Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 11 May 2023.
A copy of this review also appeared on the Canberra Weekly website.
Make sure to check out my extended reviews for Fire with Fire, The Isles of the Gods and Echo Lake.
Expert reviews of the latest and the best in Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Science Fiction and Crime Fiction from an Australian reviewer.
Originally published in the Canberra Weekly on 11 May 2023.
A copy of this review also appeared on the Canberra Weekly website.
Make sure to check out my extended reviews for Fire with Fire, The Isles of the Gods and Echo Lake.
Publisher: Penguin Random House Australia (Trade Paperback – 4 April 2023)
Length: 480 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s most exciting and compelling crime fiction authors, Candice Fox, returns with another intense and impressive novel, the powerful and memorable Fire With Fire.
Over the last several years, few Australian authors have dominated the crime fiction market as effectively as veteran author Candice Fox, who has produced some outstanding reads. Fox is a very interesting author who started off focusing on the Australian market with several books set out in the wilds of Australia, including her Archer and Bennet series and the Crimson Lake books, the latter of which was recently adapted into the Australian television show, Troppo. However, in more recent years, Fox has moved on to the larger international audience and has produced several great books set in America, as well as collaborating with legendary author James Patterson for their Detective Harriet Blue series. I personally know Fox more for her international work rather than her Australian fiction, as I have been lucky enough to receive copies of her last few books, including the gritty standalone read Gathering Dark, the elaborate prison break novel The Chase, and the fantastic and heartfelt 2 Sisters Detective Agency co-written with James Patterson. Each of these novels has been fun in their own way, and 2 Sisters Detective Agency ended up being one of my favourite Australian books of 2021. Due to excellent books like these, Fox is now a key addition to my yearly reading schedule, and I just had to grab a copy of her latest novel, Fire With Fire, especially as it had a pretty epic plot behind it.
What starts as a normal day at the understaffed Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Centre in Los Angeles swiftly turns deadly when two people take over the lab, holding three people hostage. However, this is no ordinary hostage situation, as the kidnappers are husband and wife Ryan and Elsie Delaney. Two years earlier, the Delaneys’ daughter Tilly went missing at the Santa Monica beach, which the police eventually ruled an accidental drowning. However, Tilly’s body was never found, key evidence was lost, and her parents never believed the official story and resented a lacklustre police investigation.
Now, desperate for answers, the Delaneys offer the LAPD an ultimatum: find Tilly dead or alive within 24 hours or they will destroy evidence in several major cases, all but destroying key investigations. Armed with uncanny knowledge of which evidence is the most vital to the LAPD and which samples are too valuable to lose, the Delaneys appear to hold all the cards against the police. However, the LAPD have no intention of validating the Delaneys’ actions by searching for Tilly.
However, one LAPD detective, Charlie Hoskins, has more motivation to save the evidence in the lab than the rest of the department. Hoskins has finished up a gruelling five-year undercover stint within the ruthless Death Machines biker gang, an experience he barely survived. All the evidence that he collected against the gang is now sitting in the lab, and if it goes up in flames, everything he tried to accomplish would be for nothing. With the rest of the police force angling for a more lethal solution to the Delaney problem, Hoskins decides to find Tilly himself.
Helped by recently fired rookie Lynette Lamb, the woman responsible for blowing his cover with the Death Machines, which saw him literally thrown to the sharks, Hoskins begins a new investigation into Tilly’s disappearance, hoping to find any evidence that can convince the Delaneys that their daughter really did drown. However, the more they dig, the more Hoskins and Lamb begin to realise that there is something far more sinister behind Tilly’s disappearance. With time running out before his evidence is destroyed, and with the Death Machines hunting him across LA, can Hoskins find out what happened to Tilly before it’s too late and a lethal gang of killers are set free?
This was another excellent novel from Fox that featured an outstanding and captivating story. Fox sets the entire narrative up perfectly, first introducing the main characters of Hoskins and Lamb by showing them on the very worst days of their life, as Hoskins is tortured out by the gang he infiltrated, while Lamb is fired on her first day as a rookie cop for being responsible for the leak. From there, the story focuses on the start of the lab siege as the Delaneys take over and send the police their demands. I really love this cool main scenario for the Fire With Fire as it is such a brilliant way to gain leverage over a police force. Fox uses this to great effect to engage the major storylines of the book. Firstly, there is an intriguing and intense siege storyline as police, led by LAPD Chief of Police Saskia Ferboden, attempt to resolve the situation without the destruction of evidence. Fox examines many different sides of this situation, from the desperation of the Delaneys, the fear of the hostages in the lab, the emotions of the Delaney’s remaining daughter outside, and the growing hostility of the cops as they watch their evidence get destroyed. This leads to a captivating series of events as Saskia and her FBI negotiator try to resolve the situation peacefully, only to hit setback after setback, as the Delaneys get violent, the hostages try to be heroic, and all her cops get mutinous at her decisions.
While the storyline around the siege is pretty intense and emotionally powerful, the real meat of the story focuses on Hoskins and Lamb as they attempt to find the Delaneys’ missing daughter, Tilly, before it is too late. This entire storyline falls together extremely well as the unlikely partnership of Hoskins and Lamb are forced to work together and soon form an entertaining team as they simultaneously investigate the disappearance while also dodging the vengeful gang gunning for Hoskins. The investigation angle takes them into some interesting directions, and I liked the compelling mystery that Fox wove together for this part of the book. The author loads in a ton of misleads, alternate suspects, and problematic witnesses, each of whom muddy the water and ensure that the ultimate solution to the case isn’t too clear until the end. The confrontation between Hoskins and his former gang also forms a great part of this story, especially as there are some excellent twists involved there, and the resulting carnage adds some major danger to the book. However, the best part of this storyline is the partnership between Hoskins and Lamb, which steals the show with its genuineness and fun moments.
Fox has a highly readable writing style that I felt lent itself to this story and helped to turn it into an enjoyable read. Pretty much everything about this book, including its flow, its pacing and the balance of story elements is set up really well, and I had a fun time getting through it. The fast-paced and sharp chapters really move the plot along quickly, and you find yourself reading page after page, trying to see what awesome or intense event will occur next. I liked how Fox split the story focus around Fire With Fire and the constant changes between the investigation for the missing girl and the deadly siege at the lab, really helps to amplify the intensity of the plot and keep the stakes very high. I was also very impressed by the excellent blend of mystery, intense drama, high-octane action, and powerful character development, that were the primary features of the plot. There is a barely a page where Fox isn’t portraying something pretty damn interesting or moving, and you are constantly intrigued with what is going to happen to the characters or the plot moving forward. This ended up being a pretty amazing read, and I had such a great time getting through it.
One of the major writing highlights of Fire With Fire has to be the complex and damaged characters who formed the basis for much of the story. There are some exceptional and well-written characters featured throughout this book, and Fox does a great job of showcasing their inner pain, motivations, and compelling personal pasts to the reader as the focus switches between them. Two of the most notable are the characters of Detective Charlie Hoskins and Lynette Lamb, who serve as the main figures of the investigate arm of the plot. Hoskins is a tough and independent figure who spent five years infiltrating a deadly criminal gang trying to find evidence to put them all away for murder, only to be discovered at the last minute and tortured. Barely recovered from his ordeal, Hoskins spends the book trying to protect his hard-won evidence by finding the missing girl. There is a lot of desperation behind Hoskins as he tries to make all the sacrifices and bad things he did over the last five years matter, and this leads to some great character moments throughout Fire With Fire. There is also a major trauma component behind Hoskins, as he tries to get over the dark things he experienced during his torture and escape, which leads to him making some reckless decisions.
