Quick Review – The Chase by Candice Fox

The Chase Cover

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 449 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Australian thriller author Candice Fox returns with another fast-paced and intriguing thriller novel, this time utilising an extremely fun prison break premise to create The Chase, a compelling and addictive read.

Candice Fox is a bestselling Australian author who debuted in 2014 with Hades, the first novel in her Archer & Bennett trilogy, a fantastic Australian crime series that followed two very damaged detectives.  She then followed that up with her Crimson Lake trilogy, as well as collaborating on the Detective Harriet Blue series with James Patterson.  Since then Fox, has written a couple of standalone crime fiction novels set in America, including the 2020 release Gathering Dark, which is the only previous novel of Fox’s that I have read and which proved to be a fun and fantastic book.  As a result, I was interested in reading more of Fox’s work, especially after I saw what kind of story her new novel would feature. 

Synopsis:

When more than 600 of the world’s most violent human beings pour out from Pronghorn Correctional Facility into the Nevada Desert, the biggest manhunt in US history begins.

But for John Kradle, this is his one chance to prove his innocence, five years after the murder of his wife and child.

He just needs to stay one step ahead of the teams of law enforcement officers he knows will be chasing the escapees down.

Death Row Supervisor turned fugitive-hunter Celine Osbourne is single-minded in her mission to catch Kradle. She has very personal reasons for hating him – and she knows exactly where he’s heading . . .

I am sure that I was not the only person drawn in by The Chase’s cool plot synopsis, I mean, 600 convicts escaping from prison at the same time, who can resist that?  I really enjoyed this book’s awesome story and I ended up finishing the entirety of The Chase in just over a day.  This was mainly because The Chase had such a strong and captivating start to it, with someone using deadly blackmail to instigate a mass breakout as cover to free one unknown prisoner.  This was one of the more awesome starts to a novel that I have seen, and I really loved the initial moments of this story, with the prisoners all heading off in various directions, including protagonist John Kradle, while other protagonist Celine Osbourne is left in shambles with all her Death Row charges escaping.

Fox soon breaks this narrative up into several smaller stories; you follow Kradle as he makes his escape, you also see Osbourne dealing with the fallout of the escape, and there are short descriptions of some of the other escapees and the people that encounter them.  The main two storylines surrounding Kradle and Osbourne continue in an awesome way towards the middle of the book.  I had a great time seeing Kradle attempt to evade the police and overcome an insane killer who is tagging along with him, while also heading home to solve the murder of his wife and child.  Osbourne’s story was also very compelling, as it details some of the initial hunts for the escaped fugitives, the investigation into who was responsible for the breakout, and the start of Osbourne’s obsessive hunt for Kradle.  The various smaller stories of the other escapees prove to be fun interludes to the main narratives, and Fox also includes key flashbacks to enrich the backstory of her central protagonists and showcase the reasons for emotional and combative history with each other.

Unfortunately, I found the last half of The Chase to be somewhat of a letdown after its outstanding beginning.  Kradle’s hunt for his family’s killer soon becomes one of the least interesting parts of the entire book, especially as it has no connection with the wider breakout.  His investigation is also loaded with way too many coincidences, unusually helpful witnesses, and strange motivations.  The eventual reveal of the killer was honestly pretty weak, and Kradle’s entire storyline only concludes satisfactorily due to a serendipitous appearance from a supporting character.  I was also not amazingly impressed with the identity of the person behind the prison escape, and I think that Fox missed a few opportunities, such as maybe tying Kradle’s personal investigation into a larger conspiracy.  Still, there were some fantastic highlights in this second half of the book, including Osbourne’s gradually changing relationship with Kradle, the action-packed conclusion to Osbourne’s hunt for the organisers of the prison break, as well as the extended and entertaining storyline of one escapee who managed to make the most of their situation.  While I would have loved a couple more extended storylines about some other outrageous inmates, I think that this was an overall good narrative, and I did have a lot of fun getting to the end.

I did really enjoy several of the characters featured in this fantastic novel.  The most prominent of these is John Kradle, the Death Row inmate accused of killing his wife and son.  Kradle is a likeable character, and you are quickly drawn into his desperate hunt for the person who framed him.  Fox makes great use of several flashback sequences to explore Kradle’s past, which paints an intriguing picture of a former recluse who eventually finds love and ends up raising a son by himself.  The reader does a feel a lot of sympathy for this unusual character, and he proves to be a fun protagonist to follow.  The other major character in The Chase is the supervising prison guard of Pronghom Correctional Facility’s Death Row, Celine Osbourne.  Osbourne is a strong and independent character who becomes obsessed with hunting Kradle and dragging him back to Death Row.  I really enjoyed Osbourne as a character, especially as Fox comes up with a very traumatic and clever backstory for her that perfectly explains her obsession.  Both lead characters serve as perfect focuses for The Chase’s narrative, and I had a great time seeing how their arcs unfolded, even if one was a little weaker than the other.

Fox also made use of several great side characters throughout The Chase.  My favourite is probably street hustler Walter Keeper, better known as Keeps, the one inmate at Pronghom who did not escape, as he was due to be released.  Keeps is dragged into Osbourne’s hunt for Kradle somewhat against his will due to his knowledge and intelligence.  Keeps serves as a good supporting act to Osbourne for much of the book, although his character arc goes in some very entertaining and ironic directions as the narrative progresses.  I also quite enjoyed tough-as-nails, no-nonsense, US Marshal Trinity Parker, who leads the manhunt.  Parker is a very entertaining character who serves as a perfect foil to Osbourne’s obsessions, mainly due to her absolute refusal to take any BS from her.  While I do think that Parker was a little over-the-top at times, she was still a fun addition to the cast.  The final character I want to talk about is one of the escapees, Old Axe.  Axe is a geriatric inmate who escapes from Pronghom on a whim and slowly makes his way to freedom.  I quite enjoyed the various sequences that highlighted Axe’s escape efforts, even if they were tinged with a sinister edge, but his arc was one of the more distinctive parts of the book.  All these characters were great, and I was really impressed that Fox was able to introduce them, build up their backstory and also provide satisfying conclusions for all of them in just one novel.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Chase and I felt that Candice Fox wrote a very entertaining and compelling narrative.  While this book did have its flaws, I had a fantastic time getting through it and readers will find it very hard to put this exciting novel down.  This was an awesome and addictive thriller, and I cannot wait to see what this amazing Australian author comes up with next.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst

The Bone Maker Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 16 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading voices in fantasy fiction, the impressive Sarah Beth Durst, returns with another epic standalone fantasy read, The Bone Maker.

Sarah Beth Durst is an amazingly talented author who has been dominating the fantasy market for the last several years.  Initially debuting with several fun young adult and middle grade novels, such as the 2009 release Ice, Durst made the jump to adult novels in 2014 with The Lost, before writing her bestselling Queens of Renthia fantasy series.  I only recently started reading Durst’s work when I checked out her 2020 novel, Race the SandsRace the Sands was a gripping standalone fantasy read that featured a thrilling tale of adventure and redemption set around monster racing in a desert kingdom.  I absolutely loved Race the Sands, and it ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of last year, and Durst was easily one of the best new-to-me authors I checked out in 2020.  As a result, I have been really keen to see what Durst would write next, and I was excited when I heard about her new book, The Bone MakerThe Bone Maker was one of my most anticipated novels of 2021, and I ended up having a wonderful time reading it.

25 years ago, the nation of Vos was threatened by a terrible foe, the rogue bone maker Eklor, whose nightmarish creations of animal bone and mechanical components sought to overwhelm everything.  In the end, Vos was saved by five heroes who led an army to Eklor’s door to destroy him.  However, their victory came at a steep cost, as one of the heroes died a tragic death, and only four walked away from Eklor’s tower.

In the years that followed, the leader of the heroes, Kreya, has lived a life of exile, determined to resurrect her husband, Jentt, who died to stop the evil assailing their realm.  Using Eklor’s notes, Kreya has succeeded in cracking the spells needed to complete the resurrection, but bringing the dead back to life has a heavy cost.  Not only does Kreya lose a day of her life for every day that Jentt lives, but Kreya also requires human bones to complete the spell,. The bones of the dead are ritualistically burnt throughout Vos specifically to prevent bone workers using them for dark magic, so Kreya is forced to look elsewhere for her materials.  In her desperation, she decides to return to the one place she swore never to go back to: the plains outside Eklor’s tower, where the bones of those fought against Eklor’s monsters still lie.

Making the arduous and forbidden journey to Eklor’s tower, Kreya makes a terrifying discovery that threatens everything she fought for all those years ago.  With the dangers of the past threatening to overwhelm her, Kreya has no choice but to reunite her comrades 25 years after their famous victory.  But will these damaged heroes be enough to face the evil threatening to overwhelm them, or will an evil long thought destroyed arise again to finish off what it started?

Wow, Durst definitely does not disappoint as she has created another impressive and powerful fantasy novel.  I had an absolute blast reading this fantastic new book and I managed to finish it off relatively quickly, especially once I got wrapped up in the outstanding story, clever setting and the lives of her amazing protagonists.  I really enjoyed this awesome standalone fantasy read and I have to give The Bone Maker a full five-star rating.

