Quick Review – Falling by T. J. Newman

Falling Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 290 pages

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

Synopsis:

You just boarded a flight to New York.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summer Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 3 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 433 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Stephen King returns with another exceptional read, Billy Summers, an awesome and memorable character driven thriller that has proved to be one of the best books of the year so far.

2021 has been quite an amazing year for Stephen King, who has released two outstanding and impressive novels in a short period of time.  His first book of 2021 was the interesting horror novel, Later, which followed a child who can see and talk to the recently deceased.  While I have not had a lot of experience reading Stephen King novels in the past, I really got into Later due to its likeable characters and thrilling narrative, and it ended up being one of the best audiobooks I listened to in the first part of 2021.  Due to how much I liked Later, I made sure to keep an eye out for any additional Stephen King releases, and I was extremely intrigued to see that he had a second book coming out with a great-sounding plot.  As a result, this second novel, Billy Summers, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of the year, and I was excited when I received my copy, especially as it contained a really cool story.

Billy Summers is an assassin and gun for hire.  A maestro with a sniper rifle and a master of elaborate escapes, there are few killers better than him.  However, for all his skills, Billy has one unusual quirk: he has a conscience and a moral code which limits him to only taking out contracts on targets he considers to be bad guys.  After a lifetime of killing, as both an assassin and a soldier, Billy wants out, and he is willing to take one final job to retire.  Luckily, his employer has a job that fits all his criteria.

Taken to the small city of Red Bluff on the East Coast of America, Billy is hired to kill a notorious gangster and killer who is currently locked up in Los Angeles but due to be extradited back to Red Bluff.  Billy’s boss wants the target dead the moment he arrives to stop him making a deal with the authorities ahead of his murder trial.  With a massive pay cheque on the line, Billy accepts the job, despite some odd stipulations.  As part of their plan to take out their target, Billy will need to take on the identity of an author working in the office complex overlooking the courthouse and maintain his cover for as long as it takes the extradition process to go through.

Despite misgivings about the job, Billy dives into the role as required and soon establishes himself as a regular figure in the office block.  As he waits for his target to arrive, Billy begins to get to know the people around him and takes the opportunity to write a memoir about his life and the decisions that led to him becoming a killer.  However, the closer he gets to the conclusion of the job, the more he suspects that nothing involved with this assassination is on the level, and that his bosses intend from him to die as well.  Making his own plans in case things go sideways, Billy prepares to end his career as an assassin on his own terms.  But then he meets Alice, and everything changes.

Well damn, how the hell does King do it?  After nearly 45 years of writing, you’d think the man would run out of unique and compelling ideas, but that apparently is not the case, as his latest book, Billy Summers, turned out to be quite an exceptional read.  King has produced an impressive and powerful story that follows a complex and well-established protagonist as he experiences life for the first time.  With some outstanding characters, a deeply thrilling storyline and some intriguing insights into the human condition, this was an outstanding read that was easily one of the best books I read in 2021 and which got a full five-star review from me.

Billy Summers contains a pretty addictive and powerful story that I found to be really cool.  The book is primarily told through the eyes of the titular Billy and shows him as he prepares to take on his final job.  King does a great job of introducing the character and the scenario, and you are soon placed into the midst of a very cool storyline as Billy moves into suburbia under an assumed identity to build his cover.  This results in some compelling character interactions, as Billy simultaneously prepares for his assassination mission with his employers while also getting close to some of the people he encounters and starts to see what a normal life feels like.  At the same time, he also builds up a third identity to use after the job is completed, which requires him to assume a different disguise and create some additional personal connections.  He also starts writing a personal memoir which tells a slightly altered version of his life story, including his rough childhood, his military career, and his early contract work.  This mixture of intriguing and fascinating story threads come together extremely well in the first half of the novel, and you get quite a unique and compelling narrative which perfectly blends thriller excitement with personal character growth.

