Pre-Release Review and Interview: Bittersweet: Sarina Bowen

by - Monday, June 13, 2016

Bittersweet (True North #1)
Sarina Bowen
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Expected June 14, 2016
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If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the orchard.

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.

While I could have asked Sarina Bowen page after page of questions about all sorts of random things, I decided (as hard as it was to do so) to give her the option of what questions she wanted to answer, since I know there will be plenty of other Q&A sessions appearing on other blogs in conjunction with the release of Bittersweet. I wish to offer a sincere thanks to Sarina for her time! ~Jay

1. So let’s start with something easy, a question you’ve probably answered thousands of times by now. Why do you write romance?

I read everything--thrillers, literary fiction, etc. But at some point I realized that the romantic arc of a story was the one that always kept my attention. For example, I managed to finish [Neal] Stephenson's 1168-page Cryptonomicon just so I could find out if two characters would ever end up together. When that light bulb finally went off, I realized what I ought to be writing.

2. Boxers or briefs? Seriously, I’m asking this question because it seems to be a common goofy question people ask men during interviews but not women.

Really? Men get asked this question? I suppose it's weirdly heartening to know that people ask men stupid questions, too. I remember the edits for my first romance included the copy editor catching a boxers/briefs continuity issue in one scene. That's when I realized that working in romance was going to be a lot different than other writing jobs I'd had.

3. Of course that question is meant to lead into something more serious. One thing I have enjoyed about the several books of yours I have read is that they all deal with some important social issue, often some type of equality. Does this happen organically when you’re plotting out a story or is it something you plan to include right from the start? What sorts of issues do you advocate for in your spare time?

What is spare time? In all seriousness, I have lots of causes because I'm a bleeding heart liberal. But social issues just make the story more interesting for me. I never start from the goal of informing people, because that sounds dull. But I love giving my characters a really unique conflict. I'm just putting the finishing touches on Steadfast (True North #2) and the hero is a recovering heroin addict. Lots of social issues come up, but I really just wanted to give the reader a hero she hadn't met before. Opiate addiction is such a big problem in Vermont that Governor Shumlin devoted an entire State of the State address to it a couple of years ago. He got a lot of attention for it because states large and small have this problem, and people are suffering needlessly.

4. Perhaps because I am a man, reading distinctly male characters in a romance is important to me. By this I mean that in order for the same character to be convincingly female, more would have to change than just the character’s name/pronouns and genitalia. Sometimes it is little things in a given book that make me scratch my head, but I have not had any issues so far with your male characters. Obviously, being a woman gives you insight into the female psyche, but what do you think has helped you become good at creating and voicing convincing male characters in your novels?

Before I became a writer I worked on a trading floor for 12 years. Think: 300 people sitting elbow to elbow, 98% men. I think I just have male voices in my head.

5. And finally, some quick and dirty questions:

(a) What are you in the middle of reading right now?
I just enjoyed Edie Danford's Unraveling Josh. So good!

(b) What word or phrase found in a romance novel makes you want to scream when you see it?
The word "weeping" in a sex scene. *shudders*

(c) What is your favorite curse word?
I use f*ck all the f*cking time. Blame it on working on a trading floor all those years.

(d) What activity is guaranteed to get every member of your family excited to do together?
Hockey games and playing euchre. Skiing. Eating. 

I need to give two warnings before I start my review. First, while this is not the first time I have read an M/F romance, it is the first time I’ve formally reviewed one. And second, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK UNLESS YOU HAVE AMPLE SNACKS HANDY (lol)! Bittersweet is a fun, breezy, easy-to-like read with a great main pairing, a luscious setting, and a wonderful cast of secondary characters. Overall, it’s a good story with a very realistic progression and outcome, but if you prefer the sorts of feels you get from heavy emotional turmoil or intense drama, you won’t get much of that here.

