Into the Storm (and Before the Storm) (Evidence: Under Fire #0.5 & #1) by Rachel Grant (audiobook) – Narrated by Nicol Zanzarella & Greg Tremblay

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a storm rolls in, a team of elite Navy SEALs arrives at a remote lodge for a wilderness training exercise that becomes terrifyingly real….

Xavier Rivera planned the exercise down to the smallest detail, but he didn’t plan the arrival of archaeologist Audrey Kendrick—a woman he shared a passionate night with before betraying her in the worst way.

As the storm is unleashed on the historic lodge it becomes clear the training has been compromised. Trapped by weather, isolated by the remote wilderness, and silenced as communication with the world has been severed, unarmed SEALs face an unexpected and deadly foe.

Audrey and Xavier must set aside their distrust and desire and work together to save a team under fire and survive in a battle against the wild.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – B

Rachel Grant embarks upon a new series of romantic suspense novels with Into the Storm, book one in the Evidence: Under Fire series. The premise grabbed my attention immediately; a group of Navy SEALS arrives at a remote location for a top-secret training exercise only to find themselves fighting an invisible enemy, their communications severed and with a severe weather system closing in. As always, the author’s research and attention to detail are impeccable and she imparts a lot of fascinating detail by weaving it into the fabric of the story.

Before the Storm by Rachel Grant

A couple of months before Into the Storm begins, its protagonists, Audrey Kendrick and Xavier Rivera, meet (in the novella, (Before the Storm) when Xavier, a Navy SEAL trainer visits the Olympic National Park to scope out the historic Lake Olympus Lodge and surrounding area as a possible location for a top secret training mission. The chemistry that sparks between the couple is hot and intense, leading to their spending a passionate night together. A few weeks later, Audrey discovers she’s pregnant – despite the fact they’d used contraception – and decides, straight away that she’s going to keep the baby and that even if Xavier doesn’t want to be a part of their child’s life, telling him is the right thing to do. She asks the mutual friend that introduced them to ask Xavier to get in touch – and is delighted when, later that day, she bumps into Xavier at the Lodge, pleased to be able to share her news in person. But she realises something is wrong immediately; not only is Xavier in uniform (he never told her what he did for a living), he’s cold and hostile, telling her he’s filed a complaint about her because she refused to sign off on the Navy’s proposal for a training mission because she was angry that he’d rejected her. Reeling at the unjust and unfounded accusations that could tank her job and her career, Audrey doesn’t tell him about the baby.

(Note: It’s not essential to have listened to Before the Storm, as the relevant information is contained within Into the Storm).

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

His Last Christmas in London by Con Riley

his last christmas in london

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Falling for his final client won’t make leaving London easy…

Ian ~ A talented, young photographer desperate to stay in London.

Guy ~ An older, fierce food critic, determined to keep him in his city.

Ian shouldn’t be attracted to a scathing food critic like Guy Parsons, not after the last time he fell for someone older, arrogant, and gorgeous. He knows better than to let dramatic good looks sway him since his last heartbreak. Besides, he’s accepted a new job at the far end of the country and won’t be staying in London.

Having one month left doesn’t seem enough now Ian’s fallen in love with the city. Working as Guy’s photographer for December might help him afford to stay for longer, even if he hates Guy’s brand of restaurant reviewing. When Guy turns out to be worlds away from the last man Ian fell for, shared meals soon result in shared secrets and feelings.

More than attraction sparks between them as Christmas approaches. Intimate moments lead to intense passion, but is being well matched in the bedroom enough to stop the clock counting down to Ian leaving London, and Guy, for good?

Rating: A-

Romance novellas are very often hit-and-miss for me. Truth be told, the majority of them ‘miss’, usually because the characters and relationship are underdeveloped, so I generally approach with caution. But every so often, a novella or ‘shorter novel’ comes along that defies my expectations – and I’m pleased to say that Con Riley’s His Last Christmas in London did exactly that. It’s a lovely, poignant and sensual age-gap romance that hit me right in the feels and left me sighing happily when I finished it.

Twenty-four-year-old Ian Fisher has decided it’s time to give up on his dream of making a living as a freelance photographer in London and take a secure short-term job back home in Cornwall. It’s going to be a massive wrench; he loves the city and he loves his two flatmates, Seb and Patrick, but he’s making next to nothing thanks to his arsehole of a former boss – and former lover – who is holding out on giving him a reference after Ian realised the guy had been gaslighting him for ages and passing Ian’s work off as his own, and left both his employ and his bed. His confidence in his abilities has been severely shaken, and without the reference, it’s proving next to impossible for Ian to get any work, so he’s resorted to selling off some of his equipment just so he can afford his rent, even though Seb and Patrick have said they’ll spot him until he starts earning again. But Ian doesn’t want to be a drain on them, and decides it’s time to face facts, suck it up and take the six-month teaching contract he’s been offered while he works out what his next move should be.

