Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer


Wayne D. Dundee Wide Spot in the Road

Wide Spot in the Road was the first Jack Laramie Drifter Detective novella I’ve read in the series. The premise is interesting, kind of a Jim Rockford (only a little tougher in the clinches) who lives in the back of his horse trailer and roves Texas looking for work.

Jack Laramie is the grandson of Cash Laramie, Edward A. Grainger’s United States marshal in the old West. Grainger is actually David Cranmer, who has been building up a pulp publishing arm with characters he’s created and co-created.

Wayne Dundee is an old hand at storytelling, and he demonstrates his chops in this little gem that only covers a few hours in real time but changes several lives along the way. He takes the old saw of a hero stopping in at a diner and ending up caught in a bad situation and makes a great little story out of it.

The players are people you’ve seen before, so the various twists and turns taken in the tale aren’t anything really new, but Dundee delivers the people we love to cheer for, and puts them in the fight of their lives that we know they’ll ultimately be capable of winning.

I don’t know if Dundee has plans to do another Drifter Detective, but I’d look forward to a second helping!


Richard Avery Expendables #1

When I was much younger, I picked up the four books in Richard Avery’s Expendables series (which he glommed onto before Sylvester Stallone and his crew of action heroes nabbed lately). Mostly I was drawn to them by the SF covers, the action, and the women (on some of the covers).

As a young reader, I wasn’t entirely blown away by the writing style. It was, and remains, very workmanlike. The story and characters get the job done just fine, but the possibilities presented in the books were what really caught me up in them.

Basically Commander James Conrad and his team are planet-busters. They get shipped to planets to scout out resources, potential predators, and other pros and cons of establishing settlements and colonies for an Earth that is bursting at the seams with rampant population. Population problems are more of an issue now than they were back in the 1970s when the books first came out, but even back then everyone could see the writing on the wall.

The first book in the series is slow out of the gate. I remember that being a problem when I initially read it all those years ago, and why I didn’t pick up that second book (even used at the five and dime!) for weeks. But my mind kept wondering what world James Conrad and his people would get sent to next, and what challenges they would find awaiting them.

So I read through all four books and wished there were more. There weren’t. I still have the copies packed away—somewhere in the labyrinth of boxes of books I have—but I’m really glad they ended up getting reprinted as ebooks.

I read through the first one in a single sitting because I was caught between the story and remembering what I was like when I first read the book, which is always a delight for a dedicated, longtime reader. Books become touchstones.

I’m not sure why this series made that cut. I think it had to do with the original art and the whole idea of getting shipped out to hostile planets and having to survive. That’s what’s bringing me back to the series again, but it will probably be a while before I read the next one. Just like last time.


Kathy Reichs Swamp Bones

Lately, before the release of the new Tempe Brennan novel, author Kathy Reichs blows through a novella about her signature character that takes Tempe and the reader to a new place and usually a new corner of forensics. In this one, Tempe is on vacation (doesn’t last long because a body turns up—well, pieces of a body—in the stomach of a stomach) and is dropping in on another specialist friend.

I didn’t know the true difference of necropsy and autopsy until this book, and it was fascinating to see all the science behind doing animal forensics. Reichs throws in a lot of other science and detail, too, that made me want to go rooting around in science manuals to find out more about the topics, which is what any good instructor will do.

Reichs’ writing is always great, easy to lose yourself in, and I really think she might be at her best with some of the shorter work she’s doing. I don’t know what her writing time is like, but I know she has to stay busy keeping up with all the cutting-edge science in her field, the Bones television show that keeps on coming out year after year, and writing fiction. Lately the novellas have seemed a little crisper than the novels, a little more on target, but they lack the twists and turns Reichs likes to throw into her longer works. These novellas take place in a matter of days (so Tempe can do some work and get a few days off), and that definitely affects the reading experience.

I blazed through this one in a single sitting, even though it seems longer than her last novella. Although I haven’t ever been to Miami (other than Disney and a couple hotels), I’ve researched the area frequently. While I was turning the pages, I felt like I was cruising down the back roads and the Everglades with Tempe.

There were enough twists and turns to keep a mystery reader guessing, enough forensics to keep the armchair crime scene investigator locked in, and sporadic fun along with plenty of action. This novella is definitely one for fans of the series and people who are interested in reading the books to jump on.


John DeChancie Castle Perilous

People who are coming through the doors of Castle Perilous for the first time are in for a treat. I first entered the castle almost 30 years ago, though it does not seem so long ago. I recently re-read the book on an e-reader and was surprised at how much of the story and characters I remembered, and how much I had even on a re-read.

There are eight books in the Castle Perilous series, and I’m truly surprised that John DeChancie didn’t continue writing them. I know there are a lot of fans out there, and with 144,000 doors in the castle and dozens of Guests (with a capital G), there are a ton of stories surely waiting to be told.

In this first book, there’s a loose plot that’s kind of filled in along the way by a dozen or so major characters, many different settings, and a sense of wonder that never goes away. I love all the characters, though it’s really weird reading about Gene and Linda now that I’m older than them instead or more like a peer. But Snowclaw is Snowclaw and just a lot of fun.

The story is light and frothy, as are the characters, but the jokes are plenty, the twists and turns are at times surprising and at others predictable (if you’re a savvy reader, you’re rewarded). This isn’t a book, or a series, that will introduce a well-read reader to anything new, but it is playful and fun and surprising.

Turning through the pages, I couldn’t help but feel I was in a dungeon crawl in a D&D game from back in my college days, and that’s not a bad feeling at all.


Christopher Fullbright Elderwood Manor

Elderwood Manor is a trope-filled horror novella that readers of that genre will either love or be bored by. Jaded readers might not enjoy the ride because the story hits too many of the standard features of this kind of horror.

1) Father and son are trying to recover from loss of wife/mother.
2) Father is down on his luck and has to return to the family home and his weird mother to hope for some kind of financial help and stability.
3) All kinds of evil has taken root (literally) in the home since he’s been gone, and now he’s stuck there without any kind of recourse to get out as Hell opens up around him.

The authors are very good at establishing the creepiness of their story, and the slow build up gives even seasoned horror writers a chance to get anxious as things start to go WRONG in a big way.

The cover is absolutely beautiful and is a scene from the book, which isn’t always the case.

I loved the atmosphere of the book but wasn’t terribly blown away by the action or the plot. There are only the two characters, after all, and one of them is a child. There was too much narration, too much introspective inner dialogue to suit me, and that kept taking me out of the game. Whenever I wanted to know what was going to happen next, I got plot-blocked by a bunch of information that would have been better served if another person had been there.

I read the novella in a single sitting, guessed most of what was going to take place, but still ended up getting tense a few times before the story played out. For those of you who want a chill and a thrill every now and again, Elderwood Manor may just be the thing for an otherwise calm night.


John Benteen Fargo

I bought a couple Fargo novels by John Benteen back when I was a kid. There were a lot of those books in Conda’s Swap Shop for 15 cents. I wish I could go back and buy them now. But there was another series being published under the John Benteen pseudonym and I wasn’t quite as blown away as I felt like I should have been. They were about Sundance, half-white, half-Indian, constantly trapped between those worlds. They were all right, but not something new like I was looking for at the time.

The original Fargo cover showed a guy in an army campaign hat from the Spanish-American War of 1898, which was attention getting to my younger self. The guy was also bronzed and scarred over, a tough looking guy, but he kind of reminded me of Doc Savage.

I was reading books with a couple of friends, one of whom had read the first Fargo book and said he wasn’t impressed. We had different reading tastes, so I shelved Fargo. I didn’t mean to let more than 40 years go by before I got back to it.

