Quick Review – Death Notice by Zhou Haohui

Death Notice Cover.jpg

Publisher: Head of Zeus

English Edition Translated by Zac Haluza

Publication Date – 14 June 2018

 

This is a book I read earlier in the year, but I did not get a chance to write a review for it until now.  Death Notice is an intricate murder mystery thriller from bestselling Chinese author Zhou Haohui, originally written back in 2014.  The first English translation was released in June of 2018.

Goodreads Synopsis:

An elite police squad hunts a manipulative mastermind out to publically execute criminals the law cannot reach. A wild thriller and deadly game of cat-and-mouse from one of China’s most popular authors. For fans of Jo Nesbo, Se7en, and Hong Kong police cinema.

The brutal murder of respected police officer Sergeant Zheng Haoming sends shockwaves through Chengdu, a modern metropolis in the heart of China’s stunning Sichuan Province. He had been obsessed by an unsolved, eighteen-year-old murder case, until an entity calling themselves Eumenides (after the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution) releases a terrifying manifesto. Is the manifesto a sick joke, or something more sinister? Soon, the public starts ‘nominating’ worthy targets for Eumenides to kill, and two days later, Sergeant Zheng is dead.

Eumenides’ cunning game is only getting started. The police receive a “death notice,” a chilling note announcing the the killer’s next target, the crimes they have committed, and the date of their execution. The note is both a challenge and a taunt to the police. When the first victim dies in public, under their complete protection, the police are left stunned. More death notices are coming. The chase is on.

Death Notice is an explosive, page-turning thriller filtered through a vibrant cultural lens. Zhou Haohui expertly adds an exhilarating new perspective to the twists and tropes of the genre all fans love, making for a uniquely propulsive and entertaining read.

I found Death Notice to be an extremely enjoyable piece of crime fiction that I was able to power through in a short amount of time.  The overall mystery of this book is quite complex, as the investigative team has to investigate this modern set of killings as well as the original murders which occurred some 18 years previously.  There are a lot of fantastic twists and turns throughout the book as various reveals about the characters in the book are brought to light.  I loved seeing how all the pieces of this mystery came together, and thoroughly enjoyed the overall conclusion about who was behind it, their motivation and their legacy.

While the overall mystery is really clever, I loved the intricate ways in which the antagonist was able to manipulate the police in order to kill the targets they were protecting.  Not only does the killer come up with some elaborate plans to take out his intended victims, he is often able to get the police to do his bidding.  There are some great scenes showcasing this throughout the book, as well as some great reveals about the police characters and why they are able to be manipulated.

The setting of this book is also pretty intriguing, especially as it is not a setting Western crime readers would likely be familiar with.  The book is set in the Chinese city of Chengdu, and I am willing to bet many Western readers have never even heard of that city before.  This provides the reader a unique setting where they do not know the rules or how the police investigate crimes.  The author’s interpretation of Chinese criminal investigation is quite fascinating and readers can enjoy the similarities or differences between this and Western crime fiction.  I also liked how the book was set back in 2002, in the early days of public internet technology.  It was interesting to see how different this recent time period was technology–wise, and it offered some intriguing elements to the story.

Overall, Death Notice is an outstanding piece of crime fiction, with an intricate story and a compelling setting.  This is an easy book for Western audiences to enjoy, and readers should find this piece of Chinese crime fiction quite intriguing.  I hope that we will get more translations of Zhou Haohui’s work in the future, especially ones that continue the captivating story started in this incredible book.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Mass Effect: Annihilation by Catherynne M. Valente

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Publishers: Titan Books

                        Blackstone Audio

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

A new galaxy, a ship full of disparate alien species, what could possibly go wrong?  Veteran author Catherynne M. Valente brings to life a new adventure in the Mass Effect universe with Mass Effect: Annihilation, the third official tie-in novel to the 2017 video game, Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This was a really good piece of science fiction that expertly built on the intricate extended universe that has been created around the Mass Effect video game franchise.  I should preface this review by mentioning that I am a huge fan of this video game series, and one of the best things about it is the great universe and intriguing storylines that have been produced as a result.  While I know that many people had some valid criticisms about the latest game in the series, Andromeda, I actually really enjoyed the new addition to the series’ story and lore and had a lot of fun playing it and exploring all the additional plot that is hidden outside of the main missions.  One of the many mysteries that I hoped to get an answer about was the fate of Quarian ark, so I was very eager to read this book when I first heard about what it was going to focus on.

For those unfamiliar with the Mass Effect franchise, the first game was released in 2007 and is set in a universe where humanity has gained spaceflight and by 2183 has expanded throughout the Milky Way galaxy.  Once they were outside of our solar systems, humans met with several alien races which governed large portions of the galaxy.  The three main species, the Asari, the Salarians and the Turians, formed a ruling council on the ancient alien space station, the Citadel, which served as a capital city for these races and several other allied species.  The game series followed the human protagonist, Commander Shepard, as he (or she, depending on your settings), investigates the resurgence of the Reapers: ancient, sentient space ships who appear every 50,000 years to destroy all sentient organic life.  While Shepard is able to delay the appearance of the Reapers in the first two games, they launch a full-scale attack in Mass Effect 3, leading to significant, galaxy-changing events.

The game Mass Effect: Annihilation is based on, Mass Effect Andromeda, is the fourth Mass Effect game released and a loose sequel to the original series.  Andromeda is set over 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 3, and follows a group of explorers and colonists from the Milky Way galaxy as they travel to the Andromeda galaxy in an epic one-way trip to find new planets to settle on.  This was a result of the Andromeda Initiative, a joint exercise from a number of Citadel species in order to settle in the new galaxy.  The Initiative launched their ships to Andromeda in the period between Mass Effect 2 and 3.  Each of the main Citadel races, humans, Asari, Salarians and Turians sent an ark ship to Andromeda, each filled with 20,000 cryogenically frozen members of their respective species.  These four arks were launched at the same time, and the plan was for them to dock in the Nexus, a miniature version of the Milky Way Citadel sent in advance of the arks, which was to be used as a staging ground while the Pathfinders found and explored new planets for their races to settle on.  During the events of Mass Effect: Andromeda, mention was made of a fifth ark, built by the Quarians and filled with several other alien races, that was supposed to launch soon after the initial four arks.  However, this fifth ark made no appearance during Andromeda, and was one of the game’s unsolved mysteries, perhaps destined to never be solved, as there is currently no plans to continue the Mass Effect game franchise (although it is too big a franchise for them not to do something else with it in the future).

The Mass Effect games have inspired a number of additional media releases over the years.  Four Mass Effect books were written between 2007 and 2012 to correspond with the original game trilogy, as well as a number of comic book series.  Following the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda in 2017, a new trilogy of books was commissioned which further explored key events or characters mentioned in the fourth game.  Annihilation is the third and final book in the Mass Effect: Andromeda book trilogy.

As the Reaper fleet begins to appear in the Milky Way galaxy, a fifth ark is launched by the Andromeda Initiative to bring another 20,000 settlers to the Andromeda galaxy.  Built by the planetless Quarians, the ark Keelah Si’yah is the only ark to hold colonists from a number of different races, including Quarians, Drell, Elcor, Batarians, Volus and Hanar.  Despite having different outlooks, opinions, biological requirements and reasons to leave the Milky Way, these races are united in their decision to reach the new galaxy and find new planets to settle on.

As the ship reaches the end of its 600-year long journey, problems are soon identified aboard the ship.  One of the ark’s Sleepwalker teams, a small team of individuals tasked with checking on the status of the ark as it flies through space, is suddenly awoken years before the Keelah Si’yah is scheduled to dock with the Nexus.  The ship’s virtual intelligence has identified certain discrepancies in the readings of several Drell cryopods.  Investigating the pods, the Sleepwalker team find that their inhabitants have died from a disease, something that is supposed to be impossible while frozen.  Even worse, the ships systems are all reporting that everything is fine, and that the inhabitants of the pods are still alive.

The Sleepwalker team quickly discover that the dead colonists have all been infected by a virulent disease, one that seems capable of jumping across to the vastly different alien species.  The team are desperate to find out the cause of the disease, but their investigation is severely hampered by a number of system failures across the ark, while the ship’s computers continue to insist that everything is all right.  As the failing systems start to randomly unfreeze more and more colonists, the disease quickly spreads across the ark.  It soon becomes apparent that the disease has been artificially created, and that someone is launching a deliberate attack against the Keelah Si’yah and its crew.  As the various colonists turn on each other in fear and confusion, can the Sleepwalker team find a cure and uncover who is behind the attack, or will everyone on the ark die before reaching Andromeda?

The author of this book, Catherynne M. Valente is not an author I was very familiar with before listening to Annihilation, but she appears to have produced a wide range of different novels, some of which are quite quirky in content.  I do remember seeing and trying to get a copy of her 2018 release, Space Opera, earlier this year, mainly because it sounded like such a fun read, what with it essentially being Eurovision in space.  Luckily, I was able to obtain a copy of Annihilation a week ago and powered through its audiobook format, narrated by Tom Taylorson.

Mass Effect: Annihilation has an exciting and intriguing story that expands on the established lore of the Mass Effect universe while also providing the reader with a compelling science fiction mystery.  The story is broken up into three main parts: the characters attempting to identify and cure the disease, the attempts to fix the ship’s broken system and an investigation into who or what initiated the attack on the ark and its inhabitants.  As a result, there is a good combination of medical, technical and investigative scenes that come together into a rather intriguing overall narrative.  There is not a lot of action, but the focus on the various problems around the ship is very interesting.  The link between the various parts of the book and the final solution to who is behind them was also quite clever and the reasons behind it were quite interesting.  There are some certain dark moments, especially when it comes to the reveal of who was behind it.  Annihilation is obviously going to appeal a lot more to readers who are familiar with the games and who enjoy the backstory of this series, but this is a great story with plenty for other readers to enjoy, and I felt that Valente makes this story accessible for outside readers.

One of the most interesting parts about Annihilation is the fact that the book focuses on the less prominent alien races in the Mass Effect universe.  Aside from one prologue that follows a human, every single character is a member of six less common races in the lore and games, the Quarians, Drell, Volus, Batarians, Hana and Elcor.  This is unique, as the games and the previous novels tend to mostly focus on human characters, or feature a significant number of characters from the games more prominent races, such as the token sexy alien species, the Asari, or the gigantic and war loving Krogan.  The other main council races, the Turians and the Salarians, are also extremely prominent compared to the six races featured within this book, with great Turian and Salarian characters appearing frequently in the games or the books (I am the very model of a scientist Salarian).  In pretty much all of the games, the protagonist can choose members of the above aliens to be a part of the team.  However, Annihilation completely changes this around, as four of the six races that the book focuses on have never had usable characters in any of the games and are mostly minor side characters.  Of the other two races, the Quarians do get a good examination within the games, with one of their members quite a key character.  The Drell are explored to a much lesser degree, although badass Drell assassin Thane Krios as a useable teammate in the second game.

I was pleasantly surprised to read a book where these six less commonly featured races were so prominent.  Valente has a great understanding of these races and spends a significant part of the book exploring each race’s various quirks, important parts of their biology, culture, society or lifestyle, as well as certain parts of their history.  The author does a fantastic job expressing all these racial traits throughout the book, and even new readers to the franchise can quickly gain an understanding of what these species are and what is key to all of them.  For example, Valente is able to expertly capture the various speech characteristics of each of the races featured in Annihilation.  This includes the heavy breathing of the Volus, the lack of personal pronouns in the Hanar’s dialogue, the rolling stream of Drell memories that they say aloud when flashing back to important memories, and even the Elcor habit of prefacing their sentences with their emotional state.  These are all done incredibly consistently throughout the book and really add a lot of authenticity to the story.  These vocal patterns can also be particularly entertaining, especially when it comes to the Elcors, as nothing is more amusing than having an angry Elcor calmly telling everyone how enraged he is.  The various alien species did have the potential to make the investigation into the virus hard to understand, but the author cleverly got around this by having the characters compare the disease, cures and other relevant aspects to common and recognisable human disease.  Overall, these alien inclusions are fantastic, and it was great to see these more obscure fictional species finally get the limelight in a Mass Effect story.

While the alien races as a whole are great inclusions in Annihilation, Valente has also created some amazing characters to make up the Sleepwalker team investigating the issues plaguing the ark.  These characters include the team’s leader, Quarian Senna’Nir vas Keelah Si’yah, Drell detective Anax Therion, Elcor doctor Yorrik, former Batarian crime lord Borbala Ferank, Volus tailor Irit Non and a religiously fanatic Hanar apothecary.  Each of these characters is pretty fun, and all of them have demons in their past that are explored throughout the book.  For example, Senna’Nir is obsessed by computer intelligences, something that is forbidden by the other Quarians following a terrible event in their history.  As a result, Senna’Nir spends large portions of the book coming to terms with his secret obsession, and it is quite an interesting subplot which also allows the introduction of one of the best side characters, a sassy Quarian grandmother virtual intelligence.  Each of the characters’ backstories is fairly compelling and each add a lot to the story.  Borbal Ferank’s crime lord persona is also a lot of fun throughout the book, as she casually mentions her previous crimes and familiar betrayals that are quite common for Batarians.  There are also the mysteries around Anax, as the ultimate infiltrator gives several versions of her past throughout the book to various characters to get the answers and stories she requires.

Easily the best character in Annihilation is Yorrik, the Shakespeare-obsessed Elcor doctor who spends the entire book trying to cure the virus infecting the ark.  He was extremely amusing throughout the entire book, as he spend significant parts of the book dropping jokes in his emotionless tone, or attempting to engage his companions in discussion about his extremely long Elcor adaptions of Hamlet or Macbeth.  Yorrik is a fantastic character throughout the entire book, and he is definitely the person the reader gets the most attached to.  Never have Shakespearian quotes been more appropriate for the fate of an alien.  I also really loved the unique partnership between Anax and Borbala.  The detective and criminal make a great team, and the two have a lot of fun investigating the attack on the ship, and it was great seeing the two of them get closer to each other through the course of the book.  Valente has done an incredible job with the characters in this book, and their histories, relationships and unique viewpoints really make this novel awesome.

I listened to the audiobook version of Annihilation, which I found to be an amazing way to enjoy this book.  At just under nine hours long, this is an easy audiobook to get through, but it is one I had a lot of fun with.  One of the best things about the audiobook version was the fact that they got Tom Taylorson, the voice of the male protagonist in Mass Effect: Andromeda, to narrate this audiobook, which is just awesome for those people who have played the game.  Taylorson does an excellent job portraying each of the characters in this book and I loved all the voices he came up with.  He also managed to get all of the unique voice patterns and vocal particularities of the various alien species down perfectly, and each alien species sounded exactly as they did in the games.  This is an outstanding piece of audiobook narration, which really added a lot to how much I enjoyed this book.

Overall, I am going to give Mass Effect: Annihilation a rating of four and a half stars.  I will admit that one of the main reasons I am giving it such a high rating is because of my love of all things Mass Effect and because of how much I love the franchises lore and expanded fictional history.  I am aware that people who are not as familiar with Mass Effect may not enjoy it as much, but I hope that most readers will appreciate the great characters, interesting story and excellent audiobook adaption.  This is great piece of science fiction and an excellent tie-in novel that is a perfect read for fans of the Mass Effect franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

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Publishers: Orion

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Legendary crime author Michael Connelly returns for another clever and technically detailed crime thriller that teams up his iconic and most utilised protagonist, Harry Bosch, with his recently created female protagonist, Renée Ballard.

In the chaotic world of the LAPD, Renée Ballard is an outsider who has found herself permanently on the graveyard shift of the Hollywood beat.  Returning to the near-abandoned station after a callout, Ballard is surprised to find a stranger rifling through her unit’s filing cabinets.  The intruder is maverick retired detective Harry Bosch, formally of the LAPD, now currently working as a contractor for the San Fernando police.

Bosch is working a cold case for personal reasons.  The victim, a 15-year-old runaway, Daisy Clayton, was brutally murdered several years before and Bosch has gotten close to the girl’s devastated mother.  Initially kicking him out the station, Ballard’s subsequent investigation of Bosch’s actions reveals the full details of the case to her and she finds herself drawn to Bosch’s hunt for justice.  As the two outsider detectives join forces in order to solve the case, they are once again thrust into the grimy underworld of Hollywood.  But as they attempt to find justice, a cornered killer, departmental politics and the dangerous suspects of the two detectives other investigations may cause the case to come crashing down around them.

Michael Connelly is a prolific and award-winning crime novelist who has been writing since 1992.  During that period he has written over 30 books, all of which are set in the same shared universe.  Connelly’s debut book, The Black Echo, introduced his most iconic character, Harry Bosch, who has been the protagonist of 21 of Connelly’s books, as well as being a supporting character in several other books.  Due to the author’s focus on this character, Connelly’s extended crime universe is often referred to as the Harry Bosch universe.  Connelly has also written a number of other thrillers in this universe, featuring several other protagonists, such as lawyer Mickey Haller, reporter Jack McEvoy and investigator Terry McCaleb.  Many of the characters introduced in previous books often have small roles in later books, while Bosch has had interactions with most of Connelly’s other protagonists.  The second protagonist in Dark Scared Night, Renée Ballard, is a more recent creation who was introduced in the 2017 novel The Late Show, and this is her first interaction with Bosch in Connelly’s wider universe.

Outside of the literary world, Connelly’s works have been adapted to film and screen.  His Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into the current Bosch television series, which will air its fifth season in 2019.  Two of his books have also been adapted into movies.  His novel, Blood Work was adapted into film in 2002 with Clint Eastwood, while his first legal novel, The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted into film in 2011 with Matthew McConaughey.

Dark Sacred Night is an excellent piece of crime fiction that presents the reader with a series of interesting investigations, told from the perspectives of two fantastic police protagonists.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, which is jointly narrated by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver, and runs for 10 hours and 39 minutes.  Dark Sacred Night primarily focuses on the investigation into a cold case of a young runaway girl who was brutally killed nine years previously.  This central case is massively intriguing and takes the reader deep into the sordid and disturbing criminal nightlife of Hollywood.  The main case is a gritty and unique investigation as the protagonists are forced to rely on different methods than they would usually utilise to solve the case.  Rather than having any recent evidence, the detectives are forced to rely on old interviews and pieces of police intelligence to identify any potential suspects or witnesses.  This is an intriguing way to investigate an old crime, and I really enjoyed the way they were forced to utilise this less substantial evidence to find their killer.  This method results in the protagonists identifying and investigating several distinctive suspects, and the reader is presented with a series of false leads and suggested possibilities.  I was able to identify who the killer was quite early in the book, but I still had a lot of fun following the investigation to its conclusion.

I really enjoyed the way that Connelly seeded a large number of smaller cases throughout the novel for the protagonists to solve, as well as a number of examples of police work in action.  There is an interesting split here as Ballard, the full-time detective, is given a series of more official and everyday crimes to solve, such as a suspicious death, a missing persons, a theft, trespassing and a kidnapping that she investigates to various degrees throughout the book.  Bosch, on the other hand, only has one case, an old, unsolved gang execution that he is pursuing in San Fernando and which is the focus for a good portion of his chapters.  The inclusion of these smaller cases is a clever move from Connelly as it breaks up the story from a pure focus on the main case and presents a wider viewpoint of crime and policing in the book’s setting.  It also allows the author to showcase his protagonists’ divergent investigative skills and presents the readers with an additional number of compelling mysteries and adventures that they can sink their teeth into.  Some of these additional cases tie into the main mystery in some surprising ways and clues or suspects may be revealed through this.

All of these mysteries do an amazing job showing of the author’s obvious knowledge of police procedures and law enforcement techniques.  Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has an amazing grasp of the minutiae of police work and he expertly inserts these details into his story.  As a result his police characters mostly investigate crimes, examine evidence and file the paperwork in a way that feel extremely realistic and which adds a huge amount to the books authenticity.  Connelly’s police characters even feel like real cops, as the way that they act or think feels like real life police would act.  All of this combines with the amazing mysteries to create a first-rate piece of crime fiction.

Dark Sacred Night is the first time that Connelly’s main protagonist, Bosch, engages with the author’s newest protagonist, Ballard.  There are some interesting similarities between the two characters, which makes for a great story.  Both detectives have a similar maverick style when it comes to investigating crimes, and both have been screwed over by LAPD politics and had their careers impacted as a result.  As a result, both characters are dogged in their pursuit of criminals, especially those guilty of sex crimes, and both are willing to bend the rules to get their suspects.  However, the main difference between them is how far they will go to get justice.  While Ballard is happy to bend rules, she doesn’t go too far over the line or deliberately hurt or damage her suspects.  Bosch on the other hand has a much more flexible idea of where the line is and engages in some questionable behaviour that could be seeing as going too far. The two characters work well together during this book, and I hope that Connelly continues to use his latest protagonist in the future, especially as there are some interesting stories available when it comes to her complex police past.

The audiobook version of Long Dark Night is a great way to enjoy this crime novel and I found that I quickly powered through the book with this format.  The audiobook format utilises two separate narrators to describe the adventure contained within, broken up by whichever protagonist is narrating that chapter.  For example, Christine Lakin narrates the chapters told from Ballard’s point of view, while Titus Welliver narrates Bosch’s chapters.  Both of these narrators have great voices for their central characters, and both of them fit in perfectly in this gritty crime drama.  Lakin captures Ballard’s character perfectly, and you get a real sense of the no-nonsense and wary personality that is Ballard every time you hear Lakin’s voice.  Welliver’s voice, on the other hand, is deep and gruff and really fits Bosch’s old school and veteran personality.  Overall there is some fantastic voice work in the audiobook format of Dark Sacred Night, and I found that listening to this mystery really drew me into the middle of this investigation and helped me remember certain details and clues.

This latest book from veteran crime author Michael Connelly is a fantastic mystery thriller that draws the reader in with two outstanding protagonists and a series of captivating mysteries.  Dark Sacred Night is written in a way that is very easy to get into and the reader can enjoy the full mystery without any details of the previous books in Connelly’s shared universe.  As a result, despite it being such a late book in this long-running series, Dark Sacred Night is also the perfect place to start your investigation into the crime sensation that is Michael Connelly.  First rate crime fiction at it’s very best, this is an outstanding release from Connelly that is guaranteed to draw the reader into the dark and intriguing world of mysteries.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

Planetside by Michael Mammay

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Publishers: Harper Voyager

                        HarperAudio

Publication Date – 31 July 2018

 

Well, that was an unexpectantly awesome book!  I am usually pretty good at predicting how good a book is going to be by its plot synopsis or my prior knowledge of the author.  When I first heard about Planetside I thought it sounded like an interesting concept from first-time author Michael Mammay.  While I had high hopes for the book, I did somewhat assume that it would just be another solid but enjoyable science fiction mystery.  What I was not expecting, however, was one of the best science fiction books of 2018 that easy achieves a five-star rating from me.

