Category Archives: Books

Review: ‘The Body Lies’ by Jo Baker

When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the big city and the scene of a violent assault she’s desperate to forget. But despite the distractions of a new life and single motherhood, her nerves continue to jangle. To make matters worse, a vicious debate about violence against women inflames the tensions and mounting rivalries in her creative writing class.

When a troubled student starts sending in chapters from his novel that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the lecturer recognises herself as the main character in his book – and he has written her a horrific fate.

Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late?

Starting with an assault on our unnamed pregnant protagonist, The Body Lies‘ drops the reader straight into a world where this woman is almost constantly at the behest of the men around her – from her husband who won’t look for a new job in order to facilitate a move to a place she feels safer in to the head of department who continuously expects her to take on more and more work despite her inexperience and the difficulties she has managing her work-life balance to the students who snipe at one another in her class, overruling her at every point. 

By leaving this character nameless, Jo Baker says a lot about her interpretation of the world – and how the character is unable to make herself heard and understood in her male-dominated life. However, don’t think that ‘The Body Lies‘ is a novel that is constantly screaming about inequality – its power lies in the fact that the author has managed to subtly weave the point in to almost every sentence without the reader even being conscious of it. The way the issues are presented is almost ‘normal’, reflecting how insidious sexism and inequality is in our society today. You may not notice it but it is happening.

Jo Baker’s skill for beautiful prose makes ‘The Body Lies‘ a truly stunning literary thriller. The slow-burn tension allows us to empathise with the main character, understanding the pressure she is under and how burdensome it is to be a woman. The imagery Baker creates heightens the tension at key points as well as showing the reader the beauty of the world despite the horrific events that occur in it. 

The Body Lies‘ is a compelling study on what it is to be a woman, how women are subjugated and taken advantage of in many areas of their lives and how unsafe many of us feel on a daily basis. 

I’m genuinely not sure I’ll find a more engaging read this year.

Vic x

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Review: ‘The Woman in the Photograph’ by Stephanie Butland

An empowering, feminist and moving novel that will change the way you see the world. 

In 1968, Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. Then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica is almost a recluse, her stellar career somewhat derailed by one of the most infamous photographs of the twentieth century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the focal point of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-hidden memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time for Vee to break her silence, and step back into the light.

Stephanie Butland captures the historical impact of feminism from the sixties onwards, right up until the present day, wonderfully. Using key moments, Butland weaves the lives of her characters into the realities of the UK’s first female prime minister to the #Time’sUp and #MeToo movements. The structure of the novel helps Butland combine Leonie and Veronica’s stories with the historical setting, giving the reader a sense of context. 

I really enjoyed the prickliness of Leonie, the woman who irrevocably changes Veronica’s life in many ways. She is militant and unapologetic, says what she feels and doesn’t care if that offends anyone. It would have been easy to make her a right-on feminist stereotype with little in the way of redeeming features but the way in which Butland brings nuance to this character is magnificent. Her depiction of Leonie is thoughtful and thought-provoking, making her a whole person rather than a caricature.  

The Woman in the Photograph‘ is a strong statement about women’s rights, how far we’ve come and how far we still have left to go. I really loved the exploration of how lack of equality for women, even now, is more subtle but no less insidious.  

Stephanie Butland has taken her writing to the next level with ‘The Woman in the Photograph‘. 

Out today, ‘The Woman in the Photograph‘ is a must-read. 

Vic x

Review: ‘The First Time Lauren Pailing Died’ by Alyson Rudd

Lauren Pailing is born in the sixties, and a child of the seventies. She is thirteen years old the first time she dies. 

Lauren Pailing is a teenager in the eighties, becomes a Londoner in the nineties. And each time she dies, new lives begin for the people who loved her – while Lauren enters a brand new life, too.

But in each of Lauren’s lives, a man called Peter Stanning disappears. And, in each of her lives, Lauren sets out to find him.

And so every ending is also a beginning. And with each new beginning, Peter Stanning inches closer to being found…

The premise of ‘The First Time Lauren Pailing Died‘ is an absolute corker. The idea that Lauren can switch from one life to another and the impact her (multiple) deaths have on those close to her is really interesting – and thankfully easy to follow. You might expect to get tied up in knots trying to follow which timeline Rudd is referring to but I genuinely never got confused once.

I liked the small differences in each world – the lack of cats in one, the fact that Britain has never had a female Prime Minister in another. By including these subtle changes, Rudd gives the reader a sense of the displacement and unease that Lauren feels when deposited into a new world.

However, I felt there were missed opportunities in terms of character exploration and dramatic tension at times. I thought there was more potential with certain strands than were exploited. 

