The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford

While the premise of The Engagement Bargain by Sherri Shackelford is compelling and the plot has several exciting and/or amusing moments, the author fails to deliver a cohesive novel. It starts out strong, opening with Caleb McCoy and his sister JoBeth Garrett visiting Kansas City in 1884, specifically to see Anna (daughter of famed Suffragist Leader Victoria Bishop) speak on Women’s Rights. Caleb, a veterinarian, finds himself in the right place at the right time when he hears a gun shot and sees Anna collapse in a growing pool of blood. When the doctor can’t be found, Caleb is the one to clean the wound and stitch the woman up. Caleb now feels a responsibility to protect Anna from further harm, so he doesn’t complain when the desk clerk lists the invalid as his fiancé on the hotel register so she can maintain a low profile while the shooter is sought. Anna, despite her wound, is a capable, resourceful woman, while Caleb is portrayed as a shy man. Both are passionate about their life’s work so it is not surprising that they feel a connection towards one another. However, Caleb is used to small town life, while Anna was brought up surrounded by wealth and trained to be independent. The two lifestyles would never mesh, yet each carries a growing bit of love within their hearts, despite their dissimilar backgrounds.

Anna starts out as a strong, fearless woman but as the story progresses her personality becomes more domestic. Caleb, although handsome, is introverted and inexperienced with women, but as the plot develops he becomes more daring and heroic. Caleb is surprisingly enlightened, supporting the idea of women’s rights, based on his veterinary experiences with abused animals.

The main problem is that too much of the book is taken up with rueful thoughts of “I think I love you, but we aren’t right for each other” from both parties. There is just too much introspection and not enough action. Shackelford also has a problem with pacing. The set up takes a third of the book while the climax is over in a couple of pages. This is the fourth book in the Prairie Courtship series, so some of the characters have been previously introduced, but when Caleb brings Anna to his hometown of Cimarron Springs, there are too many townspeople interacting without enough background to easily assimilate the information. Hopefully these characters were rounded out in one of the other books, since the villains responsible for all the strife in this story are thrown at the reader without much explanation, making the resolution of the plot confusing.

While it was admirable to focus on the topic of Woman’s Suffrage, the portrayal of Anna’s mother, did the cause no favors. If anything, it promoted the idea that the leaders of the suffragists were self centered, arrogant, and pig headed. By making Victoria Bishop insufferable, it took away from our sympathies towards the movement. However, real life leaders, such as Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were extolled and the first elected female mayor in the United States (Susanna Salter from Argonia, Kansas in 1887) was eluded to when in the epilogue Anna becomes mayor of Cimarron Springs. Sherri has a brief note at the end of the book covering some information on the history of the vote for women encouraging the reader to do more research on the topic.

Perhaps the most glaring error is the misleading title. Anna never actually agrees to pose as Caleb’s fiancé, it’s just assumed by the townsfolk after a series of misadventures (including the actions of a playful goat). It’s over two thirds of the way through the book before Anna graciously accepts the situation.

All in all a disappointment, especially since all the elements were present to create a great story.

2 and a half stars. A thank you to Netgalley and Love Inspired Books for sending me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Hold My Hand by Paloma Beck, Touch My Heart by Paloma Beck

Since when is it okay to call a self centered egotistical bastard a dominant instead of an ass hole? I found the whole premise of this couplet (two books describing the same event from two different points of view) aggravating, annoying, even disturbing.

I decided to read the books Hold My Hand and Touch My Heart by Paloma Beck in tandem. The idea of presenting one story from both the male and female viewpoints was interesting, but could probably have been just as easily achieved in one book instead of two (although it was simple enough to create this illusion by going back and forth reading a bit of each). Since together they tell one story, I am only writing one review for both titles.

