The Devil You Know

devil you know reviewA friend of mine noticed a copy of Poppy Z. Brite’s THE DEVIL YOU KNOW on my coffee table, picked it up and said, “That’s … different.” She was referring to the misshapen cat sprawled across the cover, but as I’d come to find shortly thereafter, her first impression was spot-on.

The stories within aredifferent. A couple of them, most notably the FIRESTARTER-esque “Burn, Baby, Burn,” may appear derivative upon first glance, but while readers are likely to think Charlie McGee for a time, they’re more likely to remember Liz Sherman from the Kansas side of Kansas City (Hellboy fans already know her, anyway) with as much fear and cautious adoration. And “System Freeze” is set inside the world of THE MATRIX movies, though Brite tells us in her introduction that the characters are hers. Not a big fan of the films themselves, it’s easily my least favorite story in this volume of gems.

The title story kicks things off after a telling foreword by the author (I sometimes skip these things but even after Brite’s permission to do so, I kept reading). “The Devil You Know” is strange, funny and, like most of the book, compulsively readable. In fact, if you’re looking for the slow, Gothic style employed in Brite’s previous collections like WORMWOOD, you’ll either be disappointed or pleasantly surprised.

Throughout the collection, the writing is tight, the author’s sense of humor soars and the dialogue especially rings true. I’d say that the style lies somewhere between the saturated trappings of the aforementioned WORMWOOD and Brite’s horror novels like EXQUISITE CORPSE, but even that’s not quite right. There’s a maturity here that was never actually missing from her previous efforts, with the best example of this probably being the poignant coming-of-age tale “Lantern Marsh.” Though I never read it in its original form, the author explains that it is an old story — written around 1983 — that she reworked for the Halloween anthology OCTOBER DREAMS.

“The Heart of New Orleans” is current and moving, and “Marisol” will have you remembering the old adage about dishing it out and taking it, and you’ll be smiling and cringing at once. Believe me, it’s possible.

If you’re familiar with the author’s post-horror offerings, you’ll find plenty of familiar characters and voices sprinkled throughout this thin volume. If you’re not, don’t worry — it’s still her best collection yet. –Jason Light

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LOUIS’ SERIOUS ISSUES >> 9.29.06

louis series issuesScouring out the weekly singles scene … in comics!

I’m really happy – if I were an imbecile, I’d be “jazzed” – at all the positive attention the first installment of SERIOUS ISSUES received. I guess the rumors are true: Positive attention whoops negative’s ass any day of the week. Except for the WEEKEND REGASM calling me a “weird kid.” How so? Because I wore an ERASERHEAD T-shirt in high school? I’d like to know!

army of darkness 10 reviewARMY OF DARKNESS #10 (Dynamite Entertainment) Despite Dynamite’s need for a proofreader (this issue is part three of the “Ash vs. Dracula” story arc, yet it’s labeled as part four, and, if that’s not bad enough, at one point the mag’s called ARMY OF DARKENESS), AOD is whole lotta fun, eschewing all logic in favor of a “fan fic” approach, with Ash being his one-lining, badass self, traveling through time, fighting not only Deadites, but in this arc, Dracula, werewolves and even Frankenstein. It’s everything VAN HELSING should have been. I’m looking forward to the DARKMAN VS. ARMY OF DARKNESS crossover.

BLADE #1 (Marvel) Hey, Marvel: Honestly, how hard is it to fuck up Blade? Apparently, judging from this first issue, not very. It’s starts off promisingly enough, with the bad mutha daywalker taking on a vampiric Spidey, but soon enough, that’s abandoned in favor of a tired tale about S.H.I.E.L.D. – and its supernatural branch, the Howling Commandos – being overrun by vampires. Yawn. And if that weren’t bad enough, Blade loses his leather threads and sword for a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform – talk about emasculating the black man! The immensely overrated Howard Chaykin does art duties, and not very well at that, but even that is forgivable when compared to Marc Guggenheim’s wholly unpromising start. And, as if to add insult to injury, in his letter to the reader, he tells us that if you’re a fan of the movie or of the old comics, you’re going to be sorely disappointed with this take on the character. Truer words were never spoken. Go back on that, Marc, and make it the Blade we know and love and I’ll give you another chance.

