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.

House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Audible Studios (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: Crescent City – Book One

Lenght: 27 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to meet your new obsession! One of the world’s top young adult fantasy fiction authors, Sarah J. Maas, breaks into the adult fantasy fiction genre in a big way with the first book in her brand-new Crescent City series.

Sarah J. Maas is an author that needs very little introduction. She is one of the most highly regarded young adult fantasy authors in the world today, having written two major bestselling series and a couple of standalone young adult novels. Maas debuted in 2012 with Throne of Glass, the first novel in her acclaimed seven-book long Throne of Glass series, and she has since gone on to write a second major series, A Court of Thorns and Roses. I have been meaning to check out some of Maas’s main series for a while now, especially Throne of Glass, as I have heard some very good things about them. Unfortunately, the only book of Maas’s that I have so far read was her DC Comics tie-in novel, Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I really enjoyed, especially as Maas had an amazing understanding of some iconic comic characters. As a result, I was interested when I heard about her new book, House of Earth and Blood, and I was curious to see how her first adult fiction novel would turn out. This is the first book in the Crescent City series, which presumably will be the author’s main body of work for the next few years. I received a physical copy of this book to review, although I eventually decided to listen to the audiobook format to fit it into my reading schedule, and I have to say I was rather impressed.

Welcome to Crescent City, a bustling metropolis where magic and technology meet in a world ruled over by all-powerful godlike creatures. Bryce Quinlan is a half-Fae, half-human, party girl at the low end of her world’s magical hierarchy, content to live her days clubbing and celebrating with her best friend, the powerful werewolf Alpha Danika Fendyr. All that changes the night Danika and her entire wolf pack are brutally slaughtered while Bryce is out partying. Bryce arrives home just in time to encounter the demon that committed the act, chasing it out into the streets before it escapes, never to be seen again.

Two years later, Bryce is a shell of her former self. Still reeling from the death of the closest person in her life, Bryce finds herself without direction or purpose. However, the revelation that a fresh wave of killings that mirror the bloody way Danika and her pack were taken out quickly changes that. Due to her experiences with the unknown species of demon and her intimate knowledge of Danika’s movements and history, Bryce is tasked by the governor of Crescent City to find who or what is summoning the destructive demons and unleashing them upon seemingly random members of the populace. However, Bryce will not be working on this case alone, as she finds herself teamed up with the governor’s personal assassin, the brooding, dangerous and surprisingly attractive fallen angel, Hunt Athalar.

Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Bryce and Hunt start to scour the dark underbelly of their city, attempting to find any leads to who summoned the demon. However, they soon run afoul of many of Crescent City’s inhabitants, some of whom do not want the pair to uncover the truth. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a terrible conspiracy with terrible connections to Bryce’s traumatic past and which threatens all of Crescent City. However, the closer they come to the truth, the more pain and torment the two damaged souls uncover, especially as both of them try to fight the intense feelings blooming between them. With the fate of Crescent City hanging in the balance, can Bryce and Hunt get to the bottom of these killings, or will they be overwhelmed by all the hurt that is about to come their way?

Well damn, that turned out to be one hell of a book. I do have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of major romantic subplots in the novels I read (I know, typical male, Bryce would probably be calling me an Alphahole), and I was a little apprehensive that the romantic angles described in the book’s synopsis would overwhelm the fantasy story. However, any doubts I had about whether I was going to enjoy House of Earth and Blood were quickly blown away in the early stages of the story, especially once I hit the major plot development about 70 pages in. From there I was absolutely hooked on the story, as Maas kept piling on revelations, shocking moments, character development and an impressive murder mystery. I ended up really loving this amazing novel, and I ended up giving it a five-star rating.

I really enjoyed the way that Maas told this story, and this book contained an expansive and deeply addictive narrative that proved hard to put down at times. House of Earth and Blood is told from several character perspectives, most notably Bryce and Hunt, although quite a bit of the story is shown from the perspective of Bryce’s half-brother, Ruhn Danaan. Having these three main point-of-view characters results in a much more expansive story, as each of them has their own contributions to the plot, although there is a huge amount of crossover between each of their storylines. While Mass tends to focus most of her character development and storylines around Bryce, Hunt and Ruhn, there are a number of additional supporting characters, some of whom have some rather interesting roles throughout the book. Maas also includes a huge amount of foreshadowing throughout the book, hinting at several things that are to come further along in the narrative. While it is obvious where some of this foreshadowing is going, some of it was only noticeable in hindsight, and some of these more subtle inclusions made me really appreciate the author’s clever writing style.

One of the best things about this book was the incredible and intriguing new fantasy world. The Crescent City series is set on a version of Earth called Midgard, which was invaded thousands of years ago by vast armies of various magical creatures, ending humankind’s dominance of the planet. The modern world of Midgard is a chaotic and fascinating place, filled will all manner of magic and creatures who live in a hierarchal system, with all-powerful beings at the top and humans at the very bottom. There are so many cool elements to this world, from the unique magical systems, the different factions and organisations, and a vast multitude of different magical creatures with their own traits and characteristics. Maas dedicates a substantial amount of time exploring all these different elements of her new world, and the result is an impressive and vast setting which serves as a fantastic backdrop to this exciting story. I also liked the rather fun similarities between this fantasy world and the modern world, and it was interesting to see fantasy creatures running around with modern technology such as phones and guns. I also had a rather good laugh at some of the television shows that the author featured in the book, including a rather trashy-sounding True Blood inspired television show, which was made fun of relentlessly for its sexual content (which is kind of ironic considering how much sex was in this novel). Maas is clearly a master of universe building, and she has come up with a really great fantasy world that holds a lot of potential for future novels in the series, as well as opening up the possibilities of spin-off stories around some of the fantastic side characters introduced. I personally would love to see a novel based around the character of Fury Axtar, the mysterious assassin friend of Bryce, who has a minor role in the book.

In addition, Maas has also come up with a rather clever murder mystery storyline that I had an outstanding time unwrapping. The vast majority of House of Earth and Blood’s plot revolves around the murder of Danika Fendyr and her pack, as well as the similar murders that are occurring in the modern day. The subsequent investigation by Bryce and Hunt turned into a rather captivating storyline, as they explored the underbelly of their fascinating city, trying to find leads and uncover who had a motive to kill Danika. This whole mystery storyline goes to some very interesting places, and Maas comes up with a number of red herrings, alternate suspects, potential leads and side mysteries (a missing magical horn and a new street drug), all of which come together into a pretty incredible and clever narrative. I was actually rather surprised about who the culprit turned out to be, although Maas does set up the reveal rather well, and there are some rather clever hints in hindsight. That being said, while I didn’t know who the culprit was in advance, I totally knew where the final showdown with them was going to take place, and how the whole confrontation was bound to go down (there was a literal Chekov’s gun there). Still, it turned into quite a good confrontation scene, and I had a good laugh at the over-the-top way that the villain was taken down for good. This was a rather impressive element of the story, and I hope that Maas includes some more clever mysteries in her future books.

While I really loved the fantastic story, incredible world building and captivating mystery, the true centre of this book are the two compelling and exceedingly damaged main characters who Maas sets the story around, Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar. Maas does some outstanding work setting these characters up, exploring their pasts and developing their personalities and emotions throughout the book. Bryce starts House of Earth and Blood as a seemingly carefree party girl with major daddy issues. However, the loss of Danika in the book’s first act severely changes her, as she has to deal with an extreme amount of guilt, isolation and social hatred in the following two years. This really alters her as a character and turns her into an extremely vulnerable person with a real emotional investment in the case, who hides all her true feelings behind a sassy and angry façade. Hunt, on the other hand, is a powerful fallen angel who lost his freedom and the love of his life in a failed rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet, and has spent the last several decades being tortured and used by the victorious archangels, and is now the personal assassin of the governor of Crescent City. Now known throughout the city as the Umbra Mortis, the Shadow of Death, Hunt is a simmering pot of anger who is resentful of how he has been treated all his life, and who is determined to be set free. Like Bryce, he is deeply invested in solving the case, as its resolution will allow him to take a serious step towards freedom, and on the surface he is the more serious of the duo. However, also like Bryce, Hunt has some major vulnerabilities and he is hurting deep inside. Both Bryce and Hunt are incredibly interesting protagonists, and I am really impressed with the layers that Maas was able bring to their characters, which added a significant amount to the story.

While Bryce and Hunt are amazing characters in their own right, the real magic comes when they are paired together. It is obvious from the start that these two are going to hook up at some point, but the journey to get there was written extremely well. The combination of these two exceedingly vulnerable and complex characters in the story is great, and it makes for some incredible and dramatic story moments, as Bryce and Hunt slowly work out all their issues and history. The way they slowly go from dislike to mutual respect to lust/romance is accompanied with a slow exchange of secrets, facts and personality reveals, and I had an amazing time seeing them come together as a couple. This turned into quite a good romantic subplot, although the two of them have some major bumps and betrayals along the way. Still, there are some rather nice moments in their relationship, from the way that they take care of each other after traumatic events, to funny reveals and mutual moments of protecting one and other. Bryce and Hunt make for a great pair, and I am really impressed with the way that Maas portrayed them and the complex story she wove around them. It looks like there are more secrets and backgrounds about both coming up in the future books, and I am looking forward to seeing where Maas takes them in the future.

While this book had some amazing elements, I did find this novel to be a tad trashy at times. As I mentioned above, this is Maas’s first foray into non-young adult fiction, and she certainly did not shy away from adding all manner of adult content into her book. While I can certainly appreciate Maas wanting to differentiate this book from some of her young-adult fiction work, I honestly think she overcompensated. This book is filled with a huge amount of adult language and sexual content, as pretty much every character in this book is crude, rude, oversexed and incredibly thirsty. While some of this served a purpose, such as showing what sort of party-girl character Bryce was before the traumatic incident, the sheer amount of stuff that Maas included was a bit over the top, and I found it to be somewhat distracting at times. This book also introduced me to the brand-new term, Alphahole. In the context of this book, an Alphahole is the term that Bryce gives to any magical male who thinks that their abilities and power give them the right to control women and run their lives, especially those women with less magical power than them (i.e. humans and half-humans like Bryce). Unfortunately, in this book pretty much every male that Bryce encounters is an Alphahole in her opinion; even the more redeemable characters like Hunt or Ruhn are deemed Alphaholes at the start of the novel, especially once they venture an opinion about her behaviour or actions. While I appreciate that this dislike for domineering men is part of Bryce’s character due to her father, and controlling guys really aren’t that cool in either fiction or real life, I do think that Maas kind of overdid their inclusion just a bit and I was honestly getting sick of hearing Alphahole as a descriptive term by the end of the book (although it became less apparent as the story progressed).

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of House of Earth and Blood. This audiobook has a runtime of 27 hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. I am rather glad that I decided to check out this format of the book. While I probably would have finished it off faster if I had read a physical copy (it took me a few weeks to get through the audiobook), I always feel that I absorb more of the novel when I listen to it, especially with longer books. This proved to be really useful when listening to House of Earth and Blood, as Maas packed so much plot and world building into this immense novel, and I think I ended up getting more out of this book by utilising this format. I have to say that I was also immensely impressed with Elizabeth Evans’s narration. Evans did an incredible job bringing the story to life, and her steady and emotional dictation of the story really helped me get to the end. I really loved the cool voices that Evans was able to come up with for all the characters, and I think that each of them matched the distinctive personalities of each character. Evans produced a huge range of different voices for these characters, and I really liked how she was able to alter them to reflect the ethereal or magical nature of some of the characters featured in the book, as well as hint at how powerful some of these creatures were by modulating her tone and adding a commanding quality to it. This was an impressive and deeply enjoyable audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying House of Earth and Blood. That being said, be careful where you listen to this book, as it can be a little awkward to hear some of the steamy sex scenes when you are out in public. I somehow managed to be out shopping during two separate and particularly graphic scenes, and it proved very hard to keep a straight face while I was trying to grab groceries.

