Saturday, April 23, 2011

Redemption, Kansas by James Reasoner

Redemption, Kansas by James Reasoner delivers just what I expect from any book by James: a well-told story, likable characters who are a pleasure to meet, vicious characters who are a joy to despise, action, and humor.

James has written more than 400 stories in a variety of genres, and the easy flow of this narrative demonstrates his storytelling mastery. This tale of a Texas drover injured during a trail drive and left in the small Kansas town of the title to recover provides a nice mix of the elements that mark a solid traditional western: a strong hero who can’t ignore the difference in right and wrong simply because that would be the easy thing to do; a town cowed by a tyrannical lawman; truly evil outlaws; a pretty heroine to win; a conflict between cultures (the cow-driving Texans and the settled Kansas townies); gunfights.

Bill Harvey is still a boy when he’s injured during a cattle drive stampede, caused by a rustler’s nighttime attack on the herd. But he finds his way as a man during his recuperation in Redemption, as he bucks the locals’ biases against wild-and-woolly Texans.

That there’s also a mystery about back-shot citizens hanging a pall over the town simply adds to the drama that brings together Bill with Eden Monroe. James performs marvelously as he builds the relationship between these two characters, not rushing, forcing or artificially combining the details about their growing respect and love for one another.

There’s also the well-constructed villain — one of several who appear in this book — who sets off the chain of events leading to Bill’s injury: Dock Rakestraw has a great name to go along with his mean spirit and evil ways.

I’ve yet to be let down by a Reasoner novel. I’m already looking forward to reading the next one.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Sonora Noose by Jackson Lowry

The Sonora Noose by Jackson Lowry is a recent (February 2011) western novel published by Berkley. If the author’s name doesn’t sound familiar, it is a pseudonym of well-established writer Robert Vardeman, a name I’m more familiar with in the mystery and science fiction fields. But Vardeman is well at home in the western genre, having written a number of books with western settings under the name Karl Lassiter.

I actually like the name Jackson Lowry — it has a pulp-western author sound to it, a ring of authenticity. (That’s just my ears. Your ears may ring differently.)

Deputy Marshal Mason Barker is a worn out lawman — his body is starting to become a bit unreliable, but his passion for justice remains strong. He also is a loyal family man, and he knows that his feet are solidly planted on the right side of most moral arguments.

But like every other human being, he has weaknesses and faults.

To fight the pain continually aggravating and increasing in his back, Barker begins to rely on the comforts of laudanum. He also remains overly optimistic about bringing into line his son, a rebellious and mean-natured young man who refuses to conform to his parents’ expectations.

Barker’s real troubles begin with the eruption of a minor reign of terror instigated by a band of outlaws led by a vicious badman who calls himself the Sonora Kid. What begins as a series of robberies quickly escalates into a series of murders and massacres. Each event ends with the gang escaping into the twisty mazes of the canyons in the New Mexico mountain ranges.

Barker takes his work seriously, but he also sees the humor in situations. In some ways he reminds me of R.C. House’s fictional lawman, Cole Ryerson. (Unfortunately, House doesn't even rate an entry at Wikipedia.) Lowry does a fine job depicting Barker’s interactions with the townspeople of Mesilla, which Barker calls home, including the newly appointed sheriff, Dravecky. Particularly fine is Lowry’s handling of the relationship between Barker and the non-com for a company of Buffalo Soldiers, Sergeant Sturgeon.

All together, Lowry does a great job combining action, humor, pathos, pacing, and character into a nicely entertaining mix. The Sonora Noose is certainly worth checking out. And you can find a short western story by Lowry posted online at the Jackson Lowry site. It's titled "Fifteen Dollars." Just click here.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Scorpion Trail by Larry D. Sweazy

The Scorpion Trail, by Larry D. Sweazy, is the second in a series of westerns featuring Texas Ranger Josiah Wolfe. It fills in any gaps about the character for readers who missed the first novel in the series, and it whets the appetite for subsequent Josiah Wolfe adventures.

The novel opens with Wolfe at his new home in Austin, where he runs into a murder and the beginning of a mystery that haunts him the rest of the story. It ties in with events from The Rattlesnake Season, the first Josiah Wolfe novel, and will probably have ramifications that are explored in the third, The Badger’s Revenge. Author Sweazy does a fine job of creating a sense of continuity and the roll of life for his characters. Even secondary characters have a depth that makes them memorable after the reader turns the last page.

Although I’m a fan of the compact, 40-thousand-word westerns of the 1960s paperback era, this longer tale — which I estimate to be around 70-thousand words — doesn’t lag. It’s filled with action and incidents, as well as quiet scenes of discussion between characters. Sweazy performs well that tricky feat of building a relationship between the jaded Wolfe and the callow, hot-headed Scrap Elliott, who’s working hard to be a stalwart Ranger but still has a ways to go to fully mature.

The dynamics of Josiah Wolfe’s other relationships drive much of the plot. His regard for Austin's tenderloin district madam, Suzanne del Toro, and the mysterious Juan Carlos are nicely developed by Sweazy, who handles particularly well Carlos’ shadowy characteristics. The mysteries behind this fellow’s comings and goings certainly leaves the reader wanting more.

An actual Indian battle is incorporated into the plot: the Lost Valley fight between Texas Ranger Company B and Comanche and Kiowa in 1874. It’s a dramatic part of the book that doesn’t overshadow the rest of the story, but lends a good sense of what Ranger life was like for the Frontier Battalion.

Sweazy puts together all the parts of his narrative very well — characters, pacing, incidents. As a result, I look forward to reading the next book in the series and to seeing more from Larry Sweazy in the future.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Val Kilmer in new Wyatt Earp movie

I know I said in my last post that upcoming posts would be about Berkley westerns. Well, I'm writing the first of those. While that's getting done, I want to be sure all you western fans are aware of a new movie that's been shot, The First Ride of Wyatt Earp. Anyone who loved Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone will want to know more.

And you can learn more at Henry's Western Round-Up blog. Just click here to zoom over there and read his interview with the director, Michael Feifer.