Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

Stranger Things Suspicious Minds Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

out of the dark cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Orphan X (Book 4)

Length: 435 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

The Orphan X series returns with a bang as thriller extraordinaire Gregg Hurwitz sets his long-running protagonist against his most dangerous opponent yet in this fun and exciting new novel.

Evan Smoak is an orphan in every way that matters.  Taken from his foster home as a child and inducted into a top-secret espionage program, Evan was given a new name, Orphan X.  The Orphans are the most lethal secret agents the United States ever produced, taking on missions around the world.  But after years of killing and being lied to, Evan had enough and left the program.  Now using his abilities to stay hidden, Evan has taken on a new identity, The Nowhere Man, a mysterious vigilante who helps people placed in terrible situations.  While Evan is satisfied with his new life, there is one threat from his old life that he needs to kill.  Unfortunately for Evan, that one man is now the President of the United States of America.

As the head of the Orphan program, Jonathan Bennett used the Orphans to promote his illegal and corrupt agendas around the world.  Now that he has achieved his ambition to become President, to cover his tracks he has ordered the death of all the remaining Orphans, as well as the man who was the closest thing Evan had to a father.  Now Orphan X is at the top of his hit list, and the only way to protect himself and the other orphans is to do the impossible and kill Bennett first.

Residing in the most impenetrable building in the world and with the full force of the Secret Service protecting him, Bennett looks to be untouchable, especially as he has unleashed the vengeful Orphan A to hunt Evan down.  However, Orphan X has a plan and is determined to take everything from the President.  Can Evan succeed?  Why is Bennett so concerned with covering up the details of Orphan X’s first mission?  One thing is for sure: all hell is about to break loose in Washington.

Hurwitz is a veteran author whose work mostly fits into the thriller and mystery genres.  He has written a couple of series, including the young adult zombie series, The Rains Brothers, and the thriller-based Tim Rackley series.  In addition, Hurwitz has also written a number of interesting sounding standalone books, including his debut novel, The Tower, as well as a number of comics for DC and Marvel, including Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, 19 issues of Batman: The Dark Knight and even a run on Marvel’s excellent 2004 The Punisher series.  Aside from the two The Rains Brothers novels, Hurwitz’s main work in the last three years has been his Orphan X series.  Out of the Dark is the fourth novel in this series and continues a number of storylines set out in the earlier books.

With the exception of some of his comics, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Hurwitz’s previous books before, although several do sound very interesting; for example, his 2001 release, Minutes to Burn, has been recommended to me before due to its fun premise.  However, upon hearing that the plot of this book was going to set an elite rogue operative against the President of the United States, I knew that I had to check this book out.  Luckily my propensity for falling for and checking out books with amazing and out-there plot synopsis paid off once again, as I had a lot of fun reading this action-packed thriller.

After some bad experiences in the past, I am always a little apprehensive about coming into a series several books in, and Out of the Dark was no exception, especially as it was the fourth book in the series.  However, Hurwitz does a fantastic job setting out the events leading up to this story, and I did not find myself lost in the slightest as I read this book.  Therefore, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to readers who, like me, were intrigued by the intriguing story concept and want to start the series here.

The main story focuses on Orphan X’s and the President’s attempts to take each other out, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed thrill ride, as the two sides unleash everything to win.  This main storyline is split between several characters, including Orphan X, the President, the head of the President’s security detail and Orphan A.  Hurwitz spends time exploring each of these characters’ backgrounds, personalities and motivations, allowing for a richer overall story rather than a typical all-action adventure.  In addition to this main storyline, there is also a secondary storyline where Evan, as The Nowhere Man, helps out a person being targeted by a drug lord.  I was a bit uncertain about the necessity of this second storyline, as I was quite enjoying the focus on assassinating the president.  However, I did appreciate how this second storyline was used to convey Evan’s continued search for humanity and redemption after years as an assassin.  Fans of the previous books in the Orphan X series will enjoy a number of inclusions thrown into Out of the Dark, including several characters from the previous books, a continuation of some storylines, and an opening scene that shows Evan’s first mission as Orphan X back in the 1990s.  All of this comes together into an amazing and captivating story that is not only exciting, but which also has some emotional weight backing it up.