Set in the far future of Earth’s expansion, Planetside follows Colonel Carl Butler, a war hero living out a peaceful semi-retirement on a training base.  However, when his old friend General Serata calls him late at night and drags him all the way to headquarters, he obliges for old times’ sake.  Serata needs him to travel to the planet of Cappa, humanity’s current warzone, where members of a resilient and intelligent alien race known as the Cappans are fighting a gruelling insurgency against the humans attempting to exploit their planet.  Once there, he will head up an investigation into the disappearance of a young lieutenant who went missing after being wounded on the planet.  By all accounts, the wounded lieutenant was successfully evacuated from the surface, but the military hospital claims that he never arrived at their facility.  To makes matters worse, the lieutenant is the son of a high councillor, and the disappearance has become a highly publicised affair.  Despite knowing that there is more to the case than Serata is letting on, Butler agrees to find the missing officer.

Arriving at Cappa Base, the space station hovering over the planet, Butler soon finds that his investigation is going to be a lot harder than he anticipated.  All the soldiers he speaks to have the same rehearsed story, the head of the base’s military hospital flat out refuses to cooperate with him, the head of Special Ops is continuously unable to come off-planet to speak to him, and any witnesses or evidence that could point him in the right direction mysteriously disappears.  It is also damn suspicious that any time he takes a step in the right direction, somebody tries to have him killed.  Under pressure to wrap this investigation up, Butler decides to drop down onto the surface of Cappa, but what he finds down there will change everything.  Forced into an increasingly desperate situation, Butler must find the answers he needs before it is too late.

This is the first book from Michael Mammay, but it was more than enough to make me a dedicated fan of this author.  With a sequel already set to be released in 2019, Planetside is an extraordinary introduction to an amazing new series.  I chose to listen to this book in its audiobook format, read by R. C. Bray, and at 8 hours 38 minutes, this is a fairly quick way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Planetside’s story is based around the protagonist’s investigation into a missing human soldier on an alien planet that has been occupied by the human military.  As Butler arrives at the military base the solider was stationed out of, he begins to realise that there is something much more to the case than what was advertised.  Every single person he speaks to is hiding something, he seems only to uncover more lies, and some shadowy figures are actively trying to sabotage his investigation in any way they can.  Despite all these setbacks, the protagonist persists with his investigation throughout the course of the book and slowly begins to uncover the underlying conspiracy that the soldier’s disappearance is just one small part of.  There is so much about this mystery investigation to enjoy, as the author seamlessly combines the mystery and conspiracy part of this story with the science fiction element, creating a unique and captivating overall narrative.  The full scope of this conspiracy is very impressive, and Mammay’s slow burn reveal of the extent and implications of what Butler uncovers is well done to keep the reader in suspense.  I was intensely intrigued by this multilayered conspiracy, and was left constantly guessing at what the potential solution was.

The book is told from the point of view of its protagonist, Colonel Butler, and Mammay has created an excellent central character for this story that the reader is instantly drawn to and cannot help but like.  The author has done a fantastic job conveying the fact that Butler is a straight-shooting, no-bullshit, wily veteran soldier who has had enough of war and is just looking forward to retirement.  He is an amusing and intriguing choice to investigate the book’s intricate and potentially wide-reaching conspiracy, as he powers through the expected political niceties other investigators may have worried about without any concerns for his future or career.  His years of service also ensure that he has impeccable instincts when it comes to the people he is dealing with and is fully aware of when the other characters are bullshitting him, which occurs frequently throughout this book.  I had fun observing this rough and seemingly uncomplicated old-school soldier get to grips with this elaborate conspiracy and blow through all the careful plans of the book’s antagonists.  The colonel also has a sense of humour, something that the other characters encounter to various degrees of frustration, especially the people he is intentionally pissing off.  I also appreciated the self-deprecating and extremely honest reflections about the situation that Butler presents to the reader, as it made me like him even more.

The military aspects of this book are another amazing part of Planetside, as Mammay has perfectly captured elements of the modern day military and transplanted them into this science fiction storyline.  The majority of the story is set within Cappa Base, and the reader is made to feel like they are in a real military base.  The author also seeks to capture the full minutiae of military life throughout the book, and the reader is given insight into what tasks are undertaken on the base, the main characters experience and the respect he commands of the other soldiers in the story.  While most of the focus is on the investigation, there are a couple of action scenes throughout the book, including an extended battle sequence that see’s the protagonist and his allies engage in a protracted firefight with enemy forces on the planet’s surface.  The author’s use of the first-person perspective is perfect for these battle sequences and the reader is dragged right into the middle of these firefights, really experiencing the action through Mammay’s skilled and descriptive writing.  This battle sequences felt very realistic and had some noticeable similarities to real-life skirmishes in modern day battlefields.  The tactics the humans use during these conflicts on Cappa are highly reminiscent of American forces in the Middle East, although the inclusion of more science fiction appropriate weapons and technology allow for some interesting differences.

While the impressive investigation storyline does a fantastic job holding onto the reader’s interest, and the solution to the entire mystery arc is creative and clever, nothing compares to the book’s epic conclusion.  Without going into too much detail, I thought that the way that Mammay ended this book was just incredible, and is one of the main reasons why I am giving this book a five-star rating.  I also loved how, towards the end of the book, the protagonist becomes fully aware of how everything has to end, and at the same time he starts to understand that his oldest friend had sent him on this mission because he knew exactly how Butler would act upon uncovering the full extent of the conspiracy.  The final scene of the book was just perfect as the protagonist reflects on everything that has happened with one of the book’s side characters.  During this scene there is an excellent use of the end of a subtle countdown that has been occurring throughout the entire book, represented by a depleting number of whisky bottles, as well as an appropriate moment of happiness for Butler as he finally gets to have a whisky in a proper glass, which was just perfect.  As mentioned above, Mammay already has a sequel planned, and I am extremely curious to see where the story goes next.

The audiobook version of Planetside is a great way to enjoy this fantastic book, and I had a lot of fun listening to this format.  The audiobook’s narrator, R. C. Bray, manages to capture the gruff and grizzled personality of Butler perfectly, and for most of the book it really sounded like the old colonel was telling you his story.  Bray also does a good job producing distinctive voices for the rest of the characters in book, including several female characters, and the listener is able to distinguish between the various people without too much difficulty.  I also felt that listening to this story really helped bring me into the book’s awesome battle sequences as well as ensuring that I was fully invested in the success of the enjoyable main character.  Overall, I would recommend the audiobook format as an excellent way to enjoy this book, although readers will of course get a lot out of this book if they choose the paperback format.

