Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

Stranger Things Suspicious Minds Cover.jpg

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.

Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz

out of the dark cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Orphan X (Book 4)

Length: 435 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

The Orphan X series returns with a bang as thriller extraordinaire Gregg Hurwitz sets his long-running protagonist against his most dangerous opponent yet in this fun and exciting new novel.

Evan Smoak is an orphan in every way that matters.  Taken from his foster home as a child and inducted into a top-secret espionage program, Evan was given a new name, Orphan X.  The Orphans are the most lethal secret agents the United States ever produced, taking on missions around the world.  But after years of killing and being lied to, Evan had enough and left the program.  Now using his abilities to stay hidden, Evan has taken on a new identity, The Nowhere Man, a mysterious vigilante who helps people placed in terrible situations.  While Evan is satisfied with his new life, there is one threat from his old life that he needs to kill.  Unfortunately for Evan, that one man is now the President of the United States of America.

As the head of the Orphan program, Jonathan Bennett used the Orphans to promote his illegal and corrupt agendas around the world.  Now that he has achieved his ambition to become President, to cover his tracks he has ordered the death of all the remaining Orphans, as well as the man who was the closest thing Evan had to a father.  Now Orphan X is at the top of his hit list, and the only way to protect himself and the other orphans is to do the impossible and kill Bennett first.

Residing in the most impenetrable building in the world and with the full force of the Secret Service protecting him, Bennett looks to be untouchable, especially as he has unleashed the vengeful Orphan A to hunt Evan down.  However, Orphan X has a plan and is determined to take everything from the President.  Can Evan succeed?  Why is Bennett so concerned with covering up the details of Orphan X’s first mission?  One thing is for sure: all hell is about to break loose in Washington.

Hurwitz is a veteran author whose work mostly fits into the thriller and mystery genres.  He has written a couple of series, including the young adult zombie series, The Rains Brothers, and the thriller-based Tim Rackley series.  In addition, Hurwitz has also written a number of interesting sounding standalone books, including his debut novel, The Tower, as well as a number of comics for DC and Marvel, including Penguin: Pain and Prejudice, 19 issues of Batman: The Dark Knight and even a run on Marvel’s excellent 2004 The Punisher series.  Aside from the two The Rains Brothers novels, Hurwitz’s main work in the last three years has been his Orphan X series.  Out of the Dark is the fourth novel in this series and continues a number of storylines set out in the earlier books.

With the exception of some of his comics, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Hurwitz’s previous books before, although several do sound very interesting; for example, his 2001 release, Minutes to Burn, has been recommended to me before due to its fun premise.  However, upon hearing that the plot of this book was going to set an elite rogue operative against the President of the United States, I knew that I had to check this book out.  Luckily my propensity for falling for and checking out books with amazing and out-there plot synopsis paid off once again, as I had a lot of fun reading this action-packed thriller.

After some bad experiences in the past, I am always a little apprehensive about coming into a series several books in, and Out of the Dark was no exception, especially as it was the fourth book in the series.  However, Hurwitz does a fantastic job setting out the events leading up to this story, and I did not find myself lost in the slightest as I read this book.  Therefore, I have no hesitation in recommending this book to readers who, like me, were intrigued by the intriguing story concept and want to start the series here.

The main story focuses on Orphan X’s and the President’s attempts to take each other out, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed thrill ride, as the two sides unleash everything to win.  This main storyline is split between several characters, including Orphan X, the President, the head of the President’s security detail and Orphan A.  Hurwitz spends time exploring each of these characters’ backgrounds, personalities and motivations, allowing for a richer overall story rather than a typical all-action adventure.  In addition to this main storyline, there is also a secondary storyline where Evan, as The Nowhere Man, helps out a person being targeted by a drug lord.  I was a bit uncertain about the necessity of this second storyline, as I was quite enjoying the focus on assassinating the president.  However, I did appreciate how this second storyline was used to convey Evan’s continued search for humanity and redemption after years as an assassin.  Fans of the previous books in the Orphan X series will enjoy a number of inclusions thrown into Out of the Dark, including several characters from the previous books, a continuation of some storylines, and an opening scene that shows Evan’s first mission as Orphan X back in the 1990s.  All of this comes together into an amazing and captivating story that is not only exciting, but which also has some emotional weight backing it up.

Hurwitz takes his plot focus of an elite agent targeting the President and really runs with it.  The protection surrounding the President of the United States of America is legendary, both inside and outside of fiction.  Therefore, the idea that one man can take him out is a crazy idea, especially as Hurwitz makes it clear the sheer amount of resources and firepower that the President’s security detail has on his side.  Indeed, there are several comparisons made throughout the book, showcasing the Secret Service’s tools and resources, and then counterpointing it to the few resources the protagonist has access to.  Despite this, at no point does the reader feel like Orphan X is the underdog, even with Orphan A and his less than savoury cohorts chasing after him.  Indeed, as the book progresses, the President and his security get more and more nervous, especially as Evan makes his various moves.  The protagonist’s overall plan for getting to the President is pretty clever, and I love how this storyline ended.  This was an extremely fun story focus, and I was not disappointed by how Hurwitz showcased it.

