News of the World by Paulette Jiles

What a fun, light little gem of a Western.

I’m not really sure where my deep and abiding love of the genre comes from. I didn’t read any as a kid and basically refused to watch the old John Wayne (or should I say, Marion Mitchell Morrison) movies, though I had a few friends who were obsessed with them (I was a picky kid with weird tastes and didn’t like the look of anything old fashioned). But as an adult, there’s few things I like to lose myself in more.

There’s something about the aesthetic, the setting, the very bad bad guys and the reluctant, also sort of bad good guys, that really tickles me. There’s also something in the atmosphere of constant hardship in Westerns. Most books have struggle in them, but there’s something about the griminess and the poverty and the lack of technology that I find really appealing. People don’t have magic, or gadgets that might as well be, to solve their problems. There’s no super powers. In order to overcome their obstacles they have to think around them, and that’s something that always, always appeals to me.

This is a really solid example of that. The main characters are a crotchety old man and the stubborn, clever, brave young girl he’s reluctantly convinced to help. If that sounds a little True Grit-y to you, well, it is, sort of. But it’s also different. The mission at the centre of the story is a little more…morally complicated than in the Portis classic, and one that I found more interesting than simple revenge (though I am a sucker for a plain old revenge story).

I don’t normally do story details, but this one is a bit hard to talk about without some reference points. The young woman he’s ferrying across the country had been captured by Native Americans at a young age and raised among them as one of their own. For all she knows and believes, she’s a part of their tribe. When she’s “rescued” by the settlers in the region and sent with Captain Kidd to live among relations she doesn’t really remember, she feels like she’s been stolen from her family. She fights and tries to escape and wants to go back. That’s a complicated, twisty, interesting idea, and my only real complaint about the novel is that it doesn’t follow that thread all the way down. That moral tangle is the centre of her book, and she touches on it and there’s a conclusion to it, sort of, but…I guess it just never really got there for me. I still enjoyed it, a bunch, but I felt like some parts of it were left a little unresolved.

Recommended for people who like historical fiction, Westerns, and prickly, but loveable, old men.

❤

VBR

 

Ps. I have an itch I need scratched by somebody with some gun know-how. There was one action scene in the novel where the characters used their wits and some dimes to get themselves out of trouble and I bought it at the time, but thinking back on that…is that how that would work? I know nooooothing about guns and if any of ya have any smarts in that department, I’d appreciate the clarification. Thanks in advance! 🙂

The Gunslinger by Stephen King

So….I just watched the trailer for the new movie coming out and….blegh. Which is a shame, because I had actually managed to get myself excited for this one. I love Idris Elba, and ol’ Matty McC is a really good casting choice for the Man in Black. I mean, I never really thought it was going to do the books justice (which is a really complicated, next to impossible thing for a movie to do. The only time I think I’ve ever seen a movie that I liked more than I liked the book was No Country for Old Men. I love that book, but the definitive vision of it in my head is, and always will be, the movie), but I was hoping it would at least be interesting and weird. Apparently, action-shlock, uber-hollywood, “I’ll save the world for the both of us, just after I figure out a cool new way to load my six shooter” was the way they decided to go. Double blegh.
It’s such a dumb, predictable, terrible direction to take this franchise. To keep the big and the action packed, but remove all the zany parallel world, sf/fantasy stuff. The things that I liked the most about all these books were how batshit weird they were. Even this first one, which adheres the closest to the old school tropes, a good ol’ western vengeance, has streaks of strange marbled throughout (like our hero does mescaline sometimes, just to put a little pep in his step), and it only spirals out from there. I can’t think of any other series that would be able to pull off having an Arthurian culture that uses six shooters instead of swords, nineteen twenties style gangsters, and doombots with explosive golden snitches and lightsabers in the same world. And with Stephen King at the helm, the journey may have been big and wacky and sprawling, but I always felt like I was in good hands. He may not have known from the getgo where exactly the story was going to go, but I always felt like he could get there.
These books are great, and fucking weird, and so much fun. By all means go and see the bland ass movie they’re making (and let me know if I’m wrong about it, because I’m giving this one the firmest of passes. And yes, I realize I have a big, bitter pill stuck in my craw about this, so I’m being more harsh than I need to be but I feel the way I feel), but please, please, if you’re going to do that, put a little time and effort into the books first. There’s a lot to get out of them.

Love you folks,

VBR

PS. As a side note to all the entertainment big wigs that read this blog, when you have a series this big, this sprawling, MAKE IT A TV SHOW YA DUMMIES. There are tons and tons of Stephen King fans out there (even just the mild ones, like me) who would tune in to a Dark Tower series done right. And you just can’t collapse something this large into a two, or even three, hour movie. You’re setting yourself up to fail.

PPS. Did you guys hear about the fact that they’re trying to turn The Sandman into a movie? INTO A MOVIE?! AAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!

Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman

This book was an absolute and utter delight.

Now I know what you’re thinking, and you’re not wrong. A western, a badass lady seeking revenge, gunslinging goodness. It all sounds a lot like Wake of Vultures (another book that I gave a fairly positive review to a while back), and to some extent the two are very similar. But rest assured dear readers, the two are not identical (if they were I wouldn’t bother to review this one. What would be the point?) and there are two main ways in which I think the novels differ.

The first and least important is the supernatural element. Unlike Wake of Vultures, the only monsters in Vengeance Road are the greedy, shitty characters who steal and murder to get what they want. And while I did think that the book pushed a little too hard on that old western trope of “just plain rotten” as a defining character trait for it’s villains (they were almost comically bad or nonsensically greedy. *Mild Spoiler Warning, I guess, I mean if you’re really concerned about that kind of thing, which, as a side note, you shouldn’t be. If you’re reading an engaging narrative, spoilers shouldn’t have much of an impact. A story that relies on it’s ending to be effective or interesting isn’t much of a story at all. Although, I guess everybody goes to books for different things, and if that thing is wanting to be surprised, who am I to judge?* What was that woman doing hiding in the mountains? Why wasn’t she out living life and spending the cache that she found? If she knew that Kate’s father had the map the whole time, why didn’t she take it with her when she left? Why didn’t she go back after him herself? There were a lot of questions there, but anyways, I digress), for the most part I really liked the straight up western setting and characters.

The second way that this novel differs from the first is in the quality of the writing. It’s not really fair to compare one writer to another, every novel should be judged on its own merits, but I already started this review as a comparison and it would be SO MUCH WORK to go back and think of another idea, so…yeah, here goes. Lila Bowen (Wake of Vultures) has heaps of imagination, her novel is (honestly a little over) stuffed with it, but Erin Bowman is the superior of the two when it comes to the nitty gritty of the writing. Her novel is very well structured, compact and fast-paced without seeming rushed, the romantic tension in it is skillfully woven in and unobtrusive (though you’d have to be a real grade A dumby not to know that the tall, handsome, infuriating cowboy was going to be the love interest from the get go), and her prose, on a sentence by sentence level, can be really beautiful at times, without drawing attention to itself and pulling you out of the story. Now I’m willing to admit that part of my love for this story might come from my fondness for the simple “person needs to head to this place and take revenge” story structure, kick ass lady leads in general, and the western genre in and of itself, but…my name is The Very Biased Reviewer. So, you know, shut up about it.

Anyways! I enjoyed this book a lot. There were some problems with the ending, and the big reveal, which I sort of spoiled, but also didn’t really spoil, before. But they weren’t huge, and they didn’t have an impact on my overall satisfaction with it. Read this book. It was lots of fun.

❤

VBR

 

Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

(Brief disclaimer. I used non-gender specific pronouns-they, them, their-to refer to Nettie throughout the course of this review, which is not something that I’m terribly accustomed to, so it can lead to things feeling a little stinted here and there. I’d apologize, but I’m not sorry about it at all).

Hey, guess what?

I read a book and actually liked it! Hurray! I have good things to say about it! Double hurray!

So this is one of the books I picked up while gleefully burning my way through my yearly holiday bookstore gift card fortune (you know, the one that comes in twenty and thirty dollar amounts from relatives you’ve only met once, but who still feel obliged to send you something, even though the only thing that they know about you, besides your name, is that you’re “kinda bookish”?). I landed on this one because the cover art gave me a strong Miriam Black by Chuck Wendig vibe, and when I picked it up to inspect it, I saw that not only was there a recommendation from Mr. Wendig himself, but that Patrick Rothfuss had done a little blurb for the book as well.

Done. Sold. I’m in.

And it was so good! There were a few issues, ones that I’ll get into later on after I’ve gushed a bit, but I had such a fun time with this book. It was fast-paced and witty and absorbing, with a set of unique and fully fleshed out characters, the best of which was the main, Nettie Lonesome. Nettie is one of the most original fantasy novel protagonists I’ve come across in a good long while. A non gender binary, bisexual, POC, gun toting monster hunter? Yes, more of that, please and thank you.

I’ve talked a little about this before, but I love it when authors, especially genre authors (because that’s most of what I read and love) try and bring a new perspective into their stories, rather than the same old stale stuff. Nettie has some pretty valuables lessons to teach the teens this book was aimed at. Don’t let people intimidate you and don’t take their shit, don’t let anybody tell you what you are and what you aren’t, and don’t worry too much about the way you feel about other people. Do they fall into the categories of people that are acceptable for you to be attracted to? And if not, what does that make you? Nettie doesn’t give a shit, and neither should you. If you love somebody (and everybody is of consenting age and nobody is getting hurt), you love them, and don’t let anybody around you make you feel weird about it. I’ll grant that maybe the messages were laid on a little thick from time to time, (there’s a good deal of inner monologuing from Nettie laying out exactly why they’re confused and upset, exactly what the problem appears to be, and then resolutely coming to the conclusion that they’re going to do whatever it is they damn well please), but the message is important, and it’s not so bad it yanks you out of the story.

However, there were a few issues with the book that I found a little harder to get past. Not a lot! And you should still read it! But the name “review” barely applies to what I do on this site as is, and if I skip over the stuff I didn’t like just so I could recommend it full-heartedly, I’ll have to change my name to “Very Biased And Sometimes Dishonest Rambler About Stuff”, which would make introducing myself at dinner parties even more tedious than it already is. Anyways! I digress. The main issues that I found in this novel seemed to be ones of location and pacing (and sometimes plotting).

Now, by location I don’t mean setting, the setting was fine, and the geographical location of things has never really been something that’s tripped me up. It was more about the location of objects and important things within the story. Keeping track of things, so to speak. Sometimes items were brought up and highlighted, and then completely forgotten about, only to be brought up and used again when needed. Nettie gets a sharp, silver knife from the beastie that attacks them at the beginning of the story, but then when they’re wandering through the desert and need a weapon later on, Nettie forgets all about it. So I think, okay, maybe Nettie lost it or something, left it behind when they fled the ranch, but then boom! at the end of the novel when Nettie needs something made of silver, there it is. That happens a couple of times throughout (where did the vampire’s gun go? Why did he never use it? etc.). It was never really enough to ruin it for me, but it did cause my brow to furrow a time or two.

It wasn’t just items that the author seemed to lose track of sometimes, but people within scenes as well. There was a part where Nettie is fighting a Siren, and while Nettie is walking across a room towards the creature, the rangers manage to ride up, dismount, enter the same room as they’re in, and somehow one of them gets to the Siren before Nettie can stop him. Why did it take Nettie so long to cross the room, and not the Ranger? It says Nettie tried to catch him, but can’t. So how did the ranger get past them? Nettie entered through the same door as he did, and they’re crossing the same room. It seems like a pretty small quibble, but it’s actually kind of important. The audience needs to be able to trust that the author knows what they’re doing, that they know what’s going on and where everything is and we’re just along for the ride. Every time we get that dissonance of “that doesn’t really make sense” or “where did that thing they brought up before go?” it undermines that trust, and removes us from the story a little.

The next issue for me was the pacing of the novel. I know it was set at a breakneck pace for a reason, that the novel is set within the confines of a very specific time frame (between one full moon and the next), but I couldn’t help but wonder if the framing device was necessary, and if this novel wouldn’t have benefited from a little more room to breath. As it is, Nettie goes from sort of slave to ranch hand to professional monster hunter in the span of maybe two weeks, I think a little less, and in that same span of time goes from never having seen a monster before to bumping into dozens of the things (that also leads you to wonder, if there are so many of the god damn things everywhere, why aren’t they more common knowledge? I know they don’t look like monsters to regular people until you kill one of them, but with the sheer amount out there you’d think the cat would’ve been let out of the bag a long time ago). It all just seems a little hurried, and that feeling of being rushed along undermines most of the impact of any of their losses. Nettie loses the life that they love on the ranch, but you never really got the feeling that they were sinking into it because they only did it for like three days. You don’t have to make to make it any longer, word count or page wise, the novel was pretty much the perfect length, but just devote a paragraph or two to explaining how time flew by as Nettie settled into the role of ranch hand, that the months they spent at the ranch were the best of Nettie’s life etc etc. That way, when Nettie is forced to leave, you get a real sense of loss. Here it’s just kind of “oh well, that was lame, onto the next thing for Nettie!”

The last thing I’ll say before I wrap this up (this has been waaaay longer than I thought it was going to be), is that some of the plotting doesn’t reaaaally make sense. So, why does Nettie go alone with the werewolves? Why do the werewolves trade Rangers for Nettie when they could just kill Sam? Why would they ever let any of the Rangers go, when the Rangers are clearly enemies that will hunt them again? How does that in any way seem like a good idea? It doesn’t make any sense, at all, and seemed more to me like the author just wanted to put Nettie into a bad spot, alone with the werewolves, to have them be sexually aggressive and gross to Nettie, and then have them pull out of it at the end, and she couldn’t think of a better way to do it.

Okay, now, having done the thing that I do (pick things apart relentlessly, because that’s just the way that my brain works) I want to re-assure you that this is actually a recommendation. The book was fast, fun, and kick-ass, the protagonist was great, the concept was inventive, the execution was shaky, but pretty good, and overall I had a helluva time with this book. If you’re looking for something thrilling, something that will suck you in and spit you out, bruised and battered and grinning, then pick this novel up. You won’t regret it.

Sincerest regards and bestest of all wishes,

VBR

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