Last Update 6/30/15

Brothers on the Trail by Max Brand. Warner, 1971 (originally published in 1933)  

Burt Willard emerges from prison a broken man, unable or unwilling to fight with fists or guns. He decides that part of his life has ended forever, but he reconsiders when his brother irritates the wrong people and finds himself in danger and alone. This is quite short and that helps the rather tired story along because there’s less time between the overt action sequences. Minor but readable. 6/30/15

The Girl Beneath the Lion by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, Grove, 1968

This short novel by all rights should have been a short story. The author spends so much describing the physical locations that it is inflated by about a factor of four. The young protagonist, Vanina, is vacationing in Sardinia with a friend when she encounters a man on the beach. Vanina is a virgin but when she sees him she decides it is time to experience love, but it must be under her terms. Their encounter is turned into an elaborate ritual and when it is done, she moves on with no emotional commitment to her lover, who is not much more than a prop in the story. I usually enjoy descriptive passages more than most, but this was rather more than even I prefer. 6/22/15

Montana Rides Again by Max Brand, Charter, 1982 (originally published in 1935)

This was one of the very first novels I read, back in first grade, although I probably missed a lot of its virtues at the time. It is also one of Brand’s very best novels. The Montana Kid has gone straight and is working on a ranch when he is provoked into a gunfight that means he must run from the law again. The provocation was engineered by a Mexican bandit who has mixed feelings about the Kid, but wants his help in rescuing a precious artifact looted from a Mexican church by the local military chief. It is kept inside a virtual fortress and can only be recovered if two men enter surreptitiously but with guns ready. This is so much better written than most of the other novels from this period that it’s hard to realize it was just another Max Brand western, far superior to its comparatively rare predecessor, Montana Rides. One of the half dozen or so of his novels to deserve the term “classic.” 6/9/15

The Man from Mustang by Max Brand, Paperback Library, 1971 (originally published in 1933) 

The Silvertip novels – not to be confused with his imaginary town of Silvertip – are the adventures of Jim Silver, a typical Brand hero who became a recurring character. In this one, one of his friends is gunned down after surviving an encounter with a gunfighter and Silver decides to track the killer down and bring him to justice. All he has to go on is the fragment of a name and the fact that the dead man’s intended wife disappeared mysteriously shortly thereafter.  Well above average, which was to be characteristic of this particular series. 6/3/15

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, Bantam, 1957 

When I originally read this back around 1960, I thought this story of a single summer in a twelve year old boy’s life had flashes of brilliant imagery mixed with occasional pretentiousness. That’s pretty much my same reaction half a century later. The novel is anecdotal – parts of it were published as short stories – and some of the incidents are fascinating and entertaining. Others are less so and occasionally somewhat opaque. It is one of the most famous novels of childhood, but unlike many others, the children don’t seem particularly childish. The atmosphere often verges on but never quite crosses over into the fantastic. 5/18/15

Blood on the Trail by Max Brand, Pocket, 1971 (originally published in 1933)  

There’s a somewhat convoluted plot in this western adventure. The protagonist is hired to deliver a large amount of cash to another who is on the run and hanging around with a band of outlaws. But another man has been hired to make sure that the cash never reaches its destination. You can pretty much anticipate most of what happens after that, with our hero retaining the money, discovering the source and reason or the secondary plot, and resolving everything to his satisfaction. Fair quality. 5/17/15

Pyramid by David Gibbins, Dell, 2015, $9.99, ISBN 978-0-345-53472-9 

I am always on the lookout for a new adventure writer who doesn’t fill each book with weapons porn and testosterone, bad grammar and cardboard characters, implausible plot points and bad science. I managed two Clive Cusslers and one Stephen Coonts before giving up on both of them. This, the eighth adventure of Jack Howard, an archaeologist who specializes in underwater work, is the first I have tried by this author. The story involves efforts to uncover the truth about the exodus of the Jews from Egypt and the parting of the sea to accommodate them, and there's a neat little theory rationalizing it. Our heroes ferret out details while dodging Islamic extremists who have taken over Egypt. To my delight, the prose is good, the plotting is well thought out and includes some serious intellectual puzzles, and the action is not the sole reason the book exists. I liked it quite a lot. That said, I think it swung too far in the other direction. The long discussions of obscure archaeological points began to feel like I was reading nonfiction and the occasional actions scenes seemed perfunctory. It was good enough that I’m looking for the earlier books, but I think the author needs more balance. 5/11/15