Hurwitz takes his plot focus of an elite agent targeting the President and really runs with it.  The protection surrounding the President of the United States of America is legendary, both inside and outside of fiction.  Therefore, the idea that one man can take him out is a crazy idea, especially as Hurwitz makes it clear the sheer amount of resources and firepower that the President’s security detail has on his side.  Indeed, there are several comparisons made throughout the book, showcasing the Secret Service’s tools and resources, and then counterpointing it to the few resources the protagonist has access to.  Despite this, at no point does the reader feel like Orphan X is the underdog, even with Orphan A and his less than savoury cohorts chasing after him.  Indeed, as the book progresses, the President and his security get more and more nervous, especially as Evan makes his various moves.  The protagonist’s overall plan for getting to the President is pretty clever, and I love how this storyline ended.  This was an extremely fun story focus, and I was not disappointed by how Hurwitz showcased it.

It should go without saying that this book is chocked full of action, as there are a number of high-intensity scenes where the protagonist takes it to his opponents.  Hurwitz can write a really good action sequence, and there were some really fun details throughout the book.  The author really uses these scenes to show off what a badass Orphan X is, including an early scene where the protagonist tells several police officers exactly how he is going to take them out and then proceeds to beat the thus-prepared officers in what has to be the ultimate power play.  These action scenes also show off what the Secret Service can do and how impressive their presidential security is.  With plenty of explosions, gunfights, full-on assaults of strongholds and violent hand-to-hand combat sequences, there is plenty in this book for those readers who love a bit of action in their fiction.

Overall, Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz is an amazing read that I had an absolute blast with.  Orphan X continues to reign supreme as one of modern thriller fiction’s most badass protagonists, as he takes on the whole Secret Service.  This is an extremely exciting and clever read that also takes the time to dive into the emotional motivation of its characters.  Out of the Dark is an absolutely stunning blast from Hurwitz and I loved this latest addition to the entertaining Orphan X series.

Turning Point by Danielle Steel

Turning Point Cover.png

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 8 January 2019

 

From world-renowned, best-selling author Danielle Steel comes this powerful dramatic novel that examines the highs and lows of being a top surgeon in the modern world.

 

Bill Browning, Stephanie Lawrence, Wendy Jones and Tom Wylie are four of the world’s leading trauma surgeons, all living in San Francisco.  Each of these surgeons’ professional lives is near perfect, however their personal lives are a mess.  Bill is all by himself, since his ex-wife and daughters are living in London, and he immerses himself in his work while desperately missing his children.  Stephanie constantly puts her work above her family, barely seeing her young children and frustrating her stay-at-home husband.  Wendy’s life outside work is defined by her relationship with her married colleague, and is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and his reluctance to end his marriage.  Tom, an over-the-top womaniser, is the only one satisfied with his life, but deep down he knows his life lacks connections as he refuses to let anyone to get close to him.

Tragic circumstances in two separate cities will have unexpected impacts on the lives of all four of these surgeons.  Following a terrorist attack in Paris and a devastating fire in San Francisco, both cities’ respective governments organise a multi-week exchange of trauma surgeons in order to help both cities learn from each other’s experiences.  Bill, Stephanie, Wendy and Tom are each chosen by their respective hospitals to represent the San Francisco delegation and travel to Paris, leaving their lives at home behind.

Once in Paris the American surgeons find a deep friendship and camaraderie with each other and the French team, as they have the chance to socialise with those rare people who understand the personal challenges their medical careers can cause.  As the San Francisco teams learn about the French medical and emergency response system, another terrible act of violence hits the people of Paris.  As both the American and French teams deal with the consequences of these horrific actions, these surgeons find their lives impacted in unexpected ways.  How will these events change them, and how will they impact those around them?

Danielle Steel is one of those authors that really does not need an introduction.  With over 150 books to her name since her 1973 debut, Steel is the undisputed master of the romance and drama novel.  Interesting fact for the day: Steel is actually the fourth best-selling fiction author of all time, coming in only behind William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Barbara Cartland, making her the top best-selling author alive today.  Turning Point is Steel’s first release of 2019, and she has an additional five books planned for the rest of the year.

I have to admit that this is not the usual sort of book I would check out, and Danielle Steel is not an author I would usually go for.  I much prefer novels with a lot more action, violence or comedy than romance or intense drama.  However, I have always had a bit of a soft spot for medical fiction, and I thought that the summary of Turning Point sounded fairly compelling.  I also thought that looking into Turning Point would be an interesting change of pace for me, so in the name of broadening my horizons and mixing up my reviews, I decided to check it out.  I have to say I did get into this amazing story, and enjoyed the dramatic narrative that unfolded within it.

There was a little less medical stuff in this book than I would have liked, but there was more than enough to get me into Turning Point’s story.  There are no in-depth surgical scenes, but the author does a fantastic job of describing the aftermath of catastrophic events and how hospitals and medical professionals deal with triaging patients.  What I enjoyed most about the medical parts of this book are the author’s examination of the personal difficulties that surgeons experience as a result of their work.  All of the characters have stunted or damaged social and family lives because of the huge strain their chosen profession takes and the long hours they have to work.  This is particularly true for the characters of Bill and Stephanie, who have children and families, and are forced to deal with having to choose between their dream careers that they have spent their entire life working towards and their families.  Steel mainly focuses on Stephanie for this, as Bill’s wife left him years before the events of Turning Point.  Throughout the book, Stephanie’s husband is constantly making her feel guilty for working while he is left at home with the children, and this puts significant strain on their relationship.  The sexism angle of this was also explored, as Stephanie’s husband, parents and mother-in-law are all very unsupportive of her role and seemed to think she should be with her children, despite Stephanie providing a very reasonable argument that her mother never complained about her father’s similar medical career.  While the examination of the familiar strains of these characters’ surgical careers is a particular focus, the other social impacts of their work is also explored, and I found it fascinating how most of them could only open up to people in a similar line of work and who could understand what they were going through.

The plot of this book is split between San Francisco and Paris, and Steel fills the book with fantastic descriptions of both cities.  Her characters explore and tour through both locations, and the book comes across as a love letter to both cities from the author, who has spent significant periods of time there.  While I enjoyed both of these descriptions, I found the comparison of both cities’ emergency response protocols and the roles of their doctors and emergency services to be the most interesting parts of these settings.  The differences between how these two major cities deal with devastating events is extremely fascinating, and I liked the time that Steel spent exploring them.  During the course of the book, Paris is hit with both a terrorist attack and a school shooting, both of which are emblematic of the main catastrophes hitting America and France.  It was quite shocking to see the aftermath of one of these events in some detail, but it I appreciated why Steel included them.

While filled with other great elements, at its heart Turning Point is a dramatic story with a number of romances.  A large amount of the drama is generated by the elements discussed above, such as the stresses associated with a medical career or the destructive events the characters witness.  Relationships break down, people are in conflict with each other and personal revelations lead to life changing decision for all the characters featured in the book.  Each of the main characters also gets their own romantic subplots, and I liked how each of them turned out.  I was a bit surprised about how much I began to care about each character, but as the reader dives deeper into the book they become more and more involved in their lives.  While I did think the all-round happy endings for everyone was a bit predictable, I liked how the drama and romance elements of these books tied into the other parts of the story to create an amazing overall narrative.