ghost rider 3 reviewGHOST RIDER #3 (Marvel) Speaking of low expectations, here’s the newest incarnation of GHOST RIDER, just in time for the Nic Cage movie. Like BLADE, I love GR and all his supernatural elements, but they are doing absolutely nothing with the character – three issues in and he escaped Hell, went to a truck stop and now is messin’ around with Dr. Strange, in a manner that comes off like a rather played-out episode of THREE’S COMPANY. For whole pages, the two bicker back and forth: “I’m Dr. Strange!” “No, you’re not!” “Yes, I am!” Ghostie deserves so much better than this, especially with the upcoming film to piggyback off of.

HELLBLAZER #224 (Vertigo) I really want to like HELLBLAZER. I read issue after issue, but honestly, I have no idea what’s going on. Of course, I keep all that to myself because, in the comics world, HELLBLAZER is such a revered title that, if you don’t like, you’re a dumb asshole who should stick to reading ARCHIE’S PALS ’N’ GALS. So in that case, everybody read HELLBLAZER! It’s great! As the Brit John himself would say, “Pip, pip! Spit spot!”

EXILES #86 (Marvel) For the past five or so years, the one book that I have read consistently is Marvel’s alternate-universe-hopping EXILES. Sure, the artwork’s usually subpar and the storylines kinda lame, but much like that TV show SLIDERS – which also wasn’t very good – I love storylines about alternate universes and realities. The past few issues of EXILES, storywise and artwise, have been on an upswing, especially with the two-part “New Exiles” storyline wherein hundreds of alternate Wolverines are gathered into one superbeing, and it’s up to Weapon X, ORIGIN‘s James, Zombie Wolverine, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST Logan and Patch to bring it down. If they can keep this pace up, this book may finally live up to my expectations. Which are low to begin with.

Next time: Stan Lee! Zombie! She-Hulk! –Louis Fowler

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NEWSGASM >> 9.29.06

dexter showtime downloadDARKLY DEBUTING ‘DEXTER’
For a sneak peek at DEXTER, Showtime’s new series based upon Jeff Lindsay’s novel DARKLY DREAMING DEXTER, the cable net has posted some clips on YouTube. SIX FEET UNDER‘s Michael C. Hall stars as Dexter Morgan, a perfectly charming police forensics expert who moonlights as a serial killer. The series premieres Oct. 1. BOOKGASM was all hot and bothered to screen the entire rated-MA episode via an exclusive, super-secret link Showtime supplied us, but damn those online streams and their tendency to freeze up every three seconds. I couldn’t ev … en make it t … o the cred … its.

IT’S HARD OUT HERE FOR A PIMP
Hard Case Crime is profiled in the current issue of Time magazine in the “Innovators” section. Says editor Charles Ardai, the article comes “complete with a full-page photo of me trying desperately to look stylish and noir. It’s a doomed attempt – I’ll never look like anything other than the scrawny, effete New Yorker I am – but the handsome Remington manual typewriter in the foreground and the willowy blonde in a slinky red dress in the background make up for it.” We’re glad to see Hard Case get some big-time national publicity, but we didn’t even notice anything in the photo beyond the blonde.

desperate hours reviewR.I.P. JOSEPH HAYES
Joseph Hayes, author of the novel THE DESPERATE HOURS, died Sept. 11. Once adapted to a Tony Award-winning play starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman, HOURS also became big-screen material twice, first in William Wyler’s 1955 film with Humphrey Bogart, and again in 1990 with Michael Cimino’s Mickey Rourke-led remake.

CHESS: THE HOME GAME
If you haven’t read David Shenk’s THE IMMORTAL GAME: A HISTORY OF CHESS like we told you to, get on it. And you can also play along at home, if you’re the lucky winner of Shenk’s chess set giveaway. The set is “a reproduction of the 12th century Lewis Chessmen, the most vivid and important historical chess pieces of all time. Found in early 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland they are believed to be a Norse design carved from walrus tusk and whale teeth.” You can register to win here, and if you’re picked, you have to gift it to us. Deal? Deal.

halloween horror anthology reviewCUE THE SILVER SHAMROCK JINGLE…
With Halloween now a month away, get ready for BOOKGASM’s 2nd Annual Halloween Horror Anthology Month. Last year, we covered a dozen of them. This year, while we aren’t likely to hit that many, we’re digging back in time a little and have a few gems already picked out. Just look for the disturbo pumpkin-head graphic at right; it’s your seal of approval for short-attention-span scares!

