Posted in Random Things Tours

Clara and Olivia by Lucy Ashe.

“Surely you would like to be immortalised in art, fixed forever in perfection?”

I would kill to dance like her.

Disciplined and dedicated, Olivia is the perfect ballerina. But no matter how hard she works, she can never match identical twin Clara’s charm.

I would kill to be with her.

As rehearsals intensify for the ballet Coppélia, the girls feel increasingly like they are being watched. And, as infatuation turns to obsession, everything begins to unravel.

We’re in Black Swan territory here with the company at Sadler’s Wells as they rehearse Coppélia, which couldn’t be more apt for the story of Clara and Olivia. Clara and Olivia are identical twins, shaped by their ballet mad mother to become the perfect ballerinas. The girls are so identical that in order to assert her own identity Olivia wears her hair in a higher bun than her sister, with a rose attached. There are ballerinas who must be the epitome of perfection and blend in with the chorus so the audience sees perfectly synchronised ballet; the company as one rather than individuals. Olivia has taken her mother’s lessons to heart and is that perfect ballerina, she blends perfectly into the company, but she’ll never be the prima ballerina. Clara has that something extra.

Coppelia is about a man who creates a dancing doll, the image of a perfect ballerina. It’s so beautiful that Franz, a young man from the village, falls in love with it and sets aside his real sweetheart Swanhilda. To teach him a lesson Swanhilda dresses as the doll and pretends it has come to life. While the ballet is a comic one there is a more disturbing similarity, between the doll and the ballerina when each dancer stands at the barre every morning, identical in uniform and in movement. These are the parts the audience doesn’t see, that daily dedication to the same movements over and over until they are second nature. We are also blind to the years before this, where each dancer has persevered through pain and injury or given up sleep overs with friends, teenage boyfriends and even school work to become as light as air on the stage. To move like butterflies, while their worn out and broken shoes are the equivalent of Dorian Gray’s picture in the attic. When watching a ballet it’s not hard to imagine a giant puppet master behind the scenery controlling this whole row of ballerinas so they move as one. With the echoes of Black Swan in my head I was feeling a creeping sense of unease and psychological drama, both around the sisters and whoever it is who watches them.

There are two men in the book, employed or contracted by the ballet company and they too are caught up in this theme of appearances being deceptive. Samuel is a giant. A large, ungainly man whose looks mark him out as different. People would struggle to imagine that it is he who makes their pointe shoes; something that looks so delicate should not be made by people who look like him. When he finds out that the shoes he’s making are for Olivia Marionetta he knows he must find some way to mark them out as different from all the others, just as he noticed her among the other dancers in the company. He always writes the dancer’s name across the sole in pen, but her shoes should have something more. He takes his inspiration from the white rose he has seen pinned just about her bun and engraves it into the sole then, as he leaves the shoes in her pigeon hole, he places a white rose on top. Samuel is lucky that despite his size he can travel around the theatres and dance studios largely unnoticed. His contribution is unseen and therefore, he is invisible. So he has no doubt that Olivia won’t guess who has paid her this tribute, even if he has been hanging around the rehearsal room. He noticed that despite looking identical, the girls are not the same. Olivia is obedient and keeps her eyes cast down during rehearsals, not daring to challenge the dance mistress. Whereas Clara scares him, she knows she is an excellent dancer and there’s a challenge in her moves and the way she looks directly at the dance mistress. When given direction, she turns away and rolls her eyes at the other dancers. Clara knows she outshines the others, but he hopes his shoes will make Olivia feel adored too.

Nathan is even closer to the dancers during rehearsal because he is their practice pianist. He and Clara go out with the company at night while Olivia stays home, soaks her feet and mends her shoes for the following day. Her legs will be refreshed and her bag carefully packed, whereas Clara knows her feet will ache from practice, followed by dancing through the clubs till the early hours. She also knows that when she opens her bag, her tights will be full of hair grips. Usually the girls share clothes, but Clara has been wearing a dazzling green coat that Nathan bought her. Of late she has started to find the coat a little claustrophobic, the belt too restrictive and the shoulders too heavy. Nathan too seems to get a little closer each time, his hand always at her waist and his knee pressed tightly against hers under the table. She was also a little unnerved at the line of verse he scribbled when they were playing a game – ‘A lovely apparition, sent to be a moment’s ornament’ – while she isn’t sure what it means, something about it bothers her and I thought back to the puppet ballerina Coppelia. Nathan appears to be the perfect companion for a beautiful young dancer, but the closer he gets the more she wants to pull away. She imagines his houseboat, the ideal home for a young bohemian musician, but despite it being a few moments away from her flat he never takes her there. Is the look and idea of her more alluring than the reality? In their own private rehearsal he pushes her, far beyond tiredness and hunger. In the dressing room after he apologises, she notices how he looks at the dancer’s jumble of make up, jewellery and bits of costume that haven’t been returned to wardrobe. The one thing he becomes fixed on is a tiny figurine of a ballerina, like the ones you might find in a girl’s jewellery box, permanently on point and turning endlessly without exhaustion or hunger to mar her beauty. No real woman could be so perfect.

Although I found the novel a little slow at first, but I soon realised that the inner thoughts and feelings are slowly building towards action. Once strange things start happening around the theatre the pace picks up and I became intrigued. In the well under the theatre, where the dancers like to go for pre-performance rituals, a single shoe is found floating in the water like an evil portent. Then life changes start to come tick and fast. Clara receives an offer she has never imagined, but it will mean moving away from Nathan and choosing independence from her sister. Their mother, the woman who inspired their career choice, is deteriorating in a nursing home. Her imminent passing is another sign – do they still need to be in each other’s pockets? Usually they need their combined strength but without their mothers rigid ideals to live up to could they go it alone? The author hints at these changes of identity, with one sister choosing to borrow the other one’s clothes, perhaps hoping for a little of their attitude too. She often feels like a mere echo of her sister, but I worried that this ‘doubling’ would land one or both of them in further danger. This tension is offset by Samuel’s story, of being led away from an obsession towards something more real. Living instead of watching. If the ballerinas represent perfect objects of desire, he is being offered a real relationship. But is it Samuel who watches the twins and can he see that someone to love and support you is more important than appearance? As the hidden desires and obsessions of these characters come to the surface and explode into action more than one of them will be in danger. This thriller has real atmosphere and characters with fascinating psychological issues that drive the plot.

Published 2nd Feb by Magpie Publishing.

Meet the Author

LUCY ASHE trained at the Royal Ballet School for eight years, first as a Junior Associate and then at White Lodge. She has a diploma in dance teaching with the British Ballet Organisation. She decided to go to university to read English Literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford (MA Oxon), while continuing to dance and perform. She then took a PGCE teaching qualification and became a teacher. She currently teaches English at Harrow School, an all-boys boarding school in North London. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and she was shortlisted for the 2020 Impress Prize for New Writers. She also reviews theatre, in particular ballet, writing for the website Playstosee.com.

Posted in Fiction Preview 2023

Never Ever by Colleen Hoover and Tarryn Fisher. First Chapter Preview.

Charlie Wynwood and Silas Nash have been best friends since they could walk. They’ve been in love since the age of fourteen. But as of this morning… they are complete strangers. Their first kiss, their first fight, the moment they fell in love… every memory has vanished. Now Charlie and Silas must work together to uncover the truth about what happened to them and why. But the more they learn about the couple they used to be… the more they question why they were ever together to begin with.

Forgetting is terrifying but remembering may be worse…

The Number One Sunday Times bestselling author of It Ends with Us joins forces with the New York Times bestselling author of The Wives for a gripping, twisty, romantic mystery unlike any other.