After a big moment halfway through the novel, the entire storyline dramatically changes, especially as Billy is introduced to a key character, Alice.  While there is still a large amount of focus on the job from the first half of the novel and its consequences, the story noticeably morphs at this point, really diving into the relationship that develops between these two characters.  The storyline also moves away from some of the prior relationships that were introduced, and moves into a road trip, with Billy now accompanied by Alice.  There are some really good sequences in this second half of the novel, as well as a continued exploration of Billy’s past.  King does a fantastic job morphing the various story threads and plot ideas into a cohesive and captivating narrative, and I really enjoyed the powerful combinations.  The set pieces are a series of awesome action sequences, which help tie up several of the main story threads and lead up to the book’s epic conclusion.  While King is often criticised for his endings, I felt that Billy Summers had an exceptional and incredible conclusion that I deeply enjoyed.  This great conclusion is both tragic and memorable, and it ties together the entire novel extremely well, helping to turn Billy Summers into one of the best stories I have read all year.

I really enjoyed King’s writing style in this novel, especially as it focused a lot on character development and interactions between unique people.  The entire novel has a very philosophical bent to it, as King and his characters take time to explore the human experience, especially those aspects of life that people on the outside, such as BIlly, miss out on.  While you wouldn’t think that this would pair well with a thriller story about an assassin, it actually works extremely well, especially when combined with Billy’s journaling scenes, and readers are guaranteed to fall in love with this distinctive form of storytelling.  I also liked the author’s great use of various settings which help to show off the uniqueness of America’s landscapes.  King features several different locations, including suburbia, the inner city, the wide open road, the isolated Colorado mountains, and even some more famous locations, like fabulous Las Vegas.  Each location offers the reader and the characters something new to enjoy or appreciate, and King makes sure to capture both the beauty and the ugliness of these various settings.  While King does move away from some of his more extreme murder sprees in this novel, there are some dark moments in this book.  Not only are there some very graphic action sequences, but readers should also be warned about the sexual violence content, especially one scene where Billy enacts some justice.  I’m also slightly concerned that King might end up getting sued by Rupert Murdoch for a certain facsimile character who does some bad things.  Overall, though, I really enjoyed the way King told his latest unique story, and there is something for everyone in it.

As I mentioned above, I don’t have the most experience reading Stephen King novels, with only a few of his more recent reads under my belt.  Despite this, I was easily able to enjoy Billy Summers, especially as it is a standalone thriller with one-shot characters.  As a result, this is a book that any reader can easily pick up and get into, and I really liked how open the author made Billy Summers.  However, fans of King, as well as those people generally aware of his work, will probably have fun seeing the references to some of King’s previous books.  One of his more iconic works is referenced several times, especially as the protagonists end up spending time near a pivotal location.  While this is not particularly essential to the plot, it was a nice callback, and I think that most people will appreciate the fun self-homage.  I also found it interesting that both of King’s novels of 2021 had a compelling focus on writing, which becomes a key part of the plot.  While Later focused more on the publishing side of things, Billy Summers contains a fantastic examination of the difficulties of putting your ideas to paper as a writer, with the protagonist attempting to write his life story in his downtime.  While there are several fantastic advantages to the writing subplot, such as it being a great way to introduce the protagonist’s backstory in a compelling and episodic manner, I also quite enjoyed seeing the depiction of the writing process, and the various difficulties of telling a story.  It very much felt that King was pouring some of his own experiences with writing into these sections of the novel, and it was incredibly fun and insightful to see one of the world’s greatest authors depict the difficulties of writing in one of his novels.

Another area that Billy Summers excelled in is the fantastic central and supporting characters.  King does a remarkable job of introducing a diverse cast of characters, each of whom affect the character in various ways, either by showing him what his missing, or showing him what he is better than.  The most focused character is naturally the titular protagonist, Billy Summers, a brilliant contract killer who only kills bad people.  Billy is a remarkably complex figure, who builds several different personalities and personas around himself for professional reasons and protection.  I really enjoyed the intriguing portrayal of this character, mainly because you got to see at least four different versions of him in the first half of the book.  While the narrator is the calm and collected lover of classic novels who is basically a good guy, despite being an elite professional killer able to see every angle and work out the best way to kill someone and escape, that is a viewpoint that only the readers sees, at least at the start of the novel.  Billy hides this real side of himself from the rest of the world, effecting a less intellectual personality to his criminal associates, which he calls his “dumb self”, to fool them and think he’s less of a threat.

