Grade : A-

Sarah Mayberry’s Sweetheart is the first in a spinoff series based on the coffee shop The Busy Bean, which was originated by Sarina Bowen in her True North books. The True North World comprises three series - The Busy Bean, Moo U and Vino and Veritas - all written by different authors.  Being somewhat cautious of endless sequels, I probably wouldn’t have tried this if I didn’t a) really like Sarah Mayberry and b) desperately needed something to read after bingeing the original Bowens. I’m glad I did, because this was an excellent read.

Haley Elliot takes a job at The Busy Bean, owned by previous Bowen heroines Audrey Shipley and Zara Rossi. She discovers that a coffee sales slump is being driven by gourmet beans at a nearby diner, and tracks the beans to a roastery upstate. The problem? The beans are produced by Daniel Beck, her sister Jess’s ex-boyfriend. And while Haley doesn’t know the details, she knows enough about the volatile, manipulative Jess to suspect that their relationship and breakup were traumatic. Still, she’s desperate to do right by her employers, and goes to convince Beck to supply their shop. Even when she and Beck grow closer, neither of them knows how to dream about a future together when it would, at some point, involve Jess.

I’ve read other Mayberry books where she takes on heroines from toxic families and she always handles it well. The characters speculate that Jess has borderline personality disorder, and they have honest conversations about trying to balance not blaming Jess for her illness with needing Jess to take responsibility for the damage she has caused and for the health care that she needs. Haley’s parents are understandably obsessive about keeping their older daughter not just well but flat-out alive. Their neglect of Haley is so credibly written and sounds like the experience of real-world ‘don’t rock the boat’ siblings.

Haley’s character is so well developed. She is anxious about causing anybody trouble or concern, with the full expectation that nobody will think she’s worth it. She is deeply averse to attention and cares for and about her sister without becoming a martyr. I liked that she’s an artist (she makes handcrafted leather goods) with the guts to insist on reasonable pricing, but that her low-key personality and lack of self confidence has prevented her from hustling as much as she needs to if she wants to grow her business. A lot of the story is about Haley discovering she has the right to her own life, professionally and romantically, and her own happiness.

Beck’s story, meanwhile, is determining if it is healthy for him to pursue a future that will inevitably bring him back into contact with his abuser. Male survivors of domestic abuse are less common in romance and the only times I’ve read them, it hasn’t been handled well. Sweetheart is different. When I read him with Haley, I could picture how his personality - supportive, accountable, all-or-nothing in a relationship - set him up for manipulation by someone who wasn’t kind and considerate like Haley is. Beck has reasonable boundaries, and Haley respects them, giving him time and space to decide whether or not he can be in a relationship where Jess looms in the background. That he decides to is empowering for him, as the decision not to build his life around Jess is another step towards healing.

Oh, and the sex scenes are fantastic. I kept being paranoid that the author would turn to one of my bottom-five tropes, they get walked in on and outed, but hurrah! The author does better. So you can relax and enjoy Beck’s significant talents.

My main concern about the book is that Mayberry does so well developing this challenging set of dynamics, and then rushes their resolution. The parents have too big and too complete of a change (and I think there’s an editing blooper where they get told something for the first time twice). I appreciated that Jess and Haley’s parents begin therapy, but honestly, Beck and Haley need it, too. The epilogue, set six months later, should probably have been closer to a year later given the changes the characters (especially Jess) are making.

With all of the other series books that preceded it, is Sweetheart readable as a stand-alone? You’ll learn the outcomes of previous courtships, but those are the only ‘spoilers’.  The presence of the previous leads is surprisingly unintrusive. I actually really enjoyed the scenes where the hero of Bountiful, Zara’s husband, places an order for custom boots with Haley for Zara’s birthday. Overall, while you can read Sweetheart as its own book; the reason I wouldn’t is that I loved the earlier books in this world enough to suggest you start from the beginning.

I was skeptical of this one going in because of the production context, but what do you know? Despite what Star Wars suggests, franchises can keep going strong, even in new hands. Sweetheart is well worth a read.

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

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Grade : A-

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : October 26, 2022

Publication Date: 03/2021

Recent Comments …

  1. “What follows next is the Forced Seduction scene. Sigh! I had heard these were popular in romance novels written in…

Caroline Russomanno

I'm a history geek and educator, and I've lived in five different countries in North America, Asia, and Europe. In addition to the usual subgenres, I'm partial to YA, Sci-fi/Fantasy, and graphic novels. I love to cook.

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