Hoskins is well matched up with his young and somewhat naïve partner Lynette Lamb. Lamb is a rookie cop who was targeted without her knowledge and used to find information that exposed Hoskins to his gang. Fired on her first day on the job, Lamb manages to find Hoskins out of both guilt and determination, hoping that he can get her job back. Thrust together by circumstance, Lamb stubbornly partners up with Hoskins and works with him to find the missing girl. There are a lot of great elements to Lamb’s storyline, and out of all the characters in Fire With Fire, she has the most growth as she tries to prove she is tough and capable enough to be a police officer. The pairing of Hoskins and Lamb is an excellent highlight of the book and I loved how Hoskins reluctantly takes Lamb under his wing and tries to toughen her up., quickly realising there is far more to her than he initially though. The two make an outstanding team, and they both cover the other’s weakness extremely well.
Aside from Hoskins and Lamb, some of the other standout characters include Ryan and Elsie Delaney, who take over the forensic lab and hold the evidence and people there hostage. Fox does an outstanding job portraying the desperation behind these two characters as their obsession about finding their missing daughter, bought on by guilt and anger, drives them to extremes. These two are some of the most complex figures in the entire book, especially as their actions, while bad, are understandable. Other characters, such as Chief Ferboden and Hoskin’s entertaining friend Surge, help to round out the excellent cast of this book and I felt that these great figures really helped to turn Fire With Fire into a powerful and highly enjoyable read.
Overall, this was an amazing novel from Candice Fox, who once again shows why she is one of Australia’s premier crime fiction authors. Fire With Fire had an outstanding and clever narrative to it that really drew me in and kept me extremely engaged the entire way through. The excellent blend of intense narrative, amazing characters and a unique crime fiction scenario was highly effective, and I had a wonderful time reading this awesome book. Fire With Fire comes highly recommended, and you will get really drawn into this great standalone crime fiction novel.
Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy. I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. For this latest Waiting on Wednesday, I highlight a great new upcoming Australian crime fiction novel from one of the breakout authors of 2022 with Ripper by Shelley Burr.
Last year I had the very great pleasure of reading the fantastic first novel from debuting Australian author Shelley Burr, Wake. Set in a dying rural town out in the middle of the Australian outback, Wake examined an infamous crime where a young girl disappeared from her house without a trace, never to be seen again. 19 years later, two determined people with their own traumas attempt to find out what happened to the missing girl, including her haunted twin sister and a professional investigator with secret reasons for trying to solve the mystery. Wake ended up being an outstanding novel and I loved how its compelling and intense mystery unfolded while also expertly showing off the desolate local landscape. This was such an amazing read and it ended up being one of my top debuts and favourite Australian fiction novels of 2022.
Due to how impressive her first book turned out, I have been eager to see what Burr would come up with next and I was very happy that details about her second book was recently released. This second book is Ripper, which is currently set for release in August 2023, and will take the reader to a new outback town with a murderous past, this time as the location of a serial killer’s final three murders.
Gemma Guillory has lived in Rainier her entire life. She knows the tiny town’s ins and outs like the back of her hand, the people like they are her family, their quirks as if they were her own.
She knows her once-charming town is now remembered for one reason, and one reason only. That three innocent people died. That the last stop on the Rainier Ripper’s trail of death seventeen years ago was her innocuous little teashop. She knows that the consequences of catching the Ripper still haunt her police officer husband and their marriage to this day and that some of her neighbours are desperate – desperate enough to welcome a dark tourism company keen to cash in on Rainier’s reputation as the murder town.
When the tour operator is killed by a Ripper copycat on Gemma’s doorstep, the unease that has lurked quietly in the original killer’s wake turns to foreboding, and she’s drawn into the investigation. Unbeknownst to her, so is a prisoner named Lane Holland.
Gemma knows her town. She knows her people. Doesn’t she?
Ripper sounds like it is going to be quite an awesome book. I love the idea of returning to another town whose reputation has been tainted by a notorious crime, and the setting of Ripper is pretty cool with its connection to the Rainier Ripper. Seeing a dark tourist company coming to town, only to be targeted by a copycat at the place of the original killer’s last stand sounds fantastic, especially as it is going to reopen all the wounds the previous killings left open.
I have no doubt that Burr will produce an excellent mystery around that premise, however, the thing that is really interesting to me about Ripper’s plot synopsis is the reference to the prisoner Lane Holland. Holland was one of the protagonists of Wake, so it looks like Ripper is going to be a direct sequel to Burr’s first book. I am very interested in seeing Burr continue Holland’s story from Wake, especially as the character’s attempts to stop his terrible father saw him sent to jail, and it will be cool to see how the author brings him into this latest story. While I was definitely going to seek out Burr’s new book no matter what, the fact that is a sequel is a major selling point to me and Ripper is now one of the books I most excited for in the next few months. Ripper has a ton of potential and I look forward to seeing how this talented new Australian author follows up her first epic novel.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 May 2023)
Series: Standalone/Book One
Length: 375 pages
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
Acclaimed Australian screenwriter Joan Sauers makes her crime fiction debut in a big way with the clever and enticing mystery novel, Echo Lake, a riveting read that makes great use of its iconic Australian setting.
Following an ugly divorce, historian Rose McHugh decides to completely uproot her life and move out of the hustle and bustle of Sydney. Following her dreams of a rural lifestyle, Rose moves to the Southern Highlands of Australia, buying a rustic cabin outside the town of Berrima. However, despite her hopes of an idealised and quiet life in the countryside, Rose is about to discover that the Southern Highlands have some big secrets.
After an encounter with a local thug, Rose makes an intriguing discovery of an undeveloped roll of film buried in her back garden. Burning with curiosity, Rose develops the photos, only to discover that they contain the last known pictures of a beautiful young woman who went missing six years earlier and who the police suspect was murdered. Fascinated by the mysterious turn of events, Rose decides to do her own digging into the case.
However, rather than the fun adventure she was expecting, Rose soon finds herself in grave danger when one of the people she talks to winds up dead. Going against the advice of the police, Rose continues her investigation, working with a cohort of new friends from around the local towns. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she discovers that there is something sinister going on in her new home. Can Rose uncover the truth before it is too late, or will she also end up a cautionary tale of the Southern Highlands?
This was an excellent first novel from Sauers, who takes the reader on a magical and entertaining journey into a great Australian setting with this gripping murder mystery. Echo Lake is a fantastic read that really does a good job of drawing you in with its scenic and beautiful locales before hooking you with the captivating mystery. Sauers starts the story off strongly, showcasing the location while also introducing you to protagonist Rose McHugh, whose complex history, relationships, and canine companion makes her quite an appealing character. The initial chapters focus on her getting her bearing in the various towns of the Southern Highlands, including meeting members of the supporting cast, before she is dragged into the mystery of the missing woman thanks to a discovery of film in her backyard. From there the mystery develops at a quick pace, as a witness is murdered, and Joan finds herself both a target and a suspect. Doing her own investigation, she uncovers several new clues that slowly begin to unravel the mystery, which becomes her new obsession. At the same time, Sauers provides an intense and compelling examination into Rose’s life in the Southern Highlands, as well as her complex history and desires for the future. There are some moving moments as Rose attempts to get her life on track and this ties nicely into the final revelations about who the killer is and how they have been targeting people. This results in an intense and captivating conclusion that I was pretty hooked to, and this ended up being a really good and entertaining read.
