This month’s TBR challenge prompt of “grumpy” yielded almost an embarrassment of riches. After all, grouchy heroes aren’t exactly a rare find in Romlandia. And grumpy/sunshine romances are having a bit of a moment now, too. Lynn read a recent release that she had been longing to try. That one turns the trope on its head a bit, with the heroine playing the part of the grouch. Caz found a workplace romance starring a grumpy boss, and both books were winners.

The Astronaut and the Star by Jen Comfort

I’ll admit that I cheated a little on TBR Challenge this month. I usually try to dig deep into the archives of my TBR, but when I saw the “Grumpy” prompt, all I could think of was the grumpy/sunshine romance I’d picked up from Amazon First Reads last month, based entirely on the author’s hilarious tweets incorporating 1 star reviews. I’ve been looking an excuse to read Jen Comfort’s The Astronaut and the Star, so here we go.

The setup sounds like slapstick comedy. An intense astronaut, intent on nothing but being the first woman on the moon, gets assigned to provide a movie star with some astronaut experience for what is supposed to be an Oscar-worthy dramatic breakthrough role. Regina “Reggie” Hayes is our very serious heroine who is definitely cast in the “grumpy” role. She’s openly bisexual, unapologetically refuses to suffer fools gladly, and is not looking for a relationship. Sunshine comes in the form of Jon Leo, the sweet and goofy himbo hero, who turns out to be every bit as kind as he seems at first blush – and much smarter than most folks give him credit for. He’s initially not sure what to make of Reggie, but something about her intrigues him.

There’s obvious chemistry between these two from the beginning, so when they get sent to the training station in the middle of the Arizona desert, any reader will know that something is about to happen. At first, things feel pretty rocky. Reggie is undoubtedly talented, but she’s also sarcastic and at times condescending, which makes some of her earlier interactions with Jon a bit uncomfortable to read. However, to her credit, she is one of the first to pick up on the fact that Jon has more going for him than muscles and a handsome face.

While a lot of this book requires major suspension of disbelief, it’s a really fun read so I had no issue with that. Reggie and Jon training out in the desert while trying not to be too painfully aware of each other made for great reading. And while the story may have been over the top, the characters actually made sense in a way. Reggie comes from a family that combines emotional distance with relentless pressure. It’s a wonder that woman hadn’t turned into a diamond.

I adored Jon. Even if they go to extremes, he and his mom model how a family can be imperfect and yet warm and inviting. He’s a kind, fun and slightly flaky hero who tries so hard. Throughout the book, there are hints that Jon may have undiagnosed ADHD and seeing him start to realize why he has the problems that he has was bittersweet. On the one hand, he gets answers but on the other hand, he could have used tools to address the condition sooner.

The romance in this book is very slow burn. That generally works for me, though Reggie’s coldness toward Jon lasted long enough that I found myself a bit worried for their relationship. However, the characters grow throughout the story, so I think that will give a lot of readers hope for them. I have to say that the ending made me believe in them more.

This is one of those books that I suspect will be “love it or hate it” for a lot of people. I think many will like Jon. Reggie will probably take a little longer to grow on most people, but I enjoyed seeing a heroine with such an open passion for her job. Neither is a bland placeholder character and I can see them being polarizing. I fell into the “love it” camp. The over-the-top antics in this book cracked me up in several places and I loved watching the author show readers so many little details of the everyday ways in which the leads came to appreciate each other. I hope Jen Comfort writes more romantic comedy because this was fun.

Grade:           A-                    Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

The Dating Experiment by Briar Prescott

After reading and enjoying Briar Prescott’s The Happy List, I jumped straight into book two in her Better With You series, The Dating Experiment.  It sounded like it would be right up my alley – a grumpy boss and his snarky assistant who start falling in love while chatting online without knowing who they’re chatting with.  I love epistolary novels (I suppose chatting on apps and texts is the modern-day equivalent!) and The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films; I enjoyed the author’s writing style and the humour and banter in The Happy List, so I was anticipating a great read when I started The Dating Experiment.

Workaholic lawyer Connor Quinn is the older brother of Gray from The Happy List, and in that book, he came across as something of an arsehole.  He brought Gray up after their parents died, and was probably more father than brother (Gray was twelve, Connor was in his early twenties); he seemed demanding and intractable, although he began to thaw somewhat towards the end and there were glimpses of a better relationship for the two brothers on the horizon.

