Whatever happened to Westerns?

This blog is by Richard, our deputy head of service.

You’ve only read the title of this blog and already I can hear you scoffing? ‘Westerns’ you say, ‘they’ll never make a come back!’ Well if that’s the case, why have we had two new westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight) at the cinema in the last month or so. Surely Tarantino can’t be wrong?!

Anyway – for those of you who are willing to keep reading here’s my Magnificent Seven ‘give it a go’ westerns to whet the appetite of the uninitiated…

Western Little Big ManLittle Big Man by Thomas Berger (1964)

Does this book require much description? – Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the irascible Jack Crabb in the 1970 movie made this a very popular western, albeit a tongue in cheek take on the genre where Jack, a 121 year old, retells his life story to an oral historian – this sees Jack pretty much involved on the fringes of every major event covered by almost any other western you can pick up – he even survives the Battle of the Little Big Horn. So whilst most western fans will know that the only survivor of that battle was a horse called Comanche, the book offers a wonderfully colourful [and partly accurate] historical synopsis of the era – and that remains in some ways the main question posed in the narrative – is Jack a fraud?

Western The BloodingThe Blooding by James McGee (2013)

As a fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series I was probably destined to become a fan of James McGee’s series about Hawkwood [I can’t read this series without imagining that Sharpe had left the Rifles as a Captain and returned to London’s rookeries as a Runner … but I digress]. Set in 1812 this outing sees Hawkwood stranded behind enemy lines, in America, a country at war with Britain for the second time (like many people I never knew there were two wars with America!)

As Hawkwood makes his escape to the Canadian border he uncovers an American plot to invade Canada. If it is successful, the entire continent will be lost. Pursued by a relentless enemy, Hawkwood sets off across the snow-bound Adirondack Mountains; the land the Iroquois call ‘The Hunting Grounds’.   And here we get more of Hawkwood’s back story with McGee taking his skills at historical storytelling in the direction of Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans.

If you like Cornwell’s Sharpe, historical crime fiction, or EVEN westerns then The Blooding and the rest of the series are waiting….

Western The sisters brothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011)

This is a new one for me – in looking up a few ‘best of the west’ lists I came across the usual titles: Riders of the Purple Sage (Zane Grey), True Grit (Charles Portis), even Little House on the Prairie (Laura Ingles Wilder), [only Little Big Man from any of those lists was already on mine], and then I spotted this little gem (possibly – I should say nugget as the backdrop is around gold prospecting). It’s a relatively recent publication but the language and sentence structure, whilst easy to read, are certainly evocative of them olden days.

The book is darkly comic following the exploits Charlie and Eli, who are brothers with the last name ‘Sisters’ – ok I’ll admit this confused me to start! They are a couple of the best hit men in the Wild West, but like most siblings have their own rivalries and plenty of personal baggage which only serves to enhance the comic authenticity of their interactions. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, this is certainly worth a shot (sorry for the pun).

And for those who like books becoming movies I’ve just discovered that plans are afoot for a 2016 release starring John C. Reilly.

Western The gunslingerThe Gunslinger by Stephen King (1982)

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed. So begins the first instalment of Stephen King’s iconic fantasy series, The Dark Tower.

Inspired in by Robert Browning’s poem, Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, The Gunslinge , part sci-fi novel, part spaghetti Western, tells the story of Roland Deschain, Mid-World’s last gunslinger [think Lancelot with a Colt peacemaker] who is tracking an enigmatic magician known only as the man in black.

A lasting memory I have reading this as a western is a scene with the gunslinger on a beach fighting off some weird see creatures – ok, that’s definitely not normal for a ‘guns at sunset’ kind of a western, but very little in Mid-world is normal.

The entire saga took over 20 years to create and, like Lord of the Rings for Tolkien, brings Stephen King to the forefront of imaginary world storytelling – everyone should try this, but with seven parts….be prepared to lose yourself in Mid-world for a long time.

And…you guessed it, another candidate for a movie – this one I hear will be around in 2017.