I quite liked how Echo Lake turned out, and Sauers did a fantastic job of creating a novel that was both exciting and heartfelt. Echo Lake falls within the cosy mystery subgenre as the book is often focused on Rose’s life and amateur sleuthing rather than scenes of death and carnage. I felt that the author got the right balance of character development, scene setting and personal drama within Echo Lake that served as a great counterbalance to the crime fiction side of things. You really get to know and appreciated Rose and the cast of supporting characters, and it will be fun to see them again if Sauers ends up doing a sequel. I will admit that I wasn’t always the biggest fan of the protagonist, mainly because Sauers gave her psychic vibes (a major cliché for me) and she makes a lot of silly decisions. Despite this, I still really enjoyed her emotional journey, and she served as a great focus for the plot. Sauers also produced a great mystery in Echo Lake, and I liked how twisty and complex it got in the places. The raft of intriguing and memorable supporting characters worked to create multiple possible suspects, each of whom may have had a connection to the case, and you are left wondering for a good portion of the novel who might have done it. I think the eventual reveal of the killer was done well and Sauers set it up with some clever clues. As such, this ends up being a very impressive read and I had a great time getting through this classy and compelling read.
While I loved the story and characters, for me the best and most iconic part of Echo Lake was the author’s brilliant use of setting as she explores the Southern Highlands of Australia. The Southern Highlands is a historical area of Australia that lies between Canberra and Sydney, and which is now filled with picturesque small towns that cater to the tourist trade. Sauers’ is clearly a fan of this area and makes great use of this setting throughout Echo Lake, featuring several notable local towns and bush locations, often in entertaining and clever ways. Due to a lifetime of travelling between Canberra and Sydney, I am well familiar with these towns, and I can say that Sauers did a pretty awesome job of capturing their feel and layout. You can really sense each town’s distinctive vibes through Sauers’ writing, and I loved how she captured the beauty and sense of community that they have. The author goes out of her way to feature as many iconic places from these locations as possible, including several of the better cafes, stores, pubs, and even the local dog park. I was personally happy that Sauers featured the iconic and fun antique shop, Dirty Janes, in her novel (a favourite of my wife/editor), and Echo Lake often came across a bit like a tourist brochure at times.
However, the really impressive setting descriptions in Echo Lake come when Sauers looks at the bushland that surrounds the central town locations. Many of the most dramatic moments of Echo Lake occur out in the ancient bush and walking trails the area is known for, and the author does a beautiful job showing how isolated, quiet and hauntingly beautiful these bush locations can be. These descriptions run the gauntlet from awe-inspiring to extremely sinister, depending on the tone of the story, but they always work to enhance the book no matter the scene. As such, I was deeply impressed by the authors use of setting, and I loved how well she featured this familiar Australian location into this amazing novel.
Overall, Echo Lake was a great first novel from Joan Sauers who produced a comfortable and intriguing Australian murder mystery. I loved the interesting story and striking settings of Echo Lake, which work wonderfully together to produce a captivating and entertaining read. A fantastic novel that is really worth checking out.
Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy. I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. In this latest Waiting on Wednesday, I highlight a fantastic upcoming novel that is likely to be one of the funniest and most compelling Australian reads of 2023 with Everyone on This Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson.
One of the benefits of living in Australia as I have the great pleasure of receiving and reading multiple Australian novels each year, which has really introduced me to some fantastic writers. One of the most solid and fun in recent years is Benjamin Stevenson, who has really made his mark on the Australian crime fiction landscape. Previously known as a comedian with his twin brother, Stevenson made his crime fiction debut back in 2018 with the impressive murder mystery Greenlight. Released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia, Greenlight was an excellent novel that followed a guilt-ridden true-crime documentary maker who might have gotten a murderer out of jail. This was an outstanding read and Stevenson followed it up in 2020 with the sequel book Either Side of Midnight (one of my favourite Australian books of 2020) which saw his protagonist investigate another elaborate murder made to look like a very public suicide. Both these books were extremely good and I loved the compelling combination of clever mystery and a complex protagonist.
While I enjoyed his original two crime fiction novel, I personally don’t think that Stevenson really hit his stride as an author until last year when he presented his epic read, Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone. Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone was a brilliant and captivating novel that saw the protagonist recount a complex family tale in memoir format of a very complicated family reunion at a ski resort where the guests started ending up murdered. Of course, everyone in the family is a potential suspect as, like the title of the book suggests, they have all been responsible for someone’s death in the past. Not only was this a very clever and entertaining story, but Stevenson also loaded the plot with a ton of humour while also making a ton of homages to classic whodunnits and locked room mysteries. Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone was an exceptional novel that got an easy five-star rating from me and ended up being one of the best Australian novels of 2022.
I really, really loved Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone, as it was such a fantastic novel, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Stevenson was planning a sequel to it with the focus of this article, Everyone on This Train is a Suspect, which is set for release in October 2023. As the name suggests, this new novel will see the protagonist of Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone get involved in another series of murders, this time aboard a train setting.
Ernest Cunningham returns in a deliciously witty locked room (train) mystery.
When the Australian Mystery Writers’ Society invited me to their crime-writing festival aboard the Ghan, the famous train between Darwin and Adelaide, I was hoping for some inspiration for my second book. Fiction, this time: I needed a break from real people killing each other. Obviously, that didn’t pan out.
The program is a who’s who of crime writing royalty:
the debut writer (me!)
the forensic science writer
the blockbuster writer
the legal thriller writer
the literary writer
the psychological suspense writer.
But when one of us is murdered, six authors quickly turn into five detectives. Together, we should know how to solve a crime.
Or commit one.
How can you find a killer when all the suspects know how to get away with murder?
Oh dear, now this is going to be pretty damn hilarious. Look I was already hyped about Stevenson’s new novel well before I knew the plot details, but the above synopsis is so fun. There are so many layers to this upcoming story, including the clear Murder of the Orient Express homages, the setting aboard the iconic Ghan train, and the fact that every suspect on the train is a mystery writer of some variety. The idea that one of these authors (which includes the protagonist) is a potential killer and they are using their literary skills to get away with it is brilliant and has a lot of potential from a mystery and narrative perspective.
However, the thing that I am most looking forward to in Everyone on This Train is a Suspect is the way that Stevenson will no doubt lovingly lampoon every single one of these different crime fiction sub-genres in his own fantastic way. He did such an outstanding job of both satirising and exemplifying the whodunnit novel in his last book, which is what I assume he is planning for the sequel. Simultaneously examining and making fun of several different crime fiction genres is going to be a big ask from the author, but I honestly have no doubt he can pull it off and turn it into something special for all crime fiction readers.
Look, based on how good Stevenson’s previous novels, especially Everyone in my Family Has Killed Someone, was, there was very little chance that I wouldn’t have grabbed this book later this year. But the fact that Everyone on This Train is a Suspect is an awesome sequel to his previous fantastic novel which aims to further reference and examine fun crime fiction elements is a major selling point to me. Stevenson honestly gets better with every book he writes, and this new novel has so much damn potential as a result. As such, I have no doubts whatsoever that Everyone on This Train is a Suspect is going to be a remarkable read and I am fully expecting it to be one of the absolute best Australian novels of the year.
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 7 March 2023)
Length: 349 pages
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The always compelling Anthony Hill returns with another highly detailed dive into Australian history with The Investigators, a fascinating and extensive read that focuses on a truly unique historical voyage.
Fans of Australian fiction will be well aware that there are a ton of outstanding authors out there at the moment who seem dedicated to exploring some of the more obscure or deeply interesting moments in colonial Australian history. Due to the attention these books get from Australian publishers I tend to read a few of these each year and I always appreciate the love these authors clearly have for the country’s history and their desire to set interesting stories about it. One of the more notable of these is Canberran author Anthony Hill, who has written several novels that cover different figures and events connected with the European settlers in Australia. I have enjoyed a couple of his books over the years, including last year’s intriguing read, The Last Convict, which told the life story of Australia’s last surviving convict. His new book, The Investigators, takes a new path as it focuses on a particularly noteworthy nautical voyage, that of Matthew Flinders and the HMS Investigator.
