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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

**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. 

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

Review: ‘We, The Survivors’ by Tash Aw

A murderer’s confession reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.

Ah Hock’s description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other. 

We, The Survivors‘ reminded me of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist‘ by Mohsin Hamid, possibly because it’s the story of a life-changing event, told in second person.

We, The Survivors‘ is a story of class, education and what it is to be an outsider. The idea that Ah is a person who’s excluded from the rapid modernisation of Asian society, despite the dominant narrative being that of everyone can succeed marks him as different even though there are many people that have a similar experience. The struggle to survive in a constantly changing world is almost palpable. 

The level of detail that Tash Aw goes into when describing locations and scenarios is astounding, building up tremendously evocative imagery. 

Tash Aw’s character study of a man who loses control in the most appalling way makes ‘We, The Survivors‘ an insightful, thought-provoking read.

Vic x

Review: ‘Critical Incidents’ by Lucie Whitehouse

DI Robin Lyons has been dismissed for misconduct from the Met’s Homicide Command after refusing to follow orders. Unable to pay her bills (or hold down a relationship), she is left with no choice but to move back in with her parents in the city she thought she’d escaped forever at 18. This time, though, Robin has her teenage daughter Lennie in tow. 

In Birmingham, sharing a bunkbed with Lennie and navigating the stormy relationship with her mother, Robin works as a benefit-fraud investigator – to the delight of those wanting to see her cut down to size.

Only Corinna, Robin’s best friend of 20 years, seems happy to have Robin back. But when Corinna’s family is engulfed by violence and her missing husband becomes a murder suspect, Robin can’t bear to stand idly by as the police investigate. As Robin begins her own investigation, she realises there may be a link to the disappearance of a young woman, and she begins to wonder how well we ever know the people we care about. 

Having read Lucie Whitehouse’s ‘The Bed I Made‘ several years ago, I was intrigued to read ‘Critical Incidents which seemed a rather different premise to the ‘The Bed I Made‘. 

As I have come to expect from Lucie Whitehouse’s writing, ‘Critical Incidents‘ is a superb story, with sensitive characterisation and an emotional pull that you often don’t get from crime fiction. I couldn’t put ‘Critical Incidents‘ down. It’s a wonderful blend of pacey plot and intrigue with a touch of humour in the darkness.

There are plenty of interlinking stories here which some may dismiss as “convenient” but I actually enjoyed the story so much that I was happy to suspend my disbelief. 

Whitehouse has a real skill for presenting fictional crime alongside domesticity and I really like that about her writing. She really captures familial tensions perfectly – the tense relationship between Robin and her mother adds plenty to the story.

The way in which Whitehouse portrays Robin is pitch perfect. Despite obviously being a competent officer, Robin’s unwillingness to play by the rules consistently gets her in bother. I like that Robin has her problems but her intentions are good. I could really identify with Robin and her well-intentioned missteps. 

Critical Incidents‘ is a must-read. 

Vic x

Review: ‘Blood Orange’ by Harriet Tyce

Alison has it all. A doting husband, adorable daughter, and a career on the rise – she’s just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems…

Alison drinks too much. She’s neglecting her family. And she’s having an affair with a colleague whose taste for pushing boundaries is becoming more than she can handle.

The woman who Alison’s defending doesn’t deny that she stabbed her husband – she wants to plead guilty but something about her story is deeply amiss. Saving this woman may be the first step to Alison saving herself.

Someone knows Alison’s secrets. Someone who wants to make her pay for what she’s done, and who won’t stop until she’s lost everything….

Ever since I first saw people talking about ‘Blood Orange‘ on Twitter last summer, I was desperate to read it. I was lucky enough to get a very early review copy last year – then to host Harriet Tyce’s first public reading of it at Noir at the Bar in October. Harriet had the audience absolutely transfixed with the excerpt she read aloud and I can promise you that the entire novel is as compelling.

Blood Orange‘ is a thoroughly intriguing domestic thriller. Tyce’s prose is tight and the plot of the novel is an incredibly twisty rollercoaster. ‘Blood Orange‘ is a riveting read centring around revenge, lust and obsession. It’s bound to draw comparisons with ‘The Girl on the Train‘ but, in my opinion, ‘Blood Orange‘ is far superior. 

Harriet Tyce has created a compelling, complex central character perfect for the #MeToo generation. I love how, despite Alison’s flaws, the reader is given an insight into the myriad ways women are subjugated by men. I found myself absolutely livid throughout much of this book because it brought into crystal clear focus how women are abused, dominated or undermined regardless of their personal situation. 

A timely, excellently-plotted novel. Harriet Tyce’s debut is sure to be the smash hit of 2019. 

Vic x