Last Update 12/29/16

The Wolf Strain by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 

Three novelettes set in the Old West. One of them involves Bull Hunter, who was the protagonist of a couple of early novels. In another, a man tries to protect a young woman fleeing from a ruthless killer. One is a relatively quiet story about a rancher trying to make a new start. The Bull Hunter story is the best of the three. Brand was actually rather better at short westerns than novels overall, although his best work was much longer. 12/29/16

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, Time, 1965 (originally published in 1939) 

West’s final novel - he and his wife were killed in an automobile accident. He had moved to Hollywood by then so that backdrop figures significantly in the novel. The story is basically about an untalented and unsuccessful actress who is wooed, after their various fashions, by three men, each of whom has a radically different personality. The theme is the realization that the American dream is false, that hard work and honesty do not guarantee success. Impressive, but more than a little bit depressing. 12/26/16

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West, Avon, 1965 (originally published in 1933)

The classic short novel about a man so affected by the sadness of the letters sent to his Lonelyhearts column that it affects his personal life. He rejects the woman who loves him, has sexual encounters with the wife of his boss, commits assault on a homeless man, and is ultimately shot by the husband of a woman who flirted with him. The protagonist is never named except by his newspaper title. Much more complex than it sounds and rather depressing even while it is being impressive. 12/12/16

Cool Million & The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West, Avon, 1961 

A novella and a novelette. The first is a kind of reverse Horatio Alger story. The young hero heads off to New York City to make his fortune and runs into a string of crooks, misunderstandings, and other disasters that leave him in ill health, lacking his teeth, recently released from prison, and with his elderly mother missing after their house was foreclosed upon. The political shenanigans bear an uncanny and scary similarity to the present. The second and much shorter story is a kind of surreal comedy in which a man finds the wreck of the Trojan Horse and explores inside. 12/7/16

The Bells of San Filipo by Max Brand, Pocket, 1977 (originally published in 1925) 

The hero of this western is a prospector who seems fated never to strike it rich until a timely earthquake uncovers a silver mine just when he is in a position to notice. He and another man decide to exploit their discovery, but life isn’t that simple. The presence of the silver attracts the attention of others with very different motives. Rather more thoughtful than most of Brand’s work, and better written than most of it. 11/29/16

The Stingaree by Max Brand, Pocket, 1975 (originally published in 1930) 

A typical Brand western hero shows up in a small town, soft spoken, almost meek, and not prone to mixing with others. But at least one of the locals suspects that there is more to the newcomer than there appears. This man, Parker, killed a dangerous gunfighter recently and the dead man had an unknown partner who is rumored to have threatened vengeance. Parker is pretty sure this is the man, but can he move against him without something overt to justify his aggressiveness? There’s more tension in this one than usual, and a little less action. Brand did not experiment as much with his plots by this point in his career but he still managed to introduce the occasional variation. 11/21/16

Steve Train’s Ordeal by Max Brand, Pocket, 1974 (originally published in 1924) 

This is a mishmash of old Brand plot tricks. The protagonist is at heart a good man despite his disrespect for the law. When he is hired to deliver a large chunk of money to a wanted outlaw, he puts his own future in jeopardy. This was quite good despite its lack of originality, building up both the character and the situation until the ultimate confrontation – a gunfight of course – resolves the various subplots. 11/15/16

The Luck of the Spindrift by Max Brand, Pocket, 1973 (originally published in 1941)    

An out of work intellectual is shanghaied aboard the Spindrift after unwisely venturing aboard. He subsequently survives a series of adventures – standard ones including a storm at sea and unfriendly shipmates – before getting involved in a search for a lost treasure. It takes far too long for the story to start moving at a reasonable speed, the adventures are rather trite, and the concluding chapters are disappointingly dull. Brand rarely wrote outside the western genre and never seemed as much at ease when he did so. 11/15/16

Trail of the Hawk by Sinclair Lewis (1915)   

This is one of the author’s minor early novels. It’s a kind of coming of age story focusing on Carl Ericson, whom we first meet when he is eight. After various vicissitudes, he becomes a successful businessman, marries the woman he loves, and ends up being sent to South America as the result of a promotion. There are a few amusing incidents, but for the most part this is rather dull. 11/12/16

Hired Guns by Max Brand, Pocket, 1974 (originally published in 1923) 

Two feuding families decide to settle their differences with a gunfight between representatives of each. Unfortunately, that doesn’t satisfy everyone and the violence continues, aided by the arrival of the hired gunmen of the title. Peace comes at last, but not until a deadly price has been paid. Above average western. 11/10/16

Pharaoh by David Gibbins, Dell, 2013  

The seventh adventure of Jack Howard and his archaeologist/mercenary crew moves to Egypt. He has just found evidence that a pharaoh and his entire army committed mass suicide, for reasons unknown but probably religious. The puzzle that follows ranges through history, including the fall of Khartoum and the present, and it will test Howard and his friends more than any other challenge in their past. I thought this was the best of the eight books I’ve read in this series. The history asides were more interesting, the puzzle more fascinating, the story lively and exciting, and I was carried along in a headlong rush to the end. 11/8/16

