Lists, Reviews

West Side Stories

The post’s title is incredibly misleading. Sorry. It’s not about West Side Story, which I love as much as anyone else. It’s about Westerns, the oft overlooked genre of fiction. I couldn’t call it “Best Westerns” without it feeling like a road trip hotel chain advertisement. If I called it “Fantastic Westerns You Haven’t Read” you might have been skipped right over the post, because, well, people think they don’t like westerns. So now that you’re here, you might as well give these wonderful novels a chance.

The Winter Family // Clifford Jackman. The Winter Family, a gang of mismatched men headed by the one and only Augustus Winters, spans from the civil war to 1900. It’s only natural that there are a lot of casualties. Kind of. Augustus Winters likes to be cruel. He’s cold (with a rather fitting name), tough, and calculating – and he enjoys that. From Georgia to Chicago to Canada to California, the novel follows this despicable band of mercenaries as they move from one disaster – they’ve caused – to the next. It’s quite possible that the bodies pile up faster than the pages in this one, but don’t let that put you off. It’s also a stellar, well-plotted tale of brutality and lawlessness during a time when the world was incredibly brutal and lawless. There are no heroes here, nor any anti-heroes, it’s just the story of ruthless men justifying their actions however they need to to make it through the day. If a historical western noir with more than a few bodies and bloody good writing sounds appealing, get this one immediately.

The Which Way Tree // Elizabeth Crook. Benjamin Shreve is just a little boy when he sees his sister maimed and his stepmother killed by a very large, very vicious panther.

Set in Texas during the Civil War, The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook is a Texas-sized tall tale of revenge and adventure through the wilderness in pursuit of El Demonio de Dos Dedos. It is at times a tad bit far-fetched, but what great story of vengeance isn’t? Aided by an honorable Mexican horse thief, a reverend, and an elderly panther sniffing dog, Benjamin and Samantha set out to hunt the demonic predator. Hindering their progress is one Clarence Hanlin, a confederate soldier guilty of murder.

Told almost entirely in an epistolary format, specifically Benjamin’s letters-as-testimony to a judge trying to convict Mr. Hanlin of his crimes, this novel is both earnest and deadpan, with a narrator both endearing and frustrating. Truly, The Which Way Tree is a treat, with a subtle hint of True Grit and a subtle-as-a-hammer nod to Moby Dick. This quest for vengeance, interspersed with real, true sibling love, will charm you.

West // Carys Davies. I don’t think I have a sentimental bone in my body (if I do, I think it’s probably my little toe), but this book touched my heart. Something about the story of Bess, who waits for her father to complete his quest, has stayed with me for a long time. It’s a slim little novel, with an impact as big as the mammoth bones Cy seeks. The cover is also flawless, for what it’s worth.

“When widowed mule breeder Cy Bellman reads in the newspaper that colossal ancient bones have been discovered in the salty Kentucky mud, he sets out from his small Pennsylvania farm to see for himself if the rumors are true: that the giant monsters are still alive and roam the uncharted wilderness beyond the Mississippi River. Promising to write and to return in two years, he leaves behind his only daughter, Bess, to the tender mercies of his taciturn sister and heads west.

With only a barnyard full of miserable animals and her dead mother’s gold ring to call her own, Bess, unprotected and approaching womanhood, fills lonely days tracing her father’s route on maps at the subscription library and waiting for his letters to arrive. Bellman, meanwhile, wanders farther and farther from home, across harsh and alien landscapes, in reckless pursuit of the unknown.”

Wolves of Eden // Kevin McCarthy. “Dakota Territory, 1866. Following the murders of a frontier fort’s politically connected sutler and his wife in their illicit off-post brothel, Lieutenant Martin Molloy and his long-suffering orderly, Corporal Daniel Kohn, are ordered to track down the killers and return with “boots for the gallows” to appease powerful figures in Washington. The men journey west to the distant outpost in a beautiful valley, where the soldiers inside the fort prove to be violently opposed to their investigations.

Meanwhile, Irish immigrant brothers Michael and Thomas O’Driscoll have returned from the brutal front lines of the Civil War. Unable to adapt to life as migrant farm laborers in peacetime Ohio, they reenlist in the army and are shipped to Fort Phil Kearny in the heart of the Powder River Valley. Here they are thrown into merciless combat with Red Cloud’s coalition of Native tribes fighting American expansion into their hunting grounds. Amidst the daily carnage, Thomas finds a love that will lead to a moment of violence as brutal as any they have witnessed in battle―a moment that will change their lives forever.

