Saturday 31 January 2009

The Western - an overview

There was an item on Bill Crider's blog about a bunch of British female novelists writing 'porn' under different names. The first comment to appear suggested that the British should stick to what they wrote best - westerns.
I take that as a compliment as I hope that other Britsh writers will.
The western, as we know it, has been around for - what - 149 years?
Names like Lariat Lil, Fred Fearnot or Denver Dan may mean nothing today. Same could be said of authors like Edward Sylvester Ellis.
Ellis found fame by writing westerns for the publishers Beadle & Adams of New York in 1860.
And just about everybody knows about Beadle's dime novels that cost 5 cents - 30,000 words in a small 160 page book. (About the size of a Black Horse Western these days - though the word count is a touch higher).
Mention of Beadle prompts that the most famous of their writers was Edward Zane Carroll Judson better known as Ned Buntline.
There were those who jumped on the bandwagon and produced magazines like 'Wide Awake Library' and 'The Buffalo Bill Stories'. The British were not far behind producing 'penny dreadfuls' that today would be regarded as 'pirate' copies for which the original American writer would not receive a cent. Another British book was produced by a Frenchman, Gustave Aimard, which went under the title of 'Aimard's Indian Tales' - it proved to be a hit.
The influence of the western spread so that the writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would bring it up in the Sherlock Holmes story 'A Study In Scarlet' and return to the theme in 'The Valley Of Fear'.
The inner story of 'A Study In Scarlet' - which involves two children being found and brought up by Mormons - would influence the writing of the classic western 'Riders Of The Purple Sage' (1912) by Zane Grey.
Also, in 1860, as the western 'novel' was born, so to was Owen Wister who would write 'The Virginian' with it's background set against the Johnson County war.
By the 1930s the Western, as a novel, had gone out of fashion. The Depression had set in but the Western was in the cinema - so if people weren't reading they were watching.
If the Americans weren't reading Westerns - the British were and they had a hero in British writer Oliver Strange's ten 'Sudden' novels that were written between 1930 and 1940.
After the Second World War the Western novel picked up again with the likes of Ernest Haycox, W.C.Tuttle, Frank C. Robertson and Louis L'Amour.
For a while the novel and the western movie co-existed with novels being turned into films and vice versa. Then the book and the film encountered a new kid on the block - television. As the western writer, Elmore Leonard, says: "Television killed the western. The pulps were mostly gone by then too, the market was drying up."
Although Elmore Leonard turned his attention to writing crime novels he did not give up on the western genre. One of his later stories written for the Western Writers Of American anthology 'Roundup' was 'Only Good Ones' which was filmed as 'Valdez Is Coming'.
The 1960s saw the emergence of a new kind of western movie - the spaghetti western and in it's wake came the first of a new kind of western hero - George G. Gilman's 'Edge' books.
George G. Gilman was the pen name of the English writer Terry Harknett who had already written the novelisation of 'A Fistful Of Dollars' and 'Hannie Calder'. 'Edge' was at the spearhead of a group of British writers that included John B Harvey, Angus Wells and Laurence James. Shelves that had been dominated by Louis L'Amour gave way to the likes of 'Herne The Hunter',
'Apache', 'Jubal Cade' and 'Hart The Regulator'. Very often these books were written by The Piccadilly Cowboys in collaboration with each other. Others like Bodie, Edge, Steele and Hart had just the one writer.
Like all good things the western went on the wane - yet again.
This time though it covered all media - books, movies and TV.
The western is dead - or so they say. I say they can't make a coffin big enough let alone arrange a funeral.
The influence of the western has always been there. Take a look at the movies, the made for TV films and some of the novels that are read. In the words of the German western writer G.F. Unger - the story is the same it's just that the weapons are different.
Over the past few years I do believe that the western has evolved. Series like 'Longarm', 'Slocum' and 'The Gunsmith' are still going strong. The western has wandered into the realms of detective fiction - James Reasoner's 'Wolf Head Crossing' is an example. Even into Sci-Fi/Fantasy if you count David Gemmell's Jon Shannow books.
Americans like Robert J. Randisi, David Robbins, Jory Sherman and Peter Brandvold and others still fly the western flag.
And for the British? The British are still in there with American, European, Australian and the New Zealanders who write for the only UK publisher of westerns - Robert Hale Ltd - Black Horse Westerns.
Here you will find the likes of David Whitehead, Lance Howard, Elliot Conway, Chap O'Keefe and Rory Black. New writers like Ross Morton and Matthew P. Mayo along with first-timers Jack Martin and Terry James - all writers who believe in the Western.
The one thing that is coming back to me is that demand for these westerns, over the past three or four months, has exceeded the supply. When something like that happens it sounds like a resurgence of interest.
Throughout the history of the western it has 'died' and been revived - like everything else it has gone through cycles but has never gone away.
In 2010 the western novel will celebrate it's 150 anniversary - it would be good to celebrate yet another comeback.

