Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Favorite Reads of 2009 (Best Books of the Year list)

2009 was a great year for reading. But it was a banner year especially in terms of my reading Westerns. In previous years, this underappreciated genre had comprised perhaps around 10% of my annual reading, but last year they really took hold of me, and a solid one-third (44) of the 125 books I read in 2009 were Westerns!

Of course, there was also the usual assortment of crime, horror, general (i.e., "literary") fiction, nonfiction, and even a respectable amount of science fiction and fantasy, especially since I discovered good sword-and-sorcery through my introduction to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. In any case, 2009 was a solid year for reading in general — I discovered some great authors who have since become favorites — and this is the best of what I read.

For more on why I chose these particular books as the best of the year, click on the link to read the original review. I'm taking a break until January 4. Happy holidays! I'll be back with a review of — you guessed it! — another Western.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Chase by Clive Cussler (historical action mystery)

April 1950 — A fisherman searching the bottom of a lake for his lost outboard motor finds something quite a bit more impressive, and soon a dredging company unearths (unwaters?) Baldwin locomotive #3025 (and its 3 saponified corpses) from the silt and muck it sank in back in 1906.

Nearby, a tall, anonymous observer watches closely. He knows what happened 44 years ago. He was there....

January 1906 — A bank robber disguised as a wino makes off with a $325,000 mining payroll, leaving three dead victims in his wake. This is at least his fifteenth such undertaking, and the public knows him as the Butcher Bandit.

Joseph Van Dorn, founder of the famous detective agency that carries his name, puts his best man on the Butcher Bandit case: Isaac Bell, who feels that the bandit plans his escapades so well that he will undoubtedly be tripped up by a single overlooked mistake. Bell proposes that it is the job of the Van Dorn detectives "to find that insignificant mistake."

Jacob Cromwell is president of the Cromwell National Bank, but where he got his initial capital is a mystery. His sister Margaret seems to have some connection with the Bandit, but that, too, is not clear. With little else to go on, Bell focuses his sights on the Cromwell siblings, though they appear to be San Francisco's biggest philanthropists.

Clever villains make for the most interesting reading, and author Clive Cussler's The Chase offers up one of the cleverest in the Butcher Bandit. He robs and kills, and yet always escapes due to his very careful planning. (Some may say that this much planning is unbelievable, but Cussler never allows it to slip into parody, though he may have his tongue in his cheek.) But the Butcher's ambition and ego may just be his downfall.

However, as bright as the Butcher is, Cussler's newest hero Isaac Bell is at least as clever. Bell is from an independently wealthy family, so his interest in investigation is pure; he's not doing it for the money. He has his quirks, but he is a mostly relatable hero. The reader learns who the Bandit is fairly early on, and from then on The Chase offers a suspenseful ride of wondering when Bell and the Bandit will meet.

The Chase also features a close-up view of the San Francisco earthquake of that year. And Cussler caps things off with a thrilling locomotive chase across the Sierra Nevadas and north to Montana, with no working telegraph lines to warn of oncoming trains keeping the suspense at similarly mountainous heights.

The historical aspects of The Chase are also fun. It takes place mostly just after the turn of the 20th century, so it has many aspects of a Western (since that's only about 25 years after most Westerns are usually set). I especially enjoy a good Western-mystery, so this one really fits the bill, especially with the added adventure.

The Chase was first appreciated as a standalone thriller. But an also train-related sequel set the following year in 1907, The Wrecker (written with Justin Scott), has since appeared, with presumably more to come.

Trivia: Cussler tips his hat to a classic bank-robbery film by having Salt Lake police detective John Casale have nearly the same name as John Cazale, the actor who played Sal to Al Pacino's Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Charlie and the Sir by Frank Roderus (Western novel)

Charlie Roy was between jobs, spending time loafing at the Union Pacific depot, when he spotted a skinny, well-dressed jasper on the wrong side of a hooraw. The fellow looked on the sickly side, so the affable, good-natured Charlie escorted the gent to his hotel.