Right up front, the characters were not endearing. Aubrey was whinny and pathetic. Her dark secret was a verbally abusive father and a mother who always seemed to take her father’s side. Boo hoo. At twenty four you would think she could have moved past her “rough” privileged childhood. Even after achieving a college degree, she was only working as a barista making low wages at a coffee shop. Perhaps her father actually had some legitimate insight into her character. While he may have derided her throughout her childhood, her home life shouldn’t have been traumatic enough to prevent her from making friends as an adult. It wasn’t as if he had tied her up in the basement. Instead of feeling sorry for Aubrey, I was angry at her lack of gumption.

Then there was William. After watching her for months, almost to the point of stalking, he has determined Aubrey is the woman for him. The attraction was not just for her good looks, although that was a plus, it was her naturally submissive personality. William searches for a way to reach out to her and reveal his role as a dominant. Even while he claims to care for Aubrey, William’s thoughts are always on his own needs and desires. When he decides to please her, it’s because that gives him pleasure. When she doesn’t follow his instructions, she is punished. She has no free will – he tells her what to think and what to wear. He feeds her like a baby. When he tells her to jump, she says “Yes Sir” and complies. For William there is only black and white, no excuses allowed. And his bad temper colors his decisions, which are often not in Aubrey’s best interests. William keeps telling Aubrey she is worthy and desirable, yet she is not allowed to express any feelings which are contrary to his idea of the truth. When she does share her innermost thoughts, William uses them to control her actions. In many ways William is worse that Aubrey’s dad who may criticize her choices, but still allows her to make her own life decisions.

To top things off, William’s idea of a good time (for Aubrey) is to allow her to pleasure him, Sorry, that is not a turn on for me. I had to double check to make sure the author wasn’t a man, it was that biased. To be fair, there were a few titilating scenes where Aubrey’s gratification is the focus of William’s attention.

I have read other BDSM novels, but never one where the dominant is so domineering. The girls would have some sense of individuality instead of being constantly micromanaged. When the heroine in a story seems to be the victim of a sexual predictor, it becomes more of a story about abuse than kinky love.

Needless to say, I won’t be reading book three of the Heart and Soul Series, Heal My Soul, where William and Aubrey resolve their relationship.

A thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. One and a half stars.

Half Dead, Fully Broken by Kevin Craig

What does it mean to be a twin? Is it this mystical connection which transcends time and space, even after death? When one hears of a tragic accident involving a teenager, we groan with dismay, but if we discover that the victim is also a twin, we cringe even more. It’s something about the idea of two beings who are almost one that gets us in the gut when they are torn apart, as if they were conjoined at the heart.

Kevin Craig uses this pull in his story Half Dead, Fully Broken. Identical twins Marcus and Carter Colby may look alike, but they are polar opposites. One is the popular guy while the other is the loser, almost as if they were the yin and yang symbols – only one can shine while the other is left out in the dark. The dominant twin (there always seems to be one who is the stronger of the two) convinces his brother that it’s too nice a day to walk to school – no, it’s the perfect day to get out the motorbike, nicknamed Rosie, and ride to school in style. Even though Marcus is the trustworthy one, he does something foolish that fateful day, run a red light and get smashed to smithereens by a pickup truck driven by fellow student, football captain Justin Dewar.

From the beginning our emotions are rent. Enter grieving girlfriend Melanie, devastated star athlete Justin, and forlorn twin Carter and the author creates an unlikely three musketeers. Only it’s not a trio, but a quartet, because Marcus still has a task to complete. He hangs around his bro, appearing and disappearing at will, offering the opportunity to “meld” into one (which includes super hero talents such as feats of flying, strength, and invisibility, as well as an ability to walk through walls). All these skills will be necessary if the three friends have any hope of finding some kind of normalcy in their lives.

This book is less than two hundred pages, yet it feels like more as the reader experiences the grief of family and friends. It is definitely not a feel good story. The narrative is told through the eyes of surviving twin Carter, although we are able to experience his newly found friends’ viewpoints through their IMs. The author cleverly has Carter be a novice with this communication device, so that some of the abbreviations can be explained to any nonsaavy reader.

