Reviews

Feather by M.G. Leonard

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Feather is the fourth adventure in the series about a group of bird loving friends who use their problem-solving skills to unravel mysteries and solve crimes. The previous books – Twitch, Spark, and Clutch introduced the main characters, but I think each book can be read as a standalone. 

As the title suggests, a black feather is found at the scene of their latest crime.  Ava is on a school trip to a museum when a large number of rare Bird of Paradise skins are stolen from a special room in the museum. When the police won’t listen to her theories about the case she turns to her friends, the Twitchers, to help solve the crime and return the feathers before they are sold to designers or collectors on the black market.  Ava meets a young girl nearby and it seems the girl and her pet Raven are somehow involved, but Ava is not sure how and must tread carefully as the nasty gang of criminals the girl is connected to will put the Twitchers in more danger than they first realise.

The story is a fast-paced page turner with great details that show how the group work together to piece together the clues they find, work as a team to solve the mysteries to bring the criminals to justice.  The characters in the Twitchers - Ava, Tara, Twitch, Jack, Terry, Ozura and Tippi are passionate about the natural environment and birds, and all are incredibly kind-hearted and empathetic to the people they encounter in their search for the truth. It is the perfect ending to a fantastic adventure series for children 9 and older.

Themes Birds, Museums, Theft, Crime investigation.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Ferris by Kate DiCamillo

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Emma Phineas Wilkey is a girl who was born at the fair in the shadow of the Ferris wheel which earns Emma the name “Ferris.” Her Grandmother, Charisse, was there to catch Emma in what she describes as a Love Story and claims that every good story is a love story.  This is a recurring theme of this wonderfully constructed story in true DiCamillo style, where family and community interactions provide a basis for a book that will become a favourite read aloud in many middle primary classrooms. 

Ferris has a variety of strange situations to deal with. Firstly, her little sister, who wants to become an outlaw, causes havoc wherever they go. Then she is recruited by her uncle to act as go-between for him and her aunt, thereby getting a strange new hairdo for her trouble. Meanwhile, much to her mother’s annoyance, her uncle is holed up in the family basement, painting the history of the world after separating from the aunt. Then her grandmother starts to see a ghost in the house, and enlists Ferris’ help to do something special to bring back the ghost’s long dead husband.

Boomer the dog features as one of the many interesting characters in this book, along with Ferris’ best friend, Billy Jackson, who lost his mother when he was born and plays the same song on the piano over and over, and their teacher, Mrs Mielk, whose vocabulary lessons still resonate with both Billy and Ferris and who is bereft after losing her husband recently. (The book features some excellent vocabulary which will provide extra discussion points throughout the read.) And of course, Charisse whose imminent death is the fact uppermost in Ferris’ mind. A satisfying ending will leave readers joyful and sad at the same time with much to think about and discuss about life and family.

Themes Siblings, Grief, Family Life.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Orlando's Garden by Stephanie Paulsen Valery Well

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Orlando lives in a light, bright apartment that has a large balcony where he plays with his trucks and diggers most days, in amongst the plants that his parents have planted in pots and containers.. But mostly he loves going on walks with his parents and discovering all the different plants they see on the way. He is fascinated by their diversity - their colours, shapes, sizes and textures - so when he plants a bean seed in his sandpit and it sprouts, it is just the beginning of a whole new world of discovery for him.

Including some beginner-gardener activities, this is a story designed to inspire young readers to take an interest in growing things and perhaps even grow their own. Even if they only have a balcony, there are many things that can be grown in pots - all they need are the right conditions and someone who cares enough to nurture them.

The rise in school kitchen gardens and the support available for them including how they are integral to the sustainability and environmental strands of the curriculum shows that there are many children who are interested in growing things, particularly if they can eat the produce when it is ready, and Orlando's story is not only an inspiration to get started but also shows that even those living in flats and apartments can join in the fun. (In fact, he probably grows more there than we can here on acres of thin mountain soil exposed to all weathers.)

