Posted in Squad Pod

Three Nights in Italy by Olivia Beirne

As this novel opens Zoe has just lost her grandmother, a larger than life, charismatic artist who lived in Italy. Zoe and her mum Ange are left grieving in Cornwall, but they grieve differently and Zoe is worried about her mum, who appears to be in a trance but answers ‘fine’ when anyone asks how she is. Fine is a word banned in my counselling room, so I could understand Zoe’s concern. It’s a form of masking how we truly feel. Uncle Reg is dealing with all the legal and financial stuff, holding an auction of his mother’s belongings only a week after her funeral in Italy. Zoe and Ange plan to stay in Cornwall, but Zoe is uneasy about Uncle Reg and so was I. Her grandma promised her the beautiful emerald engagement ring that she claimed had magical properties. So, when Aunt Fanny turns up after being missing for fourteen years, she encourages them to travel out to Italy. She should know if it’s necessary, after all she was once married to Uncle Reg. With a reluctant agreement from Ange, they agree to travel to Italy for three nights only. They must go to grandma’s house and search for the ring before Uncle Reg even knows they’ve left the country.

Our young heroine Zoe shares the narrative in short, snappy sections with her friend Harriet, Mum Ange, and of course, Aunt Fanny. There are times when her voice gets a little lost amongst these other sparky and formidable women, especially Fanny who has chosen this diminutive of her true name Fenella just to see the blushes it causes. Zoe has stayed in her home town since school and works as a high end wedding coordinator. It’s as if she hasn’t really started in life, adept at creating and delivering the dreams of others she has forgotten her own. I loved her sparky little assistant Kitty who was giving off perky Reece Witherspoon vibes. Zoe hasn’t travelled, had a long term relationship or been to university. Her most important relationship is with close friend Harriet who also seems stuck, but we’re given more access to her inner world and she knows she’s treading water. It’s always been just Harriet and her mum, so it was a shock when Mum met someone and now has a newborn baby. They feel like a family and Harriet has felt like she doesn’t belong. Zoe has also had an all female upbringing made up of Mum and Aunt Fanny, along with holidays in Italy with her grandmother. Mum Ange remembers meeting Fanny just after she married her brother Reg and despite being so different they clicked instantly. Fanny is distinctly upmarket and while Reg always seemed embarrassed that his sister and niece were dressed by Next, Fanny never made her feel like that. With Reg working away the two women became Zoe’s parents and Zoe remembers the shock they felt when Fanny left suddenly and never contacted them till now. Zoe doesn’t have the pizzazz or individuality of her aunt or grandmother and it seems she has really suffered from the absence of these women in her life.

I enjoyed the women’s camaraderie and the way they supported each other. Despite seeming a bit disconnected from Mum at the moment, Zoe is devoted to her and wouldn’t think of leaving while she’s in this trancelike state. Aunt Fanny is the backbone of this group and such a formidable woman in her stilettos and her trademark ice-blonde bob that’s never out of place. She is loud, flirtatious and determined to live life to the full. She seems unbreakable and undaunted, buying everyone’s ticket to Italy, convincing Ange to come, overcoming obstacles and hiking in four inch heels! She grabs every opportunity to have fun and takes adversity in her stride, she even encourages the others to let their emotions out. Yet there are so many questions: where has she been for fourteen years? How does she keep her bob so immaculate? Does she really have a fortune from inventing a nail file? Why does she have other people’s credit cards? And why did she leave in the first place?

There is some romance too, with a love interest for Zoe in red-headed Sam who she meets by knocking a drink over him at the airport and pops up in the most unexpected places. They have a first date in Grandma’s town and I loved the women helping her get ready, just like they would when she was younger and going out. Even our older ladies (my age actually) have their flirtations, but this book is mainly about personal transformation though and finding your authentic self – something that’s not always easy for women who are bombarded with messages about who and how they should be. This is personified by Zoe’s grandmother whose presence is huge, despite her absence. I felt the book would have really benefited from more flashback moments between her, Ange and Zoe. She’s present in the laidback town where she lives, in her hillside home, and most of all in her paintings. The painting that’s a self-portrait of grandma in dungarees with her paint brushes in her pocket, seems to leap off the page with her life force. The depth and number of vivid colours show how vivacious she is and captures her love of life. It’s just so perfectly her, living her best life. I couldn’t bear to think of this stunning painting being sold at the auction. Even more than the engagement ring, it would have been the thing I had to keep. All I kept hoping was that Zoe could take some of grandma’s magic and apply it to her own life, to find out who she truly was and live her own fabulous, authentic life.

Thank you so much to Headline Review, Olivia Beirne and the Squad Pod Collective for the chance to read this book.

Meet the Author

Olivia Beirne is the bestselling author of The List That Changed My Life, The Accidental Love Letter and House Swap. She has worked as a waitress, a (terrible) pottery painter and a casting assistant, but being a writer is definitely her favourite job yet. Three Nights in Italy is her fourth novel.

Posted in Netgalley, Publisher Proof

One For My Enemy by Olivie Blake

After being slowly enticed by the glowing reviews of Olivie Blake’s Atlas Six series, I finally decided to take the plunge with this one. I’m a huge fan of Alice Hoffman so magic, romance and witchery are right up my street. However, this was the same themes but with some added NYC grit and sass.

In New York City, two rival witch families fight for the upper hand.

The Antonova sisters are beautiful, cunning and ruthless, and their mother – known only as Baba Yaga – is the elusive supplier of premium intoxicants. Their adversaries, the influential Fedorov brothers, serve their crime boss father. Named Koschei the Deathless, his enterprise dominates the shadows of magical Manhattan.

For twelve years, the families have maintained a fraught stalemate. Then everything is thrown into disarray. Bad blood carries them to the brink of disaster, even as fate draws together a brother and sister from either side. Yet the siblings still struggle for power, and internal conflicts could destroy each family from within. That is, if the enmity between empires doesn’t destroy both sides first.

