Release Reviews: Keepsake: Sarina Bowen

Keepsake (True North #3)
Sarina Bowen
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Released October 25, 2016
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There's a first time for everything.

Lark Wainwright used to be fearless. Her life was a series of adventures, each one more exhilarating than the last. But her recent overseas adventure was one too many. Now she’s home and in one piece. Mostly. But her nights are filled with terror.

When her best friend offers her a stay at the orchard in exchange for help at the farmers’ markets, Lark jumps at the chance to spend fall in Vermont. But her nightmares don’t stop. Desperate to keep her fragile state a secret, she relies on the most soft-spoken resident of the Shipley Farm to soothe her when her dreams prove too much.

Zachariah is a survivor, too. It’s been four years since he was tossed aside by the polygamist cult where he grew up. He’s found a peaceful existence on the Shipley’s farm, picking apples and fixing machinery. But getting thrown away by your own people at nineteen leaves a mark on a guy. He doesn’t always know what to make of a world where movie quotes are the primary means of communication. Before hitchhiking to Vermont, he’d never watched TV or spoken on the phone.

Actually, there are a lot of things he’s never done.

Zach and Lark slowly grow to trust one another. One night they become even closer than they’d planned. But Lark may still be too broken to trust anyone. When she pushes Zach away, he will have to prove to himself that he's good for much more than farm labor.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It doesn’t matter that, as a gay man, I’m not interested in reading about the details of… you know… but Sarina Bowen is one of my favorite romance authors regardless of what pairing is in a given book. Keepsake only solidifies that opinion for me, with its solid storytelling placed within what is perhaps my favorite setting found in any series. And a couple whose emotions fly off the page.

Lark Wainwright was always a fearless adventure junkie until a tragic event during an overseas job posting nearly destroyed her. Although she made it home without physical harm, she’s still haunted in her dreams, so she jumps at the chance for a respite at her old college friend’s family’s orchard. When the nightmares continue, her only real source of comfort comes from the only person there who isn’t a blood relative of the Shipley family. During the four years since Zachariah was thrown out of the cult he was born into, he has been exposed to many experiences the cult didn’t allow, things most grown men in the outside world take for granted. But while the serenity of picking apples and fixing machinery on the farm has helped him get over much of his past, there are still many things he has no knowledge of. That includes dating...and the things that dates often lead to.

Lark has always been an independent soul, so the fact that she hasn’t been able to get over the demons caused her traumatic experience is a tough for her to accept. She came to the farm to escape her parents’ constant concern, so she doesn’t want anyone to find out that the plan isn’t working as well as she had hoped. Zach has had ample time to heal from being dismissed by his family out West, but even so, the scars run deep. No matter how good the Shipleys and his adoptive family have been, he still has trouble with feelings that one day he will again be thrown out like yesterday’s trash, and concerns about his future weigh heavily on him. This vulnerability along with his big heart and caring disposition make him a truly swoon-worthy man—of course, he’s quite the physical specimen as well, so that doesn’t hurt any.

This story, then, is about two damaged souls coming together. One of the things that grabbed me the most in the story was the first sex scene. Wait, I know what you’re thinking: that Jay guy is, well, a guy, so of course it’s all about the sex scenes, gay or not. I’m going to pretend you didn’t think that, because the scene is more than just sex. Granted, this is only the sixth M/F romance I’ve read, so maybe they’re like this more often than M/M first-sex scenes are. Maybe it’s the fact that these two just meshed so well together, their needs complimenting each other so well. Then again, maybe it’s because it was Zach’s first time with anyone. Whatever it was, this scene was so much more intimate than I was expecting it to be. It just felt special. Makes me wish my own first time had been more like that. Yeah, I’m a sap. Get over it. 

Besides the pairing, there’s so much more to love about this book. As always, the author’s storytelling is divine. I’m pretty sure she could tell a story about a potted plant and make it a page-turner. In this case, though, the dramatic elements of the plot are much more serious than that. In fact, dealing with Lark’s PTSD could quite easily have been a heavy weight dragging the story down, but the author didn’t force the story to go down that path. The characters are not just lovable, they’re likable too, even though at one point I wanted to scream at Lark over the stupid stunt she pulls.

But more than the story or the main characters, I think my favorite part of the book—of the whole series really—is its satisfying sense of place. In my experience, it’s quite rare for a romance series to have such a lush setting and such a wonderful cast of secondary characters that I find myself craving the interaction with them just as much as with the main characters. It’s easy to tell the author loves living in Vermont. She should be careful, though, because if she keeps painting such wonderful scenes of life there, the state’s population might experience an unwanted surge. As much as I love her hockey romances though, I truly believe she could write many more books within this setting without them feeling old. And there are plenty of ways the series could continue with characters we’ve already been introduced to—Zara continues to scream for her story to be told—but her treatment of Zach’s past hints that perhaps she has more in store for us about others who have left the cult he grew up in. There’s even one character in the books that might lead to a whole different type of story—I’m not going to spoil it, but you’ll know it when you get there, and I dare you not to say “oh shit, didn’t see that coming” when it happens. *grin*

If I’m counting correctly, Keepsake is the eighth of Sarina Bowen’s books I’ve read. I’m convinced that as long as she keeps writing, I’m going to continue to be a fan. Her stories exemplify good storytelling and good romance. I can’t wait to see where she’s going to go next.

