Viral by Robin Cook

Viral Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 418 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The leading author of the medical thriller genre, Dr Robin Cook, returns with another eye-opening and deeply relevant novel, Viral, that takes a deep an unsettling look at America’s healthcare system and the grim horrors that could strike anyone.

Robin Cook is an interesting author who has been one of the most unique writers of thriller fiction for years.  A doctor and former member of the United States Navy, Cook made his debut back in 1972 with The Year of the Intern, a medical drama about the pressures of a young doctor.  He then followed it up with his first thriller in 1977, Coma, which featured criminal activities within a hospital.  Since then, Cook has written over 30 additional thrillers, nearly all of which feature either medical elements or doctors as the protagonists.  Cook’s catalogue of works features a huge collection of standalone reads, as well as his long-running Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery series, and all of them contain an interesting array of plots.  I have been meaning to try out some of Cook’s novels for a while and I finally got a chance a few weeks ago when I received a copy of his latest novel, Viral, which contained a deep and powerful story.

As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, former police officer Brian Murphy and his family take the opportunity to have a well-deserved vacation.  After several days of relaxing times at the beach and night-time cookouts, the fun comes to an end as Brian’s wife, Emma, comes down with severe flu-like symptoms.  Fearing COVID, the family returns to New York, only for Emma to suffer a traumatic seizure in the car, forcing them to the emergency room.

It soon becomes apparent that Emma is suffering from a rare and lethal disease known as eastern equine encephalitis, likely brought on by mosquito bites while at the beach.  As the doctors work to save Emma’s life, Brian is forced to contend with another major shock when he receives a cripplingly expensive hospital bill, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  With his business already failing due to COVID, Brian is unable to cope with the inflated bill before him, and turns to his insurance company for help, only to be blindsided when they reject his claim on arbitrary grounds.

Forced to try and come up with the money to pay for his wife’s bills, Brian dives into the shocking world of corrupt healthcare and insurance, discovering the insidious legal practice of overcharging patients and not providing insurance coverage.  Already on a knife edge due to his wife’s condition, Brian is determined to fight this injustice.  However, there is little he can legally do, especially with every procedure adding more to his immense debt.  But when his daughter also begins showing symptoms, and his wife’s care is being negatively impacted by his financial position, Brian will be driven to seek justice another way.

Viral is an intense and extremely fascinating novel that I had an interesting time reading.  Cook has come up with an extremely fast-paced narrative here that dives into compelling contemporary issues.  This results in quite an exciting and addictive read that I found to be particularly distinctive and memorable.

Cook has written a pretty cool story for Viral that takes the reader on a harrowing and dramatic ride.  While it has a bit of a slow start, mostly to set up the characters and the situation, it does not take long for the book to get crazy, with the protagonist’s wife getting sick and rushed to hospital very quickly.  What follows is an agonising thrill-ride of emotion as she gets sicker, while the protagonist is forced to deal with a series of disruptive situations as the hospital and the insurance company take turns to bleed him for money and impact his wife’s health.  Due to Cook’s realistic portrayal of certain modern phenomena involving healthcare and finance, Viral ended up being a pretty terrifying read that was in some ways scarier than a horror novel.  There are some very traumatic moments scattered throughout the novel, and two big tragedies occurring in the central part of the story result in some significant changes in the story direction.  The last third of the book is pretty fast-paced and shows a protagonist tipped to the edge, attempting to find justice the only way he knows how.  I rather liked how Cook ended the novel, and it was certainly fascinating the way that he utilised thriller elements to conclude what had previously been more of a medical drama.  This is a really good narrative, and found myself getting quite drawn into it, especially as Cook paints such a vivid picture of the medical issues and the various problems surrounding them.  I did have some issues with some character interactions and dialogue, as a lot of the communication and discussions seemed a bit unnatural to me.  I also had a very hard time connecting with any of the characters featured in the novel, as they were a little one-dimensional.  Still, the intense and compelling narrative more than made up for it and I had a wonderful time getting through this book.

I really appreciated the deep examinations of certain medical aspects throughout Viral, and this includes Cook’s fascinating look at viruses, pandemics, and infections.  Cook is a master of examining medical concerns, including pandemics (Pandemic was the name of one of his previous books, released in December 2018), and while I will admit to a certain internal exhaustion at stories concerning pandemics (a sentiment I am sure many others share), I think he did a pretty good job of featuring these aspects here.  Viral contains a range of interesting medical elements, such as examining the social and financial impacts COVID-19 had on New York, with multiple characters suffering because of it.  Cook also takes the time to try and terrify his readers by highlighting what diseases he believes are going to impact us next.  In particular, he focuses on eastern equine encephalitis, a disease transmitted to humans from mosquitoes.  Not only does Cook take the time to highlight just how deadly and disruptive eastern equine encephalitis is, but he also explains early on in the novel that diseases like encephalitis are likely to be much more common in the future due to climate change and increased mosquito migration patterns.  This focus on medical issues, especially surrounding eastern equine encephalitis, proves to be pretty scary, and I know that I am going to be a little more wary of any mosquitoes I see in the future.

While you would think that the part of the book looking at deadly diseases and crazy new infections would be the scariest part of this novel, it is Cook’s examination of the American healthcare system that is the most horrifying.  Throughout the course of Viral, the protagonist experiences firsthand how ruinous it can be to fall sick, when he is hit with a massively inflated bill after rushing his wife to the hospital.  The situation only degrades even further when his new health insurance company continues to reject his claims and the company controlling the hospital immediately starts a lawsuit to get their money back.  This takes the protagonist and the reader on a deep and intense dive into the current realities of the American healthcare system, including hospitals, medical billing, private health companies and health insurance agencies, and how they combine to cause major problems for sick people and their families.  There is a focus on how most hospitals are run for profit these days, artificially inflating their bills to get the most money.  At the same time, there is an examination of how insurance companies are offering bogus coverage, with multiple hidden clauses that make it possible for them to reject claims for the most ridiculous of reasons.  This examination of the healthcare system soon becomes the major focus of Viral’s plot, as the problems associated with it soon prove to be more lethal than the eastern equine encephalitis.  Cook is very critical of how the healthcare system is being allowed to operate in America, and it was fascinating and disturbing to see his impressions of it, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19.  This proved to be a very intriguing and powerful inclusion to this novel, and readers are guaranteed to come out of it with a pressing need to review their insurance policies to make sure the same thing won’t happen to them.

Overall, Viral by Robin Cook proved to be an excellent and memorable medical thriller with a lot of fantastic features to it.  I deeply appreciated the way in which Cook takes the time to focus on contemporary issues, including his look at viral diseases and current issues with the American healthcare system.  While I did have some issues with Cook’s writing style, Viral ended up being a really intriguing and realistic novel that will leave most readers with an intense sense of unease.  A very eye-opening book that has made me very curious about some of Cook’s other medical thrillers.

Quick Review – Falling by T. J. Newman

Falling Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 6 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 290 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare to never feel safe on a plane again after reading the exciting debut thriller from author T. J. Newman, Falling.

Synopsis:

You just boarded a flight to New York.

There are one hundred and forty-three other passengers onboard.

What you don’t know is that thirty minutes before the flight your pilot’s family was kidnapped.

For his family to live, everyone on your plane must die.

The only way the family will survive is if the pilot follows his orders and crashes the plane.


Falling
is an intense and exhilarating novel with an intriguing plot idea about a pilot being blackmailed into crashing a plane.  This was the very first novel from author T. J. Newman, a real-life flight attendant, who cleverly utilises knowledge from her career to produce this exciting read.  I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Falling a little while ago, and I managed to power through it in a few short days thanks to its compelling and fast-paced narrative.

I was a fairly hooked with Falling’s story from the very beginning thanks to a very memorable opening line: “When the shoe dropped into her lap the foot was still in it”.  This great line, despite being part of a somewhat unexplained dream sequence, and it does a great job of setting the tone for the rest of the novel.  The story proper gets off to a great start, with the entire scenario set up quickly and the danger to the plane shown in short order.  The book swiftly splits into several separate storylines for the pilot, the pilot’s family, the kidnapper, a flight attendant marshalling the passengers in the back of the plane, and the FBI agent attempting to save the victims.  This mixture of different perspectives produces a rich and intense narrative, and it was great to see the various parts of this dark situation.  This is a very fast-paced narrative with no slow moments at all, at Newman adds in some great twists and turns as the story continues.  There is a great blend of action in the air and action on the ground as the various characters attempts to come to terms with the situation and either save the plan or the pilot’s family.  This all leads up to a big, exciting climax, with the various storylines coming to a great end.  I enjoyed the fantastic story featured in Falling, especially as it was anchored to a compelling cast of characters.  The motivations for the kidnapper were very interesting and well set up, and it was great to see who else was involved in the case.  Some of the supporting characters, such as the sassy attendant known as Big Daddy, were quite entertaining, and Newman ended up wrapping some awesome storylines around them.  This great story really grabs your interest and attention.

