Saturday, March 29, 2008


Through Wyoming Eyes is a collection of five short stories, vividly set in the open spaces of Wyoming, written by Ken Rand. In his introduction Rand explains that Wyoming is his adopted home, and while he is unable to live there, his "heart is in Wyoming." The stories explore the people and the terrain of the high plains and the author's love is visible in his simple and visual descriptions. They are told with a wry sense of humor and Rand never takes them too seriously.

The stories are unique to Ken Rand. They are a mixture of western, horror and science fiction. They read more as tall tales than short stories: the characters that inhabit his worlds are more fantastical than real. They are not super-heroes, but they have the feel and texture of a Johnny Appleseed, or Paul Bunyan rather than anyone you have ever known or met.

The collection opens with the story "Bridge O'Doom," which chronicles the strange events of a Wyoming rancher who discovers a sort of black hole on his land. It turns into a media circus and then a pop-culture event. The rancher watches as thousands of people journey to his land as a pilgrimage, looking for their own Shangri La, for their own escape into a better place, a better future. It is a quiet story that made me yearn for the older Twilight Zone-like science fiction of the past.

"Calamity Djinn" is the story of a stout and strong frontier woman who is planning to marry Butch Parker. The only problem is she hasn't informed him of her plans. This is a fantastical story of love, destiny and just damn poor luck.

"The Clockwork Sheriff," is a genre bending golem story. An aging gunfighter is called to a small town to help clean out the bad men and ruffians. Only when he arrives, two weeks late, he finds a replacement has beaten him there. This story has the feel of a classic robot story, but with the added texture and setting of a true western.

"Through These Eyes,' is the weakest of the stories contained in Through Wyoming Eyes. It is short, less than two pages, and is built from two viewpoints: a doctor and a shaman. Its insights are strange and delightful, but I would have loved to see it fleshed out and built into a stronger, more poignant story.

"Mr. Gibber Saves the Day," is a Lucky Nickel Saloon story that tells the tallest tale of the collection. The saloon's mortgage is due the next day and Mick can't pay it with the IOUs stuffed in the till. This leads the Lucky Nickel's regulars on several ill-begotten wagers to save their favorite haunt. In the end it comes down to a stranger in town--a reporter and his companion--to save the Lucky Nickel. This is an inventive and thrilling story that left me wanting more.

Through Wyoming Eyes is a collection that will appeal to a genre-bending audience. If you have wondered how a golem would fare in the Wild West, or what a window to a strange dimension would look like on an old ranch this collection is for you. The stories are well told, clever and climax with less answers than questions. Ken Rand is the thinking man's writer and these stories will live with you much longer than they take to read. My only complaint? There should have been another story or two between the covers.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Jack M. Bickham

TOR Hardcover
I've been in a sentimental mood recently; the past year or so. I've been reading, and rereading in some cases, a good deal of fiction from my youth. Most of it is from the late-Eighties and early-Nineties. A few of the writers I've revisited had an impact on what I thought--particularly in my youth--about politics, life, and the world. And it's fun to revisit my younger, more naïve, and somewhat different self. It's also terrific that most of what I read then still holds up pretty well now.

I've shared a few of the writers on this blog--guys like J.C. Pollock and Harry Arnston--but there have been others I haven't. And the one at the top of my list is Jack M. Bickham. Mr. Bickham wrote with a stripped-down simplicity that didn't erode the essentials, but added to them--his Brad Smith novels had as much meaning as any novel I've ever read, but they also told a terrific and exhilarating story.

Jack Bickham published something like 75 novels and I've enjoyed all that I've read, but the work he produced in the last ten years of his life was special. In 1989 he published the first novel to feature aging tennis pro and sometime spy Brad Smith. It's title: Tie Breaker. He wrote five more before the series came to an end with The Davis Cup Conspiracy, and there isn't a month that goes by that I don't at least think about one of these novels; a situation, a phrase, a philosophical ideal, or maybe just the permeating sadness of an aging athlete. Damn I love those novels.