It should go without saying that this book is chocked full of action, as there are a number of high-intensity scenes where the protagonist takes it to his opponents.  Hurwitz can write a really good action sequence, and there were some really fun details throughout the book.  The author really uses these scenes to show off what a badass Orphan X is, including an early scene where the protagonist tells several police officers exactly how he is going to take them out and then proceeds to beat the thus-prepared officers in what has to be the ultimate power play.  These action scenes also show off what the Secret Service can do and how impressive their presidential security is.  With plenty of explosions, gunfights, full-on assaults of strongholds and violent hand-to-hand combat sequences, there is plenty in this book for those readers who love a bit of action in their fiction.

Overall, Out of the Dark by Gregg Hurwitz is an amazing read that I had an absolute blast with.  Orphan X continues to reign supreme as one of modern thriller fiction’s most badass protagonists, as he takes on the whole Secret Service.  This is an extremely exciting and clever read that also takes the time to dive into the emotional motivation of its characters.  Out of the Dark is an absolutely stunning blast from Hurwitz and I loved this latest addition to the entertaining Orphan X series.

Catwoman: Soulstealer by Sarah J. Maas

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Publishers: Penguin Random House

                        Penguin Random House Audio

Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

One of DC Comics’ most iconic and badass female antiheroes is re-imagined in this bold new novel from young adult fiction bestseller Sarah J. Maas.

Selina Kyle is a rough street kid growing up in the slums of Gotham City.  She looks after her sister while scraping a living as a gang member and pit fighter.  When her luck finally runs out, her potential is seen by the mysterious Talia al Ghul who saves her and recruited into the League of Assassins.

Two years later, Selina has returned to Gotham City with a plan to turn the city on its head as Catwoman, the master thief and criminal mastermind.  Using the alias of the spoiled socialite Holly Vanderhees, Selina has returned at an ideal time; Batman is not in the city, away on a vital mission, and he has left his protégé Batwing behind to safeguard the city.  Initiating a series of high-profile thefts, Selina soon has the attention of Batwing and GCPD, especially when she starts teaming up with her new BFFs Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn to wreak havoc around the city.

While Batwing searches the city for this mysterious new villain, his alter ego, Luke Fox, encounters his mysterious new neighbour, Holly, and the two find themselves drawn to each other as their alter-egos battle in the night.  While Selina is able to outfox Batwing, a far more destructive force is about to be unleased upon Gotham.  Catwoman stole something from the League of Assassins and now a cadre of their most lethal assassins are descending on the city.  Will Selina be able to survive their deadly attentions, what is Catwoman’s plan, and who will be left standing in the aftermath?

This is the third book in the DC Icons series, a series of young adult books that provide re-imagined origin stories for younger versions of DC’s most iconic characters outside of the other established DC universes.  Featuring a range of different authors, the first book in the series, Wonder Woman: Warbringer, focused on Wonder Woman before she left Themyscira to become a hero, while the second book, Batman: Nightwalker, followed a teenage Bruce Wayne as he attempts to stop a series of murders in Gotham City.  A fourth book in the DC Icons series, Superman: Dawnbreaker, is currently set to be released in March 2019 and will follow a young Clark Kent as he investigates strange happenings in Smallville.

Soulstealer is the first of these DC Icons books that I have read, and I was quite impressed with the new and unique Catwoman story that it contained, as well as the cool new versions of several DC characters, including Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Batwing.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, read by Julia Whelan.  I quite enjoyed having the story narrated to me, especially as it only took around 10 hours to get through.  While I initially had misgivings about whether I would like this series, after reading and loving Soulstealer I will definitely be getting a copy of Dawnbreaker when it is released next year, and Warbringer and Nightwalker will both be appearing future versions of my Throwback Thursdays reviews.

The author of Soulstealer, Sarah J. Maas, is one of the biggest names in modern young adult fiction, having written two best-selling young adult series in the last six years.  Her long-running Throne of Glass series finished earlier this year, and she has also created the A Court of Thorns and Roses series.  Soulstealer is the first Sarah J. Maas book that I have had the pleasure of reading, but after really enjoying the intricate story and fantastic characters within the novel I am keen to see what her fantasy books are like.  As a result, her Throne of Glass series is high on my list of books to check out in the future, especially after seeing just how awesome the artwork is on some of those covers and collected box sets.

Maas has installed a fantastic and clever story into her debut DC novel, and I really enjoyed how she re-imagined the origins of prominent comic book character.  Soulstealer contains a younger version of Catwoman, introducing her as a teenager gang member and focusing on her initial life of crime.  After the introductory paragraph, the story jumps ahead two years to Selina’s return to Gotham and her initial adventures as Catwoman, while also featuring several flashbacks to her training with the League of Assassins.  This main story is then told from two separate point-of-view characters, Selena and Batwing, and shows the characters in both their costumed adventures and as the people behind the masks in their civilian identities.  Soulstealer has a tight and intricate storyline that contains the perfect balance of comic book action, relationships, backstory, references and variations to comic lore, as well as a number of heists and intricate plots.  I loved Catwoman’s overall plan, as she engages in a play to take over Gotham while really nursing an ulterior motive that pits her against the League of Assassins.  I loved the slow reveal of this complex and insane plan, as well as the lengths she goes to bring her plan to pass, including making some dangerous partnerships.

One of the most interesting and significant changes that Maas makes to Catwoman’s origin story in this novel is the fact that she never meets or associates with Batman.  In nearly every previous iteration of Catwoman, her story has always been intertwined with Batman’s, as the two were usually each other’s main love interest, either as Batman and Catwoman or Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle.  However, in Soulstealer, Catwoman is substantially younger than Batman, who starts his crusade years before she is trained by the League of Assassins.  In addition, Batman is not present in Gotham when she returns to the city and throughout the book the two characters have no interactions at all.  Instead, Catwoman’s main love interest is the Luke Fox version of Batwing, who has been defending Gotham in Batman’s absence.  This results in a similar romance plot to some of the classic Batman and Catwoman storylines, where the two characters meet and start to fall in love with each other in both of their personas, despite their apparently different personalities.  This is a fun little romance that does get serious at times, as the two characters are mirrored by their personal traumas and backstories, such as a Selina’s life on the streets and with the League, versus Luke’s PTSD as a result of his time as a marine.  There are also some great moments when the two characters face off against each other, and some of the book’s best laugh-out-loud moments came when Catwoman messes with either Batwing or Luke, sometimes at the same time.  To my mind, the funniest scene in the book had to be when Batwing, after getting injured and rescued by Catwoman, awakens half-naked in a darkened room, only to find out that he is actually in Commissioner Gordon’s spare bedroom.  The moment Luke walks out to find Gordon and his family staring at them was pretty darn funny, especially when Batwing attempted to play it off nonchalantly while silently cursing Catwoman.

One of the elements of Soulstealer that I really appreciated was the references and re-imagined versions of several DC comics characters that appeared throughout the novel.  A huge range of DC characters, many tied into the Batman comics, appear throughout the book in a number of different capacities.  The characters that appear range from the iconic to the obscure and are enough to delight both hardcore comic fans and those with a more casual knowledge of these comics.  Several major Batman characters appear throughout the story; I will refrain from mentioning the full roster of characters to cut down on spoilers, although there is one appearance that was particularly awesome.  While a number of these characters have key or interesting differences between their mainstream comic book counterparts, it is clear that Maas has a real understanding and appreciation for the lore behind these characters.  It is also incredibly fascinating to see how Maas changes these characters for the purposes of her story, and the subtle tweaks that are made to accommodate this different universe.

Of all these additional characters, two of the best and significant inclusions are fellow supervillains Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, who team up with Catwoman to bring a little chaos to Gotham.  In the comic universe, these three supervillains occasionally form a team known as the Gotham City Sirens, and it was great to see them together in this book.  Like Catwoman, both Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn are quite young and have slightly altered origin stories which somewhat mirror the new origin story of Catwoman.  However, some of the key elements that made these characters so great in their comic book origins remain alive in these book adaptations of the characters and which work extremely well with Maas’s fantastic Soulstealer storyline.  For example, in this story, Harley is still obsessed with the Joker, no matter how much it impacts her relationship with the others, and there are a lot of discussions between Catwoman and Ivy about the roots of her obsession and insanity.  There is also a very clear and acknowledged romantic connection between Ivy and Harley that adds a really interesting element to the story, especially as Harley’s insanity stands in the way of the more serious relationship Ivy desires.  The inclusion of these characters adds in a defining friendship for a main character who has never had the option of friends before, and it’s also a lot of fun seeing these three characters work together, especially as they have such diverse skill sets and range of attitudes.  Overall, I really loved the fact that Maas included Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn as key characters in her novel, and it was a lot of fun to see her version of these young villains banding together for the first time and forming an outstanding partnership.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I grabbed the audiobook copy of Soulstealer and listened to that instead.  The audiobook is narrated by Julia Whelan, who does an amazing job capturing the essence of the book’s main character, Catwoman/Selina Kyle.  When focused on Catwoman’s point of view, the listener gets a real sense of the character’s emotions and attitude, and the voices that Whelan assigns to the other main female characters, Ivy, Harley and Talia, are fairly distinctive and fit well with the character.  I thought that the voice that the narrator used for the book’s other point-of-view character, Batwing/Luke Fox, was very serviceable and conveyed the character well enough.  However, I was a tad disappointed that the narrator did not do too much with several of the other iconic Batman characters in the story, such as Alfred, Batman or Commissioner Gordon, especially as these major characters have all been portrayed by amazing actors or voice actors in the past.  Still, the audiobook version is a great way to enjoy this story and it certainly helped me power through this novel quickly without forcing me to skip over any of its important elements.

Catwoman: Soulstealer is an excellent young adult superhero novel from acclaimed author Sarah J. Maas.  This book is a fantastic standalone novel that re-imagines an iconic DC comic book character.  No great previous insight into Catwoman or the DC universe is required, and those with even a glancing knowledge of the comic book characters will be able to enjoy this novel to its full potential.  This serves as a very good young adult novel that will hopefully draw in a younger generation of readers into this established universe, and I appreciated Maas’s casual inclusions of a number of LGBT+ elements.  Soulstealer comes highly recommended and it has certainly sparked my interest in checking out all the other books in the DC Icons range.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

You think you know the story of Dracula?  Prepare to have your understanding of one of history’s greatest horror novels completely turned on its head as Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew presents a captivating new story of horror based off Bram Stoker’s notes and his original version of the iconic book.