Western A study in scarletA study in scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first seven chapters of A Study in Scarlet take place in London in 1881, and see the introduction of our two heroes – Holmes and Watson; this section of the novel ends with the capture of Jefferson Hope. The next section is a flashback to events many years earlier in America, culminating in Hope’s arrival in London. The third section of the book continues where the seventh chapter left off, providing Hope’s account – essentially his statement to the police of his activities in London, and ultimately the novel concludes in what becomes the traditional style for Holmes with his explanation of the case.

Like McGee’s The Blooding, the western narrative is an interesting read, particularly as Doyle was a contemporary author writing from another continent; but putting that aside – if you have never read Holmes you really, really must.

Western The tenderness of wolvesThe Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney (2006)

The year is 1867. Winter has just tightened its grip on Dove River, a tiny isolated settlement in the Northern Territory, when a man is brutally murdered. A local woman, Mrs Ross, stumbles upon the crime scene and sees the tracks leading from the dead man’s cabin north toward the forest and the tundra beyond.   Within hours Mrs Ross will regret that knock as she discovers her seventeen-year-old son has disappeared and is considered a prime suspect.

A mix of people are drawn together following the crime and set off one by one to solve it….or to exploit it?   This is a an exhilarating thriller, a gripping murder mystery, and, like all the best westerns a wonderful example of fireside storytelling – no wonder it won Costa Book of the Year and First Novel Awards.

All God’s Children by Thomas Eidson (1996)

Pearl Eddy is a poor widow living in a small town in the prairies of Kansas, a Quaker in a Methodist town. Life becomes more difficult when she hides a black runaway from a lynch mob and later takes care of an immigrant family.

Also worth a look – The Last Ride (1995) – made into the film The Missing, starring Tommy Lee Jones in 2003

Thomas Eidson is, for me, an exquisite story teller. Each of his stories test the faith of his characters to the very limits. Whether these are religious beliefs, moral codes, or friendship loyalties, Eidson takes his characters to the edge – and sometimes gives just a little nudge to push them over. Unfortunately these titles are mostly out of print, but your extra effort in searching them out will be rewarded.

So, if you think westerns aren’t for you why not try one of these more fringe offerings and see how you get on.   And with a whole host of movie crossovers coming in during 2016, maybe there will be a revival….

Librarian Top 10 – Great fiction read this year

This weeks top 10 comes from Stu, a community librarian based in the East of the city.

WreakingWreaking by James Scudamore

A magnificent slice of modern Gothic storytelling, in which a reclusive academic seeks refuge in an abandoned mental hospital and slowly loses his mind while seeking to unravel the chain of events that led up to a horrific family accident in the dim and distant past. The over-riding theme is the relationship between time and memory, and the distortive effect that each has on the other. Everything about this book screams quality – vivid characterisation, pitch-perfect dialogue, wonderfully descriptive, nuanced prose and a fantastic plot hiding behind the multiple layers of smoke and mirrors. Highly, highly recommended.

1980Nineteen Eighty by David Peace

A typically sanguine Yorkshire-noir with a labyrinthine plot that will be all-too familiar to anyone who’s read the other books in the quadrilogy. This one is set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, but in-keeping with the rest of the series, the main focus is on the dodgy dealings of the bent coppers who are supposed to be investigating the case. It’s not for the faint-hearted – the Ripper’s monologues in particular are stomach-churningly graphic and deeply disturbing – but the plot moves along at a cracking pace, and Peace’s sparse, staccato style paints a suitably lurid vision of hell.

Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman

A trite line that crops up in quite a few reviews of this novel is that this is like an updated version of War and Peace, and it’s not too far from the truth. This book is an epic in every sense, featuring a huge cast of characters (including a cameo from Stalin himself) at all levels of society and deals chiefly with the Nazi invasion of Russia and the Battle of Stalingrad. Like Isaac Babel before him, Grossman was a journalist who wrote fiction based on fact, and this authenticity really comes through in his descriptions of the battle. It’s not an easy novel to read by any means – especially the scene in the gas chamber at Auschwitz -, but like all the best Russian literature, it’s very, very rewarding if you’re willing to give it the time and attention it deserves.

