Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 2 by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty Volume 2 is a collection of short stories. It includes the following:

John-Henry Somerset: Sold!
Somers enters a charity bachelor’s auction without telling his boyfriend. This story takes place before The Rational Faculty.

Pretty and Pink and Perfect
Hazard plans a toddler’s birthday party. This story takes place before The Rational Faculty.

Pride Slays Thanksgiving
Hazard and Somers prepare for their first Thanksgiving as a couple. This story takes place before Police Brutality.

Santa: A Cultural Hegemony
Hazard is volun-told to dress up as Santa. This story takes place before Transactional Dynamics.

Valentine’s in Six Beats
Hazard executes his do-over for Valentine’s. This story takes place before Wayward.

Emery’s Birthday Scavenger Hunt
Somers plans the perfect birthday for Hazard . . . or so he thinks. This story takes place before The Keeper of Bees.

Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty
A series of six vignettes featuring Hazard and Somers on a Caribbean vacation. This story takes place after The Keeper of Bees.

Rating: A

This is the second set of short stories featuring Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset in their off-time. Most of them have been available to subscribers to the author’s mailing list, but the final set of vignettes, Hazard and Somerset: Off Duty are new, and take place after the events of The Keeper of Bees, the final book in the Union of Swords series.

The first of the stories takes place between Criminal Past at the end of the first series and The Rational Faculty, and they follow the guys through the timeframe of the series, each one usually taking place between books – and they’re full of classic Hazard and Somers banter and snark as well as showing them at their most couple-y and loving. We’ve got Hazard obsessing over the perfect birthday party for Evie, (he is SUCH a great Dad!), Somers up against Nico in a bachelor auction, and my personal favourite, a wonderful Valentine’s Day Do-Over in which Hazard pulls out all the stops to make the day as special and romantic for Somers as possible.

It’s always a pleasure to read about Hazard and Somers in situations where they’re not being shot at, beaten up or having a major relationship crisis; these stories provide wonderful glimpses into their ‘ordinary’ daily lives and give us – and them – a bit of respite from the chaos and danger that they invariably attract in the full-length novels. Plus, there’s a real sense that the author has fun writing these and it also showcases just how well he knows (and loves) these characters.

The final set of stories is new and given the note on which The Keeper of Bees ended was just what I wanted to read next. But be warned, Mr. Ashe drops one helluva bombshell – one I did NOT see coming – at the end of the last one! So now it’s just a case of waiting to see how the guys handle this latest upheaval in their lives in their next series – Hazard and Somerset: Arrows in the Hand. I can’t wait.

The Keeper of Bees (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #5) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Emery Hazard has pretty much everything under control. He and his fiancé, John-Henry Somerset, are more in love than ever, despite the stress of wedding preparations hanging over them. His business as a private investigator is growing. He’s even enjoying time with his growing circle of friends. The only major problem on the horizon is whether or not he and Somers will be dancing at the wedding reception.

When Mitchell Martin shows up in his office, though, everything changes. The year before, Mitchell was abducted and tortured by a sadistic killer known only as the Keeper of Bees. Now Mitchell is convinced that the Keeper has come back, and he wants to hire Hazard to protect him.

While Hazard works to keep Mitchell safe, Somers must adjust to changes at work. A spate of new hires has disrupted the Wahredua Police Department, and Somers finds himself locked in a struggle to determine how the department will grow and evolve, with long-term consequences that will affect the town for years to come.

Then a woman is found murdered, and she has been staged and posed in a way that is eerily similar to the Keeper of Bee’s former victims. As Hazard and Somers race to prevent more deaths, Hazard fears they are already too late; the Keeper of Bees has been ahead of them the whole time.

Rating: A-

Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset have become two of my all-time favourite fictional characters, and in the Union of Swords series, they’ve been thoroughly put through the wringer.  What with Hazard’s increasingly problematic mental health, old resentments, relationship issues, career adjustments, family problems AND the emergence of an incredibly clever serial killer who seems to always be one step ahead, the guys have had a hell of a lot on their plate.  But they’ve also forged new friendships, made a life as a family unit and even when things have got really tough, have never given up on each other; when things were at their most difficult (in Transactional Dynamics and Wayward) and they were on the outs, I never believed they were anything but completely devoted to each other and that they’d make it through the dark times.

But all good things must come to an end, so they say, and here we are, at the final instalment in what has been an absolutely compelling and engrossing series.

Fellow Gregory Ashe fan Em Wittmann and I devoured The Keeper of Bees and got together to discuss it in a joint review over at All About Romance.

Declination (Borealis Investigations #3) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlie David

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Shaw and North are together. Finally. After eight years of knowing each other and loving each other and slipping past each other, they’ve finally told each other how they feel. Borealis Investigations is growing, and they have a major prospective client on the line. Everything is finally moving the way it should.

Until the night Shaw receives a phone call telling him that Detective Jadon Reck, his former boyfriend, has been attacked.

In spite of a warning from Jadon’s partner, Shaw and North begin an investigation into the attack. But nothing is at it seems. City police are working to cover up evidence faster than Shaw and North can find it, and the motive for the attack seems impossible to unravel.

When a conspiracy of dirty cops takes action against Shaw and North, the two detectives realize they are running out of time. They have to get answers about the attack on Jadon before they lose their own lives. But Shaw knows there are things worse than death. And one of them has come back for him, to finish what he started seven years before.

The West End Slasher has returned.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Note: The books in this series contain an overarching plotline and are best listened to in order. There are spoilers for books 1 & 2 in this review.

Declination, book three in Gregory Ashe’s Borealis Investigations series featuring private investigators North McKinney and Shaw Aldrich, picks up a few weeks after the cliffhanger ending of book two, Triangulation. Detective Jadon Reck – who had briefly dated Shaw – arrived on Shaw’s doorstep bloodied, beaten and with the words “He’s next” cut into his chest, a threat obviously directed at North – and obviously delivered because North and Shaw were getting too close to uncovering the truth about the West End Slasher, a serial killer responsible for the murders of several young gay men years earlier. Shaw, who was critically injured in the Slasher’s final attack, has never been convinced the right man was charged and incarcerated. Following the discovery of some new evidence (Orientation), Shaw has been trying hard to get to the truth, but the truth remains frustratingly elusive as he hits dead end after dead end – although clearly someone out there is rattled enough to have attacked Jadon in order to send that message.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Triangluation (Borealis Investigations #2) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlie David

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After a recent case with a treacherous client, North and Shaw are ready to go back to work building Borealis Investigations. They’re also ready to go back to dodging their feelings for each other, with neither man ready to deal with the powerful emotions the Matty Fennmore case stirred up.

Everything is getting back to normal when their secretary asks for help: her girlfriend’s boss has gone missing. Shep Collins runs a halfway house for LGBTQ kids and is a prominent figure in St. Louis’s gay community. When he disappears, however, dark truths begin to emerge about Shep’s past: his string of failed relationships, a problem with disappearing money, and his work, years before, as one of the foremost proponents of conversion therapy.

When Shep’s body turns up at the halfway house, the search for a missing person becomes the search for a murderer. As North and Shaw probe for answers, they find that they are not the only ones who have come looking for the truth about Shep Collins.

Their investigation puts them at odds with the police who are working the same case, and in that conflict, North and Shaw find threads leading back to the West End Slasher – the serial killer who almost took Shaw’s life in an alley, seven years before.

As the web of an ancient conspiracy comes to light, Shaw is driven to find answers, and North faces what might be his last chance to tell Shaw how he really feels.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Triangulation is book two in Gregory Ashe’s Borealis Investigations series featuring St. Louis based PIs North McKinney and Shaw Aldrich, two guys who have known each other since college and have secretly pined for each other for just as long. The story picks up a couple of months after the events of book one, Orientation, and I’d advise anyone thinking of picking up Triangulation go to back and listen to that first, as it provides context for the relationship between the two leads and kicks off the series’ overarching plotline concerning Shaw’s search for the serial killer dubbed the West End Slasher, who murdered his boyfriend and left him critically injured some eight years before.

(Note: There are spoilers for Orientation in this review.)

Triangulation opens with Pari – North and Shaw’s office assistant (who seems to spend all her time haranguing them and never appears to do a stroke of work) – attempting to persuade them to look into the disappearance of Shep Collins, an LGBTQ youth worker and prominent figure in the St. Louis gay community. Pari’s girlfriend Chuck works with Collins at the local halfway house, and is concerned because he hasn’t been seen for a few days. North isn’t keen on the idea, especially after he learns that Collins used to administer conversion therapy to gay teenaged boys – but Chuck is really worried, and insists that Collins is a changed man; he’s out and married, the kids he works with love him and he sees his work with them as a way of atoning for what he did in the past. North still doesn’t want to take the case, but Shaw does, and after one of those typically North and Shaw circuitous not-conversations, they tell Chuck and Pari they’ll take the case.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Wayward (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #4) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Emery Hazard is trying to plan his wedding, even though his fiancé, John-Henry Somerset, isn’t exactly making things easy for him. To be fair, Somers has been distracted lately; his father is running for mayor in a hotly contested election, and their hometown is splintering under the weight of divisive politics.

In a matter of hours, those poisonous politics invade Hazard’s life in a way he couldn’t have imagined. Glenn Somerset, Somers’s father, shows up on their doorstep, and he wants two things: first, for Hazard to neutralize a blackmail threat; and second, for Somers temporarily to move out of the house he shares with Hazard, part of public relations stunt to win the election. To Hazard’s shock, Somers agrees.

Determined to lose himself in his work, Hazard takes on a missing person’s case, but his investigation only leads him deeper into the tangled web of small-town politics. To find the truth, he must face off with the viciously rich who rule Wahredua—and with the poor, desperate, and marginalized, who fight just as viciously in their own way.

When Hazard’s investigation uncovers a murder, he is forced to work with Somers to bring the killer to justice, despite their fractured relationship. But the sudden news that Hazard’s father is failing fast threatens to put an untimely end to the case—and, in doing so, jeopardize Somers’s last-ditch effort to repair his relationship with his own father.

Rating: A

Having written over a dozen reviews of Gregory Ashe’s books over the last couple of years, I really am running out of ways to express just how damn good they are!  So forgive me for repeating myself when I say that Wayward, book four in the second Hazard and Somerset series, A Union of Swords is another fantastic combination of tightly-plotted, twisty mystery and complex and compelling romantic relationship which Mr. Ashe continues to examine with laser-sharp insight.  The wry observation, humour, snarky dialogue and fantastic storytelling readers have come to expect from this author are all present and correct in this penultimate instalment of the series, as our two favourite dysfunctional detectives – now an engaged couple – struggle with many of the same day-to-day relationship issues as the rest of us while working hard to clean up the streets of Wahredua. *grin*

The last book, Transactional Dymanics, really put Hazard and Somers’ relationship to the test, with the re-appearance of Hazard’s abusive ex and the resurgence of Somers’ tendency to retreat into a bottle as an avoidance tactic.  It’s always hard to read them when they’re at odds and hurting each other as they work through their issues, but there’s always the sense that they’re bound together by a  bedrock of love and committment that keeps them firmly anchored to each other.  By the end of that book, they’re back on an even keel and as much in love as ever.  But this is Gregory Ashe, and if you’ve got this far, you’ll know all too well that that tends to signal the calm before the storm 😉

Wayward begins a few weeks after Transactional Dynamics and Hazard is grumbling about wedding plans as he and Somers spend a relaxed evening with their neighbours Noah and Rebecca, and their friendship group – Dulac and Darnell, Wesley (the local pastor) and his girlfriend, Mitchell Martin – who narrowly escaped the Keeper of Bees in The Rational Faculty – and even Nico, who I was really pleased to see growing up and acting like a proper friend in this book.  But we’re not allowed to bask in their domesticity for too long; a day later, after an exhausting day during which he and Dulac were asked to handle an upsetting custody exchange, Somers’ father shows up to throw several cats in among the pigeons.

