A 2018 Year-End Report: The Western Binge

The Westerns Binge - banner image

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.)

ANYWAY.

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.)

Beverly Jenkins

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.

Tempest by Beverly Jenkins

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.

Alexis Harrington

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):

Homeward Hearts by Alexis Harrington

Saddle up indeed.

Lorraine Heath

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.

Rogues in Texas trilogy - Italian cover Rogues in Texas trilogy - Italian cover Rogues in Texas trilogy - Italian cover

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.

Texas Destiny by Lorraine Heath

The Leigh Brothers aren’t rompish. They’re rough and dusty and remote and fucked up cowboys. All three books were excellent, but the first book, Texas Destiny, blew me away.

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.                            .

Genevieve Turner

Summer Chaparra by Genevieve Turner

The Las Morenas series. Just trust me. I haven’t even finished them all because I don’t want it to end. The Farmer Takes a Wife is one of my Perfect Novellas.

Edie Harris

Wild Burn by Edie Harris

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.

Lacy Williams

Cowboy Pride by Lacy Williams

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.

Kathryn Albright

The Prairie Doctor's Bride by Kathryn Albright The Gunslinger and Heiress

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.

Carolyn Davidson

A Man for Glory by Carolyn Davidson

A hit and a miss. Redemption was sublime, with a widowed wounded veteran and plain-Jane spinster schoolmarm. A Man for Glory was almost painfully earnest and forced.

Cheryl St. John

Prairie Wife by Cheryl St. John Harvey Girls bundle by 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.

Stacy Henrie

Express Rider's Lady by Stacy Henrie The Outlaw's Secret by Stacy Henrie The Rancher's Temporary Engagement by Stacy Henrie

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!).

Sherri Shackelford

Winning the Widow's Heart by Sherri Shackelford A Temporary Family by Sherri Shackelford The Cattleman Meets His Match by Sherri Shackelford

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

The Preacher's Bride Claim by Laurie Kingery The Horseman's Frontier Family by Karen Kirst The Lawman's Oklahoma Sweetheart by Allie Pleiter

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 The Marshal's Promise by Rhonda Gibson The Courtship of Izzy McCree by Ruth Langan Timeless Romance Collection: Mail Order Brides

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.

Last Chance Wife by Janette Foreman

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.

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TBR Challenge: RITA-Nominated Inspirationals

I read three again. Because I’m an over-achiever, not because I’m obsessive-compulsive. Shut up.

I chose inspie nominees from the past three years, from three different eras.

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Betrayal by Robin Lee Hatcher

  • Betrayal by Robin Lee HatcherTitle: Betrayal
  • Author: Robin Lee Hatcher
  • Series: Where the Heart Lives, Book 2
  • Published: Zondervan, November 2012
  • Source: Purchased ($1.99 promo on Amazon)
  • Length: 273
  • Tropes: Deep Dark Secrets, Widow, Drifter, Western
  • Quick blurb: A drifter helps a lonely widow in 1899 Wyoming.
  • Quick review: Quietly angsty, but a noticeable lack of tension.
  • Grade: B-

He turned his back to the wall of the barn, leaned against it, and closed his eyes. Then he waited. Waited for the last dregs of the nightmare to fade away. Waited to forget the man he used to be. Waited for the fragile peace he’d found in a Savior to sweep over him, even though he didn’t fully understand that Savior yet. Waited.

He was good at waiting. It was a trait he’d learned in prison. If he hadn’t learned it, the cramped space he’d lived in for so many years would have driven him mad.

I’ve read a few by Hatcher before, including the first book in this series, and I enjoy her understated style and the way she makes the faith messages part of the characters’ everyday lives.  This one was a little too understated — it was good, but not different enough from every other Western inspie to make it worth a re-read. There wasn’t much tension beyond the mostly unseen Evil Ex-Brother-In-Law, and the way that conflict fizzled out left me feeling cheated of a Total Drama Moment.

Betrayal was nominated for Best Inspie of 2012, but lost to one of my top favorite books of all-time DIK forever, Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden.

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Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler Younts

  • Promise to Return by Elizabeth Byler YountsTitle: Promise to Return
  • Author: Elizabeth Byler Younts
  • Series: The Promise of Sunrise, Book 1
  • Published: Howard Books, October 2013
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 320
  • Tropes: World War II, Amish
  • Quick blurb: A young Amish couple’s faith in God and each other is severely tested during World War II.
  • Quick review: Spiritual conflict and romantic angst to the NTH DEGREE.
  • Grade: C

“The way I see it is that God usually has us on this narrow path where we can only see the step right in front of us. Then sometimes,” he paused and looked away again, “sometimes I feel like He opens a huge door or a field or, I don’t know, opens something that shows me how big His plans are, and suddenly I have all this room to move around. Sometimes it’s way off the path I expect. Do you know what I mean?”

