Review: Riding Tall (The Fall #2) by Kate Sherwood

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Rating: 3.75 stars out of 5

Riding Tall coverJoe Sutton and Scott Mackenzie are trying to adjust to the new romance in their lives and it isn’t going especially well.   Mackenzie is still trying to prove himself after years spent as his ex boyfriend’s “arm candy”.  Now  Mackenzie’s former modeling career is starting to thrive when all he had hoped for was to revive it enough to pay his bills and subsidize his new business with the church he is remodeling.

But reentering his old life as a model brings back all the high life and fast action Mackenzie was once used to.  City life, late nights, booze, drugs and pretty boys all around.  Soon Mackenzie finds that he must decide between the life he had and the life he has now.  Life with Joe on the ranch could be everything he every hoped for if only he can convince himself and Joe that it will work.

Joe too is slowly drowning in family problems and uncertainties about  Mackenzie’s life as a model, their commitment to each other, and his own ability to give everyone what they need, including love and support.  With his brother Will consumed with his new fiance and his construction business, it’s not only his sisters and special needs nephew that Joe is responsible for.  He has a working ranch, with only his younger sister now to help him with the chores and animals.  Plus he has just assumed guardianship for the two girls who used to live next door, orphaned when their drunken parents set fire to their house.  Then a traumatic event adds one more to the mix.  Before Joe realizes it, he is everyones support but his own.  And Mackenzie’s.  Consumed by his responsibilies, weighed down by trying to manage all his own.  Can Joe reach out for help to Mackenzie?  Will he and Mac save not only their relationship but the family as well?

The first story in the series, The Fall, was a story I just loved from the very first word.  The characters pulled at my heart and the author’s ability to mix the gravity of real life along with it’s light-hearted joys made it one of my favorites so far this year.  So you can imagine my happiness when I saw that the sequel had been released.  With great anticipation I picked it up and settled down to see how Joe and Mackenzie had fared thus far in adjusting to their new romance and Mackenzie’s resumption of his modeling career. What I found in Riding Tall was both well written and resoundingly disheartening.

Kate Sherwood has the ability to put characters and family dynamics on the page that feel so authentic that you would swear you know these people.  And after spending an entire book with them (The Fall) I had come to feel quite fond of them all.  So perhaps if I can use this analogy of a visit to a close friends house to describe how I felt about Riding Tall, it might make it all easier to understand.

Picture that old friends of yours, complete with large family with includes siblings, children of varying ages, including several with special needs, has invited you to spend the weekend or possibly even an evening with them.  You arrive happy to see all and hopeful for a terrific evening getting reacquainted.   It starts off promisingly.  You get caught up and there are smiles all around. But as the evening wears on, the tensions between your friends appears, conversations get strained, and you start to notice how exhausted and overburdened everyone appears.  The kids start to get tired, whining and bad behavior surfaces, and the room starts to get smaller.  Soon everyone has forgotten your presence, so caught up in their own issues, stress and unhappiness.  You are  unable to help as no help is being accepted. Arguments grow from soft to loud, leaving you squirming on the sofa. Before long you find yourself edging towards the door and freedom.  At the very last minute, one of the couple stands up, reminds their partner how much they love them, and pulls it all together.  Calm and happiness is reestablished.  Now you are thrilled for them but the door still feels like the best possible choice at the moment because you feel as exhausted and stressed out by the evening as they were.

For me, that’s Riding Tall.

Sherwood’s excellence with her dialog, relationship dynamics, and characterization make everything that occurs here not only realistic but incredibly plausible.  For almost 80 percent of this story, Joe is drowning under his own guilt, martyr complex and assumed responsibilities for, well, everyone and everything.  He is exhausted, he has no time for Mackenzie when he is in town and he knows he is failing on every front but doesn’t know how to change the situation he is in.  For Mackenzie, its time to grow up and realize where his priorities lie, with his career or with Joe and the family.  So many adjustments for not only the couple but everyone around them.  I am telling you no one is happy here. And with very good reason.  Every situation each member of the family finds themselves in is one you will be able to relate to.  Teenagers with emotional problems acting out at school, a young child with autism overwhelmed by changes in his life and living quarters, people moving away and moving on.  You name it and its happening to Joe, Mackenzie, and their extended family.

The children in this series will haunt you with their issues. Particularly disheartening is the scene where a child’s damaged brain is acting as a recorder, spewing out all the vile things her abusive father had said to her and her sisters.  It’s authentic and quite shocking, especially in its impact on Joe.  Joe’s reactions to the hate-filled vicious phrases pouring out of that innocent injured child’s mouth is everything you would expect from a compassionate adult and Joe in particular. The medical issues here and the emotional and physical repercussions that come with having this child move onto the ranch are handled with sensitivity and responsibility. There will need to be constant supervision, therapists of every type, and the long term prognosis is uncertain.There are no easy band aids, no instant fixes for this large and complicated family. Just realistic scenarios where different problems and issues arise.

Even that happy go lucky, goofy goldendoodle, Griffin, that I adored, changes into a sober working service dog by the end of the story.  It is an unrelenting parade of family problems, romance miscommunications and arguments when they are communicating.  No real love scenes, as even the characters acknowledge, because they don’t have the time, the kids are always around, their schedules don’t mesh, and they are exhausted.  Bad stuff upon bad stuff is piled on until the characters are buried in a quagmire of too many responsibilities, guilt, and resources.  For 80 percent of the story.

Had the author been able to inject even some moments of levity, a realistic scene of hopefulness and temporary cheer, into the proceedings, than it all would have become so much more palatable. Instead we almost reach the end before Mackenzie makes a choice and makes a loving and practical plan.  I did so love the ending.  It made complete sense, pulled most of the story threads together in a satisfying resolution.  It is still a HFN, other characters essential to the family have large problems looming ahead.  The special needs children remain just that, children who come with their own sets of challenges and joys.  The same holds for the traumatized sisters that used to live next door but are now Joe’s responsibility as well.  Oh, and Mackenzie’s dysfunctional family makes an appearance too.

I start inching towards the door again just remembering it all.

I foresee more stories in the series and, yes, I will read all those as well.  You don’t give up on those you care for after a particularly stressful and strained visit.  You just hope the next is a bit better for all.  That is the expectations I will carry with me as I await the next installment.  You might find you feel differently about this story than I do.  Maybe your threshold for complicated family dynamics is higher than mine.  Either way, the decision is yours to make.  I will be sticking with the series and its marvelous author.  Tell me what you think

Cover artist is Leah Kaye Suttle.  Again I found the cover to be a little to generic.  Mackenzie doesn’t even like horses or ride.

Books in The Fall  series include:

The Fall
Riding Tall (The Fall #2)

Book Details:

ebook, 200 pages
Published February 3rd 2014 by Dreamspinner Press (first published February 2nd 2014)
ISBN 1627984100 (ISBN13: 9781627984102)
edition language English
series The Fall #2

Review: The Fall (The Fall #1) by Kate Sherwood

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Rating: 5 stars out of 5

The Fall coverAfter his boyfriend dumps him for a younger man, Scott Mackenzie must figure out the mess his life has become.  A part-time model, Mackenzie had allowed  his ex to completely take over his life.  Mackenzie lived in Nathan’s house and off Nathan’s income as Nathan’s disapproval of his profession saw Mackenzie’s modeling assignments dropping away until he was barely accepting job offers.  Now the reality of his dependency is hitting Mackenzie hard as he tries to determine what to do next.  He had purchased an old church to use for gay weddings on a whim and now that looks like his only avenue both as a home and new job.  But Mackenzie is a gay fish out of water in a small town in rural Ontario.  Both he and the church need a lot of fixing up and he doesn’t know where to start.

Joe Sutton is a rancher and on occasion when his twin needs help with his business, he is also a part time contractor.  When his parents died, Joe and his twin brother did whatever was necessary to keep their family together on the land that had been a Sutton ranch for generations.  In fact, Joe’s life now consisted of running the ranch and managing his large and sometimes unruly family, leaving little time for a relationship, something already made difficult by the fact that Joe is gay in a small town.

When Mackenzie contracts the Sutton twins for help restoring the church, the initial meeting between the only two out gay men around doesn’t go well.  Joe isn’t looking for a relationship and Mackenzie is put off by the monosyllabic impression Joe makes.  But a small connection is made, one that grows larger by the day.  When Mackenzie’s past arrives to threaten their burgeoning relationship, Joe and Mackenzie must decide just how much they will sacrifice to stay together.

