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.

Misdirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #2) by Gregory Ashe

misdirection

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Finding a missing boy will be hard. Dinner with Shaw’s parents might be murder.

When a rising star in the state senate asks Shaw Aldrich and North McKinney to transport her son, Flip, to and from his drug testing appointments, they’re not happy—they don’t do babysitting jobs. Arriving at the boy’s dorm room, though, they discover that the door has been forced and that Flip has disappeared, and rumors of strange men on campus suggest that something seriously bad has happened. The students and staff at the ritzy private school have plenty to tell about Flip, but the deeper North and Shaw dig, the less they understand what might have happened to the boy.

Then one of Flip’s friends is found dead, and it’s clear that she was killed for coming too close to the truth. As North and Shaw search for answers, they meet resistance from every angle: from the school’s staff, from Flip’s friends, from the police, even from Flip’s family. Someone wants the boy to disappear—and is willing to kill to make sure it happens.

The home front has its share of trouble too. North’s ‘uncle’ Ronnie is back at his old games, drawing North and Shaw into a job that seems simple on the surface—find a missing man who might be in trouble—but they suspect that the request hides something sinister. Ronnie’s involvement, and the job itself, puts the detectives on a collision course with Shaw’s parents and a strain on their fledgling relationship.

As the days pass, North and Shaw realize time is running out for Flip and, maybe, for them as well. They have been misled from the very beginning—and they might be too late.

Rating: A

Note: There are spoilers for earlier Borealis Investigations books in this review.

I suppose I should have expected, after the relatively light-hearted comedic zany-ness of Indirection, that Gregory Ashe would immediately turn around and pull the rug out from under my feet… which is exactly what he does in this second book in his Borealis: Without a Compass series.  If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll already know that not only is he the master of the slow-burn romance, he’s also without parallel in his ability to write relationships that rip his readers’ hearts into little shreds and stomp on them before slowly putting them back together and rebuilding said relationships so that they’re even stronger than before.  This process can be tough to read however, and I confess that even my high tolerance for angst and emotional torment was sorely tested in Misdirection.  I mean that in a good way; not many authors can provoke such visceral reactions, and it’s a testament to how much I’ve come to care for these characters that when the home truths that have been hovering just on the edge of our peripheral vision finally hit – it hurt. A lot.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  When we rejoin the Borealis Boys, things are going along pretty much as usual – which right now seems to mean North doing all the work and Shaw doing… well, being his usual quirky self – when an unusual job presents itself to them.  A state senator wants them to escort her seventeen-year-old son to and from his mandated drug testing appointments (because he made “a mistake”) – and when the try to explain to her that it’s not really their bag, she yells and then threatens to make sure their PI licences aren’t renewed when the time comes.  Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they take the job.  But their problems really begin when they arrive to collect Flip from his prestigious private school – which is, incidentally, the same one Shaw attended – to find that the door to his room has been kicked in, the room tossed and Flip is nowhere to be found.

While North and Shaw attempt to find out what happened to him and are getting the runaround from the staff and students at the school, they’re also working on one of their open cases from Aldrich Acquisitions – an attempted break-in at the Nonavie lab which seems to have been targeted at certain proprietary technology – and North’s dodgy not-Uncle Ronnie shows up again, this time demanding North and Shaw’s help locating a guy who might be in trouble.  They’re immediately suspicious of Ronnie’s motives of course, but given what he’s holding over North’s head, they don’t have much choice but to agree to try to find him, too.

There’s a lot going on in this book in terms of the plot, but the author juggles his various plot-threads incredibly skilfully, and in fact, I felt it all hung together better than the storylines in the previous book.  As always, the mysteries are complex and gritty, with lots of clever twists and unexpected turns, and never has a book title been more appropriate, because Misdirection is rife in just about every aspect of this story, from the mystery surrounding Flip’s disappearance, to Ronnie’s machinations, to the relationship between North and Shaw, which has been a little… on edge for a while now.  In fact, there’s been a slowly escalating sense of underlying tension – and not the good kind – between them since the last book, and it finally hits with full force in this one.