Glennworth Somerset is front-runner in the upcoming mayoral elections (the lesser of two evils – it’s him or Naomi Malsho!) and wants to hire Hazard to find out who is behind the blackmail threats he’s begun to get recently.  Hazard is reluctant, but Somerset Snr. reminds him of a deal they struck a while back – and he’s calling in the debt.  But that’s not the only debt he’s collecting.  With the election just two weeks away, he reminds John of an agreement they reached (most likely over the loan to start Hazard’s business) and asks Somers to  temporarily move out of the house he shares with Hazard in an attempt to sway undecided voters who don’t like the idea of having a mayor with a queer son.  Knowing how many times Somers has raised the figurative finger to his parents, or told his father to plain fuck off, Hazard waits to hear it this time.  And waits.  But what he’s forgotten to take into account is that Somers, while having spent most of his life rebelling against his father, nonetheless craves his approval – and Somers, knowing it’s just a stunt and that nothing about it is real, misreads the situation and doesn’t say no.  Furious, hurt and utterly disgusted, Hazard storms out in an attempt to calm down – and returns home to find Somers already gone.

The day after Somers moves out, a young woman enters Hazard’s office saying she wants to hire him to find her missing sister.  Something about Courtney Vega is familiar, and Hazard realises that the sister she wants to find – Donna May Plenge – is none other than the antifa activist who disrupted the tree-lighting ceremony last Christmas and assaulted and threatened to kill a police officer (Police Brutality).  Donna has a history of sudden disappearances but she has always – so far – returned to Wahredua, and this last time, she made it clear she intended to stay for good, because she was going to stick around for her four-year-old daughter, Dolores, and possibly get back together with Dolores’ father, Josh Dobbs, the son of a local well-to-do family.  Dolores had, until recently been living with Donna’s parents, and is the little girl Somers and Dulac had to escort from her grandparent’s home the day before.  But Donna has disappeared again, and Courtney doesn’t believe she’s simply run off this time.

The mystery is complicated and of course nothing is as it seems.  None of the leads Courtney gives Hazard pan out; Donna isn’t at any of her local haunts, the last people to see her are all telling similar but not-quite-the-same stories, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s been sent on a wild goose chase.  When a hunch leads him to find Donna’s body hidden in the boathouse on the grounds of the Dobbs’ residence, it’s time to call the cops.

The involvement of Somers (and Dulac) in the murder investigation sees Hazard and Somers having to find a way to work together, which isn’t easy, given that Hazard is still furious at Somers and hardly speaking to him.  At the same time, Hazard is working on the job he agreed to do for Somers’ father, and when his enquiries lead him to a bit of late night B&E, Somers insists on tagging along. This leads to one of the best scenes in the book, when the two of them slip effortlessly into their old patterns of working together.  It’s glorious and silly and funny and perfect; they’re feeling the old, familiar rhythm between them, and it’s the best either of them has felt in days.

The mystery is solved and the blackmailer is found  by the end, but as always in this series, Hazard and Somers and their complicated, angsty relationship are the big draw, and wow, is Gregory Ashe delivering an amazing story there.  I admit that when I read the synopsis for Wayward I worried I was going to end up disliking Somers (much as I love Hazard, Somers is my boy!) but that never happened, because Mr. Ashe does a superb job of not taking sides, showing that they’re both wrong and both right.  Somers doesn’t immediately see why what he’s agreed to is a big deal – he and Hazard are going to spend the rest of their lives together, so in the grand scheme of things, living apart for two weeks isn’t a long time.  It doesn’t take Somers long to realise he’s made a serious error of judgement, but Hazard’s refusal to communicate or engage makes it impossible for any attempt at hashing everything out.  The rumours about their ‘break-up’ being permanent which quickly start to circulate don’t help the situation, and only add to Hazard’s already big pile of insecurities.  Hazard sees Somers’ willingness to do as his father asks as a personal rejection and betrayal of everything they’ve built together, and on top of the hurt and fear and low self-esteem that’s been fostered by scumbags like Billy Rolker, the events of the previous summer and his continued refusal to admit to or get treatment for his PTSD, are making it harder and harder for Hazard to control his temper and his emotions. It’s like trying to keep a faulty lid on a pressure cooker; steam is leaking out around the edges and it’s only a matter of time until it blows.  And right now, that’s Emery Hazard.  His tendency to retreat inside himself and shut everyone out when his emotions start to get the better of him is increasing, in spite of his promise to try to be more open, so here, he just shuts down and shuts John out – and watching him spiralling out of control and getting so dangerously close to the edge in this book was a heart-breaking punch to the gut (please, Mr. Ashe, let him get some therapy soon!).

This is probably the closest the couple has come to a real split, and there are times it’s really difficult to see how they’re ever going to be able to pull back from the brink.  Yet scenes like the one I mentioned earlier really do help both of them to remember why they’re so good together, and a slow but solid rapprochement begins.

The other thread running through the story is one about father/son relationships.  Readers got some insight into Somers’ family dynamic in Paternity Case; he was something of a rebel, marrying Cora against his parents’ wishes, becoming a police officer instead of going to law school; he thumbed his nose at his parents every way he could, and yet it was also clear that he desperately wanted validation from his father.  In Reasonable Doubt, we met Frank Hazard, who is dying from cancer, and while the Hazard men’s relationship is different, the underlying theme of wanting a father’s approval isn’t too dissimilar.

And in the end, it’s family and those fraught relationships that finally seal the cracks in Hazard and Somers’ bruised hearts and battered relationship.  A family emergency forces some soul-searching and re-evaluation of what it means to be a family, and by the end of the novel – and in a lovely and somewhat whimsical final scene – Hazard and Somers recommit to each other all over again.

