My Top 8 Books of 2021 so far

Here are my favourite eight books of the first quarter of 2021. Last year I chose eight books in the first half but I already have eight so I’m going to break with tradition.

Lost Property by Helen Paris

Each year I wait for that one book that grabs me by the heart and won’t let go. It’s only just February and I have already found it. That book is Lost Property. Every phrase, every sentence, in this wonderful story needs to be savoured. You can’t read this beautiful book too quickly or you will miss something worthwhile.

For my full review click here

Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker

Young children, a new born baby, kittens, puppies – all the things that make me stressed when reading. And two main protagonists who are both spiralling out of control and you have a tale of two women descending into madness, which is all very Shakespearean and definitely tragic.

This is a book like no other. I loved this book. It goes where others fear to tread. It’s only the brilliance of Tina’s writing that allows humour to creep into something so dark and disturbing.

For my full review click here

The Whisper Man by Alex North

This was recommended to me by a work colleague. She said it was spooky and creepy. Boy was she right, particularly the first half. Tom is trying to find rational explanations for the things that seven-year-old son Jake says he sees and hears. The little girl in the blue dress, the grazes on her knee never healing and her dark hair swept to one side. The boy in the floor. The strange rhyme ‘If you leave the door wide open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken’ and the whispers themselves. 

For my full review click here

Saving Missy by Beth Morrey

I do love this book. Poor Missy. A domineering husband. A daughter she has fallen out with. A son and grandson who have emigrated to Australia. And a large empty house full of memories and loneliness.

It’s hard to put into words how emotional this book is at times. Especially at a time when we are already emotional. I laughed and I cried and then I cried some more.

For my full review click here

Dog Days by Ericka Waller

First of all let me just say that I LOVE dogs. So when this title came up for review I was a bit biased.

Dogs love us. They trust us, they never question our decisions (unless sausages are involved and they are not going to get any) and they are our best listeners.

This book is so emotional and heart-warming and at times very sad. It looks at relationships, fear and the human condition. I never wanted it to end. The characters are like old friends and I worry for their future – I hope they can all be happy.

For my full review click here

Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan

I could have added this one to my list before I even read it because I knew how good it was going to be.

I think it is something to do with the richly-drawn characters that make them seem like old friends. And the dogs of course. There have to be dogs. But it’s also the detail, which is why I have to go back, because in desperation to discover what happens next, it’s easy to miss something important or beautiful. It may only be something little, but it’s still worth a second look.

For my full review click here

Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

“Listen. We know there are people who hide in our homes. They crawl into attic spaces….flit between the rooms….just outside the reach of sight.” It’s a terrifying thought.

If I could give Girl in the Walls ten stars I would in a heartbeat. I’ve never read anything like it before. But it’s not just the story, it’s the poetry of the writing. The depth of feeling. The beauty of the descriptions. The family dynamic. The references to the Norse gods. And so much more. I was entranced.

For my full review click here

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

Ted Bannerman lives with his daughter Lauren and his cat Olivia. They live in the last house on Needless Street, on the edge of a forest where secrets lie buried. All the windows in the house are boarded up and no-one other than Ted goes in or out. Ted is a recluse. He’d love to have a friend but he doesn’t know how. 

For my full review click here

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

With a foreword by Margaret Atwood

A celebration of love in its many guises, The Republic of Love recounts the heartfelt tale of two of life’s unlucky lovers: Fay, a folklorist whose passion for mermaids has kept her from focusing on any one man; and, right across the street, Tom, a popular radio talk-show host who’s been through three marriages and divorces in his search for true happiness.

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Touching and ironic, The Republic of Love flies the flag for ordinary love between ordinary people.

‘Vividly fresh, glittering and spangled with fabulous surprises.’ —The Sunday Times

‘The Republic of Love marries a wide diversity of elements, mythical and modern, ironic and moving, exhilarating and melancholy … a love-surveying story that is enticingly seductive.’ —The Times Literary Supplement

My Review

This is a story about love and the human condition. Both Tom and Fay have had relationships, but neither of them have found true love. Not like Fay’s parents’ perfect marriage of 40 years.

Fay – a folklorist – has never been married – she is afraid to commit – though she has lived with three of her partners, including Peter, but she has had enough of him after three years. Tom – a late night DJ (I kept wanting to sing the Harry Chapin song ‘I am the morning DJ on WOLD’) – on the other hand, has been married and divorced three times. None of his marriages have lasted more than four years. Maybe, like Othello, he loved not wisely but too well. Definitely not wisely and not really well enough either.

They are both lonely, though neither would want to admit it. They each go home to an empty flat. Mostly the book is about their musings and self-reflection. At times it was rather self-indulgent. There was also a lot of cross-over between characters. Tom’s third wife is now married to someone else, whose second wife is the first wife of etc… I got a bit confused at times. Not really surprising.

I often forgot when it was written. It was published in 1996. At one point Fay is in Paris on a four week research trip for her book on mermaids and Tom, not wanting to ring her at her hotel, decides to write to her using an airmail letter – remember those flimsy blue stripey things? Apparently it took 10 days. This is pre-email or mobile phones. Fay replies by fax. Thank goodness for WhatsApp!

One thing worried me though. When Fay is planning a trip, she says to herself that she could get an early start on her packing. No one packs a whole week before going away, not unless they are insanely compulsive, she says. I must be insanely compulsive as I often start way more than a week before. Anyway, I digress.

Probably my only criticism is that the book is overlong by quite a long way which left me a little frustrated at times. It often says a lot about very little and I needed the writer to move the story forward. However, the beauty of the writing made up for it, but you need to be patient. Nowadays readers often want a book to be like a film, with non-stop action and instant gratification. With Republic of Love you need to savour the prose and relish the settings and the characters – even the minor ones. Ultimately, I really enjoyed it.

Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.

About the Author

Carol Shields (1935–2003) was born in the United States, and emigrated to Canada when she was 22. She is acclaimed for her empathetic and witty, yet penetrating insights into human nature. Her most famous novel The Stone Diaries was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, along with the Governor General’s Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Happenstance was praised as her tour de force, masterly combining two novels in one. The international bestseller Mary Swann was awarded with the Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian mystery, while The Republic of Love was chosen as the first runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize. In 2020, the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, a North American literary award dedicated to writing by women, was set up in her honour. Her work has been published in over 30 languages.

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

This is the story of a serial killer. A stolen child. Revenge. Death. And an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street.

All these things are true. And yet they are all lies…

You think you know what’s inside the last house on Needless Street. You think you’ve read this story before. That’s where you’re wrong.

In the dark forest at the end of Needless Street, lies something buried. But it’s not what you think…

My Review

Ted Bannerman lives with his daughter Lauren and his cat Olivia. They live in the last house on Needless Street, on the edge of a forest where secrets lie buried. All the windows in the house are boarded up and no-one other than Ted goes in or out. Ted is a recluse. He’d love to have a friend but he doesn’t know how. We have flashbacks to Little Teddy when he lived with his Mommy and Daddy.

Eleven years ago Dee and little sister Lulu were at the lake with their parents, when six-year-old Lulu was taken. She became known as Little Girl with Popsicle and though the police searched and searched, no trace of her was ever found. But Dee is convinced that Ted was responsible, even though he had an alibi.

However, if you think this is a straightforward missing child story, think again. Yes it’s a story about kidnapping, child abduction and abuse but that’s where the similarity ends. Written from the point of view of Ted, Lauren, Olivia and Dee, everything is true but nothing is as it seems. I have never read anything quite like it before.

I can’t really say anything else without spoilers, but please do read this incredible book. It’s original, unique, beautifully written and full of tragedy, sadness and hope. It’s a work of genius, a true masterpiece.

About the Author

CATRIONA WARD was born in Washington, DC and grew up in the United States, Kenya, Madagascar, Yemen, and Morocco. She read English at St Edmund Hall, Oxford and is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia.

Stephen King praised her upcoming gothic thriller, saying: ‘The buzz building around Catriona Ward’s THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET is real. I’ve read it and was blown away. It’s a true nerve-shredder that keeps its mind-blowing secrets to the very end. Haven’t read anything this exciting since GONE GIRL.’ THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET is published 2021 by Viper (UK) and Tor Nightfire (USA).

Ward’s preceding novel LITTLE EVE won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Award, as well as the August Derleth Prize at the British Fantasy Awards, and was a Guardian best book of 2018. Her debut RAWBLOOD also won the 2016 August Derleth, making her the only woman to have won the prize twice. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies. ‘The Pier at Ardentinny‘ was shortlisted for the ALCS Tom Gallon Trust Award organised by the Royal Society of Literature. She lives in London and Devon.

The Box by Cat on a Piano Productions / Theatrephonic

Simon’s new job is not what it seem.

Simon can’t stand working with Jackie. And now she’s been promoted and he’ll have to work even closer with her, it’s time for him to find a new job. Which doesn’t take long.

But who is the mysterious man he’s working for? And why does Simon start speaking in a peculiar language every now and then?

The secret is in the box that Simon gave Liz as a present. But is he brave enough to open it?

A great and entertaining story.

Written by Zoe Cunningham
Directed by Emmeline Braefield

Zoe Cunningham as Liz
Hereward Mills as Simon

Ratatouille’s Kitchen by Carmen Maria and Edu Espinal
Lukewarm Hazy by Asher Fulero
Peacefully by E’s Jammy Jams
A New Orleans Crawfish Boil by Unicorn Heads
Strange Stuff by Matt Harris
Landing by Godmode

Produced by Cat on a Piano Productions

The Theatrephonic Theme tune was composed by Jackson Pentland
Performed by
Jackson Pentland
Mollie Fyfe Taylor
Emmeline Braefield

Cat on a Piano Productions produce and edit feature films, sketches and radio plays.

Their latest project is called @Theatrephonic, a podcast of standalone radio plays and short stories performed by professional actors. You can catch Theatrephonic on Spotify and other platforms.

And if you really enjoyed The Box listen to Theatrephonic’s other plays and short stories and consider becoming a patron by clicking here…

Manipulated Lives by HA Leuschel

Five compelling true-to-life stories each highlighting a narcissist’s manipulative mind games.

Narcissists are everywhere. They can be witty, charming and highly charismatic. Anyone can be their target.

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At first their devious, calculating mind games can be hard to spot because they are masters of disguise, but then they revert to their true self of being controlling and angry in private. Their main aim: to dominate and use others to satisfy their needs, with a complete lack of compassion and empathy for their victim.

All stories highlight to what extent narcissistic abuse can distort lives and threaten our self-worth yet ultimately, also send a positive message that once the narcissist is unmasked, the victims can at last break free.

My Review

Manipulated Lives is a very interesting study of narcissism using five short stories.

The first story is called Tess and Tattoos. Tess is living in a nursing home. Her story is very sad, dominated by a bad decision in her younger years. When one of the carers appears to be a kindred spirit, Tess tell her the story of her life. This was probably my favourite.

Sometimes I was quite confused as to who was the manipulator, particularly in the second story The Spell, about Sophie, as so many characters are involved. Unable to have children herself, she is drawn to a little boy who seems to be on his own all the time. Then she meets his handsome father and the story takes a very dark turn.

In Runaway Girl, 15-year-old Holly is fed up with her life and her alcoholic mother. She is planning to run away until she meets Luke, a handsome, charismatic boy at school. But Luke has a reputation and although Holly’s friends try to warn her, she is drawn in to his manipulating ways.

The story told from the manipulator’s point of view was probably the most interesting. The Narcissist is really shocking, as the main character is able to justify his appalling behaviour. He is by far the worst, yet he sees nothing wrong with himself.

However, I was very conflicted about the final story My Perfect Child as it seems to suggest that it can be all nurture and no nature. I struggled to believe that a loving but over-protective mother can turn her own child into a monster, unless there is something in his makeup that makes him so receptive.

It would also have been interesting to see what made the other characters in the stories become narcissists – I would have liked to see the explanation for their behaviour, not just the victims’ point of view. Can we reverse the behaviour? Or is it too deeply ingrained? I have always been interested in what makes a person into what they become, what causes their personality disorders, phobias, mental illness etc.

Many thanks to @damppebbles for inviting me to be part of #damppebblesblogtours

About the Author

Helene Andrea Leuschel gained a Master in Journalism & Communication, which led to a career in radio and television in Brussels, London and Edinburgh. She later acquired a Master in Philosophy, specializing in the study of the mind. Helene has a particular interest in emotional, psychological and social well-being and this led her to write her first novel, Manipulated Lives, a fictional collection of five novellas, each highlighting the dangers of interacting with narcissists. She lives with her husband and two children in Portugal.

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The Silent Friend by Diane Jeffrey

Tragedy brought them together. The truth will tear them apart.

It’s supposed to be Laura’s dream holiday: a trip to France with a group of friends to see their favourite band play live. But the holiday quickly turns to disaster, and Laura is left haunted by terrifying images from the worst night of her life.

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When Laura finds an online support group for victims like her, she’s not convinced it will help. But when Sandrine replies to her message, she seems to understand what Laura’s going through, in a way that no one else can.

Soon, Laura and Sandrine are sharing their deepest thoughts and feelings with each other. But one of them has a terrible secret – she isn’t who she says she is. And once the twisted truth is revealed, there’s no going back…

My Review

I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be the parent of the bully rather than the victim. No-one feels sorry for you. They look for blame. What did the mum or dad do wrong to bring up such an awful child? They must have gone wrong somewhere.

But for Sandrine we are taking this to another level. Not only has she lost her son, but he was the perpetrator of the most heinous crime imaginable. No-one sympathises with her. It must be her fault and that of her husband. She is reviled, paint is daubed on her front door and even her friends want nothing to do with her.

The Silent Friend is a bit Jodi Picault – asking us to question sides, to examine the dynamic, to sympathise with those we could hate. At times it’s a difficult decision. I really felt sorry for Sandrine. She is more than a victim. She’s the parent or wife of that killer, the one that makes the headlines, the Peter Sutcliffes and the terrorists, and no-one believes they didn’t know. She’s not Rose West, she’s the one who didn’t aid and abet, who didn’t spot the signs, the one everyone blames and no-one trusts.

Laura was there at the concert when it happened. She escaped but why did the terrorist choose her? She’s just an ordinary twenty-something from Northern Ireland visiting Lyon with her friends to see her favourite band The Naturals play at a concert.

This is a story about race and religion and prejudice, as well as about hope and friendship. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It beautifully portrayed forgiveness, friendship and grief.

Many thanks to @damppebbles for inviting me to be part of #damppebblesblogtours

About the Author

Diane Jeffrey is a USA Today bestselling author. She grew up in North Devon and Northern Ireland. She now lives in Lyon, France, with her husband and their three children, Labrador and cat. Diane’s is the author of four psychological thrillers, all of which were Kindle bestsellers in the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia. THE GUILTY MOTHER, Diane’s third book, was a USA Today bestseller and spent several weeks in the top 100 Kindle books in the UK. Her latest psychological thriller, THE SILENT FRIEND, is set in Belfast and Lyon. It was published in ebook in November 2020 with the paperback and audiobook to follow in 2021. She is currently working on her fifth psychological thriller.

Diane is an English teacher. When she’s not working or writing, she likes swimming, running and reading. She loves chocolate, beer and holidays. Above all, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends. Click on the link to visit Diane’s website:

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Dog Days by Ericka Waller

George is very angry. His wife has upped and died on him, and all he wants to do is sit in his underpants and shout at the cricket. The last thing he needs is his cake-baking neighbour Betty trying to rescue him. And then there’s the dog, a dachshund puppy called Poppy. George doesn’t want a dog – he wants a fight.

