Release Review: Starting from Scratch: Jay Northcote

Starting from Scratch (Housemates, #5)
Jay Northcote
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Released April 12, 2017
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Starting over isn’t easy, but Ben is ready to live his life as the man he was always meant to be.

Ben is transgender and back at university after hormone treatment and chest surgery. His new housemates have no idea about his history and Ben would prefer to keep it that way. He’s starting from scratch and his life is finally on track, except in the romance department. The idea of dating guys as a guy is exhilarating but terrifying, because if Ben wants a boyfriend he’ll have to disclose his secret.

Sid is drawn to Ben from the moment they meet. He normally gets what he wants—in the short term at least. Ben’s guarded at first, and Sid’s not used to guys rejecting his advances. He eventually charms his way through Ben’s defences and helps Ben on his journey of sexual awakening.

It doesn’t matter to Sid that Ben is trans. He’s attracted to the whole person, and isn’t worried about what is—or isn’t—in Ben’s pants. They’re good together, and both of them are falling hard and fast, but Ben’s insecurities keep getting in the way. If Sid can convince Ben he's committed, will Ben finally be able to put his heart on the line?

Although this book is part of the Housemates series, it has new main characters, a satisfying happy ending, and can be read as a standalone.
Before I get to my review, I’m going to start with a reminder about my strong belief in adhering to the principles of being fair and honest in my reviews. Jay Northcote’s Starting from Scratch is not my first exposure to the author, but it is my first time reading a romance novel in which the pairing involves a transgender person. Because of this, I feel it’s important to state that whenever I rate and review a book, I base them entirely on the merits of the book not the gender identification or sexual orientation of the characters it contains. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am thrilled to see that stories involving characters from the lesser-represented shades of the rainbow are beginning to be written more. So as much as I was hoping to be able to give this book a much higher rating, I also strive to ensure my ratings are not affected (neither positively nor negatively) by my personal views on the topics presented within the novel.

The story in Starting from Scratch revolves almost completely around Ben, a trans man who has transitioned through hormone therapy and chest surgery so that his external presentation matches his internal gender. The title, then, is a clear reference to the fact that, with his new body allowing him to be the person he always should have been, he is essentially doing just that. Even though the physical issues of transitioning are generally no longer a problem, the mental and emotional demons that leave him isolated out of fear of how people will react to his secret continue to be a challenge. But he knows that if he’s ever going to find a supportive group of people outside his immediate family, especially one that he could fall in love with, he’ll need to set aside his insecurities. So when Sid, an ex-hookup of one of Ben’s housemates, starts making advances, the idea of having the chance to be with a man for the first time since his transition both exhilarates and terrifies Ben.

Considering the limited amount of romantic literature involving trans men, and the incompleteness of my own knowledge about their struggles, I was pleased that the author made no assumption that his readers would understand both the terminology that forms the reality of trans people and their potentially crippling gender dysphoria, the distress a person suffers based on the sex and gender of their birth. As such, this story could well be a projection of the author’s own experiences in being transgender, and the portions of the book that deal with the issues trans men go through—everything from the physical things necessary to succeed in presenting as a man to the obsession society has about what “parts” a person has in their pants and from the logistics of a sexual relationship where these parts may not match what their partner may be experienced with to suggestions for how a supportive person should approach such sensitive topics in conversation—felt to my undereducated mind as not only realistic but authentically personal without imparting a heavy, depressing tone to the story.

As great as I feel about the author’s presentation of what being transgender is like, though, I wish the story and the storytelling had been as satisfying to me as a reader. Outside the journey of Ben’s sexual reawakening as he deals with his insecurities, the story is almost completely without relationship conflict, and there is little provided that evokes feelings based on the struggle Ben goes through. While the reader is told, for example, of some past rejections and ugliness Ben has endured in trying to navigate his way back into the dating scene with his new body, only once is the reader shown an instance of someone unknowingly saying something that makes Ben feel ashamed to be trans. To be fair, the author repeatedly shows how Ben’s fear of having his secret exposed and ridiculed is a very real day-to-day concern of his, but instances of Ben being made to feel less of a man, intentionally or not, are unfortunately few. Having read a couple of this author’s books before, I understand that his writing style is typically low in angst and conflict, but as I’ve said in reviews of other books of this style, the lack of such things makes it harder for me to get the strong feels I crave when reading a romance.

Unfortunately, the book also suffers from a terrible case of enumerating dull day-to-day stuff that serves no purpose in furthering the plot. While I expect there to be brief scenes showing the everyday minutiae of living as a background for the little conversations during the getting-to-know-you-phase of a romance, Starting from Scratch would have been a much tighter story, in my opinion, if this hadn’t been so prominent throughout the book. Granted, this would have turned the novel into a long novella instead, but other books in the same series are novellas, so that should not have been a problem. It gave me the impression that Ben and his housemates, whose stories have been told earlier in the series, have lives as unremarkable as your everyday Joe. I don’t need the characters to do exciting thing like skydiving constantly, but I also don’t need to see so much of the everyday hum-drum that I try to escape by reading in the first place.

Maybe, though, this is a necessary part of the infancy of trans romances, this showing that trans people aren’t any different from anyone else. Whether or not that was his intent in writing Starting from Scratch, it didn’t work quite as well as I was hoping for it to do. And while I’m starting to sense a pattern in reading Jay Northcote’s books that sometimes they scratch an itch while other times they just frustrate me by pointing out I have one, I truly applaud him for writing this book, and I hope it will not only add to the base of people who pick up trans romances (and trans literature in general) but increase the acceptance of trans people in world society. One step at a time.

The author and/or publisher generously provided me a complimentary copy of Starting from Scratch in exchange for this fair and honest review.

The Housemates Series is a collection of standalone stories set around a student house in Britain. Each book focuses on new characters, with themes of self-discovery and sexual awakening.

Helping Hand (Housemates, #1)
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Released June 26, 2015
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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.

This book is a complete story and can be read as a standalone.

Like a Lover (Housemates, #2)
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Released September 4, 2015
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Josh has a plan: get through uni with a good degree and no debts. Focused on his goals, he’s working as an escort to pay his way. He enjoys the no-strings sex and doesn’t have the time or inclination for a relationship. Falling in love definitely isn’t part of the deal—especially not with a client.

When Rupert meets Josh in a bar, he’s smitten on sight. He’s never paid for sex before, but when Josh propositions him, he can’t resist. He should have known one night would never be enough. Luckily for him, he has an inheritance to support his addiction to Josh, because his job in IT wouldn’t cover the cost.

With each appointment the lines get increasingly blurred. Something is developing between them that feels more like a relationship than a business transaction, but they come from different worlds and to go from client-and-escort to lovers seems impossible. If they want a future together, Josh and Rupert have a lot to overcome.

This book is a complete story and can be read as a standalone.

Practice Makes Perfect (Housemates, #3)
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Released June 22, 2016
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Getting experience with the guy next door seems like a great idea-until the lines blur. Dev, a geeky first year physics student, has zero sexual experience and he's determined to change that ASAP. After a bad time in halls of residence, he's starting the summer term with different housemates and a new plan of action. Ewan lives in the house next door to Dev. He's young, free and single, and isn't looking to change that anytime soon. When awkward circumstances throw them together, Ewan offers to help Dev out in the bedroom in return for maths tutoring, and Dev jumps at the chance. They work their way through Dev's sex-to-do list, but what starts as a perfect no-strings arrangement gets more complicated as their feelings for each other begin to grow. If they're going to turn their lessons in lovemaking into something more permanent, they need to work out how they feel about each other-before they get to the end of Dev's list.

This book is a complete story and can be read as a standalone.

Watching and Wanting (Housemates, #4)
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Released January 20, 2017
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Jay's 4.5 star review

Watching Jude’s cam show stirs desires Shawn’s always denied...

Shawn is adrift. Recently graduated, he’s stuck in a dead-end job that barely pays the bills. His girlfriend dumped him, his friends have moved on, and he’s still in Plymouth—going nowhere.

Jude is a student living in the same shared house. Out and proud, he’s everything Shawn’s been running from since he hit puberty. When Shawn discovers Jude works as a cam boy, he can’t resist the urge to watch one of his shows. It makes Shawn want things that scare him, yet his fascination forces him to confront his attraction.

Keen to explore his bicurious side, Shawn suggests they do a show together. Jude agrees, and things get complicated—and kinky—fast. But Jude isn’t looking to get involved with someone so deep in the closet. If Shawn’s going to get what he wants, he needs to find the courage to stop hiding from himself and be honest about who he is.

Although this book is part of the Housemates series, it has new main characters, a satisfying happy ending, and can be read as a standalone.
Jay Northcote
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Jay lives just outside Bristol in the West of England. He comes from a family of writers, but always used to believe that the gene for fiction writing had passed him by. He spent years only ever writing emails, articles, or website content.

One day, Jay decided to try and write a short story—just to see if he could—and found it rather addictive. He hasn’t stopped writing since.

Jay writes contemporary romance about men who fall in love with other men. He has five books published by Dreamspinner Press, and also self-publishes under the imprint Jaybird Press. Many of his books are now available as audiobooks.

Jay is transgender and was formerly known as she/her.


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