Book Review

Review: Taken With You by Shannon Stacey

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Title: Taken With You
Author: Shannon Stacey
Publication Info: Carina Press March 2014
ISBN: 9780373002283
Genre: Contemporary Romance


Book Taken With You - a scruffy guy lifting a blonde girl up in his armsI really like contemporary romances with simple conflicts. I don't need serial killers or marriages forced upon people by really sketchy wills from dead relatives – or secret babies, either, if I'm making a list. The problem with simple conflicts is that they can be really tricky to sustain through an entire novel. The conflict has to be big enough to keep issues between the couple but not so big it's impossible to overcome those same issues. Plus, whatever change occurs internally or externally has to be believable. 

Early Kowalski books and other contemporary novellas from Stacey usually focus on a “I'm only visiting/this is just temporary/will she stay or will he go” conflict. The outsider moves to town, or the high school flame moves back, and the temporary-to-permanent conflict begins. This is not a bad thing at all. It's the foundation of some of my favorites of Stacey's stories.

Taken With You is a variation on the “this is only temporary” conflict: indoor girl vs outdoor dude who think they're too different to be successful long term.

Hailey Genest, the town librarian, has been an ancillary character through several Kowalski books set near in Whitford, Maine. Now she gets her own book, and I was so excited to read it. I made myself wait until it went on sale because I knew I'd have a lot to say about it.

Short version: it didn't blow my mind and give me giddy book squee or Good Book Noise® like some of the other Kowalski novels have. But it was a lovely entertaining contemporary with funny-funny, real emotion and a particularly awesome dog.

Matt, the owner of said awesome dog, is a state game warden who has moved to Whitford to help with the management and policing of the new ATV trail system that's been connected to the Lodge, and by extension, to the town. He's from another part of Maine, and has spent most of his life outdoors, at his family's cabin in the woods, and then as part of his job.

When Hailey meets Matt, she's lost in the woods with her friend Tori after they got separated from the wilderness tour group they were with (really, this was not much of a tour company – a plot point that seemed promising but was later dropped). Matt hears them in the woods, and even though he's on vacation he finds them and walks them back to the parking lot.

Matt hasn't shaved or bathed in a week or two, he's got a gnarly beard and a terrifically fugly fishing hat on, and he's clearly very happy and comfortable in the woods. Hailey signed up for the wilderness trek with Tori on a whim, wore brand new hiking boots (ow) and makeup out on the trail, and tried a natural, homemade bug repellant that wasn't doing much of anything. They meet at their own worst moment: Matt is scruffy, smelly and a little scary and possibly also a little condescending. Hailey knows she looks ridiculous and is mad that she got lost, uncomfortable because she has blisters, and convinced that activities outdoors that don't involve sitting with a book are not for her. Neither of them makes a terrific first impression, and their first scene together reminds me of the Marilyn Monroe quote, If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best.

The conflict between Hailey and Matt is pretty straightforward: they are way into each other, but she wants a guy who has a regular schedule, who likes to go out and do things like dine at nice restaurants or go to the theatre. Matt is none of those things. And he knows it, too. In his past, Matt had been nearly engaged to someone when he learned that he embarrassed her because of his job and the fact that he liked being outside, in the woods, getting as dirty as possible. So he knows that he should find someone who appreciates the things he loves. They're opposites, and yet they attract even while they're both pretty sure they're wrong for each other.

On the surface, this conflict worked for me. While I was reading the book, I was all in. I stayed up way too late to finish it, because, like any Stacey book, they talk a lot, and all that dialogue makes for happy Sarah.

But once I finished it, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Matt's character was much more developed than Hailey's. While I understood why the things he loved were so important, I didn't know why Hailey insisted on the type of guy she allegedly wanted.

The insisting is what gets to me. Hailey says over and over she wants a guy with a regular schedule and some appreciation for culture and whatnot. But despite insisting that's her thing, she never once enjoyed on her own the things she kept saying were important. She didn't try to find plays, culture, even streaming productions of Met operas or anything else a librarian could get her hands on pretty easily. For Hailey, despite all that insisting, her dedication to an “ideal” was superficial and, when compared to Matt's adoration of all things buggy and beautiful, seemed shallow and inconsistent. If I had to name what Hailey was passionate about, it would be reading and cleaning, and maybe not in that order. Seriously, her day off has a to-do list of epic cleaning. She deep cleans her coffee maker. She dusts the ceiling fan. It wasn't so much a neatness obsession that was commented on as much as it was a nearly pathological habit. She cleaned ALL THE TIME. But the fact that Matt was often very dirty (and so was his dog) didn't really bother her much. (Probably because she knew she'd be cleaning all day the next weekend so what's one more bit of dirt?)

