Reviews

Green rising by Lauren James

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Climate-change activist Gabrielle becomes an international sensation when she becomes the first teenager to exhibit 'Greenfingers' powers - by growing plants from her skin. Theo, in the UK, is the son of a struggling fisherman who discovers his own Greenfingers powers when at sea and his dad's life is in danger. Hester is the daughter of an American energy king and she has fought to keep her Greenfingers powers from emerging, but then she slips up in front of Edgar Warren, eccentric billionaire who is leading the charge to live on Mars, having founded Warren Space and set up a colony on Mars already. These three teenagers are growing up in an ecological catastrophe and their new found Greenfingers powers might be the way to help the planet recover. If they can avoid being exploited, feared and persecuted, and find a way to work together that is.

Written by author Lauren James, founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League, this novel is part of the effort to raise climate change activism awareness. This science fiction dystopian is told from the perspectives of Theo and Hester, with articles, tweets, blogs and other media snippets intermingled throughout. Readers will recognise the influence of Greta Thunberg in this extremely relevant novel regarding climate change and activism. The story is well paced, moving between the two main characters seamlessly.  Ideal for readers of other dystopian stories where teenagers are impacted by some environmental or viral factor, and develop powers, such as The Darkest Minds series by Alexandra Bracken.

Themes Dystopian; Science Fiction; Climate Change; Global Warming; LGBTQIA+; Activism.

Melanie Phillips

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The break by Phillip Gwynne

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Sixteen-year-old Australian Taj is living in Bali where life is complex. Idyllic at first, living in Bali is now complicated, since his dad was arrested for smuggling drugs ten years ago. Kimbo, Taj's dad, has been on death row in Kerobokan Prison ever since. Taj visits his father in prison regularly, feeling that life is in limbo with all that is going on. Then an execution date is set, and Taj knows he can't let it happen, he has to do something. Only thing to do? Arrange a prison break and get his dad to Australia. Simple enough, right? Not quite, as Taj discovers. What unfolds is a series of bad breaks, danger, and life on the run. While fighting for his father's freedom, Taj learns more about his family, and starts to uncover truths he never expected.

Set mainly in the Indonesian island of Bali, this action packed coming of age story is fast paced, full of strained relationships, lies and twists throughout. Told from multiple perspectives, the short chapters enable readers to proceed swiftly through the well written story. Readers will find the characters relatable and enjoy learning more about each character as the story progresses. Several common threads are found through the book - surfing, justice and truth. Ideal for fans of contemporary fiction, surfing and readers of true crime, as the death penalty is still controversially in practice today. This is a harsh reality that has been written about really well in the book, with numerous characters having different thoughts about the case described. With partying, swearing, prison life and the death penalty, it is recommended for readers 12 and up, ideally those mature enough to handle the themes.

Themes Contemporary, Surfing,Australia, Bali, Drugs/Drug Smuggling, Prison, Justice, Human Rights.

Melanie Phillips

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Gangsta Granny strikes again! by David Walliams

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David Walliams' first-ever sequel was always going to be a hit - this follow-up to Gangsta Granny is fast-paced, funny, clever and warm-hearted all at once.

It has been a year since Ben’s beloved granny died. Ben had always thought she was boring, until he discovered she used to be a jewel thief known as The Black Cat. Granny and Ben had great adventures together, and almost managed to steal the Crown Jewels and even met the Queen in the first book.

This sequel starts with news of a daring theft that has all the hallmarks of The Black Cat. But it can’t possibly be. Who could be bold enough to be the copycat, and why?! Ben is on the case but must also fit in spending time with Edna (Granny’s cousin) and getting in some ballroom dancing practice with Mum. The first theft is quickly followed by more. Ben desperately tries to piece together the clues, under the suspicious eye of nosy Mr Parker and the Neighbourhood Watch group. He finds a surprising ally in local shop-owner Raj, who enjoys causing chaos for Mr Parker.

When the identity of the copycat Cat is finally revealed to Ben, readers will be delighted. But that’s only halfway through the story - there is still plenty to come at that point and loads more silliness, including lobster costumes, messy kebabs and a stolen police car. 

