Book Review: Glorious: A Novel of the American West by Jeff Guinn

When I was younger, my favorite Back to the Future movie was the third one. Some of my favorite memories with my father are weekends where there would be one of the many spaghetti westerns on television. High Plain DrifterThe Good The Bad & The UglyTwo Mules for Sister SaraSupport Your Local Gunfighter/Sheriff. I enjoyed watching them with him. When I was really young, I would sit and listen as my mom read The Little House on the Prairie and the following novels to my sister.  So it’s really kind of perplexing to me why I never fell into western novels as I got older.

Originally I was going to read something that was considered a western classic, Riders of the Purple Sage or something along those lines. And then I found Glorious sitting on the shelf. Having spent a decent portion of my life living a short drive away from Saint Louis, the fact that the novel started there and followed its main character Cash McLendon as he made mistakes in Saint Louis that drove him out to the frontier territory in Arizona made me decide to pick it up instead.  McLendon isn’t really a sympathetic character. Throughout the novel, he’s greedy, selfish, and ignorant. He’s probably one of the most realistic and fleshed out characters I’ve read in a novel. He easily could have been part of the cast of villains had the novel been written from Sheriff Joe Saint’s point of view in place of McLendon’s.

Spoilers follow:

McLendon, however, does become a better person by the end of the novel. Not by much, but just enough that you don’t hate him, even though he’s still naive for all his social skill. It’s this character growth that makes me at least interested in the followup novel, Buffalo Trail.

The plot is mostly about McLendon trying to escape the trouble he found in Saint Louis and his attempts to pick up from where he left off with a girl he had known and spurned. He doesn’t end up getting the girl in the end, and actually manages to find a proxy for the rich man in Saint Louis that he pissed off, and manages to equal piss off the rich owner who’s trying to push all the town founders out of Glorious so that he can become rich when the town booms because of a silver find. Most of the events throughout the novel seem to revolve around Cash alternately endearing himself to and pissing off different people. All of the actual action comes through in the final act.

In the last fifty some odd pages, it seems like there is no hope for our protagonist and his friends. Right up to the last few pages, in fact, things feel hopeless for them. Then Guinn sets off the loaded gun from the first act of the play. The god descends from the machine. Everyone is saved. Except for Cash McLendon. He has to flee again.

It’s not exactly what I was expecting from a western novel. There were no extended gun fights. The Apache threat in the novel is a product of the main antagonist’s plot. The protagonist doesn’t even know how to ride a horse or shoot a gun. He rides off into the sunset, technically, but not with the girl on his horse. It was an entertaining read, and the pages flew by. I just had different expectations from what the story told. Eventually, I’ll probably pick up Buffalo Trail. But I’m not eagerly awaiting its release later this year.

-Crouse

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Book Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

So, in keeping with the reviewing of books way too late, I’ve decided to review pretty much every book I read for the first time. I’ve just recently finished the second novel in Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series. I’d like to start off by saying that I absolutely loved The Lies of Locke Lamora. If you haven’t read Lynch’s debut novel and are a fan of incorrigible, yet lovable, rogues, you should do yourself a favor and purchase it from your retailer of choice in your format of choice immediately. That being said, I wasn’t as in love with Red Seas Under Red Skies.

I was really excited to read it. I had heard that its setting was mostly tropical, and hailing from Florida I’m a sucker for Florida kitsch and anything quasi-tropical related. Comparing Lynch’s second novel to his first, it just felt that the setting felt somewhat lacking. Whereas Camorr felt like a living, breathing city with its own idiosyncrasies, Tal Verrar just didn’t have the same life to it. The pirate boats felt more alive in the novel than the actual cities. I believe it may be because of the limited scope of the main characters actions in the city.

The other major issue I had with was the pacing. It got off to a slow start, continued at a slow crawl. And finished in a rush in the last hundred or so pages. Part of this is due to the fact that Locke and Jean are not really putting there own plans into effect like they did in the first book, but overall they are only reacting to plots put into effect by something they did in the initial novel. I kept waiting for Locke to unveil some brilliant plan, but nothing really ever came to fruition. Even the master plan that Locke and Jean are working on at the beginning of the book doesn’t truly conclude in favor of our heroes.

I think the only reason I really enjoyed the book is the fact that Lynch has crafted such wonderful characters. Jean Tannen and Locke Lamora are a couple of the most fully realized characters that I’ve read recently. So despite the slow moving pace and the lack of agency they exhibited over all in this book, I still wanted to read on to see how it all worked out for them. I kept turning the pages hoping for that big pay-off from Locke.

The final hundred pages did hold a lot of resolution for the multiple plot threads that Lynch peppered throughout the entire novel. On top of that, there was a particularly poignant character death that caused the room I was reading in to become extra-dusty and led to a dust-related bout of lacrimation. Lynch also expertly leaves one plot line open to ensure that the reader, assuming they enjoy the two main characters, will pick up the next book Republic of Thieves.

The takeaway from this is that you should read The Lies of Locke Lamora. If you grow attached to the characters, carry on with Red Seas Under Red Skies. The characters are strong, and the ending, when it finally arrives, has some punch to it.

Movie Review: Mad Max- Fury Road (Warning: Potential Spoilers)

This weekend I had a chance to go see Mad Max: Fury Road with my father-in-law, something which he prepped for by watching Creature From the Black Lagoon. Where to start on Mad Max though? I’ve seen a couple posts around the internet since watching, specifically this one. And it makes me feel like maybe I went into the wrong theater. Maybe the one where they were playing Thomas the Tank Engine’s Post Apocalyptic Adventure instead. I want to make one thing clear. I enjoyed the movie. It was a decent movie. It fulfilled all the promises that its trailer made and it was worth the price of the ticket.

Where I’m careening madly off the beaten path is that I don’t really have a lot of praise to lavish on the movie. I don’t think it was truly exceptional in any of the things that it did well. It didn’t do anything poorly, but I didn’t come out of the theater clamoring about this amazing scene or that amazing scene. It didn’t leave me pumped full of high octane and ready to burn rubber in my car. For all of its over the top action it failed to make me say “FUCK YEAH! THAT WAS AWESOME!”

Arguably I could just be jaded at this point. I mean, we’ve had seven, soon to be eight Fast and Furious movies that consistently attempt to do more over the top things with vehicles. Those movies have a tendency to make you think “Holy shit, that was fucking awesome,” despite their increasingly bloated ensemble cast.  So where is it that Mad Max and Fast and Furious diverge from each other? They’re both about crazy, over the top car action ostensibly, right?

I think part of the difference is the narrative. Pick any one Fast and Furious movie and the plot is fairly simple and mono-line. It’s not aspiring to build a world because it doesn’t have to. The movie only has to do two things: Have completely ridiculous action and have great action shots of cars doing things that we wouldn’t normally see them doing. Mad Max: Fury Road actually does a fair bit of world-building, despite Chuck Wendig’s contrary statement. It seemed obvious to me that the three main leaders, including Immortan Joe, had a great system going on. Immortan Joe controls the water, Gastown controls the petrol, and the Bullet Factory controls the guns. The “supply run” that Furiosa seemingly sets off on at the beginning is nothing more than a delivery of Joe’s water supply to Gastown in exchange for the petrol to fuel Joe’s fleet. Throw in a manufactured war between the three factions reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and bam, the world explains itself almost entirely. All these things are there if you’re watching and they get in the way of enjoying. The action gets delivered in between the slow bits that build the world up.

I’ve also seen a lot of critical praise for Mad Max for creating strong women. This is something else that I disagree with. The female characters are certainly capable over all in the movie. But they seem strong compared to weaker portrayals of female characters in other pop culture. Looking at you, Game of Thrones. Furiosa essentially takes a back seat to our titular hero for most of the movie once they have their little brawl. Sure, he lets her use his shoulder to steady the rifle to fire their last suitable bullet for it, but most of the driving is done by either Max or the erstwhile Immortan Joe acolyte that falls in with them after one of the other female characters comforts him like a mother. Even the older women that they eventually come across have failed miserably compared to their male counterparts, becoming little more than scavengers in the wastes. Yes, all these characters are stronger than what we’re used to from women in popular media, and all very competent to whit. But it still falls into the same masculine hero narrative that we always have when Max points them away from the sure folly of crossing the salt falts (aka a bone dry ocean) to go back and steal Immortan Joe’s throne out from under him.

The short of it is, that despite being an enjoyable post apocalyptic romp with decent action scenes and spectacularly subtle world building, it’s failing on the points that some people seem to think are its strengths. I would’ve gladly traded some of the world building for more over the top action sequences than cars crashing into each other on a flat expanse. There were a shit ton of explosions, but most of them felt inconsequential, up the anti, have a suicide car with a MOAB on it that blasts the tanker forward after some crafty maneuvering from one of the drivers! Let the women continue to be strong through the end of the movie, for chrissakes!

Basically it was a good movie. Nothing more, nothing less. I just felt like it could have aspired to greatness.

-Crouse