Undue Influence : A Persuasion Retelling by Jenny Holiday

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Second chances only come around once.

Eight years ago, Adam Elliot made the biggest mistake of his life. Now that mistake is coming back to haunt him. His family’s beloved vineyard has gone into foreclosure, and the new owner is the sister of the only man he’s ever loved—the man he dumped under pressure from family and friends who thought the match was beneath him.

When Freddy Wentworth, aka the bad boy of Bishop’s Glen, left town with a broken heart, he vowed never to return. But a recently widowed friend needs his help, so here he is. He’s a rich and famous celebrity chef now, though, so everyone can just eff right off.

But some things are easier said than done. Despite their attempts to resist each other, old love rekindles—and old wounds reopen. If they want to make things work the second time around, they’ll have to learn to set aside their pride—and prejudice.

Rating: B-

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of books by Jenny Holiday (her m/m romance, Infamous is a firm favourite of mine) and as Persuasion is one of my top two Jane Austen novels (regularly trading places with Emma at the top of the list), the combination of the author and a favourite plotline was one bound to catch my eye.  In something of an embarrassment of riches, this is the second m/m re-telling of Persuasion to appear in the last few weeks (the other is Sally Malcolm’s Perfect Day).

In Ms. Holiday’s take on the story, we’re introduced to Adam Elliot, whose mother and sister have pretty much run the family business (the Kellynch vineyard) and finances into the ground and are about to decamp to stay with a friend in the Hamptons.  All the business of the foreclosure and removal has fallen to Adam, who is happy to remain in Bishop’s Glen, where he’s lived all his life, in spite of the continual urging of his oldest – and pretty much only – friend Rusty, that he should leave town and make something of his life.

Rusty stands in for the Lady Russell character as the bringer to bear of the Undue Influence of the title. Garage owner by day, Drag Queen by night, Rusty has been the only person in Adam’s life who seemed to give a damn about him – and is also the person who talked Adam into making what he now regards as the biggest mistake of his life eight years earlier.

That mistake was, of course, parting from the love of his life, Freddy Wentworth.  Widely termed the bad-boy of Bishop’s Glen (especially after the infamous town-square dick-sucking incident), Adam and Freddy met when they were both working as parking valets at a local hotel.

Adam came limping up to the valet stand and kept on going right into Freddy’s heart.

Ms. Holiday makes good use of flashbacks to tell the story of Adam and Freddy’s romance (through Freddy’s PoV), a device I enjoy when it’s done well, which is the case here.  We don’t get the story of Anne and Wentworth’s romance in the original novel, so I appreciated the fleshing out of the backstory in this way.

Back in the present, Freddy is stunned to learn that the property his sister and brother-in-law have recently purchased in what his best friend calls “the armpit of the Finger Lakes” is the one that formerly belonged to the Elliot family – and in spite of himself, he can’t help wondering what became of Adam.  In the intervening years, Freddy has made good and them some; he and his friend, Ben Captain, have opened a popular and successful restaurant in New York, and have also become a pair of TV chefs, with Freddy being the grouchy Gordon Ramsay type while Ben is the sweetly encouraging one.

Undue Influence follows the storyline of Persuasion fairly faithfully, so we’ve got the McGuires (Lulu and Henry) for the Musgroves, Ben Captain for James Benwick, who, in the original was engaged to Wentworth’s sister (who died), but who, here, has recently lost his wife, and William Ellison for William Elliot, in the original, the distant cousin who takes an interest in Anne but is later revealed to be a rather unsavoury chap.  Some events are, of necessity, omitted or truncated, but even allowing for a degree of dramatic license, I felt that many of the events occurring in the present timeline were rushed or included for the sake of it – just because they were in the original – and the secondary characters are not very well fleshed out.

The youthful romance between Adam and Freddy is sweetly adorable and they have great chemistry; Freddy is clearly deeply smitten and takes every opportunity he can to spend time with Adam, even going so far as to walk home with him, even though he lives miles in the opposite direction, and he shows a side of himself to Adam that he never shows anyone else.  Present-day Freddy tries hard to keep telling himself he hates Adam for throwing him over eight years earlier, but it doesn’t take very long for him to admit to himself that’s BS and that he wants a second chance.

