Waiting on Wednesday – The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings

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 rather late Waiting on Wednesday article I check out an amazing upcoming fantasy debut, The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings.

The Ballad of Perilous Graves Cover

I am always extremely keen to check out fascinating and fun debut novels each year and 2022 is already shaping up to be a particularly good year for fresh and talented new authors.  One of the more interesting and unique sounding debuts that has recently caught my eye is the upcoming book, The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings.  Set for release in June 2022, this excellent novel will tell a magical and musical story in an alternate version of New Orleans, as two wizards attempt to save their city from a dangerous lost spell.  I am extremely intrigued by this upcoming book and I cannot wait to get stuck into this cool new magical world, especially with its music-based magic system.  I honestly believe that The Ballad of Perilous Graves has some real potential and I look forward to seeing Jenning’s unique debut come to life.

Synopsis:

In a fantastical version of New Orleans where music is magic, a battle for the city’s soul brews between two young mages, a vengeful wraith, and one powerful song in this vibrant and imaginative debut.

Nola is a city full of wonders. A place of sky trolleys and dead cabs, where haints dance the night away and Wise Women keep the order, and where songs walk, talk and keep the spirit of the city alive. To those from Far Away, Nola might seem strange. To failed magician, Perilous Graves, it’s simply home. Then the rhythm stutters.

Nine songs of power have escaped from the magical piano that maintains the city’s beat and without them, Nola will fail. Unexpectedly, Perry and his sister, Brendy, are tasked with saving the city. But a storm is brewing and the Haint of All Haints is awake. Even if they capture the songs, Nola’s time might be coming to an end.

Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

Black Drop Cover

Publisher: Viper (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Laurence Jago – Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Intriguing and talented new author Leonora Nattrass presents a compelling historical thriller debut with Black Drop, a fantastic novel that drags readers into the conspiracies and issues of late 18th century London.

In July of 1794, as the terror of the French Revolution reaches its height and the war on the continent goes poorly for the British army, uncertainty and fear of violent change infect the people of London.  For Laurence Jago, clerk to the Foreign Office, his position is even more uncertain that those around him.  A young man with hidden French heritage, Jago fears the day that his connections to his mother’s nation will be discovered, especially after spending years serving as a spy for sinister French agent Aglantine.

Now believing himself to be free from Aglantine’s employment, Jago is thrust into an untenable situation when vital confidential information about the British army is leaked from his office to the press.  Suspected by his peers of leaking the information and under investigation, Jago fears that all his secrets and former dealings are about to come out.  His problems are only further compounded when he discovers the body of a fellow clerk in his rooms, supposedly dead by suicide.

When the blame for the leak is shifted onto the dead man, Jago is freed of the suspicion against him.  However, Jago knows that the dead clerk was incapable of stealing the letter and believes that he was murdered.  Determined to find out the truth behind the death, Jago finds himself investigating the highest level of the British civil service and their political masters.  Out of his depth and thwarted at every turn, Jago will risk everything to root out the culprit before they strike to disrupt England again.  However, can he succeed without revealing his own dark secrets, or will Jago hang as a traitor instead of the murderer?

Black Drop is an excellent and clever novel that I had a great time reading as Nattrass perfectly combines a compelling spy thriller/murder mystery storyline with intriguing and detailed historical fiction elements.  This resulted in one of the more unique and fantastic debuts of 2022 and I really enjoyed Black Drop’s impressive story.

This awesome debut novel has an excellent story that expertly combines intriguing spy thriller and murder mystery elements with a character driven historical narrative to create a compelling and impressive read.  Set throughout key events of 1794 and told as a chronicle from the perspective of central character, Laurence Jago, Black Drop presents the reader with an intriguing tale of murder, political machinations and the threat of revolution at the heart of the period’s government.  Nattrass sets the scene perfectly at the start, introducing the key characters while also highlighting the feelings of unrest and dissent as the fear and inspiration from the French revolution hits London.  From there, the story starts to unfold in some interesting directions as the protagonist finds himself involved in political and espionage adventures while also investigating the murder of a fellow clerk, which appears to be connected.  At the same time, the slow-paced story utilises some intriguing aspects from the protagonist’s life as he struggles with dark secrets from his past that have potential implications on the current events.

