A Fistful of Fists!

Okay, more than a fistful.  I have this irksome thing where I gotta do just one more book review because if I only review twelve books the post'll seem too skimpy for me, so thirteen'll be perfect... but, hey, how 'bout fourteen!?  Etc.  That's one reason these posts aren't more frequent.  (The other reason is our hero is a lazy bastard 'bout typin' up things on computers).  But, anyway, here ya go with a new batch to make up for lost time.

(And before we get started, it's almost October, and last year we did this thing where everybody's supposed to write a horror story - the scarier the better - for Halloween.  I am, once again, casting down the gauntlet, so you should all get to work and post 'em on your blogs!  Do it!  Do two!  Or three!  Or more!  I don't care - the more the better!)


Attention K-Mart shoppers!  The reason this art looks all grim and cool and Punisher-y is because it's done by Tim Bradstreet, who did a lot of Punisher Max covers.

Jake Strait: Avenging Angel  - Frank Rich     (Gold Eagle, 1993)
Taking a noir approach to the future (perhaps using Blade Runner as a source), this is the first of four novels about Jake Strait, a free-lance enforcer (or "bogeyman") working the dismal urban future of 2031.  A corporate collapse and possibly some kind of military exchange involving nukes has finally divided the haves from the have-nots in a blatant way.   The rich live in a big gated community called The Hill while everyone else struggles to survive in a vice-filled city of scams and violence.   Everything's run by a political party known simply as The Party, and none one gets far resisting them.  Since the police won't pay much attention to crimes that don't affect the rich, you can hire a bogeyman like Jake to settle your scores, if you have the credits.   Broke and needing to put food (which is almost all soy or seaweed-based in this future) on the table, Jake takes a case for a rich couple who lead him to believe that the target is an evil serial killer.   After killing the guy, Jake learns that he was just a poet who'd written a couple of anti-Party poems, and he's been tricked into doing someone's political dirty work - a type of job he doesn't usually take.  Also the target had stolen a quarter of a million credits (which Jake transfers into his own account) and the dead man's girlfriend wants them back.   Pretty soon Jake's got a lot of different factions after him and his gun (which fires explosive jet-powered shells similar to shotgun slugs) are getting a big workout.   Very well-written with lots of great noirish lines, and Jake's realistically tough but has some humanity and a smart-assed sense of humor that keeps him on a lot of people's bad side.   Solid pacing and much more depth and skill displayed here than the usual action-series book.  Grade A stuff.

Assignment To Disaster - Edward S. Aarons  (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1955)
First of the long-running Sam Durell series has the Cajun spy stuck with finding a scientist who has vital info about the launch of a defense satellite that can fire off nukes from space.   Sam tries discovering the scientist's whereabouts through his pretty sister, but she soon becomes a target of enemy agents, too,  right after Sam develops a crush on her. And as he scrambles to track the scientist down he discovers that the situation is worse than anyone suspected; they'd thought the scientist just planned to sell the launch info to the enemy, but someone else has tampered with the rocket's guidance system so, instead of reaching orbit, it will come down in the United States with its explosive payload.  And as time's running out, Sam's own people start working against him.   Fistfights, gunplay, and narrow escapes ensue.   Solid, well-written, well-paced espionage with a sense of realism.

 This series may win some kind of prize for most covers depicting the hero with a butt goin'.  Don't smoke, kids!  But, do feel free to kill Nazis.  Surgeon general didn't say shit about that.

The Sergeant #1: Death Train - Gordon Davis   (Zebra, 1980)
First in another violent WWII action series by the guy who wrote the Rat Bastards books (the prolific and estimable Len Levinson).  Sgt. C. J. Mahoney is a hard-drinking woman-chasing misfit of dubious morals, but he's an effective soldier if only because combat provides him with an outlet for his violent nature.  He's given an assignment to blow up a bridge so the Nazis won't be able to carry troops and supplies in to counter the upcoming D-Day invasion.  Mahoney and his small band of French resistance fighters (including a couple of women so a few mild sex scenes can be fit in) decide they don't have enough T.N.T. to take down the bridge, but they can block incoming trains just as well by driving an old locomotive into a tunnel and blowing it up when the Nazi train shows up.   The SS officer he's up against is no idiot, though, and complications and some fierce town fighting against tanks results.  Like the Rat Bastards, this has loads of action, but it has more plot than I remember those having.  The writing's simple but effective (and vivid enough that a month after I read this I mis-remembered the exploding-train bit as being from a movie I'd seen!), and you get a feel for the characters and even the subplots (such as Mahoney's sidekick's romantic troubles with a married French girl) are interesting.  Great stuff!