A major thing that I really appreciated about Falling was the amazing amount of detail about planes, flight procedure, and the duties and responsibilities of pilots and cabin crew that Newman added to the story.  The author made exceptional use of her experiences in her career to give these parts of the book some impressive realism, and you really get a sense of what it is actually like up in the plane.  This is particularly true when it came to the parts of the book revolving around the hijacking and potential crash, as Newman, who has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the subject (which admittedly is a tad concerning for a flight attendant), does a great job detailing all the counter procedures and issues involved.  These fascinating bits of insider information are worked into the story extremely well, enhancing the various thrilling scenes and ensuring that the reader is immersed even more into the narrative.

Overall, Falling is an outstanding and exciting thriller debut that is definitely worth checking out.  Author T. J. Newman did a great job on her first novel, and I had an excellent time getting through the fantastic story.  I really enjoyed the author’s amazing use of her own knowledge and experiences throughout the story, especially as they helped to create a memorable and clever story.  I look forward to seeing what Newman writes in the future, especially after enjoying the captivating and electrifying Falling.

The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

The 22 Murders of Madison May Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 322 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the unique mind of leading Australian science fiction author Max Barry comes the fantastic and very clever alternate universe thriller, The 22 Murders of Madison May.

Madison May has been murdered and she has no idea why!

Madison, a young real-estate agent suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of a knife wielding client with zero regard for keeping his identity hidden from the police.  His final act before killing her is to profess his undying love to her.  However, Madison has never seen her murderer before in her life, at least, not in this life.

When word of Madison’s death reaches the desk of the Daily News, it falls to rising reporter Felicity Staples to follow up.  Despite a dislike for murder cases, Felicity soon finds herself wrapped up in investigating the brutal killing of the beautiful Madison May, especially as some unusual designs have been carved into the walls.  However, things take a turn for the strange when Felicity sees the suspected murderer at the subway in a dangerous confrontation with another fugitive from justice.  Moments after seeing them, Felicity can only watch in surprise as they vanish before her eyes and her universe is turned upside down.

Returning to her apartment, Felicity notices several minor changes to her life.  Her boyfriend suddenly knows how to cook, one of her cats is missing, and no-one at work remembers anything about her story or Madison May.  As strange events keep occurring, Felicity is soon forced to face the fact that she has been transported to an alternate dimension.  Reeling from the revelation, Felicity is even more stunned when a slightly different Madison May turns up murdered, the victim of the same killer.  Chasing after the mysterious people hovering around the case, Felicity discovers that a dangerous stalker is moving from dimension to dimension, determined to find the perfect Madison May to fall in love with, and killing any version he doesn’t like.  Can Felicity stop the killer before he takes out another version of Madison May, or will her forays into interdimensional travel have consequences she could never imagine?

Wow, this was a very fun and captivating read that I really enjoyed.  The 22 Murders of Madison May is the latest novel from Australian Max Barry, an author of several intriguing science fiction novels, including Providence, Jennifer Government, and Machine Man.  This was the first novel of Barry’s that I have had the opportunity to read, and I am very glad that I did, as Barry has created an outstanding and fun science fiction thriller that makes great use of some cool alternate dimension travel to produce an exquisite and awesome story.

Barry has come up with an extremely exciting and compelling narrative for this fantastic novel, which makes excellent use of its unique science fiction hook.  The novel starts off with the brutal murder of the first Madison May, which leads to the involvement of protagonist Felicity.  It does not take long for Felicity to get dragged into an alternate universe after encountering the killer and a fugitive engaged in a fight.  Forced to deal with the unusual differences in her life and the revelations of what has happened to her, Felicity attempts to save the lives of several different Madison Mays, while also avoiding the attentions of a group of interdimensional travellers who jealously guard their secrets.  What follows is a series of thrilling scenes where Felicity and her ally, Hugo, jump from alternate universe to alternate universe trying to stop the killer, with varying degrees of success.  This all eventually leads up to a fantastic and impressive conclusion where Felicity is forced to make some major, life-altering decisions, while also facing off against the monster she’s been chasing.  This proved to be an extremely captivating and fascinating novel, which honestly takes no time at all to get hooked on.  I loved the brilliant blend of psychological thriller and compelling science fiction elements, which seamlessly work together to produce an outstanding and memorable standalone story.  I powered through this book in a couple of days, and I deeply enjoyed every second I spent reading this intense and cleverly written story.

I have to say that I deeply appreciated the fascinating concept of alternate dimensions and interdimensional travel that Barry features.  Not only does the author do a good job explaining the science and philosophy behind this science fiction feature, but he also ensures that it works to full effect within the narrative.  In this book, dimensional travellers move from one reality to the next, taking over the lives of the version of themselves living in that dimension.  This results in the travelling characters awakening in a world with slight deviations from the last one they visited.  Barry features several separate dimensions within The 22 Murders of Madison May, and it was always quite fascinating to see the slight differences that occur, good and bad.  This is most prominently shown through the eyes of protagonist Felicity, who ends up visiting several alternate realities, some of which severely shake her.  However, you likewise get to see several different versions of the titular murder victim, Madison May, which results in a fascinating examination of how decisions and missed opportunities can impact your life.  It was also cool to see the various ways in which the alternate dimension travel could be manipulated, most noticeably by the book’s antagonist.  This vicious killer was constantly manipulating events to find a version of Madison May that would love him the same way that he loved her, and it was both creepy and intriguing the way in which Barry combined an alternate reality story with a tale of a fanatic serial killer.  It was very interesting to see the way the villain was able to change the course of his dimensional travels to suit his needs, such as by framing one of his pursuers for murder, and then ensuring that they only travelled to dimensions where they were locked up in prison.  I felt that Barry did a great job introducing and utilising this cool concept, and it really worked to create an epic and powerful narrative.

The author has also come up with some fun and complex characters in The 22 Murders of Madison May, who are enhanced by the fact that you get a very detailed and compelling snapshot into various versions of their lives.  The main character is Felicity Staples, a bold and clever reporter who finds her entire life upside down.  Felicity initially lives an ordinary life, with a boyfriend and two cats, while hunting for political corruption.  However, the events of this story really mess her around, as she is bounced around slightly different versions of her life.  These various involuntary jumps really have an impact on her, especially as she experiences both positive and negative changes which make her question her choices and relationships.  At the same time, she becomes obsessed with saving Madison May and stopping the killer, so much so that she constantly throws her life in danger.  The combination of these choices and the changing realities proves to be quite wearing on her, especially as she is forced to make some major sacrifices in her own life to try and save Madison’s.  This makes for quite a strong and likeable protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed seeing her intense and tragic narrative unfold completely.

I also really enjoyed supporting character Madison May.  The Madison Mays are essentially nobodies who have the very classic backstory of being a struggling actress who moved the big city and is dealing with a terrible boyfriend.  However, in one reality she was given her big break and appeared in a film in a small role.  However, this big break was a double-edged sword, as it gained the attention of a stalker, who, upon failing to meet her in his world, travelled between dimensions and started hunting her down.  Throughout the course of the book, you see multiple versions of Madison May, each of whom has a slightly different life, whether she is still struggling as an actress, on the cusp of a big break, or has given up acting altogether.  The author does a really good job of quickly and concisely setting up each of these new versions of Madison May, and you quickly get a feel for who the character is and the choices that change her.  Because she is not travelling through alternate dimensions, it is always fascinating to see the different interactions she has with her killer, as well as the reactions to the strange events occurring around her.  As a result, you get a fairly detailed examination of this character’s life, and it proves very hard not to like her and hope that she is able to overcome the latest attempts on her life.

The final character I want to focus on is the novel’s main antagonist and the killer of Madison May, Clayton Hors.  Clayton is a compelling and intense villain who starts his journey as an obsessed fan who falls in love with Madison May after seeing her in a movie in his reality and starts stalking her, eventually getting caught.  While this would usually be the end of the story, Clayton was able to obtain an item that allowed him to travel through dimensions, so he started stalking Madison in every reality he can find, assessing each version to find the perfect match to the one he fell in love with, and then attempting to make them love him in return.  This is some deeply disturbing antagonist creation here, and I really appreciate the way in which Barry amps up a dangerous and obsessed sociopath by giving them the ability to stalk their victims across the dimensions.  There are so many elements to this character which turn them into quite a memorable villain, from his unwavering determination to get what he wants, his short and violent temper, an inability to be satisfied with the girls he finds, and an obsession that can withstand constant dimensional travel.  I particularly found the descriptions of his arms, which are scarred and cracked by the various bite marks of Madison May from across the dimensions, to be a horrific masterstroke from Barry, and it was very disturbing to see versions of Madison May who attempt to bite down on his arm in self-defence to find that their teeth already match the indentations there.  Clayton was an outstanding and disturbing villain, and he really helped turn this excellent science fiction thriller into something very special and dark.

