Review ~ On the Wrong Track

Cover via Goodreads

On the Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith

It might be 1893 and the modern world may in full-swing, but cowboy Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer is an old-fashioned kind of guy: he prefers a long trail ride even when a train could get him where he’s going in one-tenth the time. His brother Otto (“Big Red”), on the other hand, wouldn’t mind climbing down from his horse and onto a train once in a while if it’ll give his saddle-sore rear end a rest. So when it’s Old Red who insists they sign on to protect the luxurious Pacific Express, despite a generations-old Amlingmeyer family distrust of the farm-stealin’, cattle-killin’, money-grubbin’ railroads, Big Red is flummoxed. But Old Red, tired of the cowpoke life, wants to take a stab at professional ‘detectifying’ just like his hero, Sherlock Holmes and guard jobs for the railroad are the only ones on offer.

So it is that Big Red and Old Red find themselves trapped on a thousand tons of steam-driven steel, summiting the Sierras en route to San Francisco with a crafty gang of outlaws somewhere around the next bend, a baggage car jam-packed with deadly secrets, and a vicious killer hidden somewhere amongst the colorful passengers.

On the Wrong Track, Old Red and Big Red’s much anticipated return, is filled with all of the wit, flavor, humor, and suspense that made Hockensmith’s debut, Holmes on the Range, so beloved by critics and fans alike. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I read Holmes on the Range, the first book in this series, in late 2016. Only a year between the first and the second? I amaze even myself!

What Worked
I really enjoy the set up of Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range books: Gustav Amlingmeyer, a cowhand in the 1890’s American west, knows Doyle’s (or rather Watson’s) tales of Sherlock Holmes. He’s taken with the notion of “deducifying” and wants to be a professional detective. He is also illiterate, having worked labor-intensive jobs to keep his family afloat since he was young. His brother Otto is a big strong guy, but has been given a clerk’s education. Together, the brothers are a complementary team, even if they don’t always get along. They’re brother’s after all. Against the backdrop of the Old West, the brothers encounter and solve mysteries.

On the Wrong Track involves a mystery set aboard a train bound to San Francisco. It’s a good mystery with enough clues and events to keep the brothers and readers busy.

I read this soon after reading “The Huge Hunter: Or, the Steam Man of the Prairies” by Edward S. Ellis. The Steam Man, an giant robot man made to pull a wagon, was the subject of a series of dime novels in the latter half of the 19th century. As with a lot of late 19th century fiction, Ellis felt the need to give accents to characters of different backgrounds. The Irishman character, McSquizzle, is nearly incomprehensible. Thank goodness we’ve moved beyond that. While Hockensmith has the brothers (and others) use quite a bit of western slang, it reads easy.

What Didn’t Work
A minor annoyance: sometimes Otto (our POV brother) is a bit repetitive. I can understand wanting to get certain things solid in a reader’s mind, but I think Hockensmith can have a little more faith in his audience. This is a very minor point.

Overall
Honestly, my best reading this year has been “fun” reading. The Holmes on the Range series isn’t high art, but it’s entertainingly written and plotted. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle, author published (I believe), 2016 (2007)
Acquired: Amazon, 4/19/17
Genre: mystery, western

This is my first book for the Wild West Reading Challenge!

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

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Deal Me In, Week 7 ~ “The Hofzinser Club”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“The Hofzinser Club” by Michael Chabon

Card picked: Ace
Found at: The New Yorker

The Story
I bookmarked this story sometime last year, thinking that it was a piece by Chabon that I hadn’t read before, and perhaps an extra story about Josef Kavalier, one of the protagonists of his novel The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Alas, no; not material I hadn’t read, but a stand-alone-ish chapter of the novel. Chapter 3 to be more specific.

It’s a good chapter, detailing young Josef Kavalier’s initial interest in escapology. He decides to plan a stunt to get the attention of the Hofzinser Club—Prague’s foremost magician’s club. The stunt is successful, but there are consequences.

Funny thing: In the novel, this chapter led Eric to become quite grumpy with the book due to a detail that wasn’t believable.  In the novel, the river that Josef jumps into (handcuffed, shackled, and tied into a sack) is 22C. That’s about 71F which isn’t really cold. In the short story, the temp of the water is 12C (53F) which is probably more like what the River Vltava in September would be. Or at least the kind of cold you’d want for a death defying stunt. From skimming both the novel chapter and the short story, the novel version seems a bit padded out. I like the version in The New Yorker better!

The Author
From Wikipedia (because I find this to be a good summary):

Chabon’s work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity. He often includes gay, bisexual, and Jewish characters in his work. Since the late 1990s, Chabon has written in an increasingly diverse series of styles for varied outlets; he is a notable defender of the merits of genre fiction and plot-driven fiction, and, along with novels, he has published screenplays, children’s books, comics, and newspaper serials.