Executioner #3: Battle Mask -- Don Pendleton  (Pinnacle, 1970)
Third book in the groundbreaking series has Mack Bolan on the run from the Mob and deciding a new face would be a useful weapon in fighting them.   He seeks out an old war buddy who owes him a couple and just happens to be a plastic surgeon.  He gives Bolan a new face (which he recovers from way too soon) and Bolan uses it to pose as an up-and-coming Mafia hood.  They accept this tough newcomer all too quickly, and Bolan feeds inside intel to the cops for a while before letting the Mafia goons know who they've stupidly welcomed in.  There are some good action scenes but they're spread amidst a lot of intrigue, and some of them are peculiar (Bolan shooting guys who've been killed in a car crash is weird).  It's also clear that helping Bolan out is a bad idea; everyone who does suffers mightily for it.  Well-written, though, and Pendleton's still a Cadillac in the parking lot of action-series writers.  (for more info, here's a review from the mucho-excellent Glorious Trash Blog)

Maybe I just coudln't get over that white turtleneck...

Stark #1: Funeral Rites
-- Joseph Hedges   (Pyramid, 1973)
Terry Harknett, who wrote the Edge Westerns as George G. Gilman, borrows his own character's name as a nom de plume for this British take on The Executioner (originally called The Revenger but it got changed to Stark because Jon Messman was already using The Revenger title for yet another Executioner rip-off).  Johnnie Stark is a cheap hood working for a mob called The Company.  He's set up to take the fall for a job, but they sneak him out of prison (in a coffin) after they determine that he's not going to fink on them.  Problem is, they kill his girlfriend, Carol Burnett (yeah, I have a hard time getting around that image, too), after hooking her on smack to control her.  Since Stark has some major grievances already, that's the last straw and he declares war.   He burns a ship carrying a big drug cargo and then -- in a very odd move since the cops are looking for him -- sneaks back to his parents' house (even though his dad hates him).  Barely escaping the cops there, he goes on the run again.  Survivors of people he kills go on vengeance hunts of their own and soon Stark's running out of friends, family, and options.  The book should have been good but it became a chore to read, and I can't really figure out why; even though there's almost constant action it all gets bogged down in overbearing detail that's not particularly interesting (I don't need an essay on every bush Stark runs over during a car chase), and there's an overabundance of cardboard characters waiting to be gunned down.  The writing is more than competent but still lacks punch somehow, and even when Stark's on the run the story doesn't feel like it moves.   It's like a treadmill in high gear.  It won't let you read it fast, even when you should be, so it gets annoying.  But maybe it's just me; it did have some good points, but the overall impression was bleh.

Killsquad #1: Counter Attack  - Frank Garrett   (Avon, 1986)
Gung-ho Dirty Half-Dozen actionfest as a hardass CIA specialist -- code-named The Hangman -- pulls six killers off of death row so he can channel their ruthless bloodlust against international terrorism.  What a great idea!  What could go wrong?   Three of them are white and three are black and all (except for one who may have been framed) are pretty much a bunch of bastards.  There's not much room in a short book that's preoccupied with action scenes to almost a Rosenbergerian degree for characterization, so the author (Dan Schmidt, I think) uses pretty broad types -- an ex-Klansman, a German neo-Nazi, angry black guys, etc.   Most of the guys aren't all that well-drawn (I can't count how many times one of them's referred to as "the one-eyed pirate" just to remind us of who he is) and the bad guys aren't characterized at all beyond being referred to as insulting-terms-for-Arabs, so you're left with a whole lot of guys you don't really know or have anything invested in shooting each other and blowing things up.   You do have a LOT of that, though; the book's lacking some things (characterization, coherent plot, etc.) but there's no shortage of action.  Our heroes -- who mostly hate each other -- are given a little training and then sent to fight an army of jihadi terrorists.  When the characters aren't calling each other racist things (does anybody actually call black people "Chads" or was that made up for the book so it wouldn't be full of something really offensive?), the author's calling the Arabs "dung-eating scum," "Prophet's droppings," etc., so if you're overly offended by political incorrectness in your trashy men's adventure fiction, you should probably read... I dunno, the Chopper Cop might be your only option.  The faceless action gets overbearing, but it's not badly done, just scant in the plot department.

