The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Little Shop on Floral Street by Jane Lacey-Crane #BookReview

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In the wake of tragedy, two sisters have to piece their family back together…

Grace never thought she’d have to return home to Floral Street. Having spent most of her life building a successful career in London, she’s done everything she possibly can to avoid the flower stall that’s been in her family for generations. But when tragedy hits, she’s got no choice. It’s time to face the demons of the past and support her family.

Faith has returned home after years travelling the world. The baby of the family, she always struggled to find her place. She thought that her life would be different after a trip across the globe, but as she settles back into life in her childhood room she has to come to terms with the fact her life isn’t quite what she expected. And she has no way of getting out of the rut she finds herself in.

Faith and Grace have never seen eye-to-eye, always clashing, never forgiving. But they might just find a way to understand one another, to fight their way through their grief and come out stronger. By opening up, they’ll discover they aren’t so different at all. And family will always be there for you.

Category six of The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge was ‘Read a book by an author with the same name as your best friend.’ Now, this caused me a bit of a dilemma as I have a number of close friends and didn’t want to offend the others by naming any one of them ‘best.’ So I chose the name of my first best friend at senior school who moved to Cornwall after a year and who I haven’t seen since 1984! It also allowed me to tick a book off my NetGalley list, so it was win-win. The book I picked was The Little Shop on Floral Street by Jane Lacey-Crane.

I am ashamed that this book has been languishing on my TBR for so long, because I have loved Jane’s previous two books. This one was another great piece of women’s fiction, that spoke to me on a personal level, dealing as it does with the relationship between three sisters. As someone who is the eldest of four girls, and who counts her sisters as her closest friends as well as siblings, the dynamics of relationships between sisters is always something I am interested in seeing explored in a novel.

In this book, two of the sisters have remained close, despite the fact that the eldest left home at a young age after become largely estranged from their father. The youngest sister has been away travelling and her return to the family home marks a period of upheaval for them all, that culminates in a family tragedy that changes them all forever, and has the power to push them all apart or pull them back together.

In this novel, Jane has drawn a truly authentic and believable family dynamic that plays out honestly on the page. I felt that each of the characters, and their relationship to one another, were beautifully realised and explored and I could really relate to all of them. Despite my own closeness to my sisters, the tensions and rivalries between the three girls were very recognisable to me; with the best will in the world every family has difficulties and areas of friction, and the way each of the sisters interpreted events differently depending on their position and role within the family was all too familiar!

As the eldest, Grace was the one to whom I most related. I recognise that feeling of responsibility and having the weight of sorting out the family’s issues and taking on its burdens, whilst the younger sisters have a much more carefree existence. I am sure my sisters would argue that the younger girls have their own crosses to bear, and would recognise themselves more in Hope or Faith, which is the genius of Jane’s drawing of the characters!

The story centres around the family’s flower stall business, and its future in the wake of the tragedy and the shockwaves of its aftermath and, in this regard, it is a tight, small story that could be happening to any family up and down the country today and, in fact, in the wake of so many losses suffered by so many families in the last twelve months, many of the issues explored will be painful and relevant to a lot of people at the moment. In this regard, the book will speak to a lot of people and touch many of us with its message. This is a book that takes a step beyond a typical women’s fiction novel.

I really enjoyed this book. It is a novel with a big heart and a gentle exploration of issues that will have touched most of us in some way at some point in our lives. I would be surprised if there is anyone who can’t find some recognisable experience or emotion in its pages. Well worth reading.

The Little Shop on Floral Street is out now in ebook and paperback formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Jane has reached the age now where she no longer tells people her age! She’s old enough to legally be able to do everything and that’s all that matters. Secrets & Tea at Rosie Lee’s is Jane’s debut novel. Born and brought up in London’s East End, she now lives in Lincolnshire with her family. Thankfully she recently discovered the joys of mail order pie, mash & liquor, so she can relive her youth anytime she feels like it!

Although writing stories was something that Jane had always done, she never thought anyone would pay her to do it so she focused on learning to act instead, figuring that this was a much more reliable way to earn a living. Sadly, her career as an actress was shortlived, actually it was non-existent, so she turned her attention to another reliable line of work – Cable Television! This was where Jane managed to finally get paid (badly!) doing something she enjoyed – writing. She began with scripts for a series all about Serial Killers (imaginatively entitled ‘Serial Killers’) and then moved on to a series of history documentaries. This series never saw the light of day in the UK but Jane has been informed that it used be very popular with insomniacs staying in hotels in the Far East. This may or may not be true.

Jane’s latest book, The Little Shop on Floral Street, is out now and returns to the familiar East London streets where the author grew up.

Connect with Jane:

Facebook: Jane Lacey-Crane

Twitter: @JaneLaceyCrane

Instagram: @janelaceycrane

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely #BookReview

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Two teens–one black, one white–grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins–a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan–and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team–half of whom are Rashad’s best friends–start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.

It’s category five in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge, ‘Read a book by two authors.’ For this category I have chosen the award-winning YA novel, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Dealing with a subject matter that has been at the forefront of media attention over the last twelve months due to the killing of George Floyd, this would be a great book to give a teen who wanted to read something that grapples with issues that they see in the news in a way that is approachable but also makes them think and try and understand the tensions that arise after such incidents.

The book is told from the dual viewpoints of Rashad, the victim of the violent act, and Quinn, his classmate and friend of the brother of the policeman involved in the arrest. Quinn is very torn between loyalty, and the tensions that arise in his school as everyone begins to take sides. It is a very effective way to present the different perspectives on the events of the book and to see how people are pressured to taking a stand for one side or another, and how the tension spreads quickly through a community. The subject is dealt with very sensitively, and it really brought the reality of the fallout from these events home in a way that we can all relate to.

The book is emotional and difficult to read in parts, but these are issues that need to be brought into the open and discussed in the light, even if that makes us uncomfortable, so I would highly recommend this as a book you can give to young people in your life as a way of introducing them to the topic and giving you a jumping off point for discussion. I am certainly going to be encouraging my teenage daughters to read it as another step in the conversations I have already had with them following the events of the last twelve months.

The writing between the two authors is seamless, you wouldn’t know it was co-authored if you hadn’t been told, but I am sure the input of both made this book the balanced and considered telling of the story that it is. A great and important read, especially for the young adults it is aimed at.

All American Boys is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Authors

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Jason Reynolds is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, a Newbery Award Honoree, a Printz Award Honoree, a two-time National Book Award finalist, a Kirkus Award winner, a two-time Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. He’s also the 2020-2021 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. His many books include StampedWhen I Was the GreatestThe Boy in the Black SuitAll American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely), As Brave as YouFor Every One, the Track series (GhostPatinaSunny, and Lu), Look Both Ways, and Long Way Down, which received a Newbery Honor, a Printz Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Honor. He lives in Washington, DC.

Website: https://www.jasonwritesbooks.com/

Facebook: Jason Reynolds

Twitter: @JasonReynolds83

Instagram: @jasonreynolds83

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Brendan Kiely is the New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), The Last True Love StoryThe Gospel of WinterTradition, and The Other Talk. His work has been published in ten languages; received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, and the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award; has twice been awarded Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association; and has been a Kirkus Reviews Best Book. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives in New York City.

Connect with Brendan:

Website: https://www.brendankiely.com/

Twitter: @KielyBrendan

Instagram: @brendankiely

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Desert Island Children’s Books: Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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It’s time for March’s Desert Island Children’s Book and I can see a theme forming in my last three choices. I was obviously obsessed with reading about the lives of other young girls living in other times during my own formative years. This time we have come forward in time and closer to home to read about the three Fossil sisters living in London in the first half of the twentieth century. I am talking about Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild.

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Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil are sisters – with a difference. All three were adopted as babies by Great Uncle Matthew, an eccentric and rich explorer who then disappeared, leaving them in the care of his niece Sylvia.

The girls grow up in comfort until their money begins to run out and nobody can find Great Uncle Matthew. Things look bleak until they hit on an inspired idea: Pauline, Petrova and Posy will take to the stage.

But it’s not long before the Fossils learn that being a star isn’t as easy as they first thought…

I was never a particularly girly girl growing up. I did have ballet lessons for a while, but it was never a passion for me, so a book about three girls who attend a stage school wouldn’t be the first book you would have picked out for me to fall in love with. I was much more of a tomboy like Jo March or Kate Carr, so I could relate to them much better. But Ballet Shoes is no ordinary book about girls who love to dance, and the Fossils are no ordinary sisters and I absolutely adored this story.

The three Fossil sisters, Pauline, Petrova and Posy are not really sisters at all, they were all rescued by an eccentric explorer on his travels, brought home to London at different times and put in the care of his great-niece in a rambling house on the Cromwell Road (at the very furthest end from the museums of South Ken!) to form their own little, ragtag family. Great Uncle Matthew (or GUM as they refer to him) then disappears for a decade, leaving the family is worsening financial straits, until they are forced to take in lodgers to help make ends meet, and the girls are taken in as charity cases at the local stage school until they are old enough to start making money on the stage (which can happen from the age of 12!), whether they like it (Pauline) or not (Petrova, my personal heroine).

This is what makes this book so marvellous. The eclectic group of people who come to live in their home and help them out (the retired teachers who help educate them, the dance teacher who gets them into the school, Mr Simpson who takes tomboy Petrova under his wing, Nana who is always there with words of wisdom or scoldings to keep their feet on the ground.) It is such an interesting sounding life, full of fun and challenge, that I defy any child not to wish they could be one of the sisters, even for a short while.

Every single aspect of the book charmed me. The descriptions of the plays they auditioned for, their simple holidays, the ‘beavers’ prepared by the two teachers (you’ll have to read it to find out what these are), Pauline’s diva-like behaviour when playing Alice, Posy’s impressions, the vows, the costumes, the descriptions of auditions for the movies, applying for licenses to work. It was all exotic and fascinating and such a world away from what being a child was like for me – it has the truly transportive qualities of all appealing literature, as well as being relatable enough for a child. The fact that this book has remained so popular throughout the years means I was not alone in feeling this way about it.

Having just re-read my extremely battered copy of Ballet Shoes for the purposes of writing this post, I can say that I enjoyed it now as much as I did back then. It has lost none of its appeal for me over the years, and I am still as much in love with the Fossils as I love back then. At the very end of the book, the author wonders which of the girls the reader wishes they could be. My answer remains the same now as it was back then. Petrova every day of the week, but especially on Sunday.

Ballet Shoes is available now and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Noel Streatfeild was born in Sussex in 1895. Her father, a clergyman, was vicar of St Leonard’s-on-Sea and then of Eastbourne during her childhood. She was one of five children and found vicarage life very restricting. At a young age she began to show a talent for acting and was sent to the Academy of Dramatic Art in London, after which she acted professionally for a number of years before turning to writing. The author of over 80 books, she won the Carnegie Medal for her book Ballet Shoes and was awarded an OBE in 1983. Noel Streatfeild died in 1986.

