Monday, April 22, 2013

Review Roundup: Traditions, Intrigue, and Iconclasts

First, let me offer hearty congratulations to the 2013 Peacemaker nominees. Authors and judges, y’all done good. If any nominees would like to see a review their story here, please get in touch. I’d be honored and delighted.

Now on to what the brush poppers found in the TBR pile.

The Traditional West
By Western Fictioneers
Western Fictioneers, July 2011
$16.00 paperback, ISBN 1463728417
$4.99 Kindle, ASIN B005E1JI8U
384 pages

Prior to the Digital Age, readers and publishers tended to view short stories as somehow “less serious” than novels. Long-form fiction was an art; short stories almost represented a hobby, unless written by someone whose novels already were popular. Literary and popular magazines published short stories, but most paid only a token fee if they paid at all. Publishers infrequently released anthologies of shorter works, and the ones that did see ink usually were written by a single author who’d already made his or her bones in long-form fiction.

Thankfully, the short-story landscape is changing — in large part because of the growth of self-publishing. Although readers remain skeptical about self-published work (with good reason), they’ve also discovered that taking a chance on an inexpensive or free short story by an author with whom they’re unfamiliar may lead to a long-term love affair.

Therein lies part of the value of mixed anthologies for writers, readers, and publishers. Western Fictioneers’ The Traditional West is an excellent example. The 24 original western shorts in the book introduced a cadre of writers whose work was new to me and encouraged me to seek more from each of them. Steven Clark, Phil Dunlap, Edward A. Grainger, James J. Griffin, Jerry Guin, C. Courtney Joyner, Jackson Lowry, L.J. Martin, Matthew Mayo, Rod Miller, Clay More, Ross Morton, Kerry Newcomb, Scott D. Parker, Pete Peterson, Cheryl Pierson, Kit Prate, Robert J. Randisi, James Reasoner, Dusty Richards, Troy D. Smith, Larry Sweazy, Chuck Tyrell, and L.J. Washburn should be on every western fan’s reading list.

At 120,000 words, the volume is hefty, but each story is digestible in a single sitting — and I challenge readers to stop in the middle of any tale. Several of the shorts either won or were nominated for a Peacemaker Award. Four of those, in particular, stood out: Troy D. Smith’s “The Sin of Eli” (which won a Peacemaker), Rod Miller’s “The Death of Delgado” (which won a Western Writers of America Spur Award and was nominated for a Peacemaker), and Peacemaker nominees “The Way of the West” by Larry Jay Martin and “Panhandle Freight” by L.J. Washburn. The four stories are very different, but each displays a remarkable depth of character and a thoroughly enchanting “voice.”

“The Sin of Eli” and “The Death of Delgado” twist readers’ emotions and haunt the imagination with larger questions about morality, choices, and the meaning of life and love. “The Way of the West” is more lighthearted and frisky, producing both chuckles and cringes as drovers put a rancher’s mollycoddled heir through the ringer on a cattle drive. “Panhandle Freight” spins a thoroughly satisfying mystery in a very short space.

Let us hope publishing future volumes of The Traditional West becomes a tradition for Western Fictioneers.

Last Stand at Bitter Creek
By Tom Rizzo
Western Trail Blazer, April 2012
$10.95 paperback, ISBN 1475284446
$2.99 Kindle, ASIN B007Z5XZRS
230 pages

The Civil War is almost over when Union spy Grant Bonner receives his last assignment. Although he’s more than ready to go home and forget the past four years, he reluctantly agrees to a job he finds both distasteful and alarming: spying within the Union’s own ranks. The assignment goes south in a big way, leaving Bonner wounded and on the run, accused of grand larceny and murder. As he attempts to clear his name, he becomes both hunter and prey in a monumental chess match where all of the pieces are pawns.

Houstonian Tom Rizzo’s debut novel, Last Stand at Bitter Creek, wanders a bit in spots, much like the trail of the sociopath Bonner tracks. The writing stumbles in a few places, but almost every novel suffers that fate. The true test of a good story, in my opinion, is whether readers will remember the experience after they’ve finished the book. I’m still thinking about this one.

In Rizzo’s hands, Bonner, his tenuous supporters, and the villain become the sort of “sticky” characters that just won’t go away. Some of the bad guys are evil to the core; some of the good guys seem untrustworthy. Just as it appears Bonner is about to make a breakthrough, the invisible hand of Fate bumps the chessboard and scatters the pieces. By the conclusion readers may find themselves exhausted — in a good way.

Last Stand at Bitter Creek also is notable for the historical trivia Rizzo winds through the tale. Though the events that set the plot in motion may seem improbable, all are based in historical fact. History buffs will enjoy the end note.

Mending Fences
By Livia Reasoner
Berkley Jove (January 1998)
From $0.49 paperback, ISBN 0515122114
The Book Place (June 2011)
$0.99 Kindle, ASIN B0057OE74O
278 pages

When a dime novel writer from Back East moves to the small frontier town of Zephyr, Texas, to care for her sister’s orphaned children, she falls right into the kind of gun-slinging adventure she might have invented.

Though marketed primarily as a “sweet” romance (very little harsh language and no explicit sex), Mending Fences plays equally well as a western. Set during the fence-cutting scrapes that took place in Brown County, Texas, during the 1880s, the story focuses as much on the burgeoning range war as it does on the budding relationship between closet dime novelist Brianna Stark and Seth Van Dale, who hasn’t managed to shed his reputation as a fast gun despite living quietly as a ranch foreman for the past five years.

Reasoner’s prose is engaging, seemingly flowing onto the page with an un-self-conscious strength that lulls readers into the tale like a river might carry a raft. There is comfort in that kind of book: Readers disappear into another time and place, into someone else’s life, with never a worry rapids lurk just around the next bend.

That is not to say there’s no excitement in the story — plenty of excitement adorns the pages. What readers won’t find is the type of over-the-top depictions of love and romance they might expect in a romance novel. Emotions ring true for both main characters without ever seeming overwrought. Men who eschew romance novels probably will enjoy this one.

Romance writers and western novelists alike will identify with Brianna, who is excruciatingly conscious of the flowery language and outlandish storylines upon which her successful career is based. The juxtaposition of Brianna’s style with Reasoner’s only emphasizes the effortless relationship Reasoner apparently has with words. Amusingly, not until the Big Love Scene at the very end does the story succumb to a few tricks of the romance-writing trade.

The sense of time and place in Mending Fences is extraordinary. Details are engrossing but not overwhelming, and they're never academic. For humor, adventure, family drama, and the pure joy of an effortless read, I highly recommend the book.

Kathleen Rice Adams is a Texan, a voracious reader, a professional journalist, and a novelist in training. She received review copies of all three books from the author or publisher. Her opinions are her own and are neither endorsed nor necessarily supported by Western Fictioneers or individual members of the organization.


  1. I should dislike you for these reviews for they just add to my TBR list. However, I treasure your insights and truthful reviews. Thank you. Doris

  2. Oh wow, what a nice review for both my story "Panhandle Freight", and novel Mending Fences. I had to laugh at one comment about Mending Fences. My editor insisted I rewrite the end, more than once. Guess since my love gave me a tractor for Valentines Day and I was thrilled, my idea of romance is probably different than some. Thank you for the wonderful reviews. I'll definitely be sharing this.

  3. Looks like some good stories, esp. the Bitter Creek one. Best wishes for all the authors.

  4. Doris, I'd like to say "sorry 'bout that," but I'd be lying. I figure if MY TBR pile resembles a mountain, everyone else's should too. ;-)

    Livia, I figured the ending of Mending Fences might've involved a rasslin' match between you and your editor! :-D I loved the book all the way through, but I had to chuckle over the change in tone during the Big Love Scene. The eldest of Brianna's nephews needs a story of his own (hint, hint).

    Kathy, if you like intrigue layered upon more intrigue, you'll like Last Stand at Bitter Creek. :-)

  5. Thanks for such a well thought-out and honest review for "Last Stand At Bitter Creek." I appreciate the detailed observations. More importantly, I'm pleased you were able to navigate the "stumbles" and "wanders" and still enjoy the story. This makes my day.

  6. Kathleen,
    As always, superb reviews that make me want to read, read, read! FORTUNATELY...I have all of these books except Livia's, and so adding ONE book to my TBR stack today is not nearly as daunting as it usually is when I read your blog posts here at the WF Blog! I'm so glad you enjoyed The Traditional West--I'm proud to be a part of that anthology!

  7. As I recall, we made a research trip down to Brown County and poked around quite a bit before Livia wrote MENDING FENCES. Both sides of my family are from that area, and my father cowboyed on the Binnion ranch, owned by the father of the famous gambler Benny Binnion. He pointed out some of the old fences to me on many occasions, so I was able to show them to Livia. I used to have a pistol that one of my uncles got from an old cowboy in Brown County that supposedly was used in the Fence-Cutting War, but who knows if that's true or not. Although I'd like to think that it was. I like that part of the country. There's still a tangible sense of how things used to be there.

  8. Need to add Mending Fences to my TBR pile, LOL. I'm with Doris... I'll never get all these read!! But it's always good to have a great story handy. :-D

  9. What rootin' tootin' great reviews. Congratualtions to the nominees. I love a good western and these look fantastic. I have Last Stand of Bitter Creek.

  10. OH for Pete's sake. I'm so far behind my reading, I'm going to quit reading your reviews. I'm sure waiting eagerly for your offering on the printed page. You're amazing lady. Rod

  11. Sorry for the disappearing act, gang. Mondays -- GAH!

    Tom, lest you think I was ragging on Last Stand at Bitter Creek, let me assure you I enjoyed the book tremendously! I was floored that Last Stand is your debut. You have an amazing knack for creating memorable characters. I finished Last Stand weeks ago, and your people are STILL rambling around in my head. They're THAT strong. I'm hoping you've got something new in the works, cuz I'm already looking forward to reading it. :-)

    Cheryl, add Livia's book to your TBR stack this instant, young lady. There's still a gap in the recommendations war -- and you're ahead. I'm aimin' to fix that. ;-)

    James, the research trip shows in Mending Fences. I could have stepped right into the scene. Loved Livia's end note, too. And I agree with you about Brown County. I'm sure you treasure that pistol! :-)

    Meg, get busy readin', gal! And writing. You've got a tradition to uphold. :-)

    Sarah, I haven't run across a bad western by this outlaw gang yet. There is a ton of talent among the Western Fictioneers. :-)

    Rod! Good to "see" you, sweetheart! How's YOUR writing coming? I hope we can expect another sweeping western epic from your pen soon. :-)

  12. Ok, I'm going to have to get this book.Thanks for sharing, Kathleen

  13. I thoroughly enjoyed Mending Fences. Might even have an original print copy around here somewhere.