Book Review: A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction

Book Review:  A Man Named Raglan/Gun Junction by John Callahan and Barry Cord, respectively

While most of the Ace Doubles (two short books fused together and printed upside down from each other) I’ve read are science fiction, Ace also put out mysteries and westerns in the format.  This book is one of the Westerns, and is volume M-100, first of the 45¢ series.

A Man Named Raglan

A Man Named Raglan takes place during the Civil War, as Nevada Territory becomes a state.  Wells Fargo shotgun rider Dan Raglan isn’t much fussed about it.  He did his bit for the Union up until his leg took a bullet at Chancellorsville, and that’s the end of the war for him, thank you.  His stagecoach driver partner Steve Munson is more concerned.  Munson’s a loyal son of the South, and doesn’t like how it’s getting whipped, and Nevada’s coming in on the side of the North.

Neither of them is pleased when they’re ambushed by road agents claiming to be Confederate irregulars here to confiscate that sweet Wells Fargo moneybox for the war effort.  When it turns out Wells Fargo hadn’t sent any cash on this trip, the owlhoots have to settle for robbing the passengers instead.  They had the drop on Raglan through the robbery, but as the robbers are departing, one’s horse shies, and Raglan has a chance to bring his rifle to bear.

Raglan is about to squeeze the trigger when the road agent’s mask slips–and he recognizes the man as Bob Worden, kid brother of Elizabeth Worden, the woman Raglan is courting.  Raglan hesitates just long enough for Bob to regain his balance and escape.

Munson is furious and accuses Raglan of cowardice.  the two men have a fist fight that reflects well on neither of them, but female passenger Lil Shannon seems to sympathize more with Raglan.  Raglan refuses to identify Bob, even when crack Wells Fargo agent Ben Nasmith asks him directly, so he’s out of a job.

Elizabeth isn’t particularly grateful about Raglan shielding her brother, as she doesn’t believe Bob could have been involved in the first place.  Oh, and the gang Bob was with has realized that Raglan can finger one of their members, and wants the former shotgun rider dead to prevent that.  For a man who thought his war was over, Raglan’s got a lot of fighting to do!

This is a decent enough Western, and I like how Raglan’s bum leg realistically causes difficulty for him.  He spends a good half of the time laid up in bed one way or another.

Less good is some historical sleight of hand that allows Raglan (and by extension the reader) to admire his Confederate foes, considering them honorable men fighting for an almost worthy cause.  There is zero mention of slavery, and not one black person appears, despite Virginia City’s actual demographics at that time in history.  The latter was typical of Westerns in the 1960s, but it sticks out like a sort thumb because of the storyline.

From Raglan’s perspective, there’s a mystery element to the story, but savvy readers will figure out the big twists well ahead of him.

Gun Junction

Gun Junction is set in Texas.  The small town of Fulton has been taken over by Luke McQuade’s gang of outlaws.  They lynched the sheriff, beat the deputy so bad he’ll never come back, and murdered the U.S. Marshal who came into town to avenge the sheriff.   Also, for some reason, they seem intent on preventing the Desert Line Railroad from being finished.

Deputy Marshal Matt Vickers is the next lawman to ride into town, though he comes incognito.  He’s brought two other men, ex-Ranger Doc Emory, and hard-bitten Kip Billens, the brother of the murdered sheriff.  Each of the men carries his own burden of secrets, and not all of them will leave Fulton alive.

This is a dark-themed and brooding story, and is better about delivering its twists than its partner.  (The book’s blurb did give a bit too much away.)  Overall, it’s better-written, too.

Both books use the “protagonist interrupts jerk who’s hitting on an uninterested woman who then takes an interest in the protagonist” cliche–Gun Junction plays it out better as while the young woman in question does fancy Matt Vickers, she’s fully aware he’s not a good long-term marriage prospect.  Also, both books have the phrase “don’t make war on women.”

I am given to understand that Gun Junction was later reprinted separately, and that may be a better bet than trying to track down the relatively rare Ace Double printing.

