Last Update 12/31/13

In the Hills of Monterey by Max Brand, Leisure, 2002 (originally published in 1924)    

Although this was published in a western pulp magazine and is packaged as a western, it’s really more of an historical adventure story set in Spanish California. Two European adventurers, one French and one Spanish, arrive on the same ship and have an odd sort of love/hate relationship. Their futures get mixed up with a local girl from a good family and a variety of villains and heroes. It doesn’t feel at all like Brand’s other westerns, spends more time on the characters who are also very different from Brand’s usual ones, and it also includes crooked politicians and pirates. Pretty good, but a little too verbose, particularly for an adventure story. 12/31/13

Gun Gentlemen by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1922)   

Brand is deeply in his rut with this one, about an all around he-man and gunfighter in the Old West who gets framed for a crime he didn’t commit. In this case, our hero is tricked into bringing a reluctant young woman to a rendezvous with a man he thinks is his friend. It’s actually a trick to get him killed, but he survives and he and the girl fall in love. Various adventures ensue as they are on the run following an accidental death – in fact no one is deliberately killed in the entire book, which was quite unusual. There’s also a young orphan who gets involved in the manhunt, and a very strange reclusive household where the fugitives take shelter. The characters are much more developed in this one than in any of the earlier Brand novels and the plot – despite its main generic direction – is helped by a couple of interesting subplots. One of the better Brand novels. 12/28/13

Bull Hunter’s Romance by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1921)  

Obviously this one is the sequel to Bull Hunter. In an effort to vary his stories, Brand tells the first few chapters of this one from the point of view of a wolf, Ghost, who takes shelter from angry ranchers with Bull Hunter, whose prowess is by now legendary. The viewpoint moves back and forth between the two as they bond and have subsequent adventures. Hunter also has a human partner but the partner unwisely chooses to participate in a robbery. Complications arise and then Bull meets a young woman who steals his heart. About average Brand but slower moving than most. 12/24/13

Dan Barry’s Daughter by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1924)   

This sequel to the Dan Barry trilogy lacks even the faint fantasy element. His daughter Joan is now eighteen and while she feels an occasional longing for the wild, she doesn’t recognize what it is. Meanwhile, Harry Gloster has discovered that his two partners have been murdered, leaving him as the most likely suspect, so he decides to head for Mexico before a lynch mob gets on his trail. Their paths cross with romantic consequences. Inevitably he has to choose whether to run away from the woman he loves or stay around to face the consequences. A pale reflection of some of Brand’s best work. 12/20/13

Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson, Quercus, 2013, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-62365-074-2  

First volume in the Valhalla Saga. I thought this was going to be a Norse fantasy but despite some mythical trappings, this is a straight historical novel set during the days of the Vikings, although it often feels more like an epic fantasy. The chief protagonist is a young warrior who is caught up in a factional struggle among his people, and also faced with the threat of a foreign enemy whose forces are drawing closer. The turmoil caused by the spread of Christianity acts as another destabilizing force. Nicely written, although we’re left hanging since this is the opening volume in a series. The Viking era is not one that I find very interesting, but the author succeeds in bringing that early culture to life. 12/14/13

Seven Trails by Max Brand, Pocket, 1955 (originally published in 1923)   

One of Brand’s better western novels, although it uses his usual devices. Peter Quince is the son of an outlaw taken in by a family after his father’s death, who leaves sometime later after a fight with one of the sons. He masters the usual arts, fighting, shooting, and riding, and has a larger than life horse called Bad Luck. He’s temperamental but stays on the right side of the law until he is forced to kill the son of a rich man and runs away to avoid a lynch mob even though he’s innocent. The wronged man who is a relative innocent is slightly different this time, belligerent and more likely to break a woman’s heart than woo it. On the run, he makes it to Mexico where he meets another expatriate and crosses trails with Le Tigre, a Mexican bandit who seems like a supernatural figure to the locals. When Quince survives their first encounter, they assume he has magic of his own. He also crosses paths with an incredibly wealthy landowner whose peons are devoted to him. There’s a hint of racism – El Tigre is a formidable and honorable person so obviously he has to be from the US posing as Mexican. The bad guy turns out to be good and the good guy bad – another trademark Brand device – and there’s a revelation that’s not too surprising. The ending is rather weak but it was a good trip getting there. The title, incidentally, has nothing to do with the story. 12/13/13

Galloping Danger by Max Brand, Pocket, 1981 (Originally published in 1923) 

