Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander

Half Moon Lake Cover.jpg

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback Edition  – 2 January 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 320 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Debuting Australian author Kirsten Alexander presents a dramatic, captivating and hard-hitting novel of desperation and loss loosely based around a real and shocking historical event.

In the summer of 1913, a young boy, Sonny Davenport, walks into the woods around his family’s summer home at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, and never returns.  Despite a widespread search of the surrounding area by an army of volunteers, no trace of the boy can be found.  As the search grows in volume, the disappearance becomes headline news across the country, especially as Sonny’s parents, John Henry and Mary Davenport, are wealthy and influential members of their home town of Opelousas.  For the next two years, the Davenports engage in a desperate hunt for Sonny across the south, offering a massive reward for information on their missing son.  But with no substantiated leads, the Davenports slowly lose hope and Mary sinks more and more into her despair.

However, just when everything seems lost, a boy matching Sonny’s description is found wandering around several southern towns in the company of a tramp.  As the world watches, Mary meets the child and claims that he is Sonny.  But is he truly her missing son?  There are a number of differences between the two boys and many are convinced that the Davenports have taken in the wrong child and the real Sonny is still out there.

As the people of Opelousas, including many of the Davenport’s friends and servants, debate the true identity of this young boy, a kidnapping trial for the tramp begins.  However, the proceedings are thrown into chaos when Grace Mills, an unwed farm worker, arrives in town, claiming that the boy is her son.

This is an outstanding first book from Alexander, who has created a powerful and memorable story based partially around real-life events.  Half Moon Lake is a fantastic and dramatic story that dives deep into the hearts and psyche of its characters and the historical elements of the time to create a lasting impact on the reader.  I was very surprised about how addictive I found this book to be, as the intense character emotions and the dramatic actions that they take to alleviate their grief and the grief of their loved ones was just incredible.  I am still reeling from several of the revelations and developments that occurred towards the end of the book, many of which will stick with me for a long time.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that is partially based on a real-life historical event, the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, which took place in America’s south in the early 20th century.  Bobby Dunbar disappeared when he was four.  After months of searching, a young boy was found some distance away who appeared similar to Bobby and was claimed by Bobby’s parents, despite many people voicing their doubts about the boy’s true identity.  In addition, a second woman attempted to claim the child as her own son, and a legal case was initiated to determine the identity of the child.  I was unfamiliar with the Bobby Dunbar case before I read Half Moon Lake and did not look up the details of it until after I finished the book.  As a result, I was amazed that the intense story was so closely based on a real story.  This case and its eventual results are absolutely fascinating, and I felt that Alexander did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this event and installing it within her story.

For example, the author does an excellent job of portraying the probable emotions, feelings and opinions of people who would have been involved in the real-life disappearance, as she utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout her book.  Readers of Half Moon Lake get a great idea of the despair all of the parents in this story would have experienced, the fear and confusion of the children, and the bewilderment and conflicted emotion of everyone else involved in the case.  I felt that Alexander’s portrayal of the missing child’s mother was done particularly well, as the readers gets to see her so filled with realistic fear, grief and despair that it drives her to try and claim a child that might not even be hers.  I also quite enjoyed the way that the author explored the highly publicised nature of the child’s disappearance and how the media at the time covered the case, dividing those following the case as they try to determine the true fate of the missing child and the real identity of the discovered child.  I also loved the way that the author looked at how the media scrutiny of the time might have affected the individuals involved in the case, and how this could have potentially influenced their actions and decisions.

I also really liked the way that the period’s ideas of class came into effect during this book.  There are some key examinations of the different ways that the rich and the poor were treated during this time, and how this would have impacted the investigation, the search for the missing child, the media scrutiny and overall results of the big trial that served as an important scene at the end of the book.  Also significant and intriguing was the way in which Alexander looked at how concerns for personal and familial reputations might have come into these events, resulting in several characters undertaking various actions that they knew to be wrong, all in the name of protecting someone’s social standing and reputation.  The story is set in America’s south during the early 20th century, and as such there are a number of African American characters who are involved with the case.  Race and the perception of certain ethnicities came into this book a lot more than I thought it would, and I thought that Alexander did a fantastic job capturing how these characters might have been ignored or disciplined for trying to get involved in proceedings.  All of these elements result in an amazing historical tapestry which forms an excellent setting for this story.

Overall, this is an amazing debut from Australian author Kirsten Alexander, who uses the inspiration of a fascinating real-life case to craft an epic and powerful story.  There are so many great story elements spread throughout Half Moon Lake, as the character’s emotions and despair drive them to desperate and immoral acts.  It features a narrative that is at times sad and at other times darn right appalling, and several reveals and character decisions at the end of the book will leave you shocked and will stick in your mind long after you finish reading it.  I loved this spectacular first book from Alexander and I am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

You think you know the story of Dracula?  Prepare to have your understanding of one of history’s greatest horror novels completely turned on its head as Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew presents a captivating new story of horror based off Bram Stoker’s notes and his original version of the iconic book.

The year is 1868, and a young Bram Stoker has barricaded himself in the top room of an abandoned abbey.  This room has crosses carved on every wall, mirrors hanging from every angle and garlic smeared around the door frame, while Bram himself is armed with roses, holy water and a rifle.  Outside the room lurks an ancient evil, its greatest desire to enter the room and claim the man waiting within.  As Bram waits for the sun to rise, he writes in his journal, desperate to describe the events that lead to this moment.

The tale he tells is an intriguing tale of horror and mystery set in the midst of 19th century Ireland.  Bram was born a sickly youth whose constant illness stopped him from leaving his bed for most of his early life.  One of the few points of comfort in his life was his nanny, Ellen Crone, who nursed him through the worst of his maladies.  Bram seemed destined for a short life, until one day a miracle occurs and Bram’s sickness is cured by the mysterious intervention of Nanny Crone.  But as Bram and his sister Matilda investigate the suspicious behaviour and abilities of Nanny Crone, she disappears, leaving behind questions about who, or what, she really was.

Years later, it appears that Ellen Crone has returned, as strange and bloody events haunt the lives of Bram, Matilda and their older brother Thornley.  As they investigate further they find that the mysterious Ellen Crone has not aged a day, is accompanied by those who died years earlier and has a strange hypnotic hold over Bram.  But even as the siblings attempt to find answers, they soon realise a far more powerful and malevolent creature is hunting in Ireland, one who will forever change the life of the Stoker family.

This is one of the most intriguing books of 2018, as it is a reimagining of the origin of one of the world’s most iconic horror novels, Dracula, which was originally published in 1897 by author Bram Stoker.  The authors of this new book are the team of established horror writer J. D. Barker, and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker.  This is not the first Dracula book that Dacre Stoker has had his hand in, as he also wrote the 2009 book, Dracula the Un-dead with Ian Holt, which serves as the official sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracul is a clever and compelling read that takes a deeper look at the story behind the classic horror novel.  The plot of this novel is apparently based upon Bram Stoker’s notes, journals and around 100 pages that were culled from the original draft of Dracula by his editors.  As a result, the authors of Dracul strongly hint that Bram Stoker and his family actually encountered a vampire, and that his experiences led him to publish Dracula as a warning to people about the dangers that were hidden around them and the apparent weaknesses of these creatures.  There is a great quote at the very start of this novel that the authors attribute to Bram Stoker and indicate was part of Dracula’s original preface: “I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

This new novel by Stoker and Barker is an outstanding piece of fiction.  Not only is it a powerful piece of horror fiction in its own right but it has a number of clever and intriguing connections to Dracula.  The horror elements of this book are fantastic, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the dread that surrounds the protagonists as they investigate the horrors that surround them and their family.  There are a number of great scenes throughout this book where the characters encounter supernatural elements that slowly seek to drive them mad with fear or horror, and the attacks come from a variety of sources.  I have to mention the fact that the monster who inspires Dracula is particularly fearsome in Dracul and the authors really paint him as a powerful and soulless being far beyond the comprehension of the human protagonists.  I really loved the overall story of Bram and the other Stokers as they find themselves bound to this adventure at an early age and slowly encounter all the horrors around them.  There are some very clever turns throughout this book, and there are some surprising twists.  This is a great chronicle of Bram’s life and the writers even try to answer some interesting unanswered questions, like why Bram Stoker left instructions to have his body immediately cremated upon his death, an unusual custom for the time.