The last time Audrey Kidder saw Griffin Shipley, she was in what would be her only year at Boston University before failing out, and he was a senior and star player on the football team. He was her brief rebound guy after finding out her upper-crust boyfriend was sleeping around on her. Five years later, after another failed attempt at a university education, she finally finds success in culinary school. But even though she knew becoming a chef would be a challenge, she didn’t expect to be stuck doing things for a big Boston restaurant group outside the kitchen. Griff’s life also became much different from what he thought it would be. Before he could really make a go at a career in the NFL, the unexpected death of his father forced him to return and run his family’s organic farm in Vermont. He loves his family, and loves the farm, but he’s overworked, overstressed, and has little time for distraction. So when Audrey shows up in his driveway—actually, in the ditch of his driveway—on a mission from her corporate masters to purchase his produce at half the going rate, it’s the last thing he wants to concern himself with. In spite of the fact that sparks fly between them, they both understand that their lives prevent any chance that they could become more than just a renewed fling. Or can they accept the choices they’ve had to make—to accept the bitter to get to the sweet—and find a way to make it work?

This is the fifth of Sarina Bowen’s novels that I have read. If you are familiar with her full catalog of romance, and if you already know that I am a gay man, it’s likely that you have already come to the correct conclusion that this is the second M/F novel of hers that I have read. My previous experiences with her work made me expect that Bittersweet would be a fun and interesting story (it is) that is tightly crafted (it is) and well written (it is). I also expected, and got, a story that had a social issue in the background. This time, it’s the issue of clean, organic food. Like the other stories of hers I have read, she doesn’t beat the reader over the head trying to make a point about it. But she does make it nonetheless. It’s just another way that her writing is a perfect example of how a good story idea can be set into motion and allowed to travel a journey without being encumbered by artificial gimmicks. If you pay attention, you can tell how things are going to work out, but it’s always crafted without being heavy-handed.

The pairing of an organic fruit farmer, who specializes in creating artisanal ciders, and a budding chef made for the perfect opportunity for plenty of talk about food and cooking, two of my favorite things. I was able to read this book over the course of a day, and I tell you, I have never been hungry so many times in a single day as I was that day. In fact, as I write this, my stomach is growling thinking about it. Trust me, do not read this book with a big bag of M&Ms anywhere within reach. You’ll be sorry. Don’t say that Jay guy never warned you about anything important.

All kidding aside, the food talk is just a recipe, albeit a mouthwatering one, for the spicy and sizzling attraction between Griff and Audrey—See what I did there? Yeah, I promise. I’ll stop it now. Like everything in the book, the progression of their intimate relationship is written in a smooth and natural fashion. The adversarial nature of their professional relationship adds an interesting counterpoint to the personal one that develops, and their growth is nice to watch. And though I have no interest in personally experiencing what they were doing in the bedroom, even I could see its intensity and how important it was toward their expression of feelings for one another.

There is a bevy of interesting secondary characters here—at least a couple of which will get their own books later in the series—ranging from family members to long-term farm hands to a particular bar manager whose story is also begging to be told. But one of the more interesting ones to me was the farm itself. The lush descriptions of the landscape, the equipment, and the processes of the farm kept the story grounded. The interactions of Griff’s family (and Audrey’s easy acceptance into it) surrounding the preparation and consumption of food made me want to pull up a chair and live in the moment in a way that most stories fail to accomplish. Dammit, I mentioned the food again. Now I’m hungry. Again.

There is much to be said for solid storytelling and its ability to turn even the least flashy of stories into something worth reading. Bittersweet is such an example, and Ms. Bowen’s engaging storytelling, as always, reveals all of the deeper layers within the story without weighing it down with unnecessary drama. The result is simply a great read. Sarina Bowen’s books will always have a spot on my to-be-read list.

The author generously provided me with a complimentary copy of Bittersweet in exchange for this fair and honest review.

Steadfast (#2)
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Expected July 12, 2016

Keepsake (#3)
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Expected October 2016

Sarina Bowen
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Sarina Bowen is a USA Today bestselling author of contemporary romance and New Adult fiction from the wilds of Vermont.

Her Ivy Years and Brooklyn Bruisers books are hockey romance novels. These two connected series began breaking hearts in 2014 with The Year We Fell Down. See for updates.

HIM and US are the bestselling, hockey LGBT novels co-written with Elle Kennedy. HIM is also a finalist for the Romance Writers of America's RITA® Award.

For lovers of angsty snowboarders, Sarina also writes the Gravity series, featuring snow sports heroes.

Sarina enjoys skiing, coffee products and a nice glass of wine. She lives with her family, six chickens and more ski gear and hockey equipment than seems necessary.

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