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REVIEW: Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson

Apples Should Be Red by Penny Watson

Dear Penny Watson:

I’ve mentioned before that I love novellas. Done right, they can be perfect story gems, and possibly because of my crazy workload or possibly because I am myself a writer, I love being able to curl up with a story and finish it in one evening, without having to either stay up until two in the morning or take a break halfway through. (If I’m deep into work on one of my own books, I don’t want to spend the next day more anxious to figure out what is going to happen in this other author’s book than what is going to happen in the one I’m trying to write.) To me, a novella can be an utterly delightful visit to another author’s world and sense of story.

I’m also busy working on Mack Corey’s story (that’s Cade and Jaime’s father, for those of you who read the Chocolate books), and possibly because of this might be more alert to mentions of books with “older” couples. (The term does drive me a little bit crazy, however. Can I just mention that most of the fifty-year-olds I know are fit, active people who are in the prime of their careers and sense of confidence and personal power? Their sore muscles are usually from their latest triathlon or Ultimate Frisbee tournament, a soreness which, granted, lasts a couple more days than it did when they were forty or thirty, but I’m not sure why that seems to disqualify them from the average romance. When I first started trying to sink into Mack and his heroine’s point of views, I thought through every single fifty-year-old I know, and not one of them seemed to qualify for an “older” couple. Now I do understand that I am entirely surrounded by obsessive achievers, in my social circle, but even accounting for that bias: fifty isn’t ninety, people. It’s a great age to write about.)

Anyway, in this context, I happened to catch a Tweet from Penny Reid recommending Penny (no relation) Watson’s APPLES SHOULD BE RED, and since I had just read and loved Reid’s NEANDERTHAL SEEKS HUMAN, I snatched this up.

I’m still grinning. Oh, lord, this story. It puts the comic back into romance and the romantic back into comedy. It is absolutely precious. Although given that if you did a word cloud of the story, a big giant FUCK would probably dominate the cloud, that word precious might surprise you.

But that giant F word is because 62-year-old curmudgeon Tom, our hero, is utterly incorrigible. He’s the cussing, go-to-hell-and-leave-me-alone, impossible grump we’d all like to be sometimes. His scowling, swearing point of view was the hilarious highlight of this book. Don’t get me wrong: Bev, the heroine, is a wonderful character. But Tom had me in stitches.

Tom Jenkins’ son is married to Beverly Anderson’s daughter, and this year, through some catastrophes of termites and plumbing at the other houses in the family, Tom finds himself with the horrifying responsibility of hosting Thanksgiving. Tom mans up to it, though: He figured what the hell, he’d throw a bird on his grill with a beer in its ass and slide a can of cranberry onto a plate. Mrs. Anderson, Karen’s mom, would be horrified. Which made the whole debacle even more appealing. She was so buttoned-up, he wondered how she didn’t choke on her perfect strand of pearls.

God, shopping for a grill is such a pain in the ass, though. The prices people charge for their retarded grills. Seven hundred goddamned dollars.

This whole holiday bullshit was going to drive him to drink.

                  More.

                  Drink more.

But, worse and worse, with all those plumbing/termite issues, Karen’s buttoned-up, pearl-choked mother, Bev, must crash alone at Tom’s place for the three days leading up to Thanksgiving.

Beverly.

                  Fuck.

                  He had no idea what Mrs. Beverly Anderson expected. But he wasn’t a goddamned bed-and-breakfast. Also, he wasn’t feeling particularly welcoming. Mrs. Anderson was a snooty-ass bitch, and her late husband, who’d keeled over from heart disease the year before, had been a slimy snake dressed up in a three-piece suit.

                  Tom pulled out a rumpled pack of Marlboros from his front shirt pocket and grunted. Empty.

                  Fuck.

Not to worry, Bev’s impressions of him are even more straightforward: Tom was an ass.

                  …A horrible, rude man. Crude and raw…He hated everyone, and everything. And talked about it all the time.

His garden stinks, his grass in front is four feet tall (although oddly perfectly manicured in back) and even his truck was rude.

And it only gets better from there. As Tom tries to make everyone eat Thanksgiving off paper plates and as Bev tries to pull off a Thanksgiving worthy of the only value she’s ever had in her life, that of being the wife and mother who waited on her slimy husband hand and foot for thirty years and got a string of pearls to show for it.