While his dumb self is usually enough to get by, his new assignment requires him to take up the identity of a struggling author who moves into a suburban neighbourhood and a local office block to focus on his upcoming bestseller.  Billy is forced to integrate into these social systems to keep his cover, and he soon makes friends amongst the people he meets, many of whom have an impact on him due to their honesty, innocence, and normality, all of which Billy has long given up.  He also builds up yet another identity to rent an additional house, which he plans to use as a safe house if the job goes wrong, which forces him to deal with additional normal people.  On top of that, he also takes the opportunity to write a memoir of his life, not only to maintain his cover but to satisfy his own curiosity about the writing process.  This proves to be a delicate balancing act, as he attempts to give an honest account of his past while also trying to keep up the charade of being dumb in case his employers read the story he writes.  This results in a unique, multifaceted character, and you get hints at the true nature of Billy, not just from the narration, but from seeing the similarities and differences between the various versions he presents to the world.

Billy’s life changes even further when he meets Alice, a woman who he meets at the very worst time of her life.  Saving her initially to maintain his cover, Billy soon finds himself drawn to protecting Alice, who has no-one and is having trouble getting over her trauma.  Billy soon works in a fantastic and touching relationship with Alice, as the two become close and help each other see the world in other ways.  Not only is Alice a great character in her own right, especially as King presents a very real and moving portrayal of a damaged and lost woman, but she also brings out the best in Billy.  While Alice does imprint on Billy due to her trauma, she also encourages him and gets him to continue writing his book.  This powerful bond they form soon becomes a central part of the book’s plot, and it is extremely fascinating and compelling to see what happens to them.  These exceptional characters and deep personalities really turn Billy Summers into an exceptional read, and I become severely invested in their story, even though I knew it was likely to end badly.

Stephen King has once again shows why he is the premier fiction author in the world today with another intense and exquisite read in Billy Summers.  Featuring a deep and captivating narrative about a complex character, Billy Summers was an absolute treat to read, and comes highly recommended.  Readers will swiftly fall in love with the unique narrative and compelling leading figures, and I guarantee that you will have trouble putting this excellent novel down.  Easily one of the best books of 2021, I cannot praise Billy Summers enough.

Billy Summers Cover 2

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

Waiting on Wednesday – Standing Alone by Stephen Leather

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I am going to take a look at a fun sounding upcoming thriller, Standing Alone by Stephen Leather.

Standing Alone Cover

Stephen Leather is a veteran thriller author who has written a huge number of exciting and compelling novels over the years, including some cool standalone books and his bestselling Spider Shepherd series.  I personally read my first Stephen Leather book earlier this year, when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The HuntingThe Hunting was an extremely thrilling and fast-paced novel that followed a vengeful big-game hunter as stalked the terrorists who killed his family on his own private hunting estate.  I had a great time reading this cool novel, and I really enjoyed the outrageous and compelling concept.  As a result, I have been keeping my eye out for any more fantastic sounding books for leather, and that is when I saw Standing Alone.

Standing Alone is a great upcoming standalone thriller that is currently scheduled for release in early January 2022.  This cool novel will see an elite SAS trooper face-off against a rogue Navy SEAL turned professional assassin.  Set amongst the dangerous background of America’s drug heartland, Standing Alone has a thrilling and captivating sounding synopsis that has me very excited.  Based on plot below and on how much I enjoyed The Hunting, I think I will have a great time checking out Standing Alone next year.

Synopsis:

What makes a good man become an assassin?

A Navy SEAL has gone rogue, selling his skills to the highest bidder as a professional assassin. Ryan French no longer cares who he kills so long as the price is right. His former bosses want him taken down, but they’re not prepared to get their hands dirty so they need a Brit to do the job.

SAS trooper Matt “Lastman” Standing is a lethal killing machine with experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Plus he’s worked with French in the past. It’s not a mission he wants, but Standing made a bad choice in his past and it has come back to haunt him. Now he’s hunting French in the lawless Wild West forests of Humboldt County, where the US produces most of its legal – and illegal – cannabis.

