Review ~ The Sisters Brothers

Cover via Goodreads

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

When a frontier baron known as the Commodore orders Charlie and Eli Sisters, his hired gunslingers, to track down and kill a prospector named Herman Kermit Warm, the brothers journey from Oregon to San Francisco, and eventually to Warm’s claim in the Sierra foothills, running into a witch, a bear, a dead Indian, a parlor of drunken floozies, and a gang of murderous fur trappers. Eli’s deadpan narration is at times strangely funny (as when he discovers dental hygiene, thanks to a frontier dentist dispensing free samples of “tooth powder that produced a minty foam”) but maintains the power to stir heartbreak, as with Eli’s infatuation with a consumptive hotel bookkeeper. As more of the brothers’ story is teased out, Charlie and Eli explore the human implications of many of the clichés of the old west and come off looking less and less like killers and more like traumatized young men. (via Goodreads)

I.

I’m going to start off by saying that I didn’t like The Sisters Brothers very much. This came as a surprise to me.

It’s a well-regarded book; in general, but also by reviewers I follow.  I like westerns, though I haven’t read that many of them. I like dark comedy. I didn’t think that my expectations were overly-high. I was definitely looking forward to some quirkiness. So, what’s the deal? I’ve spent a couple days trying to figure that out.

II.

I *did* like the voice. Eli Sisters’ narration evokes the time and the place. The first half of the book is part picaresque and part travelogue. It was Eli’s storytelling that kept me reading despite my reservations.

I did realize that I’m not much of a fan of picaresque novels. Actually, I haven’t read many of them. I don’t have anything against lower-class or below-the-law characters, but there is sort of an aggressive grayness to the characters and situations. For example, in the above blurb, seeing Eli and Charlie as traumatized young men is important to the narrative, but I’ve never found that lacking in the supposedly white-hat/black-hat westerns I’ve read.

III.

Eric and I have had some long talks about what makes good plot. If readers want to be surprised by a book, why do formulaic books work? How can you reread a book and still enjoy it? I think there’s a line that needs to be walked between being predictable and offering up the unexpected.

Honestly, at most points in The Sisters Brothers, I had no idea what was going to happen next. That’s not a bad thing. But even at the end, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. No. Clue. And that didn’t work for me. There was very little payoff for most of the quirky elements. I half expected an ending similar in style to The Departed, but no. Also, almost every event held the same weight. Crazy prospector with a chicken? Bead-stringing witch? Tooth powder? All are of seemingly equal importance to the narrative.

So, there it is. Now, on the plus side, I did finish this book and it’s given me a lot to chew on. That is worth something.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle ebook, HarperCollins (Ecco), 2011
Acquired: Dec. 21, 2014, Amazon
Genre: literary western

Review ~ Territory

Cover via Goodreads
Look! My Own Damn Book!

Territory by Emma Bull

Just as legends and fragments of history from ancient Britain became the Arthurian tales we know—the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Clantons and others, told and retold in innumerable stories and dramatizations, has became a great American myth.

In Emma Bull’s Territory, some of the mystery of that brooding, puzzling tale is accounted to the hitherto unrealized presence of magic. It is a story of power, of compulsion, and of consequences. If Roger Zelazny had written a western, or if Susanna Clarke had reimagined the myths and legends of the American West, the results might have been something like Territory. But only something like. Because nobody writes like Emma Bull. (via Goodreads)

I read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks back in 2011 and loved it. When I found out that she’d written a fantasy set in 1881 Tombstone with Doc Holliday as a main character, I treated myself to Territory. And then the book sat on my shelf for nearly three years…

“There are people in this world that have a power about them. Most of ’em only have a little, and don’t know they’ve got that… Then there’s those that have a lot of power, but don’t know it, and can’t use it for anything… But there’s a few that have it, and know it, and use it.”

In Territory, Emma Bull proposes that many of the “names” in Tombstone have this power. The power is derived and bolstered by the earth–the claiming of territory–and by the strength of alliances between men. With history as a backdrop, who has power and why they are using it is the primary mystery of the story.

