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Monday, 12 August 2019

J D Salinger goes last

J D Salinger's  books are finally to make the transition to eBooks after the estate of the late author, who couldn't stand digital media, relented on their ban on electronic versions of the author's small body of work.

Salinger had always valued accessibility, but preferred the experience of reading a physical book. The Catcher in the Rye author, who died in 2010 at the age of 91, also hated the internet; Matt told the New York Times that he once explained Facebook to his father, who had been horrified that people shared personal information online.

The U-turn comes after Salinger's son, Matt recieved a letter from a woman in Michigan who said she had a disability that would allow her to read a physical book but that eBooks enabled her to continue with reading books.

 “She took me personally to task in a very sharp but humorous way and from the moment I read her letter I was committed to figuring out a way to let her read my father’s books, as she so wanted. Making my father's books accessible to a new generation, many of whom seem to prefer reading on their electronic devices, and – specifically – people with health conditions or impairments that mean they’re unable to read physical books, is a very exciting development, and totally in keeping with his wishes even if he greatly preferred the full tactile experience of a physical book. Would he prefer and encourage readers to stick with the printed books? Absolutely. But not exclusively if it means some not being able to read him at all.” Matt Salinger

Salinger is not the only author to have opposed ebooks. In a 2012 interview, children’s author Maurice Sendak said: “Fuck them, is what I say. I hate those ebooks. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I will be dead, I won’t give a shit.” And in 2009, Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury told the New York Times: “They wanted to put a book of mine on Yahoo! You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the internet.’”

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

The Comics at War Part One: The Early Days

Recently whilst reading the latest titles from DC Thomson's Commando Comics, a series of titles that have been running for longer than I've been alive, I was struck the realization that war stories have been a staple of comic books for as long as the medium's existed. It is said that at any point in time, on some foreign field, the British Army is fighting one war or other, and I suppose in many ways British history has been shaped by events on the battlefields. From Lionhearts crusades to the current struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, stories have echoes down the centuries and inspired poets, novelists, storytellers of all kinds.

So it would seem natural that children's literature, the forerunner of the modern comic book, would turn its attention to war stories with early titles such as Boy's Own Paper, and Halfpenny Marvel churning out tales set during the Crimean and Napoleonic Wars. It is interesting to note that early war comics and story papers concentrated on war at sea which reflected Britain's pride in having a Navy that then truly ruled the waves.

War stories were part of a mix of tales that included sport, crime, western and adventure but by the end of the Nineteenth Century, with the country gripped by the wars against the Boer, comics and story papers started to present patriotic tales with these struggles as the backdrop. Fictional stories would sit alongside reports of true accounts of heroism and gradually comic books and the story papers became part of the national consciousness.

The real boom started in the mid 19th Century when the literacy rates were rising in Britain thanks to the sterling work done by social reformers, and when William Gladstone, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, abolished duty on paper mass market publishing was able to come about. A number of entrepreneurs turned their attentions to the growing boys fiction market. Kids across the country, unable to find X-Boxes or Playstations in the shops, were eager for entertainment. Cheap fiction was hugely in demand by working class children who could not afford to buy books - Alice in Wonderland for instance which was first published in 1865 cost 6 shillings. This was a third of the average industrial worker's weekly wage. However children could manage a penny a week and this brought in the era of what would become to be known as the penny dreadfuls.

A popular title of this period was The Boys of England which sold, at its peak, around 250,000 copies a week but given that each copy wold be shared by around nine different readers it was estimated that its readership was more than two million.

Edwin Brent started his Newsagents Publishing Company in 1866 and as well as being responsible for the aforementioned The Boys of England, realized that there was a market for more salacious reading material, and he started churning out the first penny dreadfuls. These magazines were, in effect, part work novels which subjects that covered murder, street violence and other lurid subjects. Brett's published, The Wild Boys of London in 1866, which was a tale of juvenile street criminals in the capital city and this title became particularly notorious. It contains violence, mentions of nudity and a flagellation (torture) scene and it sold like the proverbial hot cakes and started the boom in the penny dreadfuls,  which would soon come to the attention of politicians.

