This month, Jeff & Will talk about the charming, food-filled, small town romance Striking Sparks by Ari McKay. As always, in our book club discussions there are spoilers ahead so keep that in mind if you haven’t read the book yet.
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- Ari McKay website
- Striking Sparks by Ari McKay on Amazon
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
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- Frolic Podcast Network website
Look for the next episode of Big Gay Fiction Book Club on Thursday, May 27.
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Will: Welcome to episode 305 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of gay romance fiction. I’m Will Knauss, and with me as always, is my co-host and husband, Mr. Jeff Adams.
Jeff: Hello, everybody.
Will: Hey, rainbow romance readers. We are so glad that you could join us for the big gay fiction book club episode for April. This month’s pick is the charming small-town romance “Striking Sparks” by Ari McKay.
Jeff: Before we start our deep dive discussion on “Striking Sparks,” we’d like to quickly thank members of our Patreon community, including our newest member, Hannah.
Will: Hi, Hannah.
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Striking Sparks Discussion
Will: Now long time listeners, long, long time listeners might recognize this particular title. I talked about “Striking Sparks” when it was first released several years ago. I love this book so very much, and I do not feel it got the attention it deserves. And now that the authors have rereleased this title, I am very happy to have selected it for book club. I’m hoping that more people will give it a read the second time around.
Jeff: I’m certainly on board. I remember you talked about all three books in the Walker Boys series as they came out because you instantly fell in love with them and I could see why. This book was just everything. And if this is an example of the other two books, I am totally on board.
Will: With the opening of “Striking Sparks,” we learned a lot about our main character, Jake. These opening few pages do an awful lot of heavy lifting as we learn why Jake has returned to Buffalo Lick Texas. But thankfully the authors being as talented as they are, they weave this backstory in through the narrative and a really organic and lovely way. So there’s not all info-dumpy. Boo, hiss. We don’t like that.
So Jake Parnell is back in town because of a recent tragedy. His brother died in an accident and he has essentially taken on the family obligations of his brother, Josh. He had a wife and kids and he also ran the family business, a local restaurant called Parnell’s pantry. Getting back into the swing of things, running a family restaurant hasn’t been easy.
Jeff: I immediately liked, Jake. He has done everything he can to help his sister, keep the family business afloat, putting on hold everything that he had going on in LA and his career to come back and take care of this. I also really like Buffalo Lick in general with just this little glimpse of it that you already get in chapter one. It’s a place that I wouldn’t mind visiting if only to sample all this food because immediately we’re thrown into the food, which is going to play a huge part, of course, in this story. I was hungry the entire time reading this book.
Will: So Beau Walker runs another family restaurant, the local barbecue shack. Beau had a friendly rivalry going on with Josh, and it seems that they agree to be on a cooking competition show that will be filming during the upcoming rodeo and festival. Beau would like Jake to take his brother’s place, and he makes sure he knows that it’s pretty decent money and the publicity will be good for both of their restaurants
Jeff: As if Jake needed one more thing on his plate. But, of course, the money is good and there is another kid coming because his sister-in-law is pregnant. So that additional money from the competition is gonna be good. But let’s keep in mind, of course, that Jake’s a college professor. This is what he does. He’s not really sure that he can be an equal rival to Beau in this competition so it’s a lot for him to think about if you can sign on for that or not, and run the business at the same time.
Will: After a long day at the restaurant, Jake goes home and digs through some of his brother’s papers and he finds the TV contract and the money certainly would go a long way to helping Lexy and the kids. And whether or not he’ll actually do the show has nothing to do with his longstanding attraction to Beau.
Jeff: Not at all.
Will: And when he sits down to talk it over with Lexy, she certainly doesn’t want the family’s recent tragedy to be the focus of the TV show because she has zero interest in anybody’s pity, but she agrees that if it will be good for the restaurant, then they should do it. She totally understands that Jake never quite had the same passion for the restaurant as Josh did, but she believes in him and is going to help in any way that she can.
Jeff: I liked Lexy a lot. You summed it up right there, she didn’t want anybody’s pity. You could just tell from these opening moments where we see her in this book that she carries herself with a good bit of dignity, even with what life has dealt her in this situation. So I was rooting for her from the get-go as well.
