If you are one of the romance readers who are pretty much over reading about billionaires, this month’s TBR prompt is right up your alley. Since the prompt was “blue collar”, I started by digging into my stash of category romances. I tend to like stories about everyday, non-billionaire people, so I figured this would be an easy prompt for me as I tend to pick up a fair number of books that could qualify. Oh, I was so wrong. After a few false starts (including a book where apparently the conflict sprang from one lead’s parent having murdered the other), I switched gears and took a look at my Kindle TBR.  Almost immediately, I found a romantic comedy that was a winner. If you’re not in the mood for comedy, Caz found a very moving and emotional m/m romance featuring a couple affected by a traumatic, life-changing injury. And the blue collar prompt? Well, both of these books involve firefighters and in one case, a police officer. What did you read this month?

What Remains by Garrett Leigh

Garrett Leigh’s What Remains is a touching, heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting story about a couple who are forced to rebuild their lives and relationship after one of them is involved in a serious accident. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages so this month’s “Blue Collar” prompt gave me the excuse to push it to the top of the TBR because one of the leads is a fireman, although his job doesn’t feature heavily in the story.

Late at night one Boxing Day Jodi Peters stumbles, somewhat worse for wear, out of the dodgy gay bar just round the corner from his home in Tottenham (North London). He’s started walking (none too steadily) when he a fight breaks out in front of the pub up the road and he  watches as the pub’s bouncer – tall, blond and the hottest guy Jodi has ever seen – breaking it up. Sitting at the bus stop opposite (although he doesn’t need to catch a bus), Jodi watches calmly through his buzz until the police have arrived to pick up the troublemakers; he’s still there when the pub closes. The bouncer – whose name is Rupert – approaches Jodi and asks if he’s alright, and when Jodi says he lives just round the corner, offers to see him home. It’s well past midnight, but Jodi can’t quite bring himself to say goodnight and invites Rupert in for a coffee; they get talking and Rupert admits that he’s only recently come out – and that it hasn’t gone down well with his family. Jodi can sympathise. He’s bisexual but has only really become comfortable with the part of him that’s attracted to guys in the last couple of years. Rupert is gorgeous, he’s a bit awkward and a lot sweet, and Jodi is completely smitten. After sharing a passionate kiss – Rupert’s first with a bloke – they part, but not before Jodi tells Rupert to come by the next day and maybe they can pick up where they left off.

It’s a month before Rupert and Jodi meet again, and over pizza and a cuppa, they fill each other in on their jobs – Jodi’s a web-designer, Rupert’s a fireman – and talk about their lives in general – Rupert has a daughter with his ex (who is a bit of a cow, frankly), while Jodi’s most recent ex- girlfriend is now his best mate. The chemistry and attraction crackles between them and over the following weeks and months they get to know each other, and being with Jodi helps Rupert to start to feel better about himself and being himself. They’re head-over-heels for each other; they eventually move in together, Jodi gets on well with Rupert’s daughter and they’re very happy for the next four years – until Jodi sustains a TBI (traumatic brain injury) after being hit by a car.

I really liked the way the first part of the book is structured as we switch between timelines, seeing, in a series of vignettes, the progression of Jodi and Rupert’s relationship from their first meeting up until the point everything undergoes that devastating change, alternating with Rupert’s thoughts and feelings as he sits at Jodi’s bedside waiting and hoping for him to wake from his coma. I like flashbacks as a narrative device when they’re done as well as they are here, and the author does a great job of rounding out their past relationship before going on to contrast it so strongly with what happens next.

The second part of the story is told in linear fashion, and it starts from the moment Jodi wakes up calling for Sophie, his ex-girlfriend-turned-best-friend. Jodi thinks he and Sophie are still a couple and he has no idea who Rupert is or that he’s bisexual – all he knows is frustration and annoyance that this bloke he doesn’t know – and doesn’t want to know – is hovering over him instead of Sophie. Jodi has lost the memories of the last five years of his life, and you can feel Rupert’s heart breaking every time Jodi rejects him – especially as he’s not at all kind or subtle about it. He’s a completely different person to the one who fell for Rupert and his personality changes are really well portrayed – before the accident, he’s funny, hard-working and almost obsessively neat; after it, he’s an aggressive slob who lashes out all the time and can’t be bothered with even the most basic cleanliness – personal and in his surroundings.

The weeks go by and there’s no sign that Jodi is regaining any of his memories of Rupert or the life they’d built together over the past four years. Rupert’s quiet devastation is palpable, but he does whatever he has to do in order to stay strong and not to fall apart, accepting his role-change from partner to carer without complaint. Maybe he’s a bit too good to be true, but in his PoV, we’re privy to his frustration and sorrow and anger, and to the mental toll the situation is taking on him – but he has to lock it down to be able to keep caring for Jodi, no matter how cold or uncaring Jodi is. Like anyone pushed to their limits, however, there does come a point when Rupert starts to wonder if things are ever going to change and if he’s going – somehow – to have to move on.

Without giving away too much, the eventual HEA in this story is really well done, and I liked, very much, that it’s not the HEA you might expect in that there’s no magical cure for Jodi’s memory loss. Instead, we get to watch Jodi and Rupert slowly finding their way back to each other as Jodi, through determination and hard work, accepts the things that have changed, begins to regain control of his life and, eventually, and with Rupert’s constant love and support, makes a new one.

What Remains is a compelling read and one I enjoyed a great deal. The two leads are, for the most part, likeable and sympathetic, and the insight into how such a life-changing injury affects not only the injured but also their loved ones, is articulated very well. There’s humour, warmth and hope sprinkled in among the darker, angstier moments so that the story is never mired in misery, and I always love reading dialogue that feels familiar in its rhythms and idioms – I feel I’m reading about people I could conceiveably have met or lived down the road from. If you’re in the mood for some hurt/comfort and a rocky path to happiness, I definitely recommend this one.

~ Caz Owens

Grade: B+           Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at Amazon or your local independent retailer

Butterface by Avery Flynn

After a few false starts in my Harlequin backlist stack, I found a wonderful romcom waiting for me on my Kindle. Butterface by Avery Flynn is sweet, funny, steamy at times, and really a delight to read. For those who want a romance with an HEA that feels like it really will last, this tale of a cop falling head-over-heels for a local wedding planner will be right up your alley.

Gina Luca plans weddings, but she doesn’t count on having her own happily ever after anytime soon. All her life, Gina has been reminded by bullies of just how plain and awkward her features are, and after years of this treatment, her self-confidence is painfully lacking. When she gets thrown together with Ford Hartigan on a KissCam as a cruel prank at a wedding, though, something happens. It turns out that Ford is actually a pretty compassionate, decent guy.

As the story moves along, what started as kindness morphs into something else. Ford is trying to make his mark in the police force and get a spot on a team investigating organized crime. He ends up being assigned to keep an eye on Gina since her brothers are suspected of having ties to a crime family. Ford is eager to take on the job, and as the story moves along, I enjoyed seeing how the author shows Ford examining his motives and realizing that he is really falling for Gina.

One strength of this book is that we get to see Ford and Gina as part of a larger community. Gina clearly loves her brothers, even if they have clearly become drawn into criminal activity, and she has a close-knit circle of friends. I was happy to see her have good people in her life to counteract the bullying she grew up with.

Ford, on the other hand, comes from a much larger family. He’s the lone cop in a large firefighter family, so there’s a bit of rivalry and good-natured ribbing there. His family seems to be the almost stereotypical loud, blue collar firefighter family, while Ford is a little quieter and doesn’t fit in in quite the same way as his siblings.

Ford is trying to find his own path, and while he’s clearly a decent soul, he’s also sometimes a bit clueless. In addition, he’s torn between making his way in the force and being totally honest with Gina, and these conflicting motivations get him in trouble sometimes. This awkwardness also spills over into his relationship with Gina. He so earnestly adores her that I could forgive him for the number of times he totally steps in it, but Ford’s fumbling around definitely creates some believable tension along the way.

If you’ve had to deal with bullies and insecurity about your looks, this book could be triggering at times. However, I also found it refreshing and funny. I’ve read too many “’ugly duckling’ stories that rely on makeovers and being liked in spite of one’s looks. I really enjoyed reading a book about people who fall for each other because of who they are instead.

~ Lynn Spencer

Grade:           B+               Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

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I enjoy spending as much time as I can between the covers of a book, traveling through time and around the world. When I'm not having adventures with fictional characters, I'm an attorney in Virginia and I love just hanging out with my husband, little man, and the cat who rules our house.