House of Earth and Blood is an incredible adult fiction debut from Sarah J. Maas, who has produced another outstanding and captivating read. There are so many excellent and enjoyable story elements in this book, and I absolutely loved every second I spend listening to it, even though some parts were a little over the top at times. This was an awesome start to Maas’s new Crescent City series, and I cannot wait to see what impressive and addictive story the author comes up with next. This novel comes highly recommended, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Waiting on Wednesday – Daughters of Night and Blackout

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 my latest Waiting on Wednesday article, I am going to take a look at two excellent sounding historical murder mysteries that are coming out later this year.

Daughters of Night

The first of these books is Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson, the intriguing follow-up to one of my favourite novels from last year, Blood & Sugar. Blood & Sugar was Shepherd-Robinson’s captivating and fascinating debut novel which featured a clever mystery revolving around the slave trade in late 18th century London. I really loved this fantastic book; it received a full five stars from me and it made several of my best-of lists from last year, including my favourite novels of 2019 list, my favourite debut novels of 2019 list and my favourite books from the first half of 2019 list. As a result, I am very excited to see how Shepherd-Robinson’s second book turns out and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.

This book, Daughters of Night, will be set in the same universe as Blood & Sugar, and it is actually going to follow the wife of Blood & Sugar’s protagonist, who was a minor character in the first novel, as she attempts to solve a whole new murder.

Goodreads Synopsis:

From the brothels and gin-shops of Covent Garden to the elegant townhouses of Mayfair, Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s Daughters of Night follows Caroline Corsham, as she seeks justice for a murdered woman whom London society would rather forget . . .

Lucia’s fingers found her own. She gazed at Caro as if from a distance. Her lips parted, her words a whisper: ‘He knows.’

London, 1782. Desperate for her politician husband to return home from France, Caroline ‘Caro’ Corsham is already in a state of anxiety when she finds a well-dressed woman mortally wounded in the bowers of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The Bow Street constables are swift to act, until they discover that the deceased woman was a highly-paid prostitute, at which point they cease to care entirely. But Caro has motives of her own for wanting to see justice done, and so sets out to solve the crime herself. Enlisting the help of thieftaker, Peregrine Child, their inquiry delves into the hidden corners of Georgian society, a world of artifice, deception and secret lives.

But with many gentlemen refusing to speak about their dealings with the dead woman, and Caro’s own reputation under threat, finding the killer will be harder, and more treacherous than she can know . . .

It sounds like this upcoming book is going to contain another intriguing historical murder mystery, and I am very curious to see how this next mystery plays out. I am also looking forward to seeing how the author portrays the complex city of London and its society in this book, as I really loved the historical elements that were contained in Blood & Sugar. I have very high hopes for this novel, and I recently featured it in an article about upcoming books that I think could be five-star reads. Daughters of Night is currently set for release on 25 June 2020, and I am quite keen to get a copy of this book.

Blackout Cover

The second book that I am going look at in this article is Blackout by Simon Scarrow. I have long been a fan of Simon Scarrow, mainly because of how much I love his epic Eagles of the Empire Roman historical fiction series (make sure to check out my reviews for the 17th and 18th entries in the series). Scarrow has also produced a few other fantastic books throughout his career, including his Revolution series, several novella series and some standalone novels such as The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone. While he also has 19th entry in his Eagles of the Empire series coming out later this year, I luckily don’t have to wait until November to get my Scarrow fix, as he has an awesome-sounding historical murder mystery coming out in August with Blackout.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Berlin, December 1939

As Germany goes to war, the Nazis tighten their terrifying grip. Paranoia in the capital is intensified by a rigidly enforced blackout that plunges the city into oppressive darkness every night, as the bleak winter sun sets.

When a young woman is found brutally murdered, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is under immense pressure to solve the case, swiftly. Treated with suspicion by his superiors for his failure to joining the Nazi Party, Schenke walks a perilous line – for disloyalty is a death sentence.

The discovery of a second victim confirms Schenke’s worst fears. He must uncover the truth before evil strikes again.

As the investigation takes him closer to the sinister heart of the regime, Schenke realises there is danger everywhere – and the warring factions of the Reich can be as deadly as a killer stalking the streets . . .

This also looks like it is going to be quite an excellent read, and I am really looking forward to it. I will honestly grab any Scarrow book that I can get my hands on, but this one sounds particularly intriguing. I have previously read some rather good murder mystery novels set in Nazi Germany, and I am really curious to see what sort of mystery novel Scarrow can produce with this compelling setting. Blackout sounds like it is going to be an exciting and entertaining read, and I cannot wait to check it out.

Both of these upcoming novels sound like they are going to be really impressive, and I think that they both have a lot of potential. I have had some extremely positive experiences with both these authors in the past, and I look forward to being wowed by them once again.

Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Rules for Perfect Murders Cover

Publisher: Faber & Faber (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 272 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In a mood for a complex and rather clever murder mystery? Make sure to check out Rules for Perfect Murders, the curious latest release from bestselling crime fiction author Peter Swanson.

Across the greater Boston area a series of unsolved murders have been committed. None of the deaths appear to have anything in common, except for the fact that each one bears a similarity to a famous literary murder. However, there is one other tenuous link that could tie the murders together, and FBI agent Gwen Mulvey is curious enough to meet with the owner of the Old Devils mystery bookshop, Malcolm Kershaw, to test her theory.

Years ago, Malcolm posted an article on his bookshop’s blog titled Eight Perfect Murders, detailing the eight homicides in literary fiction that he thought were the cleverest ways to kill someone and get away with it. This list features some of the most devious cases ever conceived by some of the history’s greatest mystery writers, from Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders to Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Now it appears that several of the killings match the unique selection of books that Malcolm listed all those years ago. Is the killer using his post as a guide for his gruesome work?

Working with Agent Mulvey, Malcolm soon discovers a link between himself and the killings, as one of the victims was a former customer of his store. Convinced that the killer is someone he knows, Malcolm attempts to find them before they finish off his list. However, not everything is as it seems, and Malcolm must come to terms with some of his darkest secrets if he is to find the killer stalking him from the shadows.

This is the sixth novel from Swanson, who debuted back in 2014 with The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of Swanson’s books before; however, I really loved the concept behind this novel, and thought it would be a fun one to check out. Rules for Perfect Murders, which was also released as Eight Perfect Murders, is an intriguing and compelling novel that presents the reader with a fantastic murder mystery while also acting as a love letter to the murder mystery genre. This turned out to be an excellent read, which I was able to power through in just over a day.

I rather enjoyed the way that Swanson wrote Rules for Perfect Murders, mainly because he emulated some of the classic murder mystery novels which he clearly loves throughout the story. The book is told in first person, from the point of view of the protagonist, Malcolm Kershaw, and it is made to represent a manuscript, recalling the events that he experienced. The story than details the investigation into the murders that are occurring in the present day, while also diving back into the protagonist’s past, while also featuring a number of examinations about elements of the protagonist’s world, including his opinion about certain mystery novels. This first-person perspective really fits the tone of the book extremely well, and Swanson did an excellent job winding the various elements of the story, including the protagonist’s flashbacks, into a tight and captivating read. The various writing methods that Swanson employs throughout the book are direct references to a number of famous mystery novels, as the fictional author of the book is inspired by them as he writes. It was really fun to see the protagonist discussing the pros and cons of things like unreliable narrators, red herrings and other elements, right when he was utilising them in his manuscript. At the same time, the way that parts of the story go down, are very similar to some classic mystery stories. All of this helps create a very unique tale, and I think that Swanson did an amazing job bringing this clever concept together.