The Longhorn Feud by Max Brand, Pocket, 1973 (originally published in 1933)  

This is rather more violent than most Brand westerns. It starts with a range feud, ridiculously overinflated since it only involves a single steer, but it results in battles and more than a dozen men dead. That seems to be just the beginning unless one man can use the force of his own personality, and the authority of his gun, to restore peace to the region. This is one of Brand’s better efforts though hardly a classic. His quality was very uneven from this point on, as though he occasionally got interested in a story or character and exerted more effort than his usual workmanlike but uninspired adventures. 5/9/15

A Boy Ten Feet Tall by W.H. Canaway, Ballantine. 1965 (originally published as Sammy Goes North in 1961) 

Also published as Find the Boy, this is the story of a ten year old English boy whose parents are killed in an air raid in Egypt during the war in 1956. His only living relative is an aunt in Durban, five thousand miles away, so he decides to walk the length of Africa to find her.  Sammy has a variety of adventures and meets a number of fascinating people before finally being reunited with his aunt. A first class adventure story and an impressive series of glimpses of life in an exotic land. 5/8/15

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, 1947 

I absolutely loved this book when I first read it fifty years ago. It’s a collection of interrelated stories – we might call it a mosaic novel today – about the various residents of the town in the title. Many of the stories are little more than character portraits, but they are wonderfully evocative and often tragic. The residents include religious fanatics, people suffering the trauma of false accusations, farmers, laborers, wealthy men, unhappy wives, madmen, disturbed children, and a host of others. The closest there is to a central character is a young newspaper reporter who shows up in about half the episodes.  I think in some ways this book made me aware of the wide variety of actual people, let alone literary characters. Fifty years later, I liked it just as much as I did the first time. 4/23/15

L’ Assommoir by Emile Zola, 1877 

A young woman and her two children are abandoned by her love and left virtually penniless in Victorian Paris. Eventually she marries and things are looking up when she gives birth to a daughter. Her husband becomes disabled and a drunkard and everything begins to fall apart. She finally turns to drink as well despite the providential return of her former lover. This is quite long and quite well written but I was so thoroughly depressed by the second half that it was a chore to finish it. I suspect that Zola is one of those writers whose work I will never appreciate and it's unlikely I will look for any more of his books. 4/16/15

Lawless Land by Max Brand, Warner, 1984 (originally published in 1932) 

These three stories are about Speedy, a mildly atypical Brand hero in that he doesn’t carry a gun, although that makes him no less dangerous. He’s a bit of a Robin Hood, battling bad guys just for the fun of it. He foils claim jumpers, a band of outlaws, and other enemies in these three longish stories. Speedy would appear in at least one other Brand book as he started to use recurring characters more frequently during the mid-1930s. These are lightweight even for Brand, but they’re not at all bad and Speedy at least has some twists to his personality. 5/10/15

The Heat Death of the Universe by Pamela Zoline, McPherson, 1988 

I had not reread the title story of this collection for about thirty years.  It was wildly reviled when it appeared in New Worlds for being bad SF and completely plotless. The latter charge is ridiculous since it has a straightforward plot -  a woman who is overwhelmed by the complexity of life and feels she is losing control finally melts down when the family pet dies. On the other hand, there is nothing remotely SF about it. The other four stories in the collection – one of which originally appeared in an anthology of SF – are not SF either and they are all essentially variations on the initial theme, alternating conventional narration with lists, definitions, minor essays, and other non-traditional narrative forms. They are sometimes interesting but none are up to the quality of the first. 4/4/15

