Quick Review – Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Ernest Cunningham – Book One

Length: 384 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction stars, comedian turned mystery writer Benjamin Stevenson, returns with an outstanding standalone book that might be one of the best Australian crime fiction reads of 2022, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone.

One of my favourite Australian crime fiction authors now is the exceedingly talented Benjamin Stevenson, who has written some amazing works over the last couple of years.  Stevenson’s writing career began in 2018 when he released the amazing murder mystery Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  A fantastic Australian crime fiction book with true crime elements to it, Greenlight followed a successful television producer who reinvestigates a murderer who was freed thanks to his show.  Stevenson followed Greenlight up in 2020 with the epic sequel, Either Side of Midnight, which saw the same protagonist investigate an impossible murder in what was one of my favourite Australian books of 2020.  Both these readers were pretty damn impressive, but Stevenson has saved his best work for the 2022 release, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, which luckily has an outstanding story that matches the very cool title.

Plot Synopsis:

Everyone in my family has killed someone. Some of us, the high achievers, have killed more than once. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it is the truth. Some of us are good, others are bad, and some just unfortunate.

I’m Ernest Cunningham. Call me Ern or Ernie. I wish I’d killed whoever decided our family reunion should be at a ski resort, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

Have I killed someone? Yes. I have.

Who was it?

Let’s get started.

EVERYONE IN MY FAMILY HAS KILLED SOMEONE

My brother

My stepsister

My wife

My father

My mother

My sister-in-law

My uncle

My stepfather

My aunt

Me

As the title and the intriguing plot synopsis above suggests, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is an awesome read that sees Stevenson serve up an addictive narrative that is one part insane family drama and one part homage to classic detective novels.  I had an incredible time reading this book early on in 2022 and I honestly should have written a review for it well before now.

The plot of Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is pretty bonkers as it follows a very damaged protagonist, teacher and crime fiction mega-fan Ernest Cunningham, as he attends one of the most awkward family reunions in history.  Written from Ernest’s perspective as part of an in-universe book, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone sees Ernest reunite with the fellow members of the infamous Cunningham family at an isolated ski resort.  The black sheep of a dark family with criminal connections, Ernest has been invited to attend a special event: the release of his brother Michael from jail after Ernest testified against him.  However, once his brother arrives, a series of murders start to strike the resort, killing off several people.  With the ski resort cut off from the outside by the snow, it falls to Ernest to discover who is killing the remaining guests at the lodge.  However, everyone in his family is a suspect, as all of them have killed someone before, including Ernest, who has just as much motive as the rest.  As the book continues, it becomes very clear that someone in the Cunningham family has killed again, it’s just a matter of finding out which one did it.

I have to admit that I was pretty in love with this book from the opening pages, especially as it becomes clear early on that Stevenson planned to blend the book’s mystery with some great humour and brilliant homages to classic murder mysteries.  Stevenson lays out this story in a fun way that simultaneously focuses on the infamous main family, their complex past and relationships, while also presenting a compelling murder investigation that intentionally steals a lot of cues from classic whodunnits.  Stevenson introduces an outrageous cast of complex characters for the story, and they were very intriguing to follow, especially as they all have deeper issues brought on by the deaths they are responsible for.  The story at time transforms into a very moving and entertaining family drama, which helps to make the story richer and even more amusing.  The mystery itself is very clever, and I loved the multiple compelling twists and reveals that accompanied it as the protagonist is forced to dive back into every terrible event his family has been involved in, including murder, robbery, police corruption and kidnapping, all of which leads to final, devastating solution.  While the identity of the killer is a tad obvious, the reveal of why they are committing their crimes more than makes up for it, and Stevenson came up with one doozy of a motive.  However, the real highlight of the book is the way in which Stevenson sets out Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone in the manner of an in-story chronicle written by the protagonist, which simultaneously takes on every established trope and rule of old-school detective novels and moulds it into itself.

As I mentioned a few times above, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone also acts as a homage to classic crime fiction novels, as Stevenson goes out of his way to simultaneously parody and revere the iconic detective genre.  The book starts with two intriguing elements: the membership oath of the Detectives Club (a secret society of classic crime fiction writers), and Ronald Knox’s ’10 Commandments of Detective Fiction’.  Both of these inclusions acknowledge the general tropes and rules of golden-age detective fiction, and they actually end up being used by the protagonist, and by extension Stevenson, as the main guideline for the mystery.  The author continuously refers back to this list as the novel continues (he even suggests folding this page down so you can revisit it when needed), and I loved how this mystery came together as the author tried to avoid breaking any of these rules.  The author also cheekily informs the reader in advance when in the book someone is going to die with an accompanying page number, ostensibly to allow the reader to jump ahead if needed.  However, as most people will continue through at the normal pace, it heightens the suspense a little as you get closer and closer to the page on which you know a death is going to occur.  Various elements like this, as well as a ton of self-referential internal monologues and discussions about the rules of whodunnits, gives this book an incredible meta feel, which Stevenson uses to full effect to tell a particularly hilarious story.  The author’s background as a comedian is on full display here as he creates an incredibly funny book, even with the continued murders and human tragedy.  These clever references are a great love letter to the classic detective novels, especially as he addresses them in such a satirical way, and all mystery lovers will get a real kick out this book as a result.

Overall, Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is an absolutely outstanding book that I cannot recommend enough.  While I have enjoyed Benjamin Stevenson’s mystery novels in the past, I think that Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone is where he finally reveals his full potential.  Not only is the mystery itself brilliant, loaded as it is with compelling characters and a dark family history, but Stevenson finally showcases his impressive comedy skills and uses them to produce a truly delightful and incredibly addictive novel.  The combination of mystery, humour and a clever homage to the classics, is an intoxicating mixture, and it was near impossible to put this book down once you started reading it.  As such, I must give Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone a full five-star rating, and it was one of the most entertaining books I read in all of 2022.  I have so much love for this book and I was very excited when I heard that Stevenson is releasing a sequel in October titled Everyone On This Train Is A Suspect.

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Quick Review – Only a Monster by Vanessa Len

Only a Monster Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 February 2022)

Series: Monsters – Book One

Length: 410 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Only a Monster by Australian author Vanessa Len is a particularly wonderful debut highlight of last year that I have been meaning to talk about for some time.  A brilliant and awesome young adult fantasy read, Only a Monster is an impressive novel that sees a shocked girl realise that everything she thought she knew about her family was a lie and that deep down she really is a monster.  Intense, incredibly clever, and beautifully inventive, Only a Monster was pretty damn epic and proved to be one of the best debuts of 2022.

Plot Synopsis:

With the sweeping romance of Passenger and the dark fantasy edge of This Savage Song, this standout YA contemporary fantasy debut from Vanessa Len, is the first in a planned trilogy.

It should have been the perfect summer. Sent to stay with her late mother’s eccentric family in London, sixteen-year-old Joan is determined to enjoy herself. She loves her nerdy job at the historic Holland House, and when her super cute co-worker Nick asks her on a date, it feels like everything is falling into place.

But she soon learns the truth. Her family aren’t just eccentric: they’re monsters, with terrifying, hidden powers. And Nick isn’t just a cute boy: he’s a legendary monster slayer, who will do anything to bring them down.

As she battles Nick, Joan is forced to work with the beautiful and ruthless Aaron Oliver, heir to a monster family that hates her own. She’ll have to embrace her own monstrousness if she is to save herself, and her family. Because in this story . . .

. . . she is not the hero.


Only a Monster
has an awesome story that takes a teenage girl on a dark journey of self-discovery and magical adventure as she tries to figure out who she is and what lies within her.  Len starts this book quickly, with a good introduction to central protagonist and point-of-view character Joan Chang-Hunt, who is part of the unusual Hunt family.  A shuddering moment of unreality reveals that she is really half monster, someone who has the ability to steal time from humans to power their time-travelling abilities.  Though Joan initially tries to avoid this revelation and enjoy time with her crush, Nick, an encounter with the malevolent Oliver family of monsters forces her further into their hidden world, especially when it is revealed that Nick is secretly a monster slayer destined to kill every monster in existence, including Joan.  After a brutal series of events that sees most of her family and the other monsters of London killed in a single, coordinated massacre, Joan flees into the past with her surviving cousin Ruth and the youngest member of the Oliver family, Aaron, hoping to find a way to save their families.  Their quest leads them to try and recover a legendary artifact that will allow them to rewrite time.  But to do so, they will need to go up against the mysterious King of the Monsters and his dangerous plot to control reality.  Caught between monsters and monster slayers, the characters are forced into a series of deadly encounters which will force Joan to choose whether to retain her humanity or embrace her inner monster.

Len really came up with something special in Only a Monster, and I personally loved how this outstanding debut unfolded.  The author keeps a pretty fast pace throughout the entire book, and you are constantly thrown from intense moment to intense moment as the protagonist and her companions attempt to stay ahead of their enemies and find a way to bring back their families.  I felt that Len did a great job introducing her compelling world, fantastic characters and unique magical elements, and you quickly learn to appreciate the author’s inventive ideas.  This is actually a pretty dark read, especially as it starts with a massacre and focuses on a group of magical beings who can suck the life force out of normal humans to power their abilities.  I personally deeply enjoyed this darker tone, as Len balances it well with her unique creative ideas and the emotional character development to create an intense and addictive read.  The magical time travel elements of this book are very well done, and the darker ideas behind the absorption of people’s time span helped to make it a malevolent gift that the protagonist is forced to use by necessity.  Despite this, it does produce some fun time travel jokes, and I had a laugh at some of the pop culture references that were utilised in the identification of the period.  Len also lays down a series of interesting twists throughout the story which are revealed at perfect moments and which help to produce a pretty amazing story.  However, the absolute highlight of this book had to be the epic ending that Len decided to traumatise her readers with.  While I’m not going to give away anything here, let’s just say it is pretty insane, and I was deeply impressed with how Len set it up and executed it.

The final thing I really need to gush about when it comes to Only a Monster is the deeply complex and damaged characters featured within.  Only a Monster features a fun crew of central protagonists, each of whom are going through their own epic journeys.  The primary focus is on central character Joan Chang-Hunt, a sweet and nerdy character who, in the course of a day, finds out she is a half-monster with life-sucking time travel abilities, and then witnesses her entire extended family getting massacred.  This naturally causes her to experience a lot of emotions and trauma as she constantly tries to come to terms with how her life has unravelled and changed forever.  The main focus of her character arc is the examination of her inner monster as Joan tries to get to grips on whether she wants her abilities, especially as they force her to drain away people’s time.  She is also dealing with intense guilt over her role in the massacre that destroyed her family, partially thanks to her relationship with Nick, and this clashes hard with her own concerns about being a monster.  All this, and more, ensures that Joan is forced to grow up a lot throughout the course of Only a Monster, and she must keep making harder and harder decision as she gets closer to crossing lines she doesn’t want to.  Her final actions in this book bring all these deep feelings close to the surface as she is forced to make a terrible decision in a heartbreaking and powerful scene.  Len did an outstanding job when it came to Joan in this book, and I look forward to seeing how she continues to develop in future entries in this series.

Two other major characters I need to highlight are Joan’s accidental companion, Aaron Oliver, and her crush/personal nightmare, Nick.  Both characters have pretty dark introductions to the story, especially as they end up trying to kill Joan in the starting chapters, but Len develops them separately as the book continues.  Aaron ends up working with Joan as they try to stay alive and find a way to save their families, and they become an intriguing and combative duo throughout the book.  While Aaron is initially arrogant and antagonistic, you soon see that this is a façade, as Aaron is also incredibly damaged due to the actions of his cruel family.  Len does a wonderful job of slowly uncovering this deeper side of Aaron throughout the course of Only a Monster, and the eventual bond he forms with Joan is a touching and moving part of the book, even if it isn’t destined to last.  Nick, on the other hand, is an outstanding villain for this story, especially when it is revealed that he is an unflinching and implacable monster hunter.  Despite the connection he had formed with Joan before the events of this book, mainly because he sees her as more human than monster, Nick soon starts fanatically hunting her throughout time and becomes determined to stop her at all costs.  Clever and dark reveals about Nick come to light as the book continues, painting him in a somewhat sympathetic light, but this doesn’t stop him from hunting Joan, which leads to an exceptional and shocking confrontation towards the end of Only a Monster that perfectly changes everything.  The powerful character work contained in these central characters, as well as the intense bonds they form with Joan, are such a key part of Only a Monster, and you will come away heartbroken and moved with how their storylines unfold.

Overall, I had an incredible time with Vanessa Len’s Only a Monster, and not only was it one of the best debuts of 2022 but one of the best young adult books of the year as well.  This brilliant and powerful fantasy read had an amazing story and you will be impressed and excited by the complex characters and deeply inventive fantasy elements that are worked into this compelling narrative.  Intense, dark, and full of hope, Only a Monster is an incredible read that comes highly recommended to anyone interested in seeing the start of an extremely promising career in fantasy fiction.  I am very excited to check out the sequel, Never a Hero, later this year, and if Len keeps up the amazing writing from Only a Monster, it is going to be particularly epic and exceptional.

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Quick Review – Hunting Time by Jeffery Deaver

Hunting Time Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 22 November 2022)

Series: Colter Shaw – Book Four

Length: 419 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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In the mood for a twisty and clever thriller guaranteed to leave you highly entertained?  Then you should check out the recent release from best-selling author Jeffery Deaver, Hunting Time.

Due to starting on the genre a little later in life, I currently have a major backlog of famous crime fiction authors that I need to try to check out.  One of these writers was Jeffery Deaver, who has made a major name for himself over the years with books in his Lincoln Rhyme (which includes The Bone Collector), Kathryn Dance and John Pellman series, as well as several stand-alone novels.  His current series is the Colter Shaw novels, which follow unique private contractor and former survivalist Colter Shaw as he gets involved in a series of intriguing crimes.  Hunting Time is the fourth book in the series and features a compelling plot that really grabbed my attention when I first saw it.

Plot Synopsis:

 THERE ARE TWO FUNDAMENTAL RULES OF SURVIVAL.
#1: NEVER BE WITHOUT A MEANS OF ESCAPE.
Allison Parker is on the run with her teenage daughter, Hannah, and Colter Shaw has been hired by her eccentric boss, entrepreneur Marty Harmon, to find and protect her. Though he’s an expert at tracking missing persons–even those who don’t wish to be found–Shaw has met his match in Allison, who brings all her skills as a brilliant engineer designing revolutionary technology to the game of evading detection.