1 Charlie


A crash. Books fall to the speckled linoleum floor. They skid a few feet, whirling in circles, and stop near feet. My feet. I don’t recognize the black sandals, or the red toenails, but they move when I tell them to, so they must be mine. Right?
A bell rings. Shrill.
I jump, my heart racing. My eyes move left to right as I scope out my environment, trying not to give myself away.
What kind of bell was that? Where am I?
Kids with backpacks walk briskly into the room, talking and laughing. A school bell. They slide into desks, their voices competing in volume. I see movement at my feet and jerk in surprise. Someone is bent over, gathering up books on the floor; a red-faced girl with glasses. Before she stands up, she looks at me with something like fear and then scurries off. People are laughing. When I look around I think they’re laughing at me, but it’s the girl with glasses they’re looking at.
“Charlie!” someone calls. “Didn’t you see that?” And then, “Charlie…what’s your problem…hello…?” My heart is beating fast, so fast.
Where is this? Why can’t I remember? “Charlie!” someone hisses. I look around. Who is Charlie? Which one is Charlie?
There are so many kids; blond hair, ratty hair, brown hair, glasses, no glasses…
A man walks in carrying a briefcase. He sets it on the desk.
The teacher. I am in a classroom, and that is the teacher. High school or college? I wonder. I stand up suddenly. I’m in the wrong place. Everyone is sitting, but I’m standing…walking.
“Where are you going, Miss Wynwood?” The teacher is looking at me over the rim of his glasses as he riffles through a pile of papers. He slaps them down hard on the desk and I jump. I must be Miss Wynwood.
“She has cramps!” someone calls out. People snicker. I feel a chill creep up my back and crawl across the tops of my arms. They’re laughing at me, except I don’t know who these people are.
I hear a girl’s voice say, “Shut up, Michael.”
“I don’t know,” I say, hearing my voice for the first time. It’s too high. I clear my throat and try again. “I don’t know. I’m not supposed to be here.”
There is more laughing. I glance around at the posters on the wall, the faces of presidents animated with dates beneath them. History class? High school.
The man—the teacher—tilts his head to the side like I’ve said the dumbest thing. “And where else are you supposed to be on test day?”
“I… I don’t know.”

“Sit down,” he says. I don’t know where I’d go if I left. I turn around to go back. The girl with the glasses glances up at me as I pass her. She looks away almost as quickly.
As soon as I’m sitting, the teacher starts handing out
papers. He walks between desks, his voice a flat drone as he tells us what percentage of our final grade the test will be. When he reaches my desk he pauses, a deep crease between his eyebrows. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull.” He presses the tip of a fat pointer finger on my desk.
“Whatever it is, I’m sick of it. One more stunt and I’m sending you to the principal’s office.” He slaps the test down in front of me and moves down the line.
I don’t nod, I don’t do anything. I’m trying to decide what to do. Announce to the whole room that I have no idea who and where I am—or pull him aside and tell him quietly. He said no more stunts. My eyes move to the paper in front of me. People are already bent over their tests, pencils scratching.
Fourth Period History
Mr. Dulcott
There is a space for a name. I’m supposed to write my name, but I don’t know what my name is. Miss Wynwood, he called me.
Why don’t I recognize my own name? Or where I am? Or what I am?
Every head is bent over their papers except mine. So I sit and stare, straight ahead. Mr. Dulcott glares at me from his desk. The longer I sit, the redder his face becomes.
Time passes and yet my world has stopped. Eventually, Mr. Dulcott stands up, his mouth open to say something to me when the bell rings. “Put your papers on my desk on the way out,” he says, his eyes still on my face. Everyone is filing out of the door. I stand up and follow them because I don’t know what else to do. I keep my eyes on the floor, but I can feel his rage. I don’t understand why he’s so angry with me. I am in a hallway now, lined on either side by blue lockers.
“Charlie!” someone calls. “Charlie, wait up!” A second later, an arm loops through mine. I expect it to be the girl with the glasses; I don’t know why. It’s not. But, I know now that I am Charlie. Charlie Wynwood. “You forgot your bag,” she says, handing over a white backpack. I take it from her, wondering if there’s a wallet with a driver’s license inside. She keeps her arm looped through mine as we walk. She’s shorter than me, with long, dark hair and dewy brown eyes that take up half her face. She is startling and beautiful.
“Why were you acting so weird in there?” she asks. “You knocked the shrimp’s books on the floor and then spaced out.”
I can smell her perfume; it’s familiar and too sweet, like a million flowers competing for attention. I think of the girl with the glasses, the look on her face as she bent to scoop up her books. If I did that, why don’t I remember?
“I—”

“It’s lunch, why are you walking that way?” She pulls me down a different corridor, past more students. They all look at me…little glances. I wonder if they know me, and why I don’t know me. I don’t know why I don’t tell her, tell Mr. Dulcott, grab someone random and tell them that I don’t know who or where I am. By the time I’m seriously entertaining the idea, we’re through a set of double doors in the cafeteria. Noise and color; bodies that all have a unique smell, bright fluorescent lights that make everything look ugly. Oh, God. I clutch at my shirt.
The girl on my arm is babbling. Andrew this, Marcy that. She likes Andrew and hates Marcy. I don’t know who either of them is. She corrals me to the food line. We get salad and Diet Cokes. Then we are sliding our trays on a table. There are already people sitting there: four boys, two girls. I realize we are completing a group with even numbers. All the girls are matched with a guy. Everyone looks up at me expectantly, like I’m supposed to say something, do something. The only place left to sit is next to a guy with dark hair. I sit slowly, both hands flat on the table. His eyes dart toward me and then he bends over his tray of food. I can see the finest beads of sweat on his forehead, just below his hairline.
“You two are so awkward sometimes,” says a new girl, blonde, across from me. She’s looking from me to the guy I’m sitting next to. He looks up from his macaroni and I realize he’s just moving things around on his plate. He hasn’t taken a bite, despite how busy he looks. He looks at me and I look at him, then we both look back at the blonde girl.
“Did something happen that we should know about?” she asks. “No,” we say in unison.
He’s my boyfriend. I know by the way they’re treating us. He suddenly smiles at me with his brilliantly white teeth and reaches to put an arm around my shoulders.
“We’re all good,” he says, squeezing my arm. I automatically stiffen, but when I see the six sets of eyes on my face, I lean in and play along. It’s frightening not knowing who you are—even more frightening thinking you’ll get it wrong. I’m scared now, really scared. It’s gone too far. If I say something now I’ll look…crazy. His affection seems to make everyone relax. Everyone except…him. They go back to talking, but all the words blend together: football, a party, more football. The guy sitting next to me laughs and joins in with their conversation, his arm never straying from my shoulders. They call him Silas. They call me Charlie. The dark-haired girl with the big eyes is Annika. I forget everyone else’s names in the noise.
Lunch is finally over and we all get up. I walk next to Silas, or rather he walks next to me. I have no idea where I’m going. Annika flanks my free side, winding her arms through mine and chatting about cheerleading practice. She’s making me feel claustrophobic. When we reach an annex in the hallway, I lean over and speak to her so only she can hear. “Can you walk me to my next class?” Her face becomes serious. She breaks away to say something to her boyfriend, and then our arms are looped again.
I turn to Silas. “Annika is going to walk me to my next class.”
“Okay,” he says. He looks relieved. “I’ll see you…later.” He heads off in the opposite direction. Annika turns to me as soon as he’s out of sight. “Where’s he going?”
I shrug. “To class.”
She shakes her head like she’s confused. “I don’t get you guys. One day you’re all over each other, the next you’re acting like you can’t stand to be in the same room. You really need to make a decision about him, Charlie.”

She stops outside a doorway.
“This is me…” I say, to see if she’ll protest. She doesn’t. “Call me later,” she says. “I want to know about last night.”
I nod. When she disappears into the sea of faces, I step into the classroom. I don’t know where to sit, so I wander to the back row and slide into a seat by the window. I’m early, so I open my backpack. There’s a wallet wedged between a couple of notebooks and a makeup bag. I pull it out and flip it open to reveal a driver’s license with a picture of a beaming, dark-haired girl. Me.
Charlize Margaret Wynwood 2417 Holcourt Way New Orleans, LA
I’m seventeen. My birthday is March twenty-first. I live in Louisiana. I study the picture in the top left corner and I don’t recognize the face. It’s my face, but I’ve never seen it. I’m…pretty. I only have twenty-eight dollars.
The seats are filling up. The one beside me stays empty, almost like everyone is too afraid to sit there. I’m in Spanish class. The teacher is pretty and young; her name is Mrs. Cardona. She doesn’t look at me like she hates me, like so many other people are looking at me. We start with tenses.
I have no past. I have no past.
Five minutes into class the door opens. Silas walks in, his eyes downcast. I think he’s here to tell me something, or to bring me something. I brace myself, ready to pretend, but Mrs. Cardona comments jokingly about his lateness. He takes the only available seat next to me and stares straight ahead. I stare at him. I don’t stop staring at him until finally, he turns his head to look at me. A line of sweat rolls down the side of his face.
His eyes are wide. Wide…just like mine.