It’s been obvious since Orientation that while North and Shaw know each other incredibly well – and they’ve practically lived in each other’s pockets for years – they’re very, very different in some really fundamental ways, and this book brings that fact to the fore.  Shaw is loaded – the only child of extremely wealthy parents; North comes from a blue-collar family and had to work hard for everything he has.  Shaw’s parents have always accepted and loved him (even though they’re clearly disappointed in his choices and are trying to steer him in a direction he doesn’t want to go) where North’s Dad is hardly a loving parent.  And for North, dealing with all the young, privileged kids at the school, with their fucked-up, first-world problems brings the difference between his and Shaw’s backgrounds into sharp relief and forces him to face up to them – really face up to them – for probably the first time.  And it’s a lot.

Then there’s the fact that both men have been through a lot of emotional trauma. The previous series mostly focused on what Shaw went through when he almost lost his life at the hands of a serial killer (and was then almost killed by a manipulative client), but little has been made – so far – of North’s situation, of the fact that he was (still is – they’re not divorced yet!) married to a man who abused him, physically and emotionally – although that’s mostly because North obviously isn’t ready to admit to how it’s affected him or deal with it.  But the cracks have been showing for a while – in the sometimes bitter edge to their banter or North’s not-quite-so-affectionate exasperation – and it’s been painful to watch these two men, who obviously love each other deeply, hurting each other.

And… much as I love Shaw – he’s funny, kind and endearing, and his sartorial choices are a hoot – I have to say that I’ve begun to get impatient with him. I like how, though outwardly something of a snowflake, he’s fiercely intelligent with a mind like a steel trap – but that side of him seems to have been downplayed in favour of the annoyingly quirky hippie-type who’s always complaining about North’s food choices and talking him into things he doesn’t really want to do.  In Indirection it struck me that in their working partnership, North was doing all the work while Shaw was treating Borealis like a vanity project; which, as North pointed out even then, he could afford to.  I appreciated the look at Shaw’s family situation here, and could even understand, to an extent, why he does what he does – or rather, doesn’t do – but that doesn’t excuse it or make it any less unforgiveable.

While the cases are wrapped up, the relationship between North and Shaw reaches a crossroads – which I think had to happen if they’re going to make it as a couple in the long run.  It wouldn’t be a Gregory Ashe book without some sort of relationship angst, but while Misdirection more than delivers on that score, it’s never angst for angst’s sake; the relationship problems these two are now facing have been well-established in previous books, and they arise organically out of who these people are, their life experience and their shared history.  So although Misdirection is a tough read at times, I’m really excited to see where Mr. Ashe is going to take us next, and I’m anticipating some serious personal growth for the Borealis Boys in the next couple of books that will make all the heartache worth it.  Thankfully,  there’s only a few weeks to go until the release of book three, Redirection, and if the teaser at the back of this book is anything to go by, it’s going to be one helluva bumpy ride.

A Friend in the Fire (Auden & O’Callaghan #2) by Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe

a friend in the fire

This title may be purchased from Amazon

After solving the mystery behind the death of his former friend in July, ex-Army Sam Auden has been aimlessly wandering the country. Everything had gone sideways in New York City, so when his phone rings three months later, the caller is the last person Sam expected to be asking for help.

Confidential informant Rufus O’Callaghan has been struggling. His NYPD contact was murdered over the summer, and the man Rufus is head over heels for was driven away by his own undiagnosed trauma. But when he receives an anonymous letter that promises information on his mother, life goes from dark to dangerous in the blink of an eye.

Sam and Rufus must dig into Rufus’s rough and turbulent past in order to solve a series of contemporary murders connected to his mother. And if the two can’t expose who the killer is in time, they will most certainly become his next targets.

Rating: B+

There are spoilers for book one, A Friend in the Dark, in this review.

A Friend in the Fire is the second book in Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe’s series of suspense/mystery novels set in NYC featuring Rufus O’Callaghan (a confidential informant) and Sam Auden (formerly of the US Army but otherwise of nowhere in particular), who, in book one, A Friend in the Dark, teamed up to solve the murder of the NYPD detective Rufus had worked for.  In doing so, they uncovered a child sex-trafficking ring with a number of dirty cops linked to it – but while the case was solved by the end of the book, the situation between Sam and Rufus didn’t end as successfully.  After a heated argument following Rufus’ confession to thoughts of suicide, Rufus told Sam to GTFO – and Sam did.

When A Friend in the Fire opens three months later, Rufus isn’t doing so well.  He’s depressed, lonely and too tired to give a fuck; he ordered the only person who gave a damn about him out of his life and hasn’t heard from him since.  Which isn’t surprising, given that Rufus never gave Sam his number.