Once you get into the dialogue of the novel, this engrossing, blood-soaked story sheds light on the Old West, during the era of Red Cloud’s War (this was not a topic covered in my long ago class on the civil war). The ties that bind us together in times of war, and the brutality that men inflict and survive, combined with the mystery of who murdered the sutler and his wife, create a compelling novel.

Black River // S. M. Hulse. A tense, modern Western with a gritty feel, Black River tells the story of a man marked by a prison riot as he returns to the town, and the convict, who shaped him. It’s hard to believe this novel is a debut, the prose and plot is nuanced and evocative. I saw it referred to as a “western of unusual depth” and that’s a good prescription. This is another novel that will stick with you for a long time.

Whiskey When We’re Dry // John Larison. “In the spring of 1885, seventeen-year-old Jessilyn Harney finds herself orphaned and alone on her family’s homestead. Desperate to fend off starvation and predatory neighbors, she cuts off her hair, binds her chest, saddles her beloved mare, and sets off across the mountains to find her outlaw brother Noah and bring him home. A talented sharpshooter herself, Jess’s quest lands her in the employ of the territory’s violent, capricious Governor, whose militia is also hunting Noah–dead or alive. “

This book is riveting and memorable in all the best ways. Jess is a fantastic, multidimensional character, and I’m pleased to see books like this breathing new life into the western genre.

The Ploughmen // Kim Zupan. When I originally read this, I wrote “This is a novel that I can’t help but feel will fly under the radar, but I hope it gets the attention it deserves. It’s not the story of anything in particular, instead it is the story of how life happens and how the lives of individuals intersect in such a way as to bind them together. It’s also the story of place, in this case it’s the desolate, lonely Montana countryside. It has the feel of a modern western with the gloom and grit of Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy. I’d highly, highly recommend this one for fans of literary fiction.” That still stands.

TL;DR. Whatever you’re reason for reading a western, there is one here for you.

  • If you’re in it for the blood, read The Winter Family.
  • If you’re in it for a quest and reckless pursuit of the unknown, read West.
  • If you’re in it for humor, grit, and a dash of Moby Dick, read The Which Way Tree.
  • If you’re in it for the history, read Wolves of Eden.
  • If you’re in it for depth and modern perspective, read Black River.
  • If you’re in it because you loved True Grit, read Whiskey When We’re Dry.
  • If you’re in it for beautiful writing, read The Ploughmen.

Mixtapes

Literary Mixtape | My Absolute Darling

As an alternative for a review, synopsis, or anything of the like, I decided to create a soundtrack for the book. Please note that quite a bit of this is intended to be playful and irreverent. I’m rarely serious and this post is no exception.

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is a difficult, stunning novel. It’s a hard read, one I would never be able to review. It was actually one of my favorite books of 2017, and it’s still on my mind. That is how this post came to be. If you think you can handle the content (extensive child abuse), I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s part coming of age novel, part survival story, and absolutely oozes tension and dread.

01. Survivor // 2WEI

“I want to survive this.” She is surprised by the depth and clarity of her desire.

02. Do Your Worst // Rival Sons.

“She leaves parts of herself unnamed and unexamined, and then he will name them, and she will see herself clearly in his words and hate herself.”

03. Hurt // Oliver Tree

“I hate him for something, something he does, he goes too far, and I hate him, but I am unsure in my hatred; guilty and self-doubting and hating myself almost too much to hold it against him.”

04. The Kids Aren’t Alright // The Offspring

“The truth is that things do not work out, that there are no solutions, and you can go a year, a whole year, and be no better, no more healed, maybe even worse, be so skittish that if you’re walking down the street with Anna, and if someone opens a car door and gets out and slams the door you turn around, honest-to-god ready to kill them, turn around so fast that Anna, who knows what is happening, cannot even open her mouth in time and then you’re standing there, crying, and there’s some guy in a leather jacket and a fedora getting out of his Volkswagen Rabbit staring at you like, is this girl all right? and you want to be like, this girl is not all right, this girl will never be all right.” 

05. Cringe // Matt Maeson.

At his best, we are more than all right. At his best he rises above all of it and he is more than any of them. But there is something in him. A flaw that poisons all the rest.

06. Gun // Emiliana Torrini

“She strips and cleans the SIG Sauer by the light of the oil lamp. She taps the magazine in and racks the slide and puts the gun to her temple, just to remind herself that she is never so trapped that she cannot escape. You have lost your guts. Lost your courage. You are disgraced. But, you are still here.” 