#2: NEVER BE WITHOUT ACCESS TO A WEAPON.
The reason for Allison’s panicked flight is soon apparent. She’s being stalked by her ex-husband, Jon Merritt. Newly released from prison and fueled by blinding rage, Jon is a man whose former profession as a police detective makes him uniquely suited for the hunt. And he’s not alone. Two hitmen are also hot on her heels–an eerie pair of thugs who take delight not only in murder but in the sport of devising clever ways to make bodies disappear forever. Even if Shaw manages to catch up with Allison and her daughter, his troubles will just be beginning.

SHAW IS ABOUT TO DISCOVER RULE #3:
NEVER BELIEVE ANYTHING.
As Shaw ventures further into the wilderness, the truth becomes as hard to decipher as the forest’s unmarked trails…and peril awaits at every turn.

This was an awesome and addictive read from Deaver and it is one that I had a wonderful time reading.  Deaver has come up with a very clever crime fiction story for Hunting Time and I swiftly got drawn into the multi-layered story of hunters and prey.  Told from the perspective of multiple characters involved in the case, you end up getting quite attached to the story as you see Allison flee from her former-cop husband, Jon, while Colter Shaw and other interested parties join the hunt.  I loved the elaborate chase that ensued for much of the book, and you find yourself getting drawn to many of the new characters, especially as Deaver adds in some quick, but comprehensive, character background and history.  While I was enjoying the story, I did think it was a bit one-note for most of the book as it seemed a simple revenge story that the protagonist was intervening in, although the various moves and countermoves of the participants was a lot of fun.  However, it turns out that this was intentional by Deaver as he was building up to a pretty good twist towards the end of the book, one that I did not fully see coming.  This big twist really changed the entire tone and structure of the story and you realise that Deaver set up this twist perfectly and allowed the reader’s assumptions to do the rest.  This twist not only proved to be surprising and memorable, but it also completely changed everything that you knew about the main characters allowing you to see them in a whole new light.  This ended up being a fantastically set out narrative and I was really impressed with the exciting and elaborate story that unfolded.

While I did have a wonderful time with the story, especially thanks to that twist, I did think that other parts of Deaver’s writing let Hunting Time down and impacted my overall enjoyment of the book.  In particular, there was something off with the dialogue and character interactions featured within the book and which really threw me at times.  Some of the dialogue in this book honestly didn’t resemble a normal or natural conversation between people, which often took me out of moment, derailing the pace and my attachment to the story.  I also had a hard time connecting with the protagonist, Colter Shaw, possibly because I haven’t read any of the previous books in the series.  While Deaver does reintroduce key parts of his backstory throughout Hunting Time, often to show how he developed his tracking skills, I found him to be a simplistic character, and his constant calculations of the odds and failed attempts to explain his business model were honestly irritating at times.  That being said, Deaver did ensure that Hunting Time re-captured the main elements of the character, which allows for this book can easily be read as a standalone novel without any need to dive into the previous Colter Shaw books, which was a big help for a new reader like me.

I did feel that several of the other characters introduced in Hunting Time made up for the lack of a well-written central protagonist, especially when it came to husband-and-wife Jon Merritt and Allison Parker.  Deaver painted a powerful picture around this couple, which included abuse, alcoholism and trauma, and the complex backstory he builds around them becomes a key part of the book.  This character backstory becomes more and more relevant as the story continues, and the true revelation of their past comes back to haunt them in ways they never realised.  Throw in a couple of entertaining hitmen, whose unique personalities also contain clues to one of the book’s big twists, and I ended up having a great time seeing how this story unfolded, even with some of the writing issues I mentioned before.

Overall, Hunting Time was a pretty fun book and it served as a good introduction to Jeffery Deaver for me.  The story itself is very well set out, and I am still really impressed with how Deaver was able twist everything around and keep me in suspense.  While I did notice a few technical issues, Deaver’s great storytelling and fantastic supporting characters ended up outweighing the bad and this came away as a very strong read in my opinion.  I will have to try and grab more of Deaver’s books in the future, especially if the next Colter Shaw novel sounds as fantastic as Hunting Time did.

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Quick Review – Retribution by Sarah Barrie

Retribution Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2022)

Series: Lexi Winter – Book Two

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Australian author Sarah Barrie brings back her awesome vigilante protagonist, Lexi Winter, for another intense and dark crime fiction read in Retribution.

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the 2021 Australian crime release, Unforgiven.  An amazing novel by a talented Australian author, Unforgiven told the story of a former child abuse victim turned effective vigilante, Lexi Winter, who used her skills as a hacker to hunt down abusers online and bring them to justice.  Initially keen to do her own thing, Lexi is forced to work with the police detective who failed her as a child when evidence at a series of murders suggests that the monster who ruined her childhood might still be out there.  Unforgiven ended up being a shocking and captivating read that made great use of its darker subject matter to produce an addictive narrative.  Unforgiven ended up being one of my favourite Australian fiction releases of 2021, and I have been keen to see how Barrie would follow this book up.  Luckily, I received a copy of her sequel, Retribution, a few weeks ago, and it proved to be an outstanding read and a worthy sequel to Unforgiven.

Plot Synopsis:

Once a vigilante, she’s now a cop … but she still plays by her own rules. A fast-paced, suspenseful thriller for readers of Candice Fox and Sarah Bailey.

Ace hacker, ex-prostitute, Jack Daniels drinker and part-time vigilante Lexi Winter returns, now working with the police – mostly – with a new enemy in the target and an old foe at the back of her mind.

Most probationary constables would baulk at chasing a drug dealer into a train tunnel in the dead of night. Not Lexi Winter. She emerges injured but alive, to face the wrath of her boss. Lexi may now be in uniform, but she has as much trouble with authority as ever, and is quietly using her hacking skills to investigate a notorious drug-dealing Sydney crime family with links to her old prey, the paedophile Damon Vaughn.

Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Finn Carson investigates a death on a Sydney building site … which oddly enough, leads him to the picturesque Wondabyne station on the Hawkesbury River, and Inspector Rachael Langley oversees an investigation that could tie it all together. Lexi holds the key … if only she’ll toe the line …


Retribution
is an excellent follow-up to Unforgiven that provides the reader with an interesting continuation of the main character’s journey.  Starting out about a year after the events of the first book, Barrie immediately introduces a new element to the story by having Lexi now an official member of the New South Wales police.  However, despite her position, Lexi is the same reckless rebel who is using her spare time and hacker skills to mess with members of the infamous Hamill crime family, who are actively hiding her nemesis, the paedophile Damon Vaughn and his former police officer accomplice, Debbie Reynolds.  Her efforts soon tie into the work of her friends, Detective Sergeant Finn Carson and Inspector Rachael Langley, who are not only involved with the official search for Vaughn and Reynolds but are investigating the murder of a successful businessman in a Sydney building site that has connections to the main case.

Barrie features a ton of distinctive plotlines in Retribution, and I really appreciated how she was able to keep up the darker tone that was such a distinctive feature of the previous book.  The central focus on Lexi’s attempt to take down a notorious crime family was an awesome part of the book’s plot, and I felt that Barrie did a good job tying them into the previous book and making them a sensible continuation target for the protagonist.  While they weren’t as despicable as the original antagonists of this series, they proved to be just as dangerous, and Barrie did an amazing job building them up quickly and making them a major threat.  At the same time, the murder investigation that the other characters are involved in adds some fantastic mystery elements to the book.  Not only does this result in a very compelling investigation with additional bodies, but it also ties into the rest of the story extremely well, especially when it is revealed that the murders have connections to the Hamill family.  These two major storylines, as well as some interesting character development, blend well as the story continues and then end up becoming a fantastic joint case.  The Hamills prove to be extremely impressive villains with some deadly plots they unleash against the police, and I loved seeing the protagonist take on a family, rather than a single potential threat.  At the same time, the murder investigation slowly reveals a fantastically dark motivation that results in some great and memorable twists that I particularly enjoyed.  Everything pulls together for an explosive conclusion which not only wraps up this narrative extremely well but also sets up a great potential sequel that I am quite excited for.

There was some good character work in Retribution as Barrie carries over all the major characters from the first book and keeps developing her central protagonist.  As I mentioned before, the main character, Lexi Winter, goes through some major changes in this book as she moves from being a lone investigator to a member of the New South Wales police force.  However, she still maintains her rebel attitude and her determination to solve everything herself.  This, and her own deep trauma and desire for revenge, sees her attempt her own rogue mission against the Hamills, with some deadly consequences.  I felt that this was a good natural progression of Lexi’s character, especially as she finds herself relying on other people especially after experiencing even more trauma in this second book.  While I feel that Barrie is making some progress with Lexi, she still maintains a lot of rough edges, which I am sure will get addressed in the future.  I did think that the repetitive reckless actions did get a little tiring as the book continued, but it generally results in some excellent storylines.  The rest of the characters form an amazing supporting cast to Lexi, and there are a few interesting new characters that I really enjoyed.  I must admit though that I didn’t massively care about Finn’s personal issues regarding his ex-wife, and I felt it was a bit of a distracting story element.  I’m also not sure why Barrie introduced a hostile rivalry between Lexi and the new female member of the main police team, especially as it didn’t result in any major revelation or come to a good conclusion.  Apart from that, I had a great time with the characters in Retribution and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the next book.

Sarah Barrie’s excellent dark Australian crime fiction series gets an outstanding second book in Retribution.  Combining some of the fantastic thriller elements from Unforgiven with a very clever murder mystery, Retribution continues the Barrie’s compelling narrative and results in a captivating and powerful read that will keep you hooked right up until the end.  I had an incredible time with Retribution and I can’t wait to see how this intense series continues in the future.

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Quick Review – The Justice of Kings by Richard Swan

The Justice of Kings Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 22 February 2022)

Series: Empire of the Wolf – Book One

Length: 13 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Richard Swan makes his highly acclaimed fantasy debut with the much loved The Justice of Kings, a slick and compelling novel that combines a murder mystery with epic fantasy and political thriller elements in some very impressive ways.

Few authors have gained the respect of the fantasy community as quickly as Richard Swan did this year as he made the jump from science fiction to fantasy in a very big way.  The Justice of Kings is an intriguing and awesome novel that serves as the author’s first entry in his new Empire of the Wolf series.  Following a magical lawman as he investigates a terrible murder while also attempting to keep the political peace in the realm, The Justice of Kings has a lot of great parts to it and it received a lot of kudos as a result.  I read it several months ago and neglected to write a review for it, which I making up for now.  I had a great time getting through The Justice of Kings and it lives up to a lot of the hype surrounding it.

Plot Synopsis:

NO MAN IS ABOVE THE LAW

The Empire of the Wolf simmers with unrest. Rebels, heretics and powerful patricians all challenge the power of the imperial throne.

Only the Order of Justices stands in the way of chaos. Sir Konrad Vonvalt is the most feared Justice of all, upholding the law by way of his sharp mind, arcane powers and skill as a swordsman. In this he is aided by Helena Sedanka, his clerk and protege, orphaned by the wars that forged the empire.

When the pair investigate the murder of a provincial aristocrat, they unearth a conspiracy that stretches to the very top of imperial society. As the stakes rise and become ever more personal, Vonvalt must make a choice: will he abandon the laws he’s sworn to uphold in order to protect the empire?

Introducing an unforgettable protagonist destined to become a fantasy icon, The Justice of Kings is an unmissable debut where action, intrigue and magic collide.


The Justice of Kings
is an excellent book which manages to bring together a lot of different genres for an excellent story.  Told from the perspective of Helena Sedanka, the Justice’s protégé and clerk, the book follows Sir Konrad Vonvalt, a Justice of the Empire who acts as a travelling judge, lawyer, investigator and executioner.  Able to wield unique magic, Vonvalt and his staff arrive in a small provincial city to investigate the murder of a local noblewoman.  As they dive into the case, the Justice and his team discover that this is no simple murder, instead the victim was killed as part of an elaborate conspiracy infecting the town, forcing them to dive into a dark web of blackmail, bribery, religious corruption and assassination to find the killers.  At the same time, Vonvalt finds himself going up against some deadly politics of the realm as a group of religious zealots with an ambitious and ruthless leader attempt to make a play for power in the Empire, specifically choosing to target the Order of Justices.  These two separate concerns come together as the story unfolds, and the characters find themselves in an intense battle to save themselves.

Swan came up with a particularly strong narrative for The Justice of Kings, and I deeply enjoyed the interplay of the different elements.  Not only does it perfectly introduce an outstanding and impressive fantasy series and realm, but it also presents the reader with a complex story of politics, intrigue, war and religious turmoil, overlaying an intense murder investigation.  Swan starts the story off strong, introducing the protagonists, as well as the deliciously evil series antagonist, and the reader is soon quickly enveloped in the main mystery, finding out who is behind the brutal murder.  The investigation embarks at a rapid pace, and it was fascinating to see how the magical protagonist and his cohorts attempt to solve the murder.  At the same time, the protagonists get involved in some of the more urgent politics of the realm as they attempt to bring a group of religious zealots to justice.  Things really intensify in the second half of the book, as the narrator is dragged into a disastrous undercover operation and the culprits of the murder are uncovered, resulting in a cool court trial sequence which gives the book an additional legal thriller edge.  However, solving the case brings everyone further misery as the culprits are connected to the wider antagonists who arrive, seeking their own version of justice.  This leads to a major and brutal confrontation, which really amped up the intensity and ensured you really could not put the book down.  I had a brilliant time getting through this captivating narrative, and Swan really ensures you will come back for the next read, especially following some epic character developments and major confrontations.  I cannot emphasise how amazing this story was, and Swan did a brilliant job of bringing so many different elements together into one exciting story.

I was pretty impressed with the detailed and compelling new fantasy universe that Swan created for this series.  The divided, multi-nation Empire of the Wolf provided rich ground for the many conspiracies and plots that were uncovered in this book and readers are going to have a lot of fun exploring it.  I also really loved the interesting magic elements of the book, especially as it revolves around the Justices.  The idea of magical roaming lawmen bringing justice to the outer reaches of a massive empire is exceedingly cool, and Swan introduces it extremely well in this book.  I also enjoyed the fantastic magical abilities that Swan featured in The Justice of Kings, although they are subtle compared to other fantasy books.  Magic in this universe lies primarily with the Justices and each of them can wield one or two abilities at a time.  Since there are only two Justices featured in this book you only really see a few of these abilities in action, although they are impressive in their own way.  The main ability is The Emperor’s Voice, which is a bit of low-level magical mind control, forcing unsuspecting and weak-minded suspects to the tell the truth and admit their crimes.  This ability is used to great effect throughout the book, and I loved the idea of a magical lawman’s primary power being the ability to force out a truthful confession.  The other major ability was a bit of necromancy that Vonvalt can do which allows him to talk to recently deceased people to gain extra information from them.  The scenes that feature Vonvalt talking to the dead are terrifying and they hint at some darker forces in the universe, which are no doubt going to be featured later in the series.  I felt that these magical abilities and the wider world were perfectly introduced in The Justice of Kings and you really get an idea of how impressive the Justices are, as well as how unstable the Empire is.  I look forward to some more worldbuilding in the future, which will hopefully feature some deep examinations of the Justices, perhaps in a magical school setting.  No matter what, though, Swan really showed off his aptitude for fantasy fiction here and I very much enjoyed his magical inventiveness.

I will admit that I had a bit of a mixed reaction when it came to the characters in The Justice of Kings, which really did impact my overall enjoyment of the story.  This mixed reaction was mainly down to the main character of Helena Sedanka, the book’s narrator and point of view character.  While Helena was an interesting character and her unique perspective on the events as the Justice’s clerk moved the story along, I personally did not connect with her as a character.  No matter how hard I tried, I found a lot of her actions to be annoying and I was constantly groaning at her dialogue and narration.  While I realise that many of her actions were done to highlight the character’s youth and inexperience, I had a hard time enjoying the story when events where focused on her, and my dislike never abated.  Considering that she was the only voice of the book, this naturally affected my overall experience of The Justice of Kings and it was the major hurdle in my enjoyment of the novel.  I am really hoping that Swan will tone down the characteristics of Helena I disliked in the future books, and perhaps I will have a much better time with the next book in the series.

Luckily, the other major character in The Justice of Kings were pretty damn awesome, and I felt that they did a great job offsetting my dislike for Helena.  This character was the Justice, Sir Konrad Vonvalt, who serves as the complex and intense protagonist of the story.  Vonvalt is pretty damn epic from the very start of the book, and even before it (he looks very cool on the cover above).  A tough but fair Justice, Vonvalt is one of the few honest men left in the Empire and his primary concern is his duty and the administration of the law to anyone, no matter their station.  You honestly can’t help but like Vonvalt throughout this book, as his straight forward and honest approach to the situations, as well as his general kindness and deeper fury at injustice, really struck a chord with me.  Unfortunately, after getting you to like him, Swan ensures that Vonvalt goes through a lot of pain, which slowly start to change him, especially when his own naivety about the state of the Empire and his own order comes back to bite him in a big way.  This really wounds Vonvalt, and you really see him change, especially towards the end of the book, where he becomes harsh, bordering on cruel, in his search for justice and revenge.  All of this is extremely hard to watch for the reader, and you have to both hate and love Swan for making Vonvalt such a great character that these events also hurt you.  This change in character is obviously going to be a major part of Vonvalt’s character arc in the future, and I can’t wait to see the more vengeful version of this once noble night. 

I grabbed The Justice of Kings on audiobook, which was a fantastic and fun way of enjoying this intriguing read.  Coming in with a run time of a little under 14 hours, The Justice of Kings audiobook has a descent length to it, although dedicated listeners can easily power through it quickly.  I felt that this format did a great job of enhancing the complex story contained within this book, and you really appreciate some of the compelling details of the new universe when they are read out to you.  I also quite enjoyed the narration of Lucy Paterson, who brings the story to life with her excellent voice.  Paterson gives some amazing voices to all the key figures in the book, especially Helena, and I appreciated her take on all the characters.  As such, this was a pretty awesome format to enjoy The Justice of Kings on and I will definitely be grabbing the next book on audiobook when it comes out.

Overall, The Justice of Kings was a particularly cool and enjoyable book that has rightfully put Richard Swan on the fantasy fiction map.  Swan was deeply impressive with his fantasy debut here and it is hard not to love the amazing blend of mystery, magic, politics and the search for justice that were contained within.  While I did have some dislikes when it came to The Justice of Kings, I felt that this was a wonderful book and I plan to come back to the series in the new year, especially as there is an awesome, potential laden sequel out very soon. 

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Quick Review – Black River by Matthew Spencer

Black River Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Fantastic new author Matthew Spencer presents one of the best Australian crime debuts of 2022 with the powerful and intense Black River.

Plot Synopsis:

A long, burning summer in Sydney. A young woman found murdered in the deserted grounds of an elite boarding school. A serial killer preying on victims along the banks of the Parramatta River. A city on edge.

Adam Bowman, a battling journalist who grew up as the son of a teacher at Prince Albert College, might be the only person who can uncover the links between the school murder and the ‘Blue Moon Killer’. But he will have to go into the darkest places of his childhood to piece together the clues. Detective Sergeant Rose Riley, meanwhile, is part of the taskforce desperately trying to find the killer before he strikes again. Adam Bowman’s excavation of his past might turn out to be Rose’s biggest trump card or it may bring the whole investigation crashing down, and put her own life in danger.


Black River
was a highly compelling Australian murder mystery thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few months ago.  The debut novel of veteran Australian journalist Matthew Spencer, Black River was an impressive read that dove into the dark heart of Sydney with a brilliant mystery.

Spencer comes up with a pretty exceptional and clever mystery for his first book, as Black River sees a damaged journalist and a dedicated cop investigate a deadly killer haunting Sydney.  The investigation in question is a combination serial killer hunt and standard murder investigation, with the main question being whether a murder at an elite boarding school is connected to the larger case or whether it was the work of a copycat.  At the same time, there is also a captivating dive into the mysterious history of the fantastically dreary and haunting boarding school setting, which seems to have a deeper connection to the case, especially as central protagonist, Adam Bowman, has some major history there.  Spencer takes the investigation on several great tangents throughout the book and presents a powerful story with some clever twists and turns.  I loved the balance of clever investigation, deep character examination, and psychological twists as you try to determine who the killer is and whether the two cases are linked.  Spencer introduces some great side plots and red herrings to distract the reader from the solution, including some concerning revelations about the main protagonist.  The eventual solution to the mystery was extremely good, and I loved just how shocking the main reveal was, especially as there is a very cool twist surrounding the identity of the killer.  Everything came together extremely well, and I was spellbound throughout the entire book as Spencer delivered a great, dark Australian mystery. 

In addition to the excellent story, I loved Spencer’s amazing use of Sydney as a background setting to the intense mystery, especially the parts of the city that border the Parramatta River.  Watching the police characters slowly traverse the elegant river, trying to work out how the killer uses it to choose their victims, is a brilliant touch that is sure to bring a shiver to any readers familiar with the area.  I also need to highlight the cool private school setting where the book’s primary murder takes place.  The old elite school with its coating of history and tradition makes for a memorable background where murder and tragedy feel like they belong.  Spencer really built up this school throughout the book, no doubt using his own personal experiences of such educational institutions, and it played into the plot extremely well, especially when aspects of class, privilege and money start to influence the investigation.

Spencer caps this all off with a great cast of excellent and captivating characters that add to the power and impact of the story.  Most of the book focuses on the character of Adam Bowman, the damaged journalist who is dragged into the case thanks to his personal connection to the private school.  Bowman is forced to revisit some of the worst moments from his past in this book, which helps to turn him into quite an intriguing protagonist, especially as you begin to wonder just how connected he is to everything.  Bowman is well balanced out by police character Rose Riley, who serves as one of the primary investigators in the book.  Rose is a great foil to Bowman and acts as the professional member of the cast who keeps the police storyline on track.  I liked the connection and partnership that develops between Bowman and Rose in this novel, especially as it was lacking any romance.  They make a great team, even though Rose considers him a possible suspect, and it will be interesting to see if Spencer revisits these characters again the future.

