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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Quick Review – Esther’s Children by Caroline Beecham

Esther's Children Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 3 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to read about one of the more unique experiences of World War II with an excellent and moving historical drama, Esther’s Children by fantastic Australian author Caroline Beecham.

Plot Synopsis:

Inspired by the extraordinary life of Esther Simpson, Esther’s Children is a powerful novel of love and courage.

Austria, 1936: Esther ‘Tess’ Simpson works for a British organisation that rescues academics from the cruel Fascist and anti-Semitic regimes taking hold in Europe. On a dangerous trip to Vienna to help bring aid to Europe’s threatened Jewish scholars, Esther meets Harry Singer, a young Jewish academic and musician.

Tess works tirelessly to rescue at-risk academics and scientists from across Europe, trying to find positions for them in Britain and America. In 1938, she secures employment for Harry at Imperial College, London, their love affair intensifying as the world heads into war, yet they are separated once again as Britain moves to intern European refugees.

With Harry detained on the Isle of Man while still waiting for news of his parents, Esther and the Society plead with the government for the interned scientists’ release. When Harry is eventually liberated, his future with Esther is by no means secure as he faces an impossible choice.

Confronting the horrific dangers of World War Two with remarkable integrity and bravery, Esther Simpson is revealed as an exceptional heroine.

This was a rather great read from Caroline Beecham, who once again plumbs the highs and lows of history’s greatest struggle to produce an excellent read.  Beecham, who has written several other intriguing historical dramas, including 2020’s Finding Eadie, is a talented Australian author whose novels usually feature an intriguing hook around World War II.  Her latest novel, Esther’s Children, is probably my favourite one of her books so far, and tells another powerful and intense story about love, survival, and the evils committed during war time.

In Esther’s Children, Beecham has written a particularly clever and compelling story that follows the life of real historical figure Esther Simpson.  Adding in some fictional and dramatic details, Esther’s Children turns into a multi-year tale that showcases Esther’s work as she attempts to rescue academics from Nazi controlled countries in the lead-up to the war and beyond.  In particular, it follows her interactions with fictional character/love interest Harry Singer, as she attempts to get him out of Vienna and into England.  This forms the basis for an intense and heartbreaking story as these two ill-fated lovers are forced to ] contend with the obstacles placed before them, including the encroaching war, the machinations of the Nazis, the bureaucracy surrounding asylum seekers coming to England, and subsequent prejudice faced even after Harry has reached safety.  Told using a split perspective between Esther and Harry, you get an intense inside look at both characters as they attempt to overcome the odds keeping them apart, while also experiencing some of the horrors brought on by the Nazis and others, with the reader hit by constant frustration at everything that happens to these characters.  This entire story moves at a brisk and intense pace, and you will be swiftly drawn into the clever and touching narrative that is driven by these two characters’ experiences.  The way everything turns out is both poignant and heartbreaking, and I felt that this was a great and captivating read.

Esther’s Children’s dramatic story is greatly enhanced by the captivating and fascinating historical details that Beecham has set it around.  The author has clearly done a ton of research to pull her story together, and I was very impressed with some of the unique elements it contains.  Not only do you have some fantastic, if very disturbing, depictions of the Nazi movement taking over Austria, but the story goes out of its way to highlight the work done to get certain (primarily Jewish) academics out of Europe.  Focusing on the work of Esther Simpson, a unique figure from history who I was pleased to learn a lot about in this novel, you see the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning attempt to help these academics emigrate and find them jobs in England’s educational and government settings.  This novel really focuses on the impact that Esther had for many famous academics (her children, many of whom appear in the plot) and I found it fascinating to learn about her work and the people she helped.

However, I personally thought that the most fascinating historical aspect of this book was the subsequent imprisonment of these scholars and scientists by the English once the war broke out.  I must admit that I was unaware of just how widespread and unfair the interment of German nationals in England was during the war, and I was very surprised to find out that so many refugees and fleeing Jews were also incarcerated in places like the Isle of Man, often alongside Nazi sympathisers.  Shown directly through the eyes of one of her protagonists, Beecham paints a pretty grim picture of the terrible life that these incarcerated people would have experienced, and it was pretty heartbreaking to see all these people who had already lost everything get locked up by the country they were trying to help.  I really appreciated the powerful emotional weight that the author loaded into all the historical scenes, and they really work to expand on the dramatic and romance elements of the entire novel.  I cannot wait to see what unique historical element Beecham will explore in her future novels, but I am sure it will be fascinating.