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Fun with Bookgasm (and still even more aged Charo flesh)

charo cd downloadA look in the life of your BOOKGASM editor: Sees it’s the last weekday of the month. Remembers that means it’s time for the monthly roundup of incoming search terms to the site. Runs the report. Reads the results. Shakes his head. Weeps for our nation.

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[not listed: 1,851 search terms]

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The Ice Dragon

ice dragon reviewChildren’s books these days aren’t quite the same as when I was growing up. You’re more likely to run across MAGGIE’S FIRST DATE RAPE or BOBBY’S ENCOUNTER WITH AL-QAEDA than you are titles like THE POKY LITTLE PUPPY. That’s why George R.R. Martin’s THE ICE DRAGON is so refreshing.

This is a traditionally styled tale featuring fantastical dragons and children who have angst because they are different from those around them – a staple of most children’s fiction. Though the blurb notes the book is geared for children ages 10 and up, it should also play well with the younger crowd, as well as appeal to both boys and girls. Martin does not write down to his readers and includes some nicely difficult words (such as “translucent” and “rime”), which I think is a better tactic than deliberately trimming the vocabulary. The only caveat is that the book is a bit unsettling and isn’t a happy romp through fun candy land.

Adara is a young girl who lives with her father, elder brother and sister on a farm in an unnamed land. While the family seems fairly normal, Adara is distant. She identifies with the cold and icy winter, while all around her are summer people. Adara is literally cold to the touch. Her love of the winter season and its weather allows her to play with the delicate ice lizards, which burn if a warm-blooded person touches them, and it also allows her to befriend an unusual ice dragon.

While dragons are fairly commonplace in this world, and even are used as mounts for warriors, ice dragons supposedly have never been tamed and thus, can’t be ridden. But Adara manages to do just this, and she finds keeping company with her new reptilian friend to be the haven she has longed for. She hates for the winter to end because the dragon flies to the north and Adara must stay behind. But she patiently waits for the cold weather to return every year, and to bring with it the ice dragon.

This parable of companionship, emotional distance and empathy gets twisted around a little in the book’s short 100+ pages. It’s a strong story, well told, with layers of meaning that can be explored with a young reader who may have some questions at the end. Overall, the illustrations by Yvonne Gilbert are serviceable, though they have too light a line in my advance reading copy, and it’s a shame that chapter headings are the same throughout.

This is Martin’s first children’s book, even though it was written in 1980 and published as part of the book DRAGONS OF LIGHT. Martin is a phenomenally popular fantasy writer and one can see why from this work – he also should be a popular children’s author and one hopes to see more along these lines. This title is certainly recommended for your tykes. –Mark Rose

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An Air That Kills / Do Evil in Return

an air that kills reviewBeing more familiar with the work of Margaret Millar’s husband Ross Macdonald than Millar herself, I was quite surprised to find out she is the better writer. Again, AN AIR THAT KILLS / DO EVIL IN RETURN is a case of Stark House Press uncovering another pair of long-forgotten gems. The added bonus this time around is an essay by Tom Nolan, who calls Millar’s writing “post-Freudian.” Do yourself a favor and read the stories first before the essay, since he does discuss some plot points.

The first novel in this two-for-one collection is 1957’s AN AIR THAT KILLS. It’s the story of a seemingly perfect couple, Harry and Thelma Bream. Harry and his friends head out for the weekend out to a lodge in the woods. While waiting for another member of their party, Ron Galloway, to turn up, things take a turn. First comes the notion that their pal Ron is still nowhere to be seen. They call his house and speak to Ron’s wife to see what’s keeping him; she tells them Ron left a long time ago. Then Thelma drops a bombshell: She is pregnant with Ron’s child.

For a book from this era, this is pretty heady stuff. From here on out, you feel like you’re watching a Cassavettes-like couple’s marrriage crumble. AIR continues on like this, mainly playing with more emotion then the kind of bang-bang that you normally expect from this kind of story.