Following this introduction and the initial parts of the narrative, the middle of Black Drop starts to bring in certain key historical events and figures, which results in some fantastic moments and character interactions, especially once an antagonistic figure becomes more prominent.  While the middle of this novel did drag in places, I felt that Nattrass was providing the reader with the right blend of intrigue, mystery, historical detail and character growth to produce a great overall story.  You really get to grips with the protagonist and the key aspects of the setting during this part of the book, especially when Jago hits a major personal downturn earlier than expected, and interesting reveals enhance the reader’s attachment to the mystery.  The story really starts to pick up once it gets to Nattrass’s recreation of the infamous trial surrounding supposed radical and revolutionary Thomas Hardy.  The ridiculous, and mostly accurate depiction of the trial (with certain elements from other trials thrown in for greater effect), proves to be a great high point for the novel, especially as other key parts of the plot are slotted in perfectly around it.  I did feel that the novel started to come undone around the conclusion a little, especially when it came to the big reveal.  While there were a couple of good twists around certain characters, the solution to the main mystery and the intrigue seemed a little weak to me, and I was a little disappointed with how it turned out, especially as you barely get to see anything about the final confrontation.  Still, this did not affect the overall quality of the story too much, especially as the author throws in an excellent wrap-up for the protagonist’s storyline in this novel which has a lot of potential for a sequel.  While much of the story can be a little sluggish and lacking a lot of action, I had a great time getting through Black Drop, and I loved how the excellent interplay of elements came together so well.

One of the most distinctive parts of Black Drop is the sheer amount of fascinating historical detail that was fit into the story.  Nattrass has clearly done her research on the period and the reader is presented with a fantastic and powerful view of London in the late 18th century.  Not only are there some brilliant and vibrant depictions of historical London but the reader gets some fascinating views into the inner workings of the government at the time.  Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to examining the civil service and the political hierarchy of the day, with multiple influential figures featured as supporting characters.  This proves to be a deeply fascinating part of the book, and I loved how Nattrass was able to weave these intriguing details into the thriller plot, becoming a key part of Black Drop’s story.  I also deeply appreciated the way in which Nattrass explores the social and political issues of the day, especially where it relates to the concerns in London about an uprising similar to what happened in France.  As such, you get a full spectrum of personalities from across London, as royalists and loyalists clash with potential radicals who are targeted by the worried government.  This all cumulates in the fantastic court case of Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker accused of radical actions and attempted rebellion.  This historical trial is expertly recreated by Nattrass to include all of its most interesting parts, including several extremely ridiculous elements from history (a blowgun murder conspiracy).  Nattrass also cleverly combines in some elements from related trials that occurred around the same time as the Hardy case for some amusing dramatic effect, and this extended sequence ended up being one of my favourite parts of the novel.  The overall hint of discontent by many members of London’s society, as well as the innate fear of the established institutions, is portrayed beautifully, and you get a great sense of the public issues during this period.  All these impressive historical elements are handled extremely well by Nattrass, and while it did get a tad tedious in places, it was an excellent part of the book that I deeply enjoyed.

To back up her unique historical tale, Nattrass has furnished Black Drop with a compelling array of characters with some complex and compelling character arcs.  This book actually contains a great combination of original characters and historical figures, with many major figures in 18th century British politics and the civil service featured in substantial roles throughout the book.  Not only does this brilliantly enhance the already substantial historical details of Black Drop, but it also results in some fascinating interactions and depictions as the fictional characters, including the point-of-view character, observe them.  Due to the complexity of the story, Black Drop makes use of a pretty large cast of characters, and while a few of them blend together, most come across as pretty distinctive with some interesting and fun character traits.

The best character of Black Drop is the protagonist Laurence Jago, who also serves as the book’s sole point-of-view character.  Jago turns out to be a particularly complex and damaged individual whose emotional attachment to the case and the state of London society provides some intriguing drama and insight into the events of the book.  Already made quite distinctive by his unique green-glass spectacles, Jago proves to be an impressive and captivating figure, especially as he has some major issues.  Secretly half-French, Jago lives a conflicted and fear-filled life, especially with the intense anti-French attitudes sprinkling the city.  This, combined with his foolish youthful dalliance of being a spy for France, ensures that he has a powerful sense of guilt, and is constantly worried about being discovered, especially once other accusations are made against him.  The discovery of a dead friend, combined with his guilt, the pressures of work, and the constant fear of discovery really strain his mind, and while he doggedly tries to find out the truth behind the murder, he starts to crack and nearly blows his cover.  Watching him trying to hide his own secrets while uncovering the lies and machinations of those around him becomes pretty intense, especially as you grow quite attached to this damaged soul.  His mental state further deteriorates once he becomes addicted to Black Drop (an opium concoction), which dulls his worried and troubled mind, while also leaving him lethargic and susceptible to danger.  This proves to be a serious handicap to his abilities, and it is fascinating to see him try to balance all his issues with the hunt for the truth.  All these issues and concerns result in a very conflicted and emotionally drained character, who Nattrass portrays perfectly, and it was very powerful to see Jago’s entire story unfold.

