Tag Archives: prose

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

2018 Review: Kay Stewart

Today’s guest is my lovely friend, Kay Stewart, another member of Elementary Writers. Kay is a writer whose prose has extraordinary economy of language without losing any of its beauty or power. Kay is one of the kindest people I have ever met and it was brilliant to spend some time with her during our trip to Stephanie Butland‘s writing retreat at Garsdale Retreat

My thanks to Kay for taking the time to review her year.

Vic x

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Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2018?
I was really over the moon to be long-listed for the Writers Block North East development programme.

And how about a favourite moment from 2018 generally?
I loved the writing retreat run by Stephanie Butland at Garsdale. It made a huge difference to my writing and was a perfect few days in a whole range of ways.

Favourite book in 2018?
Educated by Tara Westover.

Favourite film in 2018?
Cohn Brothers, The Ballard of Buster Scruggs.

Favourite song of the year?
The Devil on the Wall by Miles Kennedy.

Any downsides for you in 2018?
Sad circumstances that meant I couldn’t get cracking with my writing like I wanted.

Are you making resolutions for 2019?
More writing … more putting myself out there and being tougher at handling rejections as a result.

What are you hoping for from 2019?
Finish my novel, at last 🙂

Review: ‘My Name is Anna’ by Lizzy Barber

On Anna’s eighteenth birthday she defies her Mamma’s rules to visit Astroland, Florida’s biggest theme park, despite her mother’s ban on the place. When she arrives, though, Astroland seems familiar. On the same day, Anna receives a mysterious letter she receives and she starts to question her whole life.

In London, Rosie has grown up in the shadow of the missing sister she barely remembers.  With the fifteenth anniversary of her sister’s disappearance looming, the media circus starts up again, and Rosie uncovers some information that threatens to tear her family apart. Will Rosie uncover the truth before her family implodes?

I enjoyed ‘My Name is Anna‘ from the outset, my attention was grabbed by the intriguing prologue and beautiful prose. Lizzy Barber manages to balance a compelling narrative with excellent attention to detail and exquisite descriptions.

Told from two points of view, ‘My Name is Anna‘ is an interesting study of self-discovery. By having eighteen year old Anna and Rosie, who is sixteen, Barber evokes a time every reader can understand: adolescence. Combining typical coming-of-age drama with a serious crime is an effective tactic, I thought this was particularly inventive. 

The characters are well-drawn and, thanks to Barber’s descriptions, I could see them in my mind’s eye. Anna’s mamma, in particular, was brilliantly evoked.

My Name is Anna‘ is such an intelligently-written book. It covers all sorts of issues including religion, coercion and the repercussions of past mistakes. It’s fast-paced yet sensitive, with several layers. 

If I had to compare ‘My Name is Anna‘ with other books, I’d say ‘Carrie‘ meets ‘Sharp Objects‘ with a sprinkling of ‘The Couple Next Door‘. 

My Name is Anna‘ is Lizzy Barber’s debut novel and is available to download now. The paperback is released in January 2019. 

Vic x

Review: ‘Dead Man’s Prayer’ by Jackie Baldwin

Ex-priest DI Frank Farrell has returned to his roots in Dumfries, only to be landed with a disturbing murder case. Even worse, Farrell knows the victim: Father Boyd, the man who forced him out of the priesthood eighteen years earlier.

With no leads, Farrell must delve into the old priest’s past, one that is inexorably linked with his own. But his attention is diverted when a pair of twin boys go missing. The Dumfries police force recover one in an abandoned church, unharmed. But where is his brother?

As Farrell investigates the two cases, he can’t help but feel targeted. Is someone playing a sinister game, or is he seeing patterns that don’t exist? Either way, it’s a game Farrell needs to win before he loses his grip on his sanity, or someone else turns up dead.

Dead Man’s Prayer‘ is the first in the DI Frank Farrell series and it’s a corker. The idea of a man leaving his religion in order to become a detective is a highly original premise. Farrell is complex and layered, with his supporting characters fully-rounded. Farrell’s break with the church leaves him with plenty of  divided loyalties which ramps up the tension.

Baldwin’s characters in this novel have plenty of depth and enough conflicts to drive the story forward. 

The way in which Baldwin uses religious imagery and symbolism ensures that the prose is rich and vivid. Her economy of language ensures that this police procedural is fast-paced in addition to being well-plotted. 

A truly original debut. 

Vic x

Review: ‘Educated’ by Tara Westover

What is it to be educated? Is it to have spent every day of your life from the age of four until the age of twenty-one in a classroom? Is it the ability to read and write? How about being able to reflect deeply on your own personal experiences? 

Tara Westover was not educated in the way one might expect. She did not have school records. In fact, she didn’t have medical records. Tara Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate – officially, she didn’t exist. Tara grew up in Idaho with a father who didn’t trust in intervention.

From the moment she was born, Tara was to be taught to prepare for the End of Days. Her mother ‘home-schooled’ Tara and some of her siblings while their father proselytised about the dangers posed by doctors, teachers, government and law enforcement.

At the age of sixteen, Tara decided to educate herself. That decision took her to Harvard and then to Cambridge.

Having recently heard Tara talk at Forum Books about her experiences growing up a Mormon with an increasingly radical father and erratic brother, I was moved by the erudite way in which she spoke about her unusual childhood and her decision to make a change in her life.