Rufus is on the way out of his crappy apartment building when he sees a piece of paper sticking out from his mailbox.  It’s a note in handwriting he doesn’t recognise offering “information on Daisy” – his murdered mother – if Rufus turns up at a specified location on Saturday night.  Of course, Rufus can’t stay away; Daisy’s killer was never found, and even though she was far from a good mother, she still deserves justice.  But when Rufus turns up, someone goes for him with a knife and he realises it was a trap; he manages to get away with only a ripped jacket, but it’s a close thing.

After that… well, there’s only one person he wants and trusts to help him.

Rufus is the last person Sam expects to hear from, especially considering how things ended between them.  But when Rufus asks for help, Sam isn’t going to turn him down, and makes his way back to New York (from some shit hole in Missouri whose name he couldn’t even spell – hah!)  as quickly as he can, to find Rufus is a mess… well, more of a mess than before, anyway.

Their reunion is kind of awkward to start with, but it’s not long before the pair have regained the equilibrium they established in the previous book, their snark and teasing underscored by a strong undercurrent of affection and an even stronger one of longing.  Rufus tells Sam about the attack and finally opens up about his past;  his mother was a prostitute who was killed when he was sixteen,  and while she didn’t want or care about him, she was all he had. What happened over the summer made him realise he wasn’t really over her death and needed answers, so he started poking around the NYPD to see if anyone would help him find out the truth – but heard nothing until getting the note which set him up.  It’s too much of a coincidence, surely, that someone tried to kill him just weeks after he’s started asking questions – so… who wants him dead?  And why?

As Sam and Rufus start digging, they learn that Daisy’s death wasn’t an isolated incident, and that it was the last of a string of murders of sex-workers that happened in the late 90s and early 2000s. But when some of the other working girls in the area are murdered, and some of Daisy’s former ‘colleagues’ are killed, it seems that whoever was responsible for the earlier slayings is back.  They’re desperate to cover their tracks completely… and Rufus is in their sights.

As I’d expect from two accomplished mystery writers, the plot is tight and well put-together, but what draws me to these stories are the characters and their evolving relationship, which are just as important a part of the novel as the mystery.  I really like both Sam and Rufus, although at this stage Sam, despite his tendency to be brutally honest, is still a little bit of an enigma.  Rufus is kind of adorkable, but he’s also damaged and struggles with anxiety and depression.  He’s lived a tough and very solitary life; he made money as a petty thief until he turned CI for Detective Jake Brower, who was the first person who ever showed him any sort of kindness or friendship, and the only person who ever believed in him, which is why Rufus took his death so hard.  He’s sweet, funny and whip smart but doesn’t think he is, and his longing to be something to someone is incredibly poignant.

Sam is his total opposite in many ways. He’s big, gruff and intimidating with very little by way of a verbal filter, but he’s insightful and can be really tender and affectionate when it comes to Rufus.   We don’t know much about Sam’s past yet; he’s ex-army and didn’t leave on good terms, he lives with PTSD and there’s something dark in his past he’s not willing to talk about – which causes friction between him and Rufus.  They have terrific chemistry and I love the way they work together – there’s a great kind of reciprocal energy that bounces between them and a real sense of connection and trust, too.

Those things carry over into their personal relationship.  I like how honest they are with each other about how they feel; they own up to having missed each other badly after Rufus threw Sam out and to how much it means to them both that Sam came back.  They’re complete misfits, but somehow – and both authors are a dab hand at creating misfits-who-fit pairings – they work; two broken men who, in falling for one another are helping each other to want to be better and to heal.

A Friend in the Fire is another entertaining outing for Auden and O’Callaghan, and one I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys a fast-moving, clever mystery with a well-realised setting and a couple of complex, likeable protagonists.  I’ll definitely be back for the next instalment in the series.

The Same Breath (The Lamb and the Lion #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding

This title may be downloaded from Audible via 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: Narration – A; Content – A

Gregory Ashe’s latest series – The Lamb and the Lion – introduces listeners to another of his wonderfully imperfect but perfect odd-couple pairings in the form of an uptight, existentialist wildlife veterinarian and a damaged freewheeling con-man who, in book one of the series – The Same Breath – team up in order to solve a murder. All the hallmarks of Mr. Ashe’s work are here: complex, flawed principals you can’t help falling in love with (even when you want to bang their heads together!), clever, twisty plots with a heavy dose of gritty realism, sparkling, often laugh-out-loud dialogue, and an intensely powerful connection between the leads that permeates the story. I read the book back in September when it came out, (I chose it as one of my Best of 2020) and have been waiting on tenterhooks for it to come to audio. Having J.F. Harding narrating this series is the icing on the cake; he did an outstanding job with They Told Me I Was Everything and I can tell you right now, that he absolutely nails this one, too.

A vet with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Teancum – Tean – Leon lives a quiet life of work, walks with his dog Scipio and the occasional distress call from his elderly neighbour about her ever growing clowder (yes, really!) of cats. He’s in his mid-thirties, he’s smart and dedicated to his job – but he’s also deeply insecure and struggling to break free from – or learn to live with – the conditioning instilled by his Mormon upbringing, and he’s got a deeply fatalistic outlook that manifests in his tendency to spout random facts and figures (if you want to know the likelihood of bear attacks or the frequency of whale song, he’s your guy!) or ponder the finer points of nihilistic philosophy. He’s a glass-half-empty kinda guy most of the time, but he’s endearing with a dry sense of humour… and he’s dreadfully lonely.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Friend in the Dark (Auden & O’Callaghan Mysteries #1) by Gregory Ashe & C.S. Poe (audiobook) – Narrated by Garrett Kiesel

This title may be downloaded from Audible via 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: Narration – B-; Content – B+

A Friend in the Dark is book one (of four) in a new series of m/m romantic suspense novels co-authored by Gregory Ashe and C.S. Poe, and it’s a strong start, boasting a well-paced and interesting mystery and two quirky, engaging central characters I’m eager to spend more time with. Narrator Garret Kiesel is new-to-me and, it seems, quite new to audiobook narration in general; so far he has narrated a few non-fiction books with this as his sole venture into fiction. I’m always apprehensive when listening to a new narrator, especially one who is narrating a book I’ve enjoyed; thankfully however, Mr. Kiesel acquits himself reasonably well , but there’s a serious production issue that irritated me, especially during the latter half of the audiobook.

Rufus O’Callaghan has, for a number of years, acted as a CI (confidential informant) for Detective Jake Brower of the NYPD, and over that time, they’ve become friends of a sort. Jake looks out for Rufus – the only person in Rufus’ life ever to have done so – and Rufus feels safe with him, which means a lot to someone whose meagre means keep him barely off the streets. Rufus runs errands for Jake at times, and when the book opens, is on his way to meet with him to pick up a package. When Rufus arrives at the specified location though, there’s no sign of Jake, so he carefully makes his way through the abandoned offices – finding Jake’s body slumped in a shower room, a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead. Rufus barely has time to process this before he’s being shot at, too; he manages to escape and quickly makes his way to Jake’s apartment, to see if he can find any clue as to what was in the package he was supposed to pick up. Horrified, filled with grief and sadness at the loss of the only friend he’s ever really had, Rufus decides he owes it to Jake to find out what he can and take it to the NYPD to help find his murderer.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Indirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #1) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rabid readers. Backbiting authors. A romance convention from hell.

Shaw Aldrich and his best friend, boyfriend, and partner, North McKinney, are doing great, thanks. The aftermath of their search for the Slasher has finally settled down. Their private investigation agency is thriving. And after years of missed opportunities, they’re finally together. Sure, work might be taking up every spare minute, and their time together as a couple might have evaporated—but that’s normal, right?

When an author asks for their help investigating threats against a gay romance convention, Shaw sees an opportunity to shake up their routine and maybe have some fun. But the convention isn’t what he expects. Between the rabid fans and the backbiting authors, the death threats—which seem totally baseless—are the least of North and Shaw’s worries.

Until, that is, a bestselling author is poisoned in the middle of a panel. Then Shaw and North must race against the clock to find the killer before he (or she) escapes—and before the convention ends. But romance authors are more complicated than either North or Shaw expects, and a treacherous web knits the suspects together.

Shaw and North will have to unravel a skein of lies and half-truths to uncover the killer. It doesn’t help that, on top of everything else, Shaw just wants to find his next favorite book—and, if it isn’t asking too much, have sex with North at least one more time in his current incarnation.

