Title: Paid Leave
Author: Hayley B. James
Cover Artist: Paul Richmond
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: Contemporary Romance/Police Procedural-ish
Length: Novel (230 pages)
Rating: 3.25 stars out of 5
A Guest Review by Aunt Lynn
One Sentence Review: While I liked some of the characters, there were numerous issues that prevented me from rating it higher.
Albuquerque police officer Benji Miller made the choice to hide his sexuality and devote his life to his career. He guards his secret carefully, believing he is protecting his job and happiness. Then, during a routine traffic stop gone awry, he shoots a suspect to protect a young girl, and his life spins out of control. A department-mandated paid leave rips away the only distraction he had, and he has to deal with the unsympathetic media who criticize the police department’s every move.
One day, needing to get out of the house, Benji walks into a café, where he meets Neal McCoy—a gay man living without shame, unafraid to speak his mind or stand up against prejudice. Benji quickly falls for Neal but struggles to combine his new love interest and his career. With the media threatening the careful illusion he’s built around himself, Benji can’t stand the pressure.
Benji has to decide: sacrifice his happiness in the name of his career and an easy life, or find the courage to give up the lonely existence he knows and take a step into the unknown.
This was a difficult review for me to write and one of my longer, less coherent ones, I think. Apologies upfront. Paid Leave is the first book by this author I’ve read and while I thought it was generally well-written and I was engaged (my first reading had me up waaayyyy later than I intended to be finishing it), I did have mixed feelings about it.
I’m going to try and stay away from big spoilers, but to talk about what did and didn’t work for me may include talking about some things that are not in the blurb, so here’s another warning that spoilers may be ahead.
But lest you think I hated this book that borders on a police-procedural in parts from my rambling after this – because I didn’t – there were good points for me, mostly around some of the characters. Neal is wonderful, funny, kind and sweet, but flawed in a very realistic way. He doesn’t want to make concessions for Benji, essentially going back into the closet for him, but he does in a way because he really likes him. I like his understanding both of Benji and himself, and he knows he’s making backwards steps, and is…okay with it, to a point. While I generally don’t like characters who compromise their principles, I was okay with it here.
And Kyle, Neal’s BFF. Loved very out and proud Kyle. Poor somewhat sheltered Benji, he was in for just one shock after another with in-your-face Kyle. And Neal’s 15-year-old “niece,” who is painted in a perhaps accurate representation of the differences of thought in today’s youth. And Benji’s colleague, Cazé, who is supportive, and I liked some of the conversations they had.
Now onto what didn’t work for me. I think one of my issues is that the book, even after three readings, felt like a general downer, which I am not sure it was supposed to be. While there are some cute and more light-hearted scenes, and even when Benji isn’t obsessing over…pretty much everything – his sexuality, the bad stuff he sees on the job, his colleagues who are shunning him, the negative media reports – it felt heavy to me (and contrary to the “fun” Paul Richmond cover). The last quarter of the story shows a somewhat more up-beat Benji with his changed outlook, but it was a little too late for me.
Related to this, I had a lot of trouble warming up to and respecting Benji. I love me some flawed heroes, but Benji came across as mostly sour and unsympathetic. He isn’t a jerk and I don’t want it to seem that I hated him, because I didn’t. I think perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I didn’t feel like I knew him, even by the end, but yeah – sourpuss. Part of this is because I got tired of him complaining to himself and others about the fact that he couldn’t have a “normal” life with a partner, children, etc, and another part is that I didn’t feel that enough information was given to his backstory to warrant such negativity. We are fed teeny morsels at a time about the “why”s, little peeks into his story, but even after I finished the book, I still didn’t understand him and his very strong positions. He doesn’t talk with or about his parents because they don’t accept him. Okay, expand on that, please. He can’t be an out police officer. Perhaps true in certain communities and maybe even deservedly so, but give me more details as to what experiences or tales make him believe this. He refuses to meet Neal’s family and has a very strong reaction to even the idea of it. Why? He feels shame about being gay. Give me some more information as to the reasons he feels this way.
I also had trouble buying Benji and Neal as a couple – and not because I didn’t adore Neal, because I did – but because Benji is not a happy person and refuses to share most everything – feelings, history, where he lives, even his words – other than his body. Neal is this outgoing, fun, affectionate man and Benji…isn’t. I get it that Benji is very protective of his sexuality and thus more inexperienced and cautious and uncomfortable in a loving relationship, and as a result is quieter and more shy, but I didn’t understand necessarily what drew Neal in and kept him there, especially since he had to compromise his principles to do so.
I’m okay with reading about closeted characters as long as there is a journey and they are out before the end of the story (if it is not a series). I enjoy watching long-held opinions and feelings change over time with the influence of positive experiences and other characters, and we do get that here – somewhat. Up until Chapter 15, Benji, while gaining eye-opening new experiences with Neal and Kyle, stood pretty firm to his guns, so to speak, then he started changing/thinking, but I felt we weren’t privy to some of that internal debate or even external conversation with others. For example, in Chapter 15 Benji says things to Neal indicating that he wants to change – slowly, but change nonetheless – yet there is little that the reader is privy to in his head prior to this, so it seems sudden and unfounded.
To further this, Benji and Neal break it off for a short time because of Benji’s inability to change, yet when they get back together, Benji is like magically turned around. Yes, there are some things that happen during the three weeks they are apart, and yes, I know Benji is conflicted (talk about whiplash: he wants Neal. He can’t have Neal. He wants a normal life. He can’t have a normal life), but these couple of happenings are external to the relationship and again, I would have liked to have seen more of Benji’s thought process around what changed for him. I felt there was too much telling, not enough showing. I wanted to hear the conversations he and Neal had in bed that was alluded to. I wanted to know what thoughts went into his decision-making. I want to know why he changed his mind.
Also, my opinion is that the whole situation with slimeball reporter Charles, a character we are obviously supposed to hate – and I did – was unnecessary and the story could have been built without Benji’s soul-sucking arrangement with him, a relationship that just made me lose respect for him. I could kind of see it being a one-time thing (there is only so much denying oneself that be done before you break), but to continue on had me frustrated and angry. Charles could have just been the baddie on the outskirts and honestly, I felt that too much on-page time was devoted to the asshat, derailing most of the first five chapters for me. Plus, I couldn’t figure out what was going on, romance-wise, when the blurb talks about Neal and no mention of this Charles.
Lastly, two smaller issues, but noteworthy for me. First, Neal’s mother. Even after reading the story thrice in prep for this review, I do not understand her actions, nor is it satisfactorily explained, and the resolution after felt unreal considering Benji’s reaction to it at the time. Second, Benji’s co-worker Mathews. He makes tons of homophobic comments and acts like a jerk, then says he isn’t angry that Benji is gay, that it’s a trust thing and he’s angry Benji didn’t tell him sooner. I didn’t buy it; he didn’t just act mad, he acted like he hates gays.
While I liked some of the characters, there were numerous issues that prevented me from rating it higher. Fans of the author and those who like closeted characters may enjoy this better than I did.