For her latest amazing fantasy novel, Durst has come up with a very complex and powerful story that dives deep into the hearts of her fantastic characters while also taking them on an epic journey of redemption.  I have to admit when I read some of the early descriptions of The Bone Maker I assumed it was going to be the central protagonist, Kreya, going up against her old companions as they tried to stop her from resurrecting her husband.  Instead, Durst works in a very different narrative that sees Kreya encounter the enemy from her past, which forces her to bring her friends back together herself.  Durst sets up this narrative really well, and the reader gets a sense of the tragedy of Kreya and the lengths she is planning to go to reunite with Jentt.  You also get a fantastic idea of the trauma from the protagonist’s past battles with Eklor and how this has shaped their lives.  There are some great moments in the opening half of this book, including several amazing and magically charged action sequences as the protagonists go up against a range of different foes, as well as some intense drama as the five are gradually reunited and come to terms with their past failures.  I loved how the narrative gradually morphed into a bit of a political thriller in the second half of the book as the protagonist encounters an old foe in a different setting.  The flow from the various sections of the story works extremely well, and Durst weaves together a really comprehensive and powerful standalone story.  I liked the excellent blend of action, fantasy elements and intense emotion exploration, which helped to produce a very comprehensive narrative, and The Bone Maker turns into quite an epic and exceptional read.

Easily the highlights of this book are the complex and damaged central characters that the story follows.  The five main characters are heroes who previously saved Vos from a great evil, and I loved this exploration of renowned fantasy heroes years after they saved the world, the usual climax of a story.  The central character of the story is Kreya, the group’s leader, who disappeared after ensuring their previous victory, mourning her dead husband.  Kreya performs multiple attempts at resurrection at the cost of her own life, and I really appreciated the author’s interpretation of this character’s grief leading her to risk it all.  Kreya has a rough and powerful journey throughout this book as she comes back to lead her team and is forced to deal with the expectations of all those around her.  Despite the immense amount of guilt, grief and regret that Kreya experiences throughout this story, Kreya proves to be a talented leader, directing them through several unique fights, and is the only person that can hold this ragged group of characters together.  The counterpoint to Kreya’s toughness and leadership is her deceased husband, Jentt, who, after his resurrection, proves to be the heart and light of the group.  Despite his more buoyant personality, Jentt has to deal with the consequences of his resurrection, especially when he finds out the cost of his continued life, and this leads him to several harrowing mental places.

The next member of the heroes of Vos is the bone wizard Zera, who specialises in creating the best magical talismans in the world.  Zera is the only member of the group who cashed in on her fame after their victory and has grown rich off her skills and reputation.  Zera is a fantastically sarcastic and entertaining addition to the cast, as she revels in her wealth and privilege, while also providing some of the best lines in the entire novel.  Despite a sense of intense betrayal at Kreya’s abandoning of her all those years ago, Zera agrees to help her with her mission, but finds herself constantly conflicted by her feelings of resentment, her own well-hidden damage, and her changed vision of what Kreya’s relationship with her was.  As a result, she has quite a journey throughout The Bone Maker and I loved her inclusion in this novel.

The other two major protagonists are the bone reader Marso and the warrior Stran, both of whom survived the battles with Eklor in very different ways.  While Stran is reasonably mentally healthy, having chosen to live a simple life with his wife and children, Marso has been broken by both his powers and the events of the past.  These two are a great contrast to one another, and both add some intriguing elements to the overall narrative.  I quite enjoyed seeing Marso slowly rebuild his sanity throughout the book while also coming to terms with a magical power he no longer trusts.  Stran’s apparent normality and stable family life is so amazingly different from the other characters in the book that it really stands out, and I liked seeing how each character was just a little bit different.  Overall, all five of these awesome protagonist really help to make The Bone Maker a powerful and impressive read and I am extremely glad that Durst took the time to build each of these great characters up.

One of the things I really must discuss is the outstanding setting that Durst created for this great book, especially as the author did such an impressive job coming up with yet another unique world.  The land of Vos is an amazing fantasy realm, loaded up with its own blend of troubles, culture and magic, which is living in the shadows of the tragic bone wars 25 years prior.  Durst sets this new landscape up perfectly in the early stages of the novel, and the reader gets a great sense of the people and mentality of this realm, especially when it comes to the trademark bone magic.  As the novel progresses, Durst visits several fantastic and compelling parts of this land.  This includes the gigantic and wealthy capital city where many terrible events take place, the hilly landscape that makes up the majority of Vos, a mist-shrouded valley loaded up with a collection of dangerous, gigantic monsters, and the plains surrounding Eklor’s tower, where deadly secrets lurk.  These landscapes are a lot of fun to explore, and Durst works them into her narrative perfectly.  I really enjoyed all of the major locations that the protagonists visit, although my favourite has to be the valley of monsters, as some intense and action-packed sequences take place there.

In addition to the amazing setting, I also really appreciate the rich and distinctive bone magic that Durst came up with for The Bone Maker.  This type of magic features three distinctive types of bone workers, including bone readers who can use animal bones to read the future, bone wizards who create powerful bone talismans, and bone makers who inscribe bones to animate a range of constructs.  Each of these magical disciplines is explored in great detail by the author and are all strongly utilised in the plot.  I loved seeing these magical elements at work throughout the action sequences in the book, and Durst uses them to great effect, with the characters gaining flight, stealth, strength and speed in every epic fight sequence.  The various examples of bone making are also pretty cool, and you get some great magical constructs.  I liked how there was a fun contrast between the protagonists’ cuter, yet still effective constructs, and the antagonists monstrous figures, and it makes for some great combat scenes, especially when the protagonist goes big towards the end of the book.  All of these magical elements are really exceptional, and I think it is an absolute testament to Durst’s sheer imagination and creativity that she is so effectively able to come up with a brand new style of magic and a new magical realm for every single one of her standalone fantasy reads.

I ended up enjoying The Bone Maker in its audiobook format, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience Durst’s epic story.  The Bone Maker audiobook has a decent run time of 16 hours and 35 minutes, which I ended up getting through rather quickly and is not too much of challenge for dedicated listeners to finish off.  One of the best things about this great audiobook is the amazing narrator, Soneela Nankani.  Nankani is a veteran audiobook narrator, but despite her prevalence as a narrator of fantasy fiction, I have not previously had the pleasure of experiencing Nankani’s vocal talents before, although she has worked on several other fantasy novels that I am keen to check out.  Nankani was an outstanding narrator whose voice really enhanced this already amazing novel.  Not only did Nankani provide a quick and exciting tone for the entire novel, moving the story along at a brisk and enjoyable pace that continuously kept the reader’s attention; she also provided several fantastic voices for the various protagonists.  All the voices that she used were pretty impressive, and I felt that they fit the damaged and dark personalities of each of the main characters very well.  As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone interested in checking out The Bone Maker as it is an amazing way to check out this compelling novel.

The Bone Maker by Sarah Beth Durst is an exceptional and captivating standalone fantasy novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Durst has produced an epic and elaborate tale of life, death and magic, which follows five damaged and broken heroes years after their supposed great victory.  There are so many awesome elements to this fantastic book, and readers are going to fall in love with The Bone Maker’s addictive narrative, powerful characters and cool magical elements.  While I did enjoy Durst’s previous novel, Race the Sands, a little more, this was still an outstanding read, which comes highly recommended.

Quick Review – The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair

The Codebreakers Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 3 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 460 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Interested in a fantastic historical fiction novel that looks at a unique and overlooked part of Australia’s history?  Then make sure to check out The Codebreakers by bestselling author Alli Sinclair, an amazing and dramatic novel that I found to be extremely captivating and powerful.

Synopsis:

1943, Brisbane: The war continues to devastate and the battle for the Pacific threatens Australian shores. For Ellie O’Sullivan, helping the war effort means utilising her engineering skills for Qantas as they evacuate civilians and deliver supplies to armed forces overseas. Her exceptional logic and integrity attract the attention of the Central Bureau-an intelligence organisation working with England’s Bletchley Park codebreakers. But joining the Central Bureau means signing a lifetime secrecy contract. Breaking it is treason.

With her country’s freedom at risk, Ellie works with a group of elite women who enter a world of volatile secrets; deciphering enemy communications to change the course of the war. Working under immense pressure, they form a close bond-yet there could be a traitor in their midst. Can the women uncover the culprit before it’s too late?

As Ellie struggles with the magnitude of the promise she’s made to her country, a wedge grows between her and those she holds dear. When the man she loves asks questions she’s forbidden to answer, how will she prevent the double life she’s leading from unravelling?

The Codebreakers was an amazing and well-written historical drama from Australian author Alli Sinclair, who has previously penned several other great historical novels.  This latest book from Sinclair tells the impressive and captivating tale of some of the most unique women in Australia’s storied war history, the secret codebreakers of Central Bureau.  This proved to be an impressive and captivating read that I powered through in a quick amount of time, especially as Sinclair came up with a clever and compelling narrative.