Doing a favour for his ex is the last thing Ian wants to do, so when Lito Dixon – who is clearly partying – calls and asks Ian to “go and take some food shots” for a high-profile client, Ian’s first instinct is to say no. But realising Lito is desperate, Ian demands both his reference and three times his usual fee – it’ll keep him afloat for a little while longer – and when Lito begrudingly agrees, Ian takes the job.

Guy Parsons is a well-known restaurant critic whose reviews have often been labelled as “career-ending” and “business crushing”. Still smarting from just having to deal with one utter bastard, Ian is in little mood to deal with another, and arrives at the restaurant predisposed to dislike Parsons on sight. When he arrives, he can’t help noticing how very striking the man is – with his flow of dark hair and warm, dark eyes – and is even thrown by the hostess’ description of him as “lovely”, which Ian decides must be just a front he maintains before going in for the kill. He wastes no time in making his opinion of Guy perfectly clear when he arrives at the table, but the wind is taken out of his sails when Guy calmly (and somewhat mischievously) plays up to the hostess’ assumption that they’re a couple. Confused and surprised at the powerful attraction he’s feeling for the other man, Ian slowly lets go of his preconceptions as Guy proves himself to be funny, charming and insightful – anything but a bastard, in fact – insisting Ian joins him for dinner, giving helpful advice to the new proprietors of the restaurant, and showing genuine concern for Ian and a real appreciation for his talent.

The chemistry between Ian and Guy simply leaps off the page, the intense current of attraction running between them from the moment Ian sits down growing even stronger through the meal. It’s as though this… thing… between them has taken on a life of its own, neither of them quite believing they’re about to do what they’re about to do as they race back to Guy’s flat. For ‘dessert’.

Lito calls the next morning, angry that Guy has requested Ian for the remainder of his pre-Christmas photo shoots, but Guy is a prestigious client and Lito has to go along with it. This affords Ian a short reprieve before he has to leave London, and he determines to make the most of it – hopefully, with Guy. Ian told Guy he would be leaving London soon, so whatever is happening between them comes with an expiry date, but at least they both know where they stand. Over the assignments and the days and weeks that follow, Ian gets to know the real Guy, the Guy who knows his way around a kitchen and is free with his help and advice, the Guy who is an excellent listener, the Guy who is kind, funny, thoughtful, and possessed of a true generosity of spirit – the Guy who is just emerging from the stark grief of losing of his husband three years earlier. This Guy is a man Ian can’t help wanting to know more of, to spend more time with – a man he could even love… but that expiry date is looming.

This is a poignant and gorgeously romantic story about finding true love in the most unexpected of places, about second chances and about finding what, who and where you’re meant to be. I was so glad to know that Guy’s marriage was a very happy one (so often in romances the previous partner was a shit) and I loved the parallels the author draws between that relationship – Guy’s husband was a lot older than him when they first met – and Guy’s relationship with Ian, with Guy now the older man offering support and understanding, knowing that what Ian needs is someone to have his back, but not to fight his battles for him. The imbalances that come with a twenty year age gap (the established career and economic security are all on one side) are not ignored, but they truly don’t matter as much as what these two men have to offer each other or what they come to mean to one another, with Guy helping Ian to re-kindle his confidence and belief in his abilities and Ian reminding Guy what it’s like to feel truly valued and bringing love and light back into his life.

His Last Christmas in London bowled me over in much the same way Ian and Guy bowl each other over. Their romance is beautifully written and utterly swoonworthy, and the strong, passionate emotional connection that develops between them is superbly drawn. They’re likeable, engaging characters with plenty of depth snd real, rounded personalities, and the London setting is perfectly and vividly described through Ian’s photographer’s eye. The handful of secondary characters – especially Seb and Patrick – are strongly realised, and I loved the little ‘Easter Egg’ throwbacks to His Haven. Warm, touching, funny and sexy, it’ll make you smile, will bring a tear to the eye in the best of ways, and is the perfect book to cuddle up with on a grey winter’s afternoon.

In Step (Painted Bay #3) by Jay Hogan (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

in step

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Karma. You reap what you sow, and Kane Martin isn’t looking for forgiveness.

But the arrival of Abe Tyler in Painted Bay has Kane dreaming of the impossible. The sexy silver fox choreographer is determined to pull Kane out from the shadows, but Abe’s career isn’t about to shift to Painted Bay, and Kane’s life is in neat little boxes for a reason.

A past he isn’t proud of.

