Tag Archives: western

Retribution Rails: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Secrets are like bullets.”

cover art for Retribution Rails by Erin BowmanReece Murphy never wanted to become the notorious Rose Kid. But he hardly had a choice

Five years ago Luther Rose rode in and killed the entire family Reece had been working for. Thanks to a mysterious gold coin, Reece has a different fate. If he can identify the man who gave him the gold piece, Reece can walk away. Until then he has to be part of the Rose Rides–something he can hardly escape thanks to his horrible deeds and even worse reputation as the Rose Kid.

Charlotte Vaughn and her mother are still grieving Charlotte’s father when her uncle begins moving to claim their estate and holdings for himself. Charlotte hopes that following a lead on a big story will help jump start her career as a journalist and bring her one step closer toward self-sufficiency and thwarting her uncle.

Both Reece and Charlotte’s plans are derailed when they cross paths on opposite sides of a botched train robbery. Charlotte could be Reece’s chance for freedom while Reece offers Charlotte the story of a lifetime. Charlotte and Reece know better than to trust each other but they both hope that with a little luck and a lot of grit they can use each other to get exactly what they need in Retribution Rails (2017) by Erin Bowman.

Retribution Rails is a companion novel set ten years after the events of Vengeance Road. While this novel works as a standalone it does reference previous events  throughout.

Written in dual first person narration this novel follows both Charlotte and Reece as they chase dreams and futures they are not sure they’ll ever manage to claim. The contrasts between these two helps to play with their changing perceptions of each other while also highlighting their similarities–particularly in terms of how single-mindedly they pursue their goals.

Reece and Charlotte are often difficult characters–Reece with the past he tries to forget and Charlotte with a surprisingly vindictive personality–and sometimes make the wrong choices. But those stumbles only add to their resiliency and growth throughout the novel. Their chemistry–even when they’re fighting–adds another dimension to this gripping story.

Readers familiar with Bowman’s work will find everything they loved about her first western in Retribution Rails along with a tighter plot which acknowledges the privileges and costs inherent to westward expansion and, in particular, the movement towards rail travel. Retribution Rails is a clever and fast-paced novel filled with adventure, redemption, and just a hint of romance. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

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Like a River Glorious: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger*

“I thought my magic would save us all. But it turns out, all the magic in the world is rubbish compared to good people who take care of their own.”

Like a River Glorious by Rae CarsonOctober 1849: Leah “Lee” Westfall has made it to California along with her new family of misfits, outcasts, and unlikely friends that she met along the trail. But even with her best friend Jefferson and her family by her side, the path to gold and prosperity is not easy–even for a witchy girl like Lee who can sense gold.

Hiram, Lee’s uncle, is still desperate to use her powers for her own gain. Lee was helpless to stop Hiram from killing her parents, she’s determined that he won’t hurt anyone else she cares about.

Lee’s plan to best Hiram backfire leaving Lee vulnerable as her uncle’s captive. Separated from her friends, Lee will need every ounce of her witchy powers, her resilience, and the help of new allies if she wants to free herself from Hiram’s grasp once and for all in Like a River Glorious (2016) by Rae Carson.

Like a River Glorious is the second book in Carson’s Gold Seer trilogy. This review contains spoilers for book one. If you’re new to the series start with book one Walk On Earth a Stranger.

Like a River Glorious picks up shortly after the conclusion of book one (which ends right when Lee and her group arrive in California). Lee has found them a gold-rich area to claim and their settlement is well on its way to becoming a town called Glory. Then Uncle Hiram shows up, takes Lee captive, and everything goes to hell.

In order to read this book, it’s important to acknowledge that westerns are inherently problematic. As a genre the western often centers the experience of white characters while ignoring or diminish native experiences. Older westerns (and bad modern ones) romanticize expansion, systemic genocide, and white savior tropes while exoticizing, stereotyping or dehumanizing American Indians. If you want to see critiques of books through a Native lens, definitely check out Debbie Reese’s blog, especially her review of the first book in this series.

Reading Like a River Glorious with the above in mind, there are still some problems inherent to the genre. But in this second installment, Carson does the work on the page to constantly check Leah’s privilege as well as that of the other characters (male privilege for instance). This book also thoughtfully engages with a lot of the racism/biases/stereotypes that Lee encounters.

