All of Our Demise by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

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Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 30 August 2022)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book Two

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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After wowing the world with their first collaboration, 2021’s All of Us Villains, the superstar young adult fiction team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman return with the second book in their impressive duology, All of Our Demise, one of the most anticipated young adult fantasy releases of the year.

For generations, seven prominent families of the city of Ilvernath have each sacrificed one of their children to a legendary death tournament, the winner of which would secure the extremely powerful high magick for their family.  However, this latest tournament has not turned out like anyone expected.  Already exposed to the world thanks to a tell-all book, some of the champions, led by the seemingly heroic Briony Thorburn, are determined to break free from the bloody tournament that has long haunted their families.  But as they attempt to break the curse that binds the tournament to them by destroying the enchanted artefacts and locations associated with their families, their actions will have unexpected consequences on all around them.

For the first time in its history, the magical Blood Veil that physically separates the participants from the outside world has been broken and now everyone can witness the tournament unfold.  As reporters and members of the public swarm into the historic battleground as witnesses, the participants can return to Ilvernath and seek help from those in town.  The destruction of the Blood Veil seems proof that Briony’s plan is working, but not everyone wants the curse to end.

After the miraculous resurrection of his murdered brother, Hendry, Alistair Lowe believes that the only way he can keep Hendry alive is by winning the tournament.  After murdering his entire evil family and after being cursed by the girl he fell for, Alistair finds himself isolated with Hendry, unsure how to proceed.  However, he soon finds himself working with a surprising new ally in Gavin Grieve, the boy no-one expected to survive, and who has his own desperate reasons for working with the Lowes.  At the same time, the formerly glamorous Isobel Macaslan finds herself drawn to the mysterious Reid MacTavish, whose manipulation of the champions has brought nothing but trouble.  Determined to help Briony destroy the tournament, Isobel will break all the rules to survive, even if that means drafting Reid in against his will.

As the battle lines are drawn and the two groups of champions attempt to path their respective courses to victory, they find unexpected obstacles blocking their way.  Not only are the champions’ manipulative families attempting to sway events to their favour, but the media is determined to make all of them infamous in their own way.  Forced to battle each other both in the tournament and in the field of public opinion, the champions will face unbelievable tragedy and despair as they all try to survive.  However, the biggest threat to all of them may come from outside the tournament, and no-one is prepared for the evils waiting for them in the wider world.

Foody and Lynn Herman have delivered quite an impressive sequel here with All of Our Demise, which presents the reader with another epic and powerful story.  Building on the elaborate narrative and character arcs of All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise takes the reader on an exceptional emotional rollercoaster as they watch four extremely complex and distinctive point-of-view characters battle in impossible circumstances.  All of Our Demise ends up being just as good, if not a little better, than Foody and Lynn Herman’s first impressive outing, and it provides readers with an outstanding and memorable conclusion to this captivating young adult fantasy duology.

I’m still reeling a little bit about how All of Our Demise’s story turned out.  Foody and Lynn Hermann did a remarkable job with this sequel and the story continues seamlessly on from the events of the first book.  Told from the perspective of the four main characters, the death tournament focus of the story has evolved due to the events of All of Us Villains and the characters are now forced to contend with outside forces as they fight in an extended battleground.  The protagonists are now split down the middle as some fight to destroy the tournament for good, while they others try to keep it alive so they can win, either for their own survival or to save those closest to them.  All four protagonists have some brilliant character driven storylines around them, and each of them is fighting for something important to them, whether it be redemption, family, reputation, or respect.  In addition, the protagonists are still reeling from the events of All of Us Villains, and no-one has been left emotionally or physically untouched from the events of the first book.  This results in an emotionally heavy storyline, especially once everyone gets a taste of betrayal, either from the other champions or from other malign figures outside of the main group.  The story evolves at a great pace, and the authors chuck in some imaginative and clever twists as each group starts to get closer to their goal.  New relationships are built while others are torn down, and there are some very intense moments as scorned friends finally confront each other over past betrayals.  Everything leads up perfectly to the big conclusion, where there are some big sacrifices and some major changes in the lives of every protagonist as they reach their endgame.  I really appreciated how this impressive story came together, and you will be left shocked, moved and very satisfied with how this outstanding duology came to an end.

I think the excellent team of Foody and Lynn Herman did a remarkable job pulling All of Our Demise together, and this was an extremely well-written book.  As I mentioned above, this is a pretty epic sequel, and the authors strike off right after the cool cliff-hanger that All of Us Villains ended on.  All the great story elements from the first book are seamlessly continued here, and I really appreciated being able to jump straight into the narrative again.  While the authors do ensure that there is some exposition so that readers can remember what happened in the first book, I would say that All of Our Demise is a bit of a harder book to enjoy if you haven’t read All of Us Villains first.  There are some story and character gaps featured here that might be a bit hard to follow without having read the first book, so I would definitely recommend checking that out first.  Once you are into this story, there really isn’t a slow moment, as the characters are constantly engaged in some form of action, the enhanced intrigue surrounding the event, or a deep examination of their psyche and relationships, especially as they continue to examine the terrible events they have found themselves in.  While All of Our Demise is a bit of a brick, you honestly are never left feeling bored or stuck, and you frankly can’t help but move forward as you are drawn into this elaborate tale.  I really think that the split between the four protagonists is handled perfectly as well, and it ensures you get a well-balanced narrative and substantial time to dive into their respective and impressive character arcs.  This was one of those young adult novels that has a lot of appeal both for its target teen audience, and much older readers, as everyone will deeply appreciate its clever storylines and deeply relatable characters.  I felt that All of Our Demise came together exceptionally well, and this ended up being quite an outstanding and addictive read.

I must make special note of the cool death tournament that is such a fantastic feature of this amazing duology.  I love a great young adult death tournament scenario (who doesn’t?), and the one featured in All of Us Villains and All of Our Demise is particularly inventive, loaded with a unique history, fun magical features, and all manner of devastating tragedy.  I was really impressed with how the authors set up and featured this elaborate tournament in the previous book, and they continue to utilise it throughout All of Our Demise.  The constant fight to survive the lethal tournament becomes even more complicated throughout this second book, and it was fascinating to see how the characters deal with the pressure and the constant war they find themselves in.  There are some excellent features of the tournament that come into play in this second book, including the new magical artefacts and locations featured within that give them varying advantages.  These are generally short lived as the champions are determined to destroy them all, which not only requires them to learn more of their various family’s dark histories but forces them to engage in deadly challenges built into the tournament to destroy it.  These challenges are pretty epic, and it was great to see the protagonists involved in progressively more lethal encounters.

However, the most distinctive and entertaining change to the tournament that occurred in All of Our Demise was the sudden lack invasion of the public that occurred due to the breaking of the Blood Veil barrier.  The tournament has always historically been a private affair between the champions, but now the entire battle is a worldwide sensation being constantly reported on by the media.  It was quite fascinating and a little maddening to see the supposed sombre death tournament devolve further into a gaudy spectacle, equipped with baying fans, manipulative outsiders and a ton of paparazzi, all of whom have a very different view of the events occurring.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the ridiculous media coverage that occurred throughout this second part of the tournament, especially as various over-the-top and often blatantly false headlines and discussions of current tournament events appeared at the start of every chapter, replacing the quotes from the tell-all book that were featured in All of Us Villains.  This media coverage nearly always painted the complex characters in such a terrible light for the rest of world, which was a little hard to see, especially after you have become quite attached to the various protagonists.  However, I personally felt that it drew me into the narrative a little more, and it was a very entertaining and fun element that I had an amazing amount of fun with.  This media coverage had an interesting impact on the events of the narrative, as the characters are forced to conduct interviews and discussions with reporters to further their goals.  This entire change in the publicity of the tournament was a brilliant addition to this second book, and it altered the tone of the book in an impressive and amazing way, that really added to my enjoyment of the book.

