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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

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

Bittersweet by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Young Adult 4th July 2016
Bittersweet by Sarina BowenBittersweet by Sarina Bowen
Series: True North, #1
Published by Rennie Road Books on June 14th 2016
Pages: 348
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three-stars

The last person Griffin Shipley expects to find stuck in a ditch on his Vermont country road is his ex-hookup. Five years ago they’d shared a couple of steamy nights together. But that was a lifetime ago.
At twenty-seven, Griff is now the accidental patriarch of his family farm. Even his enormous shoulders feel the strain of supporting his mother, three siblings and a dotty grandfather. He doesn’t have time for the sorority girl who’s shown up expecting to buy his harvest at half price.
Vermont was never in Audrey Kidder’s travel plans. Neither was Griff Shipley. But she needs a second chance with the restaurant conglomerate employing her. Okay—a fifth chance. And no self-righteous lumbersexual farmer will stand in her way.
They’re adversaries. They want entirely different things from life. Too bad their sexual chemistry is as hot as Audrey’s top secret enchilada sauce, and then some.

Two ex-college hookups coming together again? I’m only marginally interested somehow, even if it did get amusing at times. But that’s the brief history Griff Shipley and Audrey Kidder share: two nights at some frat house, before five years of nothing, until work and a flat tire bring Audrey up his path again.

The main draw, strangely, is the entire setting and the context in which this whole story plays out. I’m too much of a city-kid not to notice the beautifully drawn out countryside as well as the fascinating farming community – one that seems to be more geared to organic, specialised, fairtrade produce than the mass market – that Bowen so writes about. Throw in the farmers’ markets, the rich, seductive colours of the seasonal food, the crazy culinary world, that postmodern relationship between growers and restaurants and I’m hooked. Everything about this is contemporary, grounded in a part of a revolutionary culinary/farmer business that’s gaining a lot more attention these days. And if you’re the hipster sort, Griffin Shipley completely fits that type as the big, grumpy bearded farmer – which isn’t quite the thing that get my rocks off.

But it isn’t too far off the mark to say I didn’t feel too much for the main characters. Audrey wasn’t that special to be a standout, memorable heroine – in fact, she reminded me of a drifter, shallow cheerleader-type at first that found her footing late – and the romance between her and Griffin was for me, lukewarm and sort of lacklustre at best. There are steamy times ahead but I couldn’t understand the strange draw they had to each other at all when all that’s being reiterated is the hot sex and their past hot hookups, minus the emotional connection. Call it boredom, perhaps, but I found myself conversely more interested in the secondary characters – the farmhands! – whom I felt I wanted to know more about.

three-stars

Us by Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports/ Young Adult 8th March 2016
Us by Sarina Bowen & Elle KennedyUs by Sarina Bowen, Elle Kennedy
Series: Him, #2
Published by Rennie Road Books on March 8th 2016
Pages: 328
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five-stars

Five months in, NHL forward Ryan Wesley is having a record-breaking rookie season. He’s living his dream of playing pro hockey and coming home every night to the man he loves—Jamie Canning, his longtime best friend turned boyfriend. There’s just one problem: the most important relationship of his life is one he needs to keep hidden, or else face a media storm that will eclipse his success on the ice.
Jamie loves Wes. He really, truly does. But hiding sucks. It’s not the life Jamie envisioned for himself, and the strain of keeping their secret is taking its toll. It doesn’t help that his new job isn’t going as smoothly as he’d hoped, but he knows he can power through it as long as he has Wes. At least apartment 10B is their retreat, where they can always be themselves.
Or can they?
When Wes’s nosiest teammate moves in upstairs, the threads of their carefully woven lie begin to unravel. With the outside world determined to take its best shot at them, can Wes and Jamie develop major-league relationship skills on the fly?

I’m struck as always, by this particular series, not because M/M isn’t usually my cup of tea, but because of the very human choices that both Jamie and Wes face in spite of their gender – and their courageous decision to choose love – a point that is reiterated throughout the book – is the only thing that keeps me coming back.

‘Us ‘has to be one of the hardest, most painful but most rewarding reads I’ve ever had. If I’d cheered for Jamie and Wes in the first book rigorously, this book cataloguing their difficulty in staying afloat, trapped in their miserable bubble with the weight of expectations bearing down on them was akin to watching a train wreck happening in slow motion without any way to stop it. (Or perhaps this is entirely because of the very typical tendency of males not to talk at all?)

Jamie and Wes are compelling characters that have somehow taken root and grown into monstrous proportions in my head, despite their stupidity with each other at times. I’m reminded again, of this very special friendship that had begun in a humble summer camp that stayed solid even as things started to go wrong and when it all ended well, I was happy again – for fictional characters who’d come to life to strongly that they could have easily been any of my friends.

Even then, I’m entirely unprepared to say goodbye, as these guys and the team drink their hearts out on the last page – and I can only hope there’ll be another book past this one.

five-stars

The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen

Posted in Chick Lit/ Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports 15th January 2016
The Year We Fell Down by Sarina BowenThe Year We Fell Down (The Ivy Years, #1) by Sarina Bowen
Series: The Ivy Years #1
Published by Rennie Road Books on March 21st 2014
Pages: 268
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five-stars

The sport she loves is out of reach. The boy she loves has someone else.
What now?

She expected to start Harkness College as a varsity ice hockey player. But a serious accident means that Corey Callahan will start school in a wheelchair instead.
Across the hall, in the other handicapped-accessible dorm room, lives the too-delicious-to-be real Adam Hartley, another would-be hockey star with his leg broken in two places. He’s way out of Corey’s league.
Also, he’s taken.
Nevertheless, an unlikely alliance blooms between Corey and Hartley in the “gimp ghetto” of McHerrin Hall. Over tequila, perilously balanced dining hall trays, and video games, the two cope with disappointments that nobody else understands.
They’re just friends, of course, until one night when things fall apart. Or fall together. All Corey knows is that she’s falling. Hard.
But will Hartley set aside his trophy girl to love someone as broken as Corey? If he won’t, she will need to find the courage to make a life for herself at Harkness — one which does not revolve around the sport she can no longer play, or the brown-eyed boy who’s afraid to love her back.

From time to time, there’ll be a book that smacks me over the head unexpectedly and leave me rethinking everything I thought I knew about formulaic NA/College writing.

‘The Year We Fell Down’ offers a very nuanced glimpse into college disability and the pressures associated with it, proving to be such as standout that I’d lost precious sleep over it – and remain defiant over my sticky, sandy eyes a few hours later.

It isn’t often that I find a kickass heroine of college age but Corey Callahan slides so seamlessly into this role that I’m left with openmouthed-admiration by the time the last page of the book is turned. Corey is sublimely written, a perfect balance of determination and vulnerability as she juggles what she can or cannot do, yet pushes always, past her comfort zone. And because she’s a top lady in my mind, Adam Hartley can’t help but come second. Paired already with a trophy girlfriend when he meets Corey, I found him slightly less interesting but no less likeable for not adding to the dumb, insensitive jock cliché.

While it isn’t that the book defies stereotypes at every turn, the main characters are at least different enough to keep me rooting for them, and the plot sufficient steady to keep the pages constantly flipping. I particularly loved the gradual progression of Corey’s friendship with Adam Hartley and thanks to a fantastic supporting cast, there’s also an expert mix of humour, poignancy and realism that can’t be easily shaken off.

five-stars

Him by Sarina Bowen & Elle Kennedy

Posted in Contemporary Romance/ New Adult/ Reviews/ Sports/ Young Adult 19th August 2015
Him by Sarina Bowen & Elle KennedyHim by Sarina Bowen, Elle Kennedy
Series: Him #1
Published by Rennie Road Books on July 28th 2015
Pages: 276
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five-stars

They don’t play for the same team. Or do they?
Jamie Canning has never been able to figure out how he lost his closest friend. Four years ago, his tattooed, wise-cracking, rule-breaking roommate cut him off without an explanation. So what if things got a little weird on the last night of hockey camp the summer they were eighteen? It was just a little drunken foolishness. Nobody died.
Ryan Wesley’s biggest regret is coaxing his very straight friend into a bet that pushed the boundaries of their relationship. Now, with their college teams set to face off at the national championship, he’ll finally get a chance to apologize. But all it takes is one look at his longtime crush, and the ache is stronger than ever.
Jamie has waited a long time for answers, but walks away with only more questions—can one night of sex ruin a friendship? If not, how about six more weeks of it? When Wesley turns up to coach alongside Jamie for one more hot summer at camp, Jamie has a few things to discover about his old friend...and a big one to learn about himself.

I’m typically wary when I start a M/M romance book, but I didn’t expect to be drawn into their drama so quickly…and ended up learning quite a few precious life lessons on identity, self-worth and sexuality through the fictional characters of Wes and Jamie in the process. If that isn’t what fiction is supposed to do, then what is?

five-stars
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