Saturday, February 28, 2009

Spreading the Word on Wild West Monday

There's a movement brewing among Western fans, and it's called Wild West Monday. It is the brainchild of Gary Dobbs of The Tainted Archive, and he has made a video to explain the concept:

In case you can't watch the video (because you're at work, for example), here's the gist.

This Monday, March 2, 2009:
  1. Call or visit your local bookstore or library.
  2. Ask if they have a Westerns section.
  3. If they don't, ask why not?
It's that simple!

Check The Tainted Archive regularly for more updates and other great information focused on "spearheading the Western revival." Together we can spread the word that the Western is a vital genre that is important to us now, and not just something that used to be popular. Get involved!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nightmare House by Douglas Clegg (unabridged audio book read by Michael Taylor)

The year is 1926, and Ethan Gravesend has just inherited Harrow House -- the Watch Point, New York, home of his grandfather Justin Gravesend (who tells the story of his own early years in The Necromancer). Called Nightmare House by the local newspapers because of the events that have taken place under its roof, it is also said that every stone, every piece of glass, of this English-style manor castle was chosen specifically by Justin with full knowledge of its history and possible black-magical effects.

"Harrow, you belong to me," Ethan proclaims upon his arrival. "But I was to learn," the elder Ethan notes in the telling of this story from the present day, "that this house belonged to no man." However, Ethan feels as if he has come home at last. He used to visit Harrow in his youth, but his parents kept him away except for those rare visits, though he would dream of it at night.

Newly single, Ethan is prepared to settle in to his newly acquired wealth and status — until the dead woman is discovered in the secret walled-off room. Accompanied by chief of police Pocket and local boy Alf, other frightening events are to come (during what the elder Ethan calls a "night of mystery") that will cause him to wonder what exactly his grandfather has let loose in Harrow. But these events will pale in comparison to the new information he discovers about his family.

Author Douglas Clegg has said that Nightmare House is his version of the "quiet ghost story" — in fact, each Harrow novel reflects a favored literary style of his. Clegg leaps around from first-person to third-person, past to present, with confidence, and he never misses a step. Reader Michael Taylor (from Books in Motion, the audio publisher who produced this edition) follows along gamely. Taylor's friendly baritone eases the listener into the strange happenings like a kindly uncle telling a spooky story before the fire.

He also shows a surprising facility with voices that I would have thought out of his range. I especially enjoyed Taylor's characterization of Pocket; Clegg gives Pocket a lot of space to maneuver as a supporting character, even allowing him to tell his own side of the story, and Taylor gives him a dose of extra personality.

My first Harrow novel was 2005's The Abandoned, which I did not enjoy for various reasons, but one of those may have been my lack of knowledge regarding the house and its background. (Clegg says you can read the series in any order, but that one may be the exception.) Nightmare House filled me in wonderfully, and I may have to give the other another try.

This first novel of Harrow House and its surrounding history and happenings was wholly satisfying, and it has made me look forward to reading the other entries in the series. In fact, as soon as I finished listening to it, I picked up The Necromancer and read it in two sittings. These have reaffirmed my confidence both in Clegg and in Harrow, and now I am eager to acquire copies of the other Harrow stories. And if they are also released on audio of this quality, that will be even better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Code of the Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone

Walk into any place that sells books and, even if they don't carry many Westerns, you're likely to always encounter two names: Louis L'Amour and William W. Johnstone. I've tried L'Amour, like most people, but burned out on his dry, heavily descriptive style — and there was never anything about the Johnstone books that appealed to me.

But I saw Johnstone's name so often (he's still putting out new books, even though he died in 2004), I started to wonder if I was missing out on something. (This despite the fact that I usually try to avoid the immensely popular.) So, I got a copy of Code of the Mountain Man — the 8th in the long-running "Last Mountain Man" series — from the library just to try it out.