Overall, Esther’s Children is a particularly powerful and captivating read that really highlights Caroline Beecham’s great skill as a historical drama author.  Expertly combining intriguing and dark elements of history with a dramatic tale of love, loss and regret, Esther’s Children becomes harder and harder to put down as the story progresses and you are drawn into the character driven narrative.  An excellent historical drama that is really worth checking out.

Quick Review – A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

A Comedy of Terrors Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 1 April 2021)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Nine

Length: 386 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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I am a big fan of several great historical fiction series currently running, but one I find to be particularly entertaining is the Flavia Albia series from bestselling author Lindsey Davis.  Davis has been dominating the ancient historical murder mystery scene for years, first with her extensive Marcus Didius Falco novels, and then with the successor Flavia Albia series, which follows the daughter of the original series’ protagonist.  While I never had the opportunity to get into the Falco novels, I have been reading the Flavia Albia books since the outset and have had a brilliant time with all of them, including The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, and The Grove of the Caesars, each of which have been excellent in their own way.  Indeed, this is such a great series that I have been pretty eager to start reading the latest novel, Desperate Undertaking, which I just got my hands on a couple of days ago.  I really want to read it next, but before I start, I absolutely must do a review of the preceding novel in the series, A Comedy of Terrors.

A Comedy of Terrors was the ninth book in the Flavia Albia series and was released this time last year.  I had initially planned to read A Comedy of Terrors when it first came out, but unfortunately, it took me a little longer to grab it than I intended.  By the time I was able to fit it into my reading schedule, I was a bit rushed off my feet with other reviews and other reading (excuses, excuses!), so I never got a chance to really write anything about it when I finished.  This was an inexcusable oversight of my behalf, and it is one that I really wanted to fix before checking out Desperate Undertaking, so here we are.

Plot Synopsis:

In Rome, 89 A.D., poisonings, murders, and a bloody gang war of retribution breaks out during the festival of Saturnalia, and when her husband, Tiberius, becomes a target, it’s time for Flavia Albia to take matters into her own hands — in Lindsey Davis’s next historical mystery, A Comedy of Terrors.

Flavia Albia, daughter and successor of private informer Marcus Didius Falco is twiddling her thumbs with no clients during the December festival of Saturnalia. But that doesn’t mean all is quiet. Her husband Tiberius and the Fourth Cohort are battling organized crime interests that are going to war over the festival nuts. A series of accidental poisonings, then bloody murders of rival nut-sellers, and finally a gruesome warning to Tiberius from the hidden criminal powers to back off.

Albia has had just about enough and combines forces with Tiberius to uncover the hidden criminal gangs trying to worm their way into the establishment at a banquet of the emperor Domitian.


A Comedy of Terrors
was another fun book from Davis that takes the reader back to ancient Rome to investigate an intriguing mystery.  In this case, the book revolves around Flavia and her family’s dangerous interaction with a criminal gang who are trying to take advantage of a religious festival and have come into conflict with Flavia’s husband Tiberius.  This results in an interesting story which sees Flavia getting involved in several conflicts, intimidation attempts, assorted mysteries and other connected events, all in the name of investigating the gang’s activities and trying to bring them down.  At the same time, Flavia is dealing with multiple personal and familial issues, as she and Tiberius now find themselves responsible for Tiberius’s semi-orphaned nephews.

