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.