Quick Review – Esther’s Children by Caroline Beecham

Esther's Children Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 3 May 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to read about one of the more unique experiences of World War II with an excellent and moving historical drama, Esther’s Children by fantastic Australian author Caroline Beecham.

Plot Synopsis:

Inspired by the extraordinary life of Esther Simpson, Esther’s Children is a powerful novel of love and courage.

Austria, 1936: Esther ‘Tess’ Simpson works for a British organisation that rescues academics from the cruel Fascist and anti-Semitic regimes taking hold in Europe. On a dangerous trip to Vienna to help bring aid to Europe’s threatened Jewish scholars, Esther meets Harry Singer, a young Jewish academic and musician.

Tess works tirelessly to rescue at-risk academics and scientists from across Europe, trying to find positions for them in Britain and America. In 1938, she secures employment for Harry at Imperial College, London, their love affair intensifying as the world heads into war, yet they are separated once again as Britain moves to intern European refugees.

With Harry detained on the Isle of Man while still waiting for news of his parents, Esther and the Society plead with the government for the interned scientists’ release. When Harry is eventually liberated, his future with Esther is by no means secure as he faces an impossible choice.

Confronting the horrific dangers of World War Two with remarkable integrity and bravery, Esther Simpson is revealed as an exceptional heroine.

This was a rather great read from Caroline Beecham, who once again plumbs the highs and lows of history’s greatest struggle to produce an excellent read.  Beecham, who has written several other intriguing historical dramas, including 2020’s Finding Eadie, is a talented Australian author whose novels usually feature an intriguing hook around World War II.  Her latest novel, Esther’s Children, is probably my favourite one of her books so far, and tells another powerful and intense story about love, survival, and the evils committed during war time.

In Esther’s Children, Beecham has written a particularly clever and compelling story that follows the life of real historical figure Esther Simpson.  Adding in some fictional and dramatic details, Esther’s Children turns into a multi-year tale that showcases Esther’s work as she attempts to rescue academics from Nazi controlled countries in the lead-up to the war and beyond.  In particular, it follows her interactions with fictional character/love interest Harry Singer, as she attempts to get him out of Vienna and into England.  This forms the basis for an intense and heartbreaking story as these two ill-fated lovers are forced to ] contend with the obstacles placed before them, including the encroaching war, the machinations of the Nazis, the bureaucracy surrounding asylum seekers coming to England, and subsequent prejudice faced even after Harry has reached safety.  Told using a split perspective between Esther and Harry, you get an intense inside look at both characters as they attempt to overcome the odds keeping them apart, while also experiencing some of the horrors brought on by the Nazis and others, with the reader hit by constant frustration at everything that happens to these characters.  This entire story moves at a brisk and intense pace, and you will be swiftly drawn into the clever and touching narrative that is driven by these two characters’ experiences.  The way everything turns out is both poignant and heartbreaking, and I felt that this was a great and captivating read.

Esther’s Children’s dramatic story is greatly enhanced by the captivating and fascinating historical details that Beecham has set it around.  The author has clearly done a ton of research to pull her story together, and I was very impressed with some of the unique elements it contains.  Not only do you have some fantastic, if very disturbing, depictions of the Nazi movement taking over Austria, but the story goes out of its way to highlight the work done to get certain (primarily Jewish) academics out of Europe.  Focusing on the work of Esther Simpson, a unique figure from history who I was pleased to learn a lot about in this novel, you see the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning attempt to help these academics emigrate and find them jobs in England’s educational and government settings.  This novel really focuses on the impact that Esther had for many famous academics (her children, many of whom appear in the plot) and I found it fascinating to learn about her work and the people she helped.

However, I personally thought that the most fascinating historical aspect of this book was the subsequent imprisonment of these scholars and scientists by the English once the war broke out.  I must admit that I was unaware of just how widespread and unfair the interment of German nationals in England was during the war, and I was very surprised to find out that so many refugees and fleeing Jews were also incarcerated in places like the Isle of Man, often alongside Nazi sympathisers.  Shown directly through the eyes of one of her protagonists, Beecham paints a pretty grim picture of the terrible life that these incarcerated people would have experienced, and it was pretty heartbreaking to see all these people who had already lost everything get locked up by the country they were trying to help.  I really appreciated the powerful emotional weight that the author loaded into all the historical scenes, and they really work to expand on the dramatic and romance elements of the entire novel.  I cannot wait to see what unique historical element Beecham will explore in her future novels, but I am sure it will be fascinating.

Overall, Esther’s Children is a particularly powerful and captivating read that really highlights Caroline Beecham’s great skill as a historical drama author.  Expertly combining intriguing and dark elements of history with a dramatic tale of love, loss and regret, Esther’s Children becomes harder and harder to put down as the story progresses and you are drawn into the character driven narrative.  An excellent historical drama that is really worth checking out.

Quick Review – A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

A Comedy of Terrors Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 1 April 2021)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Nine

Length: 386 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I am a big fan of several great historical fiction series currently running, but one I find to be particularly entertaining is the Flavia Albia series from bestselling author Lindsey Davis.  Davis has been dominating the ancient historical murder mystery scene for years, first with her extensive Marcus Didius Falco novels, and then with the successor Flavia Albia series, which follows the daughter of the original series’ protagonist.  While I never had the opportunity to get into the Falco novels, I have been reading the Flavia Albia books since the outset and have had a brilliant time with all of them, including The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy, A Capitol Death, and The Grove of the Caesars, each of which have been excellent in their own way.  Indeed, this is such a great series that I have been pretty eager to start reading the latest novel, Desperate Undertaking, which I just got my hands on a couple of days ago.  I really want to read it next, but before I start, I absolutely must do a review of the preceding novel in the series, A Comedy of Terrors.

A Comedy of Terrors was the ninth book in the Flavia Albia series and was released this time last year.  I had initially planned to read A Comedy of Terrors when it first came out, but unfortunately, it took me a little longer to grab it than I intended.  By the time I was able to fit it into my reading schedule, I was a bit rushed off my feet with other reviews and other reading (excuses, excuses!), so I never got a chance to really write anything about it when I finished.  This was an inexcusable oversight of my behalf, and it is one that I really wanted to fix before checking out Desperate Undertaking, so here we are.

Plot Synopsis:

In Rome, 89 A.D., poisonings, murders, and a bloody gang war of retribution breaks out during the festival of Saturnalia, and when her husband, Tiberius, becomes a target, it’s time for Flavia Albia to take matters into her own hands — in Lindsey Davis’s next historical mystery, A Comedy of Terrors.

Flavia Albia, daughter and successor of private informer Marcus Didius Falco is twiddling her thumbs with no clients during the December festival of Saturnalia. But that doesn’t mean all is quiet. Her husband Tiberius and the Fourth Cohort are battling organized crime interests that are going to war over the festival nuts. A series of accidental poisonings, then bloody murders of rival nut-sellers, and finally a gruesome warning to Tiberius from the hidden criminal powers to back off.

Albia has had just about enough and combines forces with Tiberius to uncover the hidden criminal gangs trying to worm their way into the establishment at a banquet of the emperor Domitian.


A Comedy of Terrors
was another fun book from Davis that takes the reader back to ancient Rome to investigate an intriguing mystery.  In this case, the book revolves around Flavia and her family’s dangerous interaction with a criminal gang who are trying to take advantage of a religious festival and have come into conflict with Flavia’s husband Tiberius.  This results in an interesting story which sees Flavia getting involved in several conflicts, intimidation attempts, assorted mysteries and other connected events, all in the name of investigating the gang’s activities and trying to bring them down.  At the same time, Flavia is dealing with multiple personal and familial issues, as she and Tiberius now find themselves responsible for Tiberius’s semi-orphaned nephews.

I must admit that this wasn’t my absolute favourite Flavia Albia novel, and I felt that the story was lacking some of the usual flair and tight storytelling that I usually so enjoy from Davis’s novels.  A Comedy of Terrors’s narrative was a bit unfocused in places, particularly when it came to main storyline involving the ancient Roman gang.  Rather than the series’ typical attention on a central investigation, this was a bit more of a meandering affair, which, while interesting in places, did seem to go on some random tangents.  There was also a much greater examination of the protagonist’s home life, as not only did Flavia and Tiberius have their young relatives to look after, but there was also some domestic drama around their unusual household of slaves, servants and random family members.  While I enjoyed seeing the continued domestic evolution of the formerly wild Flavia and the notoriously honest Tiberius, which resulted in several rather entertaining scenes, I could see newer readers who came for the mystery getting a bit frustrated with this extra attention on family life.  Still, A Comedy of Terrors did have some great moments throughout its plot, and Davis did the usual excellent job of combining crime fiction and historical elements together into an entertaining story filled with the writer’s fantastic sense of humour.  In addition, the characters were sharply written as always, there were some intriguing historical crime fiction elements to the plot (who would have thought there was criminal opportunity in festival nuts?), and I still really enjoy the author’s inclusion of modern attitudes and reactions in this historical environment.  I particularly loved the final resolution of the case which saw a classic gangster move turned around on its user in dramatic fashion, which served as an amazing end to this fantastic book.

Overall, A Comedy of Terrors was another great addition to the Flavia Albia series by Lindsey Davis.  While it lacked some of the focus and compelling mystery of some of Davis’ most impressive reads, this was still a clever piece of historical crime fiction, and I loved seeing the continuation of her character-driven storylines.  A must read for fans of this series, I cannot wait to see what happens in the 10th book, Desperate Undertakings.

A Comedy of Terrors Cover 2

Quick Review – A Great Hope by Jessica Stanley

A Great Hope Cover

Publisher: Picador (Trade Paperback – 22 February 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author Jessica Stanley produces a compelling Australian political drama, A Great Hope, an intense read that looks at the impact of the mysterious death of a politician on his family, set to the backdrop of a turbulent time in Australian politics.

Plot Synopsis:

John Clare was a titan in Australian politics. The head of a powerful union and a key player in the election of Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2007, he had long been tipped as a future leader himself. Supporting him in his push for power were his elegant wife Grace, his troubled children Sophie and Toby, and Tessa, the mistress he thought would stay secret.

But now John has fallen, brutally, to his death. A terrible accident – or was it?

In the wake of losing John, his inner circle mourn and rage, remembering and trying to forget the many ways he’d loved and disappointed them. An adoring and unreliable father; a grateful and selfish husband; a besotted and absent lover; an authoritative and compassionate leader; a failed politician in an era when party politics failed a nation. As those around him reassess everything they knew of and felt for John, a new idea of what love and power really mean begins to emerge – as does the true cause of his death.

Gripping, propulsive and ambitious, A Great Hope untangles the mystery of John’s fall through the eyes of those who knew him best – or thought they did. Deftly displaying the clash of the political and the personal, this is a novel for our times, from a brilliant and forceful new Australian writer.

This was an excellent novel which I think did a great job telling a unique story by exploring some of the more controversial elements of recent Australian politics.  A Great Hope’s story is a great blend of personal drama, political intrigue and contemporary historical fiction, with a little bit of mystery thrown in as various characters attempt to understand the death of John Clare and the impact he had on the world.

Telling the story from a variety of different perspectives, including those of his family, his mistress, and other related figures, Stanley presents a complex and winding narrative that proves to be very compelling at times.  Initially set one year after the death of John Clare, the story jumps around the various point-of-view characters, and the readers are shown not only their present situations and opinions but also the origins of the characters as well as the full events that led up to the night John Clare died.  While this does produce a cluttered story with a few odd moments (such as the unnecessary and graphic sex scenes), the reader is soon treated to a unique story that cleverly builds up to the finale while also exploring the various key characters.  You get a real sense of everyone featured in the novel, especially those closest to John Clare, and their complex lives and relationships with the political heavyweights.  Unfortunately, most of these characters are pretty terrible people who are fairly insufferable and hard to enjoy.  While this was no doubt the intent, to show the strain and ugliness a political life brings out, there are barely any relatable or redeemable figures here (honestly the only character I particularly liked was the mistress, Tessa, which is a bit odd when you think about it).

While this lack of likeable characters did slow the flow and my enjoyment of the story a little, I managed to power through the last 200 pages in a single sitting.  There are some interesting resolutions and revelations towards the end, and I enjoyed seeing some of the storylines come full circle, especially those that are set up in the present and then expanded on in the flashbacks.  The resolution of who or what caused the death of John Clare was pretty interesting and a little surprising, but it fit nicely into the unique feel and storytelling of A Great Hope.

One of the most distinctive elements of A Great Hope was the author’s intense and in-depth examination of Australian politics in the early 21st century, particularly around the 2007 and 2010 elections.  This is mainly because the author, Jessica Stanley, was herself involved in some of these campaigns, particularly in 2007, when she served as one of the party’s social media consultants (similar to main character Tessa).  As such, this book contains some compelling and fascinating insights into the election campaign, candidates, and voters, particularly those associated with Australia’s major left-wing party (the Labor party), which really added to my enjoyment of the book.  Some of the more intriguing and compelling political moments of this period are scattered throughout A Great Hope, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the author’s take on what happened and why.  The author also examines the growing impact of social media during this time, as well as other intriguing elements about campaigns and party politics.  However, readers should be warned that these political elements do start to get very upsetting as the book continues, especially as Stanley dives into the failures of government, the increased political hostility, the rejection of climate change by the opposition, and the inherent sexism that defined the era between 2007 and 2010.  This stirred up some unpleasant memories of the political landscape of the time, but I did find this to be an interesting and captivating part of the novel, and I really appreciated how much these unique and realistic inclusions added to the story.