In the midst of Swanson’s homages and descriptions of classic and great mystery novels lies a rather good murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist attempts to find out who using his blog post as a basis for the killing spree. Swanson is able to produce a thrilling and clever mystery, full of twists, false leads and intriguing motive that tie into the protagonist’s complex past. It was also rather interesting to see the killer craft modern murders out of the classic scenarios featured in the fictional Eight Perfect Murders list, especially as these elements served as a complicating factor in the investigation. I thought that the end result of the mystery was pretty satisfying, and while I was able to make some guesses about parts of the protagonist’s past, the identity of the murderer was a bit of a surprise for me. I had a fantastic time getting to the bottom of this mystery, and the compelling murders that Swanson painted did an amazing job catching my attention and interest, which ensured that I powered through Rules for Perfect Murders in short order.

In addition to utilising a number of classic murder mystery tropes and techniques in Rules for Perfect Murders, Swanson also spends considerable time discussing or analysing a number of classic and iconic murder mystery novels. Swanson really dives in and does several mini reviews of a swath of great murder mystery novels, providing what I assume are his own opinions, while also examining the book’s featured murders, the strengths and weakness of their stories, the cultural impact that they had and so much more. The main focus is on the books that appeared on the fictional Eight Perfect Murders list which is made up of such classics as The Red House Mystery by A. A. Milne, Malice Aforethought by Anthony Berkeley Cox, The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie, Double Indemnity by James M. Cain, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, The Drowner by John D. MacDonald, Deathtrap by Ira Levin and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. However, Swanson also references and discusses a bunch of other mystery novels, the plots of which or the lessons they contained often having some impact or bearing on the story. I loved this dive into each of these mystery novels, and I found it really cool that Swanson was able to insert his own opinions and obvious love from each of these books into this story.

Due to the author’s examination of all these classic novels, Rules for Perfect Murders is highly recommended for those hardcore murder mystery fans who are familiar with the books featured on the list, who will really love all the references and discussions that Swanson features throughout his novel. Those who are particularly knowledgeable about murder mystery stories will be able to guess where the story is going based on the literary clues the author leaves throughout the narrative. At the same time, Rules for Perfect Murders is also a great book for readers who are less familiar with these mystery novels. I personally have not read any of the eight books on the fictional list, although I was familiar with how some of the plots went. However, despite this lack of knowledge, I was in no way disadvantaged while reading Rules for Perfect Murders, as Swanson gives concise and knowledgeable summaries of each of the relevant books, which allowed me to follow the plot without any issues. I was able to appreciate most of the references that the author included throughout the book, and I am tempted to go out and read some of the featured books, as most of them sounded extremely interesting. I think that this examination and utilisation of classic murder mysteries works well with story Swanson came up with, and I honestly had fun learning more about these books and seeing the impact that they can have on a modern story.

It was kind of cool to read this novel from the perspective of a blogger and book reviewer, as this is novel written by a book lover, about a book lover. I found myself relating to the protagonist in a number of ways, and his observations about the joy books can bring really resonated with me. His habit of analysing the various books he reads is something many reviewers are going to appreciate, and I really liked that this novel is based around a best-of list. As someone who regularly produces top ten lists, I had a fun time with this concept, and I couldn’t help imagining what I would do in a similar situation (gasp, what if someone used my one of my lists to commit some crimes? Think about all the Star Wars themed murders that would happen!). I also had a good chuckle when the protagonist starting reminiscing about all the troubles he had creating his lists, such as leaving key books off, going back and reconsidering his choices and troubles with including entries that technically don’t belong on the list, as I have been there multiple times. This was a fun part of the book, which I rather enjoyed, although it didn’t take away from the darker tone of the book’s murder mystery and character elements.

Rules for Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson was a rather interesting and unique read that I am glad I decided to check out. Swanson crafts a fascinating and captivating tale, that not only contains a fantastic central whodunnit, but which acts as an amazing homage to the murder mystery genre. Filled with some excellent and entertaining elements, this is an outstanding read which I had a great time reading. This is a book perfect for all murder mystery fans, Swanson is definitely on my radar from now on, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

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.