The year is 1868, and a young Bram Stoker has barricaded himself in the top room of an abandoned abbey.  This room has crosses carved on every wall, mirrors hanging from every angle and garlic smeared around the door frame, while Bram himself is armed with roses, holy water and a rifle.  Outside the room lurks an ancient evil, its greatest desire to enter the room and claim the man waiting within.  As Bram waits for the sun to rise, he writes in his journal, desperate to describe the events that lead to this moment.

The tale he tells is an intriguing tale of horror and mystery set in the midst of 19th century Ireland.  Bram was born a sickly youth whose constant illness stopped him from leaving his bed for most of his early life.  One of the few points of comfort in his life was his nanny, Ellen Crone, who nursed him through the worst of his maladies.  Bram seemed destined for a short life, until one day a miracle occurs and Bram’s sickness is cured by the mysterious intervention of Nanny Crone.  But as Bram and his sister Matilda investigate the suspicious behaviour and abilities of Nanny Crone, she disappears, leaving behind questions about who, or what, she really was.

Years later, it appears that Ellen Crone has returned, as strange and bloody events haunt the lives of Bram, Matilda and their older brother Thornley.  As they investigate further they find that the mysterious Ellen Crone has not aged a day, is accompanied by those who died years earlier and has a strange hypnotic hold over Bram.  But even as the siblings attempt to find answers, they soon realise a far more powerful and malevolent creature is hunting in Ireland, one who will forever change the life of the Stoker family.

This is one of the most intriguing books of 2018, as it is a reimagining of the origin of one of the world’s most iconic horror novels, Dracula, which was originally published in 1897 by author Bram Stoker.  The authors of this new book are the team of established horror writer J. D. Barker, and Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker.  This is not the first Dracula book that Dacre Stoker has had his hand in, as he also wrote the 2009 book, Dracula the Un-dead with Ian Holt, which serves as the official sequel to the original Dracula.

Dracul is a clever and compelling read that takes a deeper look at the story behind the classic horror novel.  The plot of this novel is apparently based upon Bram Stoker’s notes, journals and around 100 pages that were culled from the original draft of Dracula by his editors.  As a result, the authors of Dracul strongly hint that Bram Stoker and his family actually encountered a vampire, and that his experiences led him to publish Dracula as a warning to people about the dangers that were hidden around them and the apparent weaknesses of these creatures.  There is a great quote at the very start of this novel that the authors attribute to Bram Stoker and indicate was part of Dracula’s original preface: “I am quite convinced that there is no doubt whatever that the events here described really took place, however unbelievable and incomprehensible they might appear at first sight.”

This new novel by Stoker and Barker is an outstanding piece of fiction.  Not only is it a powerful piece of horror fiction in its own right but it has a number of clever and intriguing connections to Dracula.  The horror elements of this book are fantastic, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the dread that surrounds the protagonists as they investigate the horrors that surround them and their family.  There are a number of great scenes throughout this book where the characters encounter supernatural elements that slowly seek to drive them mad with fear or horror, and the attacks come from a variety of sources.  I have to mention the fact that the monster who inspires Dracula is particularly fearsome in Dracul and the authors really paint him as a powerful and soulless being far beyond the comprehension of the human protagonists.  I really loved the overall story of Bram and the other Stokers as they find themselves bound to this adventure at an early age and slowly encounter all the horrors around them.  There are some very clever turns throughout this book, and there are some surprising twists.  This is a great chronicle of Bram’s life and the writers even try to answer some interesting unanswered questions, like why Bram Stoker left instructions to have his body immediately cremated upon his death, an unusual custom for the time.

I really loved the way that this story is told, especially as Stoker and Barker have set large portions of this story out in a similar manner to the original Dracula novel.  Like Dracula, a large part of Dracul’s story is told in an epistolary format, featuring a series of diary entries from Bram and Thornley Stoker, as well as several letters from Matilda Stoker.  This serves to provide the reader with a large amount of backstory to the Stoker lives and show how they initially met their first vampire and the crazy events that followed them uncovering her secret.  This epistolary format is used for around the first two thirds of Dracul, and these journal entries are interlaced with short chapters set in the story’s present, with Bram stuck at the top of a tower and an evil force trying to get into him.  These scenes are particularly awesome, as they show strange forces trying to get through the door in front of Bram, while the protagonists utilise a number of techniques to force it back.  As the book continues, the reader is given a view into why Bram is up in the tower, what he is facing and the truth to everything that is happening to him, revealing a completely different story than you were expecting.  All of this is a fantastic and unique way to tell this story, and I felt it added a lot to the book, especially as the lack of knowledge about what Bram was facing in the tower at the start of the book really increased the book’s early horror elements.  These notes are also an item within the story, as the characters combine their journals together and the letters to Nanny Crone appear in a number of places that the protagonists are exploring.  At one point, the characters even arrange some of the older journals together to form a more coherent story, indicating that these journals and letters formed the basis of Bram Stoker’s original novel, and play into the idea that the events of Dracul could have actually happened.

