Wake by Shelley Burr

Wake Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wake Cover 2

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Desperate Undertaking by Lindsey Davis

Desperate Undertaking Cover 2

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 10

Length: 398 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Buckle up for an intense, captivating and exceedingly memorable historical murder mystery as bestselling author Lindsey Davis unleashes the 10th entry in the deeply clever and compelling Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertaking.

It’s that awesome time when I get to gush about the newest entry in Davis’s excellent, long-running Flavia Albia series, which has been a major fixture in my reading schedule for the last several years.  The sequel series to her iconic Marcus Didius Falco novels, the Flavia Albia novels follow the daughter of Davis’s original protagonist as she solves unusual murders across ancient Rome.  Thanks to the series’ typical great combination of intriguing characters, complex mysteries, excellent historical elements and great humour, I always have an amazing time reading these novels, which usually get very high ratings from me.  Some of the more intriguing Flavia Albia novels in recent years include The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, The Grove of the Caesars (one of my favourite books of 2020) and A Comedy of Terrors.  Due to the quality and entertainment capability of this series, I eagerly keep an eye out for Davis’ new book each year and I was exceedingly chuffed when I got a copy of Davis’ latest novel, Desperate Undertaking.

Rome, 89 AD.  The year is coming towards an end and the city is ready to enter a sleepy holiday period.  Unfortunately, murderers are notoriously bad at taking breaks, and Flavia Albia, paid informer, dogged investigator and daughter of notorious busybody Marcus Didius Falco, is about to get dropped into the most disturbing case of her life.  With her parents away on holiday and her impromptu family preparing to settle in for the quiet period, Albia receives a job request she cannot refuse.  An aged actor, part of a troupe her parents travelled with in their youth, has been killed, horribly crucified in a public place.  Starting her investigation, Albia and her husband, Tiberius, are shocked to discover this is not the only murder confronting them as they suddenly discover the first victim’s widow was also murdered in terrible circumstances.  Her last words to Albia: “The undertaker did it…”.

Determined to find the person responsible for the horrific murders of her parent’s friends, Albia begins her investigation, diving into Rome’s theatre scene.  But when another actor associated with the troupe is killed in a cruelly inventive way, Albia begins to realise that these are no ordinary murders.  A twisted and determined serial killer is on the loose, bearing a terrible grudge against the actors and anyone associated with them.  Worse, their exceedingly public killings all bear striking similarities to some of the most brutal moments in classic plays, causing their victims to suffer in horrific ways.

With the bodies piling up and the city in an uproar, Albia must solve the most unusual and deadly case of her career before more of her parents’ friends end up dead.  But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she begins to realise that these murders bear a strong connection to one of her father’s past cases.  Worst, Albia soon realises that her connection to the currently absent Falco has made herself and everyone she loves a target of a demented killer determined to get revenge.

Davis does it again with Desperate Undertaking, producing a wildly entertaining and exceedingly clever historical murder mystery that I had a brilliant time reading.  Perfectly bringing together a disturbing mystery with an excellent historical setting, some great characters and the author’s trademark humour, Desperate Undertakings is an outstanding read and it ended up being yet another Flavia Albia book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

I must admit that I have sometimes found Davis to be a bit of an inconsistent writer; while most of her novels are extremely good, a few of them do not quite measure up in terms of substance or entertainment.  However, Desperate Undertakings is easily one of the better books in the Flavia Albia series as Davis pulled together an exceptional and dark murder mystery narrative that will leave a memorable impression on the reader.  For this latest story, Davis drops a lot of the family/household storylines that have been a significant, if slightly distracting, feature of the previous novels, and instead focuses on an intense and elaborate murder mystery that effortlessly grabbed my attention and ensured I was extremely hooked on this fantastic novel.  The book starts off extremely strong, firstly with a foreboding introductory short chapter, and then with a great series of compelling early chapters that drag the protagonist into the investigation.  These early chapters feature two dramatic (literally) and elaborate murders that really stand out due to their brutal and distinctive nature (the second one is particularly gruesome and over-the-top), as well as their connections to some of Davis’s iconic protagonists.  As such, the reader becomes really invested in the case early on, and you soon get thrust into an elaborate in clever murder inquiry storyline.  Davis sets up this investigation really well, and there are a series of great leads, potential suspects and unique theories that pan out as the novel proceeds in an excellent way.  While the novel slowed down slightly after the initial murders, the next series of killings picks the pace right up again, which the story maintains for the rest of the book.  I really enjoyed how the entire mystery came together, and there are some really clever twists and turns here, with seemingly minor characters or story elements coming back in some big ways later in the book.  Everything leads up to a big and impressive conclusion and readers will be left rocked by the elaborate and powerful nature of the plot, as well as how damn dark this novel got in places.

Desperate Undertakings is extremely well written and I loved how Davis pulled this entire novel together.  Davis once again hits the perfect blend of murder mystery, historical elements and character driven story elements in this book, as the reader is engrossed in this brilliant Roman based tale.  I did feel that this one was significantly darker in places than some of Davis’s previous novels, which I really liked, especially as it results in some particularly gruesome killings.  The story is once again told from the perspective of central character Flavia Albia as she traverses the mean streets of Rome to find her culprit.  This central focus allows for much of the books fantastic humour, as Albia’s comedic and exceedingly modern perspective of events is extremely entertaining, while also providing a Roman noir feel for the murder investigation.  Like most of the books in the Flavia Albia series, Desperate Undertakings can easily be read as a standalone read, with any relevant elements from the previous novel rehashed for the new reader.  However, Desperate Undertakings also bears a strong connection to one of Davis’s older novels, the sixth book in the Falco series, the 1994 release Last Act in Palmyra.  Multiple characters and elements from this book make an appearance here, with several of them serving big roles in this book, either as supporting characters, suspects or victims.  Davis rehashes the events of this previous book extremely well, and readers who haven’t had the chance to enjoy it are still able to enjoy Desperate Undertakings without any issues, while those who have will no doubt enjoy the fun call back.  I felt that these past elements were utilised extremely well, especially as these past events also impacted the present storyline.  This entire novel came together brilliantly, and I was extremely enthralled by its great writing and powerful story the entire way through.

I always deeply enjoy how Davis portrays the historical elements in her novels and Desperate Undertakings was a particularly good example of this.  The reader is once again treated to breathtaking depictions of ancient Rome, with everything from the chaos of the streets, the culture of the people, and the slapdash take on law enforcement used to full effect throughout the course of the plot.  There are some brilliant descriptions of some of ancient Rome’s earlier sties, especially as the murders make use of some iconic locations for the sites of their crimes, and you get an excellent sense of the city thanks to Davis’s descriptive and powerful writing.  However, the best part of these historical elements is the dive into the Roman theatre scene, which is a key part of the books plot.  Davis provides an intriguing and entertaining look at the city’s theatre elements throughout the novel, and you soon become deeply engrossed in her entertaining portrayal of these eccentric and proud actors and entertainers.

Desperate Undertakings also takes quite an intriguing look at the various plays and performances put on during this period as the killer utilises some of Rome’s bloodiest and most elaborate plays as a basis for setting up their murders.  This causes the protagonist to really dive into all the plays of the period and you get a good idea of several of the more iconic and distinctive ones, especially those that have elements of death involved.  I found it really interesting to find out about this part of Roman culture, especially the deadly twists that are sometimes involved with them, and it was a great part of the plot.  I also felt that Davis did a remarkable job working these historical theatre aspects into the plot of Desperate Undertakings, and it really helped to make the murder mystery stand out.  I particularly enjoyed how the author broke the book down into sections, each one of them named after a play that corresponds to the murder that Flavia is about to discover.  This allows for a glorious bit of foreshadowing, especially for those with an interest in classics and theatre, and it was an excellent addition to the book.  I deeply appreciate how Davis utilised these historical plays as the inspiration for her murders in Desperate Undertaking and it really gave this book a very distinctive feel.  Readers are warned that some of the murders are a bit graphic thanks to how they are portrayed in these plays, and you are in for some barbaric punishment as a result.

Another strong aspect of Desperate Undertakings was the excellent and compelling characters that Davis featured throughout.  As usual, this great cast is headed up by the intrepid Flavia Albia, who serves as the main protagonist and point-of-view character for the book.  Albia is a really entertaining protagonist, especially as Davis presents her as a cynical private investigator with very specific views of the reality of life in ancient Rome.  The daughter of another cynical protagonist, Falco, Albia spends most of the book making astute and hilarious observations about the people, locations, and events around her, and much of the book’s humour results from the amusing and noticeably modern way she sees the world around her.  As such, Albia really adds a lot to this intriguing story and it is always so much fun to see her waltzing around Rome solving her elaborate cases.  It was particularly interesting to see her reactions to the murders that occur in Desperate Undertakings.  Despite her familiarity with death and Rome’s underbelly, these killings really hit her hard due to their brutal nature and the connection that the victims have to her parents.  I felt this was a really compelling and powerful change to the character, and it really helped to highlight just how dark this book got in places.

Desperate Undertaking also features a wide cast of characters, all of whom have some entertaining or intriguing moments through the book.  Davis utilises a blend of established characters, new figures and even several characters who have not appeared since the Falco series.  All these characters are utilised extremely well in this novel, and the author does a good job of introducing (or reintroducing) them throughout the course of the plot.  As usual, this includes Albia’s husband, Tiberius, who serves as a good straight man to Albia’s eccentric antics, and helps to focus the investigation in places.  Other interesting characters include a newly introduced cop who balances between competence and political expediency and serves as another excellent foil to Albia’s more unusual investigation methods.  The various actors and theatre related figures are pretty entertaining, and Davis introduces some eccentric characters, many of whom serve as potential suspects or victims as you get to know them more.  I also felt that Davis did a good job with the killer (or killers) featured in this book, as they have a unique motivation, and a compelling personality that is slowly uncovered throughout the course of the book.  Finding out just who they are and why they are doing these dreadful killings is extremely fascinating and results in some brilliant character moments.  Other supporting characters are also extremely entertaining, including a very strong butcher and two very cultured vigils, and I had a brilliant time getting to know them all.

With the extremely awesome and captivating Desperate Undertakings, the always incredible Lindsey Davis continues to reign from atop the historical murder mystery mountain.  This latest Flavia Albia novel is exceedingly epic, containing a brilliant and dark investigation story that sees the series’ outstanding protagonist encounter a truly demented killer.  With some fascinating and distinctive historical elements, especially those surrounding the bloody and memorable plays, Desperate Undertakings really stands out and was an amazing amount of fun to read.  This was one of the better and more memorable entries in this excellent long-running series, especially with its vicious murders and great character work, and it comes extremely highly recommended.

Desperate Undertaking Cover 1

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Throwback Thursday – X-Factor: Volume 1: The Longest Night

X-Factor - Volume 1 - The Longest Night

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 7 March 2007)

Series: X-Factor (Vol. 3) – Volume One

Writer: Peter David

Pencils: Ryan Sook & Dennis Calero

Inks: Wade Von Grawbadger & Dennis Calero

Colour Art: Jose Villarrubia

Letters: Cory Petit

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this Throwback Thursday I look at the start of one of the best comic series I have ever had the pleasure of reading, with The Longest Night, the first volume in Peter David’s impressive and incredible X-Factor series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 2 Cover

There are many awesome comic series that I have a great appreciation for, but to my mind one of the most entertaining, clever and captivating series I have ever had the pleasure of reading has to be the third major version of the X-Factor title that ran between 2005 and 2013.  This series span off the limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice, with its entire run written by Peter David, with a rotating team of talented artists.  Also known as X-Factor (Vol.3) or X-Factor Investigations, this long-running series focused on a team of mutants who formed a detective agency after the events of House of M.  Calling themselves X-Factor Investigations and led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, this series followed the team as they investigated mutant related crimes, protected the area of New York formerly known as Mutant Town, and did general superheroics, often for a fee.  Despite its odd-sounding plot, this was an incredibly good series, and it is one of my all-time favourite comic series.  I have recently done a bit of a re-read of this series and thought that it would be a good time to talk about it on my blog, starting with this first volume, The Longest Night.

X-Factor is back, and this time they are in business for themselves as X-Factor Investigations, the weirdest and only mutant run private investigative agency in New York.  Led by Jamie Madrox (the Multiple Man), made up of the ragtag group of heroes including, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Siryn, Rictor and Monet, X-Factor investigates the cases no-one else will, especially if it helps current and former mutants.  However, X-Factor are about to find themselves investigating the most sinister case of their brief tenure, when a new client walks in the door, accompanied by the mysterious Layla Miller.  Following the breadcrumbs given to them by Layla, X-Factor begins looking into the rival organisation, Singularity Investigations, who have dire plans for the future of all mutant kind.  At the same time, X-Factor finds itself in the middle of the deteriorating conditions in Mutant Town, as they start their own investigation into what really depowered most of the mutant species.

As their investigations continue, X-Factor find themselves encountering crazy events and dire obstacles from all sides.  Forced to protect their client from being arrested for murder, as well as the deadly attentions of Singularity Investigations, X-Factor struggles to solve the case before it is too late.  However, their actions have awoken a dangerous enemy whose knowledge of time could prove disastrous.  Can X-Factor succeed and become the team the world needs, and what role will Layla Miller play in their future, especially as she actively attempts to hide the events of House of M and Decimation from her new friends?

X-Factor - Vol3 - 3 Cover

The Longest Night is a brilliant and intense comic volume that serves as the perfect introduction to this outstanding X-Factor series.  Containing issues #1-6 of X-Factor (Vol. 3), The Longest Night contains an incredible and epic story by Peter David that expertly introduces the new team and sets up many of their future adventures, perfectly accompanied by the excellent art of Ryan Sook and Dennis Calero.  This incredible comic will really start your fall towards X-Factor obsession.

To start this amazing series off, David has come up with an impressive narrative that not only introduces the team but also contains several clever mysteries and dangerous threats.  The Longest Night starts off in a very interesting way, with Madrox attempting to save the life of a suicidal Rictor, while other members of the team find themselves under attack from sinister forces.  The story quickly develops, with new player Layla Miller directing X-Factor Investigations towards the mysterious Singularity Investigations, while also implementing her own mysterious agenda.  This sets the X-Factor team down a dark path as they contend with the corrupt and deadly Singularity employees as well as other malicious threats that pop up.  I deeply enjoyed the main storyline, especially as the protagonists are forced to intervene in a murder case to prove that their client is innocent, despite dangerous interference from their competitors.  This leads to some dark consequences, as one of the team is attacked and then kidnapped in scenes that strongly remind you of a dark thriller.  The new villains of this early part of the series, Singularity Investigations and their management team the Tryps, prove to be pretty sinister, and I liked some of the unique storylines that are started up around them.  There are also some impressive and clever sequences that explore the aftermath of the Decimation, as well as the current mental states of the various team members, which is extremely powerful and deeply moving.