The Holdout by Graham Moore

The Holdout Cover

Publisher: Orion/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 18 February 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From acclaimed author Graham Moore comes an amazing new thriller story that is one part legal drama, one part murder mystery and 100 per cent awesome: The Holdout.

The Holdout is an outstanding standalone book that I have been looking forward to for a little while now. I really enjoyed the sound of the premise when I first heard about it, so I was really glad when I received a copy of this book. Moore is probably best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, having written the screenplay for The Imitation Game, which won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, Moore is also a novelist, having previously written two books, The Sherlockian and The Last Days of Night, the latter of which I read and enjoyed back in 2016. The Holdout is Moore’s first foray into contemporary fiction, and he has produced quite a fantastic read.

It was the trial of the century. Jessica Silver, the 15-year-old heiress to a vast fortune, vanishes and the prime suspect is her African American teacher, Bobby Nock, with whom she was having an inappropriate relationship. With substantial evidence against him, a verdict of guilty for Jessica’s murder seemed assured, until one juror voted not guilty. This one holdout, Maya Seale, refused to alter her verdict and was eventually able to convince the other jurors to change their votes. Their resulting decision would shock the country and change the juror’s lives forever.

Now, 10 years later, Maya is a successful defence attorney who has tried her hardest to move on from the infamous trial that ruined her life, until Rick Leonard, her fellow former juror and secret lover during the trial, tracks her down. Rick has spent the last 10 years obsessing with case, believing that they let a guilty man go free. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of the trial, a true-crime show wants to interview each of the jurors in the hotel they were sequestered at during the trial. At the end of the interview, they will be presented with new evidence that Rick has uncovered which he believes definitively proves Bobby Nock’s guilt. While initially reluctant to go, Maya ends up making an appearance, only to find Rick dead in her hotel room.

Now the prime suspect in Rick’s death, Maya is forced to relive the infamy that has dogged her for years. Determined to prove her innocence, Maya begins interviewing the only potential witnesses to the crime, the former members of the jury who were gathered at the hotel. However, her investigation reveals that Rick has been digging up dirt on each of the former jurors, and several of them may have had a motive to kill him. As she digs deep, Maya begins to believe that the solution to this current murder lies in the trial that brought them together. Did they let a guilty man go free all those years ago, and is that decision coming back to haunt them with lethal consequences?

Wow, just wow, this was a pretty incredible thriller novel. Moore has pulled together quite a compelling and complex read which presents the reader with a fantastic and intricate story that combines an excellent legal thriller with a captivating murder mystery to create a first-rate read.

The Holdout’s story is told in alternating chapters, with half of the chapters set back during the original trial in 2009, and the rest of the book is set 10 years later in the present day. The 2019 chapters are told exclusively from the point of view of Maya as she attempts to uncover who killed Rick Leonard, while each of the chapters set in the past are told from the perspective of a different juror as they observe the events surrounding the trial. This is a really clever storytelling technique as it presents the reader with two connected but distinct storylines. The storyline set during the original trial is a legal drama-thriller in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Runaway Jury, and it shows various points of the Bobby Knock murder trial and the jury deliberations that followed. Through the author’s use of multiple perspectives, the reader is able to see how the various members of the jury came to their ultimate verdict, what factors influenced their decisions and what they thought about the various people involved in the case and their fellow jurors. The storyline set in the present day, on the other hand, reads more like a murder mystery, and it deals with the protagonist’s hunt to find Rick’s killer in order to prove her innocence. Both of these separate storylines work extremely well together, especially as the Maya storyline explores the impacts of the events that occurred during the older timeline. I also think that Moore did an excellent job jumping between the various time periods and character perspectives, and this clever storytelling style helped to create a compelling read with a fun flow to it.