Throughout this outstanding tale, Sinclair not only covers the intricacies of a fascinating group of female codebreakers, also known as the Garage Girls (they worked out of a garage), but also includes some excellent character-driven drama as the protagonist is forced to come to terms with the secrecy of her work as well as the various tragedies that befall her and her friends as the war takes it harsh toll.  Throw in an intriguing spy thriller angle, as the Garage Girls find out that one of their own may be a traitor, and this becomes quite an intriguing and exciting read.  I loved the great blend of excitement, adventure and tragedy that the author produced, and I really liked how she not only showed the protagonist’s entire tenure with the Garage Girls but also featured the tragic aftermath of the war, where the consequences of the protagonist’s decisions and the loneliness of missing friends and colleagues forces her to choose a different path.  Readers will swiftly find themselves very attached to the main protagonist and her amazing story, and I had a great time seeing this entire tale unfold.

I must highlight the excellent historical aspects of The Codebreakers as Sinclair has clearly done some intense research on this period.  I really enjoyed the intriguing examination of the Central Bureau codebreakers who were active in Brisbane during WWII and who helped to decrypt transmissions and provide vital information to the Allies.  Throughout this great book, Sinclair really goes into great detail about the work the codebreakers would have done and some of the impacts of their work.  She also tries to examine the mentality that surrounded these codebreakers, both in their work and outside it, as each codebreaker was forbidden to talk about their work to anyone, both during the war and after it.  This proves to be an intriguing and intense central part of the novel’s drama, and it is apparently based on interviews that Sinclair did with surviving members of the real-life Garage Girls.  This was an impressive and amazing basis for this great story and I deeply enjoyed learning more about this fascinating and formerly-secret women.

I also enjoyed the way in which the author perfectly captured the feel of mid-war Brisbane throughout The Codebreakers’ story.  Sinclair laces her narrative with a lot of fascinating discussions about various military attacks that hit Australia, wartime polices and general thoughts and feelings about the war and the people involved with it.  However, I was most impressed with Sinclair’s attempts to capture the mentality of the people on the home front in Brisbane at the time.  Not only did you get the frustrations of the common Australian citizen/soldier as they dealt with the deployed American soldiery, but there is also the sadness and regret of those that survived.  You could almost feel the despair of several characters in this book, especially after the deaths of some of their loved ones, and it was a truly moving inclusion in this fantastic and powerful read.  All of these historical inclusions were really remarkable, and I had an outstanding time exploring Sinclair’s vision of this intriguing and momentous period of Australian history.

The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair was an awesome and moving historical drama that proved to be an exceptional examination of a truly unique group of Australian women.  Sinclair makes perfect use of the amazing historical basis for her novel and turns it into quite an exciting and captivating tale of resilience, friendship and romance, which comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic novel and I loved learning so much about the codebreakers of Australia’s Central Bureau.

Quick Review – The Imitator by Rebecca Starford

The Imitator Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 2 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Deception, divided loyalties and despair are all on offer in the debut novel of Australian writer Rebecca Starford, who presents a curious and captivating read with The Imitator.

Synopsis:

‘We trade in secrets here, Evelyn. There’s no shame in having a few of your own. Our only concern is for who might discover them.’

Out of place at boarding school, scholarship girl Evelyn Varley realises that the only way for her to fit in is to be like everyone else. She hides her true self and what she really thinks behind the manners and attitudes of those around her. By the time she graduates from Oxford University in 1939, ambitious and brilliant Evelyn has perfected her performance.

War is looming. Evelyn soon finds herself recruited to MI5, and the elite counterintelligence department of Bennett White, the enigmatic spy-runner. Recognising Evelyn’s mercurial potential, White schools her in observation and subterfuge and assigns her the dangerous task of infiltrating an underground group of Nazi sympathisers working to form an alliance with Germany.

But befriending people to betray them isn’t easy, no matter how dark their intent. Evelyn is drawn deeper into a duplicity of her own making, where truth and lies intertwine, and her increasing distrust of everyone, including herself, begins to test her better judgement. When a close friend becomes dangerously ensnared in her mission, Evelyn’s loyalty is pushed to breaking point, forcing her to make an impossible decision.

A powerfully insightful and luminous portrait of courage and loyalty, and the sacrifices made in their name.

This ended up being a fantastic and enjoyable read from Rebecca Starford, who has come up with a really intriguing and unique story.  Starford is an Australian writer who is probably best known for her work on the Kill Your Darlings magazine, as well as her non-fiction book Bad Behaviour, which chronicled the author’s life at an elite country boarding school.  The Imitator, which was also released under the title, An Unlikely Spy, is an impressive and captivating historical drama that follows a young woman who becomes involved with British espionage at the start of World War II. 

The Imitator has an interesting and surprising story to it which is guaranteed to grab the reader’s attention all the way up to its final shocking twist.  Told from the perspective of protagonist, Evelyn Varley, the story is split into two distinct periods, with some of plot set shortly after the end of World War II, while the rest follows the protagonist during the early days of the war.  Most of the narrative is set during the earlier time and examines the protagonist during this period, including her recruitment into MI5 and her eventual work investigating Nazi sympathisers.  This proves to be quite a fascinating narrative thread, and I really enjoyed the great blend of historical espionage and the compelling drama surrounding the character and her personal relationships.  I was particularly intrigued by the parts of the book that explored Evelyn’s attempts to infiltrate a major group of Nazi sympathisers, especially as she is forced to alter her personality to fit into the tight-knit group of fascists.  Starford also includes several chapters set after the war which show Evelyn dealing with the aftermath and her actions during the conflict.  These post-war sequences compliment the rest of the story extremely well, and hint at tragic consequences to what she did after she is contacted by people from her past.  However, readers are in for quite a shock, as these later sequences are shown to be a major bait and switch.  Instead of the conclusion that you would generally expect in one of these stories, Starford puts in a particularly major and dramatic twist which really changes the entire tone of the narrative.  This twist was a brilliant master stroke from the author, especially as it switches around the implications for the post-war chapters and shines a whole new light on everything.  I was really impressed with this amazing narrative, especially once you realise how the author set up the clever ending, and this was truly an awesome and memorable story.

One of the things that I really liked about The Imitator was the fantastic historical setting of London during the early period of World War II.  Starford did a great job of highlighting what life during this period would have been like, from the early actions of organisations such as MI5, to the feelings of the populace, most of whom were convinced that the war would be fought far away or would not happen at all.  I was also really impressed by the author’s examination and dramatization of several intriguing real-life historical events that occurred during this period.  The character of Evelyn Varley is based upon the real life of MI5 operative Joan Miller, who infiltrated a major Nazi sympathiser movement, known as the Right Club, in London back in 1939.  Many details about the Right Club are fitted into the book and used as the basis for the Nazi group the protagonist infiltrates.  While there are several name changes, the fictional group closely matches what actually happened with the Right Club and MI5’s mission to infiltrate it.  I felt that Staford did an amazing job exploring this group and the mission of Joan Miller, and it proved to be an exceptional and clever base to this awesome story.

I also must compliment the compelling and intriguing protagonist of this novel, Evelyn, who serves as the main point-of-view character for the story.  Evelyn is a complex individual with a number of features formed during her harsh early life at a prestigious private boarding school.  Thanks to her less affluent parents, Evelyn does not really fit in with the richer students and is soon forced to adopt a much different persona, which is helped by the relationship she forms with the family of her one friend at the school.  This ability to change her persona becomes particularly important later in life when she begins her career in espionage and must show a false side to herself to people she is trying to take down.  Starford has written a fantastically complex character here in Evelyn, and I really appreciated the way in which the author examines what events or personality traits a successful undercover spy might need to have.  I also liked the way in which we get to see the character at different parts of her life as the book progresses, such as her innocent pre-war life, her experiences as a seasoned infiltrator and her reflections as a damaged survivor.  These various periods of her life and the different personalities are very dramatic and intriguing, and I found it fascinating to see how the author envisioned her changing personality.  Starford also writes in an extremely good storyline around the protagonist’s twisted loyalties, which forces her to choose between the safety of her country and the people closest to her.  These conflicting loyalties and friendships take Eveyln in some dark places and I really must applaud the clever and powerful narrative that Starford constructed around this great character.

Overall, The Imitator by Rebecca Starford is an exceptional and captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I really enjoyed this fantastic book’s clever blend of historical fiction, espionage and dramatic storylines, and I had a wonderful time getting through all of The Imitator’s compelling twists and revelations.  An outstanding read that is guaranteed to stick in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka

Bullet Train Cover

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Trade Paperback – 16 March 2021)

English translation by Sam Malissa

Series: Standalone

Length: 415 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Thriller is a genre that I have only really started reading in the last couple of years and it is swiftly growing to become one of the top types of novels I tend to check out.  While most of the thrillers I read are somewhat mainstream and from authors I have read before, I occasionally branch out and check out something from an unfamiliar author if it has an unusual-sounding plot synopsis which really grabs my attention.  One of the most recent of these was Bullet Train by bestselling Japanese author Kōtarō Isaka, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  Bullet Train, which is the first English translation of Isaka’s 2010 standalone novel, Maria Bītoru (Maria Beetle), is a unique and clever thriller which follows five very unusual killers who find themselves aboard the same ill-fated train ride.