However, the best thing about All of Our Demise was the exceptional character work featured within.  Foody and Lynn Herman did such a brilliant job setting up the four complex protagonists in All of Us Villains, and these impressive character arcs are continued seamlessly in the sequel, with each of the protagonists forced to deal with some of the further traumas that were inflicted on them in the first book.  All of Our Demise maintains the same four point-of-view characters as before, and I found myself instantly connected to them again as I remembered their compelling history and the devastating events that occurred to them in the first book.  The authors continued to perfectly build these characters throughout All of Our Demise, subjecting them to further trauma, emotional concerns and hardships, and watching them try to deal with these as they fight for their survival is a key and impressive part of this epic young adult book.

Probably the most compelling character in the entire duology is Alistair Lowe, who simultaneously plays the role of the best antagonist and an intriguing and likeable protagonist.  Alistair is the oldest son of the Lowe family, who are generally considered to be the major villains of the tournament.  Despite being raised from birth to be a monster, Alistair was hesitant about his role in the tournament and was initially a reluctant participant, even though he knew it was his destiny.  Thanks to his romantic interactions with fellow champion Isobel and the murder of his brother Hendry by his family to boost his chances, Alistair had a brief brush as being a hero and destroying the tournament with the others.  However, the apparent resurrection of Hendry by the tournament at the end of All of Us Villains caused Alistair to abandon his allies and attempt to kill Isobel as he believes their plan would result in his brother dying again.  Now fatally cursed and having taken brutal revenge on his family, Alistair is forced to re-envision himself as the villain once again to convince himself to kill the other champions, all to save the most important person in his life.

It is very hard not to appreciate Alistair as character as the authors have done an incredible job creating him and turning him into the most complex figure in the novel.  The authors really did a number on Alistair in the last book, and watching him try and work through all these issues here is extremely powerful, especially as he keeps experiencing more setbacks and traumas as he proceeds.  There is so much tragedy and emotional turmoil surrounding Alistair in this book, and the authors write an excellent arc around him for this sequel.  Watching him try to balance his desires and true nature with everyone’s perspective of him as a monster is just so damn fascinating and moving, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this fictional character.  I am glad that Foody and Lynn Herman did work in a redemption arc for Alistair in All of Our Demise, and there are some surprising, but very heartfelt relationships surrounding him in this novel that help to keep him going.  I really think that the authors handled Alistair perfectly, and he is definitely the character that everyone will remember once they finish this book.

Another character who you fall in love with Isobel Macaslan, another person who has gone through absolute hell through the course of the books.  Forced into the tournament against her will, Isobel tried to use her sudden infamy to her benefit and projected an air of confidence before the tournament, despite being terrified and used by her family.  Since then, she had an unfortunate romantic entanglement with Alistair Lowe which resulted in him murdering her.  Resurrected by a dark curse that makes her more corpse than woman, Isobel is in a very bad place during this book.  Still controlled by doubt and despair, Isobel is uncertain about whether she believes in the plan her friends are proposing and spends most of the book coming to terms with her fears and her growing attachment to another dangerous character.  Throw in some major family issues, as she continues to struggle with her selfish family, and a hostile press who produce some typical paparazzi junk about her, and you some excellent and compelling moments around Isobel that are fascinating to see.  Isobel continues to experience quite a lot of tragedy in this novel and watching her power through them and try to fix all her damaged relationships is a great part of the plot.

The third point-of-view character is Briony Thorburn, who serves quite a key role in the plot.  Briony has seen herself as the hero her entire life and was the only person excited for the tournament.  However, after her younger sister was chosen in her place thanks to the machinations of the government, Briony illegally entered the tournament by incapacitating her sister and cutting her finger off.  Now determined to destroy the tournament, Briony leads the charge to destroy the artefacts and landmarks.  However, there are some major concerns about her actual motivations, as many assume this part of her manipulative hero complex.  Briony spends most of the book trying to redeem herself after the mistakes of the first novel, a task that is complicated by her own family, who have their own sinister plans for her and the other champions.  Mentally isolated and hated by the media, Briony has a terrible time in All of Our Demise, and the authors weave some powerful moments around her.  I honestly think that Briony had one of the best and most complete narratives in the entire series, and All of Our Demise brought her character arc together extremely well.  Like the rest of the cast, it is very hard not to grow attached to Briony as you witness her complicated physical and mental battles unfold, and I really appreciated the outstanding way it ended.

The final main character is Gavin Grieve, who proved to be one of the most surprising and captivating characters from the first book.  The chosen sacrifice of the one family who has never won the tournament, Gavin always knew he was destined to die.  Full of rage and resentment, Gavin chose to make a deal with the devil and accessed a dangerous form of magick that drained his own life to gain substantial power.  Made into a lethal contender but slowly dying, Gavin is convinced by outside forces that they can save him, but they require him to work with Alistair Lowe.  Forced to overcome his own prejudices, most of which revolve from the perceived disrespect of the other champions, Gavin grows close to Alistair, and they form an interesting team.  I was really surprised by the direction of Gavin’s storylines in this book, especially as there are some fantastic reveals and changes in personality.  The authors did a great job of explaining his changes in personality, and I felt that it was quite a natural transition, especially when you consider everything he’s gone through.  Gavin rounded out the central cast of damaged, complex protagonists, extremely well, and I thought that this was a brilliant combination of characters.  Their combined complex storylines and arcs are just superb, and while you might get a little more drawn in to one or two of the characters more than the rest, there is no perspective that you are actively wanting to avoid.  I cannot highlight just how impressive these four characters were, and Foody and Lynn Herman should be commended for the exceptional character work they did here.

The wonderful and insanely talented team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have come up with something truly special with All of Our Demise.  Perfectly finishing the brilliant story started in All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise lived up to all the hype surrounding it and ended up being one of the best young adult fantasy books of the year.  Featuring all the great characters from the first book, Foody and Lynn Herman weave an addictive and deeply personal narrative around them that takes the reader back into the midst of a constantly evolving and deeply traumatising magical death tournament.  Intense, captivating and very complex, All of Our Demise is a highly recommended read, and I cannot have envisioned a better end for the exceptional young adult duology.

All of Our Demise Cover

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Wake by Shelley Burr

Wake Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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2022 is proving to be quite the year for Australian crime debuts, with several compelling and thrilling read already out.  However, one of the more impressive recent debuts is probably the amazing release by new Canberran author Shelley Burr, Wake, a gripping and powerful crime thriller that takes the reader on a wild and emotionally charged ride.

Nannine is a small rural town in the harsh heart of New South Wales, punished by drought and slowly declining as the local agriculture industry starts to deteriorate.  However, Nannine will always have one harrowing claim to fame: the unsolved disappearance of Evelyn McCreery.  In 1999, young Evelyn disappeared from her rural house in the dead of night, right from the bedroom that she shared with her twin sister, Mina.

Now, 19 years after Evelyn’s disappearance, Mina lives a reclusive life on the destocked family farm, desperately seeking some shreds of normality.  However, the shadow of the unsolved case and the subsequent massive media storm that bombarded her family still haunts her, especially as many question whether she had a role in the tragic events, while others constantly attempt to claim the massive reward the family posted.  However, despite the time and her attempts to not get involved in the craziness again, Mina finds old wounds reopened when Lane Holland arrives in town.

Lane is a private investigator and failed Federal Police cadet who has made a living out of cracking cold cases involving missing girls.  Interested in claiming the substantial reward, Lane begins his own in-depth investigation of Evelyn’s disappearance, and his determination and insights soon grab Mina’s attention and she finds herself drawn close to Lane.  However, Lane has his own personal reasons for solving the case, and his dark ghosts could end up dragging Mina down with him.

This was an excellent and captivating debut novel from Shelley Burr, which is already gaining some major recognition, including some major Australian awards.  While I knew I was likely to enjoy this amazing novel, I ended powering through Wake in a day as I got really hooked on its compelling and intense outback story.

I deeply enjoyed Wake’s awesome story, especially as Burr makes sure that it contains all the necessary elements to grab your attention.  This novel starts in the modern day, 19 years after the disappearance that rocked Nannine, and sees newcomer Lane Holland arrive to attempt to solve the case.  The introduction of this sleuth character helps to jumpstart the narrative, especially as his new investigation allows the reader to find out all the relevant details about the old case, while also revealing the lasting issues it had on the various protagonists, including the long-running infamy of being involved with such a major case.  Most of the first half of the book revolves around Lane trying to find his feet in the investigation and get close to Mina, while also finding himself involved in a separate case involving another missing girl.  At the same time you get to know Mina from her perspective, and find out just how messed up she is because of the disappearance and media scrutiny.  All the key characters, major story elements, hints and settings are perfectly set up in the first half of Wake, and the captivating mystery and damaged characters really drag you in and ensure that you become deeply invested in seeing how the case unfolds.

After some big reveals about halfway through the novel, the story intensifies even further, especially once you fully understand Lane’s drive and get to know the characters even better.  There are some compelling twists and turns in this second half of the book, with multiple theories and red herrings to cleverly distract the reader, while major personal moments hit all the key characters.  This all perfectly sets up the big finale, as all the plot points, tragic backstories and hidden hints come together extremely well for the major reveal.  I really liked how Wake’s story concluded, and I think both the solution to the mysteries and the resolution of all the character arcs was pretty ingenious, especially with how well it tied together the various character’s secrets, histories and regrets.  Overall, the reader will come away very satisfied with how everything is tied up, and this ended up being a very impressive and compelling narrative that was well-paced and loaded with some great surprises, major moments, and a very intriguing central mystery.

There were many cool elements to Wake that I deeply enjoyed and which I felt helped to enhance the mystery-laden story.  I liked the rural setting of Nannine, a fictional town that captures the heart of feel of many rural Australian communities, especially those that are suffering from many issues such as drought and the slow decline of the agricultural economy.  This decaying agricultural town serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing story, and you really get to see how the small-town vibes and attitudes affect the investigation of the case.  I also appreciated the fantastic dive into the over-the-top press coverage that surrounds famous crime cases.  The disappearance attracted a massive media focus, and Burr spends a lot of time exploring how it initially covered the case, how it morphed over the years, and the lasting impact that growing up as a media sensation had on both Mina and the other supporting characters from Nannine.  I particularly enjoyed the examination of how the case became a favourite of true-crime fanatics, which is primarily shown through a series of posts on the murder forum that appears in front of multiple chapters.  These posts highlight the attitudes, theories, mindsets and more of the true-crime internet community and serves as an intriguing weather vane for the wider Australian community.  I loved these posts, not only because they were entertaining and realistic but because it proved to be a great way to provide the reader with some interesting context while also having some impacts on the main story.  Throw in the great way that Burr utilised several flashback sequences, some hidden clues in character names, some clever insights into missing person cases, and other outstanding elements, and you have a really impressive book that will easily keep your attention.

I also need to highlight Wake’s awesome damaged characters that the plot focuses on.  Burr has come up with some sensational and powerful story arcs for these great characters, and their various histories, connections and life events add some excellent emotional heft to the story that I really enjoyed.  This includes Mina McCreery, who serves as a major point-of-view character for most of the plot.  Mina is the twin of the disappeared Evelyn, and has spent the last 19 years living in her disappeared sister’s shadow.  Not only did she have to deal with the emotional backlash of her sister being either killed or abducted but she also had to experience the intense media scrutiny and other issues associated with the major case, especially as her mother ended up becoming a media sensation to keep the focus on Evelyn’s case.  Due to this, the strained relationship she had with her sorrowful mother, and certain suspicions from some that she had something to do with her sister’s disappearance, Mina now lives a solitary life, avoiding most people and not having many friends.  This makes her rather standoffish, angry and a little paranoid (for good reason) for most of the novel, and she has a hard time connecting to anyone, especially Lane.  The events of this book really shock her in some major ways, as the years of repressed trauma and emotional uncertainty come to the surface again, especially once secrets and long-hidden truths come to the surface.  I felt that the author did an amazing job highlighting all the major issues contained within Mina’s psyche, and the subsequent emotional moments were a fantastic and powerful part of the book.

Aside from Mina, the other major character in Wake that I need to discuss is private investigator Lane Holland, who arrives in Nannine to investigate the case.  Burr created something really impressive in Lane, a former police cadet turned private investigator, as he ends up having one of the more intense and memorable character arcs in the entire novel.  Initially seen as an unwelcome outsider by most of the other characters, apparently interested in only the reward money, Lane is able to prove himself to Mina and other characters and manages to gain their trust.  However, everything you think you know about Lane is blown out the water when you find out his surprising connection to the case, as well as his motivations for investigating it.  Burr sets up the connections extremely well in the early parts of the novel, putting in several clever hints and suggestions, while also doling out useful flashbacks to Lane’s past that explain everything.  These revelations, as well as some insights into Lane’s personal history and motivations, help to both intensifies the story, while also dragging you closer to Lane as a character, hoping that he will succeed for everyone’s goods.  Burr takes Lane’s character arc into some very dark, by captivating, directions, and his entire story comes together in a brilliant and powerful way, especially with some major decisions made towards the end of the book.  These two excellent, intense, and very damaged central characters, really acted as the heart-and-soul of Wake, and I was really drawn into the outstanding narrative Burr wove around them.

With her excellent debut novel, Wake, Shelley Burr has successfully entered the world of Australian crime fiction in a big way.  Featuring a captivating and distinctively dark murder mystery narrative that sees damaged characters bring a notorious cold case into the light, Wake was a gripping and deeply thrilling read that I had a fantastic time reading.  A moving and enthralling novel, Wake was an exceptional Australian crime debut and I am extremely excited to read more stories from Burr in the future.

Wake Cover 2

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Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild

Blood Sugar Cover

Publisher: Trapeze (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding screenwriter Sascha Rothchild presents her debut novel with the utterly addictive Blood Sugar, an awesome and clever thriller with a sweet twist.

Ruby Simon has been a killer since she was five years old.  On a sunny day, young Ruby took an opportunity to rid herself and her sister of the school bully by helping him drown at the local Miami beach.  After managing to get away with her crime, Ruby expected to feel guilty for the life she took, but instead all she felt was relief that the boy would never hurt her sister again.  This action led to Ruby having a realisation that sometimes killing a terrible person is not necessarily a bad thing.

Twenty-five years later, Ruby appears to have it all.  A successful and driven psychologist in Miami, Ruby has killed several times over the intervening years and has never felt guilt for her actions.  However, everything she has built is about to come crumbling down when she finds herself in an interrogation room under suspicion of murder.  In front of her lie four photographs of people who she once knew and who are all now dead.

