Stray Fears (DuPage Parrish Mysteries #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Declan Winters

stray fears

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

Gregory Ashe’s paranormal/horror novel Stray Fears is a spooky tale featuring two engaging, flawed characters and a clever mystery plotline which draws on Louisiana folklore for inspiration. I read and enjoyed it when it was published last year, and was pleased to see it coming to audio with Declan Winters narrating; I’ve enjoyed his work in C.S. Poe’s Magic & Steam series and was looking forward to a similarly strong performance here.

The story centres around a support group for people with PTSD, and when it begins, a meeting is in progress. Elien Martel is one of the attendees, a young man of twenty-two whose life was ripped apart a year earlier when his elder brother shot their parents and then himself. Mired in grief and guilt, Elien is a mess; volatile, sarcastic and filled with self-loathing, he lives with his much older boyfriend Richard – a psychiatrist and therapist – whose equanimity and refusal to rise to Elien’s frequent baiting and have a damn good row irritate Elien no end.

Quite honestly, Elien seems like a total dick much of the time, but his sharp tongue belies a genuine kindness and wit, and he’s surprisingly good with the other members of the group, showing them the sort of patience and compassion he doesn’t extend to himself. When the group leader – who is a colleague of Richard’s – asks Elien if he’ll check up on fellow group member Ray, who hasn’t been doing so well lately, Elien agrees without question.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Cascade Hunger (DuPage Parish Mysteries #2) by Gregory Ashe

cascade hunger

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Eli and Dag survived a monster.

Two monsters, in fact.

A year later, though, they’re still trying to settle into a ‘regular’ life. Dag is working hard in school. It’s not going great. Eli is working hard at…being a better Eli. He’s eating right. Most of the time. He’s thinking about exercise in healthy ways. He’s ok with how he looks, as long as he doesn’t walk past any mirrors.

He goes out some nights, though. He goes across the lake, back to Bragg, where the monsters were. And he’s not sure why. He’s not sure what keeps calling him back.

When a woman is brutally murdered and an eyewitness claims to have seen the killer transform into a mysterious light, Eli and Dag are forced to set aside their own problems and face a difficult truth: there is another monster out there. Worse, there doesn’t seem to be anybody else who can stop it from killing again.

But not all monsters are the same, as Eli and Dag discover. And the most dangerous monster might be the one who can give you what you’ve always wanted.

Rating: A-

The second book in Gregory Ashe’s DuPage Parish series of paranormal-with-a-horror-vibe mysteries, Cascade Hunger catches up with Elien Martel (who has reverted to going by his real name of Eli Martins) and Dagobert LeBlanc around a year after the events of Stray Fears. In that book, Eli and Dag discovered the existence of a supernatural being called a Hashok, a malevolent spirit that fed on pain and suffering, and which had been consuming negative energy from Eli – who, in addition to carrying around a shedload of guilt over the deaths of his parents and brother, struggles with body dysmorphia and self-esteem issues – for a long time without his being aware of it.  Eli and Dag were able to defeat and destroy the Hashok – not without considerable risk to themselves – and now, a year later, we find them living together in the house they’ve bought, and getting on with their lives.

Well.  Sort of.

After working for a few years as a Sheriff’s Deputy, Dag is now at college studying marine biology, and although he loves the subject, he’s struggling.  And Eli… well, he’s still Eli.  Sharp-tongued, prickly, damaged, and his own worst enemy at times, he loves Dag but can’t seem to stop himself from doing things he knows will hurt him.  When the story begins, Eli seems to have fallen back to his old self-destructive ways, sneaking out of the house late at night and heading to Bragg where he wanders around and binge-eats and then calls Dag for a ride home. Eli knows it’s not good for him, he knows it upsets Dag (and how unfair it is of him to be calling so late when Dag has to get up early for college) but he just can’t seem to fight off the compulsion that draws him back there time and again.

