TBR Challenge September 2022 – Animals

This month’s TBR prompt, “Animals”, was a bit of a head scratcher. We both love animals, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to animal-centered romances. Lynn found a cozy romance between a cat lover and a dog lover, while Caz found herself a m/m romantic suspense featuring a cat-owning lead. So, what do you think about animals in romance novels? Any fictional pets you adore?

More Than Neighbors by Shannon Stacey

I love animals in real life, but I tend not to read lots of animal stories in fiction. I’ve been burned too many times by sad endings, or in the other extreme, I’ve encountered way too many cutesy puppies and kittens. However, I knew I loved Shannon Stacey’s books, so More Than Neighbors seemed perfect for this month’s TBR prompt.

This book is a sweet, cozy romance with a definite opposites attract theme. Meredith is a widowed mom who has returned to her small New England hometown to rebuild her life. Cam considers himself very much a city guy, and he’s just in Blackberry Bay to get answers to questions about his past. Meredith and her daughter have a dog who’s very much a member of the family, while Cam has been adopted by his late grandmother’s stubborn cat.

The love story in this book develops gradually and it’s very sweet. In the beginning, Meredith and Cam are very believable as neighbors who seem to have little in common, but who have been thrown together by virtue of living in houses next door to one another. Children in romance can be tricky, but Meredith’s young daughter Sophie is a very believable and curious six-year-old who feels the need to take in interest in their neighbor’s cat and all the goings-on next door.

Sophie definitely functions as a conduit to bring Meredith and Cam together, but I liked that she comes off as authentic. She’s not overly adorable, and neither does she walk around making speeches that sound like they come from an adult or (worse yet) from an intrusive narrator. Sophie being a kid and Meredith being an attentive parent simply brings the two of them in frequent contact with their new neighbor and along the way, a rapport develops.

The main drama here comes as the leads attempt to move on from their pasts. Meredith clearly loved her late husband, but now she is moving on and building a new life with her daughter. Cam, on the other hand, grew up with every material advantage but in a dysfunctional family. He’s been raised to be the good, loyal son and to help run the family business. However, the longer he stays in Blackberry Bay, the more Cam starts to think that he wants something different from life. He clearly had no intention of starting a relationship, but something about Meredith just calls to him.

While there is some emotional tension to the story, this one isn’t high angst. It’s a sweet, heartwarming story that moves gently through some heavy subjects. The characters are decent and authentic, and I could believe in a happily ever after for them. And to get back to our TBR theme, the pets make frequent appearances and are definitely very much part of the family.

~ Lynn Spencer

Grade:             B+                    Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

Pressure Head by J.L. Merrow

I was pretty stumped by this month’s prompt – Animals – not because I don’t like animals, but because I’m not especially drawn to books in which they feature heavily. So my choice this month is kind of ‘animal adjacent’ – the main character has two cats named Arthur and Merlin, which is about as close as I could get!

J.L. Merrow’s Plumber’s Mate Mysteries series consists of six books written between 2012 and 2021 (and I don’t know if book six was the final one) and the PoV character is indeed a plumber, Tom Paretsky, who lives and works in a village near St. Albans in Hertfordshire. But he’s a plumber with a difference; he has some sort of sixth sense that enables him to find things – hidden things, usually, all the guilt and shame and sneakiness involved in the hiding acting as a kind of beacon that often tells him what the hidden thing is likely to be.

He was only six when he found a dead body for the first time.

When Pressure Head begins, Tom receives a call from Dave Southgate, a plain clothes copper who has become a mate, of sorts, asking him for help locating a young woman by the name of Melanie Porter, who has been reported missing. An anonymous tip has led the police to search the woodland near Melanie’s home – but before Tom can get started, he and Southgate are approached by a tall, blond, good-looking man Tom eventually recognises – with a sinking heart – as Phil Morrison, who, when they were at school, was one of the gang of bullies who made his life a misery. Seeing Phil again brings a lot of unpleasant memories back for Tom – not least of which is being hit by a car while he was running from the gang and landing in hospital with a broken pelvis. Southgate is pissed off as well – because Morrison is an ex-copper-turned-private-investigator who has been hired by the Porters to find their daughter, and he doesn’t want him interfering in a police investigation. Tom and Phil waste no time in sniping at each other before Southgate breaks it up and hauls Tom off into the woods – where he finds Melanie’s body.

Tom doesn’t expect to see Phil again – so he’s surprised when he turns up on his doorstep the next morning to tell Tom that Melanie’s parents have asked to meet him. Tom isn’t sure what good he can do – and tells Phil that – but having learned the day before that an old schoolmate is in the frame for the murder, and wanting to do right by him, he agrees to go anyway and to continue to help Phil out with the investigation.

The mystery here is not overly complex, but it’s engaging and kept me guessing along with Tom and Phil as they work their way towards finding out the truth. In many ways, it’s your typical English-country-village cozy mystery (think Midsomer Murders!) – except that the protagonist is a slightly psychic gay plumber with a dodgy hip and a nice line in snark – combined with a burgeoning romance and more than a hint of comedy.

Tom is the sole narrator and I loved his voice. He’s endearingly self-deprecating and funny with a nice turn of descriptive phrase:

By six o’clock the butterflies in my stomach had mutated into flying elephants all flapping around like Dumbo drunk on champagne.

He’s a great character with a strong moral compass and an air of innocence about him despite a bit of a world-weary exterior. He’s angry at discovering that Phil – who had coined the nickname “Poofski at school and been one of his leading tormentors – is queer himself and that the intervening years haven’t done quite enough to enable Tom to forget the stupid crush he had on Phil back then, or prevent it from coming back. We don’t get into Phil’s head, which makes him harder to get to know, but the author does a great job of telling us what we need to know through what she shows us of him through Tom’s eyes, that he’s tightly wound and carrying a fair bit of baggage – and that he is equally smitten with Tom. They have great chemistry and their romance is very much a slow-burn, which makes perfect sense given they’ve got a lot to work through, and I appreciated that even when they start getting on better, the hurt and the bitterness and resentment don’t simply disappear. They’ll be getting along fine when something will trip them up and they lash out, which felt realistic under the circumstances. Healing is a slow process.

Tom and Phil are both complex, flawed individuals, and although Tom is the easier to like of the two, Phil’s character development is really well done. There’s a small but well-drawn secondary cast, too; I enjoyed Tom’s friendship with Southgate, and Tom’s best friend Gary – a campanologist – and his new boyfriend Julian, a dwarf ex-porn star with attitude for miles – are a hoot.

Pressure Head is a lot of fun, and ends with the mystery solved and a firm HFN for Tom and Phil. I definitely plan to continue with the series.

~ Caz Owens

Grade: B+                    Sensuality: Warm

Buy it at: Amazon, Audible or your local independent retailer

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