While this was not a book I was expecting to get into, I did find myself enjoying Turning Point and the intriguing story contained within it.  With some excellent medical inclusions and a deep examination of the high pressure lives of surgeons, this is a fantastic read and one that exceeded my genre expectations.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown

The Moscow Offensive Cover.jpg

Publisher: Corsair

Australian Publication Date – 11 December 2018

World Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

An intense and exhilarating military thriller filled with advanced military robots duking it out across America, now that sounds like my sort of novel!  Prepare for an explosive technological thriller as Dale Brown, the bestselling author of the Patrick McLanahan series, returns with his latest novel, The Moscow Offensive.

For years, Russia’s ambition to conquer the entire world and defeat the United States has been growing, with its leaders unleashing a series of advanced weapons against the West.  Russia’s dominance was only held in check thanks to the actions of United States pilot Patrick McLanahan, who utilised America’s most innovative technology to counter the Russian attacks.  However, with McLanahan now believed dead, the brilliant and manipulative Russian president, Gennadiy Gryzlov, sets forth a new attack.  Secretly buying a large airfreight company, Gryzlov uses this proxy business to ferry weapons and military personnel into the United States undetected.  Identifying a string of high-value targets, Gryzlov attempts to cripple the United States from within, and strike its citizens with terror.

The only force that might be able to stand up to Gryzlov’s machinations is the legendary Iron Wolf Squadron and their parent private military company, Scion Aviation International.  Formed by McLanahan and former United States President Kevin Martindale, the Iron Wolf Squadron utilises their advanced Cybernetic Infantry Devices (CIDs), twelve-foot-tall piloted combat robots, whose technology and weapons are capable of overpowering conventional military forces.  Currently employed by Poland and its Alliance of Free Nations, the Iron Wolf Squadron is responsible for knocking back several of Russia’s attempted invasions and more ambitious bids for power.  However, their success in Poland has alienated America’s selfish and paranoid president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, who is determined to bring Martindale and Scion down.

Taking advantage of President Barbeau’s incompetence, Gryzlov is able to launch a series of attacks, placing the blame on the Iron Wolf Squadron.  Now targeted by both the Americans and the Russians, a small detachment of Iron Wolf Squadron CIDs, led by Patrick McLanahan’s son Brad, deploy to the United States to counter the Russians and reveal their involvement.  However, the Russians have succeed in reverse-engineering combat robots of their own, and are now fully capable of going toe-to-toe with the Iron Wolf Squadron.

Dale Brown is one of the world’s leading authors of the technological and military thriller genre, having written a huge number of high-octane, electrifying reads since the 1980s.  The Patrick McLanahan series is his main body of work and started in 1987 with his debut novel, Flight of the Old Dog.  This series has mostly focused on the adventures of its titular character, Patrick McLanahan, across a variety of different military situations, inside and outside of the United States armed forces.  These novels have generally been set around the same time as their publication date, meaning that the characters have aged and matured with the series.  As a result, in later years, Patrick McLanahan has taken a back seat from the action, with the role of main series protagonist taken up by his son, Brad McLanahan.  The Moscow Offensive is the 22nd book in the series, and continues with some of the storylines from the previous books in the series.  A 23rd book is already in the works, and The Kremlin Strike is set to come out in early May 2019.

I had not previously read any books in the Patrick McLanahan series before, and while I thought the synopsis sounded pretty awesome, I was not too sure what to expect from it.  After reading it I found The Moscow Offensive to be an incredible novel with some fantastic thriller elements and outstanding action sequences.  The overall story of this book is extremely compelling, and I had a very hard time putting this book down as I really loved this wide-ranging thriller storyline.  I was a little worried about coming into a series 22 books in, but I found that the author did a fantastic job in The Moscow Offensive of introducing the reader to his thriller universe.  Throughout this book, Brown provides the reader with ample descriptions and discussions about the book’s characters, technology specs and the relevant history of the various military organisations, countries and fictional military actions.  As a result, it is really easy for readers unfamiliar with Dale Brown’s work to come into the Patrick McLanahan series with The Moscow Offensive, and at no point while reading it was I lost or confused about any of the book’s plot elements.