Doc Holliday *is* one of the primary three characters along with Jesse, a drifter who has found himself (not) passing through Tombstone, and Mildred, a sometimes typesetter, sometimes journalist, sometimes fiction-writer. Much of what of occurs in town is seen from the outside of the Earp/Cowboy conflict as Jesse attempts to harness his own use of power.

One of the things I appreciate most about Territory is that it steers clear of the most famous of Tombstone events: the gunfight at the O.K. corral. Instead, Bull shows more of the intricacies of Cochise County  politics. There is a lot going on in the background of events that may or may not be due to the influence of magical forces. Territory ends with the gunfight as a looming inevitability. Which means that it also ends in a somewhat unresolved manner. Territory worldbuilds, but we leave the world much too quickly.

Favorite quote: “Eccentricity, once embarked upon, lay always like a pit at one’s feet.”

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Tor, 2011
Acquired: 2013, Amazon
Genre: fantasy, western

Review ~ Showdown at Guyamas

This book was provided to me by Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Showdown at Guyamas by Paul Lederer

Cover via Goodreads

In the thrilling first installment in this genre-busting series, Spectros journeys to Mexican mining country to confront the conjurer who kidnapped his bride.

A narrow carriage rumbles through the treacherous mountains of Sonora. Inside, surrounded by countless books and pieces of scientific equipment, rides Dr. Spectros—the most brilliant magician of the Old West. For years, he has pursued the fiendish sorcerer Blackschuster, who long ago stole the only woman the doctor ever loved. Spectros has now chased his nemesis to Mexico, where he discovers a town just as rotten as the conjurer who hides there.

Blackschuster has come in search of the silver he requires to keep the bride of Spectros trapped in eternal sleep. With the help of his associates, the gunslinger Ray Featherskill, the knife expert Inkada, and the hulking bruiser Montak, Spectros corners his enemy, but defeating him will take a magic more powerful than any the world has ever seen. (via Goodreads)

According to Goodreads, Showdown at Guyamas is a mere 138 pages long. It probably needs to be twice that. Lederer does a great job with setting (almost too good since we’re given an “establishing shot” for each scene) and writes very clear action scenes. I was never confused about where I was or what was going on. We have chases, showdowns, and knife-fights; all of which are handled wonderfully. It was the characters that were lacking for me.

I understand that some stories should be about the events, the plot, but in the case of this supernatural Western, character *reputation* is important. Minor characters recognize Kid Soledad and know his reputation, but as a reader, I really didn’t. Why not take time to establish the myth of Kid Soledad with tales being told by other characters? Maybe some of these tales are so fantastical that they can’t be true, but they are because Spectros/Soledad is a sorcerer. Likewise, Blackschuster and local bad guy Tomlinson get a few evil villain soliloquies, but we never see any of their evil deeds. I was never particularly invested in the character of Elisabeth because I was only told about her predicament. As for Doctor Spectros’ gang? This is the first novel in the series; I would have loved more of an origin story about each of these three odd-balls. I also didn’t have a good handle on Spectros’ magic. When adding fantasy elements, rules are important.

As far as series go, this one wrapped up its story while providing enough of a hook for the next book. That’s something I appreciate in any series. The plot itself is a little melodramatic, but I was okay with that. I just wish that the characters had been written with more detail.

Publishing info, my copy: Kindle version. Despite its Dec. 2014 pub date, I hope the version I downloaded was not the final version. There were a surprising number of typos and it felt like the formatting could have handled changes of POV better.
Acquired: NetGalley
Genre: Supernatural Western

Review ~ Sundance

This book was provided to me by Penguin Random House via First to Read in exchange for an honest review.

Sundance by David Fuller

Cover via Goodreads

Legend has it that bank robber Harry Longbaugh and his partner Robert Parker were killed in a shootout in Bolivia. That was the supposed end of the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy.

Sundance tells a different story. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Longbaugh is very much alive, though serving in a Wyoming prison under an alias.