Restless House by Emile Zola, Bestseller Library, 1882 

Another of Zola’s attacks on the moral decadence of Victorian Paris. This US title is strange since the French title refers to a kind of cauldron. There is a large cast of characters in this one, most of whom are involved in one or more forms of sexual dalliance – infidelity most commonly. Two authority figures – a doctor and a priest – manage to rationalize all of this scandalous behavior and cover up for them. I liked this best of the handful of Zola novels I’ve read but not enough to make me  exert myself to find more. 4/4/15

Torture Trail by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1932) 

Although this is nominally a western, it’s really not. The secondary protagonist is engaged in a project to breed a particularly adaptive breed of dog for use in the far north. The primary protagonist works for him but there is a degree of animosity between the two men that is more primal than the rivalry among the dogs. There are a couple of minor subplots but this is essentially the conflict of the novel, which builds rapidly toward murder. This might have been interesting but it seems hastily written and the second half in particular has a tendency to wander about. 3/31/15

Outlaw’s Code by Max Brand, Ace, 1980 (originally published in 1932)    

Once again Max Brand writes about an outlaw hero, noted for his abilities with his fists and his guns, although he is not too fastidious about obeying the law. He finds himself on a lonely quest to find a millionaire who has been missing for more than a decade, even though everyone who previously tried to find him has disappeared mysterious. There are some that don’t want him to be found, and they offer a reward for anyone who will kill our hero before he does so. Despite the fairly eventful plot, this one is a real plodder with long sections where not much of anything happens. Finishing it was a struggle. 3/18/15

Nana by Emile Zola, Pocket, 1880 

I found this novel of decadence and corruption a bit too depressing to enjoy. Nana is a prostitute who becomes the lead actor in a new play, at which point she captivates society. A variety of men fall in love with her, all of whom are subsequently ruined, as is just about everybody who comes into contact with her. Zola apparently meant this to symbolize the collapse of the Second Republic in France, which was undercut by decadence and corruption itself. There are a few good scenes – and Zola’s descriptive passages are often more intriguing than the plot -  but it was just too downbeat and cynical for me. 3/16/15

Trail Partners by Max Brand, Pocket, 1958 (originally published in 1832) 

This is one of Brand’s better westerns, which begins when someone begins offering outlandish prices for apparently worthless mining stock. A standard hero smells a rat, particularly when the background of the buyer comes to light, and after more shenanigans he decides to pay a visit to the mine and find out just what makes it suddenly so appealing. The mine proves to be worthless, but the swindler has quietly attempted to murder the protagonist, which obviously means that there is something hidden that he doesn’t want to see the light of day. There’s a fairly well constructed mystery at the center of the plot and a less predictable and more plausible sequence of events leading to the climax. 3/14/15

The Kill by Emile Zola, Bantam, 1872 

Renee is the pampered wife by an influential but crooked Parisian aristocrat during the days of the French Empire. Bored with her life, she becomes romantically involved with her adult stepson and they begin a clandestine affair. There’s a prolonged flashback in which we discover how Renee’s husband made his money – using insider information to profit from the rebuilding of Paris – and if mostly indifferent to his wife’s infidelities. The book is an indictment of the nouveau riche and corruption in government. Zola’s flair for description is very impressive. He makes every scene come vividly to life, but it does tend to slow down the progress of the plot. 3/12/15

The Invisible Outlaw by Max Brand, Warner, 1974 (originally published in 1932) 

Another western revenge novel. John Christmas is such a feared outlaw that no one knows exactly what he looks like. Bob Pensteven knows only that Christmas is reported to have murdered his father and he wants vengeance. Since no honest man knows anything about the elusive outlaw, Pensteven has to become a criminal himself in order to track down his nemesis. Ultimately he tracks the man down, but then finds himself unable to commit murder in cold blood. A very predictable plot and outcome and a very minor addition to the Max Brand library. 3/9/15

Gunman’s Legacy by Max Brand, Warner, 1973 (originally published in 1932)

This short western adventure is a revenge story. Flash Baldwin has been gallivanting about in search of adventure when someone murders his father. Flash immediately decides that he is obligated to track down the killer and exact vengeance. He has a series of minor adventures, then ends up with a price on his own head. There’s actually a good twist at the end. Although this is still minor Brand, I enjoyed it a lot, though I confess I’m tiring of his repetition of main plots and supporting incidents. It was the key to his turning out so large a volume of material, but it makes the stories too predictable. 2/27/15

