The Lost Hours by Susan Lewis.

The latest Susan Lewis is a little different, in that it has all the usual family drama, but with the added element of a police procedural. The Crayce family live down in the south west of the country, on the moors in Devon and come across as a very privileged family. The land they own encompasses three houses, two lots of stables, a farm, a ménage and a shooting school. The family businesses allow eldest brother David and his wife Annabelle to send their children to private school, holiday abroad every year and be the envy of the locals. David and his brother Henry grew up in the main house, and were the basis of a local social group ‘The Moorauders’. Good looking and well off, this pair were the catch of the county. It raised eyebrows, and tempers, when David married an outsider, Annabelle- known as Annie. However, she is now part of the furniture and an irreplaceable part of the family’s business empire looking after the admin for the shooting school, farm and Julia’s horse and donkey sanctuary. Julia is Henry’s second wife and is probably Annie’s best friend, often popping across for coffee or to ‘cocktail me up’ at the end of a hard day. From a distance this family has it all, but is everything as perfect as it seems? When David and Annie’s daughter Sienna is picked up by the police for shoplifting a teddy bear, an ugly truth at the centre of the Crayce family comes to the fore.

Twenty years before, when David was engaged to Annie, the two brothers and their father went on an alcohol fuelled bender that ended in a party at the farmhouse. A few weeks later, local teenager Karen Lomax is found dead in an old railway carriage. A precocious teenager, who displayed a wild streak, died of a blow to the head and her murderer has never been found. Now that police have Sienna’s DNA sample, they are shocked to find a link to this old, unsolved case. One of the Crayce men left a trace of themselves behind, a sample of semen from Karen’s clothing shows a familial match to the Crayce’s. This puts David, Henry, and their father Dickie in the spotlight as suspects. Until their DNA is compared to the sample, the family will have to wait and in those two weeks, secrets and lies are revealed.

I found the novel a little slow at first, and having little patience with the champagne and pearls set, I found it hard to warm to the characters or their situation. So it really is down to the skill of this writer that I started to warm to Annie. I felt like she had gone through an awful lot with David, especially in the early years before the children. There were hints of psychological issues linked to David’s military service, which would have been around the time of the Balkan War. Annie describes sudden mood changes, a tendency to drink too much, nightmares and rages. While he had never physically hit her, she did worry about being in the wrong place when he had a nightmare. These episodes were the lost hours of the novel’s title. She had also struggled with his behaviour when drunk and there were even hints of his infidelity on these occasions. At the time of the farmhouse party they were very close to getting married, and there was a consensus in both families that if he messed up again she would call off the wedding. I felt like Annie was very used to listening to others, and making sure their needs were met, from the children and family to friends. Even her relationship with sister-in-law Julia is based very much on her arriving to have a drink and have her problems with Henry listened to. I kept waiting for her to have an epiphany and recognise her own needs in this nightmare, especially when the police’s focus starts to narrow.

My main concern was the voice that felt absent from the tale and I felt that was a deliberate choice on the part of the author. Murder victims don’t get to have a voice anymore and that’s what Lewis was trying to portray. The one person who had all the answers, couldn’t give them and had to rely on doctors and forensic experts to let us know what happened and at whose hands. However, we would never have her account or thought process and I really felt that absence, especially when old wine bar customers are saying she dressed provocatively or had fantasies that weren’t appropriate. Yet, there isn’t the same disapproval of the much older men who recognised and took advantage of her open nature and strong sex drive. There’s a deeply sad moment when her father says that they still loved her anyway, despite her wild side. I wanted to take him aside and say ‘of course you did and you shouldn’t have to apologise for that’. There was an obvious comparison between Annie and David’s daughter who was a similar age to Karen when she made her shoplifting mistake. The local police allowed Sienna to apologise to the shopkeeper and make financial recompense. Her family connections seemed to let her off lightly. Would Karen have been offered the same way out, if she had made a similar mistake? Karen paid for her teenage mistakes with her life. I think Lewis was pointing out the gender differences and the class differences in these areas. David and Henry, and to some extent their father, were living a teenage life full of parties, alcohol and risky sex, but they weren’t censured by those around them. Their women tended to forgive them and they didn’t lose their social or financial standing locally. It isn’t just a question of gender, but highlights the difference between land and property owners, and those who live in the suburbs or the council estates.

Our other ‘outsider’ is DS Natalie Rundle, new to the area and having to hit the ground running with this unexpected cold case, suddenly becoming red hot. She isn’t local so she doesn’t have the same preconceptions or the same loyalties. Without her, this case might never be solved, because she asks the difficult questions and never rules anyone out. In fact I didn’t expect the outcome, so the author was able to surprise me. Though when I thought about the themes I’d pulled out of the narrative, such as class, difference and wanting to belong, it did seem to fit. I found this novel successful because it was the usual ‘Aga saga’ we expect from Lewis, but with some edge. It questions whether these perfect lifestyles can ever be that perfect behind the scenes. It shows that where there is an ‘in’ crowd, there are those longing to join or feeling they just don’t make the cut. She also identifies an exploitation of young women from outside the posh clique. I think this is why the chapters beyond the murderer being unmasked are so important. They’re about different elements in this community coming together, creating equality and for a teenager like Sienna to remember and honour a young girl who went before her. Yes, these conversations are uncomfortable, but there’s an element of owning past behaviour and trying to make amends. Forcing themselves to be uncomfortable is the only way change will happen. This element of justice having to be served in the community as well as court, was an interesting one and really gave this novel the edge for me.

Meet The Author

Susan Lewis is the internationally bestselling author of over forty books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime. She is also the author of Just One More Day and One Day at a Time, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol during the 1960s. Following periods of living in Los Angeles and the South of France, she currently lives in Gloucestershire with her husband, James and mischievous dogs, Coco and Lulu.
To find out more about Susan Lewis:
http://www.susanlewis.com
http://www.facebook.com/SusanLewisBooks
@susanlewisbooks

The Imposter by Anna Wharton.

Publisher: Mantle

Published: 1st April 2021

ISBN: 978-1529037395

Chloe hasn’t had an easy life. As a child growing up in care she has had her fair share of being pulled from one place to another, never really knowing where home was. At least now she lives with her Nan, but she is struggling with the constant demands of Nan’s dementia. Sometimes she is torn between being at home for Nan and going to work. We meet her as they take a visit to the graveyard to leave flowers for Chloe’s mother. Chloe has to leave Nan by the grave to clean out the container for flowers. She is only gone a few moments, but when she gets back Nan is nowhere to be seen. Chloe frantically searches the cemetery, the copse behind the graves but she knows in the pit of her stomach this is it. If she calls the police because she has lost Nan they will alert social services. Nan’s social worker is pleased that Chloe wants to look after her Nan, but feels that the job is proving too much for someone working full time. She has been pushing for Nan to move into a home and Nan’s disappearance has made the argument for this even more compelling. While working she finds the story of a young girl who went missing from a playground and becomes fascinated with the case. Angela Kyle was at the park and disappeared while her father was distracted. Now she would be the same age as Chloe. As Nan is found and social services intervene, Chloe finds that the home they have recently shared will be sold for care fees. She then loses her job for taking the Kyle archive off the premises. Feeling totally adrift, Chloe wonders if she could be of help to the Kyle family. Maybe with her research she could help them find Angie.

