Summers' Horses, by Ralph Cotton

I mentioned the classic Western Shane a few weeks ago. Here's another Western I picked up in Greenfield, Massachusetts at the World Eye Bookshop. Although an author new to me, Ralph Cotton has written over 30 Westerns. Summers' Horses follows Will Summers, a horse-trader, as he chases the men who stole the seven animals, six horses and a mule, he was leading through the Colorado Territory. Will is accompanied by a big spotted dog that came as part of a trade. The two brothers who stole the horses and mule, Dow and Tom “Cat Tracker” Bendigo, are sons of the rich and powerful Warton Bendigo who pretty much does what he wants. The only law in the area, a sheriff in nearby Wakely, is on Bendigo's payroll or at least too intimidated to stand up to him.

I'm quite partial to Westerns, though I may be in the minority: they are easily the smallest genre section in any library or bookstore I've visited, in spite of the popularity of Country music and films about cowboys. Generally television shows about cowboys don't appeal to me, but I did enjoy Deadwood from a few years ago. Aside from the excellent acting and writing, the show appealed to me in the way it looked at how people behaved in the absence of the usual institutions that enforce society's rules, such as law officers and ministers. The show also examined, over the course of several seasons, how the rough frontier settlement evolved a set of rules for itself and worked out how to enforce them.

I think this theme makes up a large part of what I like about Westerns: in the unsettled territories where there is no commonly accepted authority to enforce a social structure, people have only their own personal code of honor to fall back on. And that code gets tested by running up against others with very different ideas of right and wrong, whether they be Native American tribes, outlaw gangs, or arrogant, greedy ranchers. Armchair theorizing won't get you very far.

This book held my attention. The action is fast-paced, not thriller-fast, but relentless if a bit heavier on shootouts and ambushes than I'd like. I tend to prefer more characterization and description. Cotton does a good job with the rare bits of description:

Evening shadows leaned long out of the west by the time he reached the turn toward the watering hole. The dog had gone on ahead of him and disappeared a half hour earlier. But now he saw the dog coming back through the wavering heat. He watched him lope along toward him at a much slower pace until he finally slowed to a walk, his head lowered, his tongue lolling.

More descriptive bits would give a better sense of the place and add to the texture of the story. More characterization would help too. I never really got a sense of the main character. It may be that Will Summers has been thoroughly introduced to readers already in some of those 30+ books, but there's not enough here for me to form an idea about him. The most intriguing character for me is Vera Dalton, an ex-prostitute who's been studying with the town doctor, learning how to treat injuries and illnesses. Only a minor character, but the space between her ambition and her experience quivers with possibility.

I might try one of the earlier books to see if I can fill in some of the gaps, but certainly if you're looking for an exciting Western with lots of action, give this one a try.

Eventide, by Kent Haruf

I’ve been judging a novel contest lately, reading the first 20-30 pages of a slew of novels. They’ve been mostly historical fiction, a rather wide category but still surprisingly over-represented in this particular sample. Is the past somehow more romantic than the present? More urgent? I’ve certainly read and enjoyed my share of historical fiction, but generally look for novels written in the author’s present-day, expecting to get a more accurate flavor of the time. And anyway, whatever we write about today will soon enough become part of history. I’m occasionally surprised by how dated some novels written only ten years ago seem to me now.

Back to the contest, though. Some of the novels obviously came from the pens (or PCs) of writers still learning their craft, forcing me to find ways to offer advice without inflicting too much pain. Other entries were more accomplished. Much to my surprise, I could tell this was so within the first paragraph. Later, trying to pinpoint what tipped me off, I realised that I had relaxed. I felt comfortable falling into the story, able to trust that the author would not let me down.

As diverse as these novels were—good/bad, historical/present-day, thrillers, romances, mysteries, chick lit, humor—they had one thing in common: they started with a bang. Not literally, of course, but in media res, with action or strong emotion, some catalyst to set the story in motion. This is what writers these days are instructed to do.

Then we have Kent Haruf. Eventide starts slowly, gently. The aging McPheron brothers, Harold and Raymond, come up from the horse barn and wipe their feet before going in for a breakfast prepared by Victoria, a nineteen-year-old single mom they’d taken in a few years earlier. The scenes are set with leisurely details, describing their boots, the screened porch, the kitchen, the men, their steady routine. This is the day that they are driving Victoria and her little daughter to Fort Collins where the young woman is starting college.

In the next chapter we meet Betty June, putting her two children on the schoolbus. Betty and her husband, Luther, are mentally challenged, struggling to care for their children in a world that seems to them both baffling and hostile. Their social worker, Rose, offers help and advice, but she herself is sometimes overwhelmed by the cumulative weight of the many difficult situations her various clients find themselves in.

In the third chapter, we meet DJ, an undersized fifth-grader living with and caring for his 75-year-old grandfather, a retired gandy dancer on the railroad. DJ accompanies his grandfather on his monthly visits to the tavern so he could walk him home safely after celebrating the arrival of his pension check. DJ works on his homework while his grandfather visits with the other old men, telling “stories that were not exaggerated so much as they were simply enlarged a little.”

We follow these plain, good people as they pursue their lives in and around the town of Holt, Colorado. They endure the disappointments, losses, and small joys of everyday life. They drift apart and come together. The prose, too, is plain and good, the dialogue hinting at the accents and speech patterns of rural Colorado.

After the first three or four pages, I thought I was going to be bored out of my mind by this quiet novel, but once I adjusted and learned how to read it, I treasured each chapter, each page. I was touched, recognising again the generosity most people demonstrate toward those around them, how gentle they can be with each other. This story about how we connect with each other and how painful it is when those connections are severed served for me as a good corrective for all the hateful politics filling the airwaves, fear-fueled rantings against some imagined “other”. It also served to remind me that there are no rules for writing novels that cannot be broken by a good writer.

61 Hours, by Lee Childs

For fans of this series, I only have to say “Lee Childs” or simply “Reacher”. That's all you need to know.

When I pick up one of these immensely popular books, I know that nothing more will get done until I've turned the last page. In this 2010 addition to the series, Jack Reacher has caught a ride on a tour bus that skids off a remote South Dakota highway during the beginning of a blizzard. With his customary competence, Reacher plants flares outside, administers first aid to the elderly tourists, and works with the driver trying to get the bus started again so that they don't freeze to death. Andrew Peterson, a local policeman, arrives and arranges for transport to the nearby town of Bolton, a small town that used to be a lot smaller before a prison was built there. Reacher notices some odd things on the way into town, but we overhear Peterson and his boss, Chief Holland, discussing Reacher, asking, “‘Is he the guy?'”

One of the things that I think must be difficult with a series is to continue creating plausible scenarios where the protagonist can encounter murder or other mayhem. This problem is why a mystery series is often based on a policeman or private detective: their business is crime. Otherwise you have a little old lady in a small village where an extraordinary number of murders seem to occur. The television series Murder, She Wrote ran into the same obstacle with its version of Miss Marple, retired teacher and mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, stumbling over multiple bodies in tiny Cabot Cove, Maine. As a workaround, Jessica was often sent off on author tours that make today's authors green with jealousy, and even moved her to New York City for a while to teach a class.

Another problem with a series is maintaining suspense. Every reader has to know that the main character is not going to die, in spite of all the wretched and dangerous situations he or she is subjected to. One way to keep readers worried is to allow beloved side characters to be killed, as J.K. Rowling did in the Harry Potter series. I haven't figured out what other tricks terrific writers like Nevada Barr, Ian Rankin, and Laura Lippman use to send us breathlessly racing through story after story, fearing for the hero's safety. Any suggestions? Add them in the Comments section below.

A countdown clock is a rather obvious way to add suspense to a story, but seems fresh in Lee Childs's hands. On my first reading, I believed that the author only referred to the clock once in a while. However, going through the book again, I see that he hits that refrain often, sometimes several times in a chapter. I guess I was too absorbed in the story to register the steady tick, a credit to the writing because I am easily annoyed by such things. Suspense is also built in this story by the various mysteries, the danger to people we come to care about, and the well-spaced action scenes. Too, Childs's famously short sentences keep the suspense and the pace buzzing, while being completely appropriate for the voice of this laconic hero.

Of course it's hard to worry about Reacher when he is so capable of taking care of himself. Some reviewers have compared Reacher to Philip Marlowe. He is a big man, six-five, skilled with firearms and his own hands. A former MP, he could have ended up Chief of Staff if he'd had a more compliant nature. Instead, he was booted out of the military after a legendary bust-up with a senior officer. For years now, he has stayed on the move, retaining no possessions, even buying serviceable new clothes every few days and disposing of the old.

Reacher doesn't make me think of Marlowe; he makes me think of Shane. He comes to town, recognises the threat, and does what others don't have the ability or the guts to do. Then he leaves.

No wonder I love these books.

The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

Selected by one of my book clubs, this is not a book I would normally read, although I like science fiction. First published in 1996, one of the parallel storylines takes place twenty years later (which is not too far off from where we are now), when a young engineer in Puerto Rico intercepts signals from a distant planet that are recognisably music. The news is leaked and the world blazes with curiosity about this new culture. While the U.N. dithers, the Jesuits—famous for their explorers and first contacts with civilisations—put together a mission to that planet to learn about the culture that produced such remarkable music. The mission includes the engineer who first discovered the signal (Jimmy), a husband and wife team who bring engineering and medical skills respectively (George and Anne), an artificial intelligence expert who excels in capturing knowledge (Sofia) and four Jesuit priests, with piloting, music, naturalist, and linguistic skills (D.W., Alan, Marc, and Emilio). The second of the parallel storylines takes place in 2059-2060 when the single survivor of that mission, Emilio, the young priest who is a genius with languages, returns severely traumatised, and the Jesuits try to draw the story out of him.

People who impose their religion on others have always made me uncomfortable, hence my reluctance to continue with a book about an evangelistic mission. However, I was seduced by the characters. Each one came so alive for me and seemed so much like people I know, that I couldn't help reading on. I adore these characters. And much to my relief, once they land on the planet, it becomes clear that they only want to learn about the alien culture, not convert it.

However, and not unexpectedly to one who has had Star Trek's Prime Directive drummed into her over multiple seasons and series, quite aside from all those Psychology and Anthropology courses, they cannot help but affect the culture they have come to observe. With, I should add, tragic consequences for everyone. As someone in my book club pointed out: there are always unintended consequences.

The details of the alien cultures (for there are more than one) are meticulously worked out and completely believable. Also, these details are presented in such a natural way that I never felt I was getting an information dump. Truly, this is a well-written book. All the more my disappointment when, about halfway through, the characters become subordinate to the plot. I understand that the machinations must work out, but I missed these characters that I had become so fond of. For example, the first death is wrenching, but after that the others are presented almost casually. I know that is true: the first death is the one you never get over, but I loved these characters and wanted the chance to mourn them.

I understand that there is a sequel: Children of God. I do not know yet if I will read it, even as I reiterate that this first novel from Russell is a remarkable accomplishment.

Family Constellation, by Margaret S. Mullins

Although I've met Margaret Mullins, I've read little of her poetry. Therefore, I was thrilled to see this new chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Inside the striking cover resides a set of poems that look at the charms and tragedy of daily life and the “deeper forces” that “churn below.”

For example, “Elizabeth Kenny Polio Institute 1953” captures “one quicksilver moment” when a roomful of adolescent girls in iron lungs joke about where they are off to that evening. The poem captures the scene, the humor, and the bittersweet camaraderie of the girls in their metal prisons.

Mullins uses musical images and instruments, as in “Thanksgiving Dinner”, describing a family as though it were an orchestra:

The conductor raises his carving knife,

nods to the concertmaster who nods back,

and the Grazioso Symphony begins.

Music is apparent, too, in her word choices. She lures us in with deceptively simple lines such as these from “Metamorphosis”:

He was a brilliant, angry, funny man

who had always hated cats.

Plain language, to be sure, but it pushes me to read on, creating irresistible movement. At the same time, succinct and beautiful descriptions bring scenes to life, such as this from “Genevieve's Snowman”:

Years from now, tall and elegant

in soft leather gloves

and a vintage black fedora,

she'll see the fading photograph,

colors melting to sepia.

I can almost feel those gloves, see that sepia photo. Some of the poems are about family life, remembering her father and grandfather, capturing the humor and delight of grandchildren. She writes of an imaginative child who, when she comes in:

dropping a trail

of dolls, books, and mittens,

a dozen invisible characters

come with her:

The child leaves with her “giraffe backpack bumping along”. In other strong, visual poems, Mullins writes of the joys of mature love and the rewards of long-worked gardens. I hope to see many more collections of her poetry.