While this book is a fantastic horror novel in its own right, fans of Dracula will appreciate how this book calls back to the original novel in a number of captivating ways.  For example, the major character of Nanny Crone has her backstory explored at one point and her real name is revealed to be Countess Dolingen of Gratz.  Fans of Stoker’s work may recognise her as a vampiric character featured in Bram Stoker’s 1914 short story, Dracula’s Guest.  While very little about this character was revealed in Dracula’s Guest, Stoker and Barker flesh her out in this book, creating a fascinating backstory for her and an interesting connection to Dracula, perhaps even explaining why she featured in Dracula’s Guest.  There are a number of other interesting features of Dracul that call back to the original novel.  For example, a large part of Dracul is set in Whitby, England, a major setting in Dracula.  I also really enjoyed the inclusion of real life historical figure Ármin Vámbéry as a major character in this book.  Vámbéry, a noted scholar and a close friend of Bram Stoker, is considered by some to be the inspiration for Professor Van Helsing in Dracula, and in Dracul he plays a similar role, understanding the threat that is before them and providing the Stokers with the tools to fight against the Vampires.  I also really appreciated the vampiric lore that Stoker and Barker put into Dracul, as the vampire characters only have the vampiric traits found around the time that Dracula was published, and not the ideas that have been included in more recent versions of the vampire legend.  As a result, Dracul comes across as an intricate and clever tribute to Dracula, which fans of the original novel will greatly appreciate.

Dacre Stoker and J. D. Barker have produced an incredibly exciting and deeply fascinating novel that breathes new life into the familiar story of Dracula.  Setting the plot around the life of a pre-Dracula Bram Stoker and his family is an amazing idea that works incredibly well to create a dark and captivating horror story.  One of the more unique books of 2018, Dracul is definitely worth checking out, especially if you have an appreciation for one of fiction’s greatest and most iconic monsters.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

The Pearl Thief by Fiona McIntosh

The Pearl Thief Cover.jpg

Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 29 October 2018

 

From acclaimed Australian author Fiona McIntosh comes a deep and powerful tale of loss, revenge and the traumatic shadows of World War II.

Severine Kassel is one of the Louvre’s top curators of antique jewellery and specialises in identifying pieces plundered by the Nazis during World War II.  Seconded to the British Museum in 1963, Severine maintains a careful image of mystery, distance, French elegance and control.  However, that image is shattered completely the moment Severine sets eyes on the Byzantine pearls, an incredible artefact of mysterious providence on loan to the museum.  Severine knows exactly what the pearls are and may be the only person in the world who knows their full history.  She also remembers the last time she saw them: in 1941 in the hands of the man who murdered her family, the brutal Nazi Ruda Mayek.

As she recovers from the shock of seeing the pearls again, Severine reveals to the world that she is actually Katerina Kassowicz, and her story is one of sorrow and torture.  Katerina was the daughter of a prominent Jewish family in Prague during the war.  Her family attempted to flee the Nazi purge but was betrayed by a man they considered a friend, Mayek, and only Katerina survived, although her life was never the same.

With the discovery of the pearls, it becomes apparent that Mayek may still be alive.  Desperate to hunt down the man who took everything from her, Katerina begins a desperate investigation to find him and get her revenge.  Assisted by the mysterious Daniel, a Mossad agent, Katerina’s only clue is the lawyer handling the transaction of the pearls.  As Katerina’s search intensifies, old wounds are opened and life-changing secrets are revealed.  But as she gets closer to the truth, she begins to wonder who is actually hunting who.

Australian Fiona McIntosh is a fantastic author with a diverse and intriguing bibliography to her name.  She has been writing since 2001 and initially focused on the fantasy genre with her debut book Betrayal, which formed the first book in the Trinity series.  She wrote several fantasy books over the next nine years, including The Quickening trilogy, the Percheron series and the Valisar trilogy.  During this time she also wrote several pieces of children’s fiction, including the Shapeshifter series, as well as the adult crime Jack Hawksworth series under the pen-name Lauren Crow.  In 2010, McIntosh switched to historical dramas and has written a number of these books, mostly featuring female protagonists.  Examples include the 2012 release The Lavender Keeper and last year’s epic The Tea Gardens.

 The Pearl Thief is the latest piece of historical drama from McIntosh.  It plunges the reader right into the heart of occupied Czechoslovakia and explores the horrific impacts that World War II had on the book’s main character while also providing the reader with an intense thriller in the 1960s.  Told from the point of view of several characters, the book follows an interesting format.  This first part of the book mostly follows Katerina and Daniel in Paris, and is set around Katerina telling her life story to Daniel and recounting what happened to her and her family during the war.  These flashbacks are different in style, being told from the first person perspective to highlight that Katerina is telling the story, rather than the third person perspective utilised during the rest of the book.  These flashback chapters are also visually distinctive due to the use of italicised font.  The second half of the book follows the protagonist’s hunt for Mayek, and features a different style to the first half of the book.  This different style includes the uses several more point-of-view characters, in particular the lawyer Edward, and the focus on more individualised storylines fitting into one overarching narrative.

The way that McIntosh chooses to tell this story is not only distinctive, but it is a great way to tell this dark and complex narrative.  By presenting the main character’s World War II storyline first, the author sets up just how evil the book’s antagonist is, which ups the stakes for the second half of the book as the reader is desperate to see Mayek receive the justice he deserves.  This dislike for the antagonist helps the reader stay focused on the story and makes them more eager to quickly get to the conclusion of the book to see if the protagonists succeed in catching him.  This early storyline also highlights just how damaged Katerina, and in some regards side character Daniel, really are and what impacts the war had on them.  As a result, the reader is a lot more attached to them and is keen to see how they reconcile their hatred and grief while also attempting to move past these events nearly 20 years after the end of the war.  Both parts of this book are very captivating and do a fantastic job of drawing the reader in to this deep and dramatic story.

This is a fairly grim tale and McIntosh does not pull any punches, especially when it comes to showcasing the horrors the Jewish community experienced during World War II in countries such as Czechoslovakia.  There are some very disturbing sequences throughout these flashbacks, especially when Katerina describes the final fate of her family, and the reader cannot help but feel sorrow and anger at the horror these characters and their real life historical equivalents suffered.  McIntosh focuses on the physical impacts and the persecution that these people suffered and the mental stresses and long-term emotional damage that these actions inflict both during the war and well into the 1963 storyline for the survivors.  These emotional scenes start right from the front of the book, with the first chapter showing the Kindertransport, mercy trains that got Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and forced a permanent separation between parents and their children.  This opening scene is very emotional, and the readers are left wondering what they may have done in a similar situation.  There are also some quite dark scenes in the second half of the book, as the main characters are forced to relive the horrors they experienced and deal with the emotional fallout and the darkness they feel when it comes to Mayek.  McIntosh’s frank and grim depictions of these events turn this book into an incredible drama, and readers will be left with a memorable and emotional vision of these events.

The Pearl Thief is a deep and captivating historical drama from exceptional Australian author Fiona McIntosh.  Featuring some highly detailed and realistically dark flashback story to World War II as well as a thrilling hunt for a despicable war criminal in the 60s, this is a highly emotional and dramatic piece of literature that is well worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four stars

Mecha Samurai Empire by Peter Tieryas

Mecha Samurai Empire Cover.jpg

Publisher: Ace

Publication Date – 18 September 2018

 

Prepare to experience one hell of an adventure in this follow-up to Peter Tieryas’s successful United States of Japan, in this incredibly exciting read that can best be described as The Man in the High Castle meets Pacific Rim.

Mecha Samurai Empire is set in an alternate version of our history, in which Japan and the Nazis won World War II.  This change to the outcome of the war was a result of the creation of the mecha, gigantic piloted military machines which gave the Japanese an unparallel advantage against the American forces.  In the aftermath of the war, America was split between Japan and Germany, who created distinct territories.  The western states, including California, became part of the United States of Japan, with its inhabitants swearing fealty to the Emperor.

In the 50 years that followed the end of the war, the United States of Japan entered an age of prosperity and technological advancement, and the development of more advanced mecha made them the most feared and effective military power in the world.  In addition to their military control, Japanese culture and custom has also been incorporated into American society, history has been rewritten and Japan’s wartime atrocities have been whitewashed.

In California, young student Makoto Fujimoto has only one dream: to become a mecha pilot and defend his country against the terrorists who killed his parents.  Unfortunately, Mac lacks the grades or political connections to achieve a placement in the mecha pilot training course at the elite Berkeley Military Academy, and his attempts to pass the special military exam end disastrously.  However, a chance encounter with rebel American forces allows him the opportunity to join up with a civilian mecha security company.  While his new role might not provide him much action, it might ensure his future placement at Berkeley.  But when Mac’s first mission goes horribly wrong, it might take all of his luck and skill just to survive.

Mecha Samurai Empire is an intriguing and exciting new novel from Tieryas and is the second book set in the United States of Japan universe.  Mecha Samurai Empire is not a direct sequel to the first book, United States of Japan, but it does contain a number of the story ideas that Tieryas did explore in his first book, and includes appearances from some of its characters.

As soon as I saw this book in the store and found out it featured mecha battles in an alternate timeline, I knew I was going to have to read it.  Because of the very enticing story concept, I did find myself going into this book with some very high expectations.  After reading it I am very pleased to say that I was not disappointed in the slightest, as I found Mecha Samurai Empire to be an incredibly entertaining book that makes full use of its unique elements and likeable characters to create an addictive story.  If you enjoyed the original United States of Japan, then you will definitely love this latest addition to the universe, that not only continues to highlight Tieryas’s marvellous alternate world, but which ramps the incredible mecha action.

