Tag Archives: Western

Devil Until Dust by Emma Berquist

Willie (don’t you dare call her Daisy) at seventeen is in charge of the family consisting of her brother Micah and seven year old twins – Calvin and Catherine, a real ornery handful. Her mother died of the “disease” which has destroyed any semblance of an orderly life for those living in Glory, Texas. Her pa, Harrison Wilcox, always prone to drink, is now mostly MIA, spending his time at the Homestead bar getting drunk and gambling. Life is tough enough with a small pile of money which is quickly being depleted by the monthly protection dues paid to the Judge who runs the town, but it promises to get worse when McAllister confronts Willie, demanding she repay the $400 winnings her pa stole the night before. Wilcox is long gone and nobody has that kind of cash to lend, so Willie decides to hire some hunters to guide her through the open desert to Best, a larger town where she’s sure her dad is hiding out with his newfound bounty. Pa should be the one to suffer the consequences of his actions, not his innocent children.

So far Devil Until Dust by Emma Berquist sounds like a straightforward western taking place about ten years after the end of the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant is President of the United States, but it’s not gun slingers and wild animals the town folks fear, it’s the shakes, disease riddled zombie like creatures who have lost all sense of humanity and thrive by drinking blood. Animals are the easiest to catch, but shakes like the taste of humans, even devouring those like themselves, unlucky enough to get killed. Of course, if you survive the bite of these sub humans, it’s only a matter of time before you’re infected too. That’s why towns are fenced in and guarded and nobody travels without a shake hunter armed and ready to shoot the beasts since it’s a matter of us vs them. Those in the North and on the West Coast have stopped building the transcontinental railroad system, leaving the infected parts of the country to “handle” it on their own.

So Willie goes on the road through the West Texan desert with two brothers, Curtis and Ben, to reach Best and bring her Pa to justice. This quest takes some unexpected turns in a YA book which combines a coming of age story with a dystopian western in an alternative history introspectively narrated by a young girl who rejects her femininity in order to survive in an apocalyptic, dust-filled world riddled with epidemic created demons and egocentric men trying to get ahead by taking advantage of anyone who can’t defend themselves (although there are a few good hearted souls scattered throughout the book).

Definitely readable with super short chapters, and, although somewhat predictable, this debut novel is worth a look. Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.


News of the World by Paulette Jiles

In my neck of the woods we all know about Mary Jemison from the Letchwood Park area in New York State who was captured and raised by the Seneca Nation in 1755. While I’ve wondered about her experiences, I’ve never dwelled on what it must be like to leave one world and enter another. News of the World by Paulette Jiles explores this very issue as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is given the task of delivering a ten year old girl brought up by the Kiowa to her surviving relatives, an Aunt and Uncle from Castroville, Bexar County outside of San Antonio.

After living four years with a Kiowa family, Cicada, newly dubbed Johanna Leonberger, has no recollection of life with her original parents who were killed by her captors. She wants to go back to the existence she knew and is fearful of this current situation, unsure of exactly what will happen next. The 71 year old Captain is reluctant to take on the arduous 400 mile journey, but has an empathy for the wild child. He attempts to teach her the ways of the “civilized” world, but she consistently breaks the rules, unaware of the taboos of society. Slowly Johanna learns a new way of life as they travel across Texas, and eventually she is able to help out the “Kep-dun” by collecting the ten cent admission to the Captain’s read aloud. His job is to go from town to town, reading bits and pieces of articles from newspapers throughout the world. Avoiding local politics, since the Confederacy lost and this is Texas, he deals with information from far away places such as France or the North Pole, talking about inventions which will change the world, and peaking the ranchers’ interest with information about a huge modernized packing plant in Chicago. In this way the Captain is able to eke out a living in the rough and tumble world of the West in the 1870s. Somehow, in spite of rain and the threat of violence, the two seem to get along, building a grandfather/granddaughter bond. The Captain is leery about what the future holds for his temporary ward, but he does his best to complete their quest.

An interesting tale featuring Texas front and center. Full of details of the landscape and weather encountered in their travels, and the politics and lifestyle faced by the slowly growing citizenship of the newly born state, the author creates a setting reflecting life in the post civil war era. In fact, it seems more emphasis is placed on the land than on the people in the story, although all sorts of characters are met along the way (and some aren’t so nice). Jiles throws in quite a bit of historical information about the issue of land ownership in a section of our country which was once dominated by Spain, as well as some background about the various battles of the era using the Captain’s backstory as a justification for including this into her tale.

As in the book Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, it amazes me that in such a sparely populated state everyone seems to know each other’s business, in spite of the vast span between towns. More than once when “out on the trail” the Captain is recognized by some passersby as “The Man Who Reads the News”, a title which earns him respect (in most cases).

While the relationship between the Captain and Johanna is sweet and the author attempts to create a realistic depiction of the times, I had a few issues with this book. Jiles’lack of quotation marks to indicate when someone was talking left the reader wondering what was spoken aloud and what was simply a thought, especially when comments were made in the midst of a paragraph. I also had some questions involving the conclusion and how our hero was able to justify his actions and avoid entanglements either with the law or with his stellar reputation. However, kudos to Jiles for featuring a hero from the older generation. It’s nice to have an author revere their elders instead of stuffing them into a nursing home sitting and drooling quietly while they await their death. Captain Kidd was able to hold his own quite nicely in spite of a few to-be-expected aches and pains. Three and a half stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

“Even things that seemed ordinary or ugly at first could be beautiful,” thinks Rachel, the daughter of a paleontologist, accurately depicting the dilemma of this strikingly intelligent, talented, but plain young woman who wants to go to university and study in the same field as her father. Despite her unusual upbringing as an assistant to her exacting dad, Professor Cartland, a women in the 1880s was not expected to be a scholar, let alone have a profession. She is destined to be a wife and mother even though Rachel spurns all the social events created for matchmaking. Without a mother to guide her, Rachel lacks the finesse of a socialite befitting her father’s prestigious station. Samuel Bolt, also motherless, has been trained to assist his Quaker father, “Professor” Michael Bolt, in similar pursuits. Father and son are both good looking and used to charming the women they meet, but it is different with Rachel who intrigues Sam with her mesmerizing blue eyes.

To make matters more complicated, their fathers are bitter rivals out to best one another, even if their methods lack a sense of honor. With the prevailing theme mirroring the Hatfields vs the McCoys, the young couple are destined to fall in love despite their fathers’ enmity. Add in an archeological dig at a bone bed out in the Badlands of Nebraska where the Lakota Sioux threaten their very lives as the two competing professors hunt for the perfect dinosaur fossil, and you have the plot of the book, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel.

Not everyone acts honorably and there is enough disgusting violence to please the lovers of rowdiness in their western novels. It is difficult to feel connected to any of the characters whose egotistical pursuits in the name of science seem underhanded and self serving. The young lovers, despite their flaws, try to do the right thing in most situations, but both have difficulty looking beyond their own needs. After they finally tie the knot, the reader is exposed to the stumbling awkwardness of their first sexual encounters, but one can’t help but root for a successful outcome for the two youngsters after they survive the numerous adversities which keep getting thrown their way. The book alternates between Sam and Rachel’s narration as the story unfolds.

What pushes this book up a notch is that the premise is loosely based on The Bone Wars (also known as the Great Dinosaur Rush), an intense rivalry between Dinosaur Hunters Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh. Who knew that a true story about two scientists hunting for prehistoric fossils could be so entertaining?

Four stars for a quick and eventful read perfect for the YA crowd and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Vengeance Road by Emma Bowman

The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine is an American Legend which vies with the Tale Tales of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, yet contains a flicker of truth mixed in with the myth. Emma Bowman has taken aspects of this story and woven it into her own fictionalized version of events using some of the known historical facts to give her western tale a touch of reality.

Vengeance Row begins with heroine Kate Tompkins down at the creek hauling water where she sees smoke and rushes home to discover her house burning and her father hanging from a tree with the mark of a rose carved into his forehead. After burying her dad next to the grave of her mother, she rides off on her horse Silver, disguised as a boy, to avenge this seemingly senseless death. First, however, she must stop at Abe Colton’s house (according to her father’s instructions) where she finds a letter explaining the reason for his death. Kate would never have guessed that the murderers were after her dad’s diary with directions to a hidden gold mine her parents had found up in The Superstition Mountains, east of Phoenix, Arizona. Although Abe is dead, his sons insist they accompany “Nate” (Kate’s disguised name) on her journey. Along the way they discover the identity of the murderers, the dreaded Red Rose Riders, led by vile Waylon Rose. Kate, Will and Jesse Colton, and Apache Liluye travel together, each pursuing their own goals while on the tail of the vicious gang. The resulting mayhem leads to an unanticipated climax which is guaranteed to surprise the reader.

