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

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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

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


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