I found myself hurled straight into this vivid world. It is earth but harbours a secret; witch families are vying to supply humans with magical pharmaceuticals. I loved the idea that there might be another realm within our own, hiding in plain sight. Baba Yaga has a shop – like Lush but with extra ingredients – whereas the Federovs sell on the streets and in the bars and clubs of the city. The rivalry and language of their industry was very ‘gangster’, with specific territories and penalties for stepping out of line. The patriarchal Federovs and the the matriarchal Antonova sisters. The sisters, although doing the bidding of Baba Yaga, are kept in line by eldest daughter Marya, also known as Masha. The scene that grabbed me was Masha simply walking into the Federovs lair and demanding to see second brother Dima. There has been an issue with territory and Masha believes it is Dima’s fault, so she carries out a terrifying enchantment that leaves Dima totally incapacitated. I was fascinated that youngest brother Lev tries to stop her, but is held back by his brother. Is there an honour code between the families? Even more intriguing is the obvious and immediate chemistry between Dima and Masha. The atmosphere was electric, the air charged with feelings and I was drying to know what had happened before and if these two had historic feelings for each other. If so, Masha is ruthless when it comes to business, but must have been full of hidden emotion. Would she be just as ruthless when protecting her family?

This scene showed me that Masha was confident in her power and very likely the successor to her mother. Masha is overseeing the expansion of their business. I found the idea of pharmaceutical drugs touched by magic fascinating too, I wanted to know more about their effects and whether they were largely benign. Did the customers truly know the power of what they were buying? I wondered about the family’s ethics with regards to black or white magic and was intrigued by how both families used their magic differently. Lev is sent to check out the clubs and see if he can work out the Antonov family’s next move, but he is distracted from his job by a young beautiful woman being hassled by a college student. As soon as he sees her he wants to help her, but already his attraction to her is obvious. She is very assertive and assures him she can look after herself and as Lev follows them out of the club she breaks the student’s nose. Intrigued by her confidence and the way she handled the situation, Lev offers to walk her home. Every block she tells him she can manage, but Lev has fallen in too deep already and the attraction is mutual. They have a passionate encounter down a side street. What Lev doesn’t know is that this young woman is Sasha, youngest of the Antonova sisters. As the pair fall in love, Lev confides the task he’s been given by his brothers. I wondered how she would react and whether she’s think his feelings were genuine or entrapment. Lev’s feelings are genuine and I was already wondering whether this was a repeat of Masha and Dima’s story. More importantly, if it comes to a showdown between the two families, which side would Lev choose?

Considering the amount of characters, they do have depth and feel very real. I think their back stories helped and the Russian folklore woven into their backgrounds seemed to ground them. Koshchei the Deathless is a male protagonist in Russian folklore, usually cast as an evil father figure who imprisons the male hero’s lover. He is called the immortal because he keeps his soul hidden within inanimate objects. Often he would hide his soul inside a tiny object then place it inside another object, perhaps an animal, like a rather grotesque set of Russian dolls. Baba Yaga was originally a supernatural being who hides within the disguise of a grotesque old woman. In a bizarre version of her story, which I love, she lived in a kettle with chicken’s legs – rather like the archetypal witch we all know from fairy tales. She would often take a maternal role and use that to hinder a character from the story. How these archetypes work within this story I’ll leave for you to find out. Then there’s the Romeo and Juliet parallel which certainly gives us the basic plot line of two rival families, where the youngest members of each family are falling in love with each other. That’s really where the comparisons end, because this is a loose retelling so don’t expect specific characters or even the same plot lines. This is a tragedy and it’s genuinely heartbreaking, but with gritty, real violence and it’s bloody consequences, just don’t expect the same victims. I loved that the rivalries are decades old and I think there’s definitely scope for more novels in this setting.

Although I loved Blake’s descriptive prose and enjoyed her characters, I did feel that the central love story lacked a bit of depth. I could tell these characters were in lust because their scenes were hot, but I didn’t feel the love at first. Perhaps that’s because I’m an older reader though and why I was interested in the oldest sister’s story. Also there were so many twists towards the end I had to go back and re-read sections to keep up with what was going on. However, for such a big book, it really fly by and the heady mix of love, power, magic, revenge and tragedy is a winner for sure. The art both inside and on the cover is absolutely beautiful. I feel that I could easily come back to these rival families in the future and it has certainly made me want to check out the author’s previous novels. If you like your love stories dark and laced with magic, violent tragedy and witches this is the book for you. It was definitely the book for me.

Published on 20th April by Tor (Pan Macmillan)

Meet The Author

Olivie Blake is the pseudonym of Alexene Farol Follmuth, a lover and writer of stories, many of which involve the fantastic, the paranormal, or the supernatural, but not always. More often, her works revolve around what it means to be human (or not), and the endlessly interesting complexities of life and love.

​Olivie has penned several indie SFF projects, including the webtoon Clara and the Devil with illustrator Little Chmura and the viral Atlas series. As Follmuth, her young adult rom-com My Mechanical Romance releases May 2022.

Olivie lives in Los Angeles with her husband and baby, where she is generally tolerated by her rescue pit bull. More on Olivie can be found at

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Again Rachel by Marian Keyes

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the brilliant experience of buddy reading with my eldest stepdaughter. I bought her Rachel’s Holiday and this sequel Again, Rachel for Christmas and she decided to read them in her down time from revising for her A’Levels. I realised it would be a great opportunity to share the reading experience together. I finished this on my weekend away and I genuinely found it hard to look up from the story. For the author, the anxiety of revisiting a much loved character must be huge, because I felt it too. I’d kept it on one side for this long because of that anxiety. I loved Rachel and the whole Walsh family and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what happened next. We’re twenty years on from the end of the last book and Rachel is settled, with a job she loves and a happy home. She works as a senior counsellor at The Cloisters – the place where she started her own recovery journey. She owns a beautiful little house and a garden that’s become an unexpected part of her ongoing recovery and mental well-being. She also has a little dog, Crunchie. There’s also a man, Nick Quinliven (known as Quin) who has a penchant for trying new and exciting things from from the latest restaurant to wild swimming and escape rooms. They haven’t said they love each other yet, but he is an important part of her life. Life is great until Rachel hears that Rose Costello has died. Rose was her mother-in-law and although she hasn’t seen her since she and Luke divorced, she does feel an obligation. Should she go to the funeral or not?