07. Meet Me in the Woods // Lord Huron.

“You are supposed to come to the door and believe that hell awaits just on the other side, believe that this house is full of nightmares; every personal demon you have, every worst fear.”

08. The Gold // Manchester Orchestra

“Her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like [Martin], but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him.”

09. Old Number Seven // The Devil Makes Three

“You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough.”

10. It’s Alrigh Ma (I’m Only Bleedin’) // Bob Dylan

“The time will come when your soul must be absolute with your conviction, and whatever your spread, and howsoever fast you are, you will only succeed if you fight like a fucking angel, fallen to fucking earth, with a heart absolute and full of conviction, without hesitation, doubt, or fear, no part of yourself divided against the other.” 

Reviews

Coming Soon // Summer 2019

For me, Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer and thus a perfect time to look at the books I am most excited for this season. I am thrilled for a new Richard Russo, and Chuck Wendig’s latest sounds right up my alley (The Stand comparisons alone were enough to sell me, though the synopsis also sounds fantastic). New novels from Nell Zink and Tupelo Hassman also piqued my interest. Basically, the summer looks STELLAR.

Doxology // Nell Zink. August 27, Ecco. Daniel, and Joe might be the worst punk band on the Lower East Side. Struggling to scrape together enough cash and musical talent to make it, they are waylaid by surprising arrivals—a daughter for Pam and Daniel, a solo hit single for Joe. As the ‘90s wane, the three friends share in one another’s successes, working together to elevate Joe’s superstardom and raise baby Flora… Then 9/11 happens. At once an elegiac takedown of today’s political climate and a touching invocation of humanity’s goodness, Doxology offers daring revelations about America’s past and possible future that could only come from Nell Zink, one of the sharpest novelists of our time.

gods with a little g // Tupelo Hassman. August 13, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Rosary, California, is not an easy place to grow up, particularly without a mom. So cut off from the rest of the world that even the Internet is blocked, Rosary is a town run by evangelicals but named by Catholics (and the evangelicals aren’t particularly happy about that). It’s a town on very formal relations with its neighbors, one that doesn’t have much traffic in or out and that boasts an oil refinery as well as a fairly sizable population of teenagers. For Helen and her friends, the Tire Yard, sex, and beer are the best ways to pass the days until they turn eighteen and can leave town entirely. Her best friends, Win and Rainbolene, late arrivals to Rosary, are particularly keen to depart—Rain because she’ll finally be able to get the hormones she needs to fully become herself. Watching over them is Aunt Bev, an outcast like the kids, who runs the barely tolerated Psychic Encounter Shoppe. As time passes, though, tensions build for everyone and threats against the Psychic Encounter Shoppe become serious actions. In Tupelo Hassman’s gods with a little g, these flawed, lovable characters discover aspects of each other’s hearts that reshape how they think about trust and family, and how to make a future you can see

Hunter’s Moon // Philip Caputo. August 6, Henry Holt. Hunter’s Moon is set in Michigan’s wild, starkly beautiful Upper Peninsula, where a cast of recurring characters move into and out of each other’s lives, building friendships, facing loss, confronting violence, trying to bury the past or seeking to unearth it. Once-a-year lovers, old high-school buddies on a hunting trip, a college professor and his wayward son, a middle-aged man and his grief-stricken father, come together, break apart, and, if they’re fortunate, find a way forward.

Hunter’s Moon offers an engaging, insightful look at everyday lives but also a fresh perspective on the way men navigate in today’s world.

Chances are… / Richard Russo. July 30, Knopf. One beautiful September day, three sixty-six-year old men convene on Martha’s Vineyard, friends ever since meeting in college circa the sixties. They couldn’t have been more different then, or even today–Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker, Teddy a tiny-press publisher, and Mickey a musician beyond his rockin’ age. But each man holds his own secrets, in addition to the monumental mystery that none of them has ever stopped puzzling over since a Memorial Day weekend right here on the Vineyard in 1971. Now, more than forty years later, as this new weekend unfolds, three lives and that of a significant other are displayed in their entirety while the distant past confounds the present like a relentless squall of surprise and discovery. Shot through with Russo’s trademark comedy and humanity, Chances Are . . . also introduces a new level of suspense and menace that will quicken the reader’s heartbeat throughout this absorbing saga of how friendship’s bonds are every bit as constricting and rewarding as those of family or any other community.

