In Step
Grade : 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.

Buy it at: Amazon 

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Reviewed by Caz Owens

Grade: A

Sensuality: Warm

Review Date : February 10, 2022

Publication Date: 02/2022

Recent Comments …

  1. Personal impression is subjective. What works for one person doesn’t always work for others, as we all know. However, when…

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Caz Owens

I’m a musician, teacher and mother of two gorgeous young women who are without doubt, my finest achievement :)I’ve gravitated away from my first love – historical romance – over the last few years and now read mostly m/m romances in a variety of sub-genres. I’ve found many fantastic new authors to enjoy courtesy of audiobooks - I probably listen to as many books as I read these days – mostly through glomming favourite narrators and following them into different genres.And when I find books I LOVE, I want to shout about them from the (metaphorical) rooftops to help other readers and listeners to discover them, too.
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