Monday, February 25, 2013

Review Roundup: From the Table to the Grave

Cooking Wild & Wonderful
By L.J. Martin
Wolfpack Publishing, March 2011
$11.95 paperback, ISBN 188533933X
$3.99 Kindle, ASIN B004UICW36
166 pages

One of the primary reasons folks read western novels is a desire to live, vicariously, an adventure populated by larger-than-life characters attempting to tame a wild land. Imagine a cookbook that delivers a similar experience.

L.J. Martin’s Cooking Wild & Wonderful is a delight—not only because Martin’s recipes please the palate, but also because his writing entertains. This is a cookbook people will want to read, not just prop up in the kitchen during meal preparation. Much more than a collection of how-to’s, Cooking Wild & Wonderful is a cultural reference that evokes the spirit and flavor of the West.

Martin takes cooks and wannabe-cooks by the hand and fairly yanks them into a philosophy of food—and in a much broader sense, life—that is charming and liberating, awash with color and brimming with adventure. Game recipes comprise a very small part of the mix; instead, the “wild” in the title refers more to abandoning supposed rules and taking risks. Risk is relative here, though, because Martin’s chatty, colloquial voice is nothing if not encouraging. Although one definitely gets the impression Martin would be as at home in a chef’s kitchen as on the trail, his recipes and advice are easy to follow, from simple fare with uniquely flavorful twists to multi-course gourmet meals.

No matter how tasty the food, however, the flavor of the text, replete with stories of real-life cowboys and country folk, is what sets the book apart.

The Handsomest Man in the Country
By Nancy Radke
Bedrock Distribution LLC, November 2012
$0.99 Kindle, ASIN B00A7GCFGY
103 pages

Orphaned by the Civil War, an 18-year-old girl from the hills of Kentucky heads west on a wagon train, only to discover the devils she knew at home may have been preferable to the devils in disguise she encounters along the trail.

Despite a couple of formatting, word-choice, and punctuation glitches, The Handsomest Man in the Country is an excellent read, mostly because author Nancy Radke nailed an unusual—and unusually charming—character voice. (The writing could use a substantial infusion of commas, but even that perceived shortcoming fades into insignificance behind the sheer enjoyment of the reading experience.)

Marketed as a sweet romance (no harsh language or sex), the story follows the standard romance protocol only in that it ends on a happily-ever-after note. Don’t expect to find overwrought musing about romantic love on these pages. The characters are much too busy surviving to moon over each other.

Handsomest Man is told in first-person, which represents a significant risk for the author. The music of the hills is in the way Apalachian people think and speak. Attempting to render such a distinctive patois in prose without losing readers is challenging, but Radke did an admirable job. Little of the language is presented in dialect (phonetic spelling, elisions like dropped Gs, etc.), but the sentence structure, word choices, and rhythm of the writing all evoke the color and flavor of the unsophisticated, hardscrabble, pragmatic attitude of the area.

Writers often are cautioned about using dialect, because it can be tiresome to read. Radke's novella demonstrates how smoothly and respectfully dialect can be suggested without resorting to trickery or parody.

Joshua’s Voice
By Charlie Steel
From the anthology Six-Guns and Slay Bells: A Creepy Cowboy Christmas
Western Fictioneers, October 2012
4,800 words

For the Love of a Woman
By Charlie Steel
From Rope and Wire Western Short Stories, 2010
3,850 words

Charlie Steel’s two short stories are quick, easy reads. Though very different in tone, each presents more character study than adventure.

In Joshua’s Voice, the sole survivor of an ill-fated westward wagon trek grows from helpless child to savvy wilderness dweller with the help of a mysterious, omniscient presence that, by revealing itself, endangers the fabric of the cosmos. Sometimes harsh, sometimes amusing, and sometimes tender—but never creepy—the story evokes comparisons to the Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis,” though Joshua’s Companion remains invisible. By the time Joshua discovers his destiny, readers will mourn the Voice’s sacrifice. (A review of the entire Six-Guns and Slay Bells anthology is forthcoming.)