Review ~ Hunger

Cover via Goodreads

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

In her phenomenally popular essays and long-running Tumblr blog, Roxane Gay has written with intimacy and sensitivity about food and body, using her own emotional and psychological struggles as a means of exploring our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health. As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger, she explores her own past—including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life—and brings readers along on her journey to understand and ultimately save herself.

With the bracing candor, vulnerability, and power that have made her one of the most admired writers of her generation, Roxane explores what it means to learn to take care of yourself: how to feed your hungers for delicious and satisfying food, a smaller and safer body, and a body that can love and be loved—in a time when the bigger you are, the smaller your world becomes. (via Goodreads)

Thoughts
As I read Hunger, I struggled with how I was supposed to interact with this text.

Hunger is split into sections in which Gay writes about the sexual abuse that led her to turn her body into a fortress, society’s reaction to very large people, her own thoughts and tribulations concerning weight loss, and the slow process of finding self-worth and dealing with the loneliness she’s felt.

But… Am I allowed to commiserate with Gay if my own weight problems are only metabolism-related and I’ve only ever been “Lane Bryant fat”? I can certainly relate to the tension of wanting to lose weight because “thinner is healthier”/”*I* would like how I looked if I weighed less”/”being thinner is what society expects” and accepting that maybe this is just how my body is. Does my bringing my narrative in cheapen hers?

Maybe this is a problem I have when reading memoirs. I don’t really know what to do with Gay’s narrative. Feel horrified by it? Yes, I do. Understand why she’s done the things she’s done? Yes, I can. But otherwise, it’s hard for me to say much about someone else’s honestly-told story.

Publishing info, my copy: OverDrive Read, HarperCollins, June 14, 2017
Acquired: Tempe Overdrive Digital Collection
Genre: memoir

Hunger was the first quarter read for the 2018 Nonfiction Challenge.

hosted by Doing Dewey

Review ~ Countdown City

Cover via Goodreads

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

There are just 77 days to go before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Hank Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank’s days of solving crimes are over…until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.

Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace – an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.

The second novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, Countdown City presents a fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse – and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond “whodunit.” What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you? (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
So, I won this book from The Geeky Library back in June 2014. Two years later in 2016, I reviewed the first in the series, The Last Policeman. I said at the end of that review I said I’d be reading Countdown City in the near future. Well… I guess that’s what the TBR Challenge is for!

What Worked
As with the first book, the thing I like about this series is the character of Hank Palance. Hank is just a regular guy. He just wants to be a police detective, a job he’s reasonably good at. Sadly, the end of the world is kind of getting in the way. The novel starts July 18th; in 77 days a meteor is going to hit the Earth, a possibly humanity-ending event. Hank is the type of character I like to write: a hard-worker who is being screwed over by circumstances. Despite everything, Hank is still this good, decent guy.

Winters also does a good job of advancing the timeline of societal breakdown as Impact Day approaches.  Things are getting dicey. People are starting to get a little nutty about resources. There are cults and scams and conspiracies. These things are a lot more interesting than the super lawlessness that most apocalyptic stories present.

What Didn’t Work
A bit of a **SPOILER** warning here — Hank has a knack of getting himself into trouble without a plan to get out of that trouble. While he gets the crap beat out of him, the narrative bails him out. There are a couple of swoop-in rescues of Hank in this book. They’re not really unreasonable, but this is a trend that can get old. **END SPOILER**

Overall
I enjoyed Countdown City. I had a couple of problems with the story, but I’m still interested in reading the third book. Maybe I’ll finish the series by 2020?

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Quick Books, 2013
Acquired: Won it from GeekyLibrary, June 2014
Genre: mystery, science fiction

Deal Me In, Week 5 ~ “A New Man in Time for Christmas”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“A New Man in Time for Christmas” by Dustin Adams

Card picked: Q
Found at: Daily Science Fiction

The Story
Sometimes, Deal Me In brings coincidences; sometimes, juxtapositions. Today’s story, set at Christmas, comes late enough in the year that all the glitter and tinsel from the holidays has finally been vacuumed up. The weather today reminds me of early April days in Nebraska when the days are sunny, but the nights are still chilly. (After 18 years in AZ, I still don’t quite have a handle of fall/winter/spring.)

This story could, though, be a companion piece to Week 3’s “How to Sync Your Spouse.” Our narrator has ordered a new husband after the previous Brent’s suicide.

They said he’d be exactly like my late husband, only better, after my suggested changes, but this lump of Brent-looking plastic-rubber wasn’t Brent.

In order to gain a new start, our narrator puts Brent in sleep mode and wraps him up for under the Christmas tree. Unfortunately, she begins to wonder if it’s the improvements she’s made that haves caused Brent to be not-Brent.

