The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman

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Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook Format – 5 February 2019)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 34

Length: 12 hours 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman returns with the 34th book in his long-running Alex Delaware crime series, The Wedding Guest, a clever and captivating murder mystery.

It is the couple’s big day, an elaborate wedding ending with a ‘Saints and Sinners’ themed reception in a former Los Angles strip club.  The only thing that could upstage the happy couple is the discovery of a well-dressed murder victim hidden in one of the club’s bathrooms.  None of the guests claim to know who the victim is, and she appears to have crashed the wedding without anyone noticing.

Psychologist Alex Delaware is called onto the case by his friend Detective Milo Sturgis.  With no obvious suspects at the wedding, Alex and Milo not only have to find out who the murderer is but also the identity of the victim.  As they slowly build up a picture of the events that led up to the murder, the investigators soon discover that this not the first time that the murderer has struck, and his is still at large in the city.

Kellerman is an extremely prolific and skilled crime fiction author, who has been writing books for over 30 years.  His first book, When the Bough Breaks, was released in 1985 and was the first book in his main body of work, the Alex Delaware series.  In addition to huge number of books in his main series, Kellerman has also written three shorter series: the Petra Connor series, the Jacob Lev series and the Clay Edison series.  The latter two series he wrote with his son, Jesse Kellerman.  In addition, he has also written several standalone novels, including two with his wife, Faye Kellerman, and several nonfiction books reflecting his career as an actual clinical psychologist.

As mentioned above, this is the 34th book in the Alex Delaware series, and I was a bit uncertain how easy it would be to come into this series this far in, having not previously read any of Kellerman’s books before.  Luckily, I found that The Wedding Guest was extremely accessible to new readers to the series as there were only minimal throwaway references to the previous books or cases that the main characters were involved in.  The author instead dives straight into the mystery and builds up his story from scratch.  The focus is on the main case, with only a brief look at the protagonist’s personal life, and as a result there is very little need to dive back into the series’ previous investigations.  I ended up really enjoying The Wedding Guest and thought it was an excellent piece of crime fiction.

The standout part of this book has to be the central investigation into the murder of the unexpected guest at the wedding.  The overall case is compelling, and I found myself getting pretty hooked on the story and trying to work out who the killer is, especially as the case expands further out.  Kellerman has a very interesting murder mystery writing style.  Rather than creating a fast-paced mystery that has the investigators barrelling from one massive clue to the next, Kellerman keeps the investigation within The Wedding Guest at a much slower and more realistic pace.  The investigators are forced to wait for test results and for technicians and coroners to get back to the office, and most of their investigation involves meeting and questioning people of interest.  The whole process is a lot more methodical that other crime fiction books I have read; it has a much more realistic investigative timeline.  The author has a very detailed orientating writing style, recording a large amount of details about the suspects, their possessions and the locations they are found in, so much so that you expect any of these details to become relevant at a later point in the text.  I loved how realistic the investigation came across, from the timelines and issues that real-life detectives would experience, to the impact of chance or coincidence on solving a case and the use of modern-day technology, such as social media or internet searches, to obtain information on suspects.  The case as a whole was deeply captivating, and my curiosity about who had committed the crime kept me deeply enthralled within The Wedding Guest.

This book is very character based, as the story focuses deeply on the lives of a huge range of secondary characters, most of whom are suspects, witnesses or victims of the crimes being convicted.  Through his protagonists, Kellerman dives into the lives of these characters, finding out surprising details and issues that may or may not have some impact on the case.  As a result, the reader is quite exposed to these secondary characters, in some way more so than some of the protagonists investigating the case.  Many of the characters who are suspects are fairly duplicitous or unlikeable in some way or another, making it rather easy for the readers to dislike them and see them as reasonable suspects for the murder.  In contrast to these interesting but deceitful characters are the main protagonists, Alex and Milo.  I loved the fun friendship between these two characters.  Who would have thought that a psychologist and a homosexual police detective would make for such an entertaining and enjoyable tandem?

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, this book contains a number of other great story elements for the reader to enjoy.  This includes the fantastic and detailed descriptions of the city of Los Angles.  Kellerman, a near life-long resident of the city of Los Angles, does an outstanding job of portraying the various components of city, and there is obvious affection for its many nuances and its inhabitants’ ways of life.  I also liked the psychological inclusions with The Wedding Guest.  The main character, Alex Delaware, is a child psychologist who assists with the police investigations and provides analyses of the suspects and the murderer.  While the psychological elements within The Wedding Guest are somewhat less prominent than in some of the other books in the series, such as the first book, When the Bough Breaks, it is still deeply fascinating, and it was intriguing to see things such as the character’s analysis of what kind of person the killer would be.

While did receive a physical copy of this book, I ended up choosing to listen to the audiobook format of The Wedding Guest, narrated by John Rubinstein.  This was an excellent way to the listen to this book, and at 12 hours and 20 minutes, it did not take me long to get through it.  Rubinstein does an incredible job of narrating this awesome story, and I felt that his fantastic voice really added a lot to this book.  The Wedding Guest is told from the point of view of the main character, Alex Delaware, and Rubinstein does a good base narration for everything the character sees and says.  I also really liked the other voices that Rubinstein does throughout this book, and he is able to impart some real personality into most of the other characters.  I especially loved the narration that he does for Milo, as he gives this character an exceptional cop voice that was really fun to listen to.  Overall, I felt that the audiobook version of this book was a great way to enjoy The Wedding Guest and I would strongly recommend this format.

