalistic Balubas. More importantly (to the warring powers-that-be) there's a stash of diamonds among the refugees. More importantly (to Commander Curry) there's a hot French widow among them, too.

Initially the plan is for Curry and his Mercs (diseased-but-faithful Sergeant-Major Rofi, ostracized alcoholic surgeon-turned-soldier Mike Haig, loose-cannon type "A" psycho Wally Hendry, and a couple platoons of gendarmes) to put the civilians on a train and ride with them to safety in Katanga. At first it goes along quite well. Even UN fighter aircraft fail to stop the train. But, c'mon folks, this is Wilbur Smith. Nothing can go well for long. An enemy field gun takes out the locomotive, then Curry has a few more bridges to cross (sometimes literally) while encountering various flavors of adversity along the way.

Used to Smith's doorstop-sized epics, I found this to be an unusually quick read. Perhaps because this is just a straightforward adventure tale with a small cast of characters taking place in a short period of time. I almost felt a little cheated that it ended so quickly.

The good thing about this book's brevity is that the author minimized scenes that test the squeamishness of his readers (for a non-horror author, Smith seems to enjoy the gruesome side of violence, if not the macabre, in most of his books). There was a gross moment when Curry was sobering Haig up in one scene; and a combat amputation made me grit my teeth --though he thankfully went into no gory details.

I would not call this Smith's best, or his worst. IMO it could have benefited from a bit more action or fleshing out, but even when he doesn't give 100%, he is still a heap good adventure writer.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Picture Yourself Reading e-Fiction Magazine, and Win a Kindle Fire!

It's almost that simple: Submit a photo of yourself reading this e-zine and you'll gain entry into a contest to win a free Kindle Fire.

Here's a description from eFiction's website:

eFiction started as a small group of writers and fiction-enthusiasts getting together online to share stories. It has exploded into a global fiction phenomenon. eBooks are taking over the world and eFiction is leading the charge. The best authors on the internet collaborate to produce eFiction for your reading pleasure.

Back issues are available for download right on the site, and of course you can subscribe to them via your Kindle.

Each issue seems to have its own theme (will November be a Halloween issue?) with multiple stories from various writers, plus author interviews and the like. This could be a chance for you to discover your next favorite author (and maybe win the Kindle Fire!).

Coming attractions (projected book reviews in the 2-Fisted Blog Queue): Dark of the Sun by Wilbur Smith; The Return: A Novel of Vietnam by Charles W. Sasser; Jack Murphy's PROMIS: Rhodesia; and The Adventures of No Eyes by Phil Duke.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Social Networking For Bookworms

I wasn't even aware of Facebook until it had (apparently) taken over the world. People had tried to get me to join My Space and I think I did create a profile once, but didn't do much with it. Same with Twitter. I tweeted up a storm for a few weeks or so, but never understood what the use was. Still don't, frankly. I don't find others' tweets very interesting. I don't think mine are all that interesting, either.

I was told "everybody" was on Facebook, and only losers weren't on it. I heard friends talking about statuses and walls, friends and likes, but it was all Greek to me. I finally joined due to advice that it was a fantastic marketing tool, and I had just published a book.

From a marketing perspective, Facebook has been a bust for me. But I did play some lame-but-addictive Facebook games for a minute when I first started. I made hundreds of new "friends," was found by relatives I didn't remember...I even found a couple guys from units I served in.

Joining Facebook was like opening a floodgate. Since then I've been inundated with invitations to join more social networks--of which the variety seems to be infinite.

Are you kidding me? I can't even keep up with Facebook! (And Twitter, and my blog, and the Kindle Boards, and Goodreads, and Shelfari, and Library Thing, and VPP, etc. etc. etc...much less my writing.)

I've got some quality pals on Facebook, but probably less than 5% of them like to read. (Read anything besides Facebook posts, that is.) That's how Genrebuds offers a significant advantage for booklovers. It's meant to be a network for literate people. Instead of compiling lists of activities and interests, favorite songs, movies, etc. (which will be obliterated during the next Facebook "upgrade"), you choose what genres you like to read when setting up your profile. There are freebies, different ways to earn points, ribbons and such if you're into all that.

The list of genres reflects the market shares of the publishing industry, so far as I can tell. Hence the sort of fiction I prefer will likely be under-represented. Even so, the chance to connect with potential readers there should still be far greater than on Facebook.

If it had been around when I first entered the social networksphere, I probably would have concentrated my efforts there.

If you like to read, and would like to network with others who do, this might be the site for you.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Louis L'Amour...Need I Say More?


 This incredibly prolific author is to westerns what Stephen King is to horror and Agatha Christie is to mysteries. Modern critics who insist all heroes be flawed despise writers like the old merchant marine (that's right--he spent more time asea than he ever did on horseback--as you'll learn in the interesting introduction/L'Amour biography). And yes, his books do tend to be formulaic. But hey--he developed his own formula. He didn't copy Zane Gray, Max Brand or anyone else.

In West of the Tularosa, a compilation of some shorter fiction from his early career (most of it written for western pulps), the legendary author is a bit more versatile than most of us have gotten used to. Oh, sure: The hero of each story is pretty much the same guy with a different name and a different gun (once in a while a different occupation--like an hombre who traps mountain lions for circuses). OK. And the leading ladies are all the same fetching western lass, as well. Granted. And big surprise: aforementioned hero always beats the bad guys and wins the heart of aforementioned fetching western lass. But don't assume L'Amour was just conforming to the times he grew up in. Watch a boxing movie from the time period in these tales were written (late '40s-early '50s), or some film noir, or read some of the crime fiction of the period. Pop culture had its share of squeaky-clean, handsome, G-rated good guys up to this point, to be certain; but to stick with that ran against the artistic zeitgeist.

L'Amour's protagonists weren't just handsome good guys--they were good good guys. Clean, honorable and honest. This reflected the sentimentality he and his readers felt about the frontier stage of American history. As Gene Autry sang in "Back in the Saddle Again":

...Out where a friend is a friend
Where you sleep out every night
And the only law is right

The "wild west" is frequently characterized as lawless. Well, they certainly didn't have all the police and jack-booted federal agents harassing the citizenry that we do now. Or lawyers, either. Yet society as a whole functioned much better then, despite the respective technology (women and children were safer, statistically, in the very worst frontier towns than they are today in our cities, for instance). Why? Most of the citizens didn't know much about the law, but they sure knew right from wrong.