When he is released in 1913, Longbaugh reenters a changed world. Horses are being replaced by automobiles. Gas lamps are giving way to electric lights. Workers fight for safety, and women for the vote. What hasn’t changed are Longbaugh’s ingenuity, his deadly aim, and his love for his wife, Etta Place.

It’s been two years since Etta stopped visiting him, and, determined to find her, Longbaugh follows her trail to New York City. Confounded by the city’s immensity, energy, chaos, and crowds, he learns that his wife was very different from the woman he thought he knew. Longbaugh finds himself in a tense game of cat and mouse, racing against time before the legend of the Sundance Kid catches up to destroy him.

By turns suspenseful, rollicking, and poignant, Sundance is the story of a man dogged by his own past, seeking his true place in this new world. (via Goodreads)

I am a sucker for fish-out-of-water stories and gray heroes.

With the use of a plausible stretch of history–identity in the “old West” is as mailable as inconsistency of records kept–David Fuller doesn’t need a time machine to produce a man out of time. When Harry Longbaugh is released from prison, he finds a world that could be called science fiction, if Longbaugh knew enough to use the term. New York is a city of lights, skyscrapers and automobiles. Trains run on rails above the ground and below it. Even guns have changed. Yet, into this world of the future, Longbaugh’s reputation is never far behind him. While officially it was Harry Alanzo that did time in Wyoming, figures from Longbaugh’s past are waiting for him. Including his wife Etta.

I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the dusty West with the urban east. Fuller does a good job of distilling down the crazy amount of change that occurred in the early 20th century. I was also impressed with where this novel went, plot-wise. There’s a lot going on in New York in the early 1910s and Longbaugh finds himself wrapped up in the politics of unionization and organized crime, issues I wasn’t expecting from a book that starts in a train-stop town in Big Sky country. An unfortunate consequence of an ambitious plot is that it becomes hard to manage. The ending of Sundance relies on some serendipity of events that is too good to be true and a little rushed.

The most surprising aspect of Sundance is that it’s quite romantic and quite middle-aged. Harry Longbaugh in 1913 is in his mid-40s. He’s taking stock of his life and realizing that what’s been important, in good ways and bad, have been the people in his life. He mourns the presumed death of his friend Robert Parker, aka Butch Cassidy, and shows great fidelity to his wife Etta. Longbaugh is a sympathetic character though he still feels a great excitement toward lawlessness, despite where it’s taken him.

Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Publication date: May 29th 2014
Genre: Historical fiction
Why did I choose to read this book? Fish out of water, touch of Western/touch of Romance


Hosted by Historical Tapestry

DNF ~ Glorious

This book was provided to me by the Penguin Group via their First to Read program in exchange for an honest review.

Glorious: A Novel of the American West by Jeff Guinn

Cover via Goodreads

Cash McLendon has always had an instinct for self-preservation, one that was honed by an impoverished childhood and life with an alcoholic father barely scraping by on the streets of Saint Louis in 1872. He’s always had a knack for finding and capitalizing on the slightest opportunities, choosing the path of financial security over happiness or real friends. He eventually builds himself up from a Saint Louis street urchin to the son-in-law and heir apparent to industrial mogul Rupert Douglass. Though it lacks passion, his life seems securely set: a wife, a career, property, standing.

But when tragedy strikes, all of his plans and his entire future dissolve in an instant. McLendon’s instinct for survival kicks in; he flees Saint Louis, and Douglas assigns his enforcer, an ominous skull-cracker with steel-toed boots, to track him down.

With nothing to lose, McLendon attempts to reconcile with an old flame—a woman he was nearly engaged to but put aside in exchange for the life now in shambles. He heard through the grapevine that she and her father moved their dry-goods store out west, to a speck-on-the-map mining town named Glorious, in the Arizona Territory. There, McLendon tries to win her back, and in the process discovers a new way of life at the edge of the final American frontier. But he can’t outrun his past forever. . . (via Goodreads)

Note: I did not finish this book. At about the 1/3 mark, I had met every single denizen of the town of Glorious, but didn’t feel invested in any of them, including Cash McLendon. The characters and situation were all rather bland. I felt like the world was being explained to me rather than shown to me with none of the grit, grime, and tension I’ve come to expect in the genre. Plot-wise, more needed to happen sooner. McLendon’s background could have remained a mystery in favor of furthering action. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Elmore Leonard, but I expect a measure of immediacy in a western.