It's been at least a year since I put a book down before finishing the first chapter, but Code of the Mountain Man was so riddled with cliches by that time that I just couldn't stomach any more. Johnstone starts in the correct way, right in the middle of the action. A band of outlaws ride into Big Rock, Colorado, for no apparent reason and shoot up several citizens. One of the victims is the wife of Smoke Jensen, the last mountain man.

From the start, Jensen is painted as such a lone, invincible, penny dreadful–type character that it's hard to believe he could be married. But maybe he just has to be in order for there to be a reason for his revenge. He instantly begins preparations to go after the outlaws, and Johnstone goes right along with him in the kind of ridiculous language usually reserved for genre spoofs: "Nobody shot his wife. Ever."

And if that's not laughable enough, soon after comes a scene where Jensen convinces the sheriff that he'd be safer at home with his family, letting Jensen take the law into his own hands. And the sheriff agrees: "Come to think of it, my wife just baked a fresh apple pie. It'd still be warm." I was so disgusted, I threw the book on the floor — another thing that hasn't happened in a long time. In any case, I've learned an important lesson: I've tried Code of the Mountain Man and Johnstone now and don't have to worry I'm missing out on some great writing.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Destiny Valley by Fred Grove (Western)

Evan Shelby moved out to the great Gila Wilderness in New Mexico Territory, an area he had once visited before and held fond memories of. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he wanted to live out his last days surrounded by the beauty of the land. The dry air of the Southwest has done wonders since: Evan hasn't shown any symptoms in the past six months, and he has fallen in love with the Mimbres Valley area. He has also made many friends, though some still hold his past as a Captain in the Union army against him.

Now Evan's Destiny Valley is about to be shaken up. The Empire Cattle Company has come into town looking for more land on which to graze their stock. "Cash on the barrel" is only one of their enticement; unfortunately, men like Arch Kinder and Code Sloan are the other, roughnecks who are used to getting their way and are willing to do anything to ensure that Empire — which is run by Lucinda Holloway, the daughter of the previous owner — rules the roost.

It is common opinion that Empire's offering price for folks' homesteads is considerably lower than the value of the land, but no one is brave enough to confront the company's representative at the town meeting — no one but Evan. He states his opinion publicly, bringing the ire of Kinder and Sloan down on him. Making things a mite more complicated is the fact that he is falling for Lucinda, and she for him.

I won't pretend to have read enough Westerns to know what makes a good one, but I do know that I was completely engaged by Destiny Valley. Five-time Spur Award winner Fred Grove (The Great Horse Race and Comanche Captives) has produced a fine piece of frontier literature with masterful characterization. Grove slowly lets us get to know Evan and Lucinda, and even Kinder and Sloan, ensuring that we know who is mostly good and mostly bad (because no one's motives are entirely noble). He also takes his time telling Evan's story, making his ups and downs all the more compelling.

I'd never even heard of Fred Grove before coming across this Western with several others at a dollar store. Luckily, the price gave me the opportunity to expand my boundaries a bit, and I'm certainly glad I did, because Grove really knows his way around the West. After reading Destiny Valley, I felt that I could find my way around Mimbres Valley without a map, and that's an accomplishment I've noticed rarely of late. I'll definitely consider picking up another Fred Grove novel the next time I'm in the market for quality frontier writing.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Trailsman by authors writing as Jon Sharpe (Western series novels ghostwritten by Jon Messmann, David Robbins, James Reasoner, Robert J. Randisi, Ellen Recknor, Robert Vardeman and others)

Series titles reviewed:
Trailsman #271: St. Louis Sinners by Ellen Recknor
Trailsman #209: Timber Terror by [unknown to me]
Trailsman #3: Mountain Man Kill by Jon Messmann
Trailsman #309: California Carnage by James Reasoner
Trailsman #317: Mountain Mystery by David Robbins
Trailsman #210: The Bush League by Robert J. Randisi
Trailsman #234: Apache Duel by Robert Vardeman
Giant Trailsman #5: Idaho Blood Spoor by David Robbins

The Trailsman is one of the longest-running series of Western novels, having begun in 1980. Created by author Jon Messmann and published under the pseudonym Jon Sharpe, Messmann wrote most of the first books before his death in 2004. With a stable of experienced Western writers fulfilling the duties these days (though the name on the cover is still "Jon Sharpe"), the series is well past its 300th entry at this writing and is still going strong.

The series follows loner Skye Fargo, who, since he was eighteen, and after tracking down the people who killed his parents, has built a reputation as a trailer and tracker, hiring himself out as a combination protector/detective along the way to help people get out of difficult situations.

Since The Trailsman is an "adult" Western series, these jobs usually involve a comely female who is invariably willing to pay Fargo fringe benefits before he rides off again. Generally, there are between two and six sex scenes in among the fighting and shooting (these are traditional Westerns in every other sense), leading some of the more self-important Western readers to call them "Western porn."

But I think this just adds to the rough and tumble nature of the series and its protagonist, and there's nothing wrong with any Western that couldn't be helped by a few rolls in the hay. Readers respond positively to this, a fact supported by the series' success and longevity. (Some have even said that the success of series Westerns like The Trailsman keeps the door open for the publication of newer original Westerns.)

In any case, I enjoy them a great deal, though I wasn't sure I was going to when I read my first, #271 in the series, St. Louis Sinners, published in 2004. Though it had an interesting enough story (with enough of Oliver Twist included to make the connection unavoidable), I didn't get into the character or his predicament, and it just wasn't exactly what I was looking for.

Timber Terror by Ellen Recknor

I have since learned from more experienced readers of the series (like Western Fiction Review) that St. Louis Sinners is one of the lesser entries in the series, and author Ellen Recknor actually gets a few obvious things wrong about the character. Luckily, I was intrigued enough by Recknor's planting of Dickens into the Old West to try another, #209, Timber Terror from 1999.

Timber Terror wasn't a great improvement, but was a much quicker read. In it, Fargo gets involved with rival logging companies, and the book includes some suspenseful scenes involving Fargo in a log flume with giant tree trunks racing down toward him and the sides almost too slippery for purchase. (When a writer can make you fear for the safety of a series character who appears in more than 300 books, that's skill.)

Mountain Man Kill by Jon Messmann

Chance brought me into contact with a very early entry in the series, the third in fact, Mountain Man Kill from 1980. In it, Fargo is hired to find out who is stealing from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, so he sets himself up as a trapper in the mountains and settles in to wait.

I thought I was in for an interesting look at a sort of trapper detective — not to mention expecting this to be a more fully thought-out representation of the character, since the author could not have possibly been out of ideas by this time — but Messmann is much too focused on chronicling Fargo's time playing house (or tepee, as the case may be) with Suni, an Indian maiden given to him for saving a brave's life, to ever make the mystery, such as it is, more than of passable interest.

Now don't get me wrong: the sex is part of what I come to these books for, too, but by the sixth or seventh time reading about Suni's "copper-cream breasts," the idea begins to take hold that perhaps the author is just filling up pages to meet contract stipulations. (The publisher reportedly changed the direction of this part of the series in later years.) This one was the greatest disappointment, but only due to my higher expectations: Mountain Man Kill is otherwise surprisingly indistinguishable in style and content from the books written 20 years later.

California Carnage by James Reasoner 

Luckily, the next one I tried, immediately after and bought in the same batch from my local used book store, was a great improvement — one might even say its diametric opposite. In any case, California Carnage (#309, from 2007) was the book that has cemented my faith in the series, or at least in the current crop of entries.

Not surprisingly, it was written by prolific genre-spanning author James Reasoner, and it is undoubtedly the best Trailsman I've read yet. In fact, California Carnage is so good as to seem as if it could be enjoyed even by people who normally scoff at these books; it feels just like a traditional Western that has been crafted to fit around the character.

In California Carnage, Fargo heads to the Golden State to meet up with Hiram Stoddard, one of two men who want to build the first stagecoach line along the Old Mission Trail. But when Stoddard's men make an attempt on the life of Belinda, the daughter of Stoddard's rival Arthur Grayson, Fargo decides to ride with Grayson's team instead (I'm sure it doesn't hurt that she's the only mature female character in the book). Soon it's a race, with Fargo acting as bodyguard as Grayson's stagecoach makes its way up the Trail, with Stoddard, who is willing to do anything to win, close behind.

Along the way, the crew meet up with a salty coach driver, a ghost who's searching for lost treasure, a girl who needs saving, and a boy who's rather taken with her. Reasoner makes the interesting choice of focusing on the emotional aspect in the few of Fargo's sex scenes, using the kind of "two into one" language more suited to the historical romances on Reasoner's bibliography.

My only problem with this is that it sets Fargo up to actually fall in love, but then the anthologic nature of the series forces him to be eager to get back on his own at the end. Still, that's a minor quibble in what was a really terrific read. I mean, stagecoaches, a ghost, and young love — California Carnage has something for everyone.

Mountain Mystery by David Robbins

In #317, 2008's Mountain Mystery, Fargo is found by Mabel Landry, who wants the famous Trailsman to locale her missing brother, Chester. He agrees, until Mabel says she must go along. The stubborn Mabel won't take no for an answer but proves to be little more than trouble for Skye, who has to rescue her from the Untilla Indians at least twice.

Fargo also has a run-in with Malachi Skagg — with whom he has a history that is described (though I don't know if this history actually took place in an earlier book in the series, or in the "inbetweens") — and from whose settlement Chester last wrote to Mabel. Eventually, Fargo is involved in a multilayered search and rescue, and author David Robbins (Rio Largo) keeps the pages flying by. He skimps on the sex scenes, though, and in fact the action stops entirely once he attempts to insert an instruction manual on sensitivity in the midst of one:

When Fargo had slept with his first dove, he learned an important lesson. She told him that most men [ignored] the woman's needs.... She explained to him that foreplay meant a lot ... that touching and kissing helped bring a woman to the brink so that her release was as powerful as the man's.... If touching and kissing helped things along, then by God he would touch and kiss until he straddled a volcano. [p.76]

Mountain Mystery starts out great, but in the end it only hints at the interesting aspects of a couple of characters that seem intriguing at first but then devolve into the usual ciphers necessary to push the hero's plot along. Robbins, however, is known for his innovation in the genre, and so manages to incorporate a substance that is common today, but that is rarely mentioned in Western novels.

He also utilizes the kind of action currently popular in extreme crime novels — a kind of Biblical torture like that which made Allan Guthrie's novel Hard Man so controversial upon its release.

This combination of traditional Western action with modern tropes is what makes Robbins one of the more interesting Western authors working today. Unfortunately, with series novels being what they are, his attempt at getting the reader emotionally involved with the characters' relationships falls flat (and in fact feels like an insult) when Robbins is required to end Mountain Mystery in the expected way.

The Bush League by Robert J. Randisi

Author Robert J. Randisi is one of my favorite Western writers, and his The Gunsmith is certainly my favorite series, so when I learned he had written 1999's The Bush League (#210), I had to try it out. In it, the owner of a team playing the new sport of baseball hires Fargo to lead them across the Wild West to San Francisco, playing a few exhibition games along the way.

Imagine my disappointment when not only was The Bush League only 150 pages, stopping abruptly before any closure was allowed — I was misled by the 16-page preview of Badlands Bloodbath in the back into thinking that it was at least a little longer — but it also was short on sexiness (the scenes there were, were few and dull). The author also makes Fargo look dumb by having him not know anything about baseball, and yet (contractually, I have to assume) gives him the physical prowess to hit five home runs in a row.

Apache Duel by Robert Vardeman

My next was a disappointment as well, #234: Apache Duel from 2001, in which Skye Fargo finds himself up against two formidable foes: the Apache Sharp Knife and gunrunner Big Red Frederickson. The author of this one is Robert Vardeman, who writes his own Westerns as Karl Lassiter and has written scores of novels in the Slocum series by "Jake Logan."

Vardeman's prose is serviceable and workmanlike, showing little flair or personality. This makes the action fast, and the beginning of Apache Duel was especially exciting, but everything else is dull in comparison to the work of other authors. I encountered these same traits in one of his Slocum titles, Slocum and the Pomo Chief, and I may simply need to avoid his work in the future.

For vacation reading, I decided to seek out the work of an author I'd been impressed with in the past, and so chose the fifth of the Giant Trailsman novels (these are 100 or so pages longer than the norm). David Robbins's Idaho Blood Spoor has a lot going for it: fast action, smooth-flowing prose, and because of the added length, deeper characterization.

Idaho Blood Spoor by David Robbins

In Idaho Blood Spoor, a rich man's son disappears (along with the son's wife and friend), and the tycoon hires the best trackers he can find to locate the boy. (He seems to not care whether the other two are found.) This group includes, of course, the famous Trailsman, a brother-sister duo, and two old friends of Fargo's. This Magnificent Five head out (separately) in search of the young man and a hefty reward.

Robbins does an excellent job of making the quintet of trackers into distinctive individuals. Their competition and mutual respect, along with their heated pursuit of $20,000 for the one to find the man's son, make Idaho Blood Spoor a suspenseful read full of human greed and machinations. Robbins is one of the Western genres most prolific and accomplished authors, and his Trailsman novels are always some of the best ones available.

In conclusion, the quality of the books in The Trailsman series (and sometimes within a single book) is very uneven, but gems are hidden throughout, and these fast-paced, sexy reads are always worth the small cover price. For a while, however, I may limit my own purchases to those written by James Reasoner — or perhaps David Robbins, who is an experienced Western series writer in his own right (penning the Wilderness series as "David Thompson") and writes the vast majority of the Trailsman titles published in the series these days.

The Trailsman series, along with the other Action Westerns once published monthly by Penguin, has ended, but they are still available used and in e-book formats.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure and Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates by Michael Bond

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Ex Libris Reviews. Copyright 2004. Reprinted with permission.

I had meant to review this before now, but Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure, to speak in culinary terms like its hero, is light and airy like a meringue and was thus quickly forgotten. It's not a bad book, simply a fluffy mystery where the mystery itself is second to the engaging characters of Monsieur Aristide Pamplemousse and his dog, Pommes Frites.

Gourmand that he is, Pamplemousse is shocked to be sent to investigate a health camp where elderly women are dying. In order to retain the companionship of Pommes Frites, he masquerades as a blind man, which not only works but also places him in close proximity to various unaware — and therefore unashamed — nude women.

The Monsieur Pamplemousse series is funny and charming, which is to be expected from the author of the Paddington Bear series, and Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure is as good a starting point as any, as it appears that previous series knowledge is not necessary to enjoy the story.

As charming as I'd found Monsieur Pamplemousse Takes the Cure, I never imagined I would actually pick up another book in the series — especially as they all seemed to be out of print at the time. But there I was, at the library book sale, and what should pop out at me but Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates for one dollar. I quickly snatched it up and began reading it almost immediately. Sadly, it does not reach the novel heights of its predecessor.

Aristide Pamplemousse awakens to the news that le directeur of Le Guide, the eminent restaurant guide where Pamplemousse works, is dead. Dressed in mourning (complete with similar attire for Pommes Frites), he arrives at work to see that the news was in fact incorrect. This is never explained to my satisfaction, but the story continues anyway.

Le Guide has been transferring all of its data to computer via les disques and someone has sabotaged the publication by putting a Chinese take-out restaurant at the top of the Recommended list. Quelle dommage!

The main suspect turns out to be Madame Grante, the company accountant and the only other person with full access to the database. Strangely enough, she has taken missing, so Pamplemousse is sent to find her so the problem can be rectified before the guide's release date ... in three days.