But French isn’t the only predator in the wilderness – there are Mexican cartels, Russian Mafia and Hungarian gangsters – and Standing has to overcome them all to get to his target.

The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry

The 22 Murders of Madison May Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 322 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From the unique mind of leading Australian science fiction author Max Barry comes the fantastic and very clever alternate universe thriller, The 22 Murders of Madison May.

Madison May has been murdered and she has no idea why!

Madison, a young real-estate agent suddenly finds herself on the wrong side of a knife wielding client with zero regard for keeping his identity hidden from the police.  His final act before killing her is to profess his undying love to her.  However, Madison has never seen her murderer before in her life, at least, not in this life.

When word of Madison’s death reaches the desk of the Daily News, it falls to rising reporter Felicity Staples to follow up.  Despite a dislike for murder cases, Felicity soon finds herself wrapped up in investigating the brutal killing of the beautiful Madison May, especially as some unusual designs have been carved into the walls.  However, things take a turn for the strange when Felicity sees the suspected murderer at the subway in a dangerous confrontation with another fugitive from justice.  Moments after seeing them, Felicity can only watch in surprise as they vanish before her eyes and her universe is turned upside down.

Returning to her apartment, Felicity notices several minor changes to her life.  Her boyfriend suddenly knows how to cook, one of her cats is missing, and no-one at work remembers anything about her story or Madison May.  As strange events keep occurring, Felicity is soon forced to face the fact that she has been transported to an alternate dimension.  Reeling from the revelation, Felicity is even more stunned when a slightly different Madison May turns up murdered, the victim of the same killer.  Chasing after the mysterious people hovering around the case, Felicity discovers that a dangerous stalker is moving from dimension to dimension, determined to find the perfect Madison May to fall in love with, and killing any version he doesn’t like.  Can Felicity stop the killer before he takes out another version of Madison May, or will her forays into interdimensional travel have consequences she could never imagine?

Wow, this was a very fun and captivating read that I really enjoyed.  The 22 Murders of Madison May is the latest novel from Australian Max Barry, an author of several intriguing science fiction novels, including Providence, Jennifer Government, and Machine Man.  This was the first novel of Barry’s that I have had the opportunity to read, and I am very glad that I did, as Barry has created an outstanding and fun science fiction thriller that makes great use of some cool alternate dimension travel to produce an exquisite and awesome story.

Barry has come up with an extremely exciting and compelling narrative for this fantastic novel, which makes excellent use of its unique science fiction hook.  The novel starts off with the brutal murder of the first Madison May, which leads to the involvement of protagonist Felicity.  It does not take long for Felicity to get dragged into an alternate universe after encountering the killer and a fugitive engaged in a fight.  Forced to deal with the unusual differences in her life and the revelations of what has happened to her, Felicity attempts to save the lives of several different Madison Mays, while also avoiding the attentions of a group of interdimensional travellers who jealously guard their secrets.  What follows is a series of thrilling scenes where Felicity and her ally, Hugo, jump from alternate universe to alternate universe trying to stop the killer, with varying degrees of success.  This all eventually leads up to a fantastic and impressive conclusion where Felicity is forced to make some major, life-altering decisions, while also facing off against the monster she’s been chasing.  This proved to be an extremely captivating and fascinating novel, which honestly takes no time at all to get hooked on.  I loved the brilliant blend of psychological thriller and compelling science fiction elements, which seamlessly work together to produce an outstanding and memorable standalone story.  I powered through this book in a couple of days, and I deeply enjoyed every second I spent reading this intense and cleverly written story.

I have to say that I deeply appreciated the fascinating concept of alternate dimensions and interdimensional travel that Barry features.  Not only does the author do a good job explaining the science and philosophy behind this science fiction feature, but he also ensures that it works to full effect within the narrative.  In this book, dimensional travellers move from one reality to the next, taking over the lives of the version of themselves living in that dimension.  This results in the travelling characters awakening in a world with slight deviations from the last one they visited.  Barry features several separate dimensions within The 22 Murders of Madison May, and it was always quite fascinating to see the slight differences that occur, good and bad.  This is most prominently shown through the eyes of protagonist Felicity, who ends up visiting several alternate realities, some of which severely shake her.  However, you likewise get to see several different versions of the titular murder victim, Madison May, which results in a fascinating examination of how decisions and missed opportunities can impact your life.  It was also cool to see the various ways in which the alternate dimension travel could be manipulated, most noticeably by the book’s antagonist.  This vicious killer was constantly manipulating events to find a version of Madison May that would love him the same way that he loved her, and it was both creepy and intriguing the way in which Barry combined an alternate reality story with a tale of a fanatic serial killer.  It was very interesting to see the way the villain was able to change the course of his dimensional travels to suit his needs, such as by framing one of his pursuers for murder, and then ensuring that they only travelled to dimensions where they were locked up in prison.  I felt that Barry did a great job introducing and utilising this cool concept, and it really worked to create an epic and powerful narrative.

The author has also come up with some fun and complex characters in The 22 Murders of Madison May, who are enhanced by the fact that you get a very detailed and compelling snapshot into various versions of their lives.  The main character is Felicity Staples, a bold and clever reporter who finds her entire life upside down.  Felicity initially lives an ordinary life, with a boyfriend and two cats, while hunting for political corruption.  However, the events of this story really mess her around, as she is bounced around slightly different versions of her life.  These various involuntary jumps really have an impact on her, especially as she experiences both positive and negative changes which make her question her choices and relationships.  At the same time, she becomes obsessed with saving Madison May and stopping the killer, so much so that she constantly throws her life in danger.  The combination of these choices and the changing realities proves to be quite wearing on her, especially as she is forced to make some major sacrifices in her own life to try and save Madison’s.  This makes for quite a strong and likeable protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed seeing her intense and tragic narrative unfold completely.

I also really enjoyed supporting character Madison May.  The Madison Mays are essentially nobodies who have the very classic backstory of being a struggling actress who moved the big city and is dealing with a terrible boyfriend.  However, in one reality she was given her big break and appeared in a film in a small role.  However, this big break was a double-edged sword, as it gained the attention of a stalker, who, upon failing to meet her in his world, travelled between dimensions and started hunting her down.  Throughout the course of the book, you see multiple versions of Madison May, each of whom has a slightly different life, whether she is still struggling as an actress, on the cusp of a big break, or has given up acting altogether.  The author does a really good job of quickly and concisely setting up each of these new versions of Madison May, and you quickly get a feel for who the character is and the choices that change her.  Because she is not travelling through alternate dimensions, it is always fascinating to see the different interactions she has with her killer, as well as the reactions to the strange events occurring around her.  As a result, you get a fairly detailed examination of this character’s life, and it proves very hard not to like her and hope that she is able to overcome the latest attempts on her life.

The final character I want to focus on is the novel’s main antagonist and the killer of Madison May, Clayton Hors.  Clayton is a compelling and intense villain who starts his journey as an obsessed fan who falls in love with Madison May after seeing her in a movie in his reality and starts stalking her, eventually getting caught.  While this would usually be the end of the story, Clayton was able to obtain an item that allowed him to travel through dimensions, so he started stalking Madison in every reality he can find, assessing each version to find the perfect match to the one he fell in love with, and then attempting to make them love him in return.  This is some deeply disturbing antagonist creation here, and I really appreciate the way in which Barry amps up a dangerous and obsessed sociopath by giving them the ability to stalk their victims across the dimensions.  There are so many elements to this character which turn them into quite a memorable villain, from his unwavering determination to get what he wants, his short and violent temper, an inability to be satisfied with the girls he finds, and an obsession that can withstand constant dimensional travel.  I particularly found the descriptions of his arms, which are scarred and cracked by the various bite marks of Madison May from across the dimensions, to be a horrific masterstroke from Barry, and it was very disturbing to see versions of Madison May who attempt to bite down on his arm in self-defence to find that their teeth already match the indentations there.  Clayton was an outstanding and disturbing villain, and he really helped turn this excellent science fiction thriller into something very special and dark.

The 22 Murders of Madison May is a brilliant and distinctive science fiction thriller that I had an amazing time reading.  Australian author Max Barry has written an exceptionally clever story that perfectly combines a disturbing tale of murder and obsession, with an adventure in interdimensional travel.  I loved this awesome story, and I will have to make sure I check out some more of Max Barry’s novels in the future because I had a fantastic time getting through The 22 Murders of Madison May.  A highly recommended read.

Quick Review – Breakout by Paul Herron

Breakout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 291 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for one of the most exhilarating and action-packed novels of 2021 with the ultra-exciting thriller novel, Breakout by Paul Herron.

Breakout is an intriguing and fantastic novel that caught my eyes earlier this year.  This fun book was written by Paul Herron, the pseudonym for established author and screenwriter Paul Crilley.  Crilley, whose body of work includes his Delphic Division, The Invisible Order and The Chronicles of Abraxis Wren novels, appears to have taken this opportunity to dive into the thriller genre in a big way with Breakout.  While I have not read any of Herron/Crilley’s books before, I found myself really drawn to this latest novel due to its outrageous and fun-sounding plot.

Synopsis:

As explosive as a Hollywood blockbuster, this high-concept thriller is perfect for fans of James Patterson, David Baldacci and Gregg Hurwitz.

A LETHAL STORM. THE MOST DEADLY PRISON. WHO WILL SURVIVE THE NIGHT?

Jack Constantine – a former cop who killed one of his wife’s murderers in an act of vengeance – is serving his time in Ravenhill penitentiary, a notorious ‘supermax’ home to the most dangerous convicts in the country.

When an apocalyptic superstorm wreaks havoc across the USA, the correctional officers flee the prison…but not before opening every cell door. The inmates must fend for themselves as lethal floodwaters rise and violent anarchy is unleashed.

Teaming up with Kiera Sawyer, a Correctional Officer left behind on her first day of work, Constantine has one chance of survival – he must break out of a maximum security prison. But with the building on the verge of collapse, and deadly chaos around him, time is running out…

Breathless, exhilarating and brilliantly original, this high-octane thriller is perfect for fans of Gregg Hurwitz, Lee Child and David Baldacci – and blockbuster action movies like John Wick.

As you can imagine, the idea of a supermax prison with all the inmates loose and a destructive superstorm on the way was something that sounded pretty damn awesome and it was one of the main reasons that I wanted to read Breakout.  There were so many cool things that could happen with such a narrative and Herron made sure to produce an epic and fast-paced narrative that is guaranteed to keep your attention through every electrifying scene.

The best way to describe Breakout is that it is very similar to the most insane action movie script you have ever seen.  Herron has essentially written nearly 300 pages of wall-to-wall excitement and movement, as the protagonists are thrust into an unthinkable situation with very little chance of survival.  The author does an incredible job setting up the initial threads of this great story, with compelling and detailed introductions of the troubled central character, Jack Constantine, the prison, the storm, and the other personalities contained within the prison.  The author also makes good use of some flashback sequences at the start that not only tell Jack’s story but also set up some major plot points, such as two characters the protagonist really wants to kill and a major antagonist.  All of this set up ensures that when the mayhem begins, it can go on at a continuous pace, with Jack, the trapped rookie prison guard, Keira Sawyer, and other associates running into problem after problem without any additional background information.  These obstacles include rival prison gangs, flooding, insane winds, collapsing buildings, impromptu fight clubs, a deranged cult leader, and a vengeful gangster.  These inclusions ensure that the reader can barely take a breath without something cool happening, and it is extremely easy to read this novel in one sitting.  All this leads up to big conclusion as the protagonist has to make some big decisions, as well as deal with the consequences of a few good twists that Herron added.  I deeply enjoyed this entire narrative, and action lovers everywhere are going to have an absolute blast getting through this fun book.