I thought she was far too insistent that she wanted some kind of cultured city dude. There was no backup or reasoning for that insistence. She didn't want to leave Whitford. And there was plenty of explanation as to why she didn't want to leave Whitford: she was the sole librarian and passionate about her job and her accomplishments. She grew up there, and even though her parents and sibling had moved away, she loved her home and her home town. She had ample friends and people cared about her, and except for the absence of any cultured, smooth city guys for her to date, she was happy.

But there was no real explanation of WHY she wanted the cultured city dude except, “Because that's what Hailey said she wanted.” There was a small mention of her family, of dinner at a regularly scheduled time each evening, or a predictable schedule – all things that Hailey says she values. But she's not so inflexible that she can't adjust her schedule or the library's schedule to accommodate someone. She's not brittle and unbendable.

Isaiah Mustafa as the Old Spice GuyYet every other chapter, she or someone else would bring up the mythical smooth cultured dude she's after – with no explanation as to WHY that is what she wants. She doesn't go out or find for herself any of the things she says are important, and that she wants a guy to do with her. Did she watch the Old Spice commercial too many times? Was her only preferred option the mythical man her mythical man should smell like? I have no idea. That insistence of her “ideal dude” wasn't as integrated into her character as Matt's values were to his. And if the only reason something is true for a character is because they insist on it over and over, it's not really true enough for me to believe.

Matt, on the other hand, is terrific nearly all the way through to the end of the book. And I've been asking myself if perhaps I'm being too harsh on Hailey. (I don't think I am.) Matt loves being outside, he loves the forest and fishing and camping and ATVing and bugspray and dirt and all of it. His love of being outdoors became his job, and he works for the state of Maine to keep those outdoors safe for every being within them, humans and otherwise. During the course of the story you see a lot of Matt's job responsibilities and they are not easy. Calls come in at all hours about missing people, aggressive animals, complaints about irresponsible drivers on the ATV trails, and Matt has to respond. His dedication is amply demonstrated – and it's pretty awesome.

The problem for Matt is that some women in his past had liked his looks and his uniform, but didn't like the dirt, smells, and odd hours that came with it. Matt's a rough-edged dude, and he wants to be accepted for who he is. The problem for Matt, and by extension Hailey, is that Matt doesn't just have baggage. He has a matched set of awful woman backstory luggage that he wears over his head and poked holes in so he could peek through it at every opportunity. It doesn't occur to Matt until it's almost too late that he's got those asshole blinders on, and that he's been wearing his peekaboo emotional baggage way longer than he needed to, since it was left there by someone he's glad he isn't connected to anymore. He routinely sees the world, other people, and by extension himself based on his ex's comments about him and his life, and that influences a lot of his interactions with Hailey, who, though pretty and polished, isn't mean or embarrassed by Matt at all. She accepts him as he is and tries to be accommodating. He isn't so able to do that. So right after Matt yanks his emotional baggage further over his head, he sticks his head up his ass. Hailey says one thing, but he'll hear another. He's anticipating her rejection of him and the things that he loves, so he assumes it's going to happen any minute.

Matt has to change his expectation that Hailey is going to reject him. Hailey has to adjust her expectations of what she thought she wanted. Both of these are tough things to do, and Hailey manages the adjustment a bit better than Matt, who freaks out and adds a train case and a tote bag of emotional baggage to his backstory hat and runs off to the woods. 

In the end, SPOILER after one come-to-Jesus conversation with his dad, Matt does a precise 180 and adjusts his default behavior a little too quickly for me to believe. For all that struggle and baggage blindness, he made the switch from douchey to damn fine way too fast, so fast I was afraid he'd regress by accident. And the end is so treacly sweet, I can bet some of you will roll your eyes while others will give a big happy book sigh. END SPOILER

Hailey didn't have to change much except to accept that what she thought she wanted wasn't as excellent as the person she does have, even if he doesn't meet all her expectations. I loved that she stood up for herself in tense moments – most of the women do in this book, which I like a LOT.

