Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 8 November 2022)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary crime fiction author, Michael Connelly, returns with another impressive and deeply enjoyable read that once again brings together two of his best protagonists for a compelling investigation, with Desert Star.

Connelly is an author who needs very little introduction, having spent the last 30 years dominating the crime fiction world.  His various outstanding works often cover several diverse subgenres of crime fiction, and his unique and captivating protagonists all exist in one shared universe, primarily set around Los Angeles.  Ever since I started properly reading crime fiction a few years ago, Connelly has been an author I have particularly enjoyed each year, and I have had a wonderful time reading several of his most recent books.  This includes the fantastic Mickey Haller legal thriller, The Law of Innocence, and the intense Jack McEvoy journalistic investigative read, Fair Warning (one of my favourite novels of 2020).  However, some of my favourite Connelly books have been the more classic police investigation novels, all of which have been part of the Ballard and Bosch subseries.

The Ballard and Bosch books are an intriguing set of recent novels that bring together Connelly’s two main police protagonists into one investigative team.  These two protagonists are female detective Renée Ballard and Connelly’s original protagonist, Harry Bosch, who has long retired from the LAPD but is still in the detective game.  These two form a fantastic team, and it is always fun to see their interesting mentor/mentee relationship as they investigate a series of cases.  There have so far been three Ballard and Bosch books, and I have had a wonderful time with each of them, including Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and The Dark Hours (one of my favourite books of 2021).  Due to how awesome these last three books have been, I was quite excited to see that Connelly had a new one coming out in 2022, and that book, Desert Star, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.

Desert Star is set a year after the events of The Dark Hours, which saw Renée Ballard quit the LAPD after encountering sexism, corruption, and obstacles to solving her cases.  Lured back after being offered a dream job, Ballard now finds herself leading an elite cold cases unit which hopes to find justice for the many unsolved murders throughout Los Angeles.  While Ballard has already pulled together an effective team, there is still one person she needs to complete it: Harry Bosch.

While angry at Ballard following their last encounter, Bosch is lured back as a volunteer investigator after Ballard offers him help on the one cold case that has haunted him for years, the slaying of the Gallagher family.  Years ago, the entire family of four was found brutally killed, their bodies buried in the desert, and Bosch has never forgotten them or the fact that he was unable to find the man he knows killed them.  In return for access to the resources of Ballard’s unit, Bosch agrees to help Ballard solve her own cold case.

To keep their unit alive and well funded, Ballard needs to solve the rape and murder of a councilman’s sister years ago.  There are few avenues for a further investigation, and Ballard hopes that Bosch’s unique views may be the key to solving it.  However, after a chance clue connects their case to another brutal murder, Ballard and Bosch find themselves taking their investigation in some very dangerous directions.  At the same time, Bosch’s obsession with finding the Gallagher family’s killer grows even more, as he finds himself determined to catch him before it’s too late.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve their crimes, or will tragedy strike right at the heart of their partnership?

This was another outstanding crime fiction read from Connelly that combines a cool series of murder mystery cases with some intense character work to create and excellent story.  Desert Star gets off to a quick start, bringing back the two main protagonists and showing what changes have gone through their lives in the last year, as well as introducing the new cold case unit.  The reader is swiftly then brought across the two central murder cases that the protagonists are investigating.  The initial focus is on the murder of councilman’s sister, which has political connotations for the cold case unit, but Bosch also spends a large amount of time examining his personal case.  After some interesting breaks in the main case, Ballard and Bosch find themselves stuck looking far closer to home than they imagined, when clues point to a serial killer with connections to the very politician who created their unit.  There are some great twists and turns towards the centre of the book as they come close to their revelations, and the identity of this killer is pretty clever, with several interesting clues in the lead-up to the big confrontation.  At the same time, Bosch starts closing in on the main suspect in his case after revisiting witnesses from his initial investigation.  This leads him down a long, dark road as he contemplates what he’s willing to risk to get justice.  Everything leads up to a heart-pounding finale, which will leave readers on the edge of their seat as you honestly have no idea how far Connelly is going to take everything.  Desert Star ends on a particularly satisfying note, and it will be interesting to see where Connelly’s narratives go next, as he has left several intriguing storylines open.

This was a pretty addictive and fast-paced read, and it really doesn’t take long to get drawn into the two intriguing cases.  I loved the focus on cold case investigation in this book, which is a classic Connelly story element, and the author presents some excellent mystery elements.  I had a lot of fun with both cases, one because it was a seemingly unsolvable case with huge political issues behind it, the other because of one protagonist’s intense obsession with cracking it.  Connelly does a good job splitting focus between the two cases, which is made easier with the use of two perspective characters, Ballard and Bosch.  Both have very different views of the investigations, and the split in perspectives helps to ratchet up the tension in several scenes extremely well.  Connelly goes for a pretty fast pace in Desert Star, and you really find yourself powering through the narrative, especially once you get caught up in the excellent investigation arcs.  I loved how both cases turned out, and Connelly puts in some great build-up for both of their powerful conclusions.  Like most of the books in this shared crime universe, Desert Star can be easily read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of either character is really required to enjoy it.  However, this latest Ballard and Bosch book is coming off a lot of emotional build-up and character development from the previous entries, so you’ll appreciate Desert Star more if you’ve checked them out first.  Connelly also throws in a ton of references to some previous novels, mainly some of Bosch’s older adventures, which established fans will really appreciate.  I loved Desert Star’s amazing story and how it was presented, as will all die-hard Connelly readers.

As always with a Connelly read, there is a noticeable and impressive focus on the central characters, with the author diving deep into his two point-of-view protagonists, Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch.  Both characters have a ton of history behind them at this point in Connelly’s joint universe, both as a team and as established, independent protagonists of their own novels.  As such, Connelly takes a little less time introducing them in Desert Star than he would previously, and instead starts highlighting their current issues and concerns, as well as re-establishing the teamwork between them.  While there is a little friction at the start of the book, mainly due to the fallout of The Dark Hours, Ballard and Bosch mostly get their investigative teamwork groove back and become an effective unit.  While Bosch does take on the mentor role in this book, it isn’t as prevalent as it has been previously, mainly because Ballard is now in control of her own unit and is the boss.  This forces her to supervise and try to control Bosch, with limited success, and this impacts their previous established dynamic.  At the same time, Ballard also relies on Bosch’s unpredictability and dislike of the rules to solve their more difficult, politically associated case, so that creates some odd friction and reliance that I rather enjoyed.

Most of the best character work in Desert Star revolved around old favourite protagonist Harry Bosch.  Bosch, who Connelly has aged up naturally over the last 30 years, is retired from the police, but he comes back to help Ballard with her case, and I loved seeing his maverick attitude reassert itself here.  However, he is primarily concerned with his own cold case, and swiftly reignites his obsession with finding the man responsible for the murder of a family.  This obsession soon starts to overwhelm him, and while he helps Ballard, he risks a lot to find his target while there is still time.  Connelly paints a powerful picture of Bosch in this book, and there are some big reveals about him that have been a long time coming.  While I won’t go into too much detail here, this is one of the more powerful and compelling Bosch narratives in a while, and Connelly does an outstanding job building up some tension around his storylines here.  Ballard also gets some interesting development in this book, and it was great to see her as a leader in this book, especially after spending so many years as the LAPD’s unwanted pariah for her attempts to report a superior for sexual harassment.  However, Ballard also encounters the darker side of leadership as she is forced to play politics and encounters various attempts to cover up the whole truth for expediency and self-gain.  This forces her to make some tough choices, and she becomes a bit more like her mentor, Bosch, with every case.  All this excellent character work really adds some impressive impact to Desert Star’s narrative, and this was one of the more significant novels for both of this amazing and iconic Connelly protagonists.

Michael Connelly continues to dominate the crime fiction scene with another epic and captivating read, Desert Star.  Bringing back two outstanding protagonists for a joint investigation, Desert Star contains a compelling and clever investigation into two fascinating murders.  Featuring a great story, some exciting pacing, and the amazing use of two complex protagonists, Desert Star was another exceptional read from Connelly that I had an awesome time reading. I can’t wait to see what Connelly writes next, and no doubt it will tie into the powerful moments raised in this incredible book.