RegenerationRegeneration by Pat Barker

This is the first in a trilogy of books the deal with WW1, with war poet Siegfried Sassoon appearing as one of the main characters, convalescing at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. It’s only a slim volume but incredibly dense, and aims to deal with the awful psychological effects that war has on the minds of young men. There are some really harrowing scenes in here – particularly the descriptions of some of the treatments administered by the psychiatrists – but surely that’s to be expected in a book of this nature – and it’s an interesting read for anyone with an interest in the Great War.

The Last WordThe Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

Here Kureishi, arguably the greatest English writer of his generation turns his razor eye upon the struggles of an ageing man of letters. Told with his usual insight and acerbic wit, and a tongue firmly planted in its cheek, this book is very funny indeed.

The misfortunatesThe Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst

It would be all-too easy to describe this book as a Belgian take on Bukowski, but it’s not that far off the mark. It’s a squalid, sleazy tale of a family of small-town alcoholics and the misadventures they get up to in the course of their miserable, drunken lives. Okay, it’s not the most original subject matter, but the translation (by David Colmer) is fantastic and really brings the book to life in all its feculent glory. As with all books of this kind, it’s genuinely, laugh out loud, tears-on-your-cheeks funny, but ultimately downbeat and shot through with the kind of bottom of the barrel, red-eyed sadness that only boozy literature of this ilk can muster.

Wolf HallWolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This first instalment of a trilogy of novels deals with Thomas Cromwell’s formative years, his rise to power in the court of Henry VIII and the fall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey. It’s all written in the present tense, which gives the story a real sense of urgency and keeps the pages turning. It’s a big book, make no mistake, but a far easier read than you’d probably imagine. There is a caveat though. If you’re unfamiliar with Tudor politics, you may struggle a little with some of the characters; lots and lots of the men are called Thomas (named after Becket, England’s favourite medieval Saint), and every other lady seems to be called Mary, which could be confusing to those who aren’t fully conversant with the court of the time. That said, there’s a table of characters at the front of the book for those who aren’t already in the know so don’t be put off, even if you know nothing of the period. This is a masterful bit of writing and a cracking historical novel that’s worthy of every bit of praise that’s been lavished upon it.

Bring up the bodiesBring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: or, Wolf Hall Part Deux.

Picks up at the precise point where the first book left off, and moves us through the fall of Anne Boleyn. The real skill of Mantel here is to take a story that’s fairly familiar to most people but still construct a narrative in a way that keeps you turning the pages, even though you know ultimately what’s going to happen (hint: things don’t end well for Ms Boleyn) There’s a wealth of great characterisation, lovely descriptive prose and she has a great ear for dialogue too, all the marks of a first-class writer working right at the top of her game.

The first circleThe First Circle by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

From the foremost chronicler of Stalinist Russia, this is a huge novel, dealing with all his usual themes – Gulag, show trials, Five Year Plans, Collectivisation, industrialisation etc. and how they affected the general populace of Russia during the Stalinist years. It’s another huge book, packed with a fantastic array of characters, all with their own hard luck stories to tell. One of his greatest qualities as a writer was to be able to relate the lives of people right at the bottom of the social scale to those right at the top, and to show how the machinations of the Party apparatus were inescapable for anyone unfortunate enough to be living in Russia at that time.

Les miserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo

Gigantic, door-stopping tome dealing with the seedy underbelly of Paris in the early part of the 19th century. This is a very modern work in some ways. In the text Hugo often refers to himself as the writer, and it’s filled with references to real people and real events. It’s epic not just in size, but in scope too, combining what’s basically a detective story – Javert’s relentless pursuit of petty-crook turned outlaw Jean Valjean, which in itself is reminiscent of Ahab’s chase of the white whale in Moby Dick, another early modern(ist) novel) with a host of digressions, philosophical musings and essays on topics as diverse as the French Revolution, underworld slang, social inequality and the Battle of Waterloo. It’s definitely not for the casual reader – the Vintage edition has nearly 1300 pages, not including the generous introduction and a couple of hundred pages of footnotes at the end – but for those who want to sample a genuine classic of world literature, it’s an absolute marvel.

Top 10 – Science Fiction

These are the top 10 Science fiction titles borrowed from Leeds Libraries during November. Science fiction isn’t everyone’s bag – but why not try one of these for something different?

Heart goes lastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Living in their car, surviving on tips, Charmaine and Stan are in a desperate state. So, when they see an advertisement for Consilience, a ‘social experiment’ offering stable jobs and a home of their own, they sign up immediately. All they have to do in return for suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – swapping their home for a prison cell. At first, all is well. But then, unknown to each other, Stan and Charmaine develop passionate obsessions with their ‘Alternates,’ the couple that occupy their house when they are in prison. Soon the pressures of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire begin to take over.

The Long WarThe Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

A generation after the events of ‘The Long Earth’, mankind has spread across the new worlds opened up by Stepping. Where Joshua and Lobsang once pioneered, now fleets of airships link the stepwise Americas with trade and culture. Mankind is shaping the Long Earth – but in turn the Long Earth is shaping mankind.

The Long MarsThe Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

2040-2045: In the years after the cataclysmic Yellowstone eruption there is massive economic dislocation as populations flee Datum Earth to myriad Long Earth worlds. Sally, Joshua, and Lobsang are all involved in this perilous work when, out of the blue, Sally is contacted by her long-vanished father and inventor of the original Stepper device, Willis Linsay. He tells her he is planning a fantastic voyage across the Long Mars and wants her to accompany him. But Sally soon learns that Willis has ulterior motives.

A Storm of swordsA Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

The Seven Kingdoms are divided by revolt and blood feud. Winter is approaching and the wildings are poised to invade the Kingdom of the North. Robb Stark must protect himself from them and the threat of his enemies in the south.

Lock InLock In by John Scalzi

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. 4% suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And 1% find themselves ‘locked in’ – fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus. 1% doesn’t seem like a lot. But in the US that’s 1.7 million people ‘locked in’ – including the President’s wife and daughter. Spurred by grief and the sheer magnitude of the suffering, America undertakes a massive scientific initiative. Nothing can fully restore the locked in. But then two new technologies emerge…

Fools assassinFool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife, Molly, for many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown. But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic and assassin: a man who has risked much for his king and lost more. On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends. But one is long dead, and one long-missing. Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives, seeking Fitz, only to mysteriously disappear leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Raising steamRaising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Change is afoot in Ankh-Morpork – Discworld’s first steam engine has arrived, and once again Moist von Lipwig finds himself with a new and challenging job.

Wards of faerieWards of Faerie by Terry Brooks

There was an age when the world was young, before the coming of humans, a time when magic was the dominant power. It was during this age that the Elfstones protecting the Elven disappeared. Now a clue to their location may have surfaced in the diary of a princess, and it will be the beginning of an adventure that no-one expected.

DragonbaneDragonbane by Sherrilyn Kenyon

Out of all the mysterious boarders who call Sanctuary home, no one is more antisocial or withdrawn than Maxis Drago. But then, it’s hard to blend in with the modern world when you have a fifty foot wingspan. Centuries ago, he was cursed by an enemy who swore to see him fall. An enemy who took everything from him and left him forever secluded. But Fate is a bitch, with a wicked sense of humour. And when she throws old enemies together and threatens the wife he thought had died centuries ago, he comes back with a vengeance. Modern day New Orleans has become a battleground for the oldest of evils. And two dragons will hold the line, or go down in flames.

BattlemageBattlemage by Stephen Aryan

Balfruss is a battlemage, one of a vanishing breed, sworn to fight and die for a country that fears and despises him. Vargus is a soldier, and while mages shoot lightning from the walls of his city, he’s down in the frontlines getting blood on his blade. Talandra is a princess and her father’s spymaster, but the war may force her to take up a greater responsibility, and make the greatest sacrifice of all. Known for their unpredictable, dangerous power, society has left battlemages untrained and shunned. But when a force unlike anything ever imagined attacks their home, the few remaining magic users must go to war – to save those who fear them most, and herald in a new age of peace, built upon the corpses of their enemies.