Book reviews from Steve Earles: May edition

Encyclopaedia of Weird Westerns: Supernatural and Science Fiction Elements in Novels, Pulps, Comics, Films, Television and Games, second edition

By Paul Green

Published by McFarland, Introduction by Cynthia J. Miller

I really enjoyed reviewing first edition of this book. The Weird Western is a truly fantastic genre, and the fact that this entertaining and informative book is on its second edition only means it’s getting more and more popular. This is as it should be.

Right, the best way to review this book is to pick out some of my personal highlights.

The book features The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., a short-lived TV series starring the mighty Bruce Campbell. That it stars Bruce is recommendation enough, but the stories are great, and they get the spirit of the great original Wild Wild West TV series in a way that the big budget remake sadly never did.

The author, fair play to him, has also included The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, which pleases me! One of the great 80s films, and now people are really loving and appreciating all things 80s (witness the popularity of synthwave bands like Survive and Zombi inspired by the great John Carpenter). I think this is partially because the news is so grim these days that people crave escapism, but also because it was a very creative time, and we’re seeing history repeat itself here.

As always I’m pleased to see the great cowboys versus dinosaurs film The Valley of Gwangi, one of the best Ray Harryhausen films, mixing superb stop-motion animation with a great story. Only a genius could like Harryhausen could make the death of Gwangi so moving.

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is also included. The first three books in the series are superb, but in later volumes King broke the third wall by including himself in the stories (what motivated him to do this?), and really, as is often the problem with King’s work, he over-writes, and doesn’t edit enough, and that ending! For readers like myself who had waited many years to get to the end of the story, disappointing doesn’t cover.

The Johnny Depp-staring Dead Man is also included. One of Depp’s best films and beautifully shot in black-and-white, and featuring the last performance of the legendary Robert Mitchum. The 2013 The Lone Ranger starring Depp is also featured. Despite its box office failure I really like this clever entertaining film with a lot of heart.

Finally, another great favourite of mine, Mad Max: Fury Road is featured …splendid!

I have to give credit to the great Joe R. Lansdale and Timothy Truman for introducing me to the Weird Western with their excellent pulp-infused tales of Jonah Hex. The film of Jonah Hex did not quite work. It does, however, have a truly superb soundtrack by the mighty Mastodon, one of the best works of music they have ever created. (I would love to see all the music they created for Jonah Hex given a proper release, as the EP from the film only features six tracks, and the band actually recorded another soundtrack for the film which they describe as epic.)

A useful, entertaining and special book. I eagerly look forward to reviewing a third edition in the future.

The Death of Downton Tabby (The No.2 Feline Detective Agency Series)

By Mandy Morton

Published by Alison & Busby

Now this is an inspired idea, and a very funny one too: the tales of a detective agency run by cats, as you may have guessed from the title – a play on the popular No.1 Ladies Detective Agency as well as the successful Downton Abbey television series.

So, Hettie Bagshot and her faithful sidekick (the Watson to her Holmes) run the No.2 Feline Detective Agency from the back room of the Butter’s High St Bakery. They are asked by the organisers of a prestigious literary festival to act as security. But the cushy number they expect does not materialise when one of the expected authors is discovered murdered on the festival grounds.

I won’t spoil the story for readers by giving away anymore of the plot, but it’s a hugely uplifting romp, and in the world we live in today that can only be a good thing.

1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity & Savagery

By Turtle Bunbury

Published by Gill

The splendidly-named Turtle Bunbury had an equally splendid idea in this finely written and entertaining book.

I really enjoyed Bunbury’s previous book The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War, a most important and enlightening book; one that I feel established Bunbury as one of Ireland’s most popular historians (for he not only has great knowledge, he is able to pass this knowledge on in a most enthralling fashion).

Bunbury got the idea for this book from the Irish country house that he grew up in, which was constructed in 1847, leading to his having a life-long fascination with a year that, as this book proves, could truly be described as momentous. He has written 36 (!) tales from all around the world. He tells of the Irish soldiers who fought for Mexico, the Great Irish Famine, Lola Montez, and General Tom Thumb, all held together by the year 1847 and Bunbury’s inimitable writing style.

One of the things that makes this book truly special is Bunbury’s eye for detail and sheer understanding of his chosen subjects. The book starts off in January 1847 and proceeds month-by-month through that year. My favourite chapter is ‘The Girl Who Liked Dinosaurs’, the tale of Mary Anning, to me an amazing woman, and to anyone like me who lives fossils and dinosaurs; she truly was one of the most important fossil hunters of the 19th century.

Gill have also done a lovely job with the printing, presentation and illustrations, it’s a beautiful book to own, no e-book could compete.

I would love to see this book made into a TV series presented by its writer: a future star in the making.

Armoured Trains: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia 1825-2016

By Paul Malmassari

Published by Seaforth

I remember reviewing Christian Wolmar’s excellent Engines of War and thinking that an entire encyclopaedia devoted to armoured trains would be a fine idea. Lo and behold, wish, and it will appear (at least occasionally!).

Paul Malmassari served with distinction in the French military, NATO and the UN, so he brings a wealth of real life experience to this magnum opus. He is a superb writer and researcher and is well able to impart his knowledge.

Credit must also be given to Seaforth; this is a beautifully bound, printed and illustrated book.

Anyone who buys it will get a lifetime out of it, a thing of beauty and joy forever.

Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion

By Jacqueline Riding

Published by Bloomsbury

The 1745 Rebellion was one of those points in British history where everything could have changed very radically.

Charles Edward Stuart, more commonly known as the Young pretender, set sail from France to Scotland to claim the throne for his exiled father. Few people in Britain were worried about this event. But they started to get worried when he and his troops destroyed a contingent of the British army at Prestonpans near Edinburgh, then marched south into England, forging as far as Derby. This threatened to destabilise the British State, oust King George and the German Hanoverian dynasty from the throne, and negatively affect Britain’s military activities in America and beyond.

Jacqueline Riding has done a superb job at writing and researching what should, if there is any justice, become the definitive book on one of history’s most significant turning points.

Steve Earles is author and co-author of numerous projects, including To End All Wars: The WWI Graphic Anthology, available summer 2014 (