Helping Hand by Jay Northcote

Helping HandWhy I read it:  I saw some positive reviews from trusted Goodreads friends, so I bought it.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Jez Fielding and James MacKenzie—Big Mac to his mates—are in their second year at uni. After partying too hard last year, they make a pact to rein themselves in. While their housemates are out drinking every weekend, Jez and Mac stay in to save cash and focus on their studies.

When Jez suggests watching some porn together, he isn’t expecting Mac to agree to it. One thing leads to another, and soon their arrangement becomes hands-on rather than hands-off. But falling for your straight friend can only end badly, unless there’s a chance he might feel the same.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  Jez and Mac live (with others) in a share house while they study at university in Plymouth (in the UK). Mac has to stay in because he’s falling woefully behind in his classes and Jez has to stay in because in the first year of uni he went a bit overboard with the partying and ran up a massive overdraft. His wealthy parents are teaching him a lesson by requiring him to work off the debt himself which means he has little spare money for going out. As a result, Mac and Jez are regularly home on Friday and Saturday nights when the rest of their housemates are out.

At the start of the book, Jez regards himself as straight – those experiences in the all-boys boarding school he went to were just because there were no girls available, right? – but quite soon he begins to realise that he is attracted to both men and women – and Mac in particular.  The story is told solely from Jez’s (third person) perspective and he assures the reader that Mac is definitely, 100%, straight.  Jez thinks his developing crush is doomed, even when, because reasons, the guys start wanking together regularly.

Honestly, the set up sounds very light-hearted (and hot) and even probably not-quite-okay (in the political correctness (aka being respectful of people) sense) but actually, the story is far more than that and, manages to show the developing relationship in an emotionally resonant way, for all that it does have a fairly high sex:word count ratio. The book is a version of the Out for You trope – by the end (spoiler alert!) they guys are together – even then Mac doesn’t identify as gay or bi – he has left that question for another day and prefers not to put a label on himself. And that’s perfectly fine.  I suppose I find it easier to go along with an Out for You trope when it’s set in college/university. It seems to me that is a time when people are likely do a bit of experimenting and perhaps question what they previously thought about themselves, as they are exposed to new people and ideas and as they are away from home and previous influences. Even though we don’t get Mac’s POV, I felt that both of the characters were well drawn enough to demonstrate this very thing was happening to them – even though Jez had had same sex experiences in high school, this was the first time he was examining his sexuality with any real consideration.

The sex is certainly hot but that is not what makes the book worthwhile IMO. The way the guys enjoy each other’s company and relate to one another outside of the bedroom is also an attractor, as is the easygoing writing style which suits the ages of the characters. I got much more relationship than I would have expected from the blurb or the novella length of the story. Which just goes to show why I trust those Goodreads friends of mine to steer me to books I will enjoy.

What else? I think this is the first book by Jay Northcote I’ve read but it had a style reminiscent to Jo Myles and JL Merrow – something particularly British which suits me – so I’m very sure it won’t be my last.

Grade: B

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