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Waiting on Wednesday – City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I look at a fantastic upcoming debut with City Under One Roof by Iris Yamashita.

City Under One Roof Cover

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It has been an exceptional year for debuts in 2022, with some amazing and impressive first novels coming out, especially in the crime fiction genre.  I always love checking out someone’s first book, especially as it provides some great insights into their writing style, and it is always interesting to see what the future holds for them.  Well, it looks like 2023 is also going to be an excellent year for debut novels, and there is already one great crime fiction debut coming out early next year that has caught my eye.

That book is City Under One Roof by new author Iris Yamashita.  Yamashita, who people may already know as the Academy Award nominated author of the intriguing film Letters From Iwo Jima, is breaking into the crime fiction scene in a big way next year, and I love the sound of her first book.  City Under One Roof, which is set for release here in Australia in February 2023, has a great story that sees a determined and haunted detective attempt to solve a murder in a mysterious remote town in Alaska.  However, her investigation becomes even more complex when the town is cut-off by a blizzard, gang members arrive, and the entire town become suspects in the murder.

I love the sound of this upcoming book, and I think that it has a lot of potential to be an impressive crime fiction release.  Yamashita has definitely gone out of her way to create an elaborate sounding mystery storyline, and I am very intrigued to see how everything turns out.  I also love the idea of an isolated and mysterious setting, and I can’t wait to see how it plays into the main narrative.  Overall, City Under One Roof sounds like a particularly awesome mystery book to start next year off with and I am extremely confident that this is going to be one of the top debuts of 2023.

Plot Synopsis:

A stranded detective tries to solve a murder in a tiny Alaskan town where everyone lives in a single high-rise building, in this gripping debut by an Academy Award–nominated screenwriter.

When a local teenager discovers a severed hand and foot washed up on the shore of the small town of Point Mettier, Alaska, Cara Kennedy is on the case. A detective from Anchorage, she has her own motives for investigating the possible murder in this isolated place, which can be accessed only by a tunnel.

After a blizzard causes the tunnel to close indefinitely, Cara is stuck among the odd and suspicious residents of the town—all 205 of whom live in the same high-rise building and are as icy as the weather. Cara teams up with Point Mettier police officer Joe Barkowski, but before long the investigation is upended by fearsome gang members from a nearby native village.

Haunted by her past, Cara soon discovers that everyone in this town has something to hide. Will she be able to unravel their secrets before she unravels?”

Waiting on Wednesday – Retribution and Headcase

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For my latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out two fantastic upcoming crime fiction novels from some of the very best authors Australia has to offer.

Due to my location I tend to receive a lot of fiction written by Australian authors and I have really grown to appreciate the talent that my countrymen have for writing brilliant crime fiction reads.  I have already had the pleasure of reading some truly impressive Australian murder mysteries and thrillers this year, including several great debuts.  However, for this post I want to highlight two outstanding sequels coming out later this year that I am very excited for.  Both books are written by exceptional writers, and I can’t wait to see how their respective series continue.

Retribution Cover

The first book I want to look is Retribution by Sarah Barrie.  Last year Barrie presented an incredible and deeply powerful book in Unforgiven, a gripping Australian thriller that ended up being one of the best Australian fiction releases of 2021Unforgiven followed former child abuse victim turned vigilante, Lexi Winter, who spends her days hunting down and destroying paedophiles around Sydney.  However, Lexi is forced to work with the detective who failed her years ago when evidence emerges that suggests that the monster from her past is still out there.  This resulted in an impressive and deeply captivating read that saw Lexi and the police dive into a particularly dark part of Sydney’s criminal underbelly only to be thwarted at every turn by a master manipulator.  I had an outstanding time with this book, and I was utterly enthralled all the way to the final epic twist, especially as Barrie left the story open for a potential sequel.

This sequel is set for release in a few months’ time with the intriguing follow-up RetributionRetribution, which has a release date of 30 November 2022, will bring back the main characters from the first book and set them on a new thrilling case, as threads from the previous investigation continue to haunt them.  I am quite excited for this new book, especially as it will feature an evolution for the compelling main protagonist, while also continuing the dark crime fiction elements that Barrie set up so well in the first book.  I have no doubt that this is going to be one of the most intense Australian reads of 2022 and I can’t wait to see how this latest mystery unfolds.

Plot Synopsis:

Once a vigilante, she’s now a cop … but she still plays by her own rules. A fast-paced, suspenseful thriller for readers of Candice Fox and Sarah Bailey.

Ace hacker, ex-prostitute, Jack Daniels drinker and part-time vigilante Lexi Winter returns, now working with the police – mostly – with a new enemy in the target and an old foe at the back of her mind.

Most probationary constables would baulk at chasing a drug dealer into a train tunnel in the dead of night. Not Lexi Winter. She emerges injured but alive, to face the wrath of her boss. Lexi may now be in uniform, but she has as much trouble with authority as ever, and is quietly using her hacking skills to investigate a notorious drug-dealing Sydney crime family with links to her old prey, the paedophile Damon Vaughn.

Meanwhile, Detective Sergeant Finn Carson investigates a death on a Sydney building site … which oddly enough, leads him to the picturesque Wondabyne station on the Hawkesbury River, and Inspector Rachael Langley oversees an investigation that could tie it all together. Lexi holds the key … if only she’ll toe the line …

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The next upcoming book I want to highlight is Headcase, written by fellow Canberran Jack Heath.  Heath is swiftly working his way up the list of Australia’s best crime fiction authors, especially as he has delivered some absolutely cracking reads in the last couple of years.  While he has written some great young adult thrillers, Heath is probably best known for his ongoing Timothy Blake series, which follows a deranged cannibalistic serial killer as he investigates impossible crimes throughout America.  The Timothy Blake books are thrilling, gory and utterly entertaining reads, and I had a lot of fun with the last book, Hideout (one of my favourite Australian releases of 2020), which saw Blake trapped in a house with a group of other serial killers, which predictably resulted in a massive bloodbath.  I also deeply enjoyed Heath’s last book, Kill Your Brother, a five-star read that saw a woman caught in a terrible situation where the only way to survive is to kill a fellow captive, her beloved brother.  Loaded with clever twists and with some amazing characters, Kill Your Brother was an exceptional read that has made extremely keen in checking out anything else Heath releases.

Headcase Cover

Luckily for me, Heath has a new book coming out in a few months’ time, and I am very happy to see that it is another Timothy Blake thriller.  This new Timothy Blake entry, which is set for release around the same time as Retribution, has the very intriguing title of Headcase, and it sounds like it is going to be quite the awesome read.  Following the psychotic Blake as he investigates a mysterious murder of a Chinese astronaut in a highly secure NASA base, Headcase sounds pretty damn epic book that will blend together a spy thriller narrative, with the dark psychological aspects of Heath’s amazing protagonist.  I have a feeling that Headcase is going to be one of the craziest books of 2022 and I will love every single second I spend reading it.

Plot Synopsis:

Timothy Blake returns in a tense, unputdownable thriller from the author of Hangman.

A Chinese astronaut is found dead in a NASA training environment in Houston, Texas. No one can explain how he got there. Amid fears of a diplomatic catastrophe, the CIA dispatches Timothy ‘Hangman’ Blake to investigate, because a convicted kidnapper works in the facility – someone Blake put away a long time ago.

Blake is deeply insane, afflicted by terrible urges he can barely control – but he’s also brilliant. Zara, his beautiful and deadly CIA handler, suspects a secret Chinese spacecraft is surveilling the United States, but Blake can see something much more sinister is going on. Something connected to the kidnapping seven years ago, to the technologies being developed at NASA, and to the serial killer known as the Texas Reaper.

Will Blake survive long enough to uncover the truth? And if he does, will anyone even believe him?

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Waiting on Wednesday – Dead of Night by Simon Scarrow

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I look at a fantastic upcoming historical murder mystery with Dead of Night by Simon Scarrow.

