Review: Pricks and Pragmatism by JL Merrow *Free right now for Kindle and Nook*

Pricks and Pragmatism is a romance novella in the m/m subgenre (Samhain, 2010), set on the south coast of England. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is free right now on Kindle and Nook. If you like this subgenre of romance, you’d be crazy not to download it right now.

How it starts tells you most of what you need to know about the plot:

I looked up from my Uni notes on Rakes and Libertines as Sebastian walked into the flat. He was a vision in Armani, as always, his sleek black hair allowed to grey artfully just at the temples and no further. He’d said once he thought it gave him gravitas; I’d told him I’d grab his arse any time he wanted.

I was lying on the rug in front of the mock fireplace wearing nothing but the Calvin Kleins he’d bought me. On the rug, because Sebastian would have thrown a hissy fit if I’d taken pens on the sofa; in my underwear, because there’s nothing wrong with giving a bloke something nice to look at after a hard day at the office.

I flashed him my best smile over my bare shoulder. “Hey, handsome.”

He didn’t smile back. There was a strange tension around his eyes that made me think that, if it hadn’t been for the Botox, he’d have been frowning. His gaze travelled down my body and stopped at my arse, and for a moment there was something almost like regret in his eyes. That was when I realised what was coming, before he even opened his mouth. “Luke, I need you to move out by the weekend.”

They always said it like that. Never “I want you to move out,” because if it was only something they wanted, maybe I’d try and talk them out of it. Safer to say they needed me to go, like it was out of their hands. Sometimes they added a bit, dressed it up with “It’s been fun”, or “Sorry”, but the bottom line was always the same. I never made a scene. After all, chances were whoever they were chucking me out for wasn’t going to last, and I might want to come back one day.

The narrator, Luke Corbin, is a university student who hopes to become a journalist. He’s already published a couple of freelance articles (one on domestic violence among gay men), but he needs to finish school and get a steady job. Luke is bleach blond, small but dense with muscle, well-dressed, and gorgeous. He loves sex, and he’s only too happy to offer it to a flatmate with means. He enjoys the good life, appreciates tailored suits and fine food, and at first seems not just resigned, but fairly content with his lifestyle.

After getting jilted by Sebastian, Luke moves in with Russell, a friend of a friend. Russell is a chemical engineer with a nice apartment near the docks overlooking Southampton Water. He’s polite and kind, but not the type Luke is used to:

Well, he was a bit of a geek. Actually, he was a lot of a geek. Round face and too-long mousy brown hair, although at least he’d washed it. An actual beard to match; and we’re not talking a neatly trimmed goatee, either. He wore a shapeless sweater over a shirt his mum must have bought him, and glasses from Nerds’R’Us.

Russell sets off Luke’s gaydar, but he’s not interested in sex, and actually seems a bit scandalized that Luke assumes their living arrangement includes it. Luke’s not sure how to respond to Russell, so he settles for making him dinner each night and trying to serve him in more platonic ways.

Slowly (or, as slowly as possible given the page constraint of a novella), over dinners, nights at the pub, and chats about their childhoods, they become real friends. Luke has to learn to value himself for more than a bit of fun, and Russell, well, there wasn’t much character development in Russell, as there was a slow unveiling of his character to Luke, and thus, to the reader.  But there’s no question that his association with Luke opens up new vistas for him, sexual and otherwise.

When I respond so immediately, and so positively, to a romance, I get lost in it, and it’s often hard to articulate what I loved about it. I’ll just list a few things here: (1) the geographical setting, used to great effect (2) the social setting, a believable and complex web of male relationships, gay and straight (3) the economic setting — working blokes, (4) the characters who popped, especially Luke, who was a lovable rascal from the first page, but also the secondary characters like Sebastian (5) a hero who was not very attractive or suave, and never had to endure a makeover, a nice change, (6) the author’s voice, economical yet lively.

Of course, things get wrapped up too quickly. And, as I mentioned, Russell could have used more development. Finally, the novella was a bit waffly on the question of why Luke was the way he was: the introduction of daddy issues was predictable in this subgenre, but as well done as it could be.

I will definitely be reading more by this author.

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