Custody Battles (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #2) by Gregory Ashe

custody battles

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Some parents would die for their children. Others will do a whole lot worse.

Emery Hazard and his husband, John-Henry Somerset, are settling into their new normal—at home, with the latest addition to their family, and at work, as Somers adapts to his new role and Hazard manages his expanding agency. The only thing Hazard is worried about is getting through dinner with his in-laws.

When his father-in-law requests that Hazard and Somers join him for a weekend deer hunting, it sounds simple enough: spend a night camping, give their foster son a chance to spend time with his friend, and—possibly—prevent a parental kidnapping. But nothing is ever as simple as it sounds. At deer camp, Hazard and Somers find themselves drawn into a toxic family feud between parents battling for custody.

After the husband is shot and killed deep in the forest, detectives from the Sheriff’s Department are convinced that the killer is a local extremist—a member of the neo-Nazi Ozark Volunteers. Hazard and Somers, though, aren’t so sure, and as they probe deeper into the killing, they find that many people had a reason to want the victim dead, and the killing itself might not be what it seems.

Then a drive-by shooting almost claims the lives of Hazard, Somers, and the victim’s wife. The killer’s work isn’t done, and Hazard and Somers must race to find the truth before the killer strikes again.

Rating: A

Note: This is the thirteenth full-length novel in the Hazard and Somerset series, so new readers are advised not to start here.  There are spoilers for the previous books in this review.

I think, if I had to write a one-word review of Gregory Ashe’s Custody Battles, it would be OUCH.  I spent most of the time reading it with my insides tied up in knots, and even when they were able to  unknot a little, I knew that wouldn’t be the end of it.

Things are already fraught when the book begins, as Hazard and Somers are getting ready to host dinner for friends and family – the family including Somers’ parents, neither of whom is shy about making known their disappointment in him.  Adding to Somers’ already heightened tension is the fact that Cole – the teen he and Hazard are now fostering (see Relative Justice) – absolutely hates him, for no reason that Somers can fathom.  Somers has been friendly and reasonable, but no matter what he says or does, Colt is completely hostile – and while Somers recognises that Colt has had a crappy time of it and that he’s a vulnerable kid, he can’t help feeling bewildered, hurt and, sometimes, resentful.  The quiet evenings watching TV and eating takeout with his husband he’d been looking forward to have gone out the window, and Somers can’t help but feel – at times – as though he’s being pushed aside.  He knows it’s ridiculous to feel that way – he’s a grown man and can be adult about the situation, but… those feelings are there nonetheless.

Things go from bad to worse later that evening, when Colt’s deadbeat dad Danny Ballantyne shows up and confronts Somers, threatening to petition to get get custody of Cole back unless Somers pays him to go away.  Somers knows – he knows – it’s dumb to think he’ll go and stay away – but on top of everything else – Colt’s hatred, his parents’ condescending disapproval, his feeling that things are slowly spinning out of control – Somers decides that here’s something he can do for Colt and for Hazard (he knows losing Colt would devastate him) and decides to handle it himself so as not to worry them.  He agrees to find the money to pay Ballantyne off, even though they really don’t have it – and not to tell Hazard what’s going on.

Okay, so at this point, I was mentally screaming – ‘Somers, you idiot, you know better than to keep this from Hazard!’ – but before that disaster is allowed to unfold, another looms in the form of Somers’ dad’s ‘invitation’ (insistence) that Hazard and Somers accompany him on an overnight hunting trip.  Neither is keen and both are suspicious; Somerset Sr. eventually tells them he’s heard rumours of a potential parental kidnapping and that he thinks Somers just being around will be enough to prevent it.  Reluctantly, Hazard and Somers agree to go, and when they arrive the next day, they find themselves in the middle of the most awful group of people imaginable, (quite honestly, I would have been quite happy had they ALL been bumped off!), which includes the couple they’d heard about, who are engaged in a very acrimonious divorce and fighting for custody of their completely obnoxious son.

When the husband is killed somewhere out in the forest, suspicion immediately falls on the Boone’s neighbour Dunkie Newcomb, a member of the right-wing extremist Ozark Volunteers, with whom the Boones have had frequent disputes about property boundaries, but Hazard and Somers aren’t convinced, and start to dig a little deeper.  The fact that the victim was a lying, violent, bullying piece of shit means there’s no shortage of people who would have liked to have seen the back of him, and the sudden appearance at Hazard’s office of Naomi Malsho – Somers’ former sister-in-law and someone with strong connections to the Volunteers – complicates matters still further.  She insists Newcomb has a cast-iron alibi, but that she can’t reveal it for fear of endangering others.  Hazard knows Naomi is clever and devious, and even though he’s extremely suspicious, he agrees to take the job she’s offering – to prove Newcomb innocent of the murder.

Oh, what a tangled web…

As I said at the beginning, this is one of those books that will tie you up in knots.  As well as another clever, gripping and suspenseful mystery (including some seriously edge-of-your-seat moments!) Custody Battles takes a long, hard look at parenthood in all its various forms, both good and (very, very) bad – a look which includes Somers’ own parents, whose approval he still craves even though he knows it shouldn’t matter.  Although Hazard and Somers always get equal billing in these novels, this one is most definitely a’ Somers book’, focusing on his struggle to adapt to his new roles as Chief of Police and as parent of a difficult teenager – and it’s not going at all well.  He’s aware of his deep-seated need to be liked, but hasn’t yet realised he can’t continue to be everyone’s friend at work, and Colt’s open hostility is wearing him down even further and causing massive amounts of tension between him and Hazard, especially when they clash over discipline issues.  Wanting to find a way to get Colt to like him, Somers always steps in and tries to smooth things over when he thinks Hazard is being too hard on the boy, without recognising he’s doing precisely what his parents did whenever he screwed up; making excuses for his behaviour and trivialising whatever it was he did, telling him it wasn’t his fault and generally making it seem as though he could do no wrong.  It takes him a while to realise this, of course – although he – and we – are very clearly shown what’s at the end of that particular path through the character of Junior, a deeply, deeply unpleasant and damaged young man thanks to exactly that sort of behaviour on the part of his parents.

Custody Battles is absolutely brilliant in its focus and level of insight, and it packs one hell of an emotional punch, but it’s a tough read with several moments of uncompromising, brutal honesty along the way.  That Hazard and Somers love each other deeply is never in question, but knowing each other so very well means they each know exactly how to twist the knife – and when they do, it’s not pretty.  Yet for all the difficult discussions and arguments, there’s still plenty of humour to be had, as well as some lovely tender moments between our heroes – and that ending.  Gah!

The secondary characters are all superbly crafted; we’ve met many of them before, and of all of them, it’s Nico who really shines. (The way he deals with Naomi is priceless).   I’ve never been in the ‘I hate Nico’ camp (I know some H&S fans dislike him), and I’m really enjoying watching him grow as a character and into someone Hazard has come to call a friend (not that he’d ever admit as much!)

Custody Battles isn’t always an easy read, but it’s utterly compelling and completely un-put-down-able nonetheless.  The characterisation and relationship development are superb, the mystery is well-crafted and Hazard and Somers are as captivating now as they ever were – possibly moreso.  They love and they fight and they screw up, but they’re never any less than human as they navigate their way through work, life, marriage, and parenthood, making it up as they go along – just as we all have to, most of the time.

