In Step (Painted Bay #3) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

in step

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Karma. You reap what you sow, and Kane Martin isn’t looking for forgiveness.

But the arrival of Abe Tyler in Painted Bay has Kane dreaming of the impossible. The sexy silver fox choreographer is determined to pull Kane out from the shadows, but Abe’s career isn’t about to shift to Painted Bay, and Kane’s life is in neat little boxes for a reason.

A past he isn’t proud of.

A family he’s walked away from.

A job he doesn’t deserve.

A secret he’s ashamed of.

But life’s dance can make for unexpected partners, and learning to trust and keep up with the footwork is the name of the game.

Two steps forward, one step back.

It takes two to tango.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A

Jay Hogan’s wonderful Painted Bay series comes to a close with In Step which is my favourite book of the set and probably my favourite book of of hers full stop. It’s a poignant, emotional romance combined with a superbly-crafted tale of redemption, forgiveness and finally coming into one’s own that is both heartfelt and heartbreaking; and the always excellent Gary Furlong’s narration is absolute perfection.

Note: There are spoilers for the other books in the series in this review.

We were first introduced to Kane Martin back in Off Balancebook one of the series. A loner who doesn’t really fit in, he lives quietly on the fringes of town, his bullying attack on Judah Madden back when they were at school still very much present in the memories of most of the locals. Then, in On Board, he came to work for Judah’s brother Leroy after Leroy’s mother discovered Kane sleeping in his car and immediately offered him a job. Leroy wasn’t best pleased; he’s only just begun to repair his fractured relationship with Judah, and made it a condition of Kane’s employment that Judah agreed to it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Sass (Style #3) by Jay Hogan

sass

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For two years I’ve kept Leon Steadman at a safe distance, ever since the night he turned me down flatter than a pancake with a side order of syrupy disapproval. His loss. The world is full of sexy men. One and done is simply good math and efficient use of my time. Or it would be if I hadn’t been lusting after the irritating, judgemental, gorgeous, mountain of a man, ever since.

The less I see of Leon, the better. Bad enough that his tattoo business sits next to Flare, the fashion store I manage, and that he’s friendly with my boss. But now he’s apartment-sitting above the shop, as well. Every time I turn around, Leon is there. In my store. In my space. Messing with my head. Being all nice and charming and acting like maybe he’s not the biggest jerk to walk the earth, after all.

Well, I don’t want or need Leon’s apologies, but maybe if I can have him, just once, it might put an end to this ridiculous hunger that sparks every time I lay eyes on him.

Yeah, I’ll get back to you on that.

Rating: B+

Jay Hogan concludes her Style series with Sass, a warm, snarky and sexy age-gap/opposites-attract romance between the fabulous Kip Grantham, the sassy, fierce and super-capable manager of Rhys Hellier’s high-fashion store, Flare, and Leon Steadman, the gorgeous hunk who owns the tattoo parlour next door. There was a definite spark between them the minute they stepped on the page in the first book, and although it was tempered by a distinct air of frostiness on Kip’s part, it was an intensely combustible kind of spark that would have led to some serious sheet-burning had the pair of them actually made it as far as a bed. As it turns out however, they’ve never acted on their mutual attraction, spending the two years of their acquaintance barely on civil, one-word-acknowledgement terms.

Kip was attracted to Leon the moment he came through the door of Flare, a week after Kip started working there. He was the hottest thing Kip has ever seen and provided more than enough fuel for his fantasies right up until around a month later when they met at a party, and Leon rejected his invitation to do more than just chat. Kip has never made a secret of the fact that he’s not into relationships; he enjoys men, he enjoys sex and isn’t about to feel bad or apologise for it to anyone. He knows when a guy is interested in him, and Leon was definitely interested – so his rebuff was a bit of a surprise; and not only did Leon turn Kip down, he did it in a really shitty, condescending way that more than implied a disapproval of Kip’s lifestyle. Kip was – quite rightly – furious and put Leon firmly in his place before storming off.

Kip couldn’t possibly know how hard it was for Leon to say no that night. Leon had recently decided it’s time to give up what his sister-in-law calls his “whoring ways” and he’s planning to settle down. He wants the whole package, the white picket fence, kids, a dog… it’s time to focus on finding someone he can make a life with and when he meets Kip, it’s the first big test of his resolve. He’s utterly smitten with the vivacious, beautiful younger man and previously, would not have thought twice about taking him up on his offer – but even on such short acquaintance, Leon recognises the potential danger to his heart Kip represents, and sticks to his guns. He just does it in a really unpleasant way.

That was two years earlier, and Kip and Leon have maintained an uneasy détente ever since. Leon has tried repeatedly to apologise for being such a dick, but Kip isn’t interested, despite the fact that Leon is the only man who has ever taken up real estate in his brain.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

On Board (Painted Bay #2) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

on board

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Leroy Madden is in trouble. Big, handsome Fox Carmody trouble.

Leroy has buried his attraction to the enigmatic fisherman in irritation and pointless bickering, keeping Fox at a safe distance. But with the troublesome man now living in Leroy’s house, it’s becoming impossible for Leroy to keep his true feelings hidden, or the fact that Leroy maybe isn’t so straight after all.

Leroy hungers for something different between them. He wants more. But Leroy’s business is struggling, his newly mended relationship with his brother is at risk, Fox doesn’t plan to stay, and their mothers are lovers.

Regardless of what Leroy’s heart so desperately wants, his entire world is at stake, and nothing about a relationship with Fox Carmody was ever going to be easy.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

In On Board, book two in Jay Hogan’s Painted Bay series, we return to the Northland homestead of the Madden family around a year after the events of Off Balance. Judah Madden and Morgan Wipene are happily married and settled into their lives together, and Judah and his brother Leroy are very slowly rebuilding their fractured relationship. Leroy behaved like a real prick in the previous book; Judah had returned home after losing the career he’d worked so long and hard for in spectacular fashion when he keeled over in the midst of a performance at the Boston Ballet, and Leroy had no sympathy or understanding to offer whatsoever. As the story progressed, the author revealed more about the reasons behind Leroy’s horrible behaviour – and in On Board, she redeems him in spectacular fashion. I’m a sucker for a good redemption story – and this is a very good one.

When Leroy met Fox Carmody at a family lunch a year earlier, he took an instant dislike to him. Shortly before this, his mother Cora and Fox’s mother Martha – who also works for the Madden family business – came out as a couple, bringing their families closer together. It didn’t help that Fox is handsome, charming and witty – everything the sharp, grouchy Leroy isn’t – or that Leroy found himself unexpectedly confronted by feelings he’s avoided thinking about for, basically, ever. Their few subsequent meetings didn’t go well either, but fortunately, Fox lives at the other end of the country, on a tiny island several miles off the South Island coast, so despite their changed family situation, they’re unlikely to have much to do with each other.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Off Balance (Painted Bay #1) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

Off Balance

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When Judah Madden flees his tiny suffocating home town in New Zealand for the dream of international ballet stardom, he never intends coming back. Not to Painted Bay. Not to his family’s struggling mussel farm. Not to his jerk of a brother. Not with his entire life plan in shreds. And certainly not into the tempting arms of Morgan Wipene, the older ruggedly handsome fisheries officer who seems determined to screw with Judah’s intention to wallow in peace.

But dreams are fickle things. Shatter them, and it’s hard to pick up the pieces. Hard to believe. Hard to start again.

And the hardest thing of all? Finding the courage to trust in love and build a new dream where you least expected to find it.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

The first book in Jay Hogan’s Painted Bay trilogy, Off Balance is a beautifully written and deeply emotional story about two very different men helping each other to put their lives back together following tragedy and heartbreak. The story is infused with plenty of the author’s characteristic humour despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the two leads are likeable, complex and superbly drawn, and the narration by Gary Furlong is excellent. If you’ve never listened to anything by this author before, this would be a great place to start, as this series contains some of her very best work so far.

When he was a kid, Judah Madden was too gay, too flamboyant and too unwilling to be anything other than who he was to ever fit into a small town like Painted Bay. A talented dancer, he got out as soon as he possibly could and now, almost ten years later, he’s a rising star in the ballet world, a principal dancer at the age of twenty-five. It’s the kind of success he’s always dreamed of, and it’s all he’s ever wanted. But his life takes a devastating turn when he has a dizzy spell in the middle of a performance, which causes him to fall and pass out – and is later diagnosed with Menière’s Disease, a chronic condition which affects the inner ear, causing (among other things) vertigo, tinnitus and potentially, hearing loss. It’s a condition for which there is no cure – and just like that, Judah’s career is over.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Strut (Style #2) by Jay Hogan

strut

This title may be purchased from Amazon

New Zealand farm boy turns New York fashion model.
Fairy tale? Maybe. But it hasn’t been easy. A year in this crazy city, working my tail off just to survive in a ruthless industry where sex sells and boundaries are too readily crossed.

A year and a reassuring ocean away from Hunter Donovan—a sexy, humiliating mistake that I’m not about to repeat. Distance is good. Distance is safe.

But now Hunter is back. In New York. In my life. In all those treacherous feelings that haven’t gone anywhere. But when my world suddenly crashes and I have to piece myself back together and fight for my career, will Hunter be there when I need him? Will we have what it takes to make it through this, together?

Rating: A-

Strut is the second book in Jay Hogan’sStyle series of romances set in the world of high fashion, and in it, the action moves from New Zealand to New York as we follow events in the life of model Alec Williamson. We met Alec, an up-and-comer, in book one, Flare, where he made his mark at Auckland Fashion Week in designer Rhys Hellier’s first collection. There was an obvious frisson of atrraction between Alec and Rhys’ friend, fashion photographer Hunter Donovan, and I’ve eagerly been awaitng their story. Jay Hogan doesn’t disappoint, delivering a sexy and tender second-chance romance alongside a fascinating – and sometimes disturbing – storyline centred around Alec’s experiences in the modelling world. If I have a complaint it’s that the romance takes a bit of a back seat to the plot once it gets going, but the book is nonetheless a compelling read that I found difficult to set aside to do things like work, eat and sleep!

In a prologue set a year before the story proper, we learn that Alec and Hunter had a very quick club hook-up one night – and that immediately they were finished, Hunter merely mumbled an apology and left like someone had lit a fire under his arse. Alec berates himself for his stupidity; he knew Hunter was a one-and-done type, but he can’t help being embarrassed at the knock to his ego and hurt when Hunter immediately puts distance between them and then ghosts him.

A year later finds Alec in New York where he’s slowly making a name for himself, but modelling is an incredibly tough gig. The author doesn’t pull any punches when she writes about just how hard it is for newcomers – and even slightly more established guys like Alec – to make a lliving, especially as their lives are in hock to the modelling agencies, who house them, often in awful conditions (Alec shares a three bedroom house with NINE other models!) and take rent and any other expenses from their fees so they’re often deeply in debt to them, even when they are working. It’s a well-known fact that male models earn less than their female counterparts (surely one of the few industries where that is the case), even at the highest level, and they, like the women, have to put up with some seriously awful shit if they’re not to end up being dismissed as ‘difficult to work with’ and find their careers suddenly curtailed. Ms. Hogan has clearly done her homework when it comes to this part of the story; it’s real train-wreck reading, mesmerising and repulsive all at once.

But Alec is gaining traction as a model and starting to get noticed. When they worked together in Auckland, Hunter recognised in Alec that special something that would set him apart from the pack – and it looks like Alec’s hard work might be about to pay off when he’s shortlisted for an ad campain for a prestigious men’s label. He’s shooting an assignment for a magazine editorial when an unexpected visitor arrives at the studio at the end of the shoot – Hunter Donovan. Heart in his throat, Alec can’t help but take him in, all rakish mischief and charm, surprised at Hunter’s genuine delight at seeing him and caught completely off guard when he’s swept into a crushing hug.

Flustered, Alec isn’t sure how to respond when Hunter asks him if they can catch up over coffee. Hunter ran out on him and then ignored him for over a year, and Alec isn’t keen on being made a fool of again, but there’s something about Hunter’s manner that pulls him in and he agrees. To coffee. That’s all.

Hunter has had a lot of time to think and to regret walking away from Alec all those months ago. He’s admitted what he was in too much denial to own up to at the time, that Alec had got under his skin during those few months they’d worked together for Flare and that it terrified him. He doesn’t really know what the hell he’s doing now – all he does know is that Alec is unlike any guy he’s ever been with (and there have been plenty) and he can’t turn away. Not this time.

Jay Hogan is so good at writing believable adult relationships. At just twenty-two, Alec is one of her youngest protagonists, but he’s level-headed and has a very mature approach – both of which are impressive considering the industry he’s working in. Hunter is a few years older, and although he’s a dick to Alec to start with, he more than redeems himself during the course of the story. Alec is understandably wary of starting anything with Hunter – he knows Hunter is a player, whereas Alec is looking for connection and intimacy – and I absolutely loved that Hunter is prepared to let himself be vulnerable and put himself out there; he’s honest with Alec about why he did what he did, and just as honest when he says he’s likely to fuck up in future but that he hopes Alec will give him another chance anyway. He’s in New York for a few more weeks and hopes they can spend some time together – even if it’s only as friends.

Alec is torn. He’s as strongly attracted to Hunter as he ever was, but he can’t afford to be derailed by a broken heart, not when his big break might be just around the corner. When Hunter proves to be not only persistent, but intuitive, Alec can’t help melting inside, just a little bit – and finally agrees to give them a shot. Life is looking up; just before agreeing to date Hunter, Alec got the call destined to change his life. Unfortunately, it’s not going change it in the way he’d expected.

The second-chance romance between Alec and Hunter is filled with tenderness and honesty and sizzling chemistry. They go on dates and they talk – about the past and about what they want for the future – but Alec doesn’t let Hunter off the hook easily. He makes it clear how deeply Hunter hurt him and that he’s not interested in travelling that road again, and I appreciated that, though it’s not easy for either of them, they’re so wonderfully open with each other about their hopes and dreams and fears – their road back to one another is beautifully done.

I won’t say any more about the plot, because that would take us into spoiler territory, but I’ll add a warning here that the story does deal with workplace sexual harrassment and assault (not graphic, but disturbing nonetheless) and makes no bones about how hard it is for victims to come forward and be taken seriously, even now after several years of #metoo.

Mention the words “male model” and then add in “sexual assault”, and Alec was on the receiving end of three hours of incredulity, scepticism [and] scorn

The way the author writes about what happens to Alec – both physically and mentally – is masterful; you’ll want to cry with sorrow and rage, you’ll want to scream and throw things and you’ll want to wrap him up in the biggest, fluffiest blanket you can find – but Hunter is with him every step of the way with all those things and more, not caring that his own career could take a hit through association. He’s Alec’s rock – so supportive, understanding and loving through the lowest point of his life, and I was pleased to see Rhys and Kip again as they rally round to support their friends. I thoroughly appreciated the realism of the ending; there’s an HEA for Hunter and Alec of course, and a very satisfactory ending to the plot, but it’s clear that it hasn’t come easy and that there is still a long way to go if real change is to be effected.

Alec’s storyline in Strut is not an easy one to read, but then it’s not meant to be; it’s hard-hitting, shocking, well-researched and brilliantly told. Jay Hogan chalks up another DIK with this emotional,  thought-provoking love story..

Flare (Style #1) by Jay Hogan

Flare

This title may be purchased from Amazon

My own fashion label. The shiny new sign above the door means everything. My dream. My life. Worth every gruelling hour I’ve spent making it happen. Nothing can stop me now. Not the fear. Not the nightmares. Not my sad excuse for a love life. And certainly not Beckett Northcott, the sexy English professor who wouldn’t know a fitted shirt if it slapped him in the face and who has flannel down to an art form.

I don’t date for a very good reason, and yet Beck makes me want to break every damn one of my rules. But with my debut at Fashion Week looming, my business in trouble, and Beckett Northcott peeling open my terrified heart to a future I’ve never imagined, the threads of my carefully woven life are unravelling at the seams.

I could walk away. Or I could take a chance that Beck and I might just have what it takes to fashion a new life, together. A fresh design from a new cloth.

Rating: A-

Jay Hogan marks the beginning of her new Style series with Flare, a story set in the world of high fashion  featuring talented up-and-coming designer Rhys Hellier and Beckett Northcott, an English professor who wouldn’t recognise haute couture if it asked him out for a drink and then got up and danced on the bar.  It’s an odd-couple pairing but it works brilliantly, the author’s trademark mixture of warmth, humour and heartfelt emotion combining to create an immensely satisfying romance between two people with a lot of baggage to unpack.

Rhys is thirty-four and has worked hard to make a name for himself on the New Zealand fashion scene.  After learning his craft working for a prestigious label, he’s going it alone with his own boutique – Flare – and label of the same name.  Running a business, designing, establishing himself and getting ready for the upcoming Fashion Week leaves little room in his life for anything else, but he loves what he does and is absolutely committed to making Flare a success.

One afternoon, Rhys returns from a coffee run to discover that his assistant Kip has caught a teenaged boy attempting to steal some jewellery from the shop.  The police officer called in tells Rhys the boy’s uncle – whom he lives with – is on the way, and also that she believes the lad – Jack – when he says he’s never done anything like this before.  While they wait for Jack’s uncle to arrive, Rhys suggests that, as this is a first offence, perhaps it would be better to have Jack make amends by working in the shop for a few hours a week after school than charge him with theft and put him into the system.  Rhys has just put the idea to Jack when his uncle arrives – and Rhys is rendered temporarily speechless.  Beckett Northcott is absolutely not the sort of guy Rhys usually goes for, but something about this big, broad-shouldered man with the scruffy beard, nondescript, ill-fitting clothes and the beautiful eyes  completely captivates him – and It’s been a long, long time since Rhys has felt such a strong pull of attraction to anyone.

Beck, an English professor at the local university, has recently become guardian to his sixteen-year-old nephew following his sister’s imprisonment for stealing thousands of pounds from her employer.   Jack is understandably a mess of emotions, full of anger and resentment towards his mother for caring so little about him that she’d do something so stupid, angry at himself for still loving her, and he’s acting out, the attempt at shoplifting just one way of trying to work through his feelings.  Beck sees all this and recognises it – he’s just as furious at his sister’s selfishness as Jack is – but is trying to do the best for Jack in difficult circumstances.  He agrees to the idea of Jack working at Flare after school, and can’t deny that the chance to see the store’s gorgeous owner again won’t exactly be a hardship.

Rhys and Beck are likeable, well-rounded characters who are complex, flawed and very real.  Rhys is a survivor of sexual assault (see note below), who has refused to let it hold him back; he’s tough, resilient and determined to succeed, but has never really processed what happened to him, instead locking it away and acquiring a variety of coping mechanisms that enable him to compartmentalise and control his life – but which can’t keep the bad memories at bay all the time.  One of those mechanisms has been a no-relationship rule; casual sex and one night stands are things he can control, and the one time he did try something more, it blew up in his face, his partner eventually becoming fed up with Rhys’ unpredictability and unwilling to give him the time and space he needed to feel comfortable with different ways of sexual interaction.

Rhys has vowed never to get involved with anyone again, but something about Beck tempts him to break all his self-imposed rules.  Beck’s quiet strength, his gentleness and understanding make Rhys feel safe in ways he’s never experienced before – but is letting him in worth the risk of heartache when Beck decides Rhys has too much baggage and just isn’t worth the trouble?  That Rhys and ‘normal’ aren’t words that belong in the same sentence?

In Flare, Jay Hogan has created a wonderful, sexy, slow-burn romance with chemistry so strong it leaps off the page, as, after a couple of false starts, Rhys acknowledges that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life letting his past trauma interfere with his chance to be loved, and decides to take a leap of faith and go for it with Beck.  It’s not plain sailing – and Rhys’ blow hot/blow cold attitude is somewhat frustrating – but Beck, the big marshmallow with a love of flannel and romantic poetry, is there for him all the way, ready to catch him if he falls and to provide a safe space for him to begin to face and deal with his issues.  As is always the case in books by this author, the romance is beautifully written and developed, full of humour, insight and poignancy, and it’s clear that she’s taken great care to treat Rhys’ situation with sensitivity and respect.

The vibrant supporting characters add depth and richness to the story; I suspect sassy Kip and Rhys’ long-time friend, photographer Hunter, will feature in their own stories later in the series, and I really hope we’ll see more of Jack and his friend Drew, a young trans man for whom Rhys provides the safe and non-judgmental space he doesn’t have at home.

There’s an interesting secondary plotline running through the story that begins when Rhys discovers that someone has stolen one of his most successful designs and is now producing cheap copies.  I liked the insight into the workings of the fashion industry this provides and it certainly amps up the tension and intrigue in the story – but there’s an event near the end that felt like overkill; Rhys and Beck have a lot to overcome (Beck has his demons, too) and their emotional journey provides plenty of tension and drama on its own, which made this particular event feel a little redundant.

That’s my only criticism however, and it didn’t in any way detract from my overall enjoyment.  Flare is another terrific story from the pen of this talented author; a compelling tale of love and healing featuring well-developed characters , a close-knit family of blood and of the heart, and plenty of sass, humour and feels.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series.

Note:  The prologue describes the lead up to a sexual assault, which, while not graphic, is distressing to read;  the assault is referred to throughout the novel. There are also instances of homophobic and transphobic language.

In Step (Painted Bay #3) by Jay Hogan

in step

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Karma. You reap what you sow, and KANE MARTIN isn’t looking for forgiveness. But the arrival of ABE TYLER in Painted Bay has Kane dreaming of the impossible. The sexy, silver fox choreographer is determined to pull Kane out from the shadows, but Abe’s career isn’t about to shift to Painted Bay, and Kane’s life is in neat little boxes for a reason.

A past he isn’t proud of.
A family he’s walked away from.
A job he doesn’t deserve.
A secret he’s ashamed of.

But life’s dance can make for unexpected partners, and learning to trust and keep up with the footwork is the name of the game.

Two steps forward, one step back.
It takes two to tango.

Rating: A

Note:  Readers are advised to read Off Balance (Painted Bay book one) before In Step, so as to gain a fuller understanding of important backstory. It’s impossible to review In Step without reference to that backstory, so please be aware that there are spoilers for Off Balance and On Board ahead.

I’ve been reading Jay Hogan’s books since 2018 when I picked up Digging Deep, and was sufficiently impressed to want to read more of her work.  Since then, she’s published a dozen more books, and is going from strength to strength as an author, as evinced by the fact that I’ve given six of her more recent books DIK status.  On Board – the second in her Painted Bay series set in New Zealand’s Northland  – made my Best of 2021 list, and was always going to be a tough act to follow, but I’m pleased to report that In Step (one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2022) is a worthy successor.  Like the previous book, it’s powerfully emotional romance coupled with an extremely well-crafted tale of redemption and forgiveness, but it has a very different feel despite those similarities.

We’ve only really known Kane Martin as the bully who made Judah Madden’s life a misery when they were at school, and who viciously assaulted him when they were sixteen.  Kane was living and working on his family’s farm until six months previously, and when Judah’s mother Cora found him living out of his car, she offered him a job working for the Madden’s mussel farming business.  Judah’s brother Leroy wasn’t best pleased – he and Judah have only recently begun to repair their fractured relationship and Leroy wasn’t about to do anything that would throw a spanner into the works, but he also didn’t like the idea of going back on Cora’s promise.  He offered Kane a job, but made it very clear that coming to work for him was conditional on Judah’s giving the okay.

Judah agreed on the proviso that Kane keeps well out of his way and doesn’t attempt to approach or speak to him – and Kane has obeyed that condition to the letter.  He now lives in the bedsit over the garage at the Madden homestead and keeps very much to himself, accepting as his due the fact that he’ll never be anything but an outsider in Painted Bay.  The heartache Kane feels at being permanently on the outside as he watches the large, fond gatherings of Madden family and friends from which he’s deliberately excluded is superbly articulated and really tugs at the heartstrings (they got quite the work-out reading this one!)

Still, he’s grateful to have a job he enjoys, a roof over his head and space to work out what he wants to do next.   But his quiet existence on the fringes of life in Painted Bay is suddenly up-ended by the appearance of an old friend and colleague of Judah’s, choreographer Abe Tyler, who has come to town to help with the performance Judah is putting on to showcase the hard work of the kids in his dance therapy classes.

Abe is forty-four (to Kane’s thirty) and has worked hard to carve himself out a career as a freelance choreographer. He loves the work and all the travel it entails; it’s a somewhat nomadic existence but he wouldn’t have it any other way.  Until, that is, he meets Kane and starts to think the impossible – that he might want to put down roots in the sort of small town he’s vowed never to live in.

Abe and Kane are drawn to each other from the start, but Kane isn’t out and tries hard to keep his distance, years of hiding his homosexuality helping him to keep his attraction to the other man very much under wraps.  But it’s not easy.  It’s been years since Kane has felt – or allowed himself to feel – a connection with anyone, and the sizzling chemistry thrumming between him and the gorgeous silver-fox choreographer eventually becomes too much to ignore.  Kane and Abe agree hook-up  secretly for the remainder of Abe’s visit to Painted Bay; neither of them is looking for anything permanent and it’s good that they both know where they stand.  After he leaves Painted Bay, Abe has a three-month gig booked in the US, then one in Europe, and Kane doesn’t plan on sticking around either, knowing he needs to move on and to somewhere where he’s not constantly judged for something he did as a desperate and scared teen.  They both have plans, and a relationship doesn’t figure in any of them.  Except… what they’re doing and what they are to each other very quickly stops feeling like a fling and starts feeling like… well, something else.

I said in my review of On Board that I hoped the author would write a story for Kane, as I was sure there was one there worth telling, and she’s done him proud.  He’s complex and vulnerable, likeable and endearing, and he’s been through a lot, but never, ever does he try to use that as an excuse for what he did to Judah.  I appreciated the explanation for what happened and learning there was much more to it than a queer kid desperate to conceal his queerness by lashing out at an easy target, and it’s very clear that Kane lives with what he did every day, sure he doesn’t deserve forgiveness – even his own.   It’s only when Abe makes clear his interest in spending time with him and getting to know him that Kane, for the first time in his life, starts to feel truly seen and realises just how much he’s longed for that.  To Abe, he’s not the stupid kid who did a terrible thing, and he realises it’s time he stopped defining himself by that one act of violence, that he’s a good person and that he deserves to be happy.  The scenes in which he and Judah finally come face to face and address the past are painful and deeply emotional but also very real, and watching Kane come into his own and start to live an authentic life is wonderful and uplifting.

There’s a learning journey for Abe, too, as he starts to think that perhaps the life he’s led so far – a life he loves and which has been good to him – is perhaps not the one he wants for his future.

The romance between these two very different men is passionate, sexy and beautifully written, and I loved the way their growing emotional connection is reflected through their dancing the Argentinian Tango together, and the way Kane’s growing confidence in the dance mirrors the personal changes he’s going through as he opens himself up to Abe, to life and to possibilities.  Even though In Step is very much Kane’s show, Abe is a strong presence in the story, being exactly the supportive, generous and insightful partner Kane needs. There are no silly misunderstandings or contrived conflicts here; instead we’ve got two grown men acting their ages and not their shoe-sizes who recognise that what they have is special, are willing to take a risk, to admit they want more and are prepared to work at it.

In Step is a gorgeous romance full of insight and genuine emotion that will bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat in the best of ways. The characters are three-dimensional and relatable, the relationships – both familial and friendship – are expertly written, and the chemistry between the leads leaps off the page.  It’s a marvellous way to close out the Painted Bay series and I’m happy to recommend it unreservedly.

Against the Grain (Auckland Med. #4) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

I don’t like labels and I’m happy that way, but it’s taken a long time to get here. A jerk of a father, too many bullies to name, and a string of dipshit boyfriends whose interest in me rarely made it past the skirts I sometimes wear. Suffice to say, my faith in men runs a little thin.

The last thing I need is a gruff, opinionated, fiery, closeted, Paralympian jock messing with my hard-won peace. Miller Harrison is a wrinkle in my life I could definitely do without. I have a job that I love at Auckland Med, a boss who understands me, and a group of friends who accept me as I am.

I should walk away.

But Miller knows a thing or two about living life against the grain, and that hope I thought I’d buried a long time ago is threatening to surface.

Grade: Narration – A; Content – A-

Book four in Jay Hogan’s Auckland Med series, Against the Grain features a wonderful, ‘grown-up’ romance between two very different men whose willingness to communicate and work at their relationship is so refreshing in a genre that is often fraught with misunderstandings and miscommunication (or no communication at all!) Add in a touch of drama, a coming out story and a look at some important issues around disability and gender, and you’ve got a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable story that is my favourite book in the series so far.

Sassy pathologist’s assistant Sandy Williams (whom we first met in the previous book, Up Close and Personal) has spent his whole life (it seems) fighting to just be himself. He’s unapologetically out and proud, but beyond the fact that he’s attracted to men, he’s not interested in labels and doesn’t see why he should have to fit into any one box. He wears whatever reflects the way he feels on a particular day, be it skirts or jeans, heels or trainers, and anyone who doesn’t like it can just fuck off. It’s taken him a long time to get to this stage and he’s overcome a lot – from the kids who bullied him at school, to boyfriends who only wanted him for the novelty value and never really understood him, to the arsehole father who walked out the day after Sandy came out – and he’s emerged from it all as as someone who knows who he is and is comfortable in his own skin, despite the prejudice he still faces.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

On Board (Painted Bay #2) by Jay Hogan

on board

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Leroy Madden is in trouble. Big, handsome, Fox Carmody trouble.

Leroy has buried his attraction to the enigmatic fisherman in irritation and pointless bickering, keeping Fox at a safe distance. But with the troublesome man now living in Leroy’s house, it’s becoming impossible for Leroy to keep his true feelings hidden, or the fact that Leroy maybe isn’t so straight, after all.

Leroy hungers for something different between them. He wants more. But Leroy’s business is struggling, his newly mended relationship with his brother is at risk, Fox doesn’t plan to stay, and their mothers are lovers.

Regardless of what Leroy’s heart so desperately wants, his entire world is at stake, and nothing about a relationship with Fox Carmody was ever going to be easy.

Rating: A

Note: This review contains spoilers for the previous book in the series.

I’m always impressed when an author can take a thoroughly unlikeable character and redeem them in a way that is both plausible and consistent, and that’s exactly what Jay Hogan does in her latest novel.   Book two in her Painted Bay series set in New Zealand’s Northland, On Board focuses on mussel farmer Leroy Madden, brother of Judah from Off Balance.  In that book, Leroy was rude, inconsiderate and judgmental, dismissive of his brother’s condition (Judah’s glittering career as an international ballet star came to an end after he was diagnosed with severe Ménière’s disease) and, despite his protestations to the contrary, appeared to be uncomfortable with Judah’s sexuality.  In short, Leroy was an unpleasant, grumpy arsehole for almost the entire book, and it wasn’t until near the end that we got to learn some of the reasons for his behaviour (which didn’t excuse it) and to see the glimmer of a different man hovering behind the abrasive exterior.

Leroy Madden has a lot on his plate.  The mussel farm he co-owns with his mother is struggling and he’s trying to find ways of keeping it afloat, and he’s trying hard to repair his fractured relationship with his brother, so the last thing he needs is the sudden appearance in his kitchen of Fox Carmody, the son of his mother’s new girlfriend.  Leroy and Fox didn’t hit it off at all well at their first meeting a year earlier (see Off Balance), and their subsequent encounters haven’t gone much better – although fortunately, the fact that Fox lives on Stewart Island, several miles off the coast of South Island means they haven’t met very often.  Finding Fox standing barefoot in the kitchen making himself a sandwich throws Leroy for reasons he isn’t prepared to consider – and when Fox calmly explains that Cora (Leroy’s mother) said it would be okay for him to stay at the house for a couple of months, to say Leroy is unhappy with the situation and furious with his mother is an understatement.

Fox is going through a messy and unpleasant divorce and needed to get away from his small community to consider his next steps and to avoid the malicious rumours spread by his soon-to-be-ex to in an attempt to cover up his own culpability.  He knows Leroy doesn’t like him very much, but Fox has nowhere else to go, and besides, his presence in Painted Bay is only temporary, so hopefully they can manage a few weeks in proximity without killing each other.

That the reason for Leroy’s dislike is because he’s desperately attracted to Fox and doesn’t want to be is clear from the start.  He’s always identified as straight and hasn’t ever felt an attraction as strong as the one he feels towards Fox for anyone – ever, not even any of the women he’s dated. And it scares the crap out of him.  But it’s not just because Fox is a guy – despite indications to the contrary in the last book, Leroy really isn’t homophobic – his reasons for trying to keep a lid on the side of himself he’s denied for so long are complicated and even make sense once you come to understand him more.  It takes him a while to unravel it all and he doesn’t always act logically or considerately while he does it, but once he starts to allow himself to acknowledge the truth about himself, it becomes possible to see a very different man to the grouchy pain-in –the-arse we first met who pushes people away because he feels unworthy of being loved and has erected thick walls around his emotions to stop anyone getting in.  Leroy’s struggles feel very real and intense, and he often takes one step forward and two back – it would have been easy for him to just retreat into his shell – but instead he takes a long, hard look at himself and starts to own up to his truth and to what he really wants.  That takes a lot of courage and I came to sincerely admire him for it. He still makes mistakes, but his flaws and missteps make him that much more sympathetic and human – even if I did sometimes want to scream at him to just get his head out of his arse already!

The romance between Leroy and Fox is a wonderful and emotional slow burn that develops organically as the two men spend time together.  Terrified of what he’s feeling, Leroy tries to avoid Fox at all costs, but Fox, realising what Leroy is doing, (if not why) decides to start small and does things for him like making his lunch or cooking an evening meal.  They bond over a shared love of working on the sea – the author’s descriptions are so evocative I swear I could smell the salt in the air! – and when Leroy is ready to fully embrace his bisexuality he’s all in, determined to make the most of his time with Fox and to savour the experiences he’s long denied himself.

Off Balance was one of my favourite books of last year, and On Board is a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.  The romance is powerful and sexy, the gorgeous New Zealand scenery once again feels like a character in itself, and Leroy’s redemption arc is, quite simply, spectacular, as he is slowly and skilfully transformed from a distinctly disagreeable individual into one who, while recognisably the same man, is sympathetic and relatable.  I particularly liked seeing Leroy and Judah still working on repairing their relationship; there are several realistic bumps along the way here, but they’re getting there – and I’m intrigued to learn more about Kane, a former friend of Leroy’s who bullied Judah at school, but who turns up here in mysteriously straitened circumstances. (I’m hoping his is the next book in the series.) The one sour note struck is Cora, Leroy and Judah’s mother, who comes across as overly manipulative and someone who doesn’t take the feelings of others into account if they mean she won’t get what she wants.  I get that she’s had a tough time of it, but I just wanted her to go away and stop interfering.

On Board is another wonderful read from Jay Hogan, an intensely passionate romance combined with a story of self-acceptance and forgiveness that will grab you by the feels and won’t let you go until the very end.  Highly recommended.

Unguarded (Vino & Veritas #10) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong & Iggy Toma

unguarded

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

I fled Boston and my cheating jerk of an ex with $300 and a lip gloss in my pocket. Waking up the next day in Burlington, Vermont, with a crick in my back and a frozen ass wasn’t exactly in the plan. If there was one. Which there wasn’t. Story of my life.

Three hours later and I’ve been hired as temporary help in the local veterinary and grooming clinic, which is kind of impressive since I know zip about animals and even less about grooming. But one thing I do know – I’m crushing hard on the sexy, absentminded vet for whom I work.

My life is a hot mess. The last thing I need is another relationship. Emmett pushes all my buttons, but he isn’t out. He’s overwhelmed with a business to run and a son to look after and the kind of domestic life I never thought I wanted.

I should walk away.

But Emmett believes in me, and I might just be starting to believe in myself. As different as we are, is it possible we’re exactly what the other needs?

Rating: Narration – A/B; Content – A-

Unguarded is my favourite (and the best so far) of the Vino and Veritas series – a warm, sexy and emotionally satisfying romance between a small-town veterinary surgeon and a snarky ex-pat Kiwi in which Jay Hogan once again demonstrates her talent for creating complex, relatable characters and finding the right balance between light and dark elements in her stories. It’s only been a couple of months since I read the book, but having two of my all-time favourite narrators on board for the audio meant I wasn’t going to waste any time before experiencing it again.

The book opens with Tai Samuels freezing his butt off as he’s trying to sleep in his crappy car, when he’s seen by the local police and told to move on. After catching his long-term boyfriend cheating on him with a pair of twinks earlier that evening, Tai stormed out with nothing but the clothes on his back and a few hundred dollars in his wallet, and drove. It’s not the first time his ex has cheated on him – and Tai curses himself for his stupidity in having forgiven him – but enough is enough and he got in his car and left Boston behind as fast as he could. Which is how he’s ended up in Vermont in clothes more suitable for clubbing than a New England winter.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.