I really loved the way that this story is told, especially as Stoker and Barker have set large portions of this story out in a similar manner to the original Dracula novel.  Like Dracula, a large part of Dracul’s story is told in an epistolary format, featuring a series of diary entries from Bram and Thornley Stoker, as well as several letters from Matilda Stoker.  This serves to provide the reader with a large amount of backstory to the Stoker lives and show how they initially met their first vampire and the crazy events that followed them uncovering her secret.  This epistolary format is used for around the first two thirds of Dracul, and these journal entries are interlaced with short chapters set in the story’s present, with Bram stuck at the top of a tower and an evil force trying to get into him.  These scenes are particularly awesome, as they show strange forces trying to get through the door in front of Bram, while the protagonists utilise a number of techniques to force it back.  As the book continues, the reader is given a view into why Bram is up in the tower, what he is facing and the truth to everything that is happening to him, revealing a completely different story than you were expecting.  All of this is a fantastic and unique way to tell this story, and I felt it added a lot to the book, especially as the lack of knowledge about what Bram was facing in the tower at the start of the book really increased the book’s early horror elements.  These notes are also an item within the story, as the characters combine their journals together and the letters to Nanny Crone appear in a number of places that the protagonists are exploring.  At one point, the characters even arrange some of the older journals together to form a more coherent story, indicating that these journals and letters formed the basis of Bram Stoker’s original novel, and play into the idea that the events of Dracul could have actually happened.

While this book is a fantastic horror novel in its own right, fans of Dracula will appreciate how this book calls back to the original novel in a number of captivating ways.  For example, the major character of Nanny Crone has her backstory explored at one point and her real name is revealed to be Countess Dolingen of Gratz.  Fans of Stoker’s work may recognise her as a vampiric character featured in Bram Stoker’s 1914 short story, Dracula’s Guest.  While very little about this character was revealed in Dracula’s Guest, Stoker and Barker flesh her out in this book, creating a fascinating backstory for her and an interesting connection to Dracula, perhaps even explaining why she featured in Dracula’s Guest.  There are a number of other interesting features of Dracul that call back to the original novel.  For example, a large part of Dracul is set in Whitby, England, a major setting in Dracula.  I also really enjoyed the inclusion of real life historical figure Ármin Vámbéry as a major character in this book.  Vámbéry, a noted scholar and a close friend of Bram Stoker, is considered by some to be the inspiration for Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, and in Dracul he plays a similar role, understanding the threat that is before them and providing the Stokers with the tools to fight against the Vampires.  I also really appreciated the vampiric lore that Stoker and Barker put into Dracul, as the vampire characters only have the vampiric traits found around the time that Dracula was published, and not the ideas that have been included in more recent versions of the vampire legend.  As a result, Dracul comes across as an intricate and clever tribute to Dracula, which fans of the original novel will greatly appreciate.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker have produced an incredibly exciting and deeply fascinating novel that breathes new life into the familiar story of Dracula.  Setting the plot around the life of a pre-Dracula Bram Stoker and his family is an amazing idea that works incredibly well to create a dark and captivating horror story.  One of the more unique books of 2018, Dracul is definitely worth checking out, especially if you have an appreciation for one of fiction’s greatest and most iconic monsters.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.

In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art.  Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned.  As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges.  While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.

When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation.  The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle.  Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.

However, things can always get worse.  A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged.  The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits.  With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.

As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems.  Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming?  A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council.  It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well.  As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.

City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent.  This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative.  This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.

This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city.  Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue.  The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class.  This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city.  Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal.  The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention.  This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.

One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances.  At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin.  Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure.  The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive.  There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.

In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’.  The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader.  In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book.  These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture.  This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them.  Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill.  There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.

Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies.  The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession.  The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements.  While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.

The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book.  I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders.  The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences.  It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help.  Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.

Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative.  Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series.  This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.

My Rating:

Five Stars