Before long, he'd gotten himself employed to drive Sir Arthur Williford-Cooke (for that was the jasper's moniker) and his team north ... just north. Well, sir, Charlie's not one to look sideways at fifty dollars a month, so he buys a sheep wagon with Sir Arthur's money, and aims it (and the dog that came with it) toward the north star. Their eventual destination is the Crown B Ranch, run by Lady Elizabeth Copperton, Sir Arthur's widowed sister.

It seems that the business partner of Lady Elizabeth's late husband wants the Crown B for himself, and he's not above using underhanded tactics to get it. Now, "Miz Copperton" may have a hoity-toity brother, but she's an experienced rancher who's not going to take this lying down. And now she's got the help of Charlie and the Sir.

Author Frank Roderus is a two-time winner of the Spur Award for his novels Leaving Kansas and Potter's Fields. Roderus has published over 300 books in his career (most under pseudonyms or house names), and he is still going strong (as evidenced by the publication of 2009's Harlan).

Charlie Roy is a very appealing character. Roderus's plot is suspenseful and holds the reader's attention throughout (with a few surprises at the end), but what makes this book a real joy to read is Charlie's narration. His language is authentic and colloquial, yet it never feels forced. Most writers who attempt colloquial speech tend to overdo it, but Roderus strikes the perfect balance between the formal and the informal, making Charlie and the Sir a perfect choice for reading out loud.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith (unabridged audio book read by Dennis Boutsikaris)

In 1933, a time when hunger is rampant, two young Russian brothers chase down a cat, and one of them disappears. Twenty years later in 1953, another of a different pair of brothers meets a mysterious end, and MGB agent Leo Demidov follows the official line that it was an "accident."

For, in the Stalinist Soviet Union, crime officially does not exist. This is an era when bad driving can get you sent to the gulag for twenty years. But some growing doubts Leo has about the government's interrogation methods (like the popular practice of torturing until a confession is made) come to a head when he is asked to investigate his own wife, Raisa.

Meanwhile, a serial killer runs free, eventually amassing over 50 victims — a killer with an astonishing motive. But this "killer" officially does not exist in a time and place where paranoia is a survival tactic under a dictatorship that believes even sadness to be a punishable protest against the government's policies.

Author Tom Rob Smith crafts his debut with care, though Child 44 does require some patience. Smith introduces the murders, then spends a great deal of time developing the character of Leo and his surroundings before returning to the violence some time later. Though I predicted the "revelation" early on (it could not have going any other way and still have been fair to the truly attentive reader), that did not lessen the novel's effect, due to the author's admirable skill.

Actor Dennis Boutsikaris reads Child 44 with deftness and confidence. He exhibits a level of comfort with the complex prose (not to mention the ubiquitous Russian accents) that one suspects would exceed even that of the author himself.

In addition, his voice is smooth and flows easily into the ear, reminiscent of Kevin Spacey (himself an audiobook reader at one time), with an undercurrent of menace that matches well to a story wherein one wrong word can mean instant death — and where even a slow death may be preferable to government sanctioned "justice." (Where even a government agent's reputation can rise and fall as often as the barometric pressure.)

The first sequel in this projected trilogy of novels, The Secret Speech, is already available. It is also read by Boutsikaris, who won a 2009 Audie Award in the Thriller/Suspense category for his work on Child 44.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Come Out Tonight by Richard Laymon (unabridged audio book read by Gene Engene)

Sherry and Duane are about to consummate their love (or whatever it is they have together) when some poor planning sends Duane out on a jaunt to the all-night Speed-D-Mart two blocks away for the appropriate supplies. After waiting for over an hour, and hearing what sounds very much like a gunshot, Sherry gets concerned and goes out to look for Duane.