Educated‘ is a beautifully written memoir. Westover’s prose is almost lyrical, featuring evocative descriptions of the rolling hills. Her gorgeous writing is juxtaposed with the terror I felt when reading about some of the things she had lived through. At times, the events were so out of my sphere of understanding, I had to check online that this was a memoir and not fiction! 

Throughout ‘Educated‘, there is a sense of not quite knowing what will happen next. At times, the tension was almost too much to bear. Westover masterfully allows the reader to tread the fine line she walked on a daily basis. There is also a feeling of sadness and grief that pervades this memoir. Ultimately, though, ‘Educated‘ is a hopeful book about the power of taking control and never giving up. 

Tara Westover is my hero.

Vic x

Review of 2017: LJ Ross

Two years ago, I was invited a fabulous party to celebrate the release of a wonderful woman’s second book. That book was ‘Sycamore Gap‘ by LJ Ross.  

Today, the seventh book in the DCI Ryan series – ‘Dark Skies‘ – is released and I cannot wait to read it!  Louise is a prolific writer and she deserves every success, it is a pleasure to know her. 

For those of you who are based in the North East, I will be interviewing LJ Ross at Wallsend Library on Thursday, 22nd February. Tickets can be obtained from North Tyneside libraries. 

Vic x

 

Picture by Gareth Iwan Jones

Do you have a favourite memory professionally from 2017?
This has been an incredible year for DCI Ryan and I’m so grateful to all my readers. It’s hard to pick any one memory in particular, but it was an incredible feeling to have two of my books (Cragside and Dark Skies) reach UK #1 whilst still on pre-order and all seven books to be in the top 100 at the same time.

And how about a favourite moment from 2017 generally?
We just got the keys for our new house in Northumberland, which is a special moment. It’s the first time in years I’ve been able to make a permanent move back to my home county, which I love, and it means I can be close to my family and my son can be near his grandparents.

Favourite book in 2017?
It isn’t a newly-released book, but I read The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson and thought it was excellent. The prose is crisp and manages to convey meaning without being unnecessarily wordy. It was also an excellent, claustrophobic study of how to write a book from the perspective of the killer.

Favourite film in 2017?
I’ve hardly found time to watch any films this year (which sounds very depressing!). However, I watched some goofy movies like Snatched with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn. It wasn’t a great movie, but I’m a huge fan of Goldie so she can do no wrong in my eyes… I tend to watch old black and white movies like The 39 Steps, which I love.

Favourite song of the year?
I think my musical frame of reference stopped somewhere back in 2005 but, if we’re going by the song I’ve listened to most frequently this year, it would have to be anything from the Rocky IV soundtrack!

Any downsides for you in 2017?
I’m not sure if it is a true ‘downside’ but I’ve been incredibly busy and haven’t read as many books as I’d like – which I intend to rectify in the near future!

Are you making resolutions for 2018?
I always resolve to be the best person I can be, whether as a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister or a friend. That’s always a good goal.

What are you hoping for from 2018?
I’m hoping I won’t wake up and find it was all a wonderful dream! I want to write more stories and travel.

Review: ‘The Break’ by Marian Keyes

It’s been many years since I last read a Marian Keyes book and now I can’t stop asking myself why I left it so long. I bought ‘The Break‘ after going to see Marian Keyes in Newcastle. I found her funny and engaging and her explanation of the premise of ‘The Break‘ had me intrigued.

Amy’s husband Hugh wants to take a break. Not the romantic, coupley kind but a break from their marriage. Hugh wants six months away from Amy, their family and their commitment to one another in order to ‘find himself’ and promises that, after those six months are up, he’ll come back and they’ll be together again. OK, so he’s not saying he wants to break up but his departure leaves Amy reeling. Will Hugh come back? And if he does, will he still be the man she married? And will she still be the woman he left behind?

Marian Keyes writes prose the way she talks – she intertwines serious subjects with humour and humanity. ‘The Break‘ doesn’t just dissect a marriage; it also questions what it’s like to parent in the 21st Century, what it means to be a modern working woman, how to navigate the minefield of female friendships as well as exploring a larger social issue of abortion laws in Ireland.

Marian Keyes manages to do what the second series of TV show ‘Doctor Foster’ failed to do: make the characters sympathetic. Even when they’re doing things that you might disagree with, you cannot help but be on their side. In several interviews I’ve heard, Marian Keyes has said she hopes to show that these characters – and the situations they find themselves in (whether through choice or by chance) – are nuanced and I think she does that admirably.

The cast of characters is large and varied and I can’t help but think that many of the family scenes are influenced in part by Keyes’s own extended family. I loved Locmof (read the book and you’ll understand) and Amy was fantastically real to me. I also adored the delicate Sofie and the sage Kiara.

Although there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in ‘The Break‘, they are tempered with sadness and anger. It may be a bit of a cliche but I genuinely laughed and cried while reading this novel and I think the reason for that is not just Keyes’s accessible writing style but because she creates characters that are as real as the people we share lives with.

The Break‘ is an absolute triumph of a book and I can’t help but hope we see these lovely, warm, realistic characters again.

Vic x

Just going to leave this here…