The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Last Graduate Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Lesson Two of the Scholomance

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the deadliest magical school of all time in The Last Graduate, the epic second lesson of the Scholomance series by bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik.

Novik is a fantastic author who has produced some excellent fantasy novels throughout her career, including her bestselling Temeraire series (set during a re-imagined Napoleonic War fought with dragons), as well as her standalone reads Uprooted and Spinning Silver.  However, I personally know Novik best from her awesome 2020 book, A Deadly Education, which was one of my favourite books from last yearA Deadly Education had an awesome story that followed Galadriel “El” Higgins, a student in the Scholomance, a lethal magical school filled with all manner of magical monsters known as maleficaria (mals).  This was an outstanding read with a really clever and intense narrative, and I have been really looking forward to seeing how the story continued for a while now.  As a result, I was excited when I found out that the sequel, The Last Graduate, was coming out, and it swiftly became one of my most anticipated reads for 2021.

Following her daring mission to reactivate the school’s defences and kill as many maleficaria as possible, El finally thinks she has a chance to relax and prepare for her gruelling final year at the Scholomance.  Not only must she continue her exhaustive magical studies, but the entire year leads up to a lethal graduation ceremony, where the students must run a gauntlet of mals at the school’s entry hall to escape back into the real world.  Now with allies, friends and even an extremely odd love interest in moody warrior mage Orion Lake, El has a chance of escaping the Scholomance without being forced to rely on her immense affinity for the most destructive spells in existence, which could result in the entire student body being vaporised.

However, the sentient Scholomance appears to have different ideas for El and resolves to make her life as difficult as possible, assigning her impossible classes and isolated study periods.  Worse, it appears that the school is deliberately funnelling as many mals towards El as possible to kill her and steal her magical energy.  Determined to defeat the school and escape, El is forced to make some new alliances to survive the year and make it to graduation.  At the same time, she needs to navigate her unusual relationship with Orion, especially after receiving a mysterious warning from her mother to stay away from him.

The closer El gets to graduation, the harder life becomes, especially after the scope of her magical abilities is revealed to the entire school.  Now targeted by rival factions within the Scholomance and unsure who she can trust, El will need to pull together every terrible power at her command to survive.  However, not everything is what it seems in the Scholomance, and the school has one final lesson to teach El: sometimes there are things far more important than surviving.

Wow, just wow, now that was a damn impressive sequel.  The Last Graduate is an epic and incredible read that proved to be utterly addictive in all the right ways.  I had an absolute blast reading this exceptional fantasy novel and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in a couple of hours, only to be utterly traumatised by its cliffhanger ending.  It was so much fun getting back into this detailed and compelling setting, and it was great to see the main characters continue to evolve throughout, even if they lead to tragedy and heartbreak.   This was an outstanding read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

This latest book from Novik contains a pretty epic narrative which covers El’s entire final year within the Scholomance.  The story continues immediately after the end of A Deadly Education, and I would strongly recommend reading the first book before attempting The Last Graduate, as the initial Scholomance book contained a lot of interesting detail and character development that is useful to understand.  This second book starts off at a good, restrained pace, mostly settling things down after the fast-paced conclusion of A Deadly Education and allowing the protagonist and point-of-view character, El, to settle back into the rhythms of the school.  The author utilises a very detail-rich brand of storytelling, which helps to produce quite a rich a vibrant novel, even if it did slow down my initial reading speed.  However, the pace picks up significantly once it becomes apparent that things in the school have changed, as El finds herself the only person in the school being attacked by mals.  This troubling situation forces her to turn to her friends and new allies to survive, especially as she is convinced that the school itself is out to get her.  This eventually leads to the reveal that El is an all-powerful force of destruction, which greatly alters the balance of power in the school, as El is caught between the various enclaves who view her as a major weapon both inside the Scholomance and in the national rivalries outside of it.  This results in an immense amount of drama and conflict, as El fights to remain neutral and survive, while also coming to terms with who she is and the terrible magical system she finds herself a part for.

All this drama, fighting and conflict leads up to the big event of the book, the graduation gauntlet, something that the author has been building up since the start of the series.  However, nothing goes as expected with graduation, as everything about it, including the lead-in and the training is very different than in previous years.  The reasons why are finally revealed as part of a very interesting twist which changes everything about how you thought the novel was going to end.  This alteration leads to an excellent conclusion which perfectly works in all the story elements that have set up throughout the course of the two novels.  The final scenes are extremely dramatic, with some big moments and epic displays of magic that will keep you on your toes.  I honestly could not put the book down during this part of the novel as I was desperate to see how everything ended, and then we got to the very last sentence.  Ooh, that last sentence, how much I hate and love you at the same time.  Novik sets up a really massive cliffhanger that was both perfect and enraging at the very same time.  I was literally yelling my shock and frustration at the book (and Novik by extension) as I read and re-read that sentence, as I could not believe that she left it like that.  I mean, mad respect for setting it up and making me care so much for the characters so that I was deeply impacted by it, but at the same time, how dare you make me feel like that.  Naturally, the third and final book in the Scholomance series is now one of my most anticipated reads for 2022 (which is what Novik intended, evil genius that she is), and I am extremely eager to see what happens next.