The book’s biggest problem, however, is with the reason for Adam and Freddy’s split, which just isn’t strong enough to explain away the eight year separation of two people who so clearly loved each other and, equally clearly, have never really stopped.  This is always going to be the biggest stumbling block in any modern retelling of this story, because the reasons Anne Elliot gave up her Frederick Wentworth aren’t ones that would work dramatically nowadays.  She was young and from a well-to-do, snobbish family and Wentworth was, at the time, a mere midshipman with neither wealth nor prospects. A young woman in the early nineteenth century was subject to the wishes of her family and Anne was persuaded, by familial and monetary considerations, to reject the man she loved.  In the twenty-first century, those reasons are not believable ones, and unfortunately, Ms. Holiday hasn’t been able to come up with something else which satisfactorily accounts for Adam and Freddy’s separation.

I enjoyed Undue Influence and I liked Adam and Freddy, but the weakness of the pivotal plot point was impossible to ignore.  I’m not sure if my knowledge (and love for) Persuasion is a positive or negative thing; if I’d come to this as an m/m contemporary romance without familiarity with the source material, might I have enjoyed it more?  I’m not sure, because that plot point is still weak – perhaps even weaker if one doesn’t know the reasons given in the original story – and in any case, I can’t “unread” the other novel, so it’s a moot point.

I’m giving this one a cautious recommendation overall; it has a lot going for it in terms of the writing, the romance and the central characters, but there’s no escaping the fact that it’s let down by the big flaw in the premise.

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Full Package (Big Rock #4) by Lauren Blakely (audiobook) – Narrated by Sebastian York

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

I’ve been told I have quite a gift. Hey, I don’t just mean in my pants. I’ve got a big brain, too, and a huge heart of gold. And I like to use all my gifts to the fullest, the package included.

Life is smooth sailing…until I find myself stuck between a rock and a sexy roommate, which makes for one very hard…place. Because scoring an apartment in this city is harder than finding true love. So even if I have to shack up with my buddy’s smoking-hot and incredibly amazing little sister, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

I can resist Josie. I’m disciplined, I’m focused, and I keep my hands to myself, even in the mere 500 square feet we share. Until the one night she insists on sliding under the covers with me. It’ll help her sleep after what happened that day, she says.

Spoiler – neither one of us sleeps.

Did I mention she’s also one of my best friends? That she’s brilliant, beautiful, and a total firecracker? Guess that makes her the full package, too. What’s a man stuck in a hard place to do?

Rating: Narration – B+ : Content – C+

Full Package is fairly typical Lauren Blakely fayre, a flirty, fun rom-com featuring a couple of attractive central characters with great chemistry, plenty of hot sex and very little angst. It fits into the Big Rock universe, following on from Well Hung; and the heroine Josie Hammer is the sister of Nick from Mister O.

Josie runs a successful ‘boutique’ bakery in NYC and urgently needs a new flatmate as the friend she’s been sharing with up till now is leaving; Chase Summers is a hard-working ER doctor who is having trouble finding a place to live in the city since returning from a stint abroad with Doctors Without Borders.  Chase and his brother Max have known Nick and Jodie for years and they often hang out together; Chase and Josie are good mates, who share common interests and a sense of humour so… yeah, the solution to their problems is fairly obvious.

Chase moves in and everything is peachy.  Sort of.  Because the searing attraction that’s building between him and Josie is becoming harder and harder to resist – but neither of them wants to risk doing anything to jeopardise their friendship, which is what always happens when friends hook up.  But… maybe, just maybe there’s a way they can have both – all the toe-curlingly hot sex AND stay friends after this thing between them burns out.  The trouble is that the more time Chase spends with Josie, the more convinced he becomes that she’s the one… and she’s made it clear ‘forever’ isn’t on the table.