A family he’s walked away from.

A job he doesn’t deserve.

A secret he’s ashamed of.

But life’s dance can make for unexpected partners, and learning to trust and keep up with the footwork is the name of the game.

Two steps forward, one step back.

It takes two to tango.

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – A

Jay Hogan’s wonderful Painted Bay series comes to a close with In Step which is my favourite book of the set and probably my favourite book of of hers full stop. It’s a poignant, emotional romance combined with a superbly-crafted tale of redemption, forgiveness and finally coming into one’s own that is both heartfelt and heartbreaking; and the always excellent Gary Furlong’s narration is absolute perfection.

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

We were first introduced to Kane Martin back in Off Balancebook one of the series. A loner who doesn’t really fit in, he lives quietly on the fringes of town, his bullying attack on Judah Madden back when they were at school still very much present in the memories of most of the locals. Then, in On Board, he came to work for Judah’s brother Leroy after Leroy’s mother discovered Kane sleeping in his car and immediately offered him a job. Leroy wasn’t best pleased; he’s only just begun to repair his fractured relationship with Judah, and made it a condition of Kane’s employment that Judah agreed to it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Heart Unseen (Hearts Entwined #1) by Andrew Grey (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Tremblay

heart unseen

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a stunningly attractive man and the owner of a successful chain of auto repair garages, Trevor is used to attention, adoration, and getting what he wants. What he wants tends to be passionate, no-strings-attached flings with men he meets in clubs. He doesn’t expect anything different when he sets his sights on James. Imagine his surprise when the charm that normally brings men to their knees fails to impress. Trevor will need to drop the routine and connect with James on a meaningful level. He starts by offering to take James home instead of James riding home with his intoxicated friend.

For James, losing his sight at a young age meant limited opportunities for social interaction. Spending most of his time working at a school for the blind has left him unfamiliar with Trevor’s world, but James has fought hard for his independence, and he knows what he wants. Right now, that means stepping outside his comfort zone and into Trevor’s heart.

Trevor is also open to exploring real love and commitment for a change, but before he can be the man James needs him to be, he’ll have to deal with the pain of his past.

Rating:  Narration – A; Content – B

It’s no secret around here that my reading/listening preferences generally tend towards the plotty and angsty, with complex, edgy characters. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed stories that veer towards the low-drama end of the scale, and Andrew Grey’s Heart Unseen turned out to be one of those quieter, more character-driven tales that unexpectedly charmed me. Published in 2017, it’s part of a series featuring characters with disabilities; in this story, one of the leads is blind, and although I can’t say if the representation of what it’s like to live without being able to see is accurate, the author does seem to have taken care to address the issue respectfully.

Trevor Michaelson has a great life. He’s a successful businessman, he has a good relationship with his dad, good friends he likes spending time with and enjoys playing the field, his handsome face and toned body meaning he has the pick of guys at the clubs he and his friends frequent. When the book opens, Trevor and his two besties, Brent and Dean, are out at one of their favourite haunts to celebrate the end of Dean’s relationship with his manipulative ex, and be there as moral support as he gets back out there. While sitting with Brent, Trevor’s attention is caught by a stunningly beautiful man a few tables over – and he can’t take his eyes off him.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Prince of Flowers (Wild Hearts #1) by Nazri Noor (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

prince of flowers

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He captured a fae prince. But can he capture his heart?

Lochlann Wilde walks in the shadow of his father, a legendary summoner who commanded mythical beasts in battle. But Locke isn’t legendary. He’s barely a summoner, never passing his academy’s trial of the elements.

And then he accidentally summons a fae prince with a beautiful body and a bad attitude.

Sylvan is fiery and ferocious, stronger than anything Locke has ever encountered. And hotter, too. But time is running out. Locke must tame the prince’s wild heart. If he fails his trial, he’ll lose his inheritance and ruin his family’s name.

Without Sylvan, Locke could lose his chance to become a true summoner…along with his shot at true love.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

I’m enjoying Nazri Noor’s Arcane Hearts fantasy/romance series – it’s fun and inventive with intriguing plotlines, strong worldbuilding, likeable characters, and excellent narration by Zachary Johnson. When the author announced that his new series – Wild Hearts (which is set in the same world as Arcane Hearts) – would be narrated by Greg Boudreaux, naturally I jumped at the chance to listen to and review the first book, Prince of Flowers.