Published 28th February by HQ

Posted in Netgalley

The Back Up Man by Phoebe Luckhurst.

I was enticed into our heroine Anya’s world for two main reasons: Glasgow is one of my favourite cities and I too had a back up man. My best friend Elliot and I made a pact when we were moving on from sixth form. He didn’t know that I was head over heels in love with him, but he was my best friend and I didn’t want to ruin anything (we did ruin things a few years later, after university, but that’s another story). So we decided that if both of us were single at the age of 40, we’d get married. Life takes strange turns and although we were still in touch, Elliot had a long term partner and three children by then and I was a widow. We’ve all had a break up or other difficult life event and been overcome with a bout of nostalgia. Sometimes what has happened to us has been so scary and life changing, it makes more sense to lapse into the past, revisiting times and people who feel safe. We’re always doing this through rose tinted spectacles forgetting the negative aspects of the relationship or memory. So I could really understand Anya’s reasoning, especially after the shock she gets on a visit to Sunday lunch at her boyfriend’s mother’s home. In fact it’s on their way home, as they drop into a Shell garage, where Callum ends their four year relationship. Because he hadn’t wanted to upset his mum by doing it sooner. So Anya is facing a massive life change. The couple live together in Callum’s flat and while he can find somewhere to stay for a few days until she gets herself together, he will want her to move out by the end of the week. What else can go wrong?

Glasgow’s west end is a beautiful setting, giving both atmosphere and warmth to the story. I love the beautiful Victorian stone homes in the area and I have imagined myself living in one of them, but they’re pricey and only for the city’s professional classes. People like Anya’s cousin Claire. It’s her sister Georgie who suggests that Claire might want a lodger. Georgie gets on better with Claire than Anya does, because Anya finds her a bit stuck up and joyless. She also dislikes her creepy partner Richard. So once her best friend Paddy has helped her move to a single mattress in Claire’s back bedroom, Anya lies there wondering if life could get any worse? Then the next day she loses her job. As she’s going through her badly packed boxes she finds her old year book from school and a note from Euan. In her final year of school, Euan and Anya had a casual connection that could perhaps have become something more had he not been going away to university. They were never officially together, so they didn’t really break up, but they did make a pact. If they are both single when they are thirty years old they will make a go of it together. In a wave of nostalgia, borne out of feeling her life has fallen apart, Anya starts to search for Euan when she’s surprised by a message from a mutual friend. Jamie has also been looking for Euan, maybe they could join forces?

For me, this romcom worked because it is so much more than a simple boy meets girl. This period of time is transformative for Anya in so many different ways. She learns so much about herself and for me that is the most interesting part of the story. She and sister Georgie live in Glasgow with their parents living out in a suburb of the city. Anya and her mother have a spiky relationship because she has very set ideas about how life should be. Anya’s favourite pastime is cooking, in fact she finds that in the week where she’s alone in Callum’s flat, the night she cooks from scratch is when she feels most relaxed. For a little while she’s been running a page on Instagram called anyaeatstoomuch and her friend Paddy suggests that she could develop this hobby into a business. So she starts to look into turning it into a catering company, but in the meantime her mum isn’t going to let her sit around feeling sorry for herself. She finds her a job looking after the granddaughters of a woman she knows, their mother is working as a beauty influencer. These terrible twins are brilliant comic relief, being both unruly and sneaky, but subdued by Anya’s incredible food. It could be a complete waste of her time, or it could provide opportunities.

This is just one of the things that Anya has to learn. She can’t continue to drift and let life happen to her, she has to take control to get the life she wants. There was a sense of mystery too, in the search for Euan and the dead ends they find but I also wondered about Jamie. His interest legitimises Anya’s search, just when everyone else is telling her she’s behaving like a crazy person. I could understand her need to look back when everything else is falling apart, but what was Jamie’s reason for looking for Euan? I was also concerned about Claire’s fiancé Richard. He’s very furtive, lurking around corners and exercising his ability to soundlessly appear in the room. Their relationship also teaches Anya something important, just because someone’s life looks perfect it doesn’t mean it is. We all show a very edited version of life on social media and the reality is often very different. Another lesson is that having everything you want – the fiancé, the West End house, the great career – doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy. It’s all these bits of learning and the potential growth Anya could make in her emotional life and career that really make this story. I was rooting her her to make the right choices, survive the terrible twins and forge an exciting life for herself, whether a man is involved or not.

Published 19th January 2023 by Penguin

Meet The Author

Phoebe Luckhurst is a journalist and author, who has written for publications including the Evening Standard, ES Magazine, ELLE, Grazia, Sunday Times Style, Guardian, Telegraph and Grazia. The Lock In is her first novel and this is her second.

Posted in Random Things Tours

Expectant by Vanda Symon

Expectant is the fifth novel in Vanda Symon’s Detective Sam Shephard series and I finished this late last night so I can reveal it’s brilliant and full of tension as the countdown to catch a murderer coincides with the last weeks of Sam’s pregnancy. This great series, set in Dunedin New Zealand, never lets me down. Sam is a fantastic character, who I’d happily go for a drink with. She’s professional and has one of those faces that people trust immediately, meaning she can elicit new leads and confessions from the unlikeliest criminal. She’s stubborn and outspoken, very ballsy and, although she tries her best not to use it, has an incredible swearing vocabulary. She and partner Paul are expecting their first child and she’s working up to two weeks before her due date. They haven’t found time to organise their endless piles of baby kit into a nursery when a case comes in that Sam can’t help but be drawn into. A group of kids who are hoping to tag the wall down a quiet side street find a woman covered in blood and only one of them has the conscience to stay and ring an ambulance. He’s willing to face the music for the graffiti if he can save her. At first it’s thought to be a stabbing, but it soon becomes clear this is something more sinister. A pregnant woman has been subjected to a rudimentary Caesarian and left for dead, even worse there’s no sign of the baby. This must be someone with a certain amount of medical skill. For Sam, who’s at her most vulnerable, it’s scary to think this might have been someone the victim trusted and it makes her more determined to catch her killer.

I found the pace slightly slower than previous novels, but I found that fitting considering that Sam is slowing down too. The days are winding down towards her maternity leave and her due date. In fact the days are dragging as her boss is reluctant to have her start something as important as a murder case before her leave starts. He feels it would be disruptive to the family and her colleagues, so she’s on desk duty, trawling through evidence. That’s before we factor in her physical condition, she’s so big that she gets stuck in some automatic barriers; a brilliant comic moment in this dark subject matter. Luckily it’s partner Paul on hand to lift her clear. Also, with unusual sensitivity, the boss thinks that placing a pregnant woman with the family would be distressing for them. Especially until they find the baby. This isn’t just a murder case, the baby is missing and the reasons why someone would steal a newborn baby are running through the heads of every team member. However, this is where Sam’s pregnancy could be a super power, being an expectant mum means her thoughts are different to the others. Could they provide a breakthrough?

The theme of mothers and their children, particularly daughters, is front and centre in this story. Whether it is Sam’s relationship with her own mother who has concerns about her working this close to her due date. There’s also Sam’s best friend, currently still living with her but due to move away imminently. She has a unique position in Sam’s life and is always there as a shoulder to cry on, but here she provides some important psychological insight. Sam’s need to be involved with this case could be linked to the spare room full of decorating supplies and boxed nursery furniture. There are so many changes coming, might Sam be paralysed from moving forward? Of course it is Sam who makes some major breakthroughs in the case in the final moments before she clears her desk. One of which seems to be a coincidence at first. As the final chapters started to race and fill with tension my heart was pounding. Just as Sam has let her guard down and accepted what’s next in her life, everything she’s looking forward to could be ripped away from her. In fact, if you are pregnant, maybe keep this one for after the birth. I was genuinely scared for her and even though she’s the one who most understood the killer’s motivations, will she still be shocked by their identity? You’ll be holding your breath to the very end with this one. Sam’s vulnerability is terrifying and I was praying that she would be okay while reading. As if she’s a living and breathing human being. That’s the power of Vanda Symon’s writing and how much of that magic she’s poured into this brilliant character.