Dead of Night Cover

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I have been in a real historical fiction mood over the last week, having read several awesome and enjoyable reads with great historical settings to them.  As such, I wanted to feature a historical fiction book in my Waiting on Wednesday post and who better to look at then one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow.  Readers of this blog will know I have been a major fan of Scarrow for years, and reviews for several of his latest books, such as The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, The Emperor’s Exile and The Honour of Rome, can be found here.  The above books all fall within his Eagles of the Empire series, and I have a lot of love for his Roman historical fiction work.  I am especially keen for his next novel, Death to the Emperor, which is out very soon, however, the Eagles of the Empire books aren’t Scarrow’s only ongoing series.

Last year Scarrow released an intriguing and enjoyable historical murder mystery novel with Blackout.  Set in Nazi controlled Berlin just before the outbreak of World War II, Blackout followed an honest police detective who attempts to investigate a series of brutal murders throughout the city during a harsh winter.  This case was complicated by the political implications of the murders, and the protagonist was forced to go up against the dangerous and insidious Nazi party, while trying to maintain his own soul.  I deeply enjoyed Blackout and I had an amazing time exploring Scarrow’s foray in the crime fiction, especially as it worked well with the exceptional historical elements.

Due to how much I enjoyed Blackout (as well as my general love of all things Scarrow), I have been keeping an eye out for a potential sequel for a couple of years now, and I was very happy when some details about it where released.  This second Blackout novel will be Dead of Night, which is currently set for release in February 2023, and it appears that it will continue some of the excellent elements contained in the first book.

I really like the sound of the plot for Dead of Night, especially as the book will continue to follow the first novel’s protagonist, Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke, as he finds himself caught up in another complex and problematic murder investigation.  This time, Schenke finds himself barred from investigating the suspicious death of a SS doctor and must once again contend with the machinations of his Nazis superiors as he attempts to solve the crime.  The plot sounds amazing, and it looks like Scarrow will once again combine a great mystery, with an examination of the Nazi regime and how it took over key German institutions, like the police.

As such, I am pretty excited for Dead of Night, and I already know I am going to have a brilliant time getting through this book.  Not only am I excited for the sequel to Blackout, but I am just generally happy to get another Scarrow book so soon after the upcoming Eagles of the Empire book.  I have no doubt that Dead of Night is going to be one of the best historical fiction reads of 2023 and I look forward to getting through this compelling mystery.

Synopsis:

The stunning new thriller set in wartime Berlin from the author of Blackout: ‘A wonderfully compelling thriller, reeking of authenticity, and a terrific depiction of the human world within the chilling world of the Third Reich’ Peter James

BERLIN. JANUARY 1941. Evil cannot bring about good . . .

After Germany’s invasion of Poland, the world is holding its breath and hoping for peace. At home, the Nazi Party’s hold on power is absolute.

One freezing night, an SS doctor and his wife return from an evening mingling with their fellow Nazis at the concert hall. By the time the sun rises, the doctor will be lying lifeless in a pool of blood.

Was it murder or suicide? Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke is told that under no circumstances should he investigate. The doctor’s widow, however, is convinced her husband was the target of a hit. But why would anyone murder an apparently obscure doctor? Compelled to dig deeper, Schenke learns of the mysterious death of a child. The cases seem unconnected, but soon chilling links begin to emerge that point to a terrifying secret.

Even in times of war, under a ruthless regime, there are places in hell no man should ever enter. And Schenke fears he may not return alive . . .

Waiting on Wednesday – Red Dirt Road by S. R. White

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest entry, I check out an intriguing and fantastic upcoming new Australian murder mystery novel with Red Dirt Road by S. R. White.

Red Dirt Road Cover

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Last year I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a fantastic novel from a new-to-me author, S. R. White, with PrisonerPrisoner was an awesome and compelling crime fiction read that featured a complex and deeply impressive investigation in the remote Australian outback.  Emphasising interrogation scenes and clever crime scene investigation, this was an extremely good piece of Australian crime fiction that I had an outstanding time reading.  As such, I have been very interested in reading more books from White, and I was very happy to find out that he has a new novel coming out in a few months’ time.

This new novel from White is Red Dirt Road, which is currently set for release in January 2023.  Red Dirt Road has another great sounding narrative to it that will see White’s recurring protagonist, Detective Dana Russo, travel to a new town and investigate two crazy murders.  Set in a very remote location, it appears that Russo will be trapped in town with the potential murderer and must work to uncover why and how this crime occurred.  I really love the sound of the cool plot that White has come up with for Red Dirt Road, and I have a strong feeling that this is going to be one of the better Australian novels of 2023.  I love the sound of this unique case and I look forward to grabbing this book next year.

Synopsis:

One outback town. Two puzzling murders. Fifty suspects.

In Unamurra, a drought-scarred, one-pub town deep in the outback, two men are savagely murdered a month apart – their bodies elaborately arranged like angels.

With no witnesses, no obvious motives and no apparent connections between the killings, how can lone police officer Detective Dana Russo – flown in from hundreds of kilometres away – possibly solve such a baffling, brutal case?

Met with silence and suspicion from locals who live by their own set of rules, Dana must take over a stalled investigation with only a week to make progress.

But with a murderer hiding in plain sight, and the parched days rapidly passing, Dana is determined to uncover the shocking secrets of this forgotten town – a place where anyone could be a killer.

A gripping and vividly atmospheric story from the international bestseller, this is a searing story perfect for fans of Jane Harper, Chris Hammer and Garry Disher.

Quick Review – Conviction by Frank Chalmers

Conviction Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 354 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Australian crime fiction debut hits keep on coming with the excellent and highly exciting first novel from Frank Chalmers, Conviction, with takes the reader on an amazing journey back into 1970s rural Australia.

Plot Synopsis:

A town ruled by fear. A cop who won’t be broken. A pulse-pounding debut thriller that pulls no punches.

A STUNNING NEW VOICE IN CRIME FICTION

Queensland in 1976 churns with corruption. When Detective Ray Windsor defies it, he is exiled deep into the state’s west. It’s easy out there to feel alien in your own country.

Royalton is a town on its knees, stricken by drought, riven by prejudice, and plagued by crimes left largely uninvestigated by the local police chief, Kennedy, and his elusive boss.

Mutual dislike between Kennedy and Ray gradually turns ugly as Ray and his new partner, Arshag, uncover a pattern of crimes that no one seems concerned about solving. But when two girls from local immigrant families are found dead and another disappears, Ray and Arshag are forced to take the law into their own hands. Not knowing who to trust, nor how deep the corruption runs, how long will it be before their lives are also threatened?

A spare and uncompromising crime thriller that pulls no punches.


Conviction
is a compelling and fun crime fiction thriller that sets a bold protagonist against a brace of criminals and dirty cops in a remote and hopeless town.  Essentially reading like a contemporary Australian western, with protagonist Detective Ray Windsor acting as the new sheriff in town, Chalmers crafts together a compelling read that is very easy to get through.

Conviction has a very interesting and complex story to it that sees the new cop arrive in the remote town of Royalton and get caught up in a series of crimes.  Not only is he forced to deal with the corruption of his peers and a local crime ring that has been stealing stock and damaging the local farms, but he is also investigating two recent violent deaths of young immigrant women.  This results in quite a fantastic series of investigation elements, as Detective Windsor attempts to solve these crimes while being constantly hampered by his colleagues.  The novel also deals with Ray’s attempt to integrate into the Royalton community, and he soon finds some unexpected connections and friends which draw him in.  Taking place over the course of several months, Conviction’s plot goes in some exciting and intense directions, and the reader is provided with intriguing plotlines that are loaded with action and excitement.  The eventual reveals lead to some big moments, and while the identity of the book’s villains is well-foreshadowed and not especially surprising, watching the protagonist attempt to overcome them is fun.  This ended up being a great and enjoyable piece of Australian fiction, and I had a good time getting through this awesome debut.