Lee Garrison runs away from home at thirteen and becomes a cowhand, known for his lack of imagination and his ability to do monotonous jobs endlessly without getting bored. Unlike most of Brand’s early heroes, he’s not particularly good with his fists or his gun although he does have the usual affinity for horses. From a dying Indian, he hears the story of a fabulous, untamed horse and becomes obsessed with taming him. The first half of the novel describes his pursuit, capture, and eventual befriending of the horse. Back in civilization, he encounters professional gamblers, thugs, claim jumpers, and various other characters, discovering depths of his own personality and strength that he hadn’t realized were there. He also discovers that he’s lucky with cards and meets a girl whom he admires. Nothing runs smoothly but eventually, naturally, everything works out. Average for Brand, with a quieter plot than usual. 12/10/13

The Bandit of the Black Hills by Max Brand, Pocket, 1974 (originally published in 1923)  

As is the case with many Max Brand heroes, John Morrow was unjustly sent to jail, framed for a crime he didn’t commit. Know as the Duke, Morrow has a reputation for a fast gun and a short temper, and even though he returns after being released with the intention of taking up honest work, there are men who want to hone their own reputations by killing him. Nor is Morrow that fond of honest work either; he’d rather play cards for money.  He takes a job as bodyguard for a local rancher who has been threatened by a local outlaw and meets a mysterious young woman who disappears into the darkness.  There’s something odd going on at the ranch where he works as well. His employer may be hearing things, or his nephew might be plotting against him. Morrow finds the hideout of the gang behind the threats and attacks, but he also discovers they are linked to the girl he met – and with whom naturally he has instantly fallen in love. Nor is he much of a bodyguard since the man he is protecting is killed right in front of him, shot from ambush. Once again he is framed for murder but this time he's going to do something about it. One of Brand's better westerns. 12/7/13

Wild Freedom by Max Brand, Warner, 1983 (originally published in 1922) 

Tom Parks is left alone in the wilderness when an accident claims his father. Fortunately he is old enough to have learned sufficient survival skills to fend off the cold, to gather food, and to protect himself from non-human predators. It reads a lot like Tarzan’s first adventure, learning to live in the while, coming to an accommodation with a family of grizzly bears, eventually becoming reunited with humans. But he becomes an outlaw instead of integrating into society, but like most Brand outlaws, he has a heart of gold and falls in love with a young girl. Alas, her father decides to hunt him down and kill him. Everything works out well though, after some rather convoluted plot gyrations. Average quality for this writer. 12/3/13

King Charlie by Max Brand, Leisure, 1997 (originally published in 1922) 

The title character is a hobo working his way back and forth across the latter days of the Old West. In one town he befriends a teenager who is being exploited by the man who took him in when he showed up alone as a child and convinces him to come along. Not surprisingly, he turns out to be the boy’s father. The boy leaves after they get involved in a botched bank robbery, determined not to turn to a life of crime. The lives of father and son cross numerous times after that in this episodic but rather slow moving adventure story. Toward the low end of his quality scale.11/30/13

Devil Horse by Max Brand, Warner, 1974 (originally published in 1922 as Alcatraz

Not one of my favorite Brand westerns. I’ve never been fond of animal centric stories – My Friend Flicka, Old Yeller, even Watership Down all bored me to some degree – and this one is pretty much about a wild horse with the human characters revolving around efforts to capture, tame, or even kill the animal. Brand seems to have had a fondness for horses and they are often well developed subsidiary characters. They work in that context but this time he just went too far for me. Well written enough if you don't mind the subject matter but I found it pretty dull. 11/26/13

The Long Chase by Max Brand, Warner, 1979 (originally published in 1922)  

A typical Max Brand hero, Tom Keene, decides to give up his life as a card shark after seeing his father die of deprivation. Although still tempted by cards and gunplay, he resolves to do better, only to be framed for something he didn’t do and sent to prison for eight years. When he emerges, his resolutions have disappeared and he sets out to get revenge on those who wronged him. But things don’t work out quite as planned. Solid writing helps elevate the pedestrian plot, and Keene is somewhat more complex than most of Brand’s early protagonists. 11/17/13

The Rangeland Avenger by Max Brand, Warner, 1986 (originally published in 1922) 