‘Our discoveries have been great, but the risks and misfortunes many.’
John Franklin always wanted to be a sailor. As a volunteer in the Royal Navy at age fourteen, he found himself in the Battle of Copenhagen, but nothing could prepare him for the adventure of a lifetime, when he set off in 1801 with his cousin Matthew Flinders on HMS Investigator as it sought to chart the first circumnavigation of Australia.
Taking on responsibility for the chronometers, under the jealous eye of Flinders’ younger brother, the young midshipman found all the action, adventure and excitement he’d hoped for in his new life at sea. It inspired him to become one of the great navigators and explorers of the 19th century.
However, he wasn’t quite so prepared for the other challenges that life onboard had in store – the rivalries with fellow shipmates, the shortages of food, and the harsh realities of what they encountered in the colonies. Danger, disease and death seemed to follow in their wake, and even the Investigator herself was at serious risk of destruction, having to flee to Koepang in present-day Indonesia for repair.
The history books tell us that the first circumnavigation of Australia was completed on this voyage – but award-winning and bestselling author Anthony Hill tells us how it was achieved. The Investigators is an unforgettable story of high adventure, exploration, shipwreck and survival as a young sailor comes of age.
This was a pretty interesting book from Hill that I personally had a great time getting through, even though I know it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. As you can tell from the plot synopsis, The Investigators tells the complete story of the HMS Investigator, under the command of Matthew Flinders, as it made its incredible journey to circumnavigate Australia, the first recorded voyage to do so. Told from the perspective of young midshipman, John Franklin, who himself goes on to become a notable captain and explorer, The Investigators covers the entirety of the voyage, including its delayed beginning and chaotic conclusion in extreme detail, focusing on every major occurrence that was recorded in the historical record.
Now, I must admit that this is a part of Australian history that I was not particularly familiar with, which is a shame, as it was pretty extraordinary. However, that is no longer the case, as Hill really goes out of his way to showcase the voyage in all its historical detail. No stone is left unturned as Hill takes the reader through the entire course of the voyage, and it proves to be extremely interesting to see just what the crew went through. The full extent of this journey is exceedingly fascinating, and while most of the voyage is focused on exploration and cartography, which is interesting in its own way, there are more exciting features such as disasters, deaths, feuds, politics, first contacts, starvation, disease, the French, and even a major shipwreck. This naturally results in quite the intense narrative, and I found myself hooked as I continued on trying to find out what happened throughout this voyage.
While the voyage of the HMS Investigator is pretty interesting, I will admit that Hill’s writing style was at times rather dry. This is mainly because he was determined to fit as much historic detail into his book as possible, and this often bogs down the flow the story. For portions of its run, The Investigators felt more like a non-fiction history book or a biography rather than a novel, especially when some of the sections are filled with substantial amounts of historical context or details about what future impacts certain events or discoveries would have. It also did not help that some of the dialogue was lifted from quotes in historical journals, all in the name of realism, which produced some of the clunkiest moments in the book. While Hill does try to mitigate this at times, such as by focusing the story on a young, eager character with his own exciting future rather than the complex captain on his most iconic voyage, it did get hard to get through the detail rich text at times. As such, this is going to be a harder novel for some readers to enjoy, especially if you were looking for an exciting story rather than a historical treatise. Still, I personally found it to be compelling and I loved how deep that Hill went into the events. The highly detailed examinations of everything, even day-to-day events on the ship or the many intricacies of exploration, proved to be quite fascinating, and I loved seeing absolutely everything that occurred on this voyage and Hill’s take on them.
Overall, The Investigators by Anthony Hill is an interesting and complex read that fans of Australian or nautical history are going to have an amazing time with. Hill really dives into this extraordinary tale out of history and readers come away with a complex appreciation for every single aspect of this epic trip. While Hill’s writing will probably not be for everyone, the sheer amount of history within is well worth the read and I had a great time learning more about the HMS Investigator. This will be a great book for those with a love of history.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 May 2023)
Series: The Isles of the Gods – Book One
Length: 456 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s best young adult fantasy authors, Amie Kaufman, returns with another impressive and captivating read that combines amazing fantasy elements with a great cast of teenage characters in The Isles of the Gods.
Amie Kaufman is an outstanding Australian author who has produced several amazing series over the years. While she has written individual series, such as her Elementals trilogy, Kaufman’s career has been particularly defined by her collaborations with other impressive authors, including Meagan Spooner, with whom she cowrote the Starbound trilogy and Unearthed series, and Jay Kristoff, with whom she cowrote The Illuminae Files series. I best know Kaufman from another series she wrote with Kristoff, the Aurora Cycle trilogy. This outstanding trilogy, which featured the amazing books Aurora Rising, Aurora Burning and Aurora’s End, told a brilliant story about a squad of teenage space peacekeepers as they attempt to save the universe from all manner of dangerous threats. I had a lot of fun with this series, and I have been meaning to read more from both Kaufman and Kristoff for a while. As such, I was very excited when I received a copy of Kaufman’s new young adult fantasy, The Isles of the Gods, and I made sure to read it as soon as I could.
Following a devastating war between the gods that destroyed nations, peace has reigned in the world for five hundred and one years. This peace was hard won, as the aggressive Macean, God of risks, was only brought to heel by the actions of the warrior God Barrica and her followers from the Kingdom of Alinor. The sacrifice of Alinor’s king allowed Barrica to imprison her brother in a deep sleep, one that Macean has been unable to awaken from in half a millennium. With the other gods stepping back from reality, only Macean and Barrica remain in the world, with Barrica serving as eternal sentinel over her brother’s sleep. However, as tensions once again being to rise in the world and Barrica’s power seems to fade, the people of Mellacea, loyal followers of Macean, begin to plot war with Alinor and seek to bring back Macean once again.
Selly is a young and ambitious sailor whose many desires, be they the command of her own ship or of magic, seem always just out of her reach. Trapped by circumstance in the Alinor capital of Kirkpool, Selly plots to sneak away from her controlling ship’s captain and try to reach her father. However, her plans are ruined when she unexpectedly runs into the cocky and flamboyant Prince Leander of Alinor. A powerful magician generally considered a fop by his people, Leander commandeers Selly and her ship for a secret mission to the legendary Isles of the Gods, where Leander needs to perform a ritual which could end the war before it even begins.
As the journey begins, Selly finds herself clashing with the prince, who she sees as spoiled and incapable of taking his responsibilities seriously. But as they continue, they soon find themselves caught in the middle of a disaster. Forces from Mellacea are plotting to start the war, and their first strike destroys the diversionary fleet Leander was supposed to be travelling on. Fleeing from enemies on all fronts, Selly and Leander will need to work with a young scholar to survive and try to achieve their goal. But to win, they’ll need to defeat a dangerous group of killers which includes an ambitious criminal desperate to prove herself to her sister and her god, and one of Leander’s former best friends, who is determined to get revenge. Can Selly and Leander succeed and stop the war, or will the gods once again rise to devastate the world?
Kaufman produces another elaborate and captivating read with The Isles of the Gods, which I had an outstanding time reading. Featuring an excellent new fantasy setting, a powerful young adult narrative, and some absolutely amazing characters, The Isles of the Gods is an epic read that I managed to power through in a few fantastic days.
