Reviewer’s note: I have, in my 20+ years of reading romance novels, suffered through some bad books. Sometimes books are bad because of problematic gender/racial stereotyping. Sometimes books are bad because of a lack of understanding or research. Sometimes books are bad because they have little by way of plot. I have experienced so many types and levels of bad, it takes a lot for me to be unable to finish a book. Wind River Wrangler is officially one of the handful I have been unable to finish. Let’s dive into the “why,” shall we?
Wind River Wrangler is about Shiloh, a romance author who is being terrorized by a stalker in her New York City apartment. To escape the horrors of both a stalker and police who don’t believe her, she escapes to a family friend’s ranch in Wyoming, where she meets Roan. Roan is ye standard cowboy: He used to be Black Ops, but now he works as a loner, stoic cowboy on the ranch. He and Shiloh are immediately attracted to one another as they slog their way through this plot.
If we’re being totally honest here, most romance novels involve a bit of navel gazing. Most authors do some degree of research for any number of books, and they generally cannot wait to impress you with said knowledge. They learned Czech surnames and their meanings; they learned construction terminology; they learned how the internet works; they learned about prescription drug statistics; they have a plethora of random knowledge they are just dying to cram into awkward conversation and exposition. This is a thing that I’ve seen far too often.
Lindsay McKenna might be the worst offender of this I have ever seen. She is just dying to impart her wisdom upon you. When Shiloh isn’t wowing Roan with her knowledge of German names, she’s dropping name-brand building materials — I sincerely hope she at least got money from Trex — and explaining how to check for a hammer’s construction (really? really.). But it goes beyond that, because Shiloh is a New York Times Best-Selling romance novelist. So we’re treated to pages upon pages of dialog and exposition explaining why she’s so incredibly awesome and observant. By the fourth chapter, all I could picture was the Vegan explanation from Scott Pilgrim.
Though, on that note, if I found the constant humblebragging about how awesome authors are annoying, the ad nauseum description of Roan being in Black Ops was downright grating. In fact, it was why I quit the novel. He puts away dishes because of his Black Ops training. He is careful when he cooks because of his training as an operative in the Army. He doesn’t talk much because of his special forces training in Afghanistan. Every. Single. Thing. is a result of this man being in the Army. This is not hyperbole. This is the real life.
Add to this the constant dropping of key phrases that the author clearly finds clever — “play(s) for keeps” was the worst offender, with every person describing Roan as such, even to him, which is as awkward as it sounds — and the book feels like a Donald Trump speech; all repetition with little substance. “It’s going to be a great story. The male character plays for keeps. The girl character, she’s scared, OK? She’s scared. She’s scared and he plays for keeps. Playing for keeps is how he’s gotten by, and I think being scared is how she’s gotten by. OK? They have issues: he plays for keeps, she’s scared. But I think if he plays for keeps and she’s scared, eventually they’ll come together.” (I bet you read that in his voice, too.)
The repetitive writing aside, the romance between them doesn’t work particularly well, either. At first, I thought it was because McKenna’s combining a Tortured Good Woman with an Alpha — a pairing that seldom works well because of the Alpha’s commanding nature — but that’s not it. Shiloh’s tortured history was that she was molested by her step-father, which is pretty dark as far as the tortured backstory goes. But beyond that, she doesn’t have much by way of personality. When not being a perfect fit for Roan, because she shares all of his interests, she’s a sounding board for the author’s experiences with writing and research. This extends to Roan, as he’s a constant reminder of being a dark, mysterious soldier, but that’s all he is: a series of repetitive labels who merely admires Shiloh’s qualities and nature.
That might sound like what most romance novels boil down to, and that’s not an unfair criticism. But generally authors are able to dance around this framework by at least wallpapering the dry wall* and hanging some tasteful paintings and light fixtures. That is to say, they can make the generic feel more flavorful. Roan and Shiloh are out-of-the-box cookie cutters who never evolve beyond that.
The central mystery of the book is easy to put together before the author reveals it, and it feels terribly cliched once it is revealed. On one hand, I feel guilty for not reading the last 70 pages of this book, but on the other, I slogged through the rest, and frankly, that was more than I could bear.
*You see, this is a funny reference because there are several mentions of Shiloh hanging dry wall for Habitat for Humanity. She hangs dry wall which makes her a team player, and Roan likes team players because he was an operative for the army, and when you’re on the special forces you need people who are team players. Being in Black Ops, if you aren’t part of the team, you’ll cost lives, so it’s important that Shiloh is a team player by knowing how to hang drywall.
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