Story Rating: 4.25 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Greg Boudreaux
Length: 8 hours, 29 minutes
In the almost six years since Jake “Fitz” Fitzgerald blew up his friendship with his best friend and teammate in a fit of vitriolic jealousy, Jake’s love of baseball has faded away, unlike the pain from his unrequited love. Comfortably settled on a non-contending team for the last five years, Jake’s content to do his job and play out the last two years of his contract. That is, until he’s traded to a team in Ottawa and overnight he’s on a new team, in a new town, and tasked with calming down the talented rookie pitcher with the hair-trigger temper, Nico Agresta, the younger brother of a former teammate. However, there is nothing of the gangly tween Jake remembers when confronted with the stunning young pitcher, except for the intensity of his stare—an intensity that seems to have grown exponentially and keeps the rookie ready to snap. Feeling unexpectedly protective of Nico, Jake is determined to help him be the best ball player he can be; he’s also almost equally determined to make the man smile and show his dimples like he used to. Jake’s positive he can rein in Nico’s temper and his own inconvenient attraction with enough patience and focus.
For Nico, being focused is part of his problem—too focused on being perfect, too focused on being the best, and too focused on winning rookie of the year to prove that “fags” can play ball and be damned good at it too (even if he can’t admit to himself he’s gay). Nico’s focus on perfecting his craft is only rivaled by his obsessive need to be a “normal” hetero man—a mission that sees him getting smashed and bedding an unmemorable cast of “Jennys” in his quest for the magical vajay-jay that will “fix” him and make him worthy of his father’s respect, if not his love. When he finds out that his crush, Jake, will be joining his team, Nico is filled with trepidation—and intense lust. Suppressing every thought and fantasy of being with a man had been hard enough before, but manageable. With Jake back in his life, smiling at him, touching him, Nico can’t contain the want that is as strong as it was in his lustful teen years.
When a flare-up of temper between Nico and Jake leads to a hot encounter, Jake is adamant it can’t happen again, even though all he wants to do is take the self-loathing, scared, and vulnerable young man into his arms and never let him go. But all his good intentions crumble when faced with the crux of Nico’s self-denial and pain. Soon, Nico and Jake are swept up in a passion unlike any either has ever experienced, but with both men constantly worrying about discovery, their relationship status and confronting their own issues and feelings, they are unprepared for the curve ball life throws at them.
Though not at all a baseball fan, I really enjoyed Reading the Signs. The sports terminology is integrated well, with the players using it realistically and it be followed by a sentence that explains the reference to keep the non-initiated from getting stuck on acronyms, which I truly appreciated. And hey, I learned something new! In addition to making baseball sound enjoyable and engaging (sorry, I’m just so not a fan), Andrews creates believable, enjoyable, and complex characters across the board. Even characters who only pop up for a scene (like Nico’s first Jenny) are life-like and come across with some personality.
Nico is a hot-mess volcano ready to spew out anger at every bad pitch, bad play, or mistake to release the pressure that churns inside him all the time. Having grown up believing that his father doesn’t love him like he loves Nico’s siblings (especially his older brother, who is the epitome of the good son), and that he will further despise him if he finds out Nico is attracted to men, Nico’s one goal is to become the best—a goal steeped in such anxiety-inducing perfectionism that, when mixed with his constant suppression of who he really is, his desperation to be straight and not a “freak,” his feelings of inadequacy, his loneliness and despair, it leaves Nico a roiling mass of emotion with nowhere to go except into angry outbursts when humanity creeps in and mistakes are made on the field.
Jake’s almost Zen-like calmness and “one pitch at a time” philosophy is just what Nico needs to help keep him together and in the moment. However, Jake’s outward serenity hides his bland indifference to the world, including being a major league catcher—the only career he ever wanted. Making the common mistake of equating the tragedy of unrequited love to love in general being terrible, Jake has eked out a nice complacent life for himself using his self-possession and natural leadership skills to shape the pitchers and team the way he likes and satisfying his itch for sex and a little dominance with a no-strings friendship. So being traded leaves him less than Zen, initially. However, guiding Nico and being around his energy and exuberance reminds Jake of what he loved about the game, and the more his feelings for Nico grow, the more he’s forced to really deal with his baggage instead of letting it continue to shut down his life. The two have such great chemistry and manage to have adult conversations (a blessed relief!) without too much unnecessary drama so that, while the story is SO ANGSTY, it’s the good, believable kind…except right at the end. Hence, my one quibble with the story, is the sudden petty fight they have culminating in an ending that is a bit on the nose and overdone in the sports sub-genre, but I guess on-brand for the rookie-veteran trope. This made the ending seem a bit rushed and caused the story to lose a bit of its individuality for me, but it’s still emotional and meaningful for the characters.
While the story itself is strong, I know that I enjoyed it so much more listening to it performed by Greg Boudreaux. Nico’s first introduction is in the midst of another failed attempt at normalcy, and generally, I have a hard time liking characters that knowingly use people, even though I understand the desperation behind their actions. It’s simply that the inherent selfishness in seeking out people whose names you can’t be bothered to remember in the hopes they can “fix” you, makes me feel a little icky. Naturally, my initial thought was “oh, no, I’m probably not going to like this dude much.” Yet in moments, having the pain, despair, and self-disgust inherent in Andrews’s words expressed with such realness and heartfelt misery by Boudreaux had me wanting to just wrap Nico up in hugs and rub his upset tummy. Boudreaux’s gift, in not just his character voice work, but in his ability to convey the gamut of genuine emotion, including their various subtleties and inflections, is among the best when it comes to book narration in my opinion. Even with my being very familiar with Boudreaux’s character voices, he manages to tweak them just enough to fit the personality of the character on deck. Moreover, as someone who works in the technical side of audio production, I am a HUGE fan of the quality of the audio and his usual attention to detail (which is why him pronouncing Chi (SHY) town as CHAI almost made me drop my iPad lol). To be fair though, maybe the Chi is now a hipster tea mecca, and I’m out of touch.
All in the all, Reading the Signs is a great sports story even non-baseball fans can enjoy that is comprised of an almost perfect blend of a slow burn between MCs with tangible chemistry, an awesome supporting cast who complement and facilitate the solid emotional stakes and growth in the narrative, the right amount of sex and lite BDSM for the story, and tons and tons of FEELS. Adding Boudreaux’s usual top-notch narration makes this a definite recommendation for me.