Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Hanging Road (book) by William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone

(Sorry, that itty bitty cover image is the best I could do.)

I think the title of this book was picked out of a hat because, as far as I can tell, it has nothing to do with the book's contents. If I'm wrong, feel free to correct me and explain the title.

Anyway, this is my first Western since I was forced to read Shane in, I think, middle school, unless you want to count the very few romance novels I've read with Western settings. I wasn't too enthused by it, although it's possible that this just isn't the "right" Western for me. I mean, I didn't exactly put much work into picking it - someone at my apartment complex left a huge stack of Westerns in the laundry room for people to take, and this was one of the last ones not taken. It may also not have helped things that this book is actually the 10th in the Blood Bond series (although it didn't feel like I was missing out on too much, because anything that felt like a reference to a previous book was explained decently enough for this book to make sense).

Synopsis:

At the start of this book there are two groups. One group is comprised of Matt, Sam, and a bunch of women they come across and save. Another group is comprised of Bo, Scratch, and Theresa.

Matt and Sam, the "blood brothers" of the series title (Matt is white, Sam is half-Indian, half-white - although they're not related by blood, they're as close as brothers), save the women as they're being shot at by a bunch of lowlifes (I feel so dorky using that word, but it's the best I can come up with and actually seems to fit the book's writing a bit). Matt and Sam get the impression that they're mail order brides, but what they actually are is former prostitutes - Charity, the leader of the bunch, has inherited a saloon and plans on jointly owning and running it with all the other women, thereby starting newer, more respectable lives. Unfortunately, the owner of the town's other saloon, Junius Cole, wants the competition to go away, permanently. Matt and Sam don't like Cole and what he's trying to do, so they stick around and protect Charity and the other women.

Scratch and Bo come across Theresa in much the same way Matt and Sam did Charity and the other women - Theresa was being shot at, and Scratch and Bo helped save her. It turns out that Theresa owns a ranch in the area, and Junius Cole doesn't like that the river that supplies his ranch's water runs through her land and that she could, if she wanted to, keep that water from coming to him. Theresa has no intention of doing any such thing - all she wants is to take care of her ranch, which she owns because, apparently, Cole killed her husband. Scratch and Bo don't like the way Cole operates, so they decide to become Theresa's ranch hands and help her out.

Cole has opposition on both sides now, but he's also got complete control over the town and the town's sheriff, so he's not doing too badly. Unfortunately for him, his people can't seem to beat Scratch, Bo, Matt, and Sam in gunfights. Scratch, Bo, Matt, and Sam figure that, since they're all basically standing up against Cole, they could probably stand up against him together. However, when Matt and Sam see Theresa, they realize that she's the snake of a woman they met a while back. They're convinced that she's up to no good, but Scratch and Bo can't believe that.

As the battle over the ranch and saloon gets more heated, however, it becomes more and more apparent that Matt and Sam are probably right about Theresa. She hires some scary-looking guys to help protect her ranch, and she doesn't seem to care about her ranch hands as much as she originally appeared to. There's also a strong possibility that her husband died not because Cole had him killed, but because Theresa had him killed, so that she could take over his ranch and use that as a springboard for taking over the whole town.

Almost too late, Scratch and Bo decide it's best to side with Matt, Sam, Charity, and the other saloon ladies. By that time, Theresa has made a deal with Junius Cole, and they're working together to take down Charity's saloon and have the town to themselves. What Cole doesn't realize is that Theresa is even more of a snake than he is and plans on double-crossing him. Theresa kills Cole, but she didn't count on Anna Malone, Cole's lover (although that implies more emotion in their relationship than I think there actually was - "bed partner" might be better). Anna knifes Theresa in the back and leaves town.

Now everything is wrapped up, Charity has her saloon, which is steadily becoming more popular, the last remaining ranch hand from Theresa's ranch is installed as its temporary foreman, and Matt and Sam and Bo and Scratch are all back to being drifters (in two separate groups, since Matt and Sam made sure to leave before Bo and Scratch could tag along).

Commentary:

One thing this book had going for it is that the characters were appealing, if not, to my mind, too memorable. Matt, Sam, Bo, and Scratch are all nice guys. Matt and Sam were occasionally interesting, and I might decide it's worth it to try out one of the earlier books in the series. Who knows, maybe this book just suffered from the "this series should have died out several books ago" syndrome. The earlier books might be more enjoyable.

Some things I hated: guns "speaking" and "roaring" and "barking", excessive use of the word "hombres", and Matt and Sam having the "[choose a characteristic or ability, like speed, agility, or grace] of youth." As far as that last one goes, all that did was make the author seem old, since I don't think a younger author would have thought to use those particular words. I think I remember hearing that a lot of readers of Westerns are older men, though, so maybe this kind of wording would work better for them than it does for me (female and under 30).

Things that struck me: Sam is half Indian, but that rarely seems to matter beyond the occasional Indian-hating character, and the author made no attempt to have Matt and Sam seduce anyone (or let anyone seduce them - one of Charity's girls tried).

One last thought - this book made me think "romance for men", because this author, like some romance authors, seemed to make Matt and Sam into the kind of men he wishes he was (or that he thinks he was in his youth) - handsome, good fighters, good guys, lithe, good with women. I wonder, if I read more fast-paced Westerns like this, would I continue to see parallels between this genre and the romance genre?

Remember how I said I haven't read hardly any Westerns before?  Well, that makes it really hard to come up with read-alikes, so my list is short and not as good as it could be.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • Firefly (live action TV series) - This is a sci-fi Western, which sounds weird but turns out to actually be really good.  Those who'd like a fast-paced story with a Western feel might want to try this.  Mal, one of the main characters, is at times very much like Matt.
  • The Daybreakers (book) by Louis L'Amour - I know this author because he seems to be the Western genre's Nora Roberts - if your grocery store carries Westerns, it probably carries his books, and there are oh so many of them.  I chose this particular one because it sounds like a fast-paced story, set in an idealized Wild West, with two brothers who'll back each other up - all things that those who enjoyed The Hanging Road might like.
  • The Lonely Breed (book) by Frank Leslie - I decided to suggest this one because of the main character (half Indian and half white, or possibly three quarters Indian) and because its story is similar to The Hanging Road (the main character is trying to protect one of the women who works at the local brothel).  Its fast pace and action may also make it appealing.

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