Rating: 4.25 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

Since the death of his mother from a heart attack two years ago, Grayson Clery has dedicated his life to her café. It was her lifelong dream, and Gray’s parents put decades of sweat, love and equity in the business they ran side by side. Devastated by the loss of his wife and now closed off, Gray’s father refuses to set foot in the café, and Gray is barely keeping his head above water. With the café constantly understaffed and Gray working close to 20-hour days almost seven days a week, a heart attack is the only thing that makes him slow down. When the cute, freckled fitness instructor who patronizes his café offers to help Gray with his fitness goals, he’s dubious, but figures spending time with the caring man who held his hand during his health crisis and stepped up to help in his shop afterwards will make the onerousness of exercising bearable.

Aaron Asher can’t believe that the first time he finally exchanges words unrelated to his sandwich order with the man whose gorgeous smile and large shoulders he’s been dreaming about for ages is while Gray’s heart is failing. As someone who loves working out and facilitating his clients’ health journeys, Aaron’s more than happy to help Gray find his way and overcome his deep dislike of exercising. Supporting Gray during such a vulnerable time and learning that Gray not only loves games as much as he does, but wants to help Aaron develop the one he’s been secretly designing, has him crushing even harder.

Dating Gray and experiencing their intense compatibility in geekdom and the bedroom should have Aaron walking on air, but with his sister’s desire that he manage their new gym comes the looming realization he doesn’t want that and fear of disappointing her keeps him firmly planted on the ground. As Gray heals, the gym expansion moves forward and the men develop Aaron’s game, both must evaluate what sparks joy, whose dreams they must follow, and how much of themselves they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of other’s happiness.

I was very empathic towards and invested in the overburdened, but good-hearted and funny man introduced as Oliver’s BFF in Sundays with Oliver, so was excited to see how his HEA unfolded here. Told in dual first person POVs, Shelf Life is a quiet, contemplative contemporary romance that follows the two early-mid forties MCs as they reach points in their lives where they are forced to be honest about what they truly want/need and the ripples it may cause in their families. While it definitely stands alone well, reading the previous book gives a more complete picture of how awful things have been for Gray, as there are several scenes set in Gray’s café, but Shelf Life begins on the day of Gray’s heart attack. However, Kelly Jensen has a knack for creating compelling characters I’d happily watch play games or deal with laundry day and that ability is on full display here.

The story follows Gray through all his recovery journey, creating an intimate look into his struggles, setbacks, and emotional victories. Gray’s true passion is baking unique breads, but running the café doesn’t give him time to create nor bake anything other than what’s needed for his mother’s menu. He also hasn’t been allowed to grieve properly, especially as his dad has shut him out and offers no help to Gray, even post heart attack. Being forced to step away from the café allows Gray to begin processing his loss and what trying to honor his mother is costing him. Gray can be gruff and grumpy and the vulnerability and helplessness he’s constantly dealing with keep him on edge, but he’s honest, hardworking, and loyal.

While I felt Gray’s journey more viscerally, Aaron’s is compelling in its own way. Adopted when he was ten years old, Aaron is loved by his family, but a small part of him feels like an outsider. Having dealt with the uncertainty and rejection of foster care, he learned to never make waves and made a habit of going along and hiding the pieces of himself he believed didn’t fit with his family, especially his gaming. He’s a good guy who just wants to help people and make others happy, but he has spent so long internalizing any feelings he thinks may cause conflict, it’s hard for him to be honest and communicate with people he cares about, making it difficult for his family to fully know him no matter how supportive they are. Although being with Gray and having someone who sees and chooses all of him fills Aaron with wonder, his habit of self-containment stops him from opening up to Gray as well and pushes them apart.

Aaron and Gray are lovely together, and Aaron is a great help and support to Gray during the worst of his recovery. The fun they have working on the game design and geeking out is adorable, and while they fall quickly into a physical relationship after a not-a-date date, the upheaval in their lives make them hesitant to put a name to what they are doing and Aaron’s difficulty in opening up keeps their relationship progress slow. Additionally, the men’s families, their dynamics, and struggles are all interesting and play an integral role in the story, while adding dimension to their individual journeys and character development.

Although the pacing can be a little too slow at times, making the book feel its length, I found Shelf Life to be an emotional and sweet exploration of grief, growth, and love that I think those who enjoy slice of life stories will enjoy.

%d bloggers like this: