Review: The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe

 

Title: The Children’s Secret

Author: Nina Monroe

Published: 13th July 2021, Sphere

Status: Read July 2021 courtesy Hachette

 

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My Thoughts:

 

In The Children’s Secret by Nina Monroe, a back-to-school party in the small New Hampshire town of Middlebrook, is marred by tragedy when an eleven year old guest is shot in the chest, and the children, whom were out of sight of the adults in a barn, refuse to explain how it happened.

Unfolding from multiple perspectives, the narrative explores the impact of the shooting and its aftermath.

The characters are diverse, which I appreciate, but it does feel a little contrived, in that the cast tick just about every minority box.

As the parents look to lay, or deflect blame, they find themselves wrestling with various concerns, not just those that relate directly to the tragedy, but also personal problems, ranging from a crisis of faith to a troublesome pregnancy, as well as social issues such as racism, prejudice, media distortion, and political expediency. I felt the personal issues were largely unnecessary distractions though, given the complex and divisive subjects related to the main subject at hand.

I think Monroe manages to be fairly even-handed in her examination of the gun control debate. Studies show that in the US around 3000 children are killed or injured per year in incidents where a gun is accidentally/unintentionally fired by a child under the age of 17*. I believe in gun control. In an ideal world I do not believe any ordinary citizen should own a gun except in very specific instances, and no semi or automatic weapons without exception. I believe in gun registration, background checks, age restrictions, licences/permits, storage requirements, and limits on ownership.

Though as The Children’s Secret shows, none of that necessarily precludes a tragedy (though it was still avoidable, and could have been worse). As the nine children, aged from four to thirteen, steadfastly repeat the same story about the shooting that explains almost nothing, the mystery of the novel rests in discovering how the children gained access to the gun, exactly what happened in the barn, who fired the shot that struck the victim, and why. I found my need for answers to be sufficient motivation to keep reading.

The novel’s tight timeline (it unfolds over the period of about a week) and short chapters helps the story to progress at a good pace. I did feel there were some some flaws in the writing, but nothing egregious.

Provocative and thoughtful, The Children’s Secret has the potential to elicit strong reactions among its readers.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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https://www.childrensdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Protect-Children-Not-Guns-2019.pdf

 

Review: Lily’s Little Flower Shop by Lisa Darcy

 

Title: Lily’s Little Flower Shop

Author: Lisa Darcy

Published: 5th May 2021, Bloodhound Books

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy the author

++++++

My Thoughts:

 

Lily’s Little Flower Shop is an engaging contemporary romantic comedy from Australian author Lisa Darcy (aka Lisa Heidke).

Passed over for a promotion she deserved, and unwilling to follow her boyfriend overseas, Lily impulsively decides to ditch the corporate rat race and become her own boss by opening a florist on the south coast of NSW.

I liked Lily, who throws herself into making the flower shop a success. Lily, whose floristry experience comes from helping her aunt in the flower shop she once owned and a long ago completed course, faces a steep learning curve as she launches her business. I think becoming your own boss is a dream that often tempts people, but it’s hard work that requires a huge ongoing investment of time and money. Lily is often exhausted and stressed about the financial viability of the decision she has made, and I like that the author doesn’t downplay the challenges Lily faces in following her heart.

Lily is supported by well-drawn, relatable characters. While her mother is certain that Lily’s sea-change is a mistake, her slightly eccentric aunt Iris, is always there to cheer her on, as is Lily’s former colleague and friend, Taylor, who becomes a regular visitor. The townspeople of Clearwater are largely welcoming, and Lily quickly befriends hairdresser Zena, and artist and picture framer, Andy. I really liked the genuine sense of community that Darcy evoked, and the diversity represented.

Lily tries to maintain a long distance relationship with Matt, who has relocated to Hong Kong, but it’s clear the two are incompatible. This leaves the way clear for Darcy to introduce romance in Clearwater, and Lily finds her self with two admirers, Ben – the owner of a local winery, and the aforementioned Andy. The men are quite different from each other, and Andy’s unusual backstory adds drama to the story in introducing the issues of domestic violence and mental health.

Lighthearted but with pleasing depth, told with warmth and humour, Lily’s Little Flower Shop is a bloomin’ good story.

++++++

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Review: The Heights by Louise Candlish

 

Title: The Heights

Author: Louise Candlish

Published: 2nd June 2021, Simon & Schuster

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Simon & Schuster Australia 

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Heights is a slow-burn psychological thriller exploring obsession, vengeance and justice from Louise Candlish.

Ellen Saint is stunned when, from a clients window, she sees a familiar figure on the roof terrace of a neighbouring building. It should be impossible, the man who broke her heart is dead. She knows this, because she is the one who killed him.

Presented in four parts, parts one and three are a first person account from Ellen Saint, taken from her to-be-published manuscript. Ellen paints herself as a happy wife to Justin, and adoring mother of 12 year-old daughter Freya, and her 17 year-old son from her previous relationship, Lucas. Lucas, a bright, responsible student, is in his final year at his private school when he is asked to mentor a new disadvantaged enrollee, Kieran Watts. Ellen’s introduction to Kieran leaves her feeling vaguely uncomfortable but that feeling soon turns to loathing as Lucas transforms into a rebellious, sullen teen more interested in partying than studying. It’s clear that this situation is not going to end well and Candlish skilfully builds and maintains the tension as the inevitable tragedy draws near.

Ellen may be a little high strung, but Candlish’s portrayal of her spiralling anxiety felt authentic to me. As a parent I could empathise with Ellen’s concern for her son, and her dislike of what she perceives to be the negative influence of Kieran. To be honest I once found myself in a similar circumstance, and I was at a loss as how to deal with it appropriately. I didn’t begrudge Ellen her fear, frustration or anger, especially given how the situation unfolded, even if I can’t condone her actions.

Parts two and four are presented from the third person viewpoint of Ellen’s ex partner, and Lucas’s father, Vic. Despite their separation, he and Ellen have remained close, and it’s Vic that Ellen turns to most often as Lucas’s behaviour worsens. Vic’s perspective of the situation is somewhat different to Ellen’s though, throwing some doubt on the veracity of her account. It’s a clever way to counter the established narrative, and surprise the reader with a few twists.

Carefully plotted, and with provocative characters, I found The Heights to be a gripping read, blurring the line between justice and vengeance.

++++++

Available from Simon & Schuster

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Review: Digging Up Dirt by Pamela Hart


Title: Digging Up Dirt {Poppy McGowan Mysteries #1}

Author: Pamela Hart

Published: 2nd June 2021, HQ Fiction

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Harlequin/Netgalley

++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

There’s a real dearth of Australian cosy mysteries so I’m delighted by the publication of Digging Up Dirt by Pamela Hart, introducing television researcher, and amateur sleuth, Poppy McGowan.

Poppy McGowan is nearing the end of renovations of her terrace house in inner Sydney when her builder discovers bones buried in the dirt under her living room floor. To determine if the are animal or human, the Museum of NSW sends Dr. Julieanne Weaver, with whom Poppy has an antagonistic relationship, who arrives with her boyfriend- the handsome visiting archaeologist Bartholomew ‘Tol’ Lang. Weaver quickly agrees the bones aren’t human, but she won’t release the site, declaring the bones may belong to a rare breed of sheep that arrived with the First Fleet. Poppy is frustrated but decides to make the best of the situation, as a researcher for an educational television show on the ABC, at least footage of the dig can be used for a upcoming program. Two days later, Poppy finds herself in front of the camera after the body of Julieanne is discovered in the hole in her house. The police consider Poppy to be a prime suspect so using her research skills and media contacts, Poppy sets out to prove her innocence.

Poppy digs up no shortage of suspects, Julieanne wasn’t well liked among her colleagues at the Museum, and then there is her surprising involvement with the right-wing Australian Family Party and the Pentecostal Radiant Joy Church. Hart provides plenty of red herrings for Poppy to be sidetracked by, creating an interesting ‘whodunnit’ plot.

I wasn’t keen on the involvement of religion and politics in the story, simply because both subjects tend to distress me. That said, it allows Hart to raise some topical issues including feminism, domestic violence, the status of LBTQIA+, Aboriginal heritage, and obliquely comments on Australia’s current political climate. Poppy uses the media credentials bestowed upon her by the ABC news desk desperate for an exclusive, to involve herself in the two conservative groups, suspecting one of their leaders may be responsible for her death.

Smart, resourceful and quick-witted Poppy is a likeable, well rounded character. As she is living with her staunchly Catholic parents while her home is being renovated we are briefly introduced to her family giving us a sense of her background. I found her work as a researcher to be interesting and think it lends itself well to the practicality of amateur sleuthing.

There’s a touch of romance in the novel, though Poppy is involved with an accountant named Stuart, and Tol is dating Julieanne, the attraction between the pair is obvious from their first meeting. As it turns out Stuart is a prat, and well Julieanne dies, so the situation is not quite as awkward as it could be. I liked the will they/won’t they nature of the relationship, however given that Tol is expected to leave for a long term position in Jordan in a few weeks, there is no guarantee he will become a series regular.

Offering well crafted intrigue, appealing characters and a uniquely Australian setting, I found Digging Up Dirt to be entertaining and engaging cosy mystery. I hope there will be more.

+++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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Review: Magpie’s Bend by Maya Linnell

 

Title: Magpie’s Bend

Author: Maya Linnell

Published: 1st June 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read June 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Magpie’s Bend is Maya Linnell’s third engaging contemporary romance novel featuring the McIntyre sisters in rural Victoria.

When Bridgefield’s only general store owner is injured and decides to sell up, local nurse, and single mother, Lara McIntyre reluctantly finds herself leading a campaign to ensure it’s services aren’t lost to the community. She doesn’t want the distraction of handsome newcomer, journalist Toby Paxton, even if he’s the first man since the public collapse of her disastrous marriage to pique her interest, she just needs his help to save the store.

The second eldest of the McIntyre sisters, Lara is a lovely character. A dedicated community nurse, she enjoys running, baking and managing her small holding. She is the mother of thirteen year old Evie, who has recently enrolled in boarding school and  Lara is struggling somewhat with her absence. The victim of domestic abuse by her ex-husband whom she only managed to escape when he was jailed for financial crimes, Lara is still wary of men and reluctant to trust her heart.

Toby is also a single father whose teen daughter, Holly, lives with her mother in Ballarat, visiting every other weekend. His move to Bridgefield is calculated to advance his career at a city paper, though he is finding he enjoys the lifestyle the town affords him as a keen runner, and the opportunity to indulge in his passion for photography.

I enjoyed the romance between Lara and Toby which Linnell develops slowly but organically, respecting Lara’s past trauma. Lara’s family can’t help but meddle a little wanting the best for their sister. Toby is very patient as Lara stubbornly refuses to admit her interest in him, but just as it seems he has found his way past her defences, Lara learns something that seems to confirm her worst fears.

There are lots of delightful elements to this story. I love the focus on community in Magpie’s Bend as the townspeople rally to save their general store. The shop is much more than a convenience for Bridgefield locals, and they fight hard to save it. There are some charming animal ‘characters’, including a dog named Basil and a baby magpie named Vegemite, and a range of delicious homemade pies.

Magpie’s Bend is a heartfelt, winsome and satisfying rural romance, a delightful read I enjoyed over a long weekend.

+++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD $29.99

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Review: Lost Property by Helen Paris


Title: Lost Property

Author: Helen Paris

Published: 13th May 2021, Doubleday

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse UK/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

 

“Lost Property itself has something of the past about it, like a museum, a depository of memories, a library of loss. I think that is why I have always felt at home here.”

Dot Watson has worked at the London Transport Lost Property office for twelve years where she finds satisfaction in taking care of lost items and reuniting them with their owners. Though once she planned to have a busy globe-trotting career, now she only travels vicariously via guidebooks saved from the Pit.

“You see, I know about loss. I know its shape, its weak spots, its corners and sharp edges. I have felt its coordinates. I have sewn its name into the back of its collar.”

A story of love, grief and guilt, we slowly learn how it is that Dot lost the future she dreamed of, instead finding herself living alone, never venturing further than the few miles it takes her to commute to work, or visit her bossy sister when summoned, or her mother’s care home. Dot is a sympathetic character, it’s clear she suffers from some anxiety and carries a heavy burden. She sees herself as abandoned and unwanted like many of the items in the lost property that remain unclaimed.

‘They . . . objects are time machines, in a way; they can recall . . . the people we have lost.’

Something is triggered in Dot when a Mr. John Appelby comes searching for his late wife’s holdall, accidentally left behind on the number 73 bus. In combination with her sister’s insistence that they sell their mother’s maisonette where Dot is living, her mother’s worsening dementia, and changes at work, Dot begins to lose her grip on herself. Paris handles Dot’s increasing emotional distress with sensitivity, and the major events she confronts with genuine compassion.

“There’s a difference though, between being lost and being left”.

Paris makes astute observations about memory, family dynamics, and of course the emotional value of objects. There is more tragedy in Lost Property than I expected, though ultimately there is also forgiveness, acceptance, and hope. There’s some humour, and even a little romance.

“Found: Holdall Details: Leather (golden syrup) Woman’s purse (bluey-lilac) Bulbs (tulip) Trowel Place: 73 bus”

Told with warmth and tenderness, each chapter is headed with a tag, like those Dot attaches to the lost objects in her care, bearing the details of something lost, or found, not just objects like Appleby’s holdall, but also people, and intangibles. I found it a little slow and seemingly directionless to start with, but was soon drawn in by Dot.

“…ordinary objects, extraordinary objects, objects that contain in their bodies a memory, a moment, a trace of a life lived, a person loved.”

An accomplished debut from Helen Paris, Lost Property is a touching and poignant novel.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse UK

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Review: China Blonde by Nicole Webb


Title: China Blonde

Author: Nicole Webb

Published: 1st October 2020, Broadcast Books

Status: Read May 2021 courtesy the author

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My Thoughts:

When Nicole Webb contacted me with a request to read her memoir about her experience of living in the city of Xī’ān situated in Central China I agreed because of a general interest in the country. When I graduated university, my first position was as a director/teacher in a long day care centre run by the Australian Chinese and Descendants Mutual Association, where the entire staff and the 40 children in attendance, except for me, were new immigrants or first generation Australian Chinese. It was quite a challenge to negotiate the demands of the job, cultural differences, and several languages (mainly Mandarin and Cantonese) of which I knew not a word when I started. I really enjoyed being immersed in such a unique environment, but I don’t think I’d be brave enough to leave behind all that is familiar to relocate to the Middle Kingdom.

However, former Sky News Australia journalist Nicole, her British husband James, a hotelier, and their young daughter Ava, did just that, moving to one of the oldest cities in China with a population of around nine million people.

Despite spending the previous four years in Hong Kong, the move to Xī’ān proves more disorientating than Nicole expects. Though she has many advantages, including being supplied with high quality accommodation, a chauffeur, and room service, it proves difficult to feel at home in a country where you don’t understand the language, and know no one.

Written in a confiding, personable tone, Nicole shares her expat experiences during the nearly three years they spent in Xī’ān. It’s the little things that tend to throw Nicole in the early months, like not being able to find her favourite coffee, Mint Mocha, and the scarcity of white wine. She’s overwhelmed by the attention she and her ‘small person’, both blonde, attract when out in public, and intimidated by the busy traffic and crowds. With her husband working long hours, Nicole struggles with feelings of isolation, though when Ava begins to attend a nearby international school she is finally able to connect with the city’s surprisingly small ex-pat community, and soon finds ‘her people’.

The book is peppered with fascinating insights into Chinese culture, explaining why for example, toddlers wear pants split at the crotch, and why the Chinese consider thanks rude. As a journalist, Nicole also feels compelled to investigate the Chinese perspective on topics such as feminism, marriage, politics and government.

Nicole’s descriptions of the city are sensory and immersive, from the cacophony of streets crowded with cars, motorbikes, rickshaws and bicycles, to the majesty of city’s ancient pagoda’s, from lavishly decorated hotels and restaurants, to shabby street stalls, all often overlaid with a thick pall of pollution. I highly recommend you follow the link provided at the end of the book to view the author’s photo album.

With its humour and honesty, China Blonde is an enjoyable and interesting read, allowing the reader to vicariously experience expat life in China.

+++++++

Signed copies available from the author at NicoleWebbOnline

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Review: The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary


Title: The Road Trip

Author: Beth O’Leary

Published: 29th April 2021, Quercus

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Hachette Australia

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My Thoughts:

The Road Trip is Beth O’Leary’s third entertaining romcom novel, following her success with The Flatshare and The Switch.

Addie, her sister Deb and rideshare passenger, Rodney, have just begun the eight hour drive from Chichester to Scotland to attend a close friend’s wedding when they are rear ended by a Mercedes. The driver is Addie’s ex-boyfriend, Dylan, accompanied by his best friend, Marcus, heading to the same event. With the Mercedes out of action, Addie reluctantly offers the pair a ride in Deb’s Mini Cooper.

Unfolding from the alternating perspectives of Addie and Dylan in the ‘Now’ and the ‘Then’, the physically uncomfortable conditions created by five adults crammed into Deb’s car are almost secondary to the emotionally fraught atmosphere caused by the tumultuous history between Addie and Dylan in particular. I thought the narrative structure worked well to reveal to what happened between them in the past, and their current status with one another.

The road trip itself is beset by a chain of mishaps, from endless traffic (it’s a Bank Holiday weekend) to a breakdown, punctuated by Deb’s need to pump breastmilk, country music singalongs, and Marcus’s less obnoxious tantrums, providing plenty of humour. There’s always an edge of tension though as Addie and Dylan try to navigate their unexpected reunion, complicated by the presence of Marcus who played a significant role in their breakup.

O’Leary’s characters are interesting, all with their own lighthearted quirks, but many of them also struggle with serious issues such as clinical depression, alcoholism, addiction, sexual assault, and difficult family dynamics, making this story a little darker than her previous novels. And while there is a happy ever after for Addie and Dylan, as befitting the romance genre, it’s more mature than a fairytale ending.

Funny and engaging with a bit of edge, I enjoyed The Road Trip.

++++++

Available from Hachette Australia

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Review: One Last Dance by Emma Jane Holmes

One last dance quote


Title: One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-Strings

Author: Emma Jane Holmes

Published: 3rd March 2021, HQ Nonfiction Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

One Last Dance is a unique memoir by Emma Jane Holmes, who for a time was employed in both the taboo industries of death, as a funeral assistant, and sex, as an exotic dancer.

In the wake of a bitter separation, Emma Jane Holmes has to start again and so decides to fulfil a life long dream by finding employment at a funeral home. Whether it’s collecting the body of a deceased person, assisting with burial preparation in the mortuary, or standing graveside she revels in her new role, she describes her activities with candour in this fascinating memoir. Facing death is uncomfortable for most of us, especially if it’s our own, so some details might be confronting, but I agree with Emma Jane that demystifying the subject is beneficial. The squeamish may not appreciate the details of a decomposing corpse, or the processes involved in preparing a body for viewing but I did find it interesting, though it’s cemented my wish to go directly from the morgue to a crematorium oven, leaving my loved ones to choose what they wish to do with my ashes.

While Emma Jane loves her job, she finds she is struggling to pay her bills, and to supplement her income, answers an ad for an agency that supplies scantily clad/topless waitresses. In the second half of the book, she explains how she came to be an exotic dancer under the the alias Madison, working nights at a Sydney strip club, while continuing to work at the funeral home during the day. Emma Jane enjoys dancing, not just the extra money, but also the friendships she forms with her colleagues (though to be truthful they seem pretty shallow). She feels strongly that like death, sex work should be de-stigmatised, and I agree with her advocacy. Emma Jane does find it difficult to juggle the two jobs though, and eventually has to make a choice between them.

Written with sensitivity, humour and a casual, confiding tone, One Last Dance provides insight into two very different worlds few of us have access to.

Though I’ve read several nonfiction memoirs about the funeral industry including Good Mourning by Elizabeth Meyer, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Dougherty, and The Undertaker’s Daughter by Kate Mayfield, this is the first from the Australian experience. It’s not the first memoir of an Australian exotic dancer I’ve read though, having recently finished Sunshine by Samantha C. Ross, who may well be the ‘Samantha X’ Emma Jane refers to in her Acknowledgements.

++++++

Available from Harlequin/HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Iron Raven by Julie Kagawa

Title: The Iron Raven {The Iron Fey: Evenfall #1}

Author: Julia Kagawa

Published: 24th February 2021, HQ Young Adult

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Harlequin Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

With The Iron Raven, Julie Kagawa begins a fantastic and dangerous new adventure to delight fans of the Iron Fey series.

It’s not strictly necessary to be familiar with the Iron Fey series which includes the four books of The Iron Fey (The Iron King, The Iron Daughter, The Iron Queen and The Iron Knight) and The Iron Fey: Call of Forgotten trilogy (The Lost Prince, The Iron Traitor and The Iron Warrior), plus various novellas, to enjoy The Iron Raven, though it certainly enriches the experience. It’s been six years since I read The Iron Warrior, yet details came flooding back as I read.

In the Iron Raven, Kagawa places Puck aka Robin Goodfellow at the centre of the narrative for the first time, and the story unfolds from his perspective as a dangerous monster spreading hate and discord stalks the realm of faerie.

It begins when Kieran, son of the Iron Queen, former prince of the Iron Court and King of the Forgotten, asks for Puck’s help. Joining the King, and Keiran’s personal guard Nyx in the Inbetween, the trio confront a seemingly invulnerable mass of darkness and fury, but despite a fierce battle, the monster escapes into the NeverNever.

Puck finds himself changed by the experience, not only does he again have horns and cloven hooves but traits of the Robin Goodfellow of old are also bleeding through. While he continues to spout quips and make light of every situation, Puck finds himself simultaneously battling the re-emergence of his darker nature. I enjoyed having Puck tell the story in his own irreverent way, and being privy to his thoughts. His inner turmoil is interesting, as is the history he reveals of himself.

Some of that history naturally involves Puck’s relationship with his closest friends, Ash, the Winter Prince, and Megan, The Iron Queen. I loved seeing the trio reunited here, and fighting side by side again. With the monsters escape, Puck and Nyx travel to the Iron Court to ask for their help, but in their company, Puck is reminded of his hurt and resentment when Megan chose Ash over him, and under the sway of the monster he has to fight the temptation to make them pay.

Luckily for them, Nyx, the silver-haired Forgotten Sidhe assassin who once served The Lady and now serves Kieran, provides Puck with somewhat of a distraction. Singularly unimpressed by his legendary reputation, and his ego, Nyx is more than a match for Puck, and their developing connection was very entertaining.

There’s not really anything new or unexpected in The Iron Raven, it has a similar feel, rhythm, tone and progression to the other books in the series. This was a little disappointing because there was potential for Kagawa to add some maturity to the story, and the characters, to reward the fans who were teenagers when the earlier series were first published but are now likely well into their twenties.

Nevertheless, with Puck’s wit, plenty of action, and high stakes, The Iron Raven is an entertaining read. Evenfall is coming.

++++++

Available from Harlequin Australia

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