Will: Well it’s Friday night and Jake heads to the local bar to talk things over with Beau. He says that he’ll do the competition, but as long as they keep things civil. They shake on it, and after he leaves,Trish, the bartender, reminisces about prom night. She was Jake’s date and was super into him but he only had eyes for Beau. Which is news to him. Jake likes him, like likes him likes him? This prompts Beau’s own flashback to a night many, many years ago when a shouting match on the side of the road led to them both coming out to one another.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s interesting in this one scene that we figure out that Jake thinks Beau hates him and Beau thinks Jake hates him. And neither of them can quite figure out why the other one feels that way, except it’s the baggage that they’ve each piled on themselves over the years. And it’s a lot of stuff for them to work through as we will come to find out.
Again, Ari McKay do such a wonderful job of giving you the information you need and weaving it in that organic way. Like you’ve mentioned, even in that opening chapter, we get a lot of detail here all of a sudden about how these two guys tick, and it was just wonderful how it kind of wove its way through this particular chapter.
Will: Beau feels that whether they like each other or not is kind of irrelevant, they just don’t get along. Jake Parnell was meant for bigger and better things than their small Texas town, which Beau both admires him and resents him for. In his mind they’re like oil and water, they just don’t mix.
Jeff: He’s so wrong about that. He’ll figure that out later.
Will: But for Jake, the problems with the restaurant keep mounting and Lexy has been officially put on bed rest by her doctor. When Beau sees how wrung out Jake is at a town meeting, he offers help with anything that he needs but Jake assures him that he is managing just fine, although of course, he isn’t. Not really.
Jeff: Yeah. Stop playing Jake, you need help.
Will: A local Holiday Inn serves as production central for the Gourmet Network crew. Jake and Beau show up for a general meet and greet to learn about how the competition show will work. When Beau asks how Jake is doing because it’s certainly not fine, Jake lashes out and not unlike that night on the side of the road so many years ago, revelations are made. Beau admitting that the antagonism between them isn’t because Beau hates him, he likes him maybe too much.
It’s then that Jake breaks down and he essentially just crumpled under the unexpressed grief and loss of his brother and the pressure that he’s been putting on himself, that he is the only person who can keep essentially all the plates spinning in the air when it comes to the family business and everything that he has going on.
Beau he does his best to comfort him, letting him feel his feels. And to help out his competitor, Beau is going to get his niece and nephew to help with the restaurant and help look after Lexy and the kids. And with that off of Jake’s plate, he can focus on the restaurant and the upcoming competition.
Jeff: So I’m going to roll out the phrase that we’ve used so many times in the last few books. At its core, “Striking Sparks” is about nice guys doing nice things. In the previous chapters, there’s been this look at this rivalry that has gone on between Beau and Jake for reasons that are ridiculous. And now just a couple of chapters later, we’ve put our cards on the table. They understand that each of them likes the other one and has feelings for them anyway way. And there’s a little bit of jealousy back and forth about the states of their lives, but I mean, Beau is willing to let Jake take a swing at him so that he can get his emotions out, which I don’t know that I’d let anybody take a swing at me for getting their feelings out, but it’s really nice. And Jake finally opens himself up and lets him have that moment of like the crumpled and then they get to put it all back together again. So yeah, nice guys doing nice things back in play here in this book.
Will: Shane Brody is the fancy celebrity chef who will serve as the host of the competition show. And as Beau is getting acquainted with his competition set up and the fancy new grill, Shane suggests that the next time Beau is in Atlanta, he and his husband could set him up with a nice guy since obviously, the small town dating possibilities seem a little bit slim.
Richard, chef Brody’s husband and assistant, goes over the new grill with Jake. And when Richard mentions a noticeable spark between Jake and Beau, which Jake denies, nope, no way, definitely no sparks. But at any rate, Richard lets them know that tomorrow he and Beau will be making lunch for the crew as a trial run for their kitchen workstation so they can kind of get used to everything before the cameras roll.
Jeff: I do love food competition shows. So as a side to this entire story, I enjoyed all the little behind-the-scenes, let’s figure out how the grill works moments. I know I’m silly. It’s the little geek in me that likes to see the backstage goings-on, but I really adored chef Brody and husband Richard.
I think too often celebrity chefs get caught up in kind of the Gordon Ramsey-ness of it all where we have to get at people. And well, chef Brody is certainly of a certain class of chef. He’s also kind of looking to help out these people as is his husband. So I really enjoyed these and how it just also proved to Beau and to Jake that their secrets aren’t as secret as they think they are.
Will: The launch run-through goes really well, and that night Beau brings several cupboard dishes to the Parnell’s house so they don’t have to worry about cooking dinner. Beau joins the family for mealtime and Jake’s mom states outright that she’s known all about Jake’s crush and that they should leave the past in the past and get to know one another as they are now.