Orlando's garden could be one to kickstart some initial planning, particularly using the initial guide from NSW Department of Education.

Themes Gardens.

Barbara Braxton

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Outlaw girls by Emily Gale & Nova Weetman

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Outlaw Girls is the second co-authored novel by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman. In this historical fiction time-slip read, Kate from 1878 and Ruby from 2022, form a close bond of friendship and loyalty that lasts for a number of years. Both Kate and Ruby are talented horsewomen who live in Victoria’s High Country but come from very different circumstances.

The story begins with risk-taking teenager Ruby embarking on a shoplifting lark with her friends. This leads to a more serious act of theft and the consequences for Ruby are very telling. Sent to live with her uncle and aunt on a property for the school holidays, Ruby is denied access to her friends. Here she is expected to help out but often escapes chores by going riding. It is when she is out riding that she meets Kate. Ruby offers to help Kate and after some misunderstandings and confusion, finally accepts that Kate is from another era. Through a mysterious portal both girls travel back to 1878, where Ruby meets Kate’s family and realises that Kate is a Kelly, younger sister to Ned and Dan. Ruby learns about the hardships faced by the Kelly family in 1878 and becomes heavily involved in the lives of the family and their notorious bushranger brothers.

Throughout this novel, the two girls are constantly thinking on their feet to avoid being exposed as being from different times. They face terrible danger in the 1870’s but support each other through some tricky situations. Ruby forms a bond with Kate’s family and along the way learns some valuable life lessons.

This is a compelling read where modern-day teenage angst and privilege meets poverty and injustice in colonial Australia. The story of the Kelly Gang is legendary in Australian History but the two authors have ingeniously told the story of the Kelly women and how they supported their brothers and kept the family together. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Historical Fiction, Timeslip, Ned Kelly & Kelly Gang, Friendship, Loyalty, Police, Crimes, Family, Hardship, Horse riding, Colonial Australia.

Kathryn Beilby

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Birdy by Sharon Kernot

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As with many verse novels, I was able to read Birdy in a couple of hours, and was invested enough in the slow reveal to do so in one sitting. However the beautifully expressive but sparse prose really warrants rereading to appreciate the skill with which Kernot has created the stories of main characters Maddy and Alice.

15 year-old Maddy and her family have moved to an isolated farmhouse following a traumatic unnamed ‘Incident’ that has left her a selective mute. Initially preferring to be alone to read and write poetry like Emily Dickinson, here she slowly heals and finds her voice. Under the caring and watchful eye of her nerdy younger brother and following her psychologist’s suggestions for exposure therapy, she learns to trust again. She embarks on a tentative friendship with the vivacious Levi who can ‘talk for two or more’. She also enjoys visiting the reclusive Alice, who is waiting in vain for her daughter Birdy to return, 45 years after she vanished without a trace.

When Maddy finds Birdy’s diary she learns of Birdy’s father’s death after working at Maralinga, and allusions to an assault that unsettlingly parallels Maddy’s. This information helps her to put her own issues in perspective. However, her healing is interrupted when Levi snaps a selfie with Maddy who is terrified that it will reignite the social media storm that she is trying to put behind her. Maddy has to deal with the emotions that resurface, and the fear that she has lost an important friendship.

Birdy is filled with positive examples of people supporting each other through their words and kind deeds, and touches on some of the different ways of dealing with anxiety. It also addresses the harm that social media can do, and the strength of character required to counter this. The serious issues that shape Maddy and Alice’s lives (implied sexual assault and anxiety, hoarding and depression) are dealt with sensitively and eventually resolved.

With references to locations in the mid-north of South Australia, and the mystery of Birdy’s disappearance to be solved, Birdy is highly recommended for teens, for both its honest, heart-wrenching content and lyrical free-verse style.

Teaching notes are available.

