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Stay by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews/ Sports 14th June 2017
Stay by Sarina Bowen and Elle KennedyStay by Sarina Bowen, Elle Kennedy
Series: WAGs, #2
Published by Rennie Road Books on June 20th 2017
Pages: 259
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five-stars

Can you fall in love with someone you've never even met?
Hailey Taylor Emery has a hunch that her favorite client at Fetch--an anonymous virtual assistant service--is actually hockey star Matt Eriksson.
Although it's against the rules for her to check his file, she's 95% sure she spends at least part of each day texting with her lifelong crush and catering to his every need. Still nursing a wounded heart thanks to her recent breakup, Hailey is perfectly content with some harmless online flirting...until she has to meet her client. Face to face. Cue: utter panic.
Matt Eriksson is no stranger to heartbreak. He's still not over the destruction of his marriage, and it sucks to be the only guy on the team who knows the truth--that hockey and long-term relationships are a toxic mix. He barely sees his kids, and dealing with his ex makes him feel insane. The only person in his life who seems to understand is someone who won't show her pretty face.
But it's nothing that a pair of fourth row hockey seats can't fix. Hailey can't resist the offer. Matt can't resist Hailey. Good thing he doesn't have to. Fire up the kiss cam!
Warning: Contains rabid hockey fans, misunderstood dick pics, hockey players at the opera and exploding ovaries.

I hadn’t realised that revisiting the team and seeing how far all of them have come since Wes and Jamie got off their rocky beginnings actually made me somewhat wistfully nostalgic enough to want to re-read the entire series.

If I haven’t yet mentioned how much I loved the ‘Him’ and ‘WAGs’ series, then well, mea culpa. ‘Stay’ couldn’t make me love this particular group of people more.

Matt Eriksson is the older guy in the Toronto hockey team and with a divorce just behind him and retirement a few years down the road, still struggles with handling his twin daughters, a nasty ex-wife and a virtual personal assistant who somehow, knows what he needs. Little does he know that a call to walk the dog would lead to premier tickets for a hockey match and that the online relationship he’s always had with the person handling tiny details in his life would turn out into something much more than he can ever expect.

Yet he is still the all-round good guy who’s easy to love, juggling life post-divorce with a gruelling schedule and kids who are not often around enough. For Matt at least, the divorce is a big failure that has him second guessing himself and his ability to be a good husband and parent while being a professional athlete. It has also made him cynical and jaded and a little gun-shy about sharing that same kind of lifestyle with another woman whom he thinks would come to resent him for it.

There’s a ring of maturity and a kind of stuttering rhythm that mirrors real life going through Matt’s and Hailey’s story, which is probably the story’s strongest selling point. Too often, the protagonists go off wild benders (hookups, as it typically goes) in the wake of a bad breakup and turn a hundred-eighty into commitment-phobes because they can’t apparently, trust another member of the opposite sex as they’re now painted with the same broad brushstrokes that their ex-es are coloured with. In ‘Stay’, we get instead quiet doubts about failure, self-confidence and the fear of putting oneself out there once again that gives the story depth and heart. I loved above all, that Matt and Hailey aren’t characters who simply react to the heartache of divorce by sleeping around then pushing each other away but instead, struggle with their inadequacies in different ways that I can believe and respect.

Yet it’s also swoony, steamy and in parts, funny and deeply romantic. What more do I need?

five-stars

Pipe Dreams by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Sports 3rd April 2017
Pipe Dreams by Sarina BowenPipe Dreams by Sarina Bowen
Series: Brooklyn Bruisers #3
Published by Berkley Books on May 2nd 2017
Pages: 336
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four-stars

Mike Beacon is a champion at defending the net, but off the ice, he’s not so lucky. A widower and a single father, he’s never forgotten Lauren Williams, the ex who gave him the best year of his life. When Lauren reappears in the Bruisers office during the playoffs, Beacon sees his chance to make things right.
Lauren hates that she’s forced to travel with the team she used to work for and the man who broke her heart. There’s still undeniable sexual tension running between her and Mike, but she won’t go down that road again. She’s focused on her plans for the future—she doesn’t need a man to make her dreams of motherhood come true.
Lauren plays her best defensive game, but she’s no match for the dark-eyed goalie. When the field of play moves to Florida, things heat up on the beach.
One of Mike’s biggest fans doesn’t approve—his teenage daughter. But a true competitor knows not to waste the perfect shot at love.