Aside from Jago there is a rich cast of supporting characters, each of whom add to the story in their own distinct way.  I particularly want to focus on two who ended up being the best supporting figures in different ways.  The first of these is William Philpott, a fiction British reporter character, who arrives in England from and extended stay in America and sets up his paper and family residence next to Jago’s lodgings.  An eccentric, rambunctious and slightly uncouth fellow, Philpott stands in stark contrast to the various stuffy characters that make up the majority of the cast, which ensures that the reader is quickly drawn to him.  Not only does he serve as a lighter character in the novel and a firm confidant for the protagonist, but you also get an interesting viewpoint into his changing feelings about the events occurring throughout London.  Philpott starts the novel as a strong, patriotic figure who fully intends to support the government in his paper when it comes to the court cases against the supposed radicals.  However, upon viewing some of the injustices they are committing, such as their harassment of and unfair case against Thomas Hardy, Philpott becomes more sympathetic, supporting the dissenting voices and writing fair accounts of the proceedings.  This interesting middle ground perspective on the historical events of the book proves to be extremely interesting, and I loved how Philpott’s unique storyline unfolded, especially as it results in him throwing some valuable lifelines to the troubled Jago.

The other character of note is real-life historical figure and future British Prime Minister George Canning, who serves a much more antagonistic role in this novel.  Canning, who at this point in the time period was a young MP with connections to the sitting PM, William Pitt, gets embroiled in the case quite early in the novel, thanks to his connection to the dead man and the suspicions surrounding Jago.  Portrayed in Black Drop as an uncaring and malicious man, Canning is a menacing antagonist for much of the novel, constantly butting heads with Jago and complicating his investigation.  I loved the use of this intriguing historical character, especially as Nattrass turns him into a very unlikable figure, who you cannot help but hate.  Not only does Nattrass do a great job of examining some of the historical elements surrounding him at this period of time but she also layers in some fantastic references to future events in his life, such as the infamous duel that he would eventually take part in.  However, his real benefit is the impact he has on the story and the deep rivalry he forms with the protagonist.  Watching these two battle it out in different arenas is very amusing, especially as Jago is constantly outmatched by this influential politician, and I do hope that we see more of Canning in future books in this series.  These great characters, and more, all add a great deal to this intriguing novel, and I really appreciated how fantastic and compelling they turned out to be.

Overall, Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is an impressive and captivating piece of historical crime fiction that I am really glad I decided to check out.  Making excellent use of some fascinating historical elements, Nattrass did an amazing job of producing a clever and enjoyable spy thriller/murder mystery storyline in 18th century London, which came together very well.  Filled with great historical events and compelling characters, Black Drop was an absolute treat to read, and I look forward to seeing how Nattrass’s next book will turn out, especially as the sequel, Blue Water, is apparently set for release in October this year.

Daughters of Eve by Nina D. Campbell

Daughters of Eve Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australian (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 370 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Nina D. Campbell presents one of the most intense, captivating, and thought-provoking thrillers of 2022 so far, with the outstanding Daughters of Eve.

Detective Emilia Hart is a dedicated New South Wales homicide detective whose gender and experience often sees her regulated the domestic violence murders.  When a prominent defence attorney is expertly shot in front of her, Hart jumps at the opportunity to investigate a high-profile case, despite opposition from her superiors.  However, this proves to be no simple investigation, especially when a second dead man with similar bullet wounds is also found.

As Hart and her colleagues investigate, they struggle to find any connection between the two victims until more men start dying and the killer releases a brazen manifesto to the world.  Claiming to be part of an organisation known as The Daughters of Eve, determined to tip the scales of justice once and for all, the killers reveal that their victims have been abusive men responsible for terrible acts against women.  They also claim that they are only just getting started, and they soon ask the public to identify more violent men for them to hunt down.

As more bodies start to drop, chaos starts to reign across Sydney, especially when a series of copycat murders begin around Australia.  Facing immense pressure from all around, Hart doggedly pursues the case, trying to find a link between the victims and the women they hurt.  However, with angry male protestors storming the city and soldiers deployed on the street, Hart is unprepared for how much her world is about to change, especially as the killer may be closer than she ever realised.

Daughters of Eve was an exceptional and outstanding first novel from Campbell that really sticks out.  Featuring a particularly powerful narrative that combines a terrific and clever mystery with some of the darkest elements of modern society, Daughters of Eve proves to be extremely addictive, and I actually ended up reading it in just one day once I got hooked on its powerful events.

I loved the intense and captivating murder mystery that this book contains, especially as it sets the protagonist down a moving and memorable rabbit hole.  Daughters of Eve has an awesome start, with a sleezy defence attorney shot down by a sniper in the middle of Sydney right in front of the protagonist.  This ensures her a key role in the investigation, and she quickly discovers that there is much more to the case, especially once more bodies drop with each of the victims identified as a potential abuser or rapist.  This initial part of the mystery is very well written, with several key elements set up for later in the book, while the reader is left guessing with the various potential suspects or motivations.  While this early investigation is ongoing, you get to know more about the protagonist, Emilia Hart, and her complex life, including her unique personal relationships and compelling professional life, especially as she works with several terrible people.