I picked up the audio book of this because I’d had a few mediocre listens on the trot and I knew Sebastian York wouldn’t disappoint.  He’s extremely good in these light-hearted, guy-PoV contemporary romances, bringing just the right degree of confident, uber sexiness to the narrative while also being able to convey the character’s inner emotions and vulnerabilities.  Chase is a great character, a thoroughly decent, dedicated and compassionate man who – it’s clear early on – has carried a torch for Josie for years, and Josie is a good foil for him, successful in her work life and not afraid to ask for what she wants when it comes to the bedroom.  They make a great couple and the build-up of sexual tension between them us superbly done, but once they hit the sheets, I confess the whole thing started to deflate.  The sex scenes are raunchy and hot and well written, but all the thinking at cross purposes – “this isn’t going to last so we have to stop before things go bad so we can still be friends” – got very wearing very quickly, and the last couple of hours were a bit of a slog.  I’ve listened to several books by this author (when I’m in the mood for sexy fluff), so I know they tend to be fairly low angst and that’s fine  –  not everything needs to be high-drama all the time – and a simple, sexy story about two people falling in love is sometimes just what the doctor ordered (!), but when the one stumbling block in the romance could be solved by having a simple conversation, it ends up feeling contrived and becomes extremely frustrating.

Sebastian York is, as I’ve said, a great choice of narrator for this sort of story; his deep, almost-drawl is a great fit for Ms. Blakely’s brand of sexy, self-aware heroes, and he has a nice way with the flirty banter and laid-back humour.  His female voices are okay – there’s a significant difference between Chase and Josie so there’s no confusion as to who is speaking – and he differentiates subtly but appropriately between the other men in the story.

I got what I expected and wanted from this audiobook – a bit of brain candy and to listen to a good narrator after a few disappointments.  Job done.

Damage Control (Laws of Attraction #1) by Kate McMurray

Senate candidate Parker Livingston chose his political dreams over a future with the man he loved. He lives with constant regret about not having Jackson Kane in his life. Or his bed. And when a strange woman is found murdered in Parker’s apartment, Jackson is the only person Parker trusts to help clear his name.

Jackson never forgave Parker for the way their relationship ended. He moved on, built a name for himself as a criminal defense attorney and swore he’d never let heartbreak back in. But when Parker shows up on his doorstep, wild-eyed and handsome and desperate for his help, Jackson can’t say no. Parker is a lot of things, but he’s no murderer.

Forced back together, searching for answers, their attraction returns with a vengeance. Any distraction—personal or professional—could be deadly. The murderer is still at large, and he’s made it clear one of them is his next victim.

Rating: C-

Damage Control is the first book in the author’s Laws of Attraction series, and it opens when top defence attorney Jackson Kane is approached by senatorial candidate Parker Livingston to represent him when, as looks likely to happen, Livingston is arrested for the murder of a woman found dead in his apartment.  The book is a reasonably well written and engaging tale, but there were a number of issues that kept pulling me out of the story, and there were times when the suspension of disbelief required was just too large for comfort.

Jackson and Parker – Park – have history.  They met at college, aged nineteen, and were each other’s first everything; they stayed together for eight years until Park’s political ambitions (and daddy issues) forced them apart.  Eight years later, Park is running for the senate… as a Republican.  Okay – I’m British, so it’s entirely possible that some of the finer political points in the story passed me by, but basically, Park is a left-of-centre Republican who espouses many of the party’s conservative economic tenets while also believing it has gone off the rails and that change can only be effected from within.  But the party and voters will never accept a gay republican, so he’s firmly closeted.  Even though it’s a matter of record – and it comes up a few times – that Park and Jackson shared a couple of addresses over the years, we’re asked to believe that nobody, at any time during the vetting process put two and two together and made four? They were together as a couple for EIGHT YEARS.  They didn’t ever have friends round for dinner?  They never went out as a couple?  Setting aside the fact I have a hard time believing that ANYONE would want to identify as a Republican these days, surely someone running for high political office would have been thoroughly investigated?

Anyway.  It seems the murdered woman was a socialite whose father is a major donor to the party and Park’s campaign.  Fortunately, however, Park has a watertight alibi for the time of the murder, and once that is established,  the story turns its attention to trying to find out why the victim was at Park’s apartment in the first place? Did his political opponents lure her there with the intention of framing Park for murder?

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Perfect Day by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Love doesn’t burn out just because the timing’s wrong. It grows. It never leaves.