The Isles of the Gods has an excellent and fast-paced young adult fantasy narrative that is guaranteed to drag you in and keep you hooked the entire way through. Starting off with a bit of useful exposition, especially in a compelling prelude, the main narrative quickly introduces the reader to the five main characters of the story through their specific perspective chapters. While each character has their own specific story, the main plot is practically split into two as three of the characters, Selly, Leander and Keegan, attempt to head to The Isles of the Gods, while the other two characters, Jude and Laskia, are involved in the plot to kill Leander. Kaufman builds up an intriguing and powerful story around these alternate narratives, and the reader is soon caught in the captivating journey across the sea that each of them undertakes. Split into four parts, the story has a good flow to it as all the characters find obstacles to overcome. This includes a nautically focused first part, an intense second part with the protagonists trapped in enemy territory, a short third part which again is strongly nautically based, while the climatic fourth part brings everything together as the reader is engulfed in tragedy and the intriguing conclusion to several character arcs and storylines. Each part of the story is pretty exciting and emotionally powerful the entire way through as the characters engage in their respective quests while trying to deal with their many personal dramas and relationships. There are some very dark moments loaded into the narrative and I deeply appreciated the way that Kaufman slowly teased out revelations about each character ensuring that there was always more for the reader to learn. The Isles of the Gods ends on a very interesting note as every character completes their respective arcs and a new potential chapter of their life is revealed. It is very clear that there is a lot more of this story to go and it will be quite intriguing to see what happens in the author’s next novel.
Kaufman utilised an excellent and easy to enjoy writing style in The Isles of the Gods that complimented the complex narrative and ensured that the reader would get really caught up in all the relevant events. The split of the story around five separate point-of-view characters worked exceedingly well, and I really appreciated seeing multiple sides to the same events, especially as you get the perspective of protagonists, antagonists, and reluctant followers, each of which brings something very different to the story. The short, sharp chapters from multiple perspectives really moves the story along at great pace while also leaving plenty of room to develop the characters and dive into the compelling relationships and issues between each of the protagonists. Kaufman hits a fantastic balance between action, intrigue, humour, world building, romance and character growth throughout The Isles of the Gods, and there was barely a second that wasn’t compelling in its own way. I particularly enjoyed the many scenes set on the water as Kaufman had a lot of fun in a primarily nautical novel. Nautically themed fantasy books aren’t always the easiest of things for an author to pull off, but I felt Kaufman did an outstanding job with it as she crafts multiple outstanding sequences out on the waves which is often enhanced by the character’s use of magic.
As I mentioned above, The Isles of the Gods is a young adult novel, which, thanks to its excellent teenage cast, is focused towards a younger audience. This is one of those young adult novels that will appeal to quite a large audience of readers, especially as Kaufman has featured a lot of mature themes throughout the book, including war, death, sacrifice and finding oneself. Teenage readers will really appreciate the way that Kaufman doesn’t pull any punches with her story and leaves a lot of complex elements for them to get to grips with. At the same time, this more mature content, intriguing new fantasy setting, and complicated characters will ensure that older readers can still have a lot of fun with this novel, and any major fantasy fan will deeply enjoy and appreciate the fantastic story that Kaufman pulled together. As such, I would strongly recommend The Isles of the Gods to a huge range of different readers, and there is really something for everybody here.
Something that always impresses me about Amie Kaufman as an author is the way that she can create new and sophisticated new fantasy realms for each of her excellent series. The Isles of the Gods is a particularly good example of this as Kaufman sets her narrative around a great new fantasy realm with some intriguing backstory and elements to it. I loved the cool history, which involves fallen gods and warring nations, that the author works into the overarching plot perfectly, ensuring that all these intriguing details become quite essential to the main story. The resulting world gets some gets some substantial exploration throughout The Isles of the Gods, and Kaufman takes the time to visit some of the more fascinating and distinctive locales in this world, while leaving the door open for more to be explored in the future. The world itself has a good mixture of steampunk technology and magic to it, and I liked how the authors dives into the mechanics behind both religion and the spirt based elemental magic that was so key to the plot. The recurring focus on sacrifice, which proves to be essential for both magic and the gods, was particularly noteworthy, especially as it results in some powerful moments, and it really made these fantasy elements pop. All this creativity from Kaufman helped to turn The Isles of the Gods into an outstanding read, and I look forward to exploring more of this realm in the future.
One of the big highlights of The Isles of the Gods for me was the exceptional collection of focal characters. The plot of this impressive fantasy novel focuses around five teenagers, each of whom have multiple chapters shown from their perspective. Kaufman develops some amazing and moving character arcs across the book and you really get drawn into the personal stories and the intriguing relationships that form between them.
A large amount of the plot revolves around the characters of Selly and Leander, who form the emotional heart of the book. Selly is a sailor and failed magician who is desperate to escape her current life and finally become the captain she things she deserves. She runs straight into the beacon of overconfidence and charisma that is Leander at the start of the book and their storylines end up intertwined the entire way through. Leander is easily the most entertaining character in the entire book and his fun manner, exceptional magical abilities and ability to charm most people will swiftly have you falling in love with him. This works in great contrast to Selly, who is one of the few people unimpressed with Leander, and the two enter a somewhat antagonistic relationship as they clash on everything. Of course, this eventually leads to a romance (this is young adult fiction after all), but the build up to it works really well. The two characters play off each other perfectly, especially as they call out each other’s flaws and mistakes, and you really grow to enjoy the banter between them. Along the way, the characters both address some of their deeper issues, such as Selly’s failure when it comes to contacting spirits and Leander’s inner fears and guilt which drives him to act so over-the-top. Kaufman works these compelling character issues into the narrative extremely well and it helps the reader to build a stronger attachment to Leander and Selly throughout. Their joint arc ends up being a major highlight of The Isles of the Gods, and it will be interesting to see how Kaufman continues it in the future.
The Isles of the Gods features three other point-of-view characters, each of whom has their own distinctive and compelling story arc. The first of these is Keegan, an Alinorish noble who has run away from his family and responsibilities to try and become a scholar. A former classmate of Leander’s, Keegan is dragged into the adventure inadvertently when Leander charters Selly’s ship on which he is a passenger. Portrayed as asexual and a little antisocial, Keegan is a solid member of the cast who is initially reluctant to help but eventually becomes a firm companion to Selly and Leander. His scholarly knowhow and history with Leander lead to some big moments in the novel, and he is partially responsible for Leander’s growth within the book. Another character with a complex history with Leander is Jude, a noble bastard from Alinor who was also at school with Leander and Keegan. However, he has since moved to Mellacea after an apparent betrayal by Leander and now works for a crime lord. Forced into the plot to kill his former friend, Jude goes through quite a lot of conflict throughout the novel as he finds himself getting dragged deeper and deeper into the chaos against his will while also trying to understand his complex past with Leander. Jude serves as a quite a good alternate perspective within the antagonists’ ranks, showcasing a more conflicted and human view of their actions, and his story added a lot to the plot. The final character is Laskia, who serves as the main antagonist of the story. The younger sister of a notorious Mellacean crime lord, Laskia is an ambitious religious fanatic, desperate to prove herself to her sister and to her god Macean. She leads the conspiracy to kill Leander, and despite her ruthless actions is shown to be troubled and unsure of herself. However, her ambitious and righteous fury continue to drive her on, and she has a powerful and dark arc throughout the novel that really drew me in. Honestly, all five point-of-view characters were pretty exceptional, and it will be very interesting to see how Kaufman continues their storylines in the future.
Amie Kaufman continues to dominate the young adult fantasy scene in a big way with her latest epic book, The Isles of the Gods. This very talented Australian author has produced another amazing and awesome read that blends complex characters, a cool new setting, and an addictive and impressive young adult fantasy narrative, that had me hooked the entire way through. I had such a brilliant time reading The Isles of the Gods and I’m extremely keen to see how Kaufman will continue it in the future. This is an exceptional young adult fantasy novel that you need to check out!
Publisher: MacMillan (Trade Paperback – 28 February 2023)
Series: Standalone/Book One
Length: 327 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Fantastic new author Mali Waugh presents her excellent and memorable debut with the Australian crime fiction read, Judgement Day.