Can't really say that today, can we?

We could sure use the kind of men L'Amour wrote about in our country now. It would be nice if everyone could brag that their "friends" were truly friends, too.

There were some good yarns in this anthology. Some felt cut a little short, probably due to their original pulp-bound purpose. A few could (should?) have been expanded to novel-length. It's easy to see why so many readers relate to this author's protagonists--they're young, strong, brave, good-looking and honest to a fault. Oh yeah, and almost always a phenomenal gunfighter, even if they punch cattle for a living. As Jeff Cooper might say, "They ride (hard), shoot straight, and speak the truth."

My favorite yarn in the batch was the last, the longest, and the one from which the title of this anthology was taken: West of the Tularosa. It's on the complex side for a L'Amour tale, some whodunnit mystery mixed in with the familiar range conflict.

R.I.P. Louis, we miss you. And your heroes.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Robert E. Howard's Map

Seems like most fantasy authors these days build worlds from scratch for their characters to quest through. Not the case with some of the pioneers in the genre, I would guess.

I'm far from an expert on Tolkien, but the fact that his most famous fictional setting was a place called "Middle Earth" suggests that he intended some sort of connection with historic reality.

When introduced to Robert E. Howard's fantasy, I first assumed the Conan character's home world had been built from scratch, so foreign were most of the geographic and ethnic terms to me at the time. But as I delved deeper, I discovered clues now and then (some subtle, some huge) that Conan's world was Earth...maybe just in some sort of alternate history. (A whopper of a clue happened in the John Millius film when the Cimmerians are called "Northmen".)

In time, I came to understand that Conan did, indeed, live on Earth--but during the "Hyborian Age." From then on, I couldn't read a Conan story without trying to figure out how his geography fit into the maps I was familiar with. Some of it was determinable by logical means, like the Land of Shem and the Pictish Wilderness. But much of it left me scratching my head.

That's why I was delighted to discover a reproduction of this map, sketched by Howard himself, in which you can easily discern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa underneath his Hyborian boundaries. Now I (and you) have this handy reference to help us trace the barbarian's footsteps.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Celebrate Cheap Kindle Books!

Hello 2-Fisted Blogees. Just a quick note to tell you about Daily Cheap Reads--a site where all books are $5 or less.

You may think I'm crazy for plugging the competition like this. Well, selling books is not a zero-sum game, as others have pointed out. People who like to read don't stop after the first book they buy, then never read again. Plus, the focus of Daily Cheap Reads is different from Virtual Pulp Press. There is some overlap in our target demographics, but I can live with that.

Most of the books featured at Daily Cheap Reads have at least 5 reviews on Amazon, so vetting is fairly easy. I hope you'll go check their site out. With all the changes happening in the publishing industry, this may be the best book lovers have ever had it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Good News For Pulpy Action Adventure Fans Part 2

It's official! The Virtual Pulp bookstore is now open. I'm pasting an excerpt from the "about us" page below:
Ever since Quentin Tarantino's film, just about everyone is familiar with the term "pulp fiction." But do you know where he got that title?

Unlike highbrow literature from the 19th and 20th Century, pulp fiction was written entertainment for the regular guy, printed on the cheap paper from which it got its name.

Writers in pulp fiction gave the world escape from the dreary and mundane with heroes like Conan, Tarzan, Sam Spade and Buck Rogers. Over time, the pulps evolved into the action-adventure paperbacks of the 1960s-80s, as documented in Jack Badelaire's first issue of Hatchet Force. Characters like the Executioner, Nick Carter and Remo Williams inspired legions of imitators, as well as blazing a trail for other "men's fiction" authors to tittilate us with action adventure series set in WWII, the Wild West, the Banana Wars or outer space. Some of it was bad. Some of it was good. Most of it was great fun, giving us something to chuckle or smile about (however guiltily) for far longer than a feature-length film could entertain us.

Unfortunately, "men's fiction" had all but disappeared by the 1990s. Many avid readers quit visiting the book store over the succeeding years, since there were fewer and fewer books that appealed to them. Sure, some of the gutsy, testosterone-charged titles could still be found at used book stores, or thanks to online sellers, but either venue required hours of browsing to find the desired book among the multitudes of romances, chick-lit, horror and political or techno-"thrillers."

The good news is, there are developments coalescing to benefit those who enjoy reading pulp or pulpesque fiction. One such development is a renewed interest in the genre, represented in several blogs and Facebook pages/groups dedicated to the subject matter. Another promising trend is some great new fiction by talented authors inspired by the classics--some of which is arguably even better written than the inspirational source material.

Another significant victory for the genre is the opening of Virtual Pulp Press.

Unlike other online bookstores, Virtual Pulp Press is dedicated to a certain flavor of entertainment, and is focused on that whether the format is book or e-book; non-fiction, fiction, or film.

In days to come, I'll be working on making Virtual Pulp Press even better. For right now, I think it's pretty cool and worth all the work I put into it. I hope you will check it out, and tell somebody about it.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Feel Guilty, But Enjoy Plenty Gruesome Violence First

Somebody lent me the Condemned DVD and, with no internet connection at the crib, I burned up a couple hours watching it recently.

It's a scenario I've seen before: evil rich guy throws a bunch of desperate cutthroats into an elaborately controlled environment and has them fight to the death (Similar to The Running Man, in a way). The "twist" this time is that they're all death row prisoners from around the world. Evil Rich Dude's logic is, "They're gonna die anyway, so why can't I make a buck off it?"

OK--sounds logical, I guess. And there were some nice touches throughout the flick. But amidst all the splattering blood, the film makers kept going back to the theme of how inhuman the spectators can become in spectator sports. Sort of like the original Rollerball, only subtle.

As subtle as a 12-pound sledgehammer.