Friday 30 January 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: Gently Go Man by Alan Hunter

Alan Hunter
First Published 1961
Alan Hunter was born in 1922 in Norfolk where he died in 2005. His first Superintendent George Gently book 'Gently Does It' was published in 1955 and continued through over forty novels.
'Gently Go Man' is set, as are most of the Gently novels, against a Norfolk background.
Johnny Lister had been to a jazz club with his girlfriend. On their way home they meet with an 'accident' and Johnny is killed. Evidence shows that it may have been murder and that Lister's girlfriend's ex-boyfriend was the offender.
The local policeman, Detective Inspector Setters thinks that he has everything tied up but others call in the yard.
Enter the pipe smoking Superintendent George Gently from the comfort of his lodgings in North Finchley. He sits in his black Rover 75 at one end of a straight stretch of road known as Five Mile Drove in the middle of which is a solitary tree - Gallows Tree.
Gently drives up the road and accelerates pushing the car towards the ton - and within those few minutes he understands several things.
'Gently Go Man' is set amongst the young sixties rockers and presents a fairly accurate picture of the lifestyle and personalities. Throughout the book is another 'narrator' who speaks his own thoughts on the police investigation that lends another observation to the proceedings.
Alan Hunter admired Georges Simenon's 'Maigret' and George Gently operates in a similar fashion. He gets to the offender by talking to people and by observation until he gets to the truth. In short Gently is a good old-fashioned copper in a good old-fashioned detective novel.
The BBC did film this book - but I don't think that anyone read the book. The only things that the BBC production and the book had in common was the title and the main character.
A pity really as this is a really good story (as are all the Gently books) and not as cut and dried as the original investingating officer, Setters, thought.
Alan Hunter's George Gently belongs to that era when detective novels were just that.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Broken Trail

Made for TV in 2006 - Starring Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church and Greta Scacchi.
Written by Alan Geoffrion
Directed by Walter Hill
The film is set in 1898 and combines two facts of the American West. While the British were buying American horses in Wyoming, so Chinese girls were being brought in from the West Coast to serve as prostitutes.
The film opens with 'Print' Ritter (Duvall) looking up his estranged nephew Tom Harte (Church) with the news that Harte's mother had died and left him nothing. However, Ritter does have an offer for his nephew to help drive 500 horses along the Oregon trail to Wyoming - horses that are needed by the British Army in their war against the Boers in South Africa.
It is a chance for Harte to make something of his aimless life and make some money for himself.
As they journey along they pick up an aimless drifter 'Heck' Gilpin (Scott Cooper), a 50 cent prostitute down on her luck called Nora Johns (Scacchi) and a wagon load of Chinese girls destined for a whorehouse with whom communication is difficult until the timely arrival of a Chinese cook.
The various storylines weave together very well and when the 'bad guys' turn up they do so in a natural way. The leader's job is to get the Chinese girls back - for which he will be paid - and get his girl, Nora, back at the same time. It is only when he realises that there are the horses for the taking in the process that his character becomes darker.
This is a film in the vein of 'Open Range' and 'Lonesome Dove' with stunning photography and scenery - and the sight of those horses on the move are, probably, some of the best.
Although Robert Duvall takes top billing it is Tom Harte's character that takes centre stage in what has to be one of the best made for TV movies.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Peyton Place and Grace Metalious