Family law judge Kaye Bailey is a woman on the rise. An honest and determined member of Melbourne’s Federal Circuit Court, Kaye is set to be the next chief judge, allowing her to make the changes she’s always dreamed about to make a real difference. However, hours after finding out about her promotion, Kaye is brutally murdered in her chambers.
Detective Jillian Basset has just returned from maternity leave and is having trouble balancing motherhood with her complicated career. Brought in with an arrogant partner to investigate the killing at the courthouse, Jillian hopes to crack the biggest case of her career. However, the murder of Judge Bailey is far more complicated than anyone anticipated, as the victim was a fierce and honest woman whose determination caused her to get on the wrong side of many of her colleagues and the people she ruled on.
As the detectives dive deeper into the judge’s life, they soon find themselves surrounded by potential suspects, from jealous judges to dangerous individuals with grudges against the entire family law system. As they attempt to understand who wanted to kill their victim, Jillian also finds her own life getting even messier, as her return to work raises problems she has been trying to avoid. Can Jillian crack the case before her own life spirals out of control?
Judgement Day was an amazing and captivating Australian novel that got my attention early on. Waugh pulls together a powerful and intense narrative that combines a brilliant murder mystery storyline with some fascinating legal thriller elements to produce a particularly impressive debut.
Waugh has come up with an excellent crime fiction narrative for her debut novel, and I liked the fantastic blend themes and story elements that she introduced throughout the book. Judgement Day starts off with an extended prologue that quickly and effectively sets the scene for the plot, introduces the victim and other key suspects, and showcases the events that led up to her murder. From there, the book primarily focuses on the main character of Detective Jillian Basset, a recent mother who is going through various personal issues as she tries to get back into her career. Forced to work with a new, glory-seeking partner, Jillian finds the journey back into the detective groove hard, but she is soon diving into the complex case before her. Waugh sets up an outstanding police procedural storyline here, as the character being their careful dive into the victim’s life, trying to identify who would have wanted to kill her.
The story moves along at a steady pace and the reader really gets drawn into learning about who the victim is and who might have wanted to kill her. Waugh loads up the story with a ton of great suspects and potential motives at this point, as the protagonists find out about all the drama that occurs behind the scenes of the court system. This takes the story in several intriguing directions, and you are soon hooked on the various leads that are presented to you. At the same time, Waugh paints a very complex and heartbreaking tale about the main character’s personal life, which I found to be just as interesting and moving as the tragic murder of the main plotline. The rest of the story moves very swiftly, especially as you are pretty invested in solving the case, and I personally managed to knock the second half of the book off in a single night. Several intriguing plot points from earlier in the book, including an infamous divorce case, jealousy from other judges, a kidnapping, and some intriguing character history, are brought together in a very clever way as the solution to the murder presents itself. Waugh set everything up extremely well, and I really liked the clever clues and hints that she had scattered through the rest of the book. The final resolution of the case, as well as the reveal of the murderer’s motivation and methods, was handled well, and I really liked how Waugh brought everything together and left the reader with a very satisfying conclusion.
While the story itself is very strong, I also liked some of the clever and compelling elements that Waugh added in to make it even more complex and emotionally powerful. The most prominent of these is the inclusion of some fascinating legal thriller elements that enhanced Judgment Day’s police procedural storyline and really helped to book stand out to me. Waugh uses all her experiences as a lawyer to paint an intriguing picture of the family court system in Melbourne, and the struggles and work of its judges become a key part of the plot. This leads to several other intriguing elements, such as domestic violence and the issues that professional women face in the workforce, especially when it comes to balancing family and the opinions of their male colleagues with a successful career. These elements are blended into the narrative in a smart and thoughtful way, and I liked how it forced the protagonists to examine the case from several different angles. While these intriguing elements are great, the focus on classic police work is still very strong, and I really enjoyed the impressive mystery that Waugh wove together in Judgement Day. The author’s focus on the character development and personal issues added a great deal to the overall story, and this ended up being quite a powerful read.
The characters that Waugh chose to focus the story on are a particular strength of Judgement Day, and I deeply appreciated some of the emotionally rich personal storylines that developed around them. In particular, Detective Jillian Basset was a brilliant lead, and you can tell that Waugh really poured her heart into her development. Not only was she everything you want in a police detective protagonist, smart, determined and empathetic to the victim, but she is also dealing with some deeper issues related to her recent maternity leave. While this initially shows itself to be her struggling to return to the office and fearing losing her place on the team, Waugh slowly reveals that her issues are much more concerning as she is suffering from postnatal depression. Feeling unable to connect with her new child, Jillian instead focuses on her work and neglects her family, leading to strain and conflict in her personal life. Waugh does an excellent job of examining her protagonist’s personal issues throughout Judgement Day, and the frank and powerful look at her mental health concerns was a key part of the book.
I also need to highlight Jillian’s new partner, Sergeant John McClintock, who was brought in as her temporary replacement while she was on leave. Now working together, McClintock initially comes across as an arrogant and ambitious male figure trying to overshadow the main protagonist, and the two have trouble working together. However, rather than stick with this cliche, Waugh provides a deeper look into McClintock and you realise that a lot of his attitudes are a façade brought on by his own issues. Waugh works these into the story really well, and Jillian and McClintock soon grow to understand each other and are able to help each other in their own ways. This partnership becomes a great part of the book, and I enjoyed these two main characters, as well as the intriguing supporting cast of suspects, witnesses and Jillian’s family, which add a great deal to story as a whole.
Overall, Judgement Day was an impressive Australian crime fiction debut from Mali Waugh and one that I am very glad I got the chance to check out. The outstanding story with its complex mystery, intriguing elements and fantastic characters ensured that I had an excellent time reading Judgement Day. I think that Waugh really showcased her writing ability with her first book and I think this is the start of an amazing new talent.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 29 November 2022)
Series: Timothy Blake – Book Four
Length: 416 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s leading and most diabolical thriller writers, the exceedingly talented Jack Heath, returns with another twisted and immensely clever mystery, Headcase, which sees the return of his cannibalistic protagonist, Timothy Blake.
While Australia has quite a few outstanding crime fiction authors, Jack Heath is a particular favourite of mine. Coming from my hometown of Canberra, Heath has been writing for years, producing a range of different series and standalone novels. I have really enjoyed some of his recent books, including the 2021 standalone novel, Kill Your Brother, an ultra-intense and amazing five-star read that saw a young woman with a complex past forced to make a terrible decision: kill her imprisoned brother or die herself. This was one of my favourite Australian novels of 2021, and it is a must-read for anyone keen for a powerful and thrilling story. However, Heath is probably best known for his Timothy Blake books (also known as the Hangman series), which are particularly fun and gruesome. Following the titular Timothy Blake, a brilliant investigator with cannibalistic tendencies, this epic series are set around a unique but highly entertaining series of mysteries that really draw the reader in. I have had an amazing time with this series, including the third entry in the series, Hideout (one of my favourite Australian books of 2020), and I have been very excited to see how this series continues for a while. Heath did not disappoint as the fourth and latest entry in the series, Headcase, proved to be an exceptional and gripping read.
Following his previous harrowing adventure, which cost him his arm and burned all the trust he had with his former FBI partner, freelance investigator and full-time cannibal Timothy ‘Hangman’ Blake’s future seemed in doubt, until he was given an offer he couldn’t refuse. Recruited by a CIA agent nearly as insane as he is, Blake now works freelance for the agency, investigating odd occurrences throughout the country in exchange for occasionally being able to indulge in his cannibalistic habit.
