Minotaur Books | 21 April 2020 | 352 pgs
Source: Library 

Jennifer Hillier's Little Secrets was an addictive, fast paced and compelling psychological suspense that centred around a family of three and how an unfortunate incident has lead to many effects and consequences. 

Marin seems to have a perfect, blessed life. She's happily married to her college sweetheart, Derek, who now runs his own company. Marin herself owns a chain of high-end hair salons which are mostly frequent by celebrities and rich clients. Life is good until their 4-year-old son, Sebastian, is taken. Marin has herself to blame since she'd let go of Sebastian's hand for a while to return a text to her best friend, Sal. Despite the search and a year later, Sebastian still couldn't be found and this becomes a cold case. 

Marin refuses to accept the fact that Sebastian is gone like that, so she engages a P.I. to continue with the search. The investigator didn't find any leads to Sebastian's missing, but she did find out that Derek is having an affair with a younger woman during the findings. Marin's despair over the loss of her son quickly changes to rage after learning about her husband's infidelity, and this turn of events and the unexpected effects thereafter is the highlight of this story. 

I loved the suspense and the intensity so this was a fast read to me. Sebastian's missing and Marin's breakdown are the hardest to read but I've to say the author has done a great job depicting these scenarios although it's a nightmarish thought for every parents. However, this is more than a missing child story as the plot thickens and I wouldn't want to indulge more. I could only say it was a twisty thriller which left me flabbergasted in the end. 

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William Morrow | 20 October 2020 | 640 pgs
Source: Library 
At first glance, Plain Bad Heroines may look a little intimidating with its size (600+ pages) but it eventually won me over with the atmospheric and the Gothic theme. However, the story wasn't what I expected and I'll get to that later. 

The story begins in Year 1902 at the Brookhants School for Girls. Two students, Flo and Clara, are in love with each other and they share an obsession over Mary MacLane's works, in particularly her bestselling memoir comprising her thoughts and issues such as feminism. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls even establish their own club and called it The Plain Bad Heroines Society. Sadly, their sapphic love is cut short not by others' judgemental view but by a swarm of yellow jackets which led them to a macabre death. Even on their death they're seen holding Mary's book. The school eventually closes after more scandal and death involved, sparking some talks and curiosity if the place (or the book?) is cursed. 

At present, the now abandoned Brookhants is back in the spotlight when filmmaker Bo Dhillon decides to use the setting for their new film, which is based on the bestselling book of wunderkind author Merritt Emmons. The Happenings at Brookhants details the history of the real deaths and supposed curse attached to the school though mainly it is more of a horror film adaptation surrounding feminism and the friendship among the characters. This present time introduces the reader to our three main characters - Merritt Emmons (the author herself), Harper Harper (an influencer and aspiring star) and Audrey Wells (former child star and now a B-list actress). As the movie set and the crew move into Brookhants to begin filming, weird things begin to happen as the past seems to entangle with the present, questioning the characters and the reader if it's the Brookhants curse or if it's simply a coincidence. 

I'd mixed feelings about this book. For starters, the story was long and dragging although the writing was unique and entrancing in a way (the narrative style was told in parts by an omnipresent narrator and truth be told, I wasn't sure if I should be annoyed or amused by the voice). All the characters are intriguing and I think that's the strength of this story, but sadly there wasn't much coverage of the two girls from the past; which I felt was a pity considering they were the ones who first started off the story. Our characters of the present time are still interesting to read, but their personalities, narcissism and their emotions took over much of the story, leaving this reader baffled and underwhelmed at the same time. But of course there are still some Gothic moments, such as the yellow jackets (shivers) and the Black Oxford apples which may have you wondering if they're mystical themselves. Another of my disappointment was finding the ending kind of fizzled after all the past and present buildup; and that there wasn't much link between the two timelines except the presence of the yellow jackets (I personally feel they're the real threat here). This review may deem like I didn't enjoy the book, but I did at some parts and overall it was quite a fascinating tale; and not to mention it's a story within a story within a story (this isn't a typo) and featuring black-and-white period illustrations by Sara Lautman. I'd still recommend this to readers who enjoy a bit of queerness in their reading. 
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | 2 March 2021 | 336 pgs
Source: NetGalley 

I was so pleased to see that Elly Griffiths decided to write a series featuring DS Harbinder Kaur, who first made her first appearance in The Stranger Diaries. Harbinder is an intriguing character herself; she's a Sikh in her thirties, is gay and lives with her parents. She's the no-nonsense kind and she doesn't really care what people think of her, which is one trait I liked most about her. 

In this book we follow Harbinder to Shoreham, a West Sussex coastal town, to look into the death of a 90-year-old Peggy Smith. Although Peggy is reported to have died of a heart condition, her carer thinks otherwise. Natalka, an Ukrainian young woman who has some knowledge in cryptocurrency dealing, has been taking care of Peggy for a while and knew about her quiet lifestyle and her health condition. She believes there's more than meets the eye surrounding Peggy's death after finding a postcard tucked in one of her books with an ominous message "We are coming for you". Peggy may be old and wheelchair-bound, but in truth she was a smart woman who had offered some of her ideas to several well-acclaimed crime authors about murder plots and how to kill people in the fictional world, thus earning her the title of "murder consultant" among them and it was no surprise her name was often mentioned in their acknowledgements. 

As Harbinder and her partner, DS Neil Winston began their investigation after Natalka's observation, Natalka herself forms her own sleuthing group consisting an ex-monk turns cafe owner (Benedict) and a retired gay radio broadcaster (Edwin) who are all acquaintances of Peggy and living around the area. Their curious probing took a turn when a gunman broke into Peggy's flat and fled away with an out-of-print crime novel, adding more intrigue and suspicion to the already suspicious case. To complicate matters, Natalka thinks she is being followed by two men whom she suspected are Ukrainian mafia for the cryptocurrency fraud years ago. Without any ideas or clues, the two sleuth parties soon find two more authors dead. Both authors knew Peggy and they too had received the same ominous message. Who is targeting these authors and for what reason? 

Once again, I find myself captivated by Ms Griffiths' way of plotting and executing the story, as well as her interesting cast of characters who are unique and unforgettable in their own ways. Natalka, Benedict and Edwin may have nothing in common and their personalities differ, but they've an astonishing chemistry and I enjoyed reading their observations and their theories. Harbinder's character continues to be a delightful read, but I was more drawn to the literary theme surrounding the mystery and the interesting trio that made this book such a fun read despite the dark mood of murders. And oh, if you've read The Stranger Diaries, you may be pleased to see Clare has made an appearance in this book, though she has no connection to the story and each book stand on its own. 
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Grove Atlantic | 2 February 2021 | 336 pgs
Source: NetGalley 

75-year-old Felix Pink is retired and widowed for more than a decade. Having lost his son as well, Felix's only companion is a dog called Mabel. To keep himself busy and occupied, Felix becomes an Exiteer. It was an unusual job albeit being a not-so-lawful one. To put it clearly, an exiteer simply needs to sit with terminally ill people as they die by suicide, assisting them with logistics and moral support. After they passed, the exiteer would remove the evidence so that anyone is not implicated in the death. Felix's latest assignment is an elderly man living at No. 3 Black Lane. Alongside with him is a rookie called Amanda who's in her early 20s. An exiteer job usually works in pairs and while Felix finds Amanda is too young and inexperienced to perform such a "heavy" job, he has no choice and no say in anything considering he's merely a person who's doing his job, too. 

Felix would soon figure that Amanda's age would be the last thing on his mind, for they later realised that they'd made a huge mistake by assisting the wrong man. As Felix finds himself on the run from the police, he couldn't help but to wonder what has turned wrong during their duty. Surely it was a terrible mistake, but what if someone has meant it to be a murder? 

I was enamored by Bauer's previous novel, Snap, and found it to be a well-written and a well-executed crime novel with a little touch of humanity. Her characters are so real that they seemed to jump off the page, and despite knowing that Felix's choice of job may not be recognised by everyone, I couldn't help but to feel sorry for him due to what he's gone through and most of all, his thoughtfulness not only to all people in general but also to his dog, Mabel, which he fears she'd be left on her own should anything happen to him. As much as this is a character-driven story, I'd say the suspense and the intensity are equally on par plot-wise and it took me by surprise everytime a layer of intrigue is revealed till the whole picture is fully presented. This latest release by Belinda Bauer has made me her fan and I'll be sure to check out her future releases. 

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First of all, a very Happy New Year to you! 2020 had been an extraordinary year and I hope that 2021 will bring more happiness, peace and most of all, good health to us all! 

My reading in 2020 took me by surprise as I'd only read 64 books; a far cry from the 113 books I read in 2019. Nevertheless, it was still a great reading year considering I'd enjoyed many books I read and I'd had a hard time coming up with this list. Anyways, here is my Top Ten books of 2020 (click on the titles to link to my reviews):

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger
Dear Wife by Kimberly Belle 
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager 
Never Turn Back by Christopher Swann 
We Are All the Same in the Dark by Julia Heaberlin 
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell 
Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson 
The Drowned Girls by Loreth Anne White 

Honorable Mentions:
Exit by Belinda Bauer 
The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths 
Although the above two books wouldn't be released until February and March 2021 respectively, I want to give you a heads-up considering how much I loved these books so do keep a look out for them nearing to their publishing date. My review for Exit would be forthcoming. 
Finally, happy reading and let's hope 2021 will be a better year in all aspects! 

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