Seventeen: Last Man Standing by John Brownlow

Seventeen Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 26 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 409 pages

My Rating: 4.5. out of 5 stars

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Acclaimed screenwriter John Brownlow presents one of the most entertaining and awesome debuts of 2022 with the compelling action thriller, Seventeen: Last Man Standing.

In the shadowy world of contract killers, assassins, and rogue operatives, the man at the top of the totem pole is simply known by a number.  For over 100 years, these elite assassins have kept the world in order by committing kills for every government, no questions asked.  Sixteen individuals have previously held the title as world’s greatest assassin during this time, and the current holder of the title is Seventeen.  Feared by every killer around the world, Seventeen knows that his career can end at any moment, as it only takes one mistake for an ambitious assassin to take his place and become Eighteen.

After completing a mysterious job in Berlin, Seventeen finds himself at a crossroads, concerned about his future and considering his past.  However, everything is put on hold when his handler gives him startling clues that hint that his predecessor, Sixteen, who had vanished without a trace, is still alive.  The only way for Seventeen to keep his position in the assassination hierarchy is to kill the man who held the title before him, and if he refuses every assassin in the world will be on his back. Tracking Sixteen to a location in the middle of nowhere, South Dakota, Seventeen finds his target hidden in a fortress, and must try to find a way to kill the only assassin the world who might be better than him.

As he plans for what might be his greatest kill, Seventeen finds himself caught between all manner of complications.  Not only is his target near perfectly protected, but he soon finds himself falling for a girl in the local town.  Worse, it appears that his latest job may have been a setup, and now Seventeen finds himself one of the most wanted men in the world.  Caught between his deadly predecessor and every assassin and government agency on the planet, can Seventeen once again prove that he’s the best in the world, or is someone about to take his title and become Eighteen?

Brownlow presents an exciting and captivating read with his debut novel, Seventeen (also titled Seventeen: Last Man Standing), which I had an amazing time reading.  Featuring an action-packed and incredibly fast-paced story, I ended up powering through Seventeen in a bit over a day, and I had a fantastic time doing so.

I absolutely loved Seventeen’s outstanding narrative, which pits rival assassins against each other in an entertaining and impressive fight for survival.  The story is primarily told from the perspective of Seventeen, who is recounting his adventures to the reader.  Starting off with a brutal mass assassination, you quickly get a handle on the protagonist, his skills and his quirky style, as he commits several murders, before getting involved in another job.  From there, he finds himself coerced into finally hunting down and killing his missing predecessor, Sixteen, to secure his reputation.  Forced to find a way around Sixteen’s elaborate security, Seventeen starts to grow close to a woman in the local town, while also considering his future and the potential fallout from his last mission.  At the same time, there are a ton of flashbacks to Seventeen’s tragic past, which show how he became a killer and his road to becoming the world’s top assassin.  Seventeen’s eventual attempt on Sixteen leads to a massive confrontation, where nothing goes the way you think it will.  There are some great confrontations in the second half of the book, and the fights between Sixteen and Seventeen are pretty damn epic.  Throw in some dangerous outside interference and a massive conspiracy, and you are left with an excellent and powerful narrative that you really struggle to put down, even if it is very, very late at night.

Brownlow did a wonderful job setting his story out, and it was designed to keep your constant attention.  I have already talked about how much I enjoyed the fast pace of this book, and there are literally no slow spots during this read as the protagonist is constantly recounting action, spycraft, fun interactions, character development or flashbacks to his tragic past, all of which proves to be extremely entertaining.  The author makes excellent use of a substantial number of shorter chapters, which really helps with the pacing, as you are more likely to decide to keep reading for another chapter when it is only a few pages away.  This, combined with the exceptionally written and highly detailed fight sequences, really keeps your eyes attached to the page.  There are a ton of highly cinematic action scenes in this book, including shootouts, car chases, hand-to-hand fights, and even a bad encounter with a bear, which were very fun to read.  I also loved the fantastic depictions of assassination tradecraft contained within this book, and Brownlow provides an intriguing look at the protagonist’s preparations, as well as the unique methods he uses to find his target.  There are some very fun moments featuring the protagonist’s attempts to get close to Sixteen, and Brownlow writes a very entertaining story around death and assassination.  All this action and quick-paced writing melds well with the author’s excellent sense of humour, and there a ton of great jokes, entertaining observations and unusual situations that add a good comedic edge to much of the book.  These elements, as well as an outstanding central protagonist, really increased my enjoyment of the narrative, and I cannot emphasise enough how quickly I was able to fly through this book.

Finally, I rather enjoyed the fantastic characters contained within this book, as Brownlow writes an excellent story around them.  Naturally, the attention is primarily on the titular Seventeen, who tells most of the story.  Seventeen is a very enjoyable character to follow and I grew attached to him very quickly.  As smooth and talented as any movie assassin or action hero you are likely to find, Brownlow adds in some interesting personality traits that worked really well.  Not only does he have a brilliant sense of humour, which really comes across in the first-person writing style, but there is also a notable bit of weariness at the assassination lifestyle deep within him, which starts to drag at him as the book continues.  Despite a successful life as a killer, he is starting to regret some of his more recent actions, and this change of mindset becomes a key part of his character arc, especially when other dangerous individuals start to sense it.  Brownlow also comes up with a suitably tragic and compelling backstory for Seventeen, which is slowly revealed to the reader as the novel continues.  This backstory was pretty deep and traumatic, and it helps you to bond even more with Seventeen, once you see all the terrible things that drove him into his current career, and these elements really help cement him as an amazing and flawed central protagonist.  Additional characters I need to highlight include Sixteen, who serves as a fantastic foil to Seventeen, especially as he has the veteran instincts and a much more defined sense of cynicism, while also being haunted by the ghosts of his past.  I also deeply enjoyed the female leads of Kat and Barb, who serve an interesting role in the book.  While they are primarily used as damsels in distress for most of the book, Brownlow does add in some fantastic backstory and gives them each their own defining moments, which I enjoyed.  Plus, both are the biggest critics of the two main assassins in this book, and their fun takes on their deadly rivalry are pretty entertaining.  These characters, and more, add a great deal to the plot, and I enjoyed getting to know them here.

Overall, Seventeen was a pretty awesome novel that I had an epic time reading.  John Brownlow’s outstanding debut had all the action, adventure and fun characters you could ask for, and I found Seventeen to be quite an addictive read.  I look forward to seeing what this intriguing new author presents in the future, and I have a feeling that Brownlow is going to be an exciting voice in thriller fiction for years to come.

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Warhammer 40,000: Outgunned by Denny Flowers

Warhammer 40,000 - Outgunned Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 20 August 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 10 hours

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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One of the fastest rising stars of Warhammer fiction, Denny Flowers, returns with his second novel in the Warhammer 40,000 canon, Outgunned, a deeply compelling and epic novel with a twisty and powerful story.

Last year I was lucky enough to read an interesting and memorable Warhammer 40,000 novel, Fire Made Flesh.  The debut novel of Denny Flowers, who had previously written some interesting Warhammer 40,000 short stories, Fire Made Flesh was part of the Necromunda subseries and told a fantastic story about warring factions in a spooky underworld town.  I had a lot of fun reading Fire Made Flesh, and it ended up being one of the better debuts I read in 2021.  As such, I have been eager to see how Flowers was going to follow up this debut, and I was deeply excited when I saw that he had a new novel coming out, the intriguing Outgunned.

In the far future, the soldiers of the Imperium of Man fight monsters and aliens on many battlefields and there is always a need for fresh bodies to fill the gaps in the ranks.  That is where Kile Simlex comes in.  A talented propagandist, Simlex excels at creating moving cinematic picts to inspire the people and increase recruitment to the Astra Militarum.  However, Simlex desires greater realism and seeks to travel to a battlefield to gain real footage for his greatest pict yet.

Travelling to the fetid swamp planet of Bacchus, Propagandist Simlex plans to chronicle the adventures of the Aeronautica Imperialis, the brave flying aces who traverse the skies, fighting in deadly aerial combat against the rampaging ork hordes.  In particular, he hopes to make a pict about legendary fighter ace, Lucille von Shard, considered to be the greatest pilot in the Imperium, to turn her into a renowned hero.  However, not everything is as it seems on Bacchus, and Simlex’s attempts to get footage may cost him everything.

Soon after arriving, Simlex begins to realise that the war on Bacchus is not going to plan.  The undermanned Aeronautica forces are being overwhelmed by the supposedly crude orks who have created an elaborate fleet of fighters and are slowly destroying Imperial forces from a hidden base.  At the same time, a mysterious sickness is destroying the planet itself, while its governor is determined to downplay the war no matter the cost.