Fans of Hazard and Somers won’t be disappointed in this latest Arrows in the Hand book (although they might gnash their teeth and shout a bit!), and Gregory Ashe proves that thirteen isn’t always an unlucky number and chalks up yet another DIK.

Relative Justice (Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand #1) by Gregory Ashe

relative justice

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An impossible son. An impossible murder.

The honeymoon is definitely over.

When Emery Hazard and his husband, John-Henry Somerset, arrive home from their honeymoon, they’re shocked (understatement of the year) to find a boy waiting for them on their doorstep. Colt, fifteen and eager to pick a fight, claims to be Hazard’s son. It’s almost a relief, then, for Hazard and Somers to be called out to assist the Dore County Sheriff’s Department with what seems to be an impossible murder: a man has been found stabbed to death in a stretch of woods, and the only set of footprints in the soft ground belong to the victim.

The more Hazard and Somers learn about the dead man, the more confusing the case becomes. While searching his home, they discover a secure room from which several high-end computers have been stolen. A woman makes a daring theft as the house is being secured and escapes with valuable documents. The dead man’s neighbor, who found the body, is obviously lying about how she discovered him. And something very strange is going on with the victim’s sons, who are isolated at school and seem to have found their few friends through the youth group at a local church–and in a close relationship with the hip, young, attractive pastor.

An attempt on Colt’s life leaves Hazard’s (possible) son in the hospital. When Hazard and Somers learn that the attack came after Colt tried to investigate the murder on his own, they realize he is now in the killer’s crosshairs, and Hazard and Somers must race to uncover the truth. The results from the paternity test aren’t back yet, but father or not, Emery Hazard isn’t going to let anyone harm a child.

Rating: A

Relative Justice is book one in Gregory Ashe’s latest series to feature Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset, Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand, and even though it’s the start of a new series, it’s most definitely NOT the place to start if you’ve never picked up a H&S book before.  Going back to start at Pretty Pretty Boys – eleven books and quite-a-few novellas ago – may seem like a daunting prospect, but I promise it’s well worth it, and by doing that you’ll gain a much greater understanding of the characters and their relationship, which has been through many, many ups and downs – and I suspect there are likely more to come!

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.

After surviving both major relationship issues AND being the target of a deranged killer, by the end of The Keeper of Bees (the final book in the previous series) Hazard and Somers finally made it down the aisle.  But nothing is ever simple where these two are concerned, and they return from their honeymoon to find a dark-haired teenaged boy waiting on the doorstep who promptly announces to them that he’s Hazard’s son.

Jet-lagged and tired after a long journey, Hazard… doesn’t handle the news well and has a minor meltdown, insisting that whoever this kid is there is absolutely NO WAY he can be his father and the boy must be running some sort of scam, while Somers tries to be the voice of reason and to calm things down before they get any worse. He insists they can’t just leave the kid on the street and says he should stay the night at least, so they can all get some sleep and then work out what to do in the morning.  Hazard is still fuming, and stomps out – but only as far as neighbours Noah and Rebeca’s place where he starts to calm down and to think rationally about what to do next.

When he’s made some calls – and learned that unless the boy – Colt – can stay with them for the time being, he’ll have to go to a group home or a residential facility – Hazard decides he can stay put for a short while, at least until the results of the paternity test he’s taken come back, and he takes Colt to enrol at the High School.  In the meantime, Somers – now Chief of Police Somerset – has been approached by Sheriff Engels for help investigating a rather baffling murder, and is specifically asked to involve Hazard as well.

When they arrive at the scene, it quickly becomes apparent to both of them why Engels has requested their help – a man has been stabbed to death in a forest some distance out of town, but there is no sign that another person was involved, even though the wounds couldn’t have been self-inflicted.  It’s an impossible murder, but – as usual with a Gregory Ashe mystery – there is no shortage of suspects once the investigation gets going, from the skeevy girlfriend who claims the victim left her everything in his will, including the custody of his two boys, to the neighbour with whom he was involved in a dispute about land boundaries, to the new pastor who gives off a really dodgy vibe.  Add in the audacious theft of an important piece of evidence while police are actually  on the scene and the two douchebag detectives from the sheriff’s department who are only too keen to stir up trouble for our heroes, and the stage is set for another complex, clever mystery that doesn’t pull its punches when it gets down to the nitty and the very gritty.

And while Hazard and Somers are trying to untangle all the threads surrounding the murder, Hazard is slowly getting to grips with what it really means to be a father.  He makes a lot of mistakes and sometimes he’s really harsh, yet in the midst of it all, there’s no question that he’s trying hard to do the right thing. And Somers is simply awesome in supportive husband mode.  As to whether Colt is who he says he is… well, I’m not telling, because really, in the end, it doesn’t matter.  The theme of family – of what makes one and what you do as part of one – is the important thing, and the author completely nails the complicated dynamics that abound in the family Hazard and Somers are choosing to make. The characterisation of Colt is spot on – a perfect angry, surly teen who pretends not to care but who really cares so much and desperately wants to impress his chosen role model.

There’s a lot going on in this story, yet it never feels rushed or under-developed; the pacing is just right and the author balances his various story threads with supreme skill and confidence.  As well as the mystery and the Colt storyline, there are some fabulous cameos from Hazard’s mother, who is a terrific grandmother and helper, and Theo Stratford, now Dr. Stratford (so clearly, he finished that thesis!) and a teacher at the High School – and I can’t forget Shaw who, while he doesn’t actually appear, nonetheless caused several snorts of laughter in absentia (Somers using the idea of inviting him for a visit as a threat when Hazard is being mean is priceless!)  I was also pleased to see Nico again – yes, really! – he’s grown up a lot and clearly wants to be a good friend to Hazard.  I like the idea of his working for Hazard’s agency and think he’ll be good at his new job, but there are also hints that not all is well with him, and I really want him to be okay.

But as is always the case with Mr. Ashe’s books, what sets Relative Justice apart from the crowd is the fantastic characterisation and superb combination of relationship development, humour, laser sharp insight into what makes these people tick, and the way all the emotions – the angst, the frustration, the pain, the love – are perfectly realised on the page.  Hazard and Somers have come such a long way since we first met them, and now, are more solid than ever, despite the challenges they experience in this book (and the realisation of what being fathers of two is going to do to their sex life!).  The way they work together professionally has always been a delight to watch, and here, we get to see them each bring their own particular strengths to the situation at home, Somers’ people skills and his deep understanding of everything Hazard, and Hazard’s formidable intelligence and unshakeable loyalty to those he loves.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again;  I am in awe of Gregory Ashe’s ability to consistently craft books of such high quality (and at such a rate.)  I don’t know how he does it, I’m just incredibly glad – and very grateful – that he does.  Relative Justice is an incredibly strong start to what promises to be another fantastic series featuring two of my all-time favourite characters.  I can’t do anything other than offer the strongest of recommendations.

Note:  Themes of child abuse and neglect feature prominently (although there’s nothing graphic) in this story.

Role Model (Game Changers #5) by Rachel Reid (audiobook) – Narrated by Cooper North

role model

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The hits just keep coming for Troy Barrett. Traded to the worst team in the league would be bad enough, but coming on the heels of a messy breakup and a recent scandal…Troy just wants to play hockey and be left alone. He doesn’t want to be in the news anymore, and he definitely doesn’t want to “work on his online presence” with the team’s peppy social media manager.