I feel ridiculous whining about being depressed by a book about World War II, but jeepers, there was nothing uplifting about this inspie. The romance is achingly lovely, the spiritual conflict is heartbreaking, and the ending made me weepy. It’s really well-written, it’s completely different from every other inspie I’ve read, and it’s fully deserving of a RITA nomination. But I did not enjoy reading it it — the angsty dreariness was relentless.

Believe it or not, this was the first traditional Amish romance I’ve ever read (not counting the m/m series by Keira Andrews, which is utterly brilliant). Of all the weird shit I read (I work for Riptide, remember), I avoid Amish stories, mostly because I feel like (a) I’m violating some unknown person/character’s much-valued privacy and (b) someone is making money off their faith without their consent. I didn’t feel quite as squicky about this one because the author grew up in an Amish family and I felt she wouldn’t be exploitative.

For whatever reason, Promise was one of only two inspies nominated last year — the winner was the contemporary Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano.

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Hope at Dawn by Stacy Henrie

  • Hope at Dawn by Stacy HenrieTitle: Hope at Dawn
  • Author: Stacy Henrie
  • Series: Of Love and War, Book 1
  • Published: Forever (Grand Central), June 2014
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 384
  • Tropes: World War I, Iowa, Small Town
  • Quick blurb: A young schoolteacher finds herself facing unexpected drama when she falls in love with a German-American farmer in World War I.
  • Quick review: I just bought all the sequels. At full price.
  • Grade: B+

“Perhaps your real question is not how to stand for goodness, but when. Am I right?”

After reading Promise to Return, I was really iffy on another wartime homefront weepfest, but then I realized Hope was SET IN IOWA and I COULDN’T NOT READ IT. I only cried a little.

The basic premise is similar to Promise: the onset of war forces an insular community to interact with the outside world. In this case, the conflict is prejudice and discrimination against German-Americans during World War I — prohibitions on speaking German, “vigilance committees,” extortion to buy war bonds to prove patriotism. The pacing is much  better than Promise, with some high points to balance out the angst.

I’m giving it a B+ instead of an A because despite my love for it, I couldn’t stop thinking that whatever German-Americans were facing in 1918 Iowa, it was nothing compared to the horrors to come.

I read Henrie’s debut during the Summer of Harlequin, but didn’t realize it was the same author. Hope is the only current RITA inspie nominee I’ve read so far, but I just bought Huckleberry Summer despite the ridiculously dopey title and cover because it’s about a big slobbery dog and the hero is an environmental protester who chains himself to trees. I had to move the ARC of For Such a Time by Kate Breslin to the DNR-DNR and WTF-UGH-BLAH-ICK-STFU shelves because apparently I did not read the blurb closely before requesting.

The Insta-Love Annual Sappy Holiday Romance Binge: The DNFs and a WTF

Today I wore my dogs-wearing-wreaths-and-Santa-hats socks.*  Therefore, it is time to officially kick off the Insta-Love Annual Sappy Holiday Romance Binge. We’ll open the festivities with the DNFs and a WTF.

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A Fairytale Christmas by Susan Wiggs

  • A Fairytale Christmas by Susan WiggsTitle: A Fairytale Christmas
  • Author: Susan Wiggs
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Holiday
  • Publisher: Harlequin MIRA (November 2014; originally published October 2002)
  • Source: Library
  • Length: 72 pages
  • Trope(s): Misogynistic Hero, Heiress Heroine, Sexual Harassment
  • Quick blurb: Regendered Cinderella story.
  • Quick review: W.T.Ever-Loving.F.
  • Grade: DNF and W.T.Fuckity.F.F.

I’m starting with the WTF entry. Because W.T.Ever-Loving.F.

They stared at her like a pair of dieters eyeing a box of Godiva chocolates. Idiots, thought Jack. He knew they had a standing bet to see who could get her into bed first. As if either one had a chance. Who would want to, except maybe a polar explorer with a suit that could withstand subzero temperatures?

The story opens with that mess of misogyny from the “hero” and his dude-bro coworkers. I DNF’d after the first chapter because I was starting to throw up in my mouth. SHE’S THEIR BOSS, FFS. I don’t really find sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace particularly romantic.