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Desert Island Children’s Books: What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

CHILDREN'S

It’s time for my second pick of books I loved as a child and would want to take with me to a desert island for repeated readings. This month my chosen book is What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge.

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Katy has grand plans to be beautiful, graceful and ladylike … one day! But for now she has hair that is always tangled, bootlaces undone, a torn dress and she doesn’t care about being ‘good’.

With a wild imagination and high spirits, she is always up to mischief, but there never has been a heroine as lovable as Katy. Then a terrible accident happens and it takes all her courage – and hard-learned patience – to keep her dreams alive.

Next to Jo March from Little Women, Katy Carr was my favourite heroine growing up. A messy tomboy, she had a vivid imagination which she used to create stories and games for her gaggle of younger siblings, who all run riot over the Carr home and garden, much to the exasperation of prim Aunt Izzie.

I absolutely loved Katy and the Carr children, and was fascinated by their life and games. I wished we had a spiked pole to climb to a hidden den in the loft (although I didn’t think their special drink of ‘weak vinegar and water’ sounded like much of a treat!), and amazing swing that soared to the rafters of the woodshed, and a beautiful, woodland ‘Paradise’ to explore. It all sounded so idyllic.

Of course, Katy then has a terrible accident and is confined to bed which, for an active teenager, is torture and she has to learn hard lessons of patience and forbearance. But, with the guidance of saintly Cousin Helen, she soon becomes good and wise and a confidante and role model for all her siblings. This is the part of the book where it gets a bit preachy, in the same way that Little Women does, with lots of morals about being good and allowing God to guide you and virtue will be rewarded. This is no surprise, as Susan Coolidge wrote What Katy Did only a few years after the success of Little Women and at the request of her publisher, who was hoping to emulate that success. These were themes that were popular in Victorian children’s literature, which would grate with youngsters today, but did not remotely put me off as a child.

Going back to read this now, I can still see why I loved it so much when I was younger. I still enjoyed all the parts that were my favourites as a young girl – the picnics, the games, the Christmas presents (I still covet Elsie’s writing desk), the Valentines cards, the food and drink. All of these things would delight any child. My Macmillan Collector’s Library edition contains an introduction by Jacqueline Wilson, who was also a fan of the book and has written a modern retelling of the story called simply, KatyI agree with most of what she says about What Katy Did in her opening chapter, except that she lost interest in Katy when she started to grow up. I didn’t. I loved the sequels, What Katy Did At School and What Katy Did Next just as much as the first book.

I haven’t managed to persuade either of my daughters to embrace Katy as I did, even in the modern retelling by Jacqueline Wilson, and even though my eldest daughter is name Katie, a moniker I have loved since first reading these books. I think I can understand why, the world has moved on too far since then, but I love her still and plan on reading the sequels as well some time this year.

You can buy a copy of What Katy Did here.

About the Author

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Sarah Chauncey Woolsey (January 29, 1835 – April 9, 1905) was an American children’s author who wrote under the pen name Susan Coolidge.

Woolsey was born on January 29, 1835 into the wealthy, influential New England Dwight family, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father was John Mumford Woolsey (1796–1870) and her mother Jane Andrews, and author and poet Gamel Woolsey was her niece. She spent much of her childhood in New Haven Connecticut after her family moved there in 1852.[1]

Woolsey worked as a nurse during the American Civil War (1861–1865), after which she started to write. She never married, and resided at her family home in Newport, Rhode Island, until her death. She edited The Autobiography and Correspondence of Mrs. Delaney (1879) and The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney (1880).

She is best known for her classic children’s novel What Katy Did (1872). The fictional Carr family was modelled after her own, with Katy Carr inspired by Woolsey herself. The brothers and sisters were modelled on her four younger siblings

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: Tall Tales and Wee Stories by Billy Connolly #BookReview

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In December 2018, after fifty years of belly-laughs, energy and outrage, Billy Connolly announced his retirement from live stand-up comedy. It had been an extraordinary career.

When he first started out in the late sixties, Billy played the banjo in the folk clubs of Scotland. Between songs, he would improvise a bit, telling anecdotes from the Clyde shipyard where he’d worked. In the process, he made all kinds of discoveries about what audiences found funny, from his own brilliant mimes to the power of speaking irreverently about politics or explicitly about sex. He began to understand the craft of great storytelling. Soon the songs became shorter and the monologues longer, and Billy quickly became recognised as one of the most exciting comedians of his generation.

Billy’s routines always felt spontaneous. He never wrote scripts, always creating his comedy freshly on stage in the presence of a live audience. A brilliant comic story might be subsequently discarded, adapted or embellished. A quick observation or short anecdote one night, could become a twenty-minute segment by the next night of a tour.

Billy always brought a beautiful sense of the absurd to his shows as he riffed on his family, hecklers, swimming in the North Sea or naked bungee jumping. But his comedy can be laced with anger too. He hates pretentiousness and calls out hypocrisy wherever he sees it. His insights about the human condition have shocked many people, while his unique talent and startling appearance on stage gave him license to say anything he damn well pleased about sex, politics or religion.

Billy got away with it because he has always had the popular touch. His comedy spans generations and different social tribes in a way that few others have ever managed.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories brings together the very best of Billy’s storytelling for the first time and includes his most famous routines including, The Last Supper, Jojoba Shampoo, Incontinence Pants and Shouting at Wildebeest. With an introduction and original illustrations by Billy throughout

The fourth category in the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021 is ‘Read a book by an author you would like to meet.’ I could not choose between two authors for this challenge, so I decided to do one in paperback and one in audiobook format. The first book I have chosen is Tall Tales and Wee Stories by Billy Connolly. As an interesting aside, this was the last book I bought in an airport, on a trip to New York in February 2020. Remember the days of buying books in airports? I  wonder when they will come around again!

I’ve been a massive Billy Connolly fan for many years. I’ve got lots of DVDs featuring his standup and travelogues, and I was lucky enough to see him live twice. He never fails to make me laugh, even just on a chat show. So it was with great sadness I heard about his retirement, although entirely understandable in his circumstances.

I was looking forward to reading this book in which he has gathered many of his most famous stories for posterity. Billy never really told ‘jokes,’ they were always funny anecdotes and tales, often poking fun at himself or other absurdities he saw in every day life. He often talked about sex and bodily functions, and was very sweary and he makes no apology for that, so the book would not be for anyone who did not like this in his live shows because Billy is exactly the same in the book as when performing. If you did love his humour though, you will find many of your favourite stories within these pages.

The book is split in to chapters on different, loosely connected topics, but otherwise it is fairly randomly organised with just little anecdotes and longer ones interspersed with comments, thoughts and musings on his life and career. Some people won’t like it because it isn’t a particular linear format, but then Billy’s comedy was never like that. He would start on a topic and then wander off at a tangent when other things occurred to him before looping back round to the original story (or sometimes not!), so the book is a good reflection of his style and really brought him to life for me.

I could hear his voice telling these familiar, and some unfamiliar, stories very clearly. Parts of it made me laugh out loud and I had to keep stopping to read bits aloud to The Irishman who kept asking me what I was laughing at. It was a book that really cheered me up during this lockdown. However, it is not the same as watching Billy perform, and you realise how much his expressions and gestures and movements added to the comedy of his story-telling. The ‘Wildebeest’ example illustrates this best. It is many people’s favourite story of Billy’s, but it just isn’t as funny when you can’t see him doing the vacant expression of the wildebeest and the actions of the lions as they plan their attack.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this but it can’t replace Billy’s performances, and I for one will miss him terribly. I wish I could have met him in real life just once before Parkinson’s started to take effect. I’m sure it would have been great craic.

Tall Tales and Wee Stories is out now in all formats except audio and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Sir William Connolly, CBE is a much-loved Scottish comedian, musician, presenter and actor. He is the recipient of a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award and is regularly voted the nation’s favourite stand-up comedian. Billy was born and raised in Glasgow and now lives in America. He announced his retirement from live performance in December 2018.

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman; Narrated by Lesley Manville #BookReview

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In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet up once a week to investigate unsolved killings.

But when a local property developer shows up dead, ‘The Thursday Murder Club’ finds themselves in the middle of their first live case.

The four friends, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, might be pushing 80, but they still have a few tricks up their sleeves. Can our unorthodox but brilliant gang catch the killer before it’s too late?

It’s book three of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period. The third category is ‘A book by someone who is famous for something else.’

I have chosen The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, who is obviously better known for being the co-host of Pointless as well as presenting other TV shows. This was one of the biggest books of 2020 and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it!

I am often a little wary of picking up a book that has had as much positive hype as this had, for fear of being disappointed, but I have to say that I was charmed and delighted by this book, which gave me everything I was expecting and so much more. It is a fun, cosy crime novel, as you would expect from the blurb, infused with the humour of four OAPs investigating a crime in their retirement village, but it is also an affectionate and authentic look at what it means to get older and the challenges and obstacles that brings.

Four friends in a retirement village set up an amateur sleuthing group to mull over cold cases, details of which have, rather naughtily, been squirrelled away by a retired female Detective Inspector, who is now in a coma after a stroke. The remaining members recruit a replacement, just in time to investigate a real crime that lands on their doorstep, when a local property developer turns up dead. They employ all kinds of tricks and wiles to infiltrate the official police investigation (highly improbably, but this isn’t meant to be realistic in this regard, it is all very tongue in cheek) and exhibit some real ingenuity in cracking the case. The joy and gusto with which they embrace the investigation are entertaining to read about. Richard has created four different, realistic and absolutely delightful characters to take us through the story. They are very unlikely friends, but gel brilliantly together and I adored each of them. Man-mad Joyce, fiery ‘Red Ron,’ the ex-Union agitator, cerebral and methodical Ibrahim and Elizabeth, queen bee with a mysterious past in … well, we never quite know what it is she did, but their are hints from which we can draw our own conclusions. Age has dulled none of their faculties and, add to this their age-earned no-longer-give-a-toss attitudes and they are a force that no one can withstand, certainly not the unfortunate police officers who are given their ‘help’ in the investigation.

However, aside from the fun and games of the investigation, the book gently explores what it means to get older and the challenges that brings. Loss of partners and friends, memory loss, neglect by children, the feeling of being a burden, loneliness, being misunderstood and treated like you have suddenly become ‘less’ than you were before, are all explored here with kindness and care. Richard does not belittle or mock his characters for their ageing bodies or minds, he acknowledges that, whatever age you are, we are all the same inside and deserve the same care and respect, and that these people still have a great deal to offer society and the people they come into contact with. He offers them dignity, agency and excitement and we enjoy going along with them for the ride. He has really captured their voices, and the things that they care about (an obsession with cake being one!) and I just really loved his portrayal of them all.

This book is warm, fun, humorous, kind, enchanting, intelligent and entertaining. It was exactly the tonic I needed at the time I read it (during the grim, cold, dark January lockdown days) and left me with a warm glow at the end. I cannot wait for the second book to come out this autumn. Lesley Manville is the perfect narrator for the audiobook, she really brought the characters to life, and the audio version also includes a 45-minute interview of Richard Osman by Marian Keyes at the end, which was a bonus delight. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a bit of a lift.

The Thursday Murder Club is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Richard Osman is a British television producer and presenter. The Thursday Murder Club is his first and, so far, best novel.

Connect with Richard:

Twitter: @richardosman

Instagram: misterosman

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins; Narrated by Emily Shaffer, Kirby Heyborne & Lauren Fortgang #BookReview

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A girl looking for love….

When Jane, a broke dog-walker newly arrived in town, meets Eddie Rochester, she can’t believe her luck. Eddie is handsome, rich and lives alone in a beautiful mansion since the tragic death of his beloved wife a year ago.

A man who seems perfect….

Eddie can give Jane everything she’s always wanted: stability, acceptance and a picture-perfect life.

A wife who just won’t stay buried….

But what Jane doesn’t know is that Eddie is keeping a secret – a big secret. And when the truth comes out, the consequences are far more deadly than anyone could ever have imagined…. 

Time to review the second book I have chosen this year as part of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period. The second category is ‘A book with a type of relative in the title.’

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins is a book that is getting a lot of positive attention at the moment. It is a modern retelling of Jane Eyre, but with enough twists to keep you guessing, even if you are a fan of the original book.

The book takes place in an affluent neighbourhood in Alabama, where appearances are everything, but nothing is what it seems to be on the surface. Tensions lurk beneath the polished facades that the residents present to the world, and cracks begin to appear once Jane arrives on the scene and upsets the order of society by taking root where she doesn’t belong. Her relationship with Eddie stirs up secrets that were previously buried and reveals facts about the disappearance of his wife that were hidden.

The book is narrated by three characters, Jane, Eddie Rochester and the missing wife, Bea, so we are getting each of their perspectives on the story, but it is impossible to know whose version of events to believe. I have to say, there were no characters in this book that I particularly liked, which would ordinarily make it hard for an author to carry me through a book with them. I normally need to have some sympathy for at least one of the characters for me to invest in a novel to the end, but I didn’t feel any here. This Jane is very different from the Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s novel and I did not warm to her at all. It is testament to how well the author has constructed the mystery through the book, because it was that and not the characters that kept me listening.

I really enjoyed the setting of the book, the descriptions of the exclusive enclave and the pretensions of the people who lived within it. The show they put on, compared to the reality of what is happening beneath, was entertaining, bitchy and authentic and had me gripped. I loved the ambiguity of the story, the way the author teases us with the different voices so we don’t honestly know who is telling the truth and who has spun their own version of it. There are also questions left hanging at the end for the reader to interpret as they will in the light of what has gone before and I think this added an extra dimension to the story.

The narrators were great, they really brought the story to life, and the book made my chores pass quickly. I am perhaps not as in love with this book as some other reviewers I have seen, but it will not disappoint fans of this type of domestic thriller, and it was an interesting, modern interpretation of a beloved book. A solid read.

The Wife Upstairs is out now in ebook, hardback and audio formats, and will be published in paperback in April and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Rachel Hawkins is the New York Times bestselling author of multiple books for young readers, and her work has been translated in over a dozen countries. She studied gender and sexuality in Victorian literature at Auburn University and currently lives in Alabama with her husband and son. The Wife Upstairs is her first adult novel

Connect with Rachel:

Twitter: @LadyHawkins

Instagram: @ladyhawkins

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The Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge 2021: Home Before Dark by Riley Sager; Narrated by Cady McClain & Jon Lindstrom #BookReview

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What was it like? Living in that house.

Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into a rambling Victorian estate called Baneberry Hall. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a memoir called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon.

Now, Maggie has inherited Baneberry Hall after her father’s death. She was too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist.

But when she returns to Baneberry Hall to prepare it for sale, her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the pages of her father’s book lurk in the shadows, and locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself – a place that hints of dark deeds and unexplained happenings. 

As the days pass, Maggie begins to believe that what her father wrote was more fact than fiction. That either way, someone – or something – doesn’t want her here. And that she might be in danger all over again….

This is the first book I have chosen this year as part of the 2021 Reading Challenge for my online book club, The Fiction Cafe Book Club. (If you love books, you must check it out, it is the friendliest part of the internet for bibliophiles). The challenge is to read a new book every fortnight that fits the prescribed category for that two-week period.

The first category is ‘A book that was a Goodreads top read of 2020.’ I have again vowed to try and pick unread books from my TBR to fit the challenge categories, rather than buy new ones. So I chose this book, as I had it already as an audiobook.

I love to listen to Riley Sager novels as audiobooks. There is always so much action and tension in his books that they keep the narration rolling along, despite the fact that the narrators always read a lot slower than I could read them myself if I sat down with the paperback. This one was no exception, and it made me eager to get on with my chores so that I could listen to the next segment. The only drawback was that I could not use this audiobook to send me off to sleep at night as I sometimes do, it was too scary! I was afraid I would have nightmares, or frighten myself to death if I woke up in the night and caught sight of my reflection in the bedroom mirror.