Published 16th Feb 2023 by Orenda.

Meet the Author

Vanda Symon lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. As well as being a crime writer, she has a PhD in science communication and is a researcher at the Centre for Pacific Health at the University of Otago. Overkill was shortlisted for the 2019 CWA John Creasey Debut Dagger Award and she is a three-time finalist for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel for her critically acclaimed Sam Shephard series. Vanda produces and hosts ‘Write On’, a monthly radio show focusing on the world of books at Otago Access Radio. When she isn’t working or writing, Vanda can be found in the garden, or on the business end of a fencing foil.

Posted in Romance Rocks, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Mix-Tape by Jane Sanderson for Romance Rocks!

I love this book. Perhaps it’s because I had a Dan. A musician who started as my best friend and who I fell in love with. I was 18 and he took me to my first prom. His band were playing and it was 1991 so perms were everywhere and we were just adopting grunge. I would turn up for school in jumble sale floral dresses with my ever present oxblood Doc Martens. They played some of my favourite songs that night: some that were contemporary like Blur and others were classics like Wild Thing. I most remember Waterloo Sunset. Then, like a scene in a rom-com we walked across town to his house – me in a polka dot Laura Ashley ball gown and him in his dinner suit with the bow tie undone. He had a ruffled shirt underneath that he’d bought from Oxfam. We crept into the house and into the playroom so we didn’t wake anyone, then watched When Harry Met Sally. I remember a single kiss and then we fell asleep, but the love carried on over the years.

When I think of Elliot I always think of those famous best friend couples, like Harry and Sally or later, Emma and Dex in One Day. Now I can add Dan and Ali to the list. Alison and Dan live in Sheffield in the late 1970s when the city was still a thriving steel manufacturer. Dan is from the more family friendly Nether Edge, while Alison is from the rougher Attercliffe area, in the shadow of a steel factory. They meet while still at school and Dan is transfixed with her dark hair, her edge and her love of music. Their relationship is based on music and Dan makes mix tapes for her to listen to when they’re not together such as ‘The Last Best Two’ – the last two tracks from a series of albums. What he doesn’t know is how much Alison needs that music. To be able to put it on as a wall of sound between her and her family. Dan never sees where she lives and doesn’t push her, he only knows she prefers his home whether she’s doing her homework at the kitchen table, getting her nails painted by his sister or sitting with his Dad in the pigeon loft. Catherine, Alison’s mum, is a drinker. Not even a functioning alcoholic, she comes home battered and dirty with no care for who she lets into their home. Alison’s brother, Pete, is her only consolation and protection at home. Both call their mum by her first name and try to avoid her whenever possible. Even worse is her on-off lover Martin Baxter, who has a threatening manner and his own key. Alison could never let Dan know how they have to live.

In alternate chapters we see what Alison and Dan are doing in the present. Now a music writer, Dan splits his time between a canal boat in London and home with his partner Katelin in Edinburgh. Alison has written a new novel ‘Tell the Story Sing the Song’ set in her adopted home Australia and based round an indigenous singer. It’s a worldwide hit and she finds herself in demand, having to negotiate being interviewed and getting to grips with social media. She has an affluent lifestyle with husband Michael and has two grown up daughters. She has a Twitter account that she’s terrible at using and it’s this that alerts Dan, what could be the harm in following her? The secret at the heart of this book is what happened so long ago back in Sheffield to send a girl to the other side of the world? Especially when she has found her soulmate. She and Dan are meant to be together so what could have driven them apart? Dan sends her a link via Twitter, to Elvis Costelloe’s ‘Pump It Up’, the song she was dancing to at a party when he fell in love with her. How will Alison reply and will Dan ever discover why he lost her back in the 1970s?

I believed in these characters immediately, and I know Sheffield, and loved how it was described with affectionate detail by the writer. The accent, the warmth of people like Dan’s dad, the landmarks and the troubled manufacturing industry are so familiar and captured perfectly. Even the secondary characters, like the couple’s families and friends are well drawn and endearing. Cass over in Australia, as well as Sheila and Dora, are great characters. Equally, Dan’s Edinburgh friend Duncan with his record shop and the hippy couple on the barge next door in London are real and engaging. Special mention also to his dog McCullough who I was desperate to cuddle. Both characters have great lives and happy relationships. Dan loves Katelin, in fact her only fault is that she isn’t Alison. In Australia, Alison has been enveloped by Michael’s huge family and their housekeeper Beatriz who is like a surrogate Mum. It’s easy to see why the safety and security of Michael’s family, their money and lifestyle have appealed to a young Alison, still running away from her dysfunctional upbringing. She clearly wants different for her daughters and wishes them the sort of complacency Dan had, sure his parents are always there where he left them. But is the odd dinner party and most nights sat side by side watching TV enough for her? She also has Sheila, an old friend of Catherine’s, who emigrated in the 1970s and flourished in Australia. Now married to Dora who drives a steam train, they are again like surrogate parents to Alison. So much anchors her in Australia, but are these ties stronger than first love and the sense of belonging she had with Dan all those years before?

About three quarters of the way through the book I started to read gingerly, almost as if it was a bomb that might go off. I’ve never got over the loss of Emma in One Day and I was scared. What if these two soulmates didn’t end up together? Or worse what if one of them is killed off by the author before a happy ending is reached? I won’t ruin it by telling any more of the story. The tension and trauma of Alison’s family life is terrible and I dreaded finding out what had driven her away so dramatically. I think her shame about her mother is so sad, because the support was there for her and she wouldn’t let anyone help. She’s so fragile as a teenager and on edge. Dan’s mum had reservations, she was worried about her youngest son and whether Alison would break his heart. I love the music that goes back and forth between the pair, the meaning in the lyrics and how they choose them. This book is warm, moving and real. I loved it.

And what of my Daniel? Well he’s in Sheffield strangely enough. Happily partnered with three beautiful kids. I’m also happily partnered with two lovely stepdaughters. We’re very happy where we are and with our other halves. It’s nice though, just now and again, to catch up and remember the seventeen year old I was. Laid on his bedroom door, with my head in his lap listening to his latest find on vinyl. Or wandering the streets in my ballgown, high heels in one hand and him with his guitar case. Happy memories that will always make me smile.

Meet the Author

A former BBC Radio 4 producer, Jane Sanderson’s first novel – Netherwood – was published in 2011. She drew on much of her family’s background for this historical novel, which is set in a fictional mining town in the coalfields of Yorkshire. Ravenscliffe and Eden Falls followed in the two subsequent years, then in the early summer of 2017, This Much Is True was published, marking a change in direction for the author. This book is a contemporary tale of dog walks and dark secrets and the lengths a mother will go to protect her family. 

Jane lives in Herefordshire with her husband, the journalist and author Brian Viner. They have three children.

Her book Waiting for Sunshine is published in paperback on 23rd March 2023, with my review coming soon.


‘Who would name a child Sunshine, then give her away?’

Chrissie has always wanted to be a mother. After months of trying to adopt, she and her husband Stuart finally get the news that a little girl named Sunshine is waiting for them.

Abandoned at a young age, the child comes to them without a family history, and it feels like a fresh start for all of them. But when fragments from Sunshine’s previous life start to intrude on her new one, the little girl’s mysterious past quickly becomes Chrissie’s greatest fear …

Posted in Monthly Wrap Up

My Favourite Reads Jan 2023

Welcome to 2023 at The Lotus Readers! It’s already looking like a busy one and if January is anything to go by there are going to to be some hot contenders for my round-up in twelve months time. I’m going to be spoiled for choice. There are going to be some new and developing projects this year that I’m excited about and I’m already planning into June. I’m doing a lot more work with the Squad Pod Collective this year and I’m very excited at some of the books and read alongs we have scheduled. On a more personal level I’m hoping to be a better planner this year, with the hope of clearing some of my NetGalley backlog and keeping on top of publisher’s proofs. I want to develop my Instagram account and start work on TikTok too. I have various themes planned throughout the year and new spotlights to bring to you, with poetry and classics featuring more prominently. I’ve also realised I need to tell you all a little bit about me and I must get used to seeing to showing you my face a little bit. Finally I’m hoping to update the website with new photos and a better layout so I’m easier to find. So to kick off this new year, here are my first books of the month for January.

