Book Review: Grey Cat Blues by J.D. Cowan

J.D. Cowan has finally answered the question of how to distill the sensibilities of a 1950s gang movie with interstellar, quasi-dystopian sci-fi, an 8- or 16-bit era beat ’em up, and dash of rockabilly music.

It doesn’t matter that no one specifically asked that question. All that matters is that we now know the result: Grey Cat Blues.

This is a really fun book that packs a lot into its pages. Imagine The Outsiders meets Double Dragon (complete with the game’s post-apocalyptic storyline) on a forgotten, colonized rain-covered planet straight out of a film noir.

Two-Tone is an ex-member of the Jet Boys, one of the most formidable gangs in Cordova City on the planet Achaea. On the wrong side of 25, Two-Tone tries to live a normal life with a normal office job, his violent past behind him. Until one day he gets a call from his old gang buddy A-Rail to come and have a few drinks. This is where things go haywire.

See, Cordova City is but one of many cities on Achaea, walled off from each other with little contact between them. Gangs are bad enough, but the weird mud-men who attack Two-Tone are something entirely different. They take A-Rail, and somehow Two-Tone ends up back in his apartment. Just a weird night out, right? Not to Two-Tone. There’s no way he’s going to leave his pal at the mercies of those mud-covered freaks. Armed with his chain and a sense of right and wrong–and aided by a mysterious woman who seems to know his phone number–Two-Tone is off on his mission of revenge, which might even include getting the gang back together. And who’s that mysterious dame hanging out at the warehouse where the shadowy mobster Sarpedon, Two-Tone’s target, is holed up?

If this sounds like your thing, I highly recommend Grey Cat Blues. It’s not just the plot which is entertaining–action-packed, full of heart, and hints of a larger world on Achaea–but Cowan’s style. He nails the tone, mixing high technology with sensibilities out of a 1940s hard-boiled crime story. The fights are brisk, the tough-guy patter is spot on, each character has memorable speech patterns and personality ticks, and the mystery keeps you engrossed until the conclusion, which arrives sooner than I would’ve expected.

This is not to say Grey Cat Blues felt rushed. I just wanted it to go on longer.

Continue reading “Book Review: Grey Cat Blues by J.D. Cowan”

Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight

I’ve always enjoyed the “ordinary people get stuck in a horrific situation and have to survive” trope in stories. Whether it’s a disaster movie, a survival horror video game, or much of Stephen King’s ouevre, there’s something about ordinary people overcoming extraordinary circumstances that’s both entertaining and provides wonderful food for thought:

  • How would I react? What would I do?
  • What skills do I have that would be useful in a situation like this?
  • Would people work together, or turn against each other?
  • Would I have what it takes to make it?

Tales of superhumans with otherworldy abilities are always fun and have their place in my heart. But I equally enjoy seeing if the pre-school teacher or the accountant can survive the monsters that suddenly appeared in their town, or can evade the hostile army that’s invaded their nation.

And then, on the other hand, I also love classic 80s/90s action movies.

Along comes Justin Knight with his novel  Praxis. Described as “blue-collar sci-fi,” Praxis details the experience of warehouse workers from Vancouver, Canada whose company gets the contract to man the recently constructed titular space station.

Justin Knight (artist’s rendition)

Praxis focuses on Mickey Hemmings and his crew as they travel to the Praxis station with their families for a year-long stint. The station orbits Neptune at the farthest reaches of the solar system, and is meant to be a waypoint for intergalactic travel. Unfortunately, a group of hostile alien pirates fleeing justice decide to use the station to make their last stand, and the Earthlings get caught in the crossfire.

First, I love this concept: A varied cast of warehouse workers have to survive an alien invasion on a remote space station millions of miles from Earth. Though I have some plot-related questions that I didn’t see addressed–Why are there no security officers? Why doesn’t anyone have guns?–they didn’t detract from the white-knuckled action . . .

. . . when the action finally arrives.

You see, Praxis is a slow-burner. I have no problem with slow-burners, but I did notice that, according to my Kindle app, the action did not begin until 69 percent of the way through the book.

Now, Knight does something clever with all of this: He really sets the reader up to grow fond of these characters. And the competing narratives (the human’s travels to Praxis and settling in interspersed with our alien pirates being pursued by an alien police force) builds the anticipation.

And when these disparate threads collide, they make a big boom. Continue reading “Book Review: Praxis by Justin Knight”

An Undisciplined Writer

Did you know that Walter B. Gibson, creator of the wildly popular character The Shadow and prolific author of hundreds of stories and novels, one time typed so much his wife was forced to intervene because he broke his damn fingers typing?

