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Man Hands by Sarina Bowen and Tanya Eby

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 29th November 2017
Man Hands by Sarina Bowen and Tanya EbyMan Hands by Sarina Bowen, Tanya Eby
Series: Man Hands, #1
Published by Rennie Road Books on December 11th 2017
Pages: 180
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two-stars

He puts the "screw" in screwball comedy...

BRYNN

At thirty-four, I’m reeling from a divorce. I don’t want to party or try to move on. I just want to stay home and post a new recipe on my blog: Brynn’s Dips and Balls.

But my friends aren’t having it. Get out there again, they say. It will be fun, they say. I’m still taking a hard pass.

Free designer cocktails, they say. And that’s a game-changer.

Too bad my ex shows up with his new arm candy. That’s when I lose my mind. But when my besties dare me to leap on the first single man I see, they don't expect me to actually go through with it.

TOM

All I need right now is some peace and quiet while my home renovation TV show is on hiatus. But when a curvy woman in a red wrap dress charges me like she’s a gymnast about to mount my high bar, all I can do is brace myself and catch her. What follows is the hottest experience of my adult life.

I want a repeat, but my flying Cinderella disappears immediately afterward. She doesn’t leave a glass slipper, either—just a pair of panties with chocolate bunnies printed on them.

But I will find her.

Stripped to its core, ‘Man Hands’ is about a woman reeling from her divorce, then getting back on the saddle with a one-night stand by riding a jaded womaniser of a tv personality after a crazy evening when she bumps into her ex…thereafter does a Cinderella-disappearing act on him thereafter. And predictably, this celebrity—used to female attention—is intrigued because the sex is the most memorable he’s ever had. Then comes a sex tape scandal and the damage-control that eventually blows up in their faces.

If the plot is familiar, it’s the execution of it that isn’t. ‘Man Hands’ is a stark departure from the usual Sarina Bowen style that I’m used to, and it was a ride that left me wondering how zany things could get before I could see my feet back on terra firma. Frankly, it was all a little too mad for me as characters stepped out of reality straight into slap-stick land and did/said/thought things that no sane person would try, I think.

I do understand that rom-coms can be tricky: get the balance of the humour and the lovey-dovey bits just a tad wrong and it dumps us into cheesy territory or overdoses us with cavity-inducing sweetness. Overdo the serious stuff and the complaints come fast and furious that the story should have been better classified as angsty drama.

But when everything about ‘Man Hands’ got inflated, dramatic and exaggerated so that hyperbole became comedy, I found myself barely able see past the over-the-top silliness to the point where it was hard to connect with the characters, or at least, with their voices which I hard a hard time reconciling with 30-ish-year-old adults. Scrub out the wacky lines, the erections that come when the slightest wind blew and the hysterical inner monologues that filled the pages, and I couldn’t quite get the substance behind this particular style.

If Brynn barrelling into the first man she saw which led immediately to hot sex wasn’t batty enough, Tom simply came across as sleazy as he straddled the line between being a pining teenager and a man obsessed with his own dick despite having broken his short stint of celibacy.

The long and short of it is, I was just incredibly disappointed by this one, maybe because I wanted so badly to see what Bowen could do with romantic comedy and felt let down when nothing went right somehow. But if ‘Man Hands’ was one that back-fired spectacularly, judging from the glowing reviews, I daresay it’s probably a brand of humour that didn’t resonate with me in any way.

two-stars

Bountiful by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews 7th October 2017
Bountiful by Sarina BowenBountiful by Sarina Bowen
Series: True North, #4
Published by Rennie Road Books on October 20th 2017
Pages: 305
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three-stars

No last names. No life stories. Those were the rules.

Once upon a time a cocky, copper-haired tourist sauntered into Zara’s bar. And even though she knew better, Zara indulged in a cure for the small-town blues. It was supposed to be an uncomplicated fling—a few sizzling weeks before he went back to his life, and she moved on.

Until an accidental pregnancy changed her life.

Two years later, she’s made peace with the notion that Dave No-Last-Name will never be found. Until one summer day when he walks into her coffee shop, leveling her with the same hot smile that always renders her defenseless.

Dave Beringer has never forgotten the intense month he spent with prickly Zara. Their nights together were the first true intimacy he’d ever experienced. But the discovery of his child is the shock of a lifetime, and his ugly past puts relationships and family out of reach.

Or does it? Vermont’s countryside has a way of nurturing even tortured souls. The fields and the orchards—and hard won love—are Bountiful.

When ‘Grease’ the musical turned up in my life blaring Danny and Sandy’s summer fling from the very start, it was what I thought of immediately as Zara Rossi and Dave Beringer got down, carefree and dirty for a few weeks, until it wasn’t anymore.

But that was just part 1 of the story—a small but still sizeable part of the whole tale: a careful catalogue of their flirtation and their sex scenes…and probably not too much more than that. I had a hard time liking either Zara or Dave in this first part—the former was prickly and standoffish while the latter too lackadaisical about women for want of a better word—as it was simply about their summer fling where both were determined to make it about shallow sex and nothing more, so waiting to get into the meat of the story was in some ways, torture.

In many ways, it was akin to reading about 2 people who wouldn’t—or couldn’t—grow up until a baby changed how they had to look at the lives they’d been living up until then. But as part 2 went on, it became clear who had done the growing up and who hadn’t and by the time the story ended, ‘Bountiful’ felt like a patched jigsaw and wholly like a Sarina Bowen creation. Admittedly, I had unrealistic expectations of Zara and Dave and not having them met was a particular disappointment, but truth be told, I also felt like I’d overdosed on the topic of motherhood and children throughout part 2.

Clearly, these are my own prejudices shouting a little loud here.

But if I didn’t exactly get into the pairing, it was certainly no hardship to get lost in Bowen’s storytelling. There’s such a readability to Bowen’s books (throw in the Vermont setting and I’m sold) and her ability to tell a small-town, family-centric drama with loads of heart simply shines through. So while the rest of this series’s books never quite reached ‘Steadfast’s’ lofty heights for me, the intersection of the Brooklyn Bruisers world and the Shipleys here however, was probably the highlight of my whole read. Seeing Doulie and Trevi make their appearances in here (Castro’s fantastic cameo just made my day) perked it all up for me, which made me impatient for Bowen’s return to the Bruisers.

three-stars

Temporary by Sarina Bowen & Sarah Mayberry

Posted in Advanced Reader Copy/ Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ Reviews 27th August 2017
Temporary by Sarina Bowen & Sarah MayberryTemporary by Sarah Mayberry, Sarina Bowen
Published by Rennie Road Books on September 12th 2017
Pages: 260
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three-stars

The most beautiful man I've ever seen is the one who can ruin everything...

The first time I lay eyes on Callan Walker, I know he’ll be trouble. With his smug grin, hot Aussie accent and thousand dollar shoes, he’s just the kind of rich guy who always gets what he wants.

And he wants two things: a night of sin, and my cooperation as he outmaneuvers his powerful mother to take control of his uncle’s estate.

I can’t afford either one. I’m the only thing standing between my little sister and the foster care system. He may have money and charm on his side, but I have something even more powerful -- pure desperation. This temp job at his mother’s company can become a full time job for me. It has to.

But when Callan’s eyes rake over my body, sometimes I forget my obligations. His piercing gaze finds the fun, optimistic girl I used to be and not the tired person I’ve become.

And it works--if only for a moment. Our night together was a mistake. I can't afford to get sucked into his high-powered family’s treachery. But the closer I get to Callan, the more layers I find beneath those expensive clothes. Though I can’t forget this is temporary. He’s temporary. I have too much to lose.

Too bad my foolish heart didn’t get the memo...

Sarin Bowen and Sarah Mayberry, separately, are already fabulously writers; together, they’re quite the writing powerhouse that makes ‘Temporary’ a stellar romance. As a result, there’s still a fairty-tale sheen to it all and a little of a rags-to-riches tale in a world where the fabulously wealthy tussle over money, estate and pride, leaving so much collateral damage in their wake.

‘Temporary’ happens in the wake of tragedy, which interrupts the deliberately-superficial lifestyle of billionaire tycoon Callan Walker, who sorts out his uncle’s estate with the help of a temp worker struggling to provide for her family. And like every Bowen and Mayberry book, it’s hard to put down, drama-worthy and compelling enough that you want to know just how the obstacles are laid out and overcome, ignoring the call for bed.

It’s also a predictable journey however, with several eye-rolling moments that the characters get into, especially when there’s a very strong element of ‘cannot help oneself but fall into bed with the hot guy’ knowing full well that there are consequences to such impulsiveness. Grace is fully guilty of the above, though it’s easy to relate to and sympathise with the lack of options she’s been given and with the way she fights to provide for her sister every step of the way.

I did however, have a problem with Callan, whom I found spent a fair bit of the book being a selfish, arrogant and entitled arse, which made him hard to like as a ‘worthy hero’ when he had her and only his own goals in his sight for a majority of it. He manipulated Grace through seduction, capitalised on her attraction to him and their sexual chemistry to do whatever he wanted at her expense—using grief as a justifying reason and knowing it will leave him unscathed in the end—only to spend the rest of the story realising the extent of the damage he’d caused and then grovelling towards the end (the authors do recognise this unforgivable bit at least). I did think that came too little too late—the grovelling doesn’t surpass the ‘crime’ so to speak—so that probably affected my ability to fully get behind this pairing.

And that’s obviously my black, cynical self talking. It isn’t to say I wasn’t entertained overall though and the abrupt end sort of suggests that there might be a sequel in store, which I already can’t wait for.

three-stars

Hello Forever by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports/ Young Adult 29th July 2017
Hello Forever by Sarina BowenHello Forever by Sarina Bowen
Series: Pay It Forward #2
Published by Rennie Road Books on July 14th 2017
Pages: 213
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four-stars

When they were only teenagers, Axel and Caxton were caught making out in the woods at church camp. And afterward, Cax had disappeared from all the youth group activities.

Six years later, Axel is astonished to spot his first love’s face in the crowd of a college basketball game he’s watching on TV—at a school which has just offered him a job. It’s a thousand miles away, in a tiny rural town. But suddenly, he can’t wait to get there.

Cax can’t believe his eyes when Axel appears in the same Massachusetts town where he now lives. And he’s still just as drawn to Axel as ever. But he can’t let himself go there again, because loving Axel will mean giving up everything else he holds dear.

Both men have so much to lose. But as far as their love is concerned, it's Hello Forever.

Sarina Bowen’s ‘Hello Forever’ is a memorable read and I’m starting to think that she’s got a particular talent for M/M stories even if a few of her other M/F romances have ranked as a few of my favourites.

In ‘Hello Forever’ Axel and Cax have their own journey to undertake here in what feels like a spinoff from the first book in the series, though it’s perfect as standalone. Bowen’s storytelling shines especially when it comes to her ability to forge intimate and sweet connections between her characters regardless of sexual orientation, and I found myself enjoying Axel/Cax’s second chance story a lot more than I usually do for this trope because it didn’t have the usual hysterics TSTL bits in which some characters ‘break character’ for the sake of creating conflict.

Yet ‘Hello Forever’ is also very much a book about young people taking responsibility and stepping up when their own parents fail them—almost as if it’s a defiant flip of the bird at the media wailing about rootless, millennial ingrates. Bowen sets up Axel and Cax as very relatable characters that struggle with their careers, adulthood and the heavy burden of caring for family, not least to mention their sexuality. The slight bit of angst does help drive the story forward, though mostly, it’s an easy read without the extreme highs and lows that allow you root wholeheartedly for yet another couple to get their HEA.

four-stars

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
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