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TBR Challenge March 2023 – Baggage

When the month’s TBR prompt is “baggage”, you know that you’ll be dealing with emotional stories. While Lynn’s pick is much lighter than Caz’s, both feature characters that need to deal with their pasts in order to have a future together. So, when you think of “baggage,” do you need a real tearjerker of a story or do you think it’s something inherent in most romance conflicts?

Sweet as Pie by Alicia Hunter Pace

Ever have one of those months where the TBR prompt doesn’t match your mood?  Normally  a prompt like “baggage” would have me hauling out quite the angst fest. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. Deeply emotional stories, often with leads who have to really work for that HEA. Maybe it’s the winter blahs or maybe it’s my dumpster fire of a timeline, but I just wasn’t feeling it for anything too heavy. Instead I pulled out 2021’s Sweet as Pie by new-to-me author Alicia Hunter Pace. This is clearly meant to be a warm and fuzzy small-town (or at least suburban) contemporary, but the leads are carrying some serious emotional baggage under all that Hallmark goodness.

Evans Pemberton and Jake Champagne grew up in the Mississippi Delta and both clearly come from well-to-do families. Their mothers are BFFs and the two were well on their way to move their own very close friendship into something more when things abruptly fell apart. Instead, college hockey star Jake married Evie’s beauty queen cousin and basically ghosted Evie as he rose into the ranks of pro hockey. Needless to say, this has done a number of Evie’s self-confidence.

For his part, Jake’s marriage crashed and burned and he’s basically been something of a ‘bad boy’ in hockey circles. As the story opens, he gets a wake-up call in the form of his uncle/mentor dying suddenly of a heart attack. This throws Jake for a serious loop and just as he’s feeling the need to actually be an adult and think about his life, he gets the opportunity to trade into an expansion team forming in Birmingham, Alabama. He seizes the opportunity and when he moves to Alabama, he finds himself thrown in with his long lost old friend, Evie. The team practices in the small nearby suburb of Laurel Springs, where Evie has established a bakery.

On the one hand, I liked that Evie and Jake don’t fall into instalove. In fact, Evie, especially, isn’t ready to simply pick their friendship right back up again. Jake should have done a bit more groveling, but the two do at least talk through their past history and clear the air a bit. Even better, the romance is fairly slow to develop, a pacing decision that makes sense given the rebuilding these two need. As they spend more time together, Evie realizes that she isn’t happy simply being a doormat and giving in to whatever Jake needs. That realization is the springboard for her sometimes going too far in the other direction, but then settling back into learning how to communicate.

Both Jake and Evie do a fair amount of growing up in this story. Even though I had some issues with this book, I did appreciate that the characters actually mature over the course of the story. By the end, they seem grounded enough to have a believable HEA.

I had some quibbles with the setting of the book, but one thing I did like is that the author doesn’t just ignore the economic realities of small towns. In this case, Laurel Springs is essentially a suburb of Birmingham, so they have money flowing in from hockey players and other visitors. In addition, we learn that Evie didn’t just build her bakery on fairy dust and happy thoughts; she actually has a grant and a business mentor from a community revitalization project.

However, that being said, I did have some beefs with the world-building. The main characters in the story are originally from the Mississippi Delta and now live in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, but the book has an almost all-white cast of characters. Having spent time in both places, this didn’t sit right with me, so I pulled census data.  As I remembered, each of these regions has a large Black population.  For characters to go about their daily lives without encountering Black people – even casually in a shop or in the workplace – might be possible, but it seems like creating such an all-white bubble around yourself would be quite a choice. Seeing that created in this book took away from my enjoyment of what could have otherwise been a sweet story about two old friends setting aside their baggage to find love.

In addition to the all-white bubble getting to me, some of the early, immature antics of Jake, Evie and their friends grated on my nerves a bit. The leads did grow on me by the end, and this story has some undeniably sweet moments (and good pie-baking ideas), but it ended up being something of a mixed bag for me.

Grade:      C+        Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

Buy it at Amazon

Block and Strike by Kelly Jensen

It’s the rare romance that features a character or characters without emotional baggage, so I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from when deciding on my book for this month’s TBR Challenge prompt. Kelly Jensen’s Block and Strike (2017) is a character driven hurt/comfort slow-burn romance that features two men who’ve been dealt crappy hands in life, and follows them as they tread a difficult and sometimes painful path towards love and self-acceptance.

