The Honourable Thief by Meaghan Wilson Anastasios

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Publisher: Macmillan Australia

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

In her first solo novel, Australian Meaghan Anastasios has produced a deeply compelling historical drama that combines a thriller storyline with an archaeological investigation into one fun and invigorating narrative.

In 1955, world-renowned archaeologist and war hero Benedict Hitchens has been living a life of academic exile in Istanbul.  His promising archaeological career and professional reputation were destroyed after a chance encounter with the mysterious Eris, who held a horde of ancient treasures that validated the legends of the Iliad.  When Eris and her treasures suddenly disappear, Ben’s attempts to find her result in suspicion from the authorities and disbelief from the world at large.  His only tangible proof of the encounter is a small tablet that hints at the existence of Achilles, Ben’s archaeological obsession.

Now, Ben embarks on an ambitious plan to flush out the people responsible for Eris’s disappearance, hoping to bring her to justice and salvage his life and reputation.  The clues that he uncovers take him on a quest to find the tomb of Achilles, travelling through Greece, London and Turkey in order to locate one of the world’s greatest treasures.  However, a shadowy group is manipulating Ben at every turn.  Can Ben find the Achilles’s tomb before the ghosts of his past catch up with him?

Despite this being her first solo book, Anastasios is already a successful author, having previously teamed up with her husband to produce the historical drama The Water Diviner, which was adapted into a movie starring Russell Crowe.  While this book does not appear to be connected to Anastiasios’s previous work, both stories are primarily set in Turkey and focus on key events in the country’s history.  The Honourable Thief does contain a fun little callback to her other novel when its main character is at one point nicknamed ‘the Water Diviner’ due to his uncanny ability to find archaeological material.

The overall story that Anastasios presents with The Honourable Thief is a fantastic narrative that combines mystery and suspense aspects, great historical fiction elements, exploration of Greece and Turkey, and a whole lot of archaeology.  There is a great focus on the impact of World War II on Greece, especially Crete, as well as a detailed examination of Turkish history and culture.  Having the protagonist work on uncovering both an archaeological investigation and a conspiracy around missing artefacts is an interesting combination that creates a very interesting story.  The ties to the stories of the Iliad as the protagonist examines the possibility of finding the tomb of Achilles are fascinating and will appeal to fans of the classics.

The author has split The Honourable Thief into two parts and three separate timelines.  Part I of the book only briefly touches on the storyline set in 1955, and instead focuses on the events in the protagonist’s life that led up to the latest timeline.  One of these storylines looks at Ben’s early life during the 1930s and 1940s, including his experiences during World War II.  The second storyline is set in the early 1950s and focuses on the events that led up to Ben losing his reputation and the beginnings of his self-destructive life in Istanbul.  Part II of the book mostly contains the 1955 storyline, and follows Ben’s quest to clear his name.

This split into three distinct storylines is a great way to highlight The Honourable Thief’s intricate narrative, and it was interesting to focus on the earlier timelines in the first half of the book.  This also allows the main plot to continue almost uninterrupted in the second half of the book, ensuring that the reader can completely focus on the intense and electrifying adventure set around the protagonist’s hunt for answers.  This formatting decision was a great change of pace from other novels that slowly reveal their protagonist’s past through the course of the entire story.

While the vast majority of The Honourable Thief is told from the protagonist’s point of view, some very short chapters that buck this trend have been added into Part II of the book.  These smaller entries are inserted before the longer chapters that focus on the protagonist and contain brief, shadowy conversations between the story’s villains.  During these chapters, these hidden characters discuss and analyse the actions of Ben and work out ways to manipulate him further.  The identities of these conspirators are not revealed within these chapters, which builds intrigue as the reader tries to work out who they are.  These short chapters are a terrific addition to the book, as they provide the story with some short, but stimulating, breaks in the narrative.  It also adds a completely new perspective to the story and allows the reader insight into the machinations of the book’s antagonists.

Anastasios has created an interesting and memorable protagonist for her excellent story.  When Benedict Hitchens is introduced, he is a disgraced and self-destructive character who does not elicit a great deal of sympathy from the audience.  However, the author’s clever use of the separate storylines allows the reader to view his backstory, which explores his obsession with finding Eris and Achilles.  Both earlier timelines are vital in explaining the character’s motives and emotional baggage, turning Ben into a tragic and sympathetic character.  It is also fascinating to see the changes that have happened to the character during the various timelines.  For example, his experiences change his entire outlook on life and make him more likely to engage in reckless actions.  It also changes his style of archaeology as he goes from the academically accepted practice of carefully digging trenches and laboriously recording every single detail, to a more reckless technique reminiscent of a tomb raider like Indiana Jones.  Anastasios has included an interesting character flaw for her protagonist: despite him being a brilliant archaeologist, he keeps falling for a series of blindingly obvious manipulations, which becomes quite frustrating for the reader to watch.