Chloe work in the archives seems to take place at a similar time to when I was working for my local newspaper. A time when old-fashioned jobs like those who worked the printing press were being made redundant. I remember the warm, print smell in the afternoons and the smell of our archive, complete with a severe looking librarian who spent all day painstakingly cutting out and filing stories, and lending them out begrudgingly, as if she was lending her children! I remember our printing press being shut down. I remember the archive becoming digital. I used to sell advertising space then sit and design the advert on A4 requests with invoice slips attached. A man would collect them once a day and physically drive them to our art department who would magically turn them into adverts that appeared in features. Then it all became digital. I guess this gave me a way into the story, and a sense of what Chloe did and how it feels when your job is defunct. However, for Chloe it’s her whole purpose gone at once since she’s no longer her Nan’s carer. She visits the home, but Nan is only there sometimes and often protests she doesn’t have a granddaughter. I could feel Chloe’s sense of being adrift, without anything to anchor her.

She visits the fenland village where Maureen and Patrick Kyle now live. It is in the middle of nowhere, and their house is even outside the tiny hamlet set down a long drive. I live in Lincolnshire and can appreciate the endless flat fields and open sky, being able to see for miles and at night a huge expense of stars. By coincidence she sees an ad in the village shop for a lodger in the Kyle’s home. What better way to get to know the Kyles and try to solve the mystery? She can also solve the problem of losing her home. So she moves in with Maureen and Patrick and starts to get to know them, being honest about her past in care and her Nan, but not letting on that she knows about their daughter. She pretends to work in insurance and takes the bus every day into town, sometimes visiting Nan and other times visiting the playground where Angie went missing. However, lies are often found out and Chloe hasn’t fully thought through the implications of finding out the truth.

It was very hard to get to know Chloe and find out who she truly was, despite being party to her thoughts and feelings. I wondered if she was suffering borderline personality disorder, often categorised as a lack of cohesive self. She certainly fits the pattern and came from the type of disordered background that can lead to this type of mental illness. She was certainly exhibiting impulsive behaviour that she hadn’t fully thought through and formed intense but unstable relationships with others. Her friend Hollie, who had also gone through the care system, seemed like the only constant in her life. Although at times even she struggled to understand Chloe’s motivations and behaviour. I felt that the author treated Chloe’s behaviour sensitively and honestly. As Maureen started to behave in a motherly way towards Chloe, she responded like a daughter, possibly because this was the type of maternal affection that had always been missing from her life. This meant that she humoured the use of a special ‘Bunnikins’ plate and small cutlery for her at teatimes, where maybe someone else might have asked for something different. The pair bond very quickly, but she doesn’t cultivate the same bond with Patrick who seems to ask a lot of questions or Maureen’s friend Josie who seems suspicious of her presence. Chloe listens out for clues and finds Patrick slightly overbearing with his wife. They do have rows which she tries to listen to, but they also have a padlocked room that has no explanation.

The tension ratchets up slowly, starting as Patrick asks questions about where she works and Chloe getting a glimpse of what is hidden in the locked room. As she edges closer to the truth, she is in danger of being expelled from her new home or if someone in the house is responsible for Angie’s disappearance, could she be in serious danger? The need to know what had happened all those years before became addictive and I read the last chapters quickly and greedily! I was also fascinated by the dynamic building between Chloe and Maureen, who starts to suspect that Chloe might be her daughter. All the love and longing this mother has had for her missing girl starts to be lavished on Chloe and what’s so sad is that this is exactly what she has needed her whole life. There’s a point where the scales start tipping and I wondered if Chloe was starting to believe there could be some truth in it. She doesn’t remember her earliest years, so could she be Angie? Patrick goes along with this fiction, he doesn’t want to see his wife grieving another ‘daughter’ but he is uncomfortable and I started to wonder if he knew more than he was letting on. The ending when it comes is not sensational, but is sad, human and utterly tragic. However, there is another revelation coming that blew my mind a little. It was a bit like seeing The Sixth Sense then wanting to watch it again immediately with your new found knowledge. I thought the title was very apt, because Chloe is an imposter. She has no idea who she is, so becomes what other people need her to be. I truly hoped for a happier future for the character and her sense of isolation touched me. This was a great read, both as a mystery, but also has an exploration of what happens when we have no roots or anchor in life.

Meet The Author

Anna Wharton has been a print and broadcast journalist for more than twenty years, writing for newspapers including The Times, Guardian, Sunday Times Magazine, Grazia and Red. She was formally an executive editor at The Daily Mail. Anna has ghostwritten four memoirs including the Sunday Times Bestseller Somebody I Used To Know and Orwell Prize longlisted CUT: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today. The Imposter is her first novel.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner.

With crackling suspense, unforgettable characters and searing insight, The Lost Apothecary is a subversive and intoxicating debut novel of secrets, vengeance and the remarkable ways women can save each other despite the barrier of time.

Hidden in the depths of eighteenth-century London, a secret apothecary shop caters to an unusual kind of clientele. Women across the city whisper of a mysterious figure named Nella who sells well-disguised poisons to use against the oppressive men in their lives. But the apothecary’s fate is jeopardized when her newest patron, a precocious twelve-year-old, makes a fatal mistake, sparking a string of consequences that echo through the centuries.

Meanwhile in present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, running from her own demons. When she stumbles upon a clue to the unsolved apothecary murders that haunted London two hundred years ago, her life collides with the apothecary’s in a stunning twist of fate―and not everyone will survive.

2021’s Most Highly Anticipated New Books Newsweek
Most Anticipated Books of 2021 Popsugar

Nearing her ten-year anniversary, Caroline stumbles on a secret that changes everything, and is now exploring London alone on a holiday booked to celebrate with her husband. There is an element of numbness in her response, as she reflects on the life she’d expected to have here in the U.K. Caroline is English and had plans to for a post-graduate career, when she met her husband who had a great job, back home in the States. She chose to follow her heart and is reflecting on all she gave up for the relationship, when she stumbles across a man who takes tourists out mudlarking. When she joins them, she finds wandering the shoreline looking for objects in the mud, strangely relaxing. She follows their guide’s advice that she shouldn’t look for an object, but look at patterns in the mud for an absence of something. Not long after she finds her bottle, an apothecary bottle, with a crude etching of a bear.

The object sends us back to the 18th Century and our second narrator, Eliza. Eliza is only twelve years old, but wise beyond her years in some ways. She is working as a lady’s maid, for a mistress whose husband has a wandering eye and even more worrying wandering hands. These don’t just extend to his mistress, but sometimes to Eliza, who wakes up one day having been drugged with no recollection of what has happened to her. Unable to stomach his infidelity, Eliza’s mistress sends her to a mysterious apothecary who resides in Bear Alley. There she will enter the shop front, and as instructed, leave her mistresses’s instructions in a barrel. The apothecary will make up a tincture or poison for the buyer’s purpose and it will be ready to collect the next day. Nella, the mysterious apothecary, creates a poison for the purpose of killing the husband. However, they are at crossed purposes, because Eliza’s mistress intends the poison for their dinner guest, her husband’s lover. The consequences of this mix-up will be life changing, for Eliza and Nella.