However, his biggest threat may come from his chosen subject, as Lucille von Shard is an arrogant and disobedient pilot who has only avoided execution due to her peerless flying abilities.  Determined to make the situation work, Simlex attempts to chronicle the reluctant Shard’s skills, while also investigating the strange occurrences on Bacchus.  But is even the legendary Lucille von Shard capable of defeating the mysterious enemy waiting for them within the clouds?  The Green Storm hungers for combat, and the entire Imperium may shake as it approaches.

This was a superb and deeply impressive Warhammer 40,000 read that really highlights Flower’s growing skill as a science fiction writer.  Containing a unique and highly addictive narrative, Outgunned was an outstanding read that blended an exceptional story with some impressive glances at the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I had an amazing time getting through this book and it was one of the more exciting and compelling Warhammer novels of 2022 so far.

I must admit that while I deeply enjoyed Outgunned’s brilliant narrative, it honestly wasn’t what I was expecting when I first started reading it.  Rather than a completely combat/military focused story about battles in the sky, Outgunned is a powerful and intense story that spends just as much time examining the darker aspects of the Imperium of Man as it does facing off against the ork threat.  This becomes clear very early on, especially as the opening introduction from Simlex hints at the deceit, cover-up and lies that are to come.  However, I was still unprepared for the full extent of the fantastic narrative that Flowers came up with, as he blends a lot of complex themes and components with some exceptional character work and clever universe expansions to create something truly special.

Outgunned’s narrative starts off hard and fast, quickly introducing Simlex and his propagandist ways, as well as his intentions on Bacchus, before throwing him briefly into the fray and introducing his fellow protagonist, Shard.  From there, Simlex attempts to film the flying aces in action, but he soon begins to realise that the supposedly stupid orks have developed a giant fleet of sophisticated airships and are slowly winning the battle against the Aeronautica Imperialis.  As he attempts to learn more about this, he finds himself drawn into a major conspiracy as Bacchus’s governor is determined to minimalize the impacts of the ork invasion and is actively working against it.  This forces Simlex to engage in multiple efforts, including diving into the past of his desired subject, the prickly and secretive Shard and flying on several missions against the orks, only to discover just how organised and deadly they are.  At the same time, he also attempts to understand what is truly going on with Bacchus and its people, as he finds many strange elements to them, including a spreading disease and a corrupt leader.  These well set up storylines are not only quite compelling and intriguing in their own right but they come together to tell a complex and impressive story that I was deeply addicted to.  I loved the mysteries and intrigues featured within this story, and they blended extremely well with the more combat orientated aspects of the plot and the unique character interactions that Flowers included.  Everything comes together extremely well at the end, and I loved some of the brilliant revelations and secrets that come out as the story concludes.  The entire narrative leads up to an excellent final fiery confrontation with the orks, which ties in nicely to many of the story elements featured throughout the book.  This is an overall excellent and powerful narrative that will really draw you in, especially with its unique look at the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Flowers set out Outgunned’s narrative as there are so many great elements to it.  Told in a chronicle format from Propagandist Simlex’s perspective as he recalls the events in a more realistic and negative light.  This works to tell quite an intriguing tale, especially as you get some hints of the events of the future, and the negative tint that Simlex gives to the book’s narrative was a fantastic overall tone.  Despite this interesting narration choice, this novel has a brilliant, fast pace to it and the reader is never left in a dull spot, as there is always some cool action, fascinating intrigue or powerful dive into a character occurring throughout.  I loved the balance of story elements, and I must highlight the fantastic moments where Simlex works on his propaganda picts and dives through his recordings of the events around him.  I also had a lot of fun with the outstanding ariel combat scenes that are featured through the plot.  While they aren’t as heavily featured as you would expect from a book about the Aeronautica Imperialis, there are still some great sequences that were very fun to see.  Flowers really captures the magic and brutality of combat in in the air, and I loved some of the crazy scenes that resulted, especially against the ork stronghold.  There is also a particularly good fight sequence in the middle of a swamp that was pretty awesome, especially as it showed one character’s particular ingenuity and fighting spirit.

Outgunned served as an impressive standalone entry in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and I deeply enjoyed how self-contained the narrative turned out to be.  Flowers also did a great job explaining most of the relevant Warhammer 40,000 elements featured within Outgunned, and I felt that this book can be easily enjoyed by most science fiction fans, although established Warhammer fans will probably get the most out of it.  I loved some of the very unique Warhammer 40,000 aspects that Flowers featured in Outgunned, as the author came up with some fantastic new elements that added so much more to the story.  I personally thought that Flowers did a really good job examining the Imperium through his character’s eyes, and you really get to see a fun new edge to it.  Not only do you get to see the Aeronautica Imperialis in action, which will appeal to many Imperial Guard fans, but you also get a cool viewpoint of the Imperium’s propaganda department.  Watching the protagonist dive into the techniques and motivations of the Imperial propagandists is quite fascinating, and it gives another great edge to the already dark and gothic Imperium that make you understand that deep down, they really aren’t the good guys they try to make out.  Throw in a fun blast of Imperial politics, as a corrupt planetary governor can manipulate the Astra Militarum for their own selfish ends, as well as some dark viewpoints of the brainwashing of young soldiers that occurred to certain characters, and you have a great, cynical view of the Imperium that I deeply enjoyed.

I was also quite impressed with the intriguing and cool viewpoint of the orks contained in Outgunned.  2022 has been a pretty good year for fascinating ork novels, such as Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waagh! and Catachan Devil, and Outgunned offered another great look, even though you rarely get to see the creatures in person.  Instead, Flowers offers an interesting look at them through the human characters’ eyes as they try to work out just how these supposedly crude creatures are winning the war for the skies over the planet.  Watching the characters slowly realise just how ingenious and clever the orks really are is pretty fun, especially as the propagandist main character has spent most of his career showing them as stupid beasts.  As such, the book shows many fantastic examples of the complex ork culture through the eyes of characters who really don’t understand it, which I think worked to make it appear a lot more interesting and mysterious.  Established fans of the ork faction (and what Warhammer fiction reader doesn’t love the orks?), will have a blast watching the characters, especially the sheltered Simlex, try and understand their motivations and tactics, and I felt that it was a great way of showcasing the orks without having a major ork character present.  I deeply enjoyed all the awesome Warhammer 40,000 elements contained with Outgunned, and it really proved to be an amazing entry into the wider canon.

I also must quickly mention the outstanding setting of the planet Bacchus, where the entire narrative took place.  A swamp world with little agricultural value, Bacchus proves to be an unlikely battleground for the forces of the Imperium; however, with an influential governor and a corrupt ruling class enjoying the wine that it produces, it soon becomes a major warzone.  While I quite enjoyed this further example of how corrupt the Imperium is, its main benefit as a setting is the way that Flowers makes Bacchus appear as unpleasant and deadly as possible, and it provides a very distinctive and memorable background for many of the book’s fantastic scenes.  The sickly swamp setting comes across in vivid detail, and you can feel the terrible sucking feel of it, as well as the many dangers in contains.  If that wasn’t bad enough, Flowers also inserts in a mysterious rotting disease that is making Bacchus even more deadly and hostile.  This disease is worked into the larger story beautifully, and it helps to give Bacchus even more of a rotting, decaying feel that makes you wonder why anyone is still fighting the orks for it.  I deeply appreciated this unique and fantastic Warhammer 40,000 setting, and Flower’s masterful portrayal of it deeply enhanced Outgunned’s excellent story.

I also must talk about the outstanding characters contained within Outgunned as Flowers worked to create some impressive and complex central protagonists.  While there are some great supporting figures throughout Outgunned, I am going to limit myself to the main two characters who most of the story revolves around.  The first of these is Propagandist Kile Simlex, a renowned pict maker and artist who has dedicated his life to making inspirational films that inspire mankind and get them to fight the Imperium’s enemies.  Not only is this a very cool position in the Warhammer 40,000 canon, but Flowers writes Simlex in a very compelling way.  I loved how the character’s narration allows you to see the cynical hindsight of Simlex after he survived the events of the book and recounts his adventures, and it was fascinating to see the character slowly lose his faith in the Imperium and the system he has always served when confronted with the events of this book.  The constant danger, political selfishness, betrayal, misinformation and disdain of the soldiers he is trying to help really get to him as the novel progresses, and you really see him start to doubt himself.  Flowers writes some beautiful scenes around this, and the realisations that he has about the Imperium and his role in its continuing exploitation are great, even if they come back to bite him.

I also deeply enjoyed how Flowers paired Simlex with three servo-skulls who are linked to him mentally.  These skulls (literal skulls that have been turned into drones) are specifically altered to act as Simlex’s cameras, and he uses them to record the combat footage and gather information as he attempts to unravel the conspiracies of Bacchus.  The powerful link he has to these skulls ensures that his mind is often split between different perspectives, and he often views the world through these robotic eyes.  This unique method of viewing the world becomes a key part of Simlex’s character, and it was fascinating to see how connected he was to his floating skulls, who almost become characters in their own right.  Simlex proved to be an impressive centre for this entire narrative, and his dark and compelling view of the world really helped to shape this awesome book.