That is until one day, Ron’s car is dragged from the water with Ron still in it, buckled into the front seat. From this point on, I just did not know what to expect. You watch the marriage totally dissolve to the point of Harry threatening his wife with a cap gun. The couple splits, each going their separate ways. Life goes on for both Harry and Thelma, with Thelma running into Ron’s widowed wife, and Harry meeting a new woman while working in the states.

It’s not until the last 15 pages that I finally figured it out. Millar tells you the story she wants you to – to see only certain things. To say you are reading with blinders on is nothing. She leads you down the garden path as if she were leaving a trail of candy, and there you are, following right along.

For the second half of this double feature we have 1950’s DO EVIL IN RETURN. The story of Dr. Charlotte Keating, it opens with a girl named Violet showing up late in the day, needing to talk to her. Violet is “in trouble” and needs the doctor’s help. The word “abortion” is never mentioned, but it’s a given that why Violet is there. After Keating explains she can’t help her, Violet goes on about how it’s not her ex-husband’s baby, and that her uncle sees it as an opportunity for a get-rich-quick scheme, as he plans to blackmail the real daddy.

Keating can’t leave well enough alone and this plunges her into dark territory. She explains what happened to her boyfriend, a married man she is fooling around with and whose wife is a patient of hers. So she pays a visit to Violet’s home, only to be thrown out and told that Violet has left … until the girl’s body turns up in the ocean the next day from a “suicide.”

Keating then has to deal with the uncle and ex, who are trying to blackmail her, as they know about her affair. Then there is the cop who is quite certain that Keating knows more than what she lets on. Again, Millar sets it up so halfway through the book, you are so certain who the killer, only to get sucker punched by the real ending. –Bruce Grossman

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The Immortal Game: A History of Chess, or How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Art, Science, and the Human Brain

immortal game reviewThough I play chess about as well as my 9-year-old (and about as often as Americans elect as a president), I love to read non-fiction books about the game. Among those I’d highly recommend would be THE CHESS ARTIST, BOBBY FISCHER GOES TO WAR and THE TURK. Now one can add to that list David Shenk’s THE IMMORTAL GAME: A HISTORY OF CHESS, OR HOW 32 CARVED PIECES ON A BOARD ILLUMINATED OUR UNDERSTANDING OF WAR, ART, SCIENCE, AND THE HUMAN BRAIN.

With vintage illustrations, Shenk traces the game’s shadowy origins, interestingly considered sacrilegious by some religions and world leaders. But the more recent (comparatively speaking) the book gets, the more interesting it is, as so much of its early history comes off as purely apocryphal. The last half delves into chess’ true obsessives, like the rare player who could play multiple games blindfolded, the presumably schizophrenic antics of Bobby Fischer, others driven to lifelong mental illnesses and institutions.

Among the more fascinating tidbits and stories Shenk relates include influential surrealist Marcel Duchamp abandoning art once he caught the chess bug, Garry Kasparov’s celebrated matches against the IBM computer Deep Blue, and one Freudian disciple who saw chess as a sexualized metaphor, in which the goal was the castrate the king.

But the best part of THE IMMORTAL GAME comes from what’s interspersed between each chapter: a play-by-play account of an 1851 practice session between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky. Considered so brilliant it’s dubbed “the immortal game” itself, the men’s match generates much suspense as Shenk simply and clearly describes each of its 23 moves with startling drama. I seriously could have read a whole book just on that one game.

By the time Shenk ends his book with a bittersweet observation of elementary school students learning the game, you’re sorry to see it end. But for true aficionados of the game, it doesn’t; appendices galore remain, including diagrammed recaps of five historic games and Benjamin Franklin’s “Morals of Chess” article from 1786. Though it’s not the definitive work on the subject, Shenk’s GAME earns high marks in the departments of organization, research and style, written on a level enjoyable for any reader regardless of his chess mastery or disastery. –Rod Lott

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Legends

legends reviewRobert Littell is often categorized as a writer of “literary spy fiction,” but don’t let that fool you. His latest novel, LEGENDS, which recently has been reprinted in trade paperback form, is another masterpiece, with the detail and realism of John le Carré (without the boredom) and the action and intrigue of Robert Ludlum (without the B-movie dialogue).