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

Zachariah and Lark both escaped to the Shipley Farm for their own reasons. Zach is still learning more about life in the real world after a very sheltered, unconventional upbringing left him with no support and abandonment issues. Lark is trying to get over an event that changed her. She used to be the fearless wild child but is now struggling with fear and nightmares from her adventure-gone-wrong.

The Shipley Farm is a place to find support, acceptance, love, and healing. The family takes in strays and helps give them purpose. Zach and Lark grow closer through shared work, understanding, and revealing of secrets. She's supposed to be off limits. They come from different worlds and circumstances. Zach is really inexperienced in relationships, while she is dealing with some fall out of her last one. The farm is their temporary sanctuary, but the real world and future looms ahead. They are able to ease each other's loneliness. He wants to slay her demons and keep her. She has to figure out where her life is going and continue to process all that has happened.

Zach is such a sweet, caring, and thoughtful hero. He's got such a big, vulnerable heart, but is also strong, stoic, and a survivor. He listens. He understands. He comforts. He feels deeply. But this is all new to him. He has a hard time trusting and does not always feel settled or good enough.

Lark is really lost and trying to handle all of her issues. She is fearful, guilt-ridden, and does not want to cause problems for those around her. She is broken and at risk to shatter at any time. Zach becomes an anchor. But in relying on him, will she eventually hurt him?

This is the story of two lost souls coming together to find a true home. But there are definite issues and challenges to face. Time is a factor. The path to what they really need and want is not always clear and easy. Internalized feelings can be messy and confusing. Emotional scars can run deep and continue to cause pain.

I enjoyed getting their dual points of view to really understand some of the issues they buried. They were both likable, and not perfect. Their chemistry, connection, and issues were well developed and believable. I really felt for both of them.

I loved getting more with the Shipley clan and their extended family. It really feels like coming home when I open one of these books. It is like Sarina Bowen has invited me to sit at the Shipley Farm table and enjoy the chaos and love that surrounds these characters. This one is not as overtly funny as Bittersweet or as deeply dark and emotional as Steadfast. It falls somewhere in between. It has some humor, romance, emotion, and some harshness in their back stories leaving them with scars. But it focuses on finding hope, faith, self worth, purpose, forgiveness, love, and healing.

This one had me engaged and invested all along. I really enjoyed seeing into Zach's heart and his growth. Lark was a character I could not help but want to overcome her problems. And I just loved them together and wanted them to find their own little pocket of happiness despite the challenges. There were some unexpected surprises in this one that I did not see coming. And she left it open for more books in the series. I am still interested in more from Zara, Kieran, Kyle, Dylan, Daphne, Alec, and May. And of course catching up with the ones already coupled off.

I was gifted a copy in exchange for an honest review. 

Zach, only 4 years after being kicked out of his childhood home, is determined to show his value in his new home. While his childhood was anything but conventional, not being controlled by the cult-like organization he grew up has been eye opening. Even 4 years later he still has many things he hasn’t experienced or seen. He had worked for everything he has, but is at a crossroads, unsure what his next move will be when the Shipley’s no longer need him on the farm.

Lark is using the farm to get out from under her parents’ scrutiny after a traumatic experience. Nightmares pull her from sleep regularly, keeping her trapped in her memories. She just wants to go back to normal, and hopes the quiet of the farm will help her put the experience behind her. But the nightmares don’t let up and the only thing that quiets them is Zach’s steady presence.

I loved these two. But hurt for them at the same time. Zach has had time to reconcile his very unique childhood and is ready to move on, to find his own family. Lark has a lot of things to deal with following her ordeal though, and though she thought getting out to the farm would be enough to help her move on, she quickly finds that a change of scenery does not fix her problems. And her problems are bigger than either can handle on their own, no matter how hard Lark may want to keep her struggles secret.

Watching Zach try to take care of Lark, to be what she needed, proved just how sweet and caring he is as a man. It didn’t matter what it did to him, he wanted her to feel safe. His own boundaries were tested as he worked to keep Lark from the nightmares that chased her dreams.

The Shipleys are such a great family, and make for fantastically dynamic side characters. Despite twists and turns, they all just go along for the ride -- very little surprises them, very little trips them up. I love the way they welcome Zach and Lark into their home and make them part of the family with little fanfare. Some of my biggest surprises in the story were as a result of the side character’s actions and revelations. It isn’t often that I am truly surprised by a revelation, but I can honestly say I was shocked a couple times in Keepsake.

This was a great return to Shipley farms, and I hate that we have to wait an unknown amount of time for another glimpse at this family and these characters. There are plenty of side stories in the works here that would make for compelling reads and I hope that we get to see what is going on with May, the twins (as they get older), and the cousins as well.

I was gifted a copy in exchange for an honest review.

Bittersweet (True North #1)
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Released June 14, 2016

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.

Steadfast (True North #2)
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Released July 12, 2016

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.

For Sophie Haines, coming face to face with the man who broke her heart is gut-wrenching. Suddenly, he’s 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 turn up to volunteer in the church kitchen.

She knows it’s foolish to yearn for the man who returned all the heartsick letters she wrote him in prison. But the looks he sends her now speak volumes.

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.

Sarina Bowen

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 http://www.sarinabowen.com for updates.

With Elle Kennedy, Sarina is the author of the RITA®-award-winning Him, and its sequel, Us.

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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