Themes Loss, Grief, Friendship, Family, Country Town, Mutism, Consent, Bullying, Hoarding, Anxiety, Depression.

Margaret Crohn

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Where is Cheeky Monster? by Mike Lucas & Heidi McKinnon

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It is such a joy to read a book for very young children that you know will bring smiles and laughter. Where is Cheeky Monster? written by talented and versatile South Australian children’s author Mike Lucas and gloriously illustrated by Heidi McKinnon is an engaging rhyming story with a very surprising treat at the end.

The luminous pastel front cover with two large eyes and the catchy question “Where is Cheeky Monster?” will immediately appeal to young readers. The word monster conjures up all sorts of thoughts and images, and the eclectic array of monsters included in the book are sure to please. Each page showcases a different brightly coloured monster having fun, showing their feelings, or just going about their day:

Busy Monster’s always working.
Sleepy Monster dreams all day.
Super Monster saves the city.
Scaredy Monster runs away.

Spread throughout the book, and to cleverly involve the listening audience, are questions such as:

So many monsters we can see.
But where can Cheeky Monster be?
Monsters, monsters here and there.
But where is Cheeky Monster? Where?

This delightful book with its vibrant and striking illustrations will be a popular read and a wonderful addition to a home, kindy or school library. A perfect gift for a new baby, toddler or the cheeky monster in your life!

Themes Monsters, Rhyme.

Kathryn Beilby

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Footprint by Phil Cummings and Sally Soweol Han

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We are reminded from the title of the footprint we all leave on our planet, and this idea is woven through Phil Cummings’ magical words, and displayed for all to see in the softly engaging illustrations by Sally Soweol Han.

Cummings invites the readers to walk out into the morning, breathing in the freshness of the open air, hearing the whisper of the waterfall, watched by wildlife which sometimes cannot be seen. He suggests they should rest awhile, taking a few moments to look around and think about what they are seeing. And breathe it in. Sometimes the way ahead is rocky and difficult but they will find a path to the top. Once reached they will be able to see over the space beneath them, taking in the deserts and mountains, valleys and the patchwork of country. Their journey keeps on as they float on the melting ice and the rising sea. They may be be shrouded by a mists blocking their way. There may be shadows, the future may seem dark, sometimes treacherous, sometimes slow.

Cummings gently leads the reader to the richness of their futures. The journey they will take will be full of wonder and awe. It will be diverse, and while it may include some sadness, the reader is encouraged to always be hopeful, to tread carefully, planting that seed along the way. 

Korean/Australian illustrator and artist, Sally Soweol Han has created a journey of discovery, paralleling Cummings’ thoughtful words. The pastel and pencil images show a range of environments, full of life and wonder, impelling the reader to seek out things in the background, to breathe in the atmosphere created by the words and the pencils. The child’s journey is sometimes hard, climbing high mountains, sometimes worrying as the ice melts and sea rises, sometimes with impure air as in the startling page of the factories, but always leading to somewhere warm and comforting, green and open spaced, where the child can breathe.

Cummings shows a future in which they have a place, one where they can plant seeds of hope, protecting the natural world and ensuring their footprints will not leave scars. Teacher's notes are available.

Themes Sustainability, Conservation, Environment, Future.

Fran Knight

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The moon gate by Amanda Geard

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The Moon Gate is an enchanting love story and an enthralling mystery, spanning over 6 decades from WWII to the early 2000’s, set in three evocatively described settings – London, Tasmania and Ireland. A sweeping historical mystery where rich imagery and dynamic characters converge to create a story that’s leaves you wanting to read just one more chapter...

The story begins at the outbreak of WWII, with London teenager Grace, along with Rose, her chaperone, sent to the safety of Tasmania to live with her uncle and aunt in the formidable home, Towerhurst. Grace is timid, lacking in self-belief, brought slowly out of her shell by a blossoming love for Daniel, only for him to be called to war. Unbeknownst at the time, Daniel leaves behind a secret, indelibly linking him to Grace, and one that sends ripples throughout generations to come.

Seamlessly interwoven throughout are two other timelines. It’s 1975 and newlyweds, Willow and Ben, for reasons unknown to them, inherit Towerhurst from an anonymous benefactor. Seeking to discover its previous owners, they begin to unravel a mystery and the secret it holds. In 2004 their daughter, Libby remembers Towerhurst from her childhood and its mysterious presence, when she travels London to continue her father’s search for answers, with unexpected twists and turns.

The Moon Gate is a beautifully written historical fiction. Amanda Geard has an ability to craft characters that linger in the imagination long after the story has ended and creates a rich tapestry of people and places that she weaves together with intrigue that will leave you wanting more.

Themes History, War, Mystery, Family, Relationships.

Ruth Tipping

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Artichoke to Zucchini by Alice Oehr

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Then we were encouraged to eat a rainbow every day...

So it seems only logical that now we can indulge in an entire alphabet of food in this beautifully illustrated new release from graphic artist Alice Oehr, a follow up to her successful first book, Off to Market. a CBCA Notable and the Winner of the 2023 ABIAs Small Publishers' Children's Book of the Year.

A is for artichokes and long spears of asparagus. It's for bright, creamy avocados and salty little anchovies ...

While these sorts of books appear, on the surface, to be for very young readers learning new vocabulary as they pick out those foods they recognise, they have a much wider value as we try to encourage little ones to learn to make healthy choices from the get-go. Students can have fun classifying the various foods into those familiar food groups; they can tick off those they have tried and those they are yet to try; they can suggest foods they know that start with a particular letter but which haven't been included on the page; those from other countries can contribute foods they are familiar with which we might not know; they can seek out recipes and ways to cook and prepare the foods they are unfamiliar with; they can carry out research and data collection of favourite foods; they might even venture into the history of food, the concept of food miles, traditional foods for traditional celebrations - the list is endless.

This is the first book I've reviewed for this company and if this is the calibre, then we are in for some good stuff. I'm just glad I did the review after my healthy chicken and salad meal!

Themes Food, Health.

Barbara Braxton

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Einstein: The case of the fishy detective by Iona Rangeley. Illus. by David Tazzyman

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Younger, independent readers first met Einstein the penguin in Einstein the penguin, his first adventure in London, when after a visit to the zoo he turns up at the home of six-year-old Arthur and nine-year-old Imogen Stewart and their parents let him stay a while. But a fairy penguin from Sydney really has no place in London 'where the days end early and forget to start on time' and so he is off home to Australia.

Imogen and Arthur miss him terribly and even though they still have regular video contact, it just isn't the same. In an unusual twist, Imogen teams up with the disgraced Detective Bill Hunter who has now set up an agency for animals to appear in advertisements, to bring Einstein and his friend Isaac back to London. But can he be trusted? Especially when Einstein is kidnapped? The siblings learn a lot about their own relationship when they once again pull on their detective hats to discover what has happened to Einstein and who did it.

This is a worthy sequel to the original, introducing younger readers to the mystery/crime genre that may spark their interest in others in a similar vein. Generally, children search for topic, author and series so this might be an opportunity to demonstrate that there are stories that follow a certain pattern, have similar types of plot development, themes and conclusions and if they enjoyed this one, then genre is a way to broaden their reading horizons while they wait for any sequels.

Themes Detectives.

Barbara Braxton

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The Wartime Book Club by Kate Thompson

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This engaging new release tells the story of two best friends Bea Rose and Grace La Mottée and the dangerous turn their carefree lives undertook when German soldiers occupied the island of Jersey from 1940 until the end of World War Two.

Grace, gentle and dreamy, is the only librarian left on the island and has hidden books banned by the Germans and which are at constant risk of discovery. Grace has also been instrumental in starting up a Book Club where villagers can meet and discuss books, as well as connect with others. Bea works in the Post Office and is wilful, headstrong and betrothed to Grace’s brother Jimmy. When Bea suffers a terrible loss, she channels her hate of the Germans into hiding letters but more importantly she and other postal workers uncover letters from their fellow countrymen and women denouncing their neighbours. Bea uses her role as a post office delivery person to warn those in danger and persuades Grace to help her while she delivers books to homes. Both girls come under the scrutiny of Gestapo officer, Heinz Carl Wolfe (The Wolf) who stalks them until tragedy strikes. Grace then makes a momentous decision which changes her and Bea’s life, and the lives of the people closest to them.

Throughout this book, the passion and joy Grace has for her library, the books and her patrons is at the fore. She provides a safe haven for the people of Jersey as well as ensuring books make it into the right hands. Grace also meets Red, a downed American pilot hiding from the Germans. Their story plays out over the course of the novel and brings with it a sense of hope. Bea’s story is deeply connected to Grace’s and her determination to do as much as she can to thwart and outwit the German Army, while placing herself and her family in terrible danger, leads to some difficult and dangerous situations.  

The dreadful abuse and deprivation inflicted by the Germans on the island of Jersey, completely cut off from the rest of the world, is well-researched and sensitively presented by author Kate Thompson. At the end of the book, she provides detailed background information about true events that took place on Jersey and shares snippets of stories from people who survived the vicious occupation.

It was enlightening to read at the beginning of each chapter about one banned book. Chapter 19 tells of banned books by author Alfred Kerr who was forced into exile in Great Britain. His daughter is author Judith Kerr who wrote The Tiger Who Came to Tea and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit based on her escape from Nazi Germany.

The Wartime Book Club is a wonderful read for those who love books and war genre as well as those who work in libraries.  Many will appreciate the references to well-known books throughout and the vital role libraries and books play in times of great despair.

Themes Jersey, World War Two Occupation, Nazis, Loss, Suffering, Cruelty, Libraries, Books, Book Club, Hope, Friendship, Resistance.

Kathryn Beilby

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Questions and answers about refugees by Katie Daynes. Illus. by Oksana Dkachkovska

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Who are refugees?
Why do people become refugees?
Can anyone become a refugee?
What do 'asylum seeker', 'migrant' and 'internally displaced person' mean?

These are some of the questions asked and answered in this new release Q&A from Usborne, the masters of making the complex simple. With its lift-the-flap format, all the big questions like 'Why do wars start?' are explained in short, easy-to-understand paragraphs so that students can have a basic understanding of what some of their classmates may have faced in a previous life and time. And with current and potential conflicts creating an even greater problem than previously, there are many who will be seeking answers.

Written with advice from the Refugee Council and drawing on conversations with refugees and aid workers from around the world, the questions cover all stages of a refugee's journey, from fleeing danger and embarking on hazardous journeys, to seeking asylum and struggling to find a new place to call home. The language and scenes have been carefully considered to be appropriate for younger children, providing an extremely useful educational tool for families and schools. And for those wanting to know more, there are the usual Quicklinks to carefully selected and vetted online resources.

Themes Refugees.

Barbara Braxton

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Andromache between worlds by Gabriel Bergmoser

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Andromache Between Worlds by Gabriel Bergmoser takes readers on a thrilling journey through parallel universes filled with adventure, action, and suspense. The novel follows protagonist, Andromache, who comes from a family of heroes yet is struggling to find her own identity. Her life takes a very dramatic turn when she learns that her father, whom she believed to be dead, is actually alive but trapped in another world after being accidently sucked into a portal.

Joined by her newfound companions Tobias and Rylee, Andromache embarks on a daring quest to rescue her father. Armed with a locksmith device capable of traversing between dimensions, the trio explores a multitude of worlds, each more fantastical than the last. From encountering dinosaurs to navigating futuristic landscapes and facing off against pirates, the group encounters a myriad of challenges that test their courage and resilience. Can Andromache and her friends successfully navigate numerous worlds to find her father, or will the domains prove too challenging?

Bergmoser's storytelling captivates from the outset; weaving a narrative rich in detail and imagination. The dynamic between the characters is engaging, with Andromache's journey of self-discovery and family bonds at the forefront. Filled with vivid descriptions, each world is brought to life and readers are immersed in a series of settings that ignite the imagination. From prehistoric landscape to mind blowing futuristic cities, each diverse world brings intrigue to the narrative.

Andromache Between Worlds is a thrilling adventure that moves at a brisk pace and is filled with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers eagerly turning the pages. Jam-packed with adventure, fantasy and mystery it also carries themes of friendship, loyalty, and the power of self-discovery. As Andromache and her companions navigate the perils of parallel universes, they learn valuable lessons about resilience, determination, and the importance of forging their own destinies. Readers will certainly enjoy the ride!

Themes Portals, History, Friendship, Adventure, Teamwork, Problem solving, Family.

Michelle O'Connell

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Meet the dinosaurs by Caryl Hart. Illus. by Bethan Woollvin

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A young girl and her companion travel through the past ages from Jurassic to Cretaceous showcasing several dinosaurs from these eras. Starting with the Jurassic, we see a number of large animals, including Diplodocus, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus before heading into the Cretaceous period. Each page has rhyming verses about the animal encouraging readers to predict the rhyming word and read along with the reader. Each page also shows characteristics of the animal in question, what it may look like, its size and its traits, including what it eats, how it survives and its interaction with other animals. Readers will be enthralled, seeing the animals on each page, the book covering ten different dinosaurs over nearly 200 million years until extinction 60 million years ago. Each double page shows the animal and the environment in which it lives. Children will be intrigued at the range of environments shown. 

I loved the book, as it shows the usual range but also shows that there were some that flew and survived in the sea. Hints about dinosaurs are given, allowing children to ask questions and think about questions like why did they die out, or how they lived for so long, or what are the skeletons seen in many museums.

Bright colourful illustrations cover each page, showing the girl and her companion in a jeep, rather like the film, Jurassic Park, but without the scary bits.  I loved the time line given at the end of the book, reinstating the facts learnt in the book, and showing a simple overview easily decipherable by eager young readers.

Themes Dinosaurs, Jurassic, Museums, STEM, Science, Palaeontology.

Fran Knight

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The Atlas complex by Olivie Blake

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The six initiates of the Alexandrian Society, whose sentient library archive is closed to outsiders, have grown into their magical powers but still seem to be rudderless, angst ridden and craving for a different world. Options include opening a portal to the multiverse or other even more destructive scenarios, though Reina, with the help of Callum, has decided to try and influence current world political outcomes piece by piece in the hope of empowering those with a more sustainable vision. It is becoming increasingly clear that the six were chosen by caretaker Atlas Blakely to be tools in his destructive aim of remaking the world, something the Forum is aware of so they are all being hunted by asassins who want to prevent the six carrying out Atlas’ plan and at the same time gain unlimited access to the archives. But like the other books, this is fundamentally about the six and their relationships. Opening bios are helpful in reacquainting the reader with the key points from the previous two books. Libby is back, completing the duo with Nico ‘without you I am push with no pull” p266, the intensity of their friendship is complex and well written, as are the shifting alliances of the other characters. I was glad of the “Interlude” on p 226 explaining “Atlas Blakely’s rise to power” as I had rather lost sight of him, but I was less happy with the scenarios towards the end, seeming to avoid difficult plot decisions. Much better than the previous Atlas Paradox, The Atlas Complex is more able to maintain a forward momentum and offers an insight into our anxieties about the state of the world and where it is heading. Olivie Blake’s acknowledgements at the end are well worth close reading and would make a good discussion starter with senior students.

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Relationships, Power.

Sue Speck

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