And it doesn't end there. Jack Bickham wrote a handful of stand alone novels that still sit on my bookshelf. Day Seven is part science fiction, and all thriller. It's a Space Shuttle story that involves Mars, hijackers, and adventure that could keep an action junkie satisfied for days. Ariel is another one. It's about artificial intelligence, human error, and responsibility. The Regensburg Legacy is an action story that has enough twists and turns to keep the most jaded reader wondering what's happening, and why.

If there was one writer I could magically bring back into print it would be Mr. Bickham. I would start with his amazing Brad Smith novels and move on down the list until I hit a little ACE Double Mystery he wrote in the 1950s called Dally with a Deadly Doll. And the cool thing, or maybe sad, depending on ones viewpoint, is I would read them all again. And you should to. If you haven't read Jack Bickham find a copy of something he wrote and read it.

A Note.
Jack Bickham published under various pseudonyms including John Miles, Jeff Clinton, and Arthur Williams. And I'm sure many others. He published in several genres; western, mystery, thriller, and others. At least two of his novels were made into feature films including The Apple Dumpling Gang, and Baker's Hawk. And while I enjoy his later work the most, I haven't ran into a Bickham novel I didn't like.

Other Posts about Jack Bickham:

1.  Visual Pulp: The Ace Double Titles of Jack Bickham
2.  THE USELESS GUN by Jack M. Bickham
3.  Jack M. Bickham's Black Bat Mystery Titles

Thursday, March 20, 2008


This review originally went live at SFReader October 14, 2006, and since I found my copy a few days ago, at the bottom of a pile of books in my office, I've been thinking about it quite a bit the last few days. And my memory of Chasing the Roswell Alien is pretty darn good. I may have to dip between the covers of this one again.

There have been a myriad of films, documentaries, books and articles written about the alleged UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, but none of them are quite like Glenn Marcel's Chasing the Roswell Alien. Marcel is the nephew of Jesse Marcel, the Roswell Intelligence officer who blew the whistle about the Roswell crash in the 1980s, and the novel, while fiction, has the feel of an insider's view.

Vaughn, a reporter for one of those seedy little tabloids, is sent to British Columbia in search of Amelia Earhart. Not to find her crashed plane, but to actually find and interview Amelia Earhart. While Vaughn is somewhat dubious, the information has come from a source she has used before; an informant that seemingly knows everything about anything to do with conspiracy, secrets and government cover-ups. While the Earhart interview doesn't go exactly as planned, Hatch, her informant, puts Vaughn on the trail of what happened at Roswell in 1947. And the answers are far more personal, and strange, than Vaughn could ever have imagined.

Chasing the Roswell Alien is far from the expected. It is unusual in that the protagonist, Melissa Vaughn, isn't introduced until nearly the midway point of the book, and surprisingly I didn't mind. The first one hundred-plus pages are an overview of the incident at Roswell-it is much more exciting than one would think. It has the familiar events of the usual timeline, but it also has elements that are unique to this story. The Roswell tale is told through the perspectives of several characters, and in the end it is essential to the story. And when Vaughn finally does take over the narrative, things really begins to heat up.

Glenn Marcel has woven an intricate, entertaining and very readable novel with Chasing the Roswell Alien. The answers are not simple or expected. I was genuinely surprised at the climax, and very much pleased with the resulting conclusions. Marcel doesn't take his subject too seriously and he adeptly creates likable characters with dialogue heavy scenes and fast-paced action that kept me enthused and entertained until the final pages. If you enjoy a good mystery, a little spooky atmosphere, an X-Files rerun, or even late night radio, Chasing the Roswell Alien will most certainly satisfy.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

HELLFIRE CANYON by Max McCoy wins Spur

I heard some exciting news today: Max McCoy's fine novel Hellfire Canyon has won the Spur Award for best paperback original. And it is well deserved. Hellfire Canyon was the best western novel I read in 2007 and it's story continues to stay with me. It is a campfire story--more legend than fact--with characters who come alive in the narrative. There is enough ambiguity and morality in the sparse tale to give it a power most genres works lack.

Congratulations Mr. McCoy. It's an award well deserved and a bright spot for a genre that is fading into obscurity.

To read my original review of Hellfire Canyon click Here.

THE CODEX by Douglas Preston

When Tom Broadbent is summoned to the family mansion in Santa Fe, New Mexico he finds his two older brothers impatiently trying to get a response at the front door. Their efforts are unsuccessful, and each of the men has a sinking feeling. When Tom finally breaks a window they find the house empty. Gone are their father's beloved art and artifacts--both legal and illegal--and in their place are barren walls, a few empty boxes and remnants of packing tape. Their initial assumption is that someone killed their father and stole his valuable collection. But as they walk through the house they find a big screen television, VCR, and a videocassette with a handwritten note taped to it that reads: Watch Me.

When the three sons play the cassette their father merrily greets them with, "Greetings from the dead." Their father was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few months earlier, and the boys--who never quite measured up to their father's high expectations--will have to earn their inheritance. Mr. Broadbent made his fortune hunting treasure and now he wants his sons to follow in his footsteps. If they want their father's legacy they will have to find it.

The Codex is a thriller that has plenty of everything; there are exotic locations, action, suspense, mystery, and even a touch of romance. Mr. Preston bestows the story with a unique blend of archaeology, pharmacology, and mysticism. He creates characters that fit the story--they are less than real, but their motives are pitch-perfect as the plot weaves itself into places I didn't expect. If The Codex has a weakness it is my usual rant: It's a smidgen too long. It runs--in mass-market paperback--to 404 pages, and while I never got bored with the story there were a few moments when I wanted it to move more swiftly.

The Codex is better than the average modern thriller, and if you enjoy intrigue,mystery, suspense, and don't mind a few clumsy interludes of romance, and can ignore one or two "yeah, right" moments it will entertain, and do it with style.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Equalizer

I’m a nerd at heart. A few weeks ago I was at a local store and stumbled across the DVD set for season one of The Equalizer; a television series that starred Edward Woodward and aired sometime in the mid-1980s. It was a television series I had all but forgotten about, but when I saw the DVD set I couldn’t help myself—heck it was even on sale.

I wasn’t very old when The Equalizer was being produced—ten, twelve?—but I do remember I loved it. And the opening credits rocked. I think, some twenty years later, that they still define what I think of New York City. A city I have visited several times over the years, but I still think of it as the playground of thieves, dealers, thugs, perverts, sickos, weenies and general weirdos, and everyone else are their victims. (I know this isn’t the case, especially over the last decade, but still…)

So we’ve watched several episodes, and I still like it. Woodward is great as a slightly over-the-top hard guy, and the stories are so 1980s—they feature vigilantism, cold war paranoia, greed, and good old-fashioned car chases and shootings. But the best part is the brief introduction, and here it is direct from YouTube. Enjoy.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Epiphany, Sort Of

A few evenings back I was watching a nature program on PBS--the type of thing with beautiful photography, a sad, desolate story about life and death in the wild, passion, and a smug narrator to tell the tale (the sort of documentary I love)--when I had an epiphany. I admire the passion these programs show, from the scientists to the filmmakers, and while I was watching the struggle on the screen I realized that my passion for books is no less astounding, and very bit as real as what I was watching. It wasn't brilliant, but still, I had a simple and astounding thought: I love books.

My home is filled with books--on bookshelves, in boxes, and just plain piled in corners and along walls. I can't pass a bookshop without going in and I'm hard pressed to leave without purchasing a few. Books are one of my passions. And it has always been that way. I can remember as a child--say nine or ten--begging my mom to take me to the mall so I could wander down the aisles of the tiny Walden Books that occupied the space between a geeks and game, and a cigar shop; or was it GAP and The Key Hole?

I wasn't satisfied just looking either. I had to touch them, smell them, and read them. I cut my teeth--speaking of adult fiction here--on spy thrillers and action yarns. I would stay awake into the wee hours reading guys like Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, David Morrell, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, The Executioner novels, and it wasn't long before I started to dabble in the legal thrillers written by the likes of Scott Turow, and Barry Reed.

And then I discovered science fiction. It was awe-inducing, bigger than anything I could imagine, and right there in front of me. I read Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg, A.E. Van Vogt, and so many more that it would bore you to tears to list them all here. And that goes for all the genres I have read and loved, which covers just about every genre or sub-genre in the English language.

The bottom line? I love the written word and Gravetapping is the proverbial campfire where I wax, not-so-poetically, about my passion. This place is special for one simple reason: it is an eclectic fanzine. There is nothing hostile here. No anger. Its only motive is to share something wonderful. And I'm pleased it has found an audience--no matter how small--and I absolutely enjoy the contact I've had with authors and readers alike. Thanks for coming. Thanks for emailing. Thanks for reading. And thanks for coming back; there'll be more, I promise.

And thanks for not making too much fun when I make a fool of myself. Like now for instance.

A NOTE. I wrote this a week or so ago, debated whether or not to post it, and finally this afternoon put it up. But in the meantime I pushed my passion a little and discovered a couple of terrific used bookstores in the small college town of Logan, Utah; the first, and by far the best, was a dusty old shop called Books of Yesteryear. I found several old titles I've wanted for some time, but the most intriguing is an old novel written by Harrison Arnston titled The Warning. It is one of Harry's early novels published by Zebra in 1987, and one of the few I haven't read. And I can't wait to get started.

The point? Other than me being outrageously excited? I'm still looking for one of Harry's early novels published by Zebra; Death Shock. If anyone has a copy and would be willing to sell it to me please send me an email.


Merry Christmas, Murdock is the fourth novel written by Robert J. Ray to feature Orange County private eye Matt Murdock. Murdock is a former LAPD officer who feels and acts more like a college professor than a cop. He lives in a small bungalow on the beach and he owes more than just a little to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. His best friend, Wally St. Moritz, is a carbon copy of McGee's Meyer, and Murdock's personality and drive are reminiscent of the great McGee; he has astonishing luck with the ladies, he gets thumped more often than not, but he always finishes somewhere near the top. And now that I think about it, he has more than just a smattering of Jim Rockford.

It's Christmas, and Murdock's luck is running low; his last job didn't turn out as expected and his client won't pay. His girlfriend headed north, and it doesn't look like she's coming back. So he's home licking his wounds, cooking a gourmet meal and trying to forget about the holidays when his friend Wally St. Moritz--a surf shop-owning academic--telephones with a job. The daughter of a senator was the victim of a hit-and-run accident at the local shopping mall and the senator isn't satisfied with the efforts of the local law.

Murdock isn't crazy about the set-up--he and the senator, a sexy lady from Texas, take an instant dislike to each other and the case isn't compelling. A simple hit-and-run doesn't exactly excite Murdock's sense of mystery, but he doesn't have any other clients on the radar so he hesitatingly takes the job. It leads him into places he never expected--from the parlors of the wealthy, to the teenage enclaves of the Xanadu mall, to the seedy boardwalk of a by-the-hour motel, Murdock tramples his way to an imperfect justice. A justice that is far from complete, but it's the best Murdock can do.

Merry Chrsitmas, Murdock was originally published in 1989, and it's lost little of its appeal. The plotline isn't original, but Mr. Ray freshens it nicely by adding a few unexpected twists and weaving two distinct but connected subplots into the story. The characters are top-notch, especially Murdock; his major weakness is referring to himself in third-person. The novel is seeped with muted working class angst and a baby-boomer vibe that create a cold and severe world with heavy doses of hope, duty, and even a whisper of destiny.

The work of Robert Ray may not measure up to that of John D, but as far as P.I. stories go Merry Christmas, Murdock is pretty good, and reading it not only gave me a window into my own past--I first read this one in the early-Nineties--it reminded me how much I enjoyed the genre as a kid. Heck, I even wanted to be a P.I. Imagine that.

A Note: I originally discovered the Murdock novels as a teenager when I stumbled across Murdock for Hire in the local library. It was a cold holiday season--sometime between Christmas and New Years--and I have a vivid memory of finding refuge in the warm California sun. It probably took a blanket or two as well, but what more do you need than a good book, a terrific hero, and a few days off school?

The five novels that feature Matt Murdock are: Bloody Murdock, Murdock for Hire, Dial "M" for Murdock, Merry Christmas, Murdock, and Murdock Cracks Ice.

A Second Note: I've been having difficulties with my Internet service, and that's why it's been so quiet around here the past few weeks. I hope to have everything cleared up this next week. I hope.