Overall, Black River is a pretty impressive crime fiction debut that really made an impression on me in 2022.  New author Matthew Spencer came up with a dark and memorable mystery story that makes great use of its Australian setting and cool characters.  A brilliant first outing from an amazing new talent and a must-read for all fans of Australian murder mysteries.

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Quick review – Warhammer 40,000: Dredge Runners by Alec Worley

Dredge Runners

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 8 August 2020)

Series: Warhammer Crime

Length: 1 hour and 1 minute

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive into the dark and fun world of the Warhammer Crime subseries with the short but incredible hilarious audio drama, Dredge Runners by Alec Worley.

Fans of this blog will be well aware of my current obsession with all things Warhammer fiction, as I have been making an effort to try out a range of their recently released books, all of which have been highly entertaining reads.  One of the main things that I love about the tie-in fiction that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop games is the sheer range of different stories that can be told, especially as the various authors associated with this franchise often go out of their way to blend it with other genres and story types.  As a result, there are several great Warhammer sub-series out there at the moment, including the Warhammer Crime books, which dive into the criminal underbelly of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and presents the readers with some intriguing and unique adventures.

I have been meaning to check out some Warhammer Crime novels for a while, especially as there are some quite fascinating sounding books already part of it.  I love the idea of the grim and gothic Warhammer universe blending with a more traditional crime fiction read, and I know I am going to have a lot of fun with all of them.  As such, when I saw that a new Warhammer Crime book, The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley, was coming out, I thought that it would be a good entry point to the wider Warhammer Crime sub-series.  However, I noticed that The Wraithbone Phoenix was actually a follow-up to a previous short story by Worley, Dredge Runners, which was released in 2020 as a full-cast audio drama.  Well, I am a reviewer who likes the get the complete picture and considering that Dredge Runners was just over an hour long I figured I would listen to it quickly to get some context before diving into The Wraithbone Phoenix.  As such, I listened to the whole of Dredge Runners in one go this morning, and it proved to be quite an amazing and amusing listen.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A Warhammer Crime Audio Drama

Baggit the ratling and Clodde the ogryn fight to survive on the mean streets of Varangantua as powerful enemies close in from all sides.

LISTEN TO IT BECAUSE
Experience the sounds of a crime-ridden city and enjoy the twists and turns of a tale starring some of the more unusual inhabitants of the Imperium of Man.

THE STORY
Baggit is a fast-talking ratling sniper with a greedy eye and loose morals. Clodde is an ogryn, a brute with a core of decency and a desire for a better life. Two abhuman deserters turned thieves, at large in the monolithic city of Varangantua, where only the tough or the ruthless survive. Having landed in debt to a savage crime lord, Baggit and Clodde end up in the crosshairs of the meanest, most puritanical sanctioner in the city. Caught between two powerful enemies, and with innocent lives at stake, the unlikely companions must think fast and hustle hard before death points a las-pistol in their direction… 

Unsurprisingly, Dredge Runners turned out to be just as amusing and fantastic as the plot synopsis suggested.  I loved the idea of two abhumans, in this case a ratling (a futuristic halfling sniper) and an ogryn (ogre), getting involved in a series of disastrous criminal enterprises after getting caught between the city’s biggest crime lord and a puritanical sanctioner (law enforcement official).  Despite its short runtime, Worley achieves a lot with Dredge Runners, perfectly introducing his excellent protagonists and taking them on a wild science fiction thriller adventure that includes hilarious exchanges, failed undercover operations and explosive heists.

Told completely through dialogue (with some sound effects giving off extra context), Dredge Runners’ story draws you in within the first few minutes as the author blends the more outrageous elements of the Warhammer 40,000 universe with a dark but amusing crime fiction narrative.  Due to the length, you do not often get the full story of the events taking place, but the subsequent reaction by the characters allows you to imagine the full destructive scope of their actions, and it often proves funnier this way.  There is a real focus on humour in this short production, and I was constantly left in stiches at some of the fantastic antics that the main characters get up to as a chaotic team.  However, the story also has some real heart to it, especially towards the end when the protagonists are forced to make some tough decisions about their future, and they find their greed crashing up against their moral responsibility to other abhumans.  Throw in some memorable and deeply cynical propaganda messages from the city authorities that shows just how corrupt and repressive the entirety of Imperial culture is in the Warhammer 40,000 universe (the one that concluded the story had me laughing hard), and this proves to be an outstanding Warhammer production that I had an absolute blast getting through.

One of the main things that Worley achieved with Dredge Runners is the successful introduction of protagonists Baggit and Clodde, who serve as a fantastic central duo.  On the surface, Baggit is a thieving rattling who serves as the team’s leader and plan maker, while Clodde is the muscle, going along with Baggit’s plans and often messing them up by not understanding them.  However, there is a lot more to both of them.  Baggit is desperate to escape the dark life they currently have in Varagantua and feels a responsibility to Clodde due to their connected past.  Clodde, on the other hand, is a rather unique and amusing ogryn character, who has an unusual intellectual side after getting shot in the head (by Baggit).  As such, Clodde comes off as surprisingly deep and philosophical, and he is way smarter than he appears, especially when it comes to Baggit’s antics.  These two play off each other perfectly, especially with Clodde acting as the group’s conscious, and their eventual attempts to get justice and do the right thing, paints them in a much different light that makes them even more likeable.

I really need to highlight the outstanding way that this audio drama was presented, as the fantastic production melded well with Worley’s great script.  Acted out by a full cast of talented voice actors and narrators who tell the entire story through dialogue, this was a really fun Warhammer presentation to listen to, especially as the dialogue was also enhanced by some great sound effects and small bits of music.  I was particularly impressed by the voice actors, as each of them gave it their all when it came to their specific character/characters, moulding their voices to fit their distinctive traits and personalities.  The cast was led by Jon Rand (Baggit) and Paul Putner (Clodde), who I previously deeply enjoyed in Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!.  These two actors did an outstanding job with their abhuman characters in Dredge Runners, and they play these two humorous figures perfectly, showcasing their different natures while also slowly revealing their outstanding hidden hearts.  These two are expertly matched by Emma Noakes and Kelly Hotten, who play the antagonistic crime lord and sanctioner respectively.  Noakes and Hotten both bring some outstanding menace to their roles, and I loved hearing these more serious characters attempt to deal with the chaotic main characters.  The voice cast is rounded out by veteran narrators, David Seddon and Andrew James Spooner, who narrate some of the fun supporting characters, and I loved some of the unique and compelling voices they brought to the table.  This entire audio drama comes together extremely smoothly, and listeners are constantly aware of all the actions going on in the story, especially with the fantastic cacophony of explosions, gunshots and screams that often happen around Baggit and Clodde.  I had a wonderful time listening to Dredge Runners in one go, and you will not be disappointed with this excellent audio production.