LEGENDS is the story of Martin Odum, a former CIA deep-cover operative now living as a private eye in Brooklyn. Martin isn’t quite himself these days, mostly because he doesn’t remember who he really is. Lost in a waterfall of former aliases, each with his own distinct personality, skills and memories, Odum unwittingly gets pulled into a cat’s cradle of lies, secrets and bloody murder.

From there, it’s a global whirlwind tour, and each new locale elicits some awesome flashbacks that are simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking. Much like my favorite recent spy movie, SPY GAME, or le Carré’s THE SECRET PILGRIM (one of the few of his that I cherish, partly for the section on Cambodia), the bits and pieces of each former secret identity split and reform around each other as Odum unravels the plot and tries not to get killed by the CIA or the bad guys.

LEGENDS functions as such a superior thriller that I am somewhat mystified by the “literary” tag, because Littell’s style isn’t pompous or padded – this is an eminently readable book that most readers will cruise through in no time at all and be better for the experience. Maybe that’s the
difference: The Ludlums and Clancys out there are totally empty calories, but LEGENDS imparts a sly kind of wisdom, making it a hard book to be finished with. It’s going to linger on the edge of the bookshelf for awhile, with sections that scream for dog-ears and marginalia. If you dig spies, good writing or both, get on it. –Ryun Patterson

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Alberto Vargas: Works from the Max Vargas Collection

alberto vargas works reviewAny red-blooded American male worth his weight in Dad’s hidden stack of Playboys can spot an Alberto Vargas painting, even if he doesn’t know Vargas’ name. Because with the artist’s paintings of nude women so realistic they may as well be photographs, who’s looking at signatures?

Though he did more than paint the naked ladies, the Peruvian-born Vargas remains inexorably linked with the groundbreaking magazine of Hugh Hefner (who provides the introduction), and helped define the very image of the publication. Arranged chronologically, Reid Stewart Austin’s ALBERTO VARGAS: WORKS FROM THE MAX VARGAS COLLECTION boasts dozens and dozens of full-color, full-page (and sometimes full-spread – that means two pages, you perv) reproductions of some of Vargas’ finest work, beginning in the 1920s, with scantily clad models and less clad Ziegfeld Follies Girls that had to be extremely explicit in their day, to his Hollywood work in the 1930s, where he did portraits of Shirley Temple and Marlene Dietrich.

The 1940s saw work with advertisers and an exclusive relationship with Esquire which quickly and bitterly degenerated into a protracted legal battle. And then there’s Playboy, to which he contributed a healthy pool of work before passing away in 1982, and it is from this pool where the last half of the book culls most.

To show his range, there are pieces like Scheherazade – a colorful depiction of the ARABIAN NIGHTS heroine – and a nipple-popping takeoff of Batgirl. But sex equaled butter on Vargas’ bread, and his Moderne Bride – a non-nude but lingerie’d work circa 1948 – has to be one of the sexiest pieces of art I’ve ever seen. This impressive coffee-table book provides an exciting (nudge, wink) overview of one of modern art’s best painters of the female form. –Rod Lott

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BULLETS, BROADS, BLACKMAIL & BOMBS >> Alphabet Soup

bullets broads blackmail and bombsU.N.C.L.E., C.U.R.E., CIA – All kinds of letters, all kinds of agencies. This column brings to a close our “Spies in September” run. We’ve read a lot of espionage this month, and we’re going out with some old favorites here.

man from uncle doomsday affair reviewTHE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E #2: THE DOOMSDAY AFFAIR by Harry Whittington – Yes, the one and the same Whittington from my glowing Stark House review. I wanted to see what the king of the paperbacks could bring to characters we all know and love. This 1965 tie-in is a more balanced book than the previous one, with both Solo and Illya having equal roles. It starts out with a THRUSH agent who is going to defect, until the lei she is wearing kills her.

From here, Solo is on the hunt to find out who killed her, while Illya works another angle. The book is packed with mindless fun, be it a couple being driven off a road to Solo going to a strip bar. And I can’t forget Illya breaking out from a prison, only later to become a gibbering mess who can’t control his body because he is drugged. That’s one thing about this series: They actually use cool gadgets. Most of the stuff I read this month was pretty well based in reality – nothing super-cool for the imagination.

The plot moves along to what THRUSH is plotting this time: blowing up Washington, D.C. They have set up a secret base where all these scientists have come to over time to sell out their countries –  I won’t give away the surprises of where. There is also a super-secret agent that in reality is a double agent that you won’t see coming. Well, you might if you pay close attention. Whittington has fun with the spy genre; I just wish he got to play a bit longer in it.

destroyer 49 skin deep reviewTHE DESTROYER #49: SKIN DEEP by Warren Murphy – This 1982 paperback was the first Remo Williams adventure to feature only Murphy’s name on the cover, even though it was co-written with two ghost writers. It open on a ship where a hush-hush stealth plane is kept. We meet a pilot by the name of Caan who gets a mysterious visitor at night bearing instructions and a protective liquid. Cann thinks it was some weird nightmare until he sees the bottle in his hand the following morning. Then the ship and crew are all attacked by giant killer birds, pecking out and ripping the rest to shreds. Using the liquid, Caan saves himself … for a even worse fate, one that involves the plane.

Remo and Chuin go on the search for the aircraft, which was taken by a former Nazi doctor who makes Josef Mengele look like Florence Nightingale. This man is so evil, he experiments on a village of lepers. I mean, don’t these people already have it bad enough? It seems Dr. Zoran also shares a history with Remo’s boss Harold Smith from back in WWII. In a plot that eerily foreshadows the tragic events of 9/11, Zoran has brainwashed Caan, a Jewish pilot, to become a Nazi supporter and to crash his plane into the World Trade Center.

Murphy and company do not lose a step in this tight little adventure, filled with all the excitement and fun this series is known for, plus a nice helping of bickering between Chuin and Remo. These books just get me all set for another, but that’s got to wait. Plus, once the DESTROYER series moves over to a new publisher next year (Tor/Forge), we’ll be seeing a reissue of some of the early titles.

assignment school for spies reviewASSIGNMENT SCHOOL FOR SPIES by Edward S. Aaron – Well, I finally read one of the very first ASSIGNMENT books I ever bought. Not knowing the series when I picked it up with a few others, I was slightly mad at myself since this 1966 entry deals with Sam Durell going into rogue agent mode – not a book to start a series with for a new reader, since Durell is such the company man in his department. So I put it to the side and figured I’d get a few of the others in before tackling it.

Glad I did, since Durell is of one mindset in this book, as his former love Deidre has gone off and gotten married. But not to some normal American, but a European count who seems to have some shady things going on. Durell is told to report back to the States countless times during his search for her, but he continues, not caring what the consequences will be. He is joined by two fellow agents, Xanakias and Marge Jones. Xanakias joins up since a previous enemy from another ASSIGNMENT novel has reared his head again, while Marge joins because she works in one of the offices, stuck in a daily grind but wanting more adventure.

SCHOOL FOR SPIES is another fine read from one of my faves. The school here is kinda reminiscent of another hideaway packed with girls (namely, 007’s ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE). Also, it’s great to see Durell just go all rogue and on his own. It reminded me of the Bernard Samson novels of Len Deighton. If you have read a few of the books in this series, then sure, grab this one – it’s packed with action. But if this would be your first exposure to the raging Cajun, put it down and read at least three other ASSIGNMENTs before it so you’ll have a taste of the real Durell in his normal troubleshooting role.

Next time: Shyamalan is a hack. –Bruce Grossman

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MISS EARLIER INSTALLMENTS OF ‘BULLETS, BROADS, BLACKMAIL & BOMBS’? REGASM THESE:
#22: For Queen and Country
#21: Red Spies at Night
#20: September Is for Spies
#19: I Hate Illinois Nazis
#18: Watching the Detectives

OTHER BOOKGASM REVIEWS OF THESE AUTHORS:
ASSIGNMENT BANGKOK by Edward S. Aarons
ASSIGNMENT BURMA GIRL by Edward S. Aarons
THE DESTROYER #14: JUDGMENT DAY by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
THE DESTROYER #22: BRAIN DRAIN by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
• THE DESTROYER #48: PROFIT MOTIVE by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
GRANDMASTER by Warren Murphy
A NIGHT FOR SCREAMING / ANY WOMAN HE WANTED by Harry Whittington

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