Out of the Blue

For Keeps by Janice Sims
(Arabesque/BET, $4.99, PG ) ISBN 1-58314-034-4
There comes a time in every reviewer’s life when lengthy a discourse on plot, characterization and purpose seems unnecessary. You just want to say: “I liked this book a lot and I really think you ought to read it. Period.” This is one of those times.

I have come to respect Janice Sims as a talented writer who refuses to be pigeonholed. She enjoys exploring the possibilities romance writing presents and the myriad stories available in what has become known as “the Black experience.”

I have come to expect the unexpected from Janice Sims. In the past four years she has written a second-chance romance, romantic suspense, contemporary fantasy and a romance with an interracial twist. No two books are alike.

Her stories place African-American characters in places that many in mainstream America don't expect to find them. Her heroines have included an African-American marine biologist in Florida and a Black veterinarian in Kentucky. The author has set her fourth novel, For Keeps, in Montana, where according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the state’s 3,200 African-American residents make up about .04 percent of the total population.

Six generations of the Roberts family have lived in Montana. When For Keeps begins, Cheyenne Roberts is heading home. She has been summoned to the bedside of her ailing grandfather. Ten years ago, Cheyenne left Custer, Montana to attend college in Chicago. After graduation, she remained in the city, where she has carved out a successful accounting career. Several high-profile professional athletes are among her clientele -- one has even proposed marriage.

Although Cheyenne has created a fruitful life in Chicago, she has no illusions. Her roots are in Montana with her large, close-knit family. Her widowed mother, her paternal grandfather, a teenage sister and two college-age brothers live on the family ranch. Her maternal grandmother, an aunt and uncle and cousins live on a reservation ("the res").

When Cheyenne gets home, nothing is as she expects it to be. Her family is in danger of defaulting on the mortgage on their ranch. Her cantankerous 85-year-old grandfather is quite well and has once again played "the death card." And Cheyenne's attraction to Jackson Kincaid is as strong as ever.

Jackson is her older brother Cole's best friend and literally the boy next door. However, in Montana that seems to mean he's still a few miles away. He's also light years away in his acknowledgment of Cheyenne's longstanding attraction to him. Nine years older than she, "Jackson considered the Roberts girls off-limits . . . We were his honorary sisters, and to look upon a Roberts girl as a sex object was tantamount to incest." But Cheyenne is bound and determined to get Jackson to cross the line, to break that final taboo and she comes at him with both barrels blazing:

Cheyenne: "I'm giving myself a year. A year to fall in love, get a proposal and plan the wedding."

Jackson: "The hubris of youth. What makes you think you can do all that in three hundred sixty-five days?"

Cheyenne: "Because I'm going to marry you, Jackson."

That said, Cheyenne lays a kiss on Jackson that arouses, confuses and makes a believer out of him.

For Keeps reminds me of going home with college roommates during seasonal semester breaks. The reader has a seat at the table for all the camaraderie, good food, love and good-natured teasing that are part of a large, close family. There is a lot of love in this book and it comes at the reader from all directions.

Sims' first-person narrative in Cheyenne's voice worked well for me. The characters play well off one another, the dialogue is snappy, there are unexpected plot twists and subtle touches of humor throughout. Grandpa "Slim" Roberts is a manipulating scene-stealer bested only by Cheyenne's mother and maternal grandmother.

For Keeps is also an issues book. Sims has used the national concern for the plight of African-American farmers and ranchers as a backdrop for her premise. In the 1920s there were nearly one million African-American farms. Now roughly 18,000 remain. In the front matter, Sims quotes Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said, "Black-owned farms are disappearing at three times the rate of farms generally." However, there is no soapbox, just facts to ponder as Sims presents the story of one family's struggle.

I have deliberately not revealed more of the plot because I really want you to read this book for yourselves!

There are enough characters for a number of contemporary spin-offs. However, if Janice Sims is true to form, there probably won’t be any spin-offs. The author never travels the same road twice. That's a pity because I would really love to read more "Josie stories" about Cheyenne's great-great grandmother, a former slave who left Kentucky to carve out a life in Wyoming and Montana.

But Janice Sims has never written a historical romance, maybe there is hope.

In the meantime, For Keeps is the late summer book I'm recommending. It's got a space in my collection . . . for keeps.

--Gwendolyn Osborne

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