As the interrogation continues, Ruby soon discovers a significant problem: of the four victims she is accused of murdering, she has only killed three of them, and it is the death she is not responsible for that the police are most determined to bring her down for.  Can Ruby prove she is innocent of this one murder?  And even if she can, does she even deserve to be set free?

This was an impressive and compelling debut from Sascha Rothchild that I was really quite happy to get a copy of.  Not only did it have an awesome-sounding plot but I was also very intrigued by the author, as Rothchild already had some major writing creds after her work on several television shows, including GLOW, which I was a big fan of.  I ended up really loving Blood Sugar and I swiftly got drawn into its witty, humorous and powerful story set around an unlikely and extremely likeable murderer.

Blood Sugar has a distinctive and fun narrative that really grabs your attention from the beginning, starting as it does with child-on-child murder.  Told exclusively from the perspective of central character Ruby Simon, the book is an impressive, deep and occasionally humorous character study of a very unique fictional killer.  The initial narrative is split between events in the character’s present, where she is being interrogated by the police, and an extended look back at her past, as you see all the major events in her life.  These flashback sequences take up the majority of the first two thirds of the book, and they present some powerful and intriguing examinations of the protagonist and all the moments that led to her present.  In particular, they look at her key relationships, her schooling, the events that made her into the successful person she is today, as well as the moments where she decided to take a life.  These two separate narrative threads play off each other extremely well, with the character history providing some intriguing context to the character’s background and mindset, while the present-day interrogation does a good job at hinting at events that are still to be revealed in the flashbacks.  Rothchild’s excellent writing style and ability to forge interesting and compelling characters are on full display during this part of the novel, and she is effortlessly able to construct a powerful and natural life story around the very relatable protagonist, with her occasional murders cleverly worked in.  The blend of character history and justified killings really works well to keep your attention, while also making you really start to care about the protagonist and her future.  Both separate linear threads bind together perfectly as the novel progresses and leads the reader towards Blood Sugar’s awesome third and final act.

The final third of Blood Sugar takes on a completely new format as the first-person examination of the protagonist’s past is wrapped up and the book turns into an intense legal thriller.  This fantastic and powerful change of pace is quite jarring and sees the protagonist encounter all manner of personal setbacks and attacks as the police close in on her.  Thanks to all the awesome work that the author did in the first part of the novel, the reader is now incredibly invested in Ruby’s life story, and you feel incredibly sympathetic for her.  As such, it hurts a little to see her so terribly attacked, even though many of the things that they are accusing her of are true and a key part of her life.  This final part of the novel is incredibly intense, and Rothchild brings out all manner of intriguing twists and turns to shake the reader, especially as you still a little uncertain about who is responsible for one of the key events.  The author comes up with an intriguing and entertaining conclusion for the novel that really makes one of the supporting characters shine.  I really liked how everything wrapped up here, and it really did the rest of the book justice.  An overall impressive and highly addictive narrative that I powered through in very short order.

I deeply enjoyed some of the unique elements that Rothchild sprinkled throughout her novel.  While there is a natural focus on the morality of murder and the mindset of her protagonist, the author also takes the time to examine other interesting elements in her own entertaining way.  Many of these elements revolve around relationships, with the protagonist finding herself connected to multiple interesting people in a variety of complex ways, from a very close platonic friendship that experiences major highs and severe lows, to a loving relationship that tries to overcome mistrust and traumatic pasts.  The author also presents one of the most honest and powerful examinations of the relationships people have with their pets, as the protagonist becomes extremely close with several animals that she adopts.  While one of these ends quite tragically (I was legitimately heartbroken when this happened), it transitions into a very moving and accurate examination of the strong grief that people often feel for their pets, and it is one that every animal lover will understand and appreciate.  The various relationships featured in Blood Sugar form a key part of the story, and it was fascinating to see them unfold around the protagonist, especially as they brought out some unique family dynamics, and I really appreciated the clever ways that the author worked them into the wider plot.

There is also an outstanding look at the media circus that surrounds big crimes, especially once the protagonist finds their previous crimes under investigation.  Watching Ruby’s entire carefully constructed life come unravelled in the public eye is one of the more intense parts of Blood Sugar, and Rothchild pulls no punches when it comes to the savagery of the media and the isolation that accused people find themselves in.  I also appreciated the intense dive into the world of the personal psychology, as the protagonist uses her training to explore her mind as well as issues surrounding several of her clients.  This was a very intriguing part of the book’s plot, and I liked how Rothchild praised therapy, showing that it can be very beneficial to people, even trained psychologists and serial killers.  However, the most impressive story element that Rothchild worked into the novel was the in-depth examination of diabetes and the impacts it can have.  Due to a key plot point, quite a lot of the book revolves around a character’s diabetes, with their low blood sugar (yep, that is what the book is named after), become a major factor in the case against Ruby.  Rothchild has clearly done her research when it comes to the intricacies of diabetes, and I really appreciated how she was able to imagine a potential murder based around this disease.  All these distinctive elements and more are expertly utilised in the wider plot and become a key part of the protagonist’s unique and complex life.

Finally, I really must touch on Blood Sugar’s awesome protagonist of Ruby Simon, who stands out as one of the most original and surprisingly likeable literary characters of 2022.  Ruby is a very distinctive figure; she first killed at a very young age and has gone on to murder again several times through her life.  Even though she feels no guilt for these killings, Ruby is not portrayed as a psychopath or a serial killer; she is simply someone able to justify the actions she took in a very logical way.  Due to the way that the novel is set out, you see most of Ruby’s life through her eyes and you swiftly come to appreciate her point of view, especially as she appears as a mostly normal person who finds herself in some unique situations.  Each of her killings is laid out to the reader in a very logical and natural way, and you honestly have a hard time understanding and even supporting her reasons or justifications for the killings.  Due to this, as well as the extremely relatable way that Rothchild portrays her, you become strongly connected to the character, and you quickly start rooting for her to avoid being capture or prosecuted for her crimes.  I honestly cannot remember becoming as attached to a killer character as did with Ruby in Blood Sugar, and Rothchild really went out of her way to ensure that you liked her protagonist.  An excellent and memorable bit of character work.

Overall, Blood Sugar was one of the more unique and entertaining releases of 2022 so far, and I was really impressed with Sascha Rothchild’s first novel.  Featuring an extremely clever, hilarious, thrilling and addictive story, Blood Sugar was a very fun novel to dive into, especially once you become attached to the amazing main character.  Powerful, intense and very distinctive, Blood Sugar is easily one of the best debut novels of 2022 and it comes very highly recommended by the Unseen Library.

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The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.

It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons.  In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found.  Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years.  This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.

Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside.  Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession.  Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.

As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries.  None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years.  What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it?  Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.

This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction.  The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction.  The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.

The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case.  Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future.  Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders.  The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation.  Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.

As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case.  This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality.  I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable.  Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy.  There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything.  I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened.  While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever.  The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it.  I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste.  Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.

You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name).  Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage.  Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about.  Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession.  This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them.  Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive.  Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion.  This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety.  I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.

Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case.  The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper.  Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality.  Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences.  The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery.  It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred.  However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy.  Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them.  All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.

The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism.  I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers.  The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts.  I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper.  Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks.  Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism.  This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading.  Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist.  I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together.  Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.

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The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2021)

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction authors, Tim Ayliffe, returns with another impressive and brilliantly relevant novel, The Enemy Within.

Ayliffe is a great author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last couple of years as he sets some fantastic stories around contemporary Australian subjects.  Debuting in 2018, this journalist wrote a compelling and intriguing first novel with The Greater Good, which looked at political corruption and the growing influence of China in Australia.  He followed it up in 2019 with State of Fear, which looked at Islamic terrorism and featured a dramatic and impactful story.  Now Ayliffe checks out the complete opposite end of the political spectrum in The Enemy Within, which features a look at growing right-wing radicals.