To me, the technology seems old. How many kids still IM? This makes me wonder about the date of the setting. I know the location is in the US, but it must be somewhere up in the Northeast since the kids hang out at Tim Horton’s which they call Timmy’s. These coffee shops were started by the Buffalo Sabre’s Canadian hockey player, Tim Horton, who was tragically killed in a car accident (a coincidence?) so he didn’t live to see the successful development of his franchise throughout Canada and the bordering states. I live in WNY where Tim Horton’s is very popular (super competitive with Star Bucks and Duncan Donuts). I visit there all the time and nobody I know calls it Timmy’s, but then, I’m not a teenager.

While the premise of this book is intriguing, there is just something about it that I find off putting. Perhaps there should have been more character development, perhaps the plot could have been fuller, perhaps the ending was too abrupt. The chapters are super short and the book is under two hundred pages which would make it appropriate for those hard to please middle school students, especially since there is no graphic sex (just some handholding and a few kissing sequences). A theme dealing with the death of a high schooler might also make it appealing to older students. There is more introspection than action in the story, although the final results have the potential to be deadly. The author is contemplating a sequel and it would be interesting to see what happens next, especially since the book ends so quickly after the climatic sequence. So, if I am curious about the future of these characters, I guess I did like the book. However, I predict a preteen boy would like it much better. Three stars.

I would like to thank Curiosity Quills Press and Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Sebastian’s Lady Spy by Sharon Cullen

You know that comfortable, warm sensation you get when you are surrounded by old friends? That’s the way I felt when I began reading Sebastian’s Lady Spy by Sharon Cullen, Part 5 of the Secrets and Seductions Series. Actually this is really Book 2.5 and Sebastian Addison, Earl of Claybrook, is the character who ties all the books together. As a spy for the English Crown during the 1850’s of Victorian Era London, Lord Addison not only solves mysteries, he also controls the lives of others, especially his brother and sister who have been his responsibility, along with the estate, since the death of his father when he was sixteen. The serious, stalwart Sebastian, knows his duty and performs it well, as directed by his boss, Sir Colin Atwater.

In this short novel, Cullen incorporates numerous characters from Books 1, 2, and 3. In Book 1, The Notorious Lady Anne, we are introduced to the pirate team of Lady Anne and Phin Lockwood as well as to Sebastian and his brother Nicholas. While Anne and Nick are on route for a vacation in Spain during the time span of this novel, Phin plays an integral role in the plot, albeit only as a minor character. He gets to tell his story, a completion of this one, in Book 3, Pleasuring the Pirate. Then there is Contessa Gabriella Marciano, our heroine, who also happens to be best friends with Sebastian’s sister, Lady Claire. We meet Gabby in Book 2, when Claire runs off to visit her friend’s home and inadvertently hooks up with Sebastian’s buddy Lord Blythe, Nathaniel Ferguson. Sebastian deduces that his little sis is headed to Venice where he tracks down the Contessa. The two seem a little too smug to be casual acquaintances when they finally meet up with Claire and Nathan, so the reader senses a romance.

And right they are. Sebastian and Gabriella have a short, yet torrid, three day affair with a mutual heads up that it will be a brief encounter, since both lovers have a busy life outside the bedroom. Seven months later the romance, which has never died, is rekindled when they discover they are both top spies for England’s Office of Intelligence who must work together to find out the identity of the traitor plotting with France to overthrow the King. Surprise and anger are their first reactions at incorrectly perceived deceptions, but lust rears its head as they are thrown together by necessity. As they face difficulties while spying together, Gabriella’s secrets are revealed. It is Claire who helps Gabby understand why Sebastian is not the carefree fellow she knew so well back at her villa. In this book we meet our villain, Grant McFadden, a Scottish rebel out for revenge after his fiancé was raped and murdered by English soldiers. He is angry and shrewd and not to be underestimated. His tale is completed in the third book of the series where we also meet his sister Mairi. How delicious the way Sharon stirs it all up together into one big pot of stew.

I thoroughly enjoyed this piece, though, like Book 4 in the series, His Saving Grace, it should have been a novella. I loved how the plot and the romance intertwined, although there was too much repetition of Gabby’s and Sebastian’s salacious thoughts. We get it, they are overwhelmed by their attraction towards one another. I would have rather had a little more action, perhaps at the social events or even some additional interplay between Gabby and Claire, than unrequited lustful inner feelings. However, when the two lovers finally do get together, it is quite steamy. The storyline is pretty straightforward, short and sweet, really not much to develop. Yet, when things do start to happen, it is quite exciting. So, no fillers please. Tighten it up (although this book is already a quick read) or add in some more plot.

In spite of its flaws, I loved the fact that Sebastian finally found the one who was a perfect fit, and even though I already knew what would happen next (since I have read all the books in this series), I remained intrigued. Book 6 – Some love for Sir Colin?
Four stars.

I would like to thank Loveswept and Netgalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

A Lady at Willowgrove Hall by Sarah E. Ladd

A Lady at Willowgrove Hall is a sweet little romance by Sarah E. Ladd. At sixteen, Cecily Faire is all set to run off with landowner’s son, Andrew Morton. Her father, the local smithy, catches them in the act and whisks Cecily off in the middle of the night to Rosemere, an all girl’s finishing school, with a small bag of money and the warning that she’s their problem now. To her horror, that’s the last Cecily sees of her twin sister, Leah, and her home at Aradelle Park. Of course, during the Regency Era, an elopement meant the ruin of a young girl, so Cecily must keep this nightmare a secret at all costs. Five years later, in 1819, she finds herself on the way to stately Willowgrove Hall in Danbury, England, to be a lady’s companion to the elderly Mrs. Trent. Here she meets the handsome steward, Nathaniel Stanton, who has a secret of his own. They feel an instant attraction to one another, but their respective pasts precludes them from pursuing a romance. Mrs. Trent exhibits an intense dislike towards the Stanton family and Cecily finds herself caught between her employer’s prejudices and the developing friendship she feels with Mrs. Stanton and her daughters. Everyone seems to maintain some sort of secret which has an impact on their lives that cannot be resolved until forgiveness is received and/or granted.

Although I enjoyed this story, part III of the Whisper on the Moors Series, there were some aspects of this book I found perplexing. While the continued repetition of thoughts for several of the characters, (yes, I know your secret past can never be revealed), was annoying, my major beef was the gaps in character development. Mrs Trent was a fascinating figure who should have had a larger role in the story. Although Cecily was extremely fond of the old woman, it was baffling to discover the villagers disliked her to the point of failing to pay their respects upon her death. This was never explained. I also would have liked to have learned more about Mrs Trent’s lady’s maid, Clarkson, who was both standoffish and warm, especially since she plays an integral part in the resolution of the storyline. Then there was widowed dressmaker Mrs. Massey. Was she simply incompetent, or did she purposely mess up Cecily’s new gowns out of jealousy? Her behaviors were inconsistent – friend or foe, good or evil, or some of each. And former lover, Andrew Morton, was an enigma as well. He is described as shallow and self centered, yet, at one point, he was willing to give up a life of luxury to run away with Cecily. Also, did he care for his aunt or simply want her dead? The narrative alludes to multiple conflicting interpretations of his intentions. These characters all seemed to have secrets which were never revealed. Since this story is mainly based upon relationships instead of actions, Ladd owed it to the reader to flesh out these supporting roles.

