Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, that cover is bloody atrocious. It’s the kind of bad romance cover people who don’t read romance novels imagine all romance covers look like. And let’s just casually glance away from the fact that one of the authors is known for having a series that questionably eroticises sexual slavery in a series that once upon a time may or may not have been fan-fiction involving Anderson Cooper and Keith Olbermann (and no, I’m not telling you how I know that. Long story).
As the old adage goes, never judge a book by its cover, because The Burnt Toast B&B is a charming and engaging read, an M/M contemporary romance with a surprisingly deftly handled take on masculinity.
Derrick, a former logger now running his deceased parents’ B&B into the ground, has internalised a lot of misogyny and homophobia over the years, leaving him with a rather black and white view about what constitutes masculinity. Torn between preserving his family legacy and abandoning it to strengthen his misguided attitudes on what makes a man, he’s all but ready to shut up shop when Ginsberg, a stuntman on a TV show filmed locally, arrives with a broken arm and in need of a cheap place to stay. As expected, sparks fly.
Ginsberg, it is quickly revealed, is a transgender man. Brief mentions of chest scars and T-shot injections will clue up some readers, although Derrick has to be guided to the realisation. My cis privilege may be shining through here, but from the point of view of a cisgender woman, I found the character of Ginsberg to be maturely handled and with a much welcome dose of charm. Ginsburg has no hang-ups about his gender and is delightfully free of the insecurities that plague Derrick, a gay man who balks at the possibility of being anywhere near something pink.
While he struggles to reconcile these various elements of his life, Ginsberg sees no contradictions and happily wears frilly aprons one day while throwing himself in front of cars the next day. He forces Derrick to confront his internalised homophobia, transmisogyny & effemiphobia, all pressing issues particularly in the primarily cis gay male community (although LGBTQ mainstream movements in general face this). It’s a hefty topic that Belleau and Haimowitz manage to handle with the necessary seriousness while never relinquishing control of the ultimately light-hearted and unabashedly fluffy tone of the story. Things wrap up neatly, with the expected flashy romantic redemption, but it’s par for the course with romance. If you’re looking for naturalism and ambiguity, you’re in the wrong genre!
The supporting cast are relatively 2-dimensional and the overall setting feels sketchily drawn (this is part of a series of tangentially connected romances set in the same town, but can be read as a stand-along), which weakens the book somewhat. There are moments where the story touches upon the dramatic increase in tourism the town has seen thanks to the nearby TV show sets, but we’re given little description of the impact this has on the area beyond a few jabs at hipsters. This may be something that’s expanded upon in other books in the series but the book should work on its own terms and in this aspect it takes a disappointing slide.
Other than that, there’s much to recommend in The Burnt Toast B&B for lovers of M/M romance and contemporaries with odd couple pairings. It’s a light hearted and earnestly sweet tale of being honest with yourself and getting over deep seated misguided attitudes to be a better person.