City of Night by John Rechy, Grove, 1964 

When I read this back in the 1960s, the world of gay prostitution was a great mystery to me and the book was startling and fascinating at times. It's essentially the author's autobiography. The protagonist has an unhappy childhood after which he travels to New York City and almost immediately becomes a part of the gay underworld. The greatest strength of the novel is the characters, who are deftly drawn, varied, and interesting. the idiosyncratic punctuation and neologisms become somewhat irritating after a while. Their novelty value is low and they contribute nothing to the story. Still an impressive book, but it didn't live up to my memories of it. 11/1/16

Pride of Tyson by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1920) 

The protagonist of this western is a greenhorn from the East who spurned wealth and society for a life of adventure. Although he is poorly prepared, he survives his initial encounters with ruffians and con men and gradually becomes used to his new environment, learning to use his guns and his fists when necessary, eventually winning the respect of his opponents and learning something about himself. This is another of Brand’s familiar plots, not done particularly well, although the story does move fairly quickly. 10/29/16

A Fire of Driftwood by D.K. Broster, Wildside, 1932 

I enjoyed Broster’s horror stories enough that I decided to try some of her mainstream fiction. This is a collection of mostly light historical adventure stories set in Europe. There is some sword play, some mild mystery, and lots of verbal confrontation, but most of the stories are actually quite minor. Best of the lot is “The Inn of the Sword.” A couple have supernatural overtones but they aren’t memorable. 10/23/16

Atlantis God by David Gibbins, Dell, 2012

Jack Howard, archaeologist, has crossed paths with Nazis remnants before and he’s about to do so again in this fast paced, readable, but rather predictable thriller. He found the ruins of Atlantis in an earlier book and he’s back there doing some more research when he uncovers evidence that the Nazis were studying the lost civilization as well, and there are still active cells of them plotting to restore the Reich. Old enemies and new ones combine forces, convinced that Atlantis can become the rallying cry for a new world order that is more to their liking than the one we have. 10/21/16

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, Signet, 1958 

The first and most famous novel by Sillitoe, this focuses on a young British working man who is fond of drink and woman. He is sleeping with a friend’s wife, although that begins to go sour when she unexpectedly gets pregnant. He’s an excellent example of the anti-hero in that he isn’t evil exactly, but he is so unconscious of the harm that he does to others, and so essentially ineffectual in his own life, that it is impossible to admire him. Sillitoe was indicting the industrialized society of Britain and how it warped the working class. Not the kind of novel that will brighten your day, but impressive. 10/19/16

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe, Signet, 1959   

I read this collection of short stories when I was in college. Sillitoe was one of the “angry young men” of English literature, and his anger shows with these portraits of people living horrible lives – thieves, the permanently poor, and others who see no hope of improvement in the future. The title story is the most famous one – an inmate in a Borstal decides to throw an important race to frustrate those in charge of the institution. My favorite, however, is “The Fishing-Boat Picture,” in which two people whose marriage foundered later evolve into an odd though distant partnership. 10/14/16

Black Jack by Max Brand, Pocket, 1976 (originally published in 1922) 

Another western retread. This one is about a man whose father was a legendary outlaw who led a band of desperadoes until his death. The son is equally brave, reckless, and foolhardy, and people just naturally switch his father’s nickname to him, assuming that he will lead the same kind of life. But our hero is stubborn and doesn’t want to be pushed where he doesn’t want to go, which puts him at odds with both the law and the lawless. This was okay but rather slow. 10/9/16

Daughter of Astrea by E. Phillips Oppenheim, McAllister, 2015 (originally published in 1898 )  

An explorer visits a remote near India where the local people are normally peaceful. Unfortunately, a religious festival is underway which requires a human sacrifice and an English woman has been chosen. The hero confronts the priestess and her minions in an underground cavern, rescues the woman, and eventually escapes from their island kingdom. They have also stolen the sacred rubies of the priestess, whose minions chase them in a steamboat. This is just a novelette, and not a very good one. 10/2/16

Thunder Moon and the Sky People by Max Brand, Leisure, 2000 (originally published in 1927) 

This includes two novels in the Thunder Moon series. Thunder Moon is a highly respected Cheyenne warrior despite having been abducted from a white family as a child. When his new people do him wrong, he and a friend despite to abandon them and travel to the world of the white man, but there he discovers that he doesn’t fit in either world. He and Standing Antelope then have various adventures. This combined volume is quite long but I found it surprisingly entertaining despite the embedded racism. 9/4/16

Dirty Butter for Servants by Joan Fleming, Hamish Hamilton, 1972 

Although I have enjoyed almost everything I have read by Fleming, this one is disappointing. It’s more of an historical portrait than a mystery, and in fact there is no mystery, no suspense, and no surprises. The story is set in 1833 England and involves a family that is torn by conflicts of personality and codes of honor, which eventually boil over. Most of the story was rather tedious and while there is plenty of tension, none of it really involved me as the reader. 8/28/16

Two Sixes by Max Brand, Leisure, 1999

This is a collection of three western novelettes of which the title story is actually the weakest. “The Winking Light” is the best, a slight departure from his usual western plots, though perhaps a bit slow. “The Best Bandit” is more typical of his work, better written than the other two but with a slightly less interesting story. Brand was never really at ease at shorter lengths and needed a full novel to tell most of his stories. 8/18/16