The international thriller elements of this book and the utilisation of current world politics were some of my favourite inclusions in The Moscow Offensive.  I liked how the author inserted bits and pieces of real world political and social issues into his writing to create an intriguing and familiar background for the story.  On top of this, he also includes the more outrageous elements from his previous novels, including the Iron Wolf Squadron, whose pilots command high tech robots to stop Russia from invading Poland and other Eastern European countries.  This is a fun mesh of realistic and out-there settings which I found to be an incredible basis for this novel.

The intelligence battle between the United States and Russia has been a firm and dependable element for innumerable thrillers over the years, and Brown constructs a fantastic story around this battle.  The battle is more one sided in The Moscow Offensive, as Brown makes great use of an incompetent United States President character, the use of which has become a much more common element in fiction in recent years (hard to imagine why).  It is utterly fascinating to see the various ways that Brown comes up with to attack America and damage the country’s military infrastructure.  These attacks have a range of different purposes, from outright attacking the US military, to setting the President against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  All of these international and militarist thriller elements are an awesome part of this book, as not only do they help create a great story, but the reader is able to consider the realism of a such a story.

In addition to the cool international thriller elements of this book, I liked the deep look at military technology both real and fictional.  Brown, a former US Air Force aviator, has an excellent understanding of modern military hardware and the people that use them, creating an outstanding militaristic narrative as a result.  The descriptions and analyses of Russian and American weapons, planes and other vehicles are very intriguing and give the book another deep sense of realism.  Of course the most epic inclusions in this book are the CIDs, the large, manned combat robots that the Iron Wolf Squadron have utilised in several of Brown’s previous books to frustrate the Russians in battle.  These machines really amp up this series to new heights, and in The Moscow Offensive, Brown ups the ante by having the Russians develop their own combat robots in response to their defeats against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  This adds a whole new element to the book, as the United States is attacked by these machines and finally has to deal with the devastation they can cause.  Both sides having these machines is incredibly intriguing, as it really allows the author to examine the advantages of these potential machines in a military setting and showcase what sort of damage they could potentially do, even to their creators.  These advanced military elements are a terrific part of The Moscow Offensive, and I was really impressed with how Brown was able to combine it with the book’s other thriller elements to create a captivating read.

The Moscow Offensive contains a faction of Americans fighting a covert war with the Russians, with both sides utilising advanced combat robots.  As a result, this book is packed full of action and there are a number of fantastic high-tech battle sequences.  Without a doubt, the CIDs and their Russian counterparts really are the stars of the book.  These two sets of machines go up against a range of conventional military opponents in some massively destructive and very one-sided scenes.  Brown cleverly saves the combat between the two opposing groups of combat machine until the end of the book, and does a fantastic job at pumping up the hype for their eventual confrontation.  This final climatic battle does not disappoint, as the two sides engage in a brutal and devastating fight that is well worth the wait.

Dale Brown has once again provided the reader with an extremely fun piece of fiction, as he continues his ambitious, clever and entertaining Patrick McLanahan series.  As someone coming into Brown’s fictional universe for the first time, I was blown away by the intense action and outstanding thriller elements contained within this book and it is easily one of my favourite new series.  As a result, I highly recommend The Moscow Offensive to new readers and those existing fans of the series.  This is an excellent choice for anyone looking for some insane action or a truly unique story.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer

Heads You Win Cover.png

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the mind of one of modern fiction’s most controversial authors comes a two-in-one fantastic and elaborate piece of historical fiction that utilises an intriguing narrative device to create one of 2018’s most unique stories.

Young student Alexander Karpenko is the bright, talented and ambitious child of two hardworking citizens of the Soviet Union.  Living in Leningrad in 1968, Alexander’s dream is to become the first democratically elected president of his country.  However, when he is betrayed and his father is killed by the KGB, Alexander and his mother realise that their only hope is to flee Russia and make a new life for themselves in another country.

Arriving at the docks, Alexander and his mother are given a choice between two different ships: one heading to London or one heading to New York.  The decision is made by the flip of a coin, and Alexander’s life splits into two separate paths: one where he heads to Britain and one where he heads to America.  Alexander arrives in these countries with great ambition and a desire to succeed no matter what.

Over the next 30 years, in both these lives, Alexander finds success in a two separate ways.  He fights his way up from the bottom as a lowly immigrant to an influential person, overcoming obstacles and antagonists along the way.  Both Alexanders’ journeys are inspirational, but no matter what these two Alexanders accomplish, the fate of their home country is always on their minds, and the shadow of the Soviet Union constantly surrounds them.

Jeffrey Archer is a rather interesting individual, with a very eventful and controversial background.  A former British MP, Archer is probably better known for the various accusations of fraud he has attracted throughout his life, and he has even spent some time in jail as a result.  However, rather than let that ruin his public profile, Archer has used his experience and imagination to create a number of fascinating novels, many of which utilise aspects of his political, academic or professional life or expertise to some degree.  As a result, Archer is now one of the most high-profile authors in the world and has written over 20 adult novels, including the three books in his Kane and Abel series and the seven books in his bestselling Clifton Chronicles.  On top of that, Archer has also written a number of short stories, a couple of plays, several children’s books and his Prison Diaries, three non-fiction novels that chronicle his life in prison.

Heads You Win is an extremely fascinating novel from Archer, which takes his protagonist on two separate adventures through over 30 years of American and British history and life.  Archer utilises a very clever divergent timelines narrative device (think Sliding Doors), which creates two separate timelines around the different outcomes of one event, in this case, the outcome of a coin toss.  As a result, in one timeline, the protagonists and his mother get on a ship to London, while in another timeline they board a ship bound for New York.  This is a very interesting concept to utilise in this story, and one that works to create two separate narrative threads to follow.  Both of these storylines focus on the protagonist attempting to find his place in the country that he eventually ends up in, and then moves onto the protagonist becoming a powerful and influential individual in his own way, all the while dealing with the terrible people that seem to inhabit Archer’s world.

I rather enjoyed both of the separate storylines in this book, and had a lot of fun seeing the different or similar ways that the protagonist attempted to make his fortune in each lifetime.  The differences between these two storylines happen right away, as in the London timeline, Alexander and his mother find themselves on a nice ship with a friendly crew who mostly want to help, while the New York timeline finds them in a poorly maintained vessel with a self-serving crew who seek to exploit the two main characters.  I found it rather fascinating to see the way that their treatment and the environments they find themselves in change the way in which they act.  For example, Alexander’s experience in the English setting encourage him to seek the full Cambridge academic lifestyle, while his American counterpart was less focused on his formal education and learned more on the street.

Both of these divergent timelines feature an intriguing look at the cities and countries that the protagonists end up in, and both serve as a good historical backdrop to each of the main storylines, featuring several real historical events and some historical characters.  For example, the Alexander who ends up in the American timeline is forced to fight in the Vietnam War, while the British Alexander rubs elbows with a number of the country’s prominent politicians.  I liked how the divergent ways that the two separate protagonists gained their power and prestige matched the country that there were in.  The American Alexander became rich through his business acumen and financial brilliance, while the British Alexander went the academic route and eventually become deeply involved with the British political system, something close to the author’s heart.  Not only does this help match the locations and people that the protagonist deals with, but it allows the two separate stories to diverge out slightly, with the British storyline containing political intrigue, while the American storyline reads a little bit more like a financial thriller.  While the focus on the protagonist’s two adopted homelands is a great part of this novel, the protagonist’s history in the Soviet Union is a major part of this story.  The initial chapters capture the uncertainty and despair that inhabitants of the Soviet Union would have felt in the 1960s, while the character’s subsequent visits helped highlight the obvious differences between the Soviet Union and the countries that Alexander escaped to.  There is also a rather exciting reveal about one of the Russian characters towards the end of the book that will prove to be the most memorable part of Heads You Win, and is definitely something to look out for.