Pamplemousse and Pommes Frites still make a charming couple (he certainly shows his dog more respect than he shows his wife, Doucette), but it appears that Bond is losing interest. Although the story centers around the then-newly burgeoning computerization of publishing, Monsieur Pamplemousse Investigates is very much in the style of an old-fashioned mystery, albeit an inferior one.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Forever by Jeffery Deaver (from Transgressions edited by Ed McBain)

Over approximately the last month, I've slowly made my way through Transgressions, the 2005 anthology of crime-fiction novellas edited by the late Ed McBain. As with most anthologies (especially those composed primarily of "big names"), the results have been of mixed quality. A few stand out among the rest — among them The Ransome Women by John Farris and The Resurrection Man by Sharyn McCrumb — but only one stood high enough to be recognized as definitely the best of the bunch: Forever by Jeffery Deaver, an author I'd not previously read.

In Forever, Deaver introduces police statistician Talbot Simms. Tal in a numbers whiz who is happy to remain at his desk, crunching arithmetic means and standard deviations. But when a couple of elderly suicides present themselves as statistical "outliers" (meaning the combination of events fall far outside the norm of mathematical likelihood), Tal declares them "2124" (suspicious) and inadvertently heads toward solving his first case as a "real" police detective.

Deaver skillfully portrays Tal Simms as a novice among veterans, concurrently showing the reader all the tiny details needed to follow procedure. But Tal slowly feels his way along, with the reluctant help of Detective Greg LaTour, who develops a grudging respect for the "Einstein" of his department. Both characters are fully three-dimensional, and I would welcome a series from Deaver featuring them. Forever also features some of the most original plotting and imagination this side of classic science fiction. Odd that I put off reading it for so long, primarily from not knowing his work, because Deaver's is the name I'll come away from Transgressions most praising.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan (starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Maggie Gyllenhaal)

The Dark Knight (2008). Screenplay by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, from a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer and characters by Bob Kane.

I never intended to review this movie — or, originally, even see it. It's just one more in the constant string of superhero films constantly fed out by Hollywood. But then The Dark Knight became one of the highest-grossing films of all time, and was suddenly declared the best film of all time by Internet Movie Database voters, and I just had to see what all the fuss was about and have my say.

Because it's simply not all that. Other than a riveting — probably a great — performance by the late Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight has little going for it besides the expected high production values and some interesting directorial choices by Christopher Nolan (particularly during the lengthy chase sequence).

Christian Bale has proven his acting abilities in numerous other films, but — and this is the main problem with every film featuring the Caped Crusader — he is given nothing to do here but react to events caused by the villains and the other characters. In a movie called "The Dark Knight," shouldn't the focus be on Batman? Just call this movie "The Joker" and be done with it because, really, even Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) is mostly forgotten by the time the credits roll.

[Does no one else think it's a problem that role of Rachel Dawes (played by Katie Holmes in Batman Begins) was taken over by Maggie Gyllenhaal and, not only can you hardly tell but it also seems like an improvement? And what happened to Gary Oldman? He had challenging roles in the early 1990s, but here he mostly looks lost and confused while trying to look focused and determined.]

To me, the huge success and unabashed acclaim of The Dark Knight is merely a symptom of the generally poor entertainment being produced by Hollywood these days. When someone comes out with a movie that is better than average, it is instantly hailed as a modern classic. And that's just sad.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Dead Man's Brother by Roger Zelazny (Hard Case Crime)

"Asked by a psychologist I once knew what animal I would most prefer being if I could not be a man, I immediately replied, 'A tapeworm.' He had asked me before I'd had my morning coffee." (p. 85)

In the early 1970s, author Roger Zelazny was very interested in crime fiction. This bled into his own writing, which was primarily of a speculative nature. But when presented with The Dead Man's Brother (then called Apostate's Gold — get out your dictionary for that one), his agent and publisher were hesitant due to its lack of any otherworldly elements. They thought it would be a hard sell to his core audience primarily familiar with works like Lord of Light and Nine Princes in Amber.

Later attempts in the crime genre (the novel Today We Choose Faces and the connected-novella collection My Name is Legion) were sure to include the necessary speculative aspects, and so The Dead Man's Brother became Roger Zelazny's only completed novel to remain unpublished at his death. Leave it to pulp resurrectionists Hard Case Crime — who also brought David Dodge's sensational The Last Match up from the file drawer of oblivion — to finally allow it a place in the author's canon.

Former art thief–turned–art dealer Ovid Wiley is puzzled when the body of his former partner-in-crime Carl Bernini ("He deserved to be dead. A good man when it came to the Renaissance, though.") turns up in Ovid's apartment the morning after a crowded party. He calls the police and is immediately arrested and celled — until the CIA mysteriously gets him out.

They've set a task for him, and the payment is that they'll make sure any suspicion over Bernini's death goes away. All Ovid has to do is head to The Vatican and hunt down a heretic priest who has absconded with $3,000,000 of the Church's money. Why Ovid? Because the priest's girlfriend was Bernini's girl back in the day.

Before The Dead Man's Brother, I had read only a handful of Zelazny novels — the first few chronicles of Amber and the comic fantasy A Night in the Lonesome October — because of what I saw as the author's typically difficult, choppy prose style. This is also present in The Dead Man's Brother, but Zelazny overcomes it somewhat by keeping Ovid Wiley in nearly constant motion. This makes the reading such a brisk pleasure that I was only occasionally tripped up by clunky phrasing (particularly the author's habit of leaving out the coordinating conjunction usually encountered before the last element of a series).

The book also contains numerous quotable passages (like the one above), that just cry out to be read aloud to whomever else is in the room. The following passage from page 115 is a perfect example of how Zelazny combines these two disparate elements throughout The Dead Man's Brother: "[W]e set out driving, through what promised to be a beautiful day. The most recent day to have made such a promise having proved a liar, however, I remained skeptical." Once I had read it three times and finally understood the meaning of that second sentence, I knew it was something I had to share, but sometimes I just don't feel like doing that extra work, especially when reading for escapism.

I wished things would speed up a bit as the conclusion became imminent, but that's a minor complaint for what is essentially a well-done mystery-adventure. I especially enjoyed the conversations that Ovid had with other people in the art world. These respites from the action were a good window into the characters and a nice change from the usual occupations encountered in crime novels.

The Dead Man's Brother is by no means a perfect book; Zelazny would probably have done more cleanup had his agent and publisher promised to publish it back then. But it's the first solo Zelazny to see the light of day since his death, and it's from the era that produced some of his best works, and is therefore likely to be more appreciated by fans than the widely disappointing posthumous Jane Lindskold collaborations, Donnerjack and Lord Demon.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Five Disappointing Reads from 2008

This is a different kind of list. This one consists of those books that I had great expectations for going in, and really fell short in one way or another.

  1. Richard Laymon, The Lake (2004) — One of the three posthumous Laymon novels, this one was the farthest from being ready for publication.
  2. Jack Ketchum, Weed Species (2006) — Ketchum is known for his extreme character portraits, but this one fails from a lack of an interesting story.
  3. Ed McBain, The Frumious Bandersnatch (2003) — McBain's 87th Precinct series is always readable, but the author's obvious lack of knowledge about modern music makes this one a struggle.
  4. Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants (2006) — An interesting story about quirky characters is hampered by a completely unbelievable protagonist's inability to ground the odd occurrences in reality.

  5. ...but the biggest disappointment of 2008 was the nine-book Star Wars: Legacy of the Force series by Aaron Allston, Karen Traviss, and Troy Denning (2006–2008). Nine books over a two-year period conclude with an ending telegraphed from the beginning and completely predictable even by Star Wars standards? There were some high points, notably Traviss's work in Bloodlines and Sacrifice, but I'll not again invest in the anticipation game. Any more series are going to have to be finished before I start them.
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