Rachel and Luke have never spoken since he left their Brooklyn flat several years ago and cut all contact. I kept thinking what on earth could have separated these two people who really loved each other? Skilfully taking us back and forth in time, Marian Keyes constructs the intervening years as Rachel copes with the unexpected present and the painful past. Rachel’s whole life is upended as she sees Luke for the first time and tries to cope with the emotions of their reunion. However, she’s also plunged deeply into the past and the reasons she and Luke ended. Rachel is emotionally intelligent and knows all about buried trauma, but is surprised when she experiences all of those emotions afresh as if it only happened yesterday. It upsets her equilibrium, but has that sense of calm recovery merely been a front? Rachel hasn’t wilfully deceived others. She’s deceived herself. Is her version of what happened back then even the truth? If given the chance to connect with Luke and unpick their past, should she take it?

Marian Keyes really knows her stuff when it comes to addiction and mental health. It’s always a joy to read her books because they’re so emotionally intelligent. This framework provides so much depth to the characters and their story. Here she shows us a wounded healer, as Rachel struggles through addiction and loss, but still supports clients to achieve psychological change. I love her courage, because anyone who uses their own pain to help others is an incredible human being. I love how Keyes describes group sessions, as Rachel keeps her boundaries and sticks to her script, no matter how strongly she might be identifying with the client or feeling deeply moved by their story. We get to see that conflict in her; as a human being she might want to comfort that person, but as a therapist she must hold back to effect change. She knows that sometimes it’s important to sit with the feelings, to truly feel negative emotions without distractions or outside comfort. They always pass. I loved the wisdom she’s acquired over the years and how she rides to cope with her own trauma the same way.

I was deeply moved by Luke and Rachel’s experience because I’ve been through something similar. It made some parts hard to read, but it was written beautifully and with an accuracy I really appreciated. Keyes offsets the sadness with the usual comic touches, with Walsh family conferences being a great source of humour. All the sisters have their own idiosyncratic characters, causing conflict at times but we know that love is always present. Mrs Walsh is typically overbearing and contrary and her upcoming ‘surprise’ birthday party is an extra source of stress, especially when she decides to invite her ex-son-in-law. Luckily, the meticulously organised Claire has everything in hand, despite also trying to negotiate a session of swinging for her and her husband. Husband Adam is reluctant, but once convinced he becomes so enthusiastic that Claire is furious with him! The love stories are convincing and both Rachel’s current beau Quin and ex-husband Luke have their strengths. I held out hope for Quin and Rachel because I thought they suited each other. However, once Luke is on the scene the chemistry and unfinished business between him and Rachel is undeniable. Quin isn’t the only obstacle either, Luke’s partner Callie is with him in Ireland and seems very determined to keep Rachel close. I didn’t know if Rachel and Luke would be able to move past their history and connect again, as the people they are now. I loved how they tried their hardest to work through what happened, despite the pain it’s clearly causing. Could they possibly remain friends and share their loss, after all only the two of them can fully understand what they went through. Despite knowing that that Rachel didn’t need either man to build a happy life, I knew where my loyalties as we approached the end. Oh what an ending!! I was snap chatting my stepdaughter and we’d both cried buckets at the ending. I was so glad that Marian Keyes had been brave enough to revisit Rachel again.

Published by Penguin 13th April 2023

Marian Keyes is the international bestselling author of Watermelon, Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, Last Chance Saloon, Sushi for Beginners, Angels, The Other Side of the Story, Anybody Out There, This Charming Man, The Brightest Star in the Sky , The Mystery of Mercy Close, The Woman Who Stole My Life, The Break and her latest Number One bestseller, Grown Ups. Her two collections of journalism, Making it up as I Go Along and Under the Duvet: Deluxe Edition are also available from Penguin.

Posted in Random Things Tours

The Forgotten Garden by Sharon Gosling

Thanks to enjoying the blog tour for Sharon Gosling’s first novel, The House Beneath the Cliffs, she became an author I kept an eye on. I was on the look out for her next and The Lighthouse Bookshop confirmed for me that if I’m looking for an escapist read, she is one of my go-to authors. She seems to effortlessly blend a mix of sadness and heartache, secrets, warmth and potential romance into an engrossing read that’s so enjoyable. Our main character, Luisa McGregor, has allowed herself to become stuck. A life that once felt safe, secure and predictable is now starting to stifle Luisa and she needs more, a new challenge perhaps. Then into her lap falls great opportunity. Her friend Oliver presents a daunting, but tantalising proposition. Instead of carrying on as a gardening assistant to a woman she feels increasingly out of step with, she should check out an opportunity to build a whole new garden at a site near the Cumbrian coast. There’s a pot of money available to build a community garden on wasteland next to a gym and youth club. Luisa agrees to visit the site and is daunted by the amount of work needed, but also inspired by what could be achieved there. As we meet the people of this disadvantaged area of Collaton, we can see what a community garden could mean to these people. There’s teacher Cas, who is pouring all of his energy and spare time into the young people of the area. Harper is a teenager with a lot on her plate, but determined to find a way out of Collaton towards a different future. Can Luisa design a garden that brings both healing, inspiration and a stronger sense of community for the residents?

