The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.

It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons.  In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found.  Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years.  This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.

Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside.  Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession.  Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.

As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries.  None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years.  What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it?  Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.

This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction.  The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction.  The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.

The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case.  Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future.  Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders.  The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation.  Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.

As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case.  This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality.  I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable.  Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy.  There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything.  I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened.  While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever.  The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it.  I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste.  Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.

You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name).  Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage.  Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about.  Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession.  This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them.  Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive.  Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion.  This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety.  I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.

Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case.  The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper.  Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality.  Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences.  The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery.  It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred.  However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy.  Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them.  All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.

The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism.  I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers.  The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts.  I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper.  Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks.  Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism.  This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading.  Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist.  I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together.  Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan presents one of the most unique debuts of 2021 with the awesome She Who Became the Sun, a powerful historical read with a compelling twist.

In 1345 AD China languishes under the rule of the Yuan dynasty, descendants of the Mongolian invaders who have taken control and punished the southern Chinese citizens.  As famine and banditry stalk the land, the fate of the country will be decided by the most unlikely of people.  In a small village in the south, a seer predicts the future for two siblings.  For the favoured son, the seer sees greatness and unlimited potential, while for the daughter he sees nothing in her future at all.

When a bandit raid wipes out the village, only the daughter is left alive as her brother succumbs to his grief and despair.  Determined not to die an insignificant death and prove the seer right, the daughter plans the impossible.  Stealing the identity of her dead brother, she attempts to cheat fate and take her brother’s destiny for herself.  But how far can the newly named Zhu Chongba truly go, even with a fake identity and a stolen fate?

Travelling to a nearby monastery, Zhu impresses the Abbot and is soon accepted as a novice.  Growing up amongst the monks, Zhu finds a purpose for the first time.  But when a rampaging general destroys the monastery, Zhu is forced to find a new path that sets her against the emperor and the entire Yuan dynasty.  Joining with the Red Turban rebellion, Zhu manages to prove herself and soon leads her forces to several crucial victories.  But the eye of an old rival is upon Zhu, and not even this brilliant monk will be able to emerge unscathed.  The path to China’s future begins here, and soon the fate of the entire country will fall on the poor second daughter, destined to become the nation’s first female emperor.

This was a really compelling debut from Shelley Parker-Chan, who produced an epic and unique historical tale of war, destiny, identity and fate.  Serving as the first book in Parker-Chan’s The Radiant Emperor series, She Who Became the Sun was one of the most anticipated new releases for 2021, and I had an incredible time reading it, especially once I got caught up in its fantastic story.

She Who Became the Sun has an awesome and powerful narrative that proves to be extremely addictive.  The book first shows the protagonist as an unnamed daughter, destined for nothing until she adopts the identity of her brother, Zhu, and grows into a confident and capable young adult at a nearby monastery.  The first quarter of the book is primarily told from the perspective of Zhu and serves as a rather good introduction to the character and the overarching setting.  However, the story shifts dramatically after the eunuch General Ouyang, who serves under a noble family of the Yuan dynasty, burns down the monastery and leaves Zhu a medicant monk.  Determined to gain the destiny her brother was promised, Zhu joins with the rebel movement known as the Red Turbans.  The story then focuses on several interesting storylines, including Zhu’s ascent to commander in the Red Turbans, the volatile internal politics of the rebels, as well as troubles facing the wider Yuan dynasty.  The story adds in two additional point-of-view characters a quarter of the way through, with a particular focus on General Ouyang.  Ouygang is engaging in his own plot against the Yuan, and his fate soon becomes intertwined with that of Zhu.  This results in a pretty epic tale, especially as the various story threads tie together perfectly and produce an interesting and addictive overall narrative.  This leads up to an intense and fantastic conclusion that shows how much the protagonist has changed and how determined they are to see their destiny.  It also does an excellent job setting up the future novels in this series, and I have to say that I am pretty excited to see where Parker-Chan takes this tale next.

I was deeply impressed by the cool setting of She Who Became the Sun, especially as Parker-Chan worked in some excellent and compelling historical elements.  The novel is set in 14th century China during the Yuan dynasty and features an interesting retelling of the life of famed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.  While there are a few major changes, like Zhu being a woman in disguise, She Who Became the Sun captures several key aspects of this figure’s early life, such as their peasant upbringing, their training as a monk, and their rise to power through the Red Turbans.  I really enjoyed the great examination of China during this period, and Parker-Chan does an excellent job of capturing the tyrannical rule of the Mongol invaders, the famines and crisis their ineffective rule caused, as well as the rebellion that rose to oppose them.  The author also makes sure to include several key historical figures, such as Zhu’s major supporters, and it proved to be a fun re-imagining of their relationship with the future emperor.  While this is primarily a historical fiction novel, Parker-Chan includes a lot of other interesting elements that alter the feel of She Who Became the Sun.  For example, there are several mystical features, such as some key individuals who can summon an aurora of visible light to show they have the divine right to rule.  Zhu also has the ability to see ghosts and finds herself haunted and at times damaged by malevolent spirits, angry at her decision to steal another person’s destiny.  These supernatural elements give She Who Became the Sun an intriguing and unique feel, and I really love it when authors subtly work in some subtle alternate genre inclusions into their work.

I also must mention the excellent inclusion of major LGBT+ elements into this book, especially around central character Zhu Chongba.  Zhu spends the entirety of the novel in the role of her late brother, pretending to be a man so she can rule and lead.  This was a really fascinating and distinctive choice by Parker-Chan, and one that makes She Who Became the Sun really stand out.  While there are some understandable comparisons to Disney’s Mulan, Parker-Chan instead frames it as a choice made from a desire to survive and to be more than what her sex would usually allow her to be in this period, especially under Yuan control.  Zhu spends most of the novel trying to hide her birth gender from everyone around her, allowing her to continue to achieve her.  While a few characters find out, Zhu is able to ensure their secrecy, which leads to some fascinating scenes.  I particularly love the interactions between Zhu and female characters who discover her secret, and the understanding that flows through these scenes is extremely powerful.  Other LGBT+ elements are later added to the story, especially around Zhu’s marriage to her wife Ma, and I really appreciated the clever and compelling way that it was worked into the plot.