This simple summary is the set-up for a night of terror that will soon involve Sherry's family, her sister's friends, and a trio of strangers with somewhat questionable motives, all doing their best to avoid and defeat a crazed teenager with the unforgettable name of Toby Bones. Come Out Tonight is a perfect example of Laymon's inimitable skill, and an excellent introduction to his particular style of writing.

Before I read Come Out Tonight, my favorite Richard Laymon novel was In the Dark, but two reads later, this one has displaced it. Sherry's and Toby's stories stay lodged in my memory unlike any other novel Laymon has written.

Laymon piles on all of the usual deviant behaviors found in the horror genre but levies them with his signature dark humor and a pure skill with words, resulting in a novel that was one of my quickest ever reads the first time around (less than 24 hours for a 400+ page book). The unabridged audiobook, read with range and insight by the prolific Gene Engene, took longer, of course, but it allowed me to get deeper into the characters by not allowing me to read any faster than Engene could speak.

What makes Come Out Tonight so memorable is Laymon's ability to truly get inside his characters. The chapters where two teenage boys nurse back to health a naked, nearly dead young woman found outside their house are some of the most realistically played scenes (from the standpoint of character motivation and action) of any novel I've read.

Laymon focuses on the conflicting emotions and thoughts that would occur in that situation, while never letting us know exactly what will happen next. In Come Out Tonight, as well as his other novels, he chronicles every detail of each event while never allowing a full description to slow down the action. And that is his appeal. The man is truly an artist; sex and violence are simply his medium of choice.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (mixed-genre novel)

A drunk porn actor gets in a car accident, which results in burns all over his body. (The liquor he was drinking, and spilled in his lap, flares up and does an especially bad number on his penis, leaving him with little more than a flap of skin).

During his recover in the hospital, a possibly schizophrenic gargoyle sculptor named Marianne Engel visits him regularly, saying she knows him from when she was a nun working in a monastery scriptorium (a room dedicated to Bible translation and transcription) in the 14th century. Marianne tells him stories of their life together 700 years ago, as well as myriad other stories from her multilingual experience.

The Gargoyle is a completely immersive experience. Author Andrew Davidson's debut — the product of seven years of research and writing — has something for everyone: history, horror, mystery, religion, romance, terrific storytelling, and well-crafted prose.

The story of Marianne Engel and the unnamed narrator/protagonist is one of and for the ages. Not only did reading The Gargoyle entertain and literarily satisfy me, but its breadth of scope and Davidson's unconventional style (including humor that ranges from the subtle to the laugh-out-loud — there's even a throwaway Caddyshack reference that will get past a lot of people) inspired me to try new things in my own writing.

As Marianne herself states at one point, "It was apparent from the start that the writing was unlike anything I'd ever read." The Gargoyle combines portions of Dante's Inferno, the One Thousand Nights and a Night, the Gnaden-vita, the Bible, and likely others I simply didn't recognize. It is multilayered and multilingual, and even though the novel sometimes asks a little much in the realm of suspension of disbelief, Davidson never stretches plausibility too far, especially once you give yourself over to its mythic structure and its motif of arrows and fire.

Lincoln Hoppe reads the unabridged audiobook of The Gargoyle, and his grasp of the characters is stunning. From Vikings to nuns to a man with a scarred larynx to the "bitch snake" that only morphine will quiet, he offers believable portraits of all of them. And he is not slowed in the least by all the foreign idioms and accents that he is required to master. Hoppe's reading may even make the book more accessible to those that find it a difficult read.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vendetta by Ed Gorman (Western noir)

Father Pete Madsen's best friend Noah Greaves was released from prison and was subsequently killed trying to exact revenge on the one reason he was there: Tom Radigan. Noah's daughter Joan decides to finish what her father set out to do, but that's not the only revenge being enacted in Vendetta. Simple stories are not author Ed Gorman's stock in trade.

Vendetta beautifully showcases Gorman's skill at characterization through various lengthy passages from different points of view. In this way, we more closely follow the actions of Joan Greaves; her quarry, Radigan; his lover, Caroline Petty; her husband, chief of police Walter Petty; his assistant chief, Red Carney; and bank-robbing brothers, Carl and Leonard Schmidt.

