My mission statement, if I had one, would be “I’m here to read vintage genre fiction and collect my thoughts, opinions, and analysis of them in the form of reviews.” Thankfully I have no such statement. Vintage or classic fiction, in this case, is fiction from the ’40s to the ’80s, possibly on the trashier side: be it paperbacks, pulps, graphic novels, or anything else that strikes my fancy. Specifically, I’m thinking of old paperback lines like Ace Doubles, Fawcett/Gold Medal, Lion, DAW, Avon, or Gold Eagle, to modern reprint series like Hard Case Crime, Stark House Books, Altus Press, Planet Stories, Black Dog Books, and everything in between.
By genre fiction, I mean genre fiction, for better or ill. All the tropes, the genre conventions, the clichés, the attempts to create new ones and attempts to subvert or transcend them. In no particular order, I’m talkin’ science fiction, fantasy, horror, thriller, mystery, spy, western, and detective-crime novels. Maybe even some fringe cliques and sub-genres: utopian/dystopian, post-apocalyptic, steampunk, comic fantasy, that kind of thing. (Those are totally genres, right? They are now.)
I will, on occasion, review “modern” books that are not yet yellowed, though given time, they may become battered, tattered, and creased.
Why Read Old Stuff?
What comes to mind is the droning speakers in the 1998 Brave New World movie: “We don’t want… old things… We want… New things.”
Seriously, though: there’s a lot of great older fiction out there. Robert E. Howard’s Conan and H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos both date back to the 1930s, and they’ve been the subject of continual revivals since the 1970s. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950s. Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler are still top sellers in the mystery section, even though they were writing in the ’20s. Edgar Rice Burroughs has been in continual print for over a century. Frankenstein and Dracula date back before we had paperbacks or genre fiction. These are the famous examples; I could do a lengthy list on the subject.
Some older fiction has a certain charm to it, and it’s always fun to discover lost writers and forgotten gems. The modern-day revival of pulp and paperback fiction—part of our nostalgic cultural interest in anything mid-century modern—has helped a bit; many publishers have tried to bring older fiction back into the mainstream, or at least out of the historical records department. Plus, there’s the genre history and lost genre history angles; seeing how genres developed on the macro-scale intrigues me. There’s plenty of brilliant novels lost to the ages. There’s a ton of crap out there, too. And I don’t always focus on old and retro-fiction; I have done several modern book reviews so far, and have others in the works. (Always.)
Where do you get them there illustrations?
It depends on the source. A good chunk of the header illustrations are from the excellent Golden Age Comic Book Stories blog, a few are cropped posters from Wrong Side of the Art, and others were found on Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest even, or through various Google searches over the years. Most of the blogs in my blogroll are great sources of old-school cover art, in particular PulpCovers and Ski-Ffy. Since there’s a lot of them—I try to alternate every few months—it really depends on the individual illustration.
I try to use a scan of my own book as the first image in every post, but sometimes that’s not feasible—it’s in an omnibus, the cover is too worn, or the version I read just had a cover lacking all artful value. That said, most are ones I find on the web, having to rely solely on that one person who’s graciously uploaded a cover scan of a rare book. As such, I’m mostly going by Fair Use here (see below) since the point of this blog is non-commercial criticism and commentary. I make no claims on any image, which is copyright its respective copyright holder. If I’ve used one of your images in error, politely let me know and it will be taken down posthaste.
Fair Use / Copyright Notice
As a book reviewer, I find it helpful to quote from an author’s text to give an idea of their prose style, as well as including the book’s cover art, and in some cases examples of interior illustrations. I do this under section 17 U.S.C. § 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976:
Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
My goal is not to demean the rights of the author or publisher in any way, but to follow an established tradition in the literary criticism field. I make no claims towards any content displayed in blockquote form (as above), as it is copyright its respective copyright holder. If you are an author or publisher who believes I’ve quoted too much or otherwise acted in error, politely contact me and let me know which quotes you think better showcase and promote your work.
Hey! Why don’t you give quantifiable ratings?
There’s a number of reasons for that; the short (and less pedantic) answer is because I don’t think numerical values can accurately convey and represent a complex opinion, particularly when my complex opinion is divergent from… say… everybody who’s not me. If such a scale was devised, be it x/5, x/10, or x/100, eventually, it’d break down. (Besides, you should be able to tell how much I liked it—and more importantly, if you think you’d like it—based on the review itself.)
Honestly, given my preferences and tastes, I’d end up giving most everything a mediocre ranking, and probably rarely give out a spectacular or abysmal rating. Mediocrity can be filling, which is good since (to subvert Sturgeon’s Law) 90% of everything isn’t top-quality—moreover, everything has a flaw if you look hard enough; few things are perfect, much as few things are beyond redemption. Most of what I read entertained me enough that I kept reading, you should note. In any case, if you really want ratings just assume everything received between 2/5 and 4/5, unless I raved on and on about it in the final paragraph.
Fair and Balanced
I try to be fair in how I review: many of these books have vibrant and vocal fan bases, so even if I don’t like something, I may know full well I’m in the minority, and will make a note as such. That said, I’m not going to change my opinion just because a book is popular: it can rise or fall on its own merits, not on the size or tenacity of its fan base.
Also, I try to keep things objective, but given the nature of reviews, these are heavily influenced by the subjective: opinions, personal feelings, gut reactions. Books are complex things, with a multitude of variables/criteria for grading, some objective and others subjective: characterization, plot, the author’s craft, the author’s handling of the mechanics of writing, the themes, the cover art, the dialogue, the setting. How well it conforms (or transcends) genre conventions. How well it kept my interest, if it kept me reading. I’ll give reasons why I loved or hated something, but those reasons are my own. What I like or dislike isn’t necessarily true for anyone else, so take things with a grain of salt. Though if you agree, that’s awesome.
One last thing about the reviews. For good or bad, I judge everything in relation to the author, genre, era, and/or product line. Sword and sorcery is judged against other sword and sorcery and crime novels are weighed against crime novels, not against literary works, classics in the genre, or by best-selling genre authors. This may include other media forms, such as films or graphic novels, while keeping in mind that all media forms have their advantages and weaknesses. I don’t think it’s fair to compare an old Ace Double against Dune or Neuromancer or The Book of the New Sun, much less Dickens or Steinbeck or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. What it will be compared against is other Ace Doubles (and other paperbacks), other books in the same genre from the same era, and other works by the author.
To sum: like things are judged against like things, rather than making oblique judgments across the spectrum of genres. Most of the time.
I do accept advanced reading and review copies of books; other than making a one-line disclaimer that the copy was provided to me at no cost, I treat the review exactly as I would for a book I went out and paid cold hard currency for. A few stipulations; first, I don’t accept rough manuscripts (unless for some reason the author is well-renowned, in which case it’d be insulting to say no), and second, it helps if the book is in the same style or genres that I work with: science fiction, horror, thriller, and mystery-crime novels, possibly fantasy or spy fiction.
The best way is obviously by email:
admiral_ironbombs (at) icloud (dot) com
Don’t expect a fast response since I don’t receive a ton of email and therefore don’t check it that often. Serious offers only.