Like many impressive Australian crime fiction novels, one of the best things about Conviction is its excellent setting in a rural Australian town.  Royalton is a compelling location, which even in the 1970s, is starting to fall apart and feel the strain as more and more people left the country to live in the big cities.  Royalton has many of the best features that make up a small-town setting, from the sunburned countryside, the various surrounding farms, the neglected buildings within the town itself, as well as a colourful cast of people living in it.  I felt that Royalton in Conviction was a pretty good example of this compelling Australian setting, and the intriguing historical context makes it stand out from other recent Australian crime fiction books.  I particularly liked how Chalmers depicted the town as having a large migrant population, which is an accurate representation of most of Australia, and the stratification of classes that resulted based on nationality and culture gave the story another fascinating dimension that I felt added a lot to the story.  The farms surrounding the town are also under siege by an organised group of criminals who are working to bankrupt them for their own nefarious reasons, and this adds to the tension in Royalton.  All this proves to be rich ground for the intense and compelling crime fiction narrative that Chalmers crafted together, and I felt that this was an amazing setting for Conviction.

However, the best thing about Conviction was the eclectic and troubled group of characters who can be found within.  The author comes up with some great and flawed figures throughout Conviction, and the reader soon gets some intriguing views of the sort of people who would live in such a remote and troubled town.  Naturally most of the focus is on Detective Ray Windsor, who immediately finds himself in all manner of trouble once he arrives in Royalton.  Now, I must admit that I had a hard time liking Windsor in this book, as he is a bit of an over-the-top hero who is prone to violence at a drop of hat.  While this attribute does help him out in some of the situations, I was never too attached to him as a character, especially when he flew off the handle.  Still, I liked the compelling background that Chalmers attributed to Windsor, especially his dark childhood, and the portrayal of an honest cop sent out to the country as a punishment was well explored.  There are some great moments with Windsor in the book, and I did enjoy seeing his take on the case and the corruption going on around town.  The author also did a good job setting up Windsor’s growing attachment to Royalton, especially once he gets to know the people within.  This, as well as his commitment to getting the job done, eventually win the reader over, and you are rooting for him to succeed as the story continues.  The rest of the cast are also really good, and I deeply enjoyed some of the other characters featured within Conviction.  I felt that Chalmers did a particularly good job with the villains of this book, and it was satisfying to see Windsor standing up to them and finally bringing them to justice.  An awesome group of characters that Chalmers did a good job bringing to life.

Overall, I felt that Conviction was a pretty awesome novel that the debuting Frank Chalmers should be proud of.  This fantastic novel has a great crime fiction narrative that not only crosses into historical fiction territory but which works as an exceptional example of a rural Australian story.  All these elements work extremely well together, and I had a blast getting through Conviction, which is really worth checking out.

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The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

The Unbelieved Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 2 August 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Debuting author Vikki Petraitis delivers an impressive and deeply moving Australian thriller skilfully set around the powerful subject of sexual violence with The Unbelieved.  This is Petraitis’s first novel, which has been receiving a large amount of buzz, including some awards.  As such, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it had a very interesting plot, and this ended up being one of the most compelling and memorable Australian debuts of 2022.

Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has spent many years investigating terrible and destructive crimes in Melbourne.  After one case goes horribly wrong, Antigone decides to seek the quieter life and moves to her grandmother’s house in the Victorian coastal town of Deception Bay, where she was raised.  However, her attempts at finding peaceful policing quickly go up in smoke when a series of drug assisted sexual attacks occur throughout Deception Bay and the neighbouring towns.

After a sting operation at the local pub reveals a suspect who attempts to drug her, Antigone believes that they have perpetrator dead to rights.  However, they are soon forced to let him go when the male witnesses to the event refuse to cooperate and her superior attempts to brush the case under the rug.  Reaching out to the community, she finds a wall of silence and shame surrounding sexual crimes in Deception Bay, which has failed to lead to any convictions in the town.

Determined to stop the attacks no matter what, Antigone continues her investigation against her superior’s wishes, and uncovers a series of attacks across town.  Attempting to break through the fears of the women of Deception Bay, Antigone and her partner begin closing on the information they need.  However, Antigone also finds herself under threat from all corners and must work swiftly before she is shut down for good.  But can she succeed before another girl is attacked, and what happens when the darkness from her past rears its ugly head again?

Wow, I was not prepared for just how good and moving The Unbelieved was going to be.  Vikki Petraitis has really shown off her skill and talented as a writer with her first book, presenting a powerful read on an extremely relevant subject that strikes the reader hard.  Featuring an exciting and very clever mystery storyline that also intensely examines violence against women in Australia, The Unbelieved is an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At its centre The Unbelieved has an exceptional multifaceted narrative that follows detective Antigone Pollard as she finds herself investigating terrible events occurring around Deception Bay.  Detective Pollard initially attempts to stop a series of sexual attacks, but she soon becomes involved in several other cases while trying to fit in to the community, despite opposition from some of its male residents.  As her case develops and more victims come forward, Pollard also finds herself investigating a suspicious death, a historical murder-suicide, a series of domestic violence cases, and more.  These investigations are often hampered by her superior and problematic members of the community, and Pollard also finds herself being threatened or attacked as she attempts to do her duties.  At the same time, elements from her past in Melbourne are revealed through a series of well-crafted flashbacks that expand on her motivations and begin to bleed into her current cases, especially once a prior suspect is brought back into the light.

Petraitis takes the story in some interesting directions throughout the course of The Unbelieved, and I loved the fantastic combination of the compelling yet heartbreaking cases that are explored throughout.  This investigation angle is well balanced with the character development of the protagonist, as well as the emotional exploration of several interesting supporting characters, and you really get involved in the narrative and the character’s fates as The Unbelieved continues.  The story becomes more complex as the book unfolds, and the protagonist finds herself caught up in a devious local conspiracy that seeks to take her down at the same time.  There are some brilliant twists and reveals throughout the plot, and I loved how several of the storylines developed.  The entire book was very well paced out, and I found myself getting really absorbed in so many key elements of the plot, especially as the author blends compelling investigations with dark, emotional examinations of the victims.  This all leads to up to a moving, thought-provoking and extremely satisfying conclusion that will leave every reader caught up in the plot happy.  I particularly enjoyed the final twist that Petraitis left the story on, and the way it was hinted at through the rest of the novel was extremely clever.  I honestly had such a remarkable time reading this great narrative, and there are so many excellent story elements to enjoy within it.

Easily the most distinctive part of The Unbelieved is the author’s detailed and powerful examination of the current situation of sexual and domestic violence in Australia.  Most of the book’s plot revolves around the investigation and attempted conviction of multiple sexual predators, and the author does not hold back in showcasing just how dark and damaging these sorts of cases can be.  Multiple viewpoints of the impacts of these crimes are examined throughout The Unbelieved, and readers are in for some emotionally devastating moments as you see so many of the different aspects of them.  There is a particularly good and dramatic look at how police investigating sexual crimes are impacted, especially when they are unable to get justice for the victims.  More importantly, Petraitis spends a lot of time exploring how Australian society perceives sexual crimes, and the book is loaded up with characters who don’t see them as a big deal or attempt to blame the victim.  There are multiple interludes within The Unbelieved that show short transcripts of interviews with people involved with these crimes, either as a witness or the accused, and the unguarded and unsupportive comments they make are both enlightening and a little infuriating.  Throw in some comments and interviews by the author’s accurate depiction of a typical Australian radio shock jock, which really boil the blood, and you have an excellent depiction of some of the main issues and attitudes towards sexual crimes, such as victim blaming.  These issues become a key part of the book’s plot, especially when the system fails so many victims, and it leads to some extremely emotional and painful moments.  I felt that Petraitis did a spectacular job working this confronting subject into the plot of her novel, and it certainly gave The Unbelieved a powerful edge that is hard to ignore.

I also really appreciated Petraitis’s examination of regional towns in Australia, which proves to be a great setting for this compelling book.  Rural and remote settings are always an excellent feature of Australian fiction, and I think that Petraitis used it extremely well in The Unbelieved.  The transfer of a big-city cop to the small town she grew up in results in a great change of pace for the protagonist, and the change in priorities and issues helps to add to the narrative complexity of The Unbelieved.  The use of this small-town setting comes into play throughout The Unbelieved in multiple intriguing ways, from the constant spread of rumours, the lack of secrets, and the fact everyone knows each other, and I liked how this affected several aspects of the police investigation plot line.  However, the most important part of this setting is the wall of silence that springs up during the book.  Many people know about the sexual and domestic violence going in in Deception Bay, but are unwilling to talk for various reasons, often keeping secrets from the police.  This becomes a key complication in the investigation, and it was fascinating and moving to see the protagonist attempt to overcome it.  As such, I felt that this small-town setting worked extremely well for The Unbelieved’s plot, especially with its specific criminal focus, and it definitely enhanced the story for me.