Rating: A-

Note: This review contains spoilers for the previous Borealis Investigations series.

North and Shaw are back in Indirection, the first book in Gregory Ashe’s new four part series Borealis: Without a Compass, which sees them moving into a new phase of their lives – as both romantic partners and partners in a growing, successful business.  All the things I so loved about them in their first series – their crazy chemistry, their frequently hilarious (and frequently bonkers) banter, their great friendship and deeply-rooted affection – are still here, and it’s nice to see them (mostly) happy and in love while at the same time, they’re hitting the same speed-bumps we all hit when it comes to juggling the demands of work and home.

When we first met them in Orientation, their private investigation business – Borealis Investigations – was struggling.  North had lost his PI license due to a complaint made against him, and work was thin on the ground.  Things did start to pick up however, and they were doing better when, at the end of Declination, Shaw’s father hired them to conduct investigations for his company, and they’ve had as much work as they can handle ever since.  This is exactly what they wanted – they’re turning a profit, they’re making a name for themselves … but the downside is that their personal relationship is suffering because North is working every hour God sends and Shaw is feeling a little bit left out as a result. (Poor Shaw is the victim of some very inventive cock-blocking here – which is all I’m going to say!)

He’s also not completely happy with the direction the business is headed.  When he and North started Borealis, Shaw wanted to do something to help the LGBTQ+ community, to help people who often couldn’t get help elsewhere,  and doing corporate work Isn’t really what he wants to do.  So when the woman who runs Queer Expectations – a gay romance book convention – turns up with tales of threatening emails and begs for their help, Shaw is chomping at the bit to take the case and get out of their current rut of corporate drudgery. North isn’t wild about the idea – they’re slammed with other jobs and – but, well, he’s putty in Shaw’s hands, and of course they take the case.

As soon as they step into the hotel where the con is taking place, they’re plunged into a whole basket of crazy, from overenthusiastic and cosplaying fans to backstabbing authors.  The whole thing is doing North’s head in, while Shaw loves it and wants to fanboy his favourite authors! – but they find it hard to get useful information out of anyone and aren’t convinced the whole thing isn’t going to turn out to be a massive waste of time.  Until, that is, the convention’s headliner and bestselling author Scotty Carlson is poisoned during a panel, in front of a packed crowd.

Fingers are pointed and revelations come thick and fast as the number of suspects increases and several of the other authors suffer ‘accidents’;  the pace is almost frenetic as North and Shaw start to dig up some unpleasant truths in what feels like an episode of Murder She Wrote on speed (but with sex and a lot more swearing!).  I had no idea who the villain of the piece was – Mr. Ashe strews his red herrings around with gleeful abandon – but honestly, I was quite happy to sit back while North and Shaw did the heavy lifting and wait for them to figure it out because I was having so much damn fun reading it! They’re so well- attuned to each other that they work together like a well-oiled machine, and their roundabout conversations, where they go off at weird tangents, finish each other’s sentences and completely baffle everyone around them – are hilarious.

While the plot is huge fun, it’s also very meta.  Setting the story at a romance convention gives the author a chance to poke some gentle (and not so gentle) fun at the archetypes and prejudices and entrenched views held about the romance genre, and a lot of the conversations about romance – and queer romance especially – are on topics that have been doing the rounds of the internet and social media for a while – which doesn’t in any way negate their relevance.

While North and Shaw are trying to find out who is behind the poisoning and other ‘accidents’, there’s another storyline bubbling along in the background, which was hinted at at the end of the pervious series when North’s slimy “uncle” Ronnie hinted he’d be asking North to do some stuff for him and strongly hinted it had something to do with Aldrich Acquisitions.  Ronnie turns up again here and tells North he wants him to get some video or photographs of a man he knows is attacking young gay men.  North wants nothing to do with Ronnie and wants to tell him to go to hell, but Shaw’s cooler head prevails, and he says they’ll do what Ronnie wants – while they figure out how to deal with him in the long term.  We find out exactly what Ronnie is holding over North’s head here – and it’s not pretty.  I’m guessing this will be the series’ overarching plotline – and that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

For all of the craziness surrounding the investigation, there are some lovely quiet and tender moments between North and Shaw that continue to show just how much they care for each other, and I like that even though they’re a couple now, and even though they’ve known each other for years, they still have things to learn about each other and about relationships.