There were some real douche-bag characters in this flick, and the director employed all the usual tactics to make us want to see them suffer the same kind of torture and horrific deaths that they inflicted. And then we were supposed to feel guilty about it. "OMG! We're just as bad as the 40 million people paying to see this snuff circus on the internet! Maybe we're almost as bad as the eeveel capitalist scum that's getting rich off the whole thing!"

Yawn. OK, whatever. Let's get to the fighting, since that's really the appeal of this kind of film, ironic guilt messages notwithstanding.

Steve Austin...wasn't he an astronaut who suffered a terrible accident, then wound up with bionic legs, arm and eye?

I like old western movies, alright? But even so, I admit they had some of the most ridiculous fight scenes ever filmed: 20-minute bare-knuckle brawls. Punches telegraphed from two miles away. Men on the receiving end of those dramatic haymakers standing around waiting to get hit (when it was their turn). Heros flooring villains with said haymakers, then stooping down to pull the villain to his feet in order to hit him again.

Well, the fight coreography in this flick was that bad. Not just with fists, either. The sadistic, murderous ex-SAS dude was given a bow with arrows. Twice he had our hero dead to rights, but didn't take a shot. One of those times, rather than launch an arrow into Austin's considerable target area from his protected position on high ground, he jumps down to Austin's level to menace him with the bow at melee range.

I guess classic westerns have some stiff competition for Most Ridiculous Fight Scenes in "professional wrestling." That's where I think Austin came from and probably what influenced the stupid fighting.

Movies like this are hard to pull off, I guess. Especially when they take their hackneyed message too seriously.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Where There Were No Innocents by Thomas Drinkard

This novel offers an officer's perspective on SOG during US involvement in Vietnam. I understand this is a prequel to another book, but this was my introduction to the author and character.

Mack Brinson is the type of officer every good soldier wishes was in charge. Though his duties in MACV-SOG seem rather nebulous, he voluntarily tags along with SOG teams that go behind the fence, and earns enough respect to be invited to the one-zero table more than once after a mission.

No Innocents provides a fascinating glimpse into the pseudo-secret SOG command structure, administration, and even some operations. It overlaps nicely with Jack Murphy's PROMIS Vietnam, which was written from the perspective of a one-zero, or SOG team leader.

After his tour begins, Brinson is targeted almost immediately by VC assassins, and has numerous close calls. The reason for his targeting really struck me as plausible, too. In fact, though I'm at least a generation too young to have ever been to Vietnam, most of this book smacked of authenticacy, thanks to the author's experience in-country. Especially the geography and character interaction...with one exception.

That exception is Brinson's whirlwind relationship with the beautiful Song. I know love-at-first-sight does happen, so it's not that that bothers me, really. But these two decide to get married after one date. I know that happens, too, especially during wartime. I just think, story-wise, it could have been milked for a lot more suspense/conflict. Some suspense did get added to the mix by way of Song's father--an influential man in South Vietnam's intelligence organization, though.

In any event, the guts of this novel is SOG's part in the war up to and including the Tet Offensive, and it was presented so well as to outweigh my issues with the romantic subplot.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Survivor #2: The Nightmare Begins by Jerry Ahern

I admit this at the expense of dating myself badly, but I grew up during the end of the Cold War. From the age of seven or so, when a sibling informed me that the world could be annihilated at the push of a button, I lived with the threat of nuclear holocaust looming in the back of my mind. In fact, the very first time I heard the beeping of a phone left off the hook too long (I think I was 12 or 13), my very first thought was, "Oh, no. This is it!" Not having seen the previous generation's "Duck and Cover" films, I just assumed there was no possibility of surviving such a conflict.

A few years later, I saw The Road Warrior. That film influenced me in a few different ways. I'll mention two of those ways: 1) It caused me to consider the possibility that a nuclear exchange did not necessarily guarantee the obliteration of all human life on the planet. 2) Despite my fear of a nuclear war that could set the skies on fire at any moment, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it so much that I've had an affinity for the post-apocalypse genre ever since. Back in the day, I couldn't wait for the next Doomsday Warrior or Last Ranger to be published. Yet somehow, I missed Jerry Ahern's Survivalist series.*

I've recently corrected that oversight. I now have one Survivalist under my belt* and am hungry for more.

The series' title character is John Rourke, a former CIA operative who was on a civilian flight at the hour the missiles struck. His sidekick in this book was Paul Rubenstein, a former white collar geek type with a good heart, and a mental toughness allowing him to cope and adapt well to the new world, under Rourke's hands-on tutelage. Rubenstein was on the same flight, which crashed out West. The story picks up as the pair are making their way through Texas for the eastern seaboard, where Rourke hopes to find his wife and kids still alive somehow, and Rubenstein plans to turn south into Florida to look for his parents. They're traveling on motorcycles (Rourke in style--his is a Harly).

This series has most of what you would hope to find in a post-apocalyptic yarn: A smart, skilled, resourceful hero who is up to the extraordinary task of surviving in such a world; a wide-open Wild-West type landscape of dangerous wilderness and ghost towns; and a rogue's gallery of brigands and Soviets to ensure Rourke's quest is no radioactive milk run. And yet Ahern avoided some of the, conventions I've come to expect in the genre. There were no human mutants, for instance. Our heroes did encounter a group of infected teenagers, but the author made it clear they were living on borrowed time--not transforming into vampires or Marvel supervillains. And though there was some sexual tension here and there, there was no prose-porn.

What about gun porn? From what I've read, Ahern has a reputation for this. Maybe I still don't understand where the threshold is defined between describing a weapon/its use and descending into "gun porn," but in my opinion the author's treatment of firearms in this book was the former, and not the latter. Rubenstein's primary weapon (a WWII German submachinegun, MP40) is so interesting that I now am tempted to seek out the first issue just to find out how it was acquired. Rourke's signature side armament are twin Detonics Combat Masters, and his use of them at one point (though nothing flamboyant enough for a John Woo movie) actually had me break reading silence and sound off with a hearty "ooh-rah!" For long range, he carries a CAR-15, arguably the father of the M-4 carbine in such wide use today in US troop deployments.

