Monday, July 28, 2008


It's mid-summer and the living is easy.  Reality has been slapping you in the face and you'd rather be sitting out in the back yard with a cool drink snatching a breeze.  How about going on a little fantasy trip that takes you to places you've never been?  Effortless!

Under the Black Flag

by David Cordingly

Random House | 2006

IF "PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN" is the soda-and-popcorn version of pirates, then "Under the Black Flag" is the bottle of rum. Delving deep into the myths we've grown up with, David Cordingly dutifully destroys the happy face of pirates we've come to love. In its place, he leaves a history that is not only accurate, but considerably more fascinating.

As it turns out, pirates really did have parrots and monkeys; kept as pets, they were often used to bribe slippery government officials. And female pirates like Anne Bonny and Mary Read actually did spend years hiding themselves in men's clothing on ships — killing, plundering and being tried for crimes on the high seas alongside the men. Even the buried treasure some still hunt for today did actually exist. As "Under the Black Flag" shows: The truth behind the myths can sometimes be even better then the myths themselves.

Reviewed by Brooks Brown,  July 25, 2008

Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard

by Mark Finn

MonkeyBrain Books | 2006

THIS BOOK EXPLORES the life and times of one of the most famous writers ever to come out of the state of Texas. During his brief writing career in the 1920s and 1930s, Robert E. Howard did a lot more for imaginative literature than simply create the character of Conan the Cimmerian.

In the early 1900s, Texas was experiencing an oil boom. Practically overnight, a town would spring up around oil wells, bringing all sorts of people, from roughnecks to work the wells,to barkeepers to prostitutes. They would stay until the oil ran out, then move on to the next boom town. Howard grew up in one boom town after another; Isaac, his father, was a frontier doctor, so they also followed the oil. Howard got to see, up close and personal, the dark underside of civilization, and it disgusted him. Finally settling in Cross Plains, he was a voracious reader who hated the regimentation of school. He lived on pulp magazines, like Weird Tales, available at the local general store. Howard was the shy, quiet kid in town with no interest in joining the oil boom.

A major influence on Howard’s development as a writer was the Texas tradition of telling tall tales. Isaac was an expert spinner of tales, and in her own way, Hester, his mother and an Irish immigrant, was pretty good at it, too. Hester had tuberculosis for most of Robert’s life, which forced him to stay home and help take care of her, because Isaac was frequently gone for days on his "rounds." After he became a published author, Howard was one of the mainstays at Weird Tales. He sent them all sorts of stories, usually set in the distant past, showing civilizations that had already degraded into barbarism (like Texas of the early 20th Century). In those days, pulp magazines usually paid half a cent to one cent per word, payment was usually on publication, which could be several months after acceptance, and even then, payment was sporadic. Howard spent hours a day at his typewriter, writing boxing stories (a huge interest of his), poetry and westerns, along with tales of Conan, his most famous creation.

Anyone who has ever picked up a pulp magazine, or who knows REH as more than just the creator of Conan, will love this book, as I did. While Howard’s books are still in print, Howard’s life has fallen into obscurity. This book does a really good job of remedying that situation.

Reviewed by Paul Lappen,, 2008

The Shadow Pavilion

by Liz Williams   

Night Shade | June 2008

THE SHADOW PAVILION, the fourth in the Detective Inspector Chan adventures certainly carries through with the promise of an entertaining read. DI Chen, Shanghai Three’s Police Liaison with Heaven and Hell, is after whatever group is illegally bringing in residents of Hell as cheap labor. He has two of the best working on it when they disappear. Seneschal Zhu Irzh is not only a demon but a terrific operative in his own right and was sent in with Badger, who can take care of himself. Now Chen has to find out where they’ve gone and still get to the bottom of the issue. It doesn’t help when he finds out that the newly crowned Celestial Emperor is under an attempted assassination and that a shortcutting scriptwriter has imported a Tiger demon to impersonate a movie star and that she is now on the loose and in a starlet-sized snit.

Liz Williams has created an interestingly enjoyable fantasy/scifi/adventure. This one sort of defies classification as Singapore Three is futuresque but with her addition of the realms of Hell and Heaven and all their dream- and nightmarescape denizens, the tale takes on a mythological bent that makes for fascinating reading. She has begun to flesh out some of the secondary characters more – we get to see from the perspective of Badger, a Hellish family familiar with fierce loyalties to Chen and his wife; we also get a little more perspective from the Celestial Emperor; as well as Chen’s wife Inari. As usual we have some new secondary characters, new demons, foolish humans, and the most successful assassin of all time to keep us amused.

With all due speed Williams draws us into the intrigue, imbuing our imaginations with vivid images full of color and scent that make her stories come alive. With this descriptive skill she lures us in. Then, like the sticky strands of a spider’s web, we get trapped and held by a story that is so full of life we cannot even decide what to call it. Is it futuristic police procedural? Is it an allegorical fairy tale? Near future occult? Perhaps an alternative historical fantasy? Whatever you would like to call it, I’ll just call it something I want more of. Fans of the previous three will not be disappointed.

Reviewed by Amberdrake,, 2008

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