The reader may find it is possible to predict many of the book’s various twists well in advance, and that lessens the impact of the story.  The eventual reveal of who the antagonists are also was not too uprising.  However, there is one significant, if not slightly ridiculous, twist in the last few pages of the book that nobody is likely to see coming.  While these negative aspects are slightly detrimental to the story, I felt that the all the book’s other amazing elements more than make up for it and turn The Honourable Thief into a captivating and highly enjoyable read.

This fantastic novel is a superb first solo outing from Anastasios, who has crafted an excellent story of betrayal, mystery and adventure, all bound together with archaeology and history.  Cleverly utilising three separate timelines into one compelling narrative, The Honourable Thief is a powerful and distinctive read that will appeal to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 28 May 2018

 

Australian thriller star Megan Goldin follows up her 2017 debut, The Girl in Kellers Way, with The Escape Room, a sensational new story that stabs right into the heart of Wall Street and the corruption and death festering within.

For years, the high-flying Wall Street investment team of Vincent, Jules, Sylvie and Sam have been the ultimate movers and shakers in the world of rich financiers.  Despite years of success, recent setbacks have put them all at risk of being fired from the large investment firm of Stanhope and Sons.  Ordered to a mandatory team-building exercise, the four colleagues meet at a half-constructed building and enter an express elevator to one of the top floors.  However, the elevator only ascends halfway up the building before stopping and leaving them suspended between floors and high above the ground.  As the four investors attempt to work out what is happening, they receive a chilling message: “Welcome to the escape room.  Your goal is simple.  Get out alive.”

While the team searches for a way out of the elevator, it soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary escape room.  Secrets and lies are revealed through cryptic clues, and the information revealed is designed to make the four strong personalities clash and lash out at each other.  But the greatest mystery is the clues that hint to the team’s past, and particularly to a dark secret they have kept hidden for years.  As time passes and their situation becomes even more desperate, the four financiers start to turn on each other in their search for answers.  Who has trapped them, and how is it linked to the deaths of two young women who used to be members of their team?

The Escape Room is the second book from Goldin and is another great work from this fantastic Australian author.  I really enjoyed this book and found it to be so compelling that I read the whole thing in one go, intrigued as I was by the unique concept and eager to see how the story ended.

Goldin has split her book into distinctive halves, with two separate stories told in alternating chapters throughout the book.  Half of the book is dedicated to the characters trapped in the elevator and is set over the period that they spend in their confinement.  The other half of the book focuses on the life of Sarah Hall, a young college graduate and entrant to the team at Stanhope and Sons.  The chapters that focus on Sarah are set over several years leading up to the events shown in the book’s other storyline.  The chapters following Sarah feature younger versions of the characters trapped in the elevator and provide significant backstory on these people and the work that they do.

Apart from plot content, there is also another key change between the two halves of the book that is very noticeable to the reader.  The chapters set within the elevator are all told in the third person from the viewpoints of the four characters trapped within it.  However, the chapters set in the past that focus on Sarah are all told in the first person.  This is an effective way of differentiating between the two halves of the book and represents a distinctive change of tone within the story.  The use of two different styles is an interesting choice from Goldin, but it actually works really well in this book.  The third person point of view is the best choice for the scenes in the elevator, as it allows the author to show the actions of the four characters, each of whom have strong personalities.  It also allows the reader to see the mindsets of each of the characters, as their recent actions and relationships issues are explored at multiple points throughout the chapter.  These extra details add to the story and help explain the pressures they are under and the reasons they start to disintegrate mentally.  Using the first person point of view for the chapters following Sarah is also a good choice from Goldin, as the reader gets to see Sarah’s personal experiences of the Wall Street lifestyle and her impressions of the characters from the other storyline who are her superiors at the firm.  This allows the reader to see the characters who become desperate and crazy in the elevator chapters as they were when they were confident and arrogant Wall Street hotshots.  This results in some great scenes and is an amazing pay-off for this unique choice of format.

The Escape Room contains some exceptional storytelling from Goldin, who has managed to create an intricate and captivating thriller.  The scenes of the book set in the elevator are particularly intriguing, as the reader gets to witness these characters slowly become more erratic the longer they are trapped, and finally turn against each other.  The final reveal of who is set up the escape room is a little predictable towards the end of the book.  That being said, there are some great twists and turns getting there, as well as some exciting revelations, such as how the whole situation was set up, the motives behind it, as well as which characters in the elevator actually knew the dark secret that resulted in their captivity.  These additions to the narrative are intricate and clever, and are one of the main reasons that The Escape Room is such a great read.

While this book had a number of amazing elements, the thing that I enjoyed the most was the examination of the Wall Street lifestyle.  Goldin has done a superb job of capturing the sleaze, the sexism, the nepotism and the cronyism that infects such an old-school boys’ club like Wall Street.  The descriptions of the lifestyles that the Wall Street brokers have to live are just insane, and Goldin spends significant time describing every aspect of these character’s lives and how their work, with the long hours, focus on appearances, the corporate backstabbing and the hunt for more money completely consumes their lives.  While Goldin does not paint Wall Street in the best light, it is the perfect background for a thriller, and I really hope that she returns to this setting in some of her future books.

The Escape Room by Megan Goldin is an outstanding second outing from this amazing new Australian author.  With a brilliant setting that contains a deep and confronting look at the daunting Wall Street lifestyle and a complex and captivating narrative that masterfully combines two excellent storylines, The Escape Room takes the readers on a wild thrill ride that they will be unable to escape.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Deceit by Richard Evans

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Publisher: Impact Press

Publication date – 18 June 2018

 

From former politician Richard Evans comes one of the most incredible fictional examinations of the Australian political system with Deceit, an exciting and superb political thriller.

When corrupt Australian Prime Minster Andrew Gerrard makes a deal with his Indonesian counterpart, he embarks on a plan to build up a retirement nest egg by passing a controversial funding bill for overseas detention centres over a period of several years.  However, when key members of his party die in a tragic plane accident, Gerrard decides to process all of the funding in one go and receive the full amount of his payoff.

Outnumbered in the House of Representatives, and with only one week to pass the bill through both houses of parliament, the task looks impossible.  But the Prime Minister is a canny political operator with no conscience to speak of and with the Speaker deep in his pocket and with no conscience to speak off.  Equipped with a master plan, Gerrard starts to manipulate the bill through parliament.

The only person who may be able to stop him is the outgoing Clerk of the House of Representatives, Gordon O’Brien, who suspects that the Prime Minister’s mysterious last-minute bill is more sinister than it appears.  As one of the few people who believe in the sanctity of the parliament, O’Brien will risk everything to find out the truth and ensure no wrongdoing is done on his watch.  Utilising all the tools at his disposal, including the opposition and investigative journalist Anita Devlin, O’Brien prepares to move against the Prime Minister.  Let the political games begin!

Evans is a former Australian politician who served two terms as a federal member of parliament in the 1990s.  Evans has decided to utilise his political experience and expertise by creating a series of Australian politics based thrillers and dramas, with several books planned for release in 2019 and 2020.  Deceit is his debut novel and the first book of his planned Democracy trilogy, with the second book in this series, Duplicity, already set to be released in 2019.  Readers interested in fictional depictions of Australian politics should also keep an eye out for his upcoming Referendum and Jack Hudson series, both of which will start to be published in the next two years.

Deceit is a fabulous political thriller with a fantastic story that twists and turns through multiple layers of manipulation, deceptions, lies and double-crosses.  The book’s main antagonist, Australian Prime Minister Andrew Gerrard is a selfish, manipulative and sleazy character who serves as a perfect villain for this story and whose plots are a highlight of this book.  Evans has done a clever job of spreading the story out among multiple point-of-view characters, as this allows the reader to view the impact of Gerrard’s manoeuvrings and lets them see how they are received by members of the opposition, the media and O’Brien.  Evans is a very talented storywriter, and the entire plot of Deceit is extremely compelling and very well thought out.  Readers will fall in love with this amazing story and will find its overall conclusion very satisfying.

As someone who lives and works in the book’s main setting, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, I have received a lot of exposure to Australian politics.  As a result, I loved the author’s exceedingly realistic and accurate depictions of the Australian political system and how it was used within this story.  There is some great coverage of Australia’s parliamentary procedure and the creation and passage of bills and laws through both houses of parliament that are presented in a precise and well-described way.  There are also a number of characters who hold roles that are actually part of Australia’s political and civil service.  These positions and roles are explored in detail, and the reader is given significant insights into what work and requirements are needed by the people holding them.  Evan’s does a fantastic job of weaving these usually dry subjects into a very enthralling narrative, and readers will be intrigued to see how the fictional Prime Minister plans to get a dodgy bill past the entire country without anyone noticing what he is doing.

The standout scene of the book has to be an extended chapter that featured a session of question time in the House of Representatives.  Question time is a daily occurrence during the parliamentary sitting period during which government and non-government members of parliament ask ministers questions about their various portfolios.  As someone who has been exposed to many question times, I was struck by how genuine Evans’s description of this event was.  Evans perfectly encapsulates the entire process from start to finish and was able to recreate the snarky and sometimes petulant nature of the discourse that are the usual fare of question time.  The author expertly links the overarching storyline of political corruption into this scene, as one member of the opposition is suspicious and starts to ask the Prime Minister leading questions about the controversial bill he has put forward.  The political back-and-forth around these questions was amazing, and it was fascinating watching them being tied into the rest of the story.  Overall, this sequence was exceedingly compelling, and the entire time I was reading it I was physically incapable of putting the book down.

Deceit also contains some detailed and enjoyable depictions of Australia’s Parliament House and the capital city, Canberra.  Parliament House is a beautiful building, and Evans does a wonderful job describing Parliament House in detail and examining various parts of the building, from the Prime Minister’s office and courtyard, to the various gardens, media offices and even cafes.  Other little nuances of life within Parliament House are also captured within the text, no doubt because of Evans’s prior experiences working within the building.

I also really enjoyed seeing my home city of Canberra featured in this book.  Despite being the capital city, Canberra does not feature much in fiction, due to it being a smaller and newer city than Sydney or Melbourne.  Deceit, however, contains some great depictions of the areas of Canberra close to Parliament House.  There are several references to some real restaurants and cafes that politicians are known to frequent and where several big political discussions are known to have taken place.  There are also several scenes where the characters explore other parts of Canberra as part of the book’s plot.  I for one found it incredibly amusing and disconcerting to read a scene about a secretive handoff of documents set in a cinema that I’ve watched The Hunger Games and Doctor Who specials in.  Canberra locals will love seeing their city as a major fixture of this book, and other readers will get to explore Australia’s capital and see its potential as a setting in this exciting thriller.

Richard Evans’ first book, Deceit, is a five-star thriller that brings the Australian political process to life.  Former politician Evans brings all of his insight and expertise to this new book, and readers will be astounded by the realistic descriptions of Australian politics and the way it has been utilised in this exciting and first-rate story.  This is an outstanding debut from Evans, and this terrific read comes highly recommended.

My Rating:

Five Stars

The Greater Good by Tim Ayliffe

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 23 April 2018

 

Australian author Tim Ayliffe presents a fantastic debut thriller set in iconic Sydney that delves into the heart of politics and the role of the media in the modern world.

John Bailey was a brilliant war correspondent for the Australian paper, The Journal.  However, his life took a downward turn when he was kidnapped in Iraq and tortured for several months.  Now, years later, Bailey is living a life of alcoholism and self-destruction, only occasionally contributing articles to The Journal.

However, when a prostitute is found murdered in her high-end Sydney apartment, his editor and old friend, Gerald Summers, sends him to investigate the crime, claiming that Bailey is the only person he trusts to report the story.  The prime suspect in the case is an influential political advisor who had a close relationship with the victim.  When Bailey encounters the advisor, he claims to have information that will clear his name, while at the same time implicating his boss, the defence minister.

After a run-in with an old friend in the CIA, Bailey soon realises that there is much more to this story than a simple murder.  Investigating further, he soon discovers that the murder was committed to cover up a massive conspiracy that the defence minister is linked to.  When witnesses to the crime start turning up dead and the police are pressured to drop their investigation, Bailey is determined to uncover the truth and publish the full story.  But powerful people are invested in keeping this case quiet, and Bailey soon finds himself in their crosshairs.

This is an exciting and high-energy first book from Ayliffe, who makes full use of his journalistic experience and political insights to create a smashing thriller with a tangible Australian presence.  The investigation into the conspiracy and its associated murders works well as the heart of this story, and readers are invited along on a wild thrill ride as the protagonists rush through this murky world of Australian politics and espionage in a quest to find the truth.

The character of Bailey serves as a great central narrator for this frenetic story, and readers will love the maverick approach he has to investigating the case and the lack of restraint of manners he has when it comes to dealing with Sydney’s political and financial elite.  Ayliffe also spends a significant amount of time attempting to humanise his main character by examining his past as a prisoner and the effects his PTSD has had on his life and career.  There are some great, emotional scenes as Bailey attempts to get over his problems with the help of other characters, and Bailey comes across as a much more grounded and damaged protagonist as a result.  The other main narrator in The Greater Good is Sharon Dexter, who serves as the official police investigator and Bailey’s main love interest.  Her investigation focuses more on cover-ups, sexism, and corruption in the police force, and these parts of the book serve as a great counterpoint to the sections featuring Bailey.

Ayliffe has made full use of his political knowledge and insight throughout this book.  A large amount of the plot revolves around both Australian and international politics, and readers will be amazed at the potential conspiracy he is able to create.  Various Australian political elements are dragged into the story and play a key part of the plot.  These include discussions about pre-selections of federal seats, government spending and the role of several federal government agencies.  World politics and the current status of Australia on the world stage are also examined within the story.  There is a large focus on the expanding role of China, and the discussion about whether Australia should strengthen its relationship with this new world power or whether it should maintain its current relationship with the United States.  This discussion is a key part of understanding the plot, and plays out in the book in a similar manner to current debates on the subject within Australia.  This adds a real sense of realism to the story and makes readers, especially those familiar with current Australian news and politics, very thoughtful.

Throughout The Greater Good, the main characters are attempting to obtain evidence of a conspiracy so that they can print it in their newspaper, The Journal.  As a result, the role of print media in keeping government’s honest and uncovering political corruption is examined in some detail.  It is clear that Ayliffe, a career Australian journalist, is very supportive of the media remaining in this role, and many of his characters are quite critical of attempts to stall the publication of these stories.  This allegorical analysis of the current role of media in politics and society is an intriguing part of the book and many readers will find this exceedingly relevant in light of recent world events.

Readers also need to keep an eye out for Ayliffe’s clever and entertaining inclusion of characters that are clearly based on real life Australian personalities.  For example, the fictional Australian Prime Minister is described as an athletic man who is known for his fun runs and surfing, in a way reminiscent of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.  In addition, certain plot twists towards the end of the book will also remind the audience of another previous Prime Minster.  Another example is a minor character who is introduced as a prominent talk show radio host.  This character appears to be a composite creation of several of Australia’s right-wing radio commentators and comes across in a very similar manner to these real life presenters.  These cheeky additions are a fun inclusion that will amuse readers with even a passing knowledge of these Australian personalities.

In many ways The Greater Good can be considered a love letter to the author’s home city of Sydney, as it contains a number of different locations and references that will be quite familiar to Sydneysiders.  The narrator visits a number of different suburbs within Sydney, including Palm Beach, King Street, Finger Wharf at Woolloomooloo, Bondi and Chinatown, and also frequents some real life Sydney venues, such as Harry’s Café de Wheels.  Not only is the food, geographical location and description of this Sydney café described in the text, but the author has also included a write-up of the restaurant’s owners and its history.  In addition to furnishing the story with real life Sydney locations, Ayliffe also includes brief references to events and occurrences that Australians would recognise the significance of, such as Australian rugby, lockout laws and the current ice epidemic.  While none of these locations or occurrences is essential to the plot, they do add a certain sense of reality to the entire novel, and Australian readers will enjoy seeing locations and scenarios that they recognise and understand.

Tim Ayliffe’s debut novel, The Greater Good, is a fun and exhilarating political crime thriller that is guaranteed to electrify and entertain in good measure.  Making full use of Ayliffe’s extensive knowledge of Australian politics, culture and media, this very topical book is an excellent read for Australian audiences and those international readers keen to explore Australia’s potential for thrillers.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Lace Weaver by Lauren Chater

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Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 19 March 2018

 

Love, war, suffering, oppression, hope and lace all come together in this emotionally charged debut from Australian author Lauren Chater.

It has been two years since the outbreak of World War II.  Following their respective expansions, Nazi Germany and the USSR now control much of Europe between them.  The small country of Estonia, located on the border of the USSR, has been occupied by the Soviets and is now controlled by Stalin’s Red Army, who have brutally installed their communist ideals.  Now all of Estonia’s resources are controlled by the Soviets and any signs of opposition are brutally cracked down on.

In the middle of this horrific occupation lives Katarina, a young Estonian woman whose family survives because their farm produces food for the occupying forces.  While the Soviets are attempting to control all parts of Estonian life, Katarina works to preserve her family’s culture through their lace shawls, which contain intricate and unique patterns and stories.  She must also deal with her feelings for her old friend Oskar, who is leading the revolution against the Soviets.

At the same time in Moscow, another young woman, Lydia, lives an ostensible life of privilege, but is really living in a gilded cage, controlled by her ruthless guardian.  Fleeing to Estonia, the land of her mother, Lydia attempts to find sanctuary but finds out just how far her captivity truly extends.

When a Soviet crackdown forces Katarina and Lydia together, these two women must find a way to survive the horrors of the occupation.  As they become part of Oskar’s resistance against the Soviets, Katarina and Lydia must learn to work together, even when Lydia falls for Katarina’s brother Jakob.  But their situation is about to get even worse, with the forces of the Third Reich set to invade.

This is fantastic first book from Chater, who has woven together an amazing tale filled with great characters and an outstanding and underused historical location.  This book is also an extraordinary piece of dramatic literature.  All of the main characters experience significant loss, heartache and disappointment as they attempt to survive the most turbulent time in our world’s history.  These heartbreaking losses of friends, family and other loved ones draw the reader in, while Chater’s fantastic writing makes them feel the character’s loss and grief as she highlights the brutal reality of those caught in the middle of war.

Perhaps the most memorable part of The Lace Weaver is the story’s central setting of Estonia.  During World War II, Estonia was in the unfortunate position of being one of the countries that fell between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  Estonia was a significant theatre of war where many horrors occurred, and yet very few novels focus on this part of World War II.  Chater’s decision to focus on this underused period of war history is intriguing, and she has done a commendable job of calling attention to the horrors experienced by the Estonians during the time that they were occupied by two of the world’s most brutal regimes.

Estonia was brutally occupied by the Soviets in 1940, and a large portion of this book is set during this period.  Chater does an amazing job of describing this brutal period through the eyes of her Estonian characters.  There is a serious sense of dread from these characters as they anticipate what horrible crimes might occur next.  The descriptions of the Soviet soldiers’ brutality and contempt for the Estonians is at times harrowing, and there is one sequence describing a mass deportation that will stick in the reader’s mind.  While the scenes describing the occupation of the Soviets are pretty distressing, one of the most disturbing parts of this story is that for much of the book many of the characters, especially Oskar and Jakob, believe that their salvation and freedom could be granted to them by the Nazis.  Reading this can prove to be disquieting as you are forced to watch the characters help the Nazis occupy their country.  The characters working out what they have let into their country is chilling to behold, and by this point readers will be desperate to see what happens next in Estonia.

In addition to focusing on the terrible occupations Estonia suffered during the war, The Lace Weaver also contains an insightful look into some aspects of Estonian culture.  This is mainly shown through the use of the lace shawls, which are described as an important part of Estonian culture and history.  Chater spends a large part of the book investigating these shawls, and the reader soon appreciates their importance.  Katarina spends a significant part of her narration describing the significance of these shawls to her family, and her interactions allow the readers to see how vital they were to her social and familiar circles.  These shawls are also very important to the story as they draw many of the characters together, especially the two main characters, Katarina and Lydia.  The scenes in which the shawls are being worked can also be seen as an indicator of the periods when the characters are managing to survive and have some hope for the future, and are to be cherished, especially as the reader grows to care for these characters.

There are some great characters within The Lace Weaver that readers will find themselves deeply invested in.  Narration of this story is split evenly between the two main characters, Katarina and Lydia, both of whom have unique stories to tell.  Lydia’s transformation from a sheltered girl in Russia to a hardboiled Estonian survivor is particularly gripping, and revelations about who she actually is offer big thrills in the first part of the book and up her personal stakes.  Katarina’s story of survival and her attempts to keep the cultural ways of life she inherited from her beloved grandmother are also heartfelt and compelling.  The unique stories that these two characters have are deeply absorbing and emotional, and Chater does a masterful job of eventually combining these two stories together into one extraordinary and captivating tale.

The Lace Weaver is a deep and emotional wartime drama that makes full use of its dark setting, rare historical fiction location and amazing characters.  Australian author Lauren Chater has produced a very impressive first book and readers will fall in love with this fantastic tale.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Juliet Code by Christine Wells

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 30 April 2018

 

From acclaimed Australian author Christine Wells comes this touching and memorable tale of love, captivity and endurance in the darkest of times.

During World War II, Juliet Barnard was a British agent working for the Special Operations Executive.  A skilled wireless operator, she was one of the few female agents that were dropped into occupied France to meet contacts and pass intelligence back to the Allies.  While initially successful, she was only active in France for a short time before the Nazis captured her.  Trapped in a prison that specialised in interrogating captured spies and infiltrators at Paris’s Avenue Foch, Juliet endured torture, drugging and manipulation and came out of the prison a different person.