This was a brilliant eye-opener to women’s lives in 18th Century London, and an interesting comparison to 21st Century women too. Despite our usual thinking that females lives were quite restricted, here in Nelly and Eliza, we have two women who are acting quite independently. It showed me how we can be mislead in our perceptions of a time period and the people in it, highlighting how important academic research is. We tend to think of the late 18th Century and Regency periods in terms of Jane Austen – all polite, restrained, conversation and bonnets. However, that is only highlighting one class of women and here we see that there were women living on the margins, independent of the marriage market and making their own living. Eliza’s mistress is wholly dependent on her husband, so the fear around his relationship with another woman is not emotional, but financial and based on what others will think. If set aside, she would potentially lose her home, her comfortable living and her place in polite society. Nella lives a poorer life with no status in society, but she’s dependent on no one. Her shop and her trade are hers alone. She’s also a woman focused on helping the sisterhood, her potions and poisons are only sold for the healing or help of women. In fact when she finds out the poison Eliza seeks for her mistress is to harm another woman, she wants to destroy it.

In contrast, we imagine that a 21st Century woman would be in a better position than Eliza’s mistress, but is Caroline truly as independent as Nella? She had dreams and plans for her life, that were set aside when she met her husband because his career was established back in the USA. She then changed continents, leaving behind her dreams, her family and friends. She’s then dependent upon her husband financially and for his social circle, there’s no support network for her and she finally admits to herself that she’s been unhappy in the relationship for some time. When she takes the vial she’s found to Gaynor at the British Library a whole world opens up in front of her. She is enthusiastic, full of life and starts to gain back some agency in her own life. So when her husband unexpectedly arrives to join her, how will she feel about his desire to save their relationship? Caroline has to learn to be her own woman again and relish that sense of independence that Nella loved and protected two hundred years earlier.

I thought the author conveyed both 18th and 21st Century London really well. I could imagine myself there with all the sights and smells she conjured up. I loved the description of the apothecary shop, back in its heyday and as it was when Caroline rediscovered it. That she would find the very book where Nella recorded women who would otherwise be forgotten, was an amazing thought. These were women who wouldn’t be recorded in history largely written by men. When I first studied 18th Century literature I realised how narrow my knowledge of the period was, focussed on battles and adventure rather than the domestic. I remember Moll Flanders being a bawdy, unexpected eye opener of how one woman uses what she can to survive in life. Sometimes, we apply 21st Century standards to women living in an entirely different world and I loved that the author turned that on its head and asked whether we’re any more free? Even if the choices she made to get there were entirely her own, Caroline has still been living in a gilded cage. The ending of Nella and Eliza’s story was unexpected, but showed the strength of female friendship and solidarity. I found myself hoping that Caroline would do the same – to choose an unexpected and unknown future of her own making. This was a brilliant read, historical fiction at its best and an incredible debut from an author I’ll be watching in the future.

Meet The Author


Sarah Penner is the New York Times bestselling author of THE LOST APOTHECARY (Park Row Books/HarperCollins), available now wherever books are sold. THE LOST APOTHECARY will be translated into two dozen languages worldwide. Sarah and her husband live in St. Petersburg, Florida with their miniature dachshund, Zoe. To learn more, visit SarahPenner.com

Nighthawking by Russ Thomas

Sheffield’s beautiful Botanical Gardens – an oasis of peace in a world filled with sorrow, confusion and pain. And then, one morning, a body is found in the Gardens. A young woman, dead from a stab wound, buried in a quiet corner. Police quickly determine that the body’s been there for months. It would have gone undiscovered for years – but someone just sneaked into the Gardens and dug it up.

Who is the victim? Who killed her and hid her body? Who dug her up? And who left a macabre marker on the body?

In his quest to find her murderer, DS Adam Tyler will find himself drawn into the secretive world of nighthawkers: treasure-hunters who operate under cover of darkness, seeking the lost and valuable . . . and willing to kill to keep what they find.

I live not too far from Sheffield and it’s a great city. As a family we’ve often popped on the train for a theatre matinee at The Crucible or The Lyceum. It’s my main gig venue too and in my younger days the City Hall and The Leadmill were regular haunts. I like the buzz of the city, the friendliness of the people and the chance to grab a bit of culture so close to home. So, when I was offered a proof of Russ Thomas’s new novel Nighthawking I jumped at the chance to read crime fiction based in the city. I hadn’t read his first Adam Tyler novel, so wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved being shown this darker, criminal, underbelly of one of my favourite cities. There was a familiarity to the term ‘nighthawking’ too, because I’d recently read Elly Griffith’s latest Ruth Galloway novel The Nighthawks. The term refers to the practice of stealing archaeological artefacts, usually found by metal detector, under the cover of night. As someone who lives in a very rural area, I must admit I was a little creeped out by the concept of groups of men stumbling about in muddy fields in the dark. The archaeological aspect is at the centre of DS Tyler’s latest murder case. As the lead of the CCRU team, he selects cold cases for investigation. However, this case is reopened because the body of a young Chinese student is found buried within the Botanical Gardens. Curiously, she is found with two Roman coins over her eyes. Once she is identified as missing Sheffield University student Li Qiang – known as Chi- DS Taylor is tasked with finding her killer by reviewing the original missing person’s case closed months ago, just two weeks after her disappearance. At his side is DC Mina Rabbanni, a one woman powerhouse of intuition and initiative, but not above taking risks when it might lead to the truth.

In the background are a fascinating mix of possible suspects, from Chi’s own family, to other workers at the gardens, to university contacts and whoever had access to the very rare Roman coins found with her body. Interestingly, one man is both a volunteer at the gardens, but is also part of an amateur metal detecting group. The group’s leader encourages the detectorists in good practice, but a small group have been out detecting late at night and have stumbled on the find of a lifetime. A cache of gold Roman coins, potentially worth six figures if they could sell them on. However, usual practice is for the find to be declared, then the landowner would be due a share of any profits. The men decide to sell, but where would they find someone with the right contacts, knowledge of the black market, and who they could trust? The men split the coins for safekeeping, until they can find a way forward, so how did two of them end up buried with Chi. The team’s digging into Chi’s life uncovers some interesting potential leads. Her sister Juju lives in the city, with a new baby and her fiancé Rob. Ju is grief stricken by her death when they visit to inform her, but her fiancé had been in a relationship with Chi too, suggesting some animosity or tension between the sisters. I was keeping my eye on the fiancé too, because he seemed to pop up far too often and wasn’t always giving the full story. Chi had a complicated love life, including several sexual relationships, but no permanent partner. Also far from the model student, she seemed to be struggling at the university in her study of orchids, but yet religiously volunteered with the Botanic Gardens, suggesting a keen interest. Add to this a father who’s a Chinese diplomat and the pressures start to build.