A stiff, distant crusty crone was how I thought of Lauren Williams in Sarina Bowen’s rather outstanding hockey series, but ‘Pipe Dreams’ has made me think differently about her. Once I got to know her story, it felt as though she was entitled to her bitterness and the hanging dark cloud that followed her wherever she went. Mike Beacon, the goalie who shattered it all 2 years ago though, only learns the extent to which he’d hurt her when she returns to help the owner of the team, then goes all out to win her back. With a competitive spirit working overtime as he juggles the playoffs, success is his only option, though there’re still a few obstacles in the way of their HEA.

I read ‘Pipe Dreams’ once, then read through it again, unable to get enough of Mike’s and Lauren’s story. It’s a second-chance romance trope, and Bowen certainly crafts the story in a way that casts both characters in a very sympathetic light, explaining the circumstances that separated both Mike and Lauren in a manner that made it difficult to side with either one of them. As with most Sarina Bowen books, every time I think I’ve got the plot and conflict figured out, I always get surprised—and pleasantly so. Mike/Lauren do behave like the adults they are, navigating past hurts with the kind of realism I expected, but above all, their story was solidly integrated into the inner workings of the team’s activities and business that made ‘Pipe Dreams’ feel like a complete story with no unfinished business. (except perhaps, for the constant teases of Nate/Becca that don’t seem to be in any sequel anywhere)

I did get lost in the details of the hockey itself but the Brooklyn Bruisers series is nevertheless one of a kind—and this is coming from someone who lives in an area where hockey is barely given a blink. It was gratifying to dive into this book, knowing that in this series, Bowen doesn’t make out the entire team of hockey players to be foaming-in-the-mouth, rabid men with testosterone levels so high that they need constant sex with any woman they can hook up with but as individual characters, distinct personalities that could on their own, actually get their own story.

My only hope? That she’ll continue this series for many books to come.

four-stars

Goodbye Paradise by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 10th March 2017
Goodbye Paradise by Sarina BowenGoodbye Paradise by Sarina Bowen
Series: Hello Goodbye #1
Published by Sarina Bowen on March 21st 2017
Pages: 223
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five-stars

In Paradise, there is no television. No fast food. Just long hours of farm work and prayer on a dusty Wyoming ranch, and nights in a crowded bunkhouse. The boys of the Compound are kept far from the sinners’ world.

But Joshua doesn’t need temptation to sin. His whole life, he’s wanted his best friend, Caleb. By day they work side by side. Only when Josh closes his eyes at night can they be together the way he craves.

It can never be. And his survival depends on keeping his terrible desires secret.

Caleb has always protected Josh against the worst of the bullying at the Compound. But he has secrets of his own, and a plan to get away — until it all backfires.

Josh finds himself homeless in a world that doesn’t want him. Can Caleb find him in time? And will they find a place of safety, where he can admit to Josh how he really feels?

I’m not a constant reader of M/M romance books, but thanks to Sarina Bowen’s mind-blowing introduction to them with ‘Him’ and ‘Us’, I’d be the first to raise my hand for the ARC if Bowen does any more of these. It’s her excellent exploration of gender preferences and stereotypical ‘gendered’ behaviours—whether learned or not—that made me want to get straight into ‘Goodbye Paradise’ and nowhere do these issues show up best than in her M/M books.