'The malign influence of the "bloods" (penny dreadfuls) was creeping not only into the houses of the poor, neglected and untaught, but into the largest mansions; penetrating into religious families  and astounding careful parents with its frightful issues.'  Lord Shaftsbury, speaking in the House of Commons in 1878.

A moral backlash followed and fearing that soon issues would be forced out of publication, many publishers started to clean up their act. In 1879, the Religious Tract Society first published, The Boy's Own Paper, which would go onto become one of the most enduring and popular of boy's story papers. The first issue featured sport stories, adventure stories and for the first time in a boy's magazines, stories about the perceived glories of warfare. There were also features on hobbies, nature and health. One story, From Powder Monkey to Admiral, started in the early issues and across its run told of how an ordinary boy from the working classes joined the Navy and gradually worked his way to the highest rank. This may seem unlikely but, in fact, history proves otherwise and the story was very much influenced by the life of Admiral Edward Hopson, a boy of humble stock who did indeed attain the rank of Admiral.

War stories then were a stable of The Boy's Own Paper from its early issues. Largely these stories told of The Crimean War (1853-1856) or the Napoleonic Wars but there were stores that dealt with the French (1793 - 1815) and the Indian Mutiny of 1857. All of these stories were driven by a feeling of patriotism and national pride, but did not always seen things from the British perspective. One story, The Drummer Boy (1881) told of a yound boy conscripted into the French army for Napoleon's ill-fated Russian campaign of 1812.

In 1880 another titles was published. The Union Jack was billed as a magazine of 'healthy, stirring tales of adventure by  Land and Sea for Boys'. It was priced at one penny and it was hugely popular and offered strong competition to the Boy's Own Paper. Most of the stories were set in previous wars but the magazine did become the first title to set stories on campaigns which were then ongoing. In 1882 the magazine published a story that looked at the Sudan Campaign. Readers lapped the magazine up but after 129 weekly issues it ceased publication. However by this time there was no shortage of for British readers and new titles were launched at a speedy rate. These magazines, lavishly illustrated,  were all text based stories, and the dawn of the first true comic was still some way off but it was these magazines that were very much the parents of the modern comic book.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Book Review: Death Wish by Brian Garfield

I was familiar with the Charles Brosnon/Micheal Winner movie (who isn't!) , but until now the original source novel by Brain Garfield (an author known previously to me for his many excellent westerns) had passed me by.

I picked up this novel for my kindle on a whim; having come across it whilst browsing and I very much enjoyed it. It's basically the same story as the movie it inspired, and it also justifies the actions of the vigilante that drives the plot in a similar fashion, but it contains much more depth than the the movie and leaves the reader empathizing with Paul Benjamin (Paul Kersey in the movie) and fully understanding, if not applauding him for bringing a kind of wild west gun juctice to the criminals who are ruling the streets of 1970's New York.

The novel fully gets inside the character of Paul Benjamin and shows us how an accountant, a life long liberal can step over that line and become the ultimate in right wing rhetotic - judge, jury and executioner. Much of the novel concentrates on the mundane aspects of the main characters life and his transition to madness is fully realized in a believable fashion.

It's not as nasty as the movie it spawned, and for that even more compelling, and it sense of time and place is vivid. I'd highly recommend this book.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Deadwood The Movie delivers a great ending to a TV masterpiece

When HBO abruptly cancelled Deadwood after three excellent season, fans were left furious and immediately started making their voices heard and although it took HBO a long while to admit their mistake, it took a whole lot longer for Deadwood to return to the screen - 13 years in fact. And they've been thirteen long years with the actors having obviously aged in that time, some of them unrecognizably so and recognizing this series creator, David Milch moves the story forward to 1889 with South Dakota about to be granted statehood.

