Great Westerns from NetGalley

If you like thrillers but can’t quite get behind the world-ending apocalyptic plot points–would like something a little more down-to-earth–you very well may like Westerns. I do and thankfully, Netgalley is happy to feed my addiction with free books. Here are the last ones I read:

  1. Frontier America — Preacher, the most famous mountain man in literary fiction has another adventure you don’t want to miss
  2. Defenders of the Texas Frontier — watch the birth of the West and the Texas Rangers through the eyes on one who was there
–all received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review
–a note about my reviews: I only review books I enjoyed. I need to be inspired to write. That’s why so many of my reviews are 4/5 or 5/5

Frontier America

by William Johnstone
In William and J.A. Johnstone’s latest in the Preacher series, Frontier America (Pinnacle 2019), Preacher is between dramas and takes this downtime to visit his son Hawk-that-Soars and his family in the Crow camp where they live. What Preacher doesn’t know is that his good mountain man friend, Scottish clan rancher Jamie Ian MacCallister, is also headed toward this Crow camp also. His purpose is as a guide, helping the Army find the Crow leader so they can negotiate a treaty with the Indians that would allow settlers to pass through this wilderness in safety on their way to Oregon. Even before the two sides meet, neither trusts the other. The young Crow warriors want to kill all Whites before they destroy the Indian hunting grounds. The Whites think Indians are ignorant savages with no right to the land where settlers want to live. The problem only gets worse when an old Blackfoot enemy of Preachers decides this is the right time to settle her score with the mountain man.
If you’ve read previous Preacher books, you’ll be pleased that the massive Indian warrior and friend of Preacher, Big Thunder, is part of this story. I love this series. If I could give it more than 5/5, I would.

Defender of the Texas Frontier

by David Gross

In David Gross’ Defender of the Texas Frontier (iUniverse 2019), John Coffee Hays arrives on the Western frontier with his cousin, both looking for a chance to defend the new republic by fighting the Spanish, the Mexicans, or even the Indians–as long as they can be part of the wild freedom offered in this untamed part of the continent.

“…looking for action to satisfy our need for an adrenalin rush. We appeared to be anything but a disciplined militia unit. Each one of us was dressed in his own style…”

Before they finish, they are molded into a seminal part of the original fearless Texas Rangers., the toughest lawmen in American history and the scourge of criminals everywhere. Through the life of Hays, we learn authentic details about what went into making the west a lawful part of the young United States. Here are some examples of the detail and research Gross includes in his tale:

“…One of the most notorious Comanche war chiefs was known as Cuerno Verde, or Green Horn, of the Kotosoteka band. De Ansa gathered an army of nearly 350 regulars and about 250 Indian allies and then set off to find Green Horn.”

“President Sam Houston faced a continuous financial crisis. He disbanded the militia and allowed funding for the ranging companies to lapse. He was doing his best to keep the Republic solvent.”

“Another skill, imitating the tactics of the Comanche, was to learn to hang from the side of a mount and fire a pistol under the horse’s neck with accuracy.”

If I had to rename the genre of this story. I’d call it very creative nonfiction. Though using fictional characters to tell the overall story of building the West, there is more history than the traditional western with more in-depth detail, sometimes multiple pages detailing the historic backstory. This is a must-read for anyone with a real interest in the 1830-40’s, a period of history when America was extremely new and not sure it could survive, when our enemies were on our own continent and we didn’t always beat them. Enjoyable and informative.

View all my reviews

More reviews

Great Westerns from Authors New to Me

6 Westerns by One of the Greats

4 Great Western Reads from NetGalley

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Nature saga. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, blog webmaster, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. Look for her next prehistoric fiction, The Quest for Home, Fall 2019. You can find her tech ed books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning


How NOT to Write a Book Review

14450840 Man writerI read a lot, on average four books a week. I live the maxim that writers must be readers. Because I love writing, I review many of them for one of my three blogs. When Amazon asked me to be a Vine Voice for them, I was flattered and wanted to see what had caught their eye. What made my reviews different from others? I spent time reading a wide selection of reviews and came away with a framework of what all critics included:

  • a brief plot summary
  • an overview of characters
  • a discussion on the theme/plot/goal and whether it’s well-delivered
  • the reviewer’s evidence-based opinion
  • an appealing voice

Reviews I didn’t like often covered these critical areas, but got lost in the ‘personal history’ weeds.  Unless the reviewer is Michiko Kakutani or James Wood (both listed among the top ten most feared literary critics), I’m ambivalent to a reviewers’ personal opinions.

As a result, I’ve developed a template for what to avoid in my reviews. See if you agree:


Book reviews aren’t opinions; they’re factually-based summaries. Sure, many books include the author’s opinion. A reviewer’s job is NOT to disagree with the opinion, rather discuss how the author rolls it out. Do they provide evidence? Is their argument well-developed or gratuitous? Do readers find themselves nodding in agreement or fuming in anger? They should feel the reviewer is even-handed, neutral, and an arbiter of the discussion rather than a participant.

Narrow perspective

The author writes from their personal experience. True, the reviewer’s personal fable is as unique as the author’s, but that isn’t what’s being reviewed. Show how motivation/theme/goals connect to a vast swath of readers even as the character/plot/setting are fresh and unique.

‘This isn’t my favorite genre’

Not only do I avoid that phrase, I hate hearing it as an excuse why the critic has her/his opinion. In fact, it tells me to ignore everything they’re about to say. If this isn’t the reviewer’s genre, research it. For example, literary fiction delves into characters; thrillers focus on plot. I wouldn’t down-star Ted Bell’s Patriot for the lack of Lord Hawkes’ personal thoughts.

If the reviewer isn’t willing to understand the book’s genre, stick with traditional traits like a compelling voice, developed characters, and well-paced plot.

