We find ourselves this week in small town Tennessee, where the good guys work on cars and court their ladies properly; the bad guys ride motorcycles and have no concept of “lady” or “properly,” and there are more beards than a Portland craft beer/indie music festival. At the base of the Great Smokey Mountains and chock full of well-mannered, well-read, hillbilly heartthrobs, novelist Penny Reid’s Green Valley, TN is a beautiful place in more ways than one.
Type: Classified as contemporary adult romance, but you could argue there are new adult aspects to it as well. Some background: “New Adult” is supposedly a category for readers who fall somewhere between Young Adult and…Old Adult? Experienced Adult? Worldly Adult? I don’t really know. But the protagonists in “new adult” books tend to be in their late teens/early twenties and have fewer “baggage from bad relationship” and “career” problems and more “student loan” and “drama with parents” problems.
The couple: Jessica James, recent college-grad turned hometown math teacher and who’s been utterly infatuated with Beau Winston since they were teenagers; and Duane Winston, Beau Winston’s surlier identical twin, who fixes cars (full-time) and races them (part-time) and who is not the object of Jessica’s affection. At least, not for 30 or 40 pages.
Tropes: Small town, family complications, series with overlapping characters, lots of beards (the beard thing isn’t really a trope yet, but Penny Reid seems to be trying her damndest to change that).
The story: Jessica moved home after college to save up money so that she could spend the rest of her life traveling the world far from Tennessee. She inconveniently develops feelings for Duane, who’s actually had feelings for her for a decade (despite her crush on his twin brother). Duane is tied to Green Valley by the small business he’s partly owns, his five brothers and sister, and the fact that he likes it there. So, we have our romantic conflict. Sure, you’d think they could just sit down and work out some kind of compromise, but they keep getting distracted by all of their angst and feelings. Plus, Duane is trying to deal with the fact that the local biker gang (motorcycle club if you’re classy) is trying to blackmail him and his brothers. And there’s the evenings sucked up by racing cars, and the time Jessica has to spend sorting out some unexpected family issues. Plus, the reader is pretty well occupied with the task of sorting out which of the other five Winston brothers is which, so really, everyone is much too busy to be problem-solving how Duane and Jessica can live happily ever after.
How’s the sex? It gets the job done, and that’s not a dig. The sex isn’t really an anchor of the story, but that works. The chemistry between the characters is well established, and there’s clearly a physical connection as well. Even though the sex scenes are lower priority than the characters, relationships, and humor in the book, they’re effectively steamy and move the plot along efficiently. Yes, this probably the first positive romance novel review of all time that describes the sex as “efficient.” Try to stay open-minded.
Is this book for you? Penny Reid is an author I recommend to people who haven’t really read romance novels, but want to dip a toe in the water. Reading this kind of book is like bowling with the bumpers in the alleys – it’s fun, you get a little low-stakes practice, and everyone sort of wins. Spun off from Reid’s Knitting in the City series, Truth or Beard (the first in a new different series) focuses on comedy and romance in equal measure, and the balance works. You can tell that the style is different just from the name of this book. Truth or Beard would be a weird title in any genre, but it’s an especially round peg for the square hole of breathy romance vocabulary.
Truth or Beard’s characters are also more confident and less air-brushed that many other romance novel leads. Jessica is nerdy. And not cute, quirky, hipster nerdy: she’s an adult woman who goes to Halloween as sexy Gandalf because she thinks it’s funny. Duane is a sort of cranky mechanic who knows what he wants and goes after it. He’s not a damaged businessman, or an undercover FBI agent, or a kinky billionaire, or a broody Navy Seal. He’s a mechanic in love. And that’s enough for everyone involved.
As for the biker gang subplot, it served its purpose and hooked me into a storyline that will almost definitely reappear throughout the series (keep your eye on Billy and Claire, you guys). I honestly have no idea what to say about the accuracy (or not) of it since I have absolutely no experience with biker gangs, which in fairness to me, feels like the appropriate amount of experience to have had with biker gangs.
Conclusion: This book doesn’t take itself seriously in any way, and thank God for that; it wouldn’t have worked if it did. It’s entertaining and quirky, and – yes – romantic, but even the serious parts seem appropriately low stakes. It’s a fun, quick read, and it’ll make you glad there are five more Winston brothers to charm the pants off the ladies of eastern Tennessee. Probably while battling bikers.