Despite these faults, I did enjoy the story. Both main characters were likable and it was easy to root for the inevitable happy ending. I thought the use of the Book of Proverbs as a source of comfort and a few brief references to Christian values fits in nicely with the questioning mindset of Cecily as she tries to deal with her losses. The sweetness of a few kisses and a couple of embraces creates a book that you can recommend to your grandmother without embarrassment. It was not necessary to read the first two books in the series, The Heiress of Winterwood and the Head Mistress of Rosemere, to appreciate this novel. Three stars.

A thank you to Netgalley and Thomas Nelson (Harper Collins Christian Publishing) for this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

One of my pet peeves is when an author, whether on television at the movies or in a book, treats all elderly persons as if they have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Perhaps this is because the more birthdays I celebrate, the older the start of old age seems to become. I know numerous eighty and even ninety year olds who are active and get around just fine, including my own mother. Yes, she’s slowing down, but she’s not a doddering old fool.

I also understand that Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease which robs the victim and their families of so much. However, an author doesn’t do the reader any favors by misrepresenting the realities of these symptoms, although I realize that the “lost and found” of the heroine’s memory is central to the plot of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. I suppose we must allow him some poetic license, especially since this is such a baffling ailment (and was even more unknown back in the days when this book was first written).

Nicholas Sparks is one of those authors whose name I have heard repeatedly attached to the term – “romantic novel”. One only has to mention the title of his next book and it is immediately optioned into a movie. When I was informed the book club I had recently joined had never read a romance, I immediately thought of Mr Sparks – the quintessential romanticist, and so I recommended The Notebook, a book on my own to-read list which I had never gotten around to perusing. I even owned my own copy and knew that it would be easy for the group to find at the public library, at Amazon/Barnes&Noble, or even at a “take one/put one back” bookshelf. We had just finished a super long tome and I thought a quick read would be a welcome change.

Now I am somewhat embarrassed by my choice. This was not what I expected.

Don’t get me wrong, my favorite type of book is a Regency Romance, so I often read romantic novels. I even dabble in contemporary romances by authors such as Bella Andre and Melody Ann, so I did have a baseline in mind. Let me just say that The Notebook didn’t meet even the minimal bar and I was left disappointed.

Of course, all romances are contrived and at times unrealistic as couples must overcome various road blocks in order to be together, otherwise why bother to write it all down. The Notebook does have numerous obstacles, not the least of which is a fiancé and an upcoming wedding. So what went wrong?

First one should determine the characteristics of a worthy romance, including:
Romance
Witty dialogue
Well defined characters
An Interesting plot with a few twists
Just long enough to tell the story without a lot of repetition of thoughts or dialogue
Some sexual contact (a plus, but not necessarily a required component)

Well, this book centered on the romance, but the story was one dimensional. Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, they separate and fail to reconnect, she finds another (the problem), girl finds boy again, boy still loves girl, girl discovers she still loves boy, girl sacrifices current life to stay with boy. I wish there was a little more, but that’s basically it. As far as the characters are concerned, Noah Calhoun is a simple, down-home boy who loves poetry and nature while Alison Nelson is a sweet, beautiful girl who appreciates poetry and is a gifted artist. Boom! Not much to build on. The dialogue consists of routine day to day conversations and repetitive thoughts of deep love – nothing clever. The main plot twist is that Allie’s mother Anne hid all the love letters that Noah wrote to Allie after the summer they spent together as teenagers. Mrs Nelson maintains a big town/small town bias, believing that her daughter was meant for something better than the rustic lifestyle Noah has to offer. In addition, pursuit of a career as an artist did not fit into Anne’s overall plan for her daughter’s future. Fiancé, Lon Hammond, definitely exemplifies the life that Allie deserves. Lon is a kind, considerate, wealthy, and well connected man who is respectful enough to wait to consummate the marriage until after the nuptials. The fact that he is devoted to his career as a trial lawyer and doesn’t make Allie the sole center of his universe, seems to be held against him. Yet he cares enough about her that when Allie chooses her old love, he graciously accepts her choice. After fourteen years of denial, Ann experiences a sudden change of heart, removing any sense of guilt her daughter might feel for the switch of future husbands. Conflict over!