The 22 Murders of Madison May is a brilliant and distinctive science fiction thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Australian author Max Barry has written an exceptionally clever story that perfectly combines a disturbing tale of murder and obsession, with an adventure in interdimensional travel.  I loved this awesome story, and I will have to make sure I check out some more of Max Barry’s novels in the future because I had a fantastic time getting through The 22 Murders of Madison May.  A highly recommended read.

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 6 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Since I started this blog, one major author that I have neglected is the master of horror fiction, Stephen King.  King needs absolutely no introduction, with a decades-long career of amazing horror novels, thrillers and heartfelt pieces of fiction, most of which have been turned into iconic films and television shows.  Despite this, I haven’t read many of King’s novels before, aside from Cell and the novel he co-wrote with his son, Owen King, Sleeping Beauties.  Honestly, I have only started getting into horror novels in the last couple of years (it is still not my favourite genre TBH) and I have completely failed to make time to check out some of King’s more recent releases.  However, his latest novel, Later, caught my eye and I decided that it would be a good opportunity to expand my Stephen King knowledge.

Jamie Conklin is a young boy with a very unusual problem: he can see and talk to the spirits of the recently deceased.  The son of a struggling single mother, Tia, Jamie just wants to have a normal childhood.  However, as his ability becomes more apparent, his mother cautions him to hide his strange gift, worried that people will abuse his talents, especially as the dead have no choice but to truthfully answer any questions that Jamie asks of them.

Content to keep his secret to himself, Jamie attempts to live like a normal New York City kid during the late 2000s.  However, when his mother pressures him to use his abilities to help save her failing publishing business, it places him in the crosshairs of his mother’s lover, corrupt police detective Liz Dutton.  Liz, desperate for recognition from her bosses, draws Jamie into the hunt for a killer’s final surprise, which only his dead spirit can reveal.  However, not all secrets are easily taken from the dead, and soon Jamie must contend with a terrible force determined to torment him from beyond.  Can Jamie survive what is coming for him, or will it drag him into insanity?

This was an extremely cool novel that makes we really want to go out and read some more Stephen King books.  Later is a fantastic read which combines multiple genres together to create an exciting and fast-paced narrative loaded up with some real heart and memorable characters.  I had an absolute blast reading this clever novel, and thanks to its shorter length and captivating narrative, I powered through it in a very quickly.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex story that King came up with for Later, which proved to be a powerful and intriguing character-driven tale that moved across the genres.  Told in a first-person chronicle format by an older version of the main protagonist, Later details the childhood of Jamie Conklin and his early experiences of talking to the dead.  Weaving in anecdotes of his childhood and depictions of his early life with his mother, the story quickly and effectively sets up how Jamie discovered he had his powers, and some of the most significant times that he saw and talked to the spirits of the departed.  This proves to be a fascinating coming-of-age story that showcases how this unique talent twisted and altered the course of Jamie’s life and took him into some dark places.  The author does a fantastic job capturing the style of a young man recounting major events from his childhood, and I very much appreciated the mixture of childlike innocence with cynical reflections.

While this chronicle of a child’s life forms an effective and powerful centre to this entire narrative, this is also a horror story, as Jamie is traumatised by several of the spirits he encounters, especially as King provides some harrowing descriptions of mutilated ghosts and bodies.  These horror elements get even stronger and spookier when Jamie encounters a truly evil spirit who starts to haunt him.  Several of the scenes featuring this being are pretty terrifying, and I liked how King strongly highlights the dark side of Jamie’s power.

The author also works in some intriguing crime fiction elements as well, as the protagonist get wrapped up in a murder investigation and the dangerous schemes of a police officer.  The crime fiction features are pretty thrilling, and l appreciated the consideration of how Jamie’s powers could be abused.  I liked this unique blend of genres, and it ended up creating a very compelling and powerful story, which King sets out at an incredibly fast rate.  King sets the story up perfectly, and I found myself really getting pulled in as the narrative set off, thanks to its unique tone and intriguing selection of supporting characters.  The entire narrative goes in some very interesting directions and I liked how interconnected all the events that the narrator is recounting fit together into a clever and moving tale of discovery and redemption.  All of this comes together into an exciting and scary finale as the narrator comes face-to-face with several of the monsters in his life, and I think that King came up with a very satisfying and clever ending for the book, which has potential for a sequel.  I did think that the final big reveal of the book was extremely unnecessary, but it was a particularly typical Stephen King twist, so I should not have been so surprised.  Overall, this was an exceptional narrative that I cannot hype up enough.

Later is a standalone novel from King which features a whole new group of characters.  As a result, it is very accessible to a wide range of readers, even for those people who have not previously enjoyed any of King’s novels.  I personally found it really easy to get into this cool story, even with my limited knowledge of the author’s prior works, and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on his clever and unique story.  This is also quite a good book for established fans.  Not only does it contain a lot of elements of a classic Stephen King novel, such as a young protagonist on a journey of self-discovery who ends up losing their innocence, but there are also some intriguing connections to some of King’s most iconic works.  One horror inclusion in the novel appeared to be a version of a creature from a previous book, and I think that King readers will really appreciate the clever references he chucks in.  Due to all this, I feel that Later is a perfect book for any curious readers, no matter their experiences with King’s works, and this may end up being the novel that draws new readers into this compelling master author’s web.  I personally will make a bit more of an effort to read more of King’s works in the future, and I already have my eye on his next novel, which is coming out later this year.  I also kind of hope that we see more of the characters at some point, especially as King did such a great job setting them up in this novel, while also leaving their overall story very open-ended.

I quite enjoyed the relatively modern setting that King utilised as a backdrop to his plot.  With the protagonist chronicling his tale in his 20s, presumably in the present day, most of his childhood took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s.  This is a pretty interesting departure from some of King’s more recognisable novels that explore the childhoods of their protagonists, such as It and Stand by Me, all of which make excellent use of their 1950s or 1980s settings (I liked the awesome 1980s nostalgia you got in the latest It film, for example).  Instead, King loads up Later with a ton of references to 2000s culture and movies, and I had a fun time remembering some of the things that the protagonist experienced as a child.  King, through the medium of his protagonist, also cleverly mentions The Sixth Sense right off the bat, ensuring readers that this story is “not like that movie with Bruce Willis”, which I thought was very entertaining, and also quite true.  The Great Recession also becomes a key plot point of the novel, and it was interesting to see how King was able to utilise it as a major motivator for various character actions.  I also liked how the story was set in New York City, rather than the small-town American locations King’s books are known for.  The author uses this city-based location to great effect throughout the novel, painting a fantastic picture of New York life, especially through the eyes of his young protagonist.  Jamie ends up visiting various parts of the city throughout the events of Later, including several communities on the outskirts of New York, and I enjoyed this great use of location.

I also have to highlight the multiple jokes about novelists and publishers that King features throughout Later, mainly due to Jamie being born into a publishing family.  You have to imagine that King had a lot of fun coming up with all the great jokes and comedic insights into Jamie and his mother’s experiences with writers, and it ended up being a really fun addition to the plot.  I had a particularly good laugh about the descriptions of a certain series of trashy historical romance/adventure novels that Tia’s struggling publishing company relies on, and I loved how King explored it throughout this entertaining narrative, as well as cleverly featuring a mock-up cover of one of these fictional novels released as a bonus dust jacket for Later.  This extra dust jacket (see below), was drawn by the same cover artist who did Later’s hardcover, and I enjoyed the similar styles and the excellent tongue-in-cheek testimonial from King, praising this book within a book.  Fun little inclusions like this really helped to push Later up to another level, and I liked how the humour from the publishing jokes contrasted nicely with the dark horror and crime fiction elements.

The Secret of Roanoke Cover

While I probably would have enjoyed reading a physical copy of Later, I instead chose to enjoy this fun novel in its audiobook format, which ended up being a fantastic choice.  This audiobook has an extremely quick run time of just over six and a half hours.  This shorter length was one of the main reasons I decided to listen to Later, and I was able to get through it in a day or two, although a lot of that was down to how awesome the story was.  This was an impressively fast-paced audiobook, and I really felt that this format worked well with the first-person chronicle style the author utilised, as it felt like the protagonist was the one vocalising the story to you.  Later was narrated by actor Seth Numrich, and it is one of the first audiobooks he has lent his voice to.  I really enjoyed Numrich’s work on this audiobook; not only did he do an amazing top capturing Later’s unique tone, but he also provided a range of great voices for the characters featured within the novel.  His main voice, which represented the narrating protagonist, really encapsulated the innocence and pain of the character as he tells the story of his strange childhood, and it helped draw me to the protagonist.  The rest of his voices were pretty good, although I thought the voice he used for female detective Liz Dutton sounded a little like John Leguizamo, which is probably not what he was going for.  Overall, though, this was an exceptional audiobook, and I would strongly recommend it to those who want to check out Later.  I also hope that Numrich considers narrating more audiobooks in the future as he displayed some real talent here and was an absolute treat to listen to.

Later is an outstanding and impressive novel from the legendary Stephen King, who creates a unique and powerful tale of life, death and coming to terms with both.  Featuring an intriguing narrative that blends together clever horror and crime inclusions with a powerful coming of age story, Later is a truly memorable novel that is extremely easy to fall in love with.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and it is a must read for all fans of King’s work and anyone who has ever been curious about his writing.

Later Cover 2

Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham

Finding Eadie Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 July 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Caroline Beecham is back with another moving and compelling World War II historical drama with Finding Eadie.

London, 1943.  As the war rages across the world, there is a demand for new books to not only distract the public from the grim realities of the war but to also entertain the troops as they fight.  However, despite this increased need for books, the London branch of the Partridge Press publishing house is struggling due to wartime restrictions on resources and the damage done to their former offices.  In order to survive, Partridge Press need a new bestseller and young staff member, Alice Cotton, has an idea for a book that will both appeal to the public and help lift their spirits.  But before work can begin on this project, Alice suddenly leaves.

Alice’s absence is due to her secret pregnancy to an unnamed father.  Determined to keep the baby, Eadie, Alice comes up with a plan to give birth in secret and then raise the baby with her mother, pretending it is a wartime orphan.  However, Alice is unprepared for the ultimate betrayal by her mother, who steals the baby from her and gives it away in order to save her daughter’s reputation.  Devastated, Alice searches for her daughter, and soon finds out that her mother gave the baby to baby farmers, people who make a semi-legal profit by taking unwanted babies and selling them to the highest bidder.  Desperate to get Eadie back no matter the cost, Alice returns to Partridge Press and uses her book as a cover to get more information on the baby farmers.  At the same time, she finds solace in an American, Theo Booth, who has been sent from the American office of Partridge to help salvage the failing British office.  Can Alice find her daughter before it is too late, or will she lose Eadie forever?

Beecham is a talented and impressive author who is making a real impact on the historical drama scene due to her touching storylines that focus on fascinating aspects of the World War II experience.  For example, her 2016 debut novel, Maggie’s Kitchen, focused on the struggles of opening a restaurant during the blitz, while her second novel, 2018’s Eleanor’s Secret focused on a young woman who was employed by the War Artist Advisory Committee.  Finding Eadie is another powerful war drama that focuses on some intriguing aspects of the war.

At the centre of this book is an excellent dramatic storyline that focuses on two people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances.  This story employs two separate point-of-view characters, Alice Cotton and Theo Booth, each of whom have their own intriguing and dramatic storylines.  While Theo’s narrative of a young, conflicted, book-loving man who finds his true calling in war-torn London is very enjoyable, I really have to highlight the excellent story surrounding the character of Alice.  At the start of the book, Alice has her baby, the titular Eadie, stolen from her by her mother and she spends the rest of the novel trying to find her.  This is an incredibly powerful and emotional story thread which I found to be extremely moving.  Beecham does an incredible job portraying Alice’s pain and distress throughout the course of the novel and the resultant raw emotion is heartbreaking and mesmerising in equal measures.  This search for Eadie has a number of notable elements to it, including emotional confrontations between Alice and her mother, the continued strain impacting the protagonist the longer she is separated from Eadie, a compelling investigative narrative, and a dangerous dive into London’s criminal underbelly.  The reader gets really drawn into the story as a result, as they eagerly wait to see if Alice will get a happy ending or if she will become another victim of the tragic circumstances surrounding the war.

On top of this compelling and dramatic storyline there is also a well-written, if somewhat understated, romantic angle between Alice and Theo.  While it is quite obvious that the two are going to end up together (it is a historical drama with a male and female as the main characters, of course they are going to end up together), Beecham builds it up rather well, and while there are significant obstacles to their romance, such as Theo’s engagement to another woman and the fact that Alice is rightly more concerned with finding her baby, the two slowly realise their feelings for each other.  Overall, the entire story comes together extremely well, and I found myself quite drawn to this excellent narrative which allowed me to read this book in remarkably short order.

While this book has an amazing story, I also really enjoyed Beecham’s examination of certain unique aspects of life during the war, which proves to be rather fascinating.  I particularly enjoyed the exploration of the publishing world during the war, and this goes on to become a major and compelling part of the book’s plot.  Beecham does a fantastic job highlighting what was going on during the publishing industry during the period in both England and America.  This includes an impressive deep dive into the industry, exploring the importance of books during the period, the troubles involved with publishing during a war such as the lack of supplies, as well as also examining the sort of books that were popular at the time.  I absolutely loved all this amazing detail about publishing during the war, and it was an outstanding highlight of the book.  I also liked how well it tied into the rest of the book’s narrative as their love of books was not only a key element of both Alice and Theo’s personal storylines but also a major part of the characters, and it was something that made both of them more relatable and likeable to the reader, ensuring that they are more emotionally invested in the story.

In addition to the focus on the publishing world Beecham also explores other intriguing aspects of London during the war.  Probably the most important one relating to the plot was the shocking practice of baby farming, where babies were bought and sold for profit.  This was a remarkably horrifying aspect of history that I wasn’t too familiar with, but Beecham does a great job explaining it throughout her story, going into the history, the impacts, the surrounding social issues and the sort of the people that were involved.  While most aspects of this are a tad disturbing, especially as it is based on some true historical stories, I found this entire inclusion to be really fascinating and it proved to be a compelling story element.  I also quite liked Beecham’s examination of the London Zoo and how it survived during the war, and it was intriguing to see this small bubble of normality amongst the chaos of the blitz and the rest of the story.  All of these incredible historical elements were really interesting parts of Finding Eadie’s story, and I had an amazing time learning more about London life during the war.

Finding Eadie by Caroline Beecham is a great and compelling historical drama that proved to be an excellent read.  Containing a strong, emotional charged story, and featuring a clever look at some unique historical elements, this is a very easy book to enjoy which is worth checking out.

A Testament of Character by Sulari Gentill

A Testament of Character Cover

Publisher: Pantera Press (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2020)

Series: Rowland Sinclair – Book 10

Length: 337 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed Australian author Sulari Gentill returns with the 10th book in her bestselling Rowland Sinclair series, A Testament of Character, an intense and compelling new entry which was a lot of fun to read.

Gentill is an excellent Australian author who has written several amazing books since her 2010 debut. While her main body of work is the Rowland Sinclair series, Gentill has also written The Hero trilogy, a young adult fantasy trilogy based on classic Greek stories, and the standalone novel Crossing the Lines. I am mostly familiar with her Rowland Sinclair books, however, as I have read the last several books in this series, all of which have been extremely enjoyable due to their fantastic blend of history and mystery. The Rowland Sinclair books follow the adventures of the titular Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy left-wing Australian gentleman artist, and his three artistic friends in the 1930s, as they find themselves in the middle of several murder investigations. Each Rowland Sinclair book is a fun and entertaining part of my yearly reading calendar, and I have been looking forward to checking out A Testament of Character for a while now.

In 1935, after the horrors they experienced in Shanghai, Rowland and his bohemian friends Edna, Clyde and Milton are enjoying a leisurely holiday in Singapore before heading back to Australia. However, their travel plans are dramatically changed when Rowland receives tragic news. An old friend of Rowland from his Oxford days, Daniel Cartwright, has died suddenly, and he has appointed Rowland as the executor of his vast estate.

Detouring from Australia to Cartwright’s home city of Boston, Rowland and his companions arrive for the funeral and find themselves in the midst of controversy and familiar conflict. Not only was Cartwright estranged from the rest of his family, especially his brothers, who disapproved of his lifestyle choice, but it turns out he was murdered, and the police have yet to find any suspects. Even more mysteriously, Cartwright had only just written every member of his family out of the will, leaving all his money to an unknown man everyone claims does not exist.