His latest case sees him and his CIA partner, Zara, journey to Houston, where something unexplainable has occurred at the NASA training complex. A fully suited Chinese astronaut has been discovered on the grounds of the facility and no one can explain how he got there. Did he fall out of the sky, or was he murdered elsewhere and somehow dragged into the middle of a secure United States facility? As a diplomatic catastrophe seems imminent, Blake is drafted by the CIA to unofficially investigate one of the facility’s employees, a former kidnapper who Blake helped put away seven years ago, who may hold the secret of the dead astronaut.
As Blake starts digging, he uncovers a series of surprising and unusual clues that seemed design to confuse any investigation. The evidence seems to point to the victim falling out of a Chinese spacecraft surveilling the United States, however, all Blake’s investigative senses and knowledge of human flesh seem to tell him differently. But with Chinese hit squads following them, the CIA attempting to forestall their investigation, several suspicious individuals working in the facility attempting to misdirect him, and Blake’s own ravenous hunger driving him crazy, this case seems near impossible to solve. Can the Hangman crack the impossible one more time, or will he finally end up in the cage that he deserves?
Wow, I just cannot get over how good Jack Heath is an author as he produces another outstanding and captivating read with a diabolical story behind it. This amazing thriller has everything you need to enjoy yourself, including a clever mystery and some truly insane characters, and I absolutely powered through it trying to see how everything came together. This is an easy five-star read from me and I have already featured Headcase on my Top Australian Books of 2022 list a few weeks ago.
Headcase has a brilliant story to it that takes the reader on a very wild ride into some very gruesome murders. Told from the perspective of main character Timothy Blake, you are soon shown the compelling murder through the eyes of a crazed cannibal who is attempting to simultaneously solve a murder and please the CIA while not revealing that they are looking into the death and sate his own hunger for dead human flesh. Heath provides a great set-up to this entire story with the mysterious Chinese astronaut discovered in the centre of the NASA facility, which is a very good hook to drag the reader in. As Blake tries to investigate this case, the reader is treated to several flashback chapters to when Blake was working for the FBI and helped to put away one of the NASA technicians for kidnapping, a crime Blake never believed he committed. Heath also mixes things up by also including several chapters set a short while into the future in which Blake is incarcerated in a mental institution and is recounting the current story to his psychologist. This three-way split storyline works extremely well for the first half the book as all three timelines support the others extremely well, and the blend of different periods and focuses helps to create a very interesting read. The storyline focusing on the dead astronaut remains at the centre of the narrative, with the other two plotlines tying into it, and this is where the magic truly happens. Heath sets up a particularly interesting mystery around the dead astronaut, with the protagonist forced to dive through a ton of clues, overly dodgy suspects, and government secrets to try and get to the truth. At the same time, Blake and his partner find themselves under attack from several sources, such as Chinese hit squads, the police, a mysterious serial killer, and their own very dark inner demons.
The story advances at a quick clip the entire way through as the characters power through a range of deadly and dark scenarios. Heath loads up the clues and the complicated supporting characters and it proves very interesting to see Blake attempt to work out who may be responsible and their very complex motivations. Much of the story has a bit more of a spy thriller taste to it, thanks to Blake’s association with the CIA and this really helps to make Headcase standout a little from the previous Timothy Blake books. The NASA and Chinese space surveillance proves to be a very fascinating inclusion that Heath cleverly works into the plot, and I loved that the author was able to write a whole story about mysterious Chinese surveillance craft before the current balloon crisis. While these spy elements, which include brutal encounters with hit teams from various agencies, are a great new inclusion, some of the best parts of the book still revolve around the deeper character moments of the story, especially when it comes to the protagonist. I deeply enjoyed how Heath utilises his protagonist’s disturbing cannibalistic insights as an investigative tool, while other insights into his mind, especially when he is in a mental institution, increase the tension and make you wonder just how reliable a narrator Heath truly is.
Everything comes together perfectly in the second half, especially when Blake is desperately trying to solve everything, not only to get to the truth but to save lives. All the previous story elements are brought together in a big way, and it was outstanding how the clues that Heath had cleverly laid throughout the story came together. The time split perspectives are resolved in a great way, and it is a lot of fun to see how Blake ended up in the mental hospital. Everything leads up to several big reveals at the end of the book, not just surrounding the main murder, but other curious events that have been explored as Headcase continues, and reader will not be disappointed in what comes to light, nor how the protagonist deals with it. The full details about the compelling and unique motivations for the main murder makes for a very interesting read, and the diabolical method of murder is something that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. While I did find that the use of a certain McGuffin was somewhat unrealistic, even for this crazy series, I was generally extremely happy with how the entire novel came together. The complex mystery is resolved in a very captivating way, and the character arcs that sit at the centre of the story go in some very interesting direction which should result in some fantastic books in the future. I personally came away from Headcase extremely elated and deeply impressed with just how clever an author Heath is.
On top of the outstanding and fantastically compelling story, I have a lot of love for Heath’s writing style, which deeply enhances each of his books. The quick pace, the fantastic dives to both the past and future, and the intense blend of mystery and insane personal issues surrounding the main characters, makes for some outstanding reading, and there honestly isn’t a single part of Headcase that wasn’t extremely fascinating or fun. Understandably, due to the story content, this is a pretty gruesome series, and Heath doesn’t hold back on the detailed depictions of dead bodies, nor the terrible things that his protagonist does to them. However, he never goes way too over-the-top, and the gore and cannibalism always serves a vital purpose, either to provide clues to the mystery or to highlight the protagonist’s complex nature. It also helps to make the series particularly distinctive, even amongst other impactful thrillers, and you must love just how obsessed and focused the main character/narrator is about dead bodies. Like most of the books in this series, Headcase can be very easily read as a standalone novel, and Heath is very careful to concisely fill in any relevant details that the reader might need. However, as with most ongoing series, those people who have read the earlier books in the series will probably get a lot more out of Headcase emotionally, especially when it comes to seeing the progression of the protagonist. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Headcase to a new reader, as they are guaranteed to have a fun and unique time with this outstanding read.
I must highlight Heath’s captivating and complex central protagonist, Timothy Blake, who is once again one of the best things about this entire book. I really love the character of Blake in this series as he is such an intriguing and damaged character due to his deranged cannibalistic tendencies, which often drive him to do terrible things in the name of obtaining human flesh. There are so many great scenes where Blake feels his desire and hunger for human meat start controlling his actions and the character is constantly fighting for some measure of self-control. Despite this, he is a relatively good person and a skilled investigator whose keen observation skills, canny insights, intense survival instincts, and intimate knowledge of human bodies give him some intriguing edges during a case. While he often likes to pretend that he is only helping the case to get fresh meat, he is also obsessed with finding the truth and getting justice, which, when combined with his romantic desires for his former FBI partner Reese Thistle make him occasionally seem like a good, if highly damaged, person. These seemingly incompatible parts of his personality are so damn effective, and it is always quite fascinating to see what part of his personality actually wins: the feral hungry beast or the surprisingly heroic detective.
The version of Blake in Headcase is particularly interesting as Heath comes up with some new range of issues and problems for him to overcome on top of his all-consuming hunger. After managing to survive his particularly desperate situation in Hideout, he has a somewhat different lease on life which goes with his new job. However, he is still in love with Thistle, even after their confrontations in the last two books, and this is encouraging him to be a better person. This desire to be a better person somewhat goes against the desires of his new masters in the CIA, especially his partner Zara, who try to use his fractured mind to their advantage and his desire to change for Thistle puts both her and Blake at risk. He also undergoes therapy for the first time in his life, albeit somewhat against his will. These scenes with the psychologist are particularly fascinating as they discuss his cannibalistic desires and his general sanity. While the psychologist doesn’t believe he is a cannibal, her insights give Blake a lot to think about, especially when he comes to the revelation that he might be able to overcome these life-long issues if he sought treatment. This really alters Blake’s perspective of his entire life, and it, as well as some insights he gets from viewing other patients at the mental hospital he is locked in, proved to be a very interesting tipping point for the character growth we have witnessed throughout the series. It will be very interesting to see how Heath continues to explore and highlight Blake in the future and I have a feeling we are only on the start of a particularly dark and emotionally rich journey.