Also: The blurb describes the hero as an “ace reporter.” And his reporter colleagues wear cashmere sweaters and Top-Siders. I know it’s a re-release, but it’s pretty obvious this didn’t age well.

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Going to the Chapel by Rita Herron

  • Going to the Chapel by Rita HerronTitle: Going to the Chapel
  • Author: Rita Herron
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Holiday
  • Publisher: Montlake (November 2014)
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 132 pages
  • Trope(s): Small Town, Southern Sassy-Pants Heroine
  • Quick blurb: Sassy Southern girl ditches her cheating ex and returns home.
  • Quick review: Ick.
  • Grade: DNF

As she crossed the state line from Texas into Louisiana, she belted out “All My Exes Live in Texas,” tossed her wedding ring out the window, and waved good-by to the state — and the man who’d ruined her life.

The heroine’s name is…wait for it…Izzy Sassafras. She’s a wedding planner. In a small town called Matrimony, Georgia. The cutesy Southern sassy-girl schtick just writes itself.

Also: Izzy has sisters, God help us. And now I have that stupid song stuck in my head.

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The Cowboy’s Christmas Baby by Carolyn Brown

  • The Cowboy's Christmas Baby by Carolyn BrownTitle: The Cowboy’s Christmas Baby
  • Series: Cowboys & Brides, Book 2
  • Author: Carolyn Brown
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Western, Holiday
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Casablanca (September 2013)
  • Source: Library
  • Length: 349 pages
  • Trope(s): Cowboy Soldier, Pistol-Packin’ Mama
  • Quick blurb: Online friends meet cute over a dead coyote.
  • Quick review: Yee haw. *shudder*
  • Grade: DNF

BEHOLD THE FIRST LINE:

There she stood with a dead coyote at her feet, a pink pistol in her right hand, three bluetick hound pups cowering behind her, and cradling an infant in her left arm.

How could I possibly resist that??? But, alas, the “down-home Texas twang” was almost as annoying as the Southern sassy-girl schtick. And it made me nostalgic for some Sable Hunter, and that’s never a good thing.

Also:

  • Heroine shot the coyote with her (pink) pistol while holding her newborn. Then stuck the gun into her waistband. All I could think was “You’ll shoot your ass off, lady.”
  • Hero dragged the carcass of the dead coyote (to get it away from the slobbering hound dogs who were devouring it) and DIDN’T WASH HIS HANDS. Gross.

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Christmas at Carriage Hill by Carla Neggers

  • Christmas at Carriage Hill by Carla NeggersTitle: Christmas at Carriage Hill
  • Series: Swift River Valley, Book 3.5
  • Author: Carla Neggers
  • Genre(s): Contemporary, Holiday
  • Publisher: Harlequin MIRA (December 2014)
  • Source: NetGalley
  • Length: 51 pages
  • Trope(s): Small Town, Wedding Planner, Reunited
  • Quick blurb: Sexy fighter pilot follows ex-girlfriend to small-town wedding.
  • Quick review: Not a good starting point for the series.
  • Grade: DNF

Her grandmother eyed her with open suspicion. “You have that jilted-by-a-man look, Alexandra.”

Neggers is a new-to-me author, but this one does not work well as a standalone — the numerous intrusions from previous characters/plots (including some completely irrelevent bits about some stolen jewels) left little storytelling left over for the nominal main couple and . I did request an ARC of the fourth book in the series, and my library has the others, so…yet another backlist binge in my near future.

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What Happens At Christmas by Victoria Alexander

  • What Happens at Christmas by Victoria AlexanderTitle: What Happens At Christmas
  • Series: Millworth Manor, Book 1
  • Author: Victoria Alexander
  • Genre(s): Historical (Regency), Holiday
  • Publisher: Kensington (October 2012)
  • Source: Purchased (freebie)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • Trope(s): Flaky Family, Hired Players, Jilted & Reunited
  • Quick blurb: Ditzy widow stages a farce to lure a proposal from a prince.
  • Quick review: Over the top shenanigans with zero chemistry.
  • Grade: DNF

“She’s not quite as shallow as you think.”

Um, yes. Yes, she is.

Yay for free, but alas…. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a madcap comedy, but this wasn’t one of those times. I had to skim because I could not stop screaming “HE’S A FRAUD, YOU F’ING DIMWIT” in my head.

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* Yes, I took that photo at work. Yes, the flash went off and everyone yelled “Hey! Who’s taking pictures?”