Hi everyone! I’ve been slowly but surely trying to catch up on my eARCs recently, and two of those are the first two books in Brenda Murphy’s new University Square series -sapphic novellas featuring so many queer characters and characters of colour! And so far I’m really enjoying them – keep reading if you want to know more of my thoughts!
Title: On the Square
Author: Brenda Murphy
Genre: Romance, LGBT, Adult
Synopsis: Dropped from her television show after a very public split with her cheating ex, celebrity chef Mai Li wants nothing more than to reopen her parents’ shuttered restaurant and make a fresh start in her former hometown. So what if twenty years of neglect has left the building in need of a major renovation?
Seduced by Mai’s charm and determination, hard-edged contractor Dale Miller agrees to take on her renovation project.
After a spring storm causes significant damage to the building and renovation costs exceed Mai’s budget, Dale offers her a deal, but is it a price Mai is willing to pay?
Whenever I read butch/femme romance, I know I need to read it. I feel like there’s a real lack of butch lesbians in popular, mainstream sapphic books, and it’s why I love reading books from indie publishers so much (but also, bigger publishers, do better)! I also really love romance books set in small towns where everyone knows each other and everyone seems to run their own family-run shops or restaurants, so I really was sold on this book straight away. And I had so much fun reading it! This first book follows celebrity chef Mai, who after getting dropped from her TV cooking show, returns home to reopen her parents’ old restaurant. However, when she arrives back in her small hometown, the restaurant is in need of a pretty big overhaul. So, in steps Dale, a very femme contractor, who offers to help Mai with her renovation project when sparks begin to fly.
First and foremost, let’s get into the plot. As I mentioned, I love small town settings in romance books, and I also enjoy plots where a main character returns to said small town in order to set up their own business. Although there are a plethora of sapphic romance books like this out there, I really liked that the other main character, and love interest, played a crucial role in setting up the business. Because Mai and Dale are both pretty strapped for cash, Dale offers to take on Mai’s project, and temporarily house her, if Mai helps teach her youngest son some culinary skills. Of course, Mai, having no other choice after a storm causes the restaurant’s roof to cave in, takes the offer. I’m not going to lie, I did feel a little let down by the plot. I felt that, yes although this is a romance novel, the romance overshadowed the plot just a little too much. We saw quite a bit of Mai teaching Dale’s son, Noah, but we never really got to see much of the renovation and Mai opening her restaurant. It felt like they signed the contract, then lots of romance and a little of Mai teaching Noah ensued, then oh looks like the renovation has finished and the book has ended. Because of this, I also felt that the small town aspect was a little underdeveloped, too. However, although this was a problem for me, I know it won’t be a problem for everybody, especially if you’re just looking for a good sapphic romance!
As for the characters, I did also really enjoy them. Of course, I loved the butch/femme dynamic and our two main characters had a lot of chemistry (and the sex scenes were really great). Aside from them, I loved Dale’s dad, Eli, who was absolutely hilarious, and Dale’s family dynamic as a whole. I really loved Noah a lot and I thought it was really great to see how much Dale’s three sons cared for her. I do wish there was time to develop the characters a bit more, but I’m hopeful that we’ll get to see more of them in the other books in the series. Speaking of underdevelopment, I did find it a little hard at times differentiating between Mai and Dale’s points of view. Brenda Murphy jumps between POV between paragraphs with no warning, and the change in voice wasn’t strong enough for me to figure out who was narrating, so at times I was a bit lost.
This book does deal with some important themes, and I enjoyed the commentary on them. In one scene Mai deals with some very outward racism from a minor side character and there’s a good discussion on confronting the racism she faces. Said minor character is also a homophobic bully and gets into a fight with two of the characters, but thankfully there is some justice in the end. All of the racist and homophobic views are explicitly challenged throughout.
Overall, I did enjoy this first book in the series and, despite the little niggles I had with it, it left me eager to move onto the sequel, which I also received an eARC of!
Author: Brenda Murphy
Genre: Romance, LGBT, Adult
Synopsis: After a string of failed relationships, brilliant litigator Eunice Park is determined to stay single. Who needs distractions when you’re trying to make partner at Chicago’s most prestigious law firm? A Sunday afternoon visit from the police is the beginning of a series of events that turn Eun’s life upside down, and she’s forced to return to her hometown and confront her estranged family.
Morgan Wright, locksmith and part-time animal shelter volunteer, is convinced the perfect woman exists, just not for her. After a chance encounter with Eun, Morgan becomes embroiled in Eun’s family drama.
Charmed by Morgan’s easy swagger, Eun invites her back to her hotel room. Bone-melting sex and a surprisingly soulful connection leaves Eun questioning her return to Chicago. But not everyone in Sikesville is happy Eun has returned.
After feeling slightly frustrated by the overshadowing of the plot in On the Square, I enjoyed Lockset a lot more (and it has another butch/femme romance!). Although it is the second book in the series, it can also very easily be read as a standalone, but it does spoil some parts of the first book. Lockset follows Eun, a litigator, who one day receives a phone call from her father that she hasn’t seen for a long time, asking her to come back home to see him. Not soon after the phonecall, Eun receives a visit from the local police, explaining that her father was found dead, which leads her to come home to sort out his funeral and his estate. We also follow locksmith Morgan, who offers to look after Eun’s father’s dog until Eun sorts his affairs out, but Morgan soon ends up embroiled in Eun’s family drama. I’m very happy to say that the plot played a much stronger role in this second book, and offered an almost mystery/thriller aspect to the book, as the reader, alongside Eun and Morgan, try and figure out what happened to her father (although I still think some threads of the plot were left unresolved). Although I figured out the ‘who dunnit’ quite early on, there were a lot of unexpected twists and turns that I still really enjoyed!
The characters also felt a lot better fleshed out in this sequel and I found it a lot easier to tell the two narratives apart. Eun is the very confident businesswoman who also loves reading and writing but hasn’t found a lot of time to enjoy these hobbies due to her demanding job, and Morgan is a real softie who loves dogs and who is continuing on her family’s locksmith business. I really liked the two of them and their chemistry was palpable. I felt the sex scenes in this book were also a lot more intense and I enjoyed them a whole lot, although I think there may have been one too many in there, if I’m being nit picky! Although there weren’t too many new side characters introduced in this book, I liked that we saw the characters from book one popping up – from Noah working in Mai’s restaurant, to Eli helping Morgan with her puzzle boxes and Yvonne growing close to both Morgan and Eun – interlinking stories in a series like this is something that I really enjoy.
I also felt that Brenda Murphy expanded on the world-building of Sikesville in this sequel and we got to see how all the characters all knew each other and interconnected, as well as seeing new parts of the town, like the dog park, the taco truck and the vets. I can’t wait to see where else we go in the upcoming books in the series!
I feel like fewer themes were discussed in this one (though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but a big one was homophobia. There is a lot of hostility towards Eun, particularly from her family, in the form of religious homophobia which might be quite difficult to read for some people, but it is always challenged. To almost offset it, Morgan comes from a very loving, and very queer, family which was really nice to see (all of Morgan’s siblings, including her brother’s fiancée, and her uncle are queer).
Overall, this was a great second book in the series that really built on from On the Square. It’s the perfect book if you’re looking for some steamy lesbian romance with a slight mystery twist and I highly recommend picking this series up!