The Baby Farm

Shaker Run by Karen Harper
(Mira, $6.50, PG) ISBN 1-55166-816-5
Katherine Marburn has a heap of troubles. Kate and her husband Mike had been part of the society set in Toledo, Ohio, until Mike bilked investors out of millions of dollars in a securities fraud then disappeared and is presumed dead - there was a suicide note but no body - leaving Kate to handle the disgrace and act as the sole caretaker for her whiney, ungrateful teenage stepdaughter Erin. Rich society Grande Dame Sarah Denbigh steps in to the rescue offering Kate employment as her assistant on her elegant estate as well as a roof over her head in the guest house.

But tragedy strikes again when Sarah stumbles on a theft in the mansion during a society charity function and is murdered. The police initially believe it’s an accident, but one seasoned police detective is not so convinced and suspects foul play. Poor Kate. Not only is her cushy position on Sarah’s palatial estate terminated, but she’s become a suspect in a murder. Sarah recognized that Kate appreciates the artistry of her valuable Shaker antique furniture pieces unlike her emotionally distant, unsupportive children and so left Kate many pieces and her antique rose plants in her will. Sarah’s children, particularly her nasty daughter, don’t take kindly to the parvenu scooping up the goods and vow to contest the will.

While the will problem is being straightened out, Kate is offered a position as rosarian (cultivator of roses) at the new historic site Shaker Run; she will reside in a private apartment in one of the buildings. (All alone. Veteran readers of gothic novels will recognize the spooky possibilities.) The staff will dress and act as Shakers to enhance the authenticity for visitors. Kate and the others are assigned a particular historic figure to portray and are expected to research their character thoroughly. Shaker Run has a large plot of land with one small chunk carved out for the private ownership of Jack Kilcourse, a craftsman who appraises antique furniture and creates Shaker-style reproductions. Although he lives and works nearby, Jack is uninvolved with the Shaker Run project.

The staff is in the process of preparing Shaker Run for its grand opening. Kate becomes friends with one of the other interpreters, but she has reservations about some of her fellow staff members even as she enjoys the potential the job presents. Then strange things start happening. Mysterious phone calls. Lights in the night. Bodies piling up. Can Mike still be alive? Will Erin grow up and start treating Kate with respect? Will Sarah’s nasty offspring back off? And can Kate’s and Jack’s friendship grow into something more?

Shaker Run is being marketed as a romantic suspense. As far as the romance thread goes, it’s a stretch to call Jack the romantic hero. His relatively minor role more resembles that of a secondary character than a main one. From time to time the reader is told that Kate and Jack are spending time together and there’s a strong sexual attraction between them, but, in fact, there are very few scenes they’re in together. This is definitely a case of being told not shown. Furthermore, the story would scarcely be affected if there were no romance at all.

Kate Marburn should have a sign around her neck reading “Professional Victim-Kick Me.” After enduring one hardship after another, she’s so noble and uncomplaining. Does she scream, cry, rail at fate, smash pottery? Not this brave little soldier. Does she tell Erin, “Hey! You’re not my kid. If you’ve got complaints, don’t blame me, blame your blankety-blank father?” No, not long-suffering Kate. Her fortitude in the face of adversity is a model to us all. And just plain unrealistic. A teeny-tiny temper tantrum or pity party would seem warranted, but she handles everything chin up and without complaint. I cannot relate to this paragon.

I don’t give out one-heart ratings lightly. A book has to fail in every aspect in order to receive the lowest possible rating. Absolutely nothing in this book worked for me - not the plot, the character development, or the romance - but what I consider the most important factor in assigning a rating is whether a book keeps my interest while reading it. On that point, Shaker Run is a dismal failure. It took me over two months to force myself to finish it. The story line dra-a-ags interminably. There were times I unable to read even a whole chapter without putting it down out of sheer boredom. The only interesting aspect of the book is the background info about the Shaker beliefs and lifestyle, but readers would be better off picking up a non-fiction book on the subject than wasting hours slogging through this dud. I advise readers looking for an entertaining contemporary romance to look elsewhere.

--Lesley Dunlap

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