Another impressive aspect of this outstanding book I want to highlight is the great use of characters.  This novel featured some amazing point-of-view characters whose journeys become the focus of She Who Became the Sun.  The main character is Zhu, the woman destined to become Emperor, who spends most of the book trying to live up to the legacy she believes she deserves.  I really liked the compelling character growth featured as her personality changes throughout the course of the book.  Initially meek and barely able to keep her secret, Zhu develops her cunning and her skills of manipulation to become a major figure in the monastery and the Red Turbans.  I loved the depiction of her rise to power, including that fun scene where she manages to win a battle with a prayer, and it was really entertaining to see her use the mild-mannered, humble monk routine to fool the people around her.  Having grown up with nothing, Zhu is more resilient against setbacks than some of the other characters and is able to overcome major hardships.  While Zhu spends most of the book as a good person, the desires for power and a great destiny eventually grows within her, encouraging her to do some evil things to win.  I really liked this subtle shift in personality as the novel continued, and the way that her character arc in this novel ends was really surprising and intense.

The other major character I really want to talk about is Ouyang, a general serving the powerful noble Lord Esen-Temur, son of the Prince of Henan.  Ouyang has a complex past, the son of a family declared traitor by the Emperor and the Prince of Henan, his entire family was killed, while Ouyang was made a eunuch.  Eventually able to work his way up from slave to general, Ouyang is initially portrayed as a petty, vicious, and vindictive figure, especially as he destroys the monastery that Zhu was living in.  However, as the novel progresses, you get to see how much Ouyang has suffered throughout his life, even though he is the best friend of Lord Esen-Temur.  Due to his status as a eunuch, there are some really interesting parallels between Ouyang and Zhu, especially as neither of these outsiders is comfortable in their body.  However, despite their similarities, they form a bitter rivalry, although occasionally working towards the same goals.  I really enjoyed Ouyang’s storyline, especially as it provided an intriguing alternative to the scenes focusing on the Red Turbans, providing the reader with a look at the politics of the Yuan dynasty and the fractious family dynamics surrounding Lord Esen-Temur.  It also leads to an excellent storyline where Ouyang slowly gets his long-awaited revenge and makes some moves to obtain even more power and control.  Ouyang served as an excellent antagonist for the novel, and his dark and brooding perspectives of life and the Yuan dynasty really enhanced She Who Became the Sun’s overall narrative.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed the unique and intricate book that was She Who Became the Sun, and it turned out to be an outstanding read.  Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan did an exceptional job with this impressive debut novel, and I loved the brilliant and epic historical tale she wove, especially as it contained some complex and intriguing characters.  This book comes highly recommended by me, and it is easily one of the best debuts I have so far read in 2021.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian author E. J. Beaton presents an excellent and compelling fantasy debut with The Councillor, an outstanding and impressive read.

Elira is a country still recovering from a fractious war a generation ago spurred on by the tyrannical magic-wielding White Queen.  The heroic Sarelin Brey, known as the Iron Queen, defeated the White Queen and led the subsequent hunt for the elementals, powerful magical users, who were forced into hiding.  Now, Elira once again stands on the brink of ruin when a mysterious assassin manages to kill the Iron Queen, an act that threatens to split and destroy the entire nation.

The queen’s last act before her death was to name her loyal companion, the palace scholar Lysande Prior, Councillor.  As Councillor, it is Lysande’s duty to choose the next ruler of Elira from the four city rulers and to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  As the city rulers arrive at the palace, Lysande is convinced that one of them may have orchestrated the Iron Queen’s murder.  Using her position as Councillor and the upcoming decisions around Elira’s future to her advantage, Lysande begins to investigate each of the city rulers to find who is responsible for her friend’s death.

As the investigation continues, Lysande soon learns much about the city rulers, including the secrets that they harbour.  Forced to balance her investigation with her responsibilities to the people, Lysande begins to revel in the power that she has been granted, even as her problematic addiction to a magical narcotic threatens her self-control.  However, the closer she gets to the truth, the more Lysande begins to understand that there is a dark threat rising, one that could overwhelm Elira for good.  The White Queen is returning, and this time there is no mighty Iron Queen to stop her, only a brilliant scholar with a bright vision for her nation.

The Councillor was an impressive debut fantasy novel from Beaton, who combines some intriguing characters with a powerful fantasy narrative laden with political intrigue, espionage and one character’s personal journey from scholar to ruler.

Beaton utilises a pretty awesome story in The Councillor, and it is one that I quickly became quite addicted to.  Told exclusively from the point-of-view of protagonist Lysande, the novel has a powerful start with one of the major characters killed off, leaving Lysande and the entire nation in chaos, especially as it appears that a notorious magical villain has returned years after her famous defeat.  From there the protagonist attempts to identify the agent responsible for her friend’s death, believing it to be one of the four arriving nobles vying for the throne.  This results in a compelling storyline where Lysande investigates the secrets of the city rulers, while also becoming increasingly involved in the politics of the realm after being unexpectedly placed in a position of power.  As The Councillor progresses, it evolves into a very captivating piece of political intrigue as Lysande and the city rulers tour the country, attempting to rule together, initiate plans to stop the growing influence of the White Queen, while also attempting to achieve their own goals.  There are some great misdirects and red herrings featured throughout this part of the book, as Beaton attempts to disguise who the antagonist is and what the agendas of the various other politicians are.  This all leads up to a big and explosive conclusion where the traitor is revealed and several great storylines come together, resulting in some awesome action and clever political storylines.  While I was able to guess who the traitor was in advance, Beaton did a great job setting them up, and I did find the methods of the antagonist very surprising, especially the fun super-weapon that was hinted at throughout the book.  The final scenes wrap up the entire narrative extremely well and do a great job setting up the next novel in the series.  I look forward to seeing where the narrative goes from here and I think that the series has some amazing potential.

I really enjoyed the cool and memorable fantasy world that Beaton introduced in her first novel, and it serves as a great setting for the awesome story.  The nation of Elira is broken up into several distinctive political and climate zones, based around a city state, resulting in fascinating group of different and proud people.  I loved the fun blend of cultures featured within this nation, especially as it results in some compelling and entertaining cultural and political clashes.  There is a great focus on the history of Elira, especially as it relates to the previous war against the White Queen, with the scholar protagonist attempts to uncover the full truth behind the past to determine the country’s future.  There are also a ton of LGBT+ elements associated with the setting, which I really appreciated and which helped to make the setting even richer.  Add to that several hostile nations surrounding Elira, a rampaging magical queen full of vengeance, and a covert network of independent magical users with their own agenda, and you have a fantastic combination of groups and political ideals, which helps to makes the compelling narrative even more exciting.  This all proves to be pretty damn awesome, especially as Beaton does a wonderful job describing the rich and vibrant countryside of her setting, allowing the reader to have an outstanding time exploring this new nation.  I really enjoyed this captivating setting and I look forward to seeing how the author expands it in her next novel.