The Last Book Party // Karen Dukess. July 9, Henry Holt. In the summer of 1987, 25-year-old Eve Rosen is an aspiring writer languishing in a low-level assistant job, unable to shake the shadow of growing up with her brilliant brother. With her professional ambitions floundering, Eve jumps at the chance to attend an early summer gathering at the Cape Cod home of famed New Yorker writer Henry Grey and his poet wife, Tillie. Dazzled by the guests and her burgeoning crush on the hosts’ artistic son, Eve lands a new job as Henry Grey’s research assistant and an invitation to Henry and Tillie’s exclusive and famed “Book Party”— where attendees dress as literary characters. But by the night of the party, Eve discovers uncomfortable truths about her summer entanglements and understands that the literary world she so desperately wanted to be a part of is not at all what it seems.

A page-turning, coming-of-age story, written with a lyrical sense of place and a profound appreciation for the sustaining power of books, Karen Dukess’s The Last Book Party shows what happens when youth and experience collide and what it takes to find your own voice.

The Lightest Object in the Universe // Kimi Eisele. July 9, Algonquin. After a global economic collapse and failure of the electrical grid, amid escalating chaos, Carson, a high school teacher of history who sees history bearing out its lessons all around him, heads west on foot toward Beatrix, a woman he met and fell hard for during a chance visit to his school. Working his way along a cross-country railroad line, he encounters lost souls, clever opportunists, and those who believe they’ll be delivered from hardship if they can find their way to the evangelical preacher Jonathan Blue, who is broadcasting on all the airwaves countrywide. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Beatrix and her neighbors turn to one another for food, water, and solace, and begin to construct the kind of cooperative community that suggests the end could, in fact, be a promising beginning.

But between Beatrix and Carson lie 3,000 miles. With no internet or phone or postal service, can they find their way back to each other, and what will be left of their world when they do? The answers may lie with fifteen-year-old Rosie Santos, who travels reluctantly with her grandmother to Jonathan Blue, finding her voice and making choices that could ultimately decide the fate of the cross-country lovers. 

The Lightest Object in the Universe is a story about reliance and adaptation, a testament to the power of community and a chronicle of moving on after catastrophic loss, illustrating that even in the worst of times, our best traits, born of necessity, can begin to emerge.

We Went to the Woods // Caite Dolan-Leach. July 2, Random House. Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

Mack, a publicly disgraced grad-school dropout, believes it’s her calling to write their story. She immediately falls in love with all four friends, seduced by their charisma and grand plans—and deeply attracted to their secrets. But it proves difficult for Mack to uncover the truth about their nightly disappearances and complicated loyalties, especially since she is protecting her own past.

Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, slights and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.

Caite Dolan-Leach spins a poignant and deeply human tale with sharp insights into our modern anxieties, our collective failures, and the timeless desire to withdraw from the world.

The Enlightenment of Bees // Rachel Linden. July 9, Thomas Nelson. At twenty-six, apprentice baker Mia West has her entire life planned out: a Craftsman cottage in Seattle, a job baking at The Butter Emporium, and her first love, her boyfriend Ethan, by her side. But when Ethan declares he “needs some space,” Mia’s carefully planned future crumbles. 

Feeling adrift, Mia joins her vivacious housemate Rosie on a humanitarian trip around the world funded by a reclusive billionaire. Along with a famous grunge rock star, a Rwandan immigrant, and an unsettlingly attractive Hawaiian urban farmer named Kai, Mia and Rosie embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

From the slums of Mumbai to a Hungarian border camp during the refugee crisis, Mia’s heart is challenged and changed in astonishing ways—ways she never could have imagined. As she grapples with how to make a difference in a complicated world, Mia realizes she must choose between the life she thought she wanted and the life unfolding before her.

In a romantic adventure across the globe, The Enlightenment of Bees beautifully explores what it means to find the sweet spot in life where our greatest passions meet the world’s great need.

Swan Song // Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott. June 14, Hutchinson. To the outside world, they were the icons of high society — the most glamorous and influential women of their age. To Truman Capote they were his Swans: the ideal heroines, as vulnerable as they were powerful. They trusted him with their most guarded, martini-soaked secrets, each believing she was more special and loved than the next…

Until he betrayed them.

Wanderers // Chuck Wendig. July 2, Del Rey. A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. From the mind of Chuck Wendig comes “a magnum opus . . . a story about survival that’s not just about you and me, but all of us, together” (Kirkus Reviews,starred review).