On a seemingly normal day, a bullet train is setting out from Tokyo, making its regular trip to Morioka, with several stops planned along the way.  As the train leaves, everything appears quiet, except for the fact that five dangerous killers are on-board, each of them with a very different mission in mind.  The youngest killer, Satoshi, looks like an innocent schoolboy, but in reality his is a psychotic master manipulator, easily able to get people to do what he wants.  His latest victim was Kimura’s young son, who is now in a coma after being thrown off a building.  Kimura, a former hitter turned alcoholic, has tracked Satoshi to the train and intends to kill the youth in revenge.  However, when Kimura underestimates his opponent, he soon finds himself in the middle of a dangerous game of survival, as he and Satoshi encounter some of the other passengers on board.

Nanao, the self-proclaimed ‘unluckiest assassin in the world’, has a relatively simple retrieval job that requires him to spend only a few minutes on the train.  However, when his unnatural bad luck conspires to keep him trapped aboard, he is forced into a desperate battle for survival.  At the same time, the lethal and unconventional assassin partners, Tangerine and Lemon, are also travelling to Morioka, until an untimely death puts them in the crosshairs of a notorious crime lord.  When a suitcase full of money also disappears, all five killers are forced to show their hands, beginning a desperate battle aboard the moving train.  However, as things get serious, the killers begin to wonder why all of them are aboard the same train and who is really pulling their strings.  As the bullet train pulls closer to its destination, betrayals, manipulations and secrets are revealed, and not everyone will survive to reach the last station.

Now this was an extremely awesome and deeply impressive novel that I am so very glad I decided to check out.  This translated novel from Isaka, an author who has written a massive collection of mystery and thriller novels over the last 20 years, including several that have been adapted into films, was a clever, fast-paced thrill ride that follows several awesome and captivating assassin characters.  This resulted in an epic and compelling read which proved to be extremely addictive and is one of the most entertaining books that I have read this year.

I absolutely loved Bullet Train’s slick and clever story that quickly dives between the book’s various characters.  Split between the five central killer protagonists, as well as a few intriguing supporting characters, Bullet Train has a particularly intricate narrative that is heavy on the twists, rapid turns and unique moments.  Isaka does an exceptional job setting the scene and introducing each of the great characters, and the reader is soon engrossed in seeing how the story and individual character arcs play out.  It does not take long for all five main characters to find themselves involved in some surprising and dangerous situations, which they must work to extricate themselves from.  As each character attempts to deal with their own problems, be they a dead client, stolen money, blackmail or being suddenly forced to deal with a dead body, their various storylines soon begin to intersect.  The way in which the individual storylines come together works extremely well and it proves to be extremely entertaining to see to the vibrant and distinctive personalities of each of the protagonists clash against each other when they meet.  Their intriguing interactions include some intense action sequences, clever manipulations and even some amusing confrontations that include anything from philosophical debates to discussions about a certain children’s show.  At the same time, the characters are also forced to contend with several additional complicating factors, including other killers aboard the train, seemingly oblivious onlookers, secrets from the past and a dangerous long-reaching plot.  All of this leads to an epic and clever conclusion that sees several protagonists die and a number of clever twists come to fruition.  I honestly did not see some of these cool twists coming and I ended up on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next and which of the characters were going to survive the whole thing.  I ended up being really impressed with this cool book and I really enjoyed this thrilling and compelling read.

While Bullet Train’s narrative itself is extremely cool, the true highlight of this epic book is the five killer main characters of the story.  All of these main characters are a lot of fun and the author has imbued them with some excellent and memorable traits and personalities.  All five characters add so much to the story in their own right, but their real strength is the way in which they interact with each other.  The way in which these unique protagonists play off each other is just perfect and it was great to see them get the measure of each other and fully understand just whom they are dealing with.  You really get invested in each of these five characters fates and it is rather interesting to see who survives until the end and who comes out on top.

The first two major characters featured within the book are the interesting combination of vengeful former hitman Yuichi Kimura and teenage manipulator Satoshi Oji.  Kimura is a recovering alcoholic who is hunting Satoshi due to the teen’s role in Kimura’s son getting pushed off a roof and ending up in hospital.  However, his attempts at revenge are quickly thwarted by Satoshi, whose nickname “the Prince” tells you pretty much all you need to know about the kid.  Using threats towards his comatose son, the Prince manipulates Kimura into helping him investigate the strange events occurring on the train, and the two quickly find themselves in the middle of the dangerous situations, with Kimura attempting to find a way to save his son while the Prince attempts to work the situation to his own advantage.  Both fantastic killers are well-written and compelling characters who add a significant amount to the tale.  You really get invested in Kimura’s struggle to save his son and overcome his own inner demons, while Satoshi serves as a particularly unlikeable villain, who you really want to suffer, even if he is a teenager.  Isaka also throws in a few intriguing flashbacks which highlight how the rivalry between the two started, and which helps to dive into both insecurities and fears.  Both end up having fantastic story arcs within this book, and I really enjoyed the complex web that the author wove around the two.

Another of the main characters is Nanao, a young professional killer with a conscience who has only recently entered into the game.  Nanao is an absolute sweetheart whose most defining characteristic is his abysmal bad luck, which plagues him throughout the course of the book.  It proves rather amusing to see all the dramatic and amusing setbacks that happen to Nanao during Bullet Train, and it quickly becomes apparent that he is actually cursed, a fact that he faces with particular sadness and a certain amount of fatalism.  You cannot help but feel for Nanao as the book progresses, and there is something about his general unhappiness with the situation that draws the reader to him.  Thankfully, he is also a particularly skilled operative, especially in dangerous situations, which gives him a fighting chance against his opponents, and the times when this resourcefulness appears are pretty awesome.  I personally felt that Nanao’s story arc was one of the best in all of Bullet Train and I really loved seeing the other side of the characters’ unluckiness eventually come into play, even if the protagonists never realised just what happened to him.

The final two killers featured within Bullet Train are the memorable partnership of Tangerine and Lemon.  Despite their similar appearance which makes many people believe that they are twins, Tangerine and Lemon are very different people, both with unique personalities that clash with one and other.  While Tangerine is the well-organised professional with a love for classic literature, Lemon is the wild card, a seemingly flaky and eccentric killer with an unnatural appreciation for the children’s show Thomas and Friends.  This makes for a very entertaining odd-couple pairing, as the two characters, who at times appear not to even like or understand each other, need to sort through the chaotic situation about the train.  While Tangerine is an enjoyable character who serves as a good straight man to some of the more outrageous personalities aboard, I definitely enjoyed Lemon way more.  Lemon is a wildly entertaining and captivating character whose unique viewpoint on life, which is inspired by Thomas and Friends, is both childlike and clever at the same time.  I really enjoyed seeing some of Lemon’s reactions and solutions to the problems he encounters, especially as he mainly draws on lessons from the characters in Thomas in Friends, when it comes to judging people (you really do not want to be a mean old Diesel).  This leads to some great scenes, especially as he can see through manipulations that have tricked some of the other characters.  It was also great to see the full breadth of the friendship between Tangerine and Lemon become clear as the book continued, especially as it leads to one of the best scenes in the entire book.  Each of these character arcs ended up being truly spectacular and I had an outstanding time seeing each of their unique tales unfold.

Bullet Train by Kōtarō Isaka was an epic and immensely captivating read that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed the unique and exciting tale told within it, loaded as it was with all manner of cool twists and surprise reveals, and I cannot emphasise how awesome the main five characters were.  This was a superb read and I will have to keep an eye out for English translations of any of Isaka’s other books.  I am also quite excited for the upcoming film adaption of this book, also titled Bullet Train.  I assume that this English translation novel is the result of the major Hollywood adaption of Maria Bītoru that is currently in production, and which looks set to feature an impressive array of actors including Brad Pitt, Joey King, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Zazie Beets, Lady Gaga and Sandra Bullock.  While I am a little uncertain about why a film set on a bullet train in Japan is going to feature a primarily American cast, this looks set to be a fun movie, especially if it lives up to this impressive and clever novel.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been Cover

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From bestselling young adult author Tess Sharpe comes an outstanding and deeply impressive new novel, The Girls I’ve Been, an extremely clever and emotionally rich young adult thriller that is easily one of my favourite books of 2021 so far.

When young teen Nora O’Malley started her day, she thought that the worst thing she would have to deal with would be an awkward chance meeting with her ex-boyfriend at the local bank with her new girlfriend in tow.  However, things get decidedly worse when two armed men storm the bank, shooting wildly and demanding the manager.  When their plan goes awry, the two robbers take the staff and customers hostage, locking them in and barricading the doors.  With only a small police force in town, the nearest SWAT team hours away and the gunmen getting more and more antsy, things look grim for the hostages until Nora takes the lead.

