summer kitchen audio coverStory Rating: 3.75 stars
Audio Rating: 4 stars

Narrator: Greg Boudreaux
Length: 7 hours, 54 minutes

Audiobook Buy Links: Amazon/Audible | iBooks
Book Buy Links:  Amazon | iBooks

Casey’s late father was a famous chef and owner of a renowned New York City restaurant. He was always incredibly demanding of Casey and focused on his job over parenting. Fortunately, Casey’s uncle, Walt, his father’s twin brother, has always been there for him where his father was not. So when Walt decided he wanted to reopen Casey’s father’s restaurant with Casey as the head chef, he didn’t want to disappoint his uncle. However, Casey not only doesn’t enjoy cooking, he is a disaster in the kitchen. But Walt is so excited about the idea that Casey is doing his best to make it happen, despite failing out of one cooking school after another. So when Walt secures Casey a spot at a school in Vermont called Summer Kitchen, Casey warily and somewhat reluctantly agrees.

Dev Harrison used to be a singer and songwriter for a rock band before moving back to his hometown of Home, Vermont. Home was founded generations ago by one of Dev’s ancestors. He was determined that Home be a town that is welcoming of all and accepting of differences and Dev finds it a wonderful place to live. However, since its inception, the Harrisons have served as the town managers and, after his grandfather and brother were killed in a car accident, the responsibility fell to Dev. He gave up his music career (and left his unsupportive boyfriend) so that he could take on the job. Keeping the town running isn’t easy for Dev, especially as he is in over his head managing their financial troubles, but he is determined to do what he sees as his duty by shouldering the responsibility.

When Casey comes to town for his cooking class, he falls in love with Home immediately. Everything about the charming small town just appeals to Casey and he feels connected to it in ways he never has in NYC. Casey also finds himself falling hard for Dev, finding a warm and easy connection with him, and Dev shares his feelings in return. Casey uses his business degree to help Dev with the town finances, and Dev is supportive as Casey struggles with his cooking. The men are falling hard for one another and Casey begins to imagine what a life could be like with Dev and Home. But with Casey expected back in the city to take over the restaurant when his lessons are done, and Dev being tied to Home, the men need to figure out if there is a way toward a future together.

Summer Kitchen is the first book in E.J. Russell’s Saving Home series and it is off to a great start. I have read many of Russell’s paranormal stories in her Mythmatched universe, but not too many contemporaries, and I found that Russell’s light and playful style comes through here nicely. This story sets up some interesting parallels for Dev and Casey, both struggling with the responsibility of meeting of others’ expectations. The men are so supportive of one another, both being there to lend a hand, as well as helping the other recognize it’s ok to lay down some of their burden. Dev and Casey are an appealing couple together; they are sweet and doting on each other, but the story has some humor and playfulness that keeps things from being too sugary.

The town of Home is almost a character unto itself and I enjoyed getting to know the various side characters. The town is idealized in a way common for romance novels, but I think it works given how much of a focus Home is to the story and the series. There are so many opportunities here for more stories, particularly as the town is in trouble financially and they are working to figure out ways to bring in tourism. It allows both Dev and Casey to shine in various ways, as well as to have some of the locals step up for their own stories. And Randolph Scott, the local stray cat, steals the show more than once with his hijinks.

The conflicts here are two-fold, one focused on the town and its finances and Dev’s struggles to manage it all, and the second related to Casey and his uncle’s desire to see him become a chef. The first conflict worked better for me, as figuring out how to help the town allows for an all-hands on deck situation where the story can really lean into the small town atmosphere. We see Dev figuring out where the balance is between his responsibility to the town and his own needs, and learn to let others in to help. We also get some nice resolution for Dev in terms of his music career and how he can find a way to have both music and his love for Home.