I did connect with Luisa and the position she has become stuck in. She has had to recover from the terrible trauma of losing her husband in an accident. She has dragged herself up from the darkest and most difficult days following her husband’s death, to a point where she feels she has rebuilt her life. She’s working in garden design, even if she doesn’t like her boss, she has a nice home and great support in her sister. Really though, she’s just treading water and terrified of stretching herself or reaching for something that she could lose. I loved the way the author shows Luisa coming alive again as she works on the new garden. She literally blooms alongside her plants and seems to gain something from working with others and passing on her skills. Without trying too hard, the garden draws in those who need it including a woman who’s been her husband’s carer since an accident paralysed him. He’s initially sceptical and annoyed that his wife’s attention has been captured by Luisa’s plans, but just a few hours a week gaining respite from her caring role has transformed her. It’s not long before he’s creating bespoke benches for the garden, adapting the way he uses his joinery skills to his disability. Harper is a character who really stands out, she’s a young girl brimming with potential, but struggling to escape the difficult circumstances of her life. She is the main caregiver for her younger brother, now that their mum has died and their father has escaped into the bottle. Harper has a skill for mechanics, engineering and invention. She spends her spare time either at the club with Cas or helping at the local garage where she’s doing up a battered old Mini that Cas has gifted to her. Harper’s story shows us how hard it can be for someone to escape where they live and their family circumstances. Her cousin Darren is out of prison and is back dealing drugs in the area again, Harper is devastated when he preys upon her younger brother, Max. Max is easily influenced, especially when it comes to friendships. He struggles to make friends and has been subjected to bullying, so when someone older and seemingly cool pays him attention it’s an easy conquest. Darren wants him as a drug runner or lookout, but Harper puts her foot down and offers herself up instead. I was on tenterhooks, knowing that this decision would have consequences in the future.

There are a few powerful scenes that really stand out. Max has a secret that he’s been working on in Harper’s absence, inspired by the garden and when it was unveiled I almost held my breath. I loved the idea for his garden and the description was so lush and vivid I could almost smell the vegetation and feel the warmth. I could imagine sitting there, early on a sunny morning and enjoying a coffee. I also kept thinking what an incredible wedding venue it would be. It’s clear as soon as Cas and Luisa meet that there is potential for romance, but I wondered if both of them were too hurt by their pasts to take the chance. I was sure it needed a catalyst and the author certainly gives us one. The scene where Darren’s thugs get into the garden was heartbreaking and heart-stopping. I could actually feel the fear of the volunteers and residents as Darren shows his true colours and the bad boy reputation he’s trying to create for himself in the community. However, the gang don’t expect to be challenged, with devastating results. I was rooting for Cas and Luisa, with their endeavours in the community and their potential romance too. I read to the end quickly, determined to see the garden succeed and whether Luisa would overcome her fear of love and inevitable loss. I took the book on holiday with me and it was an enjoyable and emotional read, with an ending that was truly satisfying. This is an author who understands that life has seasons and that women have an amazing capacity to accept life’s changes, as well as the resilience to reinvent themselves and start over again.

Published by Simon and Schuster UK 27th April 2023

Meet the Author

I’ve been writing since I was a teenager, which is now a distressingly long time ago! I started out as an entertainment journalist – actually, my earliest published work was as a reviewer of science fiction and fantasy books. I went on to become a staff writer and then an editor for print magazines, before beginning to write non-fiction making-of books tied in to film and television, such as The Art and Making of Penny Dreadful and Wonder Woman: The Art and Making of the Film. 

I now write both children’s and adult fiction – my first novel was called The Diamond Thief, a Victorian-set steampunk adventure book for the middle grade age group. That won the Redbridge Children’s prize in 2014, and I went on to write two more books in the series before moving on to other adventure books including The Golden Butterfly, which was nominated for the Carnegie Award in 2017, The House of Hidden Wonders, and a YA horror called FIR, which was shortlisted for the Lancashire Book of the Year Award in 2018. 

My debut adult novel was published by Simon & Schuster in August 2021. It was called The House Beneath the Cliffs and it was set in a very small coastal village in Scotland. The idea for it had lodged in my head years before. I have a love for unusual dwelling places and I came across a tiny house that completely captured my imagination. My adult fiction tends to centre on small communities – feel-good tales about how we find where we belong in life and what it means when we do. Although I have also published full-on adult horror stories, which are less about community and more about terror and mayhem…

I was born in Kent but now live in a very small house in an equally small village in northern Cumbria with my husband, who owns a bookshop in the nearby market town of Penrith.

Posted in Netgalley

Thirty Days in Paris by Veronica Henry.

Because Paris is always a good idea…

Years ago, Juliet left a little piece of her heart in Paris – and now, separated from her husband and with her children flying the nest, it’s time to get it back! So she puts on her best red lipstick, books a cosy attic apartment near Notre-Dame and takes the next train out of London.

Arriving at the Gare du Nord, the memories come flooding back: bustling street cafés, cheap wine in candlelit bars and a handsome boy with glittering eyes. But Juliet has also been keeping a secret for over two decades – and she begins to realise it’s impossible to move forwards without first looking back.

Something tells her that the next thirty days might just change everything…

I hadn’t read any of Veronica Henry’s novels until I did a blog tour for her novel The Impulse Purchase. I found it delightfully escapist and optimistic while exploring female relationships, especially familial ones, in an interesting way. In her new novel we’re more focused on one woman; Juliet is a middle-aged, ghost-writer who’s at a huge crossroads in life. She and her husband have taken the very brave decision to separate as their last child leaves home for university. Most of their friends think they’re crazy, because the couple still get along, they’re probably the best of friends in fact. However, they feel they’ve drifted into two different paths. As her husband has embraced all things cycling – including the Lycra and the diet – Juliet isn’t enamoured and would rather curl up with a good book or go to the theatre. They’ve each become comfortable in their own routines and as the time to sell their large family home has come around, they can’t see the point of trying to meld their differing lifestyles into another joint home. So each will take half of the house sale and do their own thing and Juliet would like to take a trip into her past. Years ago, when she was still a teenager, Juliet went to work as an au pair in Paris, but returned in shame and sadness only a few month later. She has rented an apartment for a month to reacquaint herself with the city and spend some time writing her own story. However, revisiting the past is never easy and Juliet finds there are experiences she still needs to process and come to terms with.

I found reading this book a little lie watching Sex and the City or perhaps more aptly, Emily in Paris which I binge-watched over the Christmas period. Everything about Juliet’s time in Paris is simply gorgeous from the description of the patisseries near her apartment, to the clothes worn by her friend ….. and the work Juliet starts on her book project. Thanks to the two series mentioned, along with a teenage diet of Judith Krantz novels, I find Paris ridiculously romantic and imagine it full of quirky shops, artists, vintage bookshops and incredibly elegant women. Every walk she takes I was imagining the decorative shop windows, acres of pastel coloured macarons and fairy lit trees, not to mention the incredible bridges, cathedrals and art galleries. I’m also a sucker for transformation shows like the old Gok Wan and those wedding shows where people choose their dress and I also had that vibe too. This might seem like I’m making the book sound trivial or all about appearances, but it’s far from that. This isn’t just about visual transformation. The author takes what can be a difficult period in a woman’s life: empty nest syndrome; menopause; relationship breakdown and that sense of having lost who you are. Veronica Henry takes us into that process of grieving and growth and I kept reading in the hope Juliet would come to that place of finding herself – the person she is now and the way she wants the rest of her life to be. Before she can do that she needs to face what happened all those years ago when she was such a young girl and just starting out in life.

I really felt for the younger Juliet and these sections leapt off the page. I loved how brave she was in leaving her cozy home and family to do something completely different. That sense of being a fish out of water really comes across as she tries to settle into the apartment of the French family she’ll be living with. Her French is minimal and I could feel the nerves as she tries to fit in, especially when the children’s mother is quite volatile and erratic in mood. However, the father seems kind and tries to make Juliet feel at home by taking her out for Sunday lunch with the children. Juliet comes across as a kind young girl, good with the children and concerned about their mother whose moods fluctuate between treating Juliet like a little sister and angry, tearful outbursts. I warmed to Juliet because she doesn’t become angry or resentful, but is worried that her employer is struggling as a working mum of three children and perhaps needs extra support. I had concerns about the way the children’s father acted around Juliet early on and couldn’t decide whether he was trying to make her feel like family, or whether the late nights, sharing a bottle of wine, might lead to more. Juliet’s affections are completely engaged by Luke as soon as they meet. Her friend calls it a ‘coup de foudre’ or love at first sight and it does seem to be an immediate connection, as if their souls know each other before they even speak the same language. In the present day sections, Juliet hints at a disastrous ending to her time in Paris and a separation from Luke that leaves unfinished business. I wondered whether she would feel the urge to reconnect and explain what happened all those years before.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable, escapist read this winter/spring then this is definitely the book for you. Juliet is interesting and her earlier years in Paris really help us understand her character’s choices later on. I wondered how much her stable, but safe, marriage was a response to these early romantic mistakes and terrible heartbreak. I would say that her return to Paris, especially her rekindled friendship with Nathalie, brings out her spontaneous and playful side. Nathalie takes risks, from visiting less salubrious parts of the city, to accepting random invitations and wearing some quirky outfits. Their friendship picks up where they left off and I would definitely be the demographic buying Nathalie’s memoir and cookbook. I loved the way Juliet tackled what happened in the past and it showed the difference in attitudes between then and now; where once Juliet took on a lot of the blame, she can now see other people’s part in what happened and how they took advantage of her naivety. While I wasn’t necessarily rooting for a romantic ending to the story I was rooting for Juliet to build a totally new life for herself where she’s with the people who inspire her. I enjoyed the ending and felt it worked well for the character, especially when a call from home dangles her old safe life in front of her. I wanted her to continue growing and trying new things, because just reading about it felt like taking a holiday.

Meet The Author

I was so interested in reading Veronica’s author section on Amazon because it’s so personal. So I’ve reproduced part of it below.

‘People often ask me what kind of books I write and it’s a very difficult question to answer in one sentence. Primarily, I love to take my readers somewhere they might like to be, whether a gorgeous house in the countryside or on a seaside clifftop. There, my characters go through the trials and tribulation of everyday life, embroiled in situations and dilemmas we can all relate to. Love is at the heart of it, but all kinds of love, not just romantic: the love of friends and family, or a place, or a passion for what you enjoy (food, wine and books, in my case . . .)

I have a background in writing television drama (Heartbeat, Holby City) so that has been an influence – creating lots of characters whose lives impact on each other. Working on The Archers I was taught ‘Make ’em laugh; make ’em cry; but above all, make ’em wait’!

I hope my books are beautifully written, uplifting and a little bit escapist. I’d love to know what you think, so do leave a review. Or you can contact me via Twitter @veronica_henry, or on Facebook or Instagram @veronicahenryauthor

A little bit about me: I live by the sea and head to the beach every day with my dog Zelda. I love cooking and discovering new restaurants on city breaks, with a bit of yoga to offset the calories – and I’ve just bought an e-bike. My biggest writing influences are HE Bates, Nancy Mitford, Jilly Cooper and any book that has a big rambling house and an eccentric family.’ From

Posted in Publisher Proof

The Vintage Shop of Second Chances by Libby Page

Libby Page was one of those authors that completely passed me by until I started book blogging and this is the first of her novels that I’ve reviewed. I don’t know why I hadn’t picked up one of her books before, because reading this gave me the same feel as an Adriana Trigiani or Marian Keyes novel. There were strong female characters, female friendships, achieving ambitions and fulfilling long held dreams. There are deep emotional aspects bringing flavour and depth to her story, but also enough icing and sprinkles to lift the spirits. Here the sprinkles were one of my favourite things, vintage clothing. Our heroine is Lou, who moved to a small market town to care for her mother who was terminally ill. Since her death Lou has been working hard, selling the family home and buying a shop with flat above in the town centre. With builder Pete upstairs creating her living space, Lou has opened the shop and is looking at ways to save money and boost business. Pete puts her in touch with Maggie, another lady who has gone through a big change. Maggie’s a grandmother and often provides care for her grandchildren in the house that was the family home. However, her husband has recently left Maggie for a younger woman and she is rattling round in the big house. So, when Pete suggests that she rents a room to Lou until her flat is ready it turns out to be a lifeline for both of them. Finally, we have Donna, who works at her family’s hotel in the US. In a daily uniform of jeans and hotel sweatshirt, Donna follows a routine where she does the paperwork and the books and checks in on her elderly parents, but she too has a shock in store. When her mother suffers a sudden mini-stroke, her conscience causes her to disclose a family secret – they are not Donna’s birth parents, her mother was a woman from a small market town in England.

The thing that links these disparate women is a vintage dress. 1950’s in style and a stunning buttercup yellow this dress has a full circle skirt just made for dancing. Embroidered with meadow flowers, the dress hangs above the counter in Lou’s vintage shop and is the only item that isn’t for sale. It’s flanked by a picture of her mother Dorothy, the owner of the beautiful dress. I love vintage clothes and this dress, plus the descriptions of her shop really did draw me in. I love colour and just reading Lou’s outfits and her transformation of Maggie’s wardrobe made me smile and inspired me to be more colourful again. The warm feeling I got from Maggie and her beautiful home helped as well and within a couple of chapters I had completely relaxed into their world. Each woman had her own chapters throughout so we could see things through their viewpoint. While I felt an immediate kinship with Lou and Maggie, Donna seemed less accessible. She was very intent on routine and was considered abrupt or even rude by some people. I wondered if she was neuro divergent and suffering from anxiety, so her routines and uniform might have come from an inability to change or decide when under pressure. All these women face change and have to start life anew. In between their narratives are very short chapters from the past, where a young woman is making a yellow embroidered dress for a secret assignation with a man she’s fallen in love with.

I really enjoyed the journey to understanding the owner of the stunning dress and how it ended up at Lou’s shop. There is a revelation for all concerned when Donna gets on a plane and travels to England and to Lou’s shop. A series of letters between sisters add an extra clue to the mystery. Aside from this main story there are other subplots that also caught my imagination. I loved Maggie and her journey of rediscovery is a joyous one. When Lou arrives it’s clear Maggie is trained by years of looking after someone else: her husband, her children, guests. She’s not putting any love into herself and this shows in her completely black wardrobe. A little bit of input from Lou and she’s wearing orange with combinations of colours she didn’t expect. This small change and their growing friendship means that Maggie is busy for the first time in a long time. Her children can’t rely on her for free child care because she’s not home and this is just the start of Maggie accepting her divorce and creating a new life for who she is now. That’s partly a case of reconciling with her past and a summer in 1960’s London where she was the sort of girl who wore yellow Mary Quant boots and fell in love with an artist. There is romance here, but it’s not the only story. This story is about women supporting and inspiring each other and being our best selves. I liked that there was a lot of emphasis on self- care, from the colourful vintage clothes to taking control and finding our passion in life, instead of being the care givers we’re often expected to be. I came away from this story glad that society’s moral standards have changed and that for many women their lives are no longer ruined by shame or fear of what the neighbours might think. I felt like I’d been given a warm hug and I came away from the story smiling and inspired to wear some of my more colourful clothing.

Published on 16th Feb 2023 by Orion.

Libby Page graduated from The London College of Fashion with a BA in fashion journalism before going on to work as a journalist at The Guardian. After writing, her second passion is outdoor swimming. Libby lives in London, where she enjoys finding new swimming spots and pockets of community within the city. The Lido is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @LibbyPageWrites and Instagram @TheSwimmingSisters

Posted in Romance Rocks, Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! In Five Years by Rebecca Searle for Romance Rocks.

This book surprised me, delighted me and broke my heart. It was not at all what I expected, but was all the more special for that. Cleverly, Serle wrong foots the reader into thinking this is a straight forward romance, but it really isn’t. It’s about love and just as our heroine Dannie is some times unsure what love looks like, so is the reader. We are used to certain conventions and have expectations about how a love story will unfold. It teaches us that sometimes we don’t notice or fully appreciate what we already have.

Dannie is a corporate lawyer, living in Manhattan and dating the eminently eligible David. David and Dannie live together after dating for two years. They have done everything according to an unspoken, but very correct timetable; everything about their relationship is planned and just right. In fact their relationship is so predictable that when David suggests dinner at the Rainbow Room, Dannie knows he’s going to propose. She says yes when he presents the perfect engagement ring, but they don’t plan their wedding. They continue to drift along as they are, until Dannie has the dream. This vivid dream shows a loft apartment in Dumbo with interior design details such as an art print of an optician’s chart with a witty slogan. It’s nowhere Dannie can imagine living. It’s trendy and edgy. She and David live in Gramercy Park. A perfect location for their work and fitting for where they are in life. Yet, the Dumbo apartment feels comfortable. Then a man appears. She’s never met him before but yet there is a connection, something she can’t define. As he moves closer she feels actual electricity. She has never felt this before. Like some huge force compels them to be together. When she wakes, Dannie feels strange, like she’s questioning everything around her.

Dannie has planned to see her friend Bella. They have been friends since boarding school and are still incredibly close. Bella takes more risks than Dannie and in some ways Dannie sees her as someone who doesn’t finish things, perhaps a bit of a flake. Bella loves art, she lives to travel and has a more bohemian outlook on life. Dannie has a more settled and perhaps, conventional life where work is the priority and her stable relationship with David simply ticks along. Up until now Bella hasn’t had a stable relationship in her life, but she has brought someone important to meet Dannie. When he walks in, Dannie is shocked to see the man from her dream. She panics and decides to do everything she can to stop her dream from coming true. But life can take strange turns and a series of events unfold that she never imagined. They make her rethink everything about how to live life and how to love.

I became so involved with Dannie and Bella’s story that it was hard to put the book down towards the end. The story crept up on me from something very light to an emotional tale about the strength of female friendship. These girls are life partners. Their presence sustains each other in ways that romantic relationships sometimes don’t. Bella’s mother lets slip that she purposely placed her daughter in the same school as Dannie, because she saw them together and could not part them. The very structure of the book teaches the reader something. We learn, at the same time as Dannie, that the happy ending is not always about a man, because love comes in many forms. Also, that loss and love are the same thing. When we grieve it just proves how much we loved. I found myself becoming very emotional towards the end of the book and that rarely happens. I found the writing so truthful and similar to my own experience of grief that I had a lump in my throat. I loved the ending and the fact it wasn’t predictable elevated the book above the ordinary. I will be hugging my friends a little closer and appreciating all the people in my life who love me.

Meet the Author

Rebecca Serle is an author and television writer who lives in New York and Los Angeles. Serle developed the hit TV adaptation of her YA series Famous in Love, and is also the author of The Dinner List, and YA novels The Edge of Falling and When You Were Mine. She received her MFA from the New School in NYC. Find out more at

Her latest novel One Italian Summer came out in paperback last year and was a wonderful look at love, mothers and daughters, and the things we learn about ourselves through travelling.

Posted in Romance Rocks!

Valentine’s Reads – Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Novels.

This month I’m supporting my fellow Squad Podders by highlighting writers of romance, whether that is their specific genre or just a part of their books mingled with fantasy, humour or mystery. If you want completely escapist romance with a side order of sexy, rich, characters cavorting around the English countryside then Jilly Cooper is your author. My first introduction to Jilly Cooper was finding her earlier 1970’s books on mum’s bookshelves. These weren’t the romances, but the humorous and witty digs at society found in her books on class and feminism. I remember very clearly my mum reading to me from one of them and as a working class family we found the middle classes utterly tragic so she would read descriptions of the Teale family. I’ll never forget Jen Teale who was so demure she wore six pairs of knickers. When mum was a bit low we would get a book down and I would read or act out the funnier bits and we’d all fall about laughing. It wasn’t until I was in sixth form that I encountered her handsome hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. One girl had brought Rivals into the common room and was reading out the filthy bits – ‘tit fault’ could be heard ringing round the tennis courts for weeks that summer term. I bought a copy of Riders and realised her work had so much story, as well as those famous rude bits. What I loved about Riders was the description of Penscombe and it’s jumble of treasures, dogs, books and grounds full of beautiful horses. Then as the rivalry became apparent between Rupert the school bully and his victim, the gypsy Jake Lovell I was completely caught up in the story. Her characters were well fleshed out and Rupert’s disastrous marriage to the American hunt saboteur Helen, was a fascinating clash of cultures, class and personality. I was soon utterly gripped by the world of showjumping, the bed hopping and the relationships sacrificed to ambition.

I think characters are a strength of Cooper’s even though some are almost caricatures and her rendering of Northern accents is hilariously wide of the mark. Each book tends to have a virtuous or kind woman – Taggie O’Hara, Kitty Rannaldini, Daisy or Lucy – who are perhaps not conventionally attractive, slightly shy and a bit downtrodden. It gives us someone to root for. On the other hand there are absolute horrors as well like narcissistic opera diva Hermione Harefield, the wicked but talented Roberto Rannaldini, or the chaotic and faithless Janey Lloyd-Foxe. It doesn’t matter that they’re not realistic, this is a romp through the upper classes – a part of society that Jilly Cooper knows more about than me. There’s always a lusty man to fall in love with too, someone tortured and secretive like the director Tristan de Montigny in Score, a bumbling innocent with looks to die for like Lysander Hawksley in The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, or the gorgeous Luke Alderton in Polo, who loves the spoiled young polo player Perdita even when she chooses his brother Red. From showjumping, to television, to gigolos, polo players, orchestras, film making and horse racing Jilly takes us through each world with great knowledge and detail, often making the animals just as strong in character as the humans. I’m particularly fond of the labradors Mavis and Badger, and Taggie’s faithful little mongrel Gertrude.

Then there are the romances! There are several in every book and of course the over-arching love story of all – Rupert and Taggie. In Riders I felt so sad for Fenella whose hero worship of Billy Lloyd-Foxe becomes an unrequited crush, then a doomed love affair. In Polo I was rooting for Daisy, the mother of our heroine, who had been so focused on looking after others that she couldn’t believe the dashing polo player Ricky France-Lynch would be interested in her. I followed the fortunes of Rupert and Helen’s daughter Tabitha very closely. She’s impulsive and makes a passionate, but very difficult marriage to Isa Lovell, the eldest son of Rupert’s enemy Jake Lovell. Any chance she had of a more stable and loving relationship, through the novel Score particularly, had me keeping my fingers crossed. Of course it’s Rivals where the best and most beguiling love story begins and to see the bed-hopping Rupert Campbell-Black falling head over heels for the shy, dyslexic and unconventionally beautiful Taggie was deeply enjoyable. I was a similar age to Taggie when reading Rivals and still very romantic. Now I look at their relationship a little differently, but every few years I re-read a couple of the novels and I still feel a little starry eyed about them. They pop up in all the novels after Rivals and their relationship is probably the most successful in Cooper’s fictional Gloucestershire.

Cooper gives the reader a glimpse into a glamorous and wealthy world most of us would never know about. The hotels are 5 star, the fashion is designer, and the travel is first class. This is a world of elite sport and the game of kings – yes the Prince of Wales does pop up in Polo. There’s the world of classical music following the Rutshire orchestra in both Appassionata and Score, where the countryside becomes a backdrop for a twentieth century update to Don Giovanni. Pandora takes us into the art world and her latest Jump and Mount we’re back with horses, but in a horse-racing capacity rather than show jumping. Her only mis-steps for me are when she steps outside of this privileged world and tries to write about the working classes or a Northern character. Her book Wicked focuses on a struggling state school being mentored by the local public school where some of our usual suspects pop up, such as Rupert and Taggie Campbell Black’s children. I found her working class and city dwelling characters stereotypical and I inwardly cringed to such an extent I didn’t keep the book. Watch out for the accent of George Hungerford in Score for an example of how Northerners speak too. These are small quibbles though in a series of novels full of humour, bedroom romps, glamour, money and total escapism. The countryside is stunning and characters live in the most picturesque surroundings you’ll feel you’ve been on a holiday. Mainly though you’ll keep coming back for the love stories: hoping that the plump, bespectacled Kitty Rannaldini will escape the clutches of her evil husband with the handsome Lysander Hawksley; whether dog loving, shy, make-up artist Lucy will ever be noticed by the glamorous and mercurial Tristan de Montigny. Cooper uses all of the romantic conventions to her advantage. There are always obstacles to the couple’s love, distractions and conventions that can’t be crossed. There might be an age barrier, a man whose a confirmed bachelor, families that are locked into a bitter feud or a difficult marriage to negotiate. There are so many of these obstacles, that you’ll wait with your heart in your mouth as Taggie drives to collect Rupert Campbell-Black from his trip aboard, hoping desperately that he’ll overlook them and let her fall into his arms.

Meet the Author

Jilly Cooper is a journalist, author and media superstar. The author of many number one bestselling novels, she lives in Gloucestershire.

She has been awarded honorary doctorates by the Universities of Gloucestershire and Anglia Ruskin, and won the inaugural Comedy Women in Print lifetime achievement award in 2019. She was appointed CBE in 2018 for services to literature and charity.

Posted in Romance Rocks, Throwback Thursday

Romance Rocks: The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh

I read this in two long bursts – one of which started at 3am. It’s a book I couldn’t put down because all I wanted was these two people back together. The harsh realities of grief and lifelong family rifts are well drawn by the author and completely believable. All of these people are trying to move forward despite their lives missing a beat one day on a country road, where a split second decision has lifelong consequences. This book explores grief, loss, loyalty, loneliness and the eventual incredible ability the human heart has to heal.

Sarah has a 7 day whirlwind romance with Eddie. They meet by chance on a country road while Sarah is visiting her parents. She thinks Eddie just might be the one. But, Eddie goes away on holiday and she never hears from him again. Is Eddie a heartless playboy who never intended to call? Did Sarah do something wrong? Or has something terrible happened to him? Instead of listening to friends and writing this off as a one night stand, Sarah begins to obsess and is determined to find the answer. Every clue she has comes to a dead end and she is in danger of completely losing her dignity. As her time back home in the UK starts to run out, Sarah looks for clues to track Eddie down. What she hears is confusing her further. His friend doesn’t give the simple answer, that Eddie has moved on, but gives her a warning; if she knows what’s best for her, she needs to stop looking for Eddie. 

Walsh has successfully intertwined a love story with a mystery. I veered between wondering if Sarah was becoming irrational and willing her to succeed. Interspersed with the narrative are beautiful letters of love and loss addressed to the writer’s sister, affectionately nicknamed ‘Hedgehog’. The letter writer’s sister died when they were young, but we don’t know what happened or who the letter writer is. If Sarah is the author of the letters does this loss have something to do with the warning she’s been given? Is her sister the key – not just to Eddie’s disappearance, but to why Eddie was on that particular stretch of road on that day? 

I quickly became invested in Sarah and Eddie’s story. I think we’ve all been subjected to the watched phone that never rings and how crazy it can make us. It could have made me dislike Eddie early on, but for some reason I never did. I’m definitely a hopeless romantic so I seemed to accept Sarah’s hope that this could still work out. The other characters in the novel are also well-written and compelling. I’m a therapist so I was particularly interested in Eddie’s mother and her mental ill health. I think her symptoms and the way she manipulated Eddie showed a streak of narcissism. She finds it impossible to see this situation from his point of view, only how it might  her. Anything that threatens their dynamic as carer and patient is a huge threat to her and she responds with emotional blackmail and hostility. Eddie is as much a prisoner of her mental ill health as she is. I also had empathy for Sarah’s friend Jenny who is struggling to conceive and undergoes IVF treatment to the point of financial ruin. Her character probably leapt out at me because I’m also not able to have children, and know how difficult it can be to come to terms with. Her stoicism and determination to support her friend in the face of her own loss is very moving. 

I stayed up until 2am to finish the book, because I had everything crossed that the mystery would be explained and these two people could move forward together. To different degrees, all the novels characters are imprisoned by the past and losses they can’t accept. My husband died when he was 42 and I was 35. It’s like a chasm opened up and I had to choose between staying on one side forever, with the past and my feelings of loss and fear. Or I could choose to jump over that chasm into a new future. I never forget what happened or the love I have for Jerzy, but twelve years later I have a wonderful partner and two beautiful stepdaughters. Thankfully, I had the bravery to move forward knowing I can’t lose my memories of the past, but I still have a future full of possibilities I never imagined. That’s what the characters in the novel are trying to do. Grief is different for everyone and there are always tensions between those who are trying to heal and those who can’t imagine healing because it feels like a betrayal. Rosie Walsh draws these different threads together beautifully, creating a bittersweet novel that captures the incredible ability the human heart has to heal.

Meet the Author

Rosie Walsh is the internationally bestselling author of two novels, the global smash hit THE MAN WHO DIDN’T CALL, and – new for 2022 – THE LOVE OF MY LIFE, a heart-wrenching, keep-you-up-all-night emotional thriller, which was an instant New York Times bestseller and stayed in the German top ten for several weeks. 

Rosie Walsh lives on a medieval farm in Devon, UK, with her partner and two young children, after years living and travelling all over the world as a documentary producer and writer. 

The Man Who Didn’t Call (UK) / Ghosted (US) was her first book under her own name, and was published around the world in 2018, going on to be a multimillion bestseller. 

Prior to writing under her own name she wrote four romantic comedies under the pseudonym Lucy Robinson. When she isn’t parenting or writing, Rosie can be found walking on Dartmoor, growing vegetables and throwing raves for adults and children in leaking barns. 

Author photos © Anna Pumer Photography / Verity Rivers

Rosie’s new novel The Love of my Life is another heartbreaking romance, mixed with an addictive mystery you’ll be begging for one more chapter.

I have held you every night for ten years and I didn’t even know your name. We have a child together. A dog, a house.
Who are you?

Emma loves her husband Leo and their young daughter Ruby: she’d do anything for them. But almost everything she’s told them about herself is a lie. And she might just have got away with it, if it weren’t for her husband’s job. Leo is an obituary writer and Emma is a well-known marine biologist, so, when she suffers a serious illness, Leo copes by doing what he knows best – reading and writing about her life. But as he starts to unravel her past, he discovers the woman he loves doesn’t really exist. Even her name is fictitious.

When the very darkest moments of Emma’s past life finally emerge, she must somehow prove to Leo that she really is the woman he always thought she was . . . But first, she must tell him about the love of her other life.

Available now in hardback and on Kindle, but due out in paperback in July 2023.

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?

“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