I was pleased to see Pari toned down a bit in this book.  I didn’t like her in the previous series – she was forever complaining about something and never seemed to do any work – here, she’s less shouty and actually proves herself to be a good friend at an important point in the story. Who knows, if this improvement continues, I might find myself actually liking her (gasp!).  Jadon is back, too, and I can’t help hoping that perhaps he’ll find a special someone as well – after all he’s been through, he deserves it!

My one complaint is that at times there was just a bit too much to take in.  There are a lot of suspects and a lot of moving parts to the mystery and I had to stop a couple of times and try to take stock of who was who and how A related to B and so on.  But that’s all I can really think of that didn’t work for me in this one.

Clever and exciting, sweet, sexy and often  very funny,  Indirection marks a triumphant return for the Borealis Boys, and gets this new series off to a very strong start. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what Mr. Ashe has in store for them next.

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!

They Told Me I Was Everything (The First Quarto #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by J.F. Harding

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Auggie is starting his first year at Wroxall College. It’s a punishment, and he’s determined to make his way through the year, prove himself, and earn the right to go back home. Theo is a grad student recovering from a terrible car accident. He’s lost his husband and their daughter, and he’s trying to figure out how to keep going. When both are tangled up in a murder, though, they have to set their personal problems aside and work together — first to clear their names, and then, when the killer turns his attention on them, to survive. But what might really kill them is finishing a seminar together on King Lear.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Anyone who follows my reviews already knows I’m a MASSIVE fan of Gregory Ashe’s work, so it will come as no surprise whatsoever when I say that I did the happiest of dances when his latest audio release hit Audible. Book one in The First Quarto series, They Told Me I Was Everything is a compelling blend of intricately plotted mystery and slow-burn romance featuring complex, well-rounded and intensely likeable leads who are obviously meant for one another but who have quite a bit of work to do in order to be together. (So no HEA in this book – but the UST and the genuine affection that grows between the leads is gorgeous and totally wonderful).

Wroxall College freshman Auggie Lopez is a social media star with tens of thousands of followers who, after a serious screw up at home in California, is determined to keep out of trouble, focus on building his brand and business, and looks forward to securing a lucrative sponsorship deal. His internet persona isn’t who he really is, though; he’s tired of continually hiding his true self, (and his sexuality) behind kooky, funny “Internet Auggie”, and longs to be truly seen. On the Saturday night before the semester begins, Auggie goes to the Sigma Sigma pledge party, where he meets a fellow pledge named Robert; they get talking and Auggie, who is more than a little tipsy and a lot angry and frustrated with the need to keep playing a role, declares he wants to go “fuck some shit up”. Robert steals a Porsche and with Auggie at the wheel, they hit the streets of Wahredua at high speed – and on the road out of town they only narrowly miss hitting a man wandering along the road by swerving off into a drainage ditch.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Yet a Stranger (The First Quarto #2) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Auggie Lopez returns to Wroxall College, he’s determined that his second year will be different from the chaos he faced as a freshman. He’s living in the Sigma Sigma house, he’s got a good group of friends, and his social media presence is growing. Meeting a hot older guy on move-in day is just the cherry on top. All he has to do now is avoid getting dragged into another murder.

That last part, though, turns out to be easier said than done, especially when Auggie’s ex-roommate, Orlando, asks for help. Orlando’s brother Cal has gone missing, and Orlando wants Auggie to find him.

Auggie knows he’ll need help, but recruiting his friend—and crush—Theo is not as straightforward as he expects. While Auggie was gone for the summer, Theo has started dating someone, and neither Theo nor Auggie knows how to handle the shift in their relationship.

Finding Orlando’s brother dead only makes their situation more complicated. Although the police are quick to write off the homicide as a drug deal gone wrong, Auggie and Theo aren’t so sure, and Orlando begs them to keep investigating. To learn the truth, Auggie and Theo will have to untangle a web of lies while keeping each other safe from a killer who is determined to stop them.

As Auggie and Theo dig deeper, they realize that Cal was a stranger even to the people who thought they knew him. And Auggie and Theo both begin to fear that they are also strangers to each other.

Rating: A

This second book in Gregory Ashe’s The First Quarto series first saw the light of day as a daily serial for members of the author’s newsletter, and I have to say, the day-to-day wait was frequently torturous!  Told in alternating PoVs, the story catches up with Wroxall College student Auggie Lopez and graduate student/TA Theo Stratford, who, in They Told Me I Was Everything (which should be read first) found themselves theorising over King Lear while working together to solve a murder and forming a complicated and superbly written relationship that is shot through with affection, humour, attraction, longing and off-the-charts chemistry.  Regular Ashe readers know what this means – we’re in for a gut-wrenching slow-burn before these two are ready to ride off into the sunset together, and boy – does Yet a Stranger deliver on the gut-wrenching part!

There are spoilers for They Told Me I Was Everything ahead.

Auggie – hoping for a quieter time of it than he experienced in his freshman year –  is moving into the Sigma Sigma frat house before the start of the semester, having spent a not-great summer at home in California.  As he’s moving his stuff in, he meets an attractive older student named Dylan who strikes up a conversation and flirts with him a little bit, and on the next day Auggie bumps into Orlando Reese, his former roommate and the guy who was borderline obsessed with him the previous year.  Fortunately, Orlando has turned a corner (he’s getting help) and hopes that he and Auggie can be friends, and Auggie is quite ready to let bygones be bygones.

When, a few days later, a tearful Orlando tells Auggie that one of his brothers is missing and asks for Auggie’s help finding him, Auggie insists on asking Theo to help, too.  Theo – who, like Auggie, had hoped to avoid further dangerous entanglements, and just wants to finish his thesis and put his life back together – is reluctant to get involved, but Auggie – being Auggie – persuades him.  They accompany Orlando on a visit to his family to see what they can find out – and wow, once we meet the Reeses, it’s easy to understand why Orlando was such a fucked-up creep in the last book! – they’re horrible and treat Orlando like shit.  Anyway. Theo and Auggie start looking for Cal, and quickly discover that he was an addict, and was most likely stealing money from the sports/training business he ran with his brother Wayne to pay for his habit.  Not long after this, Theo and Auggie find Cal’s body at an out of town truck stop, at which point his death becomes a police investigation.  But something isn’t right; the cops are putting it down to a drug deal gone wrong, but too much about that just doesn’t add up, and Auggie wants to continue investigating.  Unfortunately, this puts him and Theo firmly in the sights of Wahredua’s (not) favourite dirty cop Al Lender, who will do whatever it takes to protect his “investments” in the local drug trade.

The mystery in Yet a Stranger is as cleverly-constructed and intriguing as ever, as the author skilfully weaves together a tapestry of lies and misdirection, pulling together seemingly unrelated threads whose significance is later revealed to have been hiding in plain sight.  But the real meat of this book is found in the stellar character development and in the progress of the various personal relationships, which are frustrating, messy, complicated – and, at times, heart-breaking.

Auggie was, by his own admission, jealous and hurt when Theo told him he’d begun seeing (I can’t call it dating – they’re fuckbuddies) someone over the summer breat. He stopped responding to Theo’s texts, which he knows was childish, so even though it’s still painful, when he meets Theo again, he apologises, determined to put it behind him and move on.  But Theo’s relationship with his late husband’s former work-partner, Howie Cartwright (Cart) has upset the balance of their friendship  – and they both know it, even though they both try to pretend it hasn’t.  And although things start off well and they seem to be as in-tune as ever, it’s not long before cracks in their relationship start to appear, and over the course of the book they begin to drift apart.  Knowing each other as well as they do means they know which buttons to press to wound, and their estrangement is exacerbated by their involvement with people who are completely wrong for them.  Auggie becomes infatuated with Dylan who, it’s quickly clear, likes to play games – he blows hot and cold, drawing Auggie in, then pushing him away and subjecting him to all sorts of emotional manipulation.  Still cut up about Theo (and somewhat ground down by events and his own insecurities) and so desperately wanting someone to see him, Auggie persists in trying to build something with Dylan, talking himself into believing there’s a connection where there isn’t one and failing to see the danger he’s in.

We’ve known since TTMIWE that Theo is seriously fucked-up.  When he and Auggie first meet, Theo’s been on a bender;  having recently lost his husband in the accident that has left their young daughter disabled, Theo has been using pills and alcohol to numb the pain for months, although as that book progresses and he starts to let Auggie into his life, he seems to become less dependent on them.  When Yet a Stranger opens, he appears to be much more ‘together’ – he’s hoping to build a relationship with Cart (even though Cart is deeply closeted and clearly has no intention of coming out) but ends up allowing himself to be manipulated just as badly as Auggie is.  He’s a mess of guilt and self-loathing, and as the story continues, it’s obvious that he’s not doing well at all, and a pivotal event at the mid-point sends him on a terrifying downward spiral.