I loved the cool style that this comic had, especially as the creative team were trying to give it a classic noir detective vibe at times.  While some of the best themes from the X-Men comics are featured within this volume, such as prejudice, dual self-hatred and love of mutant abilities, and the fallout from the House of M limited series, this comic really stands on its own, and I loved the combination of mutant issues and crime fiction.  There is a certain dark edge to many of the storylines, with the character dealing with brutal murders and attempted killings.  While much of the focus is on the darker and more mature vibes, this comic also has a wicked sense of humour behind it which I deeply enjoyed.  All the characters are pretty fun, and there are some dark and clever jokes sprinkled throughout the story, especially when it comes to group clown Madrox and resident mystery girl Layla Miller.  This combination of superheroics, dark humour and crime fiction makes for quite an impressive read, and I always find myself getting really drawn into it.  Due to how many times I have read this series of the years I also really respect The Longest Night as a first entry in the overall X-Factor (Vol.3) series.  While all the best elements haven’t been introduced yet, this comic is still off to a brilliant start, and I loved all the hints and brief mentions of the events yet to come.  Multiple storylines are perfectly set up here, and there are some great references to upcoming events and some key moments from recent comics.  This proves to be an exciting and impressive first entry in this series, and I love how it spawns so many awesome moments in the future.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 4 Cover

One of the things that has always impressed me about this version of X-Factor is the excellent cast of characters featured.  The team is an intriguing combination of some of the more unique and enjoyable characters from the various X-Men comics.  The initial line-up featured in The Longest Night is a great example of this, as David has featured several previous X-Factor members alongside some interesting new choices.  There is a real mismatched feel to the characters, as not only are they angry and discontent, but there is some thinly veiled antagonism going on between them, despite them all being on the same team.  On top of that, they end up being some of the most damaged and complex figures you can expect to find in Marvel comics, as they are all dealing with unique personal issues.  This results in some major personality clashes and great internal struggles that really enhances the drama of the narrative and results in some brilliant storytelling.

The main character of this series is team leader Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man.  Jamie is a very interesting figure in this series, due to the many divergent and tragic issues that result from his ability to create duplicates of himself.  Attempting to be a grounded and calm figure for the team, Jamie often finds himself undermined, not only by his time but also by his own dupes, which proves to be both entertaining and occasionally emotionally powerful.  A lot of these great elements are explored in The Longest Night, and you get a great sense of who the character is and his complex feelings, even if you haven’t read the lead-in limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice.  Jamie cuts a great figure as a noir-inspired private detective leading a team of misfits, but in reality, he is scared and emotionally drained, even before the series starts.  Jamie ends up spending most of this comic battling his own inner demons and indecision, while also having difficulty controlling his team.  While in many ways Jamie is a tragic figure, he also serves as one of the main comic reliefs, and his smart-assed comments and dark jokes add a lot to the narrative, while barely hiding his struggles within.  I really liked how this comic spent significant time exploring Jamie’s power to create duplicates, as well as the many problems associated with it.  What makes this power very unique is the way that each of his dupes has their own personality, most of which are a manifestation of his own fears, internal struggles, inner dark side and more.  While this is often played for comedic effect, especially as his crazier dupes say some very random stuff, certain dupes show off a real mean side, such as one who pretends to be Zen, but is actually Jamie’s unpredictable side, his “X-Factor”.  This was an overall incredibly impressive introduction to Madrox, and it serves as a brilliant base to his various follow-on storylines that are such an impressive feature of the rest of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 5 Cover

Aside from Madrox, the team is made up of former X-Factor members Julio Richter (Rictor), Guido Carosella (Strong Guy) and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), as well as X-Factor newcomers Theresa Cassidy (Siryn, daughter of Banshee) and Monet St. Croix (M from the Generation X comic).  I really liked this great blend of figures as it produces some awesome and entertaining team dynamics, such as having the arrogant party girl, Monet, getting into various disputes with the other characters.  All five of these characters have some interesting moments in this volume, such as Strong Guy and Wolfsbane’s interference against an anti-mutant riot, or Monet’s brief emotional breakdown after telepathically experiencing the murder of a young woman.  However, I the best moments of this volume probably occurred with Siryn and Rictor.  Siryn, who serves as a bit of a second-in-command, has several key storylines around her, and she ends up being the one most obsessed with the actions of Singularity Investigations.  The subsequent brutal attack and creepy hostage situation she suffers from is pretty horrifying, and the resultant mental and physical damage makes for some harrowing moments.  Rictor also has a great storyline in this series, as he is the only character on the team who lost their powers in the Decimation.  This leads him to some serious depression, especially as the first scene in the comic involves his attempted suicide, which is only just stopped by the rest of the team.  The author’s compelling and thought-provoking dive into Rictor’s feelings of loss and uncertainty is pretty heartbreaking, and I loved this complex look at the terrible impacts of the Decimation.  Despite his lack of powers, Rictor still serves as a great member of the team, and his involvement in saving Siryn from a terrible situation is extremely cool and very intense.