The best part of the book is the set up. It starts at a nursing home where one of the residents spends every day reading a notebook containing the love story of Noah and Allie to a woman with Alzheimers. On a good day, the patient realizes that this is her story and she will emerge from the fog of her dementia into the real world for a few hours before the haze descends upon her once again. Noah hangs on to these precious moments, cherishing them along with the letters that his wife has written to him over the years. He leaves little poems under her pillow, in her pockets, etc. for Allie to find. Even if she doesn’t know how they got there, the words cheer her up. Noah is beloved by the other residents and the staff for his devotion to his wife. His dedication is responsible for those lucid moments and the kisses which follow, filling the remainder of his days with some sort of purpose.

Sweet like a cup of tea which is more honey than liquid! Contrived like a forged note to get out of gym class!

I suppose people are drawn to the story because everyone wants to root for the good guy. The book is short, direct, with simple dialect, and mild enough that you could give a copy to your grandparents. Also, who doesn’t want someone to love them so totally that you are the center of their universe. Well maybe not everyone, but it does appeal to our romantic side. There are even people out there who can relate to such a love affair. Forgive me if I’m not one of them.

The highlight of this short novel was the author’s mini autobiography found at the end of the story – if The Notebook could have injected some of the humor found in the vignettes of Spark’s own life, this book would have been a much better read.

To my chagrin, this novel is popular all over the world. I hate to believe that readers in other countries think that this is the best literature America has to offer.

I was going to give The Notebook one star, but, ironically, I was the only person in the book club who didn’t care for the book, so here is a reluctant two stars (which is as high as I can go and still sleep at night).

If this book had a hash tag it would be #SappyMaudlin or #NobodyIsThatGood

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma

What lurks beneath the facade we present to the world? What secrets do we keep hidden, even from ourselves? How many lies are we willing to live in order to satisfy the realization of our innermost fantasies? The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is a fascinating character study of a group of adolescent girls who struggle with their true identities, the ones that fill their souls.

The book banters back and forth between premiere ballerina, Violet, set to attend Julliard in September, and Amber, sentenced to Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center for a heinous crime she was accused of committing at the age of thirteen (an act so horrendous that even her own mother refuses to visit). One common denominator between these two teens is Orianna – former best friend to Vee and cellmate to Amber. Ori is a girl who is easy to love, one who brings light even to the squalid prison conditions of the institution. The inmates who struggle daily with their own feelings of guilt fail to see exactly how this harbinger of kindly gestures could have been dubbed “The Bloody Ballerina”.

Yet, that’s the story which is slowly revealed through the musings of our two storytellers – exactly what happened that day behind the dance studio where the pubescent girls gathered for a “bit of air” in the smoking tunnel. Even more fascinating is the narrative of life behind bars for young female inmates at the Upstate New York detention center. Throw in a touch of supernatural déjà Vous and you’ve got a mesmerizing little book.

While, at times, the plot allusions get confusing, it is readily evident which are the guilty parties. The author’s style keeps the reader riveted wanting to know how the events all tie in together with a conclusion that is in some ways predictable and in others totally shocking. Each character’s motivation, however, is not kept a secret. We might not approve of their actions, but we understand the circumstances that led to their dastardly deeds (and there are several). It’s too bad I can’t go into further details, as there are numerous highlights I am dying to discuss.

Don’t be put off by the Ballet theme, this is a book for both teens and adults, even those who don’t know a cartwheel from a plié. I especially liked the literary references (Amber’s life skills assignment was to wheel the library cart around, just in case anyone wanted a book to read or a message to pass). While Suma includes numerous citable quotes in her narrative, I was especially tickled with Ambers’s assessment that “reading a new book before anyone else got to it was like getting the first hot lunch”. Four stars for a fascinating psychological study.

A special thank you to Netgalley and Algonquin Books for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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