It was a great honor to be asked to be a judge for the Western Writers of America’s 2020 Spur Awards, but I had no idea what I was signing up for. I envisioned hours of luxurious reading in one of my favorite genres, while leisurely sipping wine and taking bubble baths, and once the event opened to entries last August, for a while, a new book came in the mail every day or two and it felt a little bit like Christmas.
I began reading the first entry right off, and kept steadily working my way through them. The inflow trickled off mid-September, although there were a few later entries that didn’t come until November and December. The stack of books were large, but I’ve always been an avid reader and I felt confident that I could manage it easily.
Then, as often happens, life got in the way. I lost two dogs within a month and a half of one another, and in November, had a death in the family, and for a time my life was turned upside down. My work schedule received adjustments and travel arrangements were made for the viewing and services, and writing and school were shoved lower on the list of priorities. Suddenly, everything was up in the air and all my leisurely reading time disappeared like a magician’s rabbit. Abracadabra. Poof!
During the last part of December, I started trying to get back on track and found some reading time to begin trying to catch up on the Spur entries. At this point, the stack of books I had left to read seemed immense, and I began to wonder if maybe I should be worried about getting all of them read in time. I admit, I had to cram at the end and read every night until my eyes wouldn’t stay open, but I managed to read every entry and send in my judging choices before the deadline.
It was harder than I thought it would be to be a Spurs judge. Not because I ended up playing catch-up on the reading, but because there were some many really excellent stories submitted to the western romance category, and I had to narrow it down to the top five. Making the choices as to which were best was really tough. The opportunity to read some of the best westerns of 2019 made it worth every struggle. It was great!
I took my role as a Spur judge seriously. While reading I noted things like how well-crafted the story was, how prominent the elements of western and romance were in the story, how historically accurate the story was, and how well the story captured and held my interest, to base my choices on. Now that the winners have been announced, I am able to provide you with brief reviews of the ones that were my own personal favorites. All of the books reviewed below I found to be well written and historically accurate to their time period, and each would receive a five quill rating in my regular book reviews. They were my top picks and they include the winner in the romance category and one of the finalists.
Mollyfar, by Bonnie Hobbs: This is one of those stories that is just a fun read. It has strong western elements in a classic romance tale, but the unique and interesting characters are what carry the story.
Sometimes in the old west you had to grow up fast, and life wasn’t always kind, especially to members of the female persuasion. Molly finds herself on her own in the west at a young age, at a time when the choices for a girl on her own were very limited. She’s on her way to becoming a soiled dove for a life of squalor when she meets Wade and it’s love at first sight. Wade vows take care of Molly, so there will be no need for her to go down that road, but he is young and there are several obstacles preventing him from following through. Then Molly met Heeshe, the new amorphidite brothel owner and they saved each other, but there was always a place in her heart for Wade, if she could only admit it and let herself surrender to him.
This New Day, by Harlan Hague: This book made Finalist. It has the strong western element of a true pioneer tale with a sweet romance that just feels right. The story line draws the reader in and doesn’t let go. It made me cry.
When Molly’s husband dies, there’s nothing left to go back to. They sold up all their worldly goods to make the trek across the mountains to Oregon, and she is determined to complete the journey with her two children. She meets hardship and heart ache along the way, and Micah, a mysterious rugged rider, who turns up just at the right moment to save her from Jeb, an unsavory member of their party, who has had his eye on Molly and grown tired of just watching. Soon Micah is riding with she and the children, and bedding down near their wagon at night, working his way into the children’s hearts, as well as her own, but she has to wonder where he goes when he rides off for days and then, reappears. She has doubts as to whether she is strong enough to make it at times, but soon finds she doesn’t want to make it without Micah.
The Express Bride, by Kimberly Woodhouse: This story has western and romance elements that are prominent. Likable characters make you care, and a fun and playful story line makes you want to keep reading. Jaquelin (Jack) is a strong, gritty female protagonist, who you can’t help but like.
Since her father died, Jack has run the Pony Express station in his stead. And why shouldn’t she? Even if she had to mislead to corporation heads a little, implying that she was male by signing her letter Jack instead of Jacquelin, she knows the workings inside and out, and the riders all like her and look to her with respect. Then Elijah Johnson looking for a mystery woman from the past arrives, along with a U.S. Treasury agent, Mr. Crowell, enlisted to help uncover a suspected conterfeiting ring operating in the area. As she unravels the mystery surrounding her own past, she ponders who she is, and who she wants to be, and struggles with the nagging feeling that Elijah Johnson may hold the key to revealing the truth.
The Outlaw’s Letter, by Angela Reines: A classic romance story with a strong western element and a hint of mystery. Good, solid story line that is everything a romance should be.
Harriette “Hetty” Osgood is just school teacher in Kiowa Wells, but when a dying man stumbles into her school house, she vows to deliver a letter to his brother, Grant Davis. Dressed as a boy for safer travel, she sets off on an adventure to find Davis, and crosses paths with Conover Boggs, who she sent to prison in the past, and would like nothing more than a chance to make her pay. Boggs catches up with her just as she catches up with Grant Davis, who has ridden with Boggs in the past. To save them both, they claim to be married to fool Boggs. They have little choice but to help one another, but Grant is on a quest to clear his name and leave his past behind him. Could they each be what the other is really looking for?