As the smoke from devastating January 2020 bushfires covers Sydney, investigative reporter John Bailey is covering a far more dangerous threat in the suburbs.  Barely recovered from the traumatic events that took the love of his life from him, Bailey is now working for a news magazine.  His first story will cover the re-emergence of right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups in Australia.  Attending one of their meetings, where a controversial American social media star whose entrance into the country has gained much political opposition and protest, Bailey attempts to gain the pulse of this movement, only to face violence and an anti-media mentality from the crowd.

Working on his story, Bailey has no idea of the chaos that is about to rain down on his life.  After he meets with an old contact and informant, Bailey’s house is raided by the Australian Federal Police.  The police are investigating him for a story he ran back while he was a war correspondent that highlighted the alleged war crimes Australian soldiers committed in the Middle East.  Armed with a warrant granting them access to his phone, computer and all his files, the police tear through Bailey’s life and throw him in gaol for attempting to impede their search.

With the entire nation’s media covering his plight, Bailey is released from prison and soon discovers that someone orchestrated the police raid to delete evidence from the rally.  Attempting to investigate further, Bailey is shocked when his contact ends up dead in mysterious circumstances and the police fail to investigate.  With Sydney on the verge of a race war, Bailey continues his investigation and soon uncovers proof about a dangerous conspiracy that aims to shake the very foundations of Australian life.  With only his old friend CIA agent Ronnie Johnson as backup, Bailey attempts to stop this plot before it is too late.  But with a seemingly untouchable enemy targeting him from the shadows, has Bailey finally met an opponent even more determined than he is?

This was an awesome and captivating novel from Ayliffe who once again produces an intense, character-driven narrative.  Set around some very relevant and controversial topics, The Enemy Within is a powerful and exciting novel that takes the reader on a compelling ride.  I had a fantastic time reading this clever book and I loved the fascinating examinations of one of the more insidious threats facing Australia.

Set in the blistering, smoke covered streets of early 2020 Sydney, this story starts with protagonist John Bailey engaged in a controversial story about the rising far-right wing.  After a predictably violent confrontation, the narrative takes off like a shot, with the protagonist investigating a series of concerning events, including several murders, racial attacks, and a re-opened investigation into an old story of his that sees the AFP raid his house.  Each of these separate investigative threads are drawn together as the book progresses, and the reader is treated to an impressive and deadly conspiracy with several clever allusions to real-world issues and events.  This was a very exciting and captivating novel to get through, and I found myself reading it extremely quickly, nearly finishing it off in a day.  The story leads up to an awesome and intense conclusion, where Bailey uncovers the entire scope of the plot and races to stop it.  While the identity of some of the participants is very clear since the character’s introductions, their full plan, methods, and reach are more hidden and it was great to see the protagonist uncover them all, especially as several were cleverly hidden in innocuous moments earlier in the novel.  There is even an excellent twist towards the end of the book that reveals a well-hidden antagonist, which I particularly enjoyed as it was so skilfully inserted into the story.  I ended having an excellent time getting through this amazing narrative, and this might be one of the best stories that Ayliffe has so far written.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the John Bailey novels is the way in which so much of the amazing story was tied to how extremely damaged the titular protagonist is.  John Bailey is a veteran reporter whose previous life as a war correspondent has left him extremely broken, especially after being tortured by a dangerous terrorist leader.  This eventually led to him becoming an alcoholic, which ruined his career and separated him from his family.  However, since the start of the series, Bailey has shown some real character growth, although this is usually accompanied by some traumatic events or tragic moments.  In The Enemy Within, as Bailey is still recovering from the loss of his lover at the end of State of Fear.  Despite making some strides to recover, Bailey is still reeling from the loss, and this becomes a major aspect of his character in this latest book.  This is especially true as Ayliffe does an outstanding job of highlighting the grieving process and showing Bailey’s feelings of despair.  It was really moving to see Bailey in this novel, and I was glad to see him continue to recover from all the bad events of his life, including stopping drinking and getting a dog.  However, Bailey still has an unerring knack to annoy the subjects of his stories, and he ends up getting into all sorts of danger.  It was great to see him getting to the root of this story by any means necessary, and I continued to appreciate his impressive development.

I also love the way that the each of Ayliffe’s novels feature some fascinating contemporary issues facing Australia or the wider world.  In The Enemy Within, the main issue is the rise of Australian right-wing and white supremacist groups in recent years.  Like in the rest of the world, these groups have been becoming a bit more prominent recently in Australia, and Ayliffe does an excellent job analysing this issue throughout his novel.  The author does a deep examination of the movement as the story progresses, and the reader is given a good insight into their concerns, motivations, and the reasons why the movement has been gaining progress in recent years.  There are some clever parallels between the events or people portrayed in the novel and real life, which was interesting to see.  Examples of this include the government allowing controversial right-wing figures into the country despite protests, and the reactions of certain right-wing media groups.  I liked how Ayliffe once again featured the character of Keith Roberts, a right-wing commentator who is a pastiche of several Australian radio personalities.  It was also quite fascinating to see how the concerns and motivations of the right-wing groups were extremely like some of the Islamic terrorists featured in State of Fear, with both groups feeling disconnected from and attacked by mainstream Australian society.  Not only is this extremely fascinating and thought-provoking but it also serves as an amazing basis for Ayliffe’s narrative.  The author does a fantastic job of wrapping his thrilling story around some of these elements, and it makes the overall narrative extremely relevant.

I also must highlight another significant contemporary inclusion that was featured in The Enemy Within, and that was the Australian Federal Police’s raids on Bailey’s house.  This police raid is a direct reference to a series of controversial raids that occurred on several media organisations, including ABC News (who Ayliffe works for), in relation to articles they published.  Ayliffe uses these real-life examples to really punch up what happens within The Enemy Within, and he produces some realistic scenes that were comparable to this.  The subject of the articles that prompt the raids are also very similar and feature another topic that is quite controversial in Australia in the moment, that of alleged war-crimes by Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East.  Just like with the other divisive topics featured in this novel, Ayliffe did a fantastic job re-imagining these events in his novel, and it produces some excellent inclusions that will particularly resonate with an Australian audience.  I deeply appreciated the way in which he was able to work these events into his story, and I think that it made The Enemy Within a much more compelling and distinctive read.

I have to say that I also really loved the author’s use of setting in The Enemy Within.  This latest book is set in early 2020, when Sydney was surrounded by some of the worst bushfires in Australian history and the entire city was covered in smoke for months.  Ayliffe does an excellent job portraying these terrible conditions, no doubt drawn from his own personal experiences, and the reader gets a good idea of how difficult life was under those conditions (it certainly brought me back to that time, although we didn’t have it quite as bad down in Canberra).  Ayliffe uses this unique setting to full effect throughout the book and it provides some fitting atmosphere for the narrative, especially as the landscape reflects the simmering tensions flaring up within the city.  This was one of the more distinctive features of The Enemy Within, and I really appreciated the way the author used it to enhance his great story.  I also quite enjoyed the throwaway references to COVID-19, with none of the characters particularly concerned about it considering everything else that was happening, and I have no doubt that Ayliffe’s next novel will make great use of the pandemic in some way.

With his latest novel, The Enemy Within, Tim Ayliffe continues to showcase why he is one of the best new writers of Australian crime fiction.  The Enemy Within had an awesome and incredible story that perfectly brings in amazing contemporary Australian issues and settings, which are expertly worked into a thrilling novel.  I had an outstanding time reading this fantastic read and it comes highly recommended.

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State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe

State of Fear Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia (Trade Paperback – 22 July 2019)

Series: John Bailey – Book Two

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of the fastest-rising Australian thriller writers, Tim Ayliffe, follows up his impressive debut with an excellent second entry in his John Bailey series, State of Fear.

Tim Ayliffe is a talented author who debuted in 2018 with The Greater Good, the first John Bailey book.  This novel explored political corruption and international interference in Australia and made excellent use of the author’s experiences as a journalist.  I really enjoyed this first book and was rather interested when I received the second novel from Ayliffe, State of Fear, in 2019.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read State of Fear when it first came out, and it has been in my to-read pile for a while, until I received a copy of the third John Bailey novel, The Enemy Within, a few weeks ago.  I rather liked the sound of the third book’s plot, and I really wanted to read and review it.  However, before checking out The Enemy Within I thought it would make more sense to read State of Fear first, and boy am I glad that I did.

Throughout his long career as a journalist and war correspondent, John Bailey has faced many dangers and been in several terrible situations.  However, his worst encounter was with the notorious terrorist mastermind, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, who kidnapped Bailey while he was reporting on the invasion in Afghanistan and relentlessly tortured him mentally and psychically.  Following his release from the terrorist group and a retirement from working in active war zones, Bailey thought that his days of dealing with terrorists was over, but he was wrong.

Speaking at a conference on Islamic terrorism in London, Bailey is horrified when a radicalised terrorist murders a woman in front of the convention centre.  Rattled, Bailey returns home to Sydney, only to find his troubles have followed him there.  The son of his former driver in Bagdad has gone missing, and Bailey has been implored to help.  Investigating, Bailey finds that the son has been in contact with some dangerous men with connections to Islamic terrorist cells.  Worse, it appears that they are planning to launch a massive attack in Sydney.

Desperate to save his friend’s son from making a terrible mistake, Bailey attempts to make sense of the terrible events unfolding in Sydney.  However, the deeper he goes, the clearer it becomes that Mustafa al-Baghdadi is back, and he is targeting Bailey personally.  As Bailey and everyone he loves comes under attack, Bailey is forced to turn to his old friend, CIA agent Ronnie Johnson, to find Mustafa and take him down.  But will they be able to stop Mustafa before it is too late, or will the world’s most dangerous terrorist destroy everything that Bailey holds dear?

State of Fear was an excellent and powerful novel that takes its great protagonist on a rough and dangerous journey through hell and back.  Ayliffe has definitely grown as an author since his first novel, and this second book is a compelling and intense novel with a well-crafted narrative.  Starting off with an intense beginning, the protagonist is swiftly shoved into his latest harrowing adventure, as the terrorist he thought he escaped violently bursts back into his life.  This is a very captivating novel, and despite its longer length I found myself powering through it in a very short amount of time.  The protagonist goes through a real wringer as he is forced to visit the ghosts of his past while trying to stop his foe’s latest plot.  Featuring a sprawling and deadly investigation through the suburbs of Sydney, the story eventually journeys back to London, where the protagonist and his friends engage in a deadly and dramatic fight to stop a deadly attack.  There is so much going on in this story, and the reader will experience outstanding action, powerful drama, and some major tragedy, especially in the novel’s dramatic conclusion.  This is a fantastic book which stands on its own and can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the other John Bailey novels.  I had an exceptional time reading State of Fear and it is really worth checking out.

Ayliffe works a lot of fun elements into this novel that make it quite a unique read.  Perhaps one of the most prominent of these is his experience and knowledge as a journalist which helps to produce a very Australian centric view of the events that are being depicted.  For example, Ayliffe includes a very detailed and compelling look at radical Islamic terrorism and how it is occurring both in Australia and in the wider world, particularly England.  Using several real-life Australian cases as basis, Ayliffe manages to expose and explore the heart of the issue, and he paints a fair and captivating picture of how individuals are lured into radical Islam as well as the consequences of their actions.  There are some very intriguing and powerful discussions included within this novel, especially around how the Islamic and migrant community in Australia feels isolated and prejudiced against, and I really appreciated the compelling inclusion in the novel.

Other intriguing elements contained within State of Fear include Ayliffe’s experiences with modern media and how journalist stories are produced and distributed.  There are some fascinating and fun journalistic scenes contained within this novel, and you have to assume that the protagonist’s extremely negative views about the swing to online social media based journalism has to reflect some of the author’s personal feelings.  Another great feature of this novel was the way in which Ayliffe once again used his novel to highlight the city of Sydney.  While a good portion of this novel is set in London (which Ayliffe also does a great job portraying), the scenes set within Sydney are a particular highlight.  The author really dives into showcasing this city, with the protagonist visiting several real-life suburbs and locations throughout the course of the book, distributing local knowledge as he goes.  As a result, this book is filled with some fun references that locals and Sydneysiders will really appreciate, and I enjoyed how Ayliffe spent the time to write a love letter to his city.

In addition to a fantastic story and excellent setting, Ayliffe also ensures that State of Fear is loaded with some complex and memorable characters.  The most prominent of these is series main protagonist and primary point of view character John Bailey.  Bailey is an outstanding veteran reporting character, and Ayliffe portrays him as a broken older news hound who is trying to balance his addictive career with holding onto his family.  This protagonist is the very definition of a damaged character, as he has experienced great trauma, both psychical and emotional, over the years thanks to his work as a war correspondent.  Despite this trauma, Bailey has experienced some major growth since the first book in the series, mainly thanks to the actions of major people in his life, and he is now a much more functional human being, allowing the reader to really connect with his struggles and damage.  Unfortunately, the events of this novel really hit him hard, as he experiences fresh pain while also revisiting his traumatic past through a series of dark flashbacks.  Despite this, Bailey keeps moving forward trying to solve the case, and it was great to see his determination and resolve, even under the worse of circumstances.  The ending of the novel is pretty bad for Bailey, and he goes through some tragic moments that will no doubt rock him for the rest of the series.  All of this makes for an incredible central protagonist, and readers will fall in love with this damaged and compelling character.

Aside from Bailey, State of Fear also contains several great supporting characters, most of whom are holdovers from The Greater Good, and who find themselves in all sorts of trouble in this book.  The most prominent of these is Bailey’s romantic partner, Detective Chief Inspector Sharon Dexter, who serves as a secondary point-of-view protagonist for parts of the book.  Dexter is a tough, no-nonsense cop whose past with Bailey led to a romantic relationship in the first book.  Despite having a very complex and unusual relationship with Bailey, Dexter proves to be an excellent supporting character, acting as the sensible and official support to Bailey who tries to keep him out of trouble.  While she has a bit of a cold exterior, especially when Bailey stuffs up or lies to her, Dexter is another character the reader can easily get attached to, and her involvement in the story is quite essentially the overall powerful narrative.

I also quite liked the inclusion of Bailey’s editor, Gerald Summers, another aging newsman who serves as Bailey’s emotional rock and best friend and who has an amazing run in this book.  Gerald is an outstanding and loveable character, which of course means he is going to suffer a little bit, so prepare yourself for that.  You also have to like Ronnie Johnson, the maverick CIA agent who spends most of his time living on Bailey’s couch, but who proves to be an effective and very dangerous operative when he needs to.  Ronnie has been a favourite character of mine ever since the first book (I mean, he kills an Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt style), and he does some cool things in this second novel.  Finally, I felt that Mustafa al-Baghdadi was a pretty good overarching antagonist for State of Fear.  Ayliffe did a good job portraying a manipulative religious zealot with grand plans for vengeance and the advancement of his cause.  Despite being hidden for most of the book, this character contains a great deal of menace, and I really enjoyed the sinister flashback sequences that featured him and Bailey.  I did think that some of his reasons for vengeance on Bailey were a bit weak (I mean, he had to know that the first thing Bailey was going to do when freed was to share what he knew with the Americans), but he was an overall great villain with major impacts on the narrative.  Each of these characters were well written and established, and I felt that their combined narratives really improved this fantastic novel.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe was an outstanding and captivating read that presents a powerful and moving adventure of journalist John Bailey.  Containing an intense narrative about terrorism, some unique elements and amazing characters, State of Fear is an excellent read which swiftly grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let them go.  I had an incredible time reading this novel and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to check it out.  I have already read the third entry in the John Bailey series, The Enemy Within, and I am hoping to get a review out for it soon.

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To Kill a Man by Sam Bourne

To Kill a Man Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 19 March 2020)

Series: Maggie Costello – Book Five

Length: 438 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Acclaimed thriller writer Sam Bourne delivers another captivating and intriguing novel about the dark side of American politics in his latest clever and exhilarating release, To Kill a Man.

In Washington DC, a woman is brutally assaulted in her own home by a masked intruder. Defending herself, she manages to kill her assailant, leaving him dead on the floor. While it seems to be a simple case of self-defence, the victim is no ordinary woman; instead, she is Natasha Winthrop, a high-flying lawyer whose highly publicised work during a House intelligence committee has many people wanting her to run for President of the United States.

As the events of this case are torn apart by the media, politicians and the general public, certain inconsistencies in Winthrop’s story emerge, and the police start to investigate the possibility that Winthrop knew her attacker and that she arranged the entire situation. With a hostile press and her potential political opponents swarming all around her, Winthrop calls in Maggie Costello, Washington’s top political troubleshooter for help.

Maggie eagerly takes on the case and quickly finds herself helping a woman at the centre of one of America’s most controversial and divisive news stories. While the country divides over whether Winthrop is innocent or guilty, and several violent retaliatory attacks against sexual offenders occur around the globe, Maggie is determined to find something that will prove her client’s innocence and allow her to keep her political future intact. However, the further Maggie digs, the more inconsistencies and surprises she uncovers. Who is Natasha Winthrop really, and what connections did she have to the man who attacked her? As the political sharks circle and the deadline for Winthrop’s announcement as a potential candidate gets closer, Maggie attempts to uncover the truth before it is too late. But what will Maggie do when the entire shocking truth comes to the surface?

To Kill a Man is an impressive and captivating political thriller from Sam Bourne, the nom de plume of British journalist Jonathan Saul Freedman, who started writing thrillers back in 2006 with his debut novel, The Righteous Men. He has since gone on to write eight additional thrillers, five of which, including To Kill a Man, have featured Maggie Costello as their protagonist. I have been meaning to read some of Bourne’s novels for a couple of years now, ever since I saw the awesome-sounding synopsis for his 2018 release, To Kill the President. While I did not get a chance to read that book back then, I have been keeping an eye on Bourne’s recent releases, and when I received a copy of To Kill a Man I quickly jumped at the chance to read it. What I found was a cool and intriguing novel with a compelling and complex plot that I had an outstanding time reading.

Bourne has come up with a rather intriguing story for To Kill a Man that sends the reader through a twisted political thriller filled with all manner of surprises and revelations that totally keeps them guessing. I honestly had a hard time putting this book down as I quickly became engrossed in this fantastic story, and every new reveal kept me more and more hooked right up until the very end, where there was one final revelation that will keep a reader thinking and eager to check out the next Bourne book. The entire story is rather clever, and I really liked how Bourne showed the plot from a variety of different perspectives around the world, from Maggie Costello and Natasha Winthrop, to the media, the police, Winthrop’s political opponents and their team, as well as several other people who are affected by the events of the narrative. This use of multiple point-of-view characters, even if they have only short appearances, makes for a more complete story, and I quite liked seeing how fictional members of the public perceived the events going on. While connected to the events of the previous Maggie Costello books, To Kill a Man is essentially a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of any of Bourne’s other novels are required to enjoy this thrilling plot. I really enjoyed where Bourne took this great story, and this turned into a rather captivating thriller.

One part of the book that I particularly liked was the author’s exploration of America’s current political system, and how some of the events of this novel’s plot would play out in a modern effort to become president. As the main plot of To Kill a Man progresses, there are several scenes that feature both Maggie Costello and members of the election team of Winthrop’s main potential rival discussing the various pros and cons of someone in her position running and attempting to game plan how to defeat her if she did run. This was a rather intriguing aspect of the book, and Bourne really did not pull any punches when it comes to his portrayal of just how weird and depressing modern-day politics in America really is. The various political discussions show a real lack of decency and ethics around modern politicians, and there were multiple mentions of how a certain recent election changed all the rules of politics, making everything so much dirtier. The various news stories that followed such an event also had a rather depressing reality to them, especially as the various biases of certain networks and correspondents were made plain, and do not get me started on the various Twitter discussions that were also occurring. All of this works itself into the main story rather well, and some of the revelations that Maggie was able to uncover have some very real and significant real-world counterparts, some of which have not been solved as well in the real world as they were in this somewhat exaggerated thriller. I think all these political inclusions were a terrific part of the book and they really helped to enhance the potential reality of the story and make the story feel a bit more relatable to anyone who follows modern American politics.

To Kill a Man also featured an interesting and topical discussion about the scourge of sexual assaults and harassment that are occurring throughout the world. The main plot of this book follows in the aftermath of a sexual assault against a woman in which the victim fought back and killed her attacker. This results in a huge number of discussions from the characters featured in the novel, as they all try to work out the ethics of her actions in defending herself, and the perceptions of these actions from a variety of people makes for an intriguing aspect of the book, and feeds in well to the political aspects of the story. This also leads to some deep and powerful discussions about sexual assault in America (and the world), the impact that it has on people and the mostly muted response from the public and authorities. This sentiment is enforced by several scenes that show snapshots of women being assaulted and sexually harassed across the world that run throughout the course of the book. While the inclusion of these scenes does appear a little random at times, it ties in well with the main story and the overarching conspiracy that is being explored in the central part of the book. Bourne makes sure to show off the full and terrible effect of these actions, and many of these may prove to be a little distressing to some readers, although I appreciate that he was attempting to get across just how damaging such experiences can be for the victims. I also liked his subsequent inclusion of members of the extreme male right wing who were being used as weapons against some of the female characters in the book, which made for an interesting if exasperating (as in: why do people like this exist in the real world) addition to the story. This discussion about sexual crimes in the world today proved to be a rather powerful and visible part of the book’s plot that I felt worked well within the context of the thriller storyline.

To Kill a Man is an excellent new thriller from Sam Bourne, who produces a clever and layered narrative that really hooks the reader with its compelling twists, intriguing political elements and Bourne’s in-your-face examination of sexual crimes and how they are perceived in a modern society. To Kill a Man comes highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Bourne’s fantastic thrillers in the future.

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The Holdout by Graham Moore

The Holdout Cover

Publisher: Orion/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 18 February 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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From acclaimed author Graham Moore comes an amazing new thriller story that is one part legal drama, one part murder mystery and 100 per cent awesome: The Holdout.

The Holdout is an outstanding standalone book that I have been looking forward to for a little while now. I really enjoyed the sound of the premise when I first heard about it, so I was really glad when I received a copy of this book. Moore is probably best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, having written the screenplay for The Imitation Game, which won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, Moore is also a novelist, having previously written two books, The Sherlockian and The Last Days of Night, the latter of which I read and enjoyed back in 2016. The Holdout is Moore’s first foray into contemporary fiction, and he has produced quite a fantastic read.

It was the trial of the century. Jessica Silver, the 15-year-old heiress to a vast fortune, vanishes and the prime suspect is her African American teacher, Bobby Nock, with whom she was having an inappropriate relationship. With substantial evidence against him, a verdict of guilty for Jessica’s murder seemed assured, until one juror voted not guilty. This one holdout, Maya Seale, refused to alter her verdict and was eventually able to convince the other jurors to change their votes. Their resulting decision would shock the country and change the juror’s lives forever.

Now, 10 years later, Maya is a successful defence attorney who has tried her hardest to move on from the infamous trial that ruined her life, until Rick Leonard, her fellow former juror and secret lover during the trial, tracks her down. Rick has spent the last 10 years obsessing with case, believing that they let a guilty man go free. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of the trial, a true-crime show wants to interview each of the jurors in the hotel they were sequestered at during the trial. At the end of the interview, they will be presented with new evidence that Rick has uncovered which he believes definitively proves Bobby Nock’s guilt. While initially reluctant to go, Maya ends up making an appearance, only to find Rick dead in her hotel room.

Now the prime suspect in Rick’s death, Maya is forced to relive the infamy that has dogged her for years. Determined to prove her innocence, Maya begins interviewing the only potential witnesses to the crime, the former members of the jury who were gathered at the hotel. However, her investigation reveals that Rick has been digging up dirt on each of the former jurors, and several of them may have had a motive to kill him. As she digs deep, Maya begins to believe that the solution to this current murder lies in the trial that brought them together. Did they let a guilty man go free all those years ago, and is that decision coming back to haunt them with lethal consequences?

Wow, just wow, this was a pretty incredible thriller novel. Moore has pulled together quite a compelling and complex read which presents the reader with a fantastic and intricate story that combines an excellent legal thriller with a captivating murder mystery to create a first-rate read.

The Holdout’s story is told in alternating chapters, with half of the chapters set back during the original trial in 2009, and the rest of the book is set 10 years later in the present day. The 2019 chapters are told exclusively from the point of view of Maya as she attempts to uncover who killed Rick Leonard, while each of the chapters set in the past are told from the perspective of a different juror as they observe the events surrounding the trial. This is a really clever storytelling technique as it presents the reader with two connected but distinct storylines. The storyline set during the original trial is a legal drama-thriller in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Runaway Jury, and it shows various points of the Bobby Knock murder trial and the jury deliberations that followed. Through the author’s use of multiple perspectives, the reader is able to see how the various members of the jury came to their ultimate verdict, what factors influenced their decisions and what they thought about the various people involved in the case and their fellow jurors. The storyline set in the present day, on the other hand, reads more like a murder mystery, and it deals with the protagonist’s hunt to find Rick’s killer in order to prove her innocence. Both of these separate storylines work extremely well together, especially as the Maya storyline explores the impacts of the events that occurred during the older timeline. I also think that Moore did an excellent job jumping between the various time periods and character perspectives, and this clever storytelling style helped to create a compelling read with a fun flow to it.

At the centre of this novel lies two fantastic and complex mystery storylines set around 10 years apart. The first one of these revolves around what happened to Jessica Silver in 2009, while the other involves the murder of Rick Leonard in 2019. Both of these separate cases are really intriguing, and they present the reader with some clever twists, compelling potential theories, alternative suspects and conflicting evidence, so much so that the eventual solutions to these mysteries are actually quite surprising. While both of these two mysteries work really well by themselves, the real beauty is in the way that they combine together throughout the book. The solution to the Rick Leonard murder is strongly rooted to the original 2009 trial with the jury, while the eventual revelation about Jessica Silver doesn’t come out until the events of the 2019 murder are concluded. I really enjoyed seeing both of these mysteries come together, and it was cool to see the motives for one case be revealed in a prior timeline, while the protagonist investigated in the present.

I also had a great appreciation for the legal aspects of The Holdout, as the author dives deep in the United States court system and shows off what happens during a murder trial. There are some tricky legal scenes throughout this book, and one of the major appeals of the 2009 storylines is seeing the entirety of the murder trial unfold. Moore also does a great job exploring how the jury system works and how jurors deliberate and decide upon a person’s innocence and guilt. There are some intriguing examinations of the jury system throughout the book, and it was interesting to see what information they are given and how a jury could come up with one verdict when the rest of the country has already decided. The use of multiple perspectives works well during the 2009 part of the book, and I quite enjoyed seeing how the disparate jurors had different opinions about the information presented to them. The 2019 storyline also contains some intriguing legal scenes which are shown from the perspective of Maya as a successful defence attorney. As a result, these scenes contain fascinating information about legal strategy and defence plans, and it was a little scary to consider innocent people being advised that their best legal strategy for a crime they didn’t commit was to claim self-defence. The Holdout also tried to show the chaos that surrounds a high profile court case, including examining the crazy media coverage, the impact of public perception, and the fact that people involved are often more concerned with making money or advancing their careers rather than finding out who actually committed the crime. All of this is extremely fascinating, and I enjoyed seeing Moore’s take on the current legal system, especially as he comes across as somewhat critical of it at times.

Moore has also filled this book with a number of complex and relatable characters in the form of the jurors, who you get to know throughout the course of both storylines. Thanks to the two separate timelines, you get to see how the events of the trial affected these people as each of them had their lives completely ruined thanks to one decision they made 10 years ago. Thanks to the use of multiple perspectives during the earlier timeline, you actually get to briefly see inside the mind of each of the jurors, and explore how events in their past lives, plus the stress of the trial helped influence their verdict. I also found it fascinating to see how the not-guilty verdict impacted on other characters associated with the trial, such as the family of Jessica Silver and the accused, Bobby Nock. This was especially true in the case of Bobby, who, despite being found innocent, was controversially prosecuted for another crime and was then subsequently hounded by the media for years, resulting in some compelling scenes around this character in the 2019 storyline. I also have to point out the underlying theme of obsession that the author expertly inserted into this story. Obsession with the trial affected several characters within the book, causing many of them to act in unpredictable ways to achieve their goals. This obsession came from a number of places, including from guilt, a sense of righteousness, a desire for revenge or to find justice, and it was quite compelling to see what this obsession drove some characters to do. One member of the jury in particular is driven to do some very dark things that were completely out of character to the person who was introduced in the earlier storyline, and this characters development was extremely fascinating to behold. Moore did an amazing job with these characters, and I really liked seeing how the events depicted in the book influenced and impacted them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Holdout, which was narrated by Abby Craden. The Holdout audiobook runs for just over 10 hours and I found myself flying through this novel, especially when I became obsessed with working out the overall solutions to this book. Craden is an excellent audiobook narrator, and I previously enjoyed her work on Recursion by Black Crouch last year. For The Holdout, Craden comes up with a number of distinctive voices for the various characters featured within the book. Each of these voices fit their respective characters extremely well, and I think that Craden did a good job portraying these character’s various ethnicities and genders. All of this really helped me to enjoy this incredible story, and this format comes highly recommended as a result.

The Holdout was an absolutely incredible read that does a fantastic job showcasing Graham Moore’s superb skill as a master storyteller. This amazing novel expertly combines together a compelling legal thriller with an addictive murder mystery in order to produce a first-rate story with some captivating twists and intriguing character developments. The Holdout gets a full five-star rating from me, and I am very excited to see what this remarkable author produces next.

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