Despite only being 17, Nora has a complicated and terrible past.  Born the daughter of a self-centred and manipulative con artist mother, Nora spent the first 12 years of her life helping her mother run her dangerous cons, first as a prop, then as an active participant, learning everything there is about lies, deceit and becoming a whole different person.  However, after their final job went terribly wrong, Nora eventually left her mother behind to escape and become Nora.  Despite living a relatively quiet life for the last five years with her long-lost sister, Nora is prepared to dive back into her past lives as a conwoman to ensure that everyone gets out this dangerous situation alive.

Using every trick and subtle deception at her disposal, Nora must try to manipulate the two robbers into letting them go, while also attempting to distract them from her friend’s escape attempts.  But as conditions in the bank get even worse, Nora begins to realise that these robbers have their own deadly plan, and that the only chance to survive is to reveal her true identity to her captors.  Nora has a deadly secret in her past, one that she has been running from for years, and which may prove to be far more dangerous than anything the robbers can throw at her.

The Girls I’ve Been is an impressive and captivating young adult thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  This is the latest novel from Tess Sharpe, an author who specialises in novels with strong female protagonists, including Barbed Wire Heart, Far From You and the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tie-in novel, The Evolution of Claire.  I must admit that before receiving her latest novel, I was a little unfamiliar with Sharpe’s work, although I did hear good things about her Marvel Comics tie-in book, Captain Marvel: Liberation Run.  However, the moment I received The Girls I’ve Been, I knew that I had to read it as I really liked the cool synopsis and the fantastic-sounding plot.  I ended up powering through it in a few short days as I quickly became engrossed in the excellent and complex narrative that Sharpe weaved around her damaged protagonist.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and, considering how engrossing and powerful I found it, I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

For this amazing book, Sharpe has come up with an exceptional story primarily told from the point of view of the book’s protagonist and narrator, Nora.  The author starts the story off quick, pushing the protagonist and her friends, the dramatic pairing of her hurt ex-boyfriend and her long-time crush turned recent girlfriend, into the midst of a violent and dangerous situation when the bank they are in is stormed by two gunmen.  After this explosive start, Nora quickly slips into action, plotting her escape while trying to find some way to manipulate their captors into letting them go, which in turn reveals her past as a conwoman’s daughter.  The author then starts layering in a series of fantastic flashback sequences or chapters loaded with details about the protagonist’s past or her relevant skills and experiences.  Not only do these become relevant to the current crisis that the characters find themselves in, but they also provide more context for Nora’s actions, as well as containing hints about her troubled past.  These flashbacks fit seamlessly into the main narrative, and as the book progresses and the situation in the bank gets worse, the reader becomes more and more aware of just how dangerous and messed up Nora’s childhood.  The depictions of the character’s past are exceedingly fascinating, and this entire flashback narrative proves to be an awesome addition to the plot, especially as some of her previous actions have severe consequences on current events.  Both the past and present come together extremely well to form an impressive conclusion, which also leaves open the potential for sequels in the future.  I really enjoyed this awesome overarching narrative, due to its fast-paced intensity, clever humour (I particularly liked the inclusion of text at the start of some chapters describing the progress of Nora’s various plans), and impressive character development, and it really did not take me long to get invested in the story.

Easily the best thing about The Girls I’ve Been is the extraordinary amount of character development that Sharpe puts into her point-of-view protagonist, Nora.  Nora (not her real name) is a character who has a unique outlook on life due to her past, which she is constantly haunted by.  When we are first introduced to Nora, the reader is shown a seemingly normal girl, albeit with a complex love life, but it does not take long for the reader to understand just how different she is.  Not only do we witness her immediately take control of the situation inside the bank, but soon the reader sees a powerful series of flashbacks showing the character’s chaotic early life.  Each of these great flashbacks help to produce a layered and captivating figure and it was truly fascinating to see how Nora was born and raised as a criminal conwoman.  Sharpe really dives down deep in Nora’s psyche, allowing you to see how messed up she is and how her past shaped her.  I particularly enjoyed the various flashback chapters that show her committing cons when she was younger, each time with a different name.  With each of these cons, the protagonist learns a whole new set of skills and personality traits, either because her mother demanded it to make the con work or because the trials she underwent during this job required her to learn them.  The protagonist attributes each of these traits to the distinct person she was during the job, and she calls on each of these personalities to shape her into the mostly stable and capable person that she is today.  The author pulls no punches in showing the reader all the terrible things that Nora experienced as a child, and I think she did an outstanding job capturing the lasting impact painful events would have on a young person.  Despite this trauma there is a noticeable strength to Nora that drives her to survive and help others, even if it means sacrificing herself or taking a more lethal approach to solving a problem.  Naturally, all this impressive backstory helps to produce a truly compelling protagonist who the reader cannot help to pull for, especially as Sharpe also imbues her with a sarcastic and clever sense of humour that really appealed to me.  It will be interesting to see if Sharpe continues utilising this unique character in the future and I for one would love to see what happens to her next.

In addition to Nora, Sharpe has also included several other great supporting characters who help to turn The Girls I’ve Been into a first-rate novel.  While none of these characters get as developed as Nora, Sharpe has ensured that each of them is just as complex and nearly as damaged.  The main two supporting characters are Iris, Nora’s quirky current girlfriend, and Wes, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, both of whom are trapped in the bank with her.  While you would assume that this combination of characters would result in petty drama, Sharpe has come up with an intriguing relationship dynamic between the three of them which becomes a fantastic part of the narrative.  They prove to be quite supportive of each other, as all three have experienced various forms of neglect or abuse in the past, and together they are able to face their demons and become more stable people.  I really liked the way that Sharpe utilised Iris and Wes in the story, especially as both characters have some interesting characteristics, and it was amazing to see them all develop them throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to her friends, there is also a significant focus on Nora’s family, her sister Lee, and her mother, both of whom have had a major impact on her life.  I enjoyed both characters for very different reasons.  Lee is the strong older sister who, after experiencing a similar traumatic childhood like Nora, dedicates her life to saving Nora, even if she must ruin everything she loves.  Their mother, on the other hand, is a selfish, manipulative creature, who lives for the scam and is willing to drag her children through hell to get what she wants.  Both characters are great additions to the narrative, and it was fascinating to see what motivated them and what terrible things they are willing to do for different reasons.  All these characters add so much to The Girls I’ve Been, and I was really impressed with Sharpe’s excellent work on them.

Like several of Sharpe’s previous novels, The Girls I’ve Been is marketed as a young adult fiction novel for a younger audience.  I would say that this is an exceptional novel for teenage readers, as The Girls I’ve Been contains a complex and powerful story that features a young girl forced to endure amazing hardships and overcoming them in an intelligent way.  There are some deep and emotional issues that are hit on throughout this book, including children forced to deal with abusive parents, as nearly every parental figure in this novel is either abusive or complicit through negligence.  I think the author addressed these issues in an excellent way, especially as she did not try to talk down her intended audience, and I have no doubt that these elements will strongly resonate with some readers.  In addition, Sharpe also discusses some other important issues in this novel, such as endometriosis, as well as depicting some very positive LGTB+ relationships, all of which I think a lot of teenagers will also really appreciate seeing.  The novel does contain some more mature themes and elements, which might not be appropriate for younger readers, but which make it a great teen read.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be quite easily enjoyed by an older audience, and I think that a wide range of readers will deeply enjoy this amazing novel.

The Girls I’ve Been is an outstanding and exceptional novel that I cannot give enough praise to.  Tess Sharpe has come up with a truly impressive young adult thriller, containing an amazing story and some exceedingly compelling characters.  I had an awesome time with this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.  I look forward to seeing what Sharpe will come up with next and I can certainly say that this is an author that I will be keeping a very close eye on.  I hope that she considers a sequel to The Girls I’ve Been in the future, although this great novel already has a pretty fantastic self-contained story to it, still it might be interesting to revisits the cool characters again.  There is apparently a movie adaptation of The Girls I’ve Been in the works, starring Millie Bobby Brown.  I think that this book would make for a really good movie, and Millie Bobby Brown is a fantastic choice to play Nora (I only just watched her in Enola Holmes).  In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out The Girls I’ve Been, because you really will not be disappointed.

The Hunting by Stephen Leather

The Hunting Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 264 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bestselling thriller author Stephen Leather comes up with another wild and intense novel in The Hunting, a fun and very entertaining read about some terrorists who find themselves going up against a very different sort of opponent.

Billionaire Jon van der Sandt is a talented big-game hunter, having tracked and killed some of the world’s most deadly and ferocious animals across all the continents.  However, when his family is murdered in an attack by a team of ISIS killers, van der Sandt will embark on one last hunt against the most dangerous game of all.  Hiring a group of ex special forces mercenaries, van der Sandt organises for his family’s killers to be snatched from an ISIS base and flown back to his American estates, where he intends to hunt them down one-by-one and ensure that their deaths are up close and personal.

However, a case of mistaken identity results in van der Sandt’s mercenaries accidently grabbing the wrong man, and instead of one of the terrorists the soldiers snatch Raj Patel, a British doctor being held at the camp.  Unable to convince his new kidnappers of his identity, Raj finds himself dropped into the vast wilderness surrounding the isolated estate.  With van der Sandt out in the woods hunting them with a high-power rifle, Raj is forced to work with the ISIS fighters, his former captors, to survive.  With no provisions, no idea where they are and no mercy from a very determined van der Sandt, the prisoners have very little hope of getting out this alive.  However, Raj was not always a doctor, and he is ready to become as ruthless and resourceful as the man hunting him.  Let the hunt begin!