Easily the best thing about The Councillor are the complex and intense characters featured throughout the story.  This includes main protagonist Lysande, who is forced to endure quite a lot of growth and betrayal during the story.  Beaton weaves a powerful and intense narrative around Lysande, an orphan who was chosen to become the Iron Queen’s companion and who grew into a brilliant scholar and thinker.  After the queen’s death, Lysande is forced to become both a ruler and politician, and she finds herself excelling in the role, especially as it allows her to use her skills as a scholar and researcher to her advantage.  Due to Lysande being the point-of-view protagonist, Beaton takes a lot of time exploring her personality, feelings, and history, and it does not take long for the reader to become attached to her, especially as she finds herself in a dangerous and complex personal and political situation.  It proved to be extremely compelling to see Lysade take the political stage for the first time, and I loved the way she adapted to the intrigue and deceit, especially once she started to revel in it.  It was pretty cool to see a scholar attempt to take the throne, resulting in a very different hero from what most fantasy fans would expect.  I also enjoyed the way that the author ensured that Lysande is a bit of a flawed protagonist, especially as she is controlled by her addiction to Chimera Scale, a magical narcotic that gives her energy and different insights to the world.  This growing reliance on Chimera Scale impacts her severely throughout the novel, especially as it covers up some deeper secrets about her, which come to fore later in the novel.  An overall exceptional main character, I am very intrigued about where this story will take Lysande next.

Aside from Lysande, The Councillor features a fantastic collection of supporting characters, each of whom add a lot the story.  The main four supporting characters are the city rulers who arrive in court to put their cases for being the next monarch.  Beaton spends a bit of time building up each character, and it proves quite enjoyable learning their flaws, personalities and secrets, especially as any of them could potentially be villainous.  The most prominent of these city rulers is the mysterious and manipulative Luca Fontaine, a dangerous bastard son who became city ruler after killing his family.  Presented as a dark figure with a love of intrigue, espionage and advanced politics, Fontaine has some outstanding back and forth with Lysande, which were extremely enthralling and compelling, and Fontaine swiftly becomes one of the more entertaining and likeable characters in the novel.  I did think that Beaton could have toned down Fontain’s manipulative side just a little, especially as it made him too obvious a suspect for being the traitor, however, I don’t think this had too much of a negative impact on the narrative.  Aside from the city rulers, the book has some interesting focus on Lysande’s advisors and guards, each of whom hep her in their own unique way.  I particularly enjoyed Lysande’s new maid, Litany, especially once her real purpose in the court is revealed.  This great supporting cast proves to be a lot of fun to follow, and I really appreciated the time and detail that the author put into setting them up.

Overall, I found The Councillor to be an outstanding and deeply entertaining fantasy read with a really addictive and compelling narrative.  Australian author E. J. Beaton did an excellent job with her first book, and this is a must read for anyone who loves a fantasy tale laden with clever political intrigue.  A highly recommend fantasy debut, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this series next.

The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2021)

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction authors, Tim Ayliffe, returns with another impressive and brilliantly relevant novel, The Enemy Within.

Ayliffe is a great author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last couple of years as he sets some fantastic stories around contemporary Australian subjects.  Debuting in 2018, this journalist wrote a compelling and intriguing first novel with The Greater Good, which looked at political corruption and the growing influence of China in Australia.  He followed it up in 2019 with State of Fear, which looked at Islamic terrorism and featured a dramatic and impactful story.  Now Ayliffe checks out the complete opposite end of the political spectrum in The Enemy Within, which features a look at growing right-wing radicals.

As the smoke from devastating January 2020 bushfires covers Sydney, investigative reporter John Bailey is covering a far more dangerous threat in the suburbs.  Barely recovered from the traumatic events that took the love of his life from him, Bailey is now working for a news magazine.  His first story will cover the re-emergence of right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups in Australia.  Attending one of their meetings, where a controversial American social media star whose entrance into the country has gained much political opposition and protest, Bailey attempts to gain the pulse of this movement, only to face violence and an anti-media mentality from the crowd.

Working on his story, Bailey has no idea of the chaos that is about to rain down on his life.  After he meets with an old contact and informant, Bailey’s house is raided by the Australian Federal Police.  The police are investigating him for a story he ran back while he was a war correspondent that highlighted the alleged war crimes Australian soldiers committed in the Middle East.  Armed with a warrant granting them access to his phone, computer and all his files, the police tear through Bailey’s life and throw him in gaol for attempting to impede their search.

With the entire nation’s media covering his plight, Bailey is released from prison and soon discovers that someone orchestrated the police raid to delete evidence from the rally.  Attempting to investigate further, Bailey is shocked when his contact ends up dead in mysterious circumstances and the police fail to investigate.  With Sydney on the verge of a race war, Bailey continues his investigation and soon uncovers proof about a dangerous conspiracy that aims to shake the very foundations of Australian life.  With only his old friend CIA agent Ronnie Johnson as backup, Bailey attempts to stop this plot before it is too late.  But with a seemingly untouchable enemy targeting him from the shadows, has Bailey finally met an opponent even more determined than he is?

This was an awesome and captivating novel from Ayliffe who once again produces an intense, character-driven narrative.  Set around some very relevant and controversial topics, The Enemy Within is a powerful and exciting novel that takes the reader on a compelling ride.  I had a fantastic time reading this clever book and I loved the fascinating examinations of one of the more insidious threats facing Australia.

Set in the blistering, smoke covered streets of early 2020 Sydney, this story starts with protagonist John Bailey engaged in a controversial story about the rising far-right wing.  After a predictably violent confrontation, the narrative takes off like a shot, with the protagonist investigating a series of concerning events, including several murders, racial attacks, and a re-opened investigation into an old story of his that sees the AFP raid his house.  Each of these separate investigative threads are drawn together as the book progresses, and the reader is treated to an impressive and deadly conspiracy with several clever allusions to real-world issues and events.  This was a very exciting and captivating novel to get through, and I found myself reading it extremely quickly, nearly finishing it off in a day.  The story leads up to an awesome and intense conclusion, where Bailey uncovers the entire scope of the plot and races to stop it.  While the identity of some of the participants is very clear since the character’s introductions, their full plan, methods, and reach are more hidden and it was great to see the protagonist uncover them all, especially as several were cleverly hidden in innocuous moments earlier in the novel.  There is even an excellent twist towards the end of the book that reveals a well-hidden antagonist, which I particularly enjoyed as it was so skilfully inserted into the story.  I ended having an excellent time getting through this amazing narrative, and this might be one of the best stories that Ayliffe has so far written.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the John Bailey novels is the way in which so much of the amazing story was tied to how extremely damaged the titular protagonist is.  John Bailey is a veteran reporter whose previous life as a war correspondent has left him extremely broken, especially after being tortured by a dangerous terrorist leader.  This eventually led to him becoming an alcoholic, which ruined his career and separated him from his family.  However, since the start of the series, Bailey has shown some real character growth, although this is usually accompanied by some traumatic events or tragic moments.  In The Enemy Within, as Bailey is still recovering from the loss of his lover at the end of State of Fear.  Despite making some strides to recover, Bailey is still reeling from the loss, and this becomes a major aspect of his character in this latest book.  This is especially true as Ayliffe does an outstanding job of highlighting the grieving process and showing Bailey’s feelings of despair.  It was really moving to see Bailey in this novel, and I was glad to see him continue to recover from all the bad events of his life, including stopping drinking and getting a dog.  However, Bailey still has an unerring knack to annoy the subjects of his stories, and he ends up getting into all sorts of danger.  It was great to see him getting to the root of this story by any means necessary, and I continued to appreciate his impressive development.

