The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian crime fiction sensation, Megan Goldin, returns with an impressive third novel, The Night Swim, an intense and heavy-hitting read that quickly drags the reader in with its captivating narrative that refuses to let go.

Following the success of the first season of her true crime podcast show, Guilty or Not Guilty, which set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become an overnight sensation and a beacon for people seeking justice or their freedom.  Determined to keep her momentum going, Rachel decides to set the latest season of her podcast around the most contentious trial in the country, a high-profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis.  The town’s golden boy, a famous swimmer with Olympic potential, has been accused of raping the popular granddaughter of the town’s legendary police chief.  The resultant case has divided both the town and the country, and many are eager to see how the hearing unfolds.

Arriving in Neapolis, Rachel begins her own investigation, interviewing people of interest and trying to provide an unbiased version of the case to her listeners.  But as she attempts to unwind the legal and moral complexities surrounding the case, Rachel finds herself distracted when she begins to receive a series of letters from a mysterious woman.  This woman, Hannah, is a former local who has returned to Neapolis because of the trial and is requesting Rachel’s help in getting long-overdue justice for her sister, Jenny Stills, who died 25 years earlier.

Officially, Jenny’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning and barely anyone remembers who she was or how she died.  However, Hannah’s letters reveal a far different story about a poor girl who was brutally murdered and whose memory and legacy was tarnished from beyond the grave.  As Rachel beings to investigate the death of Jenny, she soon finds parallels between this old case and the modern-day rape.  Something truly rotten occurred 25 years ago in Neapolis and now the past has come back to haunt those involved.  Can Rachel bring justice after all these years and how will her findings impact the current trial?

Now that was a powerful and compelling read from Goldin, who has once again produced an excellent and impressive read.  Megan Goldin is a talented Australian author who debuted back in 2017 with The Girl in Kellers Way.  I first became familiar with Goldin when I received a copy of her second book, The Escape Room, in 2018.  I really liked the curious synopsis of The Escape Room, and once I started it I found that I was unable to stop, resulting in me reading it entirely in one night.  As a result, I was quite eager to get my hands on Goldin’s third book, The Night Swim, and I was really glad that I got a chance to read it.  This new standalone crime fiction novel proved to be an extremely intriguing read with an outstanding story that expertly deals with some heavy and controversial issues and which takes the reader on an intense and memorable journey.

At the centre of this book is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is loaded with emotion, mystery and social commentary.  The main story follows Rachel as she arrives in Neapolis and attempts to uncover some background behind the events of the rape case she is covering.  This part of the story sees Rachel interview several key witnesses or associated individuals to get their side of the story, explores how the case is impacting the town, witnesses the details of the dramatic court case and then reports her finding and feelings in separate extended chapters made to represent a podcast episode.  Rachel also investigates the events that occurred 25 years ago to Jenny Stills.  Rachel is guided in this part of the story by Hannah’s mysterious letters, which paint a detailed picture of Hannah’s childhood and her memories of the events that occurred.  Rachel follows the clues left in the letters as well as her own investigations to attempt to uncover what really happened all those years ago and who the culprits are.

I really liked how Goldin split out the story, especially as it combined cold case elements with a modern legal thriller and investigation.  Both the present case and the historical crime had compelling, if dark, narrative threads, and I really appreciated where both storylines ended up.  Naturally both cases were connected in some way, especially as a number of key people associated with the modern-day rape, such as the police investigators, lawyers, the parents of both parties and several other characters, were in Neapolis 25 years earlier and are potential suspects in this previous crime.  While I was able to guess who the main perpetrator of the Jenny Stills case was about halfway through the story, I still found it extremely intriguing to see the rest of the story unfold and the joint conclusion of both narratives was rather satisfying.  Some of the key highlights of this story for me included the exciting and dramatic court scenes and I also enjoyed the use of the true crime podcast in the story.  Having the protagonist run a successful true crime podcast or television show is a story element that has been a little overused in recent years, but I still find it to be an intriguing inclusion, especially as Goldin utilised it well in this novel as both a plot device and a forum for the character/author’s social musings.  Overall, this was an excellent piece of crime fiction with an impressive narrative that will draw the reader in and ensure that they will stick around to see how it all unfolds.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Night Swim is Goldin’s frank and comprehensive look at sexual assault crimes.  The book’s narrative focuses on two separate but similar sexual assault cases that occurred within 25 years of each other.  Goldin not only provides details of these crimes but also dives into other elements of rape and assault, such as how victims are impacted in the aftermath, how sexual assault crimes are viewed in society and very little has changed around this in recent years.  This novel paints a particularly grim picture on the entire legal process surrounding the process for investigating and prosecuting rape cases and there are some fascinating, if horrifying, examinations of how society still has trouble coming to a consensus when it comes to these crimes, and how cases like these can divide communities and nations.  There are a number of examples contained within the plot about the public perception of the crimes, with doubt and blame being placed on rape victims who are forced to relive their assaults in different ways and who face unfair and often malicious attacks on their reputations and psyches.  It was also interesting to see the author examine some of the fear that women experience all the time at the possibility of an attack, and the protagonist’s emotional podcast posts are particularly good for exploring her experiences and thoughts on the matter.  There is also a clever and apt bit of symbolism around this in the form of a caged mockingbird at the protagonist’s hotel who is bothered by several random men for not singing, which I thought was rather striking and memorable.  Goldin does a fantastic job diving into this subject and she really pulls no punches in showing what a terrible and mentally damaging crime this is, as well as the impacts that it has on the victims.  Because of this The Night Swim is a bit of tough book to read at times and some readers may find a lot of the content quite distressing.  However, I really appreciated that Goldin spent the time exploring this subject and it proved to be a captivating and memorable addition to the story.