The Hunting is a fantastic and easily enjoyable book based on an amazing plot concept that proves to be extremely entertaining to read.  This was my first book from Stephen Leather, an established thriller author who has been writing novels, such as his intriguing Spider Shepherd thrillers and more, for over 30 years.  Leather’s latest novel is a great standalone read with an awesome story and some amazing action sequences guaranteed to excite any reader.  I had a lot of fun with this book and I ended up getting through it in less than day.

For this great novel, Leather came up with an extremely distinctive and memorable plot hook.  I must admit that the moment I heard that this book was going to be about a vengeful hunter going all “The Most Dangerous Game” on a group of ISIS terrorists, I knew that I was going to enjoy this book, although I was initially worried that the concept might be too silly to work.  Luckily, Leather was able to work a rather compelling story around this idea that proved to be both entertaining and well thought out.  The author sets up the entire narrative extremely well in the first part of the book, especially the reasons behind the antagonist’s decision to hunt down the ISIS fighters, and the case of mistaken identity around the protagonist.  This was a little more set-up than I was expecting, but I think that it worked to create a more complete and coherent narrative which pays off when all the characters are placed into the forest wilderness about 100 pages in.  This second part of the book is an intense and fast-paced thrill, with various supporting characters getting picked off quickly and brutally as van der Sandt kills his prey.  This leads to some great action scenes, and I really enjoyed seeing all the survival and hunting aspects come into play.  All of this results in a fantastic and explosive conclusion, which I think was the perfect way to end the novel.  Overall, I really got drawn into this exciting narrative which proved to be extremely addictive and easily to get through in a very quick period.

I have to say that I was impressed with some of the details that Leather included within this book.  The author clearly has either done some major research or has some firsthand experience about hunting and big game hunters which he uses to full effect throughout the book, meticulously detailing the different weapons, the different tactics a hunter would use and various tracking and hunting techniques.  This added level of detail really helped to enhance The Hunting’s story, and I felt that it added a certain layer of authenticity to it.  I also quite enjoyed seeing a big game hunter going up against Raj, a former Royal Marine with different experiences and knowledge then the murderous desert fighters he is trapped with.  Seeing a hunter versus a professional soldier, albeit a rusty one with a preference for medicine, proved to be an intriguing and exciting experience, and it ended up resulting in some very fun sequences.

While The Hunting is ostensibly a thrilling, action-packed novel, Leather did try to add some deeper elements to it, including several ethical discussions and complex characters.  This includes some compelling arguments about the benefits of legal big game hunting, and it proves to be quite fascinating to see into the mind of a hunter character, especially one who makes some clever comparisons about the brutality of hunters compared to terrorists.  It was also fascinating to see part of the story from the perspective of ISIS fighters who had engaged in a brutal massacre of innocent tourists.  While some are strongly dedicated to the cause, others have more doubts about what they have done, although they come across as fairly unrepentant.  Despite the general loathing most readers would have for these sorts of characters, you end up being forced to root for them for part of the book as they end up allying with Raj, who you want to see survive.  Raj himself is placed in a bit of a dilemma when it comes to working with these terrorists, as his new “friends” make it very clear they dislike his Hinduism.  Despite that and the knowledge of what they have done, Raj ends up helping them to survive, and even puts his life in greater danger to stay with the injured members of the party, which really fleshes him out as an ethical and noble protagonist.  I also quite enjoyed the complex character of Jon van der Sandt, who had some of the more compelling scenes in the book.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of the book, you tend to have the most sympathy for van der Sandt, and you can completely understand his motivations for revenge, even if the method is a bit extreme.  All of these more complex elements make for a rich and captivating read, and I really appreciated the author’s decision to feature them in his fun narrative.

The Hunting by Stephen Leather is an outstanding and thrilling stand alone read that takes the reader on a wild and bloody action adventure.  Featuring the amazing and memorable plot hook of a big game hunter stalking terrorists, The Hunting is an extremely fun and exciting read that readers are guaranteed to power through in no time at all.  This was a very cool new novel from Leather and I look forward to seeing what crazy tales he comes up with next time.

Quick Review – The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 11 August 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Interested in reading a compelling and clever science fiction novel that takes place across multiple alternate dimensions? You need to check out The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson, one of the most fascinating debuts of 2020.

The Space Between Worlds was an intriguing novel that I was lucky enough to receive and read last year.  This fantastic first novel from Johnson was an exciting and deep read, but I completely failed to review it after finishing it and I have been meaning to write something up for a while.  As we have just gotten into the second month of 2021, I have finally had a chance to rectify this by doing a quick review of The Space Between Worlds, which was a truly impressive and captivating first outing from Johnson.

Synopsis:

A stunning science fiction debut, The Space Between Worlds is both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

‘My mother used to say I was born reaching, which is true. She also used to say it would get me killed, which it hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.’

Born in the dirt of the wasteland, Cara has fought her entire life just to survive. Now she has done the impossible, and landed herself a comfortable life on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, she’s on a sure path to citizenship and security – on this world, at least.

Of the 380 realities that have been unlocked, Cara is dead in all but 8.

Cara’s parallel selves are exceptionally good at dying – from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun – which makes Cara wary, and valuable. Because while multiverse travel is possible, no one can visit a world in which their counterpart is still alive. And no one has fewer counterparts than Cara.

But then one of her eight doppelgangers dies under mysterious circumstances, and Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her earth, but the entire multiverse.

Johnson has come up with a very compelling story in The Space Between Worlds that follows Cara, who makes a living hopping across alternate realities to obtain useful data and information that her parent company can utilise.  Cara, who originally lived in a violent wasteland slum outside the gleaming city where her employers are based, is given a new reality to visit when her doppelganger from that reality apparently dies.  However, when she arrives at the new world, she finds that not everything is as it seems, and she encounters a vastly different and infinitely more dangerous version of the town that she grew up in.  Her visit to this reality places her in even more danger when it uncovers some long-buried secrets about her own world, including something from Cara’s own past that she has long tried to keep hidden.  This was an extremely compelling and fast-paced story that proved very easy to get addicted to.  Johnson’s narrative is filled with some fantastic and impressive twists and turns as Cara finds herself amid a dark conspiracy that has its roots in the dimensional travel that keeps her employed.  While it is easy to read this book only for the cool science fiction thriller elements, readers will also become enthralled with the deep character moments as the protagonist tries to come to term with who she is and whether all the versions of her are cursed or damaged in the same way.  All of this makes for an excellent story which is extremely fun to read.

My favourite part of The Space Between Worlds had to be the exceptional alternate reality elements that were such a distinctive part of the book’s plot.  In this dystopian future, Earth contains at least 380 alternate realities that can only be visited by someone whose duplicate in that universe is already dead.  Each of these realities is slightly different, with differing personal decisions resulting in changes to the lives and personalities of its inhabitants.  Johnson did a fantastic job introducing the entire concept around the alternate reality travel to the reader, including with a few entertaining quotes and anecdotes, and I liked how the author envisioned how travelling between dimensions could be utilised and how it could happen.  The scenes featuring the jump to the alternate realities are really trippy, and I loved the quasi-religious nature that those interdimensional travellers take as they view the space that exists between realities.

While all the theory, science and practicalities behind Johnson’s version of reality-jumping is cool, the real beauty is the way in which the author works it into the plot of the book.  Throughout the course of The Space Between Worlds you see several different alternate versions of the same dystopian future, and it was really intriguing to see the subtle differences between them.  The real shock is when the latest world Cara visits turns out to be completely upside down, as several key people in her lives have changed dramatically, including Nik Nik, a brutal warlord to whom Cara’s destiny is constantly tied no matter which reality they are in.  Seeing a completely different version of some of the featured characters in this novel really drives home just how significant a single moment can be and how certain events can change everything about someone.  The author works a lot of the cool revelations, similar character histories and unique details about each character across the cosmos into the overarching plot, helping to create a thrilling tale with some powerful and intense character studies.  I had an outstanding time seeing these cool alternate reality science fiction elements coming into play throughout the book and they proved to be a fantastic and clever addition to the narrative.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson was an extremely compelling and cleverly inventive science fiction debut that is really worth checking out.  I loved the complex and fascinating tale of choices, fate and thrilling betrayals that the author wove through the course of this book, and this was a fantastic book to check out.  I look forward to seeing what Johnson will cook up next and I am sure that it will result in another intriguing and captivating read.

Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer

Instant Karma Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of young adult fiction, Marissa Meyer, returns with a fantastic and compelling standalone romance novel that sees two opposing personalities come together in dramatic and entertaining fashion.

As the summer break is about to begin in Fortuna Beach, a bustling coastal town, chronic overachiever Prudence Daniels is looking forward to her holiday, especially following an arduous biology class with her slacker lab partner, Quint Erickson.  However, disaster strikes at the last moment when she receives a bad grade on her project and Quint refuses to participate in any attempts to redo their assignment.

As Prudence stews with her friends at the local karaoke bar, she slips and hits her head hard after bravely singing Instant Karma by John Lennon.  While at first she considers it to be bad luck, Prudence discovers that the blow to her head appears to have given her special powers that allow her to dole out bad karma instantly to anybody she meets.  Soon, Prudence is enjoying being a force for good in her town, ensuring karmic retribution to anyone who she witness doing wrong.

At the same time, Prudence is still determined to fix her bad grade and approaches a local sea life conservation organisation for more information, only to discover that it is run by Quint’s mother.  Managing to talk her way into volunteering, Prudence finds herself working with Quint, who agrees to help redo their grade if she keeps up her volunteering efforts during her break.  As the two inevitably butt heads, Prudence quickly discovers that Quint is the only person whose karma she cannot affect with her new abilities.  Sparks will fly as these two get closer together and Prudence is about to find out that fate has some real surprises in store for her and Quint.

This was an interesting new standalone book from Meyer, and I was surprised with how much I enjoyed it.  I have to admit that teen dramas that focus on high school romance are not something that I am usually interested in, but I felt the need to read something a little different and I had some great experiences with Meyer’s books in the past.  Meyer is an incredible skilled young adult fiction author whose works usually have a fun twist to them, like The Lunar Chronicles, which re-imagined some classic fairy tales, or her bestselling Renegades trilogy, which focused on a disenfranchised supervillain who goes undercover within a superhero organisation.  I am a major fan of the Renegades novels and I absolutely loved the last two entries in the series, Archenemies and Supernova (Supernova was one of my favourite books of 2019).  Due to how much I enjoyed Meyer’s previous novels, I thought I’d give Instant Karma a chance, and it turned out to be quite a fun and compelling book.  I actually ended up reading it in a single night (I had a deadline) and ended up really liking it, even if I probably wasn’t the intended audience for it.

Instant Karma contains a fun young adult storyline that sees two teenagers with a contentious history find themselves forced together in a wacky and genuinely nice story.  While in many ways this is a fairly typical young adult story, with the classic opposites attract tropes, Meyer mixes it up by including some cool new elements, such as the main character’s ability to manipulate people’s karma or the background storyline of the characters trying to save a sea life conservation organisation, resulting in an excellent and fun story.  While many of the story points are a bit obvious (there is never a doubt that the two main characters will eventually fall in love) Meyer still takes the narrative in some fantastic directions, and readers are guaranteed some fun drama and excellent character development.  I actually really enjoyed getting through this story and I found myself getting extremely invested in the romance between the two main characters.  This ended up being a really good young adult novel, which is probably best enjoyed by a teenage audience, although older readers will have an awesome time getting through this narrative as well.

As I mentioned above, Meyer chucks in some intriguing story elements into this book, and one of the best ones revolves around the protagonist’s newly discovered ability to impact the karma of people she comes into contact with.  This was a rather interesting plot inclusion and it initially proved fun to see the protagonist work out her new powers and use them to get petty vengeance against those who do something selfish or annoying in front of her.  However, there is so much more to this part of the book, as Prudence begins to realise that not everything is as black and white as she initially believes, and maybe the people she punishes do not actually deserve their fates.  For example, she uses her abilities in one case to punish a woman who was defacing a local restaurant billboard.  While it initially appears that she has gotten justice for an innocent struggling business, it is revealed throughout the rest of Instant Karma that the vandal was actually protesting some legitimate concerns, and the actions that Prudence punished were less destructive than she initially believed.  The protagonist encounters a number of these ethical dilemmas throughout the novel, and she finds herself doubting some of her actions and decisions, while at the same time karma and fate push her in some interesting directions.  This adds a really intriguing and compelling edge to Instant Karma’s story, and I quite enjoyed seeing these ethical deliberations unfold, especially as they have some major impacts on the story.

While the karma manipulation story element is fun, the plot inclusion I was most impressed with was the focus on marine ecological conservation.  A surprising amount of Instant Karma’s plot revolves around the two main characters working at a small sea life conservation organisation which is operated by Quint’s mother.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Prudence, learns a huge amount about conservation and animal rescue as she volunteers alongside Quint in an attempt to raise her grade.  This then evolves into an intriguing storyline that sees Prudence attempt to increase the organisations funding by running a series of events to raise awareness and elicit additional donations.  This proved to be an extremely compelling part of the book’s plot, and Meyer has obviously done a large amount of research around the subject, presenting the reader with a substantial number of intriguing facts and depictions of conservation activities.  This entire inclusion fits into the narrative extremely well, and leads to a number of dramatic and romantic moments as the protagonists clash over various aspects of the conservation work, especially when it comes to their differing opinions around ideals and realities.  All of this adds so much to Instant Karma’s overall narrative and I really enjoyed learning more about sea life conservation through this excellent portrayal of a small volunteer organisations.

Instant Karma by Marissa Meyer is an excellent and enjoyable young adult novel that presents the reader with a fun high school romance between two combative teens.  Meyer adds in a lot of fun story elements to this book and I ended up having a great time reading this awesome novel.  An amazing read for lovers of teen drama.

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 17 November 2020)

Series: Standalone/Pine Deep series

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to journey back to the weirdly dangerous town of Pine Deep as one of my favourite authors, Jonathan Maberry, presents his latest novel, Ink, an intriguing and clever horror thriller that dives down into the world of memories and tattoos.

Pine Deep, Pennsylvania is a town long-steeped in blood and death.  After barely surviving the terrible events of 15 years ago, now known by the locals as The Trouble, the town has slowly recovered, with fresh businesses and people bringing in new life.  However, no one is ever truly safe in Pine Deep, especially with a malicious predator haunting the streets, one with very particular appetites.

Monk Addison is man who has experienced many weird and horrifying things in his life, but what he is about to encounter in Pine Deep will shake him to his core.  A bounty hunter who has sought redemption in life by covering his body with tattoos depicting the faces of murder victims, Monk has recently moved to Pine Deep to be closer to his friend and tattoo-artist Patty Cakes, but what he arrives he finds Patty in a state of shock.  An important tattoo on Patty’s hand has started to disappear, and as it fades, so do the memories associated with it until Patty can no longer remember anything about, not even the precious person who inspired it.

As Monk desperately tries to understand what is happening to his friend, a pattern begins to emerge.  Several people within Pine Deep are experiencing losses of traumatic or significant memories, and in every case tattoos related to these events have also disappeared.  Worse, in some cases new tattoos are appearing on people, forcing them to do terrible deeds.  Working with Pine Deep’s chief of police, Malcolm Crow, and his adopted son, Mike Sweeney, Monk, Patty and other impacted residents of Pine Deep attempt to discover who or what is behind these stolen memories.  But can they find who is responsible before their memories fade, or will this predator continue to feast on the very thing that makes them human?  The Lord of the Flies is hungry, and his reign of terror has only just begun!

Over the last couple of years, I have become a major fan of Jonathan Maberry’s writings, and I only just recently finished reading all 10 Joe Ledger novels, as well as the first Rogue Team International book, Rage, so I was very excited to get my next fix of Maberry excitement with InkInk was one of my most anticipated novels for the second half of 2020, and it really did not disappoint in any way, as Maberry has produced an intense and captivating horror novel that proved to be both extremely exciting and deeply terrifying.

Ink is an outstanding and impressive book that contains one heck of a story that sees several remarkable characters attempt to deal with a weird and powerfully scary supernatural threat that is attempting to destroy what is most precious to them.  Maberry has crafted together a fantastic narrative for this book that is equal parts clever, compelling and scary, and which dives down deep into the psyche of several complex individuals.  The author utilises his trademark style to produce a wide-ranging, multi-character story that shows the full impact of the antagonist’s dark machinations, and the slow hunt of the protagonists to comprehend what is happening to them, and their subsequent attempts to combat the threat.  While I did think that the story was a little slow at the start, once it gets going the reader has a hard time putting it down, as they become obsessed with seeing the full extent of the horror, as well as becoming connected to the characters featured within.  While Ink contains a lot less action than a typical Maberry novel, this is an extremely exciting and fast-paced read, with the thrilling game of cat and mouse between the villain and his victims proving to be quite intense.  Readers should be warned that this is an extremely adult read, containing some fairly graphic sequences of violence, torture, mental manipulation and sexual content, which may not be for everyone.  Overall though, this is an exceptional read, and I really loved getting to the end of this enthralling and excellent narrative.

While Ink is ostensibly a standalone novel, in many ways it is a sequel to Maberry’s debut series, the Pine Deep trilogy, while also being set in the same universe as several of his other books, namely the Joe Ledger novels.  The entirety of Ink is set in the town of Pine Deep, which was the titular setting of the original trilogy.  As a result, several characters from these books appear throughout the course of the novel and there are a lot of mentions of the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, some of which play into the plot.  While you potentially could get a little more out of Ink by reading the Pine Deep novels first, I would say that you really do not need any prior knowledge of these books to enjoy Maberry’s latest novel.  Like always, Maberry’s writing is very inclusive, providing the reader with relevant information about the events that occurred in these previous novels.  As a result, the reader gets a decent summary of what occurred in the Pine Deep trilogy and how it relates to Ink.  This allows readers unfamiliar with the Pine Deep books to enjoy Ink without any issues, and this might even be a good Maberry starter novel for anyone who has been interested in reading some of his books.  On the other hand, those fans of Maberry who are familiar with this prior trilogy will no doubt really enjoy the return to this iconic setting and will have an amazing time seeing what has happened in the 15 years following the end of Bad Moon Rising (the third and final book in the Pine Deep trilogy).  The summaries of the Pine Deep novels contained within Ink are rather easy to get through and Maberry works them into the story extremely well, so those people familiar with these prior works should be able to read them without getting bored of a forced recap, and this is book that any horror or thriller fan can easily enjoy.

At the heart of Ink are the excellent main point-of-view characters that Maberry utilises to tell his complex tale.  There are several major characters featured throughout the book, including several original characters created specifically for Ink.  The most notable of these is Monk Addison, the relentless and scary former soldier who is desperately seeking redemption after a long and bloody life.  Monk turned out to be an amazing central character for this book and I loved the way that Maberry slowly revealed his past in order to show just how special he his.  Monk goes through a fair bit of development in this novel, and I found myself getting quite attached to him as the story progressed.  In addition to Monk, Ink also has a particular focus on Patty Cakes, Monk’s tattoo artist friend whose memories are impacted by the book’s antagonist.  Patty is a deeply tragic and magical character who has gone through a lot in her life and who now finds herself being attacked in a much more personal and devastating way.  Seeing Patty being overwhelmed by the loss of her memories is really disturbing and heartbreaking and you cannot help but feel her loss deep in your soul, which is a testament to Maberry’s excellent writing.  Patty is another character who you grow to care for as the story unfolds and the constant danger she is put into, both mentally and physically, keeps the reader on edge.  The other two original major characters I need to highlight are Dianna and Gayle.  Dianna is a medium who also has her memories stolen by Ink’s antagonist, while Gayle is someone who builds a connection to Dianna, who is then impacted by Gayle’s lost memories in a different way.  I liked the way that Dianna and Gayle were worked into the story, and they helped to provide a new angle to the narrative.  Watching them team up with Patty added some enjoyable female empowerment elements to the novel, and there is a touching LGBT romance between Dianne and Gayle that I thought Maberry handled well, even if it was a tad explicit.

In addition to these new characters, Maberry also makes use of the protagonists from the Pine Deep novels who return as major characters in Ink.  This includes major characters Malcolm Crow, Mike Sweeney, Val Guthrie and Jonatha Corbiel (now Jonatha Newton).  While Val and Jonatha have mostly smaller roles in this book, Malcolm and Mike are major point-of-view characters, performing their own investigation of the latest batch of weird events occurring around Pine Deep.  Both proved to be exceptional additions to the cast, as not only are they complex characters (especially after the events of the Pine Deep trilogy), but they also add some distinctive viewpoints into the investigate parts of the book.  Maberry does a fantastic job introducing these characters to new readers, while those who have read the Pine Deep books will deeply appreciate seeing what has happened to them since the events of this initial trilogy.  While I am sure that many of Maberry’s readers would have hoped for happy lives for Malcolm, Mike and Val after all they have been through, all three characters have experienced additional difficulties and tragedies in the last 15 years.  These additional life events, as well as their traumas from the Pine Deep books, are expertly incorporated into their characterisation for Ink, and it proved deeply compelling to see their arcs unfold.  I personally enjoyed seeing the new protagonists’ reactions when encountering Malcolm and Mike, and there are a lot of depictions about realising how dark, dangerous and damaged both of them are.  Some of these new characters are also in for a hair-raising surprise when it comes to Mike, and it was interesting to see how that certain aspect of Mike’s character has evolved since his last book.  All of the characters featured in Ink were deeply compelling, and I felt that Maberry did an exceptional job featuring them throughout this novel.

If there is one thing that Maberry is particularly good at it, it is creating iconic and despicable antagonists for his novels.  Ink is no exception to this, as Maberry has once again produced a dark and sinister figure in Owen Minor, the self-proclaimed Lord of the Flies.  Owen is an inherently creepy and deeply disturbing individual who has gained the ability to steal people’s tattoos and the associated memories with them, as well as several other abilities.  Thanks to a series of intriguing interludes, Maberry dives into the history of Owen, showing his origins as a character, what his motivations are and how he realised what his powers were.  This examination of Owen’s psyche and history is both fascinating and unsettling and getting this deeper look into the character’s soul makes the reader dislike him even more, especially as you begin to realise just how twisted he truly is.  The author also includes a number of chapters from the point of view of several different side characters who have been infected by Owen in some way or another.  These scenes not only help to explore the true extent of his abilities but they also show the lengths he is willing to go to get his favourite meal.  The way in which he attacks his victims and then revels in their mental agony ensures that the reader builds a deep hatred for him and you really cannot wait to see him get some form of comeuppance.  All in all, this was another great antagonist from Maberry, and I look forward to seeing what sort of maniac creature he comes up with next time.

As I mentioned above, Maberry returns to his iconic town of Pine Deep for this latest novel, with most of the story set within it.  This proves to be a fascinating and dark location for this great book, and I think that Maberry had fun revisiting this haunted town.  The author really loads a sense of menace and despair into nearly every scene set within the town, and this is enhanced by every character recognising just how weird and dangerous the place can be.  There is a lot of history associated with Pine Deep, as during the original Pine Deep trilogy the town was nearly destroyed by dark forces, with the survivors deeply traumatised as a result.  These events, now know by everyone as The Troubles, are a major part of the town’s identity, and Maberry does a great job teasing out what happened during The Troubles to new readers, with only hints and vague comments describing for the first part of the book.  It proved to be quite fascinating to see how the town has recovered in the roughly 15 years since the events of the Pine Deep trilogy, and Maberry fans will have an amazing time seeing this continuation of the setting.  I really enjoyed seeing the characters explore Pine Deep once again and I hope that Maberry has plans to revisit again in some of his future novels.

One of the more compelling elements of this book is the author’s examination of the importance of tattoos and the memories that people associate with them.  I have to admit that I am not particularly into tattoos; while I can appreciate the cool art that other people get, it is really not something I would consider doing for myself.  However, I deeply enjoyed the way in which Maberry explored the tattoo world in this novel, examining both tattoo artists and the people who desire the art on their body.  In particular, he explores the way in which people get tattoos to mark special or significant occasions, or how tattoos can be used to memorialise tragedy or dark moments from someone’s life and the emotional and memory connections that result from the tattoos.  This becomes quite a significant part of the novel, because the antagonist steals the tattoos to get to the memories associated with it.  As a result, Maberry than examines the impact of losing such a memory and what it could potentially do it to a person.  While some characters manage ok with losing these darker memories, a lot of them are deeply troubled by it, as going through these events and overcoming them, are key to their identity.  Without these memories, and the tattoos that personify them on their body, these characters become despondent, and in many cases it becomes too much for them to bear.  It helps to really emphasise just how evil and malignant the actions of the antagonist is, and I really appreciated the author’s dives into the human psyche and his compelling depiction of what happens when someone loses their memory and identity.  The removal of certain memories from the various point-of-view characters also adds a new level of difficulty to the protagonist’s investigation, as they have to try and find a way to hunt down someone who they can’t remember.  These inclusions really added a lot to the story, and readers may come away with a deeper understanding of how important tattoos can be to people.

As with all of Maberry’s novels that I have so far enjoyed, I really could not resist grabbing the audiobook version of Ink.  The Ink audiobook has a run time of just over 15 hours, which is a typical length for one of Maberry’s novels, and I found it extremely easy to power through this book in less than a week.  Part of this was because of the excellent narration of long-time Maberry narrator, Ray Porter, who once again lends his awesome vocal talent to this thrilling book.  Porter is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment, and I cannot imagine listening to one of Maberry’s novels without his amazing voices.  Just like he does in the Joe Ledger novels, Porter really dives into the characters he is portraying, ensuring that the full range of their emotions become abundantly clear to anyone to who listening to the story.  He is also does an amazing job enhancing the horror elements of this book with some of his creepier tones, and the listener can get chills at the horrible and slimy voices he uses for the antagonist or for some of the darker scenes in Ink.  While it was a little disconcerting at time to hear some of the familiar voices from the Joe Ledger audiobooks in this new novel, Porter was once again fantastic narrating Ink, and I would strongly recommend this format as the ideal way to check this book out.

Jonathan Maberry once again shows why he is one of the preeminent authors of the weird thriller novel, with this outstanding horror book InkInk is an extremely clever and thrilling horror book that grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning and refuses to let go.  Thanks to the outstanding narrative, impressive characters and interesting themes, Ink proves to be a captivating and exciting read, especially when combined with the distinctive setting of Pine Deep from Maberry’s previous novels.  As a result, Ink comes highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and this novel is worth checking out.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and I cannot wait for Maberry’s next novel, Relentless, which comes out in several long months.