Gorman puts the reader inside his characters' heads and gives us access to their most private thoughts. All the while offering suspenseful narrative that leaves questions unanswered until the reader is simply aching to find out how these complex and interconnected relationships will out.

His ability to make the villain of one story into the tragic hero of another only enhances the reader's involvement in the tale. The centerpiece of Vendetta, a 4-hour bank robbery, brings all the characters together in one place and brings their tensions to a head. The ending floored me.

Best of all, Vendetta is a story that could be set in any time or place. The events are universal and timeless. That Gorman has set it in the Old West merely allows the author to utilize aspects specific to the era while showing that people really haven't changed all that much. It will appeal to fans of Westerns and crime fiction (given that Gorman calls his style "Western noir") or any enthusiasts of solid storytelling. (Fans of modern westerns will appreciate the cameo from a gunsmith named "J.R. Randisi.")

Reader of the unabridged audiobook, Scott Brick's dysthymic delivery is perfect for Gorman's tight prose. Brick is one of my favorite all-around audiobook readers due to his ability to avoid inserting himself into the story; he's a fresh canvas primed for any material, and offers a letter-perfect interpretation of Vendetta.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Under the Diehard Brand by L. Ron Hubbard (Western short stories audio book)

L. Ron Hubbard is probably best known as the founder of Scientology and creator of Dianetics. These days, his name is largely connected with the antics of the some of the more "outspoken" members of the religion, overshadowing the fact that the man really knew how to tell an entertaining story.

Pulp fiction fans rejoice, because there's a "new" voice on the block that deserves to be noticed. All 150 of the stories Hubbard wrote for the pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s are being rereleased in paperback and audio under the evocative title Stories from the Golden Age.

The recordings I've tried so far are just terrific. They are a professionally produced combination of traditional narrated audiobooks (with narration deftly handled by R.F. Daley) and old-time radio, with actors playing the characters (often multiple roles) and genre-specific music and sound effects rounding out the experience.

Under the Diehard Brand is actually a collection of three short stories. In the title story (originally published in Western Aces in March 1938), Lee Thompson attempts to reunite with his father "Diehard" Thompson, the sheriff of Wolf River, Montana. But when Lee doesn't get the homecoming he's looking for, he gets involved with Holy George Gates by besting his foreman Anvil Bores in a fistfight.

Diehard thinks Holy George is behind a string of murders and stampedes, but the local businessmen appreciate the money Holy George brings into town via his large beef-cattle contracts — even if Diehard is sure it's blood money. They also think Diehard is getting old and going easy on the "real" criminals. (Rheumatism has slowed his gun hand to where he is afraid to use it.)

Corey Burton's vocal performance as Holy George is highly reminiscent of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. But I couldn't place the accent used by actor (and Firesign Theatre alum) Phil Proctor in his role as Anvil Bores, until it brought to mind images of Boris Badenov of "moose and squirrel" fame (himself no doubt pulp-inspired).

The second story, "Hoss Tamer" (from the January 1950 issue of Thrilling Western) is a redemptive story of sorts. It is entertaining in its own way, though the conclusion is unsurprising. But the Under the Diehard Brand book and audio also contain a real discovery in its tragicomic final tale.

In "The Ghost Town Gun-Ghost" (from an August 1938 issue of Western Story), a man on the run from the law escapes to an nearly empty settlement populated only by a man named Pokey McKay. Pokey fills in the gaps of his loneliness by performing all the needed functions of the town under other names, and speaking of them in the third person. Rob Paulsen (a double Emmy winner for his work on Animaniacs) delivers a tour de force as Pokey and all his personalities.