The small fictional town of Neapolis also proved to be a great setting for this novel, and I liked the way that Goldin utilised this location in The Night Swim.  I think that the author was able to produce an excellent approximation of classic small town America, complete with social power players, economic troubles, well-to-do former residents who have returned to face their past and old secrets and lies that are only now bubbling to the surface.  It was really intriguing to see the protagonist uncover all the secrets of the town, especially the ones told in Hannah’s cryptic letters and childhood musings.  It was also fascinating to see the impacts of family reputation and parental legacy on how crimes are investigated and covered up and this becomes a major factor in both of the cases being investigated.  I also liked how Goldin examined how a controversial sexual assault case could divide a small town like Neapolis, with all the resultant friction and disagreement obvious for an outsider like Rachel to observe.  Overall, this was a compelling setting, and I think that it really helped to enhance the intriguing narrative that Goldin produced.

With this third impressive novel, Megan Goldin has once again shown why she is such a rising star in the crime fiction genre.  The Night Swim is a powerful and captivating read that expertly examines a heavy, relevant and surprisingly divisive real-world topic and utilises it to create a clever crime fiction story set across 25 years.  This was a truly outstanding piece of fiction, and the combination of a great mystery, dramatic writing and an in-depth examination of crime and society proved to be rather compelling and memorable.  While The Night Swim is a standalone read, I think that the protagonist introduced in this novel has some potential as a repeat character, and it might be interesting to see her travel around the country, investigating crimes for her podcast.  In the meantime, The Night Swim comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what Goldin comes up with next.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

Waiting on Wednesday – The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt

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, I preview an upcoming Australian historical fiction novel that I am really looking forward to, The Queen’s Captain by Peter Watt.

The Queen's Captain Cover

Peter Watt is a talented Australian author who is best known for his amazing historical fiction novels that focus on the adventures of heroic Australian characters throughout various points of history.  I was a major fan of his long running Frontier series (check out my Canberra Weekly reviews of the last two books in the series, While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above), which followed two rival families as they battled throughout several turbulent periods of Australian history, and I have also been really getting into his most recent releases, the Colonial series.

The Colonial books are a fun and action-packed historical fiction series set in the 19th century which follow the complicated lives of two characters, Ian Steel and Samuel Forbes, as they engage in an elaborate deception.  Ian is a colonial Australian blacksmith who dreamed of joining the Queen’s army and fighting around the world.  His dreams became reality when he befriends Samuel Forbes, the heir to a rich English family who bears a striking resemblance to Ian.  Samuel is estranged from his overbearing father and villainous older brother, who are determined that he will not inherit anything from them.  However, Samuel can receive a vast inheritance if he serves as an officer in the British army for a period of 10 years.  Unfortunately, Samuel is somewhat shellshocked after his initial posting in the army and strikes a bargain with Ian to switch places so that Ian can serve his commission and claim the inheritance.  While Samuel hides himself in America, Ian, who has a natural aptitude for fighting and command, takes up this new identity and position in the army and fights through several campaigns, including in the Crimean War and the against the rebelling Sepoys in India.  Both of these protagonists must also contend with the manipulations of Samuel’s suspicious brother and father, who attempt to both kill Ian and identify him as an imposter, and the novels also focus on Ian and Samuel’s friends, comrades and love interests.

This has so far been an extremely enjoyable series, and I loved the character-driven stories and the depictions of various historical battles around the world.  I have read both of the preceding two Colonial books, The Queen’s Colonial and The Queen’s Tiger, and not only were the amongst some of the strongest historical fiction novels of their respective release years, but I also consider them to be the best pieces of Australian fiction that I have read.  As a result, I am quite excited to get my hands on a copy of the upcoming third novel in the series.  This third novel, The Queen’s Captain, is currently set for release on 10 November 2020 and it sounds like Watt has come up with a rather interesting plot for this next book.

Goodreads Synopsis:

In October 1863, Ian Steele, having taken on the identity of Captain Samuel Forbes, is fighting the Pashtun on the north-west frontier in India. Half a world away, the real Samuel Forbes is a lieutenant in the 3rd New York Volunteers and is facing the Confederates at the Battle of Mission Ridge in Tennessee. Neither is aware their lives will change beyond recognition in the year to come.

In London, Ella, the love of Ian’s life, is unhappily married to Count Nikolai Kasatkin. As their relationship sours further, she tries to reclaim the son she and Ian share, but Nikolai makes a move that sees the boy sent far from Ella’s reach.

As 1864 dawns, Ian is posted to the battlefields of the Waikato in New Zealand, where he comes face to face with an old nemesis. As the ten-year agreement between Steele and Forbes nears its end, their foe is desperate to catch them out and cruel all their hopes for the future… 

I very much like the sound of where this third novel is going.  The Queen’s Captain looks set to follow its protagonists through several new historical battlefields, as both Ian and Samuel find themselves fighting for their lives.  I am rather intrigued to see what events drag Samuel into the American Civil War, as this is the last place you would expect a rich British tourist with a dislike for war to end up. Having Samuel engaged in the sort of activities he was trying to avoid when he made his plans with Ian should add some compelling edges to the narrative.  Ian is also heading into some interesting warzones, as not only will he continue his campaigns in India but he will be transferred to New Zealand.  I have to admit that I really do not know that much about the British army’s conflicts in New Zealand and I am curious to see what occurs when Ian is posted there.

It also sounds like there is going to be lot more of the intrigue and double-dealing that surrounds the deal between Ian and Samuel, and no doubt Samuel’s brother, and perhaps other antagonists of the series, will be attempting to expose or kill them.  Ian’s redeployment to New Zealand will probably be a major part of this, as this was Samuel’s initial military post before he struck a deal with Ian.  It is extremely likely that some of the soldiers already posted in New Zealand will have some memory of the original Samuel and will therefore have some inkling that Ian is an imposter, which will place both protagonists in a different form of danger.  I am also looking forward to the storyline surrounding Ian’s main love interest, Ella, as she deals with an unhappy marriage that she tries to escape.  Watt has cultivated several fantastic supporting characters for this series, including Ella, and I am curious to see how their various storylines continue.

Overall, I have extremely high hopes for The Queen’s Captain, which should prove to be an excellent and enjoyable read for the end of the year.  I have had an amazing time reading the first two novels in this fun and exciting series and I am sure that this third novel will prove to be another impressive read.

Last Survivor by Tony Park

Last Survivor Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2020)

Series: Sonja Kurtz – Book Four

Length: 401 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of the Australian thriller, Tony Park, is back with Last Survivor, another intense and action-packed novel that explores the turbulent and beautiful continent of Africa.

Tony Park is an awesome Australian author who has been writing some great thriller novels since his 2003 debut, Far Horizon.  I have been really getting into Park’s fantastic books over the last couple of years and I really appreciate their excellent adventure storylines, as well as the author’s outstanding use of Africa as a background setting for all his books.  I rather enjoyed his 2018 release, Scent of Fear, and I had an amazing time reading last year’s Ghosts of the Past which had some impressive historical fiction elements to it.  As a result, I was very excited when I received my copy of Last Survivor and not just because it quoted my Canberra Weekly review for Ghosts of the Past on the back (see below).  Last Survivor is the 18th novel written by Park and it also serves as the fourth book to feature his recurring protagonist, Sonja Kurtz.

In Last Survivor, freelance intelligence agent Sonja Kurtz is back and on the trail of a terrorist organisation who are financing themselves through the smuggling of rare cycads.  This story starts with Joanne Flack, treasurer of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, on the run from her home in South Africa, accused of stealing an extremely valuable cycad worth millions of dollars.  However, when Joanne is attacked by a terrorist operative in the heart of London, she flees back to Africa, where she knows how to hide.

Following a dangerous operation in Mali, Sonja Kurtz is given a new mission by her contact in the CIA, who wants her help tracking down Joanne and finding out what she knows about the terrorists who attacked her.  Teaming up with former Fish and Wildlife Services investigator Rod Cavanagh, who has significant history with Joanne Flack, Sonja travels Africa to initiate contact.  However, the moment that Sonja finds her Joanne they are attacked by a team of heavily armed killers, determined to take her out.

With their CIA contact down and everyone now trying to kill them, Sonja, Joanne and Rod flee deeper into Africa seeking refuge where they can.  In order to protect Joanne, they need to work out who is funding their attackers and what their interest in the cycad is.  To that end, Sonja infiltrates the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society in order to use them as a cover for her investigation.  However, it soon becomes clear that someone in the Society is working for the terrorists, and Sonja and her friends will have to tread carefully if they are to survive the forces coming for them.

Now, that was a fun read.  Park has once again produced another deeply exciting, high-octane thriller that drags the reader in and keeps them engaged until the bitter end.  I really loved this amazing read which combines a fantastic story with a captivating modern-day setting and a focus on a new and unique real-world issue.  Last Survivor is a very easy book to get into and it mostly serves as a great standalone novel.  Readers unfamiliar with Park’s work do not need to check out any of the author’s prior novels first, not even the previous books that featured Sonja Kurtz as a protagonist.  However, those long-term fans of Park will love seeing more of his unique style, as well as the return of one of his few reoccurring characters.

Park has come up with an outstanding and enjoyable thriller storyline for Last Survivor which was addictive, clever and very exciting.  The story revolves around the hunt for a rare cycad, and the protagonists’ attempts to stop the terrorist organisation attempting to obtain it to finance their operation.  This proves to be a fantastic narrative that combines a clever spy thriller story with great character development and impressive action sequences.  The author utilises a number of separate character perspectives to tell the story, allowing for an expansive and enjoyable narrative that splits into several separate plot lines.  I also liked all the fun characters that Park introduced throughout this book, from the troubled Joanne Fleck, whose significant past with Rod Cavanagh adds a lot of drama to the story, to the members of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society, heavily armed plant enthusiasts who have a traitor amongst their ranks.  It was also great seeing more of his recurring character, Sonja Kurtz, an aging spy with commitment and trust issues, whose burning love for Africa matches the author’s.  This story goes into some enjoyable directions, and there are several great twists and turns throughout it punctuated by a number of amazing action sequences to really drag in the reader’s attention.  I particularly liked the unique and extended battle sequence that served as the book’s conclusion and it was both intense and entertaining to watch Kurtz and her rag-tag team of elderly African gun-nuts go up against a group of terrorists and criminals.  All of this makes for a fantastic read and I found myself swiftly getting through the entire book in very quick fashion.

Another awesome element of this book is the way that Park once again sets the story throughout various parts of Africa.  Park has a clear and sustained love for Africa, as all his novels are based in or around the continent, which always proves to be an excellent literary setting.  This is once again true for Last Survivor, as the story jumps around various parts of multiple countries such as South Africa, Mali and Zimbabwe.  Each of these different countries prove to be great locations for this book and Park expertly examines several social and political realities of living in these countries, working them into the plot of the story in a compelling and enjoyable manner.  While it is great learning more about these African countries, the real magic occurs when Park takes the story out into the African wilds.  Not only does this prove to be an awesome location for the book’s intense action sequences but the author always provides such powerful and endearing descriptions of the wilderness and its animal inhabitants.  Park’s sheer love of the African countryside really shines through every time that a character considers their surroundings and he always manages to bring these locations to life.  I also like the way that Park uses his stories to examine parts of Africa that he is really passionate about, such as highlighting the damage and evils of illegal poaching, lauding various anti-poaching groups and patrols that are trying to oppose them, and also looking at the various national parks and nature preserves that exist across the various countries.  All of this really makes for a fantastic setting, and I cannot wait to see what new aspects of Africa that Park reveals in his next book.

As I mentioned above, Park routinely uses his thriller novels to throw a spotlight on the evils of poaching in Africa and the organisations and community groups who attempt to combat it.  While there is still a lot of that within this novel, the story mainly focuses on a fascinating new illegal operation that has taken root in Africa, the smuggling of rare cycads.  Cycads are ancient seed plants that have existed since the Jurassic, and while many species can be found around the world, several species are currently on the brink of extinction.  This apparently has led to a thriving smuggling market in Africa with many rare specimens illegally taken out of the country and sold off to rich collectors around the world.  Park really dives into this new illegal trade throughout the book with the story filled with a number of intense discussions about what cycads are, their various biological properties, why some of them are so rare and valuable, and how they are currently becoming a major source of financing for smugglers and terrorists.  This proves to be extremely fascinating, and I really appreciated the information I received learning more about cycads, a subject that I really did not too much about prior to this book.  The illegal cycad smuggling also plays really well into the book’s amazing thriller story, and I really enjoyed how an intense action story revolved around people smuggling plants and the lengths people will go to obtain them.

Last Survivor is another deeply impressive thriller novel from Tony Park, who has once again produced a clever, relevant, and intensely action packed read which you find extremely hard to put down.  I had an incredible time seeing another one of Park’s amazing adventures take place amongst the African wilds and I really love the unique elements he adds to the story.  This is a fantastic and compelling book and it comes highly recommended.

Last Survivor Back Cover

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2020)

Series: The Common – Book One

Length: 538 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an epic and elaborate science fiction debut?  Then you will definitely want to check out Stormblood by Australian author Jeremey Szal, a compelling and ingenious novel that was a heck of a lot of fun to read.

In humanity’s far future, our species has just emerged from a brutal and destructive civil war between the seemingly benevolent Harmony and the ruthless Harvester empire.  Harmony were able to win the war by creating the Reapers, elite soldiers who were injected with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race, which permanently altered their bodies, making them stronger, faster and more effective soldiers.  However, stormtech also had terrible side effects, making the host become addicted to their own adrenaline, which impacted on their minds and dramatically increased their natural aggression.

When the war ends, millions of Reapers are left shells of their former selves, having to deal with the terrible addictive impact of the alien DNA in their system, while stormtech became widely traded as an illicit drug across the galaxy.  Amongst these former soldiers is Vakov Fukasawa, a member of an elite Reaper fireteam, who has managed to overcome his addiction to stormtech and now makes a living taking on dangerous odd jobs on Compass, a mega-city built into a massive asteroid.  Vakov has grown vastly disillusioned with Harmony and their methods, but when he is approached by their agents to assist with an investigation, he is once again compelled into their service.

Somebody is killing his fellow former Reapers by poisoning the stormtech being passed around the city.  In order to save the comrades he fought beside, Vakov agrees to help with the investigation, especially when it is revealed that Harmony’s only lead is Vakov’s estranged brother.  However, the more Vakov investigates, the more people keep trying to kill him, and he soon finds himself caught in a vast conspiracy that threatens Compass and the entirety of Harmony.  Can Vakov put a stop to this horrifying plot, or will untold death and destruction rain down on him and everything he fought for?

Stormblood is an intriguing and impressive new science fiction novel that takes the reader on an action-packed thrill ride.  This is the debut novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which also serves as the first book in his The Common series of books.  I have been looking forward to this science fiction release for a while as I thought it sounded like a rather interesting novel, and I was really glad when I received a copy.  I ended up having a fantastic time reading this amazing and clever novel, and it is one of the best debut books I have so far read this year.

At the centre of this novel lies a captivating and exciting narrative that follows the adventures of the book’s primary protagonist, Vakov Fukasawa, as he tries to uncover who is trying to kill all his fellow former soldiers.  This results in a fast-paced military thriller storyline filled with all manner of action and adventure as Vakov jumps from one lead to the next in order to get to the bottom of the plot he is investigating.  This story goes in some dramatic directions, and I had fun unravelling the complex conspiracy storyline that emerged.  The combat comes very hot and heavy throughout the entirety of the story, with some unique science fiction elements added in to really make them pop.  Readers should also be prepared for some rather dark sequences, such as a rather claustrophobic torture scene.  Szal also spends a lot of time building up and exploring his protagonist, Vakov, showing him to be a complex character who is haunted by his past and strongly concerned for the people he is close to.  Several chapters within this book are dedicated to showing the events that formed him, including his traumatic childhood and his military service.  There is also a compelling focus on the strained relationship between Vakov and his brother, which becomes a major part of the plot as the two eventually face off as adversaries in some fantastic dramatic scenes.  I became really engrossed with this elaborate storyline and I ended up reading the entire book rather quickly, despite its somewhat substantial length.  An overall outstanding story, I cannot wait to see what happens in the next books in the series, but I have a feeling I am really going to enjoy them.

One of the key highlights of Stormblood is the outstanding new science fiction universe that Szal has come up with as a setting for the story.  Szal clearly has considerable imagination, as he produces a vast and exhilarating science fiction location populated with a multitude of different people and alien races.  The majority of the story is set within the gigantic space city of Compass, an amazing expanse of different places, climates and structures, all laid out in vertical levels.  This was a really cool place to explore, and this is clearly the tip of the iceberg as Szal hints at a number of other intriguing locations and planets throughout the book, and I can easily see future entries in the series expanding out to a bunch of other locations.  I was also extremely impressed with all the different technology, biological enhancements, spaceships, and alien races that appeared throughout the novel.  There are a number of new and fantastic science fiction ideas here, and I really enjoyed the way that Szal worked all of these technologies and aliens into the book’s plot, especially as most of them provide some amazing enhancements to the story.  A number of the book’s intense sequences really stand out due to the technology that the author comes up with, such as weird weapons, advanced combat suits, all manner of enhanced opponents, and a particularly freaky security room that is keyed to a person’s biology (you do not want to know what happens when the owner dies).  All these proved to be a lot of fun, and Szal has an awesome and imaginative vision of the future.

Out of all the cool science fiction elements in this book, I really have to highlight stormtech, the alien DNA that is injected into humans to give them enhanced abilities.  Stormtech is a key part of Stormblood as a plot device and because of the impacts that it has on the book’s point-of-view character.  Quite a lot of the story is dedicated to examining the transformative qualities of stormtech and the effects that it has had on former Reapers like Vakov.  In particular, the alien DNA has left him addicted to his own adrenaline, and it is constantly driving him to perform risky or aggressive acts so that he can get the accompanying adrenaline high.  This proved to be a fascinating part of Stormblood’s story, as the author spends a lot of time examining how stormtech impacts his protagonist’s mind and his constant struggle to control it.  Several of the flashback scenes are particularly well utilised here, as they show Vakov and his fireteam’s initial experiences with stormtech during the war and the terrible effects it had on them the more action they saw.  The version of Vakov who was introduced at the start of the main story is one who has managed to gain command over his addiction, although he is constantly struggling to maintain that control, especially as the events of plot compel him into more and more dangerous situations and new experiences with experimental stormtech, resulting in some dramatic consequences.  This was an extremely captivating aspect of the Stormblood’s narrative, and Szal does an outstanding job examining the impacts of addiction on the protagonist and then using it to add additional compelling layers to his main character.

Stormblood is an excellent and exciting science fiction novel from talented new Australian author Jeremy Szal.  Szal’s creativity and ability to tell a complex and thrilling story really shines through in his debut book, and I had an outstanding time enjoying this epic read.  I fully intend to grab the second book in this series when it comes out and I have a feeling that Szal is going to have a major impact on the science fiction genre in the next few years.

Waiting on Wednesday – Dead Man in a Ditch by Luke Arnold

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 article, I check out the urban fantasy novel, Dead Man in a Ditch, the sequel to Luke Arnold’s amazing debut, The Last Smile in Sunder City.

Dead Man in a Ditch Cover

I have got to hand it to the feature author of this article, Australian actor and writer Luke Arnold: he is going out of his way to make sure that 2020 is his year. Not only did he have his writing debut with his first novel, The Last Smile in Sunder City, one of the more impressive fantasy releases I checked out in early 2020, but he is bringing out a sequel to this excellent debut less than seven months later, with Dead Man in a Ditch, which is currently set to come out in September 2020.

The Last Smile in Sunder City was the first book in The Fletch Phillips Archives, which follows the titular protagonist, Fletch Phillips. The series is set in a world formerly dominated by magic and magical creatures, with humans living as an oppressed and overlooked underclass. However, this all changed when a group of humans, guided by a young and naïve Fletch, somehow destroyed all the magic in the world, leading to a chaotic new landscape in which the formerly magical creatures do their best to survive and humanity is on the rise thanks to their technology.

I really enjoyed The Last Smile in Sunder City when I read it earlier this year, especially as Arnold crafted together an exciting and compelling murder mystery storyline and set it in a unique and impressive new fantasy world, the distinct nature of which really helped to enhance the story. As a result, I am rather looking forward to seeing another fun story set in this inventive universe, and I am very curious to see how Dead Man in a Ditch stacks up to The Last Smile in Sunder City, and whether Arnold can follow with another great book.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The name’s Fetch Phillips–what do you need?

Cover a Gnome with a crossbow while he does a dodgy deal? Sure.

Find out who killed Lance Niles, the big-shot businessman who just arrived in town? I’ll give it shot.

Help an old-lady Elf track down her husband’s murderer? That’s right up my alley.

What I don’t do, because it’s impossible, is search for a way to bring the goddamn magic back.

Rumors got out about what happened with the Professor, so now people keep asking me to fix the world.

But there’s no magic in this story. Just dead friends, twisted miracles, and a secret machine made to deliver a single shot of murder.

Well, I like the sound of where this latest book is going. It looks like Arnold is going to combine together a bunch of competing mystery storylines and interweave them together into one intriguing narrative. It also looks like the protagonist is going to continue to explore the series’ overarching storyline about the disappearance of magic in the world, and the various attempts by the former magical creatures to recover their lost power. I have a lot of confidence that this second book from Arnold is going to be just as entertaining and exciting as The last Smile in Sunder City, and I am really looking forward to grabbing Dead Man in a Ditch later this year.

Where Fortune Lies by Mary-Anne O’Connor

Where Fortune Lies

Publisher: HQ Fiction (Trade Paperback – 23 March 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 394 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From bestselling Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor comes another fun and intriguing Australian historical drama, Where Fortune Lies, which tells a multi-layered story of people seeking their fortunes in colonial Australia.

1879, Ireland. Anne Brown is a beaten-down young lady, hoping to escape the harsh life of poverty and misery she sees the rest of the women in her family experience. After a particularly cruel night which sees the one good thing in her life taken away from her, Anne flees her hometown, hoping to make a new life for herself in far-flung Australia.

Several months later in London, young gentleman Will Worthington and his sister Mari are shocked to discover that their recently deceased father has changed his will. Instead of the modest inheritance they were expecting, they find that all his money has been left to a mysterious pregnant painted lady who intends to resettle in Australia. With their social standing in London destroyed, Will and Mari, along with Will’s loyal best friend, artist Charlie Turner, follow their father’s mistress to Australia to seek their fortunes.

Upon their arrival in Melbourne, Will Mari and Charlie quickly befriend local businessman Tom McIntosh and his beautiful daughter, Alice, who Will falls in love with. While Will and Mari enjoy the opportunities afforded to them in Melbourne, Charlie spends time in the Victorian Alps with Alice’s brothers, Harry and Richie, and their wild group of friends, who show him how to live the rough colonial life. While there, Charlie finds his artistic inspiration through his work with the McIntosh boys and their wild horses, as well as his love for a mysterious exotic dancer. However, danger lies on the horizon, as Harry and Richie have been covertly engaging in the deadly trade of bushranging. Soon the fates of all these young people will hang in the balance, as tough choices, dangerous loyalties and harsh heartbreaks will impact them all.