Damn.

I learned this on my buddy JimFear138’s most recent podcast, where he talked to another friend of mine, Rawle Nyanzi, about all things genre (and why genre doesn’t really matter these days; check out J.D. Cowan’s recent post about this if you’re interested in the premise).

Anyway, the point is that these guys in the 20s, 30s, and that general era wrote fast. And they produced quality.

This, of course, translates into money. You can see why guys like Nick Cole and Jason Anspach have been so successful with their Galaxy’s Edge series, both with the fans and financially.

Information like this, of course, has the tendency to produce self-reflection, and I realize one vital fact about myself: I am a very undisciplined writer.

Seriously. I don’t really enjoy the actual act of writing. Maybe it’s because I don’t like sitting still for that long. I don’t think it’s necessarily a focus thing, because given the right objective, I can be occupied for hours.

And writing can be like that, when I get into a groove. It’s just that getting into said groove can be a challenge.

This gets me wondering if it’s a free time issue: Free time is so limited, as it is for most of us, that I almost have a checklist of things I’d like to do–work out, read, check some website I’m fond of–before I get to the writing, which can sometimes feel like work. So I’m scheduling writing time–I keep this blog going, after all, I’ve written several novels, and I’m getting others ready for publication–but I can’t shake that I could be doing more with my time.

Is it a balance issue, then? What if I wrote to the exclusion of other things I like to do with my time? I know what would happen: I’;d feel as guilty as I would if I, say, worked out to the exclusion of my writing and other things that interest me.

And then I look to my heroes in writing the way I looked to my heroes in music, and realize I don’t measure up.

For example, when I tried to make a go as a musician, I’d look to my idols like Frank Zappa, Prince,and David Bowie, how ridiculously prolific they were, and get sort of depressed by my own inadequacy.

Likewise, looking at guys like Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the aforementioned Walter B. Gibson, I start to fall into the same trap.

But the important things to remember are that these guys did this for a living, and they weren’t getting paid the big bucks (or having the massive TV/movie deals) the way guys do today. So they had to write to pay the bills.

Me? I’m doing this solely for the love of it . . . for the time being.

Stephen King and Dean Koontz are two super-rich authors I can think of off the top of my head who pumped out tons of books in their heyday, even when they’d already received financial success. I can’t help think of guys like George R. R. Martin, though, who acts as though he actually hates writing.

Enough musing! What to do about it? Here are some things that work for me, both physically and psychologically. I hope they help! Continue reading “An Undisciplined Writer”

Book Review: We, the Two by Dominika Lein

Step once again into the weird space between life and death, where souls are food for the strong-willed and the ruthless with We, the Twoby Dominika Lein. We, the Two is Lein’s follow-up to I, the One, one of the coolest, creepiest short stories I read last year.

We, the Two focuses on two of I, the One‘s antagonists, the brother-and-sister team of Hanhoka and Hinim, etheric beings of great power who prey on souls and rule their realms. They make their way to a weird marketplace of souls, searching for souls to consume . . . but strange things are afoot, even stranger than the scene decaying city around them.

First are the cultists formerly devoted to a powerful being called Arcana, who now seem to worship Hinom, much to Hanhoka’s surprise . Then there’s the Soul Hunter who somehow made her way into the realm, capturing souls from under the twos’ noses. Even stranger are Hinom’s intimations that he plans to challenge the Almighty Himself so that their ability to consume souls can continue unabated.  Continue reading “Book Review: We, the Two by Dominika Lein”

What Joy?

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A few days ago, I watched the first three or four episodes of AMC’s Into the Badlands–yes, I know I’m late to the party and that the show premiered in 2015. I’m uncool. Bear with me.

Into the Badlands, a modern take on the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, seemed right up my alley: A cross between post-apocalyptic survival, martial arts, and political intrigue among the feudal barons with a strong aesthetic that manages to combine elements of kung-fu cinema, Westerns, and even a 1930s/1940s vibe. Sign me up!

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Daniel Wu as Sunny.

Except . . . besides being visually stunning–which it is–the show is unremittingly dreary and depressing.

It’s another one of those TV shows where everyone is serious all the time (the acting is pretty stiff, actually), the world is run by the ruthless and the power-mad who will kill anyone who gets in their way, the rank-and-file seem hopeless and similarly bash each other senseless in order to curry what little favor they can, and save for one subplot there doesn’t seem to be any such thing as romantic love.

No thanks.

I know that these are standard tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre, and that nihilism is a hallmark–see, there’s not always hope! Maybe lots of people like this. To me, however, this trend has gotten really old and really flat. In short, it’s kinda beige.