Author L. Ron Hubbard not only tells an entertaining story, but doesn't shy away from descriptive passages that enhance the atmosphere, like the following from "Under the Diehard Brand":

He sidled up to the bar and stared at the dill pickle and aged cheese, which Long Henry was carelessly wont to call his 'free lunch'. Even so, the meager display was tantalizing to a stomach grown a stranger to food and coupled with a pocket lined only with tobacco crumbs.
There are some unintentional chuckles along the way and the occasional schmaltzy ending, but those sorts of things are to be expected. Nobody reads pulp fiction for the intellectual challenge it offers, after all. That said, Under the Diehard Brand is a highly entertaining listen.

The music and sound effects are of high quality, the actors are experienced professionals, and director Jim Meskimen orchestrates all the pieces beautifully. Galaxy Press has spent the money for a quality product, and it shows. Plus, Under the Diehard Brand gives the reader and listener three solid stories — and two real winners — for the price of one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop written and directed by Max Allan Collins (comic strip documentary)

Before watching Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop, my knowledge of the comic-strip cave-dweller was limited to the hit single by the Argyles (with a few additional raunchy lyrics I heard from my dad). But Max Allan Collins has produced quality indie-film work in the past — mostly crime-genre films like Mommy and Real Time but also another documentary, Mike Hammer's Mickey Spillane — so my interest was definitely piqued.

Caveman (originally shown at special screenings and on PBS affiliates) combines Collins's nearly career-long work in comics and his passion for independent filmmaking. Collins wrote Dick Tracy for 15 years, created Ms. Tree, and wrote the original Road to Perdition graphic novel. (He finally meshed comics and mystery novels in books like Strip for Murder.)

Collins was first intrigued by Vincent Trout Hamlin when he discovered that the artist was a fellow Iowan. To this Midwestern kid aspiring to a career in writing, knowing that someone else nearby had made a success of it provided a boost of confidence.

Caveman approaches its subject, and to a lesser extent comics in general, from the viewpoint of the uninitiated. Narrator Michael Cornelison (Eliot Ness: An Untouchable Life) gently delves into the history of Alley Oop for the benefit of neophytes, tracing comics (aptly enough) from their beginnings on cave walls.

The film touches on Hamlin's beginnings and covers his life and that of his creation through his huge success, his antagonistic relationship with his assistant (Dave Graue, who would eventually take over the strip), Hamlin's eventual death, and how Alley Oop has carried on into the modern day through the writing and artistry of husband-and-wife team Jack and Carole Bender.

Following on the success of films like The Lost World, Hamlin created Alley Oop as an alternative to popular futuristic strips like Buck Rodgers. Caveman even suggests that Hamlin was responsible for getting modern children interested in dinosaurs by including factual information along with the entertainment, and he also used the platform to introduce kids to other historical figures like Shakespeare and Cleopatra through his use of time-travel storylines.

A documentary is made in the editing room, and Caveman skillfully splices interviews and narration with still photos to great effect. The interviews are the real meat for viewers and comics fans and include talks with Graue and the Benders, along with Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit), George Hagenauer (Collins's long-time research associate), Russell Myers (Broom Hilda), Teddy Dewalt (Hamlin's daughter, who doesn't shy away from her father's faults), Stan Sakai, Sergio Aragonés, and many others offering wonderful insight from the perspective of the industry. (Collins took his camera to the San Diego Comic Con and was thus able to get a lot of material for relatively little money.)

Under all this great material is a flows an appropriately upbeat rock score by composer Chris Christensen. Also featured throughout is a new Alley Oop song with music by Christensen and lyrics by Collins.

The extras on the Caveman DVD are numerous, with probably the most spectacular one being the 45-minute interview with Will Eisner, where he discourses on comics, history, the educational use of what he calls "sequential art," The Spirit, and his own influences among other various subjects. This was the last on-camera interview Eisner gave of any length, so it's a special keepsake for comics fans.