Fans of the Kowalski series will see many of the other past characters in this story – some so vibrant they almost steal scenes from Matt or Hailey. There's lots of ATVing, trails, Rose's cooking, bickering, babies and discussions of weddings and anticipated pregnancies, and ordinary yet lovely people living their lives (one of the best things about the series, if you ask me). If you like the Kowalskis, you'll like this book plenty. While Matt's ending and Hailey's insistence bothered me a bit, all the warmth and fun and bug spray and humor and family that's part of the series is plentiful in this book, too. I spent a lot of words analyzing what bothered me, but I also want to say that the good parts are terrific, and Stacey writes whoodamn fine contemporary romance.


This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | All Romance eBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Emily A. says:

    I’ve been confused since books 4 and 5 about what Hailey wants. In book 4 she seemed perfectly happy and loving her freedom not being tied down by kids and a husband. But in book 5 she said she wanted to settle down, and have kids. This is particularly surprising given that she’s 39. Anyway anyone who wants culture should live in or very near a city even a small scale one. Even the best small towns tend to have cultural limits.
    Anyway I try this one and hopefully there won’t be too much emphasis on pregnancy and babies.

  2. 2
    Heather S says:

    I may have to try this one. Librarian heroine? My catnip. Maybe I’ll try the sample pages…

    I also find the whole emphasis on pregnancy and babies to be BLEGH. I’m very happily childfree and long to read some romances where the heroine (and hero) DON’T have or wants kids (“Baby Proof” by Emily Giffin was an evil, horrible lie. There aren’t enough words to describe how much that book let me down). If I ever change my mind, it’s because an alien took over my body. I would probably be on the mother ship, somewhere out in space, thinking “Hey, this is pretty cool…”

    Why do I comment on things at 3 am? This never ends well. LOL

  3. 3
    Ellie says:

    This is exactly how I felt about this book.  I didn’t hate it, because I loved Matt.  But I didn’t love it, because of Hailey.  The constant “this is what I want” thing confused me too.  And hello, awesome guy in front of you, you’re going to insist on mythical, really?

    What saved it for me was her reaction to Matt’s friend’s accident.  That was b*lls-to-the-walls time, and she came through.  I also did like that she stood up for herself and didn’t let him completely and easily off the hook.

    I guess I bought their HEA because I never really felt they had a true conflict.  Which – while not the point of the book – is a success, I guess.

  4. 4
    Miranda says:

    Just from reading the review, it sounds like Matt and Hailey will get a divorce in 5 years or so because their lifestyles don’t mesh. Hailey will either get tired of pretending she likes the outdoors, or Matt will get irritated because he doesn’t have someone who shares his love of the outdoors.

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    @Ellie:

    First, even though I write reviews all the time and talk about what I like or dislike about a story, every time someone says, “YES ME TOO” it is a weird and enjoyable relief. It’s not like I think my opinion is wrong, but knowing I’m not alone in my reaction is always excellent. So thanks. I’m glad I’m not alone!

    What saved it for me was her reaction to Matt’s friend’s accident.  That was b*lls-to-the-walls time, and she came through.  I also did like that she stood up for herself and didn’t let him completely and easily off the hook.

    Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. She was scared and she acted on it and did tough things to help Matt, and she totally came through.

    @Miranda:

    Hailey will either get tired of pretending she likes the outdoors, or Matt will get irritated because he doesn’t have someone who shares his love of the outdoors.

    I don’t think Hailey pretends, really. It’s never her first choice to go out and get muddy, or get up obscenely early to go out in the wood with Matt. I think early in the book, he’s kind of hoping that by showing her the most incredible parts of his job and his life outdoors, he’ll convince her to make those things her first choice, too. And Hailey’s reaction is more like, “Yeah, that was awesome and thank you for sharing that with me. I think that experience was amazing, but I also like to do the things I like, too.” She wasn’t faking it, but she leaves him room to be himself, which I liked about her.

    The thing that bugged me a lot about the ending was that (highlight to read)

    in the end she realizes that she loves to read and can read anywhere, even outdoors at a cabin, etc.

    REALLY? The devil you say!

  6. 6
    Namz says:

    Here’s another YES ME TOO! From the beginning the book felt really sleepy and very light on conflict. The instant hat didn’t resonate for me, I mean just because he’s dirty AND hot?
    I thought the idea of she’s a neat freak and he’s dirty would have played better. Better yet, maybe she read a lot of books with “cultured city dude” heroes and she thought that’s what she wanted.

    Did like the chemistry between the two and LOVED that she stood up for what she wanted.

  7. 7
    chacha1 says:

    sounds like a big missed opportunity for the author to have drilled down to that Myth Insistence.

    fwiw, when I was college-age I had a very clear idea of the kind of man I wanted to be with.  I thought “I am this kind of person, and therefore I should be with that kind of person.”

    It wasn’t until I met my husband that I realized the kind of man I really love to be with wasn’t that College Idea man.  But I did, in the end, *realize* it.  It ceased to be a mystery, or inexplicable, or unarticulated, to me. 

    I was a good bit younger than 39 when the light dawned.  So I would have lost patience with allegedly-intelligent librarian long before the happy ending.  :-)

  8. 8
    Dora says:

    It sounds like the sort of plot (regarding what she says she wants) that could have dealt with a few moments that maybe explained, no, this is what everyone TELLS her she wants. IE, have some scenes where you have the well-intentioned but oblivious family friends talking about “the type of man she needs”, and maybe establish that she’s heard from childhood that she “wants” a cultured man, and she’s never actually stopped to question it or look outside the mold. Then you might have had some powerful moments when she realized she needed to start thinking for herself, since so many women deal with being told who they’re supposed to want. I totally understand being frustrated with a character who doesn’t seem to understand their own motivations and desires, especially when it gets raised as often as it sounds like it does here!

    I read one of the Kowalski books on your recommendation (I think the one with the reporter who spends a family vacation camping trip with the old flame in exchange for an interview) and I really liked the writing overall, though I’m always a little frustrated when the dude takes ending up in bed with the chick as a given in a smug, “I know what you want, it’s only a matter of time until you realize it” sense. I know it’s irrational, but based on my own personal experiences, I don’t really find that romantic so much as concerning because it sounds like the sort of person who wouldn’t take no for an answer because he wouldn’t believe it. Still, that’s a personal quibble, just something that makes me distrust characters. I’m still going to try more Shannon Stacey books because they seem like perfect lazy afternoon readers.

  9. 9
    Ova says:

    You have hit upon the reason that I have trouble staying invested in a Shannon Stacey Kowalski book. The couples are likeable and the setting believable, but at some point I stop believing that the couple are separated by anything more than a minor difference of opinion. Something that could be talked out if the couple didn’t take other people’s opinions as more important than their own. Somebody is a marketing genius though, because her book covers are some of the best in the business. They promise the kind of catnip I haven’t seen since since the early aughts. That’s not what’s in there, though. Not saying it isn’t somebody’s catnip, just not the catnip I was hoping would be in there.

  10. 10
    Kelly S. says:

    Hailey’s 39? I thought she was more like 29.  Glad she got her own book.

  11. 11
    Spygirl7 says:

        When I was a senior in high school, we had an English assignment where we had to write about whether we would prefer to stay in-state (which is rural small-town USA) or move to a very large city; all of my farmkid classmates chose the big city because there was “nothing to do” in our small town (500 people) and they wanted to go to plays and museums and musicals and concerts and whatnot every Saturday. I knew these kids from kindergarten and I couldn’t imagine any of them actually spending all day at the modern art museum or going to the opera once a month (and I’m pretty sure they don’t now) but they had this cultural ideal in mind. And I think it’s easier (or maybe more common?) to have that sort of cultural ideal in your head and not do anything about it (even if you’re a librarian), than it is to want to be outdoorsy and yet not go outdoors ever. 

        I haven’t read this book but it makes perfect sense to me that she thinks she wants a certain type of cultured city guy, while not being a person who actually does those sorts of cultural things on her own that she says are important (even if she’s a librarian and especially into that sort of thing)—because she wants this hypothetical cultural guy to be a companion who will do them with her. (I do do some cultural things on my own and I go to movies by myself, but I know a lot of people would never even consider that.) So she imagines this ideal cultured city guy and . . . I don’t know, waits. And then she apparently finds a guy who does not fit her criteria at all but whom she realizes she really likes in spite of that. She would probably still like her ideal cultured guy if he had come along first, but is willing to choose the outdoorsy guy when he shows up instead (that doesn’t sound very romantic but you know what I mean).

  12. 12
    library addict says:

    I think I liked this one a bot more than you. I thought the scenes where Hailey starts to examine why she wants what she supposedly wants were enough of an explanation. She determines that she wanted a guy with a set schedule because that’s the way she’d grown up, but she learns to adjust her expectations to deal with the unpredictability of Matt’s. She thinks she wants someone cultured who likes fancy dining because she’s always assumed that was what she wanted, but she’s just as happy to stay home most nights. She’s never really examined what she wanted before, was happy just coasting along thinking it was what she wanted.

    I felt she did all of the changing until the end. I love that she called Matt on his horrible behavior during their dinner out. I thought he was in definite loserville. And the way he took off afterwards, I wanted an even bigger grovel.

    But by the end I believed they would be happy together. Each would do stuff on their own and a few times a monthe she’d do the outdoor thing (but basically just read why he did his thing) and he’d do the dining out (and just enjoy being with her while she enjoyed trying new dishes, etc).

    I think though the big conflict can seem conflated in the various books in this series, I have no problem believing in any of the HEAs. And I love the family dynamics (of Doom!) and humor.

  13. 13
    Dawn says:

    I’m right with you. I liked the earlier books in the series much more and I definitely felt the absence of any pursuit of actual “cultural” activities was notable. I’ve been having trouble articulating my thoughts about this, but I kind of thought it was insulting that Matt would be so opposed to eating at a nice restaurant – does being a park ranger/liking being dirty necessarily exclude one from cleaning up and enjoying a decent meal? And similarly, while I do love to read and I have zero desire to ride through the woods on an ATV, I’m sure there are people who like to do both. Cultured doesn’t necessarily equal a nice meal and uncultured doesn’t necessarily equal being dirty and gross, you know what I mean?

  14. 14
    Rebecca says:

    @Dawn: Yes, THIS.  I’ve been reading the review and comments trying to figure out why my hackles were rising, and you helped me figure it out.  Item: I know several people (men and women) who enjoy both sedentary intellectual AND outdoor physical activities.  I know professional writers who read philosophy in multiple languages for fun and also do fifty mile bike rides for fun.  AND take showers afterward.  And I know a forest fire fighter with a degree in biology and an interest in alternative music, and an owner of a plant nursery (who “gets his hands dirty” for a living) with a degree in chemistry (because, duh, understanding things like soil acidity and the mechanisms of pesticides actually is related to his field).  The idea of the game warden as some kind of primitive manly-man in touch with the wild wood who doesn’t know what fork to use IS insulting: does he have opinions on logging?  Hunting laws?  Acid rain?  Or does he just roar around on his ATV wasting gas and saving the day? 

    And I find the lack of actual “culture” AS insulting as the assumption that being out in the woods makes you a rube.  Oh, she sits in a library all day, she must be a smart lady (emphasis on lady, de-emphasis on smart).  Does she have a preference about WHAT she reads?  Does she devour romance novels?  Poetry?  Travel narratives because she’s in a small town?  Big fat 19th century novels because she enjoys the sense of them being a soap opera?  True crime for excitement?  Mysteries for the puzzle aspect?  Does she make a point of reading all the new YA books so that she can make intelligent recommendations to high school students who come in?  As to the “regular hours”=“cultured” – tell that to any artist or writer or musician who makes a living free-lancing. 

    Why not just say the heroine wants white lace curtains and to vacuum wearing a string of pearls until her insurance salesman husband gets home and finds out what she really needs is a Stanley Kowalski and be done with it?  That’s what it sounds like, and there’s no need to insult people with an actual interest in either literature or conservation.

  15. 15
    Rachel says:

    I’m now quite curious to read this, although I suspect Hailey will frustrate me – because I’m a librarian who frankly can’t deal with outdoors-y things and would enjoy meeting someone who wants to eat out and go to cultural things, BUT in the meantime I do all that on my own.

    I’m not totally surprised that Matt is the more developed character, though. In the other Shannon Stacey books I’ve read I’ve definitely felt an author bias toward the outdoors-y, athletic characters. It feels like that’s what she likes, so it’s almost like that’s whose side she’s on whenever there’s a conflict of personality.

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