This was going to be my Friday Forgotten book.
In 1959 I was given a book token as a prize for an English composition that I had written. I spent all of 3/6d on a book because the cover had a picture of a High Street that looked like the one in the Kentish village of Farnborough (near Orpington that is). Not the best reason for buying a book but - .
The Friday English lesson at school was a reading time. We took in our own books and just sat and read for 40 minutes.
So when I took 'Peyton Place' to school I got ribbed because I was reading a women's book. That was until I showed them a couple of pages. This, in turn, caught the attention of our teacher, a very religious man, who wanted to know what was causing amusement. When he discovered the source he told me that I was not to bring 'that sort of filfth' into his classroom again.
So back to that but - I learned that the events of the book and the picture on the cover put the contents not just in small town America but on my doorstep as well. That the aspirations of Allison McKenzie and the abused lifestyle of Selena Cross happened here as well as over there.
Grace Metalious was born in the Franco-American mill town of Manchester, New Hampshire in 1924 as Marie Grace De Repentigney and died in a Boston hospital of liver failure in 1964 aged 39.
She was born into poverty and lived that way despite marrying George Metalious at the age of 18 in 1943. They had known each other at school and he was training to become a school teacher. Together, they had three children but Grace was something like an obsessive writer who asked neighbours to look after her children or sent them out play while she laboured at her typewriter.
In 1955 she sent a manuscript titled 'The Tree And The Blossom' to the agent Jacques Chambrun who had represented W. Somerset Maugham and the 'Shane' author Jack Shaeffer. He, in turn, passed it to various publishers until it hit the desk of Lippincott's manuscript reader, Leona Nessler, who liked the story but it was passed up by the publishers.
When Leona Nessler went for a job interview with Kitty Messner, the President of Julian Messner Inc, she mentioned the book to her and Kitty said that she would take a look. Instead of passing it on Kitty Messner read it herself and saw, immediately, the potential.
The title was changed to 'PEYTON PLACE' and in the first month sold close to 100,000 and was already on the best seller lists a week before it's release on the 24th September 1956. It went on to sell over 12 million copies.
1957 saw the toned down movie open in the US something that was virtually unheard of with an unknown author with a new book on the stands.
The book follows the fortunes of aspiring writer Allison McKenzie, the illegitimate daughter of Constance McKenzie who had an affair with a married man and returned to Peyton Place as a 'widow'. Also, there is Selena Cross who works in Connie's shop and is Allison's friend. Selena is the victim of abuse and incest by her step-father, Lucas Cross, and witness to the abuse of her mother Nellie.
The Cross family live on the 'wrong side of the tracks' a place that is shunned and that nobody wants to get involved with. While Selena is branded as 'a girl like that' the man-hunting immorality of 'respectable' Betty Anderson is acceptable.
As a result of all this immorality, incest and abuse it is Selena Cross who gets pregnant by her step-father. A caring Dr Swain arranges an abortion and forces Lucas Cross to leave town. When Nellie, Selena's mother discovers the truth she hangs herself and, in a memorable, it is Allison who discovers her.
The end of the book may have that feel good feeling but it is the bulk of the book that is full of well-drawn real people that lives on.
In the original typescript Grace Metalious had to change Lucas Cross from being Selena's father to step-father as it was thought that America was not ready for full-blown incest. Well, there are enough clues in the book that shows the author's original intentions.
On it's publication 'Peyton Place' was considered so outrageous that it was banned in Canada and some American States and small groups and church leaders jumped on the band wagon to let everyone know that the book could corrupt the children.
Still in the UK the morality groups had something different to get worked up about - 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'.
For Grace Metalious success reads like one of those that tells the rags to riches story. In fact, she could not handle the success and the subsequent novels - 'Return To Peyton Place', 'The Tight White Collar' and 'No Adam In Eden' were not as good. There were flashes of 'the real' Grace Metalious observations but they were few and far between. It is as though she had already put everything into one book.
She died in 1964 just before the release of the watered down soap style TV series.
Despite it all 'Peyton Place' has a place in fiction history that should not be forgotten. In many respects it was a first in many ways and it, definately, is not just a woman's book.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Rebel Run by Jack Giles

REBEL RUN by Jack Giles
Black Horse Western published by Robert Hale Ltd - 1985

The Island.
It was supposed to be escape proof, even more so as it was Confederate prisoners of war who were building their own cage. The Commandant worked them hard enough so that they would be too tired to try anything.
Then Van Essen, a Confederate artilleryman, arrived. He had already broken out of two prison camps and was looking to make the next one third time lucky.
The Commandant had other ideas so he assigned Van Essen to a workforce that consisted of cavalrymen. Men with a reason to treat the new arrival with mistrust and suspicion. For they had their own plans and Van Essen was an added complication.
Escape was the one thing that they had in common and when they got out the whole Union Army would know they were on the loose.