However, my favourite member of this new version of X-Factor had to be the young and mysterious Layla Miller.  Layla was first introduced as a unique character in House of M, as she could remember the real world and bring the memories back to the various heroes.  She reappears in this volume right in the first issue, walking into office, providing information and declaring herself a member of the team.  Despite the confusion of the other people on X-Factor and the fact that she’s a child, Miller manages to stick around on the team, mainly due to her uncanny insights into the future.  This results in some brilliant and hilarious moments, especially as she can manipulate everyone around her and change events to match what she wants.  Her sarcastic manner and funny reactions really help to enhance the humour of this entire comic, and I loved seeing her change future events in the most amusing ways.  The cloak of mystery and uncertainty that David brilliantly builds up around her is very impressive, and you have no idea the real reason why she is there or what she can do, with her only explanation to that being her favourite saying: “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Despite this secrecy, the reader ends up getting some interesting reveals about her, such as her past in the orphanage, her secret mission to stop X-Factor finding out about House of M, and her tragic self-description as the Chaos Theory butterfly, which are pretty cool, even if they result in more questions than answers.  I really loved how dark the creative team made her at times, especially in that brilliant scene where she kills a Singularity Investigations assassin by simply taking screws out of a bath.  Her confession about her motivations to the assassin just before he gets killed is pretty heartbreaking as you can sense she’s revealing a deep secret that is eating her up.  The subsequent conversation as the assassin lies dying is just so damn dark that I love it, especially as she follows up the dying man’s question about who she is with another grim “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Throw in that final scene where Rictor confronts Layla about her manipulations, only to completely miss her bringing a dead butterfly back to life, and you have such an impressive sequence of character moments.  I have so much love for this brilliant character, and while the rest of the team is good, Layla Miller is the real X-Factor of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 6 Cover

The cool story and awesome characters are very well supported by the incredible artistic work of Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero and their team.  These great artists give The Longest Night a darker feel that fits into the noir-inspired narrative extremely well.  There are brilliant examples of shading and shadow throughout the comic, and you get a real sense of the dingy nature of the story and the depressed location of Mutant Town.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character designs featured throughout The Longest Night, especially as there is an interesting combination of new styles and classic looks from other X-Men comics.  You get a real sense of the dark emotions hiding within many of the different characters, especially around the various duplicates of Madrox, who run the gauntlet from depressed, to scared, to utterly insane.  However, I felt that the best artwork was utilised around Layla Miller, and perfectly helped to capture her true nature.  I particularly loved that brilliant scene where she killed the assassin in X-Factor headquarters, especially the final few panels.  Due to her machinations the power is out, resulting in her lighting the scene of the dying man with a torch.  The first appearance with her face completely black is just so fitting, especially given her death proclamation to the killer in the panel: ‘Your heart’ll give out in about five seconds.  Your mother will mourn you … but your wife won’t”.  The following two panels with her face in the light highlights her dark expression, followed by a perfectly set up final black panel that could either represent her turning the torch off or the death of the assassin.  I also loved all the panels focused on Layla in issue #6, especially it shows her at her most emotionally compromised as she tries to describe her various issues.  Throw in the reoccurring butterfly that is both dead and alive, and you have an excellent bit of art that emphasises just how complex this figure is.  The villains of this comic are also perfectly shown in this cool artwork, and I was especially impressed with how sinister and disturbed they made the crazy kidnapper in fifth issue.  I deeply enjoyed this and so many other aspects of the art in the volume, and I think it perfectly emphasised the darker nature of this incredibly cool comic.

Overall, The Longest Night was an incredible comic that I would strongly recommend.  The awesome team of Peter David, Ryan Sock, Dennis Calero and the other artists did a fantastic job combining exquisite storytelling with outstanding characters, darker themes and wonderful artwork.  Not only does it stand on its own as an excellent read, but it also works to introduce this superb run of X-Factor and its crime-fiction related storylines.  I have so much love for this series, and I will always appreciate the way in which The Longest Night sets everything up, especially its brilliant characters.  This first volume (and indeed every volume in this series) gets a full five-star rating from me and it comes very highly recommend to anyone wanting to find a unique and powerful comic series to get into.

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The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond

The Paris Collaborator Cover

Publisher: Echo Publishing (Trade Paperback – 4 May 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Amazing Australian thriller author A. W. Hammond presents his first historical read with The Paris Collaborator, a clever and exciting novel set in occupied Paris.

August 1944.  With Allied forces advancing towards Paris, the Nazi occupation of the city seems to be nearly at an end.  But just because the Germans are poised to leave does not mean that the city is any less dangerous, especially for those whose loyalties are in question.  Since the Germans arrived, former teacher Auguste Duchene has taken on a whole new profession to survive: finding missing children.  With his impressive observational skills, Duchene has proven to be a keen investigator, but his talents are about to get noticed by all the wrong people.