In addition to Blake, Heath has loaded Headcase with an intriguing array of unstable and entertaining supporting characters who add some awesome value to the entire novel. The most prominent of these is Blake’s CIA partner in this case, Zara. Zara was introduced in the previous novel, Hideout, when she managed to infiltrate a group of psychotic killers extremely successfully, before recruiting Blake with the promise of bodies to eat. While Zara serves as an effective agent and partner to Blake, she is ultra-violent and has some major mental issues and might even be crazier than Blake (which is saying something). Zara ends up forming a toxic relationship with Blake in this book, especially as she utilises his addiction and leads him into to some deadly and dark situations. She proves to be a fantastic addition to the plot and I love how intense and threatening Heath made her at times. There are some great reveals around her, as well as a certain incident that matches her with Blake, and I loved all the awesome stuff Heath set up around her. Heath also makes sure to bring back Blake’s former FBI partner and love interest, Reese Thistle, who has another interesting run in Headcase. Blake and Thistle have had a very compelling relationship throughout the series, which got even more complicated when Reese found Blake’s fridge full of corpses. Still keeping his secret after he saved her life, Reese is very awkward with Blake, which adds to Headcase’s dramatic tension. Despite this, the two do work together to try and solve the murder and it was nice to see them teaming up again. Of course, this leads to more danger and despair for both of them, but Heath is taking their relationship in some interesting directions, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out. Throw in a compelling group of potential suspects, foreign agents and mental patients that the protagonist has to work his way through to solve this complex case and you have an outstanding group of characters that I had a lot of fun with.
With his latest Timothy Blake novel, Headcase, Jack Heath continues to impress with his epic and captivating take on murder and complex characters. This incredible novel takes the reader on an awesome journey through insanity, obsession, and desperation, all centred around an impossible and very clever mystery. I had a brilliant time powering through Headcase, and I have so much appreciation for Heath’s scary wit and ability to dive into the head of a killer. Headcase is an exceptional book that comes highly recommended, I cannot wait to see what outstanding mysteries and thrillers he produces in the future.
Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 January 2023)
Series: Detective Dana Russo – Book Three
Length: 307 pages
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Impressive author S. R. White continues to lead the Australian outback murder mystery scene with his new and compelling release, Red Dirt Road, the third book in his Detective Dana Russo series. I had the great pleasure of reading the second book in this series, Prisoner, back in 2021 and I really enjoyed his unique take on the outback detective novel. As such, I have been rather excited to read his new book, Red Dirt Road, especially as it featured a particularly enthralling mystery.
One outback town. Two puzzling murders. Fifty suspects.
In Unamurra, a drought-scarred, one-pub town deep in the outback, two men are savagely murdered a month apart – their bodies elaborately arranged like angels.
With no witnesses, no obvious motives and no apparent connections between the killings, how can lone police officer Detective Dana Russo – flown in from hundreds of kilometres away – possibly solve such a baffling, brutal case?
Met with silence and suspicion from locals who live by their own set of rules, Dana must take over a stalled investigation with only a week to make progress.
But with a murderer hiding in plain sight, and the parched days rapidly passing, Dana is determined to uncover the shocking secrets of this forgotten town – a place where anyone could be a killer.
Red Dirt Road ended up being a very fun and captivating murder mystery novel and one I had a wonderful time getting through. I really enjoyed White’s cool and clever plot scenario and the entire concept of a cop attempting to solve a mystery in a small town with limited suspects is a fun idea that harkens back to classic whodunits.
Red Dirt Road’s story itself hits the ground running quickly, as complex protagonist Dana Russo is forced to travel to the small town for the investigation and soon becomes wrapped up in its many foibles. This includes the sheer isolation, the lack of modern comforts and the unusual locals, many of whom are hiding from the outside world. There is also a set of creepy angel-themed statues that mysteriously move around town, the work of a guerrilla artist who has remained hidden since the murders began. With time restrictions on her investigation and with minimal help from the local police, Dana initiates an unconventional investigation that focuses on understanding Unamurra’s society and its people to solve the crime. After getting to grips with the various people living there, as well examining other clues and evidence, she is able to figure out which one of the town’s residents is the most likely killer and confronts them in a particularly fascinating reveal sequence. The full explanation for why the crime was committed, as well as the ingenious and very distinctive motivation of the murderer, was exceedingly clever, and I felt that White set everything up perfectly. While certain elements of the conclusion were a bit over-the-top, (a very unrealistic elite government SWAT team comes to town), I felt that the story was pretty damn impressive and I was absolutely blown away with the elaborate motivation that the author came up with. The plot of Red Dirt Road also simultaneously continues some of the series’ ongoing storylines, such as Dana’s personal relationship with her co-worker and the internal police politics that are impacting her career, and this ended up being quite a gripping read as a result.
One of the most noticeable things about Red Dirt Road was the unique, society-orientated investigation method that the protagonist used to understand the people of Unamurra and find out who the killer was. I personally thought that this was a very smart and intriguing way to frame a murder investigation that worked extremely well in the context of the setting and the series. When I reviewed Prisoner I noted that White likes to highlight the interrogation side of policing with his writing and this was once again in full display when it came to how Dana gathers information in Unamurra. The flurry of casual conversation she engages in ensures she picks up all the knowledge about the town and people she needs, while also putting the potential suspects at ease as they don’t understand her style or the subtle reasons behind her lines of inquiry. This information, when combined with some observations and additional background she gets from headquarters, allows her to pull together a full mental picture of the town and by understanding them and their needs she finally gets the insight she needs to understand the entire situation. This results in a very unique case, and I found myself getting really wrapped up in both the characters and the setting while trying to wrap the clues together in my head. While this style of investigation probably isn’t going to fit every murder mystery fan’s taste, I felt that it worked extremely well and I loved how the elaborate motivation was teased out through these discussions. The final confrontation with the killer and the various revelations it contained really ties all these previous discussions together perfectly and you quickly realise just how cleverly White structured his entire mystery.
On top of the cool investigation method, I also deeply enjoyed the dusty and desolate setting of Unamurra that served as the backdrop to the murders. White really tries to show the reader the full experience of such a lonely and decaying town, and thanks to the excellent descriptive writing you can absolutely picture every cloud of dust, quiet night, and the lack of movement. At the same time, the protagonist begins talking to each of the residents of Unamurra and you really get to understand the sort of people that would live in such a place, whether they are desperate, trapped, or have their own strange motivations. This excellent use of setting and compelling supporting characters greatly enhances the book’s already complex murder investigation, and I felt that White did an amazing job of working it into the larger narrative and mystery. The sheer isolation impacts every decision and insight that Dana has and you really come away trying to imagine what life in such a location would be like. While White does overgeneralise some areas of rural Australia in his book, especially as he makes the location of these crimes geographically vague, this setting added a great deal to the impact of Red Dirt Road and I deeply enjoyed my time in the elaborate setting of Unamurra.
Overall, Red Dirt Road was an outstanding new book from S. R. White that perfectly highlighted his distinctive take on a murder mystery investigation. Combining another outstanding outback setting with a unique case, Red Dirt Road will have you hooked all the way to the fantastic finale. I cannot wait to see what complex stories White comes up with in the future, but if they are anywhere near as clever and enthralling as Red Dirt Road, I know I am going to love them.