Four men go prospecting in the desert and only three return. The fourth was abandoned after being injured and killed himself before his companions returned. The dead man’s brother, Riley Sinclair, wants to know the details and he is such an imposing figure that one of the threesome commits suicide rather than face him, although he lives long enough to reveal the truth. Riley then kills the second man in a fair fight, but before he can deal with the third he finds himself part of a lynch mob determined to hang an innocent man for the crime he committed. Not being the heroic type, he is not prepared to sacrifice himself but at the last minute he decides to confuse the issue and possibly allow the innocent man to escape. Although the setup is good, this is actually one of Brand’s worst books. The mock trial is badly done, Sinclair’s motivations are inconsistent, and the whole thing gets a lot more complicated than it would really be.  Weakest I’ve ever read by him. 11/9/13

Gunfighter’s Return by Max Brand, Warner, 1982 (originally published in 1922)  

When Jim Curry’s father is killed in a shootout with an illegal posse, he turns outlaw, although he’s more of a Robin Hood, stealing only from crooks and swindlers. His path crosses that of Charlie Mark, a would be professional gambler who has had a string of bad luck and wants the reward, along with the supposed fortune Curry has amassed as the mysterious Red Devil. Curry offers to let Mark take over as the Red Devil, but where Curry never actually killed anybody, Mark commits two murders on his very first night. Eventually Curry becomes upset with Mark’s depredations and considers ending his career. They fight and Curry believes Mark is dead, although the wound turns out to be superficial. Curry makes this mistake several times during the course of the story. Apparently he’s not as good a shot as the author would have us believe. Curry becomes a suspect, convinces people he is innocent, and then has a final confrontation with his nemesis. A bit too pat to be realistic, but one of his best novels overall, even though it ends with Curry on the run again, apparently in anticipation of a sequel. 10/26/13

Gunman’s Reckoning by Max Brand, Pocket, 1978 (originally published in 1921)    

This is not one of Brand’s better westerns, though it’s readable. Donnegan was thwarted in his quest for revenge when an old enemy is killed by another. By chance he wanders into the orbit of Colonel Macon, an invalid living the life of a recluse with his daughter and one servant. Macon wants talks him into looking into the affairs of his foster son, who is supposed to be handling a land claim for him but who seems to have sold out to a band of outlaws. And he wants him to take along his daughter, who turns out to be handy with a gun, because she’s engaged to the foster son. Donnegan then gets involved battling a gang in the mining town as well as discovering that the foster son is thoroughly bad. He falls in love with the girl and eventually wins her hand. It turns out that the Colonel is no better than his foster son, which leaves Donnegan in a quandary. 10/14/13

The Golden Ocean by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1996 (originally published in 1956)

The Unknown Shore by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1996 (originally published in 1959) 

O’Brian wrote this two part naval adventure before he started the Aubrey/Maturin series for which he is best known. It is actually much more adventurous in some ways, with a voyage around the world, battles with enemy ships, and so on. The book is actually based on real historical events but we see things primarily through the eyes of a fiction midshipman who is one of the few who survives. The second book is a sequel in which the author speculates about what might have happened if some of those presumed lost had actually survived. There are elements in both novels that were later redone in the better known series. I was particularly impressed with the depictions of life in various parts of Asia as experienced by the characters. Not as polished as his later work but still entertaining. 10/10/13

Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1999  

Aubrey and Maturin are off to Chile in the final novel in this series, but only after overcoming problems that surround the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and the subsequent downsizing of the navy. Maturin gets a new love interest and the tone brightens considerably from the last book despite a collision at sea and the presence aboard ship of a member of royalty. Aubrey eventually battles the Spanish fleet, and at times his own crew, but despite these difficulties the pace of the book is rather relaxed. It’s not a rousing end to the series – O’Brian died leaving the next incomplete – but it felt appropriate, particularly given that the characters by now are thoroughly middle aged.  Sorry to see this series come to an end. 9/28/13

The Hundred Days by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1998 

Since Napoleon escaped at the end of the previous book, this one was obviously going to be about his brief effort to resume power. Although Aubrey has to prove his seamanship in battle once again, this time we’re more concerned with Maturin’s adventures as a spy.  The tone this time is much darker than earlier, in part because of the terrible conflict convulsing Europe, in part because of Maturin’s grief over the death of his wife – whom I won’t miss at all. There’s a cloud over even the relatively light sequences. The author’s attention to historical detail has impressed me right along and it’s quite obvious this time as well. Although it’s obvious where his sympathies lie, the author is careful not to make anyone too good or too evil to be credible.  It also made me wonder which direction the series would take from this point on, but I know that he only finished one more novel in the series. 9/25/13