I deeply appreciate the awesome setting that is the Scholomance.  This sentient magical school is such a dark and wonderful setting, and Novik has built it up perfectly throughout the course of the series.  I absolutely love this brilliantly perverse version of the classical magical school setting, especially as Novik has spent an amazing amount of time establishing it, providing the reader with a ton of detail and anecdotes about the education, living arrangements and many, many, hazards involved with living there.  This detail continues in The Last Graduate, as Novik expands on the school, showing more fantastic elements to it, and even throwing in a few intriguing changes that impact the status-quo of everybody there.  There is so much fun detail here, and I loved the examination of how living in such a dangerous and enclosed building would impact the people living there.  There is one amazing scene where El channels a lot of magic into the school, accidentally restarting a simulation of the outdoors.  The subsequent wave of grief from all the students at seeing the sun again was pretty terrible, and it showed just how damaging this situation is, even though it is saving their lives.  I also really appreciated the interesting new changes that Novik introduced to school, especially as it significantly alters what you think you knew about it.  I also liked how Novik also provided some additional detail of the wider world outside the Scholomance, expanding on some of the details that were already set up in A Deadly Education.  There are several hints about big events occurring outside of the school which will probably come into play in the third novel, and there is also an interesting examination about the rivalries between the various enclaves, magical societies with selective membership and strong political power.  I cannot wait to see what awesome new details and settings that Novik will add into her next book, and I have no doubt it will be really cool to learn about.

Aside from that outstanding story, the epic finale, and the wildly inventive setting, I also must highlight the great characters featured within the novel.  There is an interesting and memorable array of characters featured throughout the Scholomance series, although most of the book focused on protagonist El.  El is a fantastic and intense character, mainly because she holds a mythical level of destructive power, an incredible affinity for combat and death spells, and is also some form of prophesised destroyer, which caused her father’s side of her family to try and kill her (a bold move for pacifists).  This, as well as the fact that her power makes everyone she encounters subconsciously uneasy, turned El into quite a guarded person, and much of the first book focused on her coming out of her shell and finally making friends.  This development continues in The Last Graduate, as El is forced to make even more friends and alliances.  This has a pretty positive impact on her personality, especially as she learns to trust people, and while she still has a mostly prickly disposition, she does mellow out a little more.  There is also a rather interesting major plot point when the full range of her powers becomes apparent to the entire school.  This makes her a target for everyone in the school, with the various enclave students either trying to recruit her or kill her.  This forces El once again into a defensive mode, although she is eventually able to overcome for the greater good of herself and the school.  I deeply appreciated El’s growth as a character in this novel, and it was great to see this wildly unstable and sassy protagonist once again.

The other major character of the book is El’s love interest, Orion Lake.  Orion is another interesting protagonist, as he is a powerful mage with a hero complex who gains his powers from killing mals.  A member of the exclusive and powerful New York enclave, Orion is considered more of an asset than a person by his family, which has resulted in everyone seeing him as either a god or a weapon.  This, combined with his love for fighting monsters, has left Orion a little messed up, and he ends up imprinting on El as she is the first character to treat him like a normal person and call him out for his stupid heroic mindset.  Orion is a very complex and nuanced character, and it has been interesting to see him develop, especially as you only really get to see him through El’s cynical eyes.  While he is a little less utilised in this novel, he still has several interesting challenges, including having substantially less magical energy and power due to him encountering very few mals in his final year.  There is also the rather awkward but sweet romance he has with El.  Both these characters are messed up in their own unique ways, but together they nearly make one emotionally function human.  Their romance is a major part of the book’s plot, and Novik works in some compelling and moving storylines around it.  I felt that all of Orion’s character arc was really well written, and I deeply appreciated the way that Novik cleverly set up some key moments surrounding him.

Aside from El and Orion, The Last Graduate contains a fantastic array of supporting characters in the form of the other Scholomance students.  While Novik did introduce most of these characters up in A Deadly Education, I felt that they got a lot more attention in The Last Graduate, with the author taking the time to explore them a little further.  I quite liked the increased focus on these supporting characters, as there are an interesting array of personalities, powers and allegiances, which helped make the plot more exciting and filled with intrigue.  I particularly enjoyed the various members of El’s alliance, each of whom get a few key moments throughout the book and prove to be quite fun to follow.  I also must highlight El’s new familiar, a mouse called Precious, who gains a sort of sentience throughout the book, and immediately starts trying to sabotage El and Orion’s relationship.  Each of these characters added something fun to the overall tapestry of The Last Graduate’s story, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all of them in the final book.

With The Last Graduate, the amazing Naomi Novik has substantially jumped up my list of favourite authors, even if I am severely annoyed with her about that brilliant, if cruel, cliffhanger.  This excellent second novel in the Scholomance series is one of the best books I have read all year, and it is a highly recommended read.  I had an outstanding time once again exploring this messed-up magical school, and the complex characters and unique storylines helped to create an intense and powerful read.  I honestly cannot wait to read the third and final book in this series, even though I fully expect Novik to do everything in her power to break my heart.  If you have not started reading the Scholomance series, you are missing out big time!

Book Haul 29 October 2021

It has been a while since I have done a Book Haul post, but seeing that I received several interesting books recently, I thought I would quickly do one to highlight some of the best books I have gotten in the last few weeks.  Each of the below books sound extremely cool and captivating, and I cannot wait to see how they all turn out.

Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora's End Cover

I was very happy to receive a copy of Aurora’s End by Australian authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  This awesome novel is the third and final book in the impressive Aurora Cycle trilogy, which has so far consisted of Aurora Rising and Aurora Burning.  This has been an excellent young adult science fiction series and I am really eager to see how it all comes to a close. I am actually about halfway through it at the moment, and I am enjoying it’s intense story, especially as it utilising some cool and complex time-travel antics.

Star Wars: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon

Star Wars Visions - Ronin Cover

I was also very excited to received a copy of Star Wars: Ronin by Emma Mieko Candon, which ties into an episode from the recent Star Wars: Visions anime series, The Duel. Ronin serves as a prequel to The Duel and tells the full story of the wandering protagonist in this alternate universe story.  I am deeply curious about this novel and I cannot wait to see what crazy story it contains.  I loved The Duel and I look forward to seeing more of the unique alternate universe, especially with its blend of Star Wars and feudal Japanese imagery.  If this incredible cover is anything to go by, this is going to be an outstanding read.

Kill Your Brother by Jack Heath

Kill Your Brother Cover

One of the more intriguing novels I recently received was Kill Your Brother by Australian author Jack Heath, author of the gruesome Timothy Blake series, which follows a cannibal turned FBI consultant.  I had a lot of fun last year reading the last book in this series, Hideout, and I am looking forward to reading more from this talented thriller author, especially as Kill Your Brother sounds like a fantastic and intense read.  An adaptation of the Audible Original of the same name, this novel asks the simple, if distressing, question, would you kill your brother to save your own life?

The Spy’s Wife by Fiona McIntosh

The Spy's Wife Cover

Australian author Fiona McIntosh is at it again with another historical drama, The Spy’s Wife.  I have rather enjoyed some of McIntosh’s latest novels, including The Pearl Thief, The Diamond Hunter and The Champagne War, and I look forward to reading this next book, especially as it focuses on espionage during World War II.

State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny

State of Terror Cover

The next book I have received is the exciting thriller novel, State of Terror.  Written by the curious team of experienced author Louise Penny and the Hillary Clinton, State of Terror follows a Secretary of State who attempts to stop an international terrorist attack while also trying to revitalise America’s diplomatic reputation after a controversial President.  As you can imagine, this book is considered a little divisive and controversial in America, and I am kind of curious to find out what sort of story it contains.

The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker

The Keeper of Night Cover

The final book I have received is the rather interesting sounding young adult fantasy novel, The Keeper of Night by Kylie Lee Baker. This awesome sounding novel combines Western and Japanese mythologies and religions to tell the story of a half British Reaper, half Japanese Shinigami girl who is given a task to kill three demons. I really love the sound of this amazing novel, and I cannot wait to see what unique story it contains.

Well that’s the end of this latest Book Haul post.  As you can see I have quite a bit of reading to do at the moment thanks to all these awesome books that have come in.  Let me know which of the above you are most interested in and make sure to check back in a few weeks to see my reviews of them.

WWW Wednesday – 27 October 2021

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Taking on a World of Words, where bloggers share the books that they’ve recently finished, what they are currently reading and what books they are planning to read next. Essentially you have to answer three questions (the Three Ws):

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

So, let’s get to it.

What are you currently reading?

The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox (Trade Paperback)

The Dying Squad Cover

I just started reading the cool new book from debuting author Adam Simcox, The Dying SquadThe Dying Squad is an intriguing fantasy crime fiction novel that follows a murdered detective who is sent back from purgatory to solve his own murder.  I am having a great time with this book so far and I cannot wait to see how it turns out.

 

The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker (Audiobook)

The Bone Ship's Wake Cover

I am still going with The Bone Ship’s Wake audiobook and I am hoping to finish it off in the next week or so. While I wish I was getting through this audiobook a little quicker, I am still having an amazing time with The Bone Ship’s Wake.  Barker has written another intense and powerful dark fantasy read that makes full use of its unique setting and clever nautical elements.  The Bone Ship’s Wake is proving to be quite an awesome read and I am extremely excited to see how Barker finishes off this epic and captivating trilogy.

What did you recently finish reading?

Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez (Trade Paperback)

Lies Like Wildfire Cover

What do you think you’ll read next?

Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (Trade Paperback)

Aurora's End Cover

 

 

That’s it for this week, check back in next Wednesday to see what progress I’ve made on my reading and what books I’ll be looking at next.

Waiting on Wednesday – Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday article, I highlight a very awesome sounding upcoming fantasy novel from an acclaimed, bestselling author with Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham.

Age of Ash Cover

Daniel Abraham is an outstandingly talented author who has been producing some very compelling reads for the last 15 years.  Abraham, who also writes under the pseudonym M. L. N Hanover, has previously authored several big fantasy series, including The Long Price Quartet, the Black Sun’s Daughter series and The Dagger and the Coin series, as well as contributing to several Wild Cards novels (a long-running superhero series edited by George R. R. Martin).  However, Abraham is best known for his partnership with Ty Franck, who write together under the joint pseudonym James S. A. Corey, of The Expanse fame.  The Expanse series is easily the hottest science fiction series now (check out my review for the previous entry, Tiamat’s Wrath), and the upcoming final book in the series, Leviathan Falls is set to be the biggest science fiction release of the entire year.

While I have enjoyed a couple of The Expanse novels, I have yet to try out any of Abraham’s solo works.  His next upcoming book seems like a perfect opportunity to fix this, especially as it will be the start of a brand-new epic fantasy series.  This new book, Age of Ash, is currently set for release on 15 February 2022, and will serve as the very first book in the Kithamar series.

Synopsis:

From New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author Daniel Abraham, co-author of The Expanse, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all.

Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.

This is Alys’s.

When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives.

Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.


Age of Ash
sounds like it is going to be a pretty awesome fantasy story.  I love it when author’s combine fun crime fiction elements together with elaborate fantasy narratives, and Age of Ash’s story looks set to feature murder, conspiracy, and nation-ending secrets.  I am quite intrigued to see how this story turns out, especially in the hands of the ultra-impressive Abraham.  Based on the combination of a cool narrative and a talented author, I think that this novel has an immense amount of potential, and the Kithamar series is likely to be a cornerstone of the fantasy genre for the next few years.

Viral by Robin Cook

Viral Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 418 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The leading author of the medical thriller genre, Dr Robin Cook, returns with another eye-opening and deeply relevant novel, Viral, that takes a deep an unsettling look at America’s healthcare system and the grim horrors that could strike anyone.

Robin Cook is an interesting author who has been one of the most unique writers of thriller fiction for years.  A doctor and former member of the United States Navy, Cook made his debut back in 1972 with The Year of the Intern, a medical drama about the pressures of a young doctor.  He then followed it up with his first thriller in 1977, Coma, which featured criminal activities within a hospital.  Since then, Cook has written over 30 additional thrillers, nearly all of which feature either medical elements or doctors as the protagonists.  Cook’s catalogue of works features a huge collection of standalone reads, as well as his long-running Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery series, and all of them contain an interesting array of plots.  I have been meaning to try out some of Cook’s novels for a while and I finally got a chance a few weeks ago when I received a copy of his latest novel, Viral, which contained a deep and powerful story.

As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, former police officer Brian Murphy and his family take the opportunity to have a well-deserved vacation.  After several days of relaxing times at the beach and night-time cookouts, the fun comes to an end as Brian’s wife, Emma, comes down with severe flu-like symptoms.  Fearing COVID, the family returns to New York, only for Emma to suffer a traumatic seizure in the car, forcing them to the emergency room.

It soon becomes apparent that Emma is suffering from a rare and lethal disease known as eastern equine encephalitis, likely brought on by mosquito bites while at the beach.  As the doctors work to save Emma’s life, Brian is forced to contend with another major shock when he receives a cripplingly expensive hospital bill, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  With his business already failing due to COVID, Brian is unable to cope with the inflated bill before him, and turns to his insurance company for help, only to be blindsided when they reject his claim on arbitrary grounds.

Forced to try and come up with the money to pay for his wife’s bills, Brian dives into the shocking world of corrupt healthcare and insurance, discovering the insidious legal practice of overcharging patients and not providing insurance coverage.  Already on a knife edge due to his wife’s condition, Brian is determined to fight this injustice.  However, there is little he can legally do, especially with every procedure adding more to his immense debt.  But when his daughter also begins showing symptoms, and his wife’s care is being negatively impacted by his financial position, Brian will be driven to seek justice another way.

Viral is an intense and extremely fascinating novel that I had an interesting time reading.  Cook has come up with an extremely fast-paced narrative here that dives into compelling contemporary issues.  This results in quite an exciting and addictive read that I found to be particularly distinctive and memorable.

Cook has written a pretty cool story for Viral that takes the reader on a harrowing and dramatic ride.  While it has a bit of a slow start, mostly to set up the characters and the situation, it does not take long for the book to get crazy, with the protagonist’s wife getting sick and rushed to hospital very quickly.  What follows is an agonising thrill-ride of emotion as she gets sicker, while the protagonist is forced to deal with a series of disruptive situations as the hospital and the insurance company take turns to bleed him for money and impact his wife’s health.  Due to Cook’s realistic portrayal of certain modern phenomena involving healthcare and finance, Viral ended up being a pretty terrifying read that was in some ways scarier than a horror novel.  There are some very traumatic moments scattered throughout the novel, and two big tragedies occurring in the central part of the story result in some significant changes in the story direction.  The last third of the book is pretty fast-paced and shows a protagonist tipped to the edge, attempting to find justice the only way he knows how.  I rather liked how Cook ended the novel, and it was certainly fascinating the way that he utilised thriller elements to conclude what had previously been more of a medical drama.  This is a really good narrative, and found myself getting quite drawn into it, especially as Cook paints such a vivid picture of the medical issues and the various problems surrounding them.  I did have some issues with some character interactions and dialogue, as a lot of the communication and discussions seemed a bit unnatural to me.  I also had a very hard time connecting with any of the characters featured in the novel, as they were a little one-dimensional.  Still, the intense and compelling narrative more than made up for it and I had a wonderful time getting through this book.

I really appreciated the deep examinations of certain medical aspects throughout Viral, and this includes Cook’s fascinating look at viruses, pandemics, and infections.  Cook is a master of examining medical concerns, including pandemics (Pandemic was the name of one of his previous books, released in December 2018), and while I will admit to a certain internal exhaustion at stories concerning pandemics (a sentiment I am sure many others share), I think he did a pretty good job of featuring these aspects here.  Viral contains a range of interesting medical elements, such as examining the social and financial impacts COVID-19 had on New York, with multiple characters suffering because of it.  Cook also takes the time to try and terrify his readers by highlighting what diseases he believes are going to impact us next.  In particular, he focuses on eastern equine encephalitis, a disease transmitted to humans from mosquitoes.  Not only does Cook take the time to highlight just how deadly and disruptive eastern equine encephalitis is, but he also explains early on in the novel that diseases like encephalitis are likely to be much more common in the future due to climate change and increased mosquito migration patterns.  This focus on medical issues, especially surrounding eastern equine encephalitis, proves to be pretty scary, and I know that I am going to be a little more wary of any mosquitoes I see in the future.

While you would think that the part of the book looking at deadly diseases and crazy new infections would be the scariest part of this novel, it is Cook’s examination of the American healthcare system that is the most horrifying.  Throughout the course of Viral, the protagonist experiences firsthand how ruinous it can be to fall sick, when he is hit with a massively inflated bill after rushing his wife to the hospital.  The situation only degrades even further when his new health insurance company continues to reject his claims and the company controlling the hospital immediately starts a lawsuit to get their money back.  This takes the protagonist and the reader on a deep and intense dive into the current realities of the American healthcare system, including hospitals, medical billing, private health companies and health insurance agencies, and how they combine to cause major problems for sick people and their families.  There is a focus on how most hospitals are run for profit these days, artificially inflating their bills to get the most money.  At the same time, there is an examination of how insurance companies are offering bogus coverage, with multiple hidden clauses that make it possible for them to reject claims for the most ridiculous of reasons.  This examination of the healthcare system soon becomes the major focus of Viral’s plot, as the problems associated with it soon prove to be more lethal than the eastern equine encephalitis.  Cook is very critical of how the healthcare system is being allowed to operate in America, and it was fascinating and disturbing to see his impressions of it, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19.  This proved to be a very intriguing and powerful inclusion to this novel, and readers are guaranteed to come out of it with a pressing need to review their insurance policies to make sure the same thing won’t happen to them.

Overall, Viral by Robin Cook proved to be an excellent and memorable medical thriller with a lot of fantastic features to it.  I deeply appreciated the way in which Cook takes the time to focus on contemporary issues, including his look at viral diseases and current issues with the American healthcare system.  While I did have some issues with Cook’s writing style, Viral ended up being a really intriguing and realistic novel that will leave most readers with an intense sense of unease.  A very eye-opening book that has made me very curious about some of Cook’s other medical thrillers.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Horror Novels (Updated – 2021)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  In this latest edition of Top Ten Tuesday, readers get a Halloween Freebie, meaning that they can list whatever topic they want, although a horror or Halloween theme is encouraged.  So, with that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to update a previous list where I highlighted my favourite horror novels of all time.

Last year for Halloween I did a list where I looked at my top ten favourite horror novels.  While horror is not my favourite genre, I ended up producing a rather interesting list with some unique entries that I was pretty happy with.  I decided last year that I would come back and update this list every Halloween, especially if I had some new horror novels to add to it.  Well, in the last year, I had the opportunity to check out some excellent and intense horror reads, and I intend to try and find out if they can fit into my list.

To sort out this update, I took a critical look at the previous version of the list and made some hard decisions about whether any of the horror novels I read in the last year might fit in better.  I ended up making some changes to list, with new entries replacing some of the existing books.  While I was sad to see some of the previously featured novels removed, I honestly felt that the new entries are better horror novels.  This resulted in a fun new version of this list, and I am pretty happy with how it turned out.

Honourable Mentions:

Nights of the Living Dead edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry

Nights of the Living Dead Cover

 

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

An interesting read from earlier this year that got a lot of attention, The Final Girl Support Group focused on a group of final girls from alternate versions of classic slasher films who are targeted by a brand-new killer.  While this book is more of a thriller than a horror read, it serves as a clever homage to the slasher genre, and fans of horror fiction will love it’s compelling and reference laden story.

 

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company Cover

 

Awakened by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth

Awakened Cover

Top Ten List (unranked):

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep Cover

 

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero Cover

 

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

I had to add this brilliant and compelling horror/science fiction read onto this list.  The Dark is the latest novel from author Jeremy Robinson that focuses on an apparent demonic invasion of Earth.  Filled with gore, monsters and body mutations, The Dark gets pretty gruesome and scary in places, which blends perfectly with the intense action and Robinson’s quirky humour.  An outstanding read, this fantastic horror novel comes highly recommended.

 

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly Cover

 

Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Code Zero Cover

 

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

Earlier this year I had the chance to read the latest novel from the modern master of horror fiction, the great Stephen King, the utterly compelling Later, which focuses on a young boy who can talk to the recently deceased.  While Later is primarily a character-driven story about a complicated youth’s life, it can get pretty scary in places, especially once the protagonist encounters true evil.  A deeply compelling read with some interesting connections to one of King’s most iconic horror novels, this is an excellent and unique book that is worth reading.

 

Star Wars: Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber

deathtrooperscover

 

Devolution by Max Brooks

Devolution Cover

 

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

I have already featured several great books from Jonathan Maberry on this list, but there was no way I could exclude one of his latest horror reads, Ink.  While most of the other Maberry novels with horror elements focus either on zombies or Lovecraftian monsters, Ink features a particularly horrendous tale of a depraved being who steals a person’s tattoos and the precious memories associated with them.  Set in one of Maberry’s most iconic settings, Ink had a very disturbing narrative, and I deeply appreciated this unique and book that the author came up with.

 

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

A History of the Vampire Uprising Cover

 

 

That’s the end of this latest Top Ten Tuesday list.  I think that the new horror novels were great additions to the list, and I like how this latest version turned out.  Each of the above novels, both new inclusions and existing ones, are outstanding reads that come highly recommended to all horror fans.  I look forward to seeing how this list evolves once again this time next year, especially as there are some awesome sounding horror novels, such as Road of Bones by Christopher Golden and Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes, set for release in the next few months.

The Riviera House by Natasha Lester

The Riviera House Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 452 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling Australian author Natasha Lester returns with a powerful and intense historical drama that presents a multigenerational tale of love, loss, culture, and the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France, in The Riviera House.

Paris, 1939.  With the war about to start and fears of a Nazi invasion becoming more apparent, Éliane Dufort, a young art student who works part time at the Louvre, watches the staff store away the gallery’s most expensive artworks and begin to hide them throughout France.  Determined to survive the upcoming war, the last thing Éliane should have done was fall in love, however when she meets one of her brother’s friends, Xavier, she cannot help herself, and they soon begin a whirlwind romance.  However, with the Nazis right outside of Paris, Xavier leaves for England, breaking her heart.

With Xavier gone and most of her family killed by the Nazis as they tried to flee the city, Éliane vows to fight the invaders by any means necessary.  Her connection to the Louvre lands her a job working for the enemy in the vast warehouse the Nazis are using to store the artwork looted from France.  Working with the legendary Rose Valland, Éliane is tasked with recording every single piece of art that the Germans steal, as well as attempting to discover where they are being sent.  However, Éliane soon gains the unfortunate romantic attention of a powerful Nazi officer, while a returning Xavier, now a treacherous art expert working for Hermann Göring, threatens to destroy her cover.

Many years later, vintage fashion expert Remy Lang travels to the French Riviera and arrives at a beautiful house that was part of a mysterious inheritance from her unknown biological parents.  Hoping to escape from her intense grief at the loss of her husband and child, Remy soon becomes involved with a visiting family living at the neighbouring villa, including charming photographer Adam.  As she attempts to understand her feelings for Adam amidst her sorrow, Remy soon stumbles upon a shocking mystery when she chances upon a catalogue detailing artworks stolen from France during the war, which includes a painting that hung in her bedroom as a child.  Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Remy attempts to trace her past and the history of the unexplained painting.  But the story she uncovers is one of great tragedy and shocking revelations that will change everything Remy thought she knew about her past.

This was an outstanding and deeply impressive historical drama from Natasha Lester, who has previously written some great historical dramas, such as The Paris Secret and The French PhotographerThe Riviera House is a particularly compelling and intense novel that perfectly brings two separate timelines together into one moving narrative, while also focusing on two distinctive and complex groups of characters.  This results in a brilliant and moving read that is guaranteed to haunt you long after you finish reading.

Lester tells a deep and captivating tale in this novel that is moving, intense and very addictive to behold.  The author utilises a split timeline throughout The Riviera House, with one storyline set during World War II in Paris, while the other is based in the modern day and takes place in several locations, although primarily in the French Riviera.  The book jumps back and forth between these two timelines, with the speed of transition increasing the closer it gets to the conclusion.  Both storylines contain their own plot, characters, and interesting features, and they come together to form quite an intense overarching narrative.

The first storyline of The Riviera House is the World War II storyline, which follows the character of Éliane Dufort.  Éliane, after suffering several great losses because of the Nazi invasion, becomes embroiled with the French Resistance and soon gets a job working for the Nazis, assisting in their loot warehouse, and helping historical figure Rose Valland create her record of stolen works.  However, the story gets increasingly complicated as the book progresses, with Éliane torn between her remaining family, her love/hate relationship with the traitor Xavier, and her forced relationship with a powerful Nazi member who has fallen for her.  The entire story comes to a head in the closing days of the Nazi occupation, when Éliane is forced to risk everything dear to her, and soon encounters just how tragic the war is and how evil people can be, even those closest to you.

This part of The Riviera House is an amazing bit of historical fiction, exploring the history of the time while also featuring an emotional and moving tale of love, hope and courage.  I really connected with this half of the novel, due to the thrilling and intense story that shows a grim picture of the period and featuring some memorable moments.  The story of Éliane and her family is full of tragedy and suspense, and if you are looking for a happy read than you have come to the wrong place.  While I did see most of the major twists coming, I appreciated how this narrative came together, as well as the clever way it led into The Riviera House’s other timeline.  I also deeply enjoyed the unique historical aspects of this novel, particularly around the Nazis’ systematic looting of French art.  Lester really dove into this part of the war, providing a detailed account how the Germans stole the art, stored it, and eventually shipped it away as the war progressed.  This tale features several real-life historical figures who are worked into the plot extremely well and who add an extra layer of authenticity to the tale.  One of the most interesting historical figures is Rose Valland, the courageous art historian who risked everything to pull together a record of the looted artwork.  Valland, who has inspired characters in films such as The Train or The Monuments Men, was a fascinating character in this novel, and I liked how Lester tied Éliane’s story into that of Valland.  I felt that this examination of the Nazi art theft was both fascinating and cleverly utilised, and it helped to provide some extra power and intensity to the novel.

The other timeline in The Riviera House is based in modern times and follows Remy Lang, a fashion figure who is spending time in the French Riviera, trying to escape her grief over the tragic death of her husband and child, and soon meets some new people who help her move on.  This storyline was more of a pure dramatic tale and focuses on Remy’s grief, her new romance, and the friction brewing between the family she has just met.  I got quite attached to the potent emotional elements featured in this book, especially as Lester really focuses on the lingering impacts of grief, such as the guilt survivors feel when thinking about something new or considering moving on.  Add in quite a compelling mystery element to it, as Remy and her new friend Adam start investigating the connection that Remy had to the other story, such as her long-dead biological parents and several mysterious inheritances.  These connections to the storyline set in the past compliment the protagonist’s current issues and concerns extremely well, and it was really fascinating to see her work out how her life was shaped by the original protagonists many years before.

I ended up really liking both timelines within the novel, although I did prefer the storyline set in World War II due to its interesting historical research, complex characters riven by war, and terrible tragic moments.  I must admit that I am not usually the biggest fan of historical dramas that feature two separate timelines (it really is an overused device in historical dramas).  However, I think that it was utilised extremely well in The Riviera House, and the two separate storylines melded together into a fantastic overarching read.  I loved how Lester was able to provide subtle hints about the fate of the historical protagonists in the contemporary storylines, although the full revelations about them was often hidden and not revealed until later.  I also really appreciated finding out how the events of the World War II story led into the later plot, and the full truth about how everything occurred is not only great to behold in the historical storyline, but it also has some major impacts on the modern-day protagonist.  This really enhanced The Riviera House’s plot and the overall drama of the book, and it helped to produce an excellent overall narrative.

I also quickly wanted to highlight some of the cool and fascinating cultural elements that Lester slipped into her novel, particularly around art and fashion.  I already mentioned how much I enjoyed the interesting and in-depth examination of the Nazis’ looting and the plans to stop them, however, I also appreciated the way in which Lester examined the art itself, as well as the people who were fighting to protect it.  You really get a sense of the beauty and subtlety of the different artworks featured throughout the book, but more than that you also get to explore what makes people passionate for art.  This book contains several characters who appreciated the true value that this art had to themselves and the nation, so much so that they were willing to risk their lives for it.  This forms a major part of the historical storyline’s plot, and I think that Lester did a wonderful job exploring it.  In addition, the contemporary storyline features a compelling examination about the appeals of vintage fashion.  Lester, who has previously explored fashion in some of her past novels (for example, a major part of her previous novel, The Paris Secret, revolves around vintage gowns), did a good job explaining the current obsession with vintage fashion, as well as how people can make money off it.  While I usually care very little about any sort of clothing fashion, Lester’s descriptions proved to be very intriguing, and I found myself appreciating her obvious passion for the subject.  Both these cultural inclusions enhanced the story, especially as they were strongly related to the various protagonist’s motivations and obsessions, and I really appreciated they time that Lester took to feature them.

Overall, I felt that The Riviera House by Natasha Lester was an excellent and well-crafted historical drama with some powerful elements to it.  Lester did a wonderful job of crafting a compelling, multi-period storylines that combined historical and contemporary narratives into a single, moving tale.  I particularly enjoyed the cool focus on the Nazi occupation and art obsession, which resulted in a thrilling and very tragic tale.  The Riviera House is a highly recommended book and a must-read for all fans of historical drama.

Quick Review – The Widow’s Follower by Anna Weatherly

The Widow's Follower

Publisher: Self-Published (Trade Paperback – 8 June 2021)

Series: Bermagui Mystery – Book Two

Length: 222 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a quick and fun historical murder mystery with The Widow’s Follower, an excellent and compelling second novel from Canberran author Anna Weatherly.

Synopsis:

1919, Sydney.  No-one was shedding tears for the death of Roy Maguire, especially not his wife. She’d been hiding from him for the past five years and now she’d come back to reclaim her freedom. It should’ve been simple. So why was she finding herself the object of interest for half the criminals in Sydney? At first it was mystifying. Then it was terrifying.

This is the second novel involving May Williams, once the wife of Sydney crime figure Roy Maguire. This time May travels to Sydney where she finds that extricating herself from her abusive husband is a dangerous business, even when he’s dead.


The Widow’s Follower
is the second novel from Weatherly, following on from her 2018 debut, Death in the Year of Peace.  This series is a fantastic historical murder mystery series that follows a young woman in 1919 who takes the name May Williams and flees from Sydney to the small town of Bermagui to escape from her abusive, criminal husband.  The first book sets the scene for this series while also presenting a murder mystery as the protagonist attempts to uncover a killer in town.  This sequel is set right after the initial book and sees May return to Sydney after the death of her husband.

I really liked the interesting story contained within The Widow’s Follower, as it combines historical fiction elements with an interesting, gangster-filled mystery, as well as featuring some great character development.  Despite being relatively short for a novel, clocking in at just over 200 pages, Weatherly manages to achieve a lot in this book.  The Widow’s Follower primarily focuses on May being harassed by gangsters and criminals around Sydney as she attempts to settle her late husband’s affairs.  This gets complicated when it becomes apparent that before his death, her husband had stolen a great deal of money from his employers and managed to annoy all the big movers in town.  This forces May to investigate her husband’s last few days to find the money to save herself and her friends from these gangster’s ruthless attentions.  She also starts investigating the murder of her husband’s lover, a crime he was accused of before his death, as she cannot believe that even he could kill the father of his illegitimate child, whose welfare May also becomes concerned about.

This leads to an intriguing and extremely fast-paced story, as May is drawn into a twisted web of lies, manipulations and additional murders, while also trying to decide about her future.  There is an interesting blend of storylines contained within this novel, and I quite liked the exciting and dramatic directions that it went in, especially as May slowly gets closer to the truth.  May finds herself the target of several dangerous people from Sydney’s underbelly, each of whom is interested in her for all the wrong reasons.  At the same time, May’s friends back in Bermagui find themselves in danger, and this results in some compelling discussions about May’s future and whether she wants to stay in Sydney, where she has some chance at professional success, or return to the small town and pursue love.  These enjoyable storylines cleverly set up a massive twist about three quarters of the way through that I honestly did not see coming.  This cool twist changes everything about the novel, and I deeply appreciated how it was foreshadowed and the implications it has on the rest of the story.  The final part of the book is an intensely paced, as May finds herself in the middle of a dangerous conflict between some of the antagonists, while also reeling from some big revelations.  I really found myself glued to the final part of the book, especially as it contained some cool scenes, such as a multi-person chase throughout the streets of Sydney.  The book ends on a positive note, and it will be interesting to see where Weatherly takes the story next, especially as the protagonist’s storyline seems mostly fulfilled.

I also appreciated the cool setting of this novel, the historical city of Sydney in 1919.  Weatherly spends a significant amount of time exploring Sydney throughout the novel, and you end up getting a great sense of its size, layout and people during the early 20th century.  The author goes out of their way to try and emulate the historical version of this city, including by featuring clippings from real-life historical newspapers at the start of every chapter, a fun technique that I felt helped drag me into the moment.  Weatherly also spends time examining how recent world events had impacted the city, such as the recent Spanish Flu pandemic (very topical) and the slow return of Australian troops from the European battlefronts of World War I.  This fascinating setting added a lot to the authenticity and intrigue of The Widow’s Follower’s story, and it was really fun to explore this captivating historical locale.

Overall, I had a wonderful time with The Widow’s Follower, and I ended up reading pretty much the entire thing in one sitting.  Anna Weatherly came up with a clever and entertaining tale, and I had a great time getting to the bottom of the intense mystery that was featured within.  A fantastic and enjoyable piece of Australian historical fiction, this is a great book to check out and I look forward to seeing what this new author produces in the future.