The Human Beast by Emile Zola and George Milburn, Dell, 1952   

This is actually a retelling rather than a translation so in the modern sense I suppose it’s a collaboration. The original 1890  novel’s plot has been preserved, but the prose is dull and sometimes awkward and I suspect not nearly the quality of the original. It’s a complex story about a railroad worker who suspects his wife of infidelity. The man he suspects is murdered while traveling on a train but it is not clear initially who is responsible, though eventually we discover that the couple actually collaborated on it, in part because they were mentioned in the dead man’s will. But the wife then has an affair with another man, and another woman causes a serious railway accident in an attempt to avenge her thwarted ardor, then commits suicide in remorse. This may have been a tense psychological thriller when Zola wrote it, but this retelling is rather dull. 2/25/15

Dead or Alive by Max Brand, Pocket, 1979 (originally published in 1932)

The protagonist of this western is just an ordinary ranch hand whose greatest ambition is to someday have a spread of his own. When he offends a professional gunman, and then beats him to the draw, his life is changed forever. The gunman has friends including some very influential people and they’re united in their determination to have our hero arrested and hanged as a murderer. He ends up as a fugitive, pursued by a small army of his enemies, and I’m sure you’re not at all surprised to discover that he outwits them all, shoots a few, and lives happily ever after. 2/22/15

Unconditional Surrender by Evelyn Waugh, 1961 

Third and final adventure of Guy Crouchback during the waning days of World War II. He’s too old for a combat command and takes a pointless post in London. There he learns that his ex-wife is back in the city, divorced and broke, and has found herself pregnant as well. The inevitable follows. Although many of the same characters recur, Waugh seems to have lost most of his sense of humor and this seems more tragic than comic, and far less interesting as well. He suffered from depression late in his life and it shows in his writing. 2/17/15

The Jackson Trail by Max Brand, Warner, 1971  (originally published in 1932)  

Jackson is another of Brand’s likeable outlaws, unbeatable with guns, fists, or wits. He’s also a kind of Robin Hood because he only steals from people who are criminals themselves, although he’s hunted by bad guys and good guys alike. Eventually he settles down to ranching and falls in love, but when an old friend asks for his help in righting another wrong, he risks everything out of a sense of loyalty and justice. About average, but Jackson has more depth than most of Brand’s heroes. 2/10/15

Drifter’s Vengeance by Max Brand, Berkley, 1989 (originally published in 1932) 

Speedy is a cross between a hobo and a wandering minstrel, but he’s also an accomplished thief despite not carrying a gun. Since he’s managed to stage clear of the law, he’s a viable candidate when he tells a local sheriff that he wants to be a deputy, but his motives are unclear. It turns out that he has a grudge against some of the local people who treated him unfairly, and he is taking this means to exact some well deserved revenge. This plot is very similar to that of Brand’s best known novel, Destry Rides Again, but it not nearly as well written. 2/4/15

The Nighthawk Trail by Max Brand, Berkley, 1988 (originally published in 1932)  

Brand’s fascination with horses arises again in this relatively minor novel. The protagonist is trying to help his best friend win the hand of a local rancher’s daughter. Unfortunately the rancher thinks he is unworthy and refuses. Then the man’s prize horse is stolen so our hero figures if he rescues and returns the horse, giving credit to his friend, the match will be made after all. Most of the story is his pursuit of the thieves, which covers considerable territory and a bit of fighting, and it ends with a variation of the “speak for yourself, John” solution. Nicely written but the best parts are in the first half so it feels flabby toward the end. 1/28/15