The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1996  

I was mildly disappointed in this Aubrey/Maturin novel, largely because it seemed to be rehashing old themes. Aubrey’s marriage is troubled and now that he’s a member of Parliament he has political enemies, to say nothing of an obstreperous neighbor. There’s a brief battle at sea but for complicated reasons victory is turned into a kind of defeat and once again Aubrey’s future in the navy is in doubt. The end of open hostilities with France and the necessity to downsize the active fleet makes this even more acute. He is considering taking a position with the navy of Chile when word comes that Napoleon has escaped from Elba, which throws the fat into the nearer fire once again. 9/18/13

Free Range Lanning by Max Brand, Leisure, 1997 (originally published in 1921) 

Andy Lanning is a gentle man until his adopted father forces him into a violent confrontation with a local tough in order to make him more “mannish”.  The events which make him a fugitive – although he takes the time to look in on a beautiful young woman – are rather badly contrived, a far less plausible setup than in most of Brand’s previous westerns.  Lanning meets some noble bad guys – Brand treated most outlaws as romantic figures often wronged by society – and eventually finds a way back to the young woman, who fell in love with him at their first meeting. Some of the “good” citizens he encounters are anything but. It’s a coming of age story, a common theme in Brand’s westerns, but not handled as well as in many of his other books. 9/17/13

The Commodore by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1994   

Aubrey and Maturin return to England where the latter finds that his wife has vanished once again, this time apparently repelled by their autistic daughter. I never liked the Diana character and never understood how Maturin would be in love with her, frankly. Although the bulk of the novel takes place ashore this time, there is one minor and one major battle at sea to keep things lively. Aubrey is now in charge of subordinate captains and that leads to considerable tension because he has two troublesome men to deal with. There’s more espionage – this time involving a planned French invasion – and efforts to suppress the slave trade as well as the usual politicking and domestic problems. A solid but not exceptional installment in the series. 9/15/13

The Wine-Dark Sea by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1993   

This may well be the most action packed novel in the Aubrey series. It opens with a relentless pursuit at sea, continues with an attempt to foment a revolution in Peru, the eruption of an undersea volcano, a perilous journey in a lifeboat, encounters with various characters, and a few other plot twists and surprises. The evocation of the Andes – where Maturin is on his latest mission for British Intelligence – and the volcanic eruption are both brilliantly done. The scenes at sea are always fascinating, and there are some character turns this time that will surprise some readers. I’m getting near the end of this series and will be sorry to see the last. 9/6/13

Travel Scholarships by Jules Verne,. Wesleyan, 2013, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-6412-9 

This is one of the last few Verne novels to be translated into English, and it was meant as part of his Extraordinary Voyage series. It’s not one of the fantastic voyages, however. A band of escaped convicts secretly replaces the crew of a ship scheduled to sail for the Caribbean with a group of students. There follows a series of episodic adventures as the passengers slowly discover the trouble they’re in. Verne’s later fiction became a little more socially aware and this book is also critical of the European influence on that region. It’s a quite readable adventure story and might have been better known in this country if it had been translated earlier. 9/3/13

The Truelove by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1992 (also published as Clarissa Oakes 

O’Brian starts to run out of Napoleonic Wars for this, the fifteenth in the series. It’s comparatively short and another that concentrates more on espionage than sea battles. Aubrey has been dispatched to deal with the capture of a British ship by islanders who are being manipulated by French agents. His mission is complicated by the presence aboard ship of a mysterious woman who becomes, in a manner of speaking, Maturin’s new love interest. Although not typical of the series in general, I think this is actually one of my favorites, with a relatively relaxed pace, a more complex and subtle plot, and the usual cast of familiar and likeable characters. 8/19/13

Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, Evergreen, 1960  

Ionesco was active in the Theater of the Absurd fad in playwriting and this is an excellent example. It’s set in a small village in France where a dissolute quasi-protagonist is startled along with his friends when a rhinoceros runs through the village. In due course the inhabitants themselves begin to change into rhinoceri until only the drunken outcast remains human. It is, obviously, a comment about our tendency to succumb to mass movements even when those movements are against our own best interests. As a short play, this might have been more effective. As it stands it’s quite long and the dialogue is not crisp enough to sustain such length, becoming repetitive and eventually convincing us that we’ve been bludgeoned rather than stabbed. 8/16/13

Bull Hunter by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1921) 