On top of all this, Darnell and Dulac are still on-off, Somers makes an unsettling discovery and the Keeper of Bees is still out there, just waiting to strike again.  Hazard is no closer to working out their identity (and neither are we) and I’m sure that by now, we’re all scrutinising the actions of every other character in each book and wondering if it could be them! (I have no idea, but I’m notoriously bad at working out whodunit!)

Wayward has plenty of the humour and snarky banter that are the hallmarks of the series – and the author’s work in general – but Emery and John spend a lot of the book on the outs, and it’s hard to read them hurting and wounding each other so badly.  But – and I know I’ve said this before – Gregory Ashe’s ability to focus in on what makes both men and their relationship tick is incredible, and the fact that he can pull off a story like this and make it so relatable and convincing is testament to his skill as an author.  If you’ve come this far with Ree and John, then you won’t want to miss this instalment in the Union of Swords series; just prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.

Transactional Dynamics (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #3) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Emery Hazard is ready for Valentine’s Day. He’s made reservations months in advance, he’s ordered flowers, and he’s got a boyfriend he wants to treat right—even if John-Henry Somerset occasionally lets the dishes sit in the sink a little too long. They even have an extra reason to celebrate this year: Somers has received a special commendation for his police work.

Everything begins to go wrong, though, when Hazard’s ex-boyfriend shows up on their doorstep. Billy claims he just needs help getting away from an abusive partner, but Somers believes Billy has other motives, including designs on Hazard.

When men who have been hired to track Billy show up in Wahredua, Hazard agrees to help his ex elude them. But as Hazard prepares to sneak Billy out of town, a woman is murdered behind the local gay bar, and Somers’s investigation leads him towards Hazard’s ex.

As Hazard and Somers find themselves working together to find the killer, they both must confront a hard truth: everything comes at a cost—career success, healthy relationships, and even justice. The only question is if they’re willing to pay the price.

Rating: A

Transactional Dynamics, book three in the Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords series, is possibly my favourite book of this series and by this author; and that’s saying something considering I haven’t given anything of his I’ve read so far less than a B+ (and most have been DIKs).  As in the two previous books, there are standalone mysteries to be solved while the author keeps the overarching plotline around the serial killer dubbed the Keeper of Bees ticking over in the background.  Taking centre stage however is the complex and often frustrating relationship between the two leads, which Mr. Ashe continues to explore with his customary skill and insight.

Note: This book does not stand alone; there are plotlines continuing from previous books and the relationship between Hazard and Somerset really needs to be experienced from the beginning.  There are spoilers for earlier books in this review.

In Police Brutality, private investigator Emery Hazard and his boyfriend Detective John-Henry Somerset went through a rough patch, clashing professionally as well as personally as Hazard, still struggling with the PTSD and depression left over from the events of the previous summer, and with the guilt he feels over the murder of a young gay couple months before, had started to withdraw from Somers (again), leaving Somers feeling shut out and worried, both for the man he loves and their relationship.  Having worked through those problems, and with Hazard agreeing to try to be more open and communicative, things have been going well… but over the past few weeks, irritations and annoyances have begun to creep in, as Somers has started slipping back into some of his old ways of avoidance and drinking too much.  I think any couple – especially one with young children – will recognise this particular dynamic; Somers works a fairly rigid schedule and is also often called out unexpectedly; Hazard works for himself and can be more flexible with his hours; Somers wants to kick back and relax when he gets home from work; Hazard wants him to pull his weight around the house and with childcare… it’s a difficult balance to achieve and maintain, and both men’s resentment is building as they try to avoid a major row about who does the dishes and the laundry while continuing to care for their daughter and do demanding and stressful jobs.

But sadly – Hazard and Somers being, well, them – things are about to get much worse.  Completely out of the blue one evening, Hazard’s ex, Billy Rolker appears on their doorstep begging for help.  Not surprisingly, Hazard wants nothing to do with him and storms out, but avoiding Billy isn’t so easy when he turns up at Hazard’s office.  He tells Hazard he’s running from a guy who is physically abusive and who has sent a couple of goons to find him and beat him up, and then presents a tox screen report from the previous night that shows he had Rohypnol in his system.  His guess is the goons put the drug in his drink while he was at the Pretty Pretty, but he didn’t pass out and managed to get an Uber to the hospital.  Hazard tells Billy he should go to the police, but he just wants help to get away and promises that if Hazard will help him, he’ll disappear forever.

Meanwhile, Somers and Dulac are assigned to investigate the murder of a woman found beaten to death in the alley at the back of the Pretty Pretty.  As the investigation progresses, Somers becomes increasingly concerned at the number of accusations they’re hearing about the local cops being dirty; it’s not uncommon to hear it from people who don’t want to talk to them, but this is more than that. Somers is starting to form suspicions as to who might be on the take and has to ask himself if one or more of his colleagues could be a murderer.  The waters are muddied still further when it emerges that Billy wasn’t the only person at the club who was drugged; Hazard’s ex, Nico Flores was also a victim that night – and his prints have been found all over the murder weapon.  A desperate Nico asks Hazard to find out who is trying to frame him, Somers doesn’t know how far the corruption he’s uncovered goes, and to make matters even worse, Billy’s presence and machinations look set to drive a wedge between Hazard and Somers that they might not be able to come back from.

I really like the way, at the beginning of each book, Gregory Ashe sets Hazard and Somers on separate paths that seem to have nothing in common, but which slowly and inexorably converge. The two men are completely attuned to each other (even when they’re on the outs personally) and work together so well, that the high point – in terms of the mystery plot – of each book is the one at which they realise they’re working the same case and pool their considerable resources. In each novel, it’s difficult to see how the author can possibly pull the different story threads together – but he does and I never tire of watching it happen.

The reappearance of Billy throws a serious spanner into the works when it comes to Hazard and Somers’ relationship at a time when things aren’t going so well, despite their recent engagement.  Somers has begun to fall back into old, self-destructive patterns, while Hazard’s deep-seated insecurities are stirred up and, aided by Billy’s carefully targeted manipulation, eat away at him more than ever.  Somers, who has always been good at reading people, has Billy pegged straight away for the nasty, manipulative bastard he is; he knows how severely Billy screwed with Hazard’s head, and now he’s seen it in action, he realises just how dangerous Billy could still be to him.  I rarely feel utter loathing for a fictional character, but I felt it for Billy; he’s so devious and so plausible, a kind of insidious evil that’s so much more dangerous than the person who tells you outright they’re going to punch you.