Publisher: Putnam Adult
Publication date: May 6th 2014
Genre: Western
Why did I choose to read this book? Haven’t read a good western in a while.

Saturday Cinema ~ Why I Liked The Lone Ranger

Ticket3I like going to the movies. If I had more money than I do, I’d go more often. Usually, we try to keep trips to the local cineplex down to about three a year, usually a summer movie, a fall movie, and a winter movie. Usually, those movies are big-screen spectacles or movies I want to support by buying a ticket. This summer has been an outlier; it’s been filled with movies in both categories. I’ve seen five (Five!) movies this summer. What have been my favorites? Here’s roughly how they stack up:

  1. Now You See Me
  2. The Lone Ranger
  1. Much Ado About Nothing
  1. Pacific Rim
  2. Iron Man 3

Much Ado About Nothing is smack-dab in the middle, being my least favorite adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play.

Now You See Me has the top spot because, while it has it’s flaws, it’s a movie directly up my alley. And I appreciate it for its non-franchise, low-ish budget chutzpah. Currently, of the five, it’s made the most money domestically. Not bad for a magic heist.

Iron Man 3 might be the exact opposite. I like superhero movies, but I realize that my tolerance for their formula has run thin. After an enjoyable, well-made The Avengers, I was disappointed to find a poorly-written mess.

Sadly, the same goes for Pacific Rim. It was a beautiful movie, as should be expected from Guillermo del Toro, but the writing is achingly bad.

File:TheLoneRanger2013Poster.jpgWhich brings me to The Lone Ranger, a movie that been pretty much universally panned.

As a kid, I watched The Lone Ranger reruns. The daring-do appealed to me. As well as the Lone Ranger’s awesome horse. And while I might have claimed (up until the 2000s) that I didn’t like Westerns, I probably did own a white hat, ranger badge, and bright silver plastic six-shooters at one time. From the trailer, I thought the movie looked like a lot of fun. I was dubious that it would actually be good, but it looked fun.

I was going to skip watching it in the theater after seeing Now You See Me and Much Ado because I figured it was going to be one of those big stupid-money summer movies. Of course, after opening weekend, that was obviously not the case.  What went wrong with it? I had to see for myself.

The writing: The movie’s primary flaw is that it’s uneven. We start out with an aged Tonto telling a young boy the story of his life. He is not a reliable narrator. If you think about The Lone Ranger as a tall tale, as American folklore, it’s wackyness works. Unfortunately, the movie also feels the need to be too earnest too often. Both John Reid and Tonto are seeking revenge, against the background of Big Railroad. The movie never quite finds its balance. Some parts run a little long.

Tonto: Johnny Depp, faintly a Native American, plays Tonto. Tonto in this version of the mythos is a bit, well, Johnny Depp. *I* don’t have a problem with this. This Tonto, at least in his own telling, is a bit of a bad ass. He’s also understandably unbalanced; there is a reason for his madness. And if we’re going to raise issues of the suitability of actors to play certain roles, should Idris Elba play Heimdall? Should Jaimie Alexander play Sif (known for her golden hair)?

The franchise: The Lone Ranger isn’t a franchise known by 18-25 year-olds. The “reboot” is probably a little too radical for viewers older than myself. The Depp/Bruckheimer/Verbinski franchise has probably suffered from Pirate fatigue. Armie Hammer plays a great straight man, but he’s not a draw.  And Westerns are a hard sell, more so when you add comedy into the mix. $215M was a bloated budget for a genre that doesn’t historically pull those kinds of numbers.