Rudd’s strength lies in the nuanced in which way she explores the relationship between Lauren and her ‘final’ husband, Simon – how a half-lived life causes a ripple effect. In addition to this, the way Rudd weaves the mystery of Peter Stanning’s disappearance into each of Lauren’s alternative lives is skilfully done. 

The First Time Lauren Pailing Died‘ is like ‘Sliding Doors’ meets ‘Interstellar’ with a dollop of mystery thrown in.  

It’s out tomorrow, pre-order The First Time Lauren Pailing Died‘ now. 

Vic x

**When I Lost You Blog Tour**

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I am delighted to be today’s host on Merilyn Davies’s ‘When I Lost You‘ blog tour.

As most of you will know by now, I am due to have a baby very soon and therefore my review for this book will be posted in due course (will I ever have time to read again?!).

However, today, we have an excerpt from ‘When I Lost You‘ to whet our appetites. I am sure it will make you want to put this book to the top of your TBR pile. 

My thanks to Merilyn and Rachel Kennedy for allowing me to be part of this wonderful tour. 

Vic x

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A screen sits to the left of the judge, and displayed on it is my child: a fragile, beautiful daughter, who had barely begun her life before the chance to live it was taken from her.

‘Not lost,’ the lawyer is saying, his wig a little frayed, in sharp contrast to the fresh youth of his closely shaven skin. ‘Her life wasn’t lost, it was stolen.’ He emphasises the words, ones I’ve heard endlessly during the two-week trial, by looking in my direction. He doesn’t linger, it’s more a glance – the way a painter uses a gentle brushstroke to shape the outline of an image before colouring it in – but it’s enough to make sure the jury remember I am the image he is painting: mother, killer, guilty.

I shift a little in my seat. The packed courtroom is hot and the white blouse I’m wearing sticks to my armpits, the polyester scratching against my skin. I see a juror glance in my direction and freeze; he’s the one my lawyer warned me about. 

‘Third one from left, hipster beard,’ he’d said in the cell as we waited to be recalled on that first day. ‘Jeans and a tight jumper. He’s got it in for you, so make sure you don’t fidget too much or it makes you look guilty, but move a bit, because too little makes you look heartless.’

I am a trapeze artist – one wrong move and I fall into a cell, seven foot by nine. I steady my breathing and look down at my feet, concentrating on the new brogues I’m wearing, their brown shine complementing the sky-blue suit my husband bought me for the trial.

‘Here,’ he’d said, handing me the plastic bag he’d paid five pence for, then sitting down across from me in the noisy, smelly visiting hall. ‘I’m pretty sure it’s your size, but I kept the receipt just in case.’

I didn’t remind him we had no time to exchange it. I just smiled my thanks and stuffed it by my feet next to the cooler bag full of fruit and biscuits. He took my hand. ‘We’ll get you out of here, my love,’ he’d said. ‘As soon as they see you, they’ll understand, and then this nightmare will be over.’

I lost myself for a moment in his touch, the lightness of it, a soft caress. I marvelled again at how resolutely he’d stood by me. Against all evidence to the contrary, he’d refused to ever accept my guilt. But then his words returned – ‘This nightmare will be over’ – and they dragged me back to the bowels of the prison where the whispered threats told me otherwise.

Extracted from When I Lost You by Merilyn Davies, out now in eBook and published in paperback by Arrow, Penguin Random House on 22nd August. 

**Come Back for Me Blog Tour**

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Evergreen Island
9 September 1993

We left in a storm. The sea was rising in sharp clumps of angry waves, rain hitting my feet like bullets. Dad must have known we shouldn’t be making the crossing to the mainland, yet he stood on the boat, one hand frantically flapping for one of us to reach out and take it. The hood of  his red mac had whipped off his head, the rain plastering his hair to his scalp. He yelled over the wind for us to get in, but we wouldn’t move froam the end of the jetty. 

The boat rocked violently as it tugged at the rope that kept it tethered to the dock, and I noticed Dad’s other hand gripping tighter to the steel railing of the steps. ‘Get in, Stella,’ he shouted. Thunder cracked overhead and the sky lit up with magnificent streaks of light. Behind me our house flashed bright between the silhouettes of our tall pines, making it look like something from a horror film. I pushed my hands deeper inside my raincoat, clutching Grey Bear harder to my chest. I didn’t want to leave the only home I had ever known, but I had never seen my dad so determined. His jaw was set, his teeth bared. It wasn’t like him to be so persistent, so unrelenting, and I found myself  shrinking further back.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Bonnie screamed from beside me. ‘We’ll all die if we do.’ My sister held her hood tightly against her head but I could just make out the paleness of her face in the moonlight. Bonnie had yearned to leave the island for years, but this wasn’t the way she wanted to go. 