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: Black Hat Jack

Book Review: Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale

Nat Love is better known to some as “Deadwood Dick” as he did some fancy shooting in Deadwood, and “Deadwood Nat” just sounds wrong.  Nat was a ex-slave, a gunslinger, a soldier, a cowboy and all-round troublemaker.  You may have seen those “dime novels” with his nickname on the cover; them Eastern writers cleaned up his language considerable, his behavior some, and worst of all bleached his skin.

Black Hat Jack

But this here story is told in Nat Love’s own words, all about how he and mountain man Black Hat Jack decided to try their hand at buffalo hunting but wound up fighting in the Second Battle of Adobe Flats.  Now, this is a thing that really happened and the way Nat tells it is true…mostly.  Lyin’, well, that’s just something people do.

Joe R. Lansdale is a noted author of crime, horror and yes, western books.  He was a big name in the splatterpunk movement, and his stories often include plenty of gory violence, strong language and assorted bodily fluids.  This novella is no exception.  It’s part of Mr. Lansdale’s series about “Deadwood Dick.”  There have been relatively few stories written about African-Americans in the Old West, certainly disproportionately few in comparison to their actual numbers.

In some ways, this story is very much like the old dime novels, full of fast-paced action, flying lead and a casual relationship to historical fact.  Yes, there really was a Second Battle of Adobe Flats that Bat Masterson was present for.  And one of the defenders did pull off an amazing shot.  After that, the accounts tend to contradict each other, and Mr. Lansdale has put them together to tell the story he likes.

Where the book is unlike a dime novel is the extended coda after the battle, as Nat Love starts a relationship with a young woman he rescued during the fighting.  This plays out in a disappointing but entirely realistic manner.  It’s surprisingly melancholy for the genre.

In addition to the grisly violence mentioned above, Nat and Jack stumble across the results of torture, described in detail, and there is frequent talk of rape.  Period racism is unsurprisingly present, and Nat points out that it’s better out in the lawless West where it’s a man’s achievements that matter, than back East where you have to fit in to society.

The heavy use of obscene language made this book thick going for me; this book is not for children.

For fans of spaghetti westerns ready for a bit of diversity in the protagonists.

Note: The copy I read was an Advance Uncorrected Proof and small changes may have been made in the final product, like fixing a couple of typos.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle

Book Review: The Ferguson Rifle by Louis L’Amour

My name is Ronan Chantry, and I am alone upon this land.

He is a scholar and a gentleman, but Ronan Chantry was raised in the wilderness, hunting, trapping and tracking.  Now that his wife and son have died in a fire, and pursued by the reputation of killing a man in a duel, Chantry returns to the wilderness.  He does not remain alone for long, joining a small band of men also going into the West to try their hand at fur trapping.

The Ferguson Rifle

Their camp is nearly raided by allies of a treacherous Native American guide; but some time later the group makes friends with the Cheyenne, while trying to evade Spanish soldiers who have not yet gotten word that the Louisiana Purchase has gone through.  Then Ronan stumbles across Lucinda Falvey, whose father was murdered for the secret of a lost treasure.

The murderer and his minions have pursued Lucinda into the Dakota Territory, and turns out to have connections to both Lucinda and Ronan’s pasts.  Chantry and his allies must evade the killers, find the treasure and get the woman to safety–perhaps an eccentric mountain man has the key to survival?

This is the first novel written in the Chantry family saga by all-time great Western writer Louis L’Amour.  (But the last in internal chronology.)  The title comes from Chantry’s signature weapon, a firearm given to him by Major Ferguson himself.  It’s a customized prototype without the weakness in the lock mortise.  Since the story is set about the time of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, a rapid-firing breechloader is a formidable advantage.

This is a fast-moving story with clear but often evocative use of language; not a lot of time is spent on characterization, with bad man Rafen Falvey getting the bulk of what depth there is.  Chantry is not just smart and well-educated, but wilderness-savvy and skilled at all forms of combat he turns his hand to.  His one weakness is prideful anger, which led him into the fatal duel, and into the knock-down drag-out fistfight that is the climax of the book.  The use of coincidence to drive certain story elements does come close to breaking suspension of disbelief.

Recommended to Western fans, and those looking for a good manly adventure story.

Book Review: The Quick and the Dead

Book Review: The Quick and the Dead by Louis L’Amour

When Duncan McKaskel and his wife Susanna decided to move out West with their young son Tom to homestead, they knew there would be dangers and difficulties.  But after their wagon train falls to cholera and the family strikes out on its own, they learn that the pioneer trail has deadlier dangers than anyone ever told them.  In particular, the family runs afoul of a gang of horse thieves.  One of the thieves winds up dead, and the remainder pursue the family.

The Quick and the Dead

You’d think it was a stroke of good fortune that the McKaskels came across Con Vallian, a drifter with detailed knowledge of the plains, who decides to help them along.  Except that Duncan is unsure of Con’s motives…the man seems unduly impressed with Susanna’s good looks.  Are they more in danger from their hunters, or from the man inside their camp?

Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) was one of America’s most popular writers of Western fiction, with 86 novels to his name.  This volume is considered one of his best, and was made into a movie in  1987.

There’s little wasted wordage in this book.  It gallops right along as the long chase continues.  The characterization is sparse; the mystery of Con Vallian’s motivation is not entirely cleared up when the viewpoint switches to him.  Does he have a creepy desire to steal Susanna away from Duncan, or is he just unfamiliar with tactful ways of complimenting a woman?  We can’t be sure for most of the book.

Most of the horse thief gang is clearer about their motivations, but we don’t learn much of their depths.  Some are not as bad as they could be, some just as horrible as advertised, and one (“The Huron”) is a mystery whose thought processes are unknown to the rest of the gang.  Their pursuit gives a tension to the story, even when they are not physically present.

Which brings me to the Native Americans.  An Arapaho hunting party make several appearances in the story, as a possible threat or potential allies.  Con says, “Injuns think different than us, but that doesn’t say they are wrong…just different.”  It’s a fair enough assessment for the time period.

The ending may seem a bit off if you were expecting the last man standing to finish the hunt, but it makes sense with the characters as established.

As expected from the title, there is a lot of violent death in the story.  Otherwise it should be suitable for junior high readers on up.  The 2011 paperback edition I read has a short biography of Mr. L’Amour, and some maps that help place the action.

Recommended to fans of classic Westerns.

Here’s a trailer for the movie version–be aware that the book has no shower scene.

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 &2

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 & 2 by Osamu Tezuka

Mamoru Hoshino lives on his family ranch on Mars near the town of Hedes.  Life in a backwater frontier town can get a bit stale, so he’s excited when he learns a distant relative, Kenn Minakami, is coming from Earth to live with them.   On the way to the spaceport, Mamoru runs into a gunslinger calling himself “Captain Ken.”  Although a boy no older than Mamoru himself, Ken is a skilled combatant and saves Mamoru’s life from an ambush.

Captain Ken

Realizing that he’s too late to get to the spaceport, Mamoru returns home to find that Kenn Minakami, a lovely girl, has just arrived.  Mamoru is shocked to discover that aside from the obvious, Ken and Kenn look exactly alike.  He begins to suspect that they’re the same person, but other problems become more pressing.

This 1960 manga series by Osamu Tezuka took the concept of a “space western” and ran with it.  In the backstory, the first human settlers on Mars were Americans, who noted the terrain’s resemblance to the legendary Wild West.  They promptly adopted Western garb and customs, as well as building robot horses to ride as wheeled vehicles were not suitable except in built-up areas.  Other countries’ immigrants more or less assimilated into that culture, except the Russians.

Unfortunately, another part of American history repeated itself as the Earthlings stole land from the native Martians and broke treaties with them, pushing them into the worst land, ever shrinking as the humans multiplied.

Captain Ken’s mission is a bit nebulous at first, although he does try to protect the natives from oppression by evil Earthlings.  Tezuka was well aware that most of the readers would have read Princess Knight (originally Ribon no Kishi) and would think he was repeating the trick of having a girl impersonate a boy or vice versa.  For most of the first volume, he makes sure no one ever sees Ken and Kenn together, and has them both engage in odd behavior that would make sense if they were the same person.   The real explanation turns out to be way weirder.

Captain Ken eventually decides to learn “Martian Shooting Style” which is actually only usable by people born under the heavier gravity of Earth.  This is important, as the deadly gunfighter Lamp knows the style and is loyal to the villains.  Everything climaxes as the Martians reveal they’ve been stockpiling weapons for years, and are now ready to kick all the aliens off Mars.  The ending is bittersweet.

This is very much a boys’ adventure series, with women relegated to minor roles (Kenn is more important as a motivation than as someone with agency.)  While this is a children’s story, Mr. Tezuka does not hold back on the violent action, and several people die.  (The story wobbles on whether Ken’s gun shoots lethal bullets.)  Sensitive readers may find it too intense.  There’s also a person who is dying of radiation poisoning, clearly inspired by Hiroshima survivors.

Parents of young readers may want to discuss the treatment of Native Americans, whether using guns is the best way to resolve problems, and perhaps the atomic bomb with their children.

This isn’t Tezuka’s best work, but it’s still well-written fun with his cartoony art.  Recommended to Tezuka fans, space western fans, and boys at heart.

Book Review: Cowman’s Jack-Pot

Book Review: Cowman’s Jack-Pot by Frank C. Robertson (Also published as Greener Grows the Grass)

Chet Calder has spent eight years in the East.  Now the death of his father Dave Calder, and the crash of the stock market mean that there’s nothing left but the DC ranch.   On the stage into Calder City, Chet is seated by Mr. Doljack, the local banker.  Mr. Doljack reports that even the ranch itself is in dire financial straits, but it can be saved by ending the feud with the Murtaugh family and their Block M ranch by leasing some prime grazing land to them.

Cowman's Jackpot

Chet distrusts Mr. Doljack, who only owns the bank by virtue of having married the previous owner’s daughter.   But then who should just happen to be taking the Calder City stagecoach but Sylvia and Esta, the Murtaugh twins, who have filled out very nicely since Chet’s been away.  They are quite charming, and Chet begins to think it might not be so bad to end the feud after all.

Frank Chester Robertson (1890-1969) was a noted writer of Western novels (150 novels! plus many short stories and articles.)  This 1942 book is a good example of his craft.

Unlike many Westerns in which the protagonist is an upstanding fellow from the beginning, Chet Calder is initially a heel.  He has been away so long because he quarreled with his father over a gold-digging woman, only to have her throw him over when Dave wrote her a check.   Since then he’s been a “sportsman”, living off his father’s money while doing nothing to earn his own way or improve himself.  The Nineteenth Century equivalent of sitting around in your underwear all day playing video games, but with better chances of scoring women.

His financial circumstances having forced him to come back to the Idaho Territory irks Chet, and he treats his father’s old hands like servants, and his pride makes him snide to girl next door Marcia Whitman, who Mr. Doljack has informed him has become greedy.  None of the DC Ranch people are happy that Chet plans to make nice with the Murtaugh clan and hold a lavish party for the enemy ranchers.

Only after Chet has managed to alienate most of the people who should be his allies, while winning over none of his enemies, does he realize that he was set up from the start.  Now he has to start digging himself out of the hole he made.

Other than Chet, the lines of good and evil are pretty clearly drawn.  The Murtaughs have been poisoned by their upbringing and the long feud.  (And in an unpleasantly racist moment, the narration blames some of their evil on being of part-Cree heritage.)  One of them kills a cat just to drive home that he’s a bad’un.  Mr. Doljack is greedy and amoral (and lives in fear of his supposedly grotesquely ugly wife, who we never meet), and the other co-conspirators aren’t much better.

While the Murtaughs just want to make their Block M ranch prosperous and stick it to Chet, the other baddies are more interested in huge phosphate deposits Marcia’s father found on the DC land.  A decade before, those deposits had been unimportant, but with technological and infrastructure advancements, they’re worth millions.  Mr. Doljack is determined to get control of the mineral rights before Chet can find out their true value.

The primary weakness of the forces arrayed against Chet Calder is that their differing motivations and willingness to maneuver against each other to gain advantage or advance their own endgame results in some backstabbing that Chet can take advantage of.

Mr. Robertson has a tendency to repeat information he’s already established, and cheats a bit at the end to make sure that our heroes triumph without actually having to kill anyone.   But still, this is a nice old-fashioned Western tale for those who prefer their stories in black and white.  The last reprint appears to have been in the 1970s so good luck finding a copy.

Book Review: Peril by Ponytail

Book Review: Peril by Ponytail by Nancy J Cohen

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  No other compensation was involved.  Also, this is an advance uncorrected proof, and there will be some changes in the final product.  (Such as fixing the typo on the very first page of the story.)

Peril by Ponytail

Marla Vail, hair salon proprietor, and her new husband Dalton Vail, a homicide detective, are on a belated honeymoon.   Dalton’s Uncle Raymond owns a dude ranch in Arizona, and is developing a ghost town as a tourist attraction, so they’re going to spend their vacation there.  But this is a mystery novel, so there’s no rest in store.  A forest ranger has died under suspicious circumstances, and there’s been a spate of supposed accidents at both the ranch and ghost town.

Raymond is pretty sure that another rancher he’s long feuded with is responsible, but Marla’s not so convinced.  Could it be the rebellious daughter; the wranglers with shady pasts–perhaps the ecoterrorists?   The “accidents” become more deadly as the puzzle pieces pile up.

This is the twelfth book in the “Bad Hair Day” cozy mystery series.  Marla normally works out of her hair salon in Southern Florida and uses her knowledge of hair care to help solve crimes.   She’s a bit out of her element here; the flat landscape of her home has not prepared Marla for a case that involves lots of hill and rock climbing, and she’s not a young woman.   She does spot a hair-related clue early on, but doesn’t really follow up on it, and the savvy reader will solve that part of the mystery many chapters ahead of the reveal.

One thing that irritated me as a fan of “fair play” mysteries is that ghosts and psychics are treated as valid (if frustratingly vague) sources of information; unless it’s a “one weird thing” story, the supernatural has no place in cozies.   I was also baffled by the absence of right wing/libertarian loonies from the list of possible threats given by the local sheriff.  The ecoterrorists are more germane to the plot, true, but the former have been in the news more recently in the Southwest.

The character byplay is pretty good, with Marla and Dalton having an active sex life just off camera.   There is quite a bit of family drama that screens the actual solution to the mystery as various members conceal useful information.

Perhaps in deference to the Western setting, the ending involves rather more gun play than one would expect from a cozy, nearly up to hard-boiled levels.

This is a light mystery suitable for vacation reading that’s not too challenging.

Book Review: Aeroplane Boys on a Cattle Ranch

Book Review: Aeroplane Boys on a Cattle Ranch by John Luther Langworthy

Construction on the new high school is going slowly, so classes won’t start for another two months.   Don’t worry, cousins Frank and Andy Bird will not be bored.   It seems the two young aviators have been invited to spend their extra vacation with Andy’s maternal uncle, Jethro Witherspoon, down on his Arizona ranch.  So they pack up their flying machine and it’s off to the sunny Southwest!

Aeroplane Boys on a Cattle Ranch

The flying’s fine near the desert, despite a couple of attempts by the Bird boys’ old nemesis, Percy Carberry, to put an end to the fun.  The boys get to meet real live cowboys, participate in a bear hunt, and cap it off by using their aeroplane to track down a kidnapper!

This is the fifth in the Aeroplane Boys series (also printed as the Bird Boys series,) and the oldest of the air adventure books I’ve reviewed at publication date 1914.   It’s pretty standard stuff for children’s literature of the time, with our heroes being gallant young men (Frank cooler-headed than Andy) who excite the admiration of all good people with their piloting skills.  Percy Carberry gets no dialogue, but is behind the scenes of ineffectual attempts to wreck our heroes’ plane.  As was also standard for the time, Percy has more money than sense from an indulgent parent, but can’t buy competence.

The writing’s decent, and there are exciting bits.  It really is fascinating to imagine one of the fragile aircraft of the time desperately searching the desert for a fugitive and his tiny captive.  Parents should be aware that there’s some period ethnic prejudice (against Mexicans) and racism (against Native Americans) in the story towards the conclusion.

One interesting thing in hindsight is that our high school aged cousins undoubtedly graduated just in time to fly in World War One–had the series continued.

At least one of the earlier volumes is on Project Gutenberg, for fans of early aviation.  (In the back of this volume, I see there was also a Girl Aviators series; go, suffragettes!)

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