As I suspected, ‘Goodbye Paradise’ didn’t disappoint at all, following the journey of 2 boys (who’d been best friends in a polygamist cult from the time they were born) over a period of a year or so as they grew into their own identities and come to terms with their sexuality. Josh/Caleb are striking from the very start with distinct and unique voices that show the extent of their ‘worldliness’ and their naïveté, but also their bond that only got stronger with time. Along with the kind-heartedness of strangers and family along the way, both Josh and Caleb found more confidence in themselves as time went on as they learned what living outside the cult’s boundaries really meant. They aren’t typical protagonists from a romance novel—which I loved—but rather, sympathetic, well-rounded characters with their own abilities and their own insecurities that, by the time the story comes to an end, could have gone separate ways but yet chose consciously to stay together. Their edgy, growing desire for each other—sometimes sublimated, sometimes not—felt as natural as breathing, and their declarations of love were deeply…humanist, without fanfare but all too real.

‘Goodbye Paradise’ is in short, calibrated, controlled storytelling done with much panache and aplomb. I loved Bowen’s nuanced ways of challenging traditional roles of men/women in households, which was certainty made easier by the strict and hypocritical rules of the cult that Josh and Caleb had to live by. It’s also less angsty than I thought it would be (thank god), but no less fulfilling by the time I finished the book—in a single sitting.

five-stars

Good Boy by Sarina Bowen and Elle Kennedy

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 4th February 2017
Good Boy by Sarina Bowen and Elle KennedyGood Boy by Sarina Bowen, Elle Kennedy
Series: WAGs #1
Published by Elle Kennedy Inc. on January 31st 2017
Pages: 246
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four-stars

Hosting her brother’s wedding for an MVP guest list is the challenge of Jess Canning’s life. Already the family screw-up, she can’t afford to fail. And nobody (nobody!) can learn of the colossal mistake she made with the best man during a weak moment last spring. It was wrong, and there will not be a repeat. Absolutely not. Even if he is the sexiest thing on two legs.
Blake Riley sees the wedding as fate’s gift to him. Jess is the maid of honor and he’s the best man? Let the games begin. So what if he’s facing a little (fine, a lot) of resistance? He just needs to convince the stubborn blonde that he’s really a good boy with a bad rap. Luckily, every professional hockey player knows that you’ve got to make an effort if you want to score.
But Jess has more pressing issues to deal with than sexy-times with a giant man-child. Such as: Will the ceremony start on time, even though someone got grandma drunk? Does glitter ever belong at a wedding? And is it wrong to murder the best man?

I’ve been so taken with ‘Him’ and ‘Us’ that ‘Good Boy’ seemed like a natural progression because I’ve found it impossible to get enough of Jamie and Wes. And what a ride ‘Good Boy’ has been, even though (a confession here) nothing has come close to Jamie/Wes’s story. Or should I call it Wesmie now?

 But Blake and Jess aren’t a slouchy pair either. ‘Good Boy’ is hilarious, quirky and so filled with laugh-out-loud moments at the oddest times that are full of Blake’s made-up vocabulary, and larger-than-life presence that pushes believability at times. In many ways, the book reads like a tribute to Blake and even though there’s Jess in it, the pages can barely contain his huge, funny personality. He jumps out of the pages like a hulking giant whose presence is impossible to ignore and is just that type of character for whom all the adjectives used don’t ever seem sufficient.

I liked that Blake was so much more than the bearish, insane guy he was always portrayed to be, just as the authors brought us on a ride to discover who Jessica Canning really is and could be after years of not being able to be anything but flighty. Yet there is such…loudness in the book from Blake himself as well as his family that I think I struggled to know him beyond what he shows the world, at least a lot less than Jess’s easier-to-read nature.

Still, it’s hard not to finish this book feeling nothing less than entertained, even if I thought Blake could have been paired with any heroine and he would have somehow still stolen the show.

This spinoff series however, lets me back into the Toronto roster and I’m never saying no to that.

four-stars

Hard Hitter by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ Reviews/ Sports 2nd December 2016
Hard Hitter by Sarina BowenHard Hitter by Sarina Bowen
Series: Brooklyn Bruisers #2
Published by Berkley Books on January 3rd 2017
Pages: 336
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four-stars

As team captain and enforcer, Patrick O'Doul puts the bruise in the Brooklyn Bruisers. But after years of hard hits, O'Doul is feeling the burn, both physically and mentally. He conceals his pain from his coach and trainers, but when his chronic hip injury becomes too obvious to ignore, they send him for sessions with the team s massage therapist.

After breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Ari Bettini is in need of peace of mind. For now, she s decided to focus on her work: rehabilitating the Bruisers MVP. O'Doul is easy on the eyes, but his reaction to her touch is ice cold. Ari is determined to help O'Doul heal, but as the tension between them turns red hot, they both learn that a little TLC does the body good...

I had a good feeling about this one and it isn’t often I get smug to be about my own book choices.

Reading Sarina Bowen’s Brooklyn Bruisers series is akin to entering the very glitzy world of sports, sponsorship and high-profile celebrity management—or at least Ms. Bowen’s perspective of the sport—and I find myself awed by the whole mechanism of it in here that I don’t find in other sports romances. It’s also very trendy in a way, and a perfect representation of how modern team sports have evolved: a billionaire owner whose money comes from some other source, a team of publicists and physical therapists on standby to support the lineup of players. My unfamiliarity with hockey obviously contributes to this wide-eyed wonder but thankfully, being a fan of the sport isn’t necessary; merely being a fan of human relationships is sufficient for anyone to enjoy this read. ‘Hard Hitter’ is told with good pacing, characterisation and a healthy dose of smexy times with great depth and all it takes is a difficult ex-boyfriend, a past drug issue and the hockey play-offs in waiting (should the fictional Bruisers win most of their games) for two key members in the team to have their lives upended and changed.

A series of events and a persistent injury have set Patrick O’Doul on a collision course with Ariana Bettini’s, but there’s more than just tender loving care in waiting for this pairing. O’Doul’s and Ari’s newfound connection is threatened by past decisions that blow up in their faces and make them question their place in the team, but learning to trust each other is perhaps one of the hardest things to do once again.

I found O’Doul very special somehow, memorable in that broody, tortured way, whose a heartbreaking, tragic backstory that made my own chest ache for him. Like Ari however, I found it difficult to see Patrick stuck in a role that was impossible to get out of simply because he grew into it—or perhaps that kind of open, accepted violence in hockey was hard to read about, let alone have a romantic lead doing it—and I was happy to see Ms. Bowen address this issue in a meta way, even if it is only a projection of a trend that will eventually lead Patrick away from being the hockey goon.

There’s a little of everything in ‘Hard Hitter’ that made it so enjoyable: the bit of suspense, the humour, the work drama and the cast of secondary characters (Hartley and Corey return!) who padded and enriched the story—which kept it all quite exciting up to the end.

The rest of the series can’t come fast enough.

four-stars

Rookie Move by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Contemporary Romance/ Netgalley/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports/ Young Adult 29th July 2016
Rookie Move by Sarina BowenRookie Move by Sarina Bowen
Series: Brooklyn Bruisers, #1
Published by Berkley on September 6th 2016
Pages: 336
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three-stars

Hockey player Leo Trevi has spent the last six years trying to do two things: get over the girl who broke his heart, and succeed in the NHL. But on the first day he’s called up to the newly franchised Brooklyn Bruisers, Leo gets checked on both sides, first by the team’s coach—who has a long simmering grudge, and then by the Bruisers’ sexy, icy publicist—his former girlfriend Georgia Worthington.   Saying goodbye to Leo was one of the hardest things Georgia ever had to do—and saying hello again isn’t much easier. Georgia is determined to keep their relationship strictly professional, but when a press conference microphone catches Leo declaring his feelings for her, things get really personal, really fast....

Reading ‘Rookie Move’ is akin to being given a privilege pass into the back rooms of a high-profile sports team and despite not having the foggiest idea about hockey at all (European football’s more my thing), I found myself getting excited by everything I read behind the scenes: the media hype and speculation about transfers, billionaire bosses, new signings, bosses and managerial conflicts; essentially, the complex, framework behind the game itself and the number of people it took to keep the entire engine and brand running smoothly.

It’s thoroughly engaging stuff, but that’s probably because of Sarina Bowen’s assured writing, the motley crew of hockey players she’s created here and her special, nuanced understanding of the game itself. Loosely tied to The Ivy Years series, the first of which being the only one I read, I still never found myself lost at all, which means ‘Rookie Move’ is rock-solid as a standalone.