I also love the way that the each of Ayliffe’s novels feature some fascinating contemporary issues facing Australia or the wider world.  In The Enemy Within, the main issue is the rise of Australian right-wing and white supremacist groups in recent years.  Like in the rest of the world, these groups have been becoming a bit more prominent recently in Australia, and Ayliffe does an excellent job analysing this issue throughout his novel.  The author does a deep examination of the movement as the story progresses, and the reader is given a good insight into their concerns, motivations, and the reasons why the movement has been gaining progress in recent years.  There are some clever parallels between the events or people portrayed in the novel and real life, which was interesting to see.  Examples of this include the government allowing controversial right-wing figures into the country despite protests, and the reactions of certain right-wing media groups.  I liked how Ayliffe once again featured the character of Keith Roberts, a right-wing commentator who is a pastiche of several Australian radio personalities.  It was also quite fascinating to see how the concerns and motivations of the right-wing groups were extremely like some of the Islamic terrorists featured in State of Fear, with both groups feeling disconnected from and attacked by mainstream Australian society.  Not only is this extremely fascinating and thought-provoking but it also serves as an amazing basis for Ayliffe’s narrative.  The author does a fantastic job of wrapping his thrilling story around some of these elements, and it makes the overall narrative extremely relevant.

I also must highlight another significant contemporary inclusion that was featured in The Enemy Within, and that was the Australian Federal Police’s raids on Bailey’s house.  This police raid is a direct reference to a series of controversial raids that occurred on several media organisations, including ABC News (who Ayliffe works for), in relation to articles they published.  Ayliffe uses these real-life examples to really punch up what happens within The Enemy Within, and he produces some realistic scenes that were comparable to this.  The subject of the articles that prompt the raids are also very similar and feature another topic that is quite controversial in Australia in the moment, that of alleged war-crimes by Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East.  Just like with the other divisive topics featured in this novel, Ayliffe did a fantastic job re-imagining these events in his novel, and it produces some excellent inclusions that will particularly resonate with an Australian audience.  I deeply appreciated the way in which he was able to work these events into his story, and I think that it made The Enemy Within a much more compelling and distinctive read.

I have to say that I also really loved the author’s use of setting in The Enemy Within.  This latest book is set in early 2020, when Sydney was surrounded by some of the worst bushfires in Australian history and the entire city was covered in smoke for months.  Ayliffe does an excellent job portraying these terrible conditions, no doubt drawn from his own personal experiences, and the reader gets a good idea of how difficult life was under those conditions (it certainly brought me back to that time, although we didn’t have it quite as bad down in Canberra).  Ayliffe uses this unique setting to full effect throughout the book and it provides some fitting atmosphere for the narrative, especially as the landscape reflects the simmering tensions flaring up within the city.  This was one of the more distinctive features of The Enemy Within, and I really appreciated the way the author used it to enhance his great story.  I also quite enjoyed the throwaway references to COVID-19, with none of the characters particularly concerned about it considering everything else that was happening, and I have no doubt that Ayliffe’s next novel will make great use of the pandemic in some way.

With his latest novel, The Enemy Within, Tim Ayliffe continues to showcase why he is one of the best new writers of Australian crime fiction.  The Enemy Within had an awesome and incredible story that perfectly brings in amazing contemporary Australian issues and settings, which are expertly worked into a thrilling novel.  I had an outstanding time reading this fantastic read and it comes highly recommended.

Prisoner by S. R. White

The Prisoner Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Hermit – Book Two

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

Prepare for a twisty and dark Australian murder mystery novel as author S. R. White presents the compelling and powerful Prisoner.

Deep in rural Northern Australia, a dead body has been found in the middle of a dank and dangerous swamp.  The corpse is staged to appear like a crucifixion, with the man’s arms and legs tied to poles, and his chest caved in with several blows.  Called to the scene of the crime, Detective Dana Russo soon discovers that the victim was a convicted rapist who had only been released from prison a few hours earlier and whose crime occurred only a short walk away from his murder site.

Determined to get to the bottom of this unusual murder, Russo and her team swiftly begin tearing apart the victim’s life in prison and find that he had been in communication with two local sisters who offered him a place to stay once he was released.  Investigating the sisters, they discover a unique pair of siblings who have been irreparably damaged by trauma and abuse and who live separate from the rest of society.  Believing that the solution to the mystery may lay with them, Russo brings them both in for questioning, but finds them uncooperative and elusive.

Under pressure to solve the crime, the detectives slowly unwind an intriguing case, concerning corruption, drugs and prison gangs.  However, the further they dig, the more apparent it becomes that the sisters are hiding some dark secrets about themselves and the victim.  Forced to dig deep within herself, Russo uses the memories of her own traumatic childhood to analyse the suspects and find some common understanding with them.  Can Russo break through these two unlikely suspects, or will the solution to this murder never be revealed?

This was a pretty cool and captivating novel from former British Police officer turned author S. R. White.  Prisoner is White’s second novel and serves as a sequel to his 2020 debut, Hermit.  This proved to be a fantastic read and I deeply enjoyed the intriguing and powerful narrative, especially as White loads his book with a complex mystery and some deeply damaged characters.  I got pretty hooked on this book as it progressed and ended up finishing it in only a couple of days.

Prisoner contains a very impressive and compelling narrative that I really found myself getting drawn into.  The novel mostly starts off focusing on the murder, with the discovery of the body in the first few pages, and then the protagonists immediately jump into the investigation, including the interrogation of one of the main suspects.  As the story progresses, you get some other interesting elements thrown in, mostly around Dana Russo and one of her other colleagues as they deal with some dark personal history.  There is also a captivating subplot regarding internal police politics that produces a real shakeup in the department and has some potential series-wide ramifications.  However, most of the story remains on the mystery, and I really appreciated the creativity and darkness that the author fits into the case.  Despite being a sequel to White’s first book, Prisoner can easily be read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of the characters or the setting is needed.  I felt that the entire narrative progressed along at a great pace, and there were no slow bits throughout the book, as the reader was either reading about the case or dealing with the intense personal demons of the various characters.