For the Love of a Woman observes a husband and wife as they struggle to keep their farm and their marriage together. Tangled in daily-life struggles as they are, the pair have forgotten the language of love and seem able to interact only by hurting one another in little ways. Though they try to recapture the spark that first drew them together, life’s disappointments always seem to interfere. The arrival of an orphan train changes the dynamic of their relationship in ways that warm the heart. The story was a second-place winner in Rope and Wire’s 2010 short-story contest and is available as a free read on Steel’s website,

Kathleen Rice Adams is a Texan, a voracious reader, a professional journalist, and a novelist in training. She purchased Cooking Wild & Wonderful and The Handsomest Man in the Country, and received review copies of Joshua’s Voice and For the Love of a Woman from the author. Her opinions are her own and are neither endorsed nor necessarily supported by Western Fictioneers or individual members of the organization.


  1. Kathleen, I am enjoying L.J. Martin's monthly posts on cooking and his recipes, some taken from this book. I wholeheartedly agree with your review--just reading the lead-ins to the recipes is engaging and makes me WANT to cook--and that "ain't" easy to do. LOL

    I have not read "The Handsomest Man" yet, but now I'll have to, since we lived in Appalachia for many years--my husband is from WV. It sounds like a good read.

    At least I won't have to buy ONE of Charlie's stories--I already have my author copies of Six Guns and Slay Bells. I enjoyed Joshua's Voice very much!

    Thanks again for bringing some good reads to our attention.

  2. Again a great post and review of some interesting stories. I also have the Six-Guns and Slay Bells and am enjoying it. Cookbooks are a weakness of mine, even more so now that gluten is out of the diet. Your review has decided me on yet another to add to my collection.

  3. Hi Kathleen,
    I am definitely enjoying your reviews and am looking forward to many more to come. Not every reviewer has a good turn of phrase or can get their feelings for a book across, but you certainly do...and more.

  4. I'm humbled by this wonderful review. It's not often a reviewer sees into your heart! xoxo

  5. Sorry to be so late checking back in, y'all. It's been one of THOSE Mondays.... (I really need an extra day between Saturday and Sunday. Anybody want to join me in a petition? ;-) )

    Cheryl, if Larry's book makes you WANT to cook, he needs to write another one immediately! In addition to everything else, the man obviously has magic powers. :-D

    RW, get the cookbook. You won't regret it. I'm an inveterate collector of cookbooks, too, and I've never seen another quite like that one. :-)

    Rebecca, I'm always tickled to see you chime in. I blushed all over at your compliment. Thank you. :-)

    Larry, *you* have magical powers. *I* have X-ray vision. (One of my friends tried to make off with my kitchen copy of CW&W this weekend. Fortunately, I'm not too proud to trip middle-aged women at the front door.) ;-)

  6. Kathleen, that is sooooo true! LOL L.J. DOES have some kind of magic powers if his cookbook makes ME want to cook. I'm really enjoying his posts--and I agree--he needs to get another one out there!

  7. CW&W really hit the spot for me. I enjoyed the diversity of his recipes but even more the stories in between. This is what cooking is all about.

    Nancy Radke now has two more novellas out in this series. She's a personal friend, and I critiqued The Handsomest Man in the County. Not much work to do because it's such an excellent story. I haven't read the third one yet, but the second is just as engaging as the first.

    All the stories in Six Guns and Slay Bells were entertaining. Loved the book. This story was unique and sent us on quite a journey.

  8. Jacquie, I read Nancy's second Traherns tale (The Smartest Horse in Texas) and found it interesting, but not quite as engaging as the first. Of course, Smartest Horse was written in a completely different voice, and the voice in Handsomest Man was outstanding. I'm looking forward to the third. :-)

    Six-Guns and Slay Bells is an unusual anthology. Of course, I'm discovering the unusual is commonplace for Western Fictioneers. ;-)

  9. Ladies, I'm continuing to add to this one. Just added a couple more recipes. I've discovered that if you revise and resubmit to Amazon with more length, they advise all the former buyers, so it's good business. And, by the way, I, too, try to trip middle age least I did until my wife caught me.

  10. I knew I was associating with some top-notch, first-rate writers... but I never realized how many of 'em are lady-trippers.