Also included are two commentaries, one by Collins and another by Jack and Carole Bender; a morning show feature on/interview with the Benders; and a nearly hour-long panel discussion (filmed around the time of release of Collins's novel Red Sky in Morning) celebrating Alley Oop's 75th anniversary. (Caveman was also shown that day.) The panel includes Collins, the Benders, and producer Mark Lambert. They go into some detail on the making of the documentary, including some problems and other information that will interest those curious about the behind-the-scenes process of independent filmmaking.

Collins obviously has a real affection for the material (he also calls it his "secret biography of Chester Gould"), and this comes through in the viewing. Fans of Collins, Hamlin, Eisner, comics in general, documentaries, or just a well-told story should give Caveman: V.T. Hamlin & Alley Oop a look.

Friday, December 4, 2009

.45-Caliber Firebrand by Peter Brandvold (Cuno Massey Western series)

"Cuno Massey saw the Indian a quarter second before the arrow careened toward him from a snag of brush and sun-bleached rocks." That is the opening sentence of author Peter Brandvold's novel .45-Caliber Firebrand, and it offers a fitting introduction to the kind of life its hero leads.

Massey has had a rough year. First his father and stepmother were murdered. His .45-Caliber Revenge for that put a price on his head, and bounty hunters killed his new bride, July. His subsequent .45-Caliber Fury doubled the bounty.

Since then, the .45-Caliber Manhunt has continued. Though a successful venture into the freight-hauling business gave a much-needed break, it turned into a .45-Caliber Deathtrap when Massey's partner was killed.

Now, hauling supplies to Logan Trent's Double-Horseshoe Ranch, Cuno inadvertently smuggles weapons for the rancher, who has had trouble with Leaping Wolf's band of Ute Indians since a couple of ranch hands raped a killed a Ute girl. Massey and his crew stay on to defend the ranch until a trio a braves attempt revenge-in-kind with Trent's daughter Michelle.

While Trent stays to defend the homeplace, he asks the .45-Caliber Firebrand to help Michelle and a servant's children escape, using only a horse-drawn wagon and a secret passage. As Cuno reminisces (about events chronicled in .45-Caliber Widow Maker), "Recently, he'd found himself driving a jail wagon loaded with four deadly brigands, including one snarling beast known as Colorado Bob King, across the Mexico Mountains up Wyoming way.

"He'd thought he'd had his hands full then." In protecting his charges, Cuno makes a decision that puts him on the wrong side of the law (though not in the wrong, for rogue lawmen are no meters of justice). And When times are at their most desperate, Cuno gets help from a surprising corner.

With .45-Caliber Firebrand, Brandvold offers an action-packed Western filled with traditional genre tropes yet complex enough in its plotting to be difficult to summarize without possibly giving away some surprises. He keeps the pace quick as bullets and arrows fly and seemingly major characters are killed with impunity. (Brandvold also tips his hat to other writers with characters named after Karl Lassiter and Henry Kuttner.)

In fact, Cuno goes through so much physically and emotionally that the decision he makes at the end of .45-Caliber Firebrand hardly comes as a surprise — more as a relief. The reader hopes he'll get a chance to rest, at least for a little while.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (audio book read by Rene Auberjonois)

During work at a Catherine Street construction site in lower Manhattan, a charnel of bones is discovered: 36 bodies, all told, buried around 100 years before. FBI Special Agent Pendergast takes one skull to archeologist Nora Kelly, who places that victim's age at 13. When Pendergast gets Kelly access to the site, she learns that the victims were nearly all teens, primarily boys, and that they all appear to have had similar injuries to the lumbar spine.

While Nora gets in trouble for her work with Pendergast, her on-and-off boyfriend, reporter William Smithback, Jr., of The New York Times is working so hard to get a scoop that he's ruining his relationship with Nora. Later, Smithback gets himself into hot water when he discovers an address before Pendergast and Nora do and goes to check out the location.

The discovery of a sheaf of letters leads to the identity of the perpetrator of the century-old murders — a scientist searching for the secret of longer life — but that turns out to be only the beginning of the mystery when the body of a 27-year-old woman is found with the same portion of the spinal cord (the cauda equina, or horse's tail) removed. This grotesque surgery was likely done while the woman was alive, and was thus the cause of death.