The other major character is Flight Commander Lucille von Shard, the greatest fighter ace in the Imperium, who Simlex is hoping to base his pict on.  Shard is the scion of a legendary Imperial family whose members are serving the Imperium in distinguished roles.  However, rather than being a dutiful solider, Shard is a brash, arrogant and rude figure who knows she’s the best, even when drunk, and is happy to tell everyone she knows.  Always depicted with a sneer on her face, Shard appears not to care about her position, and only truly loves flying, drinking and fighting.  Initially disrespectful of Simlex and everything he represents, the two eventually begin working as an antagonistic team against the orks, and Simlex soon sees Shard in a new light, especially once he discovers that much of her persona is an act.  Flowers does a truly fascinating dive into Shard throughout Outgunned, and she is easily the most interesting and complex characters in the entire novel.  There is so much hidden pain, unreasonable expectations and personality issues surrounding this character, and the hints about what drives her and the realities of her family and her past are just brilliant.  Shard honestly had a perfect character arc and Flowers did something special with this protagonist.  I honestly don’t think that Outgunned would have been as good as it was without Shard, and I had such an outstanding time getting to know her and seeing the complex backstory the author wove around her.

Like most of the Warhammer novels I enjoy, I chose to check out Outgunned in its audiobook format, which was pretty damn epic.  I loved how well the Outgunned audiobook turned out, and the format really enhanced the impressive, action-packed narrative.  The audiobook moves the already great story along at a brisk and fun pace, while also highlighting the excellent characters.  With a run time of 10 hours, this is a pretty quick audiobook to get through, and I managed to power through it in a few days.  I was particularly impressed with the voice work of narrator Phillip Sacramento, who does a wonderful job reading out this compelling book.  Sacramento has a brilliant voice for the dark gothic narrative of Outgunned, and I felt that this Irish accent gave the overall narration a little more gravitas.  I deeply enjoyed the great voices he attributed to the various characters of Outgunned, and every cast member was given a fitting voice that really worked for them.  I felt that Sacramento really captured each of these characters extremely well, and you get a real feel of their rough emotions as they attempt to navigate the terrible situations of the book.  I particularly liked the voice that was used for Lucille von Shard, as the sheer arrogance of the character practically drips into your ear, only to occasionally be replaced by a different emotion as her barriers break.  This outstanding narration added so much to my enjoyment of Outgunned, and this ended up being an exceptional way to enjoy this brilliant book.  As such, this format comes very highly recommended, and it is easily the best format to enjoy Outgunned.

With his second novel, Outgunned, Denny Flowers really showed the world what he is capable of as a Warhammer 40,000 author.  With its outstanding and captivating narrative, Outgunned rose above the author’s previous novel and was one of the better Warhammer 40,000 novels of 2022 so far.  The author wove some brilliant layers into this impressive read, and I loved the incredible characters, memorable setting and fascinating Warhammer elements that enhanced the clever story.  A must-read for all Warhammer 40,000 fans, Outgunned was an absolute pleasure to read and I can’t wait to find out what Flowers has planned next.

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Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Upgrade Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 7 July 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 341 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The master of the high-concept science fiction thriller, Blake Crouch, returns with another exceptional and deeply addictive standalone read, Upgrade, which takes the reader on a deep journey into the world of genetic engineering.

In the near future, Earth is facing multiple threats and catastrophes that are slowly destroying the human race.  However, the greatest threat to humanity may come from within, as advances in genetic engineering and manipulation have allowed scientists to change DNA itself.  Following a massive genetic disaster that led to the destruction of an entire food supply and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, all genetic research has been made illegal and is strictly policed by world governments.

Logan Ramsay is an agent in the newly created Gene Protection Agency that enforces the research ban in the United States and which comes down hard on anyone illegally modifying genes.  The son of the scientist responsible for the last crisis, Logan works to atone for his role in her work and no longer believes in the benefits of genetic research of that kind.  However, when a raid goes wrong and Logan is targeted by a bomb designed to inject an unknown gene hack into him, Logan’s entire life and grasp on humanity is changed forever.

With enhanced physical and mental capacities, Logan has been upgraded into something superhuman.  Forced to leave his family behind and flee from his own agency, Logan soon finds himself caught up in a war for control of humanity’s future, with dangerous forces seeking to change everything about the species.  To survive and prevent another genetic catastrophe, Logan must dive deep into his past and his family’s legacy.  But the more upgraded he becomes, the harder it is for him to care about everyone’s fate.

Wow, Crouch does it again with Upgrade, combining an intense and compelling thriller storyline with an outstanding and highly detailed scientific principle, to create an exceptional and extremely addictive story.  I knew that I was going to enjoy Upgrade when I got it, especially after having such a brilliant time with Crouch’s previous novel, Recursion, and the author really did not disappoint.  Upgrade is a gripping and powerful read, and I ended up powering through it in very quick order once I got addicted to its excellent plot.

I absolutely loved the exciting and clever science fiction thriller narrative that Crouch featured in Upgrade, which swiftly drags you in with its unique story and compelling concepts.  Crouch really kicks everything off in high gear right from the start, providing a quick but efficient introduction to the protagonist, Logan Ramsay, and the dystopian future of the novel, before kicking off the key plot events.  The protagonist is almost immediately placed into danger from a booby trap that alters his genetics, and he is forced to deal with the side effects as he is upgraded to superhero levels.  Forced to escape from his own employers, Logan must come to terms with the changes being done to him, while also diving into some deep family drama as he realises his connection to the person behind it.  After a journey of discovery, Logan ends up in a war to decide the future of humanity’s genetics, as he goes up against a group determined to alter humans against their will.  This led to some big and intense sequences as genetically enhanced beings face off in some powerful and cleverly crafted moments.  Everything is wrapped up in a compelling and emotionally heavy way, and readers will come away very happy after getting caught up in Upgrade’s elaborate and highly entertaining story.

I felt that Crouch did a brilliant job setting out Upgrade’s narrative, and it is perfectly designed to keep the reader absorbed in the plot.  I loved the faster pace of the book, which ensured that you power through the novel very quickly, although it isn’t so fast that you lose sight of its many featured scientific elements.  There are several time skips throughout the course of the plot, which help to move the story along and set up some interesting changes in the character’s situation.  The story is set in a near-futuristic dystopian setting which has been rocked by a series of environmental and genetic disasters.  Seeing some of the author’s suggested futures for certain famous cities (a semi-abandoned Las Vegas and a partially flooded New York), was very interesting, and it worked well with some of the other cool science fiction elements featured throughout.  I also appreciated Crouch’s interesting philosophical take on what it means to be human and the depths of human nature.  There are multiple discussions between the key characters in Upgrade, as they debate the changes being undertaken, as well as humanity’s overwhelming self-destructive tendencies.  This becomes a rather interesting overall theme for the book, and a captivating motivation for some of the characters.  I also must highlight the awesome action sequences spread out through the book, which add some exciting punch to the narrative.  Not only are these very entertaining, but I loved how they were showcased through the protagonist’s eyes, especially once his upgrades take over, and the clinical detail he attributes to various actions give them a fun twist.  This fantastic narrative really comes together well throughout Upgrade, and I felt that this was an exceptional read.

I deeply enjoyed the compelling and intense scientific framework that went into Upgrade.  Crouch does an impressive and expansive dive into the world of genetics for this book, and the reader is soon inundated with information about DNA, genes, and genetic research.  It is very clear that the author has really done their research when it comes to this subject, and this combined with his immense imagination results in some intriguing story elements.  Crouch postulates multiple potential genetic upgrades to humans and other species throughout this book and how such manipulations could be brought about.  As such, you see a lot of very cool stuff throughout Upgrade, particularly enhanced human beings who move and think at superhuman rates.  The author paints a very interesting and compelling picture about what such enhanced humans would be capable of, and it was fascinating to experience them throughout the course of the plot especially as you see them happening through the eyes of someone going through these changes.  There are various evolutions of these genetic upgrades throughout the novel and watching the characters become more and more powerful while simultaneously losing their humanity is a fantastic and captivating element.  Crouch also presents some compelling and thought-provoking discussions about whether genetic engineering should be allowed and would humanity benefit from it.  The different points of view and the resultant debates are an outstanding part of book, and I am sure that many people will come away from Upgrade with a different opinion on the subject.