A Slip on Golden Stairs, by Joanne Sundell: I actually reviewed this book before I was asked to be a judge. You can see my original review of this book here.
This paranormal western romance is really two romances, one in the present and one in the past, in one tragic searches for both love and riches. Sundell does an excellent job of weaving the past into the present in a tragic and heartfelt tale of lost love and possibilities.
The Yeggman’s Apprentice, by C.K. Crigger: Winner of the western romance category. Great characters and a captivating plot that draws you in and keeps you reading. Light natural flowing romance within a western setting and a truly enjoyable read.
Wilke thinks her first solo job in Butte, Montana will be a piece of cake. Simply, lift the ledgers for the designated accounts from the bank safe for the client. What could be easier? But things quickly go awry when she finds there are two sets of ledgers and they don’t tally. Suddenly, she finds herself being pursued by the shady lawyers who hired her uncle, who will go as far as murder to cover their tracks. When Hixson rides her back to her hotel on his motorbike, they discover her uncle dead, Wilke finds herself on her own and in need of getting out of town with the falsified documents.
Hix agrees to help her, but gets more than he bargains for, when the shady lawyer’s henchman is waiting at the train station. Wilke isn’t sure she can trust Hix, there are several signs that he might have a shady past and could be an outlaw, but she doesn’t have much of a choice. Hix has reasons of his own for wanting to get out of Montana, but he finds that Wilke is full of surprises, as they try to evade the bad guys.
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When I began seeking my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, back in 2012, I would have said that the western was a dying breed. Even as I tried my hand at writing a western novel, with Delilah, I didn’t think the book would get very far. I figured publishers didn’t want to put out westerns anymore, because they were looking for books that would sell. I thought the only readers westerns had were old men who’d grown up on Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey. I didn’t believe there was an audience for western any longer.
Today, I have to say that I was wrong, since there seem to be new western authors popping up all the time and a good portion of them are female. In fact, the genre seems to be expanding, rather than dying out. I’ve made the acquaintence of several who I did not previously know as a result of my research for this month’s genre theme. That first assignment eventually grew into the first book I was able to get published, but when I began to write Delilah, I looked at westerns as a male realm where a female author might find difficulty being accepted. Now, I’m seeing a lot more female authors of the genre than was previously the case and I am pleasantly surprised.
But I don’t think this is because publishers are eagarly scooping up western novels. A majority of western authors with books in the marketplace are self-published authors. I think western authors must self-publish first and prove themselves before publishers are willing to take a chance on the genre these days.
For a look at a new twist on classic historic western fiction, you can check out my review of Not Just Any Man, by Loretta Miles Tollefson. Like all good things, the western genre has had to change with the times to survive. Many authors are finding a selling point by combining western with other more popular genres, like romance. If you look, you’ll find that a good portion of today’s westerns fall into the category of western romance, although romance isn’t the only genre authors have combined with western. I’ve read a few paranormal westerns, as well. For an example, you can read my review of Joanne Sundell’s, A Slip on Golden Stairs. There are even a few science fiction westerns out there, as well as western dark fantasy, such as Chance Damnation, by DeAnna Knippling, which I reviewed earlier in the month, or check out my 2016 review of Chris Barili’s Hell’s Butcher series, which both feature supernatural elements.
I’d also venture to say that the number of westerns featuring tough female protagonists would tip the scales if measured against those featuring male heros in today’s westerns. It seems the cowgirl is determined to take her place in history, even though old cowboys never really die. But, all western heroines are not cowgirls. Western heroines may take the form of pioneer women tough enough to brave the western frontier and win, or a homesteading wife who loses her husband to one of the many threats that come with living in a harsh landscape and must survive in a brutal landsacpe and fend for herself, or prostitutes who lived lives of servitude and put up with indignities not spoken about in polite company in order to survive an isolated existence, or young girls full of dreams to see the world who are looking to escape and determined to do whatever it takes to achieve them. They aren’t all Calamity Jane, but they are each tough and bold and gritty in their own ways.
But don’t take my word for it. Maybe the western genre hasn’t changed as much as I think. You can find out what other western authors think by checking out this month’s interviews. My “Chatting with the Pros” author guest was western adventure author Scott Harris, and I also interviewed Christian western romance author Patricia PacJac Carroll, and western author Juliette Douglas. And if you’re interested in further discovery, you can check out my January interview with western author Loretta Miles Tollefson.
As for myself, I’m working on the rewrite of the first 45,000 pages in the second book in my frontier western saga, Delilah: The Homecoming. I know you’re not supposed to edit until you’ve finished the first draft, but that’s what happens sometimes. Your character walks up and smacks you and says, “Where the heck are you taking me?”, and you realize the story has taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. But I’m getting her back on track now. While Lois L’Amour is the reason I love reading westerns, Delilah and the other colorful characters featured in these books are the reason that I love writing them.
It’s been a great western round-up and I hope you’ll all join me in June, when will be riding the thriller train and looking at ways to give readers the thrills and chills they crave. My “Chatting with the Pros” author guest will be thriller author John Nicholls, and I’ll be interviewing author Dan Alatorre and reviewing his new thriller, “The Gamma Sequence”. My second thriller review is yet to be determined, so it will be a surprise. I hope you’ll drop in and see what’s in store.
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