When Joshua Newton, prodigal son of one of New Milton’s elite, fell in love with ambitious young actor Finn Callaghan, his world finally made sense. With every stolen moment, soft touch and breathless kiss, they fell deeper in love.

Finn was his future…until he wasn’t.

Love stays. Even when you don’t want it to, even when you try to deny it, it stays.

Eight years later, Finn has returned to the seaside town where it all began. He’s on the brink of stardom, a far cry from the poor mechanic who spent one gorgeous summer falling in love on the beach.

The last thing he wants is a second chance with the man who broke his heart. Finn has spent a long time forgetting Joshua Newton—he certainly doesn’t plan to forgive him.

Love grows. It never leaves.

Rating: A-

Sally Malcolm’s first published m/m romance is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which regularly vies with Emma for first place in my ranking of Austen’s novels!) set in a sleepy New York seaside town. I admit I’m usually a bit wary of retellings of classic novels – especially when they’re great personal favourites – but I’ve known the author on and off for over a decade, I enjoy her writing and was confident that she’d treat the material with respect – and that confidence wasn’t misplaced. Perfect Day is a beautifully told second-chance-at-love story that tugs at the heartstrings and can be enjoyed regardless of whether you’re familiar with Persuasion or not. It stands on its own very well, although the fun for those of us who do know the original is in recognising the plot points and characters the author has chosen to ‘transplant’ and how she’s made them work in a contemporary setting.

During one halcyon summer eight years earlier, Joshua Newton and Finn Callaghan met when Finn was employed to work on Charles Newton’s classic car collection at his Hanworth Hall estate on Long Island. The Newtons were extremely wealthy; Joshua’s father and older brother Michael were tough-nosed businessmen who believed money was everything, but Josh was always a bit of an outsider, a talented musician and gentle soul whose ambitions lay in a different direction. He and Finn spent as much time together as they possibly could over the couple of months that followed, falling deeply and passionately in love and eventually deciding to move to Los Angeles together, where the stunningly handsome Finn would pursue an acting career while Josh would further his musical studies.

But their dreams came to an abrupt end when Josh allowed his aunt Ruth to persuade him not only that he should finish his MBA at Harvard, but that for Finn to arrive in LA with a boyfriend in tow would end his career before it had even begun. If Josh truly loved Finn, he should end their relationship and let him go.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Tight Quarters (Out of Uniform #6) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Petty Officer Bacon, a Navy SEAL and ace sharpshooter, has been on the front lines of more than his fair share of dangerous ops. Yet when a minor injury relegates him to the beta team, he’s tasked with what may be his riskiest assignment yet: babysitting a silver fox journalist, who is the hottest, most charismatic man he’s ever encountered.

Award-winning journalist Spencer Bryant may have been named one of Pride magazine’s most eligible bachelors of the year, but he’s not looking to change his relationship status. He’s a consummate professional who won’t risk his ethics or impeccable reputation by getting involved with a source. Even a sexy-as-hell military man. But while Spencer can resist his physical attraction to Bacon, he has less control over his emotions – especially when the mission goes sideways and the two men are trapped alone.

Getting out of the jungle alive turns out to be easy compared to facing the truth about their feelings for one another back in the real world. And whether or not they can build a future is a different story altogether.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – A

Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series has been a consistently enjoyable one in both print and audio, despite the odd blip. Tight Quarters is the sixth instalment, and I was glued to it from start to finish, zipping through it in two or three sittings. Yeah, yeah, I know – I’d listen to Greg Boudreaux read his shopping list, but fortunately, Annabeth Albert has provided him with something MUCH sexier and emotionally satisfying (although I don’t know – maybe his shopping lists are sexy and emotionally satisfying?) to get stuck into, in this tale of a journalist who embeds with a team of Navy SEALs looking for a story and finds something he really hadn’t bargained for.