The story takes an excellent turn about halfway through when The Daughters of Eve organisation emerges and takes credit for the murders.  The entire city erupts into chaos as angry, scared men attempt to regain control, soldiers are deployed to the street, and multiple murders occur across Australia.  Hart and her colleagues are stuck desperately investigating more obscure potential suspects to discover who is behind the initial murders, while they try not to get overwhelmed by other events.  This middle section of Daughters of Eve goes into some very dark directions, especially when certain revelations and secrets come out.  This eventual leads up to the big reveal about who the killer is, which, while a little predictable, serves as a major and compelling moment in the plot, and was very well handled by the author.  The story continues for a decent while after the killer is arrested, as the events further deteriorate, and the protagonist finds herself extremely involved in everything going on.  It all leads up to the moving and dramatic conclusion, which, while tragic in its own way, leaves the reader on a somewhat hopefully note that think really worked.  This was an incredible and deeply moving story, and I deeply enjoyed the brilliant combination of captivating mystery and dark tone.

Without a doubt, the most memorable part of Daughters of Eve is the strong and powerful look at sexual and domestic violence that exists within the world today, as much of the story focuses on victims-survivors and abusive men.  Campbell paints an appropriately bleak picture of how society can hurt women of all ages, which gives the story a very grim, if realistic, coating that will both shock and move you.  Featuring multiple female characters, each with their own unique story, you get a deep understanding of some of the violence or discrimination out there, and the various issues and societal problems surrounding it, such as the restrictions on policing it.  There are so many dark elements about abusive men and sexual violence throughout this book, and I think Campbell utilised it perfectly throughout Daughters of Eve to create her captivating tale.  I particularly appreciated the way in which Campbell envisions the reaction that would occur if some vigilante women did start to target abusive men in a violent way.  The subsequent counterviolence, male protests, and over-the-top use of authorities and the military is a cynically entertaining inclusion, and the subsequent comparison between this and the existing violence against women makes for a harsh counterpoint.  While parts of the reaction by authorities, politician and men might seem somewhat unrealistic, certain recent events might potentially suggest that Campbell is right, and it is probably exactly how events would occur.  While I do think that Campbell did get a little heavy handed with some of these elements throughout the book, it produced a very emotional and confronting story that expertly enhanced the main mystery narrative.  I would probably suggest that people who are triggered by sexual and domestic violence may want to avoid Daughters of Eve because of these inclusions; this is a very thought-provoking part of the book that will stick with you for a long time.

Naturally, such dark and dramatic elements necessitate several strong and complex central characters, and Campbell uses them to great effect throughout the book.  Daughters of Eve’s main character is point of view protagonist Emilia Hart, who proves to be an excellent central focus for the entire plot.  Hart is a character with a substantial amount of baggage, and her own terrible childhood and long experience as a police officer, especially one who primarily deals with domestic murders, ensures the events of this book deeply impact her.  Watching her try to come to terms with some of the outrages she witnesses, as well as the deep personal stakes that emerge, is pretty inspirational and moving, and you end up feeling really connected to her.  The rest of the characters in this book are fantastic and they all add a great supporting edge to Hart’s story.  This includes Emilia’s adopted daughters, both of whom have their own tragic backstories, her brash but loyal police partner, and her surprisingly understanding love interest from Melbourne.  You get a real sense of some of the terrible sexism and violence experienced by women every day, and each of the characters in Daughters of Eve do a good job exploring this.  I really grew attached to several of the characters in this great cast and found their powerful stories to be brilliant.

Daughters of Eve ended up being an exceptional and distinctive Australian thriller and it is one that I am really glad I got the opportunity to read.  Nina D. Campbell hit her debut out of the park, and I really got addicted to the excellent, dark and moving story that her first book contained.  With some very powerful and insightful elements, Daughters of Eve will stick with you well after you have finished powering through its amazing story.  I cannot wait to see what Campbell produces next, and I look forward to reading more stuff from this exciting new Australian author.

Quick Review – A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley

A Great Hope Cover

Publisher: Picador (Trade Paperback – 22 February 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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

Plot Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Review – The Maid by Nita Prose

The Maid Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

Plot Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner

Her Perfect Twin Cover

Publisher: Hodder Studio (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for shocks, twists and so many sweet surprises as impressive new author Sarah Bonner presents her epic debut thriller, Her Perfect Twin.

Megan Hardcastle has always lived in the shadow of her estranged twin, Leah, who always took everything Megan had, while exploiting their dramatic family past to obtain fame, fortune and the freedom to do anything she wanted.  Despite that, deep down Megan still loves her sister, until she finds explicit photos of her on her husband’s phone.  Rushing to her sister’s house, she is unable to contain her rage, and their argument ends tragically when she kills Leah.

Determined not to get caught, Megan comes up with the desperate plan to become Leah, fooling the world into thinking she is still alive.  Diving deep into Leah’s perfect life, Megan starts to become her sister and soon finds her carefree life intoxicating and irresistible, especially when she falls in love with the new man in Leah’s life.  As life at home with her controlling husband gets even more difficult, Megan decides to give up her entire existence and start living as Leah.  However, just before she can enact her escape, the pandemic lockdown hits.