Harris Drover can tell standoffish Troy isn’t happy about the trade – anyone could tell, frankly, as he doesn’t exactly hide it well – but Harris doesn’t give up on people easily. Even when he’s developing a crush he’s sure is one-sided. And when he sees Troy’s smile finally crack through his grumpy exterior, well…that’s a man Harris couldn’t turn his back on if he wanted to.

Suddenly, Troy’s move to the new team feels like an opportunity – for Troy to embrace his true self, and for both men to surrender to their growing attraction. But indulging in each other behind closed doors is one thing, and for Troy, being in a public relationship with Harris will mean facing off with his fears, once and for all.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A

I loved Rachel Reid’s Role Model (book five in her Game Changers series) when I read it a few months back, and I loved it just as much in audio. It’s a lovely grumpy/sunshine romance combined with a wonderfully well-written redemption story that takes a really hard, unflattering look at the misogyny and homophobia that continue to exist in some professional sports – and potential listeners should be aware that the book includes a storyline surrounding sexual assault (none of it is on the page) in which victims are not believed and their experiences are trivialised.

Troy Barrett has suddenly gone from playing for the best hockey team in the NHL – the Toronto Guardians – to the worst – the Ottawa Centaurs – after a trade following a very public argument on the ice with his former best friend, Dallas Kent. After being dumped by his equally closeted actor boyfriend, Troy’s day went from bad to worse when he learned Kent had been accused of raping a woman at a party, but that instead of suspending him pending investigation by the team and the league, they were instead closing ranks around Kent and dismissing the allegations as pure fabrication. Knowing Kent to be completely capable of sexual assault, Troy absolutely believes the accusations and is angry at himself for not doing something to stop him. (Although what he could actually have done is anybody’s guess.) Hurt, furious and disgusted, Troy loses it during practice and openly calls Kent a rapist; the fight was caught on camera and the video very quickly went viral.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Battle Royal (Royal Insiders #1) by Lucy Parker

battle-royal-1

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Ready…

Four years ago, Sylvie Fairchild charmed the world as a contestant on the hit baking show, Operation Cake. Her ingenious, creations captivated viewers and intrigued all but one of the judges, Dominic De Vere. When Sylvie’s unicorn cake went spectacularly sideways, Dominic was quick to vote her off the show. Since then, Sylvie has used her fame to fulfill her dream of opening a bakery. The toast of Instagram, Sugar Fair has captured the attention of the Operation Cake producers…and a princess.

Set…

Dominic is His Majesty the King’s favorite baker and a veritable British institution. He’s brilliant, talented, hard-working. And an icy, starchy grouch. Learning that Sylvie will be joining him on the Operation Cake judging panel is enough to make the famously dour baker even more grim. Her fantastical baking is only slightly more troublesome than the fact that he can’t stop thinking about her pink-streaked hair and irrepressible dimple.

Match…

When Dominic and Sylvie learn they will be fighting for the once in a lifetime opportunity to bake a cake for the upcoming wedding of Princess Rose, the flour begins to fly as they fight to come out on top.

The bride adores Sylvie’s quirky style. The palace wants Dominic’s classic perfection.

In this royal battle, can there be room for two?

Rating: A

Lucy Parker has another winner on her hands with Battle Royal, the first book in her new Royal Insiders series and also her first novel published under the Avon Imprint.   I’ve enjoyed all her books so far and have loved quite a few of them; they’re stylish and engaging and wonderfully romantic, featuring three-dimensional protagonists with chemistry that leaps off the page, strongly developed relationships, well-depicted settings and the sort of clever wit and humour that I adore.

Battle Royal is, I’m pleased to report, very much in the same vein. It’s a beautifully written grumpy/sunshine, enemies-to-lovers romance between rival bakers, packed with the vibrancy, fun, witty repartee and sexual tension that characterises her work, but there’s also a kind of gravitas here that sets it apart from her previous novels.  I don’t mean that the book is heavy or gloomy – far from it – just that some of its underlying themes are weighty, and the bittersweet overtones they lend to the story add layers of complexity to the characters and the plot that take the novel to another level and make it feel like so much more than a contemporary romance or romantic comedy.

Four years earlier, Sylvie Fairchild was a contestant on Operation Cake and was doing fairly well.  Her bright and breezy personality caught the attention of the viewing public and her tasty, imaginative bakes were getting good marks – despite the view of stern judge – and London’s premier baker – Dominic De Vere that her creations were mostly style over substance. She had reached the semi-final stage of the competition when disaster struck, and an unplanned cake explosion landed a ton of glitter in Dominic’s hair and catapulted a cake-smeared unicorn hoof into his forehead.  Needless, to say, that was Sylvie’s last appearance on the show.

Since then however, she’s set up the Sugar Fair bakery/patisserie – which just happens to be on the same street and directly opposite to De Vere’s  – and now, she’s been invited back to Operation Cake, but this time as one of the judges.

Favoured by the royal family and something of a British institution, Dominic De Vere is hugely talented, brilliant and dedicated, but where Sylvie’s work is all heart and her colourful decorative style reflects her sunshiny, open personality, Dominic’s coolly aloof perfectionism favours classical, minimalist elegance and neutral tones.  As bakers – and individuals – their approaches and outlooks couldn’t be more different, something the producers of Operation Cake are clearly hoping will play well on television.  An extra layer to Sylvie and Dominic’s rivalry is added when a royal wedding is announced – and they’re both determined to secure the contract to supply the wedding cake.

I loved so much about this book.  It’s perhaps a little slow to start, but once it gets going it became impossible to put down as the complex, multi-layered story the author is telling begins to unfold.  At the centre of it all is the opposites-attract romance between Sylvie and Dominic, which is simply gorgeous.  Their chemistry and mutual attraction crackle with sexual tension from the get-go, but the way their relationship develops is an exquisite slow-burn, fuelled by longing looks, flirtatious banter and glancing touches.  (Oh, the touches  – *sigh*) Dominic is, at first glance, your classic stuffed-shirt hero, emotionally distant, icy-cool and brutally honest, but as we get to know him, we discover a genuinely caring man beneath the world-weary exterior, one who longs for connection but fears rejection.  Sylvie is outgoing and vivacious and seems to be a complete contrast to Dominic, but it turns out they have more in common than either would have thought. Both have been profoundly affected by events in their pasts which continue to inform their choices, meaning they hold themselves apart – from people, from emotions… even from life.   The depth of the affection that underpins their interactions as they learn about and support each other in slowly coming to terms with their pasts is both genuine and heartfelt.

One of the things I most liked about the relationship is that although Sylvie and Dominic are business rivals, there’s never any pettiness or sense that one is prepared to sabotage the other’s chances.  It’s clear that while they may not see eye to eye aesthetically, they respect each other’s skills and capabilities, so that their (initially) begrudging co-operation on their research (for the wedding cake tender) never seems unlikely or out of character.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but Lucy Parker pulls her various story threads together extremely well and balances everything out both credibly and satisfactorily, never forgetting to keep Sylvie and Dominic’s romance at the forefront of the action.  As well as the TV show and the rivalry over the wedding cake, there’s a storyline involving Dominic’s younger sister Pet who’s decided to work for him in hopes of developing a relationship with the brother she barely knows; there’s a sleaze-bag café owner who keeps stealing Sylvie’s ideas, and a charmingly poignant love story from the past that emerges as Sylvie and Dominic search for inspiration for the royal cake.  I was pleased that the author chose to create a kind of AU royal family which bears little to no resemblance to the present incumbents, and the portions of the story that look at the toll taken by the weight of duty and living constantly in the media spotlight on even the strongest, most loving of relationships are thought-provoking.  There’s also a lovely exploration of the concept of family – both biological and found – and how shared DNA is meaningless without affection, and a superbly developed secondary cast who all have important roles to play.  Bubbly, loving Pet is delightful, Sylvie’s assistant Mabel – a woman of few words – is a terrifyingly no-nonsense hoot, and  I really hope there’s a book coming for Sylvie’s long-term best friend and business partner, Jay.   My only quibble overall is that there’s one overly dramatic plot-point near the end I could have done without (especially in such an already jam-packed story!)

That niggle apart, this book is an utter delight and one I’m happy to recommend without reservation.  Sylvie and Dominic are perfect for one another and their romance is laden with affection, tenderness, and sexual tension as yummy as the patisserie. Touching and emotional yet whimsical and optimistic,  Battle Royal captivated me from start to finish, and I’m sure fans of the author’s and of contemporary romance in general will love it.

Redirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #3) by Gregory Ashe

redirection

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When it comes to your ex, nothing is ever easy.

The Borealis boys are settling into their new normal, or at least into their new digs. But when North’s soon-to-be (please-let-it-be-soon) ex-husband, Tucker, is arrested and charged with murder, everything goes sideways.

Hired by Tucker’s parents, North and Shaw begin looking for proof that Tucker is innocent, in spite of the evidence against him. When they find seemingly incriminating photos hidden in Tucker’s BMW, North is convinced that someone is trying to frame Tucker—and might get away with it.

But the cast of alternate suspects presents its own challenges: an estranged son, a betrayed wife, and North and Shaw’s close-knit circle of friends from college—men who had their own connections to the victim, and who had their own reasons for wanting him dead. A threatening email suggests that the motive, whatever it might be, lies buried in the past, in a relationship gone wrong. The question is, which one?

When Tucker is poisoned, North and Shaw realize that the killer isn’t finished. Clearing Tucker’s name won’t be enough; they must find the killer before someone else dies. And to do so, they will have to unearth truths from their own pasts.

Rating: A

Note: There are spoilers for the previous books in the series in this review.

Wow.  I thought Misdirection, the previous book in this series was a tough read; I should have known Gregory Ashe wasn’t finished tying my insides up in knots and putting North and Shaw (and me!) through the emotional wringer.  It always hurts to see a beloved character (or characters) having a tough time, and in Redirection, the author continues to shine an unforgiving spotlight on the problems that have dogged North and Shaw’s personal (romantic) relationship, at the same time as they’re trying to solve a mystery that hits VERY close to home.

I put a spoiler warning at the top of this review, so if you haven’t read Misdirection, and you read farther than this, on your own head be it!  At the end of that book, North and Shaw realised that they needed to take a break from  being a couple and agreed to go back to being ‘just friends’.  This decision was prompted by a number of things; a lot of unresolved issues on North’s part that relate to his upbringing and his marriage have bled into his relationship with Shaw,  while Shaw was taking North for granted and failing to see that things were becoming very one-sided, from deciding which cases they took, to when and how they had sex.

A few months on, and the guys are still keeping to their ‘friends’ agreement – except that they’re friends with benefits, something which is obviously more of a problem for Shaw than it is for North.  Shaw is doing his best not to rock the boat or ask questions about where they stand, but it’s been a few months since they broke up and there’s no sign of anything changing or of North being ready to talk – and Shaw knows he can’t carry on this way indefinitely.

So things between them are already balanced on a knife edge when a grenade is thrown into the mix.  Dick Laguerre – the father of North’s estranged (though not yet ex-) husband, Tucker – walks into the Borealis offices and tells them that Tucker has been arrested for murder, and asks them to help to prove his innocence.  Shaw is – quite rightly – cautious; not just because Tucker is a total shit who physically and emotionally abused North for years, but also because of the conflict of interest – whatever they find out probably wouldn’t be admissible in court – but North bluntly reminds him of all the times they’ve taken the cases Shaw wanted to take – Matty Fenmore, the Slasher, the romance convention – and won’t hear any objections.  They’re taking this one.

The murder victim was Rik Slooves, a former – and married – professor at Choteau College who, during North and Shaw’s time there, screwed his way through most of the young male students, including Tucker and some of their other friends.  After he returned to his wife and son, Slooves played the happily married ultra-conservative straight guy, pushing a vehement anti-gay agenda while continuing to fuck around with guys on the side.  Tucker had been one of those men – and after a night spent together at a seedy motel, Tucker wakes to find Slooves dead in bed beside him, his head bashed in with one of his (Tucker’s) golf clubs.  The evidence is overwhelmingly against Tucker – but even after everything he put North through, North finds it hard to believe he’s guilty of murder.

And as he and Shaw start digging, it begins to seem as though someone is trying to frame Tucker.  Incriminating photos of Slooves with other men found in Tucker’s car, Slooves estranged wife behaving strangely, his son arriving in town out of the blue, a sex video, and information that Slooves involved some of North and Shaw’s college friends in his shady insider-dealing… it all adds up to a complex, confusing case in which suspicion shifts rapidly from one person to the next, and there are more people with good reason to want to get rid of Slooves than one could reasonably shake a stick at.

And somewhere, pulling strings in the background is the despicable not-uncle Ronnie, out for revenge on North and Shaw after North got him arrested following Ronnie’s theft of proprietary technology from Aldrich Acquisitions.

Redirection is, even by Gregory Ashe standards (!) – a tough read.  Horrible things happen to, well, pretty much everyone, and watching North falling apart, seeing the way his relationship with Shaw has fractured so badly is HARD.  I’m a fast reader and when I’m reading something as good as this, I want to power through it, but the tension in this story is at such a pitch that I had to force myself to take a break every so often and remind myself to breathe! But all that tension is balanced by moments of incredible sweetness and humour, moments where North and Shaw slip effortlessly into their ridiculous banter and feel like ‘them’ again,  and when their love for each other comes through as strongly as ever.

Making Tucker the prime suspect in a murder investigation and a major character in this book was an interesting choice – because let’s face it, if you’ve followed the series this far, you’re likely to want to lock him up and throw away the key!  And yet… Gregory Ashe somehow – deviously, brilliantly –  had me questioning those feelings.  North is convinced Tucker is still the same manipulative piece of shit he always was, but the Tucker we’re presented with here seems to have changed – or to be trying to – for the better, and Mr. Ashe skilfully plays with our conceptions so that we’re never quite sure who is seeing the truth of the situation.  And then we meet Tucker’s parents, people who treat North well and make him feel more welcome and loved than his own family ever did – and it’s easy to understand why North stayed with Tucker for so long, and why, when he’s so exhausted and confused and scared, he’s so tempted to take the easy path back into a life he knows.

The secondary cast includes a handful of new characters as well as some we’ve met before.  I was pleased to see Jadon again and continue to hope he’s going to find someone some day; his back and forth with North is entertaining and even though North is often outright rude, it’s clear there’s a mutual respect there, beneath it all.  North’s dad makes another appearance, and my heart broke – again – for North at the way the old man treats him.

As always with a Gregory Ashe book, there are a lot of moving parts, and  – as always – he does a great job of combining a gripping, high-stakes mystery with the character-driven elements of the story.  Redirection is an intense, insightful exploration of a relationship-in-trouble that will make you want to laugh, cry, bang North and Shaw’s heads together and throw things, possibly all at the same time.  But rest assured, by the time you reach the end, emotionally battered and bruised, it will have been worth it.  Book four, Codirection, can’t arrive soon enough.

The Same End (The Lamb and the Lion #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Teancum Leon is pretty sure that if he plays his cards right, he can have it all: his childhood friend and former lover, Ammon Young; his best friend (although Tean is loath to admit it), Jem Berger; and his family. A boyfriend might even be in his future, although he’s having a heck of a time getting a second date with the guys he meets on Prowler.

Then the key suspect in a murder investigation asks to speak with Jem, overturning the precarious balance Tean has worked to maintain. A girl Jem knew in childhood is dead, and the man believed to have killed her was one of Jem’s tormentors at Decker Lake Juvenile Detention Center. Antonio Hidalgo insists he is innocent, and he begs Jem to find the real killer, a man Jem knows very well, the man who masterminded his torture at Decker: Tanner Kimball.

When Jem decides to check out Antonio’s story, Tean insists on helping. Their search takes them into Utah’s high desert, a land of redrock cliffs and hoodoo stones. But everything changes when they find a dead man in a remote canyon. He carries Tanner’s wallet, but the body has been disfigured, making identification difficult—if not impossible. Jem is convinced that the scene has been staged, and he’s determined to find Tanner and make him pay for the bodies in his wake.

Warnings begin piling up from the chief of police, the sheriff, a Bureau of Land Management special agent, even a Utah Highway Patrol trooper. Everyone wants Tean and Jem to understand that it’s in their best interest to go back to Salt Lake before they dig any deeper. A shipment of illegal drugs—several million dollars’ worth—might be the motive. But Tean and Jem begin to suspect that something else is driving events: a motive darker and stronger than money. Learning the truth, though, will take both men on a collision course with the past.

Rating: A

While boasting mysteries as complex and a central relationship as complicated and messy as any of those to be found in any of his other books, the overall tone of Gregory Ashe’s The Lamb and the Lion series has seemed somewhat gentler, somewhat lighter than many of those other books. The frequent laugh-out-loud humour, the wonderfully vivid descriptions of the landscape and the author’s ability to convey its majesty and stillness, the palpable affection between the two leads and their innate goodness, have, I think, sometimes worked to lull the reader into a false sense of security and to conceal the raw emotions that have been bubbling beneath the surface throughout.  It’s been obvious from the start that both Jem and Tean have a lot of hurt and trauma in their pasts and that those events have had a large hand in shaping the men they are now, but they’ve both done such a great job of pretending they’re fine, of hiding behind their teasing banter and playful affection that it’s been easy to forget that these are two very damaged individuals who are really struggling to process and let go of the things that hurt them, and to find a new path towards becoming the people they’re meant to be.

The Same End rips open the fault-lines in that dichotomy.

Wildlife vet Teancum Leon and grifter Jem Berger couldn’t be more different.  Tean is, by his own admission, introverted and repressed; Jem is outgoing and larger-than-life; Tean is something of a nihilist, prone to coming up with all manner of little-known facts and statistics about death; Jem takes life as it comes, living off his wits and the thrill of the game, never feeling more alive than when he’s ‘riffing’ during a con.  They met when Jem’s foster brother was murdered (The Same Breath) and they teamed up to find the killer; along the way they became lovers but that ended when Tean found out that Jem had been lying to him, and after reconciling (in one of the best make-up scenes ever), they decided they were better as friends.  After Tean tried – and failed – to ‘help’ Jem (helping him into a regular job, into renting an apartment and into what is – to Tean – a normal life, but which to Jem feels more like a straitjacket) in The Same Place, when The Same End opens, Jem is back to his old ways, grifting for money, living wherever he can – and Tean doesn’t like it.  Not because he doesn’t like Jem breaking the law (although he doesn’t like it), but because he’s worried about him.  Jem hides everything – what he’s doing, where he’s living, how he’s living, turning up at Tean’s place most days after Tean gets home from work and spending time with him but then heading off to… wherever – and he won’t accept help with anything (except with his reading.)

Although he’s ended his sexual relationship with deeply closeted (and married-with-kids) cop Ammon Young, Tean is determined not to lose a friendship of more than twenty years standing, and wants to find a way to keep both Ammon and Jem in his life.  It’s obvious to the reader that Tean is going to have to make a choice somewhere along the line, because Ammon and Jem are never going to get on in a million years; just as it’s obvious that Tean’s unwillingness to cut Ammon loose is giving Ammon the opportunity to worm his way back into Tean’s life and bed – even though Tean insists that all he wants is friendship.  But Ammon is insidious (and relentless) – unbeknownst to Tean, he’s running off any guy Tean dates – and he knows exactly how to fuck with Tean’s head, even going to far as to use Tean’s family to try to get back into his pants.

As in the previous books, the suspense plot hits close to home, but in this one, it’s even more devastatingly personal.  A young woman Jem knew in foster care is murdered, and the suspect – also someone from Jem’s past – insists he won’t talk to anyone but Jem.  Jem knows something isn’t right; that if the cops had enough evidence against the guy, they wouldn’t need him, but he agrees – begrudgingly – to talk to him… and immediately recognises the man as Antonio Hidalgo, one of a trio of boys who had made his life a misery at Decker Juvenile Hall, who physically and sexually abused him for fun.  Antonio is accused of murdering his girlfriend Andi, but he insists that Tanner Kimball – who was the ringleader at Decker all those years ago – is the real killer.  Seeing Antonio again brings back all those memories Jem has fought so hard to lock away, and he starts falling apart; he can’t sleep, he’s a bag of nerves and on edge all the time, and even though he tries to hide the state he’s in from Tean, Tean knows him too well by now to accept his insistence that he’s fine and nothing is wrong.  But he also knows that if he pushes, Jem will likely just disappear, so all he can do is hope that eventually Jem will confide in him.  But it’s tearing him up inside to see his friend so wrung out.

While Jem couldn’t give a fuck about what happens to Antonio, he wants to get justice for Andi – but his desire for revenge against Tanner is what really drives him.  Jem and Tean head into Utah’s high desert intent on checking out Antonio’s story – but the discovery of a dead body carrying Tanner’s ID in a remote canyon is just the start of an ever-expanding web of intrigue, murder and betrayal that could get them both killed.  But Jem can’t rest until they get to the truth.  He knows the dead man isn’t Tanner – and as the bodies mount up, everyone, from the chief of police to the highway patrol, is warning Jem and Tean to get out of town which only lends credence to the idea that they’re on to something that interested parties will go to any lengths to keep hidden. Ammon’s reappearance adds yet another point of strain to their already fractured relationship;  his manipulations, the pressure exerted by Tean’s family, and Tean’s inability to connect with Jem are wearing Tean down, while Jem is being tortured by memories and driven by a mess of dark, negative emotions that are threatening to eat him alive.

The characterisation of both leads is incredible.  They’re so real and so flawed; they make mistakes, they hurt each other and they let each other down, but they never stop trying – to be better, to understand each other and to do the right thing. They really do want what’s best for the other; Jem geniunely wants Tean to be happy (even if it’s not with him) and to start to see himself as the amazing person he really is; Tean wants the same for Jem, he wants him to be safe and to believe he deserves so much more than the life he’s chosen – which is all Jem think’s he’s worthy of.

The relationship between them is stunning in its complexity and the amazingly insightful way it’s written.  Mr. Ashe switches the mood seamlessly from laugh-out-loud humour to intensely emotional moments of honesty and introspection; from gentle, flirtatious teasing to deeply affectionate moments which affirm what the reader has known since the moment they met; that Jem and Tean really are the soulmates Jem jokes about. This is true of the other books in the series as well, but in this one… there were times it felt like my heart was actually hurting for this lovely, damaged pair.

The mystery is complex and clever and intensely satisfying, with a final twist that puts a very different spin on things, and Mr. Ashe ratchets up the tension to impossible levels during the nailbitingly tense denouement.  Thankfully however, the book ends on a beautifully bittersweet note that is perfect for this imperfect pair.  They’ve finally faced up to their pasts and are learning to let go of the damaging things they’ve held on to for too long, and although they’re got a lot of work to do if they’re going to build something lasting, the reader is left confident in the knowledge that they have what it takes to get there. As Jem says – “This isn’t the end… It’s the beginning”.

The Same End is a deeply emotional, skilfully plotted and utterly compelling end to The Lamb and the Lion series, and is, like its predecessors, impossible to put down.  Gregory Ashe is without doubt, an author at the top of his game, and I honestly can’t think of anyone else writing in this genre right now who can match him in his ability to craft, captivating, flawed characters, clever dialogue that will make you laugh one moment and cry the next, gripping plotlines, and well-developed, heartfelt relationships that plumb the depths and then scale the heights of human emotion.  Part of me hopes that one day, Mr. Ashe might re-visit Jem and Tean, while another part is more than happy to leave them here, at the beginning of a new life together.  After all they’ve been through, they deserve it.

My 2020 in Books & Audio

2020, huh? I don’t think I need to expound on that particular dumpster fire except to say that I feel lucky to be someone who has managed to read/listen to books pretty much as normal throughout it all. Books – and writing about them – have provided a much-needed escape from everything going on “out there”, and there have been times this past year when I don’t know what I’d have done without them.

So, what was I reading/listening to in 2020? Well, according to Goodreads (which shows an average rating of 4.1 stars overall), I read and listened to 269 books in total (which was 30 fewer than 2019) – although I suspect that number may be slightly higher as I sometimes forget to mark any re-listens I do. But just taking the new reads/listens, I listened to almost as many books as I read – 52.9% ebook and 47.1% audio, according to this new spreadsheet I’ve been using, and almost three-quarters of the total were review copies.

Of that total there are 77 5 star books, 152 4 star books – by far the biggest category – 36 3 star books and 6 2 star books. (Books sorted by rating.)

The 5 star bracket includes those titles I rate at 4.5 but round-up (which I equate to A-); the 4 star bracket (B) includes the 4.5 star grades I don’t round up (B+) and the 3.5 star ones I do round up (B-), the 3 stars are C+/C/C- and so on.  Of the 77 5 star ratings, only around 17 are straight A grades in terms of the story (in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a 4 star review will get bumped up because the narration is so fabulous), so the rest of that 77 are A minuses or audiobooks where A and B grades combined to rate a higher overall total. Looking back at my 2019 Books & Audio post, those numbers are fairly consistent, although I didn’t have any one stars or DNFs in 2020, which isn’t a bad thing!

The books that made my Best of 2020 list at All About Romance:

Reviews are linked in the text beneath each image.

As usually happens, I always have a few “also-rans”, books I could have included if I’d had the space:

If you follow my reviews, you’ll already know that in 2020, I awarded more top grades than ever to a single author, which isn’t something that’s ever happened before; sure, I give high grades to some authors consistently (Sherry Thomas, KJ Charles and Meredith Duran spring to mind) but those have been one every few months or per year – not nine in a single year! So, yes, 2020 is, in my head, the Year of Gregory Ashe 😉  I could have chosen any number of his books for these lists as they’re all so very good.

Sadly noticeable by its (near) absence on these lists – historical romance.  I said in my 2019 post that the amount of really good historical romance around had been declining for a while, and although there were some excellent  historicals around in 2020, they were fairly few and far between. Many of the best came from Harlequin Historical – Virginia Heath’s Redeeming the Reculsive Earl is a lovely, funny and warm grumpy-reclusive-hero-meets-breath-of-fresh-air-(and neuroatypical) heroine, while Mia Vincy continues to demonstrate her mastery of the genre with A Dangerous Kind of Lady, a sexy, vibrant, not-really friends-to-lovers story in which the leads embark on a difficult journey of self-discovery while coming to realise how badly they’ve misjudged each other. The “modern” historical is a term being coined for novels set in the more recent past, and Asher Glenn Gray’s Honeytrap, the love story between an FBI agent and Red Army office that spans thirty-five years, would proibably have made my Best of list had I read it in time.  Annabeth Albert is a big favourite of mine; Feel the Fire is book three in her Hotshots series, a second-chance romance that just hit the spot.

Audio

When I struggled to read something – which fortuantely, didn’t happen often – I could usually find something in audio that suited my mood, plus the fact that there are still back-catalogue titles coming out of books I haven’t got around to reading means that audio is always my preferred method of catching up!  I listened to a lot of pretty good stuff over the year, but for my 2020 Favourites for AudioGals, I stuck to titles to which I’d given at least ONE A grade (usually for the narration) and nothing lower than a B+.

So that was 2020 in books and audio.  I’m incredibly grateful to those authors and narrators who continued to provide me with such great reading/listening material through what has been an incredibly trying time for all of us;  I know some who have really struggled to get words on a page this year, and I just want to say that you’re worth waiting for and I’ll be here whenever you’re ready.

As for what I’m looking forward to in 2021… more of the same, really – lots of good books!  There are a number of titles I know are coming up in the first part of the year that I’m really excited about – the third Lamb and the Lion book from Gregory Ashe – The Same End – is out at the end of January, and I’m also eagerly awaiting new adventures with North and Shaw and Theo and Auggie. Then there’s book three in KJ Charles’ Will Darling Adventures, Subtle Blood, at least three (squee!) new books from Annabeth Albert, including the fourth Hotshots book; and a new instalment in Jordan Castillo Price’s long-running Psycop series (Other Half) due out in January, although I’ll be waiting for the audio because Gomez Pugh’s incredible turn as Victor Bayne is well worth waiting for.  (I really must catch up with JCP’s ABCs of Spellcraft books, in audio, too!).  There’s a new book in Hailey Turner’s  Soulbound series coming soon, a new instalment in Jay Hogan’s Southern Lights series, and later on, I’m hoping Josh Lanyon’s The Movie Town Murders will be out this year – I need more Sam and Jason! – and I’m looking forward to new books in her Secrets and Scrabble series.  I’m looking forward to more from Lucy Parker, Loreth Anne White, Garrett Leigh, Rachel Reid, Roan Parrish… There are new books slated from many of my favourite authors and narrators, and I’m looking forward to another year of great reading and listening.

I’ll be back this time next year to see if my expectations were fulfilled!

The Same Breath (The Lamb and the Lion #1) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Teancum Leon, who goes by Tean, is a wildlife veterinarian. His life has settled into a holding pattern: he loves his job, he hates first dates, and he only occasionally has to deal with his neighbor Mrs. Wish’s cat-related disasters.

All of that changes, though, when a man appears in his office, asking for help to find his brother. Jem is convinced that something bad has happened to Benny, and he thinks Tean might be able to help. Tean isn’t sure, but he’s willing to try. After all, Jem is charming and sweet and surprisingly vulnerable. Oh. And hot.

Then things get strange: phone calls with no one on the other end of the line; surveillance footage that shows what might be an abduction; a truck that tries to run Tean and Jem off the road. As Tean and Jem investigate, they realize that Benny might have stumbled onto a conspiracy and that someone is willing to kill to keep the truth from coming out.

But not everything is as it seems, and Tean suspects that Jem has been keeping secrets of his own.

Rating: A

In honour of one of the principal characters in this book, I’m going to start this review with some statistics.  Gregory Ashe’s The Same Breath is the fifth of his books reviewed in 2020 to get a DIK/A Grade review (he’s received nine at All About Romance since February 2019).  It’s also the eighth book he’s published this year so far, and the series it opens – The Lamb and the Lion – is the third series he’s written in this year. (Again, so far – he has another new series beginning in October).  At the rate he’s going, I can easily imagine him having averaged one book per month by the end of 2020.  I’m not complaining (unless it’s to protest that he’s putting out books so rapidly I feel like I’m running to keep up!)  – and that’s because not only is he incredibly prolific, he’s also incredibly GOOD.  Seriously, if you’re a fan of romantic suspense and gritty mysteries, snappy banter and sexual tension so intense it hits you like a slap in the face, and you’re NOT reading Gregory Ashe – you’re missing out BIG TIME.

Readers who may find the prospect of working their way through the eleven books in the author’s ‘signature’ Hazard and Somerset series a little daunting can easily jump in here to find out what all the fuss is about. All the elements of Mr. Ashe’s trademark style – complex, clever mysteries, flawed, but utterly compelling characters, deadpan humour and snark, and brilliantly constructed, deeply felt relationships – are to be found here, yet this story still manages to feel new and fresh and different from anything else of his I’ve read.

The Same Breath is book one (of three, I think) of a series set in Utah.  Our two protagonists are Teancum (Tean) Leon – a wildlife veterinarian with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, and Jem Berger, a grifter who lives by his wits while also doing his best to look out for his brother Benny – who has a habit of finding trouble.  Tean is smart and dedicated, with a penchant for trotting out the most unusual random facts and figures – the frequency of whale song, the likelihood of bear attacks, statistics about murder and McDonalds are just a few examples – that point to his being  something of a ‘glass half empty’ kinda guy.  He’s endearingly adorkable, but he’s also lonely and severely repressed.  Involved in a toxic relationship with a deeply closeted guy (a cop with a wife and kids) he’s known since childhood and loved for almost as long, Tean has next to no self-esteem and often feels as though he’s out of step with the world around him.

Jem was bounced around the foster system and ended up in juvie after defending himself and Benny against their violent foster mother.  Since he got out, he’s done what he’s had to do to survive; he’s charming, quick-witted, and utterly ruthless when he has to be – and makes good use of all those qualities as he runs a variety of different cons, from blackmailing a sleazebag wanting to buy child pornography to picking up guys in swanky hotel bars so he can get himself a decent meal and bed for the night.

Jem and Tean cross paths when Benny suddenly disappears.  Benny is something of an environmental activist and has been showing up at Tean’s office on and off for years, ranting about things like poaching, sick Elk herds, fish being poisoned by sewage…  and even though Benny’s initial presentation caused Tean’s colleagues to mark him down as a crazy conspiracy theorist,  Tean has found his information to be remarkably accurate.  He checks out Benny’s most recent claims that birds are being poisoned and does indeed find a number of dead gulls and shovelers exactly where Benny had claimed they’d be.   On his way back to the DWR, Tean becomes uneasy when he notices a black SUV that seems to be following him – and remembers the weird phone calls he’s received lately and the death, a week earlier, of a colleague in suspicious circumstances.  The death, the calls and now the tail?  Tean finds it hard to believe it’s all coincidence.

The mystery is tight and incredibly well-constructed. The storylines that are so subtly laid out as part of our introduction to the characters gradually gain momentum until they converge when Tean and Jem meet, and are propelled inexorably forward until the pair realise that Benny’s conspiracy theories may not all have been theories, and that the death of Tean’s colleague may somehow be connected to whatever it was Benny had stumbled upon.   It’s perfectly paced, the red herrings are masterfully employed, and even though the identity of the villain(s) might have been easy to work out, the reveal isn’t as important as the getting there; watching Tean and Jem work together to find the proof they need and to work out the killer’s motivations is the highlight of the book, their very different personalities and skill-sets meshing together like two snug-fitting puzzle pieces.

Once again, Gregory Ashe achieves a perfect balance between plot and relationship development, bringing together two individuals who are so fundamentally different that they shouldn’t work as friends or lovers – and yet they do.  Tean and Jem are complicated, damaged men who find something in each other they’ve never found with anyone else, a sense that they really see one another for who they truly are.  And even more importantly, they feel able to be who they truly are around one another. Their relationship is as complex as they are; there’s betrayal and anger, and emotion so raw that it hurts to read, but there’s genuine companionship and understanding, too, and it’s all right there on the page – there’s no telling-instead-of-showing here – in their actions and their lively banter and deeper, more intimate conversations.

“And I’ll probably die from grief.  Not because I can’t live without you, so don’t get that big grin on your face, but because science has proven that grief can cause inflammation that can actually, literally kill you.  And that would be my kind of luck.”

“I just want to give you credit,” Jem said, “for finding the bleakest and most depressing way I’ve ever heard of telling me that you like me.”

I loved watching Jem slowly getting under Tean’s skin, and seeing the depth of caring that so obviously lurks beneath his easy familiarity; and I loved equally Tean’s exasperated affection and gradual realisation that here is someone who can clearly see his insecurities and inhibitions – and likes him anyway.

The Same Breath is a superbly written mystery featuring likeable but flawed characters, fantastic dialogue and a sensual, slow-burn romance that promises to be something special.  Gregory Ashe just gets better and better, and readers – fans and newbies alike – have a real treat awaiting them.

A Friend in the Dark (Auden & O’ Callaghan #1) by Gregory Ashe & C.S. Poe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rufus O’Callaghan has eked out a living on the streets of New York City by helping the police put away criminals as a confidential informant. But when Rufus shows up for an arranged meeting and finds his handler dead, his already-uncertain life is thrown into a tailspin. Now someone is trying to kill Rufus too, and he’s determined to find out why.

After leaving the Army under less than desirable circumstances, Sam Auden has drifted from town to town, hitching rides and catching Greyhounds, until he learns that a former Army buddy, now a police detective in New York City, has died by suicide. Sam knows that’s not right, and he immediately sets out to get answers.

As Rufus and Sam work together to learn the truth of their friend’s death, they find themselves entangled in a web of lies, cover-ups, and accelerating danger. And when they witness a suspect killed in cold blood, they realize they’re running out of time.

Rating: A-

The first book in a projected series of four in the Arden & O’Callaghan MysteriesA Friend in the Dark is an enjoyable introduction to our two quirky protagonists as well as an entertaining – if not especially complex – murder mystery.  Gregory Ashe and C.S Poe kind of snuck up on us with this one – they announced their collaboration only a few weeks ago, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain; I’m a massive fan of Gregory Ashe’s work (which is a secret to exactly NO-ONE around here) and I’ve enjoyed books by Ms. Poe, so I was eager to see what they’d come up with together.  The verdict?  A thoroughly engrossing read.

The story opens as Rufus O’Callaghan discovers the dead body of Jake Brower – the detective for whom Rufus has acted as a confidential informant for a number of years – in the shower room in a set of abandoned offices.  It’s clearly murder – Jake was shot in the middle of the forehead – but before Rufus can process much, he’s being shot at, too, and gets out as quickly as he can. He makes his way to Jake’s apartment to see if he can find what Jake wanted him to pick up in the first place and, filled with sadness at the memories of the only friend he’s really ever had, Rufus decides he owes it to Jake to at least find a scrap of information he can take to the NYPD to help find the murderer.

Sam Auden – a former army (and fuck) buddy of Jake’s – arrives in New York looking for answers.  The email Jake sent him just two days before he died set all sorts of alarm bells ringing, and even though Jake’s death has, so far, been ruled a suicide, Sam knows there’s absolutely no way in hell Jake took his own life.  His visit to Jake’s precinct yields little apart from a sneaking suspicion that something’s not right there,  so he makes his way to Jake’s apartment – and is suspicious when he discovers the door is unlocked.  He bursts into the room, gun at the ready – to find a skinny kid with a mop of red hair sitting in an armchair, calmly munching his way through a bag of chips.

The story follows Rufus and Sam over the next few days as they try to find out why Jake was killed, and land in a fair amount of hot water themselves.  The mystery plot isn’t especially complicated, although it’s suspenseful and provides enough intrigue to propel the story forward;  the real delight in this book is in getting to know the main characters, watching their interactions and their relationship grow as they start to work out what makes the other tick and start to trust one another.  These guys are complex and damaged (even by normal Gregory Ashe standards!) – opposites in some ways, alike in others, and I adored both of them.

Rufus isn’t a kid at all; he’s in his early thirties and has clearly had a tough life, which he doesn’t talk about it much – if at all – and he’s prone to panic attacks. There’s clearly a lot going on beneath that snarky, street-smart surface, and we barely scratch it in this book.   He’s tough, sharp, and resourceful; he clearly cared about Jake and Jake looked out for him, the only person in Rufus’ life ever to have shown him any affection or thought he was worth a damn.

Sam is a big, tough ex-army guy who had a relationship – of sorts – with Jake years earlier that he was clearly more invested in than Jake was.  Sam is a complex mixture of traits; he’s brutally honest and says whatever he’s thinking, which can give the impression he’s a blunt instrument who lacks subtlety, but he’s also perceptive and observant, and quickly learns when to push Rufus and when to leave him alone. He’s got a very dry sense of humour – which is a good foil for Rufus’ brand of snark – and although displays a rather laid back attitude at times, he’s also prone to anxiety, albeit for different reasons; he doesn’t like crowds and lots of noise, so being in New York is akin to torture for him.

Their investigation takes them through various NYC locations – including the subway (which is more torture for Sam!) – and the settings are described vividly and in such a way as to put the reader right there with the characters. The story moves at a fast pace which aptly reflects the hustle and bustle of the city, but the authors don’t stint on the character and relationship development; this is a steamy-slow burn, but – a word of caution – don’t expect an HEA in this book. The case is wrapped up and the murder solved, but in terms of where Rufus and Sam go from here… be prepared for that to be continued.

I was really interested in what the authors had to say about their writing process, as I think it differs to the way many authors collaborate.  I suspect the most common practice is for the authors to write alternating PoV chapters, but in this book, while the PoV does alternate,  Mr. Ashe and Ms. Poe wrote via Google Doc and were, I gather, each pitching in at various times so it’s a pretty cohesive effort.  They did say which of them wrote which character, but I’m not going to tell – if you don’t already know, I’ll let you work it out for yourselves!  My one quibble really is that the secondary characters seem more peripheral and less well-developed than in other books by Gregory Ashe (specifically – I’ve read his work most recently so the comparison is easier to make), but I did appreciate the firm focus on the two leads.

Funny, sexy and intensely readable, with a pair of captivating protagonists and enough banter to satisfy my snark-loving heart, A Friend in the Dark is a terrific introduction to the Auden & O’Callaghan Mysteries and I’m eagerly looking forward to book two.

Blue on Blue (Bitter Legacy #3) by Dal Maclean (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong


This title may be downloded from Audible via Amazon

After three years working as a private investigator, newly reinstated Detective Inspector Will Foster still holds himself responsible for the death of an officer under his command. But he’s returned to the Met bent on redeeming himself and that means bringing down gangland boss Joey Clarkson.

Will’s prepared to put in long hours and make sacrifices for his work, even if it comes at a cost to his nascent romance with international model, Tom Gray. After all, Tom has a history of wandering but crime is a constant in London. And Will has committed himself to the Met.

But when a murder in a Soho walkup leads Will into the world of corruption, he finds himself forced to investigate his own friends and colleagues. Now the place he turned for redemption seems to be built upon lies and betrayal. And someone is more than willing to resort to murder to keep it that way.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Sometimes you read or listen to a book you intend to review and then sit staring at the screen wondering how the hell you can possibly encapsulate what you just experienced in a review and do the book justice. This is one of those times, because Blue on Blue, the third instalment in Dal Maclean’s incredible Bitter Legacy trilogy just… blew me away. In fact, every book in this series of complex, gripping, superbly written and expertly narrated romantic mystery/procedural/suspense novels has done that, and the series as a whole is easily one of the very finest of its kind.

Note: Blue on Blue is the third book in a trilogy and doesn’t really work as a standalone. There are spoilers for the earlier books in this review.

Newly returned to the Metropolitan Police, Detective Inspector Will Foster is doing the job he loves and has, for the past nine months, been living with the love of his life, Tom Grey, postgraduate student and part-time model. (Their story leading up to this point is told, from Tom’s PoV, in Object of Desire). Blue on Blue, which is told from Will’s PoV, opens with Will and his colleagues attending the funeral of an officer who was shot in the line of duty and then, somewhat incongruously, moving on to the party being held to celebrate the engagement of DI James Henderson to Ben Morgan (Bitter Legacy). He’s on his own – Tom is in LA on a modelling job and Will is finding their separation a bit tough, especially as he’s started to receive anonymous texts containing photographs of Tom with another man – obviously another model – in moments of relaxed intimacy. On edge at the party, Will is almost relieved to get a shout – a young woman has been found dead in a Soho walk-up, and the South Kensington MIT (Murder Inverstigation Team) is still on rotation so it’s Will’s case.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.