I continue to enjoy the relationship between Somers and Dulac, and I may have done a little happy dance when North and Shaw (from the author’s Borealis Investigations series) showed up, having been engaged to find Billy and take him back to St. Louis.  Hazard and Somers met North briefly in Triangulation, and I have to say that Hazard’s reaction to meeting Shaw here was priceless.

Yet again Gregory Ashe ripped out my heart and stomped on it before reassembling it and putting it back (yes, I’m a glutton for punishment!) as I watched Hazard and Somers come closer to a breaking point than ever.  But even when things are at their bleakest – and they get pretty bleak – there’s no doubt that they love each other deeply; they’re never going to be the perfect couple – they’re both too damn stubborn for that – but they’re perfect for each other, and that’s what counts.

Transactional Dynamics is a compelling addition to this excellent series, a gripping thriller combined with a rollercoaster ride of emotion and angsty romance, and I can’t wait to see what Mr. Ashe has in store for Hazard and Somerset next.

Police Brutality (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #2) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For the first time in a long while, Emery Hazard’s life is good. His new business as a private detective is taking off. Things are good at home. He loves his boyfriend, John-Henry Somerset; he loves their daughter. He might even love the new friends they’ve found. There’s only one problem: Somers has been talking about marriage.

When a former colleague, Walter Hoffmeister, comes to Hazard and hires him to look into a series of anonymous death threats, Hazard eagerly jumps on the distraction. Hoffmeister might be a jerk, but he’s a paying jerk, and Hazard isn’t convinced the threats are serious.

Until, that is, Hoffmeister is almost gunned down on Hazard’s doorstep. As Hazard investigates more deeply, he learns that more than one person in Wahredua has a reason to wish Hoffmeister dead. His search takes him to the Ozark Volunteers, reincarnated as the Bright Lights movement, but it also leads him into a sanctuary of radical Christianity. Meanwhile, an antifa activist has arrived in town, calling for Hoffmeister’s death and threatening total war with the Bright Lights.

As Hazard continues to look for answers, he becomes a target too—and not just because he’s helping Hoffmeister. The Keeper of Bees is still at large, and the killer hasn’t lost interest in Emery Hazard. Not yet. Not, Hazard begins to suspect, until the Keeper has taken everything Hazard holds dear.

Rating: A-

I chose The Rational Faculty – the fabulous and compelling first book in Gregory Ashe’s second series of novels featuring detectives Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset – as my favourite book of 2019.  I’ve become addicted to the author’s brand of gritty, complex mystery combined with angsty, equally complex romance, and have been eagerly awaiting the next instalment in the Union of Swords series. The events of Police Brutality take place a couple of months after those of the previous book, and as it opens, we find Hazard and Somers a little more settled than they were and enjoying a night in with friends.

In general, things are going well. Hazard and Somers are deeply in love and firmly committed to one another, and they seem to have got past at least some of the bumps that threatened to derail things between them when Hazard became unofficially involved in a case Somers was working, which resulted in a lot of complications for Somers and put a strain on their relationship.  Now, Hazard is getting to grips with opening his own PI firm and Somers is getting used to his new partner – but as is always the case with these two, nothing is plain sailing. Hazard is still struggling to deal with his depression and the PTSD that followed the attack on him and Somers some months earlier, and this, together with the guilt he feels over the recent, gruesome murders of the sheriff’s son and his husband, and his growing suspicion that the killer is – for some as yet unknown reason – targeting him and those around him, is weighing heavily on his mind.  And this being Emery Hazard, ‘weighing heavily’ means ‘obssessing and over-thinking’.

While Somers is assigned to work the case of a trio of young female college students who have been the victims of sexual assault, Hazard is surprised to receive a visit from a former colleague, Walter Hoffmeister, who wants to hire him to find out who is behind the weird and unpleasant things that have been happening to him lately.  Shit in the mail, someone messing around in his house and car, someone following him – and finally a threatening note; his boss, police chief Cravens, isn’t taking any of this seriously, and Hoffmeister is clearly pissed off and pretty freaked out.  Privately, Hazard isn’t sure he believes the threats are serious either – Hoffmeister is brusque, loud-mouthed and obnoxious, and has recently been suspended from duty pending an investigation into an accusation of assault and battery on a suspect, so it’s not surprising he has enemies – but a job is a job, and Hazard agrees to take it on and see what he can find out.

That same evening, Hoffmeister turns up at Hazard and Somers’ home, but before he can say anything, shots are fired from a passing truck; nobody is hit, but Hoffmeister then tells Hazard and Somers that whoever was shooting at him had been following him all day and then sneaking around outside his house.  He’s adamant the right-wing Ozark Volunteers – one of whose members is the man he assaulted – is behind the threats, but they’re not the only people Hoffmeister has pissed off lately; and the more Hazard digs, the more he comes to realise that some things just aren’t adding up and that right from the start, there’s been something not right about any of it. Now he just has to work out what that something is.

While the mystery in this story might not be quite as high-stakes as the one in the previous book, it’s nonetheless fascinating and really well put together. Hazard has to make his way through a thick web of secrets, lies and betrayals in order to arrive at the truth, and is guilty of allowing his own preconceptions and prejudices to cloud his judgement, as well as of getting into serious hot water – again – with the police department when he oversteps and compromises a murder investigation, despite being warned – by Somers – to keep out of it.  Once again the pair are at odds over Hazard’s struggle to adjust to the fact that he’s not with the police any more, and – wow – these guys really know how to push each other’s buttons and twist the knife when the gloves come off.  Somers knows Hazard better than anyone and has realised that something’s eating away at him, but knowing full well that Hazard needs time to cogitate and process, has tried to give him the time and space to do that. But he can’t forget how Hazard had withdrawn into himself after their ordeal in the summer, and how he’d feared for him and their future together – and it’s killing Somers to know that Hazard is struggling and won’t open up to him.