The scope of this book is much smaller, Lee spends a lot of the story held captive by her uncle. Her world narrows to securing survival and safety for herself and those she cares about. She see the atrocities her uncle is perpetrating in his mad search for gold and she feels helpless in the face of it. Understandably, that makes Like a River Glorious quite bleak but also very important as, through Lee’s first person narration, the novel the problems of westward expansion along with the wonder that pioneers felt as they sought opportunities at the expense of the indigenous populations.

Carson uses this shift in tone to create a more character driven story focused particularly on Lee and Jefferson as the two friends try to reconcile their lifelong friendship with what comes next when Jefferson wants more and Lee wants to maintain her autonomy.

Lee grows up a lot in this installment as she realizes she cannot (and should not) always be the hero. Jefferson remains a perfect counterpoint to Lee as male lead and an excellent character in his own right. Like a River Glorious is a well-researched work of historical fiction with a slow burn a slow burn romance and inclusive cast and a touch of fantasy. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Every Hidden Thing: A Review

Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth OppelThe Badlands are rich fossil country. At a time when history is being rewritten and archaeology is largely unregulated, it’s easy for anyone to get into fossil hunting and make their name.

Samuel Bolt’s father has no degree and no position, but he has countless fossil discoveries and publications of his findings. While Professor Bolt is reckless and heedless of consequences, he is a well-known and popular personality among the fossil collection community. Samuel learned his love of fossil hunting from his father but he is eager for a time when he can strike out on his own and make his own name in the field.

Rachel Cartland’s father is a respected Ivy League professor and the head of a university archaeology department. He tolerates Rachel as an able assistant but he is slow to accept her ambitions for a university education and her own work as an archaeologist.

Cartland and Bolt are bitter rivals but when they meet, Samuel quickly finds himself drawn to Rachel in a way he hasn’t felt for other girls before. Rachel, meanwhile, is immediately thrilled by the way Samuel sees her both as an attractive young woman and as an equal.

Both the Bolts and the Cartlands arrive at the Badlands in search of an elusive rex–a king dinosaur that promises to be the largest fossil ever discovered. As rivalries flare and romance blossoms, both Rachel and Samuel will have to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in pursuit of this once-in-a-lifetime discovery in Every Hidden Thing (2016) by Kenneth Oppel.

Every Hidden Thing is a fascinating standalone historical fiction novel.

While the time period is never stated explicitly, Oppel does an admirable job of setting the scene of the early 1900s when fossil hunting and archaeology gained momentum (and respectability) in the US.

Inspired a real rivalry (which Oppel explains in his author’s note), Every Hidden Thing has been pitched as Romeo & Juliet meets Indiana Jones. While not as tragic as the former or as high action as the latter, this description is surprisingly accurate and will appeal to fans of both stories.

Written in alternating first person narration, this novel carefully builds both Samuel and Rachel’s characters. By overlapping the narration at key moments, the motivations behind some of Rachel’s calculating choices and Samuel’s heedless actions are also carefully detailed.

Every Hidden Thing is a well-researched piece of historical fiction. Rachel and Samuel are immediately sympathetic but also remain convincingly grounded in their time as both characters grapple with limitations (Rachel’s gender and for Samuel his lower class status) and the rigors of an archaeological dig. Recommended for fans of historical fiction, star-crossed lovers, and readers interested in dinosaurs and fossil hunting.

Possible Pairings: Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Nothing But Sky by Amy Trueblood, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters, Indiana Jones (movie)

Under a Painted Sky: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Maybe what matters is not so much the path as who walks beside you.”

Under A Painted Sky by Stacey LeeMissouri, 1849: Samantha is desperate to move back to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a professional musician. Achieving that will be hard, especially for a Chinese girl like Samantha.

Tragedy dashes those plans and forces Samantha into hiding. With help from a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha gets out of town and starts heading west where–hopefully–she can outrun her past and claim a new life for herself.

Knowing that life on the trail won’t be easy–or safe–for two girls, they disguise themselves as boys drawn to California’s gold rush.

Sammy and Andy both hope to find ways to move forward as they head farther west. When they take up with a band of cowboys, Sammy and Andy find some much-needed protection and friendship on their travels. But with setbacks dogging them and the law much too-close behind, Sammy and Andy will have to work even harder to hide if they want to complete their journeys in Under a Painted Sky (2015) by Stacey Lee.