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Dan is a counsellor with OCD who is great at helping other people – if only he were better at helping himself. His most meaningful relationship so far is with his labrador Fitz. But then comes a therapy session that will change his life.

Lizzie is living in a women’s refuge with her son Lenny. Her body is covered in scars and she has shut herself off from everyone around her. But when she is forced to walk the refuge’s fat terrier, Maud, a new life beckons – if she can keep her secret just a while longer…

Featuring an unforgettable cast of characters – joyous, heartbreaking and wise – Dog Days is about those small but life-changing moments that only come when we pause to let the light in.

My Review

First of all let me just say that I LOVE dogs. So when this title came up for review I was a bit biased.

Dogs love us. They trust us, they never question our decisions (unless sausages are involved and they are not going to get any) and they are our best listeners.

Dog Days proves this. George is wallowing in his own grief and filth. Ellen did everything for him until she went and died and left him notes all over the place telling him what to do. She also left him with a Dachshund puppy called Poppy. George is rude to everyone till no-one wants to help him. Apart from Betty that is. She’s made of sterner stuff and can give as good as she gets. George says he hates her, but he likes her food and her help around the house. She just won’t go away no matter how often he shouts and swears at her. And he swears – a lot.

Dan is a counsellor but when he needs talk to someone, it’s always Fitz the Labrador. His only real human friend is his cousin Luke with whom he runs and trains for marathons. Then Atticus comes to one of Dan’s therapy sessions and Dan is lost. In spite of all his experience, he doesn’t understand why Atticus is there or what he wants. Dan needs Fitz more than ever. He can’t talk to Luke about something so personal.

Lizzie is covered in scars. But the scars on her body are just part of the hurt – the mental scars from her abusive marriage haunt her at night. She lives at the shelter with her son Lenny and won’t open up about her previous life. Then Tess persuades her to walk her overweight terrier called Maud and she is forced to go out. That’s the first time she meets Luke and his giant dog Wolfie.

This book is so emotional and heart-warming and at times very sad. It looks at relationships, fear and the human condition. I never wanted it to end. The characters are like old friends and I worry for their future – I hope they can all be happy.

Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.

About the Author

ERICKA WALLER lives in Brighton with her husband, three daughters and pets. Previously, she worked as a blogger and columnist. Dog Days is the sum of everything she has learned about love, loss and the healing power of dogs.

“One of the inspirations for Dog Days came from walking my own dogs. It’s this weird
alternative universe – dog owners could be psycho killers, but we approach them alone on windy beacons, because they have a dog. Dog owners might be battered wives, addicts, cheaters, thieves.

I also wanted to use dogs to reflect how we, as humans, are consumed by things we cannot control or change. Dogs live from one falling leaf to the next. Their emotions are simple. I wanted to set them against the lives of three characters battling with real life issues such as depression, anxiety, OCD and grief.

I wanted to explore how people force themselves into a shape we can understand, that goes along with the stories we tell ourselves. I didn’t want to write a romance, but I did want the book to be suffused with different kinds of love: platonic, sexual, maternal.

I wanted to explore how women are perceived by other women and the way we need to force them into a shape we can understand, that goes along with the stories we tell ourselves. Everything is always about how it makes us feel, so we alter reality or bend truths to make them fit in how we need the world to be.”

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Twitter: @erickawaller1
Instagram @erickamary

Good Eggs by Rebecca Hardiman

When Kevin Gogarty’s irrepressible eighty-three-year-old mother, Millie, is caught shoplifting yet again, he has no choice but to hire a caretaker to keep an eye on her. Kevin, recently unemployed, is already at his wits’ end tending to a full house while his wife travels to exotic locales for work, leaving him solo with his sulky, misbehaved teenage daughter, Aideen, whose troubles escalate when she befriends the campus rebel at her new boarding school.

Into the Gogarty fray steps Sylvia, Millie’s upbeat American home aide, who appears at first to be their saving grace—until she catapults the Gogarty clan into their greatest crisis yet.

With charm, humour, and pathos to spare, Good Eggs is a delightful study in self-determination; the notion that it’s never too late to start living; and the unique redemption that family, despite its maddening flaws, can offer. 

My Review

Initially when I started reading Good Eggs with my book club, I wasn’t 100% sure if I would like it. But it didn’t take long before I realised how hilarious it was. Millie is a hoot. A kleptomaniac OAP with a penchant for stealing greetings cards, cheese and onion crisps and Hula Hoops, Millie is a liability in her beaten up old Renault, as well as in the kitchen. She is convinced son Kevin wants to put her in a nursing home for her own safety and that of other road users.

But not to worry. Kevin has a solution to her latest shop-lifting escapade and subsequent arrest. He’ll hire a ‘minder’. But oh dear Kevin, how well did you do your research. Glamorous, American, professional home help Sylvia is not what she seems. And to make things worse, she has a nephew Sean with whom granddaughter Aideen falls head over heels in love. Aideen – with her perfect twin sister Nuala who she calls her ‘Nemesis’. Aideen – who has been banished to an all girls boarding school in the hope that she’ll learn good behaviour and respect. What could possibly go wrong? And as for Kevin – who’s a naughty boy then?

Could things get any worse? Yes they can. Much, much worse, but I’m not giving anything else away. Suffice to say, Good Eggs turns into a hilarious romp with moments that are so ludicrous, it’s almost like a French farce. And I loved every crazy minute.

Many thanks to The Pigeonhole, the author and my fellow Pigeons for making this such an enjoyable read.

About the Author

Rebecca Hardiman is a former magazine editor who lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children. GOOD EGGS is her first novel.

Girl in the Walls by AJ Gnuse

’Those who live in the walls must adjust, must twist themselves around in their home,
stretching themselves until they’re as thin as air. Not everyone can do what they can.
But soon enough, they can’t help themselves. Signs of their presence remain in a house.
Eventually, every hidden thing is found.’

Elise knows every inch of the house. She knows which boards will creak. She knows where the gaps are in the walls. She knows which parts can take her in, hide her away. It’s home, after all. The home her parents made for her. And home is where you stay, no matter what.

Eddie calls the same house his home. Eddie is almost a teenager now. He must no longer believe in the girl he sometimes sees from the corner of his eye. He needs her to disappear. But when his older brother senses her, too, they are faced with a question: how do they get rid of someone they aren’t sure even exists?

And, if they cast her out, what other threats might they invite in?

My Review

“Listen. We know there are people who hide in our homes. They crawl into attic spaces….flit between the rooms….just outside the reach of sight.” It’s a terrifying thought.

If I could give Girl in the Walls ten stars I would in a heartbeat. I’ve never read anything like it before. But it’s not just the story, it’s the poetry of the writing. The depth of feeling. The beauty of the descriptions. The family dynamic. The references to the Norse gods. And so much more. I was entranced.

There is a touch of Gothic fantasy in the style that makes you wonder if the girl in the walls is real. Maybe she is a ghost. Maybe everyone else is. I know some of my fellow Pigeons (in my book club) found it a bit improbable that someone could live in the walls of a house. But then I don’t know the type of house which she inhabits. The walls must be double-thickness and hollow in between, unlike my house, which is full of cladding.

The characters are so richly drawn. Elise trying to deal with her grief, Brody just trying to be a friend, Eddie and Marshall, brothers drawn together when only they believe in her and Traust (a name so near to trust) called out in naivety and feared in reality – a terrifying figure who drags them out by the hair because “…you have to find them. You have to root them out”.

It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. I predict great things to come from this author.

Many thanks to The Pigeonhole, A.J. and my fellow Pigeons for making this such an enjoyable and intriguing read.

About the Author

A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, A. J. Gnuse received an MFA in fiction from UNC Wilmington and was a 2018 Kenyon Review Peter Taylor fellow. His short stories have been published in Guernica, Gulf CoastLos Angeles Review, Passages North and other magazines. Girl in the Walls is his first novel.

The Secret Sister by M.M. DeLuca

Some secrets won’t stay buried…

There are things I want to tell my husband, Guy, about my past. I want to tell him how I bounced from foster home to foster home. I want to tell him that living with him is the first time I’ve ever felt safe and loved. Most of all, I want to tell him about my little sister, who vanished a few years ago.

But even though I can’t stop thinking about her, about everything that happened leading up to her disappearance, I can’t tell him about her. Not yet.

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Because I don’t know if I can trust Guy – I’m not the only one in this marriage with a past and a complicated family. And I don’t know if I can trust myself – people keep questioning my memories of the past, and I have to wonder whether I’m losing my mind.

As I search for answers, only one thing is clear. When all of our secrets are on the table, the truth will burn through our lives and our families, leaving some of us in ashes.

My review

Anna is not always the kind of character you can empathise with. In spite of her terrible childhood – hungry, deprived, pushed from one foster home to another – she is totally materialistic and a shopaholic. She never wants to be poor again. But when she describes her early life it is the tale of her little sister Birdie that made me cry. The descriptions of this small, thin child trying to please everyone was just so sad, I wept for her.

This is a hard read at times, but by the time I got to half way through I just kept reading to the end. In fact it was way past midnight when I finished. What starts out as a story about childhood abuse and dreadful mistakes on the part of social services, turns into something quite different. I can’t say any more because the twist was a revelation.

The story starts with twins Anna and Birdie living with their father Dennis after their mother has died from a drugs overdose. Dennis tries his best but eventually he hands the girls over to social services. Sometimes they find themselves in a children’s’ home, while at other times they stay with a series of totally unsuitable foster parents – greedy, uneducated, alcoholics and drug addicts. People who just want to get paid for taking on needy children. I can’t believe no checks were made as to their suitability. No-one ever visited their houses. And most of Anna’s social workers seem to be useless.

More and more of the girls’ background is revealed through Anna’s nightmares and flashbacks, but the theme running through the book is ‘where’s Birdie?’ Anna meets handsome Professor Guy Franzen and they marry, but this is just the beginning. In her job as a teacher of underprivileged, broken children, she sees Birdie everywhere. And the more she discovers about the children in her school, the nearer to the truth about Birdie’s disappearance she gets. It appears little has changed in 15 years.

If I had one criticism it would be that there was no light amongst the darkness. But it would be difficult to find any. This is a brilliantly written and well researched novel which I found I could not put down.

Many thanks to @damppebbles for inviting me to be part of #damppebblesblogtours

About the Author

M. M. DeLuca spent her childhood in Durham City, England. After studying Psychology at the University of London, Goldsmiths College, she moved to Winnipeg, Canada where she worked as a teacher then as a freelance writer. She studied Advanced Creative writing with Pulitzer prizewinning author, Carol Shields and has received several local arts council grants for her work. Her first novel, The Pitman’s Daughter was shortlisted for the Chapters Robertson Davies first novel in Canada award in 2001. She went on to self-publish it on Amazon in 2013 where it reached the Amazon Top 20 in the literary bestseller chart. Her novel The Savage Instinct was shortlisted for the Launchpad Manuscript Contest (USA) in 2017 where it was picked up by independent publisher, Inkshares.

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The Favour by Laura Vaughan

Fortune favours the fraud…

When she was thirteen years old, Ada Howell lost not just her father, but the life she felt she was destined to lead. Now, at eighteen, Ada is given a second chance when her wealthy godmother gifts her with an extravagant art history trip to Italy.

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In the palazzos of Venice, the cathedrals of Florence and the villas of Rome, she finally finds herself among the kind of people she aspires to be: sophisticated, cultured, privileged. Ada does everything in her power to prove she is one of them. And when a member of the group dies in suspicious circumstances, she seizes the opportunity to permanently bind herself to this gilded set.

But everything hidden must eventually surface, and when it does, Ada discovers she’s been keeping a far darker secret than she could ever have imagined… 

My Review

Omg! Omg! What an amazing, intelligent, atmospheric and beautiful book. It surrounded me like the open arms of that claustrophobic summer in Venice. I could smell the heat, the flowers, the sadness, the humid streets, and the clammy perspiration of deceit. I sound pretentious don’t I, but pretentiousness is at the heart of this book.

The so-called Dilettante, a group of posh, rich, public school educated teenagers pay £12,000 each to go on a tour of Venice, Florence and Rome, learning about art and attempting to find the inner beauty that will enhance their lives for ever. But in this group of over-privileged art students, there are two that are different. Mallory is American and Jewish. She is not really accepted by the group, including by our main protagonist Ada, who is the other odd-one-out.

Ada is really rather horrid. Having spent her childhood living in a ramshackle mansion with her mother and published-author father, she loses everything when he dies and they have to move to an ordinary home in London. Her mum finds love with Brian, an ordinary chap with an ordinary name (no Lorcans or Clemencys in their lives), but Ada can’t accept their ordinariness. She wants to be extraordinary and she desperately wants this group of Dilettantes to accept her. But they are hiding secrets and she is barely tolerated by everyone except Mallory, whose friendship she rejects.

But this book is more than that. Ada does some terrible things to be one of the right set, hiding a crime and using it to her advantage, but she also grows as a person and her development is cleverly sewn into the tapestry of the story. Brilliant, beautifully written and thought provoking. I loved it.

Many thanks to @annecater for inviting me to be part of #RandomThingsTours.

About the Author

Laura Vaughan grew up in rural Wales and studied Art History in Italy and Classics at Bristol and Oxford. She got her first book deal aged twenty-two and went on to write eleven books for children and young adults. She lives in South London with her husband and two children. The Favour is her first novel for adults.

Comeback by Chris Limb

Genie has everything – a BRIT award, a singing career, the attention of the press and Oliver Fox, a pretty boy who looks good on her arm.

Until he dies.

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His death brings Genie’s long buried feelings bubbling to the surface. Her grief over the death of her lover Wendi who introduced her to this world. Her self doubt and fear that she will be exposed as a fraud.

How far is she prepared to go to fix things? 

The afterlife isn’t the most comfortable of places for anyone who’s still alive, but Genie’s not going to take any crap from the dead – she’s got years of experience in the music business.

Sometimes going to Hell and back takes a lifetime…

My Review

There are two separate stories here. The first one tells us all about Genie and her rise to fame, after a chance meeting with Wendi, the lead singer of a band called Beam. It’s a roller-coaster ride through the music business, through a world of alcohol and drugs. Wendi and Genie have a relationship, but it is not enough to prevent Wendi from taking her own life and Genie is gradually discovering how fickle the whole celebrity world can be.

The second story takes us into the underworld as we follow Genie down an escalator into Hell where she meets Wendi and other people she knew who have died. I really enjoyed this part of the story. The descriptions have come from a truly imaginative mind. It is a modern retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus in the Underworld. It is full of references to myth and fairy tales.

But I have to be honest. I struggled far more with the drugs and alcohol than I did with the premise of Hell and back. I found that part fascinating. The writer can really go to town with the descriptions of the underworld as I assume none of us has been there and lived to tell the tale.

This is an excellent book but I am not the target audience and that is probably why I had problems with the drugs lifestyle and the bad language. For the right audience, this book will be fascinating and insightful.

Many thanks to @damppebbles for inviting me to be part of #damppebblesblogtours

About the Author

Chris is a writer based in UK, who has had a number of short stories published over the past few years, blogs on a regular basis and occasionally reviews books and audios for the British Fantasy Society.

Chris wrote a short pop memoir which was published in 2011 and went down well with its core-audience. It continues to sell at a steady rate to this day.

Chris also plays bass guitar and performs random acts of web and graphic design for a diverse selection of clients.

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