Jake Kendricks is three months out of prison and doing everything he can to get his life back on track. Coming home one night to find some bum passed out on his doorstep is more than inconvenient – he can’t exactly drag him along the alleyway onto the street without inviting questions that could land him back in trouble, so he settles for laying the guy in the recovery position and steps past him to open his front door. It’s only when the dim light of the hallway shows there’s blood on his sleeve and hand that Jake realises the guy outside must be injured rather than drunk or stoned – turning back, he can now see the ‘bum’ looks like he’s been beaten to within an inch of his life. Starting to panic, Jake calls his sister Willa, who is a nurse, and asks her to come over, but when she arrives, she insists they have to go to the ER. Jake later finds out that the man is his neighbour, Max Wilson, who moved into the crappy basement studio apartment of the building a month ago.

Around a year earlier, Max’s dad threw him out when he discovered him flirting with another guy, and Max moved to Philly intent on a fresh start and finally being himself, but somehow… he’s still hiding, still the small, runty kid who’s been bullied all his life and has learned it’s quicker and easier not to put up a fight. His dad only ever told him it would toughen him up, and Max is so used to being used as a punching bag that he doesn’t really think twice about being attacked on his doorstep; all he wants is to get out of the hospital and on with his small, insignificant life, but with a serious concussion, he won’t be allowed to leave unless he has someone to keep an eye on him. He’s frustrated and fretting about losing his job when the nurse – Willa something? – suggests that if he really wants to go home, she could ask her brother to come get him. Max is confused, until Willa explains that Jake is the one who found him and then drove him to the hospital. Max puts two and two together and works out that Jake is the gorgeous blond guy who lives upstairs, and protests even harder that he’s fine and can make his own way home. He doesn’t realise his protests have fallen on deaf ears until he’s discharged and makes his way outside on very shaky legs – to find Jake waiting for him.

Jake and Max have both been through a lot in their young lives (Jake is twenty-seven, Max twenty-two) and although it looks, at first, as though Jake has everything figured out and Max is a mess, as the story progresses, we discover that neither of those things is completely true. Or untrue. Behind Jake’s solid, dependable exterior lies a man who knows what it’s like to be broken; we don’t learn why he was in prison until later in the book so I’m not going to spoil it, but it’s clear that he’s still dealing with the issues that (in part) led to that happening and that he’s still got work to do. He’s kind, funny and protective; he’s never met anyone quite as stubborn as Max, yet he can’t help liking him and wanting to help him however he can – and that Max is really cute doesn’t hurt. Max hasn’t had anyone in his corner since his mother died, and seems to have accepted that his lot is just to take whatever crap life dishes out. He’s desperately lonely and can’t help wondering if he’s some kind of ‘project’ for Jake – who can’t, surely, be interested in a guy like him for any other reason – and it takes him a while to tamp down those insecurities and accept Jake’s overures of friendship as genuine.

The romance between Jake and Max is rooted in a strong friendship and is very much a slow-burn, which is absolutely right for who they are and what they’ve been through. Jake senses that the attraction he’s feeling towards Max may not be all one-sided, and the last thing he wants to do is to spook him, but Max is so up in his head with internalised homophobia and self-doubt that he gives off mixed signals. It takes a while for the two them to work things out, but it’s lovely when they do and there’s a real sense that they see each other for who they really are and that they’re exactly what the other needs – Max needs someone to help him learn to stand up for himself and Jake needs someone who doesn’t see him as the fuck up who let his temper screw up his life.

Kelly Jensen is one of those authors whose stories are often deceptively simple, the depth of the emotions and realism of the characters and situations almost taking the reader by surprise. She also manages to create characters who feel very authentic and nuanced, and Jake and Max are no exceptions. They’re beautifully developed – flawed and complicated with a genuine warmth and relatability – and their differences, Max’s prickliness and Jake’s kindness and compassion, really complement each other. I liked that Jake encourages Max to go with him to his martial arts group so he can learn some self-defence moves and maybe gain some self-confidence, and that he helps Max to see the core of inner strength and resliliance that enables him to keep getting up after the blows he’s been dealt.

For all the good things about the story – and there are a lot of them – there are a couple that didn’t work so well for me. One is that the people who attacked Max are never properly punished; the other is related to what landed Jake in prison, so I’m going to put it under a spoiler tag.

His ex-girlfriend Kate – the mother of his daughter – called him, crying, after her current boyfriend Dominick (who had always been possessive) hit her. Jake went over and beat him up, and was later convicted of assault. At the end of the book, we learn Kate has forgiven Dominick for what he did and that he’s vowed never to do it again – and part of Jake’s journey is accepting that. But I was uncomfortable with it – not only does it downplay the domestic abuse, it ignores the fact that Kate brought Jake into the situation, likely knowing what would happen as a result.

While that last thing didn’t affect my enjoyment of Jake and Max and their romance, I realise it might be problematic for some readers, which is why I’ve made mention of it here. In the end, though, Block and Strike is a charming, beautifully written romance, full of warmth, humour and genuine emotion, and is well worth reading.

Grade:  B             Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

Buy it at Amazon

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