Under a Painted Sky is Lee’s debut novel.

Sammy is a thoughtful and frank narrator. She has made mistakes and has a lot to learn throughout the novel–two things she freely admits to herself and readers. Sammy is fifteen but this book reads younger making it appropriate and appealing for readers of all ages. Sammy and Andy have a great friendship throughout the novel and meet a variety of wonderfully written characters along the way.

Andy is a thoughtful and more experienced counterpart to Sammy who brings some healthy pragmatism to the duo’s travels. Andy is also devoutly Christian–much to Sammy’s dismay early on–which leads to a significant thread of faith and belief imbuing the novel.

Under a Painted Sky is a great piece of historical fiction and a fine western that carefully sidesteps the problematic elements traditionally found in that genre. Recommended for fans of historical fiction and westerns alike as well as readers looking for a book with a sweet but subtle romance and lots of action.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Rebel of the Sands: A Review

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn HamiltonHappiness and freedom are hard things for a girl to find anywhere in Miraji–especially in Dustwalk. With her mother hanged and her father dead, there is nothing left to keep Amani tied to a town that would sooner her see her dead than independent.

After plotting her escape for months, Amani finally makes it out of Dustwalk in a flurry of gunfire accompanied by a mysterious foreigner who calls himself Jin. Desperate to get away at any cost, Amani accepts the risks of tying her interests to a man wanted for treason.

Turns out, getting out of Dustwalk was the easy part. With no one to trust and survival far from certain, Amani will have to confront hard truths about herself and her traveling companion Jin if she wants to stay alive in Rebel of the Sands (2016) by Alwyn Hamilton.

Rebel of the Sands is Hamilton’s debut novel and the start of a new series.

This book presents an interesting combination of western sensibilities (sharpshooters and horses and psuedo-cowboys, oh my!) blended with the Arabian mythology surrounding Djinn or Djinnis. With Dustwalk or the stark Miraji desert as a backdrop, this creates a setting that is at once evocative and atmospheric.

By contrast, the characters and plot fall decidedly flat. While readers are told a fair bit about Amani’s prowess with a gun as well as her spit-and-vinegar attitude, she remains one-dimensional for most of the story. Despite her first person narration, it’s difficult to identify with Amani let alone connect with her or her story in any meaningful way. The rest of the novel is filled with a cast that, while diverse, is similarly wooden often falling into obvious archetypes and tropes ranging from the power-hungry villain to the misunderstood henchman.

Being the first book in a series Rebel of the Sands also falls into the trap of providing too much setup without the story to back it up. A solid two thirds of the story does an admirable job of building the world and laying the groundwork for plot points sure to come later in the series which leads to a slow start to the story. The pacing issues are compounded by waiting until the final third of the book to introduce most of the major characters not to mention several major plot points.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting interpretation of the western novel that deftly avoids some of the traps found in rehashing tasteless stereotypes and tropes of westward expansion. Unfortunately, a slow and predictable story do little to embellish this novel’s unique premise.

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting read for fans of westerns or fantasy novels featuring djinnis but is ultimately underwhelming as an exemplar of either sub-genre.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Nemesis by Anna Banks, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Truthwitch by Susan Dennard, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Walk on Earth a Stranger: A Review

Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae CarsonLeah Westfall has a secret the she and her parents have kept hidden from everyone they know in Georgia. Lee can sense gold whether it’s a piece of jewelry, a stray nugget, or veins of gold deep in the earth. Lee’s parents have always feared Lee’s magic could lead to trouble for her and their family.

They were right.

In January 1849 Lee’s life changes forever and, for the first time, she is completely alone in the world. Even her best friend, Jefferson, has left her behind to chase the promise of gold and a fresh start in California

With nothing left to keep her in Georgia and every reason to leave, Lee disguises herself as a boy and sets out to make her own way west and hopefully find her best friend along the way.

The road to California won’t be easy. With so many people hoping to find gold and security, Lee is sure her witchy ways will give her an edge. If she can make it that far. After losing so much, and with so long to go, Lee will have to decide who she can trust and who she wants to be in Walk on Earth a Stranger (2015) by Rae Carson.

