Posts tagged ‘western genre’

Book Review: TILL MY LAST BREATH by Deborah Swenson


By Deborah Swenson

Published in partnership with BookBaby

Of Pennsauken, NJ

337 Pages

ISBN: 978-1-09833-571-7

EISBN: 978-1-09833-572-4

Author Deborah Swenson takes on a fun idea: What if you mix science fiction (time travel AND Life after Death), stories of the old west, a portion of classical romance novels, and throw in a good cast of characters?  In TILL MY LAST BREATH, that’s what the reader will find – If you’re open to such genre-mixing, (and you should be) then TILL MY LAST BREATH is for you. 

Our hero Caleb Young and heroine Emily Sweeney are united after each suffer life-challenging injuries – but this review will not give away those particular conditions, because no one likes a spoiler.  The setting (mostly) takes place in a nondescript town in 1880 Arizona, no different than the towns made popular in most Old West novels, complete with minimalist hotel accommodations, a raucous saloon, dusty roads and canyons – and an abandoned mining cabin that would receive a -3 rating on any hotel rating system.

The characters, in addition to our leading pair, include a sheriff of very specific ethnic background (cleverly done), a few villains (in some instances vile, in some instances they appear as if Laurel and Hardy had gone bad), the wise and experienced town doctor, a few fancy ladies about town, and more.  Oh yes – add a few ghosts, too, who embellish the idea of genre mixing even deeper.

The plot spins around our two heroes as they bicker at first, and then learn that each of them has a background that is more than seems possible.  They are encouraged/threatened/assisted by the cast of those around them as adventure after adventure in the old west drives them together, then apart, and so on. As for the time travel, that element appears again and again as one of our characters wishes to return home, suffering disappointment after disappointment as efforts to ‘get home’ are thwarted by desire, by conditions, and by fate.

Each chapter, titled after one of the characters, is told from the viewpoint of that character – through this idea, the author does a nice job of mixing who is who as as this gives the reader an insight into the characters that might otherwise be unavailable.

Honestly, there are a few near-cliches here – but the story and the use of the genres hides them quite well.  In TILL MY LAST BREATH, expect lots of action, a few twists that come about because of the creative genre blending, and a chance to meet some interesting characters.


Book Review: THE SONS OF PHILO GAINES by Michael R. Ritt

The Sons of Philo Gaines Cover

By Michael R. Ritt
reviewed by Charles Johnson
Western Genre
324 pages
Published by Cengage/Five Star
ISBN #: 9781432871031

What happens when you have three sons of three different personalities and careers, who join together in a common cause, all of them the offspring of a well-known lawman? The answer is in THE SONS OF PHILO GAINES.

This novel comes in four parts; each son’s lifestyle and demeanor get a part of the book: the sedate schoolteacher, the footloose gunfighter, and the cagey gambler. Each son carries a past with him – a lost love, a cursed trial, a name that denies family in some ways. The fourth part addresses the uniting of these three sons as they face a family foe, motivated by theme of revenge and comeuppance.

And as in any good novel, there must be the notorious villain – in this case, a rancher who has his eye on the local beauty – but even more so on the local financial dealings. His past, too, drives him as the reader learns what that history holds for him. He is surrounded, as would be expected, by the usual – and not so usual – gang of thugs who follow the villain’s bidding, regardless of the reason or moral correctness.

The love interest, too, is there, as the reader sees the school teacher’s love stir for one who is seemingly forbidden, another for a saloon girl, another for a passenger on a stage run . . . oh, and yes, others that seep up from the past of our three lads of the west.

The story centers around Mustang Flats, Texas, but we hear mention of so many other localities and sites – Denver, Las Cruces, stage coach routes, various mountain ranges that our heroes ride through – I always wish there were a map somewhere in the books like this for the reader to find some visual ground as the action occurs. There are extended overnight horse rides that find some decent descriptions of the southwest geography and night and in the heat of the day. In a kudo to the author Michael Ritt, characters vary, male and female alike, leading to some truly interesting personalities. No one-dimensional typical western folk here. There is humor, too, especially featuring a certain kind of contest between a loner and his mule – I wish there had been more humor like that throughout the book.

THE SONS OF PHILO GAINES is quite a good read. The novel would have benefitted from some tighter editing to polish some sections of the book, but nonetheless, this is a good first entry into the western genre for Mr. Ritt. I do indeed hear and see our three brothers appearing again in future adventures.

Book Review: THE LILY OF THE WEST by Kathleen Morris

Lily cover
Subtitle: The Untold Story of the Notorious “Big Nose Kate”
By Kathleen Morris
343 pages
ISBN13: 9781432847333
Published by Five Star
Gale, Cengage Learning

A western about a woman, and the word “Lily” is in the title. So, do you find yourself expecting a Harlequin Romance story in the midst of a tale of the Old West?

