‘You’ve Reached Sam’ – Dustin Thao

You’ve Reached Sam is a book that will impact some people hugely, and even if you don’t find yourself a blubbery mess once it’s over then you will at least recognise how valuable this is to get people thinking about death and how we deal with it.

Julie is our main character and we learn that she has become something of a recluse since the death of her boyfriend, Sam. It frustrated me that for a character who plays such a pivotal role we know so little about him, but it was clear that he’d left his mark on the world somehow.

For reasons we never have explained, Julie finds herself able to talk to Sam on her mobile. There appear to be strict rules to follow, but these conversations allow Julie to say the things to Sam that she never had the opportunity to in life.
Only she can’t tell anyone what she’s doing or it will break their connection.

Slowly, and with the help of her friends, Julie learns to live again. By the end, things are settling back to a new reality but Julie is showing signs of accepting what has happened, learning to value the time she had with Sam and recognising the influence he has had on her life.

I personally found Julie quite irritating at times. Many of Sam’s friends and family were grieving but they rarely factored into her thought process. This is, probably, quite realistic – but it was nice to see there was no hard and fast approach to how someone should be seen to grieve. However, the steps she took allowed her to move gradually closer to accepting her new reality.


‘Mayflies’ – Andrew O’Hagan

When we first meet James and Tully they are music-obsessed teens railing against the world. Their group of friends squeeze the life out of every experience, helped by alcohol and whatever they can get their hands on. Their defining moment is a trip to Manchester for a gig at the new G-Mex. We follow them on their weekend as they visit places they’ve heard about and are desperate to experience.

This section of the book was important in order to establish the bond between the group, but particularly between James and Tully.

The friendship between the two is maintained throughout adulthood. They support one another in their attempts to navigate their adult years, and the bond between them is clearly strong.

While I enjoyed this from the perspective of someone who’d visited many of the places mentioned, it didn’t strike me as particularly memorable. I wondered why so much was made of the book…but then came the second part.

Set thirty-one years after their trip to Manchester the two men remain firm friends. James is a writer and Tully a teacher. They are both successful, and in relationships that appear to be good. It also signals the beginning of the end for these two.

When Tully texts James to ask him to call, we know it’s not going to be good. He announces he has cancer, has four months to live and that he wants help to manage the last months of his life. James, out of respect for their friendship, agrees to support him.

What follows was an unsentimental account of one man’s determination to end his life as he lived it…controlling his narrative. There were rather mawkish scenes as each comes to accept what’s happening, but it explored attitudes to death and the extent to which we might influence the lives of others. The final scene had an understated exuberance to it that left me feeling a peace I wasn’t expecting to.


‘BFF: A Story about Bullycide’ – Lindsey G.P. Bell

BFF is the kind of story that you read and weep over. The idea that children can be so cruel seems hard to believe if you’ve never experienced bullying, but it always amazes me how some people seem to know exactly which words will cause the most upset. That we can still have situations where children are made to feel so low by their peers that they commit suicide, shows that it’s painfully clear something is very very wrong.

The story begins with Abby moving from California to live in the home her mother grew up in. Though her mother left years earlier, and has since died, Abby knows that her father couldn’t afford to turn down the opportunity to live in a home that is paid for.

Their arrival at their new home immediately emphasises their sense of isolation and discomfort at their new environment. But Abby makes the acquaintance of Hollis on that first day and the girls quickly become friends. Hollis is inventive, caring, thoughtful and incredibly mature. But she is seen as weird by her peers, and as the summer draws to a close and the girls prepare to return to school, it becomes clear that things are going to change.

Abby and Hollis try to weather the storm. They acknowledge their friendship and try their hardest to seek help. Sadly, to no avail. When Hollis’s mum bans her daughter from seeing Abby, the bullying becomes more vicious. Abby tries to seek help. Those involved seem to suffer no consequences. Eventually, things reach a deeply tragic end.

This book spent so much time showing how wonderful Hollis was, and how she touched the lives of those she met, that it seemed all the more brutal to have her life snuffed out so quickly. It made me angry. It made me sad. It made me want to ensure nobody is made to feel so worthless. I can only hope that this book gets in the hands of the right people.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this in advance of publication in exchange for my honest review.

‘A Terrible Kindness’ – Jo Browning Wroe

A Terrible Kindness opens with William Lavery at a celebration of him becoming the youngest embalmer to pass his training. It should be a defining moment in his career, and it is…but not for the reasons we might think.

During the course of the evening, October 1966, news filters through about an awful event that has taken place in Aberfan. The school has been buried, and many lives have been lost. Embalmers are needed to help with the identification of the dead, and the preparation of their bodies. William volunteers, and it becomes a night that he cannot forget.

The portrayal of a community suffering was done sensitively. Accounts of this tragedy are many, and there will be some that offer more factual detail. However, this setting is more of a backdrop for us, helping to explain the way our character develops. After the start, it remains a moment that helps to shape William but is not really addressed until much later.

Having had such a monumental start to his career, we then learn a little more of William’s past. We see how his background helped shape the man he becomes, and we are – very slowly – given the details that help us to understand the significance of some of the events we witness.

I found William something of a strange character, but the gradual peeling back of his layers was very natural. Learning about his childhood as a chorister was both entertaining and moving, and the descriptions of the role music played in his life was powerful. There was plenty of detail given about the embalming process (perhaps a little more than I might have wished to know) but I found myself struck by the kindness and care shown by William to those he works with. The latter stages, where William has his breakthrough moments, were awash with acts of kindness and compassion that had me tearing up, but it never felt mawkish or overly sentimental.

As the book moves towards the end, we know William is going to have to face his ghosts. This is not easy by any means, and yet there was a beautiful sense of a man learning to accept himself and his situation.

Thanks to the author for this sensitive exploration of the human condition, and thanks to the publishers for giving me the opportunity to read it in advance of publication.

‘Em & Me’ – Beth Morrey

Delphine Jones is someone who feels as if she’s existing. Stuck in a job she doesn’t particularly like (working in a coffee shop) she does her best for her daughter, but as Em matures it highlights the things Delphine gave up on.

We are slowly introduced to Delphine’s life now, and learn about her as a teenager. We see how both she and her father have somewhat stagnated following the death of mother/wife, and how Delphine found herself abandoning her dreams once she got pregnant.

Potentially a most depressing subject, but there’s a warmth to this which carries you along. We see the importance of choices, and the need to be willing to open yourself to opportunities. There’s a strong cast of characters that aid Delphine in her journey of self-discovery, and though things might all end on a rather rosy note it certainly offers food for thought.

Thanks to NetGalley for giving me the chance to spend some time with Delphine and Em.


‘All the White Spaces’ – Ally Wilkes

All the White Spaces forces its characters to confront their fears as they struggle to survive a seemingly doomed expedition to Antarctica.

Our main focus is young Jonathan Morgan, left behind during the War, who follows famed explorer Randall on his journey to Antarctica. From the outset things seem tense, with certain members of the party resentful of some of those invited. When their ship is burned, the men are forced to strike out for an unchartered space. As they prepare to overwinter in this inhospitable area, it becomes clear that someone – or something – is threatening this group.

The book opens in the early stages of the journey, with Jonathan stowed away and full of excitement at the thought of proving their worth. Though slow, the opening allows us the opportunity to get to know each of the key characters within the expedition party. We see a little of their background and learn that there are many secrets on board, with all having a vested interest in keeping these secrets hidden.

When the ship is found on fire we know someone has done it. We don’t know why, but it forces the men into a situation that is fraught with danger. Slowly, details are revealed that show just how dangerous this area can be…and the creeping sense of horror was well-conveyed.

Once the men are in the abandoned huts, wondering what happened to the German party that passed this way a year earlier, I found myself more invested in the story. The underlying tensions within the party are exacerbated by the events surrounding them. Voices are heard. People find themselves lured into the open, following something they believe. Strange things start happening. Who, or what, is behind this soon becomes our focus.

What we soon realise is that the worst ghosts are those we conjure for ourselves. Haunted by the War and their own experiences, each member of the party has to confront their own ghosts if they are to survive this.

A haunting exploration of identity and historical attitudes, this was an intriguing story. I’m grateful to NetGalley for giving me the opportunity to read this prior to publication.


‘Fear No Evil’ – James Patterson

To get to 29 books in a series suggests you’re doing something right…and things appear to be far from over.

This time around Alex Cross is called in to investigate the death of a CIA agent, forced into making a confession of corruption prior to her death. A Mexican cartel – whose leader has been in prison in enforced silence for nearly a year – appears to be behind it. Before we know it, tit-for-tat deaths are a thing and the body count is racking up

While Cross and his best friend Sampson are doing their best to piece things together, we get an update on the family. Some play a peripheral role, but they’ve earned such a place in these books I guess they have to be mentioned. Bree is more involved in these events than she realises as she is involved in an investigation into a wealthy French financier.

Initially, the strands seemed very disparate but the pacing of chapters rattles along, and it doesn’t take much time before we start to see the connections.

By the close of the book, Cross and Sampson are out in the Montana wilderness and being hunted by two interested parties. Tension aplenty…but things work out as we’d hope.

Throughout, there’s the cat and mouse interactions with M. A person or a group? Nobody’s sure…but we get some answers.


‘Little Bird’ – Tiffany Meuret

The cover and tagline had me intrigued, but I was unsure exactly how this book would blend horror and magical realism. Having finished it, I’m still not entirely certain I get it.

The story opens with our introduction to Josie, a rather reclusive character who does all she can to minimise interactions with others. Somewhat struggling with the death of her beloved father, Josie keeps her life together with the help of strict routines, her dog (Po) and copious amounts of vodka. When she finds herself visited by a new nosy neighbour who seems determined to befriend her, Josie is concerned at what is to come.

What she could never have foreseen is the arrival in her home of vines that seem to grow with her state of mental health and a skeleton who promises to leave her alone if she tells an original story.

The character of Skelly was, for me, a kind of barometer for Josie’s mental health. I liked that Skelly tries to help Josie regain a sense of purpose, but the whole thing was a little strange.

Thanks to NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this in exchange for an honest review.


‘The Undiscovered Deaths of Grace McGill’ – C.S. Robertson


Grace McGill…a character who makes her living out of death, and the undiscovered deaths referred to in the title are not quite what we might believe. Our journey with Grace might seem quite predictable in ways, but it throws up some interesting diversions along the way.

I’ve noticed there’s been an increasing number of characters in books released over the last year or so that are likely to be on the autistic spectrum and Grace is no exception. Socially awkward, lonely, liable to become fixated on certain topics and with a keen sense of right and wrong…Grace ticks a lot of the conventional boxes that alienate her in a neurotypical world. Her choice of job exacerbates the sense of oddness that hangs over Grace, but it’s crucial to what unfolds.

Grace is a death cleaner. She is called to clean up after a body has been discovered – often having lain undisturbed for months, sometimes years. Grace cleans and decontaminates these rooms, preparing them once again to join the normal world. The details given are stomach-churning, but to shy away from them would make us part of the problem. Grace believes that these people she works with, though no longer with us, are victims. Victims of society. The ones that slip through the cracks, with nobody deeming them important enough to check in with. So Grace vows to do her duty and help them leave this world with dignity.

I’ll admit to finding the details about Grace’s work unpleasant but darkly fascinating. I was intrigued by her attitude to her work, and the revelation that she creates these beautiful dioramas of the rooms she encounters struck me as unusual. Grace’s determination to honour each of her clients in representing their final rooms showed her obsessive nature to perfection. So it came as little surprise when she started to notice patterns in the scenes…

When she goes to the police with her observations about a dried daisy being found in two of the rooms she has recently cleaned they virtually laugh her out of the station. Yet Grace is convinced there’s more to this than meets the eye. In her mind, these deaths are related and she is determined to find out how.

It was at this point – a little over halfway through – that the book takes a turn in a rather unexpected direction and shifts into more familiar territory. Grace gets caught up in investigating a decades-old mystery, determined to restore dignity to this young girl who went missing after a holiday with friends. This shift in focus jars initially, and felt a little disappointing after such an intriguing opening, but as things continue it becomes apparent why it’s been done this way.

Grace McGill is not a character that readers will necessarily find endearing. She’s not without her faults, and yet there’s something about her and her story that gets under your skin. As we got given more details about Grace and the mystery of Valerie Moodie it was apparent that there was more to the character of Grace than meets the eye. There were signs throughout the book of what was happening, but it was easy to overlook them or – as I did – think I was reading too much into a throwaway comment. However you come to view Grace it’s hard not to be affected by her final work and what it tells us about her.

Thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for allowing me the opportunity to read this before publication. I can’t wait to see how Grace is received when she makes her way into the world in January 2022.

‘Be Not Far From Me’ – Mindy McGinnis

Mindy McGinnis doesn’t shy away from the topics that many would rather not address. In Be Not Far From Me the mood quickly shifts and it was a lot more graphic than I was expecting. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this exactly, but it certainly was a story I was keen to finish as soon as I could and work out what would happen.

Our main character is Ashley Hawkins. Resourceful and more than a little intimidating if I’m being honest, and the qualities that made her so irritating at the beginning stand her in good stead as the book progresses. When she sets off for a party in the woods with her friends, it should be a welcome start to the summer holidays.

Of course, things have a habit of going wrong when groups of teens assemble in the woods for drunken fun…and this couldn’t have gone more wrong if they were trying!

Ashley definitely sees herself as slightly better than her friends in respect of her ability to navigate in the woods. The party starts well, but Ashley is on edge because her boyfriend’s ex has turned up. She looks amazing, and Ashley is feeling uncomfortable. She drinks more than she might otherwise be tempted to. When she wakes in the middle of the night to relieve herself, she is stunned to stumble across her boyfriend and his ex having sex!

Now, this scenario is not going to be one that many will ever have to face. Heaven only knows what someone would do. Certainly, the urge to flee would be high. However, Ashley runs and doesn’t stop…until she falls and passes out.

What follows is the grimmest fourteen days anyone could hope to experience.

While Ashley is trying to survive and find her way back to humanity, we learn a little more about her and her past. This allowed us to gain a little more understanding of her character, and while I admired her resilience and ability to cope in adversity there was a part of me that wished the details were a little less graphic.

By the time we get to the end of the book, things have developed considerably. Ashley certainly grows as a character and while I don’t begrudge her the relatively happy ending I can’t help think it’s highly improbable.