Mini Reviews, Vol. 14

The Black Dove cover The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Holmes On the Range Mystery #3 – I know, look at me reading all the series!

Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer end up “deducifying” in Gold Rush San Francisco, looking to solve the mystery of Dr. Chan’s death. Hockensmith does a good job of keeping these mysteries fresh; changing up the settings while staying true to the Old West. I listened to this on audio; the dialog shines with William Dufris.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea cover Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Think of every ocean/undersea adventure ever. Toothy whales? Check. Giant squids? Check. Antarctic sailing? Check. Atlantis? Check. Island of savages? Well, check. Generally, I really enjoyed this book. Published in 1870 (1872 in English), Verne revels in science. The submarine, the underwater breathing apparatuses, the natural classifications of so much aquatic life—all of it gets good press. Honestly, the only bits I glazed over during were discussions of where the Nautilus was and where it was going. Seaman, I ain’t.

alt text Lizzie: The Letters of Elizabeth Chester Fisk 1864-1893, edited by Rex C. Myers

I bought this last summer at The Old Sage Bookshop in Prescott.

I’ve read a few memoirs and collections of letters by 19th century pioneer women. Usually, they are from the prairie or southwest. In this case, Lizzie Fisk lived in Helena, Montana. Instead of a farmer or a rancher, her husband was a newspaper man. Many of her letters are about the Herald, her husband’s, newspaper and the politics of the city and the state. Fisk was an abolitionist and a suffragette, but she was also terribly judgemental and, as a woman of her time, selectively racist. In all, her letters filled out my notion of the American frontier, but honestly, Fisk isn’t someone I would have liked to spend time with. (And I doubt she would have thought much of me either…)

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

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Review ~ The Doctor and the Kid

Cover: The Doctor and the Kid

The Doctor and the Kid by Mike Resnick

Welcome to a West like you’ve never seen before! With the O. K. Corral and the battle with the thing that used to be Johnny Ringo behind him, the consumptive Doc Holliday makes his way to Deadwood, Colorado. But when a gambling loss drains his bankroll, Doc aims for quick cash as a bounty hunter. The biggest reward? Young, 20-year-old desperado known as Billy the Kid. With a steampunk twist on these classic characters, nothing can be as simple as it seems. (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I was walking through the library and was waylaid by a “If you like West World, try…” shelf. Now, I like westerns. I don’t read many of them, but it’s a genre I like. I *want* to like the sub-genre of  weird west and I *want* to like steampunk, but I’ve often been burned by those. I’ve also somewhat sworn off books that have too many fictional versions of real people. So, why-oh-why did I check out this book?

The cover. Yep. I figured the Doctor was Doc Holliday and I didn’t know I wanted Doc “the Lunger” Holliday tricked out with steampunk gear. I read a few pages before I checked it out and it didn’t offend.

What Worked
The plot was okay, though it felt a little drawn out. Honestly, the weird west and steampunk elements worked pretty well. Better than any of the other books of these genres I’ve read. I think this was probably because it was a western first and didn’t go *too* overboard with the trappings. Yeah, there’s the problem of outfitting a town with technology without infrastructure, but…

What Didn’t Work
…no, actually that bugged me, but that wasn’t the biggest problem here.

Man, the dialog.

There’s a rule in writing that info-dumps are a no-no. I would argue that it depends on the size of the info-dump (usually). If it’s too big and dry, in the middle of fast-paced plot, that’s probably a problem. If it’s not that big of an info-dump… You know, characters *do* have to explain things to each other sometimes. And that’s okay. In the case of The Doctor and the Kid, info-dumps are handled through strings of dialog.

There are a lot of instances of Character A saying something and Character B asking “What’s that?” Character A gives a small explanation, but then Character B asks a variation of “What’s that?” Which leads Character A to give the second part of the answer. But Character A‘s explanation would have only been three or four sentences in the first place. This probably isn’t a problem once, but it’s every time, every character, on multiple subjects. It got tedious. Which I would guess is what Resnick was trying to avoid.

Overall
You know, I read the whole book. It frustrated me at times, but it was a quick, sometimes fun read. It pointed out something to me that I want to avoid in my writing, And it had a steampunk Doc Holliday and a great cover.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Pyr, 2011
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: weird west, steampunk

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

20 15 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy @ 746 Books

 

Review ~ Hombre

Cover: Hombre

Hombre by Elmore Leonard

Set in Arizona mining country, Hombre is the tale of a white man raised by Indians, who must come to the aid of people who hate him when their stagecoach is attacked by outlaws. As thrilling as [Leon’s] contemporary novels of crime, double-cross, and murder in Detroit and Miami, Hombre is Elmore Leonard at his riveting best—no less than one would expect from the creator of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Justified). (via Goodreads)

Why was I interested in this book?
I may or may not have only signed up for the Wild Wild West Reading Challenge in order to have an excuse to read Elmore Leonard westerns.

Justified is perhaps my favorite TV show ever—it’s based on character and situation created by Leonard. It led me to a collection of his short fiction and ultimately to the very first proper western that I had ever read, Gunsights in 2012.

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

What Worked
Honestly, I think Leonard does westerns better than contemporary crime fiction. In many ways, Justified feels more like a western than crime drama.  Or at least what he does well is what one *thinks* of as a western. There’s a level of heightened action, one might even say melodrama, that works well in a cinematic notion of the Old West. (It works well in crime noir too, but that’s a genre that I’m not as fond of.) But on the other hand, there isn’t anything in Hombre that I would point at as being too modern. The story pays attention to things like the state of horses, amounts of water, or qualities of darkness.

While I wouldn’t say that Leonard’s strength is environment, it’s certainly the version of Arizona that I marvel at every time we take a car trip. How anyone spent days crossing mountains and expanses of cactus-filled nothingness by horseback/wagon is amazing to me. An eight-hour drive to California with a IHOP stop in Yuma is pretty much all I can take.

What Didn’t Work
In this case—with a first person POV—very informal narrative voice worked well, but that isn’t always the case with Elmore Leonard. One of his most famous quotes about writing is: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Some times, I don’t think that works. Some times, a reader wants steady clarity of narrative. Again, I didn’t have this problem much with Hombre.

Overall
It’s been another indecisive reading month for me. This was a nice change-up from what I had planned. There will be more Elmore Leonard later in the year.

Publishing info, my copy: trade paperback, Dell, 1999 (originally published 1961)
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: western

Deal Me In, Week 14 ~ “The Luck of Roaring Camp”

DealMeIn

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

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” by Bret Harte

Card picked: 8
Found at: AmericanLiterature.com

The Story
For a story set in a mining camp in 1850 California, this is an awfully sweet tale.

There was commotion in Roaring Camp.

The commotion is the birth of a baby to the only woman in the camp, Cherokee Sal. Sal doesn’t survive childbirth. While the men of the camp aren’t painted in entirely rosy colors, nothing is said about who the child’s father might be. The task of caring for the infant falls to “Stumpy” and his ass (as in donkey). It’s figured that Stumpy is the best choice since he already has two families…

After a month has passed and the little boy seems to be thriving under the care of his adoptive father, he is christened Thomas Luck, since his birth has heralded a measure of luck for the camp. All the men of the camp feel some measure of responsibility for Tommy, or “The Luck.” Gradually, Roaring Camp cleans itself up as everyone wants to be a little better and enjoy the world a little more for the child’s sake. Alas, there is ultimately not a happy ending, but one can hope that Roaring Camp’s luck didn’t completely leave it.

I didn’t remember putting some western short stories on my Deal Me In list, but I’m glad I did!

hosted by Nick @ One Catholic Life

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

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