Fantastic new author Jessica Stanley got off to a great start here with A Great Hope, producing an intriguing and distinctive novel that makes excellent use of the author’s political insights.  While I had some issues with the story and characters, A Great Hope ended up being quite an entertaining book, and I was very interested in seeing how everything came together, as well as all the clever political inclusions.  I look forward to seeing what Stanley writes in the future, especially as there are so many memorable moments in Australian politics to set a story around.

Quick Review – The Maid by Nita Prose

The Maid Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 20 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Get ready to follow a unique and entertaining protagonist into an intriguing mystery in this compelling debut novel by Nita Prose, The Maid.

The Maid is an interesting read that I was lucky enough to receive earlier in the year.  Written by new author Nita Prose, The Maid is already getting a substantial amount of attention across the literary world, with a ton of positive reviews and media coverage.  This positive attention has only been enhanced by news that this book is already in line to become a film starring current movie sensation Florence Pugh.  Well, after having a great time reading this book, I am also throwing my opinion about The Maid into the fray, especially as it proved to be an entertaining and captivating read that did a good job blending an unusual protagonist with a fantastic story.

Plot Synopsis:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

This was a very enjoyable and fantastically addictive novel that I had a lot of fun reading, especially with its cool and slick narrative.  Told exclusively from the perspective of this central character, Molly, The Maid starts off quickly, introducing the odd-duck character of Molly and the subsequent terrible events as she discovers a body within the hotel.  What follows is an intense and fast-paced story that sees Molly inadvertently dragged into the midst of the investigation as a suspect as forces within the hotel conspire to hide the truth.  Forced to rely on her unique outlook on life and a few trusted people, Molly soon finds herself the key to solving the case thanks to her connections to various guests and staff, as well as her obsessive attention to detail and the secrets only a maid would know.  The story unfolds at a great pace, with a strong beginning, moving centre and shocking and well-established ending, which comes together extremely well, especially as the narrative thrusts its distinctive protagonist into several unique and serious situations.  Prose sets up several great twists throughout the story, and while a couple of reveals and guilty individuals were a little obvious, a couple of things did come as a surprise, including one impressive reveal right at the end.  I really liked this cool, mystery filled narrative and you will quickly find yourself powering through it to see how everything comes together.

While this is nominally a murder mystery, the real appeal of The Maid is easily its central character, Molly, who gives the story some real heart and is easily the best thing about this entire book.  Prose has done an incredibly good job of creating a distinctive and troubled figure in Molly, the obsessive and socially awkward maid, and I really appreciated how complex and unique she turned out to be.  I always like a character who is a little different than established norms, and Molly is particularly noteworthy, as, thanks to her atypical outlook on life, sheltered upbringing, odd way of talking and stunted social instincts, everyone thinks she is weird and stupid.  However, as the book is told from her perspective, the readers soon understand that she is indeed quite a complex and clever being in her own way, as her tough upbringing and family situation has ensured that she views the world in a different way.  It proves to be extremely moving to see everything from Molly’s mind, especially as you soon understand all the heartbreak and betrayal she has experienced.  Despite this, Molly keeps her positive attitude and determination, and this notable attribute quickly steals the readers’ hearts and ensures that they are firmly in her corner as the novel unfolds.  The focus on her ability as a maid to help solve the crime was pretty fun, and it was interesting to see how the insights of “the help” can reveal so much about us.  There is also a certain darkness to the character which, while mostly hidden, comes up in certain points in the book, and I deeply appreciated how Prose worked into the character and the story.  I loved so many aspects of this character’s creation, and it proved to be extremely fun to see her develop and find some happiness throughout the novel.

Overall, The Maid was a fun and captivating first novel from Prose that I really enjoyed reading.  The cooky and distinctive central character helps to turn this great mystery into a very entertaining and addictive novel which is well worth checking out.  I look forward to seeing the eventual film adaptation of The Maid, and I am sure that Florence Pugh will kill it in the central role.

Quick Review – Resistance by Mara Timon

Resistance Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: City of Spies – Book Two

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into the intricacies of World War II espionage with a second fantastic historical thriller from Mara Timon, Resistance.

Timon is a brilliant author who debuted in 2020 with her intriguing novel, City of Spies, which followed a British agent sent to infiltrate neutral Portugal and encounter all manner of dangers and deceit.  Timon has now followed up this impressive debut with an intriguing sequel, Resistance, which follows the protagonist of City of Spies as she is sent to German-occupied Normandy days before the Allies invade.

Synopsis:

Three women. One mission. Enemies everywhere.

May 1944. When spy Elisabeth de Mornay, code name Cécile, notices a coded transmission from an agent in the field does not bear his usual signature, she suspects his cover has been blown– something that is happening with increasing frequency. With the situation in Occupied France worsening and growing fears that the Resistance has been compromised, Cécile is ordered behind enemy lines.

Having rendezvoused with her fellow agents, Léonie and Dominique, together they have one mission: help the Resistance destabilise German operations to pave the way for the Normandy landings.

But the life of a spy is never straightforward, and the in-fighting within the Resistance makes knowing who to trust ever more difficult. With their lives on the line, all three women will have to make decisions that could cost them everything – for not all their enemies are German.


Resistance
was an impressive and clever historical spy thriller that proves to be extremely addictive and exciting.  Set several months after the events of City of Spies, Resistance sees the protagonist and point-of-view character Elisabeth sent to infiltrate occupied Normandy under a new cover identity to assist the local French Resistance as a wireless operator.  Simultaneously gathering intelligence and investigating a potential mole in the French organisation, Elisabeth works with several other female spies in the area and is forced to contend with traitors, radicals and the Gestapo.  This story gets even more intense the further it goes, not only because a figure from the protagonist’s past comes into the picture and complicates events, but because the last third of the novel features the D-Day landings at the nearby Normandy beaches.  This forces the protagonist and her friends to encounter several attacks and betrayals amid the chaos of invasion and it leads to an incredibly exciting and captivating final section that is honestly impossible to put down.  While I did think that a couple of character arcs were a bit underdeveloped and unnecessary to the plot, this was an overall epic story and I really appreciated the complex and powerful narrative that Timon came up with.

I felt that new readers could easily get into Resistance with having read the preceding novel City of Spies.  Timon does an excellent job of explaining all the key events of the first novel, and readers are quickly informed of everything that would impact that plot of this sequel.  That said, fans of City of Spies will find this to be a pretty good sequel as several intriguing storylines are continued throughout the plot of the book.  Not only do key characters make significant reappearances but you also have a continuation of the fantastic romantic arc between Elisabeth and German officer Eduard Graf, who got married in the first novel.  Despite being an unusual relationship, this was an excellent storyline to continue and it was great to see the two interesting characters continue their forbidden love in the midst of war and intrigue, especially as both have major secrets (one is a spy, the other is planning to assassinate Hitler; it’s complicated) and are trying not to expose each other to their enemies.  I will be really intrigued to see where this series goes next, especially if Elisabeth is dropped into Germany either during Operation Valkyrie or the dying days of the war

One of the things that I most liked about Resistance was how this book ended up being a particularly solid and compelling historical thriller that emphasised its gritty and realistic spy elements.  Timon strives to strongly emphasise all the historical espionage aspects of the plot, and it was fascinating to see all the cool details about spy craft and being an undercover radio operator.  There was also a great focus on the abilities of Britain’s legendary female operatives, and Timon ensured that this book felt as realistic and compelling as possible.  Throw in some cool historical characters, such as members of the SOE and key German soldiers, like Erwin Rommel, and you have a particularly good historical thriller that was a lot of fun to explore.

With her second book, Resistance, impressive author Mara Timon continues to shine as a bright new figure in the historical thriller genre.  Perfectly combining realistic espionage elements with an iconic and dangerous historical setting, Resistance serves as an excellent sequel to Timon’s debut, City of Spies, and proves to be extremely addictive and compelling.  An awesome and highly recommended read.

Quick Review – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Dying Squad – Book One

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author, Adam Simcox, presents his compelling debut novel, the fun and fascinating supernatural crime fiction read, The Dying Squad, which proves that just because you are dead, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get justice.

The Dying Squad was a fantastic and intriguing first novel from Simcox that contained a fascinating premise about a man forced to solve his own murder as a ghost.  I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it, and I was very glad when I received a copy a while ago.

Synopsis:

WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?

When Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus storms a Lincolnshire farmhouse, he expects to bring down a notorious drug gang; instead, he discovers his own body and a spirit guide called Daisy-May.

She’s there to enlist him to The Dying Squad, a spectral police force who solve crimes their flesh and blood counterparts cannot.

Lazarus reluctantly accepts and returns to the Lincolnshire Badlands, where he faces dangers from both the living and the dead in his quest to discover the identity of his killer – before they kill again.