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh, 1937 

This short novel was not one of Waugh’s better efforts. Pinfold is a reclusive but successful author whose reliance on drugs and alcohol has led to a physical and mental breakdown. He seeks relief by taking a sea voyage to Ceylon but continues his unhealthy habits, which leads to hallucinations and paranoia. There’s little humor here and once the point is made, it seems a waste of time to illustrate it over and over again. It is, however, autobiographical as Waugh did in fact undergo a period in which drug use caused him to hear voices. This edition includes two shorter pieces as well. “Tactical Exercise” is a minor piece about a failing marriage. “Love Among the Ruins” was his only venture toward science fiction. It’s a near future satire in which criminality is a somewhat respected profession and society has become lax and corrupt. 1/24/15

Mighty Lobo by Max Brand, Warner, 1978 (originally published in 1932)  

This is one of Brand’s man against nature stories, disguised as a western. The hero is engaged in a lengthy battle with a wolf who preys on his livestock, everything from sheep to horses. When he finally gets a chance to shoot his nemesis, he refrains, deciding that he wants instead to tame the animal. There’s a bit of a romance and a few other interactions with other human characters, but the man and the wolf are the focus. And eventually, as you might guess, they reach an accommodation.  Rather dull but it goes by quickly. 1/19/15

Ambush at Torture Canyon by Max Brand, Pocket, 1973  (originally published in 1931)

A series of confrontations between a Texas Ranger and typical western bad guy are the focus of this short, fast moving novel. Since the ranger was responsible for disrupting the villain’s plans, and since the villain is not one to forget old hurts, the latter decides to arrange an elaborate trap to result in the death of his nemesis. But he underestimates his opponent, predictably enough, and the fun and games begin. One of Brand’s better westerns, with more effort to develop the characters and a satisfying if familiar story line. 1/14/15

Lucky Larribee by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1932)   

Max Brand’s westerns often include horses as actual characters rather than props, and that’s the case with this one. Larribee is the only man who has successfully ridden Sky Blue, who subsequently escaped back into the wild, where he is pursued intermittently by several people determined to own such a magnificent animal. Larribee finds himself in conflict with some of those hunters and some relatively low key violence follows. Competently written but I found the story rather dull throughout, largely because it repeats so much from other Brand western novels.. 1/10/15

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh, 1934  

An impecunious young man finds himself having an affair with the bored wife of a moderately wealthy country aristocrat. Almost everyone but the husband knows what is going on but naturally no one tells him.  Although the humor is much more restrained than in most of Waugh’s other novels, the satire is just as biting – particularly targeting snobbishness and the idle rich society set, but there is a more serious strain as well. The crisis is precipitated when the married couple’s young son is killed in a riding accident.  The wife decides to announce that she wants a divorce so that she can marry her lover. The efforts at finding a legal justification for the divorce without embarrassing the wife constitute the funniest part of the novel. It all ends tragically as it was obviously foredoomed. This way my second favorite of Waugh’s novels. 1/9/15

Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh, 1952

Officers and Gentlemen by Evelyn Waugh, 1955 

These are the first two volumes of a loose trilogy based in part on Waugh’s experiences during World War II military service, which he lampoons unmercifully. Guy Crouchback is a mostly hapless introvert who feels obligated to join the military even though he’s approaching middle age because of the outbreak of hostilities. Unable to join any of the regular branches, he becomes a member of an unofficial group training to become integrated into the official forces – although that never seems likely. With a handful of idiosyncratic characters, he undergoes a parody of training that is close enough to the real thing to remind me of my own experiences in the military. More than anything else, the first novel portrays men going to war as a bunch of silly children who treat it as a game despite the potentially tragic consequences, with a reliance on procedure and rules even when they fly in the face of practical reality. The first book ends with Crouchback in disgrace after he inadvertently hastens the death of another officer. Although the humor is generally understated, it is still quite funny. 

The sequel has Guy escaping his bad reputation through a series of misunderstandings and foul-ups.  He spends a great deal of time trying to bestow a legacy on a fellow soldier and gets pulled further into the orbit of a demented brigadier.  He ends up in Egypt after a while but the military confusion continues and no one really knows what to do with his unit. Then he’s off to Crete and utter chaos due to the German invasion. This second volume in the trilogy is less humorous, although it has its moments, and concentrates more on the disorganization of war, which is depicted quite convincingly. The last couple of chapters feel unnecessary. 1/2/15

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