Book Review: Short-Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer

I read a book (not this one) last week that I should have DNF’d. I didn’t. I had nightmares. A lot of them. I was not okay. This is why some of us who review books provide trigger warnings if we can.

To be honest, I cannot review that book. I could tell you about the well-developed characters and the way trauma was handled in the book, but I can’t bring myself to think that hard about certain plot elements right now. Maybe soon. Maybe never. I’m sorry.

After I finished that book, I needed a palate cleanser. Actually, I needed three, but I started with this one.

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Meredith Hayes knows that people trespass on Archer land at their own peril. The Archer men have secluded themselves for over a decade, ever since their father died, and do not take kindly to strangers. But Meredith also knows that Travis Archer, the eldest, has a kind and compassionate side because he helped her when she most needed it. So when she overhears a plot to burn them off their ranch, forcing them to sell the land, she feels she owes it to Travis to warn him.

Meredith arrives in time to warn the boys, but not without consequence. Suffering from a kick to the head by a fire-frightened mule, she is cared for by the Archers while she recovers. The only problem is that society doesn’t care why she was without a chaperone in a house full of men, her reputation is shattered and her guardian will not allow her to come home because of it. There is only one thing to restore her good name–she must marry an Archer.

Travis is the eldest and the only one who has known Meredith more than the three days it has been since she arrived with her warning. When he and his brothers draw straws to see who will marry her, he makes sure he’s the one who ends up with the short straw. It’s his responsibility, that’s all–or so he tells himself.

But the Archers aren’t in the clear yet. Someone still wants their land and will go to great lengths to get it. Travis and Meredith both want to protect the Archer ranch, but their desire to protect each other scares them far more than any villain ever could. Meredith knows that Travis feels responsible for her, but what she wants is to be more than just a short-straw bride.

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This book was pretty cute on the whole. It was a clean, Christian Romance. If any of those words make you cringe, move on. For me, it was a good book to follow the One That Shall Not Be Reviewed. I enjoyed it, but it isn’t perfect, so I’ll still give you my usual breakdown.

First, the things I liked.

It was a clean read. After the “other book”, I needed that. Romance needed to be sweet and good again.

It’s a period piece set in post Civil War Texas, but it doesn’t pretend that the population of Texas was monochromatic or fair. There is a counterpoint to this coming, so don’t do a happy dance just yet.

Meredith has a disability that stems from a physical trauma in her childhood. While there are characters (never her love interest) who call her names, she is not written as a weaker character or one who laments her injury. It’s not a lot, and there are times that I don’t like the way it’s addressed, but there are so few main characters with any sort of physical disability that I have to appreciate this one.

The dog doesn’t die. The horses don’t die. I know it’s a stupid thing, but I needed this book to be a happy one. And any book that has an animal companion bite the dust is not a happy book. Where the Red Fern Grows almost undid me as a child.

Now, for the other side of the coin.

The non-white characters are few and all serve the same trope-y purpose. They are the hardworking mentor types with very little presence apart from that. So while I’m glad that there is no “white savior”-ness to the story, the old stereotypes are still present.

Also, there is only one type of non-white character. There is a settlement of Black “freedmen”, but there is no evidence in this Texas town of a Latinx population or a Native one. I find that improbable at best and erasure at worst. I don’t think it was intentional on part of the author to do so, but I think by pointing it out in books like this, perhaps more authors will be more intentional about inclusivity.

Meredith is treated as weaker by some of the characters because of her disability. It grated on my nerves, but I think that was intentional. Still, I point it out because if that is going to be upsetting to anyone, I’d like for you to know going in.

It is not at all thematic in the book, but there are a couple of lines in different chapters that had the echo of fat-shaming. It annoyed me more than offended me and it was fleeting, but it was there.

All in all, I still thought it was cute. And it was a good palate cleanser. Though, to be honest, I followed it up with two more for which reviews are coming. Seriously, that one book messed me up and I needed a chance to recover from it. Especially since I needed to be ready for the debut of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse that came out this week. You’ll be happy to know that I’m all through with my palate cleansing and was able to dive into ToL on the day of its debut. I’ll be reviewing that in a future post as well.

ARC Review: Unanchored by Stephanie Eding

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in advance of its publication date in exchange for an honest review. It debuts next week.

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Cecily Hastings is a Welsh slave to the man her own parents sold her off to in exchange for food. She doesn’t remember what it’s like to be free, but it doesn’t mean she doesn’t crave it. She fears only two things in her pursuit of freedom, the beatings her master hands out at will and the Blood Pirate, the man who burned her village and killed her mistress years ago.

When her master gets drunk and swindled at the gambling tables, Cecily ends up being the payment. She is finally away from her master, but she’s not free. She’s been sold to none other than the Blood Pirate himself. Her worst fear has been realized.

But something doesn’t add up. The pirate who holds her captive treats her better than her master ever did. And she sees him freeing other slaves from around the British Isles as well. How could the man who burned her village and killed her mistress in cold blood be the man who buys her hair ribbons and protects her from harm?

When the British Royal Navy hot on their tails, Cecily has to make a choice. She can go with the soldiers and let them escort her back to her old master and let the fearsome pirate hang for his crimes, or she can grasp the only kind of freedom life has ever offered her and become the thing she hates most–a pirate.

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This book reads as a young YA, in my opinion, but I thought it was fun and adorable. The underlying message of things not always being what they seem is felt over and over again. Sometimes bad guys look like good guys. Sometimes freedom doesn’t look like what you think it will.

It does romanticize piracy a bit, but it does so to make a point and has some fun with it in the process. The biggest drawback to the story is a general lack of diversity. All the characters more or less look the same and most of them blend into the background a little too easily. If you’re going to argue with me about Finnish and Welsh pirates being pretty monochromatic during the general era in question, I’m going to redirect you to the blog Writing with Color that had already addressed the subject (spoiler alert: Europe wasn’t ever actually lily white). 

On the plus side, the book has a clean romance arc and so is great for those teens (or any other age) who want an escapist tale without graphic sex scenes. The main character is a teenager, but her general naivete can sometimes make her seem younger, especially for a girl who has spent most of her life as a slave. In some cases she talks like she has seen things, in others, she seems oblivious. But I think this might suit some younger readers, especially those just crossing over to the YA market from MG, who want to read an older teen protagonist, but aren’t ready for some of the heavier scenes that often entails.

There are references to God and prayer in the book. It is sporadic, and I don’t think it is done in such a way as to be offensive to non-Christians. However, as a Christian myself, I admit that I may have a skewed view of that, since I like the way it was handled.

In the end, I would absolutely recommend this to a tween or younger teen reader (or anyone else who likes fiction for that age market) who likes pirate books and innocent romantic arcs. To be honest, I’d probably read it again myself as a beach read over vacation if my TBR pile didn’t mock me daily. Your mileage may vary.