I must highlight the fantastic writing style that White featured throughout this novel.  While most of the focus of Prisoner is on central character Russo, the author makes good use of multiple perspectives, mainly of the other detectives on the investigation team, to move the story along and provide some alternate points of view and different investigative threads.  White utilises a very detailed writing style, which encourages a slower reading pace to make sure you don’t miss anything, and I felt that enriched the mystery and increased the realism of the plot.  I also must highlight the incredibly detailed descriptions of the swampy landscape that surrounded the crime scene and the Northern Australian town where the plot is set.  White paints a grim picture of small, isolated community on its last legs, where even the landscape has turned against it.  You can really feel the stickiness and deadliness of the swamps, and it proves to be quite a haunting background to several scenes.  I also must mention the really fun and unique take that several of the characters had on the film Signs.  This film, which I personally rather enjoyed, is brought up several times and becomes a key plot point.  While that does sound a little strange, its inclusion worked surprisingly well, and the subsequent discussions and insightful analysis of the film and its themes, ended up fitting into the overall narrative quite seamlessly, helping to create quite a unique tale.

I also deeply enjoyed the crime fiction/mystery elements of Prisoner, which really helped to turn this into quite a compelling and exciting story.  White crafts together a really clever and psychologically intense mystery for this book, and I had a wonderful time seeing the protagonists unwind it.  The author sets up a great methodical criminal investigation, with the characters slowly uncovering clues, backstory and various suspects throughout the story.  While the police do achieve an impressive amount in just a couple of days, there is a gritty sense of realism to much of the story, and I really enjoyed seeing the police in action.  The best part of the investigation is easily the focus on interrogations as the protagonist engages two uncooperative suspects in several separate interviews throughout the course of the book.  These interrogation sequences are among some of the best parts of the entire book, as Russo really dives into the pasts and minds of her suspects, which also requires her to reach back and harness some of her own trauma to break through to them.  This, combined with the rest of her team’s investigation, proved to be quite fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing the cooperative work and professional skills involved.  I also quite enjoyed the solution to the murder, especially as White comes up with quite a unique and dark motivation for the crime.  There are several good suspects and motivations for the murder, which at times made me question who the killer might be.  However, I thought the overall resolution of the mystery was extremely clever, and it really made great use of the dark psychology of some of the characters.

One of the biggest highlights of this book were the damaged and traumatised central characters, who White spent a substantial amount of time exploring throughout the course of the story.  This includes a mixture of characters who previously appeared in Hermit and some new characters brought in for Prisoner.  This includes central protagonist Dana Russo, the detective in charge of the investigation.  Dana had a very traumatic childhood, brought on by an abusive mother who beat and emotionally tormented her following her father’s death.  While this was revealed in the previous novel, it was recounted once again in Prisoner, especially as details of the case end up mimicking parts of Dana’s life.  The protagonist is forced to dive deep into her prior experiences to help solve this case, and it was fascinating to see how she could instantly spot signs of abuse, as well as rationalise the various reasons behind it and the impacts it can have on a young person.  The protagonist also uses her experiences to get into the minds of her two main suspects, resulting in some intense and extremely powerful interrogation scenes, where both suspect and interrogator are broken down at the same time.  White also produces some more revelations about Dana’s terrible childhood, including a certain reveal on the last page that was pretty memorable, and I really liked the compelling picture he painted around this impressive leading character.

The other characters who proved to be extremely compelling were the main suspects of the murder case, Suzanne and Marika Doyle.  The Doyle siblings are instantly identified as persons of interest in the case due to their house’s proximity to the crime scene and the fact that they wrote to the victim in prison and helped to organise his parole, despite having never met him.  Upon examination of their history, as well as an insightful look at their house, it soon becomes apparent that both siblings had a hard childhood because of their controlling mother.  Their life story becomes a key part of the overarching plot as Russo attempts to uncover their full history and personalities, as she believes it is important to solve the case.  The eventual reveals about the siblings and their relationship, their past and their emotional states is extremely captivating, and White paints quite a dark and troubled narrative around them that was really fascinating.  The way that this ties into the murder and their relationship with the victim is very clever, and White really outdid himself making these two sibling suspects.

I also must give a quick shout out to the character of Lucy Delaney, one of Dana’s co-workers and an invaluable resource in the case.  Dana and Lucy got quite close to each other in the previous novel, with Dana revealing some of her childhood trauma to her, something she rarely does.  In this novel, you get a much closer look at Lucy, who reveals some of her own personal issues, and the shared grief becomes a major part of her connection to Dana.  Unfortunately for Lucy, she gets dragged into some internal police politics, which impact her and her secrets quite severely and will likely become a recurring issue in the series, especially if the relationship between Dana and Lucy progresses.  Aside from Lucy, I felt that the police characters represented an interesting blend of personalities and skills, such as the wily veteran Mike or the similarly damaged officer Ali, who helped to give the film more personality.  It will be interesting to see how these characters are featured in the future, and I look forward to learning more about them.

Prisoner by S. R. White is a clever and moving piece of Australian crime fiction that proved to be a real treat to read.  White has produced a deep and compelling murder mystery narrative that focuses on a fantastic group of damaged protagonists and suspects, and who have some dark stories to tell.  I really loved the more methodical and grounded police investigation angle of this book, especially the inclusion of some powerful interrogation sequences, and I was impressed with how the narrative unfolded.  An excellent and captivating murder mystery, Prisoner comes highly recommended, and you will have a great time getting through the latest book from this fantastic Australian author.

Blood Trail by Tony Park

Blood Trail Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 384 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5

One of Australia’s leading thriller authors, Tony Park, presents another clever and intense thriller set in the nature parks of Africa with his latest action-packed novel, Blood Trail.

Tony Park is a talented author who has written several amazing thriller novels over the years, all of which make use of a distinctive African setting with a focus on wildlife parks and poachers.  I have previously enjoyed three of his great books, Scent of Fear, Ghosts of the Past and Last Survivor, and his latest novel, Blood Trail, features another exceptional and exciting tale, which was an extremely fun and captivating read.

Life is always dangerous on the game preserves of South Africa, as poachers and opportunists are constantly looking for a way to make some serious money by harvesting endangered species.  In recent years, the counter-poaching patrols and police have made great strides in defending the critical wildlife, with the poachers aware that entering the reserves means death or imprisonment.  However, with South Africa severely impacted by COVID-19, more desperate locals are turning to poaching to survive, relying on the magic of their traditional medicine to protect them.

At the Lion Plains game reserve, something strange is happening.  While conducting a virtual safari, park guide and ace tracker Mia Greenway witnesses a poacher kill a rhino.  Chasing after him, Mia and her backup find no trace of him as his trail mysteriously disappears, with the killer appearing to have vanished into thin air.  At the same time, police captain Sannie van Rensburg, is called to investigate two missing local girls, who also disappeared in suspicious circumstances.  Sannie soon learns that the local populace fear that the girls have been killed and their bodies used as ingredients by a dark practitioner of traditional medicine.

When a young female tourist is kidnapped within the reserve, once again vanishing with no trail to follow, Mia and Sannie begin to realise that their cases are connected.  With the locals convinced that the poachers are using dark witchcraft to evade the police and the anti-poaching teams, all evidence suggests that the kidnapped girls are going to be killed and harvested.  However, something far more sinister is afoot, with a dark conspiracy working its way through the very heart of the game preserve.  Can Mia and Sannie uncover the truth before it is too late or will the poachers and their dangerous benefactors continue to bring terror and death to the wilds of Africa?

In Blood Trail, Park has included another intense and action-packed story that makes full use of the author’s love of all things Africa.  Set in a game reserve under siege, this multi-perspective story starts off fast, with a poacher on the loose and the trackers, led by the tenacious Mia attempting and failing to find him.  There is also an intriguing criminal case happening concurrently, as police detective Sannie attempts to find two missing girls.  Both central narrative threads are soon drawn together as Mia, Sannie and their colleagues work to solve the connected cases.  Park has come up with a very exciting, character-driven narrative here, and it honestly did not take me long to get really invested.  This book is loaded with some amazing action sequences, and the reader is treated to one electrifying scene after another as the protagonists face extreme opposition.  The overarching mystery surrounding the poachers and the missing girls is very good, and I loved the complex and clever story the author wraps around them, especially as it ties into various aspects of life in Africa and the game reserves.  The author makes sure to include a huge number of twists and reveals, especially towards the end of the novel, and while I was able to predict how a couple would go, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by some of the others, and I really enjoyed seeing how everything came together.  I also liked the huge range of intriguing characters featured throughout this book, and I really got invested in some of their stories, especially the two strong lead female protagonists, Mia and Sannie, who overcome a lot in this novel and go through some excellent development.  Blood Trail is set in the shared universe of Park’s other works, with characters from some of his prior novels and series either featured or mentioned.  Despite this, you really need no prior knowledge of these books, and Blood Trail is a very easy novel to get into.  This is an overall exceptional and thrilling narrative, and I found myself powering through the last half of this book in a day.

Easily the best things about Tony Park’s novels are his exceptional portrayals of the African wilderness and the amazing and insightful discussions about the troubles faced by game preserves.  Park, who has spent a significant amount of time in Africa and the game reserves, is clearly very passionate on the subject, and he injects all his novels with some gritty realism about the parks and the poachers who prey on them.  Blood Trail is a particularly good example of this, as a large amount of the narrative revolves around poaching on the park, the park’s anti-poaching detail and the local police who support them.  It is always incredibly interesting to learn about poaching and anti-poaching techniques and Park includes a lot of detail about both.  I found this to be extremely fascinating, and Blood Trail includes compelling detail about some of the modern techniques some of the parks potentially utilise, such as drones and even WhatsApp.  Park also weaves a particularly good story around poaching, and I loved all the thrilling sequences of poachers versus authorities that this fantastic novel contained.  You also have to love the outstanding and beautiful depictions of the African bush and the communities that serve as a backdrop for the story.  Park clearly puts all his personal experiences into these depictions, and his writing brings in a strong visual element.  I really enjoyed this use of setting, and it really sets Park’s novels apart from other contemporary thrillers.

In addition to the outstanding setting, Park also includes a deeply intriguing and fascinating examination of traditional African medicine and magic in Blood Trail, which becomes a very amazing and key part of the plot.  This traditional medicine, known as umuthi, is utilised by the South African people as protection from a variety of dangers, with the poachers, and even some protagonists, using it in the hope that it will stop bullets or impair their opponents.  This becomes a very interesting part of Blood Trail’s plot, as the characters encounter various unusual phenomenon, such as their targets vanishing without a trace or unexpected illnesses, which some blame on dark magic.  This proves to really fascinating, especially as Park keeps including several mysterious events or occurrences, and the reader is left wondering whether it is just a coincidence, a psychological ploy, or something more spiritual in nature.  I found this inclusion to be extremely intriguing, and I really appreciated the detailed and balanced examination that Park included in this book, as he goes out of his way to respectfully examine all the aspects of this traditional medicine, as well as the perceptions surrounding it.  Various characters of differing backgrounds are shown reacting to the idea of umuthi, including local Africans, foreigners, academics, and white South Africans, each of whom have differing opinions on the validity of the magic behind it.  I loved this fascinating range of views, which seems to accurately reflect the differing opinions you would find throughout South Africa, and there are some truly unique views and beliefs which Park has clearly researched.  The character of Mia proves to be a very intriguing inclusion here, as she is a white South African who was raised by black South African women, and was brought up to believe in umuthi and other traditional beliefs.  This results in some intriguing identity issues, as she and some of the other people who partake of umuthi attempt to work it around their modern perceptions or Christian teachings.  This unique and captivating examination of umuthi and other traditional beliefs was extremely interesting and I am very glad that Park took the time to include this in his latest novel.

Another extension of Blood Trail’s game reserve setting that I enjoyed was the tracking.  Several characters in the novel, particularly Mia, are trackers, who spend their days trailing animals and poachers through the bush.  As such, there are some fascinating scenes where these characters use their tracking skills to chase after the antagonists.  This proves to be extremely interesting, and Park ensures that his book features a lot of details about they various tracking techniques, and the counter techniques that poachers would use to try and avoid the trackers.  Not only is this a very captivating inclusion by Park but it also flows extremely well into the narrative, with the protagonists forced to question their abilities when the villains keep getting away.  The way in which the antagonists manage to avoid the trackers ends up being quite clever, especially as Park also includes some false leads to confuse the eventual reveal.  I deeply enjoyed this awesome look at the work the trackers do in the park, and it produces some really fantastic scenes.

The final inclusion that I found really compelling was Blood Trail’s examination of the impacts of COVID-19 on South Africa, and how it is driving people to poaching.  While I am sure that many people are getting sick of reading about COVID, even in thriller novels, I felt that Park did a really good job featuring it in Blood Trail.  Park paints a pretty grim scene surrounding the impacts that the pandemic is having in South Africa, with many side characters either out of work or negatively impacted by the government’s harsh lockdown rules, such as an alcohol ban.  This becomes quite a key theme of the novel, with the stress and loss of income impacting everyone and driving them to commit crime on the understaffed game reserves.  The author really dives into the unexpected impacts the global pandemic is having on the nature reserves, and it adds some complexity to the dark story.  Other featured aspects of COVID in South Africa are also pretty interesting, such as the increased roaming of certain animals, as well as the advent of virtual safaris, with streaming projects sharing the beauty of the wilds to a world in lockdown.  Overall, this examination of the impacts of COVID was very fascinating and topical, and Park did a fantastic job including it in his story.

The fantastically talented Tony Park once again shows why he is one of the best and most distinctive Australian thriller authors out there.  His latest novel, Blood Trail, contained an intense and compelling story that takes the reader on a wild and thrilling journey through the game reserves of Africa.  Filled with some amazing action and fantastic characters, Park makes full use of his powerful setting to craft a memorable and addictive narrative.  I loved all the unique elements that Blood Trail contained, and you are guaranteed an exceptional time if you check this awesome book out.

The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

The 22 Murders of Madison May Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 322 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the unique mind of leading Australian science fiction author Max Barry comes the fantastic and very clever alternate universe thriller, The 22 Murders of Madison May.

Madison May has been murdered and she has no idea why!

Madison, a young real-estate agent suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of a knife wielding client with zero regard for keeping his identity hidden from the police.  His final act before killing her is to profess his undying love to her.  However, Madison has never seen her murderer before in her life, at least, not in this life.

When word of Madison’s death reaches the desk of the Daily News, it falls to rising reporter Felicity Staples to follow up.  Despite a dislike for murder cases, Felicity soon finds herself wrapped up in investigating the brutal killing of the beautiful Madison May, especially as some unusual designs have been carved into the walls.  However, things take a turn for the strange when Felicity sees the suspected murderer at the subway in a dangerous confrontation with another fugitive from justice.  Moments after seeing them, Felicity can only watch in surprise as they vanish before her eyes and her universe is turned upside down.

Returning to her apartment, Felicity notices several minor changes to her life.  Her boyfriend suddenly knows how to cook, one of her cats is missing, and no-one at work remembers anything about her story or Madison May.  As strange events keep occurring, Felicity is soon forced to face the fact that she has been transported to an alternate dimension.  Reeling from the revelation, Felicity is even more stunned when a slightly different Madison May turns up murdered, the victim of the same killer.  Chasing after the mysterious people hovering around the case, Felicity discovers that a dangerous stalker is moving from dimension to dimension, determined to find the perfect Madison May to fall in love with, and killing any version he doesn’t like.  Can Felicity stop the killer before he takes out another version of Madison May, or will her forays into interdimensional travel have consequences she could never imagine?

Wow, this was a very fun and captivating read that I really enjoyed.  The 22 Murders of Madison May is the latest novel from Australian Max Barry, an author of several intriguing science fiction novels, including Providence, Jennifer Government, and Machine Man.  This was the first novel of Barry’s that I have had the opportunity to read, and I am very glad that I did, as Barry has created an outstanding and fun science fiction thriller that makes great use of some cool alternate dimension travel to produce an exquisite and awesome story.

Barry has come up with an extremely exciting and compelling narrative for this fantastic novel, which makes excellent use of its unique science fiction hook.  The novel starts off with the brutal murder of the first Madison May, which leads to the involvement of protagonist Felicity.  It does not take long for Felicity to get dragged into an alternate universe after encountering the killer and a fugitive engaged in a fight.  Forced to deal with the unusual differences in her life and the revelations of what has happened to her, Felicity attempts to save the lives of several different Madison Mays, while also avoiding the attentions of a group of interdimensional travellers who jealously guard their secrets.  What follows is a series of thrilling scenes where Felicity and her ally, Hugo, jump from alternate universe to alternate universe trying to stop the killer, with varying degrees of success.  This all eventually leads up to a fantastic and impressive conclusion where Felicity is forced to make some major, life-altering decisions, while also facing off against the monster she’s been chasing.  This proved to be an extremely captivating and fascinating novel, which honestly takes no time at all to get hooked on.  I loved the brilliant blend of psychological thriller and compelling science fiction elements, which seamlessly work together to produce an outstanding and memorable standalone story.  I powered through this book in a couple of days, and I deeply enjoyed every second I spent reading this intense and cleverly written story.

I have to say that I deeply appreciated the fascinating concept of alternate dimensions and interdimensional travel that Barry features.  Not only does the author do a good job explaining the science and philosophy behind this science fiction feature, but he also ensures that it works to full effect within the narrative.  In this book, dimensional travellers move from one reality to the next, taking over the lives of the version of themselves living in that dimension.  This results in the travelling characters awakening in a world with slight deviations from the last one they visited.  Barry features several separate dimensions within The 22 Murders of Madison May, and it was always quite fascinating to see the slight differences that occur, good and bad.  This is most prominently shown through the eyes of protagonist Felicity, who ends up visiting several alternate realities, some of which severely shake her.  However, you likewise get to see several different versions of the titular murder victim, Madison May, which results in a fascinating examination of how decisions and missed opportunities can impact your life.  It was also cool to see the various ways in which the alternate dimension travel could be manipulated, most noticeably by the book’s antagonist.  This vicious killer was constantly manipulating events to find a version of Madison May that would love him the same way that he loved her, and it was both creepy and intriguing the way in which Barry combined an alternate reality story with a tale of a fanatic serial killer.  It was very interesting to see the way the villain was able to change the course of his dimensional travels to suit his needs, such as by framing one of his pursuers for murder, and then ensuring that they only travelled to dimensions where they were locked up in prison.  I felt that Barry did a great job introducing and utilising this cool concept, and it really worked to create an epic and powerful narrative.

The author has also come up with some fun and complex characters in The 22 Murders of Madison May, who are enhanced by the fact that you get a very detailed and compelling snapshot into various versions of their lives.  The main character is Felicity Staples, a bold and clever reporter who finds her entire life upside down.  Felicity initially lives an ordinary life, with a boyfriend and two cats, while hunting for political corruption.  However, the events of this story really mess her around, as she is bounced around slightly different versions of her life.  These various involuntary jumps really have an impact on her, especially as she experiences both positive and negative changes which make her question her choices and relationships.  At the same time, she becomes obsessed with saving Madison May and stopping the killer, so much so that she constantly throws her life in danger.  The combination of these choices and the changing realities proves to be quite wearing on her, especially as she is forced to make some major sacrifices in her own life to try and save Madison’s.  This makes for quite a strong and likeable protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed seeing her intense and tragic narrative unfold completely.