The Wedding Guest was an excellent piece of crime fiction, containing a deeply compelling mystery that really drags the reader in and holds their attention for the entire book.  I quite enjoyed Kellerman’s use of characters and felt that it enhanced the mystery elements to create a wonderful overall story.  Easily accessible for those who have not read any of the previous books in the Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest is well worth checking out in both its paperback and audiobook formats.

Half Moon Lake by Kirsten Alexander

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Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback Edition  – 2 January 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 320 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Debuting Australian author Kirsten Alexander presents a dramatic, captivating and hard-hitting novel of desperation and loss loosely based around a real and shocking historical event.

In the summer of 1913, a young boy, Sonny Davenport, walks into the woods around his family’s summer home at Half Moon Lake, Louisiana, and never returns.  Despite a widespread search of the surrounding area by an army of volunteers, no trace of the boy can be found.  As the search grows in volume, the disappearance becomes headline news across the country, especially as Sonny’s parents, John Henry and Mary Davenport, are wealthy and influential members of their home town of Opelousas.  For the next two years, the Davenports engage in a desperate hunt for Sonny across the south, offering a massive reward for information on their missing son.  But with no substantiated leads, the Davenports slowly lose hope and Mary sinks more and more into her despair.

However, just when everything seems lost, a boy matching Sonny’s description is found wandering around several southern towns in the company of a tramp.  As the world watches, Mary meets the child and claims that he is Sonny.  But is he truly her missing son?  There are a number of differences between the two boys and many are convinced that the Davenports have taken in the wrong child and the real Sonny is still out there.

As the people of Opelousas, including many of the Davenport’s friends and servants, debate the true identity of this young boy, a kidnapping trial for the tramp begins.  However, the proceedings are thrown into chaos when Grace Mills, an unwed farm worker, arrives in town, claiming that the boy is her son.

This is an outstanding first book from Alexander, who has created a powerful and memorable story based partially around real-life events.  Half Moon Lake is a fantastic and dramatic story that dives deep into the hearts and psyche of its characters and the historical elements of the time to create a lasting impact on the reader.  I was very surprised about how addictive I found this book to be, as the intense character emotions and the dramatic actions that they take to alleviate their grief and the grief of their loved ones was just incredible.  I am still reeling from several of the revelations and developments that occurred towards the end of the book, many of which will stick with me for a long time.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is that is partially based on a real-life historical event, the disappearance of Bobby Dunbar, which took place in America’s south in the early 20th century.  Bobby Dunbar disappeared when he was four.  After months of searching, a young boy was found some distance away who appeared similar to Bobby and was claimed by Bobby’s parents, despite many people voicing their doubts about the boy’s true identity.  In addition, a second woman attempted to claim the child as her own son, and a legal case was initiated to determine the identity of the child.  I was unfamiliar with the Bobby Dunbar case before I read Half Moon Lake and did not look up the details of it until after I finished the book.  As a result, I was amazed that the intense story was so closely based on a real story.  This case and its eventual results are absolutely fascinating, and I felt that Alexander did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of this event and installing it within her story.

For example, the author does an excellent job of portraying the probable emotions, feelings and opinions of people who would have been involved in the real-life disappearance, as she utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout her book.  Readers of Half Moon Lake get a great idea of the despair all of the parents in this story would have experienced, the fear and confusion of the children, and the bewilderment and conflicted emotion of everyone else involved in the case.  I felt that Alexander’s portrayal of the missing child’s mother was done particularly well, as the readers gets to see her so filled with realistic fear, grief and despair that it drives her to try and claim a child that might not even be hers.  I also quite enjoyed the way that the author explored the highly publicised nature of the child’s disappearance and how the media at the time covered the case, dividing those following the case as they try to determine the true fate of the missing child and the real identity of the discovered child.  I also loved the way that the author looked at how the media scrutiny of the time might have affected the individuals involved in the case, and how this could have potentially influenced their actions and decisions.

I also really liked the way that the period’s ideas of class came into effect during this book.  There are some key examinations of the different ways that the rich and the poor were treated during this time, and how this would have impacted the investigation, the search for the missing child, the media scrutiny and overall results of the big trial that served as an important scene at the end of the book.  Also significant and intriguing was the way in which Alexander looked at how concerns for personal and familial reputations might have come into these events, resulting in several characters undertaking various actions that they knew to be wrong, all in the name of protecting someone’s social standing and reputation.  The story is set in America’s south during the early 20th century, and as such there are a number of African American characters who are involved with the case.  Race and the perception of certain ethnicities came into this book a lot more than I thought it would, and I thought that Alexander did a fantastic job capturing how these characters might have been ignored or disciplined for trying to get involved in proceedings.  All of these elements result in an amazing historical tapestry which forms an excellent setting for this story.

Overall, this is an amazing debut from Australian author Kirsten Alexander, who uses the inspiration of a fascinating real-life case to craft an epic and powerful story.  There are so many great story elements spread throughout Half Moon Lake, as the character’s emotions and despair drive them to desperate and immoral acts.  It features a narrative that is at times sad and at other times darn right appalling, and several reveals and character decisions at the end of the book will leave you shocked and will stick in your mind long after you finish reading it.  I loved this spectacular first book from Alexander and I am looking forward to seeing where she goes next.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

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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

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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

Dracul Cover.jpg

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