Monday, December 17, 2012

The Best New Western Novels of 2012

It was a banner year for western novels, both literary and genre.

The best included:
(1) Bruce Holbert's Lonesome Animals; quirky novel based upon some quirky personal family history with some fine language and attitude.  I reviewed it here.  An inspired literary novel.  I'm not sure that we can trust what the author says about it.  As Michael Didbin says, the author writes with the one inspired "I," but it is another "I" who critiques the book.  One way or another, Lonesome Animals is a very unique western and one I am not likely to forget soon.

(2) Olen Butler's The Hot Country. The near-kin of the narrator here is Jack Crabb of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man. I like a story by a good liar, even if sometimes the stretchers are obvious. Some of these lies are history which is not the same thing as the truth.  Pulitzer Prize winner Olen Butler has written the western novel of the year, or damned close.

 (3) The Wilderness by Lance Weller.  A very good literary novel.  It felt longer than its 304 pages, almost epic, and in this case, that's a good thing.  It has been compared to Cormac McCarthy's fiction, but it is more like the work of Jeffrey Lent and Jim Harrison.  Charles Frazier, perhaps.

(4) The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin.  I grabbed this thinking it might relate to the Cormac McCarthy's Edenic parable, The Orchard Keeper, and I was not far off, at least as I read it.  The book won me over with its ending, which worked for this reader on all levels.  This takes place in the historical west, with western motifs, but it is not a genre western.

(5) Louise Erdrich's The Round House, which won the National Book Award this year.  I liked it, but not nearly as well as I liked some of her others, starting with her novel, Tracks.  She deserves the Pulitzer Prize for her entire series of American Indian tales.

(6) Juliet in August by Dianne Warren, one of my favorite westerns this year, is one of those quiet small town novels where character is more important than plot. Each chapter might well be a short story, but the stories and characters interconnect and the plot lines converge. Juliet is a town in Saskatchewan and the events take place in the tail end of August.

My favorite plot line in here is suggested by the picture on the dustjacket, as it involves a stray horse, a runaway on a moonlit night in August from the campground at Ghost Creek. His history begins in the second chapter and there are interesting revelations as the novel continues.

This fine, low-keyed modern western won the 2010 Governor General's Award, having been previously published in Canada under the title Cool Water.

(7) Hard Country by Michael McGarrity.  An ambitious novel from McGarrity, something of an epic.  A large cast spread a bit too thin, too shallow, but the author still writes a damn good historical novel.  He could win a Spur Award next year.

(7) As The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson.  It was a big year for Johnson, with many of his novels adapted to the television series.  They're worth watching, but too rushed and choppy for our taste.  Lou Diamond Phillips plays a pretty good Standing Bear, but I prefer the luxury of reading the books.

(8) Margaret Coel's Buffalo Bill's Dead Now.  A solid entry in her American Indian related series about an intertribal Arapaho feud (over the recovered relics of "Arapaho Chief Black Heart")  which mirrors the Lakota feud over the remains of Black Wolf, who died in England while traveling with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  I wrote about the dispute back then and presented the genealogy of Black Wolf's family in one of my books.

(9) Force of Nature by C. J. Box.  This is a Nate Romanowski novel, and a good one.  Joe Pickett's friend, the falconer, has always been a marginally wild character and here we learn of his troubled history.  One of my favorites in the series.

(10) The Rope by Nevada Barr.  A fine prequel to Track of the Cat, her first novel.  I've blogged about her series before, but the book that I most often recommend is her autobiographical work, Seeking Enlightenment: Hat by Hat.

(11)  Old Gray Wolf by James D. Doss.  The last book in a great genre series of modern western mysteries.  Perhaps the author knew he was dying, for in this book he ties up all of the loose ends for the longtime series characters.   His American Indian-related mysteries resemble Tony Hillerman's, but with more humor.

(12)  Trickster's Point by William Kent Krueger.  Another American Indian-related series and a good one.  I reviewed Heaven's Keep at this link last month and will be reviewing Trickster's Point here soon.  

 Before I list the 2012 Spur Award winners, I should point out that none of my favorite westerns will be on the list.

True, the Spur Awards now run a year behind, not that it matters, for last year my best western list included Susan Froderberg's Old Border Road, Craig Johnson's Hell Is Empty, Patrick Dewitt's The Sisters Brothers, and Denis Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-nominated Train Dreams.  None of them made it to the Spur Awards, or even to a nomination.

 The Spur Awards have often been irrelevant.  Early last year in this blog, I went year-by-year on Wednesday's Western, listing the best westerns of each year and giving the Spur Award winners side-by-side.  The results were simply amazing.  Not that this year's Spur Award winners aren't good, it's just that the selection process isn't geared to actually name the best westerns of the year.

I was glad to see that Feast's Day of Fools, from James Lee Burke's modern western/mystery series, received a Spur nomination.  And on the other hand, Robert Flynn's Echoes of Glory, which won the Spur Award and nothing else, was my Best Novel of the Year a couple of years ago.  They have been doing much better in recent years, but they still have a long way to go.

 2012 Spur Award Winners and Finalists

Stephen Harrigan. Remember Ben Clayton, Alfred A. Knopf

Thomas Fox Averill, Rode, University of New Mexico Press
James Lee Burke, Feast Day of Fools, Simon & Schuster

Winner:  Johnny D. Boggs, Legacy of a Lawman, Five Star Publishing

Joe Henry. Lime Creek, Random House
Alan C. Huffines, Killed by Indians 1871, Texas Wesleyan University Press

Johnny D. Boggs, West Texas Kill, Pinnacle Books/Kensington

Cameron Judd, The Long Hunt, Signet/Penguin
Dusty Richards, Between Hell and Texas, Pinnacle Books/Kensington

Meg Mims, Double Crossing, Astraea Press

Tammy Hinton, Unbridled, Roots & Branches/AWOC Publishing
Stephen B. Smart, Whispers of the Greybull, High Mule Publishing


  1. I just read a book called Rattlesnakes, Ghosts and Murderers and really enjoyed it. I didn't know anything about the author (Len Francis Monahan) but his book is definitely worth reading. It really sounds like the authentic Old West. He captured their way of speaking and presents a lot of interesting historical information in a very entertaining manner.

  2. Hoping my new book, "Devil's Coattail" is enjoyed by readers