Book Reviews

Review: Sway by Kat Spears

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Sway (verb)

to control or influence (a person or course of action).

    “He has a lot of sway over other people.”

     synonyms: influence, affect, persuade, win over, convert

——–

Now, even though this is a young adult (YA) book, I will admit it is probably not one that I would have picked up and read if it wasn’t for our lovely Pan Macmillan rep at work. She gave me a copy of this book without telling me what it was about, other than she thought it was the most underrated YA novel of 2014, and that it’s “like a John Green novel, but better.”

I think what she meant was, that it is like a John Green novel in that a slightly off-beat protagonist goes about their life with a ‘well, what can you do ‘ type attitude, only to have their world turned upside down by a member of the opposite sex, with whom they end up falling in love. And it’s true – Sway is definitely like a John Green novel in that way.

But in every other way it is completely different.

And definitely better.

Jesse Alderman, or ‘Sway’ as he’s known, is a high school student who has a talent of being able to obtain the unobtainable. He is able to get people the things they want, at the right price, naturally – completed essays, fake IDs, alcohol and a date with any girl in school. He does this through a network of contacts, favours and the ability to be able to talk his way into or out of any situation. He could probably sell ice to eskimos. School doesn’t interest Jesse – it is merely the location where he conducts most of his business transactions. He moves through life with an almost clinical coldness in order to avoid getting close to anyone except his best female friend and business associate, Joey.

However, everything threatens to unravel when Kevin, the captain of the school football team (who, to put it lightly, is a bit of a jerk) hires Jesse to get the school’s gorgeous do-gooder, Bridget, to become interested in him. Jesse strikes up an unlikely friendship with Bridget’s kid brother, who has cerebral palsy, and suddenly Jesse finds himself developing a bond him. Then to Jesse’s further surprise, while completing his assignment for Kevin, he begins to learn a lot about Bridget and her life, and finds himself falling in love with her. Maybe, Jesse has kept other people out of his life for long enough.

This is a contemporary and realistically gritty YA novel is written from Jesse’s point of view. As such, it is cynical, straight to the point, and full of truth and sarcastic humour. His views and observations of the world are clinical, harsh and sometimes quite depressing, but always realistic and logical. But as soon as Bridget comes into the picture, he is forced to confront a lot of his own demons and finally see that maybe it is worth feeling something after all.

Our Pan Macmillan rep challenged me not to like this book, and being the person that I am I cried, “Challenge accepted!”

And try I did.

From the first page to the last, I tried to not like this book.

And I failed.

This book has the kind of writing that I felt was missing from John Green’s novels – it’s realistic, smart, funny and brutal in it’s honesty and it’s themes. The character of Jesse is excellently written, and immediately you feel like you have gotten inside his head, seeing things the way he sees them. This is the kind of YA novel we have been waiting for without realising it. Ultimately it is the writing that makes this novel such a compelling read. It is definitely my pick for most underrated book of 2014.

Even though this book is a YA novel, I would definitely only recommend it for ages 16+ due to the nature of some of the themes and references in the novel.

Rating: 9/10

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Book Reviews

Review: The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

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Holly Black is most well-known for her Modern Faerie Tale series, and her co-authorship of The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi). So, before I opened her latest young adult (YA) offering, The Darkest Part of the Forest, I knew I would be in for a fantasy/paranormal type novel.

Hazel and her brother Ben live in an odd little town called Fairfold, where the local residents live in a peaceful co-existence with the faeries of the forest. Hazel dreams of becoming a knight and vanquishing evil forces, while Ben dreams of harnessing his otherworldly musical abilities. The town attracts many tourists who want to experience the magic, and occasionally one or two tourists will fall prey to a faerie’s tricks. The locals know how dangerous and unpredictable the fae can be, but they know how to guard against them.

The main tourist draw card in the town is a glass casket that lies in the darkest part of the forest. Inside the casket lies a sleeping faerie boy who has been there for as long as anyone can remember. Hazel and Ben grow up imagining what it would be like, and what kid of adventures they would have if he were to awaken.

However, none of the townsfolk, not even Hazel and Ben, are prepared for what happens to Fairfold when he finally does.

The thing I loved the most about this novel was how it completely flips stereotypes around. Ben is the more emotionally driven character, and the one who pines and obsesses over an unattainable love interest, whereas Hazel is the strong, heroic lead character who wants to save the day. I loved the character of Hazel, another strong lead female in the YA genre. Of course it wouldn’t be a YA novel if there wasn’t a bit of romance thrown in as well – Hazel and he brother’s best friend Jack, and Ben and the sleeping faerie prince.

This novel toes the line between Children’s and YA genres, which is really the only issue I have with the book. When I first picked it up, I thought I was going to be getting a great offering in the Children’s genre. The more I read, the more I realised it was definitely a YA novel! However, that being said there were times in the novel where I had to roll my eyes a little at how young and childish some parts were. It’s almost like Black couldn’t decide which audience she wanted to write the book for.

I would recommend this novel for the older readers (14+) who enjoyed Black’s other novels when they were younger.

Rating: 6/10

Book Reviews

Review: Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

 

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I know that there are a lot of young adult (YA) books around at the moment that delve into the themes of a hierarchical and unfair society, and rising up against oppression.

So, when one of our publishing reps at work gave me an uncorrected proof for Red Queen, I was sceptical. I fully expected it to be going to be just another YA book that conformed to the current dystopian fad – nothing special, and basically a carbon copy of something already out there.

But Victoria Aveyard’s debut novel (the first in a planned trilogy) has certainly raised the bar for dystopian genre YA novels.

Mare Barrow lives in a world where everyone is divided by the colour of his or her blood – you are either Silver or Red. The life of a Red is not one that is coveted, and it is one that is lived shortly, and in misery. Silvers, on the other hand, live in wealth and luxury, and have different abilities that give them power and position over the Reds – the ability to read minds, the ability to control a particular element, or even the ability to control nature. For the Silvers it is all about power and control.

Mare is a 17-year-old Red and spends her days thieving and pick pocketing to help her family to survive. Reds must have an apprenticeship by 18 years of age, otherwise they are conscripted to the kingdom’s long running war with the neighbouring Lakelanders. This weighs heavily on Mare’s mind, as she is almost 18-years-old with no apprenticeship or job prospects. The war has already taken her three brothers away from her family, and she hates the Silvers for it.

A twist of fate intervenes, and Mare finds herself working at the summer palace for the Silver royal family of her region, and she soon discovers that she possesses a mysterious power of her own. In an attempt to cover up this genetic anomaly, the king forces Mare to pretend to be a lost Silver noble, and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she must decide whether to follow her head or her heart, knowing that one wrong move will lead to her death.

I got totally absorbed in this book. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about what had just happened, and what I thought was going to happen next. It hooked me right in! I will admit that there are elements of the book that reek with familiarity, but the more you read, the more you start thinking that it is actually quite different.

I am a sucker for a strong, downtrodden female protagonist, so I loved the character of Mare – strong, independent, but still flawed and unsure of herself. I also love that there is an element of romance in the book, but it takes a back seat to the overall storyline, which is refreshing in this genre. And the ending! Not at all what I was expecting, which is fantastic! The book has moments of suspense throughout, but the ending takes the cake – not at all what you think is going to happen.

I really did love this book, and considering Universal Pictures acquired the film rights before Aveyard even finished writing it, I’m obviously not the only one who thinks it great! A great read for teens aged 14+, and for adults who enjoy a good dystopian novel.

Rating: 9/10

Book Reviews

Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

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I have said it before, I do love a good crime/thriller novel, and in a genre that always seems flooded with authors and new books, it can be difficult to find a really good one.

When I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, I knew I was on to a winner (read my review here). So, I thought I’d give one of Flynn’s other books a go to see if I would enjoy it just as much.

Libby Day is seven years old when her family is massacred. Her fifteen-year-old brother Ben is convicted of the crime, and it was Libby’s testimony that put him in gaol. Twenty-four years on and Libby has been drifting through life ever since that fateful day. She barely functions day to day, instead spending most of her time wallowing in self-pity and trying to fend of thoughts of that night – which she names the ‘Darkplace’.

With her trust fund money almost gone, and with no hope (or desire) of getting a job, Libby doesn’t know what she is going to do. So when Lyle Wirth contacts her, offering her money to come and be a guest speaker at his club’s convention, she says yes. The Kill Club fixate on unsolved and poorly handled crimes, and The Day Massacre is Lyle’s topic of expertise. However, the club believes that Ben Day is innocent and Libby is forced to confront not just her own memories of that night, but also one key question – did Ben really kill the rest of their family?

The Kill Club offer to pay Libby to investigate the massacre, and she agrees purely for the financial incentive. But as Libby begins to investigate, she comes to realise that there were a lot of events that took place that day in the lead up to the massacre – a lot of secrets that have been kept by a lot of people.

With Dark Places Flynn once again makes her mark with another psychological thriller. The overriding question of ‘who killed the Day family?’ gives the novel more of a ‘whodunit’ feel than that of Gone Girl. I also think Dark Places feels more like a crime novel, and therefore fits better into the crime genre than Gone Girl did. Also, much like Gone Girl, this book is also “spectacularly messed up”, as one of my customers put it.

Although the novel is interspersed with chapters showing Mumma Day’s and Ben Day’s points of view from the day of the massacre, Libby Day is the main female protagonist. I don’t know if it is just me, but I found the character of Libby instantly annoying. I know, I know, she suffered through a traumatic event as a child, but I seriously just wanted to shake her by the shoulders and yell at her to get her act together! Despite this, it is interesting to see how Libby justifies each of her actions and choices, and how, despite being a loner, she is able to read and understand people in a way that others cannot.

Interestingly, even though Dark Places was written and published before Gone Girl, many people aren’t aware that Flynn actually does have more novels. But they should be! Dark Places is just as creepy, intense and suspenseful as Gone Girl. One difference though, I actually thought Dark Places had a good ending! I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Gone Girl, or anyone who likes a good psychological thriller.

Rating: 8/10

EDIT: Looks like Dark Places is going to be released as a movie sometime in 2015! Read more here.

Book Reviews

Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

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Dystopian/post-apocalyptic/rise-against-oppression novels are back in vogue again folks (as if you didn’t know!).

And across all genres as well! – young adult, general fiction, and fantasy, as well as the traditional science fiction.

Once upon a time, a dystopian novel where the hero wants to challenge the status quo would only have been picked up by the true, die-hard Sci-Fi fanatics. Nowadays, we have thankfully broken out of that stereotype, and with so many quality and engaging books that deal with these themes, it’s easy to see why we have!

And Red Rising certainly falls into the category of a quality and engaging book.

Red Rising, the first book in Pierce Brown’s debut trilogy, introduces us to Darrow.

Darrow is a Red and a Helldiver; one of many who are part of the lower echelons of a hierarchical/caste system that is designated by colours. He lives his life below the surface of Mars, mining elements that they are told will make the surface of Mars habitable for future generations because Earth is dying – they are the only hope humanity has for it’s survival.

However, an awful and traumatic series of events leads Darrow to find out that everything they were told was a lie to subdue and control. Mars has long been inhabited by the Golds – the top tier of society. With the help of an underground group of rebels that are determined to bring down the system from the inside, Darrow goes undercover as a Gold and enlists in one of their prestigious command schools. But Darrow soon finds himself right in the middle of an elaborate battlefield, fighting it out with all the other students for the top spot – only for Darrow, this is about more than just a prestigious offer of apprenticeship at the end of the game. This is about justice. This is about revenge.

This book is The Hunger Games for adults. It is so skilfully written, with so many intricate details and clever nuances. The writing is some of the best I have read in this genre, which is no mean feat normally, but then take into account that Pierce Brown is only 26! The amount of detail at times made me forget that this imagined society doesn’t actually exist. Brown cleverly uses self-made language and jargon to distinguish between the upper and lower colour classes. This jargon makes this fictional society more authentic, but it also serves to show that this version of humanity and society is something that is very different to what we know – but one that is not necessarily that implausible.

All the characters in this book are extremely well crafted and clearly defined. They really are the driving force of the entire novel. Despite their brutal natures and shocking acts, I actually really loved the characterisation of many of them, however I won’t reveal which ones were my favourites for fear of spoiling the book for everyone! My only criticism is that, at times, the story did drag on a bit, especially since the first part of the book moved quite quickly. However, Brown does pick up the pace again towards the final stages of the novel, and it is well worth the wait.

This book is definitely one I would recommend for lovers of the Sci-Fi genre, as well as those who may not have thought or wanted to delve into it before. This book is not what you would expect from a book in this category, and I can see it becoming a movie at some point in the future! And if the quality of the storyline, the writing, and the characters weren’t enough to get you to give this book a go, the author isn’t all that terrible looking either! Check out this rather humorous take on Pierce Brown here.

Golden Son, the second book in the trilogy, is due out in Australia on 13th January 2015, so make sure Red Rising is on your wishlist this Christmas!

Rating: 9/10

Edit: Looks like my prediction was right! Despite the book only being released at the start of 2014, Brown has already written and sold the screenplay for Red Rising to Universal pictures for a tidy sum. Find out more here.

Book Reviews

Review: The Jewel by Amy Ewing

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I am a huge fan of young adult novels.

I also hate the term ‘young adult’ when categorizing – you don’t have to be aged 12 to 21-ish to enjoy reading books in this category.

Quite often in my bookstore, I see adults buying copies of The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner and Divergent for themselves to read, and it really is fantastic to see that they aren’t fazed by categorization. There are some other fantastic stories out there that are deemed ‘young adult’ but which I think adults would really enjoy too. These books also often deal with rather adult themes, and The Jewel is no exception.

This first book in a new dystopian series sees Violet auctioned off as a surrogate to an elite royal family in The Jewel. As with all dystopian heroines, Violet is not one to readily settle for her fate. She meets Ash, a handsome young royal companion, and they begin an illicit love affair, all while being used as puppets in a deadly game of court politics. In a world where these young surrogates are treated as objects, or even ‘pets’, Violet unwittingly becomes the only person able to change the current status quo.

With a cliff-hanger to rival that of any television drama, this books slowly hooks you in and, at times, I forgot that it was a ‘young adult’ novel that I was reading. It did take a few chapters for me to really get into the novel, as it starts with Violet at a training centre where the potential surrogates spend a number of years honing their special skills. It took a while to get to the crux of the story, but once it does, the themes the book deals with are quite adult in nature. There were moments where I did actually feel a bit uncomfortable about what I was reading. I think the best way to describe this book is terrifyingly beautiful. It is beautiful in the gilded and glittering in the clothes, parties and palaces that Violet frequents, but also shockingly brutal when it delves into the (at times) confronting details of Violet’s role as a surrogate.

Overall, I thought this book was quite unique, and therefore an engaging read, despite the sometimes uneasy and graphic scenes. It shares many similarities and tropes of other dystopian novels, but in terms of subject matter, it is quite unlike any other dystopian novel I have read. I would definitely recommend this book for readers aged 16+.

Rating 6/10

Book Reviews

Review: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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Up until about a week ago, I had never read one of Liane Moriarty’s books, which is rather surprising considering she is a local author in my area, and I am a huge supporter and advocate for Australian authors.

I had also been hearing almost all of my colleagues at work rave about her novels, so I thought I would give her latest one a whirl, though I was a bit worried that I may not enjoy the book. I will admit I am not normally one to read a book about the lives of fictional suburban mothers and their families. Quite frankly, I find the notion of reading a book about daily trials of mothers and their kids rather dull and unexciting.

That is, until I picked up Liane Moriarty’s latest book.

Big Little Lies takes place in the fictional Sydney suburb of Pirriwee and revolves around a group of kindergarten parents and their respective children who attend the local public school. The whole novel revolves around one key event – Pirriwee Public’s annual school trivia night. Why? Because a parent is dead.

The three central characters are Madeline, a highly extroverted, bubbly force to be reckoned with, Celeste, an effortlessly gorgeous, wealthy mother of twin boys and close friend of Madeline’s, and Jane, the young single mum who is new in town. This trio form the foundation of the story we are told, and all have their own worries and trials to deal with in their personal lives.

The majority of the novel takes places over the months leading up to the ill-fated trivia night, and delves into the cliquey world of helicopter parents and playground politics. At times, you almost forget that one of the characters you are reading about is in fact dead, but Moriarty very cleverly keeps you on track – at the end of every chapter there are excerpts of witness statements and background information being given by the schools parents and teachers. In this way, Moriarty also cleverly keeps you guessing as to who exactly the deceased person is.

As sombre as the overall storyline sounds, Moriarty’s latest novel is actually quite funny, while at the same time heartbreaking. She really knows how to get you emotionally invested in her characters, and to love and loathe them in equal measure. This is one of the best examples I have seen of really well written, well-defined characters. You know exactly who they are and how they will most likely react to certain situations, even though they are works of fiction.

I also love that Moriarty hasn’t compromised herself as an author just to appeal to the American mass market. The book is rife with ‘Australian-isms’ – including a brief discussion of ‘mum’ vs. ‘mom’ spelling, greetings of ‘gidday’, and particular aspects of the first year of school that evoked nostalgic memories of my own kindergarten days. I was able to relate to many things in this novel, despite not being in the target reader demographic.

I can’t wait to pick up another Liane Moriarty novel sometime soon.

Rating: 9/10

Edit: It is exciting to see both Nicole Kidman’s and Reese Witherspoon’s respective production companies option the screen rights to Big Little Lies! Read more here.

Book Reviews

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

 

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I am a quick reader. I normally read about 2 books a week. I devour novels like lions devour gazelles. Or like my best friend devours chocolate. Books sustain me and I hunger for new stories all the time.

But The Night Circus was different.

It took me just over a week to finish it.

I wanted it to last.

I wanted it to go on forever.

I was actually quite upset when it ended (even though, as a logical adult, I know all books must end).

I have never been so reluctant to reach the end of a book, and so disappointed with my reality when it did. Much like the patrons of the circus in the novel, you do not want the experience to end. The challenge I face now is trying to adequately write a review of it. For those of you who have read The Night Circus, you will know how much of a challenge this is.

The novel is essentially about Marco and Celia, two illusionists, who are trained by their respective tutors in preparation for a challenge, of which the rules, time and venue are all unknown. But then again, it could be said that this novel is also a story about an impossible love and the nature of the human soul. Or it could even just simply be about a travelling circus.

You start reading this novel not quite knowing what you’re in for, the blurb simply stating:

“The circus arrived without warning. No announcements precede it… it is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

Even though this seems vague and meaningless at first glance, in hindsight, this sums up my experience reading this book – I came across it without meaning to, I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I knew nothing about it, but now it is ingrained in me when a week ago it wasn’t there at all.

The book, at first, seems to be an incoherent collection of stories of people’s lives. However, the further into the book you go, the more intertwined these lives become, and the clearer the bigger picture becomes. You fall in love with the circus and the characters, and you end up feeling like you have lived across the years that the circus spans – you feel apart of the circus, of something bigger than yourself.

Morgenstern jumps back and forth through the years from the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. The reader is able to keep track with the dates of the events taking place, as they are conveniently stated at the start of every chapter. Her writing style is sumptuous and enthralling, and you are immediately transported into the world of Le Cirque des Rêves – The Circus of Dreams – every time you open the book.

This novel is breathtakingly beautiful. If a book were to be compared to a work of art, this would be the shining example. You want to take your time with it, to savour it and give your full attention to it. You want to appreciate every word, every detail and every moment, trying to commit each to memory so you can relive it over and over again.

The best way I can think of to even come close to giving a sufficient summary of the novel is to give you one piece of advice: Do yourself a favour and go out and buy this book and get lost within it’s pages. It is the only way to truly understand and experience this world that Morgenstern has created.

I cannot recall the last time I read a book where I lost myself in the author’s literary vision so utterly and completely. Most definitely, without question, one of my top 10 books I have read this year.

Rating: 10/10

Book Reviews

Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Being the only staff member in my book store to have not read one of the most hyped up book-to-movie adaptations of the year, I thought I had better jump on the bandwagon and give it a go.

I do love a good crime/thriller novel, and it had been a while since I had read a really good one, so I was more than ready to give this book a go.

“Who are you? What have we done to each other?”

The tag line for this book, Nick’s philosophising lamentation at both the start and the end of the novel, nicely sums up both the overt simplicity and underlying complexity of this story.

The story revolves around the two central characters of Nick and Amy Dunne, and how, on the day of their five-year wedding anniversary, Amy goes missing. As the police begin to investigate, evidence starts turning up which points the finger squarely at Nick being responsible. Told from two points of view, Nick’s first hand account and Amy’s diary entries, this story very soon becomes a case of trying to decipher who is telling the truth, who is lying, and which version of shared events between Amy and Nick is the more accurate account. This book keeps you guessing as to what is going on, what the bigger picture is, and what will happen next, right up until the final page.

As I got further and further into the book, I began to formulate two potential endings, both of which I thought would fit in with the psychological overtones of the novel. However, while I was ready to accept neither of my imagined endings taking place, I was not ready to accept the ending that Flynn decided upon. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I really disliked, and possibly even *gasp* hated, the ending of the book. I would just like to note though, that the ending has indeed divided all the staff in my book store – half of us hate the ending, while the other half think it was brilliant, so it really does come down to personal opinion and preferences.

This novel really is a page-turner because you desperately want to know what the hell is going on the whole way through, and as you get towards the end, you want to see whether certain characters get what they deserve. Aside from the clear-cut story and plot line of the book, this novel also deals with issues and topics on other levels as well. There is a definite psychological element to the book, and everything in the story ultimately comes down to the reader asking themselves, how well do you really know the other person you are sharing the rest of your life with?

I did actually really enjoy this book, despite feeling like the author’s choice of conclusion let the story down in the end. I would definitely recommend reading it before seeing the film (which was excellently done, by the way).

Rating: 7/10

Book Reviews

Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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By now, most people are associating this book with Emma Watson and the inevitable forthcoming of the movie franchise. When books are immediately associated with celebrities, I can’t help but be a bit dubious about how good the book actually is, and how much I will (or will not) enjoy it.

But enjoy it I did.

Kelsea Glynn has had a sheltered and isolated upbringing, with only her foster parents for company. This all changes on her 19th birthday when the soldiers come for her. For on her 19th birthday Kelsea comes into her inheritance – to rule the kingdom of the Tearling. The kingdom she is about to become Queen of has certainly seen better days – it is corrupt, poor and dangerous. With her enemies putting a price on her head, and traitors everywhere she looks, Kelsea faces the greatest challenge of her life, to survive and be the ruler her kingdom so desperately needs.

Although this book, the first in a proposed trilogy, is set in the 24th Century, this is not made very clear through the narrative. For the savvy reader, there are a number of passing moments and pieces of the kingdom’s history that imply that this novel is set in the future, however the reader needs to be able to see beyond the obvious to get this. With the novel having a largely medieval Britain feel about it, the reader could certainly be excused for thinking that this is more of a Game of Thrones style set up. And this book certainly does have a very Game of Thrones feel about it. I think it would be a good novel for those young adults (16+) who may not yet be ready to tackle George R.R. Martin’s mammoth (and still unfinished) fantasy saga.

This book kept me hooked right from the beginning, and the character of Kelsea, although at times infuriatingly naïve, is very likeable and relateable. The physical descriptions of all the characters as well as the landscapes of the Tearling, are so well thought out and clearly presented, I felt like I was there in the novel at every scene and every chapter. I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoyed The Game of Thrones series, and also to those who may be a bit reluctant to have a go at reading a fantasy novel.

One parting thought though…

With Kelsea characterised as a rather plain girl, with a little too much weight upon her 19-year-old frame, I am not quite sure how Emma Watson fits the bill for this role. After all she is perceived the world over as being the complete opposite of this character. I wonder what will happen to the character of Kelsea – I guess we will have to wait and see if she is subjected to what I have dubbed the ‘Jack Reacher’ effect.

Rating: 9/10