While I enjoyed the divergent timelines narrative device that Archer employed throughout Heads You Win I did feel that he could have done more with it.  I would have loved to see a bit more crossover between the two separate timelines, and, for example, see how key characters from one storyline would have fared without their Alexander in their lives.  Instead there is minimal crossover between these two separate storylines, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.  I am also not the biggest fan of what these quick crossovers revealed, as it strongly hinted that both storylines actually exist together at the same time, and as a result, there are two Alexanders existing in the world at the same time.  This is a bit of a weird twist, and while it does not negatively impact the vast majority of either storyline, it does result in a conclusion that some may find slightly confusing.  As a result, while this did slightly mark down my rating of Heads You Win, the split storyline concept is a fantastic and unforgettable part of this book and makes it quite a distinctive read.

This latest novel from one of the world’s most colourful professional authors is a fun, historical thrill ride that features a very unique and memorable narrative device.  With a great look at two different countries during the same historical time period and featuring two separate by similar stories of life, adversity and success, this is an extremely enjoyable novel that will appeal to a varied range of readers.  Heads You Win is definitely worth checking out, and I am planning to keep an eye out for the next read from Archer.

My Rating:

Four stars

Red War by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Red War Cover.png

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

From the minds of two outstanding thriller writers comes Red War, the latest book in the iconic Mitch Rapp spy series.  This newest addition is an exhilarating and action-packed espionage novel that incorporates a captivating look at modern global politics into its exciting and enjoyable narrative.

For years, Russian president Maxim Krupin has ruled his country with an iron fist, and even recent setbacks to his ambitious plans in the Middle East have not lessened his power or influence.  However, Krupin is about to encounter an opponent even he may not be able to overcome: cancer.  With an inoperable brain tumour impacting his actions, the once calculating and selectively destructive strongman begins openly targeting all his enemies and opponents in order to retain his power and to distract attention away from his illness.

The Americans, especially the CIA, are alarmed and surprised by the Russian president’s sudden and unpredictable moves.  Uncertain of the motivations behind them, the CIA assign legendary covert operative Mitch Rapp to investigate and counter Krupin’s more aggressive moves, including the attempted assassination of Krupin’s former problem solver, Grisha Azarov.  When Rapp and the CIA uncover proof about Krupin’s medical condition, they begin to realise just how desperate and dangerous their opponent is.  With Russian troops massing on the border of Europe, it appears Krupin may even be willing to start a war with the West in order to maintain his position.  With World War III just around the corner, Rapp is given an impossible task: infiltrate Russia and assassinate the man many consider to be the most powerful person in the world.  Will Rapp and his allies succeed in this dangerous mission, or will their actions lead the world to the very brink of a nuclear war?

This is the 17th book in the Mitch Rapp series, which began in 1999 with the first book, Transfer of Power, which was written by Vince Flynn as a follow-up to his 1997 debut, Term Limit, which is set in the same universe as the Mitch Rapp books.  Following Flynn’s death in 2013, the series was continued by fellow thriller writer Kyle Mills, who has written 17 books since 1997, including the last three Mitch Rapp novels.  The Mitch Rapp books are a fast-paced and action-packed series that focuses on American espionage, and often features the titular character’s brutal war on Islamic terrorists.  Some who are unfamiliar with the books may have seen the film adaption of Flynn’s 2010 prequel novel, American Assassin, which was released in 2017, featuring Dylan O’Brien of Teen Wolf and The Maze Runner fame, as well as Batman himself, Michael Keaton.

