To Kill a Man by Sam Bourne

To Kill a Man Cover

Publisher: Quercus (Trade Paperback – 19 March 2020)

Series: Maggie Costello – Book Five

Length: 438 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Acclaimed thriller writer Sam Bourne delivers another captivating and intriguing novel about the dark side of American politics in his latest clever and exhilarating release, To Kill a Man.

In Washington DC, a woman is brutally assaulted in her own home by a masked intruder. Defending herself, she manages to kill her assailant, leaving him dead on the floor. While it seems to be a simple case of self-defence, the victim is no ordinary woman; instead, she is Natasha Winthrop, a high-flying lawyer whose highly publicised work during a House intelligence committee has many people wanting her to run for President of the United States.

As the events of this case are torn apart by the media, politicians and the general public, certain inconsistencies in Winthrop’s story emerge, and the police start to investigate the possibility that Winthrop knew her attacker and that she arranged the entire situation. With a hostile press and her potential political opponents swarming all around her, Winthrop calls in Maggie Costello, Washington’s top political troubleshooter for help.

Maggie eagerly takes on the case and quickly finds herself helping a woman at the centre of one of America’s most controversial and divisive news stories. While the country divides over whether Winthrop is innocent or guilty, and several violent retaliatory attacks against sexual offenders occur around the globe, Maggie is determined to find something that will prove her client’s innocence and allow her to keep her political future intact. However, the further Maggie digs, the more inconsistencies and surprises she uncovers. Who is Natasha Winthrop really, and what connections did she have to the man who attacked her? As the political sharks circle and the deadline for Winthrop’s announcement as a potential candidate gets closer, Maggie attempts to uncover the truth before it is too late. But what will Maggie do when the entire shocking truth comes to the surface?

To Kill a Man is an impressive and captivating political thriller from Sam Bourne, the nom de plume of British journalist Jonathan Saul Freedman, who started writing thrillers back in 2006 with his debut novel, The Righteous Men. He has since gone on to write eight additional thrillers, five of which, including To Kill a Man, have featured Maggie Costello as their protagonist. I have been meaning to read some of Bourne’s novels for a couple of years now, ever since I saw the awesome-sounding synopsis for his 2018 release, To Kill the President. While I did not get a chance to read that book back then, I have been keeping an eye on Bourne’s recent releases, and when I received a copy of To Kill a Man I quickly jumped at the chance to read it. What I found was a cool and intriguing novel with a compelling and complex plot that I had an outstanding time reading.

Bourne has come up with a rather intriguing story for To Kill a Man that sends the reader through a twisted political thriller filled with all manner of surprises and revelations that totally keeps them guessing. I honestly had a hard time putting this book down as I quickly became engrossed in this fantastic story, and every new reveal kept me more and more hooked right up until the very end, where there was one final revelation that will keep a reader thinking and eager to check out the next Bourne book. The entire story is rather clever, and I really liked how Bourne showed the plot from a variety of different perspectives around the world, from Maggie Costello and Natasha Winthrop, to the media, the police, Winthrop’s political opponents and their team, as well as several other people who are affected by the events of the narrative. This use of multiple point-of-view characters, even if they have only short appearances, makes for a more complete story, and I quite liked seeing how fictional members of the public perceived the events going on. While connected to the events of the previous Maggie Costello books, To Kill a Man is essentially a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of any of Bourne’s other novels are required to enjoy this thrilling plot. I really enjoyed where Bourne took this great story, and this turned into a rather captivating thriller.

One part of the book that I particularly liked was the author’s exploration of America’s current political system, and how some of the events of this novel’s plot would play out in a modern effort to become president. As the main plot of To Kill a Man progresses, there are several scenes that feature both Maggie Costello and members of the election team of Winthrop’s main potential rival discussing the various pros and cons of someone in her position running and attempting to game plan how to defeat her if she did run. This was a rather intriguing aspect of the book, and Bourne really did not pull any punches when it comes to his portrayal of just how weird and depressing modern-day politics in America really is. The various political discussions show a real lack of decency and ethics around modern politicians, and there were multiple mentions of how a certain recent election changed all the rules of politics, making everything so much dirtier. The various news stories that followed such an event also had a rather depressing reality to them, especially as the various biases of certain networks and correspondents were made plain, and do not get me started on the various Twitter discussions that were also occurring. All of this works itself into the main story rather well, and some of the revelations that Maggie was able to uncover have some very real and significant real-world counterparts, some of which have not been solved as well in the real world as they were in this somewhat exaggerated thriller. I think all these political inclusions were a terrific part of the book and they really helped to enhance the potential reality of the story and make the story feel a bit more relatable to anyone who follows modern American politics.

To Kill a Man also featured an interesting and topical discussion about the scourge of sexual assaults and harassment that are occurring throughout the world. The main plot of this book follows in the aftermath of a sexual assault against a woman in which the victim fought back and killed her attacker. This results in a huge number of discussions from the characters featured in the novel, as they all try to work out the ethics of her actions in defending herself, and the perceptions of these actions from a variety of people makes for an intriguing aspect of the book, and feeds in well to the political aspects of the story. This also leads to some deep and powerful discussions about sexual assault in America (and the world), the impact that it has on people and the mostly muted response from the public and authorities. This sentiment is enforced by several scenes that show snapshots of women being assaulted and sexually harassed across the world that run throughout the course of the book. While the inclusion of these scenes does appear a little random at times, it ties in well with the main story and the overarching conspiracy that is being explored in the central part of the book. Bourne makes sure to show off the full and terrible effect of these actions, and many of these may prove to be a little distressing to some readers, although I appreciate that he was attempting to get across just how damaging such experiences can be for the victims. I also liked his subsequent inclusion of members of the extreme male right wing who were being used as weapons against some of the female characters in the book, which made for an interesting if exasperating (as in: why do people like this exist in the real world) addition to the story. This discussion about sexual crimes in the world today proved to be a rather powerful and visible part of the book’s plot that I felt worked well within the context of the thriller storyline.

To Kill a Man is an excellent new thriller from Sam Bourne, who produces a clever and layered narrative that really hooks the reader with its compelling twists, intriguing political elements and Bourne’s in-your-face examination of sexual crimes and how they are perceived in a modern society. To Kill a Man comes highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of Bourne’s fantastic thrillers in the future.

X-Men Red Volume 1: The Hate Machine by Tom Taylor, Mahmud Asrar and Pascal Alixe

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date – 18 September 2018

 

Writer Tom Taylor and his artistic team have created an excellent and thought-provoking new X-Men series that not only follows the reintroduction of one of comics’ most interesting characters to the turbulent Marvel Universe but once again examines the real world problems of hatred and prejudice.

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For years, Jean Grey’s fate has always been tied to the universe-ending Phoenix Force, the cosmic entity of rebirth and destruction that is constantly seeking the most powerful host it can find.  However, following her latest resurrection during the events of Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey, Jean has renounced the Phoenix power once and for all and is now determined to live her life on her own terms.  Still one of the most powerful mutants in the entire world, Jean Grey sets out to restore her connections and find her place in a world that has changed dramatically since her last death.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that mutants are still feared and hated by a world that doesn’t understand them.  Despite all the adventures and endeavours of Charles Xavier and his X-Men, animosity towards mutants has never been higher.  Determined to change the world for the better, the resurrected founding member of the X-Men sets out to achieve her vision for the future and change world opinion about mutants once and for all.  To do that, Jean first attempts to create a mutant nation at the UN.  But when she is framed for the murder of politician, Jean is declared a criminal and mutants are subject to greater hatred from mankind.

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Realising that someone must be behind the recent upswing in anti-mutant sentiment and determined to protect those mutants targeted by hatred, Jean forms a new team of X-Men, made up of Nightcrawler, Storm, Namor, Gambit, Gentle, Wolverine (Laura Kinney – X-23), Honey Badger (Wolverine’s adorable clone) and newcomer Trinary.  But even as Jean and her team fight to save those mutants being targeted, more hatred and attacks are occurring around the world.  The sinister Cassandra Nova is determined to wipe mutants out once and for all and views Jean Grey as the greatest threat to this goal.

Following the end of his All-New Wolverine series, Australian author Tom Taylor returns at the head of a brand new X-Men series, X-Men Red, which takes fans back to the basics of the X-Men franchise.  Volume 1 of X-Men Red is made up of issues #1-5 of this new series, as well as Annual #1.  After enjoying Taylor’s work in All-New Wolverine (check out my review here: https://unseenlibrary.com/2018/09/08/all-new-wolverine-volumes-1-6-complete-series-by-tom-taylor/), I was excited to see him continue to work with Marvel, especially as it allows him to expand on characters and story elements he introduced in his previous Marvel series.  Most of the artistic work in this new series has been produced by veteran artist Mahmud Asrar, who has significant work in DC, Image, Marvel and other publishers.  X-Men fans may be familiar with his work on All-New X-Men and Wolverine and the X-Men.  Asrar was the main artist for issues #1-5, while the work on Annual #1, which is placed at the start of the volume, was drawn by Pascal Alixe.

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It is always fun when starting a new superhero team comic book series made up of established characters to see which heroes the creative team will include in their version of the team.  Taylor has certainly chosen an intriguing and previously unseen mixture of characters for this new X-Men series, and it is interesting to see which characters he focuses on.  The central character of this new team is the newly resurrected Jean Grey, the red in the series title.  This is one of the few times we see Jean step up to lead a team, as she is no longer in the shadow of her mentors or former lovers.  Aside from Jean, the main team members are Nightcrawler, Wolverine and Honey Badger, who are featured in all the issues contained within this first volume.  It was great to see Nightcrawler given such a prominent role in the comic, and it feels like it’s been a while since he’s been such a major character within an X-Men series.  I also liked new character Trinary, who is introduced in this series and is given an interesting set of powers.  Trinary is from India, and has technopathy powers, or the ability to manipulate technology.  Introduced as a new mutant who is attempting to fight the good fight in her own way, Trinary is given a key role in the series understanding the full nature of the technological attacks of the volume’s antagonist, while also taking over a sentinel to use as the team’s new primary source of transportation.  I think this character is given a great introduction, and could have an interesting future in the Marvel universe.  Other characters, Namor, Gentile, Gambit and Storm join the team at various points in the volume, and have a slightly reduced role, appearing for some of the big team ups, with only some short introductory storylines.

I was especially happy to see Taylor transplant the main characters of his previous All-New Wolverine series, Wolverine and Honey Badger, into his next project.  As I mentioned in my previous review, this version of Wolverine, Laura Kinney, also known as X-23, has always been one of my favourite X-Men characters, so I was very happy to see her used again in this series.  She plays a similar role in this team to the original Wolverine, as the silent infiltrator and bodyguard who is loyal to the team’s leader, who in this case is Jean rather than Professor X.  Just like in All-New Wolverine, the heart and soul of this series is definitely Honey Badger, Laura’s clone, who, as well as being a full member of the team, is the series’ comic relief.  Her humorous interactions with all the other characters in the book, especially the stern and serious characters, add a good amount of levity to the book.  Having her refer to Namor as Abs-lantis, or making Gambit hurriedly justify his actions for blowing up Honey Badger by saying it was “for strategic reasons” is particularly amusing and definitely made me smile.  However, the best line in the book has to be given to Wolverine, who casually replies to Jean’s amusement about Laura’s excitement about being in an underwater city with “Being Wolverine doesn’t make me impervious to the wonder of a #$%@%$& mermaid”.

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One of the most defining things about the start of this new series is how it focused on the evolution of the character of Jean Grey.  Despite being a founding member of the X-Men, Jean’s most significant storylines have usually been about her relationships with Cyclops and Wolverine, or her connection to the Phoenix Force.  Now, after coming back to life, Jean has stepped out of these currently deceased characters’ shadows and starts her own attempt to change the world, as she is no longer content to return to her old life.  Essentially, Taylor is trying to set Jean up as the new Professor X, with her own vision for mutant kind and her determination to change the world for the better and end the current level of hatred and prejudice.  While she has her own unique style and vision, there are a lot of call backs to the original Professor X, including the standard “To me, my X-Men” saying that Professor X and other X-Men leaders utilised throughout X-Men history.  I also enjoyed seeing a Jean Grey that is no longer defined by her relationship with the Phoenix Force, especially as Jean lets it be known that the Phoenix Force was holding her back.

It was also nice to see Jean repair the relationships she previously lost with several prominent X-Men characters, as well as establishing new relationships with characters she’s never had a chance to meet before.  This is particularly prevalent in Annual #1, which starts the volume, as she reunites with her surrogate X-Men family, which is heart-warming, especially as there is a focus on her friendship with Nightcrawler, who spends the volume as her BFF.  I also really enjoyed seeing her think about her relationships with Cyclops and Wolverine.  For the first time in X-Men history, Jean is alive when Cyclops and Wolverine are both dead, and must focus on the world without the two men she’s loved.  As such, she spends time adventuring with the daughters of these two men, Rachel Grey and the new Wolverine, and meeting up with them is one of the first priorities she has returning to the world.  I liked how one of the definitive love triangles of Marvel Comics is acknowledged in this new series, even though two points of the triangle are currently dead, and the focus of Jean’s relationship with the next generation of these characters was a clever idea.  I’ll be very interested to see what relationships are explored in the future, with all sorts of different iterations or offspring of Jean and Cyclops out in the world at the moment.  It will also be very intriguing when the original Wolverine is resurrected to see what role he plays in this series, as the creative team will have to have a look at the relationships that this character has with Jean, the current Wolverine and Honey Badger, a new daughter character he’ll have to interact with.
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Since its earliest days, X-Men has always been about the fight against prejudice, as the hatred the mutant characters experience has often been seen as an analogy for social issues such as racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia.  Taylor and the creative team behind X-Men Red continue this tradition of using their X-Men series to reflect social issues, in this case focusing on modern issues such as the latest rise of the extreme right-wing, intense nationalism, islamophobia, fear and concern about refugees and migrants, as well as racism.  All of these social issues are reflected in the portrayed hatred of mutants in this volume, with various elements of recent world events shown directed towards the mutant characters.  For example, you have Poland attempting to use their military to round up and detain mutants, similar to how some countries have been using their military to stop or detain refugees.  In another very unconcealed scene, rioters carrying tiki torches start attacking mutants, not considering them people, and even killing one mutant counter protestor, in events that are reminiscent of those of Charlottesville.  There is also a focus on the damage or the impact that social media and the internet can have on these events, as many of the anti-mutant events or rhetoric are contained online.  This will be very familiar to readers, as it is impossible not to see the online hatred that many anonymous people direct towards various groups around the world, and at least the one in the comic may be the result of supervillain plot.  Overall this focus on prejudice is a familiar subject to X-Men readers, and many will appreciate how the creative team have tried to bring in modern issues in this new series.  The creative team do end Volume 1 with a message of hope, with some of these antagonist people given a proper understanding of an opposing viewpoint, momentarily giving up their hatred and prejudice, and is something aspire for in the real world.

The artwork within Volume 1 of X-Men Red is just gorgeous and a real highlight of the book.  As mentioned above, Alixe does the artwork for Annual 1, while Asrar does the artwork for issues #1-5.  Both artists’ works are visually distinctive and give the reader something different when it comes to character design, displays of power and fight sequences.  Asrar in particular does some gorgeous backdrops and landscapes, as the stories he is illustrating see the characters go to all sorts of locations, including India, underwater cities and Wakanda.  There are a lot of well-drawn action scenes throughout this volume, although I found the final pages of issue #1 to be some of the most powerfully drawn in the entire volume.  Not only is there a somewhat graphic scene for a Marvel comic but the final panel shows the look of despair on the main characters as the volume’s antagonist makes her first move.  The artistic team of X-Men Red have outdone themselves in this first volume, creating some superbly drawn artworks that are catch the eye and the imagination.

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X-Men Red takes this new version of this iconic superhero team back to the sort of storylines that made the X-Men such a smash hit in the first place.  With a resurrected Jean Grey taking the lead, Australian author Tom Taylor and his creative team have cleverly brought current social issues to the forefront of their new series while also doing some superb character work, including redefining one of the original X-Men.  This is a great start to an amazing new comic series and a fantastic read for fans of the X-Men franchise.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

#MurderTrending by Gretchen McNeil

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Publisher: Freeform Books

Australian Publication Date – 25 September 2018

World Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

From one of young adult fiction’s most thrilling authors comes a dark and captivating story of death and madness that is really going to trend online.

When seventeen-year-old Dee Guerrera awakens in a strange room dressed in a princess outfit, she knows she is about to be executed on live TV.  Falsely convicted of the murder of her stepsister, Dee has been sentenced to die on Alcatraz 2.0, America’s most popular reality television show.  Created by a mysterious television producer known only as The Postman, Alcatraz 2.0 is an island prison where America’s most notorious inmates are hunted down by a series of flamboyant and beloved executioners.

So when Dee comes face to face with one of these killers, she’s supposed to run into his murder room and suffer a terrible death for the entertainment of the masses.  However, Dee has other plans, and goes off script in a major way.  Her actions will make her the most notorious girl in the world and move her to the top of every executioner’s kill list.  Teaming up with a posse of other teenage inmates, Dee needs to quickly learn the rules of this island and figure out a way to avoid being picked off by the psychopaths stalking her.  Can Dee and her new friends, the Death Row Breakfast Club, stay alive long enough to prove Dee’s innocence?  A ghost from her past is haunting her, and Dee doesn’t have much time before her execution goes viral.

Gretchen McNeil is an experienced young adult fiction writer, whose previous work includes several books aimed at the older teen audience.  These include the horror suspense book Ten, the supernatural thriller Possess and teen murder mystery series Don’t Get Mad.  #MurderTrending is the seventh book from McNeil, and it follows in a similar vein to her previous books, with teenage protagonists fighting against a dark, murderous force.  #MurderTrending is an extremely fast-paced and crazy read that proves to be very entertaining, and is the first part of McNeil’s MurderTrending series.  A second book in this series has already been announced and #MurderFunding will be released next August, with an interesting-sounding connection to the first book.

The concept of a group of people being hunted or pitted against each other in an isolated area with the whole world watching is an idea that has been utilised many times before.  Movies and shows such as The Condemned, Death Race, Battle Royale, Dead Man Wonderland and The Hunger Games have all used this concept in one way or another.  I personally think that the plot of #MurderTrending is very similar to The Running Man, with eccentrically dressed hunters chasing after criminals, although it is easy to build a connection between this book and The Hunger Games due to the focus on teenagers.  I think that the author is very aware of these previous movies, as not only does the main character mention The Hunger Games within the book, but one of the other protagonists continually quotes old action movies, including several Arnold Schwarzenegger classics.  While this plot device has been used before, McNeil introduces some new elements, while also doubling down on the concept by making his killers and their executions as crazy and over the top as possible.  The killers in particular are extremely eccentric and include among others, an explosive orientated hipster, two murderous twins, a fashionista with some deadly accessories and a Prince Charming stand-in who hunts girls dressed as princesses through a trap-filled maze while brandishing an oversized cake knife.  As a result, this version of the prison reality television show is particularly amusing, and the over-the-top kills sometimes come across as more humorous than sinister.

While the overarching plot premise of an island prison has been used before, McNeil cleverly enhances this story with some great imitation of the current social media and internet communities.  The entire adventure is being livestreamed to the outside world, and is considered to be the most popular form of entertainment in America.  As a result, the world is constantly talking about the murders on social media, and the author has included sections of a number of fictional forums at the end of several chapters, where various online personalities talk about the events in a number of ways.  This includes praise for the inventive kills, requests, opinions on the various inmates, conspiracy theories and competitions to make the most viral #.  These are particularly intriguing and compelling inclusions that also add a bit of realism to the story, as the reader can easily imagine that social media activity like this would totally happen in a dystopian world where executions are streamed as a form of entertainment.  In addition to all the discussion and use of social media in the story, the protagonist also talks about the various internet fandoms, fan clubs, gambling, merchandise, shipping, fan theories, fan fiction and message boards that have formed up around Alcatraz 2.0.  This is again a fascinating inclusion, with a smack of predictive realism to it, and I utterly loved McNeil’s inventive and modern inclusions around the classic murder prison/reality show concept.  It also sounds like this concept will become a major part of the next book in the series, and I am very keen to see how that turns out.

I thought that the overall story for this book was very well done and created an intriguing and entertaining narrative that was really easy to enjoy.  In addition to her ingenious use of the overarching plot device and setting, McNeil has also created a compelling and thrilling story that is filled with a number of great twists and intense scenes where the book’s fun characters are put into real peril.  While the reveal of the final boss is strongly tied into the character’s past, and isn’t too shocking, how that character gets there is fairly clever, and the twist about the mastermind of the island was pretty surprising.  While the ease with which the protagonist was able to defeat some of the infamous murderers who served as secondary antagonists at the end of the book is a bit unbelievable, I did find myself really hooked on this great story, and I powered through the book to find out how it was going to end.

#MurderTrending is marketed towards a young adult audience, and it’s the sort of amusing and crazy book I would have enjoyed when I was younger.  Due to the large amount of violence and pretty graphic killings, I would suggest that this book is probably more appropriate for an older teenage audience, but based on today’s standards it’s really not too bad.  Out of all the potential readers, the older teenage audience will probably enjoy McNeil’s use of social media and internet cultures the most, as they will be able to relate to the characters and fandom subculture of the people posting on social media within the book.  This is one of those young adult books that would really appeal to older readers, and I would really recommend this to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable and over-the-top read.

Gretchen McNeil is once again at top form as she presents a bloody and action-packed young adult adventure.  Featuring a fun and unrestrained take on a classic fictional plot device and some very ingenious use of current social media and internet trends, this extremely entertaining story is a fantastic read for both teenagers and older readers alike.  #MurderTrending is one of the craziest reads of 2018, and I cannot wait to see what insanity McNeil brings to her next adventure.

My Rating:

Four stars