We are what we consume. I’d rather not consume hopelessness, thanks.  Continue reading “What Joy?”

Book Review: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard

My foray into the works of the early pulp masters continues with my first brush with a Conan story, Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard. Having recently read and deeply enjoying some Edgar Rice Burroughs, I was eager to sink my teeth into Conan.

Metaphorically, you understand.

Howard is best known for creating the enduringly popular Cimmerian, as well as Solomon Kane, among other characters in his 30 short years of life. Although first appearing in the pages of Weird Tales in 1932 in a story called The Phoenix on the Sword, I decided to first read Queen of the Black Coast because I found it on Gutenberg.org and I liked the title.

Robert E. Howard

Queen of the Black Coast was published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It tells the tale of Conan, on the run from soldiers in the port city of Argos, taking passage on a south-bound trading vessel called the Argus bearing goods to trade with the kingdom of Kush.

It only takes a few sentences for Howard to suck the reader in:

Hoofs drummed down the street that slopes to the wharfs. The folk that yelled and scattered had only a fleeting glimpse of a mailed figure on a black stallion, a wide scarlet cloak flowing out on the wind.

Reading that, and the images it conjured in my mind, I was hooked.

Of course, the Argus doesn’t have an easy trip to Kush. In fact, it never makes, being waylaid by the fearsome pirate woman Bêlit as it hits the coast. The Argus‘ captain is killed, and Conan boards the pirate ship Tigress intending to take as many of Bêlit’s strong, black warriors down with him, but he and Bêlit soon fall for each other, and Conan joins their crew, ravaging the Coast.

Eventually, they journey to the mystical and cursed ruined jungle kingdom up the river Zarkheba in search of more treasure. And that’s where things get really freaky.

I was impressed with Howard’s writing. You won’t find deep characterization, internal conflict, or excursions into socio-political issues. This is pulp, baby!

What you get is a story and prose that grabs you by the gut. Conan’s world is brutal, like the man himself. But this world also has a savage beauty that Howard conveys in his descriptions of the jungle and the spoiled grandeur of the ruined city.

Oh, and also the monsters. You didn’t think Conan was getting out of this without tussling with some freaky monsters, did you?

I shall say no more about the plot save that Queen of the Black Coast is fast-paced without feeling rushed, and short enough to be read in one sitting.

It’s fortuitous that I picked this story, as I just finished playing an old computer game called Quest for Glory III: Wages of War for a chronogaming blog I occasionally contribute to. Quest for Glory III takes place in a jungle realm based on both Egyptian society and more traditional sub-Saharan African cultures, and has an incredibly pulpy vibe, complete with lost cities, romance, demons, and a sense of the eerie and mysterious.

That’s what I appreciated the most from Howard’s writing–the way he was so economically able to put you in his world, feeling the unsettling ancient horrors facing Conan.

The jungle was a black colossus that locked the ruin-littered glade in ebony arms. The moon had not risen; the stars were flecks of hot amber in a breathless sky that reeked of death.

Is it a little over-wrought? Maybe. But to hell with what creative writing professors think; this is effective. Continue reading “Book Review: Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard”

Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

When I asked author friends and fans of the old masterworks of fantasy and science fiction–that’s the Pulp Rev crew to you–who to start with if I’m interested in digging back into the forgotten classics of yore, two names came up consistently: Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Howard, as you might know, was most famous for creating Conan the Barbarian, and wrote several stories featuring the Cimmerian warrior in the 1930s. Burroughs might sound a little more familiar to the layman, being the creator of one of pop culture’s most enduring characters: Tarzan, King of the Apes. But he also wrote another long-running series focusing on former Confederate soldier John Carter and his adventures on Mars.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

This is where I decided to start, with Burroughs’ very first entry in his Barsoom series, A Princess of Mars.

(Barsoom, just so you know, is how the Martians refer to their home planet.)

First published in 1912, A Princess of Mars details the adventures of John Carter among the warring tribes of Martians and his marriage to the titular princess, Dejah Thoris.

The framing story is unique. The narrator (the author himself?), whose family is friends with Carter, comes across the manuscript after Carter’s funeral, with instructions to publish them some years after his death. Carter’s exploits are presented as a memoir, and while there’s no central “plot” per se, there is a through-line, and that is Carter’s pursuit of the beautiful, brave, and strong-willed Dejah Thoris, Princess of the Red Martians of Helium, one of Barsoom’s great civilizations.

I see why Burroughs was popular both in his day and now: this is adventure and escapism at is finest. Swashbuckling, romance, danger, monsters, violence, and a hero with an unwavering dedication to doing what is right.  Continue reading “Book Review: A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs”