“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse” –Edmund Burke
Disturbing, compelling, and haunting are just a few words I’d use to describe My Dark Vanessa, which as the title suggests is a dark tale, concerning abuse. Set in and around Maine in the US, and recounted across two timelines, this is the story of 15-year-old Vanessa Wye’s love affair with her 42-year-old high school English teacher, Jacob Strane. At least, that’s how Vanessa prefers to remember it. What it really is, of course, is the complex story of a young girl who was targeted and groomed by an older man.
The opening chapter begins in 2017. Vanessa is in her early 30s and disillusioned with life and masks her disappointment by smoking too much pot and drinking too much alcohol. She discovers, via social media, that a former pupil from a private school she once attended has publicly accused her former English teacher of abuse, making Vanessa reconsider what she believes was the great love affair of her life. “When Strane and I met [she says], I was fifteen and he was forty-two. A near perfect thirty years between us. That’s how I described the difference back then––perfect.”
As the story unravels, we flit back and forth in time between Vanessa as she is now and Vanessa as she was before; a young, impressionable, lonely schoolgirl with a burgeoning crush on her charismatic teacher. Sadly though, Vanessa struggles to accept she was abused, convinced her relationship with Strane was “different”. However, the author uses Vanessa’s heightened sense of uniqueness to show the reader what it feels like to be groomed. How Strane uses Vanessa’s vulnerability to his advantage by telling her she’s “special” and how, like him, she is a “dark romantic”.
Brilliantly written, tragically sad, and emotively dark. My Dark Vanessa makes for an uneasy, troubling, but insightful and compulsive read.
Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of bringing you some great interviews with some amazing authors, however, this month I thought we’d take a look at one of the many unsung heroes of the book world, namely Book Blogger Anne Cater, whose award-winning Book Blog, Random Things Through My Letterbox, recently celebrated its 10th birthday. Among other things, Anne writes book reviews for the Daily Express, the Sunday Express Magazine, the Daily Mirror, and regularly organises blog tours for authors.
Hi Anne, thanks for chatting with me. Can you tell us all a bit about yourself?
Hi Eva, thanks so much for inviting me. I’m 54 years old and live in a small market town in Lincolnshire, with my husband and our cat. I spent most of my career working in the voluntary sector and the NHS but am now a full-time Blog Tour organiser. I work with big publishers, small independent publishers, PR agencies and directly with authors.
Have you always enjoyed reading books? When did you first become a book blogger?
My Mum taught me to read at an early age. She was a big reader, she loved romance, and sagas and I read all of her books after she had.
I am never without a book. The only time that I didn’t read for more than two days was when I was very ill in hospital, but other than that, I have read every single day since I was aged around 4.
I started my blog, Random Things Through My Letterbox in March 2011.
As such a prolific reader, have you ever considered writing a book yourself?
Lots of people ask that question! People have told me to write a book, but honestly, I just don’t have a story to tell. I wish I did.
And finally, what advice would you offer anyone thinking of becoming a book blogger?
It’s hard work. Building a name takes time and dedication. It’s not just about ‘free books’, whilst it is an honour to receive so many books in the post, it can also be incredibly stressful.
Everyone wants you to read and review their book. You really have to pace yourself, only accept the books that you really want to read.
Do it your own way, there’s no right or wrong way at all, just don’t include spoilers in your reviews.
Join the bookish community on social media. Talk to other bloggers, to publishers, to authors online. Share your blog posts. Don’t just Tweet them once and then never mention them again. If you love a book, shout about it, and keep shouting.
Enjoy it. If it starts to become a chore, or feel like work, then stop. It’s supposed to be a fun hobby, something different from work. A release, a place to be happy.
Of course, if you wish to generate an income from blogging, then that’s fine too, but again, it will take a lot of work. Book Blogging is not something that will make you rich!
This month I’m really honoured to be chatting to the lovely, and very talented Sarah Vaughan. Sarah is the author of four novels, including her current international bestseller, Little Disasters, which was released as a paperback on the 4th March and is also my book of choice for this month’s book review, which you can read here. Sarah’s critically acclaimed third novel, Anatomy of A Scandal (read my review here), is at present being filmed as a Netflix series with an all-star cast including Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery, and Rupert Friend, which I for one can’t wait to see! Fingers crossed it does the book justice. If the cast is anything to go by, I’d say that’s highly probable.
Welcome Sarah, thanks for being my guest today. Can you tell us all a bit about yourself? I understand you used to be a news reporter and political correspondent on the Guardian?
I read English at university then did a regional newspaper journalism course and joined the Press Association as a trainee. After 20 months I was working on the Guardian, first as a news reporter, ultimately working on stories like the murder of Sarah Payne and the Soham murders, and then as a political correspondent – joining just as we went to war with Iraq under Tony Blair. I left the lobby after my first baby, and left the Guardian to freelance, in 2008, after my second was born. But I hated freelancing and the week that I turned 40 and my youngest started school I started my first novel, The Art of Baking Blind. It was bought in a pre-empt 13 months later.
Having read English at Oxford as a student, I assume you’ve always had an interest in writing? And if so, what writers have inspired you?
Absolutely. As a teen, I remember reading Jane Austen and DH Lawrence and trying to tease out what they were doing with language. I also devoured Agatha Christies and some Daphne du Maurier (I read Rebecca at 13 but, as with my reading Jane Eyre at nine! failed to understand the darkness of it all). As a writer, the list’s endless but I’m always interested in anything new by Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel, Elizabeth Strout, David Nicholls. I’ve also learned from writer peers writing clever psychological thrillers such as Lucy Atkins, Susie Steiner, Louise Candlish, Erin Kelly, Sabine Durrant, Eve Chase.
Although a difficult subject matter, I thought your fourth novel, Little Disasters, was brilliant, wonderfully written. However, for me, out of the two, Anatomy of A Scandal is probably my favourite. Not by much, I hasten to add, but at the time of reading it, with global movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp taking place, it felt, and still does, very socially and politically poignant. How do you feel about this story being turned into a Netflix series? The cast looks amazing. Have you had any input or say in the casting or the filming?
There is absolutely no negative to having your novel filmed by Netflix and I have loved the process. I’m very lucky in that I’m an executive producer so have felt very in the loop re casting, though I’ve no creative control, and have been able to offer feedback on various drafts of the scripts. Filming started at the start of November and will continue into the spring, but because of covid I haven’t yet been on set. Beyond wanting it to be filmed in the UK, I haven’t had any input into that locations, but they are incredible. It’s being part produced by the team behind The Undoing and I think it will look equally visually stunning.
And finally, the question I love to ask all writers! For anyone thinking of becoming a writer, what advice would you offer?
It’s a real cliché but read. Read in your genre and out of it and read thoughtfully. What is Austen saying about Mrs Bennett there? How is she doing it? How is Mantel getting us inside Cromwell’s head? I’d also pick apart a novel in the genre you want to write. Where are the peaks and troughs, the cliff-hangers, the twists? How does the author make you want to read on? Are there plot holes? Are the characters consistent and psychologically credible? I’d also recommend John Yorke’s Into the Woods, which I read before writing Anatomy. Don’t show it to anyone too early – you don’t want your confidence crushed; be persistent; be diligent; keep going. And good luck!
Little Disasters is on sale in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda, and all independent bookstores.
“Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had… and dealing with fears you didn’t know existed” –Linda Wooten
Having read and loved Sarah Vaughan’s 3rd novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, which is currently being filmed as a Netflix series with an all-star cast including Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery and Rupert Friend, I couldn’t wait to read this, the author’s 4th novel.
I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
The author’s skilful and emotive storytelling immediately drew me in, reminding me of my own early days as a mother. How exhausting and overwhelming it can sometimes feel – “The cry builds. At first it is pitiful… Tentative, tremulous, just testing how it will be received… cranks up a gear as she draws the baby close… her eyes well[ing] with self-pity and frustration and an exhaustion so entrenched she is sometimes knocked off balance”.
The two main protagonists of this taut thriller are Jess, a mother of three, including her infant daughter Betsey, and her best friend Liz, also a mum and senior registrar of paediatrics at their local London hospital. From the outside looking in, Jess gives the impression of being the perfect stay at home mum. However, when she arrives at the hospital A&E department with Betsey, who appears to have suffered some sort of head trauma, Liz is both concerned and confused by her friend’s behaviour. Jess, who doesn’t seem particularly worried about her baby girl, is aloof, detached, which Liz knows is completely out of character for Jess. Liz wants to help her friend but when she questions Jess about what happened and Jess refuses to open up, Liz starts to fear the worst. She knows she has a duty of care towards Betsey, but she also knows that her next decision could have a huge impact on both on Jess and her family, and their friendship.
Little Disasters is a tense, thought-provoking thriller that cleverly and considerately explores the complexities of early motherhood and post-natal anxiety. However, it is also a story about friendship. About the public facade we often hide behind, and how, wrapped up in our own lives and our perception of others, a cry for help can go unnoticed… sometimes with devastating consequences.
Little Disasters is on sale in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda, and all independent bookstores.
It’s also availablehereat Waterstones andhereat WH Smiths.
“I used to look at all these daft girls, marrying the first fellow they thought they could live with. And I suppose I was waiting for the fellow I couldn’t live without” –Nora Doyle 1917-2007
Well folks, Valentine’s Day, universally recognised as a celebration of romance and love, is just around the corner. So, with that in mind, my book choice this month makes for the perfect read, not to mention a great gift idea.
Covering a multitude of famous women, including queens, writers, artists and politicians from 1399 up to WWI, this beautiful volume begins with a brief history of each letter writer, reminding us of not just the era they lived in but also the social restrictions they often encountered and how “affairs of the heart could irrevocably alter the course of woman’s life in a way they did not a man’s”. Take, for instance, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letter to her beloved, whom she was planning to elope with against her father’s wishes, “I tremble for what we are doing. Are you sure you will love me forever? Shall we never repent? I fear, and I hope”. Her fear is obvious and her anxiety palpable, almost jumping off the page. However, like so many other heart-felt letters in this lovely collection, there are also examples of passionate longing and desire, while others still reveal true heartbreak and despair. Particularly Queen Victoria’s letter to the King of the Belgians shortly after the death of her beloved Albert, “My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me!” Yet, the common thread throughout this book reveals women of great emotional strength whose belief in love is unwavering.
This beautiful hardback edition of Love Letters of Great Women is the companion to Love Letters of Great Men and a must read for hopeless romantics and history lovers alike.A delightful compendium that also serves as a timely reminder (especially in this digital age of quick-fire texting and emailing, no longer given to letter writing by hand) of just how beautiful the written word is. And how, in the wonderful words of writer Phyllis Grissim-Theroux, “to send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart”.
Happy New Year everyone! Fingers crossed it’s a good one. I thought I’d start this year with a Q&A, and this month I’m honoured to be chatting to the lovely Louise Beech, author of six novels and her, hopefully, soon to be released memoir, Daffodils. I recently read, and highly recommend Louise’s 4th novel, The Lion Tamer Who Lost; a heartfelt love story with a twist, set in Zimbabwe and Hull. Read my review here.
Welcome Louise, thanks for chatting to me today. Can you tell everyone a bit about yourself?
Hello, Eva. So lovely of you to ask me here for this festive Q&A! Well … about me? Isn’t that always a hard one? I live in East Yorkshire (Yorkshire girl born and bred) with my husband; our two grown children have flown the nest now. Before lockdown, I worked as a theatre usher (which I love, because I get to see all the shows!) and I am of course also a writer. I’m passionate about the arts, about supporting writers, and do my best always to give back if I can. For example, I’m part of the Women of Words, which is a group of four women who host monthly open mic events where women can perform (often for the first time) in a safe and supportive space.
Did you always want to be a writer, and if so, what writers have inspired you?
Oh yes, absolutely. When I was as young as three, I recall being in the back of the car, looking out at the treetops and sky and clouds, making up stories in my head. As soon as I could write, I wrote them down, filling exercise books. As a kid, I loved Judy Blume and Paul Zindel. Then when I read Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews aged 15, I knew I wanted to write something like that. In later years, the book that finally made me sit down and write my first proper novel (which was actually Maria in the Moon) was John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It was … stunning. It moved me beyond words. The writing was magic. And I started my own first within days. Now, there are so many authors I admire; Marcus Zusak, Liz Nugent, Margaret Atwood…
I understand that your debut novel, How To Brave, was based on true events. Without giving too much of the story away, can you elaborate?
It was about my grandad, a merchant seaman who was lost at sea during the Second World War. Colin’s ship sank in the middle of the South Atlantic Sea in 1943. Fourteen men managed to get to a lifeboat. Fifty days later, only two were left. It’s an incredible story of bravery, one that I shared with my seven-year-old daughter after she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and refused her injections. Each day we shared a bit of the story, so it distracted her, and I could administer the much-needed insulin. We both became brave, in essence, because of Grandad Colin’s bravery. And I knew this needed to be explored in a novel. So, that story became the central plot of How to be Brave, my debut.
I believe you’ve recently finished writing a memoir? What inspired you to write it now, and how did it differ from writing fiction?
I began my memoir on 11th November 2019, the day my mum had her leg amputated. This followed a tragic suicide attempt nine months earlier, when she jumped from the Humber Bridge. By a miracle she survived, but with terrible injuries. On the morning of the jump, I was delayed by some beautiful early daffodils on a walk by the river … otherwise, I might have been there at the same time as she was. These daffodils haunted me. So that became my title: Daffodils. I’d always known I’d write a memoir because I had a tumultuous childhood, with time in care, and very unstable parents, but this seemed the perfect time. I wrote it during lockdown.
Wow, I can only imagine how hard that must have been for you and your family. However, I can also see why you then felt inspired to write your memoir and how, perhaps in some small way, it may have even helped you? They do say writing can be quite cathartic, after all. I sincerely hope your mum is doing better now.
And finally, the question I love to ask all writers! For anyone thinking of becoming a writer, what advice would you offer?
The main thing is never give up. You WILL experience many rejections and setbacks. The journey is likely to be long. But every single writer who has a book in a shop didn’t give up. Learn your craft well. Take on criticism. Read lots. Follow other authors and see what they advise. And follow your instinct with regards your voice. Only you can tell your story the way it should be told. Never forget that.
‘Be careful what you wish for, you’ll probably get it.’ –Proverb
My first book review this year is the wonderful, The Lion Tamer Who Lost, by the lovely Louise Beech. Written in the third person, this is an inspiring, albeit tragic love story set in the searing heat of Zimbabwe alongside the grey skies of Hull (England). Two distinct but contrasting landscapes. Both beautiful in their own way, but both harbingers of secrets, including some, as the story unfolds, better left unsaid. However, such secrets serve as a reminder of the yin and yang of life, and of what the harshness and tenderness of being human teaches us.
The two main protagonists are Andrew and Ben. Andrew is a writer, an occupation the author uses to tell a story within a story (mise en abyme), with each chapter beginning with an excerpt from Andrew’s book, which I found both clever and intriguing. Andrew, we learn, made a childhood wish, which he keeps in a silver box. However, when his wish eventually comes true, it isn’t in the way he’d hoped. Ben, on the other hand, is a student. Noticeably younger and less mature than Andrew, he nurtures a childhood dream to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. But when Ben’s dream comes true, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined.
The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a sensitively written, thought provoking, emotive love story with a twist. Both the major and minor characters are well drawn and believable and, like most of us, are all wonderfully flawed and beautifully human, including Ben’s Dad, whom I really didn’t warm to at first, but later changed my mind. Although complex at times, ultimately, this is a simple story of love and loss, of courage and despair and a timely reminder of both the fragility and strength of life. A book I highly recommend.
You can find The Lion Tamer Who Lost here on Amazon
Lauren stared at the crackling fire, comforted by the rhythmic rise and fall of its amber flames. She sighed. Jamie was upstairs cleaning his teeth and Matt was outside securing the horses for the night. Christmas was less than a week away and Jamie had been asking questions. Said the kids at school had been saying things about Santa, questioning his existence. Concerned, Lauren and Matt had talked. Matt suggested it was time to come clean. Lauren agreed. However, watching her son, who had now swooped into the living room, dressing gown flapping behind him like Superman’s cape, she wasn’t so sure; felt overcome with sadness. Thorax tightening, she swallowed the plumb now lodged in her throat and smiled. Jamie grinned back, pointing to her mobile, now busily buzzing on the coffee table.
‘It’s Dad,’ he said, picking it up and passing it to her, Matt’s cheery smile filling the screen.
‘Hey,’ said Lauren, putting the phone to her ear. ‘Everything OK?’
Matt sounded concerned, explained how; about to lock up for the night, he’d come across a small deer.
‘He’s injured,’ Matt continued. ‘So I could do with your help to get him inside. He’ll freeze out here, otherwise.’