Is a copycat killer at large, or did the scientist actually find what he was looking for and has chosen to recommence his spree? Or is something even more sinister and mysterious going on? Pendergast is sure that "The solution to the new murders lies in the old." One thing is for sure: with authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, it will be something other than the mundane and will be somehow connected to "the Cabinet of Curiosities."

In this first Preston/Child collaboration to feature Pendergast as the protagonist, we learn that a streak of insanity runs in his family when he asks advice of his great-aunt Cordelia about other family members. An odd duck anyway, Pendergast see an attack on him as a "positive development" since it means he's getting close to a solution.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is altogether a fascinating read, commingling old and new science with the tropes of horror fiction. Preston and Child don't shy away from the horror of having a deranged surgeon perform his signature surgery without anesthesia (and fully awake) on a major character.

One particular highlight was highly unexpected. From his hospital bed (following the aforementioned "positive development") — in a supernatural twist on The Daughter of Time — Pendergast travels through time and puts himself back into late-19th-century New York (on a fact-finding expedition) using only his mind.

For a novel so otherwise grounded in reality, however strange and obscure that reality may sometimes be, it takes a definite leap of faith to follow Pendergast along on his flight of fancy. But it is simultaneously a very rewarding trip into the period and takes The Cabinet of Curiosities another notch above the fray.

Other authors would have simply had their characters find old documents or the like. This choice, though unorthodox, is an imaginative improvement, especially since the authors work hard to make it believable. (Though Pendergast is inscrutable enough to make it plausible that he would spend his time developing this skill.)

Actor René Auberjonois — probably best known for his television work on Benson (for which he was Emmy-nominated), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Boston Legal, as well as in the film version of M*A*S*H — shows off his impressive vocal range in the audiobook of The Cabinet of Curiosities. Auberjonois makes each character different while retaining a familiar thread throughout (though he doesn't quite achieve the "mellifluous" tone frequently attributed to Pendergast).

The Cabinet of Curiosities has a wonderful sense of atmosphere that will particularly delight fans of the novels of Robert Bloch. (Enoch Leng is an especially Blochian character.) The authors' highly descriptive style immerses the reader in a richly drawn, though unfamiliar, world. And their intelligent approach appeals to more literate readers while their plot operates solidly within the confines of the genre.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Wild Waymire by Lewis B. Patten (Western novella)

Ernie Waymire's got it rough. He's in love with the wrong girl. His father Matthew hates two things: women and the Hunnicuts. Matthew Waymire and Olaf Hunnicut have been feuding so long that Ernie and his brother Al don't even know why.

And Ernie's fallen for Olaf's daughter Irene. If Matthew finds out -- a man who seems to constantly see red, even where his sons are concerned -- there'll be hell to pay. What's worse is that Irene was put up to the charade by Olaf in a scheme to take over the Waymire ranch.

After one too many beatings from Matthew, Ernie decides to run away with Irene. But things get complicated when Al tells Matthew and Olaf gives Irene and ultimatum. This final betrayal makes Ernie snap, and God help anyone who gets in the way of his revenge.

Author Lewis B. Patten came up through the pulps to make a lengthy career for himself that included 3 Spur Awards and a lifetime achievement award from the Western Writers of America. Wild Waymire originally appeared in 1955 in Triple Western magazine.

Patten doesn't shy away from the darker side of people, giving him a sort of cult following with readers of modern Westerns. Matthew Waymire is one of the more despicable characters of recent memory, yet Patten still endows the reader with sympathy for him, especially when the reason for the feud is revealed.

Wild Waymire is just one black event after another until it is no surprise that Ernie chooses the path he does. Patten makes things even more tragic by suggesting that there is a solution right in front of Ernie's face and he just won't see it. This made for a fascinating read and one that will add Lewis B. Patten to my list of writers to look for.
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