Dag loves Eli very much, but he’s tired.  Lack of sleep is affecting his college work, but Eli’s simultaneous skittishness and neediness can be just as exhausting.  Even though they’ve lived together for a year, Eli isn’t willing to label what they are – their latest fight was over Dag’s use of the “b” word – and while Dag tries hard to be supportive and understanding (seriously, the man has the patience of a saint!) sometimes it’s hard.

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

A Friend in the Fire (Auden & O’Callaghan Mysteries #2) by Gregory Ashe & C.S. Poe (audiobook) – Narrated by Garrett Kiesel

a friend in the fire

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

When we last saw Rufus O’Callaghan and Sam Auden at the end of Gregory Ashe and C.S Poe’s A Friend in the Dark, they had a blazing row which ended with Sam walking out of Rufus’ apartment and his life. Well, as A Friend in the Fire is book two in the Auden and O’Callaghan series, it will come as no surprise that they’re destined to meet again, but after a bitter argument and three months apart, it’s going to take a while for them to trust each other again.

After Sam left, he went back to his somewhat nomadic lifestyle, and when we catch up with him, he’s pitched up in a back-of-beyond town with an impossible-to-pronounce name (!) in deepest Missouri. He hasn’t heard from Rufus once in the past three months (Rufus never gave Sam his number, so Sam can’t reach out) – so the last thing Sam expects is a call from a panicked-sounding Rufus asking for help.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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

relative justice

This title may be purchased from Amazon

An impossible son. An impossible murder.

The honeymoon is definitely over.

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

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

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

Rating: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

Codirection (Borealis: Without a Compass #4) by Gregory Ashe

codirection

This title may be purchased from Amazon

They killed a girl to keep their secrets. They won’t stop there.

A new home, a fresh start, a chance to do things right this time—and Shaw and North are determined to make it work. But the night of their housewarming party, things don’t go as planned. A reporter arrives, wanting to talk to North about his ex-husband, his father, and a criminal syndicate. No sooner have they gotten rid of her than another unwanted guest appears: a street boy named Nik, whom Shaw met months before, begging them to help him find his missing friend, Malorie.

Retracing Malorie’s steps, North and Shaw learn about the dangerous demimonde of runaway teenagers. Their investigation takes them into the path of men and women who have learned to profit off the suffering and abandonment of children: shelters, clinics, labor brokers, and pimps.

Meanwhile, North’s Uncle Ronnie is set on revenge, and his target this time is North’s father. As North struggles to track down Ronnie and put an end to the danger, he finds himself considering a deal with the devil, and the offer might be too good to pass up.

When North and Shaw find Malorie’s body, evidence suggests she was murdered—and that her death is connected in some way with a truck stop halfway across the state. But as they draw closer to the truth, the danger grows. The people who killed Malorie have the Borealis detectives in their sights, and North and Shaw must race to save their own lives before the killers can strike again.

Rating: A-

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

Well.  Here we are at the concluding instalment of Gregory Ashe’s Borealis: Without a Compass series, and what a ride it’s been!  We’ve watched North and Shaw solve crimes of course, but these books are so much more than well-written and suspenseful mysteries, and our two protagonists have also gone through heartbreak and serious soul-searching while facing incredible danger at the hands of some truly despicable individuals, but at last, and after all the horrible things they’ve been through – and inflicted on each other – they’re back where they belong (i.e. together) and are making a determined effort to move forward as a committed couple.

In the months since the events of Redirection, North and Shaw have bought a house together, and we rejoin them on the day of their housewarming party – which ends abruptly when local reporter Belia Lopez arrives and opens a massive can of worms by telling North that Tucker (from whom he is now, thankfully, divorced) is claiming he was framed for his assault on Shaw, and that North, David McKinney, Borealis and Shaw’s family are all mixed up in a criminal syndicate operating in the city. Needless to say, North is not impressed and tells her – in his own inimitable fashion -to get lost.

Shortly after they’ve got rid of Belia, they’re interrupted by another unexpected visitor hammering on their door and demanding their help.  We met Nikshay (Nik) in Indirection; he’s a teenager living (and working) on the streets whom Shaw spoke to while he and North were trying to track down a suspect, and although Shaw told Nik he should come to them if he needed help, he never did.  Until now.  He’s worried about his friend Malorie, who has gone missing, and he wants North and Shaw to find out what’s happened to her.  As it so often goes with these two, Shaw is keen to help while North is more sceptical; the difference is that they’re now both trying hard to see the other’s point of view and to compromise… but of course they end up agreeing to see what they can do.

Gregory Ashe writes some of the most compelling and clever mysteries in the genre and he isn’t afraid to take them to some dark and gritty places.  In this story, North and Shaw start out by going to the shelter for homeless teens where Nik and Malorie met, and soon find themselves coming face to face with the harsh reality of the dangers faced by so many kids living on the streets, and the half-hearted, ineffectual efforts made to try to protect them.  Their search leads to a trail of blackmail, embezzlement and murder, to the exposure of the exploitation of some of society’s most vulnerable individuals at the hands of pimps, dealers and cheap labour networks… and worst of all, by those who are supposed to be looking out for them.

Meanwhile, that scumbag Ronnie is still out for revenge on North for engineering his arrest (at the end of Misdirection) – and after his attempt to get at North through Tucker failed, Ronnie has now turned his attention to North’s dad.  Desperate to get Ronnie out of their lives for good, North considers a Faustian bargain – the full implications of which are not yet clear.

North and Shaw have been through a lot in this series – and I’m not just talking about the injuries they’ve sustained!  There were potential pitfalls and fault-lines in their relationship back at the end of the first Borealis series, and many of those came home to roost in this one.  Both men are carrying a lot of emotional baggage – North’s relationship with his obnoxious father is seriously messed up, and he’s a survivor of domestic abuse; Shaw was traumatised by an attack that nearly killed him, and he struggles under the weight of his family’s expectations – and their long-suppressed feelings for each other perhaps gave them unrealistic expectations of what being a couple would be like.  In this series, they’ve been forced to face up to the fact that their relationship wasn’t working (and why)  – and it’s made for some pretty tough reading.

By the time Codirection begins, they’re in a much better place personally than they have been for quite some time, and while things are far from perfect, they’ve decided they want to make a life together and have recognised that they each have work to do if they’re going to make that happen.  But there’s still a sense that they’re not quite on the same page when it comes to the way they think of and approach their relationship, and that translates to an underlying sense of unease at times, a disconnect that it seems they haven’t really acknowledged or understood.  Then comes an incredibly simple but profoundly insightful ‘lightbulb moment’ – a single piece of dialogue, really – when everything falls into place, and it’s masterful.

Mr. Ashe has interwoven the mysteries and the character and relationship development in these books with incredible skill, pulling readers with him through a real gamut of emotions with his unique mix of razor-sharp insight and the ridiculous humour and banter that characterise the way North and Shaw interact with each other.  He also gifts fans of his work with a wonderful cameo appearance by Wahredua’s favourite PI – and Shaw’s best, best friend (well, in Shaw’s mind anyway) – that is simply priceless.

The conclusion to the long-running Ronnie storyline is both satisfying and shocking (my Goodreads update reads – “Well.  I didn’t see THAT coming!”) and I can’t help but think there’s some future fallout to come as a result of what happens.  Because, yes, I’m reliably informed this isn’t the last we’re going to see of North and Shaw 🙂

Codirection is another must-read from Gregory Ashe, a superbly plotted, high-stakes mystery with twists and turns a-plenty and more intricately crafted red herrings than you can shake a stick at.  Borealis: Without a Compass has been one wild ride, and while it’s been hard to watch “these dumb boys” (as North and Shaw are affectionately known by Ashe fans!) do dumb things, it’s also been a delight to spend time with them again.

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.