The title just doesn’t cover it. Well, yes, there are signs of elegance and fine breeding, but Kate Haroney Elder was certainly more than a lily – she also succeeded at poker, at cooking, at horse training. Blessed with a beautiful singing voice, (hence the LILY title) she could soothe even the most vile cowboy with her version of “Aura Lee” or an Irish folk song. Self-assured, strong willed, intelligent, and educated in European schooling, Kate could speak French, quote Shakespeare and discuss the Greek civilizations, but then she could also employ a degree of stubborn attitude or use a sharp tongue that had no hesitation in using brash language usually expected from the miners in the shafts of the local silver mines.

Such a strong woman deserves to be the center of a book. Kathleen Morris, through a great deal of research and literary taste, delivers Kate’s story from all angles. With an interesting vocabulary that blends both the literate world of a Europe and an educated lady with the raucous cowboy vernacular, Ms. Morris writes with a strong tone, delivering more than a biography of a quite well-known figure of the Old West. The reader also gets the usual Old West plot lines: gunfights, card games, stage coach rides, and the typical main street towns like Dodge City.

We learn of Kate’s early years, and how she got to be part of those serving Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. We see her struggle through moves that cover Iowa and St. Louis, and then how she rides her adventures to the Old West, including Dodge City, Las Vegas (New Mexico, that is), Tombstone, and several points surrounding. In each setting, author Ms. Morris brings us the sights, sounds and aromas of the wide arena that is Kate’s life. We smell her excellent cooking, we smell her perfume as she woos the men in her life, we see and hear the world of Old West Saloon life as Kate wows the crowd with her beautiful voice and as she deals a mean game of poker. Full of life, this Kate Haroney Elder.

And in all this upbeat adventure, there is a level of tragedy. Angst of a lost family, a sharp tongue and temper, and a seemingly inability to establish lasting relationships with men (spoiler alert: except for one, sort of . . .) color the book with darker tones as the reader experiences the technicolor life of our heroine.

This is a complete, interesting arc in the life of Kate Haroney Elder – and thanks to Kathleen Morris for pointing it out to us.


Book Review: West of Penance
By Thomas D. Clagett
278 pages, plus an epilog and comments from the author
Published by FIVE STAR, a part of GALE CENGAGE Learning
ISBN 13: 9781432831417

west of penance cover

WEST OF PENANCE by Thomas Clagett

Behold the cliched western novel – a gunfighter or two, a saloon singer, a haunted gold mine and a tribe of hostile Apaches. Not here – not here at all in Thomas Clagett’s WEST OF PENANCE. Through some fine historical research and hard work, here is a superb story spun out of a famous French Legion Battle, a Catholic clergyman and a land grab plot in the wild west days of New Mexico. Though the setting may be the American Wild West, Clagett weaves a tale that extinguishes all of those “Western Novel” clichés, delivering an interesting and exciting story as the reader follows Clement Grantaire from his humble military beginnings (on and off the battlefield), his growth as a spiritual leader, and his attempt to make good on a promise to a man he owes so much. This is a swell combination of a historical novel and the western themes of the Great American Frontier.

We first meet Grantaire in a poker game in Paris, France. No sign of a western tale here. On then to a flight from the law and into the secret life of the French Foreign Legion – still no cactus or horse in sight. Jump a few years, and the reader finds Clagett’s main character, having experienced a change of morality, serving the poor in the arid west of the territories of the new American frontier. Now, we get a savory taste of a western. Clagett weaves more of his tale, and sure as the sun sets beyond the hills, here’s our western, complete in its setting and its characters.

It is the late nineteenth century at the New Mexico/Texas area. Towns are growing as the settlers are arriving to farm, to be merchants, to create a new state. However, rich men hungry for more and more land, use every legal angle and corruption to gain acreage, strong-arming many in search of wealth. It is in this world that we find Clement Grantaire and a majority of his tale. Will he get help from the Sheriff? Who can he trust? Turns out, some are more trustworthy than others, and some are so corrupt that they can’t help but get in Grantaire’s way.

The worst of this bunch were those who chose to steal as much land as they could – be it through intimidation or even raw torture. The names and personalities are for the reader to discover – and those scalawags are as nasty as the rattlesnakes in the rocks.

Clement Grantaire’s allies a few, but effective. Some of the henchmen of the land grants bosses have a change of heart, for example, but it the strongly able lady rancher Rachel Scott who provides the encouragement Grantaire needs.

Thomas Clagett gives us deep characters, both the good and the evil. He gives us realistic scenes as the characters interact. He gives us colorful descriptions, concise dialogue, and solid emotions as we learn to love and detest each character and situation.

Thomas Clagett is a well-trained writer who has also done work in the film and television. WEST OF PENANCE is his second novel. Let’s hope Mr. Clagett continues to blend his practice of historical research with the world of the western genre.

PS … Since I posted this, I learned that Mr. Clagett is releasing a new book in April 2018.  Entitled LINE OF GLORY, it is a tale based on the last hours of the Alamo.  I am looking forward to it!


Book Review: DANCE WITH THE DEVIL by JD March

Dance with the Devil
By JD March

dance devil cover

A book review by Charles Johnson Western Genre
Published by FIVE STAR, A part of Gale Cengage Learning 353 pages
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL offers a firm example of writing in the western genre. We meet all the required elements of such a tale; men of varying moral standing, the life of the ranch hand, the hot weather of a summer in near-desert conditions, and some good action scenes and adventure. The plot moves along with two lines of conflict that keep the reader involved and interested.

A hard-working, honest man (Guthrie Sinclair) who owns a ranch in the 1870s in New Mexico, finds himself confronted with a competing rancher (Chavez) who wishes to take over a neighboring ranch, one way or another. If that means gunplay, then so be it. A son returns (Guy Sinclair) after more than a decade living in the east, where he has served in the military and learned the refinements of urban life of the time. A younger son (John Sinclair, aka Johnny Fiero) also returns, having been taken away at a very early age from the ranch by his wandering mother. He has survived life of living in shacks, being abused, and learning to deeply hate so very early on; that hatred motivates him to hone his gun fighting skills so that he becomes one of the most renowned gunfighters of the period. The Range War between Cortez and Sinclair is ostensibly over water and timber rights of another ranch on which the owner Steen Andersson has died. Other complications arise that make those water and timber rights seem immaterial, including the security and the future of Peggy Andersson, heir to the Andersson ranch. As the range war escalates, the two brothers accept their part in it, each with their own level of commitment and involvement. The honest father observes his sons, approves of one, disappointed in the other. As for the sons Guy and John, though they share the same father, their upbringing in different parts of the country gives them traits that just don’t blend well, despite the efforts of the elder brother to get along.

The Sinclair men are the main characters in the book, each of them with their own characteristics. The dad brings his western stoic, honest nature to the story, the older son brings his cultured training to the ranch, and gunfighter Johnny is clearly the angry young man so often seen is westerns. The local country doctor (Ben Greenlaw) is a good friend of the Sinclair family as well as a fine physician who takes little guff from his patients. Peggy Andersson is the only major female in the book; I wish there had been more of her in the story, and more to her character. The only other woman close to being a major character in the book is Johnny’s mother. We meet her just briefly, much in the same way we meet Johnny’s women of the brothels; and there’s not much a difference between the mother and those brothel dwellers. Several other ranch hands and cowboys appear, offering some more of that western flavor to the book.

JD March, the author, describes the scenery quite well, bringing the reader into the various locations. The descriptions found my mind’s eye, admittedly a product of the 1960s TV westerns, recalling scenes from those TV westerns as I read various sections of the book. The view of the ranch from the hills found me echoing the opening of HIGH CHAPARRAL, the night-time camps brought up notions of GUNSMOKE, with images of Marshall Dillon and a prisoner wait out the night, and the fist fights in the bar brought many more westerns to mind. This is a good thing – it means the author was accurate in describing the scenes.

There are few comical situations. These are mild, not quite enough to function as comic relief in the story. In a few cases where humor works quite well, the two brothers converse, and the Bostonian son Guy uses words that amaze and confuse the gunfighter Johnny to no end.

We learn that the elder son has left Boston, not only at his father’s request to return to the ranch, but to avoid some bad times caused by his own dalliances. What those bad times were are explained, but I felt they could have been detailed more than they were. The younger son’s motivation for his angry personality are better explained, helping the reader to understand him in ways not provided as well for the elder son.

The dialogue is quite well written. The voices of the various ranch hands, the patrons of the bars, and the ladies of the brothels are all authentic. Their language is indeed in the vernacular of the Wild West; with the exception of one word. Our gunfighter Johnny is the only character in the entire book that uses the ‘f bomb’…and uses it quite often; taking away some of the credibility of the dialogue. (One would think that the other rough and tumble cowboys would also use such profanity). In fact, as I researched the ‘f bomb’, it would be fair to say that it is out of place and anachronistic to the time period and setting of the American Wild West. American literature didn’t use the word until the 1920s, and then mostly on the east coast. My suggestion; either have the word appear in conversation of others, or, preferably, don’t use it at all since its use didn’t seem part of the talk of the time and place.

And so, as you ride off into the sunset…

DANCE WITH THE DEVIL carries a good amount of the western genre in some exciting action and clearly written settings. Male characters are quite solid – I wish the women were clearer and stronger – and there’s the language matter I mentioned that pulls this book out of the young adult audience to some degree and strains the credibility of the dialogue in some ways. The novel does, however, offer a good read for fans of westerns as they sit with this book in front of the fireplace and a cup of coffee on the side.