The book is told in the voices of two narrators. The first is Maggie who, in the present day, returns to the ‘haunted house’ that her family fled from when she was five years old. Her family grew rich on the back of a book detailing their experiences in the ‘House of Horrors,’ but the experience has marred Maggie’s life since and, on the death of her father, Maggie returns to the house to find out what really happened back then. The second narrator is the voice of Maggie’s father, Ewan, telling the story of their time in the house as detailed in the book. But it is fact or fiction? Honestly, the reader/listener can’t really know until right at the end of the book, both stories (the one in the book, and the book itself) are very convincing. The audiobook is voiced by two different narrators for Maggie and Ewan who are both excellent and it works really, really well as a listen.

There are lots of twists and turns in the book that keep the reader gripped and guessing, right to the end. Parts of it a really unsettling, I quite often felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end and, as I said, I was afraid to listen to it just before sleep. All great signs of this type of ghost story/thriller and things I have come to expect from a Riley Sager novel. If you have enjoyed his books before, you will like this one.

Yes, it’s preposterous. Yes, the ending is absolutely ludicrous. Yes, you have to suspend your disbelief so far that it will feel like it is hovering over the Grand Canyon. But these are the things that make this kind of book so much fun and why this book was so popular that it ended up in the Goodreads Top Reads of 2020. It gave me everything I expected in spades and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Can’t wait for his next book.

Home Before Dark is out now as an ebook and audiobook, and will be published in paperback in July, and you can buy a copy here.

About the Author

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Riley Sager is the pseudonym of a former journalist, editor and graphic designer. Now a full-time author, Riley’s first thriller, FINAL GIRLS, became a national and international bestseller that’s been translated into more than 25 languages. His subsequent novels, THE LAST TIME I LIED, LOCK EVERY DOOR and HOME BEFORE DARK, were instant New York Times bestsellers. His newest thriller, SURVIVE THE NIGHT, will be released in June.

A native of Pennsylvania, Riley now lives in Princeton, New Jersey. When he’s not working on his next novel, he enjoys reading, cooking and going to the movies as much as possible. His favorite film is “Rear Window.” Or maybe “Jaws.” But probably, if he’s being honest, “Mary Poppins.”

Connect with Riley:

Website: https://www.rileysagerbooks.com/

Facebook: Riley Sager Books

Twitter: @riley_sager

Instagram: @riley.sager

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Desert Island Children’s Books

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Last year I had such fun listing and re-reading the twelve books that I would take with me to a desert island that it spawned a whole new guest blog feature and, I have decided to do it all over again this year, but with children’s books. Yes, this is nothing more than a thinly disguised excuse to read my childhood favourites over the course of the year, and I am totally unapologetic for that. In these turbulent times, what could be more natural and comforting than to retreat to the warmth of the books that saw you safely through childhood?

The premise is the same as last year. I will be revealing and reviewing the twelve children’s books that I would take with me, should I be stranded alone forever on a desert island. One per month throughout the coming year. I’ll tell you what it is I particularly love about them; why they are the books that I read over and over again as a child, and why they still speak to me as an adult, and what I continue to love about them.

I will be reading one of my twelve picks per month and reviewing it on the last day of the month but, like last year, I am trailing the twelve by listing the thirteen books that almost, but didn’t quite, make the final cut. Some of my all-time favourites, that I would be loathe to leave behind but had to sacrifice to make room for the top dozen.

Let’s kick off shall we.

Pony Club Camp by Josephine Pullein-Thompson

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The last glorious swansong of the West Barsetshire Pony Club sees the Major run a camp for the Pony Club members.

Noel and Henry have now left school and have returned as instructors to deal with the loose and the runaway, and that’s just the ponies. The Pony Club members are even worse. 

As a pony-mad girl in the early eighties, the books written by the Pullein-Thompson sisters were a staple of my childhood library, and Pony Club Camp was my absolute favourite. This story of camping with ponies, doing horseback treasure hunts and gymkhanas, was aspirational and the day I finally went to Pony Club Camp myself was a dream come true, even though it wasn’t quite as chaotic as the one in the book!

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

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The Borrowers live in the secret places of quiet old houses; behind the mantelpiece, inside the harpsichord, under the kitchen clock. They own nothing, borrow everything, and think that human beings were invented just to do the dirty work. Arrietty’s father, Pod, was an expert Borrower. He could scale curtains using a hatpin, and bring back a doll’s teacup without breaking it. Girls weren’t supposed to go borrowing but as Arrietty was an only child her father broke the rule, and then something happened which changed their lives. She made friends with the human boy living in the house…

Normally the idea of unseen creatures living in the corners of your house would be a plot line to scare a child rigid, but the story of Pod, Homily and little Arriety who live under the floorboards and exist by ‘borrowing’ human items to adapt for for their own use is just charming. I was fascinating by the clever way they adapt our huge items for their tiny lives. I loved all five books in the series, but the first time you meet them is always the most memorable.

Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley

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Milly-Molly-Mandy lives in a tiny village in the heart of the countryside, where life is full of everyday adventures! Join the little girl in the candy-striped dress as she goes blackberry picking, gets ready to throw a party for her friends and goes to her village fete – whatever Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends are up to, you’re sure to have fun when they’re around.

I’m not really sure what the appeal of the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories was to me as a child because, looking back, she didn’t do anything hugely exciting. Her life was fairly ordinary and simple, you wouldn’t think that they held as much appeal as stories that whisked a child away somewhere magical, but I loved them nonetheless. Maybe their appeal was their simplicity and innocence, it was like having a friend sleeping over in your bedroom every night. Plus, it was like a collection of short stories, perfect for early readers to master their reading independence.

Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St. John

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Lucien’s teasing of Dani leads to an accident with far-reaching consequences. Annette is intent on revenge and does all she can to make life a misery for Lucien. His only friend is the old man up the mountain who recognises his skill in carving wood and gives him new hope. Set in Switzerland this story of Annett, Lucien and Dani has caught the imagination of countless children.

My sister borrowed this book from our school library and somehow it never got returned; I still have the school copy to this day (sorry, St. Mary’s School!) This was my first experience of a book taking me away to a different country with its strange customs (I know it’s only Switzerland, not Swaziland, but we never travelled abroad when I was a child, Switzerland seemed exotic!) I was particularly obsessed with the children getting gingerbread bears from the church Christmas Tree as a gift and coveted the one with the twisted nose.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

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The Wild Wood seems a terrifying place to Mole, until one day he pokes his nose out of his burrow and finds it’s full of friends. He meets brave Ratty, kind old Badger and the rascally Mr Toad, and together they go adventuring . . .

But the Wild Wood doesn’t just contain friends, there are also the sinister weasels and stoats, and they capture Toad Hall when Mr Toad is in jail. How will he escape? And can the friends fight together to save Toad Hall?

I don’t think I need to explain why I loved this charming story of animals acting like people; nervous Mole, adventurous Rat, sensible Badger and the bumptious Mr. Toad. I think I strongly related to Mole as a child, which is why I particularly relished his growing bravery and friendships.

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar And Six More by Roald Dahl

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WHAT if you stumbled upon a boy who could talk to animals?

WHY is a hitchhiker both a saviour and a threat?

HOW can a man see without using his eyes?

SEVEN EXTRAORDINARY TALES OF MAGIC, MYSTERY AND SUSPENSE.

I remember us studying The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar in English at junior school, and I fell in love with Dahl’s more adult, dark storytelling and was eager to read the rest of the short stories in this volume. My first exploration of stories that were slightly less wholesome and cartoonish than what I read at home, a stepping stone to the world of grown up literature.

The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit

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‘If we were in a book it would be an enchanted castle – certain to be’

When Jerry, Jimmy and Kathleen are forced to spend their entire summer at school they don’t imagine they will have a particularly interesting time. But that’s before they stumble upon a mysterious castle set in beautiful, abandoned gardens. Could this really be an enchanted castle? Don’t be a duffer, there’s no such thing. But with the air thick with magic, the sun blazing down, and a maze hiding a sleeping girl at its centre, the holidays might just be looking up…

This is probably the least well-known of this author’s books but it was my absolute favourite. Absolute pure magic for a child to read, a proper childhood fairytale that you really wish you could be in yourself as a reader.

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster

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A trustee of the John Grier orphanage has offered to send Judy Abbott to college. The only requirements are that she must write to him every month and that she can never know who he is.

Judy’s life at college is a whirlwind of friends, classes, parties and a growing friendship with the handsome Jervis Pendleton. With so much happening in her life, Judy can scarcely stop writing to ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’, or wondering who her mysterious benefactor is…

I was given this book by my mum, for whom it was a childhood favourite, and I think this is why I have such fond memories of it, it was something I shared with her and we could discuss together, rather than books I read which she never had. One of my first experiences of the joy of books being enhanced by sharing your love of them with other people. I’ve experienced that the other way since with my own children, and it is a joy that can’t be over-stated.

The Tree That Sat Down/The Stream That Stood Still/The Mountain of Magic by Beverley Nicholls

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Deep in the enchanted forest Judy helps her granny run The Shop Under the Willow Tree. They sell all sorts of wonderful things, such as boxes of beautiful dreams carefully tied up with green ribbon.

But then Sam and the charming Miss Smith, a witch in disguise, open a rival business. The newcomers are not only cheating their customers, but also plotting to destroy Granny’s shop.

Can Judy save the wood from their wickedness?

I was actually introduced to this series via the third book, which I received as a Sunday School prize when I was nine, but as soon as I finished it I pestered my parents to get me books one and two. This series still has the most terrifyingly evil pair of villains ever written in children’s literature. When I was a pre-teen, they scared me silly.

Trebizon by Anne Digby

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New girl Rebecca Mason arrives at Trebizon, the famous boarding school, after everyone else has already made friends. Lonely and anxious to prove herself, Rebecca writes something for the school magazine that unexpectedly triggers a row and half the school turns against her. Luckily, she discovers she has friends after all, the best friends any new girl could hope for.

I was introduced to the Trebizon books by my friend, Lisa, and soon fell in love with this school series. I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s boarding school stories, and Anne Digby’s Trebizon series were a more mature version. Set in a Cornish boarding school, they dealt with slightly more adult topics across the fourteen books and they were a firm favourite.

Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold by Terry Brooks

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Landover was a genuine magic kingdom, complete with fairy folk and wizardry, just as the advertisement had promised. But after he purchased it for a million dollars, Ben Holiday discovered that there were a few details the ad had failed to mention…

Such as the fact that the kingdom is falling into ruin. The barons refuse to recognize a king and taxes haven’t been collected for years. The dragon, Strabo, is laying waste to the countryside, while the evil witch, Nightshade, is plotting to destroy no less than everything. And if that weren’t enough for a prospective king to deal with, Ben soon learns that the Iron Mark, terrible lord of the demons, has challenged all pretenders to the throne of Landover to a duel to the death – a duel no mere mortal can hope to win.