This was an awesome and intriguing read and I ended up really getting into this fantastic supernatural novel.  Set initially in the apparently crime-ridden wilds of Lincolnshire, the novel quickly establishes itself by killing off the protagonist, Joe Lazarus, and introducing him to his co-lead the bombastic and entertaining Daisy-May, a member of the ghost-run investigative unit, known as the Dying Squad, there to recruit Lazarus.  The book then jumps to the Pen (purgatory), where Lazarus is given the chance to save his soul by solving his own murder.  Returning with Daisy to the real world, Lazarus must investigate his death while facing several limitations, including the fact that the real world is affecting his memories, and he must work to uncover his own past to discover who killed him.  At the same time, dangerous events are occurring in the Pen as a mysterious being leads an uprising of the seemingly mindless souls imprisoned there, while back in the real world, a dangerous creature stalks Lazarus and Daisy-May, seeking to drag them down below.

I really enjoyed the cool story featured within The Dying Squad, and Simcox has come up with something particularly unique and compelling here.  The author does a great job of quickly introducing all the relevant story elements, and the reader is soon expertly enthralled in the book’s compelling mystery.  I loved the unique investigation that takes place throughout the novel, especially as the protagonists must deal with a range of different problems, including the sinister Xylophone Man (he’s a lot more threatening than the name implies), the deceit of living humans, fading memories, and the protagonist’s desire to interfere in events, even when they’re not supposed to.  At the same time, the protagonist’s boss back in the Pen is forced to deal with a universe-ending revolt, as desperate lost souls attempt to tear down the walls of reality.  While Daisy May and some of the other characters are dragged between these two plot threads, Lazarus continues to follow the trial towards his death by investigating several potential suspects and slowly regaining his own memories.  This eventually leads to several startling revelations, including a very clever reveal about who was behind his death and their reasons why.  This investigation eventually leads back to the wider universe story about the rebelling souls, and there are some great moments, especially when the protagonists are forced to make some hard and afterlife-altering choices.  I really enjoyed this unique blend of storylines, as well as some of the cool characters featured throughout the book, and The Dying Squad ended up being quite a fun and interesting read.

I definitely need to highlight the unique world building featured throughout The Dying Squad.  Simcox has come up with a detailed and fascinating scenario, involving supernatural ghosts going back to Earth to investigate unsolved murders.  This results in several memorable and compelling settings, including the dark and dreary Pen, a version of Purgatory, where lost and forgotten souls congregate in confusion and apathy (unless roused by a dangerous soul with ulterior motives).  At the same time, you also have the setting of Earth, which ends up being an unnatural location for departed souls, even the protagonists.  As such, the characters who venture there to investigate encounter all manner of obstacles, from rogue spirits to the very air itself, which drains dead souls of their memories unless precautions are taken.  These various elements, especially the memory loss and the typical incorporeal nature of ghosts, are worked into the investigation aspect of the story extremely well, and it added a layer of complexity and uncertainty that really enhanced the mystery.  At the same time, Simcox really went for broke exploring the wider universe and the focus on the events in the Pen soon become a major part of the plot.  While I deeply enjoyed the potential universe ending event, I cannot help thinking that maybe more of the story could have been spent on beefing up the investigation angle of the book, especially as some of the culprits and twists ended up being a little easy to spot.  That being said, it was a fascinating part of the story that ended up being explored extremely well, and it really enhanced the stakes of the plot.  It will be interesting to see what the focus of the next novel will be, but I am sure that I will enjoy it.

Overall, this ended up being quite a clever read, and I think that Simcox did a great job of combining a complex murder investigation with complex and fascinating supernatural elements.  I had a lot of fun with The Dying Squad, and it is an excellent compelling new debut to check out in 2021.

Quick Review – Lies Like Wildfire by Jennifer Lynn Alvarez

Lies Like Wildfire Cover

Publisher: Penguin Books (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 371 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to see the strongest of friendships burnt alive by fire, lies and deceit, in this startling and powerful young adult thriller by amazing author Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, Lies Like Wildfire.

Lies Like Wildfire was a really compelling and exciting read that ended up being one of the better pieces of young adult fiction I read all year.  This was the debut thriller novel from Alvarez, whose previous work has primarily included middle-grade fantasy novels, such as her equine-based The Guardian Herd and Riders of the Realm series.  I was actually surprised to learn that his was Alvarez’s first thriller novel, as it was really good, presenting the reader with an untenable and desperate scenario and forcing several life-long friends to make some hard and terrible decisions.

Synopsis:

The monsters have known each other their whole lives. This is their final summer before college – time to hang out, fall in love and dream about the future.

Until they accidentally start a forest fire which destroys their hometown and leaves death in its wake.

Desperate for the truth to remain hidden, the group make a pact of silence.

But the twisted secret begins to spin out of control and when one of the friends disappears they all become suspects.

We know how it starts but where does it end?


Wow, now this was such a great book.  Lies Like Wildfire has a brilliant and powerful plot that was extremely clever, emotionally rich and very shocking, all at the same time.  The book follows a group of childhood friends, known as the Monsters, who accidently start a forest fire during a summer outing.  Terrified of California’s incredibly strict fire laws that harshly punish even accidental offenders, the group attempt to cover up their actions as the fire races towards their town causing all manner of death and destruction.  As the fire rages, the group makes a pact to keep the secret, but lies, guilt and personal vendettas soon lead to terrible choices, as the truth bursts out and even more lives are ruined in the fallout.

I loved this brilliant book, and Alvarez has come up with such an impressive scenario for it.  Told from the perspective of one of the Monsters, Hannah, this entire novel unfolds in a rush, with the readers barely getting time to breathe as devastating events and terrible secrets are thrust before them as part of this addictive and powerful narrative.  Alvarez ensures that the readers are hooked early in the book, especially as the opening scene gives a sneak peek to events halfway throughout the narrative.  The story then jumps back to the events that led up to the fire, showing the mostly innocent group as a careless accident threatens to ruin their entire lives and everything they know and love.  Alveraz does a brilliant job of producing the ultimate no-win scenario, with the protagonists caught between their own guilt and the harsh consequences for their unintentional actions. 

This fantastic introduction leads to the destructive early scenes of the wildfires that ravish the protagonist’s hometown.  These scenes are pretty damn devastating and very well written, as Alvarez perfectly captures all the horror of an incoming fire and the panic and pain it can cause (it’s very realistic, and those people triggered by wildfires or bushfires might want to avoid it).  However, this destruction is nothing compared to the guilt, public shame, police prosecution, and disintegration of friendships that occur in the aftermath of the fire as the friend’s first attempt to cover up their involvement, and then limit the blame they receive as they start to get found out.  Despite their guilt in this matter, you cannot help but feel for the characters, especially as Alvarez does an incredible job making them very relatable, and the circumstances surrounding their crime could honestly happen to anybody.  However, the real meat of the story involves the powerful drama that emerges because of the fire, as this lifelong friendship is pushed to the limit, not just because of the actions of the characters, but because of jealousy, family hardship, and the stress of lost futures, that drives all of them to desperate action.

This leads to the second half of the novel, when one of the Monsters goes missing in mysterious circumstances.  Evidence soon points to members of the Monsters being involved, potentially to stop the missing person from revealing the groups involvement to the police, and the group is riven by further mistrust and interrogation.  This second half of the book is incredibly fascinating, especially as the readers are left unaware of who could potentially be involved as the only point-of-view character, Hannah, suffers from amnesia brought on by a bear attack.  While I usually dislike an amnesia inclusion in a novel, it works extremely well in the context of Lies Like Wildfire’s plot, even the bit about the bear attack (it’s a clever, if devastating, inclusion).  This lack of memory from the protagonist really keeps the reader on their toes and the sudden mystery is a compelling and fun addition to the plot.  I personally became ultra-invested in this book at this point, not only because I wanted to find out what had happened to the missing character, but because I was enjoying the complex character arcs and the quickly decaying personal relationships that bound them together.  The final reveal about who was responsible and why is brilliantly done, and I deeply enjoyed the various character reactions that occurred around it, especially from the protagonist.  This ended up being quite a complex and deep narrative, and it is one is perfect for teenagers and older readers, as everyone can get really invested in the intelligent and emotional plot. 

Overall, Lies Like Wildfire was a brilliant and powerful debut thriller from Alvarez, who came up with an amazing concept and turned it into an outstanding read.  I loved the great blend of thriller and young adult drama, especially as it produced a complex and moving tale of youth, disaster, mystery, and the tenuous ties that bind us together.  Readers will swiftly become entranced by this excellent and compelling tale, and I really found myself getting drawn into the amazing character driven tale of lies and deceit.  I am extremely glad that Alvarez decided to dive across into the thriller world, and if Lies Like Wildfire is anything to go on, she has a really bright future in it.  I look forward to seeing what other books Alvarez produces in the future, and I am definitely grabbing a copy of her next book, Friends Like These, when it comes out next year.

Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

Quick Review – The Widow’s Follower by Anna Weatherly

The Widow's Follower

Publisher: Self-Published (Trade Paperback – 8 June 2021)

Series: Bermagui Mystery – Book Two

Length: 222 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a quick and fun historical murder mystery with The Widow’s Follower, an excellent and compelling second novel from Canberran author Anna Weatherly.

Synopsis:

1919, Sydney.  No-one was shedding tears for the death of Roy Maguire, especially not his wife. She’d been hiding from him for the past five years and now she’d come back to reclaim her freedom. It should’ve been simple. So why was she finding herself the object of interest for half the criminals in Sydney? At first it was mystifying. Then it was terrifying.

This is the second novel involving May Williams, once the wife of Sydney crime figure Roy Maguire. This time May travels to Sydney where she finds that extricating herself from her abusive husband is a dangerous business, even when he’s dead.


The Widow’s Follower
is the second novel from Weatherly, following on from her 2018 debut, Death in the Year of Peace.  This series is a fantastic historical murder mystery series that follows a young woman in 1919 who takes the name May Williams and flees from Sydney to the small town of Bermagui to escape from her abusive, criminal husband.  The first book sets the scene for this series while also presenting a murder mystery as the protagonist attempts to uncover a killer in town.  This sequel is set right after the initial book and sees May return to Sydney after the death of her husband.

I really liked the interesting story contained within The Widow’s Follower, as it combines historical fiction elements with an interesting, gangster-filled mystery, as well as featuring some great character development.  Despite being relatively short for a novel, clocking in at just over 200 pages, Weatherly manages to achieve a lot in this book.  The Widow’s Follower primarily focuses on May being harassed by gangsters and criminals around Sydney as she attempts to settle her late husband’s affairs.  This gets complicated when it becomes apparent that before his death, her husband had stolen a great deal of money from his employers and managed to annoy all the big movers in town.  This forces May to investigate her husband’s last few days to find the money to save herself and her friends from these gangster’s ruthless attentions.  She also starts investigating the murder of her husband’s lover, a crime he was accused of before his death, as she cannot believe that even he could kill the father of his illegitimate child, whose welfare May also becomes concerned about.

This leads to an intriguing and extremely fast-paced story, as May is drawn into a twisted web of lies, manipulations and additional murders, while also trying to decide about her future.  There is an interesting blend of storylines contained within this novel, and I quite liked the exciting and dramatic directions that it went in, especially as May slowly gets closer to the truth.  May finds herself the target of several dangerous people from Sydney’s underbelly, each of whom is interested in her for all the wrong reasons.  At the same time, May’s friends back in Bermagui find themselves in danger, and this results in some compelling discussions about May’s future and whether she wants to stay in Sydney, where she has some chance at professional success, or return to the small town and pursue love.  These enjoyable storylines cleverly set up a massive twist about three quarters of the way through that I honestly did not see coming.  This cool twist changes everything about the novel, and I deeply appreciated how it was foreshadowed and the implications it has on the rest of the story.  The final part of the book is an intensely paced, as May finds herself in the middle of a dangerous conflict between some of the antagonists, while also reeling from some big revelations.  I really found myself glued to the final part of the book, especially as it contained some cool scenes, such as a multi-person chase throughout the streets of Sydney.  The book ends on a positive note, and it will be interesting to see where Weatherly takes the story next, especially as the protagonist’s storyline seems mostly fulfilled.

I also appreciated the cool setting of this novel, the historical city of Sydney in 1919.  Weatherly spends a significant amount of time exploring Sydney throughout the novel, and you end up getting a great sense of its size, layout and people during the early 20th century.  The author goes out of their way to try and emulate the historical version of this city, including by featuring clippings from real-life historical newspapers at the start of every chapter, a fun technique that I felt helped drag me into the moment.  Weatherly also spends time examining how recent world events had impacted the city, such as the recent Spanish Flu pandemic (very topical) and the slow return of Australian troops from the European battlefronts of World War I.  This fascinating setting added a lot to the authenticity and intrigue of The Widow’s Follower’s story, and it was really fun to explore this captivating historical locale.

Overall, I had a wonderful time with The Widow’s Follower, and I ended up reading pretty much the entire thing in one sitting.  Anna Weatherly came up with a clever and entertaining tale, and I had a great time getting to the bottom of the intense mystery that was featured within.  A fantastic and enjoyable piece of Australian historical fiction, this is a great book to check out and I look forward to seeing what this new author produces in the future.

Quick Review – Falling by T. J. Newman

Falling Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 290 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

Synopsis:

You just boarded a flight to New York.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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