House of Fortune by Jessie Burton

To say I’m a fan of Jessie Burton is an understatement. I am in awe of her writing abilities and love every one of her books, but there’s a soft spot in my heart for her debut novel The Miniaturist. I was transported straight back to 16th Century Amsterdam and whenever I think about the town house where Nella goes to live with her new husband Johannes and his sister Marin, I have an almost synaesthesic response because I can smell it. It’s a mixture of wood panelling and beeswax. Considering how attached I am to this extraordinary tale, there was a certain amount of trepidation in reading her follow up House of Fortune. I’d saved it for the end of the year and it came to me in two special editions, one with spredges in a green pattern and one with a yellow pineapple print. It’s been eighteen years since the events of the first book and Thea’s birthday approaches. As her father Otto is let go by his employer the household is in decline, almost down to the last treasures it can sell to stay afloat. Maybe their only hope for the future is Thea and the family are forced to launch her on Amsterdam society with the hope of finding her a husband with the fortune to keep them afloat. Otto wants Thea to have a choice and with new friend Caspar he has planned to farm Thea’s childhood home, Assendelft, by growing a crop of pineapples. However, Thea has her own plans and when small packages start appearing on the doorstep it’s clear a period of change is on the way. Could this be the miniaturist, up to her old tricks?

I was sucked straight back into Nella’s world as mistress of this extraordinary house. I loved that Burton took us to Nella’s childhood, with the walls of Assendelft full of memories, good and bad. Over the eighteen years since Johannes’s death she has become a force to be reckoned with and this reminds us of how naïve and young she was at the beginning. I felt sad that she had almost written herself off, pinning all their hopes for the future on Marin’s daughter Thea and not even considering that she could be the one pursued by potential husbands. Wealthy widows can be very attractive in the marriage market and nobody knows what Johannes’s arrangements were for his wife. I felt that Nella didn’t want marriage though, having been free for eighteen years it would certainly be hard to adjust to the more conventional woman’s role a husband might expect. I also really enjoyed being taken into the world of the theatre, where Thea is transfixed by the stories being told on stage. Her fear that someone has seen her hanging around backstage, especially since spending time with scene painter Walter, really came across strongly. I felt for her and I wanted Thea to remember what it felt like to be a teenager without her whole family’s fortunes weighing heavy on her shoulders. I was compelled to keep reading, completely caught up in the world of this strange family of outsiders, but also wondering if this time the miniaturist would be unmasked and her purpose revealed. I throughly enjoyed being back in Nella’s world and it renewed my desire to go to Amsterdam to see the original cabinet house that fired up Jessie’s imagination.

We All Want Impossible Things by

This book was a joy. That’s going to seem odd when I explain what it’s about, but it is joyful and full of life. Even though at it’s centre there’s a death. Ash and Edi have been friends forever, since childhood in fact. They’ve gone through adolescence together: survived school; other girls; discovering boys and even that awkward phase of starting adult life, when one went to college and the other stayed behind. They’ve both married and been each other’s maids of honour and become mothers. Instead of any of these things pulling them apart they’ve remained platonic partners in life. However, now Edi is unwell and decisions need to be made. After years of struggle with being, treatment, remission and recurrence, Edi now has to decide how she’ll be dying. With all the hospices locally being full, Ash makes an offer – if Edi comes to a hospice near Ash, she can devote time to being with her and Edi’s husband can get on with every day life for her son Dash. There’s a hospice near Ash that’s like a home from home, with everything that’s needed medically, but the informality and personal touch of a family. Now Ash and Edi have to negotiate that strange contradiction; learning how to live, while dying.

Ash’s home and family life is so enviable I wanted to be part of it. Her estranged husband Honey is an incredible chef and her daughter seems to have picked up the talent. The author’s descriptions of their meals really did make the mouth water and are their way of contributing and supporting Ash. All of these people are so nurturing, in Honey’s case this is despite he and Ash being separated. Before you think this sounds schmaltzy and sentimental I can assure you that these characters are not perfect. Each has their flaws and their ways of coping, some of which are destructive and possibly difficult for others to understand. Ash particularly has a novel approach to grief, but I understood it. If we look beneath the surface, it’s a way of forging connection with others on the same journey and expressing their love for Edi. It’s also a distraction, a way of leaving all the paraphernalia of death behind and affirming life. That doesn’t mean her behaviour isn’t confusing, especially to her teenage daughter who supplies whip smart commentary, eye rolls and remarkable wisdom. The men in this friendship group seem to understand that their grief is secondary, because Edi is the love of Ash’s life. I enjoyed the little addition of Edi’s other friend – the college friend – who Ash has concerns about. Does Edi like her more than Ash? Do they have a special bond? The author provides us with this loving picture but then undermines it slightly, so it isn’t perfect. We are imperfect beings and no one knows how they will react in a time like this, until we’re there. Catherine Newman shows this with realism, charm, humour and buckets of compassion.

The Curious Case of The Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett.

I was enthralled, addicted and so desperate to find out what actually did happen on the night when the police found a strange cult massacre in a deserted warehouse. Open the safe deposit box. Inside you will find research material for a true crime book. You must read the documents, then make a decision. Will you destroy them? Or will you take them to the police? Everyone knows the sad story of the Alperton Angels: the cult who brainwashed a teenage girl and convinced her that her newborn baby was the anti-Christ. Believing they had a divine mission to kill the infant, they were only stopped when the girl came to her senses and called the police. The Angels committed suicide rather than stand trial, while mother and baby disappeared into the care system. Nearly two decades later, true-crime author Amanda Bailey is writing a book on the Angels. The Alperton baby has turned eighteen and can finally be interviewed; if Amanda can find them, it will be the true-crime scoop of the year, and will save her flagging career. But rival author Oliver Menzies is just as smart, better connected, and is also on the baby’s trail. As Amanda and Oliver are forced to collaborate, they realise that what everyone thinks they know about the Angels is wrong. The truth is something much darker and stranger than they’d ever imagined. And the story of the Alperton Angels is far from over.. After all, the devil is in the detail…

It was hard to review when I didn’t want to let slip any signal or clue, so I won’t comment on the storyline. It’s drip fed to you in the different communications and I loved how we were presented with other people’s opinions and thoughts on the discoveries being made. Who to trust and who to ignore wasn’t always clear and the red herrings, including the involvement of the Royal Family, were incredible. I felt that true crime author Amanda had an agenda, that possibly had nothing to do with the story at hand and was more about a personal grudge. Janice Hallet’s research is impeccable and here she has to cover the early 1990’s and 2003, as well as the workings of the police, special forces and the social services – some of which is less than flattering and even corrupt. I found delving into the True Crime genre fascinating considering how popular it is these days, something I’m personally very conflicted about. This has all the aspects of a sensational True Crime investigation with a more nuanced perspective from other characters to balance things out. I was gripped to the end and the end didn’t disappoint.

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer.

This incredible debut novel grabbed hold of my mind and heart, never letting go until the final paragraph. I shed tears at several points in Rachel’s journey and she’s a character I won’t forget. We meet her working on a plantation in Barbados, at that strange point after slavery when plantations were instructed to free slaves, but their sense of freedom was short-lived as masters were able to keep slaves for a further six years as apprentices. So, despite being freed the day afterwards started just the same, at the crack of dawn and walking to the cane fields for a day of back breaking work. Having nothing meant that most had no other choice. Rachel is thinking of her children, several lost before they had a chance to live but others scattered to the four winds. Her boys Micah and Thomas Augustus and her girls Cherry Jane, Mary Grace and Mercy all taken from her in different ways. Only Cherry Jane spends a few years nearby as a house slave, but in her superior position she doesn’t acknowledge Rachel who is merely a field hand. One day she decides that she must find her children, she mustknow where they are and what happened to them, even if the news is that devastating final loss. Rachel says that as a slave she plants cane but nothing of her own. However her children came about, Rachel feels that they anchor her in this world and she can’t rest until she finds them. So she runs and with our hearts pounding we follow her.

Shearer uses incredibly evocative detail to bring nature to life in this book and underscore Rachel’s sense of freedom. A river takes them deep into the forest and a community of freed slaves and indigenous tribespeople where one of her sons may be. It also sweeps them along, back to freedom after searching Grenadian plantation for daughter Mary Grace. The whole journey is littered with joys and terrible grief, but Rachel knows she must keep going. She meets others who have started to build a new life, placing the past firmly behind them and never pining for it. They live firmly in the here and now with questions left unanswered and people left behind. For Rachel that isn’t enough. Her children are like the scattered pieces of a broken vase. She doesn’t expect her family to be perfect and knows that there will be cracks and missing pieces. Rachel is putting her broken vase back together and she will pour a substance into the cracks, bringing the pieces together until her past is whole again. The binding substance used in Japanese Kintsugi pottery is usually gold, each crack making the piece more valuable and beautiful. In Rachel’s case the binding substance is love. Love for those here, those found but far away and those gone forever. An all encompassing love symbolised by the bond between a mother and her children.

Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood.

It’s possibly way too early to start picking candidates for favourite books of 2023 – I’m still deliberating over 2022 – but I think this book is certainly going to be in contention. Grace is one of those characters that you fantasise about having cocktails with and you already know you’d have the best time. Grace is stuck in traffic, it’s a boiling hot day and she’s melting. All she wants to do is get to the bakery and pick up the cake for her daughter’s birthday. This is one hell of a birthday cake, not only is it a Love Island cake; it has to say that Grace cares, that she’s sorry, that will show Lotte she loves her and hasn’t given up on their relationship. It’s shaping up to be the day from hell and as Grace sits in a tin can on boiling hot tarmac, something snaps. She decides to get out of the car and walk, leaving her vehicle stranded and pissing off everyone now blocked by a car parked in the middle of a busy road. So, despite the fact her trainers aren’t broken in, she sets off walking towards the bakery and a reunion with Lotte. There are just a few obstacles in the way, but Grace can see the cake and Lotte’s face when she opens the box. As she walks she recounts everything that has happened to bring her to where she is now.

When we first meet Grace she’s living alone, estranged from husband Ben and even from her teenage daughter Lotte. She’s peri-menopausal, wearing trainers her daughter thinks she shouldn’t be wearing at her age and she’s had enough. There’s that sense of the Michael Douglas film Falling Down except when the meltdown comes all she has is a water pistol filled with river water, an embarrassingly tiny Love Island cake and a blister on her heel. Then in flashbacks we can follow Grace all the way back to the start, to when she and Ben met at a competition for polyglots. The truth when it comes is devastating, but feels weirdly like something you’ve known all along. Those interspersed chapters from happier times are a countdown to this moment, a before and after that runs like a fault line through everything that’s happened since. As Grace closes in on Lotte’s party, sweaty, dirty and brandishing her tiny squashed cake, it doesn’t seem enough to overturn everything that’s happened, but of course it isn’t about the cake. This is about everything Grace has done to be here, including the illegal bits. In a day that’s highlighted to Grace how much she has changed what will happen to her relationship to the people she loves most?

All of these books are out now and you can potter along to your local book shop for them. Happy Reading! ❤️📚

Posted in Romance Rocks

It Was Always You by Emma Cooper

On the last night in October 1999 the clocks went back, and Ella and Will’s love began. A teenage Ella sat around a bonfire drinking with her future husband and her oldest friend Cole. As Ella wandered away from the group, she found herself leaning against a derelict
archway before passing out. The next day, Ella remembered fractured images of a conversation with a woman in a green coat and red scarf but dismissed it as a drunken dream.

Twenty-three years later, with her marriage to Will in trouble, and Cole spiralling out of control, Ella opens a gift which turns her life upside down: a green coat and red scarf. When she looks in the mirror, the woman from the archway is reflected back at her. As the last Sunday in October arrives, Ella is faced with a choice.
Would she choose a different life, if she could do it again?

This was an interesting read from Emma Cooper, looking at how the course of our whole life can change from very small decisions and the effects of these changes on our long term relationships. Ella is married to Will with two children and a big birthday approaching when she has a strange sense of life coming full circle. She opens her birthday presents to find a coat, scarf and brooch combination she recognises. Twenty-three years earlier at a party, she strolled away from the fireside to avoid watching her crush Will kissing another girl and saw a woman wearing exactly these clothes. It was almost as if the woman was on the other side of a mirror, visible but unable to be heard. Even though Ella can’t hear her, she knows that whatever she’s trying to tell her is a warning. Now she knows that woman was definitely her future self and she can’t help but wonder exactly what she was trying to warn her about. Life has definitely changed suddenly, because as their youngest left the family home for university, Will suddenly dropped the bombshell that he was leaving. Ella knows they’ve been drifting, in fact it runs deeper than that, Ella knows that Will would not have chosen the life they’ve had. She can pinpoint every surprise and life event thrown their way that derailed the life Will would have chosen, travelling the world playing guitar in a rock band. Ella has always known that she loved Will more than he loved her, so perhaps he need to spend some time discovering what he wants the rest of his life to look like.

Emma Cooper’s last novel was an absolute tearjerker and I really loved it. She gets that everyday drudgery that is part of being a family and here she portrayed beautifully how romance is hard to maintain when there is illness, two children to look after, family crises and those little curveballs that life likes to throw into the mix every so often. Cooper structures her book around these moments in Will and Ella’s lives together, such as her sudden pregnancy in Paris that she feels derailed Will’s music career. What she forgets is that Will did have a choice too and it was a joint decision to get married and have their baby. The fact that Will was fired from the band as a result was a terrible thing to happen, but wasn’t Ella’s fault. The flashbacks worked well in explaining the present day, from Ella’s perspective but Ella isn’t the only one in the relationship and I wondered if these two had ever properly communicated with each other. The problem with not communicating is that Will is also labouring under a misapprehension; he knows that he’s always loved Ella more than she loved him and now, with both children gone, it’s time for her to think about her choices and perhaps right a wrong. Will has felt in competition with Ella’s best friend Cole for many years, even the first day he met Ella’s family Cole was already there and part of the furniture. When Ella was struggling with depression, Will was just starting his career as a music teacher and simply couldn’t be there as much as he would have liked. Cole was there, burping and changing both babies, bringing chocolate and endless energy and literally propping Ella up. He has loved Ella since they were kids and he’s the first person Ella calls when something’s wrong – like when Will walks out the door 23 years later. Cole knows that Ella loves Will, even in his worst moments dealing with family trauma and his own alcoholism he knows Will and Ella should be together. He knows the power of Will’s charisma, because he’s felt it himself. In fact he and Will have a difficult history; Will’s brother drowned when he was left alone by a river, Will was saving Cole who had jumped in. This past leaves an uneasy feeling between them and has Ella desperately trying to please them both.

I enjoyed the carefree period Will and Ella have in France with the band. Will is offered the chance of playing guitar with a band and the couple rent a small apartment where they can have privacy and live outside of that hotel environment. It takes several mornings of Ella throwing up for a neighbour to point out she might perhaps be pregnant. The thought has never entered her head, but the neighbour is right. They expect their idyllic interlude to carry on, but once they announce their news and intention to get married, Will is summoned by the band manager and sacked. Young girls like to fantasise about their rock stars and married with a baby isn’t the look he wants for the band. So the couple return to Britain and to a life that looks a little more conventional. The author really doesn’t sugar coat the experience of parenthood. I was there in that living room with Ella, dealing with a two year old and a baby. It felt dark, oppressive and a total contrast to the freedom she had in France. With Will having to put in the long hours to support his new family, Ella feels like she’s doing this alone. So when friend Cole steps in to help it feels like a lifeline. He notices that Ella is desperately unwell and it’s his insight into his friend and his willingness to help that did make me waver on whether Will really was the right person for her. I don’t think I ever fully bonded with Will as a character. I didn’t know him in the same way as Cole or Ella and I think this was to some extent about the author’s description of him. He was so good looking and even Cole admits he’s the archetypal romantic leading man – he’s the man the girl should get. I didn’t know whether the author was trying to subvert the genre and have Ella realise that the less than perfect Cole, with all his issues, is the right man for her. In fact I was unsure of what would happen right up to the very end. This is a romantic read with an edge of reality, but maybe that makes it a more contemporary fairytale.

Meet The Author

EMMA COOPER is the author of highly acclaimed book club fiction novels and is known for mixing humour with darker emotional themes. Her debut, The Songs of Us, was snapped up in multiple pre-empts and auctions and was short-listed for the RNA contemporary novel of the year award. Her work has since been translated into seven different languages.

Emma has always wanted to be a writer – ever since childhood, she’s been inventing characters (her favourite being her imaginary friend ‘Boot’) and is thrilled that she now gets to use this imagination to bring to life all of her creations. She is now also an editor for Jericho Writers, where she has worked with traditionally published authors, as well as new aspiring writers. Emma spends her spare time writing novels, drinking wine and watching box-sets with her partner of twenty-eight years, who still makes her smile every day.

Posted in Personal Purchase

The Homes by J.B. Mylet

Lesley and Jonesy have been in foster care together ever since they can remember, in the same room and often in the same bed if Jonesy creeps in late at night. Our narrator is Lesley and she stands out as a little different from the other girls in the homes. She’s clever and goes to the grammar school instead of the one on site. She’s good at maths and seeing patterns in things, so what starts happening at the homes seems to her like a puzzle she can solve. Because someone at the homes is killing girls, possibly raping them and killing them. Who could it be?

The Homes are a sprawling institution made up of 30 cottages filled with the orphans of Glasgow and those needing care. So large, it has it’s own hospital, church and school, with every cottage run by a house mother and father with a Christian ethos. Set in the 1960’s and based on the Quarrier’s orphan village near the Bridge of Weir, where the author’s mother spent some of her childhood. He writes these girls as very isolated and dealt with at a distance, not just from their families, but from the staff too. He throws us in at the deep end with a morning that Lesley’s been dreading. Today she has to face the school bully Glenda, who lives a few cottages up. The adults know that Lesley is very likely to take a beating, but they do nothing. As she leaves for her school bus, Lesley can see a crowd of girls gathering at Glenda’s gate hoping for blood. It’s fair to say they get a bit of a surprise when the encounter doesn’t play out the way they expect. I felt as if the children were treated like animals, like when I’ve brought rescue cats home and left them to sort out their hierarchy amongst themselves. Even so, I would worry if any of them were distressed or fighting. These kids are fed, watered and disciplined, but they’re not cherished.

Only once called by her Christian name, Morag is known as Jonesey and she is a larger than life character. I loved the little characteristics that Lesley relates to us, such as the giggling in church, the constant chatter, and the way she often slips into Lesley’s bed at night but still isn’t restful. Even in her sleep Lesley is often woken by Jonesey’s jerking limbs, she’s like a puppy whose brain is asleep but whose body is still on the go. She’s absolutely irrepressible and incredibly loyal to Lesley, often waiting outside for her bus to arrive in the early evening, wriggling like that excited puppy again. By contrast, Lesley is outwardly very quiet. Her inner world is lively though, bright and full of questions. She has a dogged determination that helps her at school with tricky maths problems, but proves to be a nuisance to the police and the perpetrator of these terrible murders. Unfortunately, her amateur sleuthing is not quick enough to save the third victim. In between the case we learn a lot about the upheaval Lesley has suffered in life. She’s visited by her gran mostly, but she isn’t great at answering all the questions Lesley has. She’s clearly very fond of her granddaughter, but doesn’t want to get into the minutiae of why her mother placed her in care. Her mother visits less, but when the answers finally come there are painful truths to process. I was so glad she had Jonesey and her therapist Eadie but I worried for her going forwards and eventually leaving care. I bonded with Lesley, enjoying her intelligence and sense of fun as well as the way she coped with difficult situations.

A bit like Lesley I suspected every character along the way, knowing that people who work with children are not always doing it for the right reasons. There are people at the homes who are there for their own ends. There are various levels of abuse going on in the community. They’re forced into a religious upbringing they may not want and the expectations, particularly of girls, is tied up in that Christian morality. The discipline is down to each house parent and is always strict, but could also be violent and humiliating. At worst these children are preyed upon by the most horrific kinds of abuser and the tension builds towards a conclusion that not only unmasks a killer, but blows the lid open on everything that is wrong with the institution. I thought the historical setting was captured incredibly well, not so much the location but the emotional landscape of the 1960s. This was a time of secrets, when children were seen and not heard and definitely didn’t have rights. A time when young women were still shamed for their burgeoning sexuality and perfectly normal urges and their consequences. This was the time when my mother was growing up and it felt as if the author had the context just right. I thought the author perfectly balanced Lesley’s personal realisations and growth, with the tension of the murder investigation. As the inhabitants of Lesley’s cottage sit down for Sunday lunch with their houseparents, the Pattersons, she has a very grown up revelation. In the space of her week, this is the only time they feel ‘like a big normal family’ and it’s becoming apparent that all adults will eventually let her down. By the end I realised Lesley had drawn me into her story to such an extent I was wondering about her future. Despite the murders being solved, I was reluctant to close the book and leave her behind.

Published by Viper, 26th May 2022.

Meet the Author

J.B. Mylet was inspired to write The Homes based on the stories his mother told him about her childhood. She grew up in the infamous Quarrier’s Homes in Scotland in the 1960s, along with a thousand other orphaned or unwanted children, and did not realise that children were supposed to live with their parents until she was seven. He felt this was a story that needed to be told. He lives in London.

You can follow James on Twitter @JamesMylet, or find him on Facebook.

Posted in Netgalley

The Only Suspect by Louise Candlish

Alex lives in one of a row of cottages, once intended for workmen, now homes for middle class Londoners looking for more space in the suburbs. He lives with wife Beth and their dog Olive, enjoying quite a settled and peaceful existence. Even Alex’s job as an auditor has a certain amount of quiet respectability about it – some might even say boring respectability. However, when Beth’s pregnant friend Zara ends up without a roof over her head, she becomes a catalyst for change in the house and in Alex and Beth’s marriage. She becomes a third party in the relationship, staying much longer than expected and even worse, she and Alex don’t get on. They start to butt heads over his indifference to Beth’s interests, such as trying to get the pathway opposite them opened up and turned into a community nature trail. As Zara and Alex continue to clash, Beth notices things – for example his indifference to Zara’s pregnancy, especially considering they’ve been told they can’t have children – and this starts to bother her. He has no social media presence, won’t have his photo taken and is very threatened by Zara’s questions about his past. When he explodes, after Beth buys him an Ancestry DNA kit for his birthday she seriously starts to wonder. What is her husband so scared about?

The author sets this uneasy dynamic in the present day, but interweaves it with another timeline, around twenty years in the past. A young man called Richard narrates his own love story with a temp girl he meets in the foyer of their offices. She has just started to eat lunch in the foyer because there’s a new frozen yoghurt machine. After a few lunchtimes chatting in the building, they start meeting for lunch, either sitting outside or taking strolls into St. James’s Park. As they get to know each other, Richard is starting to fall for Marina, but their time together is so rationed. He can never take her out after work, she goes straight home. She can never stay the night, except for Thursdays, but even then she arrives later in the evening and disappears early next morning. They never go to Marina’s flat. In fact he’s surprised when she agrees to come to his birthday party, organised by new flatmate Rollo. Rollo is sure he knows what’s going on and can’t believe Richard is so naïve- Marina is hiding something, or perhaps someone.

Louise Candlish really is clever when it comes to twists and turns and this novel has a couple of whoppers. Some I didn’t see coming at all, both in the past and the present. There are a couple of red herrings too, just to make the story more interesting and send the reader down a few blind alleys. The characters are nuanced and full of faults, making it harder to work out which ones have the normal human flaws and which are just downright evil. I found Beth’s friend Zara so annoying, she’s inquisitive and inserts herself into private conversations and really does seem to have a bee in her bonnet about Alex. She’s manipulative too, using Beth’s grief at being unable to have a child to get comfortable in their home. It felt like she had no intention of leaving, involving Beth more and more in the pregnancy and actively baiting Alex in front of his wife. It could be that she just thinks Alex treats her friend badly, but it could be that she wants Beth and the house to herself. In our past section I felt some sympathy with Richard because he was just so trusting and is let down badly. As the events in the past start to escalate the book becomes so tense. I was addicted, reading the last half in one long session. Alex is as tense as we are and his desperation to stay in the background of Beth’s community venture starts to look very suspicious. Beth is angry because he’s being unsupportive, but it’s possibly much more than that. I could see that he was experiencing real fear, but what does he think will be discovered and what is the link to the nature trail? It’s a labyrinthine plot but I didn’t miss a thing, totally focused on the outcome of this mystery. Candlish has an incredible knack for creating these middle class communities that look the height of respectability from the outside and turn out to be anything but. Thankfully, I didn’t get attached to any of the characters so I could take a twisted sense of pleasure in watching this particular house of cards come tumbling down. This book is addictive, intense and as always, an absolute treat.

Published 2nd February 2023 by Simon and Schuster UK

Meet The Author

Louise Candlish is the Sunday Times bestselling author of fourteen novels. Our House, a #1 bestseller, won the Crime & Thriller Book of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards, was longlisted for the 2019 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, and was shortlisted for the Goldsboro Books Glass Bell Award. It is soon to be a major ITV drama made by Death in Paradise producers Red Planet Pictures. Louise lives in London with her husband and daughter. Visit her at LouiseCandlish.com or connect with her on Twitter @Louise_Candlish.

Posted in Publisher Proof

River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

This incredible debut novel grabbed hold of my mind and heart, never letting go until the final paragraph. I shed tears at several points in Rachel’s journey and she’s a character I won’t forget. We meet her working on a plantation in Barbados, at that strange point after slavery when plantations were instructed to free slaves, but their sense of freedom was short-lived as masters were able to keep slaves for a further six years as apprentices. So, despite being freed the day afterwards started just the same, at the crack of dawn and walking to the cane fields for a day of back breaking work. Having nothing meant that most had no other choice. Rachel is thinking of her children, several lost before they had a chance to live but others scattered to the four winds. Her boys Micah and Thomas Augustus and her girls Cherry Jane, Mary Grace and Mercy all taken from her in different ways. Only Cherry Jane spends a few years nearby as a house slave, but in her superior position she doesn’t acknowledge Rachel who is merely a field hand. One day she decides that she must find her children, she must know where they are and what happened to them, even if the news is that devastating final loss. Rachel says that as a slave she plants cane but nothing of her own. However her children came about, Rachel feels that they anchor her in this world and she can’t rest until she finds them. So she runs and with our hearts pounding we follow her.

As Rachel took her journey I kept thinking about my own mum. She always feels at her happiest when we’re all under her roof, all four generations. She told me that she feels like we’re all safe and there’s a feeling of completeness. I am not a mother, so until recently I hadn’t experienced anything like this, but now I am a step-mum and I do get a sense of relief when both my stepdaughters are here under my roof. There’s a feeling that I could close the curtains and we’d all be safe. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel to have those children stripped from you as commodities to be sold. As I finished reading the book on Holocaust Memorial Day, my mind was also taken to an account by a survivor on TikTok where she described her family being split apart into separate queues as they reached Auschwitz. She was placed in one queue bound for a factory sewing uniforms, but her mother and sister were deemed unsuitable for work and in the chaos was the final moment she saw them. It’s a similar atrocity, so huge that it’s hard to imagine or compute. A whole race of people are deemed as expendable and discarded with no more regard than swatting a fly. In amongst some powerful and distressing scenes in the book, one thing that hit me really hard was Rachel’s realisation that her emotions didn’t matter. As a younger woman she had held herself proudly and resolutely, determined that the actions of the overseer wouldn’t make her cry. As an older woman she realises that she could have owned her grief, it wouldn’t have satisfied or pleased the overseer to see her distress because she simply didn’t matter to him.

Rachel’s journey is a long one, across Barbados and over to Trinidad, and we experience every moment with her. The author provides vivid descriptions of each place Rachel experiences down to the way the earth feels under her feet. Cities give her a certain anonymity, but it’s in nature that I really felt Rachel’s freedom. The author layers sounds of birds, running water and wind through the trees with the feel of leaves or water against the skin. The water of the rivers are welcoming and help her journey: kayaking up the Demerara to look for runaway communities in the forest and Thomas Augustus; rushing down river holding an uprooted tree to avoid capture; feeling cocooned and supported by the water in a bathing pool. The runaway community are made up of escaped slaves and indigenous tribesmen who have survived the colonisation of their island and the forest both hides them and supports them. There is a sense of abundance in the food, the company and the mix of cultures that comes out in musical form. The ancient songs of Rachel’s African heritage come alive for her when mixed with slave songs and the music of the indigenous tribes represented. It seems fitting that it is in the forest that a marriage takes place and a baby is born – these are the building blocks of the future and that future is truly free.

I found some of the characters Rachel comes across on her travels fascinating and they add something to the tale by bringing their own experience, adjustment and acceptance of their situation. Nobody has adopted the very part of his identity forged by the slave experience, the sense that he is no one and belongs nowhere. Despite the negative connotations of the name, being nobody allows him to take his power back, to be anonymous, to escape unseen and leave a mark nowhere. He has been transitory ever since he started running, living a transitory life on the ships that travel between the islands, perhaps feeling more at home in the water than on the land he was enslaved by. I wondered whether Rachel’s quest would make a mark on him and if he would find a true home, whether that be a place or a person. I was also intrigued by Hope, whose very name embodies looking forward. She has found her place in Bridgetown by entertaining paying gentlemen. She is beautiful, impeccably dressed and seems to have found a independent way of living she’s at peace with. While some people don’t want to be seen with her, Rachel is not so judgmental. After all, Rachel tells us, men have been inside her but there she was the one who paid the price. The threat of sexual violence is alluded to but never explicit. Rachel won’t discuss or ask another woman how her children have come into being, because she knows the pain of a pregnancy where you pray the child you carry has no resemblance to it’s father. Equally she knows what it’s like to dread the birth of a child who might bear a resemblance to a man greatly loved and lost forever. We don’t know about the conception of any of Rachel’s children. Her ‘pickney’, as she calls them, are hers and hers alone and it is this that makes it imperative that she finds them. She needs to find them, in order to feel whole.

The whole journey is littered with joys and terrible grief, but Rachel knows she must keep going. She meets others who have started to build a new life, placing the past firmly behind them and never pining for it. They live firmly in the here and now with questions left unanswered and people left behind. For Rachel that isn’t enough. Her children are like the scattered pieces of a broken vase. She doesn’t expect her family to be perfect and knows that there will be cracks and missing pieces. Rachel is putting her broken vase back together and she will pour a substance into the cracks, bringing the pieces together until her past is whole again. The binding substance used in Japanese Kintsugi pottery is usually gold, each crack making the piece more beautiful. In Rachel’s case the binding substance is love. Love for those here, those found but far away and those gone forever. An all encompassing love symbolised by the birth of a baby in the forest.

There was a ‘feeling of complete, absorbing, unqualified love. The baby was a stranger, without speech, unknowable. It would be years before he could say what was on his mind. And yet, love did not wait. Love was there in the beginning – even before the beginning. Love needed no words, no introduction. Existence was enough.’

Published on 19th Jan by Headline Review

Meet The Author

Eleanor Shearer is a mixed race writer from the UK. She splits her time between London and Ramsgate on the coast of Kent, so that she never has to go too long without seeing the sea.

As the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants who came to the UK as part of the Windrush Generation, Eleanor has always been drawn to Caribbean history. Her first novel, RIVER SING ME HOME (Headline, UK & Berkley, USA) is inspired by the true stories of the brave woman who went looking for their stolen children after the abolition of slavery in 1834. 

The novel draws on her time spent in the Caribbean, visiting family in St Lucia and Barbados. It was also informed by her Master’s degree in Politics, where she focused on how slavery is remembered on the islands today. She travelled to the Caribbean and interviewed activists, historians and family members, and their reflections on what it really means to be free made her more determined than ever to bring the hidden stories of slavery to light.