As the country adjusts to a new normal, Megan struggles to maintain two separate lives under lockdown.  Her problems are only just beginning when it becomes clear that someone else knows her secret and they are willing to use it to take everything from her.  Soon, Megan finds herself engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse against a sadistic foe with her life, freedom and identity on the line.  However, not everything is as it seems, and all the dark secrets from these twin’s life are about to come out.

OMG, well that turned out to be exceedingly epic and amazing.  Sarah Bonner has come out of the gates swinging here, and her first book was such an outstanding and epic read.  Her Perfect Twin is easily one of the best psychological thrillers of the year, and I loved the exceptionally clever and wildly entertaining story it contained.  Loaded with complex and deeply flawed characters as well as some impressive examinations of self and identity, Her Perfect Twin is an incredibly addictive novel that gets a five-star rating from me.

Let me just start off here saying that you are going to really fall in love with the intense and captivating narrative contained within Her Perfect Twin.  Bonner has gone out of her way here to create an exceptional read that quickly drags you in and then hits you with clever twist after clever twist, until the only thing you can think about is getting to the end of the story.  Her Perfect Twin starts off strong, introducing the protagonist Megan and showing the events through her eyes as she uncovers her husband’s affair with her twin sister, Leah, who she then kills after they get into an argument.  The reader slowly gets to see Megan enjoying the new freedoms and fun associated with living her sister’s life, while she also plans to escape from her normal life and terrible marriage.  This first part of the book is very good and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist dive into her new identity, especially as she grows as a person under it.  While I liked this part of the story, I thought I could see where the story was going, including the introduction of lockdown part way through.  However, it turns out that I was so very, very wrong, as Bonner had some amazing tricks up her sleeve.

The first real indication you get about how much Her Perfect Twin is going to change happened about halfway through when, after a major and surprising reveal, the narrative suddenly starts getting told from the perspective of an entirely different character.  This honestly altered everything, as not only did it throw you right into the mind of a psychopath but it starts showing some of the previous events of the book in an entirely new context, revealing just how much set up and foreshadowing Bonner included in the first half of the novel.  From there you are forced to watch an incredibly evil villain make their move, manipulating the situation to their advantage while appearing to have total control, which is both infuriating and extremely compelling at the same time.  And then, just when you think you have a handle on the situation, Bonner throws another big twist at you, along with another new point-of-view character, and you honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.  At this point, I was honestly reeling with all the revelations as I began to fully understand just how talented Bonner is as an author, but the story isn’t done yet.  There are even more great reveals and twists from there as the third character tells their story, which changes everything that you thought you knew already.  A final major shift occurs for the last part of the book, which seeks to wrap up everything and showcases the full cleverness and feelings off all the previous characters.  While this final part of the book is a tad slower and seems a little disconnected from the main plot, it concludes everything up beautifully and leads to an impressive and well-thought-out ending that will leave you incredibly satisfied.

This was a pretty incredible story, and it is one that I had so much fun getting through.  I honestly read the last 250 pages in a single sitting, and it was physically impossible for me to put down the book after the first big reveal.  I cannot emphasize enough just how clever and brilliant all the twists in Her Perfect Twin were, and Bonner sets all of them up perfectly.  I loved how multiple small details and seemingly throwaway lines came back in a big way as the novel progressed, and there was some brilliant planning here.  Bonner writes a pretty dark psychological tale here, and Her Perfect Twin does an impressive dive into the inner psyches of its various characters, with a particular focus on identity, freedom and the terrible secrets that bind us together.  While a few scenes get a bit disturbing and might be upsetting for some readers, it all works for the greater good of the story, and every brutal scene is incredibly well written and impressively moving.  I did appreciate the way in which Bonner was able to work England’s COVID-19 lockdowns into the story.  While some recent novels tend to shoe-horn lockdowns into their story, Bonner’s examination and use of the lockdowns was particularly clever, expertly tying into the story and becoming one of the better inclusions of it that I have seen in recent years.  An overall incredible and powerful narrative, you will fall in love with Her Perfect Twin’s perfect story.

I must also highlight the incredible characters that Bonner featured throughout Her Perfect Twin, although I might avoid specifics to keep some of the twists hidden.  All the characters in this book are extremely well developed, and Bonner produces some intricate and powerful backstories for them that drive them to do the bad things in this novel.  Megan was extremely well written, and her constant battles with her identity, her devious twin, and the constant fear of obtaining the same memory issues that plague her mother, become important parts of her story.  Watching her develop and attempt to find happiness is pretty satisfying, although she goes through a lot in this novel, especially as the story gets darker and darker.  The rest of the main characters were also really good, and you get some intriguing perspectives as the novel progresses, which help to produce such a rich and striking story.  A particular shoutout must go to the main antagonist of the book, who is quite frankly one of the best/worst villains I have seen in fiction.  This antagonist is a malicious, deceitful and sadistic figure who puts all the other characters through the emotional wringer as they attempt to get their ultimate goal.  I hated this character so much in Her Perfect Twin, especially after finding out the full extent of their plans, and once the book jumps to their arrogant perspective, you will grow to hate them too.  Watching them put their devious designs into motion is pretty horrific, and you will hang in there just to wait and see if they fail.  You will really come to love or hate these characters by the end of Her Perfect Twin, which just goes to show how awesome an author Bonner really is.

I think it is clear from my excitable ramblings up above that I really loved this incredible novel.  Her Perfect Twin was an exceptional debut from Sarah Bonner and I still cannot get over how much I loved its cool and clever story.  Loaded with insane twists and powerful characters, this novel is just so damn good, and you honestly will not be prepared for how crazy the story gets.  A must-read for all fans of the thriller genre; I cannot recommend Her Perfect Twin enough.

Waiting on Wednesday – Flames of Mira by Clay Harmon

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.

Readers of this blog will know that I am a major fan of checking out debut authors when they produce their first foray into full-length fiction.  This is mainly because I have read some incredible debut novels over the years, with some of the very best featured in my 2020 and 2021 top ten debut lists.  As such, I keep a close eye on all the best upcoming releases and I recently found out about a fantastic sounding fantasy debut coming out later this year that I am quite excited about, Flames of Mira by Clay Harmon, a fascinating novel with a ton of potential.

Flames of Mira Cover

Flames of Mira, which will be released in July 2022, will be the very first novel in Harmon’s planned The Rift Walker series.  This cool upcoming novel sounds extremely fun and not only does it have a pretty awesome cover at the moment, but there is also an intriguing and exciting plot synopsis that has really grabbed my attention.  Filled with elemental power, magical slavery, violent revolution, and a damaged protagonist with a magical death-sentence hanging over his head, Flames of Mira looks set to be a pretty epic read, and it is one that I will be very eager to check out.

Synopsis:

An epic new fantasy in a world of ice, magma and magic!

Among the volcanoes beneath Mira’s frozen lands, people like Ig are forced to undergo life-threatening trials that bind chemical elements to the human body. One of Mira’s most powerful elementals, Ig works in secret as an enforcer for the corrupt Magnate Sorrelo Adriann, but is cursed with flesh binding magic — magic that will kill him at the first sign of disobedience. His days are spent hunting down anyone who would oppose the magnate, a shell of his old self who clings to old memories and his budding friendships with the magnate’s son and daughter.

When Sorrelo is overthrown in a coup and the country is thrown into chaos, Ig quickly learns he can do far worse than what Sorrelo has asked from him so far. If he can’t rediscover the person he was and escape the flesh binding in time, he will have to kill countless innocents as Sorrelo and his allies seek to reclaim the throne, or sacrifice himself trying.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Debut Novels of 2021

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  The official topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday involved participants listing the top books on their Summer 2021/22 to-read-list.  However, I already produced that list a few weeks ago, so I thought I would take this opportunity to continue my foray into highlighting the absolute best books of 2021.  This is an end of year tradition I do each year with several Top Ten Tuesday list, and I started this year’s version last week when I listed some of the best pre-2021 releases I checked out this year.  In a continuation of my end of year highlights, for this week’s list I have decided to look at my absolute favourite debut novels of the year.

I mentioned multiple times throughout the year that 2021 was a pretty awesome year for debuts and boy did I mean it.  There were an incredible number of new authors releasing some impressive and entertaining debut novels this year, and I was lucky enough to receive a huge bundle of them to review.  I always love checking out new authors as they produce their first book or take a foray into a whole new genre, and I was blown away with some of the talent this year.  As such, I am really glad that I can highlight some of the absolute best in this Top Ten list.

To be eligible for this list, the book had to be either the first novel from a new author released in 2021, or a novel that was extremely different from an author’s previous work (their debut in the genre).  I ended up reading a huge collection of debuts this year, so I had a bit of a hard time coming up with the list, as there were a lot of good options.  I was eventually able to whittle it down to a manageable list of 10, with my typical generous Honourable Mentions section.  The result was an excellent list that I feel perfectly captures my favourite debuts of the year and highlights them accordingly.  So, let us see what made the cut.

Honourable Mentions:

Falling by T. J. Newman

Falling Cover

An interesting and fast paced thriller debut that follows a pilot whose family is kidnapped in order to force him to crash his plane.  Intense and exciting.

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Small Acts of Defiance was a great Australian historical drama from new author Michelle Wright set in occupied Paris.  This book had a brilliant and powerful story about resistance no matter the odds and is really worth checking out.

Breakout by Paul Herron

Breakout Cover

This year urban fantasy author Paul Crilley came up with a new writing handle, Paul Herron, to produce his first thriller, Breakout, a fast-paced and ultra-exciting novel about an inmate trying to escape a flooded prison filled with the worst killers in the country.  One of the most action-packed novels of the year, this was an interesting change of pace from Crilley, so I am treating it as a debut.

City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop

City of Vengeance Cover

One of the more interesting historical fiction debuts of 2021 was City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop.  This cool book follows a historical investigation in Renaissance Florence and proved to be an intriguing and dark murder mystery with some clever flashes to a real historical case.

Top Ten List:

The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont

The Frenchman Cover

The first book on this list is the brilliant and compelling thriller debut, The Frenchman by Jack Beaumont.  Written by a former French intelligence operative, The Frenchman has an exciting tale of intrigue, espionage, and betrayal, as a French spy attempts to gain information on a chemical plant in Pakistan while also trying to balance his professional and personal lives.  An outstanding and clever novel with a ton of realism to it.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Readers were treated to a fantastic fantasy debut this year from the author M. A. Carrick, with The Mask of Mirrors, a complex and powerful read about a con artist attempting to infiltrate high society in a corrupt and dangerous fantasy city.  Carrick is actually the joint pen name of established authors Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, but as this is their first collaboration and they are using a pseudonym to do so, I am treating it as a debut from a new author.  This was an excellent fantasy debut, and I was lucky enough to recently receive a copy of the sequel, The Liar’s Knot, which I am hoping to read very soon.

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

After previously writing fantasy fiction with her family, the incredibly talented Louise Carey had her solo debut this year with Inscape, a compelling and exciting cyberpunk, dystopian thriller.  Set in a future world where everyone has advanced technology loaded into their brains, this book follows a young corporate agent as she attempts to discover who is attacking her parent company.  Containing a brilliant story and a great new universe, this was a fantastic read that is really worth checking out.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

One of the most highly anticipated debuts of 2021 was She Who Became the Sun by Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan.  Set in the chaotic Yuan dynasty of China, this book follows a girl who takes up the identity of her dead brother to steal his great destiny.  A clever reinvention of a famous Emperor’s rise to power, containing some intriguing gender swapping and fantasy elements, She Who Became the Sun rightly deserves all the praise it received, as it is a fun and amazing book.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Another great debut from an Australian author, The Councillor was a captivating and impressive fantasy novel that I deeply enjoyed.  Following a troubled palace scholar who rises to a position of power after the death of her queen, The Councillor is filled with a ton of captivating political intriguing, fascinating magic, and some complex and manipulative characters.  An awesome and powerful read, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this great series next.

Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers

Fire Made Flesh Cover

Written as part of the Necromunda sub-series in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Fire Made Flesh is Denny Flowers’ first full-length novel, and it takes the reader on a wild adventure to a haunted and chaotic underground settlement where various eccentric beings fight for power.  A really entertaining read that fits perfectly into the cool Necromunda setting, I deeply enjoyed this novel and it was one of the craziest books I read all year.

Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Lies Like Wildfire Cover

There was no way I could exclude the outstanding young adult thriller, Lies Like Wildfire from this list.  Lies Like Wildfire was Jennifer Lynn Alvarez’s first foray away from middle-grade fiction and features an incredible plot about a group of friends who accidently start a devastating wildfire and attempt to cover up their actions.  A powerful and dramatic novel filled with lies, betrayals and jealousy, Lies Like Wildfire was an exceptional read, and I cannot wait to see what Alvarez writes next.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn

Among Thieves Cover

Easily one of the best debuts of 2021 was the excellent Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn.  Essentially a compelling fantasy heist novel, this book follows several unique and entertaining characters as they attempt to steal a powerful artefact from an impregnable magical fortress.  However, every member of the crew has their own motivations for being there, and all of them are planning to betray the rest.  This was an outstanding and deeply entertaining read which really sets Kuhn up as a rising star in the fantasy genre.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

The Apollo Murders Cover

I had an absolute blast reading The Apollo Murders, the first fictional book from astronaut turned author Chris Hadfield.  Set in 1973, this book envisions a 18th, fictional Apollo mission, filled with all manner of espionage, disaster, and stowaway Soviet cosmonauts.  Incredibly intense and loaded with a fantastic amount of information about space flight, The Apollo Murders was an amazing read and I deeply enjoyed all the different genres that Hadfield was able to feature in his debut novel.

The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

The final debut on this list was the clever supernatural murder mystery, The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox.  Following a dead police detective and his feisty ghost partner as they attempt to solve the protagonist’s murder, this was an excellent and clever read that I had a wonderful time with.

Well, that is the end of this list.  As you can, there were some incredible debut novels that came out this year and I had a blast getting through all of them.  Each of the above debuts are really worth checking out, and I had an amazing time exploring these talented authors’ first forays into fiction.  I am really excited to see what these authors produce next, and I have a feeling that quite a few are going to become major figures in their genres.

Quick Review – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Dying Squad – Book One

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Review – Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Lies Like Wildfire Cover

Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 371 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to see the strongest of friendships burnt alive by fire, lies and deceit, in this startling and powerful young adult thriller by amazing author Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, Lies Like Wildfire.

