Reviews and Recommendations by Mel Odom, Professional Writer


Max Allan Collins Quarry's Choice

I have a lot of memories of the late 1960s and 1970s, and most of those memories are tied to books I read in those years. I discovered Tarzan of the Apes, Doc Savage, the Shadow, and others. Those books became the building blocks of my own writing career. I learned a lot about plot and characterization.

Back then I was a sucker for the tough guy hero. In many ways, I still am. Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe and Robert B Parker’s Spenser were my hard boiled heroes. But I read Mack Bolan and the Destroyer as well as many other series in the plethora that Pinnacle Books put out in those years.

I discovered Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) and his anti-hero thief Parker and loved those books. It wasn’t long before I discovered a writer named Max Allan Collins. Al, as he is known to his friends, created two of my favorite hardboiled anti-heroes: a professional thief named Nolan, and a professional hit man named Quarry.

In the early books (publication wise, and that will be explained as we go along), Quarry is a truly hard guy, someone who was amoral on the surface, but a guy who had his own rules. He also has a wicked sense of humor, which definitely appealed to the younger me.

For a time, Quarry went away and Al went on to write a great many other books. Or many other great books. Those statements are interchangeable. A couple more Quarry books came out a few years later, but it wasn’t until Hard Case Crime came into being that Al’s hit man anti-hero down renewed life—at the expense of other, unsavory people. Now getting a new Quarry is almost a yearly event, and I’m happy about it.

And this “renewed” series, Quarry’s life is open for revelation. So far we have seen Quarry’s last hit, his first professional hit, met his ex-wife whose betrayal started our anti-hero down this path, and adventures in between.

The latest book is more of the same that longtime readers have seen, but it’s got an interesting twist as well. There are a lot of shenanigans and double-crosses and the Dixie mafia to deal with. Quarry is up to his eyebrows in sudden death, a sex kitten, and southern fried lethal intentions.

Quarry’s trademark humor is in play as well as his deadly skill set. But the thing I enjoy the most these days is the way the Al makes those days come alive. Throughout the narrative, music is mentioned and becomes a soundtrack to the story. During different scenes, those songs played through my head. I was at once in my chair reading, and transported back to the 1970s, not only in Quarry’s story, but also bumping up against my own memories.

Quarry’s Choice is a compact book that rolls right along, filled with danger and surprises. I enjoyed seeing Quarry in his element in watching the relationship develop with the Broker. I hope Al eventually digs more deeply into the Broker and, eventually, the Broker’s wife. There are still a lot of good stories to tell, and I’m looking forward to them.

Now, if only there could be a new Nolan novel…


Ian Douglas Star Carrier Earth Strike

Ian Douglas has been pumping out military science fiction under this pseudonym and others as well as his own for years. So he’s quite good at it. Earth Strike is the first in the Star Carrier series, which is now up to book five in releases while the author is busy working on book six.

Douglas starts up a lot of things in this novel. There’s a disconnect between Earth and the colony worlds (I’m willing to bet I know how that’s gonna work out really soon), a green space pilot who has strange ties to a segment of people who are deemed unworthy by the rich and influential on Earth, yet refuse to climb onto the government dole, an admiral who becomes a war hero who would have been thrown under the bus if the conflict had gone any other way (no surprise there), and various other infighting that takes place.

I really enjoyed Douglas’s approach to the science he’s espousing in this book. Space fighters that can change shape depending on the environment and necessity is really cool. Likewise, space travel becomes a real component of battle engagement when it leaves a unit separated for hours.

The various plotlines spin out from a dramatic opening as the Earth’s space navy goes into a full-blown battle for the future of an Islamic colony that has split off from Earth. The politics are interesting, to a degree, but serve mostly to fragment Earth into splinter groups. It works, but I’m still not quite convinced what the furor is about. Doubtless, further books will deal with that because the political differences haven’t gone away.

Douglas knows how to write military SF and has anchored a fantastic and action-packed new series with this book.


Allen Zadoff I am the weapn

Allen Zadoff has dug into the YA suspense/spy market that has gone largely untouched. Since Anthony Horowitz stopped writing the Alex Rider novels (why, Anthony????), there exists a vacuum in this area that needs filling.

Zadoff comes close with his Boy Nobody series, now called the Unknown Assassin series. This first book is a zinger loaded with surprising twists and turns that seem familiar, but instantly charge off in unexpected directions. I like the first-person narrative because I was instantly involved with the character. Zadoff doesn’t let up after an engaging opening: an assassination by our main character.

When I first encountered Boy Nobody in the opening pages going about his assignment, I didn’t care for him, but the jet-propelled pacing carried me further into the book before I knew it, and Zadoff quickly hooked me with the horns of Boy Nobody’s dilemma: carry out his assignment and killed the girl he’s falling for pretty hard, or go rogue and potentially end up getting killed for being weak.

The aspect of the book that aggravated me the most is that we don’t really get to know much about Boy Nobody. He’s a cipher. Although a few hints are revealed as we go along, I’m torn between being satisfied with that and hoping the series broadens the character’s past as it charges forward, or wanting to know about him. I’m hoping there are more reveals in the second book, which is already out now.

The romance triangle feels overdone, but Zadoff makes it fresh again with the way he handles his story. In fact, the whole novel smacks of a Mission: Impossible/Rogue Agent kind of thing, but this is the kind of story I’ll always be a sucker for.

The subject matter (assassination, murder, death, terrorism) is mature for young readers, but grade 6 and up can easily slip into this world for vicarious thrill and chills with nothing offensive on the pages. Think of this as a more grown-up Alex Rider with a lot more intensity.


Michael Moorcock City of the Beast Warriors of Mars

Michael Moorcock originally wrote the first Michael Kane book under the name Edward P. Bradbury. I read the DAW version of the book back in the 1970s, I think, and the book carried both titles City of the Beast or Warriors of Mars.

I enjoyed the book a lot when I was a kid because it reminded me so much of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter and Carson Napier novels, which I had only recently discovered because Ace had a robust program to republish all those old books.

Michael Kane is a swordsman (happened upon a French master bladesman who trained him) and a physicist (which I actually expected to see more of as the book progressed—I didn’t). The book was initially released in 1965, so we knew more about Mars than Burroughs did back in 1912 when A Princess of Mars was first released. Moorcock sidesteps this by having the matter transmitter throw his hero back in time as well as to Mars.

All the major pieces are there: a princess who Kane can’t quite connect with, a threatening barbarian horde (blue instead of green Tharks), swordplay, fliers, and alien science. Oh yeah, and lots and lots of captures and escapes and fighting.

I hate to admit it, but I’m no longer my innocent younger self (though I can get back to that quite comfortably, thank you). Moorcock is a better writer than Burroughs, and the this book was action-packed and easier to read, but there’s something about John Carter that just makes him stand out. Maybe it was because Burroughs’s Mars was more fleshed out in some ways, and the people were a lot more diverse.

Still, I breezed through City of the Beast/Warriors of Mars in a few hours and enjoyed the experience. Supposedly, Moorcock was asked to write an homage to Burroughs and that’s how these books came about. At the time, though, Lancer was selling Conan books by the truckload and there were Edgar Rice Burroughs books on every spinner rack of every drug store and supermarket I saw. I’m guessing that had a lot to do with it.

You won’t find anything really new here, but the book is a great romp and timeless in its ideas of heroes and villains and fantasy. The sword-and-planet novels remain as comfort food for me as a reader.

Michael Moorcock Warriors of Mars


Deborah Halber The Skeleton Crew

I was a fan of Christian Slater’s television show, The Forgotten. It only lasted one season, seventeen episodes, actually, but my wife and I were drawn into the emotional cases and the cast of characters that were so deeply affected by the unidentified bodies.

At the time, I didn’t know that Todd Matthews, the Director of Communications & Case Management for NamUs, the man who solved the “Tent Girl’s” identity after decades, was a consultant for the show. I knew the show was supposed to be based on real work by civilian investigators, but the background of those agencies and civilians was pretty murky.

Still, the idea lingered…

Just last week I found Deborah Halber’s excellent book on the whole civilian investigation movement that formed the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases is a fantastic read, though it will be a somewhat difficult read for readers and interested parties who want a simple chapter-by-chapter, case-by-case format.

Halber’s book is intensely enjoyable from the layman’s perspective, and for anyone who wants a BIGGER PICTURE story of what was going on with these people. Halber opens the book with the discovery of a body (or a part of a body), which is where most of these cases start (though sometimes there’s a disappearance they also work on). Just as I was deeply intrigued by “Tank Girl,” Halber drops into stories that feature other cases and other investigators.

The really unique aspect of the book that I loved was that, like in every good mystery, all the threads of the story wrap up at the end of the book. Many nonfiction readers might not like the way the book is laid out with the jumping perspective and caseload, but once I saw what was going on, I stayed with it and read it in two sittings.

The portrayals of some of the major players among the civilian investigators and the infighting is illuminating and captivating. Halber reveals them to be mostly isolated, driven people who end up straining family relationships. In other words, these civilians are the same kind of dedicated investigator traditionally hired for police and investigative agencies around the world.

The book is written so compellingly, I couldn’t put it down, so be warned and realize that you may want to carve out some serious time for this one. I learned a lot of things from the book and I plan on revisiting it in the near future.


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.


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