The final thing that I need to highlight is the excellent protagonist that Petraitis works the story around in Detective Antigone Pollard.  Pollard is an emotionally charged badass who has returned to her hometown after a devastating case in Melbourne, and now finds herself amid all manner of dark criminal activity.  While she is raw from the impacts of her last case and there are some dramatic moments surrounding here, the author portrays her as a practical and very capable cop, who takes charge and starts to clean up Deception Bay.  I really do think that Petraitis hit the right balance of vulnerable and determined in Pollard, and you grow quite attached to her as the book continues, especially once you learn the full extent of her last case.  Combine Pollard with several other fantastic characters in The Unbelieved, such as her partner, Detective Senior Constable Warren “Wozza” Harvey, and her loyal dog, Waffles, as well as some slimy villains, and you have a great cast for The Unbelieved that really add to the overall quality of this remarkable book.

With her impressive debut novel, The Unbelieved, Vikki Petraitis has set herself up as an exceptional talent in the Australian crime fiction game and she is a major new author to watch out for.  The Unbelieved has an outstanding crime fiction narrative to it that does an amazing job balancing a compelling mystery storyline with powerful dive into a sensitive and highly relevant subject.  Thanks to its well-written plot, clever mystery, distinctive setting and great characters, The Unbelieved comes together perfectly, and it proves to be extremely hard to put down.  While this book might be best avoided by those readers triggered by depictions of sexual violence, I cannot recommend this powerful novel enough, and it stands as one of the better Australian crime fiction books and debuts of 2022 so far.

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Throwback Thursday: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Blood Rite Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 3 August 2004)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I keep diving into the epic Dresden Files urban fantasy series with the impressive sixth book, Blood Rites.

Last week, in my review for the outstanding fifth book in the Dresden Files series, Death Masks, I mentioned how I had also started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites.  I honestly had so much fun reading Death Masks last week (as I did with the rest of the Dresden Files series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Battle Ground and The Law), that I had to immediately dive into the next book as soon as I could.  The sixth novel in the series, Blood Rites, was another epic novel which had an impressive and captivating plot to it.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard and protector from the paranormal, continues to eke out a deadly living through his chaotic career of odd mystical jobs while also defending the city against the worst monsters lurking in the shadows.  However, his latest job may place him in the most uncomfortable spot yet, on the set of an adult movie, which finds itself under attack from a deadly and relentless curse.

Taking the case as a favour to his vampire friend and suspicious ally Thomas Raith, Dresden goes undercover on set and attempts to discover who is responsible for cursing the movie’s cast and crew, and why.  However, Dresden’s heroics on set make him a target, and he soon finds the curse striking at him, attempting to end his investigation before he can find the magical murderer.  Worse, enemies old and new are bursting out of the shadows, as two separate courts of vampires attempt to strike Dresden down.

As Dresden continues to search for the murderer wielding the curse, he is forced to fend off attacks from the lethal Black Court.  Led by a powerful elder vampire with a serious grudge against Dresden, the Black Court will stop at nothing to destroy him and any of his friends that gets in their way.  However, the greatest threat may reside in the White Court, to which Thomas belongs.  The White Court vampires are manipulative and subtle killers, using their alluring presence to suck the life out of everyone they touch.  Caught between warring members of the White Court family, Dresden must use all his wits to escape their wrath and uncover hidden truths if he is to survive.  But what secret from the past connects Dresden to the White Court and their machinations, and is Dresden really ready for the dark knowledge waiting for him?

Whelp, it seems that it is pretty impossible for Butcher to write a dud novel.  Blood Rites is an exceptional addition to the wider Dresden Files series, and it was another one that I have no choice but to give a full five-star review to.  Featuring an intense and deeply captivating narrative, Blood Rites was an incredible read and I quickly got sucked into its unique story, compelling mysteries and dark, damaged characters.

I just loved the elaborate, dark and powerful narrative that Butcher featured in Blood Rites, as the author comes up with a complex tale that expertly brings together a dark urban fantasy with a thrilling murder mystery storyline.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files books, Blood Rites exclusively follows protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden as he finds himself forced to face off against a series of dangers and threats at the same time.  The most prominent of these includes an investigation into a deadly curse aimed at the female employees of an adult entertainment studio, which sees Dresden go undercover on set to try and save the remaining cast and determine who the killer is.  This also leads him into a confrontation with the White Court of the vampires, especially when his vampire friend, Thomas Raith, requests his help.  At the same time, vampires from the Black Court are after Dresden for his actions in Grave Peril, which forces him to call in some major backup to take them on.  Unfortunately, this also leads him into conflict with his supposed allies, as well as his former mentor, when secrets from the past are revealed.  Dresden is also hit with a whole bundle of personal drama, especially when he discovers unfortunate truths about his long-dead mother, and there is an interesting growth in the relationship between him and several supporting characters.

As a result, there are many plot elements scattered around Blood Rites, which makes for quite an elaborate overall story.  Luckily, Butcher does an excellent job of introducing all these separate narrative threads to the reader, and you swiftly get drawn into all of them.  After a good and necessary bit of setup, the story roars off at a quick and captivating pace, and the reader has a great time jumping from storyline to storyline.  Everything starts to come together near the middle of the book, where you get some excellent action scenes, including a particularly funny death sequence involving a vampire and a frozen turkey, and the fallout of these scenes leads to some great dramatic moments with big personal revelations.  Following this, the story zooms along, and you soon find a partial and problematic solution to the murder case, while the protagonist is also forced to deal with an all-out assault on the Black Court, while also dealing with dark secrets from his allies.  The attack on the Black Court was one of the best sequences in the book, and the surrounding drama results in some major revelations that fans of the series will lap up.  The remaining storylines then come together perfectly for the finale, as Dresden solves the murder and faces off against its overall architect in a brilliant and extended dark sequence.  I loved how this entire narrative unfolded, and some of the concluding notes will leave you wanting to dive into the rest of the series to see what happens next.

To bring Blood Rites’ great story to life, Butcher utilises his typical style and techniques, which I always immensely enjoy.  The entire narrative is paced perfectly, and you quickly get drawn into the various plotlines, especially with their great combination of characters, intriguing plots, fantasy elements, and dramatic moments.  All of this is overlayed with Butcher’s distinctive humour, most of which is expelled through his cocky point-of-view protagonist, and it helps to enhance the overall powerful and entertainment of the book, especially when the protagonist tries to deflect from his many issues with comedy.  The narrative pretty much goes non-stop, and you get bounced through multiple excellent and powerful scenes, all of which are very fun to see.  I loved how the author balanced out action, character growth, universe building and more in each of the sequences, and there is something quite entertaining and fun for all manner of readers.  I wasn’t as keen on Butcher’s continued attempts to spice up the story with more adult themes, such as the adult film set or the lust-inducing White Court vampires, although it was pretty tame compared to some of the scenes in the last book (that bondage scene, yikes!), and Butcher wove some very compelling narratives around all of them that I deeply enjoyed.  I did enjoy how inclusive Butcher made this novel to new readers, and anyone could easily jump into Blood Rites and enjoy it, even if they haven’t read a Dresden Files book before.  However, there is also a lot to appeal to established fans of the series, especially as there are multiple major reveals and secrets featured here, many of which will lead to big story moments down the track.  As such, I deeply appreciated how this story came together, and pretty much everyone will have a great time getting through it.