Bronson: Street Vigilante #1: Blind Rage - Philip Rawls   (Manor Books, 1975)
First in a loose 3-book series, and one of the most blatant rip-off series ever -- this wants to be Death Wish so hard they named their hero after the movie's lead actor.  And I use the word "hero" hesitantly in regard to this book, because Richard Bronson (not to be confused with goofy millionaire balloonist Richard Branson, who, to my knowledge, has murdered absolutely zero street-scum... but he's just reaaaally good at getting away with it.  Hmmmm... Branson: Balloon Vigilante!  I'm writing these now, damnit!  Why not?  You can dump any kind of garbage on a Kindle for free!) is as sick and sadistic as any of his targets.   The book cover makes a big deal out of him being some big liberal, but that's not really in the book; he has no conflict with himself and  flings himself instantly into a bloodthirsty quest for vengeance when his wife and children are murdered by depraved psychos, who are ludicrously set free by the courts because they're identical twins.  Bronson sets up housekeeping with a 17-year-old Latina who admires him all too much as he not only gets even but indulges in Sadean orgies of torture; he pours drain cleaner on a guy's genitals and face, emasculates and eviscerates another with a broken bottle, sets a woman on fire, feeds somebody to rats, and shoots a dozen or so others, never having any trouble getting away with it even though cops suspect him.  He also has no trouble putting together an arsenal including illegal items such as silencers and submachine guns; gun store owners give him whatever he wants, no problem.  As bad as Bronson is, the bad guys he kills are even worse, raping children and making snuff films.  Of course, Bronson also kills some less-guilty people, too, wiping out anyone who could be a witness.  At one point he smashes the skull of a puppy!  I don't think Dennis Kucinich would do that even if you murdered everyone he knew.  For all its sleaze, moral ambiguity, and gratuitous racism and gay-bashing (this author has a major hang-up about homosexuals), it's well-paced and solidly written, much better than the usual, with a wide variety of action -- car chases, gunfights, torture, etc.  Worth seeking out if you like 'em extreme.  (I had to dig this one out of my stacks and re-read it after reading this killer review on Glorious Trash, so go read that, too)

Did I mention in the review that Johnny Morini is 150 feet tall?  Well, he is, as you can clearly see by this cover art.  Soldatozilla!

Soldato #2: Death Grip!    - Al Conroy (Lancer, 1972)
Former Mafia soldier Johnny Morini is bailed out of a small-town jail after a bar brawl (he has kind of a drinking problem) by a dying millionaire who wants him to continue his vendetta against the mob, and has set up a trust fund to finance it.  Not having much else to do with his miserable life, Johnny starts hijacking trucks, turning over crooked poker games, repeatedly throwing an attacker down flights of stairs... all as a means to infiltrate the Mafia so he can play havoc with it from the inside.  When he gets in, the mobsters ironically want him to infiltrate a rival gang, so here we go again.  He starts robbing grocery stores and such to work his way in.  Once they accept him he uses his unique position to pull a Fistful of Dollars thing and set the two rival gangs against each other, tricking them into wasting all their muscle in a big mob war.  Johnny goes a little too far, though, when he double-crosses them on a jewel heist and gets himself in big trouble.  The writing here is much higher caliber than the usual series book, and the action scenes are tough, tense, and frequent, and they stay fairly realistic, with Johnny taking a beating and getting into a few situations that only luck can get him out of.  Worth looking for.

The Hulk called and he wants his arms back.  Ye godz!  Admit it, you'd buy this book just for that cover.

My Name Is Black - Joseph Nazel  (Pinnacle Books, 1973)
What if Mack Bolan was more like Mack BRO-lan?  That's basically what this series was attempting, creating a Blaxploitation take on The Executioner.   Our hero, simply named Black (if he's got a first name it's none of our business), is "a six-foot 180-pound ebony monolith of rage," and was a 'Nam vet and a boxer who "hit harder than income tax."   They syndicate demanded that he take a dive in a fight and he told them to go fuck themselves, so they sent a couple of goons around to break his hands and he beat them both to death.  He's sent to prison for that and while he's there they rape and kill his sister (which apparently causes his mother to die from grief -- we know she dies too but Nazel forgets to mention why), and Black spends a year in prison constantly working out and preparing himself for a vengeance rampage.  When he's paroled the mob still wants a piece of him, too, and he takes part of a shotgun blast that only seems to piss him off.  He turns into a one-man riot, burning down syndicate drug dens and businesses and blowing off the heads of mobsters with his .357 Magnum and M-16, with both the cops and the mob trying to catch him.  The writing's not flashy but does what it sets out to do, capturing a Blaxploitation movie feel, and even though the plot runs pretty thin, it's got no shortage of mayhem -- the body count is large but not out of the realm of plausibility, and the action is constant, so it's got pacing working for it.  Black is Back was the only sequel.

Black Berets #1: Deadly Reunion - Mike McCray  (Dell, 1984)
A corrupt CIA agent has use for an old team from Vietnam, supposedly to free a POW in Laos, so he wrecks their leader's career so he'll have no other options but to rebuild his five-man team (which is so racially diverse it might as well be called the Rainbow Coalition instead of the Black Berets).  None of them have really adjusted to civilian life very well, anyway, so it's not difficult to convince them.  The leader, half-Cherokee Billy Leaps Beeker, has been living in the woods where he killed a couple of rednecks who were torturing a mute Indian orphan he unofficially adopts.  His buddy Cowboy has been trafficking (and using a hell of a lot of) cocaine.  Torture-expert Rosie, a big black guy, has been peeling corpses in a morgue to make bandage for burn victims.  Greek Harry has been running a bar and feeling sad and empty.  And Navy Seal demolitions expert (and dangerous lunatic) Applebaum has been blowing things up for a construction company.  Billy Leaps gets them back into fighting shape at his Louisiana compound and then it's off to Laos, where their mission holds some dangerous surprises for them and gives them a reason to keep the team together and make a second book in the series (which ran for 13 volumes).  The writing here is far, far better than most of the men's adventure genre; in fact, it's just about perfect pulp writing.  A lot of these "team" books suffer from weak characterization, with so many people to juggle, but this one makes these guys stand out and take on lives of their own.  I read the first several books in high school and could still remember some individual scenes decades later, which is a pretty amazing testament to the writing when most action-series books are forgotten a few hours after you finish them.  The action's well-handled and doesn't skimp on the gore.  Damn-near perfect stuff.  Mandatory.

That tape was on the cover when I bought it... I'd've had enough sense to at least use the clear kind.

Warlord #1 - Jason Frost   (Zebra, 1983)
Eric Ravensmith is a nice-guy history professor who conveniently happens to be a former member of a Vietnam unit called "The Night Shift" who were super-secret ultra-violent Green Beret types, plus he was also raised and trained in fighting by Hopi Indians.  Ravensmith is testifying against his former Night Shift commanding officer, Dirk Fallows, a Shakespeare-quoting psychopath who crucified women and children and then left Ravensmith for dead when he tried to intervene.  Fallows and his goons have targeted him and his wife and kids, and Ravensmith -- who just wants to be peaceful and doesn't even keep guns in the house -- is having to fend off the malevolent bastard's attacks.  This terrible situation is made even worse when a series of massive earthquakes break southern California off the continent, leaving it five miles from the mainland and surrounded by a toxic dome of acid fog created by chemical and biological weapons that had secretly been stored in Long Beach.  The police have all firearms confiscated to minimize the anarchy, and survivors form little tribes to survive.  Ravensmith's group lives on the old university campus and he protects it with bows and arrows, including a crossbow.  Other groups are hostile and try to strong-arm his people into trading them things (such as books from the library), and Fallows is still out there with his psychotic henchmen, still wanting revenge on Ravensmith.  Fallows starts murdering Ravensmith's family, which turns him into a cold and ruthless killer, leading a group of volunteers after Fallows... and that is anything but easy.  This series seems to be an action-oriented take on The Stand (the author's a pretty obvious Stephen King fan, with that "Night Shift" business and a "Dead Zone" -- Under the Dome would be a sure fit if this book didn't pre-date that one by decades) and the writing is above average and full of interesting details, such as survival facts.   Characterization is solid and the fights are good, but they do run a little thin, considering the book's an overlong 400 pages.  Still, very much worth seeking out.  The series sported what has to be the most boring cover art in all that action-series world:  each of the six books bore the exact same diagram of a crossbow, and only the colors changed.

The Interlopers - Donald Hamilton  (Fawcett Gold Medal, originally 1969)
Hardass spy Matt Helm has to impersonate a dead man and keep his appointments with some spies.  He's given a Labrador Retriever much like the murdered agent's and is sent off to do some fishing in the woods, where he'll get slipped little pieces of coded info to store in the dog's collar.   But the other side wants to take him out so another substitute of their own chosing came make all of his meet-ups instead.  Helm's kept in the dark about his mission more than he likes (he has a vague idea it's concerning an assassination attempt on the president or a presidential candidate) and more and more trouble comes up at him and bodies pile up.  As the pieces of the puzzle start coming together, Helm doesn't even trust his own people anymore and resists pleas to get off the case, and it sets him on a collision course with one of the other side's top assassins, who gets the upper hand.   Luckily Helm bears no resemblance whatsoever to the silly-ass Dean Martin imitation (this is a very gritty and realistically-violent book) so he just might make it out alive.  Tough stuff with no false heroics (one character complains to Helm that he keeps shooting his enemies in the back, but Helm's about getting the job done and living through it) and things seldom go the easy way.  The writing is top-notch and knowledgeable -- you can learn things from these books.

Fox #2: Prize Money  - Adam Hardy  (Pinnacle, 1973)
Ambitious asshole George Abercrombie Fox continues his career in the war-torn British Navy of the early 1800's.  As punishment for being caught screwing his captain's mistress, e's reassigned to an ill-regarded ship, Sheridan, under Captai Tranter, who's a bit of a madman.   Fox doesn't like it there much, so he gets himself reassigned (and nearly court-martialed) when he provokes the captain's madness by tweaking his obsession with imaginary pigeons he thinks live in the rigging by serving a seagull at dinner.  He's moved from ship to ship and engages in battles with the French until he finally ends up in charge of The Raccoon, which captures French ships that are sent to supply Bonaparte's armies in Egypt.  Fox tries for as much cash as he get capturing ships but is then assigned to transport statues from Spain to England, which handicaps his quest to profit off the destruction of the French.   There are some brutal naval battles but Hardy isn't forgiving if you don't know your way around an old sailing ship or 19th century life at sea; I had to figure out a lot from context and learn on the fly, because Hardy (aka Kenneth Bulmer) is not going to hold your hand; this is strictly immersion-method storytelling.  It's character-driven stuff, with Fox pretty full-fleshed as a character; he's mean and self-serving, though not without redemptive moments of compassion, such as when he risks the ship to rescue a sailor who fell overboard during a battle.   He's also got an interesting flaw -- he goes blind in one eye during moments of great stress, which he's under pretty often.  Hardy's writing captures the time period and confidently covers a great deal of time in a short number of pages.   I've also read the first one but looking back, my review was so skimpy that this one covered pretty much everything I said in it, so I just included the cover of it as a bonus.


Meanwhile, on Twitter...


Figplucker's 21st Century Blues: Cypress Grove (Skip James)

Another Skip James tune... this time, the creepily resigned Cypress Grove. I was aiming for atmosphere on this one, with a concerted effort to make it sound sorta distantly swampy, though my slide guitarwork is resoundingly subpar. Whatever. You decide. And, please... let me know what you think.

Click the songtitle to hear it. Right-click to download.

Assholes of American History...


Figplucker's 21st Century Blues: Hot Dog (Led Zeppelin)

Here... have a Hot Dog...
(Oh, wait... it's invisible...)
Yeah... this one's kind of a cheat, I guess. It's not an old blues, it's a Zep tune. But, lots of their stuff actually was old uncredited blues, so whatever... water from the same well, maybe just a little more British (which would make the water taste like it had bad dental care?)... 

When drummer Matt + Donny Guitar + I were still trying to put together a coverband to hit the clubs, we recorded some tunes, including the already-posted Sunshine of Your Love and this... Our cover of the way-on rocked-up country blues offa Physical Graffiti...  

(Cuz it's Labor Day Weekend, see...?)
Anyway, Donny's guitar playing on this one is rather tasty, so check it out + then post some nice things here about his playing... he's been a little depresst lately + it'd cheer him up!