Desert Isle Keeper
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.
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|Review Date:||September 30, 2021|
|Book Type:||Contemporary Romance|
|Review Tags:||divorced | Male/Male romance | New Zealand | Painted Bay series | Queer romance | roommates|
I can tell from this that Leroy isn’t well-off but I wasn’t sure about Fox – would you say this qualifies for a “working-class contemp” tag?
Both men are small-business owners – but although they both work hard for a living, I wouldn’t call them working class.
I politely disagree with Caz. I think a mussel farmer and a commercial fisherman would be considered working class jobs as opposed to professional jobs, even if the person has a degree. But I could be wrong. :-)
I don’t think business owners would be considered working class no matter the business. The OED defines working class as:
Leroy and Fox are not employed (they’re employERS), unskilled or semi-skilled.
As business owners, they’d be defined as middle class, as well as by education.
Caroline, I suppose it depends on your definition. If by working class, you mean “people who work for a living” rather than billionaires who swan around in yachts and helicopters, then Leroy and Fox fit that description (i.e, work for a living) – but they’re not what I’d call working class.
I guess I was classifying by type of job rather than by position within that field, but I can see your point. The definition of working class seems to be much narrower for many people than I would use. For example Leroy is doing manual labor in a job that does not require a degree, even as the owner I would still classify it working class for the type of job. I guess my terminology is too broad. Perhaps I’m conflating blue collar and working class?? Farming is considered a blue collar job, for example.
This was so delicious! It’s like with each book Ms. Hogan just gets better by massive leaps and bounds–and she was already fantastic to start. This is her third or fourth book where I read it on KU and I’m like, Yep, gonna buy that because I want to OWN it.
Like many others have mentioned, I was quite curious about how Leroy was going to be redeemed because he was just awful in Off Balance. The way his change occurred was really believable and even as I rolled my eyes at his antics at the beginning of the book, his inner voice made it clear that he was fighting a big fight. For an outward lout, Leroy turned out to be very self aware.
And I loved Fox. I loved how he was good for Leroy specifically, how he came to see that there were compromises that he hadn’t even thought to make with his ex that he was willing to make for Leroy. Was it because Leroy was his one or was it growth from the previous relationship? Don’t know, but it worked.
Re Judah: I thought he came across a bit two dimensional in this book and a bit shrill, but this wasn’t his book, so I think readers should definitely read book 1, otherwise he comes across as a bit of a man-child. But that’s a snowflake in a blizzard worth of awesomeness.
Like Manjari, I also thought Book 2 was going to be about Terry, and now that Book 3 is going to be about Kane AND coming out in early 2022 (argh!!!), I’m literally on pins and needles. If Terry doesn’t get a book, I’ll be sad. *sniff*
I think it was both. There is no doubt that Fox’s ex treated him badly but Fox also did learn from that relationship that he had to be more aware of his partner’s needs and be able to compromise. I think he was more willing to do so because his relationship with Leroy was deeper – they were much more compatible in their interests/goals and Fox entered the relationship with Leroy from an older, more experienced level.
Agree with you about Judah. It’s funny that in book 1, it is Leroy that is unlikeable but in book 2, we sympathize with Leroy and find Judah upsetting. What a difference it makes to have the main character’s inner thoughts!
I too will riot if Terry doesn’t get a book. I’m worried about him since he is depicted as being run down in this book!
I absolutely loved this book. I liked Off Balance but Judah was a little too dramatic for my taste. I was really surprised to find out that Leroy was going to be a main character of the next book as he was so unlikeable in Off Balance. However, his character was beautifully redeemed.
I thought Leroy and Fox were a really good match. They had similar interests and desires to have a simple, domestic home life. They both had self esteem issues to work through and I liked how they supported each other. One of the best aspects of Leroy was that once he started his relationship with Fox, he was truly all in. I loved the scenes where Leroy stood up to Fox’s ex. I agree that you shouldn’t read this book without reading Off Balance first as you can better understand the progression of Leroy’s relationship with Judah – it’s really well done. I also like books where a theme is that home is not a place but a person. I’m still thinking days later about how much I loved this book!
I thought that book 2 in this series would be about Terry. At the end of Off Balance there is a scene where someone calls Terry on the phone and is surprised at a voice they hear in the same room. I wanted to find out who it was! And now it looks like I will have to wait even longer as book 3 is about Kane. However, I am super intrigued by whatever is going on with him and happy I will only have to wait until February to find out!
At the end of On Board, this is a Jay Hogan booklist which has a book called “Flare” as part of the “Style Series” coming in late 2021/22. Does anyone know anything about this book?
Yes, the Style series is set in the world of fashion and I seem to recall JH saying somewhere that it was one of those story ideas that hit her out of nowhere and demanded to be written! So the characters – some of them at least – are models, designers etc. I’ll come back with more info if I find any.
That sounds like quite a new lane for Jay Hogan and sounds like it could be fabulous! She is an auto-buy author for me. I wonder if the setting will still be New Zealand then…
Hooray for Jay Hogan! Sounds marvelous.
It’s so good. She’s one of the best of the current crop of m/m writers, that’s for sure.
Yes to everything you said, right down to your take on Cora. I loved the book, and the character development was so well done. I’m already looking forward to book three which is about Kane and the choreographer Judah is bringing in for help with his dance studio.
I think readers really, really need to read OFF BALANCE first or they will lose a lot of the nuances in this book. The author covers very little of the background story in this book, including the fact that she doesn’t explain Judah’s attacks at all, only mentions them, and the reason for the mussel farm being in trouble is only touched on here. Not to mention that reading them out of order might make OFF BALANCE less enjoyable after the reader comes to love Leroy in this book. And, of course, the fact that OFF BALANCE is a wonderful book.
Hah – mind-twins! I agree that readers will get a lot more out of this if they read the previous one – and yes, Kane’s story promises another redemption arc. I think JH said early 2022 – I can’t wait!
Cora did bother me in this actually. It was bad enough that she and her husband favoured Judah so much over Leroy, but her meddling and interference in this one was really annoying and made me dislike her even more.
As you know, family manipulations are one of my least favorite tropes in romance, and yet it seems to almost be a fallback position for authors as a way to provide conflict and angst these days. Thankfully, even though I really don’t like Cora, Hogan didn’t dwell overmuch on the family drama and I still thought the book was great.
Yes, the family manipulation thing isn’t usually as much of an issue for me as it is for you, but it definitely bothered me here – perhaps because it was done in such a plausible way. Sometimes in books, the family stuff is so ridiculously over the top, it’s impossible to take it seriously, but here’s it’s quiet and insidious.