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.

The Same Place (The Lamb and the Lion #2) by Gregory Ashe

For what seems like the first time in Teancum Leon’s life, things are looking good: he’s put an end to the toxic relationship with his former sex buddy, work is going well, and Jem Berger has officially decided they are best friends—in spite of Tean’s objections. Things are looking good for Jem too, although he’s not thrilled that somehow Tean has talked him into getting a real job. Everything changes, though, when Tean’s friend Hannah asks for help: she’s being followed, she tells them, and she thinks she’s might be in danger.

After Jem and Tean spend a weekend tailing Hannah, trying to catch her stalker, they make two unpleasant discoveries. First, Hannah is right that she is being followed. Second, she isn’t being stalked. She’s being watched by the police, who are interested in Hannah’s connection to a missing person investigation. And the detective in charge is none other than Ammon Young, Tean’s former friend and ex-sex buddy.

Tean and Jem’s search for the missing woman leads them to a body. The cause of death is a mystery, but one thing is clear: someone wanted the remains destroyed. Tean believes it was homicide, and so do the police.

When Hannah is arrested for the murder, Tean and Jem must race to prove her innocence. But everyone seems to be lying, including Hannah, and she’s willing to take her secrets with her to prison—or to the grave. The answer may lie with the animal teeth marks on the victim’s remains. Good thing Jem knows a wildlife vet.

Rating: A

The Same Place is book two in Gregory Ashe’s The Lamb and the Lion series about a Utah-based wildlife vet and a con man – an odd couple if ever there was one – who, in The Same Breath, teamed up to solve a murder.  Like its predecessor, this book is a perfectly balanced combination of mystery and romance boasting an intriguing, tightly-written plot, two flawed but intensely loveable leads, lots of humour and a wonderfully detailed setting.

There are spoilers for The Same Breath in this review.

Several months have passed since the events that brought Tean Leon and Jem Berger together. During that time, they’ve settled into a routine of sorts; they see each other most days, Tean is teaching Jem to read and trying to help (as he sees it) Jem into a normal life, with a job, an apartment and all the things Tean things Jem needs.  Jem, however, doesn’t think they’re all that important, but he loves Tean (despite their agreement at the end of the previous book to keep things between them platonic going forward) so he goes along with it.  Or tries to.  But he keeps getting fired (he’s had six jobs in the last three months!), and things go from bad to worse when he discovers he’s been the victim of identity theft.  Someone has taken out (and defaulted) on several credit cards in his name – and the address on the accounts indicates the perpetrator is someone Jem knows only too well – his former, abusive foster mother, LouElla.

Tean has noticed that his friend and colleague Hannah hasn’t been herself lately, but hasn’t liked to ask  – when one day, she bursts into tears and tells him she thinks she’s being followed.  With Jem jobless yet again, Tean calls Hannah and asks her if she’d consider hiring Jem to look into her situation.  After agreeing to the idea – against the wishes of her husband and her very proper Mormon parents, who don’t take her concerns seriously – Tean and Jem spend the weekend tailing Hannah and discover that she is, indeed being watched.   By the Salt Lake City PD.  Ammon Young – the married detective with whom Tean had a very toxic relationship for well over a decade – and his partner are following Hannah in hopes of finding the whereabouts of a missing woman named Joy Erickson, an eco-terrorist with whom Hannah had once had a close friendship.   When they ask her about Joy, they know Hannah isn’t telling them the whole truth – and when she goes missing, Tean and Jem are frustrated by the police’s casual attitude towards her disappearance.

Jem and Tean set about looking for the missing woman – and when they turn up a body, it seems they might have found her.  But the cause of death is a mystery.  The location of the body and state of the remains indicate that someone wanted them completely destroyed – and the animal teeth marks on the bones seem to be pointing in a certain direction.  But is it the right one?  While Tean tries to identify the markings and he and Jem are try to find out who or what Hannah is protecting (and why), Tean’s day job keeps him busy tracking a possible outbreak of canine distemper amongst the local coyote population, while Jem is forced to confront the past he hoped he’d left behind in the form of the manipulative and deeply unpleasant LouElla.

As always, the mystery Gregory Ashe has lined up for us takes plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and a number of seemingly unrelated incidents slowly start to take on a new significance.  The denouement comes from a direction I really didn’t expect but which, now I think about it, was cleverly and subtly signposted along the way.

But as in all of Mr. Ashe’s books, the richness of the characterisation and complexity of the relationship he creates between his principals, the insight into their thought processes and motivations, are where his writing really is head and shoulders above so many other authors in the genre.  Tean and Jem couldn’t be more different – or more perfect for each other; they’re polar opposites and yet they get each other and see each other in ways nobody else ever has.  They’re deeply flawed and have been completely fucked up by those who were supposed to care for them – Jem in foster care, Tean by his Mormon family and upbringing – and here we get to see a little more of how those relationships have affected them. Adult Jem projects confidence and good humour, but deep down inside he’s sometimes still that little kid nobody wanted or cared about, while Tean’s family make him feel like a leper because he’s gay.  The scene where Tean – with Jem in tow – visits his parents’ home for Mother’s Day reveals so much about why he is the way he is and why he put up with Ammon’s crap for so long;  it’s also a pivotal moment of understanding  for Tean – and I loved seeing Jem go into full-on protector mode and giving Tean’s horrible relatives what for at the end of it.

The chemistry between Tean and Jem is off the charts, and both men are struggling with their decision to be friends and nothing more. This is a brilliantly written friendship between two people who obviously care for each other a great deal, but who are still working out how to be with and around one another. And – *sigh*-  there’s such tenderness and affection underpinning their relationship that there’s no question they’ll always be there for one another. But although the intense attraction that sparked between them is still very much alive, so are the trust and communication issues that caused so many problems and effectively put an end to their burgeouning romance.  When they fight, they know just how to twist the knife, but they can also take a step back and see the issues through the other’s eyes – which is, in the end, why they’ll always come back to each other.  It’s a wonderful and genuinely loving friendship, and it’s something neither man has ever had before, so they’re understandably wary of screwing it up… plus, Tean has only recently put an end to the affair he’d been having with Ammon, and he’s still unlearning the behaviours and reactions he acquired over nearly two decades of emotional manipulation.  But Ammon – who is so much worse than the abusive arsehole I thought he was –  wants Tean back, insisting he’s the most important thing is his life and that he’ll do whatever Tean wants so they can be together… and Tean is more inclined to give Ammon the benefit of the doubt than Jem – and this reader – would like.

Once again, the Utah locations are vividly and lyrically described, putting the reader right there amid the lakes and canyons and mountains, and the parts of the story that revolve around living in a faith-based community, and how that affects the people within it as well as those who leave it, are simultaneously fascinating, sad and… just a little bit disconcerting.  I know next to nothing about the Mormon way of life, but as with the first book, details are woven very subtly through the story to provide a realistic backdrop for the action and character exploration and development.

The Same Place ends with one of the most beautiful declarations I’ve ever read, and with Jem making a momentous decision.  It’s not a cliffhanger as such – the investigation is wrapped up and the guys are safe – but there’s more to be said and I’m very much looking forward to finding out how everything works out in book three, The Same End, when it appears in 2021.

Stray Fears by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Elien Martel is a survivor, but surviving, he’s beginning to discover, isn’t the same thing as living. In the house he shares with his much older boyfriend, Elien spends his days trying to stay as far away from living as possible. Living, he has learned, means that sooner or later you’ll get hurt.

When a member of Elien’s support group dies under strange circumstances, though, Elien finds himself in a web of bizarre coincidences. The responding officer turns out to be another member of Elien’s support group—a man named Mason, who has made no effort to hide his dislike of Elien. Then, just a few days later, Mason tries to kill Elien in front of dozens of witnesses.

As violence ripples through Elien’s world, he begins to suspect that the coincidences are not coincidences at all. Something is at work behind the cascade of tragedies, something vicious and intelligent. Something that has wanted Elien for a long time.

To defeat it, Elien will have to do what he fears most and face the darkness in his own past. Worse, he’ll have to take the risk of trying to live again.

Rating: A-

Stray Fears is another compelling story from the pen of Gregory Ashe that once again showcases his talent for creating strong, clever plots and engaging but flawed characters who exhibit considerable growth as individuals throughout the course of the story. As in most of his output, we’ve got an intriguing mystery and a central romance, but this time the mystery has a paranormal/horror vibe that focuses on the members of a support group for people with PTSD. It’s an imaginative, fast-moving and perfectly-paced story in which the author creates a real sense of menace that builds from chapter to chapter, making it a difficult book to put down.

Twenty-two-year-old Elien Martel’s life was ripped apart around a year earlier when his parents were shot dead by his older brother who then turned the gun upon himself. Plagued by grief and guilt, Elien is volatile and prone to lashing out, especially at his much older boyfriend, Richard (whom he lives with), a psychiatrist whose Quiet Understanding (Elien’s capitalisation), insistence on Giving Him Space and refusal to have a damn good row irritates Elien no end. It’s Richard who encourages Elien to attend a support group for people with PTSD which is run by one of his colleagues. Even though Elien comes across as a bit of a self-centred prick to start with, he’s really good with the other members of the group, showing them kindness and compassion and offering support when they need it. The group leader even suggests Elien could lead a support group himself – an idea he laughs off – but he agrees to her request that he keep an eye on fellow group member Ray who’s not been doing so well lately.

A day or so after this, Sheriff’s deputy Dag LeBlanc answers the call for a wellness check on Ray Field and arrives at Ray’s building with his partner Mason – who is a member of the same support group as Elien. Mason dislikes Elien intensely – and for no apparent reason – and when he and Dag arrive to find it was Ellen who made the call, Mason tries to persuade Dag the guy is pulling some kind of stunt – but Dag calmly dismisses that idea and accompanies Elien to Ray’s door. Inside, they discover Ray’s dead body, sprawled on his bed, eyes open and dancing with blue fire, and… well, I’m not going to elaborate, so I’ll just say that things take a really creepy turn, and Dag – deciding he can’t possibly have seen what he thinks he saw – escorts a freaked-out Elien outside… only for the guy to accuse him of cowardice when Dag refuses to acknowledge anything out of the ordinary happened.

But Dag isn’t going to be able to stay in denial for much longer.  Mason has been behaving increasingly erratically, and he tries to kill Elien – in broad daylight and full view of anyone passing by  – after the next meeting of the support group.  Dag, who had been waiting to collect Mason and take him home, intervenes quickly – and this time there’s no denying that something weird is going on.  Not long after this, a third member of the group is found dead, apparently a suicide… then a fourth.  Someone – or something – is picking off the members of the group one by one, and isn’t going to stop until they’re all dead.

The plot moves swiftly as Elien and Dag race to find out who – or what – is responsible for the murders and then work out a way to stop them before they become its latest victims.  Mr. Ashe makes good use of local (the story is set just outside New Orleans) mythology to add extra chills, and the pervasive sense of dread grows slowly but inexorably as Elien and Dag get closer to the truth and we head towards a final nail-biting confrontation.

The plot is solid and the locations are vividly described, but once again, the characterisation is where this author truly shines.  He excels at creating believable, loveable characters whose flaws make them that much more human, and the two leads here are no exception.  Elien and Dag are like chalk and cheese; Dag is quiet, kind and one of the sweetest characters I think the author has ever written, while deeply troubled Elien is all sharp edges, using his caustic tongue to push people away and make self-disparaging marks about his mental health.  Deep down however, he’s a genuinely caring person who just wants to feel whole again and to find some closure following the tragedy that ripped his life apart.

The romance between Elien and Dag develops over only a couple of weeks, but it’s a nicely developed slow-burn, and the strong connection between the pair on an emotional level makes their eventual, hard-won HFN/HEA all the more believable.

Despite the heavy subject matter and the grisly deaths, there’s plenty of humour in the book, which comes mainly from the banter between the leads and from Dag’s parents who are wonderfully supportive of him but are perhaps too invested in his love life!  Given that so many protagonists in Mr. Ashe’s books have difficult relationships with their parents, it was a welcome change to read about a healthy familial relationship – even if the LeBlancs do go a bit over the top at times!

My only real criticism of the book is with the fact that Elien stumbles across answers a little easily and conveniently, and I admit that caused me to dither over the grade a bit.  In the end though, it didn’t really spoil my enjoyment of what is an otherwise well-put together story, and as it’s a book I’ll re-read, onto the keeper shelf it goes.  I don’t read horror in general, so I can’t really offer any insights as to how far Stray Fears fits into that genre, but as a paranormal mystery/romance, it offers a gripping, spine-tingling read for the long dark winter nights.

Note: This book contains several violent (off-screen) suicides and a scene of attempted sexual assault.