I enjoyed that Tyler also had a lot going on in his personal life and seemed distracted, much to the concern of DI Jordan, his superior. CCRU is under scrutiny by Chief Constable Stevens – known as the Eel behind his back – and is in the firing line as cutbacks threaten the force. Tyler is still quietly investigating the apparent suicide of his father, and wonders if a local gangster might hold the key. There’s also his own brother’s disappearance weighing heavy on his mind. He’s stuffing up his relationship with Paul, who feels he simply can’t get his attention, even to tell him their relationship is over. Added to this Tyler takes a homeless teenager under his wing and goes out of his way to help him get a roof over his head. Tyler keeps his emotions and worries to himself and isn’t really one to share, but with everything bottled up is his eye on the case as much as it should be? Mina is the stand out character for me, so full of life and enthusiasm for her job, she leaps off the page. With her superior officer often AWOL, she gets her teeth into this case and won’t let go. Her intuition is telling her there’s something wrong with the original missing person’s case. There are barely any notes in the file, normal checks weren’t carried out and many people were not even interviewed. The original investigating officer is on long-term sick leave, but Mina has to ask the question; why was it assumed Chi had run off with a secret boyfriend and with what evidence? It looks like they simply didn’t care, but Mina suspects there may be more to this than a single officer not doing her job.

Somehow, Thomas weaves all these disparate threads and characters together beautifully. Drip feeding the reader information a little at a time and dropping the odd red herring along the way. The pace was perfect, even the minor characters felt interesting and fully rounded ( the new pathologist, Emma, is a real highlight) I would never have guessed what was going on or who was behind the murder, so it was a surprise. I thought Thomas was so clever in keeping those longer narratives bubbling along underneath the surface of the primary case. Tyler’s unexpected meeting with an old gangster – the Ronnie Kray of 1960’s Sheffield – moves the story of his father’s death along a little, ready for the next book. The hints at Mina’s background and it’s possible clash with her work as a police officer is touched upon, but I would be interested to see how that develops. I would also love to see more of her double act with Emma the pathologist. Then there’s the politics of policing, the potential fireworks over Mina’s findings and CCRU’s future going forward. Thomas took me to familiar places but placed them in a completely different light. He showed me the difference between a city as I would see it and as a police officer sees it, and that gap in perception is often what makes personal relationships so difficult. I’m really looking forward to getting to know Tyler better and to enjoying more of such well-paced crime fiction; rich in character, setting and storyline.

Published by Simon and Schuster 29th April 2021.

Meet The Author

RUSS THOMAS was born in Essex, raised in Berkshire and now lives in Sheffield. After a few ‘proper’ jobs (among them: pot-washer, optician’s receptionist, supermarket warehouse operative, call-centre telephonist, and storage salesman) he discovered the joys of bookselling, where he could talk to people about books all day. Firewatching is his debut novel.

Throwback Thursday! The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Armin.

This is such an apt novel for the time of year, but I’ve found myself thinking about it recently for two other reasons. Of course spring is on it’s way, but this year is something of a personal renaissance. I’ve been shielding since the second lockdown, because I have multiple sclerosis and it means I have a few issues with swallowing and breathing. This was a personal choice, but thank goodness I did, because I did receive a government letter four weeks ago telling me I should have been shielding. A brilliant bit of irony. So now I can have friends come and join me for a dog walk or sit in my garden for a cuppa together. I can’t explain how joyful this makes me feel. I will feel connected to the world again – well, as much as I ever want to be. I can also have my hair coloured silver blonde with lilac dip-dye! Hairdressers here I come.

The other reason is that four weeks ago I moved to my new home. It’s an 18th Century cottage in a really happy village, and I feel like the real me is re-emerging. We’d been living in the city, on a relatively new estate and I had no idea how much of an effect this as having on my mental health. I was sitting on my reading couch at the weekend with the sun coming in, next door have an apple tree and the branches hang over the fence, so I can smell the blossom when I have the window open. On Sunday afternoon we had a pot of tea and our Easter cake outside in the garden, where an enormous jasmine hangs heavily on the wall wafting a heady scent over the whole garden. I started planning what I’d like in the garden across the seasons and that always feels like a corner has been turned. It’s as if we went into hibernation in winter 2019 and we’re only just coming out and that feeling reminded me of the characters in this novel.

The premise of the book is that a discreet advertisement appears in The Times, addressed ‘To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine’. On offer is a small medieval castle for rent, above a bay on the Italian Riviera. Four very different women – the dishevelled and downtrodden Mrs Wilkins, the sad, sweet-faced Mrs Arbuthnot, the formidable widow Mrs Fisher and the ravishing socialite Lady Caroline Dester – are drawn to the shores of the Mediterranean that April. As each, in turn, blossoms in the warmth of the Italian spring and finds their spirits stirring, quite unexpected changes occur. These characters drive the novel, as it is their responses to each other and to Italy that take centre stage. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are the first to respond, both ladies living resignedly, but quietly, in unhappy marriages. They are joined by Lady Caroline, a younger, beautiful woman who has found that her looks can be more of a burden than a blessing. Finally, there’s Mrs Fisher. A formidable woman who has a very strong will, which she tries to impose on the other women. The author is so perceptive when it comes to human foibles and how personalities rub against each other when living side by side. Tiny little acts of pettiness and selfishness can take on huge importance in these situations. However, what the author also shows is that one person’s character failing can have a transformative effect on someone else. One woman’s need to be in charge, inspires assertiveness in a quieter, more timid member of the party. The early chapters are a comedy of errors and miscommunication as the women try and often fail to understand each other.

The author deliberately creates an opening that feels like being under a rain cloud. The weather is miserable and cold, each woman feels unhappy or have lost themselves in some way. Then as they’re thrown together for this month in the castle we wonder if they’ll ever get along and if Italy will work its magic on them. The second half of the book feels like entering spring, the sun is shining and the surroundings start to work on each woman, even Mrs Fisher. The characters and the surroundings come into bloom. There are vivid descriptions of the castle and its gardens so the reader can really visualise the setting. It feels like a literary painting. Slowly, each woman begins their transformation. In the case of the married ladies, they invite their husbands to join them in Italy. Could this special place transform their marriages, relight a spark or remind them of the deeper love they once shared?

The movie version of the novel.

The novel is charming and light, without falling into whimsy or sentimentality, showing extraordinary skill in the writer. Despite barely having a plot, the book can be read as a satire on class and society post WW1. It could be read as a travel novel or just a study in how a different culture, characters and nature can soften and change us for the better. There isn’t a single character here who isn’t changed by the magic of Italy, and that’s the final reason I love this book. I was meant to get married last spring and go to Venice for my honeymoon. I picked the perfect hotel room with a double aspect and a balcony over one of the smaller canals. It would have been my third trip to Venice, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it. The first time I visited we arrived at night and took a water taxi in the dark across the lagoon. We arrived at a small jetty and it was so quiet, just the sound of water lapping against the buildings. The lamplight was reflected in the ripples on the surface, as well as tiny lanterns as we stepped up into a small garden. We walked through a courtyard with pots, pergolas with hanging plants and the tiny points of light hanging within. It was such a surprise because gardens are rare in Venice, but there it was. I did feel changed by my visit. I felt amazed that such a beautiful place actually existed and that I could go there whenever I wanted. It improved my confidence, my creativity and taught me to go a bit slower. If I never go abroad again in my life, I’ll be happy because I went to Venice. This book captures some of that transformative feeling; its a witty and delightful depiction of what it is like to rediscover joy.

Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941) was an Australian-born British novelist who was married to a Prussian aristocrat. Her most famous works include Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Enchanted April

Backstories by Simon Van der Velde

What I want is to find the spark, to dig down into their pain, their passions and their imperfections, and show you our heroes as they truly are.

Backstories is a unique collection of stories each told from the point of view of a famous, (or notorious) person at a pivotal moment in their lives. The writing is literary but accessible and the voices vividly real. The settings are mostly 60’s and 70’s UK and USA, and the driving themes are inclusion, social justice and of course, nostalgia – but the real key to these stories is that the protagonists’ identities are withheld. This means that your job is to find them, leading to that Eureka moment when you realise who’s mind you’ve been inhabiting for the last twenty minutes.

Dreamers, singers, talkers and killers; they can dazzle with their beauty or their talent or their unmitigated evil, but inside themselves they are as frail and desperate as the rest of us. But can you see them? Can you unravel the truth?

These are people you know, but not as you know them.

Peel back the mask and see.

I read a lot of books and hear the words ‘unique reading experience’ all too often, but this really is just that. A great premise that makes a series of short stories about celebrities, an intriguing psychological puzzle. The author withholds their identities, taking us back to a time before they were famous, potentially giving us insights into who they were and even what made them become the stars we know and love. A lot of fun can be had sharing them with friends and working out who can identify which star first, or discussing which story you enjoyed most.

However, this collection of short stories is much more than a gimmick or party game. Simon Van der Velde is a great writer with an uncanny ability to get inside the mind of each of his subjects. He constructs their ‘selves’ beautifully, giving us fully rounded people behind the star status. He has a keen understanding of what it means to be human and how events may affect someone psychologically. In one story he shows how childhood bullying leads our character to a particular friendship, perhaps also the insight into human emotions that eventually make his song lyrics so poetic and beloved.

What the author does is almost filmic, in the same vein as the film Rocket Man, where the Elton John we know in the extravagant costumes strolls into a group therapy session. Then as he reminisces to the group we see a series of flashbacks, to the drink and drug fuelled 1970s. He takes us even further back to a lonely childhood with a mother preoccupied with how things look, and a severe father who can’t show love. Each time we return to the therapy group a little bit of his costume has fallen away, until at the end the costume is gone and he’s able to reconnect with that hurt little boy and give him comfort. It’s a beautiful way of framing an biopic and it’s exactly what the author does here. He creates those flashback moments or snapshots for each of his characters, so that we can piece together their ‘true’ personality, possible motivations and know them in a way we haven’t before. It’s almost like inhabiting another person and that’s how versatile the author is here. He’s a literary shapeshifter, jumping into each new incarnation with skill and insight. There’s something voyeuristic about looking this far into someone’s psyche, but it’s compelling and illuminating too.

I know these stories will send many readers to the internet to check how close to the truth some of the stories are and that’s definitely the fun part. However, it’s great to sit back and read the stories again to fully appreciate the brilliant sense of place and time across the collection. These people are fully grounded in a real world that I believed in. Despite these worlds being on different continents, time periods and encompassing varied family backgrounds, they all felt like real spaces. With each story being self-contained, this is a great collection to carry with you and read on the go. Each story might only take twenty minutes to read, but that’s perfect for spending your lunch hour or commute home totally immersed in someone else’s life experience. Its a chance to examine what made each person, become the household name they are. This collection is fun and intriguing, but also psychologically astute and a masterclass in how to construct a ‘self’ within fiction.

Published by Smoke and Mirrors Press, 25th March 2021

The Author’s Vision.

MY BACKSTORIES QUEST 

“Whatever happened to, all of the heroes?”  The Stranglers 1977  

I was twelve years old when I first heard this song and although there was something in the feral tone that grabbed me, I didn’t really understand it. I do now. I get the angst and the loss and the emptiness, which is why, in Backstories, I aim to answer the question.

I’m not interested in simplistic tabloid truths. They clung on too long, drank too much, lost their looks and their charm and generally reminded us that we’re all getting older. That’s not what I want from my heroes.  

What I want is to find the spark, to dig down into their pain, their passions and their imperfections, and show you our heroes as they truly are.  

So join me on my quest. Let’s bypass the obvious, the tedious,and the dull. Brave the deeper, darker paths where the treasures can be found, and together we’ll uncover the fears and doubts that made our heroes what they were and perhaps catch a glimpse of ourselves along the way.

Whatever happened to all of the heroes?

They turned out to be human beings, in all their diverse glory.

Simon Van der Velde January, 2021

Meet The Author.

Simon Van der Velde has worked variously as a barman, laborer, teacher, caterer and lawyer, as well as traveling throughout Europe and South America collecting characters for his award-winning stories. Since completing a creative writing M.A. (with distinction) in 2010, Simon’s work has won and been shortlisted for numerous awards including; The Yeovil Literary Prize, (twice), The Wasafiri New Writing Prize, The Luke Bitmead Bursary, The Frome Prize, and The Harry Bowling Prize – establishing him as one of the UK’s foremost short-story writers.

Simon now lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, with his wife, labradoodle and two tyrannical children.

www.simonvandervelde.com

The Deception of Harriet Fleet by Helen Scarlett.

When I’m looking at the blog tours that are available to me, nothing makes me jump on board quicker than the words ‘atmospheric Victorian chiller’. I can’t get enough of this genre, so I was really looking forward to spending the weekend immersed in this debut novel.

1871. An age of discovery and progress. But for the Wainwright family, residents of the gloomy Teesbank Hall in County Durham the secrets of the past continue to overshadow their lives.

Harriet would not have taken the job of governess in such a remote place unless she wanted to hide from something or someone. Her charge is Eleanor, the daughter of the house, a fiercely bright eighteen-year-old, tortured by demons and feared by relations and staff alike. But it soon becomes apparent that Harriet is not there to teach Eleanor, but rather to monitor her erratic and dangerous behaviour – to spy on her.

Worn down by Eleanor’s unpredictable hostility, Harriet soon finds herself embroiled in Eleanor’s obsession – the Wainwright’s dark, tragic history. As family secrets are unearthed, Harriet’s own begin to haunt her and she becomes convinced that ghosts from the past are determined to reveal her shameful story.

For Harriet, like Eleanor, is plagued by deception and untruths….

This ‘governess sent to brooding gothic mansion’ story is becoming a genre of its own. Having read modern versions of the tale such as Madam and The Turn of the Key recently, it was good to go back to Victorian England and the roots of this tale that has its origins in Turn of the Screw and Jane Eyre. The structure is clever, in that we start in 1849 with a prologue and a narrator that doesn’t introduce themselves. As I read, I started to feel intrigued, but that soon turned into an uneasy feeling that this character was shifty and manipulative. Their narration doesn’t flow, but the scene that follows has impact, even though it is brief. We then jump forward and the author gives us a bit of distance from events – an older Harriet recounting the tale in her old. The parts she relates are pacey and tense, so when I was jerked back to the present, I wanted the next instalment and what came next. All of this creates a novel that is very hard to put down once started and led to a lot of boxes left unpacked in my new house!