Have you ever read a story where you immediately fell in love with the characters and plot even if you can’t exactly pinpoint why? The Fall by Kate Sherwood is that story for me.  I love these men and I loved their story.  Everything about Mackenzie and Joe spoke to me.  I felt connected to them by their idiosyncrasies and their personalities.  I loved Joe’s family and Mackenzie’s dog, Griffin.  I loved the town of Falls Creek, the church Mackenzie bought to refurbish and even the town’s Chamber of Commerce.  How’s that for a lot of love?  But that also makes for a very short review so I had to take a closer look to see if I could figure out my case of instant love for The Fall.

It turns out that I did not have to dig very deep for reasons to love this book.    Starting with Kate Sherwood’s characters,  everyone that Sherwood created for this story (with the exception of Nick) just captivated me.  I found Mackenzie immediately endearing from the moment he murmurs to himself “no one puts Baby in the corner”, referring to himself.  One reference and I was his.  Mackenzie is someone who has a ton of growing up to do.  He gradually let his ex take over his life until he was basically a kept man and Nathan his sugar daddy.  At the moment we meet him, he is needy, spoiled by city life and a rich life style. This man is totally unmoored in every aspect of his life.  This is our first introduction to Mackenzie:

“IT’S NOT like I was expecting an adorable little café. I knew that even Starbucks might be pushing it.” Mackenzie tried to loosen his grip on his cell phone before saying, “But Kristen, there’s not even a Tim Hortons! There’s a donut shop. It’s called The Donut Shop. It sells donuts. No pastries, no soup, no sandwiches. Just donuts. And coffee.” In the interest of full disclosure, he added, “And bagels. I don’t know what’s with the bagels. But there isn’t even a drive-through!”

Mackenzie has just arrived in town and already he is panicking. And he hasn’t even set foot in the church he owns to see how much work is needed just to make it safe.  But even as adrift emotionally as Mackenzie is, we know he is worth sticking around to see what happens next.  Gradually Mackenzie starts to grow up, accepting responsibility for his life and  deciding to take charge of his future.  Sherwood throws this character down an uneven path, making him stumble and fall.  But as we watch Mackenzie pick himself up, often with verve and self depreciation, our connection to this character deepens with each new page.

The character of Joe Sutton starts off as the antithesis of Scott MacKenzie.  Whereas Mackenzie has not had enough responsibility in his life, Joe has almost had too much, eschewing a social life for family and his ranch.  Joe has become so reserved in demeanor that Mackenzie’s ebullience and vivacity puts him off, leading him to make assumptions about Mackenzie from his mannerisms and conversation. The thing is Joe is only partly wrong.  There are many layers to Joe Sutton, and they are pealed back one by one as Joe and Mackenzie begin a casual sexual relationship that turns into an emotional commitment.  Gradually we see the humor, the love of family and the land.  Kate Sherwood’s portrait of Joe Sutton will win you over just as completely as Mackenzie’s.

All the characters are well done here, whether you like them or not.  They are grounded in their human frailties , their complexities feel both real and recognizable.  Of special note is Joe’s nephew with whom he has a father/son relationship.  Five year old Austin is a special needs child, although the reason for that is never mentioned.  Austin’s behavior (autism it seems to me) is well researched and authentic.  And Joe’s relationship with Austin and the manner in which he interacts with his nephew brought more depth and warmth to a story I was already in love with.  Add in the rest of the Sutton siblings and the dogs Griffin and Red, each characters in their own right, and you have a story brimming with people and pets not easily forgotten.

Sherwood’s dialog is especially noteworthy.  It almost sparkles as it exits Mackenzie’s mouth, frothy, excitable, and very vulnerable.  Joe’s dialog too is perfect for his character.  It’s slow, thoughtful, and grounded.  It all works.  The plot comes to a happy resolution but leaves enough story threads hanging to carryover into another book.  The Fall is the first in a series and I can’t wait to read the next installment.  These characters and their town has me hooked.  Consider The Fall highly recommended.

Cover art by Leah Kaye Suttle.  I liked the cover but wish it had included more elements specific to the story such as the church. As it is it feels almost too generic.

Book Details:

ebook, 214 pages
Published December 16th 2013 by Dreamspinner Press (first published December 15th 2013)
original title The Fall
ISBN 1627983902 (ISBN13: 9781627983907)
edition language English
series The Fall #1