Breakout contains an intriguing array of characters, although I must admit that I was not taken by central protagonist, Jack Constantine.  Constantine is a bit of an ass at the best of times, as he is very arrogant and selfish.  I honestly had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the character at times, mainly because he brings all his problems on himself.  However, the deficits of this lead character are more than made up for in some of the supporting characters and antagonists featured throughout the book.  The most prominent of those is Keira Sawyer, a first-day prison guard who finds herself trapped in the prison and needs to work with Constantine to survive and escape.  I felt that the author did a great job with Keria, a strong and passionate character with a hidden backstory.  While Herron could have written Keria as a damsel in distress, he instead showed her to be a tough and resourceful figure, capable of holding her own and gaining the respect of the inmates.  I also really have to highlight Constantine’s friend and cellmate, Felix, the fantastic teller of tales.  Felix is an intensely funny character with a very unique outlook on life and the prison system.  This character is insanely likeable, and together with Constantine and Keria, Felix helps to form an excellent central trio of protagonists who you cannot help but cheer for as the action commences.

I was also quite impressed by the antagonists of this story.  Herron ensures that the protagonists have to face off with a huge raft of different criminals and gangsters as they attempt to make their escape, and it was really cool to see the range of personalities that emerged.  The main antagonist is Malcolm Kincaid, a dangerous and sadistic Miami crime figure who was able to get away with terrible acts of violence for years until Constantine framed him for murder.  Kincaid is rightfully pissed and spends much of the novel trying to brutally kill Constantine and his friends, while also causing general mayhem around the prison, including initiating an involuntary Russian roulette tournament.  Kincaid was an excellent main antagonist, and I loved some of the twists that were revealed around him.  The other villain I really liked was Preacher, a demented serial killer with a major religious bent who convinces some of the prison’s more insane members to join him in a fun little murder cult.  Preacher was a pretty intense baddie, and I loved the inclusion of a murderous cultist and his friends to an already fun story.  The final antagonist I want to talk about is the superstorm itself.  The storm, Hurricane Anna, is an absolute beast that wrecks the entirety of Florida, as well as several other states.  Herron does an amazing job bringing this crazy storm to life throughout the book, and you get to experience a number of powerful scenes where characters encounter Anna in all its windy glory.  The entire storm was an insane and fantastic addition to the plot, and it was so cool to see the character attempt to escape its pure destructive power.

Overall, I felt that Breakout was an extremely fun and exciting novel that was an absolute treat to read.  Due to all the incredible action, crazy villains and major set pieces, this is an outstanding thriller that readers will have a fantastic time getting through, especially as the action never ends.  It honestly would not surprise me if this was turned into a major blockbuster film in the next few years (perhaps with Dwayne Johnson), and it is one that I know I would deeply enjoy.  Highly recommended to anyone who wants to increase their heart rate, Breakout is an incredibly awesome read!

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Michelle Wright transports the reader back to the horrors and struggles of occupied Paris with the moving historical drama, Small Acts of Defiance.

May 1940.  Following the tragic death of her father, Australian teenager Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are left without any means of supporting themselves in Australia.  Reaching out to the only family they have left, Yvonne’s estranged brother Gerard, Lucie and her mother are convinced to journey back to Yvonne’s home city of Paris to live with Gerard in his apartment.

Despite having reservations about leaving for a Europe rocked by the early stages of war, Lucie is quickly enchanted by the beauty and culture of the city.  However, shortly after their arrival, disaster strikes and the French army suffers a catastrophic defeat, allowing the Nazis to invade France and occupy Paris.  Forced to adapt to the new regime, Lucie and her family attempt to survive as well as they can.

While wishing to remain safe and unnoticed by the Nazis, Lucie is drawn into the conflict when she befriends several people around Paris who resent the German occupation.  Encouraged by their strength and determination, Lucie experiments with using her artistic talents to engage in small acts of defiance against the Nazis and the puppet Vichy French government.  However, when she witnesses the Nazis’ increased attacks against Paris’s Jewish population and the attitudes of her authoritarian uncle, Lucie is drawn even deeper into the fight.  How far will Lucie go to save her new home, and what difference can even a few small acts of defiance truly have?

Small Acts of Defiance was a fantastic and moving novel from a promising new author that did an excellent job highlighting the horrors and troubles of occupied France.  Author Michelle Wright, an Australian who has spent considerable time in Paris, has written an outstanding novel with a story that is both beautiful and devastating, as she tells the intriguing and intense tale of Lucie and her experiences during the war.