But Ben Holiday has one human trait that even magic can’t overcome. Ben Holiday is stubborn.

Terry Brooks is much better known for his Shannara series of fantasy books, but I fell completely in love with the Landover series, of which Magic Kingdom For Sale/Sold is the first book, when I first read them. The story of a man disillusioned with the modern world who buys a magic kingdom, believing it to be an elaborate hoax, only to find it is real but very far from a magical fantasy realm, is just bewitching. I’ve just discovered there is a sixth book in the series which I’ve never read, so I guess I’ll be revisiting these from the beginning at some point this year.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

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For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different.

Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.

Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams!

The only reason this book is on the runner-up list and not top of the master list, is that this was one of the books on my main Desert Island Books list last year. One of my favourite books of all time, you can read my review of this book from last year here.

The Ship of Adventure by Enid Blyton

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An amazing voyage around the beautiful Greek islands becomes an exciting quest to find the lost treasure of the Andra!

Philip, Dinah, Lucy-Ann, Jack and Kiki the parrot are plunged into a search for hidden riches – with some ruthless villains hot on their trail! Will they find the treasure before it’s too late?

Really, this is just representative of all of Enid Blyton’s books. I grew up with her, and her books guided me through all of my early reading experiences. Starting off with her collections of fairy stories and Mr Pinkwhistle (how was this ever allowed?), through the Faraway Tree books and the Magic Wishing Chair to The Secret Seven and the Mystery series, I loved them all and devoured every one. The Famous Five were my absolute favourites, and they will be making an appearance in the final twelve, but a special mention has to go to the Adventure series, and this book in particular, which I think was the best. I know she is problematic and very unfashionable, but she is the cornerstone of my love of reading and I still have all of my Enid Blyton books, because they hold huge sentimental value for me.

So, those are the thirteen childhood favourites that are close to my heart but didn’t quite make the final twelve. Join me on 31st January to see the first one that forms part of the twelve childhood favourites that I would take to my desert island.

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A New Blogging Year, What Will It Bring For A Little Book Problem?

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I’m a bit late with my Happy New Year/ blogging intentions post. After all, it’s the sixth of January, we are almost a week in. This is very unlike me, I am a Type-A, anal, organised, get-it-done-on-day-one type.

This is deliberate, and indicative of how I intend the year to proceed. My main intention (not resolution, not making any of those this year. They are just pressure, I never end up keeping them, then I feel guilty. It’s a whole big hiding to failure from Day One) is just to cut myself some slack this year, particularly when it comes to blogging. I’m just going to ease up, take a step back and stop putting so much pressure on myself to do things a certain way or measure up to a certain ideal. This is supposed to be a fun hobby, not another set of obligations and I’m planning on returning to that mindset. Fewer deadlines, more doing what I feel like doing.

We all know 2020 was a pretty dire year for so many reasons, and there were times where it was really hard going. It was books that saved me much of the time, and I read more in a year than I ever have before – 186 books in total. There were other times though, when I had taken on too many blog tours, was reading books because I HAD to, rather than wanted to, and felt obliged to review them on a certain date, that it just added to the stress, rather than relieving me of it. As we kick off 2021 in yet another lockdown, I’m determined that won’t happen again.

I still intend to carry on blogging fully, and have lots of things planned for the blog (more on that below), but some things I am going to be doing differently. Less reading to a timetable and more free reading. Fewer blog tours but more trying to engage authors and promote books in other ways (although I’ve not made a great start with this for January – oops!). Putting the fun back into blogging and making it feel less like an obligation, which it can become if you over-commit. When this happens, the authors aren’t getting the best of me, so I think we will all benefit.

All of my blog features – Friday Night Drinks, Desert Island Books and Romancing The Romance Authors – will continue, and I’m currently dreaming up new ones to work on. I’ll be doing some blog tours, but a maximum of two per month from March onwards. I am still open to approaches for non-time-critical reviews and guest posts from authors and publishers, so please don’t feel afraid to approach me. I am sure there will be something I can do for you in most circumstances.

I’ve set my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal at 120 for the year, which isn’t too much pressure. I had a lot of fun with my personal Desert Island Books last year, so I will be continuing that this year with my Desert Island Children’s Books. The introductory post for that is going up on Saturday, so please follow along. I’m also attempting the Fiction Cafe Book Club Reading Challenge again, and I am determined to see that through to the end this year for the first time. Here are the prompts, if anyone is interested in joining in.

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I’m planning on concentrating more on my writing this year. I am on the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s New Writers’ Scheme for another year and have two manuscripts on the go. I am enrolled in Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author Coaching programme, and I’m determined that this is the year I really kick my writing ambitions in to gear. Maybe some day soon I’ll be on the other side of someone’s book review blog. That’s my dream.

20th January marks the fourth anniversary of my first post on A Little Book Problem. I can’t believe how far I have come in that time. Over 700 posts and 7,000+ followers across all platforms. Site views doubling year on year and now, thanks to the RNA, award-winning. It’s so much more than I ever imagined when I typed that first, tentative post four years ago. To celebrate, I’m going to be doing a huge giveaway, so watch this space for details coming up next week.

I’m hoping for a happier, healthier new year for all of us in 2021. I know we aren’t off to the best start, but I’m hoping brighter days are on the horizon. The time will come when we can all get together in person again, hug and laugh and celebrate in the sunshine. In the meantime, I am so grateful that I have books, and the wonderful camaraderie of the bookish community, to see me through. Thank you all for your support, and I look forward to sharing more book love with you over the coming months.

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