Shana wakes up one morning to discover her little sister in the grip of a strange malady. She appears to be sleepwalking. She cannot talk and cannot be woken up. And she is heading with inexorable determination to a destination that only she knows. But Shana and her sister are not alone. Soon they are joined by a flock of sleepwalkers from across America, on the same mysterious journey. And like Shana, there are other “shepherds” who follow the flock to protect their friends and family on the long dark road ahead.

For as the sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America, the real danger may not be the epidemic but the fear of it. With society collapsing all around them—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

What are you looking forward to this summer, reading or otherwise?

Reviews

The Invited // Jennifer McMahon

Do you ever getting blogging paralysis? I do. I feel like I don’t have anything to say, when really, given how much I read and think about books, I’m sure I can come up with something. Apparently I suffer from internet shyness, is that a thing?

I’ve been reading and enjoying Jennifer McMahon books for years now. When I was working on my MLIS (over a decade ago… yikes.), I had to take a young adult fiction class and create a database of recommended fiction. I included Promise Not to Tell as part of my adult/young adult crossover category. I remember thinking McMahon was an author to watch. Then I read The Winter People, followed by The Night Sister, and I became a loyal reader.

The Invited takes us to Vermont, where Connecticut school teachers Helen and Nick have moved to build their dream home. Soon after arriving, strange things begin to happen. Initially they ignore the ominous incidents, as one does, but a ghostly apparition finally forces Helen to investigate. With the help of two town residents, she lurks deeper into the dark past of her new home, inviting a danger she never imagined.

McMahon is a solid writer, and while her prose isn’t necessarily poetic, it keeps the pages turning quite well. Her characters are interesting and well realized, and I particularly love Olive in this novel. I love how the author dips her toe into the supernatural realm without moving into outright horror, as the result is an evocative, gothic ghost story. It would be an excellent autumn read, but I did thoroughly enjoy it in the middle of spring. It’s an easy book to recommend to anyone who loves a good ghost story.

Reviews

Honor Roll // Vol. 3

I’m certainly not one to declare the book review dead, but I do think it’s the type of post that’s less engaging, less likely to be clicked on, less likely to be read… You get the idea. And, dear readers, I’m secure enough in my insecurity to admit I do want people to read what I write, if only to continue to share my love of whatever wonderful/quirky/clever/delightful/daunting/terrible book I just read. These are a few that made my honor roll, and here are the ones I don’t think you should miss.

Wicked Saints // Emily A. Duncan. How great is that title? This book will work for the right person. I was not that person. Although I hesitate to describe it as such – because I have my own negative connotations with the word – this book is trendy. It has all the right elements – blood magic, ancient enemies, and attractive boys – for the right person.

Downfall // Jay Crownover. I am a nightmare to fly with, so I usually try to pick a book that’s light, easy, and doesn’t require my full concentration. This one fits that bill perfectly. It’s got a little bit of grit, a little bit of angst, but they live happily ever after.

Cape May // Chip Creek. Cape May is a complex look at getting married when you’re both too young and too naive (the novel is set in the 1950s). Henry and Effie are newlyweds from rural Georgia and they’re in Cape May, New Jersey for their honeymoon, only it’s the off season and they’re bored. They stop by a neighbor’s house when they see a light on, only to get sucked into a world of debauchery and drinking. Both are easily manipulated, and soon Henry and Effie are barely recognizable to each other. Cape May, though a bit steamy and explicit, is a well done character study looking at the ramifications of betrayal and remorse.

When the Sky Fell on Splendor // Emily Henry. I recently included this one my what to read if you love Stranger Things, and that still stands. Franny and her friends – The Ordinary – investigate paranormal activity and legends near their small Ohio town. One night, a bright light comes hurtling from the sky, and after that, things aren’t quite the same. Much like Stranger Things, this isn’t a book just about the unique abilities that develop, but much more about the meaning of friendship and family.

A Curse So Dark and Lonely // Brigid Kemmerer. This is absolutely a situation of “it’s not you, it’s me.” Brigid Kemmerer’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast is well done and I’d recommend it to the right person. It just wasn’t for me.

Daisy Jones and the Six // Taylor Jenkins Reid. I started this in book format, but switched to the audio version and it was AMAZING. When a book is told through so many different perspectives, actually hearing the characters is so helpful to me, otherwise their “voices” tend to blend together in my mind (I find myself going back to the beginning of the chapter to find out whose perspective it is). Given the huge amount of coverage this novel has received, there’s no need for me to say anymore than “it’s a good one.”

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