Gah – these two are so bad for my blood pressure!

I’m in awe of Gregory Ashe’s insight and laser-sharp focus into the minds of both characters, and the relationship and character development in these books is phenomenal.  The deep, intense love Hazard and Somers feel for each other is palpable, and even when they’re proving that old adage – you always hurt the one you love (they really do say some horrible things in the heat of anger in this book) – that love is still a visceral, pervading presence on the page.  They’re getting better at communicating and have come a long way from the days when they talked and talked and said nothing important, yet clearly they still have work to do, and are prepared to do it.  I love that we’re being shown a relationship in all its warts-and-all glory; it’s real and raw and ultimately, there’s never any doubt that as long as they have each other, they can face whatever life throws at them. (And the final chapter deserves the biggest “Awwww!” ever.)

As in the previous book, Somers’ new partner, a hip, young gay detective named Gray Dulac, has an important supporting role to play in the story. He can be infuriating at times, and seems bent on making trouble between Hazard and Somers, but he’s loyal, intelligent and genuinely looks up to them – although he hides that little bit of hero-worship beneath teasing and unsubtle innuendo.  The town of Wahredua itself is so vividly depicted that it feels like a character in its own right, and many of the other secondary characters will be familiar from the previous books – which is also true of the creepy, far-right organisation Bright Lights (formerly known as the Ozark Volunteers), which continues to spew its own despicable brand of bigotry and hatred throughout the community.

Often in romantic suspense novels, one aspect of the story overshadows the other, but not so here, as Gregory Ashe achieves a perfect balance between the romantic elements and the mystery.   Police Brutality is a terrific addition to the Hazard and Somerset series, and I’m sure fans of the author’s will need no urging from me to pick it up as soon as it’s released.  If you’re intrigued by the sound of it but haven’t read the other books, then I’d recommend you start with book one, Pretty Pretty Boys, in order to get a full understanding of how Hazard and Somers have arrived at this point in their lives. While the mystery in each book is usually solved by the end (although it might also be part of the wider story arc) the relationship between the two leads is the driving force of the series and believe me, you’ll want to experience it from the very beginning.

My 2019 in Books & Audio

Before I started writing this post, I took a look at the one I wrote for 2018 – My 2018 in Books & Audio – to see what I had to say about the books I read and listened to and about the things I was hoping for from 2019.  Sadly, my biggest wish – for more winners in historical romance – not only didn’t come true, but didn’t come true in spectactular fashion; I read and listened to considerably fewer historical romances in 2019 (around 60) and of those, only 15 garnered a B+ (4.5 stars) or higher (actually, that was 11 historical romances plus 4 historical mysteries), and only two made the Best of 2019 list I wrote for All About Romance.  Looking at the upcoming release lists for 2020, I can’t see that situation improving; very few of the book blurbs for upcoming HR make me want to read them.

So… what did I read and listen to instead?  My Goodreads stats show that I read and listened to 299 books and audiobooks in 2019, (that figure includes maybe a dozen or so audio re-listens), which is over 40 books more than my total for last year.

Of that total, 66 were 5 star reads/listens, 184 were 4 star reads/listens – by far the biggest category – 35 were 3 star reads/listens, and there were 9 2 stars, 1 1 star and 1 unrated DNF.

Of the 66 highest graded, around a dozen were actual A grades; I award an A- 4.5 stars but bump the star rating up to five.  (And in the case of audiobooks, sometimes a B grade story will get bumped up because of A grade narration). The 4 star ratings cover books/audios I’ve given B-, B or B+ grades, which is quite a large spectrum as it ranges from those books which are given qualified recommendations (B- is 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars) to those which are almost-but-not-quite DIKs (Desert Isle Keepers), the 4.5 stars (B+) I don’t round up.  I had around the same number of 3, 2 and 1 star ratings as last year, which is at least consistent!

The books that made my Best of 2019 list at AAR are these:

(although I cheated a bit and actually included the whole Not Dead Yet and Borealis Investivations series!)

You can read about them in more detail at All About Romance.

I had a list of “also rans” that I would have included had I had more space:

Charlie Adhara’s Thrown to the Wolves was – I believe – originally to have been the final book in her Big Bad Wolf series, but she’s since announced there will be a fourth (yay!).  In TttW, we finally get some backstory for the enigmatic werewolf Park when he takes Cooper home to meet the family, together with a clever mystery, complicated family dynamics and a well-deserved HEA that’s perfectly in character. Cordelia Kingsbridge’s A Chip and a Chair was one of my most anticipated books of the year and didn’t disappoint, bringing the rollercoaster ride that was the Seven of Spades series to a rolliking, satisfying close.  KJ Charles’ Gilded Cage was (I think?) her first m/f romance; a sequel to Any Old Diamonds, it features tough-as-nails lady detective Susan Lazarus and the other half of the Lilywhite Boys in an intriguing murder mystery with a superbly written and swoon-worthy second chance romance.  Sally Malcolm’s Twice Shy is a lovely feel-good romance between a young man struggling to bring up two young children left to his care following the deaths of his sister and brother-in-law, and a school teacher still dealing with the fallout of a failed marriage and career.  The romance is warm and tender and funny and simply thrumming with sexual tension and chemistry and is guaranteed to warm the heart and produce happy sighs.

Historical Romance made another really poor showing in 2019; of the authors I’ve previously counted on to deliver really good stories full of interesting and appealing characters, only a few actually managed to do it.  KJ Charles and Mia Vincy made my Best of 2019 list, but Lara Temple (The Rake’s Enticing Proposal), Virginia Heath (The Determined Lord Hadleigh), Janice Preston (Daring to Love the Duke’s Heir) and Marguerite Kaye (The Inconvenient Elmswood Marriage) all put out excellent books this year, and I enjoyed Evie Dunmore’s début, Bringing Down the Duke and am keen to read whatever she comes up with next.  I still haven’t got around to reading Julie Anne Long’s Angel in a Devil’s Arms, which has appeared on quite a few Best of lists, so I hope I’ll enjoy it when I get around to it!