Jeff: And it was not a suggestion, she was very forthright. I could just imagine the Southern demeanor that came out with that. You boys get along now, figure this out.
Will: Definitely. After eating, as Beau and Jake clean up, they realize that they really aren’t all that different and have more in common than they may have originally thought.
Jeff: There’s some really nice talking that goes on over this cleaning up moment. Everything from Jake admitting that he’d been jealous with the relationship that Josh and Lexy had while he was in California really with no one, and Beau opens up about what it’s been like to be gay in this small Texas town. Really nice talk because you know I love the talk, and there was good talk here.
Will: Yeah. Talking is sexy.
Jeff: It really is.
Will: Yeah. Something else this particular scene also illustrates is that Beau is a caregiver. As we see throughout the story, he likes taking care of people primarily with food, but in a lot of other ways as well. Jake has a lot of pride and doesn’t necessarily want to take the help that is offered, but it’s also partially wrapped up in his ideas about what this small town is all about. He felt as a gay man, he couldn’t come out there, which is why he left to go to school and eventually got that job in California. And now that he’s back and seeing the kind of life that Beau has, he’s coming to the realization that he may have been wrong. Not only about the town that he grew up in, but about Beau as well.
Jeff: Yeah. His eyes have been opened very much so in the time that he’s been home, and especially now that he’s back in Beau Walker’s orbit because of the cooking competition.
Will: So keeping in mind that Jake doesn’t have nearly as much cooking experience as Beau, a few nights later, they meet up so that Beau can give Jake a tutorial on the finer points of their fancy new grills. Of course, it being Beau and Jake, they end up fussing and fighting, but in the end, they have the town and they have the restaurants and they got each other’s backs and there is a grudging respect for what each of them have accomplished.
Jeff: Yeah. Beau wasn’t too pleased that when they cooked for the crew, the crew essentially was split down the middle on the food. So he realizes that despite the academic life that Jake was leading in California, that he does have some of the Parnell cooking kind of genes in him.
So there’s competition there, but it’s interesting the two steps forward one step back because they had gotten to a certain place with dinner, but yet some of the old antagonism rises up again and they both get a little prickly.
Despite the fact that they talk a lot, sometimes there’s still misunderstandings that percolate in the background just because of the baggage of their teenage years and the rivalry they had in high school being on opposite teams and everything.
Will: Yeah, I wanna quickly mention that. I thought the way that Jake and Beau keep going back and forth made sense given their past. I think some readers might take exception to the way that they seem to constantly be arguing in circles, but the fact is Beau and Jake have known each other almost their entire lives and they’ve got the baggage of growing up in a small town and everyone knowing their business and how they each think they know each other’s business, but not really.
So there’s a lot of stuff to kind of unpack and get through, and that’s not something that you can have in a single conversation. So I liked the way that even though they constantly are pissing each other off, they’re also talking through some of this stuff.
Jeff: It’s really delightful the damn you just read me really angry again, we’re going to talk about it right now. Which I really appreciate because I’ve said many times, I don’t like it when either the characters just walk away. And there are moments here where they walk away, but it’s very short coming back because they can not be around each other in this moment either. But it’s always seeming organic. It doesn’t feel like Ari McKay is just pushing and pulling on certain levers to make things happen, it all feels like it’s the way that it should be.
Will: So the big rodeo kicks off and Beau and Jake arrive at the fairgrounds for the first round of competition. And while their ribs are cooking, they are able to find a few moments to relax together, which is nice given the stress of the last couple of days. When the round is over, Shane Brody judges their dishes. Both are excellent, but Beau is the winner of round one.
Jeff: His food just edges out by the tiniest tiniest little bit. Can we talk about the parade for a minute?
Jeff: Of course the rodeo has a parade and there’s a float here that Jake and Beau have to be on that kind of is about the competition. And the idea of these papier-mache drumsticks and ribs and home fries that decorate the float and the 3D pig and cow faces. I needed pictures, I wanted the drawing because this sounds absolutely ridiculously awesome to me. And I do love a good parade float so yeah, I appreciated that little attention to detail there.
Will: The next morning, Jake is working the breakfast shift at Parnell’s pantry with the help of Earl who is Beau’s nephew. And he’s proven to be a Godsend and a discussion of town gossip leads to Jake coming out to his teenage employee who at first is surprised, but quickly suggests that Jake and uncle Beau would sure make a cute couple.
Jeff: Earl knows what’s up.
Will: Jake and Beau get together for a drink. And Jake shares the news that local gossip being what it is, he is officially out of the closet in Buffalo Lick. And this leads to a conversation about what they’re each looking for in a relationship and what do you know, they’re both interested in settling down.
And it’s over beer and wings that they have an adorably cute, and carefully thought-through talk about the prospect of dating one another. And with all that’s going on, they decide to take it slow, at least until after the rodeo and the barbecue competition. Ladies and gentlemen, we got ourselves some boyfriends.
Jeff: Indeed. I like how Jake lays out some nice options for them by saying, “First we could do nothing. Maybe we’d get over it eventually. second, we could try dating and see where it goes. Third, we could have a fling and see if things burn out fast, if the having isn’t as powerful as the wanting.” So he put everything into like, we could have this, this or this and set it straight. And you’re right, now we’ve got boyfriends because they obviously went for option number two.
Will: News of the Gourmet Network TV show has gotten out and there were a whole lot more people at the competition tent on the day of round two. And after a few interviews with local news outlets, Beau and Jake get to cooking. At the end of the round, they each present their brisket. And after careful consideration, Brody declares that Jake is the winner.
Jeff: It’s a tied up competition, folks. One round to go.
Will: And our two Texas lovebirds can’t wait to celebrate Jake’s win. And they sneak off to the handicraft exhibit hall where amongst amaze have displayed quilts, Beau pushes Jake up against the wall and kisses him thoroughly and exquisitely.
Jeff: Turns out Jake might like to be manhandled just a little bit.
Will: Just a little.
Jeff: In the craft tent.
Will: And they make plans for date night number two. Maybe a little bit dancing, a night out in Austin sounds good to them. I find it amusing that even when these two are flirting, there’s a certain amount of trash talk going on.
Jeff: They’re athletes, they’re former football players. I feel like these two could probably be 20 years into their relationship down the road and there would still be certain things where they would trash talk each other because that’s I think just their nature both in general, but particularly with each other because of their history. I don’t think that would ever go away. And they’re guys in Texas. Sorry Texas stereotype, but they’re guys in Texas.
Will: Well, the thing is totally ridiculous, but also crazy hot. These two know how to push each other’s buttons in good ways and bad. You just know when they finally get in bed together, they’re gonna destroy one another in the best way possible.
Jeff: Striking sparks. The title means many things.
Will: It’s on the drive to Austin when they end up talking about the kind of people that they are and what they want long-term and how they’re going to fit into each other’s lives.
I also found that amusing how that they essentially just been dating for a few hours, but they’re already having like the big talk. Like I said, they haven’t even actually slept together yet, but they’re already on the same page when it comes to their hopes and their dreams and their lives and what they want for the future.
Jeff: I think that really goes to their long history together. They don’t necessarily have to get through some of the preamble that other new couples might need to because it’s certainly relevant for Beau for example, to know, kind of is Jake staying in town? Is he leaving town? What’s gonna happen? How far do I want to get invested here?
And I mean, for Jake, he needs to put all that out. And at the same time, I think validate what he knows about Beau because I think he knows Beau’s not really going anywhere. Beau’s going to be in Buffalo Lick forever.
I found it really nice to get this out of the way because I understand how romance novels work but I also understand how I want people to behave. So this was right in line with what I wanted to see really at this point because we’re also, despite the fact that this is the first date, we’re also a good way into the book at this point so they really needed to have the conversation in terms of how far we are into the story already despite it’s only the first “date.”
Will: They have a terrific night out that happens all off-page, and the very next day, Beau and Jake cook the final round of competition. This round being chef’s choice. And they each present their specialty to chef Brody, who tastes each of them with the announcement that the winner will be announced the following day.
Jeff: Oh, the anticipation. Who will win?
Will: Instead of another night out, Jake and Beau decide on a night in. Beau brings over a pizza and they settle in for a night in front of the TV and things heat up real quick and they’re about to take things upstairs to the bedroom when Lexy announces that her water has broke.
Jeff: I knew that this was gonna happen at some point in the story and it was going to be super inconvenient and sure enough.
Will: Yeah, it is. The baby is coming early just as a fierce summer storm is rolling in. And the rain has washed out some of the roads so the ambulance won’t be coming for quite a while and it’s up to Beau and Jake to help Lexy deliver the baby.
Jeff: Yeah. She delivers those words that you never want to hear, “You boys have to help me do this.” But hey, it works out because Beau has helped deliver baby livestock before so he has some concept of how this needs to go down.
Will: Yeah. It’s not exactly the same thing, but they do the best with what they have and soon there is a new member of the Parnell family. The EMTs arrive and as they take Lexy and her baby boy to the hospital, she insists that Beau and Jake stay behind. She is looking forward to a long night’s rest and doesn’t want to see either one of them until visiting hours in the morning. So Jake and Beau stay home and they get cleaned up together and in the shower, they finally get to do what they have always wanted.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s a really sweet moment. And there was a thought that Jake had in the midst of all this, that a new life had come into the world and a new life really started for him too over the last few days. And it was a nice sweet moment to kind of wrap up everything that they’d been through that night. I kind of wish he’d said it out loud, but it probably would have come off as schmaltzy if he’d said it out loud, but I was glad his internal monologue at least work that way.
Will: Since this is the moment they both essentially wanted since they were teenagers, the moment is filled with intensity, but it’s also incredibly sweet and they declare their undying love for one another. It may have taken them a while, but it’s in each other’s arms where they were always meant to be.
At the big ceremony to mark the end of the rodeo, the winner of the cooking competition is announced. Everyone is thrilled when Beau says that he’s not just happy to have won a trophy, but won Jake’s heart as well.
Jeff: And in much the same way that in the previous scene Jake had felt like his new life kind of opened up for him, this was the moment for Beau that he got to put away some of his baggage where he always thought he was just a small-town hick who just sort of ran this restaurant, and he realizes that he’s much more than that now as well. So everybody got a little nice uplift out of the events that had occurred between them coming together and everything that had happened because of the competition too.
Will: Happy ending for all concerned. And several months later on Valentine’s day, we get a sneak peek of the happy lives each of our characters is living. Lexy and her newborn are doing great, and the guys have settled into a comfortable routine. Beau now oversees the menus for both of the family restaurants while Jake does what he’s more comfortable with, he’s handling the books. Sort of the behind-the-scenes operations.
Jeff: Yeah. Just one more way that they fit nicely together. It had been revealed earlier that Beau loves the restaurant, but he didn’t so much care for the business side of it and having to sort out all the finances and the staffing and everything. And on the flip side, Jake was okay with the cooking but was really more interested in the business side. So it was a nice merging of the two guys coming together and the two businesses essentially coming together as well.
Will: Jake and Beau have moved in together and they’ve even adopted an adorable rescue puppy. They exchange Valentine’s day gifts that further cement the unbreakable bond that they both share.
Jeff: It was one nice, big epilogue just full of aww. I loved it so much. I really completely understand why you fell so hard for this book those years ago, and it’s really wonderful that I felt I got to read it. Did you enjoy revisiting these characters after a few years? Because you don’t normally do rereads. So this was an oddity for you to go back to something.
Will: God, I really enjoyed getting to revisit Beau and Jake’s story. There’s so much that I love about this particular book, not only the small-town setting, which I always enjoy. I also enjoy the plot point involving the food competition. I thought that was fun and interesting and spiced things up for our two heroes.
And it was on this reread that I really came to appreciate the on-page chemistry these characters had. I don’t know how these two authors did that. I think that’s something sort of magical and intangible. There’s no real formula that writers can follow to bring that to life on the page. And I think that the way that Ari McKay did that for these two characters is something really genuinely special.
Beau and Jake do have spark and real chemistry. I like how their back-and-forth antagonism combines enemies to lovers with second chance romance. Just all in all, I think this book has an awful lot to offer and I think it’s really special.
Jeff: Yeah. I agree with you on the chemistry. The chemistry is there from the very first time these two meet up with each other. I mean the two guys, as you’re getting that initial introduction to them when they’re separate, you get a good sense of them. But as soon as they’re together and they start kind of popping and crackling against each other, it’s so good as it morphs. And as you mentioned, the antagonism kind of stays there. They know how to push each other’s buttons always, and it just makes for these scenes that just come to life so well.
Will: Well, I think that’ll do it for this month’s book club episode. We hope that you’ve enjoyed our discussion of Ari McKay’s “Striking Sparks.” And if you haven’t read it yet, we hope that you’ll consider giving this book a try.
Now coming up on Monday and episode 306, Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe are going to be joining us.
Jeff: The latest book in their “Auden & O’Callaghan Mystery Series” has just released, and they’re gonna tell us what Sam and Rufus get up to this time out in “A Friend in the Fire.” Plus we’ll get some details on how their collaboration works.
Will: We hope that you’ll join us then. So until next time, please stay strong, be safe, and above all else, keep turning those pages and keep reading.
Jeff: Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. You can find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Our original theme music is composed by Daryl Banner