While Crouch does dive deep into the science for Upgrade, I found that I was able to follow along with the various premises without too many issues.  The author really tries to explain the genetic science to the reader in an interesting way, which I really appreciated.  There were no points in the book where I couldn’t follow what was happening, and I ended up getting really interested in all the potential genetic manipulations that might be possible in the future.  I also felt that these scientific elements were worked into the plot of Upgrade extremely well, and the awesome thriller narrative really wrapped around it.  Overuse of genetic manipulation is a real potential threat in the future, so having government agencies, underground labs and world-affecting schemes in place isn’t too far-fetched, and these science elements serve as a rich ground for the cool storylines.  I loved seeing upgraded humans facing off against agents and SWAT teams, and it resulted in some brilliant scenes.  The underlying message about the responsibility of those involved in genetic research played well with the action-packed narrative, and I was once again really impressed with how the author can seamlessly combine science with fiction.

Another outstanding element of Upgrade was its fantastic protagonist and point-of-view character, Logan Ramsay.  Logan is quite a fascinating and complex character, especially as Crouch establishes him as the son of the brilliant genetic scientist who caused the ban and was partially responsible for the resulting mass deaths.  For most of the novel he is trying to redeem himself for these actions, mainly through his work as a government agent.  However, his entire life changes when he becomes genetically enhanced, and there are some deep emotional scenes and narrative threads that are explored because of this.  While he is initially horrified by the changes, Logan soon realises they are exactly what he always wanted, and he must reconcile that with his perceptions of humanity and the damage he has already caused.  At the same time, he is also finding himself changing, and the continued and detailed examinations of all his upgrades and altered perceptions are showcased in an excellent way by the author.  The increased physical and mental capacities are worked into his character well, and it was fascinating to see the first-person perspective of everything that happens to him.  I particularly appreciated the slow loss of his emotional self and as the book proceeds, he becomes less and less human in many ways, unable to connect with the people around him.  This is sad in a lot of ways, especially as he must give up his family, but you get an impressive understanding of everything the protagonist is going through and grow closer to him as a result.  There is some excellent character work around this protagonist in Upgrade, and I really appreciated the emotional depth that it brought to this already captivating story.

With Upgrade, Blake Crouch continues to shine as one of the most creative and brilliant authors of science fiction in the world today.  The compelling, science-based ideas he comes up with combine perfectly with his exciting and emotionally powerful storylines to create an excellent narrative with amazing characters.  I had such a great time with Upgrade, and it is one of the better science fiction novels I have read so far in 2022.  I also think it was also really good in comparison to the other Crouch book I have read, Recursion, which I hold in really high regard.  While I think that Recursion had the better overall narrative, I appreciated the scientific elements of Upgrade a little more and I felt it fit into the plot a little better.  As such, I think that Upgrade is another five-star read, and it comes very highly recommended by me.  A must-read for all science fiction fans in 2022!

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Recursion by Blake Crouch Review

Recursion Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 11 June 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 47 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready for one of the most impressive and compelling science fiction books of the last few years with Blake Crouch’s outstanding 2019 release, Recursion.

Crouch is one of the more intriguing and highly regarded science fiction and thriller authors out there now, having produced a fantastic catalogue of intense and addictive novels over his career.  Best known for his Wayward Pines trilogy (adapted into a television series of the same name), Crouch’s books for the last few years have been a collection of fantastic standalone science fiction thrillers, such as the bestselling Dark Matter.  These novels often combine intense thriller storylines with high-concept science fiction elements to produce some epic and captivating reads.  So far, I have only read one of Crouch’s books, his 2019 release, Recursion, which was an exceptional and amazing read.  Unfortunately, I didn’t review it back then, even though it was one of my top books and audiobooks of 2019.  As I have just started reading Crouch’s latest book, Upgrade, I thought this would be a good opportunity to quickly give Recursion the love it deserves, as this honestly was one of the better books of 2019.

Synopsis:

Memory makes reality.

That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

That’s what neuroscientist Helena Smith believes. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?


Recursion
was a powerful and deeply complex novel that perfectly brought together an impressive and thrilling narrative about choices, survival, and fixing mistakes, with some outstanding and clever science fiction concepts.  Based around the concept of memory, Recursion eventually devolves into a deeply compelling time travel narrative as its amazing two protagonists are dragged into a terrifying struggle to save the world.

The narrative of Recursion is split between grizzled cop Barry Sutton and brilliant scientist Helena Smith, both of whom have tragic pasts and memories that they would kill to get a do-over for.  Their storylines are initially kept separate, as Barry attempts to investigate a mysterious illness that is causing people to suddenly awaken with a second set of memories about a life that didn’t happen, driving them insane.  At the same time, Helena works with a mysterious corporate benefactor to develop a machine that will allow people to relive their most important memories, but her boss soon takes control of the project and morphs it into something very different with impossible knowledge.

It is soon revealed that Helena’s boss is using her memory machine to travel back to the time that the important memories were created in order to alter the timeline for his and his friend’s advantage.  The false memory syndrome is a side effect of this process, as people eventually start to remember all the changes that have been made due to the time travelling villains.  Both Barry and Helena are dragged into this conspiracy, as Barry is bribed to stop investigating by reliving and altering the memory of his daughter’s death, while Helena fights to stop it before it’s too late.  Eventually teaming up once the world starts going crazy with multiple memories, Barry and Helena are too late, with the various nations launching nukes against America to stop them ruling the world through time travel.  Helena is barely able to escape by diving back in time to a point in her personal years before the events of the book.

From there the novel turns into an intense time travel thriller as Helena works through her past and attempts to perfect her machine and stop time travel from ever existing.  Continuously recruiting a younger Barry, Helena is unable to find a solution before the world regains its lost memories and is forced to travel back again and again to avoid the inevitable arrests and nuclear strikes and ends up living multiple lifetimes.  This leads to a desperate series of attempts to save the world, which results in a fantastic and clever conclusion that fits the unique science fiction elements and characters of this book extremely well.

Recursion’s entire narrative comes together extremely well and serves as a powerful standalone read.  I loved how the story developed throughout the course of the book, and I found the second half of the novel, with the multiple examples of time travel to be some of the best parts of Recursion, especially as the stakes are raised higher than ever before.  This is a very well-written and fast-paced thriller, and Crouch brings in some fascinating concepts that work extremely well in the context of the clever narrative he pulled together.  The blend of intense action, compelling characters and complex science fiction elements is pretty damn perfect, and readers really get drawn into this narrative as a result.  I was personally addicted to Recursion very early in the game, and I had an outstanding time seeing how everything came together.

Crouch explores a lot of unique and compelling scientific elements which become an excellent part of the overall book.  The author presents a very complex and intriguing series of concepts around human memory, time travel, and everything in between, and makes some very interesting and well-researched points about them.  While most of these concepts are high-level science, Crouch takes the time to explain them carefully, and I found myself following along with the ideas fairly well.  While I did think the leap from memory experiments to time travel were a little over-the-top, it did become an incredible part of the narrative, and I really loved how well time travel was used in the story.  I love a good time travel story, and Recursion was one of the better ones that I have read, especially as it covers it in a unique way, while also highlighting the many dangers of unchecked changes to the time stream.  I loved how well the author was able to weave a compelling and powerful story around these concepts, and you will come away from this book really thinking about all the implications of this potential technology, as well as the importance of memory to the human psyche.

I also deeply enjoyed the outstanding pair of protagonists, Barry Sutton and Helena Smith, whom the story is set around.  Not only does Crouch do a wonderful job splitting the narrative between them, often in some very clever ways, but he also builds both characters up extremely well, showcasing their deep inner pain.  Both have experienced a lot of tragedy in their lives, and thanks to the technology being explored here, they are given the chance to relive it and change it.  Watching them go through these deep emotional moments, as well as witnessing the various mistakes they make as they try to fix the world, is pretty damn heartbreaking, and you really grow to appreciate their struggles, especially if you can relate to their tragic memories.  As such, you grow attached to them rather quickly, and I liked how Crouch made sure to build in a compelling, if unique, relationship between them.  While both grow close during their first meeting, their romantic relationship takes on a whole new edge once time travel is brought into it and it turns into powerful romantic bond that literally last lifetimes.  I really grew close to both Barry and Helena while reading Recursion, and they are an outstanding pair of protagonists to follow.

I must admit that I was a little wary about listening to the Recursion audiobook, as a colleague of mine who read the novel before me indicated that it might prove a little challenging to keep track of the various time periods without a physical copy to flip through.  However, I really did not have any trouble keeping track of what was going on in the story while listening to the audiobook, and indeed I found that the format helped me understand the concepts more.  I also enjoyed the combined narration of Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden, with Lindstrom reading the chapters told from Barry’s perspective and Craden doing the same for Helena’s chapters.  This split in narration worked really well, and I liked how it changed each time the character perspective did.  With a run time of just under 11 hours, this was a fairly easy audiobook to get through, and I powered through it very quickly.  An overall excellent way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Recursion by Blake Crouch is an epic and exceptional read that really showcases the author’s impressive writing skill and ability to come up with some truly unique concepts.  This science fiction masterpiece is so damn awesome, and there is a very good reason that it was one of my favourite books of 2019.  A five-star read and highly recommended in every way possible, I loved Recursion, and I can’t wait to finish off and review Upgrade next.

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The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth

The Crimson Thread Cover

Publisher: Vintage Books Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s premier authors presents another compelling and powerful historical drama with The Crimson Thread by Kate Forsyth.

Kate Forsyth is a very talented Australian author whose work I have long been a fan of.  While Forsyth is best known these days for her intense historical dramas, I personally am a big fan of her The Witches of Eileanan series, which I read when I was younger.  The Witches of Eileanan books, which were Forsyth’s debut series, follows a group of powerful magical users in a troubled fantasy realm filled with dragons, mages and monsters, as they attempt to overthrow a dark anti-magic tyrant and save the world from multiple impending threats.  Filled with great characters, impressive magic, a complex setting and some brilliant and occasionally dark storylines, this was a particularly awesome and epic series, and it was among the earliest fantasy books that I ever checked out.  I deeply enjoyed The Witches of Eileanan books and the sequel Rhiannon’s Ride series, and I have been meaning to reread them all for a while.  In the meantime, I decided it would be good to check out one of her more recent works with The Crimson Thread.  This intriguing and captivating historical drama is a lot more consistent with Forsyth’s current writing focus and I was very interested in seeing something from this genre.

By May 1941, the Nazis have conquered Greece and the island of Crete lies before them as the next land to control.  As the island prepares for invasion, young Cretan woman, Alenka, attempts to find some semblance of normality amongst the chaos, but chance meetings with two Australian soldiers stationed on the island will change her life forever.  When the Germans finally invade Crete in a massive and long-running battle, Alenka finds herself stuck in the middle of the fighting and eventually chooses to hide the Australians when the Germans win.

These two soldiers are Jack and Teddy.  Lifelong best friends, the rambunctious Teddy and the shy, scholarly Jack, joined the army together to see the world, only to get caught up in the chaos of the war.  Separated during the retreat to Crete, Jack and Teddy manage to reunite on the island, with both falling for the alluring Alenka upon meeting her.  When the Germans invade and they are trapped behind enemy lines with no hope of escape, both go to ground, seeking out help from Alenka and her allies in Crete’s resistance movement.

As the Germans tighten their hold on the island, Alenka, Jack and Teddy find themselves in constant danger as they attempt to find some way for the Australians to escape.  However, their attempts to evade the Nazis are not their only trouble, as Jack and Teddy’s once close friendship starts to deteriorate through jealously and anger.  Worse, Alenka’s brother, Axel, is a dangerous Nazi collaborator, whose long simmering anger and resentment threatens everything Alenka holds dear.  As Axel searches for a way to destroy his sister and her friends, all will be forced to make some hard choices, both on the battlefield and in love.

This was a deeply moving and highly detailed historical drama from Forsyth that I had a wonderful time reading.  Balancing a captivating historical tale of invasion in a unique World War II setting with a powerful tale of romance, broken friendships and family betrayals, The Crimson Thread is an outstanding novel which really highlights Forsyth’s impressive skill as an author.

The Crimson Thread has an excellent and fast-paced narrative that quickly drags readers in with the wartime action and keeps them there with the subsequent drama and tragedy.  Told from various intriguing perspectives, The Crimson Thread does a great job of quickly introducing you to the key characters and settings before bringing the terror in the form of a sudden and devastating Nazi invasion.  What follows is captivating tale of survival, endurance and resistance, as the three central protagonists attempt to evade and outwit the occupiers while also dealing with their own simmering feelings of love, betrayal and jealousy.  Forsyth weaves together some hauntingly tense and moving scenes throughout this narrative, as you see the characters thrust into all manner of dangerous and tragic circumstances amid the horrors of war.  The entire narrative has an excellent blend of action, high-stakes espionage and deep personal drama that I found myself really drawn to, all of which fits together perfectly with the distinctive setting and period.  The entire narrative takes place over the course of several years, and I deeply appreciate the long-term storylines that Forsyth utilised as you got to see the various characters grow and change throughout the war, often for the worst.  I loved the focus on camaraderie, identity and historical pride that was worked into the story, and all the unique plot points come full circle by the end.  Forsyth ends the entire excellent story of survival and war on a tragic, but hopeful note, and while you may end up with some conflicting feelings about the fates of some of the focal characters, readers are going to come away from The Crimson Thread both moved and satisfied with the story conclusion.

One of the things that I have always appreciated about books set during World War II are the sheer number of unique stories that can be written, as there were so many different battlefields, conflicts and personal dramas that resulted from them.  While I am fairly knowledgeable about history and World War II, I honestly knew very little about the occupation of Crete during the war, nor did I realise that Australian and New Zealand soldiers were stationed there when the Germans invaded.  As such I was pretty in the dark when it came to the historical context of the novel, but Forsyth was well on hand here and spent substantial time exploring the entire Nazi conquest and occupation of Crete during the war.  Everything is covered here, including the initial 11-day battle to take control of the island, the subsequent disorganised evacuation of Allied forces, the harsh occupation of the Cretans, which included several massacres, the resistance movements, and everything else that occurred from first day to the end of the war.  I was particularly intrigued by the role that Australian troops played during this conflict, and Forsyth made sure to really highlight why they were there and the various hurdles they faced during this war, including being trapped behind enemy lines with few options to escape.  All of this is worked into the story in a clever and impressive way, and the various characters find themselves involved in many of the key events, either as witnesses or participants.  You really find yourself getting drawn into the midst of these compelling historical events, and I personally found it incredibly fascinating to see them, especially as Forsyth did some substantial research for this book.

I also really appreciated Forsyth’s dive into the culture, history and iconic landscape of the main setting of Crete.  Most of this book takes place on this beautiful island, and I felt that Forsyth really captured the heart and soul of Crete and its people throughout the story.  There are some compelling dives into the identity and culture of the Cretan people, including the importance of their dress, their customs, their speech, and their defiant nature.  Due to most of this explanation being done to show the undercover Australian citizens how to blend, it proves to be very informative, and readers without much pre-knowledge of Crete come away with a lot of detail and appreciation for its people.  There are also some fun dives into the history of the island, particularly its ancient association with legend of the Minotaur and palace of Knossos.  Due to my background in archaeology, I found this to be extremely interesting, especially as there are also some compelling depictions and discussions about the famous excavations that took place on Crete during this period.  Throw in some breathtaking and highly detailed descriptions of the various environments and settlements on Crete, including its treacherous and massive mountains, which serve as a great setting for some particularly intense scenes, and you get an outstanding appreciation for this island.  All of this is utilised in The Crimson Thread’s story really well, as the characters, like the reader, really get to know the island and how it impacts many of their decisions and actions.

Forsyth also came up with some excellent and distinctive characters for The Crimson Thread, and their unique and emotionally rich storylines are a powerful part of this great book’s story.  This includes Alenka, who finds herself caught between her culture, her troubled family past, and her attraction to the two Australian soldiers she grows close to.  Despite primarily being shown as a strong and clever woman, Alenka goes through some real tragedies and trauma in this book that slowly wear away at her psyche.  I found it fascinating to see her growth throughout the book, as well as her attempts to overcome the various obstacles and indignities that come her way.  Alenka was really well counterbalanced by her brother, Axel, a dark and dangerous youth who serves as the book’s central antagonist.  Initially shown as a youth who grows into a dangerous teenager throughout the narrative, Axel is a complex figure.  A half-Cretan boy who is the result of an extramarital affair with a German archaeologist, Axel has borne the shame of his heritage for most of his life and endured the ridicule and disdain of everyone on the island.  Focusing on his German heritage, Axel becomes obsessed with Hitler and the Nazis and quickly grows to be a valuable collaborator for the occupiers, helping them root out the resistance and hidden Allied soldiers.  While he is an extremely repulsive and evil figure, you fully understand while he idolises the Nazis and tries to join them because of how well Forsyth explored Axel’s motivations and past.  Forsyth writes a very dark storyline around Axel, and it was fascinating to see him corrupted by both his own unfair past and the invading Nazis.