When I started The Dating Experiment, I thought I might be reading a carbon copy of my favourite Lily Morton book, Rule Breaker.  The premise and character-types are identical – cantankerous boss and cheeky assistant who secretly pine for each other and communicate through the sort of high-level uber-snark that bewilders everyone around them – but it’s an oft-used trope and the banter is genuinely funny, so I was able to get past the similarities.

At the beginning of the story, Con’s PA Jamie receives a package containing an old mobile phone and a letter from his recently deceased grandfather.  He used to play Words With Friends regularly, and in the note, asks Jamie to get in touch with his regular partner Seb to make it clear he didn’t concede their final game – “Tell him fate intervened.  Maybe play a game in my honor.”

Jamie does as asked, and finds himself enjoying what proves to be an unexpectedly entertaining conversation with Seb, whose directness and deadpan humour make him smile.  Seb and Jamie chat for a while, then Seb challenges Jamie to a game – and before long, chatting with Seb about everything and nothing and playing Words With Friends becomes Jamie’s favourite part of the day and something to be looked forward to.  After a few weeks, Jamie starts to realise that there’s something going on that’s more than just a couple of guys idly chatting or playing an online game.  Even though they’ve never met, he’s attracted to Seb and is pretty sure the attraction is mutual.

When Jamie suggests to Seb that they should meet, he’s disappointed when the other man turns him down – but Jamie really feels as though they could have something special and, a few days later, decides to go for it.  “I dare you to have lunch with me.”

Of course, Jamie is shocked to see his boss walk into the diner and sit in the booth at which he’s arranged to meet Seb.  How the hell can Connor Quinn, the most “aggressively normal” – nay boring – man on the planet possibly be the warm, funny guy he’s been getting to know over the last few weeks?

The set-up is my catnip, and I really liked reading Connor and Jamie’s text exchanges; I loved watching them getting to know each other as the people they really are rather than their office personas, and enjoyed the way the author reveals so much about them through these conversations, which are real and funny and warm – and I was totally Here For It.  After they discover the truth (Sebastian is Con’s middle name, btw), their relationship becomes somewhat strained, but mostly as the result of the sheer overload of the sexual tension thrumming between them.  As any romance reader will know, that amount of UST isn’t going to stay “U” for very long; an explosive sexual encounter puts paid to any thoughts they might have had of things going back to the way they were, and Jamie decides to head off the ‘it was a mistake and we can’t do this again’ speech from Con by suggesting the titular dating experiment.  They won’t date; instead they’ll be two guys who hang out and do date-like stuff, but they won’t call it anything ‘official’ and will just go with the flow.

Okay, so I couldn’t honestly see how that was all that much different to actually dating, but I was enjoying the book so much, I went with it.  But then author goes on to tell us how Con and Jamie spend the next few weeks hanging out, going on not-dates, having lots of hot sex and spending whole nights together; however we get to see very little of it – we’re told – and that was disappointing.

Still, Con and Jamie have terrific chemistry and I really liked them as a couple; Jamie makes Con feel truly seen for probably the first time in his life and makes him want to come out of his protective shell a little, and Con encourages Jamie to pursue his own dreams.  The only real conflict in the story comes near the end when an old flame of Con’s appears to cause a bit of mischief that needn’t have been mischief at all – I could have smacked Con at that point.  I also had problems with the ending;  I’m not a fan of the public Grand Gesture, and even though I know Con was trying to be more spontaneous/less boring, it still felt completely out of character.

A couple of other niggles.  Jamie’s two friends Max and Anders (who star in books three and four in the series) don’t have very distinctive voices; not only do they sound like each other, they sound like Jamie, which made the few scenes in which they all appear a bit… samey.  Also, I didn’t really understand the author’s decision to have practically the entire first half of the book in Jamie’s PoV.  Con’s voice IS distinctive, so much so that it’s obvious he’s also Seb from the minute he and Jamie start messaging, so having some chapters from Con earlier wouldn’t have spoiled anything.

In the end though, I’m putting The Dating Experiment in the ‘win’ column, because more about it worked for me than didn’t, and honestly, most of the issues I’ve mentioned didn’t really impact on my enjoyment while I was reading; they just struck me afterwards!  If you’re in the market for a sexy, funny low-angst read, you could do worse than check this one out.

Grade:   B            Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at Amazon 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.