Probably, the most frequently asked question is that with my memory loss how did I view my books.

So from this unique stand point I thought that I would do a review of a couple of my own books.

For starters REBEL RUN is not a standard western - that is if it can be classified as a western at all as all the action takes place in the Eastern states during the American Civil War.

I suppose, in many ways, that a book like Rebel Run would have been inevitable at some stage. My interest in the American Civil War dates back to my schooldays as did my passion for the World War Two escape books like Pat Reid's 'The Colditz Story', Charles McCormac's 'You'll Die In Singapore' and Paul Brickhill's 'The Great Escape' - books that are still on my bookshelf.

The book opens with a view of the island and 'pans' back to the privations of the rough and ready prison camp where the reader meets Van Essen. Van Essen was a Sergeant with the Virginia (Rockbridge) Battery and was taken prisoner at Cedar Run on the 9th August 1862.

At the beginning of the book Van Essen comes across as tough and cynical and will use anybody in his own bid to escape. Very much the loner and the outsider he is placed with a group of cavalrymen who hold a grudge because they are the victims of 'friendly' artillery fire. They, also, have their own escape plans. In charge of the cavalrymen is Sergeant Dave Becker who makes it clear from the start that despite their equal rank while Van Essen is with them he will take orders.

Eventually, they do escape and become a fighting unit when they come across a battery of cannons heading for the Union front line. It is here that Van Essen takes charge and the relationship between himself and the cavalrymen begins to change. They destroy the cannons but are persued.

As they debate on how to cross the Union lines so a curious twist of fate occurs as the Confederate Army comes to them in the shape of Rodes Division as it sweeps up the relaxed Union troops of Howard's XI Corps near Hazel Grove.

And I like the last line - it has a double meaning.

So what do I think of it. Well, it was the first Jack Giles book that I read after my stroke. On the plus side it made me want to read more books by that author. There is a downside in that the early confrontation between the two sergeants - well, it's rather stock - but it does get lost in the progression with the action sequences and none of the characters were there to make up the numbers and all had personalities.

I was, also, intrigued by the historical detail that when I got the Internet I decided to check it all out. This, in turn, was an eye opener for every Battery, Division, Regiment and Corps existed and was where it is said it was in the book. As are the farms and Hunting Run that are mentioned. And all that research had been done before the Internet existed.

So, if anyone wants to read a Jack Giles then I would say start there with 'Rebel Run' - a western that isn't a western.

Monday 19 January 2009

Beat To A Pulp

The world of e-zines and online publishing is a completely new world to me.
So when David Cranmer wrote to say that it was a pity that so many of these 'magazines' were closing I thought that I might miss out. Against that trend David has started up his own magazine BEAT TO A PULP with stories editted by Elaine Ashe.
The opening story 'The Instrument Of Their Desire' by Patti Abbott is the story of an elderly lady recalling an incident from the Depression in 1931. It certainly set the benchmark with this warm and emotional story.
What I like about this magazine is the diversity - the reader just doesn't know what sort of story that will be published each week. It is rather like reading an anthology by O. Henry who wrote so many different types of stories.
In contrast to the first story there is 'A Man Called Masters' by Jack Martin - a western that is a cut above with it's attention to some small details. For example, the use that the hero puts a tin pot to when he is stranded in the desert. This is Jack Martin's first published western - his 'The Tarnished Star' will be published as a Black Horse Western in June of this year.
This week's story is by Charles Gramlich called 'Whiskey, Guns And Sin'. An action packed piece that touches a lot of buttons for me. How can I put it - spaghetti westerns mixed with those of the Piccadilly Cowboys meets Hell Ride with a dash of Sin City graphics. The only thing that disappointed me was that, like all good stories, it came to an end.
The total list of stories so far are:
'The Instrument Of Their Desire' by Patti Abbott
'Hard Bite' by Anonymous-9 (worth reading - a little unusual)
'Disimpaction' by Glenn Gray (gives an new meaning about being up to the armpits)
'A Man Called Masters' by Jack Martin
'Backing The Stakes' by Kieran Shea (read it - hate to say anything that would act as a spoiler)
'Whiskey, Guns And Sin' by Charles Gramlich

The link to this magazine can be found on the panel.

Saturday 17 January 2009

A Couple Of Bits About Books

ROBERT HALE AUTHORS SITE: This site is devoted to writers published by Robert Hale Ltd.
By joining the site you will receive an invitation to join. This means that you can post details of new books and their covers. It's a site that is publicity driven. At the moment there are only two Black Horse Western writers there. (link in panel)

THE TOP TEN SECOND HAND BOOKS: This comes via the Daily Telegraph of the 5th January 2009.
This was supplied by Richard Booth's Bookshop of Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire (or mid-Wales - depends on which side of the border you are.
Hay-on-Wye is the second hand bookshop and is the largest in Europe.
1. Kilvert's Diary by Francis Kilvert
2.On The Black Hill by Bruce Chetwin
3.Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
4.Self Sufficiency by John Seymour
5.Origin Of The Species by Charles Darwin
6.The Famous Five Stories by Enid Blyton
7. The Mabinogion (I would have expected this book to be higher - it's Welsh, you see.)
8.To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
9.Food For Free by Richard Mabey
10. On The Road by Jack Kerouac (should be higher - biased as it's a personal favourite)

Friday 16 January 2009

Forgotten Books: The Big Pick-Up by Elleston Trevor

Elleston Trevor was born in Bromley, Kent in 1920 and died in Arizona in 1995.
During the second world war he joined the R.A.F as an engineer working on Spitfires. When he had a break he took to writing and saw his first novel published in 1943. He wrote several crime and detective novels under the name of Trevor Dudley-Smith.
His first best seller did not come until 1955 when Wm Heinemann published 'THE BIG PICK-UP'.
The Big Pick-Up is a realistic novel of the British retreat to Dunkirk and the epic evacuation told through the eyes of a handful of ordinary British Servicemen.
Hungry, weary and dazed Corporal 'Tubby' Binns and his men are cut off from their unit and left without transport and food.
At the start of the book they are prone and about to be dived bombed by Stukas and Binns' fear of death seeps through the words.
For the next few days they foot slog across a devastated landscape with no idea about where they should go or what to do.
In a telling scene they stop off at a deserted farmhouse and as night comes down they see a distant orange glow. For a moment they pity the poor people caught up in the air raid - they have no idea that glow comes from their destination - Dunkirk.
As they head north-east they pick up more stragglers some of whom die, while others leave or continue to live.
There are moments of humour - some grim, sometimes touching and there are times when it all comes naturally but none of it comes with that 'British stiff upper lip'.
The small group arrive on the beaches of Dunkirk during the lull in the bombing and they are elated, at first, but then they see just how many men there are on the beach. The long, straggling lines of men up to their necks in the sea waiting to be lifted off by the armada of little ships.
Then the bombers arrive - and all hell breaks loose.
To me The Big Pick-Up is the definative novel about the retreat to Dunkirk and would recommend it to anyone.
In 1958 (I think) there was a movie called 'Dunkirk' that starred John Mills, Bernard Lee and Richard Attenborough. It was made up with material from two books of which 'The Big Pick-Up' was one with John Mills taking on the role of Corporal Binns. The material taken from the book was faithfully reproduced in the film.
Trivia: Elleston Trevor also wrote as Simon Rattray and as the 'Quiller' creator Adam Hall.
Elleston Trevor also wrote a novel about the Battle Of Britain called 'Squadron Airborne'