The mecha are definitely the stars of this book, and the author spends a significant amount of time focusing on them and highlighting their importance in this new world.  Most readers of this book are going to be looking for some electrifying mecha combat, and Tieryas delivers this in abundance.  There is a huge amount of different types of mecha action, including training simulations, friendly competitions, small-scale battles between smaller mecha, larger battles between gigantic mechas and Nazi bimorphs (organic mechas), and there is even a large elimination tournament between various mecha pilots.  I’m a sucker for a good tournament, but this had to be one of my favourite extended sequences in the entire book.  Not only is there some incredible action during these tournament battles but the inclusion of multiple pilots allows the author to show off the various mecha battle techniques and fight styles as the competitors go at each other with a variety of close-combat weapons.  I also really enjoyed an earlier sequence when the protagonist finds himself piloting a small crab mecha by himself and must overcome several cannibalised mecha piloted by fanatical American rebels.  During these scenes Mac has to use all his training and skills, as well as the limited resources available to him in order to beat a larger force of opponents, and it is a very gripping scene to read.  Aside from the awesome action scenes, Tieryas has also chosen to present the reader with a much more in-depth view of the mecha in his universe.  The book contains the history of the mecha; the required training, simulations and the teamwork; discussion about famous mecha pilots; examinations of tactics and battle plans; mecha research; and even a look at the cultural impact of the mecha and the reverence shown to the pilots.  All of this additional information is deeply fascinating and really adds a lot to the book as the readers are shown they are more than just weapons.  If you’ve ever enjoyed the idea of mecha combat before, this is definitely the book for you.

While the mecha battles are one of this book’s best features, readers are also treated to an intriguing and memorable alternate history setting where the Axis powers won World War II and ended up taking control of the United States of America.  Tieryas has done an absolutely amazing job of creating a version of America that has been under Japanese control for 50 years, and it is fascinating to see how the author imagines this world would look.  In order to show the reader how the world came to be this way, Tieryas comes up with a clever alternate history of World War II and the years that followed it.  For example, Tieryas explores how a different strategy during the war could lead to a different outcome.  In this case, Japan joined the war by attacking Russia with the Nazis rather than America in the Pacific.  There is also some clever mirroring of real-life history, as the two main victorious world powers, Japan and Germany, end up in a cold war after splitting their conquered territory between them.

In addition to the changes in histories, Tieryas has also been quite inventive when it comes to the impact that a Japanese conquest would have on the culture of America.  While the Japanese influence on these territories in the book is quite noticeable, the author has come up with some captivating combinations between the two distinctive cultures.  I personally though that the way Tieryas continued to provide the reader with a ton of detailed descriptions of the food his characters were having was a very nice touch, as this showcased just how prominent Japanese food is in occupied America, while also featuring some curious examples of fusion cuisine.  It’s also interesting to see how much more advanced certain technology appears to be in this universe, a fact which can be attributed to the research into mecha technology and the fact that Japanese and Nazi scientists were able to operate with the world’s resources, including human test subjects, and a completely unchecked lack of morals.  There is also a dystopian element around this whole country, as there are a range of elements that show how controlling and despotic the United States of Japan government really is.  This is a continuation of the storyline from United States of Japan, and Tieryas continues to explore the nation’s hidden World War II war crimes, the rewriting of history, the use of propaganda, nationwide indoctrination, installed national pride and the fact that the characters are living in thinly disguised police state.  All of this serves to be an amazing background to this book that is both intriguing to explore and adds to the dramatic actions of the characters.

The story of Mecha Samurai Empire is strongly driven by the character development of the narrator and the other protagonists as they attempt to find their place in the world.  The main character and narrator, Mac, is an interesting focal character as the story is primarily set around his attempts to navigate this world and achieve his dream of becoming a mecha pilot.  Due to his past and the tragedy he experiences, Mac has a lot of self-doubt and other emotional baggage.  It is moving to see him getting through these barriers in order to become the hero his friends and country need.  I also got really attached to several of the supporting characters, especially Nori, Chieko, Kujira and Kazu, who we get to see develop in a similar manner to Mac.  Each of these characters has some distinctive character traits and motivations, and it’s cool to see how their personalities affect their mecha combat style.  It’s also intriguing to see the various levels of indoctrination and love for their country that these characters have, especially when they start to experience the darker side of the country and at times infuriating military commanders.  Another superb subplot is the relationship between Mac and Griselda, an exchange student from Nazi Germany.  Despite being old friends, their relationship is constantly criticised or forbidden by the other Japanese or German characters, and the constant us or them attitude is an accurate mirror of similar relationships throughout history.  It was a real treat to watch these characters develop throughout the course of the book, and the final fates of some these characters may leave readers reeling.

Award-winning author Peter Tieryas once again delivers another addictive and captivating story set in an alternate history version of the United States of America.  Making full use of this clever and creative setting, Tieryas packs his story full of pulse-pounding action as his characters pilot giant mecha in a variety of well-written and exciting battles.  With some real heart and emotional depth, Mecha Samurai Empire is so much more than its fun and memorable concept and comes highly recommended for all readers.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson

Greenlight by Benjamin Stevenson Cover.jpg

Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 September 2018

 

From debuting Australian author Benjamin Stevenson comes this chilling and intelligent murder mystery that builds a thrilling case with some sensational twists around an intriguing true crime documentary plot device.

Four years ago, in the small Australian country town of Birravale, Curtis Wade was arrested and tried for the murder of young woman Eliza Dacey.  Hated by the entire town and viewed as an outsider, Curtis was quickly found guilty of the crime with very little evidence presented at the trial.  Everyone was convinced of Curtis’ guilt until podcaster and documentarian Jack Quick decided to get involved.

Noting some inconsistencies in the case and sensing an opportunity for fame, Jack decided to make a true crime documentary series, presenting the local police as incompetent and biased.  His series becomes an overnight hit across Australia, and his edited footage convinces many in the country of Curtis’s innocence.  But the night before the finale is due to air, Jack notices a piece of crucial evidence near the murder scene that could prove that Curtis is guilty after all.  Determined not to ruin his series, and convinced that no matter what happens Curtis will never see the light of day again, he disposes of the evidence.  However, thanks to his series, Curtis is released on retrial, and then a second murder is committed, with several grisly details of the first case replicated.  Has Jack just let a murderer go free?

Returning to Birravale, Jack must once again dive into the secrets of a town that hates him for the way his show portrayed them.  As Jack attempts to solve this crime, he must overcome his own past while also dealing with the guilt of the situation.  But did Curtis commit this new crime, or is he being framed by the real killer?  Whoever the murderer is, Jack is wrapped up in their game and for once he needs to reveal the whole truth.

Greenlight is the first novel from Australian comedian and author Benjamin Stevenson and represents a brilliant and exhilarating debut.  This book has an amazing central storyline with a massively intriguing mystery that focuses on the innocence or guilt of the man who has already been both convicted and found innocent of the same murder.  The protagonist must look at whether the person he released from jail committed the murder he was originally convicted of, as well as a second, similar murder that occurred after the suspect has been released.  The reader is constantly left guessing about whether the prime suspect, Curtis, has committed either or both of the crimes, or whether he is actually innocent.  At the same time, the reader is presented with a series of plausible alternative suspects who have motive for either of the murders or, in some cases, the same motive for both of the killings, and this creates some exciting doubt about the original suspect’s guilt.  The final reveals and twists of this case are rather shocking and will definitely provide the readers with some excellent surprises.  Stevenson does a good job providing a lot of hints and foreshadowing in his text, and readers will enjoy seeing how these cleverly scattered clues are brought together in the end.  Overall, this is a hell of a mystery and the author does a fantastic job tying the investigation into the book’s other elements.

One of the most noticeable and outstanding parts of Greenlight is its true crime elements and how this affects both the story and the way that the book is written.  Ever since the dramatic popularity of the 2015 Netflix true crime show, Making a Murderer, various books and shows have attempted to emulate the documentary setting in their works.  What I liked about Stevenson’s book was that, rather than dealing with the creation of the documentary, it is mostly set some months after the television series was released and instead takes a look at the consequences that the show has had.  Not only is a potential murderer released, but various lives and careers have been ruined as a result of the protagonist’s actions.  It is absolutely fascinating to see the various ways that the reaction and follow-up of the true crime television series comes into play through the story.  The protagonist has to deal with a series of characters who are annoyed or angry about their portrayal in the series, which informs the help, assistance or compassion that these characters give.  The success of the series also affects the police response, leaving the protagonist much more open to investigate the crime.  It is also intriguing to see a television show being used as a motive for murder throughout the book, as the second murder could potentially be tied into righting the wrongs that the show caused.  Stevenson covers all these elements incredibly well, and the examination of the consequences and damages of a successful true crime documentary series turns out to be the perfect backdrop for this captivating murder story.

On top of the powerful mystery and the terrific plot focus, Stevenson has also created an interesting central protagonist who serves as the point of view character for most of the book.  The main character, Jack, is the documentarian who makes the show that gets the mystery’s main suspect freed from jail.  Watching the guilt and shame that this character experiences as a result of his various actions, such as the creation of the show, tampering with evidence and editing the videos to tell a specific story, is a great part of this story, and it serves as a perfect motivation for this character’s continued and at times frantic investigation.  Watching the character understand the full extent of his questionable actions, especially after the second murder, is an outstanding part of this book that highlights Stevenson’s strong writing ability.  It is also interesting to see how his experiences creating a documentary have affected his judgement and the way he perceives the world.  The protagonist now sees the slanted way many of the characters talk when it comes to case, and he is constantly trying to determine what role the people who are involved in the case would have in a television show, such as a main character or a supporting cast member.  The author also creates some interesting character background for Jack that works well with this story, as guilt and trauma from his childhood combines with the current extreme blame and he is currently feeling.  Stevenson also produces an accurate and powerful description of an eating disorder that Jack is suffering from, and not only is this description respectful done and informative, but it adds another level to this excellent main character.

A large amount of Greenlight’s plot is set in the fictional small, winegrowing country town of Birravale in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales.  This serves as a great background setting for the murder investigation as the small town secrets and attitudes play a huge role in the overall mystery.  Stevenson does an amazing job portraying a winegrowing community, and provides some interesting details that come into play in a number of ways and often result in a number of potential murder motives.  The small-town setting also works well with the post true crime series plot element, as the protagonist encounters an entire town that has been portrayed in a negative light throughout this series and is viewed in a different way by the rest of the country.  Seeing these resultant attitudes and the impacts his series has had on the town works wonders for the main character and is a great part of this book.

In his debuting novel, Australian author Benjamin Stevenson has created an incredibly captivating mystery storyline.  Greenlight contains a number of outstanding elements, from shocking plot twists and reveals, an excellent central character and an utterly fascinating central plot device, all of which come together into one amazing novel.  This is an exceptional first book from Stevenson which highlights both his fantastic ability and his huge potential as a crime writer.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars