Pinot and Pineapple Lumps, the fourth book in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, is a deeply emotional story about dealing with loss, healing from trauma, and fighting to be what and who you are, and for what you want. One of the protagonists is Kurt Sharpe, brother of Ethan from Powder and Pavolva (book one in the series) and while I wouldn’t say it’s essential to have read that book before this one, I’d advise it, as it will enable readers to get a firmer handle on the complicated relationship between the brothers and a more detailed look at their backstory.
There are spoilers for previous books in the series in this review.
At the end of the previous book in the series, Flat Whites and Chocolate Fish, Kurt was badly burned in a fire on the premises of the café and coffee roasting business Ethan part-owns. When we meet him again in this book, he’s living with PTSD as a result of the fire (and the attack that preceded it), and even though it happened well over a year earlier, Ethan still tends to treat him with kid gloves – which isn’t what nineteen-year-old Kurt wants at all. He knows he’s a different person now; before the fire he’d been planning a future and having fun, enjoying his design course at college and hanging out with friends, but now… those friends have fallen by the wayside, either because they didn’t know what to say or because Kurt didn’t feel like he fit in any more and just stopped responding to their texts. And he’s tired and afraid – tired of Ethan treating him like he’s going to break, and afraid of becoming someone even he doesn’t recognise.
He’s attending a friend’s wedding at a gorgeous Otago vineyard and has stepped out for some air when he meets a guy who introduces himself as Penn. They strike up a casual, slightly flirtatious conversation – and for the first time in over a year, Kurt realises he’s feeling the pull of attraction. During this conversation, Penn explains that he now lives in Australia and is only home for a visit – but before they part, they share a passionate kiss which brings Kurt’s libido roaring back to life; here, if only fleetingly, is someone who wants him for who he is now, someone who knows nothing about his past and who is treating him like an adult. It’s been such a long time since Kurt has felt – well, anything,and it feels nothing short of miraculous.
A year later, Penn Cunningham has returned home from his life and job in Adelaide because his father is dying, and although they don’t see eye to eye, Penn knows he needs to be there to help run the winery and do his best to make sure everything is in order. Otis Cunningham doesn’t make it easy, though. He’s always been overbearing and his insistence that things be done his way and his way only is what drove Penn so far away and kept him there, despite the fact that the land is in his bones and wine making is his passion. But his interests always lay in a different direction to his father’s and Otis’ point-blank refusal to allow Penn the freedom to pursue them caused a rift that seems only to have widened with time.
Kurt is six months away from finishing his design degree but is also starting to make a name for himself off the back of the graphic design work he’s done for Ethan’s company. He’s surprised when he gets a call asking him to visit the Cunningham winery to discuss a rebranding project – and nervous, too, because Cunningham’s is big league stuff – but not as surprised as he is when he arrives at the winery to find himself face to face with Penn, who is every bit as drop dead gorgeous as he remembers.
After some initial awkwardness – caused mostly by Penn’s attempts to apologise for not having realised that Kurt was “a kid” that night and Kurt firmly shooting him down – they start discussing business and discover that their ideas for the redesign mesh really well. Despite Penn’s attempts at denial, both men know that the powerful attraction they’d felt back that night beneath the Southern Lights is still there and getting stronger, and that it’s not going to go away. Kurt makes his interest in Penn plain, but Penn holds back, mostly because he thinks Kurt is too young. But the more Penn sees of Kurt, the more he likes him; he’s young, yes, but he’s also clever, funny and direct, his life experiences have matured him more than other guys his age, and made him so much stronger and resilient than he gives himself credit for. It takes Penn a while to realise that his issue with Kurt’s age – which isn’t so much that Penn is a decade older as it is that Kurt is only twenty – is baseless, but once he finally allows himself to see Kurt as a man and not a number, they begin to explore their intense mutual attraction and their romance takes off, evolving naturally from the friendship and understanding they’ve already begun building together. I loved that they were so open and honest with each other about their problems and what they wanted from life, and I adored the thought they put into their relationship.
The main point of conflict is that Penn is likely to return to Adelaide after his father dies, and Kurt is reluctant to put his heart on the line for someone who might not stick around. It’s clear from the start that Penn is torn; he loves the land and he loves making wine, but that love is tangled up in his conflicted feelings about his father – made worse by the conditions Otis is threatening to impose as part of his will, an attempt to control Penn from beyond the grave. Even when Kurt calls him on it and asks Penn if he’s pushing back simply because it’s become his default position, it’s hard for Penn to admit what he really wants, especially after Otis does something unforgiveable late in the story.
Kurt and Penn are wonderfully complex, likeable and beautifully drawn. Kurt has been through a life-changing experience he’s still processing and learning to live with, and I really appreciated the way the author shows his journey toward healing, aided by the love and support of those around him. He’s superbly written; I liked his self-awareness , his strength and his determination to get his life back – he’s a survivor and never a victim, a force of nature who knows what he wants and goes for it, and I loved the way he asserts himself when Ethan – with the very best of intentions – gets a bit smothering. Penn is perhaps cast a little into shadow because Kurt is so larger-than-life, but he’s equally engaging and his issues are just as compelling and well handled. I have to mention Otis, too – a cantankerous and, frankly, not particularly nice individual, it would have been easy to make him into a two-dimensional villain, but Jay Hogan skilfully avoids that trap and makes him into a nuanced, deeply flawed human being who, despite some of the things he does, elicits a degree of sympathy when all’s said and done.
Pinot and Pineapple Lumps is a beautifully put-together hurt/comfort story that tackles some difficult issues in a respectful and understanding way. The New Zealand settings are so vividly described I could almost hear the rushing of the glacial river through the vineyard and see the mountains beyond, the romance is heartfelt and the HEA hard-won and well deserved. Jay Hogan has been a ‘must read’ author for me for some time now, and with this book, she continues to show herself to be one of the best writers of contemporary m/m romance around.
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