Now, two years after the end of the war, Juliet is still recovering from her ordeal and trying to continue a relationship with Felix, the man she fell in love with during her training.  Claiming to be suffering from memory loss, Juliet has managed to avoid providing any details about her time at Avenue Foch or about the man who held her captive, Sturmbannführer Strasser.  Finding Strasser is the last thing Juliet wants to happen, because he knows a dark secret about Juliet – a secret she would kill to protect.  However, when Juliet meets Mac, an SAS officer turned Nazi hunter whose sister served in the war with Juliet, her guilt compels her to return to Paris to help him locate Strasser.

This is the third book from Wells, who has previously written two English-based historical stories that feature a strong, female protagonist.  The Juliet Code is the second book from Wells that focuses on British spy activities during World War II; her previous novel, The Traitor’s Girl, focused on a World War II MI5 operative.  The Juliet Code is another excellent and intense romp into the history of World War II, and Wells has done an amazing job of creating this unique and emotional story.  This book is a combination of a great dramatic story and a two-stage historical spy thriller wrapped up with a poignant romantic subplot.

Wells has injected considerable drama and emotion into her story, especially through her main character, Juliet, who goes through substantial emotional changes throughout the book.  Before she is dropped into France, Juliet is portrayed as a shy girl, unsure of her abilities as a potential spy but eager to do her duty to her country.  After the war she is more hardened individual who is suffering from guilt, both due to being one of the few agents to survive capture and because of her own actions during the war.  These changes in the character are made obvious to the reader, not just because of Wells’s great writing ability but also because she switches between the mid-war and post-war scenes multiple times.  Wells slowly reveals the main character’s wartime secret, which is a central part of the plot.  While there are some hints to what this secret is early in the book, the full reveal is not done until later in the story, and makes use of a moving and artfully constructed confession scene.

The Juliet Code is set in the 1940s, and Wells has broken the story up into two distinct periods.  The first period starts in 1943 and continues for the rest of the war, examining the main character’s training, her infiltration of occupied France and her time as a captive at Avenue Foch.  The parts of the book set during the war are very intriguing and are some of the most appealing scenes from a historical fiction viewpoint.  The sections that feature Juliet training and actively spying in France were some of my favourite parts of the plot, and I loved reading Wells’s descriptions about the French resistance networks, the British covert activities, their espionage techniques and the counteroperations the Nazis were undertaking to catch the operatives active in France.  There are also some significant descriptions of how the British wireless transmitters functioned and British coding techniques.  These very technical parts of the book contain some fascinating information while also providing the reader with a good understanding of this technology and what the operators were doing with it.  There are also a number of scenes that follow Juliet after she is captured and held as an enemy spy in Paris.  These parts of the book are, by necessity, darker in nature, depicting how these spies, especially female operatives, were treated during this period.  There are also thorough descriptions of the historical locations used as prisons in Paris.

The second part of the book is set in 1947 and features Juliet and her companions revisiting the sites of Juliet’s captivity and attempting to hunt down her jailer.  This part of the book comes across as more of a traditional spy thriller, and contains some vivid descriptions of post-war France.  There are some examinations of how the Allies and the Soviets were attempting to capture or recruit former members of the Nazi regime, as well as some interesting looks into the post-war espionage that was occurring at this time.  Wells also revisits characters and locations encountered by the protagonist during the war, and these scenes are used to provide clues to locate Strasser while also providing additional hints about what happened to Juliet during her captivity.

Among the defining features of The Juliet Code are the realistic and detailed characters that the reader gets to enjoy.  They feel so realistic because these characters were inspired by real historical figures who served in similar capacities during the war.  This touch of realism adds a lot to the book and serves as an inspirational reminder of those unsung heroes of British espionage.  These fictional facsimiles do interact with a few real historical figures within the book, and readers will be captivated as they find out which of these unique wartime stories are actually historical fact.

Wells has included an enticing romantic subplot between the characters of Juliet and Felix.  Readers will be able to feel the affection that these two characters have for each other, as well as the loss they experience as a result of Juliet’s capture.  Their relationship is also masterfully woven into the main story, and elements of their romance become key plot points, such as some personal romantic poems that actually contain transmitter codes.  Thankfully, Wells decided not to invest too much time in a love triangle between Juliet, Felix and Mac, although she does include the initial and somewhat entertaining jealousy you would come to expect from this situation.  Overall, the romantic subplot is both absorbing and nicely subtle, as it does not overwhelm the rest of the story.

Australian author Christine Wells once again delivers an elegant piece of literature that makes full use of its well-paced dramatic story and an utterly stimulating historical setting and content.  Fans of historical fiction will love The Juliet Code’s dive into World War II spycraft and counterespionage, as well as the excellent and electrifying thriller that blazes through post-war France.  This is a phenomenal novel that sticks in the mind and will appeal to wide array of readers.

My Rating:

Four stars

Scales of Empire by Kylie Chan

Scales of Empire Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 19 February 2018

 

Can humanity survive the arrival of an alien dragon with an offer of love?  Find out in this curious novel about first contact with aliens from bestselling Australian author Kylie Chan.

In the near future, Earth’s ecosystem is failing and humanity’s only hope for survival lies in escaping our solar system and finding viable new planets to colonise.  Corporal Jian Choumali has been chosen to accompany one of the huge generation ships that is preparing to journey to a distant planet.  However, the launch is interrupted by the arrival of a giant alien spaceship above Earth that will change humanity forever.

The ship is piloted by an alien known as a dragon, which bears a striking resemblance to the beasts of legend.  Dragons are the ruling members of a vast technologically and culturally advanced empire made up of numerous alien races.  The Dragon emissary, Shiumo, brings offers of peace, love and advanced technology to humanity as she introduces Earth to a wider universe.

Jian and her commander, Richard Alto, are chosen to be the first delegates to meet with Shiumo, and they soon become her guides to Earth.  Shiumo becomes a sensation overnight, providing humanity with longer lives, faster-than-light travel and a solution to Earth’s failing ecosystem.

However, the more Jian gets to know Shiumo, the more it becomes apparent that the Dragons may not be as benevolent as they seem.  What price will humanity really have to pay to join the Empire, and what role will the Dragons’ cat-like enemies play in the future of Earth?

Scales of Empire is the first book in the intriguing Dragon Empire trilogy, written by Australian author Kylie Chan.  This is Chan’s first voyage into science fiction, having previously written the Chinese mythology inspired Xuan Wu series.

Scales of Empire has a number of cool features that make it an amusing and thought-provoking science fiction novel.  Chan has constructed a first contact story that explores how humanity could potentially interact with an advanced alien race.  Chan provides a series of fascinating postulations about what human products would prove desirable to an alien species, what humanity could use in our defence against potential alien threats, and what our place would be among a vast interstellar empire.  The Dragons are the stars of this book, as Chan has imbued them with several distinctive abilities and personality quirks.  There is also a fun origin story to explain the similarities between the alien Dragons and the Earth dragons of myth and legend.  Having the other main alien race also resemble an Earth species, in this case cats, is a little over the top very unrealistic.  However, the behaviour of this other species acts as a good foil to the apparently benevolent and socially advanced Dragons.

Science fiction aficionados will also appreciate Chan’s descriptions and theories about what would be required for humans to reach and colonise other inhabitable planets in the galaxy.  Chan spends some of the early parts of the book highlighting her theories about how humans in the near future would achieve this.  Her descriptions of large ships that would require ten generations of its crew to live in space before they even reached the planet is fascinating, as are her suggestions about the ideal initial crewmembers; not a lot of other writers would suggest that colonisation ships should have large crews mostly made up of bisexual women with good genetic diversity.  In addition, there is also some intriguing discussion about the colonisation of other planets, and several chapters are dedicated to the training and initial colonisation of a planet, which many readers will find enticing.

While these science fiction aspects of the book are good reasons to try Scales of Empire, one of the most compelling and memorable aspect of this book is the constant examination of whether the Dragons are as benevolent as they seem, or if they have their own secret agenda.  This becomes a central focus of the story as the human characters analyse all of the Dragons’ actions while coming up with countermoves and their own attempts at manipulation.  There are many twists and turns, and at points it becomes hard to tell whether the Dragons or the humans come off as the worst species during these interactions.  This results in a really compelling narrative which serves as a superb central focus for the book and will keep you hooked until the final reveal.

The new book from Kylie Chan is an intriguing start to a promising science fiction trilogy.  Examining humanity’s potential first contact with an alien species, Chan asks the question: between an alien species with its own agenda and mistrustful and calculating humans, who is the greater evil?  This is a brilliant bit of fiction that provides a distinctive and in-depth discussion and is definitely worth exploring.

My Rating:
Three and a half stars

to

Four stars