The Black Signal by Max Brand, Warner, 1987 (originally published in 1925)  

A gunfighter protects his town from outlaws so effectively that they learn to avoid the area. Satisfied with what he has accomplished, he decides to hang up his guns and enjoy the peaceful life. There wouldn’t be much story if he succeeded and he doesn’t. A vicious killer shows up and is defeated, but now our hero is himself branded an outlaw. Even his girlfriend gives up on him. His old enemies are ahead of him and the posse is behind him and there doesn’t seem to be any way out for our hero. Fortunately, the author is on his side. About average. 8/3/16

Pillar Mountain by Max Brand, Pocket, 1978 (originally published in 1928) 

Once again Brand makes use of the naďve hero who just wants to be about his business and who has little experience with the world. When our hero leaves his remote home, he is promptly robbed, then arrested, then escapes prison with the help of another stranger. He picks up what he needs to know quickly and becomes a feared gunman and he also acquires an arch enemy. Brand also reverts to an old theme – he tames a wild wolf that becomes his lifelong friend. This one starts out well but begins to fizzle at the halfway mark and never quite recovers even during the fairly exciting climax. 7/26/16

The Big Book of Adventure Stories edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage, 2011  

This has been my bedside reading for several weeks, more than 800 pages of adventure stories including a complete Tarzan novel, and a short review really doesn't do it justice. There are lots of familiar tales and lots that I had never read before. The contributors include H.G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Louis L’Amour, Talbot Mundy, Rafael Sabatini, and dozens of others. They range from historical to contemporary to futuristic and while occasionally humorous, most are serious and exciting, though obviously I liked some better than others. H. Bedford-Jones was particularly impressive and I plan to pick up more by him. This is not something you read through in a sitting, but it is an impressive and entertaining compendium to dip into from time to time. 7/22/16

The One-Way Trail by Max Brand, Leisure, 1998

A local boy makes good western. Harry French is pretty much of a nebbish when he leaves his home town, but he has changed dramatically by the time he returns a few years later. There is something in his manner that makes people avoid him and he doesn’t talk very much. As it happens, he has made a name for himself as a gunfighter, and if he’d decided to find refuge from the life he had made for himself by coming home, he quickly learns that you can never come home again. Not bad. 7/20/16

The Mask of Troy by David Gibbins, Dell, 2011

We all know that the Nazis experimented with the occult, but what if one of those experiments bore unexpected fruits? Jack Howard, archaeologist, leads a team which has found the sunken wreckage of the Greek fleet that attacked Troy. But they are also close to a darker secret, one which has its origin in what was found in the tomb of Agamemnon. Briskly paced, though as always with time for historical lectures, and considerably better than the previous in the series, although it still follows pretty much the same pattern. 7/17/16

Strange Courage by Max Brand, Charter, 1982 (originally published in 1930)  

A quietly impressive stranger rides into town one day and a week later he outwits the local tough guy and establishes a reputation for himself without having fired a shot. He meets the inevitable pretty girl but no one knows his background and he’s not forthcoming even when asked directly. Understandably, this stirs the interest of the local lawman, who is also smitten with the girl, and the combination slowly but surely rumbles to a boil over. Average western adventure from late in Brand’s career. 7/13/16

The Consul at Sunset by Gerald Hanley, Pyramid, 1951

This is a mildly turgid novel of the last days of the British Empire in East Africa. Two officers with very different attitudes toward the subject races and just about everything else have one common interest, a seductive local woman. Most of the tension is on the psychological level, although there is violence between two tribes and the potential for even more. Hanley had a rather jaded view of British disinterestedness and illustrates some of the inherent flaws that undercut  the colonial system. Rather dark and even bitter, but intriguing. 7/10/16

The Innocents by Sinclair Lewis, 1917

This is a novella from early in Lewis’ career. It chronicles some events in the life of a happily married older couple who live in New York City and are rather timid about trying anything new or visiting strange places. Even a vacation trip to Massachusetts is a considerably strain on their nerves. But as they adjust, they decide to make a major change, give up their life in the city in order to open a tea room on Cape Cod. They discover that they have more competition than expected and the disdain of some of the locals bruises their feelings. Their business fails and a storm damages their property. They are forced to move in with their adult daughter, but they feel awkward and finally move back to a cheap apartment in New York City. They become hoboes for a while before finally enjoying financial success again. Minor work, but another interesting look at early 20th Century America. 7/9/16

Our Mr. Wrenn by Sinclair Lewis, 1914

Mr. Wrenn is the introspective, middle-aged order entry clerk for a New York City novelty company. The sale of some property he rented suggests to him that he should travel and leave his job, but he is woefully unprepared for the world and has no clear idea of what he wants to do. Everyone he encounters takes advantage of him and his money begins to disappear quickly. After various adventures he acquires some strength of character and there is even a happy ending. This was one of Lewis’ early and now largely forgotten novels but it’s still quite readable. It was his second published novel and the first to appear under his own name. 7/1/16

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