I really enjoyed some of the cool fantasy elements featured throughout Blood Rites as Butcher seeks to expand on the lore and magic of his unique universe.  There are some great and intriguing fantasy inclusions here, with the obvious focus being on the various Vampire Courts.  The three main factions of Vampires have all been featured in previous books, although most of the focus has been on the Red Court, whom Dresden is at war with.  Blood Rites, however, has a far bigger spotlight on the two of the other courts who have major differences in powers and appearances.  Most of the focus is on the White Court, who are essentially this universe’s version of succubi, extremely beautiful and seductive creatures who feed off the life energy of those who desire them.  The White Court go on to become a major faction in the Dresden Files series, but this is one of the first books that fully explores them in substantial detail.  As such, you quickly get across their unique abilities, strengths, weaknesses and powers throughout this book, and they come across as quite a distinctive group as a result.  You really get to understand their entire society and worldview, as well as seeing some very different members of the factions, and Butcher writes some compelling storylines around them, while also putting in some very vivid depictions of their powers in action.  I loved how sinister and villainous members of the White Court appear at times, and there is something quite insidious about their abilities that creeps out the protagonists and reader.  A truly complex and excellent group that I had a lot of fun exploring.

Almost in direct comparison to the White Court is the Black Court.  The Black Court are a completely different group of living dead, portrayed more like the classic vampires from Bram Stoker’s novel (indeed, the Dracula novel was an elaborate propaganda attack by their enemies).  Shown as ugly, decaying, blood-hungry creatures that are more monsters than their original human forms, the Black Court are a much more obvious threat with much clearer motives.  There are some brutal and powerful scenes featuring the Black Court in this book, and it was really interesting to see Dresden and his allies go up against them with some classic vampire-hunting weapons, albeit with some fun modern twists to them.  I also deeply appreciated the fantastic parallels between the Black Court and the White Court vampires featured in the Blood Rites; whilst they are both extremely dangerous, their diverse methods and powers troubled Dresden in different ways.  These cool vampires, plus some other great new supernatural threats, added a lot to the complexity of the narrative and I loved the excellent detail and lore that Butcher imbued them with.

As usual, one of the highlights of this Dresden Files book is the compelling and impressive characters the story revolves around.  Butcher features an intriguing and fantastic group of characters in this book, with a compelling blend of established supporting characters and several new figures, many of whom will go on to have substantial roles in the rest of the series.  I had a brilliant time with all these characters, especially as Butcher endeavours to write some outstanding and distinctive storylines around them.

As usual, the most prominent character is Harry Dresden, the wizard protagonist and point-of-view character of the series.  Like most of the recent books, Blood Rites is an emotionally damaging book for Dresden.  Not only is he forced to deal with another harrowing case that racks his sanity, but he also finds out some long-buried secrets that prove quite damaging to behold.  In particular, there is a deep dive into his past and his missing family, both of which are hard subjects for him, and he finds himself with some unexpected connections that he has long been missing.  It was truly fascinating to see this long buried and painful part of Dresden’s past explored, and Butcher ensures that the reader gets struck in the feels with some of the powerful scenes that are explored.  Other interactions and reveals see Dresden re-evaluate some of his relationships in this novel, and there were some intriguing and harsh discussions between him and other characters as a result.  I did think that Butcher is over-playing the whole chivalrous-to-a-fault aspect of Dresden, as he continues to be a tad sexist and constantly underestimates woman, usually to his own detriment.  It’s honestly getting a little old, and I hope it gets phased out a bit in future books.  Still, I deeply enjoyed the fantastic development around Dresden in Blood Rites, and it greatly enhanced the narrative.

This book also featured a great appearance from previous supporting characters Karrin Murphy and Thomas Raith, who both play a major role in Blood Rites.  This proved to be quite a pivotal novel for both characters, and I really appreciated the way that Butcher built on their previous appearances and used them to write some impressive and powerful storylines around them.  This proves to be one of the more intriguing looks at Murphy so far in the series, especially as it dives into her complicated family life, and I liked the early hints here about the future relationship between her and Dresden.  Murphy gets dragged far further into Dresden’s magical activities than ever before here, and she is forced to balance her responsibilities as a cop with the necessity of killing monsters, something she has great difficulty with.  An overall badass character, Murphy has some brilliant and action-packed scenes in Blood Rites, and I love how well she serves as a foil to the more ridiculous Dresden.

Thomas, on the other hand, gets quite an intense and deeply personal storyline here as you get the most in-depth look at this elusive and compelling vampire character.  Not only do you get a great look at the rest of his family as the book explores the White Court, but you finally find the reasons why he is always helping Dresden, which leads to some emotional and compelling scenes.  A lot of time is also spent exploring the battle between Thomas’s humanity and the monster within, especially when it comes to feeding on those around him.  This comes to a head when his need to feed and survive hurts someone close to him and he has trouble coming to terms with what he’s done, especially when Dresden harshly confronts him.  Throw in his complicated family and intense daddy issues, and Thomas goes through the emotional wringer in this book, which proves to be very illuminating.  Butcher sets Thomas up as quite a substantial supporting character in this book, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

Aside from these main characters, there is also a great collection of supporting characters who add a lot to the story, and there are some awesome appearances here.  I really enjoyed seeing more of mysterious mercenary Kincaid in this book, especially after his fun appearance in Death Masks.  Kincaid is a badass killer who is hired by Dresden to kill the Black Court, only to end up being a bigger threat to Dresden when the wizard lacks to money to pay him.  Kincaid has some excellent and action-packed scenes, and I was intrigued by his backstory, especially the hints at his dark, dark past.  I also loved the use of Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, an older wizard who raised him and taught him magic.  Butcher writes some amazing scenes around McCoy, especially once Dresden finds out just how many secrets the old man has been keeping from him.  Throw in a batch of great vampire characters (including the sinister Lord Raith and the compelling Lara Raith), some entertaining members of the adult film industry (including the fantastic diva Trixie Vixen), and the first appearance of Mouse, Dresden’s puppy, and you have an amazing cast of characters here that Butcher gleefully and impressively wraps the story around.  Each of these characters is very fun and intriguing in their own way, and I loved the elaborate and moving scenes that they star in.

Naturally I chose to check out Blood Rites on audiobook, which I maintain is the absolute best way to enjoy the Dresden Files books.  The captivating story and excellent characters really fit into this format extremely well, and I find myself absorbing the narrative and the author’s fantastic style a lot better this way.  With a runtime of just over 13 hours, Blood Rites is the noticeably longer than the previous books in the series (they get progressively longer and longer as the series goes, with some later books like Cold Days reaching nearly 19 hours in length).  Despite the increased run time, I still found myself knocking this audiobook off in no time at all, especially once I got stuck into the excellent and powerful story.  I must also highlight the incredible voice work of the always awesome James Marsters, who did another spectacular job narrating this fantastic novel.  At this point in the series, Marsters has really hit his stride when it comes to narrating, and he voices each audiobook with some impressive passion, effortlessly bringing the dark events and complex characters to life and ensuring that everything sticks in the listener’s mind.  All the characters are voiced extremely well, with the highlight again being protagonist Harry Dresden, who Marsters inhabits effortlessly.  He really understands the character’s anguish, pain, and dark humour, and this comes across in his narration perfectly.  Thanks to his epic performance in Blood Rites, and the other Dresden Files audiobooks, Marsters remains one of my favourite audiobook narrators, and I cannot recommend the Blood Rites audiobook enough as a result.

My dive into the early Dresden Files novels continues to be incredibly epic, as I once again fell in love with one of Jim Butcher’s unique reads, Blood Rites.  This fantastic novel has so much going for it, and I had a brilliant time exploring the powerful urban fantasy/crime fiction based narrative.  Featuring a deeply compelling mystery, a ton of intriguing parallel storylines, and some impressive and emotionally charged character development, Blood Rites is another exceptional book that is so much fun to get through.  Honestly, if I didn’t have such a backlog of awesome recent audiobook releases, I would probably be diving into the seventh Dresden Files novel right now, but hopefully I will get a chance later this year.  If you haven’t checked out the Dresden Files books after my previous glowing reviews, then you really need to get your butt into gear and start reading them now!

Quick Review – Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor

Dirt Town Cover

Publisher: Macmillian (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 359 0ages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing new author Hayley Scrivenor presents her powerful and excellent debut novel with the powerful and dramatic Australian mystery, Dirt Town.