Meant for young adults, this violent story is full of death via bee stings, hangings, shoot outs, Apache massacres, fires, and illness. Even the main characters aren’t safe from harm. There is a touch of romance once Kate’s true identity is discovered, but the journey through the haunted mountains in pursuit of revenge is the main focus. Taking place in 1877 Arizona, there is a map of the area at the beginning of the book so the reader can follow their trail. The tale is told in first person present tense using the supposed vernacular of the times which gets a little getting used to, but flows along at a brisk, richly detailed pace. At times the dialogue seems a little hokey or cliched with phrases such as: “Ain’t nothing more to it than that.” or “She’s the only thing left between me and the dark quiet of my own thoughts.” However, it is a western with the main character a tough eighteen year old female who is as capable as any man. The young age of the heroes who are able to outwit their elders is always appealing to YA readers. Four stars for the successful weaving of Kate’s story with the Lost Dutchman legend.

A thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford

While the premise of The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford is compelling and the plot has several exciting and/or amusing moments, the author fails to deliver a cohesive novel. It starts out strong, opening with Caleb McCoy and his sister JoBeth Garrett visiting Kansas City in 1884, specifically to see Anna (daughter of famed Suffragist Leader Victoria Bishop) speak on Women’s Rights. Caleb, a veterinarian, finds himself in the right place at the right time when he hears a gun shot and sees Anna collapse in a growing pool of blood. When the doctor can’t be found, Caleb is the one to clean the wound and stitch the woman up. Caleb now feels a responsibility to protect Anna from further harm, so he doesn’t complain when the desk clerk lists the invalid as his fiancĂ© on the hotel register so she can maintain a low profile while the shooter is sought. Anna, despite her wound, is a capable, resourceful woman, while Caleb is portrayed as a shy man. Both are passionate about their life’s work so it is not surprising that they feel a connection towards one another. However, Caleb is used to small town life, while Anna was brought up surrounded by wealth and trained to be independent. The two lifestyles would never mesh, yet each carries a growing bit of love within their hearts, despite their dissimilar backgrounds.

Anna starts out as a strong, fearless woman but as the story progresses her personality becomes more domestic. Caleb, although handsome, is introverted and inexperienced with women, but as the plot develops he becomes more daring and heroic. Caleb is surprisingly enlightened, supporting the idea of women’s rights, based on his veterinary experiences with abused animals.

The main problem is that too much of the book is taken up with rueful thoughts of “I think I love you, but we aren’t right for each other” from both parties. There is just too much introspection and not enough action. Shackelford also has a problem with pacing. The set up takes a third of the book while the climax is over in a couple of pages. This is the fourth book in the Prairie Courtship series, so some of the characters have been previously introduced, but when Caleb brings Anna to his hometown of Cimarron Springs, there are too many townspeople interacting without enough background to easily assimilate the information. Hopefully these characters were rounded out in one of the other books, since the villains responsible for all the strife in this story are thrown at the reader without much explanation, making the resolution of the plot confusing.

While it was admirable to focus on the topic of Woman’s Suffrage, the portrayal of Anna’s mother, did the cause no favors. If anything, it promoted the idea that the leaders of the suffragists were self centered, arrogant, and pig headed. By making Victoria Bishop insufferable, it took away from our sympathies towards the movement. However, real life leaders, such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were extolled and the first elected female mayor in the United States (Susanna Salter from Argonia, Kansas in 1887) was eluded to when in the epilogue Anna becomes mayor of Cimarron Springs. Sherri has a brief note at the end of the book covering some information on the history of the vote for women encouraging the reader to do more research on the topic.

Perhaps the most glaring error is the misleading title. Anna never actually agrees to pose as Caleb’s fiancĂ©, it’s just assumed by the townsfolk after a series of misadventures (including the actions of a playful goat). It’s over two thirds of the way through the book before Anna graciously accepts the situation.

All in all a disappointment, especially since all the elements were present to create a great story.

2 and a half stars. A thank you to Netgalley and Love Inspired Books for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.