Book Review: Full Steam of Ahead by Karen Witemeyer

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Nicole Renard is brilliant, accomplished, and determined. But despite all she is her father is focused on the one thing she’s not: a son. When he falls deathly ill and his fiercest business competitor takes drastic measures to ruin his company, he asks Nicole to find a husband who can serve as his heir to the business. Disappointed that he doesn’t view her as enough, but determined to save the family business, she accepts the task.

When her plans are forced off course by her father’s nemesis, Nicole is stranded in a small town with next to no money and fewer options. She decides to find work and earn passage on the next steamer to her intended destination. The problem is, finding work in late 1800s Texas as a woman is difficult. The only person who seems willing to hire her is the town eccentric.

Darius Thornton is a man on a mission. Several years ago a boiler exploded on one of his company’s steamers. Several passengers lost their lives and many more were injured. Darius was on the boat and nothing haunts him so much as a little girl who he couldn’t save. Now, he runs experiment after experiment to try to determine why so many boilers explode with no warning. If he can make the industry safer, nobody else has to die in the same sort of tragic accident. The only problem is that he is in desperate need of a secretary who can transcribe his notes into something legible and organized so that he can spend more of his time experimenting.

Nicole has great admiration for Darius’ work and he has tremendous respect for her intellectual prowess. As they find their footing by working together, an attraction spawns. Nicole knows she must look for an heir, but she cannot deny her feelings for Darius either. When Darius discovers her intent, he shifts his laser-like focus from exploding boilers to convincing Nicole that he is the right man for her.

But with her father’s competitor closing in on Nicole’s location and with malice in mind, their time is running out. They must decide if they will let the currents pull them apart or cling to their love and forge on together, full steam ahead.

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The concept of this one was cute as a button. It seemed like a good book to read while sitting on a beach on a hot summer day. But there are flaws. And you should know them before you begin it so you can decide if they are something you can live with.

The romance between the two main characters works for me because her attraction to him stems from more than just his countenance. While she does find him handsome, she doesn’t start to see him as such until after she realizes that he’s treating her as an equal. He thinks she’s beautiful from the start, but doesn’t care until after she displays her intelligence and assertiveness.

However, as I mentioned, the story has its flaws. For one, the only non-white character in the book is a former slave who is written in a way that I don’t think many sensitivity readers would give a green light. Very “separate but equal”. I don’t feel good about it.

Another flaw I have is the villain of the story. The motivations barely make sense, how things get resolved feels disingenuous, and worst of all is the climactic scene. When the showdown happens between Nicole and the villain, he is searching for something on her person and forcefully investigates up her skirts. It is almost clinical for his single-mindedness, but in the scene Nicole feels so violated that she raises her head toward the sky and goes catatonic. It could easily cause panic attacks for anyone who has been assaulted in a similar fashion. It only lasts for a couple of paragraphs so it’s pretty easy to skip. Though, the fact that the character suffers zero ill effects (e.g. panic attacks, nightmares, etc) is hard for me to swallow. I get that she’s a strong woman, but that doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not an experience like that would affect her.

Those were the biggest drawbacks to me. It’s up to you to decide whether or not they are deal breakers for you.

 

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.

Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.