Wednesday 14 January 2009

The Battle Of Britain -1940

When I was growing up my father, like many others, rarely talked about the war. They talked about the fun times but the really serious stuff was never discussed.
I remember standing on Waterloo Bridge with my mother when she mentioned out of the blue that she remembered looking down the river and seeing the docks ablaze and that the glow, from the fires, in the sky could be seen from miles away.
My dad would recount the night that he came home during the blitz. He was on leave and had arrived at Waterloo Station only to find that there was no transport to take him up to North Finchley. So, in the middle of an air raid he decided to walk all the way. He was almost home when a land mine fell of the Finchley football ground. Fortunately - for me anyway - it didn't go off but he ran the rest of the way home. When he got there my mum and her parents (my grandparents) were in the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden. He knocked on the door but my grandmother wouldn't open the door as she was convinced that he was a German parachutist. Eventually, calm was restored and my granddad let him in.
So, despite the physical evidence of bombed out buildings and the constant use of ration cards, the war was something that was not discussed.
However, while lots of dad's 'kept mum' about the war there were others who were prepared to write about their experiences. So from an early age I knew that wars were fought by ordinary men and women - even some of the officers had come from civvy street.
Apart from the escape books I always seemed to be drawn to 1940 and the Battle Of Britain - or should I say the Battle For Britain.
The phony war came to an end abruptly - Germany invaded Norway on the 9th April 1940 and within a couple of months had added this country to the list of conquests.
Though on the 8th of April, 1940 in the middle of a squall a small destroyer took on the German heavy cruiser Admiral Von Hipper. Out-gunned the Glowworm laid down a smokescreen and mounted a torpedo assault on the German cruiser that did not inflict any damage. Battered and damged and with only one gun left, the Captain of the Glowworm, Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope issued the order 'Stand by to ram'. Crippled and sinking she tore away over a hundred feet of armored plate and damaged the Von Hipper's torpedo tubes. Of the 149 crew aboard the Glowworm only 31 men were saved. Despite the damage to his ship the Captain of the Von Hipper stayed for over an hour to pick up the survivors. Later that Captain, Helmuth Heye, wrote via the International Red Cross recommending Roope for the Victoria Cross. The only time in British history that a V.C. has been recommended by the enemy.
Within a few weeks of the invasion of Norway the Germans moved into Holland, Belgium and France. They moved fast - Blitzkreig. It had worked in Poland and the thrusts were doing the same through the French and Belgian countryside. The British and French troops who had expected to fight the Germans the same as they had fought in the First World War were taken by surprise and chaos ensued. There was only one way to go and that was back towards the sea.
For an unknown reason the German forces ground to a halt which allowed time for the British troops to make it back to Dunkirk - and the armada of small ships that would pick up a third of a million men from the bombed out beaches.
It was another nine weeks before Eagle Day (or in German - Adlertag) came into being. This was supposed to be that day in August when the British air force was wiped from the skies so that Operation Sealion - the invasion of Britain could begin.
Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe had miscalculated - badly. Britain had a leader in Winston Churchill and an Air Marshall in Lord Dowding who were damned sure that Britain, though alone, would not succumb.
The Battle Of Britain produced the heroes like the legless Douglas Bader, Sailor Malan, John E. (Johnnie) Johnson and 'Ginger' Lacey who shot down the plane that was about to bomb Buckingham Palace and Al Deere. Deere was the Australian that just couldn't be killed - he was shot down and had his plane bombed out from beneath him but he emerged each time unscathed.
Unlike Richard Hillary and Geoffrey Page who were burned in their cockpits and had to undergo plastic surgery. Hillary climbed back into the cockpit and was, later, killed.
At first, the air force threw everything they had at the Germans. The slow Gladiators and Fairey Battles and the nightfighters like the Defiant lining up with the Spitfires and Hurricanes. Despite the odds they made a difference - these pilots discovered the weakness of the Stuka and that it was vulnerable when it pulled out of a dive.
In the background to all this and soon to be used were the Czech, Canadian, Polish and American 'Eagle' Squadrons and when they were unleashed it made a difference.
Georing then made the mistake of keeping his fighters back to act as an umbrella for the bombers. This did not go down well with one Gruppe leader, Adolph Galand. To try and appease his Gruppe leaders Goering said that he would do all that he could all they had to do was ask. Galland came back with the famous response: 'Then give me a squadron of Spitfires'.
By September the 15th 1940 - the barges in Boulogne had gone and the troops dispersed. Operation Sealion was not going to happen. The Battle Of Britain was over and the German bombers switched from daylight raids to night raids - The Blitz had begun.
The one thing that I learned from all the reading of this period is that wars are fought by ordinary people. Doesn't matter about what nationality they are - but they are a part of history.
That is something that can't be brushed under the carpet as though it never happened.
Two good books by Richard Collier: Sands Of Dunkirk
Eagle Day
These read like novels with a blend of historical fact and eyewitness accounts.
Also: Larry Forrester: Battle Of The April Storm - a fiction/fact book about HMS Glowworm

Friday 9 January 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: Von Ryan's Express by David Westheimer

Von Ryan's Express was first published in 1964.
David Westheimer was born in Houston, Texas in 1917 and died 2005 in Los Angeles, California. During the second world war he served as a Captain in the USAAF as a navigator in bombers. He was shot down and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.
Von Ryan's Express follows Colonel Joseph Ryan after he is shot down in Italy during 1943 and sent to Prisoner Of War Camp 202 known to the P.O.Ws as P.G. Doochentydooey.
He is greeted by Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Fincham of the British Army and, immediately, there is a clash of personalities.
The camp is run-down and morale is low. Although one tunnel had been dug before discovery and another under construction there had been no escape attempts had been made. As far as Fincham is concerned the men have been active with a campaign of mischief and mayhem designed to make life difficult for the Italians. The result of all this is that the camp Commandant has withheld Red Cross parcels and much needed clean uniforms.
Against this background Ryan, now the Camp's senior officer, begins to change things around. He is a very strict by the book and by the numbers officer that contrasts against the more casual style of his British number two. It is this clash which is, at times humourous while at others intense, that dominates the first third of the book.
As he whips the prisoners into shape his methods earn him the nickname Von Ryan. He still gets the job done. Despite opposition by the camp commandant Colonel Battaglia Ryan finds ways to get around the Italian's obstinancy to get the food parcels and the prisoners new uniforms issued.
When the Italians surrender the guards leave their posts and the time seems ripe for the P.O.Ws to just walk out of the camp and make for their own lines. However, Ryan urges caution as there is no knowing how far the Allied lines were or whether there had been another landing further north. He doesn't like the idea of hundreds of men wandering around the countryside and getting shot by the Germans.
When they wake the next morning the Germans are already in charge of the camp with plans to shift the prisoners to Germany by train.
Once aboard the train the action starts as the prisoners overpower the German guards and take charge of the train. Both Ryan and Fincham put aside their differences and work together in what is a rivetting second half of the book.
Von Ryan's Express is a great escape book with many interesting and well-drawn characters.
David Westheimer wrote a sequel in 1980 called 'Von Ryan's Return' - which in no way is a spoiler for the first book as the outcome of that book is one where you have to wait until the last page.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Wild West Monday - Monday March 2nd 2009

Gary Dobbs in his blog on The Tainted Archive has set the date for the next Wild West Monday.
It is better to read his blog for more information.
For one, I will be out there again because I believe that it is time that bookstores stopped dictating what we read. To me a bookstore is a place that sells books - and that it should cater for all tastes - that is the purpose of a bookshop.

In my interview with Michael D. George he mentioned that books shops no longer catered to the masculine genres.
I still agree with that comment.
So I'm going to change genres for a moment.
Where are the war novels?
Sure, you can buy war books in the non-fiction section but where are the war novels? There was a time when Robert Hale Ltd published war fiction but that market dwindled away to nothing when book shops stopped selling them.
The horror writer Shaun Hutson cut his teeth with war fiction; as Samuel P. Bishop he wrote the three 'Track' western novels again in a climate when the western was fading from the shelves.
So if you don't want the same fate for the western then, please, do something about it.
Nothing happens, in this world, unless you allow it to happen.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Thoughts On Comic Books

Each Christmas I buy my children a 'special' present - one that is just from me to them. For the first time I was a bit stumped for something to give to my youngest son - that was until I read an article on 'The Essential Silver Surfer' on THE TAINTED ARCHIVE blog (see panel for link). Said son was overjoyed with that choice.

As I browsed along the shelves of 'A Place In Space' one of our two local comic stores I had to smile at other books in the 'Essential' collections. There was the first volume of 'The Punisher' in his original costume - which was pleasing as it won an arguement with my eldest son.

Usually, when I go into these shops it is in search of something specific and I, rarely, browse. However, on this occasion I stopped for next to The Silver Surfer was 'The Essential She-Hulk'.

As I flipped through the pages it was like going back in time.

In the fifties parents were warned about a new 'thing' coming in from America - it was called 'horror comics'. Parents were warned by 'concerned' groups that these would be damaging to their children. So, we seven and eight year olds began to read these 'Amazing Stories' and 'Weird Tales' that had no effect on us whatsoever - except stimulate our active imaginations.

With these comics came the likes of 'Superman', 'Superboy', 'Supergirl' and 'Superwoman' that were followed by 'Marvelman' and 'Marvelwoman' etc. And, of course 'Batman'. For every man there seemed to be a woman like 'Spiderwoman' and 'The She-Hulk'.

When we moved to Orpington there was a shop at the end of the High Street where comics could be exchanged. I don't know how the proprietor made any money as kids would go in with a bucketful of comics and come out the same way. I never saw any money change hands.

The proprietor was a cadaverous old man with a mane of long white hair. The shop was long, narrow and dark and lit by single, low watt bulb. All the shelves were piled high with comics from the weird to the wonderful and just looked like the setting for some horror movies.

In the early sixties the shop just closed. Many of us just assumed that the old man had died. We turned up as usual to find the shop being cleared out - the workmen were just dumping the comics into cardboard boxes and leaving them out the back. By the next morning they had all disappeared - well, we had all climbed over the fence and helped ourselves.

A couple of years back I wandered back down the High Street and was surprised to discover that it was a comic shop again. I mentioned this to the new owner who was intrigued to hear about the building's past.

As the shop has changed - so, too, have comics. I do wonder how a twelve year old back in the sixties would see something like Frank Miller's 'Sin City'. I guess back then we wouldn't get to see it for it would be on the top shelf.

I was reading James Reasoner's blog (Rough Edges - link on the panel) on the new 'Hulk' movie the other day. The boys and I had seen that movie - but it reminded me that originally the Hulk had been a 'bad' guy until he got his own comic. When he became a 'good' guy I can recall that, in one instance, his adversary was Ben 'Thing' Grimm before he became part of the Fantastic Four.

It could be quite confusing at times characters that were 'bad' guys in one superhero comic would turn 'good' in their own - like Submariner or The Silver Surfer.

While I was in the store they were doing a survey and one of the questions that they asked me was whether I preferred Marvel or DC. I looked at the chap and said that they were just labels for a publisher and that when I was a kid it was the characters that we liked - and when it comes down to it who really cares who the publisher is? It's like asking me whether I wear Nike or Reebok - I wear trainers but I prefer the ones that fit me and I feel comfortable in. I have never bothered about the label on anything. He might as well have asked whether I preferred 'Superman' or 'Marvelman' - neither would be the answer for I read and enjoyed both characters.

I did get an unexpected Christmas present from my youngest son - he must have been thinking along the same lines as myself. He got me the graphic novel of 'Bat Lash: Guns 'n' Roses'. Well, as he's a fan of the group Guns 'n' Roses.....

Sunday 4 January 2009

Julie London

Julie London was born in Santa Rosa, California on the 26th September 1926 and died in October 2000, after a stroke in 1995, in California.

Her parents were vaudeville artists.

Julie London had been a bit part player in movies during the forties when she became one of the pin up girls for the American G.Is during the second world war.

In the fifties she was 'discovered' by Alan Ladd's wife Sue Carol who was an agent who revitalised Julie London's career.

As an actress she appeared in several movies and, probably, her best role was in the Gary Cooper movie 'Man Of The West' (1958), directed by Anthony Mann, where Julie played the only female role.
She guest starred in several TV series like 'Rawhide', 'Laramie' and 'The Big Valley' as well as classics like 'I Spy' and 'The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'. Between 1972 and 1979 Julie London was better known as Dixie McCall RN in the series 'Emergency' in which she starred with her second husband Bobby Troup.
Her first husband was 'Dragnet' star Jack Webb.

Julie London, though, is not remembered just as an actress but for her cool, smoky and sensual singing voice with a range that covered blues and jazz.
'Cry Me A River' is her best known and only million selling disc - not only did she sing it in the 1956 movie 'The Girl Can't Help It' but has turned up in the soundtrack of other movies - the latest being 2006's 'V For Vendetta'.

My own interest in Julie London, the singer, stems from a 1957 Alan Ladd film 'Boy On A Dolphin'. It was a track that had been requested on the BBC Radio show 'Family Favourites'. I was thirteen at the time but Julie London made an impression on me. Believe it or not I did not hear 'Cry Me A River' until the following year during a music class at school.

During her career Julie London has recorded over 30 albums that have included songs that she has composed herself as well as classic tracks. Tracks like Sinatra's 'Fly Me To The Moon', Nat 'King' Cole's ' When I Fall In Love' and Marylin Monroe's 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' - and each one Julie London has made her own.

She reckoned that she couldn't sing - a 'thimbleful' she called it - and had to get up close to the microphone to make herself heard. When compared to Monroe, Julie London denied being a 'sex symbol' and just described herself as an ordinary housewife who's family came first before her showbiz career.

Maybe, but Julie London has left a legacy of songs that always remind me of black and white movies and smoky dance halls - and a talent that is missed.