Berkley / August 5, 2014 / $7.99 print & digital
Nestled in the sunny fields of Tennessee lies the McDaniel family’s Second Chance Ranch Animal Rescue. Two new arrivals are on their way, but only one is the four-legged kind.
Staff Sergeant Mike Kowalski wants only one thing after he gets home from Iraq: to sleep in a king-sized bed with clean sheets. But first, he has to hand off his fallen commander’s dog, Trooper, to his family without handing off his heart to Sierra .
Sierra McDaniel needs a break. Her family life is crazy, and when she’s not mucking out kennels, she’s slogging through grad school. Sierra certainly doesn’t want another dog, especially one that reminds her of her father. And she definitely doesn’t want to see Mike with that charming smile of his .
But Trooper has a mission of his own. Before too long Mike is moving to the ranch to lend a hand—and hoping for his own second chance with Sierra.
Catherine Mann’s Shelter Me is the start of a new series featuring Second Chance Ranch, a local animal rescue run by Lacey McDaniel. Lacey is the ultimate military wife, now widow, and her family has been irrevocably shaped by the military, and the loss of her military husband. Her son Michael, a teenager, is going farther and farther into a dark place, while her daughter Sierra is a graduate student who finds herself more and more involved with her mother’s animal rescue. Lacey's father-in-law is a veteran with intensifying Alzheimer’s. Lacey takes in animal after animal after animal in an attempt to save something in her life, all the while fighting insomnia and a dangerous tendency to drink too much to numb the pain.
The return of Mike and Trooper, the dog Sierra’s father unofficially adopted overseas, sets their lives ablaze with hard truths. Trooper is the catalyst for quakes in every part of Second Chance Ranch. Mike and Sierra are recovering from their attempt at a relationship prior to Mike’s deployment, and they find themselves immediately drawn to each other again upon Mike’s return. Trooper refuses to leave Mike’s side long enough to get settled at the ranch, which leads Mike to moving in on the property until he has to leave in a few weeks. His close proximity forces Sierra to reevaluate what Mike means to her—is he a friend with benefits, or a man to love?
Lacey, her father-in-law, and Michael all get challenged by Trooper as well. The family battles the realities of losing a loved one to war and the push of a few terrible neighbors who dislike the work they do as an independent animal rescue operation. A shared love of each other and the animals sets the family on a path of change as they are forced to face their issues head on. The McDaniels are hurting, and Trooper is just the thing to make them begin healing.
Shelter Me has its strength in its portrayal of the issues that pervade a family in the midst of grief. While it is definitely a romance, a large portion of the book is about the McDaniel family as a whole. Mann pulls this off by describing things in a beautifully realistic way. As rough as the grieving process is, there is a sense of beauty in the way that Mann’s descriptions hit home. Lacey often sleeps outside because she’s afraid of sleeping alone. If she does end up in her bed, she never sleeps under the sheets.
Peace, she craved it all the way to her tipsy toes. Might as well sleep here rather than in her bed with a conspicuously empty space beside her…
“Mom?” Her daughter’s voice pierced her sleepy fog. “Mom, wake up.”
Startled, Lacey jolted awake. Sunlight streamed through the screens onto her lab Clementine sleeping at her feet. Morning? But she’d only closed her eyes for a minute. Or maybe not.
Her daughter stood beside her, wearing a tank top and blue running shorts. Sierra used to wear nightshirts and cute little PJs, but she slept in clothes these days, always ready to face the world.
There’s something about the blossoming of hardship that happens in the small moments that Mann depicts in this romance—the ones where Lacey hardly recognizes time, or Sierra shows how she is so used to feeling the need to tackle the world as soon as she wakes up in the morning. What works so well within the romance is that Mike has his own experiences with grief and family. It creates this web of connection between Mike and Sierra; he doesn’t become a savior for her or the family, but he becomes a way for her to shoulder less of the weight that comes with the grief of a family in trouble. Mann understands how to create a situation that’s tragic, but not black-and-white. Mike’s family life growing up is one of the best examples, starting with his grandmother’s influence on his musical skills.
His grandmother had encouraged him to play. One of the more honest skills she’d endorsed—definitely more appropriate than using poker to tutor him in math. Although he had to confess, she’d been a formidable gambler. He’d been tossed out of two casinos on suspicion of card counting.
She’d also taught him to be thrifty, which had worked in her favor whens he drained his savings account not long after he’d deployed. She’d said she needed to pay off her car, but when she’d died there wasn’t a car. And he hadn’t even had a chance to say good-bye to the only person who’d taken time to parent him.
I loved the way Mike’s past gave him a unique perspective on family and caring for others. Even when he had to play the guitar for crowds in order to make the money for dinner, he had a sense of love for his grandmother because she tried her best. It never came across as a story made just for the tragedy or the idea of familial love. Mann made Mike’s past seem complicated, like the McDaniel family. The way that Mike and Sierra fall for each other because they simply can’t help but find a connection is beautiful even though it doesn’t always get a lot of direct in-text attention, and, in many ways, I think that Mann’s story is successful because the romance involves the healing of the McDaniel family on the whole. It also has the added bonus of an adorable animal character that seems to bring everyone together.
Despite the occasional passage from Trooper’s perspective, it’s the realities expressed within Shelter Me that make it a romance worth reading. Mike and Sierra’s romance that runs parallel with the family’s grief is heart-breaking, and the story of Second Chance Ranch itself is compelling in how it shows the hardships and rewards of creating an animal rescue. Shelter Me is real, and it’s really good, too.
Learn more or order a copy of Shelter Me by Catherine Mann, out August 5, 2014:
John is a student, reviewer, and editor with a taste for social justice. He's queer/LGBTQ and has always loved a good romance novel. A current student at Ithaca College, he is majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications and trying to pick up a creative writing minor on the side. If you observe him in the wild, you may see him reading—or find him watching reruns of The Golden Girls while sipping his first/second/third cup of coffee for the day. You can find his reviews on his blog, Dreaming in Books, and listen to his random musings on Twitter @DreamingReviews.