Plot Synopsis:

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing.

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home.

Ronnie’s going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can’t be gone, Ronnie won’t believe it.

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it, she has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible.

Lewis can believe it too. But he can’t reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret.

Five days later, Esther’s buried body is discovered.

What do we owe the girl who isn’t there?

Character-rich and propulsive, with a breathtakingly original use of voice and revolving points of view, Hayley Scrivenor delves under the surface, where no one can hide. With emotional depth and sensitivity, this stunning debut shows us how much each person matters in a community that is at once falling apart and coming together.

Esther will always be a Dirt Town child, as we are its children, still.


Dirt
Town was a fantastic and clever novel that contains a lot of interesting elements and moving parts to it that I had an amazing time reading.  Set in the small Australian country town of Durton in late 2001, the crux of Dirt Town’s plot revolves around the sudden disappearance of local schoolgirl Esther, who vanishes on her way home.  The subsequent search and police investigation into the disappearance soon involves several different inhabitants of Durton, including Esther’s friends, family and other connections, many of whom are dragged into the case over the course of the following days.  The investigation and the eventual reveal of what happened to Esther slowly but surely tears the town of Durton apart, as everyone’s secrets come spilling out.

The story focuses on several intriguing protagonists, including Esther’s best friend, Ronnie, who attempts to find her without really realising what is going on; their fellow schoolmate Lewis, who witnessed something relevant to the case but is unable to say anything out of fear of being outed; the various relatives to the children; the cops that come to investigate; and more.  This strong focus on these complex characters allows Scrivenor to weave together a compelling and exciting tapestry of personal stories that are altered for the worse when Esther goes missing.  All the characters react to the disappearance in different ways, and the reader gets a deep and captivating look into their lives, which often reveal long-buried secrets, fears and insecurities that the investigation brings to the light.  At the same time, the hunt for the missing child reveals other crimes going on around Durton, and everyone is moved in some way by the events of the narrative.  The eventual reveal about what happened to Esther and who was involved is very intense, and I really loved the clever, heartbreaking twist that Scrivenor utilised here.  The author layers the story with some clues, but it is still shocking to see what unfolded, and the series of events that led up to it and followed from there.  Dirt Town ends with a satisfying, if very bittersweet, conclusion, and I really appreciate the impressive debut narrative the Scrivenor produced here.

This was a pretty moving and distinctive novel, as Scrivenor blends several genres together into a single riveting tale.  While mostly framed as a mystery novel, Dirt Town also has a strong drama aspect to it, especially when it comes to examining the lives and secrets of the various townsfolk.  This ensures that you get quite a lot of unique character interactions throughout Dirt Town, and it was very moving and powerful to see how everyone was impacted by the events of the plot, often in quite substantial and painful ways.  It is also a particularly good piece of rural Australian fiction, as Scrivenor, who grew up in a small country town herself, does an amazing job portraying the tight-knit community, isolated landscape, and the feeling of decline that many of these towns experience during times of hardship.  Scrivenor added in a distinctive, disassociated chorus narrator, which is essentially the joint voice of the town, which produces some poetic and insight examinations of the impacts that the case has on the town and its people, as well as providing compelling insights into how the town is generally faring.  These separate elements blend well into a captivating and moving story, and you can find yourself getting quite drawn into Dirt Town as a result.

Overall, I felt that Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor was an outstanding and very distinctive debut novel, and one that sets Scrivenor up as an interesting rising talent in Australian fiction.  A recommended read, especially for those who love complex stories in Australia’s unmatched rural setting, Dirt Town was an outstanding book that is well worth checking out.

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Throwback Thursday – Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks Cover

Publication: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 1 August 2003)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Five

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I highlight another excellent entry in Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series, with Death Masks.

Fans of this blog will know that I have been having a magical time (pun intended) discovering and getting into the long-running Dresden Files series by acclaimed fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Set in Chicago, the Dresden Files novels follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire and protector of the city against any supernatural threat that comes its way.  This has been Butcher’s major series for years, but I only got into it back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry, Battle Ground.  Due to its exceptional plot and the all-out magical war for Chicago that it depicted, this was a pretty epic novel that was not only one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020 but also an excellent recruiting tool for new Dresden Files fans.  It didn’t take me long after reading Battle Ground to check out some of the earlier entries in the series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, as well as the novella, The Law.  I have had such an epic time with this series that when I felt like a guaranteed five-star book, I immediately decided to check out the next book in the series, with the fifth Dresden Files entry, Death Masks.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident professional wizard, is once again thrust into the middle of far more trouble than he ever dreamed of when a television panel show introduces him to an array of people who want something from him.  Not only does he find himself forced into a duel against a powerful Red Court vampire noble but he is also hired by a Vatican priest to recover a revered stolen holy relic, the Shroud of Turin.

Determined to make the most of these new events, Dresden takes the case and begins to search for the shroud while also preparing for his upcoming fight to the death.  However, many people are interested in obtaining the shroud for their own use, and Dresden finds himself under attack by hitman, gangsters, criminals, and far, far worse.  The Denarians, an ancient and despicable group of fallen angels, have designs on the shroud, and not even Dresden’s most powerful and holy allies, the Knights of the Cross, may be enough to save him.

As Dresden attempts to recover the shroud, he finds that the Denarians and their deadly leader, Nicodemus, have a nefarious plot for the shroud that could destroy everything that Dresden holds dear.  Working with allies old and new, Dresden must overcome the Denarian threat before it is too late, while also managing to defeat the Red Court vampire gunning for him.  With everything on the line, has Dresden finally bitten off more than he can chew?  And what happens when the lost love of his life returns to town, battling her own demons?

Wow, Butcher just cannot strike out!  This is yet another book from him that I have no choice but to award a full five-star rating to.  Death Masks has a deeply addictive narrative that grabs your attention from the very first page and refuses to let go, and some complex and entertaining characters to match.

Death Masks has a pretty awesome story to it that got really addictive very quickly.  Starting off a few months after the events of Summer Knight, Death Masks contains several, great layered storylines, all of which are pretty exciting and intense in their own way and which cross over well to create a complete and powerful narrative.  The first of these immediately places Dresden in the path of several dangerous enemies and opponents as he is dragged into a new case, recovering the stolen Shroud of Turin.  Despite being warned off by his allies, the Knights of the Cross, Dresden naturally pursues, which sets him against established foes, like Chicago’s gangster king, and a powerful new cadre of enemies, who represent one of the biggest threats that Dresden has gone up against at this point in the series.  At the same time, the protagonist is forced to accept a formal duel to the death against a powerful vampire lord, as part of the ongoing storyline about his war with the Red Court, and he also helps the police investigate a disfigured corpse that seems to have been simultaneously infected by every disease known to man.  These events are further complicated by the re-emergence of Susan Rodriguez, his former love interest whose romance was crushed when she was partially turned into a vampire, and who he still holds a massive torch for.

Each of these storylines is quite interesting on its own, and Butcher writes some interesting scenes around all of them, with the primary focus being on the search for the shroud and the fight against the Denarians.  These storylines start pulling together about hallway through the book, and Butcher really raises the stakes for the protagonist, especially when he experiences some major and heartbreaking setbacks.  I really loved the unique blend of character development, fantasy and urban crime that is utilised throughout most of this story, and it is always so much fun to see the protagonist attempting to understand the complex plots arranged against him as he tries to save his friends and city.  Everything leads up to an extremely exciting final third where Dresden and his allies are thrust into a series of battles with massive stakes involved that leave them broken and nearly beaten.  I honestly could not stop listening to the final few hours of this book, and I pretty much powered through the entire second half in less than a day.  There are some epic and very moving moments featured in the big conclusion, and Butcher did a brilliant job of bringing everything together and ensuring that the reader will come back for future instalments of his work.  I particularly loved the final little twist that saw the book’s major villain get one over the protagonist, and I am extremely keen to see what happens with that storyline going forward.

I have so much love for Butcher’s writing style when it comes to the Dresden Files novels, and Death Masks was a particularly good example of this.  Like the rest of the series, Death Masks is told exclusively from the perspective of its central character, Harry Dresden, and this places you right into the midst of all the action and investigations, and you see all the steps as Harry tries to outwit his various foes.  This use of Dresden as the central figure also ensures that the reader gets quite a lot of humour in the story, and the continuous jokes and funny insights really help to make the story that much more fun to enjoy.  There is a great focus on character development and introductions in this novel that I deeply enjoyed, and this works really well with the mystery elements and established fantasy setting to create an excellent narrative.  Butcher keeps the pace of the book sharp and fast here, and all the big events quickly and effectively fall into place where needed.  I liked how the protagonist dealt with multiple problems and cases simultaneously, and Butcher did a good job of balancing and combining these initially separated storylines and threats where necessary.  I did think that Butcher did go over the top in places when it came to the romance sequences, and some of the scenes were a little questionable at times.  Still, this didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the Death Masks, and I had a blast seeing everything unfold.

Death Masks proved to be a particularly significant entry in the Dresden Files series, and it is a must-read for all fans as a result.  Butcher perfectly sets up several ongoing storylines here while also successfully continuing some established character arcs and introducing a whole new batch of great and interesting characters.  There are so many key events and interactions going on in Death Masks, many of which will be vital for the rest of the series, and I know it helped to give some additional context for some of the events in the later books I have read.  However, like most Dresden Files novels, Death Masks is extremely accessible to new readers, and Butcher always makes a point to expand on the existing storylines and characters in a way that new readers can understand and follow without boring the existing fans.  As such, this is a book with a lot of appeal to many readers, and all fantasy fans can dive in extremely easily.

Death Masks is also a major book for character work, and readers who love the impressive and exciting Dresden Files cast are in for a great time here.  I felt that Butcher presented a great balance of established and new characters in this novel, and there is an excellent focus on development and the emotional issues impacting the protagonist.  Many of the new characters will become major recurring figures in the series from now on and deeply enjoyed seeing how their story started.  Most of the character work hinged on protagonist Harry Dresden, who is the true heart and soul of the book.  I always enjoy quirky and rebellious protagonists in novels with a first-person perspective, and the Dresden Files are a great example of this.  Dresden was his usual funny and disrespectful self for the entirety of Death Masks, and it was so much fun seeing him sass every person he encountered, especially when it enrages the villains.  There is also a great emotional component to Dresden in Death Masks that I enjoyed, as he is still going through a lot of issues.  His already complicated feelings about his past failed romance come full circle here when the girl that got away (well, got turned into a vampire) returns and he is forced to finally confront his repressed feelings for her.  There are also some major moments where Dresden is forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, especially when they cost other characters, and I loved some of the interactions that occurred as a result.

One of the big returns for Death Masks is the character of Susan Rodriguez, Dresden’s love interest who has been missing for a couple of books.  Susan was partially turned into a vampire during her last appearance and left Dresden as a result.  This book sees her return, and there is a complete change of character because of her transformation, being a lot more confident as well as some more notable abilities.  I liked most of the Susan storyline in this book, not only because fans finally get some closure for the romance between her and Harry but also because she now has some mysterious connections and is working as a covert anti-vampire agent.  There are some great moments with Susan in the book, although I did find one scene to be pretty ridiculous, even though it was supposed to be the sequence that served as the climax of the Dresden/Susan romance arc.  Who knew that all you needed to cure vampiric thirst was a bondage session (I’m barely joking here, that happened).  I mostly ignored this awkward scene (try listening to it whilst on your lunch break at work) from my overall grading of Death Masks, just because it was so much of an outlier, but it was a little weird.  Still, I’m glad we got a return from Susan, and it was interesting to see how much she had changed since the last book.

I also enjoyed the use of the Knights of the Cross in Death Masks, and they served as excellent comrade characters for Dresden.  The Knights of the Cross are three modern day crusaders who wield legendary holy swords and serve as God’s fist on Earth.  We had previously met one of them in Grave Peril, Michael Carpenter, and I loved seeing him again, especially as he is essentially a badass Ned Flanders with a sword and a mission from God.  His mentorship of Harry is a key part of his character arc in the series, and it is really interesting to see him serve as a conscience to the rebellious and faithless Harry.  The two other knights introduced in this book also add a lot to the plot.  The rookie knight, Sanya, was really fun, and I liked his more refreshing take on the role and responsibilities he wields.  However, the best of them was Shiro, the elder knight who acts as the group’s guiding light and who has stood against evil for decades.  I love the depiction of this Japanese badass who literally has fallen angels quaking in their boots, and he was a wise and brilliant character that did a lot in a few short appearances.  Shiro was probably my favourite of the three in this book, and his fantastic dialogue with Harry, especially that description of how he became a Christian, was some of Butcher’s best writing.

Finally, I must talk about the villains, who added a great deal to the story.  Readers are spoiled for choice in Death Masks when it comes to villains, as there are several different groups and individuals who turned up looking to kill Dresden throughout the book.  The first of these is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who seeks to end the war between his people and the wizards of the White Council by killing Dresden in a duel.  Ortega appears to be a mostly reasonable and honourable figure despite his desire to kill Dresden, and I liked the fun banter he had with the protagonist.  I was also glad to see more of Chicago gangster Johnny Marcone, who is one of the best recurring figures in the series.  Marcone always serves as such an excellent foil to Dresden, and their constant sparring and back and forth is a lot of fun to see.  It was particularly interesting to see Marcone become even more involved in the mystical world in this novel, mainly due to the respect he has for Dresden’s abilities, and this serves as a major step towards his current incarnation later in the series.

However, the best villains in the story are probably the group known as the Denarians, a collection of fallen angels possessing desperate or evil humans.  The Denarians are some of the most dangerous beings in the entire Dresden Files, and Butcher gives them an impressive introduction in this novel, showing them as agents of chaos determined to cause as much grief as possible.  Their leader, Nicodemus, is probably one of the most intriguing and sinister figures I’ve yet see Butcher write, and he pretty much always had Dresden on the ropes.  I particularly loved his first major interaction with the protagonist, especially as he was able to completely rattle Dresden, who could barely do anything in response.  The characters were barely able to survive his machinations throughout the book, and he truly showcased how much of a threat he could and would be.  A masterful villain, I cannot wait to see more of him in some of the future books.  All these characters, and more (future superstar Butters has an interesting introduction this book), really add to the captivating story, and I loved how well Butcher developed and featured them in Death Masks.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Death Masks on audiobook, which was another excellent and impressive experience.  I really love the Dresden Files audiobooks and Death Masks was another good example of why.  Not only does the format really capture the essence of the story and help the listener become immersed in the urban fantasy world, but it also features some of the best voice work you are likely to find in an audiobook.  That is because Death Masks is narrated by actor James Marsters, who always does a spectacular job brining this series to life.  After providing narration for the first four books in the series, Marsters really knows what he is doing when he gets to Death Masks, and he swiftly dives in and gives the epic narrative everything it needs.  All the characters are voiced perfectly, with some extremely fitting and powerful voices given to them that expertly portray their personalities, ethnicities and mentalities.  Due to the great range of characters in Death Masks, Marsters is required to play a range of figures, from an evil fallen angel, three ultra-good holy knights, a gangster, multiple vampires and more, all of which come out really well.  However, the best work is saved for protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  Marsters perfectly inhabits the role of Dresden, and you get the full breadth of his complexities, inner pain, and weird sense of humour, as Marsters narrates the book through his eyes.  You really get the best understanding of Dresden through Marsters’s voice work, and that really adds to the quality of the entire read.  As such, this format comes extremely highly recommended, and you need to try Death Masks’ audiobook as soon as you can.

Another Dresden Files book down, another five-star rating from me.  Death Masks was another epic and exceptional entry in this amazing series, and I continue to be impressed by how well Jim Butcher writes these great books.  Thanks to its excellent and utterly addictive narrative and brilliant character work, Death Masks is probably one of the best Dresden Files novels I have read so far, and I had such a great time with it.  I can think of no higher compliment than to say it made me so happy, I instantly started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites, the moment I finished Death Masks.  Make sure to come back next week to check that Throwback Thursday out.

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