At the centre of this novel lies two fantastic and complex mystery storylines set around 10 years apart. The first one of these revolves around what happened to Jessica Silver in 2009, while the other involves the murder of Rick Leonard in 2019. Both of these separate cases are really intriguing, and they present the reader with some clever twists, compelling potential theories, alternative suspects and conflicting evidence, so much so that the eventual solutions to these mysteries are actually quite surprising. While both of these two mysteries work really well by themselves, the real beauty is in the way that they combine together throughout the book. The solution to the Rick Leonard murder is strongly rooted to the original 2009 trial with the jury, while the eventual revelation about Jessica Silver doesn’t come out until the events of the 2019 murder are concluded. I really enjoyed seeing both of these mysteries come together, and it was cool to see the motives for one case be revealed in a prior timeline, while the protagonist investigated in the present.

I also had a great appreciation for the legal aspects of The Holdout, as the author dives deep in the United States court system and shows off what happens during a murder trial. There are some tricky legal scenes throughout this book, and one of the major appeals of the 2009 storylines is seeing the entirety of the murder trial unfold. Moore also does a great job exploring how the jury system works and how jurors deliberate and decide upon a person’s innocence and guilt. There are some intriguing examinations of the jury system throughout the book, and it was interesting to see what information they are given and how a jury could come up with one verdict when the rest of the country has already decided. The use of multiple perspectives works well during the 2009 part of the book, and I quite enjoyed seeing how the disparate jurors had different opinions about the information presented to them. The 2019 storyline also contains some intriguing legal scenes which are shown from the perspective of Maya as a successful defence attorney. As a result, these scenes contain fascinating information about legal strategy and defence plans, and it was a little scary to consider innocent people being advised that their best legal strategy for a crime they didn’t commit was to claim self-defence. The Holdout also tried to show the chaos that surrounds a high profile court case, including examining the crazy media coverage, the impact of public perception, and the fact that people involved are often more concerned with making money or advancing their careers rather than finding out who actually committed the crime. All of this is extremely fascinating, and I enjoyed seeing Moore’s take on the current legal system, especially as he comes across as somewhat critical of it at times.

Moore has also filled this book with a number of complex and relatable characters in the form of the jurors, who you get to know throughout the course of both storylines. Thanks to the two separate timelines, you get to see how the events of the trial affected these people as each of them had their lives completely ruined thanks to one decision they made 10 years ago. Thanks to the use of multiple perspectives during the earlier timeline, you actually get to briefly see inside the mind of each of the jurors, and explore how events in their past lives, plus the stress of the trial helped influence their verdict. I also found it fascinating to see how the not-guilty verdict impacted on other characters associated with the trial, such as the family of Jessica Silver and the accused, Bobby Nock. This was especially true in the case of Bobby, who, despite being found innocent, was controversially prosecuted for another crime and was then subsequently hounded by the media for years, resulting in some compelling scenes around this character in the 2019 storyline. I also have to point out the underlying theme of obsession that the author expertly inserted into this story. Obsession with the trial affected several characters within the book, causing many of them to act in unpredictable ways to achieve their goals. This obsession came from a number of places, including from guilt, a sense of righteousness, a desire for revenge or to find justice, and it was quite compelling to see what this obsession drove some characters to do. One member of the jury in particular is driven to do some very dark things that were completely out of character to the person who was introduced in the earlier storyline, and this characters development was extremely fascinating to behold. Moore did an amazing job with these characters, and I really liked seeing how the events depicted in the book influenced and impacted them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Holdout, which was narrated by Abby Craden. The Holdout audiobook runs for just over 10 hours and I found myself flying through this novel, especially when I became obsessed with working out the overall solutions to this book. Craden is an excellent audiobook narrator, and I previously enjoyed her work on Recursion by Black Crouch last year. For The Holdout, Craden comes up with a number of distinctive voices for the various characters featured within the book. Each of these voices fit their respective characters extremely well, and I think that Craden did a good job portraying these character’s various ethnicities and genders. All of this really helped me to enjoy this incredible story, and this format comes highly recommended as a result.

The Holdout was an absolutely incredible read that does a fantastic job showcasing Graham Moore’s superb skill as a master storyteller. This amazing novel expertly combines together a compelling legal thriller with an addictive murder mystery in order to produce a first-rate story with some captivating twists and intriguing character developments. The Holdout gets a full five-star rating from me, and I am very excited to see what this remarkable author produces next.