‘We will not die and we need to go,’ Dad yelled back. He turned to me and added more softly, ‘I promise you. It’s fine. We’ll be safe.’ Dad owned the small ferry that he was demanding we board, and he’d run the thirty-minute crossing between Evergreen and Poole Harbour every day for the last sixteen years. If anyone could take us to the mainland safely, it was him, but we’d never dared attempted a crossing in weather like this before. Mum wouldn’t usually let us out of the house when it was this bad.

‘Why can’t we wait till morning?’ Bonnie was begging. I stared at the water, its white foam bubbling and spitting in rage. ‘Because—’ Dad shouted. ‘God, will you both just get in?’ He flapped his hand again, his gaze drifting over my shoulder to where Mum was coming down the jetty. Her head was low, arms tucked inside a plastic poncho as she trailed a suitcase behind her.

‘Where’s Danny?’ he yelled as another flash of lightning lit up the sky, making both Bonnie and me jump. I counted, too quickly, only reaching two before thunder roared overhead. The storm was creeping closer. My brother trailed behind Mum, shrouded in a shapeless black coat that hung over his bulky body, reaching the ground.

Bonnie started shouting again, gesturing at the sea as it rose and dipped, higher and lower than I’d ever seen it go. Another loud crack filled the air and I yelped as the branch of one of the pines fell to the ground beside me. I jumped out of its way as the wind carelessly tossed it along the jetty. For a brief moment, Dad stopped yelling and stared at the branch. My tears were already bleeding into the rainwater that soaked my face, but my heart twisted every time I thought of leaving my beloved island. All I wished was for Dad to realise that whatever we were doing, it wasn’t worth it.

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An isolated island community is shocked by the discovery of a long-buried body.

For Stella Harvey the news is doubly shocking. The body has been found in the garden of her childhood home – the home her family fled without explanation twenty-five years ago.

Now, desperate to unearth the truth and questioning her whole life, Stella returns to the tiny island against her sister’s advice. But she quickly finds that the community she left isn’t as welcoming as she remembers – and that the residents will go to any length to protect their secrets.

 

I really enjoyed ‘Come Back for Me‘. It’s a compelling mystery and it kept me guessing until the very end. 

Heidi Perks uses the flashback technique to great effect during this story, slowly unfurling the truth as Stella investigates the reason her family left the island in such a rush. The characters are well-drawn and Perks manages to capture the idea of Stella seeing certain things but perhaps not understanding them or the significance they hold. 

The island setting ramps up the tension perfectly, sometimes leaving Stella with no means of escape while not knowing who to trust. The isolation alongside the small-minded residents who are keen to keep their own counsel leaves the reader in no doubt how Stella must be feeling. 

As with other books I’ve read recently, I really enjoyed the wider social context that drives the narrative. ‘Come Back for Me‘ masterfully explores the ripple effect of long-kept secrets and the lengths people will go to to protect them. 

Vic x

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Review: ‘Out of the Ashes’ by Vicky Newham

When a flash mob is interrupted by a sudden explosion, DI Maya Rahman dashes to the scene. A fire is raging through Brick Lane, one of the city’s most infamous streets, the site of Maya’s childhood home. The discovery of two charred bodies in the burnt-out building transforms an arson attack into a murder case.

With witnesses too caught up in the dancing to have seen anything useful, Maya faces a complicated investigation without any leads. Then, when reports of a second, even more horrifying crime land on Maya’s desk, it’s obvious there’s more at stake than she could ever have imagined. She must solve the case – before all of East London goes up in flames

Having really enjoyed the first novel in the DI Maya Rahman series – ‘Turn a Blind Eye‘ – I had high expectations for ‘Out of the Ashes‘. I was not disappointed!

Vicky Newham reflects the rich diversity of London well, building complex characters within the wider narrative of an explosion on Brick Lane. There are plenty of nuances to these characters, making them well-rounded and believable. I cared about the characters, even the ones that weren’t wholly “good”. In fact, I liked them all the more for their flaws.

Newham builds a rich, compelling picture of the residents affected by the explosion and how far-reaching the consequences of the past can be. I also love the way in which Maya’s own backstory interlinks with the central storyline, too.

Exploring serious themes of racism, immigration and gentrification, ‘Out of the Ashes‘ delivers a depth that many crime novels lack.

I can’t wait to read more from Vicky Newham.

Vic x