Despite his desire to only help reunite lost families, Duchene is forced into working for a violent faction of the French Resistance after they threaten the safety of his collaborating daughter, Marienne.  Recruited to find a missing priest and the cache of stolen weapons he was hiding for them; Duchene reluctantly begins his search.  However, hours after he begins working for the Resistance, he is approached by a senior Nazi officer who blackmails him into finding a missing German soldier.

Caught between two dangerous masters, Duchene has no choice by to comply with both if he and Marienne are to survive.  With only 48 hours until both groups will deliver on their deadly threats, Duchene scours Paris for both the missing men.  However, the more he discovers, the more he begins to realise that the cases may be connected, and that he may be only able to satisfy one of his employers.  Worse, the Gestapo have taken an interest in Duchene’s investigation and are determined to interfere for their own ends.  Can Duchene find his targets before it is too late, or will everything he love be taken away from him?

This was an awesome and fantastic novel from an impressive author who I was not too familiar with before I picked up this outstanding read.  A. W. Hammond has previously written two Australian thrillers under the name Alex Hammond.  These books, 2013’s Blood Witness and 2015’s The Unbroken Line, were intriguing legal thrillers that focused on his Will Harris protagonist.  The Paris Collaborator is the author’s first foray into historical fiction, and he did an exceptional job producing a clever and addictive historical thriller.  I had an incredible time reading The Paris Collaborator and I ended up finishing it off in a few short days once I got drawn into its cool and memorable narrative.

Hammond has come up with an excellent thriller storyline for The Paris Collaborator that is exciting and clever, and which also makes great use of its historical backdrop.  This is a very fast-paced story, and it really does not take long for it to take off, as unconventional missing child investigator Duchene is drawn into the conflicting webs of radical French Resistance fighters and an influential Nazi officer.  Forced to work on both cases on a very lean timeline, the protagonist conducts a hurried investigation, trying to find hints of two different missing persons while also trying to survive in the middle of a chaotic and failing city.  With the interference of the Gestapo, Duchene is trapped in the middle of a three-way battle for his loyalties, as each of these very dangerous groups threatens to kill him and his daughter unless he complies.  This results in a very epic final third of the book, as the protagonist runs around Paris, which is in the middle of overthrowing its German occupiers, trying to find the last pieces of the puzzle with everybody trying to kill or capture him.

This was a very captivating and high-stakes story, and I loved all the thrilling intrigue, action and suspense as the protagonist jumps from one bad situation to the next.  The overall investigation had some rather intriguing twists to it, many of which took me pleasantly by surprise, although they were very well set up in hindsight.  I absolutely lost it when the final twist was revealed, as it was so outrageous and surprising that I ended up laughing for several minutes.  This reveal, while a little hilarious, did fit nicely into the dark tone of the novel, and I felt it was an outstanding way to wrap up this novel, especially as it is guaranteed to stick in the reader’s mind.  I deeply enjoyed The Paris Collaborator’s clever story, and this ended up being one of the more entertaining and unique thrillers I have read all year.

While readers will definitely remember the amazing thriller story, I also must highlight the exceptional historical setting that was featured in The Paris Collaborator.  Hammond chose to set his clever story amid the final days of the Nazi occupation of Paris, which I really enjoyed.  The author does an outstanding job of portraying this intriguing historical setting, and I loved the exploration of an occupied city on the edge, with minimal resources, a thriving black market, a near-rebelling populace, nervous soldiers starting to pull out and a dangerous resistance movement planning their next strike.  Hammond makes great use of this unique setting throughout the story, and I really appreciated the way he featured historical elements like the Resistance, the Gestapo and the German army throughout the story.  The final part of the book is set during the French uprising to free Paris from the Nazis, and I loved how the protagonist had to overcome all the obstacles this put in his way, from tanks attempting to put down dissent, to crowds determined to kill any Germans they could find.  This was an outstanding depiction of occupied Paris and I felt that Hammond perfectly utilised it throughout this amazing book.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the historical setting of The Paris Collaborator is the compelling focus on the French mentality of collaboration and resistance.  Throughout the novel, the protagonist encounters a wide range of different characters who have survived the Nazi occupation by working for, engaging with, or falling in love with German soldiers, much to the disgust of their fellow French citizens.  The protagonist himself is considered by some to be a collaborator, not only because he has helped wealthy French collaborators find their children but because he finds himself working for various Nazis throughout the course of the book.  This forces the protagonist to walk a thin line, as he must appear to be a patriotic Frenchman disgusted with the occupiers while also making sure that he does not enrage any of the Nazis who are employing him, something he does not do particularly well.  As a result, Duchene, and several supporting characters, encounters dangerous reactions from some French characters and Resistance members, and this really adds to the tension and danger that he encounters.  I think that Hammond did an excellent job examining and portraying this mentality of anti-collaboration throughout the novel, especially as it is cleverly layered into nearly every interaction the protagonist has.  Some of the actions of French characters who were actively resisting against the Germans were also pretty intriguing, including one particularly over-the-top one that is definitely going to stick in my mind.  It was also fascinating to see what some people would do to avoid being labelled as a collaborator, even if that means completely changing who they are.  I really enjoyed the author’s examination of how collaborator would have been viewed during this turbulent period of history and it ended up being an excellent and compelling addition to The Paris Collaborator’s narrative.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond is an outrageous and impressive historical thriller that comes highly recommended.  Hammond has written a fantastic fast-paced story that is heavy on action, intrigue, and amazing twists, all set amid Paris in the final days of the Nazi occupation.  I had a lot of fun getting through this awesome novel, and thanks to some outstanding reveals and exciting moments, The Paris Collaborator is really going to stick in my mind.  Readers are guaranteed a thrilling and clever time with this book and will power through it in no time at all.