I must admit that this wasn’t my absolute favourite Flavia Albia novel, and I felt that the story was lacking some of the usual flair and tight storytelling that I usually so enjoy from Davis’s novels.  A Comedy of Terrors’s narrative was a bit unfocused in places, particularly when it came to main storyline involving the ancient Roman gang.  Rather than the series’ typical attention on a central investigation, this was a bit more of a meandering affair, which, while interesting in places, did seem to go on some random tangents.  There was also a much greater examination of the protagonist’s home life, as not only did Flavia and Tiberius have their young relatives to look after, but there was also some domestic drama around their unusual household of slaves, servants and random family members.  While I enjoyed seeing the continued domestic evolution of the formerly wild Flavia and the notoriously honest Tiberius, which resulted in several rather entertaining scenes, I could see newer readers who came for the mystery getting a bit frustrated with this extra attention on family life.  Still, A Comedy of Terrors did have some great moments throughout its plot, and Davis did the usual excellent job of combining crime fiction and historical elements together into an entertaining story filled with the writer’s fantastic sense of humour.  In addition, the characters were sharply written as always, there were some intriguing historical crime fiction elements to the plot (who would have thought there was criminal opportunity in festival nuts?), and I still really enjoy the author’s inclusion of modern attitudes and reactions in this historical environment.  I particularly loved the final resolution of the case which saw a classic gangster move turned around on its user in dramatic fashion, which served as an amazing end to this fantastic book.

Overall, A Comedy of Terrors was another great addition to the Flavia Albia series by Lindsey Davis.  While it lacked some of the focus and compelling mystery of some of Davis’ most impressive reads, this was still a clever piece of historical crime fiction, and I loved seeing the continuation of her character-driven storylines.  A must read for fans of this series, I cannot wait to see what happens in the 10th book, Desperate Undertakings.

A Comedy of Terrors Cover 2

Quick Review – A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley

A Great Hope Cover

Publisher: Picador (Trade Paperback – 22 February 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing new author Jessica Stanley produces a compelling Australian political drama, A Great Hope, an intense read that looks at the impact of the mysterious death of a politician on his family, set to the backdrop of a turbulent time in Australian politics.

Plot Synopsis:

John Clare was a titan in Australian politics. The head of a powerful union and a key player in the election of Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2007, he had long been tipped as a future leader himself. Supporting him in his push for power were his elegant wife Grace, his troubled children Sophie and Toby, and Tessa, the mistress he thought would stay secret.

But now John has fallen, brutally, to his death. A terrible accident – or was it?

In the wake of losing John, his inner circle mourn and rage, remembering and trying to forget the many ways he’d loved and disappointed them. An adoring and unreliable father; a grateful and selfish husband; a besotted and absent lover; an authoritative and compassionate leader; a failed politician in an era when party politics failed a nation. As those around him reassess everything they knew of and felt for John, a new idea of what love and power really mean begins to emerge – as does the true cause of his death.

Gripping, propulsive and ambitious, A Great Hope untangles the mystery of John’s fall through the eyes of those who knew him best – or thought they did. Deftly displaying the clash of the political and the personal, this is a novel for our times, from a brilliant and forceful new Australian writer.

This was an excellent novel which I think did a great job telling a unique story by exploring some of the more controversial elements of recent Australian politics.  A Great Hope’s story is a great blend of personal drama, political intrigue and contemporary historical fiction, with a little bit of mystery thrown in as various characters attempt to understand the death of John Clare and the impact he had on the world.

Telling the story from a variety of different perspectives, including those of his family, his mistress, and other related figures, Stanley presents a complex and winding narrative that proves to be very compelling at times.  Initially set one year after the death of John Clare, the story jumps around the various point-of-view characters, and the readers are shown not only their present situations and opinions but also the origins of the characters as well as the full events that led up to the night John Clare died.  While this does produce a cluttered story with a few odd moments (such as the unnecessary and graphic sex scenes), the reader is soon treated to a unique story that cleverly builds up to the finale while also exploring the various key characters.  You get a real sense of everyone featured in the novel, especially those closest to John Clare, and their complex lives and relationships with the political heavyweights.  Unfortunately, most of these characters are pretty terrible people who are fairly insufferable and hard to enjoy.  While this was no doubt the intent, to show the strain and ugliness a political life brings out, there are barely any relatable or redeemable figures here (honestly the only character I particularly liked was the mistress, Tessa, which is a bit odd when you think about it).

While this lack of likeable characters did slow the flow and my enjoyment of the story a little, I managed to power through the last 200 pages in a single sitting.  There are some interesting resolutions and revelations towards the end, and I enjoyed seeing some of the storylines come full circle, especially those that are set up in the present and then expanded on in the flashbacks.  The resolution of who or what caused the death of John Clare was pretty interesting and a little surprising, but it fit nicely into the unique feel and storytelling of A Great Hope.