Overall, Dredge Runners was an awesome and highly impressive Warhammer 40,000 short, that is well worth checking out.  Not only did Alec Worley come up with a captivating and deeply hilarious narrative and script for this production but it features an outstanding and talented voice cast who perfectly perform it.  As such, Dredge Runners was a particularly epic introduction to the Warhammer Crime sub-series, and I had an outstanding time seeing just how amazing and unique crime fiction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be.  I am really glad that I chose to check out Dredge Runners first, and I honestly was surprised at just how perfectly entertaining this short audio drama turned out to be.  As such, I am giving it a five-star review and I am now extremely excited to see how the next adventure of Baggit and Clodde turns out in The Wraithbone Phoenix.

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Quick Review – Conviction by Frank Chalmers

Conviction Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 354 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Australian crime fiction debut hits keep on coming with the excellent and highly exciting first novel from Frank Chalmers, Conviction, with takes the reader on an amazing journey back into 1970s rural Australia.

Plot Synopsis:

A town ruled by fear. A cop who won’t be broken. A pulse-pounding debut thriller that pulls no punches.

A STUNNING NEW VOICE IN CRIME FICTION

Queensland in 1976 churns with corruption. When Detective Ray Windsor defies it, he is exiled deep into the state’s west. It’s easy out there to feel alien in your own country.

Royalton is a town on its knees, stricken by drought, riven by prejudice, and plagued by crimes left largely uninvestigated by the local police chief, Kennedy, and his elusive boss.

Mutual dislike between Kennedy and Ray gradually turns ugly as Ray and his new partner, Arshag, uncover a pattern of crimes that no one seems concerned about solving. But when two girls from local immigrant families are found dead and another disappears, Ray and Arshag are forced to take the law into their own hands. Not knowing who to trust, nor how deep the corruption runs, how long will it be before their lives are also threatened?

A spare and uncompromising crime thriller that pulls no punches.


Conviction
is a compelling and fun crime fiction thriller that sets a bold protagonist against a brace of criminals and dirty cops in a remote and hopeless town.  Essentially reading like a contemporary Australian western, with protagonist Detective Ray Windsor acting as the new sheriff in town, Chalmers crafts together a compelling read that is very easy to get through.

Conviction has a very interesting and complex story to it that sees the new cop arrive in the remote town of Royalton and get caught up in a series of crimes.  Not only is he forced to deal with the corruption of his peers and a local crime ring that has been stealing stock and damaging the local farms, but he is also investigating two recent violent deaths of young immigrant women.  This results in quite a fantastic series of investigation elements, as Detective Windsor attempts to solve these crimes while being constantly hampered by his colleagues.  The novel also deals with Ray’s attempt to integrate into the Royalton community, and he soon finds some unexpected connections and friends which draw him in.  Taking place over the course of several months, Conviction’s plot goes in some exciting and intense directions, and the reader is provided with intriguing plotlines that are loaded with action and excitement.  The eventual reveals lead to some big moments, and while the identity of the book’s villains is well-foreshadowed and not especially surprising, watching the protagonist attempt to overcome them is fun.  This ended up being a great and enjoyable piece of Australian fiction, and I had a good time getting through this awesome debut.

Like many impressive Australian crime fiction novels, one of the best things about Conviction is its excellent setting in a rural Australian town.  Royalton is a compelling location, which even in the 1970s, is starting to fall apart and feel the strain as more and more people left the country to live in the big cities.  Royalton has many of the best features that make up a small-town setting, from the sunburned countryside, the various surrounding farms, the neglected buildings within the town itself, as well as a colourful cast of people living in it.  I felt that Royalton in Conviction was a pretty good example of this compelling Australian setting, and the intriguing historical context makes it stand out from other recent Australian crime fiction books.  I particularly liked how Chalmers depicted the town as having a large migrant population, which is an accurate representation of most of Australia, and the stratification of classes that resulted based on nationality and culture gave the story another fascinating dimension that I felt added a lot to the story.  The farms surrounding the town are also under siege by an organised group of criminals who are working to bankrupt them for their own nefarious reasons, and this adds to the tension in Royalton.  All this proves to be rich ground for the intense and compelling crime fiction narrative that Chalmers crafted together, and I felt that this was an amazing setting for Conviction.

However, the best thing about Conviction was the eclectic and troubled group of characters who can be found within.  The author comes up with some great and flawed figures throughout Conviction, and the reader soon gets some intriguing views of the sort of people who would live in such a remote and troubled town.  Naturally most of the focus is on Detective Ray Windsor, who immediately finds himself in all manner of trouble once he arrives in Royalton.  Now, I must admit that I had a hard time liking Windsor in this book, as he is a bit of an over-the-top hero who is prone to violence at a drop of hat.  While this attribute does help him out in some of the situations, I was never too attached to him as a character, especially when he flew off the handle.  Still, I liked the compelling background that Chalmers attributed to Windsor, especially his dark childhood, and the portrayal of an honest cop sent out to the country as a punishment was well explored.  There are some great moments with Windsor in the book, and I did enjoy seeing his take on the case and the corruption going on around town.  The author also did a good job setting up Windsor’s growing attachment to Royalton, especially once he gets to know the people within.  This, as well as his commitment to getting the job done, eventually win the reader over, and you are rooting for him to succeed as the story continues.  The rest of the cast are also really good, and I deeply enjoyed some of the other characters featured within Conviction.  I felt that Chalmers did a particularly good job with the villains of this book, and it was satisfying to see Windsor standing up to them and finally bringing them to justice.  An awesome group of characters that Chalmers did a good job bringing to life.

Overall, I felt that Conviction was a pretty awesome novel that the debuting Frank Chalmers should be proud of.  This fantastic novel has a great crime fiction narrative that not only crosses into historical fiction territory but which works as an exceptional example of a rural Australian story.  All these elements work extremely well together, and I had a blast getting through Conviction, which is really worth checking out.

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Quick Review – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Dirt Town Cover

Publisher: Macmillian (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 359 0ages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing new author Hayley Scrivenor presents her powerful and excellent debut novel with the powerful and dramatic Australian mystery, Dirt Town.

Plot Synopsis:

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing.

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.

Ronnie’s going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can’t be gone, Ronnie won’t believe it.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.

Lewis can believe it too. But he can’t reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.

Five days later, Esther’s buried body is discovered.

What do we owe the girl who isn’t there?

Character-rich and propulsive, with a breathtakingly original use of voice and revolving points of view, Hayley Scrivenor delves under the surface, where no one can hide. With emotional depth and sensitivity, this stunning debut shows us how much each person matters in a community that is at once falling apart and coming together.

Esther will always be a Dirt Town child, as we are its children, still.


Dirt
Town was a fantastic and clever novel that contains a lot of interesting elements and moving parts to it that I had an amazing time reading.  Set in the small Australian country town of Durton in late 2001, the crux of Dirt Town’s plot revolves around the sudden disappearance of local schoolgirl Esther, who vanishes on her way home.  The subsequent search and police investigation into the disappearance soon involves several different inhabitants of Durton, including Esther’s friends, family and other connections, many of whom are dragged into the case over the course of the following days.  The investigation and the eventual reveal of what happened to Esther slowly but surely tears the town of Durton apart, as everyone’s secrets come spilling out.

The story focuses on several intriguing protagonists, including Esther’s best friend, Ronnie, who attempts to find her without really realising what is going on; their fellow schoolmate Lewis, who witnessed something relevant to the case but is unable to say anything out of fear of being outed; the various relatives to the children; the cops that come to investigate; and more.  This strong focus on these complex characters allows Scrivenor to weave together a compelling and exciting tapestry of personal stories that are altered for the worse when Esther goes missing.  All the characters react to the disappearance in different ways, and the reader gets a deep and captivating look into their lives, which often reveal long-buried secrets, fears and insecurities that the investigation brings to the light.  At the same time, the hunt for the missing child reveals other crimes going on around Durton, and everyone is moved in some way by the events of the narrative.  The eventual reveal about what happened to Esther and who was involved is very intense, and I really loved the clever, heartbreaking twist that Scrivenor utilised here.  The author layers the story with some clues, but it is still shocking to see what unfolded, and the series of events that led up to it and followed from there.  Dirt Town ends with a satisfying, if very bittersweet, conclusion, and I really appreciate the impressive debut narrative the Scrivenor produced here.

This was a pretty moving and distinctive novel, as Scrivenor blends several genres together into a single riveting tale.  While mostly framed as a mystery novel, Dirt Town also has a strong drama aspect to it, especially when it comes to examining the lives and secrets of the various townsfolk.  This ensures that you get quite a lot of unique character interactions throughout Dirt Town, and it was very moving and powerful to see how everyone was impacted by the events of the plot, often in quite substantial and painful ways.  It is also a particularly good piece of rural Australian fiction, as Scrivenor, who grew up in a small country town herself, does an amazing job portraying the tight-knit community, isolated landscape, and the feeling of decline that many of these towns experience during times of hardship.  Scrivenor added in a distinctive, disassociated chorus narrator, which is essentially the joint voice of the town, which produces some poetic and insight examinations of the impacts that the case has on the town and its people, as well as providing compelling insights into how the town is generally faring.  These separate elements blend well into a captivating and moving story, and you can find yourself getting quite drawn into Dirt Town as a result.

Overall, I felt that Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor was an outstanding and very distinctive debut novel, and one that sets Scrivenor up as an interesting rising talent in Australian fiction.  A recommended read, especially for those who love complex stories in Australia’s unmatched rural setting, Dirt Town was an outstanding book that is well worth checking out.

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Quick Review – Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister

Wrong Place Wrong Time Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 15 June 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive into one of the more unique and compelling murder mystery novels of 2022 with the trippy Wrong Place Wrong Time by Gillian McAllister.

Plot Synopsis:

 Can you stop a murder after it’s already happened?

It’s every parent’s nightmare.

Your happy, funny, innocent son commits a terrible crime: murdering a complete stranger.

You don’t know who. You don’t know why. You only know your teenage boy is in custody and his future lost.

That night you fall asleep in despair. Until you wake . . .

. . . and it is yesterday.

Every morning you wake up a day earlier, another day before the murder. Another chance to stop it.

Somewhere in the past lie the answers, and you don’t have a choice but to find them . . .

I must admit that I did not quite know what to expect when I decided to check out Wrong Place Wrong Time.  However, I ended up having an amazing time with this excellent and awesome novel from Gillian McAllister, who has produced multiple interesting family orientated crime fiction books over the last few years.  Thanks to its great story Wrong Place Wrong Time was pretty damn cool, and I really enjoyed its impressive concept that combines time travel with an intriguing murder mystery.

Wrong Place Wrong Time starts off on a captivating note, with protagonist Jen Brotherhood staring out her window one night and noticing her son, Todd, go up to a man she’s never seen before, and stab him to death in front of the house.  With Todd refusing to answer any questions, and her husband, Kelly, not knowing what to do, Jen can only watch as her son is arrested and taken away by the police.  Horrified at the terrible future that now awaits her child, Jen eventually collapses into sleep, only to wake up on the morning of the killing, aware of everything that is about to happen.

Confused by what is happening, Jen manages to persuade Todd to stay home that night, thus stopping the killing.  However, her ordeal is far from over, as the next time she falls asleep she has awakened even further back in time, to the day before the stabbing, and that each subsequent night she goes back to sleep she is travelling further and further back along her own timeline.  Believing that the only chance she might have to stop her jumps into the past and save her son’s future is to figure out why Todd stabbed the man, Jen begins to investigate the crime in reverse, perusing her son’s movements in the weeks and months leading up to the crime and trying to decide how he knew the murder victim and why he felt that he needed to kill him.  However, the more she digs and the further back in time she travels, the more Jen begins to realise that there is so much about her family and her past that she didn’t know, and she’ll have to find out every single secret to find a way to stop everything.

I really liked how this fantastic story came together, and Wrong Place Wrong Time was one of the more distinctive murder mystery/science fiction hybrid novels that I have read.  McAllister sets her entire time travel premise at the start of the book really well, and you soon get really engrossed in watching the protagonist continually falling backwards in time day by day.  Once the protagonist begins to understand what is befalling her, the story launches into its mostly standard pattern as Jen attempts to live her life in reverse while also investigating the events that led up to her son committing his crime.  I really enjoyed the reverse investigation that Jen was forced to do, and it was fascinating to see her attempt to decipher events through both the lens of her future knowledge and her previous understanding of the past.

While Jen’s storyline is the most prominent in the novel, there is also an interesting secondary storyline that follows a police officer who is assigned to investigate crimes in the same area as the main story is taking place.  This secondary storyline, which is progressing in a normal linear way, intersects with the main storyline is some brilliant ways, and it provides some intriguing and powerful context to Jen’s investigations in the past.  I was really impressed with how McAllister wrote this amazing story, and the excellent combination of time travel and mystery, came together extremely well.  It takes a particularly skilled author to hide twists in a narrative where the protagonist is going backwards through time, and Wrong Place Wrong Time had several great secrets that you will not see coming.  If I were to make one complaint, it would be that the eventual reveal about what caused the time travel was a little weak, but honestly, that was a very minor issue that didn’t impact my enjoyment that greatly.  Easily one of the more complex and inventive mystery thrillers of 2022, you will become highly engrossed in Jen’s attempts to find the truth further and further back in time.

While there is an understandable focus on both the mystery and time travel aspects of Wrong Place Wrong Time, I must also highlight the compelling character nature of the book that serves as the story’s beating heart.  The story mostly follows protagonist Jen, who goes through a rough journey in this novel.  At the start of the novel, Jen is a happy and successful woman, extremely confident in her apparently strong connection to her son.  However, after witnessing her son’s crime and subsequently jumping back in time, she begins to truly appreciate just how little she knows about her family, and that there are many secrets surrounding them.  This harrowing journey into the past, combined with the multiple revelations about her family’s history really starts to wear on her, and it was highly moving and tragic to witness Jen start to break down.  However, you also get to witness her strength and her commitment to her family, as she still struggles to solve this mystery, no matter how badly it impacts her or how much of her life she is forced to relive in reverse.  I especially loved seeing the relationship that she has with her son and husband, as you get to see the various stages of their connection and life in reverse, and it helps to paint a powerful picture about family and connection.  Thanks to this, and more, you really grow attached to Jen and the other characters, and this really helps to increase the impacts and stakes of Jen’s journey.

Talented author Gillian McAllister has done an incredible job here with Wrong Place Wrong Time.  Thanks to its compelling and memorable character-driven plot that combines a slow journey back into the past with an intense murder mystery, Wrong Place Wrong Time is a gripping and clever read that I really got attached to.  There are so many great elements to this fantastic book, and it is really worth checking out.

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