Book Review: Broken Angels

The following was my intriguing introduction to Broken Angels, an account of morally dubious happenings at Glastonbury Abbey in the 15th Century.

“Broken Angels is a true story. 

‘True’ in the sense that by the early C15, Glastonbury Abbey, one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries in Britain, had become a hotbed of gossip and rumour. There were tales of internal feuds and lax discipline, illicit sex, and several questionable ‘business’ deals. Even worse, there were numerous complaints about the abbot, John Chinnock.  

At last, King Henry IV and the Church hierarchy decided to act. In September 1408, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, visited Glastonbury with an entourage of influential men to resolve the situation.

The Archbishop’s visitation report still exists, but for the most part, it’s a list of punishments meted out, not the actual crimes. ‘Broken Angels’ uses that report and many of the people mentioned in it to imagine what was going on. Our story will take you back six hundred years to a time that’s often over-spiritualised and romanticised, but in reality was cruel and brutal, especially for the ordinary working people. “

The book is a short novella, written by Beth Webb and Mark Hutchinson, that brings to life the people who lived in, and worked around, Glastonbury Abbey during the late medieval period. It offers an evocative account of the times. 

Told from the point of view of Brother Bernard, an idealistic but still ambitious young Oxford graduate whose new master, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tasks him with seeking out those responsible for the degeneracy at Glastonbury Abbey. Despite personal misgivings, Brother Bernard is ordered to visit taverns and kitchens, to converse with those he encounters. He is to be his master’s spy and report back on findings.

The story brings to the fore the differences in circumstances of those born into privilege and those who struggle to survive. From differences in lighting – wax candles rather than rush lights – to fine food and wine, the abbey is shown to look after its own before serving the wider community. It was a time when tithes were demanded of the local population and the best produce taken. The poor could seek alms but were given the dregs.

“most abbeys – not just this one – are filled with greedy men who like to live comfortably and help themselves to the best of everything”

Brother Bernard is unhappy to discover that many of the monks habitually use women for sex. The offering of such ‘favours’ is necessary for survival, especially when husbands die.

“Most of us are good girls, we don’t want to sin, but what’re we to do? We all got babies and grannies at home, all wailing for food and firewood.” 

Some of these women are treated well by the monks they service; others are taken advantage of and then discarded. 

The abbey hierarchy turns a blind eye, benefiting from the deals that are done alongside the carnal goings on. When someone from within Glastonbury speaks out, leading to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit and investigation, they are more eager to weed out whoever has broken ranks than to put a stop to the iniquitous activity.

It is interesting to note that there were similar visitations to other abbeys. In considering the much vaunted social support that was lost due to the dissolution of the monasteries, it is worth remembering that religious orders are not immune to the corruption of power and desire for personal comforts. 

The writing is styled to appeal to those with an interest in the history of the abbey but who may not wish to dig deep into the canon. The book is aimed at tourists passing through – it will be available to buy in the abbey shop when it reopens – but will also appeal to those seeking accessible chronicles of the place and period. 

Broken Angels offers an interesting story wound around the wider challenges of poverty and a powerful church eager to retain its veneer of moral superiority. It is a reminder of the timeless hypocrisy of those who deign to tell others how they should behave.  

Book Review: Disbelieved

Disbelieved, by Beth Webb, is YA crime fiction with a touch of the supernatural. Its protagonists are fifteen year old Anelise Skinner and seventeen year old Joseph Bonne, cousins whose peers refer to them disparagingly as Skin and Bone. Anelise’s mother is dead and her father is working abroad so she lives with her Aunt Genevieve, Joe’s mother. Genevieve Skinner is a professor of forensics, currently assisting in a criminal trial. Joe’s father no longer appears to be involved in their lives.

Joe is fascinated by forensics and has access to his mother’s lab at their home. Anelise is a troubled young girl, coping with her demons by dying her hair different, garish colours and snacking on highly sugared foodstuffs.

The story opens above an abandoned quarry where Anelise is out walking. She sees a fast moving cyclist lose control of his bike and plummet over the edge into the undergrowth below. Horrified she phones for help, summoning emergency services. They search the area but find no sign of the cyclist. Anelise is chastised by the police for wasting their time.

The following weekend Joe takes his cousin back to the quarry in an attempt to find a rational explanation for what she saw as it is still bothering her. They witness the same cyclist as he crashes through the fence and into the quarry. This time they can both see him after the event, lying still and bleeding below.

Anelise’s apparent premonition upsets her further and causes the police to treat her with suspicion. It also gives a local reporter something juicy to write about. Joe meanwhile is carefully sweeping the scene, taking photographs and gathering samples as potential evidence. What the cousins saw and heard suggests this may not have been an accident. The police do not take their concerns seriously, regarding them as bothersome children.

The two teenagers soon fall foul of another witness, a man who seems keen to keep them away from the damaged bike. This soon disappears but not before Joe collects traces of white powder from the frame. They recognise that if drugs are involved what they are doing could be dangerous.

Undeterred they set out to uncover who may have wished to harm the cyclist and why. He was a blogger, employed by a bike shop to promote and deliver their wares. Donning disguises they investigate in key locations. With Genevieve away or busy with work they seek help from sources who treat them as the problem.

The plot is well structured, fast moving and with plenty of tension as befits crime writing. The vivid portrayal of the key moments of crisis suggests this would make fine television. My only quibble was with the denouement, a twist that was signalled but I couldn’t quite rationalise. This did not spoil my enjoyment of the story.

Young people have long relished tales in which adults are absent or do not take them seriously and are then proved wrong. Anelise may need to hone her unusual gift, and find a way to cope with it that does not require such regular sugar hits, but I would like to see this pair further developed. They have the potential to be an alluring addition to the crime fiction canon.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Gig Review: Launch of Fleabag and the Ring’s End

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It is always lovely to watch books being released into the wild that they may find new readers to appreciate their stories. Yesterday I travelled to Waterstones in The Mall at Cribbs Causeway, Bristol, to watch the incorrigible three legged talking cat, Fleabag, find more fans amongst the young clientele. His adventures have been chronicled in a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Beth Webb. You may read my review of this latest in the series here.

Beth had brought along a gorgeous looking cake, cat cookies, gluten free alternatives, and even some chocolate fleas for those who wished to partake. She soon had the attention of the excited children being treated to new half term reads.

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 Beth talked of Fleabag and magic and lady knights and dragons before offering personalised bookmarks and signing books for those who wished to buy. As I am reluctant to post photos of children without their permission you must take my word for it that she had a rapt audience. I had managed to catch a few words with her beforehand but, much like at a wedding, there were many people wishing to spend time with the focus of the show and it would have been rude to attempt to monopolise. The launch was for a children’s book, and it was the children who deserved Beth’s attention.

Instead I browsed the shelves capturing images of books I was particularly pleased to see on the tables. I had intended to return to say goodbye to Beth, who planned to spend the day at the shop meeting any who wished to chat about her books, but there were always others patiently waiting their turn. I hope that they enjoy getting to know Fleabag as much as I have.

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Fleabag and the Ring’s End is published by March Hamilton Media, and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Fleabag and the Ring’s End

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Fleabag and the Ring’s End, by Beth Webb, is the third and final book in the author’s Fleabag trilogy, a fantasy adventure series aimed at 7-11 year olds. I reviewed the first book here and the second book here. This final instalment offers another dose of high octane action, adventure, magic and dragons – along with a reveal of the incorrigible Fleabag’s true name, and how he lost his leg.

The story opens with a young boy, Kern, being hired by Fleabag (who is a three legged talking cat) to play fiddle at the palace Fire Festival. Here Kern meets Phelan the King, Fire Wielder Gemma and her bodyguard, the Princess Rowanne, all of whom played key roles in the previous books in the series. When Kern looks into Rowanne’s eyes he realises that she is the intended recipient of a secret message he has been tasked with delivering by M’Kinnik, the chief wizard at Porthwain where the university is based. The wizards from this establishment draw power from evil, blue magic which the ruling Fire folk believed they had defeated.

A delegation from the university arrives at the palace. They wish to enact a Great Challenge, as the law states anyone may do who believes a ruler or Fire Wielder are unfit to perform their duties. Using sorcery and tricks the wizards force the young Fire folk to accept the challenge immediately. They threaten war if Phelan and Gemma do not travel alone to perform the required tasks at the wizard’s stronghold.

The blue magic is corrupting all it touches. Phelan, Gemma and Fleabag (who was banned from attending but came anyway) are being held as virtual prisoners. As they try to prepare for what is ahead, Rowenna is in mortal danger. Kern tries to help but the wizards seem to anticipate the Fire folks every move.

The action is non stop. The plot twists and turns as skill, strength, wit and wisdom are pitted against tricky magic and those who will stop at nothing to gain power. Even Fleabag must dig his claws into the action, between naps and tummy rubs that is.

There is much to take from this story apart from the compelling tale. Neither good nor evil are absolutes and people are rarely as they first seem. Being entrusted with a task does not mean only that person is capable of carrying it out, yet there may be reluctance to hand on what could lead to personal gain, even for the greater good. Few feel comfortable revealing all their secrets; other’s motives can be difficult to comprehend.

The denouement was unexpected but worked perfectly, especially given the lesson briefly touched upon that omnipotence is a role more than an individual. Of course, I read this as an adult. These books are written for children, and they will adore Fleabag. They will also understand that power contaminates because they experience that amongst their peers every day.

Although the book can be enjoyed standalone it builds on the background offered in the previous instalments. As before, the words are accompanied by illustrations which add to the visual appeal.

A rollicking fantasy adventure that will feed a child’s imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this captivating tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Stone Keeper

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Stone Keeper, by Beth Webb, is the fourth book in the author’s Star Dancer Quartet, a fantasy series for young adults set during the Roman invasion of Britain. Fear and treachery are rife, and the old ways of the druids are being swept aside. I reviewed book one herebook two here and book three here.

The protagonist, Tegen, is now sixteen years old, pregnant and, following the slaughter of her people on Mona, riding across the troubled land to help a rebel force lead by the blood thirsty Boudica. Tegen has lost faith in the Mother Goddess and harbours a deep anger following the pointless sacrifice of her beloved husband, Tonn.

Boudica and Tegen dislike each other on sight but the young druid has promised to help the queen, and her magical powers prove useful in battle. The demon which was released in book one continues to stalk Tegen, feeding on her despair and anger at the deaths of so many she has loved.

Tegen’s powers have grown but not, it would seem, her wisdom. The personal loss she has endured blinds her to the cyclical nature of her actions. War breeds hatred which begets more war. It is a lesson that modern day governments, with their desire for power at whatever cost despite history teaching how short lived it will be, seem blind to as well.

Boudica leads a combined force of British fighters intent on crushing the Roman invasion but with little understanding of how to deal with their enemy’s strict discipline in battle. As Boudica’s followers move from town to town Tegen tries to limit the senseless slaughter of those too young or old to fight in the towns they take back, but there is little appetite among the warriors for leniency as they remember the havoc the Romans left in their conquering wake.

As the showdown between the opposing sides approaches, Tegen begins to realise that her battle is not with the Romans but with the forces of hate which manifest as the demon which pursues her. At the final reckoning, to fulfil her destiny, it would seem she must give up her child.

I found this book the most difficult of the four to read, especially when trying to appreciate how it would be received by its target audience. The tale is of a country at war, the futility of battles that do little more than perpetuate suffering, death and destruction. Those who survive seek vengeance which they wreak with the same cruelty as those whose actions they claim to need to avenge. Through my middle aged eyes it all seemed so recognisable and pointless. The young adults this book is written for will not have had that life experience so perhaps it is a story they may learn from.

The demons of hate can never be contained whist men are willing to act as their vessels. In our world, as in Tegen’s, too many seem ready to trade integrity for personal gain. Those who seek to do good can inadvertently cause harm when they believe that the end justifies the means. Mother Goddess is the earth on which all creatures reside. When we live lives that show respect for her, taking only what we need and sharing her bounty, we help all her creatures, and that includes ourselves.

Book Review: Wave Hunter

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Wave Hunter, by Beth Webb, is the third book in the author’s Star Dancer Quartet, a fabulous fantasy series for young adults set during the Roman invasion of Britain. I reviewed book one here and book two here.

The author does not balk from portraying period realism but always within the context of the tale. This is fine story telling filled with adventure, heroism, and a power hungry darkness that is all too recognisable today.

The protagonist, a young ovate named Tegen, is trying to reach the druids on the island of Mona where she believes her destiny will be fulfilled by joining in with the weaving of a Great Spell to defeat the Roman armies currently wreaking havoc across Britain. Sensing the strength of Tegen’s powers, the unseen forces of both good and evil seek to bind her to their will that their personal causes may be furthered.

Tegen travels with Kieran, the truculent son of a warrior and her guide. They are pursued by a powerful demon which feeds on the fear and hatred that is rife in a land where the old ways of the natives are being crushed under the ordered heels of the merciless invaders. The Roman Governor of Britain, Suetonius, has a personal reason to hate Tegen after she burned him with her magical fire in a previous encounter.

Tegen visits Corinium where she experiences the reality of a Roman town. With the natives subjugated, trade and entertainment have once again thrived. The Romans demand compliance but those who accept their ways may live in relative comfort. Tegen begins to consider that her friend Owein, the son of the British warlord Caractacus, may have been right; that negotiation and compromise could be a better way forward than war.

Determined to reach Mona, Tegen and Kieran head west and north across the lands we now refer to as Wales. In her dreams Tegen sees herself crossing a sea. She is unaware that a powerful witch, Étaín, is summoning her. Both can see into the future but each interprets their visions to suit their own thoughts of how things should be.

Time and again in these books Tegen is admonished by the wise to seek guidance from the goddess from whom she derives her power, to listen before acting. Time and again Tegen is overcome by the fear and stress of her experiences, reacting rather than considering where her actions will lead. It is frustrating to read but understandable. Tegen is but fifteen years old and feels alone on her fearful quest.

As Tegen travels she encounters other druids and her knowledge grows. She climbs a mystical mountain, crosses a stormy sea and falls in love. Eventually she reaches Mona and the druids cast their Great Spell. As the characters in this story sacrifice so much to achieve their goals I am reminded of the quote: “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true”.

Tegen is a very believable character showing typical teenage impatience with her elders. She believes she possesses wisdom alongside her special powers, while they struggle to offer credence to such a young and inexperienced girl. All follow their own preconceived agendas rather than working together. All seem to struggle to learn from their history: that success is won when they listen to and trust in their goddess; that rituals have their place but are not an end in themselves.

What the goddess and the demon are become more clear in this book. It is a lesson from which we all may learn. The tragic ending may have strengthened the Britons against the Romans for a time, but can such a high cost ever be justified? As Tegen’s old druid mentor, Huval, tried to warn, in the end the Romans are not their real enemy.

Look out for my review of the final book in this series, Stone Keeper, coming soon!  

 

Q&A with March Hamilton Media

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Today I am delighted to welcome Andy from March Hamilton Media to my blog. This small press publishes one of my favourite authors, Beth Webb, who creates fabulous stories for children and young adults. Do check out my reviews of her Fleabag and Star Dancer books.

Without further ado, let us find out more about this independent publisher which aims to provide books that deserve their place on reader’s bookshelves.

1. Why did you decide to set up March Hamilton Media?

I felt that the international publishers were ignoring a lot of good writers, possibly because their appeal is to a niche audience and are not going to sell by the million but will be loved and treasured by some readers.

2. What sort of books do you want to publish?

Although my books are targeted at children and teenagers they are mostly crossover books that are enjoyed by adults as well. If I don’t like it then I don’t want to publish it!

3. How do you go about finding and signing authors?

So far they are people I already know. I do not see books as a commodity, if I take on an author it is because I believe in them and want to nurture them so I could not cope with large numbers.

4. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?

No! I seriously underestimated the difficulty and expense of marketing. Most of my sales are via Amazon or my website. I do supply shops but the cost of distributing is very high.

5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?

I have great admiration and respect for other small publishers; we are all facing similar problems. There are others like me who take the view of working with authors over the long term so I am not unique but I think we are the minority. Obviously a business has to make money but just because a title does not instantly jump into the bestseller list does not mean it is no good and it does not mean there is not an audience for it.

6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?

If anyone could predict what would sell then they would clean up! I am not interested in following trends, usually by the time you have identified a trend it is on the way out. I look for something that is different; it may be in an established genre but with a new take on it. For example, detective stories are well established but I’d be happy to publish one that I felt was fresh.

7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?

Both. Personally I like physical books, my house is full of them. But when I am travelling, Ebooks make more sense.  The cost of distributing books abroad is very high so Ebooks are a way of meeting international demand as well as local demand for people who may not be able to store lots of books.

8. Do you consider March Hamilton Media niche or mainstream?

At the moment, we are very obviously niche but I would have no problem with being mainstream!

9. Collaborative or dictatorial?

I don’t think dictatorial would work.

10. Plans for the future?

I plan to continue with what I’ve been doing but there are other areas to look into. I chose the word media in my business name as I never saw it as just publishing physical books. I am looking into audio books. I have had discussions about interactive Ebooks and most of my titles would make cracking films! (Ok, films should probably come under dreams rather than plans but you have to be open to possibilities).

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Thank you Andy for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: March Hamilton Media

Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: March Hamilton (@MarchHamilton)

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If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers

Book Review: Fire Dreamer

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Fire Dreamer, by Beth Webb, is the second book in a fantasy series for young adults which began with Star Dancer, reviewed here. The protagonist, Tegen, is now fifteen years old and has left her home village in search of Mona where she hopes to train with the druids and learn to better harness her powers. Until she can find someone to show her the way she is working for her keep and waiting for a sign from the Mother Goddess.

Britain is facing upheaval as the invading Roman army moves across the land, imposing their ways and crushing any who refuse to comply. A young Britain who was raised in Rome, Owein, passes through the village where Tegen is working. He suggests she accompany him to an important gathering where lords and druids will congregate to discuss the crisis. Tegen agrees, hoping that this will enable her to reach her desired destination.

Along the way they find villages burned to the ground, their occupants displaced and afraid for their lives. Among the invaders is a power hungry British Roman, Admidios, who wishes to join with both Owein and Tegen. He recognises her powers, and knows of Owein’s birth right, both of which he wishes to tap for his own ends.

Admidios uses evil magic to get his way and Tegen struggles to find the strength to resist. As the druids gather at Sinodun a force of Roman soldiers are building a garrison across the river. Admidios has plans for his own advancement, Owein offers council to minimise bloodshed, but the fierce British warriors wish to fight to preserve their old ways.

The conniving and allegiances brought to mind Game of Thrones, although without the gratuitous sex and gore. Knowing the history of Iron Age Britain the final outcome can be assumed, but not the detail of this battle. While it is easy to see the benefits of good roads and improved sanitation, this story brings to life the cost. A way of living that respected the ecosystem was thrown away for profit. The most powerful may have benefited but not their slaves.

Like the first book, this story offers a fast moving plot with darkness and danger ever present. The writing is assured, conjuring up a world of smoky roundhouses and damp, wool cloaks which somehow feel warm and welcoming. The magic and ritual add to the atmosphere, while the historical detail is an education.

As this episode in her adventures comes to an end, Tegen moves on. Her world has expanded and her powers increased. I am now eager to read the next installment in her tale.

Book Review: Star Dancer

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Star Dancer, by Beth Webb, is the first book in a historical fantasy series written for young adults and set in Iron Age Britain. It is populated by villagers whose lives revolve around the seasons and whose beliefs are based on pagan ritual and magic. The druids who oversee the traditional ceremonies retain their power by operating a closed shop system. In return for providing intercessions with the Mother Goddess, regarded as essential for health and prosperity, the druids’ physical needs are met by the communities they serve.