One of the most distinctive elements of A Great Hope was the author’s intense and in-depth examination of Australian politics in the early 21st century, particularly around the 2007 and 2010 elections.  This is mainly because the author, Jessica Stanley, was herself involved in some of these campaigns, particularly in 2007, when she served as one of the party’s social media consultants (similar to main character Tessa).  As such, this book contains some compelling and fascinating insights into the election campaign, candidates, and voters, particularly those associated with Australia’s major left-wing party (the Labor party), which really added to my enjoyment of the book.  Some of the more intriguing and compelling political moments of this period are scattered throughout A Great Hope, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the author’s take on what happened and why.  The author also examines the growing impact of social media during this time, as well as other intriguing elements about campaigns and party politics.  However, readers should be warned that these political elements do start to get very upsetting as the book continues, especially as Stanley dives into the failures of government, the increased political hostility, the rejection of climate change by the opposition, and the inherent sexism that defined the era between 2007 and 2010.  This stirred up some unpleasant memories of the political landscape of the time, but I did find this to be an interesting and captivating part of the novel, and I really appreciated how much these unique and realistic inclusions added to the story.

Fantastic new author Jessica Stanley got off to a great start here with A Great Hope, producing an intriguing and distinctive novel that makes excellent use of the author’s political insights.  While I had some issues with the story and characters, A Great Hope ended up being quite an entertaining book, and I was very interested in seeing how everything came together, as well as all the clever political inclusions.  I look forward to seeing what Stanley writes in the future, especially as there are so many memorable moments in Australian politics to set a story around.

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Quick Review – The Maid by Nita Prose

The Maid Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 20 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to follow a unique and entertaining protagonist into an intriguing mystery in this compelling debut novel by Nita Prose, The Maid.

The Maid is an interesting read that I was lucky enough to receive earlier in the year.  Written by new author Nita Prose, The Maid is already getting a substantial amount of attention across the literary world, with a ton of positive reviews and media coverage.  This positive attention has only been enhanced by news that this book is already in line to become a film starring current movie sensation Florence Pugh.  Well, after having a great time reading this book, I am also throwing my opinion about The Maid into the fray, especially as it proved to be an entertaining and captivating read that did a good job blending an unusual protagonist with a fantastic story.

Plot Synopsis:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

This was a very enjoyable and fantastically addictive novel that I had a lot of fun reading, especially with its cool and slick narrative.  Told exclusively from the perspective of this central character, Molly, The Maid starts off quickly, introducing the odd-duck character of Molly and the subsequent terrible events as she discovers a body within the hotel.  What follows is an intense and fast-paced story that sees Molly inadvertently dragged into the midst of the investigation as a suspect as forces within the hotel conspire to hide the truth.  Forced to rely on her unique outlook on life and a few trusted people, Molly soon finds herself the key to solving the case thanks to her connections to various guests and staff, as well as her obsessive attention to detail and the secrets only a maid would know.  The story unfolds at a great pace, with a strong beginning, moving centre and shocking and well-established ending, which comes together extremely well, especially as the narrative thrusts its distinctive protagonist into several unique and serious situations.  Prose sets up several great twists throughout the story, and while a couple of reveals and guilty individuals were a little obvious, a couple of things did come as a surprise, including one impressive reveal right at the end.  I really liked this cool, mystery filled narrative and you will quickly find yourself powering through it to see how everything comes together.