Walk on Earth a Stranger is the first book in Carson’s Gold Seer Trilogy. Because this book focuses heavily on Lee’s journey to California it does offer a contained story and can easily be read on its own.

While Walk on Earth a Stranger is very much in the same vein as traditional westerns, it does not offer a sanitized or romanticized version of the west as characters grapple with racism, sexism, and the physical dangers on the trail while also beginning to grasp the enormous change this great movement of people will bring to the western territories of the United States.

Although Lee has a magical ability to find gold, Walk on Earth a Stranger is a historical novel at its core, and extremely well-done at that. Carson has surpassed herself in this well-researched and nuanced novel that covers so many details and perspectives of the 1849 gold rush. Lee falls in with a ragtag cast of characters on her travels west. This varied and diverse group add a lot of dimension to what is already a very rich story.

Lee’s first person narration brings the landscape and the era to life as she makes her long trek from Georgia to California. Against the vivid backdrop of her travels, Lee’s story is often quite introspective as she ponders her own place in the world and her future out west.

Lee’s journey to find herself while also finding her way to a new life is riveting and empowering. Walk on Earth a Stranger perfectly captures the freedom and possibility that can come with following gold west at a time when picking a new identity was as easy as adopting a new name. Walk on Earth a Stranger also returns, again and again, to the idea of choice as Lee is left to choose who she wants to be, and also who she wants beside her, on the long road ahead. A stunning start to a series that is sure to be gold for many readers.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Possible Pairings: Vengeance Road by Erin Bowman, A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Crown’s Game by Evelyn Skye, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

UPDATE 11/6/2015: While I enjoyed this book, I do want to point everyone to Debbie Reese’s review of Walk on Earth a Stranger on her site American Indians in Children’s Literature. Debbie looks at the book from a Native perspective and I think it’s important to be aware of the ways in which the book is problematic (or even inaccurate in terms of American Indian experiences) as well.

*An advance copy of this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

Vengeance Road: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“If you think you can’t do something, you won’t. If you believe you can, it’s only a matter of time before you will.”

Vengeance Road by Erin BowmanKate Thompson’s father is killed by the treacherous Rose Riders for a journal that reveals the location of a hidden gold mine. Desperate for justice and her own share of revenge, Kate sets out after her father’s murderers.

But the Arizona territory is not hospitable to strangers in 1877, or eighteen-year-old girls, so Kate disguises herself as a boy before following the Rose Riders’ trail. On the road to vengeance she finds deception, betrayal and two brothers she who refuse to let her finish her ride alone.

As Kate gets closer to the Rose Riders and the truth about her father’s murder, she will have to decide if getting her revenge is worth losing herself in Vengeance Road (2015) by Erin Bowman.

Vengeance Road is a fast-paced western adventure that follows Kate as she struggles to get revenge. The novel is written in Kate’s dialect as she narrates the story. Her voice has a twang and verve that immediately brings the old west landscape to life.

Bowman provides evocative descriptions of mining towns, saloons and riding on through the plains to help bring Kate’s journey to vivid life. The addition of real historical figures and an author’s note detailing the inspiration for certain aspects of the story help to flesh out the story even further.

Kate is a tough-talking, no-nonsense heroine. Her singular focus on revenge ensures that Vengeance Road is an action-heavy story with a clear destination. While there is a romance subplot, it is very much secondary to Kate’s quest for justice.

Throughout the novel, Kate spends a lot of time on her. Although she is not the most introspective character, this solitude does give Kate the opportunity to contemplate what getting revenge will entail and what it might cost her in the end.

Unexpected twists and surprising reveals in the final act of this novel make Vengeance Road a page-turning adventure. Kate’s quiet and unique voice make Vengeance Road a novel to ponder and savor.

Possible Pairings: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen, No Surrender Solider by Christine Kohler, Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Twist of Gold by Michael Morpurgo, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, Montmorency by Eleanor Updale

UPDATE 11/6/2015: While I enjoyed this book, I do want to point everyone to Debbie Reese’s review of Vengeance Road on her site American Indians in Children’s Literature. Debbie looks at the book from a Native perspective and I think it’s important to be aware of the ways in which the book is problematic (or even inaccurate in terms of American Indian experiences) as well.

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*