Determined to carry out the last wishes of his dear friend, Rowland attempts to find the man who apparently meant so much to him. However, his investigation quickly turns sour, as he runs into numerous people who do not want Cartwright’s will to come to pass. Forced to scour Boston, New York and other parts of post-Depression America for leads, the four friends encounter all manner of dangerous and eccentric characters as they pursue their quest. However, none of them are prepared for the terrible truth they encounter, especially now that Cartwright’s killer has them in their sights.

A Testament of Character is an exciting and compelling novel that proves to be a fantastic new addition to the Rowland Sinclair series. Gentill has done an amazing job coming up with another captivating story that not only features an exciting and gripping mystery but which takes an intriguing look at America in the 1930s. This story contains the series’s usual blend of fun, intrigue and action, as the four exceedingly liberal protagonists get into all manner of trouble across conservative America. There are some rather impressive and at times dark scenes throughout this book, and Gentill has also included some major character developments that will appeal to long-term readers of this series. The end result is an exceedingly enjoyable and thrilling story of love, adventure and revenge which proved extremely hard to put down.

At the heart of this book lies a clever mystery storyline that revolves around the murder of the protagonist’s friend and the identity of the mysterious beneficiary of the will. Gentill crafts an excellent multi-layered mystery, with a number of surprising twists, turns and false leads on the way to the exciting conclusion. While I was able to guess a little bit in advance who the main perpetrator turned out to be, all the revelations that came out in the final confrontation were really impressive and helped wrap up the entire mystery storyline extremely well. I also thought that Gentill came up with a very compelling and memorable motivation for the various crimes featured within the book. Some of these reveals were a bit dark and shocking, but they did make for some very dramatic and captivating sequences throughout the book. Overall, I thought that this was one of the strongest mysteries to have so far been featured within one of the Rowland Sinclair books, and it served as an amazing centre to this entire fantastic book.

One of the most distinctive features of this whole series is the way that Gentill dives into the history and culture of the period in which the books are set. She has previously done a wonderful job of exploring parts of 1930s Australia, Europe and occupied Shanghai, and in A Testament of Character Gentill’s characters explore post-Depression America. This proves to be an excellent backdrop to the book’s superb story, and I loved the examination of the key cities of Boston and New York, as well as some rural areas of the country. Gentrill provides the reader with a fantastic and at times in-depth look at various parts of the 1930s American culture and society. This is done in two distinct ways, the first of which involves the protagonists exploring America as Australians, providing an outsider’s perspective of the events or places they visit (while constantly getting complemented for speaking such good English!). The second way is through Gentill’s inclusion of historical newspaper clippings at the front of every chapter. The use of these newspaper clippings is another recurring trait of the Rowland Sinclair series, and I have always enjoyed the way in which the articles relate to some cultural or historical aspect of the chapter the clipping fronts. Through the use of these methods, the author paints an intriguing picture about America during this period, which I think worked extremely well as a background to the main mystery plot. This is especially true as some of the motives and elements of the mystery revolve around the social attitudes and cultural expectations of the time, which the reader will need to have a bit of an understanding about. I have to say that I was glad that as part of this examination of historical America, Gentill also had a look at public opinion around the Nazis and fascists in the lead up to World War II, as this has been one of the more interesting story threads to follow throughout the series.

Another distinctive aspect of the Rowland Sinclair series is the way that Gentill writes a number of historical figures into the story, either as cameos or in major roles. The best previous example of this is easily the author’s inclusion of Eric Campbell and The New Guard (an ultra-right-wing Australian organisation in the 1930s) as recurring antagonists in some of the books, as these real-life historical figures are great foils to the progressive protagonists. Gentill continues to do this in A Testament of Characters, making great use of several iconic American historical figures to flesh out the story and create several memorable inclusions. Several of these historical figures have pretty major roles in the plot, including Joseph Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife and fellow author, Zelda Fitzgerald. There are also some fun cameos from several other notable people, including Errol Flynn, a young JFK, Marion Davies, Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles, as well as several other characters who were in Boston or New York during the 1930s. There are also a ton of references to other unique figures in America during this time, including the Parker Brothers Company (Monopoly was released in 1935, and the protagonists of course end up playing a game), as well as a unique goat competition that was held in Central Park, of which Gentill of course names the winner. This is an extremely fun and amusing part of A Testament of Character, and I always enjoy seeing Gentill’s protagonists run into these real-life historical figures, especially as the author does a fantastic job examining and showcasing their personalities and motivations. I love how Gentill effortlessly works these people into the plot, and the reader is always left wondering who is going to appear next.

A Testament of Character is a superb and exciting new addition to the outstanding Rowland Sinclair series that is really worth checking out. Sulari Gentill has once again produced a fantastic mystery storyline that strongly benefits from the author’s clever dive back into 1930’s history. This results in a powerful and exhilarating novel which makes amazing use of its fun, distinctive inclusions and intriguing characters. I cannot wait to see what misadventures Rowland Sinclair and his friends get up to in their next book, and this is a truly wonderful Australian series with a real unique flair to it.

Just Watch Me by Jeff Lindsay

Just Watch Me Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Riley Wolfe series – Book One

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s most popular thriller authors, Jeff Lindsay, comes Just Watch Me, an electrifying heist novel that pits an intriguing new protagonist against impossible odds.

Prepare to meet Riley Wolfe, the world’s greatest thief. Wolfe is a master of disguise, an expert con artist and a true devotee of the ridiculous heist. There is nothing he can’t steal, and he lives to target the super-rich with his capers in order to make them suffer. However, Wolfe is starting to get bored. His last few heists have gone off without a hitch and he is looking for a challenge. But his new target might be truly impossible to steal, even for him.

Wolfe has his eyes on some of the most impressive treasures in the world, the Crown Jewels of Iran, and in particular the Daryayeh-E-Noor, a gigantic pink diamond that is valued beyond compare. With the jewels finally out of Iran and in New York for a tour, Wolfe knows that this is the time to steal them. They have been placed within the most secure gallery in the country, which utilises impenetrable security systems, state-of-the-art alarms and a small army of former special forces soldiers acting as guards. In addition, a regiment of the lethal Iranian Revolutionary Guard are also standing watch, ready to kill anyone who gets too close. With these security measures in place, the jewels appear to be beyond the reach of any potential thieves, no matter how careful or elaborate their plan may be, and anyone who tries is going to end up dead. However, Wolfe is no ordinary thief, and he has come up with a cunning scheme that no one else would have ever thought of. If all his planning succeeds, he will have an opportunity to make off with the jewels. But with all manner of complications in front of him and a determined FBI agent hunting down his past, can even the great Riley Wolfe succeed, or will his most daring heist be his last?

When I first saw that Jeff Lindsay was doing a heist novel, I knew that I was going to have to grab a copy of it. Lindsay is a bestselling thriller author who debuted in 1994 with the novel Tropical Depression. Lindsay is of course best known for his Dexter series, which was adapted into a highly popular television series. While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Lindsay’s work prior to this book, I did really enjoy the first few seasons of the Dexter television show, so I was really interested in seeing the author’s take on a heist novel. I am really glad that I checked Just Watch Me out as Lindsay has produced a deeply compelling and exceedingly fun novel that not only contains a really cool heist story, but which also features another complex protagonist for the reader to sink their teeth into.

First of all, let’s talk heists. For Just Watch Me, Lindsay came up with a very interesting heist scenario which sees one man try to break into a massively secure gallery guarded by some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, as well as some of the deadliest killers. The story follows Wolfe as he attempts to find some way into the building that everyone agrees in impenetrable, and while he initially encounters major setbacks, he eventually comes up with an audacious plan to get in. This plan is very bold and complicated, and involves a lot of manipulation, disguises, seduction, confidence work, forgeries, doublecrosses and even a couple of well-placed murders. All of this comes together into one fun and exciting conclusion which sees everyone understand the full extent of the plan. Lindsay paces out all the parts of the heist extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the entire thing unfolded, especially as it was a cool, roundabout way to attempt to steal something from a gallery. The heist proves to be an exceptional centre to the whole narrative, and I really enjoyed seeing how this part of the book progressed.