Up in Minnesota a couple years ago, I saw the book again in a used book shop and bought it on impulse, because I have no clue if I still have the first one. Maybe I do. I have a LOT of books.

And I still put off reading the book until this year when it came out on ebook from Piccadilly Press, which is reprinting a lot of old Westerns from those days.

I sat down and read Fargo because it was short and I was in-between things at the moment and wanted something that wouldn’t require a lot out of me because—truthfully—I didn’t have a lot to give. I’d also read post about Benjamin Haas on fellow writer James Reasoner’s blog and was curious.

I started turning pages and was immediately swept away. The book starts out a little slow, maybe, but it doesn’t take long to get caught up in the action. Fargo is down to his last dollar and meets a guy who wants to truck a load of silver out of Mexico while the rebellion between Pancho Villa and other would-be dictators is going on. The United States is about to pull out of supporting Villa and American assets over there—including the silver mine—is about to be lost.

There’s a lot of action in the book. In fact, once the action kicks in, the pages almost start turning themselves. Fargo is a total hardcase and gets into the thick of things immediately. Still, he’s a professional fighting man and knows what he’s doing.

There are so many double-crosses in the book, so many changing alliances, that Fargo becomes an island unto himself. But he won’t walk away from a job, or a woman that he wants to save, or even revenge (as long as there’s a payday in it for him). This is the start of a series, so you know he doesn’t die, but no one else is safe.

The story doesn’t require much of an emotional investment, but it does keep your attention. It’s about as deep as a television episode, and doesn’t last much longer for an aggressive reader, but it’s like a bag of peanuts in a Grapette soda—it just goes down and satisfies.

In a way, I’m glad I missed out on these books all those years ago. I read a lot of current novels that are really long, and I’m glad to have these little snacks waiting. I’ve picked up the four (thus far) ebooks in the series as well as a handful of other novels in used book shops since.

If you’re looking for a change of pace, maybe a little history thrown in that takes place between the Spanish-American War and World War I, and if you like action, I’d definitely recommend the Fargo series. This is how the 1970s paperback writers did the new pulp of that era. It fits in perfectly with the new ebook market.


Craig Johnson Spirit of Steamboat

Walt Longmire is a great addition to the mystery scene, and to summer television. I enjoy Walt in both mediums and like sitting down to see where his latest cases are going to take me.

I also appreciate the fact that author Craig Johnson sits down every now and again and blows through a short Longmire story. It usually arrives around the holidays, or maybe there’s one right before the next novel. Whenever it gets out there, I pick it up and add it to the TBR pile because I know I’ll get to it as soon as I can.

Spirit of Steamboat is probably the longest of the short novels, and Johnson addresses that in the preface before the story. It’s also kind of pricy compared to the other shorter works, and it’s not even a mystery. It’s more an adventure tale told back in the earlier days of Walt’s career.

I like the fact that Walt reads A Christmas Carol over Christmases. Somehow that just seems right.

Johnson’s love of the B-25 plane used in the novella shows, too, and I enjoyed the history lessons about the aircraft that seamlessly mix with the action and suspense of the story. It’s evident that Johnson has intimate knowledge of the plane, and that makes the setting even more real, which is a good thing because readers spend a LOT of time aboard Steamboat (the name of the plane).

The way Lucian Connally and work together in the story gives some real insight into the two men. They have a lot of friction, but they share mutual respect and understanding to things that just need doing.

The ending comes as no surprise because our heroes have to do what they set out to do, but that flight is nerve-wracking all the same because Johnson brings the whole situation to life so well. In addition to aircraft knowledge, Johnson also displays a grasp of medicine and emergency life-saving techniques.

It’s not a mystery, but even readers new to the series will find much to love with this compact little adventure.


Robert Lautner The Road to Reckoning

I’m a sucker for coming-of-age in the Old West novels. I’ve read a few of them over the years. Many of the books in Louis L’Amour’s Sackett series and other novels he penned fill that vein. Then there’s True Grit and Joe Lansdale’s latest offering, The Thicket, to add to the pile.

Robert Lautner joins those ranks with his debut novel, The Road to Reckoning, which introduces us to shootist and Indiana ranger Henry Stands, an old gent with a quick temper and an even quicker gun hand.

The narrator of the story is Thomas Walker, an older man who recounts his misadventures at the age of twelve when his father was murdered right in front of his eyes. Lautner goes into detail about daily life and the career of a traveling salesman (Thomas’s father), and I really enjoyed that (because I’m a history major and stuff like that is in my wheelhouse), but pure Western readers might find the going a little slow, though they may not.

The villains are properly black-hearted, though I felt they could have used a little more development.

As for Henry Stands, I couldn’t help but picture Wilford Brimley. Brimley’s fierce mustache, his straight-ahead, no-holds-barred presentation of life during many of his roles, just rang a bell with me. When Stands stepped onto the stage in front of young Thomas, that’s who I saw, and that image didn’t strike a false note throughout the novel.

Interestingly enough, this “Western” novel never leaves the east side of the Mississippi River. It’s set in 1837 and the United States was in a turmoil. Lewis and Clark had explored the Louisiana Purchase and people were headed out that way to get new land and start building new futures. Industrialization had crept into everyone’s lives and there is a distinct transition from the old life to the new.

That industrialization figures into the plot significantly. Samuel Colt has invented the revolving pistol and Thomas’s dad has signed on to sell those weapons. A large chunk of the story is devoted to how the invention of the revolver is going to change the future of combat, the United States, and possibly the world. After seeing the Walker Colts in action, Thomas doesn’t believe that change is going to be a good thing.

There are a lot of adventures in this book, a lot of scenery to take in, and there’s a great shootout at the end of the book that is simply vivid and stirring. Lautner is still learning things as a writer, but he’s well on his way. I can’t wait to see what he delivers next.


Poul Anderson Conan the Rebel

Conan the Rebel was written back in 1980 by Poul Anderson, a writer I’ve read and admired for years. I’ve always enjoyed Anderson’s Dominic Flandry series (haven’t read all of them and it’s been years since I picked them up), but my favorite book he wrote was Three Hearts and Three Lions, a mix of Edgar Rice Burroughs and fantasy.

I vaguely remember reading this Conan novel before, back when it first came out, and I remember struggling through it, though I can’t remember if I’d ever finished it before.

Back then I was working at Solo Cup at a factory job and had just finished college and was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I was young and restless, and since I’m ADHD my attention span isn’t always what it should be.

So either I finished the book or I didn’t.

After reading the Red Sonja graphic novel by Gail Simone, I wanted to read about Conan. I pulled this book up on Amazon, saw that it was now an ebook, and downloaded it. Then I dug in.

I have to admit, those first two chapters are tough reading. Anderson is wonderfully descriptive and evokes the mood of the novel, but there just isn’t much happening except a prophecy that we know Conan will deliver on. The novel gets faster paced after that, but it takes a while.

One of the other reasons that I wanted to read this book is because it has Belit in it. I remember Belit more from Roy Thomas’s run on the Marvel Comics. Belit only shows up in one f Robert E. Howard’s original stories, a novelette titled “Queen of the Black Coast.” I liked Belit in the comics and I was curious as to what Anderson did with her. To my chagrin, Belit isn’t in this book much, but we do get her full origin story. Now I’ve gotta go back and read Thomas’s stuff to see if the backgrounds agree.

Anderson’s book gets really involved in all the warring countries and political gamesmanship going on with the wizards. He does a nice job of lying out the Hyborian world and talking about it with authority, but the pace is erratic and the threat level sometimes requires only scant derring-do.

There’s a lot of running around, of getting from one place to another, and no shortage of coincidence (running into a band of warriors from Belit’s home village out in the jungle?). I hung with the book because there’s a lot of good stuff in here, but I got completely worn out by the princess’s infatuation with Conan and constantly throwing herself at him. I wanted more swordplay and less lust, and seeing Conan tempted at times while at the same time trying to get the princess foisted off on the young warrior with them got old in hurry.

Another thing that was interesting was Anderson’s archaic choice of language. Granted, the author had done a lot of research for his various projects over the years, but it really shows here. I know the younger me probably just glossed over the unfamiliar words, figuring out – more or less – what they were from the words around them. However, with the Kindle’s instant fingertip dictionary, I looked up a lot of those words during this read-through and learned a lot. The words are still archaic and won’t come up in a conversation anytime soon, but it was fun seeing them in play in the novel. It makes me wonder if Anderson just knew the words or kept a thesaurus at hand.

I enjoyed the book for the most part, but the ending left me feeling a little cheated. There is a dark moment where Conan almost loses the battle, but he of course gets out of it (thanks again to the coincidence of meeting up with the tribesmen loyal to Belit). The final battle against the evil wizard isn’t seen, which chapped me to no small degree.

I’m enjoying Conan all over again and look forward to reacquainting myself with more of the series, and I think I’ll read Three Hearts and Three Lions again as well.

Original Bantam Cover

Original Bantam Cover


Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 cover

Roy Thomas was the second major writer at Marvel Comics, groomed by Stan Lee himself. But Thomas was also the first guy to bring Conan the Barbarian to comics. In fact, he was the one who named Conan “the Barbarian” instead of the Cimmerian as Robert E. Howard usually referred to his larger-than-life hero.

I remember reading the first Conan comic book, borrowed from a friend of mine named Ricky who was enthusiastic about it. I can’t remember if he’d read Conan’s newest paperback releases from Lancer or not before the comic came out. I knew I hadn’t.

Frankly, I was less than impressed with the story, and not happy at all with the astronaut floating in space in one of the panels. That took the story right out of the fantasy realm for me. I had recently read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Those books were fantasy to me.

Eventually, though, Conan became – and still is – a mainstay of my reading. I do remember Barry Windsor-Smith’s art, though. No one did stuff like Barry Windsor-Smith. That second page of the comic book that has the panel of Conan running with his horned helmet is one of those iconic images that will never leave me, and never fail to reduce me to a 12 year old boy again.

Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 page 01

Windsor-Smith’s use of small panels and Thomas’s tendency toward verbosity (often explaining in narrative what a reader can SEE in the panels) makes those issues often read like an illustrated manuscript rather than a comic book. I don’t know how Windsor-Smith did it, and I know there are artists who would run for the hills if this kind of work load was shoved at them.

Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 page 02

The stories kind of limp along in this collection because Thomas was still finding his feet as a storyteller in general, and hadn’t (by his own admission in the afterward) really known what he was doing with Conan. Or where he wanted to go.

The adaptation of Howard’s “Tower of the Elephant” is a story I always think of when I think of Conan. The story is just so heartfelt, and it’s weird to think of just how young both Howard and Thomas were when the first wrote the story and the second adapted it to comics.

Windsor-Smith (according to Thomas) was incredibly excited about the story. He did his best on the pages, and even got Thomas to stay off of some of them to let the story be told visually.

Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 page 03

Sitting and reading these first stories one after another does tend to show how repetitive the adventures are. At one point, Conan got canceled (for a day) because of low sales, but thankfully the series picked back up and allowed Thomas to continue writing literally hundreds of Conan tales for years.

Roy Thomas Chronicles of Conan volume 01 page 04

Barry Windsor-Smith was lost along the way, but John Buscema stepped in as the regular artist for years and gave Conan that iconic look so many comic book fans around the world know and love.

I’m looking forward to reading other volumes of the Conan the Barbarian series, called the Chronicles of Conan in these collections. I spent a lot of my formative youth reading the adventures of the barbarian hero, so I look forward to adventuring with him again.


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