Reviews

Song of the golden hare by Jackie Morris

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I am a fan of Jackie Morris’ illustrations (The unwinding)  and the gilt title and beautiful drawing of a golden hare on the dust jacket drew me in as soon as I saw the book. A young boy and his sister belong to a family that is special. They must follow the hares and watch for the time when the old queen leaves and a new queen takes her place. They see the hares sing their song in a competition to become the new queen’s partner. And they must ensure that hunters do not capture the old queen before she can journey to the Island of the Golden Hares, where she will be safe.

The narrative is captivating as the reader follows the story, watching with the boy when the hares dance in the twilight and easily imagining the music that he loves. The wild race following the hares as they run towards the queen is suspenseful, with hunters and hounds pursuing them, hoping to obtain a golden hide. Readers will be holding their breath as they watch to see who will win the new queen and hope that the old queen gains safety. However, it was the illustrations that held me captive, and I found myself going back two or three times to closely look at them, finding further details on each examination. The hares are gorgeous with beautiful long ears. The memorable drawings of the family show the love that they have for each other and the hares. A close inspection shows tiny foxes, moths and owls in the landscape, while the hunter’s hounds are huge and fierce. The brown colouring of the hares is highlighted by pale yellow and blue backgrounds with curling tree trunks and minute animals.

Song of the golden hare is a keeper. Its stunning illustrations are timeless and will ensure that the book is handed down to the next generation.

Themes Hares, Singing, Songs, Folklore.

Pat Pledger

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Tayles of the forest by Lucinda Gifford

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The Wolves of Greycoat Hall was the first book in this series and introduced this wonderful wolf family as they went holidaying in Scotland to discover their family roots. It continued with Boris in Switzerland where Boris attended an exclusive boarding school, discovered all things Swiss and made some human friends.  This third and final book in the series brings the friends Boris made in Switzerland and Scotland to his home in Morovia at Christmas time.  Aileen and Pierre enjoy the great wolfish hospitality, meet some of Boris’ wolf friends and learn all about the Christmas traditions in Morovia. Aileen is visiting to help write more about the history of the Greycoat family with Boris’ father Randall.  Boris is excited about his friend Pierre visiting because they have planned to build some amazing snow castles and for Pierre to attend Boris’ school during the following term. But when Boris is given a rare book of Moravian fairy tales, a mysterious guest arrives at the house and items start disappearing from the Greycoat’s home. Luckily, Boris and his friends are on the case to find out who is behind these strange happenings. The book is peppered with Lucinda’s amazing illustrations, and we are treated to excerpts from both the Morovian fairy tale book and A guide to Morovia to give us all the information we need to know about life in this amazing Wolf country. Wolves have traditionally been viewed as the villains in stories, but this series has elevated them to being accepted as friends and colleagues, a useful way to discuss how people should be judged, by their looks, by who they are or by how they act.

Themes Wolves, Lost and found, Mysteries, Switzerland, School.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Little Ash: Big break! by Ash Barty and Jasmin McGaughery. Illus. by Jade Goodwin

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The series Little Ash is a wonderful collaboration between three Indigenous women who are all passionate about bringing quality literature to younger readers.  The series, which has 10 titles in total, covers a wide variety of subjects including school, sport, family, friendships, sportsmanship, and decision-making.

A family beach picnic is featured in Book 9 and is called Big Break because Little Ash’s big sister has broken her wrist.  One of the traditions on this family day is a game of beach tennis and the winners get to choose which dessert is bought from the local shop.  Ash is desperate to win but then realises that she can make the day brighter for her injured sister even though it may mean she misses out on her favourite ice-cream. The story has some lovely exchanges between family members and will resonate with young readers who may remember family gatherings and recollect about different family members. The black and white illustrations are well-placed to assist young readers to understand the text. The chapters are short and there are some highlighted words to draw attention to the action or prompt readers to explore the meanings of unfamiliar words. A well-crafted, interesting series that will be popular in school libraries for emerging independent readers, even if they are not sports lovers.

 

Themes Family, Tennis, Picnics.

Gabrielle Anderson

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Our flag, our story: The Torres Strait Islander flag by Bernard Namok Jnr, Thomas Mayo and Tori-Jay Mordey

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Everybody knows the Aboriginal Flag, with its bold trio of colours, and the Torres Strait Islander flag, with its prominent head dress, but while most people will be able to say what the Aboriginal flag means they may not be as knowledgeable about the Torres Strait Islander flag. This book aims to overcome this lack of knowledge, showing along the way the development of the flag in the islands of the Torres Strait north of Australia, looking like a row of stepping stones from Papua New Guinea to Queensland.

The father of the author, Bernard  Namok, was also a Bernard and he came to the understanding that while the Aboriginal flag represents the First Nations of Australia, there was a need for a flag for those people on the islands, a different group of people.

For many years the people of the islands traded with those people from the north and these are represented by the green stripe at the top of the flag, while the green at the bottom of the flag represents those people from the mainland of Australia, with whom they also traded.

The brilliant blue between the greens represents the blue of the sea surrounding the islands, where much of their food comes from.

The Dhari in the centre of the flag represents their culture. The five pointed star represents the ancestors and shows the way the people find their way from island to island. The star also represents the five groups of islands which make up the Torres Streets and importantly the peace which exists between the Torres Straits Islanders, Aboriginal people and the Australians who have come from many places. We are all one big family.

This uniquely presented story of the Torres Strait Islander flag reveals the background of the people of the Torres Strait. Through the story we see how they live, how they harvest the sea, where they live, how they interact with other peoples within their ambit.

Bernard Namok Jnr is a Torres Strait Islander man from Thursday Island. He is the son of the late Bernard Namok, designer of the Torres Strait Islander Flag and has worked on several projects celebrating his father’s legacy.

Thomas Mayo is a Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man. He is a signatory and advocate of the Uluru Statement from the Heart and has written a number of books.

Tori-Jay Mordey is an established illustrator and artist, born on Thursday Island and is known for her range of books. More about these people can be found on the Magabala website.

Themes Flags, Torres Strait Islander people, Torres Strait, Reconciliation.

Fran Knight

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Little horses by Deborah Kelly. Illus. by Jenni Goodman

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A charming story of a successful conservation program will have readers asking questions about the little horses and their vulnerability. Kelly follows the lives of a pair of seahorses in Port Stephens. In easy to read four line stanzas, Kelly outlines their lives below the waves. They eat small shrimp, their tails wrapped around a piece of sea weed for stability. They live amongst the corals and weed on the ocean floor, having the ability to change colour should a predator swim by. Their lives seem most agreeable, with the weed and coral making good hiding places. But one day the wind picks up, the waves crash causing the coral to crumble and the currents take the little horses away. They are swept to a barren place where there is no weed or sponges or coral to use as protection and food. But their eyes spot something new on the ocean floor. And this is part of the conservation program being undertaken in bays around Australia.

A crate of some sort is seen on the ocean floor and small amounts of weed and coral are growing around its sides. The seahorses investigate and find that this new addition will serve them well as a shelter and food source. They are safe once again in their garden, a seahorse hotel.

Children will love the tale of the little horses, rocked by nature and then finding a man-made place to live. The story behind this picture book is outlined at the end of the tale, with fascinating diagrams of the seahorse hotel and how it changes over time, allowing more of these little creatures to survive.

Information about the seahorse motels can also be found at the end of the book. A wonderfully positive book to be shared at home, in the library or in class.

Themes Conservation, Seahorses, Sea, Seahorse hotels.

Fran Knight

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Fathomfolk by Eliza Chan

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For lovers of fantasy with an Asian flavour, this is an awesome epic tale that will inspire and intrigue. Set in Tiankawi, which is a safe haven for humans but also is a semi-submerged zone of conflict because of the polluted waters that impact the sea-creatures (Fathomfolk) who literally and metaphorically live beneath the feet of their human neighbours. There are some Fathomfolk who have defied their history and have woven a place into human society, there are others who utilise magical and mystical powers to shapeshift and there are some who incite rebellion to alter power imbalances. In this fraught world Chan allows us to follow the stories of half-siren Mira and water-dragon Kai who try to make the world a better place by exercising power in a moderate and considerate way. Their relationship is loving and generous, and Kai’s significant powers are controlled in order to benefit all of society, regardless of their origin or position in Tiankawian society. Mira has worked her way into a position of authority, despite her low-born beginnings. Into this world comes Kai’s sister, Nami, a young water-wielding water-dragon, imbued with angst and uncertainty and disdain for Kai and Mira’s measured approach to solving injustice. She is swayed by those who want change quickly and inadvertently becomes a pawn in rebellion. The disaster that follows floods all that was peaceful with a wave of uncontrollable uncertainty. Will a peaceful future be possible for them all? 

With characters that mysteriously shape-shift and an environment that is far from recognisable (fantasy, post-global-warming, dystopia) and alternating between under-water and land existence, there are many confusing and conflicting elements in this complex story. However, this is a brilliantly written fantasy story, compelling in many ways and presents a fascinating insight into power imbalances in a complex world. It is not for the faint-hearted though - it is a work of fantasy fiction that requires a dedicated reader. The hints of East-Asian mythology and the layers of a mythical history created by the author are delicately but intricately woven together and yet it sometimes flows at an alarming pace. There is tension in relationships, hints of romance, powerful magic at play and political intrigue all washing around in almost whirlpool-like action. At times I struggled to maintain my head above water, but those with well-developed fantasy ‘gills’ will breathe comfortably under the waves of this fantasy epic. Nothing is simple in this story, there are many depths in the fantasy world and it does require a committed fantasy reader to immerse themselves into the deep … but those that do stay the distance will find a new fantasy writer to love.

Themes Fantasy, Oceans, Sea creatures, Power imbalances, Revolution, Love, Environmental disaster, Asian fantasy.

Carolyn Hull

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This dark descent by Kalyn Josephson

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When I saw that This dark descent was a pick for the ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2024, I was keen to read the book and I was not disappointed. Mikira Rusel is faced with a terrible dilemma. Her father has been taken away and to keep the family ranch where enchanted horses are bred, she enters the Illinir, a dangerous horserace. The odds of her winning are against her but when she meets an illicit enchanter named Arielle Kadar, Damien Adair, a lord with a mission, and Reid his horse master, she gains the assistance that she desperately needs.

Written in the voices of Mikira and Arielle, the reader is taken on an intriguing journey full of thrilling action, enchantment and romance. Mikira is a determined young woman who is focused on saving her family and their enchanted horses. She has the skill to win the Illinir and the magic that Arielle wields may give them all the revenge that they seek. The descriptions of the horse races will keep the reader glued to the page, while the evolving darkness that threatens Arielle’s magic is a page turner.

This Dark Descent is steeped in Jewish folklore, class inequalities, court intrigue, treachery and romance and is exciting reading. The dramatic ending will ensure that the sequel is picked up, and readers may be tempted like me to find other books by this author. People who enjoyed the horse races could enjoy The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, while those who like intrigue may enjoy Six of crows by Leigh Bardugo. 

Themes Fantasy, Magic, Romance.

Pat Pledger

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Champ by Payam Ebrahimi. Illus. by Reza Dalvand

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A wonderfull look at growing up within a family with high expectations, Abtin knows that he is very different from his forebears as he ponders the array of framed pictures on the walls. Each of his ancestors is sporting a medal of some sort, recognising their abilities and achievements. Ferocious, muscled bodies look down upon little Abtin, expecting that he will be next.

But Abtin is not like them, he is not good at sport, despite being told what to eat to become a champion, how to train to be a champion, how to sleep to better his chances of becoming a champion. He is always reminded how clever his relatives were, how they made great achievements and how they expected him to do just as well, not to dampen his family’s name. But Abtin loves different things: we see him reading and painting, and children will readily see how he is imposed upon by his family, wanting him to be like them.

Readers will love seeing the adults in the book leaning over the child, Abtin. On several pages the adult is enormous, dwarfing the little Abtin, encouraging the audience to feel at one with Abtin. They will see Abtin rejecting all pressure to fit in with the family, keeping true to himself and what interests him. 

The use of a limited number of colours adds to the feeling of intimidation. The illustrator, Reza Dalvand brings a fresh and bold style to the book infused with humour and zest. More about this Iranian illustrator can be found here

Abtin does not like making his family feel hopeless about him and determines to do something to make everyone feel good. What he does will tickle the readers, making them laugh out loud at his solution.

This lovely book promotes  self worth, self knowledge, of being strong in the face of alarming and present pressure, but with a large dose of humour designed to keep readers laughing at what is an important part of growing up.

Themes Self worth, Intimidation, Bullying, Humour.

Fran Knight

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Animals brag about their bottoms by Maki Saito

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Bottoms are wonderful and all very different and this book celebrates the range of known and some unknown in a laugh out loud board book.

Easily held by younger hands, the images of the five bottoms on the cover will cause the first ripple of mirth. And the title will enthuse them further.

From stripey bottoms, to large bottoms, hairy bottoms to white bottoms, black bottoms and even some black and white bottoms, young children will get many laughs out of this book.

With the first page showing a rabbit, with its cute round bottom children will be eased into the world of bottoms through something they recognise easily. Then onto a large hippopotamus and an even larger elephant, taking up the whole page. Next we see the lovely stripes of a tiger and zebra, the wonderfully patterned bottom of the giraffe is next, with its tall neck striving to look at the readers, giving an impression of its height. Pandas, polar bears, a brown bear and a tapir come next. Following are the very bright bottoms of a monkey and a mandrill, then deer, sheep and llama with their soft fluffy bottoms. A rhinoceros shows a huge bottom and the hedgehog reminds us that his bottom is spiky.

A range of animals is given with the image of their bottom for young children to recognise the animal from a different perspective. Kids will love predicting the name of the animal, and finding out a little of its nether regions.

In a class lots of discussions will ensue, as all children love animals and this book shows many they may not have thought of when talking about bottoms. New words will be learnt as they brainstorm a whole range of words which also mean bottom. And who’d have thought there were so many different kinds of bottoms?

Kids will love looking all the bottoms, so seeing that everyone’s bottom is different, and theirs is just as different as every one else’s. The book encourages children to be accepting of their differences and those of others as well as getting a lot of laughs.

Maki Saito uses traditional Japanese art techniques along with collages to produce her images.

Themes Animals, Bottoms, Self image, Humour.

Fran Knight

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Starter villain by John Scalzi

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As you would expect from a Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novel (2024), ALA Alex Award (2024), and Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction (2023), Starter Villain is an engrossing book. It has all the hallmarks of Scalzi’s science fiction: it is light-hearted and whimsical, satirical and thought provoking and very easy to read at 265 pages.

The reader first meets Charlie who is trying to hold it together working as a substitute teacher, battling overdue bills and step siblings who want to sell the house he is living in with his two adorable cats, Hera and Persephone. He has a dream of owning a pub but is unable to meet the criteria for a loan. Then his billionaire uncle dies, leaving his supervillain business to him. What follows is a hilarious series of events as Charlie tries to come to grips with international movers and shakers who want him dead, talking dolphins and sentient cats, bombs and missiles, and an island lair full of deadly secrets. His previous career was a journalist, but nothing could prepare him for the strange and dangerous world that he faces.

This is a novel for readers who love cats; Hera is a highlight of the story, and the talking dolphins are a treat, although some readers may object to their foul language. Those who like satirical humour will enjoy Scalzi’s take on big business and the type of people who own multimillion companies, and the scenes where eager young entrepreneurs try to sell their ideas are hilarious.

Starter villain is a unique light-hearted story highlighting the villainy of big business, animal rights, unions and cloning. Readers may also enjoy The Kaiju Preservation Society, another of his distinctive novels.

Themes Science fiction, Animals - Moral and ethical aspects, Humour, Satire, Big business.

Pat Pledger

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Then and now by Datsun Tran

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Datsun Tran, in his powerful picture book debut Then and Now, has shared the refugee journey of his family using the past and the present. This is a picture book of few words but when combined with dramatic illustrations the harrowing, yet hopeful story becomes immediately recognisable.

Each step on the journey is spread across a double page. On the first side is one word, Then. On the other side is an event in the past, Knock, Knock, Knock. We hide under the table. On the next double page is the word, Now. On the corresponding page are the words, Knock, Knock, Knock. We open the door to welcome our guests. Each set of pages refers to a happening in the past, and how in the present the refugee family are living their lives.

The striking ink illustrations set in the past are in deep tones of brown and visibly covey the message of fear and danger.  In the present the shades of blue give the reader a sense of lightness and freedom.  Each illustration deserves a long, slow perusal with so much depth and meaning conveyed.

Then and Now is an important book to be shared with both children and adults. Startling in its presentation and simplicity of words, it shares a powerful not-to-be forgotten message.

Themes Children, Family, Refugee, Vietnam, Senses.

Kathryn Beilby

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The Will of the many by James Islington

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Winner of the Aurealis Award 2023 and Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Fantasy (2023) The will of the many is a gripping fantasy that is very difficult to put down. Vis Telimus is a young man, orphaned three years previously. When he is approached to join the elite Catenan Academy as a spy to uncover the secrets that his benefactor believes the leader is hiding, he agrees. But he too is hiding dangerous secrets and each day brings new challenges.

I choose the book because of its Aurealis Award nomination and I was not disappointed. The background to the novel is reminiscent of ancient Rome, with blood thirsty fights and spectacles in a huge amphitheatre, but it is the magic that fascinated me. The people are prepared to give away their Will, their drive and strength, to make those above them in the Hierarchy more powerful. Vis is not prepared to give up his Will and the scars on his back are testament to what that has cost him. At the Academy Vis must move up through the ranks and with the rebels having a hold over him, and facing certain death if he betrays his benefactor, this is not easy.

The will of the many is action packed. I found myself picking up the book at every opportunity to follow Vis and his tortuous path at the Academy. Vis is a remarkable young man and his choices are very difficult. Fortunately, he was able to make two good friends and his background and training helped. Friendship and honour are major themes and the political intrigue is fascinating.

Fans of The hunger games will love the action, while fans of the Scholomance series by Naomi Novik will enjoy the academy setting. With a cliff-hanger ending, fans like me will be eagerly awaiting the next in the series. Meanwhile I am going to read The Licanius Trilogy by Islington.

Themes Orphans, Magic, Murder, Survival, Courage, Friendship.

Pat Pledger

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The changing room by Belinda Cranston

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The prologue to The changing room describes an Australian girl intent on visiting the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the place where Christ will return. On arrival she flings open the taxi door, discards all her belongings, and then gradually discards items of clothing as she ascends the slopes of the Mount, muttering something about wanting to give birth to the second Messiah. A guide, familiar with Jerusalem Syndrome, advises taking her to the Kfar Shaul Mental Health Center.

How Rachel ends up in this situation is revealed gradually in Cranston’s novel, beginning with her taking on a home help position in an elderly English household in London. Dismissed from there as too imaginative and not really suitable, a chance meeting with another adventurous Australian girl, leads to the two of them heading to Egypt and then to a kibbutz in Israel.

The ‘changing room’ is a reference to a childhood cartoon about Mr Benn stepping into different roles in a magical costume shop. It seems that Rachel, unsure of what she really wants, is stepping into different worlds, and trying out different experiences. The more we read, the more we become aware of her sense of loss, and of drifting along seeking some kind of reassurance. She feels a compulsion to ‘makes things better’, perhaps the aftermath of the loss of her father, but also a sense of wanting to overcome differences between people and create peace. Thus she tries to bring the local Bedouins to work alongside the kibbutzniks. But it is a world she doesn’t really understand, and she is out of her depth.

Cranston skilfully creates that uncertain world of the mind, blurring between perception, dream, confusion and delusion. Scenes where people are dancing, music is playing, snatches of conversation are overheard, lights and shadows interweave, all create an environment that many a young person will have experienced at some time, as they seek to define who they are and explore different experiences. Rachel’s search for for ‘balance, harmony, justice and truth’ will resonate with many a reader.

Themes Travel, Identity, Loss, Mental health, Journey.

Helen Eddy

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Grace the amazing by Aleesah Darlison

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Grace the Amazing is a heart-warming novel written by well-known Australian author Aleesah Darlison. The delightful character of Grace will resonate with many young readers. She is full of energy, passion and creativity, yet struggles to find her place amongst her peers. School is not easy for her and a constant source of angst. Her one ‘saving grace’ in the grind of surviving is her weekly art lessons with her beloved teacher Pamela. They have a strong bond and Pamela sees Grace for what she is, a clever and extremely talented young person. Pamela also understands that Grace shies away from forming friendships as she so often speaks her mind and seemingly lacks the ability to say what others want to hear.

When Pamela is absent from class and teachers talk in hushed tones, Grace slowly begins to realise that something is not quite right. Outside of school she befriends foster child Fromelles and they form a kind of friendship although Grace is more intent on finding out what is wrong with Pamela. Fromelles is struggling with his own loss but offers support to Grace in her quest for the truth. When it is discovered Grace is determined that magic is the only way to make things better.

Grace the Amazing is a lively and engaging story full of deep emotions between the main characters of Grace and her mother, as well as Grace and Pamela.  The experience of losing a dear friend is sensitively shared and the reader can feel the loss Grace suffers.  This beautiful story is also leaves the reader with hope that one day Grace will be able to connect with others under her own terms and remain the energetic, quirky and charismatic child she is. 

Themes School, Friendship, Mental Health, Cancer, Grief, Magic, Family, Loss, Hope.

Kathryn Beilby

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Adam wins the internet by Adam B

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This is the first book by Adam B, a YouTube star that will grab the attention of many young readers who know him from his channel.   

The book is based on a character called Adam who dreams of being a YouTube superstar but with little hope of this eventuating as he is a nobody at his school.  He has no money, one friend and his mum and little brother at home who he is trying to support after the loss of their dad.

Adam stumbles across the mysterious Popularis Incrementum website on his old computer and from there his fortunes change with some interesting situations arising from the fame.  Adam accepts a mission to get one million subscribers within a year and his luck seems to be running out as it becomes clear that he is in too deep, and his life becomes one big fail after another.  He will need to have a trick up his sleeve to work out how he can get himself out of the situation he is in without damaging his family or his reputation too badly.

This book will be loved by readers and followers of Adam B alike, it is well written very funny and has enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged and interested from the first to the last page.

I would recommend this book as a class read aloud or as a read alone, but I think younger readers are going to want to read ahead of the class as the book has many cliff hanger chapters to encourage late night reading.  Parents will enjoy this book too as the characters are well written and the story shows the human side of loss, fame and social media dangers which could open discussions with their children.  This is a good book for the current social media generation. 

Themes Social Media, Family, Friendships, Mystery, Action, Adventure, Humour.

Mhairi Alcorn

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