Wright has produced a fast-paced and deeply moving narrative for Small Acts of Defiance.  The author swiftly sets the scene for the main characters of Lucie and her mother, who move to Paris right before the invasion while still dealing with the traumatic aftermath of Lucie’s father’s death.  It really does not take long for the historical horror to occur, as Paris is swiftly conquered by the Nazis, although Wright ensures that there is just enough time for Lucie, and the reader, to become enchanted with the city before its occupation.  Following the invasion, you are introduced to several great supporting characters who help Lucie to fully see how evil the Nazis and their French collaborators are, especially as some of her new friends are Jewish.  This centre part of the novel is great, and it was fantastic to see Lucie find her feet while also starting her initial acts of defiance.  However, while all appears mostly right, you know that tragedy is on the horizon, especially as the Jewish characters you become close to slowly have more and more restrictions placed upon them, which can only lead to disaster and despair.  Once the inevitable happens, the story really intensifies, as the protagonist witnesses true horrors and atrocities which slowly costs her some people she is really close to.  Readers will not be prepared for how dark and tragic the book becomes, although you cannot help but keep reading, especially as there is a little bit of hope for some characters.  The conclusion of Small Acts of Defiance is pretty intense and satisfying, especially as the protagonist achieves several great things while there is some good news for the other supporting characters.  This entire narrative very well written, and I loved the dramatic and powerful tale that Wright created here.  There is so much amazing and moving character development, especially around Lucie, which really grounds the novel and helps keeps the readers glued to the pages.  Wright has a real talent for writing hard and dark scenes, and I was utterly enthralled by this powerful story.

I was deeply impressed by the sheer amount of historical detail that Wright put into her debut novel, which is no doubt a side effect of all the time she spent in Paris.  The author covers the entirety of the Nazi occupation, from the French defeat, to the chaos of the invasion and the subsequent control of the city by the Germans.  There are so many interesting details and facets of history contained within the story, and I found myself getting really engrossed in the spectacular portrayal of this key historical location.  Wright spends time focusing on the various attitudes and reactions of the citizens of Paris, which ranged from outrage to acceptance or even outright support of the new regime.  The depictions of the puppet Vichy government and its actions was particularly intriguing, especially as the author examines the reason it had some support from the French.  This is particularly shown by Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian former solider who respected the military general put in charge of the country, and who felt disenfranchised by the previous free French government.  There was also a lot of focus on the gradual crackdown and eventual deportation of the city’s Jewish population.  Due to the protagonist befriending several Jewish characters, you get to see the various restrictive laws come into effect, and the way that the Jewish population was dehumanised and destroyed one step at a time.  All of these proved to be deeply fascinating, and I loved how Wright was able to work it all into her intense and excellent story.

One aspect of this historical detail that I found extremely intriguing was the storyline surrounding the protagonist’s attempts at defying the Nazi and Vichy governments.  Unlike most historical fiction protagonists who fight back with guns, political speeches or brazen heists, the hero of Small Acts of Defiance at first uses art to subtly push back against authority.  This is achieved by drawing pamphlets or subtle symbols of French freedom in the postcards that she sells, small things that could still get her in trouble.  As the war progresses, the protagonist gets involved in other small ways, such as helping to pass information to the Allies or assisting the city’s remaining Jewish population.  I found these small acts of resistance to be a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and it was rather interesting to see the effect that even these minor actions could have on the character’s moral.  It also resulted in some compelling comparison to some of the more radical members of the French Resistance, especially some of Lucie’s friends, who take more drastic actions and face several physical and moral consequences as a result.  While Lucie does become more involved later in the book, I felt that it was really intriguing to see the various small, non-violent ways that French citizens could have helped in the war effort, and I think that it was a fantastic part of this captivating narrative.

Small Acts of Defiance was an incredible debut from Australian author Michelle Wright that does an amazing job capturing the tragedy, division and defiance that occurred during Nazi occupation of Paris.  Featuring a moving and captivating tale that surrounds one girl’s small attempt to help her friends and her new city, Small Acts of Defiance is an outstanding historical drama that comes highly recommended.  I am very intrigued to see what additional novels Wright creates in the future, and I am extremely glad I got the opportunity to read her fantastic first novel.

The Paris Collaborator by A. W. Hammond

The Paris Collaborator Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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