I also liked the way that Lindsay utilised multiple viewpoints to tell this story. While several chapters are told from the protagonist’s point of view using the first-person perspective, a large amount of the book is actually told from the perspective of the book’s side characters. These side characters include a range of different people, such as Wolfe’s allies, the people he is trying to manipulate, the FBI agent hunting him and even several bystanders who are caught up in the whole heist. All of these different viewpoints help to show off the various angles of the heist, which I felt helped enhance this part of the story. It was also really cool to see how normal people, including police officers, guards, gallery employees and some of his marks, perceive the various disguises he comes up with or the confidence tricks that he is pulling. I loved seeing this outside perspective of Wolfe’s criminal techniques, and it was a great way to portray a large amount of the heist.

While the heist is a really amazing part of this book, one of the most compelling parts of Just Watch Me is actually its protagonist, Riley Wolfe. Lindsay obviously has a lot of experience writing complex and intriguing protagonists for his thrillers, and he has done an amazing job creating another one here in Wolfe. Wolfe is a master thief whose defining characteristic is an overwhelming compulsion to steal from the mega-rich, especially those who obtained their wealth by screwing over the little people in the world. Wolfe is absolutely obsessed with his crusade against the rich due to his experiences as a child, and this obsession forces him to complete his heists no matter the cost. The author spends quite a bit of time exploring Wolfe’s hatred for the rich, and it is quite fascinating to see his internal thoughts on why he is stealing from them. The reader also gets to see some of the events from the character’s childhood which form the basis for this obsession. Ironically enough, the reason we get to learn so much about Wolfe’s childhood is because one of the book’s antagonists, FBI Special Agent Frank Delgado, becomes so obsessed with learning more about him that he briefly leaves the FBI in an attempt to hunt him down (obsession is a key element of several of the book’s main characters). Delgado spends several scenes scouring the country trying to find out Wolfe’s history, which is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. I really enjoyed that Lindsay included this dive into the character’s past, and I felt that it really complemented the main heist storyline and helped to create a fantastic overall narrative, especially as this investigation into his history, represents the biggest risk to Wolfe’s freedom.

Now, as Wolfe steals from the richest of the rich, it might be easy to assume that he’s a good guy or an anti-hero you can cheer on, but that is really not true. Not only does this protagonist come across as an excessively arrogant person who is high on himself, but he also does a ton of stuff that is totally morally wrong. For example, throughout the course of the book, Wolfe commits several murders, frames people for crimes they did not commit and totally ruins a number of people’s lives. While some of these people probably deserve to suffer at the hands of Wolfe, a bunch really did nothing wrong; they were either born into money, in his way, or merely collateral damage. In one case, he even spends time thinking about how much he respects one of his victims right before he arranges for her to be arrested for art fraud. What’s even worse is that, in many cases, Wolfe doesn’t even realise that he’s done something wrong. While he knows that he maybe should not have committed some of the murders, he totally fails to think of the emotional consequences some of his cons or manipulations will have on the people he is playing. He is even called out about some of his actions towards the end of the book by his only friend; however, he completely fails to see her point of view. Instead he merely thinks that she is overreacting and goes right back to plotting to get into her pants. Stuff like this makes Wolfe a very hard protagonist to like, and even the knowledge that his actions and viewpoint are the result of a messed-up childhood doesn’t really help. It does result in a much more compelling story though, and it was refreshing to follow a morally ambiguous protagonist. I will be interested to see if Lindsay will examine the impacts Wolfe’s actions had on some of the supporting characters in a later book, and I personally would love to see a story where one of his incidental victims attempts to hunt him down to get revenge for their ruined lives.

I have to say that I was also really impressed with all the discussions of art, paintings and other valuables that the author was able to fit into the story. Lindsay obviously did a large amount of research into the subject (his acknowledgements mention an art professor he consulted) and it was interesting to read the various discussions about art and art forgery. I have to admit that I have no real knowledge of or appreciation for art (except comic book art), but I really enjoyed all the discussions about art style and technique that were peppered throughout the novel. Overall, this was a pretty intriguing inclusion in the book, and I found it to be quite fascinating at times.

In conclusion, Just Watch Me is an amazing fast-paced heist thriller that is really worth checking out. Lindsay has come up with not only an awesome scenario that features a fun heist at the centre but also another complex and morally corrupted protagonist whose inner demons and powerful obsessions we get to explore. I really enjoyed this excellent new book from Lindsay, and I am definitely planning to grab any future novels that come out in this series.

Stranger Things: Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher

Darkness on the Edge of Town Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

With the third season of the sensational and entertaining television show Stranger Things fast approaching (4 July cannot come fast enough), another tie-in novel, Darkness on the Edge of Town by Adam Christopher, has been released and offers another intriguing look into the wider Stranger Things universe. This story heads back into 1970s and focuses on the life of Hawkins police Chief Jim Hopper, portrayed in the show by David Harbour, and presents a thrilling and curious new adventure.

Stranger Things is one of the hottest televisions shows on at the moment, featuring a captivating plot, some incredible characters, amazing young actors and the fun use of 1980s nostalgia, all of which come together into one hell of a show. With the final season of Game of Thrones just wrapped up, the third season of Stranger Things is the next big release I am looking forward to (with the possible exception of Good Omens), and I fully intend to binge-watch it the weekend it comes out. It is not surprising that some tie-in material has been released to capitalise on the success of the show, and, truth be told, they have actually been a little restrained with it, with only one tie-in novel and one comic book series released so far. While I have not had a chance to the read the comic book series, The Other Side, which looks at Will Beyers’ time in the Upside Down in Season 1, I did previously read and review the first official Stranger Things tie-in novel, Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond, a few months ago. Suspicious Minds was set back in 1969 and looked at how Eleven was born and then subsequently stolen by the US Government, and it proved to be quite a thrilling read which explored some fascinating backstory to the television show.

As a result, I was very keen to check out what the next Stranger Things tie-in novel was like and what secrets it might reveal about the show. Darkness on the Edge of Town is set to be released on 4 June 2019, exactly one month before the release of Stranger Things’ third season, which is going to be set around Independence Day in 1985. Another Stranger Things book, which I will also try to get a copy of, Runaway Max, is also due out on 4 June, and this book will be aimed at a young adult audience.

Darkness on the Edge of Town was written by New Zealand-born author Adam Christopher, who has some experience with tie-in novels, having previously written three books that tie in to the Dishonoured video game and two books that tie in to the Elementary television show. Christopher is probably best known for his 2012 debut novel, Empire State, as well his Ray Electromatic Mysteries and Spider Wars series. I have not previously read any of Christopher’s work before, but several of his books, especially Empire State (a noir superhero thriller with parallel words, yes please!), sound like a lot of fun and I may have to check them out in the future.

Darkness on the Edge of Town’s story starts in December 1984, around two months after the end of the second season of Stranger Things. While enjoying a quiet Christmas with his adopted daughter, Eleven, Jim Hopper is suddenly brought back to his past when Eleven pulls out a cardboard box marked “New York”. Despite his reluctance, Hopper begins to tell Eleven the story of the greatest case he solved before tragedy forced him back to Hawkins.

On Independence Day in 1977, after returning from the Vietnam War, Jim Hopper is living in New York City with his wife, Diane, and his daughter, Sara. While the city deals with bankruptcy and a heatwave, Hopper, a rookie NYPD detective, finds himself investigating a series of brutal, ritualistic murders with his new partner, Rosario Delgado. The murderer has already killed three people, leaving a mysterious card at each crime scene. Before Hopper and Delgado can make any progress, their investigation is shut down by shadowy federal agents who order them off the case. Disobeying orders and putting his career on the line, Hopper continues to investigate the murders and is able to connect the deaths to the mysterious leader of the Viper gang, who is reputed to have paranormal powers. Going undercover to infiltrate the Vipers, Hopper makes some startling revelations about the scope and devastation of the gang leader’s sinister plans, and he must do everything he can to protect his city from an upcoming evil.

This was quite an interesting and engaging novel from Christopher, who not only manages to examine some interesting aspects of the Stranger Things television show but also creates his own intriguing story set during an interesting time in American history. The story is split between two separate time periods. Some of the story is set in December 1984 and follows the older Hopper as he tells the story to Eleven, while the majority of the book is set back in 1977 and follows Hopper and his partner as they investigate the brutal murders and the Vipers. Most of the book comes across as a dark murder mystery thriller that also spends significant time examining the psyche of its protagonist. I quite liked the murder mystery angles of the 1977 storyline, and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the more science fiction/horror/young protagonist focus of the television show.