Where Fortune Lies is another fantastic read from O’Connor, who has written some exceptional historical dramas in her five-year career. I read my first Mary-Anne O’Connor book last year, In a Great Southern Land, which told an excellent story about a group of people coming to Australia in the 1850’s to participate in the gold rush and subsequent uprising at the Eureka Stockade. I quite enjoyed In a Great Southern Land and I was rather pleased that my review of it was quoted on the back of the copy of Where Fortune Lies that I received. This latest novel follows a similar concept to O’Connor’s last book, with a diverse group of characters journeying to opportunity-rich Australia in order to seek a better life, and O’Connor is once again able to weave together a rich and compelling story of love, family drama and action in the Australian wilds, and I quite enjoyed the fun blend of story elements that the author was able to come up with.

Where Fortune Lies contains a strong character-based story that follows the lives and adventures of several characters who are drawn together by fate, love and family. O’Connor does a wonderful job of introducing these key point-of-view characters, whose story the reader finds themselves getting quite attached to. I really enjoyed the way that the author spaced out the various character threads, taking the time to explore the lives of each of the separate characters. While some of the character arcs do cross over quite a bit (for example, Charlie Turner directly interacts with all the other major characters and serves as a major bridging character), other characters are kept relatively separate from each other, with only a few scenes together. However, these characters arcs still have some subtle interactions, with their actions indirectly impacting other characters’ lives, or the two characters meet or discuss each other without realising who the other person really is. I liked the method of storytelling, as it allowed the reader to get to know each character individually and see the various struggles and difficulties that they are facing, as well as how they overcome them and evolve as people. I really enjoyed each of the character arcs that O’Connor explored, and I think that all of them came to a satisfying conclusion, especially as the various threads combine together at the end of the book with all the main characters finding their final fates. Each of these character-driven storylines had a good blend of adventure, adversity, romance and drama, which I think came together extremely well as an overall narrative.

I really liked the way that O’Connor once again dived back into Australia’s past, this time looking at the turbulent 1870s, and presenting the reader with another view of the country’s iconic colonial history. Where Fortune Lies contains some fantastic examination of various parts of old-school Victoria, including the busting metropolis of Melbourne, and it was interesting to see O’Connor’s depiction of the crossing to Australia and the things that immigrants back in this period would have experienced. Most of the story, however, takes place in the rugged wilds of outback Australia, particularly in the wilderness and small towns of the Victorian Alps. O’Connor presents a fascinating exploration of these communities, and I really enjoyed her depictions of people capturing the wild horses a la The Man from Snowy River. However, the highlight of this jaunt back into history has to be the author’s focus on the bushrangers, the dangerous highwaymen who stalked the Australian outback. A good part of the book’s plot revolves around some of the characters getting involved in bushranging out of desperation or greed, and it was rather intriguing to see how society perceived these criminals. There are a number of references to real-life bushrangers, such as the Kelly Gang and Captain Thunderbolt, and I really enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on this exciting part of Australia’s history. All of this serves as an incredible background to this fun story, and I look forward to seeing what amazing part of Australia’s past O’Connor will explore in her next book.

Where Fortune Lies is another terrific Australian historical drama from O’Connor, who once again combines a captivating, character-driven narrative with an excellent depiction of Australia’s rich and vibrant history. This turned out to be an elegant and enjoyable read that features amazing romantic and dramatic plots, as well as an intriguing dive into the infamous bushrangers of Victoria. A fantastic new novel that once again sees O’Connor continues to shine as one of the most talented authors of Australian historical dramas.

A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill

A Testament of Character Cover

Publisher: Pantera Press (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Rowland Sinclair – Book 10

Length: 337 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Sulari Gentill returns with the 10th book in her bestselling Rowland Sinclair series, A Testament of Character, an intense and compelling new entry which was a lot of fun to read.

Gentill is an excellent Australian author who has written several amazing books since her 2010 debut. While her main body of work is the Rowland Sinclair series, Gentill has also written The Hero trilogy, a young adult fantasy trilogy based on classic Greek stories, and the standalone novel Crossing the Lines. I am mostly familiar with her Rowland Sinclair books, however, as I have read the last several books in this series, all of which have been extremely enjoyable due to their fantastic blend of history and mystery. The Rowland Sinclair books follow the adventures of the titular Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy left-wing Australian gentleman artist, and his three artistic friends in the 1930s, as they find themselves in the middle of several murder investigations. Each Rowland Sinclair book is a fun and entertaining part of my yearly reading calendar, and I have been looking forward to checking out A Testament of Character for a while now.

In 1935, after the horrors they experienced in Shanghai, Rowland and his bohemian friends Edna, Clyde and Milton are enjoying a leisurely holiday in Singapore before heading back to Australia. However, their travel plans are dramatically changed when Rowland receives tragic news. An old friend of Rowland from his Oxford days, Daniel Cartwright, has died suddenly, and he has appointed Rowland as the executor of his vast estate.

Detouring from Australia to Cartwright’s home city of Boston, Rowland and his companions arrive for the funeral and find themselves in the midst of controversy and familiar conflict. Not only was Cartwright estranged from the rest of his family, especially his brothers, who disapproved of his lifestyle choice, but it turns out he was murdered, and the police have yet to find any suspects. Even more mysteriously, Cartwright had only just written every member of his family out of the will, leaving all his money to an unknown man everyone claims does not exist.

Determined to carry out the last wishes of his dear friend, Rowland attempts to find the man who apparently meant so much to him. However, his investigation quickly turns sour, as he runs into numerous people who do not want Cartwright’s will to come to pass. Forced to scour Boston, New York and other parts of post-Depression America for leads, the four friends encounter all manner of dangerous and eccentric characters as they pursue their quest. However, none of them are prepared for the terrible truth they encounter, especially now that Cartwright’s killer has them in their sights.

A Testament of Character is an exciting and compelling novel that proves to be a fantastic new addition to the Rowland Sinclair series. Gentill has done an amazing job coming up with another captivating story that not only features an exciting and gripping mystery but which takes an intriguing look at America in the 1930s. This story contains the series’s usual blend of fun, intrigue and action, as the four exceedingly liberal protagonists get into all manner of trouble across conservative America. There are some rather impressive and at times dark scenes throughout this book, and Gentill has also included some major character developments that will appeal to long-term readers of this series. The end result is an exceedingly enjoyable and thrilling story of love, adventure and revenge which proved extremely hard to put down.

At the heart of this book lies a clever mystery storyline that revolves around the murder of the protagonist’s friend and the identity of the mysterious beneficiary of the will. Gentill crafts an excellent multi-layered mystery, with a number of surprising twists, turns and false leads on the way to the exciting conclusion. While I was able to guess a little bit in advance who the main perpetrator turned out to be, all the revelations that came out in the final confrontation were really impressive and helped wrap up the entire mystery storyline extremely well. I also thought that Gentill came up with a very compelling and memorable motivation for the various crimes featured within the book. Some of these reveals were a bit dark and shocking, but they did make for some very dramatic and captivating sequences throughout the book. Overall, I thought that this was one of the strongest mysteries to have so far been featured within one of the Rowland Sinclair books, and it served as an amazing centre to this entire fantastic book.

One of the most distinctive features of this whole series is the way that Gentill dives into the history and culture of the period in which the books are set. She has previously done a wonderful job of exploring parts of 1930s Australia, Europe and occupied Shanghai, and in A Testament of Character Gentill’s characters explore post-Depression America. This proves to be an excellent backdrop to the book’s superb story, and I loved the examination of the key cities of Boston and New York, as well as some rural areas of the country. Gentrill provides the reader with a fantastic and at times in-depth look at various parts of the 1930s American culture and society. This is done in two distinct ways, the first of which involves the protagonists exploring America as Australians, providing an outsider’s perspective of the events or places they visit (while constantly getting complemented for speaking such good English!). The second way is through Gentill’s inclusion of historical newspaper clippings at the front of every chapter. The use of these newspaper clippings is another recurring trait of the Rowland Sinclair series, and I have always enjoyed the way in which the articles relate to some cultural or historical aspect of the chapter the clipping fronts. Through the use of these methods, the author paints an intriguing picture about America during this period, which I think worked extremely well as a background to the main mystery plot. This is especially true as some of the motives and elements of the mystery revolve around the social attitudes and cultural expectations of the time, which the reader will need to have a bit of an understanding about. I have to say that I was glad that as part of this examination of historical America, Gentill also had a look at public opinion around the Nazis and fascists in the lead up to World War II, as this has been one of the more interesting story threads to follow throughout the series.

Another distinctive aspect of the Rowland Sinclair series is the way that Gentill writes a number of historical figures into the story, either as cameos or in major roles. The best previous example of this is easily the author’s inclusion of Eric Campbell and The New Guard (an ultra-right-wing Australian organisation in the 1930s) as recurring antagonists in some of the books, as these real-life historical figures are great foils to the progressive protagonists. Gentill continues to do this in A Testament of Characters, making great use of several iconic American historical figures to flesh out the story and create several memorable inclusions. Several of these historical figures have pretty major roles in the plot, including Joseph Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife and fellow author, Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also some fun cameos from several other notable people, including Errol Flynn, a young JFK, Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, as well as several other characters who were in Boston or New York during the 1930s. There are also a ton of references to other unique figures in America during this time, including the Parker Brothers Company (Monopoly was released in 1935, and the protagonists of course end up playing a game), as well as a unique goat competition that was held in Central Park, of which Gentill of course names the winner. This is an extremely fun and amusing part of A Testament of Character, and I always enjoy seeing Gentill’s protagonists run into these real-life historical figures, especially as the author does a fantastic job examining and showcasing their personalities and motivations. I love how Gentill effortlessly works these people into the plot, and the reader is always left wondering who is going to appear next.

A Testament of Character is a superb and exciting new addition to the outstanding Rowland Sinclair series that is really worth checking out. Sulari Gentill has once again produced a fantastic mystery storyline that strongly benefits from the author’s clever dive back into 1930’s history. This results in a powerful and exhilarating novel which makes amazing use of its fun, distinctive inclusions and intriguing characters. I cannot wait to see what misadventures Rowland Sinclair and his friends get up to in their next book, and this is a truly wonderful Australian series with a real unique flair to it.