Michael Mammay’s debut novel, Planetside, is an incredible piece of science fiction and is one of my favourite books of 2018.  Featuring a captivating mystery storyline that places the book’s likeable protagonist in the middle of a massive conspiracy, this book completely grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go until its powerful and memorable conclusion.  I cannot recommend this book enough and it is essential reading for all fans of the science fiction genre.  I am very much looking forward to Mammay’s sequel to Planetside, which is already at the top of my must-read list for 2019.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Throwback Thursday: Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line Cover.jpg

Publishers: Vintage Books

                        Random House Audio

Publication Date – 25 March 2014

 

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I will be looking at the thrilling and enjoyable first tie-in novel to the Veronica Mars franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.

Veronica Mars was a highly regarded (at least for the first two seasons) teen crime television series that aired for three seasons between 2004 and 2007.  The show, staring Kristen Bell in her breakout role as the titular character, was an incredibly fun and compelling mixture of teen drama and serious investigation.  Veronica Mars is a teenage private investigator who finds herself investigating the murder of her best friend, following a cover up by the town’s rich and powerful inhabitants.  The first two seasons featured epic season-long mysteries, while the third season contained two half-season mysteries.  Each episode also featured a mystery-of-the-week storyline that would often play some part in that season’s overarching storyline.  In addition to the intriguing and complex mystery based storylines, fans of the show could also enjoy the heartfelt drama and romance between the show’s main characters, as well as the interesting social dichotomy of the show’s main location, Neptune, California.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after its third season, and fans were given an unsatisfactory and incomplete series finale.

However, due to support of the Veronica Mars hardcore fans, referred to as “Marshmallows”, as well as an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, the show was revived with a 2014 Veronica Mars feature film.  This new movie was set nine years after the show’s third season and showed Veronica’s return to Neptune.  The creators attempted to capitalise on the success of the Veronica Mars film by creating some additional material in the Veronica Mars universe.  This included the meta web series Play it Again, Dick as well as two novels set in the aftermath of the movie.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line was the first of these novels released, coming out the same month as the Veronica Mars movie, while the second book, Mr. Kiss and Tell was published a year later in 2015.  Both books were written by series creator Rob Thomas and short story author Jennifer Graham, and Thomas has stated that they are both considered to be cannon.

I only ended up watching the Veronica Mars show a few years ago, but found myself really getting into the excellent storylines and memorable characters.  I managed to avoid any spoilers so I was able to enjoy the incredible mysteries of the first two seasons, both of which were very clever, with complicated and hard to predict solutions.  After enjoying both the shows and the movies, I also decided to check out the associated books and obtained an audiobook copy of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, which I have listened to several times.  With the recent announcement of a Veronica Mars revival series airing in 2019 to be set five years after the events of the film, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to re-listen to and review The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line as part of my Throwback Thursday series.  I am particularly interested to see if Thomas will continue to consider this book as canon when the new series of the show is released, as there are significant narrative developments that may prove hard to explain to those who haven’t read this book.

Neptune, California is usually the home of sun, sand, the ultra-rich, their low-income employees and a corrupt sheriff’s department.  But something else has descended on Neptune: spring breakers.  With busloads of college students descending on Neptune, the town has been turned into one long and boozy event.  It’s all fun and games until one girl disappears from a party and her case is picked up by the conservative media as a call to action against Neptune and spring break.

After nine years away, Veronica Mars has returned to Neptune, the town where she experienced so many traumatic events.  After saving her former/current boyfriend Logan from a murder investigation, Veronica has given up her career as a lawyer and has returned to her old addiction, private investigating.  With her father still recovering from a suspicious car crash, Veronica has taken over Mars Investigations and is desperately trying to keep the business afloat with small, petty cases.

With the media storm around the missing girl intensifying, Veronica is called in to find her before Neptune’s spring break economy is ruined.  Diving into the parties and sordid holiday fun, Veronica soon finds that the house that the girl disappeared from is owned by a dangerous pair of brothers with serious criminal connections.  Though Veronica is convinced that the owners of the house are behind the disappearance, the case becomes even more complicated when a second girl disappears from the same house.  Worse, the second girl has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past that will rock her to the core.

While it would have been easy for the authors just to create a lazy tie-in novel, Thomas and Graham actually created a complex and multi-layered mystery narrative that serves to keep the readers excited and guessing the entire time they are enjoying it.  There is quite a lot going on within this mystery storyline, as for most of it, the protagonist is uncertain about what crime she is actually investigating.  There are a lot of false leads, suspects, hidden clues and several pulse-pounding scenes in which Veronica finds her life threatened as she attempts to uncover a major break in the case.  The final conclusion of the investigation is pretty clever and has a few sneaky twists that are hard to see coming.  The authors also amp up the drama during certain parts of the book as Veronica is forced to confront some heavy subjects from her past, as well as the anger and despair of the people she is investigating.  There is also further antagonism between Veronica and the towns’ corrupt sheriff, who Veronica is actively investigating for corruption, as well as a dramatic fight with her father, Keith, who is dismayed by his daughter’s decision to remain in Neptune as a private investigator, a decision which caused her much grief in the past.

One of the more interesting things about the original show was the social makeup of the fictional setting of the town of Neptune.  In the show, Neptune is home to both a rich upper class, known as the “09ers” in reference to Neptune’s fictional postcode, and the people who work for them or are employed in the town’s businesses and local economy.  As a result, several of the episodes of the original series focused on this discrepancy between these two distinct social classes, which was often represented by the rich students receiving unfair advantages at Neptune High.  This was continued in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie, which showed that the sheriff’s department had become especially corrupt and were more focused on protecting the rich and powerful than arresting real criminals, as seen when they framed a side character, Weevil, with a planted gun.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues to explore how corrupt the city has become under the new sheriff, and how incompetent the police have become.  This is shown early on in the book when Veronica is hired by the Neptune Chamber of Commerce to find the missing girls, as the town’s business leaders lack confidence in the sheriff’s investigative skills.  When Veronica queries why they still support him, they make it clear that his policy of doing what the richer citizens want makes him a desirable tool.  There are also some dark reveals about the serious crimes he turns a blind eye to in order to avoid confrontation and stay in power.

While there is less focus on the town’s social divide, the authors did add a new element to the plot of this Veronica Mars book: spring breakers.  The plot of this book shows the town completely overrun with drunk, drugged-up and sexually excited college students keen to enjoy the beaches and parties of Neptune.  Thomas and Graham pull no punches when it comes to these descriptions, attempting to fully encapsulate the chaotic and at times dangerous activities that the students get up to, often highlighting how their behaviour at times degenerates to the level of a drunken mob.  This spring break background serves as an entertaining and intriguing background for the murder mystery storyline.  There is a good amount of humour watching Veronica acting the part of a drunken sorority girl as she attempts to blend in with the crowd, as this is in complete opposition to her usual prickly demeanour.  This spring break storyline will also be an interesting read for those planning to check out the upcoming revived season of Veronica Mars, which is apparently going to focus on a spring break serial killer which initiates a conflict between the upper and lower classes of the town.

As this is a tie-in book to a television and movie franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line appeals to fans of Veronica Mars the most.  Readers will be relieved to see that Veronica still maintains her trademark sarcasm and the jaded personality she developed at a young age when she learned how much other people sucked.  This book is set only a few months after the Veronica Mars film, and shows the aftermaths of the events that occurred during it.  Long-time Veronica Mars characters Wallace Fennel, Keith Mars and Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie all appear in the book in significant roles, while minor movie antagonist, Dan Lamb, returns in a similar role for this book.  In addition, other popular characters like Logan Echolls, Dick Casablancas, Eli “Weevil” Navarro and Cliff McCormack have smaller roles within the book.  While it is good to see them again, their minor appearances have mainly been added in for fan service.  One of the most memorable things about this book for fans of the show are the significant developments that happen in Veronica’s personal life, as a character from her past returns with some massive changes.  While these developments serve an important part of the book’s plot and offer some excellent and well-appreciated emotional moments, I will be very surprised if they carry through into the new season of the television show.  Overall, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line serves as a fantastic addition to the Veronica Mars franchise and contains a huge number of elements that will prove extremely appealing to fans of the original show.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is definitely one of those novels that is best enjoyed in its audiobook format.  This is because the Rob Thomas and the producers of the audiobook were able to get Kristen Bell to come in and narrate this version of the book.  As Kristen Bell does a bit of in-show narration, it makes sense for her to continue it here, with Veronica serving as the only point-of-view character.  Having her narrate the actions of the book and everything she sees makes it feel a lot like the television show and gives it a natural and authentic feel.  It was also pretty amusing to hear Bell do the voices of her co-stars from the shows and movies throughout the book.  I think she does a pretty good job of her narration of the other character’s voices, as there are distinctive approximations of all the relevant characters, in addition to new voices for the exclusive book characters.  Overall, if fans of this franchise are keen to experience a new Veronica Mars adventure, this is their best option.  Written by the show’s creator and voiced by its lead actresses, the audiobook version of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is essentially just another episode of the show, and is the best way for fans of the Veronica Mars show to enjoy.  At 8 hours 43 minutes, it is a quick audiobook to get through.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is an excellent piece of the amazing Veronica Mars franchise which presents the reader with a continuation of this fun universe and allows fans of the show to see what happens next to their favourite characters.  Featuring a clever and intricate central mystery that twists and turns in multiple unexpected ways, this book is a fantastic read as told by its iconic protagonist.  Best enjoyed in its audiobook format with the voice of Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell, narrating the story, this is a recommended read for all fans of the fans of the show, and may prove to be an intriguing introduction for newcomers to the franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Red Ribbon by H. B. Lyle

The Red Ribbon Cover.jpg

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date – 23 August 2018

 

Return to pre-World War I London for another compelling spy adventure in H. B. Lyle’s second book, The Red Ribbon, which is set in the same universe as Sherlock Holmes and features three exciting characters with an intriguing look at early 20th century British history and espionage.

In London, in 1910, Captain Vernon Kell is still attempting create a secret intelligence service capable of protecting England from foreign spies and infiltrators.  Despite the early success of the Secret Service Bureau, Kell’s organisation is constantly under pressure from the country’s politicians and is in danger of being absorbed into Special Branch of London’s police.

Unfortunately, Kell’s only agent, Wiggins, is distracted with his own cases and unwilling to play the political games needed to help the service survive.  Wiggins is the former leader of Sherlock Holmes’s street urchin surveillance organisation, the Baker Street Irregulars, and has picked up a few of his old master’s deductive tricks while retaining his lower-class charm and street smarts.  Wiggins is obsessed with finding the infamous anarchist, Peter the Painter, the man responsible for the death of one of Wiggins’s oldest friends, and is scouring the streets for him.

Looking for a missing girl on behalf of one of his contacts, Wiggins begins to investigate a mysterious embassy located in the affluent neighbourhood of Belgravia.  The embassy is actually a high-class brothel frequented by the rich and powerful of London.  When another girl associated with the embassy is found murdered, Wiggins attempts to find justice; however, the embassy is under the protection of someone Wiggins knows well: Tommy, a fellow former member of the Irregulars.

However, Wiggins’s personal investigations intersect with his work for Kell, as the two of them hunt for the source of a series of leaks at the highest level of government.  With the help of Kell’s wife, the suffragist Constance, Wiggins and Kell must find the connection between the events occurring around London in order to keep the country safe from sinister foreign influences.

The Red Ribbon is the follow-up to Lyle’s debut novel, The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, and is the second book in the Irregular Spy Thriller series.  This is a great series that will appeal to a huge range of readers, as Lyle combines compelling historical fiction elements with a thrilling espionage story that has fictional links with one of the most iconic book series of all time, Sherlock Holmes.

The story within The Red Ribbon is split between the book’s three main protagonists and takes a look at each character’s different and exciting adventures.  Wiggins and Kell continue their missions from the first book, and while their investigations are ostensibly separate from each other, they eventually intersect in several clever ways.  The relationship between Wiggins and Kell is an important part of these two storylines, as Kell despairs of Wiggins’s personal investigations and wants Wiggins to solely work missions for the service.  The third focal character is Kell’s wife, Constance, who was a supporting character in the first book.  Constance becomes a much more significant character in The Red Ribbon, as the book focuses on her involvement with the suffragist and suffragette movements.  Both Wiggins and Kell become involved with Constance’s storyline in different capacities, while Constance provides significant assistance with her husband’s espionage work.  With three semi-connected stories, it does at times feel like there is too much going on for one cohesive narrative.  However, each of the stories comes together quite well in the end and provides the reader with an extremely captivating overarching narrative.

Having three separate storylines allows Lyle to highlight the differences in social classes during this historical period and highlights how different groups of people were treated.  Kell, as the influential gentleman, is forced to constantly deal with the upper-class politics and attitudes during his attempts to keep the service going.  Wiggins, who was raised on the street, deals more with the average Londoner and experiences the poverty and desperation many of them encounter.  He must also deal with the distain of the upper classes in the course of his espionage work.  While he is clearly the most competent agent in the entire British service, he is constantly looked down upon and ignored by his government superiors.  There are also several instances where Wiggins is assigned to infiltrate labour movements, something he is very reluctant to do due to his world views and background.  This divide often serves to create some significant tension with Kell, who, despite fully understanding Wiggins’s value, skills and point of view, is often exasperated by him.  The beefed-up storyline around Constance allows the reader a significant look at the suffragist movement and the early battles these women fought for equality.  In The Red Ribbon, Constance joins the much more militant suffragettes, and is constantly infuriated by the reactions of the male politicians and their oppressive policies.  The oppression of women also becomes a major point of conflict between Kell and Constance which results in a decline in their relationship, although the final payoff of this storyline is quite sweet.  I really enjoyed the way that Constance and Wiggins developed a fun comradery in this book, as their poor treatment by the upper-class men allow them to bond, with Wiggins even teaching Constance some anti-surveillance techniques.

Lyle cleverly incorporates several important historical events into this book, such as the funeral of Edward VII, the Black Friday suffragettes and suffragists protest outside Parliament and the Siege of Sidney Street.  These events are quite significant in their own right, and Lyle spends substantial time filling in their background and ensuring the reader is aware of why they are happening and why they are important.  However, they also serve as very compelling background events for the plot of The Red Ribbon and work well to enhance this already fascinating story.  In addition to these intriguing and important historical events, Lyle has also packed a number of historical figures into this story.  Quite a few prominent politicians and British civil servants have significant roles in the plot, including a young Winston Churchill, which makes the story feel a lot more authentic.  The author’s continued use of the enigmatic Peter the Painter as one of the book’s principal antagonists is another brilliant stroke, and the reader is provided with some intriguing theories about who he actually was and what his eventual fate was.  Lyle does slightly go overboard by adding in some other famous historical figures in small cameo roles, and the shoehorning in of people such as Charlie Chaplin and members of the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition seems a bit unnecessary.  That being said, it was amusing to watch Chaplin use his drunken tramp routine to help Wiggins escape a conflict in a theatre.

One of my favourite components of this book was the author’s detailed and unique look at British espionage and counter espionage in the early 20th century.  One of the book’s protagonists, Captain Kell, is an actual historical figure who is credited for creating Britain’s domestic spy service, which morphed into the modern MI5.  This fictionalised account of the early days of this organisation are quite fascinating, especially when the author looks at some of its early challenges, the political battles Kell might have had to face, and the sort of work this organisation was originally looking at.  In addition to the domestic espionage work, the protagonists of The Red Ribbon find themselves drawn into one of the most infamous espionage incidents of the era: the capture of British agents Captain Trench and Lieutenant Brandon in Germany in 1910.  This is a highly fictionalised account of the incident, as Lyle has inserted Kell and Mansfield Cummings, one of the founders of MI6, as being there.  It plays marvellously in Kell’s overall storyline, while also featuring some great scenes as the three protagonists’ attempt to evade arrest by the Germans.  Trench and Brandon are not portrayed in the best light, as Lyle has used them to further the class prejudices in Britain, portraying the two soldiers as quite incompetent spies who are captured as a result of wilfully ignoring Wiggins’s advice due to him not being a gentleman.

Another fun part of The Red Ribbon is the connection the book shares with the Sherlock Holmes novels.  The Irregular Spy Thriller series is set in the same universe as the Sherlock Holmes books.  Wiggins was mentioned several times in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars.  As a result, Wiggins comes across as a rougher Sherlock Holmes, who uses the classic deductive method while also fighting, drinking and speaking in a lower-class manner.  As in the first book of this series, the great detective himself makes a brief appearance, providing Wiggins with a case-breaking suggestion, while casually enjoying his retirement.  The use of the Sherlock Holmes elements is definitely a defining element of the book, and while it is mostly used to draw interested readers into this historical spy thriller, Lyle successfully uses it to create a unique and enjoyable main protagonist.

B. Lyle has followed up his superb 2017 debut with another fun and exhilarating read. Continuing to use his Sherlock Holmes inspired character to great effect, Lyle weaves a full and captivating narrative that presents several unique stories chock full of adventure, mystery and interesting historical content. The Red Ribbon is an amazing second outing from Lyle which also sets up an exciting concept for a third book in the series.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars