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

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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.

The Night Swim by Megan Goldin

The Night Swim Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Australian crime fiction sensation, Megan Goldin, returns with an impressive third novel, The Night Swim, an intense and heavy-hitting read that quickly drags the reader in with its captivating narrative that refuses to let go.

Following the success of the first season of her true crime podcast show, Guilty or Not Guilty, which set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall has become an overnight sensation and a beacon for people seeking justice or their freedom.  Determined to keep her momentum going, Rachel decides to set the latest season of her podcast around the most contentious trial in the country, a high-profile rape case in the small town of Neapolis.  The town’s golden boy, a famous swimmer with Olympic potential, has been accused of raping the popular granddaughter of the town’s legendary police chief.  The resultant case has divided both the town and the country, and many are eager to see how the hearing unfolds.

Arriving in Neapolis, Rachel begins her own investigation, interviewing people of interest and trying to provide an unbiased version of the case to her listeners.  But as she attempts to unwind the legal and moral complexities surrounding the case, Rachel finds herself distracted when she begins to receive a series of letters from a mysterious woman.  This woman, Hannah, is a former local who has returned to Neapolis because of the trial and is requesting Rachel’s help in getting long-overdue justice for her sister, Jenny Stills, who died 25 years earlier.

Officially, Jenny’s death was ruled as an accidental drowning and barely anyone remembers who she was or how she died.  However, Hannah’s letters reveal a far different story about a poor girl who was brutally murdered and whose memory and legacy was tarnished from beyond the grave.  As Rachel beings to investigate the death of Jenny, she soon finds parallels between this old case and the modern-day rape.  Something truly rotten occurred 25 years ago in Neapolis and now the past has come back to haunt those involved.  Can Rachel bring justice after all these years and how will her findings impact the current trial?

Now that was a powerful and compelling read from Goldin, who has once again produced an excellent and impressive read.  Megan Goldin is a talented Australian author who debuted back in 2017 with The Girl in Kellers Way.  I first became familiar with Goldin when I received a copy of her second book, The Escape Room, in 2018.  I really liked the curious synopsis of The Escape Room, and once I started it I found that I was unable to stop, resulting in me reading it entirely in one night.  As a result, I was quite eager to get my hands on Goldin’s third book, The Night Swim, and I was really glad that I got a chance to read it.  This new standalone crime fiction novel proved to be an extremely intriguing read with an outstanding story that expertly deals with some heavy and controversial issues and which takes the reader on an intense and memorable journey.

At the centre of this book is a complex and multi-layered narrative that is loaded with emotion, mystery and social commentary.  The main story follows Rachel as she arrives in Neapolis and attempts to uncover some background behind the events of the rape case she is covering.  This part of the story sees Rachel interview several key witnesses or associated individuals to get their side of the story, explores how the case is impacting the town, witnesses the details of the dramatic court case and then reports her finding and feelings in separate extended chapters made to represent a podcast episode.  Rachel also investigates the events that occurred 25 years ago to Jenny Stills.  Rachel is guided in this part of the story by Hannah’s mysterious letters, which paint a detailed picture of Hannah’s childhood and her memories of the events that occurred.  Rachel follows the clues left in the letters as well as her own investigations to attempt to uncover what really happened all those years ago and who the culprits are.

I really liked how Goldin split out the story, especially as it combined cold case elements with a modern legal thriller and investigation.  Both the present case and the historical crime had compelling, if dark, narrative threads, and I really appreciated where both storylines ended up.  Naturally both cases were connected in some way, especially as a number of key people associated with the modern-day rape, such as the police investigators, lawyers, the parents of both parties and several other characters, were in Neapolis 25 years earlier and are potential suspects in this previous crime.  While I was able to guess who the main perpetrator of the Jenny Stills case was about halfway through the story, I still found it extremely intriguing to see the rest of the story unfold and the joint conclusion of both narratives was rather satisfying.  Some of the key highlights of this story for me included the exciting and dramatic court scenes and I also enjoyed the use of the true crime podcast in the story.  Having the protagonist run a successful true crime podcast or television show is a story element that has been a little overused in recent years, but I still find it to be an intriguing inclusion, especially as Goldin utilised it well in this novel as both a plot device and a forum for the character/author’s social musings.  Overall, this was an excellent piece of crime fiction with an impressive narrative that will draw the reader in and ensure that they will stick around to see how it all unfolds.

One of the most distinctive aspects of The Night Swim is Goldin’s frank and comprehensive look at sexual assault crimes.  The book’s narrative focuses on two separate but similar sexual assault cases that occurred within 25 years of each other.  Goldin not only provides details of these crimes but also dives into other elements of rape and assault, such as how victims are impacted in the aftermath, how sexual assault crimes are viewed in society and very little has changed around this in recent years.  This novel paints a particularly grim picture on the entire legal process surrounding the process for investigating and prosecuting rape cases and there are some fascinating, if horrifying, examinations of how society still has trouble coming to a consensus when it comes to these crimes, and how cases like these can divide communities and nations.  There are a number of examples contained within the plot about the public perception of the crimes, with doubt and blame being placed on rape victims who are forced to relive their assaults in different ways and who face unfair and often malicious attacks on their reputations and psyches.  It was also interesting to see the author examine some of the fear that women experience all the time at the possibility of an attack, and the protagonist’s emotional podcast posts are particularly good for exploring her experiences and thoughts on the matter.  There is also a clever and apt bit of symbolism around this in the form of a caged mockingbird at the protagonist’s hotel who is bothered by several random men for not singing, which I thought was rather striking and memorable.  Goldin does a fantastic job diving into this subject and she really pulls no punches in showing what a terrible and mentally damaging crime this is, as well as the impacts that it has on the victims.  Because of this The Night Swim is a bit of tough book to read at times and some readers may find a lot of the content quite distressing.  However, I really appreciated that Goldin spent the time exploring this subject and it proved to be a captivating and memorable addition to the story.

The small fictional town of Neapolis also proved to be a great setting for this novel, and I liked the way that Goldin utilised this location in The Night Swim.  I think that the author was able to produce an excellent approximation of classic small town America, complete with social power players, economic troubles, well-to-do former residents who have returned to face their past and old secrets and lies that are only now bubbling to the surface.  It was really intriguing to see the protagonist uncover all the secrets of the town, especially the ones told in Hannah’s cryptic letters and childhood musings.  It was also fascinating to see the impacts of family reputation and parental legacy on how crimes are investigated and covered up and this becomes a major factor in both of the cases being investigated.  I also liked how Goldin examined how a controversial sexual assault case could divide a small town like Neapolis, with all the resultant friction and disagreement obvious for an outsider like Rachel to observe.  Overall, this was a compelling setting, and I think that it really helped to enhance the intriguing narrative that Goldin produced.

With this third impressive novel, Megan Goldin has once again shown why she is such a rising star in the crime fiction genre.  The Night Swim is a powerful and captivating read that expertly examines a heavy, relevant and surprisingly divisive real-world topic and utilises it to create a clever crime fiction story set across 25 years.  This was a truly outstanding piece of fiction, and the combination of a great mystery, dramatic writing and an in-depth examination of crime and society proved to be rather compelling and memorable.  While The Night Swim is a standalone read, I think that the protagonist introduced in this novel has some potential as a repeat character, and it might be interesting to see her travel around the country, investigating crimes for her podcast.  In the meantime, The Night Swim comes highly recommended and I look forward to seeing what Goldin comes up with next.

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