It is hilarious. The battle of wills between Tom, with all his cussing, and Bev, who, oh horrors, redoes his front yard to make it inviting, so that people might feel comfortable stopping by and talking to him, and who even finds the perfect grumpy looking gnome to plant in it by the daisies, in honor of Tom…it’s just priceless.

But through all the humor, there is this amazing heart and sweetness, and even tenderness, as Tom cusses his way to love and Bev agrees to take a bite out of an apple that isn’t red. (Because, in case you didn’t notice the title, apples should be red.)

While it might be going too far to say that Tom has a heart of gold, his heart does turn out to be gold for Beverly. And as it happens, his leathery hands and willingness to call a slimy snake a slimy snake might be just what Bev needs in her life.

It’s such a delight of a story. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone would regret spending an hour with this couple. You hate to finish it and be forced to abandon Tom’s point of view to, sigh, go and be polite to people. If you can’t bear stand-up comedy levels of profanity, maybe you should give this one a pass. But if you’re looking for something a little different, for characters who aren’t your standard formula, for a thumb-your-nose-at-life-and-fall-in-love-anyway comedy full of heart and a fundamental sweetness, I can only urge you to give this one a try.

It’s worth it just to see how Tom reacts to the gnome.

Laura Florand

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29 Comments

  1. Jody Wallace
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 11:08:02

    SOLD!

  2. Anonymouse
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 12:26:28

    Me too!

  3. CG
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 13:33:25

    Ditto!

  4. JennyPK
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 13:34:07

    I’m not typically drawn to novellas myself, but I am so buying this one and reading it as a reward for finishing up my grading for the week.

    Speaking of how a younger generation sometimes views “old people,” here’s an excerpt from a 200-level college English paper I graded earlier this morning that, honestly, cracked me up with its naivete: “Most of the time you’re playing these [multi-player video] games and it’s against somebody who is good; it’s usually a man who is about thirty to forty years old. It’s weird to think that people that old play games like this but it isn’t uncommon and not a lot of people think that it is weird.” Oh, the stereotypes and ginormous age-gap evident in this 18-20?-year-old’s paper! Who knew people “that old” played video games?! ;)

  5. Lada
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 13:40:09

    I’ve been hearing about this book but this review really sold me. I’m still laughing! My BFF is going on vacation tomorrow so I bought her a copy, too. I agree with everything you said about the “older couple” stereotypes (none of which work any longer…they don’t even work for my 70 year old mom) and hope that authors like yourself and Penny Watson will keep changing that.

  6. Christine
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 15:10:18

    Great review! I actually bought this book this morning, after seeing you and Penny Reid raving about it on twitter! It’s going on the e-reader tonight.

  7. Lexxi
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 15:39:29

    I loved this story!!!!

  8. Julie
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 16:15:14

    I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  9. Jayne
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 18:32:37

    I bought and read this after Laura’s enthusiastic endorsement and I loved it. Tom and Bev change just enough in their love for each other but not too much that it’s not believable. He’ll still probably have to be forced to be more than grumpy around the neighbors and she’ll still probably have to be kept from giving into her Martha Stewart tendencies. But together they’ll find a balance and have fun while doing that.

    I also like that Bev and Tom’s children are more than paper thin. True most of the story is about Bev and Tom but we get some glimpses of the younger couple and what makes their marriage tick.

  10. Penny Reid
    Mar 14, 2014 @ 23:20:28

    Loved this novella!! So happy to see/read your lovely review

  11. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 05:20:34

    @JennyPK: Well…18-year-olds. :) That’s a normal assumption/perspective at that age. But that doesn’t mean they’re right. :)

  12. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 05:43:53

    @Lada: Well, I’m not exactly the poster child. I didn’t really start thinking about this at all until someone asked me if I’d ever thought about writing Mack’s story. (My first thought was, “Well, but he’s fif–hold on.” Fortunately, I know a few real people :) and could actually start thinking about them, once my brain got in gear.) But that’s when I started thinking about how much older the “older” couples act and look in so many books than the people I know in real life.

    Virginia Kantra has a lovely secondary couple in her Dare Island series (Carolina Home, etc.) I want to say they’re 59/63? (I tweeted Virginia the other day to ask her, and now I can’t remember what she said.) They act like real people. (In fact, all the relationships and ages in that family feel true to life. I think she’s got a fantastic ability for three-dimensional characters and family relationships.)

    And it seems as if someone might have written a post for Dear Author sometime back, with suggestions of books that have “older” couples who don’t act prematurely decrepit? (I think this might have been a couple of years ago. It’s not something I was thinking much about at the time, so it’s a vague memory.)

  13. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 05:46:18

    @Lexxi: @Julie: @Jayne: I’m so glad you enjoyed it, too! It’s such a fun, feel-good read for me. Tom. :) I start laughing just thinking about his refreshing take on the world. :)

  14. LeeF
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 07:26:53

    I don’t generally like novellas but I sense a conspiracy afoot. First, Jane’s review of The Nekkid Truth practically forces me to buy it (well, yes price was a factor). Now your charming review and pithy comments about “older couples” -ahem- convinces me to purchase another, within the same week. In future, I may need to amend my first comment.

  15. Rei Scar
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 09:36:40

    “God, shopping for a grill is such a pain in the ass, though. The prices people charge for their retarded grills.”

    This doesn’t look like it was quoted from the book – could we not have offensive language in the reviews, please? It jumped out at me in particular because DA usually works so hard to keep that kind of stuff out. The book looks fun and the rest of the review was fine, but that seemed kind of…unnecessary.

  16. Virginia Kantra
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 09:55:33

    This looks right up my alley! Putting it at the top of my “after I finish this book” list. (And thank you for the shout out for Tom and Tess!)

  17. justturned59
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 16:38:04

    I just have to say thanks to Penny Watson for a lovely story and to Laura Florand for an amusing and insightful review that led me to this wonderful story and turned me on to a new (to me) author. It’s about time us aging baby boomers received novelistic permission to get our groove on!

  18. Jayne
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 18:10:43

    @Rei Scar: Having read the novella, I can say that this is the truth.

    He’s the cussing, go-to-hell-and-leave-me-alone, impossible grump we’d all like to be sometimes. His scowling, swearing point of view was the hilarious highlight of this book.

    If what Laura put in her review is language you find offensive, then this novella would probably not be for you as Tom swears a blue streak throughout the whole story.

  19. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 18:39:14

    @Rei Scar: Well…the actual quote is “Franck Bucknell is a fucking retard…Seven hundred for a grill? Bullshit.” Which is the very first sentence in his point of view, so we’re warned. I do understand that multiple terms in that quote are offensive to people, and if that’s the case, definitely don’t read it. To me, a lot of Tom’s POV has the effect of a stand-up comedy routine, as I mention at the end. That way comics will tread on taboos. He definitely does, and I think the author is upfront about that. 3 pages in, as soon as Tom’s POV starts…that’s how we start it. So we get that slap-in-the-face shock of him that comics use with some of the things they say. For anyone who is worried about that, I believe that’s the only use of the word “retard” in the text, but the F-word and “bullshit” are definitely all over the place.

  20. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 18:45:09

    @LeeF: Join the novella team! :) I absolutely love novellas (to write and to read), but I obviously love longer stories, too. You know what I’ve never managed to be convinced of? A romance short story. I think it works for fresh glimpses of old characters, but if it’s a new romance/new characters, it’s too frustrating for me to spend so little time with them. I’d be interested to see a list of people’s recommends for stories under 20,000 words, actually. (With new characters, not a revisit of characters from another novel.)

  21. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 18:46:05

    @Jayne: Does he ever. :)

  22. Laura Florand
    Mar 15, 2014 @ 18:47:54

    @justturned59: I’m glad you liked it! It was a complete whim that made me pick it up in the first place (a chance Tweet I saw from Penny Reid about it), but I’m so glad I did.

  23. Zippy
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 10:20:28

    I bought it & read it on your recommendation. Loved it! Thanks for a great review and letting us know about this gem of a story.

  24. Rei Scar
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 13:23:08

    @Jayne:

    Cussing is fine by me, but I think that the r-word is in a different ballpark, and I was kind of alarmed to see it in the review in a context that wasn’t a direct quotation from the book. There’s a difference between “scowling and swearing” and “sees no problem with using harmful language”, and given that that the quotation I took issue with wasn’t clearly delineated as a quotation it could easily have been read as the reviewer’s opinion, which I now see is not the case.

    If ableist slurs are a feature of the main character’s speech then no, this novella probably isn’t for me – and that’s fine. But I’d ask you to consider warning for that kind of language in future in the same way as you would – and have – for things such as racist or homophobic slurs.

  25. cleo
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 14:32:54

    @Laura Florand – re short story romance. I recommend One More Soldier by Marie Sexton (according to her website it’s 13,800 words). It’s m/m, set in Texas at the end of the Vietnam War and beginning of the gay rights movement. It does not have an hea – the ending is heartbreaking, but optimistic enough that I count it as romance (although I can see it not working as romance for a different reader). It’s probably the shortest romance that I’ve read that works for me.

  26. Brie
    Mar 16, 2014 @ 17:22:49

    @Rei Scar: I, too, was bothered by the careless use of the R-word. I was excited when I heard about the book and I’m happy to see it succeed since it means readers are supporting stories that break the mold. I don’t mind swearing, but encountering a hurtful slur was unexpected and jarring, and it made me judge the hero and fear what else I would encounter, which is why I’m still debating whether to finish it or not. And I hope that @Laura Florand knows that comedy or saying that the shock value is akin to that used by comedians in their routines is no excuse and a poor dismissal of people’s concerns.

  27. Laura Florand
    Mar 17, 2014 @ 10:15:30

    I’m certainly sorry if my own articulations of my different reactions to a text came across as dismissal. I don’t consider myself in authority over this text and come from a milieu of intense intellectual debate, where differing opinions are the norm and vital to our engagement with each other, so it didn’t occur to me this was possible for me to do.

    I do highly recommend this book, generally speaking. I thought it was a delight. But I hope my own choices of words and quotes in the review were the right ones to give people a head’s up if it would *not* be a good book for you. Tom definitely has no sensitivity to word choice whatsoever, which is I think authentic to his character, but that in itself makes him a highly provocative character, and I can see how it would be problematic for some.

    Maybe if you’re on the fence and the quotes in the review don’t reveal enough, try a sample and see how it hits you? You get his point of view 3 pages in.

  28. Willaful
    Mar 17, 2014 @ 11:32:48

    Laura, I think the context you’re missing is that for many people, the term is a form of hate speech — more equivalent to a racial slur than a curse word. I have several romance reading friends — not coincidentally, also parents of special needs children — so upset by it that I always warn them if I come across it in a book, so they know not to read it.

    I think what’s primarily being asked for here is some form of notice — just as I would note in a review if someone makes uses a racial slur — rather than an offhand usage. Some readers may think the word is acceptable in context, some will think it’s not appropriate in any context — that’s their decision to make, and all you can do is offer your own interpretation as a guide. But a warning shows sensitivity to their concerns.

  29. Laura Florand
    Mar 17, 2014 @ 16:52:24

    @Willaful: Yes, I understand what you’re saying, and I appreciate that and your own explanation. Honestly, it’s not my intent to cause harm to anyone nor to dismiss anyone’s concerns, and I’m sorry if that’s come across otherwise. It’s clearly not something I’m appropriately sensitive to. (The use of “bitch” above is actually the one that made me more uncomfortable, and that’s very regional, I think. My friend of my same age from NJ can use it as a term of endearment practically, whereas I usually have to write B* even when I’m talking about SBTB, for example.)

    I also don’t think the author meant any harm, and I hope I haven’t conveyed my assumptions about the text in ways that do her an injustice. I do think it’s a really lovely story, and while the character is definitely politically incorrect, not to the point that the author in using the word or I in quoting it meant to cause harm to anyone else.

    It’s also too bad because this is a delightful story (to me), and I hate it that any of my own discussions of it would lead to negative impressions of it. All that said, as I’ve noted and Jayne, having read it, concurs, it’s definitely a story full of cussing and curmudgeonliness, so it may push some people’s buttons beyond this one.

    Anyway, I appreciate your discussion of it and am certainly sorry if I’ve caused any harm. The question of language–how far do you go, if you’re writing an insensitive (or racist, or homophobic) character and you want to be authentic?–is an important and tricky one.

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