The Author
You can find Dustin Adams’ bibliography online at his website. It hasn’t been updated in awhile; like so many, writing isn’t his only gig.

Mini Reviews, Vol. 11

alt text Baker Street By-Ways by James Edward Holroyd

I found this slim paperback at Book Vault, out in Mesa. I didn’t realize that Otto Penzler, whom I know as an editor of mystery anthologies, had put together a collection of Sherlockania in the mid-90s. I’d be interested in other volumes even though this one was a little uneven.

Originally published in 1959, the tone is very “boys-club.” Holroyd grumbles repeatedly about how fed-up his and his friends’ wives are with their Sherlock hobby.  He also doesn’t bother to attribute a quote to an “American woman writer.” Perhaps I should know who he means, but not even Goggle could come up with the mother of the quote.

There are a few good crunchy bits, mostly concerning London geography. The book could have used a few more maps though.

 

alt text The Box Jumper by Lisa Mannetti

My interest in this novelette featuring Houdini was stoked when it was nominated in 2015 for a Shirley Jackson Award. Houdini and “psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic“? Yes, please!

Alas, it mostly didn’t work for me. The story is told through eyes  of Leona, an assistant to Houdini. She’s not the most reliable narrator and that always bugs me. Still, several of the scenes were quite unsettling.

alt text Anything But Ordinary Addie by Mara Rockliff (Author), Iacopo Bruno (Illustrations)

One of my favorite books of last year was Adelaide Herrmann: Queen of Magic, edited by  Margaret B. Steele. This book was directly inspired by that biography. It is a beautiful over-sized picture book for young readers. I’m not super keen on every book needing to be a mirror for the reader, but I would have loved a book about a red-haired female magician. The excitement and empowerment is amped up for a younger audience, but it certainly captures the spirit of Adelaide Herrmann.

 

Deal Me In, Week 4 ~ “Axis”

DealMeIn

Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What’s Deal Me In?

“Axis” by Alice Munro

Card picked: 2♠ – WILD Card!
Found at: The New Yorker

The Story
I had originally picked a different story for this week’s Wild Card, but I decided to keep with the suit’s literary/classics theme instead. After a little thought, I decided to try an author that I’ve heard a lot about from fellow Deal Me In participants (and from Short Story Magic Tricks), but whom I’d never read before. I chose Alice Munro and her story “Axis.”

The story is about three characters—Grace, Avie, and Royce—and shifts between their POVs. Grace and Avie were friends, or at least classmates, in college. Both are farm girls, at the university on scholarship to study history. While they look down on the girls at the Secretarial School, who only seem to be at the university to wed boys at the Business School, they are looking to marry intellectuals themselves. Avie seems to be free spirit of the two. She has had sex with Hugo, her sort-of boyfriend. Hugo is more interested in Avie than she is in him. Avie is in fact more interested in Royce, Grace’s boyfriend. The pre-marital sex leads to several pregnancy scares which in turn leads to Avie having a dream about having two daughters, one of which cries all the time and is shut away in a basement. The dream upsets Grace more than Avie.

Over the summer, Royce visits Grace at her parent’s farm. On his way he sees Avie in a town he passes through. While he hasn’t given a thought to her before, he is taken by how happy she looks. He considers getting off the bus, but continues on. A WWII vet and a philosophy almost-graduate, he gets a taste of farm life at Grace’s. Royce doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He’s quit college and is working as a taxi driver. Philosophy isn’t working out for him. For a moment he thinks that farming might be nice, taking over Grace’s family farm after they’re married. Grace decides to give in to sex during his visit, but the two are interrupted during the act. Fed up, Royce leaves. While hitchhiking back, he sees the Niagara Escarpment which sparks a life-long interest in geology. He goes against what is expected of him and goes back to school.

Fifty years later, Royce sees Avie on a train. Avie married Hugo, had six daughters, and was contented. She’s now widowed and is again a bit at odds with life. Royce never married but had has a fulfilling career. Grace, like the daughter in the basement of Avie’s dream, has been more or less forgotten, lost track of once all three had quit school. For a moment, it seems that Avie and Royce might have a second chance at life together in their old age, but Avie brings up Grace and Royce clams up once again.

Two daughters in the dream; one difficult and forgotten, one pleasant and given a good life.  Two female characters: Grace who strings Royce along and Avie who pretty much goes with the flow. Definitely some parallels there. And then there’s Royce, who is maybe(?) the axis, affecting one of the women’s lives and being affected by the other. It’s a story that moves effortlessly.

The Author
Nobel winner, Man Booker winner. It’s amazing that I haven’t read any of Alice Munro’s stories until now. Okay, maybe not since I read a lot of genre fiction and a lot of pre-1920s short stories, but still! I’m sure that “The Axis” won’t be the last.