While this is nominally a murder mystery, the real appeal of The Maid is easily its central character, Molly, who gives the story some real heart and is easily the best thing about this entire book.  Prose has done an incredibly good job of creating a distinctive and troubled figure in Molly, the obsessive and socially awkward maid, and I really appreciated how complex and unique she turned out to be.  I always like a character who is a little different than established norms, and Molly is particularly noteworthy, as, thanks to her atypical outlook on life, sheltered upbringing, odd way of talking and stunted social instincts, everyone thinks she is weird and stupid.  However, as the book is told from her perspective, the readers soon understand that she is indeed quite a complex and clever being in her own way, as her tough upbringing and family situation has ensured that she views the world in a different way.  It proves to be extremely moving to see everything from Molly’s mind, especially as you soon understand all the heartbreak and betrayal she has experienced.  Despite this, Molly keeps her positive attitude and determination, and this notable attribute quickly steals the readers’ hearts and ensures that they are firmly in her corner as the novel unfolds.  The focus on her ability as a maid to help solve the crime was pretty fun, and it was interesting to see how the insights of “the help” can reveal so much about us.  There is also a certain darkness to the character which, while mostly hidden, comes up in certain points in the book, and I deeply appreciated how Prose worked into the character and the story.  I loved so many aspects of this character’s creation, and it proved to be extremely fun to see her develop and find some happiness throughout the novel.

Overall, The Maid was a fun and captivating first novel from Prose that I really enjoyed reading.  The cooky and distinctive central character helps to turn this great mystery into a very entertaining and addictive novel which is well worth checking out.  I look forward to seeing the eventual film adaptation of The Maid, and I am sure that Florence Pugh will kill it in the central role.

Quick Review – Resistance by Mara Timon

Resistance Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: City of Spies – Book Two

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive into the intricacies of World War II espionage with a second fantastic historical thriller from Mara Timon, Resistance.

Timon is a brilliant author who debuted in 2020 with her intriguing novel, City of Spies, which followed a British agent sent to infiltrate neutral Portugal and encounter all manner of dangers and deceit.  Timon has now followed up this impressive debut with an intriguing sequel, Resistance, which follows the protagonist of City of Spies as she is sent to German-occupied Normandy days before the Allies invade.

Synopsis:

Three women. One mission. Enemies everywhere.

May 1944. When spy Elisabeth de Mornay, code name Cécile, notices a coded transmission from an agent in the field does not bear his usual signature, she suspects his cover has been blown– something that is happening with increasing frequency. With the situation in Occupied France worsening and growing fears that the Resistance has been compromised, Cécile is ordered behind enemy lines.

Having rendezvoused with her fellow agents, Léonie and Dominique, together they have one mission: help the Resistance destabilise German operations to pave the way for the Normandy landings.

But the life of a spy is never straightforward, and the in-fighting within the Resistance makes knowing who to trust ever more difficult. With their lives on the line, all three women will have to make decisions that could cost them everything – for not all their enemies are German.


Resistance
was an impressive and clever historical spy thriller that proves to be extremely addictive and exciting.  Set several months after the events of City of Spies, Resistance sees the protagonist and point-of-view character Elisabeth sent to infiltrate occupied Normandy under a new cover identity to assist the local French Resistance as a wireless operator.  Simultaneously gathering intelligence and investigating a potential mole in the French organisation, Elisabeth works with several other female spies in the area and is forced to contend with traitors, radicals and the Gestapo.  This story gets even more intense the further it goes, not only because a figure from the protagonist’s past comes into the picture and complicates events, but because the last third of the novel features the D-Day landings at the nearby Normandy beaches.  This forces the protagonist and her friends to encounter several attacks and betrayals amid the chaos of invasion and it leads to an incredibly exciting and captivating final section that is honestly impossible to put down.  While I did think that a couple of character arcs were a bit underdeveloped and unnecessary to the plot, this was an overall epic story and I really appreciated the complex and powerful narrative that Timon came up with.

I felt that new readers could easily get into Resistance with having read the preceding novel City of Spies.  Timon does an excellent job of explaining all the key events of the first novel, and readers are quickly informed of everything that would impact that plot of this sequel.  That said, fans of City of Spies will find this to be a pretty good sequel as several intriguing storylines are continued throughout the plot of the book.  Not only do key characters make significant reappearances but you also have a continuation of the fantastic romantic arc between Elisabeth and German officer Eduard Graf, who got married in the first novel.  Despite being an unusual relationship, this was an excellent storyline to continue and it was great to see the two interesting characters continue their forbidden love in the midst of war and intrigue, especially as both have major secrets (one is a spy, the other is planning to assassinate Hitler; it’s complicated) and are trying not to expose each other to their enemies.  I will be really intrigued to see where this series goes next, especially if Elisabeth is dropped into Germany either during Operation Valkyrie or the dying days of the war

One of the things that I most liked about Resistance was how this book ended up being a particularly solid and compelling historical thriller that emphasised its gritty and realistic spy elements.  Timon strives to strongly emphasise all the historical espionage aspects of the plot, and it was fascinating to see all the cool details about spy craft and being an undercover radio operator.  There was also a great focus on the abilities of Britain’s legendary female operatives, and Timon ensured that this book felt as realistic and compelling as possible.  Throw in some cool historical characters, such as members of the SOE and key German soldiers, like Erwin Rommel, and you have a particularly good historical thriller that was a lot of fun to explore.

With her second book, Resistance, impressive author Mara Timon continues to shine as a bright new figure in the historical thriller genre.  Perfectly combining realistic espionage elements with an iconic and dangerous historical setting, Resistance serves as an excellent sequel to Timon’s debut, City of Spies, and proves to be extremely addictive and compelling.  An awesome and highly recommended read.

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Quick Review – The Spy’s Wife by Fiona McIntosh

The Spy's Wife Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 2 November 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 420 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Australia’s leading author of the historical drama, Fiona McIntosh, returns with another compelling and intriguing novel, The Spy’s Wife, which takes the reader on an intense and powerful dive into pre-World War II Nazi Germany.

McIntosh is a great author whose work has spanned several genres of fantastic fiction.  McIntosh debuted back in 2001 with the fantasy novel Betrayal, the first book in her Trinity trilogy.  From there she wrote several fascinating fantasy trilogies, including The Quickening, Percheron and Valisar series, before moving on to other genres.  This includes her Jack Hawksworth crime series (initially written under the pen name Lauren Crow) and the Shapeshifter children’s fantasy series.  However, in recent years, McIntosh has been best known for her impressive collection of historical drama novels that take the reader on some deep journeys to compelling bygone periods with complex characters and intriguing historical elements.  These include The Pearl Thief, The Diamond Hunter and The Champagne War, each of which were excellent reads with some compelling historical hooks to them.  Her latest book, The Spy’s Wife, was another amazing read that contained a thrilling plot.

Synopsis:

Evie, a widow and stationmaster’s daughter, helplessly looks out for the weekly visit of the handsome man she and her sister call The Southerner on their train platform in the wilds of northern England. When polite salutations shift to friendly conversations, they become captivated by each other’s reticent manner. After so much sorrow, the childless Evie can’t believe love and the chance for her own family has come into her life again.

With rumours coming out of Germany that Hitler may be stirring up war again, local English authorities have warned against spies. Even Evie becomes suspicious of her new suitor, Roger. But all is not what it seems.

When Roger is arrested, Evie comes up with an audacious plan to prove his innocence that means moving to Germany and working as a British counter-spy. Wearing the disguise of dutiful, naïve wife, Evie must charm the Nazi Party’s dangerous officials to bring home hard evidence of war mongering on the Führer’s part.

But in this game of cat and mouse, it seems everyone has an ulterior motive, and Evie finds it impossible to know who to trust. With lives on the line, ultimate sacrifices will be made as she wrestles between her patriotism and saving the man she loves.

From the windswept moors of the Yorkshire dales to the noisy beer halls of Munich and grand country estates in the picture-book Bavarian mountains, this is a lively and high-stakes thriller that will keep you second-guessing until the very end.

This was a really good novel from McIntosh, containing a brilliant and dramatic historical storyline loaded with a ton of intriguing pre-war espionage elements.  The Spy’s Wife has a bit of a little slow start while McIntosh sets out the scenario and introduces the main characters and their romantic relationship.  While I admit that this initial quarter of the novel did not grab me completely, it did serve as an excellent introduction to the plot, and the rest of the book flowed on extremely well from there.  Once the male lead is arrested as a spy the story really starts to pick off, with Evie following her heart and volunteering to head to Germany as a spy.  What follows is an intense and captivating read, as Evie gets further and further down the espionage rabbit hole, forced to play the role of a dutiful housewife while threats and dangers lurk around every corner.  The story goes in some fantastic directions, and the excellent blend of drama, intrigue and thrilling sequences really helped to produce an impressive and addictive read.  I loved seeing the main character’s odyssey in Germany, especially as the unrelenting high-pressure situation leads to some very powerful scenes, and the reader really has no idea if or when tragedy will occur.  The story eventually leads to an extremely moving conclusion, which perfectly wraps up some character arcs and ensures that the reader is left reeling and surprised.  An overall amazing story, guaranteed to keep you hooked.

