Book Review – My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell Published by @4thEstateBooks #MyDark Vanessa #BookReview

“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.

Book Review – Little Disasters by @SVaughanAuthor published by @simonschusterUK

“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 available here at Waterstones and here at WH Smiths.

And click below to get your copy at Amazon.



Book Review – Love Letters of Great Women by Ursula Doyle published by @MacmillanUSA

“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.

My verdict…

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”.

Book Review – The Lion Tamer Who Lost by @LouiseWriter published by @OrendaBooks

‘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

Book Review –The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by @charliemackesy published by @EburyPublishing

“Sometimes,” said the horse.

“Sometimes what?” asked the boy

“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”.

Book Review–F*ck, That’s Delicious: An annotated Guide to Eating Well by @ActionBronson and @rachelwharton Published by @ABRAMSbooks

“Food has been a part of my life, always.”

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.

You can purchase your copy below on Amazon

Book Review – The Lies We Hide by @SELynesAuthor @bookouture

“The truth can set you free, or make you a prisoner”

Susie Lynes is fast becoming my “go to” author for a guaranteed page turning read. The Lies We Hide, the third book I’ve read by this brilliant writer, didn’t disappoint.

Years ago, I worked for a short time at a Women’s Refuge, covering their ‘out of hours’ phone rota on a voluntary basis when I left, which I continued to do for a number of years. It was a sobering experience and one of the main reasons that drew me to this story. The author’s note explains how the seeds for this cautionary tale were sown way back in the 80s when she was a reporter for the BBC and was given an assignment to look into domestic violence. She visited a refuge to interview two women who had fled the abuse of their husbands. One of them explained how her husband had held her under the bathwater, and how she was convinced she was going to die. She vowed to herself, if she survived, she’d leave that night, which she did, taking her two young sons with her. This in turn inspired the author to write The Lies We Hide.

Listed as psychological Literary Fiction, this is a family drama narrated through four main voices, namely Carol, her two children Graham and Nicola, and Richard, a prison chaplain. As stories go it is an uncomfortable read. However, it is written with such compassion and authenticity it’s difficult to put down. This in part is because, rather than just focussing on the day-to-day fear of living with an abusive partner, which the author does chillingly brilliant at times – “his anger [she thinks] will write itself on her body later, invisible ink that reveals its black message by degrees” – she also pans back, showing us the much wider picture. Including the terrible decisions that those affected by domestic violence sometimes choose, or feel forced to make.

When confronted with long-term domestic violence, whether directly on the receiving end of it or simply witnessing and/or hearing it on a day-to-day basis, everyone copes and reacts differently. Carol, an abused wife, will do anything to protect her children. Whereas Graham, Carol’s son becomes, “silent, since speaking was difficult; violent, since no one speaks out against a fist; mean, since kindness got you nowhere”. Later, Graham finds himself in prison for murder, but eventually finds redemption by confessing to Richard, a voluntary chaplain who, it turns out, is struggling with his own demons. Then there is Nicola, Graham’s sister and Carol’s studious daughter. Nicola is younger than her brother, and is therefore less exposed and somewhat shielded from her father’s violence. She chooses a different path to Graham and makes her escape through hard work and education. However, when her mother passes away, Nicola discovers the true extent of the sacrifices made on her behalf. The lengths her mother and brother went to to protect her, enabling her to become the successful city lawyer she eventually becomes – which in part is influenced by her brother’s incarceration.

The lies, in fact, they have hidden from her…  

You can find The Lies We Hide here on Amazon.

Book Review—Live Green: 52 steps for a more sustainable life by Jen Chillingworth Published by @QuadrilleBooks

“Less buying, more doing, less wanting, more enjoying.”

I can’t stand unnecessary waste, or littering, especially plastic. An invention I both love and loathe in equal measure. Cheap and durable it is believed that 8.3 billion metric tonnes of the stuff has been produced during the last 70 years alone, 79 percent of which has been thrown away either into landfill sites or the general environment, including 8 million tonnes into our oceans every year. Estimates suggest that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our seas and 99 percent of all seabirds will have consumed some. For this reason alone I believe we owe it to our planet to act and think a little greener, but not just with plastic but all aspects of our daily life. 

Live Green is a handy sized and thoughtful collection of 52 tips, one for each week of the year, offering ideas about the changes we can make to our home and lifestyle including the reduction and recycling of plastic. It looks at things like cleaning products and the advantages of making your own, and the benefit of mindful shopping and eating green. It also addresses personal care, including how to create a capsule wardrobe and buying vintage, plus some helpful advice on hair care, cosmetics and beauty routines. 

