Powder & Pavlova (Southern Lights #1) by Jay Hogan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

ETHAN SHARPE is living every young Kiwi’s dream—seeing the world for a couple of years while deciding what to do with his life. Then he gets a call. Two days later he’s back in New Zealand. Six months later his mother is dead, his fifteen-year-old brother is going off the rails and the café he’s inherited is failing. His life is a hot mess and the last thing he needs is another complication—like the man who just walked into his café,

a much older…

sinfully hot…

EPIC complication.

TANNER CARPENTER’s time in Queenstown has an expiration date. He has a new branch of his business to get up and running, exorcise a few personal demons while he’s at it, and then head back to Auckland to get on with his life. He isn’t looking for a relationship especially with someone fifteen years his junior, but Ethan is gorgeous, troubled and in need of a friend. Tanner could be that for Ethan, right? He could brighten Ethan’s day for a while, help him out, maybe even offer some… stress relief, no strings attached. It was a good plan, until it wasn’t.

Rating: A-

I read and enjoyed a couple of books by Jay Hogan last year, so I was more than happy to jump into Powder & Pavlova, the first book in her Southern Lights series of m/m romances set in and around Queenstown, New Zealand.  This is a May/December story featuring a pair of engaging and well-rounded protagonists whose flaws make them seem all the more real, and their romance is a gorgeous slow-burn, full of chemistry that fizzes and pops every time they’re together on the page.  Powder & Pavlova is charming, sexy and poignant; funny at one moment, heart-breaking the next, and I loved every minute of it.

Twenty-three-year-old Ethan Sharpe planned to travel for a year or so when he left school, intending to use the time away to figure out what he wanted to do with his life before returning home to Queenstown.  But that one year became two; two became three, then four… until Ethan received a phone call six months before the book opens and he discovered his mother had terminal cancer and just a few months left to live.  Now, just months after her death, Ethan is spending most of his time trying to keep the café she’d loved from going under and trying to do the best for his sixteen-year-old brother Kurt, whose grades are nose-diving at school and whose teenage attitude and snark always rub Ethan the wrong way. Ethan recognises his brother is hurting, but so is he; and it hurts even more when he remembers how he’d thought that he and Kurt would be there for each other – yet now he can’t seem to do anything right.

Tanner Carpenter is a former champion snowboarder whose career ended due to injury fourteen earlier, and who has never been near the snow since.  He now works for a PR company that is looking to extend its profile and snag some contracts in the sports arena – rugby and snowsports specifically – and he’s in Queenstown for five months, heading up a small team whose brief is to test the market and come up with a pitch for contracts in the next Audi Quattro Winter Games.   He noticed Ethan in the kitchen of the local coffee shop when he was on an office coffee run – and now makes a point of doing the runs himself; after all, nothing says ‘team culture’ more than the boss pitching in and getting the coffee in.

Well, that’s his excuse and he’s sticking to it.

Ethan has noticed Tanner, too, but the hot, almost-silver fox with the devastating smile and maturity and confidence painted all over him is way out of his league – and even if he wasn’t, Ethan doesn’t have time for dating or anything else.  But the next time Tanner comes into the café, he engages Ethan in an unmistakeably flirtatious conversation and Ethan can’t help but flirt back; the sparks really do fly between them right from the start, and flirtation soon turns into a genuine friendship.  Both men acknowledge the strength of the attraction they feel towards each other, but agree not to cross the boundary between friendship and something more.  Ethan has his hands full trying to keep the café’s head above water and Tanner will be returning to his life in Auckland in a few months, so getting in any deeper is a terrible idea.

The trouble is, of course, that there comes a point when friendship isn’t enough for either of them. Even as the friendship the couple decides is all they can allow themselves grows and deepens, the author is showing readers how absolutely in tune they are; even as they recognise that they’re asking for trouble by embarking on a relationship, she’s showing us that they’re perfect for one another romantically – and the emotional connection she creates between them simply leaps off the page.

I generally enjoy May/December romances, although it’s not every author who can pull it off successfully and achieve the right balance of youth and maturity in the make-up of both characters to make the relationship believable, but Jay Hogan does it extremely well here.  Ethan has a lot on his young shoulders; he’s still grieving his mother, he feels guilty about not being what his brother needs, and even more guilty about the possibility of failure when it comes to his mother’s business.  Tanner is fifteen years older and more settled, even though he has his own fears and insecurities to overcome.  I loved that these guys are so supportive of each other, and that even when they disagree, they’re strong enough and mature enough to admit when they get something wrong, further strengthening the bond between them.

The relationships between Ethan and his friends, Adrian (the mysteriously tight-lipped barista – I hope he’s getting his own book!) and Lucy, are well written, and the sibling relationship between Ethan and Kurt is skilfully handled. Even though we don’t get Kurt’s PoV, the author is able to convey his hurt and frustration so well that it’s easy to empathise with him, even when he’s behaving like a shit towards Ethan, and I was rooting for them to repair the damage and get things between them back on track.

This review wouldn’t be complete without my mentioning the mouth-watering food and desserts Ethan and his team regularly prepare, or the wonderful descriptions of the South Island scenery; the view across Lake Wakatipu, the snowy mountains and the Aurora Australis, for instance, which all made me want to look up the price of a plane ticket!

Funny, sexy, sweet and touching, Powder & Pavlova made me smile and it made me cry, and I was so captivated by it that I raced through it in a couple of sittings.  Jay Hogan has earned a place on my list of ‘must read’ authors, and I’m really looking forward to the next instalment in the Southern Lights series.

First Impressions (Auckland Med. #1) by Jay Hogan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Michael:

Two years ago, I made a mistake, a big one. Then I added a couple more just for good measure. I screwed up my life, but I survived. Now I have the opportunity for a fresh start. Two years in NZ. Away from the LA gossip, a chance to breathe, to rebuild my life. But I’m taking a new set of rules with me.

I don’t do relationships.

I don’t do commitment.

I don’t do white picket fences.

And I especially don’t do arrogant, holier-than-thou, smoking hot K9 officers who walk into my ER and rock my world.

Josh:

One thing for certain, Dr. Michael Oliver is an arrogant, untrustworthy player, and I barely survived the last one of those. He might be gorgeous, but my daughter takes number one priority. I won’t risk her being hurt, again. I’m a solo dad, a K9 cop and a son to pain-in-the-ass parents.

I don’t have time for games.

I don’t have time for taking chances.

I don’t have time for more complications in my life.

And I sure as hell don’t have time for the infuriating Dr. Michael Oliver, however damn sexy he is.

Rating: B

Having really enjoyed Jay Hogan’s Digging Deep when I read it last summer, I was eager to read more of her work.  First Impressions – the first in her Auckland Med. series – is her début novel (recently republished), an enjoyable enemies-to-lovers romance with an element of suspense/crime drama thrown in.  The central characters are engaging and strongly drawn but flawed, and the chemistry between them is fantastic; plus there’s a nicely rounded-out secondary cast, and I thoroughly appreciated the vibrant, laid-back New Zealand setting, which made a refreshing change.

After a tragic event which sent him into a downward spiral of drink and depression, Los Angeles-based ER doctor Michael Oliver took the opportunity to relocate to Auckland as part of a two year exchange program.  He’s been in New Zealand for six months and he loves it; he loves his work, he’s made some really good friends and is more than happy with his revolving door of bed-partners.  His personal life went tits up around the same time his professional life imploded, making Michael more certain than ever that relationships aren’t his thing.  We first meet him when he’s out cruising, making his move on the hot guy he’s decided is going to be his for the night, when his plans are interrupted by a raid on the club and he’s confronted by six-foot-four of scorching hot, snarky cop, an ansty German Shepherd glued to his side.

K-9 officer Josh Rawlins doesn’t have time for the mouthy, arrogant guy obviously checking him out, and has shut down his attempts to flirt when all hell breaks loose and shots are fired.  While Josh and his dog, Paris, are involved in the fight to stop the shooters from escaping, Michael jumps in to help an officer who has been shot, keeping him alive until the paramedics arrive.

Josh and Michael take an instant dislike to each other and Michael takes a particular delight in deliberately needling Josh by attempting to flirt with him.  But Josh is having none of it. His priority is his eleven-year-old daughter, and what he wants most is to make a loving home and family for her – but following his last long-term relationship, which ended after Josh discovered his partner had been cheating on him throughout, Josh has been wary of getting involved again. He certainly isn’t prepared to put himself and his heart on the line for someone like Michael who, Josh thinks, has impermanence written all over him, no matter how tempted he may be.

And Michael Oliver is most definitely tempting. Josh has to admit he’s funny and sexy and smart, and that something about him turns him on “like a fucking switch” .  When the two of them at last give in to the intensity of the attraction between them, things get steamy pretty fast and Michael is surprised to find himself craving the space to just… let go that Josh offers.  They agree to a NSA fling, but somehow things don’t stay that way and ‘casual’ soon develops into something neither man had anticipated.  Josh doesn’t think Michael can ‘do’ relationships, and Michael has labelled himself the same way; he deliberately destroyed his last relationship when he was in that drink-fuelled downward spiral and has convinced himself he’s not cut out for anything long-term.  But as the men spend more and moretime together, they are forced to confront the fact that their first impressions of each other were completely wrong and that perhaps they really do want the same things from life.  The problem is admitting that – to themselves and each other.

I really liked both characters, even though Michael is a bit of a dickhead to start with, and their relationship is very well developed.  The chemistry between them is explosive, and they have a lot of sex,  but they laugh and talk and just hang out, too; they enjoy each other’s company and open up to one another, both feeling safe to let themselves be vulnerable when they need to, and I loved seeing that trust build between them.  I was also relieved that the author didn’t take an obvious turn down Big Mis Lane at a point later in the story.  There’s a great secondary cast, too – Josh’s daughter is a fairly believable eleven and their relationship is nicely done, as is that with his sister, and his friend and fellow cop, Mark; and Michael’s friend and colleague Cam Wano, a gloriously femme, snarky charge-nurse is a highlight – his story is told in the next book in the series.  The crime drama storyline I mentioned at the beginning is perhaps distributed a little unevenly throughout the book – it sort of disappears for a bit in the middle before resurfacing towards the end – and there’s another sub-plot  revolving around Josh’s homophobic parents which is quite heart-breaking  – and quite honestly, I wanted Josh to tell them where to get off rather earlier than he did!  I also had issues with the ending; it’s difficult to say too much without spoilers, but while I understood why Michael did what he did, I nonetheless found it rather selfish and needlessly hurtful.

Still, First Impressions was an engrossing read and one that I got through in only a couple of sittings, which is always a good indication of my engagement with a book.  In spite of my reservations about certain aspects of the plot, the central relationship and romance are really well done, the characters are likeable and if you’re looking for a contemporary romance set outside the US, it’s definitely one to consider checking out.

Digging Deep by Jay Hogan

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Drake Park has a complicated life. As a gay male midwife, he’s used to raising eyebrows. Add Crohn’s disease and things get interesting—or not, considering the sad state of his love life. Experience has taught Drake that most men are fair-weather sailors when it comes to handling his condition—gone for dust when things get rough. Staying healthy is a full-time job without adding in any heartbreak, so a little loneliness is a small price to pay. If he says it often enough he might even believe it. One thing for sure, the cop who arrested him isn’t about to change that.

Caleb Ashton does not have a complicated life. A senior detective with the Whangarei Police Department, he likes his job and is good at it. He works hard and plays hard, happy to enjoy as many men as he can while he’s still young enough—or at least he was. These days he feels adrift for the first time in his life, and the only thing sparking his interest—a certain prickly young midwife.

But can Drake find enough faith to risk opening his heart again? And does Caleb have what it takes to cope with the challenges Drake’s condition presents?

Rating: B+

Digging Deep is the first book I’ve read by New Zealander Jay Hogan, and I have to say I was pretty impressed.  In it, the author takes a long, hard look at how living with a chronic illness impacts on every single aspect of life for the person who has it and those around them, while at the same time developing a tender, sensual love story between two men who have a lot to learn about how to maintain a relationship under difficult and often debilitating circumstances.  Jay Hogan has clearly done her research when it comes to the disease itself (she acknowledges the input she received from many of those living with Crohn’s disease), and although there are times when the text gets a little bit info-dumpy, it never overwhelms the story or romance, and she injects a lot of humour into the tale while never belittling the disease or those who live with it.

Duck-Young Park (father, Korean, mother, Irish/Fijian) – who prefers to be called Drake – is a midwife who works in private practice in Whangarei in the Northland of NZ, alongside two close friends.  He loves his job and is very good at it; he has a great relationship with his colleagues and has a couple of clients he counts as friends, but other than them, his best friend, and his family – with whom he’s really close – he lives a fairly lonely life.  After his last relationship crashed and burned – his boyfriend of two years bailed when Drake had a fairly serious Crohn’s flare-up – he’s been cautious about getting involved again and has come to the conclusion that romance is not for him.  Staying healthy and the pressure that puts on him is hard enough; the last thing he needs is another broken heart over a guy who won’t stick around when the going gets tough.

Police officer Caleb Ashton makes no secret of the fact that he’s not interested in relationships.  He flits from casual fling to hook-up and back again, and likes it that way; he’s not boyfriend material anyway – he’s too selfish for that – and he’s content with the way things are.  His best friend is the glorious drag-queen, Carmen Bendover (otherwise known as Daniel when not in drag), he gets along really well with his work-partner, Leanne, and okay, so he’s not seen much of his family for the last couple of years, but that’s down to him… and he knows he really must make an effort.  He just hasn’t got round to it.

Life is about to change for both Drake and Caleb when Drake is attending a local demonstration and – to cut a long story short – Caleb ends up arresting him.  Sparks fly, but when Caleb attempts to ask Drake out for coffee, Drake shuts him down in no uncertain terms and thinks that’s that.  No matter how hot the guy is – very – or how tempted Drake is – quite a bit – there’s something about the officer that warns him to steer clear.  But that proves to be more difficult than Drake had anticipated, as Caleb embarks upon a campaign of serious wooing that’s as much a surprise to Caleb as it is to Drake.  Caleb is irresistibly drawn to the gorgeous, prickly midwife, and his persistence is endearing (and not at all creepy); the gifts he sends are thoughtful and clearly show that he’s making an effort to learn more about Drake’s condition, and after a few weeks, Drake admits that he can’t pretend to be indifferent any longer.  He’s been attracted to Caleb from the first, but was – and still is – very wary about getting involved with someone new, especially someone with no track record when it comes to relationships.  But if Caleb is willing to try – and he clearly is – then maybe Drake can afford to open up and let him into his life… just a little bit.

Drake and Caleb are complex, well-rounded characters and I liked them both, even when they weren’t always that likeable.  Drake is brusque and snarky and tough, a real survivor, and both men have been used to being selfish in their own ways; Caleb, because he’s used to just looking out for himself, and Drake because he has to put himself and his health before everything else. But what they both have to realise is that when you love someone, you love all of them, even those parts you don’t like very much.  Caleb’s journey from self-professed manwhore to loving partner is really well done; he makes a huge effort to learn about Drake’s condition and is determined to prove to Drake that he’s not going to be like his ex, and run when things get difficult.  That said, I really appreciated that Caleb doesn’t immediately turn into Mr. Perfect; he really wants to be there for Drake, but can’t help worrying if maybe it will all get too much for him, and his doubts seemed perfectly realistic and made him seem that much more human.  The author depicts Drake’s way of living with the disease very well also; he has to live a very regimented life, to be careful about what he eats and drinks, keep as fit as possible, keep his stress levels as low as possible, and he also has his coping mechanisms for when the condition flares up. But while he admits to a degree of selfishness – and I’m not necessarily criticising that; after all, he knows the disease better than anyone around him – he fails to see that he is, to an extent, allowing it to run his life.

Digging Deep is very much a character driven story, with the bulk of the conflict arising from Drake’s tendency to keep people at a distance,  but there are a couple of dramatic moments that propel the story in the second half of the book.  It’s hard to say much without spoilers, so I’ll just say that one of them is a tragedy specifically related to Drake’s profession that hits him really hard, and the other relates to Caleb and his job.  While the first of these felt organic to the story, the second seemed a little contrived, and is one of the reasons I haven’t awarded the novel DIK status.  Drake and Caleb already had so much on their plate that I felt it was over-egging the pudding.

There were also a few places where things got a teeny bit repetitive, but otherwise, this was a great read.  In spite of the limitations placed on Drake’s sex life, there’s plenty of steam in this novel, and plenty of swoon worthy moments, too, such as the ugly-ass bouquet (you’ll see what I mean when you read it), or all those times when Caleb refuses to give up on Drake or when Drake finally realises that he doesn’t want to keep pushing Caleb away.  I loved that Caleb wasn’t afraid to call Drake on his crap (pun unintended!) and how he embraced everything that came with loving Drake and was ready with the humour in a way that was just perfect for him.

There’s a terrific cast of secondary characters – Carmen and Drake’s mum are a hoot! – and while there are a lot of medical details in the book, they’re important in order for readers to understand the characters’ journey and the what they may face in the future.  Digging Deep is a terrific mixture of funny and romantic, thoughtful and serious, and I give serious props to the author for bringing this story to life in such an insightful and engaging manner.

Note: This book contains detailed descriptions of childbirth which may be upsetting to readers who have had difficult labours and/or miscarriages.