Lochlann – Locke – Wilde is the oldest student at the great and ancient Wispwood Academy, having yet to earn the Crest that will mark his ‘graduation’ as a summoner. In order to earn that – and to inherit his father’s fortune – he must summon and forge a pact with a great beast of legend, but all he’s managed so far are a flock of doves, an elderly wolf and a grubby cat – not exactly a resounding success for the son of the legendary Grand Summoner Baylor Wilde. He’s not exactly the most diligent of students, it’s true, but he’s persistent, so, armed with the grimoire inherited from his father, Locke has once again ventured into the forests of Wispwood, intent on gaining his summoner’s Crest by finding his eidolon (his ideal familiar), a creature of powerful magic with whom he can form a mutually beneficial bond.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Subway Slayings (Memento Mori #2) by C.S. Poe

subway slayings

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Detective Everett Larkin of New York City’s Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave since catching the serial killer responsible for what the media has dubbed the “Death Mask Murders.” But Larkin hasn’t forgotten that another memento—another death—is waiting to be found.

Summer brings the grisly discovery of human remains in the subway system, but the clues point to one of Larkin’s already-open cases, so he resumes active duty. And when a postmortem photograph, akin to those taken during the Victorian Era, is located at the scene, Larkin requests aid from the most qualified man he knows: Detective Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artists Unit.

An unsolved case that suffered from tunnel vision, as well as the deconstruction of death portraits, leads Larkin and Doyle down a rabbit hole more complex than the tunnels beneath Manhattan. And if this investigation isn’t enough, both are struggling with how to address the growing intimacy between them. Because sometimes, love is more grave than murder.

Rating: A+

Clever, insightful, romantic and utterly compelling, Madison Square Murders, the first book in C.S. Poe’s Momento Mori series, was one of my favourite books of 2021. I’ve been on tenterhooks awaiting the release of the sequel, desperately hoping that lightning would strike in the same place twice – and I’m happy to say that it did, because Subway Slayings is every bit as good as – if not even better than – its predecessor. If you like the sound of the combination of brilliant, tautly-plotted mystery and delicious slow-burn romance, this is the series for you – but while the mysteries in each book are solved, there’s an overarching plotline developing and the relationship is ongoing, so make sure to start at the beginning!

Detective Everett Larkin of the Cold Case Squad has been on medical leave to recuperate from the broken arm sustained in an attack by the ‘Death Mask Killer’ at the end of Madison Square Murders. While he was in hospital waiting for surgery, he received a packet containing an old subway token and a note, its message spelled out in cut and pasted letters (like those old blackmail notes you see in the movies!) I HAVE A BETTER MEMENTO FOR YOU. COME FIND ME.”

On the nineteenth of May, exactly fifty-nine days later (because of course, Larkin would know that) and one day before he’s due to resume active duty, Larkin is called to the Fifty-Seventh Street subway station after a decomposing body is found, stuffed in a blue IKEA tote bag, in a utility closet on the platform. He’s not sure why he’s been called when this is clearly a recent homicide, but his questions are answered when the CSU detective passes him an evidence bag containing a photograph of a teenaged girl, slumped awkwardly on one of the oak benches scattered throughout the subway system. The girl appears to be asleep – or drunk or stoned – and the photo itself looks like something that would have been developed thirty or forty years ago. The real kicker, though, is what’s scrawled across the back: “Deliver me to Detective Larkin.”

After escaping the oppressive heat and awful smells down in the tunnels, but not so easily escaping the many and relentless associations – of both his own past and of the many unsolved murders his HSAM won’t let him forget – Larkin calls in expert help in the form of Ira Doyle of the Forensic Artist Unit, who confirms Larkin’s suspicions about the age of the photo but also realises something else. The girl on the bench isn’t asleep. She’s dead. And later that evening, Larkin makes an important connection with one of the cold cases that haunts him almost more than any other, the murder, on the nineteenth of May 1997, of eighteen-year-old Marco Garcia who was pushed in front of a train… at the Fifty-Seventh Street station.

“Today is the twenty-third anniversary of Marco’s death. Once is chance. Twice is coincidence.” Larkin looked up and finished with “Three time’s a pattern.”

The mystery element of Subway Slayings is clever, meticulously researched and absolutely fascinating, but it’s disturbing, too, because as Larkin and Doyle dig deeper, their discoveries lead them to more victims, all of them from one of the most vulnerable groups in society, and to a truly despicable network of people who are only too willing to exploit them. (Please note – there is nothing graphic on page, but crimes against children and young people are central to the plot.)

At the same time as the author is building her intricate mystery, she’s also presenting us with some of the most amazing  character and relationship development I think I’ve ever read. We’ve already seen how Larkin’s HSAM (hyper superior autobiographical memory) affects him in every aspect of his life; how he can become hyper focused, how difficult it is for him to remember small, day-to-day details that cause no problem for most of us, how hard he finds social interaction, how his condition makes him an embarrassment to some (his parents and soon-to-be-ex husband) or a fascinating curiosity (his doctor) – while not one of them either cares or wants to know what it’s really like to live with a brain that can never forget or switch off. How in the eighteen years since the traumatic brain injury that caused it, nobody has ever asked if he’s okay. Nobody – until now. Until Ira Doyle.