In this latest book, Mills continues the series trend of providing the reader with eventful and compelling adventures.  Red War is chock full of action and combat as the protagonists attempt to counter the Russian president, the president’s personal assassin and the whole Russian army.  Readers will find plenty to keep them entertained, from small tactical skirmishes around the world between American and Russian covert forces, to large-scale battles and wars, with some devastating results.  While the main protagonist, Mitch Rapp, is starting to get a little old, he is still the same killing machine he has always been, and he powers through the vast majority of his opponents.  However, some of the other characters he encounters are the cream of the Russian army and have been enhanced by a combination of extreme training and performance-enhancing drugs.  This results in some very hectic shoot-outs and fight sequences, although there is very little doubt that Rapp will succeed.  A lot of these fights are tactical in nature as Rapp seeks to outsmart larger or more formidable forces he finds himself up against, resulting in some scenes with slower pacing that are used to create a more intense, but equally exciting, action sequence.  In addition, there are some fairly outrageous sequences throughout the book that readers will really enjoy.  For example, in a later part of the book Rapp suddenly finds himself leading an unusual army against his opponents, and a scene earlier in the book he decides to utilise a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in a fight after he starts “getting sick of these drugged-up, thirtysomething terminators whom Krupin was churning out”.

Mills has also made sure to include detailed examinations of the various intelligence-gathering and espionage techniques that his characters employ, as well as several scenes exploring the opposing nations planning and tactical sessions.  It is always fun to read about fictional tactical and intelligence meetings, especially in novels like Red War, when you see both these discussions from both sides of the conflict in order to focus on the various moves and countermoves each opposing side utilises.  In Red War, the motivation behind the Russian president’s actions is revealed to the reader within the first few pages of the book; however, all the American characters, and even some of the Russian characters, have no idea why he has escalated his campaign against his opponents.  It is very captivating to watch the various actions Krupin takes to not only stay in power, but also hide his illness from his own people.  As the book progresses and this becomes harder for him to manage, it is interesting to see the Americans begin to put the pieces together and see how well their theory fits into place.  Both the American and Russian characters do a lot of espionage and counterespionage moves throughout the novel as the Americans attempt to uncover the Russian leader’s unpredictable next move, while Krupin and his agents attempts to take out his various rivals while also frustrating the Americans.  The descriptions of these espionage moves and techniques feel very realistic, and there is enough going on to keep any lover of spy fiction very happy.

One of the most compelling and notable things about Red War is the way that it brushes on current politics and uses many recent real-world events in its story, by either referencing them or attributing them to the book’s fictional characters.  One of the main antagonists, the Russian president Krupin, is an athletic and powerful strongman that is clearly supposed to be a fictional version of Vladimir Putin, with several similar character attributes, including a propensity to use staged hunting propaganda shots out in the snow to promote his rugged, masculine image.  Many of Krupin’s actions and decisions throughout the book match those of Putin, down to the character revealing he utilises social media to influence international politics.  As a result, while the book focuses on a fictional antagonist, the reader is left thinking about what would happen if something similar were to happen to Putin or another world leader, and how other nations would respond.  The American and Russian characters discuss geopolitics throughout the book as they make their plots and plans, and many of the events they discuss have happened in the real world.  This allows the readers, especially those familiar with current world affairs, to enjoy a much more realistic read, especially when the characters look at real world events to justify their actions or responses.  These real-world inclusions help to turn Red War into a much more intriguing read for the readers that does an amazing job capturing its audience’s attention and interest.

Despite being the 17th book in the Mitch Rapp series, Red War is a very approachable book that is very easy for readers unfamiliar with the series to enjoy.  A perfect read for those who are intrigued by a fun and exciting plot concept, Red War delivers all the action and espionage you could possibly want, with some incredibly fascinating insights and references to modern global politics.  Mills has once again forged an incredible story from Vince Flynn’s original thriller universe, and fans of this series will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars