In Off Balance, the first book in her new series of contemporary romances, author Jay Hogan takes a big geographical leap from one end of New Zealand to the other, from the lakes and mountains of the Southland (the setting for her recent Southern Lights books) to the coastal region of subtropical Northland at the northern tip of the North Island, and the small town of Painted Bay. It’s an emotional, powerful story about two very different men who end up back in their home town following tragedy and heartbreak, and how they learn to come to terms with the past and move forward with their lives while also working out how – and if – they can manage to do that together.
Judah Madden got out of Painted Bay as soon as he possibly could, having spent sixteen years never fitting in because he was too flamboyant, too gay and too unwilling to be anything other than who and what he was. His ticket out was his talent as a dancer; his parents supported him both morally and financially, and helped him to follow his dreams of making it as a ballet dancer, and when we meet him, he’s twenty-five and has already made himself a name as a world-class performer. But his world comes tumbling down when – during a performance – he has a severe dizzy spell which causes him to fall and then pass out. Shortly after this, he is diagnosed with Menière’s Disease – a chronic illness 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.
With no alternative left open to him, Judah returns to Painted Bay to lick his wounds and try to work out what to do next. The Menière’s means his future employment prospects are severely limited – he can’t drive, he can’t operate machinery – and in any case, the only thing he’s ever trained for, the only thing he’s ever been good at is ballet… which is no longer an option.
Around five years before this, another man whose life had been devastated by tragedy arrived in Painted Bay, needing to get away from the suffocating concern of his family while he worked through his grief. Fisheries officer Morgan Wipene lost his wife Sally to a particularly aggressive form of cancer, and it hit him hard, but over the years, he’s learned to process his grief and accept her loss, and while he still feels her absence at times, it’s a gentle comfort rather than a searing pain. After five years, he’s ready to move on; he’s always known he’s bisexual, but has mostly been with women, and had certainly reckoned without being knocked sideways by a gorgeous, smart-mouthed, but obviously deeply wounded (and much younger) man who is not coping well with whatever has brought him back to Painted Bay.
The sparks fly between Judah and Morgan from their very first meeting, and the pull between them only grows stronger as they find out more about each other. Both men are at difficult places in their lives and know that trying to fit in a new relationship is almost certainly a recipe for disaster, yet the attraction between them is so strong, the chemistry so intense that they also both recognise that they’re not going to be able to keep their hands off each other for very long. Their mutual attraction builds quickly, which happens often in this author’s novels, but she always takes the time to develop a strong emotional connection as well, so that what starts out looking a bit like insta-lust (and sometimes the mental lusting is just a tad overdone) grows organically into something deeper.
Both characters are well-rounded and skilfully drawn. With the life he’d envisaged for himself in tatters, Judah is struggling to work out who he wants to be and what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He’s pissy, self-absorbed and narcissistic, full of hate, despair and cynicism, a complete contrast to the confident easy-going individual he used to be. And he doesn’t know how to pull himself out of the downward spiral. He isn’t taking care of himself properly, he’s depressed and won’t accept help or let anyone in. He hates being back in a place that so obviously hated him growing up, and worse, he’s come home broken rather than as a man at the top of his profession. Morgan is able to relate – to an extent – to where Judah’s head is and to his desire to push everyone away, because he’s hit rock bottom, too, and knows what it takes to be able to climb out of the pit. Yet although he’s put the past into perspective – and I really appreciated the way Sally’s presence in his life is handled in the story – there’s one niggle at the back of his mind that’s holding him back. They’re at different places in their lives, but both men are dealing with a lot – Judah especially – and the way each is able to provide the support, comfort and understanding the other needs is truly uplifting and immensely satisfying to read.
The first book I read by Jay Hogan, Digging Deep, also featured a character living with a chronic illness, and here, as in that book, the author does a spectacular job when it comes to painting a realistic picture of the way Judah’s condition affects him and the long road ahead of him in learning to adjust and live with it.
There’s an engaging cast of secondary characters (some more likeable than others) including Terry, one of Judah’s few friends from his schooldays and Terry’s nine-year-old daughter Hannah, who has juvenile arthritis, and Leroy, Judah’s brother, who has always resented him and who seems set on making his life even more of a misery. There are some intriguing relationships being set up and characters I’m hoping to see more of later in the series.
Off Balance is a poignant, angsty and passionate story about love, loss and new beginnings, about finding the strength to overcome adversity, and the importance of knowing when and how to accept help. There’s family drama and a bit of suspense (as Morgan works to bring down a local poaching ring), and as in the author’s Southern Lights series, the locations and scenery are described in such a way as to be almost characters in the story themselves. All in all, it’s a terrific start to this new series, and I’m really looking forward to my next visit to Painted Bay.
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