Lauren and Jamie shrugged on their coats and raced outside to help. Next to the stable door appeared to be a small deer with a broken leg. Trembling, it stared at them through huge frightened eyes; kept making a strange bleating noise every time Matt tried to approach it.
‘Here, let me,’ said Lauren. Jamie watched in awe as his mother got down on her hands and knees and crawled towards the little deer until, eventually, it allowed her to stroke him. ‘There, there,’ she whispered. ‘We only want to help.’
Between the three of them they carefully carried him into the stable and made him comfy for the night. The following day the vet visited, said the deer’s leg was sprained, but not broken. She strapped it up and under her guidance, Matt, Lauren and Jamie nursed the little deer back to health. Jamie loved looking after him, and the little deer loved letting him. Plus, the only time Santa was mentioned again was when Jamie pointed to a shiny silver bell hanging from a collar around the deer’s neck, saying, ‘I think he belongs to Santa.’
On Christmas Eve it was time to set the little deer free. Jamie knew it was the right thing to do, but still, it wasn’t easy. However, wiping his tears with one hand and waving with the other, Jamie watched how, with one last glance back, his friend disappeared into the woods behind their house.
On Christmas Day, stuffed from eating Christmas dinner, huddled on the sofa next to the twinkling Christmas tree, Lauren and Matt asked their son what his favourite gift was.
‘The silver bell at the bottom of my stocking,’ he replied, without hesitation.
‘That was so sweet of you to do that,’ Lauren whispered to Matt.
Matt frowned. ‘Wasn’t me… I thought you’d put it there.’
“Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.”
Well folks, we’re well into December. The final month of what can only be described as an interesting year! However, before we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020 let’s not forget, for those of us that celebrate it, Christmas is fast approaching. Therefore, this month, unlike previous years when I’ve read and reviewed some very lovely Christmas themed stories, I thought I’d take a look at something different. Something simple yet poignant, and something that, if you’re looking for gift ideas for the book lovers in your life––whatever the age of the recipient––might just be the perfect solution because, unlike most books, this one is both ageless and timeless.
As the title suggests, this beautifully illustrated hardback is a tale about a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse, with the author and artist being one and the same. For younger readers it’s easy to follow the journey of these four very different friends, sometimes across great mountainous landscapes or beneath vast star-studded skies. While at other times they venture into the darkness, or attempt to navigate the clouds, and at others still, the focus is on the simple joy of eating cake. For older readers, however, I see this more as a collection of unassuming, yet inspiring quotes. Especially during moments of uncertainty and self-doubt, particularly during these troubled and ambiguous times, reminding us that, no matter how dire or dark things might seem, when observed through the eyes of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, we know there is always love, hope, and friendship.
Five Big Stars from me!
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Merry Christmas everyone, and remember, “Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses”.
I can safely say this cookbook is, without a doubt, unlike any other I have read or reviewed before. Written by Ariyan Arslan, better known by the stage name Action Bronson––an American rapper, writer, chef, and television presenter—this unique cookbook was a birthday gift to my son from my daughter, partly inspired by his love of rap music but mostly because of his recent interest in cooking. He was thrilled when he received it and immediately took to the kitchen to try his hand at one of the recipes, which I have to say looked and smelled remarkably good.
Born to an American Jewish mother and an Albanian Muslim father, Bronson—described in the foreword as a “dude that looks like a cross between Godzilla, a handsome 1950s movie star from Europe, and a cult Mexican wrestler”—grew up in a small two-bedroomed apartment in Queens, New York, with his parents and grandparents. Home life, he says, was hectic, but always filled with love and the smell of good cooking. His grandmother, or nonna, who the book is dedicated to, would often bake three times a day, and it’s clear her love of food rubbed off on her grandson.
However, unlike standard cookbooks, this one is not just a compilation of illustrated recipes, of which there are a number, ranging from bagels to pizza, burgers to opihi, and bebidas to coffee cake, it is also jam-packed with pages of Bronson’s tours and travel, as well as some of his favourite eateries, both locally and around the world. But be warned… if you’re looking for healthy food, you won’t find it here. These recipes are all about flavour. Sprinkled with wit, swearing, and humorous back-stories (as well as a whole page dedicated to toothpicks), this colourful culinary journal is the perfect gift for all rap music and foodie enthusiasts alike.