McIntosh also features a great range of characters throughout this book who add a lot to the impressive end exciting narrative.  The main character is Evie, the titular spy’s wife, a widow whose new love turns out to be a German spy.  Evie is a brilliant and charismatic woman who has some amazing reserves of strength and compassion flowing through her.  McIntosh does a great job setting her up and there is a real believable transition within her from stationmaster’s daughter to international spy.  It was extremely fascinating to see this mostly untrained operative attempt to infiltrate the highest levels of Nazi society and the character puts on a fantastic “brainless woman” act which works extremely well, even if it is extremely counter to her actual character.  Evie is matched by her new lover/potential betrayer in Roger/Max, the German spy who is captured by the British before returning to Germany to assist Evie’s mission.  Max is an interesting character: a highly regarded German from an old family, who finds himself out of favour due to his first marriage to a Jewish woman.  Max was coerced into spying for the Nazis through threats to his half-Jewish son that forced him to help a government he despises.  Despite his outward dislike for the Nazis, the reader is never totally certain where his loyalties truly lie, and whether he may betray Evie.  This really helps amp up the drama in the novel, especially as these two protagonists have some major confrontations about their roles and their histories.  I really appreciated the deep and complex character arc surrounding Max and McIntosh took it to some amazing and compelling places.

I also must really highlight the book’s main antagonist, Giselle, a fanatical Nazi who has been obsessed with Max for years.  A dangerous and malicious being, Giselle is immediately shown to be a cruel person by her constant harassment of the protagonists, as well as her kidnapping of Max’s son.  McIntosh did an outstanding job with Giselle, turning her into an intense and crazed figure, constantly trying to drive a wedge between Evie and Max while also attempting to prove that Evie is up to something.  You really hate Giselle as the book continues, especially as she gets some major victories, and she ended up being an amazing villain who all readers will love to hate.  Other characters of note with The Spy’s Wife include a range of fictional and historical figures, including some leading members of the Porsche family, each of whom add a lot to the narrative.  All these great characters added a great deal to the plot of the novel, and I really appreciated getting to know them and seeing where their interesting arcs went.

The final thing I wanted to highlight about this book was the impressive and detailed settings.  The Spy’s Wife takes the reader to some amazing and beautiful locations, and McIntosh’s amazing and descriptive writing, which was loaded with substantial historical and visual detail, really helped to bring all of them to life.  I really enjoyed seeing some of the locations in this book from the picturesque train station in Yorkshire where the story begins, all the way through to Munich and other parts of Germany.  Each of these locations was fascinating and compelling in their own right, and I loved how McIntosh tried to infuse them with the pre-war sentiments and worries.  I was particularly impressed with the detailed portrayal of the city of Munich, and the reader really gets a sense of its beauty and culture, as well as the impact the Nazis and the upcoming war is having on it.  I deeply enjoyed this excellent settings, and McIntosh really used them to full effect to enhance her story, and ensure that the protagonists could observe many intriguing cultural and historical elements.

The Spy’s Wife was another awesome and moving historical drama from Fiona McIntosh, who once again takes the reader on a compelling and powerful journey back in time.  Set around several impressive character and containing a deeply captivating historical plot about espionage, love and betrayal, The Spy’s Wife is a fantastic must-read for all historical drama fans.

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Quick Review – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Dying Squad – Book One

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing new author, Adam Simcox, presents his compelling debut novel, the fun and fascinating supernatural crime fiction read, The Dying Squad, which proves that just because you are dead, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get justice.

The Dying Squad was a fantastic and intriguing first novel from Simcox that contained a fascinating premise about a man forced to solve his own murder as a ghost.  I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it, and I was very glad when I received a copy a while ago.

Synopsis:

WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?

When Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus storms a Lincolnshire farmhouse, he expects to bring down a notorious drug gang; instead, he discovers his own body and a spirit guide called Daisy-May.

She’s there to enlist him to The Dying Squad, a spectral police force who solve crimes their flesh and blood counterparts cannot.

Lazarus reluctantly accepts and returns to the Lincolnshire Badlands, where he faces dangers from both the living and the dead in his quest to discover the identity of his killer – before they kill again.

This was an awesome and intriguing read and I ended up really getting into this fantastic supernatural novel.  Set initially in the apparently crime-ridden wilds of Lincolnshire, the novel quickly establishes itself by killing off the protagonist, Joe Lazarus, and introducing him to his co-lead the bombastic and entertaining Daisy-May, a member of the ghost-run investigative unit, known as the Dying Squad, there to recruit Lazarus.  The book then jumps to the Pen (purgatory), where Lazarus is given the chance to save his soul by solving his own murder.  Returning with Daisy to the real world, Lazarus must investigate his death while facing several limitations, including the fact that the real world is affecting his memories, and he must work to uncover his own past to discover who killed him.  At the same time, dangerous events are occurring in the Pen as a mysterious being leads an uprising of the seemingly mindless souls imprisoned there, while back in the real world, a dangerous creature stalks Lazarus and Daisy-May, seeking to drag them down below.

I really enjoyed the cool story featured within The Dying Squad, and Simcox has come up with something particularly unique and compelling here.  The author does a great job of quickly introducing all the relevant story elements, and the reader is soon expertly enthralled in the book’s compelling mystery.  I loved the unique investigation that takes place throughout the novel, especially as the protagonists must deal with a range of different problems, including the sinister Xylophone Man (he’s a lot more threatening than the name implies), the deceit of living humans, fading memories, and the protagonist’s desire to interfere in events, even when they’re not supposed to.  At the same time, the protagonist’s boss back in the Pen is forced to deal with a universe-ending revolt, as desperate lost souls attempt to tear down the walls of reality.  While Daisy May and some of the other characters are dragged between these two plot threads, Lazarus continues to follow the trial towards his death by investigating several potential suspects and slowly regaining his own memories.  This eventually leads to several startling revelations, including a very clever reveal about who was behind his death and their reasons why.  This investigation eventually leads back to the wider universe story about the rebelling souls, and there are some great moments, especially when the protagonists are forced to make some hard and afterlife-altering choices.  I really enjoyed this unique blend of storylines, as well as some of the cool characters featured throughout the book, and The Dying Squad ended up being quite a fun and interesting read.

I definitely need to highlight the unique world building featured throughout The Dying Squad.  Simcox has come up with a detailed and fascinating scenario, involving supernatural ghosts going back to Earth to investigate unsolved murders.  This results in several memorable and compelling settings, including the dark and dreary Pen, a version of Purgatory, where lost and forgotten souls congregate in confusion and apathy (unless roused by a dangerous soul with ulterior motives).  At the same time, you also have the setting of Earth, which ends up being an unnatural location for departed souls, even the protagonists.  As such, the characters who venture there to investigate encounter all manner of obstacles, from rogue spirits to the very air itself, which drains dead souls of their memories unless precautions are taken.  These various elements, especially the memory loss and the typical incorporeal nature of ghosts, are worked into the investigation aspect of the story extremely well, and it added a layer of complexity and uncertainty that really enhanced the mystery.  At the same time, Simcox really went for broke exploring the wider universe and the focus on the events in the Pen soon become a major part of the plot.  While I deeply enjoyed the potential universe ending event, I cannot help thinking that maybe more of the story could have been spent on beefing up the investigation angle of the book, especially as some of the culprits and twists ended up being a little easy to spot.  That being said, it was a fascinating part of the story that ended up being explored extremely well, and it really enhanced the stakes of the plot.  It will be interesting to see what the focus of the next novel will be, but I am sure that I will enjoy it.

Overall, this ended up being quite a clever read, and I think that Simcox did a great job of combining a complex murder investigation with complex and fascinating supernatural elements.  I had a lot of fun with The Dying Squad, and it is an excellent compelling new debut to check out in 2021.

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