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Throwback Thursday: Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

Veronica Mars - The Thousand Dollar Tan Line Cover

Publishers: Vintage Books

                        Random House Audio

Publication Date – 25 March 2014

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Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I will be looking at the thrilling and enjoyable first tie-in novel to the Veronica Mars franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.

Veronica Mars was a highly regarded (at least for the first two seasons) teen crime television series that aired for three seasons between 2004 and 2007.  The show, staring Kristen Bell in her breakout role as the titular character, was an incredibly fun and compelling mixture of teen drama and serious investigation.  Veronica Mars is a teenage private investigator who finds herself investigating the murder of her best friend, following a cover up by the town’s rich and powerful inhabitants.  The first two seasons featured epic season-long mysteries, while the third season contained two half-season mysteries.  Each episode also featured a mystery-of-the-week storyline that would often play some part in that season’s overarching storyline.  In addition to the intriguing and complex mystery based storylines, fans of the show could also enjoy the heartfelt drama and romance between the show’s main characters, as well as the interesting social dichotomy of the show’s main location, Neptune, California.  Unfortunately, the show was cancelled after its third season, and fans were given an unsatisfactory and incomplete series finale.

However, due to support of the Veronica Mars hardcore fans, referred to as “Marshmallows”, as well as an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign, the show was revived with a 2014 Veronica Mars feature film.  This new movie was set nine years after the show’s third season and showed Veronica’s return to Neptune.  The creators attempted to capitalise on the success of the Veronica Mars film by creating some additional material in the Veronica Mars universe.  This included the meta web series Play it Again, Dick as well as two novels set in the aftermath of the movie.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line was the first of these novels released, coming out the same month as the Veronica Mars movie, while the second book, Mr. Kiss and Tell was published a year later in 2015.  Both books were written by series creator Rob Thomas and short story author Jennifer Graham, and Thomas has stated that they are both considered to be cannon.

I only ended up watching the Veronica Mars show a few years ago, but found myself really getting into the excellent storylines and memorable characters.  I managed to avoid any spoilers so I was able to enjoy the incredible mysteries of the first two seasons, both of which were very clever, with complicated and hard to predict solutions.  After enjoying both the shows and the movies, I also decided to check out the associated books and obtained an audiobook copy of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, which I have listened to several times.  With the recent announcement of a Veronica Mars revival series airing in 2019 to be set five years after the events of the film, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to re-listen to and review The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line as part of my Throwback Thursday series.  I am particularly interested to see if Thomas will continue to consider this book as canon when the new series of the show is released, as there are significant narrative developments that may prove hard to explain to those who haven’t read this book.

Neptune, California is usually the home of sun, sand, the ultra-rich, their low-income employees and a corrupt sheriff’s department.  But something else has descended on Neptune: spring breakers.  With busloads of college students descending on Neptune, the town has been turned into one long and boozy event.  It’s all fun and games until one girl disappears from a party and her case is picked up by the conservative media as a call to action against Neptune and spring break.

After nine years away, Veronica Mars has returned to Neptune, the town where she experienced so many traumatic events.  After saving her former/current boyfriend Logan from a murder investigation, Veronica has given up her career as a lawyer and has returned to her old addiction, private investigating.  With her father still recovering from a suspicious car crash, Veronica has taken over Mars Investigations and is desperately trying to keep the business afloat with small, petty cases.

With the media storm around the missing girl intensifying, Veronica is called in to find her before Neptune’s spring break economy is ruined.  Diving into the parties and sordid holiday fun, Veronica soon finds that the house that the girl disappeared from is owned by a dangerous pair of brothers with serious criminal connections.  Though Veronica is convinced that the owners of the house are behind the disappearance, the case becomes even more complicated when a second girl disappears from the same house.  Worse, the second girl has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past that will rock her to the core.

While it would have been easy for the authors just to create a lazy tie-in novel, Thomas and Graham actually created a complex and multi-layered mystery narrative that serves to keep the readers excited and guessing the entire time they are enjoying it.  There is quite a lot going on within this mystery storyline, as for most of it, the protagonist is uncertain about what crime she is actually investigating.  There are a lot of false leads, suspects, hidden clues and several pulse-pounding scenes in which Veronica finds her life threatened as she attempts to uncover a major break in the case.  The final conclusion of the investigation is pretty clever and has a few sneaky twists that are hard to see coming.  The authors also amp up the drama during certain parts of the book as Veronica is forced to confront some heavy subjects from her past, as well as the anger and despair of the people she is investigating.  There is also further antagonism between Veronica and the towns’ corrupt sheriff, who Veronica is actively investigating for corruption, as well as a dramatic fight with her father, Keith, who is dismayed by his daughter’s decision to remain in Neptune as a private investigator, a decision which caused her much grief in the past.

