book reviews

6 Westerns by One of the Greats

I think I’ve mentioned before–I’ve been a fan of William W. Johnstone since I discovered his 24-volume Mountain Man, Preacher series. There is no writer who puts you more in the era of the Old West’s mountain men trappers, those honest, hardworking, and rough men who survived by trapping and selling the pelts from the Rocky Mountains. They loved the beauty and isolation of the Rockies despite the freezing weather, untamed Indians, lack of support, and all the other hardships that befell those men (and a few women) willing to open the West to settlers. I learned from Preacher (from the comfort of my armchair) how to survive with nothing but a homemade knife, how to live off the land, how to read other two-legged animals in a blink, and the importance of respecting the culture and wisdom of the land’s first inhabitants, the Indians.

Let me back up a moment and tell you about William Johnstone. If you think of Westerns as ‘light entertainment’, it may surprise you to know that Johnstone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 300 books, predominantly on the Old West. He is one of the pre-eminent writers in that genre (in my estimation, on a par with Louis L’Amour–which I know will get pushback from many!), in part because his passion is sharing accurate facts through the lens of an old-fashioned storyteller. When William Johnstone passed his pen onto his nephew, J.A. Johnstone, I found much to my surprise J.A. had a similar knack for authentic details and a good story.

I am auto-approved for Johnstone’s books on Netgalley (with the publisher, Pinnacle/Kensington Books –love you guys!) so read these Westerns often. I review three of Johnstone’s westerns here. These are six more:

  • The Torture of the Mountain Man  — Smoke Jenson, a blazingly-fast gunslinger, goes to help a nephew round up bank robbers
  • Damnation Valley — a mountain man finds out the hard way why this quiet valley in the remote West is called Damnation Valley
  • Preacher’s Rage — when thieves try to steal the pelts of Preacher and his son Hawk, they get more than they bargained for
  • Black Hills   — the old West version of the Capulets and the Montagues (see what I did there?)
  • Bloodthirsty — a gunslinger not only stops the bad guys, he rights some wrongs
  • The Jackals — three unlikely ex-lawmen are all that stands between Apache raiders and death

View all my reviews

Torture of the Mountain Man

by William Johnstone


William Johnstone has a wide collection of Jenkins-family characters in his Wild West universe. They all have their own series, built around the life they chose in the Wild West, be it a mountain main, a sheriff, or a rancher. I love this approach and it’s hard not to read each series because I feel like I know the characters.

In Torture of the Mountain Main, Smoke Jenkins has moved on from being a mountain man in the pristine beauty of the Rocky Mountains to running a ranch with his wife Sally and a few memorable ranch hands (who reappear in many of the series books). He was commissioned by the governor of Colorado as a deputy Marshall so wears that badge when needed, which it is when a relative asks for help running down a violent gang of bank robbers who love murdering people for no reason. The town’s sheriff is shot in the most recent robbery and Smoke’s nephew asks him to help when he can’t raise a posse. Smoke will always help a relative and goes with a couple of his ranch hands.

What the robbers don’t know is that Smoke Jenson is reputed to be one of the fastest guns with incredible luck when facing other gunslingers. What happens next is a brilliantly told story of gunfights, criminals and their life on the run, the courage of common people, and how love blooms in the most unlikely of places. What really sets this story apart from so many others is that this drama is wound into the daily life of old west Texas. This, for me, makes for a riveting story and an exciting look at life 150 years ago.

One note: I didn’t get the title. I almost didn’t read the book because I didn’t want to see one of my favorite Western characters tortured, but he wasn’t. Hmm…  Ooops. Is that a spoiler?

–received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review

Damnation Valley

by William Johnstone


Damnation Valley (Pinnacle 2018) takes place in the mid-1800’s. This is after Texas revolts from Mexico, when rifles still used lead balls and a bow-and-arrow could be a better choice because of the reloading time required for guns. Breckenridge Wallace is a mountain man and trapper, huge in size and fully capable of facing down any threat he faces, who runs afoul of a particular nasty and vicious trapper named Judd Carnahan. Breck devotes himself (and a few years of his life) to stopping this evil character before he can hurt anyone else. He runs into problems at a trading post he stops at to resupply when Carnahan kills the owner and captures one of his beautiful daughters before fleeing. Breck chases him all over the Southwest for months, getting reports from trading posts and trappers on the man and what he is forcing the daughter to become.  Any sane man would give up but Breck has never been accused of being a quitter.

This is a wonderful story (#4 in the Frontiersman series), saturated in the world of the old West, and a satisfying read for those who love mountain man stories.

–received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review

Preacher’s Rage

by William Johnstone


In William and J.A. Johnstone’s Preacher’s Rage (Pinnacle 2018), latest in the twenty-five volume The First Mountain Man series, Preacher is part of a five-man team taking a load of pelts to the trading post. It includes an Indian elder, Preacher’s son Hawk-that-Sours, and two young trappers just learning the business. Hawk, part-Indian, part-Preacher, was raised by Absaroka Indians but now lives and works with his father, Preacher. One night, the group are attacked by eight men who make a living killing trappers and stealing their pelts but with Preacher involved, it doesn’t work out that way. In fact, they all die but not before they tell Preacher that they are part of a much-larger group (about twenty more) who think nothing of taking the work and life of hard-working trappers for their own profit. And, they reveal, they have a young female Indian captive. Preacher being who he is–a moral man who distributes justice in the Wild West way–knows he must stop them before more trappers die.

This is an excellent addition to the iconic Preacher series, the face of the Mountain Man’s life in the Old West.