Takes too long to get to the point

Usually, that happens because the reviewer isn’t sure of what they’re saying and hopes to throw enough words on the page to hit the bullseye for most people. Long reviews should be stuffed full of meaty information, not fat.

Conclusions without evidence

I love hearing a conclusion I may not agree with because it means I’m about to learn something. I feel cheated when that conclusion is unsubstantiated by evidence, unless the reviewer is part of my inner circle (people whose arguments I tend to accept at face value), cites sources, cites multiple sources, and gives me linkbacks so I can verify it.


Reviewers aren’t there to judge writers, rather evaluate. A debut novel is  different than the tenth in the series, and a young thriller writer should not be compared to Lee Child. Critics offer advice to inform the reader’s decision on whether they should read more of this author. That’s a weighty responsibility. Approach it with respect and humility.

For more on this topic, check out Adam Kirsch’s article (he’s considered one of the top ten reviewers by some). To see the review of what might be the most famous review ever (on John Keats), click here.

More on critiques:

7 Reasons For and Three Against Critique Groups

25 Take-aways from the Richard Bausch workshop

10 Tips from Toxic Feedback

Writers Tip #52: Join a Writers Groups

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her book at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

Contrary to Popular Opinion

fishhookIf you have a little tyke nearby you probably know the story of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. It’s about a lonely fish with scales of many colors. He is eventually persuaded to give away his beautiful scales, one by one, to the other, duller piscine creatures and builds friendships with them in the bargain. Children are enchanted by the crayon box beauty of the little fish and the budding empathy he exhibits. Teachers and parents have praised the book for teaching the values of sharing and being proud of who you are rather than how you appear.

But look up the book on the Internet and you’ll find a grenade of negative reviews and antagonistic comparisons. The book is accused of promoting liberal social propaganda above independent work ethic, of enforced equalization on behalf of those too lazy to earn their own colorful scales. The book incites heated political discourse worthy of college seminars or street protests.

It’s unlikely Pfister had any motive other than to write a kid’s book and hopefully earn a tooth fairy’s token bounty. Even if he suspected the potential controversy his story might cause, he proceeded with his vision, because the fish’s actions fit the story. Sometimes learning to share is hard. We live on a small planet where resources are finite though needs are infinite, where justice doesn’t always equal fairness, and doing the right thing might make you popular but more, might make you feel better about fitting into the tight spaces of your own soul. So, share what you’ve got. All that said in words and pictures little kids can understand. The Rainbow Fish remains a favorite among many, repellent to others.

And what have we “big kids” learned? Murder, rape, embezzlement, burglary, kidnapping, torture, fraud, graft, blackmail, espionage – all those crimes and more propel the world of books on its publishing carousel. They’re all acceptable aspects of a character as long as that character is the antagonist. The protagonist can exhibit a rumpled suit as well. Drunken, alcoholic, cheating, lying, egocentric, gambling, irresponsible, bullying, sleazy main characters are the mainstay of the written world. Of the real world as well, which is why they all fit their roles so well. Books would be boring if distilled water coursed in the main character’s veins, and every writer knows the protagonist must have a personal flaw to overcome on the way to resolving the plot.

Still, when writing The Tree House Mother, I faced a crisis. The book is about a woman’s relationship with her emotionally absent mother and how it colors her entire life, causing her to make impetuous choices that put her and others in danger. Though a successful artist, Andie’s self-doubt grows until she becomes pregnant and worries that she’ll repeat her mother’s impoverished parenting skills. She chooses to have an abortion.

Abortions are legal in this country but they inflame the perpetual debate over whether or not a woman should ever have one. I struggled with this scene, because I struggle with the entire issue. My grandmother arrived from Europe to America more than 100 years ago as a very young teenager, apparently unaccompanied by family. She’d fled a pogrom that had killed her little brother and left her mother insane. She married only a few years later, and over the next 15 years or so had seven children, all of whom she loved. She also had two self-induced abortions using a coat hanger, either of which could have killed her. She understood little about birth control, and legal abortion wasn’t an option for anyone. I won’t say whether or not I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but my grandmother’s story weighs on my heart. None of this is in my story, only Andie’s dilemma.

It wasn’t Pfister’s story that gave me the confidence to write the controversial scene in my book, but the little fish sometimes swims in the back of my head when I wonder if a certain action will fly or end up sabotaging the story. I had to let Andie remain true to her persona, even when that meant engaging in an act that might cause readers to gasp. It’s the truth to core that lends credibility to a story, that will ultimately allow a story to bear an incident that might be contrary to popular opinion of what is acceptable behavior. Bad guy can do that, but not the good guy. Will Andie’s choice lose an otherwise sympathetic audience?

Judging by the vociferous reviews of Pfister’s kids’ book, maybe 1000 words about scale sharing, I can imagine the reviews about my book (which is not yet published.) I could have allowed Andie to get falling down drunk and suffer a miscarriage, a condition more acceptable to some as it involves chance rather than choice. It wouldn’t have worked as well. (Getting drunk also being a choice.) I might not have had her face an unplanned pregnancy – one less conflict for her to deal with. The ending wouldn’t be as meaningful. Though the mention of Andie’s abortion is a tiny part of the book, the topic of abortion in American culture is incendiary. Yet it makes the conclusion of the story plausible and poignant.

You won’t learn to ride a horse if you’re too frightened to fall; you can’t swim if you won’t put your head in the water. Writing a sweet confection of a book with no controversy at all is likely to garner ho hum interest. Being afraid to write about a contentious topic means being afraid to write. Ultimately it’s the story itself that will show its strength. The worst thing might be if people have no reaction.

The rainbow fish gave away his scales. I feel like he gave one to me.