I also enjoyed a few historical mysteries; Sherry Thomas (The Art of Theft), Andrea Penrose (Murder at Kensington Palace) and Anna Lee Huber (Penny for Your Secrets) released new instalments in their current series and Cat Sebastian (Hither, Page) began a new one set in an English village post WW2 that combined a cozy mystery with a simply lovely romance.


I did a very quick count the other day, and think that, for the first year ever, I actually listened to more books than I read (by a very small margin).  I counted around 150 audiobooks (and probably missed a few re-listens because I often forget to mark those at Goodreads) which is half my total of 299 reads/listens. And according to the spreadsheet I maintain of books and audios I’ve picked up for review, I had an equal number of books and audiobooks to review in 2019. I have definitely struggled, at times, to find books I want to review and have filled the gap with audiobooks.  So many are released each month, and I especially love it when backlist titles are made available for authors whose work I enjoy but stand no chance of actually getting to in print!

I chose the following as my Top Five audiobooks of the year at AudioGals:

I also cheated here by including the whole Not Dead Yet series! – which is actually the only title (titles) written in 2019; all the other books were written before last year, but didn’t come out in audio until 2019.  But that’s par for the course with audio; not all of them are released simultaneously with the print/digital versions.  The “also rans” for my audio Best of 2019 list were:

All boast top-notch performances and got at least an A- for narration, and the stories got at least a B+ each; and quite honestly, I could have substituted any of them for the list I actually posted at AudioGals; my favourites tend to change depending on how I feel from one day to the next!  Had I listened to Lily Morton’s Deal Maker before I complied my list, that would certainly have made the cut, too!

So that was 2019.  What am I hoping for in 2020?  I’d like historical romance to get back on track, but I don’t see that happening in a big way and expect to be reading even more selectively in the genre than I’ve done this year.  I’m hoping for more from Mia Vincy and will be checking out more from Evie Dunmore.  Right now, most of the good HR is coming from Harlequin Historical authors, so I’ll definitely be reading more from them. In contemporaries, I’m looking forward to two new series from Annabeth Albert (Hotshots and True Colors) as well as to catching up with her Perfect Harmony series in audio, and to making my way through Lily Morton’s backlist – I’m eagerly awaiting the release of the audio of Risk Taker (with Joel Leslie at the helm) and hope she’s planning more audio releases in 2020.  I’ll be snapping up the finale of L.J Hayward’s Death and the Devil series as soon as it comes out, nabbing more Victor Bayne (and Gomez Pugh!) in the next book(s) in Jordan Castillo Price’s PsyCop series, and inhaling more Hazard and Somerset from Gregory Ashe. KJ Charles promises some 1920s pulp mysteries, there’s another book to come in Charlie Adhara’s Big Bad Wolf series, so I’m looking pretty nicely set for the first part of 2020 in terms of reading and listening!

I’ll (hopefully) be back again this time next year to tell you now it all panned out!

The Rational Faculty (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #1) by Gregory Ashe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Three months have passed since Emery Hazard and John-Henry Somerset faced a madman and lived to tell about it.

Three months have passed since Emery Hazard resigned from his job as a detective.

Three months can be too long and too short, all at the same time.

On Halloween, a professor at the local college is murdered in his apartment, in front of dozens of witnesses. Then the killer disappears. Somers is assigned the case—and a new partner.

While Somers investigates the murder, Hazard struggles to find purpose in his new freedom. Despite his decision to stay away, he finds himself drawn to the case. But he’s no longer police, and in the small town of Wahredua, not all of his former colleagues are happy to see him investigating another crime.

When the sheriff’s son and husband go missing, though, the case becomes more complicated than either Hazard or Somers had expected. And soon they learn that someone else is manipulating events in Wahredua.

Someone who is very interested in Emery Hazard.

Rating: A

It’s no secret that Gregory Ashe has quickly become one of my favourite authors.  I first came to his Hazard and Somerset series in audio; I saw Pretty Pretty Boys in a “Coming Soon” list at Audible and requested a copy to review for AudioGals… and was completely hooked on the author’s style of gritty, twisty suspense – and even more hooked on the angsty, screwed-up relationship between the two leads and the gradual revelation of their complicated history.  I continued reading and listening to the series, which went from strength to strength as Hazard and Somers worked some difficult and dangerous cases, building trust and a friendship of sorts before finally facing up to the truth; that they’ve wanted each other since they were sixteen years old but a history like theirs is far from easy to overcome.

Criminal Past, book six in the series, brought a number of interlocking story arcs to a close and ended with Hazard and Somers – who had both been through hell – pretty banged up, but alive and finally feeling as though the past had been laid to rest and ready to move forward with their lives together.  Three months after those traumatic events however, things are far from perfect.  The guys have bought a house together, they share the parenting of three-year-old Evie with her mother, Somers’ ex-wife, and Hazard knows he should be happy. But he’s struggling with the fact that he’s no longer a detective – he sacrificed his own career in order to save Somers’ at the end of the last book – and is finding it difficult to deal with his unemployed status and with the PTSD he’s experiencing as a result of the events that went down in the summer with Mikey Grames.   Hazard’s deep seated insecurities about his attractiveness and self-worth – fostered by previous boyfriends who treated him like crap – only make things worse; he’s waiting for Somers to decide he’s not worth it and walk away.  He’s desperately trying to pretend everything is fine, although Somers – of course – knows exactly what Hazard is doing but is at a loss as to what to do to help him.  He feels guilty that he’s still got his job and Hazard doesn’t, and he’s also taking quite a ribbing from his colleagues, almost all of whom make jokes about the fact that Hazard was the brains of their partnership and that Somers is all but useless without him – and he’s keeping it to himself, not wanting to rock the boat at home or make Hazard feel worse than he already does. They’re treading on eggshells around each other, not wanting to say or do something to make things worse but not knowing how to make things better, and it’s heart-breaking, especially considering what they went through in finally finding their way to one another.  It’s also brilliantly and completely in character for the two of them; although they’ve got better at communicating about the things that matter, they’ve both fallen back on their old patterns and are hiding behind façades of “it’s fine”;  although their physical scars may have healed, the mental ones have not, and they’re floundering.

