This Week, I Read… (2021 #28)

#78 – Keepsake, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 5/5 stars

This is more like it! After being stunned by how much I enjoyed the first novel and slightly underwhelmed by the second, this feels like it’s got my attention again. Zach is a sweetheart, Lark has issues but she also has reasons, and I found the entire journey from attraction to “we’re both hurting but you make it better” to realizing they could actually make their relationship work, if they’re smart about it–well, I was hooked. I read this in a single day and really didn’t want to put it down the one time I did have to, because my phone was running low on battery and needed charging.

I’m such a sucker for the hurt/comfort dynamic, and that’s the main component of the romance, but it’s not without any further depth. When they do get frisky, Lark is lovely about Zach’s virginity (a trope I’m not always fond of, even when it’s the hero and not the heroine.) Zach is also still dealing with his unconventional upbringing–lots of the time it doesn’t bother him much, usually about small details, but whenever he tries to think too far ahead into his future, he feels hampered by what he doesn’t have–a high school education, a real mechanic’s license, and so on. Like with another recent Bowen read of mine (Goodbye Paradise) I feel like this is a much more realistic and balanced take on the “escaped from a cult” trope that I used to encounter a lot in my romance reading, and generally thought wasn’t executed well. I trust it in this author’s hands, though.

If there’s any flaw, it’s that condensing Lark’s time in mental-health recovery to a chapter of letters doesn’t do as much as it could to really convey time passing, but then, it wouldn’t be great to linger in her POV there, and it’s not like we could spend multiple chapters spinning our wheels with Zach while he’s waiting for her. So this is a case of finding something (slightly) lacking but not really knowing how it could be done better…which means I’m just nitpicking, essentially. I love Zach, Lark’s pretty great too, I’m genuinely glad to see the Shipleys as necessary but not so much Jude or Sophie, because I thought their book was weaker. So this works out to be everything I had hoped for in a continuation of the series.

#79 – Bountiful, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Maybe True North is like the original Star Trek movies–great and bad stories alternating. Except this (and the second novel) weren’t nearly as terrible as the worst Trek movies, that’s just the first analogy I thought of.

I love Zara. I adore Zara. I would move mountains for Zara (and also baby Nicole.)

But I never warmed up to Dave. Not that he isn’t a good guy–once he gets over the shock of finding out he has a child he didn’t know about, anyway–but maybe I just didn’t fully buy into his parenthood arc, where he starts out stubbornly determined to do the right thing even if it was never his game plan, and eventually wants the impromptu family that dropped in his lap. I’m not even saying it’s unrealistic, I just didn’t really get into it. Especially because I could never quite tell how much was “I genuinely have grown to love my daughter” versus “I really really want Zara so I’ll learn to be a dad, oops, I guess I’m not actually that bad at it.”

I guess also the thing about buying the houses so quickly didn’t sit right with me? I feel like Zara probably would have pushed back on that more. Or at least wanted to talk about it at all before they went ahead with it.

Not liking Dave also might be a case of not knowing him the way we get to know most of the previous leads. Griffin and Audrey have to start fresh for us in the first book, but we knew Jude before he starred in book two and Zach before he starred in book three–and hey, look, a pattern emerges: I liked the “new” character in both of those books less than the one we’d already met. (In Sophie’s case I actively disliked her, but in Lark’s it was just a matter of liking her but loving Zach.) Here, I like Dave less than I like Zara.

I also really like her brothers (if not her whole family, because Uncle Otto is a love-to-hate-him character already) so I’m looking forward to jumping right into the next book, which features Alec and May, both of whom we already know! Wonder if #5 will bounce back from a slightly lackluster lead-in, as #3 did from #2, continuing my Original Trek Movie analogy.

#80 – Speakeasy, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Let’s call this 3.5 stars–it’s got problems, but I do like it better than the books earlier in the series that I gave flat threes.

Pros: satisfying bi rep, easygoing/fun hero, serious issues but low angst/drama most of the time. I’m not against angst-fests, but it’s also nice to see people not wallow, you know? Also, as a lifelong knitter, I greatly appreciate the inclusion of the Boyfriend Sweater Curse and the demonstration that the author knows what she’s talking about re: fiber types, yarn pricing, and the amount of time it actually takes someone to knit a whole adult-sized sweater.

