I think this was my longest theme binge ever. It all started last January with a new Beverly Jenkins release, which reminded me how long it had been since I read Westerns, so I went into the Kindle archives and then bought a bunch of new stuff and now I have approximately 137,000 books in my Westerns collection.
Looking back at dates in Goodreads, this kicked into high gear at the end of May. Which is when Thing1 graduated from high school. Upon reflection, I believe I was establishing the mindset to achieve A Mood in which to visualize The Ex falling off a cliff into a really prickly bush and having to stay there for days in a dust storm because of a nest of rattlesnakes or something. (NOTE: His horse is fine and lingers happily just far enough out of reach to add to the evil humor of the situation.)
From January through July, I read more than 40 Western historical romances — a mix of re-reads and new-to-me — and watched a bunch of classic Western movies. It was a grand (and, of course, inherently problematic) adventure.
Saddle up, pardners.
(You knew I was going to say that.)
Jenkins puts me in a book trance nearly every single time. Her books are filled with not just characters, but communities. The stories and people and historical events are all tied intricately and seamlessly together and how in the bloody hell do authors do this?
I enjoyed the Old West series, but I’m not yet sure how these will rank among all of Jenkin’s wonderful backlist.
I’ve been pondering Tempest for nearly a year now, and I have to be honest — I wasn’t all giddy over the heroine like everyone else seemed to be. Yeah, Regan shot the hero in the first chapter. But increasingly throughout the rest of the book, I found Regan to be — YES, I’M GOING TO SAY IT, GET READY TO HAVE YOUR BLOOMERS IN A BUNCH — unlikeable.
There. I said it. I hid it way down here, but I said it.
Well, not unlikeable, exactly. Maybe…insufferable? Not really that either. Argh.
Regan could do everything. Effortlessly. She cooked. She sewed. She assisted in surgery and milked cows and painted and hunted and fished and rode horses and probably saved the governor from assassination and wrestled grizzly bears as a child. I might be exaggerating about the cow milking.
She was Mary Poppins — practically perfect in every way. And she never changed. The story centered on Regan, but I only remember everyone else revolving around her and having to adapt to her. Regan was never compelled to do any self-reflection or face any self-doubts or show any vulnerability.
I want both halves of a romance couple to suffer and learn and change and grow. Colton did a lot of suffering, and a lot of learning, and a lot of changing. Regan just kept doing…stuff. Her character arc was a flat line, while Colton’s was a scatter graph.
It’s entirely possible that I’m remembering this all wrong, as I read this on audio from the library nearly a year ago. I just remember getting to a point in the story — maybe the fishing? — where I checked out of Regan’s story and switched my emotional focus to the hero instead. Which a very rare thing for me to do. Regan simply didn’t need me to root for her or her HEA.
Now I’m going have to read it again to see if I really am remembering it fairly. I shall report back.
Harrington was one of my first ebook author binges. I bought and read her entire backlist in 2011-2012, and it was great to see how well they hold up.
One thing I realized on the second go-round is how amazing Harrington is at establishing a sense of place. My brain knows exactly what each backwoods cabin looks like, how muddy the streets are, and where the town drunk hides his empty bottles.
And the Western character tropes are all there — the spinster and the drifter blacksmith, the rancher and the duped mail-order bride, the failed prospector and the abandoned mother, the runaway-disguised-as-a-boy and the bounty hunter.
Read them all. Trust me.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at the original cover for Homeward Hearts (Topaz, 1994):
Saddle up indeed.
The binge ended with Lorraine Heath. I couldn’t go on after a certain book set in post-Civil War Texas, which wrecked me for weeks and which I’m still recovering from six months later and which I immediately added to my DIK Holy Fuck All-Time Favorites list. But I’m not going to talk about that one here, because I don’t think it’s really a Western despite the Texas setting, and because it’s going on another Page O’ Lists.
I wasn’t super jazzed about reading Heath. I DNF’d one of her recent Regencies — it was…quite weird and creepy.
To my everlasting pleasure, I learned that Heath’s Westerns aren’t like that. At all. They’re mesmerizing. Back to that “sense of place” thing that I have such a hard time defining. I was there, every time. Nothing kicked me out of the stories, and a few times I may or may not have actually yelled at characters.
The Rogues in Texas books were fast reads — enjoyable romps with Brit aristos hooking up with downtrodden American ladies in need of smug wealthy manly men whether they wanted to admit it or not.
As you might expect, the American ladies were quite distrustful of the soft-handed, fancy-talkin’, duded-up foreigners. There were some Big Understandings and some Bad Guys and some Jealous Neighbors and I think maybe a barn-burning at one point? Definitely worth a read.
A war-scarred, brooding recluse is forced to transport his injured older brother’s mail-order bride to their ginormous spread in the middle of fucking nowhere. It’s a weeks-long journey, she’s a greenhorn, he’s an asshole, there’s storms and bugs and snakes and god know what else and sometimes that “sense of place” thing is a little too visceral, okay?
But, in the absence of any other entertainment, Amelia and Houston wind up talking to each other. And OH MY GOD. The closer they get to the ranch, the more then tension ramps up, and then it goes even higher when she’s successfully delivered to the older brother, and then there’s a little brother who decides to create even more tension and OH MY GOD.
Please read this. And that other one. Trust me. .
I had Wild Burn in the TBR for years. A bounty hunter and an ex-nun schoolmarm, and the author couldn’t have chosen a more apt title. This one burns.
I binged all of Williams a few years ago, and then all of sudden my library did a Big Library Read for a new one called Cowboy Pride — a Pride & Prejudice retelling. I inhaled it and I need mooooore.
A wagonload of Harlequins
In between all of the above, I read a bunch of Harlequins I had in the TBR and bought a few new ones. By “a few” I mean “several.” And by “several” I mean maybe a dozen or so? Most were from the Love Inspired line.
The Prairie Doctor’s Bride was one of the most memorable of the entire binge. The chemistry between the highly educated doctor and the illiterate outcast was unexpected and really moving, and the Bad Guy external conflict was just the right level of creepy suspense.
The Gunslinger and the Heiress stuck with me as well, and seriously, how could I not buy anything with that title? It’s a suspenseful second chance romance set in San Diego and Corona del Mar.
There were also good Albright stories in some anthologies I inhaled, including a runaway mail-order bride.
Cheryl St. John
Thank you, SuperWendy, for these. Every story was amazing. Prairie Wife is a fantastic marriage-in-trouble story that wrecked me almost as much as that Heath book. And then of course after reading all the Harvey Girls I had to watch the Judy Garland movie for the eight millionth time.
Henrie impressed me with her debut Lady Outlaw, and now she’s an auto-buy. I especially love The Express Rider’s Lady and The Outlaw’s Secret (Lady Novelist!) and The Rancher’s Temporary Engagement (Lady Pinkerton Agent!).
Another auto-buy Love Inspired author. The Prairie Courtships series is particularly great, filled with classic Western themes, like the ranger and the pregnant widow, stalked by Bad Guys though an abandoned town, and a cattle drive with kid cowboys (cowgirls this time!).
The Bridegroom Brothers series
These are set during the Oklahoma land rush, with a marriage of convenience, an enemies to lovers on a disputed land claim, and a skittish widow in need of protection. There’s a running suspense theme through all three books that really ramps up the tension and ends with a very satisfying conclusion.
I recall these are more overtly religious than most books in this line, but they’re also quite violent. Go figure.
More mail-order brides
I just cannot resist this trope — all of these are highly recommended:
- Want Ad Wedding by Cheryl St. John
- Bride by Arrangement by Karen Kirst
- The Marshal’s Promise by Rhonda Gibson
- The Courtship of Izzy McCree by Ruth Langan
- A Timeless Romance Anthology: Mail Order Bride Collection
And one that needs a bit of special attention: Last Chance Wife by Janette Foreman, who I believe is a debut author. This is set in Deadwood, South Dakota. Yep, that Deadwood. But definitely not that Deadwood. This Deadwood is squeaky-clean and populated by people who never drop F-bombs.
The hero is a mine owner in dire financial straits, and the heroine is a six-times-failed (no lie) mail-order bride. She arrives to find out she was duped by a saloon owner, so she goes to work at the mine guy’s mercantile and gradually takes over his life.
But wait — there’s more! They unwittingly carry on a secret lonely-hearts correspondence. You guys. I mean, seriously, just TAKE ALL MY MONEY.
The problematic stuff
Westerns are inherent racist. Period. There can be no argument. And with nearly all the books I read, and like all the others still unread, the biggest problem is erasure.
With the very notable exception of Beverly Jenkins, the Romance West is blindingly white. I didn’t notice any “oh my god, that’s racist” moments while I read, but I’d only notice glaringly obvious examples.
It’s what missing that’s the problem. Just think of all those glorious stories waiting to be told — and all the ones that will never be told.