The other two main characters are the Australian soldier protagonists, Jack and Teddy.  Despite being old friends, these two are very much the opposite of the other, with Teddy being a wild, confident and arrogant figure, while Jack is a kind and shy man with a stutter.  While you wouldn’t think that they would be friends, Forsyth does a good job establishing their bond, and you fully understand why they are close to each other.  Both characters are interesting in their own right, and I appreciated how Forsyth highlighted their differences and showed how their relationship eventually broke down over their mutual attraction to Alenka.  Teddy’s slow crawl from causal larrikin to arrogant jerk is subtle, but well formed, and the author shows some compelling, but damning, change in views in his mind throughout The Crimson Thread.  Jack, on the other hand, grows from unconfident scholar to strong-willed fighter, all thanks to his love of Alenka.  I loved how Forsyth showed all his artistic skills and passions, such as poetry, as a strength, and it was pretty fun to see him succeed in the specialised spy school both characters end up in.  This poetry actually had an interesting role in the wider book, and you can see a great example of it at the start of different chapters.  Forsyth really excelled at creating some amazing and captivating character arcs throughout The Crimson Thread, and I had an outstanding time getting close to these figures and experiencing their triumphs and dark pains.

Overall, The Crimson Thread was a wonderful and deeply moving read that ended up being one of the better historical dramas I have read this year.  Kate Forsyth continues to shine as an extremely talented Australian author, and I had fun exploring a book from her current genre of choice.  Featuring some damaged characters, a powerful story and some exquisite dives into Crete and its wartime history, The Crimson Thread is a captivating and clever novel that I had an outstanding time reading.

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Armored by Mark Greaney

Armored Cover (2)

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback – 12 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling thriller author Mark Greaney presents one of the most exciting and action-packed novels of 2022, the high-octane thriller Armored.

Over the last few years I have been really getting into the awesome thriller novels of impressive author Mark Greaney, who is having a very big 2022.  Not only has he released two separate novels but he also has a film adaptation of his iconic series coming out later this week, The Gray Man.  I am really looking forward to this film, especially as I am now a pretty big fan of The Gray Man novels, having enjoyed both the first book, The Gray Man, and some of the latest entries, such as Mission Critical, One Minute Out, Relentless and Sierra Six.  However, Greaney’s year is far from done as the novel version of his 2021 Audible Original release, Armored, has just come out.  Converted into book format, Armored tells an impressive and over-the-top tale of survival and destruction that has already grabbed the attention of legendary director Michael Bay, who plans to adapt it into his next major blockbuster.

Joshua Duffy used to be one of the best close protection agents in the world, working with teams of private military contractors as security for elites in some of the most dangerous countries.  But after his fateful last mission in Lebanon cost him his team, his client and his lower left leg, Joshua finds himself suddenly and violently out of the game.  Forced to work as a mall cop to support his struggling family, Joshua’s future seems shot.  However, opportunity is about to come knocking with a deadly offer he cannot turn down.

Following a chance encounter with an old colleague, Joshua is given the opportunity to work one last job that promises to solve all his financial issues.  A violent and highly organised drug cartel has risen to power in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, and its recent actions have greatly infuriated the Mexican government and army.  To save the large civilian population living in the Sierra Madre Mountains, the United Nations is sending a peace mission in to ease tensions and attempt to negotiate a truce before it is too late.  However, the only way to reach the cartel’s base of operations is by road, and that means travelling through one of the most dangerous and lawless areas on the planet, the Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil’s Spine.

Joining up with the notorious Armored Saint company and hiding his injury, Joshua is recruited as a team leader in the convoy assigned to keep the UN dignitaries safe.  Even loaded up in advanced armoured vehicles and working with a team of elite operators, Joshua has no allusions that his chances of success are slim, but even he is unaware just how dangerous this mission is going to be.  The other Mexican cartels are determined that the peace talks fail and are willing to pay any price to see the UN team killed and their rivals destroyed in the aftermath.  Worse, someone else is working behind the scenes to manipulate events to their advantage, and they are willing to kill everyone in the convoy to get what they want.  Can Joshua and his new team survive the deadly onslaught about to be unleashed upon them, or will they end up another victim of the Espinazo del Diablo?

Greaney continues to shine as one of our leading thriller readers with this highly entertaining action saga.  Armored is pure pulse-pounding excitement from start to finish, and I ended up powering through this substantial novel in very short order, especially once I got lured into its amazing narrative and impressively written fight scenes.

Armored Cover

I had a lot of fun with the awesome story that Greaney came up for this impressive release that is based around an intriguing and epic premise of a small team of mercenaries caught up in the violence and backstabbing of the Mexican cartels in a remote and dangerous area.  Armored has a great start to it that sets up complex protagonist Joshua Duffy extremely well, showcasing his last mission as a conventional private security contractor in a massive and deadly confrontation.  After this action-orientated introduction, you see a very desperate Duffy as he attempts to get on with his life, only to be dragged into the main mission of the book.  Greaney sets up many key parts of Armored’s plot in the early pages, introducing the main characters, showing the desperation surrounding the central protagonist, and introducing all the substantial opposition that they are likely to face.  Thanks to the use of mysterious antagonist Oscar Cardoza, you see just how rigged the situation is against the protagonists as the villain manipulates and deals with multiple cartels to ensure that they are all set against the peace mission.  As such, you know pretty early on that you are in for a wild thrill ride later in the book and Greaney does not disappoint.

Once Armored’s main story gets underway, the book moves at an extremely fast pace to match the convoy of armoured cars it is following.  The protagonists immediately face opposition, obstacles and attacks as they continue on their way, ignoring the multiple warnings about the even greater threats to come (seriously, they get so many warnings).  After surviving an increasingly deadly barrage of ambushes, betrayals and personal dramas, the story takes a whole new turn as a big twist switches the entire narrative on its head.  This twist was a fantastic game changer that was well set up during the earlier parts of the book, and it was really cool to see it fully unfold, introducing some intense new problems and opportunities.  Thanks to this twist, the second half of Armored essentially becomes one continuous battle for survival.  There are some really awesome and over-the-top moments during this second half, as several key characters die, the odds become more and more stacked against the protagonists, some final twists come into play, and new players are drawn into the fray.  This all leads up to the big conclusion, which unsurprisingly contains more action and excitement, before bringing everything to an awesome end.  I came away feeling pretty satisfied with how the story came together, and I think that Greaney wrapped up everything really well.

I quite enjoyed how Greaney wrote Armored as he brought his typical style to this later thriller.  The story was expertly told using multiple character perspectives to show the various viewpoints of the key protagonists and antagonists.  Not only does this result in a much richer story with various intriguing characters, but Greaney ensures that it ramps up the novel’s tension, especially when the reader can see betrayals and traps being formed in advance of them being unleashed upon the characters you are rooting for.  The author uses these alternate perspectives to also hint at hidden motivations in some of the supporting characters and it does a good job mostly disguising who the culprits are, while ensuring that the reader knows something big is about to go down.  There are even some intriguing flashback sequences thrown in for greater context, which help to highlight the bond two key characters have.  The entire story is very well paced, with Greaney doing a good job evenly spreading out the big action moments and the intriguing character development to ensure a continuous story that never has any slow points.  I also liked the way in which Greaney adds in some intriguing commentary about certain real-world issues, including around private military contractors, the issues surrounding wounded veterans, and the current political and criminal situation in Mexico, especially regarding the volatile cartels.  All this comes together extremely well, and the reader has a very hard time turning away from the story as everything unfolds before them.

Unsurprisingly, the real star of Armored is the action sequences, as Greaney really goes all out to provide the reader with all the high-octane gun fights they could ever want.  This thriller novel is packed to the gills with battle scenes as every major character is dragged into a series of brutal and bloody fights as they attempt to achieve their goals and survive.  I have always been really impressed with how realistic Greaney can make his fight sequences in The Gray Man novels, and this awesome attention to detail and realism continues over into Armored.  Greaney clearly knows what he is talking about when it comes to gun battles, and you really get drawn into the intense battles, as well as the detailed descriptions of proper military tactics and strategies, especially in the first half of the novel.  However, I did think that Greaney went a little too far with some of the action scenes in the second half of the book, as the already over-the-top action started to get a little insane.  Greaney was clearly trying to set up some big Hollywood moments for the announced adaptation here (to be fair, Michael Bay is going to love bringing some of these sequences to the big screen), even though it was a little too much at times.  I was especially bemused by one scene that saw several characters shooting guns out the back of a small plane, which resulted in one of the most ridiculous things I have read about in a serious thriller read.  While these crazy moments honestly did not detract too much from my enjoyment of the novel, it did give Armored a bit of an unfortunate sillier edge that it really did not need.

Finally, I need to highlight the characters featured within Armored.  Greaney has a good knack for creating large groups of likeable and distinctive characters, and most of the protagonists and antagonists in Armored were extremely good, adding some great elements to the overall story.  I particularly liked main protagonist Joshua Duffy, the wounded veteran contractor who is dragged back in for one last dangerous job.  Greaney does a lot with Duffy in this novel, showcasing him at his emotional height, slamming him down hard, and then slowly building him back up through the course of the main story.  As such, Duffy serves as an excellent central figure for most of the story, and watching him try to escape the ghosts of his past and bring his new team together to complete the mission proves to be deeply captivating in many ways.  I really enjoyed watching him being a major badass, even with one leg, and Greaney wrote a fantastic storyline over his attempts to take on a leadership role in this mission, despite dealing with a group of disrespectful and arrogant soldiers.  A definite standout character for me, it will be very interesting to see who is cast to play Duffy in the movie adaptation, and whoever it is will have a great role to fill.

Aside from Duffy, Armored featured a pretty large and fun cast of characters, with a decent focus being on the team members in Duffy’s armoured vehicle.  Made up of six members, Charlie team proves to be a solid group of protagonists, and Greaney writes a good story about them slowly coming together as a team, despite being gradually picked off.  While I enjoyed them, I did find them to be a little stereotypical in ways, with most of them being classic disrespectful and uncontrollable soldiers.  This is especially true for the characters of Wolfson, the arrogant former seal; Frenchie, the weathered veteran acting as the voice of reason; Squeeze, the extremely angry African American former Marine; and Tony Cruz, the talented but token Spanish-speaking soldier.  All of the above filled overused action tropes to a degree, and it felt a little lazy, especially when compared to some of the other characters in the book.  Luckily, this group of soldiers were well balanced out by their final member, NASCAR, the team’s driver and the book’s comic relief.  NASCAR, a former race driver turned military contractor with a history of crashing his vehicles, was an excellent addition to the cast, and his entertaining antics helped to distract from some of the blander figures in the team.

I also need to mention Duffy’s wife, Nikki, a former Army officer who has taken to cleaning houses to support her family and wounded husband.  While initially just a supporting role to help motivate the protagonist, Greaney ends up bringing Nikki into the main story in a big way as she attempts her own rescue mission.  I deeply enjoyed the determined narrative around Nikki, and it was a fantastic addition to the plot, even if it resulted in more problems for the protagonist.  I also enjoyed the other major female character in the novel, Dr Flores, a Mexican anthropologist who is assigned to the peace talks as a cultural advisor and interpreter.  Despite being a bit of a preachy figure, Dr Flores is pretty much the only character that has any common sense or idea of what they are walking into, and her knowledge and passionate personality slowly bring the main cast around.  I really enjoyed Dr Flores’s scenes throughout the novel, and you really feel for her as she keeps trying and trying to talk some sense into the soldiers or diplomats, only to be knocked back by their arrogant and dismissive attitudes.  The final character I need to highlight is Oscar Cardoza, who serves as the book’s main antagonist.  Billed as a cartel consultant who works for the highest bidder, Cardoza is a mysterious and dangerous figure for most of the book, visiting the various cartel leaders and working them to his advantage, before getting closer to the action halfway through.  I instantly enjoyed Cardoza from his first scene, especially after some fun, if ineffective, small talk with some cartel guards, and it was fantastic to watch him flit around the various cartels and play them to his advantage.  He also serves as a great foil to the main band of protagonists, and once he gets involved in the hunt for them, he really shines as a villain, especially once some secrets about him are revealed.  The cast of Armored ended up being a fantastic and captivating band of character, and I ended up becoming really invested in their unique and powerful storylines.

I cannot emphasise how exciting and enjoyable Armored turned out to be and I am really glad that I got the chance to read it.  Mark Greaney obviously had a ton of fun turning his latest novel into the most action-packed adventure he could, and Armored really lived up to its plot potential, providing the reader with wall-to-wall fire fights and intense combat.  While the novel did get a little over-the-top in places, this was a solid and impressive read that is really worth checking out.  An excellent and fast-paced thriller designed to entertain anyone who reads it; the Armored adaptation is going to end up being a pretty awesome movie that Michael Bay will have a wonderful time making.

Armored Cover 3

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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.

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Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild

Blood Sugar Cover

Publisher: Trapeze (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding screenwriter Sascha Rothchild presents her debut novel with the utterly addictive Blood Sugar, an awesome and clever thriller with a sweet twist.

Ruby Simon has been a killer since she was five years old.  On a sunny day, young Ruby took an opportunity to rid herself and her sister of the school bully by helping him drown at the local Miami beach.  After managing to get away with her crime, Ruby expected to feel guilty for the life she took, but instead all she felt was relief that the boy would never hurt her sister again.  This action led to Ruby having a realisation that sometimes killing a terrible person is not necessarily a bad thing.

Twenty-five years later, Ruby appears to have it all.  A successful and driven psychologist in Miami, Ruby has killed several times over the intervening years and has never felt guilt for her actions.  However, everything she has built is about to come crumbling down when she finds herself in an interrogation room under suspicion of murder.  In front of her lie four photographs of people who she once knew and who are all now dead.

As the interrogation continues, Ruby soon discovers a significant problem: of the four victims she is accused of murdering, she has only killed three of them, and it is the death she is not responsible for that the police are most determined to bring her down for.  Can Ruby prove she is innocent of this one murder?  And even if she can, does she even deserve to be set free?

This was an impressive and compelling debut from Sascha Rothchild that I was really quite happy to get a copy of.  Not only did it have an awesome-sounding plot but I was also very intrigued by the author, as Rothchild already had some major writing creds after her work on several television shows, including GLOW, which I was a big fan of.  I ended up really loving Blood Sugar and I swiftly got drawn into its witty, humorous and powerful story set around an unlikely and extremely likeable murderer.

Blood Sugar has a distinctive and fun narrative that really grabs your attention from the beginning, starting as it does with child-on-child murder.  Told exclusively from the perspective of central character Ruby Simon, the book is an impressive, deep and occasionally humorous character study of a very unique fictional killer.  The initial narrative is split between events in the character’s present, where she is being interrogated by the police, and an extended look back at her past, as you see all the major events in her life.  These flashback sequences take up the majority of the first two thirds of the book, and they present some powerful and intriguing examinations of the protagonist and all the moments that led to her present.  In particular, they look at her key relationships, her schooling, the events that made her into the successful person she is today, as well as the moments where she decided to take a life.  These two separate narrative threads play off each other extremely well, with the character history providing some intriguing context to the character’s background and mindset, while the present-day interrogation does a good job at hinting at events that are still to be revealed in the flashbacks.  Rothchild’s excellent writing style and ability to forge interesting and compelling characters are on full display during this part of the novel, and she is effortlessly able to construct a powerful and natural life story around the very relatable protagonist, with her occasional murders cleverly worked in.  The blend of character history and justified killings really works well to keep your attention, while also making you really start to care about the protagonist and her future.  Both separate linear threads bind together perfectly as the novel progresses and leads the reader towards Blood Sugar’s awesome third and final act.

The final third of Blood Sugar takes on a completely new format as the first-person examination of the protagonist’s past is wrapped up and the book turns into an intense legal thriller.  This fantastic and powerful change of pace is quite jarring and sees the protagonist encounter all manner of personal setbacks and attacks as the police close in on her.  Thanks to all the awesome work that the author did in the first part of the novel, the reader is now incredibly invested in Ruby’s life story, and you feel incredibly sympathetic for her.  As such, it hurts a little to see her so terribly attacked, even though many of the things that they are accusing her of are true and a key part of her life.  This final part of the novel is incredibly intense, and Rothchild brings out all manner of intriguing twists and turns to shake the reader, especially as you still a little uncertain about who is responsible for one of the key events.  The author comes up with an intriguing and entertaining conclusion for the novel that really makes one of the supporting characters shine.  I really liked how everything wrapped up here, and it really did the rest of the book justice.  An overall impressive and highly addictive narrative that I powered through in very short order.

I deeply enjoyed some of the unique elements that Rothchild sprinkled throughout her novel.  While there is a natural focus on the morality of murder and the mindset of her protagonist, the author also takes the time to examine other interesting elements in her own entertaining way.  Many of these elements revolve around relationships, with the protagonist finding herself connected to multiple interesting people in a variety of complex ways, from a very close platonic friendship that experiences major highs and severe lows, to a loving relationship that tries to overcome mistrust and traumatic pasts.  The author also presents one of the most honest and powerful examinations of the relationships people have with their pets, as the protagonist becomes extremely close with several animals that she adopts.  While one of these ends quite tragically (I was legitimately heartbroken when this happened), it transitions into a very moving and accurate examination of the strong grief that people often feel for their pets, and it is one that every animal lover will understand and appreciate.  The various relationships featured in Blood Sugar form a key part of the story, and it was fascinating to see them unfold around the protagonist, especially as they brought out some unique family dynamics, and I really appreciated the clever ways that the author worked them into the wider plot.

There is also an outstanding look at the media circus that surrounds big crimes, especially once the protagonist finds their previous crimes under investigation.  Watching Ruby’s entire carefully constructed life come unravelled in the public eye is one of the more intense parts of Blood Sugar, and Rothchild pulls no punches when it comes to the savagery of the media and the isolation that accused people find themselves in.  I also appreciated the intense dive into the world of the personal psychology, as the protagonist uses her training to explore her mind as well as issues surrounding several of her clients.  This was a very intriguing part of the book’s plot, and I liked how Rothchild praised therapy, showing that it can be very beneficial to people, even trained psychologists and serial killers.  However, the most impressive story element that Rothchild worked into the novel was the in-depth examination of diabetes and the impacts it can have.  Due to a key plot point, quite a lot of the book revolves around a character’s diabetes, with their low blood sugar (yep, that is what the book is named after), become a major factor in the case against Ruby.  Rothchild has clearly done her research when it comes to the intricacies of diabetes, and I really appreciated how she was able to imagine a potential murder based around this disease.  All these distinctive elements and more are expertly utilised in the wider plot and become a key part of the protagonist’s unique and complex life.

Finally, I really must touch on Blood Sugar’s awesome protagonist of Ruby Simon, who stands out as one of the most original and surprisingly likeable literary characters of 2022.  Ruby is a very distinctive figure; she first killed at a very young age and has gone on to murder again several times through her life.  Even though she feels no guilt for these killings, Ruby is not portrayed as a psychopath or a serial killer; she is simply someone able to justify the actions she took in a very logical way.  Due to the way that the novel is set out, you see most of Ruby’s life through her eyes and you swiftly come to appreciate her point of view, especially as she appears as a mostly normal person who finds herself in some unique situations.  Each of her killings is laid out to the reader in a very logical and natural way, and you honestly have a hard time understanding and even supporting her reasons or justifications for the killings.  Due to this, as well as the extremely relatable way that Rothchild portrays her, you become strongly connected to the character, and you quickly start rooting for her to avoid being capture or prosecuted for her crimes.  I honestly cannot remember becoming as attached to a killer character as did with Ruby in Blood Sugar, and Rothchild really went out of her way to ensure that you liked her protagonist.  An excellent and memorable bit of character work.

Overall, Blood Sugar was one of the more unique and entertaining releases of 2022 so far, and I was really impressed with Sascha Rothchild’s first novel.  Featuring an extremely clever, hilarious, thrilling and addictive story, Blood Sugar was a very fun novel to dive into, especially once you become attached to the amazing main character.  Powerful, intense and very distinctive, Blood Sugar is easily one of the best debut novels of 2022 and it comes very highly recommended by the Unseen Library.

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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

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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.

The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover 2

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 264 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to save all the monsters as bestselling and madly inventive science fiction author John Scalzi presents his latest captivating and funny novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society.

I have a lot of love for imaginative author John Scalzi, who is probably best known for his Old Man’s War and The Interdependency series, both of which make great use of high-concept science fiction elements.  I personally first experienced the author when I read his standalone novel, Redshirts a couple of years ago.  This cool and clever book served as the ultimate parody of Star Trek, focusing on an Enterprise-esque spaceship whose regular crew are extremely aware that something is very wrong as they keep dying in ridiculous situations.  I had an absolute blast with Redshirts and I have been keeping a very close eye out for anything else Scalzi was writing.  As such, I was extremely excited when I saw that his new book, The Kaiju Preservation Society was coming out this year, especially as it had such a unique and interesting plot to it.

As COVID-19 starts to run rampart through New York City, Jamie Gray’s entire life is thrown upside-down when his terrible boss steals his ideas and fires him.  Forced to work as a driver for the same food delivery app he developed, Jamie despairs at his now dead-end life, until one delivery leads to a chance encounter with an old acquaintance of his, Tom, who works for a mysterious animal rights organisation.  In desperate need of a new team member to help with their next expedition, Tom offers the job to Jamie, who jumps at the chance at a high-paying job.

However, Jamie is unprepared for just how unusual his life is about to become as the expedition first journeys to the heart of Greenland, and then through a portal into a parallel Earth filled with lush jungle, an untouched atmosphere, and giant mountain-sized creatures named kaiju.  It turns out that his new employers, known as the Kaiju Preservation Society, specialise in researching and preserving these vast creatures, while also working to keep them from leaving their own, human-less world, and traversing the barrier to ours.

Enraptured by the strange new world and exciting opportunities they present; Jamie soon takes to his role as a member of the Kaiju Preservation Society.  However, his complex and dangerous new employment is about to get even harder when strange events start occurring around camp.  It soon turns out that others have found a way to cross the boundaries between worlds and they have designs on the kaiju.  Jamie and his friends must find a way to stop these intruders before their carelessness destroys a kaiju and millions of people on our world.

Scalzi has done it again, producing a clever and wildly entertaining book that makes brilliant use of a distinctive and unique idea.  I had an incredible time reading The Kaiju Preservation Society, and I really loved the cool ideas, intelligent science fiction elements, and exciting story it contained.

The author has come up with an excellent story for The Kaiju Preservation Society that proves incredibly easy to get into and enjoy.  This is a very intriguing and captivating read that quickly drags in the audience and gets them exceedingly addicted to the plot.  Being a relatively short novel, it is an extremely fast paced, self-contained read that requires no prior experience of Scalzi’s books.  It doesn’t take long for the events of the novel to unfold, with the reader soon introduced to the key characters, new friends, and the necessary set-up for the eventual dive into kaiju land.  Once through the portal, the reader is given a crash course on the rules and attributes of the new world, the various issues the staff there are forced to contend with, and the crazy people who would choose to live amongst the monsters.  After several fantastic and action-packed sequences, often broken up by several elaborate and comedic discussions between the protagonist and his friends, the book heads towards its intriguing final third, which identifies the main threat of the book and forces the characters to act.  This final bit is extremely exciting and fun, and there are several intense moments as the characters face death, tragedy and one of the smarmiest villains I have had the pleasure of reading about.  This leads up to an amazing conclusion that wraps everything up nicely and ensures everyone leaves the book incredibly satisfied.

I mostly liked how Scalzi wrote this book, especially as he clearly had a lot of fun introducing this bold new world and its many awesome features.  The author does a lot in a short amount of time, and you are soon immersed in the excellent world of Kaijus.  Told perfectly from the perspective of the main protagonist, who, like the reader, is seeing everything in this world for the first time, you quickly get a sense of all the craziness that occurs in this land, and the various issues they experience.  I loved all the unique elements Scalzi came up with, from the impossible, nuclear-powered, mountain sized monsters with their complex biology and giant parasites, to the mass of strange creatures haunting the land, the unique landscape, and the various other awesome elements.  You get a great sense of everything in this world, and Scalzi ensures that the science is both realistic and easy to understand at the same time.  This proves to be such an impressive setting for this fantastic read, and you will wish that the author had made the book even longer just to see more of this strange new world.  While there is a good focus on monsters, exploration and science, Scalzi also makes sure to lace The Kaiju Preservation Society with a great amount of comedy that proves to be extremely entertaining and amusing.  This book is filled with so many fantastic and clever jokes, which range from comedic reactions to the outrageous events occurring around them, to fun, if random, pop culture references (for example, one of the villains is inspired by Trading Places), and multiple entertaining interactions between the eccentric central cast.  You end up really getting into this excellent story as a result and it is so very fun to read.

I did have some minor issues with some of the dialogue in The Kaiju Preservation Society, as certain exchanges came across as a little clunky.  I must note the somewhat overuse of dialogue tags (he said, she said, I said) after direct speech, which is something I noticed when I read Redshirts.  While it was not as obvious or problematic in The Kaiju Preservation Society, possibly because I read a physical version rather than the listening to the audiobook, the overuse of them still stood out a little and spoiled the flow of the book at times.  I also really wish that Scalzi could be a bit more descriptive with his writing in places, especially when it comes to the kaiju and some of the characters.  For being such a key part of the plot you often don’t fully grasp what these creatures look like, with only very general descriptions of their size and shape being featured, unless an attribute is essential to the plot.  There was also a complete lack of character description throughout the book, which I found to be a little distracting, especially as I often had no idea what a person looked like.  For example, I didn’t realise character was nonbinary until halfway through the novel when they started getting a little more focus and the them/they pronouns started being used with more regularity.  While some of this stuff is a little annoying, I felt that the strong and entertaining story more than overcomes it and you end up overlooking these minor stylistic problems.

The insanely brilliant John Scalzi continues to shine with his latest kooky and compelling science fiction read, The Kaiju Preservation Society.  Filled with a wild and captivating exploration of a distinctive alternate Earth, you will quickly fall in love with this exciting and humorous story.  I had an absolute blast getting through the awesomeness that is The Kaiju Preservation Society and I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for something light and fun to get through.

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover

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