The previous Stranger Things novel, Suspicious Minds, explored in detail events that featured in the show in flashbacks. Darkness on the Edge of Town, however, is a character study that may not have too much relevance to franchise’s overall story. While this might not appeal to some Stranger Things fans, it does allow Christopher a lot more freedom to explore the character of a younger Hopper. The result is a fantastic story that dives deep into the psyche of this great character and really lets the reader see what drives Hopper and what initially convinced him to become a police officer. There are some amazing parts to this examination of the character, but I personally liked the way that Christopher decided to focus on the lasting effects of Hopper’s service in Vietnam. This is explored in some detail, and the reader gets a really good idea of how emotionally vulnerable Hopper was even before his daughter became sick and his wife left him. I also thought that the author did a great job showing Hopper’s relationship with Eleven in the 1984 storylines, and their oddball father-daughter relationship comes across quite well.

In addition to the focus on the character of Hopper, this book also contains a few plot points that tie into the wider Stranger Things universe. The contents of the mysterious box Hopper had hidden in his house, which Eleven uncovered in Season 2, becomes a major part of this book’s story. In addition, there are several things that could potentially become significant in the future, and which the reader can leave to their own imagination. The first thing that comes up is a physic prediction about clouds or tendrils of darkness covering the world, mentioned a few pages in and repeated throughout the book. While events that occur later in the book do fit in with some of these predictions, the imagery of the Mind Flayer from the show comes to mind every time this vision is mentioned, and in some ways, it fits the predictions a little better. In addition, quite early in the book the antagonist is rumoured to have mental abilities as a result of government experiments. For a large part of the book, the reader is left wondering whether he actually has abilities like Eleven and, if he does, how he is connected to the institute that Eleven was being tested in. All of these, plus some other great references, will prove to be deeply appealing to fans of the television show, and I will be really intrigued to see if any of these references might appear in the third season of the show (do these authors have the inside track on the series?).

One of the most interesting parts of Darkness on the Edge of Town was its setting in 1970s New York City. The 1970s, especially 1977, were a pretty chaotic period in the city’s history, which serves as an excellent backdrop to this dark and gritty tale. Not only was the city suffering through a severe economic downturn but there was also a tremendous heatwave, especially in July of 1977, when the vast majority of the storyline is set. The Son of Sam killer was also active during this time, a fact commented on in several parts of the book, which also ties into the darker ‘70s crime nature of this book. I liked the way that Christopher was able to bring the atmosphere of this period to life in his book, as well as the way he was able to tie the story into a certain major event that occurred in New York in July 1977. This great use of setting really added a lot to the story and helped turn Darkness on the Edge of Town into quite a compelling read.

One of the reasons why Stranger Things is such a success is the show’s writers and creators have such an amazing ability to channel its viewers’ nostalgia for the 1980s into each episode. Writers of these tie-in novels also attempt to capitalise on this nostalgia by highlighting aspects of that decade’s culture in their writing. I previously felt that Gwenda Bond did an amazing job of that in Suspicious Minds, and Christopher also did his job exploring parts of that culture, specifically when it relates to New York City. As a result, there are several fun references to relevant movies, television shows, books, sports and music for fans of the 1970s to notice and reminisce about. Whether the characters are having fun thoughts about M*A*S*H or cheeky discussions about whether Princess Leia will end up with Luke or Han in Star Wars, there are some really fun inclusions throughout the book, and Christopher luckily does not go too overboard loading his story up with these references. I personally quite liked the way that the author envisioned the New York City gangs at this point, and the main one that Hopper encounters has a very Warriors vibe around it. An extended sequence later in the book kind of put me in mind of Escape from New York (although that was released in ’81). I really enjoyed the strong nostalgia included in the book, and it added a certain amount of fun to the book that fans of the show will greatly appreciate.

Darkness of the Edge of Town is a fantastic new addition to the burgeoning Stranger Things extended universe, and Adam Christopher does an amazing job of exploring one of the show’s main characters. The author’s examination of Jim Hopper is a deep and emotional dive into the character’s psyche, and it proves to be an effective and compelling centre to this book. Christopher is also able to utilise ’70s nostalgia and fan interest in the franchise quite effectively and turn this into an excellent tie-in novel to this complex and enjoyable show. The end result is an excellent character-driven story that will greatly appeal to fans of Stranger Things. This book is really worth checking out, especially before the third season of the show is released, and I look forward to seeing what other tie-in novels Christopher produces in the future.

The Secret Runners of New York by Matthew Reilly

The Secret Runners of New York Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Format – 26 March 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The end of the world has nothing on the horrors of high school in this fast-paced and widely entertaining new book from bestselling Australian author Matthew Reilly.

When Skye Rogers and her twin brother, Red, are forced to move to New York city, they are enrolled in the prestigious The Monmouth School, learning institute of choice for the city’s ultra-wealthy and social elite.  Even among the children of the rich and powerful there exists a well-established hierarchy, and in The Monmouth School, the top of the social ladder are the friends and cronies of the Collins sisters, Misty and Chastity.  Despite only wanting a quiet existence in her new school, Skye finds herself drawn into their orbit against her better judgement.

Skye soon discovers that hanging out with the Collins sisters is very different from the usual high school cliques.  The social group is probably the most exclusive in New York, and it comes with certain privileges.  Thanks to an ancient family secret, the Collins sisters are able to activate an ancient tunnel beneath Central Park that allows teenagers to run through an alternate version of New York: a post-apocalyptic nightmare littered with ruined buildings and filled with crazed survivors.

When Skye and her fellow runners find evidence that the New York they are visiting is actually a future version of their own timeline, they need to find a way to come to terms with the end of the world, especially as the apocalypse appears to be only days away.  As society starts to crumble and the poor rise up against the rich, Skye tries to find a way to use her knowledge of the future to save everyone she loves.  However, Skye is about to learn that her new friends are far more concerned with revenge and are planning to use the end of the world to take her down.

Matthew Reilly is a veteran author of weird and electrifying fiction, having written a number of intriguing books in the last 20 years, many of which fall within the techno-thriller or science fiction genres.  In addition to a number of fun sounding standalone novels, Reilly has also published two substantial series, the Shane Schofield series and the Jack West Jr series.  Matthew Reilly is one of those authors that I have been meaning to check out for some time, as a number of his novels sound absolutely bonkers and really creative.  I am particularly drawn to his 2014 release, The Great Zoo of China, which essentially sounds like Jurassic Park with dragons; his 2013 historical thriller The Tournament; and the books in the Jack West Jr series, which features secret organisations fighting for control of ancient artefacts with world-and universe-ending potential.

I was therefore very excited to get an advanced copy of The Secret Runners of New York, due to its intriguing time travel and armageddon concepts.  I actually really enjoyed The Secret Runners of New York and had a lot of fun reading it.  The book features a surprisingly entertaining use of over-the-top high school drama that actually combines really well with the interesting science fiction elements mentioned above.  The result is an unpredictable and amusing overall story that I had a very hard time putting down and which I powered through in very short order.

The book revolves around the students at The Monmouth School (you have to say the “The”; it’s that type of place), New York’s premier high school for the rich and snooty.  Please remind me to never send any of my theoretical children to any school thought up by Reilly, as the author creates a learning institution that is essentially a viper’s nest of bitchiness, enforced social hierarchy and petty revenge, all of which is enhanced by the fact that the characters are all ultra-rich or have massive superiority complexes.  The quote below from main character Skye, one of the few well-adjusted characters in the book, shows her experiences within the first few minutes at The Monmouth School:

“In the space of a few minutes I’d seen a taunt about sluttiness, a threatened punch to the uterus, some humble bragging by the Head Girl about the school’s social status and a dose of good old-fashioned mean-girl passive aggressiveness from Misty.  School, I reflected sadly, was school no matter how high the tuition fees were.”

I have to admit I did find Reilly’s portrayal of most of the rich teenage girls in this book to be a tad extreme and unrealistic (yes, in a book featuring time travel, that’s what I am finding unrealistic).  I have never been and never will be a teenage girl, but I hope that teenage girls in high school couldn’t possibly be as petty and vicious as the girls portrayed within this book, even if they are the daughters of the uber-privileged.  That being said, I found this over-the-top viewpoint of high school life to be extremely entertaining and it was a fantastic element throughout the book.  Watching the level-headed and somewhat cynical protagonist have to deal with this insanity was a lot of fun, especially when you would imagine most people would be more concerned with the end of the world than with who made out with which guy.  An unbelievably amusing part of the story, these high school elements are great, just try and avoid thinking about it too much.

In addition to the look at the mean girls of high school, I did quite enjoy Reilly’s critique of the ultra-rich and powerful in New York City.  The protagonist finds herself drawn into the world of debutant balls, society politics and the other classy responsibilities of being rich in New York.  Again, this is an interesting part of the story, and the rich characters with their extravagant lifestyles do offer a nice disconnect from reality.  I liked Reilly’s examination of how the rich would be targeted during apocalyptic events such as the one portrayed within this book, and it played nicely into some of the current protests and perceptions of the 1%.  it’s another glorious over-the-top element for this book that provides the reader with a lot of entertainment and a real dislike of most of the privileged characters.

The science fiction parts of this book are incredibly well done and are an excellent part of this book.  Not only is there a devastating cosmic storm that will wipe out most of humanity in hours, but there is an unrelated magical tunnel that the protagonists can use to visit the future.  Reilly does an amazing job creating a devastating and crazy post-apocalyptic New York City for the readers to explore.  I was really impressed with all the brutal descriptions of how the city was in ruins and had been dramatically reclaimed by nature as the infrastructure falls into disrepair, and the whole thing is an amazing setting that Reilly uses to full effect.  I really liked how the author uses the time travel elements within the book.  Watching the protagonists slowly work out that this world is a future version of their own timeline is amazing, and it was great seeing them see all the testimonials and letters from their families describing the events that are yet to happen in their future.  The various time travelling shenanigans used by both the protagonists and antagonists of this book helped enhance this already exciting story, and I loved the way that the characters are able to see the consequences of their actions in both timelines before they actually happen.

The author has also utilised some eye-catching visual elements throughout the book to enhance the story being told.  There are a number of maps used to show the key locations of the book, and there are even a couple of diagrams used to explain the potential time travel issues in this book.  I personally liked the way that the font changed to signify the characters going into a different timeline and thought it was a nice touch.  A range of other text techniques are used to signify angry or desperate messages on different locations, such as walls or the entirety of buildings, often conveying the emotion behind these messages.  All these visual treats are great, and they really make this book stand out.

The Secret Runners of New York is currently being marketed to the teen and young adult audiences, but this book is really on the edge of what young adult fiction is.  While it is focused on teenage characters in high school, there are a significant number of very adult inclusions throughout the book.  It is interesting to note that in an interview at the back of the book, Reilly himself indicates that he does not see this story as being as a piece of young adult fiction, and I think that is shown in the way that he wrote this over-the-top story.  There is a high level of violence, drug use, coarse language and sexual references featured throughout this book, and as a result, I would say it is not really appropriate for the younger audiences and is probably more suited for older teenage readers.  This is definitely one of those young adult marketed books that adult readers can really enjoy, and there is no upper limit on enjoying this crazy tale.

This was an incredibly entertaining and captivating book that I had a lot of fun with.  Matthew Reilly pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the book’s petty and vicious teenage rich girl antagonists, which turns an already intriguing science fiction book into a wild thrill ride of revenge, betrayal and insanity.  I have to say that I quite enjoyed my first taste of Matthew Reilly’s writing and I am extremely keen to check out some of his other works in the future.  At the moment The Secret Runners of New York is a standalone book, although the author leaves a number of storylines open for sequels or prequels, and I would be interested to see where he takes the story next.

Heads You Win by Jeffrey Archer

Heads You Win Cover.png

Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

From the mind of one of modern fiction’s most controversial authors comes a two-in-one fantastic and elaborate piece of historical fiction that utilises an intriguing narrative device to create one of 2018’s most unique stories.

Young student Alexander Karpenko is the bright, talented and ambitious child of two hardworking citizens of the Soviet Union.  Living in Leningrad in 1968, Alexander’s dream is to become the first democratically elected president of his country.  However, when he is betrayed and his father is killed by the KGB, Alexander and his mother realise that their only hope is to flee Russia and make a new life for themselves in another country.

Arriving at the docks, Alexander and his mother are given a choice between two different ships: one heading to London or one heading to New York.  The decision is made by the flip of a coin, and Alexander’s life splits into two separate paths: one where he heads to Britain and one where he heads to America.  Alexander arrives in these countries with great ambition and a desire to succeed no matter what.

Over the next 30 years, in both these lives, Alexander finds success in a two separate ways.  He fights his way up from the bottom as a lowly immigrant to an influential person, overcoming obstacles and antagonists along the way.  Both Alexanders’ journeys are inspirational, but no matter what these two Alexanders accomplish, the fate of their home country is always on their minds, and the shadow of the Soviet Union constantly surrounds them.

Jeffrey Archer is a rather interesting individual, with a very eventful and controversial background.  A former British MP, Archer is probably better known for the various accusations of fraud he has attracted throughout his life, and he has even spent some time in jail as a result.  However, rather than let that ruin his public profile, Archer has used his experience and imagination to create a number of fascinating novels, many of which utilise aspects of his political, academic or professional life or expertise to some degree.  As a result, Archer is now one of the most high-profile authors in the world and has written over 20 adult novels, including the three books in his Kane and Abel series and the seven books in his bestselling Clifton Chronicles.  On top of that, Archer has also written a number of short stories, a couple of plays, several children’s books and his Prison Diaries, three non-fiction novels that chronicle his life in prison.

Heads You Win is an extremely fascinating novel from Archer, which takes his protagonist on two separate adventures through over 30 years of American and British history and life.  Archer utilises a very clever divergent timelines narrative device (think Sliding Doors), which creates two separate timelines around the different outcomes of one event, in this case, the outcome of a coin toss.  As a result, in one timeline, the protagonists and his mother get on a ship to London, while in another timeline they board a ship bound for New York.  This is a very interesting concept to utilise in this story, and one that works to create two separate narrative threads to follow.  Both of these storylines focus on the protagonist attempting to find his place in the country that he eventually ends up in, and then moves onto the protagonist becoming a powerful and influential individual in his own way, all the while dealing with the terrible people that seem to inhabit Archer’s world.

I rather enjoyed both of the separate storylines in this book, and had a lot of fun seeing the different or similar ways that the protagonist attempted to make his fortune in each lifetime.  The differences between these two storylines happen right away, as in the London timeline, Alexander and his mother find themselves on a nice ship with a friendly crew who mostly want to help, while the New York timeline finds them in a poorly maintained vessel with a self-serving crew who seek to exploit the two main characters.  I found it rather fascinating to see the way that their treatment and the environments they find themselves in change the way in which they act.  For example, Alexander’s experience in the English setting encourage him to seek the full Cambridge academic lifestyle, while his American counterpart was less focused on his formal education and learned more on the street.

Both of these divergent timelines feature an intriguing look at the cities and countries that the protagonists end up in, and both serve as a good historical backdrop to each of the main storylines, featuring several real historical events and some historical characters.  For example, the Alexander who ends up in the American timeline is forced to fight in the Vietnam War, while the British Alexander rubs elbows with a number of the country’s prominent politicians.  I liked how the divergent ways that the two separate protagonists gained their power and prestige matched the country that there were in.  The American Alexander became rich through his business acumen and financial brilliance, while the British Alexander went the academic route and eventually become deeply involved with the British political system, something close to the author’s heart.  Not only does this help match the locations and people that the protagonist deals with, but it allows the two separate stories to diverge out slightly, with the British storyline containing political intrigue, while the American storyline reads a little bit more like a financial thriller.  While the focus on the protagonist’s two adopted homelands is a great part of this novel, the protagonist’s history in the Soviet Union is a major part of this story.  The initial chapters capture the uncertainty and despair that inhabitants of the Soviet Union would have felt in the 1960s, while the character’s subsequent visits helped highlight the obvious differences between the Soviet Union and the countries that Alexander escaped to.  There is also a rather exciting reveal about one of the Russian characters towards the end of the book that will prove to be the most memorable part of Heads You Win, and is definitely something to look out for.

While I enjoyed the divergent timelines narrative device that Archer employed throughout Heads You Win I did feel that he could have done more with it.  I would have loved to see a bit more crossover between the two separate timelines, and, for example, see how key characters from one storyline would have fared without their Alexander in their lives.  Instead there is minimal crossover between these two separate storylines, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.  I am also not the biggest fan of what these quick crossovers revealed, as it strongly hinted that both storylines actually exist together at the same time, and as a result, there are two Alexanders existing in the world at the same time.  This is a bit of a weird twist, and while it does not negatively impact the vast majority of either storyline, it does result in a conclusion that some may find slightly confusing.  As a result, while this did slightly mark down my rating of Heads You Win, the split storyline concept is a fantastic and unforgettable part of this book and makes it quite a distinctive read.

This latest novel from one of the world’s most colourful professional authors is a fun, historical thrill ride that features a very unique and memorable narrative device.  With a great look at two different countries during the same historical time period and featuring two separate by similar stories of life, adversity and success, this is an extremely enjoyable novel that will appeal to a varied range of readers.  Heads You Win is definitely worth checking out, and I am planning to keep an eye out for the next read from Archer.

My Rating:

Four stars