“… in eighteen years, I’ve never been happy having HSAM. Until now. Because I don’t ever want to forget how you make me feel.”

Their romantic relationship is the slowest – and sweetest – of slow burns, but it’s absolutely perfect for who these people are and where they are in their lives. They don’t do more than kiss on the page, but their chemistry is such that it feels as steamy as a full-on sex scene, and their strong emotional connection is intense and totally believable. If ever a couple deserved the label ‘soulmates’, it’s this one. Right from the start, Doyle has recognised in Larkin something to be cherished and cared for, and the way he does both those things, his patience and simple, undemanding acceptance of Larkin and everything he is, is an utter joy to read. Doyle is one of those people whose presesnce and smile can light up a room; he’s warm and charming and funny – and very, very good at what he does, with an innate ability to put people at their ease and encourage confidences in a way Larkin can never do. There were hints in the previous book, though, that there’s a lot of grief and pain lying behind that equanimous exterior, and in this one, this finally clicks into place for Larkin, and he realises that this man he’s coming to care for a very great deal – maybe even to love – is still sometihng of a mystery to him.

For being such a decorated officer, Larkin really was a piss-poor detective when it came to understanding the one man, potentially the only man, who’d come to matter.

There is an incredibly insightful passage – too long to quote here in full – in which Larkin thinks about the way contemporary society views death, especially the death of children (Doyle lost his daughter, Abigail, some years earlier – we still don’t know what happened), how people just don’t ask, or don’t listen to those who are grieving, because they can’t handle it – and realises just how deeply Doyle’s hurt must run, that his constant activity and congenial, sunshiny demeanour are covering up a broken heart.

When they’d all turned their backs, because a child’s wake was too much to see, a father’s cries too difficult to hear, there’d been no one left to listen.

The funeral pall had been draped.

The mourning veil lowered.

And Ira Doyle had become… a mystery.

My heart broke a little, then, too. In fact, it broke a little several times while I was reading this book; I was completely and utterly floored by the degree of emotional intelligence and pinpoint insight that leaps from its pages in a way that is absolutely consistent with its characters and their situation. This isn’t authorial pontificating or info-dumping, it’s focused and woven into the very fabric of who these men are – broken, but doing the best they can in a world that doesn’t really understand them – or want to.

For all the darkness of the mystery and the exploration of grief and loss, Subway Slayings is certainly not without its lighter moments. Doyle’s gentle sense of humour, Larkin’s deadpan snark and their good-natured banter are much in evidence, and their quiet moments together – some of Larkin’s thoughts about Doyle are achingly beautiful – really are food for the heart and soul.

The Memento Mori series is shaping up to become one of my favourite series ever. The plots are clever and complex with lots of moving parts that C.S. Poe skilfully corrals into something gripping and cohesive, the two leads are damaged and intensely loveable and their evolving relationship is a thing of beauty.

Subway Slayings left me with the best kind of book hangover and goes straight on to the keeper shelf – it will undoubtedly be making an appearance on my Best of 2022 list. Book three, Broadway Butchery, is set for release in Spring 2023; I’ll be counting the days.

A Fault Against the Dead (The First Quarto #4) by Gregory Ashe

a fault against the dead

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Drugs. Sex. Murder. And, if they can squeeze it in, graduation.

When Auggie Lopez returns to Wahredua for his senior year of college, he’s excited about the future: he’s growing his brand as an influencer, he’s almost done with school, and he’s building a life with his boyfriend, Theo. Then Auggie gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s ex—and Cart tells Auggie he’s being framed for murder.

As Auggie and Theo begin to look into the death of a local parole officer, they realize something isn’t right. A gang of armed men almost catches them while they’re searching the victim’s home, a threatening message spray-painted on the victim’s home suggests a personal vendetta, and everyone wants to know about a missing cache of money. The trail leads Auggie and Theo into the dangerous world of the Ozark Volunteers—the local white supremacists who control the region’s drug trade.

After Theo and Auggie are attacked at home, they learn that the stakes might be much, much higher: someone is determined to put a stop to their investigation, no matter what it takes. And the killer, Theo and Auggie suspect, is hiding behind a badge.

Rating: A

It’s Auggie’s final year and Theo’s last year as a grad student at Wroxall College in this final instalment in Gregory Ashe’s The First Quarto series. But of course, there’s no way it’s going to be an easy year for our favourite trouble-magnets. Not only are they once again up to their necks in a complicated and extremely dangerous murder investigation, but their romantic relationship is still undergoing teething problems and is confronted with what is possibly its toughest challenge yet – and no, I’m not talking about the scale of Auggie’s Doritos habit.

As A Fault Against the Dead is book four in a series, it won’t make much sense if you aren’t familiar with what’s gone before; the mysteries in each book are self-contained, but the central relationship is ongoing and there are a number of recurring characters and references to previous situations, so it’s best to go back to the beginning and start with They Told Me I Was Everything. Gregory Ashe’s incredible ability to tell a story, the tight, complex plots and damaged but intensely loveable main characters will make it worth your while.

The mystery plot here kicks off when Auggie unexpectedly gets a phone call from Howard Cartwright, Theo’s late husband’s partner on the job and Theo’s former fuckbuddy, who tells Auggie he’s been arrested for the murder of a local parole officer. Their visit to Cart in jail is awkward to say the least, but boils down to the fact that someone has framed Cart for murder – and he needs Theo and Auggie to find out who and why.

As if that wasn’t enough, their old nemesis, Detective Albert Lender, doesn’t waste any time in catching up with them after they’ve been to see Cart. To their surprise, he actually seems to want them to investigate further – although of course, it doesn’t take long for it to become apparent that there’s something in it for him, namely, a large sum of cash which has gone missing. He wants Theo and Auggie to find it.

The devious mind of Gregory Ashe has come up with a real doozy here as Theo and Auggie are plunged into the murky world of the local drug trade while the complicated web of lies, blackmail and murder becomes even more tangled and the threats to life and limb pile up. Not only is Lender breathing down their necks, they’ve got to contend with angry, violent drug dealers, a dodgy sherrif and someone who seems to have more clout and more at stake than even Lender does – who is trying to force them to stop their investigation

All that would be more than enough for any couple to handle, but Theo and Auggie are still dealing with some intensely personal issues that mean they’re really not singing from the same hymn sheet as far as their relationship is concerned. They’ve both been through such a lot in their relatively young lives, and Theo’s largely untreated trauma, specifically, is continuing to throw up barriers between them. The conflict here is signalled early on when Auggie makes an offhand comment about where they’ll be this time next year, and Theo subtly freezes. In the previous book (The Fairest Show) the conflict was mainly about the way Theo’s desperate need to keep Auggie safe was causing him to disregard Auggie’s feelings and wishes, and how Theo needed to recognise that Auggie is an adult and to start treating him as one. Theo seems to have been working on that, but the other – much bigger – issue that has always been lurking in the background, and which led to some of the poor life choices Theo has made (his drinking, his addiction to pain medication among others) finally blows up in their faces – namely his belief that, at thirty-two, he’s washed up. (In fact, he’s believed that all the way through the series.) He’s been struggling financially since his husband Ian died, he’s burdened with terrible guilt over the accident that killed Ian and left their daughter, Lana, disabled – he’s carrying guilt over the death, years before, of his brother Luke from an overdose, he’s estranged from his very conservative family because he’s gay… and then into his life comes Auggie, beautiful, charming, funny, clever (young) Auggie, so full of life and the one bright thing in Theo’s life, and all Theo has ever really done is get Auggie hurt and drag him down. (As Theo sees it.) I’m indebted to a poster over at the author’s Facebook group for their insight into Theo’s responses to trauma – of which he’s suffered great deal in a fairly short time – which helped me to a clearer understanding than I had of why Theo thinks and acts as he does, why he is so convinced he’s doing the right thing by trying to wrap Auggie up in cotton wool, or continually avoiding any discussion of their future together. He’s lost (or been rejected by) everyone he’s ever loved, and contemplating a future or happiness (or a happy future) is incredibly difficult for him because hurt and pain has been the default for so very long.

Auggie is coming at the relationship from completely the opposite direction. His own upbringing is driving him to want stability and commitment – although he doesn’t quite realise how those two situations are linked yet. The youngest of three brothers, all with different dads, and with a mother who is so self-centred that she doesn’t really care about any of them, he’s really been brought up by his oldest brother, Fer, who is Theo’s age, and who, despite his constant stream of funny and inventive insults, clearly adores Auggie and would do anything for him. The age gap and parental role, however, mean that Fer is just as guilty, in his own way, as Theo is of shielding Auggie, and that he, also like Theo, has tried to keep certain things and realities from Auggie in order to protect him. The instability of Auggie’s home life (which we saw some of in The Fairest Show) and dysfuctionality of his family is clearly driving his need to make plans, when Theo’s life is – and can only be – about the now. With two such diametrically opposed positions, it’s really hard to see how they are ever going to be able to reconcile them, and it’s heartbreaking to watch as the gulf between them grows, as Auggie’s frustration with his boyfriend’s attitude starts turning into resentment and Theo’s walls get thicker and higher.

Gregory Ashe is a master of writing characters you can easily fall in love with while at the same time wanting to defenestrate them, and also of being able to combine a complex plot composed of lots of moving parts with some really profound character and relationship development. He reveals so much about who these men are and where they’re coming from, often in just a short speech or moment of description, and despite the heavy subject matter, there’s still room for humour and good-natured banter, a bit of steam and moments of amazing tenderness and understanding.

A lot of that humour comes from Auggie’s interactions with Fer – who is one of those characters who has taken on a life of his own and become a firm reader favourite (many of us are really hoping Mr. Ashe can find a story for him!) – and I loved seeing a clean Chuy (the middle brother) and Auggie having a genuine, affectionate and adult conversation. It was bittersweet, though, to see the brother Chuy could have been (to both Fer and Auggie), and their big scene together is key to giving Auggie some real insight into Theo’s mindset as an addict and how that might be affecting his attitude towards the future.

Although we’re saying goodbye to Theo and Auggie – for now (they’ll be back in the planned Asheverse crossover, tentativelty titled Iron on Iron) – we leave them in a much better place, with a better understanding of each other, and an incredibly sweet demonstration on Theo’s part of his commitment to Auggie and to doing the work he needs to do on himself so that they can move forward together. Having seen them five years on in the most recent Hazard and Somerset series, he’s certainly made progress. (And speaking of H&S, Somers’ cameos in this book show we’re almost caught up with Pretty Pretty Boys in the Wahredua timeline.)

A Fault Against the Dead brings The First Quarto series to a satisfying close by way of a tense, nail-biting climax which will have readers on the edge of their seats (or reading through their fingers!) and then follows it up with a beautifully understated and hopeful HEA. Theo and Auggie have become two of my favourite Asheverse characters, so while I’m sorry to see them metaphorically riding off into the sunset into a much quieter life, I’m delighted they’ve been given the happy ending they deserve.

Small side note: I’m probably in the minority, but I’m not a fan of the new covers for the series; the type is incredibly hard to read against the dark background, and is practically invisible in thumbnails. )

The Rivals of Caspar Road (Garnet Run #4) by Roan Parrish (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

the rivals of casper road

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

He’s in it to win it

Until he falls under his neighbor’s spell

Bram Larkspur’s rugged, sexy looks belie his fear of all things horrifying. But as Casper Road’s newest resident, he’s excited to join the annual Halloween decorating contest. The competition is keen, especially from six-time champion, architect Zachary Glass. But when enigmatic Zachary sparks a prank war, it’s game on—until one sizzling kiss turns these rivals into allies. Now only one thing scares Bram: how quickly he’s losing his heart to Zachary.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – B-

Book four in Roan Parrish’s Garnet Run series, The Rivals of Casper Road is a sweet, charming and superbly narrated opposites-attract romance featuring two neighbours whose rivalry in the local Halloween Decorating Contest engenders a prank-war and leads to love.

Bramble Larkspur left Olympia, Washington after his boyfriend and former best friend betrayed him in the worst way, leaving him “a broken person who had to get away in order to keep things together.” He – accompanied by his yellow Labrador, Hemlock – has just moved to 667 Casper Road in Garnet Run, and on his first morning there, he takes an early morning walk around the neighbourhood and then returns to his new home and takes a seat on the porch to watch Casper Road wake up. He sits there quietly whittling (something he’s done since he was ten), and it’s not long before his new neighbours are saying hello and stopping to chat. The subject of the annual Halloween Decorating Competition quickly comes up, and Bram thinks it sounds like fun. He’s just asked when he should get started, when a man emerges from the house diagonally opposite (which is, of course, number 666!) – a very striking man dressed in a suit and tie even though it’s a Saturday – who comes over and introduces himself as Zachary Glass.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Spooky Life (Spectral Files #4) by S.E. Harmon (Audiobook) – Narrated by Kirt Graves

the spooky life

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Rain Christiansen isn’t sure he’ll ever fully understand the supernatural. But he’s finally finding his groove as a reluctant medium and cold-case detective. That’s not to say everything is going smoothly—there’s a wedding in the works, after all. He’s finally taking that enormous step with fellow detective, Daniel McKenna, and he couldn’t be happier . . . about the marriage. Not so much the wedding. The hoopla is enough to make him wish for a quick flight to Vegas and an Elvis officiant.

At least work is keeping Rain and the PTU plenty busy. Their latest case involves Hannah Caldwell, a silent ghost who can’t—or won’t—speak. She still manages to request that they find her dear friend, Cherry Parker, so that she can say goodbye. Piece of cake. Finding people is pretty high on the list of things that Rain does best.

But when it comes to ghosts, nothing is ever quite what it seems. Before long, his simple missing person’s case takes a dark and twisted turn. And Rain realizes he’s been so busy trying to protect Danny that he forgot to protect himself.

If he doesn’t turn things around—and quickly—his spooky life might be cut short for good.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – C+

When we last saw Detectives Rain Christiansen and Danny McKenna – at the end of Spooky Business – they’d narrowly survived being murdered by a vengeful ghost, and just got engaged. When we encounter them again here, they’re well into planning their wedding… or rather, Danny’s mother is well into planning it and is insisting on dragging the two of them (kicking and screaming metaphorically at least) into it as well. Like the other books in the Spectral Files series, The Spooky Life combines a supernatural mystery with the ongoing development of the central relationship, but although Rain’s snarky voice is as entertaining as ever, the mystery feels a bit thin and the whole wedding-planning-thing seems, at times, to have taken over. That trope – the everyone-else-wants-to-plan-our-wedding one – is one I have little patience with; not only do I not understand why people spend a fortune on weddings, I don’t understand why two grown men in their late thirties can’t – politely – tell everyone to just butt out and let them do it their way.

Rain is on a visit to a possible wedding venue with Mrs. McKenna and quietly wishing the ground would open and swallow him up, when he notices a woman walking around under a decorative arch, a lonely ghost who seems to be in a world of her own. Managing to escape from his prospective mother-in-law and the very eager venue manager, Rain makes his way over to the spirit and introduces himself; to his surprise she doesn’t speak – usually the ghosts who find Rain won’t shut up – so he thinks that perhaps she’s ready to move on but is stuck for some reason and decides to help her to do so. When that doesn’t work, Rain realises that perhaps she can’t move on because of unfinished business and wants him to go somewhere. Sigh.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.


Note:  This is the second book in a row I’ve listened to by this author in which she has put a “disclaimer” in her author’s note (in the ebook version) to the effect that she’s not responsible for plot holes:

“Plot holes? Perhaps. Despite the best efforts of my beta readers, my editor, and myself, there are probably a few errors that we didn’t catch. It happens.”

Um… no. Typos can get through even the best proof readers, we know that.  But STORY CONTENT is the province of the author and it’s up to them to – in collaboration with their editor where warranted – work through any content issues so that the story proceeds smoothly.  Apologising in advance because you couldn’t be bothered to fix the plot holes you’ve created for yourself is disrespectful to your readers and lazy writing.  I’m on the fence about whether I’ll bother picking up another book by this author.

Home Work (Life Lessons #3) by Kaje Harper (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding

Home Work Audio2This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Murder, trauma, and raising children—who said love was easy?

Mac and Tony thought the hard part was over. They’re together openly as a couple, sharing a home and building a life with their two kids. It’s what they dreamed of.

But daughter Anna struggles with the changes, Ben is haunted by old secrets, Mac’s job in Homicide still demands too much of his time, and Tony is caught in the middle. It’ll take everything these men can give to create a viable balance between home and work. Especially when life refuses to give them a break.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A-

Home Work is the third book in Kaje Harper’s fabulous mystery/romance Life Lessons series, and as it’s a continuation of Tony and Mac’s story, is not a standalone. This is a series that should be listened to in order and there are spoilers for the story so far in this review.

In Breaking Cover, Tony and Mac were faced with a number of difficult choices after Tony became the legal guardian of six-year-old Ben, the boy to whom he’d been a father in all but name since his birth. With Tony, a single, gay man, under intense scrutiny due to the ensuing custody case and not wanting to lie about their relationship, Mac faced some incredibly difficult decisions, which culminated in his coming out at work, then moving in with Tony and Ben and bringing his five-year-old daughter, Anna, to live with them.

Now, the four of them are a family, although life is far from plain sailing. Anna is struggling to adjust from living with her (ultra-conservative) aunt, Ben is doing better but clearly holding back about something that’s bothering him, Mac is still letting his job run his life – and Tony is stuck in the middle, working full-time, running their home and doing the bulk of the childcare, and he’s frazzled. He’s never been one to hold back when something is important to him and he wishes Mac was around more often do his share of all those mundane tasks that go along with making a home and family – but Mac is having a tough time at work, dealing with the fall out of coming out and colleagues who, once friendly, are now openly hostile, and Tony doesn’t want to add to the stress Mac is already under by pressuring him to be home (or home on time) more. But Tony knows things can’t go on this way forever – the problem is finding the right time to address it. If, given how much of Mac’s identity and sense of self is tied up with his being a cop, there is ever going to be a right time.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.