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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

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
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