Leo Trevi has lots going for him: he’s a male lead whose camp I found myself in immediately because he’s the all-round good guy and does everything to prove it. And there just aren’t enough of them of late, especially in fiction when the bad boys seem to be all the (overrated) rage these days.

But what’s not to like, really? He tries hard at everything, doing all it did stay in the upper echelons of hockey and wouldn’t give up on Georgia when all she’d done was to cause him pain. My frustration with Georgia might seem a little unfair given her traumatic past, yet it’s difficult to excuse her actions for treating Leo like her personal punching bag. The frosty, standoffish (and hypocritical) front she takes up with Leo when she was the one who’d given up on them to begin with baffled me, a sentiment that soon morphed into disbelief and not just a slight bit of loathing when she pushed him away constantly to protect herself after meeting him again 6 years later.

Above all, I thought there simply weren’t enough cathartic moments between Leo and Georgia. There’s so much Bowen covers about the hockey season, the plays, the trades and even the sex scenes that I thought it compromised just how much both Leo/Georgia needed to sort out outside the bedroom. At least that was something I felt I badly needed to read about, given Bowen’s brave penchant for writing trauma into her characters – that they needed *not* to gloss over the events that had been so pivotal in their high school days. That this aspect was so insufficiently dealt with somehow made this pairing’s getting together never a sure thing (dependent rather, on Georgia’s current courage-metre) until the abrupt end that left me dissatisfied and disappointed.

Character-gripes aside, Brooklyn Bruisers is shaping up to be a series that I could get into: there’re secondary characters who are crying out for their own stories to be told and perhaps, even a mysterious billionaire owner who might need his own HEA.

three-stars

Steadfast by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ Mystery/Crime/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Young Adult 13th July 2016
Steadfast by Sarina BowenSteadfast by Sarina Bowen
Series: True North #2
Published by Rennie Road Books on July 12th 2016
Pages: 300
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five-stars

She’s the only one who ever loved him—and the only one he can never have. Jude lost everything one spring day when he crashed his car into an apple tree on the side of the road. A man is dead, and there's no way he can ever right that wrong. He’d steer clear of Colebury, Vermont forever if he could. But an ex-con in recovery for his drug addiction can’t find a job just anywhere. 
Sophie Haines is stunned by his reappearance. After a three year absence, the man who killed her brother and broke her heart is suddenly everywhere she turns. It’s hard not to stare at how much he’s changed. The bad boy who used to love her didn’t have big biceps and sun-kissed hair. And he’d never volunteer in the church kitchen. 
No one wants to see Sophie and Jude back together, least of all Sophie's police chief father. But it's a small town. And forbidden love is a law unto itself. 

Riveting, impossible to put down and possibly one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of going through this year, ‘Steadfast’ rocked my world so much I actually had a book hangover, the effects of which I’m still shrugging off.

Like an addict, I drank it all in, then craved another hit when I hit ‘The End’.

‘Steadfast’ deals with the down and outs of addiction without the sugar-coated platitudes prevalent in self-help books or in the media. But fiction has the power to deal with it as it is and I’m glad this book does: lives are broken and those who live through it deal with the guilt that never really dissipates or with the constant need to make amends for events that may or may not have been their fault. But how is that even possible when you’re stuck in a place where it all began with no hope of moving forward because the past has never been put to bed?

I don’t remember ever rooting that much for a fictional character who is taking baby steps to crawl his way out of the dark, stumbling like a colt or a foal in the worst environment for it. Sarina Bowen’s portrayals of Jude and Sophie are raw and powerful and I felt their struggles and conflicts every step of the way, but in particular, Jude’s heart-wrenching journey to stay clean slayed me. There’s so much history and heartache between them that I wondered about them finding the light at the end of the tunnel but Bowen writes so much forgiveness, hope and trust into a relationship forged in fire that there isn’t much else to do but cheer for their HEA when it finally comes.

five-stars
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