With a fab section at the back containing useful links to other green sources of information and helpful recipe ideas (including a great sloe gin, and a rather lovely sea salt and lemon and lavender body scrub) scattered throughout, Live Greenis an easy to read and beautifully illustrated guide to help start you on your way to a more healthy and eco friendly lifestyle. 

Eva Jordan reviews Dead Inside by @nholten40 published by @OneMoreChapter

“The crash at the bottom of the stairs woke me instantly… I didn’t want to move. I couldn’t, I was paralysed with fear. I had always accepted the verbal abuse that was thrown at me. I could take that. It was the physical abuse that filled me with shame.”

Dead Inside is the debut novel of award winning blogger, and writer, Noelle Holten, and the first in her DC Maggie Jamieson Police Procedural series. Written in the third person (except the prologue), the central theme of this story is domestic abuse, a subject matter the writer handles with great sensitivity and professionalism. The cast of characters is large, so it’s important to keep up with who’s who; otherwise you run the risk of becoming a little confused. However, the chapters are short and snappy, making it easy to read as well as adding to the pace of the storyline.

Some reviewers have said there is one main protagonist in this killer thriller, however, I’d argue there are two. The first is Lucy Sherwood who, based on Noelle’s own career experience, is a probation officer. In her professional life, Lucy comes across as a tough, no nonsense individual: a given for a probation officer dealing with offenders who have abused their partners, which is also rather ironic when juxtaposed to Lucy’s private life. The second protagonist in this story is DC Maggie Jamieson who, like Lucy, is a strong individual, the right balance of firm but fair, and it’s her job to solve the recent murder of a man connected to a domestic abuse case.

However, when a second body turns up, followed by a third, and the discovery of a connection between the said individuals in that all three men had either been previously charged, or linked to separate domestic abuse cases, it quickly becomes apparent there’s a serial killer on the loose.

With the clock ticking will DC Maggie Jamieson and her team find their suspect? I suggest you buy the book and find out!

A fab debut and a great start to a new series.

For buying links, or if you’d like to know a little more about Noelle, click here where you can read my brilliant Q&A with her, including a fascinating insight into her former career as a Senior Probation Officer, as well as a wealth of knowledge and advice on blogging and writing… which I strongly urge you to take a look at.

Eva Jordan reviews The Railway Carriage Child by Wendy Fletcher, Published by Whittlesey Wordsmiths

Last month I interviewed local writer to me, Wendy Fletcher (which you can read here). We discussed, among other things, her memoir, The Railway Carriage Child, and this is my review.

Wendy was born in the small fenland market town of Whittlesey, which, as mentioned in the foreword, includes two medieval churches, a 19th century Butter Cross and rare examples of 18th century mud boundary walls. Less well known is a pair of Victorian railway carriages, which stand just outside the town. These Great Eastern Railway carriages, built in 1887, later converted to living accommodation in the 1920s, were Wendy’s childhood home, and are still home to Wendy’s family to the present day.

Beginning around the mid-twentieth century, Wendy starts her story with her birth, introducing us to a life that seems a million miles away from our present one – “the ‘web’ was where the spiders lived [and] ‘Broadband’ was something that kept your hair tidy.” Moving through her childhood, she paints a picture of a time that, although arguably much physically harder for most than it is today, was also, mostly, a much simpler one too. One much closer to nature and one that, with none of the gadgets and technology of today, carried a wonderful sense of innocence about it. “I look back on a child’s lifetime of listening to the gentle sounds of dawn through the changing seasons. Each morning as I woke, I was bathed in the early light, spreading from the blurred patches that were the windows above my bed… It seemed that there was always plenty of time. I knew mother wouldn’t allow me out to play too early. She would say ‘Wait ‘til the day’s got up proper,’ as I pleaded to be released from the kitchen door.”

Filled with memories of scorching hot summers and fun-filled coach trips to the seaside, juxtaposed to bitterly cold winters (without central heating!) that required much-needed knitted shawls and woolly hats, not to mention lots of huddling round the hearth for heat, The Railway Carriage Child is both wonderfully warm and evocative. An easy to read but beautifully crafted memoir that, although heartfelt and reflective, is at times, delightfully humorous. An innocent account of an unconventional childhood but also a reassuringly familiar one, especially when I discovered that like me, Wendy also developed a keen love of books and reading whilst growing up.

However, if this review leaves you with one burning question, namely how, or why, Wendy’s family came to live in two Victorian railway carriages… well… I suggest you buy a copy of the book and therein find your answer.

Click here to purchase your copy of The Railway Carriage Child from Amazon