The tale Harriet tells moves us to 1871, to Co Durham and the country house Teesbank Hall. Far away from the urban areas and deep into the countryside, it’s remoteness gives us the sense that anything could happen and no one would know – the Victorian equivalent of ‘in space no one can hear you scream’. Added to the sense of isolation and foreboding in the environment we learn that no one has lasted long in the role of governess here. However, we’re not sure that Harriet has many other choices. She’s running from something and that means she may not have been too vigilant about what she’s running towards. She ignores warnings from locals about the house’s macabre history and the isolation, but does feel a little apprehensive as she walks up the drive. What if they aren’t the respectable, ordinary family they have led her to believe they are? Yet, Harriet Caldwell is an assumed name, suggesting that she hasn’t been too free with the truth about her own past.

Her pupil Eleanor, the daughter of the Wainwright family, is incredibly bright, but also obsessed by her own family history. She’s plagued by dark secrets and tragic incidents in their past. Eleanor draws Harriet into their heritage, but is it a heritage she wants any part of, especially when her own secrets are haunting her? Harriet soon finds that Eleanor’s breadth of knowledge is good, perhaps even better than her own, so she doesn’t need a teacher. Her role seems more like that of a guardian or carer, observing Eleanor’s behaviour and being vigilant against the angry, hysterical fits she apparently suffers with.The family would like Harriet to observe and report back to them, and even though she feels like a spy she knows she has no choice, if she wants to stay hidden. The feeling in the house is oppressive, with the parents almost at war with each other and the grief over their tragically murdered son twenty years before still affecting them deeply. In fact, the only welcoming and calm presence seems to be that of their other son Henry.

There are a lot of aspects to the mysteries here, but all of them are hauntings in a way. There are some potentially ghostly goings on, but also the lingering emotions of past events, the fear of something or someone catching up with you and the way secrets, lies and even intense marital discord can leave an impression on a house and it’s inhabitants. As Harriet slowly reveals her reasons for fleeing Norfolk on one hand, she is also uncovering the terrible murder of Samuel Wainwright back in 1849. However, it isn’t just the suppression of these secrets that are highlighted in the novel, its the psychological damage caused when someone can’t be their true self, openly and without judgement. There’s also an element of gaslighting in the denial of certain truths and the frightening ease with which men will declare their wives and other female relatives insane when they become inconvenient or dangerous.

I think the book succeeds beautifully in showing 21st Century readers how powerless women really were in the 19th Century. This thread in the novel reminded me of the Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Another novel where, once used, a woman is consigned to an asylum if she threatens a man’s status or respectability. However, married women like Mrs Wainwright were also stuck, unable to own their own property or have their own money. A husband could have a sympathetic doctor label his wife as insane or hysterical, and sign her away to an asylum without censure. Even the word hysteria has gender implications in that it’s linked to the word for the uterus – hystera – only women can be labelled hysterical. A man is allowed to be angry, upset and even lash out without any judgement or negative connotations relating to his gender. Whereas women are still labelled unstable, unbalanced and insane. This is how the original madwoman ended up in the attic.

I found myself deeply sympathetic towards Eleanor, who is trapped by the house, by the past and by her father. On first meeting her, she seems a little paranoid and distrustful of most of the family. However, as the story develops I started to admire her intelligence and her desire to speak out. I felt she was stifled by her family, and almost imprisoned at the hall, where memories of 1849 still haunt her. This girl will never flourish if she doesn’t get away and I had such hopes for her time in London with her brother Henry. I hoped it would create an escape for her and a chance to meet like-minded, progressive people. There is also a burgeoning friendship developing between Harriet and Eleanor, that’s broken when the trip comes to an end and Eleanor feels Harriet is to blame. It is after this trip, when she is at her most vulnerable, that the past comes back to taunt her and I found myself holding my breath, waiting for the consequences.

This is an absorbing novel, with several mysterious strands to follow and I think readers will be split over the characters and whose story they are most invested in. While I wanted the mystery surrounding Samuel’s murder to come to light, it was the women’s fates that kept me engrossed to the very end. This was an enthralling gothic mystery, with the pace of a modern thriller and strong feminist overtones. It’s a fantastic debut and I can’t wait to see what’s next for this author.

Published Quercus 1st April 2021 Paperback Edition

Helen Scarlett is a writer and English teacher based in the north east of England. Her debut historical novel, The Deception of Harriet Fleet, is a chilling take on nineteenth-century classics such as Jane Eyre seen through modern eyes. It is set in County Durham, close to where Helen lives with her husband and two daughters.

The April Dead by Alan Parks.

NO ONE WILL FORGET . . .

In a grimy flat in Glasgow, a homemade bomb explodes, leaving few remains to identify its maker.

Detective Harry McCoy knows in his gut that there’ll be more to follow. The hunt for a missing sailor from the local US naval base leads him to the secretive group behind the bomb, and their disturbing, dominating leader.

On top of that, McCoy thinks he’s doing an old friend a favour when he passes on a warning, but instead he’s pulled into a vicious gang feud. And in the meantime, there’s word another bigger explosion is coming Glasgow’s way – so if the city is to survive, it’ll take everything McCoy’s got . .

I was lucky enough to be on the blog tour for the third book in Alan Parks’s Harry McCoy series, so it was a real treat to be able to read this one straight away, back to back. This is real Sottish Noir at its best as we follow a new case for Harry, in the crime ridden streets of 1970s Glasgow. I visit Glasgow a lot, and love its galleries, architecture and museums but this isn’t touristy, post-City of Culture, Glasgow. This city is grimy and dangerous, plagued by violence from criminal and sectarian gangs. Harry grew up in these rough, tenement areas of the city and it’s where his friendship with Steve Cooper started; back in their childhoods way before Harry became a police officer, and Stevie went in a very different direction. Harry’s loyalty to his old friend, means that he’s there at the prison gates when Steve gets out after a six-month stretch inside. Steve’s position as the boss of a criminal enterprise means he has to pick up where he left off – looking for whoever betrayed him. Loyalty is vital to an organisation like Steve’s and he won’t rest till he knows where the leak is. No matter how much he still feels like the big crime boss he always was, things have changed. Harry drops him at his old council flat knowing that even his own loyalty may be called into question.

The case Harry investigates is one of a bombing, not that unusual in the 1970s as the sectarian troubles in Ireland spread over to the mainland. However, the IRA’s targets are usually more illustrious than a flat in Woodlands. The only casualty seems to be the bomber with his remains scattered around the property. This is usually a job for Special Branch, so Harry is shocked to find it falls to him, and his sleep deprived colleague Wattie, to investigate. Wattie has become a father and is an easy target for DCI Murray. Murray thinks Wattie isn’t up to the job and Wattie begs McCoy for support, especially when the DCI piles a murder investigation on top of his other work. To make things worse for Harry, the prime suspect in the murder is Steve Cooper. Harry is well and truly in the middle, trying to keep the peace and his loyalty to many different people at once. His main concern is that there will be a bigger bomb, a more public target, and a long list of casualties. When this happens, Harry finds his loyalties called into question again, this time from a Special Branch officer who thinks McCoy may have connections to the IRA.

This investigation will lead Harry into the past, and a history of British military atrocities committed as the empire collapsed and beyond. The bomber follows an old army leader with murderous loyalty, and Harry stumbles across terrible hidden truths. The dark, atmospheric house in the country will stay with me, it’s terrible secrets never known until now as Harry uncovers evidence of torture and killing. Have these horrible acts ended though? Or is someone still carrying out killings in this terrible place? As if Harry doesn’t have enough to do, he’s also charged with finding a missing son of an ex- naval captain. Donnie Stewart was based in Scotland following in his father’s footsteps in the navy, but now he’s gone AWOL. His father travels to Scotland from retirement in America, keeping the pressure on Harry to leave no stone unturned looking for Donnie.

There is so much going on here, and so many loose ends to chase. However, one of the things I love about this series is that the author doesn’t just focus on the plot. He puts the characters and the intricacies of their relationships front and centre too. The relationship between Steve and McCoy is particularly interesting, especially in this instalment where pressure is placed on them both. It’s very interesting to see how Harry balances his job upholding the law, with his loyalty to his friend. Steve drags him into the fight with another crime boss, trying to use Steve’s recent time in prison as a chance to muscle in on his patch. This stretches Harry to his limits and place some edge into their relationship. Yet there is still that sense of a long held friendship that allows some black humour to creep in, even when the stakes are high. McCoy has a similar rapport with his colleague Wattie, but also some sensitivity too. He empathises with Wattie’s position as a new dad, and shows his concern. This is a sensitivity that spills over into his dealings with Donnie Stewart’s father too. I had the sense this wasn’t just being a good police officer, it was a softer side to Harry that maybe had something to do with getting older. What I loved most though is the author’s love of the wonderful city of Glasgow, in all its dark and dirty 1970s glory. He highlights the social injustices of the city, and the wry humour of its people. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who loves crime fiction and I look forward to May in the series.

Check out the other bloggers on the tour and their thoughts on The April Dead.

Meet The Author

Before beginning his writing career, Alan Parks was Creative Director at London Records and Warner Music, where he marketed and managed artists including All Saints, New Order, The Streets, Gnarls Barkley, and Cee Lo Green. His love of music, musician lore, and even the industry, comes through in his prize-winning mysteries, which are saturated with the atmosphere of the 1970s music scene, grubby and drug-addled as it often was. Parks’ debut novel, Bloody January, propelled him onto the international literary crime fiction circuit and won him praise, prizes, and success with readers. The second book in the Harry McCoy series, February’s Son, was a finalist for a MWA Edgar Award. Parks was born in Scotland, earned an M.A. in Moral Philosophy from the University of Glasgow, and still lives and works in the city he so vividly depicts in his Harry McCoy thrillers.

Another Life by Jodie Chapman.

Published by Michael Joseph, 1st April 2021.

Nick and Anna work the same summer job at their local cinema. Anna is mysterious, beautiful and from a very different world to Nick.

She’s grown up preparing fot the end of days, in a tightly-controlled existence where Christmas, getting drunk and sex before marriage are all off limits.

So when Nick comes into her life, Anna falls passionately in love. Their shared world burns with poetry and music, cigarettes and conversation – hints of the people they hope to become.

But Anna, on the cusp of adulthood, is afraid to give up everything she’s ever believed in and everyone she’s ever loved. She walks away and Nick doesn’t stop her.

Years later, a tragedy draws Anna back into Nick’s life.

But rekindling their relationship leaves Anna and Nick facing a terrible choice between a love that’s endured decades, and the promises they’ve made to others along the way.

Wow! I expected a love story and received so much more from this wonderful read. Jodie Chapman has managed to capture all of life’s stages as we to and fro through the years with Anna and Nick. Told mainly by Nick, we begin on Christmas Eve in NYC 2018, then we tumble back through the years: to when he meets Anna; to his childhood years and everything beyond. Everything we come to learn about Nick’s personality, his closed off manner and inability to let anyone close, is made clear by one childhood event. So dreadful and emotional that it brought me up short. I had to close the book for a moment to process it and think about what such a loss could do to a young boy.

Nick and Anna first meet in their early twenties, while working at their local cinema. In the heat soaked days of summer 2003, their love burns with a similar intensity, as only young love can. They seem opposites. Nick is quiet and has a solidity to his character. Anna is more intense and emotion driven. These differences could balance each other out, but instead they mean the relationship never fully catches light. Anna’s fervency could come from her deeply religious upbringing. Her beliefs are strong and part of her, not just as a religion but as a culture, a way of being. If she’s to throw that life away she doesn’t just lose her church, she loses her friends, her family, her certainty in the way she sees the world. Only promises of Nick’s real feelings could persuade her to let go of these ties. Yet Nick isn’t built for such intensity of feeling. His calmness and solidity come from a place of not wanting to feel such extremes of emotion. He closes off just when Anna needs assurances. It is a short lived romance that never fully gets off the ground. Yet, this is not the last time they will meet, as they are thrown together again several times over a lifetime.

Love in all its forms is celebrated here, not just romantic love, but sibling love, family love, and love of a religion or way of life. Nick and his brother Sal have such a special relationship, condensed into that opening section, which is set in Manhattan. Nick pours a lifetime of shared love and memories into just a few pages and it grabs you, it pulls you into the story. In a way Sal is more like Anna, more fiery and quick to share his thoughts and feelings. Despite this difference in their characters the brothers are very close. We’re taken deeper into their lives together later in the novel, almost as if Nick has had to take the time to open up to the reader. These chapters are infused with nostalgia for the late eighties and early nineties – probably because I was a teenager back then, but also because they have the feel of faded home movies and I could almost here the sound of an old-fashioned projector running in the background. The author lulls us into a sepia toned dream and then shatters our emotions again as we revisit that terrible life changing event, but in greater detail. We see that this has affected both brothers, but in different ways. It also feels like one of those moments where everything clicks into place and our understanding of Nick’s behaviour and personality opens up completely.

I understood the young Anna well, because I was brought up within the confines of religion. My primary school years were spent partly in Catholic school and I made my first communion and confession, then inexplicably my Mum jumped to an evangelical church which became all encompassing. It was our Sundays, then weekly prayer meetings, house group, youth group and social events. In hindsight I was being indoctrinated and at times my parents actually scared me, because their behaviour was so out of character. If I liked a boy, my head would start whirling with how much my parents might disapprove, how they would act, the constant teaching of purity and dating exclusively within the faith and its rules. Often I found myself in the painful position of ‘just friends’ with someone I really liked, because I was too frightened to go out with them. I understood that Anna needed to hear more about how Nick felt. Did he love her? She couldn’t wait and let things play out because she didn’t have the freedom.

Personally, I realised that I needed to face whether or not I believed in this system of religion, independent from my parents. Not for a relationship, but for me. Then, although we didn’t always agree, I could make my own life choices based on my moral compass and not someone else’s. This is something Anna needed to learn too, whether she wanted that religious life or something different for herself in the future, because within some religions there is no compromise. I did appreciate the author’s autobiographical influence here, because I learned more about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their faith. It gave me a more nuanced picture than I had previously and helped me understand Anna’s choices. I also loved the touch of having Anna’s emails and poems throughout, because it is the only way we hear her voice unmediated by Nick.

The background of Nick’s parents marriage was a great addition to the novel, because it shows us how two very different people can be together. Eve is one of those people whose warmth can light up a room. She’s also keenly intelligent, not just intellectually but emotionally too. She can definitely read the men in her life. Her husband Paul is hard to like, because he’s more austere and can be unpredictable. It’s as if he’s resentful of something, and while it’s hard to understand what that might be at first, Nick does eventually discover why his father was so difficult. From the outside, people would shake their heads and wonder why this couple are together and how the relationship works. Marriage is a secret room, and only the two people inside it truly have the key to open its door. This book also feels like a key. A key to the inside of Nick and how he sees his life and relationships. A privileged and rare look into how he truly thinks and feels, but only for those who open it’s pages. I feel very lucky to be one of those few and I hope you will too.

Meet The Author

Born and raised in England, Jodie spent a decade as a photographer before returning to her first love of writing. She lives in Kent with her husband and three sons. Another Life is her first novel, coming April 2021.

Instagram: @jodiechapman
Twitter: @jodiechapman

A Mirror Murder by Helen Hollick.

Today, as part of the Damp Pebbles blog tour, I’m sharing an extract from A Mirror Murder by Helen Hollick.

CHAPTER ONE

Life After School

Murder, when I was a naïve sixteen-year-old, was very firmly in my uncle and guardian, DCI Toby Christopher’s domain, not mine. But two years after leaving school, in the summer of 1971, a brutal murder was to change my life. For a second time.

    It is not the amount of blood pooling over the black and white linoleum, nor its copper-tang smell that clings, these many years later, to my mind or occasionally haunts a restless dream. The other smells are also there – but I’ll not dwell on those for the sake of the victim’s dignity. It is the hollow emptiness of the house that I remember. That stilled quietness, as if the place was suspended on pause, holding its breath – waiting. Waiting for the lonely coldness of death to be discovered, for the stunned silence to be disturbed by those who, by necessity, must intrude…

* * *

As a shy schoolgirl, I knew little of the world, my priority being to not make a fool of myself. Insecurities matter when you are an awkward teenager about to be let loose from the sanctimonious boredom of a girls’ school into the unknown of the grown-up world. My careers talk, in that final term of 1969, did little to boost my fragile confidence:

“What do you want to do when you leave school, January?” 

I had sat, staring blankly at the two prim schoolmistresses. No one except those in ‘authority’, or girls who didn’t like me (the feeling was mutual), called me ‘January’. To my family and friends I was Jan. Jan Christopher. I frequently cursed the day I was born because that was why I had been lumbered with such a stupid Christian name. My identical twin and I came several weeks too early, on the last day of January 1953, so we were named for the months we were conceived and born. I got January because I arrived first, my twin got June. I guess it could have been worse: hard to shorten February into a respectable-sounding nickname. 

June had died when we were three years old. I can only remember hearing incessant crying in a darkened room. She – we – had been ill. I don’t know what with, we never talked about it. I survived. She didn’t.

So, there I was, a gawky lass who hid behind her curtain of long, non-descript brown hair, trying my best not to be noticed by the girls who had confidence (the bullies), being asked by two teachers what I wanted to do with my life after I finally escaped the long, tortuous, horrid, lonely, hell years at school. (I’m paraphrasing.) I had no idea. My only ambition was to write. I was always writing, but real authors, I thought, were clever, intellectual people who went to university and got degrees and things. I had three minor exam credits: even obtaining those had been a miracle.

Reading was my other passion. Characters in books were more reliable than so-called friends who sashayed arm-in-arm with you around the playground one day, then stabbed you in the back the next. I preferred to retreat into fictional worlds. Even the ‘baddies’ of fiction were better friends than the spiteful two-faced trash of the ‘frilly-knicker brigade’.

As for that unhelpful careers talk: “I want to write,” I had mumbled to the two teachers.

“But you like reading, don’t you, January? I think a library is the best place for you.”

Which is why I found myself shelving books at the Branch Library in South Chingford, a north London suburb on the edge of Essex, where I was born and raised. And two years after leaving school I was still there, shelving books at the same library. (Although I had soon discovered not to be quite so quick about it.)

“Old Mrs Norris is in again, I see.” I said as I gave the empty book trolley a shove with my hip to roll it into its parking bay behind the counter. “I wonder what coupons she’ll cut from the paper today?”

Mrs Norris was a regular. She tottered in on the dot of a quarter past six every evening that we were open, a faded pink beret perched atop her grey hair, a red, string shopping bag always containing a small packet of McVitie’s digestive biscuits in her left hand, and an old black, plastic handbag, that was meant to look like leather, dangling from the crook of her right elbow. She looked about ninety, but from her library registration card, was only in her early seventies. She would heave her way through the wood and glass entrance door – a wretched thing on the inside of a small, square, lobby. Even us younger ones had a job to push that monster open and get through without it snapping at our heels as it swung back.

The old dear would smile at us, wave hello, and shuffle off to the carpeted reading area over in the upper left-hand corner of the single storey library. There, she would settle herself on one of the comfortable armchairs, nibble at her biscuits, (Caretaker Bert always moaned, because they left crumbs everywhere), and peruse the newspapers. She always left again at five minutes to eight, just before closing. The only thing different to when she had arrived, the packet of biscuits would be empty and all the supermarket discount food coupons would be neatly cut from the tabloid papers.

We knew that Mrs Norris was pilfering the coupons, but did it matter? She was obviously poor, and came into the library each evening to eat her biscuits in the warm, using our lighting and heating rather than her own. 

Approaching closing time was often a strain, depending on how busy we were. Inevitably, someone rushed in during the last ten minutes, determined to choose the right book to read, and taking ages about it. 

I glanced again at the clock. Was it moving? It didn’t look like it! 

Seven-forty. I heaved a few more returned books on to the trolley and looked up to see Mrs Norris leaving in a flustered hurry. How odd. She never left early. 

“Are you all right?” I called, but I don’t think she heard, because she merely muttered, “Oh dear, oh dear,” as she hauled her way through the equally as obnoxious ‘Out’ door. I noticed that she still had the packet of biscuits in her bag, along with the entire Daily Mirror newspaper, which annoyed me a little as it had an article about one of the ex-Beatles, which I’d wanted to read all day, but hadn’t found the chance.

It was Friday evening, looked like it was about to pour with rain, and I had a twenty-five-minute walk home, or a wait, equally as long, for the bus. But tomorrow was Saturday, my one-in-three weekends off. A whole two days to myself. 

Or so I thought.

A Mirror Murder © Helen Hollick

Helen Hollick.