I also really enjoyed supporting character Madison May.  The Madison Mays are essentially nobodies who have the very classic backstory of being a struggling actress who moved the big city and is dealing with a terrible boyfriend.  However, in one reality she was given her big break and appeared in a film in a small role.  However, this big break was a double-edged sword, as it gained the attention of a stalker, who, upon failing to meet her in his world, travelled between dimensions and started hunting her down.  Throughout the course of the book, you see multiple versions of Madison May, each of whom has a slightly different life, whether she is still struggling as an actress, on the cusp of a big break, or has given up acting altogether.  The author does a really good job of quickly and concisely setting up each of these new versions of Madison May, and you quickly get a feel for who the character is and the choices that change her.  Because she is not travelling through alternate dimensions, it is always fascinating to see the different interactions she has with her killer, as well as the reactions to the strange events occurring around her.  As a result, you get a fairly detailed examination of this character’s life, and it proves very hard not to like her and hope that she is able to overcome the latest attempts on her life.

The final character I want to focus on is the novel’s main antagonist and the killer of Madison May, Clayton Hors.  Clayton is a compelling and intense villain who starts his journey as an obsessed fan who falls in love with Madison May after seeing her in a movie in his reality and starts stalking her, eventually getting caught.  While this would usually be the end of the story, Clayton was able to obtain an item that allowed him to travel through dimensions, so he started stalking Madison in every reality he can find, assessing each version to find the perfect match to the one he fell in love with, and then attempting to make them love him in return.  This is some deeply disturbing antagonist creation here, and I really appreciate the way in which Barry amps up a dangerous and obsessed sociopath by giving them the ability to stalk their victims across the dimensions.  There are so many elements to this character which turn them into quite a memorable villain, from his unwavering determination to get what he wants, his short and violent temper, an inability to be satisfied with the girls he finds, and an obsession that can withstand constant dimensional travel.  I particularly found the descriptions of his arms, which are scarred and cracked by the various bite marks of Madison May from across the dimensions, to be a horrific masterstroke from Barry, and it was very disturbing to see versions of Madison May who attempt to bite down on his arm in self-defence to find that their teeth already match the indentations there.  Clayton was an outstanding and disturbing villain, and he really helped turn this excellent science fiction thriller into something very special and dark.

The 22 Murders of Madison May is a brilliant and distinctive science fiction thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Australian author Max Barry has written an exceptionally clever story that perfectly combines a disturbing tale of murder and obsession, with an adventure in interdimensional travel.  I loved this awesome story, and I will have to make sure I check out some more of Max Barry’s novels in the future because I had a fantastic time getting through The 22 Murders of Madison May.  A highly recommended read.

Waiting on Wednesday – Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday, I check out the upcoming third and final book in a particularly fun young adult series with Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.

Aurora's End Cover

Over the last few years, one of the most entertaining and exciting young adult series out there has been the cool and impressive Aurora Cycle books by bestselling Australian authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  Kaufman and Kristoff, who both have some great individual series under their belts, have formed an excellent and outstanding team to create The Aurora Cycle novels.

Starting in 2019 with Aurora Rising, this fantastic series follows a mismatched team of teenaged space cadets who act as galactic peacekeepers.  However, on their first mission they encounter Aurora, a girl out of time whose extended cryogenic sleep has somehow given her physic powers.  Thrust into the midst of a galaxy spanning conspiracy, the team were declared renegades and are forced to go on the run.  Their epic story continued in Aurora Burning, another excellent novel which expanded many of the plot points from the first book, while also introducing some great new characters and plot lines.  Aurora Burning ended on a massive cliff-hanger, with the lives of all the protagonists hanging in the balance, and the end of the world seconds away.

That leads to the focus on this article, Aurora’s EndAurora’s End is the upcoming third and final entry in The Aurora Cycle which will provide readers with the big conclusion to entire overarching plot.  Currently due to be released on 9 November 2021, Aurora’s End has a awesome sounding plot synopsis already available, as well as the beautifully haunting cover above.

Synopsis:

The squad you love is out of time. Prepare for the thrilling finale in the epic, best-selling Aurora Cycle series about a band of unlikely heroes who just might be the galaxy’s last hope for survival.

Is this the end?

What happens when you ask a bunch of losers, discipline cases, and misfits to save the galaxy from an ancient evil? The ancient evil wins, of course.

Wait. . . . Not. So. Fast.

When we last saw Squad 312, they working together seamlessly (aka, freaking out) as an intergalactic battle raged and an ancient superweapon threatened to obliterate Earth. Everything went horribly wrong, naturally.

But as it turns out, not all endings are endings, and the team has one last chance to rewrite theirs. Maybe two. It’s complicated.

Cue Zila, Fin, and Scarlett (and MAGELLAN!): making friends, making enemies, and making history? Sure, no problem

Cue Tyler, Kal, and Auri: uniting with two of the galaxy’s most hated villains? Um, okay. That, too.

Actually saving the galaxy, though?

Now that will take a miracle.

It looks like Kaufman and Kristoff have some fun plans in place for this final book, and I for one am very excited for it.  I have a lot of love for this series, due to the eclectic mixture of protagonists, the amazing humour and the vast and impressive narrative.  As a result, I am quite eager to see how the entire series ends, especially after that great cliff-hanger.

Based on the synopsis above, it looks like all the main protagonists will be coming back for this book in one way or another, and I am really keen to see how their story arcs end up.  It also looks like we are going to get some time-travel shenanigans, as some of the team are trapped in the time-stream, attempting to change their future.  This was hinted a bit in the previous novels, especially Aurora Burning, and it will be cool to see how the time travel elements ties everything together.  It will be rather fun to see these over-the-top characters attempt to deal with all the consequences of time travel, and you can imagine they are going to get a lot of stuff wrong.  Readers should also be prepared for a lot of drama and heartbreak, as the authors left several emotional storylines open at the end of the second novel which are going to be very hard to resolve.

This final book in the Aurora Cycle has a lot going for it, and I think that we are going to be in for an exceptional time with Aurora’s End.  Kaufman and Kristoff have done an incredible job with the first two books and the series, and there is some great setup going into Aurora’s End.  I already know that this final novel is going to feature a lot of outstanding humour, great character work and some clever storylines, and I am extremely confident that these two talented authors will be able to tie everything together perfectly.  This will probably be one of the best young adult novels of 2021, and I am very much looking forward to it.  I can only hope that I will not get too emotional if one of the amazing characters gets hurt or killed (you never know with final books).