MEC reviews Tennessee Whiskey – Donna K Ford

Dane Foster is at a crossroads – she has been in a downward spiral for months after the death of her best friend and has just lost her job as a photojournalist. She returns to Tennessee, where she was raised by her emotionally distant father, to trace her mother’s roots. She arrives in Jellico, a small, economically depressed and close-knit community where strangers are viewed with suspicion and questions are not encouraged.

Emma Reynolds is a careworn but fiercely independent character – with the death of her parents she had to leave college and her dreams to take on the responsibility of running her father’s bar, maintaining the farm and raising her brother, Curtis. Pragmatic and just a bit jaded, she grudgingly agrees to rent a room to Dane as the extra money will help but she is hesitant at first to trust or accept any help.

As Dane digs deeper into her mother’s past, she also becomes aware of how deep Curtis seems to be getting into the local drug scene – his naivety making him gullible enough to think he’s just doing favours for his “friend” but is really being set up as the perfect scapegoat. This same friend is also trying to coerce Emma into allowing him to deal out of her bar – something she has resisted up to this point but his pressure tactics have increased. Dane is drawn into the conflict as her relationship with Emma and Curtis begins to dovetail with her search for answers to her own past.

There’s a darker tone to the book – Emma is constantly fighting an uphill battle to keep the bar and the farm above water even as her guileless brother is being being drawn deeper by the local drug dealers and, as Dane digs deeper into her her mother’s family, the secrets reveal the increasingly sad and sordid history. There’s definitely a careful what you wish for sense as the information that Dane learns causes her to question even more of her life and choices.

Ms Ford paints a compelling picture of the region and the people. There’s a grittiness and realism with the pervasiveness of drugs and violence where there really isn’t much else to support the town. At the same time, there’s a strong sense of family bonds – for better or worse – where blood is truly thicker than water and how family will close ranks to protect their own. With Emma, her family is primarily Curtis who she stands by regardless of the reckless decisions he makes – almost to the point of enabling him by not putting her foot down and forcing him to take a more active role in the bar or the farm – but there is an undeniable love for her brother. On the flip side, the family secrets that Dane uncovers conceal a much uglier set of family bonds. As the bloodline family she hoped to find becomes more dysfunctional and grim, she becomes more connected to Emma and Curtis – finding that sense of family and belonging that she had been searching for all her life.

From a romance standpoint, the connection between Emma and Dane is a slow burn with Dane slowly breaking under Emma’s natural defensiveness and independence and convincing her to take a chance to accept that she doesn’t have to do everything alone. The setting and circumstances of the book was different enough from a lot of the standard lesfic narratives to make this an interesting read.

Thank you to Netgalley and BSB for advance copies for review. 

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