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JL Merrow

REVIEW:  Caught! by JL Merrow

REVIEW: Caught! by JL Merrow


Dear JL Merrow,

There are some books which take time to reveal their joys and others which hook a reader from the start. Each have their own place – sometimes the book that is not immediately catchy turns out to be a comfort read for years to come. This was a book I relaxed into from the beginning.  Told from the first person perspective of elementary school teacher Robert Emeny, Caught! is a little delight.  Just like the picture on the cover, Robert is a somewhat quirky man but he is never a caricature.  He is precise and ordered and kind of shy.  He prefers bow ties but has a few of the regular sort of ties for emergencies.  Apart from when he’s running or sleeping, he’s always wearing a tie.  He’s the type of guy who knows he has precisely twenty-six minutes of his lunch break remaining and that he takes thirteen minutes in the shower.  While it could come across as annoying, in Robert it was endearing. I think that was because at a bone-deep level he is a genuinely kind and honourable man.

Robert has recently moved to Shamwell after leaving his previous teaching role (at a prestigious high school teaching A-Level Maths) in sudden circumstances which are not fully revealed until late in the book.  He has taken a job at St. Saviour’s Elementary School  where he earns significantly less money. It is, in many ways, a step down for him.  Fortunately, some years after the death of his father (which left he and his mother penniless), his mother remarried well and Robert now has some financial support from his family.  This support enables him to rent Old Hatter’s Cottage in the middle of the village.

Robert is sometimes slow to pick up on cues and tends to second guess himself, so his romance with Sean Grant, a local pest exterminator, has a shaky start.  Sean’s twin nephews Wills and Harry (yes, really) are in Robert’s class (where Robert is called “Mr. Enemy” by almost everyone).  As Sean’s sister Debs (a single mother)  is recovering from recent chemotherapy treatment, Sean often does the school run and attends other school functions.  Sean is openly bisexual (yay for more bisexual representation!) and Robert is initially convinced Sean’s interest lies in the direction of Rose Wyman, a fellow teacher at St. Saviour’s and Robert’s friend.

Robert does have some anxiety over dating a bisexual man – he wonders if Sean will get a craving for ladyparts and leave but they talk about it and Sean is able to put Robert’s mind at rest on that score.  The explanation is simple but not simplistic and makes sense without being trite. I felt it was an understandable concern – Robert is only attracted to men so he is a bit at a loss to understand bisexual attraction but once he and Sean discuss it, the matter rests and falls into the category of “not a big deal”. I appreciated it was there but that not much was made of it.

At the same time he left his previous teaching post, Robert’s relationship with fellow teacher, Crispin, ended too.  After his heartbreak over that breakup and the circumstances surrounding it, he is shy of getting involved again.   Sean is a bit touchy about the social differences he perceives between he and Robert but Robert isn’t at all a snob.

Even though the story is told only from Robert’s perspective, I felt I got to know Sean reasonably well, as there was plenty of dialogue in the book.  I enjoyed their interactions and the way they celebrated their differences as well as the things they had in common (of which there were surprisingly many). They have a good sexual chemistry and there are some sexy scenes but it’s not terribly explicit, which I thought suited the book perfectly.

The kettle boiled noisily and we broke apart, both of us breathing rather quickly. “Um. Coffee?” I said, my voice shaky.

“Uh, yeah. Wow.”


“Definitely wow. Talk about your hidden depths.”

I gave him a sidelong look. “Not that hidden, surely?”

“Depends. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the way you dress— it’s different and fun and all that—but yeah , it’s not exactly in-your-face sexy, is it?” He gave my rear a gentle squeeze. “Course, when I saw you in your running gear, with your hair all messed up and that… I mean, most of the time you’re so put together, you know? It was like… Shit , this is a bad analogy, ’cos I liked you before, anyway, but it was like that really corny moment in films when the girl in the lab coat takes off her glasses and shakes out her hair, and suddenly she’s gorgeous.”

I frowned. “I don’t wear glasses. And my hair’s too short to shake out. Plus, and I really feel I should emphasise this point to avoid any possible misunderstandings, I’m not a girl.”

Sean laughed. “I told you it was a shit analogy.” He brought one hand up to stroke my face, and I fought the urge to nuzzle into it as his other hand slid farther around my waist. “But you are gorgeous.”

I enjoyed Robert’s interactions with the students and in particular, young Charlie. I loved how Charlie grew through the course of the book. The scene with Charlie’s dad was a favourite but I will leave it for readers to find out why.

Rose was somewhat of a caricature, even though I liked her quite a bit.  She is loud and forthright but as it happens, that is just what Robert needs – without her interference perhaps he and Sean would never have been. She did have some story of her own and wasn’t merely there to be the enabler for Robert’s romantic adventures but I think some will regard her as too over the top and stereotypical.

I loved some of the word pictures you drew and some of them made me laugh out loud.

Fordy’s always rather exuberant brows had now entirely met in the middle, like a couple of very small, coy ferrets exchanging a kiss.

There were a few times in the story that I felt Robert’s dialogue didn’t fit my image of his character – mostly this was when he was being a bit sexually provocative but this may well have been a failing of my imagination rather than anything else.

Generally, I prefer when characters talk to each other and I’m not a fan of misunderstandings.  That said, Robert has very good reasons for not sharing his secrets with Sean immediately and I didn’t think their falling out over it was drawn out.

Robert, somewhat unexpectedly for him, finds a home and a community in Shamwell and he and Sean make a lovely couple.  I had so much fun reading this book.  I give Caught! a B+ and my recommendation. I’m definitely looking forward to more Shamwell Tales.



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REVIEW:  Relief Valve by JL Merrow

REVIEW: Relief Valve by JL Merrow

ReliefValve72lgDear JL Merrow,

I’m a fan of your books (although I haven’t read them all), I enjoy your humour and writing style and I liked Pressure Head very much.  So I expected to like Relief Valve.  Unfortunately, the romance felt underrepresented in the story and I didn’t get to know Phil better as I’d been hoping to do.  While I still enjoyed it overall, it wasn’t a book which compelled me to keep reading.  That said, the back half of the story was better for me – mainly because it contained more meaningful interaction between Tom and Phil.

While I think Relief Valve could be read as a stand-alone (in theory) I recommend readers start at the beginning.  There isn’t a lot of revision in this book and even though I’d read Pressure Head, I found myself a little lost at times, trying to remember what had happened in the earlier book.

**mild spoilers for Pressure Head follow**

Tom Paretski is a plumber who lives in St. Albans in Hertfordshire, to the  north of London. He was the younger “surprise” child of his parents; his brother and sister quite a bit older than he.  When he was 17, Tom was hit by a car when he was running away from some high school bullies. He spent a lot of time in hospital being put back together and didn’t end up going back to school. He is mostly okay now but his hip, with its pins and screws still gives him grief from time to time.

Phil Morrison is a private detective and he was also one of the bullies that chased Tom that day so they have history.  How they move from mistrust and dislike to attraction, forgiveness and a relationship is covered in the first book.

Tom has a “talent” for finding hidden things.  It makes him a very good plumber because he can find a leak in a pipe behind a wall in no time at all with pinpoint accuracy.  It also means that his friend Detective Dave Southgate sometimes asks him to help out in cases regarding missing people and property.   As Relief Valve starts, Tom and Phil have begun to settle into a relationship.  Tom is still a bit uncertain and he finds Phil hard to read.  This made it a little difficult for me as reader, because the story is told from Tom’s first person point of view.  In the first half of the book in particular, Phil doesn’t talk much (not that he gets garrulous by the end, he just talks more later) and, if anything, I found Phil more opaque than he was in the first book.  I had hoped to get more insight into his character in this book but in some ways I felt I knew him less well at the end.

Tom gets a call from his older sister Cherry, with whom he hasn’t spoken in a while.  She is a lawyer and is the executor of the will of a former neighbour who has left an odd bequest to Tom.  He has to use his “talent” to find the codicil to his “Auntie Lol’s” will.  When he meets with Cherry, she also tells him she’s getting engaged and invites Tom and Phil to her engagement party.  Gregory Titmus, Cherry’s fiance,  is a canon of the Church of England and a rather… unusual character.    Cherry collapses at the party and only emergency treatment saves her life.  When it becomes clear that Cherry has been poisoned, Tom and Phil (and the police, via Detective Southgate)  investigate to find out whodunnit.

In the meantime, Tom’s best mate, Gary (who is a gay man of the more flaming variety) is planning his wedding to the love of his life Darren (who is an ex-porn star dwarf).  Darren is not merely a prop or a caricature played for laughs.  He is a vibrant character who kind of takes over whenever he’s on page.  He’s pugnacious and kind of in-your-face  (he’s 4’6″ but always calls Tom – who is not tall – “shortarse” or names in that vein) and he is also deeply in love with Gary and very protective of him.  (Also, Darren’s former porn antics come in handy for Tom later in the book when he’s put on the spot at a meeting of the local literary society.)

Tom has a self-deprecating and dry wit which makes him an entertaining narrator.

Gregory guffawed. Seriously. I’d always wondered what a guffaw would sound like, and now I felt a gentle pang of nostalgia for my lost ignorance.

I mostly enjoyed the humour but there were times I felt it palled because I was longing for some further depth/insight into the relationship between Tom and Phil.  In some ways I felt the story manufactured conflict between them in the way that seemed incongruous to what I remembered of their status at the end of the first book.  At the start of Relief Valve, things seem uncertain between them but nothing untoward has actually happened.  I think it was a deliberate decision to save the sex scenes for later in the book and merely mention in suggestive phrases that they were getting it on regularly, but that added to the sense that all was not well – I didn’t see intimacy and I missed it.  Intimacy is what I’m after in a romance.  It often is displayed in sex scenes but it doesn’t have to be. Some of the most romantic books I have read have been closed-bedroom-door books.  But in the first part of Relief Valve in particular, that intimacy was lacking (perhaps deliberately?) and I was doubting the relationship.  In the second half, things picked up and I got some of that intimacy I was after (and sex scenes too) but it still wasn’t enough to really satisfy.

The mystery has a few red herrings, some of which I felt were a little clumsy and strange and generally, I found this aspect a little less engrossing than the first book.  That said, I’m not a big mystery reader (I’m hopeless at solving the puzzles and I’m suspicious of everything and everyone in a vain attempt to work out the guilty party before the big reveal.)  I think if a reader were to approach the book as a mystery with some comedic aspects and a slow building romantic arc too, it might be more successful than it was for me, who read it mainly for the romance.

I do still plan to read the next book in the series – revelations about Tom’s history made late in the book will tempt me back, and, when I get it, I love Tom’s and Phil’s dynamic.  I enjoy the secondary cast very much.  They are quirky and individual and well developed (which makes Phil’s character all the more frustrating for me). But, I’m really hoping that in the next instalment we find out more about Phil and get further insight into him.  I liked Relief Valve but I wish I’d loved it.  Grade: C+



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