This is a great hook because it allows for character who left Deadwood to return for the state celebrations and seems perfectly natural. Of course, with such a time jump Milch has to imagine what those passing years have been like for the characters and he doesn't miss a beat, remaining true to each and every character as well as the original series. It's quite an achievement but five minutes into the TV movie and it seems as if the foul mouthed citizens of Deadwood have never been away.

The Deadwood series was unmistakably Ian McShane's show, but the movie very much belongs to Timothy Olyphant who puts in a great performance as the Wyatt Earp-alike, Seth Bullock but all of the characters shine in one way or another.  Gerald McRaney for instance is brilliant as the manipulative  George Hurst. But going back to Ian McShane's iconic Al Swearengen -  the story arc between McShane's character and the one time prostitute, Trixie is a vital element of this movie and it delivers wonderfully

The movie, like the TV series,  also luxuriates in its dialogue, often lyrical and Shakespearean, which is  challenging to decipher. It always has been, but the reward for careful viewing is dialogue that challenges, surprises and delights.

“I’d not prolong the chewing up, doc, nor the being spat out — not go out a cunt.”

Deadwood originally came about during a golden time for televison, when networks including HBO, FX, and AMC debuted shows such as The Wire, The Shield, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, and this TV movie wraps things up in an exciting and worthy fashion. There’s a particularly tragic tinge to the circumstances of the movie: Writer and creator David Milch recently revealed he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, making the entire affair feel particularly elegiac. Even so, this script is among the greatest things he’s ever produced.

Deadwood now has an ending and it's a brilliant one at that

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Eastwood displays his thoroughbred status in The Mule

I've just gotten around to watching The Mule, last year's Clint Eastwood thriller that showed that even in his late Eighties, the actor can carry a movie and very much remains Hollywood's premier movie legend.

For someone who regularly watches old Eastwood movies it can be brutal to see just how old the actor really is, especially when you've been a fan for your entire life. Eastwood has always been craggy faced, even as far back as the Dollar movies but these days even his wrinkles are wrinkled. Still, he's not the only one - I was probably around ten years of age when I first started watching Eastwood moves, staying up late to devour Dirty Harry or Magnum Force on ITV back in the Seventies, and I'm into my Fifties now so I do hope that I wear my own wrinkles with the grace of Mr Eastwood.

He's still the same old Clint, too touch for age to change him and one scene in this movie sees the ancient thespian enjoying a romp with two prostitutes. Thankfully, the scene cuts away from the main action but the implication that things went well enough, even without viagra, is quite clear. There are several scenes where Eastwood's characters is pushed around by a group of thugs and the viewer does long for \a scene where Eastwood punches out one of these thugs and asks him if ,  'are you feeling lucky, punk?'. of course that would be silly and The Mule is anything but silly.

In this movie, based on the true story of drug mule, Leo Sharp Eastwood plays aged gardener Earl Sharp who has fallen on hard times - his flower business ruined by the onset of the Internet who becomes a drug mule after meeting a drug runner who offers him an easy way to make money - 'all you've got to do is drive'. In the real life story Leo Sharp was a veteran of World War II but in the movie Eastwood's character is a vet of the Korean War.

The real Leo Sharp and Eastwood's Earl Sharp
And so using the story of Leo Sharp as a basis for the story Eastwood's movie changes the facts slightly for dramatic effect - in our film Sharp is estranged from his family and in the movie Sharp's ex-wife dies of cancer, which prompts Sharp to send the drug cartel into a frenzy when he rushes home mid-job with the back of his pick-up truck concealing a fortune in cocaine.

The Mule is a great slow burning movie; a typical latter day Eastwood movie though in truth Eastwood's career is filled with slower films that take their time in telling their stories - think of Honkytonk Man, the underrated masterpiece, for one and even further back something like, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The Mule grapples with several of Eastwood preferred themes including regret, forgiveness, mortality and the power of redemption, and is a grown up drama that proves the silver screen can be magical without explosions and lycra-clad heroes. 

I for one thought The Mule was excellent, but then I may be a little biased since I fucking love Clint Eastwood.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Game of Thrones: Missing a middle act

As I write, we are less than a week away from the final episode of Game of Thrones and I, like anyone who has been with the show since the start, am eager to see how this all plays out. At the same time the way the show's played out since season six has been a bit of a disappointment. There was a time when the show was character driven but since the show makers have run out of source material it's become action driven and there's been a definite sharp dip in quality.

If season 7 seemed rushed then season 8 has gone supersonic in its need to reach the end that George R R Martin envisaged.

I still love the show and will watch till the end but it is so very very disappointing given how groundbreaking the show has been - many of the major characters have suffered bizarre changes and the promise of many storylines have been thrown away - Jamie Lannisters redemption arc became a cheap joke at the viewer's expense, and whilst it may have been inevitable that Daenerys Targaryen become the mad queen it should have been built up to in a far better way - instead the program seemed to show her move from being a basically good person who cared about ordinary people, could not tolerate injustice and abhorred slavery to a crazy power mad harridan in the blink of an eye - 'Burn them all. Let them burn.'

The dragons too have been fucked up - at first they were treated almost like nuclear weapons, but as the seasons went on we saw they were vulnerable after two were destroyed and they were relegated to the status of effective military weapons and yet in the penultimate episode of the final season they, or rather it since there was only one left, became full nuclear and was able to destroy King's Landing without raising a sweat. It sure did look spectacular, though.

Over the last two season we've seen Daenerys Targaryen's army depleted after the battle with the Night King and her dragons paired down to one single creature. The show suggested an arduous battle for King's Landing not the walkover it eventually turned out to be - worse, it wasn't a even a battle but more mass murder on a grand scale carried out by some mad bitch on a dragon. This once beloved character has become  a mad bitch which is something that will surely annoy all those parents who named their daughters after the character. The name Khaleesi was given to 560 girls in the US last year, and in the UK there were 300 girls given the name. In total, more than 3,500 children have been named after her since the show began. A freer-of-slaves, mother-of-dragons and all-round badass, she won fans around the world but now that she's become a crazy murdering harridan those parents with little Khaleesi's of their own may be a little peeved.

Season eight  has done a lot of work trying to balance out the forces of Dany and Cersei so that a real threat could be presented -  decimating the Dothraki and Unsullied and leaving  her with a single dragon. However, it turns out that  Drogon has aced some off-screen arrow-dodging training, and in one fell swoop destroys the Iron Fleet, and blasts his way into King’s Landing.

Perhaps the single most ruined character of the entire show is Tyrion Lannister - where are his witty remarks? He's gone in the last two seasons from being a giant of a character to a sullen little dwarf . He's become little more than a paperweight in a show that his character once carried. Other characters too have suffered - Bron's has just become a bore but at least the writers haven't used him much this season and given the way the story has played out I can't really see him turning up in the final episode - then again, he just might.

There was once scene in the last episode where I felt we were watching the old Thrones - in one of the early episodes there's a line that says when Jamie was born he emerged from the womb holding his twin sister, Cersai's foot. The way they died together, in each other's arms was I feel a fitting end for their characters, even if the redemption arc Jamie was set off on was a bit of a cheat.

As I understand it this was how Thrones was always going to end - mad queen, King's Landing, Jon Snow and all that that but since George R R Martin seems to be suffering writers block and failed to finish the books, the showrunners have had to work with just his notes. This, to my mind, makes the show feel like it is missing a true middle act.

I'll be watching until the end, and I still rate the show has one of the best TV series ever but it's not lived up to the promise of seasons 1 - 6. Ah well, I guess I'll just have to wait for Martin to deliver the final books to get a worthy lead up to an explosive ending.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The Genre that's too tough to die

"One of the most vapid and infantile forms of art ever conceived by the brain of a Hollywood film producer." ...Dwight Macdonald, The Miscellany 1929

"The western remains, I suppose, America's distinctive contribution to the film."...Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Show April 1963

Geographically and historically the concept of "The West" is very loosely defined, when associated with the literary and film genre of the western. With the possible exception of the Eastern Seaboard almost every part of the USA had been called "The West" at some stage in the country's history.