Cons: (sigh) This is going to take a minute.

May doesn’t entirely feel like the same character she was in the previous books. I got the impression that she was one of the “anything for my family” type people, like most of the Shipleys are, but in this book she doesn’t seem to even like them most of the time. And I get that she’s going through a lot, but she whines often that she feels like a teenager since she’s living at home again and everyone is so worried about her, but I wanted to shake her and say, “well, hon, you’re sneaking around like a teenager and moaning and groaning about everything like a teenager, so if the shoe fits…”

Alec, in contrast, doesn’t actually have a lot of depth. Sure, I like that he’s hilarious and doesn’t have much in the way of hangups about being a party boy who likes sex; but since that’s 90% of what he is on the page, and only maybe 10% the business owner he claims he wants to be, the big turn-around at the end when he sorts his life and business out in one fell swoop doesn’t really seem earned.

So I think it’s an interesting choice to hit “opposites attract” really hard with the addiction-plot stick, because yeah, from the outside it does seem really irresponsible for alcoholic May to get involved with beer-slinging bar owner Alec. Even if their chemistry and banter are solid–and I think they are–it does smack of May making yet another poor decision. And Alec doesn’t make poor decisions so much as breezily neglect certain aspects of his life–I wasn’t surprised at all by what became of one of his employees, nor did I think it was great of him to dodge his frequent hookup in favor of May, without coming clean to her first (the hookup, I mean, not May.) I guess what it comes down to is that I like these two for their personalities (mostly) without really liking a good chunk of the plot, because it was watching the two of them continue to make bad decisions for the first 2/3 of the book, only they were doing it together instead of separately.

[This is definitely not continuing my observed pattern of loving the odd-numbered ones while the evens stumble. This is a little bit of a stumble, too. Still going on with the series, though.]

#81 – Hello Forever, by Sarina Bowen

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Disappointing compared to the first book, though it was nice to see Josh is still a warm, generous, stand-up sort of guy in his supporting role.

Personal peeve that doesn’t really matter to my rating: I disliked both of the main characters’ names. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the book, but every time Axel called Cax (which I already didn’t care for) “Caxy,” there was a hard eye roll going on. I can’t decide if I think Cax/Caxy is silly, stupid, or just plain awkward to say, but it’s something, and the line about them bonding as kids because they both have X names was too cutesy.

But even if they had had names I found more palatable, this would still be a less than stellar novel. Moving on to the real meat of my complaints, everything falls apart somewhere around 60% of the way through. The beginning is okay, setting up the characters and the conflict and doing a lot to establish our lovebirds as deeply lonely people, even if the paths to their loneliness were different. Then we dive through our main conflict (Cax’s inability to come out of the closet/have a meaningful relationship because of his family situation) by blindsiding Axel with a serious assault and hospitalization, which as a plot point, sure, fine. But it wraps up way too quickly and the rest of the results/consequences of that episode spiral forward at dizzying speed, to the point where the plot ignores other potential conflicts that I’ve seen sink romances. So Cax suddenly has custody of his younger brothers? Sure, let’s move Axel right into their lives, with no concerns about whether that’s best for the kids, whose health and safety are the entire reason that Cax never stood up to his father in the first place. This novel, for the very end, becomes a sort of single-parent romance, but we’re racing forward towards the inevitable happy ending so fast that nothing a single-parent romance should (probably) cover is covered. Sunshine and roses for everyone, Axel is a great cook and Cax is not, so it’s totally cool to push him into a parenthood role that he may not want over boys he’s only barely met (it’s not really addressed) and it’s definitely okay not to consult the boys about this beforehand and just hope they are fine with it, or get used to it in time.

As a sub-complaint corollary to that, if Cax is so concerned about his younger brothers, why is so little done to develop either their individual personalities, or Cax’s relationship to them?

It just seems like there was a lot of thought put into the premise and not a lot given to how it would play out, beyond a very narrow railroad track toward that rushed happy ending. I’m tempted to dismiss some of its flaws with the “this was published quite a while ago and the author’s more recent books are better” reasoning, and to a certain extent that’s probably true, except that the previous book in the series is notably better!

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