The story opens with a birth, and a meeting of the local druids on a tor. It is Imbolg which is a festival marking the beginning of spring. A prophesy has warned that a great evil is coming that will be defeated by a child born at this time of year and for whom the stars will dance.

In the midnight skies above, a shower of sparkling lights can be clearly seen. Witton, the oldest and most honoured of the druids, vows to find the promised child in order to train him in their ways. The druids believe that this will ensure that he has the knowledge and skill to fight the unknown evil when it arrives.

The problems start when it is discovered that the only child born under the dancing stars is a girl, Tegen. A boy was born several hours later but he is a halfhead, found abandoned due to his obvious disability but given a home by Tegen’s parents who were disappointed at their own baby’s gender. Although both these children display a precocity for foresight as they grow, neither is deemed a suitable future leader of the druids.

The Mother Goddess is not swayed by the sensitivities of men’s egos. Nevertheless, the power struggle that ensues in this vacuum threatens the community’s well-being. Magic can be invoked for evil as well as good; power is an addictive and damaging drug.

As Tegen reaches her teens she starts to display her magical potential, thus putting herself in danger from those who have plans for their own advancement. Neither her mother’s fears nor the local witches and druids’ scheming can thwart destiny, but their attempts wreak a terrible cost.

The plot is fast moving, the foreboding relentless, the vivid descriptions bring to life this ancient world. The challenges of inclement weather alongside the superstitions and fears conjure up an atmosphere that is all but overwhelming for the young girl.

The denouement is terrifying; this entire story would make fantastic television. On the page it powers the imagination with the stuff of nightmares as Tegen battles her enemies’ attempts to harness the supernatural in order to engineer her defeat.

An engrossing and colourful tale stuffed full of period detail, the reader is taken into a world of fantasy that has many familiar facets. The demons our politicians summon may be less obvious, but they also create havoc and cost lives.

 

Book Review: Fleabag and the Fire Cat

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Fleabag and the Fire Cat, by Beth Webb, is the second book in a fantasy adventure trilogy aimed at 7-11 year olds. It opens two years after the close of the first book in the series (reviewed here), with Gemma installed in the royal palace at Harflorum but not enjoying her new life. Unbeknownst to her there are forces of evil gathering, infecting her mind with doubts. It soon becomes clear that the safety of the realm is once more in her hands.

In this adventure our heroes must take to the high seas and we are introduced to a new ally, Marcus, captain of Prince Thomas of Beulothin’s flagship. Along with Rowanne, now Princess of Erbwenneth, they set out to rescue their beleaguered Fire Wielder.

And then of course there is Fleabag, as incorrigible as ever. In the two years since we last met he has been busy eating, napping and siring kittens. Although he has kept their wondrousness to himself we soon learn that he is no longer the only talking cat in the kingdom.

One of his offspring, Cleo, joins her father illicitly when he leaves the palace with Gemma for a well earned, but ill conceived, holiday. When things go wrong Cleo befriends Captain Marcus and is taken on board his vessel as the ship’s cat. She helps to smuggle Fleabag when the humans threaten to leave him behind.

As the crew battle the elements to reach Gemma, she is struggling with her own problems. A powerful wizard has invaded her mind, intent on taking the power of the ring fire for himself.

The plot moves along at a cracking pace with non stop action and ever present danger. Fleabag worries about his lack of sufficient breakfasts and naps, determined to help Gemma that she may return to important tasks such as scratching his tummy and offering relief from his fleas.

The dramatic denouement is marvelously written, with home made armour, dragons and a hoard of angry islanders under the wizard’s evil spell. There are lessons to be learned about keeping secrets; poignancy in the dark wizard’s dungeon; but it is the courage and humour that shine through this tale.

If your children enjoy reading of magic, adventure, action and cats then do introduce them to Fleabag. This reworked edition has new illustrations throughout which add to the visual appeal. Young readers are in for a treat.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.