Tag Archives: BBC 2012

Review: Siege by Sarah Mussi

Shocking, raw and powerful – a fab YA thriller 

Reposting as this fab novel came out last week in paperback.

I know that some people have found this to be too violent. It is certainly not suitable for the younger end of the YA spectrum. However, the violence is not gratuitous and the novel is thought-provoking and challenging enough to justify its shock value (think Clockwork Orange, perhaps).

Written in a strong first person, present tense voice, and set in 2020, Siege introduces us to Leah Jackson at the precise moment a group of boys open fire in assembly. But since she was late to school and is in detention, she doesn’t immediately realise what is happening. The novel then follows her as she works to avoid being shot, to escape and raise the alarm, travelling through air vents and crawling across ceiling tiles. Twists and turns abound as Leah runs into difficulty after difficulty in this tightly-plotted thriller that will have you holding your breath. Die Hard in a school is an appropriate description of this book, with the themes of containment and against-the-odds battle to protect the innocent and stop the guilty.

hardback cover

Her escape is hampered by the nature of her school. In this version of the near future, society has fractured even further and the schools are more obviously streamed by social class. Leah’s school is built to contain and restrain, founded on the assumption that lower-class kids are Trouble. This means that once the school goes into Lock Down, escape is not a simple matter.

I loved the character of Leah. Loved her speech patterns (“That don’t sound right.”), her bravery and her resourcefulness. She’s been used to looking after the family, and I found it easy to sympathise with her and her nagging worry that her brother, Connor, may be one of the boys at the centre of all this. Could she have prevented it? Should she have done more to help him? This additional personal layer of sickening guilt is just enough to rack up the tension even higher.

I found this to be an excellent read, right on the money for our times. Sarah Mussi has something to say about social deprivation, violence and responsibility and she conveys it in terms that are both accessible and enjoyable to read. Yes, there is violence and some scenes are graphic, but many kids are seeing worse on games consoles and tv screens every day – and in a purely ‘entertaining’ way without the subtle social analysis that is present here.

From the Publisher’s Website:

Leah escapes the siege in her school, but she can’t avoid wrestling with impossible choices in this topical, terrifying new novel that’s essential reading for teens everywhere.

Leah Jackson – in detention. Then armed Year 9s burst in, shooting. She escapes, just. But the new Lock Down system for keeping intruders out is now locking everyone in. She takes to the ceilings and air vents with another student, Anton, and manages to use her mobile to call out to the world.

First: survive the gang – the so-called ‘Eternal Knights’.
Second: rescue other kids taken hostage, and one urgently needing medical help.

Outside, parents gather, the army want intelligence, television cameras roll, psychologists give opinions, sociologists rationalise, doctors advise – and they all want a piece of Leah. Soon her phone battery is running out; the SAS want her to reconnoitre the hostage area … 
But she is guarding a terrifying conviction. Her brother, Connor, is at the centre of this horror. Is he with the Eternal Knights or just a pawn? 
She remembers. All those times Connor reached out for help … If she’d listened, voiced her fears about him earlier, would things be different now? Should she give up her brother?
With only Anton for company, surviving by wits alone, Leah wrestles with the terrible choices …
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Published in paperback 5 September 2013 from Hodder
Find more info at the publisher’s website
My grateful thanks go to the publisher for sending a proof to review

Review: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

Powerful and lyrical writing questioning crime, mental illness, revenge and identity

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading this book: more fool me.

Heart-Shaped Bruise purports to be the contents of a notebook found in an abandoned mental institution for young women. It’s lyrical and grittily engaging, dramatic and thrilling without a shred of indulgent self pity. If you’re interested in psychological thrillers or crime novels, I’d strongly recommend you grab a copy of this.

Written in the first person, with awareness of an imaginary audience (a future inmate, who would therefore understand), the novel confides, explores and discusses what has happened, how the narrator came to be where she is, without revealing her actual crime immediately. Since the crime made the headlines, Emily assumes that we, the audience, already have assumptions about her. This conceit works brilliantly as a mechanism for withholding information and creating suspense without it seeming artificial. I love that she tells us at the start that we can be like a stranger on the bus – that unknown person you tell all your secrets to, while hiding them from people who actually care.

As a recollection narrative, the plot jumps between the ‘now’ of Emily’s incarceration and her therapy, and the past of events leading up to her crime. Everything about this novel ensures that you are gripped, desperate to know exactly what Emily did and how it all fits together.

The novel is complex and elegant, exploring themes of mental illness, the nature of notoriety and crime, identity and guilt. I’m recommending it for teens of 14+, and for adults. Definitely one to watch!

From the Book Description:

A compelling, brutal and heart-breaking story about identity, infamy and revenge, from debut author Tanya Byrne. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2012

They say I’m evil.

The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who sigh on the six o’clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me.

And everyone believes it. Including you.

But you don’t know. You don’t know who I used to be. Who I could have been.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever shake off my mistakes or if I’ll just carry them around with me forever like a bunch of red balloons

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.

Heart-Shaped Bruise is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge.
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Published September 2012 by Headline
For more info, visit the publisher’s site
My grateful thanks to the publisher for this review copy

Review: Emily Windsnap and the Land of the Midnight Sun by Liz Kessler

Adventure, friendship and romance for the 9-12s

Emily Windsnap is a half-mermaid, so she appears human on land and her tail appears in water. This is her fifth adventure (although the first I’ve read), so you may find spoilers in this review for earlier titles.

One of the best things about this book is Emily’s character. In so many ways, she’s like a typical tween/early teen, so she’s very easy to relate to and I’m sure there are hoards of readers who will love these books. At the same time, the mermaid angle, which in this book leads her on a top-secret mission for King Neptune himself, adds all sort of excitement. Emily narrates her own story, so her feelings are easily accessible and we have no difficulties sympathising with her point of view.

The plot is twisty enough to keep us turning the pages without being over-complicated, and the cast of secondary characters offers such gems as the grumpy Neptune. Relationships are very important in this book (as they are for tween-into-teen readers) with tensions between a budding romance and a bff, as well as eternal issues like mother-daughter relationships.

All in all, this is a delightful read which offers gentle reassurance on various perennial concerns for the middle grade readership, packaged into an exciting quest narrative.

From the Back Cover

Have you ever had nightmares? King Neptune has, and that’s why he sent me on a top secret mission.

When I discovered a kingdom with everyone turned to ice, I knew why the nightmares had terrified him. What I didn’t know was how to complete my mission. I needed help, but my best friend, Shona, was miles away and my boyfriend, Aaron, had just told me a secret that left us barely speaking. The question was, could we work together to save our world – and our relationship?

Swishy wishes,
Emily Windsnap

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Published September 2012 by Orion Children’s Books
Find it at Goodreads

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Child’s-eye view of London life after Ghana

This is a wonderful read, offering Harri’s 11-year-old perspective on the world he’s moved into. The strongest feature here is the voice: Harri’s version of Multi-Ethnic Youth Dialect combined with his natural innocence provides us with an endearing, optimistic take on what is often grim reality. There are many features of Harri’s narrative which flavour the story. My favourites include ‘hutious’, ‘asweh’ and ‘advise yourself’, alongside more familiar features of kids’ language like the prolific use of ‘even’.

But I’m pretty sure that this is a great read even if you don’t happen to teach English Language :).

Harri is sweet and charming. He knows that the gang on the estate could be a force for good, if someone just explained to them about how to help others. And some of the uglier facts in his life are clear to us, but seemingly less so to him. Stephen Kelman’s use of the naive child narrator is executed with precision and charm, providing an upbeat, often funny, and enjoyable read even as deeply unsavoury truths about life in the UK are explored. Harri’s guardian pigeon is also a nice touch, showing Harri’s natural sympathy for other creatures, and providing an occasional broader view of events (although this was a bit strange a first, the brief pigeon’s-eye sections are illuminating in their own way).

The plot revolves around ‘the dead boy’, whose identity we never fully know. He was stabbed (‘chooked’) shortly before the novel opens, and the football boots on the cover are part of the community’s display of grief for him. Harri and a friend decide to turn detective and investigate the murder. After all, Harri’s friend watches all the CSI programmes, so they’re clearly experts. Their enthusiasm for this task is another sweet touch, as well as an effective mechanism to have the boys run around the neighbourhood, blissfully unaware of the chaos in their wake.

As well as Harri, the book is peopled with fabulous supporting characters: Harri’s sister Lydia, other kids – both bad and good, but all seen as potentially good by Harri, and various adults just trying to survive.

Overall, I can see why this was nominated for the Booker, and why it’s now being promoted to a YA audience. I’d love to see lots of teens reading it, as it raises so many questions. I’ll certainly be recommending it to many of my students.

From the Back Cover:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a London housing estate. The (second) best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers – the Adidas stripes drawn on in marker pen – unaware of the danger growing around him.

But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly breaks the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe.

Harri will come face to face with the very real dangers surrounding him. A powerful, unforgettable tale, importantly relevant for young adult readers of today.

Includes a Q&A with the author, Stephen Kelman, and a piece about what inspired him to write Pigeon English.

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This edition published in Oct 2012 by Bloomsbury Childrens
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy
For more information (including an extract to sample), visit the Bloomsbury website

Review: VIII by H. M. Castor

Fascinating, engaging and fresh presentation of a well-known figure

In many ways, reading a fictionalisation of the life of Henry VIII was always going to be like watching a car crash in slow motion. We know (at least broadly) where it is all going, where he’ll end up, and I’m confident that most of us would go into the novel with little expectation of being sympathetic to Henry (or Hal, as he is known in the book).

And yet, H. M. Castor makes us root for Hal, longing for him to make good choices, to not head off down the destructive path that we know he’s destined for. By starting in a dramatic moment in his childhood, she contextualises his beliefs and later actions, giving him purpose and reason for decisions which otherwise are incredibly hard to explain and rationalise.

The narrative is presented in the first person and the present tense, and it is masterfully done. I don’t always like this PoV, but it works perfectly here to severely limit the novel’s perspective and to locate us firmly in Hal’s mind. The little touches, where you recognise names or events and realise what’s coming next (speaking as someone with little formal History study), are very pleasing, and yet much of the novel’s content and focus was new and fresh. This may be because of my ignorance of the specifics of Henry’s life, but I feel that it’s more to do with the narrowness of the perspective which fixes us firmly into Hal’s experiences and his own interpretation of events.

Overall, I would strongly recommend this as an enjoyable read, and will definitely be mentioning it to the sixth formers I know who are taking History. I’ve had this hanging around on my Kindle for a while (shameful, I know, but my review pile is growing and I sometimes feel guilty reading books that I’ve bought when there are review books waiting and… but you don’t need my blogger angst :)), and I was prompted to read it now by its position in the Carnegie longlist, which I can clearly see is well-deserved. I would not like to be a Carnegie judge – everything I’ve read off that list I’ve loved!

From the Product Description:

Destined for greatness – tormented by demons. VIII (Eight) is the untold story of Henry VIII, a gripping examination of why he turned from a charismatic teenager to the cruel tyrant he became in later life. Hal is a young, handsome and gifted warrior, who believes he has been divinely chosen to lead his people. But throughout his life, he is haunted by a ghostly apparition, and, once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty.

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Published in April 2012 by Templar
For more info, visit the author’s website

Review: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Magic, mysteries and a resilient heroine – fab start to a new series for 7+

Sally Gardner is so great! I’ve never been disappointed with one of her books, and this quirky magical tale is no different. With shades of Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson, this is classic young fiction at its best.

As the first book in a new series, it lays the groundwork for the future, showing how the wonderful cat Fidget and little Emily Vole on the book cover come to be working together at a Fairy Detective Agency. The gorgeous illustrations are perfect, starting with the cover style that shows us this is no ‘pink and sparkly’ fairy book.

Emily’s life has fairytale elements: she’s an orphan, found in a hatbox at Stansted Airport and quickly adopted by the incredibly wealthy Dashwoods, who soon grow frustrated by Emily’s inability to perfectly complement their otherwise perfectly coordinated life and treat her shockingly. It’s through Emily’s adoptive parents that comparisons to Dahl are most valid, with their caricature-like superficiality and materialism. Once the magical elements start featuring, things look up for Emily and the adventure truly begins.

Children of around 7 and up will lap this up, revelling as they do in deliciously bad parent-figures and tough and resourceful child protagonists, not to mention magical talking animals. I know I would have loved this as a child (umm, actually I loved it now 🙂 ) and my 9yr old will too.

Overall, this is definitely a fun read for newly confident readers (shortish chapters and lovely b/w illustrations throughout), or would work well as a shared bedtime read.

From the Back Cover:

When Emily Vole inherits an abandoned shop, she discovers a magical world she never knew existed. But a fairy-hating witch, a mischievous set of golden keys, and a train full of brightly coloured bunnies are just a few of the surprises that come with it.

With the help of a talking cat called Fidget and a grumpy fairy detective called Buster, it’s up to Emily to get to the bottom of Operation Bunny.

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Published in October 2012 by Orion Children’s
My grateful thanks to the publisher for sending a review copy
For more info: publisher’s website

Review: A Dog Called Homeless by Sarah Lean

Heartwarming tale of friendship and hope after loss for the 9-12 crowd (and teens, and adults…)

How much do I love this book? It’s a delicious piece of writing, warm and emotional without being schmaltzy or manipulative. I’m pretty confident that it’s the only book that both my daughters (aged 9 and 14) and I have all read within a short space of time and all loved. I think it was on the teen shelves in Waterstones, and it was the 14 yr old who asked for it and devoured it very quickly, telling me that I should read it. Then when I did, I realised that it was labelled as 9+ (thankfully the teen hadn’t noticed that…) and the younger one had it off me quick as a flash. I think a single book appealing to both my girls at the same time is pretty unusual and goes to show how fab this book is: gentle enough for a 9 yr old, yet also enough to sustain a teen’s interest. Pretty damn impressive, I would say!

The novel is narrated by Cally, who tells us in a statement preceding the first chapter that she hasn’t spoken for 31 days. Her narration is pitch-perfect and gives us privileged access to all her thoughts and feelings, even as she’s stopped sharing them with anyone else in her life. Poor Cally is mourning the loss of her mother a year ago, and struggling particularly with her father’s awkward adult response of never talking about her. She sees a vision of her mother, but no-one believes her, and then the wonderful dog (a silver wolfhound, no less) enters her life. This dog, being huge, is not always welcomed by everyone else, and her teachers and her father particularly don’t want it hanging around.

The plot moves along effectively, with all aspects of Cally’s life – home, school, family, friends – explored and changed in the course of the novel. I think Sarah Lean captured Cally’s grief and its effects on her beautifully, allowing us to share Cally’s feelings without being overwhelmed by them. The grief is there, but this is no wallowy book. Instead, it’s an optimistic read which offers up hope in the form of friendship, as well as the comforting subtext that adults aren’t always automatically right.

Overall, I cannot recommend this highly enough. Just read it, ok? 🙂

From the Book’s Website:

My name is Cally Louise Fisher and I haven’t spoken for thirty-one days. Talking doesn’t always make things happen, however much you want them to.

Cally Fisher saw her mum bright and real and alive. But no one believes her, so Cally’s stopped talking.

A mysterious wolfhound always seems to be there when her mum appears and now he’s started following her everywhere. But how can Cally convince anyone that Mum is still with them, or persuade Dad that the huge silver-grey dog is their last link with her?

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published in April 2012 by HarperCollins Children’s
For more info and an extract see the book’s website

Review: Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard

Great sci-fi YA set on a colony world without land

This novel is far more ‘hard’ sci-fi than I normally read, but I greatly enjoyed it and it made me wonder whether there might be other sci-fi I’d enjoy. That has to be a compliment (and suggestions in the comments are welcome…).

Katya takes centre stage in this, the first of the Russalka Chronicles. A talented and intelligent young navigator, she makes a resourceful protagonist who is easy to like and root for. The narrative is in the third person, past tense, and the presence of a narrator is felt in a prologue which contextualises the story by providing a potted history of Russalka. I wasn’t sure about the book at this point, as it was somewhat dry reading and a bit of an infodump, but it was definitely worth continuing.

Russalka itself is a fascinating setting and I liked how the environment is credited with creating the Russalkans’ character. It made sense to me that a lot of the mythology and naming etc was broadly Russian-based, as the people’s pragmatism and pride in their heritage had quite a Russian feel and tone. The story takes place a long time after Earth’s colonisation and subsequent war with the colonists, and Katya and some of the other Russalkans express strongly negative attitudes to the Terrans (those from Earth), as they are known in the book.

The plot begins with Katya’s first voyage as a qualified navigator, and rapidly things start to go wrong. The bulk of the novel has a real quest feel, although it doesn’t have one obvious quest from start to finish, more problem after problem to deal with. Jonathan L Howard certainly doesn’t shy away from testing his characters! Katya’s resourcefulness and integrity are well and truly put to the test and she emerges stronger and more impressive time and time again.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this. I wouldn’t be surprised if it serves to get more girls reading sci-fi, with such a great female protagonist (although a few more secondary female characters wouldn’t have gone amiss…).

From the Back Cover:

The distant and unloved colony world of Russalka has no land, only the raging sea. No clear skies, only the endless storm clouds. Beneath the waves, the people live in pressurised environments and take what they need from the boundless ocean. It is a hard life, but it is theirs and they fought a war against Earth to protect it. But wars leave wounds that never quite heal, and secrets that never quite lie silent.

Katya Kuriakova doesn’t care much about ancient history like that, though. She is making her first submarine voyage as crew; the first nice, simple journey of what she expects to be a nice, simple career.

There is nothing nice and simple about the deep black waters of Russalka, however; soon she will encounter pirates and war criminals, see death and tragedy at first hand, and realise that her world’s future lies on the narrowest of knife edges. For in the crushing depths lies a sleeping monster, an abomination of unknown origin, and when it wakes, it will seek out and kill every single person on the planet.

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to be published November 8 2012 by Strange Chemistry
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher
For more info and an extract see the publisher’s website

Review: Knock Down (Street Duty Case One) by Chris Ould

Brilliant start to a new police procedural series for the YA market

As a lover of crime fiction, and an enthusiastic YA reader, I was really pleased to hear about this exciting new series. Reading it made me even happier, as it was everything I would have wished for in such a combination.

Chris Ould has written for The Bill amongst other things, and the knowledge he gained from this – of how the police operate and of what makes a successful crime narrative – is put to great use in this brilliant read. For this YA series, he has invented the rank of Trainee Police Officer (TPO) to allow the creation of 16 to 18 year old characters who can investigate crime. Although they are trainees and therefore often supervised, Holly Blades in this novel shows enough promise that the training officers allow her some slack and she is able to take something of a leading role, particularly in the crimes which focus on teens. I know that some reviewers are commenting on the realism of this, but I fail to see how it’s any less realistic than the classic ‘child sleuth’ trope or the ‘meddling little old lady who solves crimes on a regular basis’ for that matter!

Holly Blades and Sam Marsden are the TPOs, although Holly has more of the lead in this instalment. Both show potential as police officers, and both are ‘up against it’ to some extent as the public and other officers don’t always take them seriously. This is a classic trope in crime fiction (often it’s the woman detective struggling to be accepted, or the older detective whose methods are viewed as outdated), allowing the characters to show their human sides and making it easier to sympathise with them. It certainly works in Street Duty as we easily root for Holly and Sam and admire their resourcefulness.

The focus is very much on the crimes and the plot centres on a few different criminal acts, some of which turn out to be connected. It feels (to me, with no such experience!) like a realistic representation of a short period in policing, with different events being reported in and the officers’ attention being pulled in different directions. The narrative is in the third person and past tense, with the focus shifting around different settings and different characters and different fonts used to differentiate the police-focused sections (all headed with location date and time in a very precise way) from the sections concentrating on criminals, victims and suspects. Overall it feels quite visual, as though we are cutting from scene to scene in a TV drama or film. It’s clear that as well as the TPOs and other police officers, some other characters and settings are going to be revisited in future cases, and I am looking forward to getting to know the area better.

Given the popularity of crime drama and fiction, this is bound to be a highly successful series, and (speaking as a teacher) I also appreciate its positive presentation of (some) teens in relation to crime. Many teens are responsible, resourceful and reliable individuals, and it is a shame that their presentation as such is relatively unusual. I would strongly recommend this series to readers of around 15 and up (it carries warnings about explicit content and strong language).

From the Back Cover:

Victim: Teenage female, 14 years old. Unconcious. Head Injury. Laceration to arm. Struck by lorry.

Why was Ashleigh Jarvis running so fast that she didn’t see the lorry? Why was she so scared? And why was she barefoot on a cold winter’s evening? It’s Holly Blade’s first case and she wants to know the truth. But how much is she willing to risk?

First in an arresting new series from BAFTA award-winning writer, Chris Ould.

Warning: contains explicit language and content. Recommended for readers aged 15+.

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Published October 1st by Usborne
Review copy gratefully received in exchange for my honest opinion
Check out more information (and the first chapter) at the Usborne Street Duty page

Review: Lance of Truth by Katherine Roberts

Second instalment in the fabulous Pendragon Legacy quartet of Arthurian adventures for a new generation

Warning: this review could include spoilers for Sword of Light, book 1 in the series. If you haven’t yet read Sword of Light, my review of it can be found here.

This adventure is every bit as fast-paced and gripping as the first, with Rhianna and friends seeking out the second of the lights. They’ll need all four to revive Arthur and restore Britain.

The quest is again central to the narrative and, although the story is clearly original (with the new invention of Rhianna in particular), there is plenty here that is familiar from Arthurian legend and the courtly tradition. I particularly enjoyed the verses at the start of each chapter, which form a ballad that gives an overview of the story when put together (yes, I did read them as such once I’d finished the novel!). The map and decorated headings also add to the feel of an older book, strengthening the presentation to make this a lovely package. These little hardbacks would make lovely gifts because they feel special and exciting as objects, thanks to these well-considered touches.

I love Rhianna as a character particularly and she is what makes this series special, amongst quests and fantasy adventures for the 9-12 age group. Her absolute refusal to comply with what a lady of Camelot ‘ought’ to be continues to delight and inspire, and the introduction of new characters enables Katherine Roberts to revisit and underline this point, just as some of the knights from book one are starting to see what Rhianna has to offer and treating her less as ‘just’ a damsel.

These are many-faceted books with a broad appeal, containing magic, mystery, adventure, danger, friendship, family and a richly-imagined medieval setting. I would definitely recommend the series to both boys and girls of 9+.

From the back cover:

The quest for Camelot’s survival continues – King Arthur’s secret daughter, Rhianna Pendragon, has faced mortal danger, ice-breathing dragons and dark magic to win Excalibur, the Sword of Light. But the sword is just one of four magical Lights that she must find to restore Arthur’s soul to his body and bring him back to life.

Now Rhianna must head into the wilds of the North, to find the second Light, the Lance of Truth, before her evil cousin Mordred claims it. But Mordred is holding her mother Guinevere captive – can Rhianna stay true to her quest for the Lights and save the mother she’s never known, before Mordred wreaks his terrible revenge?

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Published October by Templar Books
My grateful thanks go to the publishers for sending a review copy
Check out Lance of Truth at Amazon UK