Reprising themes from his earlier westerns, Brand presents a new hero – Bull Hunter – a big and powerful man who appears not too bright, although he is shrewder than even he realizes. Hunter decides to hunt down and kill Pete Reeve, a gunman who seriously wounded his uncle. When he first finds him, Reeve is in jail, falsely accused of murder, so Hunter has to solve the case, unmask the sheriff, and free Reeve. The two men then engage in a gunfight, but neither has the heart to kill the other, although Hunter ends up seriously wounded. Eventually encounters with others, including a villainous man Hunter’s size, teach him to become more mature and self confident. The story ends with him wounding but not killing the bad guy, leaving aside the woman he likes, and riding off into a presumably planned sequel. 8/10/13

The Nutmeg of Consolation by Patrick O’Brian, Fontana, 1991   

Shipwrecked at the end of the last book in the series, Aubrey and friends try to build a new ship to escape the island where they ended up, only to be attacked by Malay pirates. They eventually do manage to raise a partially sunken ship and make it seaworthy, then complete their voyage to the penal colony in New Guinea, where more adventures await them. A considerable uptick in action sequences from the last book, but there’s still time for Maturin to get involved with another mysterious woman and for Aubrey to prove his seamanship. 8/1/13

The Long, Long Trail by Max Brand, Pocket, 1976 (originally published in 1921)   

Morgan Valentine has just decided to ship his flirtatious niece Mary back East where she won’t cause so much trouble among her admirers when he runs into a bandit named Jess Dreer. Dreer is a puzzling man who so fascinates him that even after he has been robbed, he invites the outlaw home for supper, where Mary becomes fascinated with the newcomer. Predictably Mary falls for Dreer and helps him escape a posse. Also predictably, he falls for her. Brand’s math could use some work. If the chance of one of two events happening is one out of four, then the odds against it happening are not four to one but three to one. Then a professional gunfighter calls out one of Mary’s cousins and she asks Dreer to intervene on his behalf. He does but is taken prisoner afterward. Dreer escapes a sadistic sheriff and is also pursued by the family who hired the gunfighter. Eventually Mary’s family rally to Dreer’s side and he and the girl gallop off into the sunset. This one’s pretty good, if a trifle corny. 7/22/13

Thirteen Gun Salute by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1989  

Jack Aubrey has been reinstated and given command once again and he’s off with his friend Maturin on a diplomatic mission to prevent Napoleon’s agents from forging alliances in Malaysia. There are the usual adventures at sea, including a potentially deadly storm, but the heart of this volume in the series is dueling espionage with Maturin eventually emerging as the winner. This is another worthy installment with a slightly different feel from the earlier books, and considerably less physical action, although not so much that it will alienate any of O’Brian’s fans. It was a bit slow going for me although the good parts made up for the rest. 7/21/13

Love and Glory by Robert B. Parker, Dell, 1983   

This isn’t a Spenser novel, or even a mystery/thriller for that matter. I suspect it’s at least partly autobiographical since the protagonist is a writer with a disdain for authority – in fact he resembles Spenser as well, not surprisingly. He gets the girl, loses the girl, is devastated, recovers, and gets the girl again. It’s a love story, though not what we now think of as romance, and it’s pretty well done, though not my favorite kind of story. I was glad to see him try something away from his usual pattern, but even gladder that he reverted. 7/18/13

Letter of Marque by Patrick O’Brian, Harper, 1997 (originally published in 1984)

Jack Aubrey is now commander of a privateer after losing his position in the navy due to a contrived criminal conviction.  He remains depressed by his situation although a series of profitable victories at sea cheer him up some. Thanks to Maturin’s connections in intelligence, the crew is even immune to impressments by navy ships. This installment provides some interesting contrast to the others since the management of the crew is considerably different outside the regular navy. I found the Maturin related subplots mildly irritating this time. His on again off again romance/marriage has become more of a joke than a real story line. On the other hand, the sequences at sea – and most of this book is set there – are the best since Rafael Sabatini.  And Aubrey’s prospects are turning upward once again. 7/11/13

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1992 (originally published 1986)  

One of the shorter novels in the Aubrey series, and one which uncharacteristically takes place largely ashore. Having completed his mission to the Pacific, Aubrey is back in England where he makes another series of unwise investments, this time leading him into trouble with organized crime. Meanwhile, his friend Maturin becomes further involved in his secret role for military intelligence. Aubrey confronts old friends and old enemies as well as new ones and life changes radically for both protagonists. Aubrey is cashiered after being tricked into committing fraud. Maturin discovers that his wife has left him, but he also inherits a fortune, enough to buy a ship and install Aubrey as captain and fit it out as a privateer. I usually prefer the seaside part of this series the best but this one is quite good, particularly the final third. 7/3/13