When I posted the teaser for the romance novel Sticks and Stones, I mentioned that it was my first romance ever. This is not exactly true - a couple of weeks ago I tried reading another one. Unfortunately, it was bad beyond belief. It was the first time I quit reading a book without feeling the least bit guilty. In fact, it was a huge relief. Therefore, it should come as no surprise I approached Sticks and Stones with caution. I was in for another surprise when I realized this was not only a perfectly enjoyable read, but also one I would have no trouble recommending to other romance lovers.
The name Jamie Craig found on the cover of the novel is in fact a pseudonym acclaimed romance writers Vivien Dean and Pepper Espinoza use when writing together. Sticks and Stones is set in the golden age of Hollywood musical theater, subtly evoking the era of manly tap dancers and dreamy singers. Paul Dunham is both. MGM's biggest star, he is furious to find out the British newcomer Jack Wells is set to be his co-star in the upcoming musical blockbuster. On the other hand, Jack is thrilled to have an opportunity to dance next to a man he has not only respected throughout his career, but who he has always had a crush on as well. Many conflicts and problems come their way, but it is not long before Paul admits to himself that maybe his being prejudiced towards Jack was a defense mechanism - and that maybe he should simply give in.
The reason why Sticks and Stones works is because it actually has a good plot, believable characters and an obviously well-researched setting. Although the frank depictions of sex in the book make Candace Bushnell look like a schoolgirl, it is the many tribulations Jack and Paul face that really rings a special bell. The constant bickering, unwillingness to admit one's emotions and many misunderstandings are all contributing factors to making these characters seem worth believing in. Yes, it is an erotic romance, but if you took away the steamy scenes, you would still be left with a gripping, fun read.
There are a of couple things in Sticks and Stones that do not really work, such as the characters of Paul's manager Marty, his wife Lilah and finally Don, Paul's one night stand - all potentially interesting characters (especially Lilah) that are unfortunately used merely as plot devices. However, this is a small bone to pick. All in all, this is a satisfying, interesting, often arousing romance that takes extra steps to make sure everything (even the sex!) helps tell the story of these two men and their hectic relationship. It stays clear of the pulp fiction category, and for this, it should be given a chance.
This review counts toward the GLBT challenge and the Romance Week 2010 challenge.