Lies Like Wildfire was a really compelling and exciting read that ended up being one of the better pieces of young adult fiction I read all year.  This was the debut thriller novel from Alvarez, whose previous work has primarily included middle-grade fantasy novels, such as her equine-based The Guardian Herd and Riders of the Realm series.  I was actually surprised to learn that his was Alvarez’s first thriller novel, as it was really good, presenting the reader with an untenable and desperate scenario and forcing several life-long friends to make some hard and terrible decisions.

Synopsis:

The monsters have known each other their whole lives. This is their final summer before college – time to hang out, fall in love and dream about the future.

Until they accidentally start a forest fire which destroys their hometown and leaves death in its wake.

Desperate for the truth to remain hidden, the group make a pact of silence.

But the twisted secret begins to spin out of control and when one of the friends disappears they all become suspects.

We know how it starts but where does it end?


Wow, now this was such a great book.  Lies Like Wildfire has a brilliant and powerful plot that was extremely clever, emotionally rich and very shocking, all at the same time.  The book follows a group of childhood friends, known as the Monsters, who accidently start a forest fire during a summer outing.  Terrified of California’s incredibly strict fire laws that harshly punish even accidental offenders, the group attempt to cover up their actions as the fire races towards their town causing all manner of death and destruction.  As the fire rages, the group makes a pact to keep the secret, but lies, guilt and personal vendettas soon lead to terrible choices, as the truth bursts out and even more lives are ruined in the fallout.

I loved this brilliant book, and Alvarez has come up with such an impressive scenario for it.  Told from the perspective of one of the Monsters, Hannah, this entire novel unfolds in a rush, with the readers barely getting time to breathe as devastating events and terrible secrets are thrust before them as part of this addictive and powerful narrative.  Alvarez ensures that the readers are hooked early in the book, especially as the opening scene gives a sneak peek to events halfway throughout the narrative.  The story then jumps back to the events that led up to the fire, showing the mostly innocent group as a careless accident threatens to ruin their entire lives and everything they know and love.  Alveraz does a brilliant job of producing the ultimate no-win scenario, with the protagonists caught between their own guilt and the harsh consequences for their unintentional actions. 

This fantastic introduction leads to the destructive early scenes of the wildfires that ravish the protagonist’s hometown.  These scenes are pretty damn devastating and very well written, as Alvarez perfectly captures all the horror of an incoming fire and the panic and pain it can cause (it’s very realistic, and those people triggered by wildfires or bushfires might want to avoid it).  However, this destruction is nothing compared to the guilt, public shame, police prosecution, and disintegration of friendships that occur in the aftermath of the fire as the friend’s first attempt to cover up their involvement, and then limit the blame they receive as they start to get found out.  Despite their guilt in this matter, you cannot help but feel for the characters, especially as Alvarez does an incredible job making them very relatable, and the circumstances surrounding their crime could honestly happen to anybody.  However, the real meat of the story involves the powerful drama that emerges because of the fire, as this lifelong friendship is pushed to the limit, not just because of the actions of the characters, but because of jealousy, family hardship, and the stress of lost futures, that drives all of them to desperate action.

This leads to the second half of the novel, when one of the Monsters goes missing in mysterious circumstances.  Evidence soon points to members of the Monsters being involved, potentially to stop the missing person from revealing the groups involvement to the police, and the group is riven by further mistrust and interrogation.  This second half of the book is incredibly fascinating, especially as the readers are left unaware of who could potentially be involved as the only point-of-view character, Hannah, suffers from amnesia brought on by a bear attack.  While I usually dislike an amnesia inclusion in a novel, it works extremely well in the context of Lies Like Wildfire’s plot, even the bit about the bear attack (it’s a clever, if devastating, inclusion).  This lack of memory from the protagonist really keeps the reader on their toes and the sudden mystery is a compelling and fun addition to the plot.  I personally became ultra-invested in this book at this point, not only because I wanted to find out what had happened to the missing character, but because I was enjoying the complex character arcs and the quickly decaying personal relationships that bound them together.  The final reveal about who was responsible and why is brilliantly done, and I deeply enjoyed the various character reactions that occurred around it, especially from the protagonist.  This ended up being quite a complex and deep narrative, and it is one is perfect for teenagers and older readers, as everyone can get really invested in the intelligent and emotional plot. 

Overall, Lies Like Wildfire was a brilliant and powerful debut thriller from Alvarez, who came up with an amazing concept and turned it into an outstanding read.  I loved the great blend of thriller and young adult drama, especially as it produced a complex and moving tale of youth, disaster, mystery, and the tenuous ties that bind us together.  Readers will swiftly become entranced by this excellent and compelling tale, and I really found myself getting drawn into the amazing character driven tale of lies and deceit.  I am extremely glad that Alvarez decided to dive across into the thriller world, and if Lies Like Wildfire is anything to go on, she has a really bright future in it.  I look forward to seeing what other books Alvarez produces in the future, and I am definitely grabbing a copy of her next book, Friends Like These, when it comes out next year.