There is also time to fit in a heart-warming discussion where Ben is reminded that Granny will always be with him. He is told that she will be with him forever but that 'when she died, you were walking through a storm. Over time, the rain has softened, and one day … the sky will be blue'. This is a lovely way for children to think of how love, loss and the passing of time affects those left behind.

Zany illustrations by Tony Ross really bring this story to life, along with different fonts and changing text sizes. And keep an eye out for hilarious footnotes explaining made-up words and deliberate puns!

Themes Humour, Family, Adventure.

Kylie Grant

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The dark remains by William McIlvaney and Ian Rankin

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When McIlvaney died in  2015, he left behind a hand written manuscript exploring the first case of his detective, Laidlaw, the lead of his previous novel, simply called Laidlaw. Rankin was given the material to complete for publication and so two well known and much followed actors came together, one Glasgow, one Edinburgh.

It is a wonderful tale, the laconic Laidlaw lives some of his time in a hotel, leaving his wife and children in the suburbs, a situation he explains away as allowing him to get to work more quickly. But he is no longer in love with her, the tedium of being at home disappoints him and he prefers to stay away.

In this book he is teamed with Bob Lilley who is warned of Laidlaw’s singlemindedness, his inability to work as part of a team, placed in this station as a last chance. Lilley must mentor him, and every crime fiction reader will know that Lilley is in for a hard time. But he rolls with Laidlaw’s behaviours and the readers will love Lilley for his handling of a difficult situation.

A gang boss, Bobby Carter  has been murdered, one of the four who surround their boss, Cam Calvin with muscle. With his body dumped in the territory of a rival crime boss, Jack Rhodes. Laidlaw can smell a rat, and goes searching for clues which will uncover what is really going on behind the scenes. The dead man had been dating Jenni Love, daughter of a one time football hero of Glasgow, now relegated to being a coach of the lesser teams. Jenni had also been dating a strong arm man for Rhodes, and so things do not seem quite right to Laidlaw.

DI Milligan is in charge of the case and he deals with Laidlaw in a way that gets under his skin, so he rarely shares information or sets foot in the office. But he ferrets away, talking to the most improbable of people, barging into homes where he is clearly not welcome, keeping his eyes and ears open to any changes.

Glasgow in the 70’s is brought to life as Laidlaw takes buses to appointments, visits criminals in their homes, scours the seedy backstreets of the city. And when he finally nuts out what really happened, it is up to him to present the case to the Commander, despite the best efforts of DI Milligan.

A stunning read which will send readers to the other book about this eponymous detective.

Themes Crime fiction, Domestic violence, Glasgow.

Fran Knight

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The other Bennet sister by Janice Hadlow

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The familiar story of Pride and Prejudice rolls off the pages as we are transported into Regency England where the Bennet family goes about its daily routines, the mother desperately wanting husbands for her five daughters. The first half of the book is a version of Pride and Prejudice, told form a differing perspective, the overlooked third daughter, Mary. It is delightful, recalling one of the greatest of England’s stories, allowing the reader to feel comforted in the knowledge that they are reading something known and loved but with a slight twist. Here are all the wonderful characters, the settings and events which make up their lives. The proposal by cousin Collins is hilarious, introducing Mary to the game of finding a husband and all of its intricacies.

I loved the beginning, recalling known events and characters and drawing out the unloved and overlooked third girl, one passed off by the notorious Mrs Bennet as not having the same marriageable characteristics as her other four daughters. Her hair doesn’t curl enough for her, she is always reading, she is not as pretty as Jane or witty as Lizzie, and so on, and we feel guilty that while reading Pride and Prejudice we have sanctioned her dismissal. And Hadlow strategically presents the other loved characters in a vaguely critical light as they too ignore, demean and disregard their sister.

But in this story she takes on new roles. Once her father dies, she must move with her mother at Lizzie’s home, but finds this stifling. Recalling her aunt Gardiner in London, she writes and is welcomed into that household.

Here, Aunt Gardiner takes her in hand, loving her for who she is, but drawing her out, taking notice of her, dressing her with care, introducing her to their small society of friends. And Mary blossoms under the attention, learning to be comfortable in society, chatting at ease with those around her. She attracts the attentions of two young men, and these two vie for her companionship.

All the while, the same preoccupations as the original shine through: the pride of some and the prejudices of others in this small group of people, until Mary sees through all the cosmetics and makes a decision we can all admire.

This is a wonderful read, and very long. I wanted the end to come far more quickly so engrossed was I in Mary’s taking her life in her own hands.

Themes Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Regency England, London, Lakes district, Wordsworth, Families.

Fran Knight

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Britannica's 5 minute really true stories for family time

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Britannica's 5 Minute Really True Stories for Family Time was written in response to Covid lockdowns, and the amount of time families were spending together. It is a compendium of true stories that take approximately five minutes to read and is a companion to Britannica's 5 Minute Really True Stories for Bedtime. In this latest publication there are 30 stories covering families, both human and from the animal world and how they go about their daily lives. The varied and diverse topics listed on the contents page include such things as homes, celebrations, pedal power, saying goodbye, dinosaurs, the great outdoors, creepy crawly hideaways and playgrounds. Within each six-page spread there are brightly coloured illustrations to complement the clearly presented text as well as labelled diagrams and step by step instructions where applicable. Each topic presents a snapshot from places all over the world: for example, the food bought in the market in Barcelona may be very different to what is bought from a market in Ecuador. The story about ‘Getting Married’ gives information about weddings in India, Japan, Germany, Peru, the Philippines and Australia. Interestingly it states that in Australia wedding guests bring small stones to place in a bowl called the unity bowl for the married couple to take home to remember those who attended their wedding. Other Australian mentions include Coober Pedy, koalas and the Magnetic termite.

This would be an interesting book for those children who enjoy non-fiction and learning something new or as a shared read aloud for an adult and child.

Themes Families, Short Stories, Animals, Facts, Diversity.

Kathryn Beilby

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Blood trail by Tony Park

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A gripping story about poachers, missing young girls and magic.

Mia is working on redoing her master tracker assessment, but her confidence is wavering when she is unable to locate a poacher who seems to have just disappeared.  The poachers seem to be getting bolder and appear to know where the rhinos are. Mia and Bongani are starting to think that it might be someone on the inside feeding the poachers the information they need.  As the story goes on the plot continues to thicken, drawing you in to try and work out who is involved and how they are doing it.

At the same time Captain Sannie van Rensburg is investigating the disappearance of two young girls who locals believe have been taken for sinister purposes.

The poachers appear to be using strong traditional medicine which appears to make them disappear.

The author starts the story giving the reader some information on some of the characters, as the story goes on the characters slowly become more intertwined until the climax and the mystery where Mia and Sannie have to work together to finally solve the mysteries.

 This book gives the reader an idea of the horrible things that poachers do to get what they want, and the hard work put in by the dedicated people trying to stop the poachers and protect the endangered animals.

 I highly recommend this book.

Themes Game reserves, Tracking, Folk medicine, Witchcraft, South Africa, Missing persons.

Karen Colliver

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The curiosities by Zana Fraillon and Phil Lesnie

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This story focuses on Miro, a child who is surrounded by Curiosities. The Curiosities are ghost-like figures with strange yet recognisable shapes that follow Miro and embrace him during his day. They begin quietly in Miro’s life but then start to exert their presence with unusual behaviours and loud sounds. Miro is desperate to escape from these sounds and behaviours and withdraws into his own world of darkness. Fortunately for Miro he hears 'a whisper of a voice …a single thread of knowing …the sounds of the earth broke through the hissed whispers of the Curiosities.' Miro comes to realise that with love, care and support he can begin to manage those dark and difficult times.

It is not until I read the note from Zana Fraillon related to her child’s diagnosis of Tourette Syndrome that I fully came to understand the true meaning behind this gentle and sensitive story. In our diverse world, there are many children and adults whose brains are wired differently and there is an important conversation to be had about accepting and understanding differences in oneself and others. In the endnote from the illustrator Phil Lesnie, he mentions that the Curiosities are drawn from folklore of the Philippines and based on the ‘aswang, shape-shifting, viscera-sucking ghouls and monsters.’  The Curiosities is a beautifully illustrated picture book that will be a welcome and important addition to any library.

Themes Disability, Diversity, Difference, Folklore, Children.

Kathryn Beilby

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How high we go in the dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu

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Right from the very beginning, it seems that the author is warning us that human beings have caused this beautiful Earth to become endangered: the people, the plants, the animals and the whole of this Earth, are all in trouble.  Some chapters are told in the first person, Nagamatsu drawing us into the fear and emotional mayhem of people who do not know what they can or should do to save themselves or this planet. At one point, we read about a young boy who watches a television programme in which the speaker is suggesting that the ‘plague’ should be blamed on the governments of the world, ‘orchestrated’, they are claiming, to reduce the world’s population.  
 
Nagamatsu begins this narrative in Siberia, where the ice and snow have been melting with that dreaded ‘temperature rise” that we are unhappily acknowledging.  Plunging his characters into a situation that is clearly dreaded, Nagamatsu writes about humans who care about protecting the Earth but are fearful that it may not even be possible.  Indeed, it is the people, the plants, the animals - indeed the Earth, in all its glorious existence, that is suffering a degradation that seems to be impossible to stop.  Scientists, working in the archaeological dig, have found the remains of a girl thought to have lived 30,000 years ago, the scientists concluding that she is part Neanderthal and only superficially human, even apparently carrying some genetic taint of a starfish or octopus.  When a number of scientists arrive from America, it is revealed that some ancient viruses have been recognised in her body.  These may have been the rogue virus that has caused such trauma.
 
Heat and wildfires abound in Los Angeles where the streets are empty,  indeed they seem to be “lifeless”. One character claims that he "sees orbs shining in the dark”, dashing across our solar system, while others discuss whether the world has a future, and if so, what could it possibly be offering human beings.  In some cities, people are heard screaming and wailing, frantically calling for help.  A doctor talks about the donor pigs for their organs, the pigs having been genetically modified to help children who have been compromised through the virus.  Late in the novel, Nagamatsu writes of a pig that manages to speak in human language, addressing the medical team leader as “Dahktar” - a suggestion that the pig has been genetically modified, having become "not quite human and not quite pig’" one part of a future that we will not see. The pig is only alive because its organs were not used as donor organs to save human lives, and this pig is currently learning to read!  
Nagamatsu closes this brilliant work with a message, sent in 2037, beamed from a space craft making its way to a new world.  Beautifully written, rivetting, hopeful yet somewhat unsettling, this narrative appears to have been constructed to make us focus on the world of today, Nagamatsu addresses some of the very real issues that we are currently facing.  This brilliant book would be suitable for older adolescents and adults. 

Elizabeth Bondar

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The stars are not yet bells by Hannah Lillith Assadi

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Woven into this story of lost dreams, lost love and shattered memories is the story of an aging woman, Elle, whose life is now waiting for the end. In the tangle of the final mosaic of memories is the story of her family background, her romance with Gabriel, the ‘arranged’ marriage with Simon (a man with his own forbidden loves) and the life they shared while Simon was searching for an underwater blue ‘gem’, that sparkled elusively off their island off the South-eastern coast of the USA. This is a sad tale filled with melancholy and there is no sold ground because memories slip and slide and are spun in the maelstrom of the blue-wash of depression and dementia.

This is an adult tale that has a confounding quality because of the telling through the voice of the central character battling with depressive dementia. With no straightforward chronology there is a montage-quality with small clips of varying pieces of history floating through the seasons of the latter days of Elle’s life. Her inability to recognise her family and her current circumstances at times creates timeslips and journeys into the past. This then weaves with past electrotherapy treatments to create a psychological and broken storyline. Although there is a lyrical and symbolic quality to the writing that is beautiful, the story itself is sad and requires some maturity.

Themes Dementia, Memories, Romance, Mental illness.

Carolyn Hull

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The midnight girls by Alicia Jasinska

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'The first time the witch asked Marynka to bring her a heart, she was twelve years old.' As the servant 'Midday' to the Red witch, Marynka must do as commanded, competing against 'Midnight', servant to the Black witch. Retrieving, among other things, the hearts of princes for their mistresses to consume, their rivalry grows despite never meeting. Marynka has the companionship of Beata, 'Morning', the servant to the White witch. Until the day they are all sent to retrieve the same heart - a pure heart, the prince of Lechija's heart. Through their mission, the rivals meet, and each has their own reasons for wanting to succeed over the other. Attraction grows though, while their rivalry escalates. As their ambition turns into a magical contest, their attempts on the prince's life draw the attention of the city. With so much at stake, their rivalry could cost them everything.

Set to the tune of a unique dark Polish folktale, this fantasy novel is fast paced, an easy page turner. Told from the perspective's of the two servants, both who are strong female main characters, the story moves smoothly and quickly. With an undercurrent of a female-female romance, filled with friendships and fraught relationships, this is a great read. The banter between the main characters is enjoyable, while the developing relationships feel natural. Essentially a villain versus villain romance, where readers are rooting for the pair to find a way to overcome their circumstances. With a touch of horror throughout the novel with the use of dark magic, The Midnight Girls is a true dark fantasy. 

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Monsters, Enemies, War, LGBTQIA+, Power, Feminism, Romance.

Melanie Phillips

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Killer content by Kiley Roache

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The world of young US social media megastars and influencers, utilising Tik-tok and Instagram to create a name, image and wealth is the setting for this youth-centric drama. Step aside Kardashians! The six teenagers who are at the centre of the drama are all highly successful as creators of content for Tik-tok and other media platforms. Their huge number of followers makes them valuable marketing tools used by organisations willing to pay big dollars for product placement in their online videos. In this vacuous world of wealth, image and partying there is competition to be the most watched. Amongst the six teens (four girls and two guys) who are part of an influencer cooperative-collection living together in a spectacular mansion, there is also romance and rivalry. When their persistent and prolific posting is disrupted by a murder, they are all under suspicion.

The prologue to this story immediately tells us that one of the teens is arrested, but the rest of the story reveals the perspectives of all the characters before and after the murder. Slowly suspects are revealed, and pieces of evidence disclosed, but always the mystery and tension are being tightened before the big reveal. The police in the story do not live in the Insta-world and their inability to understand the language and behaviour of influencer culture comes across as amusing. There is a subtle critique of some of the Tik-tok and social media culture, but it is also implied that it is a powerful youth force. This story feels like it could be inspiration for a TV teen drama and will be enjoyed in the YA world because the social media world is their second home. It is a compelling story and will be enjoyed by readers aged 15+.

Themes Murder mystery, Social media, Influencers, Wealth, Image, LGBTIQ.

Carolyn Hull

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Jacqueline : a soldier's daughter by Pierre-Jacques Ober and Jules Ober

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This story is based on the author’s mother’s memoir telling her experiences during WW2 from when she was age 7. Told through miniatures, beautifully crafted, lit and photographed, we have a child’s eye view of events as they unfold. They laugh about school gas mask drill, looking like “little pigs”, then her father rides off to war but brings her a puppy when on leave. Jacqueline is delighted as she longs for a sister and is lonely. As the Germans invade France the changes are terrifyingly quick, with no words to describe them. There are many casualties but when her puppy is one of them Jacqueline grieves. They discover her father is held prisoner in Troyes and her mother bravely rides a bike 300km with Jacqueline to rescue him. At times it is hard to know who to trust; they are helped by German soldiers and have to be wary of French informers, Jacqueline is scared and confused but she is also resilient. The story follows the family from France to Algiers and on to Germany as her father takes on various military roles. Jacqueline, her mother and father survive the war and there is an unexpected happy ending supported by photographs at the end of the book of Jacqueline and her best friend Hildegard celebrating 75 years of friendship.

This book uses the same format as The Good Son, exquisitely modelled dioramas with individually created figures given emotional impact by their poses, lighting or the point of view. Colour is used effectively, for example in contrasting sunny, undamaged Algiers with the grey devastation of post war Germany. Text is minimal and matter of fact, in keeping with this being a child’s story, the dioramas fill in the detail. The French version of the book has won a 2021 prize for best photography book for young people. There are teacher resources on the publisher’s website and more information about the [Photo]graphic novels on the Little Soldier Stories website. Less confronting than The Good Son, children of any age would find Jacqueline engaging. A must for any middle school study of this period of history and graphic design or film study students would find it interesting.

Themes War, History, Resistance, Family.

Sue Speck

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You'd be home now by Kathleen Glasgow

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The sign on the highway leading out of Mill Haven says “Leaving so soon? If you lived here you’d be home now!” It is near an encampment of homeless people society seems to have abandoned. Mill Haven is home to 16 year old Emory who is injured in a car crash on her way home from a party. The driver Luther Leonard is also injured but in the back seat her brother, Joey passed out on heroin smothers Candy Montclair who is dead.  With his drug habit revealed, Joey is packed off to a rehabilitation centre by their efficient, lawyer mother and their father throws himself even more into his job as an ER doctor while beautiful, confident older sister Maddie, home from college, spends time with Emmy. Joey has never fitted in with the parents’ expectations and Emmy has taken emotionally exhausting responsibility for covering up for him while being ‘the good one’. She blames herself for keeping his drug habit secret, allowing it to become out of control. Joey’s drug dependence can be traced back to overuse of prescription painkillers so Emmy’s parents discourage her use of them to manage the pain in her knee. On top of this, when Joey comes back from rehab she is expected to supervise him. Worried and in pain her only comfort is her secret intimacy with popular Gage, from next door. “Standing so close to him feels electrical, bolts of heat and light that erase the pain in my knee, my thoughts of Joey” p. 64.

Author’s notes tell us the book is based on the American classic “Our Town” and a desire to write about the current opioid epidemic, this is a lot to ask from a first person narrative but Emmy’s protective love for her brother stands out as she navigates life and all its complications.  Fans of Glasgow’s Girl in Pieces will love this book. Sexual exploration, death and drug abuse make it suitable for upper middle to young adult readers.

Themes Drug addiction, Family, Mental health.

Sue Speck

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King of battle and blood by Scarlett St. Clair

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Princess Isolde of Lara is fierce, independent and fine being unmarried at 26 years old. Preferring to ride, fight and protect her people, she is not concerned with pretty dresses and being a lady. While she thought she might marry one day, she had begun to view her future as queen as a solo affair, requiring no king. That is, until her father surrenders to the Blood King. Somehow she becomes engaged to the Blood King, Adrian, the most feared vampire in their world, who is slowly conquering all the nations of Cordova through vicious battles, with his army of undead. But maybe her getting close to Adrian will be beneficial, perhaps she'll succeed in ending his reign. That is, until she realises that her intense attraction to him leaves little room for assassination attempts. And there's something going on in the Cordova, something sinister...

Definitely a book for older readers, this paranormal fantasy is full of action, sex, swearing and high strung emotion. This fantasy world has been well created by Scarlett St. Clair, full of paranormal monsters and idyllic fantasy scenery. The first of a new series, Adrian x Isolde, the author has created an interesting thread that will be continued throughout the series - the right amount of intrigue to get readers hooked. Fantastically paced, the story has the right ebb and flow for readers to be able to pick up where they left off easily. As graphic sex scenes occur frequently through the book, along with regular swearing, the book should be in senior fiction, or restricted to older readers. Ideal for fans of Sarah J Maas' series Court of Thorns and Roses.

Themes Paranormal, Vampires, Fantasy, Enemies to Lovers, War, Kings and Queens, Revenge.

Melanie Phillips

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