Somers has been back at work for a little while, and his latest case involves a murder at Wroxall College where the victim – a professor – was stabbed to death at a Halloween costume party.  For a crime that took place in a crowded place, there are surprisingly few witnesses,  there’s little evidence and  the perpetrator escaped easily.  And those witnesses with anything to offer are reticent, hostile and uncooperative by turns, so with nothing but dead-ends on the horizon, Somers – knowing that perhaps he shouldn’t – talks things through with Hazard, the best detective he knows. As Hazard’s mind begins to work along familiar lines, finding patterns and making connections, he finds himself engaged for the first time in months, a renewed sense of purpose energising him and helping him to, at least for a little while, keep his demons at bay.  He listens to Somers, offers advice, but then, acting on his own instinct, makes an important discovery  – one which complicates his relationship with Somers (giving rise to yet more ribbing and embarrassment) and with the Wahredua PD in general.  And when Hazard is approached by one of the witnesses in the case and asked to investigate the murder separately from the police, it complicates things between Hazard and Somers even more and further threatens their already fragile relationship.

Once again, Gregory Ashe has penned a wonderfully complex and gripping murder mystery with twists, turns and red-herrings a-plenty and has very cleverly found a way to keep Hazard and Somers working a case – and together for most of the book – despite their change in circumstances.   But as with the other books in the series, the whole thing – the novel, the investigation – pivots around the ups and downs of the central relationship, characterised by Mr. Ashe’s unerring ability to zero in on what makes these guys tick and to examine, with pinpoint – and sometimes painful – accuracy, their flaws and insecurities.  He has the most amazing ability to peel back layer after layer to reveal raw truths and hurts that feel so very real – and those moments when Hazard and Somers are finally able admit to those truths and hurts are among the very finest – and favourite – moments in the book.

I’ve said elsewhere that one of the things that has made the Hazard and Somerset books so refreshing to read is the fact that this is one of only a few series I can think of that doesn’t end once the central couple gets together.  Here, we’re shown what happens after the ILYs and how, in the case of this particular couple, there’s still a lot of work to do if they’re going to make it in the long term.  So I was relieved to discover that Mr. Ashe hasn’t resorted to breaking up Hazard and Somers in order to generate some romantic tension; instead he has them working through all the shit life is throwing at them individually and as a couple while they’re also working a complicated investigation, which is a much more realistic approach, and one I greatly appreciated.

As always, there’s a colourful secondary cast, some new, like Somers’ new partner Gray Dulac, a young, hip, gay detective who thrives on fist bumps and calls everyone “bro” – Hazard’s reactions to him are frequently hilarious – and some we’ve met before, such as the creepy and insidious Ozark Volunteers, whose presence never fail to make a shiver run up and down my spine.  And cleverly and carefully planted but largely hidden amid the chaos of the investigation and Hazard and Somers’  volatile relationship are the threads of the storyline which seems likely to be the overarching one of the series – and I can’t wait to find out more.

Utterly compelling and immensely satisfying, The Rational Faculty is a real tour de force and a superb start to this second set of Hazard and Somerset stories.  Gregory Ashe’s writing is sharp, focused and laced with humour despite the grittiness of the action and the difficulties being faced by our heroes, and he seamlessly blends together the different elements of the novel to create a truly un-put-downable read.

Note: There are some gruesome scenes later in the book which some may find upsetting.

Orientation (Borealis Investigations #1) by Gregory Ashe (audiobook) – Narrated by Charlie David

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Shaw and North are best friends, private detectives, and in danger of losing their agency. A single bad case, followed by crippling lawsuits, has put them on the brink of closing shop. Until, that is, a client walks into their Benton Park office.

Matty Fennmore is young, blond, and beautiful, and he’s in danger. When he asks for Shaw and North’s help foiling a blackmail scheme, the detectives are quick to accept.

The conspiracy surrounding Matty runs deeper than Shaw and North expect. As they dig into the identity of Matty’s blackmailer, they are caught in a web that touches politicians, the local LGBT community, and the city’s police.

An attack on Matty drives home the rising stakes of the case, and Shaw and North must race to find the blackmailer before he can silence Matty. But a budding romance lays bare long-buried feelings between Shaw and North, and as their relationship splinters, solving the case may come at the cost of their friendship.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – A-

Orientation is the first book in Gregory Ashe’s latest series of romantic suspense novels, and it features two long-standing friends who run a detective agency in St. Louis. Mr. Ashe has rapidly become one of my favourite authors; he writes incredibly well-constructed, twisty mysteries and combines them with brilliantly written, superbly developed and complex relationships between his principal characters that just ooze sexual tension and make you want to bang their heads together at the same time as you’re rooting for them to see what’s in front of their noses and just kiss already!

North McKinney and Kingsley Shaw Wilder Aldrich met in their freshman year of college and have been pretty much inseparable ever since. They’re like chalk and cheese – North comes from a blue-collar family of construction workers, while Shaw was born into wealth; North comes across as a hardened cynic whereas Shaw is all wide-eyed innocence… yet something about them just clicked eight years earlier and they’ve been best friends ever since. North was also there for Shaw during the worst time of Shaw’s life; at the end of freshman year, Shaw and his boyfriend Carl were attacked by the West End Slasher, a crazed serial killer who was murdering young gay men across the city. Carl was killed and Shaw was critically injured, but although Shaw recovered physically, the mental scars took much longer to heal, and if it hadn’t been for North’s refusal to let his friend sink into depression and despair, he might not have made it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.