I have a prejudice against the entire M16/AR15 family of weapons. The 82nd Airborne Division was usually one of the first units to get new toys (the Kevlar helmet, the M249 SAW, etc.), and I did get to plink with some M16A2s when they were still brand new. Their accuracy was pretty good, I'll admit, and they were far more dependable than the A1s I had used in OSUT. Yet I was apalled by their tendency to malfunction in spite of diligent cleaning. Especially in sandy environments. Yet the AR15 and its derivatives are still the most popular assault/battle rifle with the Pentagon and in men's fiction. There's a chance I may be able to present an interview with Jerry Ahern here on the 2-Fisted Blog soon, and this is one of the details I'm hoping he'll share his thoughts on. There are some other choices he made I'm curious about, too, so I'm hoping this interview deal pans out.

OK-moving on.

The bad guys in Nightmare Begins were also a breath of fresh air. No "B" movie Nazis here--even the KGB honcho. And his wife/agent Natalia is surprisingly complex. (Rourke recognizes her, BTW, from one of his spook missions in Central America.) In addition to the knowledgeable depictions of weaponcraft, I appreciated thoughtful details like the difficulty of finding gasoline after a nuclear war. A very popular author in the genre fails to address this issue honestly. Another author in the genre, many of whose books I personally like, had his protagonist once use Federal Reserve notes to pay for something in the post-nuke economy...and they were accepted! Rourke and Rubenstein find it necessary to forage (though they make an effort to deal fairly and honestly with others). This is a far more sober speculation, IMO.

Nightmare Begins has left me with the impression that at this point in the continuity, the series is just hitting its stride. I certainly plan to read the other Survivalist book I picked up, and will be on the lookout for others. Based on this reading, I recommend The Survivalist as an intelligent, well-written TEOTWAWKI series with plenty of action to keep us turning pages.

*From what I've read about the series, I remember reading a book many years ago that may have been a much later installment in this series. But I can't swear yes or no.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Captain America and Art Deco-Punk

I had intended to do something special for August, since this is the 1st anniversary of the 2-Fisted Blog. I still might, depending on whether somebody gets back to me soon.

Meanwhile, I'd like to comment on the high point of Hollywood's summer.

Ever since learning Joe Johnstone was the director, I felt confident that the character was in safe hands. And he was. Other critics are kvetching about the "safe" screenplay, but aside from the obligatory irritation of one of my personal pet peeves, I think Johnstone did a fantastic job. Rather than a typical review, I'm gonna focus on a challenge or 2 Johnstone met with aplomb.

In the Golden Age of comics (coincident with the halcyon days of pulp fiction and cliffhanger serials), when Captain America was first created, people couldn't have guessed half of the technology we take for granted today. And yet, creative types imagined some technology that has yet to be achieved in reality.

Like practical rocket packs and a super-soldier serum.

(Individual jet packs were developed during the Vietnam War, and demonstrated at one of the first Superbowls, but consumed too much fuel for more than one short flight and were abandoned as impractical for transport of troops by the US Army. They were never more than an expensive and dangerous novelty.)

So one of the challenges Johnstone faced was presenting still-futuristic (?) gadgets during an historic setting. Not that this hasn't been done before. One of my favorite reruns to watch, growing up, was The Wild, Wild West, which did just this. And there is an entire genre called "steampunk" which features this anachronistic premise as a primary ingredient. In The Rocketeer and Captain America, Johnstone pulls off the anachronisms so masterfully, I think it deserves it's own phrase. I'll call it "art deco-punk."

Howard Hughs' rocket pack looks like it could actually work. And yet it also looks like something designed and built in the 1930s. Same for the helmet Cliff Secord wears. Of course the Rocketeer props were based on the drawings from the comic source material, but kudos to the film makers for not attempting to "fix" something unbroken.

In First Avenger, the same imaginative skills are in evidence in the Red Skull's fortress and aircraft, as well as the secret lab where Steve Rogers is transformed into Captain America. But the art deco-punk was carried out well in the costume, also. The original Captain America costume from the comics (with the triangular shield) is cleverly incorporated into the flick as what Rogers wears for USO and War Bond appearances. But when he hits his stride as "the bona fide article," Cap wears an outfit a little less outlandish. Johnstone and his crew rose to the challenge of finding a "realistic" excuse to have an operative in the ETO fighting the Nazis in a red, white and blue costume.

In comic books, readers have apparently never had a problem with flamboyant costumes in robust hues. But in real life, people are offended by bright colors. So with the exception of the Superman and Spiderman films, and one particular campy TV series from the 1960s, every successful comic book adaptation for the screen has either replaced the superhero's costume or modified it with bland, muted colors. Johnstone's costumer did mute the Star-Spangled Avenger's colors, but it's also noteworthy that they conceived his headgear more as a helmet than a mask, but didn't take the cheap, ridiculous route the makers of the '70s TV pilot did (in photo below):

In the medium close-ups of Cap in his costume, you can see material and stitching consistent with that issued to American troops during WWII.

Did the screenwriter also modify the origin story from the comic book canon? Yes, but not in the disrespectful, ham-fisted manner of so many other adaptations. Bucky and other stock characters were worked into this cinematic tale, re-conceived to be more believable, and even my own purist/stickler-for-accuracy self was pleased with how it was handled.

There are two other things I'll mention about this movie. In the political sense, they disprove the contention that Johnstone "played it safe" in the making of this film.

For whatever reason (verisimilitude, probably), Johnstone chose to show Captain America bearing arms--something I've never seen in the comics (most superheros have some sort of "code against guns"). Johnstone's leftist contemporaries in Hollywood will only show firearms responsibly used by cops, government agents, Communist revolutionaries or soldiers in wars they grudgingly approve of. I guess Cap falls into this latter category, but it's still a departure for a big-screen superhero.

After Watergate, the writers at Marvel found sufficient excuse to reveal their scorn for a "patriotic superhero" by turning Captain America into Nomad. That didn't go over so well. But now that the mass media has redefined patriotism to justify their lionization of politicians who commit treason, a supposed form of patriotism is considered acceptable again. It's okay to pay tribute to our flag as long as you pervert what it stands for. It's okay to pay lip service to our Constitution as long as you subvert its actual meaning and intent with globalist or Marxist plattitudes. The "safe" road for Johnstone to take would be to present Captain America as "a citizen of the world" who just happened to be born in the USA (remember when the Justice League of America became the "Justice League, America"? Or Bill Pulman's Independence Day speech, in the movie of the same name, that was really a globalist soundbite for interdependence?) And yet during Captain America and the Red Skull's climactic confrontation, it is clear from a short exchange about flags that the Skull is the globalist and Cap is rather proud of the exceptionality of his country.

Not to take anything from the other great superhero adaptations (of which Batman Begins might be the best), Joe Johnstone, along with his cast and crew, really did a bang-up job on this movie IMO. If Marvel Films can harness the swag of this one and the first Iron Man flick, then The Avengers should turn out to be something truly spectacular.

Monday, August 8, 2011

New Pulp is Spearheading the Revival

In an earlier post, I pontificated on pulp authors coming together and creating a brand for quality fiction that readers could grow to trust over time. Well, that is exactly what Mike Bullock, Tommy Hancock and others plan to do via New Pulp. And "others" includes me. I couldn't commit to a regular column of my own, but I am the columns editor now and will be contributing some of my own occasionally, starting with some interviews of movers and shakers in the Pulp Renaissance.

New Pulp is really a cool development on the one-year anniversary of the 2-Fisted Blog. Y'all may not be hearing from me much, these days, but I assure you I am working my tail off every chance I get. I've got several projects in the works right now that I'm stoked about and should prove to be something to be proud of if I execute well.

I'll be keeping you posted.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Terminal Departure by Joe Crubaugh

When agent Cleo Matts boards an airliner to defuse a false flag operation, things don't go as planned. He didn't count on the CIA planting a pound of C-4 in the cargo bay. He didn't count on being seated next to a gorgeous runaway Hollywood superstar. He didn't count on the ancient Watchers intruding in the flight path. And he didn't count on a U.S. President gone rogue who can't bowl worth a crap.
Instead of business as usual, Matts embarks on a balls-to-the-wall adventure that takes him from 35,000 feet in the sky to the back streets of the Big Easy, from the halls of NASA to the corridors of Washington, DC, to a final bloody showdown with the Ministry of Streunberg in a raging ice storm.
This espionage action thriller is a plunging, twisting roller coaster ride that serves up a heaping helping of political satire, aliens, secret agents, scientists, beautiful women, a genetically-modified super virus, a CIA false flag operation, men in black, a jetliner that isn't going to make it to the ground in one piece, and many eccentric characters driving the plot.

Crubaugh has written a page-turning gigglefest involving competing secret and pseudo-secret government agencies, germ warfare conspiracies and alien abduction. This is one of those indie books that overcomes the stigma of poor editing, amateurish prose, etc. It's quirky and laugh-out-loud funny as Crubaugh weaves his eclectic tale, with a political outlook in synch with the entertainment industry as a whole.  Were the publishing industry not in such a crisis now, I can easily imagine this being published conventionally and placed beside the latest from Hiassen or Coben.

Cleo Matts is sometimes on the loopy side of eccentric, which makes him all the more appealing as a hero. Movie star Julia is unique for Hollywood in that she's pretty down-to-earth; but typical in that her Hollywood marriage is going down in flames when we meet her. Perhaps my favorite character was Stormi--a girl with a great attitude even when she's verbally tearing somebody a new hole. Airline pilot Dallas is the lucky guy who fate throws together with Stormi, and though complete with human weaknesses, he's still a guy you want to root for.

Terminal Departure is certainly entertaining. I would have liked just a bit more exposition about the CIA-vs.-Trapdoor conflict, and maybe how Roman knew about Cleo but not vice-versa. I felt a little off-balance, too, that the aliens play such a major role during the first act, but aside from some telepathic advice, go MIA for the rest of the novel.

Depending on your sense of humor, this book is well worth your time for the laughs alone.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

From Writer's Purgatory to the American Dream

Granted, this topic has been hashed and rehashed ad infinitum...but not on the Two Fisted Blog, okay?

In the late 1990s I did not envision the revolution in publishing that is taking place before our eyes. But I wanted to write. The only respectable route to publishing for a non-celebrity who had no contacts in the biz then was the traditional method: send out hundreds of queries, receive hundreds of rejections and maybe, if the stars were aligned just right, somebody who mattered would read your query and sample chapters. If it was great stuff, and it just happened to be read by someone who liked it, and they just happened to push it up the food chain when the suit above them was having a good day, and a bazillion other variables all clicked in your favor, you just might wind up, a few years down the line, getting a book published by one of the Big (insert number here) of the New York Publishing Cartel.

"Tradpub", or traditional publishing, was the only game in town. So I prepared to play the game. Having learned in college the value of having others read and critique my written work (ripping it, and my ego, to shreds if necessary), I joined a writer's group.

I suppose all writer's groups consider themselves the best, most talented collection of literary geniuses the world over, but the group I was fortunate enough to be accepted into did have plenty of bragging rights. Several of the members achieved tradpubhood, accruing accolades from hoity-toity authorities like Kirkus; and the founder of the group attracted Hollywood interest with one of her books. I mention this not so much to boast, but more to provide perspective on some of the experiences I intend to share. And one reason I intend to share is that I'm convinced that the attitudes encountered in that writing group are very similar to some of the attitudes prevalent in the big publishing houses.

The first attitude I'll mention has to do with trust in the author.

Not everyone who reads fiction about cops and crime are themselves cops or criminals, and yet we know a lot of police jargon and procedures. Terms like "rap sheet" and "APB" were not always universally understood. How did we learn it? Not because we went to a police academy, or took a class about it, or read expository paragraphs in which the author spoon-fed us the information up front in most cases. Most likely we learned it from context--whether in a book, a movie or a TV cop show.

I've never been a medical professional, but I know what "scrub in" means. Not because anyone overtly taught me, but because the missus likes medical shows and I've watched enough of them with her to pick it up via context.

For those familiar with Star Trek, you didn't come to understand "beam me up" or "set for stun" or photon torpedoes or dilithium crystals because Kirk, Spock, Picard, Ryker or Gene Roddenberry lectured you on what it all meant. You picked it up by context. And if you're like me, you can learn stuff like this about subcultures that are new to you simply by reading a book set in that subculture by an author who will reveal these tidbits by context.

If the author's name is Stephen King, Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowling, etc., members of a writer's group will also learn this way. If the author is unknown, no matter how competent a writer, typical writer's group members will not trust them, and will demand the explanation of this new term, procedure, technology, whatever, be spoon-fed in full to the reader up front. (If the unknown author follows their advice, the red ink will fly again for insulting the reader's intelligence. But that's another story.) Ever notice how some people won't believe you, until they hear or read the same thing you said from some "expert?" Same principle in effect, here.

The next attitude I'll call "finding excuses to reject." I was accepted into the aforementioned group because the founder loved my prose (in a manuscript I as yet haven't published, BTW). There were no membership dues at the time, so I didn't doubt her sincerity. Plus, it was pretty doggone good, if I do say so myself. Ahem. Anyway, when I submitted that very same manuscript for a critique session, the critiquer I was assigned was all over me from the first sentence. (I could say quite a bit about this individual, and probably will one day, but don't want to get off-track here.) My competence came into question because I made a time reference, and the person assumed I meant pm when I meant am. Indeed, assuming pm made my introductory passage ludicrous; am was the only way it made sense. Now me, as a reader, I would have simply accepted the passage in the way that it made sense and read on. I tend to give people (politicians excepted) the benefit of the doubt, and there really wasn't much doubt to be found there.

Well, therein lies the distinction: They weren't reading it--they were searching for faults to criticize. This was a mild omen of things to come during this critique of a manuscript which did, honestly, have problems in need of correction. Unfortunately the actual problems, as I see them now in retrospect, went largely unaddressed by this person so intent on nitpicking everything they possibly could.

I once had an otherwise great, helpful critiquer in this group take issue with my use, without explanation, of the acronym "GPS". Correct me if I'm wrong, somebody, but GPS is a household term that civilians and everyone else is familiar with. (In case I am wrong, it stands for Global Positioning System, though the term is routinely misused, referring instead to a device that accesses the GPS. OK?)

When a member of this same group looked at my first draft of Hell and Gone, they raised the red flag when I wrote that one of my characters dove "to the prone." Granted, that's not Oxford-approved English, but it is exactly how that term is used in the military. She must have caught me during an insecure moment, because I wound up changing it to "the prone firing position."

Ah, insecure moments. I've had plenty, as a writer. In another manuscript, I mentioned that my protagonist sat down to breakfast. One group member, who undoubtedly read one of those "how to write fiction" manuals, thought I should reveal what he ate. I changed it so that the reader knew he was eating biscuits and gravy. The next person who gave me feedback wanted to know why he ate biscuits and gravy. Well, what he ate and why he ate it was not crucial to the chapter or the overall plot, but in another insecure moment I revised, figuring I could use it to work in some character background (after all, that's why those "how to write" manuals drill these things into critiquer's heads) and decided that biscuits and gravy was a habitual breakfast choice from when the character was going through financial difficulties, since the meal is both cheap and filling. The next person who gave me feedback thought, by reflecting on this, my character was wallowing in self-pity. At this point I considered omitting any mention of breakfast or any other meal altogether.

This maddening, time-consuming process was probably an effective orientation for the publishing biz at that time. Agents, editors and assistants don't read manuscripts; they search for excuses to reject them. Pick any 50 of them and each one will find a whole different set of excuses to reject Gone With the Wind. That's not entirely a sarcastic exaggeration--experiments like that have been conducted by frustrated writers, illustrating the mercurial subjectivity in the tradpub lottery.

There are reasons why the suits in New York have this attitude: They are buried under tons of manuscripts (most of which are garbage), they have very little time, and they're under constant pressure to pick only winners. Stamp your approval on too many books that don't sell enough to cover expenses and you're out of a job.

Valid reasons to be picky, right? So then, even with their Remorseless Rejection Machine set to Maximum Filtration, why do they still wind up publishing so much crap? Including crap that doesn't even sell? And non-crap that doesn't sell, despite all their marketing clairvoyance and gatekeeping wisdom?

I once had a publishing insider explain something about the selection process to me. I can't remember all the percentages she gave, but the gist of it is educational. This was a minority woman, BTW, who had worked for a major publishing house, and a major literary agency.

During a given fiscal year, a tradpub house only has so many books it can publish. First dibs go to the proven heavy hitters like Stephen King, whose grocery list would become a New York Times Bestseller as long as his name is on it. Next in line (and this is nauseating, if not surprising) are the writers who "know people" inside the industry. There is a little more scrutiny/quality control here than for the big name authors, but this is where a lot of the worthless drivel comes from. Next on the pecking order are female minorities. Then male minorities. (Homosexuals have been given quota parity with racial minorities for quite a while. Now they are one of the most powerful special interest groups in existence and I have no doubt this is reflected in the current pecking order.) Then women in general (which sometimes includes men who write for female audiences and/or who write female protagonists, plus men who use female pseudonyms). Everyone not heretofore mentioned is at the bottom of the slush pile, competing for the very smallest portion of the publishing pie.

And for those fortunate few whose manuscripts are actually opened by somebody with a modicum of decision-making authority, the axe chops something like this: First to get the axe are those manuscripts that fail qualitative inspection. Fair enough. Next are those with a low Crystal Ball Factor ("This is about a rogue submarine captain. It's never been done before. There's no market for it." "Rogue submarine captain stories have had a good run, but the market is now saturated with such fare. I sense the popularity of this genre will wane by the estimated print date." "Mysteries concerning racehorses aren't trending well right now." "A school for witches and warlocks is just plain silly." And so on.) Somewhere in there (unless the author is a celebrity with clout), the book must pass the ideology test--the politics must resonate with that of the New York Publishing Cartel, and any characters in the book who believe differently had better be either from the Archie Bunker/Frank Burns/Denny Crane cookie cutter or, better yet, the next Hitler or Darth Vader. Next on the chopping block are the books that offend the personal tastes of the gatekeeper ( "I don't like the main character's name."  "This character reminds me of my ex-husband." "The hero drives a car that I hate." "Happy endings are stupid." "Sad endings are depressing.").

Yech. I just depressed myself. Enough about the old regime.

That's one of many fantastic aspects of the indie author/POD/E-Book revolution: none of that can keep a book from being published anymore! It's all up to the reader now. If the book is gonna be rejected for some unfair, subjective reason, it will be case-by-case. If it's rejected for political reasons, same deal. The reader gets to decide, instead of some suit in New York deciding whether or not the reader should even have the opportunity to decide. Now there is a big step toward true democracy!

Yeah, there's a whole lot more literary garbage available to readers now, just like there's a whole lot more video garbage on the internet. It's a trade-off I and most readers will gladly take. With free sampling, we have as much chance of avoiding purchase regret as we did before. And there are refunds. I've bought some horrible tradpubbed books over the years, but I never, ever, asked for a refund of a book purchase until a couple nights ago, when I realized I could get a better E-Book value from a different edition. My refund was granted promptly, with no fuss at all.

So far, reactions to my own books have been overwhelmingly positive. That's because (as an example) readers who buy Hell and Gone actually want to read a paramilitary adventure. They're not looking at it because it's their job or because they're fellow members of a writer's group (but would rather be promoting their own erotic lesbian vampire coming-of-age diary).

I'm idiosyncratic in many ways, but in one aspect I believe I'm in synch with book lovers everywhere: I would much rather enjoy a book than find reasons not to enjoy it. Readers would prefer to read than nitpick line-by-line.

BTW, I quit the writing group earlier this year, mostly due to my schedule and an inability to keep up with group email, exercises, etc. I left on good terms, and was assured I would be welcome back. Maybe I will re-join some day if time permits. I did learn some important things there. But at this stage of my life/fledgling career in fiction, I believe I'm learning more by being a published author than trying to get New York's blessing to become one. I hear from readers, listen to their opinions (on my books and others), likes and dislikes, plus what interests them outside of fiction.

I have no interest in even attempting to be tradpubbed anymore. I could spend the rest of my life trying to win that lottery. And if I did, I'd lose the rights to my own creative work indefinitely, and, statistics suggest, be making less money than I am now. That ship is sinking, anyway. What's happening to Borders Books is a harbinger of what's coming to the industry as a whole. Maybe the New York Publishing Cartel will adapt and survive in some form (I hope not via more criminal misuse of my tax dollars), but certainly not as we have known it.

It's hard to believe how close I came to never taking the indie route, but my eyes are open now. I don't plan on closing them again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When in Rome, Don't Capture an Ape Man

Coming out soon is a film version of John Carter of Mars, but up until now, pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous character (especially on the big screen) has been Tarzan the Ape Man. Between all the movies, TV shows, comic books and Burroughs' own stories, Tarzan is a household name and most people have at least some idea what he's all about. This volume in the Tarzan series appealed to me because I've got a soft spot for lost civilization tales.

The jungle lord is approached by one of his civilized (European) friends, and asked to search a vast canyon where the guy's son, Erich Von Harben, is believed to have disappeared in search of a "lost tribe of Israel." What Von Harben found instead were two rival Roman city-states, perfectly preserved since the canyon was colonized in the 1st Century. Not a bad find, actually, and Von Harben also discovers love at first sight with a noble Roman girl, as can only happen in a classic pulp. But alas, not everything is sunshine and puppies in this anachronistic canyon, and Von Harben finds himself in prison due to corrupt politicians and their paranoia.

Tarzan, who entered the other end of the canyon, has also suffered a mishap that landed him in prison in the rival city-state (one is Castra Sanguinarious and one is Castrum Mare). Both Tarzan and Von Harben find allies among the political prisoners in their respective cities, but time is running out for the Ape Man to rescue Von Harben before the tyrannical Caesar has the suspicious outsider killed for sport in the arena.

Burroughs was fairly enlightened for the time in which he wrote (the first edition of Lost Empire was printed in the 1920s), but I still cringed a bit at the underlying attitude toward black Africans. You've got to take those factors into account when you read something this old. Something else I struggled with were the names. So many characters had authentic-sounding Roman names my head was swimming trying to keep track of them. Another annoyance was due, I think, to the fact that this book was originally written as serialized pulp--each episode a given length according to the requirements of the periodical it was written for, with a cliffhanger ending to be continued next issue: Tarzan came off almost skitzophrenic due to his changing opinions about whether he could escape and when he should attempt escape, etc. And one final criticism I'll offer is that for a pulp tale about a feral savage raised by gorillas, in an adversarial position vis-a-vis hordes of sword-wielding legionaires, there wasn't nearly as much action as you might expect. And what action there was disappointed me a bit--particularly in the arena.

I must give credit where it's due, though: when Tarzan is paired against a gladiator, his goose is cooked until the fortuitous intervention of a newfound Roman friend. Tarzan is a bad dude, but not invincible. He can't match up against a master of single combat who lives or dies by the sword just because he is the hero of the story, knife or no knife; ape-like agility or no ape-like agility. Weapons and all other factors being equal, the only individual who could have stood a chance against an experienced gladiator was another experienced gladiator, and Burroughs knew this. Thank-you, Edgar. No eye-rolling from me on this aspect.

This concept had heaps of potential, but fell a bit short in my opinion. I still hope to read Tarzan and the Ant Men some day.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Dawn of Apartheid: Power of the Sword by Wilbur Smith

I discovered Wilbur Smith by chance. The public library just happened to have Triumph of the Sun in audiobook and I just happened to find it when desperate for something to listen to during commute time. Since then I've been looking for his titles.

Smith's chosen genre is one I guess I'd label "historical adventure." He follows the Courtney family's generations through different periods of history, but always somewhere in Africa, so far as I can tell. Some of his novels strike me as sagas while others, like this one, might be described as "epics." For some reason Africa has always fascinated me, and the continent comes alive through Smith's skillful prose.

This novel's setting is South Africa, from the early days of the Great Depression up to the beginning of Apartheid. I've long considered Wilbur Smith an armchair social anthropologist, and it may not be as evident in the characters of this book, but he certainly gave every last one of them some serious much so that it's difficult for me to decide who the hero is. I guess I'd have to name Centaine Courtney as the heroine. She may be an adulterous, ruthless capitalist opportunist who destroys those who get in the way of her ambitions with no remorse, but the author bothers to show sympathetic traits in her perhaps more than any other character.

She seems like a choir girl compared to ganglord/political organizer Moses Gama; his half-brother Swart Hendrick; Centaine's bastard son Manfred, who grows up to become a fanatical Nazi; or even her ostensibly legitimate son, Shasa, who grows up to be a pampered, womanizing, shallow fop. I think my sympathies lied mostly with Lothar De La Rey, father of bastard Manfred.

At the very beginning of this tale, Lothar has just gambled all he has on a fishing business and through cunning and determination, has just brought in a haul that will pay all his debts and put him on firm footing to build an inheritance for Manfred. That's when Centaine shows up to utterly wreck him and his business. She has bought up his debt and now prefers to let his fish rot in the cargo holds than to let him can them and use the profits to get in the black. She has bad blood for her former lover and it's about to cause a vicious cycle.

Lothar decides that an eye for an eye is in order, and plans a robbery of Centaine's diamond mine. It's a clever and detailed plan, actually, with multiple safeguards...all rendered moot by fate, Centaine's tenacity, and, most of all, Lothar's fits of mercy. It goes downhill from there, and I must admit I skimmed a bit when I got too disgusted with the characters. Not just the deceit of Moses or his revolting behavior; or the corruption of the weak-minded Swart Hendrick; but also the gullibility and stupidity of the book-smart Manfred. And what he does to the girl who sincerely loves him. Of course my disgust is probably testament to the author's masterful orchestration of the elements of fiction.

Half brothers Shasa and Manfred are on a collision course that has ramifications well beyond the looming global conflict. When they do come full circle, their meeting was rather disappointing for my taste. Still, even at his worst (?), Wilbur Smith is a master storyteller, and despite my issues with this book, it's rich with South African history, geography and cultural insights. And for those who like family dynasty drama on an epic scale, this book is dripping with it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Good News For Pulpy Action Adventure Fans

Today it became official: Virtual Pulp is a recognized corporation, ready to do business in these United States. Just minutes ago, I received my tax ID # from the IRS. I'm not quite on the path to world domination just yet, but this is a significant milestone for me after months of misfires, mistakes, mucho legal mucky-pucky and financial follies. Now the real work starts and I'm hoping this is where it starts getting fun.

This business endeavor could possibly grow into something I've wanted to do since I was a teenager: run a publishing company...of sorts. With the publishing industry in the state of flux it's in now, who knows if this will ever be feasible. For now, Virtual Pulp, Inc. is going to be an online store focusing on fiction and film that falls under the action-adventure umbrella.

I've already undertaken a virtual recon by starting an Amazon affiliate store. That's what the Action Central ads on the right and at the bottom of the blog are all about. Amazon has made it easy for people to start these online stores (and somebody with both more business acumen and time to pimp their products would probably already be banking by now), but the navigation and some other features are not quite what I want.

This means that I'm starting with a clean sheet of paper. I'll be building/designing the Virtual Pulp store as I try to build on my rudimentary web-developing skills. I've got a concept that doesn't look too bad, but I need to learn how to incorporate all kinds of widgets, and I've got a LOT of product to add/link to. I know some people who could theoretically help me put it together, but with the amount of work involved they would probably want to be paid. Greedy capitalists. So this project will have to creep along in between my writing, blogging, and real job. Yup, that's what I need: more irons in the fire!

This will differ from Amazon and other online bookstores in that I intend to keep it focused on dude-lit (action-adventure; military/war; western; heroic fantasy; post-apocalypse; etc.) and, on the movie side, dude-flicks. Therein is one of the advantages I see for the customer: since I'm not trying to sell everything to everyone, fans won't have to browse for hours to find titles in these genres among the mountains of other stuff. I'll have already narrowed it down so that guys like me can choose between several titles that appeal to them, instead of wearing out their eyes, wrist and mouse button trying to find one among the thousands that don't. To the best of my ability, I will also weed out the phony, false-advertised "action adventure" or books that truly are action-adventure (classic pulp; new pulp; post-modern-pulp; dude-lit; whatever) but are terribly written.

Another advantage the VP store will have, for both readers and authors, is that I won't discriminate against those who have bypassed the New York Publishing Cartel. I fully intend to mix the product so that books by talented indies will have equal billing with those by tradpubbed authors. A browser may have read everything published with Don Pendleton's name on it (or is that even possible?), but right next to that thumbnail of an Executioner is Jack Murphy's latest, or M. R. Kayser's, or Jack Badelaire' get the idea.

In case you're wondering: Yes, my books will be available in the store, too. (If you're not wondering, sin loi!) Speaking of that, every ebook I publish from now on with my name on it will have the Virtual Pulp logo on it. My little "publishing imprint." Hopefully a portent of things to come. Other pulp fans/bloggers/writers have proposed uniting under one heading, logo, meme... but so far as I can tell this has not happened yet. So fellow writers and authors, this is for you:

I'm willing to extend the Virtual Pulp logo beyond my own fiction, as a sort of stamp-of-approval. VP is not a full-blown publisher so I'm not looking for a cut of anyone's profits. There is no prestige associated with the VP logo yet, but over time with consistent quality, I hope to build trust among readers so they know, when they see it, odds are it's a good read no matter what the author's name. Like I said: others have mentioned doing something like this, and it still may happen. And I will welcome it and probably want to help or participate somehow if it does. In the mean time, I'm offering this. If you'd like an ebook (or print book, for that matter) placed under the VP umbrella, I will consider it. If I read it and it passes muster, you're welcome to use the logo on that book.

Back to the VP online store: I plan on adding a forum. Maybe a swap meet section too. I'd like to do more than just sell stuff on the site. I'd also like to present some sort of free content there...videos, podcasts, articles, blog feeds, maybe all of the above. Suggestions and advice are welcome now, and probably always will be.

So Virtual Pulp Press is taking its first baby steps now. I hope to have the store online and open for business in the near future.