Casey’s conflict didn’t work as well for me, and honestly I struggled with more than one aspect of this storyline. We are told that Casey’s uncle Walt was the father figure he needed given his dad’s focus on his restaurant. Walt knows Casey well, came to all his school activities, supported him and cared about him and was there in all the ways he needed. Yet somehow, Walt seems to have literally no understanding that Casey hated his father, hates cooking, and has zero desire to be a chef. Either that or Walt is turning a willful blind eye to it in order to fulfill his own desire to reopen the restaurant. Casey keeps pointing out that he can’t cook, that he doesn’t enjoy cooking, and Walt pushes and pushes until Casey is guilted into continuing on. This would be fine if Walt was the antagonist, but not when he is a character who is supposed to be kind, loving, and supportive. Walt has decided not only will he reopen Casey’s father’s restaurant, but he is going to make with Casey “I can burn water” the Executive Chef. And somehow, Casey is going to become a Michelin-star chef in three months by taking one cooking class when he literally has zero culinary skills. Walt is presented as this savvy businessman, yet this expectation is absurd even if Casey actually wanted to do any of this. Walt’s all “it’s in the blood,” as if being a chef at that elite level isn’t a big leap for anyone. It is like saying my dad is a family doctor, so with a few months training I can become a world-renowned brain surgeon when I currently can barely put on a bandaid. So I struggled here with the set up on Casey’s end.

Once he gets to town, Casey proves he is not any more able to cook in Vermont than he was in NYC. However, he fortunately comes to accept that he can’t live his life for his uncle and that he really wants to stay at Home and make a life there. Yet, despite knowing that his uncle has made this huge financial investment based on Casey leading this restaurant, Casey doesn’t actually tell him until quite late in the process that he is not coming back. It just seemed like maybe not the best behavior all around and none if it is really acknowledged.

I also struggled with both the antagonists in the story, Dev’s ex-boyfriend, Nash, and Casey’s not-actual boyfriend but thinks he is, Bradley. In Dev’s case, he dated Nash while in the band, but Nash was an ass about it when Dev had to leave and they broke up. Nash shows back up in town and continues to be horrible. For Casey, Walt’s business partner, Bradley, has just decided that they are together and won’t take no for an answer. He stirs up a lot of trouble and leads to problems over the course of the book. Where I struggled is that these guys are both so over-the-top as to almost be caricatures. They are so awful, so self-centered, so obnoxious. In Casey’s case, he isn’t actually dating Bradley, but Dev only broke up with Nash upon leaving the band. Yet Nash is presented as such a colossal douchebag on so many levels, it seems hard to imagine Dev ever dating him. Also, Nash and Bradley are almost identical in their behavior and attitude, again almost to an unbelievable degree. It just took away any nuance from their role as the antagonists.

I listened to this in audio by narrator Greg Boudreaux, who frequently performs Russell’s audio books. I think Boudreaux and Russell make a great pair and their styles really suit one another. This is a town with lots of locals, so there are quite a few side characters and Boudreaux gives them all distinct voices and it’s easy to tell folks apart. He gets the tone right, that mix of earnest and playful, which I think fits the story well. However, there were a couple of small hitches for me. First, one of Dev’s bandmates is supposed to be sort of laid back, maybe a bit goofy (he comes across as a bit of a “golden retriever” character), but his voice was just way too overdone for me. It made him come across as sort of stupid and stoned, which I don’t think is how the text itself conveyed him. I think it is fine for a side character, but the story teases a romance for him and it may be tough to listen to a whole book with him as a lead with that voice (though presumably it could be toned down). The audio also has some musical intros to a handful of chapters, presumably because Dev is a musician. They felt awkward to me, however, especially because I couldn’t tell why some chapters had them and others did not. I am not a fan of musical interludes like this anyway, so this is obviously personal preference, but if they are going to be there, I wanted them to feel like there is a reason. And lastly, there is a point where Dev writes a song and sings it, and so it is performed as a song in the audio. In this type of situation, some narrators lean toward sort of spoken word versions of songs and others actually sing. This is just tough to narrate regardless of approach and I am not sure there is a right way to go, but it just felt a little awkward to me. I don’t necessarily see that is as a fault of Boudreaux’s, just a quirk of translating this particular story into audio. Despite these small issues though, I still really enjoyed the audiobook and I can easily recommend this version.

Overall, I found this a fun start to a new series. I had some quibbles, but I did like this one a lot and this story really got me excited for the series. I enjoyed being introduced to Dev, Casey, and the town of Home (and Randolph Scott) and am looking forward to more.