–received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review

black hillsThe Black Hills

by J.A. Johnstone


In J.A. Johnstone’s The Black Hills (Penguin Random House 2018), all Hunter and Annabel want to do is get married but that would be too simple. Annabel’s father wants her to marry a man who will benefit his business and Hunter is a proud Rebel from the defeated South in a Yankee-ruled town. Hunter had enough of killing in the war–it was something he did quite well and often for the Confederates. When he came home after the war, he put his guns aside, swearing to solve problems peaceably. But when Annabel must flee her wealthy home steps ahead of a vindictive brother and a crazed father, everything explodes. Her father will stop at nothing to get his daughter back and into his pre-arranged marriage. When he targets Hunter’s family, Hunter gives up on peace and we find out just how skilled he is at fighting the good fight, no matter the odds against him.

The characters in this story, Book 1 of J.A. Johnstone’s new Hunter Buchanan series, are strong and likable with the morals and fortitude you expect from the good guys of the old West. The story is well developed with enough backstory to understand the characters’ choices and problems. One of my favorites is Bobby Lee, a rescued coyote who loves nothing more than his human master, Hunter. The star-crossed love story between Annabelle and Hunter becomes the western version of the Capulets and the Montagues. The two families were on opposite sides of the civil war and now, their children are in love. This is a painful story of passion and loss that plays out as they pursue their future.

Great lines that place you right in the old West:

“Hunter felt more and more like he’d been run over by a runaway freight train deadheading on a long downhill stretch of open rail with a firebox filled to its brim.”
“Gray tailings stretched down the mountain below the mine, around which was a beehive of activity including men at work with picks and shovels, handcars rolling in and out of the mine portals, thundering ore drays traversing trails switchbacking up and down the mountain’s face, as well as the constant, reverberating hammering of the stamping mill in its giant timber frame at the base of the ridge, behind the barrack-like, wood-frame mine office.”
“As if he and every other Southerner in the county didn’t know that Frank Stillwell and his deputies used the Stars and Bars, Old Dixie, the Rebel Flag—the guidon for which so many Brothers of the Southern Confederacy had made the ultimate sacrifice—to scrub the mud and horse dung from their boots.”

Overall, another excellent Western in a new series by an author who never fails to entertain.

–received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review


by J.A. Johnstone


From the first page of J.A. Johnstone’s Bloodthirsty (Penguin Random House 2019), Book 3 of A Buckhorn Western, Joe “Buck” Buckhorn attracts trouble. First, he gets attacked on the boat taking him down the Mississippi to his next gunslinger job, then again debarking the boat, and another time during his job interview in a stately estate of his rich employer. All of these criminals underestimate the graying cowboy who dresses like a dandy, not realizing that his no-nonsense no backup attitude smells deceit before it’s close enough to do any danger. The job, which he accepts, is to stop the violent and criminal takeover of an Arizona town by a vicious former Union officer who is buying up all the farm-  and ranch land by any means necessary. He has quickly become the largest and most powerful landowner in the area, kept in power by an army of gunslingers who defend his interests. What those are is part of what Buck must figure out. All he has is himself and his cleverness, which he figures will do fine.  How it works out is vintage Johnstone with can’t-miss twists and turns that keep readers turning the pages.

I’ve enjoyed all of William Johnston’s nephew’s books as J.A. fills the big shoes left by his legendary Uncle, a Western storyteller without equal, but in Buck Buckhorn, J.A. has found a character to own. I wish there were more than three books in the series.

–received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review

The Jackals

by J.A. Johnstone


In J.A. Johnstone’s The Jackals (Penguin Random House 2019), three violent men–strangers, each taught by life to have no fear of violence when used as a tool for justice, end up fighting for their lives with only each other to rely upon. Each was in a law enforcement job that wanted them tame and forgiving–civilized–and failed. Fate brought them together, locked into an Arizona stagecoach station, with no way out, under attack by Apaches bent on eradicating the white invaders, starting with the group huddled in the small though well-fortified building. With the three “jackals” was a Thespian, a female headed for the gallows, a bank robber who has turned on his partners, and the newspaper writer who disdainfully named the three ‘Jackals’–meaning scum. No one knows they are there so there is no cavalry riding to the rescue. With their bullets running out, all they have left is their wits. The solutions they devise are quirky and highly creative with no reason to work. They wouldn’t even try them if they weren’t so desperate.

There’s no give-up in the three jackals so be ready for one surprise after another.

–received free from NetGalley in return for an honest review


More Westerns

4 Great Western Reads from NetGalley

3 Great Westerns

6 Tips for Western Fiction Writers

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 Born in a Treacherous Timefirst in 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, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for NEA Today and TeachHUBmonthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. Look for her upcoming trilogy, Crossroads, eta Spring 2019.

31 thoughts on “6 Westerns by One of the Greats

  1. Pingback: 3 More Great Westerns–1 Indie, 2 not | WordDreams...

  2. Pingback: Great Westerns from NetGalley – Today's Author

  3. Jacqui, I noticed on Goodreads that you’d been reading westerns and was intrigued about them! You give a great introduction to the books and the authors. Wow! Over three hundred books is a magnificent feat and wonderful that his newphew is an equally gifted writer. Terrific reviews and I want to take a closer look at a couple of these!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have gotten into Westerns, primarily because of the tough way those characters live their lives. It’s not dissimilar than my current WIP though I’m almost a million years older. The Westerns give me lots of ideas.

      Liked by 1 person

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