Auggie has demons of his own to fight, too.  His home life isn’t great; his mother is completely self-centred and doesn’t give a shit about her three sons (who all have different fathers) and it’s his oldest brother Fer who’s holding the family together.  Fer obviously loves Auggie fiercely and wants him to be happy (even though his way of showing it is to yell at him using an extremely inventive and colourful range of swears!) Auggie longs for a connection with someone who will see the real him, but fears that he’s shallow and has nothing to offer.

Emotional and physical abuse are things Gregory Ashe has written about before – Emery Hazard, North McKinney and Tean Leon have all had partners who abused them physically, emotionally or both.  Here, we see how Dylan screws with Auggie’s head, and how Cart manipulates Theo, and while it’s written incredibly well and feels totally plausible, it’s like watching a train-wreck; completely horrible, and impossible to look away from.

Lest you get the impression Yet a Stranger is all doom and gloom – it isn’t.  Those moments when Theo and Auggie are together on the same page (figuratively and literally) and are able to be relaxed and happy with each other are perfectly cut gems, shining through the darkness that at times threatens to overwhelm them. Their scenes together sparkle with wit and hum with chemistry and genuine affection; they so clearly enjoy each other’s company and have a real and deep connection with each other, and moments like these, when they’re just Theo and Auggie goofing around are among the book’s highlights. There are some truly wonderful moments of insight, laughter, and almost unbearable sweetness between the pair that are a very welcome relief from all the shit they’re dealing with – and that they’re crazy about each other and perfect for one another is never in doubt.  But in his misguided attempt to do what he thinks is the right thing by Auggie –  to protect him by pushing him away – Theo makes some seriously crappy decisions, some of which had me ready to throttle him.

By the end, with the mystery solved and both men at last being honest with each other, it finally seems that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel – although I imagine that it’s going to be a far from smooth journey to reach it.  Theo has a lot of work to do in dealing with what I suspect is PTSD from his brother Luke’s death,  guilt over what happened to Ian and Lana, and whatever other terrible things he holds himself responsible for.  And Auggie, while he acknowledges the truth of what Dylan did to him, still has to come to terms with it all, while continuing to work out who he is and who he wants to be.  He grows a lot in this book and proves time and time again that maturity sometimes has little to do with age, and he shows over and over what a compassionate, loving, generous person he is.  Theo is going to have to work hard to deserve him 😉

Yet a Stranger is one of those books that, while brilliantly done is, at times, really tough to read.  The writing is superb and Mr. Ashe’s insight into what makes people tick never ceases to amaze me, but he puts Theo and Auggie (and us) through the wringer here, and this story goes to some pretty dark places.  It was hard to grade, because I loved it and hated it at the same time.  Or rather, I hated what Theo and Auggie were going through.  I also hated Dylan and Cart with a passion – and I’m not usually someone who gets such strong feelings about fictional characters, so it’s testament to Mr. Ashe’s skill as a writer that I felt as strongly as I did. I get invested in characters, and in their stories, but hatred is such a strong emotion that I don’t use the term lightly.  Here, however?  Douchebag Dylan and Officer Scumbag are horrible and I couldn’t wait to see the back of them.  But with that said, they’re nuanced and very cleverly written; they both start out seeming like decent guys, they’re plausible and appear genuinely interested in Auggie and Theo – until it becomes clear they’re not, and we begin to see how insidious – and dangerous – they really are.

In the end though, a book that evokes such strong feelings – even negative ones – deserves high praise for its writing and storytelling, and I can’t do anything other than recommend Yet a Stranger, challenging as it can be.  The mystery is clever and compelling, there’s a nicely rounded-out secondary cast (plus more appearances from a pre-Hazard Somers!), a well described setting – and Theo and Auggie are supremely well-drawn, complex and intensely loveable characters who are meant for each other and impossible not to root for.  I can’t wait to see what Mr. Ashe has in store for them in book three.

Warning:  This book contains scenes of drug use, dubious consent in sexual situations and an attempted rape.