Bottom Line: I enjoyed The Lone Ranger. I understood it’s heightened folklore feel. I liked it’s running jokes. It is a beautiful movie and the leads are very agreeable. At the end of the day, it comes down to this: I don’t think I’ve grinned so hard during a movie as when The William Tell Overture kicked up during the incredibly over-the-top train fight, an action sequence that was much more entertaining than the train fight in Skyfall. And I was still grinning in the parking lot, and on the way home, and I’m grinning even as I write this.

Throwback Thursday ~ No Country for Old Men

Throwback Thursday is a weekly meme hosted by The Housework Can Wait and Never Too Fond of Books!

Noting that book blogging often focuses on new releases, here’s how Throwback Thursday works:

  1. Pick any bookish or literary-related media (or non-media item) released more than 5 years ago.
  2. Write up a short summary of the book (include the title, author, and cover art) and an explanation of why you love it.
  3. Link up your post at The Housework Can Wait or Never Too Fond of Books.
  4. Visit as many blogs as you can, reminisce about books you loved, and discover some “new” books for your TBR list!

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Cover via Goodreads

One day, a good old boy named Llewellyn Moss finds a pickup truck surrounded by a bodyguard of dead men. A load of heroin and two million dollars in cash are still in the back. When Moss takes the money, he sets off a chain reaction of catastrophic violence that not even the law–in the person of aging, disillusioned Sheriff Bell–can contain.

As Moss tries to evade his pursuers–in particular a mysterious mastermind who flips coins for human lives–McCarthy simultaneously strips down the American crime novel and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as ancient as the Bible and as bloodily contemporary as this morning’s headlines. (via Goodreads)

I have a love-hate relationship with both Cormac McCarthy (author of this book) and the Coen brothers who co-wrote and directed the 2007 movie. As I originally wrote:

The first time I encountered Cormac McCarthy was online, in an excerpt from one of his books. WTF, I thought. Not only does this guy not use dialogue tags, he doesn’t use dialogue punctuation. As a writer it’s the kind of thing that makes me scowl. How come this guy gets away with playing fast and loose with his punctuation while I’d probably get dismissed out of hand by sending in a writing submission that way? The lack of punctuation seems to bother no one but me, so maybe I’m labeling myself as an unsophisticated n00b by complaining about it. *shrug* What have you. Nonetheless, it took me while to decide to read McCarthy’s stuff.

I was very impressed by the movie No Country for Old Men and I got curious about how McCarthy wrote it. And how the lack of dialogue punctuation affects how the reader experiences the text. McCarthy’s writing is very clean. His sentences are structured simply and his details are only in evidence when they’re needed. When he spends a few paragraphs on Moss’s guns, it’s to convey the expertise of the character. Clean writing is something I envy. Most of the time, McCarthy proves that dialogue tags are the safety nets of authors that…well…need safety nets. Myself included. I’ve tried to cut back on the number of tags I use. Really, I have! But there are times when a nice “he said” would have come in handy. The punctuation… As a fairly aural reader, it removed any special emphasis I might give to what was being said by characters. Whether that’s the intent and whether it’s a similar experience for other readers, I don’t know. I was occasionally confused by the lack and that bugged me. I’m from the transparent writing school of thought. I don’t believe the text itself should get in the way of the storytelling. There are exceptions and there are techniques of using the text to make the reader slow down and contemplate what’s going on, but I’d say the times when I had to reread a passage it was for clarity’s sake. It wasn’t to have McCarthy reiterate something important.

On the whole, begrudgingly I admit, this is a very good book. It’s certainly the best I’ve read this year, thus far. I’ll be reading The Road sometime in the near future.

My opinion of The Road was pretty much the exact opposite of my opinion of No Country for Old Men. Likewise, the movie is one of my favorites, but I’m not much of a fan of many other Coen brothers’ movies.  Their sense of humor and mine don’t jive. I’d say that the movie wins by combining great performances, understated direction, good writing, and spectacular cinematography. It’s a modern day Western and, if McCarthy is to be believed, we live in a very bleak world. It’s not a shiny-happy movie or novel, but the characters are survivors.