We met Petty Officer Bacon in the previous book in the series, Squared Away, and at the beginning of his one, he’s more than a little bit pissed off because the finger he dislocated on a training exercise has him sidelined and unable to take his regular place on Team Alpha. His annoyance is further compounded when he is directed to be the liaison officer for a reporter who is going to embed with Bacon’s unit during their next mission. The team’s recent shake up following the departure of its XO (executive officer) and explosives expert (Wes and Dustin from Wheels Up) coupled with the rumours that the pair are now an item and began their relationship while working together despite the strict non-fraternization policy, make Bacon – a friend of both men – very hostile to the idea of a journalist poking around for a story and he resents being demoted to the role of babysitter. Even worse – the reporter is Spencer Bryant, a heavyweight, multi-award-winning journalist and author who is openly gay… and is one seriously hot silver fox. Under any other circumstances, Bacon would have so gone there – but he’s got to keep Bryant at a distance and away from anything that could potentially embarrass his team or the Navy in general.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Rebel (415: Ink #1) by Rhys Ford (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The hardest thing a rebel can do isn’t standing up for something – it’s standing up for himself.

Life takes delight in stabbing Gus Scott in the back when he least expects it. After Gus spends years running from his past, present, and the dismal future every social worker predicted for him, karma delivers the one thing Gus could never – would never – turn his back on: a son from a one-night stand he’d had after a devastating breakup a few years ago.

Returning to San Francisco and to 415 Ink, his family’s tattoo shop, gave him the perfect shelter to battle his personal demons and get himself together…until the firefighter who’d broken him walked back into Gus’s life.

For Rey Montenegro, tattoo artist Gus Scott was an elusive brass ring, a glittering prize he hadn’t the strength or flexibility to hold on to. Severing his relationship with the mercurial tattoo artist hurt, but Gus hadn’t wanted the kind of domestic life Rey craved, leaving Rey with an aching chasm in his soul.

When Gus’s life and world starts to unravel, Rey helps him pick up the pieces, and Gus wonders if that forever Rey wants is more than just a dream.

Rating: Narration – C+ : Content – C

I’ve listened to a number of Rhys Ford’s novels recently, and I’ve enjoyed Tristan James’ work in other books of hers, so I was pleased to pick up Rebel, the first book in her 415: Ink series, for review. Ms. Ford is a prolific author who writes in a variety of genres – fantasy, paranormal, romantic suspense, for instance – so Rebel, which is more of an ensemble family drama, is a bit of a departure from the other stories of hers I’ve listened to. And I have to confess that I wasn’t as drawn in by it as I’d hoped to be. The major characters are engaging, and their backgrounds are intriguing and skilfully incorporated into the story, but the central romance is lacklustre; there’s minimal conflict which is resolved rather easily, and I just wasn’t feeling the chemistry between the central couple. Add to that some odd quirks in the narration, and Rebel proved ultimately to be a bit of a let-down.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Squared Away (Out of Uniform #5) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

In the wake of tragedy, SEAL Mark Whitley rushed stateside to act as guardian to his sister’s three young children. But a conflicting will could give custody to someone else – someone Mark remembers as a too-young, too-hot, wild party boy. Even after six years, Mark can’t shake the memory of his close encounter with Isaiah James, or face up to what it says about his own sexuality.

Isaiah’s totally over the crush that made him proposition Mark all those years ago. In fact, he’s done with crushing on the wrong men altogether. For now, he’s throwing himself into proving he’s the best person to care for his cousin’s kids. But there’s no denying there’s something sexy about a big, tough military man with a baby in his arms.

As the legal details get sorted out, their long-buried attraction resurfaces, leading to intimate evenings after the kids are tucked in. A forever future is within reach for all of them, if only Mark can find the courage he needs to trust Isaiah with his secrets – and his heart.

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

I wasn’t wild about the previous book in this series (Wheels Up) and wasn’t sure I was going to continue to read or listen to any more, but then I saw the blurb for Squared Away AND that Greg Boudreaux was narrating it, so I decided to give it a try.  And I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be a beautifully told story of love – romantic and familial – trust, and acceptance, featuring an unusual (in my reading/listening experience, that is) slow-burn romance as two men come to terms with a devastating event that changes their lives irrevocably.

Six years earlier, eighteen-year-old Isaiah James decided it was time to lose his v-card and knew exactly who he wanted to give it to.  He’s had a crush on his cousin Cal’s best friend for a while and decides it’s time to make his move on Navy SEAL medic Mark Whitley (who is the bride’s brother) at Cal and Danielle’s wedding.  Sadly for Isaiah, his evening didn’t turn out as expected and Mark turned him down; in the intervening six years, they’ve hardly seen each other and Isaiah suspects Mark has actually gone out of his way to avoid him.  But that can’t continue when Cal and Danielle are killed in an accident, leaving behind three young children.  Mark is deployed at an undisclosed location when the tragedy occurs, so by the time he gets the news and returns to the States, it’s to find Isaiah installed in the family home with the kids, clearly knowing what he’s doing.  This version of Isaiah is more mature, more confident than the one Mark remembers and he’s not quite sure what to make of him at first.  He certainly doesn’t like the way Isaiah seems to have taken control of everything, and Isaiah’s calm confidence with the kids unsettles Mark, who hardly knows them, and knows little about children in general.

Mark assumes that the kids will have been left to his care, as he’s their closest relative, so it’s a surprise to discover that both Cal and Danielle made wills and that things aren’t so cut and dried.  In one, Mark is named, and in the other, Isaiah; so they agree to continue as they are for the time being until such time as a legal decision can be made.  Mark knows that his job is probably not all that conducive to being granted custody of young children, as it takes him away from home for long periods of time, but that’s a surmountable obstacle – once he has the children in his care, he can hire a good nanny.  What surprises him, however, is the ferocity with which Isaiah makes clear his desire to gain custody of baby Liam and his two pre-school age sisters.  As far as he’s concerned, the kids are family, and he’s not prepared to hand them off to someone else to bring up.

I loved this story, and the author has done a terrific job of showing what it’s like to be the parents of three very young children; they’re hard work and don’t conveniently disappear when the plot demands they do.  Isaiah is great with them and clearly adores them, while Mark doesn’t have the first clue of how to handle them.  In fact, he comes across as a bit of a dickhead in the first part of story, assuming he’ll get custody of the kids but leaving all the heavy lifting to Isaiah, and then being persuaded into a course of action that he knows isn’t right and will cause a major issue further down the line, but doing it anyway.

One of the joys of the story, though, is seeing Mark gradually unbend and adapt to his new situation.  He loves the kids, too, but hasn’t any experience of being around them, and he’s got a lot to learn.  But to his credit, once he realises that he’s not pulling his weight around the house, he mans up and starts to integrate into this small and rather special family unit.

The romance is sensual and beautifully developed, the fact that Mark is demisexual (or maybe grey ace) meaning that it focuses more on the emotional connection that develops between the two men, especially in the early stages, than a sexual one.  While Isaiah is the younger of the two, Mark is the least experienced; his sexual experiences so far have not been positive ones and he came away from them feeling guilty for disappointing his partner and not reacting in an expected way.  He’s given up hoping to find someone to ‘put up with him’, so he’s astonished at the ease with which Isaiah accepts his sexuality and is prepared to let Mark set the pace.  Ms. Albert does a superb job of conveying the complexity of Mark’s emotions and the way his feelings for Isaiah change and develop.

Books 1-4 in this series had four different narrators, so I was a bit surprised to see Greg Boudreaux’s name on the cover of this one… or maybe I wasn’t because, let’s face it, once Greg’s narrated one of your books, you’re ruined for anyone else 😉 (That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it! And even better, he’s narrating the next book, too!)  Of course he does a fantastic job with the narration, expertly characterising the principals (Isaiah’s soft tones contrasting nicely with Mark’s gruff, prickly ones) and skilfully realising Mark’s insecurity and uncertainty about his sexuality and his new role as a parent.  The various secondary characters (including those from previous books) are all clearly differentiated and easy to tell apart, his female voices are excellent and he does an especially good job with the two little girls, who sound age appropriate without being too high-pitched or squeaky.

Squared Away is a fairly angsty story, but is generally a ‘quiet’ book, focusing on the characters and their emotional journeys. In this case it’s about processing grief and learning to adapt in order to move forward, learning to trust, support and grow as a person and part of a couple and family.  I really enjoyed the story, and with Greg Boudreaux delivering another wonderfully insightful, nuanced performance, it’s an audiobook I can recommend without reservation.