The federal government defines "The West" as including the following states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada,New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. But from the movies and books both Kansas and Nebraska can be added. And maybe Hawaii and Washington should be removed. The West of popular imagination usually contains those areas associated with the final frontiers of American settlement - anything West of the Mississippi River. An area associated with cowboys, Indians, outlaws and lone lawmen.

Amongst the earliest western literature with artistic merit were the works of James Fennimore Cooper, his most famous works being 1826's Last of the Mohicans - though by the true definition of the genre none of the author's works are strictly westerns. The books were set in colonial America and featured the British rule but true westerns are set in independent America.

EZC Judson, writing under the pen name Ned Buntline was an early writer of traditional westerns. He earned himself the nickname of, 'Father of the Dime Novel' and turned Buffalo Bill into a figure of mythic proportions. However the first western with the classic ingredients was Owen Wister's The Virginian in 1902, which largely invented the guidelines that western writers still follow today.

The names Louis L'amour and Zane Grey have dominated the genre for many years and still do to some extent. But an early European champion of the genre was Karl May with his popular Shatterhand books. He wrote over 60 books but Shatterhand remains his most famous character. Indeed Shatterhand was revived by B.J. Holmes in a series of books for the successful UK western house, Black Horse Westerns.

The cinema has always had a love affair with the western and during the silent era there were many hundreds of westerns made. Most of these have been lost but there are still some prime examples of early westerns to be sought out by fans.

Some of the most important silent westerns that still exist and can be found on DVD or in many cases for free download from include:

The Iron Horse (1924) directed by John Ford
The Covered Wagon (1923) directed by James Cruze
Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1914) directed by D W Griffith

In cinematic terms there is little doubt that the Golden Age of the western took place between the years 1940 - 1970. There were many classics before and since but during these years there was never a time when most major studios didn't have at least one western in production.

During the Fifties and Sixties in particular the western also dominated the small screen with many western TV series being aired. Among the most well known are:
The Big Country
The Virginian
The Rifleman
Have Gun will Travel
Wyatt Earp
Wanted Dead or Alive

The modern era has also seen many classics of the genre, both on the screen and between the covers - Lonesome Dove, Sons of Texas, Blood Meridian, Tombstone, The Unforgiven to name but a few. And of course in recent years we've seen the Coen's re-make of True Grit, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Those though are just the tip of the hay bale - for instance check out the excellent Netflix westerns series, Godless.

The Western truly is THE GENRE TOO TOUGH TO DIE. Kevin Costner is working on a new western and there is a remake of Butch and Sundance in the works. American greats like Dusty Richards and  Larry McMurtry continue to write quality western works. And British western house, Black Horse Westerns are continuing to bring out new western fiction written by writers from all over the world. Among these you will find such loved writers as B. J. Holmes, Ben Bridges, Jack Giles,Nik Morton,  Ian Parnham, Mathew P. Mayo, Chap O'Keefe, Jim Lawless and myself, Jack Martin. And this is just a small selection of the writers producing all new traditional westerns under The Black Horse banner. And of course there is the story of John Locke who became the worlds' first self published writer to sell a million eBooks on Amazon, and several of his titles are westerns. Mind you Locke was recently discredited when it emerged that he had paid for many positive reviews which helped sell his books.

Westerns have also made the transition to eBooks and the excellent publishing house, Piccadilly Publishing is reissuing western classics in the new electronic format, and of course the popular Edge series is also available in eBook. The Edge books, for instance, are a particular favorite of mine and I am proud to say that I was instrumental in initially bring the series to eBooks, but the reissue program is now in the industrious hands of Malcolm Davy.

So if you've never tried  a western then maybe now is the time to do - they've never been so easily available and online giant Amazon has many titles at good prices.

Come on saddle up and let's ride.

Take a look at my Jack Martin page at Amazon - click HERE