Review: Man Hunter


Man Hunter
Man Hunter by Dusty Rhodes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a novel about Superman playing Santa Claus dressed as Josey Wales in the Old West. It ranged from mildly entertaining to borderline frustrating for over 500 pages, then came to an anti-climactic ending.

As I’ve stated before, I break Western novels into three categories: 1) Shoot-em-ups that are just plot, virtually no character development, 2) Stories set in the Old West that have some character development and at least one theme and a sub-plot or two, and 3) Epics with deep character development and multiple themes and subplots.

Dusty Rhodes started off pretty much in the first category, as Matt Henry went seeking revenge against the gang that raped and murdered his wife and cut the throat of his son … no, wait, we learn later it’s a step-son. It just so happens, though, that this feller Matt, who is about 27 years old and spent eight years as an Apache captive followed by five in federal prison, just happens to be the best gun hand America has ever seen. He’s also an excellent tracker and a shrewd businessman, generous to a fault, and despite absolutely no experience, the best boss a cow puncher could ever hope to work for.

This was my problem with the book. At no time did I ever feel that Matt was in a dire situation. Sure, he was thrown into a silver mine to work as a slave. He was shot on two occasions, and dragged behind a horse once. But there was never a real sense of danger because his fast draw, his indescribable wit, or unbelievable luck was always there to get him out.

On top of that, Rhodes had some pet phrases he trotted out just a few too many times. I gritted my teeth over the times somebody would “scrape out” a chair and “fold himself” into it.

And then there’s the fact he threw in every stereotypical plot device anyone has ever used in a Western novel or movie and put them all in this one story. The gang of killers, corrupt Mexican soldiers, hostile Indians, corrupt businessmen, town bullies, a storm on the prairie, stampede … you name it, it was here.

That said, you might wonder why I even gave the book two stars instead of just one. Well … as aggravating as it was, I never wanted to just stop. It wasn’t horrible. It was just predictable.

So, it’s probably a great book for someone new to the Western genre. To people who were alive when John Wayne was making movies, there’s nothing new here.

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Review: Wolves


Wolves
Wolves by D.J. Molles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another one that was compelling enough that I almost gave it five stars, but in the end I held back because it didn’t really have any deeper meaning than just a really, really good story about a man who’ll stop at nothing to avenge the memory of his wife and daughter.

Huxley, his wife, and their daughter survived “the sky fire” and built a new life for themselves in a commune on the western edge of “the wastelands”, and area that seems to correlate to the American southwest. Then the slavers came, raped and killed his wife, and took his daughter to market somewhere in the East. The story opens with Huxley near death as he’s given water by Jay, another broken man burning up inside with hate for the slavers. Together they go east, looking to “make them bleed” for what they’ve done. Others join the trip here and there, and adventures happen. Eventually, Huxley finds more than he bargained for in the Riverlands as it is invaded by the Eastern Democratic States of the old East Coast of America.

The book’s focus is really on Huxley’s inner struggle. Has he become as bad as the people he is hunting? He kills without mercy when needed, and unleashes the rage of his companions, who do much worse, and shoulders the guilt for their actions afterward. He fears becoming a monster his wife and daughter wouldn’t even recognize.

The action is non-stop, the story is gripping, the characters are mostly fleshed out. I had issue with a couple of things with the plot, but they were fairly minor. The first was Huxley not asking any questions but just accepting Don’s word about who controlled the water where the met Lowell. The second was Huxley’s sudden change in attitude toward Jay; it just seemed to happen too fast.

Christian Rummel did an excellent job narrating the book. Each character had a unique tone and dialect and I liked the inflections for Huxley as his mood changed.

If you like Westerns or post-apocalyptic fiction, you’ll like this one. It’s sort of Mad Max meets Terminator in a Sergio Leone atmosphere.

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Review: To the Far Blue Mountains


To the Far Blue Mountains
To the Far Blue Mountains by Louis L’Amour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The continuing adventures of Barnabas, founder of the American Sacketts, L’Amour’s most famous family saga. Still more of a swashbuckler than a western. I think I liked it better than the first book, but Barnabas was still too arrogant, too sure of his destiny, too skilled in things the reader had no idea he knew about.

It was frustrating how Barnabas kept exposing himself to his enemies, almost as if L’Amour was just trying to pad out a much shorter story by working in near-captures and daring escapes.

I’ll give this series one more chance with a book actually set in the Old West, but if it doesn’t get better I’m done with the series, and likely with L’Amour. I much prefer the storytelling of Johnny Quarles and David R. Lewis.

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Review: The Pearl


The Pearl
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Pearl was not only the very first John Steinbeck novel I read, it was one of the books assigned to me by my favorite high school teacher, Wilda Walker. So, it’s a pretty special novel for me.

This is the story of Kina, a very poor pearl diver, and his wife and their baby. The day the baby is stung by a scorpion and refused treatment by the doctor is also the day Kino finds “the pearl of the world,” a gem of magnificent size and quality. Naturally, everyone wants the pearl. Some try to steal it. Some try to cheat Kino when he goes to sell it. When Kino kills a man trying to rob him, he flees his village with his family, but the curse of the pearl follows him into the wilderness.

This was Steinbeck’s follow-up to The Grapes of Wrath and many critics were upset that he “reverted” to such a simple tale that was not a protest novel. That’s a shallow view, though. Steinbeck fled his success and went to Mexico for a while, where he obviously became very acquainted with the racial issues there and those are reflected in The Pearl. More to the point, though, I think the pearl itself is symbolic of the success Steinbeck found with his previous few books, particularly Grapes. Like Kino, once he found huge success, everyone wanted something from Steinbeck.

As far as Steinbeck novels go, The Pearl is a little different in that it has a real, obvious resolution. Sure, there are still some questions the reader can ask, but the ending is not as ambiguous as that of Grapes or East of Eden or The Winter of Our Discontent. The ending is the only ending the story can have and the reader will see it fairly early on, and that’s part of his point, too. Everyone can see how the story has to end except poor Kino.

The Pearl is very short and can probably be read in one sitting by most people. I highly recommend it, especially if you’ve never given Steinbeck a try before.

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Review: Demian


Demian
Demian by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This may be one that grows on me as the ideas it planted take root and blossom. For the moment, though, I was considerably less impressed with Demian in comparison to Siddhartha, which I loved.

This novel starts out with young Emil Sinclair making up a story about stealing apples, only to find himself at the mercy of a bully who wants to tell the farmer who’s been stealing apples. Living under this threat nearly ruins young Sinclair, but then a new, slightly older boy named Max Demian comes to the school and realizes Sinclair’s problem. Demian puts an end to the bullying. Then a lot of rather boring stuff happens, such as Sinclair going to prep school, where he nearly drinks himself out of his education, he meets a dark organist, falls in love with Demian’s hot mama, then goes to fight in World War One, where he gets his first kiss.

The theme of the story is basically breaking free of dependence and finding independence, as evidenced in this beautiful quote:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”

What I disliked most about the story was that it was past tense and told passively. I did this and then this and Demian did this thing and his mother said that and I felt happy. Seldom is the reader really let in to feel what Sinclair feels and I think the story suffers for it. That said, Hesse puts together some sentences that really sing and shows the depth of his thinking and the scope of his ideas. This is very much an idea novel more than a plot or story novel.

I can see myself re-reading Demian at some point simply for the quote I copied above. I think it may be a short novel that requires more than one reading to fully appreciate it.

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Review: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine


Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine
Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Consider this a 3.5 star review. There were things I really liked, and things I really didn’t like, but overall I’m glad I read it.

Former journalist Eric Weiner had gas and went to a hospital, where a nurse asked, “Have you found your God?” After a good fart (I presume), Weiner, a gastronomical Jew, decides he needs to fill the god-shaped hole in his life. So he travels the world exploring different faiths until he finds one that fits his hole.

What I didn’t like about the book was the fact Weiner focused on such fringe elements of major faiths, along with just fringe faiths. For instance, instead of exploring some traditional branch of Islam, he went for Sufism to see if becoming a whirling dervish might be his thing. Instead of seeing what Christianity is like, he hung out with an order of Franciscan monks. There’s a chapter on the Raelists, a group of UFO worshippers who follows a dude who picks out the hottest chicks for himself. Another on shamanism that didn’t even have the benefit of being funny, a la the Raelists.

The most annoying thing, though, was that this isn’t an experience your average Joe Blow (like me) could emulate. Who’s going to give me the time and money to fly to China, home, Nepal, home, Italy, home, Las Vegas, home, etc, etc.? Nobody. Plus, he always managed to find transplanted Americans to learn from once he was in the exotic locales.

SKIP THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH TO AVOID SPOILERS

This is a total stereotype, I know, but honestly, Weiner came across as so neurotic that it was obvious by the third chapter that he was going to settle on Judiasm. Seriously, he was like a less annoying and funnier Woody Allen.

END SPOILER

What I liked about the book was, for one thing, the general concept. His search for the faith that “speaks” to him is something I can certainly identify with. I like that the book is episodic, with each chapter addressing a different experience and being pretty much self-contained. I enjoyed his tone and sense of humor, and I especially liked that he included numerous quotes from people who helped shape each of the faiths he explored, and quotes from great literature that helped illuminate the nature of his quest or some other relevant issue.

I liked the book enough that when I had the opportunity to pick up over 50 copies to use in my AP English Language and Composition class, I jumped on it. I think the book will offer a chance to discuss Weiner’s attitude going into each experience, his writing style, and will just be a great jumping off point for many interesting conversations.

I’d give the book 4 stars if it wasn’t for the way Weiner acted like it was no big deal to jet around the world multiple times for his research. It came off as, “Look at me doing this thing you can’t do.” Resentment? Sure. But it’s my review, so …

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Review: Sackett’s Land


Sackett's Land
Sackett’s Land by Louis L’Amour
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite my love of Westerns, I’d only read a couple of Louis L’Amour’s novels prior to this one, plus his autobiography. I just wasn’t a fan of his style. But I wanted another Western series to get into, so I decided to give L’Amour another chance and read some of his Sackett series. I’m still not impressed.

Barnabas Sackett is the patriarch of what will become the Sackett clan in the New World, but when this first book of the saga opens in the late 1500s he’s a poor landholder in the fens of England who happens to stumble upon a few Roman coins unearthed in the marshes. While in town selling the coins he makes the mistake of offering a thirsty woman a drink, much to the chagrin of her arrogant and noble brother. The rest of the book is Barnabas selling his coins, buying trade goods, going to America, trading with Indians, coming home rich, and all the while fighting that noblemen and his hired henchmen.

The problem is that Barnabas, who we first think is a rather common dude eeking out a living in the fen, is actually some kind of freaking superman who somehow knows everything about everything, is a better swordsman than career soldiers and lifelong pirates, knows how to sail a ship, can instantly blend with rich city folk despite almost never going into town before finding those coins, etc. Who can identify with that?

The Walking Drum was the same way with its American Indian test pilot who was shot down over the Soviet Union and had to escape over the Bering Strait.

To be fair, I still haven’t read a L’Amour Western novel. I need to give him a try at what he was best at, I guess.

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