Tommy Lee Jones in The

Modern Western novels

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.
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