One of the more interesting things about the original show was the social makeup of the fictional setting of the town of Neptune.  In the show, Neptune is home to both a rich upper class, known as the “09ers” in reference to Neptune’s fictional postcode, and the people who work for them or are employed in the town’s businesses and local economy.  As a result, several of the episodes of the original series focused on this discrepancy between these two distinct social classes, which was often represented by the rich students receiving unfair advantages at Neptune High.  This was continued in the 2014 Veronica Mars movie, which showed that the sheriff’s department had become especially corrupt and were more focused on protecting the rich and powerful than arresting real criminals, as seen when they framed a side character, Weevil, with a planted gun.  The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues to explore how corrupt the city has become under the new sheriff, and how incompetent the police have become.  This is shown early on in the book when Veronica is hired by the Neptune Chamber of Commerce to find the missing girls, as the town’s business leaders lack confidence in the sheriff’s investigative skills.  When Veronica queries why they still support him, they make it clear that his policy of doing what the richer citizens want makes him a desirable tool.  There are also some dark reveals about the serious crimes he turns a blind eye to in order to avoid confrontation and stay in power.

While there is less focus on the town’s social divide, the authors did add a new element to the plot of this Veronica Mars book: spring breakers.  The plot of this book shows the town completely overrun with drunk, drugged-up and sexually excited college students keen to enjoy the beaches and parties of Neptune.  Thomas and Graham pull no punches when it comes to these descriptions, attempting to fully encapsulate the chaotic and at times dangerous activities that the students get up to, often highlighting how their behaviour at times degenerates to the level of a drunken mob.  This spring break background serves as an entertaining and intriguing background for the murder mystery storyline.  There is a good amount of humour watching Veronica acting the part of a drunken sorority girl as she attempts to blend in with the crowd, as this is in complete opposition to her usual prickly demeanour.  This spring break storyline will also be an interesting read for those planning to check out the upcoming revived season of Veronica Mars, which is apparently going to focus on a spring break serial killer which initiates a conflict between the upper and lower classes of the town.

As this is a tie-in book to a television and movie franchise, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line appeals to fans of Veronica Mars the most.  Readers will be relieved to see that Veronica still maintains her trademark sarcasm and the jaded personality she developed at a young age when she learned how much other people sucked.  This book is set only a few months after the Veronica Mars film, and shows the aftermaths of the events that occurred during it.  Long-time Veronica Mars characters Wallace Fennel, Keith Mars and Cindy “Mac” Mackenzie all appear in the book in significant roles, while minor movie antagonist, Dan Lamb, returns in a similar role for this book.  In addition, other popular characters like Logan Echolls, Dick Casablancas, Eli “Weevil” Navarro and Cliff McCormack have smaller roles within the book.  While it is good to see them again, their minor appearances have mainly been added in for fan service.  One of the most memorable things about this book for fans of the show are the significant developments that happen in Veronica’s personal life, as a character from her past returns with some massive changes.  While these developments serve an important part of the book’s plot and offer some excellent and well-appreciated emotional moments, I will be very surprised if they carry through into the new season of the television show.  Overall, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line serves as a fantastic addition to the Veronica Mars franchise and contains a huge number of elements that will prove extremely appealing to fans of the original show.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is definitely one of those novels that is best enjoyed in its audiobook format.  This is because the Rob Thomas and the producers of the audiobook were able to get Kristen Bell to come in and narrate this version of the book.  As Kristen Bell does a bit of in-show narration, it makes sense for her to continue it here, with Veronica serving as the only point-of-view character.  Having her narrate the actions of the book and everything she sees makes it feel a lot like the television show and gives it a natural and authentic feel.  It was also pretty amusing to hear Bell do the voices of her co-stars from the shows and movies throughout the book.  I think she does a pretty good job of her narration of the other character’s voices, as there are distinctive approximations of all the relevant characters, in addition to new voices for the exclusive book characters.  Overall, if fans of this franchise are keen to experience a new Veronica Mars adventure, this is their best option.  Written by the show’s creator and voiced by its lead actresses, the audiobook version of The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is essentially just another episode of the show, and is the best way for fans of the Veronica Mars show to enjoy.  At 8 hours 43 minutes, it is a quick audiobook to get through.

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line is an excellent piece of the amazing Veronica Mars franchise which presents the reader with a continuation of this fun universe and allows fans of the show to see what happens next to their favourite characters.  Featuring a clever and intricate central mystery that twists and turns in multiple unexpected ways, this book is a fantastic read as told by its iconic protagonist.  Best enjoyed in its audiobook format with the voice of Veronica Mars herself, Kristen Bell, narrating the story, this is a recommended read for all fans of the fans of the show, and may prove to be an intriguing introduction for newcomers to the franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

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